Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maestro Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus unleash emotional, spiritual power of Brahms's Requiem


by Dwight Casimere

A sheet inserted in the program notes prefacing The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Johannes Brahms A German Requiem (Ein deutsches Requiem, in German) states, in part, “Brahms’s A German Requiem is music of consolation, written to comfort in times of loss. In response, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Music Director Designate Riccardo Muti dedicate these performances "….to the memory of Chicago youth who have lost their lives to senseless acts of violence and to those left behind.”

Brahms's Requiem contains solemn words that have both religious and social purpose. That is exactly how Muti & Company approached one of the most deeply humanistic and spiritual compositions of the Classical repertory written by a man who was an admitted agnostic. Maestro Muti forewent the customary baton, choosing instead to conduct with his bare hands, as if shaping and molding the sounds that emitted from the orchestra and chorus. Indeed, he had the deft touch of a Michelangelo crafting the frescos of The Creation.

From the opening solemn chords, concentrated in the violas and sustaining notes in the lower organ register, the orchestra and chorus embarked upon a journey of emotional and spiritual discovery that swept the capacity audience in waves of ecstasy and revelation. Muti motioned as often to the chorus as he did to the orchestra, urging them on to new heights, eliciting delicate nuances of sound.

Muti has an uncanny knack for finding the inner voice of a piece and letting it ring forth. This was evidenced in the opening passage,” Blessed are those who mourn “(Selig sind, die da Leid tragen) and later in the fourth setting in the lovely passage that precedes the chorus’ rendering of the words of Psalm 84, “How lovely are your dwellings “(Wie lieblich sine deine Wohnungen). Muti’s entire body shimmered from his flowing dark locks to his heels as the French horns emerged for a brief, but ravishing declaration. The chorus sang beautifully of the “body and soul” being ushered into “the courts of the Lord.”

There was a moment when the sound of the chorus and the woodwind section merged to become a single voice. It was spine chilling.

A second later, Muti had the orchestra fell back to achieve the softest of pianissimos without taking so much as a musical breath. It was masterful.

Not even minute accents and flourishes escaped the interpretive eye and ear of the Maestro. Muti swung his arms in increasingly wider arcs as he pushed the orchestra and chorus to a thundering climax in the next setting of James 5:7 “…be patient, dear brothers, until the coming of the Lord.”

Canadian baritone Russell Braun carried the bulk of Brahms’ liturgy with dignity. His pure, rounded tones rose to embrace the lofty words of the Wisdom of Solomon and vaulted above the mighty chorus with the words “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them” (Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand, und keine Quai ruhret sie an).

The best, however, was saved for last. Swedish soprano Elin Rombo, she of angelic mien and voice, sang with crystalline clarity in the words of Isaiah 66:13, “I will comfort you as one whom a mother comforts (Ich will euch trosten, wie einen seine Mutter trostet). The words are central to Brahms’ Requiem. Indeed, it is said that he was prompted to compose the masterwork following the death of his beloved mother. Christiane.

CSO’s legendary brass and percussion sections unleashed their powers to reveal the full glory of Brahms’ masterpiece. Muti shepherded both chorus and orchestra to the very gates of heaven in the final passages from Revelation 14:13 “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on (Selig sind die Toten, die in dem Herrn sterben, von nun an).

Muti kept his hands aloft, signaling the audience to hold their applause for just a moment, to allow the final strains of the music and its message to sink in. Following the thunderous ovation that ensued, he spoke from the stage, asking the audience to take some what they had heard with them, to cherish and guide them in their future actions. Looking forward, he told them “I will return to you a year from now, one year older!” Wise words echoing a performance delivered with commitment and conviction.

Sir Andrew Davis takes the walk across town from his normal berth at Lyric Opera to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and baritone Brian Mulligan in the World Premiere of a CSO Commission, Primosch’s Songs for Adam October 29-31. For tickets and information, visit www.cso.org.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Met: Live in HD Aida an epic from any angle






by Dwight Casimere

Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was a cinematic triumph. The revival production at Lincoln Center was the Met’s largest, incorporating hundreds of extras, called “supers”, a Bolshoi-inspired ballet troupe, live animals, the full Metropolitan Opera Chorus under Donald Palumbo and an international all-star cast. The Live HD production was directed by the distinguished Gary Halvorson, a Met Live HD veteran and director of TVs “Two and a Half Men” and “Friends.”

