Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950)
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)
Nathan Milstein (1904-1992)
Jaap Schröder (1925)
Odetta (1930-2008)
Stephen Cleobury (1948)
Donna Summer (1948)


Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Today's Birthdays

André Messager (1853-1929)
Alfred Einstein (1880-1952)
Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Sir David Willcocks (1919)
Bruno Canino (1935)
June Anderson (1950)
Antonio Pappano (1959)


Theodor Fontane (1819-1898)
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Symphony in Waves, Grant Park Orchestra, and Kalmar stimulate the imagination with new works by Kernis

If you’re trapped in a windowless room and have the urge to watch the sky or the ocean, then your situation is not hopeless if you can listen to a new recording that features the music of Aaron Jay Kernis. Entitled “Symphony in Waves” this album contains superb performances by the Grant Park Orchestra under Carlos Kalmar that evoke the ephemeral nature of the air and water.

Released in August under the Cedille label, “Symphony in Waves” features three works by Kernis. First up is “Newly Drawn Sky,” the newest work (2005) in the recording. After it comes the nimble and off-kilter “Too Hot Toccata,” which Kernis wrote in 1996. The last and longest piece is the title work, “Symphony in Waves,” which dates back to 1989. Although an earlier version for chamber ensemble received an excellent recording in 2006 by the New York Chamber Symphony under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, this new release under the Cedille label is the first full orchestral recording.

“Newly Drawn Sky” uses a host of unusual orchestral sounds to seem to paint ephemeral events that take place outdoors over our heads. The piece begins with an ominous, dark rumble from the lowest instruments that seems to create the image of a menacing sun. It seems to burn off the morning mist and clear the atmosphere. Then the music gradually becomes dense and gains weight, suggesting slow moving clouds that mass in the distance. These clouds become aggressive and threatening. A hard rain falls, and it’s cleared away and overtaken by a rainbow, symbolized by chimes and cymbals in the orchestra. Many more events take place, but you get the idea. All in all, the shifting sounds of this piece convey a lot of drama and stimulate the imagination.

“Too Hot Toccata” is a lightening quick work that threatens to careen out of control. No orchestra member gets to linger over a note, because each one is very hot to the touch. The orchestra takes the accelerandos with élan, playing everything crisply. At one point, they get to rock out and create musical havoc. This piece sounds virtuosic and fun at the same time.

With five movements and 40 minutes, “Symphony in Waves” is the biggest work on the album, and Kernis unleashes a many different tonal combinations to deliver a constantly changing seascape. In the first movement, “Continuous Wave,” the fog horn-like sound signals a warning before the basses create a wave that comes out of the depths like terrifying Poseidon. The playful interaction of sounds between all parts of the orchestra in the second movement, “Scherzo,” ends with a quickie striptease. The third movement, “Still Movement” throws down the hammer with blocks of sound and shifts back and forth from very loud to very quiet before leaving us in a haunted, windy space. The fourth movement, “Intermezzo” evoked a flock of birds and waves that fold upon each other. The fifth movement, “Finale” ends with exuberance.

“Symphony in Waves” has many moments of contemplative stillness that are broken up by periods of restlessness and change from all directions. It’s a great work that stirs the imagination and gives much satisfaction for the direction of contemporary orchestral music. This exciting new recording of Kernis’s work by Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra has set a high mark. I hope that you get the chance to hear it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Henry Fogel on opera conducting as a basis for symphonic conducting

In his blog, Henry Fogel wrote recently about the time-honored tradition of conducting operas before before launching into a career as a symphonic conductor. Almost all conductors, including the famous ones, spent a good amount of time learning their craft in the pit of an opera house. Many conductors stay involved in the operatic world even after they have earned acclaim in the symphonic realm.

Fogel was the president of Chicago Symphony for many years and served as the CEO of the League of American Orchestras from 2003 to 2008. He also has an incredible database of classical music that you can search at

Today's Birthdays

Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
Lionel Tertis (1876-1975)
Billy Tipton (1914-1989)


William Gaddis (1922-1998)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Roger Sessions (189601985)
Earl "Fatha" Hines (1905-1983)
Johnny Otis (1921)
Nigel Kennedy (1956)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Sir John Goss (1800-1880)
Tito Schipa (1888-1965)
Marlene Dietrich (1904-1992)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Carl Orff - tortured mind of a Nazi sympathizer and liar

The Times of London recently published this engrossing article about Orff. Although his ties to the Nazis are well-known, he refused to use his connections to help save the life of Kurt Huber, an academic who had helped him with librettos. I've sung Orff's "Carmina Burana" and some of his other works many times, and have read about his Nazi sympathies, but this new additional information puts Orff at the bottom of the barrel in terms of his humanity.

