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By Erica Miner

This season’s San Diego Opera opening production of Puccini’s La bohème also serves as Resident Conductor Karen Keltner’s swan song with the company. Since her beginnings with SDO in 1982, Keltner, who was instrumental in breaking the glass ceiling for women in her field, has evolved into a valuable presence, conducting a wide variety of repertoire, from her beloved French operas to groundbreaking premieres of contemporary works. In this interview she discusses her panoply of experiences with famous directors, conductors, and opera luminaries like Dame Joan Sutherland. 
EM: Congratulations on your wonderful opening night! 
KK: Thank you. It was exciting wasn’t it? The adrenaline of the moment. There was a whole difference in the feeling with the excitement of this opening night from the uncertainty of those last performances of Don Quichotte last season ( It was a wonderful opera to do in those circumstances because Quichotte wasn’t a man who was going to give up, even in death. At that time we weren’t sure whether death was imminent. What an honor and privilege to be working that particular show with that particular artist (Ferruccio Furlanetto) in those circumstances. And then, par contre, last Saturday night. Everybody felt that kind of build up when we were busy rehearsing, but the actual night - I had just gotten word as I stepped onto the concourse that we were sold out. That can definitely help raise your spirits. It was ebullient, exhilarating. The atmosphere out there was electric. Vendors and food and mobs of people.
EM: Like the second act of bohème.
KK: Yes, what a wonderful comparison! 
EM: How did you feel about ending with bohème given your love for French opera? 
KK: As a child I was adopted but I actually was half Italian. I feel I have a Latin - be it French, be it Italian - temperament to a degree. So it’s fantastic doing bohème as the final one in my tenure as a full-time member of this company. I love that opera. I always have. I never in my wildest dreams could choreograph the setting where I would get to do this. It all just came about. I enjoyed tremendously working with Isabella (Bywater, bohème director). We come from such different traditions but her energy, her passion, her freshness, her engagement with what she did I found wonderfully refreshing. The show appeals so much to the audiences and the way the set works - no long gaps of curtain down, stage set change - the evocative quality of it. I almost smelled Gauloises cigarettes as I was rehearsing. That has not happened to me in a bohème before. And she designed all the costumes. 
EM: I was very impressed. To do something like that with basically one set was brilliant. I’m usually very skeptical of non-traditional period settings, having come from the Met, but I think I like this production even better than the traditional. If you know Paris and know French, it works. Like Midnight in Paris
KK: Yes! It put me in the setting much more than any other of today’s productions. 
EM: In addition to congratulating you on opening night, I wanted to congratulate you on your imminent… 
KK: Stepping down? [Laughs] Retirement to me it has such an ominous sound. I don’t plan to retire. To me somebody who retires backs off, sits on the couch and doesn’t do anything. 35 years of music administration - it’s fine, I did well - but doing anything for 35 years is grinding after a while. I’ve been using all sorts of euphemisms but what I’m hoping is to back off of doing that. I was at a university before I came here and then teaching assistant at Indiana (University). It’s been a long haul so I’m going to take at least two weeks and pretend it’s a vacation. [Laughs] 
EM: What are your plans? 
KK: My aspiration is to continue conducting, in collaboration with SDO and other companies. I’ve always said that if I die I hope it’s on the podium - at the end of an opera rather than in the middle! It will probably be difficult and challenging but I’m hopeful. I’m looking forward to continuing as senior conductor of the Utah Opera Festival, opera and music theater. This is going to be my 19th summer as one of two conductors. I’m hoping to do more conducting of opera around. I feel excited because there are so many things that could happen. I’ve dreamed of writing. I want to look around and see and feel and experience and do. There are people I want to catch up with. The whole reason I have a career is that it takes a village for all of us. A lot of those people who gave me chances are still around. Richard Bonynge called me the other day. He’d just heard about my retirement. It was wonderful talking to him. I’d love to catch up with him again. Eduardo (Mueller, former SDO Music Director) - we spoke a few weeks ago - he heard about opening night and said it was wonderful that the company was continuing. My conducting mentor, Fiora Contino, who I think is going to be 90 - I’m going to see her in the spring. 
EM: What will you do at the Utah Festival? 
KK: Musicals - Carousel and La Mancha. I love musicals. I grew up in a house where we had records of musicals - it was not an “opera” house. When I heard my first opera I was enchanted. At Indiana I became a devotee, admirer and “practicer” of opera. But I have two sides of the coin, which are very much a part of my heart. Musicals are American, our contribution to the musical world, but of course I hope I can continue to do opera because I really love it with all my heart. 
EM: As do we all. 
KK: As someone who’s always sought out the wisdom of older people, I’m starting now to discover how wonderful it is also to be around and interact with younger people. I’m looking forward to finding ways to do that too, because it’s important. And I don’t know how it happened - I turned around and a decade or two have passed. There may come a day when I really will miss making budgets, making sure the pianos are tuned and arrangements are made, communicating cuts with other conductors, organizing the rights and royalties to use for certain works we’re doing. But it might be a little while. 
EM: It’s probably a long time in coming. What are some of your fondest memories at SDO? 
KK: The first opera I conducted was Barber with Hermann Prey. I was a green kid, and I made arrangements to meet him at his hotel a day or two before rehearsals started. I remember knocking on his door and being nervous. The door opened and there was this wonderfully engaging smile. We sat down and started discussing the part. He said, “You know, I have never been conducted by a… woman .” I said, “Believe me, I’ve never conducted Hermann Prey.” He was one of the most generous collaborators. You learn from someone like that musically and as an artist, but also about the art of being a wonderful human being. Susanne Mentzer was the mezzo - I adore Susie. It was a wonderful production. I will always have it etched in my heart and mind. I first came as a pianist-music assistant and was supposed to play, in my fashion, and I did, Werther with an Argentinian conductor, and in my nervousness every blue note I hit I can still see him going [grimaces]. Poor man. My first assistant conductor assignment was to Richard Bonynge in Fledermaus with both Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. 
EM: What a way to start. 
KK: I remember sitting in the house taking notes, then going to Bonynge’s dressing room and saying, “At rehearsal #32, the orchestra kind of…” I faltered and he said, “Well spit it out, darling, that’s what you’re here for [Laughs]. I said, “I couldn’t hear Dame Joan.” He said, “Well thank you, that’s what we’ll do.” They’ve become dear friends. I sat with her in their chalet in Switzerland once and sewed curtains with her. 
EM: I loved watching them work together at the Met, all the repartee. 
KK: I remember her saying to him once, “Well you don’t have to sing it, do you?” [Laughs] Can you imagine for a kid coming in to be around that? I loved it. They were just gracious. They’d stay after performances to sign programs and records for their public. She’d been standing with sixty pounds of costumes on her. I said to him, “Both of you are so gracious.” He said, “Darling, I was a fan once. I still am.” 
Next, Part 2: More opera stars, Keltner memories and thoughts 

