Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

What a difference a different concert hall makes. Or a different set of acoustics. Or a different conductor.

This afternoon David and I went to the Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook, Illinois to hear Music of the Baroque perform their Holiday Brass and Choral Concert. 

First of all, I had thought that this concert was to be Mendelssohn's Elijah. Wrong! That will happen in the spring.

Second, I thought that Jane Glover would be conducting.  Wrong! It turned out to be Paul Agnew.

Third, it was way the hell north of Chicago at the Divine Word Chapel which is in some sort of Catholic school.

Other than that...

The chapel is within the school and has strange acoustics, which I will deal with later. The program was an esoteric amalgamation of music ranging from Praetorius to Francis Poulenc, which in itself is a great idea.

My problem was with the sound the choir was making. I loved the way they sounded under Jane Glover in Bach's St. John Passion earlier this season. I hated the way they sounded, especially the sopranos, in today's concert. The sopranos were using a loud, forced, straight sound that was very ugly and un-characeristic for the music they were singing. Under Jane Glover they sounded like angels. Today they could have done brain surgery with the sharp, straight, piercing tone that came from the section.

The program itself ranged from Gabrieli to Poulenc and was programatically interesting. The acoustics of the chapel were a problem. When the choir sang from the chancel, the reverberation in the church did strange things to the sound. Instead of adding an additional lengthening of the sound at the end of a phrase, it simply blurred everything together. When part, or all, of the choir move into the balcony, the sound was much better without the haze that affected it when singing from the chancel.

Apparently, this is the type of sound the conductor likes. Bring back Jane Glover!

An Ideal Traviata!

Seldom in today's musical world do I hear an operatic performance where all of the major roles are sung by really fine singers. Last night at Chicago Lyric Opera was the exception.

Their production of  Verdi's La Traviata last night was filled with singing that warmed the heart of a voice teacher and musician. Beautiful, free, expressive singing was the high standard that was set and met by Marina Rebeka, the Violetta, Joseph Calleja, Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey, Giorgio Germont.

Ms. Rebeka is a Latvian soprano who possesses a voice of great beauty that will do anything she asks of it. You want a brilliant high note? It's there. How about the same note pianissimo? It's also there. Her vocal range of dynamics and color in the voice reminded me of my all time favorite soprano Montserrat Caballe. She is simply wonderful.

Mr. Calleja comes from Malta and was Gramophone's  Artist of the Year in 2012. And with good reason. His beautiful tenor voice can scale the heights at every dynamic level with great ease. He is a fine actor and musician.  

Mr. Kelsey is a native of Hawaii. I have seldom heard the role of Georgio Germont sung with such ease and with such a limpid tone. His high G flat is to die for!

Chicago Lyric's stage apparently has room for only one set. As in the recent production of Parsifal, which I did not care for, there is a cyclorama at the rear of the stage which serves as a backdrop for the entire opera, being varied with lighting and shadow play. Here is a case where the scenery is immaterial. The singing alone carries the story and totally engages the listener.

The smaller roles were well sung by former members of the Ryan Opera Center, for the most part. The costumes and puppets were gorgeous and
imaginative and were designed by Cait O'Connor.

I was simply blown away by the singing which was never covered by the fine orchestra conducted by Massimo Zanetti. I am assuming that the size of the stage and orchestra pit is much smaller than that of the Met, resulting in fewer instruments. Or maybe the conductors at Chicago Lyric just don't attempt to drown out the singers, as is often the case at the Met. I am sure that singers feel free to sing with ease and at all possible dynamic levels in this house. Too often at the Met it is a battle between the orchestra and the singer where the orchestra wins. 100 to 1 is a tough competition.

All in all this was a glorious evening at the opera. Tonight David and I will hear Music of the Baroque perform Mendelssohn's Elijah.

So much wonderful music here in Chicago and only twenty minutes from home!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ceremony of Carols

Tonight David and I were thrilled to hear a superb performance of Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols at St John Cantius church in Chicago's former Polish Town. The building is a remarkable 1898 structure, elegant without and within.

St. John Cantius

The St. Cecilia Choir was conducted by Daniel Robinson who led them through this extraordinary work with elegance, imagination, and great musicianship. The singers performed with a lovely, unforced sound. The sopranos sing in tune; no flat singing here, such as I often hear from choir sopranos. And no screamy high notes!

I have conducted this work many times in its original form: three female voices. Tonight the revised version was used which is for SATB choir. But Dan managed to keep everything light and crisp in spite of the addition of tenor and bass voices.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth. He is indeed the pre-eminent composer of the last century.

Dan worked under John Ferris at Harvard some time ago and I could hear John's influence in the presentation.

The very good harpist was Renee Wilson. The Magnificat Choir, a group of young singers, also sang beautifully and effortlessly. It was conducted by Br. Chad McCoy, S.J.C.

I would say that the music program in this church is in very good hands.

Before the service of Lessons and Carols began, a delightful ensemble performed an instrumental prelude. The musicians were Julianne Skones, oboe, Heather Thon, clarinet, and Hanna Sterba, bassoon. Their arrangements of mostly vocal pieces were delightful. Many were by Daniel Kelley.

Before the concert we had a delicious seafood dinner at Riva on Navy Pier with a great view of the Chicago skyline.