The power of choral music lies not just in its majesty and grandeur, but in its melding of a cross section of humanity, some professional and some perhaps merely gifted, to produce together a sculpted work of art. A work such as the Vespers by Serge Rachmaninoff, full of mysticism, devotion, drama and spiritual yearning, is the perfect vehicle for showcasing the range and depth of choral music. To the gratitude of a large and appreciative audience, the Bach Society of St. Louis delivered in all categories Sunday at St. Stanislaus Church downtown.
Now in his 31st year as conductor, A. Dennis Sparger has always directed the Bach Society with consummate skill, but his talents, and those of each singer onstage, shone with heightened brilliance at this performance. Rarely would a listener imagine that a crescendo or decrescendo could produce a spiritual effect, yet that was the case in this presentation. Even seasoned listeners likely found a new and deeper appreciation of the capacity of the human voice to enliven a spiritual setting. Regardless of whether each of us follows a traditional Christian path, or whether we might follow the path of Judaism, Buddhism or some other spiritual path -- or perhaps no path at all -- the music of Rachmaninoff's score speaks directly to the heart.
Life was often not easy for Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), even though he ultimately triumphed over his critics and crippling lack of self-esteem. Perhaps he found a measure of solace in composing religiously-inspired music. At first hearing, the score of the Vespers may seem like a whirlwind of sound that carries the listener away to a different realm. Familiarity with the work, though, leads one to pause and experience each turn of the melody and each rise and fall with deeper perception. At a time when interest in the Eastern Orthodox churches is rapidly increasingly around the world, a work such as this provides a glimpse into the texture of Orthodox practice.
The title Vespers is somewhat of a misnomer, in that Vespers refers to evening prayer. However, Rachmaninoff composed an "All-Night Vigil," designed to be performed prior to holidays, that combines evening prayers with morning prayers (matins). Performing the work poses the challenge of learning to enunciate Church Slavonic, the sacred language of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dennis Sparger is well-known for his detailed attention to proper diction. Assisted by tutors from Russia and Ukraine, the Society chorus demonstrated a high degree of accuracy and careful observance of linguistic nuances. (Having a very slight Russian background of my own -- well, I can attest that the overall effect, to me at least, sounded as authentic as any reasonable listener could expect!)
Tenor Keith Weymeier was featured in several of the fifteen chorus that make up the Vespers. His voice is warm and radiant, and powerful enough to resonate throughout the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus. Weymeier seemed comfortable with his diction and at home with the score.
Shawn Neace, bass, was soloist on the opening invocation of the work. His deep projecting voice set the tone with a particularly characteristic Slavic accent. Similarly, alto Alison Neace, soloist on the ensuing "Bless the Lord, O My Soul," possessed a beautiful dark register that seemed well-tailored for a Slavic spiritual work.
Under Sparger's direction, the chorus demonstrated a solid blend and well-honed phrasing. Dynamics were particularly stunning. Sparger was superbly assisted by the hard work and dedication of the singers themselves, pianist Sandra Geary and assistant accompanist Cynthia Johnson. One of the great beauties of choral music is its highly collaborative structure that unites artists from all walks of life into a single unified whole.
Special thanks also to the congregation and staff of St. Stanislaus Church for opening their door to support such a serious and important project as this performance. The near-capacity audience for the March 12 performance demonstrated that classical music is alive and well in St. Louis.
A kaleidoscope of diverse and talented soloists and a broad-ranging program, led by two conductors, combined to produce a spirited and intriguing concert by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis last Sunday, March 5 in their home venue at First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood.
In his remarks to the audience, Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson explained the uniqueness of several of the featured works, as well as the characteristics and challenges of the solo instruments involved. Today it is more important than ever to provide education and background to listeners, which is one of the most important and attractive components of MOSL's concept and mission. Not only does the orchestra provide background and knowledge, but it also offers a "Share the Music Stand" program in which gifted students are paired with orchestra members at rehearsals and concerts. This is music education at its very finest: veteran performers in the orchestra teaching by example, and students learning by doing.
Harpist Megan Stout opened the program as soloist in the Danses sacrée et profane (Sacred and Secular Dances) by Claude Debussy, a beautiful work showcasing the strength, agility and sheer beauty of the instrument, for which Stout was amply suited. Benjamin Britten's remarkable Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, featuring Peter Ulffers, horn, and tenor Keith Boyer. Drawing upon verses from major British poets, the cycle of songs requires performers with a wide range and warmth of tone. Ulffers and Boyer melded a beautiful lyrical counterpoint together; without such smoothness and rich sonority, this work would be cold and lifeless. But that was certainly not the case. Britten's score calls for both a field horn (no valves) as well as the modern concert horn. The opening and closing sections of the work are played offstage by the field horn, creating a roving and dreamlike effect that provides a tonal backdrop to the poetry proclaimed by the tenor.
The program continued -- without intermission, which seemed entirely appropriate for such a musical showcase -- with clarinetist Jeanine York-Garesche performing the "Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Strings" by the twentieth-century composer Gerald Finzi, arranged by Lawrence Ashmore. The descendant of Italian Jews who settled in England, Finzi is well known for his numerous choral and vocal works. The Five Bagatelles are a beautiful set of short capricious works, full of melodic ingenuity and expressing various moods. Along with all the featured soloists on the program, York-Garesche performed not only with a flowing, liquid tone, but also consummate technical skill. All musical instruments, and all human voices, must "sing," meaning they must perform with expression, dynamics, proper phrasing, rich tone and must be able to give the music wings to take flight on its own. All the featured soloists at this concert were able to successfully embody these characteristics.
The first three works on the program were conducted by Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson, perhaps the single guiding force behind the establishment of the Metropolitan Orchestra, ably assisted by Music Director Wendy Lea. In addition to his musical leadership that molds the entire ensemble into a cohesive, dynamically balanced whole, Larson also functions as an educator and commentator to the audience. Added to that is his deep commitment to nurturing young musicians. These traits combine to create an impressive mission statement for the orchestra.
Assistant Conductor Andrew Peters concluded the concert with Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, completed in 1916 when the composer was only nineteen. Since Schubert died at 31, somehow his inner spirit knew that he needed an early start. This symphony displays Schubert's uncanny ability to produce tuneful and soulful melodies, easily recognizable yet always original. The task of the conductor is to make sure that each melody must ring out clearly and sail into the listener's ears. Peters projected a solid understanding of Schubert's ideas and how they intermingle, making this work an excellent send-off for the enthusiastic audience.
The winning combination for this Metropolitan Orchestra program was its mixture of varied instrumental and vocal soloists, a wide historical range of musical styles, inclusion of works that appealed to audiences yet here and there gave just a bit of harmonic and melodic challenge, an affordable admission price, a hall that is large enough to accommodate yet still provides an intimate setting, and careful yet brief explanations and introductions of the pieces. This is what symphony orchestras were meant to be and why they are critical to the cultural life of every community.
It was all Bach all the time this weekend at the St. Louis Symphony as Bernard Labadie returned to conduct all four of the composer's orchestral suites. Working without a score, Mr. Labadie gave us lively and nuanced interpretations of these works, and he got excellent playing from the orchestra.
Like many of the great composers of his time, Bach often worked for the government. Three of the four orchestral suites, in fact, were most likely written originally for the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (where Bach was the resident composer and music director from 1717 to 1723) and then revised for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum (a semi-professional ensemble that the composer directed from 1729 through 1741). The fourth (the Suite No. 3, BWV 1068) was written expressly for the Collegium.
All four are essentially dance suites, a form that was highly popular in Bach's day. Each of the suites begins with a short "French overture" (the name possibly refers to the fact that the form first appears in the operas of Jean Baptiste Lully) consisting of majestic opening followed by a fast fugal section. That's followed by collection of popular dances of the period -- Courante, Gavotte, Menuet and so on.
If some of the recordings of the Bach suites in my collection are any indication, it's easy to treat this music as weighty stuff. Even in his "light" music, after all, Bach couldn't stop being a genius at counterpoint. But Mr. Labadie's fleet-footed and engaging interpretations never allowed us to lose sight of this music's terpsichorean roots.
