Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Well-balanced cast and striking production make Seattle Opera’s “Don Giovanni” a must-see

Nicolas Cavallier as the title character in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” received superb treatment at McCaw Hall on Saturday evening in Seattle Opera’s season opening performance. A wonderfully balanced cast, crisp stage directions by Chris Alexander, excellent conducting by Gary Thor Wedow, and an inventive set designed by Robert Dahlstrom (that was made for Seattle Opera back in 2007) combined to make this production exceptional – even though there were a few noticeable glitches.

The principals were top notch. In the title role, French baritone Nicolas Cavallier had a self-assured and devil-may-care swagger that made his character strangely appealing and revolting at the same time. Erik Anstine deftly created the tormented, yet dutiful servant Leporello. As Donna Anna, Canadian Erin Wall won over everyone’s hearts with a combination of dignity, sorrow, and anger. Lawrence Brownlee’s Don Ottavio was the perfect good guy. As the Don’s rejected lover, Donna Elvira, Elizabeth Caballero wonderfully alternated between angry determination and craven desire. Cecelia Hall created a fetchingly naïve yet also manipulative Zerlina, and Evan Boyer was totally convincing as her disappointed and disdainful fiancé Masetto. In the role of the Commendatore, Jordan Bisch anchored his basso profundo voice with cold conviction.

Erin Wall (Donna Anna) and Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ottavio) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo

Vocally, these were exceptionally well-matched singers, and the numerous ensemble numbers were unusually well-balanced in terms of volume and tone. But if I were to highlight one singer above the others, it was Wall who excelled the most because of the beautiful vocal line and emotion that she put into every phrase and especially in “Or sai chi l’onore” (“Now you know”).

Wedow paced the orchestra very well and never let the orchestra overpower the singers. However, things got a bit out of sync when a small onstage ensemble appeared from the left side. They may have been a bit late on the scene. In any case, it made the dance music a bit loopy for a few bars. It should be noted that Wedow also did double-duty by playing the harpsichord. The only odd thing was that it sounded a bit dull. Perhaps that was due to where I was sitting.

Under the direction of Alexander, the story flowed in a natural way that was easy to follow. One of the most fun people to watch was Caballero who started out very zealous, serious but gradually revealed that that she still loved the Don and then went head over heels when she thought that she had him again in her grasp.

Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
The main feature of Dahlstrom’s set design was a large wall with an assortment of panels of different sizes that could open as doors and windows. The largest panel opened straight upwards to reveal the digital gallery of nude paintings that graced Don Giovanni’s home, and Leporello got several chuckles as he used a remote to flip through all of them. For the climactic scene, the entire wall splintered from top to bottom so that the Commandante can appear and ask for Don Giovanni. It was a spectacular scene.

Everything went seamlessly except for a Microsoft Windows desktop image with icons on the left side and a toolbar on the bottom right – which was briefly superimposed over the large wall.

The principals and the chorus (most of the time) wore modern costumes designed by Marie-Therese Cramer, but the servants as well as the onstage musicians wore 18th century costumes and wigs. On the one hand, this incongruity in dress seemed very odd, but on the other hand, it did extend the framework of the story from Mozart’s time into the present.

Nicolas Cavallier (Don Giovanni) and Cecelia Hall (Zerlina) in Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni.
Elise Bakketun photo
 The performance was marked by an unfortunate disturbance in the audience during the scene when the Commendante came appeared in order to claim Don Giovanni. One of the patrons on the main floor tried to make a hasty exit but fell down as he tried to go up the aisle. The poor fellow didn’t get back up, and some nearby concerned patrons, including Seattle Opera's new general director Aidan Lang, immediately attended to him. Emergency personnel arrived a few minutes later and talked to him in low voices while the opera continued unabated. As the flames of hell consumed the stage, the man got up and sat down in a device that allowed him to be carried out. The emergency crew and the nearby audience members deserve credit for taking swift yet courteous action. They deserved a round of applause and hopefully the ill man has recovered fully.

This terrific production, planned years ahead by Speight Jenkens who just retired, marks the first opera under the reign of Lang. Glitches aside, it is one of the best “Don Giovanni’s” that I have ever experienced, and I would encourage opera lovers to see one of the remaining productions (Oct. 22, 25, 29, 31, and Nov. 1).

Monday, October 20, 2014

Composer Stephen Paulus dies at age 65


The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Stephen Paulus passed away at the age of 65. He had been in a coma for the past two years after suffering a  stroke. Paulus wrote the opera "The Postman Always Rings Twice" as well as nine other operas, 60 orchestral works, and 150 choral pieces. In 1973, he founded the American Composers Forum.

I sang some of his music when I was a member of the Portland Symphonic Choir. He had a wonderful talent.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lamsma stunning in Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the Oregon Symphony and guest conductor Francis


It was great to see British conductor Michael Francis back at the Schnitz. He turned in terrific concerts in his Oregon Symphony debut with only 24-hours’ notice in February of 2011 and again with just a couple of weeks’ notice in April of 2011. This time, he was on the regular schedule to lead the orchestra in works by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. The highlight of the evening, however, belonged to Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma, who gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance of Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto.

Completed in 1945, Korngold’s Violin Concerto is a late, late Romantic work with expansive melodies and room to emote. Lamsma opened the piece with a warm and inviting tone that swept up the audience into a lush, uplifting terrain. She was equally adept at creating a sweet sound in the slower second movement and brought out the emotional content of the subdued passages. For the third movement, her playing was carefree yet totally spot on as she whipped through the wickedly difficult prestissimo sections, including some deft transitions that featured whispery high phrases. Niel DePonte added just the right amount of additional sonic color with his contributions on the xylophone.

The odd piece on the program was Stravinsky’s “Orpheus,” which he wrote for Georges Balanchine as a ballet (premiered in 1948) in three scenes with twelve episodes. Some scholars feel that this work with its incredibly restrained and austere style represents the high point in Stravinsky’s neo-classical period. No kidding. Even with the help of projected titles it was difficult to experience the music in terms of telling the Greek legend of Orpheus going into Hades to retrieve his bride Eurydice only to lose her at the last moment. Except for one brief forte blast, the entire piece was played with the volume varying mildly between piano and mezzo piano. A bar of silence marked the crucial moment after Eurydice falls dead after Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes and gazes back at her. And the Maenads (female worshipers of Dionysus)violent attack on Orpheus was conveyed by mild pizzicatos and dampened staccato lines. Perhaps this piece can grow on a person after being heard multiple times, but tepid and almost distant sonic qualities seem to be a week interpretation for such a potent tale. Apparently Balanchine wanted to choreograph the story in terms of stations like “stations of the cross.” So the arid, static style that Stravinsky created was just the right thing. In any case, the orchestra played with pristine clarity, and there were many highlights, including the weeping sound of Orpheus from Jennifer Craig’s harp, a duet by oboists Martin Hebert and Karen Wagner, a duet by concertmaster Sarah Kwak and flutist Jessica Sindell, solos by cellist Nancy , Kyle Mustain (English horn, flutist Sindell, and a mournful final lament from the horns and trumpeter Jeffery Work.

The orchestra delivered a spirited performance of Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), delightfully shifting between the serious and humorous moods in the music. John Cox, principal horn, played the prankster’s signature tune with élan. The percussion battery raised havoc. The strings put a little extra sashay into the waltzy passages, the flutes danced about playfully, the bassoons grumbled, the brass and snare drums put their feet down, and clarinetist Mark Dubac, created the final squeal on behalf of Til.

The concert began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 is a little gem – a symphony in one movement that passes by in less than ten minutes. Francis chose to conduct the piece without a baton and that worked very well. Under Francis, the orchestra played with elegance and refinement, but it seemed that some of passages could have used more dynamic nuance (for example, push the tempo forward and bring it back) just to take things up another notch.

Overall, even considering the severe unemotional flow of the Stravinsky piece, the orchestra played extremely well under Francis, and it would be a pleasure to hear him and Lamsma again.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oregon Symphony and Solerno-Sonnenberg excel in edgy season opener

Guest Review by Phil Ayers

"Contemporary music is cold and calculated!" So said my music-major girlfriend long ago when I expressed my love for so-called "modern music." For me, that meant, in descending order of affection, the music of Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and a dormitory friend's recordings of the Louisville Symphony. I was on the verge of un-loving her for her crass comment, but what did I know then? We're talking about 1960 here, the year before I abandoned an English major to become a music major myself. I'd show her that not all new music was what she said it was!

Anyone familiar with Robert Whitney, conductor of the Louisville Symphony, will immediately remember what "modern music" sounded like. It was pioneering work, promoting the music of many unknown contemporary composers in the nineteen-fifties and beyond. This kind of stuff was "edgy," you might say: "Hard to listen to," someone else would opine. "Can't take it!" "Give me the Three B's any old day!" still others would pontificate.

If subscribers and ticket-holders to the Oregon Symphony September 27-29 had done their homework, they would have been prepared to hear an evening of "edgy/modern" music. Four works were presented, and only one, Beethoven's lovely little gem of a First Symphony, would qualify for the category of "Sweet Melodies." That was what a late friend said she preferred as she willed us an LP record of the organ music of Messiaen someone had given her: "I like sweet melodies!" The other three pieces on the program may well have "pushed the envelope" for many attendees. But it would be nice to think that, judging from the enthusiastic reaction to violinist's Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg's reading of the fiery Shostakovich's Concerto in A Minor, even those who were skeptical about the program initially were thrilled and perhaps even converted to liking "modern" music. "Edgy"? I was on the edge of my seat during Solerno-Sonnenberg's performance.

Solerno-Sonnenberg, who, according to the program notes is something of a phenomenon in our day, having come from Italy at the age of eight to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is a visual, as well as aural, modern icon. Resplendent on Sunday evening in a striking black top with hot-red pants and heels, moving about the stage as though in a trance when she wasn't playing, very much "with" this complicated and difficult music at all times, involved athletically, she gave a performance that truly "wowed" us. That's exactly what I said - Wow! - as I immediately stood up to applaud at the conclusion of this wild work.

I remarked on our exit from the hall to head for home, "Gosh, she's not here signing CDs!" My wife, an excellent critic in her own right, but refusing to write this review for me, then said, "I think Nadja has probably gone to her hotel room, taken a nice, long, warm bath and gone to bed after that!"

Conductor Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human r Kalmar gave some introductory comments about the Shostakovich concerto: "The opening movement is dark, like solitary confinement, but contrasts come after." Yes, contrasts: they were plentiful, from sotto voce to bombastic! The concerto is in four (not the usual three) movements and contained a truly edgy, even gritty, scherzo; a beautiful, enchanting passacaglia (with the tuba and basses providing the theme much of the time); some dialogues between the solo violin and English horn and French horn; a masterfully-played enormous cadenza; and the finale, "Burlesca: Allegro--Presto," over-the-top in every respect. By that I mean both the music itself and its performers were unified as a whole unit, yet the solo artist was able to bring us to the "top" in no time at all in that movement. Right down to little human touches, such as a brief, humorous dialogue with an audience member (inaudible to me), and adjusting the extraneous parts of her bowstrings, Salerno-Sonnenberg was at the heart of this performance.

I was not present at this artist's performance of this very same work that she gave with the OSO in 1993, with conductor James DePriest. Twenty-one years ago? The skeptic might say she was ten then! Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will, we hope, return here again and again to "wow" and stun us with her stellar playing and presence.

Another contemporary work on the program was Michael Torke's Charcoal from Black and White ballet, a brief work that opened the concert, not at all "edgy" but very melodic and, some would no doubt say, after hearing the Shostakovich and Barber works, "listenable." This was its first performance by the Oregon Symphony. The Beethoven followed, with many sweet, delicate passages, well and accurately played by the ensemble. The unconventional opening to the symphony, with a seventh chord moving immediately to a tonic resolution, held our interest for the rest of this delightful work. Interesting it was to read in the notes that Beethoven studied briefly with Franz Josef Haydn but the relationship was strained and Beethoven claimed to have learned nothing. Nevertheless, the piece reveals the composer's study of Haydn's music.

The evening closed with Samuel Barber's "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" from a ballet composed in 1946 on a commission from Martha Graham. What we heard was a reconception of a longer suite that Barber made ten years earlier. The complex and tragic tale of adultery and murder is portrayed in this truly edgy and riveting music. We were sent on our way with a bang and not a whimper! No "sweet melodies" here, although the "tender Barber" could be discerned now and then.

It was a memorable evening and a superb start to a new season of the OSO classical subscription series. Oh … my former girlfriend, a fine organist, later became enamored - and studied with - Jean Langlais, the blind French organist and composer. While not necessarily "cold and calculated," he could, on more than one occasion, be "edgy" though!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Kamenz delivers inspiring virtuosic performance in Portland Piano International debut


Pianist Igor Kamenz blazed his own trail in Portland, performing a very demanding program that offered an exciting contrast between the flashy Baroque style of Scarlatti and emotionally exaggerated excess of Liszt. In his recital on Monday night (September 22nd) at Lincoln Hall, he used superior technique to accentuate the dynamics of each piece. It all added up to an impressive concert by the Russian native who was making his Portland debut under the auspices of Portland Piano International. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to listeners, since the 46-year-old pianist has won 18 first prizes in international competitions and made numerous recordings, but he has been so busy in Europe that made his New York debut just last month, performing in the Mostly Mozart Festival.

The first half of the concert featured ten sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti pieces, most of which Kamenz has recently recorded and released on the Naïve label. The opening sonatas (K. 96, K. 24, and K. 119) were scintillating in execution with one hand nailing 32nd notes while the other quickly sprang over the top to just touch a note. Three of the following sonatas (K. 197, K. 322, and K. 109) offered a welcome reprieve with relaxed tempos and simpler themes. Unfortunately, these quieter pieces were interfered by Kamenz’s own breathing, which took on an inexplicable wheezing quality. The next set of light-hearted and fast sonatas (K. 492, K. 17, and K. 29) were loud enough to cover any breath-marks. They had a remarkably delightful spirit that turned the tricky passages into playful adventures.

At the start of the second half of the concert, Kamenz delivered a mesmerizing decent into hell via Franz Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” (“Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”). The defiant chords, the rapid shifting of rhythm and melody, the showy and complex arpeggios, the wafting passages in upper reaches of the treble clef… it was all stunningly played by Kamenz. He created scenery of anguish and flames as well as lovely and distant sounds that seemed to come from above. It was an over-the-top performance that got everyone out of their seats in rapturous applause.

Kamenz delved into the cantabile essence of four songs by Franz Schubert that were arranged by Liszt. The first two pieces, from Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Miller’s Beautiful Daughter”), provided sharply contrasting emotions from the cycle. In the hands of Kamenz, “Das Wandern” (“Wandering”) created the sense of a young lad who sets out on adventure full of hope. “Der Müller und der Bach” (“The Miller and the Brook”) created an atmosphere of loss and desperation. The gently rocking undercurrent and the main melodic line were wonderfully mixed together in Kamenz’s playing of “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (“To be sung on the Water”), but his interpretation of “Erlkönig” (“The Elf King”), with the pounding hooves, the threatening vision of the specter in the woods, the father with his son in his arms, and the sudden, tragic ending was absolutely convincing.

Another standing ovation followed, and Kamenz responded with an outstanding rendition of Bach’s Fugue No. 3 in C# Major. It was a fitting ending to a spectacular concert that PPI artistic director Arnaldo Cohen neatly summed up in his introductory remarks, welcoming the audience to “planet Kamenz.”

Scott Showalter - the new President and CEO of the Oregon Symphony - talks about his decision to come to Portland and his job

Last May, the Oregon Symphony announced that Scott Showalter would become the orchestra’s President and CEO. Showalter, who is 41 years old, brings an impressive resume with him. He is a classically trained pianist who received his undergraduate dual degree in Economics and German Studies from Stanford University and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has served as the Vice President for Development of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations and Development of the University of Chicago, and the Associate Dean for External Relations of Stanford Law School. Earlier this week, it was announced that Showalter will be participating Chief Executive Program: Community and Culture that is offered by National Arts Strategies, an acclaimed nonprofit organization for leaders in the arts.

I met with Showalter a couple of weeks ago at his office and asked him a few questions. Here is our conversation.

Why did you leave the LA Phil, Dudamel, Disney Hall, and huge budget and endowment to come and take over the Oregon Symphony?

Showalter: I’ve been in development for 20 years, and I’ve loved the work that I’ve done in higher ed and the arts. Coming to the Oregon Symphony has been an opportunity, albeit at a smaller institution but with a broader vision, to make a real difference. The product on stage at the LA Phil is superb. The budget and endowment are tops. It was excellent place for me to get my artistic professional start. Because I am a classically trained pianist and a music lover at heart, it was a natural transition to go from higher ed nonprofit administration to the LA Phil. Now in coming to Portland, it’s a chance to make a difference in a community that has an exceptional artistic product, but doesn’t have the funding. For me, as a leader, this is the real energy. With more resources we can do bigger and better things.

I wouldn’t have come to Portland if Carlos and the musicians weren’t already at a high level. Now it’s a matter of marshaling the resources and creating the vision to get people who are buying tickets excited and the people making donations excited.

Yes, there’s more opportunity to raise donations, but it’s not a matter of hiring the right fundraiser and putting him or her in the corner office and expect them to deliver. There’s opportunity on the earned revenue side of the house to sell the quality of what we are doing and the purpose of what we are doing. Why these concerts should matter. Why this music should interest the community. Why it’s not so intimidating to come to the Schnitz and hear Bach and Beethoven. I’ve been spending a preponderance of my time out in the community, meeting with arts leaders, the board, donors, patrons, and the general public.

There’s more art events being offered than ever before, and a lot of groups have increased the number of performances. That creates a very crowded field. So your effort will not be easy.

Showalter: The difference is between looking at the pool of resources as fixed versus expansive. If you assume that the greater Portland community can give only this much pie, then it’s a zero sum game. But I would argue that the pie with more product and interested patrons is bigger than we might have once considered – even in Portland. It wasn’t all that long ago that the LA Phil itself was in similar position. It needed more funds. That was before moving into Disney Hall, and expanding their programs, and developing the Hollywood Bowl in a new way. That orchestra didn’t have the sure financial footing that it has today.

It’s not that Portland is any less of a city or any less worthy. It’s just at a different stage of its development. There’s a lot of opportunity as I see it.

I know that the marketing of the performances is a tricky thing.

Showalter: We are being creative about that. Jim Fullan our Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Sales, and I talk about how to get the word out through new channels. Carlos and I, a couple of weeks ago, were at the Hillsboro Hops game. He conducted a group of adult marching band musicians in the “Star Spangled Banner” and then again during the seventh inning stretch. We were up on the big screen and got some good press coverage. It was a new way to get Carlos’s face out in the community. Tonight I’m going to the OHSU gala at the invitation of one of our donors to promote an auction item on behalf of OHSU that will garner attention. There are many ways to get out the message.

The expansion of the Waterfront Concert into an all-day event is part of this. Our thought, when I talked to the mayor about the concert, is that the grant we received is not about the Oregon Symphony. It costs a lot of money to put on that event, there’s cleaning up after dogs and geese, permitting the big stage that takes four days to set up, the sound system, the musicians… we thought that this would be a terrific platform to engage our community partners. So we put on a music festival. It started in the afternoon with the 234th National Army Band of the Oregon National Guard, followed by several youth groups, Portland Taiko, Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet. Of course, the Oregon Symphony with the cannons and the fireworks provided the grand finale, but the grant gave us the chance to convene a music festival, and that was a great way to give back to the community.

Your predecessor, Elaine Calder, was noted for coming out on the stage at Oregon Symphony concerts and introducing the orchestra to the audience. Do you plan on doing that?

Showalter: I do! I plan to do that for every classical concert and many of the specials. It’s a great way to put a face on the organization and brag about the orchestra.

Speaking of specials, I’ve got a couple of friends who think that the orchestra is relying too much on popular artists. They want the orchestra to play more new, serious music.

Showalter: We would love to do more new music and help to advance the art form that is classical music. We just need more money. Just to wax philosophical for a moment – as a general rule, people buy tickets to music that they know. So, anything that is new – a commission or a piece that they’ve never heard before – makes people reluctant to buy tickets. If you are in a position where you have to squeeze every last dollar out of every of performance, then you don’t have the luxury to do it for the good of the art form, because you have to sell out the hall. On the other hand, if we are not doing new music, this art form dies. Music has been evolving for hundreds of years. At one point Beethoven was new, and Mahler was new. We want to build to new serious music. It’s just going to take more money.

Are things working well with Carlos?

Showalter: Connecting with Carlos is one of the key factors in making my decision to take this job. He and I have spent a lot of time together while I’ve been here, introducing me to board members and donors. He has hosted me at his house for dinner, we did the Hillsboro Hops game together, we’ve spent a lot of time together. It’s all good and a lot of fun. He is going to be a great partner.

I’m also enjoying going to rehearsals and meeting the musicians. I stuck around for most of the rehearsal at the Waterfront. I’ll be hearing them at our concerts, and at concerts around town. I recently heard our concertmaster Sarah Kwak play at All Classical FM. That was fun.

How did you even hear about this job?

Showalter: Thomas Lauderdale is a good friend of a good friend of mine. Pink Martini performed at the Hollywood Bowl a little over a year ago, and that was when I met Norman Leyden for the first time. He was giving his Bowl debut. Because of the mutual friend who was at the concert serendipitously – he doesn’t live in LA or Portland, I got to be friends with Thomas and the band for the three nights that they were performing at the Bowl. Since I was vice president of development, I was backstage a lot at the Bowl. It wasn’t long after that that Thomas was encouraging me to consider coming to Portland. It took many months of discussion, but it all worked out.

Now that you’ve been in Portland for a little while, have you made any surprising discoveries?

Showalter: The most surprising and heartening thing that I found is how receptive other arts leaders are to my presence. In other cities you might find the opera and the orchestra are a bit competitive, or the art museum and the performing arts world try as much as possible to distinguish themselves to retain board members and our donor base. Here I’m finding that from Portland Center Stage to the Art Museum to OBT to the Opera… everyone is welcoming me with open arms, introducing me to their patrons and board members and thinking about what it means to collaborate. That’s pretty unique. I didn’t expect that.

I’m an avid cyclist. I’ve been getting out and exploring the hills around Portland. I’m a climber; so I’ve been enjoying how easy it is to get to the hills right outside my door on the West side of town.

I’m a beer connoisseur. So I’m in beer mecca here.

But you don’t have the beer gut!

Showalter: That’s the only reason I cycle! So that I can drink more beer. [Laughs!] I love coffee too. I just downed my third cup. I love the culinary scene here.

