New Asia Chamber Music Society presents New Asia Chamber Music Society with Zhang Fang, Piano in Review

New Asia Chamber Music Society presents New Asia Chamber Music Society with Zhang Fang, Piano in Review

Max Tan, William Wei, Ji In Yang; violin
Wei-Yang Andy Lin, viola
Nan-Cheng Chen, Grace Ho; cello
Zhou Yi, pipa
Zhang Fang, guest pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 20, 2017


The New Asia Chamber Music Society was founded in 2010 by a group of young Asian-American musicians who were graduates of prestigious American music schools, among them The Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. Their mission statement says that they are “committed to bringing audiences exceptional performances of the chamber music repertoire drawn from the canon of western music as well as contemporary Asian culture.” This concert shows that they are certainly succeeding in their mission.

Zhang Fang
Photo by Ben Tso Photography


The concert began with a performance of Eight Drunken Immortals, a trio for piano, pipa (Chinese lute), and cello composed in 2013 by Dong-Qing Fang (b.1981). According to Wikipedia, “The Eight Immortals are a group of legendary xian (immortals) in Chinese mythology… Some drunken boxing styles make extensive use of the Eight Immortals archetypes for conditioning, qigong/meditation and combat training.” The composer chose six of these archetypes (drunken- intention, drinking, hitting, steps, playfulness, fists) and wrote a short “character piece, a la Robert Schumann” for each archetype. Each received a brilliant performance. Cellist Grace Ho drew a beautiful sound from her instrument during the lyrical passages, and she was equally compelling during the wilder movements. Pianist Zhang Fang was in constant synch with his colleagues, acting as a supportive accompanist when needed and exhibiting virtuosic skill when called for, but it was the playing of the pipa by Zhou Yi which made the deepest impression on this listener. We first heard rapidly repeated notes which reminded one of the mandolin. Using this technique, Ms. Zhou spun out finely shaped melodies. In one especially beautiful passage, a melody played by Ms. Zhou was repeated by the cello and then played by both performers. This melding of the east and the west was most beguiling. The pipa is capable of many sounds – harmonics and wonderful percussive effects. All were beautifully performed by Ms. Zhou.

From left to right: Max Tan, Ji In Yang, Zhang Fang, Nan-Cheng Chen, Wei-Yang Andy Lin
Photo by Ben Tso Photography


A work for solo piano, Poetry with Silent Mountain (2011), by Wantong Jiang (b.1957) followed. To be frank, I couldn’t quite understand what the program notes meant, other than the relaxed sounds we were to hear symbolized “the self-singing” of silence. Pianist Zhang Fang, who was most impressive in the rapid loud fast passages of the previous work, beautifully shaped the sounds and silences of this quasi impressionistic composition, producing wonderfully varied pianistic colors A recurring passage of low rumbling sounds in the piano’s lowest register followed by descending open fourths and fifths and concluding with louder octave passages gave the composition a discernable shape. Prepared piano sounds were created by pulling two “trussed horsetails,” one at the instrument’s lowest string at the beginning of the work, and one at the highest string at the conclusion.

From left to right: Zhou Yi,  Zhang Fang, Grace Ho
Photo by Ben Tso Photography


The first half of the concert ended with a wonderful performance of Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893.) I am very happy to report that the fine ensemble playing we heard in tonight’s first work was heard both during the Debussy and the Brahms Piano Quintet heard after intermission. Each work was played with fine intonation, attention to detail and with the cohesiveness of an ensemble that had played together for a long time. The Debussy was performed by violinists William Wei and Ji In Yang, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin, and cellist Grace Ho. Mr. Wei was a fine leader who played with energy and precision up to the very heights of the E-string. The other players weren’t “shrinking violets.” They perfectly balanced Mr. Wei and, when called for, spun out beautifully shaped melodies.

From left to right: William Wei, Ji In Yang, Grace Ho, Wei-Yang Andy Lin
Photo by Ben Tso Photography


The Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 (1864), one of chamber music’s most monumental works, poses great musical and technical challenges for its five performers. Violinists Max Tang and Ji In Yang, violists Wei-Yang and Andy Lin, cellist Nan-Cheng, and pianist Zhang Fang, were up to the task. Readers of my reviews must know by now how I feel when performers do not obey the composer’s instructions to repeat a first movement’s exposition. They can imagine my joy when, for the first time while attending a live performance of this piece, I heard the beginning of the first ending and, after five measures, again heard the beginning of the exposition. I would like to publically offer my thanks to the performers for their bravery in doing the right thing. But, as the saying goes, “Beware of getting what you wish for.” It seemed to me that the tempo of the second playing of the exposition was a bit faster than the first. I ask the players to listen to the performance tape and, if I am incorrect, I will be the first to admit being in error. In any case, I am sure of the fact that there was a tendency to rush in movements two and three, especially during crescendi and loud passages, but these were just tiny blemishes on what was a thrilling performance.


The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening in Review

The Art of Listening
Javor Bračić, piano
National Opera Center, New York, NY
September 17, 2017


The 7th floor Rehearsal Hall at the National Opera Center was a perfect venue for this most interesting hour- long event, an interactive investigation and performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, Op. 27 No. 1. During the half hour before the scheduled start, pianist Javor Bračić mingled with the gathering audience while encouraging them to sample the wine and cheese set out in the back of the hall. As there is no raised stage in this space, the piano was at audience level, making for a continued intimate connection between performer and audience. I especially liked the fact that the piano was turned diagonally so that there was no “keyboard-side,” allowing all audience members the coveted view of the performer’s hands.


As stated in the event’s publicity material (notice I do not call this a “recital”) Mr. Bračić wishes both to break down the wall between performer and audience, and to give his listeners a deeper understanding of what they are hearing. It is a pleasure to say that he succeeded in both endeavors.


After a brief statement as to how the session would be organized, we heard a masterful performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, Op. 27 No. 1. (But this was just a taste of Mr. Bračić’s pianism. I look forward to hearing a full recital.) He then asked the audience for any thoughts about the piece. After a silence, which felt longer that it really was, people began to overcome their shyness and spoke. Words like “sad,” happy,” “victorious,” were followed by stories people thought the music evoked. I, being a trained musician, thought major, minor, modulation, ternary form. I had to say to myself: “Stop! Just see what Mr. Bračić will do.”


Soon, after playing the opening two measures of the piece (the left hand playing just C#’s and G#’s,) he asked if the music was happy or sad. Silence followed. Both Mr. Bračić and I knew why. I raised my hand and said “We don’t know yet.” As I had just stepped on his line, Mr. Bračić made a joke about the showoff in the audience and proceeded to add an E, the first note of the right hand. “Sad,” said the audience, for this made the chord C#-E-G# – a minor triad. The next note in the right hand was E#, which then created a major triad. This was a brilliant way of introducing major and minor, concepts which are very important to understanding this Chopin Nocturne.


The concepts of polyphony, modulation and chromaticism were introduced in equally clever and easy- to- understand ways. (Upon re-reading the previous paragraph and seeing how convoluted it is, I won’t try to explain how he did it.)


The hour ended with another beautiful performance of the Nocturne. Three more events in the series will take place this season at the National Opera Center, when works by Chopin, Mozart and Samuel Barber will be performed, discussed and elucidated. I wish him continued success in this laudable project.


From Berlin to Broadway-Transatlantic in Review

From Berlin to Broadway-Transatlantic in Review

From Berlin to Broadway-Transatlantic
Adrienne Haan, chanteuse; Richard Danley, piano; Mike Campenni, drums; Roswitha, curtain singer
The Actors’ Temple, New York, NY
March 23, 2015

This concert was a benefit to raise money for the renovation, or could one say restoration, of Congregation Ezrath Israel’s 1923 landmark building on West 47th Street, The Actors’ Temple, which now serves as both a house of worship and a theater. Before the opening ceremonies we were entertained by Roswitha, an Austrian violinist/singer whose vocals, violin melodies and costume (ooh-la-la!) reminded us that we weren’t in a shul, thus preparing us for the evening of cabaret singing which was to follow.

During these opening ceremonies we learned about the many Broadway legends who worshiped here. The program that followed was a perfect way to conjure up the spirits of those great performers, the zeitgeist of the European countries they left, and the creative spirit which their new home encouraged.

The houselights darkened and Adrienne Haan sauntered down the aisle dressed in a form fitting blue sequined gown with a white fur wrap (ooh-la-la redux!) Her first number was “Die Seeräuberjenny” (“Pirate Jenny”) from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). This and the next three sets were sung in both German and English, the first two of the five languages we heard this evening. The other three were Yiddish, Hebrew, and French. For her rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and during the following German cabaret medley, Ms. Haan used the very bottom of her very wide range, singing a la Marlene Dietrich. As the concert progressed she sang higher and higher. This was first heard during one of her best numbers, the Yiddish song “Ikh Shtey Unter A Bokserboym” (“I Stand Beneath a Carob Tree”).

