Monday, April 29, 2013

Eileen Farrell, where are you when we need you?

As I was driving to spend the afternoon with my friend Phyllis today, the car radio suddenly presented me with one of today's most famous DIVAS singing a Duke Ellington song. And by SINGING, I mean slaughtering. I had to shut off the radio! This particular Diva (who shall remain nameless) has issued this kind of recording in the past with equally unsuccessful results. It is a caricature of how an opera singer sings a popular song.

I asked Phyllis if she, when she used to sing Cole Porter songs, did anything unusual when moving from art song and opera to 'pop'. She told me that she just invested herself in the words and sang the song. And very well, I might add.

That seems difficult to do for some of today's opera singers who insist on doing cross-over albums. Years ago Kiri Te Kanawa put out an album with Nelson Riddle that boggled the mind. In singing 'Blue Skies', I'm sure that she started singing very nicely in her usual range only to have Mr. Riddle say, 'Lower, Kiri, lower Kiri, lower', after which they took it down about a seventh, making her sound like Mel Torme.

Eileen Farrell was the singer who could bring this off in spades. She could sing the 'Immolation Scene' on Tuesday and 'I've got a right to sing the Blues' on Wednesday, and be totally convincing and glorious in both.

Lorraine was able to do this. Shortly before her death I suggested to her that she do this kind of album. We had just listened to Farrell singing Wagner and pop and I said to her, 'Honey you could do that superbly'. Well, life was cruel and she never got the chance to make that album, but it would have been spectacular.

I just saw Stephanie Blythe sing 'June is bustin' out all over' in the PBS NY Phil presentation of Carousel the other night. She also does a program dedicated to Kate Smith, who could have done opera if she had wanted. Stephanie was great.

Phyllis and I also talked about the current rage to bring little known middle European singers to this country ignoring our own very excellent American variety. Phyllis will be teaching again at Tanglewood this summer for the 50th season. She said she has had hundreds of fine young singers go through her class only to have a tough time getting hired.

'Made in the USA' should be the motto of US symphony conductors and opera producers. Not that we don't welcome Europeans and Asians, but let's give the home team some support!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Music in the Middle West

I have been visiting a friend in the Chicago area and have had the opportunity to hear two orchestral concerts with choir, one featuring a regional symphony orchestra and one by of the world's finest ensembles.

OutdoorsThe first was on Friday evening, April 10, when the Mahler Second Symphony was performed by the Northwest Indiana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kirk Muspratt. The concert was held at Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana. The soloists were Alison Wahl, soprano,
and Margaret Stolz, mezzo-soprano. The chorus was prepared by Nancy Menk.

Since my friend sings in the Symphony Chorus, I was able to attend both the dress rehearsal and the performance. The church auditorium is not set up as a traditional church with an apse, a nave, and a crossing, or as a concert hall, but has an enormous, wide stage stretched across the front of the room, making it necessary to spread out the forces in order to fit everyone on stage. On either side of the main area, platforms were built that projected out from the stage on which were placed the percussion at stage right and the bass fiddles at stage left. This gave undue prominence to these sections of the orchestra visually and acoustially. The chorus was stretched across the entire width of the back of the stage behind the orchestra, making it difficult for the different sections to hear each other. The chorus was also amplified for some reason, as were the soloists. Somehow, they held it together and sang well.

For a dress rehearsal there was a lot of starting and stopping. In my experience, a dress rehearsal is just that: you pretty much go through the program making small, final adjustments. Apparently not that much rehearsal time is affordable for the orchestra budget so a lot of last minute 'fixing' is needed.The room is incredibly live and the overall effect was of too much sound. Especially in the case of the sopranos and first violins it was shrill and hard on the ears. By the performance this balance was tempered a bit by having a full house, making it less painful but acceptable.

Mr. Muspratt tends to spend a great deal more time dealing with the orchestra than he does cueing the chorus. Nevertheless, they managed just fine without a lot of help from him.

The two solo singers have lovely voices but are a bit lacking in the kind of vocal power to be heard over such a large orchestra and chorus. They both resorted to numerous breaths within a phrase, breaking up the long lines of the music. Having heard Lorraine sing the mezzo role many times, it takes her kind of vocal and emotional projection to make oneself be heard amid all the other sound that is going on. I would love to hear Eileen Farrell in the soprano role, but, unfortunately, neither of these fine singers is still with us.

The work, like many of Mahler’s orchestral pieces is overly long. The intermission came between the second and third movements. It makes for a long sit. Mahler does much better when setting songs, where the limitations of the text force him to cut back on the length of the work.

Mr. Muspratt had brass players in the rear of the auditorium and backstage at various times, which worked very effectively. The piece ranges from bucolic moments with Landler type movement, to enormous climaxes of ear-splitting force, especially in this overly bright room. This problem resolved itself better with a full house than it had been at the dress rehearsal with only a few people in the seats. Still, because of the positioning of the percussion in the front row, as it were, when they took off in a big moment, I was tempted to put my fingers in my ears. The cymbal player had a lot of work to do and inadvertently became one of the soloists.

