Saturday, July 22, 2017

Today's Birthdays

Luigi Arditti (1822-1903)
Hans Rosbaud (1895-1962)
Licia Albanese (1913-2014)
George Dreyfus (1928)
Ann Howard Jones (1936)
Nigel Hess (1953)
Eve Beglarian (1958)

and

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
Tom Robbins (1936)
S. E. Hinton (1948)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Today's Birthdays

Anton Kuerti (1938)
Isaac Stern (1920-2001)
Cat Stevens (1948)
Margaret Ahrens (1950)

and

Hart Crane (1899-1932)
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Tess Gallagher (1943)
Garry Trudeau (1948)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reporting from Santa Fe

I am in Santa Fe, New Mexico for the annual meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA). Yesterday, we gave our inaugural Award for Best New Opera to Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek for "Breaking the Waves." Here is a photo that shows them with MCANA president Barbara Jepson and George Loomis:


Here's another photo of Mazzoli and Vavrek:



While in Santa Fe, the critics are attending concerts and operas. Last night, I saw an excellent production of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Golden Cockerl" at Santa Fe Opera. This afternoon I heard a noontime concert presented by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Tomorrow evening we will hear Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Friday night will be the world premier of "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" by Mason Bates.

This afternoon we heard a terrific panel discussion about "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" with some of the artistic staff and performers: stage director Kevin Newberry, scenic designer Victoria "Vita" Tzykun, conductor Michael Christie, librettist Mark Campbell and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.  Here is a photo of the panel, plus music critic John Fleming with the microphone.

Chamber Music Northwest presents terrific works by Tower, Zwilich, Shaw, and Smith

Calidore String Quartet and the Claremont Trio | Photo credit: Tom Emerson
Chamber Music Northwest topped off its weeklong celebration of music by women composers with a doozy of concert on Saturday evening (July 15) at Kaul Auditorium. The program presented impressive works by Joan Tower, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Caroline Shaw, and Gabriella Smith for a variety of string ensembles. I was excited to hear works by the two veterans Tower and Zwilich, and rising star Shaw, but CMNW’s protégé composer Smith surprised me again (see New@Noon concert review) with another fascinating piece that was right up in the same league as her colleagues.

Even though Smith’s piece had the the seemingly innocent title of “Carrot Revolution,” (2015) the music that she devised had tantalizingly complex rhythms and lots of brief melodic detours. Played by violinists Tomas Cotik and Rebecca Anderson, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and cellist Nancy Ives, the music launched with Ives patting a pulsating beat before being joined by her colleagues in a series of slip-sliding sounds – some of which seemed scratchy. The cello led the way with a bluesy motif and another round of tapping that was followed by a herky-herky and folksy-fiddly section for the entire ensemble. Soulful melodic lines for the viola and cello, throbbing, vibrant passages for the foursome, and a hypnotic section that sounded as if the entire collective were melting down and changing keys along the way – was pretty awesome. The finale arrived on a zippy note that made me want to hear it all again… or at least ask the ushers for a glass of carrot juice.

The Calidore String Quartet (violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choir) performed Shaw’s “Entr’acte (2011) with terrific finesse. The dance-like opening contained some deliciously thin pauses and a delicate whispery section in which no real tone could be distinguished. A steady tic-toc passage gave way to an extended pizzicato section that moved into a series of sighs After returning to the first theme, the piece concluded with a strumming cello. I liked the piece, but it seemed to rely on experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

In introducing “White Water” (String Quartet No. 5) (2011), Tower said that she wanted to explore speed and weight. As played by the Calidore String Quartet, the music definitely conveyed that feeling. In the first few minutes, there seemed to be the sound of a spring bubbling upwards followed by splashes that erupted out of a mountainside. Edgy rivulets of sound sprang up and flowed down quick tempo. Wild glissandi seemed to underscore the untamed nature of the piece. High violins whined against a slower current from the viola and cello and after a while the piece rested calmly in harmonically-resolved waters.

One of the cool things about Zwilich’s “Septet for Piano Trio and String Quartet” (2008) was the arrangement of the Claremont Trio (violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam) on the inside and the Calidore String Quartet on the outer corners. The music for the two ensembles took off with the Claremonters racing and the Calidorians playing the role of the Steady Eddies. That all got changed around with pianist Lam being an instigator-agitator. One of the themes in the second movement was slightly sinister, and it was countered in the third by a sprightly melodic line. One of the highlights of the fourth movement (“Au revoir”) was how the instruments passed the same note from one to the next all the way across the collective ensemble. That was a real treat. It seemed like some of the ends of phrases in this piece needed a little more tightening up. But overall, it was a delight to hear the two ensembles play this challenging piece.