“David has been with us since Day One,” a Met spokesman told The Times Weekly. “He’s done a superlative job.”

Entertainment & More covered the spectacle from several key vantage points- backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, inside the house during performance and from a Live HD transmission at Cinemark Seven Bridges in Woodridge, Illinois.

Suspense leading up to the live transmission was palpable backstage at Lincoln Center. An army of technical and support staff arrived in a steady stream of as Hostess and Met superstar Renee Fleming paced through her opening monologue. Director Halvorson and his crew sat in the control booth scrutinizing the monitors and the production’s ten camera positions. They went through a checklist of orchestrated camera moves that read like an operatic libretto in its complexity and size.

Production by Sonja Frisell, set design by Gianni Quaranta, costumes by Dada Saligeri and lighting designed by Gil Wechsler, approximated the Pyramids and Temples of Ancient Egypt. Backstage, the sets were lowered into place by giant pulleys attached to pipes that extended from the fly space several stories above. Technical Director John Sellars gave the Live HD audience a backstage tour of the massive operation. He pointed out the overhead cameras that gave the audience a birds-eye view of the action onstage.

During the scene changes, huge trucks and teams of carpenters and stagehands, pulled prepared sets into place that each weighed several tons. In the wings, anxious performers awaited their cue. Their trainers calmed skittish teams of specially trained horses. The opera was about to begin; the countdown measured by pounding pulses and quickening heartbeats.

Conductor Daniele Gatti gave Verdi’s score the appropriate sense of urgency represented by the steamrolling plotline. Mysteriously, there were a few audience members who booed him during a previous staging of Aida, which was used as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the camera crew. Perhaps they didn’t understand the importance of dramatic pacing!

Verdi’s score is sweeping and grandiose in nature. In many ways, it sounds like the voluptuous film scores that audiences have become accustomed to. How appropriate that Aida has now been brought to the Big Screen.

Onstage, sopranos Violeta Urmana as Aida and Dolora Zajick as Amneris, gave object lessons in the supreme art of dramatic opera singing. In addition to their voices ringing to decibel that made the Swarovksi crystal of the Met’s chandeliers vibrate inside the hall, there was a distinct reverberation in the surround sound theatres that made audiences gasp. Tenor Johan Botha was a thundering presence as the Egyptian General, Radames, projecting both a vulnerability and strength of character that made his later conflict over duty to his country and his love of Aida ring with integrity.

Chorus Master Donald Palumbo and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus gave one of the most comprehensive and stirring performances in any of the Live HD movie casts.

Director Gary Halvorson is a classically trained pianist (Julliard) who has also garnered acclaim as a distinguished television director, with credits that include the hit TV shows Two and a Half Men, Friends, The Drew Carey Show and Everybody Loves Raymond. He began his career by directing a music show for Leonard Bernstein when he was just 20 years old. Halvorson has directed a majority of the Met Live in HD transmissions.

The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Met: Live in HD series is now in its fourth season.

Halvorson employs ten cameras in the Live HD transmissions. Cameras on pedestals are placed on the far left and far right aisles of the main floor, about ten rows back. In the corner front boxes overhead, robotic cameras are suspended over either side of the stage. Another camera on a pedestal is in the orchestra pit and yet another sits dead center at the rear of the auditorium. Stationary cameras, which are also used during regular performances to transmit the performance to a downstairs theatre for latecomers who miss their seating, are also occasionally employed. There are additional cameras backstage. A robotic camera on a dollie moves across the lip of the stage like a sentinel patrolling the parapets in the company’s season-opening opera Tosca.

“We’re breaking new ground,” Halvorson said in an earlier interview. “We are the first to put remote control dollies on the lip of the stage, which makes the movie audience feel like they’re inside the action. I first saw remote dollies in a race in the Olympics. I saw a camera that was running as fast as the runner, and then it cut to the camera’s point of view while keeping speed. That’s how I had the idea to use sports equipment for live performance.

“I take the point of view that I’m reporting an event,” he said. “I take the point of view of the audience sitting in the movie theater seat. I take the approach that my mother in Minnesota is watching. If I think she will get it, then that’s the approach I take.” From the audience reactions at the Woodridge, Illinois Live HD location, Halvorson has hit his strike.

The Times Weekly spoke with several members of the audience who attended the move theatre transmission at Cinemark Seven Bridges in Woodridge, Illinois. There were people who brought their entire families, especially their children, to see their first live opera ever. One teacher from a local middle school brought members of her class to view the spectacle. “The students are learning about ancient Egypt in their classroom setting, so I’m using this as a teaching opportunity,” the teacher told our reporter.

