Challenging Tyranny of Stricture: Haydn, Schoenberg


In celebration of his 80th birthday, pianist Russell Sherman offered the first of three concerts in Emmanuel Music’s Spring Chamber Series on Sunday, March 28, at Emmanuel Church. Sherman truly debunked the stereotypes of Haydn as rosy-cheeked optimist and Schoenberg as cantankerous pessimist. Haydn’s music, after all, carries an innate sense of surprise and improvisatory character, and Sherman’s playing challenged the tyranny of rigidity in performance practice. Schoenberg’s music has the slight advantage of being less popularly tied to stylistic strictures. It was a pleasure to hear Sherman highlight the beauty of this repertoire.

While Sherman has a no-nonsense approach to how he begins playing, his treatment of the Haydn Variations in f minor was heavily romanticized and bordered on improvisational. He parsed the different ideas offered by the variations into recollections of Beethovenian pathos, graceful Bach-like counterpoint, and the occasional jocularity unique to Haydn. These interpretative decisions carried through to the other Haydn works: Sonata in D Major, No. 19, Sonata in c minor, no. 20 and Sonata in E-flat Major, No. 28.

In both the Drei Klavierstücke, op. 11 and the Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19, Sherman never dismissed the opportunities for poignancy in a single note, marketing the expressive capacity of atonality. As with the Haydn pieces, Sherman’s attention to cadences gave these much smaller “stücke” shape and definition. In the end, I liked the moments where Sherman made me uncomfortable. [Click title for full review.] [continued]


American One-Act Operas Solid on Vocal Technique, Short on Drama


This past weekend, Boston Metro Opera presented a group of one-act  American “operas” at St. John the Evangelist Church on Beacon Hill. A small cast (Ceceilia Allwein, Amy Dancz, Joshua May, Erin Mercuruio, Roselin Osser, Christopher Aaron Smith, Xavier Taylor, David Walther) cycled through the pieces, with Aaron Likness at the piano. This reviewer attended on March 26. The singers all had solid vocal technique, but were less comfortable with being a character justifying his space onstage. There were a lot of exciting ideas presented in the program. However, opera is not just music: it’s musical theater.

Barber’s A Hand of Bridge (libretto by Menotti) is a story of internal preoccupations.

Diversity of material gave The Face on the Barroom Floor by Mollcone an expansive feel, to the point where the music felt more decorative than connective.

Fables, a premiere by David Edgar Walther (who also sang in it) collected four of Aesop’s, was a good, attractive idea, but just came off as “cute.” The whole performance had a jokey, ironic feel.

Last-minute licensing issues forced a substitution. Ten arias from different operas (Candide, Ballad of Baby Doe, Street Scene, The Old Maid and The Thief, Good Soldier Schweik, Vanessa, Susannah, Taming of the Shrew) were mainly of the genre of reasons-why-others-don’t-understand-my-complex-emotional-state-and-how-that-inculcates-my-general-loneliness.

St. John’s is a slightly cavernous space. The piano often overwhelmed the singers and made it difficult to discern words. [Click title for full revue] [continued]

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Maximizing Musical Intent from Lydian Quartet


There were no creampuffs in the March 27 program of quartets by Beethoven (Opus 127), Fauré (Opus 121) and Thomas Oboe Lee’s Morango – Almost a Tango by the Lydian String Quartet – Daniel Stepner and Judith Eissenberg, violins, Mary Ruth Ray, viola, and Joshua Gordon, cello – at the Kalliroscope Gallery in Groton (MA).  Each poses its own set of styles and challenges, from the fiercely virtuosic to the intonationally and rhythmically demanding.

The opening chords of the Beethoven Quartet in E flat, Op. 127 were robust and sonorous, and the lyric sections of the Adagio were tenderly romantic above the staccato accompaniment. The players guided the energy of the outer movements, rather than letting it drive them, while pulling the many thematic elements lines and into a cohesive whole.

Gabriel Fauré’s E minor Quartet, Op. 121 is perhaps less distinctive and certainly less popular than his piano quartets. The Lydians’ job here was to bring forth its lyric qualities and weave its polyphony to maximize its musical intent for the audience, which they excelled in doing.