In the rehearsal, the sound of both the violins and the sopranos was very shrill when playing and singing in the upper register. This, too, was modified in the performance with more people in the hall. I would like to hear the work done by the same forces in a better acoustical situation.

Overall this is a great work and was done well considering the space in which it was performed.


What a difference a couple of days makes. Tonight (April 16th) David and I heard the Chicago Symphony perform Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The comparison with last Friday’s Mahler 2nd with the Northern Indiana symphony was interesting and revealing. While the Indiana Symphony plays well, the Chicago Symphony is extraordinary.  I guess that that is to be expected when comparing a regional orchestra with one of national stature, but the juxtaposition of these two orchestras within a space of several days surely separates the sheep from the goats.

As to the conductors, while Mr. Muspratt is an able director Ricardo Muti is a genius. He conducted this massive work with a minimum of motion and a maximum of emotion, expressed in small, often invisible gestures. At times, when a small orchestral group was accompanying a soloist. He merely stood quietly, barely moving his body, and just allowed the musicians to play. It was fabulous. Mr. Muspratt tends to use Leonard Bernstein-like gestures, which may look dramatic but don't always do much for the music.

The Symphony chorus sang wonderfully well; brilliantly when needed and poignantly in moments like the 'Et incarnatus est'. I would have liked more sound from the sopranos and altos, but it may be the fact that I was seated on the opposite side of the hall from them. But to my ears, some more female voices would have balanced the robust sound of the men. The altos, as is often the case, were often not heard. I guess that goes with being an alto. Otherwise, the acoustics of the hall seemed fine.

The soloists were Eleonora Buratto, soprano, Anna Malavasi, mezzo-soprano, Saimir Pirgu, tenor, and Adam Plachatka, bass-baritone.  The men sang far better that the women. Both of the women sang with an upholstered sound that seemed totally manufactured. They both took excessive liberties with their breathing that were really annoying. For instance, in the 'Agnus Dei', Ms. Malavasi took four breaths in the opening phrase. These were not the voices I would choose for this work. Actually the two women singers from the Mahler have much more beautiful and natural sounding voices. I would like to hear them in this situation.

Mr. Plachatka just doesn't have the low notes for the first bass aria, 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus'. There is a breathy sound in that part of his voice which comes from trying to push the sound down rather than letting it find chest resonance freely. He was much better in 'Et in spiritum sanctum Dominum' which lies in a higher range.

Mr. Pirgu is an extraordinary tenor with a beautiful sound, a free technique and a very musical approach to his arias. His use of voix mixe in the 'Benedictus' was amazing.

This is simply one of the very greatest works in the musical repertoire and it was performed at the highest possible level. My hat is off to Mr. Muti. He is a great conductor.

I was thrilled to be there for this marvelous performance.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Yevgeny in Concert

What do you get if you take a couple of pieces of very old wood, some cat gut, and some horsehair and put them together with a genius?

If you are lucky, as we were this afternoon, you hear Yevgeny Kutik play a brilliant violin and piano concert with Tim Bozarth in South Windsor, CT.

PR imagesI have been hearing Yevgeny perform ever since he was the first Ferris Burtis Music Foundation scholarship winner about nine years ago. With every hearing his playing becomes more masterful, passionate, and beautiful. Today's program took my breath away and at times brought me to tears.

Timothy Bozarth is an exquisite pianist and a marvelous collaborator. He plays with an ease and a passion that is seldom seen these days.

The program opened with Mendelssohn's Sonata in F Major for violin and piano, a masterful work if there ever was one. Yevgeny and Timothy played this for all it was worth: a musical and technical tour de force, gaining the first standing ovation of the afternoon.

PR imagesThis was followed by Ernst Bloch's Baal Shem for violin and piano (Three pictures of Chassidic life, 1923). As I told Yevgeny after the concert, I heard incredible sounds from his instrument I had never heard him produce before. He simply gets better and better by the minute.

Beau Soir, the song of Claude Debussy in an arrangement by Jascha Heifetz, followed. I have often likened Yevgeny's sound to that of Heifetz, whom I heard often in my youth. It's that gorgeous.

Then came Sonata # 1 for Violin and Piano by Alfred Schnittke, an amazing piece of contemporary composition embodying the angst Russian composers had to go through in the post-Stalinist era.

The concert ended with the mind-boggling and finger blistering Polonaise de Concert #1 in D Major, Op. 4 by Henryk Wieniawski. And another standing ovation!

I have a musically avuncular feeling toward Yevgeny and Tim having watched them grow into major artists over the years, and feeling proud that the Burtis Ferris Music Foundation has had a small part in helping their education and careers. As I told them afterwards this afternoon, 'You guys wipe me out!!'

They will perform on the Ferris Burtis Music Foundation Benefit Concert on June 9th, at 4:00 p.m. at the Sandisfield Arts Center along with Julian Muller, 'cellist, Katie Weiser, Soprano, and Gabriella Makuc, pianist, all of whom are being assisted by the Foundation. For more information see: