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Chee-Youn, Philippe Quint and Margaret Batjer rehearse
By Douglas Neslund
Four of the existing 650 Stradivarius instruments created by Antonio Stradivari in the early 18th century were brought together to be admired for their unique audio qualities and historical curiosity for the admiration and appreciation of a large audience of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra followers at Zipper Concert Hall of the Colburn School Thursday night.
The concert was the second of four events in the “Strad Fest LA” series sponsored by LACO in which the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Georg Philipp Telemann served as brilliant vehicles in the hands of Margaret Batjer (playing the “Milstein” Stradivarius, made in 1716), Cho-Liang Lin (his own “Titian” Strad of 1715), Chee-Yun (the “Leonora Jackson” Strad of 1714) and Philippe Quint (the “Ruby” Strad of 1708).
Cho-Liang Lin and his Titian Strad
Outstanding as a quartet, the audience was treated to the rarely-heard Telemann Concerto in D Major for Four Violins, TWV 40:202, a work of wit and showman qualities that allowed the audience to watch as well as hear, as themes were handed off from one violinist to the next, with the soloists obviously enjoying their common assignments.
The sound produced by these four instruments is not the booming sound sources of today’s violins. In fact, the Strads are smaller, especially in the upper portion above the bridge. The result is a thinner and edgier sound that didn’t always blend well with the other, modern instruments in performance; the typical Bachian aria accompaniments between flute and solo Strad (the Titian) were a bit of a mismatch, although Mr. Lin’s placement further upstage might have played a role.
Three Bach cantatas provided the meat of the performance, and featured the guest vocal excellence of bass Steve Pence and soprano Elissa Johnston. 
The concert opened with Cantata No. 152, a six-movement work entitled “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn,” with Mr. Pence and Ms. Johnston exchanging recitatives and arias, joining in the final movement in a pietistic conversation between Jesus and the Soul.
Elissa Johnston
The Soul “role” was certainly meant for a high-voiced boy soprano, a vocal instrument known for possessing an upper range in excelsis, and one at Bach’s disposal in Weimar. Use of an innocent child is quite different from the implied relationship between Soul and Jesus when the soprano is an adult female. Nonetheless, Ms. Johnston hit all the high notes without much effort and with her considerable musicianship well intact. Mr. Pence’s bass is darkly rich in overtones but narrow in focus, a very good fit for a hall the size of Zipper Concert Hall.
After the Telemann, the fourth movement of “Sehet, wir gehen hinauf gen Jerusalem,” Cantata No. 159, “Es ist vollbracht” provided Mr. Pence with a solo turn with three of the Strads serving as “halo” accompaniment to Jesus’s triumphant declaration.
Cantata No. 84, “Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke,” a solo cantata of five movements brought the evening to a close, courtesy of Ms. Johnston’s artistry and Bach’s expression of satisfaction in his good fortune at God’s provenance. The fifth movement is a chorale, requiring in this case the audience as choir.
Steve Pence
Other performers were the evening’s host, Allan Vogel (oboe); Tereza Stanislav and Josefina Vergara (violin); Roland Kato (viola), who also arranged the Sarabande in B-minor for this occasion leading into the Telemann Concerto; Armen Ksajkian (cello); Peter Lloyd (double bass); Patricia Mabee (harpsichord); and Janice Tipton (flute). The performances were of professional recording excellence, revealing the players' joy in performing this repertoire.

Three other Strads will be heard at a gala event Saturday night, in addition to those on display at Zipper Hall: Serdet, Kreisler, Beechback, and the famous Red Mendelssohn. To be held at the California Club, this is believed to be the first time these seven Strads will have been heard in concert together.

Photo credits, used by permission:Three Strads - Damian Doverganes
Cho-Liang Lin- MTV ArtistsSteve Pence - Los Angeles Master ChoraleElissa Johnston - Salastina Music
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner 
In a continuation of our extraordinary conversation, Maestro Ferruccio Furlanetto reveals insights on performing the astonishing Russian basso repertoire - in Russia. Performing repertoire outside the operatic sphere. And Murder
EM: Maestro, we were just discussing the need for the interpretation of Don Quichotte to have a special kind of sensibility. Could you elaborate? 
FF: Yes. The beautiful quality of the sound. Not enough. For instance, when I started to study a long time ago, way before doing it, Winterreise. I was listening to everybody. And of course the most famous was Fischer-Dieskau. Nothing. Not a little bit cold, it was frozen. And then on the other hand I had the luck to listen to the person that would have been the inspiration for the rest of the way, Hans Hotter. He made his recording - you could only imagine what would have been the state of mind of a young man in 1943 in Berlin, where he did this recording. And you can feel it, you receive a wave after another of joy in desperation, pain - death. And it’s amazing, I am already doing this Winterreise, I think three or four years, how it develops, constantly, even with a gap of months between recitals. You find new intentions, new colors, you get closer and closer to what it should be. But again, it cannot be just vocal effort. You must put yourself in it, heart, brain and everything, physically. Totally in it. Otherwise it’s totally empty as it was for Fischer-Dieskau. 
EM: And the lieder can’t be. 
FF: No, you must kill them (laughs). Now in July I want to redo the recording, to make another one. Because it’s another planet since then. I just did it before coming here in Berlin, in Milano, Scala, and in Moscow Conservatory Hall. In Moscow there was a radio recording, and they gave me the first CD that it will be of course incorporated, but already if you compare it to the recording, it’s hardly the same person. In a matter of everything, colors, the way you feel it. Again, I love to use this word, “filtering.” It is a filter. 
EM: And in July you get to do it again. 
FF: With the same pianist, a very talented young man who has had a very specific state of mind these days because he is German now but is originally Ukrainian. He had good reasons to be… whew. A lot of emotion. But I think it’s important because this piece needs to be done just to transfer emotion, and I repeat, in three years it’s another world. 
EM: You have a special affinity for the Russian repertoire. “L’âme Russe de Ferruccio Furlanetto,” as it’s been described. 
FF: (Sighs) This is nothing. Of course there are singers who are more attracted than others. But just think what Russian music has for basses, for baritone, for dark voices. It’s a universe. You cannot not be attracted by it. And once you are attracted, once you’re doing it, you have to do it properly. The more properly you do it, the more you are involved in it. Before Winterreise I also did in Berlin the Russian recital and in Geneva also, Rachmaninoff first, and the Mussorgsky lieder ending with the Song and Dance of Death. What do you want more than that? In Rachmaninoff everything is love. Mussorgsky, death. And death could be a fantastic subject in music. And in acting. Therefore Russian repertoire offers an interpreter the widest choice of roles. How couldn’t you be attracted by it? Between that and to have a Russian soul - I would say there is an affinity for sure, because my part of Italy, northeast, we have because of former Yugoslavia, all the Eastern countries relatively close, we have Slavic influence for sure, over the centuries as you can imagine. I would never live in Russia, although I go there very often - because there is still the “stink” of Communism. That you can receive from the state of their architecture, and now they tend to restore it, to make it as beautiful as it was. But if you look inside in details you see how abandoned it was by this terrible period. I was born in freedom, I grew up in freedom, and I cannot stand both Communism and Fascism. These extremes don’t exist and they shouldn’t exist. I will never be able to live there because unfortunately we see, in these days, in the present, now the mentality of this very small group of power, one man surrounded by ten or twelve oligarchs who couldn’t care less of the rest of the country. They just take care of their own interests, they share the cake, and it’s absolutely dreadful. But whenever I am there and I am in concert with people, and with their amazing history… almost two years ago now, I was in Moscow with Gergiev and the Mariinsky to do Don Quichotte in concert version, at the Conservatory Hall, a glorious hall, beautiful acoustics, sensational. And a good friend of mine proposed if I would be interested to go to Boris’s grave. I said of course. So she took me to it, eighty kilometers away from Moscow, kind of a fortified little village surrounded by walls, very mystical. There are five churches, Orthodox, of course. There is still in there what they call starets (staritsi), a holy man, somebody who can tell you - they believe this kind of thing - your past, but it’s religious. In front of one of these churches there is a simulacrum (draws in the air), like that, with Boris Godunov, his wife, (and children) Tsenia and Fyodor. Why outside? Because historically the wife, who was sent to a cloister, they say she committed suicide. But you know in those times they were killing people and saying it was something else. And it was so touching to be in front of this grave and to be somehow related to him through music. Such a touching experience. I didn’t make any picture, it was just something private. And I was extremely grateful to this friend of mine because I was into the Old Russia, the big heart Russia. Because when you’re singing this repertoire you feel this pathos, this somehow almost a pleasure of sufferance.
EM: My parents were both Russian, so believe me, I came to understand the Russian soul. 
FF: You can understand. It’s one of these (whispers), “Oh my God, I suffer but somehow it’s beautiful to suffer.” It’s wonderful, and you understand the soul of these people. They have this misfortune to go through this dirty eighty years of garbage. Then when you are there, it’s just a moment of their life, there are centuries behind it. St. Petersburg, when you walk around, it’s unique, especially in winter. Then you are really feeling the real Russia. When you have this blaze of ice hanging from the roofs of the palaces, very dangerous, two or three meters long, it could kill anyone. But this is… whew. 
EM: The real Russian soul. The one that defeated Napoleon. 
FF: Yes. 
EM: I can see it in your face, when I’ve watched you singing in Russian. There seems to be a special joy. 
FF: You cannot be not involved emotionally. And if you are, that’s your face (laughs). 
EM: Just to shift gears for a moment. In our second interview last season about your sensational appearance here in Murder In The Cathedral  you had mentioned you would love to do it at the Met someday.
FF: I would like to do it everywhere. 
EM: At that time, Maestro Levine was not in physical shape to be considering it. Have you approached him again about it now that he’s back at the Met? 
FF: No. I talked to him about it, I also sent him the DVD from here. I know he’s gradually come back. I also have something with him in 2018, so it means he wants to be there. He proposed me some other opera, not close to the time of Assassinio but in that direction, L’Amore di Tre Re, and I said, “Yes, I’ve done it in concert in Vienna, it’s such a glorious piece. But you should also take a moment to listen to this (Assassinio). You saw the success we had last season, and that it was a national success because it was the first time in this country. And I think it should be wonderful.” But what can I do more than what I am doing? It will happen, for instance, with Gergiev because Gergiev loves it and when he says we will do it you can be sure it will happen. And this is a great quality. This time in January we were doing a Quichotte in Bolshoi and we had dinner afterward, and he said, yes, we will do it in St. Petersburg, the “white nights,” in concert version and we are pushing in that direction. We tried to do it with the London Symphony when he was there, but the London Symphony created so many problems. After St. Petersburg with Mariinsky Orchestra I would find sponsors, and I’m sure he can, we would do it in Canterbury Cathedral. And that for me is the final target. Because to do this magnificent piece and to have Becket die in exactly the place where he died in 1170, it will be an amazing musical event. Everybody I speak with, I’ve really spoken with the high level of the Canterbury Cathedral, and I mention it, they (gasps), they are enthusiastic. They are the ones who commissioned the theatre work in those times, so they are extremely interested to have an opera celebrating their own saint, for sure, so it’s not a problem. 
EM: For Becket to be assassinated on that very spot would be amazing. 
FF: That will be great. Maybe that could kick some interest in other places. You remember this piece was written in 1958, and six years after Karajan brought it in Vienna, where he was the boss. And he did it at that time, unfortunately in German, with Hans Hotter, by the way. Because at that time whatever they were doing in their own language - in Italy we were doing Carmen in Italian - but Karajan himself was the greatest personality in music of the century. (He) wanted it immediately, in his own theatre. So wouldn’t it be good in Vienna, for instance, to repurpose it. They are afraid of one thing, that these kind of operas need an interpreter. If the interpreter gets sick, the entire little castle collapses. And this could be a good reason. Last year when I did it here I didn’t have a cover, for me. And it was a tremendous responsibility. 
EM: That’s high pressure. 
FF: I was really so worried. I never played golf last year until the day after my last performance, because I stayed two days more. Finally the day after the last performance I went to play. But before that I couldn’t even think to do that and to put this production that I strongly wanted to be jeopardized or collapse because of a stupid cold. Of course a major theatre should train a young singer. In Milano I had a cover, a Finnish bass, who sang also one performance. just in case. 
EM: So it took some pressure off you. 
FF: Yes. In Milano they didn’t do like Pizzetti wanted, the four Tempters are the same Knights coming at the end. There were four Tempters and four Knights, but they could be switched. If one of the four were sick, they could interchange. That could be done also. Here we did it again with the same voices, which is right, perfect. And it’s wonderful and should be that way. It’s a bit risky (laughs). But it went well, and it was a magnificent event. Magnificent. And at the end after we finished, I was so happy and proud that I really insisted the point that they came to Milano, (Ian) Campbell and two ladies from the Board, they saw it, heard it, and realized… in Milano we had eight performances totally sold out - okay, it’s Italy, it was first time in fifty years it was redone - and it was a sensational success, and it could be tomorrow again. The production was stunning -Yannis Kokkos, the same guy who did Don Quichotte at Mariinsky. And I must say San Diego was so courageous to do it. When it finished and the success was stunning, I was so happy and proud that we make it happen. 
EM: As well you should be. At this point in your career have you done practically everything you want to do? Is there something you haven’t yet done? 
FF: There’s something I will do in fall, in Vienna, but it’s not Boris, it’s Khovanshchina, with Bychkov, under the direction, the production of Lev Dodin, who will never be traditional but he’s so clever. That will be for sure very interesting. But apart from that I want to continue to do what I’m doing now. Basically this: a lot of Carlos, a lot of Boris, Quichotte the most often as I can, and Murder In The Cathedral.
EM: And recitals also? 
FF: Recitals, yes. I want to keep going, especially the Winterreise, because the reason I told you, the development is so amazing, so unique, that it’s great, great pleasure and satisfaction. Then there is another one taking body, it Beethoven and Brahms. And then I think, keep going with this. I am mostly an opera singer. Recitals are marginal, let’s say, although they give you a dimension you will never get in opera. Because you are there for one hour and a half and you have to paint. 
EM: And you get a chance to explore a depth of emotion on a very profound level. 
FF: I think that to have this recital part of a career going on, it’s extremely important for the voice, because you explore your vocality in a way you wouldn’t be able to do in opera, and for that reason you can find new colors, things that at the beginning you were not even dreaming it could have been possible to find. And then you find you can refine your intentions, find new dynamics. Something special. 
EM: It sounds like a marvelous plan. And of the moment, we have your exquisite Don Quichotte to look forward to. 
FF: As I said before, very special. Very beautiful. It will be great.

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner 
Notwithstanding the pall of despondency hovering over San Diego Opera, to be in the presence of Ferruccio Furlanetto’s greatness for one amazing hour while he imparted his wisdom was an overwhelming experience. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his greatness, he remains utterly modest and unprepossessing. And, as always, a true gentleman. 
EM: We’re ecstatic as always at your return to San Diego Opera, Maestro. Congratulations on your fortieth anniversary on the stage. And thank you so much for your astonishing performance in Verdi’s Requiem. I was honored to be able to hear it. 
FF: Ah, good. 
EM: It was such a privilege. 
FF: And it was a very special state of mind in general that night, because it just happened, this… strange mess. And it would have been the last thing to do, I would say, a Requiem for an opera theater, but we did and it was beautiful. I was very glad to be in that. 
EM: Yes, it was special on so many different levels. 
FF: It’s such an amazing, magnificent piece that is absolutely a privilege every time you have the chance to perform it. To be in it, to filter it. It’s great. 
EM: In our interview last season you had mentioned a very special Verdi Requiem you did with Guilini, and the emotions you experienced. 
FF: That was by far the best case. Because this man was really filtering this incredible masterpiece. You know, our duty is really that, to filter with our own emotion, with our own sensibility, this amazing masterpiece, and to be the filter between the composer... And Giulini - you could tell the pain was his pain, and it was so magnificent. I will never forget. And I did many others, beautiful ones I will never forget also. The one on January 28, 2001, for the hundred years of Verdi, in the San Marco church in Milano, where it happened for the first time for the funeral of Manzoni, conducted by Verdi himself. That day was Muti and full, full, full church. I remember that Muti at the beginning asked the audience to listen, to have it in their hearts, and at the end consider the circumstance and why the event was taking place, just to leave the theater without applauding. It was so touching, because you could understand that everyone was really “washed” inside. But it is magnificent music.
EM: Yet this time for you, to perform it on the fortieth anniversary of your first appearance on stage, that must have been a different set of emotions. 
FF: Everything was ideal, because the day before, the day of the generale, it was the day of my first step on stage forty years before, and to be singing the Verdi Requiem, and to be in San Diego, which is without any doubt one of my few dearest places in the world, it was magic. Everything was so beautiful. It was only spoiled by this terrible news. 
EM: Once you started singing, though, was that awful news hanging over the whole time? 
FF: When you start to sing you immediately get into the piece and of course if you have any special reason to sing it, that’s even better. I’ll never forget another one I did in ’94. I was in Japan with Seiji Ozawa, we were doing a series of them, Requiems, and the last one was the day of the TV. And on that very day my grandmother died. And there was something special, because Ozawa said that night it was something amazing. And of course if you have a very special reason to which to dedicate this music… on that night something amazing happened, because maybe a month after I received a letter from Japan from a young woman, say early 40s, and she told me, “In those days my husband died of cancer, I was destroyed, absolutely desperate. I was even considering suicide. And that night I heard this Verdi Requiem on the TV and I understood there was reason to live.” And I still have this little letter, inside a beautiful precious manuscript of Don Giovanni, because this was a most amazing proof you have touched the heart of somebody. This is where everybody in the profession should target, to reach hearts. And this was proof that I did it that night. And somehow, I don’t know if I saved a life or not, but nevertheless this woman understood that there was a reason to continue. I was in tears when I read it. I was devastated. Beautifully devastated. 
EM: That’s the power of music, and what we, as performers, aspire to, to reach people with that power. When two events like that coincide, it becomes magical. 
FF: That happens both in stage operas or in recitals or in a concert like that, without staging. But just the fact that we are filtering emotions and transferring them to an audience. This is the greatest privilege. 
EM: Yes, it is. Then to follow the Requiem with Don Quichotte, which you mentioned, last time we spoke as possibly the role you love most of all…
FF: Probably it is… I just did it the 26th of January in Moscow, because the production we did one year before, in Mariinsky with Gergiev, was awarded the biggest prize in Russia. So for the final event we were invited to perform the production at the Bolshoi. And it has been sensational to be in this amazing theatre, of course, but also even more because it was the second performance in ninety-nine years. The first performance was in 1915 done by Chaliapin for whom the piece was written by Massenet, and the audience went wild. It was magnificent to repurpose it in a beautiful production, this stunning piece. There’s a lot of criticism about Massenet about Don Quichotte, because they find that these kind of operas are a bit light. I cannot agree on that at all. The character of Quichotte is so special, so unique. He’s exactly what men should be for three hours in their life: love. Love for everything that’s around us, whether it’s nature, sky, air, other persons, animals. And when it comes to the end, for instance, the death of Quichotte is so touching, so involving emotionally. I would say it’s on the same level or maybe even deeper than the death of Boris, for a very simple reason, because both are death of a real person. Boris is one of the greatest Tsars Russia had, and you have in this opera his real life, and Don Quichotte is the purity that every man can have. It’s just a matter of will. 
EM: You think perhaps with Quichotte it’s a bit more poignant because he is so childlike and naïve and idealistic? 
FF: Yes, but in the end naiveté went away. Everything finishes with the refusal of Dulcinée. His world is collapsing, and like an elephant he goes in a very specific place because he knows he has to die. But he dies beautifully, purely like the rest of his life, with a transparent soul, through which you can see everything: present, past and future. And it’s a sensational privilege to have a sensibility to do it properly, and to live this situation, because unfortunately normally in life when the end comes you don’t have much time. Very often it’s something sudden or painful. In theatre you have this possibility to leave your kind of legacy and when it’s done in such a touching way it’s so beautiful, really beautiful. 
EM: You also had mentioned that when you were doing Mozart you were almost challenging - or rather, “channeling” - Siepi. Do you feel you are channeling, evoking, anyone else as Don Quichotte? 
FF: I think Siepi was impossible to challenge or channel. Siepi was a god. An inspiration for sure. I was trying to get close, to go in that direction, and I did. Even in that repertoire I was lucky enough to do certain productions where I was absolutely happy. All the Figaros with Ponnelle, the Don Giovanni with Chereau in Salzburg, I was a hundred percent in agreement with everything. And in that moment it’s pure happiness. 
EM: So as Quichotte, would you say you channeled perhaps Chaliapin? Christoff? 
FF: No, Chaliapin is too far. Nobody, I would say, for one simple reason. Chaliapin - of course, yes, the photo of the head, of Chaliapin, tells a lot. A great inspiration, because you see the eyes, the face, you imagine how you would present yourself in this role. But all the documentation we have is so old, so distant. Christoff, who was another god of mine - I had the privilege to meet and to do a tour with him, my very second opera, I was the Monk in Don Carlo and he was King Philip, and he was charming to me. But Christoff, for instance, in Don Quichotte, was a bit strange. His French was not good, the Italian was not good. It was (sings, growling) Bulgarian. I asked through friends if there was a tape, documentation, of Siepi doing Quichotte, and he replied very kindly that unfortunately he never did it. And this I think is such a loss, because his French was magnificent, and that voice! Applied to Don Quichotte it would have been… like chocolate, dark chocolate, melting. So, no, I just learned it, went though, digested it in the way I was feeling it. There is enough material to do so in this piece. 
EM: You also mentioned that when you are doing Filippo you feel you have to stay close to his historical character. But with Quichotte being just a fictional character, do you feel a bit more interpretive freedom? 
FF: Yes, but nonetheless there is this track of purity that has to be followed. Because the way he speaks, thinks, the way he sees even love towards a young girl - everything is extremely pure, healthy. And you can move within it, but you cannot go out from that and I believe that’s rather impossible. But of course you could. It happened that I saw some Quichottes done by people who were not filtering it in this way, and then even if it’s well sung it could be… empty. And Don Quichotte cannot afford to be empty. The voice is fifty percent. The other fifty percent is from the mental, and it must be pure of heart. Otherwise it’s a lost vocation. 
EM: So there’s something missing. 
FF: Absolutely. I won’t name names, but there are some recordings of great singers - I can remember two of them - where there’s nothing in it. Because they didn’t have that kind of sensibility. They were thinking just about the beautiful quality of the sound. Not enough.
EM: You also said then that French was the most difficult language to sing for you. Do you still feel that way? 
FF: Yes, French, if you are compelled to sing it like many French coaches would ask, is awfully difficult and against the human voice when it comes to be sung. For instance to listen to French spoken by a beautiful young girl is the most amazing language in the world, because it goes together. I remember talking with Jose Van Dam, we were doing Pelleas in Paris - he’s Belgian, so his mother language is French - and he told me when it comes to sing you must sing it as you would if you were Italian. Therefore, forget about (makes nasal sounds) because that doesn’t travel, closed nose doesn’t go anywhere in a matter of projecting. So just the “Rrrr” - you have to sing it, to project it, to make people understand it in the distance. Now it’s years I’m doing that in Quichotte and there is no problem whatsoever. 
EM: This may be a strange question, but you’ve sung the role in a French opera house. Does it any feel different for you, knowing your audience is mostly French? 
FF: No, but I did Boris in St. Petersburg and in Bolshoi, and I did my Russian recitals in St. Petersburg. It would be even more dramatic there, but when I prepared myself properly, deeply, I never pretended to be Russian. I never pretended to be French. I just want to be understandable, correct. 
EM: And Quichotte is a role you can do for the rest of your life. 
FF: Ah, yes. 
EM: Maestro, thank you so much for spending this time with me. It was a great pleasure as always. 
FF: Thank you
EM: I’m looking forward to opening night of Don Quichotte
FF: The cast is very lovely. It will be very special, very beautiful. It will be great.
Next: Furlanetto Part 2: The Russian Soul

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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2 years ago | |
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By Rodney Punt
There is grand opera and then there is great opera. Lucia di Lammermoor at Los Angeles Opera is both. Nearly two centuries after its premiere in 1835, its grisly flights of vocal frights can still give us the shivers. Which is just what it's doing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in an expressionistic new staging, featuring a top-notch cast and a precision-led, well-projected orchestra. Once again, Lucia di Lammermoor is reveals itself a supreme masterpiece of early Romantic opera. 
At the time of its origins, Rossini had retired and Bellini was in his grave. As the reigning Italian opera composer, Donizetti must have felt a sense of liberation to reach for new heights in this work. Lucia's famous mad scene, for instance, sets the template for Giuseppe Verdi's similar one for Lady Macbeth a dozen years later.

Opera’s progressive camps often dismiss the “bel canto” style for tendencies to hoary dramatics and musical clichés, and, with a story based on one of Sir Walter Scott’s most gruesomely dark thrillers, Lucia, is certainly of this milieu. It mixes more plot devices -- blood feuds, forbidden love, forced marriage, spousal abuse, hallucination and insanity -- than any season of Mad Men.

Yet Lucia is also a compelling portrait of a fragile mind in extremis. Donizetti ingeniously shaped his melodies for dramatic and psychological effect, providing spectacular ensembles (the sextet is one of the greatest in all opera) and glinting orchestral colors, and introducing one of the lyric stage's stranger musical instruments. Mopping up the blood and gore in less than three hours, the composer also kept one step ahead of the tedium associated with the soapier side of opera. 
Bel canto means beautiful singing, and any performance of Lucia rises or falls primarily on that standard. Since the revival of this most famous of bel canto operas in the era of great post-war coloraturas -- Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills -- Lucia has been the favored testing ground for its new divas.
In the title role here was Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who debuted an impressive Queen of the Night in LA Opera’s Magic Flute five years ago. Since then, her voice, while maintaining its brilliance and flexibility, has taken on even greater richness, as has her ability to handle this role’s dramatic journey from love’s raptures to its twisted madness. Her blood-drenched dagger scene, accompanied in the orchestra by the spooky sounds of a glass harmonica, the instrument introduced to opera by the composer, surpassed even the audience's high expectations. Shagimuratova’s intensity and emotional commitment was palpable, inspiring her colleagues to greater heights in their own performances.

