Saturday, April 23, 2016

In praise of new music

I've never made a secret of the fact I'm a bel canto bear and don't always understand new music. Much of it I find beautiful and moving. I still can't talk about Jake Heggie's Dead ManWalking without getting misty, for instance. (I know it's almost ancient, having been premiered in 2000, but it's new music to me.) Nonetheless I was pleased to be invited twice to a concert on Sunday afternoon of new music for flute and soprano. First by the composer of one of the pieces on the concert, a longtime friend, and second by a member of the board of the organization that presented the concert, The Phoenix Concerts. The concert itself was to celebrate the release of a new CD by Lindsey Goodman, flute, and Gilda Lyons, soprano. Gilda Lyons was also one of the composers represented on the concert.

Lindsey Goodman, flute
I can't talk about every piece, of course, but I'll mention a few.  The first was Jeffrey Nytch's Covenant (2012), for soprano, flute, and alto flute.  Text is from a moving poem by Jessica Melilli-Hand called Wedding Poem.  The poem uses moments of normal, every day intimacy to portray a truly loving relationship:  "Do you understand? I'm trying/to open my mouth around a language/better suited for fingers." I enjoyed how the alto flute alternated between being a drone and having a weaving melody that intermingled with those of the flute and the soprano.

The excerpts from Dear Youth (1990) by Daron Hagen were particularly effective. Mr Hagen is a Civil War buff, and the texts for these songs come from the letters of women of the era.  One of them reads, "This is Christmas night and I am all alone and lonely.... I hope this awful war will soon close and we will be happy once more." These songs were commissioned and premiered in 1991 by the trio Sonus.

Penelope's Song by Judith Shatin is a tribute to Penelope, Queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus in Homer's epic The Odyssey. Odysseus was kept away at sea for 20 years, and one of Penelope's ruses to ward of unwelcome suitors was to make them wait until she had finished weaving a shroud for her father in law Laertes. The suitors never knew she unraveled by night all the work she had done during the day. The composer recorded the sounds of actual weaving on a loom, and electronically manipulated them in many ways to make the wide array of weaving sounds with which the flute enjoys play.

Once again, I know almost nothing about new music, but I found something to enjoy about every piece on this concert. I'd highly recommend the CD, too!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Ooh! New books!

I got a message from a lovely marketing diva at Oxford University Press, asking me to share information about two newly published books my readers might find interesting:  Understanding Italian Opera by Tim Carter and The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis by Rene Weis.

Quoth she:
Ever since its invention in Florence around 1600, opera has exerted a peculiar fascination for creative artists and audiences alike. A "Western" genre with a global reach, it is often regarded as the pinnacle of high art, where music and drama come together in unique ways, supported by stellar singers and spectacular staging. Yet it is also patently absurd--why should anyone sing on the stage?--and shrouded in mystique. In this engaging and entertaining guide, renowned music scholar Tim Carter unravels its many layers to offer a thorough introduction to Italian opera from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Complete with synopses, cast lists, and suggested further reading for each opera discussed, Understanding Italian Opera is a must-read for anyone with an interest in and love for opera.

The Real Traviata is the rags-to-riches story of a tragic young woman whose life inspired one of the most famous operas of all time, Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata, as well as one of the most scandalous and successful French novels of the nineteenth century, La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas fils.
Your faithful reporter has no time to review books, so I am offering a review copy of either in exchange for posting your guest review of the book in these pages.  Send me a message privately telling me of your interest, and I'll arrange with the marketing diva to get you a copy.

If I get no responses from guest reviewers, I will still have a copy of each book to give away, so here is the second-chance contest:
Tell me in either the form of a Haiku or in a 140-byte tweet about your very first live opera.
Guest reviewers and/or contest winners will be chosen by me.  There is nothing random or objective about this contest, and gifts of cash or liquor might--might--increase your chances of winning. Gifts of real estate would definitely increase your chances of winning.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Revenge = Bad; Love = Good

As if I weren't glued firmly enough to my computer keyboard, I have found a totally new online obsession: The Opera Platform. This is a site where one can watch video of operas performed at many European opera houses, similar to the Met On Demand service offered by the Metropolitan Opera--except The Opera Platform offers more than one venue, and it's free. It has just started offering real-time live streaming performances, to be made available on demand later, but I haven't been able to catch one yet.

