Sunday, May 12, 2013

Your tiny hand is frozen

Jennifer Moore as Mimi, Anthony Webb as Rodolfo
Set design by Meganne George
Courtesy by A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY, Bronx Opera
I had the pleasure of seeing Bronx Opera's new production of La Boheme at Lehman College in the Bronx on Friday, May 10. You will recall my last report on a Bronx Opera production was The Poisoned Kiss in January of 2012. There was a lot to like, even love, about those production of La Boheme. My focus is always on the singers themselves, and I'm happy to report that the cast on opening night was very strong indeed.

The two standouts in this cast were the Marcello of Jeremy Moore and the Mimi of Jennifer Moore. (I have no idea if they're related.) Jeremy Moore was a shining member of Bronx Opera's Poisoned Kiss cast, and I think I failed to convey at that time how much his performance impressed me. His Marcello was sung beautifully, and acted in a genuine, believable way. His love for Musetta felt real and we understood his anger and bitterness. I didn't know Jennifer Moore's singing before, but I hope to see and hear her much more. Her singing is skillful and musical, a free, rich sound throughout. Hearing her sing Mimi's soaring vocal lines was a pleasure, and watching her suffer Mimi's fate was delightfully painful.

Jeremy Moore sang Marcello
Anthony Webb, who impressed me in a concert of Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists a few seasons ago, was Rodolfo. His bio lists primarily bel canto roles, and this we can hear quite easily in Mr. Webb's singing. One predicts his voice will grow into fuller roles such as Rodolfo, and we heard ample evidence of great things to come in his singing of the role opening night, particularly in Acts III and IV. Mr. Webb is very comfortable on stage, and among the cast's strongest actors.

Other cast members were equally impressive. Musetta was pleasantly sung by Elisa Cordova. Bass-baritone Richard Bozic, another Poisoned Kiss cast member, sang Colline with an earnest simplicity that touched the heart.

The director was Victoria Crutchfield. There were many directorial touches that were very clever, although the show seemed a bit uneven in its level of security and well-rehearsedness. (A common phenomenon among small opera companies--opening night can be like a finall dress rehearsal.) The second act, although it had many of those clever touches, seemed especially ragged. However, whether through the talents of Ms. Crutchfield or those of the individual cast members--I suspect it's both--there was a great chemistry among them all, and this reporter cried in all the right places and even some unexpected places. I've never cried before when Musetta is reunited with Marcello, but something about this pair made me a weepy mess. I hesitate to admit this, but I cried just as much when Mimi stepped out for her curtain call--not dead after all!--as when Rodolfo howled (beautifully, mind you) the anguished "Mimi! Mimi!" and broke down sobbing over Mimi's lifeless body.

Bronx Opera Music Director Michael Spierman conducts all performances except the performance I saw on opening night, which was left in the hands of Assistant Conductor Eric Kramer. Note to Mr. Spierman: Don't do that again. Mr. Kramer's conducting was the biggest flaw in an otherwise pretty darn good show. There were numerous issues in togetherness with the singers, in giving cues, and in the moments I watched him, in actually making sense in his conducting.

This La Boheme was sung in English, in a new version by Ms. Crutchfield and Lily Kass. While certainly better than the old-school Ruth and Thomas Martin translation we know from the G. Schirmer score, there were still awkward phrases. In Act I, Colline should not say "Whoopsy-daisy!" when he has apparently fallen down the stairs offstage. On the other hand, Mimi's line "Farewell then--we part as friends." in her Act III aria Donde lietà was a beautiful touch.

Bronx Opera will present two more performances of La Boheme, on May 17 and 18 at John Cranford Adams Playhouse, Hofstra University. See the Bronx Opera web site (link above) for more information. I will see the other cast next weekend and post an update about it. I highly recommend seeing this production. Bring tissues.