The uniformly strong cast of principals, in combination, greatly enhanced the story’s effectiveness. Youthful, ardent and magnetic tenor Saimir Pirgu, as Edgardo, was Lucia’s, hotheaded lover, whose star-crossed fate was ensured by his rival, Enrico, Lucia’s destitute and manipulative brother, menacingly portrayed by baritone Stephen Powell. LA Opera’s impressive in-house bass, James Creswell, was the well-intentioned but ultimately collaborationist cleric, Raimondo. Scene-stealing tenor Vladimir Dmitruk was the tipsy, weak-charactered alternate suitor to Lucia, suitable, that is, for her later cutting edge evaluation. Mellifluous soprano D’Ana Lombard’s Alisa was Lucia’s faithful servant. Tenor Joshua Guerrero’s Normanno coolly assisted Enrico in his fatal deceptions.
Elkhanah Pulitzer, debuting as director, proved less is more by placing the action in expressionistic abstractions stripped of pictorialism, with her protagonists strategically set in power relationships. Lucia is literally “cornered” by her brother Enrico with no escape. Something of Robert Wilson’s influence is felt in the stylized hand gestures of the supernumeraries. Wendall K. Harrington’s projections and Carolina Angulo’s scenic designs clean out the inherited gothic cobwebs of operatic yesteryears. Minimalist sets and single-toned lighting projections provide clean backdrops for the unfolding drama. Broad fields of color set each scene’s emotional climate, with occasional images suggesting forest or interiors of the Ravenswood Castle. Lucia’s unbalanced mental state is established in the eerily floating image of a murdered woman she sees (a circular wall projection suggests the well she peers into). Colors intensify as Edgardo departs and Enrico’s machinations unhinge Lucia’s link to reality.

James Conlon’s orchestra has never sounded so well projected (as heard from a seat in row M of the orchestra level), nor as cleanly executed by all concerned. Donizetti’s woodwinds and the glass harmonica (performed by Thomas Bloch) were perfectly gauged as Lucia’s rattled interior mind chambers.

I came away from the evening with the same quizzical grin Warner Brothers must have felt when they took home the best picture Oscar for 1942’s Casablanca, the B-movie that triumphed over seemingly more substantial fare like For Whom the Bell Tolls and Madame Curie. It was not hard to figure out why. Like Casablanca, Lucia di Lammermoor surpasses its genre and this production overcomes, with ingenious solutions, the ever present (and especially today the acute) challenges of giving new life to old conventions, maintaining high standards of performance, dealing with budget constraints and satisfying often fickle public tastes.

That's why we call it great opera.
Performance reviewed: Thursday, March 20, 2014. 
Remaining dates March 26, 29 and April 6. Tickets here

Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles OperaRodney Punt can be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner
Otello. Aida. Don Carlo. 
A chilling Dies Irae that evokes the wind-and rain-lashed Cyprian coast. A Requiem Aeternam that conjures fronds of papyrus bending over an Egyptian stream and the gossamer fabric of Egyptian priestesses’ garb. A Domine Jesu Christe that replicates the atmosphere of Numi Pietà. An Agnus Dei accompanied by three ethereal flutes. A Lacrymosa that evokes the poignant confused cries of two anti-monarchal Spaniards. 
The comparisons are irresistible. Though Verdi’s Requiem is not an opera, whispers of Falstaff, murmurs of Aida, power-soaked reminders of Don Carlo, infuse this work with shimmering elicitations of Verdi’s unprecedented body of work. Nonetheless this masterpiece stands on its own, reaching beyond the annals of operatic literature, to meld the drama of opera and the monumental power of a religious experience. 
In the hushed cathedral of San Diego’s Civic Center, as if transformed for one magical evening into the church of San Marco in Milan where the Requiem premiere took place, a packed audience hung on every note and nuance emitting from the combined forces of the San Diego Symphony, massive San Diego Opera Chorus and San Diego Master Chorale, and four astonishing soloists whose artistic prowess outweighed their considerable combined star power. This one-time event was the experience of a lifetime, capturing the wonder of the audience, and the souls and minds of a collective musical consciousness assembled to perform a work whose 1874 premiere was worthy of being conducted by the composer himself. Unlike the premiere, which took place in a church where applause was prohibited, last night’s audience burst forth in a no-holds-barred expression of emotion. The atmosphere of a city mourning the loss of its stellar opera company added to the poignancy - and mystery - of the experience. 
According to tenor Piotr Beczala, this Requiem is not a religious experience, not an overpowering statement of power: “Not part of the Mass, not prayer or being in church. It is its own piece, much more intimate than opera… one’s own intimacy shared with something outside of oneself… a Supreme Being.” 
Yet, the raw emotional power evoked and expressed via the music amount to a supplication to that Supreme Being to show forgiveness and mercy, to help one confront one’s own mortality. Verdi was not a religious man, but in this work he plumbs the depths of his grief at the loss of his beloved colleague Alessandro Manzoni, who died the year between the Aida and Requiem premieres. That the Company assembled was able to capture this essence is a testament to San Diego Opera’s astonishing teamwork. 
Verdi wrote the vocal solos for four singers he knew. Three of them had sung in the 1872 Aida premiere, among them the Aida, a soprano with a superb high C; and the Amneris, a mezzo with exquisite legato. The composer gives all the soloists a miraculous range of vocal and dramatic possibilities at once diverse, demanding, and virtuosic, and, by injecting his own distinctive strokes, gives the listener an extra feeling of intimacy with the work. 
The Requiem has been staged in a number of ways in recent years, but no staging is necessary with a formidable group of soloists the likes of which rarely is seen on any operatic or concert stage. Complementing the stellar cast of SDO’s recent A Masked Ball - tenor Beczala, soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe - Ferruccio Furlanetto, celebrating his fortieth anniversary on the stage, added his breathtaking basso profundo artistry, packing a powerful punch to the already giddy audience’s experience. 
Beczala clearly was born to sing this work. His voice, as golden as in his rendering of King Gustavo in A Masked Ball, spun each tone with perfect consistency from top to bottom with virtual effortlessness. One can hardly imagine a more finely shaped or poignant Ingemisco. Each word, each phrase was so brilliantly wrought that no Supreme Being could deny the absolution the supplicant is begging for. 
Blythe also showed perfect control, not only in her range but also in her ability to alternate between soloist and team player. Her voice rose from the depths, forcefully at times, poignantly at others, dominating in her solos, and then blending seamlessly with the other voices. Especially impressive was the Agnus Dei soprano-mezzo duet, in which Blythe and Stoyanova sounded together as one perfect whole. 
One San Diego Symphony member described Furlanetto’s as the richest bass she’d ever heard. Indeed, the voice goes far beyond sumptuousness. That an instrument with the depth, power and opulence of Furlanetto’s can at once negotiate the lower extremes of the basso range, and at its apex communicate the delicacy of a mere mortal pleading for the indulgence and understanding of a Supreme Being, demonstrates the essence of the singer’s vocal virtuosity, and his uncanny ability to hold the audience in thrall whenever he emits a note. 
Stoyanova swept the audience off their feet throughout, and especially in the final Libera Me. Astonishing in her ability to spin delicate tones throughout the massive work without ever sounding forced, and to project crystal-clear B’s and C’s right through the combined forces of a double chorus and an orchestra of Wagnerian proportions, Stoyanova sustained her fine-tuned artistry without ever sacrificing delicacy, creating an inspired ending filled with subtle power. 
It is said that for a conductor the Requiem is a dream come true, a unique opportunity to meld operatic drama, thrilling symphonic writing and dazzling solo moments. Massimo Zanetti displayed true command of all these elements, showing a deep understanding of the contrasts between terrifying and poignant moments, in touch with his emotions yet distancing himself when necessary. The San Diego Symphony was up to the task of fulfilling the demands of a score that tests the limits of each musician’s technical and interpretive skills. 
For San Diego Opera Chorus Master Charles Prestinari and Master Chorale Music Director Dr. Gary McKercher, the evening represented an impressive accomplishment. The impeccably prepared chorus sang with both force and subtlety whenever called for, alternately prominent and restrained, with consistency of tone throughout. To be able to control such massive forces so beautifully and effectively stands as proof of both men’s expertise and acumen. 
Verdi “adopted” the trumpet fanfares Berlioz used in his Requiem, but improved upon them, and the San Diego Symphony brass gave a remarkable performance. Often positioned antiphonally in the hall, the sounding brass symbolizes the call into the next world, to challenge our view of what lies ahead in the afterlife. One almost hopes this afterlife might somehow include a resurrection of San Diego Opera. 
Religious or not, those of us blessed with the fortune to witness this staggering evening cannot help but give thanks: to whatever Supreme Being is responsible for Verdi’s inspiration, and especially to San Diego Opera for providing a grateful audience with a memorable experience - and the opportunity to plumb the depths of our own grief at the loss of our beloved Company, the jewel in the cultural crown of San Diego, which one hopes will rise again, delivered “from death eternal” into “perpetual light.”

Photos used by permission of Piotr Beczala
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

Gracious, charming, highly intelligent and perceptive, Polish-born artist Piotr Beczala (dubbed “Piotr the Great” in San Francisco), first graced the San Diego Opera stage in his 2010 Bohème debut, triumphed these past weeks in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and will complete his “March madness” with Verdi’s monumental Requiem. Acclaimed for both the beauty of his voice and for his ardent commitment to each character he portrays,  he is also an avid golfer, and loves being here in San Diego.
EM: What a pleasure it has been to welcome you back to SDO. It is such an honor to hear you sing, to be here talking to you.
PB: It is my honor to be here with this company.
EM: I really appreciate your coming in on your day off.
PB: No problem. I have until four o’clock tee time. I mean tee time golf. It’s the last possibility, actually, we can play golf, because tomorrow we start already with the orchestra rehearsal for the Requiem and it’s done. When I am singing I try to avoid too much sun, too much wind. I’m not very delicate, but you know, I have to be careful. It’s too serious. At a time when I did some small roles I could do everything, but it’s a long, long time ago. Sometimes we are somewhere and we have a good company, nice colleagues. But I’m not really social in that case because I have to say, “No thank you, I can’t go with you.” Of course people understand but it’s a little bit sad.
EM: But there’s so much other happiness to replace it, all these wonderful roles you’re singing.
PB: And I’m happy with that.
EM: How has your experience been here this time?
PB: It has been so harmonious, such a fantastic group to work with. Everyone contributes to create a wonderful experience on stage. They are always there for me, whatever I need, with costume, or anything. I don’t even have to ask. At La Scala… you may have heard about that.
EM: Yes, of course. That must have been so unpleasant for you.
PB: Not only the audience reaction, but also the experience as a whole. It is so much different at La Scala, the attitude of the people working there, from the States. Here, everyone cooperates to create a beautiful opera. At La Scala, they are not feeling a part of the whole process, they are more interested each one in themselves. They look at their watches, waiting for the rehearsal to be over. It’s not about making music. But here in San Diego, the group all works together harmoniously.
EM: And we have the privilege and honor of hearing you.
PB: I have the privilege to sing these kinds of roles. Sometimes when I speak with my colleagues they are more in German directions, more Strauss operas. It’s not really for me. It will be not challenging or fun enough to sing a Kaiser in Frau Ohne Schatten for example, or Bacchus, though I hope to do Lohengrin someday. But those Strauss roles, in my opinion, don’t fill the evening as a tenor. It’s hard singing, but fifteen minutes actually. It’s not enough.
EM: Plus you don’t have the opportunity to expand into the role, the way you’re so brilliant at doing. Your voice is glorious, of course, but also you infuse your characters so beautifully.

PB: If it's so short, you can't develop in the operas. Well, of course, they like it, too, to do this kind of music.
EM: À chacun son goût. Do you speak French?
PB: No, just un petit peu. All my French is Werther, Faust, des Grieux and Roméo. That’s all. But it’s old French and I can’t use it (laughs). I’m such a long time in America now, three and a half months. I will be now in Paris for three and a half weeks, for Bohème. I hope to have possibility to practice a little bit.
EM: I’m curious about your early background. You were born in… How do you pronounce it?
PB: Czechowice-Dziedzice. The difference between “Cze”, “Dze,” it’s really difficult for people out of Poland.
EM: Well, I have it on tape now so I can practice. But I wanted to ask you about the origin of the name. Is the first part named Czechowice because of the proximity to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or is that coincidental?
PB: A lot of villages or towns in Poland are split by the river, for example, like Buda and Pest in Hungary. We had also a river but it was not the reason for the double name; it was the old part of the town and the new one. Dziedzice was the name of the aristocrat who owned the land. Czechowice was the town, and it comes together, Czechowice and Dziedzice.
EM: That makes perfect sense, if only I could pronounce it. What was your second language after Polish?
PB: In those days when I was a child it had to be Russian. But actually I consider German my second language.
EM: When did you leave Czechowice-Dziedzice?
PB: I was going away to study in Katowice.
EM: Which is about how far?
PB: Fifty kilometers. But I was living in Katowice, I wasn’t traveling. I had an opportunity, I got a stipendium and it was possible to have a room in the college dormitory.
EM: How old were you then?
PB: I was nineteen, nineteen and a half. Almost twenty.
EM: So really grown up enough to be on your own.
PB: Yes. I started, it was late, because for an opera singer, a musician, to start to do something with music seriously at nineteen is actually too late, because if you don’t have a possibility as a child to play an instrument, to do something with music, to read the music… you have to understand the language of music. It was very difficult for me to explore this kind of territory. It is better to have an education, to start a study in Poland, to be an opera singer. To be violinist, you have to make all the steps: grammar school, Conservatory, middle school, and then the study. As a tenor, the exam was pretty complicated, because you have also theory and history of music. I had to learn it all in couple of months so I could do the exam. Also reading the notes, the music, and solfeggio, it was really horrible because it was completely new for me. I was already almost a year in a chorus and it was some approach of the music. But I had to read the music. I had to learn somehow how it worked. In effect when I started to be a student, though the exam was positive, I realized I was the only one who really has no background in music. Everybody has three years violin, five years piano, as a child, then it’s much easier to manage what we have to learn.
EM: And all you had was chorus.
PB: Yes. It was tough. Actually, I realize two things. First, I really don’t have to play piano as a tenor. It was a big music academy, every instrument, and we also had pianists, who had to make the exam in accompaniment. And I was so nice to be ready when they asked me, “Could you sing the five songs for me with the exam?” and I said, “No problem.” I did it, and that way I had the song repertory through the years. I realized, okay, so many fantastic pianists, in any moment of my singer’s life I will find somebody who plays for me, I don’t have to play myself. But it would be easier, of course, if I could play on some level.
EM: But the most important instrument for you is just that glorious voice. I’m sure it was recognized, even if you didn’t start until you were nineteen. With voice, you still have to be very careful not to start too early, to push too early.
PB: That’s true. Your body has to be adult to sing opera seriously. When I hear now people, fourteen or fifteen, because the parents are so excited, they’re thinking, “Maybe he has a voice.” Of course maybe he or she has a voice, but the wait is so long to be opera singer. Especially in America, the young people have two semesters in college of vocal training and they think they are already opera singers.
EM: Speaking of young singers, was there a tenor who inspired you when you first started out?
PB: Fritz Wunderlich. When I came to study in Weimar I first heard his recordings. Not only the voice but how he sang with it, so much with Nature, not artificial or against Nature. Other singers, like Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, were such great artists, but everything was so precise. With Wunderlich everything was so natural. But we lost him too soon. So sad. He never reached his potential, and we’ll never know what it might have been.
EM: How would you describe the influence of your voice teachers, Pavel Lisitsian and Sena Jurinac, when you started singing seriously?
PB: They both were tremendous to me. Lisitsian was one of the greatest singing teachers of all time. He taught Pavarotti. His teaching technique was not to show but to explain how to sing, to make it your own, because each voice is different, unique, with its own qualities. After that, Jurinac invited me to study with her. She of course had so many years singing opera on the stage. She guided me to Mozart, to start with Tamino, and with Don Ottavio, which is by far the most difficult to sing. Then I was invited to my first year at Salzburg. I had the opportunity to watch and listen to all the great tenors of the time: Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Alfredo Kraus, Araiza, all of them together. I learned so much of value at that time. After that I went to Linz for first major engagement and to Zurich, which is an international opera city. And I have been lucky to work with great conductors. Muti, Nello Santi. Santi taught me bel canto. And he knows so well how to sing Verdi, for example, the dotted rhythms. Verdi uses those as a guide for placing the voice, not just to be precise and staccato (sings).
EM: Since then your repertoire has included so many of the most popular romantic opera roles: Alfredo, Duca di Mantova, Riccardo, Werther, Faust, Roméo, Lensky, Tamino, Don Ottavio, the Italian Singer (Rosenkavalier). How would you compare those to the lesser-performed works you’ve sung in, such as Rusalka, Iolanta, The Bartered Bride, Beatrice di Tenda? Which do you feel most comfortable in?
PB: Werther, Faust, Roméo, des Grieux, these are the favorite roles for me, my “meat” for my voice. Of course I love the Verdi, but the French composers, Gounod, Massenet, they knew how to write for the voice, to show off its best qualities. The line just goes to the best range and knows how long to stay there. Nothing feels better for me. With Verdi, one thinks Traviata and Trovatore. I haven’t sung Trovatore yet, but it’s actually Traviata that’s heavier, deeper. Trovatore is a musician. He accompanies himself with his instrument (mimes playing, sings), much lighter than Traviata, except three and a half minutes “Di Quella Pirra” (sings). Next will come Aida and the later, heavier roles, and eventually maybe Otello. But that one is a long way off, even if I can do it.
EM: And Puccini?
PB: For Puccini, one has to sing differently. You can’t do Verdi and suddenly switch to Cavaradossi. You must prepare. It’s much heavier. A different kind of singing.
EM: Now that you’ve done des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon will you also sing des Grieux in Manon Lescaut? Is that also a different kind of singing from the Massenet?
PB: Totally different, but doable. And yes, I hope to sing it one day. But I canceled Hoffmann in Vienna. It is a role that doesn’t give opportunity for character development. There is no transformation. With each act, he goes further and further down. I spoke with Neil Shicoff about it. As much as he did the role, he said it was difficult to deal with the character. So I decided not to do it now. But I won’t replace it with another engagement. I will do some charity concerts instead.
EM: How did you feel about the contemporary Rigoletto at the Met?
PB: I loved it. Fantastic. I thought the “Rat Pack” production really worked. When (Director) Michael Mayers first told me about it, he said it would be very different from the traditional. But I love those guys, you know, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior. This “Las Vegas” Duke of Mantova is such a combination of all of their personalities. And it really worked.
EM: What about that translation?
PB: That was not so good. There are things going on when I am at the back of the stage, very serious things, with Rigoletto and Sparafucile. When I first heard the audience laugh I wondered why. Then I looked at the translation and understood that the language, the slang, was not appropriate for that moment. It was just too much. But I loved the concept of the production, and it was so much fun to do.
EM: Now, after your huge success with Ballo you have the Verdi Requiem. How would you compare performing this masterpiece with Verdi’s operas? Would you call it a religious experience?
PB: It is a great masterpiece, of course. What Verdi wrote was so much from his operas, parts of Aida, Otello and others. There is of course the quartet, but not so much individual voices as all contributing to the whole, and so beautifully written. Each voice integrates perfectly with the others. Verdi was not so much a religious or pious man. And the Requiem is not part of the Mass, not prayer or being in church. It is its own piece, much more intimate than opera, but one’s own intimacy shared with something outside of oneself - with a Supreme Being.
EM: What is coming up for you in performances and recordings?
PB: After Paris Bohème I go to Prague for Tauber Heart’s Delight, which I do also in Salzburg and Vienna, then Faust in Vienna.
EM: But first we are to witness you in the magnificent Verdi Requiem this week. And what a pleasure it has been to spend time with you. Every moment has been precious. Thank you so much.
PB: Thank you.