Budget cutbacks at Chicago’s Lyric Opera and reductions in the budgets of local school boards have also made trips to downtown Chicago for special Lyric matinees for students have been severely limited, she went on to say. “So this was the next best thing. They’re still getting a live performance of a great opera and a great learning experience.”

Looking at the production live onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, the singers and their superior acting ability reduced the grandiose scope of the production to an intimate soundstage. On screen in the live in HD transmissions, the superior camerawork of Director Halvorson and his team made the production seem more like a well-edited Hollywood film than a live ‘on-the-fly” affair. One scene in particular stands out. When Radames’ rendezvous with Aida on the banks of the Nile and inadvertently betrays his country while professing his love for her, there are moments of cinematic ecstasy. The camera’s close-ups of Aida/Urmana portray her internal anguish, which Radames/Botha is seen pacing in the background, conflicted by his love for Aida and his duty to his nation. It is a sublime moment that embodies everything that the Live In HD experience is all about.

There was only one small glitch during a camera switch during a crucial scene in the second act, in which a camera position came up blank on screen. A Met spokesman assured The Time Weekly that the mishap would be corrected in editing before the Encore presentation, worldwide, Wednesday, November 11 at 6:30pm. For tickets and information, visit www.metopera.org or www.fathomevents.com.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Met Aida ready for HD prime time


A stunning revival of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida thundered onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in the performance of Wednesday, October 21st. The production will be seen live on a thousand screens in 42 countries around the world Saturday,October 24th at 1pm Eastern Time in the Met's second Live In HD transmission of the season. Met Diva Renee Fleming will host and Gary Halvorson will direct. Cameras on large booms in the Grand Terrace boxes, and in strategic locations on the main floor and in the balconies recorded every moment. A robotic camera on the lip of the stage , tracked the performers in closeup. According to a Met spokesman, the cameras were there doing 'scratch' shots as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Saturday HD cast and to gather 'cover' shots for continuity during the live transmission. There were dramatic moments both on and offstage. First, it was announced that mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina would replace an ailing Dolora Zajick in the pivotal role of Amneris.The conclusion of the third act was punctuated by the call, "is there a doctor in the house!?" For a patron who had fallen ill. Italian Maestro Daniele Gatti,returning to the Met after a decade-long absence, conducted a spirited Met opera orchestra in Verdi's lush,panoramic score.Russian ballet master Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence with American Ballet Theatre and former artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, made his Met debut creating new choreography for the Aida ballets with his cadre of superlative dancers. His high-stepping corsaires soared through the air with gravity defying grace,recalling the glory days of Martha Graham and Jose Limon. Production design by Sonja Frisell with sets by Gianni Quaranta, and lighting by Gil Wechsler and brilliant costumes by Dada Saligeri, displayed all of the pageantry of ancient Egypt. No effect was spared in this brilliant production. Even live horses tromped across the stage in the glorious March of the Egyptians at the conclusion of Act II. (Indeed,strains of the all-too-familiar orchestral march could be heard as patrons hummed the tune as they spilled out into the cool,midnight air at performance end and a lone saxophonist played excerpts of the opera on the train platform at the Lincoln Center stop.) South African Heldentenor Johan Botha was a commanding presence as the doomed general, Radames and Violeta Urmana,singing the role for the first time with the company, was a sultry,vividly voiced Aida. Such impassioned theatrics and searing vocals had not been realized in the title role since Leontyne Price. Bass Stefan Kocan, in his Met debut, excelled as the King, Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi was a commanding presence as Amonasro, fellow Italian, bass Roberto Scandiuzzi brought a regal splendor to the role of Ramfis. The night,however, was clearly a singular triumph for the captivating Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. In classic Met style, she was drafted out of rehearsals for the upcoming production of La Damnation de Faust to deliver the performance of a lifetime. The story of Aida is as timeless as the Sphinx and as laden with drama and historic truth as the ancient writings found inside the Egyptian tombs. It also has as much majesty as the lofty Pyramids. Its all available at local theatres Live in HD Saturday,October 24th at noon Eastern time. For theatre locations and tickets,visit wwwmetopera.org or www.fathomEvents.com.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Met Figaro injects youth into ancient masterwork


by Dwight Casimere

One of my all-time favorite operas is Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) which had its 2009 Season Premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, September 22, with a talented young cast featuring the ravishing Danielle de Niese as Susanna, John Relyea as Figaro and Isabel Leonard as the mischievous page, Cherubino. It was a most satisfying evening of superior opera.

