Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mark O'Connor and clan bring jazzy bluegrass to Portland's holiday scene

Grammy-award-winning violinist Mark O’Connor made Portland his final destination for his annual Appalachian Christmas tour and thrilled a fairly full house at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on December 22nd with his virtuosic playing. For people like this reviewer, who know O’Connor primarily through his “Appalachia Waltz” hit (which he made with Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), but don’t follow his circuit through the year, the concert, presented by All Classical FM (KQAC), was a bit of a mixed bag. The main thing was the sheer genius of O’Connor’s fiddling, which shifted effortlessly between folk, jazz, bluegrass, and something slightly classical. It’s sheer genius, even when amplified (as were all of the instruments in this concert). All of the numbers on the program were done with a bit of Appalachian-inflected twang, but it seemed strange that a couple of traditional Appalachian Christmas tunes like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “I Wonder as Wander” were missing from the program.

O’Connor didn’t do everything by himself. He performed with a tight-knit ensemble that included violinists Maggie O’Connor (who is also his wife) and Carrie Rodriguez, banjo player Cia Cherryholmes, mandolinist Forrest O’Connor (who is Mark O’Connor’s son), guitarist Joe Smart, and bassist Michael Rinne. Rodgriguez, Cherryholms, and Forrest O’Connor also sang several of the pieces.

Starting with an upbeat arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” the listeners got an excellent sense of the improvisational talent of O’Connor and his clan. Rodriguez provided evocative and energetic vocals for “Winter Wonderland,” “Blue Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” Cherryholmes used a belting bluegrass style for her solos, but her voice became strident and piercing at times, which especially didn’t work well for “Away in a Manger.” Forrest O’Connor’s soft baritone worked well in “Ol’ Blue.”

The highlight of the evening occurred when Mark O’Connor gave a solo improvisation based on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” His jazz phrasing reminded me of some Stephane Grappelli-like licks but he did all sorts of other fiddling that included subtle nuances between tones (mircro-tones) and an inspired passage in which his thumbs and fingers drummed on side of the violin. His playing brought down the house.

Twangy renditions of “Sleigh Ride” and “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” went down well, but O'Connor's Appalachian arrangement of the “Carol of the Bells" didn’t have any bell-like quality at all. Still, this concert was a smashing success for the spellbound audience. A thunderous standing ovation brought the musicians back out on the stage for a foot-stomping, bluegrass inspired “Joy to the World.”

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bach Cantata Choir raises spirits with its Annual Holiday Baroque Concert

You have to take this report on the Bach Cantata Choir’s Annual Holiday Baroque Concert with a grain of salt because I’m a member of the choir's tenor section, but I have to say that this concert (held on Friday, December 19th at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church) was very satisfying in many ways. First of all the choir and orchestra performed Parts 2 and 4 of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” with genuine feeling and confidence. Since we have performed this music in previous years, we are a lot more comfortable and consequently are getting out of the scores, looking at our conductor, Ralph Nelson, and interpreting the music. The “Ehre sie Gott in der Höhe” (“Glory to God in the highest”) chorus, which is very tricky and demanding, flew by at a quick, pace that expressed a heightened sense of joy.

Soprano Nan Haemer, alto Irene Weldon, and Kevin Walsh distinguished themselves with excellent solo work. But tenor soloist Byron Wright stole the spotlight with phenomenal singing of “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” (Joyful shepherds, haste, ah hasten”), which has an incredible stream of 32nd notes. It should be noted, though that Haemer and soprano Dorothea Gauer Lail excelled in the echo aria “Flösst, mein Heiland” (“Oh my Savior”) and Jolanda Frischknecht put a bell-like tone on “Fürchtet euch nicht” (“Be not afraid”).

For the second half of the concert, the choir and orchestra performed Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Messe de Minuet pour Noël” (“Midnight Mass for Christmas”). This piece, with its dance-like qualities, featured a number of treacherous tempo changes. We negotiated all of them pretty well, except one, which took a couple of measures before everyone lined up. Sopranos Laurie Vischer and Dorothea Gauer Lail, alto Rachel Thomas, tenors David Foley and Brian Haskins, and bass Paul Sadilek successfully negotiated their solos. It was unfortunate that some of the passages for the alto were so low, because it was difficult to hear Thomas when she had to sing those basement notes. Mary Kusaka, Laurie Vischer, and Paula Holm Jensen did a fine job with their carol selections.

The choir tried something different this year, opening the concert with the main church lights turned off and using flickering light from hand-held candles (battery operated), and singing the chant “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” (“A boy is born in Bethlehem”) from memory while walking from the nave of the church to the stage. We did alright but another rehearsal would have made it more aligned and smoother. Our rendition of Michael Praetorius’s version of “Puer Natus in Bethlehem” (performed with all of the lights turned on) went quite well. It should be noted that we used our candles to end the concert (with the “Agnus Dei” of the Charpentier), and that was a splendid wrap.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gaffigan, Watts, and Oregon Symphony team up for sonic journey via Sibelius, MacDowell, and Copland

André Watts
On Saturday evening (December 6th) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony scored with a trifecta of seemingly unrelated works, taking the audience on a journey from the resignation of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony to the optimism of MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto and Copland’s Suite from “Appalachian Spring.” Guest pianist André Watts, who has frequently appeared with the orchestra, was the featured soloist in the MacDowell, and James Gaffigan, who is the chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, led from the podium.

Despite its bleakness, the Sibelius No. 4 was intense and enjoyable – right from the start with the distant, low growl from the bassoons and bass violins. The somber mood was broadened by solo passages, played evocatively by principal cellist Nancy Ives, and heightened by the horns, which created a sense of tragedy. The orchestra built a series of surges only to recede into a vague blankness. Wiggly sounds form the oboe, light, skipping tones from the violins, and sudden entries from various sections of the orchestra suggested springtime before the timpani quickly closed down the second movement. The third featured a mournful statement from the horns and a pervasive melancholy. The fourth began with a blitz from the violas, which was followed by equally fleet work from the cellos. Then the woodwinds got into it, led by wild riffs by principal clarinetist Yoshinori Nakao. An extended pizzicato passage for the cellos and violas sounded terrific against a melodic line for the violins. Soon the brass jumped in, and the orchestra gave us the feeling that things might coalesce into a triumphant statement (like the Second Symphony), but it didn’t. It just uncoiled into individual efforts and then the entire piece stopped.

James Gaffigan

During the applause, Gaffigan waded into the orchestra to acknowledge principal woodwinds, the entire horn section, timpani, and principal string players. Hats off to the orchestra for delivering such a vibrant interpretation of this oft neglected piece. In the hands of a lesser ensemble, it would be a terribly dull affair.

Watts demonstrated incredible pianism in the MacDowell, finishing some of the phrases with a little extra panache. The eruption of sound from the keyboard in the first movement was a powerful statement, and Watts was right at home with the big Romantic arpeggios and other virtuosic flourishes that abound in this work. Passages were impeccably shaped and, with the orchestra, he brought out the distinctly optimistic, American tone of the piece. Solo contributions by assistant principal bassoonist Evan Kuhlman and assistant principal clarinetist Todd Kuhns added luster to the performance.

You can’t go wrong with a piece like “Appalachian Spring,” one of the most popular classical pieces ever written by an American, but you need virtuosic musicians, because there are so many exposed parts and a blip, or a flub, or a late entry would be incredibly awkward. The plaintive clarinet of Nakao, the sparkling flute of principal Jessica Sindell, the peppy trumpet of principal Jeffrey Work, and the sweet phrases of concertmaster Sarah Kwak were just a few of the individual contributors who made this piece a pleasure to hear. I just wish that the orchestra could have afforded six more string players so that when the brass played at full volume, we could still have heard the swirling strings.

This concert marked Gaffigan’s third appearance with the orchestra (he was previously here in 2009 and 2010). He has a natural, graceful conducting style and a genuine affinity for the musicians. Hopefully, he will be returning to the podium again soon.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pitcarin and the Red Violin highlight Portland Columbia Symphony concert

John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra” received a finely honed interpretation from Elizabeth Pitcairn, who performed it with the Portland Columbia Symphony in front of a fairly full house at First United Methodist Church on Friday evening (November 21). Pitcairn really owns this piece, in part, by virtue of the instrument she plays. It’s the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius of 1720, which is said to have been the inspiration for the “The Red Violin” movie, which won an Academy Award for best original score (Corigliano’s, of course). The red Strad has been in Pitcairn’s possession since she was a teenager, when her grandfather purchased it for her, and, in her introductory remarks, she mentioned that she has given it the nick name of Felix, because it used to belong to the Mendelssohn family.

Pitcairn’s playing of Corigliano’s suite was impeccable, and some of the best moments came during the serene and wistful passages that were delicate and very high. She deftly expressed the agitated and loud sections, which featured fleet fingerwork. A couple of the rising passages might have had more impact if she could have put more of an edge at the end of the phrase, because her tone got lost in the swelling crescendo from the orchestra. But it may be that the acoustic at First United Methodist just swallows up that sound no matter how loud the soloist plays.

The orchestra, under its new Music Director Steven Byess, did an excellent job in creating tension and releasing it. The snaps from the percussion section and the snarls from the woodwinds and brass were very effective. Following the thunderous applause, Pitcairn mesmerized the audience with the “Allegro” from Fritz Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro,” and elicited another standing ovation.

After intermission, the orchestra gave a spirited performance of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.” It was delightful to hear all of the twists and turns that Elgar gave to the main theme. The most famous variation, "Nimrod," featured a wonderful slow crescendo that blossomed and created a grand, noble statement that also has a hint of sadness. Intonation in the strings got a little blurred during fast passages in some of the variations. Solo contributions by the principal bassoonist, violist, and cellist in the final variations, plus the plaintive clarinet and the swelling organ in the final movement highlighted the performance.

The concert began with Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” It’s always fun to hear which instruments get to handle a particular passage, and it seemed to me that the pairing of the bassoon with the lower strings and a later section that featured a wicked bassoon riff were the best. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Portland Symphonic Choir sings past acoustical challenges in performance of Mozart’s Requiem and O’Regan’s “Triptych”

Tarik O'Regan

Just over a week ago, on Sunday afternoon (November 9th) at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Portland Symphonic Choir performed Mozart’s Requiem and Tarik O’Regan’s “Triptych.” With a large chorus (almost 140 voices) and an orchestra, there could have been an acoustical disaster in St. Mary's, But fortunately the choir, trained impeccably by Artistic Director and Condutor Steven Zopfi, was in top form for both works.

For many listeners, Mozart’s Requiem is comfort food to the ears, one of those all-time great chorale works that soothes the soul. The Portland Symphonic Choir gave a fantastic performance, with excellence in diction, dynamics, balance, and tonal quality. It was just too bad that they had to sing this work in a space that is so boomy. The music would have had more of a personal touch if the choir could have stood closer to the audience, but the immovable altar in St. Mary's prevents that. Still, there was much to admire, including Angela Niederloh’s warm mezzo and Robert McPherson’s vibrant tenor. Emily Kalteich’s soprano voice needed more conviction, and Kevin Helppie’s baritone was lovely, yet his voice was overrun by the trombonist during the “Tuba mirum” movement.

The orchestra played well, but the sound became a little muddled during the faster sections. This may have been caused by poor sightlines, because the musicians were spread over different levels. Zophi chose tempos and dynamics that fit the nave as well as possible, and the audience responded enthusiastically after the final notes settled to the floor.

The pleasant surprise of the concert was Tarik O’Regan’s “Triptych.” O’Regan is a British composer (born in 1978), whose works have resonated well with audiences. His music, represented in a discography of 25 albums, has received two Grammy nominations and two British Composer awards.

“Triptych” is an engaging, tonal piece in three movements that deals with death from several perspectives. The first movement, “Threnody” discusses the presence of death and that it is not to be feared. It includes text from William Penn, Muhammad Rajab Al-Bayuoumi (an Egyptian poet), William blake, and Psalm 133 of the Bible. Vocal lines were threaded together in enticing ways that seemed to blend a Middle Eastern sound with a hint of Minimalism.

The second movement, “As We Remember Them” began with a plaintive solo, sung poignantly by soprano Margaret Braun with very little vibrato, followed by a response from various sections of the choir (women, men, or both). For example, Braun sang “In the rising of the sun and at its going down,” and the choir sang “we remember them.” This style and the words (from Roland Gittelsohn’s “The Gates of Repentance”) were hauntingly effective. After an orchestral interlude, in which the strings were unfortunately not quite together, the Braun delicately intoned “And the Heav’nly Quire stood mute, And silence was in Heav’n” from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

The orchestra and chorus picked up steam heading into the third movement, “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency.” Phrases from Indian Bundahishn, the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy made up the textual fabric. Some phrases that were repeated had an appealing rhythmic urgency. The commotion cleared out briefly so that we could hear Braun wistfully sing of “peace on earth, and silence in the sky” before the choir and orchestra returned with full force to drive home the words “Why then should I be afraid? I shall die once again to rise an angel blest.” That brought the listeners out of their seats with heartfelt applause.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Portland Opera uncorks zestful Fledermaus for its 50th anniversary

Photo Credit: Portland Opera
Portland Opera kicked off its 50th anniversary celebration with a high-spirited performance of “Die Fledermaus” on Friday night (November 7th) at Keller Auditorium. The funny and light-hearted story of this opera, laced with a pearl string of waltz-inflected tunes, generated lots of frothy warmth to a full house. It fittingly harkened back to the very first production of Portland Opera, when Johann Strauss Jr.’s popular Viennese farce was presented at the Madison High School auditorium in December of 1964.

A solid cast of principals who were equally at home in the realm of comic timing, made it all work, starting with Daniel Belcher in the role of Gabriel von Eisenstein. Belcher marvelously captured the impulsiveness, bravado, and fatuousness wrapped in charm of von Eisenstein. His baritone exhibited an engagingly warm, ringing tone that was pure gold.

As von Eisenstein’s wife, Rosalinde, Mary Dunleavy sang with assured grace even in difficult situations like when she had to fend off the groping Alfred (Ryan MacPherson). Her singing of the csardas inspired “Klänge der Heimat” (Sounds of the Homeland”) was a highlight of the evening.

MacPherson was an ardent and agile Alfred, singing with panache while climbing over window sills or pulling Rosalinde on top of him while reclining on a divan. Susannah Biller sparkled as Adele with a brilliant tone and terrific precision, and her singing of “Mein Herr Marquis” was a gem of a number during the big party scene in the second act.

Eisenstein and Falke with watch / Photo credit: Portland Opera
Jennifer Rivera drew lots of laughs as the dour and bored Prince Orlovsky, especially with the triple-gestured salute that she gave to her guests. The best surprise of the evening was André Chiang’s formidable baritone in the role of Dr. Falke. This bodes well for Chiang a former Portland Opera Resident Artist, and his burgeoning career. One of the current resident artists, Ian José Ramirez, aptly conveyed the mannerisms of the fretful Dr. Blind, yet he needed to project a lot more in order to be heard.

The orchestra, under Music Director George Manahan, sounded exuberant and slightly expansive like a good Tokaji. The chorus, prepared by, prepared by Nicholas Fox, sang with gusto. The scenery, provided by Seattle Opera, and costumes, by Washington National Opera, were traditional, providing context that set the story in the late Nineteenth Century.

Rosalinde singing  the csardas at Orlovsky's party / Photo credit: Portland Opera
“Die Fledermaus” is one of those operas where you have the liberty to cut some passages and insert others. So during the jailhouse scene, Adele followed a glittery "Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande" ("When I play the innocent from the countryside") with “Frühlingsstimmen,” (“Voices of Spring”), which most folks recognize in its orchestral version, but it does have text, and Biller sang it with élan. And while she sang, a ballet of office chairs with damsels propelled by Ivan (Lance Hunter) swirled about.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber made sure that there wasn’t a dull moment and that the interactions between the characters flowed smoothly. Assistant Director and Choreographer Matthew Ferraro added several humorous touches, including a sequence in which some of the female dancers take a tumble down the grand staircase at Orlovsky’s palace.

