Monday, October 29, 2007

Angela Niederloh talks about her upcoming Cinderella

Angela Niederloh, one of Portland's own divas, is featured in the title role in the Portland Opera's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, which opens this weekend. Niederloh emerged from the opera program at Portland State University to become a terrific mezzo-soprano who has recently sung principal roles with Houston Grand Opera and with Portland Opera. I exchanged email with her to ask her a few questions about her upcoming performance.

How are rehearsals going?

Niederloh: Rehearsals are going very well. It always makes for a smooth, yet fun production process when there is a good repartee among the cast members. Not only is everyone incredibly talented, but also they are good people to boot.

Oddly enough, this is the first La Cenerentola for most of the cast; including myself. I think this makes for an interesting experience for all of us. Potentially when you have a cast that has performed in several of the same production, it can be hindering to the creative process. Meaning, it is difficult to look at something with fresh eyes and ears when you have performed it for the umpteenth time. With that said, for those that have had the pleasure of being involved with La Cenerentola before, they too bring a unique insight into the show -- (that is) traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation, potential pitfalls, helpful hints and creative cuts (to the music).

Have you done this opera before? If so, where and when?

Niederloh: I have not performed Angelina (Cinderella) in her entirety. However, I have done many scenes from the show for concerts and recitals. It is interesting to me having had the pleasure now of being acquainted with this character’s journey. Before I would have snap shot views into her as a character, but now diving into the whole role, it makes such a difference. For instance, I have sung Angelina’s final aria, Non piu mesta for many years now. In the aria she sings about being born into sadness, singing to herself by the fireside. But like a lightning bolt, her life changed. I feel like I sing it completely differently now. Having the advantage of experiencing the role in it’s entirely gives you the big picture experience, the whole journey , not just the cliff notes.

How do you learn a foreign language like Italian?

Niederloh: Probably the best way to learn a language is to completely immerse yourself into it, try to assimilate and absorb all that the culture has to offer. I, on the other hand, did not completely go this route. I studied languages in college and later in my young artist programs. Both experiences put a lot of emphasis on conversing. Instructors would tweak our sentence structure, but for the most part, they wanted us to be uninhibited in the act of communicating. Were all of my conjugations completely up to par? No, but I was communicating and that is ultimately what we as performers are trained to do from the stage; communicate.

What is one of the trickiest things you have to do for this opera (for example, sing while lying flat on your back or while dancing, or…)?

Niederloh: Well, I don’t have to participate in a lot of tricky stage shenanigans, thank goodness. The obstacle for me is to spit all of the words. Rossini is known for his lightening speed, coloratura musical lines and rapid fire, albeit, clever word patter. I guess I owe a hardy “Thanks” to Chris Mattaliano, the stage director, for taking pity on me and not having me participate in an elaborate gymnast routine, when I have enough trouble as it is to stick the landing!

How long have you been working on this opera?

Niederloh: I have been working on Cinderella for about a year now. Not all of that time was spent strictly on music. A lot of time is devoted to, what I refer to as, “kitchen table” work. This is were you spend a lot of time translating the piece and speaking through it so that it sounds natural, not robotic. Another part of the process is spent doing more “left brained” activities, like learning the notes and rhythms of the work. Memorizing the piece is another aspect to one’s opera prep. The expectation in the opera world is to show up with your part learned and memorized so that we can start staging the piece right away.

I think you mentioned that you were teaching somewhere like Pacific University. Are you teaching at PSU, too?

Niederloh: Yes and yes! I have been teaching private voice and directing the annual music production at Pacific since the fall of 2005. I just started teaching private voice instruction at PSU. I love having the balance of teaching voice and performing. I think my students benefit too from having a teacher who is trying to practice what she preaches.

What other gigs do you have lined up for the near future?

Niederloh: I have mostly concert work coming up because of my busy teaching schedule. I am performing the grand Beethoven 9th and Missa Solemnis and Mozart’s Requiem.

Thanks Angela and best wishes for Friday night!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Concession to Halloween

One of the scariest things you can do as singer is to sing a work that is filled to the brim with dissonant chords. I just finished singing a brand new work by Judith Lang Zaimont called "Rememberance" (four movements - about 23 minutes) with my colleagues in the Portland Symphonic Choir, and the Zaimont piece was one of the most nerve-wracking things that I've ever done. It ranks with a performance of Stravinsky's "Les Noches" that I did with the PSC some 14 years ago. "Rememberance" was extremely difficult because the choir constantly had to find pitches that were cast in very odd relationships to the notes that led up to the notes that we were asked to sing. It's one thing to play an instrument (like the piano) and just play the notes, but as a singer, you have to find the notes inside of you. Zaimont's "Rememberance" was filled with clashing sounds that challenged our abilities to the max. But we made it, and we survived. Whew!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Portland Symphonic Choir concert at Temple Beth Israel

Stephen Zopfi conducts the Portland Symphonic Choir this weekend in two performances of music by Jewish composers. We (I'm in the tenor section) will be singing three numbers from the "Talmud Suite" by Sid Robinovitch (including the restful "Prayer Before Sleep", Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," Joel Hardyk's "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," three arrangements of folk songs, and the world premiere of Judith Lang Zaimont's "Rememberance," which was commissioned by the Portland Symphonic Choir.

Sat. Oct. 27 - 7:30 pm or Sun. Oct. 28 - 2:30 pm
Congregation Beth Israel, NW 19th and Flanders
$25 at the door - $20 for seniors/students.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New grants available for individual Oregon artists

Yesterday, the Oregon Arts Commission announced that individual artists (like musicians and singers) should apply for a new grant to help their careers. The OAC has a total of $40,000 to give away during this first year, so the size of each grant will range from $300 to $1500, which ain't much, but every little bit helps. See for more information. The first deadline (for this quarter) is November 14th. You can apply online. Good luck!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Goodbye to Choral Classics at KBPS

The final Choral Classics program on KBPS (89.9 FM) airs this Sunday at 7 pm. Hosted for the past six years by Phil Ayers, this program will die a quiet death unless another stellar volunteer from the ranks of KBPS listeners puts his/her voice/foot forward. I talked with Ayers, a retired Episcopalian priest who sings with the Portland Symphonic Choir, and he is simpling looking forward to having more time to pursue other interests.

I hope that another interested person will contact KBPS about continuing this program. There is no other program on 89.9 FM that features choir music. In the meantime, Ayers deserves a big round of applause for keeping choral music on the airwaves. Thank you Phil!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Monica Huggett and the Portland Baroque Orchestra rock out on Vivaldi

To open their 24th season, the Portland Baroque Orchestra performed a whole evening of Vivaldi concertos last night at First Baptist Church, and that's a pretty tough program. I mean, even though most audiences love Vivaldi's music, it's a real challenge to make each piece sound unique and interesting and beautiful. Well, artistic director and virtuoso violinist Monica Huggett and the PBO kept digging deeper and deeper into the music and delivered outstanding performances of four concertos from Vivaldi's Opus 11 (1729) and two from his Opus 3 (1711), which is also known as "L'estro armonica" (Harmonic innovation).

Huggett, the featured soloist in all of the concertos for solo violin, strings and basso continuo from Opus 11, combines a marvelous technique and artistry that is mesmerizing to watch and hear. Her control allows her to speed up and slow down in the same measure. It's sort of like watching a great basketball player shift gears in mid stride, then change his shot, and swish the ball through the hoop without touching the rim. At one moment Huggett seems to be whirling her right hand like with an egg beater motion and in another moment, a lush, silken, lyrical melody starts.

These Vivaldi concertos for solo violin are not all that different from attending a rock concert with an gifted guitarist in the spotlight. Only this time it is Huggett who gets to riff all over the place.

I also like the way the Huggett inspires the ensemble, which is a top notch group of musicians from Portland and around the nation. Their sound can be tight but not cramped, expansive but not limp, noble and stately, but not rigid and sterile. I heard a lot of warmth and really good rhythmic drive. So that we were always looking forward to the next concerto.

The two concertos from the "L'estro armonica" were also excellent. violin soloists Carla Moore and Joli von Einem teamed up to perform a satisfying Concerto No. 8 in Aminor (RV 522). They blended their sound perfectly, but perhaps could've been a little bit louder when the rest of the ensemble joined them. Violinists Rob Diggins and Adam LaMotte collaborated with cellist Joannna Blenduff to give a superb interpretation of Vivaldi's Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Diggins put extra verve on his playing, especially with the way he could lean into a note an put an extra sheen on it. He also shows a real joy in music making that adds a lot to the overall atmosphere.

The enthusiastic applause at the end of the concert encouraged Huggett and the orchestra to play a movement from Concerto No. 3 in A major - from Opus 11. We didn't get to hear the entire concerto, but those of you choose to attend this evening or on Sunday afternoon at Kaul Auditorium will hear it all. The concert program at each performance differs slightly, and, all of the performances are being recorded for the PBO's 25th Anniversary Vivaldi double-CD.


PS: Apparently, rampant speculation on Vivaldi's sex life is the subject of upcoming movies and books. Click here to read that article from The Times (of London).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Some straight talk at the Oregon Symphony annual meeting

I attended the Oregon Symphony's annual meeting today and heard a serious, thoughtful and straightforward presentation, which was refreshing. Here are some highlights:

Carlos Kalmar address touched on the Waterfront collaboration with Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre. He referred to the financial struggles of the orchestra, but also said that it was playing at an exceptionally high level. For next year, the Symphony hope to draw larger audiences with big names, such as Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough, Lang Lang, and Edgar Meyer. They are apparently working out a deal with Jeff Tyzik for the pops series and Thomas Lauderdale is somewhere in the mix as well.

Orchestra Committee Chair and associate concertmaster Peter Frajola remarked on the recent changes in orchestra personnel, including those who retired, resigned to take jobs elsewhere, and one who recently passed away. Frajola reasserted that the desire of his colleagues to make the Oregon Symphony a destination orchestra and not a pass through orchestra.

Walter Weyler, board chair, noted that the economic downturn in 2001 really hurt the endowment, and that the orchestra lost $1.7 million last year and that pushed their accumulated deficit to about $7. They can't continue operating with another big loss. So the object is to shore up things this season and aim to break even during the 2008-2009 season.

President Elaine Calder said that ticket sales are currently at $4 milion and the organization has targeted $5.5 million as its goal. Everyone is working to reduce costs - and one part of that has been the reduction in administrative staff. A small group of big time supporters are committed to seeing the symphony through this tough time. Everyone is working hard to make sure that the Symphony takes care of the bottom line and begins to grow again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Paltry turnout for exceptional Oregon Symphony performance

At the Oregon Symphony performance on Sunday night I settled into my seat in the lower balcony and surveyed a wide expanse of empty seats on either side of me. Could it be that everyone was still recovering from double wins for Oregon and Oregon State football? Or that the property tax statements knocked concertgoers into the hospital? Jeez, there must've been some great shows on TV. No, no, no. The lousy attendance was most likely due to the symphony’s Spanish Splendor program, which featured works by Luciano Berio and Manuel de Falla, two composers who are not well known here. Well, those of you who took a pass missed out on some of the best music making by the Oregon Symphony to date.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Martha Herby, who joined the flute section in 1981. The orchestra played Christoph Willibald Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” with great sensitivity. Principal flutist David Buck’s solos were soothing and the strings were lovely, creating a heavenly tribute for their colleague.

The program continued with a charming and crisp interpretation of Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 in D major. The orchestra expressed the music with plenty of nuances, including sudden stops, smooth decays, and elegant phrasing. The audience chuckled when principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlmann punctuated the beautiful melody in second movement with a low note. Overall, the orchestra’s tone was sweet, spirited, and assured, making this Haydn sparkle.

The second number was Berio’s “Folk Songs,” which he originally wrote for a chamber ensemble and mezzo soprano and later arranged for full orchestra. The Oregon Symphony performance featured Patricia Risley, a beautiful, young lady with a gorgeous voice. Risley sang the eleven songs wonderfully, and added flair with her facial expressions and gestures. The orchestration was mostly light, requiring taught chamber-ensemble musicianship – especially from the violas. The orchestra accompanied Risley with much finesse so that each song acquired its own character. As a set (eleven songs in all) the effect was enchanting.