I was reminded of my first, pleasant encounter with this masterpiece of comic opera, in 1986. I was then working as a television news reporter in San Francisco and was on vacation in Paris. I paid a friendly call on the great coloratura soprano Kathleen Battle, a former Metropolitan Opera star, whom I had met through Maestro Edo de Wart when he was music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Ms. Battle was being featured as Susanna, a role she made famous in her New York debut at City Opera in 1976. This time around, she was being featured in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Theatre de Comedie on the Rue de Madeleine with the Paris Opera Orchestra under the baton of its later Music Director, a then-youthful Daniel Barenboim. Ms. Battle welcomed me to Paris with open arms and invited me to, not only the dress rehearsals, but to every performance I was able to attend during my stay. Throw in backstage visits that included introductions to some of my favorite opera stars and conductors who were also either vacationing or performing in Paris and you had the makings of musical nirvana.

I experienced that same euphoria as I watched this Season Premiere unfold at the Met. From the moment Maestro Dan Ettinger executed the down stroke to Mozart’s familiar, brisk overture, it was a magic carpet ride back to the world of 18th Century court capers of bustling gowns, slamming doors and mistaken identities, all brilliantly staged in the production by Jonathan Miller.

Danielle de Niese, in her first Met Susanna, wore the role like a glove. Her voice was crystalline and pure, especially in the upper register. Her comedic delivery displayed expert timing, making her performance seem effortless. She truly was Susanna, in all her earthy sensuality and coquettish cleverness. She could wrap a man around her finger while simultaneously telling him bald-faced lies. Even though her paramour may suspect he is being played for a fool, her beautiful face and shimmering voice made it all so delicious to behold, it was almost worth playing along.

John Relyea, a marvelous tenor, whom I have heard in other outstanding performances, seemed a bit tentative at first, perhaps easing up a bit on a voice strained by the effects of the flu that’s been going around. He seemed to gain his footing as the evening progressed and threw himself into the role, casting all vocal caution to the wind.

There were many great moments. Among the notable performers was Isabel Leonard as the bumbling boy-lieutenant Cherubino. She instantly reminded me of soprano Frederica von Stade, a Chicagoan, whom I first encountered in the role of Cherubino in that 1986 Paris production alongside Kathleen Battle.

One absolutely ravishing moment occurred during the aria “Dove sono, when mezzo soprano Emma Bell, in her house debut as the Countess, brought the production to a virtual standstill. Her ability to sing at pianissimo brought her voice to a near whisper. That, combined with her dramatic sensibility, was a marvel to behold. Maestro Ettinger appropriately slowed things down from his usual breakneck pace to allow her vocal line to soar above the orchestra, creating a shimmering effect, like the reflection of a full moon on a swan lake. It was a spine-tingling moment.

Unfortunately, Le Nozze is not on this season’s list of productions to be featured in the groundbreaking Peabody Award-winning series of Live In HD matinee presentations at local movie theatres around the world through National CineMedia Fathom productions. Met Live in HD is produced in association with PBS and WNET.org and is also seen on public television as part of the Great Performances at the Met. Fortunately, tickets are still available for future performances at the Met for the opera’s run through December 8th giving you plenty of time to organize a Holiday shopping trip to the Big Apple combined with a visit to the Met. It seems like a perfect match and I may even join you to experience it! On Saturday, October 24 at noon, the Met Live in HD presents Aida, with and Encore presentation Wednesday, November 11 at 6:30pm. Tosa will receive an Encore presentation Wednesday, October 28 at 6:30pm. The next Met Live in HD performance is Turandot, Saturday, November 7 at noon with an Encore presentation Wednesday, November 18 at 6:30pm. For more on tickets and more information on Met performances and Live in HD transmissions, visit www.metopera.org or www.FathomEvents.com.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Muti Returns!


by Dwight Casimere

Music Director Designate Riccardo Muti has returned to Symphony Center to lead the orchestra in a prelude to beginning a five-year contract as music director in September of the 2010-2011 season. Already, changes are afoot and a new attitude is evident both in the orchestra and in the audience.

Firstly, entering the hall, there was an energy only felt during visits by famous soloists or visiting orchestras. Immediately visible were suggestion boxes with pencils and notepaper at the ready for patrons to write down their questions for an upcoming Town Hall Meeting, a first in orchestra history, in which Maestro Muti will answer audience questions.

Inside, the anticipation of Muti’s appearance was palpable. A Friday matinee performance was in honor of the Chicago Symphony Alumni Association and included retired CSO members in the audience, who stood to receive audience recognition.

There was a hush as Muti walked onstage and ascended the podium, like a general taking charge of his troops.

The sound of the orchestra in the opening Mozart Symphony 35 in D Major (named Haffner in honor of a commission by a noble family) was bright and uncluttered by pretense. Muti maintained a sprightly tempo with his precise movements. The Andante was especially so, with a lithe air. The melody flowed above a singing cello line with Muti adding his own dance movements and, of course, the famous flying mane of hair, which offered its own counterpoint. The final movement, Presto, offered some fine playing from the horn section. The flutes and clarinets had ample room for expression in Mozart’s expansive score.

The main event, however, was Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 2 in C minor, last heard at Symphony Center in 1991 under Sir Georg Solti. It was a fitting choice of programming, one guaranteed to leave an indelible imprint on the audience. Muti was in firm control of the composer’s shifting moods and tempos throughout. He discovered the composer’s inner voices and brought them to the fore at just the right moments, signaling a ringing trumpet entry in the Scherzo or bending into the first violins, tete a tete to elicit a shimmering response from the strings and woodwinds. Muti danced and swayed to urge the orchestra through the blistering finale, letting the sparks fly in the ringing coda, then reigning in the mustangs for the hushed string choir of the Kyrie.

It was a command performance that brought a thundering ovation from the audience. Body language is everything and as Muti turned to the audience to acknowledge the applause, he dispensed with the customary felicitous bows. Instead, he stood at attention, chest poked out and hands folded calmly in front of his nattily tailored double-breasted Italian designed suit. He was clearly in control and projecting a composed, statesmanlike demeanor. There’s a new Sheriff in town. His name is Muti!

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the CSO Thursday, October 29, 8pm, Friday, October 30, 1:30pm and Saturday, October 31 at 8pm in Mendelssohn’s 3 .

Thursday, November 5, Principal Conductor Bernard Haitink begins a two-week residency with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The following week, November 12, brings Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9. For tickets and information, visit www.cso.org.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diane Reeves at Jazz at Symphony Center: Jazz for the New Age


by Dwight Casimere

From the slave cabin to the symphony stage,Diane Reeves spanned generations and genres in her Diane Reeves:With Strings Attached concert at Symphony Center, marking the first of the 16th season of Jazz at Symphony Center.

The 'Strings' component were guitar virtuosos Romero Lubambo and Russell Malone . Lubambo hails from Rio de Janeiro and is steeped in the Brazilian traditions of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento. Malone hails from Albany, Georgia and is a disciple of George Benson with a nod to Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, (with a little bit of B.B. King's Lucille thrown in for good measure)!

From the opening bars of Jobim's Triste(Sad),Reeves gave full vent to her two and a half octave range and gave hints of the wide-ranging musical excursion that would ensue.Although the set was miked,Reeves often took advantage of the natural accoustics of Orchestra Hall and let her colorful voice carry naturally into the upper balconies. She especially did so during the encore as she strutted triumphantly toward the rear of the stage,faced the Terrace seats and let go with an inspired

'scat' tinged with Blues shouts and African chants. (Note to Diane:Please lose the cheesy synthesizer sounds that you employed during some of your solos,they were a distraction and destroyed what were otherwise sublime moments of rapport between you and guitarist Lubambo).

Reeves spoke often of her inspiration and idol, Sarah Vaughn. Speaking from the stage,she told of how she often listened to her parent's record collection of Sarah's classic early recordings in her native Detroit and of how she tried to emulate her complex vocal stylings, even at the tender age of 13. Another relative, uncle and celebrated musician George Duke, eventually brought the impressionable teen to Los Angeles to witness first-hand an All Star jazz concert.While backstage,she cornered an elderly woman and began regaling her with stories of her idol,Sarah Vaughn,only to later learn that the woman she had been boring with her youthful gushings was the ' Sassy' one herself!

With that, Reeves proved that she was an apt student. Singing the Thad Jones classic,' A Child Is Born',which was made famous by another vocal legend, Joe Williams, The four-time Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocals allowed her voice to soar above the guitars in coloratura fashion, like a tropical bird that swooped and swirled then plunged to the depths of her lower, contralto register.It was a virtuoso performance befitting the Armour Stage.

To close, Reeves gave the audience a lesson in call and response that explored the wide expanses of the Mississippi Delta and the soul-warming confines of the Black Church, with side trips to the mountains outside Rio and the African plains. Reeve's concert provided an object lesson on the state of Modern Jazz and,in the process, revealed a new truth. Her chromaticizing and vocalising showed the new face of jazz.The jazz of 2010 is a type of World Music that honors its roots in the cotton fields and the black church,but embraces elements of the Latin American and African diasporas.

Jazz at Symphony Center continues Oct 30 with bass master Dave Holland and his fusion jazz quartet of Jason Moran, piano, Chris Potter, sax and Erc Harland, drums.For information and tickets visit www.cso.org.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

CATS: Legendary musical has nine lives and counting





by Dwight Casimere

CATS, the longest continuously touring show in American theatre, slunk into Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre for an October 13-18 run. The perennial Andrew Lloyd Weber favorite, the latest offering from Broadway in Chicago, proved that this venerable production not only has nine lives, but many more to spare.

Its been a decade since this reviewer last saw the likes of Bombalurina, Grizzabella and Rum Rum Tugger. It didn’t take long to recall why this show revolutionized musical theatre by vividly bringing to life the poetic conceits of T.S. Eliot and creating characters whose feline personas resonated with audiences beyond the stage.

The audience and the entire theatre become part of the act as the garish strobe lights and the pulsating rhythms of Musical Director J. Michael Duff and Associate Musical Director; Keyboard Christian Regul made the cavernous Cadillac Palace Theatre come alive. Cast members in their bright, imaginative costumes moved lithely through the audience and leapt onto the stage in Choreography by Associate Director Gillian Lynne. The set by Designer John Napier is whimsical and full of surprises, such as the corrugated tin engine and ramshackle ‘wheels’ in Act Two when Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat (John Jacob Lee), introduces himself. Lee recalled the boundless energy of a young Danny Kaye during the heyday of the Hollywood musical.

Grizabella, the Glamour Cat (Anastasia Lange), brought the show to a spine-tingling halt with her emotional rendering of Memory, the musical heartbeat of CATS. Old Deuteronomy (Philip Peterson) elevated the grizzled character to operatic proportions with his heartfelt singing.

The production, Directed by Trevor Nunn, was first-rate throughout. Lighting Designer David Hersey, a veteran of over 250 plays, operas and ballets, showed why he is a multiple Tony winner (Evita, CATS and Les Miserables).

The dancing is stupendous and is probably the best extended display of the genre on any musical stage. There are times, such as the moment when Grizabella stands center stage en pointe in the white glare of the key light. It is an equipoise that rivals anything seen at the Royal Ballet or Sadler’s Wells.

There are enough props in CATS to fill all of the vacant lots in Bronzeville, but the overall effect is a warm and fuzzy, family-friendly show full of heart-tugging emotion, terrific dancing and lingering moments that linger in ‘memory.’

Broadway In Chicago continues with The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein, November 4 at the Cadillac Palace. For tickets and information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A 'Bell' that rings to the Heavens; a Saint-Saens that sings with the strains of memory



by Dwight Casimere

Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell brought his rock star image and Dancing with the Stars moves to the Armour stage in searing performances of French composer Camille Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. The multiple Grammy winner and exclusive Sony recording artist played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu violin of 1741, marking the first time this priceless gem, valued by some at more than $10 million, was played in the United States. The violin was a favorite of 19th century Belgian violin legend Henry Vieuxtemps (for which it is named) and 20th century legend Yehudi Menuhin, whose recordings of the Bruch remain musical landmarks. Bell has some connection with the intrument, his violin teacher was trained by a disciple of Vieuxtemps.

The orchestra was guest-conducted by Sao Paulo, Brazil principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, replacing an ailing Roberto Abbado, nephew of the legendary Claudio Abbado. The Parisian-born Tortelier substituted the work of fellow Frenchman Gabriel Faure and his all too familiar Pelleas et Melisande Suite for the planned Horace victorieux of another Frenchman, Arthur Honegger. Maestro Tortelier managed to make this time-worn staple of every coffee house on either side of the Atlantic sound fresh and alive, especially with the inspired solo flute playing of Assistant Principal Richard Graef.

Bell arrived on stage hefting the priceless Guarneri to thunderous applause. He looked like a racehorse, ready to crash the starting gate in his thin-legged Armani Nehru-inspired tux. His fingers darted lithely across the fingerboard, caressing each string so as to cause the notes to sing with stunning clarity. Each phrase melded into the next in a seamless arc of melody. It was especially so in the Bruch, when the hauntingly delicate Romanticism of the second-movement, Adagio, suddenly cascaded into the heroic theme that introduced itself like a Heldentenor in a Wagnerian opera.

The finale, Allegro energio, was just that. Bell unleashed all of his youthful stamina on this virtuoso statement that is the signature of every great violinist on the concert stage. I heard Yehudi Menuhin play it in concert with the San Francisco Symphony and he rocked the house. Bell managed to send Bruch’s singing melodies into the outer hemisphere, where NASA rockets had been poised to bombard the moon’s craters. I’m sure that by some miracle of science, a Bell-sent F-note is reverberating somewhere on the moon’s surface.

Saint-SaĆ«ns ‘Organ’Symphony (No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 78), is almost a misnomer, since for most of its nearly 40 minutes, we hear almost everything but. When its namesake instrument finally introduces itself, with thundering authority, in the masterful playing of guest organist Dr. Henry McDowell, the composer’s intent is abundantly clear. Everything preceding it was constructed as a lead-in to its triumphant entrance; the peacefully contemplative musings of the strings and the tempestuous scherzos and mach four speed of the piano arpeggios, played with laser-like clarity by Principal Piano Mary Sauer.

I was overcome by the sheer majesty of the moment. Tears streamed down my face as I was awash in a flood of memory and emotion. I thought of my good friend, the late George Hale, a San Francisco Symphony Board member who, a decade ago, made a mighty donation to the orchestras pension fund for the opportunity to play the newly installed pipe organ in the same symphony at the organ’s inaugural concert in the then, newly-christened Davies Hall. George was an ardent champion for the inclusion of Black artists and composers on the concert stage. I also thought of President Barack Obama’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize the previous morning, putting him firmly in the footsteps of one of his spiritual mentors, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also thought of how Dr. King might have felt, were he sitting in the audience that night, watching the skillful performance of the African American virtuoso and scholar, Dr. Henry McDowell. It was an epiphany. Such is the power of great music and a great performance!

On October 15, Music Director Designate, Maestro Ricardo Muti, returns to Symphony Center in an exciting program of Mozart and Bruckner. The following night, October 16, the CSO strings lend themselves to the vocal styling of Jazz Diva Dianne Reeves in the inaugural concert of the Jazz at Symphony Center Series. For tickets and information, visit www.cso.org.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Metropoitan Opera Opening Night Gala-A Tosca Bigger Than Life





by Dwight Casimere

Tosca, Giacomo Puccini’s timeless tale of the star-crossed lovers, the courtesan and chanteuse Tosca and the firebrand revolutionary and patriot Cavaradossi, opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2009-2010 season with dramatic flair.

The new production, with sets designed by Richard Peduzzi in his Met debut, costumes by Milena Canonero, lighting by Max Keller and directed by famed director Luc Bondy, was alternately cheered and booed by the capacity audience. The stripped-down, post modern look of the production rankled the ire of tradionalists in the audience. However, the production, lacking any superficial pretense, allowed the underlying tension of the storyline to shine through.

Met Music Director James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera orchestra with an almost eerie sense of urgency. It was as if the composer were at his elbow whispering cues to alternately turn up the dramatic heat or to pull back to allow the ether of his achingly romantic melodies to rise to the surface.

Soprano Karita Mattila, in the title role for the first time outside her native Finland, sang with dramatic conviction that, superficially, might have seemed over the top, but served the character well. Tenor Marcelo Alvarez, the Argentine superstar whose sylvan voice regularly graces the stages of Covent Garden, Deutsche Opera, Berlin and in Paris, Madrid and Zurich, sang the role of Cavaradossi with dramatic brilliance. His sparkling, clear tonality and soul-stirring urgency reminded one of a youthful Pavarotti. In particular, his opening Aria “Recondita armonia’, in which he compares the dark-haired beauty of his beloved Floria Tosca to the blond-haired subject of his painting, Marchesa Attavani, was delivered with such chilling conviction that it brought a tear to the eye.