Thomas Oboe Lee’s Morango – Almost a Tango was a great concluding work, especially in the hands of the four Lydians.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Stott Exemplary and Seductive


On Friday evening, March 26, listeners in sold-out Symphony Hall welcomed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his frequent concert and album duo partner, pianist Kathryn Stott.

in 1823, Vinzenz Schuster asked Schubert to write a demonstration piece for his six-stringed  “guitarre d’amour.” The result was the heavenly Sonata in A, D. 821, for arpeggione and piano. Today we hear the Schubert on viola and, much more often, on cello. It lies high on the latter, which suited Mr. Ma’s always marvelous ease in the cellistic stratosphere. The sheer collaborative melding made for a seamless and decidedly inward-looking unfolding so that the effect was effete and left me with the fast-vanishing taste of ladyfingers, not of the richness of Guglhupf.

Things changed dramatically when the duo threw themselves into Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1934 Sonata in D, Op. 40. Especially touching were the tragically opposed instrumental personas cohabiting a wintry and plaintive Largo. The brilliant and taxing final Allegro at last permitted Ma and Stott to assemble, masterfully, all the contrasting elements into vertically powerful sweep and irresistible momentum.

Now thoroughly warmed up Ma and Stott whipped into a virtuosic but also delightfully relaxed evocation of Piazzola’s twelve-minute Le Grand Tango.

Yo-Yo Ma played the transcription by Jules Delsart of Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A, FWV 8. With Ms. Stott, he lovingly bridged the few odd places where the piano part strives to partner the cello in a complementary register. The duo’s attacca course through the four movements made them into a single, passionate statement.

The duo gave two encores, Cesar Camargo Mariano’s catchy and ostinato-driven little Cristal and the third movement in St.-Saëns’s Carnaval des Animaux.               [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Lieberson Songs of Love and Sorrow with Gerald Finley Premiered at BSO


Jayce Ogren, who took over a big BSO program this week  at very short notice for an ailing James Levine, was doubtless wise to request that Debussy’s Jeux be replaced; Ogren surely needed every minute he could get for the new work, Peter Lieberson’s Songs of Love and Sorrow.

On March 25, Ogren led Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse triste for all they were worth, holding in the Valse triste to the pppp quasi niente when his stick didn’t move at all, effectively contrasted against the Mahler-like faster sections.

Last night’s premiere of Peter Lieberson’s five Songs of Love and Sorrow, a sequel to his beautiful Neruda Songs, also on texts by Neruda, was a moving tribute to his late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Most moving is the fine sensitivity of the chromatic tonal harmony, reminiscent of Austro-German Impressionism. Gerald Finley, baritone, was an ideal communicator, with an obvious and full understanding of the expressive text.  The beginning of the first song featured Martha Babcock’s solo cello oscillating back and forth, much like Mahler’s “Autumn loneliness” in Das Lied von der Erde — a leitmotif in the whole cycle, in which divided strings often predominate— indeed, a more differentiated wind sound would have been welcome. The end of the last song, on G, with piano, flute, English horn, and octaves in the strings, was especially effective. Tonality, like love, is all-powerful and unifying no matter how varied and chromatically intense.

I suggest that Jayce Ogren’s conducting style can be blamed for what I missed in the Schubert “Great” Symphony in C major. Ogren puts forth an unseemly amount of what I think of as a mid-western technique of beating time  that interferes with good communication to the orchestra, especially that the large beat makes it difficult to keep precise time in very fast tempo.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Comprehensive Lenten Harpsichord Series at Emmanuel


Emmanuel Music presented the six harpsichord partitas (BWV 825-830) of J. S. Bach, each with a different performer, in its free Lenten series this year on successive Thursdays at Emmanuel Church’s Leslie Lindsay Chapel. The Handel and Haydn Society lent a fine German double harpsichord by Alan Winkler and John Harbison provided commentary,

On March 25, Robert Levin performed the last partita in E Minor. His playing is appropriately stylish, and he has a way of distinguishing the underlying structure amid the whirl of ornamentation.

Emmanuel Music Associate Conductor Michael Beattie, leading the series on February 18 with the D Major partita, captured the plaintive nature of the “Allemande,” as he did in the fanciful “Sarabande.” On february 25, Leslie Kwan gave an excellent account of the less familiar A Minor partita and got better as the partita unfolded.

Emmanuel Church’s own Nancy Granert offered the B Flat partita on March 4. She employed the same registers for the “Courant” and the “Sarabande” but rectified this in both “Minuets”; had a little bit of trouble with the fiendishly difficult gigue but ended up with a triumphant high mordent. The next week, Charles Sherman, playing the G Major, captured the amazement of the “Tempo di Menuetto” and the bizarreness of the second half of the “Gigue.” And on March 18, Michael Sponseller, a young player with extraordinary gifts, played the partita No. 2 in C Minor.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Kurtág Brilliantly Exploits Cimbalom’s Appeal at Boston Conservatory


With an Addendum by Christopher Greenleaf.

