Friday, January 17, 2020

Quirky may be polite:

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.
Khatia Buniatishvili © Esther Haase
Khatia Buniatishvili
© 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

A not-so-traditional holiday concert...

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

                                                                Michael Tully

                                                    Holy Trinity, Lincoln, NE

                                           Dulces Voces

Friday, December 6, 2019

Meet the internet's most famous unknown composer: Kevin McLeod...

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 for video productions.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A prime experience.....

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.


Friday, November 15, 2019

An Eigth to Cherish...

Gustav Mahler- Symphony No 8 (Symphony of a Thousand)

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Atlanta Symphony Chorus
Robert Spano, Conductor

Sopranos Evelina Dobrańćeva, Erin Wall and Nicole Cabell; mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor; tenor Toby Spence; baritone Russell Braun; and bass Morris Robinson

Mahler’s 1906-Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major is a major horal work in Western Art music.   It is often called “Symphony of a Thousand,” a title eschewed by the composer. It is in two parts: Part I is based on a 9th century Latin text for the Christian celebration of Pentecost and Part II is a setting of passages from the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust.  While differing in derivation, the two parts have a common theme of redemption by love, which is reflected in musical themes appearing in both sections.  While positively received and still played today, some writers say that it is inferior to his earlier works.  The symphony does not appear to draw upon the folk idioms used in the composer’s earlier works, nor does it appear to dwell on scenes of death or loss.  It does seem qualitatively different; the orchestration is lush and full; it does not have an ironic march, or a child’s melody played out of tune.  It seems like an amalgam of oratorio, cantata, motet and lied, layered on to a rich symphonic based. It also is quite long, clocking in at 80 minutes.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) last performed the Symphony in 1991.  The logistics of gathering some 450 musicians and singers of a wide range of ages, rehearsing them, and performing the massive work twice over a weekend is surely a daunting task.  Kudos to Maestro Spano Spano, Norman Mackenzie, Director of Choruses, Lynn Urda, Director of the Young Singers, David Morrow, Director of Morehouse, and Kevin Johson from Spelman for undertaking this monumental performance.  It was a triumph of large-scale music-making and the work’s humanity and richness were undeniable.  This was a standard-setting performance for all involved.

The soloists gave powerful performances.  Sopranos Doraceva and Wall have tremendous power.  The latter has a rich sounding voice, while the former has a slimmer sound, but no less potent. Soprano Cabell was stationed in a balcony and her beautifully smooth voice hovered majestically in the auditorium. Mezzos DeYoung and O’Connor are concert hall stalwarts and greatly admired for their burnished voices.  DeYoung is quite powerful while O’Connor’s strength is in subtlety.  Baritone Braun had great projection.  Morris Robinson was one of the few bass voices to have appeared with the ASO who held his own against the full power of the orchestra and chorus.  Tenor Spence’s voice was overwhelmed early on, but by the time he soloed in Part II his voice found a strong footing.  All of the choruses were well-prepared and their sound was well integrated. 

The ASO musicians played inspiringly.  Concertmaster Coucheron and new principal viola Zhenwei Shi performed with aplomb.  Juan Ramirez excelled at the mandolin, and the digital organ added heft when needed.  The brass group stationed in the loge area added richness and excitement. Every section of the orchestra seemed inspired and focused.  This was the ASO at its best.

The only negative to the evening was Symphony Hall.  It is so bright sounding that when everyone was playing/singing forte, the sound verged on ear-drum overload.  This was particularly notable in the first part, where Mahler did not shy away from writing to create a big sound.  It was much less of an issue in the second part.

Yet, in all, the performances were stellar and the music is sublime.  Though the passages derived from Goethe were a bit odd to modern sensibilities, the second part has some of the most gorgeous orchestral passages imaginable.  It is wonderful to be able to sit back, shut down one’s critical ear, and simply luxuriate in Mahler’s wondrous music. 

If you are lucky enough to have a ticket for Saturday night’s performance, don’t even think of missing it!

Photos courtesy of Jeff Roffman:

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"Choral Fantasia for the Eleven- Premier

Listen to emerging composer Winfield V Carson, V, as he discusses his new work, written to memorialize those who died at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh:

Ink blots anyone?

This weekend’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) program featured a work by a composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music is often ascribed momentous meaning by listeners. This is, in part, because the vast majority of his music was written against the backdrop of our general understanding of his difficulties in contending with artistic-expression limitations in the former Soviet Union, and our shared understanding of tyranny of that government, especially under Josef Stalin, who was a longtime nemesis of the composer. Read further here: