Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Total Vocal
Deke Sharon, guest conductor, arranger, and creative director
Kelley Jakle, guest soloist
Chesney Snow, guest artist
Cast members from Broadway’s In Transit, Writers from Broadway’s In Transit, Shemesh Quartet (Mexico), Forte (2016 ICHSA National Champion), special guests
Distinguished Concert Artists Singers International
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 9, 2017

 

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) hit another home run with its third (annual) presentation of a cappella glory, Total Vocal, led by the Mr. State-of-the-art himself: Deke Sharon. One might enter this event a curmudgeon, but one will certainly not leave that way. Mr. Sharon has the highest, most joyful energy imaginable, and his genuine enthusiasm in bringing people together creates a reciprocal love fest between him and his performers, then the performers and the audience. I hope that he is as happy and satisfied in life as his musical persona leads me to believe. He definitely deserves to be.

 

The mania for a cappella choral groups shows no signs of abating, thank goodness. We had the TV series Glee, then the Pitch Perfect movie, its sequel Pitch Perfect 2, and Pitch Perfect 3 has just wrapped, with a December 22, 2017 release date. NBC’s competition show The Sing-Off has also done very well. Mr. Sharon is the arranger for all of these. This concert was sold out.

 

At today’s concert there were well over four hundred singers from high schools all over the US (and international), as well as many solo additions and even some adults. Mr. Sharon volunteered at one point to hook up any audience member who desired to sing a cappella with a group in his/her area, no experience necessary; or even to help anyone start one of their own. He really believes in his gospel of harmonization, the “natural antidepressant.” The singers were deployed in roughly two halves, until the surprise end of the concert brought the full complement (the other half materializing from the audience side) to create a rousing sound in the glorious acoustic of Carnegie Hall.

 

Mr. Sharon was the arranger for Broadway’s first-ever a cappella musical In Transit, and the afternoon began with a stunning performance of Getting There by the cast of the show. By the way, they were on their way to perform their show just a few blocks away.

 

This was followed by Since U Been Gone (made popular by Kelly Clarkson) from Pitch Perfect and Under Pressure (Bowie and Mercury) from The Sing-Off, both excellent. Mr. Sharon related (in his always engaging patter) how important it is to awaken sensitivity to dynamic changes, which his choir then demonstrated in a sensitive rendition of the Ed Sheeran hit Thinking Out Loud. A featured group named Pitch Please from Northwood High School (NC) did a great job on the iconic Man in the Mirror. For such a happy occasion, I became profoundly sad thinking that Freddy Mercury, Michael Jackson, and David Bowie are all no longer alive, taken way too soon.

 

The girls sang the 1938 bluegrass novelty song Cups (When I’m Gone), sung around a campfire in Pitch Perfect 2. Then Chamber Bravura, another featured ensemble (CA) sparkled in the old Leslie Gore classic You Don’t Own Me, with its continuing relevance. The solos and beat-boxing were well done. The boys had their turn with Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl.

 

Then Kelley Jakle, one of the stars of the Pitch Perfect movies, took the stage for an amazing traversal of Tomorrow Never Dies, probably the best thing about that particular James Bond movie (as sung by Sheryl Crow). Ms. Jakle’s range is really wide, from deeper mezzo colors all the way up to “Shirley Bassey” highs. She was backed by the massed choir. The first half ended with a rousing Uptown Funk made popular by Bruno Mars.

 

For the second half, the choir changed personnel, and the joys of community continued to be celebrated with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Sing a Song, Put on a Happy Face (from Bye Bye Birdie), and the girls’ sensitive singing in Sting’s Fields of Gold. Forte, a featured group from Centerville High School (OH) performed their own original song Life’s So Lyrical. What great talent, they have now produced albums entirely of their own songs. You’re My Best Friend (also by Queen) was dedicated to Mr. Sharon’s mother, recently deceased.

 

After all this bounty, there was even more, with the advent of Shemesh (Hebrew word for sunshine), a Mexican a cappella group, that elicited the only outburst of unexpected profanity from Mr. Sharon, when referring to anti-Mexican attitudes and policies. The group performed a medley of songs so well-known that they risk being cliché, but in this quartet the vocal virtuosity was splendid. Then we went “north of the border” for the next featured group Soundcrowd, from Canada, which indeed delivered Signed, Sealed, Delivered stylishly.

 

The creators (as distinct from the cast) of In Transit, an a cappella group in their own right, then performed We Are Home from their show. I have yet to see this Broadway gem, which opened in December of last year, but just on the basis of the two songs done today, I’d go. Chesney Snow, possibly the world’s reigning beat-boxer (vocal percussion) was featured, and added an extended virtuosic solo right after.

 

The boys took a swagger-y turn with Jessie’s Girl. Then Mr. Sharon himself escorted us through his version of Gershwin’s Summertime, complete with his amazing imitation of a muted trumpet. The afternoon finished with the other half of the choir coming up through the audience to have just under 500 people singing Time of My Life (Dirty Dancing, also used in The Sing-Off). It was thunderous and exciting. Mr. Sharon finished with his traditional written-in encore The Lion Sleeps Tonight, with audience participation not only encouraged, but demanded. Ovation!

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents An Evening with Troy Colt Bands in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents An Evening with Troy Colt Bands in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents An Evening with Troy Colt Bands
The Troy High School Concert Band, Symphonic Band, Jazz Ensemble, Flute Choir, Saxophone Choir
Brian P. Nutting, Director; Jeff Krum, Assistant Director
Guests: Marcus Elliot, Jazz Artist-in-Residence; Amanda Sabelhaus, Piano; Albert Gonzales, “The Royal Piper,” Bagpipes; Members of the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble: Brooke Mainland, Rachel Pawson, Dan Wentowrth, Katie Wiley
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
March 24, 2017

 

I must confess that the prospect of an entire evening of high school band music had me less than optimistic. However, I happily report that the enthusiasm, artistry, leadership, and overall excellence of these players from Troy, Michigan convinced me of the error of my prejudice. Clearly, the community and the school administration support music, a fact that was made explicit in engaging patter by their excellent conductor, Brian P. Nutting. This message is more vital than ever in the political climate in which we find ourselves.

 

The Troy Jazz Ensemble kicked off this full evening with a bang in an arrangement of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. If the percussion was a bit too loud, blame it on youthful enthusiasm. The arrangement of the 1930 standard Body and Soul was superb, with the added treat of Marcus Elliot’s authentically bluesy tenor saxophone solo. The two vocal soloists in Gershwin’s 1937 tune Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (Lindsay Nichols and Kulin Oak) were absolutely delightful, singing with a wit beyond their years. Jeff Bunnell’s Ten Brothers was great as well; you could see that all the players were truly enjoying themselves.

 

The flute choir followed, with a clever medley of melodies from Viennese waltzes by Emil Waldteufel, given the punning name of Forest Devil Waltzes.

 

Then the Troy Concert Band took the stage with Sedona by Steven Reineke, a boilerplate piece, but one that showed the excellence of the winds to great advantage. Jay Dawson’s arrangement of Amazing Grace was offered as a solace to those affected by 9/11 (some of the band had sight-seen the memorial earlier), with added authenticity provided by former NYPD officer Albert Gonzales on the traditional bagpipes. Warren Barker’s New York 1927 and Randall Standridge’s Ruckus provided a stirring close to the group, with the latter sounding more like “raucous” (but intended that way). Sometimes the full bands made too much sound for the small confines of Alice Tully Hall.

 

These programs are always generous, one might uncharitably complain “too” generous, and they involve a lot of what I call “furniture moving” as the different formations set up. I wish DCINY could figure out a way to streamline this even more, though their attention to detail and logistics is impressive.

 

The saxophone choir played a fascinating work by one of their own students, senior Tyler Bouque. He created a sort of depiction of sights possible to see in New York City by traveling on the “blue” line as he calls it. In his 9/11 section (fourth of five) he achieved a sort of Coplandesque grandeur, which I mean as a very high compliment. I do hope he didn’t have to pay royalties to John Kander for the quote from New York, New York in the finale. Remarkable work, I hope he continues to love music and create it.

 

After intermission, the Troy Symphonic Band had their turn, with a good performance of Alfred Reed’s Symphony No. 3 (first movement), whose opening portentous tympani strokes seem to reference Brahms’ First Symphony, but without the rigor. Then an extraordinary student, Karthik Ganapathy, played the marimba by himself in a beautiful Prelude by Ney Rosauro. The piece quotes various stock flamenco materials (one that is heard in Albeniz’ Asturias). He drew every possible color from the instrument, with great flair and ease. Leonard Bernstein’s third dance episode from On the Town was given a brash, stylish, exciting reading; it was a pleasure to hear really “great” music. The evening concluded with a multi-media spectacular: four members of the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble performed to the band’s rendition of Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquez, with its Cuban/Mexican/Puerto Rican fusion. The sole male dancer was kept busy partnering the three women, and they were all excellent. The proud parents and friends in the audience leapt to their feet for a well-deserved ovation.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Vocal Colors
Eric A. Johnson, Eric Barnum, John Conahan, conductors
Distinguished Concerts Singers International
University of the Incarnate Word Cardinal Chorale (TX), William Gokelman, Director
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
March 20, 2017

Listen. Learn. Enunciate. Cooperate. Blend. These are but a handful of the virtues that can be gained by singing in choirs. They were all present in abundance in DCINY’s latest choral extravaganza Vocal Colors. Colors there were in rainbow profusion, along with a nice mix of eclectic styles by the contemporary composers represented. The excellent pianist for almost all the music was uncredited. There were seven high school choirs, utilized in groups, and two university choirs.

The first group consisted of music by Timothy C. Takach, conducted by Eric A. Johnson. The gem of the set was Epitaph, with Lisa Heffter on a gentle viola obbligato, setting the words of an ancient tomb inscription about the “lovely Claudia,” who had two sons, one of whom she buried, the other remaining alive; she loved her husband and she made wool. The choir had clear diction and good contrasts at all dynamic levels. Goodbye Then had a clarinet obbligato, apparently played by one of the students, perfectly creating the atmosphere of farewell; and the concluding Fragile had percussion, again, I assume, drawn from the student body. Premiered only last year, its text concerns the unrelenting violence we often willingly consume as entertainment, and its possible effects on innocence and ethics—a strong message indeed.

