Sunday, December 06, 2015

NSO plays Adams, Barber, Copland, etc.

Caught an eclectic program of American composers from the NSO Saturday, led by the American conductor Sarah Hicks. John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," which predates Nixon in China but points to many of the familiar themes from the opera's third act, made for a strong opening. If the strings sounded frayed at times Hicks and the NSO captured the propulsive momentum and whiplash shifts that make the work tick.

Organist Cameron Carpenter then joined the band for Samuel Barber's towering 1960 Toccata Festiva. Carpenter's solo captivated in both the sensitive moments as well as the bravura pedal playing, accented by rhinestone-heeled organ boots. Carpenter wrapped up with an improvisation on Americana themes plus an encore improvisation incorporating the Beatles' Imagine tune. If the overall impression was slight, Carpenter kept things concise and its no small thrill to watch him work the stops.

The second half opened with a fine showpiece for orchestra, the rarely heard 1954 Danse Overture of Italian-American composer Paul Creston, teamed nicely with an ebullient reading of Copland's 1938 suite from his ballet Billy the Kid.

In between, we got a new work by Mason Bates, now Kennedy Center composer in residence, which melds orchestra music with...techno beatz. I can certainly appreciate why this sort of thing is catnip to the people tasked with writing sexy press releases about the orchestra but in practice it is pretty dreadful. I'd rather not go full curmudgeon on this, but everything from the amplification to the overbearing sense of trying too hard was deafening. This stuff kind of appeals in the way a hip movie soundtrack does, but as compelling concert music? Noap. Misfires aside, NSO deserves significant credit for the thoughtful programming...

Friday, December 04, 2015

American Opera Initiative at WNO

I wrote about the WNO's evening of new works for Parterre...
Washington National Opera presented the fourth annual installment of its “American Opera Initiative” series in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Wednesday evening, a welcome opportunity to sample new work in appealing bite-sized chunks.  
Read the whole thing here...and here's coverage from Charles Downey and Anne Midgette.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Appomattox at WNO

I wrote about the new production of Phillip Glass's Appomattox at WNO for Parterre Box:
Saturday’s Washington National Opera premiere of a new version of Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton’s opera Appomattox had everything going for it: the long-overdue appearance of the work of America’s greatest living opera composer on a Kennedy Center stage, timely and important subject matter tied to recent historical milestones, even a sexy policy hook (that’s a thing). Everything, as they say, but the opera... 

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Bach Collegium Japan at LOC

Got to see Bach Collegium Japan for the first time at the Library of Congress last night, in a seemingly rare DC appearance. There's a certain electricity generated by the major league period bands, an expectation that you're going to hear something entirely new that you're unlikely to hear again, and Masaaki Suzuki and his forces delivered in memorable fashion in a program of Bach, Vivaldi and Handel.

The Collegium anchored the evening with Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, an exciting taste of the period brass and wind delights to come. The highlight here was trumpeter Guy Ferber playing a coiled baroque trumpet that cooperated only intermittently, but when it did produced a unique gentle tone that blended beautifully with the buzzy, cacophonous sound of the band. Idle googling of baroque trumpets this morning (as one does) turned up this Nikolaus Harnoncourt quote which sums up the appeal quite nicely: "Bach wrote a concerto [2nd Brandenburg] for four different but equal instruments: trumpet, recorder, oboe, violin. The art was to create a dialogue among these four instruments, and this is obviously only possible when the trumpet plays as softly as the recorder and the recorder as loud as the trumpet."

The meat of the program was dominated by two Vivaldi concertos for solo winds. The first, the Concerto in C major for recorder, strings and continuo (RV 443) featured what can only be described as a completely gonzo recorder solo played by Andreas Bohlen that inspired a raucous mid-half standing ovation. The second, the Oboe Concerto in C major (RV 450), presented Masamitsu San'nomiya in a dizzy, elegant oboe solo that showcased the great expressive possibilities of the instrument. Rounding out the wind offerings, was something a bit less flashy, Bach's Sonata for flute in E minor (BWV 1034), with soloist Kiyomi Suga on the traverso flute. The mellow sound of the wooden flute was welcome for a non-flute enthusiast and Suga delivered long, sighing phrases in the third movement.

