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By Douglas Neslund

Maestro Grant Gershon turned around and said, simply, “Wow!” as he prepared to conduct a stage and side aisles filled with current and former members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the grand finale work of a three-hour, emotionally-charged program jam-packed with morsels of musical meals served up by the Chorale’s four Music Directors over the previous 49 seasons. As outlined below, each selection could not have been better served by the 110 current (and in the finale, dozens of former) members.
Prior to each of the four tributes, exceptionally well-produced videos of each Music Director were shown, taking us back in time and reliving the uniquely special qualities of each. Those in the audience who lived through all four eras had something to cherish, with any fleeting negative memories thoroughly scrubbed. Especially touching and often funny were filmed recollections by those who sang under one or more Music Directors.
Maestro Gershon walked onstage prior to the official beginning to bring the audience current with Paul Salamunovich’s serious health condition, which had induced last rites earlier in the week, only to turn to a more stabilized condition due to the prayers of many, according to the family. Continued prayers were encouraged. The final two entries in the Paul Salamunovich Era (“Hold On!” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) elicited numerous leaky eyes both in audience and singers.
The opening item in the Grant Gershon Era was a reprise of the 40-part Thomas Tallis Spem in alium, sung from various points in Walt Disney Concert Hall by two or three choristers on a part, that was so transparent, so beautifully sung, it might arguably be the outstanding musical entrée of the evening. Or the Palestrina Tu es Petrus. Or the wonderful chorale arrangements of Roger Wagner or Shawn Kirchner.

ROGER WAGNER ERA (1964-1986)Tomaso Luigi da Vittoria | Ave MariaPierre Passereau | Il est bel et bonPaul Chihara | Kyrie – Sally Gardens from Missa Carminum BrevisStephen Collins Foster | I Dream of Jeanie (arr. Roger Wagner)            Steve Pence, baritoneStephen Collins Foster | Western Songs (arr. Roger Wagner)            Lesley Leighton, conductor | Abdiel Gonzalez, baritoneEv'ry time I feel the spirit (arr. Jester Hairston)Danny Boy (arr. Roger Wagner)
JOHN CURRIE ERA (1986-1991)Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Ave verum corpusMy Love's in Germany (arr. Mack Wilberg)            Lisa Edwards and Shawn Kirchner, pianoI'll Ay Call in by Yon Town (arr. Mack Wilberg)            Lisa Edwards and Shawn Kirchner, piano
Auld Lang Syne - Pasadena Scottish Pipes & Drums – sung by all. Nice touch!
PAUL SALAMUNOVICH ERA (1991-2001)Gregorian Chant | Veni Creator SpiritusGiovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina | Tu es PetrusMaurice Duruflé | Tu es Petrus            Lesley Leighton, conductorMaurice Duruflé | Ubi caritas            Lesley Leighton, conductorMorten Lauridsen | O Magnum MysteriumHold On! (arr. Jester Hairston)The Lord Bless You and Keep You (arr. John Rutter)
GRANT GERSHON ERA (2001-present)Thomas Tallis | Spem in aliumHyowon Woo | ME-NA-RI            Sunjoo Yeo, soprano | Theresa Dimond and Timm Boatman, percussionWilliam Walker | The Good Old Way (Shape-note hymn)Sergei Rachmaninoff | Rejoice, O Virgin from All-Night VigilEdward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington | The Lord's PrayerGaspar Fernandes | Dame albricia mano Anton            Ayana Haviv, soprano | Alice Kirwan Murray, mezzo soprano            Alex Acuña, percussionShawn Kirchner | Unclouded Day, from Heavenly Home
Finale: Randall Thompson's familiar Alleluiawith current and former LAMC singers, which never sounded more musical – followed by champagne for all.
Prior to the concert, the space and time usually filled by a pre-concert chat with Maestro Gershon and KUSC’s Alan Chapman was given over to an outstanding display of artifacts, still projections and videos of each Music Director, and plenty of room for people to meet other people, reconnect with old friends, and reminisce about olden times. This brought the entire evening into focus on the Master Chorale's legacies and achievements over 49 seasons, and began the 50th on a wonderfully celebratory note.

2 years ago | |
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By Douglas Neslund
Twelve seasons ago, your scribe sat down with the youthful Grant Gershon, then as now a musician who appeared much younger than his 40 years, to mine his dreams and corral his thoughts on assuming the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and following in the footsteps of its iconic founding director Roger Wagner, and Wagner’s successors John Currie and Paul Salamunovich.
It’s safe to say that in the intervening dozen years, the 52-year old Maestro Gershon has surpassed even his own goals and dreams, rebuilt an audience, expanded the season, and carved out new musical territories for the LAMC and its audiences.
We met in an obscure coffee roasting house south of downtown Pasadena on one of the hotter, more sultry days of August.
In our far-ranging conversation on the eve of a High Sierra family vacation, he spoke freely of his stewardship of the organization, of the current state of affairs of the Master Chorale, and where he would like it to go as the Master Chorale enters its 50th Anniversary year.
Maestro Gershon’s musical life with the Los Angeles Master Chorale included singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem in Roger Wagner’s initial Master Chorale, and accompanying John Currie’s performances on harpsichord of Bach’s B-Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion.
While the noisy interior of our surroundings drowned out an occasional answer or comment, LA Opus deeply appreciates Maestro Gershon’s taking the time to answer our questions, which follow:

LA Opus (LAO): It’s been very interesting listening to the Master Chorale over the span of time in hearing the differences and changes in Baroque performance practice in particular, from a Romantic-era patina to a cleaner, more translucent and nuánced style.
Grant Gershon (GG): It’s a move in the right direction, in my opinion.
LAO: On a scale of one to ten, ten being where the Master Chorale is now, when you first heard the Master Chorale, what would you have rated it?
GG: It’s a little hard to answer, but with the ears and sensibility that I had at the time, it was a ten. The very first time I heard the Chorale was as an audience member for a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with Zubin Mehta. I always felt like this was the world standard, this was the best work I had ever heard. I can’t necessarily say with the ears, sensibilities and experience that I have now how I would rate it, but certainly at the time it was the case.
LAO: Would that hold true in the Currie years as well?
GG: That was a difficult time for the Chorale, clearly, both in retrospect and I think at the time as well, frankly I didn’t hear the Chorale a lot except for the performances I was in.
LAO: And then Paul Salamunovich came along and things shifted back in the direction of Roger Wagner’s approach.
GG: Again, I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process of how the directors were selected during that period, but the sense was that there was a feeling that the Chorale needed to protect its roots and find what people still referred to as ‘that signature sound’. And Paul was clearly the person to return the group to that.
LAO: As I recall, I heard that John Currie basically cleared out most of Roger’s singers.
GG: I heard that as well, and at the time there was something of a blood bath. He wanted a different sound and in so doing wanted to slay the dragon, so to speak.
I’ve looked around at other organizations going through growing pains, and it’s always a difficult time when you have a founding music director that moves on, and especially what we can imagine of Roger’s personality that was larger than life. In fairness to John, and almost anybody coming into that circumstance, it’s a tough road to hoe.
LAO: [Currie’s] personality was the mirror opposite of Roger’s. Roger always said he was going to write an autobiography and call it “Tour de Farce.”
When you auditioned for the job, were there other candidates of whom you were aware?
GG: Yes, they cast the net pretty wide, and the search went on frankly for the better part of a year, as I recall. I know that I had multiple interviews followed by a rehearsal audition with the group. My understanding is that there were four finalists, each of whom were invited to work with the group for 45 minutes in a variety of different repertoire and styles. I know that the singers had a strong input and their opinions were solicited as well.
LAO: Twelve years have past, twelve glorious years. In the coming season, how do you pick from those children which to bring back in retrospect for the new season?
GG: That’s a hard question. In this season, there was to be an opening concert where we wanted to include signature a cappella pieces from the four music directors, and then over the course of the season as well, a portion of retrospectives of pieces from my time with the Chorale as well as new pieces we have commissioned, and other new projects that are coming up. So it’s true that the choosing of what was representative – there were a few no-brainers – I knew from the beginning that we would have to do a B-Minor Mass, because it is one of the defining mountain-top pieces and it was the first piece that the Chorale performed under Roger as the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
LAO: And that will be performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?
GG: Actually, it will be the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last week I was in the plaza of the Music Center and saw the poster for the new season, and it shows the B-Minor Mass will be performed in the Chandler Pavilion as though connecting the past and present, but no, there will be two performances in Disney Hall.
LAO: We also read somewhere that the numbers of singers will be replicated as well as the old style …
GG: Well, not the old style actually, at least my intention was to honor what I considered to be the mid-century tradition of Bach performance by doing the piece with the full Chorale and with modern instruments. Obviously, we’ve been using Musica Angelica for the past few years for the Baroque, but what I am excited about was approaching it through the prism of what we’ve learned over the past two decades about performance practice.
LAO: So we won’t be subjected to largo tempi in every movement?
GG: No, I don’t think I could bring myself to replicate that aspect! I remember playing a piano rehearsal for a performance of the B-Minor Mass – I think it was for the Carmel Bach Festival – where the opening fugue was in eight to a bar and thinking, OK, it’ll take half an hour just to get to the end of the first movement.
In lengthier works, there is always a bit of anxiety about getting through a three-hour work in a two and one-half hour rehearsal.
LAO: Speaking of bringing back works from the past twelve years, I hope that you would consider the Tan Dun Water Passion.
GG: You know, that’s funny. Of all of the new pieces that we’ve performed during my time, we still hear the most from audience members about the Water Passion. All I can say is, stay tuned!
LAO: I cannot remember her name, but there was a woman from Cuba who lives in New York, who …
GG: Oh! Tania León!
LAO: Her music was exceptionally kaleidoscopic in texture.
GG: Yes, that’s another piece I’d like to bring back. She is really gifted.
LAO: Maybe a tough question to answer: were any of the new compositions a disappointment?
GG: Sure. Without naming names, it’s the risk that you take particularly with commissions. You select the composer in whom you have the most faith, to write something beautiful and lasting. But I tend philosophically to give composers pretty free rein, really, to pursue and follow their own imagination. And I feel over all, we’ve been very fortunate. But sometimes the piece doesn’t really pan out the way you’d hoped. 
I feel incredibly fortunate that we have and we’ve developed an audience that is really game for adventure, and even if there is music on the program that is unfamiliar, they’ll still come and give it an open hearing.
LAO: I’ve always considered Britten’s War Requiem to be the finest composition of the 20thcentury with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius giving it close competition. One of the Chorale members wrote recently that the piece was getting a little long in the tooth for him.
GG: Well, the Master Chorale has sung it 18 times!
LAO: Mixing the old repertoire with the new is a good way to prepare a meal with different flavors for the audience.
GG: I agree absolutely. Not only in terms of developing the audience but also for all of us on stage. I think it’s important. I can’t imagine narrowing or focusing on one era or one genre or style.
LAO: What you have done on occasion is to focus on one culture or a city. The biggest surprise to me was the Korean event, which was totally different from what I was expecting to hear!
GG: Good! Good!
LAO: You’ve done London, you’ve done France …
GG: Yes, that was more of a travelogue.
LAO: Are you going to pick that concept up and do, say, Budapest?
GG: Yes, I like that model to give the program some focus, and also it allows us to explore some music that may otherwise be difficult to find the right place in a program. That was true of the Korean program. The other aspect of that particular concert that was important for us, it provided us with a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the Korean community, which in terms of classical music is very, very active. It’s a natural bridge for us to create, and since we have some very gifted singers in the Chorale and the tradition of gifted Korean singers in the Chorale.
This all points up how much Los Angeles is made up of close-knit communities. I think that frankly, choral music, because it is in all these cultures that have a tradition of groups singing. We have this very fertile ground for us to build bridges that has to be a part of our mission.
LAO: How do you feel about American culture? Obviously, that would include jazz, Spirituals and other bedrock American cultures, cowboy music …
GG: … which will be represented in the Roger Wagner portion …
LAO: Alice Parker arrangements?
GG: Exactly!
LAO: And of course you can unleash Shawn Kirchner, who is a wonderful arranger and composer.
GG: Sure, absolutely. I can’t agree more.
When you talk about American music, I do very much enjoy exploring the roots music, as you mentioned, Spirituals, the shape note tradition we’ve had a lot of fun with, and the Appalachian tradition for which Shawn has such a great feel. And the main thing about those traditions is that we treat the music with integrity and respect.
LAO: Out of the past twelve years, what piece lies closest to your heart?
GG: Boy … great question. It’s like choosing your favorite child. It’s such a wide-ranging collection of pieces and concerts that come to mind.
LAO: Let me sharpen the question. I know what it is to feel ecstasy when you’re conducting. What piece particularly sends you into that realm?
GG: I would have to say the Brahms Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, the Tan Dun Water Passion … you know, when you have those moments, there’s no way to put it other than out of body, out of all natural sensibility experiences. I have to say I’ve had a relatively fair number of these, but for me, it happens the most often in these major works where the time scale is such that you’re living in the moment over such a sustained period of time in the major works that I mentioned that there comes a point where you shed your own sense of self in a way, and especially happens when you have an ensemble that you can trust so deeply and that everybody will have that shared experience.
When I was in high school, there was a collection of pieces over the course of those four years that I had score to that I would carry around from class to class and on breaks I’d go to the music room and find a piano and play through, and the Brahms Requiem specifically,             often times at night after I finished my homework I would put on my recording of the Erich Leinsdorf and I wore out the groove on that. It’s one of those pieces that I’ve lived with for so many years at this point and I’ve had the opportunity to perform it previously with the Chorale, so it’s a piece that has such long-term connection and where you have first-hand experience with it so you’re not having to think about this technical aspect of it and that creates the perfect situation for such an experience.
LAO: What piece performed over the years has elicited the greatest “shout back” from the audience?
GG: I have to say that the (Duke) Ellington Sacred Concert. I will really never forget the first time we performed those in the first season at Disney Hall, and the combination for all of us covering this repertoire that maybe we knew by name but I certainly didn’t know any of that music previously, so in discovering the pure jubilation of that music, being in the Hall it was the first time that I truly appreciated how informal Disney Hall could feel compared with the proscenium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That was the first time that I truly felt that the performers and audience all could truly be completely interconnected, and so when we got that audience “shout out” not only at the end of the concert, but after every movement – it was a truly incredible experience. 

 LAO: Let’s talk about the coming season. It’s special for the Chorale, being the 50th season, and your 13th as music director. How long has this special year been in the planning stages?
GG: I would say a good three years. Our event horizon for season planning has grown over the course of these 12 years. For instance, here we are in August, and we’ve got the 2014-2015 season pretty much set, maybe with a little wiggle room, but it’s pretty much there. That’s been set for 2-3 months. So we tend to be about a year and a half out where things really get put into place.
It was a longer horizon for this coming season, because obviously with it’s being the 50thseason of the group there were a lot of different aspects of the music that we wanted to make sure to highlight and be thinking about in advance. I think that any big anniversary like this presents an ensemble with an opportunity to define and redefine themselves for the public and for the audience. So we were very aware, going into this season, of how this could be both a retrospective and a way to point forward to the future.
LAO: When you prepare a piece requiring soloists to be drawn from the Chorale, what is that process like?
GG: Well, of course every year we have audition, and basically all of the Chorale members have to audition at least every other year and many of them choose to sing for me each year and particularly the ones that are interested in solo work. I’ll hear them on a fairly regular basis, and I have to say that I feel like it’s one of the shifts that happened over the course of my time with the Chorale, frankly is that the level of solo vocalism overall through the group has risen. There have always been some tremendous soloists all the way back to the prehistory of the Chorale – Marilyn Horne famously and Marni Nixon with Roger – so I don’t want to be dismissive of that long tradition, but I do think now that the number of singers that we can feature in solos and give solo opportunities to has increased over these years. I love that! It creates a virtuous circle that we are able to provide singers with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, which lifts the whole group, and it also is a great advertisement for potential singers coming in that if you join the Master Chorale, it’s not just doing ensemble singing, but you will have opportunities to solo sing with them or solos with the Philharmonic, for that matter.
LAO: When you have a solo opportunity, is there a system, if any, when choosing a soloist?
GG: At this point, there are 82 singers who are under an AGMA (union) contract, and then there are anywhere from 35 to 45 singers that are still members of the Chorale but technically they’re referred to as “supplemental” and they’re paid a stipend rather than the full union contractual fee. So when I’m choosing smaller ensembles or soloists, I’m drawing from that roster of 82 singers. But I have to say, more and more we use the supplemental singers like the farm team, and if you look at the singers who become full roster members, most of them were supplemental singers that sang with the group for a period of time. For me, it’s a win-win situation. I get to bring in a new singer, see how they function overall in the group, because you only tell so much from an audition. And then when we have openings in the roster, I’m able to offer a position to somebody who’s become a member of the ensemble and I know them, the other singers know them. Not only is it good for the group in the short term, but as a long term strategy for keeping the ethos of the group strong, it works out very, very well.
LAO: In any group, there are bound to be ego problems when choosing soloists from time to time. Do you have to deal with that issue?
GG: I do think that the group as a whole, the singers are tremendously supportive. They’re colleagues, teammates. It takes a tremendous amount of trust to build an ensemble like that. I think that for members of the Chorale, they take particular pleasure in having soloists coming from the group rather than hiring from outside.
LAO: Roger Wagner used to say you build a choir from the bottom up, starting with the basses. You pretty much keep the numbers in each section equal.
GG: Yes, when we’ve done Rachmaninoff, for instance, we brought in extra basses. Oftentimes what happens is we’ll put out a full call, like for the Rachmaninoff, and of the 115 singers, 105 are available. So that opens up ten positions where I can go out and look to see who can sing that low B-flat (in the All-Night Vigil’s Ave Maria).
LAO: Are you enjoying working with Los Angeles Opera? You even get to conduct once in awhile!
GG: I love working in opera. I love having the yin-yang experience of being in a concert world where everything is very controlled, and particularly as conductor, you very much have complete control of what happens, and then in opera, where anything can happen, and will … I know James Conlon talks about this a lot, having one foot in both worlds … there’s nothing like that excitement and the spontaneity of opera performance, and there are so many more variables than in a concert performance, and in opera, everything is bigger than life.
I’ve enjoyed the fact that my own conducting assignments have been in pieces like La Traviata and Butterfly, and now Carmen coming up, the old war horses.
LAO: And you conduct for the Philharmonic, too.
GG:  Yes, with the Philip Glass. For me, right now being in LA, I can’t imagine a better situation artistically or personally. I do feel, having grown up in LA, it’s a very good time now, and we should savor it. Nothing can be taken for granted. In the last few years, everything has come together for the city.
You know, I really credit Esa-Pekka Salonen above all for creating the shift that happened. He came to the Philharmonic at a difficult time similar to the Curry years at the Master Chorale, and there was a period of drift for two or three seasons after Previn before Esa-Pekka could assume the mantle, and it was a really difficult time. The morale of the orchestra was not good, and the sense of identity in LA was not good overall. Then Esa-Pekka came, and it wasn’t easy for him those first two years, but not only did he transform the orchestra but more importantly, he transformed the greater LA audience, and he made it possible to do the kind of programming that we do with LA Opera to come into its own. And then Walt Disney Concert Hall opened and we felt the unbridled jealousy from New York, which I love!
LAO: I note that the Master Chorale will be performing a work by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the June 2014 concert. Tell us about that.
GG: The singers came together on their own and said to management, we want to underwrite a commission of a major composer to write something for the Chorale for the 50thanniversary, and as they were talking, Esa-Pekka’s name kept coming up. We approach him, and he was thrilled to accept.
LAO: Have you ever had a commission arrive in the mail, ink still wet, barely in time for the performance?
GG: I’m trying to think of a commission that didn’t arrive at the last moment! It’s an occupational hazard.
LAO: So you just hope that it arrives prior to the Monday night rehearsal and a bit of time to look the score over.
GG: The most difficult thing structurally concerning commissioning a brand new piece is budgeting rehearsal time and you simply have to gather as much information as possible in order to make an educated guess about how much time it would take. I also feel fortunate that I’m a pretty quick study and of course, the group is very quick as well.
LAO: I didn’t like Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass the first time I heard it, but did the second time around.
GG: I think we did it a lot better the second time! I’m not ashamed to say it. Sometimes the first performance is a bit ‘seat of the pants’ or not even that, but whether it’s a new piece or not, after the performance you learn what’s really inside the piece. I think Bright Mass is a pretty good example of that, where I felt and I knew much more about the piece after that first performance and so, it’s always a luxury to come back and revisit, take what you’ve learned and then apply it.
Speaking of the upcoming season, I am very happy with the number of concerts this year that we’re able to repeat at Disney Hall. Anytime you have an opportunity to do a program more than once, it always strengthens and deepens, not only that specific program, but the overall sense of cohesion and ensemble long term that benefits from those repeat performances. There’s just no substitute for it.
LAO: Have you noticed a “sizzle” to the Walt Disney Concert Hall?
GG: I’ve experienced it. I’ve also heard that with the Philharmonic. Also, it would be nice to have maybe an extra second of reverb in the Hall when we do Renaissance or Arvo Pärt or music written for a cathedral. And we’ve refined our recording techniques to catch the sonic bloom of the Hall.
LAO: We thank you for taking precious time to answer a few questions and wish you and the Master Chorale a joyous and remarkable Season No. 50! Let the rehearsals begin!

