Tuesday, December 15, 2015


by Dwight Casimere

Mozart's The Magic Flute Live In HD Weds Dec 16, 1 and 7pm

The Met Live in HD presents a special Holiday Encore of Mozart's The Magic Flute this Wednesday, Dec 16 in theaters globally at  1 and 7pm. This marks the 10th Anniversary Encore of the groundbreaking broadcast that launched the Met's Live in HD series. Maestro James Levine is set to lead the orchestra and a stellar cast including Met favorites Nathan Gunn, Matthew Polenzani, Rene Pappe, Ying Huang and Erika Miklosa in Mozart's timeless fairy tale in a magical production featuring the imaginative puppetry of Julie Taymor.  With its enchanting sets and costumes and whimsical humor, "Magic Flute" is sure to delight the entire family, making it a perfect holiday treat. For tickets and information, visit metopera.org or fathomevents. com.

If you missed the recent Met Live HD transmissions of Alban Berg's "Lulu," you missed an opportunity to hear German soprano Marlis Petersen in her final performance of the title role, which she has performed in ten productions.  Fully realized in a glittering production by South African director William Kentridge, who also directed last season's "The Nose,""Lulu" employed a non-stop layered montage of video projections that enveloped the set, acting as a visual narration that accompanied the musically adventurous score. Petersen pounced upon the role with feline ferocity. Projection designer Catherine Meyburgh and set designer Sabine Theunissen seamlessly executed Kentridge's complex vision. The entire production seemed perfectly matched to the medium of Live in HD with its visual acumen.

Future Met Live in HD productions will include the upcoming Les Pecheurs (The Pearl Fishers) Saturday Jan 16, 2016 at 12:55pm and Puccini's Turandot Saturday Jan 30, 2016, also at 12:55pm. For tickets and information, visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com.

Marlis Petersen in her last performance of Berg's Lulu

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Russian Piano Virtuoso Ends NY Philharmonic Rachmaninoff Festival With A Flourish

Daniil Trifonov delivers Piano Concerto No. 3 with lightning speed

 Piano soloist Daniil Trifonov
Guest Conductor Ludovic Morlot

by Dwight Casimere

The ink was barely dry on the announcement that Russian piano whiz Daniil Trifonov would become the newest member elected to the board of the New York Philharmonic than he took the stage at the newly-renamed David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center to give a commanding rendition of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Known to students of the instrument as a sincere "knuckle buster," Trifonov dove into the horrendously difficult piece with gusto and proceeded to make mince meat of it. At times, his hands seemed to fly over the keys, yet each note was distinct. Underlying themes emerged and faded, giving the piece a portrait-like setting. There was more than towering bombast. Deep feelings emerged from the fray as Trifonov quickly shifted from flights of fury to probing emotion. An encore of Medtner's Fairy Tale further lifted his star into the firmament of piano greats.

Guest conductor Ludovic Morlot , music director of the Seattle Symphony,  similarly brought an emotive approach to the Rachmaninoff, showing a remarkable ability to maintain a nimble approach, which allowed the soloist free reign to push  tempos forward without losing control.  He similarly kept a tight lid on Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, giving the opening march all of the power and grandeur it deserves yet allowing all of the emotion and beautiful themes to unfold in the contrasting middle section. As in the earlier concerto, outstanding solos in the string section and  the mighty horns rang out with regularity.

The New York Philharmonic presents Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and the World Premiere of Andrew Norman's Piano Concerto with James Gaffigan conducting, Dec. 10-12. Then, the philharmonic goes into full holiday mode with the 20th anniversary collaboration of the Canadian Brass with the orchestra in Holiday Brass, Sunday, Dec. 13, followed by Handel's Messiah, with Jane Glover conducting and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, Dec. 15-19. For information, visit nyphil.org.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015



 Renee Fleming stars in Lyric Opera's :"The Merry Widow" through Dec. 3
Thomas Hampson and Renee Fleming star as Count Danilo and Hanna in dazzling production

There is no better tonic for the tragic and traumatic events in Paris than a night in its greatest era, La Belle Epoque, in 1905, as depicted in Lyric Opera's New-to-Chicago production of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow."

Lyric creative consultant Renee Fleming stars as the irrepressible Hanna Glawari. Lyric favorite Thomas Hampson stars as Count Danilo, an old flame and reluctant object of her current affections.
The production runs through Dec. 13 with 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition winner and Lyric Ryan Opera Center alum Nicole Cabell taking over the starring role for the final three performances Dec. 9-13.

The performance is full of life and laughter, with abundant romantic clinches and complications. With a spectacular production and sometimes acrobatic dancing directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman,  lavish sets by Julian Crouch (both in their Lyric debut), elaborate costumes by William Ivey Long, and inspired conducting by Conductor and Lyric Music Director Sir  Andrew Davis in the pit, this was a thoroughly delightful evening.