After the Branderburg, the Collegium's biggest forces were assembled for two works with soprano Joanna Lunn. The second, Bach cantata "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!" (BWV 51) was the biggest attraction, featuring Ferber on spinning out long trills on another baroque trumpet, and a series of energetic tempi. The first, a recently discovered and disputed setting of the Gloria attributed to Handel, wasn't terribly distinctive but included some sparkling passagework. Lunn had her work cut out for her in carrying these pieces and did yeoman's work throughout, though hampered a bit by that soprano volume knob thing--a bright, very loud (though nice sounding!) top that jarringly alternated with a more anemic middle register.

Kissin plays Beethoven, Brahms, Albeniz

I procrastinated writing about that nice Kissin recital last week, so I'm afraid he gets the bullet point treatment:
  • Not really sure what I'm looking for from Mozart in recital these days but Kissin's opener, the Piano Sonata No. 10, didn't quite have it. At times it feels like Mozart is not a great fit for Kissin's gifts, as if he is working over time to inject character into the piece, only really connecting where the Sonata takes a darker, more expansive tone.
  • The Appassionata was monumental, staggering--a rendition to easily best any in recent memory and people program it a whole lot in DC. Kissin doesn't just want to give you an exciting take, he wants you to hear the symphony orchestra thrashing around in the piano as Beethoven surely heard it, and he has the technical gifts and commitment to deliver.
  • Was very glad to see three Brahms Intermezzi programmed (Op. 117), which found Kissin in a somewhat subdued mode after intermission. The first was maybe a bit ponderous, but he found wonderful colors in the second and third rounding out the set.
  • The real revelation in the second half were four pieces of Isaac Albeniz. Perhaps not repertoire we're used to hearing from him but they were handled beautifully, Kissin bringing out gorgeous singing melodies while imbuing even smaller details, like the rippling water figure in the first piece, with trademark polish.
  • The first two encores offered more opportunities to hear his skills with Spanish composers in two pieces of Granados, plus a suitably rousing Brahms' Hungarian dance No. 1.
The DC crowd tried their best to eke out a 4th encore, but we'll have to wait until 2018 for our next chance to hear him. Very tempted now to make good on my plans to catch that program of Hebrew poetry and composers from last year that he is repeating at Carnegie in December...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lucia di Lammermoor at SFO

Unexpectedly found myself in San Francisco last Friday and caught the current Lucia production from standing room at the War Memorial Opera House, which FWIW, is quite pleasant. The standing section may not have the velvet armrests of the Met, but it's only one row deep, and each side has its own little dedicated supertitle screen. It's also far preferable to paying hefty sums for the back of the distant War Memorial OH balcony and enduring the indignity of those jumbo-trons.

Nadine Sierra, the young American soprano filling in for Diana Damrau in this production (though they are still handing out Damrau flyers in the lobby...totally awkward, guys) certainly proved she can hold her own in this demanding role. Its a very pretty, pure sound with the right delicacy needed for Lucia and the coloratura moments, especially the mad scene, were all very solid and appropriately intoxicating. If today she perhaps lacks that extra bit of panache/swagger that makes for a really memorable assumption, she has quite the formidable foundation to build on and deepen in the role. She also felt a bit under-powered in the ensembles, grasping a bit for a sustained line to cut through the thick of the orchestra and the rest of the crowd, though she apparently had some indisposedness going on that evening, which may have contributed.

Piotr Beczala's Edgardo was a welcome chance to hear him, though it was hard not to feel at times that he was shoehorning the very wonderful things he does into a role that doesn't quite fit. While his golden middle range always seduces, he tends to run out of ping at the top--hardly a dealbreaker in Verdi or something, but that flood of bel canto dopamine that doesn't require too much thinking is kind of the whole deal with Edgardo. Beczala also has a tendency to phrase with a sort of impatient declamation, which, at the volume he can deliver, is certainly very exciting. So exciting one forgets sometimes that you're missing the long-lined phrasing needed in this music.

Perhaps the strongest link in a pretty strong cast was the Enrico of Brian Mulligan, which shouldn't have been a surprise for me at all, since apparently I enjoyed him in the same part at WNO just a few years ago. Well, mea culpa for not getting it at the time, but Mulligan's sound is incredibly special, a rich, resonant baritone that tackles the expressiveness and the legato of the role as though no one's told him he isn't a tenor. Please come back to WNO soon we promise we won't take you for granted this time. Of the rest of the principals, Nicolas Teste's commanding Raimondo also deserves a shout out.

Appreciated the chance to get to hear Luisotti conduct, who had a great idiomatic feel for the catchy little figures that pepper the score. The production was...fine. Basically one of those why-even-bother updatings that could have easily time-traveled from NYCO circa 2002 (minus the slick video-projections). Its chief effect was to make me feel better that SFO is just as good at turning out a nondescript stinker as the local team (my last SFO visit was for that gorgeously stylish Mattila Makropolous production). Random points--fun "in the near future" gowns in the wedding party crowd scene; drawing in the stage side panels to "frame" Lucia's Act 1 garden scene arias felt like watching it being filmed on your iphone held the wrong way; and, if Scotland degenerates into some kind of clan-based fascism in "the near future" are they really going to do a National Socialism throwback thing? Really? Whatever. Like I said, fine.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Rienzi with the National Philharmonic

I was hoping the National Philharmonic's presentation of Wagner's Rienzi this past Saturday would have signaled the end of my Rienzi virginity, but due to circumstances beyond my control I was only able to see the second half. Add to this the fact that the deeply (and wisely) cut score for this concert staging basically constituted a highlights show, and, well, I think I can only claim second base.

Rienzi is perhaps best understood as what would happen if you took Tannhauser and subjected it to the Hollywood producers that give notes on stuff like Fast and Furious 7. There are really a huge variety of interesting musical ideas, and lots of delightfully recognizable Wagnerisms, but any breathing room in the drama has been rigorously excised in favor of nonstop grand opera thrill ride action, an event-heavy plot, and stock characters that leave little to the imagination.

But music certainly worth hearing, especially with the compelling forces marshaled by National Philharmonic chief Piotr Gajewski. The big draw of the evening was Issachah Savage in the title role, who I think its fair to call a DMV favorite, but has also recently appeared in things like the Goerke Toronto Walkures last year. His big irresistible tenor fits beautifully in the Lohengrin/Walther/etc Wagner parts, with enough heft to impress but still sweet and ringing throughout. Rienzi's big 11 o'clock number in the Fifth Act, which recalls the familiar motif of the overture was a gorgeous showcase for his sound and was met with appropriately thunderous applause. Here's his Mein Lieber Schwan. Oh and a little big of his great sounding Bacchus here. You know you want more.

Also notable were Rienzi's ladies--Mary Ann Stewart gave a passionate account of heldentrouseren role Adriano, while Eudora Brown impressed as Rienzi's sister, Irene. They cut that slightly creepy "Shades of Walsungen" scene in the Fifth Act with Rienzi (again, wisely), so by missing the first half I probably missed a lot of the Irene stuff that remained, but thankfully got to hear her soaring contributions in the latter half ensembles. Gajewski led a rollicking account from the Philharmonic and assembled choral forces, delivering what can only be called a crowd-pleaser--something I'll wager Rienzi is not often accused of.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Turandot at the Met

Zerbinetta makes a pretty good case for adding Franco Zefferelli's Turandot production to the list of petty crimes against humanity (say, above Tevas and socks but after the first Transformers movie). And while she's not wrong, it's also important to note that this production is a totally gonzo yet honest version of the opera Puccini and librettists Adami and Simoni created, imbued with all the cross-cultural thoughtfulness 1924 had to offer.