The character of Frosch the jailer got a refreshingly new take. Usually he is a good-natured drunk who has just enough charm to win over the audience. In this production, Frosch (Rick Huddle) was totally alert yet a little spooked by the mysterious lighting at the jail.

Members of BodyVox, including one of its artistic directors Jamey Hampton, made special guest appearances during the party scene in the second act. These were very witty and athletic performances that the audience ate up, yet Orlovsky remained unsmiling. For each performance, different special guests have been invited, and that should continue to make this anniversary production of “Die Fledermaus” an delightful crowd-pleaser.

Members of BodyVox (Jamey Hampton on right) pose during intermission with an admirer

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Oregon Symphony casts a spell with performances of Dukas and Prokofiev and jazzes it up with Gershwin and pianist Jeffrey Kahane

Musically speaking there was much magic in the air on Sunday night (November 2nd) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. That’s because the Oregon Symphony, under the baton of Carlos Kalmar, gave an enchanting performances of Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Cinderella Suite” as the first and last pieces on the program. For the filler in the middle, the orchestra teamed up with pianist Jeffrey Kahane for a sparkling rendition of George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F major.”

Kahane is a terrific artist who has performed in Portland a number of times. After the orchestra opened the Gershwin with a splashy, showy fanfare, the spotlight fell on Kahane, who deftly introduced the dreamy, bluesy melody that suggested someone cruising Broadway when it was still referred to as The Great White Way. That seemed to inspire the orchestra to stir up things with a flashy passage that then shifted back to the pianist and together they painted a jazzy scene that had real snap to it. The mood segued to a dark, smoky nightclub scene, with kudos to Jeffrey Work, principal trumpet in the second movement. The third, fronted by Kahane’s pulsating pianism, had an uptempo and uplifting feel.

I was most interested in hearing Prokofiev’s “Cinderella Suite,” a 45-minute selection of pieces from his full ballet score. A real help in this performance was the use of projected titles which provided the storyline for each segment of music. Under Kalmar’s baton the orchestra established the brooding atmosphere right away. The quarreling stepsisters came through grousing sounds from the violins and woodwinds with sharp jabs from the brass. The violins spun a sinewy web of sounds that created the atmosphere of the Fairy Godmother who changes a pumpkin into a carriage. The woodwinds were in top form, creating elegant sounds for the dances at the ball, and the orchestra created a suspense as Cinderella and the Prince dance together. Then came the big highlight with the woodblocks whirling and and the brass section making a heavy glissando of everything falling apart as the midnight bell sounded. It was a really terrific moment that I think could have been even more terrific if the woodblocks could have gotten louder and louder. I only mention this because I got to hear Valery Gergiev and the Kiev Orchestra do this piece in New York City several years ago. The overwhelming loudness was so incredible impressive that I’ve never forgotten it. Still, the Oregon Symphony’s interpretation was absolutely valid and the lovely threading of the sound from the cellos and the violins as Cinderella and the Prince find each other was magical.

The concert began with an impeccable performance of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” An air of mystery and wonder was invoked at the beginning and enhanced by the strings finishing off the introductory phrase with a straight tone – absolutely no vibrato. Principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood and her colleagues played with panache. A brief and elegant solo by principal violist Joël Belgique and some wild curlicues on the piccolo by Zachariah Galatis added to the brew that the orchestra and Kalmar cooked up. It was spellbindingly fun to hear!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Chas Rader-Shieber and Matthew Ferraro shed some light on the stage directions and choreography for "Die Fledermaus"

Matthew Ferraro and Chas Rader-Shieber
Fifty years ago, Portland Opera presented  "Die Fledermaus" as its very first production. So, it is especially fitting that the company celebrate its gold anniversary with Johann Strauss Jr's most famous comic operetta. To learn more about the production, I talked with director Chas Rader-Shieber and choregrapher Matthew Ferraro.
I started the conversation with Rader-Shieber.

I was looking at your bio and realized that you’ve been directing for quite a number of years.

Rader-Shieber: I started when I was two. We’ll go over that story sometime…

You were directing your parents!

Rader-Shieber: Yes. They will tell you that I was.

When did you become a stage director?

Rader-Shieber: There really wasn’t a point in time where I could say that I was a stage director. You just discover that you have a love/passion/need for the theater. You have to figure out how you want to participate. Are you a performer by nature? Since childhood, I’ve been interested in theater. I had to find my way and figure out how to participate in it.

So you decided on opera rather than the spoken theater?

Rader-Shieber: I found that opera – in the best sense of the word – exploits more. It offers more elements to play with. It’s more satisfying to me. I miss the music in spoken theater. I just don’t understand why they aren’t singing. It all seems natural to me.

Are you a singer?

Rader-Shieber: I am not. I don’t even sing Happy Birthday.

Did you direct theater in college?

Rader-Shieber: Yes. I directed the Columbia Players at Columbia University. I transferred to Carnegie Mellon as a designer and then stayed on for a Masters in directing. I directed spoken theater there. By the time I went to college there was no question where I going to end up. The designing studies were done with an eye toward direction opera.

Did you get a big break into opera directing somewhere?

Rader-Shieber: I worked as an assistant for a couple of years, and then was very fortunate to take on the artistic directorship of a small opera theater company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was Skylight Opera and is now Skylight Music Theater. I was there for a few years, and then went fully freelance as a director.

You’ve freelanced all over the place, including Tasmania.

Rader-Shieber: It’s the most fantastic place. I’m a great lover of Australia, and I’ve been fortunate to have done a couple of shows in Sydney. But Tasmania is amazing, and they have a wonderful Baroque festival there with two solid weeks of concerts and events.

Speaking of Baroque, here with Portland Opera’s young artists, you directed Handel’s “Rinaldo” at the Newmark Theatre.
Rader-Shieber: That was so much fun! I really like the Newmark Theatre with its stage, which is much like a Baroque opera house in size and scale
Now you are directing at the Keller Auditorium, in a big production of “Die Fledermaus” with a big cast of principals and chorus. Do you need a bullhorn to direct all of them?

Rader-Shieber: No, not at all. The joy of rehearsing is that the scale of rehearsal is completely different than what you see in the theater on opening night. When you are rehearsing 39 people in the chorus, I am as close to them as I am to you. So there’s no sense of moving great hordes of people around.

We work in one scale in one way with the understanding in the back of our minds of how this is going to transform when it gets into the theater. The audience takes its seat in the theater, and sees a curtain hanging there. The beauty of the theater is that it asks the question: “What’s behind the curtain?” So before the show even starts there’s an interactive thing going on. Then the curtain goes away and the story starts.

The storyline in “Die Fledermaus” is very silly and has a lot of twists and turns. Do you work hard with the principals to bring out the humor?

Rader-Shieber: Do you know what the secret to comedy is? It’s casting. That’s what makes good comedy. I don’t make the comedy. Portland Opera casts really well. I can’t make a person funny. You have to have singers who get it. They are entertaining people to be around, and they bring that to bear on the stage. This is just a great cast.

One of the non-singing characters I have enjoyed in the opera is Frosch, the jailer. I’m always interested in what he will do.

Rader-Shieber: There are some surprises we have up our sleeves. The actor we have in this production is fantastic, and he doesn’t just appear as Frosch in the third act. He makes two other appearances in the opera; so he’s in all three acts as different characters.

For Fledermaus what does the stage director do versus what the choreographer does?

Ferraro: Some operas have set dance pieces. For example, I choreographed “Salome” for Stephen Lawless for the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which lasts around eight minutes. He gave me the setup for it: that there would be seven women in the dance, but that was it. I didn’t do any choreography beyond that.

But in Fledermaus, you’ve got ballroom parties going on and lots of waltz music.

Ferraro: Yes, the choreography is much more integrated into the entire opera.

Rader-Shieber: Plus there are moments that you think are dance moments that become danced sometimes. The relationship of work between the choreographer and the director are more fluid in this opera than many other operas. That’s more fun for me.

Ferraro: "Die Fledermaus" is a more presentational-stylized piece. It’s an operetta as opposed to an opera. The musical moments are much more like what you have in a musical where often at the end of a number when things become exuberant you need some kind of stylized movement or choreography to bring that home.

