La Scena Musicale

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, November 8, 2009

A Memorable Pilgrimage at the Rome Opera

Classical Travels
This Week in Italy

"Nach Roma! (To Rome!)", the pilgrims cry at the end of Act II of Wagner's Tannhäuser as they head off to seek forgiveness from the Pope. Well, they didn't have far to go in a new production being mounted by the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. In fact, it would have been little more than a half hour's walk across the Tiber to St. Peter's.

It is true that Wagner's opera has a Roman connection, but the work itself deals with universal themes of the endless struggle in human affairs between the sacred and the mundane. As directed by Filippo Crivelli these themes were fairly well explored, and with Daniel Kawka in the pit, Wagner's music was brought to life with unusual insight.

Wagner was in his early thirties when he composed Tannhäuser, one of his first works in which the various aspects of love were explored and the characters at the centre of the drama come to their tragic end in a kind of love death.

In Tannhäuser, the eponymous hero is first seen living under the spell of Venus, the love goddess and as the projections shown during the overture and 'Venusberg' music made clear to us, apparently enjoying it. Life in the Venusberg as depicted here is less a real or imagined place from which Tannhäuser returns later in the opera, and more a metaphor for his life as a young man almost totally devoted to pleasure, especially of the carnal sort with members of the opposite sex. Guilt sets in when he thinks of his beloved Elisabeth and he tries to suppress his lustful ways, but he is having too much fun 'walking on the wild side' and ruins his prospects with the Landgrave Hermann's niece. Hermann gives Tannhäuser an ultimatum; he can forget about marrying Elisabeth unless he makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope.

At the time he composed Tannhäuser in 1845, Wagner was feeling his way toward a new approach to music drama in which the text dictated the flow of the music and the older style of alternating arias, duets and ensembles was left behind. In Tannhäuser there are still a number of set pieces for the leading characters and several spectacular set pieces for soloists, chorus and orchestra together.

The Crivelli Tannhäuser in Rome was basically a traditional production, updated through the use of projections, costumes which seemed casually medieval with touches of modern dress, and stylized sets. The sense of time and place was deliberately understated in order to bring out the universality of the themes and emotions of the story. We see clearly that Tannhäuser is a man with a past coming into conflict with the mores of his society. Like so many star-crossed lovers throughout history, he and Elisabeth are up against forces - civil, familial and religious - which are beyond their control. Through their love they try to overcome these forces, but in the end their love can only triumph in death.

The Rome Opera uses a 'stagione system', meaning that they present one opera at a time and run it almost nightly for several weeks. While this approach eliminates the need for the daily changing of sets in a repertory system and usually ensures a well-rehearsed production, it has some negative aspects too, one being that these nightly repetitions often require two casts, as was the case with this Tannhauser.

The cast I heard featured the Italian tenor Mario Leonardi as Tannhäuser. Leonardi did a creditable job, but I would like to have heard the more experienced Stig Anderson in the role. Otto Katzameier made an unusually multi-layered Wolfram, but I was somewhat disappointed to have missed the great lieder singer Matthias Goerne in the role. While the singers in the cast I heard were not household names, they nevertheless all gave fine performances.

As Elisabeth, Danish soprano Tina Kieberg sang beautifully as did Silvia Colombini in the small role of the Shepherd. Christof Fischesser showed his rich baritone to great effect as Hermann. What I admired most about Katzameier as Wolfram was his sensitivity to the text and the way he used it to add depth and nuance to his role. His voice is neither large nor distinctly beautiful but his other qualities more than compensate for this fact.

The musical leadership came from a conductor hitherto unknown to me but a man of great experience, mostly in France. Daniel Kawka had great understanding of the score and had rehearsed the music down to the last detail. The brass was powerful and exciting when required, and I had the sense that every crescendo and fortissimo had been balanced with infinite care.

Kawka had problems with offstage trumpets and onstage chorus in Act Two - they consistently played behind the beat - but as the evening unfolded, ensemble steadily improved. The great ensemble at the end of Act Two was thrilling both for its overall effect and its individual contributions.

I was absolutely delighted with the acoustics in the Teatro dell'Opera. The orchestral sound had weight, color, presence and the singers' voices projected easily into the house.

After nearly a week in Rome, my wife and I had really fallen under the spell of the place. History reaches out and touches you everywhere, from the still vibrant Roman ruins where excavations continue to yield secrets nearly every day.

We visited an exhibition of Roman painting at the Scuderie (stables) of the Quirinale (Presidential Palace). These are works of art most of us scarcely knew existed until many of them were uncovered from the ruins of Pompeii and elsewhere under hundreds of tons of dirt.
We now know that ancient Rome was not an unreal land of white marble and blank surfaces. Color abounded in wall paintings in private and public buildings and on much of the famous statuary too before nature and time washed the paint away.