Atle Antonsen as Papageno
Silvia Moi as Papagena
Photo:  Erik Berg, Den Norske Opera
There are some operatic treasures on offer at the landing page--Parsifal from Vienna, Aida from Turin, etc.--but by poking around I found even more treasures. For instance, had I not clicked on an article about Queen of the Night costumes from various productions, I would have totally missed the video of Den Norske Opera's recent re-imagining of our old favorite, Die Zauberflöte. (It now appears on the landing page list.)

I have railed in the past against updating or "re-imagining" operas, for several quite good reasons. Perhaps I'm softening. Or maybe I am finally seeing some productions where it works better than I expect it to. In this case, we have a Star Wars-like set-up, and Tamino crash-lands his space ship on an exotic, unknown planet that curiously has just the right atmosphere for humans to sing and, well,  you know, live. From there the story, with libretto and dialogue in Norwegian, keeps close to what we know. In fact, the re-imagined story and stage direction by Alexander Mørk-Eidsen brought out some points worth considering in any production. For instance, Tamino's apparent about-face in attitude upon entering Sarastro's temple is explained by making the suggestion he is bewitched by the Queen and her Ladies when given the charge to rescue Pamina. All in all, I found the production charming.

Marius Roth Christensen
Photo: Erik Berg, Den Norske Opera
Papageno is the only character who breaks the fourth-wall barrier by communicating directly with the audience. His character became very much like the patter baritone in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and in fact he was played by the popular Norwegian comic actor Atle Antonsen. Mr. Antonsen acquitted himself vocally very well, and was quite the convincing Papageno--a child in a man's body, all heart but very little reason, and yet he might be the wisest of the bunch in the end. In this production Papageno is hairy enough to suggest Chewbacca, while still keeping the appearance and persona of a television presenter.

Tamino is the handsome, brave, true young lad we require. This Tamino was performed by Marius Roth Christensen, a former Norwegian rock star who has been singing opera successfully for about ten years. Although Wikipedia gives his age as 43, he can play the 20-something prince convincingly if the camera man is careful with his close-ups. We certainly did enjoy his singing--sweet and beautiful throughout, with very few signs of strain, even in Tamino's most difficult passages--and we believed in his love for the beautiful Pamina.

The Queen really is atop Pamina's little hut,
one of many places she is suspended
during that scene

Eir Inderhaug as Queen of the Night
Mari Eriksmoen as Pamina
Photo:  Erik Berg, Den Norske Opera
The more I think about the role of Pamina, the more I think there's just something wrong with that girl. She falls in love with the idea of a man, never having met him, based solely on the news that he found her picture (or hologram in this case) attractive. In Act II she is ready to end her life because Tamino keeps silent toward her as part of a trial. And she knows he's undergoing trials. Does she have a screw loose or is she just that self absorbed? This Pamina was sung by the beautiful young soprano Mari Eriksmoen. Her singing was a treat--free and clear throughout--and she acted the somewhat ridiculous role of Pamina gracefully.

The Queen of the Night was sung quite well by Eir Inderhaug. Technically spot on, with every note solid, accurate, and beautiful. She was also convincingly angry. Or mad, rather. One begins to see a pattern here. The Queen is surrounded by the oddest group of Ladies I have ever seen--they seem to be half amphibian, half nymphomaniac. But they're all good singers, and we enjoyed their scenes. Poor Monostatos was sung and acted quite well by Nils Harald Sødal, but I wouldn't wish that costume on my worst enemy--believe me, it's better imagined than described. And we can't forget the sonorous tones of Sarastro, sung by Henning von Schulman.

I must admit as Act II progressed I was growing more and more uncomfortable with some of the narrative--the emphasis on man's superiority over woman, how a woman needs a man to guide her, the disdain for any trait not considered manly in that worldview. It all built up to a climax at the end of the quintet in the Act II finale, when the Queen, the Ladies, and Monostatos are caught trying to sneak into the temple to kidnap Pamina. Just as it looks like we'll see a brawl that would not be unusual on a rugby pitch, Papageno and Papagena interrupt to remind us of the true message of the story: hate and revenge are bad things, and love and forgiveness are good. Take away what remains of the sexist message of the temple and the trials, and I'm good with that.

Photo:  Erik Berg, Den Norske Opera

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wisdom from Jerry Hadley

I was a big fan of Jerry Hadley, and I was very sad indeed when the poor lad took his own life in 2007.

In this recording, made around 2002 or perhaps a little earlier, I assume, , he talks about what is missing in the teaching of singing nowadays. I have to say I think he's right in nearly everything he says.