In the second half of the program, the orchestra played Falla’s complete ballet score for “The Three-Cornered Hat.” This music retells the comic story of a magistrate and his failed attempts to seduce another man’s wife. The orchestra performed outstandingly throughout this piece. From the declarative statement of the opening fanfare through all of the mood changes that captured a warm, evening in a small Spanish town, to the wild, whirling dance sounds – with the exciting piccolo trills, castanets, and maracas – this piece gave us a cornucopia of vivid imagery. I enjoyed the repeated cries of “hey”* from the orchestra and their rhythmic clapping also. How many pieces offer that?

John Cox, principal horn, stood out for his excellent playing, but all in all, every section performed at a very high level.

Over all, I’m very proud our orchestra gave it their best in spite of a house that seemed only 60 percent full. What a terrific group of musicians! And conductor Carlos Kalmar more than rose to the occasion with his remarkable leadership from the podium. All are consummate professionals who love to make music.

Finally, if Risley is engaged to sing here again, be sure to hear her!

* I found out later that the "hey" was actually "ole!"

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

First rate Iphigenia in Tauris for Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera’s brand new production of Gluck’s “Iphigenia in Tauris” received a glorious performance on opening night with a terrific cast led by Nuccia Focile in the title role. It’s great that Seattle Opera, acclaimed for its large-scale productions of Wagner’s operas, chose to tackle this rarely performed Baroque gem. This new realization has breathed life into a work that has only been sporadically performed since its successful premiere in 1779 in Paris.

A well-matched cast of principals led by Focile conveyed the ancient story of Iphigenia convincingly. Focile commanded the stage with an expressive and beautiful voice that swept us into the turbulent stream of emotions that ruled Iphigenia’s inner life. Her inner turmoil contrasted well with and strength and resolve she showed as the high priestess of the Scythians.

In the role of Iphigenia’s tormented brother Orestes, baritone Brett Polegato sang ardently. As Orestes best friend Pylades, tenor William Burden blended passion and lyricism with conviction. The brotherly love expressed between Orestes and Pylades was convincing, but it bordered on the edge of homo-erotic. As the bloodthirsty King Thoas, Phillip Joll bellowed about with a very wobbly vibrato. Michele Losier made an excellent impression as the goddess Diana.

An imaginative set by Thomas Lynch combined the look of an ancient temple with the heaviness of a tomb. The largest room, lit by oil lantern/sconces, featured a stone altar, and a gigantic statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Next to the large room was a smaller room that served as a jail and as a gathering place for the priestesses. A door from that room led to a narrow passageway to the outside and to freedom. A real highlight was how Clytemnestra (the mother of Orestes and Iphigenia) stood inside a see-through column of wall and placed one hand on Orestes and the other on Iphigenia. That was cool!

Stage director Stephen Wadsworth made sure that the action was as fluid as possible, despite the limited confines of the rooms. Thanks to choreographer Daniel Pelzig, the dancers overcame the somewhat cramped quarters with panache, although the brief highland fling by the Scythian warriors looked sort of hokey. The fight scene, choreographed by Steve Rankin, was one of the best I’ve seen on the operatic stage.

The scenery and sets were enhanced by the superb lighting of Neil Peter Jampolis. The dusky red clothing of the priestess blended well with the temple wall and the over all mood of this opera. Diana’s tight-fitting, shiny black leather or plastic get-up made her look more like cat woman than a goddess, but what the heck – you’ve got to give a goddess some leeway.

I heard lots of color and texture from the orchestra, which was paced expertly by conductor Gary Thor Wedow who also made sure that the volume near overwhelmed the singers. The chorus, prepared by Beth Kirchhoff, was outstanding, providing a balanced sound throughout the drama.

Extra note: After completing its run here, “Iphigenia in Tauris” moves to the Metropolitan Opera, which is the co-producer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

One busy fellow - conductor Ken Selden

Ken Selden, conductor of the PSU Symphony has been running at full speed. Over the past month or so, he has filled in as cover conductor at the Oregon Symphony, because resident conductor Gregory Vajda has been in directing a production of Verdi's "A Masked Ball" for Opera De Montreal. So, in addition to his duties at the university, he has been running down to the orchestra hall to help with rehearsals and be on call in anything happens to Carlos Kalmar.

