bemf round 4-8: concerts @ Jordan Hall

After Ulisse I pretty much camped at Jordan Hall for the rest of the week attending some SUPERB concerts!! Here’re some bullet-format comments, with some updates coming later today once I retrieve photos from the camera (Edit 24.jun.2015: now photos added:)

Thursday 11/Jun/2015 at 5pm: 20 lutes! great fun!! check out a glimpse of their encore 🙂

Thursday 11/Jun/2015 at 8pm: Monteverdi Vesper 1610
– This was the first concert i contemplated skipping due to irrelevant reasons.. And of course stern Stray friendly suggested I shouldn’t.. Indeed it turned out a GREAT evening, loads and loads of arrangements of all sorts of voices with various instruments in the orchestra. At first I was clueless, thinking it was a form of mass.. until a friend mentioned it’s a series of “evening songs”, which entirely made sense the constant musical-chair rearrangements of singers (the fact that the pieces are not connected but rather somewhat independent, and one just need to rearrange to get the proper number + type of singers and instruments in the same corner). Superb singing, in many occasions almost a-cappella.
Saturday 13/Jun/2015 at 2.30pm: Royal Academy of Music and Juilliard415 playing Bach:
– I was late for this one, because the weather was gorgeous outside and there was a pride parade going on!! After dragging Stray along to see some floats and contemplating skipping the concert, Stray sternly recommended that I not skip :-). And it would have been a HUGE mistake! Given my listening background, it was the BEST concert. Finally i get it: if you want to listen to Bach, this is the type of orchestra and singers you need!! It makes a huge difference! You realized immediately why Bach music is so powerful! I *love* duets between voices and oboes. Also memorable was 1 duet with the horns. Post concert I was on my walk out when overheard our soprano is from Belgium and that it’s a very international orchestra + chorus.
Saturday 13/Jun/2015 at 11pm: BEMF Chamber Ensemble and Dark Horse Consort:
– superb _whatever_ you call the fancy woodwind instruments next to the lovely baroque horns (I LOVE those horns too, sounds so low key), and also fantastic drums! They brought out the dancers in generic period costumes so I spent my time enjoying the violinists instead..
Sunday 14/Jun at 12:30pm: Michael Form and Friends playing Vivaldi(ana)
– How about a bassoon solo!! and bassoon – recorder duet! the entire concert was great but i must say the best piece is Vivaldi RV 86 which gave full lines of music to the bassoon — Mélanie Flahaut, our bassoonist played several trills!! She then joyfully duetted with the recorder, simply superb. They received very loud and well deserved applause and hollers from the audience.


This was to be my last concert.. until I decided to walk next door to purchase a ticket for Poppea.. But let’s summarize here: it was a superb week with top quality music! Am happy to finally get a hang of this to understand which concerts / groups I should see. The only regret is the missing of Jordi Savall.. the things we learn :-).

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 ;-> …)

bemf with pergolesi @ Jordan Hall

cool stray made a *four*-hr trek to town *with* a spare ticket! actually without spare i would have come all the same. a self-claimed early music lover, without Stray, i would have still missed all these goodies, can you believe.. There seems to be a local cult devoted fan-base following the boston early music festival performances here because the competition is pretty strong with H&H and Händel’s messiah same time right next door at symphony hall..


spare ticket seat courtesy of Stray’s cousin

So, on the program: double-bill Pergolesi’s comedic works of “La serva padrona” and “Livietta e Tracollo”. Think the last time i attended such a double-bill it was a split piece1-intermission-piece2 and the music was a bit more confusing for newbies like me to understand.  This time it’s much easier to follow as well as a different sort of split, which i quite liked: piece(1+2)-intermission-more_piece(1+2) . Essentially it’s two somewhat unrelated stories developing in parallel and one can plot it such that eventually the characters cross path (or not) but it helps to have all personnels for use at all time.

The orchestra: bemf chamber orchestra – a must hear event, i don’t care what they play. As they sat there playing super-energetically to the (silly) comedic storylines, you can’t help but giggling at the luxurious quality and realizing behind the “comedy” there is such precision and professionalism from the musicians. And that tiny plucking instrument: what fun! (see if you can spot on first picture, on top of harpsichord)

The cast: La serva padrona: Amanda Forsythe(soprano)=the servant,Douglas Willams(bass-baritone)=master, Livietta e Tracollo: Erica Schuller(soprano)=Livietta, Jesse Blumberg (bass)=Tracollo. I first knew of Amanda Forsythe at the bemf festival last year. She could have a very nice career in europe if she chose to but instead opts to stick around and remains a main staple in the bemf ensemble, which is truly a luxury for us sitting in Jordan Hall a short distance away enjoying her fantastic phrasing, comic timing, and wonderful warm soprano voice. Pairing with her was Douglas Williams, not sure if i’ve heard him before, but i very much like his voice, comic timing, acting, and musical phrasing as well. Together, they made 1 part of the double-bill outstanding. The other pair, i enjoyed their singing as well, but am not sure if it’s the storyline or the musical phrasing (i think it’s the latter) that somehow makes the first pair more standout. i know, perhaps it’s not making any sense to compare, but they were singing in parallel one after another! and you can really feel the contrast :-). Altogether, a very nice show though. I’d like a bit less “obvious” comedy, less … what do you call those guys… hmm, the english word escapes me.. CLOWN! yes, no need for clowns to keep audience laughing all the time, it takes the audience’s attention away from the GORGEOUS orchestra and singers’ ability to carry their own singing/phrasing. But that’s only minor, coz i know where to look, given the SUPERB seat Stray’s generous cousin gave me!!

Lastly, to all early music lovers, they’re staging all Monteverdi’s operas at the next festival in Jun 2015. I WILL BE HERE! That, and a whole bunch of concerts of madrigals i believe. very much looking forward! here’s their website, in case you need exact dates to sort out your traveling schedule :-). Oh, Stray, i found the program i attended 2 weeks ago at NEC w/ boston baroque: Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. And a couple of clips of Ms. Forsythe’s singing: above from the last time i heard her live at the festival last year (from hand camera, with the same bemf orchestra), and below audio clip of her singing Dalinda in Ariodante from a live performance (btw, if you’d like to listen more let me know, it’s a nice cast of diDonato=Ariodante, Petibon=Genevra, Marie-Nicole Lemieux=Polinesso, Forsythe=Dalinda, and some bass :D)

monteverdi @ Jordan Hall

i have a love declaration
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semi public service: bemf @ Jordan Hall

As stray subtly reminded me on my way out of Jordan Hall last sunday… and many thanks to her pointer that i attended the Boston Early Music Festival ensemble and singers for their Thanksgiving concert on 01-dec-2013. I a bit short in time to really compose, so again this is sort of in running-on fashion and more about my reaction. If you’d like to hear my ravings for the orchestra and singers, I refer you to my ramblings 5.5 months ago… here’s a blurry pix from crappy phone, fantastic seats!

boston early music festival concert 01-dec-2013.

It is now established, if they’re playing, i MUST make time! this quality of singing and music making, at such close distance, no excuse. and on second round of Charpentier, i’m now a fan.
Here’s their playlist, a full afternoon of early music goodness. Now onto bullet-format:

* french is a great language to put to music, especially w/ their “sharp” ending (not sure i use right word here, but you know, “vAIN”, “retrAIT”, “douleuR”, works very nicely with music! my favorite of the afternoon was the piece just before intermission: Charpentier’s “Actéon” . On that same note, english and opera… argh!

* my approach has always been to just show up and listen to the music and interaction between voices and instruments if I don’t know anything about the works. For this type of concerts, think i’ve figured out the best approach now, especially after i sat through the entire afternoon having no clue what they were singing about and yet learned all about it in the program note while eating lunch afterward… recently i discovered that to fully appreciate Mahler, it’s good to arrive a bit early, spend all 20+ min reading all description + text + translation to get the background and gist/context. THEN, one can ignore all diction/words/etc and really pay attention to musical phrasing and interaction with orchestra and such. It worked to perfection with “Das Lied von der Erde” and would have been the case here as well i think, especially with so many operas that are all new to me. (But their 3pm concert time = I barely up just before sprinting for bus arriving at hall sweaty and starving.., so no prep time…)

* on that same no-prep note, I was first very happy to see Händel on the agenda, “Acis and Galatea”, no clue what it was about, but it’s Händel! So, 2 stories to report… first, a post-concert nice chat with stray, to which i mentioned it sounded a bit “generic” to my ears while stray-who-had-seen-live-performance-of-this-exact-opera-by-this-exact-ensemble-(and)-cast reported she appreciated it much more this time around… Why “generic”? I must first confess to spending the last 2 weeks listening to 3 full live recordings of “Ariodante” (1,2,3), 2 of “Agrippina”, 2x of “Arianna in Creta”, and 1/2 of “Il pastor fido”… so as soon as Händel music came up (very very distinctively Händel, one can’t miss it), my brain automatically “expected” to hear music from Ariodante or chorus from “Il pastor fido”… all new Händel sounds similar to my ears :-). Only after 50 rounds (or a certain particular performance) that different aspects which make each work unique begin to stand out… so there you have it, generic :-). I did sit their pondering the same regarding Charpentier, whether it sounds all new and fresh now but some time down the line it would fall into this category…

* aaand, the 2nd part of Händel, also related to un-prep… while singing going on, one can see the soprano and the tenor seem to be getting on quite well, but the bass is quite pissed, so pissed.. he scooped up (what i originally thought was sand) something and tossed at the tenor and tenor was DEAD!! I immediately looked forward to some triumphant music and the bass and soprano holding hand and live happily ever after! (the exact way it was in Vietnamese “Cinderella”** story!) Sadly, somber music and sad chorus finished off with all staring into distance..

so, to recap, super nice concert, very high quality of singing and playing, fantastic distribution of early works. I quite like the full scene settings instead of just selective arias. set the mood much better, especially if you know the work a bit more, as i hope to become.

** we vietnamese train our kids rigorously not to do mean things to other. in our folk story, “cinderella” suffered greatly, died and was reincarnated multiple times.. and it only ended after she boiled her step-sister alive, made her into a traditional vietnamese paste, put in jar and sent to step-mother who enjoyed eating everyday until the last when she saw her daughter’s skull and dropped dead of a heart attack, only THEN cinderella and the prince married and lived happily ever after8