We are trying to integrate the movement into the narrative of the opera. There is waltzing, but not waltzing for the sake of it.

What is your dance background?

Ferraro: I was based in New York for 15 years. Now I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I was a ballet dancer for seven or eight years, then I started dancing for New York City Opera and the Met.

In this production of “Die Fledermaus,” you have some special guests to fit into the story, or do they just do their thing?

Rader-Shieber: There is no good return on trying to get special guests to fit into the story. You have to let them not fit in. You have to let them be exactly who they are and enjoy the oddity of that. That’s what makes them special.Ferraro: It’s always a non sequitur. Even at real traditional productions like at Royal Opera House at Covent Garden they will have some lounge singer walk into a 19th Century sing a popular tune. No one in the audience is going to call it into question.

Ferraro: It’s always a non sequitur. Even at real traditional productions like at Royal Opera House at Covent Garden they will have some lounge singer walk into a 19th Century sing a popular tune. No one in the audience is going to call it into question.

Rader-Shieber: The oddity is the fun.

Ferraro: In fact, the more of a non sequitur it is, the funnier.

The storyline is so silly.

Ferraro: The silliness isn’t a hurdle. The silliness is the point. Nobody has to drag their husband to listen to Wagner for five hours. This is plain fun.

Do stage directors put special markings in their score to help them figure out and remember what is going on where and when?

Rader-Shieber: Without post-it notes, I do not exist. I also use many ground plans of the theater.

Ferraro: It was originally called blocking because they would build a little mechanical model of the stage and have little blocks that represented each character. They would move the blocks around and write it down before they got to rehearsal.

When I design, I have a three-dimensional computerized model that I use, but it’s not all that efficient

Rader-Shieber: Most set designers will provide a modelling scale – quarter or half inch. But all of the preparation that you do has to be tempered by the process in the moment. You think that things will happen a certain way, but something better comes along in rehearsal.

Ferraro: I find that the things that you plan, if you are lucky, will only be as good as they were in your head. There are some things that you don’t plan that are better by far than anything you could have imagined.

There are some choreographers who won’t plan at all - like Balanchine. He only choreographed with the dancers in the room.

Sometimes in opera, it behooves you to plan. You are in a room with 70 people, and you don’t want to be staring at the floor. But some of the best ideas come when somebody drops something or somebody entered late or something else unplanned happened.

Rader-Shieber: The third act of Die Fledermaus is notorious for getting all of those people in one room – at the jail cell – and you have to plan that, but in rehearsal things happen, and then it all goes even better.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Oliveira delivers robust Sibelius Violin Concerto and Vancouver Symphony steps up

Scandinavians love strong, robust coffee, and it was that kind impression that Elmar Oliveira created in his performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the Vancouver Symphony on Saturday afternoon (November 1) at Skyview Concert Hall. The internationally acclaimed violinist was the headliner in this orchestra’s second concert of the season, which also featured a lively, uptempo rendition of Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture” and evocative playing of the Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony.

Oliveira has been a familiar face in the Pacific Northwest, appearing with Chamber Music Northwest, the Oregon Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony. In this concert, which marked his debut with the Vancouver Symphony, he played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with assured artistry. His fleet fingers, after maneuvering through a minefield of notes, could stop on a dime and deliver a beautiful straight tone, delve into double stops, or glide into a quick glissandos with panache. What would have made the performance even better would have been some true pianissimos, because the volume level always fairly loud. Still, Oliveira’s playing won over the audience, which called him back to the stage three times.

The orchestra made an emphatically positive impression with its playing of the Prokofiev’s Symphony No.7. Right from the first bars, the strings created a lyrical yet ominous atmosphere that made one wonder where this piece (written for a children’s radio broadcast) was going to go. Overall, sound between various sections of the orchestra was very well-balanced. Even when the brass section arrived on the scene, it didn’t overpower the strings. The principal members of the orchestra excelled in the many exposed passages of the second movement, and under the direction of music director, Salvador Brotons, that movement came to an exciting close. A number of fine solos punctuated the third movement, and the fourth transitioned deftly between a variety of moods and engaging tempos.

The orchestra opened the concert with an energetic interpretation of the “Festival Overture,” one of Shostakovich’s most popular, short pieces. Brotons set the ensemble on a brisk pace that made the piece energetic and engaging. The sound of the strings got a tad blurred in the fastest sections, but the brass section was snappy, and principal clarinetist Igor Shakhman whipped through stream of notes with ease.

I haven’t heard the Vancouver Symphony in a couple of years, but based on this concert, it seems that the orchestra has made some excellent strides forward with better intonation and execution. The positive changes bode well for the orchestra, and people who haven’t heard them in a while should check them out.
Oliveira signing CDs during intermission

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Sáinz-Villegas' Concierto de Aranjuez is everything one could hope for

Pablo Sáinz-Villegas
The Oregon Symphony's Monday November 28th concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was an evening of principally Latin music centered around Joaquín Rodrigo's famous Concierto de Aranjuez,  featuring New York-based Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz-Villegas as soloist.

The first offering was Three Latin American Dances by contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. The first movement (Introduction: Jungle Jaunt) began with a flurry of an exposition that quickly developed into suggestive programmatic elements: one could almost see a trail of army ants as the timpani constantly rambled up and down, and ominous thunder could be heard in the background.  The second movement (Highland Harawi) was spellbinding...use of rainsticks and spooky bongos over eerie, ever-present glissandi from the strings painted an evocative picture. As a haunting melody issued from the violas and cellos, occasional plinking from a wood block created a foggy atmospher, a sense of creeping, sinuous menace. The last movement (The Mestizo Waltz) was rambunctious, feeling like spaghetti western music. This piece was a real treat, and kudos must go to the percussion section for a spectacular job with a dizzying array of instruments. It was almost like a percussion concerto at times and it was extremely well done.

Sáinz-Villegas began the Rodrigo with an understated flourish that gave a taste of what was to was marvelous for this quality of sound to be so present at the end of a piano phrase with an orchestra in the background. The booming, glorious rasgueado themes that make the opening so famous were not overdone--they were bold, exclamatory, but not bombastic. An incredible sense of balance was one of the key features of Sáinz-Villegas' playing.

In order for the transportative power of this concerto to be truly felt it must be realized in the hands of a master, and Sáinz-Villegas is just such a maestro. It would be impossible to wring any more emotion from the second movement--pure passion, yet controlled lamentation, if there is such a thing. The intense, tremulous vibrato he employed, the ancient Moorish modes that cry out from the depths of Spanish music like ghosts of a time long past made the end of the movement feel like waking from a half-remembered dream.

By the last movement it was clear that this performance was almost an embarrassment of riches. On display in was Sáinz-Villegas deliberateness of articulation, coupled with a deftness and purity of line such that every chord voicing was crystal clear and balanced--there was nothing missing from the rich, deep tapestry. Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez has become almost inarguably the most beloved guitar concerto in the repertoire for good reason. That fact, coupled with the unequaled expressivity and technical brilliance of  Sáinz-Villegas and the consummate skill of the OSO under Carlos Kalmar's all combined to create an unforgettable experience. The applause afterward was tremendous, even for a city like Portland which is not know for being stingy with praise. Every bit of it, and more, was well-deserved. What can one say but thank you, Señor Sáinz-Villegas. Thank you, thank you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Violinist Mark O'Connor digs into resume of the founder of Suzuki Method and finds lots of misleading errors

Documentation showing that Suzuki was not accepted by Klinger as a student. See O'Connor's blog for complete details.
It turns out that Schinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method which has taught millions of kids how to play the violin, really padded his resume with lots of factual errors. He had claimed that Albert Einstein was his guardian and that he studied for eight years during the 1920s as a student of Karl Klinger at the Berlin Hochschule. Violinist Mark O'Connor, in his blog Parting Shots has found out that none of this is true and levels some critical comments at the Suzuki method in general.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

David Hattner discusses what is on tap for the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s 91st season

David Hattner and Ted Botsford at PYP rehearsal
The Portland Youth Philharmonic enters its 91st season with a full head of steam, coming off a summer season that included a well-received debut at Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival and an enthusiastic performance at Portland’s Waterfront Park Concert. If you don’t believe me regarding the orchestra’s appearance in Chicago, then check out this review in the Chicago Tribune.