In the meantime, Selden has been preparing his orchestra at PSU for their first concert, which is this October 19th at Lincoln Hall. On their program is a U.S. premier of "Disembodied Instruments" by David Horne and Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 5. The piece by Horne is right in line with Selden's interest in new music. In fact, his leadership in new music earned PSU national recognition after receiving First Prize in Adventurous Programming from ASCAP and the American Symphony Orchestra League. You can find out more about the PSU Symphony here.

Also, Selden has been engaged to lead a concert by the Newport Symphony and another by the Portland Youth Philharmonic. The PYP concert is coming up soon on November 10th, so Selden is one busy fellow.

A terrific piano recital by Endre Hegedûs

The next time pianist Endre Hegedûs comes to town, you ought to hear him. The Hungarian virtuoso gave a spectacular recital at the Old Church on Friday evening (Oct. 12) of works by Chopin and Liszt, including a rarely heard Liszt fantasy of Bellini’s “Norma” and a Liszt transcription of Wagner’s “Tannhaueser.” Hegedûs plays with a style that makes the piano sing and at the same time has a genuine, earnest feeling.

Hegedûs masterfully controlled the tempi and volume to create a warm and fluid sound that worked well for Chopin’s”Nocturnes” (No. 1 in B flat minor and No. 2 in E flat major). Hegedûs easily expanded the dynamic range for his interpretation of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor and the Polonaise “Heroic” in A flat major, making an impressive statement that ended the first half of the program with verve.

The second half was devoted to Liszt. Hegedûs interpreted “At the stream” with grace and elegance. He then polished off a terrific rendition of the “Mephisto Waltz No. 1” with all of its knuckle-crunching sounds ringing about. Hegedûs then delivered a nostalgic and poignant “Forgotten Waltz No. 1,” which evoked the dance-like atmosphere from ballrooms of an earlier era.

Hegedûs‘s playing of Liszt’s “Norma – Grand Fantasy” was very dramatic and beautiful and may have been the best piece of the evening. This piece contains seven melodies from Bellini’s opera and Hegedûs brought all of them forward wonderfully. The Liszt transcriptions of two themes from Wagner’s Tannhaueser (Walfram’s “Romance to the Evening Star” and “The Entry of the Guests”) was performed by Hegedûs with remarkable depth and clarity. (This makes me think that there should be a way to promote Portland operas with piano transcriptions.)

The audience rewarded Hegedûs with a standing ovation, and he responded with an encore, Bartok’s “Evening at the Village.”

PS: Hegedûs didn’t hum or make other sounds while he was playing. André Watts, in his most recent recital in Portland, has taken up this annoying habit.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Preview of Endre Hegedűs piano recital

The virtuoso Hungarian pianist Endre Hegedűs will play tomorrow evening at The Old Church. His concert is sponsored by Oregon Hungarian Communion of Friends, and this is the second time that he has played here. Hegedűs has won several international piano competitions, soloed with many orchestras, made 24 recordings, is a Steinway Artists, and teaches at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music.

I talked to Hegedűs over the phone about his life and upcoming concert.

Did you grow up in a musical family?

E.H.: Yes, my father was a self-taught musician. He played piano beautifully and played popular songs, folk songs, jazz, everything except classical music. He established a dance orchestra in my home town. My mother wanted to be a professional pianist, but her dream was cut off by the WWII, and she had to find work to make ends meet. So music for me was a given.

When did you start becoming interested in the piano?

E.H.: I was interested as soon as I could walk. My walkings as a young child led me to this mysterious flat box that was in the center of our living room. At that time, the keyboard was just my head, so I would stretch and try to tickle the keys. As a child, I spent a lot of time alone, I didn’t have any sisters or brothers. Since the age of four, both my parents had to work, so they left me at home and taught me how to use the radio. So, as soon as I heard a nice melody I would rush to the piano and try to figure it out. I began piano lessons at the age of five.