Today's Birthdays

Gaston Carraud (1864-1920)
Déodat de Séverac (1872-1921)
Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987)
Vilém Tauský (1910-2004)
Michael Gielen (1927)
Nam June Paik (1932-2006)
Hukwe Zawose (1938-2003)
Carlos Santana (1947)
Bob Priest (1951)

and

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)
Pavel Kohout (1928)
Cormac McCarthy (1933)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Today's Birthdays

Boyd Neel (1905-1981)
Louis Kentner (1905-1987)
Klaus Egge (1906-1979)
Peggy Stuart-Coolidge (1913-1981)
Robert Mann (1920)
Gerd Albrecht (1935-2014)
Nicholas Danby (1935-1937)
Dominic Muldowney (1952)
David Robertson (1958)
Carlo Rizzi (1960)
Mark Wigglesworth (1964)
Evelyn Glennie (1965)
Russell Braun (1965)

and

Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930)

and from the Composers Datebook

On this day in 1942, Arturo Toscanini conducts the American premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad") on a NBC Symphony broadcast. The world premiere performance by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra had occurred on March 1, 1942, in Kuybishe, the wartime seat of the Soviet government.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Today's Birthdays

Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747)
Pauline Viardot (1821-1910)
Julius Fučík (1872-1916)
Kurt Masur (1927-2015)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1929-2000)
R. Murray Schafer (1933)
Ricky Skaggs (1954)
Tobias Picker (1954)

and

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)
Harry Levin (1912-1994)
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933)
Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)
Elizabeth Gilbert (1969)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Portland Opera’s production of "Così fan tutte" updated with Keep Portland Weird vibe

Photo credit: Cory Weaver
Sasquatches, virtual reality goggles, bean-bag chairs, dreadlocks, jumbotron, and REI chic were all part of the mix on opening night (July 14th) in Portland Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” giving it a “Keep Portland Weird” vibe that was fun but also distracting. Opera purists were certainly shaking their heads at this concoction, but the mashup of styles that was unleashed by director Roy Rallo fell mostly into the silly storyline of the opera. The only problem with the onslaught of visual imagery was that it sometimes took the attention away from the music, which has some of the best Mozart ever wrote.

Perhaps the visual diversions were seen as a way to keep audiences involved in the opera, which, with intermission, lasted about three and a half hours. The oddities started right away when a Sasquatch, wandered onstage during the Overture. After changing into the garb of a gentleman from Eighteenth Century, it turned out that the Sasquatch was Don Alfonso (Daniel Mobbs), the friend of Ferrando (Aaron Short) and Guiglielmo (Ryan Short). All of them initially wore traditional clothing as did their fiancés Fiordiligi (Antonia Tamer) and Dorabella (Kate Farrar). But after the wager between the men was made, Ferrando and Guiglielmo reappeared as dreadlocked dudes, sporting plaid suits and bearing Voodoo donuts. Fair enough, the men were supposed to be exotic Albanians. Okay, maybe exotic Portlandia-Albanians. After being rejected by the women, the men in despair drank poison and were then revived via virtual reality goggles, which the women wear also – with all of them collapsing onto big bean-bag chairs. Despina (Mary Dunleavy) controlled their VR world with a joystick before taking a drag on a vaping cigarette with Alfonso.

Photo credit: Cory Weaver
As the costumes became more modern – men in REI camo and women wearing modern hairdos with garish colors – they seemed to be removing the outer layers of custom and tradition while playing the game of seduction. The scenery, designed by Daniel Meeker and built by Oregon Ballet Theatre for Portland Opera, included a large back wall with spacious panels that magically framed the wonderful video projections of Paul Clay. The imagery of the projected videos augmented the text with terrific imagination for the most part. But the paintings of nude women apparently went too far for the lady sitting next to me because she had brought her young daughter and they left after intermission. The videos of lips, hands, feet, and humans were magically interwoven, and the best sequence was one that showed of paisley patterns melting into human forms
Photo credit: Cory Weaver
The problem with all the ingenious imagery was that sometimes it didn’t compliment the music, but rather distracted everyone. The most obvious case occurred after intermission during the jumbotron segment when Ferrando brought out a video camera and directed it at the audience. Everyone got engrossed watching themselves on the big screen (the panels on the back wall) and totally forgot about the beautiful aria that Guiglielmo sang.

Did I mention singing? Oh yes, there was plenty of that and all was very well done by the cast, four of whom are members of the company’s resident artist program. Tenor Aaron Short, in particular, has excellent voice for Mozart’s music: smooth and gentle with no hard edges. Yet all of the young professionals – baritone Ryan Thorn, soprano Antonia Tamer, mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar – were excellent, and they expertly collaborated with the veterans Mary Dunleavy and Daniel Mobbs. The “Soave sia il vento” (“A Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage”) trio was gorgeous, and there were many heart-stopping arias that were sung with absolute conviction. Dunleavy captivated the audience with her persuasive arguments for the women to have a little fun, and Mobbs easily conveyed the cynical side of one who has seen it all

The orchestra pit at the Newmark seemed to have been enlarged to accommodate a twenty-seven piece orchestra. The musicians played well under the direction of Nicholas Fox, although there were a couple of exposed passages for the violins that were a tad rough. The chorus sang with gusto, but when they appeared in underwear, it seemed incongruous with the outdoor setting. Perhaps that is why they had to change to Sasquatches at the end. Another oddity was Ferrando kneeling in a skirt while trying to win over Fiordiligi. The final scene, in which the back wall was lifted into the fly space, revealed the tech crew and packing crates surrounded by a chorus of Sasquatches. That was pretty absurd. Yet it sort of went well with Portland, which is proud of its eclectic reputation – like the fellow who wears a skirt and a Darth Vader mask while peddling a unicycle and playing flaming bagpipes. Ah... "Così fan tutti frutti."

World premieres of music by Agóc and Lash highlight two CMNW concerts

Claremont Trio playing Agóc's "The Queen of Hearts"
I am not sure if Chamber Music Northwest has ever programmed two world premieres for the same concert, but it did so and with smashing success for the performance on Thursday, July 13th at Kaul Auditorium. The concert presented brand new works by Kati Agócs and Hannah Lash that CMNW commissioned. How audacious was that! To top that off, CMNW sponsored a second round of performance the next day (Friday, July 14th) in its New@Noon series to a capacity audience at Lincoln Recital Hall. Holy smokes!

To the benefit of my own ears and understanding, I attended both concerts. I have to admit that hearing a brand new piece twice is really beneficial. Upon hearing the works by Agócs and Lasha second time, I had more appreciation for their music. Both pieces resonated well with the audiences, which responded with standing ovations.

Agócs’s “The Queen of Hearts” beguilingly wove a five note chaconne (that constantly changed) against a melodic line. The rhapsodic and very emotional one-movement work was played with intensity by the Claremont Trio (violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam). The piece offered a lot of dynamic contrast and ended on high notes triumphantly.
CMNW septet in Lash's "Form and Postlude"

Lash’s “Form and Postlude” had an impressionistic feel that evoked a lush flower-garden and an aviary. Written for a septet of strings and woodwinds, the beginning of the piece was laced with a series of ascending lines that bubbled up freely. The players (harpist Lash, flutist Joana Wu, clarinetist David Shifrin, violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, violinists Rebecca Anderson and Emily Bruskin, plus cellist Julia Bruskin) achieved an excellent balance throughout. Lash led the way with her emotionally-charged harp playing, which included some of very focused and loud notes. One of the terrific oddities of the pieces involved a phrase played in unison by Wu and Shifrin. There seemed to be a reference to Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” and another to something by Ravel.

For the concert on Thursday night, Ravel’s “Introduction et Allegro” followed Lash’s piece, which could have been too much of a good thing, yet in the hands of the same septet, it brought everything to a close perfectly. Again the instrumentalists did a fine job of listening to each other while playing and again showed an excellent blend and balance throughout the piece.

Friday’s New@Noon concert also included Bonnie Miksch’s “Song of Sanshin” (2012) and Ngwenyama’s “Sonoran Storm” (2016). The Claremont Trio graced “Song of Sanshin” with gentle, sliding glissandos over a pentatonic structure, creating an Asiatic atmosphere that was calm and reflective. “Sonoran Storm” took listeners in a completely different direction with its propulsive, repetitive rhythms that were overlaid with a melodic line. This virtuosic piece was played with stunning technique and artistry by Ngwenyama. The music conjured storm over the desert with a double-stopping Bach-like drive interspersed with restful passages that included eerie half-tones. This was a stunning piece!

Thursday’s concert opened with the Claremont Trio performing Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio in D Minor.” The wonderfully sweet sound from the violin matched up well with the rich tones from the cello and the supporting color from the piano. The fiery finish to the first movement was breathtaking, and wonderfully set up the graceful and slower, second movement. The piano overwhelmed the cello for some of the last movement, but the ensemble recovered in time end the piece with a flourish and to thunderous applause.

Today's Birthdays

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
Sir Donald F. Tovey (1875-1940)
Eleanor Steber (1914-1990)
Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976)
Peter Schickele (1935)
Michael Roll (1946)
Dauwn Upshaw (1960)

and

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888-1970)
Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946)
Erle Stanley Gardner (1899-1970)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

New music, composers, performers, and venues - celebrated via Chamber Music Northwest

Over the past few years, Chamber Music Northwest has explored new territories, such as new venues, new compositions, new composers, and new performers. I got to hear all of these elements combined in one concert on Wednesday evening, July 12, at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Northeast Portland. Originally a movie theater from the 1920s, the theater has a full bar in the lobby, an adequate stage for small ensembles, decent acoustics, and seating for 400 people. The space was fairly full for the concert, which featured works by Rebecca Clarke, Helen Grime, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Clara Schumann.

The Claremont Trio, an up-and-coming ensemble that was making its first appearance at CMNW’s summer festival, played most of the pieces on the program. Consisting of twin sisters Emily Bruskin (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello), and Andrea Lam (pianist), the group did a terrific performance of “Four Folk Songs for Violin, Cello, and Piano (2012), which was written for the trio by Gabriela Lena Frank in homage to her mother’s homeland, Peru. I can still hear the bells of the Maria Angola church (the cathedral in Cusco, Peru) from the first movement reverberating across the cityscape. The second movement, “Children’s Dance” marvelously evoked kids skipping, chasing, screaming, and having a great time with each other. The “Serenata” movement used a lot of pizzicati that was fairly loud, eliciting the guitar and vocal duo that are common in restaurants. The final movement hearkened back to the warlike yet artistic Inca past with edgy, nervous energy.

The Claremonters wonderfully conveyed Helen Grime’s abstract yet tender “Three Whistler Miniatures” (2011). The dynamics were often placed on the extreme edges with szforandos and highly dynamic contrasts, ending with sad glissandos. I have to admit that I just didn’t grasp the work, perhaps because it was so short (ten minutes), but I would enjoy hearing it again.

The concert concluded with Clara Schumann’s “Piano Trio in G Minor,” which the Claremont Trio played with verve. It featured strong thematic content, lots of Sturm und Drang-like emotion, soaring melodic lines, exciting races up and down mountainsides, and a fugue to end all fugues. The members of the ensemble seemed transfixed in their playing – with Emily Bruskin moving about so animatedly that it made me marvel at how she could keep control of her instrument. The ensemble plumbed the depths of the piece emphatically and that really resonated with the audience.

Violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama and pianist Lam, kicked off the concert with Clarke’s “Sonata for Viola and Piano” (1919), diving into its bold opening statement with gusto. The duo explored the exotic touches of the piece expertly that were oddly contrasted with rough and tough qualities going on at the same time. It seemed that Lam played a tad too loudly whenever the music moved into forte territory. That might have been due to lack of rehearsal time in the venue, which has a fairly decent acoustic for an old movie house.

One-woman show advocates for Nannerl - "The Other Mozart"

Occasionally, at a concert featuring W. A. Mozart’s music, I’ll read program notes about him having performed with his sister, Maria Anna Mozart, who is usually referred to by her nickname Nannerl. An additional statement might point out that she was an accomplished pianist, but nothing more. Well, I found out a lot more about this remarkable woman after experiencing Sylvia Milo’s dramatic monologue on Monday night, June 11, at Lincoln Performance Hall. Entitled “The Other Mozart,” Milo’s monodrama was a lively, well-paced account of Nannerl Mozart’s life and how frustrating it was for her in an era when women were expected to get married and have children but not have a career in the arts even when they had experienced a lot of initial success.

