Idealism and Irresistible Urge Mark Anthology’s Concert

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Anthology presented “Music of Light and Dark: New Music for Women’s Voices” Sunday afternoon, May 23, at Christ Church in Cambridge. This young and bubbly four-woman vocal ensemble gave “eight world premieres” of music composed especially for them. Premiered were the compositions of Peter Bell, Jonathan Breit, Brian John, Stefanie Lubkowski, Nikan Milani, Steven Serpa, and Tony Solitro. Anney Gillotte, Allegra Martin , Vicky Reichert, and Michell Vachon make up the ensemble.

In an unusual move that could very well be off-putting to some, the ensemble performed each of the new pieces twice, to offer the listeners an opportunity “to have a different sonic experience each time.”

It has to be a big “yes” for this ensemble’s thorough learning of this widely varied music and its encouragement of young composers. For the time being, too little attention was directed toward dynamics and expressivity. But the composers were somewhat guilty. Most could not resist depending on the high, “intense and exciting” notes in soprano upper registers. And what is so tempting for the inexperienced, the urge to paint every word or phrase of the text, forgetting that overall shape, organic development, build, and the like are the stuff of coherent composition. Exceptions were Night Owl and Of the Phoenix by Steven Serpa and Po-Chun Wang’s Awakenings, sung in Chinese. Wang’s musical vocabulary went expressively beyond the conservative sounds of those of the other composers.         [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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One Nation Under Optimism

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The Boston Pops pulled out all the stops on Tuesday, May 19, for their much anticipated program, “American Heroes.” The Dream Lives On: A Portrait of the Kennedy Brothers, by Peter Boyer, was the evening’s centerpiece.

The Kennedys’ words were delivered magnificently by Robert De Niro (John F.), Ed Harris (Robert), and Morgan Freeman (Ted). Mr. Freeman’s performance was Oscar-worthy. He nearly stole the show. Actress Cherry Jones spoke as well. On this night of fervent musical patriotism, to love and admire the Kennedys was, it seemed, equated with love of America. Boyer’s music served this goal well. It was reminiscent of the more “serious” music of John Williams, but without any memorable tunes.  It was perfect for Pops, very “easy listening,” very Hollywood. It felt and sounded a lot like the background music for an Oscar night Lifetime Achievement Award segment.

The sense of occasion, with soloists such as Arlo Guthrie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, was heightened by the huge National 9/11 Flag hung over on the back of the stage. The Battle Hymn of the Republic began within a few nanoseconds of the last note of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, followed by a Patriotic Sing-Along.

One left Symphony Hall already having forgotten all but the tattered and re-quilted flag, the actors, the dog, and the firefighters. Where there are audiences who love the Kennedys, there will be a market for The Dream Lives On. I predict a long life on DVDs.  [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Cambridge Symphony Caps 35th Season with Bielawa, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz

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The Cambridge Symphony Orchestra concluded its season on May 16 at the Greater Boston Vineyard Church in North Cambridge. Music Director Cynthia Woods conducted a program that featured the première of a commissioned work by Lisa Bielawa, the Saint-Saëns first cello concerto with soloist Rafael Popper-Keizer, and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

Emerald Waltz by Lisa Bielawa seemed sturdy enough to benefit from more extended treatment. Ms. Woods conducts with nice big beats; her background in community and youth orchestras stands her in good stead.

It is therefore welcome to have Popper-Keizer, a well-known figure on the local scene as orchestral and chamber musician, take on Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1. He adopted an appropriately forward tone in the first movement, but, alas, the room acoustic worked against him like a headwind. Woods kept her forces, somewhat reduced in keeping with the light scoring, together, with only the slow movement’s delicate opening to remind us that the CSO is a no-audition all-comers community ensemble.

