The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason the next Yo-Yo Ma?

May 22, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

If you watched the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle – who are now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – you were probably impressed by many things.

Not the least of them was the performance by the young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who performed three pieces: “After a Dream” by Gabriel Faure; “Ave Maria” by Franz Schubert; and “Sicilienne” (an ancient dance step) by Maria Theresia von Paradis.

The young player acquitted himself just fine, despite the pressure of the event, with its avid public interest in the United Kingdom and a worldwide TV viewership of 2 billion.

But that is to be expected. He is no ordinary teenage cellist. Now 19, he was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 — the first black musician of African background to be awarded the honor since it started in 1938. A native of Nottingham, even as he pursues a busy concert and recording schedule, he continues his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

So it was with great anticipation that The Ear listened to “Inspiration,” Kanneh-Mason’s new recording from Decca Records, which is already a bestseller on Amazon.com and elsewhere, and has topped the U.S. pop charts. (There are also many performances by him on YouTube.)

Unfortunately, The Ear was disappointed by the mixed results.

The cellist’s playing is certainly impressive for its technique and tone. But in every piece, he is joined by the City of Birmingham Orchestra or its cello section. The collaboration works exceptionally well with the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich. 

However, so many of the other works seem too orchestrated and overly arranged. So much of the music becomes thick and muddy, just too stringy. The Ear wanted to hear more of the young cellist and less of the backup band.

One also has to wonder if the recording benefits from being a mixed album with a program so full of crossovers, perhaps for commercial reasons and perhaps to reach a young audience. There is a klezmer piece, “Evening of the Roses” as well as a reggae piece, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the famous song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen.

In addition, there are the familiar “The Swan” from “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens and two pieces by the inspiring cellist referred to in the title of the recording, Pablo (or Pau in Catalan) Casals (below).

A great humanist and champion of democracy who spent most of his career in exile from dictator Franco’s Spain, Casals used the solo “The Birds” as a signature encore. Played solo, it is a poignant piece — just as Yo-Yo Ma played it as an encore at the BBC Proms, which is also on YouTube). But here it simply loses its simplicity and seems overwhelmed.

Clearly, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a musician of great accomplishment and even greater promise who couldn’t have wished for better publicity to launch a big career than he received from the royal wedding. He handles celebrity well and seems a star in the making, possibly even the next Yo-Yo Ma, who has also done his share of film scores and pop transcriptions

But when it comes to the recording studio, a smaller scale would be better. Sometimes less is more, and this is one of those times. (Listen to his beautiful solo playing and his comments in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

To take the full measure of his musicianship, The Ear is anxious to hear Kanneh-Mason in solo suites by Johann Sebastian Bach and concertos by Antonio Vivaldi; in sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms; in concertos by Antonin Dvorak and Edward Elgar; and in much more standard repertory that allows comparison and is less gimmicky.

Did you hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s live performance at the royal wedding? What did you think?

And if you have heard his latest recording, what do you think of that?

Do you think Sheku Kanne-Mason is the next Yo-Yo Ma?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: Madison Opera’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” took listeners on an enchanting and moving voyage into love and fine singing of Puccini-like lyricism

May 1, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – who is The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear blog – went to the recent production of the Madison Opera and filed this review, with photos by James Gill:

By Larry Wells

I looked forward enough to Madison Opera’s premiere production of Daniel Catán’s Spanish-languageFlorencia en el Amazonas” that I attended both performances at Overture Hall this past weekend.

Based on repeated hearings of the recording and numerous favorable reviews of other productions, I was fairly certain that I would be in for a treat. I was not disappointed.

The action takes place on a boat on the Amazon heading for Manaus where the title character Florenica (below), an opera singer of high repute, is to perform.

Other passengers (below), unaware of her presence onboard, also have the opera house as their destination in order to hear her sing.

Rosalba, her unauthorized biographer, and Paula and Alvaro, a bickering older couple, are joined onboard by the Captain, his nephew Arcadio, and a Puckish character Riolobo, who acts as narrator and supervises the magic in this tale of magical realism.

Below, starting at the top and moving clockwise, are: Kanopy Dancers, Ashraf Sewailam (The Captain), Mackenzie Whitney (Arcadio), Rachel Sterrenberg (Rosalba), Elizabeth Caballero (Florencia Grimaldi), Adriana Zabala (Paula), Levi Hernandez (Alvaro) and Nmon Ford (Riolobo)

The boat (our life) floats along the Amazon (life itself) in this parable of longing, regret, the fickleness of love, love lost and regained, and transformation.

