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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.

A Minimalist Monteverdi Production for the 21st Century: Opera Omnia’s “The Return of Ulysses”

Posted on: September 16th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last week Opera Omnia, a tiny company that is the brainchild of Baroque opera enthusiast Wesley Chinn, presented its third production in New York, Claudio Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses,” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.  I attended the final performance on Thursday, September 12.  I was particularly drawn to attend this because one of my favorite musicians, baritone Jesse Blumberg, was singing the role of Ulysses.  But I was also intrigued to see what Opera Omnia would do with this piece — which I last saw in a production by the NY City Opera back in their Lincoln Center days — considering how much I had enjoyed their prior production, Giasone, at Le Poisson Rouge.

This was definitely Monteverdi for the 21st century, performed in English and substantially cut to bring it within the presumed shorter attention span of a present-day audience.  I have to say that Monteverdi sung in English sometimes sounds very peculiar.  The syllables don’t scan very well to Monteverdi’s music, which was conceived with Italian lyrics in mind, and sometimes the result could be just a bit awkward or clunky.  On the other hand, the setting at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was not one where projected titles would work very well, and it was helpful to be able to understand what the performers were singing, especially in the heavily-cut first act where dramatic continuity was not easily achieved. (The second act seemed to hang together much better in that respect, and the momentum of the performance carried through to a triumphant conclusion.

A minimalist unit set provided the necessary framework to suggest the scenes specified in the libretto (originally by Giacomo Badoaro, but performed in a translation by Anne Ridler), and vivid costuming also contributed positively to the dramatic impression, but this was all about the music, really.  Avi Stein led an excellent small band of authentic instrument players drawn from the elite of such performers in NYC.  One has only to mention their names to a frequent early-music concertgoer to draw appreciative nods: Robert Mealy and Daniel S. Lee, violin; Ezra Seltzer, cello; Christa Patton, harp; Charles Weaver, theorbo and guitar; Hank Heijink, theorbo, Jeffrey Grossman, organ; and of course the ubiquitous Mr. Stein (he seems to pop up everywhere, and is always excellent) leading from the harpsichord.

Jesse Blumberg fulfilled all my hopes and expectations in the lead role, throwing himself physically into the part while always maintain the musical line and – wonder of wonders — articulating the English text so meticulously that it was easily understandable — not always the case with sung English.  His Penelope, Tai-Ting Chinn, was right there with him.  Indeed, the entire cast was superb, but I would give a special call-out to young Owen McIntosh as Telemachus!  Wow, truly dynamic!

Crystal Manich’s stage direction kept the action moving well, and her staging of the denouement when Ulysses slays the suitors was truly devastating.  You know there is going to be lots of exciting stage action when a production boasts a fight director (Nick Gisonde), but this one also had a magic consultant (Mark Mitton), as well as a specialist to construct the headwear (Doug James) that added so much to Muriel Stockdale’s costume designs.  As noted above, the unit set (Julia Noulin-Merat) worked very well in providing a frame for the action.

In short, this was an excellent evening of baroque opera and I hope Opera Omnia will be encouraged by this success to mount another production soon.  Even nature cooperated – a thunderstorm broke out just as the performance was beginning, perfectly timed to compliment Ulysses’ shipwreck on the shore near Ithaka!!

Cultural Diary – March 23 through May 1, 2013 – A Busy Season in NYC

Posted on: May 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

Between work, concerts and theater, I’ve been so busy that I’ve generally avoided blogging about the things I’ve been attending over the past five weeks or so.  This is a catch-up posting, briefly mentioning that things I haven’t had time to write about in longer posts.  This post details the musical events (including opera).  In another, I’ll address the theatrical ones.

Beginning at the beginning, with Richard Goode, and – surprise – ending with him as well, because the first concert I’ll note included his performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on March 23, and the last is his solo recital last night in the same location, devoted to late piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Schumann Concerto was excellent, in the best “Goode” manner – solid, mainstream tempi, beautiful piano sound, careful but energetic navigation of the rhythmically difficult finale.  Indeed, it is hard to understand how a pianist and orchestra can get through that finale without a conductor at a reasonably fast tempo (it is marked “Allegro vivace”), because of the syncopation in the score that must make coordination difficult unless everybody figures out how to ignore the bar lines and just go with the flow…  They obviously figured that out here, and the effusive ovation of the audience earned a more bountiful encore than usual: the “Adagio” second movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K. 453!   For the first half of the program, Orpheus gave us a fleet, songful run through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90, the “Italian” symphony.

