Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ASO's performance of Verdi's 'Aida' is riveting ...

Soprano Latonia Moore singing the role of Aida in Thursday’s ASO 
performance of “Aida.”      -Photo, Jeff Roffman

By James L. Paulk - For the AJC

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season is ending on a very high note with a concert version of Verdi’s “Aida.” This was simply the finest opera performance in Atlanta this season.

Prior to Thursday’s concert, it was not obvious why the orchestra would want to perform “Aida.” It’s a work that cries out for a gigantic production on a large stage, with massive sets and an army of supernumeraries. And it was presented here only four years ago by the Atlanta Opera. Their staging was underwhelming due to financial constraints, but their musical performance was a triumph. So why, in a city whose resident opera company is down to three operas a year, must we get the same opera so soon?
If this performance did not fully answer that question, it did give Atlanta a sense of what it’s like to experience real world-class opera. Latonia Moore has become the Aida of choice today, and her performance here was electrifying. The voice is simply immense yet capable of the finest pianissimo, grounded in solid technique. Her high notes are lustrous, with an old-fashioned weeping sound. Even in a concert performance, she is riveting to watch.
Our Radames, Stuart Neill, lacks the traditional ringing Italian tenor sound, but his is an original voice. He has a darker, almost baritonal timbre in the middle register and the high notes are solid. More important here, he has the massive power to sing opposite Moore.
Mezzo Michelle deYoung portrayed Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter. Her dark-hued voice filled the room with exquisite sound. Baritone Gordon Hawkins was a noble Amonasro. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili generally held his own as Ramfis. Evan Boyer, as the Pharaoh, has a rich sound hampered by a lack of focus, though this improved over the course of the night. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown sang the High Priestess role nicely from behind the orchestra.
Armed with these gigantic voices, ASO music director Robert Spano unleashed a big, thrilling torrent of sound. And here is where the ASO’s advantages came into play: The orchestra is larger than all but the biggest opera orchestras; its chorus is gigantic, with a sound unmatched by any opera chorus in America; and an orchestra on stage, rather than in a pit, has a bigger and more distinct presence. It all came together, though, because of Spano’s command of the score. Every minute came alive, punctuated by real thunder from outside right at the very moment the priests had prayed for divine intervention.

Atlanta is opera-deprived, and one reason is that the ASO in its well-deserved glory has come to take up all the oxygen, leaving the Atlanta Opera, our scrappy little opera outpost, to struggle. The opera company’s budget of about $5 million is dwarfed by the ASO’s budget of $40 million. In Atlanta’s peer cities, these amounts are roughly equal. The result is that we don’t get to hear much opera. Performances like this one serve the purpose of letting Atlanta hear why it’s worth investing in this admittedly costly art form.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tale of Two Cities: Two Performances of One Monumental Work

Photo - Brianne Turgeon
When long-time members of the ASOC prepare Benjamin Britten's War Requiem for current performance, the talk inevitably turns to Berlin 2003.  The spirit of those Berlin performances still inhabits our collective consciousness, and the experience remains an important milestone in the history of the ASOC:  an amateur chorus takes its vaunted reputation for choral excellence on the road, to one of the most culturally demanding cities on earth. The 'magic' at the Berlin Philharmonie included the warm (if somewhat surprised) welcome from the Berlin Philharmonic musicians ... a week of demanding rehearsals, punctuated by visits to the Gendarmenmarkt ... remarkable meals at the Philharmonie backstage canteen ... capped by three nights of enraptured audiences delaying their applause while Mr. Runnicles held them, long seconds after the last murmured 'Amen' had disappeared into the ether.

Our invitation to Carnegie Hall, to be the centerpiece of the NYC Britten festival, was, in part, a nod to those historic Berlin performances.  But, although the Philharmonie experience belongs in the Palace of Choral Experiences, the ASOC's reputation doesn't rest on a memory; it is built on solid choral discipline and musicianship, a commitment we renew each season.  The chorus is much like the man poised beside Heraclitus' river:  'No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.'  We approach every work, new and familiar, with the same rigor, but with each subsequent performance, there is new intelligence, new subtext, new goals, all of which ignite a wholly different and exciting interpretation.   Our understanding of this commitment keeps us moving forward as an entity,  The fact is, we can still sing Britten's War Requiem as well as it can be sung by anybody ... but performing it with our own orchestra, and with Mr. Spano, was the opportunity to 'step into a new river', to deliver unique, memorable performances in both Atlanta and New York.

