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Review by Rodney Punt

After an absence of five years, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a work by Richard Strauss, once the annual practice of founder John Crosby. The infrequently performed Arabella is enjoying a fine new production with a solid cast under the direction of Tim Albery. Sir Andrew Davis helms a robust and glowing orchestra, with Susanne Sheston’s chorus meeting the season’s usual high standards.

Arabella is a wise opera, wiser even (speaking now of its libretto) than Der Rosenkavalier, on which it was modeled. Two decades after that ode to an idealized 18th Century had become a blockbuster hit for Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the two were hoping operatic lightening might strike twice. But much water had passed under Europe’s historic bridges. The collapse of the Austro-German monarchies and steep war reparations after 1918 proved disastrous for their citizens. By Arabella‘s Dresden premiere on 1 July 1933, the Third Reich had already seized power.

Under such circumstances, dangling another bauble in the manner of Rosenkavalier would hardly have impressed jaded audiences. It was Hofmannsthal who found a way to have their comedic cake and eat its bitterness too. He set Arabella in the Vienna of the mid 19th Century Gründerzeit (the Epoch of the Founders), a time of ostentation and show. Also a time of speculation and dissipated fortunes, where losers played a desperate game of catch up.

Von Hofmannsthal’s sudden and unexpected death in 1929 prevented his final touches to the libretto. Strauss received a completed Act I, but only late drafts of Acts II and III. Talky, in the manner of comedies, the libretto was full of incident and personal reflections. The composer set it as he received it, and his music seems to play a conscious second fiddle to the drama. Perhaps Strauss wanted his irreplaceable partner to take, in absentia, one last bow in the limelight.

Hofmannsthal’s Arabella is a coming-of-age story that takes place in one remarkable day, in one unremarkable hotel, where romance and fortune hunting will change lives. The aristocratic Waldner family is down on its luck. In desperation, the Count visits gaming tables but is always fleeced. His ditzy but good-hearted wife, Adelaide, seeks out fortune-tellers. Blessed with two fine daughters, the parents place hopes of financial rescue on the older Arabella making a good marriage. Levelheaded and compliant, their daughter is prepared to accomplish this but none of her current suitors seem right. Her younger sister, Zdenka, faces dimmer prospects. She has been raised as a boy because the cost of presenting a second young lady to society is beyond her family’s means.

Tobias Hoheisel’s traditional-period sets are grey-colored and curvilinear, rotating from the Waldner family’s quarters of unadorned walls (befitting their advanced state of pawning assets), to the entrance of the ballroom, and finally into the hotel’s lobby. What the sets plainly depict, David Finn’s subtle lighting animates. Albery’s stage direction keeps the action moving organically and unobtrusively.  Hoheisel's costumes are as elegant and understated as his sets.

Arabella’s journey to maturation is critical to the story. In the span of a single day she transforms from a manipulative coquette with three dangling suitors into a serious young woman who longs for just one special man. Canadian Erin Wall made an attractive Arabella, her lyric soprano floating gorgeously as she mused, “… if there is a man right for me in this world, he will stand before me one day… and there will be no doubts.” While lovely in lyric moments, Wall’s voice occasionally tightened in the extended ranges of more highly charged repartee. Convincing as the mature Arabella, Wall’s earlier flirtatious interactions lacked only a certain relish and flare.

There was no lack of relish in Mark Delavan’s Mandryka, who commanded the action from his first entrance. A burly bear of a man with boundless energy, he was tailor-made for the role of the Croatian country squire with wads of money, who instantly falls for Arabella based on her portrait and is in turn loved by her at first glance. His blustering, if mistaken, anger makes for a terrific musical dust-up later on. More often seen in Wagnerian roles or as Puccini heavies, Delevan tore up the stage in the sheer delight of being that rare baritone who gets to play it sincere and in the end also keeps the girl who signifies her love with a glass of water.

Heidi Stober’s Zdenka delivered a sparkling performance. Her youthful, bright soprano radiated the ardor and nervous energy of a severely stressed young lady who must keep her gender identity a secret as she dutifully assists the man she loves, even in his ill-matched pursuit of her sister. Stober’s beguiling vulnerability in various dilemmas was perfectly gauged and utterly disarming. In the end, the opera’s focus is as much on her safe delivery into a happy future as that of her sister and family.

Zach Borichevsky’s Matteo was all misplaced passions for most of the opera, his bright tenor a perfect match for Stober’s similar soprano as his best friend, “Zdenko”, the cross-dressed girl who’s fortuitous trickery late in the story has the capital effect of straightening out Matteo’s true affections.

Kiri Deonarine was Fiakermilli, the bubbly belle of the Coachman’s Ball -- something of an interpolated character and vocal type into the story -- whose tarty coloratura provided relief to the dramatic tension. (The opera’s creators were clearly spoofing the naughty-but-fun decadence of the era that had also produced Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.)

Bass Dale Travis’ Count Waldner was the tattered, much put upon pater familias who is reduced to bartering his daughter for survival. Victoria Livengood was his shrill, desperate wife. The two conveyed a fading aristocracy prone to foolish acts and feeble superstitions. If the opera had a fourth act, we would expect the Count’s unreformed bad habits to plague his son-in-law unendingly.

Brian Jagde was the suave leading contender of the three effete suitors to Arabella; his paler clones were Jonathan Michie and Joseph Beutel. The fatuous but accurate fortuneteller was Susanne Hendrix.