 

Next came a group of most attractive material by Eric Barnum, conducted by the composer. He has sophisticated taste in poets, so the choruses were weighty and lyrical, beautifully measured, and spellbinding. Of five pieces, he grouped the second and third attacca (without pause) as well as the fourth and fifth. This gave a feeling of something more monumental than if there had been a pause between each. Millay, Hood, Byron, Wordsworth, and Peabody provided the inspirational texts, which Mr. Barnum’s gentle contemporary style illuminated so well. Afternoon on a Hill was radiant (indeed all his music has this quality), the poet (Millay) is immersed in the beauty of nature, unified with it, but will not violate it. Sweetheart of the Sun (Hood) has mystical choral clusters of great beauty. The choir handled Mr. Barnum’s lush lyricism with beautiful tone at all times.

 

After intermission came a group of choruses by John Conahan, conducting his own work. These were quite lively and varied. Wade in the Water was not just another arrangement of the well-known spiritual, but a transformation (with solo drawn from the choir) into a rhythmic celebration. Love of Light was a breathtaking (text uncredited) part of a series of choral explorations including Love of Fire and Love of Water. Light itself seemed to have entered the choir. clap/bang was reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, with extended rhythmic techniques used, turning the choir into a giant percussion “machine” with singing being the least of it. The piece really grabbed the audience—a successful experiment. We also heard two sections from his Requiem, and even a musical setting of a “tweet” in Italian.

 

Then program concluded with the wonderful University of the Incarnate Word Cardinal Chorale, conducted by the excellent William Gokelman, in a group by varied composers. This choir has great virtuosity, beautiful sound, and rhythmic precision; all their music was memorized (by the conductor as well) and they sang nearly completely a capella (one viola obbligato), that is, every sound was made by the human voice. The Georgian (Georgia the country) drum dance Doluri was exciting. Ukuthula, a South African prayer for peace (four soloists) was wonderful, as was Job, Job. The absolute standout for me was Kim André Arnesen’s Even When He Is Silent, an inscription found on the wall of a concentration camp. It was hypnotic, perfectly captured by this fabulous choir. They leavened the solemnity with the concluding El Guayaboso, its Afro-Cuban rhythms were distinct and buoyant, the childhood text and its bright beautiful vowels were great fun.

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents I Hear America Singing: The Music of André Thomas and Greg Gilpin
West Orange High School Concert Choir (FL)
Jeffery Redding, Director
Greg Gilpin, Composer/Conductor; George Hemcher, Piano
André Thomas, Composer/Conductor; Kirsten Kemp, Piano
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium, New York, NY
March 19, 2017

 

Logistics! I suppose that sounds like a parcel delivery service, but what other word can there be for Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) massed-choir events? It takes a very special presenter to handle 485 choristers from twelve participating choirs nationwide (and international), NOT counting the opening choral group, which was separate. They are meticulously prepared by their individual conductors, then they travel to New York, in this case right after the recent blizzard, to work with the DCINY conductor(s). Lucky for audiences, DCINY does not disappoint, upholding a high level at all times.

The evening began with the West Orange High School Concert Choir, a Florida group. They seem to have been added after this concert was planned, for there were no program notes or credits for the excellent pianist. This is a shame, for this group really deserves an entire concert to itself. They were superbly sensitive, sang beautifully at soft dynamic levels, had clear diction, performed from memory, and the women were in floor-length black skirts and the men in white tie and tails (not often seen, but oh, so elegant). I had to keep reminding myself that this is a high school group. They exuded excitement with the opening Gloria Fanfare by Jeffery Ames. The standout was a gorgeous reading of Stephen Paulus’ The Road Home (with a lovely uncredited soprano solo): “With the love in your heart as the only song/There is no such beauty as where you belong.” In Kim André Arnesen’s Flight Song, the sight of joined hands in the entire ensemble was inspiring: “All we are we have found in song.”

There followed the Greg Gilpin section of the program, utilizing about half of the 485, including some very dear, very small grade schoolers, on up to what I presume were high schoolers, in the choir. They too sang everything from memory. Gilpin favors lots of antiphonal (“call and response”) trading off between sections, which is a lovely way to get young musicians to listen to each other. His music, if not blazingly original, is always well-crafted, and perfectly suited to developing esprit de corps and good choral singing. He also incorporates multi-cultural material with great taste, good exposure for young singers, including clapping and other rhythmic movement. The sight of the brightly colored scarves waving in the song about Hindi taffeta was beautiful. A small percussion section, a solo flute, and the violin concertmaster of the DCINY orchestra assisted.