2 years ago | |
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Lee Tergesen and Amy Brenneman. Photo: Michael Lamont
by Rodney Punt

Rapture, Blister, Burn, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, is a clever, gentle-hearted take on feminism today by playwright Gina Gionfriddo. Its charming if artificially crafted plot examines the lives of four women (in three generations) who bond while the younger three participate in a classroom survey on the history of feminism. We're in a liberated America, but the point of the play is to expose the frequent clash between instinct and intellect as women enjoy the fruits of modernity while dealing with men who rarely conform to the supposed advances of a post-feminist America.

The play's women conveniently fit into stereotypes: 40-something stifled mother and housewife, her recently fired 20-something babysitter, a liberated single 40-something author and her wise-cracking mother. As intellectual foil, the shadowy specter of social-conservative author Phyllis Schlafly, historically resistant to the ERA, hovers like a doppelgänger over the story to trump fuzzy feminist utopias at every opportunity.

Gwen (Kellie Overbey), a traditional housewife, is bored with husband Don (Lee Tergesen), a low-achieving, pot-smoking, porn-watching academic who long before had settled for a dean's position rather than face the challenge of writing his always postponed tome. (The similar weak male academic in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe comes to mind.)  A momentarily bored Gwen plots to jettison her domestic stability for an uncertain freedom; she sets up Don's old flame to lure him away.

Kull and Brenneman. Photo: M. Lamont
Catherine (Amy Brenneman) is that flame, a wildly successful women's author who conveniently now teaches the history of feminism to Gwen and her baby-sitter, Avery (Virginia Kull), the latter with the black-eyed evidence of an abusive boyfriend and an uncanny way of seeing through both the posturing cant of Catherine and the hypocrisy of Gwen. Helping things along, Catherine's mother Alice (Beth Dixon) is a kind of Golden Girl realist recovering from a heart attack who spouts pithy observations while serving up martinis to lubricate the women into further self-revelations.

Hiding behind her success but feeling cheated in life by a lack of a sustained male relationship, Catherine readily reignites the flame she once had with Don, though he (and we) initially think he's the initiator of the infidelity. They exhaust their rekindled heat in short order when Catherine's talented ambition confronts Don's passive mediocrity. The moment she eggs him on to write the book he had long since emotionally abandoned but nominally not given up, he wilts under the challenge.

You may have guessed where all this leads. Certain gal pals may eventually team up for new adventures while certain domestics may regroup in the realization and relief that they're not cut out for ambitious work (which anyway may just be sublimation for the lack of a steady squeeze).

Brenneman's Catherine traverses the greatest emotional territory, grappling with an existential lack of fulfillment as she wallows in her empty material and social success. Her wall of self-reliant confidence starts to crumble at the prospect of losing her mother and comes down faster than Jericho's at the prospect of gaining Don back. Stage and screen veteran Brenneman handles these chameleon mood shifts instinctively and seamlessly.

Kull, an actor's triumph as the sharp-tongued contempo update of a 90's Valley Girl, stole the show for me. Her Avery breezily punctured with incisive charm every stereotypical feminist role model Gionfriddo packed into this play. Dixon's pithy Golden Girl was another hoot, getting some of Gionfriddo's best one-liners. Overbey and Tergesen made the most of their somewhat shop-worn but still empathetic domestic-couple personas.

No great revelations here, but a refreshingly un-pompous mirror on having-it-all pretensions. Life for women would seem to require choices, but in this play the options remain open for a pretty good ride in or out of a male saddle.

Rapture, Blister, Burn, a play by Gina Gionfriddo
Gil Cates Theater of Geffen Playhouse in Westwood (Los Angeles)
Production run: August 13 - September 22, 2013
Performance reviewed: September 5, 2013

Directed by Peter DuBois
Set Designer, Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer, Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Designer, Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot
Sound Designer, M.L. Dogg

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2 years ago | |
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Photo: Frauenkirche of Dresden, Wikimedia Commons

