In the May Issue of Opera News: Review of Maria de Buenos Aires at the Atlanta Opera


Atlanta Opera

PARIS AND THE MUSIC of Astor Piazzolla rendezvoused on February 4 at Atlanta’s Maison Rouge for the tango operita Maria de Buenos Aires. It was the latest offering in the Atlanta Opera’s Discoveries Series, general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun’s initiative to take the opera out of the opera house and explore more adventurous repertoire.

Maison Rouge is a shabby, slightly repulsive, venue that hosts wedding receptions as well as burlesque shows; it’s adorned with velvet, manikin body parts and mismatched light fixtures fitted with red light bulbs. When paired with the earthy tango music of Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s incoherent poetry, Maison Rouge was just seedy enough to transport the audience to the slums of Buenos Aires.

Operita (little opera) is an apt description for Piazzolla’s musical play that premiered at Sala Planeta in 1968—there’s only a little in the way of operatic singing that occurs during the eighty-minute opus. Maria gathers just two principal characters in addition to the title role: El Duende (Milton Loayza)—translated as “the troll”, he is actually an omniscient narrator who proclaims, rather than sings—and El Payador, Maria’s sympathetic lover. Luis Orozco sang the role of El Payador and possesses a youthful, but promising timbre that couldn’t be fully appreciated within the limited scope of Piazzolla’s vocal writing.

Maria de Buenos Aires is not plot-driven, but consists of fifteen numbers that loosely portray the tragic life of Maria, a courtesan who is seemingly the personification of the tango. Bathed in the plaintive organ sounds of a bandoneón, the audience is subjected to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, a dream-like alchemy of jazz elements, chromaticism, and Argentina’s urban song.

Jorge Parodi conducted an intimate ensemble featuring bandoneón player Daniel Binelli, a friend and colleague of the late composer. And Zvulun directed the production, integrating a pair of tango dancers, Mariela Barufaldi and Jeremias Massera from Miami’s Tango Axis. The suggestive choreography of the tango, highlighted throughout, infused the Atlanta Opera’s production with an undeniable authenticity.

Just as Maria is killed on the bar top of Maison Rouge and later resurrected in the play, Piazzolla’s work has undergone a resurgence in Chicago, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. Columbian soprano Catalina Cuervo, now the foremost interpreter of Maria, sang this night in a chesty blend of quasi-recitative and belting. Cuervo seemed to embody Maria, erotic and lush sounding, even in the extreme low reaches of her range.

Maria de Buenos is not an opera per se; it’s Piazzolla’s attempt to add yet another layer— the human voice—to the sensuous tango of his native Argentina. Perplexing, engaging, and abstract, Maria is more than a woman, or even the personification of the tango. She is an instrument.  —Stephanie Adrian


www.ArtsATL Review: Vocalist Miah Persson improvises solo concert, brings life to Schumann’s songs of Clara

Swedish soprano Miah Persson and pianist Malcolm Martineau performed as a duo at Spivey Hall.

Every composer must have a muse, his raison d’être. For Robert Schumann that was Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Theirs was a forbidden romance, and Schumann’s longing for Clara manifested itself in both word and song. She pops up as a character named Beda in his highly narrative music criticism (The Editor’s Ball) and later when he reviewed a performance of her Soirées for Piano, Op. 6 in 1837, where he compared her composition to a bud before it breaks out into blossom.

But it was in 1840, the year of their long-awaited union, that Clara inspired in Robert a torrent of songs, including his wedding present for her, the song cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben” (“A Woman’s Love And Life”). On Saturday night at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, Swedish soprano Miah Persson and pianist Malcolm Martineau performed a recital of Schumann’s songs, embellished by a few other well-chosen selections by Clara Schumann and Edvard Grieg.

Spivey Hall was to be just one stop along the way on a U.S. tour for Persson and baritone Florian Boesch, but sickness prevented her duo partner from singing this night. No matter: Persson and Martineau improvised the evening’s programming with the piano solo “Träumerei” from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” in addition to some rarely heard late works from his “Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart” and a few of his better-known Lieder such as “Mondnacht.”

