Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Exciting New Works featured at CMNW's Protege Project Club Concert

Andy Akiho demonstrates the steel drum. Photo: Jim Leisy

The scene at Mississippi Studios is a bit different than your standard Chamber Music Northwest setting...after all it's essentially a bar with a small auditorium attached. Wooden, wing-leafed flying guitars and ukeleles decorate the wall, which is covered in dragon-fly speckled cloth. A drum on the wall proclaims the Castro Parlor as State Champs from 1958-1961. I don't know what that is but should I try to look it up? I pondered this over my next vodka tonic and never did bother to investigate. Instead I settled in for one of CMNW's Protege Project Club Concerts.

Composer and performer Andy Akiho was on hand for this performance, which opened with a solo steel drum composition entitled Aka. Akiho is a fresh-faced, enthusiastic young performer who was excited to be in Portland for the first time, and thanked everyone profusely before inviting audience members up to get a closer look at the lone steel drum that reflected the spotlight in a blinding glare. The piece opened with a mellifluous, muted trilling that turned into a syncopated tapping on the rim, interwoven with complex harmonic rhythms. This piece essentially amounted to a brilliant, prestissimo toccata, showcasing his incredible skill on the instrument, which featured a surprising range of dynamics, exploited masterfully by Akiho.

Camden Shaw, Yekwon Sunwoo, Joel Link. Photo: Jim Leisy
His second work of the evening was a piano trio featuring Yekwon Sunwoo, piano, Joel Link, cello, and Camden Shaw on violin.  The first movement featured a prepared piano, and Sunwoo was called upon to play scritching glissandi on the piano strings themselves with a playing card, accompanied by eerie sul ponticello wailing from the strings.  The next movement featured a jazzy, straight-forward bebop pizzicato from the cello that was like a passacaglia, which came to a sudden stop and revealed Sunwoo standing and playing arpeggios. The movement felt almost improvised, and just when it felt like it was about to go on too long it stopped dead.  A weird, cerebral modal section was followed by a finale focused heavily on a syncopated, shifting rhythmic dissimilation, not surprising coming from a percussionist. Throughout the work melody, when it did appear, was straightforward and appealing, a brief and refreshing change from the experimental mode of the work. This was an exciting composition, and it came from a young composer with a lot to say.

Ida Kavafian and the Dover Quartet. Photo: Jim Leisy
Sunwoo played a competent campanella by Liszt, and the finale was the Concerto in D-Major by French romantic composer Ernest Chausson. They were joined by Ida Kavafian and the Dover String Quartet. There was a nice repartee between Kavafian and Link, a warm and intimate tune that felt like sitting in a fin-de-siecle French parlour. The entire performance conveyed a feeling of lush sensuality, a captivating and moody exposition, occasionally interrupted by cacophonous exclamations. Kavafian's solo work was exciting and impassioned as always, and in all it was a rich and sonorous feast for the senses.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Heavenly Bach B Minor Mass – Rilling finale well worth the wait

With one long line of concert goers stretching from Broadway to Park and another extending down Broadway to the main entry of Heathman Hotel, I knew that something was wrong as I approached the front of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last Friday evening (July 12). On the one hand, it was great to see so many people waiting to experience the Bach B Minor Mass to be performed by the Oregon Bach Festival Orchestra, the Festival’s Berwick Chorus, and soloists under the direction of Helmuth Rilling in what may have been his final appearance in Portland. On the other hand, the line moved incredibly slowly. The same people were standing in front of the ticket windows for an awfully long time before going into the hall, and the ticket handlers inside the booth seemed to be frantically looking at computer printouts. Apparently, a ticket printing problem caused a delay in will-call orders, especially orders that had been done over the phone. But even though the concert started 25 minutes late and not enough programs were printed, those problems faded into the background once the concert began, because the chorus, orchestra, soloists, and Rilling delivered a heavenly performance of the Mass in B Minor.