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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Malcolm MacKenzie Dishes about Opera, Voice Acting and Benedict Cumberbatch

By Erica Miner
San Diego Opera audiences will be delighted once again to see dramatic baritone Malcolm MacKenzie on stage for this season’s opener, Puccini’s ever-popular La Bohème. With over ten years of experience performing with the company, MacKenzie is a familiar presence to SDO fans. Excited to be participating in the first production of the company’s new season as “Opera Renewed” and also their Fiftieth Anniversary season, he shared some of his past experiences with the company, his exhilaration at returning to his role, and the perks of Bohème as “an opera for everyone.” 
EM: Tell me about your history with San Diego Opera. 
MM: I first came to San Diego Opera as a part of a shared production of Rigoletto from LA Opera where I had been a Resident Artist. I then was contracted to sing Escamillo in SDO’s Carmen in a subsequent season and have performed with them almost every year for the past ten years. 
EM: What do you most look forward to about returning to SDO? 
MM: San Diego Opera is one of my favorite companies. Its productions are always of the highest caliber. And rarely have I worked with a more dedicated, giving and professional staff. 
EM: You actually have a degree in physiology. It must be great as a singer to have that knowledge about the voice and vocal chords. 
MM: It’s been very useful. I teach now, so the physiology background helps. It also introduced me to my wife - we were in classes together. She’s a physical therapist. That’s the best thing about my degree. [Laughs] I find it very interesting, especially with acoustical singers, what we can do with our voices. It’s nutty, the kind of sound we can make. I love actors and the way they use their voices, and I’m very vocal about it. If everybody studied voice acting like Benedict Cumberbatch we’d have so much better voice actors. [Laughs] One of the things that makes him great is the way he uses his voice. That’s because he was trained for stage in the old fashioned way. 
EM: No one has acting background like the Brits do, between Shakespeare and everything since. 
MM: An enormous stage tradition where they still use stage voice as opposed to being amplified, which is the way it’s often done here. 
EM: You’re doing some new roles this season? 
MM: I have a new part, which I’m very excited about, the role of Roger Chillingworth in the world premiere of Scarlet Letter, by Lori Laitman ( She’s a fantastic composer. 
EM: Where and when is the premiere? 
MM: Opera Colorado, May of 2016. I’m very much looking forward to it. 
EM: Rightfully so. Last season you did Simon Boccanegra. That must have been a huge challenge. 
MM: It’s one of my favorite pieces ever. I sing a lot of Verdi now. I haven’t sung all the roles yet, but that was one I had always loved. I never thought I’d get a chance to sing the title role. it came totally out of the blue. They said, “Would Malcolm be interested in singing Boccanegra?” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” 
EM: A lot of singers wait until they’re far more mature for that role. 
MM: I’m not as young as perhaps you think I am. I’m proud to say I’m forty-seven. A lot of singers sing roles too soon now, especially since people are very much in love with the visual, how you look on stage. The appropriateness of roles has sometimes taken a back seat. I’ve avoided certain roles, I’ve not sung Rigoletto yet - I would like to, but it’s one of those that frighten me a bit, because it’s quite difficult. 
EM: And heavier than Boccanegra in some ways. 
MM: I think it is. Boccanegra was more “lyric” than I expected it to be, though interestingly I found the lyric sections most challenging. But in this case, I was not going to say no. I was very happy to be with Kentucky Opera, I’d never sung with them before. I said, “I’ve got to do it because I’m never going to get a chance to do this again.” 
EM: You felt it was a good fit for you at that point? 
MM: I was a little shocked at how appropriate it felt. There were difficult sections, the duet with the soprano I find incredibly difficult because of the emotional gravitas. Then you have to sing very sotto voce after you’ve been yelling in the first act. But I really enjoyed it. 
EM: Also recently was your first Jack Rance in Puccini’s Fanciulla Del West
MM: Fanciulla is fantastic. There’s so much jazz in it. So many blue notes. 
EM: And very American. 
