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American Symphony Orchestra Examines Obscure Works of Major Composers

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented “Opus Posthumous,” a concert devoted to works that were not first performed until after the deaths of their composers. These included an opera overture by Franz Schubert to an opera never published or performed in his lifetime, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 00 (a study symphony he composed but did not consider suitable for performance), and Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 1, which was composed for entry into a composition contest. Dvorak sent his only copy of the handwritten manuscript, which was never returned to him, and the work was long thought lost, only to show up years later in a bookstore where it was purchased by somebody who shared the composer’s surname but was not a relative. The piece was first performed long after the composer’s death, and then in an abridged version.

This was a very pleasant concert of 19th century romantic music, but none of the works is an imperishable masterpiece. Indeed, my opinion after the concert was that Dvorak was lucky the piece was not played when it was written, because it could have impeded his career.  The orchestration is amateurish in places, creating a heavy and clotted effect, and the development of the themes is unduly repetitious.  Some good ideas are just buried under clumsy orchestration, unfortunately. 

Dvorak and Bruckner were late bloomers as mature symphonists.  Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, but published only the last five, and until mid-20th century, most music lovers would say their favorite was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 5, the “New World Symphony.”  By the time I was learning about classical music in the 1960s, it was usually identified as Symphony No. 9 (old “No. 5”), as by then the earlier unpublished symphonies had been edited and published in a complete edition of Dvorak’s music.  But the first four symphonies are rarely performed, as he really didn’t hit his stride until “old No. 1,” which is now known as Symphony No. 6.  Old No. 2 became Symphony No. 7, Old No. 3 became Symphony No. 5, and Old No. 4 became Symphony No. 8.  This is all ancient history for the generation of classical music lovers following me.  With Bruckner, there is last night’s Symphony No. 00, then his first published Symphony, No. 1, then Symphony No. 0 which comes before Symphony No. 2.  Bruckner was very self-critical and withheld pieces from publication if they didn’t meet his high standards.  Bruckner’s situation is complicated by his tendency to revise, abetted by some of his younger supporters who thought his music would be more readily accepted if he would just shorten things!  So there are multiple versions of most of the published symphonies, including so many versions of Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 4 (two completely different versions of one of the movements are floating about) that one can easily lose count.

Last night’s Bruckner was a pleasant student work that shows few signs of the mature composer.  Indeed, it sounded much like the Schubert overture that came before it on the program.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with any of these pieces, but none of them stand to become part of the standard orchestral repertory, as they are put in the shade by other works of the composers. The ASO played them all very well under Leon Botstein’s direction, as members of the audience had a rare opportunity to hear works by major composers that they are not likely to get to hear in live performance ever again! This is central to the ASO’s mission under Botstein’s leadership.  To cast light in dark corners….

The Singers and the Songs – NY Festival of Song: Kevin Puts & Friends – Meglioranza/Uchida New Winterreise Recording

Posted on: February 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Herewith some observations about two encounters with art song in recent days: a wonderful concert of new songs presented by the New York Festival of Song at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and a new recording of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, by baritone Tom Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida.

The New York Festival of Song, which presents an extensive series of song recitals at Merkin Concert Hall (north of Lincoln Center), has launched a new series called NYFOS Next, putting the spotlight on contemporary composers who are emerging on the classical concert scene.  The premise is to engage a composer to “curate” a concert by selecting the songwriters and, in some cases, commissioning them to produce new songs for the occasion, and then to introduce each number from the stage.  Their initial program, presented on Tuesday, February 5, employed Kevin Puts as the composer-curator, at the intimate Jerome Robbins Theater in the Baryshnikov Center.  Mr. Puts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2012 for his opera, “Silent Night,” which received its first performances at the Minnesota Opera, and has some forthcoming performances scheduled, most imminently in Philadelphia this coming weekend.  In addition to ending the program with three arias from “Silent Night” with piano accompaniment, Mr. Puts wrote a new song to open the program.  Other composers represented on the recital included Christopher Theofanidis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Christopher Cerrone, Tarik O’Regan, Andrew Haile Austin, David Lang, Harold Meltzer, and Derek Bermel.  Many of the composers were present and made comments about their compositions, and Mr. Gordon accompanied his song as well.  Mr. Puts, who is also an accomplished pianist, accompanied in his compositions. Michael Barrett, Associate Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, accompanied the other songs, and violinist Charles Yang participated in two of the songs (singing in the ensemble for one of the).

At the outset, Mr. Puts confessed that he only recently became involved in song with the commission to write his opera, and he required considerable assistance from Mr. Barrett in identifying appropriate composers to participate in this program.  Many of the songs that were presented were written in response to a commission from Opera America to celebrate the opening of their new National Opera Center, just a few blocks away from the Baryshnikov Center, and they are available on a compact disc recording released by Opera America. 

Three singers (plus, as noted above, briefly Mr. Yang), participated in the program: soprano Stacey Tappan, Mezzo-Soprano Krista River, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Mr. Blumberg, and may assume that was my main reason for attending the concert.  But I’m also a big fan of Mr. Puts, and his association with the program was another big draw for me.  I was present at the New York Philharmonic premiere of a piece he wrote for them several years ago, and I was so impressed that I began searching for recordings of his music.  It took a while, but eventually I was able to assemble a fairly extensive collection of his work, almost all of it instrumental music.  My favorite Kevin Puts composition is his Violin Concerto, which was written for Ft. Worth Symphony concertmaster Michael Shih when Mr. Puts was composer-in-residence for that orchestra, and is available on a recording made at the world premiere performance and released by the FWSO on its own label.  (Mr. Puts’ Third Symphony, also a very attractive piece, is on the same release, together with music by Gabriela Frank.)  It’s definitely worth seeking out (there’s a link on Mr. Puts’ website, or go directly the Ft. Worth Symphony’s website), and this concerto should be taken up by other violinists, as it deserves to be a repertory piece.  For sheer beauty it can’t be beaten.

Anyway, back to the songs:  This was quite a varied lot, but all the songs had in common a generally tonal language, a strong sensitivity to the meaning of text, and, on this occasion, excellent performances.  Although it was announced at the beginning that Mr. Blumberg was experiencing a touch of “under the weather” (which resulted in dropping one of the scheduled songs), he sounded fine to me, full of voice and fully engaged in all of his numbers.  Ms. Tappan and Ms. River were pleasant discoveries for me, and I will seek out Ms. Tappan’s new recording of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon (whose song “Bless This Our Lovely Home,” one of the Opera America commissions, was presented with Mr. Gordon at the keyboard, as noted above).  I can second Mr. Puts’ comment, introducing this song, that Gordon is definitely one of our most gifted contemporary song writers, and this song — which can be found on the Opera America CD — is a prime example of his art.

The song that I enjoyed the most was Derek Bermel’s “Lucky Number,” which was scored for the ensemble of all three singers, Mr. Yang (violin and voice), and piano, with a text by Wendy Walters.  This was among the most “listener-friendly-at-first-hearing” pieces on the program, having a strong whiff of Broadway about it.  By the way, I just saw a laudatory review in Gramophone of a new recording of Bermel’s music by Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound on the Canteloupe label, so — Bermel fanciers alert!  I’ve placed my order…

Finally, at the conclusion of the concert, the three arias from “Silent Night” were sung by Jesse Blumberg and Stacey Tappan.  Spectacular!  Somebody in New York has to put on this opera!  Soon!!

Turning to my other observation: 

I’ve been a fan of the combination of Tom Meglioranza and Reiko Uchida since I heard their recital at Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall) many years ago.  I’d been invited to attend by Jorge Martin, the composer whose commissioned work was being performed.  I fell in love with Meglioranza’s singing and attended more concerts, communicating my enthusiasm to him.  I was very enthusiastic about his first self-produced recital disc with Uchida, a collection of Schubert songs selected and arranged to make up a thematic cycle.  And I was delighted when the snail-mail brought a welcome surprise late last week: a new Meglioranza disc, this time of Schubert’s great Winterreise song-cycle, again with Uchida. 

I’ve listened to it several times, put it on my ipod for portable listening, and become totally absorbed.  (It’s now the second Winterreise on my ipod, sharing the honors with Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes, so they are in good company.)  Meglioranza’s art deepens, the collaboration with Uchida goes from strength to strength, and there is nothing less than first-class about this self-produced recording (which is available from   Too many lieder recordings these days are released without texts and translations.  This one comes with a song-by-song summary on the cardboard album and a booklet with original texts and Meglioranza’s English translations, as well as photographs and biographies of the performers.  The studio recording has a bit less resonance than the prior Schubert disc (which was made in the auditorium at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Upper Manhattan), which affects slightly one’s perception of the voice.  It sounds a bit lighter and less full on the bottom than in the prior recording, but all the virtues I know from past exposure to Meglioranza’s work are there, not least the deep engagement with the text, the fine intonation and rhythmic sense, the wide range of dynamics, and the close collaboration with Uchida, whose sensitive accompaniments play a major role in the success of this recording.  (I’m no expert in German dialect, but no less an expert than the late, great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is quoted in the booklet reacting to Meglioranza’s prior Schubert disc with praise for his German; DFD suggests he must be of German descent to be an American who sings German so well!)  

Anybody who hasn’t discovered this combination of performers should rush to get the recording.  If you’re a Schubert fan who already has ‘too many Winterreises’ in your collection, get the earlier recital, which includes plenty of less-frequently-performed songs that are nonetheless all winners!  But how can any collection of Schubert lieder have ‘too many Winterreises’??

Schubert & Co. Soldiers Onward

Posted on: January 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

On Sunday night (January 27), as most of the art-song community was packed into Carnegie Hall to hear a joint recital by the reigning divas of the moment – Renee Fleming and Susan Graham – I was at Central Presbyterian Church to hear the latest installment of Schubert & Co.’s audacious journey through all the lieder of Franz Schubert, allegedly the first time any concert series in New York has attempted to accomplish this feat in a single concert season.  (Ironically, a work colleague offered me a ticket to the Fleming-Graham recital, which I turned down because I intended to be at Schubert & Co’s presentation.)

It turned out that my presence was very much needed.  There were about fifteen people present, including the two pianists – Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware, the five singers — sopranos Devon Guthrie and Mary Feminear, countertenor John Holiday, baritone Benjamin Bloomfield, and bass-baritone Tyler Simpson — and then we fearless few who were merely listeners.  But the concert wouldn’t exist without the listeners, and I’m glad I was there because IT WAS A TERRIFIC RECITAL!  The singers and pianists put on their game faces and gave their all, even though there were few of us to hear it.  They sang and played with feeling and passion, and we hear a marvelous selection of Schubert songs to texts by Goethe and several of his contemporaries.  Most of this Sunday’s songs were relatively obscure, not among the dozen or so that pop up frequently at song recitals, although a handful were familiar to me: Der Fischer, Ganymed, Ihr Grab, mainly from among the later songs.  But everything was worth hearing, including a handful of very early songs from Schubert’s teen years. Hearing the mix of songs from different periods of the composer’s life helps to put everything in perspective. 

And, of course, there are the discoveries.  I’m a particular fan of the male soprano (sometimes called countertenor) voice, and I was really impressed by John Holiday’s high, clear expressive soprano voice.  (One rarely hears countertenors singing Schubert, since they tend to focus on the 17-18th century repertory originally intended for castrati, and the participation of castrati in concert life had pretty much died out by the early 19th century in Vienna, so I suspect Schubert would have been amused to hear a man singing one his songs in the soprano range.)  I was also impressed by the very dramatic singing of Tyler Simpson, and  – especially in the final set – by Benjamin Bloomfield, whose rather restrained approach to his first song didn’t prepare me for the depth of his final ones.  Sopranos Guthrie and Feminear were also pleasing to hear.  One of the great pleasures of this series is being introduced to so many fine young singers.

Both pianists are accomplished lieder collaborators, although they have very different styles of playing.  Jonathan Ware has a gentle touch on the keyboard that produces a very rounded sound, quite beautiful, while Lachlan Glen’s touch is more aggressive, producing a bit of a harder edge and wider dynamic range.  It would be really interesting to hear the same song rendered by the same singer accompanied by each of these pianists in turn, just to judge how much of my impression is influenced by the very different styles of pianism

And the price is right: Free.  Check out the Schubert & Co. website for their remaining concert schedule.  I won’t be able to make it to all of them – in fact, I have to miss quite a few due to out-of-town commitments and concert conflicts – but I highly recommend the series.

Radu Lupu at Carnegie Hall – January 24, 2013

Posted on: January 25th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended Radu Lupu’s piano recital at Carnegie Hall last night. This was a long evening. The program started (late as per Carnegie’s custom these days) at about 8:10 pm, and wasn’t over, including the single brief encore, until close to 10:30 pm. I have no objection to longer-than-usual piano recitals, but I found this one a bit wearying.
And that was because Mr. Lupu’s program seemed to me to be too much focused on soft, gentle playing (suitable for the main part for the works he selected), so soft and gentle that I found it difficult to sustain focus through to the end.
He began with four impromptus by Franz Schubert that were grouped together and published posthumously as Op. 142 (D. 935 in the modern catalogue of the composer’s works). These are late (in the context of Schubert’s brief career, given his premature demise), predominantly gentle pieces. I felt a bit uncomfortable with the first two. The pianist didn’t seem “settled” and there were some awkward-sounding pauses sapping the music of continuity. In the third piece, however, a set of variations on a Bb major theme recognizable from the Rosamunde incidental music, Lupu seemed to hit his groove, and I found this piece very satisfying, as well as the final piece, which projected some of the energy that might have improved the first two.
His second selection was the rarely performed Prelude, Chorale & Fugue by Cesar Franck. I found his performance of this to be ideal, freely-flowing and full of color and life, magically so with the intermediate chorale section and even more magically when the chorale theme emerges out of the fugal play in the finale.
After intermission, he played the entire Book II of Claude Debussy’s Preludes. Here is where the program had undue length, and where I found it difficult to maintain my concentration. The preludes create varying moods, but the overall sensibility in Lupu’s performance is restrained, calm, generally quiet – and this stretched over 40minutes, with only a few contrasting faster moments, seemed to suspend time. I doubt that anybody today produces a more beautiful tone from the piano, however. I would have preferred a slightly shorter program on a weeknight, or perhaps a 7:30 start to keep it from running quite so late into the night.
Carnegie Hall did what they could (ringing the bell and projecting the request to silence cellphones) before the second part, but still there were at least two negligent audience members who left their cell-phone ringers on resulting in erruptions of distracting noise during the Debussy preludes. We have a city ordinance making this an offense. I wonder whether Carnegie could be moved to seek enforcement against offenders?