Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sign of the times

At lunch today with a composer-friend of mine who works at Powells, he said that the store recently posted openings for 12 temp positions for the holidays. Over 900 people applied for those 12 temp jobs.

Today's Birthdays

Carl Loewe (1796-1869)
Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)
Gunther Herbig (1931)
Walter Weller (1939)
Radu Lupu (1945)
Semyon Bychkov (1952)


Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Jacques Barzun (1907)
David Mamet (1947)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

David York Ensemble - in hiatus?

I haven't heard anything form the David York Ensemble in quite a while; so I checked the choir's web site and noticed that it doesn't have any concerts planned for this season. This makes me wonder if the group has experienced financial problems or if something else has happened. I know that the home of its founder and director David York was damaged by a slide near Barber Blvd. last month. So, the choir's future may be impacted for quite a while.

Today's Birthdays

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
John Brecknock (1937)
Chuck Mangione (1940)
Louise Winter (1959)


Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838)
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)
Pamela Harrison (1915-1990)


John Bunyan (1628-1688)
William Blake (1757-1827)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New composers organization - Cascadia Composers

Several of the Northwest's best composers have formed a new group that is part of the National Association of Composers/USA (NACUSA). This new group or chapter is called the Cascadia Composers, and its members will celebrate their first concert on March 13th at the Old Church in downtown Portland with a performance by the Fear No Music ensemble.

In addition, the Cascadia Composers chapter has its own web site,, where you can find out more about its doings. The group will present a series of free workshops and lectures at the Waterhouse Studio in Beaverton, starting on December 8th at 7 pm.

The above photo shows Cascadia Composer's founding members Jack Gabel, David Bernstein, Greg Steinke, Dan Senn, Gary Noland, and Jeff Winslow (missing from the photo is Tomas Svoboda.)

Top 20 orchestra fallout - Philadelphia Orchestra

David Patrick Stearns, classical music critic with the Philadelphia Inquirer, asks (in this article) why the Philadelphia Orchestra didn't make the Gramophone Top 20 list and reasons that it has to do with the orchestra's ouster of Christoph Eschenbach. Also, he reveals that the two American critics involved in the list were Alex Ross of The New Yorker and Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times.

Today's Birthdays

Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1678)
Sir Julian Benedict (1804-1885)
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950)
Leon Barzin (1900-1999)
James Agee (1909-1955)
Walter Klien (1928-1991)
Helmut Lachenmann (1935)
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Victoria Mullova (1959)
Hilary Hahn (1979)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Concert Review: Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

By guest reviewer Bob Kingston

Over the past 30 years, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio—pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo, and cellist Sharon Robinson—has established a reputation as one of this country’s premiere chamber music ensembles. The group was in Portland on November 24th and 25th as part of the Friends of Chamber Music Classic Series. Overall, there was some very fine music making on Tuesday evening’s concert, though this was offset by an occasional missed opportunity.

The program on November 25th opened with Beethoven’s single-movement Allegretto in B flat (WoO 39), a carefree little amuse-bouche written in 1812 for the ten-year-old daughter of the composer’s friends, Franz and Antoine Brentano. (In 1977, the scholar Maynard Solomon suggested that Antoine was very likely the intended recipient of the famous letter to the “Immortal Beloved,” penned just a few weeks after Beethoven completed the Allegretto.) There’s really not much to say about the piece itself, other than that to acknowledge that it made up in charm and grace what it lacked in overall musical interest.

The remainder of the first half was devoted to Shostakovich’s bleak Trio in E minor, written during the height of the Second World War and dedicated to the memory of the music critic and intellectual Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-one. This is an extremely powerful work, one that demands a level of full-focused intensity that seemed to elude the performers in the first movement. The second movement was taken at an absurdly fast tempo, and as a result, much of the interplay between the strings and keyboard was frequently lost. The third movement, on the other hand, brought out some very fine playing, especially from Robinson, and all three musicians acquitted themselves admirably in the fiendishly difficult finale.

In contrast to the Shostakovich, the performers offered a much more successful reading of Schubert’s massive Trio in E-flat major. Balances were, for the most part, carefully maintained, though there were a few instances of overplaying in the first movement. Robinson and Laredo rose to the challenges Schubert laid out for their instruments in the lovely second movement, and the blend between them was as good as one could imagine. Notable, too, were the subtle shadings of color and rhythm in the finale.

Bob Kingston is a Portland-based writer and musicologist.


Extra Note from James Bash: The WoO designation for the Beethoven piece caused me to open "The Penguin Guide to Classical Music." Author Paul Griiffiths states that WoO is an "Abbreviation for Werk ohne Opuszahl (work without opus number), used in catalogues of music by composers who normally used opus numbers, such as Beethoven and Schumann."

Today's Birthdays

Earl Wild (1915)
Eugene Istomin (1925-2003)
John Sanders (1933-2003)
Craig Sheppard (1947)
Vivian Tierney (1957)


Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
Sir John Drummond (1934-2006)
Jean-Claude Malgoire (1940)
Håkan Hagegård (1945)
Yvonne Kenny (1950)
Gilles Cachemaille (1951)

Watch Met productions on your computer

While in New York, I learned that the Met has launched a new thing called Met Player so that you can now watch Met productions - some in HDTV - on your computer when you want. The Met has made 13 High Definition videos and 39 historic TV performances available. Right now you can take advantage of a 7 day free trial. I guess that means that you can watch as many operas as you can stand for 7 days before you have to pay anything. Afterwards, you can try one of several rental options.

Click here to find out more about Met Player.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Norman Walker (1907-1963)
Erik Bergman (1911)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)
Maria Chiara (1939)
Tod Machover (1953)
Jouni Kaipainen (1956)
Edgar Meyer (1960)
Angelika Kirchschlager (1965)


Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)
Arundhati Roy (1961)

Koh on fire in Brahms concerto with the Oregon Symphony

Jennifer Koh gave one of the best-ever performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto on Saturday night with the Oregon Symphony. She played this demanding work with passion, understanding, technical precision, and uplifting artistry, making us hear the music as if we were hearing it for the first time.

Hardly anyone coughed during Koh’s performance. Maybe that was due in part because she seemed to be playing for each individual listener. Koh had complete command of the piece. She mesmerized us by speeding up and slowing down at will, increasing the volume and then throttling it back in mid phrase, and changing the sound from sweet to harsh and agitated. Her cadenza in the first movement contained passages that were as fleet as a cheetah. In the second movement soared with poignant lyricism and the third overflowed with rustic joy. All in all, Koh’s playing engaged our minds and made us forget that time had passed – until the buzz of our voices filled the lobby as we made our way home.

Led by the young, Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the orchestra played Stravinsky’s “Symphony in C” with verve. Each section of the orchestra had more than one moment to shine, and in some ways the piece evoked many qualities of a woodwind quintet. The orchestra seemed to revel in Stravinsky’s quirky writing, especially for the oboes and bassoons. I also enjoyed the solemnity of the horn, trombone, and bassoon choir in the fourth movement. I kept expecting the music to build to a dramatic ending, but it bows out on a quiet chord, and the audience followed with polite applause.

The concert began with Beethoven’s overture to “Egmont,” which the orchestra interpreted stirringly. The horn section delivered a clear, brassy sound that seemed perfect for this piece. Zeitouni paced the ensemble well throughout and the audience responded with enthusiasm.

I noticed that Ja’Ttik Clark, principal tuba, was sitting behind the trombones and am wondering if that position helps to soften his sound. He used to sit closer to the side wall or the right corner. Perhaps the sound he created came off of the wall too loudly.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra accents young violinist and operatic flair

Young prodigy Brandon Garbot tackled Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” and came out on top at his debut concert with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening. By slowing the tempo a bit, Garbot carefully negotiated all of the tricky passages and maintained an impeccably pure tone throughout the piece.

It was quite an achievement for the 15-year-old high school student who serves as the concertmaster of the Portland Youth Philharmonic and has won several competitions. His performance with the Columbia Symphony was successful, in part, because the orchestra’s music director, Huw Edwards, made sure that both the tempo and orchestra’s volume stayed in check. Since he has been the music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, Edwards communicates well with young artists and shows a keen understanding of their talent.

