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THE CHAMELEON ENSEMBLE: Janacek, Rands, Stravinsky, Brahms, Needham
SARASOTA OPERA: Verdi's Don Carlos
MARLY MUSIC CHAMBER SERIES OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: Corelli, Bach-Liszt, Wieniawski, Messiaen, and Brahms

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Matthew Aucoin: Crossing

Music and Libretto/Conductor: Matthew Aucoin. Director: Diane Paulus. Featuring "A Far Cry" chamber orchestra. Lead singers/actors: Rod Gilfrey (Walt Whitman), Alexander Lewis (John Wormley), Davone Tines (Freddie Stowers) and a large ensemble of singers and dancers.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Matthew Aucoin

Despite the lack of any memorable musical themes in Matthew Aucoin's new opera, "Crossing" and the use of a minimalist tract throughout, the opera succeeds on a number of theatrical and dramatic levels and has a lot of heart.

Crossing is a fictionalized fragment of major American poet, Walt Whitman's Civil War experience. The primary set is a low budget hospital for Union soldiers after their war injuries and the injuries are dramatized by a ward full of rictus, blood and suffering. Walt Whitman has served as a volunteer "healer" there for two or three years -- he cannot recall the length of his sojourn. A young Confederate deserter seeks treatment for his serious injuries there while hiding his real identity.

Singing by three principal lead voices/actors was first class in this production. Rod Gilfrey's Walt Whitman was a virile baritone with tremendous unifying stage presence. He included lines from several famous Walt Whitman poems with excellent diction and a kind of mystical presence that was essential to the opera. Alexander Lewis' Confederate deserter, captured an ambivalent, fragmented eighteen year old whose mind/morality have vanished in the conflagration. His tenor was well sung and acting between him and Gilfrey's Whitman very touching to me. Davone Tine's Freddie Stowers brought the house down with his eloquent and painful singing about a sky wracked by fire as though at the end of the world (and therefore timeless for all wars). I believe Mr. Tines is a future star in the process of blooming. I very much hope to see him in a future opera or other stage production. He has real star power at his disposal.

Diane Paulus did a fine directing job fully utilizing the well known local group, "A Far Cry", suggesting giant despair with the suffering of the injured Union men, interweaving Whitman's poetry. Additionally, she also incorporated screens suggesting various primal elements: blazing fire, the pillars of ash, and rolling river water. For me, the play did not sag despite the repetitive use of a minimalist score. Ms. Paulus included some ballet here (to suggest what was lost from the young men's past lives), repetitive choreography suggesting what the injured yearn for and careful use of light to show time passing.

Crossing represents Matthew Aucoin's first staged opera and is a huge accomplishment for a young composer in his twenties. Based on all the heart present in this production, Mr. Aucoin deserves huge kudos for this opera about the perils and evils associated with all wars over time. I very much look forward to seeing what he will do next.

Carolyn Gregory

THE CHAMELEON ENSEMBLE: Janacek, Rands, Stravinsky, Brahms, Needham

Eunae Koh(violin), Jessica Lee (violin), Deborah Boldin (flute), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), Vivian Chang-Freiheit (piano), Elizabeth Schumann (piano), Kelli O'Connor (clarinet), Franziska Huhn (harp), Scott Woolweaver (viola), William Manley (percussion)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bernard Rands

The final program for the Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s 2014-2015 schedule opened with a finely performed "Sonata, JW 7/7" by major Czech composer, Leos Janacek. This only surviving Janacek sonata was composed at the outbreak of World War I and it is full of the fire of steel and bombs, strongly contrasting with an enduring folk melody theme. Turbulent full motion violins opened with rich, dark coloring and nice use of pizzicato, including fine and not strident high range violin. The "Ballada:con moto" movement opened again with rich lower register violins and lyrical, fluid piano. A tonal cluster and violin sweep in this movement performed by Koh was memorably well done. The "Allegretto" movement included percussive piano and an athletic violin. The movement also included double violin work by Koh which was tentative and included fine pauses. The "Adagio" movement developed a piano interlude flowing into broken violin phrases which then moved back toward lyricism. This Janacek sonata was a watershed performance by the Chameleons, deserving bravos. And yes, I cheered!