Aiding in the unfolding of the tale are water sprites, referred to at times as Amazons. Six willowy dancers from the Kanopy troupe did not seem particularly Amazonian, but their waving of billowy fabric evoked the river and their retrieving twice from the water careless Rosalba’s precious manuscript added to the magic.

Riolobo and the sprites also bring Alvaro back to life after he appears to drown during a storm.  (We should be attentive to water sprites since Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” which also features these denizens, is on the schedule for next year’s season.)

And, in the end, just when you think that all conflicts have been resolved and love is at hand, the boat reaches Manaus only to find it impossible to make landfall due not only to cholera but also to rabies, scurvy, leprosy and beriberi. Florencia’s transformation into a butterfly (below) ends the voyage.

This odd but magical plot is a vehicle for lush, rhapsodic music by a Mexican composer whose life ended too soon. The orchestral and vocal writing featured soaring melodies, which at times reminded me of Puccini had his life extended further into the 20th century. The orchestral writing continually evokes the river and flowing water, reminding me of music of the Impressionists.

John DeMain ably led the wonderfully sounding Madison Symphony Orchestra.  He once again proved himself to be a master of pacing, tempo and dynamics.

The opera was very evenly cast. Nmon Ford (below top on right), as Riolobo, had a rich baritone voice and an impressive physicality. His transformation at the end of the first act into a feather-clad river spirit (below bottom) was hypnotic.

As Rosalba, Rachel Sterrenberg (below, top right), who made a memorable appearance last season as the wife Chan in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” was a soprano of great flexibility who rendered her character’s opulent melodic lines with mounting ecstasy. Hers was a thrilling performance.

Her foil, full-voiced tenor Mackenzie Whitney (below, bottom left) as Arcadio, produced some of the most Puccini-like moments of sheer soaring lyricism.

Their duets, including a rather dark anti-love duet, were  highlights of the work. Catán’s writing for mixed voices is inspired, and all of the ensemble numbers – duets, a quintet, a septet – are entrancing.

Baritone Levi Hernandez as Alvaro and mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala as his wife, Paula, had moments of bickering and moments of tenderness. His robust vocalization perfectly complemented the creamy richness of hers. Zabala’s second act lament was very touching.

Bass Ashraf Sewailam, in his debut appearance with Madison Opera, produced some of the best singing of the show. He was both profound and lyrical with a total lack of affectation. His acting was subtle, and his outstanding performance demands his return.

Elizabeth Caballero as the diva Florencia Grimaldi was impassioned, focused yet fluid, sumptuous and rapturous. Her ravishing singing, particularly during her metamorphosis — heard in another production in the YouTube video at the bottom — was truly moving.

The set, lighting, projections and costumes were all understated and perfectly blended. The only false step was what appeared to be coffins flying through the air out of Manaus. It took me a moment to realize they were intended to be floating in the river.

The audience seemed enchanted and moved by the opera. I was, too. Let’s have more works like this.


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Classical music: ECM Records finally streams its entire catalogue of award-winning artists and recordings

November 18, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The critically acclaimed and award-winning independent label ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) was founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by the Grammy-winning producer Manfred Eicher (below).

Known for its penchant for the contemporary and even avant-garde, Eicher’s label was nonetheless a conservative hold-out when it came to the newer technology of digital streaming.

The old technology has its points besides superior sound quality. When you got an ECM CD, you usually also got one of their terrific black-and-white photographs, often a square-format landscape, as a cover. (ECM even published a book of its photographic covers.)

But as of this past Friday, ECM finally gave into the inevitable and streamed its entire catalogue. Its rationale was that it was more important for its music and musicians to be heard than to remain loyal to certain platforms.

ECM also cited the pressure from unauthorized uploads to YouTube and bootleg versions of its recordings as the reason for the decision.

So as of yesterday, ECM, which has won many awards for individual titles and artists, will be available on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, Tidal and other streaming services.

ECM is known for its popular and critically acclaimed jazz artists including pianist Keith Jarrett (below, of “The Köln Concert” or The Cologne Concert) and saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (“Officium”). But it also included classical chamber music groups such as the Keller Quartet, the Trio Medieval, the Danish Quartet and others.

ECM is also known for championing contemporary classical composers (Arvo Pärt, below, who is the most performed contemporary composer, as well as Tigur Mansurian, Lera Auerbach, Gyorgy Kurtag and Valentin Silvestrov among others) and some outstanding crossover classical musicians, including Jarrett, a jazz great who has also recorded Bach, Handel and Shostakovich on both piano and harpsichord.

