Return of ‘the end of time’

By Scott MacClelland

Ian Scarfe brought his Trinity Alps Chamber Players to Monterey on Monday to perform Olivier Messiaen’s apocalyptic Quartet for the End of Time. Accordingly, after his introductory remarks about the unique piece he advised, “We’ll see you on the other side.”

The divine revelation unfolded, vision by vision, at the Wave Street Studios where an audience of 60-plus packed into the intimate space, while worldwide viewers potentially accessed the event by live video streaming. As with many touring ensembles, thisHyampom incarnation of the Trinity Alps ensemble—borne of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival (pictured) in northwest California’s remote Hyampom Valley—included violinist Edwin Huizinga, cellist Charles Akert and clarinetist Sacha Rattle. The eight discrete movements that reflect on passages from the Book of Revelations were composed at a Nazi POW camp in 1941 under conditions that could have inspired anyone to thoughts of last days.

The meditative Praise to the Eternity of Jesus, for cello, and (final) Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, for violin—both underpinned by quiet block chords on the piano—make extraordinary demands of the string players who must sustain a seamless line stretched over an ‘eternity’ of time. Both Akert and Huizinga must have wished their bows were two or three inches longer; this is some of the most difficult kind of music to pull off. Abyss of the Birds, for solo clarinet, is hardly less of a challenge. (The piece is often required of clarinetists who are auditioning for a new post.) Rattle, the son of Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle, achieved the effect of bringing sound of out silence with no discernable point of beginning, a feature unique to this music. The full quartet opened the work with Crystal Liturgy, and continued with Vocalise for the Angel who Announces the End of Time, the rocking Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets and Tangle of Rainbows for the (announcing) Angel. In the latter, Messiaen directs the cellist to play swooping glissandos on the E string, an effect well known in his orchestral music for its appearance on the ondes Martenot, an electronic synthesizer invented in the late 1920s.

Overriding all the technical novelties of the work is its expressive character, which is at once mysterious and mystical, a portal to another dimension of consciousness. Scarfe was correct in his “other side” remark. There are still a few of us who remember a two-piano concert by Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod, his wife, at one of the dining commons at UC Santa Cruz, in 1973. What comes to mind is that same expressive character, revealing and implying in equal portions, both lucid and obscure. Such is the allure of Messiaen’s music in all its quoted bird songs, chaotic dissonant and eternal serenity.

Thanks to the Trinity Alps players, the Quartet for the End of Time once again haunts the memory while the seeds it just now planted already anticipate rebirth and the enticing attar of its ephemeral blossoms.  

Posted Dec 3, 2013          

Monterey Symphony’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.


By Scott MacClelland

On the way to Sherwood Hall to join school kids bused in Thursday morning for Amahl and the Night Visitors, I was lucky to see Claes Oldenburg’s big yellow cowboy hats, freshly restored and reinstalled in the adjacent park. Overnight rain had freshened the air, the sun had just broken through the clouds, and excitement among the queues of youngsters entering the auditorium was palpable.

Gian Carlo Menotti’s one-act opera was designed for children, yet adults can easily get just as enchanted by the composer’s clever libretto (in English) and magical music. And if I thought today’s elementary school kids are blasé or cynical, that fleeting anxiety quickly evaporated. The nearly full house, the second of two that morning, was attentive and quiet during the 50-minute performance by the Monterey Symphony and the cast on stage, laughed and applauded in the right places, and set the big seating structure into serious oscillations as their feet stamped out approval at the conclusion.

Monterey-area producer/director Walt deFaria designed and staged the piece, with contributions by Nicole Anne Bryant-Stevens, Dennis Randolph and others. The cast featured Ethan Yan as Amahl, Angelique Zuluaga as his mother, with tenor J. Raymond Myers, baritone Peter Tuff and bass James Grainger as the three kings. Cheryl Anderson’s Cabrillo choristers, as the neighbors, sang beautifully. Whitney Hollman-Wynn choreographed the dance sequence.

Max Bragado conducted the orchestra which was spread out left to right on the floor in front of the stage. Supertitles were projected in support of young Mr. Yan’s sometimes small projection. The three kings, as with the mother, had no difficulty filling the hall.

It was not hard to imagine that some of the youngsters in the audience could relate to Amahl’s handicap and privations, and to take inspiration from his determination and ultimate triumph. As fables relating to the nativity of Christ go, this one is especially rich and layered. It was a treat to hear and see it in the presence of an audience of several hundred genuinely tuned in youngsters.  

Posted Nov 22, 2013 

From subtle and delicate to wild and crazy

By Scott MacClelland

The love affair between Daniel Stewart and the Santa Cruz Symphony continued in its own fashion Sunday in Watsonville. A full house at the Mello enthusiastically reveled in a mixed bag of Ravel, Shostakovich and Beethoven. Showing off his keen marketing instincts, Stewart asked those in the hall who had just silenced their cell phones to use them to take photos of the orchestra and post them on line.

Then he got down to his conducting duties by leading the five-movement concert suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose, those enchanting tales of Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and others. The music shimmered in its fragile delicacy, the winds showing off their individual talents in fine style. Except for Laideronnette and the final moments, Stewart held the music to a skillfully nuanced and paced mezzo-forte.  

140299_750The real treat—make that thrill—of the day was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, a tour de force for the soloist, the hair-raising 19-year-old Austin Huntington, and a powerfully expressive warning to those Soviet citizens who chose to look the other away while Stalin consolidated his institutions of fear and repression. Stalin was dead six years when Shostakovich wrote the work for Mstislav Rostropovich, in 1959, but this portrait of the dictator’s legacy couldn’t be more vivid, not least for the composer’s mockery of Stalin’s “favorite” folk song in the final movement.

The opening theme is borrowed from a Shostakovich film score, while the second theme reorders the musical monogram Shostakovich gave himself (D, E-flat, C, B), yet both are cut from the same cloth and are heard again in the last two movements. The intensely driving first movement gives way to a tragic second in which the sorrowing cello is accompanied by a counter melody on the second violins, then a mournful clarinet. In its closing moments the cellist must navigate a lengthy path of treacherous harmonics, those lightly touched overtones that can easily howl or squawk if not dead-on accurate. Not less treacherous is the third movement, an extended solo cadenza that demands mastery of every trick in the cellist’s playbook, then goes straightaway into the bristling finale. Mr. Huntington, who won last year’s Irving M. Klein International String Competition, handled the Shostakovich like a veteran, and performed with unmistakable confidence.      

The first and third measures at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begin with a 1/8th rest—followed of course by those famous three short and one long notes. When Stewart gave a big gesture on that rest and then tried to give another one on the first short note he guaranteed a messy attack by the orchestra. He did it twice running. He should know better.

The orchestra did in fact come through the work with powerful effect according to Stewart’s passionate embrace of the famous music. But his podium gyrations were wildly excessive and, as such, often confusing, his body language sometimes awkward and off balance. In the last movement, his subito piano (suddenly quiet) crouches were ineffective, and, with arms flailing, he even managed to throw away his stick.

Stewart inherited an orchestra with an uncommonly high order of discipline which should not be taken for granted. This kind of exuberant body language, which was constrained to purpose in the Ravel and Shostakovich, is not going to produce better results in the long term. A symphonic love-in is fine for a while, but the focus is supposed to be on music, not choreography.  

Posted Nov 18, 2013

A quiet man

By Scott MacClelland

Pianist Haskell (Hal to his friends) Small has staked out a most unusual claim to obscure keyboard repertoire: quiet music. And, as heard Sunday in Santa Cruz, he has the poetic sensitivity for the task.

haskell_smallMoreover, he had at his disposal the extraordinary Yamaha CFX nine-foot “Juanita Orlando” concert grand piano. Distinguished Artists’ director John Orlando knew when he booked Small, and his program, that no other piano would deliver the qualities demanded by Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s magnum opus, Música Callada. Those qualities include a huge range of tonal colors and inflections and, for Small in particular, a pianissimo response like no piano I have ever heard. (I can only imagine how Mompou, who died at age 94 in 1987, must have struggled to find an instrument that would give him the barely audible tones of his mind’s ear.)

