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By Erica Miner

Veteran opera director Andrew Sinclair, director of this season’s opening San Diego Opera production, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, knows what makes opera tick. In this interview, he shares his wisdom about the true guts of opera: catharsis, raw emotion, and tears.

EM: What a delight to meet you. I’ve heard such great things about you from people who have worked with you at SDO. I know you’re a favorite here. I interviewed Zandra Rhodes last season. She spoke so highly of you. What fun to do Aida with her in that splendid production.

AS: She’s absolutely wonderful. And I love this company.

EM: They love you. Of all the many productions you’ve done here, do you have any favorites?

AS: That’s hard, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience with this company. I think it says a lot about the company and the singers it employs. I particularly enjoyed doing Tosca, partly because it’s one of my absolutely favorite operas. The construction of the piece is really so perfect. The length of the acts, the way the drama is driven, and the music of course is fabulous. I’ve had a lot of association with Tosca in other parts of the world. It also was interesting for me to do Maria Stuarda, a piece I’m very fond of. The Pearl Fishers was a big challenge. It’s very beautiful music but it’s an extremely bad libretto. I had to really think of something to make that work. It wasn’t just me, it was Zandra and John Malashock as well, that made it into a dramatic piece. Of course we’ve done it thirteen times in various parts of the country. But as I said I’ve never had a bad experience here.

EM: Which opera has been the most difficult? Pearl Fishers had its challenges, but what about Lohengrin?

AS: Lohengrin was a production I already knew because it came from Covent Garden, and actually - this is going to really date me - I was the original stage manager when the production was new. Then I became assistant director and came back to the opera house freelance to assist on a revival. I’ve directed my own productions of Lohengrin elsewhere in the world. It’s hard because there are a lot of people involved. People said, well, they just come on stage and they stand. But they all have to react. And it’s actually that background which brings the whole picture to life, so in terms of numbers, that’s hard. Aida’s hard. I’ve done two different Aidas here, and again it’s the numbers of people. When I was asked to do it last year I said I’d done two before and didn’t want to do any more because it’s a lot of work with very little reward for a director.

EM: So, moving so many people about the stage…?

AS: Moving people about the stage is not in any way rewarding, I can tell you (laughs). It has its own sort of private hell. But Ian asked me to do it and because it was Ian and this company’s been very good to me, I agreed. And I’m really glad I did, actually, because I found something new about Aida. It’s basically a very intimate piece. And it’s a victim of that one big scene. Everyone says, “Oh, well, you can have horses, you can have camels…” Horses, elephants, camels, it’s about people. And my problem had always been with Aida herself.

EM: The character?

AS: Yes. Because we know what she is from what she tells you. She’s an Ethiopian princess who’s been captured, and the first time we see her is as a slave. Somehow for me that image never goes away. And the music (sings from the Prelude) is very beautiful but it’s very sad, very wistful. And I thought, I have to find a way to make Aida strong. We had a wonderful Aida in Latonia Moore, marvelous. So I decided I was going to put her in the Prelude. So that you saw this proud woman.

EM: Yes, I loved that.

AS: Then we discover she’s having an affair with a member of the enemy army. And you have a conflict. Then it becomes interesting. We had a great Amneris in Jill Grove. We’d done the boudoir scene one day, and I said, “How much do you think they confide in each other?” She said, “I don’t really think so. She’s a slave, a princess, she doesn’t want anything to be known about her.” I said, “Why don’t we look at it this way. Imagine you’re both princesses, which in its way brings a certain loneliness because of your rank. Your countries are at war with each other. So really the person you’ve become closest to, as Amneris, could be your own personal slave. Why don’t we just have a conversation as Aida and Amneris talking one day.” And so they started. Jill said, “Aida, do you have a boyfriend?” “Well, I did back in Ethiopia, but I don’t know if he’s around anymore. What about you, Amneris?” “Well, there’s somebody I like a lot and I think he likes me…” So this went on, and we established a relationship between Amneris and Aida, which makes apparent betrayal by Aida greater for Amneris. We did the scene again and it was totally different, it was amazing.

EM: That’s brilliant. There’s nothing like a little “improv” to get the juices flowing.

AS: Latonia’s done Aida a lot. But every time she comes to rehearsal she rehearses as if it’s her first, and gives the same energy. So I came away thinking, yes, I wouldn’t mind doing Aida again now because having gone down that road I don’t think I’ve quite finished with it.

EM: So there’s always a different approach.

AS: Yes, and that’s where we’re very lucky. Because often we get to do pieces more than once. I’ve done Lohengrin a lot, Lucia, Butterfly, Bohème. Now this will be my tenth Pagliacci. And it’s very different from the first time I did it. I think the way I’m doing it here is different from the way they’re used to singing it. People think of it as a sweet little troupe doing a sweet little show which goes wrong. We’re playing it about people who are at a stage in their lives where life is pretty grim. My own feeling about Canio is that possibly he was very talented and started to have a career and either the drink got to him first or it was the nerves that made him drink, but for whatever reason…

EM: Before he knew his wife was unfaithful?

AS: Absolutely. And I don’t necessarily think Nedda is his wife. He calls her “sposa” - if you look at the wonderful black and white Fellini film, La Strada, it tells the story of Canio and Nedda in a very different way. So Canio is now doing these traveling shows and the only money they earn is from when they perform. I think Canio is a very good man, he gave this hunchback Tonio a job when nobody else would. He says to Nedda, “I found you a starving orphan on the street and took you in and gave you a name. And my love.” Then there’s Beppe who I think possibly ran away from home to join the Circus. So if we try and think back about these characters and what their history might have been, it does tell us quite a lot of what’s going on. Canio is under tremendous pressure, I think. Which the others don’t realize necessarily. And clearly they’ve been here before in this village - the chorus sings, ‘Ritornanno’ - and they’re favorites. Also as in La Strada, gradually the female character starts to become the principal character everybody loves and everybody laughs at more than the star of the show. She’s very loved, men come up at the end of the performance, and women, and congratulate her. So perhaps Canio subconsciously is getting resentful about that, and becomes incredibly jealous.

EM: They’re both the stars of the show. Is it because she’s getting more attention?

AS: I don’t think he wants it anymore, he’s got too much on his mind. He has his drinking buddies in the village but he doesn’t want to be social with people, and I think the villagers clearly notice a big change in Canio this time from the last time. So gradually there’s getting to be a bigger divide. Also Tonio, I think he’s grateful to have the job initially, but sometimes just being laughed at and ridiculed all the time - it takes its toll. He sees the way Canio treats Nedda and he thinks, “I wouldn’t do that.” And when he finds himself alone with her it gives him the courage to declare his feelings for her.

EM: Which is a big leap for him. He’s outraged when he finds out what’s going on.

AS: Yes, enormous outrage. In this production, once the show starts, we do it so you see backstage as well, you see all the props being handled and things like that. When Canio comes back, clearly he’s had a lot to drink before the show, he goes on stage. Tonio loves it. This is going to be a disaster. He’s one of those characters who doesn’t think things through. The idea of revenge is great, but for how long. Then when Canio starts becoming violent with Nedda, it’s too good. So Tonio’s actually the one who puts a knife in Canio’s hand, and of course Canio kills Nedda, kills Silvio, and in this production - I want to tell you exactly what happens - it’s Tonio who has the last line, “La Commedia è finita.” I believe that’s the way it was originally written. Over the years it’s changed to Canio.

