Archive for March, 2012

PostHeaderIcon SFO Salutes Ten “American Mavericks”

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas has always had a special affinity for the music of American composers. The Los Angeles-born  music director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he has championed those pioneers  who, according to an SFO website, “created a new American musical voice for the 20th Century.” In 2000, Thomas organized the first “American Mavericks” festival devoted to such seminal figures as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, John Cage and Charles Ives. This month, he is touring the next iteration of “American Mavericks” in Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York City.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

I was in the Orchestra Hall audience ten days ago for several reasons. Foremost was to hear the orchestra in its first Chicago appearance in 10 years. I heard them once before under the leadership of Herbert Blomstedt but wanted to hear their playing  under Thomas’ direction. They performed brilliantly, playing with total commitment and keen attack, signs of an improved ensemble relishing the chance to play such challenging fare. Another reason was to hear the works on the program (Cowell, John Adams & Ives). Apart from Adams, the other mavericks are rarely heard inside Symphony Center. Finally, I wanted to see if my musical ears had grown more accustomed to Ives’ spiky, contrapuntal tonal palette. Thomas is widely viewed as the premier interpreter of Ives.

The program opened with a haunting, soaring trumpet solo from Cowell’s “Synchrony.” I hadn’t expected such a lovely melody at the start and found the rhythmic and melodic tonal clusters that followed pleasantly accessible. Cowell also taught and reportedly influenced the work of other mavericks, particularly Cage and Lou Harrison.

John Adams

John Adams

Adams’ newest work, “Absolute Jest” followed. It is the fourth commission he has composed for San Francisco beginning with “Harmonium” in 1981. It is hard to believe that Adams was ever a musical maverick. However, he is credited with steering music away from the dry 12-tone exercises of academic modernism and back to a more expressive and humanistic realm. His 1986 opera, “Nixon in China” broke new ground and, ever since his 2002 tribute to the victims of 9/11, “On the Transmigration of Souls”, Adams has become the default composer for orchestra programmers, a contemporary composer audiences will tolerate.

As I listened to the buoyant, yet fractured rhythms, the work had a pastiche quality that, while enjoyable in performance, did not leave a lasting impression. Afterward, reading the program notes, Adams called the piece’s short bursts “quotations”.  While my ear caught, what I thought were snippets of Copland, I later learned that he was borrowing freely from Beethoven’s late quartets and even the Ninth Symphony.  The inclusion of the St. Lawrence String Quartet was an interesting touch. As stand-ins for Beethoven’s quartets, they played with fierce engagement, often in attacking juxtaposition to the orchestra. It was a novel but not entirely successful experiment.

I still don’t “get” Ives but I realize that he has changed modern music’s vocabulary and earned his “American Maverick” stripes. However, Henry Brant’s rich orchestration of Ives’ “A Concord Symphony” (originally a sonata solely for piano) softened many of the piece’s rough edges and made Ives’ ideas more pronounced and palatable, particularly the sweetly melodic third movement, The Alcotts.  His tribute to three other transcendental New England writers–Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau–remain a musical puzzle to my ears.

Tilson Thomas has lived with the music of these composers for many years. I left Symphony Center convinced that no other orchestra could interpret these works as convincingly and idiomatically. That opinion was evidently shared by many younger members of the audience who whooped and applauded heartily for each work on the program. The audience skewed much younger than the usual CSO audience. At least 1/3 of the crowd in the lower balcony were high school and college students. While the CSO offered heavily discounted pricing for students on their website and on Groupon, many also came because of Thomas and the orchestra’s reputation for contemporary fare. For a list of concerts in April and May with special $10 seats for students, go to

Though it was satisfying to hear the SFO at all, I wonder why Chicago audiences were treated to only one program from the festival while Ann Arbor presented three full programs  immediately after Chicago and New York’s Carnegie Hall is presenting all four festival programs. Tilson Thomas is a definite draw when he plays with our orchestra and a broad audience exists in Chicago for more adventuresome repertoire beyond the iconic three B’s. Was it not worth the risk of a less than full house to showcase rarely-performed works by such game-changing composers?  We missed out on hearing soprano Jesse Norman and Meredith Monk perform John Cage’s “Songbooks”, early Aaron Copland and Mason Bates’ recent commission for the SFO, “Mass Transmission.” Is Chicago still too provincial in its musical tastes? I’d like to think not.

Tilson Thomas was asked when he began his tenure in San Francisco 15 years ago what he hoped people would think about the orchestra in years to come. His response: “America’s most fearless, most dangerous and most generous orchestra.” As it celebrates its 100th Anniversary, I’d say the SFO has fulfilled that mission splendidly!

