Sunday, October 24, 2010

Met Live HD Boris Godunov a sweeping epic

by Dwight Casimere

Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera’s sweeping epic, Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky, was the second Met: Live in HD presentation in theatres around the globe, with an Encore presentation scheduled for Wednesday, November 10 at 6:30pm. Although the production is four and a half hours long, it is so absorbing that the time seems to fly by. The production by Steven Wadsworth is minimalist, by Met standards, but taut, with great dramatic pacing and a terrific cast of singers. German bass-baritone Rene Pape gives the performance of his career, particularly in the mad scene at the end of Act II. It is one of the finest moments of the season. Commenting on the just completed performance during a backstage interview with Met backstage reporter and Met soprano Patricia Racette, Director Stephen Wadsworth described Pape as “a thoroughbred. When we let him out of the gate, he seizes the role and runs with it. There’s no stopping him once his power is unleashed.”

Set designer Ferdinand Wogerbauer provided a bleak, almost blank canvas landscape that allowed the complex drama unfold without any distraction. Where sets may have receded in importance, the costumes by designer Moidele Bickel more than made up for it. They were lavish and colorful with a fullness of expression that matched the over-the-top passions of the characters.

Based on the novel of the same name by that great chronicler of the Russian experience under Tsarist rule, Alexander Pushkin, the story tells of the ill-fated reign of the late 16th century Czar, Boris Godunov, who allegedly came to power after ordering the assassination of the young heir-apparent. The specter of murder hangs in the air and eventually drives Godunov mad. Before he succumbs, he prays for forgiveness and places his son on the throne.

There were impressive performances throughout. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko was the most stellar of the virtually all-Russian cast (with the exception of Pape, who is German). His silvery tenor voice seemed to gleam in the upper register in his role as Grigory/Dimitry. His rapacious lover, Marina, sung by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, best summed up her own performance in the one-word answer she gave to backstage interviewer Racette; “Sexy!”

Bass Vladimir Ognovenko gave a lively performance as the errant monk Varlaam and Tenor Andrey Popov knit the whole thing nicely together with his conscientious reading as The Holy Fool. Boy alto Jonathan A. Makepeace showed the promise of a great operatic talent in the making as Godunov’s son Feodor.

Conductor Valery Gergiev, a veteran of countless performances of Russian repertoire and a frequent collaborator with Rene Pape, did a stellar job of bringing Mussorgsky’s forceful score to life. “At times we are leading the singers,” Gergiev told Racette backstage. “Every step of the way its important that we keep the story moving.” Mission accomplished!

Boris Godunov encores the Met Live in HD series Wednesday, November 10 at 6:30pm. Performances at the Met continue through March 17. The opera was so compelling that I plan to be there in person for one of the final fall performances at Lincoln Center.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hugh Masekela still 'Doin' It' for Freedom

Story by Dwight Casimere

The name of trumpeter/composer Hugh Masekela is as indelibly tied to the freedom fight of his native South Africa, as is that of his late, former wife, singer Miriam Makeba and, more famously, that of former South African President Nelson Mandela. In many ways, their lives and the fate of their country are as intertwined as the plotlines of a Robert Altman film.

The same can be said for Masekela’s music. Although steeped in the early straight-ahead jazz traditions of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, his music is also informed by the new jazz avant-garde leanings of Lester Bowie and Don Cherry. In fact, over his more than half-century career, he has performed and recorded with many of them and other jazz legends.

Yet, Masekela stands alone. Best remembered for the blazing 1968 crossover pop/jazz hit, Grazin’ In The Grass, composed by fellow countryman Philemon Hou, his SBC Symphony Center Presents concert revealed that his music is so much more. It is a at once an autobiography and a journal of his people as well as a living bibliography of the growth of modern jazz and world music and their umbilical ties to Mother Africa.

From the very beginning, Hugh Masekela’s life and music were intertwined with the struggles, conflicts and sorrows of South Africa. Following a successful tour of South Africa with the Manhattan Brothers, he toured with the blockbuster musical King Kong for a sold-out year with Miriam Makeba, who would later become his wife. King Kong went to London’s West end and the rest, as they say, is history.

Masekela played the Flugelhorn, a stylized version of the trumpet, which has a larger bell and a wider, overall aspect, which gives it a deeper, mellower sound. High notes are rounded in such a way that they don’t give off the piercing sounds of the trumpet in the upper register. The instrument perfectly matches the deepening, mellow tone of Masekela’s voice, which he, at times, intoned like an ancient wind instrument.

It’s hard to believe that Masekela is 71. He danced with fluid, seductive movements while singing in various languages of his homeland—Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Shangaan, to name a few. Most told of the hardships of suppression under apartheid. Not one word was understood by anyone in the largely African American audience, but they seemed to get the import of his message quite clearly.

There were whoops and yells when, near the end of one song, Masekela “dropped it like it was hot” after an energetic exchange with the bass guitarist. Playing rhythms on a cowbell and singing in chant-like repetition “Doin’ It” his conveyed a message that was at once sexual innuendo and political manifesto. “They’re doin’ it in Namibia!” he said to loud applause, referring to the struggle of the people of Namibia to regain their birthright and their homeland after centuries of colonization and oppression.

There were moments of levity and, of course, a reprisal of the song that has become his personal anthem, Grazin’ in the Grass, which sent everyone dancing the Toyi-Toyi out of the doors of Symphony Center into the cool, moonlit night on Michigan Avenue.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Michael Tilson Thomas charts new course for his New World Symphony

by Dwight Casimere

Photo #1-Michael Tilson Thomas conducts his New World Symphony

Photo #2-Maestro Thomas accepts the National Medal of Arts from President Obama

Photo #3-Michael Tilson Thomas-photo by Stefan Cohen

Photo #4-Frank Gehry designed new campus and performance hall for New World Symphony in Miami Beach-photo by Dwight Casimere

Miami Beach—The esteemed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is making music history in Miami’s South Beach. In just a few months, he and his New World Symphony, the orchestral academy he co-founded with Ted Arison in 1987, will move into their new performance hall and campus, designed by famed architect, Frank Gehry creator of the Guggenheim Museums in New York City and Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Thomas’ vision was to do more than chaperone a mere “student orchestra”, but to create an environment and a curriculum that will produce musicians who will become the leaders of the industry in the 21st Century. Based on the performance billed as “MTT’s Lincoln Farewell Concert” in the familiar Art Deco theatre building on South Beach’s popular Lincoln Road Mall, the orchestra and its concept have matured into a viable medium.

The concert began with a modern work, Steven Mackey’s 1993 composition, “Eating Greens,” with the composer listening in and trading witty barbs with Maestro Thomas on the significance of the work via live video satellite, a high-tech touch that will no doubt be a staple at the new forward-looking facility now in the final stages of completion just half a football field away.

“This was the piece where I most felt like me,” Mackey told Thomas and the audience via the video hook-up. “Since I wrote the piece nearly 18 years ago, I hardly think of it as ‘new music’ anymore. In fact, I really thought of the piece as being influenced by my background as an electric guitarist. In writing “Eating Greens,” I tried to synthesize that sound through the orchestra and make the orchestra one giant electric guitar.” The composition uses the solo saxophone, a rarity in ‘classical’ music composition, and thematic material borrowed from Christmas carols, popular jingles and even some of the errant sounds of twentieth and twenty-first century life, like the sound of a dial tone and the mechanical-voice intonations of a telephone operator after an incorrect number is dialed. “So much of twentieth century music inhabits the dark places that are sort of creepy. I come off as sort of a maverick because I prefer to look at the music through the apotheosis of the dance. Sort of the way Shakespeare tried to examine the problems of the whole world by looking at it in little pieces.”

Thomas and the New World Symphony took the audience on a joyous romp through Mackey’s musical excursion of Religion, Art, Food, Bread and Wine and a final Homage to jazz icon Thelonius Monk entitled “Drunk Monk.” At the conclusion of the performance Mackey feigned embarrassment, jokingly holding a copy of the score over his face while the audience applauded.

