Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chronicle of April 2011

April 1

Durham University law students present Tricky Dick. Durham, NC. "Tricky Dick, a musical written by Duke Law School students and starring a 50-person ensemble of professors, administrators and students, was performed . . . at a sold-out arts center . . . . And now organizers want to make the zany, cabaret-style show an annual tradition" [Robbie Brown, The New York times, 4/3/11].

April 3

San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre presents Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, conducted by Michael Morgan. Cowell Theater, Ft Mason Center, San Francisco, CA.

April 5

The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater,” directed by Patricia Birch, with Michael Tilson Thomas, Judy Blazer, and the New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, NY. "This semistaged program takes the form of a personal memoir in which Mr. Thomas tells the story of his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, pioneers in the Yiddish theater, which thrived at the turn of the 20th century on the Lower East Side and on tours to American cities. But along the way the program also provides an inside story of this vibrant people’s art form, with Mr. Thomas as a warm, wry and loving narrator, supported by a cast of four musical theater performers, archival film clips and the Philharmonic, reduced in size and sounding like a Yiddish theater pit band. Since 1998 the Thomashefsky Project has been uncovering and reclaiming the music and arrangements of Yiddish theater works. The arrangements Mr. Thomas conducted, as in a medley from Dos Pintele Yid (A Little Spark of Jewishness), were as close in sound and style to the originals as you are likely to hear. Not content to tell stories and conduct, Mr. Thomas, who last week led a demanding program with the New York Philharmonic, played a snappy piano accompaniment to a Yiddish song, A Coat From Old-Time Stuff, sung by the sassy Judy Blazer, who portrayed Bessie Thomashefsky. In Act II Mr. Thomas stopped the show by singing Who Do You Suppose Married My Sister? Thomashefsky. This 1910 song poked fun at Boris Thomashefsky’s womanizing ways. Mr. Thomas first presented a version of this program in 2005 at Zankel Hall and has been performing and refining it since. What comes through most is his affection for his grandparents, both born in shtetls outside Kiev, who met in Baltimore when young Boris was on tour and Bessie was 14. Boris, who died at 71 in 1939, five years before Mr. Thomas was born, was played here by Shuler Hensley, who brought gusto and a hearty voice to the role. . . . Growing up in Los Angeles, Mr. Thomas knew Bessie as a grandmother in her 80s, and clearly adored her. She regaled her musical grandson with stories of her stardom and performed songs at family gatherings. She began her career as a late adolescent, with trouser roles as her specialty, but evolved into a wisecracking, sassy singer and actress paving the way for later stars like Fanny Brice. . . . Mr. Thomas (whose father, Ted Thomas, changed his family name) speaks with honesty about his grandmother’s decision to separate from her philandering, spendthrift husband. His most moving recollection came when he recalled Bessie, who died in 1962 when he was 17, telling him, 'You are just like me'" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/6/11].