MM: The way he wrote it, it’s an homage to the history of Italy, the old way of doing things, yet it’s such an American piece. You can totally hear that Puccini was listening to Copland, going to jazz clubs. It’s amazing. People flew in from all over the country to see this opera at Nashville Opera. It’s so infrequently performed. 
EM: Did you find it as challenging as Boccanegra? 
MM: Puccini has different requirements of the singer. When one sings Puccini one is part of the orchestra. In Verdi the orchestra is accompanying you. Being heard, fitting into a large orchestration in Puccini can be a challenge, especially as a baritone or bass, because it’s easy to get lost. A soprano can soar above everyone and still be hearable. Puccini is always thinking about the voice, especially in these climactic emotional moments, which nobody did like he did. Verdi, especially early Verdi, is very Donizetti-like. [Sings] All about the voice. When you start singing, things drop out in the orchestra. Nobody doubles your part. People think of Verdi as being so big. It’s actually much lighter in its feel. You literally don’t have to produce as much sound from a singing standpoint. Whereas in Puccini you’re on all the time. It’s taxing in a different way. 
EM: What roles haven’t you done that you’d like to do? MM: I’d love to sing Papageno. I’m a huge Mozart fan and never get to sing it. I got to do that “happy guy” for Elixir( last year. Now I’m largely seen as a bad guy, Verdi-esque, completely fine. Two others I really like are Di Luna (Verdi’s Il Trovatore) - it’s a hoot to sing - and Renato, in Ballo in Maschera. I love that piece. 
EM: As we’ve all seen, everybody in this town adores this opera company and has helped it survive. We’re going to open with an opera everyone knows and loves. What are your thoughts about starting SDO’s season with Bohème, how you feel about being here for this first performance? 
MM: Every time I visit Bohème it’s like coming home. It was one of my first productions. It’s the quintessential first opera. Being the opening of the SDO season, it’s doubly appropriate. It’s described as a warhorse but it’s a modern opera, about young people. If you’re trying to bring a friend to their first opera, this is the way to do it. It’s of movie length for today’s audience, it’s got tearjerker movie music, and there’s no dead space. No one can come to it and go away unmoved. For even your foot-draggingest friend it’s no more time investment than going to a movie. It’s the “toe in the water” opera that appeals to young people, the perfect piece for SDO to come back with. People new to opera will go, “Oh, it’s about young people. Sure, why not, I’ll go see it.” And it’ll be so rewarding for them. 
EM: And you get to bring your experience and expertise to an opera and role you dearly love. 
MM: It’s like putting an old shoe on. Or an “old coat.” [Laughs] That old shoe that I love and now I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to wear much longer. It’s pretty worn out. [Laughs] And this cast is really great. You look into the cast members’ eyes and they look into yours and we’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, let’s do this.” 
EM: Why do you think people should support the opera and see La Bohème
MM: First of all, they’ll have a great time! La Bohème plays like a modern musical, with a fast moving, emotionally engaging plot, and has one of the best scores in all of opera. The music is easily accessible and moving. People will leave the theater humming its tunes! 
 Tickets for San Diego Opera’s Fiftieth Anniversary Season can be purchased at: 
 Photo credit: San Diego Opera
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner 

Gidon Kremer’s name is instantly recognizable as one of the most formidable and venerated violinists of our time. On Jan. 15, 2015, he and young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov (First Prize winner at the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions) will perform in recital for the La Jolla Music Society in San Diego (

Their lineup of much-loved works from the classic violin repertoire will include Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor, K.397, Schubert’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C Major, D. 934, and Rachmaninoff’s “Trio élégiaque” in G Major (in which they will be joined by guest cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite), coupled with an addition to the original program of a contemporary work, Weinberg’s Solo Violin Sonata No.2.

In this interview, the refreshingly candid Kremer shares some of his insights and experiences with his devoted fans.

EM: David Oistrakh was one of the great twentieth century icons of the violin, and was my own personal idol growing up as a young violinist. You began your own studies with him as a teenager, having entered the Riga Music School at the tender age of seven, and after winning First Prize of the Latvian Republic. What was it like to study with this grand master, Oistrakh? How did he influence your development as a violinist?

GK: His main quality towards students as probably towards literally everybody was GENEROSITY, not so often seen among musicians and especially teachers. David Oistrakh encouraged me a lot to search (for) my own voice.

EM: Your bio describes you as having “perhaps had the most unconventional career” of leading violinists worldwide. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?

GK: This is one of the labels often “invented” by publicists. In this respect I can quote another “punch-line” once used in the English-speaking press:” Gidon Kremer is so much out, that he is already in”. I disagree with both ?

EM: Having become known for performing works by numerous major contemporary composers, you added a contemporary piece to your original program of all standard classics for your La Jolla Music Society recital.

GK: I am very grateful to the promoter to have accepted my latest proposal - a small addition/change to the program. This gives me a possibility to introduce to the audience the second solo sonata by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a close friend and colleague whom I recently discovered for myself to be one of the greatest contemporary composers.

EM: Do you prefer performing as a soloist with orchestra or in recitals?

GK: I do prefer to serve music with whom ever: good conductor or orchestra, great partners in chamber music, youngsters, who just begin their path in chamber music and on stage and - of course - with Kremerata Baltica (, the chamber orchestra comprised of outstanding young musicians from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that he founded in 1997).

EM: Of your countless performances, do any particular ones stand out in your memory?

GK: I wouldn’t be able to name one. Usually even a good performance becomes “history” on the next day, when you are obliged to focus on the upcoming concert. Nevertheless - the partnership with Leonard Bernstein on Brahms (the violin concerto) and his own “Serenade” or Mozart, Beethoven and Berg Concertos (with) Harnoncourt remain unforgettable. Besides that I cherish my cooperation with great partners like Martha Argerich, YoYo Ma and Kremerata Baltica. Let’s hope the concerts with Daniil Trifonov will add up to the “collection” of those nicest experiences.

EM: What inspired and/or motivated you to start writing books and become “Virtuose de la plume comme de l’archet”?

GK: I do not consider myself - despite having published numerous books - to be a “writer”. Sharing experiences and thoughts in my own words is just equal to my wish to share valuable sounds (old and new ones) written by others.

EM: Would you ever consider hanging up your “archet” and conducting full time?

GK: Never would I allow myself such a thing. After having been privileged to play with many great conductors of our time, it would be ridiculous - to become a “dilettante”.

EM: Is there anything, musical or otherwise, you haven’t yet done that you would like to do?

GK: I would love to find the “recipe ” for being relaxed and put my worries and insatiable desire to expand aside. In my imagination it would mean - to allow myself the luxury of having unlimited time to share my feelings with friends and loved ones.

Photos used by permission of Horst Helmut Schmeck and Gidon Kremer

Erica Miner can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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Salute to Vienna: International Champion Ballroom Dancers
By Rodney Punt

The Viennese are partial to mixing gaiety and nostalgia, especially when celebrating New Year’s Day. The exemplar is Vienna’s storied “Neujahrskonzert” that launches each new year in the Austrian capital. It’s a confection of waltzes, marches, polkas and gallops, interspersed with operetta excerpts, all delivered non-stop by a host of charming singers, elegant dancers and a bubbling orchestra. You feel happy when you hear the music, but you can also feel a tug at your heart if you pay attention to the lyrics. We'll mix dialects and call the riotous concoction of whipped cream and sentimentality “Schlagsahne mit Schmaltz.”
Experiencing such sensations need not involve a trip to Vienna. A version of the storied celebration, called "Salute to Vienna," returns to the Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday, January 4, with dancers, singers and the Strauss Symphony of America all presided over by the genial conductor, Niels Muus.
Lilla Galambos
A star-studded European cast ushers in the show with a frothy collection of lilting Strauss waltzes,including the beautiful Blue Danubeand operetta favorites from Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow. Featured Viennese artists are soprano Lilla Galambos, tenor Eugene Amesmann, and baritone Thomas Weinhappel, joined by the International Champion Ballroom Dancers and members the Europaballett St. Pölten. It’s an E-ticket Disney Hall ride to Vienna, the fabled “City of Dreams.”
A transplanted Dane who is now a fixture of Vienna’s music scene, conductor Muus is simultaneously artistic adviser to Vienna’s Mozarthaus, music director of the Steyr Music Festival, and head of opera programs at Vienna’s Music Conservatory. He knows a thing or two about the Viennese and their musical mentality. He's also acquainted with the Los Angeles music scene, having studied three decades ago with pianist Jakob Gimpel at Cal State University in Northridge.

