Monday, May 14, 2018

Striking...

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon Portugal is a multi-purpose art gallery and performance space.  The building is a fine example of Brutalist architecture, a style that is much derided generally today.  Brutalism is characterized by straight lines, repetitive designs, and poured concrete exteriors.  The buildings in this style are often called fortress-like and often house governmental and public-related functions.  Becuase of the use of concrete on their exteriors, Brutalist buildings often host soot, mold, and other kinds of stains. 

The Gulbenkian, while having some of these characteristics, seems to avoid some of its most negative features.  The extensive public-private garden surrounding the museum's buildings soften their angularity and defocus the viewer's attention from external defects, such as water stains, and refocus on the contrast of lush greenery and the man-made structure.  The use of water ponds throughout the garden also has a softening effect on the building. 

The interior of the Gulbenkian is also quite remarkable.  While low ceilings are no longer desired, here the architects used warm wooden slats to lengthen ceilings, while again providing a contrast to the prominent use of concrete in the building.  Both on the inside and outside, this may be one of the best Brutalist buildings to be found anywhere.

The Gulbenkian has an outdoor open-air amphitheater that overlooks a pond and several indoor auditoriums, including a 1228-seat grand auditorium, which is finished in a very rich and deep reddish brown wood.  It has a smallish balcony that does not over-hang the main floor seating.   The seats are covered in a champaign-colored crushed velvet and the floors are all carpeted in the same color.  The maintenance of the auditorium is superb, with hardly any noticeable damage or staining.  But the most wonderful feature of the room is the wall rear stage wall.  Before a concert, the wall is in place and it is of the same wood used on the auditorium's walls.  Just before the music begins, the wall is silently and rapidly dropped away, opening up a wall-sized window that opens onto a small pond and a stunning bank of trees that are illuminated as the concert begins. A listener might expect that such a large solid piece of glass would wreck havoc with the acoustics, but because of the extensive use of wood and carpet, the hall sounds warm and well-focused.   The visual impact of the auditorium's design is immense; in fact, when the window is revealed, there is was an audible gasp from the audience.  This is a great tribute both to the building's architects and to the landscape architects who integrated the outside and inside so beautifully.

AMC attended a concert with the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra (PSO) under the direction of Graeme Jenkins.  The PSO is the resident orchestra of the National Opera Theater of St. Carlos, also located in Lisbon.  The single work of the concert was the Britten's 1962 "War Requiem."  The soloists were Rachel Nicholls, soprano; David Butt Philip, tenor; and Roderick Williams, baritone.  There was an on-stage chorus from the National Opera Theater, an off-stage chorus featuring the Juvenile Choir of the Gregorian Institute of Lisbon, the full symphony orchestra, as well as a chamber symphony, as required.   UK-born Jenkins is an established operatic conductor and was very effective in leading the combined forces on- and off-stage. Ms. Jenkins had a very noticeable vibrato, which often conflicted with her enunciation.  Butt Philip's operatic background seemed to serve him well in singing the emotionally charged libretto of the symphony.  He has a strong voice and great stage presence, although at times seeing him prepare his throat for a solo was distracting.  Mr. Williams also had a strong voice and very comfortable stage presentation.  The symphony orchestra provided a  thoroughly competent performance of this modern masterpiece.  The musicians in the chamber orchestra were all first rate. the auditorium seemed to have a strong bass response and the sound of the lower instruments was palpable.   European orchestras are known for their string-driven sound, with less focus on the brass as in American orchestras.  Because an organ was needed, a large panel centered on the rear-stage window apparently contained the instrument itself.  There were many microphones installed across the orchestra and in front of the soloists.  It was not clear if this was for sound augmentation or recording or both.  This was a grand performance supported by the great acoustics of the Gulbenkian grand auditorium.

AMC also attended a concert of the Orquestra Gulbenkian under the direction of guest conductor Hannu Lintu.  The program began with Penderecki's 1960 "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." This searing and intense work was written for 52 strings, here superbly played by the strings of the Gulbenkian.  This piece provides all kinds of challenges for the musicians, including variable vibratos, sections divided in two, the percussive striking of instruments, etc.  It is a terrifyingly good piece of music that has inspired many a film composer in the years since its premiere.  The performance here was nearly flawless and demonstrated a boldness of programming that was well-rewarded.

The second work was Strauss' 1945 "Metamorphosen, written for 23 strings. This is Strauss at his most ultra-romantic, featuring soaring melodies that may be variously interpreted as both longings and regret over wartime loss as well as hope for the future.  It is gloriously rich and introspective music played here sympathetically and intensely.  At an hour and quarter long, this symphony can be a long slog through the bog of Shostakoviakian hyper-emotionality, yet Maestro Lintu never lost the long arc of the work, leading to a very sensitive and powerful performance.

This was a long program, lasting over 2.5 hours, including intermission, and it contained only works composed in the last half of the 20th century.  It was a challenging concert, well-played by a highly skilled group of musicians. Congratulations to all!














Saturday, April 28, 2018

Refined...

If anything has been learned from this concert season of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra it is that guest conductors can energize the orchestra and encourage, coax, cajole or otherwise motivate it into performing at extraordinary levels. This season has shown that the ASO is capable of performances that are of the first order, something that was demonstrated again this weekend with guest conductor Carlo Rizzi who led the orchestra in an auspicious Atlanta debut. Rizzi is a well-established operatic conductor, but he is less known for symphonic performances. Based on his leadership here, he might want to consider broadening his concert hall horizons.  For the complete review, go here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-beethoven-mozart-prokofiev-rizzi-koch-tiscione-atlanta-symphony-hall-april-2018




Photos courtesy of Nunnally Rawson and the ASO

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Opera Omaha designed and sponsored the three-week long Festival One.  Their own words from the program booklet describe it best:
“Opera Omaha's new ONE Festival is an artist-driven exploration of boundary-less programming, bold storytelling, and immediacy in design and aesthetics. The festival brings local and visiting artists together in a community full of collaborative possibilities.  With an emphasis on experimentation, Opera Omaha’s ONE Festival encourages and celebrates bold risks from artists who venture into new material and theatrically vibrant work.”

Here is a link to the Festival website: https://onefestivalomaha.org

AMC saw two productions of the Festival.  

One was the exploration of Handel’s “Ariodante.”  Held at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, the session consisted of singers and musicians dissecting and discussing the score to try to make its plot and libretto speak to modern audiences.  Featured singers were Cabrelle Williams (Dalinda), Dominic Armstrong (Lucano), Mary Feminear (Ginverba), Jessica Johnson Brock (Polinesso), and Andrew Harris (II Re).  The instrumentalists were from the International Contemporary Ensemble; instrumentation included a guitar, theorbo, electronic keyboard, clarinet, upright piano, and violin.   The audience sat on chairs or tables in the large warehouse-like setting while the performers chatted about the music and how to perform it to obtain maximum impact.  It was, to some degree, like a rehearsal for an operatic performance, but with the audience privy to the discussions.  There were maybe 30 patrons- mostly young and trendy.  It was an interesting experience and likely a successful outreach to those who might want a behind-the-scenes-view of an operatic production. 

AMC also attended a performance of “Medea,” with music by Luigi Cherubini.  This was a co-production of Opera Omaha and the Wexford Opera.  There are several notable characteristics of this production:
·         The singers were uniformly strong: Vanessa Becerra (Glauce), Weston Hurt (Creonte) Jesus Garcia (Jason), Naomi Louisa O’Connell (Neris), and Jessica Stavros (Medea).  It was rewarding to listen to a consistently good group of singers.
·         The Opera Omaha Chorus was also strong.  Their articulation made of clarity of sound that was engaging.
·         The Omaha Symphony played the music of Cherubini to perfection.  This might have been the most technically and musically on target performance AMC has ever heard from this ensemble.  Jane Glover was the conductor. 
·         The scrim projections used before Act I and after the intermission used what looked like childhood drawings of the plot, including a bloody knife or sword.
·         The set was a few walls, wallpapered so that it looked like a house or apartment.  There was a TV and a chair on the left, and two beds on the right.  Surprisingly, there was a large rock center stage, which was used in telling the background of Jason and the shipwreck but then became the base of operations for soprano Stavros.  Why should she be afforded such a perch? Apparently, the singer who was to sing the title character was indisposed (not clear what happened), so it was decided to have an actress (Lacey Jo Benter) actually perform the role, while Stavros sang the part.  The rock also provided a base from which Sam Shapiro (dressed in black) acted as sort of a dark motivating spirit moved around the stage and even acted a puppeteer moving Madea’s arms in a menacing fashion- maybe he was the “shadow” or dark-side of the mind from Jungian psychology.  This entire arrangement was confusing but may be necessary under the circumstances.  It was often difficult to know who watch- Stavros, Benter, Shapiro?  Kudos to Benter for having to engage in conversation with others with her mouth closed; she was effective in this mixed-up arrangement.
·        At the end of the performance, it looked as if a little girl who had been observing all the action was killing her mother rather than Medea killing her own children.  AMC is not sure what that was about.

The performance took place at Omaha’s Orpheum Theater, a 2400 seat renaissance revival gem designed by Rapp and Rapp, who, in the 20s and 30s,  created many memorable movie houses that have become performing arts centers in many cities.  The Orpheum underwent refurbishment a few years ago and its lighting has greatly improved, especially in public areas, and new carpeting has added to its glamour.   It went from a drab building just 5 years ago to a sparkling first-class treat for the eyes.  It is a great venue for Opera Omaha. 


Overall this was an intriguing performance of which Opera Omaha should be proud.  It was adventurous and creative, even if that creativity muddied up the production a bit. 









Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A World Premiere...

“A Celebration of Philip Glass” was performed at the Lied Center for Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln(UN-L)  on April 17, 2018.  Paul Barnes, Professor of Music at the Glenn Korff School of Music, is both a professional colleague and close friend of the great American composer Mr. Glass.  The program was built around a world premiere of the composer’s Piano Quintet was well as his Second Piano Concerto, which also had been premiered at the Lied, with Barnes and the Omaha Symphony in 2004.

The program began with the Cappella Romana under the directorship of Alexander Lingas.  These eight male voices specialize in the musical traditions of the Christian East and West and at this concert sang four pieces from the Greek Orthodox tradition.  The amplified voices were magnificent in this repertory, which, itself, was the inspiration for the Glass Quintet.  Barnes, a devout Orthodox Christian, was the linkage between the performance of Capella Romana and the Glass composition. The sacred music is rapturous, repetitive, hypnotic, and mystical, like much of Glass’ musical output.

The second work was Glass’ 2010-unpublished “Pendulum for Violin and Piano,” written to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union.  Barnes was on piano and Hyeyung Yoon on violin.  There is no doubt that this is a work by Glass with its simple harmonic material, note-spinning, and nice melodies.  Likely he could write such a composition with his eyes closed.  Barnes is a great pianist; he does not engage in exaggerated physicality while playing and he is totally in control of the piano’s sound.   If anyone should play music by Glass, it should be Barnes.  But overall this was not a grand performance.  The sound was thin and Yoon made more than her share of technical errors, including issues with intonation.  But there will be more discussion later about the sound.

Next was the Piano Quintet “Annunciation,” which was funded, in part by the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts at UN-L.  The composition grew out of Barnes’ role as head chanter of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln.  After hearing Barnes sing the Byzantine communion hymn of the Annunciation, Glass agreed to compose his first piano quintet based on the melody of the hymn.  Here is a brief description of the quintet based on Barnes’ program notes:
“Part One opens with an ethereal chromatic chord progression leading to the first entrance of the chant stated by the piano and later developed by other members of the ensemble. In Part Two is a poignant meditation in which Glass connects the transcendental ethos of the original chant with his own spacious approach to musical time. The work ends with an increasingly energetic and ecstatic coda based on the opening chant transformed into scale passages that ascend and dissipate into a pianissimo chromatic flourish evocative of incense rising.  (https://musicsprings.wordpress.com/2018/03/22/from-chiara-string-quartet-world-premiere-of-philip-glass-piano-quintet-annunciation/)

The first section is incredibly beautiful and contains exquisite melodies.  When there was a pause in the undulating underlying structure, the music could almost have been mistaken for Schubert or Brahms at their most melodious.  In fact, if the 80-year old Glass would try composing without the repetitive figures, he might be more appreciated as a composer of wonderful melodies.  Nevertheless, the Quintet played by the Chiara String quartet, with Barnes on piano, is a strong and worthy piece.  The Chiara is artist-in-residence at the Hixson-Lied College. 