Now that we're all on the same page, here's what I don't want to see when the Met someday takes this production to a field far away from flammable structures and burns it down: some neutral, de-contextualized Turandot that tries to boil it down to the "timeless human story" at its core. I will accept Turandots that try to deconstruct the snot out of the material, and I will accept Turandots that swim around in a 1920s fever dream of the Orient like Scrooge McDuck in his money pit. But I will not accept a Turandot that tries to divorce the material from its cultural trappings.

Look, this isn't some hard and fast decision rule for all Europeans clumsily dramatizing other cultures. Something like Butterfly has its problematic material that any director needs to confront when producing it 100 years later, but there really is a winning argument to be made about why its characters are timeless human portraits that transcend their context. Our appreciation for Turandot comes in spite of the fact that it would be easy dustbin of history material if not for its very considerable musical interest. Modern productions shouldn't get to punt on that.

So, the big draw of this first Turandot tranche (the complete run is being shared with Stemme and Lindstrom as well, plus a bonus Jennifer Wilson evening), was a role debut for our beloved Christine Goerke, following up on her celebrated Dyer's Wives at the Met two years ago and subsequent triumphs in Wagner and Strauss in various North American locales. After a little warm-up cautiousness, Goerke hit her stride and that unique, softly rounded sound poured forth, making for a stunningly warm and musical reading of a part that naturally leans to the strident and brittle. The vocal awe her Turandot inspires owes less to shock and more to how she is able to use that full voice and incredible stamina to keep the musical momentum alive. If there's a tradeoff, it's that she doesn't quite have that terrifying top most people prioritize in their Turandots. Her high note approaches were tentative at times, the results tended to decrease in volume, and felt a bit strained relative to the freedom that characterized the rest of her range. Goerke's second Act scene was suitably authoritative but her third Act capitulation to Calaf's advances was the most compelling, a welcome little touch of humanity amidst all the frantic shenanigans filling the stage. That exchange, sort of a trashy version of the end of Siegfried where you don't care what happens to anyone, got me thinking about sneaking to Houston for an early look at her Brunnhilde #2.

Marcelo Alvarez is one of those singers that gives one a feeling of solidarity; almost of continuity with the past--say, 1985. One likes to imagine walking into some stodgy, big ol' Met revival of a warhorse on any given Wednesday in the 80s of yore and hearing the kind of big, crowd pleasing singing that is a maybe a bit less distinctive than the guys at the top but undeniably satisfying. Yeah, Alvarez' Calaf is basically always shouting and churns out his music in little overexcited phrases, but damn its a great sound, and listening to that big voice tumble through the throngs of chorus and orchestra over and over again just doesn't get old.

Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava was a powerful, passionate Liu, though I'm afraid Liu probably gets the shortest shrift of any character in this production, drama wise. James Morris is still kicking it, bringing some extra polish and pathos to Timur here with his patented Dadsing techniques. Great work as well from the Ping/Pang/Pong trio.

Finally, Paolo Carignani presided over a reading in the pit that exemplified the best kind of controlled chaos possible with that big unruly band. He may have benefited a bit in comparison with the shaggy Carmen last weekend, but his chops and sheer "rightness" of his feel for the music shone through in chorus after challenging chorus whipped into a precise frenzy.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Not Dead Yet/Carmen at WNO

It has been a while I know, but rest assured I have been making all the usual new season resolutions to do a better job of not neglecting this space. And as an added motivation to get back in the game, I was very graciously invited to review the WNO's season opener Carmen over at Parterre Box!

I’ve found myself at a number of Carmen productions over the last 18 months (a Jonas Kaufmann-less Saturday matinee at the Met last spring, a Wolf Trap young artist production, and, most recently, a minimal chorus-less outing in Atlantic City which turned on an affair between Carmen and Micaela), and besides putting me over the annual advisable quota for any particular warhorse, it has given me some time to ponder the current state of the Carmen enterprise...