Ms. Haan established a close rapport with the audience through her informative, funny, and often moving commentary between sets. Introducing the next song, “Rikmah Enoshit Achat” (“One Human Tissue”), she said it was dedicated “to all the souls who have brutally lost their lives in the massacres of World War II,” and [she] would “sing it in memory of the Auschwitz liberation seventy years ago on January 27, 1945.” The Hebrew text of this song, whose words and music were written by Moti Hamer, was a fitting tribute, but I found the musical arrangement and performance jarringly upbeat.

Up to this point the accompanying artists, pianist Richard Danley and drummer Mike Campenni, were discreetly in the background. During the next set, a medley of American standards, the three artists shared equal prominence. I especially liked Mr. Danley’s swinging “’’S Wonderful.” More American songs followed. For me, Ms. Haan’s best performances took place during the next two sets, sung in French. She began Jacques Brel’s “Le Port D’Amsterdam” a cappella, a wonderful change of color. The instrumentalists soon joined in, and the work crescendoed to a shattering climax. An equally successful Edith Piaf medley followed. The concert proper ended with a moving performance of Ute Lemper’s “Blood and Feathers,” based on Jacques Prévert’s poem “Sang et Plumes.”

After sustained and enthusiastic applause, Ms. Haan performed an encore, “Jerusalem of Gold.” It was touching to hear the melody being softly hummed by some audience members who sat near me.



Christoph Denoth, guitar in Review

Christoph Denoth, guitar in Review

Christoph Denoth, guitar 
SubCulture, New York, NY
September 4, 2014


What better way to begin a new concert season than to attend a wonderful performance in one of New York’s new concert venues? The performer: Swiss guitarist Christoph Denoth. The music: works by the English composers John Dowland (1563-1626) and Benjamin Britten, Spaniards Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Turina, Isaac Albéniz, and the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. The venue: an intimate performance space with a bar in NoHo at 45 Bleeker Street.

A comfortable basement space, SubCulture is a perfect venue for an intimate guitar recital. (The festival of piano music scheduled for the month of September should also be a great fit.) Although Mr. Denoth was surrounded by microphones, the sound from where I sat seemed natural and unamplified. When, after the concert, I spoke to the sound engineer, he told me that the microphones were for a radio broadcast of the performance. I suggested that the audience should be forewarned when broadcast microphones appear on stage during concerts that shouldn’t have amplification. I also mentioned that even though the presence of a bar makes SubCulture more informal than a traditional “concert hall,” piped in music (cool jazz this night) right before and after the recital is not a good idea. Music such as we heard tonight needs a no-music frame of silence before and after the performance.

Christoph Denoth has performed in concert halls all over the world, as a solo artist and in collaboration with orchestras, chamber groups and singers. He is sought after as a teacher and is now on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Music in London. This evening’s performance showed why. A master of his instrument, he performed with great technical skill, spinning out well-shaped melodic lines with crystal clear, often thrilling, accompaniments. He drew from his instrument so many different colors that one often thought there was more than one guitarist on stage.

The recital began with guitar arrangements of four works for lute by John Dowland. They included a setting of the melody of a popular ballad of the times and of one by Dowland himself, a dance, and a fantasy. These delightful works, elegantly performed, were the perfect vehicle to enable the audience to “tune their ears” to the softer end of the guitar’s dynamic range. This was followed by Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje – Tombeau de Debussy. (A tombeau is a musical composition commemorating the death of a notable individual.) Although one couldn’t know it at the time, Mr. Denoth’s performance of this work marked the beginning of his ever increasing creation of more and more beautiful and interesting guitar colors.

Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70, uses as its inspiration Dowland’s lute song “Come Heavy Sleep.” Commissioned by the legendary English guitarist Julian Bream, the work makes great demands on the performer. Mr. Denoth was up to the challenge and performed with assurance and consummate musicality. Each of the eight movements utilizes tiny motives and fragments from Dowland’s song, but the complete song is not heard until the end of the work. Although I’ve conducted “Come Heavy Sleep” in Dowland’s arrangement for four voices, I had great difficulty figuring out what was going on musically. It just sounded like a series of guitar effects, beautifully played, but having little to do with Dowland’s song.

Next came what, for me, was the program’s high point: a performance of four of the Cinq Préludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos knew what was idiomatic to the guitar and Mr. Denoth reveled in this wonderful writing. It was joyous and compelling music-making. In Prélude No.1 (Homage to Back-Country Brazil) Mr. Denoth beautifully contrasted the sound of the long melodic line and the chordal accompaniment. The melody first appeared in the bass with the chords above. When it returned, now in the soprano, the color of the melody was again quite different from that of the accompaniment. The Préludes were not performed in the published order. The next, Prélude No.4, featured mysterious harmonics; No.3 was expressive and beautifully phrased. The wild strumming at the end of No.2 brought the set to a stirring conclusion.

