Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrates Pierre Boulez at 85 with virtuoso peformances

by Dwight Casimere

Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of Pierre Boulez at 85 continues through the month of February. Recent subscription concerts featured the French-born Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus in a concert of his own work and the works of two composers whose names are closely associated with his preeminent international reputation, Bartok and Stravinsky. Maestro Boulez has a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the orchestra. For example, in 1995, he was named principal guest conductor of the CSO, only the third person to be so named.

This was an enriching program that was like an exquisite gourmet meal to any connoisseur of great music. Following the conductor leading the orchestra in his own original composition, Livre pour cordes (book for strings), the Bartok Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra featured two of Steinway Artists’ most eminent emissaries, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. The program concluded with the piece de resistance, Stravinsky’s stirringly provocative The Firebird as it was written for the great Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes in its Complete Ballet form.

Livre pour cordes, a short piece for strings, was written by Boulez just a few years after his arrival in Paris in 1943. He began to write music while a student of the idiosyncratic icon Olivier Messiaen. The student quickly emerged from the shadow of his esteemed teacher with a singularly distinctive musical voice. His string compositions quickly paved a bold, new direction that declared a new voice in the increasingly stagnating world of modern composition.

Boulez and the orchestra played the “book for strings” as if it had been written moments before the performance, with the ink still drying on the manuscript pages. It had a freshness that celebrated new life. Boulez’s rigorous control of tempo increased the tension inherent in its fluctuating tempos. Flashes of rhythmic texture and tonal color were sublime moments of release.

Tamara Stefanovich was angelic in her bright emerald green gown that just barely concealed a stylish pair of black suede stiletto heeled boots. Pierre-Laurent Aimard sat at a second Steinway that had been positioned so that the two pianists faced each other.(Aimard is featured in the film Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. It’s available on DVD and is a must for any piano lover). CSO percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos rounded out the composition’s named participants.

This was a piece that the great Bela Bartok wrote with his second wife in mind as the second pianist. Himself a dazzling piano virtuoso of as much renown as a performer as he was as a composer, Bartok and his wife Ditta gave the U.S. premiere of this singularly scored concerto in their adoptive home town of New York City in January, 1943. The audience then must have been as delighted and as absorbed in the brilliance of this work as the patrons at Symphony Center now. This was an enthralling, dynamic performance that totally involved the listeners as well as the musicians.

Surprise entrances, thundering exclamations and flourishing exits marked this exciting piece. The inspired playing of Aimard and Stefanovich reminded the listener that the piano is as much a percussion instrument as it is a melodic one. The sonata was written for four virtuoso performers and the assemblage on the Armour Stage more than held up their end of the bargain!

There were notable performances among other orchestra members, including Principal piano Mary Sauer on celesta, Assistant Principal trumpet Mark Ridenhour, Tage Larsen, trumpet, Principal bassoon David McGill, Principal trombone Jay Friedman, Michael Mulcahy, trombone, Assistant Principal bassoon William Buchman, Assistant Principal flute Richard Graef, English Horn Scott Hostetler, J. Lawrie Bloom, clarinet, Assistant Principal oboe and Gilchrist Foundation Chair Michael Henoch and contra bassoon Susan Nigro.

Igor Stravinsky was already the talk of Paris in the Belle Epoque era of the early 1900s. The twenty-something composer caught the eye of the great impresario Diaghilev, who invited him to assist in orchestrating a piece for his ballet company’s 1909 season. The Firebird flew into Stravinsky’s lap after two prominent Russian composers turned Diaghilev down. They must have felt as the actor Burt Reynolds did after turning down the role of James Bond! Stravinsky’s Firebird was an instant success and remains a mainstay of the both the ballet and symphonic stages.

Maestro Boulez showed his complete and intimate knowledge of the piece and of the composer’s intentions. The orchestra literally sparkled in its restless passages and Boulez allowed them to stretch their collective wings in the deliciously detailed orchestrations of the final movement.

Boulez and the CSO performed The Firebird in its entire sweeping panorama, from the opening string glissando to the closing thunderous percussion. It instantly brought the audience to their feet, eliciting a prolonged and calamitous ovation. Maestro Boulez walked among the musicians, particularly raising the hands of the percussion and woodwind players, recognizing them for the true musical champions that they are. If this is Boulez at 85, it is apparent that he is not content to rest upon the laurels of past successes. He has much to offer the future.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Goodman,Dennehy triumph in one-act masterpieces

by Dwight Casimere

Photos by Liz Lauren.

There is a moment when an artist transcends all earthly boundaries and ascends to a higher plateau. They enter a privileged sector of consciousness that is theirs alone to experience. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Jazz musicians call it “in the pocket.” A fortunate few hundred theatre lovers shared in this transcendent experience at Goodman Theatre as two-time Tony Award-winning actor Brian Dennehy reached the pinnacle of theatrical achievement in his virtually one-man double bill of two, one-act plays, Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. The two roles could not have been more opposite, yet Dennehy effortlessly assumed the persona of each, creating an indelible experience.

Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls directs Hughie and award-winning Canadian director Jennifer
Tarver directs Krapp’s Last Tape, recreating her successful production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival two seasons ago. Broadway and off-Broadway veteran Joe Grifasi reprises his role as the night clerk in Hughie, which he performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Trinity Repertory Company. Dennehy was once quoted as saying “Joe Grifasi is the only person who can play this part!” We quickly see why. His deadpan expression and sense of timing are extraordinary. The chemistry between he and Dennehy is like watching Miles and ‘Trane jam at Birdland.

The design team of Set Designer Eugene Lee, Costume Designer Patrick Clark, Lighting Designer Robert Thomson and Sound Designer Richard Woodbury, does a superb job of setting the scene of Hughie in a dingy flop house in the distant, sepia-toned past and Krapp’s Last Tape in the desolate landscape of a man’s final mental anguish.

Besides Dennehy’s expert craftsmanship, the two plays also share another common factor; they are both the latter-day works of two of the theatre’s acknowledged geniuses. Hughie was written late in O’Neill’s career, Krapp’s Last Tape is Beckett’s final effort.

In Hughie, Dennehy plays the gregarious, hard-drinking, small-time gambler Erie Smith. Down on his luck and just off a bender, he returns to the seedy Times Square SRO that has been his habitué off and on for the past dozen or so years. Both had seen better days. Over the years, he had befriended the night clerk, Hughie. The two had developed an unlikely friendship. Even by Erie’s own admission, it was more at his insistence. The night clerk was a family man and non-gambler, reluctant to enter Erie’s world of high-rolling and loose women. But Erie believed that Hughie was his good luck charm and pressed himself upon him. When Hughie died unexpectedly, it sent Erie’s high-flying world into crash mode.

As the play opens, Erie senses a similarity in the new night clerk and his deceased friend. He reaches deep into his bag of tall tales to win him over.

“Say, now I notice,” Erie says, “you don’t look like Hughie, but you remind me of him, somehow. You ain’t by any chance related?” Ironically, the night clerk almost shares the same last name as his predecessor. This is enough to inspire Erie to extend himself, even to the point of making himself look like a fool.

Erie wears his loneliness and desperation like the tired, rumpled suit that adorns his aging body. “I’m 59!” Erie proudly declares. “The dames don’t think I’m a day over 30.” Not even the blank-faced night clerk can contain his amusement. As Erie rambles incessantly, his tales become more delusional. He would be laughable if he weren’t so pathetic. We get the feeling that Erie needs to lie to others and himself in order to make his life seem meaningful, otherwise, its has no more value than the loaded dice he carries in his vest pocket.

Throughout the play, Dennehy brilliantly conveys his character’s sense of alienation and loss, both in his outer, physical world and within himself. Erie is like a huge floating casino cast adrift. Floating from one desolate harbor to the next, he desperately seeks to drop anchor. The new night clerk (Grifasi) practically turns a deaf ear to Erie and his tall tales. We learn that the real Hughie had died only a short time before and, although their relationship was tenuous at best, Erie feels a deep sense of loss. The audience is never sure if the big send-off Erie credits himself with at Hughie’s funeral is real or just another of his exaggerations.

