Monday, April 23, 2012

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Your intrepid reporter was thrilled Saturday night to attend his third Verdi Requiem performance in a month. The work never grows old for me. This performing ensemble was the St. Cecilia Chorus under the direction of Mark Shapiro, whom we saw lead the Monmouth Civic Chorus in the same work on March 10. The quartet was the nearly the same quartet who sang with Mr. Shapiro in New Jersey, with the substitution of the handsome bass Harold Wilson for the equally handsome bass Ryan Speedo Green. (I hope Barihunks is aware of both of these men!) I wrote in glowing terms of Mr. Shapiro's leadership of the Monmouth Civic Chorus, and their eagerness to follow his every gesture. For a community chorus they gave a very fine performance indeed.

Harold Wilson
Mr. Shapiro's program notes for Saturday's concert proposed the same ideas as those for the New Jersey performance, about the soprano as sacrificial victim, the whole piece more sacral than sacred. He took the opportunity to speak to the audience before the concert about his ideas, but surely someone who hadn't read his notes would have been confused by his brief speech about community and a chosen victim. I found it deflated the energy and excitement of the beginning of the concert somewhat.

I wish I could report that was the only thing that bothered me about Saturday's performance, but in truth I found a few things troubling. One was the inclusion of the chorus from LIU's CW Post campus, which chorus Mr. Shapiro also leads. I attribute to the presence of so many young voices the sometimes wan, anemic sound of the chorus men. There were also some issues with the orchestra. A single glack on a trumpet entrance might be excused, but there were repeated issues in bassoons and other winds, and occasional intonation issues from more than one section. Most troubling, however, was Mr. Shapiro's conducting. This was not the relatively tight performance I recall under Mr. Shapiro's baton in New Jersey on March 10. There were issues aplenty with cohesion and togetherness. From the audience it was hard to tell his intention in many places, and it was clear chorus, orchestra and soloists had the same difficulty.

It pains me to write in harsh terms about anyone, but the very fine solo quartet deserved better. This was the Carnegie Hall debut for soprano Jennifer Rowley and tenor Noah Baetge, likely for mezzo Leann Sandel-Pantaleo and bass Harold Wilson as well. They are all fine singers, and sang their roles well, but the fact that all four had issues in keeping with Mr. Shapiro would seem to indict Mr. Shapiro rather than any of them.

Photo credit:  Markku Pilhaja
Mr. Wilson gave a fine performance of the bass solo part. His sound is full and solid, and his Confutatis was a pleasure to hear. His "Mors stupebit" at the end of Tuba mirum was delightfully in tune—frankly, something so unusual that it sounds odd for the strings to enter in the same key as the soloist after the brief passage. I wrote about Miss Rowley, Miss Sandel-Pantaleo and Mr. Baetge in my post about the the Monmouth Civic Chorus performance. All are fine singers, and I thought Mr. Baetge in particular had settled into the role a bit more, although I still find his voice light for the work.

Because the soprano role is pivotal to the Verdi Requiem, I fear Mr. Shapiro did the greatest injustice to Miss Rowley. Whereas in the New Jersey performance Mr. Shapiro seems to have encouraged an occasionally raucous but overall quite balanced performance, at Carnegie Hall he seems to have pushed Miss Rowley much farther in the raucous direction but failed to follow through with support from the baton. There were passages Mr. Shapiro in fact did not conduct, a notable example being "Fac eas de morte transire ad vitam" at the end of the Offertorio, which the poor soprano sings a capella. The effect was not what one assumes he intended, but rather of the soloist being abandoned. I certainly don't mean to suggest she didn't cope well with the challenge, but that the challenge should not have been there.

Perhaps being intimately familiar with the work and hearing it live so many times in quick succession—quite an unusual opportunity—worked against me in my attempts to evaluate this performance objectively. The audience was full of happy people who were quite enthusiastic in their applause. Even putting aside the obvious crowd of LIU friends and family, this was an appreciative audience. Perhaps that is a better indicator of the success of the concert than the observations of an opera blogger. I can not say. I did enjoy the concert, but I grieve that the Carnegie Hall debuts of the four soloists will not necessarily be uniformly joyous memories for them.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion: Opera Manhattan Announces 2012 Opera Festival

Order tickets here!

Following the critical acclaim of February’s trio of monodramas themed Women on the Verge, Opera Manhattan is proud to announce its 2012 Opera Festival. Three riveting operas and a special performance of arias and ensembles presented by Opera Manhattan’s Artist Development Program will be presented from May 17 – 21 at the historic Theatre at St. Clement’s, at 423 W. 46th St. in Manhattan.

