ArtsATL Review: Soprano Julia Bullock pushes through opera stereotypes in Spivey Hall recital

Julia Bullock mixed the blues of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone into her program at Spivey Hall. (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Soprano Julia Bullock has a dilemma. Opera is all about stereotypes a.k.a. fach — role classification based upon a classical singer’s vocal and sometimes physical attributes. (i.e. Does she look more like a strapping Brünnhilde or a dainty nymph?)

Bullock’s light, yet earthy sound, prettiness and petite stature place her squarely in the middle of a group of singers the likes of Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney, and Kathleen Battle. She’s a shoe-in for operatic roles like Pamina (Mozart) and Mélisande (Debussy). And yet, Saturday night at Spivey Hall, Bullock and pianist John Arida presented a recital that revealed a singer who is musicologically-driven and a little rebellious.

Bullock began with a set of four Schubert lieder that included “Suleika I” and “Seligkeit” with a stage persona that was not the slightest bit superficial. Her pensive, non-presentational style was underscored by the fact that the duo situated the piano just left of center, angling the piano keys toward the audience while Bullock stood further back.

As the evening wore on Bullock explored a theme of female icons, beginning with Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs which were first interpreted by Leontyne Price, a woman who paved the way for subsequent African-American opera singers. Bullock transitioned seamlessly from the words of Goethe to those of bawdy medieval monks. Tempi were surprisingly languid, especially within “Sea-Snatch” and “The Heavenly Banquet,” but Bullock’s commitment to the text and clarity of diction justified the choice.

Gabriel Fauré’s song cycle La Chanson d’Eve opened the second half. It was poet Charles Van Lerberghe’s response to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a tribute to Eve (not Adam) as she discovers and names several elements within God’s creation, eventually comprehending a pantheistic view of God within the song, “Comme Dieu Rayonne.”

Arida played the first two Bach-like strophes simply, eventually bringing forth the opulence of the last section as Bullock proclaimed, “Comme il se baigne dans la lumière avec amour, mon jeune dieu!” (“How he bathes himself in the light with love, my young god!”) and the two seemingly independent voices shifted from a minor tonality to gleaming C major.

However, Bullock’s final song group made her quandary exceedingly evident. Bullock is too intellectually curious and passionate to play the ingénue.  So she didn’t. She constructed a recital program that looked conventional at the outset, but didn’t feel conventional in the least.

And she capped it off with the blues — songs of hard living and social uprising — although her voice and refined phrasing were too exquisite to adequately convey their coarseness. Bullock sang Bessie Smith’s 1922 hit “Downhearted Blues” while pianist Arida provided an improvisational postlude laced with ragtime that served as a segue to Billie Holiday’s “Our Love is Different.”

And one of the final songs, an unaccompanied version of Nina Simone’s 1969 anthem “Revolution” made one wonder whether Bullock might begin an artistic revolution of her own, defying classification and reminding us of the women who came before.

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from www.artsatl.com…Review: Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham affirms the art of classical song at Schwartz recital

 

Some may say that classical art song is outdated, irrelevant to our modern times and lives. After all, it’s a musical form firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, poetry set to music, performed by an opera singer and a pianist. (Perhaps not as captivating as the latest royal romance or the outcome of the Super Bowl?) But on Saturday evening at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and pianist Bradley Moore turned such provincial thinking on its ear, presenting a thematic recital that was immensely relevant.

The duo took perhaps one of the most iconic (and most performed) song cycles — Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben — and dispersed its eight songs throughout the program, using the primary sentiment of each as a jumping off point for eight song groups.

Schumann’s song cycle conveys the archetypal experiences within a woman’s life: infatuation, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood and mourning. And Graham embodied the “ideal” woman envisaged by Schumann’s poet Adelbert von Chamisso. The first song group began with “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (“Since I saw him”), and subsequent songs reiterated the exceedingly universal emotion of infatuation.

Love at first sight: it’s a human experience that sells both magazines and movies — and one not exclusive to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The soundtrack this night was Edvard Grieg’s “Møte” (“The Encounter”) as well as Richard Strauss’ “Seitdem dein Aug’ in meines schaute” (“Since your eyes first looked into mine”).

It was a program that encompassed the work of 17 composers and at least eight languages. Graham’s sunny demeanor and virtuosic phrasing dominated the first half of the evening, and after intermission she and Moore navigated more explicit territory within a woman’s journey, namely the eroticism of Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” and Claude Debussy’s “La Chevelure.” Graham made us blush as she conveyed Sappho’s lovemaking in musico-poetic terms, coloring and shading each vowel with seemingly effortless precision.

Graham visited Atlanta’s Spivey Hall in 2012, singing Henry Purcell’s scena The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation and other serious works which were featured on her album for Onyx, Virgins, Vixens & Viragos. Now six years later, it seems impossible, but her voice sounded even more luxurious.

