Tuesday, March 28, 2017




Tenor Lawrence Brownlee as the tormented musical legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

CHICAGO--When Charles "Charlie, Yardbird" Parker, Jr. died at a mere 34 years of age  on March 12, 1955 in the Fifth Avenue co-op apartment of Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter of a drug overdose, complicated by heart failure, pulmonary pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver, shock waves rippled through the international jazz community. "The Bird" had flown, leaving behind a musical legacy that would both confound and entrance musicians and music lovers for decades to come and change forever both the face and perception of the music known as modern jazz.

'Bird' as he was affectionately known, led a short, but complicated life. First, there was the heroin addiction, brought on in his tender teen years by an auto accident that left him dependent on pain-killing morphine that morphed into heroin addiction, a readily available opiate on the jazz scene . When heroin wasn't available, Bird turned to alcohol, which impaired his judgement and led to erratic behavior that included infidelity, abandonment of his only surviving child, drunken run-ins with the law and eventual incarceration in a mental health facility.

 Strong meat for any biographical treatment and certainly unwieldy subject matter for a chamber opera of a scant 90 minutes long. But, Lyric Unlimited, the Broadway musical and modern opera arm of Lyric Opera Chicago, rose to the challenge and presented a searing. if at times, uneven,  local premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird by classical/jazz saxophonist and composer, the Swiss American Daniel Schnyder (Song For My Grandfather, Beep-Hop, Blues for Schubert) and poet-playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly (the award-winning poem Fire Walker and the play Saint Lucy's Eyes, a treatise on illegal abortion, poverty and forgiveness).  The work was presented off-site from Lyric's normal venue at the Civic Opera House, and was instead performed on the stage of the  Harris Theater in Millennium Park.

The Chicago Premiere featured much of the original cast, including opera superstar Lawrence Brownlee, singing a role tailor-made for him by the composer, the original Stage Director, Ron Daniels, Lyric Ryan Center alumnus Will Liverman as Dizzy  (John Birks) Gillespie, Parker's mentor and bandleader in New York's storied 52nd Street  and Harlem's Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. The mesmerizing Angela Brown as his self-sacrificing mother Addie, the luminous Rachel Sterrenberg as Parker's bohemian common-law wife, Chan,  Ryan Opera Center alumna Julie Miller as Parker's star-crossed patron Baroness Nica and Angela Mortellaro as his neglected first legal wife Doris (whom he never divorced) and subsequent liaison and abandoned partner Rebecca,  round out the stellar cast. There was a sublime moment near the end of the opera when Brownlee's Parker reached an epiphanal moment, invoking the words of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar ("I know why the caged bird sings...") before resurging into the hereafter. It is a powerful moment that grounds and otherwise fragmented story line.

There is much to like in this production of Yardbird in spite of its flaws. Exceptional stagecraft by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, and lighting designer Scott Zielinski, employ video panels and  lighting to evoke the layered, noir milieu of Harlem in the 1940s. Images of  the era's jazz legends appear on the video panels that spell out "Birdland," indelibly cementing the drama in its time period. Brownlee's rich, multi-textured bel canto voice soared through the composer's complex vocal runs into a falsetto range that would have dashed many a tenor to terra firma from the score's searingly high reaches. Brownlee navigated the treacherous path with ease, like an experienced pilot soaring to cruising altitude in the stratosphere. Composer Schnyder wisely avoided the trap of sounding cliched by incorporating too much of Parker's explosive musical complexity's,  instead incorporating bits and pieces of familiar riffs into a  tapestry of jazz, blues, gospel and scat. I  believe the correct modern musical term would be 'sampling,' now a common and recognized practice. At times, the recitative drug things along, as it does in many operas that employ this story-vamping technique, but the superb singing and spirited conducting by Kelly Kuo of the 16 piece orchestra ensemble in the pit quickly brought things to life. (A scheduling conflict due to the Lyric's regular performances at the Civic Opera House precluded the use of Lyric Opera Orchestra members in this production. But the pros on hand did a yeoman's job.)

Most audience members who came out for the pair of weekend performances at the Harris were probably already filled-in on at least the basics of Parker's brief, but multi-faceted life, filled and its simultaneous triumph and tragedy. The authors chose to give only a free-handed sketch of the artist's life, told from the standpoint of Parker, appearing onstage initially, as a rain-drenched apparition, then  shedding his raincoat to reveal a dashing period suit with his signature horn, singing and scatting with swagger to match. It's an epic performance that truly deserved more than its brief two-day run.

The work had its world premiere in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia and was subsequently premiered the following year in New York at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, and at Madison Opera, Wisconsin. The production will have its London Premiere in June at the celebrated English National Opera, for five performances June 9-17. If you missed the Chicago run, you might want to work this engagement of "Yardbird" into your summer vacation plans.