In his performance of the “Carmen Fantasy,” I loved the way Garbot glided smoothly from one high note to the next. He created a sound that was somewhat similar to whistling and once in a while it took on a slightly eerie effect. The audience rewarded him with sustained applause that turned into a standing ovation.

Garbot was also the featured soloist in the “Méditation” from Massenet’s opera “Thaïs.” Using a rich and secure tone, Garbot found the soothing quality that makes this piece so beloved. He teamed up well with the orchestra to make this piece memorable.

The concert included several selections from other operas. The orchestra opened the concert with the overture to the “Die Fledermaus,” by Johann Strauss Jr., the overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, and the prelude to “The Mastersingers of Nurenberg,” by Wagner. The orchestra played each piece well, but some slippage in the violins – usually in the fastest passages – impacted the artistry somewhat. Principal oboist Brad Hochhalter delivered some evocative passages, especially in “Die Fledermaus.”

The second work on the program was Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which he wrote for string orchestra. Nine members of the orchestra arranged themselves in front of the rest of the main body of the orchestra, and in doing so, created a separate ensemble. At one point the principals also formed an ensemble “voice,” so that three ensembles from the orchestra created the effect of three choirs in a church. On the whole, the orchestra showed a lot of sensitivity to this work and made it one of the highlights of the evening.

Today's Birthdays

Manuel de Falla (1876-1946)
Jerry Bock (1928)
Vigen Derderian (1929-2003)
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933)
Ludovico Einaudi (1955)
Thomas Zehetmair (1961)


Paul Celan (1920-1950)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Today's Birthdays

St. Cecilia
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784)
Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Lord Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Gunther Schuller (1925)
Jimmy Knepper (1927-2003)
Hans Zender (1936)
Kent Nagano (1951)
Stephen Hough (1961)
Sumi Jo (1962)


George Eliot (1819-1880)
André Gide (1869-1951)

PBO Assembles World Class Talent for 'Pergolesi, Naples and Julius Caesar'

Friday night the Portland Baroque Orchestra gave the first concert of the second cycle in their 25th anniversary season at the First Baptist Church in downtown Portland. World-renowned early music scholar Nicholas McGegan, director of (among many other groups) "the other PBO" as it was called Friday night (Berkley's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), took the podium to kick off a spectacular weekend with a concert entitled 'Pergolesi, Naples and Julius Caesar.' In addition to McGegan there were two other guest baroque specialists present: soprano Yulia Van Doren and alto Matthew White. Neither is a stranger to the area; Van Doren sang in last year's PBO presentation of Messiah, and White has sung at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Italy, cradle of the Baroque, was the focus of the evening. Concerti grossi by Neapolitan composers Francesco Durante (1684-1755) and Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) bookended the first half of the program, with three arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare in between. The second half was devoted to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's (1710-1736) rendering of the Stabat Mater. In the pre-concert lecture, McGegan noted that, along with Handel's Messiah, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is one of a very few works from the baroque era that has been incessantly beloved since its first performance, never leaving the repertoire even when baroque music was at the height of unpopularity.

The first work, Durante's Concerto No. 8 in A Major "La Pazzia," was not in keeping with the usual concerto grosso form. Rather than contrasting concertino and ripieno groups playing simultaneously, the work was almost schizophrenic in character, and varied all throughout between bold, racing tutti sections interspersed with charming little vignettes for a viola duo, during which parts the rest of the players were almost always completely tacet. Victoria Gunn Pich and Karen Vincent kept these varying duets interesting and fresh, whether they took the form of a delightful, singing pastorale, a somber lullaby, or a lively dance.

Yulia Van Doren then took the stage in the role of Cleopatra for the first of three arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare. Looking the part in a royal purple gown with a bold necklace of golden coins, Van Doren immediately captivated the audience as she launched into the fast, furious aria "Anzi ti pur...Non disperar." It was immediately obvious why she is so highly regarded despite her relative youth; she sang in a dizzyingly intricate coloratura, flawless in timbre while executing rapid, difficult ornamentation with pinpoint accuracy despite the merciless tempo.

Her operatic training served her well as far as the dramatic presentation went. She was immediately able to switch from anger to joy to sadness as necessary, projecting the effortless calm of one singing for friends in the parlor of someone's home. She was able to immediately penetrate to the heart of meaning in each text she sang all throughout the evening, her stage presence serving to enhance her shining musicianship. She was joined by Matthew White as Caesar for the duet "Caro, Bella!" While White's presentation seemed a bit wooden next to Van Doren's animated delivery, no fault could be found with his singing. They played off of and accompanied one another perfectly, and when they moved in unison thirds it was breathtakingly precise, a marvel of synchronicity sounding as in-tune as keys on a perfectly pitched organ.

Leonardo Leo's Concerto for Four Violins and Continuo in D Major followed the standard concerto practice a bit more closely. The program invited the audience to decide for themselves whether, as has been asserted, Leo's music was "less sentimental...more logical" than that of Durante and Pergolesi. From the examples presented it was easy to hear why one would make this characterization. Even during the slower moments of the Leo it was more straightforward; there was no exaggerated lamentoso, and during the livelier parts it felt more akin to a jaunty stroll through the crisp autumn air than scaling the heights of Olympus. The concertino consisted of four violins, often playing in pairs. It was a fascinating study in comparing the very different timbres of the instruments each violinist played, some of which instruments are over three hundred years old.

The focus of the evening, however, was mostly on the singers, and this was the main presentation of the second half. That in Pergolesi's tragically short life (he was cut down by tuberculosis at the age of 26) he could produce in the Stabat Mater one of the most beloved masterworks of his era is a testament to the tremendous skill of the young composer. The sad story of the weeping mother at the cross has been tremendously popular since it was first set to music. Van Doren was again unafraid to animate the music with her facial expressions and gestures, leading to a more emotionally weighted performance. The blend between White and Van Doren was almost uncanny at times, flowing together like the proverbial milk and honey. Especially during the first part of the work however, the formidable array of strings behind the singers occasionally rose in volume to obscure some of the finer nuances that these skilled singers were able to deliver.

White's alto presented a truly deft exploration of the power and range of the male loft voice. There were several times during the Stabat Mater where the alto voice held one long, sustained note underneath the soprano line, and White delivered these moments with the utmost in skill and dexterity, the pitch rising seemingly from nowhere in a perfectly even crescendo until it reached full bloom and ended, a truly breathtaking effect.

McGegan's conducting, while accurate and professional, was very much like his personality: affable, approachable, humorous and almost self-deprecatory at times. He brought the audience to laughter once or twice (purposely I'm sure) with an exaggerated gesticulation. His pre-concert talk, which took the form of a dialogue with PBO's executive director Thomas Cirillo, will surely delight any early music lover, as McGegan enjoys exploring bits and pieces of baroque history punctuated by bawdy vignettes about the seamy underside of 17th and 18th century life. The talk takes place one hour before the performance.

Leave it to the PBO to assemble this kind of stellar talent and go to such lengths to make early music accessible, fresh, and exciting, which is so vital to ensuring that this scene thrives. The large contingent of people in their late teens and early twenties who attended was no accident. This program will repeat tonight at 7:30 at the First Baptist Church, and tomorrow at 3 pm at the Kaul Auditorium on the campus at Reed College. Tickets are no longer available online, but will continue to be sold at the door.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ridiculous lists

The inane list that Gramophone has published of the world's top orchestras deserves trashing. The Times of London is already complaining that only one British orchestra is featured. Hell, no French orchestras are mentioned at all. Charles Noble's blog has an update that points to Robert Levine's blog in which Levine mentions all sorts of factors that were not taken into account in compiling this list. Oh well, Gramophone will be selling a lot of copies and that was the whole point.

From The Times article, here's the skinny on the judging:

"The poll was put together by Gramophone, the classical music magazine, and limited to modern romantic orchestras (so period bands such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did not get a look in). The eleven-strong panel included three British critics from the magazine, two Americans, two Asians and one each from Le Monde (France), Die Welt (Germany), De Telegraaf (the Nether-lands) and Die Presse (Austria).