Mixed in with the Roman ruins today are Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and the city gradually developed the character it maintains today.

In 1770, Mozart visited Rome and saw the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain. Less distinguished travelers have been admiring such places ever since. Catholics have been making pilgrimages to the Vatican for centuries; for them, as for Tannhauser, it is a journey about faith and redemption. Poet John Keats made the journey too and died in Rome. Keats, Shelley, Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz drank coffee as we did in the Caffe Greco on Via Condotti just around the corner from our hotel. There are fewer Americans and Canadians in Rome these days - the weak U.S. dollar has everything to do with it - but they'll be back.

In the meantime, Italians and Europeans flock to Rome as they always have. This great city generously provides almost endless reasons for pilgrimages.

Photo by Marita

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Great Wall of China at Badaling

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The Badaling portion of the Great Wall of China - completely restored - is the section most frequently visited by tourists. In other areas, parts of the wall have crumbled and all but disappeared. To restore the entire length of the wall to its former condition would be a monumental task - and to what end? Even when it was built, apparently, it did not serve its purpose as a defense against invaders – and it certainly does not today, in this age of airplanes.

Our tour guide Mike told us that the entrance facilities had been recently upgraded and the hordes of hawkers and beggars who formerly frequented the place have been kept away. The general impression is of a very clean and modern site.

As was the case at the Forbidden City, there were thousands of Chinese visitors at the Great Wall, often in groups. Mike explained that at the height of the season, traffic is very congested. It was busy today, he thought, but not unpleasantly so. We walked for about a mile along the top of the wall, most of it uphill - stopping far short of the highest point - then back down the same way. There are very few ‘steps’ on top of the wall so on the way down it is not easy to keep one’s balance or control one’s forward motion. Not a place for visitors unable to cope with a challenging walk.

On to the Silk Market for Some Extra Luggage
In the afternoon we went to the famous – some might call it ‘infamous’ - Silk Market. We had been travelling with two large suitcases and two small carry-ons. With acquisitions along the way, the suitcases had become far too heavy to be acceptable by the airlines. No problem if the weight is divided into two checked bags. We got some cheap ($10 each) duffel bags on wheels and divided the stuff accordingly.

The Silk Market is very popular with western tourists, but it is a pretty odious place. Each stall is tended by one or two young girls (usually) who solicit the approaching customers like prostitutes. Some even grab the customers by the arm and refuse to release them until they buy. Bargaining is part of the process. Marked prices mean nothing and the haggling is endless. Rumor has it that this place is run by a criminal organization and that the girls are under tremendous pressure to meet quotas.

This market is not, in fact, a ‘silk’ market at all; nearly everything in the hundreds of stalls of this claustrophobic building are knockoffs of famous brand name manufacturers of shirts, clothes and bags of all kinds. The government raids this market from time to time to try to keep the phony stuff from being sold. One possible solution under discussion is to have these vendors clearly label the knock-offs as imitations and pay licensing fees to the brand name manufacturers whose products are being copied.

Although we found ourselves caught up in the bargain-hunting, it is probably unworthy of foreign tourists to be doing business in such places just to buy cheap stuff that has nothing whatever to do with China’s own traditions. At other locations in shops run by the government one can find excellent products such as silk rugs, shirts and bedding. The products are guaranteed and the prices are very reasonable and fair. In fact, we did purchase a beautiful Han Dynasty design silk carpet at one of these stores.

If You Haven't Been Already - You Must Go Soon!
Planning a visit to China? Don't hesitate! You will step into a modern and largely tourist-friendly "new" Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom). Based on our experiences in Beijing several of the publications we had consulted before travelling were very useful. The Eyewitness Travel books published by Dorling Kindersley Publishing are superb, not only for Beijing but for many other destinations as well. For current information about Beijing and what is happening there from an expat point of view seek out the English-language magazine City Weekend. It is full of useful and detailed information about restaurants, clubs, concerts and exhibitions.

Next in China Diary: Talking about Stokowski at two of Beijing's leading music schools.

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

Photos by Marita

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Chinese Flock to Beijing's Once Forbidden City!

by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

At 9 am on our third day in Beijing, we set out on a private tour (photo above: Paul with our guide Mike) of the Forbidden City, a vast complex of buildings, completed in 1420, as the home of the Chinese Emperors and their court.

Even in early spring and cool temperatures, there were thousands of visitors at this famous tourist destination - most of them Chinese from rural areas, travelling in groups. Foreign tourists were conspicuous by their absence in the face of the global recession.

Our guide told us that one of biggest problems for tour guides is the fact that Chinese tourists wander away from their group and get lost in the labyrinthine complexity of the Forbidden City. At the height of the season, he claimed, there can be as many as 15,000 lost persons ‘turned in’ at the ‘Lost Persons’ office.

One may wonder why a Chinese communist government would glorify this gigantic symbol of arbitrary rule by all-powerful Emperors in thousands of years of dynastic history, and encourage its citizens to make a pilgrimage to see it. This is a good question with no simple answer. But if the Forbidden City represents some of the worst elements in Chinese history, it also stands as proof that China is a powerful and distinctive culture and has been for a very long time.

We duly tramped through the Forbidden City marveling at the scale of it all, but amazed that almost none of the buildings were open for viewing. Tourists come great distances to see one of the wonders of the world, but are exposed to very little that resembles life as it was lived here.

There are some changes in the works, however; later this year, the government will open Juanqinzhai (Lodge of Retirement) in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City. This is a theater room built by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century, which was recently restored with painstaking care by Chinese artisans. Among the outstanding features of this room are the silk murals done by Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary credited with introducing Western perspective painting techniques to China.

Mao’s Mausoleum and Tian’an Men Square
Finally, after trekking through miles of the Forbidden City we come to the gate where Chairman Mao Zedong famously addressed the adoring crowds in Tian’an Men Square on October 1, 1949 to proclaim the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao stood on a balcony of the gate facing away from the Forbidden City. He never entered the Forbidden City. He didn’t destroy it, but he saw it as a symbol of the worst of Chinese history.

Outside the gates of the Forbidden City, we crossed the street through a pedestrian tunnel with a security checkpoint to be admitted to Tian’an Men Guangchang (the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace). The security is to prevent people from holding up banners for some protest or other.

Nothing much to see here except the vastness of it all, and to be reminded of all the wonderful and ugly things that have taken place here. The twentieth anniversary of the 1989 protests was upon us and authorities were making sure there would be no opportunity for a reprise.

The main building in the square is Mao’s Mausoleum, where the Chairman’s embalmed body is raised daily from its refrigerated chamber for morning and afternoon viewing. On either side of the square are two other massive buildings: the China National Museum and the Great Hall of the People where the National People’s Congress meets. It’s an impressive array of buildings and history and for the most part it is without any ideological oppressiveness. The heavy-handed propaganda and leader-worship of the past is pretty much gone.

Lunch at the Marvellous Maison Boulud

It was now lunch time and Marita had scouted out a new French restaurant much-praised in the expat press and located just off Tian’an Men Square. Standing there, in that square, one could not help but remember the images flashed across news screens around the world in '89. Lunch at the grand Maison Boulud seemed somehow disrespectful of all the history that had been lived just blocks away. But we had come a long way and were determined to experience all of Beijing - the old and the new!

Maison Boulud, located in an upscale enclave of restaurants and stores in what used to be the U.S. consular compound and now known as Legation Quarter, is owned by master chef Daniel Boulud, a restauranteur in New York. The setting is elegantly traditional, and the menu imaginative.

Our waiter urged us to try the DB (Daniel Boulud) Burger, which we found to be excellent – a sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs and foie gras. Dessert - the Tropical Fruit Coupe de Glace - was beautifully presented and delicately flavored. We were also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Chinese wine served at Maison Boulud. It was a cabernet franc 2004Tasyas’ Reserve from Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province.

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

Photos by Marita

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The Very Modern Face of Beijing

Classical Travels

After our all too brief encounter (12 hours!) with the fascinating city of Shanghai, we again boarded the Diamond Princess and settled in for several relaxing days at sea.

On the morning of the third day, our ship docked at Xingang, the closest port to Beijing. This was the final stop on our cruise, which had begun 16 days earlier in Bangkok. All 2,600 passengers disembarked here and headed for buses to travel the 100 km or so into Beijing.

The buses themselves were Chinese-made and looked like modern tour buses, but they were laid out for little people; there was barely enough room for me to sit with my legs sideways. After a 20 minute wait in the bus, off we went – about two blocks. We sat and sat in traffic, just inching along. At one point, our bus stalled. The driver had to get out and start it again with a crank. Then he got lost and had to turn the bus around. Next, much to our horror, when he missed an exit ramp on an expressway, he nonchalantly backed up in heavy traffic.

After about an hour of this unwelcome entertainment, we stopped at a restaurant for a toilet break. Three other buses had the same idea at the same time, making the line-ups for the toilets – two! – very long. These were traditional Chinese facilities; that is - holes in the floor! Duly relieved, off we went again, past endless rows of high-rise housing estates, and hundreds more under construction.

Three hours later, we arrived somewhere in Beijing. After a half hour of waiting and negotiation, we managed to arrange for local transportation and were on our way again across town to our hotel, the Intercontinental Beijing Beichen. As it happens, this Intercontinental was built for the Olympics in 2008 and sits right inside the new Olympic Park, overlooking the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium and the aqua blue swimming centre known as the Water Cube. A beautiful hotel and a stunning location on Beichen Road!

I had planned to attend a concert by the China National Symphony (conducted by Michel Plasson) on the evening of our arrival. I had seen it listed on the National Theatre website. I checked the website again after we had settled in, and also called in the very efficient concierge at our hotel for assistance, but the concert listing had disappeared!

From our vantage point near the Olympic Village, Beijing appears very modern, with impressive highway and rail infrastructure. The traditional, however, is much in evidence here too. The morning after we arrived, we visited the hutong area of central Beijing. This is the older part of the city, featuring walled houses with inner courtyards, separated by narrow alleyways. Many hutongs have been demolished to make way for new high-rise buildings, but there is a campaign underway to preserve at least some of them to honor the architecture and lifestyle of ancient times in Beijing.

I had hoped to see Red Cliff, the new Chinese Opera production directed by Zhang Yimou, one of China’s leading film directors (Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern) and director of the spectacular show at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; unfortunately, tonight’s performance of Red Cliff at National Centre for the Performing Arts was sold out months in advance!

Next in China Diary: The Forbidden City and Tian'an Men Square

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

Photos by Marita

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shanghai in Miniature!

Classical Travels

The Diamond Princess docked this morning at a container port on the Huangpu River, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai. The weather was foggy, with a light drizzle, and at 55 degrees, not particularly inviting for walking tours through the French Concession and the Old City.

At about 8:30 am we boarded shuttle buses into the city. From the terminal near the People’s Park, we walked past the magnificent Shanghai Grand Theatre and down Nanjing Lu (Rd) toward Zhongshan Lu (the “Bund”) which runs along the Huangpu River. Much of Nanjing Lu - divided into East (Dong), and West (Xi) and stretching for several miles - is a wide pedestrian mall, with excellent shopping. Nanjing Lu was the main retail district in Old (1930s) Shanghai and remains so today, with many of the old shops, refurbished and renamed, flanked by upscale new ones.

The rain stopped for a while, but the weather continued to be chilly and windy. We finally reached the waterfront, but there was so much construction on the roadway that we couldn’t see the river, or really take in the sweep of the Bund. We walked past the historic (looking rather ragged – at least from the outside) Peace Hotel built in 1930 by Sir Victor Sassoon, then hailed a taxi and spent the rest of the day wandering through the Yu Gardens and Bazaar (photo: right).

Yu Gardens is a modern re-creation of an ancient Chinese city with flying-eaved buildings in a maze of alleyways and ponds. It contains hundreds of shops and is a favorite tourist destination. In spite of the poor weather, it was teeming with visitors when we visited. The one authentic building is the 1784 Huxinting Teahouse approached across a lagoon by a zigzag bridge.

We interrupted our shopping to have lunch at one of the many restaurants in Yu Gardens. Naxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant was founded in 1900 and specializes in steamed buns famous for their “thin covers, full filling and delicious juice.” The restaurant consists of four dining rooms, some more elegant than others. They were all filled today. Naxiang also has a take-out window and it had a long line-up. We ordered two varieties of steamed bun and a curry pastry. Everything was tasty and carefully prepared. Part of the fun in the restaurant is the open kitchen, where four chefs dressed in full white uniforms with tall hats can be seen preparing the noodles and stuffing the pastry.

The rain began again in mid-afternoon and that made catching a taxi back to the bus terminal somewhat difficult. We joined a line of about fifty people at a taxi stand. At the terminal we waited again with hundreds of passengers for the shuttle buses to take us back to the ship.

Lots of interesting musical events listed at the Shanghai Grand Theatre; unfortunately, we did not stay long enough in Shanghai to hear anything but a gift shop vendor at Yu Gardens playing “Happy Birthday” on a miniature Chinese erhu (violin).

The Diamond Princess departed Shanghai about 6:15 pm, and after making a 180degree turn, sailed back out the busy Huangpu River into the Yellow Sea, heading north.

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

Photos by Marita

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jaap van Zweden's 1st Season in Dallas a Phenomenal Success!

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

There is no doubt about it. A new era of musical excellence is underway in Dallas. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has just finished his first season as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and even the musicians are shaking their heads in disbelief. Is he really this good? Are we this good? “Yes,” and “yes” to both questions.

All this excitement notwithstanding, on May 21st at the Meyerson, the 'curtain went up' on a program that appeared neither well planned nor very convincing – at least on paper.