Each of the four suites had its share of delightful moments. In the Suite No. 1 in C major, for example, I was very taken with the wonderfully precise work from oboists Jelena Dirks and Michelle Duskey and bassoonist Andrew Cuneo in the "Overture" and "Bourée" of the first suite. I loved the whirling energy of the "Fourlane" movement as well.
Next was the Suite No. 3 in D major, which included an impressive solo by Concertmaster David Halen in the fast section of the "Overture" and solid work by Mike Walk and the other members of the trumpet section. The famous second movement "Air" got a loving, almost Romantic treatment from Mr. Labadie, which made for a nice contrast with the brisk "Overture" that preceded it.
After intermission, Principal Flute Mark Sparks took the spotlight for the Suite No. 2 in B minor. Scored for strings, harpsichord, and solo flute, the suite feels more like a concerto and offers plenty of opportunities for the soloist to strut his stuff -- which Mr. Sparks did with great authority. The intimate "B" section of the "Polonaise," with Mr. Sparks backed up only by the continuo (harpsichord and cello), was especially lovely, and the "Badinerie" finale, taken at a somewhat faster tempo than usual, was a real tour de force.
The evening came to a rousing conclusion with the Suite No. 4 in D major. With added oboes, trumpets, and tympani it is, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "the most lavishly scored of his four suites." Encountering it at the end of an evening of works scored for smaller ensembles (and immediately after the far more intimate second suite), it was easy to understand how it might have sounded to an eighteenth-century audience: big, bold, and festive. Mr. Labadie and the band gave it an appropriately energized and appealing treatment, with great playing all the way around.
Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the orchestra along with piano soloist Steven Osborne in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Richard Strauss's massive Alpine Symphony on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., March 10 and 11. The concert takes place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center.
We arrived in Chicago the last weekend in February just in time for the final night of Lyric Opera's splendid production of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma. With a truly memorable performance by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the absurdly demanding title role and a first-rate supporting cast, this was a demonstration of just how compelling a great bel canto opera can be.
The role of Norma, the Druid high priestess who loves neither wisely nor well, is widely regarded as one of the most difficult roles in the repertoire. It's a big part, and not just because of its length; its wide emotional and musical range requires a daunting combination of vocal flexibility, physical stamina, solid acting ability, and a dynamic stage presence. From the moment she first appears on stage, we must believe that this is someone who could command an army as well as the passionate attachment of a Roman general.
Ms. Radvanovsky had everything the role required. Her "Casta Diva" brought down the house with wild applause and spontaneous shouts of "Brava!" She was imperious. She was conflicted. She raged, sighed, and swooned -- and all with a wonderfully seamless and powerful voice.
She was backed up by an equally stunning cast headed by tenor Russell Thomas as the feckless Roman general Pollione and mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as the young priestess Adalgisa -- a part almost as demanding as that of Norma.
Riccardo Frizza made an impressive Lyric conducting debut and stage director Kevin Newbury brought the drama to vivid life. Under Michael Black's direction, the chorus was splendid, as always.
This Norma was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the ear, with David Korins's sets and Jessica Jahn's costumes evoking a kind of Game of Thrones version of Roman Empire-era Gaul.
Norma ended its run on Friday, February 24, but the Lyric Opera season continues until late May, with productions of Carmen, Eugene Onegin, and beginning in late April, My Fair Lady. All performances are at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.
My wife Sherry once observed that the phrase "men behaving badly" could summarize the stories of most of opera's core repertory. Tchaikovsky's 1879 Eugene Onegin, a powerful production of which runs through March 20 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, would certainly be a classic example.
The self-absorbed protagonist, to quote Wikipedia's pithy plot summary, "lives to regret his blasé rejection of a young woman's love and his careless incitement of a fatal duel with his best friend." He could easily become tiresome, but the fact that Pushkin was able to make this callow fellow the basis for a beloved verse novel is a tribute to his genius. The fact that Tchaikovsky and his librettist Konstantin Shilovsky turned that novel into a moving work for the stage is a tribute to theirs.
Lyric Opera's production originated with the Met in New York back in 1997. It has been revived often since then and even set down for posterity on DVD in 2007. Paula Suozzi is credited with directing the current production, based on Robert Carsen's original, and the results are impressive, to say the least. Blocking flows from and enhances the characters, pacing is always right, and the stage pictures created are visually striking.
