BOSTON PLAY & CONCERT REVIEWS 1998-2004



Boston Philharmonic Performs Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Perform “Behind Me Dips Eternity”
Cantata Singers Perform Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust
Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs "Shhh. . .Whispering Trees, and now the Music"
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs "In the Midst of the Quartet Singing"
Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Seventh

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs Russian Exile Music
Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Second
Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Fourth and Songs on the Deaths of Children
Chameleon Ensemble Performs Music of the Twenties
Bill Staines at Linden Tree Coffeehouse
Boston Chamber Music Society Performs Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Dvorak
Boston Baroque Performs Handel's Alcina
Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's First and Songs of a Wayfarer
Teatro Lirico d'Europa Performs Don Giovanni
Wagner Marathon
Interview with Richard Conrad, artistic director of The Bostonians
Boston Academy of Music Performs Tosca
Pro Arte Chamber Orchetra Features Mezzo-Soprano D'Anna Fortunato
Boston Philharmonic Presents Mahler's Third
Mozart and Brahms at the Gardner Museum
Hill House Community Choir: First Concert
Museum of Fine Arts: Cornucopia, the Italian Trio Sonata
Boston Baroque Early Mozart
Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss
Boston Lyric Opera: Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi
Emmanuel Music: Two Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach
Boston Lyric Opera: Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
Boston Philharmonic Orchestra: Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy
Boston Lyric Opera: The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
Boston Lyric Opera: Aida by Giuseppe Verdi
Boston Lyric Opera: Le Nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
Handel & Haydn Society: Jazz/Baroque
Boston Lyric Opera: La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi


Boston Philharmonic Performs Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin

Conducted by Benjamin Zander. With pianist Kevin Cole

November 20, 2004

Maurice Ravel Conductor Benjamin Zander started out this performance of Twentieth century orchestral masterpieces, stating that “Each work (on the program) has a different color and demands a different posture” on the part of both the conductor and individual orchestral instrumentalists. Stravinsky’s Petrushka announced the beginning of the Twentieth century, using folk motifs and radical dissonance. It incorporated a short piano concerto, polyrhythms,dissonance and bitonality and was built around a conflict between magic and the real world–its philosophical meaning much more profound than the story of a Russian winter fair and three puppets. Ravel’s waltz using an homage to Johann Strauss builds on a continuous crescendo, and moves toward light from lugubriousdarkness. There’s a dance of death in it, a pull toward Armageddon–the tension between the elegant waltz and chaos sustains its art.George Gershwin, American composer extraordinaire, straddled Tin Pan Alley and the concert hall. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned the piano concerto as a classical piece. Within it, there’s an American blues, trumpet solo and fabulous solo piano work. Zander’s lecture as usual was both informative and very enthusiastically imparted to the audience!

Ravel’s La Valse and choreographic poem opened with an ominous rumble as a phantasmagorical waltz strand moved through a swirl of woodwinds and strings. The waltz suddenly got very brassy and then moved off center again. It swelled in an abrupt crescendo with lots of drums. There was lovely flute and clarinet introjection as the waltz became more mainstream before it again grew dark and expressionistic. Ominous “wind” swooshed through, followed by a brief, bright horn solo. The waltz then accelerated in speed like an out of control record, spinning into space. A very satisfying and exciting performance.

Next was Gershwin’s Concerto in F which opened on a very jazzy phrase with bassoons and strings. From the first notes played by pianist, Kevin Cole, the audience knew it was in for a noteworthy performance involving nuanced, subtle Gershwin interpretation. Cole had an impeccable way of anticipating notes, adding greatly to the jazzy orchestra accompanying him. Movement one was dotted with lovely glissandi through which Cole showed a lot of versatility and confidence. He was not afraid to alternate playing in the forefront and letting the orchestra take over when appropriate. His left handed playing was especially strong. Movement two began with a sinuous trumpet solo picked up by the woodwinds. The horn and woodwinds mimic each other till the piano entered on a jaunty phrase. The first violin played a brief lyrical solo, followed by the return of the trumpet, playing with mournfully bright notes like a cloudy New York morning. There was very elegant piano work with a real sense of “breath” and life force. Pyrotechnics opened movement three. There was a very urban feel to this, strengthened again by Mr. Cole’s left handed playing and a heart wrenching return to the principal melody with the full orchestra. A wonderful performance of the concerto which was followed by an unexpected and syncopated encore by Mr. Cole of Gershwin’s piano piece, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”

The final composition on the program was Stravinsky’s Petrushka which opened with a very animated full orchestra. We’re introduced to the fair, the signature flute and dancers. When the puppets first appear, there is wonderful solo violin work mixed in with lots of percussion. Emotional turbulence and confusion emerged through dissonance. There was very nice horn work when the ballerina puppet held a trumpet and danced for the Moor puppet. A dissonant waltz was very appealing, suggesting something larger than what it represented in itself. There were wonderful folk-based motifs and a striking dance involving a large bear lumbering through the fair. A devil danced with the masquers dressed as pigs. The music was dark and lively, cosmic at times and well played by the Boston Philharmonic. When Petrushka’s ghost rose above the theatre, mocking the magician, an excellent trumpet solo followed. We were left to wonder just what is magical and what is real in the world, a much more philosophical question than what is suggested on the surface here. Though the performance of the Stravinsky was very good, I did not feel it quite meshed with the other two shorter and freer form compositions on the program. Perhaps this was due to the highly structured nature of the Stravinsky work and its relentlessly intellectual nature. In any case, it was well performed and individual soloists such as the trumpet, bassoon, flute and piano were excellent.

Carolyn Gregory

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Perform “Behind Me Dips Eternity”

Deborah Boldin (flute), Gloria Chien, Nancy Dimock (oboe), Gary Gorczyca (clarinet), Joshua Gordon (cello), Joanna Kurkowicz (violin), Sabrina Learman (soprano), Margaret Phillips (bassoon), Roberto Poli (piano), Kenneth Pope (horn), Katherine Winterstein (violin), Scott Woolweaver (viola).

November 5, 2004

Amy BeachChameleon Arts Ensemble at the Goethe Institut, Boston, MA – “Behind the Dip’s Eternity”, November 5, 2004 This second concert of the Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s 2004 – 2005 season included work by women composers, ranging from Americans, Amy Beach and Libby Larsen, to Nineteenth century French composer, Louise Farrenc, and Finnish and Russian Twentieth century composers, Kaija Saariaho and Galina Ustvolskaya, respectively. The concert was profound and whimsical, lyrical and engaging throughout, largely based on both the diversity of the repertoire and the cohesive ensemble playing by various personnel.

Farrenc’s “Sextet in C minor” opened the program with nice woodwind playing by flutist Deborah Boldin backed by piano and clarinet. There was a latter day Romantic feeling to the composition – each instrument answered by the others – and a sustained richness reminiscent of Schubert’s chamber music. The second movement of the piece was more sedate, linking oboe, flute and clarinet. The clarinet, in particular, was lovely and mournful. The third movement returned to more turbulent, Schubert-like dynamics, led forward by the excellent piano playing of Gloria Chien.

The Saariaho composition, “Je sens un deuxième coeur”, was written last year in five parts. The cello began with heart beat like notes followed by minimal violin bowing and strange echo-like effect of the piano. A fair amount of cacophony followed with broken, repetitive piano, continuing to uncertainty which then led to percussive insistence. The piece ended with greater temperateness. This was a difficult, abstract composition, played with great passion. Next was Libby Larsen’s “Songs from Letters from Calamity Jane”. Soprano, Sabrina Learman, sang accompanied by pianist, Gloria Chien. The tone poems performed were haunting and odd, representing different moods and ages of the mother, Calamity Jane, as shared with her daughter, Janey. Learman’s singing was a beautifully modulated performance, one of the high points in the concert.

Balina Ustvolskaya’s 1949 “Trio” came next. It opened with a long, fluid line played by the clarinet, followed by deep piano notes and full-voiced violin. A wandering quality of unrest reminiscent of the composer’s mentor, Dmitir Shostakovich, ensued. The dolce movement began in contemplation. Ethereal violin moved to fugal piano which was joined by then bolder violin playing. The clarinet then played an almost different melodic line. This was a wonderful dynamic and meditative performance, the most enjoyable on the program.

Finally performed was Amy Beach’s “Quartet in F sharp minor”. Composed in 1908, sweeping strings opened the composition with a swirl of Brahmsian romantic effulgence. The piece was played with great passion, including terrific violin playing. There was subtle cello and delicate viola work by Scott Woolweaver though this reviewer would have preferred having this piece performed earlier in the concert and a more sedate piece to conclude the very well performed concert.

Carolyn Gregory

Cantata Singers Perform Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust

Mark Andrew Cleveland (Mephistopheles and Peter Profundis), Jennifer Foster (Gretchen and Una Poenitentius), and David Kravitz (Faust and Dr. Marianus). Cantata Singers, conducted by David Hoose.

November 7, 2004

Robert SchumannMost noteworthy at this fine concert performance of Robert Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” was the continuous drama sweeping through the work, lending to an operatic intensity at times and the consistent excellence of the several soloist parts. Mark Andrew Cleveland , Jennifer Foster, and David Kravitz were especially good, contributing to the dramatic composition and singing well together.

The composition opened with a spirited Prelude, marked by good color dynamics with nice oboe and horn interpolation. Part One began with lovely interplay of voices of Gretchen and Faust. Foster’s soprano had a noteworthy tremulo quality along with resonant strength. The especially bright upper register of her voice emphasized the anxiety of Gretchen’s dramatic plight. Operatic elements grew more complex with the entrance of Mark Andrew Cleveland’s evil spirit and his marvelous rich bass. At this point, the Cantata Singers as a group entered the script with great tumultuous strength. There was good pacing between the large chorus and two soloists, lending to dramatic, operatic fullness.

Part Two began with a pleasant orchestral interlude and Charles Blandy’s resonant tenor. The soloists clustered around a lilting, graceful choral grouping, washing into night until Blandy’s Ariel returns. Unfortunately, the Day of Reckoning arrived for Faust who returned to the stage. Kravitz’s lower register baritone was very satisfying at this point. The music became more agitated as we are left to wonder whether we speculate over love or hate when “All of our life is color reflected Splendor.” Four gnarled women entered the scene and vanished again like phantoms. Majie Zeller, representing Sorrow, had a particularly lovely voice, contributing to the music’s tension. As Sorrow, she breathed on Faust who was instantly blinded. The orchestra swelled with full dynamics as Mephistopheles returned, calling on animal spirits, leading to the ensuing race between labor and annihilation. At the end, Faust’s untrammeled idealism sinks to the abyss with his death.

Part Three, Faust’s Transfiguration, was satisfying from the performance standpoint, but less satisfying as a complete Schumann composition. More diffuse than Parts One and Two, Part Three is not entirely cohesive with the whole composition. On the other hand, the solo work continued luminous. The choral power in Part Three was sometimes reminiscent of Brahms. There is a marvelous pairing of the cello and tenor in the rapturous “arrows of fire” song. The prayerful tone of this final section uplifted the composition until its completion. This was a well sung, consistently engaging performance of a rarely performed Schumann work. Kudos.

Carolyn Gregory

Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde

Jane Struss, soprano, Thomas Young, tenor. Boston Philharmonic, conducted by Benjamin Zander.

