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Beginning of the new concert season: 5BMF and BASS

Posted on: September 21st, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

My 2015-16 concert season began early this year, with season-opening concerts by the Five Boroughs Music Festival on September 11 and the Brooklyn Art Song Society on September 18.

5BMF decided to start their season in Manhattan, at the National Opera Center’s recital hall, with a program by the American Contemporary Ensemble, a youthful group of composers who perform their own music in ensemble.  Group members Caleb Burhans, Timo Andres, Caroline Shaw, Clarice Jensen and Ben Russell collaborated in performances of their own compositions and also performed ensemble pieces by Meredith Monk and Charles Ives.

What struck me most forcibly in listening to these excellent performances was how the “new music” scene has changed and evolved so much since I was a youngster decades ago first encountering “contemporary music.”  In those days of the 1960s and 1970s, “contemporary” music meant, for the most part, atonality or serialism, dissonance, the lack of appealing melody, and a generally “grey” coloration, largely abandoning instrumental music’s roots in vocal music and “naturally occurring” scales and melodies.  There has been a revolution, and for the past few decades most contemporary music has reclaimed those roots with melodic lines one can follow, consonant harmonies spiced up with occasional surprising modulations or occasional dissonance.  Unlike the famous headline from a feature about a contemporary composer in a music magazine of the 1960s (“Who Cares If You Listen?”, facetiously attributed to Milton Babbitt), today’s young composers do care.  All of the pieces were well-made in this listener-friendly modern manner, seeking to communicate and appeal to the heart, not just the head, of the listener.  The main complaint I might have about some of the pieces was that these composers have imbibed at the well of “minimalism” to the degree that some of the pieces struck me as less eventful than they might ideally be and strained patience at times with their repetitions of small rhythmic cells.

Ironically, perhaps, the piece that was most challenging in terms of harmony, rhythm, and following the musical argument was the masterful Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano by Charles Ives, written a century ago.  This was the centerpiece of the program, performed immediately before the intermission.  If I were a young composer presenting new music, I would hesitate putting my latest pieces on the same program with the Ives piece, the work of a mature master in a more advanced idiom.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable concert, with many memorable moments and at least one piece, Caleb Burhans’ “Jahrzeit” in memory of his father for string quartet, that was extremely moving to hear.

Brooklyn Art Song Society began its season at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene neighborhood.  This is the first of several programs planned for this season surveying British song, so they went back to the beginnings, John Dowland and Henry Purcell.  The program was a provocative blend of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity.”  The first half, devoted to Dowland’s songs for voice and lute, were performed with the collaboration of Charles Weaver, one of the city’s leading lutenists, which vocal performances by soprano Sarah Brailey, mezzo Kate Maroney, tenor Nils Neubert, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  I think these songs would have been a bit better served had they been performed in a smaller, less resonant performing space than this church, since the voices tended to overbalance the lute at times.  For the second half, Purcell songs were presented using Benjamin Britten’s realizations of piano accompaniments.  Britten did a great job, but using a piano to accompany Purcell is throwing authenticity out the window.  Nonetheless, these performances were better suited to the acoustic space.  The four vocalists from the first half were accompanied by pianists Yuri Kim, Dimitri Dover, and BASS artistic director Michael Brofman.  As in the first half, the performances were all very accomplished, and the overall program was a big success to usher in the BASS season.

Coming up next?  5BMF heads to the “boroughs” for performances in Brooklyn and the Bronx on November 12 and 13 by Montreal-based musicians performing baroque music by Biber, Bach, Buxtehude and Schieferlein.  BASS presents its next program on October 6 at Deutsches Haus (New York University), settings of German lyrics by Britten and English-source lyrics by Schubert, Schumann and R. Strauss, and a Ned Rorem birthday celebration at Bargemusic in Brooklyn on October 22.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

Orchestra of St. Luke’s Begins Carnegie Hall Season for 2013-14

Posted on: October 24th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I had a mixed reaction to tonight’s concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, led by Principal Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, at Carnegie Hall.

The centerpiece of the concert was Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Op. 31, with soloists Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Stewart Rose (horn).  As prelude, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  After intermission, they played Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9.

The Britten was splendid, as one could predict with Bostridge involved, since he is now the “go to” person for Britten’s song cycles, having well inherited the mantle from Peter Pears, for whom these songs were written.  Bostridge’s tone no longer has quite the youthful innocence and energy that entranced me so many years ago when I heard his first recording of Schubert’s Beautiful Maid of the Mill, but there is a well-earned maturity and thoughtfulness that adds great meaning to Britten’s profound settings of this collection of poems.  Stewart Rose’s horn solos were more than adequate to the occasion, if not quite of the calibre one recalls from Barry Tuckwell or the Dennis Brain recording.