UPDATE:  I had intended to catch the other cast on May 17, but the gods of mucus and high fever had other ideas.  I've heard members of that cast before, and regret that I couldn't hear them again in this fine production.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

That's classy!

Today I ventured out to 54 Below, site of several memorable performances in recent months, for the inaugural performance of Classical Concerts for Classy Kids. Your intrepid reporter is a staunch defender and advocate of music for kids, having studied music education as a callow youth, being a supporter of efforts like Education Through Music and VH-1's Save the Music, and now in helping today's noble cause in whatever way I can. Glen Roven, Emmy-winning composer, producer of quite a few successful recordings on GPR records (including several I've featured in these pages), and pretty darn astute businessman, has seen a market for this kind of event. Overall I think it's a great idea--give kids (and the rest of us) listening tools for any piece of music, let alone a piece from classical music's Common Practice Era (roughly 1600-1900)--and it was pretty well executed.

Glen Roven
Photo © Ahron R. Foster, used by permission
The format was pretty simple:
  1. A class of about a half hour in what to listen for, using the first and last movements of Mr. Mozart's String Quartet No. 21 (K. 575, for those keeping track), quite capably demonstrated by the GPR Festival String Quartet in casual attire
  2. Lunch 
  3. A formal performance of the excerpts discussed, performed in concert attire by the same ensemble  
In the lesson, Mr. Roven compared the conventions of Common Practice Era to modern sitcoms--you always know what's going to happen. Bringing in figures from sitcoms and even modern life to identify themes, he alternated between calling the primary theme the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm (of Prussia, who commissioned this quartet), the Barak Obama and the Peter Griffin (of TV's The Family Guy) theme. Mr. Roven also introduced clever images to add character to the themes, especially images having to do with Kaiser Friedrich, who was a cellist and presumed to be the cellist for the work's first performance. (One very amusing image was the thought of Kaiser Friedrich humming to himself "I'm the king! I'm the king!" to the martial tune of the 2nd half of the first theme. Hubby and I made great use of that one all weekend long.) The secondary themes were named for the wives of the three examples. In the development section, after the primary themes had been introduced, and when a composer can do just about anything he wants with the themes, or fragments of them, the couples/themes were dancing. (I thought of Peter and Lois Griffin arguing, but dancing worked better in the end.)

The biggest lesson of the day was this: listen for the themes and what happens to them. All the great music commentators, from Anna Russell to Andy Griffith, say the same thing!

I would like to have seen more people in the audience, but it wasn't a bad house.  The crowd was roughly 50% kids, ranging in age from toddlers to about 12 or 13, with the greatest numbers (in my unscientific estimation) at about age 10.  Very near me were a boy who looked to be about 6, who caught my attention by discussing Gershwin's sad end, and a toddler of maybe 18 months whose mother said he adores opera. I rather think all the underage audience are fortunate kids (and they'd have to be very fortunate indeed, considering the ticket prices for this event) who were blessed with music interest and lessons from a young age. During the lecture, most of the kids--and parents--paid close attention to the lesson, and at one point when the quartet played the entire exposition of the movement we were discussing, they enjoyed the challenge of making appropriate gestures for themes A (or Peter Griffin) and B (or Lois Griffin), as well as transitionary material between the themes. During the "concert" portion, I enjoyed seeing kids make the same gestures, and enjoyed even more seeing parents smile with pride when that happened.

I do hope Mr. Roven has the opportunity to present these concerts/lectures again. He has an entire series envisioned. My suggestions? Very few. Have a structured play time after lunch but before the concert, so the kids can burn up some energy. Have a planned period when the kids can approach the performers directly with questions. Focus only on the one movement of a multi-movement work. Do programs that include singers (no surprise coming from me). And as he does more and more of these, I know Mr. Roven will relax more in his presentation skills. But these are tiny things. [The very high ticket price and service at the venue were things Mr. Roven had little control over.]

I call this program a success. I would happily support this effort, and I hope the opportunity is there for more of these concerts.