The program concluded with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. For this brilliantly scored work, the CSO rose to its full complement; therein lay the trouble. We noted with pleasure some fine wind and brass playing, with kudos to clarinets, flutes, bassoons and low brass. Sometimes, with community orchestras, especially ones as civic-minded as CSO, one has to choose between that commitment and quality of product. So, while the Berlioz performance was not geared to the cognoscenti, the concert at least made up in considerable degree with some intelligent out-of-the-ordinary programming; that’s worth praise in and of itself.    [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Concord Pops Concert Worthy of the Genre

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The Concord Orchestra Pops concerts on May 16 in at 51 Walden in Concord was not easy-listening pablum, but real music on a diverse menu, showing the Concord Orchestra in great shape after a busy season. Pittman’s conducting brings out exuberant, crisp, full range of dynamics and phrasing from his orchestra. A classic opener, the Russlan and Ludmilla Overture of Glinka, set the virtuosic tone for the concert. We also heard the world premiere of a classy new brass and percussion piece, Fanfare for Dick, by Bernard Hoffer, written in honor of Richard Pittman’s 40th anniversary with the Concord Symphony Orchestra, parent of the Concord Pops. Arthur Foote’s 1918 A Night Piece was given a clear and lyrical performance by principal flutist Susan Jackson and the orchestra strings. The light touches of the cymbals were effectively discreet. Soprano Karyl Ryczek sang Zerlna’s “Batti, batti” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni beautifully and with perfect diction, as well as leading the Arlen, Rodgers and Duke sing-along; the arrangements were quite lush and elegantly underplayed. The audience singers faded quickly from her rendition of April in Paris, however, and let her beautiful tone carry the day.        [Click title for full review.]

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Stephen Porter Plays the Frederick’s 1877 Erard ‘Extra grand modèle de concert’

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Stephen Porter opened his recital on the Frederick Collection’s 1877 Erard in the Ashburnham Community Church on May 16 with Liszt’s “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este,” No. 4 from his Années de pélerinage, composed in the year of the piano’s manufacture. Porter had played this instrument in earlier concerts, allowing him to make judicious selections of works to display its tone qualities and dynamic potential for a truly fine program superbly played with an amazing sound.

This Erard model, made from 1877 into the late 1920s, has a crystalline clarity with a distinctive bell-like ring and a slow decay; it’s unforgiving of errors, and so very demanding of a musician playing it. (There were no such errors on this fine program.) Its tone is particularly well suited for works like the Liszt, which imitates the trickling of the water over the edges of the fountains.

The next three selections in Porter’s program were from Ravel’s 1904 Miroirs followed by three pieces by Debussy (who played, though he did not own, Erards). The challenges of Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B, S. 178 were easily met by Porter with confidence and without any gratuitous demonstrative gestures.

Porter teaches at Phillips Andover. There are many fine musicians like him who choose not to be constantly on the go or on the move playing the same program in a different city every few days, but rather to stay put in a place they love and share their talents with their neighbors and instill them in the next generations.    [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Back Bay Chorale and Jarrett Give Accomplished Tour of Splendors of Bach Mass in B Minor

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Bach’s Mass in B Minor contains some of his finest as well as most difficult music. On Saturday, May 15 in Sanders Theater, the Back Bay Chorale, conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, gave a skilful, beautiful, and moving tour of the splendors of this supreme masterpiece. The appropriately massive, six-part “Sanctus” typified the prevailing esthetic of the performance: weighty but not ponderous, powerful but not unrestrained, allowing for clarity of harmony and ensemble.

The two-soprano duet of “Christe eleison” was beautifully rendered by Kendra Colton and Sonja Tengblad. Again, there was absolute unanimity of approach between the Concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill and Colton. The balance in “Domine Deus” for Colton and tenor Aaron Sheehan tended to favor Ms. Colton, though this improved in the B section due to the soprano’s lower and tenor’s higher respective tessituras. The singers were partnered by a lovely obbligato played in unison by flutists Sarah Brady and Vanessa Holroyd.

The fugue in “Cum Sancto Spiritu” was one of the very few places in the performance where the ensemble began ever so slightly to totter; Mr. Jarrett prudently pulled the tempo back infinitesimally, and everything was fine, building to the climactic conclusion in a blaze of trumpet virtuosity from Terry Everson.

The upward stretching lines and majestic tempo of the final chorus, “Dona nobis pacem,” gave the piece nobility and gravitas, bringing a distinguished performance to its end.     [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Surprises, Haziness Sprung from Masterworks Chorale

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Masterworks Chorale took the stage at Sanders Theatre on Sunday, May 16, with Steven Karidoyanes, Music Director, to present “The American Five: Barber, Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and Ives.”

