Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rosalind Plowright talks about singing Herodias in Portland Opera's Salome and of her career

Rosalind Plowright - © Pat Moran / Portland Opera

This Friday evening, Portland Opera will present “Salome,” a forceful, melodramatic work was written by Richard Strauss completed in 1905. “Salome” is based on the Oscar Wilde play, which takes some liberties with the New Testament story of John the Baptist, who is a prisoner of King Herod. Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome, performs her Dance of the Seven Veils and obtains the head of John the Baptist. In the midst of the story is Herod’s wife, Herodias, who tries to deflect and control her husband’s infatuation with her daughter. For the Portland Opera production, Rosalind Plowright will sing the role of Herodias. Plowright is a remarkable singer whose 35 years of professional experience on opera stages around the world includes acclaimed recordings and DVDs. She is one of the few singers who have successfully transitioned from a soprano to a mezzo-soprano.
I saw you sing the role of La Prinzipessa in the Seattle Opera’s production of "Suor Angelica," and you were fantastic. Now you have another unsympathetic character, Herodias.
Plowright:  Thank you for the complement. Yes, I do a lot of nasty ladies, and in the Bible, it is Herodias who demands the head of John the Baptist, not Salome. But Oscar Wilde switched that to Salome for dramatic purposes.
I love these characters. I specialize in them at the moment.  Even when I was a soprano I wanted something with a bit more guts. Many of the soprano roles are sticky sweet heroines, and I longed for something more evil, the nasty ladies. Now I am doing nothing but nasty ladies with a few exceptions like Mme de Croissy, the prioress of the monastery in the “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”   But I have Mrs. Sedley in “Peter Grimes” coming up soon. She is not a very pleasant person. I’m on Twitter as specializing in bags and hags and witches and bitches. It’s a bit of a joke really, but I’m loving it. It gives my career longevity.  
It’s terrific that you have been able to extend your range into the lower area. That’s got to be difficult.
Plowright:  I’ve really had no problem doing that. [Laughs.] I sang Ariadne years ago and Ariadne goes down to a very low note. There are also some dramatic soprano roles with huge cadenzas. I recall one that went from a high C to a low F. Those high C days are now gone, but I still have the low, chesty tones.
I started off as a mezzo, but not in a professional way. I was a student of the London Opera Center. They didn’t know what to do with me, because I had the low and the middle really well. I sang a bunch of mezzo roles, including the Page in Salome.
Strauss uses a large orchestra in “Salome,” and you have to sing quite loud. That must be tiring on the voice.
Plowright:  Herodias doesn’t have a lot to sing, but what she has, she has to fire out. That can be tricky because you don’t have the chance to warm up. My first three lines are gentle but thereafter it starts to shriek.
Salome presents a lot of psychological problems. It revels in human obsessions but none are resolved.
Plowright:  Each individual character is after another one. No one can acknowledge or duplicate the love that is given to them. Only Herodias doesn’t have anyone interested in her. The Page loves Narroboth, Narroboth loves Salome; Herod loves Salome; Salome loves Jocahanaan – John the Baptist. So Herodias is left out on a limb. Maybe that’s why she is always seeking attention.
Have you worked with the stage director of this production, Stephen Lawless, before?
Plowright:  No, but we were actually students together. I used to mother him when we were at the London Opera Centre. Then he was at Glyndebourne and I was in the Glyndebourne chorus. But in the course of our careers our paths have only crossed twice – in social situations, not in working situations.  So this is the first time that I’ve work with him. It’s absolutely fabulous and I’m loving it.
The London Opera Centre was on the east side of the city, but it doesn’t exist anymore. It was important for young singers because opera companies didn’t have young artists programs. After you finished at the conservatory, young singers still need more training and experience. So you went to the London Opera Centre or the Glyndebourne Chorus, and I did both.
Have you worked with conductor George Manahan?
Plowright:  This is my first time. He’s an excellent conductor and a wonderful person to boot. I’m used to arrogant Europeans – [laughs] – the types that think they own the stage and put the fear of God in you are a quarter of a beat late.  It’s refreshing to work with normal people. I really enjoyed working with Gary Thor Wedow, who conducted “Suor Angelica” in Seattle.
I was looking at your gallery of photos on your website and noted that you sang with Eric Idle and Monty Python at Royal Albert Hall and did a DVD with them.
Plowright:  It was a wonderful to get out of the opera world and do that. That was a lot of fun. Michael Palin was a bit embarrassed and had a lot of humility when he got on the stage to sing with four opera singers.  He was my favorite. 
Is your home base in London?
Plowright:  No, I live Salisbury about 80 miles southwest of London.  It’s near Stonehenge and has a cathedral that is about 1000 years old. I enjoyed living in London when I was young, but I prefer the countryside nowadays.  I commute to London when I need to.
It seems that you have theater in your bones.
Plowright:  I came to opera through straight acting. Straight acting is much more difficult than singing opera for me. I need music to do my acting. For me, the drama comes through the music. But when I do straight drama, it feels like I have nothing to hang onto. I did a TV mini-drama in which I played an opera singer, but it felt very uncomfortable, and I can’t bear to watch myself. I could do Shakespeare, because his words sing. [Laughs!] 
I’ve been in a number of theater things, a couple of which I helped to develop. It’s similar to “Aridane auf Naxos” in that an opera singer and a jazz singer double book the same theater on the same night, but neither of them want to give in. They try to perform together but separately. It’s a comedy and a lot of fun. 
What will you be doing after “Salome” closes here?
Plowright:  After Portland I’ll travel to Paris for the “Dialogue of the Carmelites.” They plan to film it, and it may end up as a DVD. It has the most phenomenal cast of major French divas. It’s a slightly daunting undertaking for me, because I’ll be the only non-native French-speaking person in the cast.
It seems that when you aren’t singing, you are busy giving master classes.
Plowright:   I’m doing one here with the young artists. They asked me. I love doing master classes, and I’ll do more of them when eventually my singing career comes to an end.  But I’ll stick to singing opera for as long as I can.
Rosalind Plowright - © Pat Moran / Portland Opera