You are beginning your program with Chopin. Is he one of your favorite composers?

E.H.: Yes, I consider myself a Romantic. I like the ideas of the great Romantic composers: that the piano is capable of expressing the color, voices, even the volume of an entire symphonic orchestra. Music is a mirror of our lives, but it can also take us to a better world. Music must come from our hearts.

The composers gave us their works, but there is a lot of freedom within each score, and that gives the performers a chance to put their personal perspective on the music. So there are many, many ways to interpret a piece.

Can you tell us about the other works you’ll be playing?

E.H.: Liszt’s “At the stream - from the 1st Year: Switzerland” describes the mood and attitudes of being in the forest. It’s a beautiful description of nature. I think that this a beautiful miniature.

The “Mephisto Waltz” is program music that describes a scene from Nicholas Lenau’s Faust. This is the story about the learned man Faust who makes a contract with the devil. At one point, there is a wedding reception where the town musicians are playing slowly and poorly. Mephisto takes the violin out the hands of the violinist and plays a wild and fiery tune that gets everyone to dance crazily. And Faust is swept off to hell in the end. It’s an exciting piece.

Liszt also made transcriptions and fantasies of operas. I’ll a couple of these that retell the music from Bellini’s “Norma” and Wagner’s “Tannhaeuser.” When Liszt wrote these pieces, they became a great way for people to experience the music of these operas. This also helped to make the music of these composers better known. Liszt had an extraordinary technique and limitless imagination. I have recorded 34 opera transcriptions and fantasies of Liszt. He wrote 85 of them. Most pianists play only three or four of them.

When did you last perform in Portland?

I played in Portland last year at the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. I enjoyed Portland and hope to take a walk again in the woods near the home of my friend Lajos Balogh. It’s wonderful to perform in Portland again.

Endre Hegedűs "The Tender Chopin and Fireworks Liszt"

October 12, 2007 at 7:30

The Old Church, 1422 SW 11th, Portland

Tickets: General admission: $25.00, Students: $10.00, Children under 14: free. Available through Brown Paper Tickets: 1-800-838-3006 or

For more information, visit: ,

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Review of Andre Watts recital

Andre Watts stopped in town to give two recitals (October 7 and 8) in the Newmark theatre. These concerts opened the Portland Piano International’s recital series, which began 28 years ago as the Portland State recital series and changed its name to PPI in 2005. PPI has added Monday evenings to its schedule (last year was Sunday afternoons only), and the appearance of a popular artist like Watts, helped to make sure that both concerts would come close to selling out.

Watts devoted the first half of the program to works by Scarlati, Mozart, and Schubert. He began with two sonatas (L. 187 and L. 422) by Scarlati, and his playing was clear and crisp – perhaps a little too brittle over all. It was as if he wanted to separate the notes distinctly so that they would sound more like a harpsichord.

The sound grew more expansive with Watt’s performance of two rondos by Mozart, the A minor (K. 511) and the D major (K. 485). Watts poignantly brought out the melancholy theme of the first rondo, and the second rondo sparkled, but in a sensible way.

With Schubert’s “Three Piano Pieces (D. 946), Watts got closer to the full-blown romantic sound that seems closer to his heart. The Schubert pieces became a spirited romp that Watts plays as well as anyone on the planet.

Watts changed his program for the second half. He sat down at the piano and turned to the audience, and announced what he would like to abandon the all-Chopin selections that were listed in and instead play works by Ravel, Debussy, Liszt, and Chopin.

He performed Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” (“Sad Birds”) with lots of dynamic range and color. This short, impressionistic piece became the hit of the evening, because the impression Watts created was so vivid and inspiring.

In his performance of Debussy’s “Pagodas,” Watts created an oriental landscape that was powerful and beautiful. He also unleashed two mystical and dreamlike treasures by Liszt: “La Lugubre gondoa” (The lugubrious gondola”) and “Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort” (“Sleepless, Question and Answer”).

Watts then gave forceful yet fluid interpretations of works by Chopin, including two Etudes and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor. The audience erupted in applause, and Watts returned for two encores. I think that the second was one of Liszt’s works.

One thing about Watt’s style of playing it that he doesn’t waste any time. As soon as he sits down at the piano, he takes less than five seconds to begin a piece. The man has a tremendous amount of focus, and it showed in this concert.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

New scribblings in two publications

I've recently published a couple of articles on outstanding local musicians. One article is a profile of pianist Susan Chan, who also teaches at PSU. She performs a very diverse repertoire on concert stages (including Carnegie Hall) and performs much of the same pieces for retirement homes and hospitals. The article, "Generous Performer," appears in the fall issue of PSU Magazine, which is sent to all PSU alumni.

The other article describes conductor Ralph Nelson and his Bach Cantata Choir. Ralph is the founder of this 45-voice ensemble, which will sing all of Bach religious and secular cantatas over the next 20 years. That's because there's over 200 of these works to perform. The article - with a cheesy title - "Bach to the future!" appears in the Hollywood Star newspaper.

Both articles, I'm sorry to say, are not available on the web (although the PSU Magazine will post the Susan Chan story at a later date.

In the meantime, I'm happy to note that Ralph will be the director of the choir at First Immanuel Lutheran (Northwest 19th and Irving) where I sing. So, if you'd like to see what Ralph can do, stop by some Sunday at 11 am.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Oregon Symphony - Rach 2 concert review

I have been so busy lately, that I’m now just getting around to posting this review. A week ago (Sunday, September 30th) I heard the Oregon Symphony’s season opening concert. The Schnitz seemed to be nearly 95% full, and the atmosphere buzzed in anticipation of the program, which featured two crowd-pleasing pieces: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

The concert opened with Dvorak’s “Symphonic Variations,” a complicated work that has 27 variations on a main theme. I liked the clean and crisp playing by the violin section, and that seemed to speak well of the concertmaster Jun Iwasaki. Iwasaki also had at least one solo in this piece, and he handled each passage very fluidly with excellent tone.

In the hands of some conductors, the “Symphonic Variations” could become a real bore, but Kalmar and the orchestra worked well together to give this piece some shape. Each variation tickled our ears with something different and unique. The piece culminated with a big, Bohemian-sounding (or Dvorak-sounding) fugue that had a tremendous fanfare-like blast.

I’m sure that Valentina Lisitsa has played the Rach 2 many times, but she surprised everyone by pouncing on the opening notes a little too fiercely. I think that she hit the bass so loudly that it caused the piano to sound out of tune. So, some of us in the audience got a little jumpy during the first passage, but Lisitsa, being the artist that she is, got it all under control and delivered a very inspired, poetic performance the rest of the way. I saw people leaping out of their seats at the end of the finale, and jubilation erupted from every corner.

The orchestra accompanied her elegantly, and, as usual, principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao, poured out the liquid, clear lines that are a pure delight to hear. I also admired how the bassoon or bassoons could play lithely in their upper register. Plus the slight shimmer of sound that Niel DePonte gets from the small cymbals adds oh so much to the magical quality of this work.

Following intermission, the orchestra gave a stirring and vigorous interpretation of Strauss’s massive tone poem. The two tubas and the battalion of trumpets, trombones, and horns made sure that the opening statement was grand, but it was also crisp and delineated. I really enjoyed hearing the sound reduce or distill down to the bass fiddles – only to watch the sound grow again gradually adding the cellos, then one bassoon, then the second violins, the violas, all bassoons, the first violins, and finally everyone else.

I heard a lot of great playing from everyone, and it was fun to watch Iwasaki and associate concertmaster Peter Frajola work together during the Viennese waltz.

I did note to myself that the flute section didn’t look quite right, because Martha Herby wasn’t playing. It is with much sadness to hear the news that she died just a few days ago. The opening concert was dedicated to the memory of Symphony benefactor Jean Vollum, and I’m sure that the next set of concerts (Oct. 13-15) will be dedicated to Herby.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Review of the Free Marz String Trio "Constallations" concert

A capacity audience of over a 150 – with some standing along the back wall – heard the Free Marz String Trio concert on Friday Sept. 28th at the Community Music Center in SE Portland. They created a festive atmosphere for an evening of music that few had ever heard before. Several pieces were dedicated to the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich and Jimi Hendrix, two favorite performs of artistic director and composer, Bob Priest.