Next up was modern composer Bernard Rands' "Prelude. . .sans voix parmi les voix". Boldin's clear flute was joined by Huhn's harp which spun slowly into a temporal web, suggesting a mystical presence. Flute continued in a rapid firing fashion, harp sweeping slowly back in and joined by the dark, subtle viola of Woolweaver. The harp returned with an ancient, timeless, gorgeous swell of sound next, allowing this composition to join much more ancient compositions. Again, this composition was very well performed, fresh and fine.

Modern well known composer, Igor Stravinsky's famous "Suite from l'Histoire du Soldat" followed. This was a condensed program length version for this particular concert including fine work from O'Connor on clarinet, Lee on violin and Schumann on piano. The walking pace of the first movement was quickly set, quickly showing off the marvelous and slightly strident clarinet of O'Connor. Strong repetitive violin work followed with a more reflective clarinet. Mellifluous clarinet and an ambling piano followed. The "Petit concert" movement broke with a confluence of birds or folk instruments! A fine weave of the three cheerful players! This movement was excellently played by the three instruments, strongly engaging the audience. A "Tango-Valse-Rag" followed with a slightly lopsided quality, falling slightly sideways which then moved into a waltz. Lee's violin was fine in this movement. A kind of resolution followed wherein the three players returned to their witty and rocky dance. The shortened "Suite from l'Histoire du Soldat" concluded with the "Danse du Diable", an angry, red-colored and frenzied movement, played at a faster pace. In this concluding movement, again O'Connor's clarinet was vigorous and demonic. Fine concert version of the famous Stravinsky Suite.

Following the intermission, very modern composer Clint Needham's "Axioms" followed. A composition in seven short movements, this composition included nice signature performances by the large group of Chameleon personnel who played it. A limpid piano suggested aspiration then moving with percussive "pops" including all the instruments. A slow and more subdued curve of sound followed to the ". . .fan the fire like wind" movement which was airy and mobile, largely carried by the strings and a vividly played flute. The "Grass is greener" movement started with jungle-like percussion and flute parallel to the percussion. This movement was witty and contained a fair amount of whimsy and freshness.

Concluding the concert was major romantic composer Johannes Brahms' "Piano Trio Number 2 in C Major, Opus 87", a well known work in the repertoire. The "Allegro" movement opened with a luxurious fine sweep of excellent playing by the three personnel. The passionate and very rich partnership of Lee on violin and the superlative Popper-Keizer on cello included wonderful cello playing and fine dynamics guided by. Schumann's piano work. The "Andante" developed with a sustained grief in it. Simple melody, deliberate piano work here and a "singing" quality from Lee's violin. Brahms' passion, heart and depth were all clear in this movement. The "Scherzo" created a fine shimmer of sound that developed with rich texture and a mercurial return. The "Finale: Allegro giocoso" was vividly played, including some fluid and lovely piano work and a gorgeous long resolution on the cello. Once more, the Chameleons' work was brilliant here and so deserving of a large, receptive audience!

Carolyn Gregory

SARASOTA OPERA: Verdi's Don Carlos

Don Carlos: Jonathan Burton; Elisabeth De Valois: Michelle Johnson; Grand Inquisitor: Young Bok Kim; Philippe II: Kevin Short; Rodrigue: Marco Nisticò; The Princess Eboli: Mary Phillips; Conductor: Victor DeRenzi; Stage Director: Stephanie Sundine; Scenic Designer: David P. Gordon; Costume Coordinator: Howard Tsvi Kaplan; Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker; Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Don Carlos

It is admirable when a production company puts on Don Carlos, Giuseppe Verdi’s longest opera. (It is also the one with the most conflicting versions.) But it’s profoundly satisfying to see it done so well that it holds audience attention the entire time. It's an opera of short overtures (more like introductions) to the acts, yet time enough for a savvy conductor to make a statement and move on to the action. At this task conductor Victor DeRenzi succeeds, presaging his excellent interpretation of the rest of the opera.

A word about the choruses. Happily, the impressive introductory "Woodcutters Chorus" was included, despite Verdi’s later cuts. As performed, it is very poignant and shows Verdi’s sympathies for the downtrodden.

It didn't take long for the audience to develop sympathy for the two lovers Carlos and Elizabeth: the first scene together, “De Quels transports,” is a cabaletta-like celebration of their good fortune, although unfortunately short-lived. A plunge into the minor mode, and the couple expresses their horror at the news that Carlos's father will marry Elizabeth instead of him. As Verdi is the king of musical contrasts, the scene in which the lovers express despair occurs simultaneously with the cries of joy of the people when they realize that the new marriage arrangement will cause war to end (with the Peace of Cateau Cambrésis) between Spain and France. The scene is superbly well directed by Stephanie Sundine, with canny placement of the principals in the foreground. Speaking of scenes, David P. Gordon’s design of the subsequent scene at the cloister of the St. Yuste monastery is hauntingly atmospheric. When Carlos meets with his friend Rodrigue, the two pledge themselves to liberty and friendship with the justly famous duet in parallel thirds, “Dieu tu semas dan nos âmes.” As Rodrigue, the baritone Kevin Short is an excellent complement to the tenor Jonathan Burton, both musically and emotionally. Soon Princess Eboli sings the famous “Chanson de voile,” a difficult colortura piece about the Sarasen king mistakenly wooing his own wife (a glimmer to what happens between her and Carlos, whom she loves). As the redoubtable Eboli, Mary Phillips sings with the deep commitment and passion of thwarted affection.

I am glad the Sarasota Opera decided to use Verdi’s 1867 version (rather than his later updates), because only it contains the stirring riot scene, which is nearly as exciting as the “De quella pira” cabaletta from Act 3 of Il Trovatore. There are other scenes of Verdian splendor that this troupe does particularly well. The trio “Redoubtez tout de ma furie” between Rodrigue, Eboli, and Carlos has always floored me with its inventions, as it sets the baritone’s a mezzo’s agitated rhythms against the tenor’s long portamentos. The singers did not disappoint. As King Philippe II in his study, Kevin Short is at his finest moment during the famous solo “Elle ne m’aime pas.” He conveys the complex psychological portrait of a man previously perceived as a demi-monster. And as the darkly evil Grand Inquisitor, Young Bok Kim throws an ominous cast to the next scene as he sneeringly mocks the king into doing his will. Among Verdi’s anti-clerical roles, the Grand Inquisitor is unquestionably his best, and Kim plays him with scary skill.

There are very few misfires in his production. I was not that keen on the blocking in the scene between Rodrigue and Philippe, particularly during “Un souffle ardent,” in which the two voices emerge in patterned opposition before ultimately joining. Perhaps there should have been more physicality between them: Rodrigue could have literally thrown himself at Philippe’s feet, for example. Or the two could have shifted and lurked around each other, perhaps remotely similar to what Samuel Raimi and Paolo Coni did in the 1994 Metropolitan Opera version. Also, the final scene in which Carlos is lead to his death by the ghost of his grandfather Charles V has always puzzled audiences in the past, mostly because it happens so fast. It needs careful treatment because, dramatically speaking, it is Verdi’s one weak sequence in the opera. Maybe a more obvious look of horror should come over Carlos’ face as he realizes what happening just before passing through the gate of the tomb.

Yet these are minor quibbles. This is an excellent performance of a difficult but stirring work. The traditionally constumed and naturalistic set probably works better than a modern rendition would have. And among the performers there were no duds, which is more than I can say for several well-known recorded versions.

Peter Bates

MARLY MUSIC CHAMBER SERIES OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: Corelli, Bach-Liszt, Wieniawski, Messiaen, and Brahms

Ellen dePasquale, violin; Angelin Chang, piano.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Messiaen If you are only two performers, you’d best start off with a work streaked with exuberance and dashed with a dollop of showmanship.  Violinist Ellen dePasquale and pianist Angelin Chang did just that with Fritz Kreisler's arrangement of Archangelo Corelli’s La Folia. Kreisler was a minor composer and major violist of his day. He was sort of a latter day Paganini. The languid opening of La Folia belied its later bursts of expansive tempi and expressive vibrato, both of which Ellen dePasquale navigated well. A section of clever variations was most bewitching and the cadenza, while short, was stormy. (Kreisler's cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto are still used by violinists today.)