EM: It’s great when you can do something different that the audience doesn’t expect. People come in with certain fixed ideas. Nice to push the envelope now and then.

AS: I think so, because we’re not being unfaithful to Leoncavallo and the libretto at all. It’s just that we’re doing it slightly differently. It’s another way of seeing the characters. It’s not about how it looks. These days, for a lot of contemporary directors, particularly in Europe, it’s a very visual concept. Opera is about people.

EM: Amen to that. So you approach from backstory, but between Pagliacci, which is more intimate, as opposed to Aida, do you approach the staging differently?

AS: I approach it the same way. It’s still about people, first of all, and their relationships. It’s just that Aida has a lot more people in it, and so have the scenes. But you have to remember that Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci may be one-act operas, but they’re big pieces. They’re like a three-act opera condensed. They’re hard. 

EM: So that’s a particular challenge. What about doing Pagliacci on its own?

AS: It’s the first time I’ve done it on its own. Often it kills a piece to interrupt the action. Doing Pagliacci all in one without a break, interestingly, I think it stands very well. Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were never intended to be paired. It just happens they were. And they were both by two young, talented composers. Cavalleria has fantastic music. But there’s no doubt Leoncavallo is the more mature composer and dramatist. Pagliacci is the stronger piece.

EM: The opera also feels more mature.

AS: Exactly. In Cavalleria, for instance, there’s this big duet between Santuzza and Turiddu. You get to where it’s going dramatically, and then it’s repeated. It’s like Mascagni didn’t know when to leave that bit alone and move forward with the drama.

EM: It took Verdi a while to figure that out, too.

AS: Absolutely. But Leoncavallo is remarkably mature in his sense of drama. We stage the Intermezzo in this production as well, and in fact when I do “Cav and Pag” we stage both Intermezzos. I think important things can be said and they don’t detract from the music. I know Maestro (Yves Abel) is absolutely happy with it.

EM: At the Met we always did the two together. I’m looking forward to seeing Pagliacci on its own.

AS: It’s a very short night, but it’s okay because of the content.

EM: Dramatically it’s so cathartic, so intense, you soak up every element of the drama that way.

AS: I agree. Now that I’m doing it on its own I think it strengthens the piece.

EM: Speaking of actors and backstory, you started out as an actor.

AS: Yes. I trained in Australia and started doing some small things. But I was getting too nervous. So this is much better - and much easier, of course (laughs).

EM: Do you feel a special empathy for your actors, since they not only have to act but sing, too?

AS: Absolutely. I think what singers do, and what we ask them to do these days, is extraordinary. Occasionally you come across singers who genuinely can’t act. They do their best, and I feel for them as well, really. But when it feels real to them, it’s cathartic.

EM: Also for the director, conductor, musicians. It’s not real but you can’t help being drawn in. You can’t imagine the things I would feel while I was playing. I’d be sitting there in tears.

AS: I love it when a production moves me that way. When we staged the Intermezzo the other day, Adina Nitescu and Joel Sorenson played it in such a way… (hesitates) that I cried. So did other people in the room. They just added a slightly different dimension to it.

EM: It’s magical when that happens. It means you’re doing something right.

AS: Yes. You think you don’t cry in your own production unless it’s so bad (laughs). But no, they really did touch some things.

EM: About genres, any you especially enjoy doing?

AS: To be very honest I don’t particularly care for the French repertoire. There are exceptions. Not Pearl Fishers, but it was very good that I did it. The exceptions are Dialogues of the Carmelites, Manon, which really can be wonderful, though it’s very difficult. Werther has wonderful moments. And Pelleas and Melisande. I’m afraid that’s it. I didn’t ever want to do Faust, though I’ve seen very good productions, or Romeo et Juliette, or Lakmé, or Carmen. For me the Italian rep is where I’m probably happiest. There’s German rep I want to do. Arabella is my biggest wish piece. When I first saw it at Covent Garden I remember being absolutely enthralled.

EM: Stunning piece. It’s one of my favorite Strauss operas as well.

AS: It has a kind of Rosenkavalier trio, a duet in the first act, and that fantastic final scene. I absolutely adore it. But nobody’s asked me to do it. I fear it will have to remain on the wish list.

EM: I’m going to try and channel the gods into making Arabella happen for you. Meanwhile, you’ve given me so much wonderful stuff today. It was delightful as I knew it would be. And I’m looking forward to seeing some of those changes you’ve told me about.

AS: I hope we don’t frighten the audiences away.

EM: From what you’ve told me I think they’ll react in a positive way.

AS: Thank you so much. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

EM: You’re very welcome. I’m certain I will.

Photos used with permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

He has great analytical skills, approaches his roles with remarkable intelligence, and even accompanies himself at the piano. Baritone Stephen Powell, who sings his first Tonio in San Diego Opera’s opening production of Pagliacci this season, embodies the phrase, “multi-talented.” True to form, the affable performer enters the room singing.

EM: Are you going to sing for me, too?

SP: I hadn’t thought of that (laughs).

EM: Where are you from originally? 

SP: I’m from Pennsylvania, born and raised in West Chester.

EM: You started out as a pianist?

SP: I was a piano major at Northwestern. But I quickly found out I wasn’t cut out for eight hours a day of practicing piano by myself. And everybody’s really good when you get to that level. But I loved music, so I started to do a lot of accompanying, which I still love, and play for a lot of violinists and singers. That’s how I began to learn opera repertoire.

EM: Were you singing yet at that point?

SP: I’d always sung for fun. In high school I was in musicals, a rock band - which was a lot of fun - and sang in the choir. For the ensemble requirement, I sang in the University chorale and the vocal jazz ensemble. I dabbled in a lot of things to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I loved everything I was doing but needed to center on something, to focus on a vocation, as so many people do in college. But I always knew it had to be music. I was in a work study program doing recitals, practice sessions, rehearsals and recordings and started playing for many studios, in particular for Norman Gulbrandsen, who eventually became my voice teacher. He had heard that I sang, too, and he said, “I’d love to hear you sing someday.” And I said, “Ah… no, I’m fine.” But eventually I sang for him and he encouraged me to take lessons. At the end of the day he would do a half hour lesson with me, run scales and such. He was very generous with his time.

EM: And did you enjoy that more than you imagined?

SP: I did. I didn’t think of it as a focused vocational avenue yet, but I realized there was something there worth pursuing. By my junior year I had switched from being a piano major to a theory and composition major.

EM: Where did that come from?

SP: Composition was also an interest of mine. I really wanted to be Billy Joel growing up. I wrote a lot of songs on my own with my brother, who was also a voice major in college. But composition at that time was very modern electronic music, Milton Babbitt sort of thing. I didn’t love writing it, but it allowed me to take other courses outside my piano major, and freed me up to do other things and still get my degree. By that time I was studying fairly regularly with Mr. Gulbrandsen, still playing a lot of piano. So I graduated with a theory and composition degree, which was worth pretty much nothing.

EM: Except that you know how to analyze a score.

SP: I do, and sometimes it helps. After that I spent four years working in music, teaching piano and accompanying recitals and auditions in Chicago, taking lessons and doing anything I could to make a living. I sang with Chicago Symphony Chorus. Looking back now, I realize some of the best musical experiences I had were in that chorus, with Georg Solti conducting. He was one of the greatest musical minds of all time.

EM: What a fantastic opportunity.

SP: Fabulous. In ’89 we did a tour of London and Salzburg, Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. So I got to travel. But my voice teacher was encouraging me to pursue singing, and I thought, “Oh my God, opera, the stories are so silly.”

EM: But you did get the exposure.

SP: I did. I sang in the chorus for Don Giovanni and had a lot of fun, but I didn’t think of it as a vocation. I loved playing opera and enjoyed the music, but I was also a gigging musician, freelancing in a wedding band playing piano and singing pop music till three a.m. with a guitar blaring in my ear. Getting by. I was twenty-five when Mr. Gulbrandsen, who had moved from Northwestern to De Paul, said, “I want you to come get your Master’s degree in voice.” I said, “What, really?” They were doing Figaro, and my voice teacher said, “You need to audition.” After talking with friends and family I decided to get my Master’s, paying my way by playing for opera workshops, vocal classes and auditions. I auditioned and got the role of Figaro - I had worked on the arias and played the role for many singers - and I thought, “What am I getting myself into?”

EM: Not just any role, either.

SP: Yes. I got hooked. After all this searching, finally being on stage, being able to act, with the language, the text, the character, the music all combined, it made sense. I found my niche. I pursued it with vehemence and got my two year degree in one year, then right out of De Paul I auditioned for the Lyric Opera apprenticeship program and got in. I was there from ’93-’95. Then I went to New York and started singing. I joined New York City Opera in the fall of ’95.

EM: What was your first role at City Opera?

SP: I was on a weekly contract, so I had five or six operas that year. Papageno in Magic Flute, plus Mikado, Rosenkavalier, and the musical Cinderella, with Jean Stapleton and Jane Powell, which was a thrill. Then my agent called and asked if I wanted to cover William Stone in Hindemith’s Mathis Der Maler. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but when I looked at the score I realized I should have thought about it a little. Meanwhile I was learning two other roles. Then Bill blew out a vocal chord and suddenly I was “on” for the Opening Night of the season, singing from the pit while Bill walked the part on stage. That was my debut! I remember thinking, if I could get through that, nothing’s going to bother me from here on. That’s turned out to be true, but I learned to be careful what I say yes to.

EM: And your first stage role at city opera was Papageno?

SP: Yes. That’s where I met my wife (soprano Barbara Shirvis). She sang in Mathis, and Pamina in Flute, and we sang together in Mikado and Rosenkavalier. We pretty much couldn’t get away from each other. We’ve been together ever since. My Met debut the fall of ’96 was Marullo in Rigoletto. Now I’ve moved from lyric, like Figaro and Ford in Falstaff, to more dramatic roles.

EM: Now that you’re able to get into the heavier ones, which roles do you enjoy the most, or feel most comfortable with?

SP: It was a slow progression from the lyric repertoire to the lower tier Verdi like Germont and Ford. Now I’d say Rigoletto is my favorite role. I just did Iago for the first time last year and Falstaff at Virginia Opera, and those were fantastic. They’re actually best suited for me now. This summer I did Rodrigo (Don Carlo) for the first time.

EM: Of Rodrigo, Falstaff and Rigoletto, which was the most challenging, and why?

SP: Falstaff because of the character, the range, and especially the amount of text. Also Iago. I’d like to keep doing it where I feel as comfortable with it as I am with Rigoletto. But with Falstaff I felt like I’d worked pretty hard. The physical aspect, wearing a fat suit - it’s not heavy, but hot and cumbersome - the running around and sheer amount of movement, plus the text and the singing and comic timing, it was tough but it engaged my mind, which is what I need. It involves me the most and makes me the happiest. That’s why I found opera to be so good for me, because there’s so much going on. I always have something to think about.

EM: The role of Tonio in Pagliacci at San Diego Opera is brand new for you. Are you happy to do something different?

SP: I am. Especially because I got it so late, the fact that the role itself is not enormous gives me a chance to learn it quickly. Of course I’ve know the Prologue aria for years. I haven’t really sung it but I’ve played it and heard other people sing it. There’s some pretty physical stuff - the duet with Nedda where she whips me and there’s a struggle and I have to run around a lot, that’s a real workout. We’re about to stage Act Two today, the play within the play, so I’m interested to see what we’re going to do with that. I’m enjoying it. It’s right in with the other things I’m singing, stylistically and sort of my fach.

EM: And you get to open the show. All the attention on you. That’s got to be fun.

SP: Yes, I like that. It’s a great opening. Fantastic.

EM: Have you worked with Andrew Sinclair before?

SP: We did Pearl Fishers at City Opera a while ago, maybe 2005 or ’06. He’s a great guy. He’s got lots to say, is always very prepared. Really a pleasure to work with. I’m looking forward to being able to focus just on Pagliacci for one evening.

EM: It must be a great luxury.

SP: It’s nice to learn it that way, too. Especially for the first time.

EM: What else have you sung here?

SP: This is my eighth or ninth time at SDO. The last was Sharpless (Madama Butterfly). My first year, ’97, I did three operas, small roles. Dancaïro in Carmen, Nuñez in the new opera Conquistador, Ping in Turandot. The next year I came back and did Guglielmo in Cosi Fan Tutte with my wife - she did Fiordiligi that year. And I did Slim in Of Mice and Men.

EM: How would you compare doing contemporary repertoire with traditional roles?

SP: I like them both for different reasons. With new repertoire it’s always interesting to hear what people are writing, musically how they’re setting dramas today. I admire guys who can come up with things that sound new or at least make sense and aren’t like something else. It’s pretty difficult to find your own language these days, after what Strauss and Stravinsky did. Jake Heggie’s doing pretty well, and of course John Adams. I did Klinghoffer once in The Death of Klinghoffer at Brooklyn Academy of Music. That was a lot of fun. I thought there was a lot of good music in that, and dramatically it made sense how he set the story and the text. That’s really what matters, ultimately. The musical style isn’t as important as balancing the characters with the music. They haven’t done Conquistador here again. It’s hard to get a new opera re-produced.

EM: You have to weigh and balance whether you can get audiences to come. Falstaff is one of the most brilliant operas ever written, yet for some reason it doesn’t sell.

SP: You shake your head, wondering why it doesn’t. It’s a masterpiece. I really loved it. I hope I can do it again.

EM: As do I. Getting back to your piano playing, I don’t think I’ve ever known a singer who was such an accomplished pianist. How does that work into your process as you approach a new role such as Pagliacci?

