Monday, October 9, 2017

Othello .

In the United States, there is a saying: “Go big, or go home.” This week’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was an example of “Going big and almost not going home.” As it has done over the several past seasons, the ASO artistic leadership decided to stage an opera in a concert setting with no props, no scenery, no costumes and almost no acting. Instead, there is simply chorus, soloists, and orchestra. For the complete review click here:

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Atlanta Chamber Players return for a new season....

The Atlanta Chamber Players (ACP), the premier chamber group in the city, returned for their 2017/2018 season, with a program titled "A Celebration of Beethoven!"  The concert was held at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, the acoustics of which seemed to color the sound of the performance, at least from my seat.  The ceiling of the sanctuary contains many odd angle wooden planes, l held up by large wooden beams.  To my ears, many of the wonderful overtones that give musical instruments their warmth and timbre were swallowed by the wooden surfaces and reflective angles.  Thus, David Coucheron's wonderful Stradivarius violin sounded a bit brash, with the midrange sounds emphasized at the expense of the warmth-giving harmonics.  I suspect that other locations in the church may have had very different sound characteristics because of the differing reflections of the many-planed ceiling.

The program began with Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano No 1 in D major, Op 12 No.1.  This early work by the master definitely reflects the influence of his teachers Haydn and Salieri. It is bright, pleasant, and a lifetime away from his later works.  The performance started with the piano dominating, played by Elizabeth Pridgen, but after the first few minutes, a nice balance was achieved between the violin and piano.  Both Coucheron and Pridgen command their instruments and both produce intense performances with grand volume.  Nevertheless, their attention to dynamics was noticeable, in spite of the energy of their performance.

The next work as Beethoven's Trio in B-Flat major, Op 11.  This Trio was composed in the same time frame as the Sonata and it also reflects the influence of Haydn and Salieri on their student, so it tends toward the elegant and melodic, with no foretaste of the "Sturm and Drang" to come in Beethoven's later works.  The Trio is full of beautiful music, with a charming second-movement Adagio, and a wonderful third-movement featuring a set of variations on an operatic theme by Wiegl. Alcides Rodriguez, clarinet, joined Pridgen, and Brad Ritchie, cello in this great performance, which was slightly marred by the ending of the first movement, Allegro con brio, where the performers seemed not quite together.

The final work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, for String Sextet in D major.  Coucheron and Ritchie were joined by Helen Hwaya Kim, violin, Julianne Lee,  and Catherine Lynn, viola, and Christopher Rex, cello.  The insightful program notes to the performance by Edmund Trafford note that Tchaikovsky was best when focusing on lyrical content, and less so when trying to deal with structural design.  Souvenir is a wonderful case in point in the composer's relative strengths and weaknesses. It is full of lush melodies and harmonies, but never quite succeeds in fully developing his material to intrigue the listener's intellect as well as their emotion.  But the ACP gave its considerable musical heft to a thrilling rendition, that began large and ended the same way.  The good news about the work that it showcases each instrument at some point, which highlighted the skill of the individual musicians.  Kudos particularly to Christopher Rex for some wonderful and big cello passages.  Similarly, newcomer Julianne Lee demonstrated some robust viola playing. Tchaikovsky's big melodies received a big performance with considerable subtlety from the ACP.

The next ACP concert is on November 7, 2017, at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse with guest violinist Andres Cardenes.  For more information, go to or call 404 594 3445.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

PNME- Theater of Music...

The Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (PNME) summer season is a wonderful mashup of new music combined with theatrical flourishes.  PNME programs pieces usually played without break.  The concerts are held at Pittsburgh's City Theater near the gritty (and getting grittier all the time) Carson Street corridor.  The auditorium is in black box style, with 254-seats.  Noe takes full advantage of the theater's lighting to add to the character of the music and PNME uses a fine sound system that is used to amplify the sound of the ensemble and to perform electronic compositions or accompaniment.  

AMC attended a July 19 program titled "Got Reeds."  The soloist featured was Eric Jacobs, the Clarinet and Bass Clarinet of the Seattle Symphony, who is also a member of PNME.  The program began with a world premiere of a work by Gabriella Smith.  It featured Jacobs playing in an alcove that is about 10 to 15 feet above the stage.  This was followed by Anna Clyne's "Rapture," a clarinet solo accompanied by a pre-recorded electronic soundtrack of deep growls, swells and percussive effects.  Next was the premiere of Andrew Tholl's "takes all of the breath out of me." In this piece not only did Jacobs play his clarinets, he also sang the work's wonderfully sensual lyrics.  He has a mighty fine voice that demonstrated his interest and training as a singer.  There was also an electronic soundtrack that added to the drama.  This is a heartfelt work played with great passion by Jacobs.  The final work was David Lang's 1991 "Press Release" for bass clarinet.  It’s a work where the soloist plays both main themes and accent notes, almost as if the soloist is accompanying himself. Jacobs is a wonderful musician and he demonstrated both his musical and technical skills in this challenging program.  

