17 Nov 2011
Tricks and Treats, New World Symphony
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
If this generation were to stake a claim to its own classical vocal music “Golden Age,” Christine Brewer presents a strong case.
To this listener, Brewer deserves the designation of Mastersinger, a small group and curious breed that occasionally contains in it a top lieder singer.
Lied is, in all cultures where “high-art” literature is transmuted into compilations of songs, made for the interpreter, for storytellers. Singers enter the culture of lied knowing full well it demands total subservience to telling the tale. As it is with the best of lieder interpreters (Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Christa Ludwig come to mind), Christine Brewer has a knack for this music that is partly inborn.
Lied history takes more formal shape in the 19 th century with the works of German composers; most prolific in the style was Franz Schubert; working in the style through the turn of the 20 th century was Hugo Wolf. Composers often set their lieder to a theme in a series, or cycle. The lieder singer is faced with the test of becoming as much a part of the background as they can possibly muster, coming in and out of the foreground to serve the music as indicated and in setting the poetry in high relief. The lieder singer further sets the tone for the theme and carries it through the cycle.
Michael Tilson Thomas [Photo by Chris Wahlberg]
Brewer makes this look easy. No one can qualify the Illinois native’s German as anything but romantic. She gets right to vowels, hanging on ever so lightly, giving consonants that snap that settles on the ear. Brewer exercises a judicious mix of vibrato treatments over a warm stream of sound and a tonal quality similar to Jessye Norman’s, with a more forward placement. The lower register is remarkably secure and round, climbing as that one proverbial “column of sound,” a sound that was born to soar. She reaches high-note territory (E, F and G) with ease; yet she builds phrases with sincerity and depth, which takes a tremendous amount of discipline. This is what she does; and it makes Brewer all the more special.
Billed as an evening of “Tricks and Treats,” New World Symphony (NWS) and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas hosted Brewer at the Knight Concert Hall on October 29th. The vocal portion of the concert consisted of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, what amounts to a serenade the composer created to the poems of his muse at the time, Mathilde Wesendonck, who is described as “one of the most significant women in Wagner’s life” in the program notes.
Even when Christine Brewer could let loose through Wagner’s five lied, she drew out plaintive tones that were an integral part of the story, saving her considerable powers for the articulation of German. Such was the case for “Der Engel,” where vocal control goes a long way in conveying how the selflessness of angels fills the hollowness of human existence. Brewer sang phrases that left one breathless, literally and figuratively.
Internal suffering was in full effect in “Im Treibhaus — Studie zu Tristan und Isolde,” where Brewer, Tilson Thomas and orchestra teamed for a moment of otherworldly waves of music, with violins playing off of one another in a way rarely heard. Brewer held a certain musical line while drafting steamy tones over the phrase “Malet Zeichen in die Luft,” where Wagner speaks to the horticulture of supernatural dispositions, asking nature to disclose its wonders.
“Schmerzen” brings more opportunity for vocal muscle, right from the first notes of the vocal line. Here still, Brewer created tones that came across as gentle acceptance of nature’s abiding relationship between life and death.
A conducting “Golden Age” for these times surely comes in the presence of Michael Tilson Thomas. He deserves the appellation Musikmeister. In NWS — America’s only full-time orchestral academy — he has a splendidly boundless and stimulating canvas with which to put to use and to share his inestimable experience and multitudinous skills. Michael Tilson Thomas and Christine Brewer are, individually, artists that bring a certain magic to everything they do. Together, Tilson Thomas and Brewer cause all aspects of a musical show to come into phase.
Tilson Thomas’ dancing with the New World Symphony is unison personified. In “Schmerzen,” where the descending scale of forte strings and winds calls for sudden passion and intra-instrument matching, the sound entered as if warmed up from a few bars back. The NWS conductor carries instrumentalists along with him — wrist rolls move bows and sway woodwinds; he revved up the baton to urge tempi, and brought horn players to the balls of their feet. It all happened at once. Tilson Thomas steps in the direction of a section, calling on them to build sound space, gesturing directions with his left hand, and pointing to have players attend to specific features. Thomas’ communication with Brewer was intense. He sought out her inflections and movements signaling different moods and changes in musical design.
The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and ended, after the Wagner lied, with Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Strauss’ tone poem is an excellent vehicle to show off NWS. Its light beginning and exposed horn and long staccato violin stretches — all the way through the build up and Strauss’ playful winds and wide use of the percussion family — were played with nice contrasts, zinging accuracy and stamina to spare.
NWS showed versatility, power and pathos beyond their years in Merry Pranks and especially in the Brahms. The second movement was guided by Tilson Thomas as a soft hymn with hanging phrases of elegance and downward spins taken with care for keeping a joined soundscape. Improbable as it is, instrumentalists managed the most organic playing in the most demanding of Brahms’ orchestral drawings, the final movement. NWS took its shifts from driving chords to lush orchestral effects, creating a tightly held story right through to the ceremonial finish.
“Golden Age” or no, any night like this — pairing starry singer and starry conductor with a very hungry group of instrumentalists — ranks up there with any of the most vaunted classical musical moments, anywhere, anytime.
For more information about New World Symphony check www.nws.edu