Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Curtis Opera Theater mounted a musically remarkable account of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic on March 2. (It was repeated on March 4). Timothy Myers was the masterful conductor and drew superb playing from the Curtis Symphony Orchestra crowded into the pit of the small Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center. Adams’ amazing range of sonorities, colors, the richness of his almost romantic inspirations, his beautifully organized counterpoint and subtle use of motives and cells to create long melodies were wonderfully served. Small groups of instruments and soloists played with haunting beauty. Myers’ managed impeccable balances, integrated the electronic elements of the writing adroitly, and achieved a clarity of intent and rightness of touch to which the orchestra responded spectacularly well. It was only in some of the big muscular movements that there wasn’t sufficient force or always confidence, especially as the long evening wore on. The singing was just as impressive. The chorus (including many singers who have sung leading roles at Curtis) trained by Elizabeth Braden, the chorus master of Opera Philadelphia, was spectacular. In solo roles, graduate students trying parts meant for more mature voices, were splendid for the most part. All sang well, had Adams’ style and rhetoric down, managed clear verbal articulation, and phrased—where the production allowed—with artistry. The sole musical misfire was the amplification of the voices. Adams asks for this device, but it was crudely handled, flat, and occasionally distorted at the first performance. In this small theater less definitely would have been more. The piece itself is problematic, with phenomenally inventive music by the arguably great composer Adams, but with a preposterous libretto by the self-promoting Peter Sellars. So the story goes, Doctor Atomic was a “big idea” that occurred to Pamela Rosenberg, then of the San Francisco Opera, in 1999. She approached Adams who at first resisted the idea of a work about “The Manhattan Project” and the inventors of the atom bomb. He had been burned by the anger provoked by The Death of Klinghoffer and admitted in interviews that after all, he didn’t really like opera, Mozart perhaps being the exception. He hated Madame Butterfly. But Adams had a glimmer of interest when he learned that Oppenheimer—for all his vast culture — also hated opera! At any rate, Adams eventually was persuaded, finding a model for what he called “a post-nuclear holocaust sound” in the music of the great Edgar Varèse. The librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman, departed the project after two years, leaving Sellars to devise a text which is a mélange of actual quotes from the participants and astonishingly pompous literary citations. He also directed the world premiere. One can feel sympathy for the Curtis director, R. B. Schlather, tasked with dramatizing this sententiously ham-handed text. From a group of puppets spouting famous poems, he had to create recognizable human beings, people that an audience can understand and feel for. How? Schlather and his designer, Paul Tate dePoo lll, came up with a raised stone circle in the center of a bare stage, backed by a black screen. Characters often performed on the raised circle, but also played on the stage surface. In act two, the insufferable Native American stereotype character, Pasqualita, intoned her endless, unintentionally funny doom-laden chants circling around it, and, at the end, two children crawled out from under the circle to stare at the audience. Schlather took a very radical course with the performers. Given that his singers had neither the age nor the physical types of the middle-aged people they were impersonating, he deliberately went counter to any “realism” in the portrayals. The opera began with a young male figure in a variety of bedclothes flopping and jerking on the circle, performing acrobatic feats. Perhaps this was someone really dying of radiation poisoning? But no, it was Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan McCollough). Throughout the act, he rolled and toked joints (presumably laced with speed) to fuel further leaping, writhing and spasms while pulling items of clothing on and off. McCollough was truly brave. He committed fully to this extreme physicality even though he had an enormous amount to sing. He has a fine middle weight baritone and, remarkably, managed focused tone and clear diction—until the great aria that ends act one, Batter my Heart three-personed God, a sonnet by John Donne. But why this text? Why at his highest moment of self-understanding would a nuclear scientist about to unleash an unfathomably lethal weapon be invoking the Christian idea of the Trinity? Wouldn’t he be mourning what he has done, terrified at its implications, tremendously proud of his achievements and deeply ashamed? He gives a poetry reading—with the wrong stresses—instead? It is grotesque sentimentality. Schlather had McCollough jump around during the orchestral interludes in this aria, leaving him short of breath and unable to articulate the words. It was understandable, even honorable, for Schlather to footnote the sophomoric dishonesty of the text but those good intentions misfired, effectively sabotaging composer and soloist. Just as Schlather avoided the “suave, urbane” Oppenheimer, he avoided the “fiercely intellectual” Edward Teller. In this role, Tyler Zimmermann was also very brave, saddled as he was with the most embarrassing moment of an evening full of them. In act two, face painted as death, wearing only his underwear, he crossed the stage slowly with a begging bowl. Then he was parked upstage for the duration to laugh at the coming test. Zimmermann sang very well and articulated superbly but this was not a dramatic approach I can imagine any performer beinging off with success. Schlather was most successful perhaps in the love scene in act one. Mrs. Oppenheimer, Kitty (Siena Licht Miller), was treated as a graduate student of great allure and the sexual nature of her relationship to her husband was given a very erotic realization through intimate touching, the sensuous removal of some of Kitty’s intimate garments and a palpable sense of increasing arousal by both performers. Most of all, Miller sang Adams’ exquisite vocal lines with easy assurance. The best solo singing came from Evan LeRoy Johnson who spun out Wilson’s line with a beautiful tenor. Vartan Gabrielian was impossibly thin as the fat obsessed General Groves but he and Dogukan Kuran (Hubbard) sang very well. Sophia Fiuza Hunt loaned her lovely voice to Pasqualita’s groaner aria, “The Cloud-Flower Lullaby”. Schlather did have a few “big ideas” of his own. One was his depiction of acid rain, a massive drop from the flies onto the stage starting with black atom-shaped balloons and proceeding to all kinds of detritus, including a chair! (This required a massive cleanup effort during the intermission, more interesting than a lot of the show.) Curtis was brave to mount this work, and did wonderfully by it musically. As an opera it raised some fascinating questions; for example, it is possible for the composer to stand utterly alone and transcend his text? Can an opera ever work with what amounts to the Spinal Tap of opera librettos? Dr. Atomic does to a large degree in act one, but eventually Sellars’ inability to plot, over-reliance on exposition and addiction to quotation cause everything to stall. Adams might have been better off forgetting Edgar Varèse and studying Madame Butterfly. Photo: Karli Cadel
Both Tabea Zimmermann, violist, and Frank Peter Zimmermann, violinist, appear on this recording together. And what is also great is that the group performs the two amazing Quartets for piano and strings by Mozart. Mozart: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, K478 Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, K493 Performed by Christian Zacharias, piano, Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin, Tabea Zimmermann, viola, and Tilmann Wick, cello. Just listen to the wonderful music, the Quartet K493 by Mozart:
Recently, before going to sleep, I have been listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as performed by Frank Peter Zimmerman. On the CD of the Month for January 2017, the same violinist plays for you music by Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 99 Violin Concerto No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129 Performed by Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, Alan Gilbert conducting. Composed almost 20 years apart, the two violin concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich were both conceived with the great violinist David Oistrakh in mind and dedicated to him. Shostakovich completed Concerto No. 1 in 1948, at a time when he had fallen out of grace with the Soviet authorities and it seemed uncertain if the work would ever be performed in public. This is reflected in the concerto which begins with a dark and solitary violin song over gloomy cellos and double basses. Throughout the work there are allusions to the composer’s situation, such as the D-S-C-H motif that appears in so many of his works and which in the second movement is closely related to a theme reminiscent of Jewish popular music, as a symbol of Shostakovich’s identification with the sup¬pressed Jewish culture. In the same movement there is also a theme derived from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mstsensk which in 1936 had caused the composer’s first denunciation by the Soviet regime. In 1967 Shostakovich wrote to Oistrakh, telling him about the completion of his Violin Concerto No. 2. The composer’s health had been failing for several years, and only the year before he had suffered a heart attack. In several of his late works there is a preoccupation with mortality, and the concerto exhibits a similar dark, introspective tone, especially in the central Adagio. Performing these two great works of the mid-20th century is one of the finest violinists of our own time, Frank Peter Zimmermann. The recordings were made at public concerts at the Hamburg Laeiszhalle, with the eminent support of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester – formerly known as the NDR Sinfonieorchester – conducted by Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor for more than a decade. Here is Mr. Zimmermann in the Concerto number 2 by Shostakovich:
Ilya Kaler (file photo) To attend a recital by Ilya Kaler is to take a trip back in time to a golden age of violin playing about which older musicians nostalgically wax poetic and to which younger ones jealously compare their contemporary lots. The kings and queens of this era loom large in memories and record collections—Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Szigeti, Henryk Szeryng, Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler. However, during the 1980s and ‘90s it seemed that the traditions from which these great players emerged receding as new careers were defined by flawless virtuosity. Soloists were expected to reproduce these documents like human record players, night after night, on tours that shipped them from hall to hall with little time to explore the world from which their interpretations might naturally arise. Thankfully, it appears that this monolithic model is crumbling. Searching, intellectual players like Christian Tetzlaff bring contemporary ideas and fresh sounds to canonic works (along with original cadenzas rather than the classic, yet ossified, ones used by soloists for years). Fearless and instinctive soloists like Patricia Kopatchinskaja emphasize the unhinged rustic elements of works like the Bartok concerti that were polished and hidden by years of technically flawless reproduction. But for Ilya Kaler it’s as though this period of violinistic stagnation never occurred. His style, which draws on the strength and purity of the mid-20th-century Russians like David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan as well as the sweetness and romance of players like Arthur Grumiaux and Zino Francescatti, is markedly nostalgic. It’s no surprise that after this recital, as well as following his previous String Masters Series recital and two recent appearances with the Boston Philharmonic, one heard audience members and orchestra members alike remark how people just don’t play like that anymore. But with the burgeoning diversity of violin styles, Kaler’s also sounds remarkably contemporary, taking its place in a broadening array approaches. Kaler’s rich, grand manner sound was on full display on Sunday, Seully Hall for his second appearance in Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s String Masters Series. Until shortly before the concert began, the crowd seemed sparse, but then, with only minutes to spare before the scheduled start time, violinists from all over town swarmed into the hall, and Kaler played to a packed house. His tuxedoed stage presence and deference to his partner matched his sound—attractively old-fashioned and impeccably classy. Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, drawn from the composer’s ballet Pulcinella and arranged by his closest violinist collaborator, Samuel Dushkin is classic recital piece from exactly the repertoire that these “golden era” violinists drew their material. Kaler and pianist Janice Weber struggled occasionally with ensemble, but despite these slight miscues this performance bristled with character, notably with a thick, strutting rhythm that sat on the back end of the beat, reflecting the eponymous, buffoonish commedia dell’arte character. Kaler’s sticky articulation lent weight to even the fastest spiccato passages, adding to the grounded, heavy nature of these wonderful character studies. Hindemith’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 11, No. 1 highlighted another of Kaler’s career projects—advocating for marginalizing repertoire. (He’s had especially successful collaborations with the conductor Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in works by Karlowicz and Szymanowski.) Kaler is particularly drawn to twentieth century works that don’t necessarily fall far outside the canon, but rather off the bottom of most repertoire lists. So few audience members knew the Hindemith, that some confusion ensued (even among this gaggle of fellow violinists) about which movement was which and when the piece ended. Regardless, Kaler and Weber made a convincing case. A softer warmer sound than the Prokofiev imbued the lyrical moments of this beautiful piece with an inner glow, a sound that carved out an area of introversive quiet reflection, especially toward the end of the work. Hindemith conceived the piece as part of a set of six (looking back, with an anti-Romantic eye, to similar sets of six by Haydn and Bach), and began work on it in 1918 at the age of 23 while still on the Western Front in World War I. Even this early work contains both beautiful moments of late romantic introversion and elements of Hindemith’s inchoate modernism. Another violinist inspired by the sort of “objective school” of mid-20th-century violin playing, Frank Peter Zimmermann, recently released a brilliant recording of Hindemith’s complete works for violin. I would love to hear Kaler’s interpretations of this same repertoire on disc. Janice Weber (file photo) A real surprise followed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Suite as arranged by Heifetz. Beyond his requisite refined style and sweet sound, Kaler displayed a deeper connection to this music than I expected. He and Weber offered a passionate and big reading with wonderful details of phrasing decked with plenty of slides and generous rubato. In his arrangement, Heifetz retained the flavor of the full orchestra’s dramatic swells, and Kaler and Weber brought these out with outsized tone and drama. After intermission, Andrew Mark, the artistic director of the String Masters Series, joined Kaler and Weber for a big-boned account of the Dvořák Trio in F Minor, op. 65. Ensemble issues dissolved into the turbulence and bluster of this warhorse. Andrew Mark contributed a fine solo to begin the slow movement. Those that missed this show forfeited a rare opportunity to experience a grand tradition not only alive and well, but also interacting with contemporary styles and approaches. Ilya Kaler masters the past by enriching it with the breath of the present. Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis. The post Kaler as Sui Generis Throwback appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .
Of course, it was only a matter of time before Chinese orchestras started arriving to our city, although they existed even during Mao tse Tung´s regime: I certify that Beijing had an orchestra in 1962 that played such Occidental authors like Sibelius, along with Chinese composers. But the ironically called Cultural Revolution wiped them out for a long period. However, the almost miraculous reversal engineered by Deng Hsiao Ping gradually opened the immense country; musically this is recounted in that indispensable film with Isaac Stern, "From Mao to Mozart". Orchestras re-formed and others were created; and in 1999 Hong Kong became part of China, including its notable Philharmonic that has left so many fine recordings (they would be welcome visitors to BA). Changes take time, and it was only last year that a Shanghai Orchestra came here (a promised Beijing one didn´t materialize). And now we had the visit of the Qingdao Symphony. How many Argentines know something about this city? I didn´t, and I went to Google, for the programme gave me no information, except biographies of the interpreters and the listing of the players. They gave two concerts at the CCK¨s Blue Whale, the first combining China with the Occident, the second almost purely Chinese; I attended the first, missing two initial pieces due to a traffic jam (sounds familiar?). It turns out that Qingdao is a big port in the Province of Shandong with a population of around 6 million; German colony from 1891 to 1904, twice invaded by Japan and recuperated in 1949; it now has five universities. The Orchestra was re-established in 2005; its current Director is Zhang Guoyong (Herald readers may recall my review of his debut concert with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic this year, praising him in a difficult programme of Zimmermann and Prokofiev). Eighty players came in this tour, all with purely Chinese surnames. This people is gregarious and disciplined; on the evidence of this concert, the players have been carefully selected and are fully professional, and thoroughly trained by such a proficient conductor they gave first-rate performances of all the programmed pieces. As I wrote concerning other Chinese composers´ works played in BA (not many) I believe that the Occidental orchestra isn´t the right instrument for what remains a profoundly different culture. You do hear some pleasant pentatonic tunes but the orchestrations are showy and bombastic and the structures are haphazard. The pieces I heard both concerned concubines as they are depicted in Beijing Opera, as far from the European conception of the genre as possible in voice and instrumentation: voices are supposed to be used with extreme nasality and artifice, and there are very few players. The long symphonic fantasy "Goodbye, my concubine", by Guan Xia, suddenly includes a song; and then we heard a symphonic arrangement of a melody from Beijing Opera´s "The inebriated concubine". Zhang Ying, attired in colorful traditional clothes, sang both, in a way that decidedly for Occidentals is an acquired taste (if you do acquire it). But it is a matter of training: soprano Song Yuanming studied at Vienna and sang our opera and operetta with an agreeable voice of clean highs: the Waltz from Gounod´s "Roméo et Juliette" and the Csardas from Johann Strauss II´s "Die Fledermaus"; when she finished the First Part with a Chinese melody, "I love you, China", by Zheng Quiufeng and Qu Zong, she sang like an European. The Second Part was occupied by the most famous cantata of the Twentieth Century, Carl Orff´s "Carmina Burana", with the Coro Polifónico Nacional led by Darío Marchese, soprano Song Wuanming, baritone Alejandro Meerapfel and countertenor Pehuén Díaz Bruno. The rhythmic vitality and melodic charm of this celebration of Medieval love and wine dressed in modern clothes has seldom sounded so full and precise. The Choir was in fine shape, potent, in tune and exact; the Orchestra responded brilliantly to Guoyong´s commanding baton; and the soloists were well chosen, from the firmness of Wuanming´s highest register to the intelligent interpretation of Meerapfel and the adequacy of the countertenor singing the strange predicament of the roasting goose. How would this orchestra and conductor fare in, say, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, is anyone´s guess, for all I heard from them was lavishly colorful; anyway, they certainly have the right technical tools. The style? Maybe. For Buenos Aires Herald
On this day in 1948 Verdi’s Otello was the first opera to be telecast from the Metropolitan Opera. Can’t find a kinescope, but this broadcast came a few days after: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bEwti_TWfk Born on this day in 1632 composer Jean-Baptise Lully. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtiAd9eZeEE Born on this day in 1797 composer Gaetano Donizetti. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cnHm9Us5VI Born on this day in 1892 tenor Erich Zimmermann. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eg7aSQ-cMM Happy 79th birthday tenor John Brecknock. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ad1ZB46Gg4 Happy 74th birthday baritone Philippe Huttenlocher. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNsi9JLuH7s Happy 70th birthday soprano Carole Farley. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkW0pioD_xk