I placed a call to Muus in his now adopted city of Vienna to ask what’s in store for the performance in Los Angeles. He suggested that the audience listen to both the happy and wistful elements at the upcoming performance.
Niels Muus
Muus: You know, Vienna’s music is lighthearted but it also has an undertow of sorrow. Popular music in Vienna was always about longing for a lost love. In a Viennese song, the first two verses are about nature and love, but the third one is about death; it’s like dancing on a volcano. Richard Strauss talked about how the Marschallin’s farewell (in the opera Der Rosenkavalier) should be performed ‘with one eye wet, the other dry.’ People usually end up smiling and sobbing after hearing the music of Vienna.Punt: Viennese music in the nineteenth century was also about being, shall we say, naughty and nice. Wasn’t the waltz the dangerous cousin of the older country Ländler, the bad-boy in the triple-meter dance family?
Muus: (Laughs heartily) Oh, yes. The Viennese waltz was considered dangerous. Early in the century the authorities branded it immoral. When people first took up the waltz, it was the closest together dancers had ever held each other. Proper society thought they could get sick from it; at one time it was even forbidden.
Punt: There’s a something of a tradition of Danish musicians visiting Viennese composers. Friedrich Kuhlau, blind in one eye, and the deaf Beethoven found friendship in their mutual handicaps. Danish symphonist Carl Nielson visited Brahms. Will you perform any Danish numbers on this program?
Thomas Weinhappel
Muus: I brought Carl Nielson’s opera Maskaradeto Vienna in 1992. But that was my first and last Danish work presented here. I do mainly Austro-German and Italian works now, and after so many years in Viennese environs, I feel more like an Austrian. But, you know, I was born in Pennsylvania of Danish parents on temporary assignment there, and I possess both American and European passports, so I am a lucky man.
Lucky will be the Angelinos hosted by this charmer and his entourage at Disney Hall on January 4. Whether your inclination in early 2015 is for a dash of naughtiness, a dose of humor, or a generous portion of sentimentality, there will be moods to spare for you at an enchanting Salute to Vienna in 2015. 

Why, the entire family can party like it’s 1899 all over again.

Coming attraction: Salute to Vienna Sunday, January 4 at 2:30 pmMusic Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012 Tickets: $42 - $126 -- See or call (800) 745-3000
Photos courtesy of Attila Glatz Concert Productions
Rodney Punt can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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Graham Johnson’s opus is the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano.
Photo: Yale University Press
 by Rodney Punt

The world of music this autumn celebrates the 200th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s first masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Its composition by the 17-year-old composer on Oct. 19, 1814, might as well signify the arrival of Romanticism in music. Renowned piano collaborator Graham Johnson describes the moment:

“It was Shakespeare who had liberated the young Goethe from the narrow precepts of his predecessors, and it was Goethe who performed the same service for Schubert. ‘Gretchen’ is his first Goethe setting and it was love at first sight. There had been dalliances with the idealized Elisa, Adelaide, and Laura of Matthisson but these were ‘nice’ girls; in Gretchen, who is on the brink of being engulfed by her own turbulent emotions and the strictures of a cruel world, the composer recognized the new frank reality of the romantic age, his own reality perhaps, and the full implications of his song-writing destiny.”

Insights like these have enlightened music lovers and practitioners for some years, at least those whose eyes could scrutinize the tiny print of thick liner notes for the Hyperion Records set of complete Schubert songs. Curated and recorded by Johnson with over 60 solo singers and choristers on the London-based label, its 37 award-winning discs were released one by one over an 18-year period beginning in 1987. The set was reissued with the songs in chronological order in 2005. Since then, new revelations from a veritable cottage industry of Schubert scholarship have sparked interest for a more comprehensive survey of his songs in a more handy format and in larger typeface. At long last, it has arrived.

Yale University Press has just released Johnson’s Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs. One of the most ambitious books on the lyric arts ever written by a single individual, the scope of Johnson’s accomplishment is remarkable. The three-volume set of nearly 3,000 pages contains more than 700 song commentaries with musical incipits for each, parallel poetry texts in German and English (by Richard Wigmore), biographies of 120 poets with details on poetic sources, a cornucopia of period iconography and modern drawings on the world of Schubert, and general articles on such related topics as pianists, singers, contemporaneous composers, dedicatees, accompaniment, opus numbers, chronologies, and much more.

The three-volume set is, by a wide margin, the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano. It's eminently readable, easy to navigate and entertaining, at one stroke the indispensable reference for singers, pianists, musicologists, lovers of music in general, and fans of Schubert in particular. As such, it is both the logical outcome and final summation of the earlier Hyperion Records survey.

Read more on Schubert and this publication on Classical Voice North America.

Punt can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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By Erica Miner

What could be more luxurious than to bask in the glow of a truly great opera star singing song after song of a beloved icon from the previous century? In a word, nothing. Those who were fortunate, and prescient, enough to avail themselves of tickets to Stephanie Blythe’s glorious San Diego Opera concert presentation, We’ll meet again:? The Songs of Kate Smith, were treated to an evening as indulgent as musical chocolates and champagne bubble bath. 