The recital ended with three popular works familiar to most of the audience, Joaquin Turina’s Sevillana (Fantasia) Op.29, and Isaac Albéniz’s Granada and Asturias. The program didn’t mention that the two Albéniz works were originally written for piano in 1890 and arranged for guitar after his death in 1909. I was wrong in thinking it would be difficult to maintain the excitement created by the Villa-Lobos Préludes. These last three works were a thrilling ending to the concert proper.

The Spanish aspect to the program continued with the first encore, an idiomatic performance of Joaquin Malats’s Serenata Española, another work written for piano but later transcribed for guitar. It seems that, in their nationalistic works, Spanish composers sought to have the piano imitate the most Spanish of instruments. This evening’s arrangements for guitar only bought these works closer to their roots. A final work by Dowland, Mr. Dowland’s Midnight, brought this wonderful concert to a gentle close.

The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Church of the Transfiguration presents: The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten in Review

The Burning Fiery Furnace by Benjamin Britten
The Transfiguration Boys Choir, Claudia Dumschat, director
The Church of the Transfiguration, New York, NY
March 28, 2014

The Church of the Transfiguration, also known as “The Little Church around the corner,” was the venue for a performance of the second of composer Benjamin Britten’s three Parables for Church Performance, the 1966 The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op. 77, on March 28, 2014. This work was preceded by a “curtain raiser,” the composer’s Missa Brevis in D, Op. 63, scored for three-part treble chorus and organ. Anyone expecting a simple euphonious work would have been quite disappointed. The Missa Brevis is a complex and demanding piece, full of polytonality, complicated meters (7/8 in the Gloria), and other twentieth century devices which would have challenged any adult chorus. The Transfiguration Boys Choir was fully up to the task, singing with note-perfect precision and flawless intonation. The unnamed soloists, drawn from the chorus, sang beautifully. The boys were rehearsed and conducted by the choir’s director Claudia Dumschat. Erik Birk was the skillful organist.

The performance of the Transfiguration Boys Choir set a very high bar for the adults performing the Burning Fiery Furnace. I am happy to report that they were all up to the challenge. Repeating a dramatic motif from The Church of the Transfiguration’s 2012 performance of the third Parable, The Prodigal Son (The Prodigal Son: NY Concert Review, March 9, 2012), the opening of The Burning Fiery Furnace featured chanting monks dressed in robes and cowls, proceeding down the center aisle. When they reached the front of the church, the monks’ Abbot addressed the audience/congregation. The soloist was bass-baritone Peter Ludwig, who with warm and persuasive singing drew us all into the drama and mystery which was to follow. The monks then took off their robes, revealing the costumes of the characters they were to play. Mr. Ludwig became the work’s villain, his dual roles allowing him to show his skills as a wonderful singing actor.

All of the vocal soloists were fine singing actors: Tenor Daniel Neer as Nebuchadnezzar; Nicolas Connolly as The Herald and Leader of the Courtiers; Bill Cross, Christopher Preston Thompson and David Baldwin as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three men who would be put in the fiery furnace. Masters Jeffrey Kishinevsky and Charles Rosario, members of The Transfiguration Boys Choir, stole the show with their jolly portrayal of the Boy Entertainers. Another high point was the beautiful singing of boy soprano Matthew Griffin as the Angel who protects the three men in the fiery furnace. Also memorable was the ethereal singing of the Angel Chorus made up of Alexis Cordero, Jeffrey Kishinevsky, Charles Rosario and Kennin Susana, and to be complete, mention must be made of the strong contribution made by the Chorus of Courtiers.

I described The Church of the Transfiguration’s March 9, 2012 production of The Prodigal Son as “a performance that succeeded in all aspects.” The same can be said of tonight’s production of The Burning Fiery Furnace. Praise again must go to Music Director Claudia Dumschat who led the fine chamber orchestra and performed the organ part. Under her leadership, the musical preparation and execution were exemplary. Mention should also be made of the evocative costumes by Costume Designer Terri Bush. The dramatic action, which was the responsibility of Dramaturg/Stage Manager Betty Howe and Stage Director Richard Olson was persuasive and melded seamlessly with the singing. All in all, it was another wonderful performance.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Presents Shawnee Press: Celebrating 75 Years in Music
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concert Singers International
Tim Seelig, Conductor Laureate; Greg Gilpin, composer/conductor; Mark Hayes, composer/conductor; Joseph M. Martin, composer/conductor; Sean Berry, Ben Cohen, Heather Sorenson, accompanists
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 17, 2014

For seventy-five years, the Shawnee Press has published music which has become part of the core repertoire of choral groups all over the United States and in many foreign countries. What better way to celebrate this anniversary  than by presenting a sampling of this music performed by fourteen choral groups from twelve states (Ohio and Pennsylvania each sent two groups), a contingent of individual singers from around the globe, vocal soloists, three piano accompanists, and a large orchestra led by four different conductors, all brought to Carnegie Hall by Distinguished Concerts International New York?