Mozart roles — Susanna, Zerlina, Fiordiligi and Elvira — have been and remain the “bread and butter” of Persson’s career. While the programming for her Spivey Hall concert did not allow us to hear the full spectrum of her vocal ability or witness the spark of independent-mindedness that often characterizes Mozart heroines, the evening did reveal Persson’s proficiency and ability to sing an incomparable vocal line. Persson channeled a voix mixte that seamlessly bridged down into her substantial low voice, an endowment that undoubtedly won her soubrette roles early on in her career.

Persson opened with Edvard Grieg’s captivating Six Songs, Op. 48, a work that she recorded on disc with Roger Vignoles at Wigmore Hall. Grieg’s inspiration came from his wife Nina, a gifted pianist and singer, for whom he wrote all of his songs. The fourth song, “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall” (“The Secretive Nightingale”) was after a poem by Walther von der Vogelweide and exhibited the strophic, folk-like compositional flavor Grieg often showed. Persson executed lilting, melismatic figures with elegance, evoking the call of the nightingale — the little bird who witnessed her kissing her beloved in the woods.

Next came Schumann’s wedding gift, “Frauenliebe und -leben.” It was perhaps the most fluid rendition I have heard. Persson made some unexpected but smart phrasing choices from the first, delineating the youthful delight of a girl who moves from infatuation to radiant bride and expectant mother to grieving widow. Her life flashed before our eyes as Persson gave us consummate dynamic variation, thrilling with a pianissimo voice at choice moments. The richness and shadow in Persson’s voice for the final song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten schmerz getan” (“Now You Have Caused Me My First Pain”) created a feeling of tremendous sorrow. And Martineau’s ability to enchant and close each song with unspoken eloquence at the piano was quite something.

Robert Schumann’s muse Clara was a composer of songs too, but only saw 18 published during her lifetime. Persson and Martineau performed one of Clara’s jewels — “Liebst du um schönheit” (“If You Love For Beauty”) — which was written during the same year as “Frauenliebe und -leben” and published just two weeks after the birth of their first child. Although some scholars maintain that it has “an occasional master touch which is not hers,” one will never know. Regardless, it’s a song that begins simply and gains glorious intensity in the last stanza. Persson infused the song with both sincerity and luxurious sound, ultimately serving both Clara and the text.

In the February 2017 Issue of Opera News Online…Silent Night at the Atlanta Opera

Silent Night AO

Atlanta Opera

IN HONOR OF VETERAN’S DAY, Atlanta Opera offered Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Silent Night, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (seen Nov. 5). Silent Night is a thoughtful opera with a libretto by Mark Campbell that recounts a Christmas Eve ceasefire on a Belgian battlefield during the first months of World War I.  Silent Night, which was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative and debuted at the Ordway Theater in 2011, has seen subsequent performances at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Opera Philadelphia, Opéra de Montréal, and elsewhere.  Funded in part by a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Atlanta’s production was a collaboration with the the Wexford and Glimmerglass Festivals.

Silent Night is replete with dramatic and vocal possibilities.  Just a few years ago, this would have been too ambitious a project for Atlanta Opera, but now that the company has an orchestra that refines itself with each performance and an artistic vision that fuses traditional staging with cinematic scope, Atlantans were finally able to enjoy something new and unexpected.

The stage was set with a scrim upon which the names of 3,000 Georgia soldiers who served and died in World War I were projected, alongside the proclamation that all men are equal in death.  After a fluid prologue introducing us to key figures—opera singers Anna (Ava Pine) and Nikolaus (David Blalock) at the Berlin Opera, two brothers in a small Scottish church (Alexander Sprague and Andrew Pardini), and a young, married couple in a Paris apartment (Matthew Worth and Bryn Holdsworth)—the audience looked on as each pair learned of the war and prepared for their impending part within it.

Silent Night boasts a sizeable cast and Atlanta Opera cast several standout singers who had previous experience with Puts’s music.  Texas native Ava Pine recently sang the demanding role of Anna in Fort Worth; hers is a highly placed lyric voice that sounded particularly lovely in an a cappella rendition of “Dona Nobis Pacem” in Act I.  Dresden Semperoper veteran Alexander Hajek, one of the finest singers in the production, sang the role of Scottish officer Lieutenant Gordon in Montreal.  Hajek’s baritone voice is dulcet and well-matched to the warmth of his onstage persona.  In contrast, the imperious Craig Irvin sang the role of Lieutenant Horstmayer, rendering the most multifaceted character in the opera.