The Ludovico Ensemble, in residence at the Boston Conservatory, presented the complete cimbalom chamber music of the Romanian-born composer György Kurtág on Tuesday, March 23, at  the Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Kurtág composed most of the modern music for the cimbalom, a sort of hammered dulcimer. This significant concert featured the noted cimbalomist Nicholas Tolle, who is also artistic director of the ensemble.

Soprano and actress Aliana de la Guardia was at her excellent best in four songs from 1969, In Memory of a Winter Nightfall. Kurtág developed his tonal sense with microtones (different strings on the cimbalom) in Eight Duos for piano, violin and cimbalom, op. 4. Violinist Gabriela Diaz matched Tolle’s playing every step of the way, countering its resonance and fast notes.

Tolle was joined by clarinetist Rane Moore for six pieces from 1996. The nature of the clarinet, its great range and timbre, combined with the cimbalom’s qualities, was brilliantly exploited by Kurtág, especially contrasted with the violin pieces written 35 years earlier. The program included two fascinating sets of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Gebets and Koans. The final piece featured Scenes from a Novel (1981-82); Tolle and de la Guardia were joined by Diaz and Akiko Kikuchi, double bass.

This is one of two ensembles I have heard in residence at Boston Conservatory whose excellence is a testament to the Conservatory’s quality.

[Click title for full review.] [continued]

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All-day Homage to Bach in Back Bay on Renowned Richards, Fowkes Organ


In celebration of the 325th anniversary of the birth of Thüringen’s most famous son, two musically active Back Bay churches threw open their doors all day on March 20. First Lutheran, whose celebrated Richards, Fowkes organ, op. X, will mark its first decade this December, sponsored a solid and skillfully programmed octet of half-hour organ recitals.

First Lutheran Music Director Bálint Karosi, behind the well-organized event, opened the all-Bach concerts with a sonorous, finely paced presentation of the Fantasia & Fuga in g, two of the Schübler-Choräle: Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, and Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ. A highly accomplished clarinetist, harpsichordist, and composer, Karosi is one of Boston’s most effective audience builders.

Emmanuel Music’s Nancy Granert extracted jeweled detail from the spare, bardic pages of the Canzona in d, lavished the same loving attention on O Gott, du frommer Gott, then thrust the arpeggioed opening flourishes of the Pièce d’orgue in G out into First Lutheran’s airy, resonant nave. Christian Lane observed a modern-era Bach performance tradition in a comparison of Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr and Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr.’ Church of the Advent’s Mark Dwyer stepped surely and vigorously into Hermann Keller’s effective completion of the fragmentary Bach Fantasie in C.

Mr. Massaglia’s masterful songfulness and emotional profundity in Kirnberger-ChoräleWer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten, Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten, Herzlich tut mich verlangen, Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, and the prayerful Vater unser im Himmelreich were likewise invitations to peer into new and different sides of the Richards, Fowkes organ.

College of the Holy Cross senior Jacob Street played the intense and challenging Prelude & Fugue in b.  In the Trio Sonata No. 4 in e, he explored every possibility of the quieter end of stop choices, though perhaps with less cantabile than one could have wished for. His In dir ist Freude, BWV 615 (Orgelbüchlein) activated the whirling small bells of the Zimbelstern, which increased the festive feel of the work.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Tanglewood Festival Chorus Hero in BSO’s Rossini and Mendelssohn


The special relationship between guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and John Oliver, conductor of Tanglewood Festival Chorus, was very much in evidence in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert on March 20. See the BSO featured podcast here in which Frühbeck de Burgos and Oliver talked about the oncoming program and several other delectable things between two like-minded musicians.

Last week’s concerts were to have been the last TFC/F. de B. collaborations this season, so perhaps the extra sense of frisson heard in the Rossini Stabat Mater could be attributed to an affectionate sense of farewell from the chorus, but he had committed performances of BSO members and a superb quartet of vocal soloists along with him as well. From the first movement when the chorus sang the dramatic, halting text “dum – pen – de – bant fi – li – us” (where her Son was hanging), with perfectly centered and rich yet text-aware tone, we were in for a special evening of choral singing.

Tenor Eric Cutler sang the “Cujus animam” aria with a pleasing, bright Italianate tone, disappointing only when he shut his score and assumed the posture of an affected soloist about to reach for a high C-sharp, which on Saturday was something of a stretch. “Quis es Homo” was notable for its fabulous singing from Alice Coote, with almost Kathleen Ferrier-like richness of focus and tone. Bass soloist Alfred Walker and the chorus rose splendidly to the a cappella setting of the “Eia, mater.” The chorus correcting the sometimes not-quite-perfect tuning of Mr. Walker in this treacherous movement was heartening. Albina Shagimuratova shone with brilliant tone and fabulous focus.

