Alcina at Boston Conservatory, round 2

Last Saturday, I returned for another round of Alcina (here’s the program), this time with four friends, three of whom had never seen an opera live before. (not sure if they had sat through a taped version either…) During dinner time, we discussed when to nap in case of needs ;-). The evening verdict: everyone was awake and greatly enjoyed the show, with two asking for more future excursions! I’m aware that taking newbies to operas can be a hit or miss, especially in repertoire that is so non-mainstream. But I think it depends on one’s judgement. For example, for me, Händel’s Alcina is a GREAT opera to get started (so is Agrippina..), especially if you have a good orchestra (conductor) and engaging staging. I can’t say if good singing helps unless it is absolutely earth shattering, because, according to friends they can’t tell at all… (more later!) In any case, in addition to them, I also had a really great time, and would have come for the 3rd round if i was still in town. On all front it was a superb night of music and with effective staging to engage both newbies and old-bies. And I realize it’s always a great performance when you start asking questions about the actual meaning of the tempo and phrasing choices to check-mark the long list of puzzles you’ve pocketed, and to be able to compare them rather than worrying about the various issues such as dragging and being disengaged due to dusty + stuffy interpretations.

Oberto, Oronte, Morgana, conductor, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

Oberto, Oronte, Morgana, conductor, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

On that note, below is then a short report of my impressions with more detailed questions on choice of phrasing/tempo, as well as how to bring in new audience.

First up, the singing. The cast was entirely new compared to Friday night’s. And after experiencing various Alcinas, I have it now *almost* figured out! Remember I questioned the effectiveness of the B-section in “Ah, mio cor” and the aria “Ma quando tornerai” on Friday? Isabelle Zeledón completely solved it! First, she has the gaze: very immobile in the body, but the air along line of sight is sizzling and steaming! And she solved the long split-dress and how to move well in it. The singing bit: for these, along with “Ombre pallide”, there needs to be some level of “anger”, “rage”, “disappointment”, just about anything but “coolness” I believe, and Zeledón excelled in that. The recitative leading up to “Ombre pallide” was absolutely riveting! Actually anytime she showed up at the edge of the scene, one could feel the lid is about to come off.. In this staging, “Alcina” can be viewed as somewhat unpredictable, which is also great! why not. But, back to the rest of “Ah mio cor” a little bit (as well as in “Sì, son quella”): here, i thought she could make use of much more piano (she rarely used it, everything was almost in the volume range 5-11 on the 0-10 scale). There were 2 things that occasionally disrupts the flow (in my brain): singing/ascending to ff at times when I don’t quite understand why, and non-shaping at the end of the phrase where the (music) line was simply dropped rather than giving it “shaping”. Overall, for the arias/sections that require soft singing, it would work wonderfully if there’s a merge between how Bizhou Chang employed in the previous night and Zeledón’s approach this night. Oh, i should also mention, both her voice and Bizhou Chang’s, i’d put them on the heavier side, which works great for me! But I had the idea perhaps it’s a conscious choice of casting to go with this type of voice for Alcina, and a much lighter version for Morgana.



Next up is Ruggiero, sung by Abigail Dock. Overall, i really like her color! It’s on the bright side, but with enough heft, and a “ping” to it to carry above in any kind of duet/trio, as well as being warmer and less thin than CT’s Giron the night before. On phrasing, my favorite was “Col celarvi a chi v’ama un momento” to start Act 2. She suddenly got very soulful and reallly brought out the uncertainty in this “recitative” part, even my newbie friends noticed it. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” was quite heart breaking, though it felt there were too much movements at times. Indeed it was insightful to see the contrast between her movements and Giron’s the night before. Prior to this aria, Bradamante was frustrated with Ruggiero’s blindness in not even recognizing his own fiancé and launched into “Vorrei vendicarmi”. Scenically, Bradamante had picked up all the hunting arrows, symbolically plunging them (as a group) into her chest, then dumped all except the last one which she broke in half and sent down at Ruggiero’s feet while stomping out. This left Ruggiero hurt and confused.. and the opening music set in, and one (audience) is already feeling teary. Ruggiero then kneeled down, flanked by Alcina’s toy-girls and boys, picking up slowly the broken arrow, trying to put it back together, before handing it off in waves into the air (during “che m’inganni, amando ancor”). I interpreted the flying away of the single arrow as carrying hope. Here I find the picking of the arrows from the ground to be quite distracting: we can see the symbolic gesture with just one of two attempts to patch up the arrows instead of 20 times: this is a very slow and soul-searching aria, and too much motion takes away that effect/focus (and even the focus on phrasing). In contrast, Giron did just the opposite: he picked up the arrows only twice or so, and in simple gestures we understood what he wanted to do, and the rest of the time was spend caressing the phrase, to a higher level of effectiveness (at least for me).