NOTE: Lawrence Brownlee and Lyric Opera and Metropolitan Opera bass/baritone star Eric Owens appear in recital April 9 at 3pm on the stage of the Civic Opera House. Visit lyric opera.org for tickets and information.

 'bird serenades his namesakes in the chamber opera Charlie Parker's Yardbird
Photo: Dominic M.  Mercier/Opera Philadelphia
 Diz with his crew backstage at Town Hall in 1947 with trumpeter Tadd Dameron, pianist Hank Jones and vocalist Mary Lou Williams with Milt Orent, who co-composed with Williams the jazz classic "In The Land of Oo-Bla-Bee"
 Dis with his band in 1947, with Miles Davis on trumpet, Charlie Parker and Cecil Payne on saxes. John Lewis on piano, Max Roach on drums and Ray Bryant on bass
 Charlie Parker on sax (l) with Miles Davis (c) at the Three Deuces in 1945
 "Diz" (r) looks on dreamily as Ella Fitzgerald (c) scats with her then-husband Ray Brown on bass (rear) in 1947
 The townhouse in the East Village across from Tompkins Square Park where Bird lived with his wife  Chan
 Dizzy warming up for a concert in Town Hall in 1955. He got the idea for his crooked horn when his original was damaged at a night club party for his wife Lorraine. He liked the sound from the bell bent at a 45 degree angle, so he had his subsequent trumpets made with the defect, which became his trademark
Charlie Parker's gravestone at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit, Missouri, a pilgrimage site for many Parker devotees

Friday, March 17, 2017


Encore Presentation Wednesday, March 29, 6:30pm local time

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK--One of the distinct triumphs of the 2016-2017 Metropolitan Opera is the current production of Mozart's masterpiece Idomeneo, which opened March 6 and will be transmitted in movie theaters worldwide, Saturday, March 25 at 12:55pm ET with an Encore Presentation, Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30pm local time. Check local listings of visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com for further details.  The matinee performance transmission will be hosted by the Met's esteemed bass-baritone star Eric Owens, and will be seen in 2,000 movie theaters in 71 countries.

Matthew Polcenzani delivers a spectacular performance in his Met role debut as  Idomeneo, the King of Crete, who has been fighting on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War.  with Nadine Sierra as Ilia, the captive Trojan princess, in her role debut. Elza van den Heever is  Princess Elettra, the jealousy-driven daughter of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, who has taken refuge in Crete after killing her mother, Clytemnestra, in revenge for her father's death. Nadine Sierra is Illia, Idameneo's love interest, and the source of Elettra's growing enmity.

Alice Coote shines in the 'trouser role' as Idomeneo's son Idamante. Alan Opic brings his rich baritone voice and dramatic gravitas to his role as Arbace, Idomeneo's confidant.

The music in Idomeneo is ravishingly beautiful. Michael Polenzani's silver-toned voice and Alice Coote's agile coloratura make for an engaging and satisfying afternoon of great opera. The singing is spectacular.

The opera itself is a difficult one to stage. It is written in the form of opera seria, a static format where the singing is bridged by lengthy recitative. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's imaginative staging, which premiered at the Met in 1982, gives the production some visual depth, that heightens the sense of drama. Revival Stage Director David Kneuss and Lighting Designer Gil Wechsler deserve a considerable amount of credit for the success of this production. The imaginative use of staging, lighting, and great singing are irresistible and make this one of the highlights of the season. All that, with the Met's legendary Music Director James Levine conducting in the orchestra pit, and you have a perfect match.

A giant image of the god Neptune looms in the background over the entire proceeding. Kudos to Met bass-baritone Eric Owens, who also doubles as the Live HD Host, and his booming voice, for a sterling cameo that provides the final dramatic note. Go see it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017



by Dwight  Casimere

 Composer John Adams (center, in glasses) with the NY Philharmonic and NY Philharmonic Strings
(Below) conducting the NY Philharmonic on the occasion of his 70th birthday/Dwight Casimere photo
 John Adams addressing the Philharmonic audience and (below) in rehearsal (Getty Images)

NEW YORK--Composer John Adams gave a virtual Master Class at the New York Philharmonic's recent regular subscription program of his Absolute Jest for String Quartet and Orchestra, which featured the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, comprised of four Principal musicians from the Orchestra, in their orchestra debut as a solo ensemble. He opened the concert by taking center stage to make remarks before Music Director Alan Gilbert conducted the performance, which marked the work's Philharmonic premiere.

"This is coming full circle for me," the composer began. "I can recall playing clarinet in a concert marking the 70th birthday of my favorite composer, Aaron Copland. Now its my own turn to have my compositions presented by this great orchestra which is celebrating my 70th birthday this season."