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Larwrence Leighton Smith, former MD of the Oregon Symphony, passes

The Colorado Springs Gazette has reported that Lawrence Leighton Smith, who was the music director of the Oregon Symphony from 1973 to 1980, died on Friday, October 25th, in Colorado Springs. He was 77 years old. Smith was also the music director of the Sunriver Music Festival for 17 years. I had the pleasure of singing Beethoven's 9th Symphony during his final season with the Oregon Symphony. I was a member of the Portland Symphony Choir, and we sang the performances at Keller Auditorium (then known as the Portland Civic Auditorium).

Some musicians are adding their thoughts about Smith to a tribute page in Facebook.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review of Seattle Opera's The Daughter of the Regiment

I've written a review of Seattle Opera's current production of "The Daughter of the Regiment," and it is posted on the Classical Voice North America journal web site. I hope that you will enjoy reading it there.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Filmusik and Turkish Rambo at Hollywood Theatre: B-cinema genius

Galen Huckin's Filmusik, a project that hearkens back to the old days of silent film wherein there was a live performance component (i.e. the music) as well as the recorded medium, is back just in time for Halloween with Turkish Rambo...a horrifying farce of a rip off that provides just the kind of fodder Filmusik needs to work its magic.
Filmusik provides far more than just live soundtracks however; voice actors and foley (sound effects) artists also join the team to flesh out an incredibly fun and engaging film experience.
The film itself is completely execrable...if you thought Rambo was bad, imagine a Turkish version with awful actors, no special effects budget, cinematography that doesn't even try, and a dialogue that leaves the dialogue from the original sounding like Citizen Kane.
The soundtrack, composed by Huckins, is great fun to hear. He's been doing this for years, and has a real flare for many different elements: how to compose an intentionally over-the-top cinematic score, as well as weave in a live vocal track on par with any Hong Kong cinema dubbing from the 70s, and an absolutely amazing performance from the foley artists, who pull out every trick in the book to provide sound effects for a movie that demands them almost literally from beginning to end: explosions, gun fire and kung-fu body blows are ubiquitous in this film and it's almost as much fun to watch the foley artists as it is to watch the film itself.
Filmusik is so adept at blending all these elements into one amazing, seamless roll of cornballery that it is sometimes difficult to remember that everything you hear is being performed live.  As I've said numerous times before, any true cinephile who hasn't yet seen a Filmusik performance is missing out on a unique way to experience the medium, and anyone just looking for a fun evening out could do much worse than to attend a Filmusik performance.
Turkish Rambo is showing at the Hollywood Theatre on October 23, 24, 25, and 26 at 7pm; tickets can be bought online or at the door.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pianist Susan Chan to perform free recital of music by JS Bach, Chen Yi, Tan Dun, and Zhou Long