SP: One of the great things about having piano skills is not needing anyone to help me learn the music. I never thought of that thirty years ago, but it’s very helpful. First I highlight and translate and get a recording. Once I know what I’ve got, I’ll play it through myself, get the harmonies in my ear, figure out what I have to do with the other singers. When I know it well enough, I’ll listen to a recording for ten minutes, then go to the piano and play, then listen to someone else singing and go back to the parts I liked, see if it fits my voice to do the same thing. I also record the accompaniment on my iPhone so I can bring it with me wherever I go, sit with my score and listen. It’s great because you can go back ten or twenty seconds and just keep repeating it over and over. A fantastic tool for learning. Sometimes it helps to get another perspective.

EM: Technology does come in handy after all. A whole new approach to singing. Is there any role you haven’t done that you’re eager to sink your teeth into?

SP: In 2015 I’m doing Di Luna in Trovatore, which I’ve always wanted to do. I’d like to sing Renato in Ballo, too. But now I’m just starting to do those roles, so they’ll come. Boccanegra in the concert version, which I did in Poland, was interesting. And I’d like to do Macbeth.

EM: That’s one of the most beautiful Verdi operas but it must be difficult, since he started writing it early on and went back to it later. Do you find any problematic inconsistencies in that role?

SP: Definitely. But you can overcome them dramatically with textural choices, emphasis in different spots. Verdi sets the characters so well with his music, they’re so clear dramatically. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to do it, so I can figure that out. Scarpia is another favorite role I’ve started to do. It’s huge, difficult. Hard to sustain that tessitura. I sang that with my wife. She enjoyed that. She got out her aggressions on stage - with a rubber knife (laughs).

EM: What about Wagner?

SP: I’ve been approached a couple of times about doing Wotan. I’ve said no. I need time first for these roles I’m doing now before I approach the other. Wotan is huge, not only the type of singing but the length. It’s brutal. Even if you sing correctly all the time it can take a toll. I’ve heard guys wreck their voices. I’ve not wanted to do it as badly as I wanted to do Rigoletto. Verdi was always my ultimate goal. Now I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m enjoying it. Take the next five years and sing them a lot.

EM: Maybe there is some Wagner in your future, but you are right where you want to be, so you should relish it.

SP: I do. I’m pretty happy doing this right now.

EM: You look happy, and I have no doubt you’re going to sound happy, too. I’m looking forward to Pagliacci.

SP: Thanks, I am too!

Photos used by permission of Christian Pollard and Virginia Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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Los Angeles, California
Rodney Punt

After the Rose Parade and Bowl, Vienna’s New Year’s Concert is a televised staple for many on the first day of every year. While Angelinos have the option to attend the actual parade and football game, the concert is strictly a flat-screen experience with its live action a couple of continents and an ocean away.Enter Salute to Vienna!The spectacular re-creation of Vienna’s world famous Neujahrskonzert returns to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a tenth appearance on Sunday, January 5 at 2:30 pm. The light-hearted, energetic show is a great way to introduce the irresistibly charming music of the old Austro-Hungarian empire to the entire family.The music this year includes the best of the Strauss family waltzes, marches and polkas. Excerpts from Strauss's Die Fledermaus and Lehár’s The Merry Widow promise to be the Schlagsahne on the party cake.

Conductor András Deák from Budapest will ensure idiomatic accents from a large orchestra. Two Viennese singers, soprano Alexandra Reinprecht and tenor Martin Piskorski, will enchant with musical stories of romance and perhaps even a touch of mitteleuropäische intrigue as dancers in ravishing costumes animate the stage to round out the fun.Salute to Vienna is an enchanting way to celebrate the New Year and work off what may still be hanging you over from a few evenings before. ---ooo---WHAT: Salute to Vienna!WHERE: Walt Disney Concert Hall -- 111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Ca 90012

WHEN: Sunday, January 5 at 2:30 pm 

TICKET PRICES: $42.00 - $126.00

PURCHASE TICKETS: (800) 745 3000 Or at


Photo used by permission of Attila Glatz Concert Productions

2 years ago | |
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By Rodney Punt
As one of the world’s preeminent countertenors, Brian Asawa has been a fixture on the opera circuit for two-decades. The Los Angeles native’s career had jump-started as the first countertenor to become the Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1991. Other top honors ensued. His professional life launched at the Santa Fe Opera in 1993 and the singer has seldom looked back, or had time to. He has conquered North American stages in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, Toronto, Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Center, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and enjoyed equal success in the international houses of Sydney, Cologne, Brussels, Lyon, Amsterdam, Bavaria and London’s Covent Garden.

Between these dizzying peregrinations, Asawa has called the Bay Area home. This month, for a combination of family and professional reasons, he has relocated to his native city. This first recital after his permanent return was in the pleasant sanctuary setting of the West Los Angeles United Methodist Church last Sunday afternoon. Located in the tidy if modestly appointed Sawtelle district of West L.A., its members are by tradition Japanese Americans, as is Asawa himself. The church’s exterior grounds have gently evocative memorials sprinkled about in the style of Japanese gardens. The recital itself was a fundraiser for a congregation that includes the singer’s mother and family.
And a very fine program it was. It launched with a trio of selections each by Alessandro Scarlatti, G.F. Handel, and Franz Schubert, and rounded out later with sacred and secular holiday songs from around the world. Between these, a new work by San Francisco based composer Kurt Erickson, Four Arab Love Songs, inspired Asawa’s and pianist Mark Salters’ most moving, also most novel, performances. Its world premiere tour had begun in Long Beach on October 26 and will conclude early next year with recitals in San Francisco and Washington State. This was its second performance.

Erickson’s songs form a mini-cycle of medieval Arab poems from Spain’s Andalusia region dating from 900 to 1100 AD. Their poets -- with lapidary names like Ibn Hazm, Al-Asad Ibrahim Ibn Billitah from Toledo, Yusf Ibn Harun Al-Remedi from Cordoba, and Bakr Al-Tartushi from Eastern Andalusia -- are near-lost identities from Islam’s Golden Age. (Erickson told me in a later telephone conversation that he discovered the obscure texts in a used-book store.)
In their confessional humanism and indulgent humor, these epigrammatic songs reveal an Arabic sensibility far removed from the religion-drenched dogmas of today’s Middle East and North Africa. Their sinewy vocal lines, ably conveyed by Asawa, have clever onomatopoeic counterparts in the piano’s atmospherics, fully exploited in the interplay between Salters and his singer: exaggerated strutting motifs in “The Rooster”, an erotic-neurotic soundscape, at turns barbaric or quixotic, in “Split My Heart”, buzz-cut rhythms for the shaved-head exploitations of “Slave Boy”, and an obsessive one-note repetition of the word ‘you’ in “Absence.” The devices captured the spirit of the poems and established a lineage of emotional tone-painting that Erickson has inherited from the songs of Franz Schubert.