October 16, 2004

Alma MahlerDas Lied von der Erde is one of Mahler's most affecting works. The piece began with the lied "The Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrow, which quickly erupts into crashing conflict between the tenor and the orchestra--a compelling interpretation by conductor Benjamin Zander. In the end, with the line "Dark is life, is death,"neither has the last word: it's as if the piece ends in a wary truce. Tenor Thomas Young holds his own amidst this orchestral onslaught. The even numbered lieder were sung by contralto Gigi-Mitchell-Velasco. In "The Lovely One in Autumn" she displayed wondrous tone and timing, particularly in the doleful stanza beginning Mein Herz ist mude." In this and the other pieces, she admirably handled sudden shifts in tempo. Zander's conducting made sure her voice never disappeared into the orchestral maelstrom, but blended well. Her final lied, the monumental "The Farewell," she displayed nary a wrong note or inflection. The last lines, "Forever . . . forever" were both heartbreaking and chilling. Of course Peggy Pearson's repeated oboe was hauntingly effective throughout.

Young did a fair, yet not spectacular job with his lieder. His voice, while effective at times, sometimes lacked personality and invention. He was best in "The Drunkard in Spring," where his voice showed its true power, particularly in the cynical line "For what matters Spring to me!?"

There is something affecting about Mahler's Tenth Symphony, even if unfinished. Perhaps it's because it involves a fourth hammer blow of fate--the discovery of his wife Alma's liaisons with the young architect Walter Gropius. (The previous three had been the death of his daughter, his dismissal from his job due to anti-Semitism, and the discovery of his fatal heart ailment.) I am glad Zander tackled this symphony. When I spoke to him last year, he didn't foresee a time when he'd be performing it in the future. Between then and now, he obtained a copy of Remo Mazzetti's excellent reconstruction of the Adagio, and here he does wonders with it. The soaring first theme was well-modulated and Mazzetti's daring effects, like the high screech of a violin amidst the din, as well as later echoes of Mahler's early symphonies. The pianissimo moments are well-contrasted with the fortissimo sections. There is also a dramatically jarring nine-note chord unlike anything else in Mahler. Rumor has it that Alban Berg had something to do with suggesting it be in the score. The final high note that first violinist Joanna Kurkowicz plays is extraordinary. Perhaps someday Zander will play Mazzetti's entire reconstruction, which I believe is the best.

Peter Bates

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs "Shhh. . .Whispering Trees, and now the Music"

Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello.

October 4, 2004

Chameleon EnsembleForget the loopy title. This concert had little to do with "whispering trees" and everything to do with the art of music, splendidly performed.

The group opened with Robert Schumann's late work "Märchenerzählungen 'Fairy Tales', Opus 132." This is one of his last works, composed a year before he was committed to the asylum at Endenich, where he died two years later.

The four-movement piece begain with a whimsical Lebhaft ((Allegro), with the clarinet clearly a dominant force. Gary Gorczyca played I with considerable alacrity, effortlessly sliding through the various energetic ascents. More whimsical than I, II produced moods that shifted effortlessly from daunting to wry. Pianist Gloria Chien played with sharp emphasis on the modern Steinway, which rumbled a bit in the bass. (It's too bad the First and Second Church doesn't have a less rowdy instrument, like an earlier Steinway.) The players created a mood of haunting wistfulness in III, with free associative figures and mood pictures painted by the clarinet. In IV, the piano once again asserted itself with a confident tone, giving way to a lyrical second theme. The piece wrapped up with a feeling of tenuous triumph, perhaps marking Schumann's undue faith in the life of the imagination over harsh realty. While Gorczyca was skilled, he was a bit too dominant, particularly in his duets with Woolweaver's viola.

Schnittke's "String Trio" is a complex, wry, mostly sardonic work that drew several smiles from the cognoscenti. At times a festival of "wrong notes," the work delights in constructing a lyrical melody and demolishing it with dissonance and harsh figures, like a parental rebuke. In this rendition, a driving allegro arrived to carry the piece to musical heights, but it stumbled and was soon pulled out of shape like taffy. Like much of Schnittke's quirky music, it was like the restless night of an insomniac, plagued with intermittant nightmares and short bursts of sentimental notions. The players quickly found its core, an entertaining series of musical jokes and punctured expectations.

Judith Shatin's "Secret Ground" had its Boston premier on this evening. Like a new pair of shoes, it took some getting used to, with its mysterious duets (cello/clarinet, violin/flute) and rapidfire chatter between players. Suddenly Raphael Popper-Keizer played an astounding cello solo and lead into a duet with Joanna Kurkowicz, one whose jazzy figures took the piece high into the stratosphere. Flutter tonguing on Gorczyca's clarinet and impish pizzacattos on the strings added to the complex timbre of this artful piece. The crowd applauded enthusiastically, as well they should have.

But nothing prepared these listeners for the final work, Shostakovich's "Piano Trio No. 2." A fabulously creepy opening set the mood for this war-time work and lead into a developmental section that was tight, rhythmic, emotional--a real crowd-pleaser. Kurkowicz, Chien, and Popper-Keizer played the Allegro (II) faster than I've ever heard it, life being lived on the edge. But what really knocked my socks and garters off was a truly great rendition of IV, the famous Jewish "Dance of Death" (repeated to great effect in the composer's Eighth String Quartet). As famous musicologist Ira Braus said, "here nineteenth century macabre becomes twentieth century sardonic." Perhaps more compelling with their twentieth century renditions than their nineteenth century ones, the Chameleons have nevertheless produced an impressive debut season concert.

Peter Bates

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs "In the Midst of the Quartet Singing"

Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Vivian Chang-Freiheit, piano; Heidi Braun-Hill, violin; William Manley, percussion; Sabrina Learman, soprano; Scott Woolweaver, viola; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Kelli O'Connor, clarinet; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello.

May 22, 2004

Chameleon EnsembleIn the final concert for the 2003-2004 season, the Chameleon Arts Ensemble performed this concert as a benefit book drive for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership. As always, this program was varied and innovative, ranging from composers of the Baroque to the new Classical Asian music, from Robert Schumann to Lukas Foss' modernism.

The group opened the concert with Georg Phillipp Telemann's “Quartet in G Major from Tafelmusik”. The piece began in a spirited manner with especially enjoyable oboe playing. Lovely, deep-voiced Baroque violin was accompanied by flute. There was nice modulation in the Vivace-Moderato movement and the individual instruments played well in ensemble. Nancy Dimock's oboe playing was noteworthy. It was a piece full of spirit, summoning the sound of bird songs and elegant French parlors.

The next piece performed, Phan's “Beyond the Mountains”, was a Boston premiere and a dramatic shift from the Telemann preceding it. It began with turbulence with dissonant piano and clarinet, accompanied by lamenting violin and cello. Broken piano notes interrupted the flow and movement and lyrical thrust of the cello. The piece alternated between scorching discomfort and disturbed lyricism, sometimes successfully and sometimes not quite so successfully. There was a degree of diffuseness in the composition which made it occasionally unwieldy. A Bartok-like repetitive motif played by the strings lent an obsessive aura to the piece.

Next on the program was Lukas Foss' immensely innovative treatment of Wallace Stevens' major poem, “ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. The composition began with stuttering flute and soaring soprano. The piano was played in the Foss manner with the top askew. The soprano, Sabrina Learman, sang with excellent modulation and range, alternating with whispered phrases and full voice. Foss was wise enough as a composer to bring the music directly back repeatedly to the Stevens poem. Magical percussive instruments were introduced. The flute was highly suggestive of a blackbird in flight or despair. It was really a superb treatment of the poem – windy, atmospheric and humorous, while also conveying the ominous under layers of the poetry.

Following intermission, the Chameleons next performed Jean Francais' “Quartet.” A light-hearted opening was followed by tightly measured playing, in turn followed by a more relaxed Andante movement. The oboe and clarinet playing was particularly rich. Generally, this was an optimistic piece marked by good ensemble playing.

Finally, the group performed Robert Schumann's “Quartet in E-Flat Major, opus 47.” The piece began in medias res , opulently romantic and very energetic, moving to a slower speed, which again built to a heightened pitch. The first movement's Sostenuto Assai, which was very passionate and unrestrained, shifting to the Scherzo's mercurial beginning. The Andante Cantabile movement on a much calmer frame, marked by rich cello and very sweet, singing violin, achieving an elegant, romantic melody accompanied by clear, measured piano playing. The Andante Cantabile movement was large with immense swatches of feeling. The final movement (Finale-Vivace) emotionally recapitulated the first movement. This was a record-worthy performance of the Schumann quartet played with passion, virtuosity and dramatic color – tremendously enjoyable.

Once again this concert showed how good these young players are. Their programs continue to show considerably virtuosity within their ensemble playing and program choices that are considerably more eclectic than many comparable groups in the Boston area.

Carolyn Gregory

Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Seventh

Jane Struss, soprano. Conducted by Benjamin Zander.

May 1, 2004

MahlerThe Boston Philharmonic Orchestra performed Gustav Mahler's Seventh Symphony at Jordan Hall on Saturday, May 1, 2004 . This fourth of the Mahler symphonies performed in this twenty-fifth anniversary season of the Boston Philharmonic conducted by Benjamin Zander was an amazingly complex symphony written toward the end of Mahler's life. Comprised of five movements, the symphony is symmetrical with first and last movements built on a grand scale, the three central movements (two "night music" movements and a scherzo) are more character movements. Mahler composed the Seventh Symphony after completing his immensely tragic Sixth Symphony. Some critics have compared Mahler's musical parallels with Beethoven and Wagner's progression from tense, passionate compositions (Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) to greater tranquility (Pastoral Symphony). With the Seventh Symphony, Mahler's emotional universe opens once more from night to day, despair to cautious optimism. Nature and the human world become the focus of the Seventh. Moving from the first movement's adagio-allegro con fuoco through the three middle movements (andante and scherzo) to the final allegro ordinario movement, the Mahler Seventh Symphony appears to be tempestuously romantic and modern, though its underlying structure is classical.

The first movement opens boldly with tenor tuba accompanied by sweeping strings. Full-hearted horns push the movement to crescendo, followed by a lilting, lyrical slide into greater intimacy which again builds to the full voiced orchestra. Movement one is an amazingly complex tapestry of moods and textures which continues its alternation between grand sized and lyrical. Early on, singing violins are joined in horns and woodwinds, a celestial harp is introduced. Then the movement turns back to a chilling crescendo which rises and falls like waves on an ocean shore. The first movement almost becomes an entire symphony in itself. This performance had totally engaged conducting by Benjamin Zander.

The second movement ("night music") begins in a much more measured way. An echoing opening between trumpet and clarinet mimics birdsong, including percussive, engaging use of violins. Less tempestuous and cataclysmic than the first movement, the second movement has a lighter mood. It includes inventive use of cowbells, dotted notes of bassoons, and highly mellifluous flutes.

The third movement ("spectral") opens with anxious strings, like a danse macabre. The swirling stirring of spirits includes lovely brief solo work on violin by concert mistress, Johanna Kurkowicz. The movement is schattenhaft (like a shadow), moving in a flowing though not quick manner. It's a surrealistic waltz. There's a tug of war created between the timpani's minor movement and the contradictory B-flat in the cellos and basses. It's engaging, visually suggestive and complex.