Following the intermission, the University Singers sang “Father Death Blues” from Glass’ 1990 tribute to Alan Ginsberg’s “Hydrogen Jukebox.”  It is fairly unpleasant music.

Next was a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 “After and Lewis and Clark.”  The performers were Barnes at the piano and the UN-L Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tyler White.  The second movement is of note because it includes long passes for the Native American flute, performed here by Ron Warren.  This piano concerto is not one of Glass’s most compelling works.  The flute part seems kind of a gimmicky and in this performance, the flute was amplified and its sound was not well-integrated with the orchestra.  The delicacy of the instrument was also diminished by the amplification.  While Barnes’ playing was immaculate, the percussion seemed a bit late throughout the work.  It was if they could not hear the rest of the orchestra. 

After darting from my seat to exit, Barnes began playing an encore.  I was standing at the rear of the auditorium (Row X) and suddenly the piano sounded clear, convincing, and powerful.  It began to dawn that the sound of the Lied Center has a few dead spots (I sat in row T) that make the sound thin and distant.   This may account for why the flute in the piano concerto sounded so loud against the rather slender sounding orchestra.  This may also explain the somewhat masked sound of the violin in the “Pendulum.”  I have generally found the Lied to have nice acoustics, but for this program, it was a bit of a negative.



This was an intriguing program that attracted a large audience.  Congratulations to Mr. Glass on his music and to Paul Barnes for his magnificent piano playing. 





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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tornado!

The Omaha Chamber Music Society presented one of its "Eko Nova Sound Unbound" concerts at Kaneko, the studio and gallery of ceramic artist Jun Kaneko.  Kaneko is a refurbished warehouse in Omaha's Old Market District; the concert was held in a large rectangular room with cement floors and red-brick walls.  The hard surfaces lent a certain cathedral ambiance to the concert.

Featured were cellist and composer Joshua Roman and the JACK Quartet, which has dedicated itself to the performance of new music.  The Boston Globe referred to the quartet as "the superheroes of new music."  For certain pieces, Roman helps the quartet grow to quintet size.

The first work was "Quintet" composed by Jefferson Friedman in 2013.  It was inspired by the passing of his father and it has the qualities of an elegy. This was followed by the frenetic 2017 "Ouroboros" by John Zorn.  The first part of the program ended with Amy Williams 2011 "Richter Textures."  It is a seven-part work, with each section being inspired by a painting by Gerhard Richter.  The sections are only numbered and the program provided no information of the correspondence between the section and the painting that inspired it.  All three of these works were complex and, is often the case, are difficult to describe based on only one hearing.

After the intermission, the Quartet played a Streisfeld 2011 arrangement of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa' 1611 "Three Madrigals for Five Voices from Madrigali libra sexto.  This music is gorgeous, full and rich.  It was magnificently played and the cathedral-like acoustics were a perfect match for the music.

The final work, by Joshua Roman, was titled "Tornado."  Written in 2017, it is a tour de force, even a masterpiece, that sonically describes the effects of a tornado on a town,  The composer was born in Tornado Alley (Oklahoma actually), so he knows first-hand the sounds of these most violent of storms.  Employing every string-playing technique possible he managed to convey wind, rain, sirens, fear, and recovery. Also, the introduction of the work includes some lovely themes like that are not often heard in 21st-century music. At times the texture of "Tornado" was so thick, it was as if an entire string orchestra was playing.  AMC hopes that this piece is heard far and wide- its that good.

There were about 300 people in the audience.  It was a nice turn-out for this sometimes challenging music. 


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Cold Weather, Warm Concert...