Today's Birthdays

Maurice Gendron (1920-1990)
Thea King (1925-2007)
Earle Brown (1926-2002)
Phil Specter (1939)
Harry Christophers (1953)
Andre-Michel Schub (1953)


Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Henry Miller (1891-1980)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Today's Birthdays

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Giuseppe de Luca (1876-1950)
Gladys Swarthout (1900-1969)
Noel Redding (1945-2003)
Jon Kimura Parker (1952)
Ian Bostridge (1964)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two violinists from the Moscow Virtuosi attacked

According to the Moscow Times, two violinists from the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra were mugged over the past couple of days in separate incidents that may be related. Apparently their violins were stolen as well.

Today's Birthdays

Peter Cornelius (1824-1874)
Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944)
Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946)
Sir Vivian Dunn (1908-1995)
Teresa Stich-Randall (1927-2007)
Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008)
Arnold Östman (1939)
Libby Larsen (1950)
Hans-Jürgen von Bose (1953)


Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
Dana Gioia (1950)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Mulieribus concert postponed

Due to inclement weather, In Mulieribus' winter concert, "O Radix Jesse" has been postponed. It is rescheduled for Sunday, December 28th at 7:30 p.m. at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church.

Bach Cantata Choir trumps weather with vibrant concert

The really snowy stuff held off just long enough on last Friday evening (December 19) for the Bach Cantata Choir to give a spirited performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Parts 1-3 and several movements from Marc-Antonie Charpentier's "Messe de Minuit." The Rose City Park Presbyterian Church wasn't as full as it would have been under normal conditions (earlier in the week only 50 tickets were left), but the brave folks that made it to the concert were rewarded with some excellent music making.

After a slight hesitation at the very beginning, the choir and orchestra performed the "Messe de Minuit" in a straight-ahead manner. Charpentier’s music is based on French ChristmaCs Carols and has several opportunities for singers to perform alone and small ensembles. I heard some fine singing by sopranos Laurie Miller Vischer and Elise Groves, alto Elizabeth Farquhar, tenors Brian Haskins and Mark Woodward, bass Tom Hard. Vischer and Groves, in particular, gave a spirited duet that reminded me of happy, chirping birds.

The 40 plus voices of the Bach Cantata Choir, soloists, and orchestra, all of which were led by Ralph Nelson, delivered a terrific performance of the first three parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. They jumped on the lines of the first chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage” (Triumph, rejoicing, rise, praising these days now”) with a jubilant and contagious spirit that affected the rest of the concert.

The orchestra got involved and played well throughout, including really listening to each other and blending their sound to heighten the emotion of the music. Also impressive were trumpeters Jeffrey Snyder, John Kim, and Dean Hinkley, who played their devilishly tricky parts impeccably.

The numerous recitatives and arias by mezzo-soprano Irene Weldon, tenor Byron Wright, and bass Jacob William Herbert were outstanding. Weldon’s warm voice excelled especially in “Bereite dich, Zion, mit Zaertlichen Trieben” (“Prepare thyself, Zion, with tender affection”) and in “Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder” (“Keep thou, my heart now, this most blessed wonder”). Wright’s voice showed superb suppleness in “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” (“Joyful shepherds, haste, ah hasten”), which contains numerous lightening-quick runs. Among the highlights of Herbert’s solos was his singing of “Grosser Herr, o starker Koenig” (“Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign”).

Also outstanding was the duet between soprano Melanie Downie Zupan and Herbert in “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen” (“Lord, thy mercy, thy forgiveness”) in which they achieved a matched vocal quality that supported the words perfectly.

Nelson showed a lot of agility in his conducting. His quick tempos had a dance-like ambience and his slower tempos never bogged down. The music stayed lively and enhanced the evening with some much needed warmth for everyone who had to leave and brave the cold once more.

Today's Birthdays

Joseph Boismortier (1689-1755)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) alternate date
Claudio Scimone (1934)
Ross Edwards (1943)
Edita Gruberová (1946)
Han-Na Chang (1982)


Robert Bly (1926)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Article about Angela Meade in Scene magazine

I also published an article about soprano Angela Meade in the winter issue of "Scene" magazine. "Scene" is the alumni magazine at Pacific Lutheran University. Meade has been winning a ton of competitions and awards, and earlier this year (on March 21st) she replaced an ailing Sondra Radvanovsky in the role of Elvira for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's "Ernani."

Although I graduated from PLU in the last millennium, this marks my first time to publish a piece in "Scene."

Article in Opera America magazine

I published an article ("Making Early Opera Sing") about the challenges to presenting Baroque opera. It appears in the winter issue of Opera America magazine. Amongst the many people I interviewed for this article were Christopher Mattaliano, general director of Portland Opera, Thomas Thomas Cirillo, executive director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, and Gregory Ewer, violinist for the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Unfortunately, the article isn't available online.

Today's Birthdays

Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787)
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Franz Schmidt (1874-1939)
Edgard Varèse(1883-1965)
Joseph Deems Taylor (1885-1966)
Alan Bush (1900-1995)
Andre Kostelanetz (1901-1980)
Jean Rigby (1954)


Jean Racine (1639-1699)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cancellations everywhere except for Portland Baroque

The Portland Symphonic Choir has decided to cancel its concert for this evening because of the weather. The Aurora Chorus is canceling its concert as well, but will perform it next week.

Portland Baroque Orchestra will go ahead and hold its concert, which is scheduled for 4 pm this afternoon. According to their web site, they will have tickets available at the door.

Also, the Oregon Repertory Singers have decided to reschedule their concerts. Here's the latest from the ORS web site:

"If you hold tickets to either of our Glory of Christmas concerts, scheduled for December 14 and 15, your tickets will be honored at the rescheduled concerts on Sunday, January 4, 2009. Performances will be at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM at First United Methodist Church. You may attend either performance. You do not need to get reissued tickets for that date.

If you are calling to purchase tickets to the January 4 concerts, tickets will be available at the door one hour before concert start."

Kaplan controversy continued

Charles Noble in his blog has been expertly providing ever-more links to postings on the controversy surrounding the conducting ability of Gilbert Kaplan and whether or not those who have played under his direction should publicly criticize that ability. I hope that you have had time to follow the multiple threads of this conversation-debate, because it has been fascinating to read. Noble points to the most recent blog entry by Steve Smith, the freelance reviewer who was assigned to review the New York Philharmonic concert that Kaplan conducted. It's interesting to read how crucial it is to find the right words. It's a constant stuggle...

Today's Birthdays

Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900)
André Turp (1925-1991)
Frank Zappa (1940-1993)
Michael Tilson Thomas (1944)
András Schiff (1953)
Thomas Randle (1958)
Jonathan Cole (1970)


Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Oregon Symphony holiday kids' concert is postponed

From the Oregon Symphony's PR:
"Due to the inclement weather, the Oregon Symphony's Happy Holiday Kids Concert scheduled for this afternoon at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall has been postponed. Patrons should hold on to their tickets. A new concert date will be announced later."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Alex Ross on Bernstein

Bernstein conducting Mahler's 2nd in 1980 at Tangelwood

Alex Ross recently wrote a fine article about Leonard Bernstein, and it appeared in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine. It's also available online here.

I really enjoyed reading how Bernstein could take some music he had written for one work and use it for another. Here's a quote from the article:

"One evening in October, Jack Gottlieb, who served as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic, presented a lecture-concert at the Jewish Museum in which he and various performers demonstrated Bernstein’s relationship with Jewish traditions. In the process, they highlighted the composer’s knack for alchemically transforming his own material. One part of the program focussed on “Chichester Psalms,” Bernstein’s choral masterpiece from 1965. Gottlieb noted that the music of the second movement—combining Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”) with Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations rage”)—is largely derived from other projects. Just before writing the “Psalms,” Bernstein tried to write a musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” When the project fell through, he saw that one completed number, the gently bluesy duet “Spring Will Come Again,” fit the words of the psalm: “Winds may blow” became “Adonai,” “Spring will come again” became “Naf’shi y’shovev.” Bernstein also retooled a castoff number from “West Side Story,” a fight song called “Mix,” to produce Psalm 2: “Make a mess of ’em / Make the sons of bitches pay” mutated into “Lamah rag’shu / Lamah ra-g’-shu goyim.” Bernstein’s propulsively muttering musical line applies equally to rival gangs and raging nations, which are, after all, symptoms of the same disease. The Amor Artis Choir and the soprano Heather Buck sang the pieces at the Jewish Museum, and it was like watching one of the great magic tricks in history explained."

Today's Birthdays

Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996)
Roger Woodward (1942)
Mitsuko Uchida (1948)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Upcoming choral concerts

Here are some of the upcoming concerts in Portland that might interest you:

December 19 at 7:30
Bach Cantata Choir - Christmas Oratorio - Parts 1-3

December 19 and 20 at 8 pm, December 21 at 2 pm
Portland Gay Men's Chorus - Heavenly Holidays

December 20 at 7 pm
Lutheran Choral Association - Christmas Program

December 20 at 7:30 and December 21 at 2 pm
Choral Arts Ensemble - Carols for Organ and Audience

December 21 at 4 and 7 pm
Aurora Chorus - Song For a Winter's Night

December 21 at 7:30 pm
Portland Symphonic Choir - Wintersong!

December 22 at 7:30
In Mulieribus- O Radix Jesse

Today's Birthdays

Fritz Reiner (1885-1963)
Edith Piaf (1915-1963)
Dalton Baldwin (1931)
Phil Ochs (1940-1976)
William Christie (1944)
Marianne Faithfull (1946)
Olaf Bär (1957)
Steven Esserlis (1958)
Rebecca Saunders (1967)


Italo Svevo (1861-1928)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exposing Gilbert Kaplan as a conducting charlatan

The New York Times published an article about an uproar within the ranks of the New York Philharmonic over the guest conducting of Gilbert E. Kaplan, a wealthy businessman who has made a specialty of directing orchestras around the world in performances of Mahler's 2nd Symphony ("Ressurection"). The article points to David Finlayson's scathing review of Kaplan's abilities as a conductor. Finlayson, a trombonist in the New York Philharmonic, wrote incisively and brilliantly about the performance and built a convincing argument that the baton should be taken away from Kaplan.

Today's Birthdays

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908)
Rita Streich (1920-1987)
William Boughton (1948)


Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The show must go on...

Last weekend the Portland Symphonic Choir performed its Wintersong concert at a very full and appreciative audience at St. Mary's Cathedral, but the concert scheduled for Sunday night had to be canceled because of the inclement weather. With optimism reigning supreme, the choir has surveyed its members and voted to give the concert this Sunday night at St. Mary's Cathedral. Be there at 7:30 pm to hear the choir plus the Gresham High School Choir (an outstanding choir I have to admit), narrator Gretchen Corbett, and Grammy-nominated baritone Jacob Herbert. Click here for more information.

Today's Birthdays

Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979)
Ray Noble (1903-1975)
William Wordsworth (1908-1988)
Art Neville (1937)


Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)
John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967)
Turk Murphy (1915-1987)
Dame Thea King (1925-2007)
Kenneth Gilbert (1931)
Philip Langridge (1939)
Trevor Pinnock (1946)
Isabelle van Keulen (1966)


Jane Austin (1775-1817)
George Santayana (1863-1952)
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973)

Snow Day Ticket Sale - Portland Baroque Orchestra special

The Portland Baroque Orchestra is offering a special Snow Day Sale on tickets to this Thursday's performance of Messiah with music for Christmas by J.S. Bach.

Selected seats (regularly $52) are 50% off: Just $26 per ticket, or $52 for a pair, while supplies last.

Call 503.222.6000 or go online at

Just a small number of seats is available at this special Snow Day price (offer ends Wednesday).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Catching up with Gregory Vajda

Gregory Vajda, the resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony, will lead the orchestra this coming weekend in a special holiday concert with Chris Botti on Friday and Saturday evenings and a holiday music and dance spectacular on Sunday afternoon.

Vajda took a little time out in his busy schedule last week to chat over a cup of coffee about what he has been doing. I'll tell you, he has been keeping a hectic scheudle. On October 17 and 18, he conducted the Edmonton Symphony in a program of Russian music. From November 15 through the 23, he led four performances for Atlanta Opera of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") with Jennifer Larmore in the title role.

Over the last two weeks Vajda heard two premiers of his own music. His quintet, "Conversations with children" for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano was performed in Brescia, Italy by the dèdalo ensemble. The performance came as part of winning a prize in a competition. Heck, Magnus Lindburg was on the jury.

The UMZE Chamber Ensemble performed Vajda's "The Vacuum" in Budapest, Hungary on a program that also featured music by Carter, Adams, and Kurtág. In addition, Vajda conducted that concert.

In January, Vajda will conduct concerts with the Oregon Symphony, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and with the Da Camera ensemble in Houston. He is still on the short list for the music director job with the The San Antonio Symphony, The Fort Wayne Philharmonic, the Fairfax Symphony (Virginia), and the Music in the Mountains Festival (Grass Valley, California). So, 2009 should be a break through year for Vajda.

Today's Birthdays

Lotte Schöne (1891-1981)
Ida Haendel (1924)
Nigel Robson (1948)
Jan Latham-Koenig (1953)


Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000)
Edna O'Brien (1930)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Georges Thill (1897-1984)
Spike Jones (1911-1965)
Rosalyn Tureck (1914-2003)
Dame Ruth Railton (1915-2001)
Ron Nelson (1929)
Christopher Parkening (1947)
John Rawnsley (1949)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Josef Lhévinne (1874-1944)
Eleanor Robson Belmont (1879-1979)
Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976)
Victor Babin (1908-1972)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Grammy nominee Jacob Herbert featured in Portland Symphonic Choir concert this weekend

Portland's own Jacob Herbert will be featured as the baritone solist in Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" this Saturday and Sunday at St. Mary's Cathedral with the Portland Symphonic Choir. Herbert is a featured soloist in the Grammy nominated recording by the Phoenix Chorale, "Spotless Rose," which has been released on the Chandos Label, and it's up for a Grammy.

For more about the Portland Symphonic Choir concert, click here.

Today's Birthdays

Frank Sinatra (1915-1998)
Sir Philip Ledger (1937)
Donald Maxwell (1948)
Margaret Tan (1953)
Jaap van Zweden (1960)
David Horne (1970)


Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
John Osborne (1929-1994)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Art of the States looking for circus-inspired music

Art of the States, an international radio service of contemporary American music, is assembling a circus-oriented program that consists of traditional circus band music and more classical and experimental works inspired by it. They are interested in any releases that you might know of that has anything to do with the circus, clowns, acrobats, etc -- and not necessarily just in name, but stylistically as well.

Matthew Packwood, who works for Art of the States, says that they have an interesting selection of composers right now, including Ives, Copland, Mumma, Erickson, Schuman, and Zorn, but they are looking for more. Composer must be American and there are some guidelines regarding how to submit work (for example, email submissions are not allowed). Click here to understand how to submit a recording.

Free downloads from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

To celebrate their 120th anniversary, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is offering ten symphony recordings that you can download for free. Click here for the details.

Today's Birthdays

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Elliott Carter (1908)
Neil Mackie (1946)


Grace Paley (1922-2007
Thomas McGuane (1939)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Today's Birthdays

César Franck (1822-1890)
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Morton Gould (1913-1996)
Sesto Bruscantini (1919-2003)
Nicholas Kynaston (1941)
Julianne Baird (1952)
Kathryn Stott (1958)
Sarah Chang (1980)


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Adolf Loos (1870-1933)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bob Kingston's new opera blog

Bob Kingston, an admitted opera fanatic, expert at giving presentations about opera and classical music, and guest reviewer for Northwest Reverb, has launch a new blog called dramma per musica. I hope that you get a chance to read and exchange thoughts with Bob on a regular basis and welcome Bob to the blogosphere.

How the ideas of a secret order influence Beethoven

In Slate magazine, Jan Swafford wrote an intriguing article about he influence of Christian Neefe on the young Beethoven. Neefe belonged to a secret order called the Illuminati, which sought to spread ideas of the Enlightenment by indocrinating youth. He probably did influence Beethoven a little bit. It's too bad that the article doesn't contain any direct quotes from Beethoven to support its thesis. That would've strengthened the argument.

Today's Birthdays

Joaquin Turina (1882-1949)
Conchita Supervia (1895-1936)
Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006)
Christopher Robson (1953)
Donny Osmond (1957)
Joshua Bell (1967)


John Milton (1608-1674)
Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Compose music for video games at $2,000 per minute

Yep. Composers can earn a lot of buckos writing for the video game industry. A report in today's Los Angeles Times says that music for video games can garner as much as $2,000 per minute:

"The gigs pay well: Composers can receive as much as $2,000 for each minute of music they write, with a typical game requiring 60 to 90 minutes of music. Including the allowance for hiring musicians, renting recording studios and post-production work, the music budgets for top-notch games can reach as high as half a million dollars."

I know that John Paul, who teaches music at Marylhurst University, was one of the earlier composers in the video game arena. He wrote for Atari's games and has a number of other credits. You can read about it in his online bio here.

Today's Birthdays

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Manuel Ponce (1882-1948)
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Gérard Souzay (1920)
Sir James Galway (1939)


Diego Rivera (1886-1957)
Bill Bryson (1951)

Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano concerto beams with Hough and Oregon Symphony

Guest artist Stephen Hough gleaned as many nuggets as possible from the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto, but despite Hough’s considerable artistry, this concerto just cannot match the level of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Yet the rarely heard Second Concerto contrasted well with the Tchaikovsky’s “Festival Coronation March” and music from the beloved “The Nutcracker,” making the Oregon Symphony concert on Saturday evening a satisfying experience and sending everyone homeward with the hope that snow flurries might grace the evening air.

Hough, who has just been nominated once again for a Grammy, was dazzling in his interpretation of the concerto. He could just rip arpeggios up one side of the keyboard and down the other. He was in complete command of knucklebusting passages with fingers flying in every direction. The first movement ended with such a head of steam that many listeners spontaneously erupted with applause. The second movement featured sensitive playing by Hough with concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and principal cellist Nancy Ives. Together they created an intimate sound that drew us closer to the music. The third movement whirled in a dancelike trance at times, sweeping the audience into a standing ovation after it came to a close.

In so many of this other works, Tchaikovsky creates melodies with such ease that it’s astonishing, but in this concerto, he seemed to get stuck after inventing a theme or two. Perhaps Hough also felt that the piece falls short of the Tchaikovskian heights. In any case, he played Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” as an encore with great sensitivity.

The concert began the “Festival Coronation March,” a celebratory work that Tchaikovsky wrote on commission for the coronation of Czar Alexander III in 1883. The Oregon Symphony, led by its music director Carlos Kalmar, put some extra caviar on this piece with its robust brass section.

For the march and for the concerto, Kalmar rearranged the orchestra with basses and cellos on the left and violas and second violins on the right. By doing so, he could get Hough, Iwasaki, and Ives close together, and that seemed to work very well. I also enjoyed seeing that arrangement, because the Kirov Orchestra, which I heard twice in New York a couple of weeks ago, uses that same configuration.

The second half of the program was devoted to the music from Act II of “The Nutcracker.” I really enjoyed hearing this music live with a full orchestra, and I heard a lot of exceptional playing throughout from all sections. From my perch in the balcony, I could see Niel DePonte playing some large objects on his knees to make the castanet sounds. Among the many nifty sounds I heard were the buzzy flutter in the flutes, the elegant harps, the magical celeste, and evocative playing by the strings. There was no need for ballet dancers, because it was easy to picture them while the orchestra played. In fact, the little girl in the row in front of me stayed awake through the entire concert, and her eyes would light up at each theme.

As an encore, the orchestra played the Autumn movement from Glazunov’s “The Seasons.” Now if there had only been some snow outside…

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Rudolf Friml (1879-1972)
Daniel Jones (1912-1993)
Helen Watts (1927)
Harry Chapin (1942)
Daniel Chorzempa (1944)
Tom Waits (1949)
Kathleen Kuhlmann (1950)


Joyce Cary (1888-1957)
Noam Chomsky (1928)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

New books about Sarah Caldwell

A new biography has just been published about Sarah Caldwell, the larger than life conductor and music director of the Opera Company of Boston. Also, Caldwell's memoirs have also just been released. As a woman who could create and steer an entire artistic enterprise, Caldwell was a real anomaly in the top echelon of the opera world. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1975 and became the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera and the second to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Click here, if you'd like to read a review of these books and know more about Caldwell's remarkable life.

Today's Birthdays

Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)
Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)
Dave Brubeck (1920)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929)
Henryk Górecki (1933)
Tomas Svoboda (1939)
John Nelson (1941)
Daniel Adni (1951)
Matthew Taylor (1964)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762)
Little Richard (1932)
José Carreras (1946)
Krystian Zimerman (1956)


Joan Didion (1934)
Calvin Trillin (1935)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Grammy nominee Stephen Hough to play with Oregon Symphony

Pianist Stephen Hough has been nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Chamber Music Performance (Category 104) for a recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet No. 34 that he did with Takács Quartet on the Hyperion label. Hough is in town for the rarely performed Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Oregon Symphony. In the interview I did with music director Carlos Kalmar a couple months ago, Kalmar noted that Hough has been very eager to come to Portland to play with the orchestra and is keen on this Tchaikovsky piece as well.

Also, Jennifer Koh, who played a scintilating Brahms Violin Concerto last month with the Oregon Symphony, has been nominated for a Grammy in the same category as Hough. Koh recently released a recording called "String Poetic" with pianist Reiko Uchida under the Cedille Records label - the same recording outfit that has made several recordings of Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra.

Today's Birthdays

André Campra (1660-1744)
Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1949)
Alex North (1910-1991)
Yvonne Minton (1938)
Lillian Watson (1947)
Andrew Penny (1952)


Thomas Carlyle (1795-1891)
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Anonymous "4" sparkle in Friends of Chamber Music Concert

On Wednesday, December 3rd, The Anonymous 4 (minus Susan Hellauer, absent to attend to family matters) delivered a scintillating exploration of American music of Scottish, Irish and English origins at the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College. This Grammy winning, world-beloved vocal ensemble captivated a wildly enthusiastic audience despite missing one of their members. They were assisted by accomplished string players Darol Anger, a Portlander on fiddle and mandolin, and Scott Nygaard on guitar. The performance was one in their 'Long Time Traveling' tour, and was a rare and special opportunity to hear this group live, as they have not been touring regularly since 2003-2004. Although they became famous for their performances of medieval music, at the Kaul Auditorium they delivered up a rich feast of Americana with a focus on its older roots in the British Isles.

They joked about the 'Andrews Sisters' renditions of the songs they would sing without Hellauer, but there was nothing lacking in the performance. They began the night with a shape note tune entitled 'I'm on My Journey Home,' and from the first moment they opened their mouths the audience was enthralled. The shape note music, so called because of its origins in the American South as a method of learning the solfege system with different syllables represented by noteheads of varying shapes, displayed the close, intimate connection between this music and its roots in Celtic vocalization. Their almost unearthly harmonic blend in this a cappella work was a preview of a fantastic night to come.

Throughout the evening in a varying program consisting of shape note, gospel, revival, folk hymns and lyric folk songs, the three who were present (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky and Jacquline Horner-Kwiatek) displayed a remarkable, virtuosic ability to render to each piece exactly what was required to make it unforgettable, no more, no less. This music was not characterized by fanciness, nor frills, but by its sometimes stark simplicity. The bulk of the music was religious in nature, being of the 'Sunday morning' variety, as Anger put it. The expressivity of tone was coupled with a deft ability to sing in such a way that it brought out first and foremost the heartwrenching pangs of true belief that must have characterized the composers and performers of this music when it was written.

They sang old favorites that have found long life in the bluegrass idiom, such as 'I'll Fly Away,' 'Angel Band,' and 'Sweet By and By,' as well as other, less familiar works. Each singer also presented a solo work throughout the course of the evening. Genensky sang a cappella towards the end of the performance. 'You Fair and Pretty Ladies,' as she rendered it, was nothing short of ecstatic; its sad tale of a young woman spurned was achingly beautiful. A tune that harkened back to the moors of Scotland, one could detect in the DNA of Genensky's delivery the origins of the "high lonesome" sound that is so prized in modern bluegrass.

Anger and Nygaard also gave an excellent performance. They were no mere 'backup musicians,' but engaging and enjoyable in their own right. Anger spoke a bit through the course of the evening, both about his first meeting with Anonymous 4 when they performed together on A Prairie Home Companion, and later in opening the second half with what he called 'Saturday Night' music (in opposition to the Sunday Morning tunes about which he spoke before.)

The second half opened with Anger and Nygaard playing a medley of fiddle tunes, during which at times Anger seemed to be challenging Nygaard to keep up with him in his accompaniment, forming an immensely enjoyable musical repartee that brought the audience to open peals of delighted laughter. Despite their own virtuosic talents they were skilled and sensitive accompanists when called for, and their musicianship only enhanced the overall amazing quality of the performance. When all was said and done, the audience couldn't get enough and all five musicians reprised 'I'll Fly Away' as an encore, with the audience encouraged to clap and sing along.

Friends of Chamber Music brought a rare and wonderful talent to Portland last night, as evinced by the sold-out crowd of awestruck patrons and the brisk CD sales after the event. I can only imagine that most shows by this ensemble are sold out wherever they go, and rightly so. It was a pleasure to hear music so thoroughly, un-self-consciously insistent and executed with such sincerity and skill.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Chicago A Cappella ‘s Christmas album sparkles with new vocal gems

Chicago A Cappella, a top notch vocal ensemble from the Windy City, really sparkles in its new holiday recording, entitled Christmas A Cappella. The CD contains 18 songs from around the world and each number is given a superb performance by this ensemble.