The fourth movement (night music, andante amoroso) begins with a folk motif. Solo mandolin contributes a simple, lovely repeating melody. A solo violin leaps an octave vigorously and surprisingly. "Heavy with passion, the violin solo falls, like a turtledove aswoon with tenderness, down onto the chords of the harp", as critic Michael Steinberg writes in the program notes.

Following the four very different night movements, the fifth movement develops on a grand scale, once more a recapitulation of the first movement's turbulence. Full use of the orchestra includes a great deal of percussion alternating between a degree of cacophony and the lyrical realm. Reference is made to Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" at several turns and in the C-major finale. There are lovely flourishes of the celesta, multiple drums, chimes. It's a triumphant, celebratory movement, built again with full use of the orchestra--horns, violins, trombones and tuba, trumpets--the return to the march of the first movement, no longer so ominous, perplexed and restless but now triumphant and glorious.

Following the Seventh Symphony, mezzo soprano, Jane Struss sang "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to this World"), one of Mahler's Rückertlider. Very slow paced and contemplative, Ms. Struss sang this song with great majesty and dark toned beauty. Her performance was memorable, in particular, when her voice soared, opening up to capture the song's polyphony: "I live alone, in my own heaven, in my love, in my song."

This was yet another splendid concert performance by Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. It capped a memorable and historic season. May there be at least fifty more to come!

Carolyn Gregory

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE Performs Russian Exile Music

Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Alyssa Coffey, horn; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Kelli O'Connor, clarinet; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello.

March 27, 2004

This Boston-based group performed an all-Russian music program. Not only were the four compositions performed written by “Russian” composers, but all four composers also lived in exile from their homeland. Giya Kancheli, considered the most important composer to emerge from the old Soviet Union since Dmitri Shostakovich, was actually born in the Republic of Georgia, but since he lived under Soviet rule most of his life, might also be considered a “Russian” composer.

The group opened the concert with Igor Stravinsky's memorable L'Histoire du Soldat. Its spritely entrance was marked by a highly measured rhythm, showing excellent balance between the dissonant melody and the highly structured meter. The second movement, “Le Violon du Soldat”, focused on the violin's journey with a soldier, partnered by a mellifluous clarinet. Here Joanna Kurkowicz played her violin with both tense and bold strokes. “Petit Concert” reintroduced the dissonant melody line with the clarinet and piano duo. It was a highly turbulent movement, well played and tight as a coil. The next movement, “Tango-Valse-Rag”, was an offbeat, almost expressionist, melting tango, including a peculiar lyrical underpinning of melody. There was a plodding, measured piano accompanied by acrobatic clarinet and violin. What followed was a wonderful thrust into a “modernist” line. “Danse du Diable”, the final movement, almost manic in intensity, was played with fluid virtuosity. This was an entirely satisfying performance of this often performed piece.

Next on the program was Giya Kancheli's Piano Quartet in L'istesso Tempo, introduced with a quote from the composer: “(I) have no faith that beauty will save the world.” He wrote this piece and many others “to turn away indifference.” Tolling strings opened the composition followed by an immediate shift to greater tentativeness. Very nice piano modulation that's broken and lyrical at the same time, heightening the pensive, yearning thrust of the movement. The “busy” playing of the violin contributed to the turbulence to a point where the music felt as if it might explode. Then it returned to breathier space. What became a waltz-like tempo moved to a crescendo reminiscent of Bartok which then shrank down to increased tentativeness. A sweeping, tempestuous crescendo then ended on a broken offbeat march. This was a very well paced piece with superb shift between tempi and emotional textures.

Elena Firsova's Perpetual Return, written in 2000 and commissioned by Ensemble Pyramide and first performed in Zurich, followed. It opened with a haunting solo flute, joined by cello and the other strings and oboe. Poignant flute was followed by an introjected harp. Pensive cello helped to stretch the range of all the instruments to a point resembling a chorus of birds, marked by particularly lovely intonation by Joanna Kurkowicz's violin and Anna Reinersman's harp.

The final piece on the program was Sergei Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor, Opus 19. performed by cello and piano. This began with romantic, flowing piano and deeply resonant cello. The allegro movement started with Beethoven or Schubert-like energy, more “classically” inspired than we often associate with Rachmaninoff's work. There was lovely treble work here, followed by a deeply emotional andante movement. Particularly striking was the dark, lower register cello playing by Rafael Popper-Keizer. The allegro mosso started with fluttering piano and cello which swelled and then slowed. Throughout the composition, there was excellent mix of the dynamic and ruminative, contrast between the restrained and uncontrolled, passionate heart.

The Chamelon Arts Ensemble continue to perform dynamic concerts that include a range of well known and lesser performed composers engaging different historical periods. Several of the players are really among the very best in Boston. This reviewer would definitely include Joanna Kurkowicz, violinist, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cellist, in that elite group. An absolute high point of this all-Russian concert was Mr. Popper-Keizer's cello playing in Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G Minor. Dynamic, passionate, sustained and gorgeous playing. I am really looking forward to the next concert the Chameleons offer. It is bound to be inspired and memorable. .

-Carolyn Gregory

Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Second

Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano, Ilana Davidson, soprano. Conducted by Benjamin Zander.

February 22, 2004

MahlerBenjamin Zander began his lecture for Mahler's Symphony #2 (or Resurrection) saying that each instrument in the composition is part of the composer's “emotional counterpoint”. Zander instructed the audience that the way to listen to this particular music is to “listen to everything.” By the time Mahler write his Second Symphony, he'd lost nine siblings; he was well acquainted with mourning and the full palette of emotional expression. In this symphony composed to five movements, the first long movement is followed by three intermezzi, shorter movements, culminating with a long movement. The whole symphony becomes a passionate Death and Transfiguration. Zander poetically stated that at Boston 's Symphony Hall “music lives like it does in a violin”, that the entire orchestra sings together as if it is a single instrument.

Mahler's Second Symphony's first movement represents a “knife to the heart” followed by the second movement, a glance backward or image of a long moment of bliss like a shaft of sunlight. The second movement's lighter than the rest of the composition containing a country dance-like rubato lending some relief from the first movement's dark proportions. The third movement's marked by a violent beginning. In it, elements of meaninglessness, sarcasm and the playful alternate. Clarinets and cellos create lots of “odd sound” and there's a scream of anguish similar to the anguish in Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique and in Liszt's Witches' Sabbath. In the fourth movement, a soprano sings “Man lies in deepest need. . .I would rather die in Heaven.” At this point, the key moves from A major to D flat minor and the tam-tam and glockenspiel alternately represent Death and life or Heaven. The fifth and final movement represents a symphonic tour de force. Here Mahler notes that the :Last Judgment is at hand. Ten musical motifs are represented that include a cry in the wilderness (oboes), day of judgment, resurrection and pleas for belief. There's an opening of the graves of the dead with a giant orchestral crescendo supported by a range of percussive instruments. The march of the dead souls includes an orchestral march and screaming woodwinds with a tritone interval (previously verboten, as it was considered to be the devil's signature). With the fifth grand movement, the human audience is assured that “What you have struggled against. . . will lead you to God.”

The symphony opened on a contemplative, large canvas. There was a lovely sonority shift between shadow and the luminous involving a vigorous cello section followed by horns and violins, a dynamic and shifting terrain. Sun streaks the canvas, only to go into hiding again. A large full orchestra grows and then becomes more tentative. The orchestra swells and then stops on a dime. Underlying all this, there's an ominous march of time. The second movement opens with a lovely, waltz-like motif in strong contrast to the large, troubled themes of movement one. The waltz shifts rather suddenly, nonetheless, to an airy pacing, reminiscent of Mendelssohn which eventually returns to the dance. The lyrical and gentle music includes delicate pizzicato and harp. Movement three opens with sinuous, wonderful use of the woodwinds, clarinets and oboes, in particular. There are broader musical strokes with more horns and greater dynamism among the strings. There was chilling crescendo-decrescendo work here. There was a solo interlude performed by mezzo-soprano Susan Platts like a cloudburst of song struck by light. Movement four opened more tentatively. An ensemble of horns, flutes and drums played from an offstage balcony location, suggesting an eternal region. Very striking, powerful music that captivated the large audience. With movement five, the orchestra was joined by a large chorus and soloists (Platts and soprano Ilana Davidson). The passionate duet of the mezzo and soprano in conjunction with the chorus restored peace to the symphony (and to the audience). The proportions of the final movement were operatic, written around the philosophical idea that “I die in order to live.” The symphony comes to a close, soaring upward with full use of every section of the orchestra – strings, horns, woodwinds, percussive instruments and bells. This was a deeply inspiring performance by the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and certainly one that warrants recording. Symphony Hall was a perfect location for this particular symphony, allowing use of the offstage ensemble work and large choral arrangement. Again, an absolutely wonderful afternoon of first rate music.

-Carolyn Gregory

Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's Fourth and Songs on the Deaths of Children

Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo-soprano,Heidi Murphy, soprano. Conducted by Benjamin Zander.

November 23>, 2003

MahlerBenjamin Zander prefaced this second concert in the Twenty Fifth season of the orchestra, letting the audience know that this would be an “extraordinary concert – all about children”, one showing the extremes of Gustav Mahler's emotions. As a child, the young Mahler lost nine siblings, witnessing several of their deaths close up. The poems inspiring the “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Deaths of Children”, text by Friedrich Ruckert) were written from the point of view of the despairing father, alternating in a fundamental way between light and darkness, hope and despair. Zander said that “every instrument plays a part in the drama” of tragedy in the songs, from the oboe central in the first two songs, to the cello and horns predominant in the fourth song. The singing throughout is “tragically sublime”, supported powerfully by a mezzo soprano. As always with Mr. Zander's lectures, a strong case was made for the connection between the composer's personal history and the symphonic, in this case reinforcing Mahler's stance as the German composer linking late German romanticism and modernism. The concert began with a nuanced opening of the Kindertotenlieder. Mezzo soprano, Mitsuko Shirai, has a voice full of tears that, when fully sustained, is powerful. Ms. Shirai performed Kindertotenlieder #3 beautifully in balance with the orchestra. This particularly poignant song is about the candle-lit memory of a child's face returning from the dead. Ms. Shirai's voice on this song expressed a fuller range than she had in #1 and #2, in which the cellos and bells overpowered her. Again, in #4, Ms. Shirai's upper vocal range soared, though its strength was sporadic. Following the intermission, #5 of the “Song of Earthly Life”, was performed. This is an immensely poignant song, based on three motifs: anxiety, rising angst of a starving child, and final resolution. Perhaps because of the dramatic tension, Ms. Shirai's voice soared. Her performance was very satisfying and operatic in timbre, partnered beautifully by the anxiety and sustained orchestral pace. The Fourth Symphony in G major began with signature sleigh bells, soon joined by violins and cellos. Mid-movement, there was bolder use of horns, followed by nearly strident woodwinds and flutes. The full orchestral playing showed dynamic movement from full volume to quieter restraint. The first movement ended on a lovely ascending flow, attended by horns. The second movement opened with a peculiar offbeat dance rhythm. The strings, French horns and trumpets were strong here. The third movement (or the “Serene”) began with plaintiff strings, leading to a transparent expansiveness. Joined by oboes and bassoons, the orchestral colors were layered gracefully. The violins were particularly lyrical. This was a luminous movement, building an emotional pitch that made me weep. Soprano Heidi Murphy joined the orchestra in the fourth movement. Both the sleigh bell motif and sense of urgency returned. Ms. Murphy sang with an expressive and resonant voice. I found her voice full, pretty and very well suited to Mahler. Once again, this rendition of a complete Mahler symphony by the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra was a great success. . -Carolyn Gregory

Chameleon Ensemble Performs Music of the Twenties

Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Alyssa Coffey, horn; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Sabrina Learman, soprano; Kelli O'Connor, clarinet; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello.

