Archive for March 2013

“How Many of You Have Seen an Opera With the Word ‘Penis’ Before?” UrbanArias at the Mansion at Strathmore, March 22, 2013

March 31, 2013

First of all, I apologize to the world for posting this review nine days after the actual concert took place. Immediately after the concert, I got sucked into the maw of planning for my upcoming nuptials, which are the reason there’s not going to be anything else on this blog until May. But I had to pull myself out of the morass of table assignments and vendor contacts to review the UrbanArias concert from the Friday Night Eclectic series at the Mansion at Strathmore two Friday nights ago, because the world needs to know that it was that rarest of things for a classical music concert: An absolute riot.

Yes, opera can be actually funny, and not “funny for opera” funny! Observe, for example, Melissa Wimbish as Eve in “Adam and Eve,” written in 2008 by Patrick Soluri with a text by Quincy Long. Wimbish had a ball alternately scolding and leering at the somewhat inarticulate Adam (Joshua Baumgardner) and challenging her therapist, Dr. Solomon, all to prevent Adam from eating the apple of knowledge and preserve her enabling fiction in an anonymous mental institution. (In the service of healing, Dr. Solomon, played with appropriate smiling earnestness by Ethan Watermeier, helpfully points out that the apple is actually a Jonathan.)

Melissa Wimbish.

Melissa Wimbish.

Or check out “At the Statue of Venus,” a monologue written by Terrence McNally (yes, that playwright) and Jake Heggie (music) and sung last Friday by Arianna Zukerman. McNally and Heggie tackle here a totally genius subject for an opera: the inner thoughts of a woman waiting to meet a blind date, ranging from wardrobe second-guessing to doubts about whether this is a good idea anyway to hopes and fears that this random unpaired guy approaching the titular statue is actually the blind date in question. Heggie found a musical language that, among other things, enhances the humor of these shifting thoughts, and Zukerman milked it for all it was worth. In my favorite moment, Zukerman’s unnamed character worried about the fact that her friends who suggested the date had mentioned that they both liked ballet. After trying to reassure herself that lots of straight men enjoyed the ballet, Zukerman stopped pacing the stage, stood ramrod straight, looked at the audience, and in high operatic dudgeon reprimanded herself and the world: “Name oooooooooooone!”

Neither of these operas was perfect — the mental institution setting of “Adam and Eve” seems played out at this point in history, and some of the later reveries in “At the Statue of Venus” seemed to exhaust their ideas before they ended. But they engaged with contemporary life and gave the listener a sense that opera can still be a vivid and immediate form, a sense I often lack after my rare forays to opera houses.

Of course, little could be more immediate that improvised opera, a post-intermission lark in which UrbanArias founder Robert Wood handled the piano accompaniment duties otherwise fulfilled last Friday by the skilled, sympathetic R. Timothy McReynolds. Having studied improv comedy myself, I can tell you that improvising an actual musical structure in addition to jokes is pretty difficult, and the modest success that these distinguished classical musicians enjoyed is actually pretty impressive, especially with the handicap of the lame suggestions from the Strathmore audience. (Pretty sure we’ve had enough jokes about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin at this point in history, folks.) Before the festivities began, Wood asked the question that forms the title of this review and received few positive responses, thus showing that UrbanArias is determined to advance the art.

They saved the funniest for last: Gabriel Kahane‘s “Craigslistlieder,” settings of texts that reminded me of the riches to be found in the newspaper-killing website’s “best-of-craigslist” category. Besides coming up with the absolute best name for this work — you can just see “Craigslistlieder” sitting alongside “Schicksalslied” and “Kindertotenlieder” in the Tower Records of my bygone youth — Kahane also sets these texts with close attention to the meaning of each individual word and phrase and with the keenest sense of comic timing since one of those old operamongers who I don’t actually think are particularly funny.

All four of the singers took a turn, and each had a highlight: Baumgartner’s richly unapologetic apology in “I’m Sorry,” Zukerman’s lascivious “Today I Met,” Watermeier’s perfect embodiment of the unrealistic personal-ad aspirations of “Neurotic and Lonely,” and especially Wimbish’s “Hello Potential Roommates.” This last alternately advertises for and warns about a cheap room that comes with several conditions, and Kahane’s setting and Wimbish’s performance made a funny text even funner, with several intervals in which I thought I would not stop laughing.