Opera Manhattan will reprise Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine. Based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau, the one act opera follows the agonizing phone conversation between a young woman and her former lover as she desperately tries to win back his love. First presented by Opera Manhattan as part of Women on the Verge, La Voix Humaine will return featuring the original cast in alternate performances. Kala Maxym, whose performance “had a fearful kind of dignity, even at her most frantic. The warmth of Maxym’s soprano conveyed a tenderness more terrifying than fury"; and Roza Tulyaganova, who "gave a pointed, convincing portrait of this young woman’s breakdown, from the desperate pleas to her lover to evocations of their tender past."

The idea for Menotti’s opera The Medium was first conjured up during a séance the composer attended with friends in 1936. A psychologically complex tale of a fraudulent medium Flora, portrayed by Caroline Tye and Elizabeth Moulton in alternate performances. The deception and hysterics of Madame Flora are boldly contrasted by the innocence of Monica, played by Opera Manhattan veterans Megan Candio and Mary Langston.

Suor Angelica is the moving story of a young woman from a noble family who becomes a cloistered nun. Her aunt, the Principessa, played alternately by Sahoko Sato and Anna Yelizarova, visits her after seven years of silence, and brings Angelica a shocking and life altering revelation. Featured in alternate performances in the title role is Jun’ Watanabe, who last appeared as Mimi in Opera Manhattan’s groundbreaking production of La Boheme, and Kristi Bulot in her Opera Manhattan debut.

Tristan Cano is Music Director for Suor Angelica and La Voix Humaine. Sarah Fraser is Stage Director for both. Kathryn Olander is Music Director for The Medum. John Schenkel is Stage Director.

Venue address:   Theatre at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th St., NYC 10036

Event dates and times : 

May 17:  
6:30 La Voix Humaine
8:00 The Medium
9:30 Suor Angelica

May 18:  
6:30 La Voix Humaine
8:00 Suor Angelica
9:30 The Medium

May 19:  
5:00 La Voix Humaine
6:30 The Medium
8:00 Suor Angelica

May 20:  
4:00 La Voix Humaine
5:30 Suor Angelica
7:00 The Medium

May 21:  
8:00 The Medium
9:30 Suor Angelica

Order tickets here!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

That sexy Zachary Gordin spews forth wisdom as from on high

SINGERS and MANAGEMENT: What you need to know...

I've lately found myself listening to all sides of the management/artist relationship conversation, and one phrase keeps coming up. I feel compelled to share some thoughts about this phrase from my perspective:  an artist who is managed by a capable team, business savvy, has been involved in administration and leadership on the regional opera level, and has served as an artists representative for other singers.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Req'd 'em, nearly killed 'em

Dear old St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was the venue for the event about which I report, on Friday evening, April 13. No sojourn into the wilds of NJ, or even the outer boroughs, required. (Yes, I know I talk like a Manhattanite although I live in Yonkers. It's called artistic license.) The event was once again a performance of Mr. Verdi'a Requiem, a piece I never tire of. Of which I never tire. The presenting organization was The Choral Society, which normally performs at dear Grace Church.

I adore St. Thomas and its long tradition of beautiful choral music in the Anglican tradition. In fact, when I'm not being a sing-whore paid church singer elsewhere, I like to hit St. Thomas sometimes for a great show and some Saviour SnacksTM.  However, the acoustics of the nave are a bit odd. The nave is so long that I have found in the past I simply can not watch the music making, particularly the conductor's gestures, if I'm seated more than halfway back. The difference between what I hear and I see caused by the time it takes the sound to travel to my seat has actually made me queasy on occasion. While a perfect place for Byrd and dear Mr. Stanford or Mr. Howells, I'm afraid St. Thomas on this occasion did Mr. Verdi and The Choral Society no favors.

John Maclay, courtesy
I tell a lie. The choir, under the direction of Music Director John Maclay, coped with the bathtub acoustics well, and one could easily see the care and attention to detail that went into this performance. This choir had sufficient numbers to attack the work, and Mr. Maclay drew out of them a nuanced performance, full of fury for Dies Irae, but subtle and tender for the opening Requiem. In the scope of the entire evening, however, the Dies Irae returns about five gazillion times, so it's good to husband one's resources so that the impact is not lost. Even investing the same energy in each iteration might give the appearance of losing steam or of diminishing impact. This is one of the few flaws in the choir's performance. The only other major flaw was in the two fugues. They're Hard with a capital H, so it's understandable that it might take two thirds of the Sanctus fugue for the choir to finally be fully with the conductor. The Libera me fugue (did you know it'a actually an inversion of the Sanctus fugue?) was better, but also had its slippery moments.