As the night passes, Erie’s wild musings on his gambling escapades finally get the night clerk’s attention. When Erie mentions gambling with hundred dollar chips, the night clerk suddenly comes to life, offering details on his past association with a big time gambler. The two finally become friends, meeting on common ground over the clink of Erie’s loaded dice.

Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a character study in loneliness and regret at the end of life’s long and rambling road. As the curtain rises, a lone, shaggy grey-haired figure sits behind a spare desk, cluttered with dusty artifacts. He fumbles for a key. Unfolds a rumpled piece of paper found in his pocket and comically, eats a pair to tiny bananas foundering in a desk drawer. It is Dennehy as Krapp, a 69 year old man who each year records a new tape on his birthday, recounting the rather mundane events of his empty life.

I saw this play in Galway, Ireland at the Galway Arts Festival last summer and its obscure metaphors and artistic conceits escaped me entirely. In Dennehy’s deft interpretation, the meaning became crystal clear on so many levels. He was even able to bring a touch of levity to the otherwise dark proceeding with his Marceau-like pantomime. Krapp’s Last Tape is about life’s small, but decisive moments; the road not taken, a love lost. These are not the tidal waves of life’s stormy seas but the quiet ripples on streams that reverberate in our conscience, even unto death.

In his befuddled musings, Krapp stumbles on a tape from his archives. Locked away in a box shrouded with dust, the tape, recorded long ago, speaks to him like a voice from the grave. He listens intently as it emits random, seemingly meaningless thoughts until a passage begins to recount the events of a failed romance. Krapp plays the passage over and over again, letting the words seep in, adding new layers to his mountain of regret. Is he contemplating suicide? The curtain slowly lowers as he, and we, ponders the meaning of his last tape.

Goodman Theatre has extended Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape through February 28, adding seven performances to the double-bill starring Brian Dennehy. Goodman Theatre’s next production is The Long Red Road, directed by Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. For tickets and information, visit

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dreamgirls brings rhythm and soul to Cadillac Palace Theatre

by Dwight Casimere

In 1967, I had the privilege of photographing Diana
Ross and The Supremes in concert at the Chicago Theatre, benefiting the Chicago Urban League. It was an electrifying experience. Although I had seen them perform numerous times on television, there was nothing like seeing them in person, especially from my vantage point in the press pool at the very front of the theatre, hovering near the orchestra pit. The world had not seen anything like them before or since, until the Broadway musical land later, Academy and Golden Globe Award winning film, loosely based on their story, appeared some years later.

That same electricity surged through my veins as I watched the Broadway in Chicago production of Dreamgirls now appearing in a limited engagement at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sunday, January 31 at 2pm. If I had the choice of watching the Pro Bowl on TV and seeing a live performance of Dreamgirls at the Palace, the latter would win, hands down.

Staging is minimal, but the superlative singing and acting and the brilliant Bob Mackey-inspired costumes created by William Ivey Long more than make that up for. Dreamgirls is a tidal wave of raw emotion with a level of vocal performance that could be heard clear over to the staid walls of the Lyric Opera house a few blocks away. The costumes are an avalanche of brightly colored sequins. The effect is multiplied by the creative use of rotating video panels that show the performance in multiple images, replicating their mesmerizing effect on the public mind in 19690s America.

Moya Angela is a veritable force of nature as the full-figured and full-voiced Effie, who is the dramatic center of the show. She and friends Dena (the sultry Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (scintillating Adrienne Warren) have aspirations of making it big at the Apollo with Effie’s brother, C.C. (Trevon Davis) as their songwriter and arranger.

The story follows the rise and disintegration of the fictional female R&B group, the Dreamettes in 1960s Chicago. This was the time of Race Records, when black musicians and performing artists were relegated to the chittlin’ circuit and black dance halls and limited airplay on a handful of black-oriented stations that were largely white owned.

The story really begins to get underway after the Dreamettes are reconstituted as a solo act under their newfound manager Curtis (an officious and vainglorious Chaz Lamar Shepherd, who eerily recalls the memory of Ike Turner) after a turn as a backup singer for potential cross-over star Jimmy Early (a silver-voiced Chester Gregory, embodying the image of greats like Jackie Wilson and an early-day James Brown).

