Thursday, July 28, 2016

Chamber Music Northwest's "Piano Concerto Extravaganza" excels

By guest reviewer Phillip Ayers

On a warm and humid, but very pleasant evening Chamber Music Northwest presented a unique concert of piano concertos. This might seem unusual, as these summer concerts don't usually feature solo instruments in concertos with an accompanying orchestra. Three composers - Bach, Stravinsky, and Mozart - won the evening (Tuesday, July 19) at Lincoln Performance Hall with a varied program that included J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto Number 5, Igor Stravinsky's Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414.

Technically, one could say that the Bach work is really a concerto grosso, with a concertino (solo group) consisting of violin, flute (or recorder), and cembalo (often harpsichord, but on Tuesday, performed on piano); and a ripieno ("background," for want of a better term) of a small string orchestra. The orchestra on Tuesday was a string quartet of violin, viola, cello, and contrabass. The feel of a concerto is made evident early on, with the solo piano taking center stage with an extended solo, more than ably performed by Hilda Huang. Actually, all three instruments in the concertino figure prominently and are, with the keyboard, the only instruments in the charming and stately second movement.

Knowing this piece intimately as I do, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of my first purchases of an LP record as a green 18-year-old freshman was the complete Brandenburg Concerti performed by the Boston Symphony, directed by Charles Munch. In the fifth concerto, Lukas Foss was the piano soloist and I have worn out the record - which I still have. I was hooked forever! I'm a wannabe keyboard player (piano and organ), but I have never, ever attempted the first movement of the Fifth, or even the third, but have had some success with the second movement, as it is mercifully slow in tempo.

It was hard to find fault with last week's performance, but the solo violin, played by Theodore Arm, was not prominent enough in terms of volume. Arm is one of the steady, committed elder statesmen of CMNW; now he is in his 42nd season with CMNW, and in retirement as a professor at the University of Connecticut. The flautist Tara Helen O'Connor, in her sixteenth season with CMNW, was excellent. (O'Connor has an impressive dossier in the biography in the concert program, but I do wonder if "Purchase College," where she teaches, is SUNY Purchase, near New York City?). Pianist Huang was very much "with" the music, although her tempi at times varied overly much, especially in the elegant and difficult solo passage in the first movement. That particular passage in the annals of keyboard literature is always difficult to bring off, and Ms. Huang did a sterling job with it. She is, at a young age (21, if I did the math correctly), an experienced player of Bach and has won two top prizes at European Bach festivals. Simply hearing this movement never ceases to thrill the listener and when the artist is so involved and attentive to the music, it makes the experience even more enjoyable.

The Stravinsky piece is another unique contribution to piano literature and, in the estimation of this reviewer, very much a "concerto." It would be easy to describe it as a two-piano extended (four-movement) sonata. Yes, there is no "accompanying" ensemble, just the two pianos. No, one piano is not accompanying the other. (We know of many transcriptions of piano concerti where one piano is solo, the other plays an orchestral reduction.) Stravinsky wrote this work to play with his son Soulima. Each pianist is a soloist. The program notes explain: "This concerto … draw[s] inspiration from the etymology of the word concertare: to harmonize, but also to compete."

This is another piece that certainly is not easy to play. Nor is it easy to convince an audience that it is a concerto. But the pianists Hilda Huang and Melvin Chen gave it their best. Con moto, with motion, the first movement, is truly with motion and the artists rendered all of it with percussive power. Perhaps a few more hours of rehearsal together would have resulted in a more polished performance, yet hearing this work for the first time, whetted my appetite to listen to it many times on You Tube or seek out other live performances. We have CMNW to thank for introducing this work to many of us, although Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is probably better known. The piece comes from the composer's neo-classical era and is clearly not in the same genre as Rite of Spring!

Reading the program notes, it is amazing to learn that these players each have (or shortly will have) degrees in chemistry. Chen possesses a PhD in physics and chemistry (Harvard) but now is the deputy-dean of the Yale School of Music, where he is associate professor of piano and teaches, among others, Huang! This makes us think of those musicians we know, or have known, who also are/were accomplished scientists, thereby not living and working in two separate worlds, but integrating the two: scientific and musical.

The concluding concerto on the program could seemingly be misconstrued as a piano sextet, but it too is actually a concerto, W.A. Mozart's No. 12 in A Major, K. 414, in fact. Chen brought to it a fine, rather understated performance, executing the four cadenzas very tellingly. Some of the players from the Bach Brandenburg concerto returned to the stage for the Mozart and all were very much involved in the music. This concerto, utilizing a small ensemble rather than a full orchestra, was written to be playable both ways. In Mozart's own words: "…[it is] very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. … there are also occasional passages from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction" [program notes].

Mozart's music always delights the ear and mind and one never tires of it. At least, this listener doesn't! Everything musical was given the utmost attention and the players obviously enjoyed making music together the entire evening. They were bodily involved and anything-but-bored. Neither was the audience.

It is always a great treat to hear Hamilton Cheifetz play the violoncello, even if last week he was part of the ripieno (we might say "back-up") in the Bach and a string quintet in the Mozart. This man knows ensemble-playing, we might be bold to say, "like the back of his hand." He is a long-time member of the Floristan Trio at Portland State University and a long-time participant - 30 years - in the summer series of CMNW.

The attractive program book, with full concert notes and biographies of the artists (except I could find nothing about the bassist Curtis Daily, who expertly played with German bow). Lincoln Hall was perfect - I'd not been in it since the remodel, forgive me, please! - except for a glitch with the lighting. The lights "went up" right at a crucial spot in the Stravinsky, but somehow seemed appropriate and not distracting. Some of us tittered and wondered if it was by design?

Hearing and reviewing this concert came at the end of a long and profoundly sad day as I bade farewell, with many others, to one of the modern saints of the Episcopal Church, Edmond Lee Browning, Presiding Bishop from 1985-1997, and a resident of nearby Hood River. I could not help but feel that this concert came at a good time to remember the good bishop and I felt that way particularly in the Bach Brandenburg Five's middle movement, so steady, profound, and yet playful, just like he was. Also, this concert was an excellent foil to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland held that same week: in Lincoln Hall there was no braggadocio, no bullying, no false promises, but the "real deal."

Today's Birthdays

Rudy Vallée (1901-1986)
Frank Loesser (1910-1969)
Kenneth Alwyn (1925)
Riccardo Muti (1941)

and

Ludwig A Feuerbach (1804-1872)
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Beatrix Potter (1866-1843)
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957)
John Ashbery (1927)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Today's Birthdays

Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829)
Enrique Granados (1867-1916)
Ernő Dohnanyi (1877-1960)
Igor Markevitch (1912-1983)
Mario del Monaco (1915-1982)
Leonard Rose (1918-1984)
Carol Vaness (1952)

and

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996)
Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007)
Bharati Mukherjee (1940)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Free simulcast of Italian Girl in Algiers offered by Portland Opera - Wednesday night

From the press release:

What: Portland Opera is offering a free simulcast of The Italian Girl in Algiers on Wednesday, July 27 starting at 7:30 pm. This performance of the colorful, highly creative, and rather sensual interpretation of the 200-year-old madcap comedy masterpiece will be projected on a screen outside the Newmark Theatre. A viewing area between Antoinette Hatfield Hall and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall will be created by the closure of Main Street between Broadway and Park. Seating will be available in the street, and food and beverage service will be available outside as part of the event.

Cost: Free to the public
When: Wednesday, July 27, 2016; 7:30 pm
Where: 1111 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205

Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon celebrates multimedia music

One thing you can count on whenever you combine music and video in a live performance, is that the audience never coughs. I first experienced this phenomenon at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition where a camera on a boom arm swept silently above the orchestra and soloists during the final rounds, and I’ve witnessed the multimedia combination at many other concerts since. So, when CMNW’s New@Noon series celebrated sound and visual imagery on Friday, July 22nd, at Lincoln Recital Hall, there was no coughing at all from the audience and everyone seemed to be thoroughly engaged in each piece, all of which were new.

The newness kicked off with “Every tendril, a wish” by Bonnie Miksch. Miksch, the chair of the music department at Portland State University, wrote the piece in 2007 for her son who was nine months old. The title refers to a poem that Miksch penned, and she read to the audience before the performance began. Its words painted a picture that could be described as a joyful lullaby. Miksch then sang the poem while accompanied by electroacoustic music and live interactive graphics that were controlled by Christopher Penrose, who sat at a laptop just a few feet from Miksch. Penrose altered the graphical imagery that was projected on a screen just behind Miksch, responding to the dynamics of Miksch’s singing. Using very little vibrato, her soprano voice was attractive and emotive, but most of the text was buried by the loud electronic accompaniment. The projected graphics consisted of geometric patterns that constantly changed. They seemed oddly cool and objective whereas the lyrics were warm and very subjective.

Jaroslaw Kapuschinski’s “Juicy” took a slightly different tack. This piece (written in 2009) interactively related music for piano with a video that was controlled by computer software. The software would react on the fly to the dynamics from the piano, which was played by Melvin Chen. The piece had six movements – all of which were centered on fruit. So the audience enjoyed round red and green floating across the screen in the “Citrus Duet” section. The “Kiwi” movement featured slices of kiwi that slowly rotated. Sometimes the music drifted along in a Satie-like fashion and at other times, it became complete abstract. The “Blueberries” episode was riddled with real gunfire as each blueberry – lined up in rows – was struck and went kersplat. That movement, according to the composer, was meant to bring a bit of reality into the performance. The video, which used stop-motion techniques was created by John Edmark, was mostly tranquil and restive – except for the jolt of gunfire.

The final piece on the program, “Einstein’s Light” offered a more traditional kind of music and film experience except that the music, written by Bruce Adolphe in 2015 for piano and violin, was created first and the video second. The piece, in five movements, showed the love the Einstein had for music, in particular the music of Mozart and Bach. The context of the music was then interpreted visually by Nickolas Barris with images of light beams, galaxies, objects flying through space, vast landscapes, clips of WWI battles (the time when Einstein developed the theory of relativity, famous quotes from Einstein, and images of Einstein. Among the music-related quotes from Einstein, one of the best was “My discoveries are the result of music perception.”

The piano part, played by Adolphe, often had a light, ethereal texture, while the violin part, played by Jennifer Frautschi, seemed more prominent – especially when waxing lyrical. Maybe that was because Einstein enjoyed playing the violin. In any case, the piece as a whole was a lyrical exploration of sorts that gave the audience plenty to think about.

Today's Birthdays

Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951)
Georges Favre (1905-1993)
Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981)
Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012)
Anthony Gilbert (1934)
Roger Smalley (1943-2015)
Mick Jagger (1943)
Angela Hewitt (1958)

and

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Jean Shepherd (1921-1999)

From Wikipedia:

Aldous Huxley had been a long-time friend of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, who later dedicated his last orchestral composition to Huxley. Stravinsky began Variations in Santa Fé, New Mexico, in July 1963, and completed the composition in Hollywood on 28 October 1964. It was first performed in Chicago on 17 April 1965, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Today's Birthdays

Alfredo Casella (1883-1947)
Maureen Forrester (1930-2010)

and

Eric Hoffer (1898-1983)
Elias Canetti (1905-1994)

and from The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of one of his most beloved works, Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). It was written in the final years of Mozart’s life, when things were not going well. An infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier, he had moved into a cheaper apartment, and he was begging friends and acquaintances for loans. But in the summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony in G Minor, and the Jupiter symphony. It is not known for sure whether Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems lives up to its billing

The fruits of composer David Schiff's skills as an arranger were evident on Thursday, July 21st as the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival continued. Kaul Auditorium was the perfect acoustical space for an evening of Scandinavian composers as the program Northern Lights: Scandinavian Gems took place.

Opening the evening was a brace of works by Carl Nielsen, beginning with Serenata in vano, a work like all the works of the evening for strings and winds. This work began with a rhythmically intense three-quarter time signature dissolving into languid arias for horn and clarinet.  Exciting annunciations from the contrabass came to the forefront as the extremely well-balanced wind section swelled and receded, leaving the air cleared for exciting, razor-accurate doublings between horn and bassoon. Like much of the evening it was redolent with the richness of the Fenno-Scandia folk tradition, and was over too soon.

David Shifrin had another chance to shine as Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto, Op. 57 was next. This brilliant work opened with a crisp fughetta, one which Shifrin infused with electricity, and a rich, throaty sound from the basso register of his instument. The texture was widely varied...at times Shifrin was mysterious and unhurried, other times the strings spun a glorious web upon which Shifrin went spidering along, and there were great moments from William Purvis on the solo horn as well. Shifrin's playing felt like storytelling as he navigated the ever-shifting shoals with his usual grace and dexterity.

After intermission the audience was treated to the ever-popular Peer Gynt Suites, arranged for a 13-piece orchestra by Schiff.   It was an interesting dichotomy to see such a large orchestra (for this festival) on stage as Schiff spoke a bit on the challenges of boiling down these huge orchestral pieces for such (relatively) spare ornamentation. Seven of the eight movements from both suites were on the bill; Peer Gynt's Homecoming presented too large a task for the composer vis-a-vis the need for such radical reductions in the number of instruments he had to work with.

The order of presentation was different as well, so it was fun to hear these movements juxtaposed in an unfamiliar manner. Beginning with the Death of Ase, the theme shifted from primarily winds to the strings, a nice subtle change of color. It retained most of the gravitas of the full orchestral work. For Morning Mood, the sonority of all those winds didn't quite work...at times it felt a bit hokey for Grieg's grand gesture, though it was fun to watch the string players standing in bravely for an entire section. Anitra's Dance featured brilliant solo work from Matt Landry who throughout the work shifted between a number of different saxophones. Theodore Arm's solo work also stood out as particularly fine.

The Abduction of the Bride held a fascinating sonance; the winds constantly uplifting the small string band almost felt like human voices somewhere in the background. The Arabian Dance and Solveig's Song were truly delightful, especially the latter. What a joy it was to hear such necessarily sparse scoring--every single player had to be completely on top of their game or all would have been lost. Percussionist Jonathan Greeney deserves high praise for his performance, which was nothing short of heroic at times. And finishing off with In the Hall of the Mountain King? Well, how could you go wrong? Schiff's arrangement was fascinating, fun and inspired, and was a wonderful new way to hear such beloved old gems.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Talking with George Manahan about "The Italian Girl in Algiers"

Portland Opera’s music director, George Manahan, has been enjoying his stay in The Rose City. He arrived in April to start working on the company’s production of “The Magic Flute,” which was followed by “Sweeney Todd.” Now, he’s back on the podium for “The Italian Girl in Algiers,” the wacky Rossini comedy that is currently running at the Newmark Theatre through August 6th.

I talked with Manahan at the opera company’s headquarters last Thursday, not long after he had finished a few games of tennis.

I didn’t know that you played tennis. What a terrific way to relieve stress!

Manahan: When I was younger, I was completely immersed in music. But as I got older, I realized that I needed something else. I played tennis as a kid with my family – with my brother and my parents as doubles. It was just recreation. My wife and I tried golf about 10 years ago, but I just don’t have enough weekends free for that lifestyle. I took up tennis again. You just have to move and all you need is a racket. It’s a lot of fun.

Because the orchestra pit in the Newmark is so small, are you using a reduced orchestration for this production?

Manahan: No, we are using the full orchestration, but we do have a reduced string section. Rossini’s orchestration is economical. We have one flute, one piccolo – there is one number, the quintet, that uses two piccolos – two oboes, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, and two trumpets, and percussion – no timpani. The Overture to the Barber of Saville has the same orchestration. There are recordings that use trombones and timpani, but they were a Nineteenth Century addition.

How many strings do you have?

Manahan: We have four first violins, four seconds, two violas, two cellos, and two basses. That’s all that will fit in the Newmark. This is my first production to conduct in the Newmark. There’s an intimate quality. The theater reminds me of Glimmerglass. Oh, there’s a harpsichord, too.

Will you be playing it?

Manahan: Yes. I play my own recitatives. It’s fun, and I’m so much more involved.

Do you get to improvise?

Manahan: Constantly. There are a few licks that I keep consistent, because it goes with the staging. But generally, I’m just phrasing. It’s like jazz, because I make it up as I go.

So Rossini didn’t write in everything for you.

Manahan: No, he just gave a figured bass. Here’s a little secret about this opera: Rossini didn’t write the recitatives. He contracted them out to another composer – we don’t know who. Rossini was under the gun to get the opera written as quickly as possible. He also contracted the Haly’s aria to a collaborator. That’s the one where he talks about Italian women. It’s in a spot after the big quintet – just like in “The Barber of Seville.” There’s a huge scene change, but in “The Barber” the maid comes out and sings in front of the curtain while they are changing the set. Haly’s aria does the same thing in this – same formula.

Rossini claims to have written the entire opera in 18 days.

He was noted as a fast worker!

Manahan: Of his three famous comic operas: “The Italian Girl in Algiers,” “The Barber of Seville,” and “La Cenerentola,” this one is my favorite. It is certainly the silliest.

How many times have you conducted “The Italian Girl in Algiers?”

Manahan: At New York City Opera, I did it in the late 90s and then at Glimmerglass – also at Wolf Trap in 1990. It was at Wolf Trap in 1990 when Chris Mattaliano was directing anther Rossini opera “Il viaggio a Reims”, but we’ve been friends since the early 80s.

Your background is in piano?

Manahan: My Bachelors of Music is in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

It seems that with your abilities, you would have gotten involved in period orchestra performances.

Manahan: I’m aware of some gestures and techniques that belong to the historically informed style, but for me, the fun is to take a piece that was written in 1813 and make it urgent for today. It’s interesting to hear brass instruments with no valves but those specialists… I have a nickname for them: Earlier than Thou. They can always out-research you.

Are there any cuts in the Portland Opera production?

Manahan: Yes, there are a few in the recitatives, and the asides are traditionally cut because they are so redundant and don’t push the story along. The director and I decided to do some nipping and tucking – cut this or that line – to make things tighter. But if you make a cut in a recit, that can put things in a different key; so I have to modulate on the keyboard.

There are little inside jokes in this production – like the point where Mustafá is having a nightmare. He’s dreaming, and it’s in a recitative. I had put his aria in a minor key, but that was too subtle. So how I’m using something by Handel – the “Sarabande” – you might recall that it was used in the film “Barry Lyndon,” although I might slip something in from “Eugene Onegin.”

That is very talented!

Manahan: I’ve played enough jazz. I’ll certainly use little quotes from “The Italian Girl in Algiers” Overture. I’ll have to do them in different keys so that it works with the figured bass line.

What is different about conducting Rossini versus other operas?

Manahan: Everything has to be exactly together. With operas from the Romantic era, you can fudge things a little, because the orchestration can over thing up a bit, but with Rossini everything has to be spot on, especially the quick numbers like the quintet at the end of the first act.

So what are you doing after “The Italian Girl” run ends?

Manahan: I’m going to San Francisco. I’ll be directing the world premiere of Bright Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber,” which opens at San Francisco Opera on September 10th.

Wow! That’ll be quite a switch from Rossini!

Manahan: Yes. I’ve directed a lot of new pieces over the years. So I’m looking forward to it.

Today's Birthdays

Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-1856)
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Robert Farnon (1917-2005)
Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012)
Guiseppe de Stefano (1921-2008)
Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997)
Peter Serkin (1947)
Philippe Hurel (1955)

and

Jonathan Newton (1725-1807)
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?)
Frank Wedekind (1864-1918)
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
John D. McDonald (1916-1986)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Today's Birthdays

Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
Johann Vesque von Püttlingen (1803-1883)
Edouard Colonne (1838-1910)
Francesco Cilea (1866-1950)
Leon Fleisher (1928)
Bernard Roberts (1933-2013)
Maria João Pires (1944)
Susan Graham (1960)

and

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Vikram Chandra (1961) 

and from the Writer's Almanac:
It was on this day in 1829 that William Burt received a patent for the "typographer." It was a typewriter that looked more like a record player. It had a swinging arm that picked up ink and then printed a letter, and then the paper was manually adjusted to make space for the next letter.

Friday, July 22, 2016

With perfection, the Emerson String Quartet passes the torch from Haydn to Beethoven

Photo by Tom Emerson
Mining the connections between two giants of classic music, the Emerson String Quartet delivered superb performances of late Haydn and early Beethoven quartets on Saturday, July 16th, at Kaul Auditorium. The concert, presented by Chamber Music Northwest, was the second of three in which the ensemble contrasted pieces from Haydn’s Opus 76 and Beethoven’s Opus 18. As the program notes explained, Haydn stopped writing music for string quartet after critics hailed Beethoven’s first foray, entitled Six Quartets. Scholars have speculated that Haydn may have recognized Beethoven’s genius and simply withdrew from writing in that genre. As shown by the Emerson String Quartet, Haydn did seem to experiment with more emotive turmoil in his late string quartets, and that may have been influenced by Beethoven.

Displaying terrific tonal balance, pinpoint attacks, excellent choices in tempo, and wonderfully coordinated dynamics, the Emerson String Quartet was in complete command throughout the evening. Opening with Haydn’s String Quartet in D Minor (Op. 76, No. 2) (“Quinten”), the ensemble (viollinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Laurence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins) excelled in the little nuances without losing sight of the arc of the piece. They nudged notes ahead, diminuendoed and crescendo totally together, created resonant pizzicattos, added a zing or two and quick upwards glissandos for the lively finale.

With Drucker taking over the first violin role from Setzer, Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Major (Op. 18, No. 5) received an exceptional interpretation with alert, exciting playing from beginning to end. Even the Haydnesque pauses had a delightful bit of tension that made them an integral part of the piece. The variations in the third movement swayed from the refined to the rustic and the fourth was crowned with a nimble and playful attitude.

After intermission, the foursome led off with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major (Op. 18, No. 1), launching into the first movement with an incredible sense of interplay so that the person who had the leading line could always be heard. First violinist Setzer’s emotive solo in the second movement, “Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato,” was followed by spacious pauses that again seemed to acknowledge Haydn. Setzer’s execution of a blitz of notes highlighted the third movement and the ensemble wrapped it all up in the fourth con brio

The concert concluded with the ensemble (Drucker back at first violin) giving a stellar performance of Haydn’s String quartet in D Major (Op. 76, No. 5). Again the tonal balance was remarkable and always lovely. Tempos were lively and engaging – especially the galloping passages in the last movement, “Finale: Presto,” which also contained an enticing fadeaway before winding things up robustly.

Today's Birthdays

Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962)
Licia Albanese (1913-2014)
George Dreyfus (1928)
Ann Howard Jones (1936)
Nigel Hess (1953)
Eve Beglarian (1958)

and

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Tom Robbins (1936)
S. E. Hinton (1948)