Puts is garnering attention as a vocal composer of note.  In Silent Night, Puts created a dream-like (and at times nightmarish) score appropriate to the great amount of sung dialogue within the opera.  Soundscapes colored the opera as well.  These were not bells tolling or shepherds singing—as Puccini imagined in his operas—but rather chimes, bombs, and gun fire.

Puts also incorporated a few formal set pieces such as the spell-binding aria “Blessés:  Grabert, Pierre…”, sung by the French Lieutenant Audebert (Matthew Worth), in which Audebert records the names the dead, wounded, and missing within his logbook.  Accompanied by a gentle ostinato, Worth, who also performed the role at the Wexford festival under the direction of Atlanta Opera’s Tomer Zvulun, accomplished the most memorable moment of the evening with a sumptuous vocal line that throbbed with remorse and memory.  The men’s chorus, soldiers divided by country of origin, was visible on a three-tiered concrete structure and eventually joined Worth singing an unaccompanied madrigal-like hymn in three languages.  Conductor Nicole Paiement led the singers and orchestra with staggering proficiency.

Aided by lighting designer Rober Wierzel, stage director Zvulun used these panoramic images individually and simultaneously throughout the evening in order to delineate moments of boredom or levity between the soldiers.  The set, designed by Erhard Rom, looked like a parking garage that had been snatched up from midtown Atlanta, a stark contrast to costume designer Vita Tzykun’s period uniforms that firmly grounded the action within the early twentieth century.  —Stephanie Adrian



In the January Edition of Opera News Online

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Atlanta Operaabduction

AS ITS 2016-17 SEASON OPENER, the Atlanta Opera dusted off and conservatively re-invented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1782 Singspiel, The Abduction from the Seraglio, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (seen Oct. 8). It’s a work that hasn’t been produced in Atlanta for at least a decade and was a perplexing—if undoubtedly elegant—choice, given the momentum that the company has gained in appealing to greater audiences during the last year. For all its virtues, Mozart’s Abduction is hardly a bring-down-the-house crowd pleaser; it does not boast the economy of means and dramatic poignancy of his trio of Da Ponte operas. Like a dinner party that lasts a bit too long, the conversation becomes dull after the big arias had come and gone.

The Atlanta Opera took great pains to engage its audience—even supplying the dialogue in English—but lagging tempos from conductor Arthur Fagen were an undeniable problem; with a single intermission in Act II, the evening lasted for three hours. Fagen got things moving after intermission with Blonde’s aria “Welche Wonne welche Lust,” sung by perky soubrette Katrina Galka, and tenor Matthew Grills’s ensuing “Vivat Bacchus,” in which Pedrillo succeeds in inebriating his rival Osmin (Kevin Burdette). Stage director Chris Alexander created a nice contrast between the silliness of these stock characters and their more distinguished counterparts, Konstanze and Belmonte.

Artistic director Tomer Tvulun has a knack for choosing proficient singers and his casting of Bliss –winner of the zarzuela prize at Operalia 2013– as Belmonte was spot on. Bliss’s initial aria, “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen” was steady and limpid and his characterization refined. The lovely soprano Sarah Coburn sang the role of Konstanze, and paced herself well vocally. Her back-to-back arias, the sustained and fragile-sounding “Traurigkeit” and the ensuing “Martern aller Arten,” were both impressively done.

Zvulun also brought back Burdette, last season’s popular Pirate King, to sing Osmin. Burdette is a fine singer and an ever better actor, who has the ability to ham up every scene with riveting choreography. However, the role of Osmin, first sung by Karl Ludwig Fisher, requires hefty low notes that Burdette lacks. Osmin’s comical duet with Blonde in Act II, “Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,” wasn’t quite as funny without the A flat at the bottom as it’s a vocal line that Blonde later mocks with her own A flat. Yet despite that shortcoming, it was Burdette’s sense of comedy that carried the evening and enlivened what could have been a forgettable Abduction from the Seraglio.