Photos used by permission of San Diego OperaErica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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Professor Morten Lauridsen

By Douglas Neslund
It was a difficult evening for a critic to remain untouched by the waves of love for composer Morten Lauridsen showered from the rafters in a full house Walt Disney Concert Hall. Where a review is normally expected to produce a reportage cum opinion of the works performed, normal critical diffidence to extracurricular factors is expected to prevail.
On another level, the event might well have qualified as a celebration of the University of Southern California, its professorial excellence and a triumph of its graduates and postgraduates. The tribute itself was bestowed upon Professor Morten Lauridsen from a Master Chorale well-populated with USC grads and students, conducted by Grant Gershon, who as a student sang the premiere performance of Lauridsen’s “Mid-Winter Songs” as a member of the famous USC Chamber Choir, and who graduated from USC cum laude in 1985.
Lots of Trojans of all ages, including your friendly critic, peopled the audience as well. The University’s Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture, Dana Gioia, was honored, too, by a heartfelt composition by Lauridsen, a wonderful setting of Professor Gioia’s “Prayer,” a father’s request to a generic deity to watch over his first-born son, who died after only four months of life:
Professor Dana Gioia
Echo of the clock tower, footstep ?in the alleyway, sweep ?of the wind sifting the leaves.Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur ?of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning? harvesting the sky.?Keeper of the small gate, choreographer ?of entrances and exits, midnight? whisper travelling the wires.?Seducer, healer, deity or thief, I will see you soon enough—?in the shadow of the rainfall, in the brief violet darkening at sunset—?but until then I pray watch over him ?as a mountain guards its covert ore?? and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
The framework for the evening is the music of Professor Lauridsen, who also teaches a class in composition at USC, having attended such a class by his predecessor in office, the esteemed Halsey Stevens, with whom this writer also studied. So, how to remain objective?
A sometimes jarring piece, “Lament for Pasiphaë,” the first of five “Mid-Winter Songs on Poems by Robert Graves,” (premiered by the USC Chamber Singers) featured jagged pianistic stabbings, albeit via superb piano solo work by Lisa Edwards. The five movements varied, with “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep” and “Mid-Winter Waking” the most attractive and well-matched with the poetry. The Master Chorale’s brilliant enunciation, even at pianissimo, was exemplary, and phrase shaping was unmatched. This Chorale understands this composer and their conductor at the DNA level.
The gentlemen of the Master Chorale, featuring brief solos by tenors Shawn Kirchner and Matthew Brown, together with baritone Scott Graff and the redoubtable Theresa Dimond on the finger cymbals, performed “Ave Dulcissima Maria” which awakened faint reminders of Biber and Tavener (minus the Russian basses) in evoking an Orthodox chant-like theme.
Lauridsen dipped his pen into the bitter cup of grief at the death of Professor Stevens through the medium of a solo clarinet and chimes (“Canticle”), with brief words of condolence (“O Vos Omnes”) by the women of the Master Chorale. The soloist, Gary Bovyer, deployed his instrument in all possible ways, including several instances in which two notes (a fundament sounding simultaneously with its harmonic), created an other-worldly sound that tended to divert attention away from grief toward a sense of shuddering repulsion.  The pain was visceral. The primary content sounded like a chain of tone rows, with nothing resembling a melody. As an expression of grief, it works, dramatically.
“Nocturnes,” a suite of four movements putting music to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and James Agee, was premiered in 2005 by yet another member of the USC Trojan Family, Don Brinegar and his Don Brinegar Singers. On this occasion, the composer accompanied the Master Chorale at the keyboard on all but “Soneto de la Noche” (Neruda) where a keyboard would have intruded upon Neruda’s highly personal and delicate poetry of passion. The third item, “Sure On This Shining Night” (Agee) has been recorded and performed by the Master Chorale in previous seasons and is worthy of a return hearing.
The post-intermission selections were a little less daring in their sonic construction, but gained an equal portion in harmonies and melodies. “Madrigale: Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems” (texts drawn from disparate sources) contain a wide range of emotions, including wit difficult to find elsewhere. As a leading element to the second half, the Madrigals were a pleasant palate freshener. Here the Master Chorale had to be pinpoint perfect in creating an ensemble that held together during Italian phrases sung at lightning speed. The reference to “Fire Songs” refers to Lauridsen’s use, in each of the six madrigals, of a chord that is not only special to him, but that has become his inspiration and “watermark.”
When casually tuning into KUSC-FM, and a Lauridsen composition happens to be playing, one recognizes almost instantly who the composer is, as the “fire chord” will likely be heard often. It’s his inspiration, his launching pad. A gadget, some would say. But “watermark” defines it better, as it may be reasoned that fellow musicians, in particular, would be able to catch the passing “fire chords.” If there is a downside to this persistent use in a full concert is something of a familiar annoyance to the ear. 
One other less significant watermark of a Lauridsen composition is reliance on basically harmonic chord structure relying on a lot of second and third inversions. After long minutes, one begins to yearn for a tonic in the bass, especially at cadences. Not that there aren’t any. Of course there are. But an entire evening of second and third inversions tends to want to make weary the friendliest ear.
The penultimate offering was the beautiful “Les Chansons des Roses” cycle, set to “Les Roses,” a cycle of poetry by Rilke, with the composer at the piano. The “hit tune” of the five songs is “Dirait-on,” revealing a beautiful melody that is a haunting earworm.
The ease at which Lauridsen writes in French and Italian is remarkable. In the preconcert “ListenUp!” talk with KUSC’s Alan Chapman and Maestro Gershon, the composer admitted that he speaks neither language. Maybe somewhere in the very distant past … 
Maestro Grant Gershon
Perhaps lost in the details is the fact that an entire evening of lengthy pianissimos and delicate phrase-shaping can take its toll on the conductor, who never has a moment to relax and relish, but is challenged to make every moment of every phrase the living, breathing art that it is. Grant Gershon managed to do that, and brought his 48-member Master Chorale with him.
Music Director Emeritus Paul Salamunovich, who is still in a lengthy recovery from having contracted West Nile Virus last fall, was remembered with another performance of Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” commissioned twenty years ago by Terry Knowles and Marshall Rutter. The work has been sung often in the intervening decades, and is performed by choirs far and wide.
The notable thing is how Maestro Gershon can make the piece sound like one is hearing it for the very first time, finding new micro-elements within the well-worn phrases to reveal a new facet here, and new inspiration there.
Fight on!

“Prayer” is reproduced by kind permission of the author.Photographs copyrighted by Steve Cohn, Michael Stillwater, Russell Scoffin, or exist in the public domain.
2 years ago | |
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by Ewa Gorniak Morgan

Conductors, like commercial airline pilots, constantly travel across the globe for their assignments. This can be particularly hard on those of the younger generation in their 20s to 40s. They must arrive at their destinations full of enthusiasm and immediately begin rehearsals with orchestras of varying sizes and capabilities, performing one or two concerts and then continuing on a career path planned tightly two or three years ahead, leaving little time to spend with their families. With such schedules, they also rarely have time to write books. 
Yet, busy 40-something conductor John Axelrod has just come out with: The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis – A Conductor's View (Naxos Books in English and Henschel Verlag in German), which draws a panoramic picture of contemporary orchestras in different countries and proves that understanding an orchestra's anthropology and the way it reflects its cultural context is vital for the music-making process. And, according to Axelrod, it also enables conductors to do a better job.

I meet Axelrod at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples where he is preparing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Born in Texas in 1966, disciple of Leonard Bernstein, graduate of Harvard and St. Petersburg Conservatory under Ilya Musin, he now lives in Europe and is the principle conductor of the Orchestra La Verdi in Milan. Even his concise biography sounds like a travelog. 
Ewa Gorniak Morgan: First off, when did you find time to write a book?

John Axelrod [responding with a smile]:We get a lot of airplane time and are often alone in our hotel rooms after rehearsals.

EGM: You have not reached the age of 50 and you've already conducted 150 orchestras across the world. How did you accomplish this and what does it say about you?
JA: It means that I never said no! [laughs] It's important to understand that for a conductor repertoire is everything. We hear it from the very beginning of our studies: repertoire, repertoire, repertoire, learn the repertoire. It's very difficult to be a specialist even though the industry itself, culturally speaking, tries to categorize and pigeonhole you. If you're Polish, they want you to do Penderecki and Lutoslawski, if you're American they want you to do Bernstein and Gershwin but we are obligated to know the core repertoire as much as we can. I've always had diverse interests which include film music, jazz, rock, contemporary music and I've done all of the above: from audience development engagements to serious subscription concerts, from being musical director in Hollywood and in Vienna to collaborating with Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang.... all these different things with different orchestras. So whether I'm 47, 37 or 67, it doesn't matter, it's a question of the available opportunities. We now have more orchestras than any other time in the history so there are more invitations, you can be younger than I am and have conducted 150 orchestras as well. The point is that all those orchestras around the world need conductors. So "Have Baton, Will Travel." 
EGM: And just like Karajan you'll have your own jet?
JA: Conductors are mislabeled as jet-set while they have to travel. One of the reasons why we're constantly on the go is that the industry itself as a business model is not allowing us to actually earn a living in a way that is commensurate with the amount of work that we do. If you just take the gross conductor's fee, deduct the taxes, then the management commission up to 20%, plus all the necessary expenses, whether it be hotel, eating out, or laundry for the frak, at the end the conductor might be left with only about 20%.... So earning a living requires literally taking as many engagements as possible, unless you also have a fixed position and can balance between the two which has been my case. I think Valery Gergiev, by the way, holds the Guinness record for the biggest number of concerts on different continents within 24 hours: starting in Japan, going to London, then to America, ending up in Japan, all in one day. 
EGM: But how can one digest so much repertoire in such a short time? 
JA: That's a good question. I think that experience pays and you get used to learning scores quickly. Conductors are students to the day they die – trying to understand the intention of the composer - but once you know the piece it doesn't require the same amount of effort to learn. When I first started it was an enormous struggle to climb that mountain of learning Beethoven's symphony, today I've conducted all his symphonies several times so I revisit the music and pinpoint those very places where I could discover something new. It's a little bit like being an explorer: the first time you dig in the ground you don't know what you'll find but once you get to the treasure you can sniff it, feel it and see the possible obstacles for the orchestra to learn the piece of music. You need a lot of practice and it is because I have conducted so many different orchestras that now I can understand how differently orchestras respond to the same piece of music. I had a great fortune and experience of working for many years with Simfonietta Cracovia in Krakow, by Krzysztof Penderecki's invitation. With Simfonietta, led by wonderful violinist Robert Kabara, as a young conductor I was able to quickly absorb the music from core repertoire to the contemporary, and through their way of working in depth and in detail, I learned how to arrive to an interpretation. I also had to memorize the music quickly because they knew it all by heart. 
EGM: You like working with young orchestras; what makes that experience special? 
JA: The very fact that they are so dedicated and involved in the music. If I said in Krakow, "It's been two hours; don't you want to take a break?” - the answer was, “No, let's play.” That's almost unheard of but many youth orchestras have a similar attitude. They are totally engaged, not yet jaded, and they are not part of the union system which would make them say, “It's time to stop, no more.” And while I respect the union system and believe that all orchestras should have the benefits that come from the union organization, I think that to some extent it has been exploited to the degree that takes us away from going in depth into the music. In Krakow, to use that example one more time, the musicians lived and breathed with music and were willing to do anything so that each note will follow another with inevitability, as Bernstein used to say. Thinking of young musicians, I've started an association called Culture All, endorsed by Unesco, the idea of which is performing the music of the greatest composers of today in the greatest locations of the past and developing the greatest musicians and public of tomorrow. That's the American part of me; I'm rather optimistic. 

EGM: What is the source of the crisis then? 
JA: Quite clearly, it's a combination of things: there is a public that's not informed and not involved, and there is a union that is the obstacle to the quality that the music is supposed to represent and stands for the quantity. You should get paid well because you play well and you should play well because you're paid well. It's symbiotic. Just like you cannot separate the artist from the patron and the other way around, there has to be an osmosis. The difference between good and great is marked by engagement and commitment. What made Bernstein or Kleiber so incredible is their willingness to live or die for one note, just because you cannot do anything else. As a conductor you live in that present moment and there is no other option than to give it your hundred thousand percent. That kind of engagement is believable. If you are asking the public to come to a concert or invest their money into a performance of a symphony that's supposed to represent the greatness of humanity and you get an orchestra that plays jaded, it's hard to convince the public that what they're doing is worth the investment. Great orchestras will survive because they represent the highest level of virtuosity, quality and tradition. 
EGM: Can a conductor be a virtuoso? 
JA: Of course. Lorin Maazel is a virtuoso with his baton, Kleiber was a virtuoso with his gesture, Lenny was a virtuoso with his extreme emotion, his love, and Karajan with his control, while Abbado was a virtuoso in his humility. What we do is extremely difficult, I know because I remember all the mistakes I made. Depending on the orchestra we may have to fix things in the score differently and take full responsibility for that. Working with an orchestra is not about power, it's not about who decides. It's about music and Kleiber was able to project the purity and innocence of it with his smile but he also demanded very many rehearsals and if he didn't get them he simply wouldn't come. He had principles while representing pureness and liberty at the same time. With Bernstein we lost the permission to be good at everything and he certainly was. When I saw him before he died he asked: “Are you conducting?” “No, maestro," I replied, "I can't follow in your footsteps.” “Too bad," he said, "It's a loss.” But if, when we were studying, I had said to him, “In twenty five years I'm going to take your advice, become a conductor and I'm going to be the one to do your Candide at La Scala,” he would have laughed, he would have pat me on the head and said, “Good boy, I hope that happens.”

It happened although I wasn't planning to be a conductor. I became one when I realized that my life was empty without making music and that Lenny was right in having great love for humanity but a great deal of disillusion with men. He and Kleiber, and many others – not that I can compare myself to them – saw the greater truth in music. Art is a way to escape, to swim with your head above water when everything around you is trying to pull you down. Look at the videos of Bernstein doing the Mahler with Wiener Philharmonic. He was angry and frustrated and throwing his baton and shouting, and there were instances when Kleiber would lock himself in the dressing room and refuse to do the concert or Karajan threatening to burn master tapes of the recordings that were profitable for the musicians because he felt taken advantage of. I go along with the Lennon and McCartney's idea, “The love you make is equal to the love you take.” I try to give a lot of love to orchestras and I'm very hurt when this message of love is betrayed. 

EGM: A Conductor's View? What is there that a conductor can see that others don't and why is it important?
JA: I address my book to the general reader, not just the industry. I try to inform audiences about the instrument called orchestra without which we cannot play that Mahler symphony or that Tchaikovsky opera. Most people in the industry don't want the conductor to say anything. Orchestras don't like when conductors talk either. The very fact that I wrote the book made some people raise their eyebrows, but my teacher was Bernstein who talked a lot and wrote many books so I thought that there was a precedent and an example to follow, which I felt very close to. In fact my next book is about conducting Bernstein's symphonies for the 25th anniversary of his death in 2015. From the conductor's podium you see all the issues facing an orchestra, from both administrative and artistic perspective, and you can expose those challenges to the public. One of the reasons why orchestras had gotten into the crisis is that the curtain was down. Most of the general public still thinks of classical music in glamorous terms. They see conductors from a mythical point of view. The reality is that we have the most expensive art form in the world in opera and classical music. When you deal with issues of cost of labor and productivity, you realize that the cost of making classical music is greater than the revenue it produces, so it depends on the support from the state or individuals. It's not just to the 1% that I write about or to the remaining 99%, it's to the 100% that music belongs to. 
EGM: What you're talking about now sounds more like a prenuptial contract rather than a love story... 
JA: Let's be clear, it is music that transcends boundaries and languages. It may be minimal and the language may be Polish, like in Gorecki's case, but it is able to penetrate the global audience and remain successful. The romantic element of the love story between the public and the instrument of the orchestra is from the music that we make. All the rest is just statistics, facts, and theories or concepts and analytics, which show rather a depressing picture. When we are faced with music, though, we can recognize the aspect that touches our humanity deeply and that's where the love is.

EGM: And judging by the title of your latest CD, you also think that we should love Brahms.

JA: I am a romantic. Twenty years ago I set to music love poems of romantic poets in a recording, How Do I Love Thee? I am writing an opera about Adam and Eve. Everything is about love to me, the way it was for Lenny, but more on the romantic side. Tristan and Isolde is my favorite opera. With Brahms Beloved (Telarc) I wanted to say something about Brahms through the scope of his relationship with Clara. It is a bit like a romantic opera in the sense that there was a man who was in love with a woman; this love was never fulfilled so it had to exist on a different level. Unquestionably some of that feeling can be found in his music, which is why I partnered symphonies with the lieder of Clara Schumann, even though she didn't write them for Brahms. I'm a pianist as well so I could contribute not only as a conductor. And having Wolfgang Holzmair and Felcity Lott in the second CD, which will be out in June, adds a lot of credibility to the lieder. It is about love, about finding a different voice for Brahms from this perspective. I'm willing to give everything I have for every note. Working on Eugene Onegin here at the magnificent theatre of San Carlo in Naples is a good example. I'll do anything to hear that one phrase, to hear Tatiana sing that high A flat, to have that anguish in Lenski's voice, to finally hear Onegin screaming and suffering.... This is touching the top of Mount Everest; to hear all that, for me, is like touching gold.

Photos by Luciano Romano and Francesco Squeglia, courtesy Teatro San CarloPhoto of conductor hands by D. Vass,
Ewa Gorniak Morgan can be reached at
See also E.G.M.'s Venice (Italy) website:

2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner 

Overheard at the opening night intermission of SD Opera’s glittering production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball: “The music is really good.”
Love and death, jealousy and revenge, assassination and intrigue, culminating in a dazzle of song, dance, and a shower of sparkling gold, this exquisite piece of theater is, in the end, all about the music. Arias, ensembles, choruses, each one more intensely intricate than the last, regale the listener with their sophistication and beauty, until one is at last awash in the sheer sumptuousness of it all. Add in a dream cast, and the final product left the opening night capacity audience at San Diego Opera reeling with delight.
The spotted history that produced this Verdian splendor belies the opera’s magnificence. Verdi, a history buff, was always on the lookout for strong and unusual scenes and situations experienced by characters portraying the complexities of the human spirit; characters who, preferably, were bent on vengeance. Thus the true story of the brutal, politically motivated assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden in 1792 fulfilled all of Verdi’s most important criteria. The de rigueur ballet included in French playwright Eugène Scribe’s version of the story, Gustave III, ou Le Bal Masqué, on which Verdi’s librettist Antonio Somma based his 1859 text, was a welcome enhancement, providing the ideal scenario for a dramatic monarchal murder. A perfect storm of historical events, which included an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III and an injunction against depicting royalty on stage, wreaked havoc with Verdi’s deadline to complete his score. Notwithstanding these censors’ strictures, Verdi managed to pull off a masterpiece.
At the center of the extraordinary constellation of singers was Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. Last seen at SDO in his 2010 his debut in La Bohème, Beczala counts among his performance venues the world’s top opera houses and concert halls. In the difficult, aria-rich role of the beleaguered, lovesick king, the tenor’s voice poured from him like liquid gold: he paired his sensuous, exquisite tones, velvet phrasing and subtle dynamic contrasts with a dramatically varied characterization: at first making light of the trouble brewing for him; then showing a sense of fairness in counseling against the racial profiling of an outcast on the fringes of society; and finally throwing caution to the winds for the sake of his love for his people and for the unattainable Amelia.
In a stunning SDO debut as the fatally conflicted Amelia, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova showed mastery of a notoriously problematic role that has defeated many a soprano: the voice must be capable of rising above a heavy Verdi orchestration, yet agile enough to negotiate the tricky florid passages within the arias. In her first time performing the role, Stoyanova succeeded in accomplishing both. Her gorgeous instrument filled in the undulating vocal lines with ample sound and breadth, never seeming unwieldy, and she adeptly carried off the technical passages without missing a single note. Her vocal dexterity in the second act aria, “Ma dall'arido stelo” never failed; even in the climactic high “C” the sound remained focused, unfaltering, and beautifully pointed.
That these two astonishing artists have performed together before was strikingly evident in the highlight of the evening: their passionate duet, “Teco io sto… Gran Dio!” Their voices were as perfectly matched as a finely tuned world-class Stradivarius complemented with an exquisitely blended Pinot Nero.
In an inspired bit of luxury casting, internationally acclaimed American mezzo Stephanie Blythe made her SDO debut in the brief but pivotal role of the psychic fortuneteller Ulrica. Her Wagnerian expertise served her well, both in her vocal power and dramatic breadth. From the first terrifying moment calling in the king of the abyss until the shocking moment when she reveals Gustavo’s impending doom, she dominated her big scene with skill and panache. In her command of the situation, Stephanie Blythe reigned supreme.
Greek baritone Aris Argiris, in his North American debut, provided ample support as Beczala’s most faithful confidant, Count Anckarström. His abundant voice, if not as vocally beautiful as those in the other major roles, was generous, easily heard, and his arias were deftly phrased. 
As Gustavo’s ever-faithful pageboy Oscar, Kathleen Kim quickly became an audience favorite. Despite her tiny stature, the clarity of her voice cut through to the last row of the house in every solo passage, ensemble, chorus, and moment of heaviest orchestration. Her sparkling, winning characterization was a plus to a role in which she seemed utterly confident and at ease. Hers was undoubtedly a SDO debut to remember.
SDO mainstays Scott Sikon, Kevin Langan and Ashraf Sewailam solidly backed up the stellar cast with their accustomed proficiency.
In another impressive SDO debut, conductor Massimo Zanetti skillfully demonstrated his expertise culled from collaborations with virtually every major opera house in Europe. From the first three pizzicati to the final delicate high “B” in the prelude, and throughout the evening, the maestro showed meticulous attention to dynamics and coaxed velvety sounds from the strings, breathless tones from the winds, and appropriate weightiness from the brass. One would have preferred some of the tempi to be less rushed, allowing the instruments to do full justice to the cascades of notes required of them.
Returning after her great success in SDO’s Samson and Delilah last season, director Lesley Koenig showed her usual inventiveness in staging this work. From the very beginning, Koenig conveys the importance of disguises and masquerades; for example, in Act 1, she includes a diorama of the Act 3 ball scene set to represent Gustavo’s visualizing the decor, as he toys with a mask and banters with Oscar. Koenig moves the characters around the stage with great subtlety, their actions always organic to the flow, never forced or unduly noticeable, and beautifully integrated with designer John Conklin’s attractive sets. Conklin’s use of the balcony in the ball scene was both effective and appealing, adding much needed space for simultaneous differing actions between the characters. Repeating his admirable choreographic showing in last season’s Samson, Kenneth von Heidecke solved the problem of dovetailing the voluminous numbers of cast members on stage in Act 3 with an ongoing Commedia dell’Arte ballet that was lively and arresting: foreshadowing the murder about to take place without detracting from the shock element of the reprehensible deed.
When every last piece of glitter has fallen to the floor, one is left with the poignancy of the final scene and its brief choral hymn, which director Koenig has called “the most beautiful eleven bars and a quarter note in all of opera.”
In Verdi’s A Masked Ball, the music says everything. And it’s really good.

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