First a little history, adapted from the concert’s program notes: “In the late 1930s Fred Waring, renowned bandleader and choral master, and some of his friends formed a music publishing company called WORDS AND MUSIC, INC. As he and his famous singing group, The Pennsylvanians,” grew in stature and popularity, school choral and church choir directors began requesting copies of his unique arrangements. In 1939, the first choral arrangement became available, and in 1947 Mr. Waring changed the name of the company to Shawnee Press.”

Each of the two halves of the concert featured seven of the above mentioned choruses and was divided into two sets, each set directed by a different conductor. First on the podium was Conductor Laureate Tim Seelig, who led the assembled singers and instrumentalists in an arrangement of “America the Beautiful” by Marvin Gaspard. This lush, technicolor arrangement set a pattern for the concert which, for this listener, contained too many works which would have served as perfect concert finales. It sounded great – the DCINY Orchestra played at its usual high level (although the timpanist did get a little overexcited at times), and who isn’t thrilled by the sound of a huge chorus of avocational singers? The audience loved it, and loved all of the concert’s finale-like works, but did these works give a clear idea of the breadth of the massive Shawnee Press catalogue? This catalogue contains fourteen other arrangements of “America the Beautiful,” and multiple arrangements of many of the nineteen other works on the program. It would have been good to hear some of the more simple arrangements and some of the versions of works with just a piano accompaniment. The audience didn’t mind at all, and reveled all evening in the massed sound.

Next on the podium was Mark Hayes, who led performances of his own compositions and arrangements. The accompanist was Shawn Berry, who also accompanied the first set. I do wish he and the other accompanists, Ben Cohen and Heather Sorenson, had more to do.

A different, even larger chorus took the stage for concert’s second half. Although both choruses produced a pleasant sound, the men were sometimes overpowered by the more numerous women, and both by the sometimes too loud orchestra. Crisper consonants would have also improved the diction. Conductors Greg Gilpin and Joseph M. Martin each led performances of their own compositions and arrangements. As with most of the evening’s arrangements, I found these and those on the first half by Mr. Hayes “too much of a muchness,” often obliterating the simplicity and beauty of the original material. I suspect that these “over the top” works were chosen to make a big impression for this celebratory concert, but to continue with my series of clichés, “less would have been more,” if a more varied repertoire had been offered.

I remember with great pleasure the music in Shawnee Press editions I sang many years ago with the Midwood High School Mixed Chorus. I am sure, thanks to the continued success of Shawnee Press, many thousands of people are now creating, and will in the future create, similar memories.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Artists Series presents Nordic Voices
Nordic Voices- Tone Braaten and Ingrid Hanken, soprano; Ebba Rydh, mezzo-soprano; Per Kristian Amundrøy, tenor; Frank Havrøy, baritone; Trond Olav Reinholdsten, bass
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
February 2, 2014

Scheduled the same evening as the Super Bowl, Nordic Voices appeared in concert at Weill Recital Hall. It was gratifying to see a packed house- an indication that there are people besides me who couldn’t care less about the other event taking place at the same time. Before I get to my review proper, I have an admission to make – I arrived at the concert late and missed the first four pieces. Although I do feel that my discussion of the remaining ten works will give a valid appraisal of the concert, my responsibility to the performers, presenters and other readers of this review impels me to let them know why I will not be discussing these works. I am reminded of a music critic whose “review” of a concert which he failed to attend was published in a major New York newspaper. Unfortunately for him, the concert never took place, having been cancelled at the very last moment.

I arrived during spoken commentary from the stage introducing two works from György Ligeti’s “Nonsense Madrigals,” a collection of settings from “Alice in Wonderland.” As no printed texts and translations were distributed, many of the tonight’s works were introduced in this manner. Although readers of my reviews know that I like to follow the texts/translations word by word, Nordic Voices and many other performers have begun to realize that very few people do. Tonight’s introductions couldn’t have been better – they were enunciated well enough to be heard in the back row of the hall, were informative and witty, and helped to create a warm relationship between the performers and their audience. The performances were all one could ask for, as the extended vocal techniques and rhythmic complexities were handled with consummate skill and ease. This was the case in all of the more experimental works which were to follow. I am confident this was so in the works by Lasse Thorsten and Bjarne Sløgedal which opened the program.

