Press

Fri, October 17, 2014

Why ‘Partenope?’ A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera.

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Why PARTENOPE? A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean

I have often said that when attending a Handel opera, even for the first time, as was the case when I heard Partenope on Wednesday, October 15, one comes out of the theater feeling one has heard the opera three times. This is because Handel followed the da capo pattern of his era, structuring each and every aria in an ABA pattern in which the aria is first sung all the way through, then developed with variation, and finally repeated “from the beginning” with or without further vocal embellishment. When listening to Handel, this ABA pattern can be extremely tedious. 

Handel’s Partenope, first produced in 1730 in London, at more or less a mid-point in Handel’s career as an opera composer, is a case in point. Especially, since even the impresario, Owen Swiney, who first introduced Partenope to the operatic stage in London in 1730, admitted that this opera “put me in a sweat… for it is the very worst book … that I ever read in my whole life.” Indeed, the anonymous libretto for Partenope, based on texts meant to serve previous operas, is more than a bit contrived and frivolous.  

Partenope has never before been seen here. In fact, this opera is rarely seen anywhere. Perhaps there’s a reason. However, Director Christopher Alden, who oversaw this staging, had created in 2008 an award-winning production of Partenope for English National Opera. Further, Alden had ties with San Francisco Opera, having previously directed productions, among others here, of Hans Werner Henze’s Das Verratene Meer (1991) and Stuart Wallace’s musically sophomoric (but locally celebrated) Harvey Milk (1996). So San Francisco Opera’s General Manager David Gockley chose, for better or worse—and ’m of two minds on this question—to bring to San Francisco Alden’s staging of Handel’s Partenope in this Fall’s season at the War Memorial Opera House.  

In his staging, Alden tried his best to make Partenope both interesting and relevant to our contemporary audiences. Handel set the plot in the Kingdom of Naples, where Partenope reigns as Queen. Director Alden set the opera in the Paris of the 1920s, in an era of artistic ferment enlivened by revolutionary movements in art and politics such as Dadaism and Surrealism. Alden makes Partenope a socialite hostess of a literary and artistic Parisian salon, where creative types gather around her and seek amorous favor from their “Queen Bee.” While Alden succeeded in some respects, he clearly overreached in others, alternately drawing laughs and trying our patience in an already long evening of listening to Handel’s musical repeats. (To their credit, San Francisco Opera made many musical cuts, shortening Partenope from a running time of over four hours to three hours and twenty minutes. However, even this shorter version seemed tedious and far too long, made only somewhat bearable by a number of sight gags thrown in by Director Alden to alleviate the tedium.) 

On paper, the cast seemed well-chosen. Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese as Partenope and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace are both noted Handel interpreters. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack seemed—and was—an excellent choice for the role of Rosmira, who dresses as a man (Eurimene) to win back—and/or take vengeance—on Arsace, who has betrayed her before the opera begins. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was selected for the role of Armindo, who moons in vain (until the ending) after Partenope. However, none of these noted singers managed to project anything whatsoever of the Italian text, and several of them, most notably Anthony Roth Costanzo, couldn’t consistently project their voices adequately in the War Memorial auditorium. In this respect, only tenor Alek Shrader, who sang the role of Emilio, exhibited both the vocal power and diction to make the Italian text clearly heard whenever he sang. 

Countertenor David Daniels as Arsace had ample opportunity in this opera to sing melancholy laments and longing expressions of forlorn love. Danielle de Niese as Partenope had a variety of different moods to express in her many arias, all of them beautifully sung, with a few lapses in the high notes, but totally absent of clear diction in Italian. Daniela Mack sang beautifully, expressing a variety of moods; but she too failed to make the Italian text clearly heard. Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo had a pleasant voice but was simply not strong enough to make much of a vocal impression.  

As the opera gets under way, all the male characters (and one female disguised as a male) seek to court Partenope. For her part, Partenope initially declares Arsace her favorite. Arsace, however, finds a young man named Eurimene dis-turbingly similar in looks to a woman, Rosmira, he has very recently jilted. This ‘Eurimene’, it soon turns out, is Rosmira disguised as a man; and when Arsace dis-covers this fact he is both remorseful and sworn to secrecy by Rosmira/Eurimene. Armindo and Emilio also declare themselves infatuated with Partenope, who seems to have them all wrapped around her little finger. 

In Act I, Director Alden stages much extraneous hi-jinks, such as having Armindo crawl rather than walk up a flight of stairs, then hang by his fingertips from the stairs while continuing to sing, then falling down a whole flight of stairs. Mean-while, Partenope and the other guests playing cards at her salon inexplicably don gas masks—a totally random bit of stagecraft unless one checks out the photograph in the opera program by Lee Miller, Man Ray’s lover, of a man wearing a gas mask from World War I. At this point, Alden’s staging seems all too arch and strained. 

In Act II, the staging becomes even more arch and strained. The action, if one can call it that, is simply a battle by the men for Partenope’s affections. The set includes a bathroom where, first, Partenope, retires, closing the door behind her. Soon we hear a toilet flush. Meanwhile, Emilio, who doubles as the photographer Man Ray, projects on a wall an abstract bit of film (actual footage by Man Ray). While singing, he then uses the projector’s light to throw hand shadows on the same wall. When Partenope exits the bathroom, Armindo replaces her and is locked inside by Emilio, who wants Partenope for himself. Armindo opens the transom and sticks his head out, singing his indignation. Finally, Armindo kicks the door open, but now Arsace is locked in the bathroom; and when the door is finally opened by Partenope, Arsace, seated fully clothed on the toilet, has covered himself with toilet paper. In short, we have descended to toilet jokes. Of course, what can a stage director do to counter the static quality of Handel’s da capo repeats? Christopher Alden has undoubtedly gone overboard; but something— if not toilet jokes—was needed to alleviate the musical tedium. How much coloratura roulades can one take? I am sympathetic to Alden’s problems, if not to his solutions. 

Act III brings about a resolution, of sorts, to the amorous goings on. There is a lovely trio involving Partenope, Rosmira, and Arsace, in which each protagonist expresses different and conflicting emotions. Eventually, realizing how steadfast Rosmira has been in seeking to win back Arace, Partenope renounces her infatuation with Arsace and quickly turns to Armindo, taking on a new lover as easily as she sheds the previous one. These characters are hardly believable! And we care not a whit about any of their amorous ambitions, with the exception of Rosmira and her deeply felt but conflicted feelings for Arsace who betrayed her. 

Finally, a word must be said about the conducting. Due to an illness, the scheduled conductor, Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, had to be replaced at fairly short notice. Into the breach stepped Julian Wachner, music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York. Wachner has a conducting style that is all too flamboyant for my taste. In the overture to Partenope, Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera. While I cannot fault Wachner’s choice of tempos, except in an early aria by David Daniels, which I thought the conductor took too slow, I found myself irritated and distracted by Wachner’s antics. This was Wachner’s San Francisco Opera debut. I hope he will not be invited back.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven ‘Partenope’
Opera Warhorses

What trumps all is the artistry of the six principals and the bright sound of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Julian Wachner in his San Francisco Opera debut.  I recommend this performance to all opera lovers with an appreciation of the baroque style of operatic opposition, and who wish to see a brilliantly performed, nicely staged version of a superb Handel opera.

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Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope”
October 16th, 2014

The San Francisco Opera was founded in 1923 but did not perform its first regular season opera composed by George Friderick Handel until 59 years later when Handel’s most performed operatic work, ‘Giulio Cesare”, was first mounted.

In the 32 San Francisco Opera seasons that followed the 1982 “Cesare” eight different Handel operas have been performed. The eighth to be introduced to San Francisco Opera audiences is “Partenope”, a romantic comedy from 1730 about some interpersonal relationships of  the queen who founded the Italian city of Naples.

However, Handel’s only tangentially relates to ancient Naples. All action is centered around the actions and emotions of six characters who are friends or enemies of the Queen.

San Francisco Opera chose to introduce the work utiliIizing Christopher Alden’s bright production which located the action in a 1920s salon in Paris. Here Queen Partenope is not a royal, but a celebrity.

Every one of the six characters were cast with care. Handel’s operas typically follow the 18th century tradition of alternating recitative in which plot exposition is advanced with solo arias, each expressing the emotional reaction to what has just been discussed by one of the characters. Each aria is a gem, and each requires the technical vocalism and the ability of the artist to convey whatever emotion (love, despair, anger, jealousy) that the character expresses.

The title role signalled the return to San Francisco of lyric soprano Danielle De Niese [see Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010] in the first Partenope of her career.

De Niese is internationally recognized as a superb Handelian, and Handel’s operas were a major element in establishing her reputation.  Her arias were filled with energy, a healthy vibrato gleaming through her fast-paced lyric coloratura passages.

Daniels has performed five roles at ths San Francisco Opera, four in early 18th century operas by Handel (previously the title role in “Giulio Cesare” in 2000, Bertarido in “Rodelinda” in 2005, and Arsamenes in “Xerxes” in 2011 [for the latter, see my review at  Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011.]

Arguably the most famous counter-tenor currently performing today, Daniels was a forceful presence.

In my interview with Daniels, he stated that both of the last two roles that he has sung at the War Memorial – Arsamenes and Arsace – are two that he feels best fits his voice.

Arsace was a man rocked with guilt as he desired Partenope, even though he was fully conscious of his betrayal of his previous lover, Rosmira. Daniels is so effective in exhibiting the inner conflict of a plaintive Handelian aria that no one is surprised when the affections of Daniels’ Arsace are restored to Rosmira at opera’s end.

In my recent interview with Alec Shrader, soon to be published on this website, he observed that his leggiero tenor voice has been gaining weight, and that his vocal future lies with the lyric tenor repertory. His vocal transformation can be detected in his strong vocal performance in the often hefty demands of the role of Emilio.

This was never more evident than in his bravura aria Barbaro faro si! that elicited one the biggest ovations of the evening.

What has not changed is Shrader’s aggressive athleticism, so evident in his recent performances as Ernesto, which stage director Alden used effectively in his surreal conceptualization of Emilio as a surrealist photographer.

Daniela Mack opened the Santa Fe Opera 2014 season in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” [Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014].

Her characterization of Rosmira – disguisesd first as a man, but ultimately revealing her actual gender – had a feistiness that worked.

Rosmira has one of the opera’s big showstoppers, the second act Furie son dell’Alma mia, which she dispatched with verve, receiving one of the evening’s big audience ovations as her reward.