Music lovers are generally more familiar with Domenico Scarlatti, Alessandro’s keyboard specialist son, than his opera-composing father. Baroque opera revivals have brought Alessandro’s name back into public view, and, on the basis of the three arias that opened the recital, with good reason. Asawa took the audience on a lyric journey from the promise of the sun’s gilded rays at morning to love’s suffering and later the mortal blows of a lover’s glance. His assured, pleasing trills were shown to good advantage in “Son tutta duolo” and his rich lower register in “Se tu della mia morte.”
If there is one composer to whom today's countertenors are most indebted, it is George Frideric Handel, whose Italian opera career in London was eclipsed during his lifetime by his later output of English language oratorios. Today's revival of the Baroque master's operas are the core of the countertenor repertoire. On this occasion, Asawa featured selections from both genres. Handel's familiar ‘Where e’re you walk” can, in lesser singers, become cliché; here Asawa beautifully reimagined it as a fresh and spontaneous outpouring. "Sparite, o penseiri" found him equivocating between two lovers. Likewise, he brought out, in a bumptious rendition, the temporizing humor of “La tigre arde di sedeno," the text comparing hot love to a tiger’s anger or, if losing that lover, to a turtledove’s sorrow.

Salters and Asawa at WLA United Methodist Church
Schubert’s own uncanny ability to conjure subtle moods was explored in the next set. In “Liebesbotschaft,” the first of his Schwanengesang (Swan songs), the distance between Salters’ fast-rippling piano piano and Asawa’s dense poetry may have compromised precision in their joint execution. “Im Abendrot” made up for it with its paean of glowing sunset gratitude to the deity, notable for Asawa’s impressive breath control, allowing his voice to easily caress the song’s exquisite, long-breathed serenity. Goethe’s “Rastlose Liebe”, in an oppositional mood, conveyed the breathless energy of young and restless love.
Nodding to the holiday season, a set of four works -- the French traditional “Il est né, le divin enfant,” Britten’s “A New Year Carol,” Vaughn Williams’ “Wither’s Rocking Hymn” and Hugo Wolf ‘s Ach des Knaben Augen” -- focused on the birth of the Christ child. Concluding the afternoon was lighter fare: the secular “Drummer Boy” and “A Christmas Song” followed by Adolphe Adam’s “Oh Holy Night.”
The varied program had showcased Asawa’s youthfully bright voice, fine technique and impressive range. Asawa doesn’t just stand and sing; he instills each of his selections with a veteran stage actor’s ability to convey a song’s emotional climate and unique character. His versatile piano collaborator, Mark Salters (opera co-director and vocal coach at nearby Cal State Fullerton), maintained a close empathy while revealing his own fluid virtuosity. The church’s acoustic was full and mostly free of distracting reverberation.
As lovely as the Christmas themed dénouement was, it was the millennium-old poetry from Islam’s Golden Age that haunted this listener and, in a significant way, captured the urgency of the universal human condition. In our troubled age, the songs of those Arabic poets of so many years ago chimed with this holiday season’s renewing hope for human compassion, tolerance and inclusiveness.
What:   A Solo Christmas RecitalWho:    Brian Asawa, Countertenor -- Mark Salters, PianoWhere: West Los Angeles United Methodist ChurchWhen:  Sunday, December 8, 2013, 2 pm
Top photo of Brian Asawa by Marco Borggreve is used by permission of the artist.
Bottom photo by Rodney Punt is used by his permission. Punt can be contacted at:

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By Douglas Neslund
It is said that Christmas is for children, so a Christmas season without hearing the angels sing would be a sad one, indeed. For the several hundred people, mostly in family groupings, the event at hand took place Sunday afternoon in the welcoming space of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, conducted by Patrick Flahive, with attending accompanists Sal Soria, organist/pianist and Marcia Dickstein, harpist, performed seasonal music that would challenge any choir. Two highlights: John Rutter’s “Dancing Day” and, in celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centenary, his Missa Brevis in D, Opus 63 for treble voices and organ.
In and around these musical pillars was an ambitious program of carols, Gregorian chant, Spirituals, and instrumental interludes by Mr. Soria and Ms. Dickstein.  The "Puer natus in Bethlehem" plainchant was exceptionally well done. The choir is organized in logical fashion, according to age and ability. The youngest groups of children, represented by four each from the Seraphims and Cherubims, sang with accuracy in every department of the vocal arts, displaying admirable discipline throughout. All program offerings were sung from memory, and with fine vocal qualities.
The advanced group is the Queen of Angels choir of 21 youngsters and young adults. The choir names reflect their association with the Roman Catholic faith, even though members are not required to be adherents.
Britten’s “Missa Brevis in D” is truly a “brief mass” of the ordinary minus the Credo. The Sanctusmovement is in fact a 12-tone scale, meant to mimic the ringing of bells, and the concluding Agnus Dei is much more difficult than would seem to be the case at first glance. The organ accompaniment is not spared difficulty, either.
Rutter’s “Dancing Day” is comprised of seven movements (two of them instrumental) largely focused on Latin and English texts, and offering two of the children, Natalie Rodriguez and Jacob De Los Reyes, a solo turn each.
Pueri Cantores is an international organization with members throughout the world numbering ca. 40,000 children and youth. Mr. Flahive created Pueri Cantores San Gabriel 19 years ago with his wife, Lauren, as Co-Founder, and has been active in the international organization. The choir’s CD of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” surely a popular item this year, may be obtained at the following web page: - as well as instructions on where to hear the choir, and how to audition.
Pueri Cantores San Gabriel
To make the choir available to families located in the Pasadena area, weekly rehearsals will begin on Mondays soon at St. Philip the Apostle Church.

Art work by Howard Anderson, used with his permission
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By Rodney Punt

Los Angeles is proud of native daughter Deborah Rutter, who, it has just been announced, caps a spectacular career in arts administration with her appointment as President of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Rutter studied piano and violin. She earned a master's degree in business administration from USC. Her early career had local stints at both the LA Chamber Orchestra and the LA Phil. After highly successful decade-long managements of both the Seattle Symphony and most recently the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Rutter will now be the third person (and the first woman) to helm the Kennedy Center's operations. 

Apropos, Rutter's father is LA's renowned arts patron, Marshall Rutter, founding board member and former chairman of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, who has been instrumental, with President and CEO Terry Knowles, Music Director and Conductor Grant Gershon, and a host of fine vocalists, in building that organization into the premiere full-time chorale in the nation.

A delighted City of Los Angeles salutes all the Rutters. Bravo !!

Further information in the Washington Post. 
Photo of Deborah Rutter is by Todd Rosenberg
Rodney Punt can be reached at
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By Douglas Neslund
With the mighty Bach B-Minor Mass coming in January, one notices not a single measure on this evening’s menu from the Baroque period. Yet the music at hand is hardly of palette clearing value, but solid courses of late Romantic and mid-20thcentury holiday season genré. On this occasion, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was in top form heading into a couple of weeks where even the most committed choristers might be forgiven if they might sound a bit tired.