Michael Levine's minimal set contributes a great deal to the compelling look of this show. Using only furniture on a bare stage to indicate time and place, it forcefully underscores the emotional aridity of Onegin's world. Covering the stage with brightly colored autumn leaves for the opening scenes in the countryside, meanwhile, emphasizes the contrast of that world with Onegin's.
Those wonderful visuals wouldn't be worth much without a great cast, of course, and Lyric certainly has that. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecheń's Onegin is properly cool and even a bit arrogant at first as he rejects the amorous advances of the young and naïve Tatiana, which makes his emotional breakdown at the end of the opera that much more effective. His potent voice rings with true authority.
Tenor Charles Castronovo is his friend Lensky, whom Onegin kills in a duel after an absurd argument caused by an innocent bit of flirtation on the part of Onegin and Lensky's love Olga. His first act confession of love for Olga was heartfelt and beautifully sung, as was the famed second act monolog in which he contemplates his impending death in the duel. Both were enthusiastically received by the audience at the premiere, with shouts of "bravo" after the latter.
Perhaps the best-known number in the entire opera in the Act I "letter" scene in which Tatiana recklessly declares her infatuation with Onegin. Tchaikovsky is said to have very much identified with Tatiana's hopelessly thwarted passion (being gay in a sexually repressive culture will do that to a person) and has given the character some of the most dramatic and compelling music in the opera.
Soprano Ana María Martínez is Lyric's Tatiana and while she clearly looks much older than the character's nineteen years in Act I, she acted the role with complete conviction. When she dashed about the stage in giddy abandon after pouring out her heart in her letter to Onegin, she was so obviously the hormone-fueled adolescent that suspension of disbelief was automatic. She also used all the colors of her wide-ranging voice to brilliantly illuminate this crucial scene.
Russian mezzo Alisa Kolosova was equally credible as Tatnia's sister Olga, brimming with youthful optimism. Her cool, fluid voice was a perfect fit for the part.
Eugene Onegin opens with a bit of wistful comedy as Tatiana's mother Larina and the family nurse Filipyevna peel apples and reminisce about the former's days as a fashionable young girl, before marriage turned her into a member of the landed gentry in the country where "heaven sends us habit to take the place of happiness". Mezzos Katharine Goeldner and Jill Grove, respectively, were impeccable in those roles, hitting just the right balance of humor and nostalgia.
There are a couple of plum cameo parts in the opera as well, the most notable being that of Prince Gremin, the middle-aged general whom Tatiana, following in her mother's dutiful footsteps, eventually marries. Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy captured all the character's emotional warmth and calm, ethical center as he tells Onegin of his love for Tatiana in a touching and lyrical aria. At passionate length, he muses that she is a welcome change from the shallow, insincere, and morally questionable characters that he's obliged to deal with on a regular basis -- characters, in short, rather like Onegin. It was a truly memorable performance, sung with great authority and real power even in the lowest notes.
The other great cameo is foppish Triquet, whose little French language serenade to Olga at her name-day party offers a brief respite from the raging hormone- and vodka-fueled battle that leads to the fatal duel between Lensky and Onegin. Tenor Keith Jameson sang the role with just the right light lyricism and made the character just affected enough to be amusing without falling over into cheap comedy.
The chorus serves an important narrative function in Onegin, especially in the famous Act II waltz, so kudos to Chorus Mater Michael Black for getting such a clear and crisp sound from his thoroughly professional singers. Down in the pit Alejo Pérez, making his American debut, conducted a warm and very convincing account of Tchaikovsky's score.
When Tchaikovsky wrote what he described as "lyrical scenes" from the famous novel (he declined to label it an opera), it was with the understanding that his Russian audience would fill in all the narrative gaps and backstory between those scenes. Now, the place and culture that produced Eugene Onegin may be forever beyond our grasp, but Lyric's excellent production bridges the gap and brings the powerful emotions home.
Performances of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Eugene Onegin continue through March 20 at the Civic Opera House in the Chicago Loop.