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Thu, February 26, 2015

NOVUS NY, Trinity Choir & Washington Chorus Perform Ives & Ginastera at Carnegie Hall
Feast of Music

Thinking back, I’ve seen some pretty massive concerts at Carnegie Hall over the years. There was Seiji Ozawa conducting Berlioz’ Reqiuem with the BSO barely a month after 9/11/2001. Or James Levine conducting that same orchestra three years later in Mahler’s 8th Symphony, requiring a stage extension and the removal of the first six rows of seats. Or last season’s operatic performances by the St. Louis Symphony and the Vienna Staatsoper.

But, I hadn’t heard anything at Carnegie quite so ambitious as last Saturday’s production by Trinity Wall Street, featuring the combined forces of contemporary music orchestra NOVUS NY, the Trinity Choir and Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, and the boys and girls of the Washington National Cathedral Choir, all led by Trinity’s Director of Music Julian Wachner. Wachner, who was also the mastermind behind the program featuring rarely performed works by Charles Ives and Alberto Ginastera, seemed completely at ease for someone making their Carnegie Hall debut, cracking jokes and leading the audience in an impromptu hymn singalong.

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NOVUS NY, Trinity Choir and Washington Chorus Perform Ives and Ginastera at Carnegie Hall

by Peter Matthews

Thinking back, I've seen some pretty massive concerts at Carnegie Hall over the years. There was Seiji Ozawa conducting Berlioz' Reqiuem with the BSO barely a month after 9/11/2001. Or James Levine conducting that same orchestra three years later in Mahler's 8th Symphony, requiring a stage extension and the removal of the first six rows of seats. Or last season's operatic performances by the St. Louis Symphony and the Vienna Staatsoper.

But, I hadn't heard anything at Carnegie quite so ambitious as last Saturday's production by Trinity Wall Street, featuring the combined forces of contemporary music orchestra NOVUS NY, the Trinity Choir and Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, and the boys and girls of the Washington National Cathedral Choir, all led by Trinity's Director of Music Julian Wachner. Wachner, who was also the mastermind behind the program featuring rarely performed works by Charles Ives and Alberto Ginastera, seemed completely at ease for someone making their Carnegie Hall debut, cracking jokes and leading the audience in an impromptu hymn singalong.

I first heard Ives' 4th Symphony two years ago by the Detroit Symphony at Carnegie as part of the annual Spring for Music festival. Written in 1924 but not given a complete performance until 1965 (also at Carnegie), the 4th symphony vacillates between wild cacophony and an almost simplistic tonality, quoting popular hymns of the day such as "Watchman" and "Nearer My God to Thee." As in the DSO performance, Wachner placed performers throughout the hall in order to amplify the work's spatial configurations: the chorus in the 1st tier boxes, a chamber orchestra up in the Dress Circle (conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett). From my seat in the center orchestra, the music seemed to be coming from all directions: no 2-track recording does this work justice. 

Onstage, Timo Andres performed the challenging piano part from center stage, which did little to obscure Wachner's exuberant jumping and gesticulating on the podium behind. Everything came together in the final movement with its grotesque, decayed d version of the hymn "Bethany," sung as vocalise by the chorus, slowly fading away at the end. 

Following intermission was a work that was new to just about everyone in the hall: Ginastera's passion setting Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam, which has only had a handful of performances - and no recordings - since its 1975 premiere. Wachner, who has Latin American heritage, has made it his personal mission to rescue Ginastera from obscurity on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his birth: next year, Trinity will mount a season-long festival devoted to his music, much as they did last season for Benjamin Britten.

Here, Wachner seemed bent on making the case for Turbae's inclusion in the standard repertoire, alongside other passions such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion and John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary. (Wachner has already announced plans to record the work later this season.) With more than 300 instrumentalists and choristers packed onto the Carnegie stage, the hour-long work was strange, dissonant, explosive, borderline terrifying. At times, the chorus seemed to oscillate like Ligeti's Lux Aeterna or Requiem; at others - such as the climactic "Resurrection" scene that closes the work - it rang with the emphatic, religious ecstasy of Messiaen.  

As in the Bach passions, a trio of soloists portray various roles, here singing in Gregorian chant. Anchoring the work was the clear-voiced baritone Thomas McCargar as the Evangelist, with tenor Geoffrey Silver (Pilate/Judas), and baritone Scott Allen Jarrett (Jesus) in supporting roles. Wachner admirably managed to hold together the unwieldy forces, looking completely spent at the end.

Wachner, who is nothing if not ambitious, deserves immense credit for his advocacy and for the sheer logistical execution on display here. But, for all the musicality on display, I couldn't help but wonder who, exactly, this program was meant to appeal to. Musical daredevils? Latent Ginastera fans? Certainly, there is something viscerally exciting about seeing 300+ musicians perform together, but there's may also good reason - other than resources - to explain why such works aren't performed more often. 

Mon, February 23, 2015

Trinity Wall Street - Ives & Ginestera - 02/21/15
Classical Music Rocks

On Saturday it certainly sounded like we had all the right personnel in the house to meet the challenge as the combined choirs kept on delivering consistently powerful, occasionally stunning, choral parts, the sheer number of singers offering many thrilling possibilities, the poised Gregorian chanting by the three highly capable soloists kept the action moving smoothly, the fired-up orchestra played with much precision and assurance, all under the tight control of one hell of a multi-tasking conductor.

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CLASSICAL MUSIC ROCKS

Personal notes - by Isabelle

Monday, February 23, 2015

Trinity Wall Street - Ives & Ginestera - 02/21/15

Orchestra: NOVUS NY
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Ives: Symphony No. 4
Distant Choir Conductor: Scott Allen Jarrett
Ginestera: Turbae ad passionem gregorianam
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
The Trinity Youth Chorus
The Washington Chorus
The Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir
Scott Allen Jarrett: Jesus
Thomas McCargar: Evangelist
Geoffrey Silver: Judas

After a festive Carnival Day with Ballet Hispanico and Matuto at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem on Saturday afternoon, the only place I wanted to be on Saturday night was home, especially since the snow that had started falling earlier in the day was visibly not tapering off any time soon. But that was not meant to  be as I had one more item of my schedule, and not a minor one, so I made sure not to get too comfortable during my quick stop in my apartment before heading back out, all the way to Carnegie Hall this time.
As someone increasingly on the look-out for new and rarely performed works, I simply could not resist the perspective of hearing four major choirs and an expanded orchestra, for a grand total of 300 musicians and singers, as well as two conductors, tackle two formidable 20th century pieces, an American melting pot symphony and an Argentinean modern-day Passion. So I expectantly joined a not huge but clearly committed audience in the Stern Auditorium for what had to be - Better be! - an exciting evening.

Upon stepping up on stage, Julian Wachner, the fearless director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street and music director of The Washington Chorus, immediately made a well-taken point of thanking the audience for braving 1) the raging elements outside and 2) the difficult program inside. Then, after a few words of explanation about the concert, he took a seat at the piano and had most people in the audience sing along a few American hymns, which were unsurprisingly totally foreign to me, in order to introduce Ives' Symphony No. 4. His humorous and insightful comments effortlessly lightened up the atmosphere and congenially prepared us for what was coming up next.

Notorious for its endless complexity, some of which requiring two conductors, Ives' fourth and final symphony is a work that is filled with references to American music such as folk songs, marching band tunes and - here they are - religious hymns in a solidly transcendentalist tradition. To say it is very dense would not even begin to describe it, but this kind of hunt for Americana's musical treasures can be a lot of fun too. On Saturday night, it did not take long for well-defined ideas, fleeting melodies and quieter moments to emerge from time to time and prove that there had to be some sort of method to the on-going madness. Moreover, the purposeful energy with which the numerous components of the piece were handled by the excellent orchestra was to be savored, especially when channeled by the resolutely unflappable and deeply involved Julian Wachner.
After a well-deserved intermission, we moved down from North America to South America to become acquainted with the anchor of the program, Alberto Ginestera's little-known and seldom performed Turbae ad passionem gregorianam. Writing a contemporary score for the Passion using a wide range of compositional techniques for choir and orchestra, the equally ambitious and talented Argentine came up with an extended, dauntingly complex, intensely dramatic and downright fascinating oratorio, which manages to convey the concrete brutality of the story with underlying spirituality. On Saturday it certainly sounded like we had all the right personnel in the house to meet the challenge as the combined choirs kept on delivering consistently powerful, occasionally stunning, choral parts, the sheer number of singers offering many thrilling possibilities, the poised Gregorian chanting by the three highly capable soloists kept the action moving smoothly, the fired-up orchestra played with much precision and assurance, all under the tight control of one hell of a multi-tasking conductor. After hearing it, one can understand how the difficulty and scale of the work prevent it from being presented more often, and one can only be grateful to Trinity Wall Street for tempting the impossible and succeeding so resoundingly, even if it meant that we eventually had to go back to the real world and face yet another dreadful cold mushy mess.

Sun, February 22, 2015

A Carnegie Hall commemoration for Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera
The Washington Post

Wachner, who is director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, as well as the music director of the Washington Chorus, stumbled upon the work while poring over a catalogue of Ginastera’s music in search of ways to commemorate the composer’s centenary in 2016. And since the work demands an enormous performing force, he was able to use all his ensembles, and more: Crowded onto the Carnegie stage were the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral and NOVUS NY, the new-music orchestra Wachner founded at Trinity.

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A Carnegie Hall commemoration for Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera
By Allan Kozinn February 22

NEW YORK — The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera never lacked for champions in his lifetime, and since his death in 1983, several of his works — most notably his keyboard music — have remained in the repertory. But Ginastera’s output was enormous, and much of it currently dwells in the purgatory where works languish after their composers’ deaths, awaiting rediscovery.

That rediscovery may be at hand, and Julian Wachner offered a glimpse of it at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening, when he conducted the first New York performance in 40 years of Ginastera’s monumental Passion setting — formally, the “Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam,” Op. 43, from 1974.

Wachner, who is director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, as well as the music director of the Washington Chorus, stumbled upon the work while poring over a catalogue of Ginastera’s music in search of ways to commemorate the composer’s centenary in 2016. And since the work demands an enormous performing force, he was able to use all his ensembles, and more: Crowded onto the Carnegie stage were the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, the Trinity Youth Chorus, the Washington Chorus, the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral and NOVUS NY, the new-music orchestra Wachner founded at Trinity.

Ginastera used pretty much the full palette of Western techniques and timbres, from Gregorian chant to 12-tone rows, with fleeting glimpses of neo-Romantic orchestral lushness, South American percussion coloration and occasional ad libitum passages, sung (or even shouted) by soloists from within the choir along the way.

The work’s frame is the chanted narrative of “The Evangelist”, drawn from the New Testament, projected with a calm fluidity by the baritone Thomas McCargar, with occasional contributions, also cast in plainsong, by baritone Scott Allen Jarrett as Jesus and tenor Geoffrey Silver as both Pilate and Judas. But the real action is in the choral writing, in which Old and New Testament texts and passages from the Liber Usualis mingle. The massed choir presents the crowd scenes, Jesus’s supporters and detractors, and at one point, an inner rumination by Judas on a text from Jonah.

Much of the choral writing is ecstatic — not merely energetic — with soaring, fortissimo soprano lines and rich, vigorous bass passages slicing through the often dense, percussion-heavy orchestration. But the most compelling, emotionally gripping sections are more restrained, among them several haunting, contrapuntal (and occasionally pointillistic) Psalm settings and the serene setting from Matthew that describes the moment of Jesus’s death. The combined choruses here produced a beautifully blended and often thrilling sound.

Before the Ginastera, Wachner led NOVUS NY and a smaller, offstage choir in a suitably gritty, roaring account of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4. Like the Ginastera, Ives combined antique elements (hymns and folk melodies) with freewheeling, modernist dissonance. It may not be, as Wachner suggests in a program-book interview, “the definitive 20th century American symphony,” but it captures Ives’s ornery New England spirit and makes a joyful noise, conveyed here in a virtuosic, high-energy reading.

Sun, February 22, 2015

Wachner, Trinity forces rock Carnegie with massive rarities by Ives and Ginastera
New York Classical Review

Although they didn’t have the heft of the major orchestras, the large collective of musicians captured this, because they played the music with such skill and sympathy. The music, especially in the second “Comedy” movement, becomes so dense, that details are essential, and they were marvelously audible. One could hear a second violin sawing away in a rough solo in a back stand, the quarter-tone piano, and the lone soprano voice separating from the choir in the final movement. There is much chamber music inside this symphony, and it was remarkable how compellingly intimate Wachner made that sound. And the choral entrances, especially singing “Watchman” in the first movement, were like the touch of a loving hand on one’s back in the middle of a cold and lonely night.

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Wachner, Trinity forces rock Carnegie with massive rarities by Ives and Ginastera

February 22, 2015 at 1:27 pm
By George Grella

Trinity Wall Street was calling the concert they produced at Carnegie Hall Saturday night “The Big Concert,” and big it was. It was also, in many ways, quite grand. And in a few ways it was also quite mad.

In the most obvious, logistical sense, the program was tremendously ambitious: Ives’ Symphony No. 4, with its chorus and multiple groups within the larger ensemble, followed by Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam, by Alberto Ginastera, a symphonic Passion oratorio that calls for hundreds of singers.

All this was presented by Trinity’s Choir, Trinity Youth Chorus, the NOVUS NY orchestra, and the Washington Chorus and Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir, led with command and passionate energy by Trinity’s music director, Julian Wachner.

Wachner also lead the audience in some hymn singing because, as he explained from the stage, the hymns were the common fabric from which Ives composed (along with marches and popular music) and were a part of the regular musical life of his audience. So the audience sang the hymns to get acquainted with Ives’ world, sounding great, but helped by some chorus ringers in the boxes on each side of the hall.

That was one of several features that Wachner established for the Ives symphony that were true to the music and exceptionally effective. The “distant choir” of strings and harp were placed in an upper balcony, stage right, the offstage percussion was truly offstage, and, in a completely unexpected touch, the solo piano—played with beautiful naturalism by Timo Andres—was at the foot of the stage, in concerto configuration.

The musical results could not have been truer to Ives’ values and aesthetic. His work is full of spatial configurations because that’s how he heard and experienced music, and in this symphony, hearing voices sing from above and each side, hearing different music, with different tempos and rhythms, drifting from what might have been the house next door, means experiencing the music communally.

And that means hearing Ives’ mystic chords of memory. Wachner said, “Ives was looking to the past to make a statement about America,” But more precisely Ives was seeking a way to return to a personal, idealized past, his memories full of admiration for his father and a sense of loss for a utopian era that never existed. Amid this, there is the sincere desire to connect all humanity through the Emerson’s Great Over-Soul.

Although they didn’t have the heft of the major orchestras, the large collective of musicians captured this, because they played the music with such skill and sympathy. The music, especially in the second “Comedy” movement, becomes so dense, that details are essential, and they were marvelously audible. One could hear a second violin sawing away in a rough solo in a back stand, the quarter-tone piano, and the lone soprano voice separating from the choir in the final movement. There is much chamber music inside this symphony, and it was remarkable how compellingly intimate Wachner made that sound. And the choral entrances, especially singing “Watchman” in the first movement, were like the touch of a loving hand on one’s back in the middle of a cold and lonely night.

The contrast between Ives’ communitarianism and Ginastera’s more traditional authoritarianism was amazing. “Turbae” is the Latin word for crowd, and in the Passion, the word refers to any group of people speaking. In Ginastera’s massive, rarely performed piece, the crowd is the main character; the chorus is the crowd and it seethes with rough, aggressive energy, threatening to explode off the stage.

Demanding 300+ singers makes for infrequent performances, but so does the maniacal quality of the music. It is fascinating but is also too long, and has the style of a sledgehammer. The score alternates narration between three soloists—two baritones and a tenor—who sing individual roles from Mark, Luke and John, and the chorus, which at times is the apostles, or witnesses, or itself a narrator.

At times the music is tremendous: the singers arrayed in polytonal stacks, everyone in the mass of voices responding “Surely not I, Lord?” in free rhythm, moments, especially around the word “Hosanna!”, when the singers do a half-scream that felt like it was peeling back one’s eyeballs.

But the piece is ritualistic and distant from the audience—where Ives chats, Ginastera lectures, and so much of the writing, like dissonant singing over rumbling and chattering percussion, sounds dated.

Still, the musicians played this like it was the greatest music ever written, and were impressive in every way. 
Thomas McCargar, as the Evangelist, has by far the largest solo part, and he was excellent, while tenor Geoffrey Silver (both Pilate and Judas), and baritone Scott Allen Jarrett as Jesus, were strong in what are oddly limited parts.

Like a lot of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it is good to hear Turbae and good to know one will never hear it again. But Ives’ Symphony No. 4  should be heard always, and preferably in performances as well-prepared and outstanding as this.

Sun, February 22, 2015

Review: Trinity Wall Street and Julian Wachner Play Carnegie Hall
The New York Times

Mr. Wachner led a viscerally dramatic performance. With this concert he signaled that next year, the centennial of Ginastera, Trinity Wall Street will present an extensive survey of the composer’s works. Adventure and ambition go hand in hand at Trinity Wall Street.

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Review: Trinity Wall Street and Julian Wachner Play Carnegie Hall

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

FEB. 22, 2015

Julian Wachner, the impressive director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, didn’t seem the slightest bit nervous in his first performance as a conductor at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night. He affably welcomed the audience, thanking everyone for braving not just the winter weather but the program he had planned. The concert paired Ives’s Fourth Symphony, generally considered one of the most complex and challenging 20th-century symphonic works, and a rare performance of an intense 60-minute oratorio, “Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam,” by the Argentine-born composer Alberto Ginastera, first performed in 1975.

For these works, Mr. Wachner, who is also a composer, assembled some 300 performers: the excellent Choir of Trinity Wall Street; the Trinity Youth Chorus; the Washington Chorus, an award-winning ensemble that Mr. Wachner also directs; the Boy and Girl Choristers of Washington National Cathedral Choir; and Novus NY, the Trinity Wall Street’s contemporary music orchestra, its ranks fortified for this demanding concert with extra players.

Mr. Wachner prepared the audience by first sitting at a piano onstage and leading everyone in some hymn singing. The score, typical for Ives, is laced with hymn tunes, sometimes fairly direct, sometimes veiled. Ives assumed that any audience in his day would recognize the hymns when hearing his symphony. So to help the listeners at Carnegie do so, Mr. Wachner, asked everyone to sing along, following a sheet of printed music inserted into the programs, including the choir members who, for the Ives, were sitting in the first balcony.

Ives’s Fourth Symphony crams formidable difficulties into a 33-minute time span. The performance was confident and exciting. The first movement, as Ives commented, poses transcendentalist questions of “what” and why.” Fraught rumblings from the orchestra, prodded by restless bursts from a solo piano (the accomplished Timothy Andres) are contrasted with shimmering string choirs and, before long, the actual choristers, singing a hymn. The second movement is a kind of satire. The orchestra shifts between pummeling evocations of a celestial train promising to take a man directly to the heavenly city — a promise that proves a scam — and evocations of the hymn-singing pilgrims who beat a path to heaven the old-fashioned way. The third movement is a sturdy but elusive fugue on a hymn tune; the final movement, the most cosmic and cacophonous, is at once ecstatic and terrifying.

For sheer terror in music, however, not much matches the most intense moments of Ginastera’s passion, which put all the evening’s performers onstage. Like the Bach passions, this one has a solo Evangelist who tells the story, not in recitative, as Bach does, but in Gregorian chant. (Thomas McCargar sang the Evangelist here, along with Geoffrey Silver as Pilate and Judas, and Scott Allen Jarrett as Jesus.)

Those who know Ginastera, who died in 1983 at 67, only from his earlier South American nationalist style work may be stunned to hear this passion, essentially a 12-tone score of gnashing dissonance and multilayered complexity. Yet much of the harmonic language sounds lushly chromatic, in an Expressionist vein. The piece’s most audacious element is its shrieking cinematic realism. Sometimes the choirs speak and sputter the lines; sometimes the music breaks into free-for-all bouts of hysteria.

Mr. Wachner led a viscerally dramatic performance. With this concert he signaled that next year, the centennial of Ginastera, Trinity Wall Street will present an extensive survey of the composer’s works. Adventure and ambition go hand in hand at Trinity Wall Street.

A version of this review appears in print on February 23, 2015, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: An Army, Some 300 Strong, Recruited for Notoriously Knotty Classical Works.

Sat, February 21, 2015

NOVUS NY at Carnegie Hall
The Upcoming

Turbae’s obscurity is a mystery, because it is powerful. The audience went crazy for it. This performance went a long way proving that musicians and listeners don’t have a problem being challenged. That’s what music is all about.

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NOVUS NY at Carnegie Hall

live review by Patricia Contino

Saturday 21st February 2015

Prior to this concert, Carnegie Hall’s new chair Ronald O. Perelman made disparaging remarks about classical music as only a one-percenter can. No one would argue that diversified programming is crucial – especially for a venue like Carnegie Hall. The billionaire would have discovered a cross-section of ticket-holders ignoring nasty wet weather to hear Trinity Wall Street play two challenging, rarely heard choral works.