Maestro Grant Gershon opened the evening with four of Nine Carols for Male Voices by Ralph Vaughn-Williams. Hearing the men sing alone is undeniably thrilling, especially the Mummers’ Carol, and extra special with this group of talented, intelligent and committed singers.
While the stage was being reset to accommodate a chamber group of woodwinds and piano 4-hand, Maestro Gershon introduced Ottorino Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativita del Signore, featuring an outstanding solo trio of Master Chorale members Hayden Eberhart in the “role” of L’Angelo, Daniel Cheney as Pastore, and Janelle DeStefano as Maria. As naïve as the text may be, Respighi’s orchestration and choral writing is exceptionally fresh-sounding and agreeable. Ms. Eberhart’s angelic voice was particularly well appointed for her role, as she effortlessly floated stratospheric tones with pure and impressive result. Ms. DeStefano was a properly chaste and gentle Mary, but it was likely Mr. Cheney who stole the show, not so much for his role playing, but for the fact he was returning to us having survived a nearly lethal encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma over much of the summer and fall. His voice has acquired a deeper layer of soul to add to his usual brilliant high range. While role of shepherd asked him to represent those so humble they didn’t wish to sully the Infant Jesus by touch, Mr. Cheney imparted that, and much more. Many in the audience shouted bravos at the solo trio as they enjoyed multiple bows.
The women of the Master Chorale got their turn after intermission with another welcome salute to the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten via his “A Ceremony of Carols” written during a hazardous voyage across the U-Boot infested Atlantic. Written in three-parts for treble voices, one is most familiar through many recordings by various boys’ choirs in America and England. The initial performance was given by an English women’s choir, and for reasons not entirely clear, the initial recording conducted by Britten himself used the Copenhagen Boys Choir, instead of one of the excellent English collegiate or chapel choirs.
When it was Kings College Choir’s opportunity to record the work, Choirmaster David Willcocks approached the composer and among other performance-related questions, asked how Britten would prefer the ancient English texts to be sung. Britten said that choirs should sing it so that audiences could understand as much of it as possible. The reviewer worked with Sir David during choral workshops for more than ten years, employing his own choir as exemplars. Sir David related this information directly.
And yet, the occasional choir will attempt to find a way to sing the work “in the language of the time.” The primary problem with that attempt is, simply, nobody alive today knows how the language was pronounced in olden times. A best guess is the result, for better or for worse.
Lesley Leighton
Associate Master Chorale Conductor Lesley Leighton opted to choose the old English approximation that often distorts an understanding of the wonderful poetry. But in whatever language, the women sang gloriously, with articulation seldom heard in the roulades of “Wolcum Yole!” and the long descending lines of “In Freezing Winter Night” that challenge any choir’s breath control. Soprano Claire Fedoruk and mezzo soprano Drea Pressley both suffered momentary technical lapses in their “Spring Carol” duet. Ms. Leighton continues to conduct with a style more appropriate for a chorus of thousands, as though attempting to impress. “Ceremony” doesn’t require lots of arm waving. Harpist JoAnn Turovsky was well appreciated after her deliberate, introspective “Interlude” solo.
Stephen Paulus’s “Christmas Dances” comes assembled in four sections: Break Forth, Methinks I hear the Heavins <sic> Resound, The Nativity of Our Lord, and On the Nativity of Our Savior. The music varies widely while employing a rich variety of forces. Mr. Paulus suffered a major stroke during the summer past, and is still comatose.

Encores included a very witty John Rutter version of “Deck the Halls” followed by a schmaltzy “White Christmas” (yes, the Master Chorale can sing schmaltz!) and concluding with Maestro Gershon abdicating the podium to stand amidst his singers while warbling “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!”

Photos courtesy of David Johnston and from Wikipedia sources
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By Erica Miner

The day Leonard Bernstein died, a sense of gut-wrenching loss pervaded the musical world. Anyone who had watched and listened to his extraordinary music making could not help but be affected by his passion and reverence for music. Those of us lucky enough to have known and worked with him and availed ourselves of his wisdom, still hold deep affection and respect for him, along with a feeling that we have been blessed many times over.
According to journalist Peter Gutmann (, “No musician in the history of America touched so many people so deeply and in so many ways… Hailed as a hero, Bernstein was able to popularize the classics in a way that no previous musician had ever done. An entire generation of Americans was drawn to great music through his television shows… Whatever he did was with his whole heart. Anyone who attended a Bernstein concert left feeling profound wonder not only of music, but also of life itself.”
Many others have documented the greatness of Bernstein through hundreds, if not thousands, of quotes. Celebrated Russian writer Boris Pasternak, upon greeting “Lenny” after a 1959 Moscow concert, said: “You have taken us up to heaven, now we must return to earth. I’ve never felt so close to the aesthetic truth. When I hear you I know why you were born.” Gutmann’s quote from a jaded music veteran embodies Bernstein’s contagious attitude toward music: “When he gets up on the podium, he makes me remember why I wanted to become a musician.”
Bernstein himself said: “Life without music is unthinkable. Music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace… I can do things in the performance of music that if I did on an ordinary street would land me in jail. I can get rid of all kinds of tensions and hostilities. By the time I come to the end of Beethoven's Fifth, I'm a new man.”
At the end of any Bernstein performance, whether listening or performing, we all felt renewed.
I count myself among those fortunate souls whose lives Lenny touched personally. Mesmerized and captivated by his Saturday morning Young People’s Concerts, I found myself less than two decades later gazing worshipfully at him from the front of the first violin section of the Tanglewood Music Center (then called the Berkshire Music Center) Orchestra, able to capture his every gesture, mannerism and raise of the eyebrow like lightning in the bottle of my mind. Studying and performing Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with Lenny was an unforgettable experience; being married to one of Lenny’s conducting students allowed me extra personal time with our great maestro, hanging out in his conducting classes, chatting with him after rehearsals, and even being invited on rides around the Tanglewood grounds in his huge boat of a car. A few years later, as a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, I was ecstatic to again have the privilege and delight of working with Leonard Bernstein.
From the moment Jerome Robbins burst into Lenny’s tiny studio apartment in the Carnegie Hall building in 1943 with the idea for a ballet about three sailors on leave in New York City, Robbins became a major force in Lenny’s life. But in 1949 when Robbins proposed a contemporized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the trajectory of Lenny’s career changed irrevocably. Even now, almost fifty-six years after West Side Story debuted on Broadway, hardly a day goes by without a performance of this beloved work taking place somewhere in the world, in professional, school, or amateur versions. This past summer I attended two astonishing productions of this masterpiece: a live concert version of the entire Broadway symphonic score, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Concert Hall; and another at Tanglewood with David Newman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra accompanying a screening of the 1961 film. Each version was very different, and each was uniquely satisfying to witness.
Maestro Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are the first musical entity to have received permission from all four West Side Story rights holders (the estates of Bernstein, Robbins, Laurents and Sondheim) to perform the complete music to the work in a live concert setting with live singers. This groundbreaking world premiere consisted of all the music from the original Broadway show, in an orchestration identical to the one used by the Broadway pit orchestra during the work’s debut in 1957. As evident from the photo, this orchestration does not include violas. [All SFSO photos courtesy of Jessica Vosk]
 As legend has it, Bernstein was not enamored of the quality of the violists at the Winter Garden Theatre, but Musicians’ Union rules required him to employ the whole compliment of players. Bernstein got around the rule simply by leaving out the violas from the orchestration and doubling the inner voices with violins and cellos. He had not only a brilliant mind but also a clever one!

I was fortunate to attend Opening Night and parts of four other sold-out performances of the San Francisco run. Thus I was able to study the brilliant Bernstein score, an absolute thrill to hear live, in amazing detail, and to acquaint myself with the gifted young cast, several of whom I met personally. These youthful singers impressed me with their formidable talent, exuberant energy, and infectious enthusiasm, and more than once their performances brought tears to my eyes.
In the cast, Cheyenne Jackson, who has become known for his work in Broadway’s Xanadu and TV’s Glee and 30 Rock, gave a dramatically captivating and musically satisfying rendering of the leading role of Tony. His Maria, Alexandra Silber, complemented his exuberance with vocal loveliness and a dramatically touching performance. Their two voices blended perfectly. Jessica Vosk (Anita) steamed up the stage with her fiery, dynamite sensuality, outstanding voice and impressive ability to project every word. (It was refreshing to hear the original “As long as he’s hot” lyrics restored from the film version.) Kevin Vortmann’s gorgeous baritone gave a human element to the role of Jets leader Riff, and Kelly Markgraf’s Bernardo blazed with intensity. As “A Girl” performing the goose-bump producing “Somewhere,” Julia Bullock used her Juilliard-trained operatic voice to striking advantage. The opening Jets chorus rocked the house, electrifying the audience and setting the tone for a series of performances that increased in intensity over the run.
As Bernstein’s most prominent protégé, Maestro Tilson Thomas’s affinity for his mentor’s music was in clear evidence at any given moment, from serious to swinging, emphasizing contrasts in mood and paying special attention to the wide spectrum of percussion instruments that Bernstein included in his carefully wrought score. Adding to the excitement of Opening Night, Rita Moreno was in attendance to cheer on the cast, especially her “Anita” counterpart, Jessica Vosk. Having sprained her ankle that day, Moreno tooled around in a wheelchair, but that did not cramp her style; she was as ebullient as ever, and her presence was a true inspiration to the young singers.
 These thrilling San Francisco Symphony performances were recorded live for a CD release in 2014. I plan on being among the first in line to purchase one.
On July 13, conductor David Newman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the first-ever live Tanglewood performance of the complete Bernstein film score and screening of West Side Story to a capacity audience at the Shed. Bernstein’s ties to Tanglewood are profound. Since his student days in Serge Koussevitzky’s first conducting class at the Music Center in 1940, Lenny remained a constant presence, inspiring students and audiences alike with his love of music and commitment to teaching future generations to honor the noblest of arts.
The film, shown on multiple big screens in the Shed and on the lawn, was screened with innovative formatting, courtesy of MGM Studios, which digitally restored in High Definition the original United Artists print, revealing details that had been lost over the decades. Curious as to how the vocals and dialogue could be played through the Tanglewood sound system, while the live Boston Symphony replaced the original orchestra soundtrack, I learned that this was done with a new source-separation technology, developed by high-tech firms Chace Audio in Burbank and Paris-based Audionamix. The software isolates the vocal tracks while digitally extracting the original orchestra track, thus allowing for the film to be accompanied by the full compliment of BSO players. The result was a luxurious melding of top-notch film making with the extraordinary sound of a first-rate orchestra.
In addition to the above challenges, the original musical materials for the film score had been lost. The fantastic team at the Leonard Bernstein Office in New York, which included senior vice president Paul Epstein, senior music editor Garth Edwin Sunderland, and associate producer Eleonor Sandresky, looked high and low for the film music. After an exhaustive search, they finally discovered the original score in the private collections of Johnny Green, the film’s conductor, at Columbia University; and of the film’s original director, Robert Wise, at the University of Southern California. Working tirelessly to capture Bernstein’s original intent for the film music, a whole new score was created from those materials, restoring and adapting the 465-page orchestration for live performance, including the entire end-credit music. A new engraving of the score included extra percussion, saxophones, guitar and mandolin, as well as “screech” trumpets, whose “rock the house” wailing whipped the audience into frenzy.
Classically trained veteran Hollywood conductor and composer Newman, who conducted the premiere of this version in 2011 with the New York Philharmonic for the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s debut, assessed the work as the score progressed.
Newman’s appreciation of the unique mélange of musical theater, classical symphonic and operatic composition, pop, Latin and other elements, showed in his interpretation of the Bernstein score. His job was complicated: synchronizing the live orchestra with the film necessitated wearing headphones playing a click track, plus the use of a small monitor near the podium with a moving color-coded light bar to indicate the film’s starts and stops and cues, while simultaneously conducting a one hundred-piece orchestra. No small feat, but Newman carried it off with expertise and aplomb, giving the music a chance to shine.
Bernstein’s youngest daughter, Nina Bernstein Simmons, who attended the performance, felt the resulting score was much as her father would have intended, and that the new live-orchestra version of his work would have thrilled him. Her introduction to the capacity audience just after the intermission, along with four of the original Jets and Sharks from the film, provided an extra element of excitement in an already exhilarating evening. For those who missed this remarkable event, the performance will be repeated in February of 2014, at Symphony Hall in Boston.
After five-plus decades West Side Story continues to thrill audiences with its captivating interpretation of a classic story. Its profound emotional impact has only deepened over the years. The two versions of the piece that I witnessed left me breathless, each in its own distinctive way. As I became increasingly familiar with the details of this dazzling work, dramatized so effectively with young performers of yesterday and today, I developed a heightened awareness of the scope of Bernstein’s genius.
With the sounds of Lenny’s timeless music still resounding in my ears, I not only came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation of his brilliant score, but also with a new bottom line to Shakespeare’s immortal story:
If you want to avoid trouble, don’t give your daughter a bedroom with a balcony.
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By Douglas Neslund
He stood as in prayer, for a long half minute after the final tritone wafted out into Walt Disney Concert Hall while over two thousand hearts beat as one, half afraid to breathe and half not wanting to break the sacred stillness. Finally, James Conlon lowered his baton to allow tumultuous release of the collective tension.
The vehicle for this triumph was Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Opus 66, arguably the greatest composition of the 20th century, but elevated by Maestro Conlon pre-performance to one of the monuments of music of all time.

Benjamin Britten
Britten’s 100thcentenary is drawing to a close, and his music has been heard by many organizations throughout the year. The impact of this man’s creative genius has been rightfully elevated to new heights.
The impressions left by War Requiem are deeply felt through the perfect marriage of his music and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, himself a victim of World War I, a poet who would certainly have been Britain’s poet laureate of the time had he survived just one more week, bits of Scripture, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and Britten’s own pacifist convictions (reversing the Abrahamic story of the imminent sacrifice of Isaac by slaying his son … “and half the seed of Europe, one by one” … instead of the proffered Ram of Pride, and in so doing, pointing a dagger of condemnation at the rulers of the countries involved in the “war to end all wars.”)