The first half ended with a spirited rendition of “Les chants des oiseaux,” a chanson by the Renaissance composer Clément Janequin. Nordic Voices also performed this work on a 2004 concert which I reviewed for this publication. In that review, I chided them for not following “the rules of musica ficta [which] dictate that leading tones in cadences are always sung a half step below the tonic, even when they appear otherwise in the printed score.”  I am sorry to say that they did not take this to heart and made the same error on tonight’s concert. Saddened might be a better word than sorry, for this is not a matter of interpretation, and is similar to singing the same wrong note each time a passage is repeated in the course of a composition.

The second half began with an exquisite performance of the motet “Ecclesie militantis” by the Early Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay. The pure non-vibrato sound of the female singers, the perfect intonation, the rhythmic clarity, and the beautifully shaped polyphonic lines all made me wish I had heard their performance of the two Renaissance motets by Thomás Luis de Victoria which I missed on the first half. What is more, Nordic Voices did follow the rules of musica ficta during the Dufay motet, even singing the wild double-leading-tone cadence at the end. I wonder what did they do with the Victoria?

A series of contrasting works followed. First the ethereal simplicity of “Predicasti,” a Medieval chant. Then the fiendishly difficult “O Magnum mysterium” by Henrick Ødegaard, during which Nordic Voices “pulled out all the stops” and gave us a demonstration of extended vocal techniques which boggled the mind. One is just amazed that the human voice can create all those sounds. This serious work was followed by three movements from Goffredo Petrassi’s whimsical “Nonsense,” settings of limericks by Edward Lear. The lighthearted subject matter and matching theatrical performance tend to hide that fact that these also very difficult pieces which Nordic Singers performed with consummate skill and ease. During Maurice Ravel’s chanson “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis,” we all could luxuriate in Nordic Voices’ beautiful sound.

A work by Frank Havrøy, Nordic Voices’ baritone, concluded the concert. “Bysjan, bysjan lite bån” (“Hush, hush, little child”) showcases two qualities which make Nordic Voices a unique ensemble – their skill with extended vocal techniques and their beautiful ensemble sound.  Without spoken comment, the singers moved off the stage, the women to the aisle on the audience’s left, the men to the aisle on the right. The work’s long, soft wordless opening featured extended vocal techniques. It was followed by a most beautiful setting of what I took to be a Norwegian folk song and another beautiful folksong setting served as the concert’s gentle encore.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY): Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International;Jonathan Griffith,  Music Director; Laura Strickling, soprano; Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano; John McVeigh, tenor; Christopher Job, bass
Avery Fisher Hall; Lincoln Center, New York, NY
December 1, 2013
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY)

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY); Photo credit: Nan Melville


Two years ago, I wrote a review for this publication (“MESSIAH…REFRESHED!” November 27, 2011) of a DCINY performance of Handel’s Messiah, which used a re-orchestration of the original score for full symphony orchestra. This massive orchestration (full woodwinds and brass, large percussion battery, and two harps) by Eugene Goossens was written upon a commission from the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. In that review I used my two favorite “Beecham stories” which, of course, I can’t use again. Interested readers can refer back to the November 27, 2011 review  by clicking here- Messiah Refreshed review 2011.

Hearing Maestro Griffith conduct this work for a second time, I can see how he is trying to balance his innate musicianship, which is of the highest level, with his desire to perform this work as stipulated in Goossens’s score and Beecham’s 1959 recording. It is an interesting problem that has many solutions. By omitting some movements, mostly in Part III, Goossens’s score transformed Handel’s three-part oratorio into a two-part work with a single intermission. He also omitted the “b” section, and therefore the da capo, of two quite long arias, “He was despised,” and “The trumpet shall sound.” Maestro Griffith omitted what Goossens omitted, but he did not take the ponderously slow tempi one hears on the 1959 Beecham recording. But what does one do with ornamentation? There is none in either the Goossens score or the Beecham recording. While this afternoon’s vocal soloists added many ornaments to their vocal lines, none appeared at cadences. For this listener one either follows the non-ornamented Goossens score to the letter or incorporates all we have learned about baroque music since 1959. It seems that Maestro Griffith has pondered this question long and hard, and his feelings are evolving. I admire that and look forward to the results of his ongoing thinking.

Over the years I have thought that the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra was made of freelance musicians brought together just for a specific concert. I have just learned that they are a permanent group, the in-house orchestra of DCINY, and a fine group they are. The fleet-of-foot-tempi chosen by Maestro Griffith might have taxed even a small baroque band, but this massive orchestra performed them with ease and clarity. Except for the booming timpani, the balances were perfect. The wind solos, especially the trumpet in “The trumpet shall sound,” were beautifully played.