To familiarize listeners, conductor Julian Wachner warmed up the crowd encouraging them to sing hymns Charles Ives worked into his Fourth Symphony. Maestro noted that one, Near My God to Thee, played when the Titanic sank – hoping its inclusion wouldn’t be a bad omen for the concert. He needn’t have worried. Composed from 1898-1911, Ives never heard it in his lifetime because he was a control freak and his score is unapologetically difficult – and unbelievably exhilarating. He brings together not only hymns but also previous compositions, sound effects (whistles, chimes), marches, and ragtime to create a sound picture of pre-World War I America. The first two movements weave these ideas into a weird sense of harmony. The third movement Fugue is a pretty, “classical” interlude, and the Finale is pure Ives – a wordless chorus uniting outside musical ideas as he creates his own.

Wachner kept Triniity’s NOVUS NY orchestra and Trinity Choir well in control. Charles Ives’ music is hard describing because he is an original. His music isn’t easy to “like” but, as this performance proved, rewarding.

Even less familiar is Alberto Ginastera’s Turbae ad Passionem Gregoriana. Like Ives, Ginastera brought together different sounds for The Passion.

Turbae is Latin for “crowd” – and this crowd, comprised of the Trinity Choir, Trinity Youth Chorus, Washington Chorus, and Washington National Cathedral Choir of Boys and Girls, is a screaming mob. They are only quieted when the Evangelical (Thomas McCargar) describes events in a cappella Gregorian chanting used in the Catholic Mass. The “passion” for this 1975 Good Friday setting is for blood. Ginastera musically paints a cross being dragged in the street, the man nailed to it, the earthquake following his death.

Salvation comes only in the final moments when the final chorus rejoices in the Resurrection.

Turbae’s obscurity is a mystery, because it is powerful. The audience went crazy for it. This performance went a long way proving that musicians and listeners don’t have a problem being challenged. That’s what music is all about.

Verdict: five stars

Mon, January 26, 2015

Life Can Be Such a Drag!
The Huffington Post

Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera’s momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers.

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George Heymont

Life Can Be Such a Drag!

Posted: 01/26/2015 12:48 am EST Updated: 01/26/2015 8:59 am EST

So many questions about gender identity found a place in 2014's headlines that, as the world put last year to rest and got on with the business of 2015, I couldn't help but think back to a particular week last fall. October in San Francisco always evokes images in a resident's mind of:

The Blue Angels buzzing around the Bay during Fleet Week.
Sailors clad in dress whites who (in the post "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era) can freely socialize in gay bars where their presence will please a population that loves the sight of a man in uniform.
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall all lit up to look like a giant pumpkin.

Busy costume preparations for Halloween celebrations.
The sudden onslaught of pumpkin-flavored everything.
San Francisco City Hall basking in the glow of orange lighting.

At that time, two of the Civic Center's stages were awash in gender confusion. Over at the War Memorial Opera House, two countertenors appearing in traditional male costumes had to cope with a confused mezzo-soprano seeking revenge in yet another trouser role. Meanwhile, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, one of the Bay area's most talented drag artists was holding center stage in the kind of hysterical farce in which one of the more clueless characters is described as "an 11-inch dong that deserves to have my luggage tags hanging from it." To everyone's relief, subtlety was away on sabbatical.

* * * * * * * * * *

The San Francisco Opera was presenting the company premiere of George Frideric Handel's romantic farce, Partenope, which had its premiere in London some 284 years ago on February 24, 1730. The opera's American premiere did not take place until 1988, when it was staged by Opera Omaha (in 1998 it was co-produced by the Glimmerglass Festival and the New York City Opera).

Directed by Christopher Alden, the current production originated as a co-production between the English National Opera (where it premiered in October of 2008) and Opera Australia, which subsequently staged the work in Melbourne and Sydney. It may be the only operatic production whose press notes include a statement that "singing from behind the bathroom door is slightly amplified."

Heavily influenced by the Dadaism and Surrealism movements of the early 20th century, the opera's plot has been updated to a 1920s Parisian salon where parties and card games are hosted by Partenope (who, in the original version, is the Queen of Naples). While everyone loves Partenope, she's not always sure whose love she can trust or, for that matter, whose love is worth reciprocating. As a result, much of the opera's action is based on misguided lovers chasing after those who either should not or can not return their affection. As Alden notes:

"Partenope is a subversive, urban, gender-defying work that is witty but, at the same time, raises questions about societal assumptions. The libretto turns the norm around so that the powerful monarch in this piece is a woman. The men are all vying for her political/romantic favors and, like anyone in power, Partenope can never be sure whether these people are attracted to her or her power. Handel takes that from the story and writes music that makes her a fascinating, sympathetic, three-dimensional character.

There's a very camp aspect to Handel's operas, especially this piece. It can't be proven that Handel was gay, but he was an unmarried man who chose to live in a sophisticated city, who had unmarried male friends in his circle and his relationship with powerful divas was a big part of his life. The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context. It's a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music."

Over the years, Alden's productions have been known for their gimmickry. Although his Partenope employs all kinds of modern touches from toilet humor to tap dancing (and has characters freely throw glasses and bananas against the walls), each sight gag is carefully calibrated to frame a character's motivation, frustration, and sense of inadequacy or rage. The audience around me chuckled in glee at many of Alden's gimmicks, clearly enjoying a night of Handel more than they had ever anticipated.

When push comes to shove, the quality of the singing is one of the biggest concerns in any production of a Handel opera. While strong performances came from mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (doubling as Rosmira and Eurimene) and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace (the lover who humped Rosmira and then callously dumped her after falling for Partenope's charms), I was shocked by the mushy coloratura work that compromised so much of tenor Alek Shrader's performance as Emilio. Baritone Philippe Sly's Ormonte (both in and out of drag) added a nice sense of balance to the ensemble.

Much of Alden's production requires singers who can not only act, but can move like dancers. Danielle De Niese had a luscious, intensely feminine appeal in the title role (wearing Jon Morrell's costumes with a rare sense of style and grace). As far as I'm concerned, however, the evening's top honors went to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who, as the timid and lovesick Armindo, not only sang magnificently but handled his tap dancing chores and pratfalls as if he had been born to physical comedy (not something one can say about most opera singers).

I was particularly taken with Andrew Lieberman's set designs for this production. Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera's momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers. Here's some footage from San Francisco Opera's production of Partenope:

* * * * * * * * * *

For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

That motto could easily have been applied to Act I of the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of Charles Busch's stage farce, Die, Mommie, Die! (which, at its 1999 premiere in Los Angeles, was subtitled The Fall of the House of Sussman). For Act II, let me quote Alan Yuhas's take on the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera's controversial production of The Death of Klinghoffer: "It had all the deft touch of a sledgehammer."

Believe it or not, that's a compliment for Die, Mommie Die!'s director, F. Allen Sawyer, who took Busch's catty romp and used it as a template for the best kind of camp madness. Set in 1967, the plot revolves around a toxic Beverly Hills family whose lust for wretched excess is, at the very least, excessive. With references to numerous bitch fest B-movies from the 1950s as well as an ancient Greek tragedy, the cast of characters includes:

Sol Sussman (Joe Wicht), a fabled Hollywood producer whose luck at the box office has run dry. Head over heels in debt to the mob, Sol has been unable to finance his artistic dream of having Elizabeth Taylor star in a biopic about Billie Holiday. To make matters worse, a private detective has confirmed Sol's wife's infidelity (she's been screwing her sexy tennis instructor). Meanwhile, Sol's constipation has become the bane of this angry old Jew's existence.

Edith Sussman (Ali Haas), Sol's father-worshipping, mother-hating, Electra-like daughter who has some unresolved issues of her own to deal with.
Lance Sussman (Devin S. O'Brien), Sol's ditsy gay son who has been experimenting with drugs, finding new ways to express himself in a college theatre department, and who can be obsessively captivated by the pull-chain switch on a table lamp in the family's living room.

Angela Arden (J. Conrad Frank), Sol's diva-like wife who is desperately hoping to make a comeback on the cabaret circuit and has even landed a contract to perform at a small hotel in the Catskills.
Tony Parker (Justin Liszanckie), the not-very-bright gigolo who has been shtupping Angela while trying to convince her to move to New York with him where he hopes to resurrect his acting career. Tony is more than willing to put his hefty endowment to use titillating Edith and Lance if the ends will justify the means.
Bootsie Carp (Marie O'Donnell), the wise-cracking Thelma Ritter-like maid who, for years, has been dividing her affection between her employer and Richard Nixon.

Clues drop with a resounding thud throughout Busch's play.

Who knew that Angela had such skill at throwing knives and scissors?
Or that she could be driven to murder Sol with a silvery suppository (the size of an extra-large burrito) that had been laced with arsenic?
Why would Angela recoil at the sight of the LP recording she once made with her long-deceased identical twin, Barbara?
And why does Angela deliver so many lines in Act II as if she were channeling Bette Davis?

Thanks to her enterprising children (who slip some LSD into Angela's evening cup of coffee), plenty of secrets are revealed against the background of Kuo-Hao Lo's deliciously vulgar unit set. While many may assume that the role of Angela would forever belong to its creator, Charles Busch, New Conservatory Theatre Center triumphantly cast J. Conrad Frank as Angela.

Over the years, Mr. Frank has been perfecting his own cabaret act as the failed Russian opera diva, Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (who is now forced to work at the cosmetics counter in Macy's). With a series of gowns designed by "Mr. David," the statuesque Mr. Frank dominated the stage in the manner of a performer who knows his way around high camp, low morals, divine outfits, and operatic posturing. His comic timing was rock solid. His Angela knew how to milk a line (as well as Tony Parker's prized piece of anatomy) like a champ.

Although far more sinister than Madame Arcati's séance in Blithe Spirit, Angela's Act II acid trip is every bit as hilarious and revealing. In a comedy built to showcase and revolve around a fading star, Mr. Frank knew how to work Angela's diminishing force of gravity for all it was worth. The rest of the cast orbited around her with maniacal glee, with particularly energetic performances coming from Ali Haas and Devin S. O'Brien as Angela's scheming children. I also very much enjoyed Marie O'Donnell's performance as Bootsie.

Wed, January 21, 2015

Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane
NewMusicBox

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.”