Principal Flautist Elizabeth Rowe was lovely in her daunting solo in the “Scherzo,” as were all the woodwinds, in a generic traversal of Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Associate Principal Horn Richard Sebring was nonpareil in his “Nocturne solo, and Albina Shagimuratova and Coote were spot-on in their solos. [Click title for full review.] [continued]


James David Christie in Bach Birthday Celebration


Two Boston churches and four greater Boston music organizations — First Lutheran Church, Emmanuel Church and Emmanuel Music, the American Guild of Organists, the Boston’s Children’s Chorus, and Winsor Music —combined their forces to honor Johann Sebastian Bach’s 325th birthday all day long on Saturday, March 20.

Christie’s 45-minute recital was at his normal usual excellence. Although its title was “Organ Fireworks,” he chose to play several small pieces from the Neumeister chorales that were only discovered in the Yale library by Hans-Joachim Schulze and Christoff Wolff in the last major Bach birthday, the Tercentennial, in 1985. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Still Waiting for Lefty: Callithumpian Consort at Avant Gard(e)ner


The Callithumpian Consort’s program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (“Avant Gardner” on its program bulletin) on March 18 contained music spanning a century. The major — at least the longest — work on the program was an opera-Singspiel, The Exception and the Rule, a premiered stage version of a new work by Christian Wolff. It would be a public disservice to deny or fudge that we found the work as a whole insufferable. The world (apart from Mr. Wolff and a few Latin American dictators) having awakened from the grisly nightmare that was applied Marxism, texts like Brecht’s should have been left for dead as embarrassments to the memory of a sometimes great playwright. Music Director Stephen Drury kept things together, but he could not elicit much in terms of expressivity from the ensemble. The “moral” says “recognize it as abuse; do something about it.” The work thereby writes its own epitaph.

Henry Cowell’s 26 Simultaneous Mosaics was over so quickly that it was hard to form any overall impression; if the composer permits it, some artful repetition of material would help shape something a bit more persuasive. One clearly had the sense that the players enjoyed the Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano by Charles Ives, and particularly the chance to bite into the juicy rubatos and plummy harmonies of the finale.

The concert closed as it opened, with an unexpectedly brief piece, this from Cornelius Cardew (1936-81), which he created over several years in the 1960s, while he was in his middle, aleatory-avant-garde phase.    [Click title for full review.]


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Musica Sacra Celebrates Two Anniversaries


Musica Sacra, celebrated two anniversaries at Sanders Theatre on March 20— the 50th of the group’s founding and the 30th of Mary Beekman’s leadership — with pieces written within Musica Sacra’s lifespan. The eclectic program, which included two world premieres and Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist texts in settings by American, Polish, Israeli, Swedish, and British composers, demanded much of both performers and listeners but provided rich rewards as well.

The premiere of Felicia Sandler’s Laus Trinitati, based on a chant by 12th-century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen, was well served by Musica Sacra’s exceptional purity of tone and control of dynamics. The piece ended with a wonderful hushed awe which the audience forbore to disturb with applause. Anyone who knows Górecki’s famous Symphony No. 3 would quickly recognize the idiom in Euntes ibant et flentes, namely, minimalist technique, very slow tempo, and mysticism.

Conductor and chorus demonstrated full immersion in their text and performed with crisp rhythm, energy, and conviction in Osnat Netzer: Paths of Stone and Water, sung in Hebrew. The second movement solos were skillfully handled by mezzo Katherine Meifert, soprano Rebecca Blum, and bass Terry Halco.

My small reservation in another premiere, Bring Heaven to Earth, by Jan Sandström, which sets a Buddhist poem into English and is characterized by one basic motif and a largely unvarying texture, was the singers’ variable diction. The final piece, Sacred and Profane, is one of Benjamin Britten’s last works, conceived as a virtuoso display piece for Peter Pears’ Wilbye Singers.      [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Reuter’s Poetic Phrasing, Henry’s Impressive Licks in Incoherent Program


