Search This Blog

Monday, July 19, 2021

Opera on the Grass, At Last

WHILE SOME MUSIC VENUES are opening to audiences, opera – especially as presented by an institution like The Glimmerglass Festival – needs to plan ahead. Way ahead. They lost a year, of course, as did we all, but they spent it planning a careful return to live programming that could take advantage of the Festival’s beautiful grounds.

Eric Owens and Lisa Marie Rogali
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

And as music by Mozart filled the air, as a dignified and friendly Sarastro settled into a fancy chair, we were ushered into a new Glimmerglass era. “Glimmerglass on the Grass,” in fact, featuring a season presented on a specially built outdoor stage, with socially distanced seating on the facing lawn.

An ever-changing forecast was borne out by the mix of sun and clouds that greeted the 11 AM “Magic Flute” performance last Saturday, but it was a good backdrop for a fast-moving production that came with its own plentiful thunder. Glimmerglass resident artist Eric Owens – who has been a great success in productions from several previous seasons here – sang and spoke the role of Sarastro, also offering narration that helped trim the piece down to the 90-minute, intermission-free length that characterizes all of this summer’s productions.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Blow, Ye Winds

I HOPE THAT COMPOSER JOSEPH FENNIMORE has still more recordings that have been made of his works over the years. Every so often, but not often enough, a CD is released that offers another handful of those gems. The latest, “Blow,” is a collection of works for winds and piano. As Fennimore writes in the accompanying notes, “Winds marry better with piano than strings ... Strings have their undeniable place in the instrumental Pantheon given the repertory they command but it takes at least three of them in unison to mitigate one player’s monotonous vibrato.” Take umbrage as you will, cat-gut scrapers, but Fennimore’s music makes convincing arguments in favor of reeds, horn, and flute.

His Clarinet Sonata dates from 1968 and was recorded eight years later. It’s a twelve-minute piece that kicks off with Poulenc-like merriment; the movement that follows, marked Moderate, is a captivating byplay between clarinet and piano as they trade wistful phrases, seeming to dance away from the resolution that, of course, overtakes their tired selves at the end. They recover for a fast finish – it is, in fact, marked Fast – characterized by the deliberate uncertainty of trills and truncated phrases. But it is, again, a dance that gives way to a dreamlike middle before whirling us to a delightfully syncopated finish with a wistful tag. Clarinetist David Niethamer and pianist Charles Schneider were the worthy interpreters here.

Given the grab-bag nature of this collection, it’s no surprise to find a variety of performers represented. What’s surprising, however, is the protean nature of Fennimore’s voice. The Sextet for Woodwind Quintet and Piano premiered at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1985, the year it was written; what’s on this disc was recorded two years later at Loudonville’s Siena College. Fennimore’s voice changed during the 17 years that separate this from the Clarinet Sonata – or he at least consulted a contrasting muse.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Benny Rides Again

From the Music Vault Dept.: We just enjoyed a performance in my town by Dan Levinson and His Palomar Trio with superb vocalist Molly Ryan – their first live gig since the start of the pandemic shut-down. Which got me nostalgic for a big-band appearance Dan and Molly – and fellow Palomarians Mark Shane (piano) and Kevin Dorn (drums) – made in the area in 2009.

                                                                              
      

DOESN’T IT SEEM LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY when Benny Goodman and his band scored such a success at the Palomar Ballroom that the Swing Era officially started? All right, then. Maybe I live in a different era. But whatever your perspective, music of the late 1930s was characterized by the punchy, brassy arrangements of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, himself a bandleader, and Jimmy Mundy, and played by the bands of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and many, many others.

Dan Levinson
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Performing the tunes called for tremendous virtuosity, and gave us a generation of players still revered for their skill. It’s something of a shock to realize that there’s a current generation of musicians able and eager to play in that style, and can bring to life music heretofore trapped on decades-old recordings.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson is a musical chameleon whose specialty is channeling styles as far back as the ’teens. His heart seems to be in the ’30s, though, and he plays music of that era both with a small group (his Swing Wing) and large ensembles like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.

For this event, he fronted James Langton’s New York City All-Stars, a fifteen-piece band sporting the caliber of player Goodman would have been delighted to hire. The program opened as Goodman would have opened it, with a short, rousing “Let’s Dance” that he took almost immediately into “Bugle Call Rag,” a Mundy arrangement that quickly showcased many of the individual players.

