MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble in Review

MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble in Review

MidAmerica Productions presents New England Symphonic Ensemble
New England Symphonic Ensemble; Preston Hawes, Artistic Director
Jane Morison, Sandy R. Holland, Sonja Sepúlveda, Michael J. Glasgow conductors
Haley Sicking, soprano, Cody Austin, tenor
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 11, 2017

 

On June 11, 2017, MidAmerica Productions presented a three-part concert featuring the New England Wind Ensemble, including a New York premiere of Michael J. Glasgow’s Requiem. The Glasgow work is to be the primary focus of this review, though I will briefly mention the others, as those performers are deserving of mention.

Before I continue, I’d like to say that a two-intermission concert starting at 8:30pm on a Sunday night is something that should be avoided. This reviewer got to watch a group of youngsters fidgeting restlessly for nearly two hours, for which I cannot blame them – it was getting very late, and they were getting tired.

The concert opened with combined choirs of young singers (elementary and middle school aged) from North Carolina and Tennessee. In ten works, with the conducting honors divided evenly between Jane Morison and Sandy R. Holland, the youngsters delighted their friends and families with a joyous performance.

After the first intermission, we heard the Requiem by John Rutter – the first of two requiems on the program. I have spoken of the history of this work in prior reviews, so I will only mention the strong influence that Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem had on Rutter’s work. Conductor Sonja Sepúlveda led an outstanding performance of this wonderful piece. It must be said that the New England Symphonic Ensemble is an excellent group. Kudos also to soprano soloist Haley Sicking, and the combined choruses from North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey for their fine work.

After another intermission, Michael J. Glasgow (b. 1977) took the podium to conduct the New York premiere of his Requiem. This seven-movement, forty-minute work is modeled after Fauré’s. Mr. Glasgow writes in his program notes of having had his first exposure to the Requiem text being Fauré’s; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that this is a clone of the Fauré, as there are many unsettled moments that bring to mind some of the less serene requiems (such as those of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, etc.).

I was glad to have read Mr. Glasgow’s notes, as they provided much insight into understanding his conception. He wrote of his struggles with self-identity and loss; some losses were after long lives, but others were lives cut short by hatred, ignorance, and violence.

This Requiem seems to be much more for the living than for the departed. There is a strong autobiographical element, as can be heard in the Introit, which is at once full of shock, anguish, and anger. It’s a powerful, emotionally supercharged opening, but some very large handbells were virtually inaudible, probably a combination of the soft clappers of the bells and the hall acoustic. The Offertory had a sinister quality that eventually moved towards a peaceful mood. The Pie Jesu was heavenly, showing Mr. Glasgow’s abundant melodic gift. The Sanctus and Benedictus with an unusual martial quality, were triumphant, as anger gave way to peace. There was a final angry burst in the Libera Me, but it had more the feel of defiance rather than rage. After a bridge that Mr. Glasgow called the “Ascension Interlude,” the sublime Lacrimosa, which was strongly reminiscent of Fauré’s In Paradisum (one could hardly pick a more beautiful model!) was the final movement.

Mr. Glasgow originally finished the Requiem in 2001, but it remains unpublished. One has the distinct feeling that this is still very much a work in progress, and I would not be surprised if Mr. Glasgow has different ideas for this work at age fifty. I would be very interested to hear this work again.

After the last notes of the Lacrimosa faded away to silence, the audience immediately rewarded all with a long standing ovation. Mr. Glasgow can be proud – it was a memorable performance of a highly personal, emotional work. Congratulations to the soloists, tenor Cody Austin, and soprano Haley Sicking, the North Carolina-based choruses, and once again, special mention to the New England Symphonic Ensemble.

I’ll leave the last words to Mr. Glasgow: “Now, more than ever, the hearts of humanity need to be moved by the communal, healing power of music. Now, more than ever, we need to recognize that despite the horror and ignorance, the day will come when peace, tranquility, and love will reign. Now, more than ever, we need that time to be now.”


Legato Arts presents The International Trio in Review

Legato Arts presents The International Trio in Review

Legato Arts presents The International Trio
Luisa Sello, Guoliang Han, flute
Amir Farid, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 22, 2017

 

Legato Arts (www.legatoarts.com), with additional support provided by the Italian Regional Project FVG 2016, presented the International Trio on May 22, 2017 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. The International Trio consists of two flutists, Luisa Sello (www.luisasello.it) and Guoliang Han (www.hanguoliang.com), and pianist Amir Farid (www.amirfarid.com). In a program featuring some of the “usual suspects” (Franz Doppler, Freidrich Kuhlau), great masters (Bach, Mozart, Ravel), and a few unfamiliar names (Huang Huwei, François Borne), the selections proved to be a hit with the audience that filled the hall.

The program was structured to showcase both the trio and more soloistic repertoire for Ms. Sello and Mr. Han. The first half consisted of works that are technically challenging and musically rich in content, while the second half was dedicated mostly to showstoppers that highlight the virtuosity of the players. It was also a program that could be described as “user friendly,” with all accessible works, no strident dissonances or excessive demands on the listener.

Ms. Sello, Mr. Han, and Mr. Farid took the stage and opened with J.S. Bach’s Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1039. The balance was excellent (even with the piano on the full stick), the intonation was accurate, and the details of line and form were done with careful precision. Ms. Sello then played Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), in an arrangement for flute and piano. Ms. Sello has a light tone, with an amount of vibrato that never wandered into the “wobbly” territory, which was well-suited to this work. Mr. Han followed with Sunlight on Mountain Tian by Huang Huwei (b. 1932), a 20th century work with its heart in the 19th. One could speak of a musical East-meets-West mélange. It was poignant with splashes of color that Mr. Han brought out with the maximum effect. The half ended with Doppler’s Andante et Rondo for Two Flutes and Piano, Op 25. Filled with Doppler’s characteristic brilliant writing for the flute, it starts calmly and “heats up” in what is a fun work for performers and listeners alike. The performers handled this work with perfect understanding in a satisfying performance.

Before anything else, much praise must be given to Mr. Farid, who handled his role with complete commitment, when it would have been so easy (and so understandable) to go through the motions given many of the works have the pianist in an almost parenthetical role.

After Intermission, Ms. Sello and Mr. Han offered Two Arias for Two Flutes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte – Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel it, it is vanished), and the famous Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen (Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart), as sung by The Queen of the Night. The interplay between the two players was excellent, and there were moments of charm and excitement throughout. Mr. Han then offered Doppler’s well-known Fantaisie Pastorale Hongroise, Op. 26. This is one of those “must play” works, that is filled with virtuosic adventure. Mr. Han did not disappoint, as he tossed off the challenges with apparent ease. Not to be outdone, Ms. Sello answered the “challenge” with a brilliant performance of themes from Bizet’s Carmen in a work entitled Carmen Fantasy (Fantaisie brillante) by François Borne.

After all this razzle-dazzle, it was time for the players to reassert their artistry with a musically taut rendering of Kuhlau’s masterful Trio Sonata in G major, Op. 119, which ended the concert in fine style. The audience rewarded the trio with extended applause. The performers were presented with bouquets of flowers from their fans. Mr. Han ended up with an extra bouquet, which he gallantly presented to Mr. Farid’s page turner, who was visibly delighted by the gift. All then took their final leave to the continued applause of the large audience.


Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo in Review

Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo in Review

Legato Arts presents The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo
Ivan Ženatý, violin
Sandra Shapiro, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 24, 2017

 

Today’s world is filled with frenetic energy. Loud, fast, and unrelenting sounds and “news” stories assault us non-stop. People shout instead of speak, debate is reduced to memes and 140-word missives, and attention spans are getting ever shorter. For a short time, those persons who stepped into Weill Hall on April 24, 2017 were transported back to an earlier time, when things moved more slowly. The sounds were not there to assault the ears, but rather to delight them in the creations of masters like Brahms, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar. The excellent Ženatý/Shapiro Duo took the stage to treat all present to this wonderful journey.

The Ženatý/Shapiro Duo is violinist Ivan Ženatý and pianist Sandra Shapiro. Mr. Ženatý (www.ivanzenaty.com) maintains a busy schedule as a performer, collaborator, recording artist, adjudicator, and teacher. He plays a 1740 Giuseppe Guarneri del Jesu violin, courtesy of the Harmony Foundation of New York. Ms. Shapiro (www.sandra-shapiro.com) also is much in demand as a performer and teacher, and is highly sought-after as a chamber musician.

Mr. Ženatý exudes an old-world charm, in both his dress (tuxedo with tails) and his bearing. He stood silently as the rush of late-comers rushed about the hall looking for open seats, while nodding at this pack of humanity with a smile, as if to say “Please, take your time, I will wait for you.” He also held the stage door open for the page turner, who was late in exiting the stage, before exiting himself. It all gave this reviewer a feeling of gemütlichkeit, which further accentuated the feelings of a different era.

Brahms’s lyrical Violin Sonata No.2 in A major, Op. 100 was the opening piece. This work is Brahms in his happiest mood, with the piano and violin as equal partners. Lest anyone think that lyrical means “simple,” this work is demanding for the players, both as individuals, and as a duo. What was apparent from the very beginning was that Mr. Ženatý and Ms. Shapiro were more than up to the challenge. Their rapport was outstanding, the balance was finely realized, and the singing phrases of the work were brought out with practiced assurance.

Edward Elgar’s 1918 Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82 followed the Brahms. This work is highly emotionally charged, filled with melancholy and angst, which was no doubt reflective of the feelings of the nation at the time, weary from the carnage of World War One. There is always the danger of the melancholy becoming overblown in this work, and the effect descending into an almost cartoonish, mawkish mess of emotional wreckage. Much credit is due to Mr. Ženatý and Ms. Shapiro for not allowing this to happen even for a moment. It was an outstanding performance of a work that this listener has never found to his liking. It was so convincing that I must re-think my opinion about the work. The audience appeared to be moved as well, as the first half came to a successful close.

After intermission, the second half opened with Antonin Dvořák’s lovely Ballade in D minor, Op. 15. This six-minute work was written for John Coates, the publisher of the London Magazine of Music. The Duo captured both the brooding opening and the sudden explosive middle section in what was a superior performance.

