As the score opened, I was transported to early 20th-c. Vienna and the sounds of Alban Berg. Melodies jumped around disjointedly; chords appeared out of nowhere and just as quickly vanished. There was no discernible serialism but the sounds of Expressionism surprised me.
When soprano Marisol Montalvo began to sing I was startled by the flexibility of her voice and her agility to negotiate the extremes of range as well as the multitudinous sounds she produced with lips, tongue and throat. Eliot Madore appeared and his mellifluous voice easily skipped high to low, loud to soft, bright to dark. He also became an encyclopedia sof timbres and displayed astonishing virtuosity.
Their skill can not be overestimated. The parts are as difficult as anything Berg or Schönberg ever wrote; they resolved wild dissonances into unisons as if by magic, plucking pitches out of thin air. Equally impressive were the players drawn from the Spoleto Orchestra. Bassoon fluttered like a crazy moth; trombone morphed from saloon to the opening notes of “Rite of Spring.” The other players also made sounds I would’ve never dreamed possible; their hard work showed and the exacting parts sounded easy, which is no mean feat.
There are simply not enough accolades to heap upon these performers—vocal and instrumental. Many, many hours of preparation went into bringing composer Lim’s score to life. She is a brilliant orchestrator and also writes individual parts that are beyond challenging: to say they demand extreme technique is like calling Lake Michigan a pond. The ovation they deserved was half what they received.
I believe the audience was less than thunderous because it simply couldn’t grasp what had just happened. Lim’s stated goal was to lead the audience through an “extra day” of life in which all living and nonliving beings exist together—in parallel and intertwined. The plot—such as it was—centered around a young man searching for his deceased father.
From beginning until end a cacophony of sound, motion and light filled the theatre—both perplexing and difficult to follow. I wondered if that wasn’t the point: the “margin of secret time” between life and death is anything but straightforward and sensical.
In her written explanation of the work Lim says “if there is a story…”. Part of the problem is that there are either entirely too many stories or none at all. A son searches for his father; birds and humans exchange voices; so-called ventriloquism permeates Lim’s libretto and mindset. The end result is confusing, rambling and perhaps the cause of the lackluster applause.
Human minds need narrative that unfolds into a discernible plot. Without it the repetition of soundbites turns into unending noise. It’s theater to be sure; but could anyone in the audience reproduce a single musical phrase or explain to passersby what they just saw and heard?
Charleston Post & Courier, May 29, 2018
Chairs for the orchestra were placed behind a scrim, onto which clasped hands were projected. A steam radiator and a chair sat in front. Soprano Natalia Pavlova began the performance by sitting and holding a flute. A talented string quartet—Autumn Chodorowski, Alexa Ciciretti, Andrew François and Sodam Lim—played an unknown piece while the orchestra players took their places—and none too quietly either.
Once seated and settled, the “Lyric Suite” for string quartet by Alban Berg began, while Ms. Pavlova and her baritone counterpart Alexander Dobson moved around the stage, in front of and behind the scrim. Berg’s music is not for everyone, but this piece, while dissonant, is nothing like his later works and was actually quite lovely and sensitively played.
After the final movement, conductor John Kennedy took the podium to perform the third movement again, in an arrangement for string orchestra. Strangely, the segue was interrupted by the orchestra tuning, which disassociated the quartet from the transcription. Nonsensical, it was just the first of many such distractions.
Once again the musicians rescued the evening. Alexander Zemlinsky’s imaginative and lush “Lyric Symphony” was played with passion—the sound rich and colorful. Mr. Dobson has a flexible voice, capable of penetrating highs and strong lows; he was mostly able to hold his own against the large orchestra. Unfortunately, on more than a few occasions, Maestro Kennedy failed to rein in the players—and to be fair Zemlinsky’s orchestration doesn’t help—and Dobson was drowned out.
True to form, Ms. Pavlova made the stage and the music her own. She sings with intense fervor and feeling, and she was able to soar above the thick chords and heavy percussion. Her voice is both brilliant and supple, and even extreme high notes weren’t forced or shrill. If there was a character in Zemlinsky’s music, with texts taken from “The Gardener” by Rabindranath Tagore in a German translation by Hans Effenberger, she would have easily brought it to life.