Photo credit: unknown
I fear I must report that the quartet of soloists did not fare so well. All of them are accomplished singers with lots of experience and impressive resumes. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, mezzo Vanessa Cariddi, tenor Nathan Carlisle (no link but search for his YouTube videos), and baritone Gustavo Ahualli are all fine singers, as evidenced by recordings easily found online. I fear the acoustics of their odd placement in the overcrowded chancel at St. Thomas—in front of but very near the choir, behind the orchestra, and about a football field away from the conductor—contributed to the over-singing all four of them did. There were passages when all four sang with restraint and great beauty, so one could hear they are capable of truly wonderful singing.

As I say, all four soloists are fine singers, but one wonders why some of them were hired for the Verdi Requiem. Mr. Carlisle has a light, mellifluous sound, and he uses it beautifully, but his is not a voice for this role. In addition to simply having the wrong vocal color for the role, he often could not be heard at all, even when the quite rambunctious orchestra was silent or playing softly. Mr. Ahualli also was not the right man for the job. Verdi's masterwork requires a bass or bass-baritone, but Mr. Ahualli is a baritone--a very fine one, but simply not endowed with the vocal quality and heft in his low voice to do the role justice, and he, too, was difficult to hear at times, although when one did hear him, more often than not one was pleased.

Photo credit: unknown

I'm happy to say it was easy to hear Ms. Cariddi nearly all the time, which is not always the case with the mezzo in any quartet.  The pushing that all four soloists seemed forced to do did less harm to her her sound than to some others, and her rich middle and lower registers were in ample supply, although her top was a little less shiny than usual. By contrast, I'm very unhappy to report that Ms. Williams fared the worst in the vocal battle. In the YouTube videos one finds (click the link above to find her site, wherein one can find a link to a lovely excerpt from a recent Aida), her voice is full and rich, with a healthy dose of that steeliness appropriate to spinto voices. I am forced to report that in this concert one heard too much steeliness and not enough richness. There were passages that were quite lovely, including the Requiem aeternam section of the Libera me, with its floated high B‑flat. Overall, however, I had trouble listening to Ms. Williams, and it pains me very much to say so.

Mr. Maclay had a capable reign on the orchestra, and one never found their sound underpowered. Perhaps a drag racing strip or a missile testing site might challenge this orchestra for decibels, but the choir and venue were cake to this canny and quite capable orchestra.

This was not a concert I regret hearing.  I simply regret that so much potential beauty was forced aside because of crowding and acoustics.

UPDATE:  I have learned that, in addition to the acoustics and crowding, the solo quartet sang the entire work twice through with the orchestra the day before the concert.  I hope that The Choral Society will rethink this sort of rehearsal schedule in the future.

Actually, it's called shut up and click the advertising links so I can afford to keep this blog going!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Fellow bloggers, take note.

Or call me pedantic.  Taminophile wants to show he can write about more than opera.  Don't ask why.


Which of these sentence fragments is correct? (I'm not talking about content, but rather structural correctness.)

"Emma Matthews and conductor Richard Bonynge are beautiful musicians and...."

"Emma Matthews and the conductor, Richard Bonynge, are beautiful musicians and...."

Guess what? Both are! 

However, one all too often sees this construction, which I quote directly from the source:

"Emma Matthews and conductor, Richard Bonynge are beautiful musicians and...."

Remember the four most common uses of a comma: to separate elements in a series; to separate two independent clauses, when accompanied by a conjunction; to attach words at the beginning or end of a sentence; and on both sides of a nonessential component.* 

In the phrases conductor Richard Bonynge and the conductor, Richard Bonynge, "Richard Bonynge" is an appositive in both cases.  Wikipedia defines an appostiive as "a grammatical construction in which two elements, normally noun phrases, are placed side by side, with one element serving to define or modify the other." The phrase conductor Richard Bonynge contains a restrictive appositive, because Richard Bonynge refers to the conductor about whom the writer In fact, Richard Bonynge is one of the subjects of the sentence. Some other examples of restrictive appositives are My Friend Flickathe idiot Baines(any "Waiting for God" fans out there?), and the tailor Motel KamzoilRestrictive appositives never require commas. 

The phrase the conductor, Richard Bonynge, contains a non-restrictive appositive, because "Richard Bonynge" has the same function as a phrase in parentheses in the sentence above. The sentence functions the same and has basically the same meaning without it. Because of their parenthetical function, non-restrictive appositives always require commas. Before and after. Non-restrictive appositives are one type of nonessential component in the fourth common use of commas above.

There. I hope I don't have to tell you this again.

*This is not an exhaustive list. And you will note that in the sentence above, because one of the elements of the series had a comma within it, I used semicolons to achieve the same effect and avoid confusion.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

City of Orgies, Walks and Joys!