Ending the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op. 75. It has been said that Marcel Proust confessed that this sonata provided the model for the fictional sonata by Vinteuil that plays such an important part in Swann’s Way. The four movements are grouped in twos, so there is only one pause (after the second movement Adagio), a plan Saint-Saëns’ used again in the Organ Symphony. It is a brilliant work that shows both the violinist and pianist to great advantage. The Adagio was especially beautiful, but the moto perpetuo finale highlighted Mr. Ženatý’s virtuosity. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

Mr. Ženatý is fully invested in the music, as he searches for and brings forth the emotions and subtleties of the works he plays. There are no histrionics, no flash, and simply no showiness. His tone is rich and warm, and his intonation is impeccable. He has technique to burn, so it would be an easy thing for him to dash off any number of virtuoso showstoppers. That he chooses to plumb the depths of deeper works reflects the confident, mature artist that he is, with faith in the best listening from his audiences. Mr. Ženatý has an ideal collaborator in Ms. Shapiro, who is a sensitive musician with superb technical command.

The duo played a beautiful Fauré encore as a final offering before we were returned to the present. It was a lovely two-hour trip, and one that I hope to take again with this fine duo.

 

 


Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists in Review

Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists in Review

Chamber Music|OC featuring Trio Céleste and Special Guest Artists
Trio Céleste: Iryna Krechkovsky, violin; Ross Gasworth, cello; Kevin Kwan Loucks, piano
Chamber Music |OC Young Artist- Reina Cho, cello, Leo Matsuoka, violin, Brandon Sin, cello
Special Guests: Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Marta Krechkovsky, violin; April Kim, violin; Yuri Cho, violin; Hanna Lee, viola; David Samuel, viola; Colin Carr, cello
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 15, 2017

Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall was the venue for a concert presented by Chamber Music|OC on April 15, 2017. On the program were three works – two established masterpieces of chamber music, Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky,” and Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20, plus the World Premiere of Concerto Grosso for Piano Trio and String Octet by Paul Dooley (b. 1983).

Chamber Music| OC is based in Orange County California. Launched in 2012 by Kevin Kwan Loucks and Iryna Krechkovsky, Chamber Music | OC is dedicated to advancing the art of chamber music through performance, education, and community outreach. Mr. Loucks and Ms. Krechkovsky , along with cellist Ross Gasworth, form Trio Céleste, the featured ensemble. Also included were members of the Chamber Music|OC Young Artists program, and many special guests, including founding members of the famed Emerson Quartet Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer.

Trio Céleste (www.trioceleste.com) took its name after the first meeting of the players in New York City, upon seeing the largest harvest moon in two decades – “a rare celestial occurrence.” Now with a full calendar of recitals nationally and internationally, a recently released recording (Navona Records – Trio Céleste ), and an impressive list of distinguished collaborators, it is obvious that this is a group on the rise. Each of the members has a long list of honors and accolades as soloists. What remained to be seen is how well they meshed as an ensemble. Often when talented individuals come together, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Let’s get a long-standing gripe of this reviewer out of the way- the lack of program notes. While it was good that notes were provided for the World Premiere work, it was a lost opportunity to educate many in the audience by not including program notes for the Dvořák and Mendelssohn. While they are well-known works, it would not be unreasonable to assume that at least one hundred members in the audience were hearing these works for the very first time, and would have been interested in knowing the meaning behind “Dumky” and that Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote his Octet. On the other hand, it was above and beyond to include pictures and biographies of EVERY participant.

Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, the “Dumky,” was the first work on the program. Written in 1891, this is one the great works in the genre, and one that has a rich performance history by some of the most distinguished ensembles. One might think that these young players were aiming too high in selecting this work, that they need to let it mature over many more years before offering it in concert, but in this case one would be completely mistaken. What was immediately apparent was the rapport the players have, which usually takes many years to develop to such a high level. The players as individuals were sparkling, and ensemble balance and intonation were flawless in a way that I have often found lacking with other (and often far more experienced) ensembles. The essence of this wonderful work was projected with skill and understanding that can hold its own with any more established ensembles. I might have started as a doubter, but ended as a believer. It was a first-rate performance that had me eagerly awaiting the following works.

Following the Dvořák was the World Premiere of a work commissioned by Trio Céleste and Chamber Music |OC for this concert, the Concerto Grosso for Piano Trio and String Octet (2017) by Paul Dooley. Mr. Dooley has a long-standing relationship with Mr. Loucks (they attended the same High School), and he expressed being honored to write this piece for Mr. Loucks and his colleagues. Mr. Dooley writes that his work is inspired by the concerto grossi of Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti, with the trio taking the part of the concertino, and the octet the part of the ripieno. It is a three-movement (the movements simply marked as I. II. and III) work that showed Mr. Dooley’s mastery of the form, but with contemporary harmony.

Forming the String Octet were violinists Marta Krechkovsky, April Kim, Yuri Cho, violists Hanna Lee and David Samuel, and future stars from the Chamber Music OC| Young Artists, violinist Leo Matsuka (age 16), and cellists Reina Cho (age 15) and Brandon Shin (age 12).

As the players were taking the stage and readying themselves, Mr. Loucks took out his phone to take a picture of the audience before starting the Concerto Grosso. “You all look so good,” he quipped to the delight of the audience.