James Inverne, the editor of Gramophone, said that the aim had been to compile a selection that was not “patriotic or parochial."

Today's Birthdays

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933)
Coleman Hawkins (1904-1969)
Bernard Lagacé (1930)
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)
James DePreist (1936)
Idil Biret (1941)
Vinson Cole (1950)
Björk (1965)


Voltare (1694-1778)
René Magritte (1898-1967)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

NEA Arts Journalism Institute - a terrific experience!

I'm back in Portland and am still digesting the experience of participating as a fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera. The 10 days that I spent in NYC at this Institute were stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with lectures, writing workshops, concerts, tours, and interviews with artists and administrators. All of it added up to a feast for culture vultures like me and also gave me a chance to sharpen my perceptions.

The leaders of the Institute are Andras Szanto, Anya Grundmann, and Joseph Horowitz kept us busy. We met and talked with the following folks:
- Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera,
- Alan Gilbert, music director designate of the New York Philharmonic
- Jeremy Denk, concert pianist and blogger par excelance
- Gino Francescoi, archivist of Carnegie Hall
- Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras
- Terry Teachout, arts blogger and theater critic
- Steve Smith - blogger and music critic

We received lectures from
- Michael Beckerman, professor of music at NYU
- Elaine Sisman, professor of music at Columbia University
- Duy Linh Tu, professor at Columbia University's Journalism School
- Joesph Horowitz, author

We had to write two overnight reviews of concerts and a think piece. They were critiqued by some of the following folks:
- Justin Davidson, classicla music critic at New York magazine
- Anne Midgette, classic music reviewer at the Washington Post
- James Oestreich, classical music and dance ditiro at the New York Times.
- Greg Sandow, composer and criticism professor at the Juilliard School
- Joseph Horowitz and Terry Teachout

We got backstage tours at Carnegie Hall and the Met. Heard concerts by the New York Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic, the Kirov Orchestra, took in two performances at the Met, a piano recital by Jeremy Denk, plus a cabaret concert by Ute Lemper. We saw Dudamel, Gilbert, and Gergiev work their magic with orchestras. We also watched Gilbert lead the Juilliard Orchestra. Oestreich gave us a tour of the new New York Times building - where we met an talked with Daniel Wakin, the classical music reporter.

I found the work and my colleagues very stimulating and can highly recommend the Institute to others who would like to have an in-depth experience in classical music and opera. Because I wanted to write and post reviews of the concerts I experienced, I didn't have much time to experience more of the city. I did run through Central Park, but that was all.

The Institute has funding for one more year, and the troika of Szanto, Grundmann, and Horowitz are seeking more funding to keep the program gong for another five years. Typically, the Institute is held early in the fall, so be ready to see announcements for applications in

Today's Birthdays

René Kolo (1937)
Gary Karr (1941)
Meredith Monk (1942)
Barbara Hendricks (1948)


Nadine Gordimer (1923)
Maya Plisetskaya (1925)
Don DeLillo, (1936)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kirov Orchestra and Chorus put power into Prokofiev's film music

Not many orchestras and choruses will team up to perform two major Prokofiev pieces in the same concert, but the Kirov Orchestra and the Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre were more than up to the task on Tuesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall. With Valery Gergiev, music director of both ensembles, in command, Prokofiev's "Ivan the Terrible" Oratorio and his "Alexander Nevsky" Cantata received powerful interpretations. If the orchestra had played more in tune, the concert would've hit the megawatt levels. Still, the "Nevsky" work stuck a mighty chord with the audience, and Gergiev had to come out four or five times to acknowledge its appreciation.

As a member of the Portland Symphonic Choir, I have sung both pieces with the Oregon Symphony; so I really looked forward to hearing this concert. The Mariinsky's 60-member chorus (sopranos and basses in front, altos and tenors in back) just poured it out. The tenors, in particular, maintained a beautiful tone that could be heard above the loudest passages in both pieces. We're talking some real volume here, because Prokofiev uses a full-sized orchestra.

The bass violins in "Ivan the Terrible" were not in tune with each other. In "Alexander Nevsky," right before "The Field of Death" movement, the concertmaster and the assistant principal violinist played disparate notes that they unified, but it was briefly awkward. Still the Kirov Orchestra made a mighty statement in both pieces with their dark hued sound. Some experts say that no other orchestra can get this dark sound. Gergiev, apparently, loves this tone and all of the textures and colors that go with it. I have to admit that its very intoxicating, and I'll have to purchase some Kirov recordings so that I can wallow in it a while.

It was a mistake to use bass Mikhail Petrenko as the narrator for "Ivan the Terrible" because his Russian accent got in the way of his English. I would rather have heard him speak the narration in Russian and read supertitles or program notes.

Mezzo-soprano Kristina Kapustinskaya sang outstandingly in both pieces. Her interpretation of "The Field of Death" was moving and absolutely gorgeous. She has a really big future ahead of her.

How Gergiev can conduct so well with fluttering hands and no discernible beat is confounding. It's like watch birds in flight. I would love to try to sing under his direction just to experience first hand how he does what he does. In any case, I think that the chorus came in a tad late one time, but that was it. Most choruses love to be cued as much as possible, but Gergiev hardly ever gives one. He somehow creates sonic art in a new way -- or at least a way that I've never seen before, and he's terrific.

Today's Birthdays

Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1959-1935)
Géza Anda (1921-1976)
David Lloyd-Jones (1934)
Agnes Baltsa (1944)


Allen Tate (1899-1979)

La Stella Early Music Ensemble Gives First Performance

Sunday at 3 pm at the First Presbyterian Church in Portland, the La Stella early music ensemble gave their first of hopefully many performances to come. I did not take notes at the concert, so this is just a quick heads-up about a promising new group.

La Stella consists of five performers:

Mary Rowell--violin
Zoe Tokar, alto recorder and voice flute
Owen Daly, harpsichord (playing an instrument of his own crafting)
Hideki Yamaya, theorbo and baroque guitar
Max Fuller, viola da gamba and baroque cello

They are all experienced Baroque musicians, and the depth of their expertise showed. The program consisted of very difficult works that required sincere scholasticism and excellent technique. While not quite flawless, as a serious early music fan this concert was one of the most satisfying meals I have had in some time.

In addition to trio sonatas for various combinations by Bach and Telemann, they delved into the early and middle Baroque repertoire for works by composers who are not heard as often, such as Giovanni Pandolfi (1620-1669) and Carlo Farina (1600-1640). Fuller played Marin Marais' langorous homage to his mysterious master, the famous Tombeau pour M'sieur de Sainte-Colombe for viola da gamba. Yamaya presented two toccatas and a corrente for solo chitarrone (theorbo) by Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638), and in the final 'Paris Quartet' by Telemann all five musicians played, with Yamaya joining the continuo on baroque guitar.

I'm not sure that there are any other small chamber ensembles in Portland who regularly play this type of music at this level, so I strongly hope that La Stella continues in this vein and receives the support that musicians like this so richly deserve from the PDX early music community. They do not have a website yet, but La Stella does have a Facebook page for those interested in learning more about the group or the performers.

NOTE: This is cross-posted at Musical Oozings.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)
Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985)
Compay Segundo (1907-2003)
Don Cherry (1936)
Heinrich Schiff (1951)
Bernard d'Ascoli (1958)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ken Selden Leads the PSU Symphony and Choirs in an Ambitious Program

Ken Selden, Artistic Director of the Portland State University Symphony, led this group as well as the combined forces of the highly-regarded PSU Chamber and University Choirs in a concert cryptically entitled Avatar at St. Mary's Academy in Portland on Friday evening, November 14th. The program presented a diverse range of selections, with the U.S. premier of noted Portland composer Bryan Johanson's short sketch Fresco, as well as the West Coast premier of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Bach Measures. The main event of the evening was Beethoven's Mass in C Major, Op. 86.