The composer went on to explain how the work, Absolute Jest. is a takeoff on the later string quartets composed by Beethoven. He then had the New York Philharmonic String Quartet play excerpts from  the Beethoven, and spoke of the parallels between the two. "What we hear in the Beethoven is the element of emphasis, which was new at the time. I took that emphasis and filtered it through the 'black box' of my own modernist, minimalist compositional style and arrived at Absolute Jest. I'll let you rock out on the New York Philharmonic playing it," he joked to the audience.

What followed was a dramatic, cacophonous piece of music with a continuous, pulsing percussion, and a series of bouncing lines from the string quartet, that Adams characterized as "lie a rabbit, or a hare, leap with great alacrity." The piece contains a number of musical 'jokes' and humorous, melodic winks to the works of Beethoven and others. Its a delight to the ears and one which commands the listeners attention from beginning to end. There are no dull moments, not even in the brief blow movement, which is layered with textures of sound and melody from both the orchestra and the string quartet.

Harmonielehre is a similarly orchestrally complex and interesting piece of music, with added dynamics from a specially tuned piano, two harps, cowbells, xylophone, chimes, sizzle cymbals, celeste, crash cymbals, tam-tams and celeste. Its a parody of a piece that with explosive energy and bright tonal colors. The overall impact is satisfying on so many levels and made for one of the most vibrant concerts of the current season.

Friday, March 10, 2017



by Dwight Casimere
Photos courtesy Metropolitan Opera

One of the world's most popular operas will be transmitted live in select movie theaters around the globe.  Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata will be transmitted live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday, March 11 at 12:55pm with an Encore Performance in theaters Wednesday, March 15 at 6:30pm local time. The opera is sung in Italian with English subtitles. Visit metopera.org or fathomevents.com for theater locations and tickets.
Starring Met soprana Sonya Yoncheva, reprising her hit role as Violetta, the doomed heroine of Verdi's most treasured masterpiece. Popular Met tenor Michael Fabiano is her frustrated lover Alfredo and ever-popular veteran Met baritone Thomas Hampson is his disapproving father. Nicola Luisotti conducts the sterling Metropolitan Opera orchestra from the pit in an eye-popping minimalist production by Willy Decker. which created a sensation at Salzburg in 2005.
The story of La Traviata is based on a French play adapted from the novel Camille by the great Alexandre Dumas. It tells of the famous courtesan Violetta Valery, who, in the opening scene, gives a party to celebrate her recovery from an illness. Gaston, a viscount, brings to the party a good friend, Alfredo Germont (Michael Faviano), who as long admired her from afar.
Violetta's current lover, Baron Douphol, is asked to give a toast, but declines.  The crowd turns to Alfredo, who agrees to sing a brindisi – a drinking song (Alfredo, Violetta, chorus: Libiamo ne' lieti calici – "Drink from the joyful cup"). Before the first plaintive strains of music are heard in Verdi's "La Traviata," a gentleman with long white hair and beard to match takes his seat next to a giant clock at the side of the Metropolitan Opera stage. This is the character, Doctor Grenvil, performed by veteran Met bass-baritone James Courtney. The character sits silently throughout the opera, as if an ominous precursor for the tragedy to come. His character, and the giant clock, loom over Violetta as her story of feigned gaiety devolves into tragedy. Doctor Grenvil is  the specter of fate.
This production of Ls Traviata is fast-paced and exciting with dazzling choreography by Athola Farmer, visually exciting costumes and sets by Wiolfgang Gussmann and mood-setting lighting by Hans Toelstede. This production is what modern opera is all about and definitely worth seeing live on Saturday, March 11. You might want to get tickets to bring a friend whose never seen opera, This would be a great introduction.
The HD broadcast of "La Traviata," starring soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta, tenor Michael Fabiano as Alfredo and baritone Thomas Hampson as his father, with Nicola Luisotti conducting, will be shown starting at 12:55 p.m. EST on Saturday. A list of theaters can be found at the Met's website: metopera.org/hd.
In the U.S., it will be repeated on Wednesday, March 15, at 6:30 p.m. local time.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017



by Dwight Casimere

Kinetic energy, explosive energy and supreme creativity marked the opening night performance of the Sydney Dance Company at New York's  Joyce Theater March 7-12. The performance included the works of three contemporary choreographers in their New York Premieres; Wildebeest,  by Australian choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell, in her first collaboration with the company, Raw Models, by the internationally acclaimed Italian choreographer Jacopo Godani,  and Frame of Mind, by Sydney Dance Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. 

