agrippina at jordan hall

Boston baroque presented a semi-staged Händel’s “Agrippina” at Jordan Hall yesterday (and today) with a strong cast:
Susanna Phillips — Agrippina
Kevin Deas — Claudius
David Hansen — Nerone
Amanda Forsythe — Poppea
Marie Lenormand — Ottone
Douglas Williams — Pallas
Krista River — Narcissus
Boston Baroque orchestra
Martin Pearlman — conductor


middle seat courtesy of Stray’s generous cousin

First a foreword: i *reallllly* like Agrippina! it’s a greaaat opera to attend live, so many plots + character layers, and can be an absolute blast when given the right staging + singers. And “historically” this opera brings back nothing but my deeep down wishes to have seen (1) the Zürich version, (2) the Paris/Brussels version, and (3) the Ghent version. Additionally, it was one of the best operas I’ve seen live here in Boston, back in 2011 with Boston Lyric Opera and also a very strong cast + orchestra (and overdose of CT). So even when trying hard to not compare, it’s inevitable :-).

First, the singers: S.Phillips is GREAT!! a very strong and descriptive voice, one which lets her play a lot with phrasing to bring out the manipulative side of Agrippina. Particularly in the slow arias where she sustained the notes and shaped them, such as in “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (A.Hallenberg, please note the orchestra here!! i’ll come back later to it). In fact most of the time when she sang i skipped glancing at the translation so as to not get distracted from the musical phrasing. She also has a large stage presence, almost giving us the impression Jordan Hall was too small for her to reveal all her facets! For this reason actually, i thought she wasn’t fully committed 100% to evilness :-), could be *much* more convincing! Oh, and for a moment i thought i finally understood the aria “Se vuoi pace”, how it fits in, but particularly the message of it as hinted in the musical phrasing.. but can’t seem to find a clip, so perhaps i’ll upload A.Hallenberg later to see if it makes sense..



Follow in parallel in strong voice + character is A.Forsythe as Poppea. I really hope Boston Baroque will release a photo of her holding the scissors at the end of her Act I aria (which I’m told by Stray is the same aria as in Almira, yet more on this later!) Actually watching both of them making me wishing we could see a full staging as they could really develop more. What i greatly enjoyed also is her phrasing during recitative. Händel is a bit hard to follow if one doesn’t phrase/shape both arias + recit, in fact a lot will eventually sound “the same” when you have everyone sighing/pouting/crying/simply-singing over recit. Thus it’s always rewarding to hear descriptive music :-). Here’s a clip of Poppea’s entrance aria while i continue to type, check out clip at the end for recycled music.

Speaking of descriptive music, K.Deas’s phrasing, i LLLLLOOOOOVVVEEE. He appeared initially with a few quite well-timed “over-the-top” comical gestures, paused, then sent out absolutely seductive phases, never has “vieni” sounded soo full of lush + irresistibility! Impressive! Same throughout the night, well timed comical gesture, gorgeous phrasing. And his tone is very warm and sustained (I hope this is the right word, some singers just have non-sustained tone such that you hear 1/2 of their voice as it oscillates in/out of audible range ??, such as the case for Pallas + Narcissus).

Another important character is M.Lenormand’s Ottone. She has very warm and pleasant tone. BUT, her musical phrasing / expression, in my opinion, is 100% mirror-imaged of the orchestra. That is one wishes to hear something more distinct, something that brings out the character.. but i couldn’t feel it. So it was pleasant singing, but much more can be done with these sad arias. I sat there feeling a bit frustrated how under-expressive the phrasing was at times, and kept thinking in head: i’d like to hear how VK does this 🙂 . So, how about a link, i mentioned before, i quite like L.Zazzo’s warm voice, he makes a very credible Ottone here without making the audience wondering why Poppea didn’t just jump ship… Equally important is how the orchestra interacts with / supports him.

While on the subject of “credibility”, it’s true these guys know how to play male characters :-), but a “girly” + “shy” + “timid” Ottone, as can be the case with a mezzo, can make it quite less convincing. So yes, do you need *this* Ottone, for example!


Marijana Mijanovic as Ottone in Zürich

Lastly, CT’s D.Hansen as Nerone. We have already covered his voice a few posts back.. but here in several occasions I quite like his phrasing, in particular the aria when he was left alone by Poppea and crawling on the floor singing about love. Very pleasant tone + phrasing, *very* nice. The “B” section of Come Nube (link to A.Bonitatibus scorching eyebrows in Zürich) was also quite nicely shaped. Apology for the “A” sections in this same aria because the viola da gamba player caught my attention and i spent the rest of that as well as Ottone’s aria (just before) staring at her 😉 .