Check out the rest here!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

St. Lawrence String Quartet at LOC

The St. Lawrence String Quartet presented the final installation in a series of three concerts at the Library of Congress' Coolidge auditorium last night with the second public hearing of a major new work by John Adams (Coolidge, not Luther, whose work was being featured across town at the Atlas), his String Quartet No. 2.

Adams, who was on hand to introduce the piece, has delivered an enthralling, eminently satisfying work that deserves to be an instant classic in his catalogue. Built on two small fragments from Beethoven's Op. 110 piano sonata and a nub from one of the Diabelli Variations, the quartet kaleidoscopes around these bits of familiar information in a richly imaginative procession of ideas. Adams' driving sense of rhythm is always present, animating some edge-of-the seat, feverish passages that dissolve and reassemble these motivic germs at blistering speed in the Allegro molto and the finale. But the Andantino also contains wandering moments of haunting stillness. Of the two occasionally deserved complaints that come to mind about Adams' work--eschewing  minimalist austerity in favor of a playfulness that is fun but forgettable and overindulgence in a slack emotionalism that can overstay its welcome--neither can have any place in an honest evaluation of this earnest, winning piece. The St. Lawrence Quartet made exhilarating sense of the work's intricate details and brought the house to its feet.

The rest of the program was a delightful introduction to the group, which I had never heard before. The opener, Haydn's Op. 33 "Joke" Quartet was brimming with ideas and a welcome refusal to take things too seriously. Obviously kind of a prerequisite given the topic, but even before the well-handled "payoff" at the end, this was Haydn at its most inviting with no trace of portentousness. Meaty second half Dvorak (here the Op. 61 Quartet in C major) can sometimes feel like a chore when the most interesting programming has been saved for the first half, but the St. Lawrence doggedly kept the audience's attention, digging out all the naked Brahmsian beauty on offer in the Poco adagio e molto cantabile. An encore was a final fugue from one of Haydn's Op. 20 string quartets.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Matthew Polenzani in Recital

Matthew Polenzani has been a constant presence at the Met for well over twenty years now, frequently inspiring reviewers to adjectives like "reliable" and "always X" that are no small achievement on the fickle operatic stage. The reasons why the Met and other leading houses around the world keep returning to him, are clear enough: that winning marriage of a light, attractive sound with plenty of ping, volume capable of filling the biggest Met-sized barns, and an easy stage presence shows no signs of dissolving anytime soon. He is the kind of singer that makes everything look effortless without stopping to assure you its difficult, and yes, that kind of thing can be easy to take for granted.

So it was a welcome treat to hear Polenzani take on unfamiliar rep in an intimate space last Wednesday with collaborator Julius Drake at the piano, in a recital presented by Vocal Arts DC. Perhaps the least successful selection of the evening was the opening number, Beethoven's "Adelaide" (Op. 46), a tough choice for a lead off that Polenzani had trouble making sense of while still in warm up mode. But things quickly corrected themselves with two winning sets of songs by Franz Liszt. Polenzani and Drake, who have recorded a volume of Liszt's songs, easily made converts of the room. Both sets, a grab bag of texts by German poets and a French series on poems of Victor Hugo, entrance with intimations of Debussy and other things to come. Polenzani carefully etched the character of each in thoughtful readings--marred only occasionally by the opera singer tendency to punch up the volume beyond what the recital will bear.

The second half offered a set of amuse-bouches by Erik Satie, slightly more substantial settings by Ravel that allowed Polenzani a bit more of a chance to deploy his more familiar lyric gifts, and closing with a curious set of Barber songs. Encores did a nice job of balancing a bit of indulgence without sacrificing the overall tone of the evening. Reynaldo Hahn's familiar "Parquetto" from his songs of Venice, offered something adjacent to the Italianate splendor we love in Polenzani's Alfredo without taking us out of the recital setting.