Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Colorado Symphony at Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall

Last week, I wrote in this blog about a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in their 1904 Orchestra Hall. This week, I got to hear another CSO, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in their 1978 Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver. As you might expect, the Boettcher is modern, claiming to be the first concert hall in the round. Take a look at the collage above and you'll see the seats all around the stage. The top left photo shows the seating 'rings' that are actually suspended from the ceiling. Yes, there were people sitting in there for the concert we heard, but we could only see them when they stood to applaud. The center top  photo shows the round acoustical panels also hanging from the ceiling. If you remember last week's Chicago Symphony post, I went on about roundness there, too. You must remember that my home symphony hall is the Kimmel Center where we sit inside a cello shape. Round is new to me.

That's the facade of the Boettcher Concert Hall on the left, among its theater-siblings in the
Denver Performing Arts Center
Enough about the hall! Would you like to know what Michael Stern and the Coloradans played? Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Op.72a was composed for Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio in 1814. That one opera had four overtures written for it, and only the last is still attached to opera performances. The other three overtures are considered concert overtures and are named for the opera's main character, Leonore. Are you wondering who Fidelio is then? That's Leonore's named when she masquerades as a guy to visit her incarcerated husband and attempts to get him set free. Here is a video of a bearded Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Broadcast Symphony Orchestra.

Next up, soprano Sara Jakubiak sang three Mozart arias. The first two ("Misera, dove son!," K.369, and "Nehmt Meinen Dank," K. 383) are concert arias intended to be sung with orchestra, and the last, "D'oreste, d'ajace," was borrowed from one of Mozart's many orchestras, Idomeneo. I couldn't help thinking about how different these two Classical composers composed. Mozart wrote smooth, singable melodies, almost catchy tunes. Beethoven occasionally came up with lyric melodies, but he is really better known for motivic development. He would take a motive, less than a complete phrase, and repeat, embellish, transpose, and otherwise alter it. [Think of the first four famous notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and how those four notes swim around in that symphony and keep popping up in different forms.]

So, we heard a Classical opera overture, and then some Classical arias, and then a Romantic-Era symphony composed by Johannes Brahms. So what's the connection there? The Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1877. Vienna, as you probably know, was called home by Mozart and Beethoven during the times they each flourished.
Vienna (not Denver)
Justin Bartels

There's another connection I never would have thought of. Before the concert started, Principal Trumpet Justin Bartels strolled onstage to make some announcements, and told the audience that the Beethoven and Brahms each contain trumpet solos. These solos are so important to the repertoire that they are used as audition pieces for trumpeters. Mr. Bartels had a big night!

We enjoyed the Colorado Symphony concert. Thank you, Michael Stern, for a great program, and thank you for not getting mad when the audience applauded in-between movements of the Brahms! They were just swept away, I think.
Michael Stern, usually of the Kansas Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Visiting the Chicago Symphony

A red-jacketed usher guards the balcony.

I didn't get to see Riccardo Muti conduct the Chicago Symphony. This would have been nifty because he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia and somewhat addicted to orchestral concerts. He's The Man in Chicago now...

Chicago Symphony Center with giant Muti poster
...but Leonard Slatkin skippered the Chicago Symphony when I was in town and I was not disappointed.

First, the hall: everything is round. The stage itself is round in back and curved in front. The balconies are rounded and join a narrow balcony over the back of the stage which holds more people. The 'ceiling' over the stage is an incomplete dome. The organ pipes are framed with arches. That thing suspended over stages everywhere that holds lights, wires, speakers, and whatnot, is round in Chicago' Symphony Hall. The decorations on the walls are round wreaths. Of course the proscenium arch is round. Even this guy's head...

This night's program was all American: exciting, accessible, sparkling American music. I had just heard Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal on the radio a week before, so I knew that this piece, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933, was a student work of Barber's. He could have already called himself a musical success as he had a triple major at the exclusive Curtis Institute, but this premiere kicked off a new kind of success. He enjoyed a career as an innovative composer with commissions coming in from many of the top names in music and dance. Take a look and listen to the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by William Schrickel...

Few people know Barber's contemporary, William Schuman, so Maestro Slatkin filled us in. It's very unusual for a conductor to turn around and talk to the audience, but this is what he did before the orchestra's performance of Schuman's Symphony No. 6 (1949). He told us how Schuman (no relation to Romantic Robert) was an educator who worked his way up to president of the Juilliard School in New York City, and then the first president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. We really should know him better because he won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1943 for Music, and the second in 1985 for his work as an educator and composer. As a busy administrator and educator, he had to compose in the morning before going to work. Maestro Slatkin gave us a few tips on listening to Schuman's Symphony No. 6, most notably that he often wrote in more than one key at a time which gives the impression that various sections of the orchestra are arguing. The four movements of the Symphony No. 6 are played contiguously. I couldn't find a Slatkin recording, so here is Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphians back in 1948.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Mason Bates's Violin Concerto (2012) featuring soloist Anne Akiko Meyers. You know, modern music composed by live composers can be at times difficult to listen to and understand without studying the composer's methods and philosophies. Sometimes it seems boring and the listener imagines that it must have at least been interesting for the composer to compose or else why would it exist? I'm happy to report that Bates's piece was fabulous to listen to, with changing orchestral colors, innovative effects, and fiercely virtuosic violin riffs. The audience leapt to its feet at the concerto's conclusion, and as a special treat, Mason Bates himself appeared onstage to acknowledge the ovation. Now I couldn't find a recording of this piece to share, so you're on your own there. I did find an interview that Bates and Meyers did before the premiere of the work by the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2012.

How can you attempt to top the excitement of the Bates Violin Concerto? George Gershwin's joyous An American in Paris can do it! Imagine being in that first audience in 1928 when this piece premiered with its jazzy rhythms, expanded percussion, car horns, and SAXOPHONES! Gershwin imagined the piece as a ballet while he was in Paris and sketched it out for two pianos. The orchestration was completed just after he returned from Paris with four Parisian car horns to use for the traffic jam section. What a treat! I couldn't find Slatkin online, so here's Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

I loved this concert! I didn't think it was possible to enjoy another orchestra as much as I enjoy the home team (The lush Philadelphia Orchestra), but the Chicagoans' sound was bright and shiny. Slatkin won me over when he turned around to tell us about the Schuman, and the program he selected was engaging and exciting! When was the last time you described an orchestra concert as exciting?!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lost in the Excitement of PucciniPalooza

Saturday's La Bohème performance by the Metropolitan Opera was the most fun I've had at the opera in a long time. I've blogged about attending their performances broadcast Live in HD at my local movie theater before, here at the regular blog and here in this music blog. They are Saturday afternoon fantasylands, the best escapist entertainment ever, and I don't have to worry about train schedules, parking, or uncomfortable seats as I snack on popcorn or contraband snacks brought from home. Since I teach (music classes) on some Saturday mornings and run from that to the theater, I sometimes end up in what I refer to as the "opera slums," the first few rows in front of the giant screen where casual and curious end up because they are unaware that you must arrive at the theater an hour before curtain to get a good seat. I've noticed that these folks do a lot more chatting and candy-wrapper rustling during the performance than the hard-core audience in the upper rows. The La Bohème crowd was proving me wrong until that guy's ringtone went off obnoxiously, and he answered it!

Nevertheless, I was expecting to land in the front seats and I didn't much mind this time because friends of mine were attending the same performance in New York and I was going to entertain myself before the show trying to find them. The HD cameras sweep around the New York audience and usually focus on younger folks (as if to prove opera is cool!). My friends qualify for this label in this context (it is all relative) but it turned out they had an even younger person seated in front of them that the camera really liked. I found them once, twice, 3, 4, and 5 times, even from the back once I triangulated their seat location. So that was fun, but what I'm really interested in is what accommodations the New York Met performance has to make for the Live in HD transmission. My friends were warned that the lighting would be different, and I wondered if the intermissions were extra long for them because we in the movie theater are treated to interviews of key singers and backstage secrets.

Vittorio Grigolo and Kristine Opolais as Rodolfo and Mimi in La Bohème April 5, 2014

What I wasn't expecting was the drama that had played out Saturday morning in New York. Our Mimi, Anita Hartig, fell ill and the Met management had to scramble to come up with a replacement. You'll never guess who they asked: Kristine Opolais who had sung the title role in Madame Butterfly the evening before! Well, she did a bellissimo job in my humble opinion, and yes she was interviewed in the first intermission with her Rodolfo, Vittorio Grigolo. She was so wired after singing Puccini's other showstopper Madame Butterfly the evening before FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE MET, that she didn't go to sleep until 5:30am. Then she got the call asking her to sing Mimi FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE MET at 7:30am. Imagine that! And so a career and a legend are made. Funny story: in their interview, Grigolo and Opolais told host Joyce DiDonato that they had met earlier in the week and agreed it would be fun to perform together.

It's all really quite dramatic and exciting, but beyond that, the performance was terrific, too. The sets were gorgeous, and we got to see backstage where workers were employing all three "stage trains." Each scene, Rodolfo's garret, Cafe Momus, and the snow scene, were put together on huge floors that wheel out during intermissions. Usually operas don't use all three of these "stage trains," but this Franco Zeffirelli production is especially lavish.

Puccini is emerging as my favorite opera creator. (The above book sits on my shelf beckoning  to be read.) He led a dramatic life and wrote dramatic, heart-wrenching operas. I cannot even imagine how Ms. Opolais turned on the Madame Butterfly performance, died a violent and dramatic Butterfly death, snoozed for a couple of hours, transformed into Mimi, and died again as a tubercular Mimi! I wonder, are those fabulous Puccini melodies still swimming around in Ms. Opolais's head as they are in mine?