Friday, February 18, 2011

Chicago Symphony-Leif Ove Andsnes in majestic Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2

1. Guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda
2. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes
3. Van Cliburn performs the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 before a packed Moscow concert hall in 1958 at the height of the Cold War

by Dwight Casimere

CHICAGO—A luminous full moon hovering high over Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue was portentous. On a night marked by warm, spring-like temperatures that melted the remnants of winter’s deadly snows. The night’s program of Stravinsky’s Divertimento, Suite from The Fairy’s Kiss, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, sounded more like one of the programs I would have heard when my parents were bringing me to Orchestra Hall as a reluctant pre-teen than anything programmed today. It is also like a program you’d hear today at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, where the Milan-born Guest Conductor Gianandrea Noseda became the first foreign-born Principal
Guest Conductor in 1997.

Inside Orchestra Hall, I was seated next to a woman whose husband had served in the violin section of the CSO for 48 years. Previewing the program, I commented that it had been more than 15 years since I’d heard the Borodin performed on the Armour Stage. (Program notes affirmed April 17, 1994 under conductor Valery Gergiev as the most recent CSO performance at Orchestra Hall). The names of Fritz Reiner, who recorded the Stravinsky with the CSO in 1958, and Van Cliburn, who recorded the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Reiner and the CSO in 1961, naturally entered the conversation. This was truly an ‘Old School’ program, we both agreed. It was one that the audience would enjoy every moment of.

Stravinsky wrote “The Fairy’s Kiss:” as homage to his favorite composer, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Noseda invested in it all of the whimsy and fantasy at his disposal, dispensing dance-like rhythms like magic dust. The Scherzo, in particular, sparkled.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor is rarely heard in concert halls these days. It’s a lovely work that centers around a lavish romantic theme that was once a popular hit for the pop singer Johnny Mathis, based on a re-working of the famous oboe melody for the Broadway hit “Kismet.”

Normally, the solo concerto is played with the guest artist in the first half of the program, before intermission. Noseda chose to program differently, saving the best for last, the way I remember it being done many times in European concert halls. Leif Ove Andsnes, lent the force of his significant prowess to the Brahm’s infusing it with all of the majesty, power and elegance it deserved. He displayed particular insight in the slow second passages and brought to mind the elegant playing of the great Van Cliburn in his performances with the Moscow Philharmonic. The simpatico exchange between Andsnes and cellist John Sharp in the Andante was transfixing.

“Nice band,” my seatmate said, tongue-in-cheek as the audience’s ovation subsided.

As I exited Orchestra Hall into the near-balmy night and stared up at the full moon, I wondered if perhaps Van Cliburn and Reiner might have transcended time and space to ‘sit in’ for the evening’s performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct’s a program of Wagner ‘s Preludes to Die Meistersinger, Donatoni’s Esa and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E Major, Thursday, March 3, Saturday, March 5, and Sunday, March 6. Monday, March 7, violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman joins members of the CSO and Rotary International for a benefit performance supporting the final push to end polio worldwide. A post-concert reception with the artist takes place in the Grainger Ballroom. Polio eradication resonates strongly with Mr. Perlman. He contracted the disease at age four and overcame serious physical challenges to become one of the world’s most celebrated musicians. For tickets and information, visit.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stewart Goodyear turns massive New World Symphony Hall into French salon

1. Stewart Goodyear file photo
2-4. New World Center images by Dwight Casimere

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

MIAMI BEACH-George Sand and Marcel Proust would have felt right at home, although a bit visually bedazzled, had they time-traveled to this emerald city’s Frank Gehry –designed New World Symphony Center. The massive billowy sailed concert hall had been scaled down to an intimate French salon for an afternoon of chamber music featuring the music of three diverse, forward-thinking French composers who made their mark over the last two centuries.

The works explored the musings of Francis Poulenc and his Sextet for Piano and Winds (1832-39), Chicago Symphony Orchestra Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez’s Derive (1984) and Memoriale (1985) and Ernest Chausson’s probative Quartet in A major for Piano and Strings, Op. 30 (1897) with the Promethean Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear at the helm of an ensemble featuring the New World’s Crème de la Crème of stringed instrument players.

France in the 1920s was the entertainment nexus of the world. Josephine Baker was a household name. This electrifying black American singer and dancer led a wave of black expatriate artists to the City of Light, many of the hailing from the speakeasies and dance halls of Harlem and New Orlean’s French Quarter. New music and new art sprang up in every corner. A new world order of artistic expression had waged war on the prim and proper Victorian era that preceded it. Jazz became the vernacular of musicians such as Sidney Bechet, Django Reinhardt and Darius Milhaud. Cubism and Modernism with Picasso and Cezanne at the forefront, began to deconstruct the art world and Paris and its Latin Quarter became the expatriate home to a new age of literary voices, including the African American writers Langston Hughes and later, James Baldwin. A cultural war was being waged in the City of Light and Montmartre was its beachhead.

Enter Francis Poulenc, leader of a rising tide of French composers known as “Les Six.” Poulenc was a terrific pianist and a prolific composer with a penchant for experimentation. The NWS sextet, with its most expressive voices residing in Clint Foreman on flute and Marnie Hauschildt on piano, captured the composer’s restless mood and chattering excitement.

Pierre Boulez remains as one of the most controversial voices in modern music, even at 85 years old. His Derive (1984) and Memoriale (1985) are shining examples of his explorations into atonality and minimalism and the young musicians of the NWS approached them with eloquence.

“Canadian Cannonball” Stewart Goodyear reigned in his considerable Niagran force on the piano to produced a restrained and pensive performance of Ernest Chausson’s Quartet in A major for Piano and Strings. With Karla Donehew-Perez playing an emotionally soaring violin at the forefront of a stellar quartet including Lotem Beider, viola and David Meyer, cello, the performers transcended the notes on the page to produce a performance of unbridled emotion. Their measured approach achieved a climax that smoldered with emotional intensity. Only the amber glow of lights along the River Seine could rival the warm afterglow felt by the audience as the music echoed into silence.

In the weeks ahead, the New World Symphony and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas will explore the music of Tchaikovsky (Feb 19-20) and host a Special Presentation, NWS WALLCASTtm: Concerto Showcase, Saturday, March 5 at 7:30pm that is free to the public in Miami Beach Soundscape on the lawn of the New World Symphony Center. It’s worth a trip to South Beach for the experience. For information, visit

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Met Live in HD Nixon in China packs theaters worldwide

Story by Dwight Casimere

Miami—From the moment composer John Adams took the podium before the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in the Met Live HD transmission and lifted the baton to his first-ever conducting effort to his opera “Nixon in China,” it was obvious that something historic and totally breathtaking was about to take place.

The opening strains of the opera were suspenseful, dramatic and fraught with fear of the unknown. The music pulsated with constantly shifting meters. It ebbed and flowed like the waters of the mighty Yangtze River, alternating subsiding into silent tide pools only to surge forward in a mighty torrent.

The opening chorus, so expertly honed into a cohesive, single voice by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, intones “The people are the heroes now, Behemoth pulls the peasant’s plow.” At times, the modal chord structure and rhythmic pattern resemble that of the old Negro Spirituals, further grounding the idea that this is the “people’s music” and the sentiments of the common man and woman in the new, revolutionary China.

In Nixon’s opening aria, after alighting from the Presidential plane, Spirit of ’76, on that historic day, February 21, 1972, baritone James Maddalena, who originated the role, pronounced in Max Headroom verbal glitches and repetition, “the News is a mystery….”

Soprano Kathleen Kim gave the most stunning performance of the afternoon as the blood-curdling Chiang Ch’ing, Madame Mao. British mezzo Janis Kelly was the stately, morally sensitive Pat Nixon, who reacts with shock and sadness at the brutality that underlies the philosophical platitudes of the Cultural Revolution.

Choreographer Mark Morris’s riveting ballet “The Red Detachment of Women,” graphically paints a moving mural of the Cultural Revolution, which etches its slogans in the blood of its detractors.

Speaking to backstage interviewer and Met Opera baritone Thomas Hampson, Adam’s collaborator, Peter Sellars, who also directed the production for Live HD transmission, with composer Adams at the podium, expounded on the ideas behind the opera, which was originally his idea.

“The opera is full of contradictions, and the music expresses that so vividly with all these layers upon layers. You have Nixon who is slavishly trying to discuss the issues and Mao wants to rail on and on about philosophy. We’re not sure if he’s just being cagey and doing this to avoid getting down to basics. We see him going further into this cosmos of ideas that almost cease to have any real meaning, except in his own twisted reality and inflated ego.”

Composer Adams offered Hampson this summation:” Twenty-five years ago, Nixon was in disgrace and was pretty much reduced to the level of late-night television comedian jokes. The more I thought about it, the collision of cultures-Communism vs. Capitalism, East vs. West-we haven’t met Madame Mao yet, but we will in the Second Act. I think I was so young, so naïve and so green, that I had no idea what I was taking on. If I had thought about it, I probably would have freaked out!”

In talking about the characterizations, Adams said; “the Nixon I knew as a college kid had this very precise way of talking. He repeats himself constantly in the opening ‘News’ aria. Pat, as we see her in Act Two, going around China, she’s very sweet. Madame Mao, I kind of see her as a kind of shrieking, very fiery coloratura and Mao, as you can see, I thought of him as an over-the-top kind of Helden-Tenor. You see him as the ‘Leader of the People,’ whose really only listening to himself.”

What makes the opera important in his eyes, Adams further expounded, is the fact that events surrounding Nixon in China are still fresh in everyone’s mind. “It’s part of the themes of our lives. The events are ripped right out of the headlines and are prescient to what’s happening today. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t hear about terrorists or the President.”

Director and collaborator Sellars echoed the sentiment, pointing out,” how timely that this worldwide broadcast today is happening on the same weekend as the historic revolution in Egypt. It could not have been more to the point!”

Nixon in China played to packed houses in theatres around the word. There was not a seat to be found in the Regal 18 in South Beach, Miami, Florida where I saw the production. An encore performance will be held Wednesday, March 2 at 6:30pm. Visit or for tickets.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Miami's New World Symphony unveils "Super Bowl" of concert experiences

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Miami Beach—Super Bowl Weekend brought a pair of “All Star” performances from this sun-kissed city’s New World Symphony Orchestra and the second introduction of a new technology designed to bring the concert experience inside to the public lawn outside the dazzling new Frank Gehry designed New World Center free of charge.

Founder and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a wide-ranging program that included two works by the groundbreaking twentieth century composer Charles Ives, From the Steeples to the Mountains (1905-06) and The Unanswered Question (1906-08), Bella Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (1938) with Hamburg-born violin virtuosos Christian Tetzlaff and a brilliant performance of Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major, by the New World Symphony orchestra.

Maestro Thomas made full use of the new symphony hall’s “in the round” configuration by positioning the trumpet soloists on balconies that towered above the concert stage and the audience. It created a dynamic ‘echo’ affect that underlined the emotional dynamics of the musical. It served for particularly poignant effect in “The Unanswered Question,” which Maestro Thomas earlier explained, was the express role of the trumpet solo.

The $160 million concert hall and school was developed by the Walt Disney Los Angeles Symphony Concert Hall team of architect Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Art Museums, New York and Bilbao, Spain) and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. The concert hall employs multi-media technology inside, with program text and corresponding video images shown simultaneous to the orchestra’s performance. A high definition video WALLCAST” projects the concert inside to the 7,000 square foot façade of the building. A sound system of 167 individually tuned loudspeakers delivers the concert to the audience outside.