I see two forces illustrated here:  the orchestra and its chorus have a responsibility to protect the cultural legacy founded here in Atlanta (invoking another spirit, that of Mr. Shaw).  We also strive to surpass ourselves, which is, in the eyes of the world, a validation of how seriously we undertake that responsibility.



The ASO Carnegie Hall performance, under the direction of Mr. Spano, can be listened to here:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Franchise Player Knocks It Out of the Park

This is what puts people in seats for a classical music concert. This is what keeps them coming back. This is what builds the organization artistically, structurally, spiritually, and as a consequence, financially. It starts with this – with the art and the artist.
The interpretation doesn’t necessarily have to be revelatory, it’s communication that matters. That ability to communicate is a very special gift: a disciplined harnessing of technique in service to the music while retaining spontaneity of expression and generating an emotional involvement that expands out into the audience, drawing them in and making them active participants in the performance.
ASO concertmaster David Coucheron was soloist tonight in the Mendelssohn Concerto, with guest conductor Roberto Abbado. David is a performer, and if you have only heard him from the bleacher seats in his normal role, you owe it to yourself to go hear him in this other capacity. It’s a conservative performance, without a lot of overly-romanticized gestures. But more importantly than that, it’s a performance that communicates. The obligatory standing ovation that greets the end of every concerto played in Symphony Hall these days was in this case spontaneous and heartfelt. He’s an engaging personality and he gets the audience on the side of the home team. And that is what it’s all about.
At the third curtain call, following some sincere and well-chosen words, he played the Paganini Caprice No. 7 for an encore. I think the audience would have been content to stay for the twenty-three others, but the soloist still had two Mendelssohn concerts ahead (see below). However, I certainly hope the objective of putting those few critical minutes on the clock was achieved…
There was some other music on the program – but this was the main event, and it should have been a highly instructive event for anyone charged with the administrative future of the organization. I can guarantee nearly everyone who came tonight will make it a point to come the next time David plays a concerto. And they will get the word out to others.
So then why were there so many empty seats tonight? It’s not like he just appeared on the scene, and if there was any doubt about the draw he has quickly become, all you had to do was observe how many people left at intermission. Hard even for the “Lone Ranger” to complete with David and Mendelssohn. So it seems there’s a disconnect somewhere. Unfortunately, I also had to leave due to work schedule, but I suspect the house, which appeared to be about 75% sold to start, was probably down to about 50% after intermission – not very encouraging for those remaining on stage.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for the next two concerts. David’s still growing as an artist and interpreter and we may not be able to keep him forever, so enjoy now while you can. And go as well for the Berio and Rossini pieces. Please get to Symphony Hall and support our ASO: Saturday, March 9 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 3:00 p.m.
After all, how many times will you get to see a grand slam?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Riverside Chamber Players - March 3 at 3:00 PM

The Riverside Chamber Players will present the final concert of their 2012-2013 season this Sunday, March 3, at 3:00 PM in the sanctuary of Bridge to Grace Church, 2385 Holcomb Bridge Road, Roswell, 30076. The program will include a variety of works for strings, guitar, piano, and percussion, by old and new composers, including Bach, Handel, and Golijov.

The highlight will be a new piano trio by Mark Gresham. You may know Mark as the artsATL music critic, but his compositions have been performed internationally. RCP commissions at least two chamber works every season, with a focus on Atlanta-based composers. This is Mark's first commission for RCP and we're all looking forward to it. Come join us and be part of a very special premiere!

Since Mark can't review his own piece, and I can't review because I'm on the RCP board, if you want to find out what happened at the concert you will just have to attend! As an incentive, a fantastic wine, cheese, and dessert reception catered by ASOC alto Linda Morgan follows the program. Meet the musicians and enjoy some excellent food and drink in an informal setting.

Tickets are $15/Adult, $10 Seniors (55+), and FREE for Children/Students/Music Educators. Tickets are available at the door or online at www.riversidechamberplayers.org.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Verdi, Respighi, and Brahms with the ASO

