Saturday, February 22, 2020
Sunday, February 9, 2020
The February 6 and 8, 2020 program of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) featured work of J.S. Bach sandwiched between two works by retro-Romantic English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (RVW).
The first piece was RVW’s 1938 “Serenade to Music” for orchestra, chorus and four soloists. This is a gorgeous paean to music, based on a scene from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Like most of RVW’s music, it is lush, thick, and tonal, with little that offends the ear. That is not to say the music is insipid or uninspired; rather it is the epitome of lyrical Romanticism, polished and refined. If Downton Abbey were to come alive and begin humming some music, one might think that it would be an RVW composition. The soloists were generally good. Soprano Maria Valdes has a warm voice that struggles to maintain control in its highest register; Mezzo Sofia Selowsky, tenor Norman Shankle and baritone, Morgan Smith sang with skill. The approximately 50-voice Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus performed consistent with its fine reputation and it served to burnish the sound of the Serenade.
Jumping to the end of the program, the ASO, under Robert Spano, played RVW’s Symphony No. 5. Written in 1943 it is 39 minutes worth of glorious orchestral sounds that are like wrapping one’s ears in warm velvet. RVW did not have the knack for melody as Schubert, Brahms, or Rachmaninoff, but his music hearkens back to French folk music, a technique likely learned from his teacher Maurice Ravel. RVW’s orchestrations are rarely flashy, but never lacking charm. The ASO played magnificently and Spano shaped a most luxurious sound.
The program’s middle work, J. S. Bach’s Cantata 29 “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir,” BWV 29. The four soloists from the RVW “Serenade,” sat on the far left side of the stage. Each had to walk to center stage to sing. A baroque concert organ joined the pared down ASO as did the Chamber Chorus. The first movement Sinfonia is familiar since Bach also used it in his “Partita for Violin.” This was what could be described as a turbid performance. It was like Bach as a Romantic, sounding much like Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions for full orchestra of the master’s lean, elegant music. The Chorus was too large; reducing it by two-thirds might have worked better. Reducing the number of ASO musicians by a third might have made the performance hew a bit closer to the Baroque spirit. Even solo instrumentalists seemed as if they were playing music written a century after Bach lived. The vocal soloists performed well, although tenor Shankle did not seem comfortable singing in the original German. At times, Spano looked as if he was reminded that he was conducting Bach and he tried in short bursts to generate some orchestral energy, but it was not to happen. This was not the ASO’s finest effort. The Symphony Hall audience responded with tepid applause.
The good news, however, is that Atlanta is fortunate to have two really good period orchestras (The New Trinity Baroque, and the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra) that play authentically.
Friday, January 17, 2020
Atlanta, arguably the cultural hub of the southeast United States rarely hosts touring symphony orchestras. When one does visit, it usually attracts a large audience and this was the case with the touring London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. The concert was held at Emory University’s 825-seat Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the acoustics of which are as good as can be found in the Atlanta area. The auditorium has a tall, shoebox design with minimal balcony overhang and it can be tuned to adapt to performance needs. It also has a large stage that can accommodate various size ensembles, including a full symphony orchestra.
© Esther Haase
The RPO was founded by the legendary Sir Thomas Beecham in 1946 and is one of London’s five main orchestras. Its fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, but judging by its concert here, it is again on a strong artistic footing.For the complete review, go here:
Sunday, December 15, 2019
The Christmas season fills church pews and concert hall seats. Even if one is not religious nor a fan of classical music, attending church and a concert seems a reasonable leap, once a year, without a great investment of time or attention. And in the concert hall, most symphony orchestras play familiar, pretty music that requires minimal attention or understanding.
In Lincoln, NE, the eight voices of Dulces Voces mounted a holiday program title “Nowell,” with guest performers the Lincoln Early Music Consort (LEMC) . The concert, held at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, was well-attended- there may have been upwards of 250 people in the audience. Yet, with the exception of four sing-along pieces, sprinkled throughout the program, most of the music was unfamiliar, dating as early as 1521. In fact, there were 25 works on the program and most were relatively short, with the longest being approximately 10 or 11 minutes. The program was designed to provide a set by of songs by Dulces Voces, alternating with a set from the LEMC, followed by a set with both, and then a short set of familiar Christmas Carols that the audience was invited to sing.
The Dulces Voces are quite accomplished singers who blend nicely, although there was a slight tendency for the tenors to be prominent, which may have been a function of my seating location.
Tenor Jon Gathje was featured in the work Nowell We Sing (anonymous 15th Century) His voice was startlingly clean and rich and would have been at home in a medieval church chanting plainsong. The acoustics of Holy Trinity is not cathedral-like but warm and hospitable. The group also presented the world premiere performance of Nicholas Lemme’s 2017 A solis ortus cardine (Latin for “From the pivot of the Sun’s Rising”- a poem from the fifth century by Coelius Sedulius). Lemme is a Lincoln-based composer of choral music and he is also Professor of Music at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in nearby Denton Nebraska (a beautiful Romanesque Revival facility located a hilltop with a commanding view of the countryside). Solis seemed right at home with the music from 400-uears ago. It was indeed anachronistic, but no less beautiful.
The LEMC performs with period (or period appropriate instruments) that have a warm timbre, and which are prone to be difficult to tune and stay-in-tune. It’s an auditory joy to hear the golden sound of the wooden wind instruments, such as the recorder. The LEMC uses a variety of viols that are equally mellow sounding. The krummhorn was featured in La Volente (Pierre Attaingnant from around the mid 1500’s). The horn’s kazoo-like sound rattles and buzzes, and is thoroughly enjoyable, at least of a while! Baritone Michael Tully join the LEMC for two songs. Tully graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2013 and has performed across musical genres. His voice is rich and strong; his intonation and articulation are wonderful.
The Voces sang an encore of “Thistlehair the Christmas Bear.” It ended the evening on a humorous note and was just right for the children in the audience.
This was an enjoyable holiday program that for the great majority of it gave the audience an opportunity to hear centuries’ old music. That, in itself, was a worthy accomplishment.
Lincoln Early Music Consort
Holy Trinity, Lincoln, NE
Lincoln Early Music Consort
Holy Trinity, Lincoln, NE
at 1:36 PM
Friday, December 6, 2019
Kevin MacLeod is an American composer and musician. He has composed thousands of royalty-free music pieces and made them available under a Creative Commons copyright license. His licensing options allow anyone to use his music for free as long as he receives attribution (credit), which has led to his music being used in thousands of films. His music is also available for download from YouTube.com for video productions.
Sunday, November 24, 2019
The Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten was broadcast in high definition to theaters around the country. The director was Phelim McDermott and it was headlined by counter Anthony Roth Costanzo. The production was originally created by the English National Opera and the LA Opera.
Akhnaten was composed by Glass in 1983, with a libretto by Glass in association with Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell, and Jerome Robbins. The current production was first performed in London in March 2016. It is written in Glass’ early style that he describes as “music with repetitive structures.” It uses melodic chord progressions, undergirded or surrounding by swirling arpeggios, all of which slowly migrate into another melody and so on. Some dislike it immensely and call it un-musical and others find it to be compelling and transfixing. I go with the latter. I experience Glass’ music as hypnotic and reverie-inducing. Since I first heard his works performed (in Lincoln, Nebraska in the early 1980s), I have mostly been a fan.
The Met performance was absolutely stunning. The costumes were breathtaking, including garments that were a mashup of styles, e.g, heavy baroque fabrics with gold thread, highlighted by various doll faces that have a modern expressionist look. In Akhnaten’s wedding to Nefertiti, both wore brilliant red oufits with trains that were half the stage’s width. The sun was resented by a large white balloon that became a brilliant red. The stage had various levels, where the chorus was placed. A large, LED-lit picture-frame like structure ascended and descended to act almost like a halo for the King and for his father, as he speaks from the afterlife. The Met Orchestra was conducted by Karen Kamensk, a Glass colleague and aficionado.
Sopran J’Nai Bridges performed the role of Nefertiti; soprano Disella Larusdottir was Akhnaten’s mother, Queen Tye; tenor Aaron Blake was the High Priest of Amon; bass Richard Bernstein was Aye; Baritone Will Liverman was Horemhab; and Zachary James played the King’s father, Amenhotep III. James’ role was non-singing and he is an imposing figure on stage.
But no doubt the star of the show was Costanzo. His countertenor was clear, uncolored, and unforced. He is in great physical condition and it was a wonder to see him use his entire upper body, from his diaphragm to his mouth, to generate his exquisite sound. He ascended and descended steps with sure foot, and he never looked look down to ensure his steps were certain.
Most of the actions on stage were very slow and deliberate requiring both concentration and balance, with the exception of James’, who often used his hands and arms extensively as he addressed the audience. Jugglers were introduced in this production, and their actions mimicked Glass’ swirling musical figures.
For me, this performance has the dignity and power of a three and a half-hour religious service. When Ahknaten sings praises to the sun, the music is gorgeous and the staging, which has Costanzo ascend a flight of stairs to become one with the sun, was spellbinding. If one ever needed to be reminded, opera can be so powerful because of the melding of music, story, and performance and in the hands of great performers, it can be an exalted experience. This was that, and more. It combined the hypnotic spell that is Glass’ music with modern theater that revered a major historic figure, by creating a remarkably creative vision.
To see videos, go here: https://www.metopera.org/season/2019-20-season/akhnaten/