Now, to the orchestra! To those who have read my blog posts and seen my love confession for Boston Baroque, I must say I was puzzled for half the night thinking what is “wrong” with the orchestra. It sounded.. uniformly un-inspiring. Then by the beginning of Act II, I have my own conclusion: Please bring in a different conductor! Rene Jacobs for example! 🙂 . Or as I put it more to Stray by the end of the evening: IF the BEMF orchestra was on stage, we would have heard a *very* different version tonight! and as I have gushed non-stop about the players (and maestro Pearlman) before in other works, I believe his take on Händel is underwhelmed. The orchestra, in my opinion, should play an active part in phrasing + supporting singers + building the story. Note Rene Jakobs’ orchestra in various links on this post for example, how he varied the tempo just a bit plus calling for various dynamics between string + harpsichord. Also noticeable there is how bright the strings can be at time.

The semi-staging idea is great, 2 sets of rotating frames where various “beds” + “sofas” + “desk-with-mirrors” + “podiums” are placed for singers to lounge around. Also great was S.Phillips’ engagement with the audience, first announcing to “us” Claudio’s death (and how thrilled she was), then telling us to join in for clap as Claudio arrived back.

A note on Händel’s habit of re-cycling his music, this one has complete recycled arias from (a) Aci, Galatea e Polifermo, (b) Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, (c) Almira. Funny how when first seen this live back in 2011 I was so new to Händel to not even know any of these. Good thing he didn’t borrow any from Alcina / Ariodante; it would have been too obvious. Here you really have to be a Händel’s “geek” to recognize :-).



Kasarova as Agrippina in Zürich

So, to summarize, a highly highly enjoyable evening, and as always, in the lovely company of Stray. She was shocked to hear my confusion between “Aci, Galatae e Polifermo” and “Acis and Galatea”, especially my thought of the 2nd one performed by BEMF as “generic” 😀 . Unrelatedly, *if* i have an option to put a cast together from my 2 live experiences in boston it would be to pluck S.Phillips from this one into Boston Lyric Opera’s staging. The (my) jury is still out between Kathleen Kim and A.Forsythe. It’s difficult to say because I did not get to see Forsythe in the fully staged version with different dynamics, except to say Ms. Kim absolutely brought the haus down with her riveting singing; i was super impressed as a newbie (so there’s also that, newbie’s ears vs supposedly more refined ears now 🙂 ), perhaps we can have dual cast with 1 night Ms. Kim and following Ms. Forsythe, how’s that for luxury. Lastly, Stray claimed to have *not* seen the famous photo of Agrippina with VK in the meat freezer! I’d really like to share this photo album which I uploaded to her fb page, but very frustrating that i can’t seem to share. Just in case it somehow miraculously works, here’s the link. Else how about this photo, which I made as my screen for the phone last year, but then decided to change because it looked a bit too bloody and scary for late night walk home.
(Edit: so i finally put the album up here because i really love it, staging, costume, singers ;-> …)

monteverdi @ Jordan Hall

i have a love declaration
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glorious “messiah” with boston baroque

Come to Jordan Hall and Boston Baroque will tell you the story of Händel’s Messiah! I read in the program notes that Boston Baroque has been performing the work since 30 years or something… but finally i made it to the first on period instruments at intimate Jordan Hall.. and this is it, they’ll be on my calendar next year! At the risk of sounding like a broken record, i hear things I have NEVER heard before in Messiah! Either i’m getting used to hearing super religious music in English, or it’s the superb quality+clarity of the orchestra and chorus that made one so impressed you can’t do anything else but focus on them, a true dedication to music making.

The night started fantastically with the baroque violins and tenor Nicholas Phan. Orchestra began rather slow, but with the “slow, listen, because we want to tell you something in great detail” type. I was wondering what it was that drew my attention immediately to the start.. until it became obvious: Nicholas Phan meant every word he sang! Very expressive telling, the sort just from the tone + intensity you have 3D shapes unfolding before your eyes.. and though not large in stature, he made a perfect image of a passionate + effective pastor telling a bigger-than-life story of the coming Messiah, with glorious violins building up bringing home his message. Fantastic detail. While i at it, a bit more about his singing: I was actually a bit worried that he might pushed too hard, sort of what I occasionally heard in this version of Ariodante… there’s a great fine line between effective story-telling and over-emoting (newly learned word thanks to ToveS), and he did it just right, like in the pitch dark with oil-lamp reflecting dancing shadows, and the lion tip-toeing before s.p.r.i.n.t.i.n.g. (add coloratura for extra effect) JUMPING plunging claws into its prey. Just fantastic!
One of our favorite Cherubino’s was also there, Kate Lindsey, singing some of my favorite Händel’s passages.. Last year it was a CT so i didn’t quite pay much attention how much time she would get. The voice is quiiiite interesting. Quite warm, very flexible, but interesting.. when i found the right word, will update here. As the evening progress, I hear her muuuuch better when I don’t look, which is really annoying because she’s a looovely person to look at :-).. but it’s just due to my seat on extreme left and it seems i heard muuuch better on the left ear. I did sit there debating whether it’s only a psychological effect that we hear better when we don’t see, but i convinced in this case it’s really the seat location + my ears… but altogether, a bit annoying i had to look away 😉 The mezzo range in general though is quite in same range with ALL instruments so one really has to pay extra attention to get the sound clear… There was one part in 2nd half when she had a duet with Nicholas Phan, at first I worried his sound would cover hers.. but to my delighted left ears, sound came in perfect balance (also helped he was further away).. though due to looking away and focusing on their singing, i can’t remember which part of orchestra was playing… In term of shaping of music phrases, I enjoyed both hers and his better than bass’ and soprano’s.

So, onto orchestra, FAAAAAAAATASSSSSStic sound!!! sooo much details, such clarity, great precision! For some reasons all my tix had been on the left balcony overlooking violin 1 (and Ms. Christina Day Martinson’s) back.. think i mentioned once her body movement (and entire violin section’s really) just incompletely in-tune with the music, you hear everything, all the notes were played with intention and equal attention, not one is lost. The beloved woodwind section was reduced to only 2 oboes hidden from my view.. I was debating of switching balcony at intermission to other extreme side to get a view of them.. and gladly didn’t.. otherwise would have missed the GREEEAT trumpets!!

Speaking of trumpet, the bass’ aria.. Actually for both bass and soprano the intake of sound seemed to work better when I focused attention on the orchestra instead of them (for different reason than with Ms. Lindsey). This is because they sounded a bit more as part of the many instruments instead of “the one”, which is fine, because the orchestra is where one should look at. all 6 or so violins, and particularly the whole violoncello section which accompanied the bass in his trumpet aria. Simply fantastic.

Lastly, the chorus!!! they should be the first to get mentioned… By far the best chorus I’ve heard either at Jordan Hall or at Symphony Hall since my move back here. It’s on the smaller size, which I think is PERFECT (and in perfect balance with the small orchestra). GREAT precision! and the soft singing, deterministically soft, with purpose! They had a biig section in 2nd part duetting, asking + responding, where you really hear all sections interweaving with clarity and precision (instead of meshing into a mass of blurry chaos and ending fractions of second out of sync..and i always hear Eyes’ comment in back of my head “not the most disciplined chorus!”) It sounds picky (?) but I’m guessing precision and clarity is not easy to achieve in large chorus unless you get a high quality professional one? How can you make 5-10 sound like ONE synchronized voice? A tiny bit of tone difference, intensity difference, fraction of seconds off, and the sound is already blurred… especially in soft and soft-to-forte (another opportunity for me to rave Nicholas Phan transition from soft-to-strong and drop back to soft, gets one eye-wide opened intently listening! same with the chorus but his effect was much stronger.)

In summary, it was a night of glorious music in an almost (99\%) packed Jordan Hall. Super strong line up on all fronts from Boston Baroque. Felt like i was listening to Messiah for the first time. They are playing again today (Saturday, 14-dec-2013) at 7pm. If you are in the area and debating, you should go. I sat there debating if i should come again… (I would if not for the current sore-throat + combo of racing to leave town, but still have some 20hrs to decide.. if I do go again, promise i’ll take my better camera than this crappy phone with blurry pix…)

(ps- of course, i’ll take opportunity to post again for the 4th time my favorite aria…)