Música Callada does not translate literally into English. The closest is Silent Music, or Quiet Music. Mompou wrote four books of these circumspect pieces, between 1959 (when he was 66) to 1974. In total, it took Small 73 minutes to play the 28 short movements, all from memory, with only a 10-minute break while Orlando recited poetry that served the composer as inspiration. The concert was promoted as a Piano Meditation, and was played in the round at First Congregational Church as the setting sun streamed in through all the west-facing windows. (The performance ended just as the sun was fully in Small’s eyes.)

Mompou is known to most pianists for his volumes of music for the instrument, and to a lesser extent for his songs. But his name is hardly a household word. And his style is eclectic enough to be hard to pin down as the work of one man. His music is tonal, but certainly not obsessively, and wanders far afield from any strong tone center. The phrases are often told in couplets, or pairs. There are no overt allusions to regional  or local affect, save the numerous moments that sound like bells, attributed to the composer’s family bell-making tradition. At times, melodies sound in parallel, a popular device among French composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suggesting an affinity for the Parisian world where Mompou studied with Fauré. Indeed, Fauré seems like a shadow behind these pieces. And, inevitably, they are bound to be compared to the pensive miniatures by Erik Satie. Unlike Satie, however, they make fun of no conventions but are deeply serious in their musings. Moreover, they are not always quiet, though most are quite slow.

Other composers’ voices come into momentary focus, including Debussy, Ravel, Chopin, Poulenc and even Messiaen. About 75 people were seated around the piano for the concert, which was given without an intermission, after Small made a few remarks about the work and its composer. The audience was caught up in the music’s spell. One woman had brought the score, read as Small played, and afterward pronounced his performance, “flawless.”

Personally, I found hearing this work (for the first time) a genuine treat. Hearing it played on the Yamaha greatly added to the experience. Meanwhile, Small is presently dedicated to quiet music, or, as he calls them, his “Journeys in Silence.”

Posted Nov 12, 2013


By Scott MacClelland

In the mind’s ear, as in nature itself, the harvest season speaks in strong tones of red, orange, brown and gold. What better way then for Ensemble Monterey to open its 2013-14 season than with Mozart’s Gran Partita, the greatest “serenade” for wind instruments ever written. The word partita originally implied variations on a theme, but in Baroque practice it became synonymous with the suite of dance movements that spread from its French origins throughout Europe. In Mozart’s time serenades, cassations, notturnos and divertimentos were casually interchangeable, their French dance movements often replaced with classical sonata movements, variations, rondos, etc. If composed for winds, they were suitable for playing outdoors.

Such works were designed as classical background music; as such not unlike the fare offered by commercial classical radio. Yet, in Mozart’s case, they often rose to the unforgettable—indeed, inescapable, like Eine kleine Nachtmusik—because of the composer’s seeming inability to write second-rate music. (For the record, Mozart composed at least 45 such works, 24 of which were for wind ensembles.)

With this concert, director John Anderson has chosen a new Monterey-area venue, St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Carmel Valley, an intimate room with lively acoustics. Too lively, it turned out, for the program-opening Suite in B-flat, Op. 4, by the young Richard Strauss. A Mozart-lover, Strauss wrote for the same complement as his idol (13 winds plus one double bass) but sustained dense textures at length where Mozart typically alternated the full ensemble with cameos of fewer players. Moreover, the four horns simply played too loud for the space. (Anderson succeeded in toning them down for the Mozart, to much better effect.)

Yet, as young as Strauss was at the time—19 or 20—he does display flashes of his mature self. The gavotte (yes, this was also an exercise in his knowledge of the Baroque as the commission from Hans von Bülow expected) contains mischievous predictions of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And the final fugue, using an ungrateful fugal subject, also imagines Till, and even anticipates the composer Paul Hindemith.

The 50-minute, seven-movement Mozart serenade contains just about everything in the composer’s magic box up to the time of its composition, circa 1781, including opera buffa bits. Thanks to clarinetist Anton Stadler, the instrument, and its sibling basset horn , had ingratiated itself with the composer. Flutes, oboes and bassoons fill up the complement. The horn was no less a partner for its esteemed ability to blend with woodwinds. The lineup of movements makes plain the light overall character of the piece, including minuets and trios, theme and variations, a seductively expressive adagio, and a mini-serenade all its own in the Romance movement. In concert, however, it’s impossible to relegate this fabulous music to the background. It leaves the listener wanting more.

Ensemble Monterey’s next concert, in early February, will include works by three living Americans—Joseph Schwantner, John Wineglass and Stephen Tosh—and one dead Frenchman, Albert Roussel.                 

Posted Nov 4, 2013

Yummy goulash in Aptos


By Scott MacClelland

Christ Lutheran Church, an intimate sanctuary perched untranquilly close to the noisy interchange of Highway 1 and Freedom Boulevard in Aptos, still manages to give refuge to the faithful followers of the Santa Cruz Chamber Players. They, the faithful, were renewed and rewarded Sunday afternoon when local violinist Roy Malan performed a program of music by three Hungarian master composers, Liszt, Bartók and Dohnányi. Malan’s participating colleagues were pianist Ian Scarfe (pictured), clarinetist Paul Miller, cellist Stephen Harrison, violinist Susan Freier and violist Polly Malan.

Miller was there for Bartók’s Contrasts, written in 1938 for Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti. (They and the composer recorded the piece in 1940; that original can be found on YouTube.) Why Bartók chose that title is a puzzle. Kaleidoscope might have made more sense, given the range of sonic effects and instrumental combinations on offer. A slow ‘recruiting’ dance opens the 18-minute piece, followed by a nocturnal scene in which the violin and clarinet play at length in close harmonies. The final movement is a quick dance with a lyrical center section, culminating in a lengthy solo for the violin. It proved to be the most brilliant, original and challenging piece of the afternoon.  

The program opened with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 “Carnival at Pest” in an arrangement for piano trio. As the original was for piano alone, this version essentially uses violin and cello to double what was first in the keyboard. Its three movements celebrate high times in the town opposite Buda across the Danube, all very festive and gypsy.

Malan remarked that all three composers were equally brilliant pianists, though contemporaries Bartók and Dohnányi, who both lived out their later years in the US, went in two very different directions. The former opted to create his own stylistic tropes on authentic Hungarian folk music (as opposed to gypsy music) while the latter steeped himself in the tradition of Brahms. This was apparent in both of their works on the program. Dohnányi was 17 when composed his Piano Quintet in C Minor, in 1895. For its formal template it borrows from Brahms’ Quintet in F Minor, but reverses the order of the second and third movements. The Brahms influence is fairly obvious but the teenage composer had already developed his own distinctive inflections. The wistful trio of the scherzo movement sounded especially like the German composer in his “autumnal” late years. A big, rich viola solo opened the slow movement. The finale, in ¾ time, served up a memorable second theme and later a fleshed out fugue.

The playing here was greatly satisfying, the extraordinary Scarfe underpinning all three works with a marvelous sense of balance and authority. Any chamber group in need of a masterful keyboard talent should make a note of his name. 

Posted Oct 14, 2013

In review: Vadym Kholodenko; Days & Nights Festival; Daniel Stewart in Santa Cruz

By John Orlando

Deserving Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist Vadym Kholodenko performed on the Carmel Music Society’s 87th concert season yesterday and, truly, whatever he touched on the piano did turn to gold. His performance was the most satisfying musical event in my memory, save some by pianists we now consider to be legendary (Rubinstein, Horowitz, even Rachmaninoff and the like). As a friend commented, “today, we were in the presence of greatness.”

Vadym Kholodenko is a pianist’s pianist and a pianophile’s ideal. There was nothing in his playing I didn’t like, but what I loved was his masterful sound which was smooth, warm, mellifluous, always present and which, by some uncanny means, filled the hall with a commanding presence never leaving us to wonder where the music was going or what was meant to be heard.

