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.