The four vocal soloists were all first-rate, making it hard to pick out the high points, but here are a few: Soprano Laura Strickling’s thrilling coloratura in “Rejoice greatly” – the fast tempo allowed her to sing the inhumanly long vocal lines in one breath. Mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz’s delivered a most moving rendition of “He was despised” – her voice is beautiful in all parts of her register. I especially loved the plummy low notes. I do wish that Goossens had scored the entire aria. Tenor John McVeigh was a last minute substitution for the scheduled tenor, but one would not have thought so from his assured performance. He sang his opening recitative, “Comport ye,” with beautiful floating tone, and his “Thou shalt break them” had great dramatic fire. Bass Christopher Job was my favorite soloist, although he and Mr. McVeigh tended to rush a bit during their coloratura passages. His voice is thrilling from top to bottom, and his performance of “But who may abide” and “The trumpet shall sound” were, for this listener, the concert’s most memorable moments.

The personnel of The Distinguished Concerts Singers International changes for each performance. This afternoon there were 243 singers on the stage. During the “Hallelujah” and “Worthy is the lamb” they were joined by another 220 singers seated in the first and second tiers of the hall nearest the stage. That makes a total of 463 singers! And a mighty sound it was! Most were members of twelve choruses from the United States, Canada, Australia and China. Also singing were music teachers from the New York City public schools and, as the program stated, “individuals from around the globe.”  The chordal sections of the choruses were beautifully sung with a thrilling sound, but many of the polyphonic passages were a different matter, exposing problems of pitch and ensemble.

The excitement in the hall, even before the music began, was palpable. At the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the audience members could hardly contain themselves. Most thrilling, however, was the explosion of applause and bravos which followed hard on the completion of the final “Amen.” And it was justified. The audience of Messiah lovers, friends, neighbors, and family members of the chorus did not have matters of baroque performance practice on their minds. They had just experienced a heartfelt performance of a beloved masterpiece under the direction of a fine conductor. What a fine way to celebrate the beginning of another holiday season!


Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists in Review

Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, guitarists
The American Bible Society; New York, NY
October 4, 2013

At concerts presented by Musica da Camara, the sponsors of this event, this reviewer has grown to expect performances characterized by a close connection between the performers and their audience. These events are almost like family gatherings. And this was palpably present in this Emerging Artist Concert, a recital by the young Puerto Rican guitarists Enrique Velez-Bidot and Hermelindo Ruiz, which took place in the Conference Center of The American Bible Society’s New York headquarters. The audience kvelled at every sound, at every word. (To kvell – Yiddish: to take pleasure in the achievement of family members and others close to you.)

The large and enthusiastic audience loved the concert, and their pleasure did not seem to be diminished by the things I will discuss in this paragraph. Firstly, the printed program bore little connection to what we heard. I find this unacceptable, as the printed program is both a guide for the audience and an historical documentation of the event. It seems that Mr. Ruiz, after deciding to change the works he would be performing, failed to inform Musica da Camara in time. He therefore had to verbally explain the changes to the audience, thus confusing the audience and lengthening the spoken part of the recital.  I know that many of today’s audiences find that spoken comments from the performers are both enjoyable and informative. But to this listener it seemed that there were almost as many words coming from the stage as there were musical sounds. A little spontaneity is a good thing. To be effective, however, performer-to-audience interaction must be very well planned and timed. Tonight, five pieces which appeared on the printed program had to be omitted because too much time was spent talking. I would have loved to have heard them, especially “El coqui” by Jose Ignacio Quinton and the two Bach Inventions arranged for two guitars.

The concert’s first half belonged to Hermelindo Ruiz. He began with three of his own works, “Espacio”, “Recordando a Margot” and “Three Sketches.” On all three he exhibited a fine technique and drew many lovely colors from the instrument. The first two were written in a quite accessible style and allowed Mr. Ruiz to spin out some lovely well shaped phrases with clear articulation. The third, equally well played, was much more complex and dissonant. This was followed by the Gavotte en Rondeau from J.S. Bach’s Suite for Lute in E Major, BWV 1006a. This very popular work is part of an arrangement by the composer of movements from his Third Partita for Violin Solo, BWV 1006. Perhaps Mr. Ruiz was being too “respectful” of this work by the great master, but I felt that the performance didn’t quite dance. I would also suggest that the first dissonant note of an appoggiatura should be a bit louder than its consonant resolution.

The first half concluded with the World Premiere of a piece Mr. Ruiz commissioned for this concert, “Variaciones sobre un tema Paraguayo” (“Variations on a Paraguayan Theme”) by the  Paraguayan composer Diego Sanchez Haase. Although very well performed, this work’s basic problem was that, at least on first listening, the theme (the melody, the harmony, the structure et. al.) was so complicated that during the variations one could not tell what was being varied. If the theme (everything about the original material) isn’t clear, then one cannot take joy in perceiving what the composer does with “the original stuff.” The work made great technical demands on Mr. Ruiz, but he was up to all of them.

The second half began with a performance by Enrique Velez of Andrés Segovia’s arrangement for guitar of one of the monuments of Western Classical music, the Chaconne from the Second Partita for Violin, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach. It was, unfortunately, not a successful performance of this most difficult work. As he had to stop and retune twice in the middle of this long work, my thought was that there must have been something wrong with Mr. Velez’s instrument. And since I know that this would have unnerved any performer, I don’t think it necessary to describe the performance in any detail. But I am happy to mention that there were moments during the Bach (and in the following duet with Mr. Ruiz) that I heard examples of the quality of playing one expects from a player with Mr. Velez’s training and experience. For the concert’s last work, Messers Ruiz and Velez got together in a jaunty performance of Juan Francisco Acosta’s “Bajo la sombra de un pino”.

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano in Review

Misoon Ghim, mezzo-soprano
Amy Yang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 22, 2013

What an auspicious New York debut vocal recital, as two wonderful performers, mezzo soprano Misoon Ghim and pianist Amy Yang, presented songs from five stylistic periods, sung beautifully in five languages. I was most impressed by the high quality of the music they chose, and how these works allowed both performers to exhibit the many aspects of their fine technique and deep musicality.

And what better way to open a program than with the words “Music for a while/ Shall all your cares beguile,” the opening lines of Henry Purcell’s setting of John Dryden’s poem “Music for a while.” I was pleased that the performers chose an edition with a stylistically correct keyboard part, rather than one with the souped-up accompaniments so often used by singers who aren’t Baroque specialists. Ms. Ghim possesses a beautiful bright voice which is produced with great ease. (Darker vocal colors were to appear later in the concert.) Another Purcell work,  “Dido’s Lament,” followed. Most moving was her heartfelt singing of the words “remember me” which showcased her thrilling upper register. I did wonder why Ms. Ghim chose to ornament repeated lines during “Dido’s Lament,” while failing to decorate the da capo of “Music for a while.”

Next we heard four songs by Brahms. During these works Ms. Ghim produced many vocal colors to express the meaning of the words. Most memorable was her performance of “Die Mainacht” where we first heard her moving dark sound. Pianist Amy Yang, very much an accompanist during the Purcell, was given her first chance to shine during these songs. Her rapid finger work imitating the sound of spinning wheels during “Mädchenlied” and her stormy accompaniment during “Mein Liebe ist grun” gave us a foretaste of many pleasures to come.

The first half ended with a superb performance of Mozart’s Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” As the accompaniment of this work was originally scored for orchestra with obbligato piano, one could think of this piece as a concerto for voice and piano. It was therefore exciting to hear both of these fine musicians vie for our attention. That Ms. Ghim has been a success on the opera stage was vividly shown by her expert performance of the expressive opening recitative, the lyrical first section of the aria and then its thrilling dramatic conclusion. This was wonderful singing. Equally wonderful as both accompanist and second soloist  was pianist Amy Yang.

That the recital’s second half would maintain the high quality of the first half was made clear during the opening moments of the first of Mahler’s “Fünf Rückertlieder,” “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!” as Ms. Ghim spun out a most ravishing phrase. And at the climax of the intimate “Liebst du um Schönheit” she was very much the singing actress, as she lovingly caressed the words “o ja, mich liebe” (“oh yes, love me.”)  “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” allowed Ms. Ghim to show off her dark lower register and Ms. Yang to offer a sensitive accompaniment featuring a beautifully played left hand. Both performers shone during the very slow and quiet “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” But what sticks in my mind was Ms. Yang’s beautiful tone color and subtle phrasing, especially during the piano’s introduction, interludes and postlude. The last verse of “Um Mitternacht” brought the set to a goose-bump-producing- climax. For this listener, these Mahler songs were the highest point of a concert with many high points.

After a fine performance of Debussy’s “Fêtes galantes 1”, the program ended with “Cinco Cancione Negras” (“Five Black Songs”) by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002.) Employing Spanish and West Indian rhythms and themes, these songs lightened the mood and showed us another side of Ms. Ghim’s artistry. She and Ms. Yang brought the concert to a jolly conclusion with a wild rendition of the last song, “Canto negro.”

Thanks to the Korean Music Foundation for bringing these wonderful artists before a very appreciative New York audience.