The inside of the New World Center is one of the most innovative in the world and has become a cultural focus in Miami. Architect Gehry has incorporated an interactive setting into the design of the symphony hall. Seating is positioned in a ‘vineyard pattern’ that weaves around the orchestra, completely surrounding it. No seat is more than 13 rows from the stage, creating a truly dynamic ‘live’ experience. The music comes at you from every angle. The sounds of the horns, drums, even the slightest touch of the strings in the quieter moments, seem to ‘ping’ on the ear as if you were sitting right there among the members of the orchestra. Huge curvilinear ‘sails’ hang from the ceiling that further enhance the acoustics and are also used to project video images and animation. It is truly an all-encompassing concert experience like no other I have had in my 30 years of writing about serious music in the world’s leading concert halls, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Covent Garden, the Royal Philharmonic, Royal Albert Hall and Barbican Center in London.

The Saturday evening concert featured re-introduction of live concert WALLCASTStm, a giant exterior projection on the outside wall of New World Center to the beautifully landscaped pubic park of the campus where the outdoor audience is enveloped in a high-quality audio system while watching the concert simulcast through cameras inside the concert hall. Folks brought their picnic blankets and chairs, along with picnic dinners and take-out from nearby Lincoln Road restaurants. They brought their entire families, including young children and even the family dog to experience the musical treat. A smattering of bicycles, skateboards and baby strollers added to the summer’s eve atmosphere.

At times, the sound of sirens and the din of weekend traffic drowned out the quieter moments of the Ives pieces, but the piercing energy of Tetzlaff’s violin solos riveted the audience’s attention. The thunderous applause at the conclusion of the Bartok was as much for the performance as it was for the innovative WALLCASTtm. At the conclusion of the emotional performance, one concertgoer was overheard saying to anyone who’d listen. “At last. I feel like we finally live in a real city!” Amen to that!

Sunday’s performance saw Tetzlaff in championship form. He invested the Bartok, with its soaring, sonorous melodies and flashes of difficult, expressive runs, with the totality of his emotional being. His fingers seemed to dart across the violin’s soundboard as he executed the complex runs with alacrity. He dispatched the dizzying progression of double and triple stops with ease and forged ahead to an explosive conclusion.

Maestro Thomas and the New World Symphony gave a thoughtful, measured reading of the Brahms Symphony No. 2. He payed particular attention to the dance-like tempos in the third movement Allegretto graziosos (Quasi andantino), even swaying in time to the music to emphasize it lilting character. The finale, Allegro con spirito, was true to the notation, lively with spirited expression. It was a performance that reflected the sparkling vitality of the surroundings of the New World Symphony Center campus.

The weekend of February 11 an 12, the New World Center will see a performance of “Revolution: The Music of Igor Stravinsky” with Teddy Abrams, who marks his third season as Conducting Fellow, as guest conductor and Jamie Bernstein, as host/narrator. Ms. Bernstein is the daughter of musical icon Leonard Bernstein and producer of the symphony pops concert hit production “Bernstein on Broadway” produced with conductor Michael Barrett. The Valentine’s Day weekend is rounded out by a matinee performance of “French Legacies” featuring the music of Francis Poulenc, Pierre Boulez and Ernest Chausson with the dynamic Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear as soloist. February 19-20 sees weekend concerts, “Tchaikovsky: The Fateful Fourth,” with legendary Maestro Sir Neville Mariner as conductor and dazzling soloist Isabelle van Keulen on her 1734 Guarnerius del Gesu violin, playing the Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra by Felix Mendelssohn (1844).

The dazzling New World Symphony Center has quickly become a cultural landmark in Miami. It is worth a special trip, especially one to get away from Chicago and New York’s winter deep-freeze. With the sluggish economy and slump in tourism there are lots of deals on airfares and hotels that make a visit here affordable. I highly recommend it. For tickets and information,


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Met Live in HD: Nixon in China a landmark event

by Dwight Casimere

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

New York—Select movie theatres around the world are participating in a monumental and historic event, the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmission of John Adam’s opera, Nixon in China. The live performance will be transmitted from the Metropolitan Opera stage at Noon-Central Time, 1pm Eastern on Saturday, February 12. The approximate running time is 4 hours. If you were wondering what to do for Valentine’s weekend for that special person in your life, tickets to see Nixon In China would make an excellent choice. Tickets and information are available online at or visit Fathom Events at

The live transmission of Nixon in China is significant for several reasons. Its creator, Pulitzer Prize (On The Transmigration of Souls-2003) and multiple Grammy-winner (including Nixon in China-1989)-winning composer John Adams, will also direct the production for the first time. In addition, it is the result of his close collaboration with famed American director Peter Sellars, whose writing and director for opera have won him the coveted Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes for the arts, in 2005. Sellars also directed and wrote the libretto for Adam’s other famous opera, Dr. Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the Atomic Bomb, the contemporary masterpiece which had its Metropolitan opera premiere during the 2008-2009 Met Live in HD season .

Nixon in China premiered in 1987. The opera is based on events that occurred nearly 40 years ago, when then-President Richard Nixon opened China to the western world. China is now poised to become the dominant world power of the 21st century. This “meditation on history and cultural difference,” as the Wall Street Journal called the opera, is an opportunity to examine a momentous event n American history through the unique medium of opera. Directed by famed American director Peter Sellars, the production promises to be “musically exhilarating and theatrically dazzling,” as critiqued by the New York Times. Baritone James Maddalena, who originated the lead role of Nixon in the original 1987 Houston Grand Opera production, will once again sing the title role. Janis Kelly sings the role of Pat Nixon, Robert Brubaker is Mao Tse-tung and Richard Paul Fink is Henry Kissinger.

In a recent backstage interview during the Met’s recent Live in HD transmission of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, Adams and Sellars talked about the upcoming production with backstage interviewer Patricia Racette. “If there’s anyone to “blame” for this production,” Sellars jokingly said of his long-time association with good friend and collaborator John Adams, “it’s me. I was inspired to ask John to write an opera about Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 not because of the event itself, but because of its larger meaning. In a way, the meeting of Nixon and Mao was the highest form of theatre and therefore an excellent starting point for grand opera. Here you have these exact polar opposites, Nixon, the pragmatic, almost colorless man who is the leader of the most powerful nation in the world and a staunch, almost Puritanical, conservative facing his ideological enemy, who, underneath his cold, passionless demeanor, was a fiery revolutionary who had the power to impress his ideological imprint on millions of people and hammer them into a lock-step of ideology through the People’s Revolutionary Army. You really see this in the ballet of the second act, “The Red Detachment of Women.” Mark Morris’s brilliant choreography features this absurd image of the dancers all on point dressed in the identical uniforms of the People’s Revolutionary Army which brandishing rifles. It’s a really telling and powerful scene.”

Adams admits that, at first, he wasn’t exactly floored with the idea of writing an opera about Nixon’s journey behind the Great Wall. “When I first met Peter in the summer of 1983 in New Hampshire, Nixon had by then become the stuff of bad, late-night television comedy routines. I also had no personal love for the man. After all, he tried to send me to Vietnam. When the poet Alice Goodman agreed to write a verse libretto in couplets, the project suddenly took on new life. It became part epic, part satire and part political parody. It really became a wonderfully complex but serious examination of history, philosophy and gender issues through these extraordinary personalities. You had Nixon, Chairman Mao and Madam Mao, Chou En-lai, Henry Kissinger and, of course, Pat Nixon. When you look at that personality landscape, you start to think, how can you capture all of that in anything but Grand Opera?”

Why should people see Nixon in China-opera fan or not? Adams sums it up best.
“First of all, the music is wonderful and has a real crossover appeal, with a preponderance of rhythm, jazz and bass lines that at times almost rock. There’s a great mix of vocal types, from the baritone of Nixon [with James Maddelena reprising his title role of twenty-four years ago] to the heldentenor of Chairman Mao, and of course the ladies, with Pat Nixon as a lyric soprano and Madame Mao as a coloratura. It’s also intriguing to see characters that people have actually known in their lifetimes. “

The results of Adams’ two years of composing effort will be transmitted live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center on Saturday, February 12 at Noon, Central, 1:00 pm ET, The Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s Nixon in China will be transmitted live to movie theaters worldwide as part of The Met: Live in HD series. There will also be an encore presentation on Wednesday, March 2 in the U.S., and Saturday, March 12 in Canada. For more information, visit