Accompanied by her equally billed pianist Craig Terry, who is her constant pillar of support on the concert stage, Blythe did more than evoke the wildly popular, much beloved mid-twentieth century crooner; she became Kate Smith. (

The acclaimed mezzo-soprano has made it known that her identification with the iconic American songstress, who was known during her astounding five-decade career as “The First Lady of Radio”, is total and complete. “Kate Smith is the quintessential American singer. I just plain admire her,” Blythe says. “Her story is remarkable, her zest for life and her passion about the country and about performing and connecting with audiences - exceptional.”

Smith’s support of the troops during World War II was crucial to the overall disposition of Americans, boosting the outlook of the populace, bringing them together and helping them endure those extraordinarily difficult times. Blythe feels that the music in her show has something for everyone; thus she has made a commitment to perform Smith’s songs all over the US. “There is not a single audience in this country that I’ve performed this show for that hasn’t felt touched by it in some way,” she says.

That statement rang true as popular favorites, at times humorous, at times seemingly spun from unadulterated nostalgia, cascaded one after another from Blythe’s superb instrument: Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s beloved “When You Wish Upon a Star”; Smith’s signature “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, written by Harry Woods, Howard Johnson and Smith; Hughie Charles & Ross Parker’s “We'll meet again”, in which Blythe urged the audience to sing along. During each of these and the panoply of others a collective vibration of joy and nostalgia seemed to resonate throughout the packed Balboa Theatre.

Blythe purposely omitted the list of selections from the program, in order to engage the audience as much as possible. When the time came for her to bid adieu to them for her rousing version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, perhaps the song which best evokes Smith’s persona, Blythe had so captured the heart of the audience that they spontaneously joined in the singing.

With each number, the audience became more enthralled, completely taken with Blythe’s lush, gorgeous voice and the emotions that were evoked as a result. One could almost feel the theatre swaying along with the soothing rhythms and lush melodies.

Blythe belted out the tunes as if born to them. Her renditions seemed effortlessly produced from a canny knowledge of what made Smith tick from the inside out. Her voice was sheer perfection, utterly fluent in every part of her register. The lower range scintillated, each display of her immense power in the upper range sent shivers up the spine, and brief hints at her stunning “opera voice” were thrilling. Her love for the songs flowed from every pore.

What made the presentation even more exceptional was Blythe’s running commentary before and in between each song, as she shared tidbits of her own background, her reasons for identifying with Smith, and little known details about Smith’s history. Blythe’s humor, candid perceptions and heartfelt affection for her vocal icon were infectious, and further captivated the audience. Her comment likening 1930s radio to today’s social media was truly insightful.

The performance of her companion and collaborator Craig Terry easily proved worthy of Blythe’s insistence that he receive equal billing with her. Blythe handpicked Terry, a product of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and currently an Assistant Conductor at Chicago Lyric Opera, not only for his outstanding technical command, but also for his artistic sensibilities and ability to convincingly demonstrate the exuberant qualities of Smith’s music.

He obviously was an excellent choice. Their collaboration seemed effortless and totally in sync on every level, and their obvious fondness and appreciation for each other were positively inspiring. At times Terry’s enthusiasm was so effusive it seemed as if he and the piano would go soaring into the stratosphere. He superbly captured both the subtleties and the full-out rollicking aspects of the music. An all too brief taste of his Chopin evoked a desire to hear him play more classical repertoire.

Blythe also has become recognized for her advocacy of American song in general, commissioning song cycles from well-known American composers. Since making her SDO debut last season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, she has made known her affection for the city of San Diego, and for her pledge to help support San Diego Opera in any way she can. Thus the company is grateful for Blythe’s presence and her contribution to the 2014-2015 season.

Verdi isn’t her only strong suit. In recent years she has sung everything from Wagner to Bizet to Stravinsky, in virtually every major opera house and concert hall in the world. All the more reason why an evening of nostalgic favorites performed by her seemed like such an indulgence: a guilty pleasure with mostly pleasure and very little guilt.

Kate Smith, Blythe has said, was an amazing woman. Stephanie Blythe surely is an equally extraordinary singer and performer. And like Smith, Blythe is, in every way, a star. San Diego Opera is indeed fortunate to have this stellar artist as a champion and advocate of the company’s valiant and successful efforts to maintain this valuable arts organization as a key part of the city’s heritage.

God Bless America.

Blythe-Terry photo used by permission of Kevin Yatarola
Erica Miner can be contacted at

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Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra at Santa Monica First Presbyterian -- Photos by Kathryn Nockels
by Rodney Punt

Performing arts organizations are complicated enterprises to run. Keeping them afloat prompts ever-new experiments. One of the latest is the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, formed by clarinetist cum entrepreneur Benjamin Mitchell and an ambitious group of L. A. musicians, inspired by New York’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Its goal is straightforward: create audience encounters of a closer kind with engaging performances of classic and new works. Its means are unorthodox: as with the Orpheus, scrap the conductor in favor of more collaborative leadership on and off the podium.
Founder Mitchell says it this way: “I decided to create Kaleidoscope for a multitude of reasons. Although there are many wonderful orchestras in Los Angeles, and some groups occasionally perform without a conductor, we would be the only professional orchestra that performs solely this way. I’m passionate about sharing a collective vision in much the same way chamber music creates a more intimate experience for the musicians involved and presenting concerts at the highest level possible. I also want us to explore less traditional ways to reach out to audiences that help the concert experience be more personal and meaningful to all people.“
Kaleidoscope’s season launched last weekend at two local churches in Pasadena and Santa Monica. I caught the second performance last Sunday at the latter city’s First Presbyterian Church, a music-friendly space known to audiences for its live acoustics and residency of Jacaranda Music. Featured were two perennial favorites by Copland and Beethoven, not novel choices but surefire crowd pleasers.

Benjamin Mitchell
Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring is an atmospheric 1945 score of rural Americana based on an earlier ballet. Characterful solos by woods and brass, especially from Mitchell’s clarinet, colored quiet evocations of the nation’s expansive heartland, suggested by the work’s frequent open fourths and fifths and folk tunes of the early pioneers like the now ubiquitously heard “Simple Gifts.”
Even more impressive was a tour de force performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which Richard Wagner famously called the “apotheosis of the dance.” It's a rhythmic, tuneful joyride from the first movement’s charmed awakenings to the last one’s frenzied bacchanal. The 35-member ensemble’s snap-crackle performance of it brought the audience to its feet at the conclusion.
The gentleness of the Copland and the rambunctiousness of the Beethoven showcased two sides of an already remarkable group cohesion within the ranks of an orchestra whose members range in age from mostly younger adults to a few seasoned pros, and whose permanent membership is still a work in progress, according to Mitchell.
Successful music ensembles of all sizes must conform as one unit to the ever-shifting tempos, dynamics, and rhythms of great works of music. To make that happen, the conductor’s role is often likened to that of an autocrat. Kaleidoscope’s approach attempts to achieve equally precise results but in a more democratic way; leadership comes from within the ranks. Players engage in give-and-take discussions at rehearsals, but when it's performance time they take their cues from their section leaders or, if playing as a full ensemble, from the concertmaster.
Notable discipline in this performance was characterized by the consistent bowing patterns in the strings. Also notable was that leadership positions shifted between the two works. Concertmaster and section leaders in the Copland became last chair players in the Beethoven. That switch reinforces the more democratic, less autocratic approach to Kaleidoscope's music making.
As go democratic societies, perhaps also will go the new Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s foray into an uncertain but hopeful collective future. We wish them well in their new endeavor.
Concerts continue this season at Pasadena’s First Baptist Church and Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church, as follows:
Series 2 (Feb. 6 & 8) “Paris to LA” will feature works of Debussy and Ravel paired with Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony.
Series 3 (March 6 & 7) “Tales and Tribulations” will focus on tales of childhood through Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.
Series 4 (May 1 & 3) will conclude the season with world premiere performances of Los Angeles-based composer Lior Rosner’s Awake and Dream, featuring violinist (and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Concertmaster) Katia Popov, as well as Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.
Tickets are $25 for general admission, $10 college students and senior citizens, and no charge for ages 17 and younger. For more details on artists and ticket information, see: 
Rodney Punt can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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by Rodney Punt

Like the beached riverboat that concludes Act 1, composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas has taken on a lot of water since the premieres at the co-producing opera companies of Houston (1996), Los Angeles (1997), and Seattle (1998). In many ways a trailblazer, Florencia was the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major opera company north of the Rio Grande. While its historic importance is secure, the work’s continuing viability proved problematic last Saturday at its prodigal return to the Chandler Pavilion after a 17-year hiatus.