Friday, July 09, 2021

The Spirit of Philidor

HERE’S ANOTHER of my video collaborations with Musicians of Ma’alwyck, in which we imagine a visit by composer-chessmaster François-André Philidor to Albany’s Schuyler Mansion to meet General Lafayette – where he meets a more portentous personage instead. With Ethan Botwick as Philidor and Steven Patterson as du Mortier.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Back to Tanglewood

From the Classical Vault Dept.: More summer venues have announced their 2021 seasons, and Tanglewood will be back with the kind of programming you expect – the kind of programming that drew me there 35 years ago to write the review that follows.

                                                                                

The lush lawn at Tanglewood just got its summer crewcut as the Boston Symphony Orchestra season got under way with two concerts by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. Saturday’s was a slam-bang beginning.

Charles Dutoit

The 200th birthday of composer Carol Maria von Weber was saluted with the overture from his opera Der Freischuetz and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat. The overture is a staple of the orchestral repertory and offers the better groups a display of dynamics and color. Dutoit, best known as music director of the Montreal Symphony, has a terrific hand for bringing out just those characteristics.

The drama of the overture was brought out nicely by Dutoit’s treatment of the piece as a voiceless aria; like Mozart, Weber informed his melodies with a singing quality. A thickly textured sequence for horn quartet is a mean thing to hand the horn-players so early in the concert but these players were superb.

Malcolm Frager was the concerto soloist. A Tanglewood favorite for more than 20 years, he brings a zest to his playing that is the true essence of virtuosity. The Weber concerto provides plenty of opportunity to strut the technical stuff and Frager pulled it off pretty much without a hitch –  the bobbled couple of notes in the faster passages are worth mentioning only to illustrate the risks he takes to achieve his effects, something many other artists should try.

Friday, July 02, 2021

What They Had Laid Out for Their Vacation

Guest Blogger Dept.: George Ade’s famous Fables tended to get longer as their popularity grew and his column spread through newspaper syndication. But here’s an unusually shorter one that seems appropriate to the season ahead.

                                                                               

A MAN WHO HAD THREE WEEKS of Vacation coming to him began to get busy with an Atlas about April 1st. He and his Wife figured that by keeping on the Jump they could do Niagara, Thousand Islands, Atlantic City, The Mammoth Cave and cover the Great Lakes.

Getting Busy with an Atlas
Drawing by Harry Smith

On April 10th they decided to charter a House-Boat and float down the Mississippi.

On April 20th he heard of a Cheap Excursion to California with a stop-over Privilege at every Station and they began to read up on Salt Lake and Yellowstone.

On May 1st she flashed a Prospectus of a Northern Lake Resort where Boats and Minnows were free and Nature was ever smiling.

By May 10th he had drawn a Blue Pencil all over a Folder of the Adirondack Region, and all the Hotel Rates were set down in his Pocket Memorandum Book.

Ten days later she vetoed the Mountain Trip because she had got next to a Nantucket Establishment where Family Board was $6 a Week, with the use of a Horse.

Monday, June 28, 2021

No Child Left Behind

From the Vault Dept.: The Glimmerglass Festival is on the brink of opening again, after the inevitable Covid-inspired summer off. Plenty of info to be gained at their website, and keep in mind that the reduced season has its own seating challenges as well. But they tend to do such things well, as was the case a decade again ago when I penned the below.

                                                                                     

MURDERING YOUR CHILDREN always grabs headlines, and Greek mythological Medea long ago grabbed the title of most famous filicide. Her story varies from source to source, but by the time Luigi Cherubini got hold of it, she was a sorceress who’d already murdered her own brother in aid of her beloved Jason, of fleece-hunting Argonauts fame. Cherubini was a Beethoven contemporary whose music was lauded by that composer, and his work on this opera, which premiered in 1797, shows unexpectedly forward-thinking musical techniques.

Alexandra Deshorties
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The opera has been tinkered with over the years, acquiring an Italian text (it was written in French) and musical recitatives set by Franz Lachner. As the Glimmerglass Opera production proved, the piece packs a wallop, especially when in the hands of a talent as strong as Alexandra Deshorties.

The title role gives her a grand entrance and an even bigger exit, but the heart of the piece is her struggle to justify the horrible, revenge-driven act she’s contemplating. Deshorties skillfully mined the edge of madness written into the part, reinforcing subtle messages in the music without ever going over the top.