After intermission, André Thomas took his half of the singers, a decidedly more mature choir, through a selection of his persuasive spiritual arrangements, original works, and even two sections (Gloria and Credo) from his Gospel Mass (sung in English, a work-in-progress, according to the program notes). By any measure, there just isn’t enough diversity on the usual concert stage, so it was good to hear this dedicated man, so engaging in his verbal remarks to the audience, and his music. The spiritual Keep Your Lamps was a stunning moment. In other works, this choir sang with the full DCINY orchestra, which sounded great but threatened to overbalance the large choir, and also reduced intelligibility of the text, a pity when the poets are Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman. Four female soloists (Gloria) and two male (Credo) were poised while singing on the main stage of Carnegie Hall for undoubtedly their first time.

There is another DCINY event tomorrow, different personnel in a different hall. I’d like to borrow their energy formula!

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Wind Songs
Olathe North High School (KS) Symphonic Band, Percussion Ensemble, and Wind Ensemble
Justin W. Love, Director of Bands; John Wickersham, Assistant Director of Bands
Kingwood High School Band (TX)
Destry Balch, Director; Tyler Morrison, Assistant Director
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium, New York, NY
March 12, 2017

 

One hears so much about cuts to the arts these days, so it is heartening to note that there is a lot of really good music education taking place in the heartland. Two high schools, one from Kansas, the other from Texas, sent their best band players (and conductors) to show us just how comfortable they are with tricky wind instruments and myriads of shifting rhythms. They provided pleasure to the proud family members and friends who attended, and it was good to see an audience younger than customary, including many very small children, perhaps being exposed to the concert experience for the very first time.

First up were the players from Olathe, Kansas. Conducted by John Wickersham, they played Pierre La Plante’s American Riversongs, which could have been crisper, but contained a beautiful cornet solo of Shenandoah in its interior section. I believe they switched the order from that printed in the program and did Michael Markowski’s The Cave You Fear next. Based on an idea from Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, the piece indeed had a spooky, adventuresome atmosphere. Finally, Randall Standridge’s Kinetic Dances displayed how well-versed the students are in rhythm. (Is there such a thing as a non-kinetic dance?) A small group of percussionists then played Alarm! by Brian Blume, showing off how much variety can be obtained from such a limited set of sonorities.

The Olathe music director, Justin W. Love, then took over conducting duty for Gustav Holst’s well-known Second Suite in F for Military Band, which was phrased nicely. Brian Balmages created moody blends in his Rippling Watercolors, which the band played beautifully. They finished the first half of the concert with Rossano Galante’s Transcendent Journey, which sounded very Star Wars-ish in the beginning, then settled into a quasi-Copland sound, alternating between the two—an attractive piece, maybe not transcendent, but definitely on its way somewhere heroic.

After intermission, the much-larger Texas group from Kingwood High School took the stage. Their director, Destry Balch, conducted the brief Festive Fanfare by Robert W. Smith. He then yielded to his assistant, Tyler Morrison, who conducted another sort of fanfare called . . .Go, by Samuel R. Hazo, followed by Hazo’s Autumn on White Lake, whose clusters created a gorgeous atmosphere inspired by autumn in Michigan. This group concluded with James Swearingen’s Blue Ridge Saga, replete with folk feeling, if somewhat conventional. It was played with excellent attention to contrasts of texture.

I can’t resist a bad pun, so I must say “Destry rode again” (I’m certain he’s tired of hearing that!). He returned to conduct two pieces by Balmages that framed a really good account of Paul Dukas’ war-horse Le Sorcier apprenti (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), which is forever linked with Mickey Mouse because of the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia, but was written in 1897! These young players managed to get a good French wind sound from their instruments and, despite the lack of “softening” provided by a string section, they made the piece sound really radical again, which was a pleasure.

The first Balmages work was Summer Dances, effective enough, but the real gem was the second work . . . Not Afraid to Dream ,which closed the entire program. Sadly, the occasion for the piece was the accidental death of a Minnesota high school band player in 2004. The work was designed to allow his friends and family to have some sort of closure about that loss (at least in part). It proceeds from solemnity, the ringing of bells and dark lower-brass chords (he was a tuba player), to fragments of the hymn tune Lift High the Cross, to a more joyous energy that reflects his optimism and the joy he brought to all who knew him. A beautiful tribute, well-played!


Key Pianists presents Terry Eder in Review

Key Pianists presents Terry Eder in Review

Key Pianists presents Terry Eder, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 2, 2017

A musician’s musician is the phrase I kept returning to mentally during Terry Eder’s distinguished Weill Hall recital, the second of this season’s Key Pianists series. She is a pianist with utter seriousness of conception, beauty of tone, lyrical sensitivity, never any “grandstanding.” It is so important that we hear artists like this to remind us of what matters musically, and to balance the seemingly endless parade of flashy virtuosi.

The evening began with Bartók’s Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (1914/18). In a 1907 letter to Stefi Geyer, Bartók modestly stated (not without patriotic bitterness),“As regards myself, I desire a little happiness for a few—to serve the society of run-to-seed princelings called the Hungarian intelligentsia by collecting national songs and so forth.” Here one witnessed just how total was his success in revealing the true spirit of a people, rather than the falsified notion that had long been accepted of “gypsy” (really Westernized café-music) music as “Hungarian.”

Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (D. 846) belong to the family of his astonishing late works, if death at thirty-one can be considered “late.” There used to be some speculation that they had been destined for another set of four Impromptus, though that seems to have been settled by scholars in the negative. Thank goodness however (as with all of Schubert’s oeuvre) that they survive, for they contain some of his most rapturous writing for the piano. I refer particularly to the B major hymn/prayer middle section of the first piece and the entire second piece (which I consider Schubert’s Venetianisches Gondellied), in which Ms. Eder reached mystical flights of vision, with just the right amount of freedom and beautiful color changes. The third piece, which many find “less than” the first two, nevertheless tied in to Ms. Eder’s general theme of music from the Austro-Hungarian empire, with its decidedly “Bohemian” rambunctiousness.

Two of her recital groups were absolutely revelatory- the Dohnányi Six Pieces, Op. 41 and the Bartók Improvisations, Op. 20. Aside from reading the sheet music and hearing it on recordings, I had never previously heard a live performance of the Dohnányi, a composer sadly underrated even in his own time, partly because of his great virtuosity as a performer, and his reluctance to participate in the most progressive “isms” of the early twentieth century. In Cloches (Bells), the last of the six pieces, (a memorial to his son who died as a Russian prisoner of war), we hear some of the blending of impressionism, and in Cascades, the rushing of water summons echoes of Liszt. Ms. Eder’s rendition of Canzonetta (the third piece) was ravishing, and she brought out the ironic humor of Ländler (the fifth piece), a decidedly retro dance that had not been performed since Schubert’s time.

In the Bartók Improvisations (eight pieces based on Hungarian folk songs), Ms. Eder was absolutely magisterial and inspired, revealing every melody with the appropriate parlando/rubato that was so important to Bartók, and keeping every bit of the often complicated surrounding accompaniment on its own clear level. One of the chief rules of the Hungarian language is that the first syllable of the word carries the stress or tonic accent. There is a strong musical/linguistic correlation to this in the folk materials collected and transformed by Bartók (this phenomenon was also clearly articulated as a compositional strategy by Janáček). Bartók stated of the Improvisations– “The peasant melody has become purely a symbol, and the essential thing is its setting. The melody and all that we have added to it must give an impression of inseparable unity.” Ms. Eder clearly enabled us to hear the motivic thread that unites all the sections. I always found it curious that the opening Improvisation should have such a solemn tone when the words are about cake-baking and a kiss in the garden. In Ms. Eder’s hands the death-haunted third Improvisation was perfection itself. On such a windy day/night in New York, the fourth Improvisation’s message that “poor people are always hurting when the wind blows” was especially apt.

Ms. Eder finished with a wonderfully refined account of Liszt’s arrangement of the Schumann song Widmung (“Dedication,” poem by Rückert), which is usually trotted out as a sort of guilty-pleasure encore by less-thoughtful pianists. Here, Ms. Eder never lost sight of the original as a German Lied (art-song), her phrasing followed the accented and unaccented syllables of the words perfectly, which allowed me to really enjoy it!

She favored her enthusiastic audience with an energetic account of the sixth of Bartók’s Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from the last volume of Mikrokosmos.

Ms. Eder, who is the generous patron of, and visionary behind, the Key Pianists series, showed us why she is herself “key.” Brava!


Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret in Review

Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret in Review

Adrienne Haan presents Between Fire and Ice—A Diabolical Weimar Berlin Cabaret
Adrienne Haan, chanteuse
Feinstein’s/54 Below, New York, NY
February 22, 2017

 

Adrienne Haan brought her unique passion for and devotion to the cabaret repertoire of 1920/30s Germany to the elegant room that is Feinstein’s/54 Below on February 22, 2017. In the several times I’ve heard her, her art has deepened—that includes this occasion in particular. Never have the bawdy, politically-charged themes of the material seemed more apposite, given the recent political shifts and conflicts here and abroad. Plus ça change.

She sang a generous program, and one would never have known, until she announced it, that she was appearing with a last-minute substitute pianist: the excellent Howard Breitbart ( her usual music director, Richard Danley, had a medical emergency). Their coordination was superb; she has appeared with Mr. Breitbart in Washington, D.C. previously, though not with this program.

Tonight, she brought extra undertones of sadness and fragility to her renditions. She sang a great deal in English, often turning to German for the refrains once the song was familiar. I assume this was done to increase the understanding of the largely monolingual audience. I found her instantly more expressive and idiomatic in her native German (true of classical art-song singers as well). She has precedent in that no less severe a figure than Arnold Schoenberg wanted his vocal works performed in the language of the audience.

Ms. Haan opened with the wonderful anthem to corruption “Alles Schwindel” (It’s All a Swindle). She never allowed her contemporary opinions to become heavy-handed to the point of making her evening unentertaining, but it was clear where she stood at all times. She circulated among the audience playfully, ruffling the hair on the heads of a few men, and, to be fair, sitting on the lap of a woman as well, during her saucier numbers. All this was done with the great ease of a natural performer. Her patter between songs was effective without being over-long.

Other highlights included: “Ich weiss nicht zu wem ich gehöre” (I Don’t Know Who I Belong To), “Medley zur Emanzipation der Frau” (Medley to the Emancipation of Woman), “Das Lila Lied/Maskulinum-Femininum” (The Lavender Song/Masculine-Feminine), and a forceful, haunting account of Kurt Weill’s well-known “Seeräuberjenny” (Pirate Jenny). In Ms. Haan’s tributes to Marlene Dietrich, such as “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe Eingestellt” (Falling in Love Again), she sang expressively, but without the weary “used-up” quality that Dietrich could summon so effortlessly.

A well-deserved encore was the staple “Lili Marlene,” with its own complicated history: words, by a WWI trench soldier, set to music only in 1938 on the eve of the next world war, which became an anthem of sorts for soldiers of both sides. At the risk of repeating myself, my wish-list for Ms. Haan would be for her to delve more deeply into the bitterness, anger, even fear, of this era (she came closest in the Pirate Jenny, which was spooky); and seek out more unusual repertoire to weave into her narrative. Nevertheless, she provides a wonderfully committed, very engaging window into this specialized world, one whose message we must never forget. Chapeau, Adrienne!


The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture Classical Music Series curated by Mark Kaplan presents the Parker Quartet in Review

The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture Classical Music Series curated by Mark Kaplan presents the Parker Quartet in Review

Parker Quartet
Daniel Chong, violin; Ying Xue, violin; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello
Featuring special guest Charles Neidich, clarinet
Loreto Theater, New York, NY
Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Parker Quartet needs no advocacy from me—they are Grammy winners, artists-in-residence at both Harvard and USC, and regularly tour, record, and perform with the world’s finest collaborators. Their program was beautifully conceived: two major works, each by a classical/romanticist (or a romantic/classicist, if you prefer)—Mendelssohn’s first essay in the string quartet, and Brahms’ sentiment-drenched, nearly-final chamber work. Both works are also cyclical (music from the first movement recurs at or near the end of the final movement). The concert was without intermission, a form which appeals to me (and apparently to audiences).

Due to a colossal GPS/GoogleMaps failure, this reviewer was late to the hall, and had to witness the Mendelssohn from the lobby on a TV screen with sub-par volume. Therefore, the comments in most detail will be directed at the Brahms.

Mendelssohn’s opening gesture from the E -flat tonic triad up to D-flat seems to embody a world of yearning “just out of reach,” and is indebted to Beethoven’s Op. 74 as well. The Canzonetta in G minor (with faster scherzando middle section) may have inspired his colleague Robert Schumann in the final movement of Kreisleriana. The Andante espressivo in B-flat major leads without pause into the finale, which spends most of its time in C minor, until the cyclic coda resolves to E-flat major. In 1830, Mendelssohn added a secret dedication on the manuscript of Op. 12 to “B.P.” (Betty Pistor, 1808-1887), a member of the Singakademie conducted by Zelter, for which Felix was accompanist. He had a teen crush on her. B-flat up to E- flat- “Bes,” three musical letters of her name, forms a prominent thematic element. After he learned of her engagement to Rudorff, he had his friend Ferdinand David change the P to an R.

From what I was able to see (primarily) in the lobby, the quartet’s visual synchronization was a marvel, and their energy infectious. Of course, their intonation and phrasing were impeccable. Their choices were those of youth and impetuosity, certainly valid in the case of Mendelssohn, his infatuation, and their own youth. There may be, however, other nuances, less vehement, more in the direction of elegance and even restraint, that they will discover as they mature. Nevertheless, to play at this level is a marvel.

Brahms described his Quintet for clarinet and string quartet as “a far greater folly” (than the clarinet/cello/piano trio). It was conceived for Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907), originally a violinist and self-taught clarinetist (!), who played in the Meiningen and Bayreuth orchestras, and whom the normally gruff Brahms called “Fräulein Klarinette,” “my dear nightingale,” “my Primadonna,” and “Fräulein von Mühlfeld.” Tonight, the legendary Charles Neidich expressed the clarinet part from the most lyrical place imaginable—his lifetime of living with the single-line instrument leaving no inflection unexplored, no color unpainted, our dear nightingale indeed. It was a master class for all musicians, really. Here, I felt the Parkers could have provided a deeper, darker velvet carpet for the clarinet to “walk” on. Though the ensemble was perfect, particularly the way the violist leaned physically toward her clarinet neighbor, the strings’ inflections were “paler” than the clarinet, sometimes giving the impression of a background rather than a full chamber texture. (I realize I am nit-picking!) They understood and reflected every harmony and texture, however. The Adagio had a beautiful meditative, rapt quality. The balance issue was overcome beautifully in the third movement, which suddenly sprang to full life and energy, and mostly in the fourth movement, where the final return of the first movement’s sadness was rendered in appropriately awestruck hushed tones.

 


DCINY presents Messiah…Refreshed!

DCINY presents Messiah…Refreshed!