The wow of the afternoon display goes to pianist, Leslie Amper; I have never, ever heard George Gershwin’s Preludes so wonderfully delivered as I did with Amper at the keyboard. It had all those neat bustling New York street rhythms from the earlier decades of the 20th century.

And there was another surprise in this “choral garden,” the voice of countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, who emitted one gorgeous mellifluousness after another. His vowels, in every register they appeared, sprouted into the loveliest of sounds you can imagine, always pure and innocent, in Leonard Bernstein’s The Lark. Narrator Holly Samuels got the right feel of the intervening text. It was quite a close with the chorus in the “Gloria” verging on real cacophony accompanied by clustered chiming from the percussionist.

The most chorally satisfying music on this program came from Samuel Barber and his Reincarnations: “Mary Hynes,” “Anthony O’Daly” and “The Coolin (The Fair Haired Ones).” The 89 vibratos and timbres might explain the overall sound produced by the Masterworks Chorale, the resulting sonic haziness. Simpler harmonies fared better, the more complex not so well. The bimodal setting of the 67th Psalm of New England’s Charles Ives, pitting the upper voices in one key against the lower voices in another key, shed a bit of the haziness, but a laden quality pervaded.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Concord Women’s Chorus Celebrates 50 Years with Regional Women Composers, Poets

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The place to be on Saturday, May 8, was very definitely the Concord Women’s Chorus 50th anniversary concert, “American Women of Note.” Every creaky pew (including those in the balcony) in the majestic First Parish was packed with devoted fans. Director Jane Ring Frank has been with the group for the past 16 years. After starting in 1960 as the Concord Madrigals, the group has grown both in size (now more that 60 members) and scope, with this concert demonstrating considerable artistic ambition in taking on a wide range of challenging styles. To celebrate their anniversary, they made the wonderful commemorative step of commissioning an important new work, Concord Fragments, by Libby Larsen, setting texts compiled and written by poet Melissa Apperson.

Ring Frank had devised a perfectly balanced program, beginning each of the two halves with settings of poems by Emily Dickinson. Celebrating the chorus’s role in the community, much of the repertoire drew on local or regional composers or poets and all the music was composed by women.                  [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Atypical Mothers’ Day Fare with Prussian and Russian Passion

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The First Church of Boston was filled on May 9 for the Chamber Music Foundation’s concert featuring works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Jakov Jakoulov. Ellina Blinder, piano, Lilia Muchnik, violin, and Sergey Antonov, cello, maintained a balanced, clear dialogue as Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G, Op. 1 No. 2 ranged from delicately Mozartian to friskily Haydnesque. While Blinder deftly handled the required ebb and flow and Muchnik’s playing was secure and musical, Antonov created a warm, enveloping tone highly evocative of the human voice.

Jakoulov’s Three Hildegard’s Songs is a powerful work that utilizes Hildegard von Bingen’s text and single-line melodies with Jakoulov’s rhythms and harmonies. Jakoulov’s piano accompaniment was simple, direct, growly, forceful, and highly percussive. Mezzo-soprano Miranda Loud’s earthy, passionate interpretation more than lived up to her surname in the final ecstatic verse with a well-rounded tone that reverberated pleasingly in the live acoustic. The overall effect was one of drama and mystery, with perhaps a whiff of the Middle Eastern.

Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 was written for Boston Symphony violist Michael Zaretsky, who gave this acerbic, probing work a virtuosic, intentionally scratchy, tone-bending rendition; pianist Yelena Prizant played quite capably within the limited expressive confines of the percussive accompaniment.

Jakoulov’s La Musica Leggera, La Musica Eroica was written in memory of Russian-Israeli poet Michael Gendelev. After reading Gendelev’s poem in its original Russian, Jakoulov guided the ensemble through an intense, heartfelt performance. Once again the piano part, competently performed by Prizant, was highly percussive, with a dynamic range seemingly from forte to fortissississimo (ffff). Cellist Antonov’s thoughtful, attentive playing was white-hot. Quite the dramatic evening; certainly far from typical Mothers’ Day fare.    [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Divine, Deranged, and “Uncomfortable Truths” in Music about Mothers

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“Music about Mothers, from the Divine, to the Deranged” was the program on Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 9) by Cantilena at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington; organist Joshua T. Lawton was the competent piano accompanist. This is Allegra Martin’s first season as director, and programming is her strong suit; the primary interest for this concert was the well-chosen poetry.