The two performers were then appropriately warmed up for Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 2. Written in 1797-8, and dedicated to the unjustly reviled Antonio Salieri, it is essentially a classical work, with its winking repeats, skilled passages of imitation, and almost puckish use of rests. That doesn't stop a lot of modern violinist from treating it as a romantic work, imbuing it with more pathos than called for. Happily, both dePasquale and Chang perfectly understood and gave the piece just treatment. I once had an English professor who labeled a poem by Robert Frost as “sheer playfulness.” I think that term applied to this performing style as well.

Speaking of adaptations, Chang took on Franz Liszt’s famous transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543). Seizing this organ work by the waistcoat, Liszt transformed it for piano by adding certain octaves and other minor modifications. Unless you’re a musicologist, you can’t spot these embellishments by listening to a public performance. Chang handled the museum’s dark-throated Bösendorfer piano like an Arabian horse, riding it through expansive sands of rhapsody. In fact, by the end of the fugue, she released an electrifying passage of freewheeling, utterly unfugal virtuosity!

No one would ever accuse Henryk Wieniawski’s Scherzo-Tarantelle (Op. 16) of being boring. It is the quintessential crowdpleaser. Its virtuosic strength resides in its opening’s fiery trills and runs, followed by a nostalgic theme spiced with piquant demi-semi-quavers. At times the tempo seems so rapid that you wonder if anyone could ever dance this tarantella. But dePasquale and Chang showed us the dancing with feet was not necessary, because the arabesques were in their fingers.

Another one of Chang’s solo piano pieces was “l’Alouette Lulu” from Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Messiaen believed in using birdsongs as inspiration for short piano compositions. A gamble, true, but one that paid off handsomely. This piece may be hard to follow logically, but it is not that way emotionally. It revolves around the song of a wood lark with its intriguing counterpoint expressed most keenly near the end, between the stolid left-hand and the haunting, erratic trills of the right. I commend the Marly Music Chamber Series for presenting this challenging but delightful 20th century piece to the public. I encourage them to do more modern pieces, even a few 21th century pieces. An audience that has the sophistication not to clap between movements is certainly ready for the unpredictable intricacies of modern music.

They saved the best for last. Brahms's final Violin sonata No. 3 in D minor, is an effusive work that dispenses many listening delights. However, some interpreters are tempted to go overboard with its passionate abandon, particularly in the final movement Presto. Happily, DePasquale and Chang did not travel this road. Instead, they opted for a restrained late Romantic rendition. For example, they conveyed the highly frenetic mood of the Presto with exemplary pacing and restraint, breaking loose with a virtuosic development of the earlier tarantella-like first subject. They did not try to tame its frenzied, passionate character, but neither did they overstate it.

My first opera record, a recital by Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling, had liner notes I’ve never forgotten. The writer quoted Bjorling as saying he wanted to be remembered "as an honest singer.” Ellen dePasquale and Angelin Chang are, quite simply, honest musicians.

Peter Bates


Mark Sforzini, Artistic Director & Conductor; Benjamin Spierman, Stage Director; Keith Arsenault, Lighting Design; Scenic Design: Steven Mitchell; Costume Design: Patricia Hibbert; Chorus Assistant: Luis Gonzalez ; Norma: Elizabeth de Trejo; Pollione: James Chamberlain; Adalgisa: Jennifer Feinstein; Oroveso: Nathan Whitson; Clotilde: Melissa Primavera; Flavio: Russell Andrade.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bellini Norma In the world of opera, the role of Norma is one of the most taxing and demanding parts, and not just in nineteenth century repertoire. Perhaps it has held this honor since its premiere in 1831. Her duets with Adalgisa and Pollione are so poignant they continue to stir audience emotions directly. The marvelous ensembles at the end of each act rival those of Verdi, and overwhelm the listener with passionate resolve and musical power. Norma herself is a unique character, a noble person whose tragedy lies in her fatal love for an enemy of her people. As Shakespeare said of Othello, this person “loved not wisely, but too well.”

Last Sunday’s performance at the St. Petersburg Opera Company realized these elements of the opera and provided all the necessary ingredients. In some cases they even gave a little extra. Soprano Elizabeth de Trejo knows that less is often more, so she sang Act I’s emblematic “Casta Diva” in an understated fashion, while skillfully inserting a subtle arc of intensity. She veered away from other recent interpreters who tend to overdramatize this aria, like June Anderson of Les Arts Florissants. De Trejo’s scenes with Jennifer Feinstein’s Adalgisa made me realize how sensitive Bellini was to communicating female bonding, so intimately did they interact. Their expressive Act II duet, “Mira, o Norma,” revealed what all audiences love so much about bel canto: extensive coloratura, the more the better.

James Chamberlain’s Pollione was another fully-realized portrayal. Take his dramatic duet with Norma in Act II, “In mia man alfin tu sei.” It was both splendidly acted and expertly sung. The excellent stage blocking showcased the mad intensity of their relationship, which consumed them both, even before the flames of the finale. In fact, most of the acting in this production was superior; even the individual members of the chorus grimaced with frustration and resolve at key moments. Nathan Wilson could have exhibited more physicality and emoted more, particularly when he urged restraint in the Druid warriors, but his stentorian bass voice and his well-played authoritarian aura tended to make up for it.

Judging from this performance, Mark Sforzini is a vivid and vibrant conductor. His Act I overture was sprightly and exciting, with its stolid invocations and sudden tempo changes that contrasted the opera’s exterior tumult with interior nostalgia for lost love– themes that emerge (furiously, poignantly) in the opera.

Equaling the production’s acting, singing, and orchestral feats, Steven Mitchell Opera did a fine job with set design. Choosing to forgo a rude and rugged set the Druids would have loved, he moved in a minimal direction, focusing attention more on the players. He was most creative with lighting and effects. The immolation scene was all smoke and no (fake) fire, which was the right choice. Historically, the auto da fé of ancient and medieval times was mostly smoke, because of damp and green wood they ended up using. This final bow to realism capped an enthralling and memorable performance.

Peter Bates


Miranda Cuckson, violin; Christopher Burns, engineer. Performed as part of the New Music New College series in Sarasota, FL.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Miranda CucksonI wonder what was churning in avant-garde composer Luigi Nono’s head when he wrote the mystifying “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura” in 1989, a year before he died. One of his most challenging pieces, it is essentially a duet between a live violinist and recorded material to be manipulated as the engineer sees fit. The live violinist is Miranda Cuckson and the recorded material consists of improvised snippets from violinist Gidon Kremer, who premiered the work sixteen years ago. Ambient noises like talk and laughter appear (but never intrusively), born in the recording studio and expertly massaged by engineer-composer Christopher Burns. I wouldn’t call it a dialog between the live and the recorded, because that’s not really what’s going on here. It’s that clash between extremes of loud and quiet violin playing. Sometimes the quiet is a barely perceptible “ppppppppp” (nine degrees of piano). Most of the time, the notes are long singular quavers; the bursts of fortissimo usually occurring in doubles or triples.

Just before she plays, Cuckson traverses the stage, then pauses at one of five music stands to release a few more notes and moves along to the next, soundlessly, on bare feet. At one point she sings a brief vocalise accompaniment, but not loudly. Like paprika added to a dish, the effect is subtle but unmistakable.

This well-done and pivotal piece of modernism is nervy, spooky and delusively calm– you're not sure what mood is going to descend on you and when. Like a good magician, Nono never reveals. Perhaps he intended the work to be an analog of one day in a life, which may begin with one idea or a mental list of what to accomplish, but it may also be struck by a sudden phone call from an old friend or a surprise check in the mail. Or perhaps it’s an analog of his whole life, which began under a totalitarian government, with eruptions of erratic violence puncturing the anxious calm, and ended with the freedom to tell about it via conundrums of prickly intensity. Chief among them is the final, high-register, ninety-second note: longer, more haunting, and as searing as that final piano chord in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life.” Well, almost.

Peter Bates