(ps2- the soloists sit just in front of the chorus and moved up and down to the front when singing.. which i think works great as it doesn’t block the audience from seeing fantastic Martin Pearlman on harpsichord or string sections… (while we’re on Martin Pearlman, SUPERB tempo + conducting + directing orchestra and chorus!!) but for the alto’s first aria (“But who may abide…”), as well as duet of alto + soprano “He shall something… flock…”, I curious why the singers don’t just stay put until all finished singing so as to not get disrupted.. especially in “But who may abide..”, the string music to start is VERY short and Kate Lindsey first had to wait for the bass to walk down, then she made it up front just in time to sing… and it sounded quite rushed as well as not quite in tune in some parts of the aria — could just be my shot ears, though we had discussion once in Munich that if _I_ can hear the music off, it IS off 🙂 )

beethoven 9th round 2

So, i was again at the hall today, now with neck strain from giraffe-like stretching for better view of woodwind section the past 2 days. More confirmation of my love for the woodwinds, along with horn player, and especially violin section 1. They and woodwinds have the entire 3rd movement to themselves, with everyone else supporting, soooo *love*. wonder if i can send in a request for a copy of recording (if they did record) of today’s 3rd movement… you know how a particular section of music truly hit home for you while stir no others? how many times have i talked about 3rd movement already? this was truly the highlight of the evening. I’d go back 10 times just to re-hear this violin section version. It’s the same effect as in the Bach Matthews Passion with Freisinger orchestra: because it’s so thin the sound, you truly hear every single detail, agony, lamentation, joy, in mainly the first 2 violinists (there are more of them behind but all hidden from me, the sound came up to balcony though…). Every single turn of the bow produces goose-bump inducing sound, quite amazing.


The last movement, it’s nice to have music director + conductor Martin Pearlman explained it, since i’ve heard so many times without noticing… that several tunes were introduced and flat out rejected before 1 last one floated in the air by woodwinds… I enjoyed the chorus much more today, possibly because my seat was 5 more in toward the center (still same row)… If i can make 1 request, it would have been to swap out the soprano soloist – quite a shouting match… and slightly related, those 4 soloists’ voices don’t quite mesh musically… all giving the impression everyone was on their own (in the sound) tangling up fighting to outshine instead of complementary… which i can only take it as the fact that that happens at times that the voices just don’t mesh to one’s ears (like 2 yrs ago in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater also at Jordan Hall, tho it was more the mezzo continuously grabbing the poor soprano’s leg and dragging her into the mud…)

The idea of tunes introduced and rejected seems quite abundant in movement 2 actually, it truly looked and sounded like a messy town hall meeting, one with the young and joyful woodwinds tossing around jolie tunes (sec 10-30 in video below), violin2 + viola marching military-like insisting things should be done a certain way… esp. this part here where it’s almost as if the strings entertained the woodwinds idea twice (0.46-0.49, 0.50-0.54)… before insisting to follow the rule again (0.55-1.20) Then of course the elderly violoncellos intervened to remind all the stay civilized.. but right at 1/2 way, and new idea was introduced (2.20-2.35)! and apparently it’s a compromise, first endorsed by the elderlies (2.35-2.50) before being accepted by all it seems! (may be i’ve hearing too much budget fighting here in the US 🙂 ). It was this “new idea” tune that i thought was quite a rush in Martin Pearlman’s version, sort of being shoved in at last minute via backdoor instead of being laid out with thoughtful reasonings..

a few last words about sound.. i sat there thinking for a hitchcock movie you simply can’t use any of these instruments… modern is the way to go maybe.. until the piccolo arrived :-). But still, it’s quite amazing how mellow the baroque horns and trumpets sound, i don’t think singers would get drowned out! so naturally i wonder if we can try such orchestra with Der R :D.

(ps- oh, i must be sitting too high up coz i didn’t hear the “scratching” sound of violin as the first movement started, i know it’s there! (i think))

brilliant boston baroque playing beethoven 9th

i’ve been in furious wrestling match with ribbon-like patterns in nordic seas the last 1.5 busy month, but at 6.30am friday morning victory was declared! just in time for boston baroque first night performance of beethoven 9th too (tomorrow is 2nd performance, i have tix, better seat even, yay!!).