Martin wrote in the valuable program notes — with texts, “Today’s program will acknowledge both the transcendent aspect of motherhood and the occasionally uncomfortable day-to-day truths.” A large audience comprising mostly women resonated warmly to the point.

In many ways the loveliest was Bobby McFerrin’s “23rd Psalm,” dedicated to his mother, in the manner of Anglican chant. The centerpiece was a commissioned work by Boston composer Michael J. Veloso setting two poems from Letters to Little Bean, written by Rachel Barenblat during her first successful pregnancy.

Irving Fine’s “Caroline Million” (Isabelle MacMeekin) was the liveliest of the lot; rollicking rhyme pervades the musical texture. Rhythmic repetition appears in both Zae Mann’s Grandma’s Alleluia (Ann Kilkelly)  and “The Stove,” as a mother pounds her stove to bits with a sledgehammer. Perhaps most moving was Gwyneth Walker’s “Mother to Son,” set to the poem by Langston Hughes from The Weary Blues.

In spite of this inventive programming, there was a sameness about the music. The well rehearsed, animated chorus always sang in tune, and their diction was good. Martin’s conducting style is calm; clearly she has a great deal of musical intelligence going for her.      [Click title for full review.]

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Emma Tahmiziàn Débuts at Frederick Piano Collection

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Bulgarian-born pianist Emma Tahmiziàn gave her first recital on the Frederick Piano Collection’s Spring Concert Season (its 25th), entitled “Dancing with Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák,” yesterday in the Community Church in Ashburnham, MA.  From the 24 historic grand pianos in playing condition in the Collection, she chose the Johann Baptist Streicher (Vienna) built in 1846, one of the more popular instruments among pianists performing on the series. In her comments, she revealed that the timing of this performance also marks her quarter century in the US, where she arrived on 13 May 1985 to participate in the Van Cliburn Competition, in which she received an award.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 allowed Tahmiziàn to fully demonstrate and exploit the extremes of the piano’s potential. The second half opened with eight of Brahms’s 16 Walzer, Op. 39, composed in 1865 for piano four-hands, but transcribed two years later by him for two hands in two versions, “simple” and “difficult.” Brahms owned an 1868 Streicher, a different model, but they sounded lovely on this earlier one.

Four Mazurkas by Chopin were perhaps the works that sounded the most exquisite on the instrument, almost as if they had been written for it, although Chopin owned and preferred Pleyels and played Erards. I had wondered how the earlier instrument would work for three of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances from Op. 46 and was pleasantly surprised; Tahmaziàn delivered the necessary colors and power that will make me wish I were hearing them on this piano when I hear them on a Steinway in the future.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Pro Arte’s Summer Welcome on Mother’s Day Short on Warmth

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On Mother’s Day, May 9, “Welcome Summer” concertized its way into Sanders Theatre at Harvard University via the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Soprano Nina Moe ushered in George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess with loveliness of voice, a very finely tuned glissando. Guest Conductor Joel Smirnoff turned the orchestra into a finely tuned and luxurious accompaniment. All that was lacking was warmth, a motherly sound, an American atmosphere, perhaps, a soloist and a team of musicians fully engaged in their art, with a take loftier than I would have preferred for the American pieces.

Soloists Kristina Nilsson, violin, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Ronald Haroutounian, bassoon and Steve Laven, cello, brought off Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante in a gusty performance. Smirnoff and Pro Arte played up a storm behind them, just the right balance, a most welcome and scintillating escape into another time and place.

Samuel Barber’s setting of the words of the American writer James Agee in Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was not quite realized by the performers. One reason was overly loud playing; the pianissimo at the tail of “Now is the night one blue dew,” which could have been so moving, came rather on the loud side in Nina Moe’s interpretation.

In Zoltán Kodály’s Summer Evening, Pro Arte musicians showed they can handle a lot not only in the way of technique, style and ensemble but at times, more. The English horn solos were filled with beautiful tone. There were nuances, too.