But the rest of the concert was on a lower level of accomplishment, I felt, and I blame conductor Heras-Casado in part for taking some fast tempi that were beyond the ability of his orchestra to articulate cleaning and were probably the cause of some of the sloppiness in wind solos and scrambling in strings.  Surely I enjoy a brisk Mendelssohn overture, but there are human limits to be observed.  I had the same reaction to the first movement of the Shostakovich, where several of the solos were played less than cleanly at the excessively fast tempo.  The second movement was adequately restrained, with a beautiful clarinet solo, and the third movement presto went well.  The bassoon cadenzas and trombone interjections in the fourth movement were also excellent, but then I was surprised, in light of the speedy tempi earlier on, that the final allegretto was restrained by comparison, except for the very fast (and excellently played) coda.

This makes sense, as a matter of terminology, since an allegretto shouldn’t be quite as fast as an allegro, and the composer gives metronome markings for this movement that suggest a more moderate pace than many of the performances I’ve heard.  Indeed, at this tempo, I was really impressed at how Shostakovich seemed to be thumbing his nose at Soviet authority when the full orchestra burst into the trivial “triumphal march” towards the end, right before the coda.  At this tempo, the sacrcasm really came through, as if the composer was mocking the idea that he should be presenting a triumphal march to commemorate the end of World War II and the great Soviet victory over fascism.  Hearing this performance, I could almost understand the ferocious condemnation he suffered as a result of this piece — it’s almost as if he was asking for it with this mocking march tune.  But I’ve never quite heard it that way before, so I have to thank Maestro Heras-Casado for this insight. 

I hope that as he settles in further to his position as principal conductor, his working relationship with the orchestra will deepen and perhaps he will be more sensitive to the need to adopt tempi that are workable.  (One gets spoiled listening to the NY Philharmonic, whose wind players probably could produce flawless renditions at these tempi if called upon to do so.)  Some of the playing tonight just struck me as not quite prime time Carnegie Hall calibre, but from what I’ve heard in past seasons, I wouldn’t put all the blame on the instrumentalists.

A Britten Weekend – With a 17th century interlude!

Posted on: October 20th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Three-quarters Britten.  That was my weekend.  On Saturday I attended the afternoon performance of Britten’s opera, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” at the Metropolitan Opera.  Then in the evening I attended the first concert of Columbia University’s Miller Theater Early Music Series, by Le Poeme Harmonique, a French early-music ensemble led by Vincent Dumestre, in music by Monteverdi and some contemporaries under the program title “Combattimenti!”  On Sunday, I attended two recitals, at 1 and 4, of songs by Britten, jointly presented by 5 Boroughs Music Festival, Brooklyn Art Song Society, and The Casement Fund Song Series.   A heavy dose of Britten, but I survived!!

First – the Met.  Rather than do a new production of Britten opera for the composers centennial (which comes up in November), the Met revived this rather uninspired 1996 production of the piece Britten and Pears quickly put together for an Aldeburgh Festival production in 1960.  They didn’t involve an experienced librettist, but together cut Shakespeare’s play to fit the time they could allot, resulting in not much coherence but plenty of opportunities for great music.  And there is some great music here, interspersed with more commonplace stuff.  I think by general consensus this is not one of the Britten’s stronger operas.  And so I question why the Met couldn’t honor the greatest 20th century composer of opera in English with a splendid new production of one of his major operas. 

In any event, the performance was a good one, despite the weaknesses of the piece.  James Conlon had the Met Orchestra playing up to its brilliant standard, and Iestyn Davies was a knock-out as Oberon, King of the Fairies.  I was also quite taken with young Riley Costello, who played the speaking and acrobatic role of Puck.  Matthew Rose was broadly comical as Bottom, a weaver who sings some of his lines wearing an awkward Donkey head. 

