Sunday, December 20, 2015


This afternoon David and I saw a performance of Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Chamber Opera Chicago at the Chicago Main Public Library.

I staged this charming opera a number of times years ago at my church in Red Bank, NJ and even took it on the road to several nearby churches. Because we were doing several performances, and because we needed to cover the title role in case of emergencies, I began training three boys in the role of Amahl the previous spring.

Wisely, it turns out. In September I got a call from one of the boys who had become a baritone over the summer.  That left me with two Amahls, each of whom sang a couple of performances.

Another anecdote that concerns that production is the fact that when I tried to find some young people in the church to do the dance segment, I was put in touch with a young girl named Carol, who studied dance. She said that she and her friend could arrange the dance. When I saw it I was amazed at how good it was. She told me that her friend's teacher had choreographed it for them.

Her teacher was George Balanchine.

Today's program began with an hour of Christmas music sung by a children's choir, directed by  Brian Burkhardt. They sang with a beautiful free sound and were always in pitch. They had sneaked a few older 'ringers' in the back row, but they had light voices and helped on the high notes so all was well.

Image result for victoria bond The opera was conducted by Victoria Bond and the orchestra was located behind the set on stage, a very good idea for balance. The cast included Karissa Burkhardt, as Amahl, Barbara Landis, as the mother, Christopher Lorimer as Kaspar, Aaron Stegemöller as Melchior, Patrick Blackwell as Balthazar, and Robert Brady as The Page. They all sang very well. I especially liked Messrs. Stegemöller and Blackwell.  Miss Burkhardt did a very good job as Amahl, but I really prefer hearing this part sung by a boy. There is a distinct different between a young girl's voice and that of a young boy, which I missed.

It was a delightful afternoon and I always shed a few tears when Amahl wants to send his crutch to the Christchild.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas in Chicago

Last night David and I attended the Music of the Baroque Holiday Brass and Choral concert at St. Michael's church in Old Town.

Image result for st michael's church old  town chicago

This is a spectacular building with wonderful acoustics for this type of program: about a two or three second reverb.

The chorus of MOB was conducted by Steven Fox, who is the Artistic Director of New York City's Clarion Orchestra and choir. He did a beautiful job leading this splendid chorus.

Image result for steven fox

The program consisted of a variety of compositions, mostly a capella, ranging from Gregorian Chant to Francis Poulenc and Philip Ledger. The brass ensemble was excellent, though they did get into a bit of trouble in 'Sonata for Four Trombones and Basso Continuo. The tempo they took was just too fast for clear articulation.

The chorus, usually led by Jane Glover, is one of the best I have ever heard, singing with a clear, bright sound that is always on pitch (especially the sopranos, who often sound a bit flat when trying to sing with no or very little vibrato). I especially enjoyed the fact that I could always hear the alto line, which often gets lost en route

Singers from the choir did the vocal solo work.They included Amanda Koopman, alto, Brendon Marsh,tenor, Susan Nelson, soprano, and Rosalind Lee, soprano. All sang well. I especially like Ms. Lee.

The church itself was a beautiful part of the concert, its American Rococo decoration sparkling and its amazing altarpiece almost stealing the show.

A lovely evening in Old Town, an elegant neighborhood of the Windy City. Driving home along Lake Shore Drive, seeing all the twinkling Christmas lights that seem to decorate every shrub and tree in front of elegant apartment buildings, was a beautiful end to a very enjoyable evening that began with an excellent meal in China Town's Moon Palace!


Friday, December 4, 2015

Something in the Heir!

This evening David and I saw The Heir Apparent at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. It is a re-write of Le Legataire Universal by Jean-Francois Regnard,
(7 February 1655 – 4 September 1709, "the most distinguished playwright after Moliere") brought up to date as far as language by David Ives. The impressive stage set and costumes remain in the 17th century.

It is a farce about a group of family and servants trying to trick an old man into leaving them his wealth, a sort of prequel to Gianni Schichi.

Mr. Ives has kept the dialogue in rhymed couplets, which at first tended to drive me crazy, but by the second act I was used to the rather inane translation from the French and enjoyed the play.

Image result for nate burger  Nate Burger

The fine cast included Jessie Fisher as Lisette, Cliff Saunders as Crispin, Nate Burger as Eraste, Linda Kimbrough as  Mme. Argante, Paxton Whitehead as Geronte, Emily Peterson as Isabelle, and Patrick Kerr as Scruple.

Image result for emily peterson        Emily Peterson

The fascinating set included a large clock that farts the hours, a stage full of elegant furniture, and a chest, which supposedly holds the old man's money. Early in the production, they manage to open the chest and find 40,000 francs. They also find a copper sou, which they toss out the window. At the end of the play, when the old man has a change of heart, he tells them that the money is in the farting clock.

Eraste leaps from the window to find the coin. When they insert it in the clock, it opens and pours out gold coins, much like a slot machine.

It made for a fun evening, which was preceded by Dover Sole at Riva! Right next to the theatre on Navy Pier. Fabulous!!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Tonight we had a very different choral experience. Last night was Jane Glover and Music of the Baroque, tonight was Chanticleer at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue.

I will confess right off the bat that male falsetto singing is not my favorite idea of a musical evening. Chanticleer is programed as 'An Orchestra of Male Voices', and I guess that's as good a definition as I could come up with. It is directed by William Fred Scott.

SCOTT  William Fred Scott

Tonight's program went from Plainsong, through Gabrieli, Gousset, Holst and ended with an arrangement of Spirituals. The singing is very precise, sometimes so controlled rhythmically and pitch-wise  as to sound robotic. The intonation is alarmingly pure. When a high straight open fifth was sung with the sharp male soprano voices on top, it hurt my ears. The arrangement of spirituals was a la Fred Warring.

Image result for chanticleer ensemble   Chanticleer

I have taught several counter-tenors in my career and worked with several others. Russell Oberlin was the first American counter-tenor to have a major career. We both studied with the same voice teacher in New York City- Mrs. William E. Neidlinger, and often performed together. Five of her students sang at the Met. I performed with her niece, Gertrude Neidlinger, a concert comedienne, for many years .

Russell had a remarkable voice, in that he could sing F above tenor high C in true voice with ease.

More recently, my favorite counter-tenor was Brian Osawa, who sang with Lorraine in Xerxes at the LA Opera. He sounded like Helen Traubel! One of the male singers tonight had a beautiful voice that was much like his.

All in all I prefer either women or boys to take the high notes in the program we heard tonight.

Sound an alarm!

Stop me if you have heard me say this before, but Jane Glover is the finest conductor on the musical scene today. In my youth I sang under Stokowski, Metropolis, Shaw, Elaine Brown, the lot. She is right up there with the greats.

Image result for jane glover

Tonight she led Music of the Baroque in Handel's Judas Maccabaeus. The soloists were Yulia Van Doren, soprano, Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, Thomas Cooley, tenor, and Eric Owens, bass.

Image result for meg bragle alto   Meg Bragle    

 Photo credit Paul Foster-Williams.  Thomas Cooley

Of the four I liked Ms. Bragle and Mr. Cooley the best. She sang with a lovely legato line and executed the runs easily and musically. He also sang well but had to resort to falsetto for the high 'A's in 'Sound an alarm.

Years ago I was doing an adjudication at Syracuse University when a young tenor did exactly the same thing. He spoke to me afterwards and I told him' 'Never schedule an aria for an audition unless you own all the notes.' Falsetto high 'A's in that piece just sound like you are wimping out. His runs were very well sung and the rest of his singing was excellent.

Image result for yulia van doren           Yulia Van Doren                        Image result for eric owens Eric Owens

I have heard both Ms. Van Doren and Mr. Owens previously. Her voice seems to have grown since the last time I heard her. She still does chirpy things on high notes, but she has improved. I heard him in Otello at Glimmerglass this summer. That is obvious a better role for him. Tonight his voice sounded very covered and his runs were almost indecipherable.

The chorus and orchestra, as always, were wonderful. They performed with clarity and energy.

Both soloists and chorus could use a session with Madeleine Marshall's Singer's Guide to English Diction. Final consonants were seldom sung,especially the voiceless ones. I tried just listening through Part 1, without looking at the text, to no avail. By Part 2 I had to get out the specs and follow the words in the program.

I would much rather just watch Jane Glover conduct, which I really mostly did anyway. Watching her supple, musical gestures, you hardly needed to hear the music. Somehow, she is the music!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Not a very Merry Widow

The Merry Widow isn't all that merry anymore. I'm sure I saw it years ago somewhere, but though the production at Chicago Lyric is sensational as to scenery and costumes, it leaves something to be desired in the singing.

Image result for renee fleming   Renee Fleming

Both Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson sound a little frayed vocally. She still has the high notes, though one came off as more of a scream, but her voice disappears in the middle range. As Anna Russell once said, 'Sopranos reach that age when they have one or two very loud notes at either end of the voice, and nothing much in between.'

Image result for thomas hampson   Thomas Hampson

He still produces what used to be a smooth, beautiful sound from time to time but not consistently. 

Heidi Stober has the same problem as Renee, good high notes but often inaudible in the middle voice.

Image result for michael spyres    Michael Spyres

The best singing of the evening was by Michael Spyres as Rossillon. His tenor is secure and brilliant and he has the requisite top to his voice.

Several others of the men were also very good.

The tired Libretto just doesn't hold up. You know what is going to happen even if you've never seen the opera before.

The sets by Julian Crouch and the costumes by William Ivey Long were fabulous.  I wish the singing had come up to this level.

There are a number of memorable melodies that you can go out whistling but overall I don't need to see this Widow again in my lifetime.