Van Zweden is passionate about opera. For this evening, he and the DSO had scheduled a concert performance of Madama Butterfly, but like orchestras everywhere, the Dallas Symphony has had to rework its budget in the face of a punishing recession; thus, instead of Madama Butterfly, we had, on the face of it, a mishmash of Tchaikovsky and Brahms culminating in yet another unnecessary performance of the 1812 Overture.

No matter. I would pay to hear Jaap van Zweden conduct Happy Birthday because I know he would give it one of the finest performances I have ever heard.

A Rousing but Anti-climactic 1812 Overture
The 1812 Overture, on this occasion, was the version by Igor Buketoff in which a chorus is substituted for lower strings in the opening bars and then makes several later appearances in the piece. We didn’t have cannons or fireworks in this performance, but the sparks were flying nonetheless in the overheated tempi chosen by van Zweden. The Dallas Symphony Chorus didn’t sound very Russian – not enough Russian basses have emigrated to Dallas, I guess – but they did their work with accuracy and gusto.

As good as it was, the 1812 Overture was an anticlimax after the most stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien I have ever heard.

Superb Performance Recorded for DSO's Own Label!
Capriccio Italien begins with brass fanfares, based apparently on bugle calls Tchaikovsky heard played by an Italian cavalry regiment. It goes on to a series of Italian folk songs and street music and finishes with a wild tarantella.

One particular section in this performance of the work sounded more intense and ominous than I ever imagined it could. It was the soft, triplet accompaniment in the brass that did it. This figure was played with such rhythmic accuracy and so darkly that it became progressively more menacing.

‘Menacing’ or ‘ominous’ are not adjectives one normally associates with pop concert fare like Capriccio Italien. Hearing this performance, I began to suspect that the Italian influence here was Verdi.

This is what a conductor like van Zweden can do for ‘familiar’ repertoire. He approaches such pieces as if they deserved the commitment he would give to a Mahler symphony. Each phrase is given new life. Note values are accurately observed and balances are worked out in careful detail.

When Capriccio Italien moved into dance territory, van Zweden nearly danced himself off the podium and this involvement was infectious. The string sound soared and surged; it was fulsome and joyous. And the best was yet to come.

In this piece, Tchaikovsky’s brass section is headed by pairs of cornets and trumpets, the former employed for their sound and their super chromatic capabilities compared to the trumpet in Tchaikovsky’s time. Principal trumpet Ryan Anthony chose to play a cornet for this piece and the results were wonderful. It was just the right Italian folk music sound for the lyrical sections – with a generous helping of vibrato - and the agility of the instrument (and the player!) in the quick passages worked perfectly too.

For all its extraordinary nuances, what I’ll remember most about this performance is how van Zweden steadily increased the tempo in the proverbial ‘race to the finish.’ Van Zweden was fearless in his acceleration and the DSO players were with him every step of the way. This was virtuoso playing of the highest order.

Fortunately, this concert was being recorded for broadcast. Even better, the Capriccio Italien is scheduled for release later this year on the DSO’s own label. It will be coupled with a Tchaikovsky Fifth recorded earlier this season. If the recording of Capriccio Italien is anything close to what I heard Thursday night, it will be sensational.

Violinist Simone Lamsma Wows Audience!
The first half of the concert was pretty remarkable too. The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma made her debut with the DSO in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Ms. Lamsma was scheduled to be a featured soloist with the orchestra in its forthcoming European tour; unfortunately, the tour has been scrubbed for the time being. It is hard to justify foreign tours when the basic operating budget is taking such a beating.

In any case, it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of the gifted Ms. Lamsma, winner of at least four major violin competitions in the past three years. She has a formidable technique and a warm, distinctive sound. With van Zweden on the podium - a colleague who has played this concerto himself -this was a fine collaboration. The orchestra played with great sensitivity and panache!

Ms. Lamsma returns next season to play the Britten Violin Concerto.

The concert opened with BrahmsSchicksalslied (Song of Destiny) , a setting for chorus and orchestra of a poem by Hölderlin. This is a beautiful if slight work by Brahms but it hardly fits in an all-Tchaikovsky program. And while the chorus sang beautifully, I thought that van Zweden miscalculated both dynamics and tempo. He started the piece so slowly and so softly that the line could not be sustained. Nor could the strings produce sufficient weight of sound. Still, this piece does not turn up often in concert and it was a pleasure to hear it, especially in an ideal acoustical setting like the Meyerson.

Jaap van Zweden has given Dallas a season of insight and excitement, with much more to come. Among the highlights next season will be the Mahler First and Second Symphonies, the Bruckner Ninth, the Rachmaninov Second Symphony and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad.)