Pianist Susan Chan, who teaches at Portland State, will present a free piano recital at Lincoln Recital Hall (Rm. 75) on Thursday, October 31st at noon. Chan's performance includes the world premiere of Chen Yi's "Northern Scenes." Part of the program will be recorded and released on CD next year.

Here is the program and more details from the press release:

Program: Bach/Bauer: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen
Bach/Petri: Sheep May Safely Graze
Bach/Busoni: Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland
Bach/Kempff: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring
Bach/Kempff: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
Tan Dun: Eight Memories in Watercolor (selections)
Zhou Long: Pianobells
Chen Yi: Northern Scenes (World Premiere)

“A thoughtful musician and sensitive player” – New York Concert Review

“An energetic advocate for contemporary music” – The New Yorker

Concert pianist Susan Chan is an active advocate for music from Asia and that written by women composers. This October 31st recital, featuring works by Bach and three prominent contemporary Chinese composers, is the culmination of a double commissioning project funded and supported by a Regional Arts & Culture Council Project Grant, an Oregon Arts Commission Career Opportunity Grant, the PSU Foundation, the PSU Institute for Asian Studies, the Confucius Institute at PSU, and individual donors.

The Eastern portion of the program features works by three internationally renowned Chinese-American composers, including the world premiere of Chen Yi’s commissioned piece Northern Scenes, Zhou Long’s commissioned piece Pianobells from 2012, and selections of Tan Dun’s works. These prize-winning composers share the common thread of embracing a blend of Chinese and western traditions and transcending cultural and musical boundaries. The numerous accolades they have received include the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Pulitzer Prize in Music, and Academy Award. These Chinese works are complemented by the Western portion of the program that consists of a set of transcriptions of five numbers from various cantatas by JS Bach.

Ms. Chan holds a Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University and MPhil and BA degrees from the University of Hong Kong. Her major piano teachers include György Sebök and Menahem Pressler. She is currently an Associate Professor of Music and Piano Area Co-Coordinator at Portland State University. She performs internationally, including performances at Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall, New York; Cultural Center in Chicago (Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series); Seattle International Piano Festival Recital Series; Chopin’s birth house in Zelazowa Wola, Poland; Steinway Halls in London and Tokyo; as well as the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. The numerous prizes Ms. Chan has received in competitions include first prize in the Hong Kong Young Musicians Award Competition. Her critically acclaimed CD discography includes her latest recordings East West Encounter I and East West Encounter II on the MSR Classics label, which feature pieces by western and contemporary Asian composers. Fanfare magazine and BBC Music Magazine praised her “great technical finesse” and “conspicuous refinement.” Ms. Chan will record part of this program for CD release next year.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Orozco-Estrada + Hadelich + Oregon Symphony = A+++ performance

Andres Orozco Estrada and Augustin Hadelich
Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada teamed up with the Oregon Symphony to turn in one of the best concerts that I’ve ever heard at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The performance that took place on Monday evening (October 14) featured Debussy’s “Petite suite,” Schubert’s 9th Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, which was played to perfection by guest artist Augustin Hadelich. This concert, which was also presented on Sunday afternoon, marked the debuts of Orozco-Estrada and Hadelich with the Oregon Symphony, and hopefully we will get to hear them again with the orchestra soon.