Distinguished Concerts Orchestra and Distinguished Concerts Singers International
Jonathan Griffith, Conductor
Penelope Shumate, Soprano
Claudia Chapa, Mezzo-Soprano
John McVeigh, Tenor
Christopher Job, Bariton
Sunday, November 27, 2016, 2 PM
Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium

 

Well, the holiday season is officially here, with the sixth annual presentation of Messiah in the “inflated” version commissioned by Sir Thomas Beecham from Eugene Goossens for the Handel death-bicentennial in 1959. I shall try not to be too Scrooge-like about it, that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things! I first heard (and reviewed) this version two years ago with pleasure, and the interpretation is remarkably consistent across that time. Only the mezzo-soprano was different (and of course the massed choirs). The whole endeavor, powered by Jonathan Griffith’s committed conducting, gives enjoyment to the performers and to their audience, so after all it must be counted a success, even if one has quibbles with specifics.

Is there any other single work that so identifies its composer, almost to the exclusion of Handel’s numerous other worthy genres: opera, cantata, organ music, anthems, even the other oratorios?

The grand old tradition of Handel-tampering, of course, began with Handel himself and continued through Mozart, Hiller, and many others. Gigantism began as early as 1784 in British performances of the then hallowed Handel with a 513-performer rendition. The European Magazine wrote: “The immense volume and torrent of sound was almost too much for the head or the sense to bear—we were elevated into a species of delirium.” Sir Joshua Reynolds wrote: “I was so delighted that I thought myself in the heavenly regions. The Harmony so unbroken that is was like the fall of Waters from one source, imperceptibly blended. The Spectacle too was sublime, So universal a silence, So great a number of people.” In an 1857 British performance, there were 2000 vocal and 500 instrumental forces. In 1859: 2765 singers, 450 instruments. In 1883: 4000 singers, 500 instruments. Objections to these outsize forces were also found as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, but they were outweighed by Victorian reverence for Handel combined with the explosive growth of choral societies. G.B. Shaw, in the early twentieth century, also pleaded for something closer to what Handel might have known: “People think that four thousand singers must be four thousand times as impressive as one. This is a mistake: they are not even louder.”

I will confess that when I counted upwards of 400 names in the choral listing in the program booklet, I was a bit nervous. However, Griffith seems to have selected about half of them for Part 1 duty, then they retire to the balconies on either side of the audience, and after intermission the other half performs Parts 2 & 3. Choir 1 did not have clean runs; but Choir 2 did, and Griffith was quite merciless in pursuing brisk tempi that almost prevented anything but a choral smudge. Their block chord work however, was mostly exciting, and he even managed to elicit a few softer sounds from these large forces. All 400-plus joined together for the “Hallelujah” chorus and the concluding “Worthy is the lamb that was slain” for a truly thrilling sound that had actually been missing most of the afternoon in the “mere” 200-voice choirs. Even some audience members couldn’t resist the temptation to add their voices to the mix during “Hallelujah.”

Handel began work in 1741 in London on Messiah for a series of concerts for Irish charities, at the invitation of William Cavendish; the series would include many other works as well. Handel started on 22 August, Part 1 was complete by 28 August, Part 2 by 6 September, and Part 3 on 12 September. A few more days were added, polishing up the results, twenty-four days in all. Of course none of this could have happened without Handel’s well-known recourse to self-borrowing, or even appropriation from other composers, for which he was taken to task more than once in his lifetime. (Although William Boyce reportedly said: “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.”) Handel also reworked many numbers from it considerably over the years. Handel himself associated the performance of Messiah with Easter, but modern practice also favors Christmas—the text, dubbed a “Scripture collection” by its creator Charles Jennens, outlines all the festivals of the Christian church-year.

The premiere was in Dublin, 13 April 1742 (at noon), at the New Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, seat of the Charitable Musical Society. The audience capacity was between 600 and 700. Handel had to provide his own organ (portable, called a “bureau” organ) since there was none in the hall. Several of his own organ concerti were also on the bill with Messiah in what must have been a long afternoon of music. The chorus consisted of thirty-two: sixteen men and sixteen boys. The solos were considered so taxing that there was more than one soloist for each voice type.

Today’s soloists were uniformly excellent, with soprano Penelope Shumate and her sparkling coloratura perfection in “Rejoice greatly” and a very affecting “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” though at times her English had an “Italian” accent with many schwas at the end of words (they add clarity, but can be overdone). Claudia Chapa, mezzo-soprano, sang with absolute heart, so much so that I wished “He was despised” was not cut, but would go on forever (I really wanted to hear how she would express “He gave his back to the smiters.”). All afternoon her phrases were of admirable length, she seems to have unlimited air supply. Tenor John McVeigh reprised the sweet lyric quality that I remember so well from two years ago, tending to shade a bit sharp (nerves?) near the beginning, and once in a while chopping up phrases or single words instead of sustaining a legato. His “Behold and see if there is any sorrow” was beautiful. His most endearing trait was the attention he paid to his other colleagues when they were singing their solos, he even turned to face the chorus with an air of painful surprise as they hurled their accusatory “He trusted in God that he would deliver him,” before returning to face forward. Bass Christopher Job again had the perfect sound for the punishing “The trumpet shall sound,” but there were some weird additional musical lines in the orchestra during “The people that walked in darkness” that threatened to “like sheep,” lead the music astray. All the soloists risked being overbalanced by the heavier orchestra, but only at times (too much cymbal!)