I suspect that were the audience polled on which of these attractive cast members was the audience favorite, many votes would be cast for Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose smitten but shy portrayal of Armindo for his San Francisco Opera debut proved to be most affecting.

Like Shrader, Costanzo is adept at physical comedy, and watching his drunken staircase staggering was a breathtaking experience.

Last season at the Glimmerglass Festival, he showed  ability in the incorporation of modern dance into opera.  In San Francisco Costanzo showed great skill in incorporating tap-dancing into operatic comedy.

Holding his own amid this brilliant cast was the Ormonte of Adler fellow Philippe Sly, whose Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” marked him as a future leading man in opera.

The production is that of American director Christopher Alden, originally created for London’s English National Opera in 2008. In the spirit of a comedy written for the Elizabethan stage, the story concerns two pairs of lovers, both of whom will be married by opera’s end, but not without a series of events and misadventures.

The catalyst that moves the plot is the decision of Rosmira, in love with Arsace, to disguise herself as a man. Because Arsace has become infatuated with Partenope, it is Rosmira’s intent to inject her/himself into the situation to foil any long-term Arsace-Partenope relationship. Fortunately for Rosmira’s long-term strategy, there is another suitor for Partenope’s hand, Armindo. Despite Armindo shyness, as a conseuence of Rosmira’s actions, as he ultimately wins Partenope.

Two other characters are present. Emilio, the rather eccentric ruler of a neighboring city, who is yet another suitor, and the sage, Ormonte. Battle lines are drawn, literally. (Both Emilio and Partenope command trrops of soldiers, which one, of course, never sees.) Duels are threatened, but, in the end, abandoned.

Even though Queen Partenope is associated with the mythology of ancient Naples, the opera has a generic plot, no more time-and place-specific than Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” of over a half century later.

Alden, who likes to find modern parallels in the plots of baroque operas, decided to center the opera in Paris in the 1920s, in the middle of the salon like that conducted by a historical person, the steamship heiress Nancy Cunard. Cocktails and card games are prominent.

Since Cunard’s salon was associated with the surrealist photographer Man Ray, so too may be found an Emilio who himself is a photographer not unlike Man Ray. Photographer Emilio, as is Emilio in Handel’s plot, is a disruptive presence.

These references to cultural icons of nearly a century past are intriguing, but whether one’s knowledge of the period is deep or shallow, it has only so much to do with the performance. In the end, all the preparations for battle or for duels lead to nothing more than a double marriage.

What trumps all is the artistry of the six principals and the bright sound of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Julian Wachner in his San Francisco Opera debut.

I recommend this performance to all opera lovers with an appreciation of the baroque style of operatic opposition, and who wish to see a brilliantly performed, nicely staged version of a superb Handel opera.

Thu, October 16, 2014

‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera
The San Francisco Examiner

...the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

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‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera

by Janos Gereben | October 16, 2014

Spectacular singing and acrobatics meet to offer unusual entertainment in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

It took Handel's 1730 "Partenope" two and a half centuries to be staged in San Francisco, but director Christopher Alden's production, acclaimed at its London premiere, makes up for the delay by dazzling, amusing and entertaining audiences - or dismaying some viewers - at its opening Wednesday evening.

The original story, about Queen Partenope of Naples and her three royal suitors (one a woman appearing as a man) is undecipherable. Alden transfers the action to 1920s Paris, and throws in everything but the kitchen sink (although there is a toilet), prompting patrons to simply give up trying to figure out what it's about. Arias, scenes and actions don't connect. Production notes refer to the spirit of Dadaism and Surrealism, which may explain why countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed a brilliant aria while swinging from a grand staircase. His alarming pratfall over the length of stairs was another matter.

Handel's 42 operas - which run for hours, have repetitious arias and disjointed stories - are different from his famously accessible and linear "Messiah."

This "Partenope" in the War Memorial, which cuts about an hour from the original, is "only" 3 1/2 hours, and jazzed up to make the Baroque sounds accessible to today's audiences. But, unlike director Nicholas Hytner, who effectively and judiciously freshened up Handel in his 2011 San Francisco Opera production of "Xerxes," Alden overdoes it with "Partenope," rarely allowing the music to breathe - even though the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

Everything and everybody is in constant motion. Not only does Danielle De Niese in the title role sing magnificently and vamp around seductively, she's at the mercy of shticks that are at odds with characteristics of a queen or great soprano. (To her credit, De Niese seems to enjoy the proceedings.) Illustrious countertenor David Daniels also gives an exemplary performance, even while dealing with Alden's requirements. Other principals - former Adler Fellows Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader and Philippe Sly - also give wonderful vocal performances.

On opening night, the audience enjoyed the fun and games, further buoyed by announcements regarding the S.F. Giants' lead, and ultimate victory, over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Partenope
Kinderkuchen for the FBI

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.

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Partenope

Think of her as one of a pair of twin girls:  PeNELope and ParTENope.  Penelope, Partenope, Penelope,  Partenope.  You'll be close enough to how to pronounce it.

We are referring, of course, to the Handel opera Partenope now playing at the San Francisco Opera.  Get up from your couch and get down to see this.

I was ready for this because I read this tweet from David Daniels:

"Opening Night of PARTENOPE  #Cards #Bourbon #cigarettes #gasMasks & #HANDEL TOYZ!"

It has all this and tap dancing, toilet paper, bare chested man not baritone and a gorgeous homage to art deco.  Favorite joke:  Sound of a toilet flushing followed by Arsace saying "I hear her."  It all kind of went like that.

The production, originally in English at the ENO, is a constant flow of references to the artists of Paris in the twenties.  There is a film by Man Ray, gas masks a la photographer Lee Miller, Ezra Pound, etc.

The plot can be briefly summarized.  Partenope has three male suitors:  Arsace, Armindo and Emilio.  At the start of the opera she prefers Arsace and has completely rejected Emilio.  She is ambiguous toward Armindo.  Rosmira arrives disguised as a man who wishes to kill Arsace.  At the end Arsace has returned to Rosmira and Partenope has turned to Armindo.  Ormonte is a servant?  As Baroque plots go, it is quite sweet and uncomplicated.

This is the first time in all my years at the San Francisco Opera when I have seen a Dramaturg listed in the program.  A dramaturg is someone who conducts historical research and places the action within the historical period.  You see this in European opera companies quite a lot.  So why would you need a dramaturg for Partenope?

They have moved the action from 1730 to 1930 Paris.  Or perhaps, since Partenope is an historical figure, from 300 b.c. to 1930 Paris and the great art movements between the wars.  So Partenope may or may not be the photographer Lee Miller, Arsace may or may not be the writer Ezra Pound and Emilio is definitely the photographer Man Ray.  Or Maybe Arsace is Tristan Tzara, also a writer.  I'm sure there were more historical references I didn't pick up on.  Perhaps the dramaturg is for making any sense at all of the historical environment of 1920's Paris.

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.  The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo entertained us with beautiful singing, astounding acrobatics on the staircase, a scene where he bares his chest for Partenope and tap dancing.  AND he gets the girl.

Alex Shrader photographs people, develops the pictures and hangs them on the wall, all while entertaining us with some spectacular singing.  One aria is sung while....  I'm giving too much away.

Danielle de Niese gets four wonderful costumes, including a tuxedo, to display gracefully while she sings her arias.

The sweetest arias were for Arsace, sung beautifully by David Daniels.  I can't exactly explain the effect this had on me which consisted of smiles and contentment.

In spite of all the smoking I didn't smell any tobacco smoke in case you are worrying about that.

Oh, and I forgot shadow puppets.

Thu, October 16, 2014

SF Opera’s Partenope
The Opera Tattler

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner…The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor…

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SF Opera's Partenope

Christopher Alden's delightfully humorous production of Partenope opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The stylish set (Act I pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Andrew Lieberman, was enhanced by Adam Silverman's lighting. Costume designer Jon Morrell did a wonderful job evoking 1920s Paris and Man Ray. The staging matches the absurdity of the plot rather well, embracing silliness with use of bananas, dancing, and hand shadow puppetry. It was refreshing to see something a little less sedate than the other offerings of the 2014-2015 season so far.

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner. The horns had a rough start but in the end managed to sound sublime. The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor and Peter Grunberg on harpsichord, cellist David Kadarauch, and theorbist Michael Leopold.

The most of the singers employed much physicality in their performances. Philippe Sly danced foppishly and sang with warm effortlessness. His outrageous costume in Act III involved a puffy pink flowered gown, red evening gloves, and a Pickelhaube festooned with bananas. Anthony Roth Costanzo was an endearing Armindo who managed to sing his first aria ("Voglio dire al mio tesoro") while falling down or hanging on to stairs. He also tap danced during "Ma quai note di mesti lamenti" in Act III. The clarity of his voice came through despite all these antics.  Alek Shrader's tenor sounded robust, and as Emilio he put on a hand puppet show that was amusing and engaging.

David Daniels (Arsace) gave a nuanced performance. He seemed slightly behind the orchestra in "Furibondo spira il vento," but sang has a lovely and tender "Ch'io parta?" in Act III. Daniela Mack seemed to perfectly embody the role of Rosmira and sounded pretty too. She spends most of her time on stage pretending to be a man, and the contrast between Mack and the titular leading lady was marked. As Partenope, Danielle de Niese sparkled and was vivacious. Her voice seemed heftier and throatier than I remembered. Her dancing was particularly sharp. Everyone sounded fully present in the moment and the finale of the piece was especially rousing.

* Tattling * 
Our neighbors in Box I introduced themselves and shared a chocolate strawberry with us. There was a confrontation between a man at the back of Box H with a woman who showed up in the middle of Act II. He suggested that she did not have a ticket for Seat 4 and mentioned she had not been there for the first third of the performance.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Top Hatters
Parterre Box

Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

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Top hatters

by Greg Freed | 5:46 pm | Oct 16, 2014

When Mike Nichols was honored at the Kennedy Center, Elaine May said of his work: “Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash.” Christopher Alden has pulled the same bit of trickery at the San Francisco Opera with a production of Handel’s Partenope that is so erudite and theatrically audacious and also such a rollicking ride, it’s hard to believe it isn’t crap.  