Strauss’s music is always serviceable and frequently more than that. It shifts between major and minor to convey the quicksilver mood-swings of hope and despair that propel this drama, often in Zdenka’s dilemmas. Its “parlando” technique moves the action along, with few musical daisies to smell. And as always with Strauss, the woodwinds have a field day and blurting brass signal comedic bits. In sequences where Mandryka believes he has been cuckolded, horns jeer in mockery. Folk tunes suggest the rustic energies of Mandryka’s eastern Slavonia region in Croatia.

Great musical scenes fly by almost as throwaways: the “Right Man” soliloquy, the tender interaction of the two sisters, Zdenka and Matteo’s exchanges, and Arabella’s betrothal scene with Mandryka. Nice as these are, the lack of extended musical indulgences so remarkable in Rosenkavalier may explain why few pick Arabella as a favorite among Strauss operas. But the score keeps its complicated plot moving along without fuss or fanfare and escapes the earlier opera's occasional longeurs. 

Bittersweet Arabella has often been labeled both old-fashioned and cynical, but its roots are clearly in the enlightened and insightful humanism of Mozart’s comic operas. There are no villains, grudges or deaths, and all the characters end up blaming their own foibles for their misfortunes.

In that sense, Arabella is a still an opera for modern times.

Arabella, opera in three acts, premiered 1 July 1933 at DresdenMusic by Richard Strauss, Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
A new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 28 & August 6
Additional performance: August 23

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.Rodney Punt can be contacted at
2 years ago | |
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Review by Rodney Punt

Part of the fun of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is figuring it out. Forget primal-action verismo. We’re in Symbolist opera in the Age of Freud, where everything is mysterious, internalized, and dream-like.

In its American premiere production (with a major company) at the Santa Fe Opera, nearly a century after the work’s 1926 Warsaw debut, King Roger’s three tableau-like acts of decorative inaction left some audiences  perplexed, but its luscious score and the fine performances of principals, chorus, and orchestra more than compensated for the work’s oratorio-like stasis.

The story is a mythical take on a real 12th century Norman who inherited the Kingdom of Sicily. The arrival of a mysterious shepherd unsettles the court and the kingdom. The young man with golden locks  is a wannabe prophet who describes his God “as youthful and beautiful as I am.” Conservative courtiers demand the apostate be put to death, but many in the realm are attracted to him. King Roger’s wife, Roxana, and his trusted scholar Edrisi urge a fair trial. Joyless and without pleasure himself, Roger agrees to the trial in his quarters, where later everything begins to spin out of control -- for the king, his wife, and most of his subjects.

Like his wife, Roger is attracted to the shepherd, but early on he sees a danger for license to become licentiousness. (If you notice this shepherd’s similarity to free-love gurus in the Age of Aquarius, you won’t be the first.) Roger's ensuing struggle is one of mind over matter, a choice between the duties of leadership and the distractions of sensuality.

Director Stephen Wadsworth sets the action in the traditional time-period, signaled by Ann Hould-Ward’s brocaded Byzantine costumes, but with the king wearing an anachronistic early 20th century business suit, a nod to that era's repressed sexuality and possibly also to composer Szymanowski’s real-life closeted torments. (Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, had explored a similar theme.)

Time and place are suggested by Thomas Lynch’s initially pictorial but later abstracted panels in back and above the stage, reinforced by Duane Schuler’s mood lighting. The first act’s Byzantine cathedral is bathed in golds and reds, the second act’s royal quarters in a blue-green of Arabic-Indian sensuality, and the final act’s Greek theater in the ultimate clarity of sky-blue.

Szymanowski, a lover of distant lands, invested his score with luxuriant music, notable for Klimt-like colors that capture the flavor of these exotic locales. His personal stamp of voluptuously stacked harmonies and dissonances are in the Wagner-Strauss tradition, with influences from the Impressionists and contemporaries like Franz Schreker, who’s Symbolist Die Gezeichneten had premiered eight years before. The score was well-served by the orchestra under Evan Rogister's nuanced shaping; the chorus well-prepared by Susanne Sheston.


Wadsworth’s narrative focused more on the thoughts and person of King Roger than the erotically charged shock values that could have spiced the production even more but also overwhelmed its internal drama. Peggy Hickey’s choreography in the bacchanal (in which King Roger himself participates) was likewise on the tame side, given the super-charged music Szymanowski clearly modeled after a certain dance in Strauss' Salome. The work’s heaving, pleading and sighing vocal declamations lack the rhythmic thrust of action opera, and as a result reinforce its dream-like state.

In the central role of Roger, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was to the manner born. Magnificently bringing to life the king’s nobility, he shaded the role with a searing vulnerability that made its elusive internal dilemma credible. In a treacherous journey of self-discovery and reconciliation, the king’s state of mind shifts between anxieties of a fading hold on his people, self-doubts of his own masculinity, and desires he is compelled to resist. Though Kwiecien’s stentorian baritone might have been modulated down in some of the more intimate scenes, his focus on this complex character never faltered.


William Burden’s shepherd was the plangent-voiced object of Roger’s repressed desires and a powerful lure drawing his people away. As a seductive golden-locked youth, however, Burden is a tad long-in-the-tooth to fully convince, but his shepherd did manage as an imperturbable, otherworldly presence of sensual liberation. His third act transformation from prophet to a goat-legged Dionysus was the image that strengthens the king’s resolve to reject him, even as most of the king's subjects, including his wife, follow the shepherd away.