Gabrielle Nonkivell's Wildebeest is an evolutionary journey through physical morphosis, time and physical landscape. In the choreographer's own words "the wildebeest as image morphs easily between living animal and fanciful creature." The dancers move in lightning quick fashion in a series of movements that at once transmit inner thoughts and sensory perception through a series of landscapes punctuated by flickering lights and the background sounds of an impending storm. The persistent writhing and shape-shifting movements manifests the transformation of the dancer's physical being as they move through space and time. Individual performances were punctuated by imaginative and, at times, disturbing ensemble dancing. The Opening Horse Solo by Bernhard Knauer set the tone for the evening. The audience was in for a night of the unexpected and extraordinary. Charmene Yap in the Wildebeest Solo displayed movements that can only be described as super-human. The work is a commentary on how every moment in time is separate and distinct from its predecessor and how our thoughts and physical beings are simultaneously transformed.

Jacopo Godani's Raw Models similarly uses dance as a means to explore deep psychological conflicts between our alter egos; the ones that live inside our minds that reflect our core values and those that are shaped by the principles and ideas of others. The restless movements of the dancers depict the struggle of the individual to move instinctively through a system that forces structure and suppresses creativity. 

Frame of Mind by Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela showed off the strengths of the company and its individual dancers with flair. The work developed from his own experience of wanting to be in two places at once and the inner conflict and complexity that it creates. The work celebrates strength, but also communicates the vulnerability and fragility of us all.  Once again, Bernard Knauer dazzled with his undulating, athletic moves. Todd Sutherland, as well, displayed the type of athleticism that makes watching Sydney Dance a mesmerizing experience. The performers in the Sydney Dance Company are robust and energetic with a physical vocabulary that often defies the conventional wisdom of body structure and movement. Indeed, several of the dancers could easily be mistaken for athletes on any number of playing fields. They are a marvel to behold and challenge are own perceptions of the boundaries that separate our inner thoughts from our outer actions. 

Sydney Dance Company  has been led since 2009 buy its Spanish-born Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela and resides and performs in its studios at The Wharf inn Sydney's Walsh Bay, a stone's throw from Sydney's famed Harbour Bridge and Opera House. They perform at The Joyce through March 12. Visit joyce.org. for information.


Monday, March 6, 2017


Veteran dance duo presents a tour de force of contemporary dance that summarizes their vast experience

by Dwight Casimere

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks with Dwight Casimere (c)
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks in performance of Some of a Thousand Words

NEW YORK-- The Joyce Theater in Chelsea was the setting for a landmark performance of an orginal work, Some of A Thousand Words, a collaborative project of veteran dancers Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks with the musical accompaniment of the astonishing Brooklyn Rider string quartet. The work is a co-commission of The Joyce Theater Foundation's Stephen and Cathy Weinroth Fund for New York, along with The Knetucky Center for the Arts,  the Modern Centr for the Arts at University of Richmond and The International Festival of Arts and Ideas New Haven. Featuring music by Philip Glass, John Luther Adams, Colin Jacobsen, Tyondal Braxton and Jacob Cooper, Some of A Thousand Words clearly shows the power of dance to communicate deep emotions and complex human inter-relationships.

Both Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks bring a wealth of dance experience to the table in their performnce. She, a veteran principal dancer with New York City Ballet in a career that spanned 30 years, 23 as principal dancer. Her resume includes work With Jerome Robbins and performances of virtually every major Balanchine role. A Dance Magazine Award winner in 2007, she has received both the Jerome Robbins Award and a Bessie Award for her Sustained Achievement in Performance.

Brian Brooks has an equally laudable career as Choreographer, Director and Performer. Recently appointed as the Inaugural Choreographer in Residence at Chicago's prestigious Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Brooks is also the recipient of a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Brooklyn Rider is a contemporary string quartet  which toured with composer,/singer and multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Kahane last season with music from their 2016 collaborative album The Fiction Issue. This season, Brooklun Rider releases their new CD So Many Things with mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, an album of contemporary music featuring pieces composed by John Adams,  Colin Jacobsen and Elvis Costello, among others. Easily, the group could have presented their own concert and received the rapt attention of the audience.

The combination of Whelan, Brooks and Brooklyn Rider was mesmerizing. Brooks and Whelan used their fluid movements to evoke a series of complex moods and  story lines that explored the dynamics of relationships and the solitary journey of souls seeking to connect even in the face of complex emotional obstacles.The work was presented in a seamless uninterrupted hour that seemed to fly by in an instant. The combination of music and movement was all-engrossing and ended much too soon. At the conclusion of Fast Fall, with music composerd by Philip Glass, in his String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima), the audience reaction was a stunned silence, followed by a rapturous ovation.

There's no substitute for deeply rooted experience and both Whelan and Brooks have it in spades. Their collaboration is unique in terms of its depth and creativity. It is deeply absorbing and lingers long in the psyche, well after the sound of the applause has died and the lights have dimmed onstage.