La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Chabrier's L’Étoile Shines Bright for Austin Lyric Opera!

Emmanuel Chabrier’s operetta or opéra-bouffe, L’Étoile (The Star), was a consummate success at its premiere in Paris in 1877; then, it all but disappeared from the repertoire.

John Eliot Gardiner, a celebrated interpreter of Monteverdi and Bach, brought L’Étoile back to life when he mounted a production at the Opéra National de Lyon in 1986. Since then, opera companies all over the world have added this comic gem to their repertoire - one of the latest among them, Austin Lyric Opera. The ALO production which opened January 30th to a near capacity house, was a triumph.

Kevin Patterson, the general director of Austin Lyric Opera, has consistently shown a remarkable flair for making opera entertaining, first and foremost. He understands that in a community without a long operatic tradition and with only three productions a year, he cannot present a heavy-duty 'grand opera' program and expect to sell tickets; rather he must adopt a more populist strategy that 'educates' the audience without appearing to do anything of the sort.

Patterson's apparent strategy notwithstanding, opera and operetta at their best can have a very direct appeal if they are done in a multi-media style that does not hesitate to learn from the likes of Broadway, Hollywood or Cirque du Soleil. Over the last few years, Austin audiences have been charmed by the likes of an Austin-infused production of Die Fledermaus and Rossini’s Cinderella. They have been powerfully moved by Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites and Verdi’s Rigoletto. With L’Étoile, Patterson has scored again, by wisely mounting a magic production that has already proven itself a huge hit in New York, Montreal, Cincinnati and Glimmerglass.

Outstanding Sets and Costumes

What grabs the audience right from the start in this production are the sets and costumes, originally created by Glimmerglass Opera and the New York City Opera by Andrew Lieberman (sets) and Constance Hoffman (costumes). We know we're in for a night of fun when King Ouf appears as a re-channeling of 'The Little King' of comic strip fame. He is diminutive, sports a ridiculous mustache and wears an ermine robe in the shape of a round lampshade, which drags along the floor behind him. Veteran Jean-Paul Fouchécourt didn’t have to sing a note or say a word to have the audience convulsed in laughter.

Then there's the male chorus, all dressed in black suits and hats, carrying umbrellas. Here again, the way they look and the way they move is, in itself, amusing. Before long we have other characters dressed in the brightest of colors, carrying through the comic strip concept.

As the convoluted, not to say absurd, story of the opera unfolds, we begin to appreciate the fine work of Canadian director Alain Gauthier. He knows all about comic timing and how to be witty, without resorting to slapstick at every turn. It also helps that L’Étoile is 'sung' in the original French with surtitles, while the 'spoken dialogue' is in English with a smattering of French.

I assume that some of the English dialogue was added by recent hands in order to make it palatable and funny for contemporary audiences. In my opinion, even more could have been done in this vein - especially in Act I - to make the dialogue really sparkle. On opening night, Act I had other problems as well. It was slow and some of the ensembles were more than a little rough.

Second and Third Acts Rachet up Music and Comedy

All was forgiven after intermission, however, with the cast settling in and conductor Richard Buckley moving the music along with a little more animation. One could argue that the improvements resulted from better music and more opportunity for comic action in Acts II and III .

One of the highlights of this production was undoubtedly the drunken duet (over multiple glasses of 'green chartreuse') between the King and his astrologer Siroco (Kevin Glavin). Director Alan Gauthier made the most of the already comic difference in size between the King and Siroco and they sang and acted with enormous hilarity. To top it off, their increasing inebriation was brilliantly underscored by the swaying sparkling yellow/green wall of curtains behind them.

As far as I could tell, there was only one local reference in this production; the Mayor appears in the last act, wearing an oversized black Stetson, looking for all the world like a stereotypical Texan.

Chabrier’s music might best be described as Gilbert and Sullivan with a French translation. There are lots of 'rum-te-tum' rhythms à la G & S, but Chabrier’s writing for woodwinds is in another class altogether. It is even beyond Offenbach in its color and complexity. Moreover, Chabrier and his librettists clearly had a gift for expressing humor in music. On the other hand, Chabrier’s melodies are rarely original or memorable. In a routine production, I doubt that the music would stand on its own.