This work was played with brio by the combined forces, in what was an impressive display from all eleven performers. One can’t imagine that there was a lot of rehearsal time, which made the achievement all the more striking.

This listener thoroughly enjoyed the Concerto Grosso, but his favorite was the eerie second movement, which sounded like a musical depiction of a nightmare, or at least some rather unsettled dreams. After the high energy final movement, the audience roared in approval. The composer was in attendance and came to the stage to embrace Mr. Loucks and accept the audience’s enthusiastic ovation. It was a nice end to the first half.

After intermission, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major. Op. 20 was to be the last work of the evening. Joining Trio Céleste for the Octet were violinist Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Yuri Cho, violists Hanna Lee and David Samuel, and cellist Colin Carr – a group of “heavy hitters” to be sure! The eight players meshed beautifully. The Octet is demanding enough even apart from ensemble issues, but these musicians were in their element. What a treat it was to hear this performance, a rare opportunity for the reviewer to sit back and enjoy, when there is really nothing to quibble about. From the exquisite control of the Allegro moderato ma con fuoco to the thrilling Presto, it was without a doubt one of the best performances of the Octet this listener has heard.

The audience gave the players a standing ovation, which was richly deserved. Trio Céleste is a group to watch, and I hope to hear them again in the future.


2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival in Review

2017 New York International Music Festival
Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, Wales, United Kingdom
Sean O’Neill, director
Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs, Blacksburg, Virginia
Jonathan Caldwell, Dwight Bigler, conductors
Deborah Lee Gibbs, master of ceremonies
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 11, 2017

 

Carnegie Hall was the venue for a series of concerts of the 2017 New York International Musical Festival. The evening showcase concert featured the Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra from Wales, and the Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs. Also featured was world renowned euphonium player David Childs, who was the soloist in two World Premiere works that he commissioned. Master of Ceremonies Deborah Lee Gibbs introduced each group.

Program notes were only provided for the two World Premiere works. While it was nice that the Master of Ceremonies spoke briefly of each work, it was more of a “reading of the menu,” rather than offering much explanation or history of the works. I’m sure this was done to economize on printing costs (there were several concerts using the same program booklet, with only minor changes), but this, coupled with the curious placement of each group’s selection as if it were parenthetical, was vexing. The majority of the works played were not so well-known that they would not need some explanation or context.

The Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, led by Sean O’Neill, took the stage for the first half. They offered six works (two World Premieres), five by Welsh composers, with the sixth by Arturo Márquez. The Gwent is open by audition to players up to college age. The rough equivalent in the United States would probably be a High School Honor Band. As one might expect, there is often some unevenness in the quality of the players, and this was no exception. That’s not meant to be a criticism, for the overall level of play was generally excellent, but it is just a reality of having a group with constantly changing personnel. The most problematic area was intonation, some of which one could attribute to nerves, but some to inexperience (e.g. the low D – concert C – at the end of Abide With Me is a notoriously sharp note on the B-flat Trumpet, which requires either a third valve slide adjustment or one brought about from embouchure to bring it into tune).

Now that I’ve gotten these issues mentioned it is time to move on to the positive, of which there was much to praise. The opening work, Prismatic Light by Alan Fernie, was boldly played, with precision and a festive feeling. Gareth Wood’s Salome – Rhapsody for Band has a grotesque, heathenish quality that the Gwent played up to the hilt – an impressive performance of a demanding work. Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a popular and much-loved work, had the right amount of restraint that lesser groups often fail to maintain, and it showed the Gwent to the maximum advantage.

Now it is time to say a few words about the featured soloist. The story of the violin virtuoso Paganini is well known. Some said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity. It seems that Paganini was re-born in Wales, but instead of the violin, this new incarnation has taken to the euphonium. Disguised as the mild-mannered David Childs, the wizardry was on full display on the stage of Carnegie Hall. This is only half in jest – Mr. Childs possesses a mind-boggling technique that would be the envy of not only euphonium players, but many a trumpet player as well, especially in the clarity of his high-speed passagework and articulation. Usually with the larger brass, the faster the playing, the muddier the sound, but not so with Mr. Childs. Coupled with this, his extreme upper range tone is bright and clear, without a hint of strain.

Seren Wen (White Star) Euphonium Concerto was the first of the commissioned World Premiere works. The program notes quote composer Bernard Kane as saying: “I’ve used the ‘White Star’ as the title of the work…It was the Line of the Titanic, who’s [sic] distress signal was first heard in the Welsh Village of Pontllanfriath, some 3000 miles away from where Titanic hit that fatal iceberg … It is not a tone poem about the sinking, rather the story being the work’s impetus and the link with Wales.” I found this all puzzling, the relevance tenuous at best, not to mention the highly debatable claim regarding the distress signal (this reviewer is a long-time Titanic enthusiast). In any case, the work is a showcase for Mr. Childs’ virtuosity, with writing emphasizing his strengths (as listed above). It was a dazzling display.

The second World Premiere was the beautiful Welsh Prayer by Paul Mealor. It’s not showy, but requires great control to maintain its lyrical quality. Of course, Mr. Childs has this ability in spades, and I would not be surprised if this work figures into his regular repertoire.