The libretto for The Merry Widow by Viktor Leon and Leo Stein is based on the comedy L'attache d'ambassade written in 1861. Originally sung in German, it is translated here by Jeremy Sams and performed with supertitles above the stage of the Ardis Krainik Theatre.  Although spoken and sung in English, the supertitles seemed necessary because at times, the amplified speaking parts were muffled and some of the sung words could not be understood over extended vocal and orchestral lines.

The plot is a simple one. In fact, it provides just enough to drape Franz Lehar's sumptuous score around. Beautiful Hanna is newly widowed. Her husband has left a fortune behind, quoted often in the opening act setup as "twenty million"(euros? dollars?, but, you get the idea). In fact, her newly gained fortune is enough to rescue her fictitious homeland of Pontevedrian from bankruptcy. The ambassador from that country sets the wheels in motion to find her a proper husband from her homeland. The free-wheeling widow has another suitor in mind, the confirmed bachelor Count Danilo, played and sung brilliantly by Thomas Hampson. His entry onstage is one of the great comedic moments in opera. The mark of the Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Stroman is all over this production. Comedic timing is perfect throughout, with Hampson leading the way.

Renee Fleming is in top form, delivering a commanding performance. The high point, of course, is her performance of the familiar aria "Vilja." It was finished with a dramatic flourish that seemed to ring throughout the hall. It brought a well deserved ovation.

Supporting cast members weighed in with some memorable moments; Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi in his Lyric debut as the pompous Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Mirko Zeta and Heidi Stober as his young wife, Valencienne, also in her Lyric debut.

The Merry Widow, through December 13. For information, visit www.lyricopera.org.

Thursday, November 5, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times

NEW YORK--Evgeny Kissin is appearing at Carnegie Hall in two sold-out recitals this week, the first pianist to perform dual concerts there in a single week since Vladimir Horowitz in 1979. His first performance brought record attendance, prompting the seating of more than a hundred lucky patrons onstage. An encore performance will be heard  on Friday, November 6 at 8pm. For more information, visit carnegiehall.org.

Evgeny Kissin's program of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and the Spanish composers Albeniz, Larregla and possible encores of Granados, will be heard at Chicago's Symphony Center Sunday,  November 15 at 2pm. For information, visit cso.org.

In his Carnegie Hall performance, the enthusiastic audience literally enveloped onstage and off  as he strode onstage before the capacity crowd. He got directly to the business at hand, delivering a concise reading of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major. His deft fingering layed out the playful opening melody with a light touch that allowed him to gently increase its intensity. Accompanying themes grew more defined in the left hand as the first movement, Allegro moderato unfolded.

The most exquisite moments were to follow in the Andante cantabile in which he allowed the central theme to literally sing forth, filling the acoustically perfect space with the most celestial of sounds. The Allegretto literally danced beneath his lithe touch, which ended with a graceful flourish.

Kissin seemed most at home with Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23, appropriately named "Apassionata." Kissin found the beating heart of this masterpiece of the Romantic piano repertoire. There was long and artful development of the central thematic line of the Allegro assai, building to a crescendo that burst, then faded like fireworks against a nighttime sky. Andante con moto was more dance-like with spirited movement, just as Beethoven intended. Again, Kissin's strong fingers brought forth the light quick-step of the melody while conveying a sense of the dramatic elements to follow. He pulled out all the stops in the final movement, Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast), was Kissin's opportunity to showcase the full dynamic force of his playing. At first restrained, building the increasingly complex thematic material in the left hand,  while executing beautifully embellished cascading arpeggios in the right. It all erupted in a dazzling display of virtuosic prowess.

Following the interval, Kissin bore his Romantic soul in Johannes Brahms' Three Intermezzos. His contemporaries referred to them as a "fountain of pleasure....filled with "poetry, passion, rapture and heartfelt emotion." Kissing summoned forth all that and more in his performance. He leaned forward, hovering above the keys as if listening patiently for the soul of the music's creator to speak to him.  The emotions he conjured forth were thusly heartfelt. There was a bittersweet quality to his playing that almost brought one to tears.

Isaac Albeniz' tone poems Granada, Cadiz, Cordoba and Astorias are the Spanish composer's version of tone poems, evoking the sights and  sounds of his homeland. Awash in impressionistic tonal brush-strokes, Kissin used his considerable skills to paint a musical portrait as only he can do.

The ensuing encores of fellow Spanish composer Enrique Granados; Quejas o la maja y el ruisenor, Andaluza and Brahms' familiar Hungarian Dance, No. 1, had them figuratively dancing in the aisles   as the happy and satisfied audience made its way toward the exits. 

This program repeats Friday, November 6 at 8pm at Carnegie Hall. 