The environment, culture, and allure of Portland means that it is on the upswing. It’s great to be here and have this opportunity.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Béla Fleck wows the Schnitz with 'Impostor'

Béla Fleck
There was a different crowd and atmosphere than is perhaps usual for an Oregon Symphony Concert when Béla Fleck played the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, September 13. This is no surprise considering the banjo virtuoso's crossover appeal; he has been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist in history.

After opening with a flashy Overture to Candide that wowed the crowd and made me wish the opera was forthcoming, OSO got down to the meat of the program: Fleck's concerto for orchestra and banjo entitled Impostor, premiered in 2011 with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fleck was warmly welcomed to the stage, and seemed humorously discomfited at being a part of the more formalized world of a classical symphony orchestra, while also amused at his own creation, much to the delight of the audience.

The first movement, Infiltration, began as a gentle threnody on the strings, around which was wound groups of somber, murmuring winds. This gave way to a sudden and violent tempest from strings and percussion as dissonant chordal motives from the orchestra were interspersed with fascinating polytonal fingerpicking by Fleck, who seemed as though he were wandering his own way, independent of the orchestral background before suddenly finding his way back. At times Fleck played an ostinato, and moments of levity found their way into the somewhat dark mood.

The second movement, named Integration, was more sparsely textured, and Fleck's playing at times was reminiscent of a gypsy guitar. After the initial exposition there were times when the thematic material of this movement was somewhat dull; it simply felt unnecessarily long. The last movement, Truth Revealed, was a pastiche of interesting ideas that somehow never found their way into a cogent overarching theme. It could be that was the entire point, but it was difficult to tell. There were some fine textural experiments, and an absolutely brilliant extended cadenza that showcased Fleck's dizzying virtuosity on his instrument. All in all, this was not the work of an experienced symphonic composer (as Fleck took pains to point out in the program notes), but it was rather a largely enjoyable and promising assay into a new sound world for this undisputed master of the banjo.

Big Country, one of Fleck's more traditional compositions, was aptly named, with a broad Appalachian feel, an expansive sweep of sound redolent with Americana. Although Fleck was mic'd, the orchestra often drowned him out in this work, something they'd avoided during the concerto. Fleck treated the delighted audience to a solo encore consisting of the most whimsical and virtuosic rendition imaginable of the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies.

The second half consisted of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's  boisterous and brief Danse Negre, and a suite from of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess arranged by Robert Russell Bennett at the behest of the composer. It began with a heartachingly lush andante, with muted statements from the trumpet sounding forth like dreamy echoes, and featuring a Summertime as languid and sultry as one could want.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Andrés Lopera talks about his work with the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and its upcoming season

Andrés Lopera is starting his third season as the music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony. A native of Columbia, Lopera holds a Master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the New England Conservatory of Music, a Master’s degree in trombone performance from the University of Texas at Austin, and a double degree in conducting and trombone from the Universidad EAFIT in Medellin, Colombia.

This past summer was the assistant conductor of the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado where he worked with Carl Topilow and Jeffrey Kahane. I talked with him a few weeks ago. Here is part of our conversation

Since you are a trombonist, do you bring it to rehearsals?

Lopera: Sometimes to give a little extra encouragement to the brass section, I’ll grab my trombone and come30 minutes before the session and do some warm ups with them, talk about technique, and work with them a bit. It’s really good because we have all of the kids from all of different brass levels.

How did you get into conducting?

Lopera: I enjoy the trombone repertoire, but I wanted to go farther. I wanted to expand my horizons beyond playing trombone. I wanted to understand the other instruments in the orchestra. I come from a little town in Columbia, and we didn’t have violins for people like me. Wealthy people had violins, but that was a different situation. I played trombone in salsa groups, jazz groups, a town band, a ska and reggae group, and a university orchestra. I used to put quintets and small ensembles together for little concerts. I got interested in studying conducting, and my teachers said that I had really good leadership qualities. I talked to the professor who taught conducting at my university, and told her that I really wanted to conduct. So, she began to teach me.