April 6

James Levine conducts Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "Levine made it a priority to conduct Wozzeck, a work he reveres and has performed stunningly over the years, the last time in the 2005-6 season. But I never heard him give a better account of this harrowing, deeply moving opera than this one. Mr. Levine must still be coping with back pain; he did not make it to the stage at the end for bows. Instead he simply waved to the audience from the pit. On the podium, though, sitting in his conductor’s chair with his arms flailing, he seemed inspired. Could the extra urgency and sweep on this occasion, and tempos slightly faster than those I remember from his earlier performances, have been motivated by a determination to prove that he was still a dynamic maestro? Whatever the cause, the results were thrilling. Mr. Levine still drew plenty of depth, spaciousness and glow from the orchestra during the despairing passages of Berg’s gravely beautiful atonal score, first performed in Berlin in 1925. But his work had greater overall shape and more prickly energy on this night than in years past. Played without breaks, “Wozzeck” lasts just 1 hour 40 minutes. The time passed without notice; the score has seldom seemed so compact and inexorable. Mr. Levine was on the podium when the Met’s spare, grim Mark Lamos production -- with sets that are all shapes, shadows and tall slanted walls —--was introduced in 1997. The staging remains effective. The strong cast was headed by the bass-baritone Alan Held as Wozzeck, an oppressed, impoverished soldier. Mr. Held’s full-bodied sound combined with his haggard, pitiful look made his Wozzeck seem especially delusional and dangerous. As Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife and the mother of his little boy, the mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier was magnificent. Though her voice may not be glamorous, it is warm, humane and poignantly expressive. Singing the haunting lullaby to her child (the sweet-faced John Albert) Ms. Meier brought suppleness and earthy colorings to Berg’s elusive vocal lines. Yet during Marie’s throes of despair or, when the handsome Drum Major tempted her, desire, Ms. Meier’s voice sliced through the orchestra with burnished power. When Marie confessed her infidelity and Wozzeck was about to slap her, Ms. Meier’s Marie rashly defied him. She would rather have a knife in the belly, she made clear, than let Wozzeck lay a hand on her. Even hobbled by guilt and humiliated by poverty, this Marie was going to maintain her dignity. The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, in his Met debut, was an imposing, bright-voiced Drum Major. The tenor Russell Thomas brought out the decency of Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier. The tenor Gerhard Siegel was aptly sniveling as the weirdly giddy Captain who berates Wozzeck for his faulty morals. And the booming bass Walter Fink held the stage as the pompous Doctor, who pays Wozzeck to be a subject of quack medical experiments. But inevitably this was Mr. Levine’s night. I will not soon forget the pulsing intensity and surging sound he brought to the orchestral interlude near the end of Act III, after the scene in which Wozzeck, panicked over having killed Marie in a fit, drowns in a pond while trying to hide his knife; or the eerie playfulness Mr. Levine teased from the short final scene, in which neighborhood children curtly tell Marie’s boy that his mother is dead" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/12/11].

Chanticleer performs Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia, Sarah Hopkins's Past Life Melodies, Kirke Mechem's Island in Space, Mason Bates's Observer in the Magellanic Cloud, Erica Lloyd's Cells Planets, and songs of Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. "[T]he sensuously droning throat-singing in Sarah Hopkins‘s “Past Life Melodies,” from 1991, had welcome strangeness, and Kirke Mechem‘s Island in Space, from 1990, was lyrical and affecting" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/8/11].

Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Ivan Fischer, in Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”). Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "Some works are derivative by default, with composers subconsciously incorporating various influences into their scores, but Prokofiev deliberately modeled his First Symphony on Haydn. His efforts resulted in far more than mere imitation, meshing traditional elements with 20th-century twists. The Gavotte, for example, blends a lighthearted dance with bold harmonic quirks" [Vivien Schweizter, The New York Times, 4/8/11].

April 8

21c Liederabend. The Kitchen, New York, NY. "'I feel like at a real 19th-century Liederabend there would be more flirtation between the performers and audience,' the singer and pianist Gabriel Kahane . . . . He affected the tremulous tone of a cagey suitor: “What are you doing later tonight?” Mr. Kahane’s brief assignation offered a moment of pop-inspired directness during a long, ambitious evening of contemporary art song and opera, part of a three-night series produced by VisionIntoArt, Beth Morrison Projects and Opera on Tap. Theo Bleckmann reprised selections from Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs in luminous new arrangements, played elegantly by the pianist Timothy Andres and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. A versatile, enchanting artist, Mr. Bleckmann added his own mesmerizing songs and participated in chattering ensembles by Julia Wolfe from the 1999 Bang on a Can opera The Carbon Copy Building. Russell Platt wrangled iconic poetry in Two Whitman Panels with stately decorum and unruly chromatic lines. Matt Marks treated sexual candor both sardonically and tenderly in I [XX], emphasizing the dramatic flair of the soprano Mellissa Hughes. In a resourceful, astonishingly beautiful Wilfred Owen setting by Gregory Spears, Amelia Watkins, a soprano, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor, intertwined in languorous flights. Ted Hearne’s Is It Dirty evoked urban roil with jazzy motifs in raucous collision. Paola Prestini’s elaborate Aging Magician, a premiere based on an earnest Jonathan Safran Foer text, forged an enigmatic détente among Rinde Eckert’s potent delivery, Mr. Kahane’s soulful singing, moist narration by Melvin van Peebles, a clattering musical-junk sculpture by Mark Stewart and more" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 4/8/11].