Hadelich, only 29 years old, played Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto impeccably and in an understated way that communicated the musical qualities of the piece. This can be a daunting task, because the piece has a lot of high, descending lines that can jolt the ears. Hadelich found a way to communicate the conversational nature of the piece. With the orchestra, he created a polka-esque, circus-like atmosphere in the first movement, a soul searching mood in the second, a strident tone in the third, and a blitz in the fourth. The orchestra didn’t miss a beat in its support role, with superb attacks and punctuation points throughout the piece. The piece was heartily appreciated by the audience, and Hadelich responded with an encore, the Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24,” which he again played impeccably – including the wicked double stops, high-wire glissandos, stratospheric notes, and pizzicatos for both hands. It was unbelievable and awesome.

Orozco-Estrada, age 34, is the conductor-designate of the Houston Symphony. He has been the music director of the Tonkünstler Orchestra Niederösterreich, which is the same orchestra that the Oregon Symphony’s music director Carlos Kalmar once led.

Like many other pieces, the big problem with Schubert’s 9th is that it can start to sag, especially after the orchestra does a repeat which means going over a theme a second time. But the great thing about Orozco-Estrada was that he enticed the musicians to find new nuances in each phrase so that the music remained fresh. The entire piece had plenty of verve and a direction that kept pointing ahead. Most of us who regularly attend Oregon Symphony concerts are used to the dance-like movements of Kalmar on the podium. But Orozco-Estrada took that even further with bendy, balletic movements, and it all worked terrifically, because he elicited stellar playing from the orchestra. The beautiful and strong lines from the strings in the first movement seemed individually crafted as if each section was making a personal statement. Terrific playing by principal oboist Martin Hebert and principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao at the opening of the second movement followed by superb orchestral sforzandos and excellent dynamic contrasts took the music to a higher level. Highlights of the third movement included the aggressive violins and the beautiful main theme that glided along as smoothly as a professional ice skater. Overall, the music seemed to flow through Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra in a way that was genuine and mesmerizing.

In much the same way, Orozco-Estrada’s conducting and the musician’s playing of Debussy’s “Petite suite” (arranged by Henri Büsser for orchestra) was beguiling and enchanting. Principal flutist Jessica Sindell floated the lovely theme in the first movement (“In a boat”) with elegance and grace. Among the many pleasures of the second movement (“Cortege”) were the joyous orchestral crescendos and colorful ending. All of the woodwind principals sparkled in the third movement (“Minuet”), and the fourth movement (”Ballet”) contrasted lush phrases with punchy ones. As the music subsided, it seemed that the entire audience exhaled an “ah” of gratitude.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tennesseans Iwasaki and Fellenbaum impressive in Portland Columbia Symphony concert

Jun Iwasaki sounded better than ever in his performance of Burch’s Second Violin Concerto on Friday evening (October 11) at First United Methodist Church. The former concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony was in town to perform Bruch’s underappreciated concerto with the Portland Columbia Symphony at its season opening concert. Iwasaki left the Oregon Symphony two years ago to become the concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony, but he has maintained ties with Portland, recently filling as concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. On the podium was guest conductor James Fellenbaum, who is one of five finalists for the music director position of the Portland Columbia Symphony. Fellenbaum has been the resident conductor of the Knoxville Symphony since 2008. So, in a way, as violinist and executive director Betsy Hatton told the audience, the combo appearance of Iwasaki and Fellenbaum was a mini-Tennessee invasion.

It’s unfortunate that Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is not played more often. As Fellenbaum pointed out in the program notes, it begins with a melancholy Adagio and transitions to second and third movements that have faster tempos. So audiences have never warmed up to the piece, despite its gorgeous and inventive themes. From the first note of his performance on Friday, Iwasaki created a rich, solid tone that firmly announced the serious mood of the piece. As the piece transitioned into other moods and themes, Iwasaki soared with singing high notes, lovely double stops, and extended trills. The orchestra supported his playing in outstanding fashion. The fiery ending from Iwasaki’s violin sent musical sparks everywhere, and the audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.

Fellenbaum, also, made a strong impression, leading the orchestra in an expressive performance of the Overture to Verdi’s opera “La Forza del Destino.” He inspired the orchestra to make dramatic contrasts with tempo and volume. He especially encouraged a very robust brass sound and made sure that the ending of the piece was snappy.