November> 15>, 2003

SykesThe Chameleon Arts Ensemble, a group of locally assembled and excellent young musicians, performed their second concert in this season's series at First and Second Church , Boston on Saturday, November 15, 2003 . This concert, “Forever Is Composed of Nows”, focused on Twentieth Century American and European composers. The first piece, George Antheil's Sonata Number 2, was composed by Antheil in 1923. He had previously written Ballet M é canique, a futurist score for percussion ensemble, and some of the same stylistic flourishes in that composition also appear in this violin-piano sonata. There's a strong Bartok-like introduction that is percussive and sly, joined by a playful violin. The piece was lyrical and dissonant at the same time – like a disjointed tango that jumps to a jukebox tempo afterward. Joanna Kurkowicz and Gloria Chien played it admirably well and were joined by D. Boldin on drum near the end. This was a terrific concert opener, thoroughly whetting this reviewer's appetite for more! Next on the program were a set of six American songs entitled, “Love Impressions: American Art Songs, 1921-1925”. This was an interesting set of pieces including Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and Amy Beach, three of this reviewer's favorite American composers of the period. Soprano, Sabrina Learman, and Gloria Chien, pianist, performed these songs with great flare and style. Ms. Learman's voice has a pretty good range. Her occasional soaring high range was noteworthy as was the emotional range of her performance. Additionally, I liked the lyricism of the poems and the match between the music and poems. Charles Ives' “ Housatonic at Stockbridge” was based on a very good poem, matched by the music's strongly suggestive sense of flowing water. Gloria Chien's piano playing was particularly satisfying here. Manuel de Falla's “Concerto for Harpsichord”, was the first ensemble piece on the program. It opened with quicksilver speed, marked by the multiple voices of clarinet, violin, cello, flute and harpsichord. The beginning was followed by a more formal, incantatory and solemn harpsichord which in its way, showed the influence of classical European composers on de Falla. This lento movement was sustained by the harpsichord with fluid woodwind movement. The vivace final movement turned the composition back in a more playful direction with an undercurrent of lyrical violin and flute, combining a folk theme with the abstract. Leos Janacek is widely accepted as the most important Czechoslovakian composer of the Twentieth Century. The Chameleon Ensemble performed “Mladi (Youth) Suite for Wind Sextet, written by Janacek in 1924. The composition began with a nice “depth charge” from the horn. The second, andante movement began with slower pacing and a building crescendo of flute and clarinet. The vivace movement started with a sweet melodic line, showing lovely work from the oboe and flute. It shifted in an interesting fashion between the lyrical and fast paced, suggestive of youth's quick passage. This was an interesting, diverse composition, a harbinger of later trends that developed in both jazz and minimalism. The final composition on the program, Fauré's Piano Trio performed by violin, cello and piano, was a lovely piece that at times, reminded this reviewer of middle period Brahms, based on its highly expressive emotional range. The pure lyrical cello opening was joined by a passionate violin and exclamatory piano. The andantino was a quieter movement with a flowing, melodic line, played by solo violin, then picked up by the excellent cello playing of Rafael Popper-Keizer. There's a swelling ascent in the composition, culminating in the allegro vivo movement marked by marvelously expressive running chords on the piano. This piece was a wonderful culmination to the concert. After now attending two concerts by the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, this reviewer continues to be impressed with the versatility and range of this Boston-based group. I thoroughly enjoy the variety of their performances. I can only hope that their audience size will grow as they continue concertizing. They are most definitely a force on the local scene that I hope will continue and flourish for a long time to come. -Carolyn Gregory

Bill Staines at the Linden Tree Coffeehouse

With Debra Cowan. Linden Tree Coffeehouse, Wakefield, MA. www.lindentreecoffeehouse.org.

November> 15>, 2003

Boston Chamber Music SocietyBill Stains has been performing over thirty years and has lost none of his spirit. In fact, talkin' blues songs like "Old Pen," written about a hobo musician, take on more authenticity when heard from this grizzled veteran of many gigs. He performed other favorites like "Roseville Fair" and "Wild Wild Heart" (with unsolicited audience accompaniment) displaying none of the world-weary anomie that other older singers often project. In his introductions he is often humorous and self-deprecatory, like when talking about senior moments he's been experiencing lately. He even had the courage to perform his work-for-hire songs, done for commercial documentaries and decidedly a rung lower in quality than his more deeply felt personal songs, like "Bridges." As an added treat, he sang Eric Andersen's "Thirsty Boots," written by a young man through the eyes of an older one, weary of traveling and being jailed for his beliefs. Traditional folk singer Debra Cowan opened for him, singing mostly acapella ballads about country life. -Peter Bates

Boston Chamber Music Society Performs Beethove, Prokofiev, and Dvorak

Ida Levin, Ronald Thomas, Mihae Lee, Peggy Pearson Thomas Hill, Ruggero Allifranchini, Haim and Joan Eliacher, Marcus Thompson, and Edwin Barker.

November> 14>, 2003

Boston Chamber Music SocietyThe Boston Chamber Music Society's second concert of the season scores high points for its interpretation of Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Dvorak. Ida Levin, Ronald Thomas, and Mihae Lee performed Beethoven's early C-minor Piano Trio with requisite brio and charm. It's not hard to hear the edges of early Romanticism poking through the Haydn-like structures. Ironically, it was rumored that Haydn himself did not like this piece, perhaps because of its "daring" lyrical structure. No matter, its youthful exuberance carries it through to the whirling finale. Prokofiev's Quintet for Winds and Strings was a rare treat. Rarely performed, this sardonic and slightly disturbing piece reminds me a little of Bartok's Contrasts (for clarinet, violin, and piano). While musically quite different, it has a similar anarchic sense of play he learned from living in Paris in the 20's. This six-movement piece also toys with atonality in the oddly structured Adagio pesante, which is infused with a rumbling strain of dread. A few demi-folk melodies slither in, notably at the Moderato and the Allegro precipitato. Hats off to oboist Peggy Pearson and clarinetist Thomas Hill for contributing to the off-kilter Dadaist mood of this subversive piece. No wonder Prokofiev felt necessary to recant it to the Stalinist commissars twenty-five years later. To their credit, the Society restores the Intermezzo (Nocturne) to its rightful place in the Dvorak String Quintet. (It was removed by a tone-deaf publisher.) Achingly beautiful, this four minute piece spins a dreamy mood throughout, but avoids sentimentality by including a subtle tempo speedup halfway through. The Scherzo and the Andante cantabile also contribute to the success of the piece. However, as one musician said, the piece is more successful in its center movements. The finale is problematic and lacks keenly articulated ideas and musical consistency. Nevertheless, the Society handled the piece admirably. -Peter Bates

Boston Baroque Performs Handel's Alcina

Twyla Robinson Margaret Lattimore , Lauren Skuce , John Tessier , Amanda Forsythe , Stephen Salters, Christine Abraham. Conducted by Martin Perlman. Stage direction by Jennifer Griesbach.

October> 17>, 2003

Young MahlerBoston Baroque's thirtieth anniversary production (semi-staged) of Handel's popular opera Alcina was a light and pleasing affair. The vocalists, for the most part, were excellent. Robinson's vocal technique and pure timbre matched Handel's music perfectly; yet she seemed too guileless in her role as an enchantress who lured men to her magical island only to turn them into rocks, twigs, and animals. Forsythe as Oberto was plaintively poignant in Act 1, her light and resonant coloratura full of feeling. Abraham's Bradamante was exquisite in her tenderness as she sang “Son quella ” (Act 2). Lattimore as Ruggiero (originally sung by a countertenor) had a pleasantly rolling vibrato, with competent glissandos. Toward the end, the numerous da capo arias yielded to a lovely trio by these three singers, followed by brief solos from chorus members. Martin Pearlman's conducting was spirited, and the small orchestra, which included a harpsichord and a theorbo , was in top form. Vocal purists, take note. The acoustics on the right side of the balcony at Jordan Hall leave a lot to be desired, and the singing in the lower ranges sounded distorted. Once a move was made to the orchestra section, however, the singers in the mezzo-soprano and tenor ranges seemed to improve dramatically. -Dalia Geffen

Boston Philharmonic Performs Mahler's First and Songs of a Wayfarer

William Sharp, baritone, Johanna Kurkowicz, concertmaster. Conducted by Benjamin Zander.

October> 12, 2003

Young MahlerCelebrating the twenty fifth anniversary season of the Boston Philharmonic, the orchestra performed the first of four sequential Gustav Mahler symphonies (and other major compositions) on Sunday, October 12th at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. As always preceding the Boston Philharmonic's concerts, conductor, Benjamin Zander offered concertgoers a pre-concert lecture that was richly instructive, both about Mahler's complexity and the evolution of his music as the bridge between German Romanticism and Modernism. Zander painted Mahler's life and music in bold strokes, claiming that "everything about him was amazing". At age three, for example, Mahler knew 200 songs! His "Songs of the Wayfarer" were written at the young age of 23, though their level of sophistication would indicate a much more mature composer. Indeed, Mahler's First Symphony came (to use Zander's words again) "fully armed like Athena into the world", evolving from a short work, Blumine, written previously for his great lost love, Johanna Richter. And on to the music, itself. The "Songs of the Wayfarer" began with subtle use of horn and orchestra in pianissimo mode, slowly waking with moody, mellifluous oboes. From his first song notes, baritone soloist, William Sharp, was magnificent. His voice was nuanced, lyrical and emotionally resonant. Most notable to this reviewer was the beauty in his upper range. These four songs were written by Mahler in a state of despair at being jilted by Johanna Richter. Despair is set against the great and restorative beauty of nature, replete with its bird songs and bursts of thunder - subtly melodic - yet Mahler pushed the form toward Modernism with his persistent key shifts from minor to major keys. The songs were admirably performed with passion and poetic restraint. This was a moving performance of the songs and worthy of note. The First Symphony was next and what a new world we entered. Starting out with a view of lost innocence, we're surrounded by birds in out journey to the countryside. The second movement grew more complex. An active Viennese country dance starts energetic, full sail, then becomes a waltz with lots of lyrical rubato. The orchestral playing was terrific in this movement, balancing the strings, woodwinds and horns consistently throughout. The third movement was rather like a sustained poem. An ominous folk song played on the bass was then picked up by English horns and oboes. The song was then shared among orchestral sections, moving into a Klezmer tune, then winnowed down with lovely strings and woodwinds in dialogue. There's the sense of time marching forward on repeated, sustained heartbeats toward the tumultuous climax. The concert was a smashing triumph! From the subtle beauty of William Sharps' solo singing to Johanna Kurkowicz's delicate and refined violin work to the subtle double bass playing in the First Symphony, this was a first rate performance of Gustav Mahler. The orchestral dynamics were consistently excellent. From the introduction of the cuckoo motif to the well defined transition into the lyrical, melodic main theme to the use of the whole "Mahlerian orchestra", the performance was very satisfying. There was good crescendo-decrescendo control throughout, nice shifting between the light and pastoral into the dark and tumultuous, giving further credence to Mahler's bold and large universe. I look forward very much to the next concerts in this Mahler series. Kudos to the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and to Boston musical natural resource, Benjamin Zander. -Carolyn Gregory

Teatro Lirico D'Europa Performs Don Giovanni

Vytas Juozapaitis, Stefano De Peppo, Steffanie Pearce, Su-Jin Lee, Vesselina Vassileva, Gabriel Gonzales, Hristo Sarafov, Vladimir Pochapsky. Conducted by Metodi Matakiev. Artistic and stage director: Giorgio Lalov.

September 28, 2003

Despite a rather static and lackadaisical staging (even the orchestra seemed lethargic at first, but then gained momentum), this performance of Mozart’s ever-popular opera had much to recommend it. Vytas Juozapaitis as the eponymous villain regaled us with his antics and handsome appearance. His light, breathy baritone successfully transitioned into Leporello’s deeper chest notes when the two characters swapped roles. Stefano de Peppo was somewhat unconvincing as Leporello, but while masquerading as Giovanni and harassing Donna Elvira he was quite comical. Steffanie Pearce as Donna Anna was an artful singer with regal acting skills. Her Ottavio, Gabriel Gonzales, sang “Il mio tesoro” with a smooth crescendo but was wooden and without any affect. Su-Jin Lee’s excessive vibrato led to inaccurate intonation, with scant breath support during her portamenti. But in Act 2 this Donna Elvira seemed to hit her stride. By far the best artist was Vesselina Vassileva of the Sofia Academy of Music. Her lively lyric soprano perfectly suited Zerlina. Like a purring panther cub, she soothed her irascible fiancé, Masetto (Hristo Sarafov), with her feline ministrations and sweet, precise enunciations. Vladimir Pochapsky as the Commendatore sang with deep, expansive notes that passed the frissons test. This production also displayed nice ensemble work. -Dalia Geffen

Wagner marathon by the Bostonians

September 20, 2003

The newly formed Bostonian Opera and Concert Ensemble (the Bostonians for short), with founder and artistic director Richard Conrad at its helm (see the interview), presented a rare musical event of excerpts from Wagner’s entire operatic oeuvre plus two of his piano pieces. Wagnerian music making of this caliber has rarely been heard in Boston (if at all). From the first thrilling notes of the trumpet (the Siegfried fanfare) to the last mournful cadences of Götterdämmerung, this ensemble of twenty-three singers and fourteen instrumentalists surpassed all expectations. Most of the singers, who donated their time and effort to this six-hour fundraiser, are eminently worthy of being on the Met stage or at Bayreuth. Bonnie Scarpelli’s Siegliende was astonishingly good, among the best I have ever heard on any stage or recording. The contralto Marion Dry sang both Erda and Waltraute (an indication of her wide range) with excellent musicianship and a commanding stage presence. In Lohengrin’s “Das süsse Lied verhallt,” one of this opera’s high points, Alan Schneider equaled the golden-age Heldentenor Franz Völker. With a little more softness and subtlety, he should soon surpass him. His partner, Jane Leikin, was a delightful Elsa, sweet and poignant, and in the end crestfallen, as befits the role (her Elisabeth was equally delicate). David Cushing, who sang the Holländer with great care, is a bass-baritone to watch. His big, sonorous voice might prepare him for Wotan some day. Philip Lima’s Wotan was too low for this velvety baritone, but he had the perfect timbre for Wolfram; his “Abendstern” (Tannhäuser) seemed somewhat affected, but his musicianship was never in question. Andrea Matthews, who sang Ada in Die Feen, is endowed with a true Wagnerian voice. This dramatic soprano glides from a gorgeously produced, tender pianissimo to the most passionate note with great ease. In “Mein Arindal,” she was enchanting as she swooped over the notes with her accurate and well-supported modulation. Her true fach may well be the Wagnerian repertoire.During the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the ensemble of eight women filled the hall with joyous voices (to the accompaniment of Thomas Hojnacki’s able piano) that thrilled the audience. The quintet in Act 3 of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was magical. The two violinists in the Siegfried Idyll (Hilary Foster and Heidi Braun-Hill) were outstanding, and although the conducting by Dirk Hillyer needed a small infusion of energy, the sounds he elicited from the players was terrific.Given the dearth of good Wagnerian singers on the world’s stages, this outstanding undertaking proves that a fully staged Wagnerian production in Boston is well within the realm of possibility.-Dalia Geffen

 

The Don Quixote of Opera: An Interview with Richard Conrad

Fighting windmills comes naturally to Richard Conrad. A long-time fixture on the musical scene in Boston, this Don Quixote of the opera world recently founded a new company called the Bostonians, short for the Bostonian Opera and Concert Ensemble. On September 20, the company will make its debut with a six-hour fund-raising marathon of Wagner's music beginning at 12:30. Every artist, including instrumentalists, is donating his or her services in this unusual event.

Q. When did you start the Bostonians and why?

A. I was the founder and artistic director of the Boston Academy of Music (BAM) for twenty years. I broke off because of political machinations. Almost all singers with the Bostonians are from BAM. I named the Bostonians after a wonderful late-nineteenth-century touring company famous for the quality of its singing. I see myself as trying to follow the precepts and philosophy of that company, which ended in 1917 when the singers got old. They were quite something. I am also interested in staging. I do staging that highlights the singing and music. I don't like to inflict a concept.

Q. Why did you choose the music of Wagner? A. I don't want to be another organization redux. I want to bring to Boston repertory people don't usually hear. And BAM did marathons of Rossini (75 operas), Gilbert and Sullivan, Bellini, Mozart, verismo composers. People adored them. I'm a big fan of Wagner and sang in Meistersinger von Nürnberg with Sarah Caldwell.

Q. Was it difficult for the singers to make this drastic change in repertoire to Wagner?

A. No. My philosophy about Wagner is that he didn't have Wagnerian singers [back then]. Only after a century did the Wagnerian style develop. I tell singers to pretend to be singing Bellini music about drugs.

Q. How do you hope to contribute to the Boston music scene?

A. I want to display New England artists in a variety of repertory, bringing a different view of music, the kind that Boston doesn't usually hear. I want to glorify the human voice. I am adamant about using singers from New England. I am a Don Quixote fighting windmills.

--Dalia Geffen

To learn more about the Bostonians, visit www.thebostonians.org.

Boston Academy of Music Performs Tosca

March 23, 2003

Lori Phillips, Ray Bauwens, René de la Garza, Jay Baylon, Drew Poling, Miguel Angelo Rodriguez, Steven Pence, Steven Serpa, Paul Phillips, conductor.

In this coproduction, the Boston Academy of Music and Opera Providence make a valiant effort to evoke the time (1800) and place (Rome) of this beloved opera by multiple projections of slides depicting Italian architecture and paintings. This simple technique effectively diminishes the need for more elaborate set designs. A simple sofa, a rudimentary parapet, and a few benches seem sufficient to infuse the opera with a tragic realism that transports the viewer to a distant time and place.

Musically speaking, though, the results were rather mixed. The best performance was by the bass Jay Baylon, who as the fugitive Angelotti regaled us with some accomplished singing. In addition, De la Garza gave us a delightful Scarpia, whose joy at arousing Tosca’s jealousy is palpable. He was particularly effective at portraying Scarpia’s slow and imperceptible escalation of his maneuverings, although occasionally he seemed to get out of breath.

Phillips as Tosca evinced a good range and secure low notes, but her intonation, particularly during the high notes of “Vissi d’arte,” was somewhat distorted. Another drawback in Phillips’s singing was her unvarying tone. Her voluminous voice went from forte to fortissimo, without any discernible attempt at shaping it into a piano or pianissimo at any point. Bauwens as Cavaradossi had a firm hold on his legatos, and his high notes rang out loud and clear. His low notes, however, were for the most part muddy, especially in “E lucevan le stelle,” and his voice was not as flexible as it could have been.

The weakest part of this production was the clunky, ragged orchestra. The musicians and conductor seemed more concerned with producing the right notes than with shaping the music in an artistic manner.

--Dalia Geffen

RATING © © ©


Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra Features D'Anna Fortunato

February 17, 2003

Boston Pro Arte Chamber Chamber Orchestra of Boston, Isaiah Jackson conductor. D'Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano.

The concert began with Café Neon, a tasty musical melange of traditional Greek rhythmic songs. Not a particularly profound piece, it was a good appetizer for the more substantial fare to come. Composer Steven Karidoyanes wrote in the notes that the pieces owe much to Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. Clarinetist Jan Halloran artfully performed the spunky melodies. It is not very often that we hear Berlioz's charming Les Nuits d'été. This melancholic song cycle was composed to the poems of Théophile Gautier and deal with traditional romantic themes of longing and loneliness. Mezzo-soprano D'Anna Fortunato masterfully conveyed the mood of each of these six songs, despite the challenging acoustics of Sanders Theatre. Unlike the songs to follow, "Villanelle" is jubilant and joyous. "La Spectre de la Rose" features a striking descent to the low register in the final line, "Here lies a rose that every king might envy." "Sur les Lagunes (Lamendo)" has a monochromatic angst that Fortunato fills by varying the character of each of the strophic verses. She ends with a sigh of resignation. My favorite is "L'ile Inconnue." The piece has nicely varied musical ideas, which Ms. Fortunato conveys not only with her voice, but with her expressive face and gestures. It is seldom that we hear Beethoven's Fourth Symphony performed by a chamber orchestra. Yet this "feminine" symphony yielded well to Jackson's compact and vivid interpretation. The interplay between string sections in the first movement was notable, as was the deft creation of tension and dissolution in the fourth movement. Jackson's most notable effect was the famous (and sudden) tempo drop at the coda, Beethoven's tribute to Hayden's sly sense of humor.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©


Boston Philharmonic Presents Mahler's Third

November 25, 2002

Boston Philharmonic, Benjamin Zander conductor. Chorus Pro Musica, Boston Boy Choir.

Locatelli

 

 

 

 

As the world's longest symphony (almost two hours) Mahler's Third Symphony sometimes needs special skills to keep up audience interest. This was Seji Ozawa's dilemma, when he conducted (and recorded) a rather pedestrian version of this work several years ago. Happily, no such problem confronted Benjamin Zander at a recent concert at Sanders Theater. The performance was stirring, bold, and exciting. The first movement has been accused of being "long and drawn out," perhaps a bit thick and effusive. It does account for more than a third of the six movement symphony's length. Yet Zander begins its ebullient opening with gaity and brio. His interpretation of the march melodies are filled with unusual delicacy, even sublety. Two thirds of the way through, the movement adopts a swaggering, scherzo-like feel and Zander revels in it. The finale is played with an alarming and exhilerating celerity. Wisely, he plays the second movement minuet with the requisite dash of sentimentality, but also injects an undercurrent of darkness. The third movement features the wonderfully atmospheric posthorn solo, which the conductor justly places far in the distance, where its melancholy strains transform into song. The fourth movement features the "Midnight Song" from Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, a philosopher whose works initially attracted, then repelled the religious Mahler. Mezzo-soprano Jane Struss does a good job with this spartan text and sings quite tenderly. The Chorus Pro Musica and the Boston Boy Choir are also exemplary. Why is it that adolescent boys sing so well together but tend to be shakey when singing individually? A sensitive Langsam ends the symphony, with a coda as lovely and drawn out as that in the Eighth Symphony. I am looking forward to the inevitable Telarc recording, which will probably include Mr. Zander's spirited lecture as a bonus disc, like the others he has recorded.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©


Mozart and Brahms at the Gardner Museum

September 8, 2002

The Borromeo String Quartet with Kim Kashkashian, viola.

Locatelli

 

 

 

 

The concert began with Mozart’s Quintet in C Major, K515. The Borromeo plunged into the allegro, showing instant rapport. There was no warm up or adjustment of strings needed here! The encore was sweet, marked by a deep voiced, rich cello, and excellent attention paid to the “breathing spaces” in the music. The emotional resonance created by Mozart was reminiscent of the young Beethoven or even Schubert. The cellist, Yeesun Kim, held the movement together with her virtuosity. The menuetto opened with an immediate dance rhythm, counterbalancing light and dark motifs that suggested a solo dance couple. This movement reinforced the ensemble’s seamless playing. The andante began with a marked shift in tone from relatively light dance to more somber contemplation. The song-like quality of the movement was sustained by first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, and held by violist, Mai Motobuchi. The sprightly and bright allegro movement was led by insistent violins, again marked by the super ability of each instrument to “listen” to the others.

This was an excellent rendition of the Mozart quintet. I hope to hear more Borromeo interpretations of Mozart in the future.

Brahms’ String Quintet F Major, opus 88 opened with Brahms’ characteristic vigorous romanticism. Sweeping bowing with high energy moved into a more subdued, open weave of the five instruments. Then Brahms threw a large bumblebee of turbulence into what’s become familiar to the listener. The Grave began much more calmly with dark, weighty cello, which is then picked up by the violins and violas with a quicker tempo. The cello and other strings shifted the tempo, then returning to a more introspective ending, solemn as Shostakovich. Finally, the composition picked up speed, becoming higher octane, similar to the exuberant beginning, like a dance gone wild. The allegro energico was very brief and dynamic, played with great gusto by the quintet.

The concert was a very satisfying performance by the Borromeo String Quartet with world-class violist Kim Kashkashian playing emotively, yet assuming an oddly subdued role as second violist. The Mozart and Brahms compositions complemented one another nicely, showing off both the virtuosic and high level of ensemble playing represented. I look forward to hearing the Borromeo String Quartet again soon. It would be very enjoyable to hear them take on Prokofiev, Hindemith or Bartok in the near-future!

--Carolyn Gregory

RATING © © ©


Hill House Community Choir: First Concert

June 17, 2002

Locatelli

 

 

 

 

Various show tunes and traditional songs, accompanied by pianist/director Miranda Loud.

It's always refreshing to witness the birth of a new amateur singing group. This group of six singers performed earnestly and passionately. While a few singers may have had voice lessons, a few hadn't. Yet they all carried the tunes and were able to propel the twenty minute event forward without any embarassing pauses or egregious flubs. This after only ten sessions together. The opening number was Lerner & Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live," with its charming and inventive Kirby Shaw arrangement. Unlike the other popular songss "Cheek to Cheek" and "I've got the World on a String," this piece demanded a complex sense of timing and ensemble singing. "Cheek to Cheek" was perhaps the most immediately appealing number, with its perky, foot tapping rhythm.

I have a few suggestions for the group.

This event signals an auspicious beginning for the new choir. Hopefully, we'll see more of them in the fall.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © ©


Boston Museum of Fine Arts: Cornucopia--The Italian Trio Sonata

May 12, 2002

Locatelli

 

 

 

 

Various Renaissance and Baroque works performed by the Boston Museum Trio with Etienne Abelin (violin)

It's true--the Italians invented the trio sonata in the late Renaissance. But it's equally true that these fine performers provided us with a cross-section of the genre that was at once sober and giddy. Using original instruments, the musicians played progressively more complex pieces until they ended with those two masters, Vivaldi and Locatelli. The three Renaissance pieces by Giovanni Cima, Salamone Rossi, and Biagio Marini are surprisingly inventive. Rossi's piece, "Sonata detta La Moderna," begins simply, almost guilelessly, but soon its complexity snags you like a motley fisherman's fly. A confident man, he once wrote an opus entitled "Songs of Solomon," which referred to him, not the Hebrew king. Guest violinist Etienne Abelin sensitively interprets Corelli's "Sonata in C Major for Solo Violin and Basso Continuo." The Adagio features wondrous slurs and dazzling demisemiquavers. The echoes in the final Allegro are ingeniously and subtly varied. The Vivaldi Sonata a tre in D Minor, while not the expected cornerstone of the concert, is unique and engaging. In the Grave, the cello provides an impish four-note responses that's as memorable as the "dog barking" passage in the second movement of "Spring." The irregular rhythm that ends the piece should have woken all the dozers in the audience. Finally, the Locatelli Sonata a tre in D Major opens with full rests so delicious you can almost bite into them. Oddly, the Vivace was not that lively, but the concluding Andante, with its stately and lyrical dance theme, made up for any previous restraints on the part of these excellent musicians.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©


Boston Baroque Early Mozart

May 3, 2002

Divertimento in F Major, K. 138, Concerto in D Major for Flute and Orchestra, K. 314, Mass in C Minor, K. 427
Conductor: Martin Perlman
Soprano: Juliana Rambaldi
Mezzo-Soprano: Patricia Risley
Tenor: Stanford Olsen:
Bass-baritone: Kevin Deas

It was an excellent choice on the part of conductor Martin Perlman to perform these three works together. They show three distinct culinary sides to Mozart's development: the string quartet/divertimento, the mass, and the flute concerto. The Divertimento in F Major, originally an early string quartet, is a tasty appetizer with intricate textures, particularly the pianissimo passage just before the coda. The soup and salad came as a surprise--Mozart's second flute concerto instead of his first. Flutist Jacques Zoon gave it a jaunty, breezy interpretation, especially during the solo passages. The third movement cadenza was adventurous and improvisatory in a baroccoco fashion. Zoon has an independant, risk-taking attitude that Mozart may have admired. The main course, the unfinished Mass in C Minor, although missing some portions, had moments of grandeur untained by the pious late romantic readings so many orchestras give it (usually in some echoey church). Soprano Juliana Rambaldi and mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley are mercifully given their own solos in which to shine; not so for the men, who sing only ensembles with the women. The two women particularly are glorious together during the "Domine Deus" duet. Later, joined by tenor Stanford Olsen, they do a harmonious and vivid rendition of "Quoniam tu solus Sanctus." Only during the "Benedictus" does the power of Kevin Deas' bass-baritone voice get a chance to rain down. This mass is one of the finest performances at this period orchestra in my memory.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©


American Repertory Theater: Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss

March 6, 2002

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat
Marquis de Sade: Thomas Derrah
Coulmier: Jeremy Geidt
Jean Paul-Marat : Will LeBow
Simonne Evrard : Karen MacDonald
Charlotte Corday : Stephanie Roth-Haberle
Duperret : John Douglas Thompson
Jacques Roux : Benjamin Evett
Herald: Alvin Epstein
Cucurucu: Sandro Isaack
Polpoch: Remo Airaldi
Kokol: Craig Doescher
Rossignol: Sarah Douglas
Director: János Szász

Marat/Sade is a landmark piece of dramatic work from the mid-Sixties that holds up like the best of Bertolt Brecht's plays. Back in 1964 (and 1966 when it was filmed), it had the great fortune to have struck a chord with an audience already challenging the status quo (those who saw revolution as more than a new soap brand). Despite the fact that the play questions revolutionary sentiments as often as it promotes them, Marat/Sade became a hit on Broadway and turned into a quirky and popular film, now frequently the venue of midnight shows.

The ART performance is a thrilling and scary carriage ride through the wilderness of political debate and caverns of madness. Director János Szász, who directed last year's Mother Courage so imaginatively, adeptly deals with political theater. He refuses to get bogged down with mystical effects, and never skids on hazy contemplation and puzzling character portraits. In this production of Marat/Sade, everything happens for a reason. Even the bloody ending, never specified in Weiss's play or included in the 1966 film, has its point to make about revolutions (and art itself) not always going in their proscribed directions, but veering out of control. The musical numbers are often choreographed with tongue-in-cheek technique, such as the "Song of the Tumbrel Driver" in which the inmates dance in unison as if in a rock video. As the Marquis de Sade, Thomas Derrah looks debauched and weary, with moments of twisted ecstasy, like when he relates the torture and death of Damien, Louis XV's attempted assassin. This Sade actually directs the patients in their parts, blocking for them and prompting them when they forget their lines. Jeremy Geidt's Coulmier, the director of the asylum, is shown in a wheelchair, perhaps to underscore his impotence in controlling his inmates and the course of the play itself. The set is quite effective, with its circular cage for the inmates and clouds of bathhouse steam suggesting haziness and uncertainty. Harsh metallic sounds frequently erupt, such as a crashing examination table or Sade adjusting the lighting. There is no danger of an audience member falling asleep in this play!

Stephanie Roth-Haberle plays the narcoleptic who performs Charlotte Corday's role. Her choppy enunciations are appropriately exhilarating and grating, particularly whenever she interacts with John Douglas Thompson's Duperret, who is played by an erotomanic patient. Szász lets the audience figure things out for themselves, which explains why he leaves out the Herald's descriptions of the ailments of the cast members. It doesn't explain why he omits some of Roux's and Marat's more inflammatory speeches. I particularly missed Roux's "Man is a mad animal" and Marat's admonition of future rulers developing more sophisticated weaponry "that can, with a flick of a finger, tear a million of you to pieces." No matter. This production gets most of the atmosphere and characterizations right and envelopes itself in refreshingly dark swatches of irony and innuendo. This is truly one of the most memorable performances at the ART in my memory.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©

 


Boston Lyric Opera: Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi

October 14, 2001

Don Carlos, by Giuseppe Verdi
A grand opera in five acts
Libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle,
after the dramatic poem Don Carlos: Infant von Spanien, by Schiller (1787)
Sung in French with English surtitles
Don Carlos: Jean-Pierre Furlan, tenor
Thibault, page of Elisabeth de Valois: Melina Pineda, mezzo-soprano
Elisabeth de Valois: Indra Thomas, soprano
Le Comte de Lerme: Alan Schneider, tenor
Un Moine: Branch Fields, bass
Rodrige, Marquis de Posa: Gaetan Laperriere, baritone
La Princesse Eboli: Robynne Redmon, mezzo-soprano
Philippe II, Roi d'Espagne: Mark S. Doss, bass
Un Héraut Royal: Patrick Miller, tenor
Une Voix d'en Haut: Junko Watanabe, soprano
Le Grand Inquisiteur: Chester Patton, bass
Conductor: Stephen Lord

Don Carlos, one of the most respected of Verdi's operas, is a romanticized version of the true-life story of Don Carlos, the hapless heir to the Inquisition-era Spanish throne. Long and unwieldy, it suffered many cuts over the years, which left it rather patchy and episodic. In addition, the two main characters, Don Carlos and Elisabeth, never come fully alive, rendering these roles problematic for the singers.