April weather in Nebraska is unpredictable, the onset of a winter storm with blowing snow is never welcome.  But the Omaha Symphony, under Music Director Thomas Wilkins, providing some welcome musical heat.  The OS has the Holland Performing Arts Center as its home; it is a facility with extraordinary acoustics. The sound of the orchestra is warm and never muddied; for example, percussive sounds  are never smeared and every strike of the tympani can be heard, without sacrificing fully focused and integrated sound.  The strings are wrapped in wonderful reverberation that creates a golden timbre.  The sound wall can sometimes seem a bit distant, but the volume of the full orchestra is never ear-splitting.  The Holland provides the audience with a gift of fine sound.

The first work was Bernstein's "Slava: A Political Overture," which was composed to celebrate the arrival of Mstislav Rostropovich as the Music director of the  National Symphony in Washington, DC in 1977.  It is a light-weight piece that seems mostly like rehash of Bernstein's Overture to "Candide." It is brassy, percussive, rhythmic, and cheerful.  The composer added in some audio effects, mostly excerpts from hackneyed political speeches.  At the conclusion of the work, the orchestra members shout Slava!  This gimmicky work is a good way to start a concert and it won't be troublesome if I have to wait till the next centenary of Bernstein's birth to hear it again.

Bernstein's "Serenade, after Plato's Symposium" followed on the program. This is the third performance I have heard of this work in the past two months.  The first was in mid-February at Lincoln's Lied Center, performed by the Saint Louis Symphony with violin soloist  
Kobi Malkin and the second was about a week ago with Robert McDuffie, violin, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The soloist in the present performance was Liza Ferschtman, who gave a strong performance, but without the searing intensity or absolute technical mastery of either Malkin or McDuffie.  The overall performance was fine, but it lacked the intensity and tension of either the Saint Louis or Atlanta efforts. Without doubt, the acoustics of the Holland added greatly to experience. Acoustically, the Lied Center was a close runner-up, with Atlanta's Symphony Hall trailing considerably. 

The final work was  Mahler's  Fourth Symphony.  It is a resplendent work, with wonderful lyricism and great beauty. Maestro Wilkins obtained some fine playing from the OS in the first movement,  from the sleigh bells to the  clarion flute melody in the middle of the movement.  The second movement, however, lacked integration and seem to move forward in a series of fits and starts.  This was likely due to some  ragged entrances by various sections of the orchestra.  The third movement, with its gorgeous introduction, was lyrical and warm and the music progressed in a nicely controlled fashion, as it lead to a grand climax that reiterates the flute solo from the first movement, played by the brass.  This movement was a opportunity to hear some fine playing from the OS cellos, violas and double bass.  The final movement introduces a soprano, here Amy Owens, who sings Das kimmlishe Leben.  Ms Owens's nice voice  struggled to be heard over the orchestra at the start of the movement, but as the music progressed, her voice grew stronger and more accessible. In all, this was a beautiful, golden-sounding conclusion to this monumental work.

At some points in the Mahler, the violins had some absolutely remarkable ensemble.  The brass were quite strong throughout, with some great playing by the horns, save for a few intonation issues.  The English horn played with a rich gentleness.  The violin solos, played by Concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore and Associate Concertmaster  Ann Beebe, were both musically and technically brilliant.
 


















Monday, April 9, 2018

Parts were good...

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continued its traversal of the music of Beethoven and Bernstein while adding a punch of contemporary music by Michael Kurth, ASO double bass player and composer. Kurth’s Fanfare for Orchestra was written in 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of Robert Spano's tenure as Music Director. This four-minute piece is brass and percussion driven, full of energy and color. In this performance, as the brass became louder, the sounds of the other sections of the orchestra receded; the violins were bowing furiously while hardly a note of their playing could be heard. It’s unclear if this was the composer’s intent or Maestro Spano’s direction. Kurth has grown tremendously as a composer over the past eight years and his recent works are a combination of lyrical themes contrasted with dissonant aggressiveness. The ASO is rightfully supportive of his work, which it will record in May. This should help ensure that this emerging talent receives a wider, well-deserved audience.  For the complete review, go here:  https://bachtrack.com/review-bernstein-beethoven-mcduffie-spano-atlanta-april-2018