The Brahms Second had an excellent sound, but much of the piece suffered from too much of the same dynamics. Under Fellenbaum’s direction, the piece just didn’t seem to go anywhere and was sinking under its own weight until the last movement when the tempo sped up a bit. Some attacks were spot on, but others weren’t steady. The French horns, for example, were outstanding in some passages but wobbly in others. One of the consistently brightest spots throughout the piece, though, was the lovely playing of principal oboist Brad Hochhalter.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

David Hattner talks about the Portland Youth Philharmonic season

David Hattner and the PYP in action

This season marks David Hattner’s 6th year as music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. So, it’s high time to find out what he and the orchestra have in store for this season.
How is the season shaping up? Did you have big turnover from last year?
Hattner:  We had a strong year and a small graduation of players. We also have well qualified players coming up through the ranks of our system. This season we will have a larger ensemble. Last year we had 94 musicians. This year, we will start at 113.
Hattner:  We need the large forces for Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The season is built around that piece, and we will perform it in March. The Oregon Symphony performed it in 1985 with James DePreist, and that was probably the only time that that this work was ever played in Oregon. It will be a long time before it is played again, because of the mammoth forces required. It calls for 20 separate woodwind parts, eight horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, a big percussion section, and lots of strings.  It’s a very big piece. It’s over an hour long and technically very challenging. Shostakovich wrote it in the mid-1930s, but it was not premiered until 1961. 
Why was that?
Hattner:  He got into a lot of trouble with the Soviet authorities over an opera that he wrote, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”  The Symphony was a defiant statement about the state of affairs in the USSR, and he thought that with symphonic music he could get around the authorities. But his opera had been officially denounced, and he realized that he had no real artistic freedom to make such statements in his orchestral music. So he hid his Fourth Symphony until it was safe to bring it out. It has been played widely since 1961, but it is still an unusual event because of the costs of hiring the extra musicians that are needed. 
What is the piece like?
Hattner: It has three movements, but the outer movements are over 25 minutes in length while the middle movement is around seven minutes. The music is episodic and contrapuntal. It is whisper soft at times and brutally loud at others. The orchestra is used in unique and impressive ways. For example, there are long segments where only part or parts of the orchestra will play. There are many unusual and disturbing sounds and motives, all utilized with power and genius. It is one of the most remarkable pieces Shostakovich wrote.
Have you played it before?
Hattner:  I played it once in college and once as a professional with the Toledo Symphony back in the 90s under Maxim Shostakovich. It’s a great piece for a student orchestra if the players are up to it. Fortunately, PYP is a superb orchestra. They will respond to the challenge with a lot of hard work. This performance will be memorable for both the audience and the players. For Oregonians who love orchestral music, this is an event to attend!
Where do you get the scores?
Hattner:  We will borrow them from the Oregon Symphony. 
What other works will the PYP play on the program with the Shostakovich?
Hattner:  We will open the concert with a piece by Kevin Walczyk, who is an alumnus of PYP. It’s called Celebration Fanfare, which was written for Carlos Kalmar’s arrival as music director of the Oregon Symphony.  Walczyk is on the music faculty at Western Oregon University. The concert will also feature the winner of our annual concerto competition, held in October.
Let’s go backwards and talk about the first concert of PYP’s season.  That one is coming up on November 9th.
Hattner:  Opening night will start with Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum.  We performed the original string orchestra version last spring and you can see it on YouTube.  He’s finishing a new version of this piece for full orchestra, and we will give the world premiere at this concert.  Kenji is also an alumnus of the orchestra. In addition to his excellent composing, he is also an outstanding professional violist.
Also on the program is the Grieg Piano Concerto, which will feature Hannah Moon, winner of our piano competition. This concerto hasn’t been played by PYP in 40 seasons. I am very happy to have this beautiful concerto return.  Besides being a terrific pianist, Hannah Moon is a member of the PYP viola section.  