so, beethoven 9th, on PERIOD instruments!! i in love 8 . that ENTIRE woodwind section, marry me. :-). upon hearing my raving in full anticipation the whole week, the hausmate also arrived last minute, and thus we had a very good discussion amongst us and a couple of ladies sitting near her seat. Not sure if i well versed enough to describe it, but 1 person sort of summarized it well: “i hear things i’ve never heard before in beethoven 9th!”, to which i can only say: “yes! because it’s on period instruments!!” Think i’ve got it sort of figured out now, all thanks to the near tear-inducing 3rd movement, in combo with Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” at the BSO 2 weeks ago on modern orchestra.  Let’s start with 3rd movement. Actually, perhaps first  a discussion of the difference impression one gets between a modern and baroque flute. 2 weeks ago, Christianne Stotijn floored me with her expanded + emotion-filled version of Mahler song from the earth, but every time the flute came up (she and the flute duetted quite a bit together) i remember thinking wow it’s LOUD (quite overpowering Ms Stotijn’s voice).  If you can tolerate such a comparison, modern flute = Vesselina Kasarova in the 90’s and early 2000’s, it’s got this “ping” that overpowers and pierces the air. the baroque orchestra is VK’s sound now, it’s got this “humidity” or “heft” that stays warm and close to the ground. ok, i promise, i done comparing with VK. but yes, close to ground, quite bare, FULL of colors and textures. Back to the 3rd movement: first the woodwinds entered, followed by violin 2 taking the first amazing tune before passing the torch to violin 1 on the 2nd round of gorgeous tune. This is rather a personal thing, but i have always in the head this image of the vast grass land and rolling hills as the violins introduce the “wave” of notes (think Julie Andrews in sound of music image). This time, sitting right above the 2 first violinists in violin1 section (Christian Day Martinson and Lena Wong), it felt like the violins had laid bare, opened up showing glimpses of vulnerability on the inside, yet with perseverance… quite amazing and honest the sound. totally reminded me of this particular scene in Jane Eyre (before she starved and went begging).

zelah clarke, jane eyre, 1983

zelah clarke, jane eyre, 1983

Anyhow, that’s about summing up the experience really, i heard almost every single note! starting from the woodwind section in 1st movement. simply love. in fact almost didn’t quite notice the string section until the beloved 3rd movement. but now onto a few points in bullet format:

1) they’re playing again tomorrow (today, saturday, 9-nov-2013, at 8pm in Jordan Hall, you definitely should go if you’re in the area and are a lover of beethoven 9th or baroque orchestra…)

how does tempo get picked?

how does tempo get picked?

2) how does tempo get picked? since i can’t read music or understand musical notations… i’ll start with some wild guesses here. first, i guess it’s written on the score “allegro”, “andante”, “something con brio” and such.. so say maestro Harnoncourt wanted to express something, and thus he’d pick a tempo within some acceptable range that “andante” falls into? so the distribution of would be either gaussian, skew, bimodal? just curious because i sat there thinking the 2nd movement was a bit too fast and automatically fear the 3rd movement would follow the “generic slow” and stagnant trend… but much much to my delight, the tempo was JUST GREAT, the best i’ve heard, *best*. even my favorite YT version on period instrument took it a little too fast, while 90% of what i’ve heard is more on the much slower side… This one gave you just the right pendulum swinging feeling.

3) One of the 2 ladies i chatted with at the end mentioned this is the 2nd time she heard Beethoven’s symphony the way she had never heard before in term of details. First was Beethoven 7th 3 years ago. YES! i remembered that! was the year i visited boston for a conference and showed up at last minute on 50% discount tickets, gorgeous playing! They were in my charles river slideshow too. I think Boston Baroque should do that again: sell 50% off tickets 30min before the show. It’s ashamed such beautiful music is made to a hall with several rows of empty seats. I know they have discounts for seniors and students, but the overall reduction right before concert would benefit all i think. I might have been even able to grab several colleagues/friends along. Can’t complain about my tickets though, $22 thanks to Boston Art discounts since i was quick to snatch them 2 months ago.

4) I’ve been to quite a few Beethoven 9th and my impression is that (is it also true in europe? elsewhere?) in the US some people seem to know only _that_ famous tune and are not aware that it’s a 1.5hr symphony with so much more… i once had a very good discussion with my undergraduate advisor and can now confirm his point that at one time every single instrument on stage was playing: right before the end, exactly when the piccolo joined in (the only people not singing are the soloists).

5) A few weeks ago, i walked into a friend’s office and he was building a radio! radio_inside My eyes totally lit up of course! This was exactly how i discovered classical music with Beethoven 9th chorus! With absolute no background in music, the sort of “music” i know growing up involved some synthesizer producing some generic “tune” and “rhythm” and “piano-like” or “guitar-like” sound… all to the singing into microphone and amplifiers blasting all out of speakers… Then Beethoven 9th chorus arrived in the form of a cassette tape found in trash bin :-). _The_ tune was nice, but most importantly it was like someone opened a box and on the inside, here is your orchestra, this is how “sound” is produced, harmonized, pick a tempo you like, mix instruments A, B, C of your choice, find a written sheet of music (didn’t get as far as a composer concept…), and voila, here’s music! pure form, un-amplified, outside the black box. a great discovery at age 21. Like a true explorer, i investigated in detail the piece, movement by movement, phrase by phrase (all on hearing :-)), so, yes, i hear very well, everything, many many thanks boston baroque for putting this on their agenda this season! a standing O from me with bravi shouts.  1 more show tomorrow, woohooo.