Dresden, Germany

by Rodney Punt
Artistic Director Jan Vogler and his merry band of ever-reconfiguring instrumentalists known as the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival are keenly aware of the importance of matching their venues with compatible works. Take, for instance, the iconic Frauenkirche in the center of Dresden, which on August 17 hosted two of them: Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major.
Totally and unnecessarily destroyed by the Allies in the final days of World War II, the Baroque-styled Evangelical Lutheran church lay in ruins during the GDR era. Eight years ago it was reconstructed to its former glory with funding from both sides of that war and it stands today as a symbol of their reconciliation. Oddly shaped by the earlier Gothic church conventions -- it resembles a large bell from the outside -- its interior is not of the usual cruciform configuration, but a tall oval with three balconies arranged in concentric circles on the walls above its ground floor. I was curious to learn how these two works would sound in this unusual space.
Siegfried Idyll was composed as a birthday gift for Wagner’s wife, Cosima, and premiered under her window as a surprise on Christmas Day, 1870. Its name refers not so much to the clueless mythical hero destined to perish while saving the world from the Teutonic version of original sin, but instead to the eponymous baby boy Cosima had presented Richard with a year and a half before.  The themes come from the third opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but that is where the similarity ends; for the work transforms the opera’s heroic motifs into an extended lullaby-like narrative of cuddles and kisses for the Wagner toddler. 
Siegfried Idyll’s appearance on the program was in observance of Wagner’s bicentennial birth year of 1813 and of his Saxonian origins. The composer had developed and premiered his early operatic masterpieces in the Saxon capital and Dresden is as proud of their native son as he and Cosima were of their own son. 
I sat in a ground floor pew at the Frauenkirche and was touched to discover at my feet the brass scroll placed there in 2005 as memorial to early Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, who, four centuries ago and before even the Frauenkirche was built, worked in Dresden and laid the seeds of the present day Sächsische Staatskapelle orchestra. Just as Schütz (called the “Father of German Music”) would establish Germany as a force in the musical world, Wagner would put Germany at the forefront of the operatic world. Wagner paid homage to that earlier legacy of "heilige Deutsche Kunst" with the mystical chorale that opens his tribute to German music, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
The thirteen musicians in this original version of Siegfried Idyll were a mixture of seasoned professionals and younger personnel from the Moritzburg Festival Akademie. They caught the work’s tenderness nicely, but, like a baby at a baptismal, Siegfried Idyll seemed lost in the vast cavern of the Frauenkirche’s interior space. The solos in this nearly one-instrument-per-part work were uniformly well performed, but the work’s admittedly soft-edged message tended to dissipate and flatten in the church, with its super-spacious reverberation and slow acoustical decay. The work might also have benefitted from more dramatic incision and forward thrust to help it overcome the apparent mismatch in scale with its performance space.
While Siegfried Idyll came across as a small piece for a generous thirteen players in the Frauenkirche, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major proved itself a massive one for a modest five players in the same space.
I made a quick dash up to the first balcony to hear one of chamber music’s supreme tours de force. That level in the Frauenkirche I had found on past occasions to be the ideal place to sit, even better to stand. The primary sound of the players registers most distinctly there; the space's reverberation is embracing yet least dissipating of all levels including on the ground. This acoustical character would prove important to the quintet's rich texturing.

Schubert liked low sonorities; in virtually all cases where he added a voice to the customary quartet, whether in chamber or vocal music, it would be to include a lower, richer voice to the ensemble. The Trout Quintet, for instance, replaces the second violin for a string bass; the vocal quintet, Sehnsucht, for male voices, adds a third bass voice. In this work, Schubert’s valedictory to chamber music and composed only a few weeks before his death in November 1828, it was a second cello instead of the extra viola Mozart had employed in his string quintets.

Rehearsing the Schubert Quintet. Photo: René Gaens
The ensemble were all seasoned pros. (Pictured above, rehearsing, left to right: violins Mirijam Contzen and Benjamin Schmid, viola Benjamin Rivinius, cellos Christian Poltéra and Jan Vogler.) As was shortly to be revealed, they had also calculated an appropriate execution for the work in the Frauenkirche's tricky acoustic. (Its six-second sound decay is forever in musical time.) The unfolding performance would prove to be spacious and magisterial, also revelatory of the work’s amazing mix of moods, ranging from sad to sweet, rustic to elegant, exuberant to profound.
The first movement’s Allegro ma non troppo has always struck me as a retrospective view of Schubert’s life in passing moments -- here a morsel of his early dance music for house parties, there a motif from the youthful and carefree Trout Quintet, and further over a sad strain reminiscent of his last piano sonata (in Bb Major, D960), written in the same period as this work.

Schubert seemed content in the house parties of that final decade, called Schubertiads, to provide piano music almost anonymously for the amusement of others, extending love and beauty through his art but receiving little more from the self-involved partiers than an indifferent nod. It was the story of his life, as indeed of many musicians, but never a cause for self-pity. An amazing forbearance to smile through tears in both life and music remains today a key to his greatness.
Poltéra’s first cello joined Rivinius’ viola and Schmid’s second violin in the embracing legato passages that set a foundation for the first movement’s transcendental interplay between Vogler’s second cello and Contzen’s violin. Here, Vogler’s Stradivarius embraced the otherworldly pizzicati heartbeats that imbue this movement with a palpitating undercurrent of soulfulness in interplay with Contzen’s achingly poignant melodic flights.
The second movement Adagio, in ABA form, evokes a profound tenderness in its outer sections in E Major and great emotional turbulence in its F Minor middle section. Once again, Schubert employed the second cello to agitate but eventually calm down that episode's struggle, returning it to the initial stoic serenity. Schubert would reference that Neapolitan relationship (tonic, supertonic, tonic) at the end of the work's last movement in the bracing unison C-Db-C as if to seal forever its disturbing metaphysical significance to him.
The third movement Scherzo pulls back from the Adagio’s brink with an expansive celebration: a rustic dance of symphonic proportions, like at a village wedding. Some have seen it as Schubert fantasizing the gates of heaven thrown wide in its greeting to him. The magnified sound of the open strings on the lower instruments filled the Frauenkirche like one of those periodic swells of the Elbe overflowing its banks. But once again, the middle trio section was Schubert’s reality check, its measured death march promptly reining back the mood to almost a kind of Mahlerian world-weariness.
The last movement’s Rondo finds Schubert in a carefree orgy of sensual celebration, derived this time from Hungarian themes. As if in one last spectral appearance, however, those final three notes of Neapolitan gesture (Schubert’s version of shock and awe) returned like a doppelgänger to reveal something deeper forever shadowing life's joys. The Moritzburg group paced those last notes quite deliberately and let that minor-second dissonance frizz and fade for what seemed an eternity, perhaps the eternity Schubert knew he himself would enter soon after he finished this work.
Life and death were always rival siblings for Schubert, locked together as differing aspects of the same nature. The shift between tragedy and exuberance, so characteristic of the composer, is nowhere else so remarkably displayed as in this deeply moving string quintet, and it was immeasurably augmented in the Frauenkirche by the fine ensemble from the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival.


Postscript on the Adagio
The Adagio from the String Quartet in C Major has taken on a life quite independent of the larger work in which it was imbedded. It has been used in movie soundtracks and become a frequent choice of great musical artists to be played at their funerals. Violinist Joseph Saunders had its theme carved on his tombstone. Arthur Rubinstein declared it in his autobiography as the choice for his own remembrance.  I personally heard it on a freezing cold day worthy of Winterreise at Leonie Rysanick’s memorial service in 1998, wafting above my pew from the balcony of the Church of St. Borromeo at Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The ensuing flu I contracted made it almost my own funeral music.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, Wolfgang, then director of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, was in attendance at that Rysanick memorial. She had in the early 1950’s been a protégé of his brother Wieland who helped secure her reputation as a rising singer in his game-changing productions. At the end of her memorial service, Wolfgang passed close by me. His profile bore the uncanny resemblance of his grandfather. It is touching to consider that fifteen years after the Schubert Adagio was heard by Wolfgang, his own father, Siegfried, would be celebrated on a program with the same work. But it is also spooky to consider that Wolfgang's father was born 130 years before, and even more so that Wolfgang's grandfather, Richard, was born an astounding 185 years before that day. (Think of it this way: I met a man who's grandfather was born a mere thirty years after George Washington defeated the British at Yorktown in 1783.)

It is relatively rare for musical commentators to speak of Schubert and Wagner in the same breath. Schubert was supposed to be lyrical by nature, unsuited for opera, and of course we know that Wagner was opera's first fully dramatic composer. And there is much truth in these observations. But consider the opening minor-key storm of Schubert's Erlkönig with its chase in the bass register, and then consider the similar minor-key storm of Wagner's Die Walküre with its own chase in the bass register. Though we know that Mozart's Don Giovanni, with similar eerie gestures, was well known to both composers, the best precedent to Wagner's vaunted declamatory style in opera may just be Schubert's unfinished Lazarus cantata.

There are many more connections than we often consider as probable in the development of musical styles.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at

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Schloss Moritzburg.   Photo: Wikimedia Commons
by Rodney Punt
Schloss Moritzburg began as a royal hunting lodge five hundred years ago in a lake and woodland setting northwest of Germany’s Dresden. After the castle palace’s Baroque splendor was developed in the latter sixteenth century, its halls must have witnessed their share of intrigues and power plays. But in the past twenty years those same acoustically resonant spaces have welcomed the more convivial sights and sounds of musicians performing chamber music. 
The Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival, founded in 1993 at that very castle by internationally acclaimed cellist Jan Vogler, celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer. Beginning today and running through August 25, the two-week experience features concerts, recitals, open rehearsals and composer lectures.
Given the long tradition of chamber music in Europe, it is curious that the idea for the Moritzburg Festival arose not in Germany but in the USA. Vogler, his brother Kai and colleague Peter Bruns often performed at the Marlboro Festival, famous for its idyllic Vermont country setting. Bruns suggested that  the Moritzburg Castle’s pond and gardens could offer a similar romantic setting. The rest has made for a happy chapter in local musical history.
For many years, Moritzburg’s intimate concerts, elegant dining and the opportunity for more in the nearby Saxon capital have been a well-kept secret within Germany. Recently, however, with British and American citizens rediscovering the glories of a restored Dresden, the musical life of the region has drawn more attention. It helps too that English is now virtually a second language in modern Saxony.
The Festival’s “chamber” moniker should be taken advisedly. One will hear familiar chamber dimensions when a solo viola essays a Bach suite, a string trio takes on Bach's Goldberg Variations and a string quartet Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. But chamber music gives way to grander proportions when a full orchestra dispatches such a work as the Brahms Symphony in E Minor.
While there are many recognizable composers, there are as many of them or their works unfamiliar. Pendercki is represented with his little known Sarabande in Memory of J.S. Bach; the forgotten Joseph Lanner, originator of the Viennese waltz style, has three works on the program; and the rarely heard Frank Bridge (teacher of Benjamin Britten) has an entry with his Sonata for Violin and Piano.
Eminent composer Wolfgang Rihm, head of the Institute of Modern Music at the Karlsruhe Conservatory of Music, will return to the Festival for the second time as composer-in-residence. Performed will be his Music for Three Stings (Part I), String Quartet, and the Phantom and Escape for violin and piano.
Southern California readers of LA Opus will be interested to see Hollywood composer Wolfgang Korngold represented with a concert chamber piece. His Brentwood neighbor, Arnold Schoenberg, will be featured with his Second String Quartet, the one that features also a soprano. Los Angeles resident Midori, who teaches violin at USC, will solo in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.
Collection of antlers.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons
From the beginning, the Festival has always sought out appealing and unusual performing spaces. LA Opus asked Vogler how selected works relate to where they are performed:

“It’s very important that each piece be performed in its most suitable venue, like the large (and recently restored) Frauenkirche for grand pieces like Siegfried Idyll and Schubert’s String Quintet, or the intimacy of the Moritzburg castle for Mozart’s incredible Divertimento in E-flat Major. The ultra-modern Volkswagen Die Gläserne Manufaktur (transparent glass factory) is best for the opening concert with the Festival Orchestra of the Academy.” That orchestra, by the way, is made up of outstanding young musicians from around the world who also work together in the Festival's academy program.
Additional venues are the Evangelische Kirche (Lutheran Church) in Moritzburg, the famed Palais im Grossen Garten (Palace in Great Garden) in Dresden and Bad Elster’s König Albert Theatre. As if these aren’t exotic enough, an airplane hanger at the Elbe Flugzeugwerke Dresden (aircraft factory) will welcome the Family concert, “The Little Prince”, named after the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 
The twentieth edition of the Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival will see a reunion the three founders, Jan and Kai Vogler and Peter Bruns, along with two other performers from the very very first festival, double bass player Helmut Branny and violinist Mira Wang. LA Opus asked Vogler to reflect on accomplishments he found significant over the festival's first twenty years:

"Today, twenty years later, the festival has established itself on the German music scene. We have a year-round office in Dresden and we have toured internationally with the festival and recorded several CD’s for Sony Classical. We founded the Moritzburg Academy to support young artists and have added many venues and new concert formats. But the main message and the music-making have not changed. We still work with the same enthusiasm and dedication on wonderful music and performances still have the same freshness they had twenty years ago.

"I think it is partly the location that seems to inspire us, partly the kind of players who meet in Moritzburg year after year, and by now definitely the wonderful audience that keeps us searching for something special, the magic element in music that inspired us to become musicians in the first place."

Successful music festivals share certain elements: a unique identity, an ability to adapt and further innovate it over time, and an elusive element that we might as well call "soul." The Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival would seem to have all these things in place as it launches its third decade.

For more on the Moritzburg Festival, its dates and full program and ticket information, see: Moritzburg Festival in English.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at
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David Daniels as Oscar, with Heidi Stober and William Burden. Photo: Ken Howard

By Rodney Punt
Like the unwieldy storm clouds that had gathered and burst overhead all week, the July 27 premiere of Oscar at the Santa Fe Opera aimed for catharsis. With its stellar cast, elaborate sets and massive orchestra, Theodore Morrison’s opera, based on the tragic final years of playwright Oscar Wilde’s life, was both a brave and uncannily apt commission for the company. At least it seemed so on paper.

Completing his first opera at age 75, veteran composer Morrison and his co-librettist, the eminent opera director John Cox, may have loved Oscar not wisely but too well. The emotionally charged news-cycle of current human rights advocacies too obviously shaped Wilde's operatic persona into a persecuted martyr for the cause of gay liberation. Amidst the ensuing hero worship, Wilde’s complex real life character proved as elusive of capture as bottling New Mexican lightening.
The brilliant, flamboyant, mesmerizing, prideful, reckless, and self-destructive Oscar Wilde that the world has come to know is here entirely missing in action; his exuberant and at times dark character attenuated by selective revelation and adoring obfuscation. Wilde, sans his brilliant theatrical wit and scintillating personality, emerges as just a man in a jam named Oscar.
The opera resembles a tragic oratorio without much in the way of real conflict. Act I begins just before the infamous guilty verdict in Wilde’s sham trial for sodomy. Act II continues with his sentence of two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol. The Wilde we encounter is in the first act a fatalistic victim of a cruel legal system and in the second a passive victim of a cruel prison system. The ensuing journey from point A to point A’ leaves no room to unfold a dramatic arc.
Characters are often defined by description at the cost of engaging drama. Live action segments are sparse, giving way to reflection, memory and narration. (No less than one half of the libretto consisted of excerpted works with observations by Wilde and his circle of literary friends.) When in an active mode, however, the opera did come alive in isolated scenes. Under such limiting overall circumstances, Kevin Newbury's imaginative and empathetic direction compensated for many of the inherent weaknesses in the opera.
The title role was written for countertenor David Daniels, who acted and sang through a long evening in as compelling, fresh and pliant a voice as this writer has ever heard from him. His doomed character was, however, on an internalized journey from humiliation to a purification of soul with few signposts from which to measure progress.

Daniels with a masked Reed Luplau. Photo: Ken Howard
Along that way Oscar existed sometimes in the real world, where various characters interact with him, and sometimes in his projected fantasies, most often those of his beloved Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, portrayed here in a silent role by the supple dancer, Reed Luplau, as imaginatively choreographed by Seán Curran. Bosie was the doppelganger of both soothing reveries and tormenting nightmares, transforming from a life energy into an image of death. Bosie's presence was introduced in the orchestra by a lovely cello theme. But his non-singing role too often cast him as a decorative cameo rather than an interactive actor.
Oscar’s refuge in the home nursery room of novelist and loyal friend Ada “Sphinx” Leverson (sympathetically portrayed by soprano Heidi Stober in the opera's only female role), accompanied by their journalist friend Frank Harris (another solid outing by SFO tenor William Burden) provided much needed dramatic dialogue, even if its mission to convince the doomed Wilde to flee England was foreordained to failure.
Likewise, a second act encounter in the prison infirmary (featuring tenor David Blalock and bass Benjamin Sieverding) gave rise to a touching interaction between Wilde’s wounded and humbled sophisticate and the two unschooled but intuitively wise fellow-travelling patients. It was the single most moving scene in the opera.
Less effective was Wilde’s interaction with the cardboard villainy of Governor of Reading Gaol Colonel Isaacson (hollow-cheeked bass Kevin Burdette), whose malice was dramatically too brief to be any more malevolent than short-term bluster. (Where was Cool Hand Luke’s Strother Martin when this opera needed him?)
Ada's nursery as Oscar's courtroom
David Korins’ grand-scaled sets served effectively as heavenly halls and horrible prisons, but his big surprise was an imaginative set piece at the end of Act I, where the safety of Ada’s nursery room morphed in Oscar’s tortured mind into the hated courtroom, its harmless toys becoming menacing accusers, its crib a jail cell, and its jack-in-the-box a jeering judge spitting out Wilde’s guilt as it bobbed mockingly side by side. 

David C. Woolard’s delirious costuming added colorful heft to the surreal moment, just as his Victorian-period costumes had supported the veracity of other scenes. The distorted nursery trope had resonance in Bosie’s recurring image as the source of both Wilde's adoration and downfall. The things he had assumed safe had in fact become fatal.
Substituting for a scarcity in dramatic conflict was the ill-conceived conceit of a prologue and epilogue bookending the opera’s two acts and featuring a heavenly Walt Whitman (the emphatic baritone Dwayne Croft) who, in his more corporeal days had met Wilde on his American tour of 1882. Speaking from the Halls of Immortality, Whitman assured the audience in their humble seats of mortality that Oscar’s greatness would ultimately be rewarded. This foreknowledge collapsed Wilde’s trials and tribulations on stage into a ritualized road trip to beatification.
Had the real Wilde known so trite a dramatic device as this latter-day deus ex machina would be employed in his rescue, he would likely have demurred at departing his honest grave. Coming to praise Wilde, Whitman’s presence embalmed a complex and contradictory character with saintly immortality and buried him in the soil of blandness.
It wasn’t as if the creative team that devised Oscarlacked an abundance of incident in the playwright’s life from which to draw. There was, for instance, his surprising triumph in 1882 as a lecturer on aesthetics to rapt cowboys and miners in America's Wild West. A decade later came the flamboyant and dangerous period of Wilde’s double life as celebrated playwright of London’s West End and obsessive denizen of its dangerous underworld. There was potential for the interactive frisson of conversation between Wilde and his fatal attraction, Bosie, the sunshine lover who egged on an unnecessary trial but then fled when the consequences became too hot to handle. Finally, the enticing opportunity to adapt the real trial was available on the historic record, and offered a verbatim account of Wilde’s rapier wit almost winning the day against the Marquess of Queensbury’s dogged determination to destroy him. 
Such incidents could have made for a blood-curdling evening at the opera, but all were missed opportunities left on the creative floor of Oscar.
The ruminating drama had no such lumbering counterpart in the evening's skillful vocal lines and effective instrumental music. Given the opera’s dramatic passivity and episodic structure, Morrison’s orchestra spoke in a surprisingly active voice and with clean and crisp textures.

From its cinematic opening in big, bold statements, ably executed in the hands of conductor Evan Rogister, the orchestra was a colorful and alternatingly soulful or aggressive presence. Its language was conservatively tonal but well-crafted, and accented with heavy dissonances that could on occasion test atonal boundaries. Powerful choral passages in the prison scene and earlier, ably prepared by chorus master Susanne Sheston, revealed the composer’s long mastery in this idiom. Especially effective was his use of brass choirs, the latter creating colors with the winds that could be ejaculatory in their mockery, wrenchingly dissonant in agonized lower brass legatos, and bracing in the trumpet stabs of prison cruelties. The orchestra’s virtuosity confirmed the septuagenarian Morrison’s passing comment in one of the many panel meetings before the premiere that all his previous music had been “juvenilia.”
Playwright Oscar Wilde cautioned his audiences in The Importance of Being Earnest that truth is rarely pure and never simple. It is unlikely that the author of such later shocking live-action operas as Salome, A Florentine Tragedy and Der Zwerg would have approved, even at the sake of an unflattering portrayal, the well-intentioned but severely censored realization of his character in Oscar.
That said, there was still much to savor in this premiere.

All photos are used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.Rodney Punt can be contacted at
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By Rodney Punt
Art song, in the tradition of European cultivation that began at the end of the 18th century, involves an intimate interaction between a singer and a pianist. The singer may depict many an imaginary role on stage, but the pianist must be grounded in reality to monitor his singer even as he creates her supporting atmospherics. Empathy is a key virtue. Also deference. But never servitude. Though it may have been expected from certain singers of yore, it is no longer a legitimate requirement, in either the musical or psychological sense. Therein lies a tale.
The most nerve-wracking experience I ever had was not the intensity of live-fire military training I endured in the summer of 1968. It was a job I had shortly before graduating that year from UC Santa Barbara. One fine morning I was asked to turn pages that evening for a pianist at a lieder recital. Replacing a suddenly ailing colleague, Samuel Sanders had flown from New York at the last minute to accompany the eminent soprano Evelyn Lear.
Pianist Samuel Sanders
I picked up a fatigued and slightly nauseous Sanders at the airport after an exhausting flight from the East Coast and a bumpy puddle-jumper out of LAX to Santa Barbara. We drove to an abbreviated twenty-minute rehearsal with Lear on the stage of the university’s Campbell Hall. Sanders and I were briefed on which verses of several strophic songs Lear was to sing and the tempos she expected. I flipped pages back and forth for an accompanist sight-reading in various keys the scores he may just have received. After a blur of orders on our cues (Lear never sang more than a few bars of any song) I drove Sanders to his hotel for a short rest and a bite to eat. Almost immediately thereafter it was show time.
The evening had gone well. I was amazed at Sanders' agility at partnering Lear hand and glove throughout the program. Also impressive was his ability to adjust at sight to the keys that fit Lear's voice and in so polished a manner it seemed they had performed together regularly.

Quite unexpectedly at the end of the evening, however, the soprano’s memory lapsed in the middle of a Mendelssohn song spinning with piano arpeggios. She maintained a frozen smile, bravura hiding her bluff, and stood regally. Not missing a beat, Sanders furiously vamped ersatz Mendelssohn as he quietly signaled me to take it da capo so he could bring her in on the last verse. I did so. He repeated the intro and whispered an initial phrase at Lear. She came in on cue, and the song, with the evening, concluded in fine style.
None in the audience seemed aware of the lapse that almost blemished the recital. We walked off stage to a round of applause. Sanders and I exhaled a sigh of relief. Lear remained regal as she pivoted on the ready for a final bow. The two artists took to the stage one last time, Mendelssohn’s score clasped firmly at Sanders’ side.
Offstage soon after, Lear suddenly snapped at Sanders, dressing him down as a school marm might an errant pupil; why had he not dropped his music off backstage at the FIRST exit? Whether from shock or tact, whatever Sanders felt at that moment went unexpressed.

My jaw dropped. This venom was coming from the soprano he had just saved from public embarrassment? Was she power tripping, playing a mind-game? I may never know what possessed Lear to strike out in this manner, but I will never forget her rude behavior.

One sees the odd story here and there of rescues not being appreciated; a lifeguard pulls a drowning swimmer out of the ocean, only to be chewed out as they reach the safety of sand. Gratitude in such cases can apparently be trumped by wounded pride. That psychology is a study for the couch of another commentary.

The point is not to pass judgment on a singer who needed to let off steam after a nerve-wracking night. It’s to emphasize the sudden awareness and respect I had gained in one hyper-charged encounter for the under appreciated skills and forbearance of the piano accompanist. The days of such a gaping inequality between a singer and her pianist are long gone, even if behaviors like this now and again erupt. The era of hissing divas (of both sexes) was to undergo a transformation with the general democratization of American society.  
It may have been experiences such as that Santa Barbara evening that prompted Sanders to become one of his profession's most celebrated change-agents. He insisted his name be credited with the singer on all concert promotions, not always the case before. He was among the first to employ the term “piano collaborator” as preferable to “piano accompanist.” As a faculty member at the Juilliard School from 1963, he established a master's degree program for accompanists and insisted that women be admitted to what had once been an all boys' club.

In his distinguished career Sanders would partner with the greatest vocal and instrumental musicians of his time, among them violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and tenor Robert White. Thanks to Sanders and others of his stamp, piano collaborators in the modern era have achieved prominence. The field has even attracted soloists like Leif Ove Andsnes and the just retired Alfred Brendel, among others, to engage with singers. But I find it is pianists who make a specialty of partnering with singers on a regular basis who catch the most consistent magic in the elusive blend of voice and piano that is song.
I never encountered Sanders in person after that evening in the fateful year of 1968. I had asked him a question on our way to the hotel earlier that day. Who of the great composers did he find the most challenging in song partnership? His answer was Schubert, but at that moment he told me he was too tired to explain why. I was never to find out from him. But in a roundabout way, I eventually discovered some answers from another great pianist and lieder specialist. These insights will be the subject of a later entry on the art of song collaboration.

Sanders’ death in 1999 at the relatively young age of 62 was a great loss. A lengthy New York Times obituarysummarized the pianist’s pioneering contributions to the art and craft of piano collaboration. It’s worth your attention.

Photo above from Classical ArchivesRodney Punt may be reached at
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by Rodney Punt

Today the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defence of Marriage Act. They also upheld a lower court's striking down California's Proposition 8 that prevented same-sex marriage. Let's celebrate this validation of the civil rights of the GLBT community with a song written over 80 years ago but still relevant today.

Love is Sweeping the Country was composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by his brother Ira. It was introduced in the 1931 political satire musical Of Thee I Sing, which won Ira Gershwin a Pulitzer Prize.

The YouTube videos below feature two of America's greatest singers: first, a romantic take from Ella Fitzgerald to remind us how serious the underlying theme of today's Supreme Court decision really is; second, a raucously joyful take from Judy Garland to celebrate today in style.

I made two slight changes in the printed lyrics (in red) to celebrate today.

Why are people gay?
All the night and day
Feeling as they never felt before
What is the thing that makes them sing?

Rich man, poor man, thief,
Doctor, lawyer, chief,
Feel a feeling that they can't ignore
It plays a part in every heart
And every heart is shouting, "Encore"

Love is sweeping the country
Waves are hugging the shore
All the sexes from Maine to Texas
Have never known such love before

See them billing and cooing like the birdies above
Each girl and girl alike sharing joy alike
Feels that passion'll, soon be national
Love is sweeping the country
There never was so much love

See them billing and cooing like the birdies above
Each boy and boy alike sharing joy alike
Feels that passion'll, soon be national
Love is sweeping the country
There never was so much love


Above photo from Wiki of James Cagney.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at
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