PostHeaderIcon Whole Lotta “Soundings” Going On

Don’t know about you but, if I hadn’t received a brochure in the mail last month, I wouldn’t know about an extraordinary musical event starting this week in Evanston. It’s the 9th annual Spring Festival sponsored by Northwestern University and its Bienen School of Music. I’ve seen no ads in the Tribune or The Reader. No E-mail blasts either. Yesterday, I finally heard a commercial on WFMT for a concert by one of the featured artists.

So, for all music lovers who live on Chicago’s north side, the suburbs or even southside outposts, like Hyde Park, let me say it LOUD and clear: GET THEE NORTH. Over the next two weekends, something better than NCAA March Madness   is taking place in our town.

I’m referring to “Soundings”, a themed series of seven concerts featuring top-notch classical and renowned world music soloists. The series’ 11 headliners will offer unusually imaginative concerts featuring not just the standard European classical repertoire but works drawn from Indian, South American, Celtic, Zydeco and Jazz traditions.

Richard Van Kleeck, Director of Concert Activities at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, has programmed the Spring Festival since its founding in 2004.  His modus operandi is to forgo simply filling open dates with a motley crew of musical artists and arrange the concerts around a central musical theme.

For the inaugural festival eight years ago, Van Kleeck’s theme was the piano. Leon Fleisher and Menahem Pressler were among the participants. For the closing concert, 33 pianists gathered on stage and played 10 Steinway Grands. Another year was devoted to string quartets, titled “Quadromania” and featured The Juilliard Quartet and Turtle Island Quartet. This Spring Festival theme this year, which opens on March 28th and runs through April 7th, is “Soundings: Celebrating Singular Voices in Music.”

Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar

The opening artist is two-time Grammy nominee, Anouska Shankar, daughter of famed sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who will play hybrid works that incorporate elements of flamenco, tango and fandango with ancient Indian musical forms. She will be followed by acclaimed pianist, Gabriela Montero, who will play “visionary interpretations” of Chopin and Liszt and devote the second half to improvisations on themes suggested by the audience.

Three noted clarinetists, all members of the Bienen School, will perform a program titled “Clarinetissimo” followed on Saturday, March 31, by famed guitarist, Sharon Isbin, joined by Brazilian percussionist, Thiago de Mello. The festival’s second week begins with violinist Jennifer Koh. For her program, “Bach and Beyond, Part I”  Ms. Koh will guide audiences on a historical journey of solo violin masterpieces based on works by Bach.

Sharon Isbin

Sharon Isbin

On Friday, April 6th, the weekend kicks off with what promises to be a sonic showdown featuring master accordionists and bandoneon virtuosos from France, Russia, Chicago and New Orleans titled “The Big Squeeze.”  The festival will conclude on April 7th as acclaimed Cuban trumpet star and four-time Grammy winner, Arturo Sandoval, performs with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.  All these “soundings” should rank as among  2012’s musical highpoints.

Arturo Sandaval

Arturo Sandoval

Van Kleeck deserves an award for such inspired programming. Why are themed programs so rare in the Chicago area? His example deserves to be copied by his peers at  Harris Theater, Symphony Center, Grant Park and possibly Ravinia. Instead, we are fed an repetitious diet of  one-off star turns, however noteworthy. Why not feature four or five outstanding violinists or other instrumentalists over 3 or 4 concerts around a common theme (like Koh’s “Bach and Beyond” idea) at any one or combination of the above venues?  With the right marketing, it could be a crowd-pleaser that draws music regulars and new audiences locally and from out-of-town, like opera’s Ring cycle or the CSO’s Beethoven Festival in 2010. Why is such a concept being championed by a university rather than our downtown music presenters ? Classical and world music programming could stand a good jolt out of its well-worn rut.

An added feature making the festival such an attractive entertainment option is the reasonable pricing for such stellar talent. Tickets range from $14 to 26 (for Shankar and Isbin) with student seats at $10. There’s no better place or better bargain for musical enjoyment over the next 10 days than at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. To see the complete lineup and order tickets, go to To buy tickets with a credit card, call 847/467-4000.

PostHeaderIcon The New vs. Old “Grand Opera”

In late January, I had the pleasure of attending two operas in the space of five days; one in a movie theater, the other in the house at Lyric Opera. Under the circumstances, a comparison was inevitable and here I made an unexpected discovery. In rating my enjoyment of the new opera versus one of the repertoire’s long-standing, crowd-pleasers, the new opera was the undisputed winner.

Enchanted Island

"Enchanted Island"

The new opera was Jeremy Sams’ pastiche at The Met, “The Enchanted Island” versus perhaps Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular score, “Aida”, at Lyric. I knew nothing about “Island” but assumed that a cast featuring counter-tenor David Daniels, mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and soprano Danielle de Niese was not chopped liver and worth hearing. I was not disappointed.

Danielle de Niese

Sams’ winning achievement was to combine two of Shakespeare’s plots, “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with lovely arias plucked from a variety of Baroque operas by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and other composers. The blending of story and song was so seamless and charming that the plot played like Shakespeare’s true version and not a newly-made creation.

In Sams’ take on “The Tempest”, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, lives on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. He is a sorcerer, surrounded by his books and magic potions. While Prospero initially seduced the sorceress, Sycorex, ruler of the island, he left her, stealing her sprite servant, Ariel, and enslaving her son, Caliban. And she wants revenge.

Enchanted-Island joyce

Joyce DiDonato

All hell begins breaking loose when Prospero, wanting to insure Miranda’s happiness, commands Ariel to cause a passing ship that contains the King of Naples and Prince Ferdinand to go aground. Caliban overhears the plan and informs his mother who devises a spell of her own that causes Ariel’s spell to go awry. What ensues is a riot of unintended consequences centered around hopelessly mismatched lovers. But all turns out for the best in the end: the rightful lovers find one another, Prospero is pardoned and apologizes to Sycorex.

Not only were the lovers under Ariel’s spell but so was the theater audience. The production sets and costumes looked like a million bucks. And in the pit, conductor William Christie, a renowned Baroque expert, had the Met’s orchestra playing crisply, in true to period style.

Neptune’s (Placido Domingo) grand entrance was a special effects show-stopper, complete with mermaids suspended in mid-air. While all the main characters deserve praise, Danielle de Niese’s prancing performance deserves special mention. She had my full attention throughout and owned whatever scene she appeared in.

(Great news Lyric Opera recently announced that it has engaged de Niese for the lead in its newly-commissioned opera, “Bel Canto”, that will debut December, 2015.)

At the end, the theater audience gave the Met HDLive presentation an ovation, something usually reserved for movie blockbusters. As I walked out, I saw most other patrons smiling and commenting on the triumph we had just witnessed.


Four days later, I went to “Aida” with high expectations. It was the first opera I went to as a teenager at the old Metropolitan Opera home on West 39th Street in New York. Nothing much of the production sticks in my mind except the sight of an elephant and horses arriving on stage during the famous triumphal entrance scene.

“Aida” is the Verdi work that defines the term “Grand Opera”. Verdi spins an epic tale of illicit love between Radames, a newly-returned Egyptian war hero, and an Ethiopian princess (Aida) who is the enslaved attendant to Amneris, the Pharoah’s daughter. When Radames spurns marrying Amneris, she discovers his secret love and plots her deadly revenge.

Giordani and Radanovsky in "Aida"

Giordani and Radanovsky in "Aida"

Lyric trotted out its successful Nicholas Joel production for the fifth time and enlisted  top-flight Verdi performers–tenor Marcello Giordani, lyric soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and mezzo Jill Grove. Conductor, Renato Palumbo drew rich,dramatic, Verdi-style playing from the Lyric orchestra.

However, besides the singers and the score, what keeps faithful operagoers and neophytes alike coming back is the spectacle. While Lyric tried hard and packed the stage with at least 125 palace guards, priests, dancers and members of the court, the spectacle, surprisingly, fell flat. Pharoah was carried in on what appeared to be a wooden throne consisting of several stacked chairs rather than a golden one befitting his rank. And the costumes for the large contingent of priests/courtiers were topped by what one critic termed “funky domed hats” that proved distracting and inappropriate.

Coming so soon after seeing “Enchanted Island,” I never engaged with the story.  While Giordani and Radvanovsky delivered perfectly-sung, affecting arias—“Celeste Aida” and the ravishing “O Patria Mia” respectively—their onstage chemistry never really clicked. This fatally undercut believability in their portrayal as lovers in the throes of passion, robbing the opera of its power to move listeners.

I must differ from John von Rhein’s comment that “Shakespeare would have been proud to have penned such a libretto.”  The Bard, I believe, would have written more plot twists and injected more dramatic tension into the script to keep the action flowing. Instead, the die is cast in the first half-hour. It then takes three hours to reach the inevitable denouement.

Lyric’s production succeeds as a star turn for two fine Verdi interpreters but it just isn’t storytelling that appeals to a 21st Century listener. Perhaps it is time for Lyric to retire this production and find singers and staging that can invest this 140-year-old warhorse with more vigor.

(There are four remaining performance of “Aida” with a second cast, headed by acclaimed Chinese soprano, Hui He, on March 15, 19, 22, 25. For tickets, go to