In its opening tableau, Alden’s conception threatens a certain Egoiste-commercial affectation, but it is immediately rescued by the director’s arsenal of responses to the inherently static nature of a three and a half hour parade of da capo arias. There is room in Alden’s vision for camp and slapstick and heartbreak and sex—the last mostly offstage, but for one instance of, well, jobus interruptus. (They hardly know us, they hardly know us.)  In the third act, there are flights of whimsy that teeter on the brink of precious, but by that time, it’s impossible to muster much objection.

Alden and his design team (sets by Andrew Lieberman and costumes by Jon Morrell, both masters of faintly disreputable elegance) have packed the stage with explicit visual references to Dada and surrealism and imbued it with an air of the cinematic. The setting, we are told, is Paris in the 1920s, but the characters, though mad as hatters, are modern and relatable, at least to those of us who are also mad as hatters.

All evening long, despite my delight in the production, I fretted over the idea of writing about Danielle DeNiese. The thing about reviewing for a blog you’ve read basically since Jenny Lind was on tour is, you figure out which singers bring out the Mean Girl in opera queens.

But, you know, fuck it. There are problems there—the middle register can be breathy in a way that detracts from lyrical pieces like “Qual farfaletta” and makes it hard to know how the fioratura is actually going in showpieces. Her ornamentation is intermittently tasteful. All singers are flawed, and these didn’t truly stand in the way of what I’d have to call a pretty complete performance. The dramatic craft was fully realized and the singing was, if unextraordinary, satisfying.

Alden imagines a physicality for his actors that is nearly as specific as that of Robert Wilson, if less ritualized. DeNiese inhabited this with a great deal of poise and spontaneity. She was not the only one to rise to the challenge: Anthony Roth Costanzo, apparently game for anything, sang one of his arias dangling off the edge of a spiral staircase and another, I shit you not, while tap dancing—with a limpid legato, no less.

Alek Shrader, in the finest performance of the night, dashed fearlessly through “Anch’io pugnar sapro” hanging halfway through a transom with seemingly limitless breath and staggering facility. His Emilio also pulled off unquestionably the funniest piece of stage business I’ve ever seen in an opera during “Barbaro fato”— the kind of thing that elicits actual laughter where most opera comedy strains for a titter.

It was a pity not to hear what he could have done with Emilio’s more lyric “La speme ti console”, which was cut, but a privilege to see what he and Alden made of this not quite fascinating character. If you remember Shrader from The Audition or the actual auditions that year, you will recall perhaps his floppy hair and also that he is not at all hard on the eyes, though he was done up here as the love child of Man Ray and Harold Lloyd.

Recent performances by David Daniels in the tedious pastiche Enchanted Island had led me to wonder in my artless Japanese way: what is it that’s supposed to happen to countertenors as they pass out of their jeune premier years? There is, sad to say, no countertenor Marschallin or Kostelnicka unless it’s Arnalta in Poppea, which ain’t much. Daniels’ solution, on the evidence of his Arsace, is to power through the things that are no longer easy on sheer will—”Furibondo” used to be a calling card and something he then seemed almost unfazed by and now is not—and sing the less flashy numbers with an exquisite, supple line that makes the other stuff seem tawdry.

Daniels was, after all, maybe the first countertenor who brought operatic phrasing to the Baroque and seemed not to be a part of that movement that played early music as if it were math homework. “Ch’io parta” was sung by someone who could, mutatis mutandis, sing great Verdi (putting aside that, long ago, in a less formal setting, he did.)

Daniela Mack, a former Adler fellow, charmed the audience greatly in “Un altra volta ancor”, working the warm, even sound and impeccable technique that got her to the finals in Cardiff.  Philippe Sly, though young, seemed like luxury casting in the short role of Ormonte, handsome of voice and ridiculously assured in his florid singing. Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

If I’m not stepping on Opera Tattler’s turf, I should note that, at each intermission, the supertitle board displayed the score of the big cribbage game or whatever it was that was happening across town, because god forbid there be some space in America where sports aren’t automatically the overriding subject of conversation.

As Shrader crept onstage before the third act, holding what appeared to be a newspaper, some wag a few rows behind me posited aloud, in the spirit of life-as-caption-contest that has lately overtaken us all, “Giants won!” Because sports. I guess it’s not Just Plain Folksy of me, but the only Giants I need to hear about at the opera house are the ones in Wagner.

Thu, October 16, 2014

A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera
San Francisco Classical Voice

The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington [D.C.] Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

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A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera

By Robert P. Commanday

October 16, 2014


The San Francisco Opera took Handel’s comic opera Partenope a few strides beyond his own parody of opera seria conventions into satire, even camp, and then burlesque. Happily, since the name of the game remains “music” and especially vocal virtuosity, the art was respected in the gambol that is Christopher Alden’s staging. Unlike the disastrous 2002 staging here of Handel’s Alcina, the soloists’ arias were not sabotaged by monkeyshines upstage. While the stellar Danielle de Niese or her colleagues were singing the sensational, florid arias, the stage activity was in ultra-slow motion, and curiously undistracting.

From the outset, the audience was set up to accept the unexpected.

Partenope comes from the Greek parthenos (“maiden’s voice”) but this opera’s dominating woman, named after a siren who failed to entrap Odysseus, is no maiden. More of a femme fatale, she is passionately and, as shown explicitly here, actively attached to Arsace (the great countertenor David Daniels). She also reciprocates when her enemy Emilio embraces her before rejecting him. Finally, she winds up in the arms of the other countertenor, Arminio (Anthony Roth Costanzo) who has been haplessly mooning after her for two hours and 40 minutes (not including intermissions). That’s without the more than eight numbers that were cut — a long song.

The second take-off or parody by Handel and his librettist (unknown) is on the then already common device of a woman masquerading as a man. Rosmira, the Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, appears disguised in order to either punish or recapture her Partenope-ensnared lover Arsacio, It’s all about love-hate and the battlefield of love. This is where the plot thins but the humor in the staging keeps getting cleverer.

The production, designed by Andrew Lieberman, with costumes by John Morrell, opens on a gleaming white opening set featuring spectacular sweeping stairs. Early on, Arminio (Costanzo) pratfalls down the stairs, singing as he clambers up to cling to them. The audience has already been puzzled by the character who turns out to be Emilio (Alek Shrader) peering through a white rectangular sheet of paper as a mask and wandering about with flash camera. (This turns out to be a recurrent motive, the camera presumably signifying the characters being revealed.)

Perhaps connected to that idea, gas masks passed around by Partenope briefly serve as facial covers. Along with Partenope’s romancing, playing her as a driven, aggressive predator, de Niese gets to sing one knock-out aria after another. Her soprano is among the most beautiful of the generation, crystal clear, shimmering, continuously vibrant and exciting. The technical display dazzles. Not to put her colleagues in the shade. They’re too good. Daniels, taking his turn at the roulade and fioriture-laden music, “I? Leave you?” being a capper. He was his as-ever top-notch counter-tenor. Later, with Arsace’s sleep aria, “Mà quai note,” he would work his expressive magic. Costanzo’s counter-tenor, while not as big and commanding as his colleague’s, was fluid, true and his singing musical. Mack’s arias were strong and also virtuosic, befitting the trouser-role character. She has the opera’s single stop-time contemplative piece, an exquisite accompanied recitative that she sang lovingly.

Like Arsace’s sleep aria that it follows, it was also set apart by its gentle accompaniment by two flutes, muted strings, pizzicato basses, and theorbo. The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington, D.C. Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

Meanwhile, of course, a lot was going on the stage and while not musical, at least it was not anti-musical. The company’s commentary described the production concept as DaDa/Surreal, the setting in 1920s Paris, the aesthetic, “after Man Ray.” A door with a frosted glass panel in the center of Act 2’s wall opened to reveal a toilet, a character, fully clothed, ensconced on the commode. After defeating Emilio in his war on Partenope, Arsace locked him into the toilet. Later, climbing the inside of the door to the opened transom, and hanging half-through the transom, Alek Shrader as Emilio sang a stirring aria, his tenor as bright and shining as the music. Throughout, he and most of the other characters do a lot of faux-cigarette “smoking,” in stress situations. It was the twenties, after all.

Next, Act 3 reveals a third wall (great for acoustical backing) on which Shrader is pasting panels of paper that form, sort-of, the upper half body of a naked woman. Shrader, now an accessory character, “the photographer,” shows a brief movie of abstract patterns on the wall. Frustrated, he rips up the film, does a funny hand-characters shadow play using the projector’s light, sings a ripping tenor aria, to a deserved acclaim. As Oronte, a secondary character, Philippe Sly, sang in a good, firm bass-baritone. Later on, Costanzo as Armindo does an amusing tap dance routine, complete with top hat and, tossed from the wings, cane.

Rosmira, out to show up her faithless but still beloved Arsace as a coward, challenges him to a duel but he outwits her, insisting that it be fought bare-chested. She gives up and reveals her true identity and former relationship to Arsace. Now furious at Arsace, Partenope denounces him and takes up with Armindo. Happy ending, or maybe.

As successful as this production turned out to be, musically, creatively, given its length, there were early leavers. They lost. With this production and those that preceded it, the company is on track for one of its vocally finer seasons.

Thu, October 16, 2014

S.F. Opera review: ‘Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight
San Francisco Chronicle

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

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S.F. Opera review: 'Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight

Joshua Kosman | October 16, 2014

“I don’t quite understand what this is about,” one character sings to another midway through Act 2 of Handel’s “Partenope.” Patrons at the San Francisco Opera’s fizzy, delightful and bewildering new production, which opened Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, are apt to feel similarly — and not to mind at all.

This is not the occasion for worrying too much about the literal meaning of the action onstage, or for following the vicissitudes of a plot that keeps looping back on itself as if to defer any resolution through sheer force of will. All that matters are the elemental forces of love, the glorious streams of vocal invention in which the composer has bathed his characters, and the witty, free-associative byplay that director Christopher Alden provides to help keep things aloft.

If that doesn’t sound like enough — if pitilessly precise logic is your thing — then this “Partenope,” which takes its inspiration from the French surrealists, may not be to your taste. But surrender to its buoyant charms, and you may soon find your senses ravished and your funny bone delicately tickled.

“Partenope” is a striking rarity among Handel’s operas. It’s a romantic comedy, and even more, it’s one that tweaks the conventions of serious opera with subversive wit.

The intersection between love and war, which is so often a weighty theme in 18th century opera, comes off here as a chic game. The cross-dressing warrior maiden — a staple of serious opera even as late as Rossini — is treated with some of the sexy freedom of “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It.”