Moore’s elegant piano playing gave one pause throughout, but particularly within the final set which describes the death of the heroine’s beloved. We heard Hector Berlioz’s “L’Absence” (“Absence”), Roger Quilter’s “How Should I Your True Love Know?” and a stunning interpretation of Enrique Granados’ “La maja dolorosa” (“The Sorrowful Maiden”).

In the last one, Moore accompanied Graham’s mournful vocalism with harsh pianistic statements which gradually gave way to resignation. But it was the fragile postlude of Frauenliebe’s closing song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (“Now you have caused me my first pain”), that brought us full circle from giddy devotion to intense despair.

And while art song may not be a trending topic of conversation for the masses right now like Kylie Jenner or Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, Susan Graham and Bradley Moore managed to convey the essence of our humanity in an evening of song, sharing an artistry which will never go out of style.

From the January Issue of Opera News Online: Der Fliegende Holländer

Wayne TiggesIN 1839, when the emergent city of Atlanta was not yet Atlanta, but a destination at the end of a railroad line, Richard Wagner and his wife Minna were an ocean away, in the midst of a harrowing sea voyage that landed them in the Norwegian port of Sandviken. It was an experience that prompted Wagner to compose Der Fliegende Holländer in his Paris apartment over the next several years. Holländer is the opera that initially drew stage director Tomer Zvulun to Atlanta in 2009. Now in his current role as artistic and general director of the Atlanta Opera, Zvulun has collaborated with Houston Grand Opera and Cincinnati Opera to create a new production of Der Fliegende Holländer, which had its premiere on November 4 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

In this production there is no boat, rather only shadows and a blood-red sail when the Dutchman’s ship arrives. The action is brought to the 1950s. Senta works in a factory, distracted by her obsession with the legend of the cursed Dutchman. The Dutchman’s crew is a cohort of Bane look-alikes and eerie holograms. Scenic and costume designer Jacob A. Climer who scored a hit with his rainbow-like designs for AO’s 2016 production of Abduction from the Seraglio, demonstrated his versatility dream with his darker, industrial-looking landscape for Holländer.

Zvulun brought in a brand new cast of heavy hitters with the exception of one veteran, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the role of Erik in 2009. Wayne Tigges made his Atlanta Opera Debut as a grand, terrifying Dutchman. Mesmerizing visually and vocally, with the stature of a linebacker, Tigges’s crisp monologue, “Die Frist ist um,” conveyed a lifetime of Weltschmertz. The brilliant Melody Moore was Senta, her voluptuous voice resplendent in a powerful rendition of Senta’s ballad, and later in Act II, sounding eerily beautiful with uncompromising legato. Moore’s Senta was highly satisfying: not deranged, but possessed of an absolute devotion to the Dutchman, empathetic to his suffering and hope of redemption. Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Daland was a greedy, but loveable father; his deep voice sounding rich and mellifluous.

Atlanta Opera studio artist Justin Stolz sang a rousing Steuermann while mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote, a recent member of the Internationales Opernstudio at Opernhaus Zürich sang the role of Mary with a voice that is much too interesting to be relegated to a career of comprimario roles.

Conductor Arthur Fagen and his orchestra were superb After a decade of uneven performances at the Atlanta Opera, the orchestra began the Holländer overture with unerring precision: the main theme of open fifths demonic sounding, woodwind entrances clean and limpid, and the dynamic variations unified throughout the pit. No opera company can excel without a proficient orchestra and if last night’s performance is an indication of things to come, Atlanta may have an opera company that is in the midst of its own redemption. —Stephanie Adrian

 

From the December 2017 Issue of Opera News Online

The Seven Deadly Sins

Larmore
THE ATLANTA OPERA launched its 2017-18 season on October 1 at the Maison Rouge, with Atlanta native Jennifer Larmore starring in a stark rendition of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. The production is part of this season’s AO Discoveries Series, which will complement this season’s mainstage fare—The Flying Dutchman, Daughter of the RegimentSweeney Todd, and Carmen—as general and artistic director Tomer Tvulun takes the company in new directions, exploring risky repertoire in both traditional and non-traditional opera venues throughout metro Atlanta.

 

The Seven Deadly Sins is a mere thirty-five minutes in length and Atlanta Opera augmented the evening with an opening act that featured its young studio artists singing a bevy of Weill’s best-known songs. Director Brian Clowdus created a backstage plot of unrequited love and sassy interchanges that revolved around standout soprano Bryn Holdsworth. Holds worth sang “Youkali” and several other numbers with elegant phrasing and executed provocative choreography. Canadian tenor Justin Stoltz gave a honeyed, unfussy interpretation of “Lonely House” from Street Scene that was simply beautiful.

Seven Deadly Sins, Weill’s ballet chanté collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and George Balanchine, was a perilous proposition when it had its premiere at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1933. Weill sought to reform musical productions with the integration of dance and texts written by cutting-edge librettists during uncertain political times; Seven Deadly Sins was so atypical that it didn’t see another performance until 1958. Atlanta’s version of Weill’s didactic Sins stretched its audience to reconsider preconceived notions about what should constitute an opera season. Pared down out of necessity to suit the venue, the action was set on a runway that extended the length of Maison Rouge; the orchestra was reduced to two pianos and percussion, conducted by Rolando Salazar.