Jacob Climer, scenic and costume designer, conceived the production’s visually stunning smorgasbord of costumes, which included a pink-tinged powdered wig and ruffled gown for Konstanze and an eye-popping purple eighteenth-century suit for Belmonte. Climer’s set then consisted of a massive 8 x 14-foot gilded frame suspended in the center of the Cobb Energy Performing Art Centre’s grand proscenium stage. It was used as a silent movie screen to tell the story of Konstanze’s kidnapping by pirates during the orchestral overture, as a multi-colored backdrop that transformed as needed, and as a miniature stage. The action that took place within this slighter space was most effective. It was as if the smaller scale was better-suited to the intimate quality of Mozart’s Singspiel.  —Stephanie Adrian

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From the July Issue of Opera News Online: AO’s Romeo and Juliet

Roméo et Juliette

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Atlanta Opera

ON MAY 7, the Atlanta Opera offered Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, rounding out its 2015-16 season. Atlanta’s opera company, which achieved the highest-grossing production in its history this spring with Pirates of Penzance, made a significant investment in its casting for Roméo, enlisting the talent of soprano Nicole Cabell and tenor Jesús León for the title roles.

Artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun served as stage director for this production, choosing a John Conklin set based on the historic Globe Theatre that was originally conceived for Glimmerglass Opera. The multi-tiered set was functional for Zvulun’s staging and allowed for entrances and exits on many levels as well as diverse stage business in the chorus scenes that could take place simultaneously. In one instance during Act III, soprano Sandra Piques Eddy sang a warm-voiced rendition of Stephano’s chanson “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” on the street as we witnessed a pantomime of “Death and the Maiden” inside the Globe. The tidy set also lent to easy transitions between acts and with only one intermission and a few unfortunate cuts—including the cello prelude before the fourth act—Romeo and Juliet finished in just under three hours.

Cabell, last heard as Pamina in AO’s production of The Magic Flute, was able to flaunt her considerable vocal skill as the ill-fated Juliette. Hers was an energetic, slightly anxious Juliette that never compromised her ability to produce a perfectly-executed phrase. Conductor Arthur Fagen kept tempos brisk and both “Je veux vivre” and the air “Amour ranime mon courage” were impressively dynamic. Cabell’s honeyed, slightly muted soprano complemented León’s sweet tenor, which shimmers with a tight, even vibrato, more chiaro than scuro. Indeed León’s bel canto singing was breathtaking in “Ah! Lève-toi.” The pair sounded idyllic as Gounod’s star-crossed lovers, yet their onstage alchemy was lacking. León’s Romeo seemed shy and demure alongside Cabell’s more assertive Juliette.

No Roméo et Juliette is complete without its cast of Capulets and Montagues, here smartly costumed in striking Victorian garb by Atlanta Opera’s designer Joanna Schmink. Edward Parks was hard to ignore as the hulking, hefty-voiced Mercutio. His rival Tybalt was the petite lyric tenor Santiago Ballerini. Cindy Sadler sang an agreeable Nurse Gertrude, her contralto voice lovely to hear. And Turkish bass Burak Bilgili gave an innocuous, but well-sung performance of Friar Laurence, the man who provides Romeo and Juliet with a means of escape and ultimately their undoing. —Stephanie Adrian

From the June Issue of Opera News Online: The Pirates of Penzance


ON MARCH 5, Atlanta Opera offered an exceedingly satisfying production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta The Pirates of Penzance at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. It was the first time that Pirates had been presented by the company, but ticket sales accelerated so rapidly here that the company was compelled to offer a fifth performance this month.

Should a serious opera company produce an operetta by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert? The answer is yes— if the casting and stage direction are superb. This production by Seán Curran, originally seen at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, was revised scenically as a co-production of Atlanta Opera and Palm Beach Opera. Dancer and director Curran stamped the production with delightful choreography that surpassed the conventional box-step and infused each ensemble number with comedy. Curran’s musical collaborator, conductor David Agler of the Wexford Festival Opera, likewise harnessed the best that the cast and orchestra had to offer.

Kevin Burdette played pirate extraordinaire as the Pirate King. Burdette is an opera singer first and foremost, but is as dynamic moving across a stage as any music theatre pro on Broadway. Matthew Newlin, his young Tamino-esque intern Frederic, is a member of the ensemble at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Tall, blonde and melodramatic to the hilt, Newlin sustained the high B flat in “Oh, is there not one maiden breast” effortlessly. The object of his affection, Maureen McKay, negotiated Mabel’s music with a crystalline soprano, precision and charm; she omitted the E flat at the end of her waltz, “Poor Wandering One,” but we didn’t miss it.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are ideal for crossover artists. Curt Olds gave his Atlanta Opera debut as a rhyming and rousing Major-General Stanley in this production. Donning smart argyle stockings, he hilariously directed the orchestra with the words, “presto agitato” for his patter encore. And his Act II ballad “Sighing softly to the river,” which is typically a lull in Pirates, was anything but. Olds frolicked his way through the verses with silliness to spare. The Ruth, Victoria Livengood, another versatile singer, took a bit of time to warm up her contralto, but was an apt comedienne, colorful and cartoonish.

Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun proved that no role is too small for careful consideration: local singers were not cast in secondary and comprimario roles for this production of Pirates of Penzance. Instead we heard budding singers with voices of great interest, among them Will Liverman as Samuel and Jasmine Habersham as Edith.  —Stephanie Adrian

Memorial Day in the Low Country

George Gershwin

Charleston, SC – land of Pat Conroy, shrimp and grits, and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess– I paid homage to you this weekend.

I wandered the streets of Folly Beach and found Dubose Heyward’s home on W. Ashley, desolate and faded.  I wanted to see where the insurance salesman who penned Porgy had lived.

I bought two pounds of fresh shrimp at Crosby’s and made frogmore stew with my husband before trudging to the edge of the island with my children to see the Morris Lighthouse.  I sat on the beach and listened to the sound of the Atlantic surging and receding from your shore.

You never disappoint, Charleston.  You offer me a glimpse of the distant past and remind me of America’s patriot founders 300 years ago, Middleton, Lynch, Heyward, and Rutledge.  You dazzle me with $4.2 million antebellum homes – pink and white – that overlook the Cooper River.

My pilgrimage included a search for great food – elegant mussels at S.N.O.B. on Monday and a plate of fish, shrimp, crab cakes and fries at Bowen’s Seafood on Tuesday.  Everything I consumed there was fried except for the beer.

I went to the Charleston Museum which offered little of interest except for the Cunningham upright piano that Gershwin rented during his stay on Folly Beach in July of 1934 while composing Porgy and Bess.  Inspired by Heyward’s novel, he wrote an enduring American opera that captures your essence in the 1930s:  jazz, happy dust, and the Gullah people on Cabbage/Catfish Row.  I saw that opera at the Spoleto Festival on Memorial Day night and like the rest of the audience, was dazzled by Gershwin’s unending portrayal of each character through his musical trinity – melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Review: Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is unforgettable in epic Spivey Hall recital

 May 3, 2016



Just a few months after the trustees of Spivey Hall broke ground south of Atlanta, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel made groundbreaking news as the recipient of the Lieder Prize at the BBC Singer of the World competition in Cardiff, Wales. It was a big story back then as Welshman Terfel and Russian Dmitri Hvorostovsky battled for the top prize.

Now, 25 years later, Bryn Terfel has portrayed czars, gods and ghosts in the finest opera houses and Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall is wrapping up its silver anniversary season. Culminating its year-long celebration, Spivey Hall presented an electrifying recital by Bryn Terfel and pianist Natalia Katyukova on April 30.

With hulking stature and booming narration, Terfel laced the recital with tales of his early days at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. There, he apparently studied nothing but art song for three years with his teacher Arthur Reckless (a.k.a. A. Reckless, baritone).

Terfel’s storytelling included an education of the trials and tribulations of other renowned baritones too, such as Feodor Chaliapin, the man who couldn’t master Ravel’s “Don Quichotte Songs” and instead asked Jacques Ibert to compose something a bit more accessible. Terfel sang the Ibert songs displaying a wall of sound, overwhelming at times within such an intimate space.

John Charles Thomas — an American baritone from days of old and a rival of the aforementioned Chaliapin — inspired Terfel’s repertoire choices as well, which included Albert Hay Malotte’s version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a lovely arrangement of “Home on the Range” and Wolsely Charles’ “The Green Eyed Dragon.” (The latter Thomas sang on the Westinghouse Radio Show in 1943.)

In one of the most eclectic voice recitals ever performed at Spivey Hall, Terfel sang for more than two hours, barely taking a moment off stage between sets. We heard an abundance of Welsh songs, including the tragic “Sul y blodau” by Owen Williams, a strophic song that tells of a mother’s regret at the grave of her son. Within the final stanzas, Terfel sang the last mournful words without accompaniment then launched into Frederick Keel’s “Three Salt-Water Ballads” with unfaltering diction and boisterous energy.