By contrast, my evening event Saturday was brilliant on all accounts.  Dumestre has put together one of the most exciting early music ensembles.  Most of the compositions on Saturday’s program can be heard on a recording they did for the French Alpha label in 2009, but it is always more exciting to hear a live performance, with all its spontaneity, and real rather than electrically-recreated sound.  The period instruments made a big, rich sound in the lively acoustic of Miller Theatre, although the poor ventilation system in the hall and the unseasonably warm weather meant that they had to do lots of retuning between compositions.  The entire ensemble of singers was brilliant, but especially noteworthy were Jan Van Elsacker, a tenor, who sang the narrator’s role in Monteverdi’s “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” and the most extended solo role – the patent-medicine vendor – in Marco Marazzoli’s hilarious madrigal comedy, “La Fiera di Farfa.”  Marazzoli’s piece is definitely worth seeking out the recording, an extended scena involving attending a fair in an old Italian town square, with all the noise and vendors and dancing and acrobats, etc.  Everything is described with great gusto, and Elsacker’s irrepressible merchant will not be shouted down as he makes the broadest, most outrageous claims for the healing powers of his brew.  Also stellar was tenor Serge Goubioud, especially in his big solo in Il Fasolo’s “Lamento di madama Lucia con la riposta di Cola,” which unfortunately is not on the recording.    This was an outstanding concert.  If you ever see an event scheduled by this group, run to get a ticket as fast as you can.

The Britten song recitals on Sunday were also excellent.  It was especially exciting to hear Nicky Spence, the British tenor who makes his Metropolitan Opera debut tomorrow (!!) in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” as one of the leads.  Indeed, it is astonishing to me that on the day before his Met debut Spence was willing to commit to sing Britten songs in an afternoon concert.  He probably should have been resting his voice instead!  But artists will be artists, and he was terrific.  The other fantastic singers were Mary Mackenzie (soprano), Michael Slattery (tenor), Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 1 pm recital, and, in addition to Spence, Martha Guth (soprano), Naomi O’Connell (mezzo-soprano), and Michael Kelly (baritone) in the 4 pm recital.   As a great baritone-fancier, I was particularly impressed by Kelly, who also sang sublimely last season during the Schubertfest!  Thomas Bagwell was the pianist for the first recital, Malcolm Martineau for the second.  A broad cross-section of Britten’s songs were rendered exquisitely.  This was actually the second of two days of an ambitious Britten song festival.  The first three recitals were presented yesterday in Brooklyn, while today’s program was at the excellent small recital hall at Baruch College on 25th Street in Manhattan.  It was a privilege to hear so much great music-making, and worth devoting most of the day to hear many pieces by Britten that are not frequently performed.  Indeed, Martineau pointed out that some of the early songs interspersed among the later-published song cycles on Sunday’s 4 pm program may have been receiving their US concert premieres.

NYC Musical Diary – More May Concerts – Detroit SO, Alarm Will Sound, Musicians From Marlboro

Posted on: June 3rd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Being busy with final exams and grading, I haven’t been to as many concerts as usual over the past few weeks, but I wanted to comment about a few:

May 10 in Carnegie Hall I attended one of their “Spring for Music” concerts, a presentation of the four symphonies of Charles Ives by Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve been an Ives fan since high school days, when I performed the double bass in a performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Oneonta (NY) Symphony Orchestra.  Preparing for that experience I acquired the stereo LP of Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the NY Philharmonic as well as a full score published by Peer International.  I was shocked – shocked! – to discover that Bernstein made cuts in the piece when he recorded.  (Cuts that he retained when he made a new recording with the New York Philharmonic for DG two decades later, I might add.)  Who was he to second-guess the composer in that way?  (I’ve always been upset to discover when conductors have made cuts in a piece.  I once attended a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony at the NY Philharmonic by a conductor who shall remain nameless where the performance was so heavily cut that I commented to my companion on that occasion that we had just heard a performance of “highlights” from Rach’s 2nd Symphony!)

Anyway, as far as I could tell everything was complete and uncut on May 10, resulting in a very long but gratifying concert.  First I should say that, never having heard this orchestra live before, I was extremely impressed, especially in light of the labor problems they’ve had and the slightly smaller string section than might have been ideal for all but the 3rd Symphony (which was intended by Ives for chamber orchestra).  On the other hand, they managed a big sound that was not inferior to what I’ve heard from larger ensembles playing in that space.  Slatkin has them playing to a very high technical standard, and the orchestra also seemed very engaged with and enthusiastic about the music.

Ives’s 1st Symphony, largely written while he was a Yale undergraduate, owes a heavy debt to Dvorak but still includes touches of harmony and orchestration that foreshadow the mature Ives of the 2nd Symphony to come.  I was particularly impressed in this performance by the gorgeous Adagio molto, where the Dvorak influence is at its heaviest but where the composer has made the most structurally and expressly coherent statement in his symphony.  The piece could even stand along as a tone poem and earn rave reviews.

The 2nd Symphony is usually a new listener’s way into Ives, as the most listener-friendly “Americana” piece he composed, full of allusions to American patriotic songs and hymn tunes, building to a finale dominated by “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” motifs from which permeate the earlier movements, giving an interesting unity to the work.  There are some “romantic” parts where some conductors go “all squishy” and lose the rhythmic profile, but Slatkin did not, providing a performance that rivals the old Bernstein while besting him with completeness (and better playing than the NYP was capable of giving back in the 1960s).

Within the context of the four symphonies, I thought the 3rd came through as the weakest.  Possibly Slatkin doesn’t care for it as much as the others, or perhaps it is just the limitations of the piece, being a rather slender thing between the big Nos. 2 & 4.  I suspect it didn’t get as much rehearsal time as the others, because this was the only one in which I felt ensemble was a bit slack and some of the key lines in the strings were not as precisely articulated as one could want.

This was the third performance I’d heard this season of the 4th Symphony – previously played by Botstein and the American Symphony and Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic – but I thought it was the best.  Slatkin spent some time helping the audience appreciate Ives’s audacity by taking apart some of the challenging 2nd movement and giving us examples of the different lines being combined.  The first time I listened to this piece – the old Stokowski/ASO recording back when I was in high school – I could make heads or tails out of that second movement. The key, I eventually learned, was that it is a huge scherzo, a great jest, and one has to just sit back and let it happen, without trying to find any rhyme or reason in it.  It is Ives taking  laugh at the absurdities of human existence, and heard that way, it is actually quite comical.  The third movement is Ives’s bow to traditionalism, taking a fugue he originally wrote for string quartet and tricking it out with a big, luscious string-dominated sound, but just to make sure you get get the joke, insert a quote toward the end from a religious song.  The finale is a cosmic mash-up, the music of the spheres, the universal sounds….  Slatkin/Detroit hit the target in every movement and gave the best Ives 4th I’ve ever heard live or on record.

It would be great if Naxos would release a complete Ives Symphonies set by these performers, even though it already has three of the symphonies in its catalogue with others.  They have Slatkin remaking his old Rachmaninoff Symphony recordings with Detroit (he already had recorded them as a youngster in St. Louis), but I think there is less need for those recordings than for really good recordings of Ives. 

The next evening, May 11, I attended a Musicians from Marlboro Concert presented by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at the High School of Fashion Industries auditorium.  Quite a contrast with Carnegie Hall.  The bill of fare was Stravinsky Concertino for String Quartet, Britten String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94, Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 26.  My favorite piece was the Brahms.  Indeed, in my humble opinion, Brahms was the greatest composer of chamber music in the 19th century, and perhaps for all time (although one must be cautious about predicting the future).  I’ve yet to hear any chamber piece by Brahms that I did not eventually conclude was a great masterpiece.  And I though these performers did it justice: Emilie-Anne Gendron (violin), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Gabriel Cabezas (cello), Matan Porat (piano).  The Britten I didn’t care for as much, perhaps because I don’t know it very well and did not find it particularly engaging in this performance, despite strenuous efforts by the performers to convince me.  But the same performers did a fine job with the Stravinsky, which I greatly enjoyed.  The line-up was: Bella Hristova and Adnbi Um (violins, switching off first desk between the two pieces), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), and Angela Park (cello).

Next on my concert calender was a special event, on May 16 – the Juilliard graduation recital by Lachlan Glen & Friends.  Mr. Glen was co-organizer of the season-long Schubert lieder series together with Jonathan Ware, and I had so enjoyed attending many of those concerts that I jumped at the opportunity when Lachlan invited me to his graduation recital.  He majored in collaborative performance, which means that almost everything on the program involved him performing with other musicians, and it says alot about the esteem in which he is held by his colleagues at Juilliard that he had a stellar bunch of collaborators.  The singers included Rachael Wilson, Kyle Bielfield, Matthew Morris and Emmett O’Hanlon.  Tavi Ungerleider offered some terrific cello playing (especially a movement from the Rachmaninoff Sonata that was quite moving), and Dimitri Dover collaborated on some 4-hand piano music.  Lachlan has grown fantastically as a performer and collaborative artist over the past year, as I witnessed attending the Schubert concerts, starting with good technique and lots of enthusiasm and developing much subtlety of dynamic control and phrasing.  He surely has a great career ahead of him.  He’ll be joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Program this summer.

My most recent concert experience involved another friend, Alan Pierson, conducting his Irish group, the Crash Ensemble, in a fantastic evening at Zankel Hall (Carnegie Hall small ensemble venue) on May 17.  Crash Ensemble was actually started by its Musical Director, Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, in 1997, and Alan Pierson became its conductor several seasons ago.  (He’s best known as artistic director of the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound and as the musical director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.)   This concert was a logical development of the recent Nonesuch recording by Pierson and Crash, collaborating with Dawn Upshaw and Iarla O Lionaird (Irish folk vocalist) on recent compositions by Dennehy, “That the Night Come” (Upshaw) and “Gra agus Bas” (O Lionaird).  Fine as that recording is, hearing the pieces performed live was a special treat and gave them additional meaning for me.  They began the program with two exciting songs by Osvaldo Golijov, “Lua Descolorida” and “How Slow the Wind.”   I have Upshaw’s recording of “Lua Descolorida,” where it has a piano accompaniment.  In this performance, the piece was accompanied by string quartet.  Golijov has also used it, with a different orchestration, in his San Marco Passion.  The lovely piece is lovely in any format, but I think Upshaw’s performance with the string accompaniment was more effective than the recording with piano accompaniment.

So, that’s my concert calendar for May concluded.  The NY Philharmonic was away on tour, but I’ll be hearing them a few times in June and looking forward to their Summertime Classics in July.

Busy Musical Calendar – NYCO at BAM, ASO at SS, NYP (Carousel), CBST at SWFS

Posted on: March 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve been so busy attending interesting musical events over the past few weeks that I’ve fallen behind in noting them here.  So, here goes:

The New York City Opera, having foresworn Lincoln Center, is in its second year of wandering, with four operas on the schedule.  The first two, which I’ve now attended, were presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  I went to successive Saturday performances of “Powder Her Face” by Thomas Ades (music) and Philip Hensher (libretto) on February 23 and “The Turn of the Screw” by Benjamin Britten (music) and Myfanwy Piper (libretto) on March 2.  This was the 20th century British half of the season.  Next up will be two operas presented at New York City Center, Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” and Offenbach’s “La Perichole,” the 19th century Romantic half of the season. 

While I thought that both of the BAM productions were worthy efforts in the sense of providing a showcase to relatively contemporary works, in the end I was not persuaded that either work is all that wonderful.  “Powder Her Face” presents imagined scenes from the life of the Duchess of Argyle, famously divorced by the Duke for her brazen philandering.  This piece struck me as intended to make a sensation rather than a serious musical statement.  In fact, with some exceptions I found the music rather thin on the ground, more like a soundtrack for a movie (in the traditional sense of background commentary to heighten emotions or stimulate mood) than an opera where the music takes a central place.  The production was undoubtedly true to the composer’s intent in packing the stage with nude bodies.  The best bits from the score might be heard on an EMI recording of an orchestral suite comprised of the overture, a waltz, and music from the finale.  “The Turn of the Screw” is derived from a short ghost story by Henry James, with prominent roles for two child characters, here sung by performers who struck me as slightly too old for the roles.  The music has more substance than that of “Powder,” but I don’t find it anywhere near as strong a score as “Billy Budd” or “Peter Grimes.” 

Production values for both were very high, with workable sets, innovative lighting, and excellent costumes — especially for the nude men!  Conductors Jonathan Stockhammer (“Powder”) and Jayce Ogren (“Screw”) did what could be done for these scores, with excellent work from the instrumental ensembles (not full opera orchestras) in the pit, and fine contributions from the singers.  The cast list in the “Powder” program was not particularly helpful, since several singers took on multiple roles, but were unhelpfully identified in the program only with one role each.  Allison Cook as the Duchess seemed comfortable with her challenging role, and the “corps of lovers” seem to have been recruited at a serious gym.  Sara Jakubiak was very convincing in the lead role of the Governess in “Screw,” but I was less convinced by Dominic Armstrong’s performance as “Peter Quint” — although much of the time he sounded like Peter Pears, for whom the part was written, he seemed a bit strained by the wide range of the music – perhaps this goes with the territory.  Jennifer Goode Cooper was suitably creepy as the other ghost, Miss Jessel.  I recall Benjamin Wenzelberg’s performance as Miles from Symphony Space last year, when he was perhaps just within the proper age range for this role.  Now he seems a bit old for the part, although he sang it very well.

On Sunday, February 24, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Declassified program on Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 at Symphony Space.  Leon Botstein, a bit of a contrarian where Bruckner editions are concerned, decided to present the original version of the score, which Bruckner subjected to substantial revisions after Herman Levi rejected the opportunity to conduct the premiere on the ground that he couldn’t understand the score.  (It’s hard in retrospect to sympathize with Levi, having now heard that original score.)  Ultimately a revision was conducted in 1892 by Hans Richter, to great success.  Leon Botstein’s talk provided an illustrated comparison of Bruckner’s first thoughts with his revised version, and proved most illuminating, although I suspect it was most comprehensible to those of us who are reasonably familiar with the standard version usually performed today.

I was very impressed by the full performance of the piece.  Botstein prefers faster-than-usual tempi in Bruckner, and I think he is correct in this, since the music coheres much better when not unduly stretched out.  Even at these brisk tempi, the piece took more than 70 minutes.  The brass playing was extraordinary, and the comfortably small concert hall at Symphony Space helped the string section – numbering somewhere between a chamber orchestra size and a full symphony orchestra size – to full and rich sound.  After hearing this original version in concert, I think most of the changes Bruckner made were improvements, but that may be as much a function of familiarity as of actual quality.  This deserved to be heard.  The more of late Bruckner I hear, the more I am persuaded that his musical genius approached that of his contemporary and antagonist, Brahms.

On Thursday night, February 27, I attended the second of the New York Philharmonic’s five performances of “Carousel,” the musical show by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1945).  “Carousel” induces nostalgia in me because I played double bass in the instrumental ensemble for a production at Oneonta High School when I was just a lad.  The handful of performances followed many weeks of rehearsals, by which time I had pretty much memorized the dialogue and lyrics.  Although it’s been many years since I listened to the cast recording, it all came flooding back on Thursday night.  Every song is skillfully constructed to advance the action, most of the tunes are difficult to get out of your head, and Rodgers’ harmony is pretty sophisticated for 1940s Broadway stuff.  I don’t think Hammerstein’s lyrics have aged quite as well, and the handling of Billy Bigelow’s abusive treatment of Julie Jordan would not meet today’s standard of political correctness, as the lyrics incorporate sexual stereotypes in ways that today sound naive or offensive -sort of letting Bigelow “off the hook” because the pressures of his life help to explain his physical abusiveness. 

The production was excellent, with special commendation for NYC Ballet dancers Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild (choreography by Warren Carlyle), who made something splendid out of the ballet-pantomime in the final scenes.  Nathan Gunn and Stephanie Blythe, the two opera singers in the cast, seemed over-microphoned to me.  They really didn’t need amplification in this hall, but their fellow cast-members from the Broadway theater did, and I guess it wouldn’t work to have some amplified and some not.  Kelli O’Hara, Shuler Hensley, Jason Daniely, Jessie Mueller, Kate Burton and John Cullum rounded out the cast, and Rob Fisher, the original music director from City Center Encores!, led the orchestra.  It is quite a luxury to hear this score played by the NY Philharmonic string section, just slightly reduced from the size that would be used for Beethoven symphonies.  The overture in this rendition was very well upholstered.  John Rando’s direction had the cast moving about well in the restricted space they had using a stage extension in front of the orchestra (with some platforms for added movement).  The production was beautifully designed and staged, coming very close to what one might consider a fully-staged production were the orchestra to be moved down into a pit.  These performances deserved the encomia they’ve received in the local press.

Finally, last night I attended the 18th Annual Shabbat Shirah Concert presented by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, my synagogue.  This year the event, held at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, was devoted to celebrating and honoring Jonathan Sheffer, composer-conductor-pianist, who is a member of our board of trustees and a very active congregant in supporting the musical program.  Sheffer displayed all his musical talents yesterday, including even singing for an encore number.  He announced that he plans to set the entire Friday night Shabbat service, and has begun with a very moving setting of Oseh Shalom that was performed with great enthusiasm by the CBST Community Chorus directed by Joyce Rosenzweig.  David Marks (violin), Adrian Daurov (cello), and Spencer Myer (piano) collaborated on Sheffer’s Piano Trio No. 2, Mary Feminear (mezzo), Jonathan Estabrooks (baritone), David Mintz (tenor), Naomi Katz Cohen (soprano) and Joyce Rosenzweig (piano) performed the 10-minute chamber opera, Camera Obscura, and ballet dancer Tom Gold superbly executed very athletic choreography to three Sheffer piano pieces.  The highlight for me included two songs Sheffer had written for musical shows, especially a show-stopper from 1982 sung by Christine Ebersole and deserving of wider exposure.  It was a very interesting concert, well performed, and an unusual opportunity to hear lots of music by Jonathan, who received an award for his services to the congregation.