Saturday, January 24, 2015

Soprano Kowalski delivers outstanding “Wesendonck Lieder”

Soprano Christina Kowalski
Soprano Christina Kowalski’s singing of Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” at the Vancouver Symphony concert this afternoon (Saturday, January 24) was superb. Kowalski sang with grace, power, and a terrific understanding of the arch of each phrase in the five songs. Her top notes were golden and all tones down to the lowest were solid and full of dramatic intensity. She communicated with passionate intensity and impeccable diction (even a non-native German speaker like this reviewer could understand each word). Overall, she gave a luminous interpretation of Wagner’s music.

Kowlaski was supported expertly by the orchestra under its Music Director Salvador Brotons. The orchestral sound was kept in check, which allowed Kowlaski’s voice to soar freely. The elegant cello and oboe in “Der Engel”, the muted horns and the slowly ascending violins in “Im Triebhaus,” and the evocative horn and oboe solos in “Träume” glimmered from within the sonic texture. If the flutes could have been softer at the end of “Im Triebhaus,” then that piece would have sounded even better.

Also on the program, was the Brahms’ Third Symphony, which the orchestra played intelligently and with great spirit. The violins put an impressive verve into their attacks and almost always commanded a unified sound. The lower strings also played with greater unity than I’ve heard in the past. The treacherous horn solo in the third movement was deftly fielded by principal Allan Stromquist. The woodwinds and the brass played with great expression and intensity. Brotons, conducting from memory, urged the orchestra with a huge variety of gestures and expressions. The orchestra wasn’t flawless (for example, there were some intonation problems in the strings in the third movement), but it was an impressive outing that shows how far this orchestra has come.

The concert got off to a sultry, jazzy start with Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.” The percussion battery had a field day with the infectious rumba rhythm, and principal trumpet Bruce Dunn led the trumpets in stirring up the heat. The principal woodwinds laced their solos with care and the strings layered it all with a lush sweep of sound. Under Brotons, all the musicians seemed to be having fun.

Because of it has a wild finish, the Gershwin piece generated a lot of enthusiastic applause, and the Brahms and the Wagner were also well appreciated by the audience. But Kowalski’s performance was the highlight of the concert. Hopefully, she will be back invited to sing again with the orchestra in the near future.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in disputed Ukranian territory blasted to smitherines

I didn't realize until today that the full name of the Donetsk International Airport in the eastern part of Ukraine is actually the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. It may be the only airport in the world named after a composer. The Wikipedia states that the airport "was built in the 1940s and 1950s and rebuilt in 1973 and again from 2011 to 2012. The airport is named for 20th-century composer Sergei Prokofiev, who was a native of Donetsk Oblast." Unfortunately, Ukrainian forces and separatist Russian forces have been battling over the control of the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport. This Reuters report shows recent photos of the destruction. Hopefully, someday soon the airport will be reopened, and all people (including musicians and composers) can safely fly in and out.
After writing this, I remembered that Poland has the Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport.  So there is at least one other airport named after a composer.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New approach to attract younger audiences to classical music

I published an interview with Dr. Mike Hsu in Oregon Music News, regarding his ensemble ARCO-PDX, which presents a new approach on exposing younger audiences to classical music. ARCO stands for Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra. Those of you who ponder the future of classical music may find the article of special interest.

FYI: I am still writing for Oregon Music News on an occasional basis,

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rebellion, treachery, love - Seattle Opera's "Tosca" brings it all to a boil

Greer Grimsley (Baron Scarpia) and Ausrine Stundyte (Floria Tosca) in Puccini's Tosca.
© Elise Bakketun
One would think that a reliable warhorse like “Tosca” might be a dull affair because it is performed so often, but the most recent Seattle Opera production shows that Puccini’s masterpiece still can grip audiences in the gut. The performance on opening night (January 1oth) at McCaw Hall had an edge of spontaneity that made it riveting. I am referring to the intense scene in which Tosca (Lithuanian soprano Austine Stundyte) kills Scarpia (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley) with a knife. Stundyte scampered about after dispatching Grimsley). It was an impulsive moment in which Stundyte seemed to get an extra rush of adrenaline – just like it would probably happen in real life – and it was extremely effective. The other huge impression of the evening was the trumpet-like clarity of Italian tenor Stefano Seccco, who sang the role of Cavaradossi. His tone quality was excellent from top to bottom. He sang effortlessly, with great emotion and plenty of power, including a wonderfully long high A at the end of “E lucevan le stele.”

Stundyte’s vocal prowess was first rate, and her singing of “Vissi d’arte” a highlight of the show, but the top end of her voice didn’t shimmer as much as Secco’s. Grimsley sang with a stentorian heft, barking orders to torture Cavaradossi, threatening Tosca with his imposing presence, and topping it all off with a smart and smug attitude.

Alasdair Elliott created a vivid impression vocally and in the acting category as the detective Spoletta. Aubrey Allicock plunged the audience into the midst of his desperate situation as the political fugitive Angelotti . Peter Strummer brought just the right mix of piety and amiability to the character of the Sacristan. Barry Johnson distinguished himself in the role of the police sergeant Sciarrone, and Matthew Bratton’s plaintive voice was perfectly suited for the song of the Shepherd Boy.

Bulgarian conductor Julian Kovatchev elicited a magnificent sound from the orchestra. It became a little too magnificent at one point in the second act and actually drowned out Grimsley for a few measures, but it didn’t overwhelm the stellar sound from the chorus, expertly prepared by John Keene, during the spectacular religious procession (“Te Deum” scene) at the end of the first act.