Led by David Hattner, who is now starting his seventh year as the Musical Director, the musicians of the PYP are looking forward to another exciting season of concerts at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I met with Hattner on a Monday evening at Jackson Middle School to discuss the upcoming season of the PYP and the Camerata PYP, which is the orchestra’s chamber ensemble.

The PYP’s opens the season on Saturday, November 8th at the Schnitz. What do you have planned for that concert?

Hattner: We are opening with “Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s “Gotterdamerung.” It’s a difficult piece with some horn solos and we will have some specialized rehearsals.

We’ve invited Ted Botsford from the Oregon Symphony to perform John Harbison’s Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, which is probably a Portland and Oregon premiere. It’s a terrific piece, brilliantly written and smartly orchestrated. You’ll be surprised and delighted by the novel sonorities and the virtuosic wizardry from the double bass. This will be the first Harbison piece that I have done with the orchestra. By the way, Harbison’s teacher was Walter Piston at Harvard, and we will be doing Piston’s Second Symphony later in the season.

Ted has been a wonderful mentor for our bass players. He coaches the PYP section, the PYCO section, and the free double bass class. It’s a great opportunity that is open to all young students.

Also on the program are Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” a wonderful work that that will present a lot of challenges for every section of the orchestra.

What is in store for the annual Concert-at-Christmas on December 26th?

Hattner: Instead of playing a bunch of shorter pieces like we often do as part of our set on the concert, we will perform “Till Eulenspiegel” by Richard Strauss. That’s a hard piece, and some of the orchestra members have already been practicing it during the summer. We’ll be onstage after the alumni orchestra, the young string ensemble, the wind ensemble, and the conservatory orchestra. It’s a wonderful concert that shows the full spectrum of what happens under the PYP umbrella.

In March, you’ll offer the Winter Concert.

Hattner: We will be performing Brahms Third Symphony. That is the hardest and most mature of his symphonies. It is rarely done by youth orchestras, and the PYP hasn’t performed it since 1977. It contains extraordinary difficult writing for the orchestra, and musically it is enigmatic – all of the movements end softly – and requires a lot of patience. It is one of my favorite symphonies of all.

That concert will also feature our concerto competition winner, Maia Hoffman who will play the Walton Vioa Concerto, and we will play the 1919 version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite.” It is a magical work that has become part of the standard repertoire for orchestras. I don’t think that any other orchestra in the area has this piece scheduled; so we hope to attract new listeners with it.

The PYP season winds up in May with your Spring Concert.

Hattner: We will start that concert with Piston’s Second Symphony. This will be the first time that our orchestra has played this work. Piston had a large stature in the musical world. He taught at Harvard for decades. His students included Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, and a whole generation of composers. He wrote four textbooks on harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and analysis that are still standards. He was also one of the first Americans who worked with Nadia Boulanger.

We’ve paired the Piston Second with Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” which depicts the prairie, a frontier town, a gun fight, the death of Billy the Kid, and other scenes. Copland was another composer who studied under Boulanger, and this piece is the concert suite version of the ballet score. The concert will also feature the winners of our solo competition, which are for the short works, but they are required to learn works composed by Americans. So, that’s a twist of the normal competition, because they won’t be doing something from the standard solo repertoire. We are including Ernest Bloch as an American – he became a citizen after moving here – to increase the number of available works.

So we think that there is something for everyone in the season of concerts that we will do. The Harbison and the Piston symphonies are the most unfamiliar, but they are very approachable and are not austere. Everyone interested in orchestral works will want to hear these pieces.

What is on tap for the Camerata PYP concerts?

Hattner: That series will be held at Weiden+Kennedy. The first concert, on January 25th, will feature Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6” with the two viola solos. Mozart’s “Serenade No. 11 for Wind Octet” is also on the program. It has pairs of clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and French horns. We’ll also play Georges Enescu’s “Octet for Strings,” which is a big, amazing piece that he wrote when he was 19 years old. Enescu’s music is not played as much as it used to be, but he is one of the greatest musicians in history. He was an incredible violinist and pianist and a prodigy composer as well. If you study his “Octet for Strings,” you will find that the contrapuntal writing is as accomplished as any done by the great masters. The work has 13 or 14 separate themes that are introduced the first movement, and there are also double fugues in the piece. There’s so much going on that you can’t absorb it all in one hearing. I am hoping to create an educational video that will introduce the themes and how they appear in different part of the piece. They are utterly transformed, but if you hear them at the beginning, you can catch them as they go by later.

I’m hoping that the Enescu will interest people in the second Camerata concert in May, which will feature his “Dectet for Winds.” It has two wind quintets and sounds like Strauss. We’ve paired that piece by Efrain Amaya called “Angelica.” It’s a lovely rhapsody that is crying out for choreography. It’s a relatively new piece. The composer contacted me on LinkedIn, asking me to listen to some of his works. This was the first one that I heard, and I loved it. It starts out a bit like Stravinsky, but it has a Latin flavor and a rhythmic energy that I found appealing, plus a fugue. We don’t hear any of that anymore. Amaya was born in Venezulea but now lives in the US.

We will also play a piece entitled “Tree” by Jonathan Newman, who is a local composer. This work is for string orchestra, and that will be followed by Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso No. 1” for string orchestra. That’s another terrific work that more people should hear.


While at Jackson Middle School, I heard some of the other ensembles in the PYP umbrella. Here are a couple of pictures that I took:
Larry Johnson conducting the Wind Ensemble

Paul Ghun Kim conducting the Young String Ensemble

Friday, October 24, 2014

Bach Cantata Choir to open season with part of B Minor Mass and works of Buxtehude and Zelenka

Portland's own Bach Cantata Choir will present the Kyrie section of Bach's B Minor Mass and his Cantata #177 along with works of Buxtedhude and Zelinka this Sunday at 2pm at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church in NE Portland. The concert, which will feature a chamber orchestra, is free, but donations are gladly accepted. Caveat emptor: I sing in the choir's tenor section.

Here is a poster that will give you all of the particulars:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Stefanovich gives stellar performance of works by Messiaen, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and Ligeti in Portland Piano International recital

© Frank Alexander Rümmele
Tamara Stefanovich performed one of the most intriguing piano concerts that I’ve ever heard on Monday evening (October 20) at Lincoln Hall. Her concert, sponsored by Portland Piano International, paired older works with newer works in a way that connected with the audience. The first half of the program consisted to two works by Olivier Messiaen that sandwiched one by Franz Liszt, and the second half layered etudes by Sergei Rachmaninov and György Ligeti. All of the pieces were played brilliantly by Stefanovich, but the exchange of etudes left the biggest impression of the evening. That’s because Stefanovich found the core of emotion in the Rachmaninoff’s music, which seemed to look to the past, and also in Ligeti’s, which seemed to look into the future. But the other big factor was that the Ligeti pieces were so engagingly strange.

The program notes, written by Elizabeth Schwartz, and the introductory comments and demos by Stefanovich were very helpful in appreciating the music, especially in regards to the Ligeti etudes. For example, in his Étude No. 3 “Touches bloquées” (“Blocked Keys”), the pianist has to use one hand to quietly press down on a group of keys in order to block notes played by the other hand. In his Etude No. 15 “White on White,” only the white keys are played. In some of the piece, Ligeti throws in random notes that apparently have no relationship at all to the other notes flying by, and Stefanovich, in her remarks, noted that the composer was basically trying to trip up the pianist.

Stefanovich’s pairing of six Ligeti études with six by Rachmaninoff worked superbly. In fact, each seemed to expand the sonic landscape of the other. She deftly explored colors and feelings in the Rachmaninov selections, but each one seemed to segue naturally to world of Ligeti. Starting with Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, Op, 33 No. 1 in F minor, Stefanovich brought out the descending bass line yet kept it balanced with the playful melody in the treble. This was followed by hectic nimbleness of Ligeti’s “Blocked Keys,” which ended in with a funny way that caused some in the audience to chuckle.

Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, Op, 33 No. 2 in C Major was impeccably played by Stefanovich, who exhibited marvelous control of trills and notes that danced around the keyboard while bringing out the melodic line. She followed this with Ligeti’s Étude No. 10, “Der Zauberlehring” (“The Apprentice Magician”), which featured a helter-skelter of staccato notes with a sustained note here and there. Both pieces taken together were truly magical.

An so it continued with four of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op. 39 (Nos. 1, 4, 8, and 9) that were juxtaposed with Ligeti’s Études Nos. 15, 8, 2, and 13. Stefanovich created colorful sonic landscapes with the Rachmaninov, controlling the dynamics and playing with verve. The Legiti selections were usually witty and spirited – the last one (“The Devil’s Staircase”) ended up in a jazzy chase scene.

The first half of the concert began with Messiaen’s “Le courlis cendré” from “Catalogue d’oiseaux” (“Curlew” from “Catelog of Birds”). The music reflected a series of bird songs that varied in loudness and softness. Stefanovich’s playing also conveyed an impulsiveness that sounded very natural and oddly appealing.

The next piece was Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing”), which is the title of one J. S. Bach’s cantatas. The music, reflecting Liszt’s emotional state after having lost two children, seesaws from bold, demonstrative statements to exquisitely delicate passages. Stefanovich played wild arpeggios with élan and the tender, lyric sections with grace. But the best part was the long, Bach-like chorale. It was glorious and seemed to assuage some of the turmoil.

From Messiaen’s “Quatre études de rythme” (“Four Rhythm Studies”), Stefanovich played the “Ile de feu I” and “Ile de Feu II” (“Isle of Fire 1 and II”). These pieces , dedicated to Papua New Guinea and its people, were quite explosive with all sorts of bizarre and eccentric sounds. At times Stefanovich hands were at the extreme opposite ends of the keyboard. The music became almost disjointed during the section that made me think of someone who suffered from Tourette syndrome. But that was all part of Messiaen’s design to convey the “ferocious and violent” spirit of the Papua New Guinea.

The audience went wild after the Stefanovich concluded the final Ligeti étude. She gave two encores and the second one was Claude Debussy’s “Étude 6 “pour les huit doigts” (“Eight fingers”). I didn’t catch the name of the first one, but both were virtuosic, and Stefanovich played them with panache. She is a tremendous talent, and hopefully we will see her again soon in Portland

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Well-balanced cast and striking production make Seattle Opera’s “Don Giovanni” a must-see

Nicolas Cavallier as the title character in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” received superb treatment at McCaw Hall on Saturday evening in Seattle Opera’s season opening performance. A wonderfully balanced cast, crisp stage directions by Chris Alexander, excellent conducting by Gary Thor Wedow, and an inventive set designed by Robert Dahlstrom (that was made for Seattle Opera back in 2007) combined to make this production exceptional – even though there were a few noticeable glitches.

The principals were top notch. In the title role, French baritone Nicolas Cavallier had a self-assured and devil-may-care swagger that made his character strangely appealing and revolting at the same time. Erik Anstine deftly created the tormented, yet dutiful servant Leporello. As Donna Anna, Canadian Erin Wall won over everyone’s hearts with a combination of dignity, sorrow, and anger. Lawrence Brownlee’s Don Ottavio was the perfect good guy. As the Don’s rejected lover, Donna Elvira, Elizabeth Caballero wonderfully alternated between angry determination and craven desire. Cecelia Hall created a fetchingly naïve yet also manipulative Zerlina, and Evan Boyer was totally convincing as her disappointed and disdainful fiancé Masetto. In the role of the Commendatore, Jordan Bisch anchored his basso profundo voice with cold conviction.

Erin Wall (Donna Anna) and Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo

Vocally, these were exceptionally well-matched singers, and the numerous ensemble numbers were unusually well-balanced in terms of volume and tone. But if I were to highlight one singer above the others, it was Wall who excelled the most because of the beautiful vocal line and emotion that she put into every phrase and especially in “Or sai chi l’onore” (“Now you know”).

Wedow paced the orchestra very well and never let the orchestra overpower the singers. However, things got a bit out of sync when a small onstage ensemble appeared from the left side. They may have been a bit late on the scene. In any case, it made the dance music a bit loopy for a few bars. It should be noted that Wedow also did double-duty by playing the harpsichord. The only odd thing was that it sounded a bit dull. Perhaps that was due to where I was sitting.

Under the direction of Alexander, the story flowed in a natural way that was easy to follow. One of the most fun people to watch was Caballero who started out very zealous, serious but gradually revealed that that she still loved the Don and then went head over heels when she thought that she had him again in her grasp.

Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
The main feature of Dahlstrom’s set design was a large wall with an assortment of panels of different sizes that could open as doors and windows. The largest panel opened straight upwards to reveal the digital gallery of nude paintings that graced Don Giovanni’s home, and Leporello got several chuckles as he used a remote to flip through all of them. For the climactic scene, the entire wall splintered from top to bottom so that the Commandante can appear and ask for Don Giovanni. It was a spectacular scene.

Everything went seamlessly except for a Microsoft Windows desktop image with icons on the left side and a toolbar on the bottom right – which was briefly superimposed over the large wall.

The principals and the chorus (most of the time) wore modern costumes designed by Marie-Therese Cramer, but the servants as well as the onstage musicians wore 18th century costumes and wigs. On the one hand, this incongruity in dress seemed very odd, but on the other hand, it did extend the framework of the story from Mozart’s time into the present.

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
The performance was marked by an unfortunate disturbance in the audience during the scene when the Commendante appeared in order to claim Don Giovanni. One of the patrons on the main floor tried to make a hasty exit but fell down as he tried to go up the aisle. The poor fellow didn’t get back up, and some nearby concerned patrons, including Seattle Opera's new general director Aidan Lang, immediately attended to him. Emergency personnel arrived a few minutes later and talked to him in low voices while the opera continued unabated. As the flames of hell consumed the stage, the man got up and sat down in a device that allowed him to be carried out. The emergency crew and the nearby audience members deserve credit for taking swift yet courteous action. They deserved a round of applause and hopefully the ill man has recovered fully.

This terrific production, planned years ahead by Speight Jenkens who just retired, marks the first opera under the reign of Lang. Glitches aside, it is one of the best “Don Giovanni’s” that I have ever experienced, and I would encourage opera lovers to see one of the remaining productions (Oct. 22, 25, 29, 31, and Nov. 1).

Monday, October 20, 2014

Composer Stephen Paulus dies at age 65

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Stephen Paulus passed away at the age of 65. He had been in a coma for the past two years after suffering a  stroke. Paulus wrote the opera "The Postman Always Rings Twice" as well as nine other operas, 60 orchestral works, and 150 choral pieces. In 1973, he founded the American Composers Forum.

I sang some of his music when I was a member of the Portland Symphonic Choir. He had a wonderful talent.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lamsma stunning in Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony and guest conductor Francis

It was great to see British conductor Michael Francis back at the Schnitz on Saturday, October 11th. He turned in terrific concerts in his Oregon Symphony debut with only 24-hours’ notice in February of 2011 and again with just a couple of weeks’ notice in April of 2011. This time, he was on the regular schedule to lead the orchestra in works by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. The highlight of the evening, however, belonged to Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto.

Completed in 1945, Korngold’s Violin Concerto is a late, late Romantic work with expansive melodies and room to emote. Lamsma opened the piece with a warm and inviting tone that swept up the audience into a lush, uplifting terrain. She was equally adept at creating a sweet sound in the slower second movement and brought out the emotional content of the subdued passages. For the third movement, her playing was carefree yet totally spot on as she whipped through the wickedly difficult prestissimo sections, including some deft transitions that featured whispery high phrases. Niel DePonte added just the right amount of additional sonic color with his contributions on the xylophone.