In spite of these landmark performances, the evening clearly belonged to Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as the evil, self-possessed Scarpia. A vainglorious loyalist who will do anything to assert his ruthless preeminence, Gagnidze sang the role with uncompromising relish. He allowed the character’s ruthless nature to come through without over-selling the point. When he finally meets his end at the hands of the impassioned yet cunning Tosca, we are almost saddened to see him go.

The story of Tosca, based on a play by Victorien Sardou and realized in the Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, takes place in the Napoleonic era of Rome in 1800. The city is in the throes of revolution with Bonaparte’s revolutionary forces eating away at the underpinnings of the corrupt titled aristocracy. The characters of Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia give vivid reality to the political dichotomy of the era. Scarpia and Cavaradossi are the polar opposites that act as the pillars of society’s two sides. Tosca is somewhere in between, a benign force that reaps the benefits of the corrupt system’s largesse in her role as a singer, but secretly harboring the flame of the revolutionary spirit in her bosom, through her love for the painter, Cavaradossi. Fate and circumstance force her to eventually choose sides.

With this debut production, Metropolitan Opera firmly planted its roots in the digital age. The performance was transmitted liver on large screens outside in Lincoln Center’s Josie Robertson Plaza and in Times Square for free. It was also streamed live on the Internet and the Met’s website and on Metropolitan Opera Radio on Sirius XM on a subscription basis. A matinee performance will also be transmitted on movie theatre screens around the globe live in HD on
October 10. For more information, visit www.metopera.org.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Renee Fleming dazzles in Chicago Symphony Opening Night Gala


by Dwight Casimere

Soprano Renee Fleming has become the ‘go-to-girl’ for major music gala openings. Last year, the two-time Grammy winner opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 125th Anniversary Gala with fully staged versions of her signature roles, Verdi’s La Traviata, Massenet’s Manon and Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, the first woman in the Met’s 125 year history to headline an opening night gala. A few weeks ago, she opened the New York Philharmonic’s 2009-10 season under the baton of its new Music Director Alan Gilbert with Messiaen’s Poems Pour Mi. This past week, she was the featured soloist for the 2009 Gala Opening Night of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Four Songs by Richard Strauss under the baton of another Grammy-winner, Conductor Paavo Jarvi.

It was a stellar performance. Wearing a gown with enough fabric to drape one of the Art Institute lions across the street from Symphony Center, the diminutive singer launched a performance with a voice that filled every nook and cranny of the cavernous space. Listening to the encores in the corridors, her voice could be heard soaring above the orchestra. Even the ushers and bartenders stood at rapt attention, peering through the porthole windows of the aisle doors to catch a glimpse of her compelling presence; such is Fleming’s mesmerizing appeal.

The evening began with a series of orchestral selections, including Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento for Orchestra, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with Fleming artfully singing the prose of Poet James Agee, and a rollicking rendition of Strauss’ ever-popular Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.

The orchestra sparkled with dramatic flourishes from the percussion and the resonating sounds of the CSO’s signature horn section. But the evening clearly belonged to La Fleming.

Richard Strauss composed numerous orchestral songs for the love of his life, his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna. In fact, the two performed often together before the world’s leading orchestras with Strauss conducting. They came to Chicago in 1904, where Pauline sang seven of her husband’s songs with Richard at the helm. Fleming’s performance was homage to what must have been a memorable evening. She fully captured the nuance and romance of Strauss’ songs. Enraptured by the moment, she swayed and nearly swooned while singing the words of German poet Otto Julius Bierbaum and his ‘Harmonious Vision’ that Strauss had set to music. “I walk with one who loves me into peace, filled with beauty,” she sang with conviction.

Strauss’ compositions rocked the very foundations of the music traditions of his era, because the soprano voice was finally freed from the constraints of the orchestra. For the first time, the soprano voice was allowed to soar high above the orchestral line in free flight. That is exactly the musical effect that Fleming and Jarvi created on the Armour stage.

There were spine-chilling moments, such as when Fleming reached a climactic high A in Hermann von Gilm’s ‘Zueignung‘ (Dedication) and when she delivered the hushed benediction of Karl Henckell’s ‘Winterweihe’ (Winter Dedication). The words of John Henry Mackay’s ‘Verfuhrung (Seduction) were just that in Fleming’s deft vocal interpretation.

The audience did not want to let her go and Fleming obliged with a series of encores, ending with a light-hearted selection from Bernstein’s West Side Story, “I Feel Pretty.” As well she should!

For future concert schedules and tickets, visit www.cso.org.