On July 21, the PNME concert was title "Eyes and Ears."  It featured works by three composers (David Biedenbender, Jung Yoon Wie, and Rufus Reid) who, in conjunction with the American Composer's Forum, have been commissioned to develop pieces for PNME for the 2018 season.  All works featured spotlighted art works by artists Scott Hunter (; see especially the non-representational tab) and Val M. Cox (  Cox had previously been commissioned to create a work in memory of David Stock, the founder of PNME. The program began with Biedenbender's "Red Vesper;" a trippy homage to the setting sun in National Parks of the Western US.  Rufus Reid's jazzy "Pangea" was next, featuring Reid himself on the bass. Next was Wie's "Jindo Blues,"- a sort of jazzy piano nocturne. Biedenbender's "Cold Hard Steel," another eminently likeable piece with outstanding surround sound effects, followed. The next piece was the world premiere of "Almanac" from composer Thomas Osborne, written for PNME Bass-Baritone Timothy Jones.  The work has the soloist singing somewhat anachronistic lyrics above a contemporary musical accompaniment.  The final work was David Garner's "Glasz" for Flute, Violin Piano, and Percussion.  It is a wispy yet energetic piece that's easy to like. Then  It is a startlingly good piece of music.    

PNME and its Music Director Keven Noe never fail to present a compelling evening of music and theater.  Everything is enhanced by the lighting design of Andrew David Ostrowski and the sound design of Christopher McClumphy.  The City Theater setting also enhances the program; it is comfortable, just the right size, and flexible.  Apparently Pittsburgh appreciates PNME, given the size of the audience.  The house was nearly full. Often with new music groups there is a self-conscious need to be hip- a cool (but uncomfortable venue), really "out there" music, and taking start times as mere suggestions rather than commitments.   Much like all of Pittsburgh, PNME is hip and cool, but it is done effortlessly, almost invisibly.  It doesn't need to be world class, it just is. 

 Pittsburgh City Theater exterior
The PNME stage setting

The Musicians

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Festival Opera..

There is a silly squabble going on in Pittsburgh about the new name of the former Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.  It is now the Pittsburgh Festival Opera!  Some think it might be confused with one of the other opera companies in the city, but as Artistic Director, Jonathan Easton says " We are based in Pittsburgh.  We perform in a Festival.  And we do Opera!"  Well, that makes sense.

 Ms. Frauenthal
 Ms. McGill
 Mr. Nemzer
Mr. Moody

On July 16, 2017, the Pittsburgh Festival Opera staged a performance of Handel's 1738 "Xerxes."  This is a somewhat strange work; it begins with the King of Persia singing to a tree, ("Ombra mai fu") and it glides between being serious and comedic. In fact, the work was largely ignored after it was premiered until a revival in 1924. Overall the story and situations tend more toward the comedic, and yet it does have one of those not-so-subtle tales of the power of love.  Today, the title role is often sung by a soprano or mezzo-soprano.  In this performance Xerxes was sung by countertenor Andrey Nemzer and his brother's role was sung by another countertenor, Daniel Moody.  This was a very nice casting by the PFO and it added a bit to the comedic value of the opera. Sitting behind the stage set, the Chatham Baroque provided the orchestral accompaniment on what sounded like period instruments, all under the direction of conductor Walter Morales. The set (designed by Hank Bullington) was spare, but took advantage of projected images to enhance its look and flexibility. The costume (designed by Tony Sirk) were quite well-done.  There were two dancers, Weylin Gomez and Mils James.

Nemzer was outstanding; he commands the stage and his voice is incredibly strong.  Moody also has a fine, if less domineering, voice.  Evan Koons, James Eder and Bonnie Frauenthal were very fine singers with great comedic timing, and they did not need to resorting to slapstick to be funny.  Emily Harmon, playing Xerxes' fiancee, seemed less comfortable with the Baroque flourishes and breath control required by the music.  The dancers were a nice addition, but they were frequently not together.  Mr. Gomez, though, has wonderful extensions and he seemed truer to the music's beat.

Overall this was a great performance and a real tour de force for Nemzer.  The Pittsburgh Festival Opera is a summer delight.  They are tackling the Ring Cycle over the next few years.  Kudos to the company!

(photos:  Patti Brahim)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sometimes it all comes together....

It can be hot and humid this time of the year in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the pop-up rain showers do not calm it down. But on July 20, 2017, 1974 Unity Chapel, in Latrobe, PA hosted a beautiful respite from the heat- a cool chamber concert, sponsored by the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, in the stunning foothills of the Laurel Highlands.  The artists were the Duo Cieli (John Marcinizyn, guitar; and Tara Yaney flute) and the Ferla-Marcinizyn Guitar Duo.  The program was quite varied, ranging from the New Age-y "Evening Dance" by Andrew York to the jazz-inspired compositions of Pat Metheny, Django Reinhardt, and Robert Lamm.   The three Piazzolla pieces (Bordello, Cafe and Nightclub) and were written over a 60-year period, and as played by Duo Cieli, were less overtly tango sounding than some of the composer's other works.  There was a particularly strong performance of an arrangement for guitar of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," which the Guitar Duo managed to transform a 1960's pop song to a sophisticated and fresh work. The Irish folk-tune, "Si Beheag, Si Mhor" was spellbinding in this flute and guitar version.  The most successful work of the evening was the gorgeous "Sonata in G" by Ferdinando Carulli,  a 1770's  Italian composer who authored an early guide for guitarists.  It was stunning in the warm acoustics of this chapel.  The balance between the flute and the two amplified guitars was nearly perfect.

The three musicians who played as a group, and in varied pairings were masterful.  Ms. Yaney produced a warm, never indulgent tone. Marcinizyn and Ferla are first-rate guitar players.  They were accurate and controlled; they avoided making that sliding sound or finger squeaks that foul many a guitar performance by lesser artists. Overall this was a wonderful concert in an equally wonderful space, attended by about 200 people.  That nice turn-out is a tribute to the Westmoreland Symphony's outreach as well as for the support the community shows for Western Art Music.