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My Musical Weekend: Ludwig van Beethoven and Salamone Rossi

Posted on: January 27th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Now, there’s an odd couple… But that was my musical weekend.

On Saturday night, I attended the all-Beethoven program by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had been privileged to attend a dress rehearsal for part of this program a week earlier at the DiMenna Center, hearing final sessions with piano soloist Nobuyuki Tsoji in the Emperor Concerto, as well as rehearsal of the Coriolan Overture and of their planned encore, the slow movement of a Mozart Piano Concerto. The dress rehearsal convinced me that it would be a memorable concert, and so it proved. In the intervening week, the musicians had performed this program several times on a tour beginning in Florida, culminating at Carnegie on Saturday night.

Of course, the Carnegie performance was far superior to the dress rehearsal, for two simple reasons: (1) they had really “played in” the program by the time they reached Carnegie, and any rough spots or imprecisions heard at the dress rehearsal were long gone, and (2) the rehearsal space’s close, dry acoustics compared to the marvelous resonance of Carnegie, heard from the first row of the dress circle.

During the first half of the concert, we heard Coriolan Overture and the 2nd Symphony. Both were exemplary, in the familiar Orpheus fashion. This group produces a big sound in Carnegie — only occasionally does one miss a larger string section characteristic of a symphony orchestra — and plays with chamber ensemble subtlety. One senses that a conductor would only get in the way of this group, and having observed them working out interpretive points in a rehearsal, while defering to the designated leader for the piece, was revelatory. I don’t think anybody can really beat them in this repertory.

But the Beethoven was the true miracle. Young Mr. Tsoji has been blind from birth, and I’m not sure how he learns a big work like the Beethoven or plays it with such unerring accuracy without being able to see the keyboard. His playing is firm, composed, full of subtle insights, dashing when required, and fully coordinated with the orchestra, all based on breathing together and weaving himself into the Orpheus chamber ensemble. I bet he probably is more comfortable playing with them than with a conductor, since he can work everything out in rehearsal and have a direct emotional contact with the orchestra, without any unnecessary intermediary. Tempi were brisk in the outer movements, slow and poetic in the central movement, with a velvety touch from the pianist and wonderful interplay with the wind soloists. Extraordinary!!

On Sunday, I attended an event curated by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: an afternoon titled “From Ghetto to Palazzo: The Worlds of Salamone Rossi.” The focus was the somewhat mysterious musical polymath of Mantua from the early 17th century, a colleague and friend of Monteverdi, a violinist in the ducal orchestra who wrote trio sonatas when that form was brand new, Italian madrigals, and polyphonic choral settings of Hebrew liturgical verse that was the first such “composed” Jewish music ever to be published. But nobody is quite sure when he was born, where he learned his art, or where or when he died. Best estimate of dates: 1570-1630. Rossi’s music was “rediscovered” in the 19th century by French and German cantors, somewhat by chance, and then received publication in critical editions during this century, with a boomlet of recordings mainly with the advent of compact discs.

The format of the afternoon: chamber group Folia played from the trio sonatas, then Rossi scholar Francesco Spagnolo from University of California at Berkeley gave a witty talk about what is known and not known about the composer, his life, and the setting for his music. After a brief intermission, they showed a documentary film, “Hebreo: The Search for Salamone Rossi” made by Joseph Rochlitz, focusing on the first concert of Rossi’s music to be given in the ducal palace in Mantua by the young male vocal group Profeti della Quinta. This excellent film served to introduce the music and the singers in a very intimate way, and was followed by the U.S. debut of Profeti della Quinta, who turned out to be an excellent young group.

Indeed, I have their five-year-old recording of music by Rossi, and put it on when I got home, but I could see from the documentation that the group has changed since then — the tenors from that recording are both replaced by different singers today — and they have vastly improved as a group in the intervening years. Somebody should rush them back into a recording studio in their current configuration! Excellent! The entire afternoon was entertaining and informative.
Postscript – A check on-line shows that a new CD of Rossi’s music by this group was issued in November. I now have it on order. Excellent!!

Salon/Sanctuary’s Production of “The Heirs of Tantalos”

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

Last night I attended the first performance of “The Heirs of Tantalus” presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a relatively new organization that puts on early music events in New York City.  I had attended one of their concerts last year – a music/dance program starring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo that was really wonderful – but all their other events last season posed calendar conflicts for me, so this as my first return.

The location was a novelty for me – The Broad Street Ballroom, at 41 Broad Street.  I think this is a former bank building.  The ground floor space has the kind of high ceilings and ornate columns typical of old bank buildings in New York.  The building has been transformed to various uses, apparently, including a school and residences, but this large ground floor space is an auditorium without fixed seating or stage.  Platforms at the east end of the room served for a stage, and chairs were arrayed in rows.  The acoustics were good for the music, not so good for speech, necessitating the actors wearing head-sets for amplification that was a bit startling, since the actors were moving about the room but the sound was coming from large speakers suspended from the ceiling above the stage area.

Salon/Sanctuary does not yet totally have their act together in terms of the logistics of presenting an event like this.  The entrance seemed a bit disorganized, and they did not beginning admitting audience members until about 20 minutes before the advertised showtime.  Ushers did not seem familiar with their task, and the entry was confusing for somebody who bought a ticket in advance online.  They also need to figure out how to start their shows on time.   The same problems of amateurism afflicted the printed program book, which illogically placed cast biographies before the texts and translations for the musical numbers, failed to mention that the program would be in two acts with an intermission, and failed to indicate who composed each of the numbers.   The program page indicated that the music was drawn from works by Handel, Monteverdi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, and a lengthy essay mentioned operas by Monteverdi and Handel and a Handel cantata, but made no mention of Scarlatti.  While one could easily hypothesize which pieces were by Monteverdi, an early Baroque composer, and some of the other numbers seemed characteristically Handelian, the failure to identify what was by Scarlatti was unfortunate, as his music would sound similar to a Handel cantata from that composer’s early period when he was living in Italy or the early English years when his production focused on Italian opera.  In any rate, it is amateurish not to make these identifications in the program.  Furthermore, the texts and translations were in small print that was difficulty to follow in the dimly lit hall, and one text was misplaced in terms of the performance sequence.  More care in the future would be advisable.

All that said, the musical performances were very good for the most part.  Soprano Jessica Gould’s intonation was occasionally suspect, and she took some time to find the volume necessary to be heard clearly over the instrumental ensemble, but once that was accomplished her renditions of the music were most enjoyable and dramatic.  Countertenor Jose Lemos is a real discovery.  I love the countertenor voice and am delighted to add another to my list of excellent countertenors.  He handled the florid music with great skill and communicated real passion.  Bravo!  The instrumental ensemble, members of The Sebastians Chamber Players led by Jory Vinikour at the harpsichord, were excellent in every respect, producing a bright, focused sound and playing with great incisiveness and sensitivity to the changing moods of the music.

The production was conceived as an exposition of the overlapping plots of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” and Handel’s “Agrippina” using arias and duets (from those and other works) interspersed with translations of verses by Aeschylus, Europides and Suetonius, arranged to illustrate thematic links between these history-based plots and the mythological stories of the Greek House of Atreus, descended from Tantalus and involved in the mythology of the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Three actors, Steven Rattazzi, Ethan Peck, and Florencia Lozano, presented the spoken interludes between musical numbers.  They moved about the hall, walking across and aisles and in the front and back, spotlighted when they spoke and otherwise out of view.  I had the feeling that they could have used much more rehearsal – especially for their unison recitations, which were a bit uncoordinated.  At times it seemed as if they were reading material with which they were not intimately familiar, resulting in some peculiar line breaks and odd emphases.  This was more of a problem with Rattazzi and Lozano.  Mr. Peck, unlike the others, appeared to have memorized a large portion of his text and went beyond reading to acting, which was much more effective.  The others clung more to their sheaves of paper and too often sounded like they were reading rather than acting.  Perhaps by the second performance on Saturday this will be less of a problem.  Erica Gould directed the stage action, and I had the sense that more time was spent on rehearing how they would move about — which seemed to go very smoothly — than with how they would deliver their lines.

Viewed overall, I thought it was a successful evening of early music, worth attending.  It will certainly inspire me to search out recordings by Mr. Lemos, if such exist, and to check out available video recordings of Mr. Peck’s work.  (He is the grandson of actor Gregory Peck, and I was very impressed by his presence, voice, and acting ability.)   This year’s Salon/Sanctuary program line-up looks very promising, and I may actually be able to get to some of the productions.  I hope their logistical performance will improve as they gain experience.