Fun and Fine Voices From Major to Minor

Vocally, this performance of L’Étoile had its glorious moments, but it had weaknesses too. Deborah Domanski, in the trouser role of Lazuli, has a big load to carry and didn’t always rise to the occasion. Her mezzo-soprano voice seems a little light for the role. On the other hand, she handled the comic bits with energy and vivacity. Soprano Nili Riemer as Princess Laoula projected her voice with much greater authority. In a largely slapstick role, bass Kevin Glavin as Siroco nonetheless managed to impress with the richness of his voice. I also have to mention Scott Shipman in the speaking role of the Chief of Police. He was dressed like a toy soldier and walked like one and he made his reports to the king with the most extraordinary accent and timing. Hilarious.

For something more…

The 1986 Opéra de National Lyon production referenced above was recorded for both CD and DVD release. Both versions have long since been deleted from the EMI catalogue, but if you really want to see the DVD, it is available as a rental from Netflix. Unfortunately, the production recorded on DVD pales in comparison to the Glimmerglass-New York-Cincinnati-Austin production, and the DVD is technically inferior to what can be done today.

John Eliot Gardiner loved Chabrier’s music and has done an excellent all-Chabrier CD with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 477 51).

The big stars love L’Etoile too. Simon Rattle plans to conduct it at the Berlin State Opera this coming May with his wife Magdalena Kožená in the role of Lazuli.

Otto Soglow created the comic strip 'The Little King' in 1931. It first appeared in the New Yorker, and was later picked up by newspapers across the country. It ran until 1975.

Photo (above) by Mark Matson: Left to right Kevin Glavin (Siroco); Deborah Domanski (Lazuli); Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (King Ouf)

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Conspirare Celebrates Thoughtful Christmas in Texas

I must confess that I have a soft spot for thematic concerts; for while I admire virtuosity and outstanding musicality as much as anyone, I also want to see that performers have taken the trouble to do their homework, and that they have considered the intellectual implications of what they are presenting to the public. Choral conductor Craig Hella Johnson has practically written the book on how this should be done and his Christmas at the Carillon program, 2009 edition, featuring the choral group known as Conspirare, was just the latest chapter.

Before I talk about the performance I heard, some clarification may be useful. This concert was not “at the Carillon”, but at the Long Centre for the Performing Arts - seating 2400 - in downtown Austin, Texas. The Carillon is a small chapel - seating approximately 150 - in west Austin where Conspirare regularly presents some of its Christmas concerts.

Interweaving of Familiar and Unfamiliar Constructs Message

If I tell you that this concert included some familiar Christmas carols, I would be giving you information that is almost beside the point. What made this concert memorable was not so much the familiar but the unfamiliar music presented, and even more importantly, the way in which music and text were woven together over the course of the evening.

Craig Hella Johnson (photo: right) had an overarching concept for this concert. It was basically quite simple in its message: souls losing their way, lost in darkness, finding the light and achieving happiness. This simple message, however, was carefully constructed and delivered in the most non-confrontational and non-denominational way possible; he let the words and the music speak for themselves.

While there was a certain low-key sameness about the pieces chosen, ennui was avoided by mixing musical and textual genres. The work of ‘classical’ composers like Stephen Paulus, Handel and John Rutter was mixed with pop music by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Stevie Wonder, Broadway music by Lerner and Loewe and gospel music - ancient and modern. Patrice Pike, a popular Texas rock star, was a featured guest artist on the program.

What I liked most about the pop music, was the way in which Johnson stripped these songs of their high decibels and ubiquitous guitars and percussion, and so revealed the beauty and meaning of the words and the originality of the melodies.

In all this music, the twenty-three members of Conspirare – from the Latin “con” and “spirare” rendered as “to breathe together” – demonstrated their extraordinary skills as both soloists and choral artists.

Speaking of Light...and Togetherness

Johnson had obviously been preparing this concert for a long time and had considered every detail. Well, almost every detail. It was a fine idea to present the concert not only without intermission, but also without any breaks for applause until the mid-point. It was also a fine idea to provide the audience with the complete text for every piece performed – that’s twenty pages of text! Much of the text is beautiful and thoughtful poetry that must be seen and not just heard to be appreciated, but somebody dropped the ball and in so doing undermined much of what Craig Hella Johnson had so carefully planned: the house lights were turned off for the entire concert! There was no way members of the audience could read the program.

There is another element that unfortunately limited the impact of Johnson’s vision on this occasion. This was an intimate program, featuring mostly quiet and thoughtful music. In the small but resonant confines of the Carillon chapel, my guess is that the audience would have felt enveloped by the music and the whole experience. The Long Center, on the other hand, is dry as a bone and its very nature is to distance performers and audience from each other.