Bach assembled the Mass in B Minor in 1748 and 1749, drawing mostly from music that he had composed earlier. The Sanctus was first performed on Christmas Day in 1724. He created the music for the Kyrie and the Gloria by 1733, when he presented it to Friedrich August II, the Catholic elector of Saxony. Bach created some of the other movements by drawing from his choruses and cantatas, replacing the German text with the Latin words of the Mass and sometimes reworking the music. According to scholarly research, he never heard the work performed as a whole, though sections of the music were sung in Leipzig, where a shorter version of the Latin Mass had a place in the liturgy.

Singing with great intensity, the members of the Berwick Chorus of the OBF expressed the text and music of the Mass with superb dynamics, achieving super-soft pianissimos and robust fortissimos. One of the hallmarks of this choir is its excellent diction and balance between all parts, and in this performance, the singers excelled in both areas to such a degree that the supertitles were practically unnecessary. Fleet passages, such as when the sopranos sang “Et in terra pax” or when the men sang “Et iterum venturus est,” were elevated because of the choir’s articulation. Also, because of the Schnitz’s acoustics, it a rare event when you can hear a strong legato alto line, but the alto section of the chorus was especially impressive when it entered with a “Kyrie eleison” that could’ve easily been buried. Another divine moment came during the Credo when the choir sang “et sepultus est” in super hushed tones and then exploded into joy with “Et resurrexit!”

Also stellar in this performance were soloists Julia Wagner, soprano, Roxana Constantinescu, alto, Nicholas Phan, tenor, and Tobias Berndt, bass. They sang with impeccable intonation and with enough volume to be heard in the Schnitz, but avoided an overly operatic sound. The duets, such as the “Christe eleison” between Wagner and Constantinescu were exquisitely balanced. Berndt’s got to the lowest notes in “Quoniam tuo solus Sanctus,” but the smooth quality of his baritone range was perfect for “Et in Spiritum Sanctum.” Phan's singing of "Benedictus" was immaculate and filled with emotion.

Under Rilling’s baton, the 32-member orchestra gave a finely nuanced performance, supporting the singers with incisive and sensitive phrasing. That may sound contradictory, but the pleasurable thing about Bach’s music is that it can sound lovely and intellectually stimulating at the same time. Individual accolades go to concertmaster Rahel Rilling, principal flutist András Adorján, principal oboist Allan Vogel, principal trumpeter Guy Few, principal bassoonist Kenneth Munday, and the continuo ensemble (violincellist Dávid Adorján, double bassist Dave Williamson, organist Boris Kleiner, and bassoonist Munday) for contributing a singing sound in accompaniment to the soloists. Hearing Few play the mellow corno da caccia (similar to a hunting horn), which Bach specified for the “Quoniam to solus Sanctus” section, was an extra treat.

Since Rilling, who founded the Oregon Bach Festival with Royce Saltzman 44 years ago, has now handed off the artistic leadership to Matthew Halls, he will move into legendary status. It seems appropriate that Halls will lead the big choral production in Portland next year, but he has some awfully big shoes to fill. According to the OBF web site, next season’s schedule will be announced in September.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Miró Quartet delivers a nuanced, subtle evening of Beethoven

The Miró Quartet. Photo by Jim Leisy.
The Miró Quartet undertook a feat that was near Herculean in magnitude on Thursday, July 11, when they performed all three of the Opus 59 String Quartets by Beethoven, the famous 'Razumovsky' quartets. The performance took place at Kaul Auditorium on the Reed College campus, as part of Chamber Music Northwest's Summer Festival. These pieces, which marked a striking new direction in the genre, are demanding both technically and emotionally, and to perform them all in one sitting was a work of determination and fortitude.

These players (Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violin, John Largess, viola, and Joshua Gindele, cello)  gave a performance that was marked by restraint, and that is using the word in its best sense. Such restraint was necessary to perform this lengthy concert of works that range all over the emotional and spiritual map: too much of a thing, at any given moment, and the balance would be all wrong. By the same token timidity when boldness was called for would yield a similarly dissatisfying result, and the Miró Quartet found the perfect equilibrium.