All in all, elevated professionalism could have reached out more toward communication.

[Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Stepner Delivers Mother’s Day Gift with Bach Chaconne

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It is always an important event when a whole concert is devoted to Bach’s solo violin music, as was Daniel Stepner’s “Mother’s Day Concert: Bouquet of Partitas,” for solo violin on Sunday afternoon, May 9, at Remis Auditorium at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Stepner needs little introduction; he has enjoyed a long career as a Baroque violinist and pedagogue and unquestionably feels he has insightful ideas to contribute about approaches to the text, about Baroque bowing, style, rubato, interpretation, and ornamentation. Stepping into his teaching mode, he made up for lack of program notes by speaking informally during the program.

He began with the famously exuberant Preludio of the joyous Partita III in E Major (BWV 1006). He then spoke for a few minutes about the provenance of the next five movements.

The Partita I in B Minor (BWV 1002) consists of four movements, each of which has a “Double” or variation, which Stepner explained was like a shadow movement, or a Doppelganger.

Much that seemed to be nerves were shaken off during intermission, and Stepner played theViolin Partita in D minor (BWV 1004) with much more command than the first half of the program. The sublime last movement, the Chaconne, with its 64 variations, is on many musician’s short lists of greatest pieces ever written, and no doubt Stepner has performed and rethought it for decades. Like the rest of this partita, it received a thoughtful, lovely reading. Mother’s Day gifts don’t get any better than the Bach Chaconne — on any instrument.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Maniaci’s Natural Soprano Shone in Mozart Arias

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Boston Baroque performed an all-Mozart program on Friday, May 7, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in a program featuring virtuoso arias that in Mozart’s day would have been performed by a male castrato. Michael Maniaci, on the other hand, is a natural male soprano, not a counter-tenor. He is able to sing the most demanding arias intended originally for a castrato singer with unusual clarity and purity of intonation as well as staying power.

Supporting the ensemble of nimble strings and winds, pairs of natural horns and trumpets provided rhythmic articulation and harmonic weight, crisply reinforced by John Grimes’s timpani, in the overture to Mozart’s one-act opera from Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario).

In “Il tenero momento,” and ”Ah se a morirmi chiama,” Maniaci conveyed emotional tension in a bright, clear tone, a judicious use of vibrato for expressive effect, subtle  coloring of long held notes, and inventive ornamentation. His voice shone in legato style in the aria “Tu virginum corona,” followed by the supremely joyful coloratura Alleluia.

Pearlman conveyed the essentially ceremonial character of the overture of La clemenza di Tito, while making the most of its rich orchestration, particularly in the writing for winds, and bringing out the lively fugato in the middle section with incisive clarity. Sesto’s aria “Deh, per questo istante solo,” brought Maniaci’s dramatic skills to the fore from the moving Adagio to the anguished frenzy of the Allegro conclusion.

The evening concluded on a positive note with a spirited performance of the “Haffner” Symphony No. 35.             [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Three Claims on Jerusalem in Early Songs, Instruments, Recitations

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In a plea for heavenly and earthly peace, a supremely talented group of singers and instrumentalists led by viola da gamba and vielle player, conductor, and composer Jordi Savall and Monserrat Figueras, with Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and the Sufi group Al-Darwish, gathered in Sanders Theatre on May 5 to celebrate three great monotheistic religions, all claiming Jerusalem as their spiritual home.

A rousing “fanfare of Jericho” led to Monserrat Figueras’s exquisite singing of a mystical 3rd-century B.C. Greek text to an Aramaic melody, then a text from the Koran sung by a male choir, followed by a 13th-century polyphonic Latin motet on a Christian (Cathar) Apocalyptic text.

Jerusalem as a Jewish city from the time of David to its liberation in 164 B.C.  was followed by Medieval Jerusalem as the focal point of the Crusades. The highlight of the Arabic and Ottoman segment was Al-Darwish from Galilee, with white-skirted Khaled Abu Ali executing a slowly twirling dance.

Jerusalem as a city of refuge and exile was presented in a series of haunting laments. In a final plea for earthly peace, a simple melody handed down in several oral traditions was sung first by individual participants in their respective languages, then by all the performers in a multilingual choral version symbolizing the unifying power of music. A fanfare of shofars, oriental trumpets, and percussion, “Against the barriers of the Spirit,” concluded the evening on a hopeful note.