The next afternoon, I was in for another pianistic treat as Yevgeny Sudbin presented a brilliant recital at Town Hall under the auspices of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts.  Sudbin has been a favorite since I acquired his first solo recording on the BIS label of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.  His BIS albums are cherishable as much for his revelatory program notes as for his playing.  This is a man who thinks deeply about everything he plays, and always has cogent reasons for his departures from tradition — such as his decision to record the original version of Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto rather than the composer’s revision.   He presented a mixed recital on March 24, beginning with four Scarlatti sonatas, continuing with Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, Op. 47, and completing the first half with Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.  After intermission, we had Franz Liszt — Funerailles from the Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, and Harmonies du soir from the Transcendental Etudes.  The final programmed piece was Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53.  Encores included more Scarlatti, some Rachmaninoff, and Sudbin’s paraphrase on Chopin’s Minute Waltz.  Some people find Sudbin too cerebral or too dry, but I find him wonderfully clear-eyed and totally engaged in whatever he is playing.  I enjoyed every moment of this concert, and could have listened to him play even more encores!  He is in the midst of recording a Beethoven Concerto cycle with Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra, and every one will be worth hearing, but his newest recording, just out, of Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Concerto with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony is superb in every way, and Shui’s urgent traversal of the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 must be heard to be believed.  He makes more sense out of this piece than anyone I’ve heard.

On April 17, I experienced a feeling of deja vu when I opened the program book in Carnegie Hall for the concert by Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden: An all-Johannes Brahms program: Academic Festival Overture, Violin Concerto (with Lisa Batiashvili), and Symphony No. 4.  Deja vu because this is exactly the program I heard in the fall of 1974 when Klaus Tennstedt made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra!  Exactly the same!!  And what a difference.  Tennstedt made the BSO sound like a rich, luxuriant central European big-city orchestra.  By contrast, Thielemann made his group — a central European big-city orchestra — sound nothing like that at all.  The sound was much more tightly defined, the strings less luxuriant, and phrasing more clipped, less songful…  At every turn, this Dresdners sounded less central European than that long-ago evening with the BSO.  Of course, memory can play tricks, and perhaps my memory has enlarged the differences.  In any event, Thielemann and his band were definitely worth hearing, especially in the Symphony, which got an excellent performance, particularly in the intense and dramatic finale.  The Academic Festival was big-boned and joyous, the Violin Concerto sweetly songful with Batiashvili a stronger soloist than was Miriam Fried in my recollection of that long-ago Boston affair.   Thielemann has a sense of humor as well: For an encore they played the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin by Richard Wagner.  Only a conductor with a real sense of humor would cap an all-Brahms program with a Wagner encore.

On April 19 I enjoyed the rare treat of a New York Philharmonic program devoted entirely to American music – almost unheard of in these parts.  Alan Gilbert led the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s “Prospero’s Rooms” and was joined by Joshua Bell for Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion.  After intermission, we had Charles Ives’s Symphony NO. 4, with Eric Huebner the prominent piano soloist, members of the New York Choral Consortium intoning the opening hymn and the worldless choral lines in the finale, and Case Scaglione occasionally standing up to co-conduct during the most rhythmically complex passages of the second and fourth movements.  This was a wonderful concert!!  I always experience some nostalgia for my college days when I hear works by composers who were among the musical composition graduate students at Cornell when I was there as an undergraduate.  Earlier this season, it was Steve Stuckey, and at this concert, Christopher Rouse.  His piece was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and paints a vivid, moody picture with his usual extreme dynamic contrasts.  It was much fun to hear the first time through, and I hope a recording eventuates, since I’d like to get to know this one better.  The Berstein is always a pleasure to hear, and Bell knows how to dramatize the music effectively.  I’ve yet to hear a totally convincing concert performance of the Ives — I’ll always have the Stokowski/ASO world premiere version in my head from listening to that old LP so many times and trying to figure out what was going on in the even-numbered movements.  Gilbert has the measure of the piece, and actually made an even richer thing out of the third-movement fugue than Stokowski.  But nobody exceeds the old wizard in finding the transcendental pitch of the last movement.  This performance left me engaged, but not quite exalted.

Then to NYC Opera at City Center for Gioachino Rossini’s “Moses in Egypt” in a rather minimalist production relying on projections rather than sets.  I thought the cast was better than the show in many respects, and David Salsbery Fry, who stood in on short notice for the indisposed David Cushing as Moses was excellent.  This is not an opera that we are going to hear at the Metropolitan any time soon, so City Opera does a distinct service in giving it a short revival for our delectation.  But it is clear why it is not in the standard repertory.  Rossini in a serious mood does not entertain as well as Rossini in a more frivolous mood – think Barber of Seville – and there are only a handful of really memorable moments in the score. 

As the season neared its end, I managed to squeeze in a last visit on March 31 to the ongoing Schubert & Co. lieder project.  I wish I could have attended more of these, because the young artist performing at these concerts — all volunteers — have been superb, and the opportunity to hear so much rarely, if ever, performed music is unlikely to recur soon.  Schubert wrote more than 500 songs, and the goal of Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware, pianists and co-Artistic Directors of this series, was to present all of them over the course of the season.  By March 31, they had really and truly gotten the hang of the challenging acoustics at Central Presbyterian Church, producing a fine balance of voice and piano, and they assembled a terrific cast to explore settings of verses by Ruckert, Holty, Schreiber and Pyrker — not all deathless poets, but usually deathless music.  Singers for the evening were Simone Easthope (soprano), Michael Kelly (baritone), Alexander Lewis (tenor), and Jazimina MacNeil (mezzo-soprano), and Glen and Ware shared collaborative honors with pianist Ken Noda, who partnered with Lewis for his extended set of eight songs in the middle of the concert.  Lewis was a new discovery for me, very exciting, brilliant dramatization of the texts, large handsome voice, and a very attractive manner.  But all the performers were great, and I so regret I’ll be out of town this weekend and so will miss the big finale of concerts on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening – Schwanengesang, of course, to wind things up, with baritone Edward Parks and pianist Lachlan Glen, whose growth as a collaborate keyboard artist over the course of this season has been extraordinary!  Congratulations to this enterprising crew!

It was back to the New York Philharmonic for me on April 3, for a collaboration with pianist Andras Schiff in Bach keyboard concerti (Nos. 3 and 5) and orchestral music by Mendelssohn and Schumann.  I find Schiff’s approach to the keyboard concerti a bit heavy-handed compared to Murray Perahia, whose recording of this repertory I love.  Also, he’s a bit more straight-laced than David Fray, whose recording and DVD of this repertory are most entertaining.  But Schiff’s approach has it’s place, too, bringing lots of beefy good cheer to the fast movements — played at a more moderate pace than the competition, it must be said — and much poetry to the slow ones.  The early Mendelssohn string sinfonia (the composer was 14 when he wrote it, and not yet the mature musical thinker he would become in just a few short years) was a bit of a throw-away on this program, but the best came last.  Schiff’s conducting of the Schumann 4th Symphony was superb in every respect.  I would love to hear him conduct the entire cycle.

For an interesting break, I went up to Miller Theatre at Columbia University on April 6 to hear baroque ensemble “Les Delices” play a program they called “The Age of Indulgence,” a collection of instrumental music by French baroque composers: Philidor, Rameau, Mondonville, Duphly, and Dauvergne.  One might think that an entire evening of French baroque chamber pieces would blend into an indistinguishable blur, but not so in the hands of these excellent musicians – Debra Nagy, Julie Andrijeski, Scott Metcalfe, Emily Walhout and Michael Sponseller.  Everything was richly characterized, contrasts were pointed up, and teh evening ended on a sprightly note with Dauvergne, a composer rarely encountered.  One could easily hear why Rameau is the one of these still best remembered today, as his Concert No. 3 from the Pieces de clavecin en concert was the most inspired piece of the evening, but everything heard on this program was worth hearing and in the context provided an interesting display of the variety possible within a very narrow range of stylistic permissibility.

On April 7, back to Town Hall for PSC’s presentation of the Johannes String Quartet, playing Brahms (naturally!) No. 1, Op. 51, No. 1, Dutilleux’s “Ainsi la nuit”, and then Brahms No. 3, Op. 67.  The Johannes are well-named. They do know how to play the music of their namesake composer with grace, poise and insight.  That said, I like the rather more assertive performances on the Emerson Quartet’s recording, but the Johannes’ way was no less valid.  The Dutielleux is a startlingly modern effusion of the mid-1970s, treasurable more for sound effects than for melody or motivic development. 

PSC provided a very different string quartet experience with the Quatour Ebene, performing at the High School of Fashion Industries (as the renovation of Washington Irving High School’s auditorium drags on and on).  I am a big fan of Quatour Ebene, four young Frenchmen who play with incredible subtlety.  Perhaps they could have been a bit more forceful in Mozart’s Quartet K. 465, the “dissonant” quartet, but after that was out of the way, the evening was sheer bliss.  Their performance of Schubert’s Quartet D. 804, called the “Rosamunde” because its variations movement uses a theme from the composer’s incidental music for the play of that name, was incredible. That’s the only word for it. They found a degree of mystery, pathos and tension throughout the piece that was unrivalled in my experience.  At the end of each movement, there was a collective feeling of “wow!” from the audience.  Everybody was buzzing during intermission.  And then the Mendelssohn, ending with an “allegro molto” supercharged to the finish line!!  (I promptly ordered a copy of their new recording, which includes the Mendelssohn Op.80 – just arrived and not heard yet, so I hope it adequately recreates the experience!  For encores they played some selections from their “Fiction” album, short pieces based on popular songs, including “Some Day My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  You haven’t really heard it until you hear what these guys can do with it.  They even sing some of it.  (I already knew they could sing… Their brief vocal performance with Philippe Jaroussky on his new DVD recital release is worth the price of admission.)  Can’t get enough of the Ebene.  This was probably the most memorable concert I’ll mention in this diary.

On April 21 I was up at Symphony Space for the last of this season’s Classics Declassified programs by the American Symphony Orchestra.  Leon Botstein selected music from Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde, marking the Wagner bicentennial year.  But I thought this program was a rare misfire from Botstein and the orchestra.  His talk verged on incoherence, disorganized, rambling, and full of too-long orchestral examples with no real follow-up to tie up his pre-playing propositions.  The performances themselves sounded underrehearsed and uninspired, with the possible exception of the Lohengrin Prelude to Act III, although I still had the triumphal sound of Thieleman and the Dresdners in my ears, so it wasn’t a fair comparison.

On April 25 it was back to City Center for Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole – or what was purported to be La Perichole – presented by New York City Opera.  This was one of Christopher Alden’s re-imaginings of a classic musical theater piece, and I thought he managed to trash the piece pretty well.  The singing and acting was fine, but the staging was bizarre, reducing the French light opera tradition to slapstick and pratfalls.  I was not amused, just aghast.  I give the cast credit for gamely going along with the shenanigans and doing their best, but still…. 

For a complete contrast April 28 I journeyed to the East Village for the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s Wagner program, conducted by Pierre Vallet.  This is an amateur neighborhood orchestra with high goals, and they set themselves quite a challenge with this program.  Indeed, some of this music would put the most exalted professionals to the test, and it was to the credit of orchestra and conductor that they got through the program with honor. (Indeed, their playing of the Prelude and Leibestod bested the ASO from a week early, IMHO, although they had the advantage of Christine Goerke singing the Liebestod while the ASO went it alone.)  Madame Goerke, a fine Wagnerian soprano, also gave us two arias from Tannhauser and Senta’s Ballade from Dutchman.  Jesse Blumberg, in splendid voice, sang Wolfram’s Hymn to the Evening Star from Tannhauser as well.  This was an afternoon well spent.

On April 30 I attended the last NYFOSNext program of the season.  This is a series mounted by the New York Festival of Song to showcase music by living composers in the intimate surroundings of the DiMenna Center on West  37th Street.  Each program is “curated” by a composer, who assembles a program from the music of his or her friends and acquaintances calling upon a variety of talented young performers.  For this program Mohammed Fairouz brought together fellow composers Daniel Bernard Roumain, Paola Prestini and Huang Ruo to provide a very diverse evening of song.  I have been a Fairouz fan since hearing his contribution to the 5 Boroughs Songbook, and it was a delight to hear three offerings from him: Tahwidah and For Victims (both on the new Naxos CD of his chamber works) and The Poet Declares His Renown.  I would say that the strongest of these is For Victims, a Holocaust remembrance piece that was strikingly sung by baritone Adrian Rosas with the Catalyst String Quartet.  (The equally striking performance on the recording is by David Kravitz and the Borromeo Quartet.)  Other excellent singers for the evening included Kristina Bachrach and Fang Tao Jiang (sopranos) and Samuel Levine (tenor).  I enjoyed hearing so much new music, so well and energetically performed. Thanks to NYFOS for putting on this series!!

Finally, coming full circle, last nights recital at Carnegie Hall by Richard Goode.  Goode chose to play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, with six bagatelles from Op. 119 to introduce the second half of the program.  I had the strange feeling of duality in this program.  The first half struck me as a bit sleepy, even boring.  Maybe it was me.  I don’t know. But I found Goode’s approach to Op. 109 and Op. 110 to be so restrained, flowing, understated, as to pass by uneventfully, which one doesn’t expect with Beethoven. But something really seemed to charge him up during the intermission, because the second half was Beethoven on steroids.  The Bagatelles were charming and sparkling, the firsrt movement of Op. 111 ferociously dramatic, and the final movement, the extended variations, a symphony of contrasts culminating in that heavenly, quiet ending.  He refused to play an encore, despite the rapturous audience response, and I fully agreed – one can’t play anything after Op. 111.  It’s a natural concert closer, puts a period to things, and shouldn’t be followed by some trifle.

Thus ends a prolonged period of season-ending musical activities.  (But not entirely, of course, since the season has weeks to run, and because the Philharmonic will be away on tour for part of that time, the season is really extended to the end of June, so more to come…)

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 CDBaby.com).   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’??

A Baritone’s Progress – Jesse Blumberg

Posted on: January 21st, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of my favorite singers is baritone Jesse Blumberg. I first heard him sing at a Wolf recital at the Austrian Cultural Forum many years ago. I had gone because another singer who had recently attracted my attention, Tom Meglioranza, was on the program. I came away from the event a Blumberg fan as well, and began to look out for his other concert appearances. Over the past month, I’ve attended three of them!

On January 2, I was at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City for their annual “Green Mountain Project” program, which this year was a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Mr. Blumberg frequently sings with TENET, the early music vocal ensemble that participates in this project, and he sang as a member of the choral group and as a soloist in two numbers, the motet “Audi coelum” and the Hymn “Ave maris stella.” He also sang in this event the previous two years; in January 2012, when they performed a vespers service based on pieces from Monteverdi’s 1640 publication of sacred music mixed with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, and the year before, when they did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. I thought this year’s rendition of the Vespers marked a significant advance over the previous one, as they have become even more familiar with the music. The list of soloists included many standout young musicians who are making their mark in the NYC early music scene. Scott Metcalfe, the director of Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron, conducted from the principal violin stand, and the entire project was under the artistic direction of Jolle Greenleaf, who also sang many of the soprano solos with great confidence.

I next heard Mr. Blumberg in a presentation in Brooklyn by the Five Boroughs Music Festival, an organization which he co-founded with Donna Breitzer with the goal of presenting high quality musical events in all five boroughs of New York City. The January 15 program I attended at South Oxford Space had previously been performed in Staten Island. Titled “Worter mit Freunden: An 1820s Serenade,” it consisted of music that might have been presented (with one notable exception) during a Viennese at-home musicale in the 1820s, perhaps in a home that lacked a keyboard instrument, since the songs were performed with violin and guitar accompaniment. Daniel Swenberg, a virtuoso of plucked instruments whose theorbo playing I have enjoyed on other occasions, played two early 19th century guitars, and Krista Bennion Feeney, concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, performed the violin solos and accompaniments. In addition to Schubert, there was music by Diabelli, Spohr, and Schumann (the only piece on the program that would be anachronistic, since Schumann was but a teen during the 1820s and had not yet written the song on the program, Abendlied).

Soprano Nell Snaidas joined with Jesse Blumberg to present a compelling evening of song. The Schubert lieder take on a new intimacy when accompanied by the soft tones of an early 19th century guitar rather than the more usually heard modern piano. Most of the accompaniments arranged for guitar originated with contemporaries of Schubert and were well adapted for the medium. The intimate performance hall at South Oxford Place was the perfect setting for such a program. Five Boroughs Music Festival has two more programs planned for this season: “East of the River: Levantera” at Flushing Town Hall in Queens on March 16, and “Songs for a Parisian Spring” at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan on May 5. Check out the details at www.5BMF.org. These are excellent concerts.

Finally, I heard Mr. Blumberg again last night at the most recent (and first 2013) presentation of Schubert & Co., the bold project by pianists Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware to present all of Schubert’s solo songs over the course of the 2012-13 concert season, assertedly the first time this has been attempted in New York (or anywhere else, as far as anyone seems to know).

Franz Schubert wrote more than 600 solo songs during his brief career. Ware and Glen have attempted to devise concert programs that will have a unifying thread apart from the common composer. Last night, the program comprised songs related to Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” and Mr. Glen abandoned his usual keyboard role to read excerpts from Eric Blackall’s translation at appropriate places during the program. (This gave me a personal tie to the program, since I knew Eric Blackall in passing when I was a Cornell undergraduate. He chaired the Faculty Committee on Music that managed the annual celebrity concert series on campus, and at his invitation I became a student member of that committee and served for three years with him. A delightful man, and ardent music lover!)

The singers for the evening were baritones Michael Kelly and Jesse Blumberg, bass-baritone Evan Hughes, and sopranos Raquel Gonzalez and Simone Easthope. A special guest for the evening was noted pianist Malcolm Martineau, a leading British collaborator in song recitals and recordings, who played on the second half of the program, following Jonathan Ware’s performances in the first half.

Schubert was a genius who took some time to develop, and a series including all of his songs will include some lesser numbers, as I thought was the case with some of the songs on last night’s program. Every one of his songs is worth hearing, and the particular value of this kind of undertaking is the unearthing of occasional songs that don’t deserve their current obscurity. In addition to three lengthy song cycles, two devised by the composer and one assembled from unpublished songs by his publisher after Schubert’s early death, there are a few dozen songs that regularly appear on recital programs, leaving several hundred that are rarely performed and generally unknown. Some of the unknown songs are unknown for a good reason — they are not really memorable and, in the absence of a particular thematic context, might not make much sense as stand-alone items in a vocal recital. But now and then one uncovers a forgotten gem, and that makes it all the more worthwhile for any lover of Schubert’s music to patronize these concerts. You never know what you might discover! In addition, the concerts are free, so it’s just an investment of time. And the discovery is not limited to the music. The performers at the concerts I have attended have been at a very high level. I try to attend as many concerts by Jesse Blumberg as I can, but I would also go out of my way to hear some of the other soloists from last night, especially baritone Michael Kelly, who will be performing the Winterreise cycle with Jonathan Ware this Saturday night, January 26, at 8 pm. Jesse Blumberg will make a return appearance to the series in March.

Schubert & Co. has a website listing the entire schedule of concerts. Their usual venue is Central Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue near 63rd Street, and the time for most of them is Sundays at 6 pm. The Winterreise is a departure, originally scheduled around the availability of Sanford Sylvan and his regular accompanist Bryan Zeger, but a cancellation due to illness opened up the program and Kelly volunteered to substitute. Although I can’t make it due to a conflicting concert — I can’t miss an opportunity to hear NY Polyphony, performing on the Miller Theatre Early Music series — I urge Schubert lovers to be there. Kelly and Ware are definitely worth hearing in this music.

That brings me up to date on my concert doings this season. One thing to add about Jesse Blumberg, however. One of his great accomplishments is the premiere recording of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Green Sneakers” song cycle, and he will be performing the cycle with Mr. Gordon as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series later this season. That is another event I wish I could attend, but for a conflict, but I urge anybody who loves contemporary American art song to put it on their calendar.  This is terrific music, and hearing it sung by the Blumberg collaborating with the composer should be very special.  Tickets are available on the Lincoln Center website.