Throughout the works there were so many entrances that required delicacy of phrasing yet metronomic precision of timing for the effect to be pulled off properly, and there was not one entrance in an entire long evening of demanding entrances that was anything other than exactly what was called for. It would, even for top-notch performers, have been easy to become lost at certain points in the bewildering forest that constitutes these works, yet utter surety was a hallmark of the evening.  There were so many varying textures spread throughout, from surpising and modern-sounding sparseness to hammering monophony, filigreed counterpoint to waltzing scherzos, and the Miró Quartet never let a chance pass to highlight any of these differences. Their dynamic phrasing was exquisite...when an evening is marked by the restraint that they displayed, a giant range of emotional possibilities grows to the point where it feels almost infinite...every crescendo or decrescendo was imbued with meaning and lent this sense of limitless scope.

Some particularly memorable moments included the third movement of the titanic Op. 59 No. 1 quartet, wherein Ching's solo seemed to materialize inexorably and repeatedly from deep water, only to be subsumed again and then reappear a moment later in a slightly altered form, and then finally to hang there in a fragile, almost frail trill that was the only link between this and the sudden bold attacca into the bracing finale. In the opening of the No. 2 quartet, Ching showed he was capable of acrobatic, almost avian articulation. The Allegretto of this quartet was manic, spritely and intricate; well-navigated, it felt like candor, like a frank expression of the idea at hand and then come what may. The hectic tempo of the famous Presto of this work was as fast as I've ever heard it; the only unfortunate side effect of this was that some of the more delicate melodic material was blurred or obscured at this pace. In the third quartet, the variation in the fierce, pulsating rhythm of the opening movement was exhiliarating, and during the second movement Gindele played his pizzicato section with an unabashed, almost alarming plunk!

It is no surprise that the Miró Quartet is capable of delivering this kind of performance, but the fact that they actually did so is another thing entirely; capability and actuality are often two different things, but in this case the group gave as magnificent a perfect performance as one could want on a musical topic of such depth and variety. Every year CMNW brings such top-notch talent to town that one runs out of superlatives when trying to relate the experience of a performance, but that's not a bad thing. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Chamber Music Northwest ventures into jazzy terrain with Grant’s “The Territory”

[Photo credit: Jim Leisy]
Over the past 43 years, Chamber Music Northwest has built a rock solid reputation as a top-notch presenter of classical music concerts. Occasionally, it has ventured into other sonic landscapes, such as a couple of summers ago when Sylvia McNair did a full slate of popular songs and when Lalo Schifrin stirred up the audience with a tango-driven concert. Several years have passed by since CMNW sponsored a concert of Dave Frishberg and Rebecca Kilgore; so it was high time that CMNW ventured into jazzland on Saturday, July 6th at Kaul Auditorium by presenting the world premiere of Darrell Grant’s “The Territory,” a suite in nine movements for jazz ensemble. The piece was supported by Chamber Music America’s 2012 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, which was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Grant is well-known locally as a jazz pianist and professor at Portland State University, but his background includes work with vocalist Betty Carter, and musicians Frank Morgan, Sonny Fortune, Roy Hanes, Chico Freeman, Nicholas Payton, and Greg Osby.

[Photo credit: Jim Leisy]
For “The Territory,” Grant drew inspiration from the history of Oregon – its landscape and its people. The “Hymn to the Four Winds” invoked the native people through a Nez Pierce religious chant. “Daybreak at Fort Rock” depicted a sunrise in the Oregon high desert where human clothing form 9,000 has been discovered. “The Missoula Floods” reached back to the Ice Age when floods shaped the Pacific Northwest. “Chief Joseph’s Lament” drew from a portion of the legendary chief’s surrender speech. “Rivers” portrayed the vitality of water in Oregon. “Stones into Blossoms” delved into the sorrow of 1941, when Japanese –Americans were forced to live in internment camps. “Sundays at the Golden West” harkened back to the first African-American owned hotel in Portland. “The Aftermath (Interlude)” drew on the tragic event of 1887 when thirty-four Chinese old miners were massacred in a remote canyon. “New Land” referred to the attraction that Oregon still has for people who arrive with new hopes and dreams.