For the most part, Furlan, as the eponymous hero, looked limp and expressionless. His voice carried some power, but unfortunately his intonation was slightly inaccurate. Thomas as Elisabeth has a warm voice but lacks the heft required for a Verdi heroine. However, with time and experience, she could gain in flexibility and power. These two singers gave their best performances during duets, trios, and quartets.

The loveliest singing emanated from two secondary characters, Laperriere's Posa and Redmon's Eboli. Laperriere's chestnuty baritone rolled luxuriantly, like the curls of his long hair. Redmon's singing was colorful and imaginative, with some of the loveliest pianissimos I have ever heard.

Doss as Philippe II looked suitably majestic and stern, but when he unburdened himself in Act 4, his suffering lacked any grandeur and became less believable. Patton as the Inquisitor was a spectral figure of frightening intensity, and Lord's conducting was clunky and unimaginative.

--Dalia Geffen

RATING © © ½

Editor's note: While there are multiple versions of Verdi's Don Carlos, there are effectively two performing versions: an Italian and a French one. The Italian one has a ridiculous ending in which Don Carlos is dragged back into the monastery by his grandfather (or grandfather's ghost, or monk disguised as his grandfather). This betrays Schiller's original ending in which Don Carlos is led off to be executed by the Inquisition, which is the French version. To their credit, the Boston Lyric Opera used the French version.

 


Emmanuel Music: Two Cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach

February 28, 2001

Starring Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Conducted by Craig Smith. Directed by Peter Sellars. 

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a mezzo-soprano of considerable gifts, took center stage on February 26 and 28 at the Boston premiere in an unorthodox rendition of two Bach cantatas staged by Peter Sellars.

 This unusual performance of deeply religious music incongruously fuses singing with grand operatic gestures and, oddly, Martha Graham–like choreography. For those who may find  Bach a bit insipid, this entertaining combination provides undeniable relief from unrelenting piety. However, those who like their music pure and simple may find this production enormously frustrating. In it there is an implicit assumption that the human voice is not adequate to the task of conveying intense emotions, which then must be dramatized in this way. Connoisseurs of vocal music may disagree.

 In the first cantata, "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut" (BWV 199), the artist appears in a long, flowing dress of baby blue and an even longer salmon scarf, which she then uses to great effect by obsessively twirling it, smoothing it out while lying on the floor, and knotting it over her chest, all the while singing the cantata. This ceaseless activity is accompanied by the anguished expressions of a penitent sinner. Hunt Lieberson is in full voice and well supported, but her movements and facial contortions are distracting. Without these operatic artifacts the singing would surely have been fuller, more satisfying, and powerful.

 The second cantata, "Ich habe genug" (BWV 82), showcases Hunt Lieberson's vocal powers more convincingly, as the music is less frenetic. This time she wears a hospital gown and gray socks and at times holds hospital tubes as a prop, presumably to convey a readiness to die. Behind her stands a figure clad in black, holding a large light bulb with an intense light in front of the singer, completely obscuring her face. Later, he moves it around, and Hunt Lieberson even holds it in her hands without appearing to suffer from its heat. There are intimations of power in her voice, but unfortunately these are diluted by her acting.

 This innovative performance is difficult to pull off successfully, and singing well while lying face down or on one's back must require huge reserves of energy. Hunt Lieberson deserves credit for her valiant attempts. However, I disagree with this interpretation.

--Dalia Geffen

RATING © © ½


 

Boston Lyric Opera: Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart

November 19, 2000

Starring Matthew Burns, Charles Castronovo, Saundra DeAthos, David Evitts, Jeff Mattsey, Wendy Nielson, and Marie Plette. Conducted by Federuci Cortese. Stage Director Leon Major. Set designer Alan Moyer. 

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is as famous for its skillful mixture of dramma giocoso and opera buffa, as well as its unrepentant, convention-flaunting libertine. The great music critic Romain Rolland claims the Don’ sensuality and impetuosity, coupled with his pride and jesting spirit, closely parallels Mozart’s own character. The libretto alone is superb, far transcending the melodrama of most 19th Century librettos. Yet it is the music, the witty ensemble singing and impassioned solos that continue to move audiences as much as that in Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute.

The Boston Lyric Opera’s November 19th performance is a competent, faithful, canonical rendition. Most of the lead players create watchable portraits. The actors throw themselves into the comic scenes, particularly David Evitts, who plays Leporello. His famous "Madamina" aria to Donna Elvira, in which he catalogues Don Giovanni’s conquests, was done with an unusual touch. "1003 in Spain!" he sings ruefully. Other Leporellos have performed this aria in a gloating fashion, as if they’d done the deeds themselves. The thin soprano voice of Saundra DeAthos, who plays the peasant girl Zerlina, may seem disconcerting at first, but sometimes becomes her callow character. I did find her voice a bit faint during "Batti, Batti." Jeff Mattsey plays the Don as a young roué, dour, cynical, and cruel. He sings the exuberant "Fin ch’ han dal vino" with true decadence, including the final cackle so many singers omit. In his rendition of "Deh, vieni all finestra," his unforgettable serenade to Elvira’s maid, he uses a seductively low tessitura. (Mercifully, the orchestra plays accompaniment on a real mandolin, not pizzicato on a violin.) Both Wendy Nielson and Marie Plette (Donna Anna and Donna Elvira) comport themselves in a professional manner. Donna Anna’s revenge aria, "Or sai chi l’onore" comes out with blasts of white-hot rage. The scenes with Zerlina and Masetto are entertaining and sympathetic, not just played for laughs. Matthew Burns sings the role of the jealous Masetto with poignancy and dignity.

Flaws cause this production lose its wind on the foothills of greatness. Charles Castronovo is poignant in the role of the ardent Don Ottavio. His "Il mio tesoro intanto," so beloved by singers like Ezio Pinza, is sung with evocative melismas, but I would have preferred more dramatics. Alan Moyer’s staging during this evening scene consists of puzzling sharp angled shadows. Much of the opera takes place with a minimalist set built to resemble a multi-story wall in a Mexican town. I would have preferred either a more imaginative modernist set or a more naturalistic one. Some of the scenes with the statue seem to involve a puppet with a moveable head and jaw. I wanted the statue to trudge, at least stiffly, and red devils to drag Don Giovanni down to hell, like they did in Amadeus. In general though, the performers are in control of this majestic and well-written work. It even has inspired moments, such as Leporello’s prestissimo singing during several truly rousing ensemble arias.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ½


Boston Philharmonic Orchestra: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

Conducted by Benjamin Zander with Stephen Drury, pianist.

It was a good idea to have performed the Rite of Spring at the end of one of the cruelest Aprils in current memory. The work’s bold clashing themes and dynamic contrasts, coupled with themes of ritual sacrifice and renewal seemed perfect for a chilly but sunny day at the end of April. Everyone knows the story of how Stravinsky’s work created a scandal at its Parisian premier in 1913, on the eve of World War I. But few know that the crowd was reacting as much to Nijinsky’s "scandalous" choreography, a taste of which they’d received a year earlier at the premier of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. And few in the audience knew the story of Zander speeding up the rhythm of the Rite of Spring’s last section, so that it was closer to a recently discovered piano roll that Stravinsky had made after the initial performance. As he revealed in his pre-concert lecture, Zander now believes the piano roll shouldn’t be taken as literally as he did in 1991. However, his performance didn’t seem to suffer by the slowing-back-down he imparted to the piece. In the first part, he played the Russian folk tune Stravinsky’d appropriated with romantic aplomb, but reined in the sentimentality. Buzzing tubas conveyed the primitive emotions of the pagans during "The Kiss of the Earth." Just as the music seems about to topple from its volume and speed, it stops. In the second part, "The Great Sacrifice," the percussionists plunge into the work like meteorites pelting crater lakes. They are as impressive and vital to this piece as the brass. The piece climaxes, the woman dies and falls to the earth in a tutti crash. What would a modern composer sacrifice to receive an opening night one tenth as scandalous as The Rite of Spring got?

Piano Stephan Drury, decked out in leather pants, used his limber left hand to charm the audience through Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, perhaps the most memorable piece commissioned by the maimed Paul Wittgenstein (others were Prokifiev andHindemith). Wittgenstein hadn’t been fond of the two cadenzas, but they are, if not the heart of the piece, its lungs and voice. Apart from his regalia, Drury style came from within, rather than from showing off his expertise in a rather bizarre feat. Only twice did the orchestra seem to muffle his playing from my balcony seat. Other times, they collaborated well through this triumphant and jazzy piece, with its subtle echoes of Bolero and the earlier G Major piano concerto.

Zander performed Debussy’s evocative and crepuscular Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with the delicacy and sensuousness it craves. It is an evocative work that coaxes listeners from analysis and invites them to bath in its seductive waters. In his lecture, Zander stated that it broke the Wagnerian mold that had been binding composers for decades. It was an excellent warm-up piece for what was later to come.

Speaking of lectures, Zander has recorded several of lectures to accompany his performances. I recommend his recent recording of Mahler’s 9th (Telarc 3CD-80527). It has elegant details about the first few pages of the symphony and is peppered with charming anecdotes. There is also a lecture on his recording of Mahler’s 7th Symphony, although I haven’t heard it.

RATING © © © © 


Boston Lyric Opera: The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart

April 2, 2000

Starring Maracel Reijans, Elizabeth Carter, Many Dunleavy, Arthur Woodley, Frank Kelley, and Earle Patriarco. Conducted by Stephen Lord. Stage, Set, and Costume Designer: Mikael Melbye.

What can I tell you about Mozart’s The Magic Flute that you don’t already know? That the Queen of the Night represented Austria’s Maria Theresa and Tamino Joseph II? That it refers to no particular place or time, despite its Egyptian motives? How about this: While composing The Magic Flute, Mozart recycled the incidental music for Gebler’s Thamos, King of Egypt.

The Boston Lyric Opera’s production is stolid and, for the most part, works well. Mary Dunleavy plays a callow and idealistic Pamina in her debut role for the company. Her anguish at Tamino’s rejection is palpable. In the last act, her rapturous duet with Tamino ("Tamino mein! O welch’ ein Gluck") pulls at your innards almost as poignantly as Papageno’s "Pa Pa Pa" duet with his new love Papagena. Kudos to newcomer Mikael Melbye for his fascinating, although conservative, stage design. It is modern in an early 20th Century way, with its gossamer blue walls and Egyptian artifacts like the jackal divan. I liked the way he adapted the towering figures concept from Simon Quaglio’s drawing of the 1818 Munich production and applied it to the Queen of the Night’s opening scene. Mozart could stand a few innovative modernist touches, like video and slide projections and other high tech effects, particularly in the initiation sequence.

The production has three creaking joints: Marcel Reijans, who also debuted for the company, plays the lead role of Tamino. Although his voice is pleasant, he doesn’t project enough authority for the role. He lacks not passion, but that vital dollop of insecurity, the sense that his fate’s outcome is not so sure. And I make this next point, realizing I’m treading close to heresy: get rid of the little boys! They can’t sing individually, they can’t sing in harmony. Cuteness can carry only one, maybe two short scenes, but these wobbly warblers were in three scenes, the last of which is Pamina’s crucial suicide attempt. Next time the company should either get trained boy sopranos or dub the little rascals. Finally, Frank Kelley's voice does not exude enough menace in his role as Monostatos, nor does he play up its ludicrous aspects. Perhaps he should have hammed it up more, had more fun with it.

Stephen Lord does his usual workman-like job of conducting the ensemble, not too obtrusive but vivid and colorful in the two overtures. I’ve saved the best for last. As Papageno, Earle Partiarco was so endearing and nervy that the renowned poet Carolyn Gregory wrote this poem:

IN PRAISE OF PAPAGENO

All day, I've wanted to be Papageno playing his pipes
as he scampers, bird cage over one shoulder,
singing his sweet adolescent song
in praise of food and pretty women.
I'd love to run amok, green feathered in leather pants.
Will he help Tamino save the princess?
With those dimples, he can do anything!
No, I don't think of myself as Queen of the Night,
regal and wildly vengeful in sequins
or Pamina, virginal in white
as she waits to be delivered by love.
The female roles confine.
I'm not attached to bodices!
Let me be Papageno, half bird and half man,
crazy in confinement, drunk with magical
wine as he runs through the woods
commanded by music.
Let me be Papageno, happy when evil is vanquished
and Papagena comes down from heaven,
bird girl with an open heart large enough
to accommodate all spring.
                                                                --Carolyn Gregory

--Peter Bates

RATING © © ©


Boston Lyric Opera: Aida by Giuseppe Verdi

November 16, 1999

Starring Geraldine McMillan, Maria Riadtchikova, Brent Ellis, and Jean-Pierre Furlan. Conducted by Stephen Lord. Directed by Leon Major. Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig.

With no less of a commission than the opening of Egypt’s Suez Canal in December 1871, Verdi composed Aida, one of his most beloved and dramatic works. It has survived not just because of its spectacle and its patriotic themes, but because it contains subtly observed and truthfully drawn human characters. Still, Verdi was a bit abashed by the publicity the opera’s opening garnered. "All I want for Aida is good and, above all, intelligent singing, playing, and stage production."

At last Tuesday’s performance at the Boston Lyric Opera, these conditions were met for the most part. Geraldine McMillan, who has performed the title role before, sung tenderly. Her voice lacked some definition at the higher registers and her dramatic sense, as well as her body language, seemed not in prime form. However, she sang the famous and lyrical "O Patria Mia" with such sincerity, that it almost didn’t matter that she rarely moved her body. Her varied modulation between stanzas was well-executed. In scenes with her rival Amneris (Maria Riadtchikova), her gestures seemed more passive than the role called for; her face also could have registered more than longing or sorrow. During the Act I aria in which she reveals her inner conflict between her love for Radames and her loyalty to her father, she could have plunged deeper into her heart’s desolation.

As Radames, Jean-Pierre Furlan performs with palpable passion. In Act I, he sings the notable "Celeste Aida" convincingly, without the treacly melodrama that other artists have infused in that aria.

It has been said that King Amonasro is the best baritone part that Verdi ever created. Brent Ellis make the part shine, particularly in the Act III finale in which Radames discovers him for the first time, when it is too late. Without upstaging the other two singers, Ellis makes Amonasro burn with patriotic zeal while trying to reassure Radames at the same time.

The choral ensembles were impressive. During the song to the great Ftha, there is an effective combination of onstage and offstage singing that I’ve never seen executed before. Of course the well-known Triumphal March, with its stirring martial rhythms and jubilant exultation, does not disappoint. (Would it dare?)

Stage director Leon Major did an excellent job of evoking the spirit of ancient Egypt. The sun rising over the pyramids during the overture was a daring touch, but he pulled it off. I was particularly impressed with Erhard Rom’s bas relief "scuptures" that slowly lowered after the Egyptian’s victorious battle over the Ethiopians. He depicted a feeling of desperate kinetics in their battle scenes.

Although Director Leon Major and choreographer Daniel Pelzig handle the ballet scenes with flamboyance and grace, I would have liked to have seen more continuity (or even narrative threads) in the dancer’s gestures. Some were just too abstract to make sense.

I appreciated the way the priests judge Radames for his transgression offstage, spotlighting the anguish of Amneris. In this scene and in the subsequent one in which she rages at the priests, Maria Riadtchikova reveals both subtly complex acting and a finely tuned voice. Staging her above the tomb in the final scene was also a brilliant stroke, implying that it was as much her tragedy as that of Aida and Radames.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ½


Boston Lyric Opera: Le Nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart

April 4, 1999

Starring Alfred Walker, Sari Gruber, D'Anna Fortunato, James Butler, Gary Lehman, and Nicolle Foland. Conducted by Jane Glover McLaughlin Williams. Stage director: Peter Watson. Set and costume design: Sue Blane for the Welsh National Opera.

Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro is perhaps the Enlightenment's best and best-loved opera. In it, the lower classes find out the truth about their betters, drawing the whole nature of society into question. It is musical evidence that Mozart shared the Enlightenment's political vision. Interestingly, Beaumarchais' play on which it is based was banned (but published) in Germany.

The famous Act II scene in which Susanna hides in the closet in Cherubino's place is handled excellently by Gruber (Susanna), Foland (Countess), and Lehman (Count).  It involves a trio in which each party -- Countess, Count, and Susanna-- are commending giudizio (prudence) to the other. With ascending drama, the word is repeated more than a dozen times. Just before the end, the music stops and the Countess and Count hiss a final Giudizio! to the other. It is a chilling moment.

Other moments are handled well. Figaro's "Non più andrai", that great parody of military heroics addressed to Cherubino, is so well staged and sung there wasn't a snoozing viewer to be found (at least in my vicinity). Patricia Risley plays the young page with convincing charm, particularly in the dressing room scene, in which she pretends she's a man walking like a woman, even descending to an occasional butt scratch. Also splendidly blocked and choreographed is the ensemble conclusion of Act II, in which Figaro finds out who his real parents are. In Act III, Susanna's chides the Count about boorish behavior, acting just like a blue jay, but with, of course, more melody. The lecherous pursuit scene is particularly well-staged in a stately library, just for contrast. Lehman's Count is both an ominous and ridiculous figure, but not overly so in either direction, which has been a common failing for many baritones who've played the part throughout history. Foland sings the Countess's famous "Dove Sono" aria, in which she hopes things will work out  between her and the count, not only convincingly, but with an orchestral accompaniment that is tight and compressed, with an unusual economy of tonal color. And  near the finale of the opera, there is a fine use of natural horns during Figaro's aria about women using men.

Kudos to Sue Blane's set design. The Act III scene in the candlelit garden was particularly eerie, with its greenish-ivory trees. For me, this was a memorable performance that lasted for days afterwards.

--Peter Bates

RATING © © © ©


Handel & Haydn Society: Jazz/Baroque

February 7, 1999

Corelli:Concerto Grosso in D Major; Handel: Concerto for Organ in F Major; Bach:Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor; various jazz duets with Chick Corea and Gary Burton. February 7.

John Finney, conductor and harpsichordist.Chick Corea, piano. Gary Burton, vibraphone.

The idea that modern jazz and baroque music have much in common is not new. Charlie Parker once said that he owed a lot to listening to Johann Sebastian Bach. But it is rare to hear a concert like this one at the Handel & Haydn Society, in which listeners have a chance to compare the two forms. On the whole, it was a successful venture.

Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major is a sprightly work that Mr. Finney conducted with considerable élan. Individual instruments shone in scintillating colors, particularly the violin parts, well-executed by Daniel Stepner and Julie Leven.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton awed the audience with their performance of "Brasilia" and "No Mystery." The slight dissonance at the piano’s upper register was most appealing in "Brasilia" and in "No Mystery" there was a great deal of mystery, particularly in the splendid finale, which managed to reveal the ghost of the baroque.

It is a shame Handel’s organ concerti rarely get performed today. There are marvelous solo passages in this piece, which Finney wisely performed on an organ he’d specially brought into the hall rather than on the booming resident one. It has a marvelous period coloration.

Corea and Burton’s "Duende" and "Bud Powell," the first languid and haunting, the other lively and frenetic, are intriguing counterparts to the Handel, particular in their stunning solo passages.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, despite an occasional problem with ensemble playing and a too-quiet harpsichord, prepared the audience for the wonderful rhythmic variations of Burton and Corea’s "Tango ’95" and "Rhumbata," which, as its name signifies, combines the best of a Latin rumba and a Mozart piano sonata.

--Peter Bates

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Boston Lyric Opera: La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

November 20, 1998

Starring Dominique Labelle, Rafael Rojas, and Hector Vasquez. Conducted by Stephen Lord. Directed by Leon Major. Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig. Set design on hire from the Scottish Opera.

It’s hard to believe that the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in 1853 was a resounding failure. Audiences could accept neither the contemporary costuming, nor the inappropriate casting of the heroine, Violetta Valery. A year later, Verdi recast the opera and moved the period back to 1700 with astounding success.

Last Friday’s performance at the Boston Lyric opera may have reinstated the 1853 costuming but the casting was good enough to bring down the house. Dominique Labelle, who’d performed the role in 1990, sung with drama and conviction. She performed the scene in which she meets future lover Alfredo Germont with a comic touch, her coquettish phrasing contrasting sharply with his earnest solid tones. She even handled that most difficult coloratura aria, "Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioja in gioja," with aplomb. (Her voice cracked once here, the only time in this performance.) Her acting gestures were restrained and passionate, lacking the melodrama so tempting to this role.

In the role of Alfredo, Rafael Rojas was acceptable, although not extraordinary. His voice was consistently a bit sharp in key arias, such as Act Two’s "De’ miei bollenti spiriti," in which he recalls how Violetta tamed his wild youthful passions and revealed the calm depths of mature love. However, this is a minor flaw and I soon adapted to it as the opera’s intense lyricism cascaded over me. In some scenes, he acts a bit stiffly, such as the conclusion of Act Two with his father. It’s not clear that the turmoil in Alfredo’s mind is not through anger at his father, but jealously at his rival, the Baron Douphol. However, Rojas does an admirable job in his scenes with Violetta, notably in Act Three when he accuses Violetta of betraying him. He is entirely believable as a confused young man bent on vengeance, provoked into impulsive harshness, then humiliated by his father, all within a few minutes stage time!

As Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father), Hector Vasquez creates the image of a conservative provincial gentleman, obsessed with appearances and propriety. With his seasoned baritone voice, he is entirely convincing as he entreats Violetta to give up Alfredo for the sake of family. His great aria, "Di Provenza il mar," which recalls Alfredo’s happy childhood in Provence by the sea, is a masterpiece of paternal manipulation. Vasquez delivers it with a compelling mixture of authority and gentleness.

The scenery, on hire from the Scottish Opera, was not only impressive, but gave great attention to detail. Act One reproduces Violetta’s drawing room, richly furnished, with period paintings festooning the walls. Yet when Violetta, impoverished through illness in Act Four, lies in bed in the same room, the paintings have been removed, leaving their ghostly marks on the walls. A chilling touch.

Stephen Lord conducts with fiery intensity and restrained poignancy, particularly during the deathbed scene in which the love theme soars, some would say, like Violetta’s spirit leaving her body. Director Leon Major and choreographer Daniel Pelzig handle the Act One dance scenes with such flamboyance that memories of swaying gypsies and stomping toreadors persist long after the opera has concluded.

--Peter Bates

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