Photo: Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


by Dwight Casimere

Johan Botha as Tannhauser and Eva-Marie Westbrook as Elisabeth

The Metropolitan Opera brought all of its vast resources into full focus to realize a superlative production of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser which will be seen in a Met Live HD Encore Presentation Wednesday, November 4 at 6:30pm local time. Check local listings for theatre locations.

Music Director James Levine led a finely drawn reading of Wagner's lush orchestration, emphasizing the central theme, the hymn sung by the pilgrims which would be repeated at several key points throughout the opera, building the passages slowly. He allowed the magnificent Wagnerian horns to ring out, while coaxing sweet sounds from the woodwinds and somber, dramatic passages from the strings.

The vocal ensemble was among the best to be presented on the Met stage this season. Tenor Johan Botha shined as the knight minstrel Tannhauser. His brilliant voice changed in character throughout the performance; at first proclaiming his youthful ardor for Venus, sung with voluptuous tones by Michelle DeYoung, then moving into more dramatic territory, alternately reflecting despair and emotional trauma as he struggled with his conflicting emotions.

Eva-Marie Westbrook gave the most impressive performance in the demanding role of Elisabeth, the object of Tannhauser's affection.
The opera tells of Tannhauser's early existence in the subterranean lair of Venus, who continues to lure him back with her siren song at several key points in the opera. 
Tannhauser longs for Elisabeth and enters into a singing 'duel' with Wolfram, sung by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. His Song to the Evening Star is one of the high points of the opera.

James Levine's conducting and the performances by the opera chorus and orchestra were exceptional. The camera work by Live In HD Director Barbara Willis Sweete focused in on the soloists at key moments, showing the brilliant playing of the Wagnerian horns and the exceptional dexterity of the harpist, who figured quite prominently in the solo sung by Peter Mattei.

Costumes by designer Patricia Zipprodt, were outstanding and reflective of both the Medieval period of the story and the specific nature of the characters. Some of the costumes, according to Zipprodt in an intermission interview with Live In HD Host and Met soprano Susan Graham, dated back to the original production by Otto Schenk in 1977.

Set design by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler provided a nuanced landscape that effectively charted Tannhauser's pilgrimage toward redemption.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus is a key element in the success of this sweeping production. Chorus Master Donald Polumbo made the pilgrim  theme a thrilling moment. 
For more information on Met Live In HD Tannhauser, visit metopera.org or fathom events.com.

Friday, October 30, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

 Conductor Semyon Bychkov leading the New York Philharmonic with (below) soloists Lisa Batyiashvili on Violin and Gautier Capucon on Cello (photos: Tina Fineberg for The New York Times)

NEW YORK--The esteemed Russian-American conductor Semyon Bychkov conducted an enthralling program that viewed the wide-ranging compositions of Johannes Brahms through three prisms; first through the eyes of a modern composer, then, as a showcase for two string virtuosos, and, finally, as the enduring voice of conservative Romanticism as spawned by Beethoven at the beginning of the 19th century.

The concert began with German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie' Heliogravure for Orchestra. Thanks to the leadership of Music Director Alan Gilbert, a champion of new music, its not an uncommon occurence for the works of modern composers to be presented in season repertory. The sight of living composers to arise from the audience to receive accolades for their work has become an almost weekly occurrence.

German composer Detlev Glanert's Brahms-Fantasie makes music reference to Brahms' Symphony No. 1, which is performed later in the program.(If one listens closely, there are also the opening strains of Wagner's Parsifal. The composer was Brahms' nemesis.) The work is subtitled "A Heliogravure for Orchestra," which, I later learned, was a reference to a 19th century photographic technique in which phtographs are painted over with a chemical substance which essentially transforms its visual and material.

As confounding as the Brahms-Fantasie may have been for some listeners, the Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra with young Geoirgian megastar Lis Batiashvili playing her 1739 Guarneri del Gesu violin and French virtuoso Gautier Capucon playing his rare 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello, was a sheer delight. To say the performance was exquisite is an understatement. This was the most gratifying performance thus far this season, even surpassing Lang Lang's impassioned brilliance on Opening Night. 

This was music-making at its finest, with the orchestra, its conductor and the soloist in complete sympatico. Batiashvili and Capucon finished each other's musical phrases the way long-time lovers finish each other's sentences. Their ringing tones at times emulated each other and Bychkov's deft handling of the orchestra took great pains not to overshadow them, but to provide both a framework and a spiritual reference that  highlighted the colorful playing of the two soloists.

 Even principal orchestra members got into the spirit of things by playing long, heartfelt solos; principal oboist Liang Wang and concert master Frank Huang. 

The woodwinds and Batiashvili traded passages that were among the most sensitive and the cello and orchestra played spirited passages both separately and in unison.

 The height of the performance was when Batiashvili and Capucon played intertwining passages that sounded like two lovebirds in full flight.