For full review on San Francisco Classical Voice, click here.
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By Erica Miner
Now in his eleventh season as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony (, Maestro Jahja Ling has become an easily recognizable, much liked and admired presence on the San Diego classical music scene. 
On Thursday, November 20, Maestro Ling and the San Diego Symphony announced that Ling, the longest serving music director in the orchestra’s history, would take his final bow in that capacity at the orchestra’s Copley Symphony Hall at the end of the 2016-17 season. 
The announcement was made to the Symphony board of directors, musicians and administrative staff, whom Ling addressed on Thursday. 
“The 2016-17 season will mark my 13th anniversary with this wonderful organization and my final season as music director,” Ling told them. “These past 11 years have been a most rewarding and exhilarating life journey for me. We have accomplished so much, but I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to inspire and instill the spirit of integrity in everything that we do at the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.” 
During those eleven years, Ling has worked tirelessly to bring the orchestra back from an ensemble in decline to one that has been widely praised throughout the city, all over the US, and internationally. He has accomplished this through a meticulous audition procedure for new musicians, as well as engaging some of the world’s most celebrated soloists. Ling has increased the orchestra’s prominence through CDs, broadcasts on the local PBS station, and last season’s sold-out appearances at Carnegie Hall and on tour in China. He also has been committed to programming works that have never been performed by the orchestra, from both classical and contemporary composers. 
These accomplishments notwithstanding, Ling is most proud of the high quality of performance the orchestra has achieved. “For me it is also most rewarding when in our performances, we can move and stir our audience’s hearts and souls because of our utmost devotion to details in our preparation. I hope this spirit will continue to live on,” he said. 
Ling plans to set his considerable creativity on a path toward guest conducting and sharing his abundance of musical knowledge with subsequent generations of young musicians. “In my lifetime I was blessed with the opportunity to learn from and inherit the great Central European and American musical traditions,” Ling said. “These experiences have allowed me to pass on the best of both the great European and American traditions and to create a distinguished sound and style that this orchestra now manifests.” He also hopes to carry on with his volunteer Christian mission work in the city and worldwide. 
Newly appointed SDS CEO Martha Gilmer praised Ling and his history with the orchestra, as well as his ability to think ahead. “It is characteristic of the personal and artistic integrity that is associated with Jahja Ling that he has made this thoughtful decision with the foresight to allow the San Diego Symphony Orchestra the time to search for a successor to continue the remarkable work that Jahja has accomplished here,” she said. 
Gilmer also announced that the board will name Ling Conductor Laureate, a great honor for the maestro but also a well deserved one, which will help ensure his continued presence as a guest conductor for the orchestra. “We look forward to Jahja Ling’s upcoming seasons and want him to know how very much we appreciate all that he has done for this wonderful organization,” Gilmer said.
There is no question that Ling has served well and given his all to the orchestra, though he admits that a few of his objectives still remain unfulfilled; for example, taking the ensemble on tour to the great European concert halls. However, it is clear that he has given his decision a great deal of consideration, and feels that the timing is right. 
After thanking the board and staff for their support he added, “I am hopeful and confident that the future of this fine orchestra, led by our new CEO Martha Gilmer and supported by our talented administrative staff and committed board of directors, will be bright.”
Photo used by permission of San Diego SymphonyErica Miner can be contacted at
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By Douglas Neslund
Maestro Grant Gershon strung beautiful Renaissance pearls together Sunday evening for a nearly capacity audience with many yearning to hear a cappella perfection as only the Los Angeles Master Chorale can. Here are the pearls:
            Thomas Tallis                     If Ye Love Me            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Gloria            Tomás Luis de Victoria    Gaudent in coelis            Josquin des Prez                Tu solus qui facis mirabilia            William Byrd                      Sing Joyfully            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Credo            Orlando di Lasso               O Crux Splendidior            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Sanctus/Benedictus            Josquin des Prez                Ave nobilissima creatura                                    (conducted by Lesley Leighton)            Tomás Luis de Victoria    Vere Languores            John Taverner                   Western Wind Mass: Agnus Dei            William Byrd                      Laudibus in sanctis
            And as an encore that left many in the audience with dew in their eyes:
            Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater.
Maestro Gershon not only conducted, but instructed with the vim and vigor of a Jeffrey Kahane, soloed the entire tune embedded throughout the Taverner Western Wind Mass, as well as a couple of incipits! Other than that, on this “wear something black” evening, he had little to do.

The choral music of the Renaissance that has survived the centuries is characterized by its linear structure, which results in a horizontal and usually legato sound pattern except for the occasional hiccups (hockets) leading to a cadence. Melodies, many of which originate in chant sources (and some think, Hebrew chants as well), are introduced by one or two choral sections, with the rest of the choir entering later. The trick Renaissance composers needed to master was to preserve the original melody horizontally, so that it sounded harmonically in the vertical, as well. They were very good at it. The sometimes über-emotional music of the Baroque to follow contrasts with the Renaissance music that is cool and rarely dips into the cauldron of heated emotion.
Maestra Lesley Leighton’s approach to her des Prez item was a gem of clarity, and kept the 40-member Master Chorale restrained to allow the text the emotional element. Maestro Gershon announced Maestra Leighton’s appointment as the newly-appointed Director of the Chorale and Chamber Singers at UCLA. This drew a gasp from audience members of the USC Family, as this week is local college football’s Rivalry Game between USC and UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Perfect timing!
As to which pearls stood out, or not, suffice it to say they were a perfect string of beauty. If one were to be nitty-picky, as reviewers are wont to be, writing the nits and picks of this concert would be tantamount to reviewing a brand new Lamborghini Aventador and noting a mote of dust on the hood, a cat hair on the passenger’s seat or a fingerprint on the windshield. That level of criticism.
Occasionally, the bass section over-sang a phrase here or there. Often, one or two sopranos allowed breath support to relax before the end of a phrase, resulting in a perceptible wobble. Solo groupings – and there were many of those – were not always balanced (no names, milady). That completes the nits and picks.

One left Walt Disney Concert Hall feeling fulfilled by this concert, and not a few with a tear of remembrance for Roger Wagner and Paul Salamunovich, who excelled in this era of great music.

Photos by Steve Cohn, used with permission
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