A big deal is made out of efforts to ‘cross-over’ black groups and performers to gain acceptance in white audiences and in securing them ‘gigs’ in whites only venues. One of the truly funny scenes occurs in Act One when Jimmy Early tries to ‘tone down’ his soul crooning to a more Perry Como style. Early just can’t help himself and it isn’t long before he’s down on his needs in one of the most pleading, blues shouting voices imaginable. Needless to say, the ‘whites only’ gigs were quickly canceled!

A later scene, showing the Dreamettes in their first TV national appearance, brings the issue of racial prejudice and the media front and center. The black and white TV panels rotating behind the singers convey the magnitude of their impact.

Drama starts to unfold after Curtis decides to spin the Dreamettes as a solo group with the more camera-ready Deena replacing the full-figured Effie as the lead. The resulting anguish suffered by Effie is revealed in her heart-wrenching solo “And I’m Tellin’ You.” Moya Angela projects her voice from the souls of her feet to the back row of the upper balcony. Clearly, she needs no artificial amplification.

Speaking of Lyric Opera, I attended a matinee performance of their production of The Elixir of Love just prior to seeing Dreamgirls. It was impressive to hear the level of artistry among the Dreamgirls cast members. Although their voices were quite different from the Lyric’s singers, they projected a power and sincerity that would make them standouts on any stage.

Dreamgirls continues through January 31. For performance times and tickets visit

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chicago Sinfonietta celebrates Dr. King's message of hope and brotherhood

Chicago music lovers observed the United Stated Federal Holiday marking the birth date of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a concert by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the nation’s most diverse orchestra in its 23rd season presentation, A Dream Unfolds.

The joyous celebration was tempered by the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, which prompted a request for a moment of silence by Chicago Sinfonietta Founder and Music Director Maestro Paul Freeman. “I want you to look around you” Dr. Freeman intoned to the capacity audience from the Armour Stage of Symphony Center. “What you see is the diversity that Dr. King dreamed of. What you see on this stage, in our orchestra and soloists, is the dream that Dr. King dreamed of. We celebrate not just his work, but his life and the dream that lives within all of us.”

What followed, was a program that lifted the spirit and the legacy of Dr. King to the heights of artistic expression. Beginning with the appropriately somber Pavane, Opus 50, by French composer Gabriel Faure, which was lifted to the level of an elegy by Dr. Freeman’s sensitive, measured conducting. The pavane is typically a dance that honors the dead. As practiced in France, primarily among members of the Basque culture, it is a somber, rhythmic ushering of the souls of the fallen into the next life. The music honors the spirit that inhabited their lives, as much as it mourns their passing. How appropriate in acknowledging those who fell to the tragedy of Haiti and the memory of Dr. King.

Four Negro Spirituals for Orchestra and Soprano were dedicated to the memory of their arranger Hale Smith who passed away just before Thanksgiving. Freeman brought forth two of the opera world’s most heavenly voices, Lyric Opera star, soprano Jonita Lattimore and internationally celebrated contralto Gwendolyn Brown and the spiritually uplifting interpretive dance ensemble of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre and the choreography of Artistic Director Wlfredo Rivera.

The singing and sprightly orchestral accompaniment truly brought the message these earthy gems of African American faith home. They were made even more ‘true to the bone’ by the ethereal dance movements of the dancers. Rivera’s dancers echoed the apostolic flavor of Alvin Ailey’s earliest choreographic hymns. Lattimore’s crystalline voice soared angelically above Hale’s lush orchestral arrangements in “This Little Light of Mine” and Gwendolyn Brown brought a spiritual depth to “Jesus Lay Your Head in the Window” and a bit of sassy humor to “Witness.” She added some needed levity that drew the audience closer to her.

What followed after the intermission was the true revelation of the evening. It also represented a realization of Dr. King’s vision. A performance of Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No. 9 was conducted by Kazem Abdullah, current Assistant and Cover Conductor with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It featured soloists Brown and Lattimore, along with Tenor Richard Drews, winner of the Arthur E. Sullivan Grant and Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and stellar baritone Bruce Hall, star of Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theatre.

At just 30 years old, Maestro Abdullah exhibits a depth of understanding of Beethoven that is astounding. He gave some hint of the gravity of Symphony No. 9’s message in his onstage remarks to the audience. "An die Freude, is translated in English as “The ‘Ode to Joy’. It refers to a line from a poem by German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, whose work Beethoven admired. The line is significant because it is the centerpiece of the final movement. Without going into a lengthy explanation, the key line, which you will hear repeated often by the choir, reads simply, in German, Alle Menschen werden Brüder. In English it means, “All men will be brothers.” That, in a nutshell, was Dr. King’s message, that we should all try to get along. “

What followed was a performance that was the most outstanding of the Sinfonietta’s 23 history. One wondered if the audience was not witnessing the birth of a black Leonard Bernstein in the person of Kazem Abdullah. Closing my eyes, I was also reminded of the last time I had heard a performance of the Beethoven No. 9 from the orchestra that normally inhabits that very same Armour Stage under the baton of the late Sir Georg Solti.

by Dwight Casimere

Chicago Sinfonietta’s performance was stirring in every way, from the superb unified singing of the Northwestern University Symphonic Choir under the direction of Robert A. Harris, to the heartfelt solos and harmonious blending of the voices of Drews, Hall, Brown and Lattimore. Had Dr. King been in the audience to celebrate his 81st birthday, this performance would have brought out the Baptist preacher in him and prompted a hearty “Amen” among the “Bravos!”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guest conductor kicks off his shoes in ‘new’ music concert with CSO-

by Dwight Casimere

Guest conductor David Robertson, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony and an annual visitor to Symphony Center, seemed right at home conducting a program of contemporary works of the last century that included the groundbreaking Meditation symphonique of Olivier Messiaen, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, considered by musicologists to be the genesis of ‘contemporary’ music.

At one time considered to be at the head of the ‘short list’ to become the Chicago Symphony’s next music director, Robertson has since become firmly ensconced as head of the St. Louis Symphony and has reportedly signed a contract with them through 2012. Speculation on his arrival in Chicago ended with the naming of Riccardo Muti as the CSO’s music director in April 2008.

The concert hall was filled with more young people than are customary at subscription concerts. A number of students seemed to have made their way from nearby DePaul and the Art Institute. They whooped it up after the CSO’s stirring rendition of The Rite of Spring like fans at a Hawks game at the United Center. There were also a number of parents with young children in tow, presumably to see the former poster child for the Suzuki Method, Kyoko Takezawa play the Guarneri del Gesu “Wieniawski violin, on loan from the Stradivarius Society of Chicago, in the Berg concerto. Since her days as a child prodigy, Takezawa has become an in-demand soloist with all of the major symphonies of the world.

Robertson made the little heard Messiaen Meditation sing. Performed only once previously by the CSO in April 1993, under Myung-Whun Chung, it is a somber work with deep religious undertones. Robertson allowed the pulse of the music to grow slowly in the opening Andante Prelude and moved assuredly in the following Allegretto and Scherzo. His handling of the faster movements did nothing to break the mesmerizing spell of the piece. The superb work of the flutes and oboes balanced perfectly against the steady bursts of sound from the CSO’s commanding brass section.

The real centerpiece of the evening was the Violin Concerto, composed by Austrian Alban Berg in 1935. It is a virtuoso piece commissioned by the great soloist Louis Krasner, who also performed it with the CSO four years later under the baton of Frederick Stock.

Young Kyoko Takezawa looked simply stunning in her floor length gown, before hoisting the Guarneri to her delicate shoulder.

The sound that emanated from the burnished instrument was almost ethereal. Ultra soft in the first measures, her sound seemed submerged in the lush orchestration. Although her attack seemed tentative at first, upon later reflection, the softness could have been attributed to the composer’s markings and the subtle nature of her instrument. Within a few moments, the rich, dulcet tones of the Guarneri began to emerge, bringing the music to full proportion. The piece began to sound as if it had been written for her alone. At times, she leaned her head back, eyes closed, as if in a state of ecstasy.

Stravinzsky’s The Rite of Spring was the anticipated showpiece of the evening and Robertson and company did not disappoint. Here the guest conductor seemed right at home, leading the orchestra with assurance. The rapport between the musicians and the conductor was like a conversation between two trusting old friends. Members of the percussion section watched attentively for their cues from Robertson as the complexities of the piece unfolded. The entire orchestra propelled the piece forward like the components of a finely tuned Swiss watch. The bassoon solo undulating at the beginning signaled the start of a performance masterpiece that alternated between thundering percussive outbursts and quiet, rustling meditations in the woodwinds and violins. Intricate passages intertwined like gossamer threads. Robertson allowed the emerging themes to break forth from the firmament and shine briefly like jewels of sunlight on a lake teeming with wildlife beneath the surface. This was a rare performance, which made the Stravinsky sound fresh and alive.

At its premiere at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in 1913, a riot broke out among the audience during the opening bars. At Symphony Center in 2010, the music elicited one of the most raucous ovations ever heard within the confines of those austere walls.

Robertson obliged the audience with a rare gesture, walking among the musicians, raising their hands and acknowledging individual members of the percussion section. Finally, he coaxed bassoonist David McGill to rise to his feet to the delight of the audience.

The atmosphere of the entire evening was like a Homecoming game. Since we have no Chicago Bears to root for in the Playoffs for Super Bowl 2010, we can at least delight in the return of a beloved friend and guest conductor in the person of David Robertson.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Carmen sizzles on Met stage and local big screens Live In HD

by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The first thing that greets the eye in Metropolitan Opera’s new production of George Bizet’s Carmen, to be seen by a worldwide audience Live in HD, Saturday, January 16 at noon, is a bright red, illuminated slash of red that is contrasted against a black curtain, running floor to ceiling on the Met stage. A solitary dancer undulates to the strains of the opera’s overture, under the deft conducting of Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Sequin. A female dancer later joins him as solo dancers Ashley Tuttle and Keith Roberts make their Metropolitan Opera debuts in a series of dance sequences that act as a precursor to the stormy, intertwining relationship of the titled protagonist, Carmen, and her hapless prey, the dutiful, but headstrong lieutenant, Don Jose.

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca is the consummate Carmen. Her sultry good looks, honey-dripping voice and seductive moves give her character a modern edge. In Garanca’s portrayal, Carmen is more than a voluptuous, castanet-clicking femme fatale. She is a complex, fiercely independent woman who is hell-bent on forcing her will, regardless of the cost to herself or others. She is a predator at heart, with an insatiable appetite. Her character, as so expertly unfolded by Garanca, is more like a serpent than a lioness, undulating in hypnotic motion, her shiny, ornately patterned surface mesmerizing her victims with its brilliance. In this case, Don Jose, sung with just the right mix of resolve and vulnerability by French tenor Roberto Alagna, is lured into her venomous embrace. Although he realizes that her bite is fatal, he descends into the maddened hallucination of ecstasy that all snakebite victims experience before they finally succumb. Instead of death, Don Jose descends into madness.

Georges Bizet shocked the Opera Comique of 1875 Paris with his dark, raw, socially abrasive opera, but his bad-girl heroine would have been right at home in today’s TMZ-dominated world of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. In Bizet’s time, French society was in the midst of a mass hypnosis of hypocrisy, maintaining a genteel bourgeois veneer at its surface, while practicing an amoral indulgence of sex and marital duplicity underneath. Carmen pulled back the lace curtain. Society was simultaneously repulsed and transfixed, much like Don Jose.

With that in mind, Garanca takes her characterization to the parapets, brandishing a bloody thigh with an aplomb that would make a vampire swoon and singing her show-stopping arias with abandon.

Carmen is a showcase for mezzos, but Garanca takes it a step further, turning down the heat at key moments to reveal the character’s sinister underpinnings, then unleashing all of her considerable powers at just the right moment. The effect is mesmerizing.