May I suggest that Maestro Griffith go ahead and make his own version of this version, so to speak, removing some of the dated bombast and perhaps clarifying a few textures here and there? I do admire his devotion to this “relic” however. By the way, since this is not only about the massed choirs, but a substantial re-orchestration, the fact that the excellent orchestra is not listed person-by-person in the program is a grave injustice. The concertmaster is excellent, and the clarino trumpet was superb. The hushed return of the A section of the “Pifa” (Pastoral Symphony) was gorgeous, as it was two years ago.

The work affords the chance for these dedicated multi-state and international choruses, whose individual conductors were acknowledged at the end, the thrill of a holiday trip to New York and the unparalleled experience of singing on the main stage of Carnegie Hall. Bravo to all, and happy holidays!

 


The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin in Review

The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin in Review

The Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra and The Hilton Head International Piano Competition present Chang-Yong Shin
Chang-Yong Shin, piano
2016 Hilton Head International Competition Winner
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 19, 2016

The Hilton Head piano competition presented its latest first prize winner, Chang-Yong Shin, in a well-attended recital at New York’s Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on Saturday afternoon, and what a stimulating afternoon it was. Mr. Shin has that rare ability to generate visceral excitement just by playing his instrument. He alternates between extreme fire and melting sensitivity, each of which gains by contrast to the other. Naturally, he has technique to burn. I found some of his forte dynamics strident in the small confines of Weill, but then I thought if he had tempered them, some other element of his presentation may have suffered. He has what Adele Marcus used to call “the big line”: a clear idea of every piece, every movement, and every phrase within the movement. Once a section begins, it travels on its own stream of energy that never flags; he does not “tear apart” phrases in search of detail, everything is integrated.

He began with Bach’s Toccata in D major, BWV 912. Anyone who has read my work knows that I love Bach on the modern piano. Mr. Shin seized every opportunity to use the “toccata” for its intended message—a) to show off the player’s dexterity and touch variety, and b) display a learned contrapuntal sensibility. These very early keyboard works of Bach are not programmed nearly as often as they deserve, but then one needs a Mr. Shin to bring them to bold, crisp, exciting life.

There followed Busoni’s fiendishly difficult Sonatina No. 6, subtitled Kammer-Fantasie über Bizets ‘Carmen’ (also commonly called Fantasia da Camera super Carmen) . I’m not sure what the “chamber” dimension is in this piece, which is resolutely a piano solo. Mr. Shin revealed (with Busoni’s help of course) the entire tragic unfolding of the opera in just nine minutes. His lyrical playing was absolutely superior, and the mysterious death-haunted ending was perfect. He also brought a genuine sense of playfulness, as though enjoying his own ability negotiate the score.

The first half concluded with Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, a test of any pianist’s maturity and depth. Again, Mr. Shin rose to every challenge, but he was particularly affecting in the Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll (Slowly and full of longing) third “movement,” which proceeds directly into the exultant final sonata-fugue, where his energy was exuberant. His phrasing in the strictly canonic central section of the second movement was scrupulous, one doesn’t often hear it; however, I found the outer sections too rambunctious (though convincing).

After intermission, Shin gave the first movement, Los Requiebros (Flirtatious Remarks), from Granados’ piano suite Goyescas. Granados died when the channel ferry ship Sussex was torpedoed in the English Channel by the German submarine UB-29 on March 24, 1916. He had returned to England successfully from conducting his opera (also called Goyescas) at the Metropolitan Opera, but was on the Sussex as it was heading to France. Here Mr. Shin handled the ornate piano writing, never missing where the main melodies were, and clarifying every bit of this daunting piano writing. At the teneramente e calmato section, Mr. Shin managed to create an oceanic oasis of calm at the center of what had been very “busy” writing—it was breathtaking.

He closed with Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, in B-flat major, Op. 83, the middle sonata of the three “war” sonatas (World War II). This is music of almost unbearable anxiety, fear, and violence. Again, the inner fire of Mr. Shin was appropriate to the message of the piece. However, I found his most successful movement to be the central, lyrical one, Andante caloroso (warmly proceeding), that resembles a nostalgic romance one might sing after too many vodkas, and then becomes elevated and ultra-tragic, with alarm bells ringing obsessively, before the “inebriated” song returns, with a final disquieting bell. The outer movements really were exciting, despite the brutality of the sound—I never heard Gilels or Richter make a harsh sound in this work, but they were completely authentic in terms of musical message. (Yes Mr. Shin, you’re being spoken of in the same breath as Gilels and Richter.)

(Aside to all young artists: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, PLEASE provide program notes. If you aren’t comfortable creating them yourselves, hire someone who is. Also, this program didn’t even have sections or movements of works indicated.)

Mr. Shin favored the enthusiastic audience with two well-deserved encores: the Schumann/Liszt Widmung song transcription, played with maturity and lyricism; and the Liszt Transcendental Etude in F minor, which was wild, but again created a visceral thrill such as we don’t often get from typical “competition winners.” Keep studying with the best, Chang-Yong, and nurture that beautiful talent you have.