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

A Parisienne

The title character, originally the founding queen of Naples, is reimagined as a sleekly devil-may-care Parisienne of the 1920s, holding court in her spacious white-on-white apartment (Andrew Lieberman’s sets, expertly lit by Adams Silverman, are a marvel of unfussy elegance).

Orbiting around her is a constellation of hangers-on who seem to live only for love — although the patterns of desire and deception are so fluid and complex that not even a helpful diagram in the program book will quite sort them out. Suffice it to say that nearly everyone ends up with someone, which is all that romantic comedy really requires.

Alden’s invocation of Dada and Surrealism — one character is explicitly cast as a reincarnation of the artist Man Ray — could easily have turned into a license for anything-goes mayhem. But he uses his liberty with impressive discipline.

Yes, there are many moments in the production that come out of left field, including a tap-dancing countertenor, shadow puppetry, toilet jokes and a wonderful homage to the silent film genius Harold Lloyd. But because the work’s emotional logic remains so focused, the whimsical phantasmagoria of the staging feels inviting rather than forced.

Much of the emotional truth of the evening — the sudden bursts of rage and scorn, the drooping evocations of self-pity and despair — derives from the acuity of Handel’s writing, and the beauty and sensitivity with which this cast sings it.

Although Partenope gets top billing, the true heart of the opera is with two other characters: the princess Rosmira, who has arrived in male disguise to chase down her errant lover Arsace, and Arsace himself, who is too susceptible and weak-willed to choose between Rosmira and Partenope.

As Rosmira, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack delivered a superb follow-up to her star turn in last season’s “Barber of Seville,” delivering athletic, perfectly tuned coloratura and letting the audience feel viscerally the depth of the character’s ardor and pain. Countertenor David Daniels is never less than arresting onstage, but even by those standards his Arsace was a triumph: full-toned, expressively probing and marked by vivid vocal colors.

Unfortunately, the evening’s one weak link was the Partenope of soprano Danielle de Niese. She looked stunning (Jon Morrell’s costumes were eye-catching throughout), and she inhabited center stage with dazzling charisma, but apart from one long and exquisitely shaped aria midway through Act 2, her singing was beset by breathy tone and shaky high notes.

Strong singing

No such complaints could be made about the rest of the cast. The young American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo made an unforgettable company debut as Armindo, who spends the entire evening mooning after Partenope; Costanzo shaped his character with an abundance of vocal allure and physical resourcefulness.

Tenor Alek Shrader was a vocal dynamo as Emilio, the invading general whom Alden has reinvented as Man Ray, and bass-baritone Philippe Sly as Partenope’s captain of the guard — here wittily recast as the gay best friend — sang magnificently in his all-too-few arias.

The continuing integration of Handel’s work into the mainstream of our operatic life remains one of the great success stories of the past decades. A production like this one, blending musical seriousness with theatrical panache, can only help matters further.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. E-mail: jkosman@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JoshuaKosman

Thu, October 16, 2014

Review: Handel’s ‘Partenope’ hilariously updated to 1920s
San Jose Mercury News

Wachner, the music director of New York’s Trinity Wall Street, also made an indelible impression. In his first San Francisco Opera appearance, the conductor led a buoyant reading of Handel’s score, one that supported the singers well and kept the orchestral contributions flowing at a luxuriant pace. The audience, laughing and cheering, did the rest.

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Review: Handel's 'Partenope' hilariously updated to 1920s

By Georgia Rowe, Correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO -- The course of true love nearly runs amok in "Partenope." The new San Francisco Opera production of Handel's opera is a glorious romp through the world of amorous attraction.Women wear the pants -- literally -- in this passionate 1730 comedy. Disguises, deception, cross-dressing and sexual innuendo drive the opera, which opened Wednesday in the first of six performances at the War Memorial Opera House.This is the first time the company has produced "Partenope," and the production -- directed by Christopher Alden, conducted by Julian Wachner and featuring an agile cast well-suited to the extreme demands of Baroque singing -- turns the opera's gender-bending plot into a nonstop parade of visual and vocal delights.

To put it delicately, the characters in "Partenope" are hot to hook up. Queen Partenope is loved by three men: Arsace, Armindo, and Emilio. Rosmira, rejected by Arsace, disguises herself as Eurimene, a young man who comes to court claiming he's been shipwrecked.Arsace, struck by Eurimene's resemblance to Rosmira, wonders if he still carries a torch for his former flame. Partenope, meanwhile, spends most of the opera in a state of fevered indecision: She vows to marry Arsace, yet feels a powerful attraction for Armindo -- all the while keeping Emilio on a string.If this sounds confusing, it all becomes clear in Alden's heated staging. The director keeps the libidinous stirrings of these six characters on the front burner throughout.AdvertisementHis production, originally created for English National Opera and Opera Australia, sets the action in Paris during the 1920s. It's a slightly surreal vision, as if we've been plunged into a Dada film by Man Ray. Alden's design team -- Andrew Lieberman (sets), Adam Silverman (lighting) and Jon Morrell (costumes) -- make Partenope's salon an ideal place for parties, card games and frequent trysts. The first of three acts (with two intermissions) opens on a sleek white set, with an elegant Art Deco staircase.

Alden's machinations are hilarious. The director plays the characters like chess pieces, moving them through episodes of love and rage, agony and rapturous bliss. Faces are slapped; undergarments are thrown. The lovers smoke, fortify themselves with cocktails and suffer. The plot finally turns when Arsace challenges the disguised Rosmira to a bare-chested duel.

"Partenope" is a comedy, but there's a deep feeling of longing and pathos underlying the laughs. If the lovelorn characters are trapped in absurdities of their own making, the range of emotion expressed in Handel's score is affectingly real. At Wednesday's opening, the singers mined it for every nuance.

Countertenor David Daniels, a veteran Handel singer, was the evening's standout as Arsace. His voice is a marvel: large, brilliant and full of feeling. And he's equally adept in the role's comic business. His account of the aria "Ch'io parta" combined melting beauty and an apt air of devastation. Soprano Danielle de Niese, singing her first Partenope, gives a magnetic performance. Appearing onstage initially in a slinky trouser suit, she made an appealingly chic queen, and her singing was strong and vibrant throughout. Her great aria, "L'amor ed il destin,'" was a highlight.

As the groveling Armindo, Anthony Roth Costanzo's displayed a velvety countertenor and broad vaudevillian skills; he falls down the stairs while singing one number and tap dances through another. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sounds dazzling in Rosmira's rage arias. Firm-voiced tenor Alek Shrader makes Emilio a shadowy artist who photographs the amorous proceedings, and Philippe Sly is a sturdy Ormonte.

Wachner, the music director of New York's Trinity Wall Street, also made an indelible impression. In his first San Francisco Opera appearance, the conductor led a buoyant reading of Handel's score, one that supported the singers well and kept the orchestral contributions flowing at a luxuriant pace. The audience, laughing and cheering, did the rest.

San Francisco Opera

Presenting "Partenope"Music by George Frideric Handel, libretto writer unknown
Through: Nov. 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$370; 415-864-3330, http://sfopera.com

Wed, October 1, 2014

Julian Wachner – Works for Orchestra and Voices
WTJU

The other large work in the collection, “come, My Dark-Eyed One” was commissioned for a concert with the Brahms Requiem. For contrast, Wachner chose a secular subject, the loss of a loved one and the emotions it triggers. I found the work quite compelling as the protagonist works his way through to acceptance. To my ears, it sounded like a companion piece to Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” — and one that seems to be more successful in its evocation of atmosphere and drama.

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Julian Wachner – Works for Orchestra and Voices

Oct 1st, 2014 | By Ralph Graves

In the liner notes for this three-CD set, Julian Wachner writes,

“My music lives in a sound world that seeks to balance harmony and melody, movement with stasis, simplicity with chaos, and contemporary techniques with unabashed borrowing from the past.”

And for the most part, he succeeds in achieving that balance, as this new three-CD collection shows. For the most part, this release presents Wachner’s works for orchestra and voices. Wachner’s extensive background as a church musician has given him an intimate familiarity with the possibilities of the human voice, which makes his writing for it particularly effective.

Wachner’s musical style isn’t easy to pin down. Sometimes his music is aggressively atonal, sometimes tonal, but always in his own voice. The First Symphony is a good example. The way Wachner voices his chords sometimes give the orchestra a hollow and ethereal sound. And his layering of voices and cross-rhythms make the orchestra sound massive, while blurring the edges.

The other large work in the collection, “come, My Dark-Eyed One” was commissioned for a concert with the Brahms Requiem. For contrast, Wachner chose a secular subject, the loss of a loved one and the emotions it triggers. I found the work quite compelling as the protagonist works his way through to acceptance. To my ears, it sounded like a companion piece to Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” — and one that seems to be more successful in its evocation of atmosphere and drama.

And there’s much more to this collection. There are several short sacred songs that are absolute gems, as well as the duet for trumpet and organ “Blue, Green, and Red,” that takes this instrumental combination far beyond the world of Jeremiah Clarke.

Overall, this collection provides a good overview of Wachner’s style. There are large, complex works, and short ones of more modest aims. Whether you’re interested in choral music or contemporary music, this one’s highly recommended.

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 and Other Works
NOVUS NY; Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Majestic Brass Quintet; Trinity Youth Choir; Jessica Muirhead, soprano; Christopher Burchett, bass-baritone; Steven Burns, trumpet
Naxos

Fri, September 12, 2014

Review: Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices
Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon…

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices

Over the centuries there have been many composers who spent a good deal of time conducting others' works and learning a great deal thereby on the specifics of orchestration and musical conception of the greats first-hand. Julian Wachner is a contemporary who has done that. He has especially done so in the context of sacred music, holding down a number of musical directorships/conducting positions at such institutions as the famous Trinity Church on Wall Street.

He comes to us today in the guise of a composer, and an excellent one he is. Specifically we have a three-CD set of his music, performed under his conductorship, in the Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations, Works for Orchestra and Voices (Musica Omnia 0604 3-CDs).

The set contains so much that is worthwhile that trying to discuss each work might get a bit tedious. Suffice to say that the 13 works proffered in the set cover a good deal of time, from the 1989 "Psalm Cycle I" to the 2014 "Blue, Red and Green". In the process the set covers a developmental traversal of musical space as well. A good bit of it is sacred music, most is very contemporary in tone, though a few channel early church music styles to their own end. Wachner has an excellent knack of getting stirring sounds from voices, both soloists and choirs. He also has mastered orchestration so that the instrumental parts work together for a lucid transparency or a rousing mass of varied voices.