The Ear especially likes violist Kim Kashkashian and Harvard pianist Robert Levin (a frequent performer at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival) in sonatas of Brahms. He is also fond of Alexei Lubimov in various piano recitals as well as the many recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janacek and Robert Schumann by the superb pianist Andras Schiff (below). In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Schiff in a live performance of the Gigue from Bach’s Keyboard Partita No. 3.)

And there are many, many more artists and recordings worth your attention. Here is a link to an extensive sampler on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/user/ECMRecordsChannel

Who are your favorite ECM artists?

What are your favorite ECM recordings?

What ECM downloads do you recommend?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Madison Opera announces its 2017-18 season

April 7, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison Opera has announced its 2017-18 season, which features a classic popular opera and two Madison Opera premieres.

The season opens in November with Carmen by Georges Bizet, followed by The Abduction from the Seraglio by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in February, and then Florencia en el Amazonas by Mexican composer Daniel Catan (1949-2011) in April. The season concludes with the 17th annual Opera in the Park in July.

“I am delighted with this new season,” says Kathryn Smith (below, in a a photo by James Gill), Madison Opera’s general director. “Carmen was the piece that made me fall in love with opera in high school, so I always look forward to sharing it with our audience. The Abduction from the Seraglio has some of Mozart’s most virtuoso vocal writing, with an innate charm and comedy that is perfect for winter. Florencia en el Amazonas is quite simply ravishing, both in its music and its story. The season truly has something for everyone in it.”

The company’s 57th season begins in November with Georges Bizet’s Carmen in Overture Hall. One of the most popular operas in the world, Carmen was a flop when it premiered in Paris in 1875, but within a few years was widely acclaimed.

The story of a Spanish gypsy determined to live a life on her own terms, Bizet’s masterpiece blends passion, seduction, jealousy, dance, and even a little law-breaking, all set to one of the most famous scores ever composed.

Aleks Romano makes her Madison Opera debut in the title role; Cecilia Violetta López makes her debut as Micaëla. Sean Panikkar (Opera in the Park 2014) returns to Madison Opera as Don José, the soldier who falls in love with Carmen; Corey Crider (Sweeney Todd) returns as Escamillo, the toreador. E. Loren Meeker directs this traditional staging in her Madison Opera debut, with John DeMain  conducting members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

February brings the Madison Opera PREMIERE of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, the composer’s first major operatic success, done in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. Set in the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, the opera starts with a Spanish nobleman arriving at a pasha’s palace to rescue his fiancée, who was captured during a shipwreck.

Together, they find that different cultures need not always clash, and romantic longings come in many forms. Comedy blends with the underpinnings of the Enlightenment in a masterpiece that is the perfect blend of humor and humanity.

Mozart’s brilliant score calls for virtuoso singing in every role. Caitlin Lynch (Don Giovanni) returns to sing Konstanze; the soprano has sung major Mozart roles at the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera this season.  Also returning are Matt Boehler (below, Fidelio, Don Giovanni) as Osmin and Eric Neuville (Little Women) as Pedrillo.

Making their debuts are Ashly Neumann as Blonde and David Walton as Belmonte. Alison Moritz makes her Madison Opera directorial debut; John DeMain conducts.

Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catán (below top), who also turned the movie “Il Postino” into an opera, concludes the MainStage season in Overture Hall.

 Inspired by the writings of the Colombian Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez (below bottom), Catán’s gorgeously lyrical opera was the first Spanish-language opera to be premiered in the U.S. and has been performed worldwide since its 1996 premiere. (You hear the accessibility of Catan’s music in the opening scene that is in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Set in the early 20th century, the story tells of Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer, as she embarks anonymously on a voyage down the Amazon River, hoping to be reunited with her lover she left behind.  On the boat with her are a young journalist; a couple feeling the strain of their long marriage; the boat’s captain; the captain’s nephew, who falls in love with the journalist; and a man who is a rather mystical presence.

Returning to Madison Opera in the title role is Elizabeth Caballero (below, Don Giovanni, La Traviata), who was acclaimed for this role at New York City Opera. Nmon Ford (Tosca) returns as the mysterious Riolobo; Rachel Sterrenberg (Charlie Parker’s Yardbird) sings Rosalba, the journalist; Adriana Zabala (The Tales of Hoffmann) sings Paula; Mackenzie Whitney (La Bohème) sings Arcadio, the captain’s nephew; and Levi Hernandez (The Magic Flute in 2006) sings Alvaro. Ashraf Sewailam makes his Madison Opera debut as the Capitán.

Kristine McIntyre (below, The Tales of Hoffmann, Dead Man Walking) returns to direct this unique-to-Madison production, which features members of Kanopy Dance and choreography by Lisa Thurrell.  John DeMain conducts.

Subscriptions for the 2017-18 season will be available in late April at madisonopera.org and by phone at (608) 238-8085. Subscribers save up to 15% off single ticket prices.


Classical music: Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle” wins two Golden Globe awards. But Season 2 — which is now available for streaming and features real-life famous longhairs — gets a mixed review from The New York Times

January 17, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

“Sex, drugs and classical music”?

It was easy to underestimate the Amazon comedy sitcom “Mozart in the Jungle” as just a commercial low-brow, rock and roll take on the high-brow world of classical music.

Mozart in the Jungle poster

Until two weeks ago.

That when the TV comedy series, which portrays the trials and tribulations of being a classical musician in today’s pop-oriented culture, won two Golden Globe awards.

golden globes 2016

One award went to the accomplished Mexican actor, director and producer Gabriel Garcia Bernal (below) for the Best Actor in a TV Series, Comedy or Musical. He plays Rodrigo, an orchestra conductor.

Gael Garcia Bernal as conductor Rodrigo Mozart in the Jungle CR Amazon Studios

The second award went to the show as Best TV Series for Comedy or Musical.

Will any Emmys follow?

The second season has been ready for streaming since Dec. 30. And winning the two Golden Globe awards is sure to spike viewer interest. (You can see the trailer for Season 2 in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Although there are some fine things to admire in Season 2, apparently it loses steam and gets repetitive.

At least that is the assessment of music critic Zachary Woolfe, who writes for The New York Times.

One interesting sidelight of Season 2 is that several big-name classical musicians make a cameo appearance on the show.

They include the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the phenom music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

DudamelChris Christodoulou

The flamboyant Chinese superstar pianist Lang-Lang:

Lang Lang so expressive

And mainstream American piano star Emanuel Ax, who will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in March. (NOTE: Ax was to play the Symphonic Variations by Cesar Franck and the Burleske by Richard Strauss. That program has now been changed to the Piano Concerto No. 4 by Ludwig van Beethoven.)

Emanuel Ax Philharmonia

To The Ear, the show still sounds like fun – if you can get past or overlook the endless sense of crisis.

Which, curiously, also just happens to be how one might feel about the real-life, non-fiction world of classical music these days with its focus on declining attendance, fewer recordings, labor strife and programming.

Here is a link to the review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/03/arts/television/mozart-in-the-jungle-where-classical-music-meets-soap-opera.html?_r=0

Tell us in the COMMENT section what you think of either the first season or the second season, if you have already started to watch it.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Amazon’s new TV comedy “Mozart in the Jungle — Sex, Drugs and Classical Music” depicts the problems of classical musicians in New York City, and gets cheers and jeers from critics for The New York Times and National Public Radio.

January 22, 2015
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Bankrupt symphony orchestras and opera companies?

Highly trained but out-of-work classical musicians?

The unfortunate realities of classical music in contemporary American culture have made their way into a fictional comedy.

Fresh off its surprise win in the Golden Globe awards, Amazon Studios is broadcasting an unusual comedy series based on the behind-the-scenes problems and trials of classical musicians in New York City.

It is called “Mozart in the Jungle” – a title that reminds The Ear of the moving scenes in the classic film “Out of Africa” where recordings of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  — including the sublime middle movement of the Clarinet Concerto — are played by multiple Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep and Robert Redford on a phonograph in the midst of the African bush.

Below is a photo by Nicole Rivelli of Amazon Studios that shows Gael García Bernal (right), Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell starring in the classical music comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle.” You can see the trailer, which has a lot of details and bacground and which already has more than 1 million hits, for the new streaming series in a YouTube video at the bottom.

mozart in the jungle

But this urbane comedy take gets mixed marks for its realistic depiction of the difficulties of the classical music scene in New York City, which could easily apply elsewhere.

Here is the critique from NPR of National Public Radio by Anastasia Tsioulcas:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/01/15/377232599/what-we-love-and-hate-about-mozart-in-the-jungle

And here is the review by critic and reviewer Zachary Woolfe for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/arts/television/mozart-in-the-jungle-an-amazon-series.html?_r=0

If you have watched “Mozart in the Jungle, let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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