Terfel’s voice has no doubt evolved since his triumph in Cardiff singing Schumann’s “Schöne Fremde.” Despite the mileage of a high-caliber career, he can impressively harness a sizeable voice and employs voce finta at will. He sings a silly song with the same integrity as Schubert lieder.

No doubt the Spivey Hall audience will recall his Atlanta recital for countless reasons, but paramount among them his final encore, Tevye’s great song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were A Rich Man.” After all, one will never hear another Tevye with vocal powers the likes of Bryn Terfel. That is certain.

Review: Christiane Karg takes a magical journey through European songbook at Spivey Hall

April 5, 2016


Christiane Karg kicked off a tour at Spivey Hall that will take her to Carnegie Hall.

Virtuosity is the technical mastery of art, particularly music, and it was on display Saturday evening at Spivey Hall when Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg and Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau offered a Liederabend entitled “Nostalgia — European Dream.”

It was a program that was infused with careful thought and symmetry, beginning with Hugo Wolf’s strophic rendition of the Goethe text, “Kennst du das Land” and ending with Henri Duparc’s song, “Romance de Mignon,” Victor Wilder’s adaptation of that same wistful poem in which the young Mignon asks, “Do you know the land where citrons bloom and golden oranges glow among the dark leaves?” A tormented and highly critical Duparc composed fewer than 20 songs during his lifetime, and “Romance de Mignon” was one that he unsuccessfully tried to eradicate from existence. Musicologists originally believed this song to be lost forever.

Karg was scheduled to make her North American recital debut here two years ago, but suffered from laryngitis and had to cancel the engagement. Now, just a short time later, she’s exceedingly busy as an ensemble member of the Frankfurt Opera, where she sings Mélisande and Adele this season before taking on the role of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala this summer. She chose Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall to commence her American recital tour that will lead to Carnegie Hall later this month.

Karg and Martineau gave voice to a collection of revered composers this night, but Hugo Wolf figured prominently. These are songs which are highly concentrated as Wolf honed in a complete synthesis of poetry and music as well as interdependence of the voice and piano. The duo offered five songs from his Italienisches Liederbuch and only three from the Spanisches Liederbuch.

They included “Ich ließ mir sagen” (“I inquired”) —  in which Karg confided her knowledge of handsome Toni’s starvation as if it were the most juicy secret and delivered the last line through clenched teeth. Later she sang “In dem Schatten meiner Locken” (“In the shadow of my tresses”), imbuing it with both sweetness and sensuousness amidst a recurring bolero rhythm from Martineau’s piano. Martineau’s collaborative endeavors were paramount; within delicate phrases it was if he was hardly touching the keyboard, and yet the sound was crystal clear.

Karg is diminutive in stature, but possesses striking features and an intensely expressive countenance. She leans into the audience with hunched shoulders, drawing us in. At times one has to choose between being swept away by her visual storytelling or just listening to the elegant beauty of the voice with eyes closed.

Karg’s light-lyric voice is seamless from top to bottom and possesses a smoky, languid character in the middle voice that is ideally suited to French mélodie. Whether Charles Koechlin’s tonally ambiguous Mélodies sur des poèmes de Shéhérazade or Francis Poulenc’s Hôtel, Karg transported us to a self-indulgent, attitude of leisure.


ArtsATL Preview: With “Crossing Over,” Skylark a cappella vocal group explores life’s deepest mystery

March 29, 2016


Skylark will make its Spivey Hall debut in May.

Five years ago music lover and businessman Matthew Guard founded the a cappella vocal ensemble Skylark on a wing and a prayer. His intention was to get back to the music that had so inspired him during his college days at Harvard as music director of its oldest a cappella group, the Harvard Krokodiloes.

Dusting off his baton, Guard embarked on an experiment of sorts and invited some of his singer friends for a weekend of rehearsing and performing. The group reassembled six months later for another project and has now evolved from fledgling ensemble to a group of 16 professional singers, based in both Atlanta and Boston.

unspecified-47Skylark recently collaborated with the Grammy-winning record label Sono Luminus (Best Engineered Classical Album for Quincy Porter: The Complete Viola Works) for its second album, Crossing Over. The album features 17 tracks of unaccompanied choral music that ranges from John Tavener’s sophisticated eight-movement work “Butterfly Dreams,” a work that they performed live in 2014 at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, to Jon Leifs’ “Requiem.”