So, it was really great that the trombone gave me a lot of versatility. It allowed me to play in different groups and earn some money for my university education. One of the wonderful things about MYS is that we try to instill versatility in our ensembles. We have three levels of jazz, three levels of band, and six levels of orchestra.

One of the things that we are trying to capitalize on at MYS is the international relationships that I have. So we are doing Skype sessions with the musicians of an orchestra called A Far Cry, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts. I know a lot of the members of that ensemble from my studies at the New England Conservatory. So we used Skype to pair up leaders from my chamber orchestra, which is all strings, and they received lessons from the professionals. A Far Cry came to Portland last January for a concert, and after that they came to MYS and worked with my kids. It was really fantastic.

Last year, I conducted a piece on the season-opening concert of the New World Symphony in Miami. It was Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. I also got to work with Michael Tilson Thomas on the other pieces of the program. Another great thing was a discussion that I had with him about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. We talked about it for three hours. Then after I returned to Portland, I had that piece on one of my MYS programs, and Michael Tilson Thomas called me to find out how it went with the kids. That was a really nice thing to do.

We also used Google hangouts to work with Michael Tilson Thomas and other professionals, like the concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It’s been really great for our kids. We have worked with musicians from the Oregon Symphony. About 20 of them came to one of our rehearsals last season and played side by side with our musicians while Carlos Kalmar conducted. My students learn a lot just by listening and by example. We have a lot of great coaches from the Oregon Symphony, as well as other excellent local professionals. But one of our main interests is to create leaders in our ensembles who can become leaders at their local schools also.

We are doing a lot of building at the local level. We are using our ensembles to reach out to schools. For example, we went to the César Chávez School. I talked to the kids there in Spanish. Everything went very well. We have a new program called Beginning Strings for students who attend underserved elementary schools. So we cover music from a very wide range of abilities.

How many kids are involved in all of the MYS programs?

Lopera: I think that we had 480 students last year, and it will probably be about the same this year. Around 85 are in the symphony orchestra.

Do you have to motivate the students?

Lopera: No, that’s because the kids are already very motivated. They are willing to give up time watching TV or on the computer to learn how to master an instrument and make beautiful music. It really helps to develop their brain, and it will help them later in life when they are in college. They are very motivated to take three hours out of their Saturdays to come and work at rehearsals. It’s great to see that they want to do well. My job is to keep them challenged, treat them as individuals and young professionals, but be demanding. I love their energy and sometimes they come up with funny things. Last year, they gave me a gigantic basket filled with college food: instant soups, cookies, and cans of tuna. I had told them that I wasn’t a good cook, and they said, ‘don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.’ It was really cute.

Your orchestra has already played at the Waterfront Concert at the end of last month. Tell us about the concerts you’ve planned for this season.

Lopera: The Waterfront concert was a first for us, and it went really well. For our December concert, we will play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. That’s a big challenge for the kids. We’ll also play Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila Overture.” The concert will feature some of the other MYS ensembles like the Concert Orchestra and the Interlude Orchestra.

For our spring concert, we will again collaborate with some choirs. This year we will do opera choruses. We will have a lot of singers in the loft. The concert will have some surprises, too. This concert will be a wonderful opportunity for the symphony orchestra to work with singers. It will be really wonderful.

Our last concert will have music by Brahms. We will play his “Hungarian Dances” and the Symphony No. 4. We will also have a piece that will feature the winner of our concerto competition.

Have your parents been able to come to Portland to see you conduct?

Lopera: Not yet. Portland is a long ways from Columbia. I send them a DVD of my concerts here with the MYS. I’m the weird kid in the family. I’m the youngest of seven, and the only one to live outside of the country. But they have seen me conduct orchestras in Columbia. In March, I conducted my university orchestra and a professional orchestra. My parents and all of my siblings were there. It was a beautiful experience.