The theme of the Pro Musicis recital of oboist Gerard Reuter and pianist Gayle Martin Henry on March 21 at Longy School was “Songs without Words.” My chief objection to the program came from the way it was organized. The alternations between duets and piano solos could have worked better if there had been any discernable relationships. A duo arrangement of Beethoven’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” was followed by he first movement of a Clementi piano sonata. Mr. Reuter returned with a workmanlike set of variations on Heidenröslein by the Italian, Leone Singaglia; then Henry took the stage for a couple of Liszt transcriptions of Schuman songs, including the famous Widmung, beautifully voiced but lacking in drama. After intermission the artists offered a rendition of a couple of Sondheim songs followed by an unmatched pair of Wagner/List transcriptions. It was a jarring juxtaposition. Henry masterfully painted the scenes of Senta’s demise and Isolde’s love death with a technique seemingly untaxed by the technical demands. In airs from Donizetti’s La Favorita by one Antonio Pascuilli. Reuter’s soulful performance was frenetic, committed, and intense. Rachmaninoff got the last word through a reflectively poignant and calming encore of Vocalise. Reuter’s poetic, grandiloquent phrasing and facile ornamentation, extending phrases into long lines of architecture which this listener found very effective, would have been the envy of any bel canto diva.             [Click title for full review.]


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“Extended Techniques” at Tufts’ Composers March New Music Festival


Through either luck or foresight, the concert of the Tufts Composers March New Music Festival, at Granoff Music Center on March 16 achieved the right balance of moods, sounds, and aesthetic concerns. Knowing when to stop is an under-appreciated but essential aspect of the craft of composition, which the composers all seemed to understand well. John McDonald, Tufts Professor and Director of the Tufts Composers Concert Series, identified “extended techniques” as the theme; they were never merely “special effects,” but instead played an essential role in defining the sound-world of each piece.

Joshua Hahn convincingly developed a variety of attractive timbral colors, bent tones, and vocalized multiphonics in his Index of Pick-Up Lines for a Single Flautist. The opening percussion accompaniment in Nick Hellberg’s Mud: For Prepared Trombones and Percussion was imaginative and surprisingly effective. But in the second section, the trombones’ unvaried pulse, with washboard, obscured the bowed-vibraphone music probably intended as the focus of attention. Sid Richardson’s composition, Scylla, for solo viola, presented darkly expressive music, played by Scott Woolweaver with authority and conviction.

Despite the extensive use of repetition, guest composer Filippo Perocco maintained exquisite formal control and strong directed motion in his Studio di profilo – terzo, with chosen sound-objects were strangely beautiful.

Opening For / Homage To Erin Gee, a formally assured improvisation produced by nine members of the Tufts New Music Ensemble inspired by McGee’s music, fully held its own as a composition on the program. The concert concluded with guest artist Erin Gee’s solo vocal performance of her composition, Mouthpieces, the only previously performed music on the program. Based on Sanskrit Rig Veda and Japanese Noh theater, it is a beautiful auditory experience and an impressive display of both compositional and vocal virtuosity.   [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Bloch’s Effective Sacred Service in Less-than-effective Venue


At the exciting conclusion of the first annual Boston Jewish Music Festival, Chorus Pro Musica, Zamir Chorale of Boston, and the New England Philharmonic combined in a performance of Ernest Bloch’s monumental Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service) on Sunday, March 14. One would not expect the unusual venue, John Hancock Hall, to be a fine acoustic and this indeed proved to be the case. Lacking any reverberation, the strings of the New England Philharmonic did not blend well, and winds and brass were muffled. With the continual aspiration of the heating system, and a slight rattle of a vent in the ceiling this was not a beneficial space for any event that might include a pianissimo.

Simple, direct and highly effective, Andrew Rindfleisch’s delicate and expressive “Kaddish,” commissioned by Chorus Pro Musica would resonate beautifully in another space, and I hope to hear it again. Pronunciation was clear, but I still would have liked the English text to be printed in the program.

Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh, a 50 minute “great Jewish ‘Oratorio’,” was the central work of the program,  commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloch’s death. Despite my kvetching about the acoustics, the choirs and orchestra, directed by Burleigh, conveyed a convincing understanding of this powerful work. Baritone David Kravitz sang the cantor’s role with great warmth and intensity, and his directness in the English passage (which was both declaimed as well as sung) was exhilarating.    [Click title for full review] [continued]


Blue Heron’s 16th-c. Spain with Song of Songs, Songs of Love


On March 13, Scott Metcalfe and his virtuoso a cappella ensemble Blue Heron Renaissance Choir cast a comprehensive glance over passion in awakening 16th-century Spain. Mr. Metcalfe’s nicely judged juxtaposition of small forces and large, of a cappella textures and rich-hued accompanied tapestries, entertained the sizable audience in First Church, Cambridge. Blue Heron had the able support of three top instrumentalists, whose participation gave proof of the great contrast between Iberian and the generally unaccompanied European choral music of the time. The evening’s themes were declamations of enchantment, adoration of a womanly and yet ideal Virgen, and innocently immoderate admiration of fleshly charms.

