Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Seattle Opera presents Britten's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

Rozarii Lynch photo

The Seattle Opera presented Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Saturday, March 28th at the Meydenbauer Center Theatre in Bellevue, WA. Directed by Peter Kazaras, this was a presentation of SO’s Young Artists Program. The emerging singers responded ably to the challenges inherent in Britten’s work, even if on occasion the acting and other aspects of the overall production fell somewhat short of the mark.

The setting was a classroom in a British school, a somewhat vague and visually uninteresting backdrop. Two large white walls with some doors and windows bookended a few pieces of furniture, and aside from a platform at the back of the stage this was the sum of the set. The costumes proved by and large pedestrian as well, the most interesting ones being Helena’s bright blue dress and the ass-head worn by Nick Bottom. A feast for the eyes it certainly was not, and this proved disappointing in that Shakespeare’s work is a fantasy and therefore presents a much greater opportunity for whimsy. Drab school uniforms and khaki suits are somehow out of place in a story about the king and queen of the fairies. Connie Yun’s lighting was imaginative: whether immersing the audience in the soft blues of twilight or simulating the glorious brilliance of an early summer morning exploding through the windows, the lighting took on greater significance in alleviating the monotony of the set.

It seemed to take a while for the principals to warm up to their roles. While the singing was nuanced and thoughtfully delivered from the start, the acting was sometimes stilted and wooden, with the exceptions of Michelle Trovato’s Helena and the merry band of players presenting the ‘play within a play.’ Perhaps this was a result of having to concentrate on the harmonic and rhythmic difficulties of the music. Whatever the reason, about halfway through the second act the facial expressions, interactions, and blocking took on new life, as though the singers suddenly became more comfortable with the non-musical aspects of the production.

Brian Garman’s orchestra played well: always together and very balanced both with each other and with the singers, not easy tasks in challenging music such as this. Soprano Emily Hindrich’s Tytania was languorous, sensual and a bit mysterious: very befitting a fairy queen. She has a powerful voice that tended to dominate too much in the duets with Oberon, sung by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. It would have been easy for Britten to make Oberon a booming baritone (but he didn’t,) and once the ball was rolling Costanzo managed to project an aura of power and vague menace when necessary despite singing in the upper reaches of the male voice. The scene wherein Oberon and Tytania are reconciled and engage in a stately Elizabethan dance was particularly arresting.

Michelle Trovato’s Helena was spot-on and engaging from the start; she was consistently the most animated and interesting of the main characters. Baritone Michael Krzankowski as Demetrius was also warm and persuasive in the latter portion, and there was a gentle, unforced effervescence to his singing. Although they sang well enough, I was never entirely convinced by tenor Bray Wilkins’ Lysander or mezzo Elizabeth Pojanowski’s Hermia.

The group of working men putting on a play about Pyramus and Thisby deserves special mention. To be the comic relief in an otherwise comic production presents a special challenge, and they achieved this without devolving overmuch into slapstick (although it was used to good effect on occasion.) Baritone Jeffrey Madison, who sang the role of Nick Bottom (and the ass) really stole the show, not only with a beautiful, redolent baritone, ringing even at the lowest registers, but also with his fearless bombast and excellent comedic timing. Also worth noting is tenor Alex Mansoori, whose role as Flute (and in drag as Thisby) was warm and charming. While Madison was the principal in this second group, all of the singers portraying the workmen seemed to understand their roles, and delivered with gusto. Puck was a non-singing role, and actor David S. Hogan, über-hip and sporting a faux-hawk, did his job well. With oddly hypnotic physicality and over-the-top impishness, he was a good fellow to play Robin.

Despite some flaws this was a very enjoyable evening, and those who love Shakespeare, Britten or comic opera in general should find it well worth the time. This performance will repeat at the same location on March 29th (matinee) and April 3rd through 5th.

Crossposted at NW Reverb.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Guest Review: Mozart Requiem

For those who sought an evening of mind-blowing music played by a group of masterful musicians, the Portland Symphonic Choir’s rendition of Mozart’s Requiem was certainly the answer this past Friday.

While Requiem’s composition and history continue to be shrouded in mystery and controversy, its brilliance was able to shine on this night thanks to Mozart’s creative genius, Robert Levin’s complementary finishing touches and the PSC’s faithful vision and flawless execution.

Throughout the piece’s fourteen movements and fifty-six minute duration, one hundred and twenty-four voices and forty-six instrumentalists took delighted listeners on a non-stop musical thrill ride. Specifically, this ride featured an equal share of smooth and serene moments along with fast and furious ones and truly was a magical experience for anyone who had the privilege to listen. In addition to Requiem, the group showcased a breathtaking rendition of Kyrie in D minor.

Anyone who wants to witness the PSC’s musical prowess once again or for the first time can do at St. Mary’s Cathedral on NW 18th and Davis on Saturday, May 16 at 7:30 P.M. or Sunday, May 17 at 2:30 P.M. when it plays Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vespers.

Eric Johnson

Monday, March 23, 2009

Singing Mozart's Requiem: Impressions from the Choir Loft

I have long wanted to sing Mozart's Requiem. I became familiar with this work (as I suspect did many, many other people) through the delightful, grossly inaccurate film Amadeus. For me this was years ago as a teenager. Having grown up playing the piano, I had always loved Mozart, but I was in the incipient stages of discovering his great symphonic works when I watched this film. The scene where the dying Wolfy dictates his music to Salieri, and the haunting strains of the Lacrimosa and the Confutatis come to the fore, and from the first time I saw it this scene (and of course the attendant score) never left my consciousness.

Joining the Portland Symphonic Choir several years ago gave me the opportunity to do a number of incredibly important things. On a personal level, it galvanized my desire to improve my musicianship, to re-embark on the process of making great music with other talented musicians, an endeavor which had been long gone from my life at that point. It also allowed me the privilege of 'preaching the gospel' of classical music, so to speak. To put it out there for the world to see, to say 'this is the music I love, my ability to make music is the talent of which I am most proud, and I hope that whatever small contribution I make will help allow you to discover and enjoy this music for yourself.' Along with a great number of smaller gems that I have sung with the choir over the last few years, I have had the privilege of singing some of what our director Stephen Zopfi has called 'the great utterances of the human spirit.' Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Orff's Carmina Burana. Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music. And just last Friday night, we sang the Requiem.

For those who have never experienced the grueling rehearsal schedule of concert week for a major symphonic and/or choral work, let's just say the process can be exhausting. Hour after hour, for two, sometimes three or four nights before the concert, the entire focus must be on the music. Everything else is subsumed: personal life, work life, rest, even the most basic functions: meals hastily wolfed down in the few minutes between the end of work and the start of practice are the norm, and if ya gotta go during rehearsal, too bad: just hold it. We are forced to live our lives in the view of our compatriots. Talk to the kids, the spouse, the significant other on the cell phone; stretch out on the floor and catch a few winks during the ten minutes of break time allotted at practice. Even if there is an evening of rest somewhere in that crazy week, everything else that has been shuffled to the background in the temporarily neglected parts of our lives must be dealt with, so usually it's not much of a rest at all.

Occasionally I get tired of the music. Around about 9 oclock at Thursday night's rehearsal, I can honestly say that I was sick of the Requiem. I wanted to go out and have a drink with friends, not listen to more notes about our singing. I was tired; sleep had been a precious and rare commodity during the past week (I had also sung in a concert with the Bach Cantata Choir, and then played harpsichord and helped set up and tear down for a late night show with Classical Revolution Portland, both of those on Sunday, not to mention getting ready for the helter-skelter performance of the 4th movement of Beethoven's Ninth at the 24/7 concert on the 22nd.) Like most of the other musicians in the groups I perform with, this music making is on top of working a full time job and balancing family and personal life. So, yes, Thursday night I was just a little weary of the Hostias and the Dies Irae.

All that changes on performance day. Whatever exhaustion exists, whatever sacrifices have been made in the previous week, a curious and difficult-to-describe energy pervades the day. Work seems to rush by as you think about all the things that still have to happen before the show starts. Set up, sound check, a final hasty rehearsal, getting dressed, finding time to grab a bite to eat, all in the two or so precious hours between the end of work and the opening notes of the concert. My alma mater (PSU) was in the Big Dance (The NCAA Basketball Tournament or March Madness for the non-sports fans reading this.) Little ol' PSU under the bright lights, playing with the big boys. Can't think about that though; no time to watch the game (a thumping by Xavier) or get too bummed out about the Vikings' loss. Just one more thing that takes a back seat during concert week.

A snafu with the tickets, and the show starts almost a half hour late. By the time the first notes of the Kyrie sound, all of that fades into the background. Ideally one is raptly focused on the music. All the things you've worked on in the past week: the diction, the entrances and cut-offs, the articulation and dynamics, phrasing and blend, these are what should be foremost in the mind. And for the most part they are; there's nothing like a wandering mind (or many wandering minds) for fouling up a show. But there are invariably resting points, and during these my focus sometimes shifts from the minutiae of the performance and expands outward to take in the bigger picture.

Stephen's notes before the program stuck in my head; the death of such a young genius as Mozart, the tragedy of being buried in a pauper's grave, the true location unknown. This man Mozart, whose music is of such staggering beauty and titanic genius that it moved me to name my own son after him, what more would we have had from him had he lived to a ripe old age like Haydn? How would this piece have sounded had he finished it in his own hand, and not, almost as though fulfilling a dire prophecy of his own doom, died before he finished it?

I grew up in a religion that believed in a literal corporeal resurrection, so as a boy and young man I had always expected to speak to my musical idols one day, to sit down with Bach and Mozart and play music, to while away the long hours of eternity learning at the feet of the masters. I envisioned conversations that we would have, music that we would listen to from the time after their deaths, and songs that were meaningful to me from my own time. What would Mozart think of Debussy? Would Bach like Stravinsky? What about The Beatles or R.E.M.? My belief structure has since shifted to where I no longer think that will happen, but still the seeds that were planted, the desire and hope to actually meet these great men, do not die easily. What would I say to Mozart, had I the chance? I understand many musicias have similar imaginary conversations with their favorite composers. Would it be possible to explain to him how his name has become synonymous with musical genius, with ethereal beauty and the tragedy of dying young? How could anyone describe what the fruits of his tireless labor have meant to the world?

As a writer it is my task to put difficult concepts into words and phrases that will convey to the reader something of the true nature of that which I seek to describe. I'd like to think sometimes I succeed; other times I'm sure I don't. I frankly don't have the desire to try to explain precisely what Mozart's music, and the opportunity to perform it, mean to me. Some things can only be felt and experienced. Music is a completely different language, one that transcends, one that evades entirely the limitations of words and speaks the true thoughts of the heart. I said everything I have to say about it Friday night at the Schnitz, I and the more than one hundred other musicians who took this incredible journey with me.

I hope the audience enjoyed listening as much as we did singing and playing. If they did, that is a great victory for the arts and nothing short of a miracle for the soul.

Crossposted at Northwest Reverb

Addendum: Look for an "outsider's" review of the Requiem by Eric Johnson here at this site coming soon.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

CD Review: Handel's Acis und Galatea (version by Mendelssohn Bartholdy)

In 2005, a music antiquarian discovered an arrangement by Mendelssohn Bartholdy of Handel’s masque Acis and Galatea. While other Handel arrangements by Mendelssohn are known, it is believed that this was the first time this particular music had seen the light of day since its London run in 1869.

The Handel festival in Göttingen immediately acquired the music and approached renowned Handel interpreter Nicholas McGegan, and they presented the first modern performance of this work in May of last year. The Norddeutschen Rundfunk Chor and the FestspielOrchester Göttingen teamed up with McGegan to produce this CD, released on the Carus-Verlag label.

McGegan approaches the work with brisk baroque bombast; Handel's more spare orchestration has been fleshed out with timpani, horns, clarinets and other instruments. McGegan’s irascible personality and ebullient conducting style are readily apparent on this disc. Bright, lively tempos abound; he seems to revel in the glory of the somewhat cliche pastoral idyll presented in the opening chorus and indeed the rest of the work. The clear German diction is a pleasure to hear from a native-speaking choir. Most of the soloists are not specifically baroque specialists, which makes good sense considering the interesting idiom of baroque music filtered through the lens of early 19th-century orchestration. Soprano Julia Kleiter particularly stands out with her warm, inviting Galatea. This CD should appeal to those who love Handel, Mendelssohn and/or McGegan.

Note: Cross-posted at NW Reverb.

Monday, March 2, 2009

New Reviews

I'm still not living up to my goal to post here weekly yet but bear with me! I forgot to post the link to In Mulieribus' Valentine's Day concert, a review I wrote while relaxing in lovely Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I wrote a review of the Concord Ensemble's Saturday night performance at NW Reverb.

In the next day or so I will have a review of the new Nicholas McGegan CD, the world premier recording of Mendelssohn's arrangement of Handel's Acis and Galatea. Also, I'm excited about a guest blog coming up at the 'Verb by PSC conductor/artistic director Stephen Zopfi on the North American premier of the Levin completion of Mozart's Requiem, which I will be singing with the PSC on March 20th. But more on those later...hope you enjoy the reviews.