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Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane

By Frank J. Oteri on January 21, 2015

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan

As the director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner wears many hats. The 45-year-old composer, conductor, organist, and pianist oversees the music-making at this Lower Manhattan Episcopal house of worship, navigating both what the extremely versatile Trinity Wall Street Choir sings during religious services and a broad range of secular concerts held both in the main church and in St. Paul’s Chapel, which survived the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center across the street. But while religion is central to his musical as well as his personal life (he is a practicing Episcopalian and his wife, Rev. Emily Wachner, serves as a priest at Trinity), he also is a regular conductor for the PROTOTYPE Festival, earlier this month conducting Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child. (His own opera Evangeline Revisited was showcased on the New York City Opera’s VOX series in 2010.) And in February he will conduct Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony and a rarely performed Alberto Ginastera choral work at Carnegie Hall.

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.” In booklet notes he wrote for the first CD devoted exclusively to his own music, a 2010 Naxos disc containing both sacred and secular choral music performed by the Elora Festival Singers, he described an often-perceived schism between music he calls Apollonian (either music for worship or academic music) and music that is Dionysian (popular music or theatrical music including operas and ballets). His own aesthetic inclinations, he pointed out, have led him to ignore this schism and to freely mix approaches that have traditionally been polar opposites.

This is in no small part due to his family background, how he first became involved with music, and how that involvement led to his own personal religious awakening. He describes his parents as “sort of California hippies” and remembers that there was “no religion in my life at all.” His mother “grew up Catholic but totally rejected that,” and his father had a Jewish background but was also a non-practitioner even though Wachner learned from his paternal grandmother, who had been a strong influence in his life, that among his ancestors “were all these chief rabbis in Germany.” But there was another important influence—a musical one. Wachner’s stepfather Robert Cole was a conductor and served as Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant at the Buffalo Philharmonic during Wachner’s childhood. “So I had that whole world of post-Bernstein energy,” he acknowledges. An early piano teacher of his recommended that he sing as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, so he started doing that at age seven.

“It was really just a performance opportunity,” Wachner explains. “When I went there, I thought of my identity as Jewish, even though I had never been bar mitzvahed or anything like that. But it was understood that that was what I was and it was cool with everybody.”

But a few years later, he had an epiphany. By this time, he had moved to New York City and was singing with the St. Thomas choir:

Part of it was the music and the power of the liturgy. But the other part of it was the actual mission and message. We would sing the Byrd Mass in Five Parts and this incredible music by Howells, but then we’d go out and feed the homeless. That was part of our training. That whole gospel message really resonated and I became an Episcopalian at age 11 or 12.

After his conversion, however, Wachner remained deeply involved with a great deal of music outside of the Christian sacred repertoire. In high school, he even played in rock bands while sporting a Mohawk and an earring. “As I went through life, I had always a sort of wilder side and a more conservative side,” he confesses. At the same time he was immersing himself in the downtown rock club scene, he was composing his first polyphonic mass, a Missa Brevis for chorus and organ; he points out that “the Sanctus of it is has almost an ‘80s pop ballad chord progression which comes from the Depeche Mode/Smiths/Howard Jones world I was living in during that period.”

That 1987 mass, which appears on the Elora Festival Singers’ disc, sounds more secular than parts of his ethereal cycle of Rilke settings, Rilke Songs (2002), or even his 1998 E. E. Cummings-inspired cycle Sometimes I Feel Alive, despite their texts. (Both of which also appear on that recording.) For Wachner, finding the sacred in the secular is as important as finding the secular in the sacred. In fact, he believes there is a fluid continuity between the arts, the sciences, and religions—all religions. That multiplicity of perspectives is something he aspires to tap into as much as he can in anything he composes or performs.

My definition of sacred is so liquid that I am able to interpret everything in that direction in the same way I see everything as theater as well, how action follows action and produces some kind of response or result. … I’ve been drawing on not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but also Islamic, the Buddhist world, the Martial Arts, as well as the scientific. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner. For me embracing all that is available to us now is actually a sacred act. The gift of intelligence and curiosity and seeking is a God-given act, if you want to say that, or that humans are endowed with as part of our make-up.

Wachner’s “little c” catholic interpretation of faith is the inspiration behind all of the music that is featured on a 3-CD set devoted to his vocal and instrumental works released last year on Trinity’s own Musica Omnia label. The track list includes extremely flamboyant settings of psalms, a majestic symphony, and a powerful trumpet and organ duo, Blue Green Red, whose only immediate sonic relationship to sacred music is that it features a pipe organ. Also included is Wachner’s over-the-top arrangement of the ubiquitous “Joy To The World” by George Frederick Handel (a composer whose sacred and secular works he has frequently conducted and whose own balancing of the sacred and secular is perhaps the most famous compositional precedent for what he is doing).

Yet despite his own musical omnivorousness and his firm belief that any kind of compositional technique can serve both sacred and secular music, Wachner admits that he approaches sacred and secular music differently as a performer.

“In terms of musical language and compositional technique, I think it’s all available to both areas,” Wachner explains. “In terms of what’s off-limits, I haven’t really found that yet. I interpret work theatrically; I tend to do that with everything. But if I were to do a sacred work in a liturgical setting, I tend to downplay my physical performance. I do that to draw more focus to the specific theater of the liturgy and not the theater of me as performer. I tone down my gestures; it feels more appropriate to temper the extremities. For me temperance comes in the performance; in the creation of a piece of music, the possibility of using everything at my disposal adds to the ecstasy of it and those ecstatic moments are the high point.”

Tue, January 6, 2015

The Symbiotic Evolution of ‘Partita’ and Ensemble
The New York Times

“Partita” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and made up the bulk of Monday’s short, sweet Roomful of Teeth concert, which concluded Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival. Seven of Roomful’s members have sung or still sing in Julian Wachner’s Choir of Trinity Wall Street, so the concert was both a homecoming and a demonstration of possibilities. And while I tapped my feet to this infectiously gleeful performance’s groove, even danced surreptitiously in my pew — sorry, neighbor — I kept thinking about the lines to and from a work, about how much “Partita” has made Roomful’s name, and Roomful that of “Partita.”

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The Symbiotic Evolution of ‘Partita’ and Ensemble
Roomful of Teeth Performs ‘Partita’ at Trinity Wall Street

By DAVID ALLEN

JAN. 6, 2015

There aren’t many words among the sighs, belts and purrs of Caroline Shaw’s vocal octet “Partita” (2009-12), and at first hearing they sound like gibberish. Take these, purloined from Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing 305”: “The eighty-sixth, eighty-seventh and eighty-eighth points are located symmetrically across the central vertical axis of the wall.” It’s about lines and connections, words that in Ms. Shaw’s “Passacaglia” movement disappear into a thicket of nonsensical sibilance as eight speakers overlap.

“Partita” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and made up the bulk of Monday’s short, sweet Roomful of Teeth concert, which concluded Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival. Seven of Roomful’s members have sung or still sing in Julian Wachner’s Choir of Trinity Wall Street, so the concert was both a homecoming and a demonstration of possibilities. And while I tapped my feet to this infectiously gleeful performance’s groove, even danced surreptitiously in my pew — sorry, neighbor — I kept thinking about the lines to and from a work, about how much “Partita” has made Roomful’s name, and Roomful that of “Partita.”

That’s the benefit of being a composer-performer-collaborator like Ms. Shaw. Developed as a homage to a Baroque suite and to the geographical medley of Roomful’s influences, “Partita” is tied to the techniques that the choir has borrowed and extended — here Korean p’ansori, Georgian pitch bends, Tuvan throat singing, among others. As Ms. Shaw writes in the score’s opening pages, future performers should listen to Roomful’s Grammy-winning recording of the work as a guide to how specific notations work.

Can “Partita” escape the group? Of course, but it doesn’t need to yet: It’s still changing in their hands. This was my first live experience of the work, and its darts of direction seemed freshly improvisatory. On record, euphoric moments of swooping inflections in the “Allemande” movement have a satisfying, almost Auto-Tuned funk. Live, that elation sounded all the more powerfully human, suggesting the glowing richness of a church choir. The tight hums and open chords of “Sarabande” had a tender fragility, a sad promise. And the sheer physicality of the work is striking, whether in the opening of “Courante,” where Inuit-inspired breaths sound both erotic and like a jogger’s gasps (“courante” means running), or simply in the way facial muscles transform vowels in a baring of teeth in “Passacaglia.”

The program’s five other works were calmer, more ruminative. “Render” (2013), by Brad Wells, Roomful’s artistic director, movingly unfolds wordless laments over held drones, its lushness seeming to hide an absence at its core. In “Otherwise” (2012), also by Mr. Wells, a septet does the choral equivalent of beatboxing behind the bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s powerful, melismatic line. The tenor Eric Dudley’s “Suonare/to sound” (2010) smoothly, artfully layers Italian and English versions of the same poem, “Suono suona sempre” (“Sound sounds always”), drifting into space at the end, unresolved. Rinde Eckert’s “Cesca’s View” (2009) showcases striking yodeling from Estelí Gomez, while Judd Greenstein’s “AEIOU” (2009) strives to complete the vowel series with a magnetic, disturbed pulse. All were precisely, joyously done.

Mon, January 5, 2015

Susan Stroman’s Met Debut
The Wall Street Journal

Handel’s “Saul” (1739) is a highly dramatic oratorio that lends itself to staging, and Trinity Wall Street’s production on Friday at St. Paul’s Chapel, offered as part of its extensive Twelfth Night Festival (which runs through Jan. 6), was a valiant effort. It was musically top-notch, as one has come to expect from the superb Trinity Baroque Orchestra and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, under the incisive leadership of Julian Wachner. The soloists were also excellent, especially Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose sometimes piercing countertenor sounded richly nuanced and otherworldly in his portrayal of the loyal, reverent David, the object of King Saul’s insane jealousy.

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Opera Review

Susan Stroman’s Met Debut
Susan Stroman celebrated her house debut in Franz Lehár’s ‘The Merry Widow,’ and Handel’s ‘Saul’ got a dramatic staging in Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival.

By
Heidi Waleson
Jan. 5, 2015 6:33 p.m. ET

New York

For the second New Year’s Eve in a row, the Met chose an operetta as its gala fundraiser centerpiece. Thanks to the Broadway fizz contributed by director and choreographer Susan Stroman in her house debut, Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” (1905) came off better than last year’s overstuffed “Die Fledermaus.” But operetta, with its long stretches of spoken dialogue, remains an uneasy fit for this big theater and its artists, who are more comfortable projecting emotion and character through song.

The principal weak link was soprano Renée Fleming, showcased as Hanna Glawari, the widow of the title. (The story is about getting Hanna to marry a compatriot so that her fortune will remain in her impoverished country, Pontevedria; the prime candidate is Count Danilo, an old flame.) The role sits low for Ms. Fleming, so her voice had little presence or richness for much of the evening. Even when the part ascended into more familiar territory, she sounded cautious rather than expansive, and in the patchily amplified dialogue, she came across more as a regal presence than a down-to-earth, playful former farm girl.

As Valencienne, the straying wife of the Pontevedrian ambassador, Baron Zeta, the vivacious Broadway actress Kelli O’Hara was perfectly at home in the dialogue and the dancing. Her pure soprano sounded thin and tremulous at first, but gathered strength through the evening, and she projected personality throughout. Baritone Nathan Gunn, a game Danilo, was trying so hard to be funny that he missed the character’s suave sex appeal. Tenor Alek Shrader, as Valencienne’s admirer, Camille, was appealingly ardent. Though he had some difficulty with the high notes, he and Ms. O’Hara projected more chemistry than the principal pair of lovers. Thomas Allen was hilarious as the befuddled Baron Zeta, and actor Carson Elrod brought a wry goofiness to Danilo’s assistant, Njegus.

The show certainly looked great, evoking turn-of-the-century Paris by way of Broadway. The sets, designed by Julian Crouch, had a flat, almost cartoonlike, quality, rather like a puppet theater. The transition from Hanna’s garden, overlooking the lighted windows of Montmartre, to Maxim’s cabaret, performed in full view of the audience, was itself a delightful, lighthearted piece of stagecraft. William Ivey Long’s stunning Belle Époque and folk costumes were scene-stealers, and Paule Constable’s lighting was particularly good at picking up their jeweled colors and elegant shapes. Ms. Stroman’s choreography had plenty of sizzle—from the ballroom dances at the embassy to the folk numbers in Act II and the can-can of Act III, the last anchored by the six Broadway dancers who played Maxim’s grisettes.

However, Ms. Stroman had mixed success infusing that verve into the dialogue scenes, and the English libretto and lyrics by Jeremy Sams, though cleaner than his texts for “Enchanted Island” and “Fledermaus,” had their share of self-conscious bits (“some penniless Parisian will get his paws on it”) and thumping rhymes (“such passion within you / this cannot continue”; “chantoozies / floozies”). And Andrew Davis’s conducting was often square and uneffervescent, so no matter how hard the show tried to take flight on stage, the orchestra kept it tethered to earth.

***

Handel’s “Saul” (1739) is a highly dramatic oratorio that lends itself to staging, and Trinity Wall Street’s production on Friday at St. Paul’s Chapel, offered as part of its extensive Twelfth Night Festival (which runs through Jan. 6), was a valiant effort. It was musically top-notch, as one has come to expect from the superb Trinity Baroque Orchestra and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, under the incisive leadership of Julian Wachner. The soloists were also excellent, especially Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose sometimes piercing countertenor sounded richly nuanced and otherworldly in his portrayal of the loyal, reverent David, the object of King Saul’s insane jealousy.

The space was not ideal for theater, however. The stage was a raised runway with Saul’s throne at one end and a smoking brazier at the other. The audience sat at tables on either side of its length, or in the balcony above, where the view was obstructed. The orchestra and choir were positioned on the floor at the brazier end of the runway—the choir, in particular, seemed quite far away, and its words were muffled—and Mr. Wachner had to conduct with his back to the soloists. Director James Darrah, thus limited in his options, tended to overemphasize facial emoting and writhing on the ground. The basic costumes (most of them white) by Robert and Rachel Danes suggested the roles of their wearers—a robe for Saul; a gold gown for his eldest daughter, Merab; a bloody tunic for David, fresh from the killing of Goliath.

Still, it was a treat to hear this early, great example of Handel’s foray into the realm of English oratorio, which balances fine arias with expressive choral writing and some unusual orchestral choices—the “Dead March,” for example, pairs timpani and flute, and Saul’s madness is heralded by the bell-like sounds of a glockenspiel. Christopher Dylan Herbert was a properly demented Saul, Jessica Muirhead was fierce as Merab, Marie-Eve Munger contrastingly sweet and warm as her sister, Michal, and Ryland Angel intense as their brother, Jonathan, who tries unsuccessfully to temper Saul’s rage against David. Members of the choir ably took the smaller roles, most notably Dashon Burton, who brought sinister weight to the Ghost of Samuel and his prophecy of doom. And while it was odd to see Saul strangle Jonathan at the end of Act II (Jonathan actually dies defending Saul in the battle with the Philistines in Act III), it made “O fatal consequence,” the chilling chorus that closes Act II—superbly sung here—all the more affecting, as the choir, holding lighted candles, filed out from its distant niche to surround the audience.

Sun, January 4, 2015

An Unhinged King’s Downfall, in a Chapel Setting
The New York Times

As all those best-of-2014 lists start to fade into memory, a strong contender for the 2015 classical music honors has already appeared.

Julian Wachner and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, fresh off their annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” offered a rare staged production of another Handel oratorio, “Saul,” at St. Paul’s Chapel on Friday evening (with a repeat on Sunday). And unlike “Messiah,” in some ways disappointing this year, “Saul,” which was presented as part of Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival, was simply superb.

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An Unhinged King’s Downfall, in a Chapel Setting
Handel’s ‘Saul’ at Twelfth Night Festival

By JAMES R. OESTREICHJAN. 4, 2015

As all those best-of-2014 lists start to fade into memory, a strong contender for the 2015 classical music honors has already appeared.

Julian Wachner and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, fresh off their annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” offered a rare staged production of another Handel oratorio, “Saul,” at St. Paul’s Chapel on Friday evening (with a repeat on Sunday). And unlike “Messiah,” in some ways disappointing this year, “Saul,” which was presented as part of Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival, was simply superb.

No question, this three-act work, composed to a libretto by Charles Jennens, holds drama, with its vivid characterizations of the increasingly unhinged Saul, king of Israel, and the unfailingly earnest David, slayer of Goliath and imminent successor to Saul. Saul’s son Jonathan and daughters, Merab and Michal, also come to lesser life.

Trinity’s production, with James Darrah as stage director and Julia Eichten as associate director and choreographer, proved elegantly simple, placing the action mostly on an elevated platform running the length of the chapel and splitting the audience in the nave. Robert and Rachel Danes’s updated costumes were attractive, with the purposeful exception of David’s bloody tatters after that Goliath incident.

The staging took liberties with the plot. Handel and Jennens begin Act III with a prophecy, delivered by the Ghost of Samuel, that Saul and Jonathan will meet their ends on the field of battle. But in this production Jonathan was already dead by the end of Act II, strangled by the demented Saul, the corpse left covered onstage throughout the second intermission and Act III.

This solution, though it required viewers to adjust mentally in the third act, carried the drama persuasively through the second. But more than anything, it was the work of the individual performers that brought the piece to life, dramatically as well as musically.

The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was utterly riveting as David, singing with a vocal purity and an emotional range that combined forcibly in this intimate space. Christopher Dylan Herbert, a baritone as Saul, was also everywhere eloquent and convincing.

The cast was admirably filled out by Ryland Angel, who often performs as a countertenor, as he was identified in the program book, but was heard here in his natural baritonal range, as Jonathan; Jessica Muirhead, a soprano, as Merab; and Marie-Eve Munger, another soprano, as Michal.

Dashon Burton, a bass-baritone, was typically stellar and mightily imposing as the Ghost of Samuel, and Molly Quinn sang the unnamed soprano part in the overture beautifully (and went unidentified in the program book).

The chorus and orchestra were excellent, as usual. Handel’s most imaginative touch of orchestration, which calls for some sort of carillon, was well served here by a combination of celesta and glockenspiel.

As a final fillip, a portion of the audience was seated at tables and provided with wine, as if to take part in a banquet in Saul’s palace. All in all, a thoroughly engaging and uplifting evening of music, drama and spirit.

Sun, January 4, 2015

Isn’t it necromantic?
Parterre Box

Wachner led a vastly energetic performance, in full control of his orchestra, chorus and soloists wherever they might have got to—upstairs into the choir loft, around back of the champagne tables, you just never knew where one of Handel’s sublime chorales was going to leap out at you. His Trinity Baroque Orchestra sometimes had a bumpy time with certain virtuoso passages for valveless instruments. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street fitted into the space like Handel’s organ-playing hands in kid gloves.

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Isn’t it necromantic?

by John Yohalem | 1:16 pm | Jan 4, 2015

St. Paul’s Chapel is the perfect site for Saul, Handel’s finest dramatic oratorio. Not only are the acoustics brilliant, but Paul’s name was actually Saul before that unfortunate DUI on the road to Damascus. Accordingly, the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and the choir of Trinity Wall Street presented the piece on Friday night as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival, fully staged as is currently the fashion for concert oratorios, and will repeat the event on Sunday at three. 

Twelfth Night downtown is becoming a major feature of the holiday season. This year the music covers some eight hundred years, from the Play of Daniel to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers to a number of contemporary works. Tickets for admission run from pricey to free. Saul was on the pricey side, at least downstairs, with sight lines, chocolates and champagne. Upstairs we had no such luxe, but the chorus sounded amazing. The score was very much pared down but still ran three hours with two intermissions. I could be wrong, but this may be the first time Saul has been staged in New York; anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen that done.

The stage area was a raised platform down the central aisle of the chapel, a throne at the western end, a cauldron burning incense at the other. The action was difficult to see from upstairs and must have been difficult for the performers to coordinate, but the problem for the musicians was cleverly solved by placing an assistant conductor at the western end of the chapel. His job was to relay cues from Julian Wachner, the conductor, who stood, gesturing theatrically, in the apse, before the orchestra and the chorus.

The stage direction by James Darrah was stately and unfussy—oratorios were not intended for the theater (it was illegal to present Bible stories on the stage), and the combination of Handel’s intent and a rather static theatricality based on arias that reflect upon action rather than commit it, sets up problems that not all directors solve. Compromises are necessary.

We began with a processional entrance of a court in formal dress whites, Saul on his throne, Jonathan at his right hand, Saul’s daughters, Merab and Michal on the left. A figure in bloody clothing crawled painfully up the stairs behind them to this imperious grouping, dragging a shapeless bag. It was, of course, David, and the bag contained the head of newly slain Goliath.

The opening triumphant choruses being over, a sound filled the room, small and pure and growing ever larger, a recorder or some sort of baroque oboe—was my thought. None of the above: Anthony Roth Costanzo, the upandcoming countertenor, singing his first aria. (David was written to be sung by a woman, but so what?) This was the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard from ARC, full of that moving stillness that is the heart of Handel’s greatest dramatic music. He is a charismatic singing actor, making a witty thing of his flirtations with both Michal and Jonathan, looking lost and desolate at the oratorio’s tragic conclusion, facing the throne from which he cannot now escape. As often happens with this singer, his faster passages, though skillfully deployed, were of a thinner, less persuasive texture.

The finest singer in the cast was a soprano unknown to me, Jessica Muirhead, a Canadian who won the George London prize in 2013. She drew the thankless role of Merab, Saul’s elder daughter, who resents being offered to a slingshot-firing shepherd but later goes through changes, fearing her father’s incipient madness and admiring David’s qualities. Her scorn in Act I was fiery; her later pensiveness presented the ache of regret and foresight arching through the room on cool, endless breaths. The voice is deep and commanding, the actress’s tragic sensibility highly attractive.

Marie-Eve Munger sang a bright and pretty Michal, the princess who falls for David and wins his hand, a duet (only one on this occasion), and the spirited Biblical scene of fending off an overbearing soldier while David makes his getaway.

Ryland Angel sang Jonathan in a supple tenor. Melissa Atterbury, an alto, sang the veiled necromantic Witch of Endor, a role that is supposed to be sung by a tenor and used to be given to the most eldritch countertenor available; like the Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas (often sung by tenors), she is meant to be genderless, inhuman, weird.  I did not detect any weirdness in Atterbury’s interpretation. Bass Dashon Burton (enhanced by lengthy dreadlocks) sang the Ghost of Samuel, his brief, bitter utterance possessing a threatening excitement.

There were no baritones in Handel’s day; the voice is a nineteenth-century category. The title role in the oratorio was given here, nonetheless, to a baritone, Christopher Dylan Herbert, an actor of imposing utterance and commanding brow, stalking about the stage in agonized and murderous silence during ritornellos. It was not easy to take your eyes off him, and we were all startled (especially if we knew the Bible or the libretto, in which no such event occurs) when, on Jonathan’s defying his command to murder David, he slowly strangled his son before our eyes then, clutching the body, wept, silently. (Jonathan has nothing further to sing at this point; the director took this hint to be rid of him.)

Herbert’s voice is pleasant and well trained, but when all is said, he’s a baritone and Saul was written for a bass. Much of Saul’s madness, his furious reflections, his erupting rage is set in registers or backed by overtones that were not available to a baritone. Was this trade-off necessary? Surely there are basses around who can act, who might have made the rafters ring and shaken us in our shoes.

Wachner led a vastly energetic performance, in full control of his orchestra, chorus and soloists wherever they might have got to—upstairs into the choir loft, around back of the champagne tables, you just never knew where one of Handel’s sublime chorales was going to leap out at you. His Trinity Baroque Orchestra sometimes had a bumpy time with certain virtuoso passages for valveless instruments. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street fitted into the space like Handel’s organ-playing hands in kid gloves.

Not the least of the occasion’s pleasures was the absence of titling. Most of the words were clear enough (especially from Muirhead) and the plot is not difficult to follow, even if (unlike Handel’s audience) you haven’t read the Book of Samuel. I prefer to let some syllables pass than have my attention distracted by blinking lights, and am grateful to the Twelfth Nighters—though no doubt their justification is that the awkward space would not easily accommodate titles in any location.

You don’t need them. Listen to the wonderful music.

Sat, January 3, 2015

Review:  Saul NEW YORK CITY Trinity Baroque
Opera News

Wachner’s forces by and large sounded splendid, the many marvels of Handelian orchestration —celesta in a chorus, the flute and drum in the famous “Dead March,” the lamenting bassoons under bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s thrillingly intoned Ghost of Samuel — emerged tellingly. The Chorus of Trinity Wall Street displayed fine ensemble with precise cutoffs and proved commendably sonorous throughout.

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Saul

NEW YORK CITY
Trinity Baroque
1/3/15

For Trinity Baroque’s staging of Saul in St. Paul’s Church, a centerpiece of its increasingly essential annual Twelfth Night festival, director James Darrah and conductor Julian Wachner streamlined Handel’s striking 1738 score considerably, shedding the overture and many numbers (and even a recurring character, the High Priest) but fashioning an entrancing, ultimately moving music drama in the relatively intimate, acoustically excellent space. With the orchestra and — save for key dramatic moments — chorus at one end of the church, the action largely took place on a raised table surrounded by tables at which many spectators sat; others sat or stood in galleries above. No one could have been bored. Robert and Rachel Danes’s apt, handsome costumes (largely black and white) and the precise lighting by Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald forged a simple yet effective aesthetic, and Darrah deployed his singing actors like chess pieces.

Heard January 3 — the second of two performances — the whole cast merited praise. Christopher Dylan Herbert’s king — jealous and touchy from the get-go and starkly raving soon enough — evoked Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic Ivan the Terrible, Nikolai Cherkassov, in both the affecting-but-almost-over-the-top-suffering and the youthful, vigorous good looks. For the Lear-like patriarch Charles Jennens’ text evokes, Herbert’s Saul looked an age with his daughters and David and younger than his son Jonathan; even graying his temples might have helped. An effective baritone with decent agility, Herbert strove to provide the power and color his instrument understandably lacked on the lower end of this bass role. 

As his youthful involuntary foil David, Anthony Roth Costanzo gave a musically and dramatically inspired performance. An assured and subtle Handelian, Costanzo’s legato-based countertenor sounded especially entrancing in the hero’s slow numbers:  he launched his initial aria “O King” with the first of several spectacular messe di voce and crafted challenging, stylish cadenzas, keeping the audience raptly at attention. Costanzo owned and inflected the text expertly — though oddly, like the rest of the cast, his words fuzzed over when singing while kneeling, in his case in the remarkable prayer “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, with its trill-laden flourishes. A detailed actor, he revealed the pain and pride of the successful outsider to the court and made credible and telling the shepherd boy’s erotic attraction to both the princess Michal — whom Darrah wisely had tend David’s bloody wounds — and her brother Jonathan, his staunch advocate. Another countertenor, the stylish Ryland Angel, took the tenor role of Jonathan soundly enough and with abundant expression but with unexpected registration, often baritonal and merely occasional resorts into headiness at phrase endings. In a further Ivan the Terrible touch, Darrah had Saul strangle Jonathan viscerally at the end of Part II. Unorthodox as it was — the death of both father and son in battle is reported in Part III — the choice made visual sense, as Jonathan’s body remained onstage for his sisters and beloved friend to mourn. 

Wachner cast both sisters with fine, emotionally communicative sopranos. Jessica Muirhead’s bright, daring singing lit up the church. With a darker timbre and despite somewhat occluded diction, Marie-Eve Munger offered a moving, technically assured Michal. Alto Melissa Attebury riveted attention as a clarion Witch of Endor

Wachner’s forces by and large sounded splendid, the many marvels of Handelian orchestration —celesta in a chorus, the flute and drum in the famous “Dead March,” the lamenting bassoons under bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s thrillingly intoned Ghost of Samuel — emerged tellingly. The Chorus of Trinity Wall Street displayed fine ensemble with precise cutoffs and proved commendably sonorous throughout.  [spacer]  

DAVID SHENGOLD  

Sun, December 28, 2014

A Feast and a Lions’ Den, Conveyed in Multiple Ways
The New York Times

This event was part of the fourth annual Trinity Wall Street Twelfth Night Festival, a 12-day series at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, produced with the Gotham Early Music Scene. This production of “The Play of Daniel” was originally commissioned by the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Minter’s staging was conceived with that specific space in mind.

But the production proved very adaptable to Trinity Church when it was presented there for last year’s Twelfth Night Festival. I could imagine this music drama becoming a popular holiday season offering.

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A Feast and a Lions’ Den, Conveyed in Multiple Ways
‘The Play of Daniel,’ at Trinity Church

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

DEC. 28, 2014

When attending any kind of music drama written in a language other than English, American audiences have come to expect that the text will be performed in an English translation or some system of projected supertitles will be employed.

But for its acclaimed production of “The Play of Daniel,” the medieval music drama that dates from 12th-century France, Trinity Church has a charming solution to the problem that allows both for easy understanding of the story and fidelity to the original sources.

This production, directed by Drew Minter, with music direction by Mary Anne Ballard, begins with a storyteller, a woman costumed appropriately to biblical times, who welcomes the audience in conversational English. She then tells the whole story of the play based on “Belshazzar’s Feast” and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” two incidents from the biblical account of the Hebrew prophet Daniel. As she speaks, she introduces the costumed singers from the cast who essentially mime the entire play in under 10 minutes. Then, the actual music drama, which lasts about an hour, begins, with the text sung in the original Latin and Medieval French.

On Saturday afternoon, for the first of four performances, the storyteller was the affable Sarah Jane Harshman. When the music started with a solemn chant in Latin, even the children in the audience seemed engrossed, since they already knew what was going to happen.

This event was part of the fourth annual Trinity Wall Street Twelfth Night Festival, a 12-day series at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, produced with the Gotham Early Music Scene. This production of “The Play of Daniel” was originally commissioned by the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Minter’s staging was conceived with that specific space in mind.

But the production proved very adaptable to Trinity Church when it was presented there for last year’s Twelfth Night Festival. I could imagine this music drama becoming a popular holiday season offering.

“The Play of Daniel,” scholars believe, was first performed by male youths of Beauvais Cathedral in France in the part of the 12th century. The source materials include the texts and vocal lines with only scant indications of what instruments might have been used. The vocal lines have long passages of chant and the medieval equivalent of pop tunes. But the rhythms of the melodies are not indicated. So Ms. Ballard had to rhythmatize, so to speak, the music.

As presented here, “The Play of Daniel” represents an informed speculation about what the music was like. The music is splendid, the story remains wonderful, and the performance by the cast, accompanied by an ensemble of recorders, lutes and other medieval instruments, was delightful.

The tenor James Ruff brought a virile voice and dignity to the role of Daniel, held captive by King Belshazzar, here the stentorian bass-baritone Peter Walker. The countertenor José Lemos was aptly eerie as the usurping King Darius. The soprano Sarah Pillow radiated calm as the wise Queen, Belshazzar’s mother.

“The Play of Daniel” is for the most part a choral work, and these appealing singers, costumed colorfully (by Sasha Richter) as obsequious counselors, Magi, soldiers and two angels, performed the processional chants and fetching songs with penetrating sound and rich character.

Fri, December 26, 2014

Performing Arts: 2014 in Review
Washington Life

1.  A First of Many: The Washington Chorus gave a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” for its season opener. The chorus itself has performed the work several times before, but it was the first time music director Julian Wachner had ever conducted the work professionally. In his post reception remarks, Wachner shared the fact that he steered away from approaching the work because he never had a choir that could perform it. The maestro could not have asked for a better first outing with such a large-scale work. Homegrown bass Kevin Thompson got the opportunity to make his Kennedy Center main stage debut unexpectedly after being called to replace the previously cast bass soloist. What a heartwarming moment it was to witness two young men experience two unique musical milestones in the context of a large-scale performance.