All three instrumentalists joined Blue Heron for big, opulent Latin Song of Song settings by Francisco Guerrero, Sebastián de Vivanco, and Tomás Luis de Victoria. Peter Sykes’s masterful chamber organ playing, at the service of score and choir, added gentle weight and occasional upsurging ensemble dynamics. Ever-admirable bassoonist Marilyn Boenau lavished hallmark precision and refinement, subjugating her presence to choral context. Harpist Becky Baxter brought delicacy to four too-brief solos and in reduced vocal ensembles and a few larger choral works.

Guerrero’s Trahe me was an expressive high point of a very fine concert. What few solos soared briefly out of the often tight ensemble writing fell to Daniela Tosic, whose sonorous and effortlessly agile alto is an adornment all over Boston, and to the immaculate tone production and textual projection of tenor Jason McStoots. A choice handful of villancicos, the Spanish madrigal of the 16th through early 18th centuries, were brilliant, sinewy silver marquetry gleaming among a rich-hued mahogany expanse of the formal Latin art music.      [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Chopin: Charles Fisk’s Total Immersion, and Ours


Pianist Charles Fisk presented an all-Chopin program Saturday night, March 13, on a fine small Steinway grand in the intimate Jewett Auditorium at Wellesley College, assisted by his Wellesley colleague, violoncellist David Russell, who joined him in performing the composer’s Sonata in g minor, op. 65.

Although he does not always play the right notes (there, I said it!), somehow in his hands, it matters only because it is startling. He is currently on leave writing a memoir of his experiences of Chopin’s music. Thus it is a real treat to share in his mature exploration of these works, and as a result, he and his listeners always know where they have been and where they are, informed as well by a sheer elegance in expression and feeling.

The Sonata for Violoncello and Piano in g minor, op. 65, is in four movements. In the Allegro moderato the performers were particularly well matched in richness of sound, and we in turn were bathed in it. The Scherzo was a bit too fast and breathless. The Largo allows the musicians to hand one another lines delicately back and forth, which they did with truly luscious results.     [Click title for full review.]


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Debussy, Ginastera, and Jackiw Substituting in Barber Violin Concerto for Longwood Symphony


The Longwood Symphony Orchestra produced an impressive display of fine musicianship at Jordan Hall on Saturday, March 13. The Longwood is one of Boston’s exceptionally skilled volunteer orchestras comprised mainly of members of the medical community. Apart from playing classical music for the fun of it, the orchestra dedicates each concert to a community group furthering healing of civic ailments. On this occasion it was the Food Project.

Much in Ginastera’s Ollantay, a three-movement tone poem on a Mayan myth, suggests the Rite of Spring, but Ginastera takes it a different route—more florid and atmospheric and less single-mindedly brutal. There is highly effective yet subdued scoring for winds and tympani just before the final blow. McPhee and ensemble conveyed all of this to excellent effect.

Violinist Tai Murray, scheduled to play the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, was ill, so the hot young Boston-based violinist Stefan Jackiw plunged in with an intriguing performance. His tone is, while exceptionally sweet, rather on the thin side. Not a bad thing, as the basic scoring of the concerto is rather light; but McPhee chose not to scale down the orchestra, sometimes creating an overpowering clash of forces. In contrast to the ripe effusiveness of the first two movements, we found the bravura finale strangely underplayed. Mr. Jackiw’s encore, the Largo movement from Bach’s C major unaccompanied violin sonata, was dedicated to the memory of one of his NEC teachers, Mary Lou Speaker Churchill.

McPhee and orchestra acquitted themselves with distinction (special shout-out to the trumpets, Drs. Wolfram Goessling and Leonard Zon and Coralynn Sack) in Debussy’s La Mer, although the first movement was somewhat wanting in delicacy and the third suffered from sporadic intonation issues. Overall, though, not very many professional orchestras in many parts of the country could have matched the quality of this dedicated—well-trained, well-rehearsed and well-led—band.   [Click title for full review] [continued]

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Verdi’s Opera in Ecclesiastic Robes Done Well by Masterworks Chorale


A wonderful performance of Verdi’s “opera in ecclesiastical robes,” as the 19th-century conductor Hans von Bülow once described the Requiem was presented by the Masterworks Chorale at Sanders Theater this past Sunday, March 14. Conductor Steven Karidoyanes clearly knows this piece, and loves it, and he led the considerable forces at his disposal with an impressive technique and a fine sense of dramatic pacing.