English translations projected on a wide screen and extensive program notes were helpful. Notwithstanding star performances and laudable purpose, the essential similarity did not add up to a meaningful presentation of fascinating yet unfamiliar musical traditions. [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Spectrum of Moods in Child’s Song of Liberty at MIT

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A spectrum of moods ranges through the five pieces of Peter Child’s fine new choral work, Song of Liberty: A Blake Cantata, for soloists, chorus, strings and percussion, premiered on April 30 in Kresge Auditorium by the MIT Concert Choir conducted by William Cutter. The title suggests Independence Day, but the five movements on various William Blake texts give no hint of any such narrow patriotism until the fifth chorus, taken from Blake’s own “Song of Liberty.”

The strange compulsions of the mystic Blake texts kept reminding me of another powerful Blake composer, William Bolcom, whose Eighth Symphony, with chorus, was premiered in Boston last year. Child’s new work is transparent and proportioned where Bolcom’s is massive and difficult to penetrate psychologically. Even so, I felt that Song of Liberty was a bit too short; it might profit by the addition of three or four minutes of music that would make further use of the solo voices.

A few of my prejudices about Ralph Vaughan Williams are fortified by  Dona nobis pacem, a significant and well-known antiwar elegy composed in 1935 mostly on texts from Walt Whitman, Psalms, Old Testament prophets, and the Ordinary of the Mass. And yet I was genuinely moved by moments that had not struck me before; the really first-rate quality of the performance persuaded me that I should learn to appreciate this work more. I was also glad to see four pages of helpful program notes by Ahmed E. Ismail. But as long as the message is needed, we should hear such music.          [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Orpheus in the Upperworld

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A chanterelle is a highly desirable kind of mushroom, or a German music publishing company (for classical guitar music), or (in French) a decoy, or a musical bottle. More likely its meaning (again in French) as the highest string of any stringed instrument is the one intended by the Ensemble Chanterelle, comprising Sally Sanford, soprano, Catherine Liddell, theorbo, and Brent Wissick, viola da gamba. They performed the short version of their available longer program, “Orpheus Old and New” during a noon-hour concert at the Boston Athenaeum on Thursday, May 6, 2010. The beautiful, resonant room was full, and as Wissick commented afterwards, the audience of all ages was fully “with us” in their enthusiasm. The ensemble was co-founded by Sanford and Liddell in 1984 and on this occasion gave a good demonstration of their Website’s description of their performances: “warm and engaging,” combining “humor, drama, passion and virtuosity with imaginative and innovative programming.”   [Click title for full review] [continued]

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La Grande-Duchesse Fetching Franco-Bostonian Entertainment

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On May 4 at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Opera Boston presented its closing-night performance of Jacques Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein. The generally satisfying and wholly entertaining performance successfully avoided the pit-and pratfalls often associated with this genre.  Much of Offenbach’s appeal lies not only in his clever and catchy tunes, but also in the social and political satire.  In lesser productions, this often gets misinterpreted as simple slapstick, but director David Kneus was able to make the show funny — innuendos and all — without having it degenerate into farce.

A great part of this success was thanks to the cast, who sang their numbers in French but spoke their dialogue in English, an effective (and historically precedented) theatrical device. Stephanie Blythe cut a whimsically imposing figure as the Grande-Duchesse. Her rich, Marilyn Horne-like voice filled the hall with a stunning presence that took some getting used to in this light-opera context. Everyone on stage was clearly having a grand old time, and it was infectious; a good thing considering the three-hour length of the work.

Robert Perdziola’s set-design was endearingly simple and probably close, at least in spirit, to what the original production might have looked like.  Although music director Gil Rose was unable to capture the burgundy-hued brightness and Parisian sparkle that really make Offenbach’s music come alive, his tempi were brisk enough to keep the momentum flowing. The orchestra was beautifully balanced, and blended well with the singers.  In fact, all the elements of this attractive production came together for a fetching bit of Franco-Bostonian entertainment.            [Click title for full review.]

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Music from the Frederick Collection Begins Festival Season

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At 4 in the afternoon this second Sunday in May (9), pianist Emma Tahmiziàn will play the first of Schumann’s 18 Davidsbündler-Tänze, finished in 1837, on a remarkable instrument. A piano made in 1846 by Johann Baptist Streicher, from Vienna, impressed her powerfully and indelibly during her unexpected encounter with it last summer. She resolved to take up the challenge of playing music she knows well on this historic instrument, of whose existence she had been entirely unaware, and whose sonic vocabulary presented her with new, unfamiliar interpretive challenges. In a conversation this week, Ms. Tahmiziàn exclaimed, with simplicity and characteristic spark, “Clara Schumann and Liszt… I’m playing their exact instrument this Sunday!” She says that the elegant Streicher grand summoned forth tone production and dynamic layers that she carries close to her heart, and which she had never before felt she could achieve so fully. [continued]

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Organist Christian Lane Bids Fisk Organ An Elegant Farewell

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For background on the instrument played for this program, see the article here.

Monday evening, May 3rd, at The Memorial Church, Harvard University, was an occasion of endings and beginnings, when a large audience gathered to bid farewell to Charles Fisk’s controversial organ from 1967. The first four-manual mechanical-action built in America in the 20th century, the Fisk organ was a beacon in a return to classic principles in organ construction and tone. But its location within the Appleton Chapel portion of  Memorial Church was always a compromise, given the unusual acoustical properties of the conjoined spaces, and its reception was decidedly mixed.

Understanding the organ’s compromised existence in the context of the original great musical expectations for it in 1967 appeared to be a theme of Monday night’s concert, given by Christian Lane, Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster. The far-ranging program was carefully chosen to honor those who had played in the first several dedication years, and it was delightful for this listener to recall the likes of E. Power Biggs, John Ferris, and Anton Heiller.            [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Profundity, Punditry Pervade Quasthoff Recital

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German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and pianist Justus Zeyen offered a rich recital of Brahms, Schubert, and Frank Martin vocal works at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon May 2nd.  The Celebrity Series of Boston presented the concert.

By now there is no real disagreement about the artistry that Thomas Quasthoff brings to all of his singing.  All the world is his stage these days.  Abbado, Levine and Rattle want him for their concerts, and he garners paeans of praise from the music critics across the globe who hear him.  Thus there was great anticipation within Jordan Hall before Quasthoff and his comradely accompanist Justus Zeyen emerged from the stage door to begin their “journey,” as Quasthoff described it in a short speech before he began to sing.  That speech, plus several other “entre-nous” moments of palaver with the audience served as an intriguing window into this artist’s complicated and focused psyche, but I’m not so sure that these extras-musical moments helped elevate the proceedings.  More about that later.    [Click title for full review] [continued]

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NE Philharmonic’s Ambitious Program: Harbison, Warshaw, Stravinsky, and Violinist Freshman in Ravel

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The New England Philharmonic program was ambitious: all the works were written in the 20th century, from Stravinsky’s 1917 Song of the Nightingale to Dalit Warshaw’s 2000 Camille’s Dance. The only relatively familiar work was Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, featuring the 16-year-old Jaclyn Freshman, who copped this year’s NE Phil Young Artists Competition. On top of this, we were given a rare hearing of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 2 from 1986.

The Harbison, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, is full of delights. Mr. Pittman and ensemble attacked this difficult work with obvious relish and dedication, though there were occasions when one wondered if things were hanging by their fingernails.

Ms. Freshman tore into the lengthy cadenza that opens Tzigane with relish, a delicious plummy tone, and her runs were a hit: impeccably, impressively clear. The orchestral accompaniment was not always quite so clear; at points it seemed that the soloist was leading the orchestra a merry chase.

Warshaw’s Camille’s Dance, on three sculptures by Camille Claudel, begins with a flourish and a woozy waltz riff. The conclusion is accomplished effectively with doomy portents in lower winds. In between, we were less impressed: for a dance-themed work it proceeded rather much in starts and stops, with overuse of Bartók pizzicati.

Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale stood on the cusp of his change in idiom from the lush and colorful soundscapes of his three Diaghilev ballets to austere neoclassicism. But just as the music falls between two stools, so did the performance—not enough sheen for a Firebird successor, not enough brittleness for a Pulcinella preview.                     [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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H & H Orchestra, Chorus Shone, Soloists Less So in Balanced Bach Program

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In his final concert of his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society on April 30 in Symphony Hall, the English conductor Harry Christophers chose J. S. Bach as his sole composer. The program was well balanced, with two motets starting the two halves and two cantatas closing them. Two instrumental pieces were in their midst.

The motets “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” and“Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf,” are among Bach’s most difficult choral works, and the chorus did splendidly, as they did with the cantata “Nun ist das Heil and die Kraft.” Harpsichordist John Finney distinguished himself and violinist Daniel Stepner was his usual excellent self in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Perhaps because of the size of Symphony Hall, one had a hard time making out Christopher Krueger’s flute line, although Alan Winkler’s German harpsichord sounded fine.

The Concerto in D minor for Two Violins featuring Dan Stepner and Linda Quan was, as the English like to say, gob-smackingly good.

Finney further distinguished himself as organist in “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir.” The soloists, tenor Ryan Turner, bass Bradford Gliem, soprano Lydia Brotherton, and alto Thea Lobo, sang separate arias and recitatives in the traditional cantata way. That said, it pains me to say that the soloists, all drawn from the chorus, were the weakest part of the program. Perhaps that is also due to the venue.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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Variations Figured in Levin and Chuang’s Two-Piano Recital

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John Harbison’s Diamond Watch: Double Play was performed by Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang as the climax to a fine recital for this rarely heard medium of two pianos at MIT on April 30. The acoustics of the demi-spherical Kresge Auditorium are very capricious, but the husband-and-wife team of Levin-Chuang turned in a brilliant result in a hall that was almost filled. One foresees a wide popularity for this piece, honoring MIT Professor Peter Diamond, a passionate fan of the Boston Red Sox.

Like other Rachmaninoff’s works, Second Suite for two pianos sometimes sprawls, but the textural thickness and abundance of rapidly-noodling inner parts are a more serious problem, more than compensated by the melodic freedom  and by the well-wrought tonal scheme which adds drama in the fast movements and lyrical expressiveness in the slow. It was hard to hear all of these at once, when the muddied middle-register sound seemed to overpower both the upper and lower. I would have been happy to hear this big piece played less forcefully and in a smaller, more intimate hall.

I have heard Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini played successfully at slower tempo, but the momentum and zing of this performance were infectious.

Poulenc’s Sonata for two pianos shows his characteristic harmonic language, sometimes like neoclassical Stravinsky and Prokofiev together and leavened with Mozart. The third develops this kind of music into an eloquent and even amorous song; it was good to hear it at reduced dynamic where the texture was full but every note sounded clearly.                        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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BSO Colleagues Honor American-Japanese Cultural Connection with Mozart

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Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Principal oboist Keisuke Wakao founded the American-Japanese Cultural Concert Series “to collaborate in offering beautiful music to the world” in informal and cordial settings. This year he expanded it to three different concerts, at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill on April 30 (subject of this review), and, coming up, at the First Church in Boston, Sunday, May 2, at 4:30 p.m., and on Monday in Lenox.

Wakao’s core group are colleagues in the BSO, on this occasion Richard Sebring, horn; Richard Ranti, bassoon; the Russian Alexander Velinzon and the Chinese Yuncong Zhang, violins; Canadian Rebecca Gitter, viola; and Romanian Mihail Jojatu, violoncello. For this all-Mozart concert they were joined by Emanuel Ax, piano, and Japanese Masaharu Yamamoto, clarinet.

Wakao performed Mozart’s Quartet in F major, K. 370, for oboe and string trio with great dramatic flair, yet always in touch with his companions. His high pianissimo enabled astonishing performances of long upward runs at a sweeping decrescendo. His colleagues made true chamber music, playful and free while maintaining a tight-knit unit.

Unfortunately, the tempo and dynamics of all three movements Mozart’s Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon in E-flat major, K. 452 were the same, and a bit plodding.

The string players and a second violin (Yuncong Zhang, who joined the BSO just this year), were all off and running on a really beautiful performance of Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K. 581 also with guest clarinetist Masaharu Yamamoto.        [Click title for full review.] [continued]

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