[Photo credit: Jim Leisy]
The sweep of ideas in “The Territory,” was performed by the Darrel Grant Ensemble, which included Grant on piano, Brian Blade on drums, Clark Sommers on double bass, Steve Wilson on saxophones and flute, Joe Locke on vibraphones, Hamilton Cheifetz on cello, Thomas Barber on trumpet, Kirt Peterson on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, and vocalist Marilyn Keller. Most of the time, the musicians read from a score, but there were many opportunities for solos. The piece began with a groundswell of sound and then transitioned into a pulsating rhythm that was overlaid with Keller singing something like “Hey Ah, Hey O Ah.” Sometimes the piano took over the momentum of the piece with Grant fashioning a number of well-crafted segues. Locke mesmerized the audience with several outstanding solos in which he created a wonderful blur of tones. The ensemble was often too loud for Keller, but she still made a powerful impression when she sang “Never sell the bones of your father and your mother” at the end of “Chief Joseph’s Lament.” Only one of the movements, “The Aftermath (Interlude)” took a slow tempo, but it seemed like a least one more slow movement was needed. Sommers and Blade were exceptional all evening long, and the piece ended with the musicians rising out of their seats to do some rhythmic clapping. Overall, “The Territory” was a triumph of spirit and well worth hearing again. Hopefully, there will be a recording in the near future.

The first half of the program offered two jazz-inflected pieces that became bridges to Grant’s magnum opus. The first of these was George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” performed by the husband-and-wife team of Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss in the version for two pianos. They played the piece impeccably (including some dynamite cutoffs) except that Weiss’s sound was often much louder than Polonsky’s. My experience may have been affected by the fact that my position in the audience was closer to Weiss’s position on stage, but the pianos were turned in such a way that balance shouldn’t have been an issue.

[Photo credit: Jim Leisy]
The second jazzy number was Maurice Ravel’s Sonata in G Major, which was played superbly by violinist Ani Kavafian and pianist Weiss. They excelled in establishing an ethereal atmosphere at the beginning of the first movement (Allegretto), and then transitioning seamlessly to its edgier and more nervous and curious phrases. The second movement (Blues: Moderato) slid back and forth between bluesy passages in which Kavafian would slur some notes and strum others. The third movement (Perpetuum mobile: Allegro) became a high-light reel of Kavafian playing wickedly fast in an unrelenting race to the finish. Weiss’s playing was equally scintillating, and after they crossed the finish line, the audience erupted with a thunderous standing ovation.

[Photo credit: Jim Leisy]

Thursday, July 11, 2013

New marketing and communications director at Portland Opera

Portland Opera has just announced that Richard Haney-Jardine will become its Marketing and Communications Director, a position that has been vacant for the past two years when Jim Fullan moved to the Oregon Symphony. Here's the official announcement from Portland Opera:

After an extensive national search, Portland Opera General Director Christopher Mattaliano is pleased to announce Richard Haney-Jardine as the Company’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

Mr. Haney-Jardine, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, moves to Portland from Asheville, North Carolina, where he has been consulting for the North Carolina Stage Company as Special Advisor for Institutional Advancement. He joins the Company on July 1, 2013. According to Mr. Mattaliano, “He brings both a deep knowledge and love of opera as well as over 25 years of experience as a dynamic, visionary, and creative leader with proven success at high-profile organizations including Carnegie Hall, Sony Classical, and Houghton Mifflin.”

In his role as Director of Marketing and Communications, he will be responsible for developing long-term marketing and communication strategies in support of Portland Opera productions and events. He will oversee the planning, implementation, and evaluation of all branding, e-commerce, marketing, public relations, publications, and sales activities for Portland Opera, as well as the U.S. Bank Broadway Across America Portland Series.

Haney-Jardine is currently running a boutique consulting firm, Jardine & Jardins Consulting Group, specialized in advising CEO’s and other senior level executives on transformative and comprehensive branding and communications strategies. In addition to the North Carolina Stage Company his clients have included the renowned Asian Cultural Council in New York and Aegis Services Group, a start-up multi-national firm overseeing the financial, logistic, and security risks for transmedia properties.

Prior to that, Haney-Jardine spent 8 years as the Director of Marketing and Creative Services at Carnegie Hall, where he directed four critical operations of the organization: its earned income through licensing, marketing, retail, and ticket sales representing over $15 million per year; its interactive services, including e-commerce and on-line contents; its visitor services; and its creative and publishing services, including art, editorial, and print production groups. For a short term, he was also tapped to concurrently serve as Director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, the Hall’s educational and outreach arm. Previously he worked as Senior Director of International Editorial and New Media Services at Sony Classical; was the Founder and Content Developer of STET, Inc.; and Associate Director of Marketing and Development at Boston Opera Theater. He started his career at Houghton Mifflin, where over a nine-year engagement he moved from Associate Editor to a prominent position as National Bilingual Manager and Senior Supervising Editor.

Says Haney-Jardine, “I have often been asked what a marketing executive does after ‘graduating’ from the hallowed Carnegie Hall. In my case, the answer was to launch my own marketing and communications business. However, after working as an independent contractor for several years, I found that I longed to return to the fold of a prestigious performing arts organization as an integral member of a cracker-jack team. The team at Portland Opera, under the inspired direction of Chris Mattaliano, was the perfect fit for me. And at last, after an almost twenty year absence, I am returning to my first and most enduring love—opera. And what better town than Portland!”

Haney Jardine is a native speaker of Spanish and English, fluent in French and Italian, and possesses an extensive knowledge of German and Portuguese. He is a board member for the MET Opera National Auditions Council New England Region and of the North Carolina Stage Company. He is a published, prize-winning author of prose, poetry, nonfiction, and literary translations. He received his Bachelor of Arts in English and American literature from Harvard University, where he was selected for one of four coveted spots for a creative writing degree, studying under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. He was also a protégé of such eminent writers as the late Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks and also a student of of the late Latin American literary luminaries Jorge Luis Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Haney-Jardine is a classically trained pianist and singer, “with no aspirations to take the stage.”

Monday, July 8, 2013

Chamber Music Northwest celebrates contemporary composers – a la 1938

Although the Chamber Music Northwest concert for July 4th was entitled “Turning Points,” it could have easily been called “1938 – the Bumper Crop Year” in reference to the number of American composers who were born that year. The Independence Day program featured works from no fewer than five composers who were born that year: Charles Wuorinen, John Harbison, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, and William Bolcom. Each of these composers have had quite a bit of success, including Pulitzer prizes Wuorinen (1970), Harbison (1987), Corigliano (2001), Bolcom (1988), Grammys: Bolcom, Tower, and Corgliano. Most importantly, all five are still alive, kicking and scribbling at age 75.

Overall, this concert, presented at Kaul Auditorium, was a curious affair, because only Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Piano” delivered something close to a knockout punch. Played with visceral commitment by violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, this piece (written in 1992) used a grinding passacaglia phrase in the piano that was often juxtaposed with flights of fancy in the violin to create a sensation of someone(s) or something (maybe music itself) that struggled to become free. Its subtext, in fact, fit nicely with the Fourth of July celebration.

Tower’s “Turning Points” for Clarinet and String Quartet didn’t go over the top like the Corigliano number, but it did have emotional content. Since Tower was in attendance, she made a few prefatory and self-deprecating remarks, and how, in this piece (composed in 1995), she explored phrases by turning them over and over. The music began with a difficult solo passage by clarinetist David Shifrin that transitioned from low and very quiet tones and to high and boisterously loud series of notes. The string quartet (cellist Fred Sherry, violist Paul Neubauer, and violinists Ani Kavafian and Yura Lee) responded to Shifrin’s soliloquy by creating a conversation that moved in several directions. It was fascinating to hear how some phrases were turned over and over again, like something that was being sifted in order to find a golden nugget. The musical dialogue was dominated by the clarinet and cello, and passages became faster and faster towards the end, which was satisfying, but a bit predictable.

Viewing American painters through the lens of music seemed to be the idea behind Harbison’s “Six American Painters” for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello. The six visual artists who inspired this piece (written in 2000) were George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, and Richard Diebenkorn (a Portland native by the way), and each of them received his own movement. The music had an appealing mixture of color with the flute (played outstandingly by Jessica Sindell) sometimes leading the way, accenting, interjecting, or cajoling the strings (violinist Joel Link, violist Milea Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw) into action or reaction. The Winslow Homer movement was the most dramatic portrait. It featured raspy tones from the flute, edgy sounds from the viola, an ensemble-generated mosquito-like buzz and wire-thin whispers as well. Sindell brilliantly performed a variety of solos in each movement, including a diabolically leaping passage in the Hans Hofmann number.

The concert opened with two very abstract pieces: Elliott Carter’s “Duettino” for Cello and Violin (which was added to the concert program) and the world premiere of Wuorinen’s “Zoe” for String Sextet. “Duettino,” written in 2008 for Sherry, was played by Sherry and Lee. The music conveyed a series of fragmented phrases that seemed disembodied and unemotional, despite very loud pizzicatos at the end of the piece and the fact that both musicians played throughout with great intensity.

Perhaps not to be outdone by Carter, Wuorinen delved into the realm of abstraction with a longer piece that he dedicated to his cat, “Zoe.” Although some tones did converge once or twice, the passages seemed completely unrelated to each other and did not have much discernible emotional content, even though the musicians (violinists Lee and Link, violists Neubauer and Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellists Sherry and Shaw) played with the utmost commitment. The piece had several of my colleagues shaking their heads during intermission in frustration, but maybe the music only was meant to evoke the mood swings of Wuorinen’s pet.

The concert ended on a light-hearted, upswing with Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris delivering a wonderful set of whimsical popular songs. Bolcom played from memory and announced each piece with a humorous tidbit. Morris sang from memory and had each number charmingly underscored with just the right gesture and facial expression. The opening set included “The Bird on Nelly’s Hat,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Dancing on the Ceiling,” George Gershwin’s “Yankee Doodle Blues,” and Tom Lehrer’s “The Hunting Song.” The duo also performed Bolcom’s “The Total Stranger in the Garden,” “Radical Sally,” and “Lady Luck,” plus several “mini-cabaret” songs that were often a brief phrase, like “I feel good.” They finished with Gershwin’s “Love is Here to Stay” and were called back for a delicious encore that was inspired by Portland’s own Henry Thiele Restaurant (which no longer exists, but used to be located on the corner of NW 23rd and Burnside), because of its unique menu. It capped off the evening with thunderous applause.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Imani Winds Brings the House Down at CMNW

Jeff Scott, Monica Ellis, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman
Mariam Adam. The Imani Winds
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The month of July opened for Chamber Music Northwest with an incredible display of fireworks a few days early. Perennial festival favorites the Imani Winds headlined the evening at Kaul Auditorium, and there was also some exciting string playing from other familiar faces.

First however, was the Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 12, by Zoltan Kodály. Ani Kavafian on first violin was joined by violinist Benjamin Beilman and violist Paul Neubauer. A gorgeous, sighing melody opened the work, with the players striving for a unity in tone and expression that made for literally seamless transitions as the melody passed back and forth.  The Lento ma non troppo was a study in spooky atmospherics, and Beilman showed great stamina in playing an almost ceaseless, shifting pianissimo tremolo throughout the entire movement. Kavafian was a virtual folio artist: squawking, squealing and singing over this dark background. The work in its entirety was an exciting and vigorous interpretation.

Imani Winds' approach to Stravinsky's seminal Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring") was not to surprise or shock through some radically different envisioning, as strange as that may sound when one thinks of this work being 'reduced,' (although that feels like the wrong word) to a wind quintet. What was so surprising and delightful about it was the fact that it spared nothing.. the Imani Winds delivered with five instruments (six actually; Valerie Coleman switched back and forth from flute to piccolo periodically) a performance as nuanced and deep as one could want.

Stripped down to five instruments as it was, there was an incredible amount of work for each performer. Coleman, Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe) and Mariam Adam (clarinet) often filled in for strings and sundry other instruments, but it was Jeff Scott (horn) and especially Monica Ellis (bassoon) who had the stupendous job of driving this rhythmic monster of a piece forward. The arrangement itself was something to hear--Ellis had a tremendously difficult job, with barely a second to rest from the haunting opening strains straight through to the finale. She and Scott combined brilliantly to bring out the deep mystery from the bass lines. This was an arrangement that simultaneously demanded absolute virtuosity and independence from each performer and yet a sublime melding of all instruments, and only a group of this caliber could deliver that. The tremendous amount of work and unflagging, meticulous quality of sound was breathtaking to behold.

The second half opened with an oddly charming sonata by Ravel for violin (Yura Lee) and cello (Fred Sherry.) Sherry elicited a fine treble sound from his instrument as the two instruments chased a melody around between them. Sherry delivered the most gentle and expressive playing, sounding at times like he'd discovered a new instrument somewhere between a violin, viola and cello.  In the second movement, the Tres vif, Lee had a difficult task with tricky wailings and screechings, interspersed with a brassy pizzicato that gave way to a sudden, sere ending. The surprisingly dense texture of the fourth movement--many hammered out chords for both instruments--also required nimbleness to leap back and forth between the dizzying array of styles and techniques called for.

The finale saw the return of the Imani Winds accompanied by Anna Polonsky on the piano, for Poulenc's Sextet for Piano, Flute Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn. This jaunty affair that grew unexpectedly somber and then transitioned back once again saw Ellis demonstrating incredible stamina and dexterity. Scott's horn work was deliciously smooth, and Polonsky was deft and insightful as always. It is always an unparalleled pleasure to hear the Imani Winds perform, and true to their reputation, and thanks to all the performers the evening's music was spectacular.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tiny soprano and all-star cast light up “Die Fledermaus”

She may have looked like a featherweight, but soprano Catherine Olson almost stole the show during a Mock’s Crest production of Johann Strauss Jr’s “Die Fledermaus” on June 22nd at the Margo Hunt Theater. Whether she was tossing off sparkly high notes, jumping into the arms of tuxedo-clad men, and contorting her face and body for an extra laugh, Olson seemed to be having the time of her life as Adele, the maid who was born for a stage career. Her fine performance was one of several jewels, because Mock’s Crest assembled one of its best casts that I have ever witnessed. Overall, this production of “Die Fledermaus” showed how strong the talent pool of opera singers in the Pacific Northwest has become.

Wesley Morgan was rock solid the wealthy, two-timing, and volatile Gabriel von Eisenstein, and he knew how to find just the right amount of charm to make his character lovable. His efforts to finagle and deceive were parried and uncovered by his wife Rosalinde, sung exceptionally well by Lindsey Cafferky. In the role of Rosalinde’s former lover, Alfred, Brian Tierney came oh so close to enjoying a full evening with her but suffered the indignity of serving Eisenstein’s jail sentence. He was hauled off by Frank, the prison governor, sung by Thomas Prislac, who got the loudest laugh from the audience when he joined Alfred/Tierney in song.

Stacey Murdock created a masterful Dr. Falke, who figured out a way to trick Eisenstein and expose him as a fool. But in doing so, he also tricked Rosalinde, Frank, and Adele. Everyone went overboard at a wild party thrown by Prince Orlofsky, sung with élan by Valery Saul. In the end, they all ended up at the prison where an inebriated Frosch (Jon Vergin) ccould barely comprehend why so many people were interrupting his solitude. To top it off, Eisenstein's bumbling lawyer, marvelously played by Tony Stroh, helped to stir up the froth.

Set in the Roaring Twenties of New York City rather than the traditional Vienna of the late Nineteenth Century, this production of “Die Fledermaus” showed a lot of drive and spunk. Conductor Tracey Edson maintained reasonable tempos, and the chamber orchestra played well. Stage director Kristine McIntyre made sure that the action was up front and center and the cast made excellent use of every single inch of the small stage. Flapper dance moves were mixed up here and there with John Travolta-like gestures of the 1970s. The chorus sang with gusto and added exuberance to the party atmosphere at Orlofsky’s.

Yet even with all of the excellent singing, sometimes the orchestra was too loud and words were lost. The ideal solution to this would be a screen above the stage or to the side with the words projected. This is the standard method at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which does all of its productions in English. Of course, projected text is a big expense, and Mock’s Crest operates on a small budget, but that would be a major step in improving the show.