Listening to Johanson's Fresco (the composer was on hand to receive the accolades), it is easy to hear why he is one of Portland's most sought-after composers of modern classical music. Though around only three minutes in length, what a breathless, exciting few minutes it was! The opening--honking, block chords from the entire orchestra interspersed with rapid runs on the strings, soon gave way to a chattering responsory between orchestra and the skilled Douglas Schneider on the organ. Extreme contrasts in dynamics, outbursts of frenetic, occasionally ominous syncopation from the percussion battery and shrieking exclamations by the winds ran out suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving an appreciative but somewhat surprised audience wishing for more.

Birtwistle's Bach Measures consisted of eight Bach chorale preludes for the organ transcribed for all manner of combinations in a modest chamber ensemble. The tunes of the chorales were in no way hidden or muddled by any sort of odd harmonization or radical reworking; for a piece that heard the juxtaposition of a delicate flute against squawking, muted trombones, as well as pairings of percussion, piano, winds and string quartet, in spirit this work remained surprisingly true to Bach's originals. The first few went off very well, as the ensemble was able to retain the delicate flavor of Bach's counterpoint in bohemian arrangements from the tender to the schmaltzy that were somehow strangely satisfying.

About the fourth or fifth prelude though, the piece began to suffer from intonation issues and what seemed to be a wandering focus, or perhaps an imprecise understanding of the overall outworking of the melodic motives as they were handed off from instrument to instrument, section to section. At times it was obvious that the fugal layering was a bit much for the group to handle; there were moments (as all who have performed intricate polyphony are probably familiar with) when it seemed the focus of each player was solely upon the horizontal outworking of his or her part, and it was not in sync enough for the vertical realization to pan out. The piece ended with a gentle string quartet on the famous Durch Adam's Fall ist ganz verderbt that somewhat redeemed the confusion of the preceding preludes.

Beethoven's Mass in C Major went off well for the most part: there were very excellent moments from the orchestra, punctuated here and there by some that fell flat. The choirs (led by Stephen Coker) are to be praised for their excellent diction, which was very clear and betrayed an understanding of the pronunciation of Germanicized Latin. It was a large force of singers, which occasionally overshadowed the orchestra but for the most part there was a good blend between choir and orchestra. Both singers and instrumentalists approached the fugal entrances of the Benedictus with confidence, and the solemn grandeur of the closing Agnus Dei was convincing.

The female soloists, soprano Anna Viemeister and mezzo Kirsten Hart, were well up to the task, but the male soloists, tenor Michael Sarnoff-Wood and bass Jeremy Griffin, were difficult to hear most of the time. The quartet moments, such as the end of the Credo, were quite lovely, but I'm not sure I'd have been able to hear the male leads had I not been sitting more or less directly in front of them. Their voices were good, their musicality sound--it was just a question of volume. Soloists of note were Kirsten Hart, whose robust, warm tone shimmered with just the right amount of power at all times, yet hinting at much more in reserve, and oboist Kirsten Saul, who displayed delicious gentility of phrase during the sing-song interjections punctuating the later portions of the mass. Ken Selden did a great job of giving his orchestra real meat to chew on, rich in learning experiences, and they should feel good about the performance they gave.

Today's Birthdays

Ernest Lough (1911-2000)
Leonid Kogan (1924-1982)
Sir Charles Mackerras (1925)
Gene Clark (1941-1991)
Philip Picket (1950)
Philip Grange (1956)

Dudamel leads Israeli Philharmonic in high voltage Tchaikovsky 4th

Gustavo Dudamel, the gifted Venezuelan conductor, inspired the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra to give a thrilling performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. The excitement created by Dudamel and the orchestra contrasted sharply with the obscure and solemn Bernstein pieces on the first half of the program. No matter; the audience started applauding before the final notes of the Tchaikovsky reached the back of the hall. Boisterous cheering followed. Dudamel and the orchestra responded with two encores, and the conductor finally had to take the hand of the concertmaster and lead the orchestra off the stage. That was a great way to end a memorable performance.

Impressive is way that Dudamel embodies the music. It seems to vibrate through him. Somehow he is able to channel that energy and his musical ideas to the orchestra and the audience. It’s the real deal. Also, his stick technique is very clear and also inspiring. He didn’t use a score, and his cues were spot on.

Of course, Dudamel has probably conducted this Tchaikovsky symphony hundreds of times, but he didn’t slack off anywhere. He also didn’t overconduct. That is, during the very fast pizzicato section, he applied minimal directions to great effect. The finale went by exceptionally fast, too. It as like a Ferrari with the peddle to the floor. The near out-of-control-ness was about as good as it gets.

On the first half of the concert, the orchestra played Bernstein’s flute concerto “Halil.” Eyal Ein-Habar was the featured soloist, and gentle tones that he created were soothing, but could not remedy the aloof quality of this piece.

Bernstein’s Concerto for Orchestra, “Jubilee Games,” had more variety. The second movement, “Mixed Doubles,” featured some odd pairings, such as trumpet and bass, and clarinet and trombone. The last movement featured baritone David McFerrin who intoned some reflective thoughts from the Bible. Even though Dudamel and the orchestra performed this piece impeccably, it had a limited emotional arc and never seemed to go very far.

So, the Tchaikovsky became the high point, and after the encores (the Intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut” and a rendition of a popular folksong from Latin America) Dudamel tried to get the concertmaster to stand, but he refused and then the orchestra broke out in spontaneous applause for Dudamel. The genuine exchange of warmth between the orchestra and conductor was an inspiration, and added to the positive atmosphere at the end of the concert.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lauderdale and Gershwin: What a match

Here's guest writer Angela Allen's review of the Oregon Symphony concert on November 15th.

When they rolled the Steinway on stage for the Oregon Symphony’s second piece, the audience stirred in anticipation: It was in store for an ecstatic brew of local genes and world-class talent.

Portland pianist Thomas Lauderdale played George Gershwin’s Concerto in F Major (once titled New York Concerto) with passion, aplomb and charming showmanship at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Hall.

Sold out? Not quite, but few left at intermission.

Guest conductor Christoph Campestrini kept a tight, crisp rein on the Oregon Symphony, leading the musicians through Gershwin‘s 35-minute piece as well as the opener, a suitably energetic version of Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Too Hot Toccota.” After Gershwin, he conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s harmonious and touchingly melancholy Symphony No. 3 in A minor.

The program was all good and designed to give gifts to divergent classical tastes. But the news is Lauderdale and Gershwin. Surely they would be soul mates if Gershwin hadn’t died 71 years ago. Improv, jazz, classical – they do it all. If several generations apart in America’s musical history, both capture its vibrant spirit and mix it up with enthusiasm and surprises.

Lauderdale, known best for his leadership of Portland’s internationally acclaimed and wildly popular jazzy Pink Martini, is a classically trained pianist. He continues to study with one of first teachers, Sylvia Kilman, who proved an able taskmaster in preparing him for this performance.

In Gershwin’s jazzy symphony – worked out classically, as Gershwin insisted on saying -- Lauderdale dipped and dropped to the music, lifting his shoulders to the notes, his hands flowing like water as he moved into the first movement syncopated with Charleston rhythms. Only a breathtaking moment into the Allegro, he landed in synch with the orchestra. As his hands climbed scales, and he threw his arms into the air, Lauderdale looked boyish and free, mirroring the rhythms, crescendos and the utter zeal of the piece.

The more poetic, languorous second movement opens with a trumpet solo that blew the audience away, speaking of blues. The brass brought the unmistakably bluesy Gershwin to the forefront, but Lauderdale was no slouch. His chops never ceased. Still, hats off to the brass section.

The percussion takes off in the final Allegro agitato, which Gershwin described as “an orgy of rhythms.” The clean finish in a huge final chord was precisely and triumphantly executed.

Then again, there is far more than precision to Lauderdale’s virtuoso playing. He feels the music, and makes you feel it, an impish electrical bolt passing along the current.


A longtime Portland journalist, poet and photographer, Angela Allen contributes to a number of regional, national and international publications and Web sites. She won a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts grant to study classical and operatic music in New York City. Reach her at

Ute Lemper reigns at Joe's Pub

Ute Lemper, the German chanteuse, delivered an over-the-top performance at Joe's Pub last night. It didn't matter which language she chose to sing, she was fabulous. Her cabaret show, entitled Pirate Jenny, lasted almost two hours, and she entertained us with a stream of songs and stories. I think that she had only one glass of water during that entire time. If you love cabaret, you'll love Lemper.

Today's Birthdays

W. C. Handy (1873-1958)
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960)
David Wilson-Johnson (1950)
Donald Runnicles (1954)


George S. Kaufman (1889-1961)

New York Philharmonic overpowers voices in Bernstein celebration

The New York Philharmonic, under its music director designate Alan Gilbert, partied a little too hard during second half of its concert on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, overpowering some of the featured soloists and chorus with too much sound. As a result, the program lost momentum. That was too bad, because the concert, which contained instrumental-only pieces in the first half, had potential to become a really fun gala in honor of Leonard Bernstein. The mood was remedied with a couple of exuberant encores, and the audience went home with a smile.

The concert was held of the exact day 65 years ago when Bernstein made a stunning conducting debut as a last minute replacement for Bruno Walter. The success of that performance helped to launch Bernstein’s career as an international star in the world of classical music. That historic event provided the context for the Philharmonic’s all-Bernstein concert.

The performance began with Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from the film “On the Waterfront.” The orchestra evocatively conveyed the cinematic breadth of this work, which included plaintive themes, pulsating rhythms, tension-driving accelerandos, and massive clusters of tones. From the midst of the harshness emerged a lyrical melody for the violins and then the cellos. The piece ended with a crushing, demonstrative chord, which elicited enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Next on the program the orchestra performed Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s “Symposium”) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp, and Percussion. Bernstein wrote this work between 1955 and 1957 after becoming inspired by reading Plato. He suggested that this music in this piece reflects a dialogue on the topic of love.

Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra’s concertmaster, was the featured soloist for the Serenade, and the sweet sound from his violin was pleasant but he did not play with enough conviction to engage the audience. The five movements in this work contain a lot of variety, especially the last one, which depicts a group of drunkards who interrupt the serious mood. Yet the orchestra didn't create a commotion; so the piece came off flat.

After intermission, the orchestra played the “West Side Story” Concert Suites No. 1 and No. 2 with soprano Ana María Martínez, tenor Paul Groves, and the New York Choral Artists as featured singers. These selections from the beloved musical should have been the highlight of the evening, but only Groves could consistently project his voice to be heard above the volume of the orchestra. The orchestra often overpowered Martínez when she was in her lower register. Whenever the orchestra increased its volume, it washed over the chorus as well. That weakened the overall effect of the music.

As if to get the audience pumped up, the orchestra played the Overture to “Candide” as an encore without Gilbert at the podium. Gilbert then came out to direct as second encore, an exuberant “Mambo” from “West Side Story.”

Longwinded Dr. Atomic at the Met results in a loss of power

I experienced the John Adam’s opera “Dr. Atomic” on Thursday evening at the Met and found it longwinded. It’s terrific that Adams grappled with the Faustian bargain that Oppenheimer waged when the atomic bomb was created, but the long aria about Kitty Oppenheimer’s hair, the clichéd use of the American Indian as a counterweight to the evil designs of the white man, and the continuous declamatory style of this work made the three and a half hours go by very slowly and drained the impact of the bomb when it finally did explode at the end of the opera.

This new Met production seemed cartoonish in comparison to its production of “La Damnation de Faust,” which used the latest technology to create a cinematic effect. For example, “Dr. Atomic” used a gigantic sheet to help represent the mountains near the Los Alamos testing center. That just did not help to create the impact of the explosion that occurred at the end of the opera.

Adams’ symphonic conception did create a lot of tension and drama. His use of electronic sounds did help to convey the immensity and destruction of the bomb-making effort that took place during July 1945. But the opera bogged down under the weight of the subject matter even though Adams did seek to lighten matters with the banality of everyday life.

I thought that the singing of the principals was exceptional, especially in terms of diction. The enunciation of each singer went was clear as a bell and rendered the Met Titles (sort of like super titles that most opera houses use) superfluous. The marvelous cast included Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, Sasha Cooke as Kitty Oppenheimer, Richard Paul Fink as Edward Teller, Eric Owens as General Leslie Groves, and Meredith Arwady as Pasqualita.

The chorus was expertly prepared by the chorus master Donald Palumbo and the stage directions of Penny Woolcock enhanced the telling of the story. Guest conductor Alan Gilbert expertly guided the orchestra through the complex music of is a hallmark of any work by Adams. Finley’s singing of the aria “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (after the sonnet by metaphysical poet John Donne) at the end of the first act was the highlight of the opera. The explosion at the end of the opera, despite the very long build up, was anti-climatic in terms of what I heard and saw. The audience, choke full of people in their 20s and 30s responded with warm applause at the end, but it wasn’t over the top.

John Adams came out on stage during the curtain call and took a couple of blows with the singers. This was the final performance at the Met. The show will be packed up and shipped overseas for a run with English National Opera.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Annunzio Paolo Mantovani (1905-1980)
Petula Clark (1932)
Peter Dickinson (1934)
Daniel Barenboim (1942)


Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946)
Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986)
Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Preview of Vancouver Symphony (WA) concert

Before I left town for the NEA arts journalism institute, I wrote a preview of this weekends Vancouver Symphony concert for The Columbian newspaper. I don't like the subtitle that the editors used for this article, but that's their prerogative. You can find the preview here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Fanny Hensel (1805-1847)
Rev. John Curwen (1816-1880)
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998)
Jorge Bolet (1914-1990)
Narciso Yepes (1927-1997)
Ellis Marsalis (1934)
Peter Katin (1930)

Gil Shaham shines in New York Philharmonic concert led by Andrey Boreyko

Gil Shaham's blazing performance of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto lit up Avery Fisher Hall in a New York Philharmonic concert on Wednesday evening. His playing of the first movement, which is filled with numerous, treacherous, accelerated passages for the soloist, caused the audience to break out in spontaneous applause. Shaham also captured the melancholy of the second movement and the joyous dance of the final movement perfectly. His habit of walking and playing right next to guest conductor Andrey Boreyko and then back peddling a bit and playing slightly toward concertmaster Glenn Dicterow seemed odd at first but didn’t detract from the overall effect of the music making.

Shaham’s exceptional performance of the Khachaturian piece was the high point in an intriguing program that contained works by Lyadov, Kancheli, and Stravinsky. This nearly all-Russian concert (Kancheli is a native of Georgia) had a nice arc to it, because of the connection between Lyadov and Stravinsky. It was Lyadov’s laziness or reluctance to compose a commissioned work for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that resulted in Stravinsky’s writing “The Firebird,” which was one works featured in the New York Philharmonic concert.

The program opened with Lyadov’s “Kikimora,” a short piece that evokes the world of a malevolent creature from the folklore of Russia. Under the baton of Boreyko, the orchestra gradually revealed this world. I loved the weeping violin sounds at the beginning of the piece, the mysterious sounds from the bass clarinet, and the pauses. The magical, fairy tale part of the music sparkled with colors, especially by the piccolo, and the piece vanished quickly and quietly at the end.

The orchestra performed Kancheli’s “Abii ne viderem,” which he wrote for stings, alto flute, piano/harpsichord, and bass guitar. Although the title has never been explicated by the composer, it roughly translates to “I turned away that I might not see” or “I went away that I might not see.”

Kancheli wrote this piece in 1992, a year after he left Georgia to live in Western Europe (he now lives in Antwerp, Belgium), and the mood of the piece seemed to convey a conflicted sense of emotions. A reoccurring theme involved the strings reacting to a single, very quiet, almost hesitant note from the alto flute. Some reactions involved a flurry of sounds and at other they were clusters of tones. Sometimes the strings of the piano were plucked to that it would sound like harpsichord. The bass guitar added a little bit to the overall color of the sound, but that was all. The overall impression was static, the piece ended where it began (well, so does the Ring Cycle).

For Stravinky’s “The Firebird,” Boreyko chose to perform the 1919 suite version. This version employs a relatively small string section – small than the one used for the original ballet score and for the 1911 suite. Under Boreyko, the orchestra played with a light touch, telling the story of how the prince uses a magic tail feather from the Firebird to smash the egg of the evil King Kashchei. The orchestra effectively surprised everyone when the big, loud bang occurred, but the brass overpowered the strings in some passages. However, since this version of the suite uses a smaller string section, it is tougher to get a balanced sound.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sharin Apostolou recital this Sunday

Sharin Apostolou will give a recital at Sherman Clay Pianos this Sunday at 7 pm. Apostolou is an outstanding young soprano and a member of the Portland Opera Studio Artist program. She will be accompanied by Portland Opera chorus master Robert Ainsley in a selection of vocal chamber music. The recommended donation for this concert is $10, which will go to the POSA program. Sherman Clay Pianos is located at 131 NW 13th Avenue in Portland, Oregon.

Here's a blurb about Apostolou from the press release:

In addition to her work at Portland Opera, she recently performed the role of First Fairy in Oregon Symphony’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Miss Silverpeal in Der Schauspieldirektor with Portland Chamber Orchestra and Walla Walla Symphony. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Apostolou was also a member of the Studio Artist Program at Tulsa Opera where she sang Carolina in Luisa Fernanda and covered Frasquita in Carmen. Her concert experiences include appearances with Manhattan School of Music, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and New England Baroque Soloists. Her roles this season include Annina in La Traviata, Calisto/Eternity in La Calisto, and Countess Ceprano in Rigoletto. Last season she sang Frasquita in Carmen, Clorinda in Cinderella, Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring and High Priestess in Aida.

Today's Birthdays

Louis Lefébure-Wély (1817-1870)
Brinley Richards (1817-1885)
George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931)
Marguerite Long (1874-1966)
Joonas Kokkoken (1921-1996)
Lothar Zagrosek (1942)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Jeremy Denk gives brilliant recital at Zankel Hall

Last night, Jeremy Denk gave a superb concert of music by Ives and Beethoven at Zankel Hall (which is part of Carnegie Hall) in New York City. Denk chose the daunting task of playing Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass 1840-60” and Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier.” Both works are noted and feared for their technical challenges, and most pianists would be ecstatic to perform just one of the pieces at a recital. Not so with Denk. In this, his debut performance as a soloist at Zankel, Denk took command of the keyboard and got past the virtuosic demands to reveal the full range of emotions and artistry in these works.

The “Concord Sonata,” was written by Ives between 1916 and 1919, and it celebrates a hand-full of major figures of transcendentalism: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry Thoreau. With dexterity, understanding, and passion, Denk got at the heart of each movement of the sonata, and gave us a glimpse into Ives’ vision of these people and the ideas they represented. The atmospheric range moved from simple and ethereal to complex and rough-hewn. The hymn-like passages in The Alcotts section was the easiest to grasp. Denk’s playing brought the audience closer to the music, but he didn’t beat us over the head with it. He made it a pleasure to hear.

Beethoven wrote the “Hammerklavier Sonata” between 1816 and 1817, a period when he had not composed very many pieces. Yet he seemed to throw everything he could imagine into this work. Its four movements contain a jumble of ideas that seem incomprehensible and technically impossible, including a fugue to end all fugues.

Denk has an arsenal of talent that can deal with the seemingly endless variety of musical hurdles that Beethoven employs: backwards and forwards scales, themes that are reversed and inverted, and mercurial transitions. Denk showed a complete mastery of the piece, and again showed the intimate side of the music. That is, the music didn’t seem remote and aloof. Instead, it came alive and touched the audience, which responded with such thunderous applause that Denk returned to give us an encore. He played The Alcott movement from the “Concord Sonata,” and it sounded different and better than when he had played it on the first half of the program. It was a marvelous choice by Denk and a wonderful way to end the evening.

Today's Birthdays

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887
Jean Papineau-Couture (1916-2000)
Lucia Popp (1939-1993)
Neil Young (1945)


Michael Ende (1929-1995)
Tracy Kidder (1945)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Rough and Rowdy Side of J.S. Bach

I published an article by this title here at Suite101 detailing some of the more...seedy aspects of the maestro's life, including swordfighting, his stint in jail, and his explosions of temper. Feel free to take a look and leave comments if you so desire.

Today's Birthdays

Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841)
Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969)
Jan Simons (1925-2006)
Vernon Handley (1930)
Harry Bramma (1936)
Jennifer Bate (1944)
Naji Hakim (1955)


Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

Met's La Damnation de Faust strikes bargain with high tech and succeeds

The wonders of modern technology enhanced the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Hector Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust.” I experienced the performance on Monday night and came away impressed with how state-of-the-art wizardry can create a cinematic spectacle to tell of Berlioz’s episodic work. Supported by an exceptional cast of principals and an outstanding chorus, the Met was able to bring an understandable and artistic interpretation of this fantasy-laden creation to life. Yet it seems to have a little further to go in order to capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the audience.

When Berlioz completed “La Damnation de Faust” in 1846, the Opera-Comique presented it a few months later with disastrous results. The Parisian public hated it and ignored it. Only two out of three performances took place, and it was never attempted again until 1877, eight years after Berlioz died.

The monumental effort at the Met marked its first full-scale production since 1906. With Marcello Giordani as Faust, a legendary man who sold his soul to the devil so that he could attain the limits of human aspirations, the performance had solid footing. Giordani has a secure, beautiful tenor voice that can soar, but he never quite put it into overdrive. His Faust is one of controlled emotions, even when he is lusting for Marguerite, the heroine of the story.

Susan Graham created a soulful Marguerite. Her longing for Faust was palpable, and her rich, warm voice resonated wonderfully. I especially loved her expressive singing of the ballad about the King of Thule, which was beautifully accompanied by solo viola.

John Relyea struck a cunning figure as Méphistophélès. He put a powerful, yet sly spin on his rich baritone, which, combined with his agility as an actor, conveyed the sense of a manipulator who always knew how to get the upper hand.

I also enjoyed Patrick Carfizzi’s animated Brander, the gadfly in the tavern who could barely contain himself when singing a silly story. Yet some of the lowest notes that Carfizzi sang seemed to be out of his range, which made me wonder why the Met cast him for this role.

The chorus shined like a gem throughout the evening. Their attacks were spot on; their sound was full, blended, and resonant. Chorus master Donald Palumbo deserves the highest praise in preparing them for this work, in which the chorus is strenuously involved in almost every scene.

Under music director James Levine, the orchestra played superbly. The violins excelled in their many silky passages. Orchestral crescendos and decrescendos were unified and the overall tone was finely honed, expressive, but never sloppy or sentimental.

This new production of “La damnation de Faust” relied on the technical magic of director Robert Lepage to get the story across. A huge, grid-like structure, dominated the stage and a variety of images were effectively projected on it. The structure used some very carefully constructed mesh panels or scrims, which easily collapsed or unfolded whenever needed.

Carl Fillion’s multi-storied set design was wonderfully enhanced by the effects of lighting designer Sonoyo Nishikawa. The opening scene showed a tower of books, which then became segmented into several libraries, which then morphed into a blue sky. And those were just of few of the transitions which were seamless and convincing. Without this ability to quickly change the setting and mood, Berlioz’s work would still be on the drawing boards.

Also exceptional was the work of Holger Förterer, interactive video designer and Boris Firquest, image designer. At one point Graham walks across the front of the stage and her head is supersized and imposed on the screen behind her, and it seems to be steaming with passionate red flames. Sometimes people behind the screens affected the images that were displayed to the audience. I recall several swirling, twirling images that seemed to be created that way.

Choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier came up with inventive ways to create dance moves inside and outside the grid-structure. I’ve never seen so much use of cabled people on stage except at a Cirque du Soleil show. (And Guthier has worked with Lepage for Cirque du Soleil.)

Costumes by Karin Erskine were a blend of modern and traditional. The most vibrant getup was the red number that Relyea wore as Méphistophélès. His cap sported two long red feathers that made me think of a Robin Hood gone bad.