Cello soloist Lynn Harrell’s nimble fingers seemed to float effortlessly over the strings and fingerboard of his 1720 Montagnana cello. The sound he created in his almost poetic reading of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra captured the work’s song-like qualities. Harrell’s sound was less like that of an instrument. Instead, he filled the auditorium with a heavenly sound like a vocalist singing a song without words.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 brought out the dancer in Maestro Thomas as he explored the lilting summery interludes of the work the ailing composer undertook while vacationing at a Bohemian spa in the summer of 1811. It turned out to be the calm before the storm the composer’s life would become in his ensuing, final years. This was the ailing Beethoven coming back to life with a spirit of rejuvenation and hope. What a fitting farewell to the lovely, cozy Art Deco space that had been home to Thomas’s fledgling New World Symphony these last 20-odd years before embarking on a new chapter in the organization’s musical life.

Ten-time Grammy winner Michael Tilson Thomas will appear as guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra November 4,5 & 6 in a program of Barber, Ives and Gershwin. There will also be a Pre-concert Bonus Organ Recital by Paul Jacobs.

Maestro Thomas will also appear in Chicago November 2 at an inaugural fundraising event at Symphony Center entitled Fall In Love With Music. It will feature an afternoon appearance by Maestro Thomas, where he will comment on the music of Gershwin, Ives and Barber. There will also be a champagne reception and luncheon, followed by a chamber music performance of string quartets by the composers, performed by the Lincoln Quartet, a resident string quartet consisting of members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. For tickets and information, visit

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Met Live in HD Rheingold realizes Wagner's vision

by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

New York-It’s hard to believe that Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) by Richard Wagner, premiered in 1869. From the moment Met Opera Music Director and Conductor James Levine lifts his baton to begin the overture to the first of the four operas in The Ring Cycle, entitled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), the opera has an urgency that speaks to this time. This is the first new Met production of Das Rheingold in more than two decades. Directed by Robert Lepage, this production seems to finally realize the expansive vision of its creator. Wagner’s Die Walkure comes on April 22.

Presented Live in HD, it is a multi-media extravaganza. The new production uses an arsenal of cutting-edge technology. Combined with the musicianship and artistry that is the hallmark of Metropolitan Opera, this ‘Ring’ embodies the very definition of the term “Grand Opera.”

Digital video images, acrobatic dancers performing as if suspended in space, sets that transform and evolve like technical “dissolves” in cinema, not only dazzle the eye, but engage the viewer’s psyche. The production scans the complete visual and emotional landscape of Wagner’s mythical representation of life among the gods.

The dramatic singing features an all-star cast headed by the regal Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as Woton, the lord of the gods,The American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is his wife, the goddess Fricka, the dynamic African-American bass-baritone Eric Owens is the Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who eventually becomes their enslaver, American soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer is Freia, who is ransomed as payment for the building of Wotan’s dream castle and American tenor Richard Croft is the capricious Loge, the god of fire. Their voices add to the onstage fireworks.

There is much about this new production that is informed by modern cinema. For example, Loge’s costume and demeanor echoes that C-3P0 in George Lucas’s Star Wars. There are elements of visual craftsmanship and execution that approach James Cameron’s landmark creation, Avatar. There are also echoes of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film trilogy, “The Ring.” The scene of the mermaids, acrobatic dancers suspended in mid-air on guy-wires “swimming” through a digitally created ocean, is one shining example of the film-like technical wizardry.

Vocal performances match the superior quality of the visual elements at every turn. Bass-baritone Eric Owens is especially noteworthy as the sardonic Alberich. To this reviewer, who is African American, his words as he dons the helmet fashioned from the gold ring and proceeds to enslave the Nibelungs are imbued with added gravitas.

This is a production that has the ring of historic significance throughout. All live performances at the Met are sold out, but, thanks to the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning series, The Met: Live in HD, the opera will be shown in an encore performance Wednesday, October 27 at 6:3pm local time, in more than 100 theatres in North America and across the globe, including the Cinemark at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, Illinois and AMC River East 21 in Chicago.