The orchestra will also perform Howard Hanson’s “Elegy,” which he wrote in memory of Serge Koussevitzky, who was a longtime music director of the Boston Symphony and the founder of Tanglewood. The concert will close with Dvorak’s “Symphonic Variations.” This unusual work consists of a theme with 27 variations and a fugal finale in just over 20 minutes. Dvorak almost makes a catalogue of his composing styles in this work. It is beautiful, exciting and satisfying to play and conduct.
It’s great that you’ve engaged Kenji Bunch so quickly, since he returned to Portland.
Hattner:  Besides Supermaximum, Kenji is leading the PYP music theory program.  I also hope to play some chamber music with him. 
What do you have in store for you Concert at Christmas program?
Hattner:  The Concert as Christmas has become a special event for PYP. The concert hall is always very full, and the stage is also very full, because so many PYP alumni return each year for the opener to this program. This year it will be the overture to Verdi’s opera “Nabucco.”  
The concert also features our Young String Ensemble conducted by Carol Sindell, our Wind Ensemble, and our Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Larry Johnson. People can see and hear how PYP musicians progress at different stages in our program. Finally, the Philharmonic Orchestra closes the concert.  
The theme of the Philharmonic portion of this concert is encores. The PYP will play the overture to “The Secret of Susanna” (“Il segreto di Susanna”) a little comic opera by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. Incidentally, Susanna’s secret is that she smokes. [Laughs!] It’s a silly opera and the overture is a lighthearted romp. We will also perform the intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” The larger piece on the program is the “Le Corsaire Overture” by Berlioz. We will have some surprises thrown in.
Finally, you have the Spring Concert in May.
Hattner:  The main piece for that concert is Samuel Barber’s First Symphony, which he wrote when he was in his 20s. It’s an unusual work, one of the first symphonies in one movement.  But it has four distinct sections like a regular symphony. It has three themes that run through the entire piece. It’s a passionate, powerful, romantic work that should be played more often. The PYP has never done it before. I’m sure that it will appeal to the audience immediately.
We will also play the “Academic Festival Overture” of Brahms. It’s a natural graduation piece, and fitting for those musicians who will be leaving the orchestra. Another piece on the program is Holst’s “Hammersmith,” a prelude and scherzo originally written in the version that we are playing for wind ensemble and percussion.  This is a great opportunity to put our winds out front.  The piece is about the Hammersmith district of London where Holst taught at the St. Paul School for Girls. He wrote “Hammersmith” for the BBC Military Band, but they never played it. It’s a favorite of American colleges, and it’s a wonderful piece that depicts the Thames River running through the district and all of its cockney inhabitants.
The concert will also feature short solo by another competition winner. We sponsor two solo competitions every year.
How are your Camerata concerts going at Weiden+Kennedy?
Hattner:  They have really taken off! The setting is intimate and perfect for our chamber orchestra. We have a two concert series there. We are building the first program around Bach’s “Third Brandenburg Concerto,” which is for strings and harpsichord. Then we play two more contemporary works that reflect this music: Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” and “Muse” by Christopher Theofanidis. Stravinsky quotes Bach in his work. It’s got the spirit of Bach in it and is a wonderful piece. “Muse” was written just a few years ago for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Like the “Third Brandenburg,” it is written for strings and harpsichord.  This should be a really fun program, and it gives the audience a chance to see the musicians up close.  It will take place on January 26th.
At the second concert at Weiden+Kennedy, we will continue our Beethoven cycle with his Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” We have already performed the First and the Eighth symphonies in this series. The “Eroica” will be performed with 40 players, which sounds small but it will sound very large in the Wieden+Kennedy. The Symphony is 45 minutes long, far longer than any symphony previously written and an excellent challenge for the orchestra.
What have you seen in your six years of conducting?
I really love this being the Musical Director of PYP. The student musicians are fantastic. They really listen to each other, and do whatever it takes to make excellent music. They are a real team, encouraging each other and keeping an eye on each other. They study hard and do what it takes to give great concerts. We’ve kept the level high, and I’m really proud of all of the musicians in the orchestra. They have rather diverse lives and do a lot of fantastic things outside of the orchestra. They are remarkable individuals, and it’s a privilege to lead them.