Erin Morely’s youthful, silvery soprano had Roxana transforming from a loyal wife to one increasingly enthralled by the visitor to the court. As the shepherd's lure insinuates itself into Roxana's soul, her vocalizations shift from conversational advocacy to trance-like melismas importuning her flummoxed husband to come to the other side. It is some of Szymanowski’s most beguiling music.

In the midst of all the king’s inner turmoil, Dennis Peterson’s Edrisi was the faithful, non-judgmental mirror to his master’s mind. As the forces of immutable stability, Laura Wilde’s Deaconess and Raymond Aceto’s Archbishop pulled the other way.

In the end, is King Roger a historic myth, a composer’s autobiographical therapy, or a fervid dream? It may be all three, but Wadsworth saves the final scene for what is most likely his own answer.

As King Roger awakens with only the trusted Edrisi at his side, the latter declares the dream is dead, the illusion over. The battle had ultimately been more about a mental state than the affairs of state. Roger has found peace. He crowns his head with a Dionysian wreath and drapes his kingly robe over his shoulders. His northern nature has reconciled with his southern nurture.

Roger can finally be both man and king.



King Roger, opera in three acts, based on The Bacchae of Euripides
Music by Karol Szymanowski, text by Szymanowski and Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz

Premiere of the work in a new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 25 & August 3
Additional performances: August 9 & 14

Note: King Roger received a staged production at the Long Beach Opera in California in 1988. It also received a partially staged performances by Bard College in New York in 2008. 
Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at

2 years ago | |
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Review by Rodney Punt

The Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Bizet’s early The Pearl Fishers is a handsome new production in a season full of winners. A charming work by a young composer of unmistakable talent and promise, it abounds in good tunes, winsome vocal lines, clear orchestrations and stunning choruses. At its premiere in 1863, no less a critic than Hector Berlioz praised it as having “beautiful, expressive pieces full of fire and rich coloring.” Yet it is a work that also reveals the still-forming composer’s tendency toward prolixity and foursquare phrasing. (Bizet’s naturalistic style and unerring narrative flow would arrive thirteen years later with Carmen).

The first two acts of Pearl Fishers showcase the 24-year-old Bizet’s innate gift for melting lyricism, even as his set pieces go on a bit long for optimal pacing. The third act’s dramatic-action score, effective as it is, contains writing least characteristic of the mature Bizet, while exhibiting a clear debt (also a kindred spirit) to Verdi’s well-honed techniques.

The story, set in ancient Ceylon, centers around two old friends, Zurga and Nadir, who meet up in a fishing village after a number of years’ separation caused by their rivalry for a young lady named Leïla. Zurga has just been selected as king and granted full authority for major decisions. Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, imports a virgin to the village to help protect it from the natural disasters prone to all divers for pearls. As fate would have it, the virgin is Leïla, whose presence rekindles old passions and jealousies between the two reunited friends.

Baritone Christopher Magiera, as Zurga, had the flexy pecs if not quite the dusky chops to claim leadership in this village (it took a spell for the voice to loosen up). His was the most complex character, one who ultimately achieves nobility as he wrestles with threats to his village and copes with the jealousy he feels in Nadir’s pursuit of Leïla. Eric Cutler’s gleaming lyric tenor, as Nadir, was powerful and ardent in a love that could not help betraying a best friend for the one who would not be denied. Their duet, "Au fond du temple Saint," is the show-stopper (recycled throughout the opera) that became more famous than the opera itself.


As Leïla (aka Priestess of Brahma), the girl they fight over, Nicole Cabell was a perfectly cast exotic beauty whose relatively large-sized soprano wandered a bit in the first act, but warmed, brightened, and focused later into a gorgeous lyric sound, full of passion and drama. Imposing bass Wayne Tigges, as Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, was the stern voice of eternal authority and amatory unforgiveness toward Leïla.

Lee Blakeley’s sure-handed direction, aided by Jean-Marc Puissant’s gorgeous unit set of a stage-wide and opened picture frame, allowed for a free flow of a large cast of fisher folk -- from the current action in front of the frame to the remembrance of things past behind it. Not incidentally, the back of the set was wide open to Santa Fe’s cloud-filled skyline, in perfect synchronization with the unfolding saga of life at a seaside with its stormy weather.

Rick Fisher’s lighting evoked a fairy-tale setting and bathed the action in the saturated hues of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Its chromatic intensity nicely complemented Bizet’s clear-bright orchestral colors, prominently in the woodwinds.


In a large cast of fishermen and their ladies, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s fanciful costumes cannily showed off a profession’s muscularity. The buff torsos of the men, as they bent and flexed while hauling in their trophies and victims, were complemented by the exposed midriffs of their slender, comely women. (And here, we must praise the SFO’s training program that recruits young vocalists who know that today’s theatrical opera productions require lithe bodies in addition to luscious voices.)

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and his crack orchestral charges illuminated the work’s ever-shifting colors, allowing breathing time in Act I’s languid reveries, picking up the pace in Act II’s passionate declarations, and thrusting the orchestra into the center of the action in Act III’s dramatic conflicts. 

Susanne Sheston’s chorus was well prepared for the idiomatic, clearly delineated, and powerful choral passages that rival those in Il Trovatore and Nabucco, and provide a prescient foretaste of like work in Britten’s sea operas. The ever-present singing fishers so animate this opera they collectively become another protagonist in the action. Bizet’s marvelous choruses alone justify the revival of Pearl Fishers.

The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet
New Production of the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 31, 2012
Remaining performances: August 10, 13, 22, 25

Photo by Ken Howard, used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at:
2 years ago | |
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by  Anne French



A wonderful album was made by pianist Glenn Gould and violinist Jaime Laredo in the mid 1970's, and the Sonata No. 2 for Harpsichord and Violin seems especially appropriate for mellow summertime moods. The YouTube notes I found also provide some interesting information : "Sony Label recorded 1975-1976 Is an amazing Canon which demonstrates the mathematical genius of Bach to be able to echo the melody over a bass countermelody. Almost all of the [photo] shots come from Jock Caroll's Collection Portrait of the Artist and he is a young man indeed, 20 years before this recording."

I have listened to most of the cuts from this collection, and the Gould/Laredo collaboration never fails to delight.  So close your eyes, lie back in your chaise, and enjoy 3 minutes of bliss.
2 years ago | |
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You've heard about the Mozart Effect on childhood intelligence. Now a report from Yahoo! claims there are healthful benefits from listening to classical music. Here's an excerpt:

In the past few decades, research has found that slow, soothing music is generally beneficial to one's health, whereas fast, jarring music is not. Listening to calming music enhances cognitive functions such as memory, concentration, and reasoning skills; even better, it boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance.

Classical music and meditation music were found to have the most benefit on health. On the other hand, irritating sound can cause stress, with all its negative consequences for your health. 

The composers that have been suggested to most effectively improve the quality of life are Bach, Mozart and Italian composers, such as Vivaldi and Scarlatti. Not convinced? Consider this: Classical musicians -- orchestra conductors, in particular -- are among the longest-lived professionals.
2 years ago | |
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Review by Rodney Punt

Tucked in its idyllic pastoral valley north of Los Angeles, the annual Ojai Music Festival has earned its well-deserved reputation for adventurous music in a laid-back setting -- a yin-yang suspension between stimulus and serenity. For its 66th edition this month, however, music director Leif Ove Andsnes and artistic director Tom Morris packed four days with seven of the longest concerts in memory, plus an overflowing slate of lectures, talks, films and events. Call it a sincere, if severe, case of ambition creep that put at risk the festival's delicate balance.

Concerts were dense and diverse, sometimes oddly matched; their moods could swing from seraphic to somber or visa versa. Nordic evocations, Austro-German Weltschmerz, Slavic and Hungarian folk influences and American iconoclasm were just some of the joy rides taken at the occasionally unfocused musical theme park that was Ojai’s Libbey Bowl this year.

Much admired as a pianist in these parts, Andsnes also founded and served for two decades as impresario of the Risør Festival of Chamber Music in his native Norway. He brought to his one-season Ojai visit an artistic cohort centered around the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (NCO), under violinist/leader Terje Tønneson; it would reconfigure like a Lego set into smaller musical groups as needed. Other NCO-associated artists included Canadian-American pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, and two Dutch artists, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and conductor-composer Reinbert de Leeuw. Local talent included percussionist Steven Schick and soprano Lucy Shelton.

Northern Lights

Nordic works came from a smorgasbord of Scandinavian composers, one each from the Icelander Haflöi Hallgrímsson, Norwegian Eivind Buene, and Swede Anders Hillborg, and several from the Dane Bent Sørensen. (Finland, tellingly, was not represented.) Proceeding on a polar route north by northwest were three works by the Alaskan John Luther Adams, two of which kicked off the festival. 

Self-described as an environmental composer, Adams seeks in hypnotic percussive sounds to attune to nature’s music. His Inuksuit received its West Coast premiere in Libbey Park’s tree-studded grounds, conducted by Schick, with 48 percussion and piccolo players spread out amongst an enchanted standing audience. "Inuksuit" refers to the anthropomorphic stone markers used to guide the Inuit peoples on journeys across the vast sub-arctic tundra from Siberia to Greenland.

Two other works of Adams, the piano-percussion Red Arc/Blue Veil, opened the program at Libbey Bowl Thursday evening, its low rumble rising like flood waters to a peak and subsiding again into nothingness. The more somber Dark Waves was featured in the last concert in a version for two pianos and tape. While the memorability of this elemental music may be subject to a short half-life, it cannot be denied that its momentary engagement in the here and now is intense.

After the zeal of this environmental start, the festival’s tone shifted to melancholic, with Russian and Austro-German composers prominent. Works of angst-ridden romanticism and expressionism followed over the next two days.

Dark Shadows

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are bitter, late in life settings of six poems with stark, even desiccated, piano accompaniments. They found Stotijn's voice subdued, and Andsnes, with little to offer her, struggling to support. Tsvetaeva’s lyrics are rueful or angry musings at personal attractions and public atrocities. The composer took them a step further into outright nihilism.

Marc-André Hamelin’s penetrating, introspective rendition of the Charles Ives Concord Sonata followed like an interloper. "Transcendentalism" was an otherwise absent theme in this year’s programming. (Jeremy Denk, an Ives specialist who gave the rarely performed first piano sonata an outing here in 2009 and who returns as music director in 2014, would be the more logical one to take up the Concord, considered by many to be Ives' greatest work. Why it was given here this year remains a mystery.)

Friday early evening’s featured work, one of the more talked about in the festival, was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of Romantic song-cycles, taking its name from the first line of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and using also Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and other songs. I reviewed it separately earlier.

Andsnes was pianist and Stotijn the singer on Friday’s late-night survey of music based on lullabies and memorials, joined occasionally by members of the NCO. Three piano lullabies by Danish composer Bent Sørensen, pieces he composed for his own children, reminded that Andsnes is a new father. Yet their context here focused more on eternal separations than childhood slumbers. Three larger works that were paired up with the lullabies one-by-one began with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, likewise reflections on life’s tenuous hold. Busoni’s gentle Berceuse élégiaque and Alfred Schnittke’s meltingly lovely Piano Quintet were both tributes to their respective composers’ mothers. As if to drive home that all births are death sentences, the lullabies preceded each work without interruption. Andsnes, on piano in the lullabies, joined by Stotijn in the Mahler, applied delicacy and restraint, as did the NCO in the Busoni and Schnittke works, but the grim narrative implications of each of the three couplings could not go unnoticed.

In similar fashion, Saturday morning’s splintered couplings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano continued the Ojai Festival’s fanciful contrivance of slicing and pairing unrelated works. (Last year it was Webern and Crumb subjected to the same treatment.) The four epigrammatic Berg pieces are more suggestive than revealing. Tucked inside the five Wagner lieder bursting with amatory desire, they serve as discreet reflections on long-ago incidents of a love affair.

The Wesendonck Lieder were, in part, a study for Tristan und Isolde, and their poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Wagner's friend and patron, chronicle the dangerous romantic attachment the two shared at the time of the work's composition. Originally for piano and voice, the five songs were arranged for chamber orchestra by Andreas Tarkmann. Stotijn's voice opened up during the course of the cycle and she and the NCO performed the songs with both intensity and tenderness.

Eivind Buene’s string orchestra piece, Langsam und Schmachtend, taking its title from Wagner’s “slow and languishing” markings for the Tristan prelude, and incorporating themes from the opera, served as an apt overture at the beginning of the combined sets.

Serving as coda, Berg’s Four Songs Op. 2 followed, expanding on the dream-like lieder with melting chromatic harmonies. Joined by the sensitive piano of Marc-André Hamelin, Stotijn, with her voice in full bloom at this point, imbued them with warmth and conviction -- her finest outing at Ojai.

In another program anomaly, at the end of this Romantic Liebesschmerz, Andsnes provided a floating, aristocratically poised performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Placed last in the program, this optimistic icon of the Classical Enlightenment negated the mood of neurotic love-sickness so convincingly nurtured before, almost declaring it a passing trifle of no serious concern.

Nordic Landscapes, Folksong and Jazz, and a Beguiling Clarinet

With Saturday evening’s program, the mood of the festival began to lighten. Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Peomi was a lexicon of string techniques (the program had wrongly identified it with wind parts) that set an intriguing dialogue between violinists Per Kristian Skalstad and Tørje Tønnesen, with string ensemble support.

Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (“La Mattina”), much anticipated in its American premiere, proved less convincing. Described by its soloist Andsnes as a “dreamlike landscape”, its portentous opening Bach chorale lead to colorations, glissandi, and clusters from low brass to high strings to claves (wood sticks that sound like castanets) in alternatingly lugubrious, luminescent, and misterioso effects, but with motivational connections that lacked a discernable architectural structure on first hearing.

Three oddly matched pieces with the unifying thread of Martin Fröst’s brilliant clarinet work followed. The most attention grabbing of the weekend was Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales for solo clarinet and tape, a spoof on vanity (in a drastic reduction from its original concerto with orchestra form), which the technically dazzling Fröst served up in dance gestures wearing a satyr mask and preening like a peacock.

Two other contributions, Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio and György Kurtág’s fairy-tale inspired Hommage à Robert Schumann (both with a sympathetic Andsnes on piano and Antoine Tamestit on viola) provided additional whimsy, with gorgeous clarinet and viola playing, although at this point Fröst’s bobbing and weaving next to his more placid colleagues began to look like grandstanding.

Sunday morning’s concert provided two more virtuoso outings from the indefatigable Fröst, both with folk and jazz infusions. Hungarian folksong and American jazz techniques blended wonderfully in Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, with Øyvind Bjorä’s spicy violin and Hamelin’s spiky piano adding their touches to Fröst’s paprika.

Aaron Copland’s jazz-infiltrated Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano with the NCO and Hamelin took as its spice the folk music of Brazil, sending the audience to lunch and Fröst off to his next engagement, a welcome if rambunctious Ojai guest. Christianne Stotijn’s festival farewell came in a selection of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, letting her hair down with their witty texts, not always idiomatically sung, but crowd-pleasers after the heavy fare that preceded them.

Sunday evening’s concert concluded with the NCO’s fine performance of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane and a particularly vigorous account of John Adams’ famous Shaker Loops. Credit De Leeuw’s conducting for bringing out the best in the NCO, as he had in earlier performances, including his own work.

Closing the festival was the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps with insightful piano colorations, particularly from Hamelin on higher register duties, with Andsnes providing a steady rhythm on the lower-range part. It was a penetrating structural revelation of Stravinsky’s singular masterpiece. Having recently heard a fine one-piano-four-hand version of this piece at Jacaranda’s Music at the Edge in Santa Monica, I can report that this two-piano version, with more expansion for each pianist, allowed for more emphasis on colorings, but the four-hand version with two performers in the same space, enabled more propulsion.

Problematic Janácek

String quartets arranged for string orchestras are occasionally enlightening as comparisons with regular symphonic string writing. The late Beethoven quartets performed by string orchestras sound more advanced in many ways than his symphonies. But the two Leoš Janácek quartets, featured in string orchestra versions earlier in the festival, were ill served in both the decision to program them thus-arranged and in their haphazard, often ill-tuned performances.

The two works have programmatic narratives that rely on exact scoring and the sound of one instrument per part. The String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) chronicles Janácek’s infatuation with a younger woman. The String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”) was based on the eponymous novella of Leo Tolstoy, a tragic love story. They contain effects -- jagged lines, sul ponticello passages, nervous tremolos and characterizations of single characters – that are not appropriate in multiplicity. In both subject matter and sonics, the intended edginess was softened by a mushy orchestral sheen. Hearing these plush versions at Ojai was akin to public-sponsored voyeurism onto a private matter.

While the two Janácek quartets proved poor vehicles to employ the idle strings of the NCO when their woodwind counterparts were involved in other assignments, the strings did redeem themselves with a thoroughly polished version of Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, one of the Norwegian composer’s more carefully crafted works, if not his most melodically inspired. Performed from memory and with most of its stringed musicians standing, the performance gave welcome opportunity for this ensemble to prove its considerable mettle and cohesion.

By the end of the concert, the NCO strings were ready for a little fun and let their collective hair down with a twirling contrabass dance that mimicked the antics of just-departed clarinetist Martin Fröst.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Three documentaries of musical artists in the festival enhanced the audience's perspectives. Pictures Reframed, following the multimedia collaboration of the pianist Andsnes and video artist Robin Rhode, was brilliant up to and including Andsnes’ magisterial piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a backdrop of enveloping visuals, climaxing with the drowning of a piano in a storm-tossed sea. Matchstick Man confirmed that, while the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág is great, his inarticulate explanations of it are not so great. Sometimes it's better to preserve a master's mystery. Strange and Sacred Noise, documenting composer John Luther Adams’ wilderness performance of relentlessly hammering percussionists in the expanse of the Arctic tundra was a terrifyingly loud indulgence at the expense of the Arctic wildlife.


This year's the festival was extravagantly full. It raised a question not often asked in lean times: Can we have too much of a good thing? No one could complain they didn't get their money's worth, yet the programs sometimes challenged meaningful absorption: density nearly smothered intensity.

The festival needs spaces between its programs and compatibility of emotional tone within them to allow one later to cleanse the mind, breathe in serenity and recharge the desire for more music. Silences and continuities, along with its sounds, are what make Ojai a special place.

As with last year, the Ojai Music Festival took much of this program north to U.C. Berkeley's "Cal Performances" series shortly after the Ojai residency was completed.
PROGRAM Link to Ojai Music Festival 2012

Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival. From top to bottom: NCO and Martin Fröst in Copland at Libbey Bowl, two aspects - piccolo and drums - of the Inuksuit performance, Leif Ove Andsnes in a Sørensen lullaby, Christianne Stotijn and Marc-André Hamelin in Berg songs, Fröst in Peacock Tales, NCO players clowning at end of concert.

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Revisionist Liebesschmerz at Ojai Music Festival

Review by Rodney Punt

The most talked about work of this month's 66th annual Ojai Music Festival was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of early Romantic song-cycles, using excerpts from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and songs with Rellstab and Goethe texts, and excerpts (and opening line as title) from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe . De Leeuw’s challenge, described by program annotator Chris Haley, was “How to capture the flood of sentiment and Weltschmerz that swept over Europe in the early decades of the 19th century, this Byronic age of the solitary wanderer? That age is gone - its feel and texture, its fashions, mores and habits of speech.”

The Dutch composer’s approach was to reimagine and orchestrate the songs in the style of early 20th century cabaret, capturing the more worldly, even cynical outlook of an era that experienced the collapse of civil order and social cohesion under the doomed Weimar Republic. De Leeuw patterned his cycle after Arnold Schoenberg’s theatrical melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire, using the same chamber music ensemble and 21-song format. He divided his songs into three sets of seven, with each a kind of theatrical act, focusing on love, rejection, and resignation. His actor-singer emotes in Schoenbergian Sprechstimme -- a half-spoken, half-sung hybrid that emphasizes expressivity over tonal purity. The style recalls the gravel-throated theatricality of a singer like Lotte Lenya.

In an earlier conversation with Ojai Talks director Ara Guzelimian, De Leeuw justified his new cycle as liberating the truth of the texts from the prettiness of their accustomed singing and recital etiquette -- with a singer’s folded hands and prim manner -- and infusing them with more rawness and danger. It was to be a migration closer to the popular songs people might hear on the streets rather than in the concert hall. An intriguing premise. Inappropriate, however, to air as a foil a video of just-deceased Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the singer who did more than any other in our time to resurrect, shake off the fustiness and widen interest in the lied. Given the amount of daringly staged original versions of Winterreise (two recent gritty ones at the Long Beach Opera) and its cutting edge recital performances by artists of the stature of Ian Bostridge at UCLA two years ago, the assertion that today's lieder recitals have Margaret Dumont-like singers posed in grand hauteur seemed something of a straw dog.

Expectations of a lieder recital shake-up at the later performance were high, but the resulting work, while intriguing and certainly worth the attempt, was a bit of a letdown. Hearing these already familiar songs in other than lieder contexts is hardly news; one encounters Schubert’s Ständchen in bowdlerized versions from shopping malls to office elevators. The original version of Der Erlkönig, properly sung and played, is scarier than anything done to it in De Leeuw’s set. Also, using so many of the most familiar Schubert and Schumann tunes, charged as they are with vivid prior associations, infuses De Leeuw's piece with the scent of pastiche.

To be sure, De Leeuw, who conducted the performance of his work, is a master orchestrator. He found just the right instrumental mix to capture and color the psychology of each song, the tunes of which resided not so much with the singer as in the chamber ensemble. Motivic variations, when the composer occasionally let his fancy fly, could achieve telling development. And the members of the NCO, particularly its winds, did a bang-up job with what they were given. The spinning wheel in Gretchen am Spinnrade appeared to come off its psychological axle in disturbing ways. In Ich grolle nicht, perhaps the most haunting of the treatments, the pretense of the non-complaining protagonist was soon exposed as totally unhinged anger.

With many of the songs orchestrated but not much developed, the heavy lifting of interpretation fell to the singer-speaker. In this regard the performance did not fully achieve its potential. The originally scheduled Barbara Sukowa -- the unique theater personality who helped create and who premiered the work -- was forced to cancel just two weeks before its performance due to a family illness. Substituting for her was veteran soprano Lucy Shelton, who three years ago gave a whopper of a Pierrot lunaire in a staged version at Ojai with the group ‘eighth blackbird’.

On this occasion, game as she was to take on the role, Shelton's voice was not at its freshest and her lovesick protagonist did not fully inhabit the drama; one detected a performer switching gears between the singing, shrieking, whispering and howling. Her choreographed meandering up and down the stage was gestural and unconvincing. It is possible there was not enough rehearsal time to do more, or that the De Leeuw-Sukowa piece is simply one of those works so tailor-made for a particular artist, it cannot easily be translated to another personality.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the notion that updating songs from the early 19th to the early 20th century is an act of “modernizing” seems quaint. Pierrot lunaire, this work’s model, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but it is still as fresh as a newly minted coin, because, like the songs of Schubert and Schumann, it is an original work of genius and can never be replicated. The exaggerated atmospherics of De Leeuw's Weimar Republic era are reimagined and recreated. In many ways they are more removed from us today than are the direct emotions of the original Schubert and Schumann songs. The wry observation that there is nothing more dated than yesterday's vogue applies.

With Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, authentic historic songs of Romanticism’s early flowering have become ersatz historicist songs from Expressionism’s late decay.

Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival: Top, soprano Lucy Shelton. Below, composer-conductor Reinbert De Leeuw.

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By Stephen Cohn

I am not a music critic - I’m a composer, an appreciator and, I guess, a child at heart because I still get very excited and inspired when I hear exceptional performances of intriguing music. Such was the case yesterday when I attended a Glendale Noon Concert, programmed by Jacqueline Suzuki. It was only about 40 minutes in length which is great for people like me with a cultural case of 21st Century ADD. I was drawn to the event because the featured performer was Susan Svrcek of Piano Spheres, whom I had heard at Zipper Hall recently and was quite taken with her playing and her choice of music.

The program consisted of one solo piano piece, LA Times by Edward Cansino, which I had heard and liked at Piano Spheres and two piano quartets which I had not heard: Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor and Schnittke’s Piano Quartet in A Minor (After Mahler). What I learned from the program notes was that the Mahler quartet is the only piece of chamber music he wrote and is the first movement of a larger work which was not completed – his work on it was interrupted by his death. The Schnittke is based on the incomplete second movement of the Mahler – so hearing the two quartets in sequence was quite fascinating. Both are beautiful, very dramatic pieces. The Mahler is rich and complex and quite Mahleresque; the Schnittke has a powerful dramatic curve which starts with quiet, Mahler-like material, then increasing in dissonant lines, harmonies and intensity, it builds to a powerful climax – then stops dead, takes a breath, and returns to the quiet Mahler-like material to a subdued, resigned ending. It feels like a peaceful acceptance of death and given the historical context, it may be so. The performances by all were passionate, powerful and articulate and the Glendale Baptist Church added a nice reverb which fattened the sound and enhanced the blend of the ensemble.

Incidentally, Susan Svrcek said she thinks the Mahler Quartet was a sketch for an orchestral work – she said the piano writing is very dense and unpianistic and looks orchestral in nature. However, in spite of this, she played beautifully on everything yesterday. Her performances, besides being very expressive and powerful, projected a sense of confidence and command of the material. The string players were Jacqueline Suzuki, Violin, Adriana Zopo, Viola and Simone Vitucci, Cello – all played with wonderful energy and accuracy, giving the ensemble a rich, full sound which heightened all the colorful harmonies.

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by Douglas Neslund

Silesian-born composer Henryk Górecky was given the posthumous honor of closing the Los Angeles Master Chorale's 48th season, together with a motet by Johannes Brahms serving as a palate refresher.

Maestro Grant Gershon chose Górecky's "Lobgesang" (Song of Praise) and the five devotional songs that comprise "Piesni Maryjne" (Marian Songs) before concluding with the composer's "Miserere." The overriding mood of these a cappella items is contemplative. As Lobgesang was composed to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of moveable type, the debut performance of which was presented four years ago by the Master Chorale . The work is accompanied by glockenspiel, played by the redoubtable Theresa Dimond, which spelled out "Gutenberg" in musical terms in three iterations over the German word "ewig" (forever), sung in an almost inaudible pianississimo by the choir. One scarcely breathes in such magical moments.

Brahms was well represented by his motet "Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz" (Create in me, O God, a pure heart - Psalm 51). After the essentially nonharmonic opening, it was something of a relief to hear a bit of traditional harmonies, thesis, if you will, after the arsis.

"Piesni Maryjne" are devotions to Mary, the Mother of Jesus in the Polish language, written in the late communist era but first performed two decades later, after the fall of the regime. The tunes around which four of the five devotions were written were pre-existing melodies that Poles would instantly recognize. The overarching mood of these songs are contemplative and prayerful. As such, they present the underrepresented opposite end of the choral dynamic spectrum from most other choral compositions appearing in a season's listings, and served as something of a challenge to our stalwart choral corps, one which they handled with exquisite touch.

After intermission, the audience was treated to the full monte, the entire Master Chorale, in all their glory, to sing Górecky's "Miserere," begun four years before the Marian Songs. The eight Chorale sections sang in an increasing amplitude, starting with the second basses singing three simple words, "Domine, Deus noster" (Lord, our God),  with the first bass section joining them in a repeat, and so on until we finally arrive at all eight sections joining together in the final iteration.

The Master Chorale sang with all its usual great tone and close attention, which allowed Maestro Gershon to shape phrases literally at will. If it were possible that the singers paid even closer attention to his direction, it should be said that the same repertoire was scheduled for recording sessions in the days to follow, with issuance of a CD scheduled for the fall.

Master Chorale tenor and composer-arranger Shawn Kirchner was appointed as the Swan Family Composer in Residence beginning July 1st. The first commission from this appointment will be heard in next season's "The American Concert" on June 2, 2013. His compositions and arrangements have been heard over many recent seasons to great acclaim.

The final concert of each season brings with it a wistful note of farewell to Chorale members who sang their last concert. This year's valedictorians included (in descending length of service): Kyra Humphrey (23 years!), Robert Lewis (21 years), Emily Lin (20), David Tinoco (19), Deborah Briggs (12), Stephanie Sharpe Peterson (11), Jay Kenton (6), James Callon (4) and Steven Chemtob (3). They will all be missed.

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by Douglas Neslund

No decently performing, nonprofit, volunteer, amateur community chorus ought to perform under the title "Master Chorale" no matter the best intentions or how urgent the financial pressures. But alas, many do. If truth be admitted, there is but one Master Chorale in the County of Los Angeles ... the magnificent ensemble that performs in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But does a presumptuous name serve to defeat a noble purpose? Not at all. Does plumped-up publicity diminish the need for such community organizations? Also, not at all.

Given the very nature of such an organization, the Hollywood Master Chorale deserves the highest praise and support for concluding its 17th season of music making with an innovative, creative project known as "Voices of LA" in which four young composers (three of them composition students at USC, the fourth from UCLA) were tasked with setting four "Songs of Innocence" by William Blake into song.

Joshua Fishbein, Jordan Nelson, Mark Popeney and Saad N. Haddad were winners of the competition and each provided music to four Blake poems, respectively: "Piping Down the Valleys Wild," "The Echoing Green," "Night" and "The Little Boy Lost / The Little Boy Found."

The impression made by these four works was generally positive, but for better or for worse, the young composers seem determined to avoid anything approaching a major or minor chord, much less a melody. One entertains the notion that once they shed the need to be "different" from composers contemporary or ancient, they will begin to appreciate the value of other works performed on the same program composed by Eric Whitacre.

We will find out a year hence, when these same four will each be paired with an established composer from the Los Angeles region who will mentor them through another of William Blake's poems, "Songs of Experience."

The Chorale sang with inconsistent sound, although given the complex and unknown material en debut, the singers seem to have met most of the challenges. Their music making was strongest in the aforementioned Whitacre songs, "Animal Crackers, Vol. I" and "The Seal Lullaby" and weakest in the opening William Billings song, "Modern Musick." Samuel Barber's and Morten Lauridsen's respective settings of "Sure on This Shining Night" neither inspired nor repelled.

All of the above was professionally directed by Artistic Director M. Lauren Buckley, and wonderfully accompanied on the piano by Irene Gregorio. Ms. Buckley kept choristers and piano moving forward with few lapses noted in ragged phrase attacks and releases. As is the case with almost all volunteer choruses, rehearsal time is limited, and a performance of such challenges exponentially increases the need for rehearsal. Hopefully, Ms. Buckley, a graduate of Princeton University, will find additional time with her choristers to meet the challenges of the coming season.

As to the ever-present issue of fund raising and finding new resources in a problematic market in which cash is difficult to find, it is imperative that such projects as "Voices of LA" are fully subscribed and supported by those with the means.

Inasmuch as HMC is providing an unique opportunity for young composers, it could also benefit from the services of additional competent singers. Auditions are pending in the fall.

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