The students in the Spoleto Festival orchestra never fail to impress nor please, and Zemlinsky’s musical embodiment of High Romanticism was played with the excitement and nuance the exquisite music demands.
I can’t really speak to any visual elements after the third movement because I closed my eyes in order to enjoy the magnificent music. In the program description, Mr. Egoyan states that “what we present tonight is almost an opera.” Well, that is beyond a stretch. Berg’s quartet is hardly programmatic and Zemlinsky composed a song cycle. Abstract video, catchy lighting and a few random props do not an opera make.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 3, 2018
Tim Brent’s “Peace Song (Beatitudes)” was a wonderful opener. The singers were engaged and animated—as befitted the work. Tone clusters melted into central tonality—a difficult maneuver that requires excellent intonation and well-trained ears. Happily there are plenty of both in this ensemble.
“Kaisa-Isa Niyan” by Nilo Alcala was delightfully entertaining. Not many choirs can pull off the machine-gun rapidity of the text, which was crisp and discernible—if not understandable: it’s a Filipino children’s chant. It was controlled chaos that somehow came together into a virtuoso conclusion.
“Fäbodpsalm frän Darlarnas” by Anders Öhrwall had exactly the opposite effect: settled, contemplative and a little melancholy. The basses created sonic floors while sung rafters emerged from the sopranos, who more than once defied gravity with soaring high notes.
Frank Martin’s “Mass for Double Choir” is such a monumental and strenuous piece that few choirs can successfully perform it. Swiss-born Martin developed a personal harmonic idiom that owed nothing to any school. His choral works are highly praised for their sensitive treatment of texts—particularly religious—made piquant by chord structures and sequences suited exactly to the rise of fall of his melodic lines.
The charm and simplicity of Edward Bairstow’s “I Sat Down” was captured beautifully. Miller’s pacing was excellent and the singers created a choral tone very like that of a men and boys choir. It moved everyone.
True to form, these talented students made the Mass their own. The dynamic contrast went from hushed whispers to bellows that were never strident or ear-piercing. Striking dissonances dissolved into settled harmonies; running passages were as clear as a coloratura soprano; basses droned beneath Medieval-like melodies that contrasted with the Schönberg-like chords that sometimes peppered the piece. I started the applause myself; it grew into a well-deserved standing ovation.
The entire Mass was sung—except the Agnus Dei. The omission seemed inexplicable until conductor Joe Miller said that the final movement was left out so that the audience would purchase the CD coming in September that includes it. I was dumbstruck. Compromising the integrity of Martin’s magisterial work to sell recordings is unbecoming to an artist with the stature of Dr. Miller, who is among the most gifted choral conductors in this nation.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 2, 2018
Pia is inspired by a scene in Dante’s “Purgatorio” where pilgrim Dante encounters the shade of Pia, who asks Dante to remember her to the world. She was married to Nello Della Pietra, a Ghibelline lord, whose cousin Ghino is in love with her. Pia arranges to have a note sent to her brother Rodrigo, a Guelph, arranging a secret meeting. Ghino intercepts the letter, which he takes as proof of her infidelity. Bice, Pia’s maid tells Ghino that Pia refuses to see him, which sparks vengeance in Ghino.
The plot is too convoluted to detail here, but the end result is that Nello imprisons Pia for her supposed infidelity and orders her death. Piero, a hermit priest and Pia’s confessor, tells Nello the truth that Pia has not strayed. Nello rushes to his prison to halt the execution but is too late. In a dramatic aria Pia forgives Nello and begs for peace between Nello and Rodrigo.
Amanda Woodbury, a soprano headed for true greatness, who sings the role of Pia with conviction and extraordinary technical virtuosity, was nothing short of stupendous. Her scales and arpeggios were crisp and swift; her ornaments were tasteful and appropriate. She has a tremendous range—from rich lows to dizzying highs.
All the singers were fantastic—and there are just too many to mention individually—but a few stand out. Vera Savage, Pia’s maid, has a rich, mellifluous mezzo that is facile and colorful—with splendid running passages and heartfelt presentation. Nello was sung by Valdis Jansons, a baritone with both a warm, round tone and passionate highs. He brought pathos and sincerity to a character who is more or less a cad.
Cassandra Zoe Velasco, playing Pia’s brother Rodrigo, was stunning. Her voice is not unlike the great Maria Callas, with the familiar timbre of a mezzo as well as amazing coloratura and dazzling high notes. Velasco's voice is perfect for the role of Rodrigo, but she is petite and, physically, not particularly plausible as a leader of opposition fighters.
The Spoleto orchestra was marvelous, as usual; and the chorus, comprised of Westminster students, was equally excellent.
Aurally the production was wholly successful; visually not so much. The setting was transported from 13th-c. Siena to 1930s Mussolini Italy with Fascist sets and costumes. The bitter feud between Ghibellines (supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor) and Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) was more personal—son against father, brother fighting uncle—than Facism, which was less individualized.
The anchor of the set looked too much like a game board; the salon of an affluent woman doesn’t make a realistic prison cell. Plus there were simply too many incongruities. The text says Ghino will plunge a dagger into his breast, but he produces a pistol. The common folk who were meant to oppose the uniformed Fascists wore suits and hats. Pia’s confessor—supposedly a hermit and priest—was dressed as a decorated military officer!
The whole Fascist business was ill-conceived. Better Pia in a floor-length brocade gown and tattered, filthy rags. Not only believable; I might’ve wept.
Charleston Post & Courier, May 29, 2018
The sopranos and tenors are stretched to their limits by sustained high notes; the impracticalities of the German language don’t help either. Still, the men and women of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Westminster Choir did an outstanding job Tuesday night at the Gaillard Center. In fact, the chorus was the undisputed star: altos had a rich, easy tone and basses sang clear low notes with solid leaps. I hope Joe Miller, conductor of the concert and leader of the Westminster Choir, bows down to his tenors every day because they deserve it.
It’s repetitive to point out just how fantastic the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is, but each performance is as good — if not better — than the one before it. The cellos and violas made a lovely, embracing sound in the first movement; the start of the funeral march was appropriately mournful.
Miller brought out the best in orchestra and chorus. It was refreshing to hear proper articulations, rolling triple meters, distinguishable diction and unforced choral tone. His conducting is fluid and effective and it confidently reflects the score.
It’s well known that music through Schubert does not incorporate continuous vibrato. Less well known is that continuous vibrato didn’t come into widespread use until the 1920s; thus Schumann, Liszt, Wagner — and, yes, Brahms — should be played and sung without vibrato if historically informed performance is the goal.
Period instruments of the time were different than their modern counterparts: oboes sounded darker; clarinetists were expected to use the indicated transposed instrument. Brahms was particularly fond of the peculiar timbre of stopped notes in natural horn. Valves weren’t invented to move quickly from key to key but to obviate crooks; players depressed the appropriate valve, held it, then used their hand and lips to change notes.
Orchestral placement also was different. Violins sat facing each other, double basses stood at the back of the orchestra and woodwinds and brass sat on elevated platforms. Choruses were placed in front of the orchestra, allowing them to be heard above heavy orchestrations.
Sadly, both Natalia Pavlova and Alexander Dobson weren’t in such good voice as a couple of nights ago when they sang wonderfully well. Pavlova had recurring intonation problems; plus, she sometimes phonates beneath the pitch then reaches up. The same brilliant, penetrating timbre that helped Dobson succeed in the performance of Zemlinsky’s “Lyric Symphony” on Saturday made him a poor choice for this work, which requires a warm, comforting sound. He also struggled with the upper register.
Truth is I’ll sit through the whole piece for the high A the sopranos sing at the end. Ladies, you made my evening: it soared. Maestro Miller did everyone — chorus, orchestra, himself and Brahms — proud.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 7, 2018
“Il Matrimonio Segreto” (The Secret Marriage) is an operatic style called opera buffa, comedy that is absurd, with a plot that is totally unbelievable, and at least one character that is a total fool. Happily, there was all of that plus more.
The opera was written by Domenico Cimarosa, a contemporary of Mozart, born in Naples. Famous for his comic operas, he was invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine II herself.
The story revolves around a couple—Paolino and Carolina—who are secretly married. Carolina’s father, Geronimo, is a wealthy eccentric who is deaf but doesn’t realize it. He has another daughter, Elisetta; his elderly sister Fidalma also resides there and runs things. Paolino arranges for Count Robinson to marry Elisetta for a handsome dowry, but when Count Robinson sees Elisetta he is repulsed and falls instead for Carolina, who is already married.
Geronimo agrees to the switch, partly because his dowry is halved and his family will be ennobled. Paolino runs to Carolina’s homely aunt Fidalma for comfort, but she misinterprets his distress and cradles him in her arms when he swoons at her declaration of love. Carolina discovers her husband Paolino in her ugly aunt’s arms; he barely persuades her that things are not what they seem.
Count Robinson behaves like a boor. Carolina and Paolino scheme to run away that night and Geronimo has decided to send her to a convent. The whole ruse unravels and the Count takes Elisetta, Fidalma blesses the secret marriage, and everyone coaxes Geronimo to relent. All is swwell that ends well and the curtain falls.
The six singers giving voice to the puppets were just fabulous, not surprising since they are Westminster students. Margaret Bergmark (Carolina) has a lovely voice with easy high notes and facile runs. The same is true of Betsy Podsiadlo (Elisetta), who played the shunned sister with indignation; her scales ran high to low with no effort. Mckenzie Smith (Fidalma) navigated the turns and trills with facility; she turned haughty Fidalma into the most comedic of the three ladies.
Christopher Fludd (Paolino) has a sweet voice that gave gentle Paolino a warmth that befitted his character’s personality. Scott Kover (Count Robinson) knew just how to animate the Count’s hilarious reaction to the ever-frowning Elisetta; he had no trouble with the rapid ornaments and skips. But it was Matthew Marinelli (Geronimo) who stole the show. Somehow he turned his voice into the ridiculous clown necessary to sing along with the hapless father when his leg would bounce up and down.
Needless to say the orchestra—a pared down ensemble drawn from Cimarosa’s original score—was outstanding. These students can play anything; they were stylistically appropriate and never overwhelmed the singers, who were in the pit with them. Conductor Marco Seco held everything together and the transitions were smooth and steady.
But it was the puppeteers who were the real stars. The final curtain rose to reveal eleven wizards who animated those charming wooden dolls. Somehow they coordinated the gestures—every movement imaginable—with the singing and accompaniments. Marionettes floated as they walked; arms flailed about, exasperated; heads rolled and bodies collapsed. It’s nothing short of astonishing.
My companion laughed until she cried and so did I, between moments of disbelief—not at the preposterous plot—but at the miracle that was the marionettes. If there’s a ticket to be had grab it. And bring a tissue.
Charleston Post & Courier, June 1, 2018
Westminster Choir Delivers ‘Turning of a Day’ Performance
It ain’t for nothing that Westminster Choir College is reputed to have one of the finest choral programs in the United States. This fact was amply demonstrated in yesterday’s concert at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul.
Under the capable direction of Dr. Joe Miller, the choir presented a range of music that, as Dr. Miller noted, “revolves around the turning of a day.” The “Latin sandwich,” as he put it, was filled with one German and five English pieces—all of which were performed with great determination and vigor.
As a conductor Dr. Miller is both nuanced and controlled. Of course, it helps that he is working with the cream of the crop: young people with supple voices that can more or less do whatever is asked of them. And in the course of the 75-minute program, much was asked and much was delivered.
The first work, Lux surgut aurea, (“See the golden sun arise”) by the Catalan composer Bernat Vivancos, began with chant-like melodies that set the stage for the remainder of the piece, which was tonal and largely homophonic, with long, sustained harmonies that sounded effortless.
The single German work, Johannes Brahms’ Abendständchen, Op. 42 No. 1, (Evening Serenade) continued the theme of moving throughout the day. Dr. Miller understands 19th-century performance practice in that he performed this Romantic work without vibrato—anathema to many modern conductors. but frequently described in contemporaneous writings.
“Yes, it’s beautiful” from The Constellation of Apollo by Kile Smith, recounts the conversation between the three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 as it photographed the Earth from outer space for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968.
For Windham, L.M. by Daniel Read—an important early American classical composer—half of the choir came to the middle of the room. The style and timbre of singing abruptly shifted from the warm, well-blended sound of the earlier pieces to the exceedingly bright and somewhat nasal tone associated with Shakers and music from The Sacred Harp. My one criticism of this and the following work, Zion, C.M., arranged by the American composer John T. Hocutt, was that one of the tenors’ voice was rather too prominent—though to be fair he was standing directly in front of me.
The next work arranged by Tom Malone, Yonder Come Day, took us from the Neoclassicism of the cathedral to a summer evening camp meeting held in a tent. The African-American spiritual featured two outstanding alto soloists and the energy of the work successfully captured the raw emotion associated with such gatherings; however, the hand clapping was at times overly enthusiastic and had the unhappy effect of drowning out the text—an error easily corrected.
Paul Crabtree’s “Death and Resurrection” from The Valley of Delight is primarily a dialogue between the men and women of the choir; there was one section where Miller dropped his hands and the choir just kept going—all the while maintaining its perfect ensemble.
Laudibus in Sanctis (“Praise the Holiest” from Psalm 150) called upon the singers to explore not only the extremes of their dynamic palette but also of their tessituras. The basses produced clear, articulated low notes while the sopranos sang the high pitches with grace and a sense of ease that belies how difficult such notes really are.
Three encores followed and the concert was finished with a rousing rendition of Great Day—a fitting conclusion since, as far as choral singing is concerned, it really was a great day.
—Charleston, SC Post and Courier,
May 30, 2017
Celebration Concert a stunning showcase of talent
The Celebration Concert Tuesday at the Gaillard Center was precisely that: a celebration of Spoleto and music of every genre and from every historical period and nationality. From the Italian Baroque: Vivaldi to German Classicism: Mozart to late Romantic opera: Puccini to 20th-century: Leonard Bernstein and other Americans.
German conductor Evan Rogister led the evening’s orchestral works and displayed a command of the ensemble that was both subtle and expansive. His gestures range from the smallest hand movements to the full blown dance-like that bring to visual life the aural imaginings of the music. Like Bernstein, and based on drawings of his conducting, Franz Liszt, Rogister used his entire body to bring forth persuasive interpretations of the music and its emotional content.
Bookended by selections from Bernstein’s Candide, the 90-minute program included the L’estro armanico, Op. 3 no. 11 by Antonio Vivaldi. The orchestra was pared down and, refreshingly, seated according to the Baroque plan—that is, second violins on the right. The work featured chamber artists more frequently seen at the Dock Street Theater and was a smashing success. Geoff Nuttall, who simultaneously played solo first violin and led the ensemble in this concerto grosso was outstanding; his partners in the concertino—Livia Sohn, violin; Pedja Muzijevic, harpsichord; and Christopher Constanzal, cello, formed an excellent foil to the ripeno (large ensemble). Constanza in particular displayed a deft facility in what was a demanding part.
The tone of the concert changed when a jazz ensemble, comprised of orchestra players, came onstage to perform I’m thru with love by Joseph “Fud’ Livingston (great uncle of Mayor John Tecklenberg);. Quiana Parker sang beautifully this ballad originally performed by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Her phrasing was eloquent and the timbre of her voice was just right for the melancholy lyrics. She was superbly accompanied by the ensemble.
Edward Thornton Jenkins’ Charlestonia followed, performed by the full orchestra. Jenkins was an African-American who studied at the Royal College of Music in London. This nod to his hometown was premiered in London in 1917 and sounds very American; it foreshadows the music of George Gershwin, in particular An American in Paris. It turned out to be the sleeper of the program—unknown but well-received.
Puccini’s “La tragenda" (The Spectre) from Le Villi was appropriately energetic and had the string players sawing away at their instruments. But it was “Vogliatemi bene” (Love Me Please) from Madama Butterfly that stole the show. This tragic duet was brilliantly sung by Natalia Pavlova, soprano and Jamez McCorkle, tenor. Far and away the best singers of the night, their high notes were full with a sense of ease that allowed the audience to simply bask in the breathtaking sound. Their acting was superb and the timbre of their voices when combined into parallel octaves created an effect that clearly moved the audience, which gave them a rousing ovation.
Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story was the audience favorite, and rightly so. This demanding 20-minute work brought out the best of the orchestra, whether the remarkable percussion section or the brilliant brass. The performance was festive and alive and, well, it danced. It was replete with finger snapping, cello twirling and shouted words and was magnificent.
But the undisputed star of the evening was the Spoleto Orchestra itself. It handled the different styles of music with great aplomb—whether the pure tones of Vivaldi or the rich sound of Bernstein—the orchestra was simply stunning. We should count ourselves fortunate to have such a fantastic ensemble available to us—even if it is only for two weeks out of the year.
—Charleston, SC Post and Courier, June 1, 2017
Review: Mozart paired with Vaughan Williams results in uneven performance
Although at first glance a program of music by the 18th-century W.A. Mozart and the 20th-century Ralph Vaughan Williams might seem incongruous, the pairing worked well in a concert of choral and orchestral music Tuesday night at the Gaillard Center.
The first half of the program was the finer, with the Westminster Choir in its usual outstanding form. “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” by Vaughan Williams was sung with great care. The work, a juxtaposition of Psalm 96 with the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” was beautiful—even if the orchestra was a bit heavy at times and drowned out the choir.
“Serenade to Music” is one of Vaughan William’s finest pieces. It is a free-form fantasy that was a compositional breakthrough for him: freeing him from the usual constraints of instrumental forms. There are ten soloists who sing a few lines each; the Westminster students held their own with their older, professional counterparts and the work was perfectly lovely. Mozart, lacking a patron and a deadline for his lofty project to compose the “Great Mass in C minor,” K. 427, wrote it piecemeal between other ventures during the years 1728–83. Several large portions of the “Credo” and the entire “Agnus Dei” were never to reach completion. It was first performed in Salzburg in 1783. His future wife Constanze sang the “Et incarnatus est” at the premiere.
Regrettably, the “Great Mass in C-minor” left much to be desired. I was surprised—and disappointed—to hear the orchestra play with continuous vibrato, which is most definitely not part of the 18th-century style. And even though there are no pictures of how Mozart’s orchestras were seated, it’s a safe bet that they weren’t placed according to the modern configuration.
In most countries, Latin is pronounced with an Italianate accent—except for the German speaking world, which pronounces Latin as if it were German; there’s no reason to think the same wasn’t true in Mozart’s day. But the chorus sang the Mass with the typical Italianate pronunciation. Some of these criticisms may strike the reader as overly fussy, but a festival like Spoleto, with an international stature, surely ought to present concerts with historically informed performances that strive to recreate a sound that is as close as possible to what the composer expected to hear.
The CSO Chorus, augmented by the Westminster Choir, made a valiant effort towards what is a difficult choral piece. While the sopranos had trouble reaching the high notes, which were almost uniformly under pitch, the tenor section was robust and made an excellent showing.
Happily, the soloists were without exception outstanding. The two sopranos: Sherezade Pantaki and Clara Rottsolk overcame the totally different timbres of their voices to blend quite well on the duet in the “Domine Deus.” Each had excellent breath control for the exceedingly long phrases and both were quite agile in the runs and ornaments. Jamez McCorkle sang well but not quite as good as the Celebration Concert last week. And bass André Courville displayed his excellent instrument, with clear, resonant low notes and fast, delineated passage work. Pity we didn’t hear more from him during the evening.
—Charleston Post and Courier,
June 8, 2017