Sunday, February 9, 2020

I'm older than you are! I know what I'm saying!

So says Don Alfonso in the G. Schirmer English version of Cosi fan Tutte I performed in the 1980s.  (When I was 3.)

Guglielmo, Dorabella, Fiordiligi, Ferrando
On Friday evening I was fortunate to see a student production of Cosi fan Tutte at Southern Methodist University here in Dallas.  Because I've sung Ferrando in Cosi, and because Mozart always has a special place in my heart, I hold this opera dear.  And overall I was pleased with Friday evening's performance.

Most of all I was impressed with the potential on stage.  Because it was a student production, and because I only heard one of the two casts, and also because no singer bio-blurbs were provided, I won't mention the individual singers by name.  But I will say this:  there was not a one of them I wouldn't want to hear again with another year or two of training and polish.  There were one or two whose voices I don't think fit the roles they were assigned, but I would gladly hear in them in bigger roles now and in the future.  There also those those voices fit their roles perfectly.  Again, I would gladly hear them all again, and I would love to be kept apprised of their vocal and professional progress.

Ferrando and Fiordiligi
I've written many times before of my feelings about updated productions. The usual stated intention is to clarify relationships and social positions. In my humble opinion, it doesn't often work. If that was the intention this time, one wonders why Despina was portrayed as a custodian but the English titles and the stage actions still suggested she was really a lady's maid.  (This school clearly has an arts budget--how much does a dramaturg cost?)  Why set Cosi in a modern prep school?  And while the sets and costumes were well executed to portray the concept, I just can't go with the concept. I once interviewed a high-profile opera director for these pages, and she said when she works with students she wants to know they have a thorough understanding of droit du seigneur before listening to their ideas about staging Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court.  I don't know other work of this production team, but I'm not getting a picture of that level of understanding in this case.

These are not huge objections. I have often stated I'm all about the singing. I walked away pleased and hopeful for the futures of these young artists.  For readers in the Dallas area, I highly recommend catching one of the remaining performances.




Monday, January 27, 2020

An essay on beauty, inspired by a Mozart Requiem performance

ossia, Taminophile's Credo

Leonard Bernstein was once quoted as saying "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." There is a reason people seek out choral music in good times and bad. After what we now call 9/11, performances of Brahms and Mozart Requiems could be found in abundance. I'm told this is exactly what happened after the JFK assassination in 1963.  And there's another quote I love: "He who sings, prays twice."

Let me be clear. I trained to be a public school music teacher. I know about boundaries, particularly between church and state. I don't care what you believe. That's not what I'm about. I want you to have understanding and empathy for people whose beliefs and world views are different from your own. If I were teaching Durufle's "Ubi caritas" or Bruckner's "Locus iste" to a high school choir (my dream when I started college--OK, I still dream of doing that!), I would want the students to understand world views that were part of these amazing works. Think of the fear and desperation in the "Libera me" of Verdi's Requiem. Think of the stately elegance and reverence of the masses Mozart and Haydn left us.  Think of the absolute adoration and adulation, leftover from Medieval era ideas about monarchy, in Parry's "I was glad".

All of this contemplation was brought about by finding a beautiful performance of the Mozart Requiem on YouTube.  The Simón Bolivar Orchestra and Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir of Venezuela, under the direction of Gregory Carreño, performed in March, 2012. I was blown away by the reception the maestro received just walking on stage, and the ovation at the end of the work was heartwarming. Mostly, I was moved by the phrasing, the dynamic shading, the subtleties of this performance. Tears were shed.

Thinking about this, I can recall meeting with advisors at various times in my life for various purposes, and each time starting off with a lot of head knowledge and analysis. That's my way. Without exception, once they got me talking about music or opera, my expression changed, my manner of speaking changed, everything about me changed. It's about beauty. It's about spirit.

One such advisor taught me that dear St. Francis once wrote, "God, you are beauty."  Being the son of an English teacher, I know that this also means, "Beauty, you are God."  I can not express how freeing that was.  It's OK to revere and draw spiritual strength from beauty, whether it's in nature or in man-made works. It's OK to be more drawn to a clergyman's needlework stole than his words.  It's OK to find a huge, descending Advent wreath more beautiful than the ascending chandeliers at the Met.

I'm not about obsequious worship. In my favorite church tradition, we sometimes say, "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table...." I appreciate the archaic language in the same way I appreciate the language of Shakespeare and the Victorian fiction writers, the way I appreciate the faith I imagine is behind the great works of J.S. Bach and dear Mozart.

In the end, I'm there for the beauty.  The beauty of the words, the beauty of the music, the beauty of the architecture sometimes, the beauty of the spirits around me, and yes, sometimes the physical beauty of a few individuals.  It's all there to be enjoyed, to find connection, and if crumb-gathering is your thing, to be worshiped.

I started this article writing about choral music. To me, choral music and opera--music in which the voice grants us beauty and feeling and countless other gifts--is the ultimate expression of beauty. Bach's St. Matthew Passion and B-minor Mass, Mozart's Mass in c-minor and Requiem, Verdi's Requiem--the list in endless.  To me these, along with totally amazing operas that I could list for days, are the ultimate expression of beauty, and thereby of God.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

I was wrecked!

On Sunday I was privileged to hear a concert presented by soprano Angel Blue as part of Dallas Opera's Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series.  The excellent collaborative pianist was James Baillieu.  The Moody Performance Hall was sold out for this concert, so I feel quite fortunate indeed.

In preparation for this concert, I did my research.  I found videos of truly beautiful singing, and even more exciting, I found videos of truly intelligent and well-spoken interviews.  See below:





Please, please, please watch the kids video!  It's amazing!

There are many more videos to be found on YouTube and at Ms. Blue's own web site.  How I would love to have met her in person, but schedules are schedules, and I'm a lowly blogger while she's off to the Met to resume her run as Bess in the current highly acclaimed production of Porgy and Bess.  (Porgy and Bess is scheduled to be broadcast to cinemas across the country as part of the Met's HD series on Saturday, Feb. 1.  Yes, I'll be there.)

The concert itself.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.  Honestly, I knew I would be moved, and I knew I would hear beautiful, skillful, and expressive singing, but I didn't expect to be sobbing at the end of the last encore.  On its surface, it seemed like a typical recital a program--Mozart's Alleluia (a good warm-up piece), four R. Strauss songs, four Rachmaninoff songs, and so on.  But what's this?  A zarzuela aria? Ms. Blue spent several years in Spain, singing both zarzuela and traditional opera, and clearly knows how to perform a zarzuela aria effectively.  The English translation in the program was quite saucy, and one could see that in the performance on stage!  Then three songs by Jake Heggie, of whom I've written before. (His Dead Man Walking remains one of the most powerful operatic experiences I've ever had.)  These were beautiful songs.  There was also song not on the printed program, "Valley Girl" by Bruce Adolphe.  Totally cute!

Then came the spirituals.  Oh.  My.  Gawd.  Becky!  From the opening of "Deep River" I was convinced I was witnessing magic.  It was gentle and comforting and wrapped one in a blanket of gorgeous sound and intent.  And then an immediate segue into a very exciting "Ride On, King Jesus!"  By the end of that I was exhausted!

And then there were encores!  First was the predictable "O mio babbino caro", sung really quite beautifully.  Did I mention this woman knows from legato?  Then a song she announced, I believe a song of faith called "He's Been Faithful".  (If I find further information I'll update this article. She does present a performance of this song on her web site.)  Ms. Blue related stories of her father, himself a trained singer who taught her from a young age, a successful singer in the region where she grew up, singing many different styles.  At the end of that song I was wrecked.  Wrecked, I tell you!  My friend told me, "You really should lean on me instead of that stranger on the other side if you're going to cry!"

I am a changed man.  I have a new opera artist to follow with great interest.  I have a new relationship with the lovely PR Diva at Dallas Opera.  And I had a perfectly beautiful Sunday.  Why must tomorrow be Monday?


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Winter Wonderettes

On Saturday I went with a social group to see the show Winter Wonderettes, presented by One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas. The site was originally an actual building for changing and showering beside a lake that was then safe for swimming. When the lake was closed to swimming, the building sat neglected for many years, but eventually was reclaimed and renovated as a cultural center. Now there is a black box theater, visual art displays, and historical displays as well. It has been one of the homes of One Thirty Productions for quite a few years. I wasn't sure whether I'd write about this production, because it's very far outside my usual subject matter. But then, I once wrote about a youth production of the musical Shrek, and it's my blog, so here goes!

Bath House Cultural Center
Winter Wonderettes is a really cute jukebox musical written and created by Roger Bean with vocal arrangements by Roger Bean and Brian Baker. As such, the story is simple--a girl group entertaining the troops at a corporate Christmas party in 1963. There is the expected Story Complication, and also the expected Happy Ending. Each of the four girls has a distinct character, and as the show unfolds we see more and more inside of each girl. The girls have been a group since high school days, and now in adulthood (I'd say mid 20s, based on the times and life events revealed about each character) they still perform sometimes. Missy, played with gusto by Janelle Lutz, is the young bride in the group, and it seems something has been awakened within her on her recent honeymoon. Suzy, the homemaker of the group, already has a set of twins and is expecting a third child. (Her husband Richie is an unseen character as the lighting guy for this show, and reveals his feelings with lighting changes.)  As Suzy, Gena Loe deserves special acclaim for acting like the awkward girl who reveals herself to be a very fine dancer. Cindy Lou, played beautifully by Rebecca Paige, is the sensitive girl who tries to be hard, the drifter who longs for stability, the sexy girl who longs for a home life. And Betty Jean is the obligatory cynical character, the only one who actually works for the business hosting the holiday party, played with great dedication by Marianne Galloway. I should also give credit to Director K. Doug Miller, Musical Director Hans Grim, and Choreographer Megan Kelly Bates.

There were many special moments.  I loved so many of the spirited arrangements and girl-group dance moves, but I think the best parts were the solo moments.  Even in the ensemble number "Santa Baby", each character shone in her solo moments. I adored Cindy Lou's "All Those Christmas Cliches". Betty Jean's "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day" was heartbreaking. Missy was great fun to watch in "Mele Kalikimaka" and Suzy was a riot with "Donde Esta Santa Claus?"  I loved how the girls interacted with the audience, and I have to give them special credit for acting quickly when they realized that the audience member they had singled out as Missy's new husband had mobility limitations--they were there immediately to help with support when they asked him to come on stage, and they rushed Santa's chair to him rather than asking to walk to it.

Flaws? Yes, there were some. There were balance issue, and I think the nature of the performance space didn't help that. Intonation was not always perfect. But who cares? I came away with a very positive impression and thankful for a very fun performance experience.  I look forward to seeing future productions from One Thirty Productions.



Saturday, December 14, 2019

And His Name Shall Be Called......Seth. Seth, Your God.

Or The Second Messiah of the Season

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of witnessing a live performance of dear Mr. Handel's complete Messiah. (Always remember, dear readers, that it is called Messiah. Not The Messiah.) This took place at the lovely Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and the artists were Highland Park's Chancel Choir, plus orchestra and soloists, under the very spritely and sensitive direction of Music Director Greg Hobbs. I'd heard great things about Dr. Hobbs and his music making, and I was pleased to learn just how true they were. Under his direction the performance was indeed very musically nuanced, with beautiful interpretive touches at every turn. I had the sense this was a very well rehearsed performance. And I learned some things at this performance. The sensitivity of the performance, combined with my long history with this great work (see my previous post for more info on that), brought tears to my eyes a number of times.

Greg Hobbs
The choir at Highland Park Presbyterian has a very good reputation among Dallas church choirs, I am told. Comprised primarily of volunteers with a few paid singers (and some additional ringers for this concert, it must be admitted), this choir was very responsive to every direction from their skilled conductor. No section was weaker than another, and all had a pleasing sound. In the contrapuntal sections, each voice part was clear and the primary line was always distinguishable from others. Never did I hear any issues with intonation, and these folks can sing fast!

I was also charmed by the orchestra, composed of Dallas Symphony members. But not very many of them. Although playing on modern instruments, they played in a style that suggested an early music orchestra. Again, there was a sense this performance had been quite well rehearsed. The same praise I give to the choir--tone, sensitivity, agility, clarity of line--I give to this orchestra.

I loved the moments when the soloists seemed to be telling the story for the first time. My favorite soloists were soprano Jennifer Wheeler and bass/baritone David Grogan. Ms Wheeler had a beauty and evenness of tone, as well as a sensitivity of interpretation, that were a pleasure. Her performance of "How beautiful are the feet" was balm to my weary soul. And I've never heard a faster "Rejoice greatly"!

From Mr. Grogan's first "Thus saith the Lord" I was impressed. Some vocal entrances should part your hair, and this entrance certainly parted what hair I have left on my head. But Mr. Grogan also sang with sensitivity. In "The people that walked in darkness", where the melody actually mimics walking a very scary path, I could feel a great sense of relief when the melody becomes more tonal and...um...melodic with "...have seen a great Light". His other arias, particularly "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?", were quite good, too.

Mezzo Claire Shackleton seems to have a voice suited to a higher tessitura than the alto solos in Messiah. It must be admitted they're low. It's not that she was weak in her low voice--indeed not!--but I kept hearing a shine in her voice that might have blossomed with a higher tessitura. When I realized she would sing both parts of "He shall feed his flock/Come unto him" I was looking forward to hearing her in a higher range, but in this performance they used the version where both halves are in the same key. (There are many valid versions and alternatives for nearly all the solos. This is one of them.)

In all I call this a highly successful performance. Unfortunately, this was the only performance, but I am told this choir sings Messiah every year--well, every other year, alternating with Dr. Hobbs's all-professional choral ensemble, Highland Park Chorale. I hope I will witness these performances every year for as long as I am in Dallas.