Wilfred Owen
This perfect amalgam of inspired genius requires a large orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a large adult choir, a children’s choir, and three soloists. The original cast was purposefully drawn from enemy countries in World War II: the Soviet Union, Germany and the United Kingdom; the intended soloists, Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Britten’s long-term partner, Peter Pears, with the premiere performance taking place in a bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Subsequent performances spread throughout the world.
On this occasion, the artists were: The Colburn Orchestra and members of the USC Thornton Symphony; participating choirs included: USC Thornton Chamber Singers, USC Thornton Concert Choir, Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton University Singers, Chapman University Singers, New Zealand Youth Choir, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. All singers were superbly prepared by their own respective directors and assembled by LA Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon, delivering a marvelous feast of often challenging music. The instrumentalists were in as close to professional form as pre-professional players could possibly be. To single out any individual or orchestral choir would be unfair to the rest, but the brass and percussion were simply marvelous, as was the chamber orchestra and leader Radu Paponiu. Bravi tutti !
Maestro Conlon
Throughout the performance, Maestro Conlon maintained tight control over the assembled performers, with the assistance of Anne Tomlinson in the highest balcony with her “angelic host” representing the souls of war dead with just the right touch of other-worldly innocence and separation from the horrors of war. They were accompanied on the organ by Christoph Bull. Considering the vast distance between the children in the highest balcony and Mr. Bull sitting on stage, coordination was not easily achieved.
Perhaps no trio of soloists will be able to replicate the original trio, probably because so many have heard the iconic recording produced in 1963 that left such an indelible impression. But the three soloists at this event were of high quality. One could quibble about tenor Joseph Kaiser’s quavery delivery of the final phrase of Dona nobis pacem that Peter Pears made forever the standard, but as drama, Mr. Kaiser achieved his own measure of success. Baritone Phillip Addis displayed a voice rich in tone and textual awareness; he and Mr. Kaiser bracketed the conductor’s podium, while soprano Tamera Wilson was placed, as in the original, up in the front-center of the chorus women. Such placement tends, even in acoustically excellent Walt Disney Concert Hall, to dissolve low-tessitura passages into the multitudes around her and the orchestra in front of her, so that her impact lay in the high-altitude opportunities, such as the opening of the Sanctus. One would have liked to hear her down onstage with the gentlemen.
Aside from one choral entrance of the sopranos that appeared to be missed, the music making was superb. For those whose choral “ears” are attuned to the Los Angeles Master Chorale, one had to remind oneself that maturity adds weight to a voice, and any comparison with these relative youth only demonstrates how great their training has been; the future of choral music is bright.
Britten’s truly creepy orchestra scoring of the duet “Strange Meeting” sets up a metaphorical encounter of killer and killed in the afterlife. After a few exchanges, one states, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” while the children’s chorus chants In Paradisum. What a profound cross-reference of text and music! It would be difficult to find in all serious music the equal in context and drama.

For all the underlying irony and bitterness of music and text, Britten interjects moments of pure, radiant joy, as in the Hosanna of the Sanctus, thus giving yet another dimension to the drama. Yet the first sound we hear is also the last: that dreaded tritone, an augmented fourth interval: C to F#, and with that, the War Requiem ends as it begins, steeped in fear of futile, future wars.

Photos from Wikipedia from various sources
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 By Douglas Neslund

There is no subtle way to unleash or finish Carl Orff’s popular Carmina burana in performance. From the very downbeat of O Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune), one gets a lap- and earful of youthful fun and games set to full chorus and orchestra by Carl Orff, the Bavarian composer better known in some quarters for his elementary music education system. In Carmina, Orff seeks to evoke basic emotional involvement through unapologetic, driving rhythms (early minimalism!) and exotic instrumentation and vocalisms.
Orff found the manuscripts in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, not (as noted elsewhere) in the Benedictine Abbey in Benediktbeuern, a quaintly beautiful bend in the Bavarian road from Munich to Northern Italy via Austria, despite the town’s name in the title. How the Latin and Middle High German texts arrived in Benediktbeuern from their likely beginnings in Kloster Neustift in Brixen, a German-speaking village of Northern Italy, is unknown.
Kloster Neustift, Brixen, Italy
In any case, it is thought that goliards, unemployed youth of the day, spread the genre throughout civilized Europe. As a generation, they were not unlike Occupy youth of today, openly criticizing both civil and clerical authority through satirical poetry and prose.
The 24 poems and narratives chosen by Orff from the original 254 is that of bawdy sex and backgammon, and in some cases probably not the actual stuff of monks’ life in 13th century Alpine Europe. In fact, it is thought by some that texts appearing to be “love songs” are really satirical tributes or spoofs of the dead, or even the Church itself.
Soloists in Carmina burana on this evening of glorious choral and orchestral music-making were Stacey Tappan, a soprano capable of singing the very wide ranging score; José Adán Pérez, a baritone who emoted appropriately (that is, the entire time, including stage entrances and exits) and displayed a ringing voice spoiled by too many out-of-tune entrances; and Timothy Gonzales, who portrayed the dying goose on the spit with equal portions of self parody and helpless falsetto.
Although Orff’s manuscript stipulates a boys’ choir in two of the movements, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, director), were employed in that role. Interestingly, the composer stated to Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, the director of the Tölzer Knabenchor prior to the premiere performance and recording, that it was his intention that the boys should sound like five- or six-year old “quackers” and not polished singers. In that regard, the LACC kids failed to quack, singing instead with their expected perfection of pitch, tone and absolutely unwiggly stage demeanor.
Steve Scharf assembled a wonderful orchestra for this happy occasion, proving once again that Los Angeles stands second to no other place on earth when it comes to world-class musicians. As we have said so many times throughout the past decade, the Los Angeles Master Chorale stands second to no other chorus on earth.
All of the above forces dedicated their infinite talents to Maestro Grant Gershon, whose attention to detail is phenomenal. Watching him work is a joy to behold. Nothing is missed, singers and players alike are never in doubt, and the result is as close to recording-session perfection as a live concert can possibly be. Finding new superlatives to describe Master Chorale performances is becoming ever more difficult!
The opening opus, minus the children’s chorus, was Giuseppe Verdi’s Te Deum, the last of four parts to his tetralogy Quattro pezzi sacri, composed in 1895-96 and published in Verdi’s 85th year (1898), a major work for double chorus and large orchestra.
The Te Deum is not a long work, but packs a mighty wallop where required. The Chorale women were particularly stunning on their several a cappella entrances.
The only reminders that we were not actually sitting in a recording session all happened within the space of a minute, just before intermission: a flubbed trumpet attack on a particular note brought to the audience’s attention by Maestro Gershon, a peculiar wobbly solo soprano, perhaps made even wobblier by the trumpet’s goof, and when the moment that was no longer magical ended, a cell phone in the audience rang on and on until applause drowned its ugly intrusion.
The two works on the program shared a common “wall of sound” fortissimo+ opportunity that, with the Master Chorale sitting in the benches above the staged orchestra, brilliantly showed the true acoustic balance of Walt Disney Concert Hall. (When the musicians are all down on stage, there can be a “sizzle” effect at least for those patrons sitting in the third balcony.) What we heard last night was astonishing clarity. The Master Chorale has, in recent years, been especially noted for clear textual enunciation, and last night, acoustic translucence was especially brilliant.

Finally, the usually brilliant program notes of Thomas May were sullied by discredited references to Nazism in which Orff was never a participant. No proof exists that he was interested in National Socialism in the slightest; if the Nazis loved his music, that is irrelevant. One would hope that such a canard and libelous reference would once and for all be omitted whenever Carmina burana is performed in the future.
Photo credits: Wikipedia from various sources 
2 years ago | |
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