A few notes from Thursday night’s ASO opener of a 3-concert series at Symphony Hall, provided as encouragement to attend one of the remaining performances, Friday or Saturday at 8 p.m. Based on Thursday’s attendance, you may be able to get rush tickets, so this is one program where you can probably safely attend on impulse without breaking the bank.
Two guest artists are featured on a varied program. Young Brazilian conductor Alexandra Arrieche led the ever-popular overture to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. She presented an assured and attractive demeanor, and although some of her choices, such as distinct pauses between the various sections of the overture (rather than maintaining the “inexorable forward motion”, as Ken Meltzer aptly describes it in his program notes), may reflect her current level of experience, they were conscious decisions, and not driven by any lack of technique. There is room to grow, as there should be, and it will be interesting to see how she develops over the next several years. Plus, it’s always encouraging to have the distaff side of the conductorial house represented on the podium. If memory serves, Ms. Arrieche is only the 4th female conductor in the twelve years I have regularly attended ASO concerts (Marin Alsop – Ms. Arrieche’s mentor; Laura Jackson; and Mei-Ann Chen have been the others).
Pianist, conductor, and composer Olli Mustonen played the seldom-heard Concerto in modo misolidio of Ottorino Respighi. Mr. Mustonen has appeared previously with the ASO, and when I heard him before I found his mannerisms distracting – there is much extraneous movement and enormous expenditure of energy relative to the result produced. But at least the mannerisms are not affectation, as with some “superstar” pianists on the circuit – they are ingrained from his earliest years at a piano. Mr. Mustonen is unquestionably earnest and absolutely committed in his approach to music-making; but his is a highly idiosyncratic style. Without access to the score, I don’t know if the predominance of percussive, staccato playing is the composer’s instruction or the soloist’s prerogative; it certainly seemed there were sections that could have benefitted from the same sfumato technique associated with Italian painting – a little more smoke and fewer sharp edges.
A possibly unintentional lesson in physics was also provided, illustrating that the relationship between applied force and dynamic level is only linear up to a point. Past that point, in the key-hammer-string system, no matter how hard you hit the keys, you only get so much sound. Even a sledgehammer won’t help. I don’t recall ever seeing the lid wobble so much and the ½” steel crossbars of the piano dolly actually flexing due to the force transmitted through the keyboard (the dolly is designed to provide similar rigidity to what the piano would have if it were set directly on the stage).
My initial impression is this concerto is a “connoisseur’s” work – there is a lot here to examine from a theoretical and musicological standpoint; however, for an audience that may come expecting a piano version of Pines of Rome, it presents a challenge. There are some measures near the end of the first movement that call to mind Pines, but it is a fleeting impression. While I empathize with the intellectual curiosity that drives one to excavate and explore non-standard repertoire, it can be difficult for an audience hearing the work on a one-time basis. Considerable effort is required from both the soloist and orchestra to bring out the strong points of the piece. Most concert pianists opt to invest that effort in the big guns – Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, etc. – so Mr. Mustonen and the ASO merit thanks for giving us the opportunity to hear and judge this work for ourselves.
An absence of ensemble in such matters as matching articulation and style – for instance where the program notes indicate “playful dialogue” between soloist and orchestra is supposed to occur – would point to a slightly immature product if Mr. Mustonen hadn’t already recorded this work with a Finnish orchestra. Instead, it pointed for better or worse to the soloist’s individual choices, and was in distinct contrast to the musical collaboration enjoyed by the audience of approximately 150 who attended the free chamber music concert prior to the main event. Here Respighi's rarely performed Il Tramonto for mezzo-soprano and string quartet was given an accomplished reading by ASOCC alto Kate Murray and a quartet of ASO players, with great sensitivity to text as well as to blending  the textures of voice and strings. With the audience seated for the most part in the orchestra’s chairs on-stage, the balance between singer and strings could easily be maintained, and an intimate environment was created within the yellow cavern of Symphony Hall. A second set of string players took the stage for the first movement of one of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59/No. 3), providing in total nearly 45 minutes of excellently-performed, accessible music.  The ASO intends to continue this series, and it’s a great idea for taking down the “wall” between the players on-stage and the audience who usually sits anonymously in the dark. The chamber performances are open to anyone having a ticket to the concert; however, they are typically done only on the first evening of the concert series. 
Under the constraint of having a long work day Friday, I left at half-time, missing the “tried and true” part of the program, which would be Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This is familiar and comfortable territory for both orchestra and conductor: it is a safe bet that you will very much enjoy the ASO’s performance if you attend Friday or Saturday evening. The orchestra will be warmed up; the piano, beaten into submission, will be no threat over at stage left; and you can simply sit back and luxuriate in this magnificent work.
For ASOC and CC members, there is an added surprise for you within the February Encore concert program, and to find out what it is, you need to go obtain one either by attending this week’s concert, or by coming to the Bach B Minor Mass next week. So, GO! To the ASO.