A cappella singing is one of the most daunting of all vocal challenges because it uses no accompaniment whatsoever. This means that the singers must strive for perfection in intonation and achieve genuine artistry as well – especially in a recording. Well, Chicago A Cappella makes it all sound easy and natural. Whether singing an energetic “Amuworo ayi out nwa” (“For unto us a child is born”) by Nigerian composer Christian Onyeji or the hauntingly gracious “Prayer of the Venerable Bede” by Chicago composer Richard Proulx, the Chicago A Cappella ensemble gets to the heart of each song with sheer musicality and impeccable diction.

The performance of each selection are gemlike, but some of the ones that still glisten in my mind include an arrangement by Eleanor Daley of “The Huron Carol,” Stacy Garrop’s “Lo Yisa Goy,” Rosephanye Powell’s “Who is the baby?,” Gwyneth Walker’s “The Christ-child’s Lullaby,” Enrico Oweggi’s “Nyathi Onyuol,” and Chaim Parchi’s “Aleih Neiri.” James Clemens’ “Jinge a cappella” is a delightfully twisted arrangement of “Jingle Bells” that has got to be really difficult to perform without messing up.

Nine of the numbers in “Chirstmas A Cappella” were written in this millennium. “En stjerne er sat” by Danish composer Per Nørgård dates back to 1961, making it the oldest selection in the recording. They reflect a modern understanding of religious and non-religious themes that compliment the holiday season. It’s very impressive when a fine vocal ensemble like Chicago A Cappella adds to the depth of the season and gives listeners another way to explore new music.

Today's Birthdays

Nicolo Amati (1596-1684)
Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Nino Rota (1911-1979)
Irving Fine (1914-1962)
Charles Craig (1919-1997)
Matt Haimovitz (1970)


Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Today, YouTube announced that it is creating the first symphony orchestra to be created from online submissions. This is no joke. The YouTube people are putting up a lot of money to team up with Michael Tilson Thomas, Tan Dun, The London Symphony Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall to find classical musicians (no age restrictions) for this orchestra. Those who are chosen will get a chance to play a Tan Dun composition under MTT at Carnegie Hall. I think that this is a terrific opportunity.

Here's the Press Release from MTT:

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

World’s first collaborative online orchestra will connect aspiring musicians with leaders and stars in the classical world

YouTube Symphony Orchestra Summit and Carnegie Hall performance to take place in April 2009

San Bruno, CA – YouTube, the leading online video community that allows people to discover, watch and share original videos, today announced a collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Grammy Award-winning conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Academy Award-winning and Olympics composer Tan Dun, world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra Global Ambassador, and many other classical music stars and leading institutions, to launch the “YouTube Symphony Orchestra” (, the world’s first collaborative online orchestra and summit.

From December 1, 2008 through January 28, 2009, musicians from around the world are invited to submit videos showcasing their personal style as they perform two different videos – their interpretation of an original Tan Dun composition, written specifically for this program, and a talent video designed to demonstrate their musical and technical abilities. A panel of musical experts from the London Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and other leading orchestras around the world will narrow the field of entries down to the semifinalists. The YouTube community will be invited to vote on the semifinalists from February 14, 2009 through February 22, 2009. Musicians who are selected will be announced on YouTube on March 2, 2009. For official rules of entry and FAQ, consult YouTube Symphony Orchestra Channel (

In April 2009, selected musicians will be flown to New York City to participate in a three-day classical music summit with Michael Tilson Thomas and leading performers in the field, culminating in a Carnegie Hall performance on April 15, 2009. In addition, selected video entries of the musical piece will be mashed together to create a living YouTube symphony — a single video of memorable entrants combined into one ensemble piece — and even more entries will be displayed on YouTube homepages around the world.

As the first YouTube-sponsored program to welcome submissions from every country around the world, YouTube Symphony Orchestra will transform individual performances into a global collaborative symphony, explore new possibilities for orchestral collaboration, and springboard talented classical musicians into the global YouTube spotlight.

Click here to go to the YouTube page to find out more about it.

Start practicing!

Today's Birthdays

Harriet Cohen (1895-1967)
Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970)
Maria Callas (1923-1977)
Irina Arkhipova (1925)
Jörg Demus (1928)


Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891)
T. Coraghessan Boyle (1948)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Today's Birthdays

Agathe Grøndahl (1847-1907)
Gordon Crosse (1932)
Lou Rawls (1933-2006)
Bette Midler (1945)
Rudolf Buchbinder (1946)
Leontina Vaduva (1960)


Dame Alicia Markova (1910-2004)

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.