Brahms' Symphony No. 1 is the Evander Holyfield of all symphonies. When it arrived in the U.S. a year after its European premiere, it set off an intense rivalry between the esteemed conductors and intense controversy among critics.

Bychkov and the New York Philharmonic rose nobly to the occasion, setting out the pinderous thematic material with great deliberation.  The pounding pulse of the timpani provided backdrop shrouded in angst. The strings and horns further established the elegiac mood. 

 At times, the orchestra  rose to a collective voice, like a choir singing an impassioned requiem. The violins sang expressively in the ensuing Andante,  ending in hushed reverence as the oboe rendered its haunting theme. The clarinet, a beautiful instrument that is not heard often enough, took charge of the theme that introduced the Allegretto, with Bychkov skillfully building the orchestra to a finale that brought all of the thoroughbreds thundering home.

Thursday, October 29, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--"BURNT' is the latest offering to portray the bad/boy star chef phenomenon. Starring Tony (Elephant Man)  and four-time Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper, who received his latest nod from the Academy for his stellar work in Clint Eastwood's  American Sniper). and directed by TV's John Wells (ER, Third Watch, The West Wing, Shameless), the film lacks any of the punch and drama that you can see on any of Well's TV shows.

Cooper plays Adam Jones, a burned-ouot rock star chef who is battling drug addiction and is on-the-run from a pair of mobster who are dogging him for some old gambling debts. Along the way, he leaves behind a string of wrecked relationships and shuttered restaurant failures. The film centers on his last-ditch effort to redeem himself and earn a coveted Michelin star.

Beautifully filmed in New Orleans and London by 2009 Sundance Award-winning director Adriano Goldman, who is himself a noted director in Brazil, and edited by the stellar British director and editor Nick Moore, who did just about any British comedy/drama you ever loved  (starting with The Full Monty, the 1999 smash-hit Notting Hill, About a Boy, Love Actually), how could this project possibly have gone wrong?

The film has a stellar international cast that is largely wasted in this vehicle. Britain's  Emma Thompson (Remains of the Day, Howards End) plays Jones' therapist.  British/American hottie Sienna Miller (played opposite Cooper in American Sniper as wife Taya Renae Kyle, who co-wrote the source autobiography, American Wife: A Memoir of Love, Service, Faith, and Renewal, upon which the movie was based) is Jone's love interest. German actor Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) is his loyal sidekick and Welsh actor Mstthew Rhys (ABC's Brothers and Sisters, FX's The Americans, plays his arch-rival Reese. And, oh yes, Uma Thurman is thrown into the mix in a forgettable role.

Cooper played a similar role in a short-lived Tv version of Kitchen Confidential, but why bother to see his latest film when you can watch the real bad boys, like Gordon Ramsey of Alan Bourdain, or real-life do-or-die chef's competition on Top Shelf.

Compare Burnt to the recently screened documentary "For Grace" which was featured at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, and is headed for Video On Demand and limited release in art houses around the country, which portrays the struggles of real-life chef Chris Duffy, who battles the ghost of his parent's murder/suicide, divorce, emotional depression and crushing debt from his year's long effort to open his dream restaurant. Now that's the stuff of a dramatic film!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015


by Dwight Casimere

'Simply poetic' are the two words that best describe Jenni Olson's 2015 Sundance Selection, The Royal Road. This cinematic essay begins with a recollection, spoken in voice-over (we even get an official dictionary entry on the origin of the term), of the final scene of the Hollywood Classic "Sunset Boulevard," in which the central character begins to explain why he's been found face down in an aging Hollywood film legend's swimming pool, to intimations on California's colonial past and the conquest of Mexican territory from the Mexican-American to the Mission system created by Father Junipero Serro and the trail of blood and repression that became known as the 'Royal Road,' from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
 The director Jenni Olson in a pensive moment

 Scenes of Mission Dolores and Potrero Hill in San Francisco

Olson's meandering journey of conscience and observation is beautifully shot in 16mm film, using breathtaking panoramas and Ansel Adams-like stills of the urban and pastoral landscape that marks the road and its distinctive Mission-bell signage. Along the way, Olson reflects on a never-realized lesbian love-affair (more like a case of sheer unrequited love than anything) and the tangential relationship between the almost never written or talked about Mexican- America War, which made My Lai look like a Sunday picnic. 
Her near hypnotic voice further creates an atmospheric portrait that connects the creation of the Mission system with nostalgic shots of Mission Dolores and romantic scenes of the pineapple tree-lined Dolores Street in San Francisco and beautiful shots of Dolores Heights, Potrero Hill and the Golden Gate Bridge.
 Director Jenni Olson-The Royal Road

Cinematographer Sophia Constantinou's images (she also shots Olson's debut effort, The Joy of Life), uses the images of barren urban landscapes, unpopulated streets and buildings and wide-angled highway and railway shots to convey the vastness and emptiness of the director's own internal landscape.  It's an unusual premise, but somehow it all works, and Olson's internal monologue leaps from the screen to captivate the soul. 

The Royal Road
Written and Directed by Jenni Olson
Narrated by Jenni Olson with a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner
65 minutes
Opens in New York City October 30
NYC Theatrical Run Anthology Film Archives
October 30-November 5
Filmmaker Jenni Olson in person at screenings the weekend of October 30

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Showy piano virtuoso digs deep into emotive sides of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Chopin

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--Piano megastar Lang Lang is known for his glitz at the piano, sometimes with acrobatics bordering on an Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis. He's been billed as charismatic and exuberant. At times, it can seem annoying.

Happily, none of those  histrionics were evident in his recent masterful performance on the Perlman Stage of Carnegie Hall. Lang Lang chose a more contemplative approach in which he revealed the emotive side of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in his almost Impressionistic The Seasons, Opus 37b, Tchaikovsky being another artist best known for his more dramatic and sometimes over-the-top  compositions.

Tchaikovsky's The Seasons is a set of suites in which the months are noted with situational settings. January, for example, is "By The Fireside, June, "Barcarolle" (referring to the lovely songs sung by the gondoliers in Venice), August is "Harvest." Lang Lang painted a musical portrait of each, using varied pressures of his supple fingers to emphasize interior melodies. Some of his most impressive playing was during the quieter moments, when he almost made the silence between passages ripple with emotion.

Italian Concerto, BWV 971 by Johann Sebastian Bach similarly showed the artist's full command of his Steinway. At times technically dazzling and alternating between exacting counterpoint and fluid expressionism, the piece commanded your attention at every turn.  This is a young artist who has truly turned the corner from youthful showman to mature practitioner.

Frederic Chopin's Scherzos are challenging to present, even by the most skilled of artists. The composer's blend of dazzling technique with contrasting introspection make them difficult to perform with any degree of integrity. Performers often sacrifice one element for the other, thus losing the overall dynamics of the music. Lang Lang found the perfect balance. His arpeggios were filled with a sense of revelation, with emotion building to a grand epiphany.There were flashes of  turbulence that would suddenly descend into a whisper. The effect was breathtaking.

The overflow audience was well armed with bouquets of flowers that were showered upon the artist as he raised his arms, almost as if in triumph. It was a grand  gesture which appropriately punctuated  his impactful performance.

Sunday, October 25, 2015



by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK---A unique opportunity to see two legends of the stage and screen on the same stage is "THE GIN GAME" NOW THROUGH JANUARY 10 on Broadway at the Golden Theatre. Starring James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by D.L. Coburn pits the 84 year old Jones and 90 year old Tyson as the mis-matched odd couple who find themselves thrown together in a dilapidated nursing home in God-knows-where. The two Tony Award-winning actors (Jones for The Great White Hope, Tyson for The Trip To Bountiful) are in top form as the sparring oldsters who meet over a begrudging game of Gin Rummy.

Jones, as the irascible Weller Martin lures newcomer Fonsia Dorsey, played with coy deftness by Cicely Tyson, into learning the finer points of the age-old game of Gin Rummy. The game turns out be a type of Rorschach Test for the human psyche of the two actors. We quickly learn that Martin/Jones is a poor loser and somewhat of a bully who, we later learn, was just a poor a loser in his personal life as he is at playing his beloved Gin Rummy, which he claims to be a master at. Fonsia/tyson, in her unassuming way, picks up the game right away and starts winning every hand. Martin gets more frustrated as the play unfolds and the ugly demons of his personality start to surface as Fonsia pricks away at his fragile ego by continuing the win.

By the play's mid-point, the friction between the two is so palpable, you could literally cut the bad air between them with a knife. Even though the plot is somewhat thin, the extraordinary acting skills of Tyson and Jones send this performance into the stratosphere, making it an electrifying experience. Credit Director Leonard Foglia with orchestrating the skillful pacing of this parlor drama.

The sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernandez excellently convey the throw-away, haphazard environment of the nursing home, which outwardly reflects the sociological positioning of the main characters as two elderly people, literally cast away by society like so much used and discarded furniture. Indeed. the card table which the Martin/Jones character uses to 'school' Fonsia is something he found behind the trash bins.

Tyson's character is not so fragile as one would initially believe. She challenges Martin and nearly pushes him over the emotional edge. There's a lingering feeling that there's much more to this play and the dramatic scenario it posits. Perhaps that's another play, yet to be written. Suffice  to say that the opportunity to see two such enduring legends on the same stage is not to be missed! For tickets and showtimes, visit telecharge.com

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Curated by New York Philharmonic The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence
Eric Owens

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere

 Eric Owens backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House and (below) as Alberich in Wagner's Das Rheingold

NEW YORK--"In Their Footsteps: Great African American Singers And Their Legacy" was a celebration by the New York Philharmonic of the legendary voices of artists of color from the last century; Marian Anderson, Betty Allen, William Warfield and George Shirley, who was in the audience to receive thunderous adulation.