After Abide With Me, as arranged by Karl Jenkins, the audience, which included many from Wales (many carrying the national flag), gave the performers a standing ovation. Da Iawn!

After Intermission the Virginia Wind Ensemble Tech and Combined Choirs took the stage. Before all else, it is notable to mention the great level of preparation and organization from Virginia Tech. Each stage change (and there were several) was accomplished in record time without any fuss at all, something I wish many other concerts would take as an example. What was disappointing was the complete lack of program notes and texts for their selections.

The Wind Ensemble with Combined Choirs led off. Conductor Jonathan Caldwell led a lively performance of Percy Grainger’s charming I’m Seventeen Come Sunday. Dwight Bigler then took the podium to conduct his work I Shall Not Live In Vain, which was moving.

The Chamber Singers, conducted by Mr. Bigler, offered three works. The first, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfullly had good balance, clear diction, and precise intonation. The second, Rivers of Light by Ēriks Ešenvalds (with one of the chorus playing a mouth harp), was hauntingly beautiful. The last, the third and final movement, Strike, of Gene Koshinski’s Concerto for Marimba and Choir with Percussion, is one of the more unusual works this listener has heard. Featuring Assistant Professor of Percussion Annie Stevens, this highly entertaining selection had a tribal, primitive feel. It would have been helpful to know the “back story” for his work to gain more insight.

Jonathan Caldwell then led the Wind Ensemble in Mason Bates’ Mothership, with soloists Jason Crafton (Assistant Professor of Trumpet), and Alan Weinstein (Associate Professor of Cello) playing an electric cello. It’s a scherzo-like work, with 21st-century idioms, such as techno rhythms. It’s a fun work, with electronic atmospheric touches, “visiting soloists to the docked Mothership,” and action-packed writing for all. The Wind Ensemble treated the listener to a ten-minute otherworldly romp.

To close the concert, Mr. Bigler returned to the podium to conduct the Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs in his work Three Appalachian Songs. The whimsical Cluck Old Hen, the mournful Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger, with soprano soloist Ariana Wyatt (Assistant Professor of Voice), and the exultant Sourwood Mountain brought the night to a rousing close. The audience, which included ensembles that had performed in the earlier afternoon concert, gave the combined forces a loud and long ovation.


Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in Review

Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band
Andreas Delfs, conductor; Terell Stafford, director
William Wolfram, piano
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 8, 2017

 

One of the greatest pleasures of being a music reviewer is when one is treated to a night of music by passionate young players giving their utmost in performances that rival those of more seasoned professional groups. In these cases, one can almost “turn off the meter” and sit back and enjoy. On April 8, 2017 at Alice Tully Hall, the Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band stepped up and gave a concert that was not only technically polished, but full of vitality. Anyone who bemoans the alleged decline of concert music should take note – this is how you do it!

Conductor Andreas Delfs took the stage to lead the Symphony Orchestra in Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 26 (1947) by Boris Blacher (1903-1975). Blacher is among a long list of luminaries (Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawki, and Rochberg) who used Paganini’s 24th Caprice for sets of variations, and his version has sixteen diverse variations, of which many are jazz infused (this listener’s favorite was a stylish pizzicato variation). Other than one moment when one of the string players was a fraction of a second behind in attack, it was an excellent reading in what was a great start to the night.

Maestro Delfs is one of the most involved conductors I have ever seen. He was fully invested in each and every note, as if he was living and breathing the music. His players returned that passion with interest.

After the Blacher, the stage was readied for George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Written in 1931 for the movie Delicious, the Second Rhapsody in its finished form has been largely neglected until recent times. This fifteen-minute work lacks the appeal of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, which probably accounts for its lesser popularity. That is not to say that it is not filled with Gershwin’s characteristic melodies and rhythmic liveliness, but that its darker nature makes it more difficult to embrace. It certainly helped that one of the finest pianists in the country, William Wolfram, was the featured soloist. Mr. Wolfram is a no-nonsense musician. He took the stage, sat down at the piano, and without any ado launched into the opening notes. There were not any displays or histrionics, for Mr. Wolfram doesn’t need any gimmicks – he lets his playing speak for him. I wonder if the audience really knew how good Mr. Wolfram is, as he made it all look so easy, in what might be an “occupational hazard” of having such a huge technique. It was an outstanding performance that had this listener wanting to hear Mr. Wolfram in one of the “big” works (such as Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto), where his firepower could be unleashed. The audience gave him a nice ovation.

After intermission, the Jazz Band, led by Terell Stafford, offered Juan Tizol’s 1941 classic Perdido, which has figured in the recorded work of many of the giants of jazz (Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few), but was most associated with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. The Spanish word perdido usually is translated as “lost,” but in this case it refers to a street name in New Orleans. The players took on Gerald Wilson’s supercharged arrangement, which is no walk in the park. What a high-octane performance it was, from the soloist to the ending double High C in the trumpets (I was waiting for it!), which shook the walls of the hall. This highly-opinionated listener found himself highly impressed and just a touch nostalgic for those long ago days when he was a young trumpeter.

Conductor Andreas Delfs spoke to the audience prior to the New York Premiere of UNITED, Symphony for Orchestra and Big Band, by Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961). Descirbed by Maestro Delfs as a concerto grosso, UNITED is a four-movement work that seeks to unite the two worlds of classical and jazz, while giving each “faction” an opportunity to shine not only in its own “style,” but in the style of the other! It’s a powerhouse work, a showstopper par excellence. The huge combined forces, to borrow an expression from Mr. Schnyder’s notes, “rocked the house” in a scintillating performance. The composer was in attendance and was greeted with an ovation as Maestro Delfs held the score in the air.

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, in a special arrangement by Bill Cunliffe for Orchestra and Big Band, served as a built-in encore, a “victory lap” for everyone to enjoy. The audience was obviously enchanted (three women directly in front of me were dancing in their seats), and when it was over there was a long, loud, and well-deserved standing ovation. I’m sure that everyone in attendance left happy. Congratulations, Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band, for a most enjoyable concert, which this listener will remember for a long time.


Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute in Review

Clarion presents The Magic Flute
The Clarion Orchestra, The Clarion Choir
Steven Fox, conductor and artistic director
Alain Gauthier, stage director
El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY
March 11, 2017

 

On a frigid Saturday night, Clarion presented Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or to be more proper, Die Zauberflöte, as it was to be sung in German here. Those intrepid souls who braved the cold were treated to a journey back in time, in what was a most delightful evening of music. Proceeds from the concert were to benefit the youth programs of Christodora, and the performance was given in memory of Beatrice Goelet Manice.

Everything in the making of this production was with the idea of creating a nearly authentic period feel. The theatre at El Museo del Barrio has the look and feel of an intimate 18th/19th century venue, the Clarion Orchestra uses period instruments, and the sets were inspired by those designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for the 1816 Berlin performances. In a nod to modern needs, the sets were projected in a screen, and supertitles in English were projected above the stage. This is an approach of which this reviewer highly approves, which makes the music front and center, and not some avant-garde setting that some modern directors seem to feel is necessary (Hint: They are not).


Three-Ladies-Sarah-Brailey-Nola-Richardson-Kate-Maroney-and-Tamino-Robin-Tritschler-Clarion-Die-Zauberflöte-photo-Hope-Lourie-Killcoyne.jpeg

 

The story of The Magic Flute is so well known that it is not necessary to go into any detail here. Those readers who wish to learn more can follow this link: The Magic Flute. It is of interest to note the many Masonic influences that appear throughout the opera- e.g. Three flats in the opening key, three chords that stand alone to begin, the three ladies in The Queen of the Night’s entourage, the three spirit guides, etc. The number three has special significance in Freemasonry, representing the Trinity. Mozart joined the Freemasons on December 17, 1784.

While I am usually not a fan of period instruments, the Clarion Orchestra almost made me a believer in what was a first-rate performance by a first-rate ensemble. Conductor Steven Fox led with confidence, and with skillful attention and sensitivity in blending the vocalists and the orchestra with near perfection.

Queen of the Night (Anna Dennis) and Pamina (Elena Xanthoudakis) – Clarion, Die Zauberflöte

 

With apologies to the large cast, who were all excellent, it is impossible to acknowledge each member individually, so I will limit myself to the main characters. Robin Tritschler has a lyrical tenor voice that is well suited to the idealistic Tamino. The fey Elena Xanthoudakis won hearts as the innocent Pamina. Craig Philips, who played Sarastro, projected a regal bearing worthy of a High Priest, and his strong bass voice filled the hall, even into the subterranean range (those low F’s!).

The stars of the night were John Brancy, who played Papageno, and Anna Dennis, who played The Queen of the Night. Mr. Brancy’s Papageno was not played as a buffoon, but rather as a “blowhard”- one who talks big, but never lives up to that big talk. It was an effective approach that paid off in spades, in what was a winning performance that delighted the audience. Ms. Dennis handled one of opera’s most demanding roles with what seemed ridiculous ease, which of course is a testament to her great ability. Her singing of the two famous arias, O zittre nicht and Der Hölle Rache, both ascending into the stratosphere (those high F’s!) brought shouts of “Brava!” from the audience- they knew that had heard something special!

There were a few anachronisms- a hilarious “kick line” dance led by Monostatos (Mark Bleeke), and a “talk to the hand” gesture to Papageno by one of the three young “spirit” boys, which almost stole the show. The audience roared in laughter at both. It was also nice to see so many young people in the audience, and even better to see them enjoying the show. One must also give kudos to stage director Alain Gauthier for his fine work.

When it ended, the audience responded with an extended standing ovation, with each member of the cast taking turns accepting special recognition. Congratulations to all the performers and the countless numbers of those “behind-the-scenes” people who made this Magic Flute a stunning success.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance
Christina Kobb, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 24, 2017

 

As part of their Artist Series concerts, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented Norwegian pianist Christina Kobb in a concert entitled Keys to Romance. Featuring works from Schubert, Grieg, Liszt, and Robert and Clara Schumann, it was a thought-provoking evening, both intellectually and musically.

Christina Kobb is currently working toward a PhD degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. The focus of her study is the reconstruction of 19th century piano technique from the exploration of treatises and manuals of that time. The goal is to create performances that would sound to us today as they sounded originally. Kobb has lectured about her research, most notably at Harvard in 2016. She was also the focus of an 2015 article in the New York Times that one can read by following this link- New York Times 7/21/15 article. Ms. Kobb has even re-tooled her playing technique to mirror that of her research.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time delving into Ms. Kobb’s thesis – this is a matter that can be left to the academics and performance practice enthusiasts. I could not help wondering, though, whether, if the goal is more authentic performances by using the prevailing technique, it would not also be proper to use the same instrument that was in use at that time, rather than a modern Steinway grand. Perhaps the venue would not allow it.

Ms. Kobb’s program notes were among the best this reviewer has seen. Her style is that of the storyteller, and while she presents musical analysis, it is nothing beyond the grasp of most, regardless of their level of music education. Even though the love story of Robert and Clara is well known, Ms. Kobb recounts the events of their courtship (and roadblocks, courtesy of Clara’s father) with the skill of a novelist that had this listener eagerly awaiting the musical depiction.

The one thing that is immediately apparent about Ms. Kobb is her no-nonsense approach. If one wants extravagant gestures, flashy dress, and indulgent readings, they need to look elsewhere. Ms. Kobb is all about the music. Taking the stage, she sat down at the piano and launched right into Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, which was a clever opening of the love story – present the “happy ending” first (that is, the marriage of Robert and Clara). Ms. Kobb played this much-loved work with a measured passion, of which much may be attributed to the adopted technique. It was a promising opening. Moving on, we heard the A minor Sonata, D. 537, by Schubert, a composer whom Robert Schumann greatly admired (even “discovering” and subsequently enabling the publishing of Schubert’s 9th Symphony). Ms. Kobb offered a well thought out and precise reading.

After the Schubert, Ms. Kobb offered three early works of Edvard Grieg, Drei Fantasiestücke (a Mazurka was added later, and the set published at his Opus 1). Composed in 1861 when the composer was eighteen, these works are heavily influenced by Schumann, a sort of “Grieg before he was Grieg.” I’m not sure what the connection to Robert and Clara was, but it is understandable that a Norwegian would wish to honor Norway’s greatest composer. In any case, Ms. Kobb treated the audience to a reverent performance that in this listener’s opinion exceeded the musical value of the pieces. She ended the first half with two selections from Clara’s Opus 5, the charming Romance, and the Berlioz-like Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants. Written in Clara’s early teens, these works make one wonder what Clara’s trajectory as a composer would have been if she had lived in a different time. We can be grateful for her guiding hand in Robert’s works. Ms. Kobb again came fully prepared in an accurate reading.

After intermission, Ms. Kobb offered Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11. This work is a musical love letter to Clara. Schumann takes two themes from Clara’s Op. 5 and combines them into a single melody in the first movement – which Clara could have not missed as she played this work. Some couples spoke to each other in letters, but Robert and Clara spoke to each other in music. This was the highlight of the evening for this listener, as Ms. Kobb played this love story with passion while maintaining complete control.

If one wanted to make a suggestion, it would be that Ms. Kobb might play with more spontaneity, even despite the rigors of her special technique. It seems counterintuitive that such romantic works are played with such a cerebral quality. This quibble aside, Ms. Kobb is first and foremost a scholar who does not seem to present herself as a typical touring virtuoso. It is clear to this reviewer that she should excel in lecture recitals, particularly to audiences of academics even more than to lay audiences. She believes wholeheartedly in her mission, and that belief will take her far.

The filled hall gave Ms. Kobb a standing ovation at the end.


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents The Music of Dinos Constantinides
Featured Artists: Yova Milanova, Mariana Todorova, violins; Sandra Moon, soprano; Maria Asteriadou, piano; Athanasios Zervas, Jeremy Justeson, saxophones
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 21, 2017

 

Greek-born Dinos Constantinides is the head of Composition and Music Director of the Louisiana Sinfonietta at Louisiana State University. He is presently Boyd Professor, the highest academic rank at LSU.   Mr. Constantinides has composed over 300 works, including six symphonies, two operas, and music for a wide variety of instruments and voices, and has a long list of prizes won and excellent reviews worldwide. His writing style is all-encompassing, from the simplest of forms to the ultra-complex, and from the strictly tonal to the acerbically atonal and serial. He is especially adept in his use of Greek influences, such as Greek poetry from both ancient and modern sources, and Greek modal harmony. With the help of six exceptionally talented colleagues, his audience was privy to a broad survey of his varied style, in nine works. This concert was the ninth occasion that Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) has presented the music of Mr. Constantinides.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Very often, concerts of this type (survey of a composer with a long career), try to offer as many works as possible to cover all periods, etc. The net effect is a concert that is overly long, an unfortunate thing, as those persons without the stamina to endure often miss out on works they probably would have enjoyed. In today’s world, with people’s shortened attention spans, it is imperative to consider this in programming works.

Now, let’s move on to positive things. Mr. Constantinides is a master of form, and I am sure his composition students benefit greatly from his expertise. In particular, it is his Greek-influenced works that stand above the rest, as if they are a natural extension of his being. It was those works that took from Greek themes that this listener found to be the most compelling.

The six featured artists were all superb interpreters of Mr. Constantinides’s compositions. We heard violinists Yova Milanova and Mariana Todorova, soprano Sandra Moon, pianist Maria Asteriadou, and saxophonists Athanasios Zervas and Jeremy Justeson. While it would be beyond the scope of this review to speak of each piece, I would like to offer highlights of each performer. Ms. Milanova offered a nuanced reading of Four Interludes for Violin Alone, LRC 136. Lazy Jack and His Fiddle, LRC 199, with its virtuosic demands, was tossed off by Ms. Todorova with panache. Ms. Milanova and Ms. Todorova joined together in a light-hearted reading of the charming Family Triptych for Two Violins, LRC 182I. Ms. Moon was a force in Listenings and Silences for Voice Alone, LRC111, with text from the prominent African-American poet Pinkie Gordon Lane (1923-2008). Ms. Asteriadou played the 2016 arrangement of Dreams, Earth, and Heaven, LRC101, with great understanding, bringing out the various Greek influences, ancient and modern, with devotion. The clever interplay of Music for Two Saxophones, LRC 173d was realized with consummate skill by Mr. Zervas (soprano sax) and Mr. Justeson (tenor sax), in what was a fun end to the concert.

 

At the end, Mr. Constantinides joined his colleagues on the stage to offer them his congratulations. He spoke in a humble fashion to the audience, thanking all, including LSU officials, for their support. It was quite touching to witness. It was then announced by one of the LSU officials in attendance that the composer and his wife had endowed a Dinos Constantinides New Music Ensemble, a continuing legacy of his fifty-three years (and counting- he’s still going strong at age 87!) at LSU. Congratulations, Mr. Constantinides, and may you have another fifty-three years of music making!

 


Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Mercer University at Carnegie Hall
Mercer Singers
Stanley L. Roberts, conductor; Carol S. Goff, accompanist
McDuffie Center String Ensemble
Amy Schwartz Moretti, director and violin
Olivia McMillan, soprano
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 19, 2017

 

The nightcap of the President’s Day weekend concert doubleheader presented by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) featured the talents of musicians from Mercer University, located in Macon, Georgia. William Underwood, President of Mercer University, came to the stage to “throw out the first pitch” by welcoming the audience, talking briefly about Mercer, and expressing his pride in the Mercer music department. He thanked all for coming, asked all to enjoy the concerts, and then left the stage.

The Mercer Singers, led by Stanley L. Roberts took the stage to open the concert. They offered six works in a wide range of styles, highlighting their versatility. Things got off to a good start with the Kenyan folk song Wana Baraka. Complete with the singers swaying to the music, it was moving in its simplicity. Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque followed. This work is deceptively simple, but it requires extreme precision in ensemble balance and intonation, or else the overall effect is ruined. There was no danger of that here, as the balance was superb, with the close intervals precisely rendered. It was an excellent performance. Special mention goes to the soprano soloist, whose voice soared in a way I have not encountered in this work. After this, the Mercer Singers delivered an “adrenaline shot” in the form of Brent Pierce’s Hosanna in excelsis, a two-minute jazz influenced, rhythmically power-packed piece. Faire is the Heaven, by William Henry Harrison, followed with refinement, and Dan Forrest’s setting of Lead, Kindly Light, was the highlight of their selections to this listener. Ending with Moses Hogan’s show-stopping The Battle of Jericho, the Mercer Singers brought the audience to their feet with a rollicking performance.

After intermission, the McDuffie Center String Ensemble took the stage. Led by Amy Schwartz Moretti, who also plays violin in the ensemble, the Mc Duffie Center String Ensemble is composed of twenty-four full scholarship students of the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, and five faculty mentors. This gives the young players the opportunity to play with and learn from experienced veterans who play with some top-notch ensembles. They offered two selections, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20, and the fourth movement finale from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet.

The conductor-less ensemble, with the violins and violas playing standing, proved to be a exceptional group. The benefits of playing with accomplished mentors lent wings to the younger players in what were inspired performances. The Elgar was played with polish throughout, but I must give preference to the second movement Larghetto, which was simply sublime. The Presto of the Octet followed – the finale of a masterpiece from one of the greatest prodigies in the history of music, Mendelssohn having written this work at age sixteen! It was played with considerable brio. It was not perfect, to be sure, but the bold approach was something this listener always appreciates, and was worthy of the work. I would in fact like to hear this ensemble play the entire Octet. The audience gave the players a richly rewarded standing ovation.

After a short break, the Mercer Singers joined the String Ensemble (both with the help of some “Friends and Alums”) for the finale work of the night, John Rutter’s Requiem. This seven-movement work was inspired in a large part by Rutter’s editing of a new edition Fauré’s Requiem in 1983. It can be said that Rutter’s study of Fauré led to the creation of an equally serene and beautiful work. Rutter used texts from the Latin Requiem Mass, the 1611 Bible, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

There was much to commend in this performance, but I will mention above all the heavenly Pie Jesu, highlighted by the sheer radiance of the voice of soprano soloist Olivia McMillan. The audience, who broke convention with applause after each movement, gave a prolonged standing ovation at the end. Congratulations to all for a fine evening of music.