I confess that I wasn’t enthusiastic about hearing a recital primarily made up of transcriptions. I’ve changed my mind. Beginning with Rachmaninoff’s monumental and rarely performed first sonata, the program then became a testament to the genius of other composers as seen through the mind of Rachmaninoff. The sonata itself is not a perfectly crafted musical work, but parts of it are excellent. As Kholodenko demonstrated, those parts were well worth hearing. The transcriptions, on the other hand, offered pianistic writing at its finest, presenting technical and musical challenges precious few concert performers could match. For Vadym, they were a breeze to play.

Kholodenko appears to have everything: he is a natural, possessing a profound talent, an effortless technical ability that is beyond the demands of even the most difficult works for the instrument, a gorgeous sound and a superior musical intellect.

What I found equally remarkable was what wasn’t there. Although none of us was excluded from the performance he appeared to play as if we weren’t there. His total focus was in service to the works he performed. Likewise, the performance never suggested a hint of sentimentality and never did he call attention to his own importance. 

The playing was always stylistically appropriate, insightful and transporting. The Kreisler-Rachmaninoff Liebesfreud that concluded his program was like a glass of musical champagne, as effervescent as the gaiety of La Belle Époque. It was a marvelous afternoon of music.

Look for his next performance and experience the extraordinary talent of this young artist for yourself.

Days & Nights Fest’s excellent chamber music

By Scott MacClelland

The chamber music season in Carmel got off to a great start Friday night when the Days & Nights Festival players served up an outstanding survey of works by Schubert, Schumann, festival-founder Philip Glass, and two plainly talented young Americans, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner. The musicians themselves came with world-class credentials.

Violinist Maria Bachmann—who some local presenter should capture ASAP—is renowned for her art in this country, Europe and Japan. She has a growing stable of CD recordings, notably “Kiss on Wood” representing the best of mostly late 20th century works. (Her ‘wood’ is an 18th century Gagliano fiddle.) On that CD cover, she’s a Goth-brunette; now she’s a radiant blonde. She was joined then, as in the Sunset Center concert, by pianist Jon Klibonoff, winner of numerous competitions and well known for his solo and chamber music recitals. He and Bachmann have collaborated on many occasions; they recorded and have performed in concert Glass Heart, the sonata Glass wrote for her. (Click here for an excerpt on YouTube or see our Links of Interest page.) Their colleagues in Carmel, of equal talent and accomplishments and each with his own catalog of CD recordings, were violinist Jesse Mills, violist David Harding and cellist Matt Haimovitz.  

The program opened with Schubert’s so-called Notturno in E-flat, a single movement that was intended for a full piano trio which was either never completed or was lost. It’s a haunting, melancholy work that bristles dramatically in the middle. The distinctive reading by Klibonoff, Mills and Haimovitz was both deeply personal—by all three—and broadly expansive.

Following, in order of presentation, were Nico Muhly’s string quartet, Diacritical Marks, Bryce Dessner’s string quartet Aheym (Yiddish for ‘homeward’), a tiny but relentless piano trio titled Head On by Glass and Glass’ serene The Orchard in an arrangement for violin and piano played by Glass and Bachmann. Both the Muhly and Dessner were vivid and memorable. Expect to hear their names more in future. (You can sample their music on YouTube.)  

The 18-minute-long Muhly, from 2011 and in eight short movements, made remarkable use of its original materials recycling them in different configurations as the sections progressed. Often second violin and viola were paired with short repeating figures while the cello, later joined by the first violin, sang ethereal melodies. Drones were used for harmonic support. The generally lyrical interior movements followed a propulsive first while the finale grew powerful with fugal imitation. Dessner, perhaps better known as a rock guitarist, opens his quartet with intense broken chords in ¾ time. Call and response ensued, with viola and cello in lock step. The complex texture of the four instruments veered into steely sul ponticello (bowing on the bridge) from time to time. Then the cello took the marching lead to be joined by the others in a thrilling climax to the eight minute work.

The program closed with Schumann’s great Piano Quintet, also in E-flat, with Bachmann now as first violin. In it you can easily hear the promise of Brahms to come. This hair-raising, room-filling performance brought down the house, cheers bellowing above the audience’s electrified reaction. 

Daniel Stewart scores big in Santa Cruz

By Scott MacClelland

The long-anticipated launch of Daniel Stewart’s debut as Santa Cruz Symphony music director scored big successes in Santa Cruz and Watsonville on the weekend. Sunday afternoon from the Mello Center stage Stewart spoke with eloquence and gratitude for this, his first such engagement. At the same time he brings a sea-change to the orchestra by establishing that it is their responsibility, individually and collective, to make the music. His job, he informed them, is “facilitator.” This is very different from John Larry Granger who was often quite controlling, “holding our hands” as one musician told me.The difference showed, though ‘facilitator’ is hardly the word I would use to describe Danny’s (his preferred nickname) work on the podium. Overly physical in his body language at this stage, he nevertheless projected a clear image of what he wanted. Though the overture to Die Fledermaus may be a pops concert potboiler, this time is got a fully energized and vivid celebration, its contrasting sections complementing one another with bold gestures and phrasing. Right away, a fresh breeze fluttered through the orchestra and into the hall.

For the Mozart piano concerto No. 25 in C—conducted from memory like all three works in this show—disclosed some ensemble moments out of phase. Stewart has rearranged the seating, with the two violin sections now opposite across the proscenium, with the cellos and violas in between, the double basses behind the first violins and percussion behind the seconds. Like every other new thing here, this will undoubtedly take some getting used to as well. There were also some small ambivalences in the coordination between the conductor and the soloist, Jeffrey Kahane. Yet, the concerto, symphonic in scope and complexity, was welcome for its rarity on the concert stage. Further, its unusually difficult piano part is often used concertante, more a part of the orchestral fabric than a real contrasting solo. Nevertheless the performance had no difficulty in winning over the audience.

For the second half, Stewart gave Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony a knockout reading. Among the (literally) few things a conductor actually can do in performance is draw a “line”—think of a phrase expanded to cover an entire section of piece. This requires stepping back from the score far enough to see and understand the big picture, something many conductors are not skilled at. It also takes imagination. Here there was plenty of line, as for example in the sections of the first movement where the woodwinds, starting with a bassoon solo (thank you Jane Orzel), begin a drawn-out quieter ‘interlude.’ And though Stewart’s control of line ran through the entire performance, it stood out, again, in the ‘canzona’ second movement. Approaching the end of the pizzicato third, when the winds team up with the strings, excitement grew palpably on stage and in the house. The explosive finale just about set the place on fire and, but for some weaknesses in the horns, the orchestra sounded fabulous.

The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 89.9 on November 8, 8pm.     

Posted, Oct 7, 2013. Vadym Kholodenko photo by Ellen Appel-Mike Moreland/The Cliburn; Daniel Stewart photo courtesy of Anastasia Chernyavsky

Don Giovanni on a budget?

By Scott MacClelland

For its new production of the Mozart stage classic, the Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble—which gets infrequent opportunities—has depended heavily on the talents of conductor Stewart Robertson and designer/director Robert Darling. The tiny orchestra of 8 instruments, lead by violinist Roy Malan, also imparts continuity, having played La bohème early in this 50th anniversary season and The Gift of the Magi in 2011. Likewise the chorus, in the La bohème production.

But in this case, the cast of singers is all new—with one exception—and, on Sunday afternoon, sounded of a type, some more robust, some more lyrical, with no remarkable breakouts to speak of. To their credit, they grew more at ease in their musical roles as the performance unfolded. The vocally most secure and consistent were Igor Vieira at Leporello, Anna Noggle as Elvira and, especially in the second half, Jennifer Jakob as Donna Anna. Gregory Gerbrandt’s Don Giovanni worked the stage well if with less vocal authority. Tenor Zachary Engle’s Don Ottavio was so light that he tended to disappear in the ensemble scenes. (Nevertheless, Ottavio, who is all talk and no action, gets two of the most opulent arias in the entire opera.) Nora Graham-Smith as Zerlina struggled with pitch but, when secure, delivered a hearty mezzo alluring in tone and expression. Her Masetto, Ryan Bradford, acted a bright presence even while the composer doesn’t give him much to work with musically. Hidden Valley veteran Art Shuller’s Commendatore was, well, commanding as the statue-come-to-life in the penultimate scene.