Energetic and fun “Anything Goes” bathes Portland in Cole Porter’s music

The national tour of “Anything Goes” steamed into town with lots of pizazz and razzmatazz on opening night, October 2nd at Keller Auditorium. This touring version is based on the 2011 revival of the original bubbly concoction that Cole Porter uncorked in 1934. The story unfolds on an ocean liner where a young man becomes a stowaway, because he in love with a young heiress, who is travelling with her fiancée, a British Lord, to marry him in England. In the meantime, a nightclub singer, who is the main entertainer on board, gives up on her hopes to land the young man and ends up unleashing the inner desires of the uptight British Lord. Along the way, a cast of wealthy travelers, gangsters, sailors, backup singers, and Chinese missionaries get mixed into the plot. With a few twists and turns and a nod to vaudeville, it all works out in the end.

Rachel York carried the show as the Reno Sweeney, the evangelist turned nightclub singer. She used a Mae West-like sultry voice when she was on the prowl and lit up the deck with her charismatic dancing and singing. The lovesick Billy Crocker was convincing portrayed by Josh Franklin, and Alex Finke made a fetching young heiress, Hope Harcourt. But both actors sounded sweet when they sang, but needed larger voices. Edward Staudenmayer created an outstanding Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and his transformation from a gent with a stiff upper lip to a gypsy-intoxicated wild man was incredibly funny. Superb performances by Leslie Becker as Moonface Martin, Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, Dennis Kelly as Elisha Whitney, Chuck Wagner as Captain, and Joyce Chittick as the irrepressible Erma added a delightful undercurrent of humor throughout the show.

It was too bad that some of the lyrics and banter got lost, because the orchestra was too loud for most of the singers. It seemed to be problem with the mixing board, and that’s a problem that touring shows can have with the size of the Keller Auditorium, which seats 3200. But with all of the verbiage flying about, there was still a lot of enjoy, such as, “Who will lead this sinner through distilled waters?” There were also a lot of references to bygone personalities, like Fatty Arbuckle and highfalutin stuff like “The Flying Dutchman,” which didn’t draw many chuckles, but “You really know how to fill a girdle,” proved its mettle with an outburst of laughter from all corners of the hall.

In addition to witty lyrics and snappy music, this show has a big time tap dancing segment that goes overboard with outstanding choreography. It used volleys of dancers on the different levels of the ship. They came from the left and right side of the stage and formed intricate lines that coiled around each other. It was amazing. Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall deserves the highest praise for that show stopping number.

Derek McLane’s three-tiered set design was the perfect backdrop for this show, allowing ample room for tricky dance moves and also simply for moving the story forward. The orchestra, made up of local professionals, was energetically led by Jay Alger. They played Porter’s jazz-inflected music with élan, and the audience left the theater with a smile in their eyes and their toes tapping.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Blechacz opens Portland Piano International season with impressive recital

Rafał Blechacz
Portland Piano International opened its 36th season with dynamic performance from Rafał Blechacz, at Lincoln Hall on Monday (September 30). Although he is only 28 years old, Blechacz has been a mainstay primarily on the European circuit ever since he won the Frederick Chopin International Piano Competition in 2005. The following year, he signed a recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon, and has released six CDs under the DG label, all of which have received favorable notice. Now Blechacz is touring the United States (he appears with the Alabama Symphony on October 5th), and PPI’s new Artistic Director Arnaldo Cohen made sure to snag him for back-to-back recitals in Portland. Both performances featured the same works by Chopin on the second half of the program. But Sunday afternoon’s performances offered works by Mozart and Beethoven during the first half while the Monday evening’s concert served pieces by Debussy and Szymanowski. Several years have flown by since PPI sponsored two concerts by one artist in its series. Judging from the very full concert hall on Monday night, that was an excellent gamble.

Blechacz began his recital with an inspired performance of Debussy’s “Suite bergamasque.” His playing showed lots of tonal color and lyricism. He dallied with a light, delicate tone but shifted deftly to more powerful passages, including some terrific sforzandos in the second movement. The final movement was playful, but he kept it reigned in.

Following the Debussy, Blechacz unleashed his Romantic soul and gave a tour-de-force interpretation of Szymanowski’s Sonata No 1. His playing was explosive, engrossing, and breath taking. It was as if an artillery of emotion was being volleyed from the keyboard. Tempestuous sections were followed by calm ones, and often there were passages that imitated the fluidity of Chopin. The fourth movement seemed to start out to of the depths of Poland, alternated between grand and intimate statements, and wound up in a wild, ecstatic finale. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, calling him back to center stage three times.