April 14

Sarah Connolly sings Ivor Gurney's By a Bierside and Sleep, Benjamin Britten's Charm of Lullabies, Richard Rodney Bennett's History of the Dansant, and music of Herbert Howells, accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau. New York, NY. "Connolly brought sincerity and purity of tone to British songs: Britten’s “Charm of Lullabies,” whose occasional longueurs she overcame with variety, and two of Herbert Howells’s gently old-fashioned airs. She captured the brainy nostalgia of Richard Rodney Bennett’s surreally retro “History of the Thé Dansant,” but best of all were the Gurney [selections] . . . performed with moving nobility" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/15/11].

Yuri Temirkanov conducts the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Anotoli Liadov's Kikimora and Dmitri Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "In the bizarre Russian fairy tale depicted here, Kikimora is a witch raised from infancy by a magician, who regales her with stories while rocking her in a crystal cradle. At 7, the witch is still the size of a thimble, yet already plotting evil for the world. The sound of the murmuring low brass chords that began this performance seemed not to be coming from the stage but seeping up through the floorboards under the seats. After an atmospheric episode, the piece broke into a spiraling dance, sometimes crazed, sometimes delicate with gossamer textures. Why this 1909 tone poem is not as popular as Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” I cannot imagine. . . . The brilliant young American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whom I had not heard since 2009 when she took part in Classical Music Day at the White House, was the compelling soloist in a first-rate performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Again, playing with incisive rhythm and crisp articulation is not this orchestra’s strong suit. But between Ms. Weilerstein’s impassioned, intelligent playing and the richness and color of the ensemble, this was an organic and arresting account of a great work, one of dozens of major 20th-century scores written for Mstislav Rostropovich" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 4/15/11].

April 16

Violinist Gil Shaham and his sister, the pianist Orli Shaham, in a concert of Jewish music. 92nd Street Y, New York, NY. "Avner Dorman decided not to create a piece with traditional Jewish melodies. Instead, Mr. Dorman -- an Israeli composer whose influences run the gamut from Bach and Bartok to the jazz guitarist John McLaughlin -- explored Jewish traditions from around the world, including Central Asian wedding songs and North African cantillations. He meshed those idioms with other traditions like Macedonian dances and Georgian folk rhythms to create the electric Niggunim for piano and violin. The work . . . [was] given a dynamic performance by the Shaham siblings. Niggun is a Hebrew word meaning soulful melody; the music often has repetitive and improvisatory elements. Mr. Dorman’s piece opened with a haunting, slightly dissonant Adagio, whose eerie melody was etched out by Mr. Shaham in a high register. In the third-movement Adagio the piano took over, slowly teasing out a similarly haunting tune in the upper register. Mr. Shaham plunged into the virtuosic thickets of the Scherzo with aplomb, revealing its improvisatory melodies with flair. The concluding Presto unfolded in a kaleidoscopic blaze, a frenzy of jazzy rhythms and explosive energy. The Shahams were equally convincing with more traditional Jewish music, including a Hebrew Lullaby, Hebrew Melody and Hebrew Dance by Joseph Achron. They also offered beautifully wrought interpretations of Bloch’s Baal Shem and George Perlman’s Ghetto Sketches, written as a composition for his students. (Perlman was also represented by his agitated Dance of the Rebbitzen from his Suite Hébraïque.) And Mr. Shaham’s lush tone did full justice to the suite from John Williams’s score for the film Schindler’s List" [Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times, 4/17/11].