The concert presented an array of new music from around the globe. Marylhurst music professor and composer John Paul kicked things off with “Chara,” his new composition for string trio. The Free Marz String Trio (consisting of violinist Inés Voglar, violist Joël Belgique, and cellist Adam Esbensen) dove into the rhythms of this piece with gusto. I liked how one player would finish the phrase that another began. Also impressive was how the ensemble negotiated the sudden downshifting to a lower gear, as if to jump from the fast lane of a freeway to drifting about on a pond in a rowboat. The finale of the piece was emphatic and so was the applause of the audience.

Next came “De Profundis,” an unusual piece for viola and bass by Austrian composer Thomas Daniel Schlee. This music had sections in which the bass played much higher notes than the viola before both instruments go through an agitated phase and the bass descends to the depths. Violist Belgique and bassist Jeff Johnson deftly handled the unusual sounds and improvisational character of this piece, which concluded with the bass rumbling in the basement.

Volgar blended extraordinary control and artistic sensibility in the following piece, “Mikka,” by Iannis Xenakis. A continuous variety of glissandos captivated the audience with buzzing, high-pitched growling, gnawing, screaming, and sighing. The four-minute piece became a real show-stopper in Volgar’s hands, and it elicited an enthusiastic response from the audience.

After a brief pause that featured the recorded ambient sounds of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis,” Esbensen played “Declamato & Fuga” from Benjamin Britten’s Suite II for cello. Esbensen showed a lot of nimbleness as he negotiated the sporadic, random sounds of this very abstract piece. I had a hard time getting into this piece.

Actor David Loftus gave a short recitation from Arthur Schnitzler’s novella “None But the Brave,” and garnered lots of laughs of self-recognition from most of the audience.

After this non-music interlude came “Pisces, Libra & Leo, an arrangement by Bob Priest of Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis.” Each member of the Free Marz String Trio took a positions on either side of the audience or on the stage, forming a triangle as they played this whimsical arrangement. I sat nearest to Voglar, who played impeccably throughout, and I think that the others did as well.

The trio returned after intermission to play Priest’s “Four By Igor,” his recent arrangement from Stravinsky’s “Les Cinq Doigts.” The four short numbers that made up this work had a simple and direct character. The third movement was lithe yet haunting, and the fourth alternated intriguingly between plucking and a smooth legato-like sound.

Violinist Erin Furbee joined the string trio to play Priest’s “Formula PH: Three Moves for Jimi,” an abstract homage to the music of Jimi Hendrix. The sound went in many directions, but I was unable to identify any particular Hendrix quote. The audience loved the music and applauded enthusiastically between each “move.”

The concert concluded with “Gypsy Eyes,” an arrangement for string quartet by David Balakrishnan and the Turtle Island String Quartet. This piece had a lot of driving glissandos and the violins and viola were played like mandolins at one point. A highlight was Belgique’s singing "I love your gypsy eyes" (or something to that effect) towards the end. That took everyone by surprise. Okay, now I'm ready to see what Belgique can do with an electronic viola!

A standing ovation followed with lots of cheering for the ensemble and Priest, who put everything together.

I was impressed with the audience, which gave its fullest attention to each piece. Among the listeners, I spotted several members of the Oregon Symphony like principal flutist David Buck, cellist Trevor Fitzpatrick, and new concertmaster Jun Iwasaki. Composer Tomas Svoboda also attended the concert. One of his pieces was featured at the Third Angle New Music Ensemble concert at The Old Church yesterday (Oct. 5th).

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pierce batons in the hands of Riccardo Muti

Maestro Muti gave Alan Pierce's baton a test drive at one of the Chicago Symphony concerts right before they went on their European tour (click on this link for tour info). "Muti loved my baton," said Pierce. "And he said that he would use it from now on. He prefers batons that are about 14.5 inches. He expressed his gratitude and I felt very proud."

Pierce also sold six batons to three conductors who were attending the rehearsals. If you are interested in Pierce baton, check out his web site here.