After intermission, Blechacz delved into the all-Chopin part of his program. His playing of the Nocturne in A-flat major (Op. 32 No. 2) had a beautiful, singing tone and full-bodied momentum. He held nothing back in his interpretations of the “Two Polonaises,” (Op. 40), which meant the very familiar and beloved No. 1 in A Major, “Military” and the lesser known No. 2 in C minor. Blechacz has a real passion for Chopin’s music. He seemed to explore the extremes of dynamics, including playing the “Military Polonaises” at a very loud volume, and creating the sense of tragedy in the Polonaise No. 2

This was followed by impeccable playing of the “Three Mazurkas” (Op. 63) and an outstanding performance of the Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp minor (Op. 39) with its powerful statements and contrasting crystalline falling arpeggios. An immediate standing ovation by the audience brought Blechacz back for four bows. He is a young pianist whose career is on the upswing, and it will be interesting to see which path it takes.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Jeffrey Kahane and Oregon Symphony create sublime Beethoven in concert full of diversity

Jeffrey Kahane
Whenever pianist Jeffrey Kahane stops in town, it’s a real treat, and his latest performance over the weekend with the Oregon Symphony was a case in point. Together, their artistry raised the bar with a sublime performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Sunday (September 29). But that performance was just one high point of many in a program that offered a lot of variety with symphonic works by Béla Bartók, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Johann Strauss Jr. – all of which the orchestra, guided by music director Carlos Kalmar, played outstandingly.

Kahane is a consummate artist who can performances sound personal and intimate, even when he is playing for 2,000 people. With Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, he made phrases sound stately, fiery, serene, lilting, tender, and sparkle without using a flashy technique. Even when he performed the long cadenza in the first movement, Kahane, who is known for his ability to improvise and may have thrown in some of his own inventions, doesn’t draw attention to himself. The orchestra expertly supported him throughout the piece with finely honed dynamics. The thunderous applause from the audience brought Kahane back to the stage for several bows, and he responded with an encore, Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words.”

Bartók’s “Dance Suite” reflected a huge variety of intriguing sounds and mood that drew on Arabic, Hungarian, and Romanian folk music. It all started with an edgy ominous bassoon duet (Carin Miller Packwood and Evan Kuhlmann) that was picked up by pulsating and sliding tones from the trombones (Aaron LaVere and Robert Taylor), and then transferred to passages that were highlighted by enigmatic high sounds from the clarinet (Yoshinori Nakao). This somehow changed to passages that were rustic and later a splayed, open sound. The third movement (“Tranquilo”) featured lush strings and underscored by a woodwind choir. Some of the movements ended with a little punch of a chord. Hats off to assistant principal clarinetist Todd Kuhns, who deftly switched between different instruments to help create some of the arresting effects of this piece.

The orchestra’s performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 64 (“Tempora mutantur”) was expertly played by a chamber ensemble of 38 musicians and conducted by Kalmar without the baton. The quick first movement featured skipped along delightfully with the violins expertly tapering off phrases. The second movement featured several unusual pauses. A highlight of the third included the pair of French horns that sounded like post horns and the oboe duets. The witty fourth movement sprinted along but also briefly slowed down to a stop. The orchestra recorded this performance, for a release on its next CD, which will feature two other Haydn symphonies: No. 53 (“L’imperiale”) and No. 96 (“The Miracle”).

The orchestra then went in a completely different direction with Strauss’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” sounding as if the musicians had grown up in Vienna. Kalmar and company shaped each phrase naturally, including the phrases that have a dollop of hesitation. It all sounded terrifically fresh and off the cuff. They topped it off with “Leichtes blut” (“Light of Heart”), a waltz that featured the terrific piccolo artistry of Zachariah Galatis, who nailed a series of upward sweeping phrases with aplomb. Artistic Administrator Charles Calmer later explained to me that this waltz is “about being light headed from drinking too much—hence the hiccupping piccolo part.” That was a terrific topper for a diverse evening of music. It seems that Kalmar and the orchestra should do an evening of Viennese schmaltz sometime in the near future.