Not so much a ballet as a semi-staged concert version of Weill’s modernist work, Clowdus presented Anna I and II as sisters dressed identically, rather than as a split personality. As the girls travel across America, Larmore assumed the role of a matronly older sister who endorses any sin that’s profitable, while Anna II, (performed by dancer and choreographer Meg Gillentine), seemed more naïve, reluctantly taking on the seedy work required to turn a buck. Bathed in harsh lighting, the set consisted of two full-length mirrors on castors that were moved from place to place by ensemble members and a rickety doorway that served as a portal between cities.

Last heard at Atlanta Opera in 2008, as Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Larmore’s voice sounded as fresh as ever singing W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s English translation of the Brecht text. The score doesn’t provide Larmore with any opportunity for virtuosic roulades or trills: Weill composed the title role of Anna for Lotte Lenya, a diseuse whose distinctive singing style couldn’t possibly compete with Larmore’s vocal prowess. Seven Deadly Sins requires an artist who can pull off the text-driven drama and strange scenario; Larmore accomplished both.

Anna’s family back in Louisiana appears often and is a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on sloth and gluttony. Portrayed as a demented barbershop quartet in 1930s garb, AO ensemble members Nathan Munson, Justin Stoltz, Christopher Dunham and Calvin Griffin sang with voices that blended nicely.   —Stephanie Adrian

 

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A Case for the Music Critics

newspapersGraduate school field trips are rare.  Gone are the yellow school buses of our youth that once promised a venture to the zoo or the pumpkin patch, releasing us from the confinement of a classroom.  And yet, back in graduate school I had one professor who knew better, taking her opera history class of twenty-somethings on the field trip of all field trips.  We spent an evening in the back room of John Ardoin’s house in Dallas, sitting cross-legged on the floor like a group of captivated kindergarteners.  The walls were lined with hundreds, perhaps thousands of LPs.  John thoughtfully selected one after another, playing us classic opera recordings on a well-loved turntable, explaining what made each of them special.

John Ardoin was the music critic of the Dallas Morning News for 32 years.  He was best-known for his writing about Maria Callas in which he assumed the role of biographer and chronicler of her performances, recordings, and master classes.  Ardoin knew Callas’ singing so intimately that he devoted an entire volume to its analysis in his book, The Callas Legacy.  He also studied and provided extensive commentary on the career and recordings of Wilhelm Furtwängler, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1922 to 1945, authoring The Furtwängler Record.  Ardoin devoted his life to music criticism because he loved music and didn’t know what else to do.

In an interview with James Jorden of Parterre Box Ardoin stated, “I think when you hear a performance of anything, you have an obligation to say why it worked or didn’t work; how it was different from other performances of the same work or other artists who play the same repertory…above all a critic writes for himself.  You write so you can live with yourself; so that you can, to the best of your ability, convey what you thought and felt, and why.”

Ardoin’s philosophy echoes that of notorious music and theatre critic George Bernard Shaw in “How to be a music critic,” published within The Scottish Musical Monthly in December of 1894. The only man to have won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, Shaw claimed that the three main qualifications of a music critic were 1.) to have a cultivated taste in music, 2.) to be a skilled writer, and 3.) to be a practiced music critic.  He railed against the critic who could not criticize, ignoring the finer points which determined the difference between mediocrity and genius.  Shaw was just an amateur musician himself and largely self-taught, but felt that it was his economic studies and political practices as a leading member of the Fabian Society that made him all the more effective as a music critic.  He discussed the economics of art:  who or what was to blame for the deficiencies of a performance and what would the reforms cost?  Over a third of Shaw’s reviews were devoted to vocal criticism and opera, and of those, 200 reviews were assigned to the music of Richard Wagner.

This was the era of the great Wagner-Brahms debate and Shaw was the perfect Wagnerite. On the other hand, his disapproval of Johannes Brahms’ music was firm and one can find delightful proof in Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective.  Shaw wrote these words about Brahms’ Ein deutches Requiem which appeared in The World on November 9, 1892:

“Brahms Requiem has not the true funeral relish:  it is so execrably and ponderously dull that the very flattest of funerals would seem like a ballet, or at least a danse macabre, after it.”

Of course Brahms’ iconic work was completed more than two decades earlier when its final form was premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on February 18, 1869 with Carl Reinecke conducting.  As it turns out Shaw got it wrong.  His opinion didn’t impact the the Requiem’s longevity either.  Today, roughly 150 years later, Ein deutsches Requiem is one of the most widely performed oratorios, second only to George Frederic Handel’s Messiah.

Meanwhile in September of 1882 George Bernard Shaw’s 19th century literary foil Eduard Hanslick, wrote with fierce conviction about the Wagner Cult within the Neue freie Presse, commenting on Richard Wagner’s celebrity status as “a Schopenhauerian, a pessimist, a foe of vivisection, an anti-Semite, a vegetarian, and a believing Christian.”

Shaw and Hanslick were prominent voices within a conversation about music and musicians that formally emerged in the 18th century.  Journalistic criticism arose during the Age of Reason when man was less interested in the creations of God than in those of his own making.  Musical magazines such as Johann Mattheson’s Critica Musica in 1722 were published in Germany and France.  It was the beginning of an engaging dialogue about musical happenings, but these writings are also significant as they became a useful tool for historians studying ubiquitous tastes and styles of the time. Just as John Ardoin catalogued many of Callas’ recordings and reviewed the progress of the Dallas Opera throughout his tenure for all posterity, many extant performance reviews prove themselves historically important to musicologists and music lovers alike.

Some music critics are wordsmiths through and through and have advanced the music review as a literary form.  Read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” and you will be swept away by his eccentric writing, receiving a thorough understanding of Beethoven’s Besonnenheit from Hoffmann’s perspective.  Hoffmann – revered for his fairytale “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” as well as for other romantic writings –  discusses aspects of deliberateness and prudence of composition within the c minor symphony, outlining its structural elements and contrasting Beethoven’s music with that of Mozart and Haydn. Beethoven’s legendary symphony debuted in Vienna in 1808, but Hoffmann’s review didn’t appear until 1810 when it was published in Leipzig’s Allgemeine Musikalishe Zeitung.

“Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable.  Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy – which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord – we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world.”

 The same year that Hoffmann’s imaginative review was published another important German composer and music critic was born – Robert Schumann.  Schumann’s bourgeois literary audience devoured musical culture.  And he wasn’t the only composer that lent his pen to music journalism during the 19th century.  Schumann’s erudite society included Hector Berlioz in Paris, Hugo Wolf in Vienna and Bedrich Smetana in Prague, each composer-critic striving in some way to cultivate and promote the native music of his countrymen.

Schumann’s own Neue Zeitschrift for Musik was founded in 1834 and from Schumann we have a wealth of delightful narrative writings, wholly contrasting the analytic and anti-romantic writing style that Hanslick embodied fifty years later when he was championing the work of Brahms.  Schumann’s germinal piece of music criticism, “An Opus 2” (also referred to as “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”) was published by Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung on December 7, 1831.  Within it the reader is introduced to Florestan, Eusebius, and Master Raro, the imaginary characters who would dominate Schumann’s descriptive writing, and later possibly represent the bipolar disorder that he endured in life.  Within the essay Eusebius bursts in on his friends with an exciting score written by a budding, piano virtuoso.   The rowdy bunch sits down at the piano to play Là ci darem la mano, varié pour le Pianoforte par Frédéric Chopin.  We learn that Schumann wonders why Chopin chose B flat for the theme, but ultimately that in Schumann’s opinion “genius peeks out at you from every bar.”

“The Editor’s Ball” is another piece by Schumann in which he creatively exhibits how one can review a performance.  Again Florestan is present as the narrator of the story, but we are introduced to two sisters, Ambrosia and Beda, the daughters of a prominent editor and host of this elaborate musical ball. Schumann is interested in the younger, more fetching daughter (whom most likely represents Clara Wieck, Shumann’s future wife) and pursues her all evening while filling us in on the repertoire being played – Grand Dramatic Polonaise Opus 11 by I. Nowakowski, A Chopin Waltz Opus 18, I. Brzowski’s Four Mazurkas Opus 8, and several other pieces.

Indeed current music criticism – what we read in music publications, daily newspapers, and on blogs – should follow Schumann’s lead, enriching the reader’s experience and engaging an audience that might not be aware of a particular cultural happening or genre.   A music critic is a broadcaster of musical events and offers both expertise and enthusiasm (or lack thereof).

After a century of German romanticism and a treasure trove of Italian opera was composed, the twentieth century ushered in serialism, avant-gardism and neo-classicism.  Virgil Thomson, American composer and chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune for over ten years, believed that audiences should be wary of accepting just any musical trend that seemed progressive and instead seek “innovation through expressivity.”  He wrote an article titled, “Music of Constant Change” for the Atlantic Monthly in February 1959 in which he described Beethoven’s music as the basis for all musical pedagogy, even comparing him to the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Thomson’s writing traced the constant transformation of musical technique from that point, emphasizing the music of Wagner and Brahms.  He believed that while Wagner’s “Music of the Future” peaked at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde in 1865, its popularity declined significantly after the turn of the century whereas Brahms’ music only saw a rising incidence of performance after the composer’s death.  Thomson contemplated these “noble mountains of the past” and predicted that the distribution of phonograph and radio would eradicate the art of music, saturating music consumers with nothing but the classics.

During a pre-concert lecture at the 2014 Rubin’s Institute of Music Criticism Alex Ross, music critic of New Yorker magazine outlined what he believes is the music critic’s function:  writing about what just happened, conveying intimations, and foretelling what future concert audiences might find relevant.  But music critics can also provide perspective and context.  One can look to Ross’ October 2016 essay for the New Yorker called, “Bob Dylan as Richard Wagner” as an example of this. Here Ross addressed the controversy surrounding Bob Dylan’s selection as a Nobel Prize winner in Literature; his approach was to parallel Dylan to Wagner, taking into account Wagner’s 19th century celebrity status, literary and musical significance.  Or read Ross’ May 2017 review of Chaya Czernow’s opera “Infinite Now” which recently saw its premiere at the Flemish Opera in Ghent.  Ross’ effort to provide background – historical, literary and musical – while describing the landscape of sound that Czernow utilized as a specialist in post-World War II musical expressions helps us to understand the framework of her opera and simultaneously piques our curiosity.

Both Virgil Thomson and Alex Ross have elevated the art of music criticism, simultaneously employing intellect with intuitive musical understanding.  Polite, yet opinionated, these journalists have continued the legacy of Hoffmann, Hanslick, Schumann, and even the painfully honest George Bernard Shaw.

When reading contemporary music criticism, some may find it easy to dismiss it as a narcissistic enterprise or question music criticism’s value beyond the writer’s biases.  And yet, there is a 300-year-old body of literature that argues the opposite.   Consider Robert Aloys Mooser’s article, “Works by German Nazi Composers” that appeared in the December 1937 issue of Regards sur la musique contemporaine.  Four years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States intervention in Hitler’s gruesome campaign, a Swiss music critic published a brave statement against the suppression of Jewish music during the Holocaust.  Mooser used the occasion of a concert review at the Musik-Collegium of Winterthur to criticize the aims of the Third Reich. In an official capacity Mooser reviewed the works of Paul Hoffer, Peter Schacht, Helmut Degen, and Hans Chemin-Petit, but his greater purpose in writing this review was to criticize the Nazi’s attempt to “purify” musical life in Germany and beyond, no doubt referring to Joseph Goebbels’ role as propaganda minister in banning the music of Paul Hindemith and Felix Mendelssohn.  Mooser took this opportunity to announce Hindemith’s dismissal from the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and boldly stated that the Nazis preferred music that appealed to those with a “primitive mentality”. The final paragraph of Mooser’s review reads,

“German music suffers from a deplorable sterility, which can be cured only by an infusion of new blood capable of reviving it and restoring its erstwhile splendour by bringing it back to its authentic traditions.  It is very sick…”

Back in 1997 at John Ardoin’s home, I didn’t realize just how influential he had been as a music critic.  In fact, his collegial relationship with Larry Kelly and Nicola Rescigno, founders of the Dallas Opera in 1957, arguably influenced casting and repertoire choices.  Ardoin’s writing about this fledgling opera company in northern Texas garnered national attention and helped draw singers like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Teresa Berganza and Monserrat Caballé. And when “La Scala West” saw a change in leadership after 1991, Ardoin didn’t hesitate to voice his criticism of Plato Karayanis and Jonathan Pell, decrying performances that he deemed were “anti-musical” or “moth-eaten.”  Dallas music lovers didn’t know whether to love him or loathe him – even if they did agree with his conclusions.

But, in the long run, what does Ardoin’s writing matter? Is it significant that he commented on the musical output in Dallas or that he studied Maria Callas’ artistry with such devotion?

“Callas’ performance of the “Liebestod” is more a resignation to death than a transfiguration through it.  This memento of her Isolde (sung in Italian) is a very human statement with a great weight of sadness brought to bear on music.  Callas’ deep use of legato throughout is the predominate vocal feature, with Wagner’s long, stretching lines coated in dark tone.  She carefully observes the many rests sprinkled throughout, which are like sighs and are so important in establishing the atmosphere of the scene.  The final impression is of one gigantic phrase embracing the music in a feeling of earthiness.  Basile’s contributions are fairly routine…” (The Callas Legacy, page 6)

In this age of mass shootings, Minecraft, and seven-minute sound bites, music journalists are necessary more than ever.  Ardoin was a disciple of music and knew the difference between genius and mediocrity.  He possessed a cultivated taste in music and had a truth to tell.

John Ardoin is gone now, but a new generation of writers has arisen. As I enjoy, deconstruct, and evaluate the reviews of music critics today – Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, Mark Swed, and so many other elegant writers – I am grateful for the ongoing dialogue about music, sound, and artistry.  It is that tête-à-tête between a writer who prizes music and his readers.  It is the continuation of a conversation about something that is central to our human experience.

-Stephanie Adrian (November 2017)

 

 

 

In www.artsatl.com…Spivey Hall kicks off season in perfect harmony with vocal group Chanticleer

 

Within his notorious Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in which the rooster Chanticleer learns the hard way that one should never trust a flatterer. On Sunday afternoon, Spivey Hall opened its 2017–18 season with a performance by the men’s classical vocal ensemble that borrowed its name from Chaucer’s story.