Naturally, performers always want to reach larger audiences, but sometimes enlarging the space diminishes the experience. Christmas at the Carillon might work in a space as large as the Long Center, but Johnson will have to make some adjustments. Perhaps more amplification and perhaps more instrumentalists would help. In the larger space the meditative quality of text and music can be easily lost.

I also felt that at times the concert came perilously close to new age blandness. Again, this was largely a function of the large hall. In this space Johnson might consider adding some more rousing pieces, spoken readings and a touch of humor now and again.

A case in point: Johnson chose to end the concert with a dream sequence version of “I could have danced all night” from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Bits of this familiar song were interwoven with Christmas words and music and elements of what had come before in the concert. It seemed to me, however, that what was needed was more like the original version of “I could have danced all night” with its ecstatic celebration of love and joy.

Johnson ended this concert with a sort of bittersweet smile when a joyous outburst might have sent the audience away feeling rejuvenated.

Conspirare CD Nominated for Grammy Award

Being the thoughtful and creative man that he is, I am sure Craig Hella Johnson has already begun processing the results of this year’s Christmas at the Carillon and that he will soon begin building an even deeper and more multi-faceted program for 2010.

Conspirare is already one of the finest and innovative choral ensembles in the country and with Johnson at the helm, its reputation can only continue to grow. Anyone wanting to know what the excitement is about, should investigate Conspirare’s most recent CD, Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907534), which was just nominated for a Grammy in the category “Best Classical Crossover Album”. This concert is also available on DVD (Harmonia Mundi HMD 9907535).

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ratcliff's Uncommon "Ode to Common Things" Superb Marriage of Words and Music!

Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Like many institutions in the state of Texas, the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is more than a little to the right of center - it takes few risks in matters of programming; nonetheless, music director Peter Bay keeps finding ways to energize his concerts and challenge his listeners. The latest example of this irrepressible spirit was a performance of Cary Ratcliff's (
photo: above) Ode to Common Things, a major work for soloists, chorus and orchestra based on poems by the Chilean master poet, Pablo Neruda.

Comfort Food: Words by Shakespeare, Music by Mendelssohn

The concert began with Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Nights Dream (MND), programmed as part of the ASO's ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. In this performance, the ASO was joined by the Conspirare Symphonic Choir.

From the Incidental Music that he had composed for Shakespeare's play, Mendelssohn later extracted a purely orchestral suite comprised of some of his best-loved music, including the glorious 'Wedding March' which has ushered millions of happy couples out the door of a church into a life of 'wedded bliss'.

Maestro Bay chose to add to Mendelssohn's orchestral suite some other bits and pieces from Mendelssohn's MND Incidental Music. The problem is that these bits are ,well - incidental, and don't make a lot of sense on their own without some of the text they were meant to support.

For me, the best options are, either 1) to play the suite of stand-alone orchestral pieces, or 2) to add some linking text comprised of narration and/or spoken excerpts from the play.

Be that as it may, Bay and his musicians played the music very well indeed. The horn and flute solos were not impeccable, but the style of playing was impressive. I particularly liked Bay's tempo for the scherzo, which is marked Allegro vivace and not Presto, as too many conductors seem to think. Bay's comfortable tempo adeptly brought out the charm of the piece.

The brief vocal solos were a little shaky and the chorus occasionally lacked clarity and rhythmic precision, but overall this was a good night for Mendelssohn.

Eclectic Traditional: Words by Neruda, Music by Ratcliff

What made the evening a spectacular triumph for me was the opportunity to hear a wonderful recent work by American composer Cary Ratcliff.

Cary Ratcliff has lived in Rochester, NY for many years and plays keyboards with the Rochester Philharmonic. He has produced a large body of work which includes, among other things, songs for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Ode to Common Things, composed in 1995, is a very ambitious piece lasting nearly an hour. Its quality more than justifies its length.

The poetry Ratcliff chose to set to music in Ode to Common Things is by Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, and dates from the years 1954-59.

Some years ago I became interested in Neruda and that interest deepened considerably after a visit to Chile in 2008. Then - as it happens - just this last week, during an ocean voyage, I read a fine biography of Neruda by Adam Feinstein.

Neruda is perhaps most widely known and admired for his love poetry, but during much of his life, he was a political activist and diplomat. An ardent communist, he got into all kinds of trouble with friends and opponents alike. At one stage, when the Chilean government sought to arrest him, Neruda was forced into hiding. He later escaped on horseback over the Andes into Argentina. In another period, he alienated friends by stubbornly continuing to support Stalin even after the dictator's monstrous crimes came to light.

Neruda died of prostate cancer in 1973, just after the heartbreak of seeing his friend Salvator Allende overthrown and probably murdered in a coup led by General Pinochet. Neruda's funeral procession became one of the first public protests against the Pinochet government.

Neruda wrote numerous odes, but the Ode to Common Things is perhaps exceptional. An analysis and celebration of everything we take for granted in our lives, Neruda's poetry in this piece is perceptive, surprising, beautiful, sad and funny - often all at the same time. And so too is Ratcliff's music. In fact, when the poetry and the music are combined, there is almost too much sound and information to comprehend - at least at first hearing.

Fortunately, for this performance, Neruda's poetry was made available to the audience as an addition to the printed program. Unfortunately, when words are set to music they are often elongated to the point of being unrecognizable, especially when the tempo is quick, and so the tiny font size (7-8pt?) used in the program accentuated the difficulty of digesting large blocks of text in time to appreciate its particular musical expression.

These are problems, however, that will likely disappear with repeated hearings as one becomes more familiar with this complex piece. And let me be clear about this: Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things deserves repeated hearings.

Ratcliff composes in a style that I would describe as 'eclectic traditional'. The harmonies are traditional but the ways in which voices and instruments are used and combined are decidedly original.

In a choral work based on Chilean poetry, most composers would go all out with Latin rhythms. The orchestration would include a good deal of Latin percussion and bits of tango and samba would be everywhere. Ratcliff's composition is more subtle; its Latin elements are never predominant.

Ratcliff pays Neruda the compliment of respecting him as not only Chile's greatest poet, but also as a man whose thoughts and words have universal significance.

Power and Poetry: Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists Deliver!

Singing in the original Spanish, the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus, prepared by Craig Hella Johnson, was wonderful. The nearly 100 voices handled the tricky rhythms and textures with both finesse and enthusiasm.

Soprano Ava Pine, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller and tenor Bryan Griffin were all excellent. Miller was particularly impressive in her duet with acoustic guitar in 'Ode to the Guitar'.

Maestro Peter Bay is to be commended not only for introducing Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things to Austin, but also for conducting it with extraordinary technical command and acute sensitivity to the myriad expressive demands of the piece.

A good night for Mendelssohn! A great night for Pablo Neruda, Cary Ratcliff and Peter Bay.

As you Like it!

After hearing a work like Ode to Common Things, listeners may want to read more poetry by Pablo Neruda and listen to other pieces composed by Cary Ratcliff. They may also want to watch a beautiful film about Neruda during a period of exile when he lived in Italy, and make the acquaintance of some Neruda songs by another composer, Peter Lieberson.

The Essential Neruda (ed. Mark Eisner). City Lights Press, 2004
Cary Ratcliff: Songs. Kathryn Lewek, sop., Cary Ratcliff, piano. Albany Records, 2008
Il Postino. Philippe Noiret. Dir: Michael Radford. Miramax DVD, 1995
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony/James Levine.Trumpet Swan Records, 2006.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bay and ASO Bring Bruckner Back to Austin!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Anton Bruckner’s music has always been pretty popular in Europe, but in North America not so much. Perhaps Bruckner’s time has come. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is performing and recording all the Bruckner symphonies with his Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal and the Dallas Symphony’s conductor Jaap van Zweden is also recording the cycle, albeit with his Dutch orchestra.

Last night, at the Long Center, the city’s new concert hall, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) gave the capitol of Texas its first Bruckner performance in thirteen years – the Fourth Symphony, a work last heard here thirty-five years ago.

Fortunately for all Bruckner aficionados present, Maestro Bay and his players gave a terrific performance of the Bruckner Fourth and listeners plainly liked what they heard! Perhaps the positive reception will encourage the Austin Symphony to program more Bruckner – and soon.

Stops, Starts and Wagnerian Climaxes Challenge Orchestra and Audience
The problem with Bruckner for many listeners has always been sheer length, and a tendency on the composer’s part to stop and start with alarming regularity. Just when he gets a good thing going, they complain, he brings everything to a halt and after an interval of silence or dithering, sets off again with something completely different.

On the plus side, most listeners acknowledge that Bruckner wrote some lovely melodies, and even better, that every one of his symphonies has at least half a dozen massive and brassy Wagnerian climaxes. The ultimate challenge for many audiences is whether they can stay engaged long enough to relish those big moments when they come.

In my opinion, Bruckner’s symphonies are unique and profoundly moving essentials in orchestral literature. For all their imperfections, they remain remarkable achievements of the composer’s art and whether or not one shares Bruckner’s deeply-felt Catholic faith -this was a man who kept a daily record of the number of his prayers – they are ultimately incomparable spiritual journeys.

As do most Bruckner symphonies, the Fourth starts with a tremolo in the strings which sets up a horn solo a few bars later. Peter Bay made sure that the tremolo was not only soft, but ppp as the composer intended. Principal horn Thomas (Tom) Hale nailed his solo with complete assurance, and the performance was off to a great start.

The second movement Andante was taken at the comfortable walking tempo it ought to have and the viola and cello sections played their extended melodies with the utmost sensitivity and expression. The brass fanfares in the scherzo were fearless and thrilling. In the finale the horn playing was magnificent. Peter Bay got the best out of his players and showed great insight into how a Bruckner symphony works. All in all a great night for Bruckner.

Which of Bruckner’s Many Revisions is a Maestro to Choose?
In any discussion of Bruckner, one is inevitably compelled to deal with the question of all the different versions of the scores. Bruckner was an obsessive revisionist. He often allowed his colleagues Josef Schalk and Ferdinand Löwe to make revisions too, with the result that scholars and conductors today must wade through as many as twenty-five different published and unpublished versions of the symphonies and then decide which ones are the most authentic.

In the case of the Fourth Symphony, there are five different versions.

The Fourth symphony provides a good example of what Bruckner’s well-meaning colleagues did on his behalf. In the recapitulation of the first movement, the horn plays its melody once again over tremolo strings, but this time there is a beautiful arabesque around the melody played by the flute. It is a magical moment in the symphony. In the Schalk-Löwe revision, that flute is doubled by muted first violins. This version is lovely too, but quite without the simplicity and intimacy of Bruckner’s original conception.

Bay and ASO Score with Bruckner Society Edition
David Mead’s notes in the ASO program book state that Maestro Peter Bay opted for the Bruckner Society’s edition, and that he is using editor Leopold “Nowak’s version of the (Bruckner) version of 1878-80″, but that is not quite accurate. Bruckner revised this 1878-80 version in 1886 for a performance conducted by Seidl in New York, and it is this later version that Nowak used for the Bruckner Society’s edition of the work.

This 1886 revision, with one notable exception, is not radically different from Bruckner’s first definitive version of 1880. Notwithstanding the many minor changes in orchestration in the later version, there is one alteration of major significance.

The horn melody which opens the first movement, returns in the final bars of the symphony played by trombone and tuba. Unfortunately, this melody in the final bars is not heard in some versions, because it is drowned out by the other brass instruments. In the 1886 version, Bruckner reinforced trombone and tuba with the third and fourth horns, to help the melody come through more clearly.

Obviously, this change is key to understanding the compositional unity of the symphony. The composer was evidently concerned that the melody be heard; consequently, the conductor must strive to realize his intent. Kudos to Maestro Bay for his choice of this edition, and for his execution of Bruckner’s intentions in this performance.

Readers interested in learning more about the problems of the various Bruckner editions are referred to the following: Hans-Hubert Schönzeler: “Bruckner.” New York: Vienna House, 1978; Deryck Cooke: ‘The Bruckner Problem Simplified’ in “Vindications.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Chee-Yun Opens Concert with Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
The concert began with a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto featuring Korean-born violinist Chee-Yun who is now Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

Although Chee-Yun played the familiar Violin Concerto with technical ease and beautiful tone, it was a soft-edged performance, somewhat lacking in personality. The ASO’s accompaniment was, to my mind, excessively deferential.

It’s all very well and admirable to keep the orchestra soft enough to enable the soloist to be heard, but there are times when the interplay between soloist and orchestra requires the orchestra to be more assertive. The melody in the slow movement, for example, is lovely but what is needed here is a ‘chamber music’, rather than an ‘accompanied solo’ texture.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth and next month (Nov. 20/21) the ASO will continue their tribute to the composer with the incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

> Recommended Listen: Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, Klaus Tennstedt, London Phil (Naxos Music Library, available free to La SCENA Card members)

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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