The odd piece on the program was Stravinsky’s “Orpheus,” which he wrote for Georges Balanchine as a ballet (premiered in 1948) in three scenes with twelve episodes. Some scholars feel that this work with its incredibly restrained and austere style represents the high point in Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. No kidding. Even with the help of projected titles it was difficult to experience the music in terms of telling the Greek legend of Orpheus going into Hades to retrieve his bride Eurydice only to lose her at the last moment. Except for one brief forte blast, the entire piece was played with the volume varying mildly between piano and mezzo piano. A bar of silence marked the crucial moment after Eurydice falls dead after Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes and gazes back at her. And the Maenads (female worshipers of Dionysus)violent attack on Orpheus was conveyed by mild pizzicatos and dampened staccato lines. Perhaps this piece can grow on a person after being heard multiple times, but tepid and almost distant sonic qualities seem to be a week interpretation for such a potent tale. Apparently Balanchine wanted to choreograph the story in terms of stations like “stations of the cross.” So the arid, static style that Stravinsky created was just the right thing. In any case, the orchestra played with pristine clarity, and there were many highlights, including the weeping sound of Orpheus from Jennifer Craig’s harp, a duet by oboists Martin Hebert and Karen Wagner, a duet by concertmaster Sarah Kwak and flutist Jessica Sindell, solos by cellist Nancy , Kyle Mustain (English horn, flutist Sindell, and a mournful final lament from the horns and trumpeter Jeffery Work.

The orchestra delivered a spirited performance of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), delightfully shifting between the serious and humorous moods in the music. John Cox, principal horn, played the prankster’s signature tune with élan. The percussion battery raised havoc. The strings put a little extra sashay into the waltzy passages, the flutes danced about playfully, the bassoons grumbled, the brass and snare drums put their feet down, and clarinetist Mark Dubac, created the final squeal on behalf of Til.

The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 is a little gem – a symphony in one movement that passes by in less than ten minutes. Francis chose to conduct the piece without a baton and that worked very well. Under Francis, the orchestra played with elegance and refinement, but it seemed that some of passages could have used more dynamic nuance (for example, push the tempo forward and bring it back) just to take things up another notch.

Overall, even considering the severe unemotional flow of the Stravinsky piece, the orchestra played extremely well under Francis, and it would be a pleasure to hear him and Lamsma again.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oregon Symphony and Solerno-Sonnenberg excel in edgy season opener

Guest Review by Phil Ayers

"Contemporary music is cold and calculated!" So said my music-major girlfriend long ago when I expressed my love for so-called "modern music." For me, that meant, in descending order of affection, the music of Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and a dormitory friend's recordings of the Louisville Symphony. I was on the verge of un-loving her for her crass comment, but what did I know then? We're talking about 1960 here, the year before I abandoned an English major to become a music major myself. I'd show her that not all new music was what she said it was!

Anyone familiar with Robert Whitney, conductor of the Louisville Symphony, will immediately remember what "modern music" sounded like. It was pioneering work, promoting the music of many unknown contemporary composers in the nineteen-fifties and beyond. This kind of stuff was "edgy," you might say: "Hard to listen to," someone else would opine. "Can't take it!" "Give me the Three B's any old day!" still others would pontificate.

If subscribers and ticket-holders to the Oregon Symphony September 27-29 had done their homework, they would have been prepared to hear an evening of "edgy/modern" music. Four works were presented, and only one, Beethoven's lovely little gem of a First Symphony, would qualify for the category of "Sweet Melodies." That was what a late friend said she preferred as she willed us an LP record of the organ music of Messiaen someone had given her: "I like sweet melodies!" The other three pieces on the program may well have "pushed the envelope" for many attendees. But it would be nice to think that, judging from the enthusiastic reaction to violinist's Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg's reading of the fiery Shostakovich's Concerto in A Minor, even those who were skeptical about the program initially were thrilled and perhaps even converted to liking "modern" music. "Edgy"? I was on the edge of my seat during Solerno-Sonnenberg's performance.

Solerno-Sonnenberg, who, according to the program notes is something of a phenomenon in our day, having come from Italy at the age of eight to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is a visual, as well as aural, modern icon. Resplendent on Sunday evening in a striking black top with hot-red pants and heels, moving about the stage as though in a trance when she wasn't playing, very much "with" this complicated and difficult music at all times, involved athletically, she gave a performance that truly "wowed" us. That's exactly what I said - Wow! - as I immediately stood up to applaud at the conclusion of this wild work.

I remarked on our exit from the hall to head for home, "Gosh, she's not here signing CDs!" My wife, an excellent critic in her own right, but refusing to write this review for me, then said, "I think Nadja has probably gone to her hotel room, taken a nice, long, warm bath and gone to bed after that!"

Conductor Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human r Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human touches, such as a brief, humorous dialogue with an audience member (inaudible to me), and adjusting the extraneous parts of her bowstrings, Salerno-Sonnenberg was at the heart of this performance.

I was not present at this artist's performance of this very same work that she gave with the OSO in 1993, with conductor James DePriest. Twenty-one years ago? The skeptic might say she was ten then! Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will, we hope, return here again and again to "wow" and stun us with her stellar playing and presence.

Another contemporary work on the program was Michael Torke's Charcoal from Black and White ballet, a brief work that opened the concert, not at all "edgy" but very melodic and, some would no doubt say, after hearing the Shostakovich and Barber works, "listenable." This was its first performance by the Oregon Symphony. The Beethoven followed, with many sweet, delicate passages, well and accurately played by the ensemble. The unconventional opening to the symphony, with a seventh chord moving immediately to a tonic resolution, held our interest for the rest of this delightful work. Interesting it was to read in the notes that Beethoven studied briefly with Franz Josef Haydn but the relationship was strained and Beethoven claimed to have learned nothing. Nevertheless, the piece reveals the composer's study of Haydn's music.

The evening closed with Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" from a ballet composed in 1946 on a commission from Martha Graham. What we heard was a reconception of a longer suite that Barber made ten years earlier. The complex and tragic tale of adultery and murder is portrayed in this truly edgy and riveting music. We were sent on our way with a bang and not a whimper! No "sweet melodies" here, although the "tender Barber" could be discerned now and then.

It was a memorable evening and a superb start to a new season of the OSO classical subscription series. Oh … my former girlfriend, a fine organist, later became enamored - and studied with - Jean Langlais, the blind French organist and composer. While not necessarily "cold and calculated," he could, on more than one occasion, be "edgy" though!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kamenz delivers inspiring virtuosic performance in Portland Piano International debut

Pianist Igor Kamenz blazed his own trail in Portland, performing a very demanding program that offered an exciting contrast between the flashy Baroque style of Scarlatti and emotionally exaggerated excess of Liszt. In his recital on Monday night (September 22nd) at Lincoln Hall, he used superior technique to accentuate the dynamics of each piece. It all added up to an impressive concert by the Russian native who was making his Portland debut under the auspices of Portland Piano International. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to listeners, since the 46-year-old pianist has won 18 first prizes in international competitions and made numerous recordings, but he has been so busy in Europe that made his New York debut just last month, performing in the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The first half of the concert featured ten sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti pieces, most of which Kamenz has recently recorded and released on the Naïve label. The opening sonatas (K. 96, K. 24, and K. 119) were scintillating in execution with one hand nailing 32nd notes while the other quickly sprang over the top to just touch a note. Three of the following sonatas (K. 197, K. 322, and K. 109) offered a welcome reprieve with relaxed tempos and simpler themes. Unfortunately, these quieter pieces were interfered by Kamenz’s own breathing, which took on an inexplicable wheezing quality. The next set of light-hearted and fast sonatas (K. 492, K. 17, and K. 29) were loud enough to cover any breath-marks. They had a remarkably delightful spirit that turned the tricky passages into playful adventures.

At the start of the second half of the concert, Kamenz delivered a mesmerizing decent into hell via Franz Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” (“Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”). The defiant chords, the rapid shifting of rhythm and melody, the showy and complex arpeggios, the wafting passages in upper reaches of the treble clef… it was all stunningly played by Kamenz. He created scenery of anguish and flames as well as lovely and distant sounds that seemed to come from above. It was an over-the-top performance that got everyone out of their seats in rapturous applause.