Chanticleer has become known for its stunning sound and staggering breadth of repertoire since its founding by Louis Botto in 1978. Now, after almost 40 years, a discography of more than 40 recordings and three Grammy Awards, Chanticleer is likely no stranger to flattery — yet it’s well-deserved to say the least.

Music director and Atlanta native William Fred Scott programmed repertoire united by the theme “The Heart of a Soldier” and began with a 16th century sacred motet by William Byrd, but the music spanned centuries to include modern repertoire as well. We heard a recent commission of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by Mason Bates called “Drum Taps.” The narrative text was based on a duo of Walt Whitman poems and described lawyers, mechanics and salesmen leaving for battle and finally of one family on an idyllic Ohio farm in autumn receiving news of their son’s death.

The through-composed work consisted of a vocal ostinato that mimicked the sound of snare drums, tone painting and a striking, lyric solo for countertenor above the sound of buzzing bees. Afterward, Chanticleer presented the chorus “Our Beautiful Country” from Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, which premiered in Santa Fe in 2015.

But a great deal of the repertoire was a musicologist’s wonderland, a tour which took us to the Battle of Marignan in 1515 within Clément Janequin’s “La Guerre” — a work riddled with onomatopoetic sound effects suggesting the sounds of battle — or to a Russian landscape in 1812 inhabited by Napoleon and his 600,000 troops in Vladamir Mantulin’s arrangement of the “Battle of Borodino.”

Here we were able to hear several lovely solo voices within Chanticleer highlighted between refrains. Chanticleer even took us back to a delightful troubadour song called “L’homme armé,” which was the basis for 50 or so Roman Catholic Mass settings during the Renaissance. It’s a good reminder as some contemporary academics and liturgists attempt to purge secular music influences from the Mass.

The wonder of Chanticleer is its beauty and clarity of sound as 12 distinctive voices mingle so perfectly; it’s difficult to detect where each voice originates as the singers breathe silently in unison and move in and out of specific configurations on stage. Chanticleer temporarily lightened the mood in the second half with Murray Grand’s “Comment allez-vous” arranged by Evan Price and an Andrews Sisters’ song, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

But the afternoon was ended on a serious and inspiring note: a version of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” arranged by countertenor Alan Ward, which revealed unsettling dissonances alongside a glorious obbligato countertenor line. And finally, they closed with Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s “My Soul, There Is A Country.” The four-part harmony was a benediction and a reassurance that there is a life beyond this one for our fallen soldiers.

Stephanie Adrian

In the August 2017 Issue of Opera News Online: La Finta Giardinera

La Finta Giardinera

La Finta Giardinera

ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
5/20/17

THE ATLANTA OPERA’S partnership with OnSite Opera to produce The Secret Gardener (La Finta Giardinera), young Mozart’s 1775 opera, was simultaneously a rousing success and an unfortunate victim of circumstances beyond its control (seen May 20). Hosted by Atlanta’s stunning Botanical Gardens, a thirty-acre oasis seated in the middle of Midtown, all three performances of The Secret Gardener were sold out a year in advance. The collaboration was part of artistic and general director Tomer Tvulun’s newly initiated Discoveries Series, an attempt to bring opera to new audiences throughout the city. Visitors milling about the gardens were able to enjoy the singing as well—even without a ticket.

OnSite Opera, founded by stage director Eric Einhorn and Jessica Kiger, is a New York City-based company that strives to provide audiences with immersive opera-in-your-face experiences. Earlier this month the same production and cast was seen at New York’s Westside Community Garden, but the Atlanta show began in the Robinson Gazebo, just beyond the floating fiddlehead. Twenty minutes into the opera ominous weather forced a frantic relocation just inside the Fuqua Conservatory, home of tropical carnivorous plant life and multi-colored orchids. The ensemble resumed its ninety-minute version, a nicely pruned edition by Kelley Rourke with orchestration for wind octet and double bass scored by Yoni Khan and Thomas Carroll.

Mozart’s modus operandi: characters in disguise, fickle counts, and garden intrigue are all elements within The Secret Gardener and one can hear musical and vocal precursors to well-loved characters within his better know operas. The character Sandrina/Violante (Ashley Kerr) was Mozart’s Countess-in-the-making and Kerr, an emerging artist, sang with a sizable, yet innately charming soprano. Her rendition of “Listen…the dove is sighing” was sustained and technically demanding, reminiscent of Mozart’s future composition, “Porgi amor.” Kerr’s effervescent colleague Maeve Höglund, here heard in the role of Arminda, could have easily been cast as a Donna Elvira. Once relocated to the South American greenhouse, the audience had the benefit of hearing Höglund’s vibrant soprano in the aria, “Youthful lovers are too eager” and her easy ascent to what must have been a high E flat. As it turned out, the indoor setting (cramped as it was) provided a much more pleasing aural experience.

Spencer Viator made an instant impression in the role of Count Belfiore with his cool stage demeanor and elegant phrasing in “She’s a dream, a dazzling vision”, an aria that undoubtedly heralded the forthcoming “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön.”

Music director Geoffrey McDonald kept tempos at a nice clip for his cast of well-coached and intelligible singers who bravely improvised staging in the new space. Baritone Jorell Williams (Nardo) managed lovely singing despite lots of active choreography. Mezzo Kristin Gornstein (Ramiro), soprano Alisa Jordheim (Serpetta), and Jonathan Blalock (Podesta) were engaged ensemble members, but the abridged version of the opera, compounded by some additional interruptions to the show, didn’t allow the audience to hear the full spectrum of their abilities. Yet despite the chaos, the Atlanta Opera pulled off a rarely-produced Mozart opus with budding young singers amidst blossoming florae. And audience members left chirping about all the excitement.  —Stephanie Adrian

 

 

 

In the July Issue of Opera News Online: REVIEW of Turandot at the Atlanta Opera

Turandot

THE ATLANTA OPERA celebrated ten years at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre—the roadhouse that occupies a majestic post at one of Atlanta’s busiest intersections—with Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot (seen May 7). Puccini’s last opera was the work that former AO general director Dennis Hanthorn selected to begin the opera’s residency at the Cobb a decade ago; the company’s present general and artistic director, Tomer Zvulun, felt that Turandot provided a fitting close to the most successful season in the company’s history.

Turandot opens without an overture and the Atlanta Opera capitalized upon this, making an instant impact when the curtain ascended with the elaborate and obviously expensive set and costuming designed by André Barbe. The vibrant production was jointly funded by no less than five American opera companies and cost $1 million to realize: spectacular headdresses, flowing fabrics, and a plethora of props that furthered the fantastic (and grotesque) aspect of Turandot.

The blood red, reflective set, looked like a deconstructed sphere, one ring descending at an angle and serving as a raked stage. Stage director Kathleen Stakenas did a fine job utilizing the space to accommodate a sizable cast on multiple planes (including featured dancers). In Act I, Peking commoners groveled on hands and knees on both sides of the stage, choreographed to dip and bow while singing their opening number, “Gira la Cote!” And Krista Billings re-created lighting designer Guy Simard’s original lighting design, avoiding hard angles and utilizing side light in reds and yellows.

The opera, based upon Carlo Gozzi’s Chinese fable, has a heart-wrenching love-triangle at its center. Soprano Kelly Kaduce sang the role of the slave girl Liù, endearing herself with effective mannerisms that conveyed humility and self-sacrifice. Kaduce’s final aria, “Tu che di gel sei cinta” was provocative as was the interrogation scene, her middle voice rich-sounding and rising to the upper tiers of the theatre. Higher tones were more tenuous, sometimes teetering sharp. This was the final performance of the run in Atlanta and the object of her affection, Calaf (Gianluca Terranova), sounded fatigued as well. Nevertheless, Terranova’s beefy tenor filled the hall and the audience cheered predictably after his “Nessun dorma.” Terranova’s best singing occurred in Act II when he answered each of Turandot’s riddles with precision.

In the title role, dramatic soprano Marcy Stonikas dazzled with a bright laser beam of sound and tightly spun vibrato. A former young artist at Seattle Opera, Stonikas has a spine-tingling soprano that was worth the the price of admission. Positioned at the highest point of the raked stage at the foot of her father, the Emperor Altoum (Nathan Munson), Stonikas stoically spread her arms to reveal the gruesome faces of her beheaded suitors on long panels that draped down from her sleeves.

Wagnerian bass Steven Humes sang Timur in Atlanta back in 2007 and returned for this anniversary, sounding fresh. Daniel Belcher, Julius Ahn, and Joseph Hu served as the three quirky Imperial Ministers. Busy and highly choreographed, their comedy regrettably fell flat at times. This was a case where less could have been more for their distinctive voices fused nicely as a trio and paired with Puccini’s music their artistry would have been sufficient.  —Stephanie Adrian

From the March 2017 Issue of Opera News

Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale
ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
3/31/17

GAETANO DONIZETTI’S 1843 OPERA Don Pasquale is all about that bass: the basso buffo commedia dell’arte character who is manipulated by another low-voiced character, the scheming Dr. Malatesta. On March 31, The Atlanta Opera presented a 1950s Hollywood-ish version of Don Pasquale at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and rebranded the title character as the ‘Sovereign of the the Silver Screen’, a former silent film star who is far past his prime. The concept and set design, by Peter Nolle and borrowed from Arizona Opera, is a play on Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. And Don Pasquale is Norma Desmond.

Stage director Chuck Hudson, a graduate of the Marcel Marceau International School of Mimedrama in Paris, brought his considerable expertise to the choreography of the show, especially with the role of spoiled (and recently disowned) rich kid Ernesto, played by tenor Ji-Min Park, who pantomimed an entire series of hilarious suicide attempts accompanied by a plaintive trumpet solo. He melodramatically tried to end it all first by dagger—followed by poison, rope, and finally a toy revolver that ejected a banner displaying the word, “bang.” A leading man in real life, having represented Korea at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2009 and singing leading roles at Covent Garden, in this production Park looked more like one of Ron Howard’s slow-witted gang from Happy Days, outfitted in too-short britches and a sweater vest. But when Park opened his mouth, he was anything but un-smart. His first solo moment, “Sogno soave casto” and ensuing Act II larghetto “Cercherò lontana terra” were carefully crafted, displaying what can only be described as raggio sonoro, an intensely ringing voice that cuts to the back of the theatre.

AO artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun brought soprano Georgia Jarman back to Atlanta to sing the role of Norina. Jarman’s Lucia here in 2011 was haunting and memorable. While Norina isn’t half as interesting as Lucia, Jarman’s rendition of “So anch’io la virtù magica” would have given any aspiring soprano pause. Jarman began the cavatina in a bathtub upstage, reading a screenplay, then emerged from the bubbles and into a quilted, purple bathrobe for the cabaletta. She interpolated fizzy triplets, meticulous grace notes, and improvised high notes to great effect after “subito languor.” The only tragedy was that the staging required her to sing half of the aria from the back of the stage.

Jarman’s dynamic chemistry with Dr. Malatesta (Alexey Lavrov), was so fast-paced that one had to pay close attention to fully appreciate it. Lavrov could be described as operatic eye candy at first glance, but it would only be half true. Exceedingly natural on stage, he sang the well-known larghetto cantabile, “Bella siccome un angelo,” with ease and surprising warmth in his upper and middle voice.

And what about the bass? Burak Bilgili was last seen in Atlanta as Frère Laurent in Romèo et Juliette, but he was much more fun this time around. The player who has been played, the character who lives among stacks of film reels and antiquated movie props, so endlessly nostalgic that he was literally black and white in this production, Bilgili’s Pasquale was brilliantly done. Bilgili was the lovable anchor of the show and of each ensemble—even when conductor Joseph Colaneri’s band got a bit unruly and made the singers work awfully hard to be heard at the end of Act II. The Turkish bass’s interpretation was an amalgamation of voice, movement, and comic verve. In the end, Donizetti’s hero was more than ready to release Norina from their fake union, taking up Mae West’s famous philosophy: “Marriage is a great institution – but I’m not ready for an institution.”  —Stephanie Adrian

 

www.artsATL.com Review: Trumpeter Chris Botti seduces with jazzy pop mix in concert with Atlanta Symphony

In 2008, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti produced and recorded his Grammy-nominated concert recording, Chris Botti in Boston with the Boston Pops Orchestra. The formula was foolproof, featuring duets with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Lucia Micarelli and such pop icons as Sting, John Mayer and Steven Tyler. Known as a marathon performer who takes the stage some 280 days a year, Botti and his electric band have recently launched a new tour and will see concert venues in Warsaw and Westhampton Beach, San Francisco and Seattle among countless other cities this year.

Botti arrived at Atlanta’s Symphony Hall on Friday night in an attempt to recreate the alchemy he had found years ago in Boston, yet with a different ensemble of guest artists accompanied by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Albert-George Schram.

Playing on a 1939 Martin Committee Handcraft Large Bore, Botti opened with Ennio Morricone’s theme “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission in duet with violinist Caroline Campbell. Blonde and statuesque, Campbell is not only the first violinist in the Los Angeles-based Sonus Quartet, but is also a favorite collaborator for such illustrious artists as Andrea Bocelli and Barbra Streisand.

Appearing several times throughout the concert, Campbell’s playing is broad and at times fierce; she has impeccable intonation and executed string crossings and double stops with flair, prancing around the stage while playing Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

Simultaneously regal and suggestive, Botti’s sound is what draws crowds. His clarity of tone is undeniable, but it’s not a burnished laser beam of sound he’s after. To the listener, it’s a luxurious blanket of sound that conjures a hint of nostalgia. Botti’s rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor” with Campbell and Brazilian guitarist Leonardo Amuedo summoned the audience’s attention and set the tone for a seamless, yet overly amplified first half that included Botti’s signature piece, “When I Fall In Love.”

He followed this with “For All We Know”and ”The Very Thought Of You,” sung by the effervescent R&B singer Sy Smith. Smith infused the night with her soulful brand of belting, delighting us as she easily popped up to whistle register. Later she and Botti jammed 18th-century style: singer vs. trumpet, trying to outdo each other in virtuosity and range.

A choppy, but somewhat exciting second half that featured drummer Lee Pearson in several exhaustive, polyrhythmic solo moments came to a close with a first-rate repertoire choice. The lights dimmed and only Botti and his pianist Geoffrey Keezer remained on stage to play “My Funny Valentine,” and we were at last able to imagine ourselves at the Blue Note Jazz Club rather than within a vast concert hall.

It was an intimate version owned completely by Botti, the framework of the melody there, but enhanced with alternate notes and embellishments alongside a wandering piano line. It was alchemy itself, a mysterious transformation of mood that only an artist like Botti can summon.

-Stephanie Adrian