Saturday, February 26, 2011 which Taminophile's soul is fed

I once had a spiritual adviser tell me about the quote from St. Francis, "God, you are beauty." God = beauty. Beauty = God. Suddenly here was validation for the feeling that I'd always had, that beauty was my connection to the divine. Whatever that is. Music, art, pageantry, shoes. OMG, shoes. But I digress.

All of this is to introduce a beautiful concert I was able to attend Friday evening, thanks to the kindness of one of the performers. I heard the New York Choral Society perform Mr. Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle. I'm a lover of vocal and choral music and a veteran church music singer. Choral music gets me right here. (You know where I'm pointing, gentle reader. Sure you do.)

As the program notes (by Maureen Hopkins, copyright 1998) inform us, petite refers to the performing resources as intended by Mr. Rossini, and solennelle refers to the occasion for which it was intended, a high mass. The mass was originally scored for a small choir, two pianos, and harmonium. We heard it on Friday with a large choir (almost too large for the stage), two pianos, and a pipe organ, at Alice Tully Hall.

Wikipedia tells us that Mr. Rossini wrote the following preface upon completion of the mass:
Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!

I only knew sections of the work before last night, but am now totally enchanted by the work as a whole. I smiled through much of the performance, and I walked away determined to own at least one recording and a score. (I have added two recordings to my Amazon store at the right. Please to be clicking for that and all your shopping.)

I wish my seats had not been so good. I think I'd have heard the organ better from farther back in the auditorium, and would likely not have heard some of the individual choristers--nice voices, of course--but rather a more unified sound. These are just quibbles (just like my complaint about wearing wrist watches with formal wear--what, you have some place to be?), and overall it was a fine performance. The New York Choral Society is a good group, and although I'm not sure I'd give them prizes for subtlety, they sang the work with love and care under the direction of John Daly Goodwin.

The quartet of soloists was excellent. I've written of bass Daniel Mobbs before. He sang Oroveso in last summer's Norma at Caramoor, and I wrote at the time that I liked him very much. He sang the bass solos with the tonal beauty and musical subtlety of a very intelligent performer.

Tenor Michele Angelini has a glorious voice and is quite a handsome lad, and will likely go far--among this season's engagements are Armida at the Met--but one longed for a little more subtlety. Whither phrasing? My one-word impression of him was young--not in sound, which was fresh and free, but rather in musical approach and, it must be said, in stage deportment. Was the high D at the end of Domine Deus really necessary? (And he needs better shoes to go with his tux.)

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Marjorie Elinor Dix both looked lovely and sang beautifully. The soprano aria O salutaris hostia, one of the sections of the work I was unfamiliar with, was perfectly beautiful in the hands of Ms. El-Khoury. She sings with a rich, even tone and phrasing. Ms. Dix gave us a stunning performance of the Agnus Dei, alto solo with choir. An interesting way to end the piece, but very effective.

I simply can not neglect the beautiful and sensitive playing of David Gifford at the piano. The two-piano and harmonium version worked for me largely because of Mr. Gifford's intelligent and musical playing of what we might otherwise expect to be orchestra passages. The audience awarded him a well-deserve and very vocal ovation at the end of the concert.

My divine weekend continues with today's HD matinee broadcast of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Met and a performance of Piazza Navona by Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre this evening. I also have several singer profiles in the works, a series I began last fall but haven't been able to continue with until now. I'm going to be very posty for the next few days!

My companion for the concert was Lucy, creator Opera Obsession blog. Check her out.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I speak according to The Book

In February of 1972, President Richard Nixon made an historic trip to China. I remember a lot about the second grade, including the time Miss Fossum called me a louse, but I don't remember Mr. Nixon's trip to China. In 1987, John Adams's--the composer, not the President--and Alice Goodman's opera Nixon in China, telling the story of the historic visit, was first performed by the Houston Grand Opera. In February of 2011, it was performed for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. After seeing the HD broadcast on Feb. 12, I can only say I hope it enters the Met's permanent repertoire.

I've written before about my fear and suspicion of any music written after The Day the Music Died*. And it's true I didn't know much of the music of Mr. Adams, except for having heard snippets that inclined me to agree with the NY Times reviewer who wrote after the 1987 Nixon in China premiere, "Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald's did for the hamburger." I don't know whether I would choose to listen to any of his music outside of a theatrical context--remember, boys and girls, I'm a bel canto (and before) bear--but I have to say it all came together and worked for me. And work it did! From the arrival of the Nixon party on Air Force One to the meeting with Chairman Mao to the amazing ballet in Act II to the final scene--it was all simply stunning. Not necessarily for visual effects--it's not Zefirelli's Turandot, after all--but the way everything worked together.

I wish I could name a standout among the six main characters, but I can't. All were excellent singing actors. Kathleen Kim's Chian Ch'ing (Mrs. Mao) was amazing, both in her stratospheric singing, written deliberately to be shrill, and in Chian Ch'ing's determination to pursue her agenda. Russell Braun's Chou En-lai was heartbreaking, given the fact he was dying at the time of the visit, and we saw the physical pain in Braun's face and bearing. He was also the best of the male singers, to my ears. Richard Paul Fink as Henry Kissinger was also a wonder, particularly in Act II. Robert Brubaker as Mao Tse-tung nobly sang that stentorian part while crouched like the very old man Mao was at the time.

The Nixons were both Met debutants. James Maddalena sounded tired, but inhabited the character of Nixon. As creator of the role almost 25 years ago, Maddalena has sung Nixon in more productions than any other man, and can bring shades of subtlety to Nixon that are at times difficult to watch but always very true to the character. His last act was heartbreaking. Janis Kelly's Pat Nixon also brought tears, as she struggled to make sense of the enormity of the day. Her singing is quite beautiful. I was moved to tweet during one of the intermissions "I never thought I'd say this, but I love Pat Nixon!"

I can not say enough about the ballet in Act II. The choreography of Mark Morris and the dancing of the two principal dancers (unnamed on any web site I can find, and of course we don't get printed programs at the HD broadcasts) and the ensemble simply took my breath away. The event in history was the attendance of the party at the Chinese opera to see a propaganda piece called "The Red Detachment of Women", but this was a ballet setting of the same story. As the main characters are each drawn into the ballet we are riveted and can't bear to turn away. After the end of Act II I was all verklempt!

I can not fail to mention the excellent trio of Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold and Tamara Mumford as secretaries to Mao. I think their names were Patty, Maxine and Laverne, but don't quote me on that.

The superb job the Met chorus will do in any opera goes without saying, and of course they did not disappoint; and the orchestra, under Mr. Adams, lived up to its extremely high standard.

There are two more performances of Nixon in China--February 15 and 19--and an encore HD broadcast on March 2. I highly recommend seeing it. I intend to see the encore performance of the HD broadcast myself.

*No, not February 3, 1959, the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and a few others died in a plane crash, but rather November 29, 1924, when Mr. Puccini left this world for the next. OK, maybe it was on life support for another 25 years, until Mr. R. Strauss died.

Oh, and John Adams is a real cutie.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Joyce DiDonato: Diva/Divo

Recently I wrote a post about a concert of all pants role scenes and duets. By coincidence, I knew the day I posted to be the day that dear Joyce DiDonato's concept CD Diva/Divo would be released officially. (You can buy it at my Amazon store at the right, sitting there forlornly waiting for your clicks!) I made mention of the CD at the time and theories about how Joyce--we're on first-names basis already-- would handle such a program. I've since gotten my hands on a promotional copy of the CD through the wonder that is the intarwebz, and shall endeavor to scribble a few thoughts about it. I do this without having read any published reviews.

As I say, it's a bit of a concept album. Remember those? We have Joyce singing arias from both male and female roles of the same story, but different operas. For example, from Mr. Beaumarchais's trilogy, we have an aria from Mr. Massenet's Chérubin (Cherubino), the expected Le Nozze di Figaro (Susanna and Cherubino) and, of course, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rosina). From La Clemenza di Tito we have an aria from Mr. Gluck's setting of the story (Sesto) as well as the beloved Mozart setting (Vitellia). Another of Mr. Massenet's operas, Ariane (Ariane), is dusted off to provide contrast to Mr. Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (Komponist). And more.

I've said before I'm a big fan of Joyce. I think her singing and her acting are top-notch, and she has a very warm relationship with her audience, both on and off stage. On this CD this feeling holds true, especially in the repertoire she's closely identified with, Mozart and Rossini. In fact, although my favorite tracks on this CD were the excerpts we all love to hear Joyce sing--Cherubino, Rosina, Komponist, even Siébel--listening to the arias that were new to me--Massenet's Chérubin, Cedrillon and Ariane, Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi, even Gluck's La Clemenza di Tito--was a revelation.

The Sesto aria from Gluck's Clemenza is beautiful in that stately Gluck way. A very measured but passionate declaration of Sesto's love for Vitellia. In an unexpected turn, Joyce sings the Vitellia aria from Mr. Mozart's treatment of the same story, "Non più di fiori". Mozart's Vitellia is the provenance of big soprano voices. My first Vitellia was Carol Vaness, and I still sometimes need a moment alone when I think upon that performance. It pains me to admit this, but I prefer it in sopranos' hands. The aria was perfectly beautiful as an exercise, and of course very well sung and presented, and there were no problems to point out, but I want to hear a soprano timbre with that aria. It's not as unusual to hear a lyric mezzo sing Susanna, as with "Deh, vieni, non tardar" on this CD, but the charcater of that aria is quite different from "Non più di fiori", so the difference is more palatable.

Mr. Massenet is presented three times on this CD, with arias from Chérubin, Cendrillon, and Ariane. The Ariane recitative and aria, "Ô frêle corps.... Chère Cypris" give us Ariane's anguish as main squeeze Theseus is to brave the labyrinth and face the Minotaur. In the aria, particularly, we feel Ariane's vulnerability and intense longing. The male counterpart is, of course, the Composer (Komponist) from Ariadne auf Naxos. (If you wanted to quibble, you would point out that, strictly speaking, the Composer isn't part of the Ariadne story, but who cares?)

The Faust legend is represented by Mr. Gounod's opera, with a beautiful presentation of "Faites-lui mes aveux"--and you can be sure Joyce does not mime picking flowers--while the female side of the equation was an aria from La Damnation de Faust by Mr. Berlioz, "L'amour l'ardente flamme". Another beautiful piece new to me.

I can't write about every track, and I don't want to gloss over Joyce's performance of the repertoire she's known for. Her Cherubino is a world standard. A great wail went up throughout the land last year when, after a successful run of Cherubino in Chicago, Joyce mentioned in her blog that she had no more Cherubinos on her schedule, and stated frankly that her age--a little over 29, if I recall--might prevent her from being cast as a teenage boy again. But who can deny the beauty of the "Voi che sapete" on this CD? Not to mention a stunning "Naqui all'affanno" from Cenerentola, and a Rosina aria from Barbiere. We know why she is in high demand and so highly respected.

Among my very few quibbles I would mention the design of the CD booklet and cover. Some of the design is dreadful, and makes reading the contents difficult. A sort of flattened sans-serif font for the names of male roles, and a script font for the names of female roles, with a normal, Times New Roman-like font for the actual listing. Did someone get paid for that design?

I need to mention L'Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Lyon under the company’s Principal Conductor Kazushi Ono. Well done!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011 which Taminophile does not write about bel canto opera

Your intrepid reporter has written before about how he is suspect of any music composed after the death of dear Mr. Donizetti, and yet he found himself at a new music concert on Sunday afternoon. Clearly the stars were out of line and something had to be done about it!

The concert was part of the Prism Project, presented by the PRISM Chamber Orchestra. It featured Lindsey Goodman, a highly accomplished flutist, and Robert Frankenberry, an excellent pianist. (Neither has a dedicated web site, but links to both abound online in reviews and program information.) The program was all music for flute and piano, and in some cases, voice. Mezzo Eva Rainforth was also on the program, singing a song cycle by my dear friend Jeffrey Nytch.

