Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony put Debussy "In-Context"

1. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas
2. Composer Robin Holloway
3. Dwight The Connoisseur with some New World Symphony Fellows

Sunlight like diamonds dappling on the surface of an ocean spray, the gentle rustle of a breeze through sea foam as it folds itself into the surf washing on sandy beaches Those are the image that Claude Debussy referenced in his latter day masterpiece, La Mer and as they were lovingly delineated in a heart-rending performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and his New World Symphony in South Beach Miami's Lincoln Theatre. It was a fitting tribute to the composer in the orchestra's concluding chapter of its In-Context Festival and a valentine sendoff to the orchestra's 'graduating' fellows at this, the final concert of an inspiring season. Many of the concluding fellows will move on to positions in orchestras in the four corners of the world, such as percussionist Eric Renick who will take a position with an orchestra in New Zealand alongside his girlfriend, bassoonist Renee DeBoer "when we leave this building, we’ll officially become 'kiwi’s’,” he quipped drawing gentle laughter from the audience filled with patrons, parents and friends. The night had the feeling of a commencement ceremony.

Proceeding had been a thoughtful reading of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) a staple of both the orchestral and ballet repertoire conducted with great sensitivity and authority by New World Symphony Conducting Fellow Teddy Abrams. The composition is considered to be the lynchpin of Modernism in music. Abrams seemed to probe deeply into its dense, free-floating harmonics to find its inner pulse. The beautifully paced languid flute solo by Brook Ferguson set the tone for the well-constructed performance.

British composer Robin Holloway was personally on hand to shepherd Maestro Thomas’s performance of his orchestration of Debussy’s emotionally wrenching En Blanc et noir (In Black and White). Composed in the summer of 1915 against the backdrop of the looming storm cloud of World War I and his own depression over his advancing cancer, Debussy “created an almost cinematic opening theme that evokes the heroism of those who fell in battle (Debussy lost his dear friend who had worked for his publisher to the war),” Thomas said, addressing the audience in pre-performance remarks. “There are hints of a triumphant theme that evokes the French National Anthem, but it quickly evaporates and becomes suddenly distorted as it gives way to an unsettling dissonance and then simply vanishes.”

Robin Holloway offered a scholarly explanation of his own composition Clarissa Sequence, Op.30b, Prelude and Scena. Holloway, who Maestro Thomas introduced as “this lovely man,” is a frequent collaborator to the Maestro during his residency at the BBC Proms in London and is a former winner of the Gramophone Contemporary Record of the Year Award (1994). Holloway’s presentation was an excerpt from an opera he composed, “Clarissa” based on a complicated epistolary novel of the same name by Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. In his remarks from the stage, unfortunately not always understandable to me because of his thick British accent and the acoustics of the hall, which are more attuned to instrumental oration than that of the human voice, he attempted to explain the basic outline of the story. The heroine, Clarissa Harlow, is a pretty, proper young woman who is torn between her sense of duty to her family and her attraction to a devious Don Juan type named Lovelace. Puerto Rican soprano Rosa Betancourt gave a searing recitative of the emotionally agonizing passages, which, although in English, were displayed in graphics projected on the rear wall of the stage. A nice touch.

As one who regularly covers the Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic, I like many of the innovations that Maestro Thomas has instituted at the New World Symphony to bring the audience more into the immediacy of the orchestral experience. His pre-performance comments really helped to illustrate the music and give it more clarity in the minds of the listener. Other innovations, such as projected program notes on to the rear wall of the stage made it easier to grasp information on the composers and the music in a kind of ‘Cliff Note’ before hearing the piece. De-mystifying the music is a great audience-building technique particularly for the younger generation. In order for serious music to survive, there must be mass support and appreciation within a new audience.

As for the New World Symphony Fellows, I had an opportunity to meet several of them during my wanderings in the South Beach area, home to NWS, and found them to be an exceptional group of young people with an optimistic outlook toward the future. All expressed an admiration for Maestro Thomas and a deep gratitude to the NWS program and its entrée to wider opportunities in the great orchestras of the world. I found their attitude refreshing. Bravo Maestro Thomas for your brilliant conception of the New World Symphony and for a marvelous season!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Met HD Armida a season fireworks finale

by Dwight Casimere

Photos Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series has been a phenomenal success, selling more than two million tickets in this, its fourth season. Its most recent production, Rossini’s Armida, starring Met Diva Superstar Renee Fleming and the searing African American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who, along with Fleming, received a standing ovation from the theatre audience in attendance at the Regal Cinema on Lincoln Road in Miami’s Tony South Beach area.

Gioachino Rossini’s Armida is a Met Premiere Production by Tony Award-winning Director Mary Zimmerman. “Armida was premiered in Naples in 1817. It is one of the longest and most demanding roles in the bel canto (beautiful singing) repertoire. The role requires the titled character, Armida, in this case, sung by Renee Fleming, to be on stage for virtually the entire marathon production. First this reason, the opera is rarely performed. The first modern staging, and perhaps the only one of note in anyone’s lifetime, was n 1952 with the great Maria Callas in the lead role. Madame Fleming paid fitting tribute to the brilliance of her legacy in her stellar performance that ran the gamut from pathos to passion. The soulful pleading and depth of color in her voice in the marvelous arias and duets, particularly the difficult coloratura passages, brought the visage of the great Callas to the fore.

Fleming was able to elucidate the true meaning of the term ‘bel canto’ in a backstage interview with fellow Met Diva, the Super Fine Deborah Voigt. “It’s all about the ability to decorate, vocally. It’s the same thing that you hear today in Gospel, the ability to embellish and make up our ‘own thing.’ It’s our only opportunity to be creative!”

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s creamy vocal texture and agility as the lead tenor, Rinaldo, was reminiscent of a young Jose Carreras. His protean agility and dramatic forte were evident, particularly in the duets between he and Fleming. If there were to be anointed a new Pavarotti, his commanding presence as evidenced in this performance, would make him a sure candidate.

Italian Conductor Riccardo Frizza imbued the score with all of the fanciful enthusiasm and exuberance envisioned by the composer. The cast of dancers, chorus and other onstage presences from the Cirque du Soliel type opening to the modernistic feline-like ‘demons’ of the second and third acts (which prompted my German seat companions to query “are we also seeing ‘CATS?!’”), served to further enliven the production making its running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes seem of little consequence.

In her backstage comments to Voigt, Director Zimmerman revealed that the Met virtually had a clean slate to work from. “It’s never really been done in “our time.” In that sense, it’s very freeing because operas are usually filled with all sorts of precedence. This opera doesn’t have the burden of history on it. It doesn’t have a long production history at all-it has almost NO production history-so; we’re working with a clean slate. There’s also a huge responsibility with that because we want this to be THE production that people will reference in the future.”

With its unprecedented audience acceptance this season, the MET is forging ahead with an even more expanded season next year. The Met Live in HD 2010-2011 series, in its fifth season, will present 11 live transmissions of operas, including seven new productions and two Met premieres.

The Met’s 2010-2011 Season marks the 4oth anniversary of Music Director James Levine’s Company Debut. They include a new production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen by Robert Lepage, conducted by Levine, beginning with the operas Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The season also includes the Met premieres of John Adams’s Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars, and Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, directed by Bartlett Sher.

Three prominent directors make their Met debuts staging new productions: Peter Stein with Boris Godunov; Nicholas Hytner with Don Carlo; and Willy Decker with La Traviata. For tickets and information, visit or