Drawing on newspaper accounts, letters, and other biographical material, Milo channeled into Nannerl’s personality. Her animated behavior showed a vivacious and artistically gifted person who became an accomplished at the keyboard and might have done equally well with the violin had her father allowed it. Yet after Wolfgang Amadeus was born and quickly displayed incredible musical talent, her father’s attention was almost entirely diverted to him. For a while the two siblings travelled from city to city giving concerts, and they enjoyed doing so immensely. Nannerl was even given top billing at performances and received glowing reviews, but as her brother’s reputation grew, she was gradually ignored and then asked by her parents to stay at home and learn domestic responsibilities. She reluctantly accepted her fate even to the point of marrying a much older and wealthier man, raising his children in a provincial town, and having her own set of children. Yet in the end, she was absolutely frustrated at not having developed her artistic pursuits.

Milo told Nannerl’s story mostly while stationed atop a huge, white dress that covered much of the stage. Now and then, she would pull out a sheet of music, a mirror, a toy piano, a book, embroidery, a music box, letters, and other props from the ruffles of the dress. By modulating her voice and accent, she portrayed members of her family and Wolfgang’s wife Constanze. Sometimes it was difficult to understand exactly what Milo said, but the majority of her monologue came through clearly.

Even though Milo’s theater piece was not meant to be a documentary, it would have been nice to have had a fact sheet with names and dates – just to give a little more context. Looking back on a time and culture that seems so far removed from today, one could easily see that Nannerl’s life would have taken a different trajectory had she been born today. Kudos are in order for Chamber Music Northwest, which presented Milo’s monodrama. Hopefully, it will return again to Portland someday in the near future.

New music for violin celebrated in Chamber Music Northwest's New@Noon concert

Eugene Drucker and Gloria Chien in action
Since its inaugural concert two years ago, Chamber Music Northwest’s New@Noon series with its emphasis on contemporary works has been steadily gaining traction. Lincoln Recital Hall was around three-quarters full for the performance that I attended on Friday, July 7th, which featured pieces by Kaija Saariaho, Augusta Reed Thomas, Gabriella Smith, CMNW’s protégé composer, Philip Setzer, and Eugene Drucker (the latter two are well-known members of the Emerson String Quartet).

Smith’s piece “tapin~ 517/tapout~” was the one on the program that I found most intriguing. Based on her dabbling with a software program used for music, Smith wrote an acoustical piece for an ensemble of five violinists so that the first violinist triggered effects from the four violinists. If I understood her introductory explanation correctly, 517 refers to the number of milliseconds after she tapped into the program before taping out again. In “tapin~ 517/tapout~” Smith used that extremely short distance as a springboard for an arresting piece that ricocheted and reverberated around the violinists. For this world premiere performance, Rebecca Anderson expertly served up volleys as the trigger, and her comrades – Bella Hristova, Soovin Kim Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Arnaud Sussmann – created a beguiling array of sounds. The variety of overtones alone was intoxicating.

The other works on the program were somber works of an elegiac nature. Saariaho’s “Nocturne” was written in 1994 for solo violin in response to the death of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. Before playing the piece, violinist Setzer explained that it would have some strange sounds of someone who struggled in sleep before dying, and indeed, the raspy tones (sometime two different ones at the same time), wiry and tearing effecting did evoke the image of a person struggling with each breath.

Setzer’s “Elegy for Violin and Piano” (1976, revised 2000) offered lots of contrasting extremes with one instrument in its lowest register while the other was at its highest. In the hands of violinist Setzer and pianist Gloria Chien, the piece explored the emotion of loss and grief before ending with a sense of grace.

Augusta Read Thomas wrote “Incantation” in 1995 to honor a friend who was dying of cancer. Played by Drucker, the piece (about five minutes in length) was somber and reflective and finished with an air unresolvedness – as if life were intended to go on elsewhere.

“But Then Begins a Journey in My Head” (2014) by Drucker, drew from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with nine short movements. Performed by Drucker and Chien, the piece ran the gamut from bold and striking to gloomy and moody and introspective. For example, “Lust” (Sonnet 129) matched up with a tempestuous spirit while A Journey in my Head” (Sonnet 27) was slow and contemplative. Overall, it was a well-paced piece and Chien seemed an ideal accompanist.

Today's Birthdays

Antoine François Marmontel (1816-1898)
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)
Fritz Mahler (1901-1973)
Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003)
Bella Davidovich (1928)
Bryden Thomson (1928-1991)
Geoffrey Burgon (1941)
Pinchas Zukerman (1948)
Richard Margison (1954)
Joanna MacGregor (1959)
James MacMillan (1959)
Helmut Oehring (1961)

and

Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Roald Amundsen (1872-1928)
Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)
Tony Kushner (1956)