The chorus sang magnificently, with a full and rich sound, solid intonation, power when needed (such as in the opening of the Sanctus) and excellent ensemble, despite the fact that they were spread out over the entire width of the stage. The vocal soloists — Eleni Calenos (soprano), Joanna Porackova (mezzo-soprano), Jason McStoots (tenor), and Tom O’Toole (bass/baritone) — were also fine, but kudos must go to the ladies: Calenos, who boasts of a gorgeous soprano voice and great control that made Verdi’s melodies soar into the heavens, and Porackova, who used her impressive instrument to full dramatic effect.

The other “soloist” in this or any work by Verdi is the orchestra, and they deserve special praise, including for some virtuoso solos by flutist Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, clarinetist Diane Heffner, and bassoon principal Janet Underhill. And no work of Verdi can ever be successful without some excellent timpani and bass drum playing. John Grimes and Patrick Litterst delivered the goods—with a bang.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Back Bay Chorale Performs Israel in Egypt


Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt never in his lifetime received the adulation showered on Messiah. In fact the coolness that greeted its premiere led Handel to remove Part I of the three-part piece. Nowadays, as in the Back Bay Chorale’s performance on Saturday evening, March 13, at Sanders Theatre, the huge majority of performances use the two-part version.

“Exodus” was sung by Matthew Anderson with portent and clear enunciation. In the alto solo combined with chorus, falsettist Brad Fugate began his opening phrase slightly unsteadily but quickly regained his footing and sang the remainder with plangent expressiveness, echoed by the chorus.

In the sequence of “plague” choruses, the orchestra steals the show in “locusts without number.” If the upper strings’ ensemble wasn’t absolutely perfect, playing whizzing 32nd-note runs up, down and all around (the lower strings and winds join in with 16th-notes jumping grasshopper-style), it certainly evoked a clear picture.

Sopranos Teresa Wakim and Brenna Wells provided a beautiful duet in “The Lord is my strength …,” their voices matched and blending exceptionally well. James Demler and Graham T. Wright, baritone-bass duet, supplied musical and textual contrast in “The Lord is a man of war,” with blustering runs in alternation with testosterone-charged dotted rhythms.

Generally speaking, the enunciation of the Chorale was weakest in moments of rhythmic unison; in fugal passages words were more comprehensible. Overall, more emphasis on interior and final consonants, in stage diction style, would be salutary for the BBC’s future performances.

The last text inspired Handel to write one of the most exciting pieces in his oeuvre, using quite simple means: rising sequences and a relentless anapestic rhythm. Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, chorus, and orchestra took it at a fiery tempo while maintaining excellent ensemble, and the result was spine-tingling.      [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Informal Chamber Setting for Spanish Baroque at MFA


Daniel Stepner, baroque violin, Eliot Fisk, guitar, and John Gibbons, harpsichord, were the artists in the amiable program from the Boston Museum Trio on Sunday, March 14, which sounded well in the moderate-sized Remis Auditorium at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The ensemble had a well-formed intimacy of sound but also a reassuring informality as the performers talked about the music they played rather than relying on printed program notes. Although only one of the five composers was a native Spaniard, two of the others lived and worked in Spain.

J. S. Bach was represented by his famous “Ciaconna” from the D minor Partita for solo violin, in Fisk’s powerful transcription for guitar. Fandango by Luigi Boccherini, which had a startling resemblance to a more famous Fandango for harpsichord by Antonio Soler, provided plenty of opportunity for virtuosic improvisation, with wide skips in the violin over and across the strings and a big cadenza for solo guitar.

A short Domenico Scarlatti Sonata for violin and harpsichord in G major, and after intermission, four of the most famous harpsichord sonatas, were remarkable also for their athletic technique, requiring frequent crossing of the left hand over the right for single notes and back again. As in the Fandango that began the concert, there was a lot of opportunity for bursts of virtuosity in the Arcangelo Corelli set of variations on “La Folia,” including some rasgueado strumming that reminded one of flamenco style. I lost count of how many variations there were, but in the excitement of the ensemble, that didn’t matter.   [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Excellent Soloists from ranks of Cantata Singers Highlight Schütz


This season the Cantata Singers are celebrating the choral works of Heinrich Schütz, represented in the program on Friday March 12 in Jordan Hall by three Latin pieces drawn from his 1625 Cantiones sacrae and three concerted German pieces from hits 1650 Symphoniae sacrae. The latter featured soloists from the chorus, sopranos Karyl Ryczek, Majie Zeller, Catherine Vaughan, and Angelynne Hinson; alto Lynn Torgove; tenors Jason Sabol and Stephen Williams; and basses Mark Andrew Cleveland and Shelby L. Condray. It is the rare chorus that can find such excellent soloists from its ranks.