The group now gathers for six projects a year and will make its Spivey Hall debut performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” on May 21.

ArtsATL recently caught up with Matthew Guard to talk about his new album.

ArtsATL: What was your initial inspiration for Crossing Over?

Matthew Guard: It is incredibly important to me that our concerts and recordings communicate something unique. I believe that music has the potential to illuminate and reveal things that are difficult to capture in verbal or written communication. When we started talking about the first collaboration between Skylark and Sono Luminus, we were all drawn by the desire to capture the unique beauty of Skylark’s sound, and to create an album that was truly an artistic concept as opposed to just an assembly of pieces.

We started our list with a few pieces that capture Skylark’s sound, which one might describe as “shimmery beauty, with a direct connection to the heart.” After agreeing on John Tavener’s “Butterfly Dreams,” Nicolai Kedrov’s “Our Father,” and Jon Leifs’ “Requiem,” the album concept essentially emerged naturally. Here were three pieces that all seemed to embody a state that one might call “end of life visions and meditations.”

Matthew Guard (Photo by Molly Dwyer)

ArtsATL: Crossing Over features selections about the end of life and life beyond death. Why that theme? 

Guard: I have always been fascinated to hear that people who have had near-death experiences describe vivid images of what they saw and felt as they approached what could have been the end of mortal life. We may go through a similar experience as we prepare to leave this world for what, if anything, lies beyond. The pieces we have assembled on this album are a musical narrative on what that experience could be for each of us.

ArtsATL: You have programmed the work of two Icelandic composers on this album, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Jon Leifs. How did you discover this repertoire and what drew you to it?

Guard: I had actually never heard of Jon Leifs until I was talking to Collin Rae, CEO of Sono Luminus, about the album concept. Collin has strong connections to the Icelandic music community, and this piece was one that he had been told about by his friends and and had hoped to find an opportunity to introduce to a broader audience.

I did some research on Leifs and his “Requiem” and found it incredibly moving. To many, Leifs is seen as the father of Icelandic classical music, a discipline that really didn’t exist in wide form until the middle of the 20h century. Most of his orchestral music is quite tempestuous — a musical reflection of the extreme nature of Iceland’s climate and geography (with pieces inspired by volcanoes, for example), His “Requiem” is an anomaly — it is ethereal and beautiful, but with an aching sense of grief brought on by a personal tragedy. Leifs composed the piece after her daughter tragically drowned off the coast of Norway before her 18th birthday.

Once we settled on the Leifs, the Thorvaldsdottir piece emerged as a natural complement. She is a direct musical descendant of Leifs’ tradition, and is incredibly respected for her orchestral compositions (she was recently selected by the New York Philharmonic as their Kravis Emerging Composer). Her piece on the album is also a departure from her dominant compositional idiom — it is a remarkably soothing piece that I imagine as the sound of souls ascending to a place that may lie beyond.

ArtsATL: Could you talk a little bit about the recording process for Crossing Over? Why was it recorded at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnuthill, Massachusetts?

Guard: It was a magical week. We chose the church because it has absolutely gorgeous acoustics for a group our size. The team at Sono Luminus is committed to making gorgeous recordings that accurately capture the music with an absolute minimum of post-production or artificial tinkering. So it was critical to find a space that would provide the perfect amount of natural reinforcement for the choir without adding any artificial reverberation effects. Then, they were absolutely committed to doing any “mixing” of the recording simply by achieving the perfect standing position around the microphones to allow each voice to be heard. You would be surprised how much difference it can make for one person to step two inches back from the microphones.

It was also really fascinating because we were not making just a typical recording — we recorded the album in 3-D surround sound (for release on Blu-ray audio). The surround recording is profound not only because of the technical engineering that nearly perfectly replicates the acoustic of the church, but also because of the painstaking level of artistic care taken to ensure that each piece was performed in a formation that made artistic sense in the narrative of the album. Some of the simplest and most beautiful pieces are performed with the group standing in a circle around the microphones, essentially embracing the listener from all sides, while some of the more emotionally difficult moments are recorded with a sharper directional perspective, which only heightens the impact of the music.

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