For ticket information, visit or

Met's Rigoletto gives new meaning to term 'Bel Canto'

Story by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera’s remounting of Giuseppe Verdi’s wildly popular opera Rigoletto was a veritable feast for lovers of the genre. The production, over its course, will feature five artists in their Met debuts and four singing major roles with the company for the first time. The opening night cast offered some blissful moments along with an element of suspense that only a night at the Met can offer.

The storyline of Rigoletto presents a cautionary tale regarding the sin of coveting and the punishment that awaits the vainglorious. Class, politics and morality are set on a collision course in this Bel Canto tour de force.

The title character, Rigoletto, Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli, as the hunchbacked court jester, is at the center of this conflicted universe. He and the Duke of Mantua, Italian tenor Francesco Meli, are quickly at odds when it is discovered that Rigoletto is harboring a mistress. There is no mistress, of course. The woman is Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, sung by German Soprano /Christine Schafer, in a spectacular performance. She is later abducted by the Duke, prompting Rigoletto to contract a ‘hit’ on his employer with the unscrupulous Sparafucile, in a deliciously menacing performance by Italian Bass Andrea Silvestrelli.

Over the course of the opera, Rigoletto learns a brutal lesson; that the pendulum of revenge is a scythe that cuts both ways. The story of Rigoletto illustrates the adage that evil only replicates itself and those who try to emulate the behavior of wrongdoers wreak havoc upon their own lives.

There are substantial political overtones to the plot of Rigoletto. Verdi wrote his masterpiece just as the flames of the revolutions that raged across Europe in the late 1840s, had died. In many ways, the plot and sub themes mirror those of the great social commentator and novelist Victor Hugo, whose The Hunchback of Notre Dame of 1831, and play, Le Roi s’Amuse, published in 1850, parallel the themes of Rigoletto.

Meli is a talent to watch. He has a dramatic flair and supple voice that soared, even above a slight wobble in a few lengthy passages, brought on by a lingering cold. An announcement was made from the stage at the beginning of the third act that Meli was “indisposed” due to a cold but “has graciously consented to perform for the remainder of the evening and asks the audience for their indulgence.” In spite of the “indisposal,” Meli acquitted himself rather well in the famous aria that followed, “La Donna e mobile,” the one that made Pavarotti famous.

Ataneli, in the title role, was spot on throughout the evening, lending a vocal energy to the final note of the aria “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” at the end of Act II that elicited sustained ‘Bravos’ from the audience. This was truly Bel Canto (Beautiful Singing) in every sense of the word!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Disney's The Lion King rears regal head in Chicago once again

by Dwight Casimere

Chicago-From moment the audience enters the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago’s Theatre District, they are immersed in a mythical African wilderness setting. An announcer’s voice intones the usual cautions about using cell phones and cameras during the performance, but ends by speaking in the African ‘click’ language of the Xhosa. That’s the signal for drummers, stationed in the corner boxes, dancers, and singers, in costumes that double as life-sized puppets, to descend upon the theatre from every direction, eliciting head-snapping gazes from the audience. The singers, dancers and actors represent various inhabitants of the jungle. Those not wearing puppet costumes wave kites that resemble exotic birds or wear tribal masks that could rival anything in the Field museum.

The Lion King has dazzled audiences around the world winning more than 70 major awards worldwide, including the 1998 Tony and the 1999 Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. The fact that it has already played two sold-out runs at the Cadillac Palace Theatre speaks volumes. The show continues its current run through November 27 before moving on to Norfolk, Durham, Providence, Rochester, Toronto and Dayton through July 10.

Director Julie Taymor achieves a masterful level of visual alchemy with her seamless melding of African art and Broadway craftsmanship. Her stunning use of anthropomorphic costumes at once imbues the characters with animal traits and infuses them with a human soul.

The music is a fusion of American pop and the distinctive sounds and rhythms of Africa thanks to the score by Elton John and Tim Rice, with additional material from South Africa’s Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Director Taymor and Hans Zimmer. The centerpieces are the Academy Award-winning song “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and the haunting ballad, “Shadowlands.”

Among the more imaginative examples of Taymor’s arresting art are the dancers in Act One who glide across the stage, representing the tall Savannah grass of the Serengeti Plain.