Monteverdi’s Laetatus sum, which conductor David Hoose describes as “the Bolero of its day,” came across as a wild romp, the singers clearly enjoying themselves, bouncing their words off the sextet of soloists (soprano Lisa Lynch joined Ryczek.) The chorus and soloists gave a stellar performance of the 1948 Stravinsky Mass, which has all the hallmarks of his music at this time, anti-Romantic and severe.

A tenor note at the end of the Gloria in Poulenc ‘s Mass in G was not to be believed, and soprano Luellen Best began the “Agnus Dei” in a hauntingly hushed fashion.

The chorus and orchestra sounded superb in all three of Schütz’s German pieces. Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet demonstrated Schütz is at the height of his powers and why he is held in such esteem today. High points included the abrupt ending of the first piece and the divided chorus of the second. The third piece, based on the familiar text Nun danket alle Gott received a particularly notable performance.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Gandolfi and Brahms Survive Reviewer’s Miscue


Having neglected to set my clocks forward in honor of daylight saving, I arrived at the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert on Sunday, March 14, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall well after the 3 pm starting time. Unfortunately, that meant missing the Mozart F major Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, K 370(368b), the Villa-Lobos Bachianas brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon, and the first movement of Michael Gandolfi’s Plain Song, Fantastic Dances for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet. horn, and bassoon.

Gandolfi’s three-movement work takes full advantage of the virtuosic and expressive skills of the BSO’s first-desk players, Malcolm Lowe, violin, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, Edwin Barker, double bass, William Hudgins, clarinet, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, and James Sommerville, horn. Unlike so much new music, which enjoys a politely-applauded premiere only to retreat into oblivion, this skillfully-written piece seems well on its way to entering the repertory of works for chamber ensemble, and deservedly so.

After the intermission, Hudgins, Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin were joined by Haldan Martinson, second violin, in a performance of the Brahms Quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings, Opus 115. Commenting on rather than leading off the thematic activity in the first movement, the clarinet comes into its own in the second movement Adagio, with its haunting opening melody and elaborate middle-section arabesque. Here was chamber music playing at its very best.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Happy Decision, Odessa Philharmonic Concert in Worcester


It was with a small and private purpose that I went to Mechanics Hall in Worcester on March 12 to hear Hobart Earle conduct his current orchestra, the Odessa Philharmonic — and discovered that it had been a very happy decision. I had met the conductor Hobart Earle at Tanglewood in 1987 and had never been to a concert that he led.

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony was shaped with careful attention to the details of dynamics and accents that bring life to Schubert’s beautiful but thrice-familiar piece. A conductor who insists that pianos be really piano and fortes really forte is always welcome, especially when the orchestra follows him with such immediacy.

William DeRosa was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto #1, giving a reading that was splendidly virtuosic in the fast triplet runs and warmly expressive in the singing passages.

The highlight of the program was the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work of enormous rhythmic drive and of such oft-repeated rhythmic patterns that it is ferociously difficult to maintain the energy, whether in the explosive loud sections or the more delicate soft sections that require control of the instruments only milliseconds after they have been called upon to play full out. Despite these challenges, the Odessa players dug into the music with such evident conviction, passion, and strength that I frankly cannot remember ever having heard a more fully satisfying representation of the score:  tight ensemble, superbly observed dynamics, non-stop energy, and the kind of leaning-forward engagement that transmits the excitement to everyone in the hall.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]


Italienisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf from the [plain] song


Saturday afternoon, in Beverly, Endicott College and musicians from a new group, the [plain] song presented Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch — complete. Endicott’s new and intimate Rose Performance Hall was the venue for the [plain] song’s first of three concerts devoted to the complete songs of Wolf.

The enunciation was so clear that one didn’t need the English translations that were thoughtfully and discretely projected above the stage. The shifts in vocal color reflected the subtext, chilling at times, heartwarming at others. The “accompanying” piano was a true partner to the voice in these performances, sometimes moody, sometimes buoyant, setting the mood of the song, sustaining it, suggestive throughout, and appropriately closing each piece.

If you were not there, you missed a treasure of a musical experience. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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