Many audience members left right after the curtain closed. That seemed impolite and disrespectful to the work that went into this production. I guess they didn’t like the technology used in this production, but overall, I think that it was a brilliant solution.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
François Couperin (1668-1733
Graham Clark (1941)
Sir Tim Rice (1944)
Andreas Scholl (1967)


Oliver Goldsmith (1730 - 1774)
Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev on fire – blows away audience

The Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under its music director Valery Gergiev gave an incredible all-Prokofiev concert at Avery Fisher Hall this afternoon. The orchestra unleashed a dark, burnished, husky, full-bodied, and blood-pumping sound that just washed over the near-capacity audience. It was a baptism by sound. When these folks step up the volume, it is a gigantic roar. A beautiful roar, but a roar that gets your heart racing.

It was great to finally see Gergiev in action. He has a completely unorthodox conducting style. He doesn’t use a baton and his hands constantly flutter as if he has an affliction. His beat is unclear, but his emotions are evidently understood by the orchestra as if he were one of them. He is a large man with large hands, and he doesn’t use a podium. He stands about a step or to towards the orchestra and the concertmaster and principal of the second violin section position their chair so that they face him a little bit. That is, the front couple of rows are slightly curled in. The basses are on the left side behind the first violin section. Gergiev conducts with vigor, even in passages that are tender and almost languorous. He’s a force of nature, and the sound that he gets out of this orchestra is nothing like I’ve ever heard before.

The program consisted some of Prokofiev’s best known ballet pieces plus a couple of rare ones. First up was the “Scythian Suite” with its sonic depiction of a pagan ritual. Brutal, barbaric, bombastic, piercing, nasty, and at times warmly serene, the orchestra created more sounds that made me think that I was had been abandoned on the Steppes with a hoard of blood-thirsty nomads. The ending was bombastic and crushing, nearly stunning everyone in the audience.

This was followed by the Suite from “The Tale of the Buffoon” (“Chout”). This work takes 12 movements from the original work that Prokofiev wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921. The waddling bassoons, the wailing cellos, the death strokes from the percussion and the harsh trumpets were very evocative of the strange folk talke about the adventures of a bawdy buffoon. The finale was a whirling dance the seemed on the edge of going out of control.

After intermission, we heard selections from “Cinderella.” Contrasting a swirl of sarcasm for the evil sisters with the lush lyricism that represented Cinderella and the prince, this music danced all over the place. Yet the most lasting impression was the extremely loud clock, played on the wood blocks, which hammered like Thor in unrelenting passion as the midnight hour struck. That was followed by a tonal wallop at that end, and everyone in the audience went nuts!

The last piece on the program was the Suite from “le pas d’acier” (“The Steel Step”). Again, this was full-contact Prokofiev, brutal and rhythmically driven to the extreme. The awesome tonality in the final measures brought the audience to its collective feet. While Gergiev and the audience accepted the wash of applause, a woman came out of the audience to hand him a bouquet of roses – a gesture that I haven’t seen in years.

Gergiev and the orchestra responded with an encore from Romeo and Julliet. Again they just let the sound fly and that caused another overwhelmingly enthusiastic ovation. The orchestra and VG responded with another selection from Romeo and Julliet – one of the ones with the incredibly wickedly fast passages for the strings. Another standing ovation from the audience ensued. But that was it. This incredible concert was finally over.

Without hesitation, I can say that if you can hear the Kirov Orchestra with Gergiev at the helm in a concert of Russian music, you won't forget it. In fact, I’m hoping to hear them one more time before leaving New York.

Today's Birthdays

Pierrette Alarie (1921)
Piero Cappuccilli (1929-2005)
Ivan Moravec (1930)
Thomas Quasthoff (1959)
Bryn Terfel (1965)


Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
Anne Sexton (1928-1974)

Portland Opera's Fidelio powerful and uplifting

(Photo credit: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver)

Portland Opera’s production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” which opened on Friday night at the Keller Auditorium, is a powerful testament to justice and liberty and faithful love that can withstand all odds. It’s amazing to think that Beethoven wrote this opera 200 years ago and it still speaks volumes, especially when the setting is a contemporary-looking prison that evokes the current situation at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. His call for freedom, sung with conviction by an exceptional cast made the Portland Opera performance vibrant and timeless.

Lori Phillips created a devoted and fearless Leonore, who disguised herself as a male prison guard, Fidelio, in order to find her incarcerated husband, Florestan. As Fidelio, Phillips imitated a man’s behavior and unintentionally won the heart of the jailor’s daughter. Phillip’s Fidelio winningly alternated between being flustered and going along with the ploy until she found Florestan in an isolated cell. Phillip’s resilient soprano was remarkable for its strength and clarity, surmounting the myriad of challenges that Beethoven gave her.

Jay Hunter Morris made a memorable impression as Florestan with a voice that had equal measures of power and beauty. His first appearance and long aira, “In des Lebens” (“In the life”) was filled with tangible passion and longing. Morris had everyone in the palm of his hand as he slowly got up from the stage floor and came closer and closer to the audience until he finally realized that his feet were still chained to the wall.

Also combining a wealth of talent in singing and acting were Jennifer Welch-Babidge in the role of Marzelline, the daughter of the jailor, and Jonathan Boyd as her frustrated lover Jacquino. I loved the way that Boyd’s Jacquino impulsively walked over a bed of flowers to get closer to Marzelline. Both singers seemed completely natural in their roles.

The rich, warm bass voice of Arthur Woodley’s Rocco, the jailor of the prison, contrasted very well with Greer Grimsely’s flinty bass-baritone in the role of the Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison. At one point, Grimsely’s character was so mad that he sang with hurricane force right into Woodley’s ear. That must have taken some chrome off.

As the King’s minister, Clayton Brainerd used his commanding presence and voice to make sure that justice prevailed at the end of the story. It was great to see Brainerd, a Portland native, making his debut with Portland Opera in this production. He sang in the chorus the last time that Portland Opera performed Fidelio almost 30 years ago.

The famous prisoner’s chorus scene showed plenty of balance and power. And the final scene with the prisoners being released to their families was uplifting with its ecstatic jubilation.

Conductor Arthur Fagen worked the orchestra energetically and kept the pace of the opera brisk. I didn’t care for the recorded section when a line prisoners were brought in by the guards, but that did work realistically with the set.

The prison setting, designed by Robert Dahlstrom for Seattle Opera realistically evoked a contemporary prison with wire-mesh gates, observation platforms, and TV monitors.

The stage direction by Helen Binder worked very well throughout. The last scene, in which the townspeople were mixed around on the stage was a nice touch. When Portland Opera did Fidellio thirty years ago, the chorus (of which I was a member) was forced to some risers on the side, which gave us a good view of the conductor, but seemed incredibly stilted. The current production, originally designed by Chris Alexander, looks more natural and real.

Portland Opera performances of Fidelio run through this week. If you want to experience a dramatic and uplifting testimony to the human spirit, be sure to see it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Currently in New York City

The participants in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera met for the first time this afternoon at Columbia University in New York City. We will have our first sessions tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to the hearing Gergiev with the Kirov Orchestra tomorrow at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

Today's Birthdays

Sir Arnold Bax (1883-19530
Lamberto Gardelli (1915-1938)
Jerome Hines (1921-2003)
Richard Stoker (1938)
Simon Standage (1941)
Tadaaki Otaka (1947)
Elizabeth Gale (1948)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Efrem Kurtz (1900-1995)
William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Al Hirt (1922-1999)
Dame Joan Sutherland (1926)
Dame Gwyneth Jones (1937)
Joni Mitchell (1943)
Judith Forst (1943)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Adolphe Sax (1814-1894)
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)
Don Lusher (1923-2006)
James Bowman (1941)
Arturo Sandoval (1949)
Daniele Gatti (1961)


Robert Musil (1880-1942)
Harold Ross (1892-1951)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Hans Sachs (1494-1576)
Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)
Walter Gieselking (1895-1956)
György Cziffra (1921-1994)
Nicholas Maw (1935)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (1940)
Art Garfunkel (1941)


Ida M. Tarbell (1867-1944)
Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dr. Atomic - pretentious opera?