My frequent statements such as the first sentence above make Jeff Nytch want to turn me over his knee and spank me--so I'll keep making those statements. But I did owe it to him to come and give a listen. I will be the first to admit I am not qualified to write about this music. I'm so behind the times, I often forget and think that composers of this century include dear Mr. Puccini (d. 1924) and Herr R. Strauss (d. 1949). This concert was nearly all music composed in this century--the oldest piece was written in 1980. I shall plod on, however, and write a few thoughts that will quickly reveal my ignorance. I regret that I can't cover every piece on the program.

Vicious Circles, by Eli Tamar (b. 1964), at first sounded like "Flight of the Bumblebee" on acid. Or maybe deconstructed. The program notes referred to a passage from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes beginning "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever...." Circles in our circles.... The circles were quite evident musically with melodic figures reminiscent of Rossini ornamental turns, treated at times furiously, at times in a languid manner, always returning for more abuse further variation. Circles.

First Lines by Amy Williams (b. 1969) is a series of miniatures for piano and flute inspired by the first lines of a number of poems. Six of these miniatures were scattered between larger works throughout the program, and by and large all seemed to successfully evoke musically the ideas in the first lines.* "XI. I was surprised by/how calm the waters were...." (Olga Sedakova) did indeed inspire mental images of a calm lake in the summer with its melodic shapes. "III. the air hums at night/the wings of bees/beg for entrance to my ears...." (Toi Derricotte) brought us more bees, but not in a "Flight of the Bumblebee" sense--rather in a lazy summer day sense. "VIII. Gestures made against snow:/The fling/And scatter of birdseed onto burned grass..." (Patricia Goedicke) brought us meldic flinging gestures. In "VI. Shhh, my grandmother is sleeping..." (Marilyn Chin) Ms. Goodman simulated the sound of a respirator on the flute while the accompanying piano part sounded appropriately suspenseful, like TV movie music. The respirator paused for a moment, at which point the entire audience stopped breathing as well, but resumed, only to fade out at the end.

A particular audience favorite was Chrysalis, meditations on transformation by Gilda Lyons (b. 1975). In the program notes Ms. Lyons describes the piece, commissioned by the performing duo, as "a directed improvisation for solo instrumentalist, solo vocalist, or ensemble" In addition to using their instruments in both traditional and "new-music" ways, the performers also used their voices and bodies as instruments. Of particular interest were the moments when one or both played or sang into the body of the grand piano to take advantage of its resonating properties. (It was at this point, as the lovely Ms. Goodman walked back and forth in front of the piano a few times, that one became aware of her fabulous shoes. One has one's priorities.)

Last on the program was Mr. Nytch's (b. 1964--sorry Jeff, but I had to include it) song cycle From the Soul of Silence, lovingly performed by Ms. Goodman, Mr. Frankenberry, and mezzo Eva Rainforth. I failed to make any notes about this piece, which suggests I was completely drawn in. The songs are settings of poems by Bengali mystic and poet Rabindranath Tagore. I don't know whether these poems originated as part of a single larger work, but they seem to make a very complete and unified set. They talk of a traveler's journey--and sometimes struggle--in his relationship with his God. Again, I can't always talk intelligently about newer music, but I will say that I myself want to sing these songs some day. Vocally they had a lyric sweep and an apparent "singability" that I admired. As we were headed home, I asked my dear hubby, who has practically no musical education, what he'd thought of the concert. Among other things, he said he thought this song cycle had the most polished sound of any of the works on the program. I would quite like to hear this set again to evaluate it further.

For those of you who were concerned, I have liberally doused my ears with Mozart and Donizetti in the days since the concert, and I shall be back to normal in no time at all.

*The complete poems from which these first lines were quoted were not printed in the program, and I'm a lazy scholar, so I make no apologies if my impressions are in contrast to the poems as a whole.