As promised, here is my post about the Five Borough Songbook.  This two-CD set of 20 songs grew out of a project to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, wherein 20 composers were commissioned to write songs about New York to texts of their own choosing. "Just as every trip around NYC is a singular adventure, we hope your Five Borough Songbook journey will be full of new surprises each time you take the trip." write baritone Jesse Blumberg, Artistic Director, and mezzo Donna Breitzer, Executive Director. "Thanks for coming along for the ride, and stand clear of the closing doors…"

Any time you ask 20 people to create art about NYC, you'll find some of them cover similar ground.  Several songs have to do with NYC's subways.  First up is Glen Roven's "F from DUMBO," performed by baritone David Adam Moore and pianist Thomas Bagwell. Michael Tyrell's poem, captured well by Mr. Roven, talks about witnessing the heart and personality of a city on the F train. The poet has seen it all. "No more omens, please!  I don't want to be a recording angel!"

My favorite subway song is Tom Cipullo's "G is for Grimy: an Ode to the G Train" This is one of several songs with "found" lyrics, in this case quotes from Internet postings about the G train.  The four singers each take a different personality--one love sick (tenor Alex Richardson), one angry (soprano Martha Guth), one cheerful (mezzo Blythe Gaissert).  The hipster baritone (David McFerrin) has some of the best lines, including "People talk a lot of shit about you.... I know you're shorter than the other trains and you've never been to Manhattan, but you're there for me...."  In the end all four singers agree that G stands for grimy, grungy, greasy, ghastly, and a host of other painful G-words. Including Giuliani.

When setting artists loose on the topic of NYC, you will also find Walt Whitman references. The first CD begins with Ricky Ian Gordon's setting of Whitman's "O City of Ships" (performed by Miss Guth, Mr. Blumberg, and Mr. Bagwell), and the second CD begins with Jorge Martin's "City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!", based on the composer's own (one assumes) imitation of Walt Whitman's style. Call me shallow, but I tend to prefer orgies to ships. I liked Mr. Martin's boogie-woogie style setting of the poem, and the message of love and lust:  "....but as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, Offering response to my own--they repay me...." NYC has always been one of those places people come to find themselves, and one can easily imagine how finding love easily--for an afternoon or a lifetime--is also a part of the city's lure. This is performed by Miss Guth, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Bagwell, and violist Harumi Rhodes.

Staten Island wins the contest for the borough with the most songs dedicated to it. Of these my favorite is Scott Wheeler's "At Home in Staten Island," a setting of an 1869 poem by British poet Charles Mackay for soprano and viola. The poet seeks to convince his love that they have found a paradise on Staten Island--no, really--but his love argues nothing compares to the homeland they'd left. The song is strophic, with a charming melody that reminds me of a lute song (although the liner notes make reference to Victorian parlor songs), while the viola part is a series of increasingly complex variations. This song is sung beautifully by Miss Guth, with Miss Rhodes on viola.

Just as time and space prevent mentioning every song in this set, so is it difficult to mention every performer. All the singers give committed performances of the songs they sing, and all the instrumentalists also give fine performances. I would call this a CD for anyone interested in song literature, and anyone with strong feelings for New York City, should hear. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

You can buy this and any other CD you're looking for from Amazon. If you start by clicking my Amazon store at the upper right, no matter what you buy, I earn a tiny percentage.  And I stop pestering you to buy stuff. OK, maybe not the last part.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Teresa Stich-Randall

Uncredited artwork, courtesy of,
possibly for an album cover.
Here is a performer whose name I've long known, but whose performances I have never really studied. She was a treasure! Her Wikipedia bio-blurb is brief enough to quote an abridged version here rather than a link.

Teresa Stich-Randall was born in Connecticut in 1927. Her operatic debut was in the role of Henrietta M. in Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All in 1947. She was discovered in the late 1940s by Arturo Toscanini, who engaged her for a series of performances with his NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York. Toscanini described her at the time as "the find of the century".

She made her European debut in Florence and won a competition in Lausanne the following year. Stich-Randall was a regular performer with the Basel Opera, the Vienna State Opera and at the Salzburg Festival. From 1955, she was a regular at summer events at Aix-en-Provence in France, where her portrayal of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni was highly esteemed. She first sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in Così fan tutte in 1961 and remained on their roster of singers until 1966.

Stich-Randall appeared on a number of notable recordings including Falstaff, Der Rosenkavalier and L'Orfeo. Her career had largely ended by 1980 and she died in Vienna, aged 79, in 2007, of natural causes.

Here is a video I found when searching various Schubert songs. She sings Seligkeit in a 1960 TV performance:

Here she sings Ihr habt nun traurigkeit from the German Requiem of Mr. Brahms, in a 1958 performance with the Norddeutshes Symphonie-Orchester (Hamburg) under Carl Bamberger:

Non mi dir, 1960, theater and conductor uncredited:

Because I can't resist, here is the mask scene, also from a 1960 Don Giovanni, this one credited as an RAI TV production.  With her are Luigi Alva and Leyla Gencer, about both of whom I've written before.