April 17

Chicago Symphony, conducted by Riccardo Muti, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "One measure of Mr. Muti’s triumph [was from the beginning] . . . to his final downbeat on the plangent chord that closed Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony . . . worries about the state of American orchestras and those who lead them disappeared. Mr. Muti, lithe and energetic (the Shostakovich included a balletic leap or two, both feet off the podium), drew such a glorious sound from his players, and interpreted the music with such insight and clarity, that a listener had to be fully in the moment. . . . There was room to quibble about Mr. Muti’s reading of the Shostakovich. Whenever a tempo was slower than Allegro, Mr. Muti lingered over it, replacing its tartness with an unwarranted beauty. Those touches created a striking contrast with the fast, loud and intensely bitter sections that invariably followed, but Shostakovich’s slow music should not be defanged. That said, the Shostakovich brought the best out of the orchestra. The strings were lush, the woodwind playing was beautifully chiseled, and the brasses had the kind of spectacular power and precision that made the section legendary during the Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti eras. All that made it easy to forgive a touch of interpretive oddness" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/18/11].

April 23

Models and Paradigms, a tribute concert for Gunther Schuller, celebrating his 85th birthday (November, 2010). Weill Recital Hall, New York, NY. "The program featured just four works, two by Mr. Schuller and two by Mohammed Fairouz, a talented composer 60 years his junior. Though Mr. Schuller composes according to the strict rules of 12-tone technique, his work manages to sound freer and more varied than the forbidding image many people still have of serial music would suggest. In his Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano (1999), the pianist Katie Reimer began with slow arpeggiated phrases over a lilting saxophone line, played with sweet intensity by Michael Couper, before shifting to a jumpier, more aggressive jazz-flavored finale. The 14 short movements of the quintet Paradigm Exchanges (1991) were the perfect symbol of Mr. Schuller’s inventiveness, moving restlessly from solos to duets to full-group passages and back. The players captured the work’s controlled energy in moments like a sweeping and bristling solo from the violinist Tema Watstein, a rich duet for cello (the warm-toned Michael Katz) and clarinet (Vasko Dukovski), a meditative piano solo from Ms. Reimer and an impassioned duet for violin and flute (Magdalena Angelova). Mr. Fairouz’s work is not 12-tone, but he experiments with dissonance and microtonality to expressive effect. Mr. Schuller’s main influence on him is his eclecticism, his sense of genres and styles as collapsible and combinable. Four Critical Models (2009) uses the violin (Rayoung Ahn) for its penetrating tone and the saxophone (Mr. Couper) for its insinuating smoothness in a spiky opening; a slow, haunting second movement; and a pensive finale. Inspired by writings about music and Orientalism, the piece features a brilliantly handled third-movement indictment of stereotypically 'Arab' music. (Think of snake charmers.) Every time a clichéd riff emerged, it would quickly disintegrate, exhausted and uncertain. That piece followed Mr. Fairouz’s warmly sympathetic 2010 setting of the Borges poem The Poet Declares His Renown for baritone (the excellent Mischa Bouvier) and string quartet, with Ms. Watstein and Mr. Katz joined by the violinist Michelle Ross and the violist Mary Sang-Hyun Yong. Mr. Fairouz’s music is not really like Mr. Schuller’s at all. That the program was still cohesive speaks to the capaciousness of Mr. Schuller’s style and interests. He has, as Mr. Fairouz said in an onstage discussion, big ears" [Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, 4/24/11].

April 24

Death of Joan Peyser (b. Joan Goldstein, 6/12/30, New York, NY), at 80, after heart surgery. New York, NY. "[She was] a prolific writer about classical music and the author of biographies of Pierre Boulez, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, died on Sunday in Manhattan. . . . [Her] whose interviews with contemporary European and American composers, published mostly in The New York Times between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, helped clarify what those musicians considered most important about their work. Articles she contributed to The Times and other publications were collected in The Music of My Time, a 1995 compilation that traced contemporary music from Schoenberg to Charles Wuorinen and Todd Machover, with pieces about Maria Callas, the Beatles and the New York Philharmonic along the way. As a biographer, Ms. Peyser tended to focus on the personal lives and inner motivations of her subjects, an emphasis that attracted considerable controversy in musical circles. Her Bernstein: A Biography (1987), in particular, was criticized for its emphasis on Bernstein’s bisexuality and the dark side of his personality, rather than on his music. The conductor Leon Botstein, who reviewed it for The Times, characterized the book as 'a kind of psychobiography' and wrote that Ms. Peyser had 'fallen prey to the lure of publicity and the temptation to substitute superficial personal revelations for analytic argument and coherence.' Ms. Peyser was undaunted by such criticism. In her introduction to a paperback edition in 1998, she wrote: 'The response was a small price for me to pay for the pleasure of fitting together the intricate pieces of this particular jigsaw puzzle. In the end, when each of the pieces is placed where it belongs, it forms with the others the picture of a man virtually everyone recognizes as Bernstein.' While the debates about her Bernstein book were still raging, Ms. Peyser began work on The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin (1993). Using letters, recollections of Gershwin’s associates and family, and his brother Ira’s lyrics -- which Ms. Peyser described as a veiled biography of the composer -- she created a portrait of Gershwin as insensitive, narcissistic and disappointed with his lack of acceptance in the world of serious music. She also explored rumors of an unacknowledged son. Here again, the music was not the point of the book. 'I don’t go into encyclopedic detail about the songs and shows,' Ms. Peyser told The New York Times in 1993. 'That information is available in other books. I think of this as the first biography of Gershwin. The rest are chronicles of what he did and whom he met.' . . . [B]efore she was 10 her father changed her surname and her brother’s (but not his own) to Gilbert, to shield them from anti-Semitism. She began her musical studies, as a pianist, when she was 5, and played a recital at Town Hall when she was 13. As a student at the High School of Music and Art, she also studied the viola and took courses in music theory and orchestration. She gave up music briefly in her mid-teens, but returned to it in college. She attended Smith College from 1947 to 1949, then transferred to Barnard College to complete her bachelor’s degree in music. She earned a master’s degree at Columbia, where she studied with Paul Henry Lang, in 1956. In 1949 she married Herbert S. Peyser, a medical student who became a psychiatrist. Though their marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s, Ms. Peyser acknowledged that their discussions about psychology informed her own understanding of motivation, a crucial underpinning of her work as a biographer. They had three children -- [Monica] Parks and Tony Peyser of New York City and Dr. Kami Seligman of Scarsdale, N.Y. -- all of whom survive her, as does her brother, Robert Gilbert of Lancaster, Pa., and the jazz historian Frank Driggs, her partner since 1990. Ms. Peyser began writing about music in the 1950s, and submitted articles about music to Opera News and other publications while still a student. In 1966, the Delacorte Press offered her a contract to write The New Music: The Sense Behind the Sound, published in 1970. Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Enigma followed in 1976; in 1999, she combined The New Music and Boulez and republished them as a single volume, To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Ms. Peyser was the editor of The Musical Quarterly from 1977 to 1984, and of The Orchestra: Origins and Transformations (1986), a compilation of essays tracing the orchestra from the 15th century to the present. Among the many prizes she won were six Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in writing on music from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Speaking about her Gershwin biography in 1993, Ms. Peyser described an approach, as well as a conclusion, that could have applied equally to her Bernstein book. 'What I’ve written,' she said, 'is an interpretation of a life that was much sadder than anyone dreamed' [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 4/25/11].

April 30

Philip Glass, solo piano, performs Mad Rush, Wichita Sutra Vortex (including the voice of libretist Allen Ginzberg), and music from Etudes, Glassworks, The Thin Blue Line, and The Screens. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA.