Archive for the ‘Music – Classical’ Category

PostHeaderIcon My Favorite Christmas Music

This year, in countless coffee shops, every McDonald’s and department store, the din of treachly tunes like “All I Want for Christmas is You” and “Santa Baby” serenades us. For me, even such classics as, “Twelve Days of Christmas” and”Little Drummer Boy” lose their appeal by the 20th hearing. Thus, by December 25, this incessant din can easily dampen the joy of the holidays even before they’ve begun.

The music that best conveys the true holiday spirit for me are church hymns like “Hail the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Come, Let Us Adore Him’ and “The Holly and the Ivy”. Handel’s “Messiah”, now a Christmas staple, was actually written for Easter.

My holiday musical treat is Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (soon to mark the 400th anniversary  of its premiere performance in 1721).  This rich orchestral suite of six concertos is so inventive and uplifting that it never fails to put me in a jolly mood. And it’s about two hours shorter than “Messiah”.

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.The ensemble that performs this classic work with remarkable virtuosity and elan is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center  (CMS) who will appear next Wednesday evening, December 20th, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Twenty-one musical artists are scheduled to take part and produce Bach’s buoyant, beautiful melodies. They will only give a single performance. If you have never, or not recently, heard the Brandenburgs, I urge you not to miss it. It’s a Christmas party all by itself.

CMS is one of Lincoln Center’s 11 resident ensembles founded in 1969 when they opened Alice Tully Hall, its resident home in New York.  It began with an elite group of 9 prominent “Artist Members” headed by Charles Wadsworth. Over the subsequent 48 seasons, it has grown to now encompass almost 150 top musicians with a broad mission of public education and musical training for young artists with its CMS Two initiative.

CMS has been headed since 2004 by co-artistic directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han who were named to lead the organization in 2004.  The group presents 200 concerts, lectures and master classes each season. In an interview, Finckel revealed that they have 4,000 musical works in their database. CMS made its first appearance at the Harris in 2011-12 when it offered a three program season. Due to great popular acceptance by Chicago audiences, they now offer five appearances each year. They performed their first Brandenburg concert in 2013.

Finckel offers his take on the appeal of the Bach work. “They are probably the most spiritually uplifting secular music. When you hear that music, it just crosses all the lines. Bach wrote them for everybody. And we couldn’t be more delighted.” For a list of the ensemble’s full range of activities and residencies, consult its website at www.chambermusicsociety.org.

If you are in need of genuine holiday cheer, schedule a visit to the Harris Theater at www.harristheaterchicago.org or call the box office at 312/334-7777.

 

PostHeaderIcon Falling Under Wagner’s Spell

Three score and ten years. It’s taken that long for me to have seen two segments of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.  I resisted for so long yet fell completely under the composer’s spell this week! I did see a PBS broadcast over 15 years ago from the Met in New York, under James Levine’s baton, which I saw that on a 13″ Sony, but doesn’t count.

I can now better appreciate the cult that surrounds Wagner and his messy tale of imperfect gods and the quest to recover a magical ring. Devoted fans are known to spend thousands of dollars traveling to whatever city is mounting this high point of the operatic form. Lyric Opera in Chicago is the “Ring Nuts” latest destination. Lyric is mounting one opera of the tetralogy each year through 2019 and  staging the complete cycle in the 2020-21 season. You can be sure Lyric is already processing ticket requests.

In the world of opera, Wagner exists on a different, more mythic, plane from such composer superstars as Verdi and Puccini. Wagner can also be said to be the granddaddy of the multi-part serial. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and no less a figure than  J.K. Rowing, took a page from Wagner’s playbook in crafting their cinematic and literary blockbusters.

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

Eric Owns & Christine Goerke

But to the opera on stage,  “Die Walkure”. In brief, Lyric has pulled out all the stops. I can’t imagine a better, more perfectly blended cast of internationally-celebrated singers for the four major roles: Eric Owens as the chief god, Wotan, Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, Wotan’s mortal son, Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde, Wotan’s daughter and Siegmund’s twin and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde,  Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie daughter. They were assisted very capably by the singers playing Fricka, Wotan’s wife and also the goddess of marriage (who doesn’t approve of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous affair) and and Hunding, Sieglinde’s cuckhold. Not in the rear by any means were the fine direction by David Pountey and the masterful baton of music director, Sir Andrew Davis, marking his 30th year with the company.

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde

It’s challenging keeping the names and the story straight. As “Walkure” begins, Wotan is plotting to recover the gold ring that he had to give to the giants as payment for building Valhalla, his fortress home. Wotan knows that, without the ring, his power is ephemeral. So, he sires two mortal children with earth mothers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are separated. When they discover they are brother and sister, they become lovers but this upsets Wotan’s plan and he is forced to agree to Siegmund’s assassination. He dispatches his daughter, Brunnhilde to do the job but she relents to Sieglinde’s pleas for mercy and is banished from Valhalla and reduced to being a mortal.

From Act I’s downbeat to the end of the score, nearly five hours later, I was enthralled by the singing. Two supreme moments that stick in my memory were the impassioned love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I and the fierce exchange between Sieglinde and Brunnhilde as the former pleads the latter to spare Siegmund’s life.

 Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.


Brandon Jovanovich & Elisabet Strid.

Sieglinde appeared in both and Elisabeth Strid, making her Lyric debut, gave a totally convincing portrayal. I hope we see more of Ms. Strid in future productions. Goerke gave one of the greatest Lyric performances I ever witnessed in the 2012-13 presentation of Strauss’ “Elektra”. She was equally compelling, both vocally and dramatically, as Brunnhilde.

Besides the vocal fireworks to delight the ear, Lyric has provided treats for the eye as well. There are flying horses, a wall-like net sporting a dozen hanging Valkyries and a stunning “Valhalla Hall” that descends from above, bisecting the stage into heaven and earthly kingdoms.

The opera’s 5-hour length scares most people away. Don’t let it or you will miss a spectacle full of emotion that aims straight for the heart. I can’t explain Wagner’s musical mastery but it seems to me he knows how to slow time down.  For example, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love duet goes on for a full half hour yet I was so engrossed that it seemed much less. You are caught up, as in a spell, either listening to the lover’s enchantment or with Brunnhilde as she pleads with Wotan to not banish her. During those moments, time melted. By the end, I knew I had lived through a peak artistic journey. My only regret is that I must wait a whole year to learn what happens next.

Die Walkure” is running through November 30. Only five more performances remain. Don’t miss it! For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.

PostHeaderIcon A Diva’s Newest Challenge

Patricia Racette is an internationally-renowned opera singer who has performed at Patricia Racettemajor houses around the world: The Met in New York, Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Teatro Real in Madrid and La Scala in Milan. She made her debut in 1989 singing in Aida in San Francisco and, a short six years later, debuted at The Met where she has appeared in 172 performances. She will make her second appearance at Chicago Opera Theater as Magda Sorel in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul”, this coming Friday and Sunday.

“The Consul” speaks to the universal experience of immigration. Sorel and her family are on the run when they arrive at the consulate seeking a means of escape. Magda pleads for an audience with the consul before it’s too late to save her sick child. Here is an edited version of a conversation with Ms. Racette last week after a rehearsal.

TM: You didn’t start out to be an opera singer. You went to North Texas State to be a jazz singer.

Racette: I know. I fell into opera. I wasn’t familiar with it, I wasn’t exposed to it. And once I was and once my natural abilities for that kind of singing and vocalism was made known to me by my teacher, it apparently was just a natural path. It was just a fast and furious ascent or descent, we don’t know yet. (laughs)

TM: Was it that you loved the acting part as much as the singing part? You seem like a natural actress.

PR: Well, thank you for saying so. You don’t want to say it’s more important but it is of the utmost importance to me. To me, opera is a theatrical art form. Those two elements should be at the highest level and never separated.

TM: In thinking about your career, what do you feel was a key moment in your early days?

PR: Singing Emmeline at Santa Fe Opera in 1996. There was a lot of discovery in the process of creating that character. It was a piece that spoke to me on many levels. It takes place in New England (Racette was born in New Hampshire) and all the places it was talking about, I so viscerally understood. And that was very instructive as a performer, as a budding actress and a role to use my voice to paint its rich colors.

TM: As an opera singer, you spent the early part of your career doing the major roles at the major houses. You have referenced that now, both your body and voice are changing. So, are you now going for challenge?

PR: Without question. What I’m interested in now, and this part of Menotti’s has been on my wish list my entire career, is not broadening my repertoire as much as shaving off some of the stuff I’ve done. The list of roles I want to do now is so much shorter. It suits my temperament and my personality.

TM: What is the emotional arc that you travel from Act I to Act III?

PR: What’s interesting is that the arc of the story isn’t so much driven by the characters. When I say bureaucracy, that sort of encapsulates all the injustice. Everyone is in distress. My character, Magda Sorel, is reactive to the situation around her. In her big scene and her major aria at the end of Act II, some of the things she says for the very first time. It’s where she hits her boiling point and her breaking point. It’s something that’s unbelievably relevant for our time.

TM: What is it about having performed “The Consul” in Long Beach  that has been satisfying? Was it the tale or Menotti’s music?

PR: It’s all of it. The vocalism of it, for me, is a wonderful fit. I love the score. I love the text, phrases like “the color of eyes, the color of tears”. It’s these very true, very real human phrases.

TM: Besides the challenging roles you want to take on, are there people in the opera world who you really enjoy working with?

PR: Yeah, Andreas. Andreas is such an enormous talent. I haven’t had the pleasure of working with him when he’s conducting but I hear it’s amazing. This is my second collaboration with him and I so love his aesthetic and so believe in it and trust it. And that is not a frequent experience.

TM: I always choose to see either new productions in opera or directors who come from theater that put a different stamp on a production.

PR: This opera has very much a different stamp. The story is told authentically and truly. It’s not distorted but the emotional journey and visual aesthetic is definitely, at moments, surreal, which I love.

TM: Any last words about “The Consul”?

PR: While the truth of the story does have resonance today and while it has a certain level where it’s disturbing, it ultimately is a cathartic experience, a story worth telling and one that is certainly worth the price of the ticket.

The Consul” is the opening production of Chicago Opera Theater’s 2017-18 season. It will be performed at the Studebaker Theatre in the Fine Art Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue. For tickets, call COT at 312/704-8414 or visit chicagooperatheater.org

 

 

 

 

PostHeaderIcon “Rigoletto” Is The Real Deal

Let me get right to the point. “Rigoletto”, now at Lyric Opera, is a vocally ravishing, near-perfect production that you should rush to see before its run ends on November 3rd. It is good to see Lyric nicely rebounding from its well-intentioned, but flawed, opening production of Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice”.

Rigoletto singing Gilda

Rigoletto sings to Gilda

The opera is one of (Giuseppe) Verdi’s triumphs in which he delved deeper into writing music closely married to the story’s drama. And the story is one that is full of so many elements that strongly resonate in our time: a parent’s love, sex, power and corruption. On Opening Night (October 7), both my companion and I thought the Duke of Mantua’s modern counterpart was Harvey Weinstein with Donald Trump not far behind.

It is an opera in which the trio of leading roles demands great vocal talent. And the trio of Matthew Polenzani as the lascivious Duke of Mantua, Rosa Feola,  as the innocent Gilda in love with the Duke and Quinn Kelsey as the court jester, Rigoletto, blend beautifully together and deliver the vocal goods. Each sang their roles with freshness and rich tones with nary a miscue all evening. The opera has some of Verdi’s most stirring music such as the meltingly moving aria between Rigoletto and his daughter, Gilda in Act Two and the Duke’s famous “La Donna Mobile”. It seemed to be more of a “sung opera” than most, in that Verdi one aria leadling inexorably into another, driving the story along.