The stage directions of Jose Maria Condemi gave this production of “Tosca” a realistic feel. The death of the evil Scarpia was so palpable that many in the audience responded with applause. The painted sets of Ercole Sormani suggested the faded glory of Rome, but the best moments came in the final act when the lighting of Connie Yun gradually changed the night sky, dotted with stars, to a morning sky, pillowed with ominous clouds. New York City Opera, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, provided traditional costumes that fit this production to a T.

The strong cast and superb directing from Condemi make this production of “Tosca” another feather in Seattle Opera’s cap. It runs through the 24th.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Spring for Music Festival shifts to the Kennedy Center and gets a new name and a slightly new concept

The Spring for Music Festival, which brought many orchestras - including the Oregon Symphony - to Carnegie Hall, ran out of money. But, fortunately, the festival concept is being resurrected and re-structured by Deborah Rutter and the folks at the Kennedy Center. It's called Shift: A Festival of American Orchestras. According to Musical America, the festival, which is scheduled to get underway in the Spring of 2017, is funded by $900,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, $700,000 of which is matching funds. Shift will place its emphasis on the artistic excellence of the orchestra and its relationship to the community.

For more information about Shift: A Festival of American Orchestras, read this account in The Washington Post or refer to this one in The New York Times. Of course, you can also take a look at the festival announcement from the Kennedy Center.

So this presents another chance for the Oregon Symphony to hit the big time and make another huge, positive impression like it did at Carnegie in 2011.

Monday, January 12, 2015

EAR TRUMPET - Portland's new music calendar - January edition (slightly altered)

A couple of weeks ago, composer, impresario, Mr. March Music Moderne, and tireless advocate of new music, Bob Priest, sent, via email, a compilation of concerts that feature new music during the month of January. With his blessing, I'm re-posting this schedule (minus the first couple of concerts that already flown by) so that you might consider attending one of the performances.

17 - Sat - 8 pm
Amplified Chamber Orchestra
Bunch & Cellotronik
Refuge PDX

18 - Sun - 7 pm
Emerging Music Salon
The Waypost

22/23 - Thur/Fri - 7:30 pm
Horn Trios
Ligeti & Prangcharoen

24 - Sat - 7:30 pm
Mixed Ensembles
Bernstein, Floyd, Hsu, Safar & Woody
Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church

24 - Sat - 8 pm
Henry Kaiser - guitar
Performance Works NW

29 - Thur - 7:30 pm
McDermott & Vonsattel - piano
Barber, Debussy & Stravinsky
Lincoln Hall

31 - Sat - 7:30 pm
Mixed Ensembles
Bunch, Carreno & Winslow
Alberta Rose Theatre



10/17/24/31 - Saturday: 8-10
All-Classical @ 89.9 FM

5/12/19/26 - Monday: 8-10
KBOO @ 90.7 FM









ET was birthed by MMM

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Innovative Programming and Stellar Artistry at the Oregon Symphony

Marc-André Hamelin
An interesting, if not too surprising, phenomenon of note at Oregon Symphony concerts (as is true at any major symphony I'm sure) is the 'post-hit desertion.' That is to say, if the big, famous, popular work (you know, a Rachmaninov 3 piano concerto or a Dvořák Cello Concerto in B Minor) is played in the first half, then a certain portion of the audience tends to...disappear before the less popular work(s) of the second half. Maestro Kalmar addressed the very fact that the OSO was flipping the traditional concert order on its head by playing the big symphony first, then the concerto and overture-like works last. So as it was, everyone who wanted to hear Ravel's Bolero had the great pleasure of sitting through the marvelous, lesser-known offerings by Dutilleux, Messaien, and  (arguably) Franz Liszt.

Opening with Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 1 was a bold stroke for the OSO, and it worked out well. The at-first-barely audible string pizzicato, and its subsequent ingenious passing between sections was deftly handled. The work as a whole was marked by radical contrasts; long, slow singing sections interrupted by thunderous crashes from percussion or brass, and then a sudden, quiet reversion into subtlety. It demanded intensely rhythmic ensemble playing to navigate the tempestuous, moody texture, and a focused approach was necessary to keep interesting the sometimes abstruse tonal (or atonal) musical languages of this mid 20th century piece. The OSO certainly had the skills to navigate all those challenges.

Olivier Messaien's Oiseaux exotiques  (Exotic Birds) was a startling change. Consisting of winds, percussion and piano, it was patterned after the songs of 18 birds from around the world. Messaien, a bird-lover himself, could clearly articulate not only the bird song but convey images of hopping, dancing, flitting and strange avian rituals that only a bird-enthusiast and accomplished composer could so convey. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin had an interesting role: pouncing, plunking, thundering and whispering delicacy were all called for. The dizzying amount of coordination between the percussion and winds, especially at such a sustained and rapid-fire pace, was amazing to behold. Precision, rapt concentration and lightning execution were all present in this stunning, boiling euphony.

The second half opened with Liszt's Todtentanz for Piano and Orchestra.  The opening, menacing theme, at which death seems to stride the world, immense and unchallenged, gave way to scintillating brilliance on the part of Hamelin. Suddenly he displays a jolly, crisp and brilliant staccato, firing away exacting glissandi one after another. He then plays with such cantabile tenderness in the quasi-fugal portion, a feeling like retiring into death's cool embrace. The astonishing amount of technical accomplishment alone, to say nothing of his artistry--Hamelin had every bit of the chops and then some; for much of this piece he was a one-man orchestra.

Ravel's Bolero was the grand finale. The bassoon in particular rendered the theme splendid and saucy. It was great fun to see an army of violinists and violists holding their axes like small guitars, plucking away. The piccoli had some difficulty with the doublings, but it was a small blemish. Kudos to the snare drummer and his rock-solid rhythm, the only player to hit every single beat from the first to the last. The percussion section and winds in particular were spectacular all evening; it is a joy to listen to such top-notch performers night after night with the OSO.