Opera (and UrbanArias) can do lots of things, but making people laugh is just as demanding and worthy a business as making them cry, and it was wonderful to be reminded of that. If there are any composers looking for topics for contemporary comedies, may I suggest wedding planning? I can give you lots and lots of texts…

From the Shores of Bohemia, ‘Cross the Shining Big Sea Water: The PostClassical Ensemble, “Dvorak in America,” Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, March 1, 2013

March 3, 2013

On the night of March the first
At the big Clarice Smith Center
The PostClassical Ensemble
Gave us a new “Hiawatha.”

Yes, the entire review is going to go like this. Photo of conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez by Tom Wolff.

Yes, the entire review is going to go like this. Photo of conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez by Tom Wolff.

Based on research by Beckerman
(First name Michael, studies music)
They determined that Dvořák,
Antonin if you’re his buddy,
Had a mighty burning passion
For this poem of Longfellow
(Henry Wadsworth, dontcha reckon)
Depicting the love and wedding
And of course the tribulations
Of th’ eponymous Hiawatha.
With no operatic outlet
(The libretto was a failure)
They say Antonin Dvořák,
Czech composer in America,
Put some intriguing parallels
To the tale of Hiawatha
In his New World Symphony,
No. 9, in dark E minor.
Come now Joseph Horowitz,
PCE’s artistic honcho,
Who had earlier arranged
A “Hiawatha” melodrama
But that one was just nine minutes.
This new one that was premiered
On the night of March the First
At the big Clarice Smith Center
In the hall of Dekelboum
Took a sturdy half an hour
And set many episodes
From “The Song of Hiawatha”
To the music of Dvořák.
Kevin Deas read the poem,
Baritone, with voice of thunder,
While the PCE orchestra
Led by Angel Gil-Ordonez
Played the excerpts so arranged
By bright Horowitz and Beckman,
Cunning users of the music
Of this Antonin Dvořák.
The arrangement was effective,
And at times exhilirating—
It turns out that the last movement
Of the New World Symphony,
So beloved and adored
By the nation that inspired it,
Indeed parallels quite closely
The slaying of Pau-Puk-Keewis
With only just a little
Sleight of hand from the arranger.
And Dvořák’s other music
From his great New World Symphony
Effectively dramatizes
Many tales of Hiawatha,
Mostly the second and third movements
(The first doesn’t get much airtime).
The symphony got some assistance
From other Dvořák pieces,
Notably the Sonatina
For the violin and piano
And the American Suite,
Which was performed with style and gusto
Before the program’s intermission
(Along with the early Serenade;
For strings only it was written).
Here, the two principal lessons
I obtained from Friday’s program:
Though the PCE did well with
Hiawatha’s melodrama,
I’m not sure I really ever
Will desire to re-hear it,
Since it mostly made me want to
Hear the Ninth of Dvořák,
Which I will play on my stereo
When this review has been completed.
Secondly, after I listened
To “The Song of Hiawatha”
Its insistent, catchy meter
Kind of invaded my headspace
And made me think that all my writings
Should be set forth in its image.
That notion’s probably not correct,
But I have ne’ertheless explored it,
And so I present to you
My review of “Hiawatha,”
As developed and performed
By the PostClassical Ensemble
On the night of March the First
In the big Clarice Smith Center.

Other People’s Perspectives: Stephen Brookes


Like all PostClassical Ensemble concerts, this one was preceded by other activities, in this case a bunch of cool concerts I wish I had been able to go to except that I have wedding planning and work and it’s just hard to do. But as always I commend them for providing an immersive experience to those who can take advantage of it. It’s been too long since I heard the “American” quartet live, and it’ll have to be a little longer.

Kevin Deas also did an amazing job singing “Goin’ Home,” the spiritual formed from the melody of the slow movement of the “New World” Symphony. For some reason I didn’t think I could fit that into the “poem” above.

Return of the Bach: Jennifer Koh, “Bach and Beyond Part 2,” Mansion at Strathmore, February 28, 2013

March 2, 2013

Jennifer Koh‘s second “Bach and Beyond” concert of solo violin music this season at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night featured performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Partita no. 1 that beat out any other performances of those works I’ve heard live. From the opening Adagio of the sonata, Koh gave her lines breath and gravity, shaping the melody with aching intensity yet never losing touch with the rhythm. The next movement, a fast fugue, featured some insanely treacherous multiple stops that Koh made into part of the overall thrust of the music. Her low notes, resonant and woody, anchored the counterpoint and seemed to expand to fill the intimate Mansion at Strathmore; the fugal theme first felt like a whisper and then a scream as the emotional intensity built to a shattering climax. A sweet slow Siciliana got ambushed by a Presto finale that came so fast you could barely hold onto the melody, yet sounded perfectly controlled; the effect was like taking a corner at high speed in a race car, except for several minutes consecutively.


If this concert sounds intriguing, you should check out the CD! Or “MP3 download” for those of you born after 1985 or so

Koh’s Partita no. 1 might have been even better. The opening Allemanda came flowing from her bow in a gentle stream, and she seemed to let the last note hang in the air for just a second and then catch and transform it to start the subsequent Double variation, which sounded just as facile with twice the notes. The Double of the Corrente again had that race-car feeling of perfectly controlled speed, and the Sarabande sounded perfectly balanced, never too slow yet always intense. The big thwacking chords of the “Tempo di Borea” finale here are my favorite part of this partita, and Koh gave them a satisfying bite while maintaining the dance rhythm, which is hard to do. With Koh’s overall feeling for rhythm unifying the disparate dances, the partita became greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts were pretty fine themselves.

But Koh enriches the “Bach and Beyond” concerts by going, well, beyond, to more recent solo works. Koh even commissioned Phil Kline’s partita, “Dead Reckoning,” which separated the two Bach words on the first half of Thursday’s program. “Dead Reckoning”’s position helped to cleanse the palate and prevent Bach from sounding too familiar; Kline’s work echoed Bach in certain ways, like the motoric rhythms in some of the faster sections, and differed entirely in others, like how the harmonies stayed relatively static or moved by half-steps rather than round and round the circle of fifths. Koh’s conviction and sense of narrative gave shape to what could well sound like an episodic work, with its various tentative stabs, lyrical swerves, and essays at speed eventually collapsing and yielding to an exhausted kind of grace at the end.

In her previous B&B concert at Strathmore, the non-Bachiana was all contemporary, but she had a ringer in store for the second half: Béla Bartók, with his Sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menhuin almost 70 years ago. For me, this work is to Bach’s solo sonatas as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Op. 78 preludes and fugues for piano are to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier: a modern master taking a perfected form and daring to make it his own.

Bartók marked the first movement “Tempo di ciaccona,” leading me to wonder: What is the tempo of a chaconne, anyway? It begins with commanding rhetoric that soon finds itself refracted in folk-inflected harmonies. The subject of the ensuring fugue is more a loud rhythmic pattern that beats up the tentative attempts at counterpoint. Things get a bit more serious in the Melodia third movement, which provides the promised melody in a kaleidoscopic array of registers and tone qualities: high harmonics, whispered muted tones, full-on fortes. Koh made it spellbinding after delivering the rough jokes of the fugue. Though Bartók’s Presto finale was not quite as blistering as the same-tempo finale of the Bach sonata and featured frequent switches to place the mute on and off the bridge, Koh dazzled here anyway. (The Mansion’s music room is small enough that you could actually hear the mute being placed as Koh’s left hand pizzicatoed some cover material.)

Deliberately constructing a program to place newer material in the context of older classics so that each is further illuminated is challenging enough that not a lot of people do it and rewarding enough that I wish everyone would do it. Here’s to Koh for both making the attempt and succeeding in a spectacular way.


Some folks applauded a bit after the Presto Double in the partita. They were right to do so! It’s a spontaneous expression of admiration at that point. It wasn’t a lot of clapping, just you had to do something to get the energy out.

This concert was great in part because it had two of my favorite of the six unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas. The previous concert only had one. Here is the ranked list:

  • Partita no. 3. This has the best dance feel of all of them, and I cannot get over the middle two movement, the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuets. The Menuets sound like a beam of sunlight coming through a cloud to me, every time I hear them.
  • Sonata no. 1. The fugue! It’s the best one.
  • Partita no. 1. The way Bach makes everything have twice as many notes is so slick. It’s like how you go to Five Guys and they give you two patties as the default option. Bach gives it to you and then he gives it to you double.
  • Partita no. 2. I realize this has the most famous single movement in the six works in question, but the Chaconne always works better extracted from the partita for me. The other partitas are better as balanced suites of works; this one is all back-heavy. The first few movements feel like something you’re rushing through to get to Big Bad Quarter-Hour Chaconne. Maybe this is just me. Probably.
  • Sonata no. 3. Mostly for the first movement.
  • Sonata no. 2. Of these six universally acclaimed masterworks, this is my least favorite. I realize that it is better than almost everything anyone else ever composed. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.