Duke and Rigoletto

Rigoletto and the Duke

Lyric also made a smart choice in engaging the sought-after Italian conductor, Marco Armiliato, to play coax spirited playing of Verdi’s splendid score from Lyric’s stellar orchestra and the promising E. Loren Meeker to keep all the parts moving seamlessly.

Rigoletto is the tale of a curse cast on Rigoletto in Act One that is fulfilled at the end of the opera. The court jester’s over-protective love for his daughter leads to conflict and her unintended death.

I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s Live 2013 telecast of the opera in which director Michael Mayer had the inspired idea to transfer the action from 16th Century Mantua to modern-day Las Vegas with the Duke as the leader of a gamblers’ “rat pack”. That production featured the great tenor, Piotr Beczala, and generated much amusement. Lyric’s production was low on laughs but  struck me as having a deeper emotional core.

I left the hall knowing that I’d spent a great night at the opera. You have five more chances to catch this winning production. For tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.

 

 

PostHeaderIcon Ballet Overshadows Opera Drama

Opening Night at Lyric Opera is always a glittery, red-carpet affair that no other Chicago arts organization does so grandly. Such was the case last Saturday evening complete with limousines, many men in tuxedos and ladies in their formal finery and scurrying photographers seeking to capture all the early spectacle.

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak

Joffrey Ballet & Dmitry Korchak
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

The work chosen to kick off Lyric’s 63rd season was “Orphee et Eurydice” by Christoph Willibald Gluck. An added attraction was the participation of 43 dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, with which the Lyric has just announced an artistic partnership to start with the 2020-21 season.

In this production, Orphee is a contemporary choreographer and his wife, Eurydice is the company’s star ballerina who suffers a fatal accident.  The opera, directed, choreographed and designed by John Neumeier, head of the Hamburg Ballet, was dazzling in its dance sequences and beautifully sung by its three perfectly-matched leads.

Dmitry Korchak

Dmitry Korchak

Special praise goes to Russian tenor, Dmitry Korchak, whose rich voice was without strain and a pleasure to listen to.  He conveyed Orphee’s grief over Eurydice’s death convincingly along with his resolve to descend to Hades and rescue her. Andriana Chuchman as Eurydice and Lauren Snouffer as Amour provided stellar accompaniment, particularly in the “Tendre Amour” trio near the end.

Ticket holders should know that Gluck wrote two versions of this story, a fact I hadn’t realized before Saturday’s performance. The last time Lyric presented the work in 2006 (which I attended), it was Gluck’s original 1762 Italian version, performed by noted counter-tenor, David Daniels. I totally enjoyed that staging and mistakenly thought that is what I would be seeing.

Not so. Gluck reworked his score for a 1774 French version that had Orphee’s castrato role now sung by a tenor along with extensive additions of dance music that rendered it more of a danced opera.  I give Neumeier great credit for effectively blending the production’s disparate elements and instilling freshness into the 243-year-old opera (with kudos to Lyric’s orchestra and chorus).

Yet, I regretted his downplaying of the tale’s rich drama. Orphee and Eurydice’s reunion and horrible loss seems to happen in an instant compared to all the terpsichore (although I’ve seldom seen the Joffrey dance better).

The Opening Night version struck me as wan by comparison with Lyric’s 2006 production. The evening damped down the opera’s emotional heart.  Neumeier chose a cooler narrative, one that prioritized the dance elements.

For example, near the end, as Orphee seeks to heal from the devastating loss of his beloved for a second time, Amour tells him to “savor the beauty of love”. There followed a lovely imaginary waltz between Orphee and a ghostly Eurydice. This seemed the poignant and perfect moment on which to end the opera. Instead, Orphee retreats to the back of the stage and we witness an extended, exuberant dance. For Neumeier, who replaced the happy ending of Gluck’s French version only to end with such a light-hearted frolic, seemed like the wrong move.

This production has much to recommend it–fine singing, appealing ballet sequences and Gluck’s music–and will delight many. It simply left me, however, with mixed emotions. Give me Italian Gluck!

Five more performances of “Orphee et Eurydice” remain through October 15. For dates and to purchase tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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