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon. But time will be the judge of that.

In the meantime we have this set to appreciate. The works are substantial, the performances lucid and bold in outline (listen for example to the Trinity Choirs) and the sound well-staged, spectacular.

Anyone who wants to know what's good out there in American modern sacred music must hear this. If that is not your specialization you will still be well-served by this set. The music comes from a composer who needs to be attended to, for music that holds its own in a modern contemporary tonal mode.

Very recommended.

by Grego Applegate Edwards

Fri, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1, “Incantations and Lamentations” and Voices
Edge

[Wachner’s] comprehension of massive orchestration shine[s] through in a vast spectrum of sound. Wachner’s work, though based in the current ideas of mixing styles, tonality and rhythmic structures, is very much a style all his own.

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Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1, "Incantations and Lamentations" and Voices

by Steven Bergman
Contributor
Friday Sep 12, 2014

Musica Omnia has released an extensive, three-disc set of music by the young composer/conductor, Julian Wachner. With over three hours of music to absorb and enjoy, it is blatantly evident why Wachner is such an in-demand musician.

As many musicians worship at the altar of the composers of pre-1900, from Bach to Mozart, Wachner clearly has a strong affinity for his Bernstein, Copland, and Stravinsky. His compositions, a diverse melange of material written over the past 25 years, show a strong dedication and understanding of the more current greats, in addition to Wachner's own mentor, Lukas Foss (1922-2009).

The most impressive works adorn the first disc of this collection. Wachner's "Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations" (2001) is a tremendous piece that give us our initial listen to his own ensemble, NOVUS NY, and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, of which Wachner has been the director since 2011. The groups display a clear appreciation of Wachner's style as both a composer and their conductor, and create a powerful sound through the polyphonic sections, as well as a soulful interpretation of his softer movements.

Soprano Jessica Muirhead exhibits a strong, resonating sound throughout her contributions to this recording, especially on Wachner's two "Psalm Cycles." A string quartet, Muirhead, and Wachner himself present the composer's "Psalm Cycle I" (1989), and the Majestic Brass Quintet accompany's the artists on "Psalm Cycle III" (2003). Both pieces are predominantly lightly orchestrated, allowing Muirhead to completely draw in the listener with the sacred texts.

Two other works were commissions, and include "Come, My Dark-Eyed One," commemorating Boston's Back Bay Chorale in 2009, and Wachner's, "Blue Green Red," written for the International Trumpet Guild, with Trumpeter Stephen Burns.

Wachner's vast experience music directing and composing for church groups from Boston to Montreal, have clearly given the musician an expansive knowledge of the sacred texts, and his comprehension of massive orchestration shine through in a vast spectrum of sound. Wachner's work, though based in the current ideas of mixing styles, tonality and rhythmic structures, is very much a style all his own.

Sat, August 30, 2014

The diverse talents of choral director and composer Julian Wachner
Classical Music Examiner

...it is hard to resist the spell of Wachner’s high-energy rhetoric, particularly when he is working with large numbers of resources…

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The diverse talents of choral director and composer Julian Wachner

by Stephen Smoliar

August 30, 2014

I first encountered Julian Wachner and his Choir of Trinity Wall Street in September of 2012 with their release of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 54 oratorio Israel in Egypt. That performance made a sufficiently deep and stimulating impression to be included in my “Memorable recordings for 2012” article. More significantly in the “real world,” it received a nomination for Category 74 (Best Choral Performance) in the 55th annual GRAMMY awards. I am sure I was not the only one to be highly disappointed when it did not come away with the award in that category.

Nevertheless, as I have learned more about Wachner, I have come to believe that he is more interested in building an extensive portfolio of repertoire than in garnering a shelf of awards. In 2010 he began a project with Naxos to record his own choral compositions as part of their American Classics series. The first volume in that project consisted of a single CD sampling both secular and sacred compositions. The second volume then virtually erupted with a three-CD set that Naxos produced in conjunction with Musica Omnia.

While the first volume consisted almost entirely of a cappella performances by the Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison (with organ accompaniment provided by Michael Bloss on four of the tracks), the second volume was subtitled Works for Orchestra and Voices. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street served as the primary vehicle to showcase Wachner’s compositions, joined by NOVUS NY, a contemporary music orchestra that is also affiliated with Trinity Wall Street. The third CD also features instrumental performances by the Majestic Brass Quintet. In addition, there are vocal solos by soprano Jessica Muirhead and bass-baritone Christopher Burchett, an instrumental duo for trumpet (Stephen Burns) and organ (Wachner), and the participation of the Trinity Youth Choir on several selections.

All this has the potential for a healthy abundance of spectacle, and Wachner’s rhetoric certainly does not shy away from the spectacular. His musical education began with cello and piano lessons at the University of Southern California at the age of four and continued all the way up to receiving a Doctor of Music Arts degree from Boston University’s School of the Arts, where one of his teachers was Lukas Foss. If he learned nothing else from Foss, he probably learned how to approach any compositional project, no matter how large or how intimate, with a total absence of fear.

Note that NOVUS NY is definitely not a “chamber” orchestra. It is a large-scale symphony orchestra, whose personnel are listed in the accompanying booklet. That includes six percussionists, and the album is organized in such a way that one quickly appreciates how Wachner can keep all of them busy. The first two tracks of the first CD are the two movements (which Wachner calls “parts”) of his first symphony, subtitled Incantations and Lamentations, these being the titles of those parts. In spite of its title, “Incantations” is strictly instrumental; but, if the goal of an incantation is to establish focused attention on a ritual, then this part of the symphony certainly achieves that goal, even if the nature of the ritual itself is not particularly clear. (For many of us, going to a concert hall to experience a performance is ritual enough.) The second part is divided into sections entitled “Prayer,” “Exile,” “Remembrance,” and “Reconciliation.”

At this point it is worth noting that the 36-page booklet that accompanies this recording does not include texts for any of the vocal selections. It does, however, provide a URL for finding those texts; but, as of this writing, that URL is ineffective. This is unfortunate, since it is clear from the booklet text (as well as the selections on the first volume) that Wachner has a keen sense of literature, as well as music. He has clearly given considerable attention to the relationship between words and music. However, he also tends to weave thickly-textured fabrics, whether in a cappella settings or in conjunction with instrumental accompaniment on a massive scale.

The attentive listener definitely deserves support from full knowledge of his texts, particularly when they are at their most literary. In this respect the first volume is preferable for those just beginning to know Wachner’s compositions, since the URL for the text sources is more reliable. On the other hand it is hard to resist the spell of Wachner’s high-energy rhetoric, particularly when he is working with large numbers of resources, even if one is not always exactly certain of what the words are trying to say.

It is also important to observe that Wachner is willing to engage his resources in the service of contemporary composers, rather than solely for his own music. His latest Musica Omnia recording, released a little over two weeks ago, presents a single composition, the Opus 16 of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick, entitled Missa gentis humanæ (mass for the human race). This is scored for eight voices a cappella and is dedicated to both Wachner and the “Eight Great” Trinity Wall Street vocalists participating in the recording, sopranos Sarah Brailey and Linda Lee Jones, altos Luthien Brackett and Melissa Attebury, tenors Steven Caldicott Wilson and Timothy Hodges, and basses Thomas McCargar and Jonathan Woody.

Gawlick is a German composer of Kurdish descent. Ironically, he has never lived in his native land or the town in which he was born. One result of his background, however, is a polyglot approach to text that goes beyond the Latin origins of the Mass text. Opus 16 has the subtitle “Von B-A-S-I-A beflügelt,” which basically means that the music was inspired by the letters of his wife’s name, Basia. Following the German “spelling” conventions, these provide the names of pitches as follows:

B = B-flat
A = A
S (Es) = E-flat
AS = A-flat
SI = B natural

Opus 16 begins with the vocalists humming these pitches. They then sing them to the names of the Hebrew letters, followed by singing Basia’s name. The names of the letters are then sung in Greek, followed by the Introit text sung in Latin. As the Mass itself proceeds, Gawlick interpolates texts from other sources as diverse as Virgil, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert.

One cannot help but be reminded of the relationship between sacred and secular text in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem;” but the vocal resources are so intimate in Gawlick’s music that there is no danger of confusing the two composers. Indeed, it is because of this intimacy that Gawlick’s Opus 16 rises above the level of mere intellectual exercise. One gets a clear sense of his own religious seriousness of purpose in this music and his ability to invoke secular sources to affirm that seriousness.

Wachner thus deserves as much credit for bringing a composer like this to the attention of the listening public as he does for his efforts to record his own music.

Thu, August 28, 2014

Wachner issues Boston-born compositions on CD
The Boston Globe

Since Wachner’s work is weighted heavily toward sacred music, “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” stands somewhat apart…

...the series of moods that unfold is astonishingly clear, from yearning to playfulness to painful solitude. The third movement is an unmistakably erotic scene built around Sara Teasdale’s “Joy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!”

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Wachner issues Boston-born compositions on CD

By David Weininger | Globe Correspondent  

August 28, 2014

Julian Wachner — composer, conductor, keyboardist, teacher, and all-around musical polymath — is now best known as director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, a New York church with an enviably robust music program, but he was once a prized member of Boston’s musical scene. He holds degrees from Boston University, and became the organist and choirmaster at BU’s Marsh Chapel while still an undergraduate. He directed Back Bay Chorale and the Providence Singers, and cofounded the short-lived yet valuable Boston Bach Ensemble. To every post he’s brought an ambition to expand boundaries, along with the endless energy necessary to maintain the number of simultaneous commitments he manages to juggle.

So it’s always worth keeping an eye on Wachner’s activity, which on the conducting side has included the Washington Chorus since 2008 and Trinity Wall Street since 2010, as well as guest conducting stints. On the composing side, the Musica Omnia label has just released a second volume of his choral compositions. The 3-CD set comprises works written over a 25-year period, spanning a gamut from highly specific liturgical pieces to large-scale concert works.

It’s a significant collection, and not just because of its size. “This recording completes my catalog,” Wachner said recently by phone from California. “I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks, and now it’s possible for all my music composed up to this point to be available in recorded form. And now I’m going to go on to the next chapter in my life.”

It’s worth noting at some length the two pieces that take up the first CD: the set’s longest, most ambitious works, with particularly strong Boston connections. Wachner wrote his First Symphony, “Incantations and Lamentations,” for Back Bay Chorale, which first performed it in May 2001, just prior to the composer’s departure for a position at McGill University. “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” composed for the same ensemble, was premiered in 2009 under its current director, Scott Allen Jarrett. Both are written for chorus and orchestra; the later work adds baritone and soprano soloists.

Since Wachner’s work is weighted heavily toward sacred music, “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” stands somewhat apart. Its libretto, which was assembled by Wachner’s then-fiancee, soprano Marie-Ève Munger, weaves together a series of poems that outline what Wachner called “kind of a ghost story between two lovers. You don’t know whether one’s dead, one’s alive, what the story is.”

‘I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks, and now it’s possible for all my music composed up to this point to be available in recorded form. And now I’m going to go on to the next chapter in my life.’

The narrative may be shadowy, but the series of moods that unfold is astonishingly clear, from yearning to playfulness to painful solitude. The third movement is an unmistakably erotic scene built around Sara Teasdale’s “Joy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” Wachner recalled that after the first rehearsal of the movement, Jarrett wisecracked, “Anybody else need a cigarette?”

One eerily poignant aspect of the work is that its construction dovetailed with the dissolution of Wachner’s relationship with Munger. “Really, what the whole project becomes, for both of us, is the process of ending our relationship. It’s amazing, because our relationship ended with us just looking at each other and crying over the fact that this just could not work.” (Wachner married Emily Bloemker, a Trinity priest, in 2012.)

Where “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” is accessible enough for talented avocational choirs, the First Symphony, a series of psalm settings, is a fearsome specimen of post-expressionism, moving with hair-trigger speed between fury and uneasy stillness. The rhythms are almost feverishly violent.

The ferocity is theological as well as musical. The psalms on which the work is built span faith, anger, comfort, and suffering. Indeed, the core issue underlying the piece, so skillfully brought out by the music, is that the interleaving of all of these are necessary aspects of any true religious faith. As BU professor Wesley Wildman writes in a program note for the symphony, “Comfort in the face of suffering and loss is the hard-won fruit of a faith in God that does not shrink from welding together praise and accusation, hope and brokenness.”

For Wachner, the most difficult part of the composition was the setting of Psalm 137, a lament from the Babylonian exile. It contains a line that brings many up short: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones/ And dashes them against the rock.” Wachner said that some of the singers at the premiere told him that they felt sick singing it.

“Most people avoid it,” he said of that line and its deep bitterness. “And I went headlong into it. Not to support its message, but to bring it to the forefront. It’s like, this is the issue we’re talking about: People who are so displaced that they can’t allow themselves into a forgiveness place.”

For all its stridency, the symphony ends in an oddly stable, if not quite serene, place. “I imagine this David figure, on the hills in this vast desert, these canons just echoing around. And the piece ends very questioningly but, to me, optimistically.”

Since the beginning of his career,
Wachner has negotiated a delicate balance between the roles of conductor and composer, fighting, much like Bernstein and Mahler did, to keep the former from overwhelming the latter. That struggle has grown more acute over the last few years, yet in the face of his demanding role at Trinity, he’s still able to compose, and will have a chamber symphony premiered next month.

“It’s just going to be the dance I have to do the rest of my life,” he said. “Because I will never be able to just sit in a room and compose. I need that activity as a conductor. Keeping the two going is important.”

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

Thu, August 21, 2014

Family-Focused Reviews: Songs Sacred and Secular
INFODAD

The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers.

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INFODAD.COM: Family-Focused Reviews

At INFODAD, we rank everything we review with plus signs, on a scale from one (+) [disappointing] to four (++++) [definitely worth considering]. Very rarely, we give an exceptional item a fifth plus. We are independent reviewers and, as parents, want to help families learn which books, music, and computer hardware and software we and our children love...or hate. INFODAD is a service of TransCentury Communications, Inc., 4386 Jib Boom Court, Unit 4-F, Fort Myers FL 33919, infodad@gmail.com.

August 21, 2014
(+++) SONGS SACRED AND SECULAR

Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song—Music of the English Renaissance and 20th Century. Yale Schola Cantorum conducted by Simon Carrington. Delos. $16.99.
My Beloved’s Voice—Sacred Songs of Love. The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge conducted by Mark Williams. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Ralf Yusuf Gawlick: Missa gentis humanæ. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Julian Wachner. Musica Omnia. $13.99.
Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) and other works for orchestra and voices. Musica Omnia. $23.99 (3 CDs).
Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Man; Movie House; Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Roderick Williams, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Verdi: Lieder. Ramón Vargas, tenor; Joanna Parisi, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Capriccio. $16.99.
    

     Choral music is a niche product for classical-music aficionados, and religious choral music even more so – and modern choral music even more so. Yet although the result is niches within niches, there are some very fine recordings available for people whose tastes run in those directions, even if the CDs are not the sort to attract previously unconvinced listeners to the kind of music they present. Both Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song and My Beloved’s Voice, for example, combine some choral music that is very old indeed with some that is quite recent. The Yale Schola Cantorum’s performance on Delos includes the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner (1490-1545), a plainly set and for that reason emotionally effective work; the moving Te lucis ante terminum by Thomas Tallis (1503-1585); and Glorious and Powerful God and Second Evening Service by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), with Lucas Wong on organ. To the old Latin settings the CD adds The Glory and the Dream by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) – a curious and strangely effective centerpiece of the recording, using poems by William Wordsworth that celebrate nature as well as God, and do so in musical language that differs from that of the Renaissance but complements it surprisingly well. The beautifully balanced performances led by Simon Carrington make this a very engaging disc, and Thomas Murray, organist for the Bennett work, makes a noteworthy contribution to it.
     In a similar vein, but utilizing shorter pieces, the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge under Mark Williams presents 20 different works of highly varied provenance on a Signum Records release. These range from Sicut lilium by Antoine Brumel (1460-1515) and Nigra sum by Pablo Casals (1479-1528) to four pieces based on the Song of Solomon by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and Set me as a seal by Nico Muhly (born 1981). Indeed, the Song of Solomon is the underlying unifying factor for nearly all this music, whether interpreted in its original Old Testament form as a deep and highly sensual love song or, as Christians prefer, as a parable of the “wedding” of Christ and the church. The differing exegeses of the text allow for a wide variety of approaches to music based on it, and they are what Williams explores here – sometimes in highly interesting ways, sometimes in curious ones generated by the juxtaposition of music from very different times (e.g., Clemens non Papa, 16th century, followed by Louis Vierne, 20th; and Martin de Rivafrecha, 16th century, followed by one of Edvard Grieg’s Four Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies, 20th). The singing, in any case, is warm and emotionally communicative throughout the CD.
     There is warmth and beauty as well in the voices of eight members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in the Missa gentis humanæ (“Mass for the Human Race”) by Ralf Yusuf Gawlick (born 1969). Laid out like a traditional Latin Mass, the work is in fact a hybrid that mixes Mass elements with selections from the Gospel of John and poetry and prose by Virgil, Brecht, Plautus, Dostoevsky, Brecht, Sir Walter Scott and others. The result is a very unusual work indeed, celebrating within an entirely religious overall structure the things that make humans human and worth saving – by whom or what, when and under what circumstances, is another matter. Pagan, Christian and irreligious, the juxtaposed texts are intended to illuminate the many forms taken by faith throughout the ages, the intent being to unite all believers, and even unbelievers, under the grand umbrella of what it means to be human. A very ambitious piece that constantly seems ready to come apart at the seams – and that certainly shows those seams often enough – Missa gentis humanæ gets sensitive shaping and a high level of understanding from Julian Wachner on a Musica Omnia disc. But the work remains, when all is said (or sung) and done, a piece that strives mightily without ever managing to be as engaging or moving as Gawlick clearly wants it to be.
     Wachner does an equally effective conducting job in his own music – and is a fine organist in it, too. Musica Omnia’s three-CD compilation of Wachner’s works includes much that is jazzy and energetic as well as a good deal that is intended to be uplifting. This is a lot of Wachner, and as such is a release of even more limited appeal than is usual for a recording of contemporary music. In addition to Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) (2001), the recording includes Come, My Dark-Eyed One (2008); Regina Coeli (2002); Canticles (1990); Jubilate Deo (2006); Psalm Cycle I (1989) and Psalm Cycle III (2003); Blue Green Red (2014); Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances (1995); Holy, Holy, Holy (2009); Joy to the World (2004); and All Creatures of Our God and King (1992). The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers. These include NOVUS N.Y., a new-music orchestra; the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Choir; the Majestic Brass Quintet; singers Jessica Muirhead (soprano), Steven Wilson (tenor) and Christopher Burchett (bass-baritone); Stephen Burns on trumpet; Caroline Cole on harp; and Janet Yieh – as well as Wachner himself – on organ. Wachner also serves as conductor, and he certainly knows how to evoke the expressiveness of his own music. But, again, there is a lot of it here, and a certain tedium does set in as the settings progress, despite Wachner’s attempts to make the material as sonically varied as it can be – consistent with its subject matter.
     The subject matter mixes the sacred and the worldly on a new Naxos CD featuring music for baritone and full orchestra or chamber ensemble by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956). Falling Man (2009-10) is a dramatic scena based on Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel; here there is an attempt to find meaning in an ultimately meaningless act of vicious mass murder, with Fuchs using excerpts from DeLillo’s prose to try – as have many others – to extract something of value from an act of war perpetrated by determined killers. Roderick Williams’ singing is effective – not only here but also throughout the disc – but the subject matter has been handled so often, with much the same intent, that the work is less emotionally potent than Fuchs intends. Movie House (2007) is something quite different: a setting of seven poems by John Updike, and an altogether lighter and less-fraught work. At more than half an hour, it goes on rather too long for the quality of its material, although it does contain some well-chosen and well-set words. More moving and thoughtful, and ultimately more meaningful even than Falling Man, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1977), in which Fuchs sets four poems by William Blake – whose strange, sometimes mystical sensibility stays with the listener far more tellingly than does the much more straightforward and self-consciously emotive work of DeLillo and Updike. Fuchs’ setting does not compare to the far more extensive and deeper one of William Bolcom – one of the genuine masterpieces of 20th-century music. But Fuchs’ handling of the material is careful, involving and knowing, and shows his attraction to and understanding of Blake’s unusual, sometimes difficult-to-fathom visions. JoAnn Falletta leads the London Symphony Orchestra with sure-handedness and a clear comprehension of the music, giving Fuchs’ works plenty of opportunities to connect with listeners and move them.
     Vocal connection with the audience – as viscerally as possible – is what the operas of Verdi are all about. Even Verdi operatic excerpts can make a strong emotional connection with listeners, which is why there are so many CDs of them. But the new Capriccio disc featuring tenor Ramón Vargas is not just another one of these. Vargas here presents a side of Verdi that is almost as unfamiliar as his chamber music: his songs. These are works in which the opera composer experimented with the emotions he wanted to evoke and the music in which he wanted to cloak those feelings. Like the sketches of a painter, the songs of Verdi are simpler and often more-forthright, more-raw visions of what he would later do in his opera arias and ensembles. They are pale by comparison with his theatrical works for voice and orchestra, and will not be particularly gripping even for most Verdi fans; but they do provide insights into the way Verdi used music and words to characterize particular individuals and to bring forth the emotional expressions that he wanted to convey. Vargas here offers two sets of Romances, with six songs in each, plus individual tracks both secular and sacred. On the worldly side are L’esule, La seduzione, Il poveretto and Stornello; on the religious one are Tantum ergo and Ave Maria. Ably accompanied by pianist Charles Spencer on all the songs and by soprano Joanna Parisi on a few of them, Vargas evokes and emotes words by St. Thomas Aquinas, Goethe (via Luigi Balestra), poet and librettist Andrea Maffei, and others, showing that although Verdi was scarcely an expert in lieder, he was quite capable of utilizing the form of the song to explore a variety of thoughts and feelings – and later expand upon that form to produce arias with far stronger emotive qualities. Fine singing and unusual repertoire combine to make this disc an intriguing one, albeit for a decidedly limited audience.

Tue, August 12, 2014

Trinity Wall Street’s Music Director Considers Himself a ‘Composer Who Conducts’
The Wall Street Journal

“One of the difficulties of being the conductor is there’s a built-in power dynamic,” said composer Nico Muhly. “You have to exploit that and undo it, and different people have different ways of doing that, and Julian’s is a successful one. He seems to be universally beloved and make great music at the same time.”

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Trinity Wall Street's Music Director Considers Himself a 'Composer Who Conducts'
'I'd Never Survive as a Guy Who Sits in a Log Cabin,' Julian Wachner Says

Musica Omnia is releasing a three-disc set of works by Julian Wachner, the music director at Trinity Wall Street. Photo: Polina Yamshchikov for the Wall Street Journal

By
Corinne Ramey

If there are two types of classical composers in the world, the artist-colony type and the extroverted sort, then the composer Julian Wachner falls squarely in the second camp.

"I'd never survive as a guy who sits in a log cabin, composing," he said. "I need the energy of people. I need the energy of music-making."

In New York's classical music scene, Mr. Wachner, 44 years old, is best known as a conductor and music director at Trinity Wall Street, the downtown church where he has created an ambitious music program, focusing on early and Baroque music, new commissions and festivals of works by composers like Stravinsky and Britten.

But the problem with his success at Trinity, he has found, is that it overshadows the reason he took the job in the first place.

"I think of myself as a composer who conducts," Mr. Wachner said recently, in a hotel lobby near his Tribeca home. "I always said that everything else in life was to support that habit."

On Tuesday, the label Musica Omnia, which is distributed by Naxos, releases a three-disc set of Mr. Wachner's compositions. The album showcases a range of forms and styles, from symphony to oratorio to choral works, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY, the Trinity-based contemporary music ensemble founded by Mr. Wachner.

Asked to describe his music, Mr. Wachner started with what it's not. "It's an American-sounding music, and it's so not the Bang-on-a-Can, post-Philip Glass world that most of my colleagues are living in right now," he said. (For the record, he has nothing against that minimalism-infused style, and loved conducting Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields" at the New York Philharmonic's biennial.)

"I see his work as very Americana, firmly following in the steps of Copland and Bernstein," said the creative producer Beth Morrison, referring to the hopeful, melodic aspect of Mr. Wachner's music.

Mr. Wachner's former teacher Marjorie Merryman, who is now provost and a dean at the Manhattan School of Music, called it "modern, but not pandering," with a strong sense of motion bolstered by direct harmony.

Composing, said Mr. Wachner, comes from improvisation. "I try to improvise daily, just to get the creative juices going," he said. "But the real way I write is by someone saying, 'I want you to write this piece, and your deadline is next month.' "

Born in Hollywood, Calif., Mr. Wachner grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and New York City. He began writing music at age 4 (and has the original manuscripts), and went through a rebellious teenage phase that involved dyeing his hair and playing at the punk-rock club CBGB.

These days, Mr. Wachner maintains a schedule just short of manic, commuting regularly between New York and Washington, D.C., where he directs the Washington Chorus. (An Amtrak enthusiast, he "knows all the redcap guys.")

At Trinity, he's not only programmed challenging music rarely heard in a church setting but integrated nontraditional music with church values.

"Julian brought into the picture an opera about human trafficking," said the Trinity vicar Anne Mallonee, of Du Yun's opera "Angel's Bone." "That was a great example of social outreach and music and education coming together to make a statement that people aren't even aware of."

Today, Mr. Wachner lives in Tribeca, with his wife, Emily, and their American bulldog, Sophie. Ms. Wachner is a reverend at Trinity, and the couple met at work.

One night, while the two were backstage after a Gotham Chamber Opera production, he realized that the woman on whom he had a crush was a minor celebrity.

"All the opera singers knew her. They were like, 'You're 'What Not to Wear' Emily!'" (Ms. Wachner holds the distinction of being the only Episcopal priest to have been on the TLC makeover show.)

Knowing Trinity's strict policies on sexual harassment, the two nervously went to their boss. "We were like, 'Who's going to get fired? Who's going to quit?'" recalled Mr. Wachner. "But the rector was like, 'This is great! You're in love! We like love.'"

Colleagues and friends described Mr. Wachner as a big personality with a hearty laugh, who is loved by his musicians.

"One of the difficulties of being the conductor is there's a built-in power dynamic," said composer Nico Muhly. "You have to exploit that and undo it, and different people have different ways of doing that, and Julian's is a successful one. He seems to be universally beloved and make great music at the same time."

Thu, July 31, 2014

Multitasking Maestro
Esprit

The New York Times wrote of your Bach series at Trinity that, “no one would mistake the crowd at the free Bach at One concerts for one percenters. Many are tourists, stopped in their tracks by what they hear.” Who do you see as your audience?

“I don’t think I’m elitist in my choice of music or the way that I make music, and I think people feel that. One of my models was Leonard Bernstein (Hon.’83), who felt that music should be for everybody, and that it is a way to bring people together. At our Trinity performances, we have people who don’t know where they are going to sleep that night and people who live on the Upper East Side all in one place together, creating a community.”

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MULTITASKING MAESTRO

What do J. S. Bach, Leonard Bernstein, the Marsh Chapel Choir, and the Rolling Stones have in common?

By Lara Ehrlich

Composer and Grammy Award-nominated conductor Julian Wachner (’91, ’96) answers his phone at the Jacksonville Airport baggage claim. This is his only opportunity for an interview, as he is about to embark on a trip with “five priests and a theologian.” This might sound like the opening of a bad joke, but it’s actually a retreat for the senior staff of New York’s Trinity Wall Street church, where Wachner is the music and arts director. Throughout the next four days, they will discuss the programming for the coming year, which will include more than 600 events. In his spare time, Wachner is also the music director of the Kennedy Center’s Washington Chorus and serves as a guest conductor at organizations throughout the country. As he gathers his bags and traverses the airport to meet his colleagues, he keeps up his half of the interview with the dexterity of a seasoned conductor.

You’ve said you chose to attend BU to earn a well-rounded education. How did academics impact your career?

-My career is grounded in study. I didn’t jump from one huge musical success to the next; I had a long existence as a professor at BU and MIT, and then at McGill University. Now that I’m in my early 40s, I’m beginning to have the kind of success and recognition that some people have in their 20s. I’m very happy about the way it’s happened because I’m very calm and confident in my musical abilities. I feel like I have something to say on a human level, not just a musical level.

What do you want to say?

-As a composer I tackle subjects like love and loss in Come, My Dark-Eyed One, which I wrote for Scott Allen Jarrett’s (’99, ’08) Back Bay Chorale, and thorny theological issues like in my first symphony, Incantations and Lamentations, and issues of the day like in Du Yun’s opera Angel’s Bone, which is about human trafficking. I’m trying to make a difference in people’s lives, whether to give them a glimmer of hope at Christmas, to make them think seriously about an intense subject, or to touch their souls.

The New York Times wrote of your Bach series at Trinity that, “no one would mistake the crowd at the free Bach at One concerts for one percenters. Many are tourists, stopped in their tracks by what they hear.” Who do you see as your audience?

-I don’t think I’m elitist in my choice of music or the way that I make music, and I think people feel that. One of my models was Leonard Bernstein (Hon.’83), who felt that music should be for everybody, and that it is a way to bring people together. At our Trinity performances, we have people who don’t know where they are going to sleep that night and people who live on the Upper East Side all in one place together, creating a community.

The Trinity Wall Street Choir performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with the Rolling Stones in December 2012. What inspired this collaboration?

-I got a Facebook message from a critic whose husband is tied into the music business and was looking for a New York-based choir. She said, “It’s a famous rock group, and I can’t tell you any more than that.”

The show at Barclays Center in Brooklyn was the first US performance of the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary tour, and they wanted the choir to be a surprise for the audience. When I got out onstage for the sound check, Mick Jagger walked over and was like, “Hey, I’m Mick Jagger,” and I was like, “Yeah, I know who you are!”

It was the first time they had ever performed “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with a live choir. You need a professional-level choir to sing that high C for as long as it demands; we were lucky we had three ladies who could do it. When the Stones decided to come back in June 2013, they asked me to recommend a choir, so I suggested BU’s Marsh Chapel Choir.

You were the University organist and choirmaster for Boston University’s Marsh Chapel for 11 years, and you recently invited the Choir and the Collegium Orchestra to perform at Trinity’s weekly Bach at One concert. Why did you invite the BU musicians to perform at Trinity?

-I invited them to keep the relationship going between me and Scott Allen Jarrett, who was my associate at Marsh Chapel for about five years and is now the director. Between the two of us, we have maintained an incredible musical tradition since 1990, and it was logical to return to my alma mater to activate that professional scholarship.