Monday, April 11, 2016

New music concert on Sunday in NYC!


Sunday / April 17, 2016 at 6:00 PM* 
St. Matthew & St. Timothy,
26 West 84th Street, NYC 10024 
$10 donation at the door.
FREE admission with student I.D.

Lindsey Goodman, flute
with Gilda Lyons, voice

A post-concert reception will celebrate the release of
Ms. Goodman's new CD reach through the sky,
out this month on New Dynamic Records.


Sleep’s Undulating Tide*~ (2016) 
for flute & live-processed electroacoustics

Covenant* (2012)
for soprano, flute, and alto flute 
JEFFREY NYTCH / Jessica Melilli-Hand

Demon/Daemon*~ (2016)
for flute 

Alice Front* (2016)
an aria from A New Kind of Fallout 
GILDA LYONS / Tammy Ryan

Penelope’s Song* (2013) 
for flute and electronics 

songs from Dear Youth (1990) 
for soprano & flute

*New York premiere 

CONTACT: Gilda Lyons
Director, The Phoenix Concerts

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Shabby little shocker in the Big Easy

On Friday evening I saw the opening of New Orleans Opera's lush and luscious Tosca at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans. (I just love that the theater is named after a gospel superstar!) Yes, I've hit the road once again to see and hear some opera, and it was well worth it!

Jennifer Rowley
Photo: Ariele Doneson
Tosca is a story of political intrigue, murder, lust, and a jealous soprano. (No, really, this is on stage, not in the wings.) A Parisian critic wrote after its 1900 opening that Tosca “is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid.” (The popular phrase “shabby little shocker” actually comes from musicologist Joseph Kerman’s 1956 book Opera as Drama, not from Puccini’s time, as I’d always thought.) Puerile or not, Tosca can always be counted on to sell tickets, and audiences leave humming its melodies. When done well, Tosca can be devastating.

Scott Hendricks as Scarpia
Jennifer Rowley as Tosca
This Tosca truly was devastating, largely due to the singing and acting of its star, Jennifer Rowley. Her Tosca was jealous, of course, but also impetuous, loving, fearful, dominant, and a thousand other conflicting traits, often at the same time. This Tosca felt like the very young woman Tosca really is. For example, at the end of Act II, after Tosca has killed Scarpia (sorry if that's a spoiler), the act of setting up candles around his body and making the sign of the cross has a truly devout feeling to it, not ironic. Nearly every vocal moment was like spun gold, with a rich sound and a legato worthy of the golden-age singers of the mid-20th century. I have never heard or seen a more effective "Vissi d'arte"--we could feel Tosca's defeat and humiliation, along with her determination to survive. Miss Rowley's vocalism in this aria was exceptional--well shaped phrases, tasteful dynamics, rich sound.

Noah Stewart
Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover, was sung by Noah Stewart, a handsome young tenor with an impressive list of credits. I found his singing quite likable, especially his ringing high voice. His high notes sounded free, powerful, and pleasing in timbre--a rare combination among today's Cavaradossi-sized voices. "Vittoria! Vittoria!" sent chills down the spine. His acting was passionate and convincing. Scarpia was Scott Hendricks, another handsome young man with an impressive list of credits. His singing was bold and effective, and one looks forward to hearing more of him in the future.

Visually, this opera was a treat. The scenic design by Constantine Kritikos was quite beautiful, especially the Act I chapel scene. Acts II and III were quite effective, too. However, the moment in Act II where closing the window ends the cantata is less effective without an actual window. On the left side of the house no window was visible.

The costumes by Julie Winn were rich and beautiful, especially Tosca's dresses. Although wigs and makeup by Don & Linda Guillot were usually good, they didn't flatter Mr. Stewart as much as they did the other singers. In the dark lighting of Act III, he almost looked like a zombie.

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra played well under Robert Lyall, but one wished for more togetherness between the pit and the stage.