John Adam's "Dr Atomic" has garnerd accolades from many critics, but some think that it is a pretentious work. Ron Rosenbaum laid the opera's lyrics to waste in his critique on Slate. Composer and critic Greg Sandow has followed that blast with a salvo of his own.

Here's an exerpt from Sandow's article:

"When I saw it, I thought I'd sensed exactly what the problem is. The piece, for me, carries a constant subtext about its own significance. "This is strong, important art." All that, of course, is reinforced by the opera's presence at the Met, by its subject, by Adams' reputation, and by the New Yorker printing part of Adams' newly published memoir, to coincide with the production. But beyond all that, the piece itself seems to say that it's important.

Which meant, for me, that it felt pretentious, especially since (and here's where I most strongly agree with Rosenbaum) it doesn't say very much. In fact, it's very safe. It shows us something that's well-known, and much discussed -- the shock of the first atomic bomb, the feeling that something dangerous had been unleashed, and the doubts of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the effort to create the bomb. None of this is new, to put it mildly, and the opera had nothing new to say about it. Oppenheimer is distressed. Well, we knew that, and no matter how powerfully he sings about that at the end of the first act -- to the text of a John Donne poem which, like much of the libretto, only tangentially touches what was going on -- we still haven't learned or even felt anything that we (as a society) haven't gone through many times before."

As part of my upcoming trip to New York City as part of the NEA Arts Jounalism Institute, I'll get to see "Dr. Atomic" for myself. I've sung two of Adams' works in the past ("Harmonium" and "On the Transmigration of Souls") and have heard two versions of his opera "Nixon in China." So, I'm looking for to experiencing the Met production.

Today's Birthdays

Arnold Cooke (1906-2005)
Elgar Howarth (1935)
Joan Rodgers (1956)
Elena Kats-Chernin (1957)


Charles Frazier (1950)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
Vincenzio Bellini (1801-1835)


Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Skride excels with Tchaikovsky and the Oregon Symphony puts a wallop into Walton

The young Latvian sensation Baiba Skride performed an achingly beautiful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday evening at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, causing some members of the audience to leave after intermission. But they left with their ears half full because the orchestra followed Skride by playing the heck out of Walton’s Symphony No. 1, giving a tempestuous and thrilling performance of this seldom heard masterpiece.

Since winning first prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2001, Skride has released five acclaimed recordings and, at the ripe age of 26, is a budding superstar. On stage at the Schnitz, she played the Tchaikovsky with conviction. Each note from her 1725 Stradivarius was impeccably clear and gracefully articulated. Her style seemed unsentimental yet it contained plenty of drama and lyricism. Her playing was full of nuances like slowing down and speeding up with a phrase and varying the pianissimo and fortissimos. Whether she evokes a smooth singing voice or delivered gypsy-like attacks, Skride’s artistry came to the fore. Applause broke out at the end of the first movement and erupted again after the finale. Skride, backed up by outstanding accompaniment from the orchestra, deserved the enthusiastic response, because she gave us Tchaikovsky’s music at its highest level.

It is generally agreed that Walton wrote his First Symphony as a reaction to his failed love affair with a widowed baroness after they had lived together for two years in Switzerland. According to Jim Svedja, “Walton once confessed that in one way or another, all of his major works were ‘about girls.’ So, it may very well be that the anger, resentfulness, and general turmoil of the first two movements of his First Symphony expressed his frustration at being jilted by the baroness. In any case, the Oregon Symphony, led by the incisive conducting of its music director Carlos Kalmar, played all four movements of Walton’s work with unrelenting passion.

Highlights from the first movement included energetic, sweeping sounds from the violins and bright, stirring tone clusters from the brass. Everything somehow dissolved into a forlorn atmosphere that wonderfully paired the woodwinds with principal cellist Nancy Ives before everything turned topsy turvy. Before the end of the movement the orchestra created two huge, loud climaxes and the like a car careening out of control suddenly crashed and burned.

The second movement, marked “Presto, con malizia” (Quickly, with malice), opened with crisp agitation that was followed by sudden bursts of aggressive sounds and dramatic pauses. The third movement contained a long melancholy passage, played with great expression by principal flutist David Buck, which was followed by more plaintive passages from the clarinet and oboe. At some point, the most of the orchestra seemed to gather itself out of the deep part of a canyon of grief, while the violins floated high above. After a soothing, mellow theme from the violas the movement ended quietly but with discontent.

The fourth movement changed the emotional context completely with its dance-like theme. I loved the fugue and the big surges of sound before the vibrant finale in which all of the orchestra members were glued on Kalmar as he dramatically paused before each final chord. As the last sound faded away, an incredibly loud “Bravo” rang out from the balcony and that led the audience to unleash thunderous applause and cheering.

The concert began with Sibelius’ “Scene With Cranes,” a tranquil gem that the orchestra played with great sensitivity. Though it lasts only about five minutes, this short piece, originally composed as part of the incidental music for a play, quickly paints, in hushed tones from the strings, a soft, contemplative soundscape. Exceptional playing by the clarinets created the fleeting impression of cranes. The brief exposed passages, played by concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and principal cellist Nancy Ives, beautifully complemented the strings, which left me with the impression of solitude and wonder.

The Oregon Symphony repeats this program on Monday evening at 8 pm. Don’t miss it.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
Luchino Visconti (1906-1976)
Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001)
Guiseppe Sinopoli (1946-2001)
Jeremy Menuhin (1951)
Marie McLaughlin (1954)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Eugen Jochum (1902-1987)
Victoria de Los Angeles (1923-2005)
William Mathias (1934-1992)
Lyle Lovett (1957)


Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Cappella Romana recordings take you higher

With two recent recordings, Cappella Romana continues to solidify its claim as the world’s premier ensemble for Byzantine chant. The Portland-based vocal ensemble has released ten albums, celebrating the traditional liturgical music of the Greek Orthodox Church during the time of the Byzantine Empire, which stretched from 330 to 1453.

Earlier this year, Cappella Romana made “Byzantium in Rome” commercially available and just a couple of months ago it released “The Divine Liturgy.” Both recordings amply display the richly embroidered tapestry of Byzantine music through religious texts and are well worth your consideration, especially if you’ve never been exposed to the Byzantine sound and want to hear something truly different.

To most of us Westerners, Byzantine music sounds like a combination of Gregorian chant and Middle Eastern chant. This is because Byzantine music often features a cantor (or soloist) who sings against (or above) a choral drone. The choral drone is a sustained sound, normally of level pitch and low. The cantor often sings in the baritone range and uses microtones to chant the text.

The “Byzantium in Rome” recording contains two CD that feature medieval Byzantine music from the Abbey of Grottaferrata, a Greek Orthodox monastery that was founded in 1004 in the suburban hills of Rome, Italy. Cappella Romana’s artistic director Alexander Lingas is a musicologist who has studied many of the ancient manuscripts from Grottaferrata and selected the music for the recording.

The recording features sacred music that blesses the lives of the founders of Grottaferrata: St. Neilos and St. Bartholomew (in the first CD) and serves the religious season called Pentecost (in the second CD). The Greek text (with a translation into English in the liner notes) sounds foreign to my ears, but I do understand the Alleluias, and they are gorgeously extended and ornamented over long periods to time. The soloist/cantor Ioannis Arvanitis sings wonderfully throughout.

“The Divine Liturgy” is a two CD recording of a complete Greek Orthodox service in the Byzantine style and sung in English. Directed by Alexander Lingas, Cappella Romana chants the service's hymns, psalms, and responses in the Byzantine tradition that includes works adapted from Petros Peloponnesios, Nileus Kamarados, and St. John Koukouzelis.

In this CD, the all-male vocal ensemble sings with an assured, well-matched, unified sound, which is always beautiful and never harsh or edgy. The overall effect is very soothing. Solos by John Michael Boyer, Mark Powell, Alexander Lingas, and Ioannis Arvanitis are outstanding.

So, if you would like to hear music takes you on a different path to the heavens, you would do well to purchase one or both of these recordings by the exceptional Cappella Romana.

For sound samples of either recording, see the Cappella Romana web site.