How do you balance all of your professional roles and maintain your sanity?

-The variety keeps my work fresh and alive, and the fact that I’ve prioritized my wife’s happiness over everything else keeps me balanced. I’ve done this enough now that I’m able to do the work without getting exhausted. In fact, the work feeds my creativity and my energy. My staff at Trinity knows that I’m studying scores at 6 in the morning and 11 at night, and conducting. Even some of the twentysomethings ask, “How do you have all this energy?”

Sat, June 7, 2014

Made in America Concert Radio Interview
WETA.org

Wednesday evening, June 11th at 7:30 pm in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, The Washington Chorus and The Choral Arts Society of Washington co-present “Made In America,” a concert celebrating the wide range of America’s choral tradition.  Classical WETA’s Deb Lamberton spoke with Choral Arts’ artistic director Scott Tucker, and The Washington Chorus’ music director Julian Wachner about this exciting and eclectic program, which also serves as the opening night concert of the annual Chorus America conference.

Fri, June 6, 2014

Choir of Trinity Wall Street Thrills
San Francisco Classical Voice

One of the joys of the performance was engaging stage presence of Julian Wachner. Many good conductors give cues and shape musical phrases. Wachner’s gestures manipulate the sound as a solid, tangible object in space. He draws sound out of the ensemble as if spinning thread at times; at others he dances with the rhythmic variations, his bold gestures amplifying the movement of the sound. Wachner also communicates a wonderful understanding of the music at hand to the audience. His clear and concise interpretation of the architectural structure of the isorhythmic motet drew a delightful comparison to classic arcade video games, in which each subsequent iteration of the rhythm becomes faster and faster until the whole thing unravels. Fortunately for us last night, the whole thing didn’t unravel, and the Nuper rosarum flores motet rose to be a highlight of the program.

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Choir of Trinity Wall Street Thrills

By MARGARET JONES

Something special can happen when you listen to early music — works that have survived centuries of conflict, damage, and memory loss to be heard in a modern setting. The magisterial and devout tone renaissance sets also bring certain musical clichés to mind: strict compositional rules, reverberant cathedrals, and a heavy reverence that permeates and subdues the audience into a still and reflective awe. When the heaviness prevails, it can sound stuffy; when done with passion, it can be rapturous.

Such was the task for the Trinity Wall Street choir as they opened their concert on Friday at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, singing a variety of works from the Franco-Flemish renaissance masters. The choir gave an enthralling performance to a packed house as part of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, a much-anticipated biennial event showcasing some of the world’s top talent in early music.

The first piece on the program was a Gregorian chant of the Salve Regina, intoned by four sopranos singing from the front of the church. The chant gave way to a Magnificat by Gilles Binchois, with the choir passing sections antiphonally back and forth from the aisles, sonically constructing the space of the church from one side to the other. For the remainder of the evening, the choir formed a simple semicircle around the small portative organ (played by recent addition to the Trinity Wall Street family Avi Stein). The choir was joined by instrumentalists — Rebecca Burrington, Bruce Chrisp, and Audrey Christensen (sackbuts), and Kate van Orden (dulcienne) — who enriched the timbre of the grander works on the program.

The group broke up the major work of the evening, Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine, across both halves of the program, interspersing the movements among a variety of motets from the late 15th to the turn of the 16th century. This decision showcased the diversity of textures and rhythms Josquin exploited in the mass, and the flexibility of the choir itself. The jubilant Sanctus found its home toward the end of the second half, and as a result the evening felt as if it had grown organically from its conception in the mass.

Two pieces, Nicolas Gombert’s Salve Regina “Diversi diversa orant” and Antoine Busnois’ Gaude coelestis domina showcased the power and control of the lower voices in the choir. These two pieces feature the changing styles in renaissance motets. Gombert’s later piece plunges the lowest possible notes and has a spine-tingling finish, and Busnois’ earlier work expands to the perfectly punchy and deliberate close needed for the open sonorities of high-rennaisance music. In both cases, the lower voices were eloquently rich.

One of the joys of the performance was engaging stage presence of Julian Wachner. Many good conductors give cues and shape musical phrases. Wachner’s gestures manipulate the sound as a solid, tangible object in space. He draws sound out of the ensemble as if spinning thread at times; at others he dances with the rhythmic variations, his bold gestures amplifying the movement of the sound. Wachner also communicates a wonderful understanding of the music at hand to the audience. His clear and concise interpretation of the architectural structure of the isorhythmic motet drew a delightful comparison to classic arcade video games, in which each subsequent iteration of the rhythm becomes faster and faster until the whole thing unravels. Fortunately for us last night, the whole thing didn’t unravel, and the Nuper rosarum flores motet rose to be a highlight of the program.

It is always gratifying when renowned ensembles live up to their reputation. The concert was a triumph and a delight to behold, and while there were certainly many wonderful concerts during the Berkeley Festival, this one surely stands out.

Margaret Jones is currently working on her Ph.D. in Music History and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thu, June 5, 2014

NY Phil Biennial laudable, yet in need of curatorial vision
Los Angeles Times

The N.Y. Phil watered down nothing when in its Avery Fisher home at Lincoln Center, and had a triumph, a real Biennial-style tribute with the New York premiere on Saturday of Julia Wolfe’s “Anthracite Fields.” An hour-long postmodern oratorio about the plight of coal workers a century ago, it featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Julian Wachner… This is a major, profound work.

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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

NY Phil Biennial laudable, yet in need of curatorial vision

By Mark Swed

NEW YORK — A biennial, as practiced by the art world, is a devotion, a talking stock every other year. It is also pure catnip for a culture maven hooked on being up-to-date.

The New York Philharmonic is now the first major orchestra to emulate the Whitney Museum with a big institutional bi-yearly survey of the now. It began last week with two disappointingly insignificant operas but then exploded over the weekend with a bevy of intriguingly diverse concerts. By the time it concludes Saturday, the NY Phil Biennial will have gotten around to a Whitney-sized offering of nearly 80 works by 74 composers in venues around Manhattan.

At least part of the inspiration for the NY Phil Biennial has surely been the Los Angeles Philharmonic's high-profile new music festivals that have been changing the orchestral landscape throughout the country. But achieving a Biennial buzz in the Big Apple is a unique challenge, as was evident from the eight Biennial concerts I attended last weekend.

The Biennial is clearly a good idea for a great orchestra required to contend with the weekly parade through town of the world's other great orchestras. New music is also omnipresent in all five boroughs. It is a rare evening when there isn't something current to be heard in Brooklyn alone.

The NY Phil Biennial approach, however, seems less about making sense of a contentiously noisy environment than merely adding to it. There is no curatorial vision. No catalog with grandly conceived, fascinatingly provocative essays, but rather a collection of concerts, several handed over to other ensembles. There weren't even T-shirts.

Curiously the NY Phil turned the festival opening over to Gotham Chamber Opera, which offered Toshio Hosokawa's recent 45-minute monodrama, "The Raven," for mezzo-soprano and 12 players. What is fascinating about this score is the Japanese composer's unidiomatic setting of Poe's text, creating mystery through ethereally haunted sounds and strange accent of the poetic lines. The soloist Fredrika Brillembourg, however, went in for a more conventional operatic style. In Luca Veggetti's production she was mirrored by dancer Alessandra Ferri, doubling up on emotional overstatement. Neal Goren's conducting was not subtle.

The other opera, H.K. Gruber's "Gloria — A Pig Tale," was a collaboration by the N.Y. Phil and the Juilliard School and presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alan Gilbert conducted and his frequent collaborator, Doug Fitch, was responsible for the production. It's a little hard to figure out what Gruber, an Austrian left-wing fabulist, was up to, but there was little question that the tale of a pretty pig who falls for her butcher had underlying political nastiness.

We got instead a family-friendly show with cutesy costumes and Broadway-style acting. The kids in the audience on a Sunday afternoon with glorious weather outdoors acted the restless prisoners they were. A biennial is no place for watering-down political art. Kids, at least, were far better treated in concerts featuring very young composers and an ensemble of high school students from programs that the New York Philharmonic admirably supports.

The N.Y. Phil watered down nothing when in its Avery Fisher home at Lincoln Center, and had a triumph, a real Biennial-style tribute with the New York premiere on Saturday of Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields." An hour-long postmodern oratorio about the plight of coal workers a century ago, it featured the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Julian Wachner, and an eloquent video backdrop by Jeff Sugg.

Here Wolfe, one of the founders of Bang on a Can, captures not only the sadness of hard lives lost (it begins with a long recitation of names of men named John who had mining accidents between 1896 and 1916 in Pennsylvania's anthracite fields) but also of the sweetness and passion of a way of daily life now also lost. The music compels without overstatement. This is a major, profound work.

A late-night concert Saturday in the Museum of Modern Art lobby was part of its "Contact!" series of new music concerts that Gilbert began on the L.A. Phil Green Umbrella model. Here the players were positioned before the windows facing a sculpture garden but looking out at darkness for a long program, which went past midnight and was conducted by Matthias Pintscher, who originally conceived it for the Salzburg Festival.

Nine composers were commissioned to write pieces inspired by sculpture around the Austrian town. Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth's take on Mario Merz's "Number in the Forest" stood out for its edgy obsessiveness. Jay Schwarz's "M," based on a Mozart homage by Markus Lupertz, was a reminder of the weird, unclassifiable work of the American expat from San Diego rarely heard in this country.

Two Biennial programs turned over to the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado, considered the music and influence of Pierre Boulez and British composer George Benjamin. The performances were first-rate. The music was excellent but not groundbreaking. The one surprise was Heinz Holliger's "Ostinato "Funèbre," an eerie ostinato that used a water gong and the sound of tearing paper.

Both turn out to be John Cage inventions, a composer and the founder of the New York School, which the New York Philharmonic has gone out of its way to either ignore or subvert throughout its history. This may be an avenue for future biennials, especially if the orchestra hopes to keep up with museums.

MoMA, in fact, has just acquired Cage's original score for his silent piece, "4'33"," and the museum has built an exhibition around the revolutionary score, which opened the L.A. Phil season in September.

In a radio interview, Gilbert called the Biennial "an adventure without really knowing what is going to happen." The concerts I heard steered clear of unknowns. But the Biennial remains a good idea. The New York Philharmonic has invested impressive resources into it. And next time around, it may well know better wherein lies the buzz.

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