Carmen delights in her Svengali-like control over Don Jose, drawing him in, then casting him aside at will. That only intensifies Don Jose’s will to possess her.

Escamillo has his bull. Carmen has her Don Jose. So intoxicated is Carmen by her control over Don Jose, that she drives him straight to the gates of Hell even at the cost of her life.

Tenor Roberto Alagna is a perfect Don Jose. He is the dutiful lieutenant whose nose is turned by the wily Carmen. His sylvan voice is a joy to behold. He also displays just the right amount of vulnerability in his portrayal of the gullible Don Jose.

Carmen blows his straight-laced character away. So much so that he abandons his duty to his country and his mother for her gypsy camp and its outlaws. In his touching arias with the peasant girl, Micaela, sung exquisitely by Barbara Frittoli, Don Jose learns from her of the fragile health of his mother and her deep love for him. He is moved, but apparently not enough, for he later casts both aside in headlong pursuit of Carmen. In an instant, his bright future is obliterated and Don Jose finds himself a fugitive, living among the very people he despises.

Set and costume designer Rob Howell creates a decadent looking world of crumbling hemispheres that move fluidly from a chain link fenced military headquarters to Seville’s lively town square, Lillias Pastia’s tavern, the Gypsy’s desolate mountain retreat and finally, the cold exterior of the bullring in Seville. The contrast of Carmen’s demise at the hands of Don Jose outside and Escamillo’s conquest of the bull inside is brought out with stark clarity in the brilliant staging.

Peter Mumford’s lighting design enhances the dark, foreboding mood of the mounting tragedy and Christopher Wheeldon’s lively choreography makes this new production, directed by Richard Eyre, a spectacle.

Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is an appropriately smarmy Escamillo. Montreal-based conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin propels the action forward at a lively place from the pit.

Carmen hits the big screen Live in HD in theatres around the world Saturday, January 16 at noon Central Time with an Encore performance Wednesday, February 3 at 6:30pm. Met Live in HD can be seen locally at Seven Bridges Cinemark at Route 53 & Seven Bridges Drive in Woodridge. For tickets and information, visit or

Monday, January 11, 2010

NY Philharmonic, Yefim Bronfman-a Russian tale of two Sergeis

by Dwight Casimere

Photos Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic

It was evident that something monumental was afoot while walking into the Grand Promenade of Avery Fisher Hall for the appearance of Grammy-winning piano powerhouse Yefim Bronfman with the New York Philharmonic. The Steinway piano was already in place for the program-opening performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, one of the most technically difficult and harmonically layered of all piano concertos in performance today.

The Russian-born pianist was eminently qualified to lead off the all-Russian program, which also featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor.

Bronfman is practically the NY Phil’s pianist-in-residence this season. Following his three-night performance of the Prokofiev, he will play it with the orchestra again on a tour of nine European cities (including London, Paris, Zurich, Frankfurt, Dortmund, Cologne, Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona) January 21-February 4. It is the orchestra’s first European tour since Gilbert took the reins as Music Director nearly six months ago.

Chicago audiences will hear Bronfman play Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra February 10-13.

Bronfman may yet score another Grammy this year. He’s been nominated for Best Instrumental Performance (with Orchestra) for his recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Piano Concerto with the composer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His 1997 Grammy Award was for his recording of the three Bartok piano concertos, again with Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Bronfman brought an introspection and emotional clarity to the Prokofiev that made it stunning. He literally submerged himself in its dense harmonic landscaped and unearthed its harmonic and psychological richness.

Bronfman’s technique is unparalleled. Unlike many other pianists who are satisfied to merely dazzle audiences with their technical brilliance, Bronfman uses his skill to further enhance the true intent of the composer. Difficult passages become enriched with layers of sonic texture. Quieter passages are imbued with a lyricism that makes them almost song-like. It was especially so in the second movement with its difficult cadenzas, at times lyrical and at others dark and brooding. Bronfman made the Scherzo dance with each note ringing with utmost clarity. His cross-hand technique in the third movement, Intermezzo: Allegro moderato was flawless, with the notes ringing from both hands in perfect balance. The Finale: Allegro tempestoso was a case study in bravura performance. Bronfman immediately jumped into the fray, mounting its storming crescendos and riding them to the crest of a wave of exploding sound. His command of the music was almost superhuman in its intensity and scope. Bronfman’s technical prowess never overshadowed the brilliant writing of the composer.

After a thunderous ovation, Bronfman soothed the teeming masses with a probingly sensitive solo rendition of Schumann’s evocative ‘Arabesque.’

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor is oft times presented as an overwrought, emotionally draining work that has suffered numerous ‘unkind cuts’ over the years, paraphrasing Shakespeare. Its arching, achingly romantic theme in the third movement, Adagio, is probably its single most remembered and, ultimately, its most saving, element. Gilbert wisely chose to present the work in its entirety, without cuts. It presented him with a unique opportunity to showcase the ‘new’ New York Philharmonic under his able leadership. The orchestra played with a youthful exhilaration that, combined with the outstanding capabilities of its members and the superb musicianship of its new leader, made for a highly satisfying listening experience. The Rachmaninoff literally bristled with vitality. Gilbert allowed the full sweep of its vast orchestral landscape to play out before our senses, making a cohesive tonal tapestry out of its seemingly disjointed musical threads. By allowing its inner voices to rise to the surface in the second strings and woodwinds and emphasizing its recurrent themes that bubbled up in the brass section at key moments, he gave the symphony a structure and a firm melodic spine that often eludes conductors. It was Rachmaninoff as interpreted by a conductor who has a refined inner ear for the work’s inherent lyricism and impassioned soul. Europe is in for a mind-blowing experience.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New York Philharmonic-An All American New Year’s gift

by Dwight Casimere

Photos/Chris Lee-New York Philharmonic

Excitement was palpable as PBS cameras moved into their strategic positions around Avery Fisher Hall for the start of the tape-delay, live broadcast of New Year’s Eve:Hampson, Gershwin, Copland & Broadway by the New York Philharmonic. While millions waited for the sparkling, giant Waterford Crystal 2010 Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball to drop, 28 hundred fortunate souls sat amidst a cascade of electric blue ribbons, giant decorative balls and Christian Lacroix colored floral arrangements that adorned the stage and Grand Promenade.

Alan Gilbert, the newly named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic was ebullient as he gave the down stroke, commencing the New Year of his inaugural season. Among his first initiatives as music director was the appointment of American baritone Thomas Hampson as Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence. The Grammy-winning vocal artist, who hails from Spokane, Washington, was also the perfect choice to headline the evening’s All American program.

Each of the works presented also had a history unique to the orchestra.

From the beginning strains of Aaron Copland’s beloved Appalachian Spring, a tone poem written to accompany the choreography of dance legend Martha Graham and based on the poetry of Hart Crane, this was a celebration of unique character. The Philharmonic introduced this music in 1945, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize. You’ll hear dance and fiddle tunes, and of course the beloved “Simple Gifts,” based on a Shaker hymn. “Simple Gifts” has been lifted to anthem-like proportions in the collective mind of the concert-going public. It was raised to the solemnity of a hymn by Gilbert’s deft direction.

Hampson caressed each word of Copland’s Old American Songs, making them sound as if they were written just for him. He was particularly effective in the sections that called for strong, colloquial dialect. He conveyed the words with both humor and pathos. Each of Copland’s songbooks is unique and Hampson was masterful in molding his delivery for each of them. The song, “I Bought Me a Cat” was the most humorous of the bunch, delivered with gusto and complete with orchestral sound effects!

The New York Philharmonic commissioned George Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” in 1928. It was written as a symphonic ballet celebrating Gershwin’s happy encounter with Paris in the ‘20s and the sounds of New York’s jazz scene and Tin Pan Alley that reverberated in his soul. Gilbert unearthed all the sparkling, rhythmic nuance of the piece and made plenty of room for the battery of percussion and hallelujah chorus of brass that made this one of the most distinctive compositions in the American orchestral repertoire. The concert ended in plenty of time for patrons to head elsewhere to watch the Times Square Ball drop. Considering the exuberant tone of Gilbert & Company, further celebration was superfluous!