 Curated by esteemed Metropolitan Opera Baritone and the Philharmonic's The Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence Eric Owens, the concert not only celebrated the voices of the past, but gave attendees an opportunity to hear some of the greatest black voices currently gracing concert stages and opera houses around the globe.

African American artists are no strangers to the New York Philharmonic Stage and its newly named David Geffen Hall. Marian Anderson appeared with the orchestra on multiple occasions before her historic debut at The Metropolitan Opera in 1955. William Warfield similarly, was a frequent and beloved figure on both stages. Yet, there is no denying, there is still much work to be done.

The concert featured a stellar cast of singers in repertory linked to each of the named legends. Most notable was the Philharmonic's long overdue debut of selections from Scott Joplin's opera "Treemonisha", an overture that masterfully blended classical motifs with ragtime, which was conducted with exhuberance by Conductor Thomas Wilkins in his New York Philharmonic debut.

Soprano Laquita Mitchell dazzled as the soloist in the 1910  aria, "The Sacred Tree."
Mitchell, in her New York Philharmonic Debut, is no stranger to opera lovers. She was hailed by the New York Times for her portrayal of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata in NewYork City Opera's 2012 season. She can also be seen on San Francisco Opera's DVD of her performance as Bess in Porgy and Bess, which opened their 2014 season.

 Soprano Laquita Mitchell with Eric Owens in the title roles in San Francisco Opera's Porgy and Bess

All of the singers have significant pedigree anda long list of operatic and symphonic triumphs with major orchestras and opera companies around the world.

 Besides being the Philharmonic's artist-in-residence, Eric Owens has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" as Alberich in the opera Das Rheingold in the 2010 season. He will appear as Orest opposite legendary Mezzo Soprano Waltraud Meyer in Richard Strauss's Elektra April 14-May 7, 2016 at the Met.

A two-time Grammy Winner (Best Opera 2012-Wagner's Der Ring, Deutsche Gramophone, 2011-Adams: Doctor Atomic, with the Met),   Owens is also the 2003 winner of the Marian Anderson Award and took First Prize in the Placido Domingo Operalia Competition.

Owens, who gave his own pre-curtain 'artist indisposed' speech, due to a bronchial condition, none-the-less sang brilliantly, reprising his own triumphs, and those of baritones past, in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess in a scintillating duet with Laquita Williams in "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now." He later channeled the late, great William Warfield in the show-stopping "Ol Man River"  from Jerome Kern's Show Boat.

Tenor Russell Thomas gave a commanding reading of the emotive lecture "Wrong Is Never Right" and soared in  "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem.

All of the singers gave stand-out performances, with each one eclipsing the previous.
Janai Brugger, the 2013 Placid Domingo Competition winner, gave a shimmering rendition of Bach's "Ave Maria."

The entire cast came together in a celebratory rendition of a selection from Aaron Copland; "Simple Gifts" from Old American Songs, historically premiered by William Warfield in 1955 at the Philharmonic, and later  famously recorded in by him in 1958. The orchestra concluded  with  Wilkins conducting a rousing Selection from Copland's Appalachian Spring Suite.

The Dorothy Maynor Singers of the Harlem School of the Arts made an impressive showing in their New York Philharmonic Debut.

It was a wholly satisfying evening that made one yearn for more representation of these great artists on the world's major musical stages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Thursday at Chicago Film Festival Profiles Personal Sacrifice for Dining Excellence, Abuse of Women in Palestine

Thursday October 22 lineup includes DOC Milano 2015, For Grace about Chicago super chef Curtis Duffy, and Degraded, a dramatic look at the turmoil in Palestine and its effect on women

by Dwight Casimere

Chef Curtis Duffy in the Documentary/Food film FOR GRACE, screening at Chicago Film Festival

The 51st Chicago International Film Festival continues with a Thursday, October 22 lineup that reprises some of the memorable titles of its opening week, such as Motley's Law (2:30pm)  and A Very Ordinary Citizen (4pm), but profiles the struggles of Michelin-starred Chicago Chef Curtis Duffy and his struggles to open his dream restaurant in FOR GRACE, screening at noon at the AMC River East 21. As seen through the cinematic eyes of Chicago Tribune James Beard nominated food critic Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski, the film documents the struggles of Duffy to perserver in the demanding world of haut cuisine restaurants against the backdrop of a troubled life. Plagued by personal demons in high school that led to him taking refuge in the kitchen, Duffy lost his wife and children and a huge chunk of his emotional stability and self-esteem to pursue his dream. Pang and Helenowski use their camera to probe deep below the emotional layers of a complex individual with more stamina and can-do spirit than he probably has lucky chances. It all adds up to a celebration of not only the art of cuisine, but a triumph of the human spirit against all offs. Screening at AMC River East 21 at 3:30pm with a repeat Monday, October 26 at 5:30pm.