Among the actors, Tony Freeman steals the show as the prim and proper horn billed bird “Zazu” and Syndee Winters as the loyal lioness “Nala”. She delivers a heart-rending, soulful vocal performance that becomes the musical’s gravitational center . Dionne Randolph is awe-inspiring as “Mufasa,” the great warrior and ruler of the Pridelands and J. Anthony Crane is deliciously sardonic as his nemesis, the cunning “Scar.” His portrayal recalls the persona of the late Yul Brynner. Adam Jacob’s broad-shouldered athleticism and luminous voice elevates the role of Mufasa’s son, Simba, the lion prince born to be king, to the level of a virtuoso performance.

Disney’s The Lion King creates a universe of dazzling sights and sounds and gripping human emotions. It draws in the audience and holds them until the final drumbeat echoes through the theatre. Leaving the Cadillac Palace, one can still hear the sound of distant drums and the wind blowing through the tall Savannah, beckoning a return. For tickets and showtimes, visit

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chick Corea at Chicago Symphony Center: Jazz Master at "Work"

by Dwight Casimere

Piano and keyboard master Chick Corea is the type of inventive artist who keeps you on the edge of your seat. His Symphony Center Presents concert featuring sidemen and collaborators Christian McBride on Bass and Brian Blade on Drums, proved that point brilliantly. Blade and McBride are highly regarded jazz artists and bandleaders in their own right. Harris Bank sponsors the Jazz Series.

Corea’s concert spanned time, musical genres and composers, from the classical compositions of Alexander Scriabin to his own explorations of the avant-garde with pit stops along the way to incorporate the be-bop era jazz of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and the blues, which is the birthplace of Modern Jazz. The sixteen-time Grammy Award winner showed that why, at the age of 69, he remains one of the most innovative modern composers working on the concert stage and the undisputed leader among keyboard virtuosos.

Born of Sicilian and Spanish parentage and steeped in both classical and early jazz music in his formative years, Corea put jazz fusion on the musical map with the creation of his landmark band Return to Forever in 1971. His opening composition payed homage to both his early explorations into jazz-fusion and a nod to his Spanish roots. It was appropriately titled, “Homage.” What followed were some probative readings of the musical literature of the distant past that incorporated the difficult, but lyrical runs and chord progressions of Scriabin. The work showed the relationship between the free-form nature of jazz and the controlled chaos of forward-reaching classical composition. “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” provided the opportunity for Corea to stretch out and show the depth of his musical knowledge and the nuance of his playing. His resurrection of an early Thelonius Monk tune, “Work,” showed his ability to improvise while working within the framework of an unorthodox chord structure and melodic progression. There were some exquisite moments of interplay between Corea and drummer Brian Blade that showcased the latter’s almost lyrical style of playing. He elevated the capability of his instrument beyond that of a mere timekeeper, to become a true collaborator. The late Max Roach must have been smiling in jazz heaven at the sight of his musical son in action.

Christian McBride’s composition, Sister Rosa, dedicated to Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks, captured the blues and soul spirit that was the bedrock of that era and the inspiration behind the music that spawned a New America. Corea cut loose with some brilliant jazz/funk musings that recalled his early musical mentor, the jazz performance and composing genius Horace Silver. Blade’s composition “Alpha and Omega” showcased the latter’s abilities as drummer and composer. The meditative mood of the peace prompted a hushed silence from the audience. Its tone bordered on reverence, no doubt reflective of his childhood, listening to Gospel music in his native Shreveport, Louisiana where his father is a Baptist preacher. It was a transcendent moment.

Corea brought his performance to a blazing conclusion like Secretariat, of current movie fame, crossing the finish line. “Fingerprints,” and his encore, “Isotope,” allowed the audience to revel in the intricacies of his pianistic inventions as he wove complex tapestries of sound with his nimble fingers. His crossover technique and filigreed arpeggios would make even the most accomplished classical pianist stand up and take notice.

His was concertizing of the highest order. For the listener, it was an opportunity to watch one the marvels of the music world at the peak of his form. Chick Corea, as he approaches his seventh decade in life, continues to create music that defies classification.