This same level of movements also seems to work better (for me) with Giron following Bradamante’s footstep and raising the sword during “Sta nell’ircana”, as opposed to “playfully” imitating the sword level in Dock’s case. I get it that the staging is asking them to do X and Y, but I think the small details on how one carries out the movements play into how the character is portrayed. And for Sta nell’ircana, I would assume Ruggiero should be flexing a bit rather than pulling out the marbles and running behind Bradamante playfully. Overall, this set of Ruggiero/Bradamante seemed to be doing a bit more play-acting than facing with the real danger, which the cast from the previous night displayed.

On the same note of comparison, the first Act, Dock was more effective because she actually moved and phrased “Di te mi rido semplice stolto” and “la bocca vaga” much more. I still am very puzzled by the chosen tempo for “Di te mi rido”. Enough that I ended up searching through the tube for some 8 versions as well as reading up on the translation. Here’s Vivica Genaux’ take as I continue to type, with recit for the flow:

The only one that approached the tempo and phrasing here was with S.Graham, (she has something that i believe is even smoother in the recording with W.Christie), which I must admit somehow gave me the feeling Ruggiero is taking a stroll in the park … The other samples have faster tempo as well as being delivered with an “edge”: Ruggiero is edgy at this point afterall, so I anticipate to see him mocking + being a bit irritated rather than taking a light nap in the hammock while sending out words (that’s how it felt the 1st night, the 2nd night was an improvement but still way too smooth in singing and slow and “jolly” in tempo). In any case, after being bugged for 1,5day, i’m satisfied now with my (perhaps biased) findings. (for disclosure, i listened to: M.Beaumont, V.Kasarova 2004, V.Kasarova 2010 (she’s approaching heckling level, jeah!), A.Hallenberg, V.Genaux (see above), T.Berganza, and J.Larmore).



Next up: Bradamante! sung by Ann Fogler. She was great! Technically I would even say she has the most flexible voice of the entire 2 casts, as well as very warm and pleasantly dark color (similar in color to Wolz from the night before). Stance-wise I’d take them both, which implies it was good directing in combination with good acting. For “E gelosia”, i particularly like her acting and the soft singing of the B-section. It’s actually the first time i realized soft singing for Bradamante is effective here instead of needing to send off all sorts of fireworks. As both Bradamante carried so well the pose and the acting, it made me wonder whether it is the director’s choice to contrast them as strongly to Ruggiero’s more “internalized” (the night before) or “light-feet”. Ah, also another important note: Because of the cut in Alcina’s arias (B+A gone in “Sì, son quella” and “Ma quando tornerai”, and complete stripping of her last aria, Alcina the character became much less developed and we had Bradamante on equal footing in stage-time and even stronger than all in strength.

Morgana was sung by Jennifer Soloway. I really have a feeling they (the casting) were aiming for “near identical” voice types in the 2 sets! Even the vibrato was similar, though I’d put Soloway in the lesser polished phrasing compared to N.Logan. She has a rather large voice, I was even thinking whether her focus was more 19th century but was simply casted for this “lighter” role. There were (quite often) times she went fff and masked out the solo instruments that accompanied during “Ama sospira”. However, it was an absolute delight to hear the sensitive phrasing in “Credete al mio dolore”. Her extra “grunt” after discovering Ruggiero and Bradamante walking hand in hand was priceless!! In fact it seems Morgana was given more room to build as a character compared to the “strong, powerful” but not well developed Alcina (due to cuts). The switch from ditching Oronte to suddenly being extremely soulful in “Credete al mio dolore” was a bit too sharp though and left the audience (me) not quite understanding if Morgana being so-quick-to-switch-to-deep-emotion is a true trait or a tear show (in the staging).

Oronte is sung by Quinn Bernegger. I quite like his approach more than the version from the previous night! The direction seems to be: be brute at the beginning, scheming during “Semplicetto! A donna credi?”, and soulful during “un momento di contento..” . I don’t know whether it was a choice or simply a general approach, but Bernegger’s more passive approach made Oronte appeared more thoughtful as he search for “what is right”, “when is right”, “who should i trust”, “how should I approach”. In particular, he delivered a *very* soft “un momento di contento…” . While i wonder if in a bigger theater he could be heard if that’s the way he sings, here it really worked as almost a self-assuring therapy (and I always have Marc Minkowski’s voice in head : “give it hope”) . Oberto was sung by Brianna Meese. It depends on how you want to develop this character perhaps? Anik just linked a post to Josy Santos who sang Oberto this month in Stuttgart, where you can see from a different angle Oberto’s mindset. The version staged here was of a very young Oberto, I’d say around 8-10 year old and still playing with his toy boat. As such I think a level of “lightness” in the voice to carry the “innocence” is welcomed, and both Meese and especially Peng from the night before kept it light. Any anguish he has, however, was cut short with a trimmed “Chi mi insegna il caro padre”. For his joyous aria, i’d have loved to hear the extended version, simply because it is such pleasure to the ears, one can tap the feet the whole night.

So, that’s quite a bit of rambling. But onto to some notes on the staging! As two of my friends (newbies) mentioned: they really enjoyed because it’s engaging and modern. To that, I’d also add it had an arc rooted in deep thinking on how to bring out the characters’ mindset and fit to the flow/storyline. The power Bradamante is provided for example, or the soulful thoughts of Ruggiero as (s)he sat on the column during “Col celarvi a chi v’ama un momento”, or the reflection during “verdi prati”, or the sending up of hope in the shape of the arrows in “mi lusinga..” . The comedy was built in naturally to the flow rather than forced. The tension in Alcina is again built in with clear movements or positions on stage. Even the extras were well used to illustrate the support Alcina had and lost through time, or the heart-beat to start “Ah mio cor”. The use of the opaque (symbolic) mirror is a nice touch, though I’d like to read up a little more on its meaning as well as the meaning of the mirror-holder who repeated after Alcina in “Ah mio cor”. An ambiguity which I quite like is the reversal of the music at the end (at least when comparing to Vienna): First the curse was dispelled, the finale choir rejoined. THEN, the instrument line (this line here, the first part) is played out as Alcina sat in her chair, with Morgana holding a broken mirror as her sole company as the light dimmed on an empty island. Ah, and during the chorus, we also saw a hint that Ruggiero was standing close to Alcina. With Giron I had the feeling Ruggiero was really still torn from leaving Alcina.. whereas with Dock, one had the thought (as my friend said: I thought she was going to be killed!). And we left the theater with “what happened to Alcina?” by one of the newbies. Which is a really good indication that the staging is so engaging they are now talking about the storyline! And that, in addition to all my questions and self-answers on phrasing and characters, really highlight this excellent production. My friends asked how many times I’ve seen “Alcina” live, and were surprised to hear that including this evening it was only “7”. This is to show how rare we get to see it here in the US (the other 5 were of course of the same staging spanning 6 years apart in Wien…). I would mention also that it was engaging because we sat in row F of a very intimate 325-seat theater. This of course is one of the great ways to bring in new audience, and why I chose Händel as the intro to this group of friends in this theater.

One final thought then. This past month, seeing Alcina 4 times live really gave me a great exposure to “phrasing” and how to bring out the emotion in the music. And I will end the post with Myrtò Papatanasiu’s “Ah mio cor” again. I heard her live just 3 weeks ago and was very captivated by her delivery, though perhaps at that time not knowing exactly why. One always wonders if one has a “fixated” way of thinking/hearing how a particular aria “must” be delivered in order to make sense. But my recent experience has confirmed that no, it’s not the case (at least not 95\% of the time). Sitting through “Ah mio cor” in particular, I realized there is no limit to how one can phrase it since you have to repeat the lines quite a few times and it is all within your reach to express it the way you intend! Thus, however subjective it can be, the only thing is to “make sense” of the emotion. Here, “make sense” or not is a case of whether when a line is delivered, be it the actual written music or the theme-and-variation type, the only reference we have is whether a “loud” or “soft” or “arc” reflects an intended emotion instead of being simply done for the decorative effect. I’d say this is why I can easily “switch” quickly between hearing different singers, and that the only time i start questioning is when the music is “not quite” making sense. On that note, a toast to great music and Händel, and to the great production from the Boston Conservatory. They have made 4 new fans of operas!

a highly enjoyable “Alcina” at Boston Conservatory

This is a brief write-up of the performance on Friday night with cast #2. On Saturday i’m coming back with a group of friends/new-comers to operas for cast #1, with a mezzo Ruggiero. First, a link to Sta nell’ircana to listen along as I continue to type:

Having just come back from the Alcina in Wien, the first 10-20 minutes were a little bit of adjustments in the head to the difference between full professional and a *very good* student-based production. That being said, I’m most happy to report the orchestra, under the direction of Andrew Altenbach (musical director of Opera for the Boston Conservatory), was superb! For such a production one could say the conductor is the most important person: his precise direction in the orchestra as well as care for the singers were a great joy to listen/watch. Several of the tempo choices, I wonder, were perhaps adapted to put the singers in the best situations to shine. For about 3/5 of the arias, part B & A-repeat were omitted. I think this is justified considering the (a) duration, (b) high level + focus on singing, and (c) non full-professional acting. The staging is minimal and made sense, and almost reminded me of the Carsen’s Alcina in several scenes. I will write more about the staging perhaps after tomorrow. Here is more a focus on the singing.


Bizhou Chang sang a very convincing Alcina. Her voice is quite warm and large (Verdi?!) which allows her to vary quite a bit in intensity and even shades/colors, even during the recitative part! The only part that didn’t quite work for me was the B-section in “Ah mio cor”, where it was a bit too “smooth” (almost swinging) in the tempo! I’d have liked it a bit more “vicious” or “faster” and delivered with more emotion, which I think she could do, but for some reason the tempo was just a bit too much “in harmony”. Perhaps there is a point there, sarcastic?, which I might have missed.. “Mi restano le lagrime” was skipped! as well as the B+A part for “Ma quando tornerai”. Actually, for “Ma quando tornerai”, i think a certain amount of “shaking” in the body is a requisite! 🙂 . No, really, either that, or more vocal expressions are needed (in general, from any singers I’ve heard), otherwise it’s a bit too smooth and doesn’t quite express the mood. Having been listening a lot to Alcina lately, I have also now a theory for “Sì, son quella”: the most important work required for this aria is in the recitative leading up to it! otherwise it will not set the mood correctly, e.g., if Alcina rushes through the recit for example, or if the Ruggiero/Alcina dynamics are not set properly, and thus will result in a “jump” from rush to a sudden huge drop in emotion. I remember liking her “Sì, son quella” but enjoying also her “Di, cor mio”. This one, being an “interactive” aria of simultaneous acting between Alcina and Ruggiero (as it seems to be the case for many stagings?) and musical phrasing of Alcina, it works well if the acting is not “hindering” the phrasing. Here the only minor quibble I had was with Ruggiero’s (lack of) facial expression..


the chorus

Ruggiero was sung by counter-tenor Rudy Giron. I was quite puzzled by the tempo set for “Di te mi rido” , again being strangely “swingy” and “smooth” and on the slow side, enough for me to be confused about the flow and needing to read up the translation. On that same note, “la bocca vaga” was a bit “too nice”. Need stalking! After the first intermission, I moved up to row B (from row F, in a very intimate 325-seat theater and caught up with Giron’s facial expression. He seemed to finally expressed the torment in Ruggiero in his face and thus one can make connection to the phrasing. “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” was quite beautifully delivered. And this is the first time *ever* i actually understand “verdi prati” !! the staging finally made sense for this, with a bit of “reflection” as Ruggiero stood in an empty spot looking at a small now-stripped flower-branch reminiscing his time with Alcina. I’ll make more notes and report next time… “Mio ben tesoro” was skipped.. and we were delighted to hear the horns to start Sta nell’ircana. His delivery of this aria was great! I particularly liked how he treated the coloratura run. And the voice somehow fits this aria very well: not light, not smooth, but with a nice texture + color. As we have discussed before, just like for Alcina, Ruggiero’s various arias call for a range of colors and flexibility and sensitivity, and some voices fit certain arias better than others. His acting, though on the minimal side, was actually a delight starting in Act 2, in that Ruggiero was not swaggering across (Bradamante took charge instead!) but was more on the internalizing of the conflict and guilt. He even spent some time by Alcina’s side after all was set and done.. and it was Bradamante who return during “Sta nell’ircana” with 2 swords in hand taking charge. Thus Ruggiero’s internal conflict was more on display and at times one forgets whether it was a male or female singer who was delivering. Regarding the clip above, I’m quite amazed to re-listen to Vivica Genaux and realizing how much “heft” and superb low-notes she has! (Side note: could we also have her as Ruggiero for one of Papatanasiu’s future Alcina?)


Oberto, Oronto, Morgana, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

The best acting of the night went to Natalie Logan’s Morgana. Her timing for acting + phrasing is quite spot on. And the absolute best comedy moment as well: just before “Tornami a vagheggiar” when she flipped her magic to close the doors and trapped Bradamante in the room. This aria was very well delivered, and was the first time I noticed she started phrasing and using different colors. The rest of the evening follows with increasingly more delightful phrasing. She had the two highly sensitive arias with solo viola da gamba and violin, and W.O.W. the soloists in the pit!!! SUPERB phrasing (and conducting). Back to Logan, her voice is a bit on the “getting used to” for my ears.. not sure if i could ever get used to it, but she was right behind Alcina in vocal expression. The sisters ruled! (and they stick together at the end when everyone else abandoning the island!)

Bradamante was sung by Michaela Wolz. She might take over Ruggiero sometimes with the nice stance! Her acting contrasts quite nicely with Ruggiero’s sensitive version. It’s a bit hard to comment on Bradamante’s arias: they are fast and furious, and unless they set the theater on fire you will simply go with them as are.. I quite like the tempo for “All’alma fedel”, and in parallel with the acting, showing how Bradamante was the stabilizer of all relationships and possibly the only one with a head to think properly. In fact this might be the first staging I’ve seen (and perhaps having to do with Wolz’s acting) where Bradamante seems to fully take control, knowing what she wants and how to get it.


Oberto, Oronto, Morgana, conductor, Alcina, Ruggiero, Bradamante, Melisso

Of the minor roles, I quite enjoy the singing of Haichen Peng as Oberto. I must emphasize though the superb job Altenbach did in leading the orchestra to highlight the music, lead the story, and fully paying attention to all his singers. The acting took a bit to warm up but everything fell into places as the night went on, and with the superb music and Händel, it ended up a highly enjoyable evening! Fingers crossed the orchestra and conductor keeping up the high energy tomorrow; everything comes from the pit! and I’m ready for a mezzo Ruggiero!

boston musicians’ “songs for syria”

programLast week a group of established Boston musicians gathered at a church in Brookline for a concert to help raise money to support the Syrian refugees. Given the election outcome, it also felt like a much needed get-together to understand human goodness and compassion as still being alive and strong. Many of us dealt with the election result in various way. A lesson I learned during our “sea survival” course was somehow playing in my head: in the event the ship goes down and we find ourselves on a tiny raft drifting in the open ocean, it is essential to define immediate tasks to keep the moral and to move forward. In addition to reading up on how to deal with / help those in case of being discriminated p1030749aagainst or witnessing discrimination, in a bigger picture, I constantly have in the back of my mind the former hausmate’s comment on the lost of the young generation in Syria due to the war. Many of us Vietnamese can relate to several generations being on the run, dying at sea, languishing in refugee camps, and missing out on education. So while we have been discussing extensively within my circle of friends about the lack of science and art education in the the US as a contribution to the current political situation, I also, perhaps naïvely, believe that accessibility to education is the key to engaging young minds and reducing conflicts. So yes, post election, the assessment of the situation involves putting things into local/global perspectives and focusing on doing positive things at however small scale we can.

The concert itself restored some of my hopes. Of the many memorable things, one that really struck me was a song, sung by Nizar Fares, about the memory of the left-behind “home” on the top of the hill behind the fog in Lebanon, followed by a “prayer” for the ones who were left behind. Below are some photos from the concert and the full program. It was an emotional evening with everyone gathering for a good cause. The hope of course is to continue with the help and fight.



spotted on walk to school:

27/jan/2015 12h52

Mass Ave, 27/jan/2015 12h52

For comparison, below was the scenery 2 years ago. We would like to think we learn from our mistake no? 🙂 . back then, i ignored all warnings and left work after all had shut down and wind blowing in full force.. the 20min normally leisurely walk home turned into a 1-hr fight with many fingers frozen plus inability to see due to high wind + flying snow .. now goggles are in full force, quite a pleasant walk. The thing to do is to stop flopping in knee-high snow and just go in middle of the road where there’s no car.. one of my dreams is still to ski down Massachusetts Ave one day..

08/feb/2013 22h30

Mass Ave, 08/feb/2013 22h30

tchaikovsky piano concerto #1 @ NEC

Starting out niiice week of music with Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto. Actually they also played Beethoven’s symphony #1 but must admit i completely unfamiliar with it to say much.. but knowing lots of duet piano with woodwinds, of course first row side balcony is the place to be:


So, i must admit somehow I couldn’t hear the soft piano playing bit (hence shaping of the phrases) very well, not sure if it’s because i too close to side violins.. so perhaps wait a bit for them to upload the performance and have a listen to the “real” recording to get the impression… so besides a note of how superbly nice it is to be back again in such a concert hall and have access to this quality of music for free, i’ll offer instead Martha Argerich for discussion! And promptly, we’re going to start with duet:

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early music bliss

This is more of a picture post in rambling mode, with no grammar check. Thanks to Stray’s multiple posts plus colleague’s interest as well as a case of grounded with no physical activity allowed, i finally caught on to the exciting boston early music festival right here in the back yard. Being a complete new-comer, i just signed on to Handel’s Almira and four “generic” shows of orchestra + dancer/singer type. But the more i listen, the more am toooootally in love with the instruments, and have been spending almost all my free time in the concert hall this past week. In addition, also had a chance to meet up with cool Stray and her charming sister for some nice discussion :-). So, some quick notes:
* Paul O’Dette is great with those plucking instruments, such a pleasure hearing him a whole evening playing solo and accompanying the wonderful voice of Emma Kirkby. I spent whole evening thinking how wonderful it would be to have these kinds of singing just outside my balcony 🙂

* Almira the “story” is downright annoying, 3 gals, 4 guys, typical Handel’s A loves B who loves C who loves A and D while F wants power and used to love C but now wants A… I made a mistake of reading the translation while listening to the singing, this would FAIL MISERABLY the Bechdel Test DtO mentioned in her fabulous interview with Margarethe Von Trotta.  Am planning to come back tomorrow for 4 more hours just because the orchestra was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING.  from beginning to end i couldn’t help but smiling widely at the sharp, precise, exciting, fun sound coming from the pit.  wonder how i can get a seat to just get the orchestra pit view :-).  Actually the singing is also very nice.  The sounds carry VERY WELL to the top balcony of Cutler Majestic theater. couldn’t help but reminded of what Andreas Scholl said in his masterclass, that Handel simply highlights the voices and brings out its best.  For wednesday night performance, i liked Amanda Forsythe’s (Edilia) voice the best, followed by Ulrike Hofbauer’s (Almira).  Tyler Duncan’s (Raymondo) voice and arias are also very nice.  The rest of the voices are also great.  My only small complaint is the constant background/foreground “comedy”, much of it seemed forced to somewhat distract you from both singing and music.  Am more a fan of subtle comedy :-).Almira

*Following Almira, i was so psyched to hear the bemf orchestra + dancers the next night at the NEC. Though enjoyed greatly the quality of the band, it was actually a bit too heavy on violins for my taste. The same sort of all strings and early music combo which I confessed to not really understanding well last year. Think i have sorted out what i “hear”: contrast, exchanges, tension + releases. Which is why i love hearing picolo screaming off, or looovely baroque oboe.. but all strings is a bit tough. The dancing was somehow also surprisingly “tamed”, guess i’ve spent so much time on youtube looking at performances in white shirt, so the sort of costumes/make-ups these dancers were wearing seem a bit over-decorated while covering up all their muscles, WANT SHIRTLESS dancers! 🙂

*Next up was an “early” concert, Gli Incogniti led by superb violinist Amandine Beyer, 5pm on friday. Got back my BIIIG smile again, *love* the music, players, instruments, everything. Amandine’s solo is reallllly lovely, you know how well a single baroque violin can express emotion! She’s probably the best violist i’ve heard live so far. I somehow always wary of hearing solo violin playing music i don’t know… but perhaps it’s all in the superb player’s ability to draw you in. The other three players however were more or less accompanying her so you don’t hear their music well coz the violin is like a diva that takes up the entire hall. The double mounting of harpsichord on organ is quite clever.
*Next is the “generic” program i registered for, which turned out VERY NICE coz the orchestra again is AMAZING, to the point i somehow lost track of all singers + dancers (in same generic costumes…) It wasn’t until a female character died and got carried out that i was reminded hey this looks particularly like Orpheus and Euridyce, which of course it was :-). But back to the orchestra, much much more balance as there were only 2 violins, same number as woodwinds, theobo. I’m a bit puzzled though, that the music are quite coinciding: baroque oboes and violins always play together making the merged sound a bit tricky for the ear. This was the exact sound i heard from orchestra pit during Almira and was wondering whole time hmm what kind of horn is this… Similarly, the theobos are always playing at the same time with harpsichord, which essentially mean you can’t hear them at all unless you sit on first floor directly in front of them. Same goes for the single viola da gamba…
*Since i finally realized what a privilege it truly is to hear these superb quality musicians without having to fly to Europe, at this point i was determined to maximize my time with them. So, following the above show, Stray and I met up for a nice chill outside NEC while waiting for the next show at 11pm: more fantastic music with yet more singers. A very very nice show actually, all singers were great. This is the only time I’ve been on 1st floor in front of the singers, so their sound come directly at us instead of orchestra’s. Still, i loooove the single violinist who at one point played soooo softly and beautiful while accompanying 1 soprano. On top of it, finally now in front of the viola da gamba, looove the sound, as well as the body movement of the player. SOO much passion, power, energy, to bring the waaarm sound across.P1050926

So, this week, i’ve experienced some of the highest quality of music here in Boston, and can now conclude: in Jordan Hall, if you don’t hear the orchestra/singer well, it’s their problem, not the hall’s. For the opera, originally i was thinking: if one gets lucky with the orchestra, then the main soprano (in that order…) then one can have a very nice experience. Well, here you have both. The orchestra in particular, is truly top quality, one might even lose track of the singers just because the quality in the pit is so good it demands all your attention. Oh ja, finally, i have now full dosage of harpsichore and am no longer confused between harpsichord and harp :-D.

oh, lastly, so since i was spending alll these times sitting in Jordan Hall, the wandering thoughts creep in again… you know, Vesselina Kasarova and a baroque band… or Nathalie Stutzmann and her band Orfeo-55. Apparently Stray had not heard either of them!! so, here’re some links for her in case she comes by :-). Kasarova and Helsinki Baroque Orchestra last June, and Nathalie and her band playing fantastic baroque/Bach. I gonna send an email to bemf organizer, may be they would consider my request :-).

music for the peaceful night

Mozart to some random thoughts. I woke up today and for a brief moment wondered if yesterday really happened. Walking on the streets, it did occur to me being holed up with police/military/unknown people with guns running on the outside for only one day was quite un-nerving. What about those in conflict zones where living in fear and being holed up is part of every day lives? The gross generalization i read on internet or heard on the news worries me, as well as the round up and categorizing of “goods vs evils” for convenience. Today in cambridge, it appears as if life is back to normal, the sail boats are out, the sun is setting peacefully with beautiful reflection on the river, shops reopening, pedestrians chit chatting. As part of the conversations, I hope more people will discuss conflicting situations around the world as well instead of simply putting a new “word” they heard (Chechnya) into the generalized religions and black and white baskets (while also mistaking it with Czech Republic). Going back to yesterday, it did also occur to me the potentially bad situation that could develope had the MIT police officer not stop those 2 guys, specifically where they were heading to with bags full of guns and other harmful things? Cambridge is such a small town that either you or someone you know could have crossed path with them that night… Anyhow, i’m very relieved they’re caught, that’s for sure, much appreciation to the law enforcement. More thoughts to the victims, especially those still in hospitals with multiple surgeries… As we all read about amputations this past week, I spent most of my time reading up on updates from the doctors, supporting networks for amputees and new technologies (at very high costs) for artificial limbs… Hope they will slowly and steadily recover from their injuries and move forward in life. For those living locally, there will be a benefit concert at MIT campus tomorrow for the victims, with details here and shown below.

dead man walking at somerville theater

A colleague and I, intrigued by the advertisement on the train of “Dead Man Walking” the “opera”, saw it today at Somerville theater. Colleague left at intermission citing splitting headache while I continued to the end. If I have to summarize it: I saw a wonderful “play” today, one with “lots of music, LOTS”, colleague added. We are unsure the difference between an opera and a musical, but in our limited experience, we concluded it was more a musical. The work was commissioned more than 10 years ago for San Francisco Opera House premiere (wow, Susan Graham was Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade the mother!!) and is based on a true story as written in the novel by Sister Helen Prejean and put to a hugely successful Hollywood movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in an all-star cast. I saw it in theater back then, crying my eyes out toward the end. The idea of it being put to music intrigued both of us. As announced at the beginning, the Boston Opera Collaborative has worked tirelessly for the last 2 years to bring this work to Boston this month.

There are many layers, let’s start first with the cast. The acting is top notch, highly convincing. This starts with the portrayal of Sister Helen (Courtney Miller) and ends with the portrayal of Joseph De Rocher the convicted rapist and killer on death row (Jonathan Stinson). The mother (portrayed and sung by Felicia Gavilanes) also had very strong scenes first to the appeal board begging them to spare her son’s death and second in her last conversation with her son just before execution. In term of voice, I quite like all three main characters’ voices. But this is where the question of musical versus opera comes in.

Actually there are two parts to it as we briefly post-analyzed: the singing and the music. There are countless places when sister Helen said “I’m in despair” or “I’m sorry” for example. I ask the question: if I don’t understand English, would I know that’s what she said? The answer is No. (a) Is she not shaping the words in such a way to portray this emotion? or (b) Is she trying hard but the music itself doesn’t give her much to express? Not sure, i always thought it’s the singer’s responsibility to bring it out, but never quite think of (b) until when colleague brought it up (he has strong musical background, i don’t). I have discussed this before, and to me this lack of emotional expression in the music is my (and colleague’s) rough dividing line between musical and opera: In musical, you “see” the emotion clearly in the spoken words and in the facial expression + acting, whereas in opera you should “hear” it. That is: the music should give you hint to the various state of mind, emotions, actions. Hearing it allowing you to “imagine” it. I tried hard to focus on passages where deep emotion were being expressed in words (libretto), but to my (musically untrained, though colleague’s is highly trained but to jazz) ears I couldn’t hear/feel it. To summarize, it was an evening of exceptional theater, but I’m not sure if I’d call it an opera.

But then again, let’s roll back a little bit. Last year I heard for the first time “Nixon in China” (on TV), and like my colleague today, i got a splitting headache after an hour of what i’d loosely call “sopranos’ screaming to ear-scratching music”. Bad terminology i know, but as recent as last month, in Britten’s “The turn of the screw”, I heard similar thing at times: sopranos singing quite loud pronouncing perfectly English words. Even in many attempts to block out the “English” part, hearing the underlying music they were singing is very difficult because the singing speech is ,by my definition, disruptive music (think lost musical signal, the mouth is constantly opening and closing rapidly to produce perfectly pronouncing words full of consonants “p”, “m”, “t” etc. while trying to be on the right “notes”, as opposed to shaping the notes (?)) This type of singing can be true for all voice types, but sopranos stick out the most to my ears in these kind of “modern” music. (modern = clashing in ears most of the times). Actually the orchestral music today at times sounded like soundtrack from a movie…

There were glimpses of sister Helen attempting to shape her (musical) emotion, and at these points I am even more unsure if the music allows her to. Unlike in Britten’s earlier mentioned work, let’s take the “haunted tune” as an example, the music leaves some sort of goosebumps on you, either when sung by the little boy or by the governess. In Dead Man walking, there’s a “similar” tune perhaps, “He will gather us around”, He being the lord. The piece started with sister Helen singing it to little children at the Nun’s house and ended with her singing it over Joseph’s dead body on the execution table. Let’s just say the final moment, i was hoping the tune would leave lingering thoughts, despair, something… along that vocal line, but instead, it was sort of a moment of a singer maneuvering some “ups and downs” in the score that prevents you from having any reflection on what had just happened… Many examples here are on Sister Helen’s role because she’s the center of the opera, but this singing speech seemed to apply to the whole cast..

Moving on, we also had an ongoing discussion about the libretto. Here again we both independently thought it was more a play. The one-line jokes (e.g., Sister Rose to Sister Helen: “Earth calling sister Helen”, small talks (e.g., cop telling Sister Helen he got audited the year he pulled over a tax official, etc.), these are very specific details, how would you put such “jokes” into music? If you just do so by having the singers saying exactly that, that’s theater to me. When thinking of putting something to music, i somehow imagine you’d simplify the words, cut it short, make it rhyme (?) and shape music around it. Perhaps that’s just one of the many possible ways. Explicitly saying things (e.g., “Fuck you” or describing it down to the letter “t”) spell everything out to a native-speaking audience and deprives one the imagination of the situation…

Altogether, I don’t mean to say much negative about the afternoon. It was superb theater, great efforts all around from the singers and producers to bring us the work, and lots of things to discuss between colleague and I. In an opera production, a slightly different take from the conductor, different emphasis on various orchestral solos, slightly different take from various singers, better house with quality sound (this was at a local theater), and sometimes things emerge as so obvious. Other times, one is left with lots of questions, but I think it’s great and gives one the opportunity to explore the work at depth.
When leaving the theater, i wasn’t sure if I want to listen to this again but oh, heyyyy, listen! that’s Susan Graham’s take of the last tune. I’m gonna get that whole cd, we have it at library here! quite like it actually 🙂

So, i might come back in the week follows with more thoughts…


just putting this up for myself coz am having a very hard time keeping up with this schedule concept these days… some up-coming broadcasts/concerts i’d like to listen/attend:

Fri, 01-Mar-2013, 1700GMT (1200EST) Mozart piano concert 20, link
Tue, 05-Mar-2013, 1900GMT (1400EST) Patrizia Ciofi sings Verdi’s La Traviata, link
Wed, 06-Mar-2013, 1930GMT (1430EST) Academy of Ancient Music plays Bach, link
Thu, 07-Mar-2013, 1830GMT (1330EST) Beethoven Emperor concerto, link
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messiah @ symphony hall

Edit: the whole performance on 02-Dec-2012 can be re-listened to >here.
ok, after re-hearing the CT’s “but who may abide..” take, i obliged to embed the contralto’s version in comment section.


red circle: td; blue rectangle: violin I and II; blue square: harpsichord; red oval: bass section of chorus

it’s that time of the year again, when messiah is popping up in the area like rabbits in the spring, H&H with 3 consecutive performances yesterday, today, and tomorrow (which will be broadcast live at 3PM EST on WGBH internet radio, for all fans of the Handel and Haydn orchestra / choir, Karina Gauvin, Sumner Thompson.) On thursday we had an electricity outage here for a couple hours that sent the whole city into darkness and yours truly into a spending spree, one of which a very spontaneous purchase to hear period instruments and Ms. Gauvin up close. If you have been here before, you might remember my reservation for Symphony hall. Haven’t been to a live concert in a while, i was really craving for the sound of the baroque violins and, especially because it’s the baroque violin, one has to be picky about where to sit to really get immersed in it. After some probing, I spotted the perfect seat.  It’s a bit under the stage, so i knew ahead of time what comes would _just_ be a load of violins (and soloists), exactly what the doktor ordered.

Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster

Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster

I’ve heard raving reviews of Karina Gauvin’s and couldn’t quite pass up this chance.  In that sense, i think in the Messiah, the soprano is _highly_ underused as we only sporadically get to hear Ms. Gauvin.  She has a veeeery rich and warm voice, one which i believed works very well in Symphony Hall.  Here is purely a matter of taste, she chose to use the vibrato throughout, and somehow I much prefer when she sang without it.  The highlight of the night for me is “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd”. I a bit confused as she shared the aria with the countertenor, is it because they’re all singing 3 consecutive nights in a big hall that they’re splitting duties? He took the first run, then she followed. The contrast is quite amazing as her voice rose above, hard to describe, just a silent hall with waarm high notes soaring high to a bed of violins underneath, breathtaking.  Here’s a take of Alice Coote and Ailish Tynan splitting the aria, oh how i wished she was also there last night.

I not sure if Ms. Nosky is still the concertmaster of the H&H, she wasn’t there last night, too bad, as I got the perfect seat.  Christina Day Martinson took the lead, from her first note, i knew exactly why i bought the ticket.  (Actually i was excited all day from the moment i purchased ticket.)  Being so up close, i was even more surprised how thin the H&H is, one can spot and hear instruments between the musicians’ legs!  Sitting slightly on the right was also perfect for several reasons: the deep violas, cellos, and SUPERB harpsichord was ALL on my right ears, along with bass section of chorus.  Given that they tend to get buried when the high notes from soprano section + violins taking over, sound partitioning was just perfect as those high notes were a bit farther away (just a bit really, I was 1 meter away from Sumner Thompson’s feet, merely 3m away from Karina Gauvin…)  Speaking of Sumner Thompson, i *love* his voice.  As for the CT, well, I knew it was a CT when purchasing tix, would have preferred a mezzo… but i read he’s one of the most sought after CT… and the tenor: i was sitting a bit too close to really enjoy his voice.. so not much to report.  The chorus was REALLLY great, loooove love the balance.

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