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Performing Arts: 2014 in Review
Posted on 26 December 2014

A look back at top performances and highlights of the Washington arts scene.

By Patrick D. McCoy

It has been quite a vibrant year for the arts in our nation’s capital. We’ve rounded up our “Top 5″ highlights from 2014 and we look forward to continued coverage of our mainstay performances at the Kennedy Center and the Music Center at Strathmore, as well as new outings, performances and conversations with great artists.

5. Recordings, sopranos and divas:  You don’t have to go very far to find star-quality opera singers, especially sopranos. Two talented sopranos embarked on unique concert and recording projects. Danielle Talamantes recently hosted a launch recital for her new CD “Canciones espanolas” featuring the music of Spanish composers not commonly recorded. Accompanied by pianist Henry Dehlinger, the recording is a wonderful musical exploration of vocal repertoire that sometimes does not get equal attention in the concert hall.   Downtown at All Soul’s Church, Marlissa Hudson took it all the way out of the box in a special program she assembled called “The Conversation.” A concert fusing jazz, gospel and classical music together, Hudson uniquely created a space that allowed seemingly different genres to co-exist together.

4. Saving the day: Washington National Opera presented duo opera couple soprano Ailyn Perez and tenor Stephen Costello in what was billed as a joint effort. The program actually became the impromptu Kennedy Center recital debut for Perez in light of her husband’s illness which prevented him from performing with this wife. Though the audience may have been disappointed at first, Perez wowed them with a diverse program of recital repertoire and opera arias. We left wanting to hear more from this voice that certainly has the making of a superstar soprano.

3.  Across State Lines: WL Performing Arts served as moderator for the symposium series at the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC. Founded by Lee Pringle, the festival celebrates the contributions of African American classical musicians.  Also participating from the Washington arts community was Folger Consort manager Jennifer Bowman and Wayne Brown, who served as director of music and opera for the National Endowment of the Arts before becoming CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre.

2.  New Lady in Town: This year’s addition to the pantheon of arts leadership in Washington was Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. Rutter, the center’s first female president, had her first official outing at the National Symphony Opening Ball Concert. Also on hand for the festivities was concert violinist Joshua Bell, who added to the air of celebration apparent with Rutter’s arrival.

1.  A First of Many: The Washington Chorus gave a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” for its season opener. The chorus itself has performed the work several times before, but it was the first time music director Julian Wachner had ever conducted the work professionally. In his post reception remarks, Wachner shared the fact that he steered away from approaching the work because he never had a choir that could perform it. The maestro could not have asked for a better first outing with such a large-scale work. Homegrown bass Kevin Thompson got the opportunity to make his Kennedy Center main stage debut unexpectedly after being called to replace the previously cast bass soloist. What a heartwarming moment it was to witness two young men experience two unique musical milestones in the context of a large-scale performance.

As we move into 2015, we await the many performance opportunities ahead as the arts get into full swing.

Thu, December 18, 2014

Again, the Angels Sing
The New York Times

The Trinity performances, conducted over the last decade or so by Julian Wachner, are more stable from year to year. The vocal soloists are drawn from the splendid choir, and the period-instrument band, led by the estimable violinist Robert Mealy, includes some of New York’s finest players.

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Again, the Angels Sing
‘Messiah’ by the Philharmonic and the Trinity Choir

By JAMES R. OESTREICHDEC. 18, 2014

The perennial “Messiah” productions in New York split between change and sameness in varying degrees. The two that returned this week — those by the New York Philharmonic, on Tuesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, on Wednesday evening — in some ways represent the extremes.

A certain amount of change has been built into the Philharmonic performances in recent years, as the orchestra has turned to a rotating roster of early-music conductors. This year, Gary Thor Wedow, who made his Philharmonic debut with “Messiah” in 2012, has returned.

The changes can be subtle and hard to detect amid an orchestra of modern instruments playing at modern pitch (a half tone higher than Baroque). This year, for example, Mr. Wedow introduces a theorbo (a twanging, long-necked lute, played here by Daniel Swenberg) into the continuo mix, though its “marvelous sonorities,” as Mr. Wedow rightly calls them in a program note, scarcely register.

More obvious is his introduction of a boy soprano in the recitatives of angelic prophecy. The 11-year-old Connor Tsui is utterly charming in his short proclamations, which he performs from memory (being, after all, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus).

But Mr. Wedow’s playing of a virginal, a small harpsichordlike instrument, to accompany those brief numbers, with a harpsichordist available, seems mere affectation. The curious-looking instrument stands in front of him throughout, almost wholly unused, as a mere distraction.

Other elements of change include the vocal soloists, different from year to year. The standout this time is Iestyn Davies, a light-voiced but alluring countertenor, in the alto arias. The others — Camilla Tilling, soprano; Michael Slattery, tenor; and James Westman, baritone — offer more conventionally operatic weight, which sits heavily on Handel. The Westminster Symphonic Choir is typically excellent.

The Trinity performances, conducted over the last decade or so by Julian Wachner, are more stable from year to year. The vocal soloists are drawn from the splendid choir, and the period-instrument band, led by the estimable violinist Robert Mealy, includes some of New York’s finest players.

Especially notable among the vocal soloists this year are Marie-Eve Munger and Jessica Muirhead, sopranos; Luthien Brackett, mezzo-soprano; Clifton Massey, countertenor; and Stephen Sands, tenor. Christopher Burchett, who handled most of the bass arias well on Wednesday, hit the shoals in his big number, “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Was it a matter of trying too hard to impress? That, in any case, is where the performances at Avery Fisher and Trinity Church converged.

In both, there were numerous instances of melodic embellishment run riot. Graceful (yes, the appropriate little ornaments used to be called graces), tasteful little turns and flourishes can add immeasurably to performances of Baroque music. But each of these offered several instances of gross display, with the music sometimes almost rewritten.

It is hard to believe that much of this was, in the motto that Trinity has arrogated to its performance, “the way Handel intended.”

Tue, November 18, 2014

The Season at SFO
The Wall Street Journal

Baroque music specialist Julian Wachner led a molto simpatico orchestra of 40, and played harpsichord continuo. Anyone comfortable with Handel’s early operas would have been pleased with the music.

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Opera Review

The Season at SFO
San Francisco Opera performs Bellini’s “Norma,” Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Puccini’s “Tosca,” Handel’s “Partenope” and Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”
By David Littlejohn

San Francisco

Taken altogether, I prefer the better operas of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner—along with a few works by modern composers—to those of Vicenzo Bellini. But the astonishing vocal quality of the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” which opened the fall season in September, convinced me that it may be the one perfect opera, even if it is almost impossible to get it right.

This emotionally compelling music-drama, which reveals the loves of two druid priestesses for Pollione, the leader of the invading Roman forces, was the best-sung version of the opera I have heard since January 1958, when Maria Callas quit after one spellbinding act in Rome. I have heard stronger Polliones than Russell Thomas, although he held his own alongside the two female leads. In a major local debut, Jamie Barton sang Adalgisa, Norma’s protégée and rival for Pollione’s affections, as well as anyone I have heard since Marilyn Horne in 1982. Sondra Radvanovsky, repeating her triumph at the Metropolitan Opera last year, was the finest Norma I have encountered in over half a century, despite a couple of millisecond breaks and screeches on high notes. The dialogues, duets and trios of the three achieved a rare and blissful union, within and over Bellini’s sublime music. Unfortunately the sets, costumes, direction and physical acting fell below the level of the singing.

***

The first two acts of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” although graced with some lyrical arias and duets, were muddled by comic-opera performers and irrelevant, inconsequential action. More suave conducting, clever direction and imaginative sets might have helped.

The production was saved by the Amelia of Julianna Di Giacomo, who has a glowing, creamy soprano. At age 59, baritone Thomas Hampson may be slightly past his prime, but his duets and his mixed-emotion “Eri tu” were excellent. Ramón Vargas’s thin, pinched tenor was overwhelmed by Ms. Di Giacomo in the first two acts, but he came into his own (before and after being shot) during the masked ball. Dolora Zajick, now 62, can go on singing throaty Verdian witches as long as she likes.

***

The 2014 production of Puccini’s “Tosca” was designed in 1997 for the San Francisco Opera’s 75th anniversary, in a free adaptation of Armando Agnini’s traditional, historicist sets of many years ago. More elegant than expressive (her “Vissi d’Arte” was a showstopper, but then the aria always is), Lianna Haroutounian in the title role lacked the house-filling power of great Toscas I have heard in the past. Brian Jagde, her Cavaradossi, crooned all of his three big arias with a warm, well-placed tenor. But he also showed little of the ringing tone or vocal power of better predecessors. A major disappointment was Mark Delavan’s Scarpia: A memorable Wotan/Wanderer in our “American” Ring of 2011, he lacked the resonance and ring of evil this operatic arch-villain demands.

***

“Partenope” (1730), a little-known opera by Handel, uses one of his nonsensical plots of classical kings and queens in love. San Francisco Opera had the wisdom to engage a genuine diva, Danielle de Niese—the ruling mistress of the rapid, evenly spaced baroque trill—who displays in the title role a silvery voice that races all over Handel’s nearly impossible-to-sing score while she performs convincing love scenes, dances and circus acts. The company also had the audacity to rent Christopher Alden’s surrealistic Paris-in-the-1920s production from the English National Opera, which adds its own kind of nonsense on top of Handel’s. The gorgeous, inexhaustible Ms. de Niese was happily paired with David Daniels, the world’s leading countertenor, and three other suitors—one of whom is a woman in disguise. Baroque music specialist Julian Wachner led a molto simpatico orchestra of 40, and played harpsichord continuo. Anyone comfortable with Handel’s early operas would have been pleased with the music.

Mr. Alden’s chic, modernist production is set around an endless card party in a white Paris apartment, constantly interrupted for drinks from a bar alongside a spectacular curving staircase. Characters from 1730/1920 tap-dance, twirl batons, tumble down the stairs, get locked in a toilet, take off their clothes, make love onstage—all while hitting each hemidemisemiquaver precisely on target.

***

The real star of the company’s “La Cenerentola” (Rossini’s racy, racing 1817 version of “Cinderella”) was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), who first designed and directed this production in 1969. It has been seen here during six seasons, as well as in many other places. The two gray, sculpted Maurice Sendak-style Renaissance sets (Don Magnifico’s tattered mansion and Prince Ramiro’s elegant palace) are a delight for a well chosen cast to play in. The singers—seven near-perfect principals and a clever 20-man chorus (the prince’s entourage)—were set dancing both by the almost unfailingly witty score and the ingenious direction of Ponnelle and his sympathetic re-creators. Three of the lead singers were new to us this time around—Karine Deshayes, a delicious French coloratura-mezzo, as enchanting as Magnifico’s mistreated housemaid as she was as a princess-to-be sparkling with diamonds; Carlos Chausson from Spain, who has sung Don Magnifico (one of the great basso buffo roles) all over Europe; and René Barbera as Prince Ramiro—with Efraín Solis (an Adler Fellow from Mexico) as his valet and alter ego—pushing his high tenor further than was wise.

The one problem I have with this jolly opera comes from Jacopo Ferretti’s hastily written (and largely borrowed) libretto. To transform a simple fairy tale into a full-length opera, he padded out every part with superfluous additions, which grow more irrelevant and repetitious as the work goes on. And on. The first hour of this 2½-hour-long work, in which the basic story is established, is pure Rossinian joy—for singers, audience and orchestra: Jesús López-Cobos and his bouncing band had the composer’s rhythms in their blood. But after that point, number after number leads one to ask, Why is this song here? If Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” is performed far more often than his “Cinderella,” there is reason for their relative popularity.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.

Mon, November 17, 2014

Wachner, Washington Chorus give powerful performance of ungainly ‘Missa Solemnis’
The Washington Post

Wachner, the group’s music director and conductor, didn’t try to paper over the work’s oddities. If anything, he highlighted its contrasts: the tension, for instance, between the quartet of soloists — individual voices in an essentially formal presentation — and the massed chorus, huge yet capable of an immediate intimacy. Toward the end of the opening “Kyrie” movement, after the ornate tangle of voices had meshed in tapestry, the unison chorus quietly emerged with the “son” in the word “eleison,” vivid and briefly free of the trappings of the orchestra that surrounded it.

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Wachner, Washington Chorus give powerful performance of ungainly ‘Missa Solemnis’

By Anne Midgette

Classical music critic/The Classical Beat November 17

We’re sometimes led to think that musical masterpieces of the past fit partly into molds: sonata form, symphony, concerto. In fact, however, many of them are sui generis, remembered less for exemplifying a genre than for exploding it.

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” is an example so ungainly that it has only a tenuous foothold in the standard repertoire: not exactly a rarity, but certainly less beloved than other genre-busting pieces, such as Verdi’s Requiem, or Brahms’s. Is it a religious work? A personal meditation? Uneven, discursive, inspired, all of the above? Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus offered no easy answers Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. They simply presented the work, quirks and all, in an ultimately powerful performance.

Wachner, the group’s music director and conductor, didn’t try to paper over the work’s oddities. If anything, he highlighted its contrasts: the tension, for instance, between the quartet of soloists — individual voices in an essentially formal presentation — and the massed chorus, huge yet capable of an immediate intimacy. Toward the end of the opening “Kyrie” movement, after the ornate tangle of voices had meshed in tapestry, the unison chorus quietly emerged with the “son” in the word “eleison,” vivid and briefly free of the trappings of the orchestra that surrounded it.

It wasn’t a reading that necessarily aimed at beauty — fittingly enough, given the work’s inherent thorniness. The chorus’s tenor section often sounded strident and forced, baying out open-throated notes in their upper register on entrances — an approach that finally made sense in the final movement, the “Agnus Dei,” when their sound contrasted forcefully, in the “miserere,” with the warm, earthy bass of the soloist Kevin Thompson. (Thompson, substituting for an indisposed Morris Robinson, is a local talent with a burgeoning international opera career.)

The sense of unevenness and individuality extended to the four soloists; Thompson was the urbane fundament to a varied quartet. Beethoven was arguably not a natural writer for the voice and was completely deaf by the time he composed this work; the result is challenging music that sometimes flows beautifully and sometimes taxes the singers. This was most true, on Sunday, for the soprano and tenor: Julia Sophie Wagner’s shining soprano was, at one point in the “Sanctus,” forced to a near-scream, while Vale Rideout’s distinctive, baritonal tenor sounded strained for part of the performance. Rideout is clearly doing something right, though, because he sang his way into the piece and delivered his best work in the final movement. Daniela Mack provided a firm, clear mezzo.

Although this is a wild tangle of a piece, it elicited one of the most physically contained performances I can remember seeing from Wachner. Usually a conductor of big, emphatic gestures, he was unusually economical in his movements Sunday, and more authoritative, although I didn’t always hear from the orchestra the effects of the gestures I could see. He conducted graphically during the violin solo in the “Benedictus” but refrained from the superfluous gesture of conducting the soloist herself — Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra and of Sunday’s pickup orchestra, who occasionally drifted slightly flat but played radiantly in one of Beethoven’s gifts to violinists and those who love to hear them. Wachner also emphasized the off-kilter quality of some instrumental passages — in, for instance, the Sanctus (“osanna”) and Agnus Dei — which lurched lustily rather than lilted.

A flaw of the “Missa Solemnis” is rhetorical: Its movements often trail off as though unable to sustain the weight of their own arguments with a decisive conclusion, and its end is one of its weaker parts. Credit, then, to Wachner and the robust, well-prepared Washington Chorus for offering a reading in which this final movement, with its orchestral interleavings, seemed to make sense, not necessarily as a culmination, but simply because there was no more to be said.

Fri, November 14, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW: A Note on Philharmonia Baroque, with Julian Wachner & Andreas Scholl
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Wachner, following his San Francisco Opera debut with Handel’s Partenope, which featured countertenor David Daniel, a favorite with Philharmonia Baroque listeners, made his Philharmonia debut with grace and humor, acquitting well the various orchestral pieces—Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, Telemann’s Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe & Two Horns, as well as the prodigious First Brandenburg Concerto at the end of the program, which featured a half dozen winds and the violino piccolo.

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Arts & Events
MUSIC REVIEW: A Note on Philharmonia Baroque, with Julian Wachner & Andreas Scholl

Ken Bullock
Friday November 14, 2014

Last weekend saw a very rich musical program at the First Congregational Church, with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Julian Wachner conducting, playing Bach, Handel and Telemann, with countertenor Andreas Scholl singing arias from Handel's Giulio Cesara and Rodelinda as well as the Bach Cantata No. 170, "Vernügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust." 

Wachner, following his San Francisco Opera debut with Handel's Partenope, which featured countertenor David Daniel, a favorite with Philharmonia Baroque listeners, made his Philharmonia debut with grace and humor, acquitting well the various orchestral pieces--Bach's Sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, Telemann's Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe & Two Horns, as well as the prodigious First Brandenburg Concerto at the end of the program, which featured a half dozen winds and the violino piccolo.  

Wachner repeatedly brought the audience's attention to the excellent soloists, having horn player R. J. Kelley demonstrate the properties and style of his ancient instrument, different from the modern French horn in many ways, with some comments by Kelley ("There're very few people in the world who have mastered this valveless instrument," said Wachner of Kelley), and led the group in achieving a very bright, upbeat orchestral sound on a beautiful late Fall Sunday afternoon.  

He also commented on the music of both Brandenburg No. 1 and the Telemann Concerto, hoping to erase the possible sense that the more traditional Telemann was chosen merely as foil for the Bach: "It's quite a wonderful piece ... the Bach's still shocking, though!" 

Scholler's singing was brilliant, crystalline, sparkling and pointed, with charm and clarity of tone, and an occasional wistful or plaintive edge, quite different than that famous "melancholy" of Daniel. On the Bach Cantata, he showed a great sense of fluidity and continuity To repeated callbacks by the enthusiastic audience, he gave as encore an affecting rendition of Handel's "Ombra Mai Fu." 

Both singer and conductor are also composers--Wachner a very modern artist, Scholl more modest, known for his music to Deutsche Grammophon audiobooks of Hans Christian Andersen stories.  

It was a wonderful match of orchestra, guest conductor and guest artist, a satisfying afternoon.




 

Fri, November 14, 2014

Wachner auf: when a performer seeks to disturb
The Washington Post

So here’s a case study of how criticism can be unhelpful. Julian Wachner, the conductor and composer, made his debut with Philharmonia Baroque, an early-music orchestra, while I was in San Francisco, and had his performance reviewed 17 times and discussed intensely by the Rubin Institute fellows, most of them young musicians themselves. Their reviews represented a whole spectrum of opinions, but most of them took some note of the first Brandenburg concerto, which concluded the program. I was struck by that Brandenburg myself, and not in a good way; it was very fast and chaotic, especially at the beginning, to the point of seeming out of control.

I later posted on Facebook the two professional reviews of the performance that Julian linked himself. A Facebook friend, who had been at the concert, commented on my page that she had stayed after the concert for the post-concert talk, during which Julian stated that he had deliberately taken it very fast, and “that he hoped the listener found this section [the first movement] disturbing, because he believes it should be.”

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Wachner auf: when a performer seeks to disturb

By Anne Midgette November 14 at 11:19 AM

In the Washington Post: my profile of the conductor and composer Julian Wachner, who will lead the Washington Chorus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this afternoon.

I’ve been thinking about criticism with a particular self-conscious focus of late in the wake of, first, the story about Dejan Lazic, the pianist who wrote the Post asking that a review be taken offline, and second, my participation in the Rubin Institute in San Francisco, a workshop that seeks to identify and encourage the next generation of music critics, and involved talking about criticism for hours every day.

So here’s a case study of how criticism can be unhelpful. Julian Wachner, the conductor and composer, made his debut with Philharmonia Baroque, an early-music orchestra, while I was in San Francisco, and had his performance reviewed 17 times and discussed intensely by the Rubin Institute fellows, most of them young musicians themselves. Their reviews represented a whole spectrum of opinions, but most of them took some note of the first Brandenburg concerto, which concluded the program. I was struck by that Brandenburg myself, and not in a good way; it was very fast and chaotic, especially at the beginning, to the point of seeming out of control.

I later posted on Facebook the two professional reviews of the performance that Julian linked himself. A Facebook friend, who had been at the concert, commented on my page that she had stayed after the concert for the post-concert talk, during which Julian stated that he had deliberately taken it very fast, and “that he hoped the listener found this section [the first movement] disturbing, because he believes it should be.”

This was, to me, a bracing reminder of the occasional weakness of the critic-performer relationship: when an artist deliberately does something different and provocative, and the critics are quick to squeal, “Different!” without thinking about the reasons behind that difference, or whether it might have been intended. You could argue, of course, that the performer should let the audience know, through onstage remarks or program notes what he’s trying to do; but part of the effect would be slightly muted if the conductor said, “I want this to disturb you!” before conducting something disturbing. We shouldn’t need to be spoon-fed; and it might behoove us to be slightly more sophisticated in our responses — in classical music in particular.

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