The famed opera house La Scala is depicted in the Architecture Documentary  Milano 2015

The screening day begins at Noon with the Architecture Documentary Milano 2015. From producer  Cristiana Mainardi and a team of directors, incuding Roberto Bolle, Silvio Soldini, Walter Voltroni, Cristina Capotondi, Lionello Carri and Giorgio Divitto, the film is a sort of visual cinematic fresco that looks at the architectural, cultural and spiritual soul of the great architectural, artistic and industrial city of Mlan through the images of its fantastic building, its art and its people. The camera creates a collage of images from the highest skyscrapers in Milan, to the excellence of its theaters and the great opera house, La Scale, to the cloistered walls of a nunnery to the streets of Milan and the lingering faces of its habitu├ęs to the pristine countryside of Lambardi. The six directors combine their images and sensibilities to weave a varied portrait of an historic city and its variegated people. 103 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles. It screen Thursday, October 22 at noon.

A scene from the France/Palestine drama DEGRADE which is a World Cinema presentation

The piece de resistance of  Thursday's screenings is the France/Palestine chamber drama DEGRADE from directors Tarzan and Arab Nasser. The film takes place entirely in the cramped quarters of a beauty shop in the war-torn Gaza Strip. "Fried Green Tomatoes" it is not! The story features a panoply of Arab women trapped inside the beauty salon, attempting to go about their weekly beautification rituals while the vagaries of the political conflict outside are waged in varying degrees of danger. The ironies within are only overshadowed by the atrocities that occur without. Yet, the women continue their interpersonal banter, recounting failed affairs, miscarriages, loves lost, even illicit affairs. It's amazing how we westerners consider those in the Middle East so different, yet, to hear the stories of these women, except for the suicide bombs and gunfire outside (unless you're in Englewood or the West Side of Chicago), this slice-of-life drama could have happened anywhere. There's a ton of incongruous thoughts, actions and characters, which melds comedy with tragedy. Like the arduous resistance leader, hunted by Hamas, who sits outside the beauty shop attempting to woo its owner, a pet lion on a chain in tow, which he occasionally use to menace the women to get their attention. There's also the pregnant woman, constantly experiencing labor pains, whose set to deliver at any minute, while the war rages outside.

Then there's the drug addicted house wife, whose having an affair and encouraging the devout, prayerful woman-in-a-burka sitting next to her to try some artificial heroine. Another pair of women are getting all dolled up for either their weddings, or a date on the sly with a new beau. (It probably won't happen though. All the roads are closed by the constant combat outside.) Yet, they continue to get gussied up, even after the lights and power go out multiple times and the gunfire outside rages on with varying degrees of mounting personal danger.

If you're a devotee of foreign films and film festivals, you'll instantly recognize foreign film icon Hiam Abbass, a bit older, but still captivatingly beautiful! This film takes you right to the barricades of the Gaza Strip, with all its ironies, absurdities, comedy and tragedy, where you'll leave your heart. DEGRADE screens Thursday October 22 r 6:15pm, Friday October 23 at 8:30pm and Friday, October 28 at 12:30pm.


Met Season Opening production sheds new light on the plight of Shakespeare's fallen Moor in Verdi opera

by Dwight Casimere
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

NEW YORK--The Met Live HD performance of Giuseppe Verdi's OTELLO occurred several week's after the Season Opening Gala Performance of Broadway Tony Award winning director Bartlett Sher's black face-less production, so the controversy over the choice had died down. Therefore, audiences at this week's Live HD performance could simply sit back, relax and enjoy one of the finest renditions of the live cinema-for-opera medium, directed by veteran television Live Cinema Director Gary Halvorson (tv's Two and Half Men, ABC Sports). 
Having seen the production both live at the Met and in the movie theatre, it became apparent how readily Shakespeare's drama lends itself to the medium of Live Cinema.  Set to operatic libretto and orchestration by Guiseppe Verdi, with a set designed by Es Devlin, Costumes by Catherine Zuber, and production design by Luke Halls,  the production seemed to sparkle with renewed vitality when viewed through the dozen or so lenses of Halvorson's cameras and his team of directors. They employed camera angles from every corner of the opera house, from the raptors, to behind stage and used cameras on runners,  like those used to follow runners during the Olympics,  which Halvorson revealed in an interview in a film segment shown during the intermission about his behind-the-scenes camera work.
Met baritone Eric Owens was the superb backstage host and interviewer. His pre-broadcast comments set up the ensuing action  with insightful commentary and he had a brilliant command of the Russian, Serbian and Italian languages in introducing the singers and their characters in the production. His questions during the backstage interviews were well thought out and allowed the singers to elucidate their personal thoughts on the elements of the production. Its notable that the capacity movie-theatre audience listened with rapt attention to all of the backstage commentary and stayed on to watch the behind-the-scenes video on Gary Halverson and his crew's elaborate preparations and execution of  Met Live HD productions.
The use of Halvorson's cameras heightened the drama, especially in the early scenes when the singers are paired off in simultaneous exchanges where key points are made concerning the plot in parenthetic vocal statements. The camera was able to zero in on each of the paired singers, so that you could keep up with the action and the unfolding of Iago's devious plot. A sweeping slow pan of the chorus, meanwhile, made what was otherwise a very static stage setting on the Met stage, appear more mobile and visual join the cinematic setting. 
Aleksandrs Antonenko, with his stentorian voice and robust demeanor, could not have made for a more commanding Otello. His voice literally rang forth above all the others in the ensembles and his acting capabilities seemed light years above the somewhat wooden performance he gave on Opening Night. The fact that he was not in darkened makeup was of little concern, as one got deeper into the layers of the character as it unfolded in his superb portrayal. To tell you the truth, the time I saw Placido Domingo play the role some years ago, I found the getup distracting. Antonenko's appearance, in fact, is not too unlike that of many Moors I observed during my trip to Morocco a few years ago. If he were to walk down a street in Marrakech, he'd blend right in!
On with the rest of the production. The beauteous Sonya Yoncheva gave an intuitive portrayal of Desdemona. As she revealed in her backstage interview with Owens, she wanted to portray her character as a strong woman, who is firm in her conviction that she is innocent of the claims of infidelity engineered by Iago (Zeljko Lucic, in a deliciously villainous performance), and foolishly believed by the vainglorious Otello. Her Ave Maria
The unraveling of Otello's mental state is perfectly built up over the course of the opera as it swells toward its tragic conclusion. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin was masterful in his handling of Verdi's lush, multi-layered score. In other less-skilled hands, the music could have crushed the production under the sheer weight of its complexity. In Nezet-Seguin's capable hands, it was at times dark and forbidding, with flashes of light, that underscored the needless tragedy created by Iago's cunning, feeding on Otello's fragile, twisted ego. His (Iago's)  rueful declaration to the Cypriot's cry, praising the "Lion of Venice' as he stands over an Otello, crumpled by the weight of his encroaching insanity, "Behold The Lion!" is one of the high points of the operatic drama.
If you were already at the original MET LIVE HD cinema cast, it wouldn't hurt to see it again. I certainly plan to. Verdi's Otello, MET LIVE HD, Wednesday, October 21, 6:30 pm local time. Check local theatre listings. Visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads an inspired program of Grieg, Bartok and Sibelius

Reviewed by Dwight Casimere


NEW YORK--The Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin is one busy young conductor. Besides leading performances of Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, which recently concluded performances, he joined his 'home team' across town for the orchestra's first appearance of the season at Carnegie Hall. In every way, the performance bristled with excitement and suspense.

First, the suspense part. Orchestra members had just signed a new contract the day prior to the concert, which averted the possibility of a strike and cancellation of the concert. Nezet-Seguin himself has renewed his commitment to the orchestra with a deal that has him at the podium through the 2021-2022 season. So much for the behind-the-scenes cliff-hangers. The real drama unfolded on the stage of the Isaac Stern Auditorium with a thrilling program of Edward Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Bela Bartok's heroic Violin Concerto No. 2 with Philadelphia Orchestra favorite and Grammy-winner Gil Shaham as soloist and Jean Sibelius's stirring Symphony No. 5 in E-flat as the conclusion. It was an exciting evening of great, inventive music at every turn.

Nezet-Seguin is a conductor who finds the rhythmic heart of a piece and isn't afraid to break out in a sort of balletic dance at the podium to emphasize his point. He marshaled the full force of the orchestra's legendary brass section to give the "In The Hall of the Mountain King" section all of the pre-Halloween atmosphere it is famous for.

Gil Shaham used the full power of his interpretive skills to imbue Bartok's moody Violin Concerto with a sense of controlled passion. The music spans the breadth of human emotions and Shaham's playing expressed them with lucidity.

Sibelius's Symphony No. 5 is an almost impressionistic tone poem. Nezet-Seguin utilized all of the orchestra's superb soloists and section leaders to great advantage. He gave the piece a  luster that allowed each of its shifting themes to shine in the shimmering light. He built a dramatic tension throughout that showcased that famous "Philadelphia Sound."

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall for three additional programs this season. Visit carnegiehall.org for details.