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.


Transcendental Taverner: Clarion at the Met in Review

Transcendental Taverner: Clarion at the Met in Review

Transcendental Taverner: Clarion at the Met
The Clarion Choir, Steven Fox, Artistic Director
Medieval Sculpture Hall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY
April 29, 2016

As part of the MetLiveArts series of performances, a most amazing evening of music took place last Friday. Entitled “Transcendental Taverner,” it truly lived up to its name in what was one of the most mesmerizing a cappella concerts this reviewer has ever heard.

Founded ten years ago by the young but precociously well-credentialed conductor Steven Fox, the Clarion Choir began as a complement to the Clarion Orchestra, a period instrument ensemble also directed by Maestro Fox. The Clarion Choir, open to a wide range of musical eras beyond the Renaissance and Baroque periods, has performed works by Rachmaninoff and Mozart, as well as works from earlier periods; it seemed, however, ideally suited to the beautiful translucent counterpoint of English composer John Taverner (c. 1490-1545). Also ideal was the setting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Medieval Sculpture Hall, with stone and marble architecture that allowed the reverberating voices to soar magnificently.

 

Steven Fox , Photo credit: Kim Fox

Steven Fox , Photo credit: Kim Fox

The entire program (except for a finale of John Sheppard’s Communio: In Pace) was devoted to Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, a mass with central setting of the Latin Easter text, Dum Transisset describing the discovery of the empty sepulchre of Jesus Christ. It is a sublime work, with vocal writing that captures the spiritual transcendence of the subject matter through its movingly melismatic lines. The purity and balance of Clarion’s perfectly selected voices was simply breathtaking. If anyone could be unmoved by such a masterpiece, whatever one’s religious persuasion might be, he should have his pulse checked.

The driving force, of course, was Maestro Fox, who directed with visible passion and energy. One would be hard pressed to find a conductor with more commitment to his repertoire or connection to each note from his choir. The results spoke for themselves.

At times Maestro Fox’s extreme physicality contrasted with the serenity of the melodic lines – almost distractingly – but then again, one is always free to close one’s eyes and drift into the stratosphere with the vocal lines. The fact is that, without the constant and pulsating rhythmic underpinning that the conductor projected, the urge for each line to soar at its own self-indulgent rate could be overpowering to a group already swimming in reverberations, a potential threat to the togetherness of the ensemble. Maestro Fox held the counterpoint together masterfully, with the long-breathed lines still projecting gloriously. His awareness of the special acoustics was clear, and his pacing between movements was accordingly sensitive and generous.

The choir had clearly been prepared well in matters of intonation and balance. Several soloists also were simply phenomenal, but without individual attribution on the program one sadly cannot identify their respective highlights in order to credit them. We know that amid eighteen singers (who shifted places at times), the soloists were Sarah Brailey, Molly Netter, and Sherezade Pantheki, sopranos; Marc Day, Andrew Fuchs, and Timothy Hodges, Tenors; and bass, Craig Philips. All were excellent, with the sopranos standing out as particularly stellar.

One minor reservation arises, which is that, while the diction seemed fine among the choir as a whole, given the extremely reverberant acoustics (and the Latin text), the lay audience member may have not been able to follow exactly where he was in the mass without clearer listings in the program booklet (the Offertorium having been switched to be after the Benedictus, according to the notes but not in the program proper). It seems nitpicky, because one could simply enjoy, as did the ticketless museumgoers who drifted along the periphery of the hall to the ambient magic; the ticket price for the actual seated audience though, comes with a presumption of more than average interest in understanding or experiencing each moment to the fullest, rather than simply being steeped in the sounds, glorious though they were.

Minor program quibbles aside, the Clarion Choir’s performance was music-making by an ensemble of the highest echelon. Of special note will be their imminent release on the Naxos label of the recently discovered Passion Week by Maximilian Steinberg, a fascinating work, which they will surely perform to the hilt.