I regret that there is only one more performance of Tosca, but I encourage anyone who reads this before Sunday afternoon to see it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Hot Szot on 54th Street

I was happy when the team at Feinstein's/54 Below contacted me and asked me to come to Paulo Szot's cabaret show, which opened Tuesday evening. (Billy Stritch was Music Director and led an excellent backup trio.) To quote the publicity team at 54 Below:
Paulo Szot
Uncredited photo from
Audiences can prepare to swoon as the Tony-winning star of South Pacific headlines Feinstein’s/54 Below with a brand new show for a limited 5-night engagement. In his show, the Brazilian opera star takes us on a journey [through] the most romantic songs of the American Songbook, including iconic hits from the Golden Age of Broadway and more. Expect Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Burton Lane, the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein and more.
And swoon we did! Mr. Szot's American Songbook selections all showed his impressive vocal tone and musical instincts, as well as his charisma on stage. My two favorite songs were the two he seemed to throw himself into the most--"This nearly was mine" from South Pacific, with which he won that Tony; and the duet "Bess, you is my woman now" from Porgy and Bess, with surprise guest artist Christine Ebersole. I hadn't heard Ms. Ebersole sing before, and was quite pleased with what I heard. The two had a wonderful chemistry together.

Although I say these songs stood out, I was pleased with the entire program. "Being Alive" from Company was very effective. (One wondered why Mr. Szot has never been cast as Bobby in Company--having more history with this remarkable song would have made it even better.) The medley of Brazilian songs was charming and fun, and featured Mr. Stritch, who also took a prominent part in "How about you?", a Burton Lane song from the 1941 film Babes on Broadway. I quite liked "Lover, come back to me" from Sigmund Romberg's 1927 operetta The New Moon. Mr. Szot also offered "Stars" from Les Miserables, using lyrics in the local languages from the many places around the world it's performed--a few phrases in Spanish, some in French, just one in German, finally concluding in English.

There was something to like in nearly every song Mr. Szot sang, but I don't want to take up space praising them all. I do want to praise the trio of Music Director Billy Stritch on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and David Meade on drums. As a trio and individually, the three shone brightly. The venue of 54 Below itself deserves praise, too, especially for the food of Chef Lynn Bound and the excellent service. (All shows have a cover charge and a food/drink minimum.)

Qualms? Very few. I don't really like the practice of holding a long note at the end of a song with a straight tone and slowly adding vibrato just before the end, especially when practiced by opera cross-over artists. This happened with several songs, and sometimes the straight tone lacked support and intonation. I found some of the patter between songs cheesy--it came across as overly sentimental or downright insincere. In fact, when Mr. Szot interrupted one song with additional patter it was intrusive and unpleasant.

As I say, qualms are minor, and I'd highly recommend this show. It plays through April 9. Go!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

For Rossini lovers in the southern Illinois area

Press release from our friends in Illinois:

The 2016 Southern Illinois Music Festival Presents:
Rossini’s Opera William Tell (in 1776)
Part I: June 7 and 10; Part II: June 8 and 11
All performances at 7:30pm at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center

The Southern Illinois Music Festival, now in its 12th season, will present Rossini's final opera, William Tell, sung in French with projected English supertitles, at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center June 7, 8, 10 and 11. This opera has only been produced in the United States in its entirety three times in the last century, so this is an historic event.

Most people know William Tell's famous overture (with its Lone Ranger theme), but the opera is full of beautiful arias, stirring ensembles and rousing choruses. This production is set in 1776, to coincide with Washington crossing the Delaware, on this 240th anniversary of our Independence, and also includes all the original ballet music. The entire opera is presented twice over two nights, June 7/8 and June 10/11. Separate admission is required each night.

Josh Shaw, Director of the Pacific Opera Project in Los Angeles, directs the production, which stars internationally recognized singers including Wes Mason, in the title role, and William Davenport, singing one of the most demanding Tenor roles in the repertoire. Other professional lead singers come from New York to Los Angeles and points in between, along with a 40 voice chorus, 20 member ballet company, and the fabulous Southern Illinois Music Festival Orchestra, under the musical direction of Edward Benyas.

The Festival Orchestra will also perform a grand orchestral program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, including the “Eroica” Symphony and the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, featuring violinist, Michael Barta and cellist, Eric Lenz. The Festival will also present music by Mozart from 1776, including his three great violin concerti, the concerto for three pianos, the Serenata Notturno and the “Paris” Symphony. Mark your calendars for May 31 through June 12, 2016.

The Southern Illinois Music Festival presents three-dozen professional performances of classical music and jazz in two dozen venues throughout Southern Illinois each June. The Festival has been nationally recognized in Symphony magazine, the premiere publication for American orchestras; by the Chicago Tribune Travel section as one of 24 top summer activities (musical and otherwise) in an eight-state region; and by AAA Midwest magazine as a Midwest Travel Treasure.