Kamenz delved into the cantabile essence of four songs by Franz Schubert that were arranged by Liszt. The first two pieces, from Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter”), provided sharply contrasting emotions from the cycle. In the hands of Kamenz, “Das Wandern” (“Wandering”) created the sense of a young lad who sets out on adventure full of hope. “Der Müller und der Bach” (“The Miller and the Brook”) created an atmosphere of loss and desperation. The gently rocking undercurrent and the main melodic line were wonderfully mixed together in Kamenz’s playing of “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (“To be sung on the Water”), but his interpretation of “Erlkönig” (“The Elf King”), with the pounding hooves, the threatening vision of the specter in the woods, the father with his son in his arms, and the sudden, tragic ending was absolutely convincing.

Another standing ovation followed, and Kamenz responded with an outstanding rendition of Bach’s Fugue No. 3 in C# Major. It was a fitting ending to a spectacular concert that PPI artistic director Arnaldo Cohen neatly summed up in his introductory remarks, welcoming the audience to “planet Kamenz.”

Scott Showalter - the new President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony - talks about his decision to come to Portland and his job

Last May, the Oregon Symphony announced that Scott Showalter would become the orchestra’s President and CEO. Showalter, who is 41 years old, brings an impressive resume with him. He is a classically trained pianist who received his undergraduate dual degree in Economics and German Studies from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has served as the Vice President for Development of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and the Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. Earlier this week, it was announced that Showalter will be participating Chief Executive Program: Community and Culture that is offered by National Arts Strategies, an acclaimed nonprofit organization for leaders in the arts.

I met with Showalter a couple of weeks ago at his office and asked him a few questions. Here is our conversation.

Why did you leave the LA Phil, Dudamel, Disney Hall, and huge budget and endowment to come and take over the Oregon Symphony?

Showalter: I’ve been in development for 20 years, and I’ve loved the work that I’ve done in higher ed and the arts. Coming to the Oregon Symphony has been an opportunity, albeit at a smaller institution but with a broader vision, to make a real difference. The product on stage at the LA Phil is superb. The budget and endowment are tops. It was excellent place for me to get my artistic professional start. Because I am a classically trained pianist and a music lover at heart, it was a natural transition to go from higher ed nonprofit administration to the LA Phil. Now in coming to Portland, it’s a chance to make a difference in a community that has an exceptional artistic product, but doesn’t have the funding. For me, as a leader, this is the real energy. With more resources we can do bigger and better things.

I wouldn’t have come to Portland if Carlos and the musicians weren’t already at a high level. Now it’s a matter of marshaling the resources and creating the vision to get people who are buying tickets excited and the people making donations excited.

Yes, there’s more opportunity to raise donations, but it’s not a matter of hiring the right fundraiser and putting him or her in the corner office and expect them to deliver. There’s opportunity on the earned revenue side of the house to sell the quality of what we are doing and the purpose of what we are doing. Why these concerts should matter. Why this music should interest the community. Why it’s not so intimidating to come to the Schnitz and hear Bach and Beethoven. I’ve been spending a preponderance of my time out in the community, meeting with arts leaders, the board, donors, patrons, and the general public.

There’s more art events being offered than ever before, and a lot of groups have increased the number of performances. That creates a very crowded field. So your effort will not be easy.

Showalter: The difference is between looking at the pool of resources as fixed versus expansive. If you assume that the greater Portland community can give only this much pie, then it’s a zero sum game. But I would argue that the pie with more product and interested patrons is bigger than we might have once considered – even in Portland. It wasn’t all that long ago that the LA Phil itself was in similar position. It needed more funds. That was before moving into Disney Hall, and expanding their programs, and developing the Hollywood Bowl in a new way. That orchestra didn’t have the sure financial footing that it has today.

It’s not that Portland is any less of a city or any less worthy. It’s just at a different stage of its development. There’s a lot of opportunity as I see it.

I know that the marketing of the performances is a tricky thing.

Showalter: We are being creative about that. Jim Fullan our Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Sales, and I talk about how to get the word out through new channels. Carlos and I, a couple of weeks ago, were at the Hillsboro Hops game. He conducted a group of adult marching band musicians in the “Star Spangled Banner” and then again during the seventh inning stretch. We were up on the big screen and got some good press coverage. It was a new way to get Carlos’s face out in the community. Tonight I’m going to the OHSU gala at the invitation of one of our donors to promote an auction item on behalf of OHSU that will garner attention. There are many ways to get out the message.

The expansion of the Waterfront Concert into an all-day event is part of this. Our thought, when I talked to the mayor about the concert, is that the grant we received is not about the Oregon Symphony. It costs a lot of money to put on that event, there’s cleaning up after dogs and geese, permitting the big stage that takes four days to set up, the sound system, the musicians… we thought that this would be a terrific platform to engage our community partners. So we put on a music festival. It started in the afternoon with the 234th National Army Band of the Oregon National Guard, followed by several youth groups, Portland Taiko, Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet. Of course, the Oregon Symphony with the cannons and the fireworks provided the grand finale, but the grant gave us the chance to convene a music festival, and that was a great way to give back to the community.

Your predecessor, Elaine Calder, was noted for coming out on the stage at Oregon Symphony concerts and introducing the orchestra to the audience. Do you plan on doing that?

Showalter: I do! I plan to do that for every classical concert and many of the specials. It’s a great way to put a face on the organization and brag about the orchestra.

Speaking of specials, I’ve got a couple of friends who think that the orchestra is relying too much on popular artists. They want the orchestra to play more new, serious music.

Showalter: We would love to do more new music and help to advance the art form that is classical music. We just need more money. Just to wax philosophical for a moment – as a general rule, people buy tickets to music that they know. So, anything that is new – a commission or a piece that they’ve never heard before – makes people reluctant to buy tickets. If you are in a position where you have to squeeze every last dollar out of every of performance, then you don’t have the luxury to do it for the good of the art form, because you have to sell out the hall. On the other hand, if we are not doing new music, this art form dies. Music has been evolving for hundreds of years. At one point Beethoven was new, and Mahler was new. We want to build to new serious music. It’s just going to take more money.

Are things working well with Carlos?

Showalter: Connecting with Carlos is one of the key factors in making my decision to take this job. He and I have spent a lot of time together while I’ve been here, introducing me to board members and donors. He has hosted me at his house for dinner, we did the Hillsboro Hops game together, we’ve spent a lot of time together. It’s all good and a lot of fun. He is going to be a great partner.

I’m also enjoying going to rehearsals and meeting the musicians. I stuck around for most of the rehearsal at the Waterfront. I’ll be hearing them at our concerts, and at concerts around town. I recently heard our concertmaster Sarah Kwak play at All Classical FM. That was fun.

How did you even hear about this job?

Showalter: Thomas Lauderdale is a good friend of a good friend of mine. Pink Martini performed at the Hollywood Bowl a little over a year ago, and that was when I met Norman Leyden for the first time. He was giving his Bowl debut. Because of the mutual friend who was at the concert serendipitously – he doesn’t live in LA or Portland, I got to be friends with Thomas and the band for the three nights that they were performing at the Bowl. Since I was vice president of development, I was backstage a lot at the Bowl. It wasn’t long after that that Thomas was encouraging me to consider coming to Portland. It took many months of discussion, but it all worked out.

Now that you’ve been in Portland for a little while, have you made any surprising discoveries?

Showalter: The most surprising and heartening thing that I found is how receptive other arts leaders are to my presence. In other cities you might find the opera and the orchestra are a bit competitive, or the art museum and the performing arts world try as much as possible to distinguish themselves to retain board members and our donor base. Here I’m finding that from Portland Center Stage to the Art Museum to OBT to the Opera… everyone is welcoming me with open arms, introducing me to their patrons and board members and thinking about what it means to collaborate. That’s pretty unique. I didn’t expect that.

I’m an avid cyclist. I’ve been getting out and exploring the hills around Portland. I’m a climber; so I’ve been enjoying how easy it is to get to the hills right outside my door on the West side of town.

I’m a beer connoisseur. So I’m in beer mecca here.

But you don’t have the beer gut!

Showalter: That’s the only reason I cycle! So that I can drink more beer. [Laughs!] I love coffee too. I just downed my third cup. I love the culinary scene here.

The environment, culture, and allure of Portland means that it is on the upswing. It’s great to be here and have this opportunity.