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fear and Faith: Austin Lyric Opera Does Justice to Poulenc's Dialogues

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

In a world gone mad, it makes sense to be afraid, but it is the ultimate test of character to get beyond fear and take a stand for what one truly believes. This is the argument of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. Premiered in 1957, it deals specifically with the fate of a group of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, but its theme, at once inspirational and unsettling, is universal and still relevant today.

The new Austin Lyric Opera production of Dialogues of the Carmelites makes a powerful case for including this opera in the repertoire.

Dialogues moves very slowly and deliberately through its first hour or so – think Parsifal, which unfolds with similar deliberation – but if one allows oneself to be drawn into this world of faith and fear, the payoff is nothing less than devastating.

From a musical point of view, the opera is a peculiar amalgam of Debussy’s Pelléas and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The Dialogues score seems to meander and the orchestral sonorities are often acerbic, but Poulenc created exactly the musical language he needed to make this particular drama fresh and credible, just as he did in Gloria, which similarly brings something new and beautiful to liturgical music.

In this production, Austin Lyric Opera stage director Erik Einhorn and scenic designers Harry Frehner and Scott Reid bring Poulenc’s opera to life with a minimalist imaginative touch that exquisitely complements this music.

The sets and props are sparse and appropriate, placed and moved without obstructing the narrative flow. Lighting designer Shawn Kaufman also deserves credit for his deft employment of rear lighting. The use of black curtains, mysteriously opening and closing, served to underscore the spiritual elements of the drama. The production was created originally for the Calgary Opera, but what we saw in Austin was perfectly suited to the work and to the house.

The music onstage is dominated by the women (photo: above right) who sing the roles of the Carmelite nuns. Quite simply, they were first-rate. For an opening night, the level of ensemble precision was remarkable.

It is somewhat unfair to single out individuals in such an ensemble effort, but Sheila Nadler as the dying Prioress in Act One – she has sung this role in more than twenty productions of the opera - gave a heart-rending performance, and Jennifer Check as the new Prioress sang with moving eloquence toward the end of Act Two. Emily Pulley (photo: right) as Blanche has the largest role and her personal crisis is at the heart of the opera. She gave a compelling performance and her voice is clearly first-class. Pulley was originally to have played Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress, but the change in casting proved quite satisfactory. Richard Buckley conducted with authority and sensitivity.

Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites was Austin Lyric Opera’s last production of the season, following on equally fine presentations of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Rossini’s Cinderella. For next season general director Kevin Patterson has chosen Puccini’s La Bohème, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and a real novelty, Chabrier’s The Star (L’Étoile).

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

Photos by Mark Matson

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Salonen Era Comes to a Triumphant Close in Los Angeles

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

When I last visited LA (2002), just before the opening of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall - the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic - I was not impressed with the exterior of the building. I did not stay long enough to see or hear the interior. This year, in LA again on my way back from China, I was in the hall on the occasion of one of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last concerts as music director (April 9, 2009).

Opening Film a Tribute to Salonen
The evening began with a short film celebrating Salonen’s seventeen years with the orchestra. This is the longest tenure of any LA Phil music director and Salonen today is a beloved figure in the community.

Salonen has always peppered his programs with new works and collaborated with some of the most interesting artists in other fields including director Peter Sellars, and video artist Bill Viola. While other orchestras have got mired in the past and have had trouble reaching out to younger audiences, under Salonen’s leadership the LA Phil has been a trend-setter. His promotion of contemporary music, his exceptional conducting skills and his energy have made the LA Phil a uniquely modern orchestra.

Maestro’s Violin Concerto More Than a Program Pleaser
The first piece of music on the program was Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds, which dates from 1972 and was inspired by the work of philosopher Karl Popper. Strangely hypnotic, the composition makes highly original use of five clarinets and a twelve-voiced women’s chorus. The ladies of the Los Angeles Master Chorale make a remarkable contribution.

Following Ligeti was the premiere of Salonen’s Violin Concerto. Judging by this work, Esa-Pekka Salonen is a multi-faceted, profoundly interesting man. The piece draws on quasi-experimental avant-garde techniques, but clearly has roots in the recent past- Stravinsky and Berg are evident influences - and takes pleasure in contemporary pop music too. Soloist Leila Josefowicz (photo: right) performed this fearsomely complex new work from memory, playing with authority and passion.

Beethoven Blazing with Intensity and Forward Motion!
Esa-Pekka Salonen is not known for his Beethoven, but he clearly has strong ideas about how the piece should go. He is very much a modern musician, well aware of what the period instrument specialists have taught us about this music and how it should sound.

Following suit, Salonen had his timpanist use harder sticks, his strings less vibrato, his trumpets rotary-valved instruments, etc. He is also current in believing that early 20th century performances with modern instruments have generally used far too many strings and failed to take seriously Beethoven’s metronome markings, and that these two issues, in fact, go hand in hand.

For this performance, Salonen cut his cellos back to eight and his basses back to six. Curiously, he used a seating pattern more common with conductors of a previous generation – Toscanini and Klemperer come to mind. Basses were on the left, with cellos behind the first violins. Second violins were to the conductor’s right on the outside.

All this scholarly preparatory work is irrelevant, however, if the performance falls short.

This Beethoven 5th was blazing in its intensity from beginning to end and Salonen's musicians played with every ounce of energy they could muster, especially the timpanist. His tempos could seem unyielding at times, but the relentless forward motion had its own rewards. I am sure the double basses would have liked a little less of it in the trio section of the scherzo – the tempo was so fast they could only approximate the actual notes – but who could complain in a performance this exciting.

On the podium, the conductor Salonen most resembles, in my opinion, is the late Herbert von Karajan. Like Karajan, Salonen is very still except for his arms, and his more extroverted movements clearly grow out of the music rather than being simply showy or exhibitionistic. He is very sparing in his cues but there is no question about his mastery of the music. Again like Karajan, this economy of movement and air of authority has the effect of focusing the attention of both musicians and audiences.

Salonen to Spend More Time Composing?

If Salonen has changed the music scene in LA, the city and its unique culture have changed him too. He was an introverted young Finn when he arrived, preferring to let his baton do the talking. He is older and more mature now, but also far more outgoing and not shy about expressing his opinions. He himself acknowledges that he discovered himself through living in LA and working with the orchestra.

As he nears the end of his historic tenure in Los Angeles, Salonen is a musician at the very top of his game. In the next few years he will spend at least part of his time in London as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. In recent interviews, he has said that he will also devote more time to composing. If this is so, we look forward to hearing these new works. In his compositions over the past fifteen years, one can hear a steady evolution toward ever more ambitious and successful works.

Salonen is unquestionably an important composer. At the same time, he is one of the most gifted and imaginative conductors of his generation. Few maestros combine the technical command, the breadth of repertoire, the charisma and the imagination that define Salonen.

But time marches on. Dudamel is waiting in the wings in LA and will doubtless bring something new and vital of his own to the orchestra.

The Ultimate Measure of a Hall is the Music
The Walt Disney Concert Hall, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is, in my opinion, commendably daring architecturally, but neither beautiful nor practical.

The entrance seems to have been dealt with as an afterthought, or a necessary evil; to put it another way, it is so small and inconsequential as to seem apologetic, rather than inviting as it should be. Once inside, that impression of ‘unfriendliness’ is reinforced by dark and cramped lobbies.

The search for one’s seat can be a nightmare. Everything looks the same as one wanders from level to level, down nameless corridors, leading to who knows where. Had architect Frank Gehry decided that clear and prominent signage was unfashionable?

An usher appears. I offer up my incomprehensible ticket for guidance. She deciphers the secret code and motions me down another corridor.

At intermisssion, I somehow find my way to the refreshment area – no signs, of course. I expect to hear the usual bell, warning that intermission is coming to an end, but no such bell sounds. Instead, ushers clambering up and down the various levels begin shouting that the second half of the concert is about to begin.

Is this too one of Gehry’s bizarre innovations? Personally, I prefer a persistent bell to official bellowing. I was reminded of the soldiers I had seen a few weeks earlier, stationed in Tiananmen Square to manage the tourists; when people weren’t moving fast enough, they shouted menacingly, herding them along.

Like most other patrons, however, I am prepared to forgive most, if not all, of the nuisances heretofore mentioned, if the concert hall has wonderful acoustics; on the basis of what I heard in one concert by the LA Philharmonic in this hall, I must enthusiastically say: ‘All is forgiven’! In spite of its shortcomings, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a great place to listen to music.

Acoustician for The Walt Disney Concert Hall (photo:right) was Yasuhisa Toyota, who also worked on Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Although he clearly deserves a lot of credit for the excellent sound in this hall, I looked in vain for his name on the LA Philharmonic website.

Kendall’s Brasserie and Bar
If you want a good meal before a concert, I suggest you avoid the two options inside the building and go across the street to the former home of the LA Philharmonic, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Kendall’s Brasserie and Bar has excellent food, good service and a warm and friendly atmosphere. On a nice evening you can even sit outside and enjoy your meal.

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

Photos of Esa-Pekka Salonen by Mathew Imaging

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sensational Singapore: the Remarkable Creation of Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

Our cruise liner, the Diamond Princess, arrived in Singapore this morning in a light rain. She docked at a container terminal and at about 10:00 am passengers were bused to a shopping centre opposite the Hyatt Hotel on Scott Road near Orchard Road.

Orchard Road is the heart of upscale shopping in Singapore. From this intersection on into downtown, stores, malls, and restaurants abound. Marita and I, together with her brother and sister-in-law, explored the shops for several hours, after which we took a short taxi ride to the Intercontinental Hotel downtown for an excellent buffet lunch comprised mostly of regional cuisine.

The light rain had by now turned into a heavy shower, but we stayed dry shopping nearby in the Bugis Mall which connects to the hotel. The Bugis, by the way, were one of the first native peoples of the Malay Peninsula.

Raffles Hotel: Singapore’s Colonial Beginnings
Finally, the rain let up and we were able to walk the few blocks to Raffles (right). Singapore has progressed beyond its colonial past, but has the confidence to celebrate it in the form of dozens of meticulously restored buildings such as this magnificent hotel.

Raffles was built in 1899 and quickly became a favorite haunt of well-heeled locals and visiting celebrities. It was thoroughly renovated in 1991 and the sweeping staircases, shaded verandas and tall swaying palms look as grand and elegant as they did in the nineteenth century.

Sir Stamford Raffles, an official of the British East India Company, essentially created Singapore in 1819, confident that the crossroads location and the wonderful harbor would be ideal for a trading centre.

When Raffles (right) arrived, Singapore was the diverse, cantankerous ethnic mix it is today, but he took steps to ensure that the persistent animosities were kept under control. He divided the city-state into sectors for each ethnic group - British, Indian, Chinese and so on. By and large this division is reflected in the layout of Singapore today. Some of the finest shopping can be found in 'Little India' or on Arab Road with the appropriate peoples and products.

We ran out of time to enjoy a full English tea at Raffles, but we did get to knock back a few "Singapore Slings," a cocktail invented by bartenders in the famous Raffles Long Bar where the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Paul Theroux had staved off the tropical heat before us. Packed with tourists, the bar’s classic atmosphere continues to seduce, with its slow- turning fans, shuttered windows, and rich chocolate paneling.

From the time of Sir Stamford Raffles, into the mid-twentieth century, Singapore was a British Crown Colony. Self-government within the Federation of Malaysia came only in 1955, followed by complete independence in 1965.

Independence, Lee Kuan Yew and Government that Works
Since independence, under the firm but wise leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (right), the country has advanced to the forefront of nations enjoying peace and prosperity. Singapore, though small – only 267 square miles and about 5 million people – is extraordinarily well-governed and a kind of paradise for those fortunate enough to live there.

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-) is not a modest man, but then he does not have much to be modest about. The high standard of living enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country is a largely result of the policies that he promulgated.

The government of Singapore is officially defined as a “parliamentary republic.” While the freedom to make money is almost unlimited, the freedom to be critical of the government is severely restricted. Newspapers, magazines, cable television and the internet are all carefully scrutinized and censored by the government.

The government’s approach is not unlike that employed by China today, but without any ideological underpinnings.

Singapore realizes that it lives in a dangerous world and cannot afford unlimited freedom of speech. The result has been imprisonment or fines for those who choose to challenge the system, but an admirable quality of life for those who do not.

Years ago Singapore became famous for arresting those who dared to spit on the streets or to deposit used chewing gum in public places, and for its severe punishment of drug offenders. Today’s Singapore has less crime and less poverty than almost any other country in the world. It is also recognized by many as one of the world’s cleanest countries.

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, but he continues to exert enormous authority in Singapore’s affairs as ‘Minister Mentor,’ with his son Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister.

Notes on Urban Planning, Architecture, Music and Arts in Singapore
For such a small territory with so much development, Singapore strikes the visitor as being remarkably well-planned – clean, green and lush with parks, gardens and grand buildings, both new and beautifully restored.

Cultural activities in Singapore are thriving. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), under music director (since 1997) Lan Shui (right), is an excellent ensemble with dozens of recordings to its credit, including, for example, the complete symphonies and concertos of Tcherepnin.

The SSO performs in a 1600 seat hall, in the striking, controversial architectural complex called Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay – facing Marina Bay downtown (photo by Hidetaka Mori, above). The rounded and prickly shape of the Esplanade has prompted wags to nickname it the 'Durian' after the eponymous foul-smelling tropical fruit that it resembles. Acoustician for the project was the late Russell Johnson - one of the best in the business.

Singapore is also, apparently, a nation of voracious readers. The huge Borders bookstore on Orchard Road is well-stocked and well-patronized. Among the current best-sellers on prominent display are the two massive volumes of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs (The Singapore Story (1999); From Third World to First: the Singapore Story (2000). Not quite the whole story, but important documents from a living legend.

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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