For all the best individual moments—Leporello’s “catalog aria” (sung to an IPod), the Giovanni/Zerlina duet, and the big soprano arias—the overall performance lacked both drive and intensity, musically as well as dramatically. This may have resulted from insufficient preparation time; the basic dramaturgical vision and physical setup were clearly in place. Done in the round, a central raised stage was rotated lazy-Susan style—by a crew of young women whose shapely curves were enhanced by skin-tight black leather—that demarked changes of scene. Stage entrances came from the corners of the room, both floor level and raked. Matthew Antaky’s lighting design cast shadows and articulated edges from light to dark, from festive party-making to spooky graveyard scene, and with most vivid effect when Giovanni goes to hell amid swirling smoke and fiery red color.

The orchestra, small it was, covered all the notes and stayed in good balance with the voices. Yet Robertson’s direction imparted little suspense, a crucial attendant when murder, jealousy, violence and righteous retribution are at hand. Don’t blame Mozart; the story line dictates it. The same is true for the stage direction. While there is no shortage of charged drama afoot, there are equal bits of comedy. (The composer called Don Giovanni an ‘opera buff.’) In that case, none is more inspired than the two Ottavio arias. This character’s use to the drama is his utter uselessness; he quite literally slows down the narrative with irrelevant coloratura paeans to his betrothed, Donna Anna, that implore others—anyone?—to actually implement his blandishments. His second act aria, Il mio tesoro—the English language libretto by WH Auden was sung here—drones on and on with extravagant Baroque melismas that should make the other characters on stage start to roll their eyes, or look at their watches. Instead, music and direction maintained as serious a pose as the character remained ‘above it all.’ The joke never took off or caught on.

Nor did the reverential tone of what should be high entertainment ever really subside. Gravitas certainly has its place here, but so does comedy. Darling’s idea of 21st century characters with 18th century music had the result of restoring Baroque opera conventions, with aristocrats (Giovanni, Anna, Elvira and Ottavio) stuck in two dimensions while the ‘real’ flesh and blood people (Leporello, Zerlina, Masetto, and sometimes Elvira) tried with limited success to charge the proceedings with much needed electricity. The Don Giovanni himself, straddling both but largely eclipsed by the others, failed to provide the spark.

Remaining performances this Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Photo by Tiffany Velasquez-Walker: Gregory Gerbrandt, Nora Graham-Smith and Zachary Engle as Giovanni, Zerlina and Masetto.

Posted Sep 16, 2013  

August 12, 2013


Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Second Weekend

Magnetic power

By Don Adkins

Fortunately, for both orchestra and audience, Saturday’s Cabrillo Festival concert in Santa Cruz featured three works that all deserve repeated hearings. You would be hard-pressed to three orchestral pieces written within four years of each other that come from a wider range of compositional approaches and styles: Unstuck (2008) by Andrew Norman, Magnetar (2011) by Enrico Chapela and Symphony No. 10 (2012) by Philip Glass. Both Norman and Chapela were present and spoke for a few minutes before their piece was played. Conductor Brad Lubman, known internationally for his work with contemporary music, stood in for the injured-but-recovering Marin Alsop.

When Norman found himself stuck in the middle of a composition surrounded by fragments of ideas that would not come together, he took inspiration in Kurt Vonnegut’s “unstuck” novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Following Vonnegut’s example, the California composer took the same approach by not sticking to chronological progression. This attitude freed him to put the fragments together in a way that did not necessarily demonstrate a natural progression of ideas. His Unstuck also includes sections where the orchestra sounds like it is stuck until, like a successful Heimlich-maneuver, it burps up new directions.

The result is a piece with sections of tremendous energy that are never allowed to achieve a full gallop, interspersed with static sections that sometimes sound a bit like the music of Charles Ives. Norman is obviously comfortable writing for strings and utilizing various techniques to take full advantage of their expressive capabilities. The most significant recurrent structural element of the piece involves three cellos playing high-pitched, static chords at different significant points in the piece, including the ending. The cellos actually begin each of these sections with their bows “stuck” to the strings. Lubman conducted the details of the work but did not find too many opportunities to point out the larger structures. Unstuck was well-received by the audience and appeared to be appreciated by the orchestra as well.

Magnetar is a concerto for orchestra and electric cello. Chapela, apparently a rock-and-roll guitarist in his formative years, takes the basic concept of electromagnetism that makes electric guitars and cellos possible and expands it to the ultimate magnets that exist in the universe, neutron stars called magnetars. Chapela used information he was given by a couple of astrophysicists to describe magnetars from a composer’s point of view. Cello soloist Johannes Moser was brought into the creative process early on. Fortunately for the listener, Chapela did not let the technical aspects lead to another “science experiment” in sound. Instead, he utilizes popular elements from rock-and-roll, jazz, the Middle East and spacey-electronic-universe music to create a piece with something for every eclectic taste.

The electronic sounds produced by Moser were often imitated by the orchestra or used as a springboard for other musical effects. The result was a sense that the technology was being used for musical reasons. Moser’s live-performance mastery of both the cello and the complicated electronic rig resulted in a performance which was engaging without drawing attention to the technical effects. The one major problem with the performance was the balance between solo and orchestra; the cello often covered the orchestra in the loudest sections, especially when the strings were interacting with the soloist. Nevertheless, the piece turned out to be the hit of the evening.

The second half of the program saw the U.S. Premiere of Symphony No. 10 by Philip Glass. After the fireworks of the first half, this piece offered an oasis of calm. It was also entirely predictable if you know the music of Glass. This five-movement symphony demonstrated the familiar minimalistic style that was pioneered by Glass in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Glass has distanced himself from the term minimalism and now describes his music as containing repetitive structures. This approach is familiar to anyone who listens to music written in the last 50 years and is appreciated for its sometimes soothing, almost hypnotic effect upon the listener. Symphony No. 10 is like receiving the latest book from your favorite author who uses the same cast of characters.

A good sense of proportion distinguishes the symphony’s form. Other than the fourth movement, which seems a bit too long, the musical materials are fully exploited without becoming boring. Simple ostinatos are layered upon each other in complicated rhythmic structures that do not feel forced. Melodies often outline simple scale patterns and sometimes are used as simple directional gestures. Tonal shifts occur infrequently and are used to designate major sections. While dynamic contrast in this performance was lacking, conductor Lubman stole more time for interpretive input. If you like music by Glass, this symphony is a welcome addition to the orchestral repertoire. As evidenced by the applause given at the end, there were many audience members who liked the symphony and even more who appreciated the skill and musicianship of the Cabrillo Orchestra.

Above photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho. (The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on August 20, 7pm)

Posted August 12, 2013

Shadows of Stravinsky?

By Scott MacClelland

In case you doubted it, the level of instrumental virtuosity has taken a giant step up, witness flutist Adam Walker’s premiere of Kevin Puts’ Flute Concerto (2013) on the Cabrillo Festival’s opening night program, and clarinetist Emil Jonason’s speed-of-light skitter through Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto (2002) on the Festival’s closing program Sunday at Mission San Juan. But it’s not so much mere virtuosity—the word ‘mere’ hardly fits these two spectacular players—as the musical substance it is wrapped in.  

Cabrillo’s history of raising the orchestral bar has long since become the expected norm. But in just the last few seasons, the level of solo virtuosity has overtaken the orchestra’s sensational abilities. The history of music, especially in the Western classical line, not only accounts for the on-going growth of the art, but of its technologies as well. (Just consider the difference over less than 300 years between Bach’s harpsichord and the modern nine-foot concert Steinway.) Today’s composers also have the opportunity to work directly with the artists tapped to premiere their works.

Lindberg wrote his concerto for Finnish virtuoso Kari Krikku. (You can find his recording on YouTube.) Yet it is hard to imagine how anyone could have mastered the Lindberg score better than Jonason. The dazzling speed in dense blizzards of notes was breath stopping, the range of tones from the instrument’s bottom to its hyperphonics in the stratosphere, its multiphonics (the woodwind equivalent of Tuva throat-singing) and graceful lyricism seemed, at times, almost schizophrenic.

That latter lyricism is not commonly found in Lindberg’s musical vocabulary. But it showed that the feisty maestro actually has a tender side. The solo clarinet opens the work with a bucolic melody—obviously an homage to the clarinet solo that opens the First Symphony of Sibelius—that provides the entire, single-movement concerto with its organizing theme. Five conjoined sections include thumping Stravinsky rhythms, à la Sacre du Printemps, sparkling chimes, echoes of a rarely heard clarinet rhapsody by Debussy, and no shortage of shootouts between soloist and orchestra. In Jonason’s hands the solo cadenza approaching the finale went beyond the power of infinitives to describe. Yet in no way did the apparent conflict between the soloist and the orchestral score diminish either. Somehow, Lindberg found a way to match his own authoritative musical personality with its alter ego in the solo clarinet. (Jonason returned sustained applause with a five-minute solo encore, Swedish in its seasonings and no less spectacular in its virtuosity.)

Musical substance likewise bookended the concerto, George Walker’s ten-minute Sinfonia No. 4 Strands to open and Anna Clyne’s 22-minute Night Ferry to close. (Like the Lindberg, both pieces echoed Stravinsky’s Sacre.) His age notwithstanding, the 91-year-old Pulitzer-winning Walker displayed his characteristic organic style and tight concentration of means here. It’s a good thing his program note mentioned the inclusion of the two spirituals, There is a balm in Gilead and Roll, Jordan Roll, since he disguised them so well within the orchestral fabric. Yet, the textures were only moderately dense, and not always even that. Understating it as “a concise work,” Walker applied a deft touch that offers valuable lessons to today’s much-younger composers.

One of them is Anna Clyne, an unassuming young woman who goes public with easy smiles and one of several signature hats, only to blister her audiences with deeply expressive, cannily constructed works that offer both the “intensity and coherence” cited by Robert Hughes in his last Charlie Rose interview. (See our Music Reviews page from Clynelast week.) Though not explicitly said in Clyne’s program note, Night Ferry might as well depict an English Channel crossing in the dark during a raging storm. With the orchestra stuffed into its usual place at the front of the mission church, two bass drums (and some ancillary metal percussion) were positioned about one third of the way back in the nave, outboard of the audience, to add a spatial dimension to the tempest. From time to time, the severe weather subsided and made way for pizzicato passages of marching arpeggios, from angst to “enchanted worlds.” Various backstories (poetry, paintings and collages by the composer herself, and a diagnosis that Franz Schubert suffered from cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder) underlie the programmatic narrative. In the end, however, the music has to stand free from all that, and it does. Ultimately, and except for citing individual members of the Chicago Symphony who influenced her music, Clyne’s program notes turned out to be superfluous. And, surprise, surprise, Night Ferry ended quietly, a rarity of its own when Cabrillo takes over Mission San Juan.

Clyne’s three successes at Cabrillo have won her a major orchestral commission, now scheduled for its world premiere in 2016.

(The concert will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM on August 23, 8pm)

Posted August 12, 2013

August 5, 2013

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

First Concert: Dust Dances

By Scott MacClelland

Carolyn Kuan’s body language and conducting style present a spooky reminder of Marin Alsop, her mentor at the Cabrillo Festival. The right-hand stick work and left-hand cueing and phrasing show virtually the same intense concentration on the details at hand, moment by instant, as well as a similar awareness of the big picture and the room as a whole. If the conductor is the lens through which the performance is projected, Kuan’s work at Santa Cruz Civic on the Festival’s opening night was often breathtaking in its crystalline imagery. You could almost see the music as it sounded.

For its West Coast premiere, this was of crucial significance in Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 3 (2011). Easily the most important work of the Festival’s first weekend, it brings the staying-power potential of greatness. The composer’s introduction to Cabrillo took place in 1994 when Marin Alsop conducted his Pulitzer-winning trombone concerto. At Mission San Juan the piece brought the audience to its feet as one person. Rouse has returned several times since, with new orchestral works as challenging and thrilling as ever, with his fearless fortissimos and brilliant mastery of orchestral resources that never lapses into the vernacular or indulges electronics and other contemporary ephemera.

This ‘new wine in old bottles’ took as its model Prokofiev’s “iron and steel” Second Symphony, with a “ferocious” first movement followed by a set of variations on a melancholy theme first heard on cor anglais. Immediately, the first variation was noisy and spectacular, the second as lush and unguardedly romantic as anything I’ve yet heard from Rouse. Whirling woodwind goblins led to a final protracted crescendo. For all his bad-boy pretensions, Prokofiev remained a classicist lifelong; his second symphony took its model from Beethoven’s last piano sonata, though with entirely different character. While Rouse included some of Prokofiev’s rhetorical bits, he made them his own. This work is as good as, maybe better than, the Prokofiev, and, at 30 minutes, several minutes shorter.

The big hit of the program was Kevin Puts’ flute concerto, a Festival commission completed earlier this year. The performance featured the brilliant young (25 years old) principal flute of the London Symphony, Adam Walker, a sensation all by himself. Puts’ craftsmanship has long been well-known; he brings a sensitive touch to mining resources of his imagination and those of predecessor composers. Here he attained an even higher level of personal (as opposed to imitative) integrity. His own creative voice has not glowed so beguilingly and with such ease. Yet the Mozart-loving piece was no walkover. Virtuosic demands on the flute included solo cadenzas, which Walker delivered with breathtaking élan. The slow (middle) movement paraphrased the same movement in Mozart’s much-loved Piano Concerto in C (K467) and, toward its end, briefly quoted the Mozart literally. The finale, including mallets (keyboard percussion) took syncopation to a new level. As if to prime the well of public ovation, Puts in the closing minutes has the orchestra musicians replace their instruments with a stunning display of hand-clapping their syncopated rhythms. The trick worked in spades.

The program opened as Derek Bermel conducted his own Dust Dances, four short connected bits inspired by a visit to Ghana in 1993. It was his way of translating into orchestral colors the gyil music he heard there, ‘marimba’ dances with hardwood strips amplified by resonating gourds fitted with spider webs to get a buzzing effect. Polyrhythms and pentatonic scales completed the substance of this musical charm.

Second Concert: Fire Music

In his last interview with Charlie Rose, art critic Robert Hughes answered Rose’s ‘what do you look for’ question by stating tersely “intensity and coherence.” The first two pieces on last Saturday’s program achieved intensity but found themselves waffling on coherence. This was due in part because of expectations implied by the program notes submitted by composers Sean Friar and Thomas Newman—and reiterated by them verbally to the audience ahead of the performances.

Ostensibly a description of the ten minutes it would take a nature lover to escape the frantic noise of urban Los Angeles into one of its idyllic nearby canyon glades, Friar’s Noise Gate, a Festival commission getting its world premiere, promised that when certain sound layers fell below a pre-set loudness level (the noise gate) they would pass through and disappear. That would have been fine except for one thing: they had long since disappeared under the ever-resurging other layers of sound. Maybe those other layers were supposed to be much quieter than they actually were. Quarter tones added piquant dissonances to the welter of activity, warbling winds, à la Disney’s Fantasia, and occasional startling outbursts. Cabrillo conductors have often used the term ‘sound world’ to introduce new composers and their works, as did Carolyn Kuan in this case; applied more as a specific than a generalization, it certainly could have been a valid title for this piece. There was scant evidence of recognizable (meaning familiar) form and little indication of personal expressive purpose. But the ten-minute, vividly colorful Noise Gate definitely inhabited a sound world of its own.

Newman’s It Got Dark (2009), for amplified string quartet, recorded sound and orchestra, conflated sentimental recorded interviews of aging residents inhabiting coastal canyons, from Santa Monica to Topanga, with special electronic effects. The quartet appeared as ‘soloist’, in concertante play against the orchestra, and as part of the general ensemble. Originally commissioned as a chamber work for the Kronos Quartet, it subsequently added the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under an additional grant. For the Cabrillo occasion, a separate four-page handout provided background and texts for the eight discrete movements. The composer’s program notes establish a picture of a young couple in a rowboat on the banks of a canal in Venice, California, in 1917, “she wearing a hat, looking at the squat palm trees across the water…he looking into the distance…” etc., etc. Somehow this colossal overload of information managed to come in at 28 minutes, and, with no small thanks to Kuan, preserved the contrasting character of its eight sections. Kuan and the four members of the Kronos Quartet all wore ear buds to (one assumes) keep the recorded material—which included other sounds besides the spoken recollections of the interviewees—clear against the opulent orchestral display. (David Harrington of Kronos told an interviewer that the finished piece was “beautifully and subtly overwhelming.”) In the third movement, Skipping Flat Loop, the Kronos players sustained an amusing circular effect. But I, for one, would have preferred to hear the piece as originally conceived, for quartet and recorded material, without orchestra. Even while it stayed light, it got dark in the freshly imprinted memory. What lingers in the mind is the fabulous Kronos playing, its brilliant virtuosity as called for and its graceful interaction with both the amplified effects and the conductor.

Enter Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy, a symphony in four movements for electronica (the composer’s ‘instrument’) and orchestra. Like the Newman piece, it too follows a programmatic narrative. But here both its ‘visual’ effects and its musical substance sustain a coherent progression. Bates, a four time Cabrillo resident composer, spoke of “sonic theater”, “symphonic space” and “finding sounds.” In turn, at his laptop and keyboard deep within the orchestra, he stepped across time from Henry Ford’s workshop in 1895, to wide-open Chicago in 2012, Xian Jian Province in 2112 and Reykjavik in 2222. Tinkering with mechanical parts, Ford finally gets his experimental internal combustion engine to crank into life, launching the age of modern energy consumption. Chicago (the second movement) was introduced by Bates’ electronica with rumbling sub-woofer thunder claps that set the concrete Civic Auditorium trembling, then rocking to propulsive force from the orchestra. Xian Jian, 2112, witnessed the ultimate nuclear reactor meltdown that apparently wiped out most life on the planet. Reykjavik, in 2222 a tropical island thanks to runaway global warming, sees the reemergence of human activity. Concertmaster Justin Bruns introduced a fiddle tune in the first movement that provided the piece with its thematic anchor, and returned in the finale to signal the resurrection of rural human culture. Kuan, in her last appearance at Cabrillo this summer, triumphed once again. 

Photo credits: Carolyn Kuan by rr jones; Christopher Rouse by Jeff Herman; Thomas Newman with his Skyfall grammys; Mason Bates by Lydia Danmiller

Posted August 5, 2013 

Quel festin!

By Scott MacClelland

Andrew Megill and the Bach Festival Chorale delivered a dazzling program of nearly all unfamiliar music under the newly renovated roof of the Carmel Mission Basilica. An overflow audience arrived for the Wednesday Founders’ Memorial concert and sat on hard wooden benches for 100 minutes to take in a program that ranged from 13th century plainchant to works by living composers Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan. In a stroke of creative imagination, Megill organized the pageant around Solomon’s Song of Songs, in an a cappella setting by Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur (left), and simultaneously introduced this strikingly original composer to area audiences. Between sections of Daniel-Lesur’s Le cantique des cantiques was heard the astonishing Dominus regnavit by Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772), a cantata that literally straddles the entire transition from the Baroque to the Classical style periods, at times synthesizing youthful Haydn and late Vivaldi. You may be forgiven for not knowing the name of Mondonville, another newcomer to the Bach Festival and hardly a household word—though you can find this very work in the on-line YouTube catalog. Megill’s program also included JS Bach’s motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226 and cantata O ewiges Feuer, BWV 34, both with instrumental ensembles, the latter including three trumpets and timpani and a pair of wooden-headed silver flutes.

So far, this parade included a large dose of sensuality (Daniel-Lesur), a terrible flood of water (Mondonville) and no shortage of fire (Bach times two.) Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a prayer by the 17th century playwright, also cites fire (although Fauré’s setting replaces humility with the perfumed allure of repeating string and harp arpeggios.) In Cantique des cantiques, columns of smoke from burning myrrh and frankincense signal Solomon’s wedding entourage, only to be blown away by mighty winds from heaven, courtesy of MacMillan’s Factus est repente.

Although the Christian update of Song of Songs invokes Christ as bridegroom, the corpus of verses overall purports sensual love—no more so than in the erotic Enclosed Garden where Daniel-Lesur’s harmonies are as exotic as late Debussy. Here, the male voices sing the seduction while the women are wordless sirens (until the final line.) The last of Daniel-Lesur’s ‘songs,’ Epithalame (by definition, a wedding ode) restores the passion of a blazing fire that even floods of water cannot drown.

In his sacred settings, Bach remains the paragon of humility before God. In their short pieces, so do Pärt and MacMillan. But in this unique display of vocal art, God is also in nature, and in Love. Yet, you cannot say Bach is antithetical to love, nature or the sensual; after all he fathered twenty children. This highly coordinated production threw exceptional challenges at the Festival Chorale, which, within the rapid-fire pace of the evening, came through with unforgettable impact.

Fantastic Berlioz

Some audience members and Festival musicians alike were quick to pass negative judgment on Paul Goodwin’s ‘version’ of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. I, for one, loved it! For sure, there were numerous departures from the weighty and slick big-orchestra sound. What Goodwin did here was try to replicate the orchestra set-up of the Paris Conservatoire premiere, in 1830, just before the composer’s 27th birthday. Berlioz called for an orchestra of 90 players (including 60 strings and four harps.) But, at its premiere, under François Habeneck, he got less than a full complement. (See illustration, and note where cellos are paired with double basses, just as Goodwin is doing in Carmel) Of course, the smaller Sunset Center stage was another factor determining this decision, the orchestra even more scaled down than Habeneck’s, though all parts were covered. But, on point, Goodwin was after a more colorful palette than the smoothly polished, evenly balanced sound most of us are used to hearing. For that reason, he combined the unvalved natural trumpets with cornets a pistons, and paired up both natural and valved horns. And for the last two movements, March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, he asked for “raucous” sounds from winds and percussion. Except for some minor balance issues, he got what he wanted. I heard some surprising effects for the first time.

Other welcome details of Goodwin’s 53-minute performance were the off-stage oboe echoing the cor anglais’s plaintive melody that opens the Scene in the Country, repeating the first two minutes of the March to the Scaffold, and the two bass drums, heads up, in the busy percussion battery of the last movement. According to Goodwin, Berlioz was happy with the premiere (though he would later condemn Habeneck for ruining the first performance of his celebrated Messe des Morts.)

The first half of the evening opened with a suite of (mostly) rustic dances from Les Boréades, the last opera by Jean-Philipp Rameau (1683-1764). Quite frankly, this is not the best material from this composer, but it does flatter the musicians, especially the winds, including clarinets, apparently their first appearance in orchestral music. Appropriate to a story about the god of the north wind, a wind machine made an appearance in the first Entr’acte, to the amusement of the audience. The reading was also a bit tense, exhibiting a portion of cracked notes. That tightness also negatively affected the following Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, which suffered from tempi a little too rushed for all the notes to stand their ground. However, the four-movement suite did make vividly clear its Baroque roots.

These two programs will repeat, Wednesday and Friday respectively.

Posted July 21, 2013        

Christmas on Bastille Day

By Scott MacClelland

Paul Goodwin wasted no time implementing his “French Connection” theme for the 76th Carmel Bach Festival, Saturday night at Sunset Center. The opening chorus of JS Bach’s cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20) injects the recurring chorale melody into a French overture, replete with the dotted rhythms and fugal episodes commonly associated with Lully, Purcell, Handel and Rameau. Never before performed in Carmel, the richly colored 25-minute work displayed as rich a palette as one finds anywhere in the Bach playbook. Festival Chorale (imported) and Chorus (local) began and ended the text which exhorts mankind to put away its vanities or face eternity in hell. The combined choral forces also ended Part 1 with another harmonization of the chorale melody. The ‘eternity in hell’ theme was reiterated by fine vocal soloists, the piping countertenor Daniel Taylor, theatrical tenor Thomas Cooley and coolly urgent baritone Peter Harvey, with different instrumental groupings in obbligato support. Andrew Arthur provided continuo at the organ. Robert Farley played a virtuosic display on valveless trumpet as obbligato to Cooley’s Wacht auf aria, and also joined the full ensemble on the curved cornett, a renaissance predecessor to the modern trumpet. (See illustration.)

Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave’s program note, and Goodwin’s remarks from the stage, made it easy to follow her short Largo in Homage to B.A.C.H. for strings, a festival commission. In just seven minutes, the piece emerged from the dark recesses of the double bass to the celestial heights of the violins. But instead of fashioning a melody from the letters of Bach’s name—B-flat, A, C, B-natural— as Bach himself and many others have, she chose to build four connected sections on the chords associated with those tones. She also blurred their strong tonalities by using the octotonic scale, which alternates between whole steps and half steps, creating a harmonic “mist.”

One of Handel’s “due cori” (two choirs) concertos ensued, pitting two wind bands, each consisting of paired horns, paired oboes and a bassoon in antiphonal combat. All the movements were recast by the composer of bits from his operas and oratorios, namely Esther, Messiah, Birthday Ode for Queen Ann and Occasional Oratorio. This was witty jousting, sometimes with the opposite oboes dueling on speed. The four natural (valveless) horns exhibited their share of clammed notes, prompting one audience member to wonder, tongue in cheek, “Can’t the festival afford to buy better instruments?”

The program closed with a beautiful realization of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Here, Andrew Megill’s combined chorus was transparent, as befits the French ethos, crisply articulate and acutely response to Goodwin’s dynamic contrasts. The full orchestra gave weight as well as color—the original version has no woodwinds or violins, though when it is performed a solo violin is called on to weave its line through the Sanctus—to a highly sensual effect. Soprano Dominique Labelle graced the fragile Pie Jesu with clarity and sparkle—even at pianissimo—and gorgeous tone. Lyric baritone Harvey sang with elegance and dignity. As with the Bach, Andrew Arthur supported the performance from the organ.

Sunday afternoon, Goodwin conducted Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. If you love the great vocal works of Bach but have not tackled this one for a while, you may be forgiven for experiencing several, even many, déjà-vu moments. Truth is, these six cantatas that tell the story of Jesus as a newborn are, musically speaking, parodies—imitations drawn from earlier settings but with applicable texts for the narrative. Designed to be performed over the span of  two weeks—from Christmas Day to Epiphany—a single go, like this one, can challenge the concertgoer not accustomed to marathon listening. Neither does it extol the tragic gravitas of the Passion story. Yet Bach, always eager to surprise his listeners with variety and surprise, makes it work, if in a less organic telling.

Following the festive opening of the first of the six cantatas, the initial surprise—or shock—comes in the fourth number when, without warning, the chorus sings the crucifixion chorale, fitted with text appropriate to the narrative. Only hours old and the infant Jesus’ final agony is foretold: to fulfill scripture this flesh must inevitably be mortified. (The tune reappears in the finale of the sixth cantata.) The syncopated bass aria, Grosser Herr, bounced along nicely with solo trumpet obbligato.

The pastoral second cantata featured pairs of oboes, alto (d’amore) and tenor (da caccia) throughout, while the bucolic opening sinfonia was recalled in the final chorale. The chorus opened and closed the third with the stentorian Herrscher des Himmels (Lord of heaven) featuring festive trumpets and drums. Within this frame was a portrait of Mary reflecting darkly on the disturbing messages conveyed to her following the shepherds’ encounter with angels proclaiming the coming of Christ.

Two valveless horns—again already with the cracked notes!—launched the fourth cantata in a pastoral 6/8 meter. Yet, the piece contains one of the most endearing moments of all, the soprano aria, Flöst, mein Heiland, with its echoes, on solo oboe and one of the Chorale sopranos backstage. Rarely is Bach so playful and cheeky. And what an incredible new festival oboist is Gonzalo Ruiz, from Argentina!

A centerpiece of the fifth cantata is the extended dialog between soprano, alto and tenor, an anxious Q&A borne of Herod’s fear of a new “king” anointed by three magi who have followed a supernova to a manger in Bethlehem. The final cantata, framed by trumpets and drums, carries the story up to just before the family makes its run to safety in Egypt. Thank you Paul Goodwin for keeping this long pageant in such propulsive motion.

Posted July 15, 2013


Summer Arts at CSUMB: Two sax masters & guitarist Eliot Fisk

By Rob Klevan

There were plenty of musical fireworks taking place over the Independence Day Weekend at CSU Summer Arts.  Friday evening, July 5, featured two of the world’s premier classical saxophonists in an eclectic program of music written for saxophone including Bruce Broughton’s Remembrance, Pavane by Piet Swerts, Caprice En Forme De Valse, by Paul Bonneau, and Pedro Iturralde’s Suite Hellenique. Doug Masek is a Vandoren Elite Artist who is in high demand as a performer, teacher, and lecturer. In addition to a career as a recording artist, he is currently on the faculty at USC’s Thornton School of Music. Todd Rewoldt, a Selmer Artist, is a professor of music at San Diego State University and a member of the critically acclaimed SWARMIUS Ensemble. Interestingly enough, in his younger days, Rewoldt was a professional skateboarder and punk band bassist. Both artists convinced the audience that the saxophone is something much more than a jazz instrument and that when played by a true master can be the aesthetic equal in beauty and tone to other classical instruments.

The following evening, July 6th, the World Theater was the site of another outstanding performance hosted by Summer Arts. Grammy nominated classical guitarist Eliot Fisk treated the audience to a wide array of works written or transcribed for guitar. Fisk, a student of the late, great Andres Segovia, is a prolific recording artist with a fiery and virtuosic performance style that is both captivating to hear and fascinating to watch. No one could diminish his performance for it was nearly flawless and rife with emotion and bravura. The only negative comment I heard came from one audience member who said it was difficult to hear Mr. Fisk’s verbal explanations of the pieces being performed. Although this was not the case from my vantage point, I do think that a microphone for commentary could have been helpful. Of special note musically was the performance of the J.S. Bach third cello suite, the series of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, and American Bouquet by George Rochberg a piece which the composer dedicated to the artist. Fisk currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston and is also a professor of music at the Universität Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.

Posted July 15, 2013

New York Phil Woodwinds at Hidden Valley

By Robert Reid

The concert series presented each summer by Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley is a special treat for local music lovers. Since early June, many of us have enjoyed recitals featuring the oboe, cello, flute (jazz and classical) and English horn, all presented by world-class instrumentalists. But the recitals are only the public showcase. The artists are here is to present week-long master classes for talented students who are drawn from all over the world.

On July 8, the final recital of the summer series featured stalwarts of the New York Philharmonic woodwind section, Judith LeClair, principal bassoon, and Mark Nuccio, acting principal clarinet.  The two were accompanied by Hiromi Fukuda, a fine pianist who holds degrees from Tokyo University and Juilliard. Ms. Fukuda was visiting from Santa Barbara where she serves on the teaching faculty at the Music Academy of the West.

This was not a program for those looking for the familiar works of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.  That said, the entertaining evening opened with a short work for clarinet and piano, After You, Mr. Gershwin, composed by the Hungarian clarinetist and teacher, Bela Kovacs. This jazzy romp is a technical challenge for the clarinetist and Mr. Nuccio met all difficulties with ease.

Ms. LeClair next took the stage to perform two works for bassoon and piano. The first was Deux morceaux, of 1908, by the Russian composer, Reinhold Glière. The gorgeous, singing tone of Ms. LeClair was on display throughout. The following work, Polonaise, by the Czech composer, Ludwig Milde, was originally composed as an etude for solo bassoon; the piano accompaniment was added later. Milde was a virtuoso performer and prolific composer of works for bassoon, some of which are being studied in the master class. Ms. LeClair conquered the virtuosic elements of the etude. She made it look so easy.

Mr. Nuccio and Ms. Fukuda returned to perform Black Dog by the contemporary composer, Scott McAllister, who is currently professor of music composition at Baylor University. The piece is a take off on a hit song by the rock band, Led Zeppelin. For the next 12 minutes, the large audience witnessed a wild virtuosic display punctuated with occasional quiet interludes.

Ms.LeClair returned once again to perform Carl Maria von Weber’s Andante e Rondo Ongarese, a work she has performed here in the past. The audience loved the operatic beginning, a highly technical middle section and catchy dance-like finale.To conclude, Fukuda, LeClair and Nuccio performed Trio Pathétique by Mikhail Glinka, who is widely regarded as the father of the national school of Russian music. This is an early piece written in 1832 during a long visit to Italy and before Glinka began formal music training; the Italian operatic influence and his innate musical ability are apparent in this agreeable work. I was taken with the tonal beauty, superb balance and impeccable intonation of the two wind players.Ms. Fukuda’s piano playing was exceptional. 

Bravo Hidden Valley! It is a pleasure to hear live classical music presented by brilliant musicians in a relaxed, intimate setting and performance space with good acoustics. And we in the audience have the opportunity to chat with the performers over refreshments following the concert. On Monday night, a large portion of the audience lingered long after the final note sounded.

Posted, July 9, 2013

Why the world loves the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus

By Heather Morris

Seven weeks ago I was turned away at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater. The place was full to capacity and the event was Ensemble Monterey’s much-anticipated production of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. So this weekend I arrived early at the much smaller Samper hall on campus to attend Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus’ final send off concert before they leave for a grand tour of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia next weekend. Most of the chorus, and many in the audience, had participated in the Britten work. Last Saturday the hall was already packed with folks whose noisy excitement was contagious, and the concert that followed demonstrated why this chorus, under the direction of Cheryl Anderson, has such a stellar reputation both at home and abroad.

Founded in 1961, when Cabrillo College first opened its doors at Watsonville High School, the chorus took its first international tour in 1988, under the musical direction of Anthony Antolini, for its visit to the Soviet Union. Since taking the podium so capably in 1991 Ms Anderson has directed her chorus in tours of Spain, Eastern Europe, Italy, Austria, Germany and Ireland as well as several extensive tours spanning the US.

The concert opened with ten selections of church music spanning five centuries. The choir’s precision, balance and blend of voices were outstanding in these mostly ‘a cappella’ works. Beautiful though these pieces sounded at Samper, how much better suited they will be in the soaring cathedrals and rambling gothic churches of Europe.

I was eager to learn more about the tour, its inspiration, its goals, and perhaps even glean a behind-the-scenes peek at what it takes a choir of seventy, plus an extensive entourage, on a two-week tour half way around the globe. I had hoped for some comments from the director, but in this I was disappointed. Apart from an introduction to the evening from the Dean of Performing, Visual and Applied Arts, and a few comments in passing from Ms Anderson, little was said. Perhaps they presumed that everyone in the audience was familiar with the invitation, received by Ms Anderson in 2010, directly from the chapel master of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to have the Cabrillo Chorus participate in the Celebration of the Fifth Century of the Cappella Giulia (1513-2013). The Cappella Giulia was founded by Pope Julius ll in 1513 and choirs from many countries will be participating in the celebrations. In this program works of the Italian masters, from Palestrina—who held the very same position himself in the sixteenth century—to Giuseppe Verdi were much in evidence, as well as contributions from the English contemporary composer John Rutter and the prolific Czech composer, Zdenek Lukas. Austria was represented by Bruckner and Mozart, whose Agnus Dei was performed most elegantly by the Cabrillo Youth Choir.

It will, no doubt, be a very moving experience for chorus members to perform in the ancient cities, and even in the very buildings, where these pieces were heard during in the composers’ lifetimes. As one previous tour member said, “It was a life changing experience for everyone who went.” It’s also an opportunity for Europeans to see the best of contemporary American composers’ artistry, and, notable among this group, Robert Lowry’s How Can I Keep From Singing? The piece opens with the men’s chorus and is joined by a wordless descant from the women, all beautifully balanced.  A most moving rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium shows that American composers are capable of writing a motet to a traditional Latin text which can reduce an audience to tears by its sheer beauty. A couple of  up-beat selections, one from the musical Purlie and one a setting of the spiritual My God Is a Rock by Ken Berg, continued the American theme. This latter selection formed the finale of the program, inspiring a standing ovation and an “encore” in the true meaning of the word.

Be warned. If you want to hear this chorus, and you know you should—buy your ticket in advance!

Posted June 18, 2013

Love in the time of artificial distress

By Heather Morris

In a recent interview Allie Jessing, who played Fiordiligi in the UC Santa Cruz production of Cosi fan tutte expressed the reasons why she enjoys performing in operas. ‘It gives me a feeling of exhilaration, of being lost in the music.’ These are prime reasons why audiences attend operas and judging by the packed house at UCSC on Saturday evening, opera is very much alive in Santa Cruz. Because this was a college venue the audience had much greater contingent of younger adults than most operas I’ve attended recently and they clearly appreciated the shenanigans on stage.

However, this story of temptation and betrayal is an uncomfortable one, and it’s this mix of humor and anxiety that makes the opera so compelling. A one-time librettist to the Italian Theater in Vienna, collaborating with Mozart in three operas, Lorenzo Da Ponte took up a similar post in London before debt caused him to flee to New York where he set up the first opera house in the United States. It  is, perhaps, not so surprising then that Da Ponte, having spent much of his own life ‘in disguise’—a Jew by birth who later converted to Catholicism, became a priest and had two children with his mistress—was able to embrace the time-honored opera cliché of disguise in such a commanding way.

The plot centers on two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo who take on disguises and tempt each other’s lovers to be unfaithful, in order to win a bet concocted by Don Alfonso. The comedic side of this production, whose title translates as ‘They’re All Like That’, was much to the fore in artistic director Brian Staufenbiel’s imagination when he chose to set the 1789 opera in the 1920s, at the finish line of the Tour de France. From time to time exhausted cyclists pedal across the stage adding fleeting moments of levity to the anguish felt by the two sets of lovers who are tested to find out just how fickle human nature can be, while the idyllic rustic set belies the duplicity of the plot. This juxtaposition of humor and anxiety plays out in the vocal trios, quartets and quintets when the characters are simultaneously expressing different emotions set to different words. This can present difficulties with the supertitles, but the characterization that the soloists established in this performance left us in no doubt as to their emotional states at any given time.

In the guise of members of the Albanian cycling team Ryan Bradford and Shane Liliedahl seemed to thoroughly enjoy their roles, and appeared more comfortable than in the opening scenes when they play themselves. Was this intentional? Maybe so, but perhaps it was just a case of warming to the role and the audience response as the evening progressed. The other master of disguise was Despina, played with wit and aplomb by Cora Frantz, who won the audience’s hearts from the very beginning with sassy acting skills combined with a light silvery voice. The role of Don Alfonso, admirably sung by Rolfe Dauz, is primarily a supporting role musically, though his wager is the catalyst for the whole opera. But Mozart reserved his most taxing music for Fiordiligi, played supremely by Allie Jessing. She showed impeccable vocal control especially in the bravura aria Come scoglio and she played her part throughout with poise and conviction. Her kinship with her sister, Dorabella, charmingly portrayed by Rachel Rush, was reflected in their outfits of two shades of blue, the only strong color on stage for the scene of the signing of betrothal by the notary; a strong statement from costume designer Christina Dinkel.

The well balanced opera chorus added its commentary as the storyline evolved and Nicole Paiement conducted the score with sensitivity and artistry capturing the essence and elegance of Mozart’s music.

Posted June 4, 2013