Monday, December 9, 2013


Cleveland Institute of Music
December 4

World-class music from two star player/pedagogues.

From the moment that Ivan Ženatý and Sandra Shapiro walked onstage at Mixon Hall on Wednesday night, it was clear that the audience was in for something special. Coming off a six-city American and European tour, the duo was the picture of sophisticated elegance, with Ženatý in formal black tie and tails, and Shapiro resplendent in a glittery silver-grey evening gown.

Their music was even more impressive. Ženatý is a virtuoso Czech violinist who embodies the Central European sound – warm, full, richly emotional and technically precise. He plays with a regal bearing and beautiful purity of tone enhanced by his instrument, a 1740 Guarneri. Shapiro is a piano prodigy and Juilliard graduate who imparts a bright, sensitive quality to everything she touches, a skilled chamber music performer who plays with intelligence and grace. Both are seasoned performers on the international circuit as well as faculty members at CIM.

The caliber of the music they play together is world-class, though in some ways their recital was equally interesting as a demonstration of how to play duets. Ženatý is a punctilious, intensely focused performer who will not start while there is the slightest noise or distraction – not as an ego exercise, but as a show of respect for the music. He and Shapiro have distinct voices that fit together seamlessly when they play, matching surges of expression and nuances of phrasing and tone, or opening up space for each other to dash off a dazzling line. Their sound is airtight and commanding, with sharp, precise beginnings and endings on every piece.

Their opening selection was a gift: Dvořák’s Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano (Op. 75), music that runs in every Czech player’s blood. Ženatý rendered it with drama and flair, putting passionate fervor in the familiar “Allegro Maestoso” melody, and tugging at the heartstrings in the “Allegro appassionato.” Shapiro provided propulsive rhythms and an array of subtle colors, adding tasteful accents to the music. Their dreamy fadeout in the closing “Larghetto” was soft as a whisper.

Textbook duet work.
Schumann’s Sonata in D minor for Violin and Piano (Op. 121) offered both a visual and musical study. Standing next to Shapiro, Ženatý would lean in to draw out extended notes and phrases with her, driving their interpretation of the piece and keeping it in perfect synch. Their tandem work was riveting, but the divergent melodies were even more compelling, linked together so intricately that they spoke with one voice. Overall, the shading and expression were so polished that it sounded like the two had been playing together for years.

The second half also opened with a taste of Czech music, Smetana’s Z domoviny (From the Homeland). It is not a very difficult or flashy piece, but Ženatý and Shapiro played it with such invigorating spirit that a split-second after their rousing, pulsating finish, a student in the audience exclaimed “Wow!” He wasn’t being a wise-ass, just voicing the open-mouthed astonishment everyone in the room felt. 

The concluding work, Strauss’ demanding Sonata in E flat major for Violin and Piano, was uncommonly fluid (especially for Strauss, who tends to be harsh) and authoritative, with every single note carrying emotional weight and quality. The piano runs its own way in much of the piece, highlighting Shapiro’s superb technical skills and liquid touch on the keyboard.

Presumably CIM audiences are the most educated in town, and this one called Ženatý and Shapiro back for four encores – something this critic has never seen at Mixon Hall before. Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, Strauss – and there would have been more if an obviously drained Ženatý hadn’t announced “last one” for a Schumann finale, two and a half hours after the concert began.

Another thing this critic never heard at Mixon Hall before: an absolute, almost reverent silence between movements. Ženatý expectations for a quiet, attentive audience clearly had something to do with that. But ultimately it was about the music, and the respect it commands when it’s played by serious professionals.

For more on Ivan Ženatý:

For more on Sandra Shapiro:

Photos: CIM/LDennison

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Severance Hall
December 5

A living symbol of the Szell era and overcoming adversity.

It would be hard to imagine a moment more freighted with history than Leon Fleisherʼs entrance onstage at Severance Hall on Thursday night. The musicians acknowledged it immediately, tapping their bows and applauding Fleisher as he was making his way to the podium, lauding him before he had conducted a single note.

The Cleveland Orchestra has special relationships with many musicians, but none with the longevity of Fleisher, a keyboard wunderkind who gave his first performance with the orchestra in October 1946. George Szell was conducting and over the next two decades adopted Fleisher as his go-to pianist, making a series of recordings with him that include definitive versions of the Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos.

Fleisherʼs career seemed over in 1965, when two fingers on his right hand froze. Undaunted, he started treatment while developing a left-handed performance repertoire and a second career as a conductor. When he had recovered enough to play two-handed again, his first performance was with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall (Mozartʼs Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, Christoph von Dohnányi conducting, April 1995).

So Fleisher embodied both an institutional legend and personal triumph over adversity when he took the stage. He was scheduled to conduct another virtuoso pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, in two Beethoven concertos. But Uchida is nursing a thumb injury, so she was replaced by Jonathan Biss, 33, who studied with Fleisher at the Curtis Institute and has built a successful career as both a concert pianist and recital artist.

The program opened with Mendelssohnʼs Hebrides overture, which gave Fleisher a chance to show that he knows how to run an orchestra. He pulled off some smooth technical moves and gave the piece character, emphasizing tonal and textural contrasts and putting some pop in the familiar melody. Fleisher seemed to linger a bit in the sole mournful passage, perhaps reflecting his opening dedication of the concert to Nelson Mandela.

In replacing Uchida, Biss took on a Herculean load – Beethovenʼs Piano Concerto No 2 before intermission, and Piano Concerto No. 3 after. The formidable program highlighted both his strengths and weaknesses.

Stronger solo.
Biss is an exceptionally fluid player who can glide through impossibly complicated passages, then shift into slow motion to craft elegant, achingly beautiful solo lines. Those were his strongest moments of the night – when he played alone and was free (especially in the No. 2 cadenzas) to shape the sound and drop single notes like flower petals, breathtakingly soft and sensitive. In the classic style of a recitalist, he seemed to go into another world during his solos, following a muse that only he can hear.

This works fine in recital, but less well in orchestral performances, where the soloist and orchestra are supposed to be in dialogue. Or at least listening to each other. In No. 2, Biss was so focused on ending each of his solo passages with a fortissimo bang, his timing was off. Instead of being seamless, the handoffs overlapped, literally bumping into each other. At times, it seemed like Biss and the orchestra were playing separate pieces – not in how they sounded, but in his complete detachment.

That was surprising, given the circumstances. A substitute soloist would normally defer to the orchestra, especially with his mentor conducting it. Biss is gifted enough to get away with a different approach, but it lacks the transcendence that a player like Uchida achieves by working with the orchestra – indeed, conducting it herself from the keyboard in some performances to achieve pinpoint precision and present a unified voice.

However, this orchestra could play Beethoven in its sleep, and in Fleisher's hands the music had a commanding, authoritative tone, reminiscent of Szell. It was probably unrealistic to hope for a reprise of the magic that Szell and Fleisher were able to create together, but this certainly could have been a stronger collaboration. As a pianist in the audience noted after Biss bowed and left without an encore, “If he had played an unaccompanied solo, that would have been redundant.”

For more on Jonathan Biss:

Monday, December 2, 2013


Severance Hall
November 29

A persuasive advocate for the American repertoire.

It’s always a treat to see Marin Alsop. Now in her sixth season as music director and principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Alsop, 57, is one of the world’s foremost proponents of making classical music accessible to wider and younger audiences. Along with regular conducting engagements on three continents, she stays busy creating and promoting music programs for children and discussing great classical works on National Public Radio.

Though she does not present herself as a female conductor – the music comes first – Alsop regularly and quietly sets new benchmarks for women in her field. She is the only conductor ever to receive a MacArthur Award. In September she became the first woman to conduct closing night of the BBC Proms, a serious honor in European music circles. And she hung tough in 2007, when members of the Baltimore Symphony protested her appointment as the first female music director of a major American orchestra. Alsop has been so successful there, her contract was recently extended to run through the 2020-21 season.

Most importantly, she does a first-rate job at the podium. Alsop may not have the depth of some of her contemporaries. But the breadth of her repertoire is impressive, ranging far beyond the core canon. A one-time protégé of Leonard Bernstein, she is an active supporter of contemporary music and the work of American composers.

Thus the opening piece in her Thursday night appearance at Severance: Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 2 (Op. 17). An early work that sparkles with fresh ideas and colors before turning solemn and a bit overwrought, the piece sounded thick and murky, at least by Cleveland Orchestra standards. It was hard to tell if that was Alsop’s approach, or a case of lingering jet lag after the orchestra’s month-long European tour. Either way, it was an unmistakably American work, big and boisterous.

An abrupt 100-year rewind brought Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 54), notable chiefly for the composer’s unprecedented integration of piano and orchestra. Instead of providing background for dazzling solos, the orchestra is an equal partner in the piece, matching and trading phrases, and carrying on an animated dialogue. In that respect it sounded superb, with Alsop skillfully balancing the two elements and then driving them in tandem to a fiery finish.

Clockwork keyboard.
The soloist, David Fray, was less impressive. Though he comes with a great reputation and long list of accomplishments, particularly for 
a 32 year-old, Fray played in a totally straightforward, choppy manner, without a hint of lightness or lyricism. The nimble quality of the orchestra made him sound even flatter. Fray is a facile player with an exceptionally clean style and distinctive sound, but this performance mostly brought to mind a line from a Joni Mitchell song: “The band sounds like typewriters.”

Alsop slipped into instructor mode to start the second half, introducing the audience to Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 with a short lecture and musical excerpts played by the orchestra. It was an illuminating few minutes, though in explaining her choice of the piece for Thanksgiving weekend, she seemed intent mostly on assuring audience members they weren’t in for anything scary or new. “You may think you don’t know this piece,” she said. “But you do. It’s part of our culture here in America.”

Indeed it is. The symphony is essentially a long-winded expansion of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which he wrote several years earlier. The piece can become tedious if, as Alsop suggested, you spend most of it waiting for the familiar part to appear (at the end). In her hands, however, it was everything American music should be – fresh, rhythmic, and expansive, redolent of wide vistas and unlimited horizons. The number of players required to bring it to life filled nearly the entire stage, with six percussionists jumping up to add cannon blasts and electric charges in the final movement.

Few conductors provide inspiration along with great music. With Alsop, it’s routine.

For more on Marin Alsop:

For more on David Fray:

Marin Alsop photo by Grant Leighton


Cleveland Institute of Music
November 22
Cleveland Museum of Art
November 24

Expressive players with a passion for their craft.

The holiday season brings an explosion of music, in the most literal sense of the word. Suddenly the concert halls and churches are bursting with seasonal sing-alongs, boisterous brass and other noisy Christmas fare. The audiences tend to be just as raucous, primed for family fun and lacking in concert etiquette.

Fortunately, there is an alternative for serious music fans. Chamber concerts attract smaller and smarter audiences, offering refined programming and an opportunity to see skilled musicians at work close-up. Even better for aficionados in Cleveland, many of the concerts are free.

The premier chamber event this month is the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Winter Chamber Music Festival (more in the sidebar at right), which kicked off in late November with a performance by the Cavani Quartet. All faculty members at CIM, the foursome bring an enthusiasm for their craft to their performances, playing with verve, intelligence and generosity of spirit.

The first of their two programs in the festival (the second is on Dec. 11) opened with Mozart’s String Quartet in A major (K. 464). Beethoven is said to have characterized the piece as Mozart’s way of saying to the world, “Look what I could produce, if only you were ready for it.” The quartet did not seem quite ready for it, playing with precision but none of the lilt that is integral to Mozart’s music. The form was there but not the substance, a beautiful shell with no core.

The mood and period shifted abruptly with the second piece, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2. It demands a sharper, energetic approach that nearly lifted first violinist Annie Fullard out of her seat at times. Slow to start, the three-movement work picked up drama and authority as it developed, though didn’t plumb the depths of grief that Fullard promised in her opening remarks.

Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor is a seminal work that changed the rules of chamber music, and the quartet was up to its technical challenges, slicing off impassioned pizzicato lines, weaving gauzy textures and putting a glimmering finish on the tender, fleeting melodies. As a technical showcase, it was a tour de force. The group showed its lighter side with the encore – “Midnight Child,” a contemporary piece written for the Cavani Quartet by pianist and composer Charles Gregory Washington.

We are in the Year of Italian Culture, which has brought a ton of opera and great musicians like Maurizio Pollini and Fabio Luisi to American audiences. For Clevelanders it offered a chance to hear pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi – again. He was the winner of the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition, has taught at Oberlin, and is currently a staff instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Cultural ambassador.
The Italian Consulate co-sponsored his recent recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where Pompa-Baldi presented the program that he played for the American Liszt Society in San Francisco in June. It was a bit short on Liszt – only three pieces, one a “paraphrase” of Verdi – and long on works dedicated to or inspired by Liszt: Chopin’s Twelve Etudes (Op. 10), and tributes by Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov and Italian composer Roberto Piana.

The variety gave Pompa-Baldi a chance to show his considerable technical prowess. He is a fluent player who blows through complicated passages with jaw-dropping dexterity – so fast at times that his skill squeezes his expression. The Chopin Etudes in particular were beautifully fluid, but played at such an uptempo clip that they lost their lyrical quality. When Pompa-Baldi slowed down a bit, as in Liszt’s Ballade #2 in B minor, the music sounded more sensitive and resonant.

The performance also had a spoken segment, with the pianist opening the second half by talking about the program, how he approaches the pieces, and what he hoped to convey with some of them. After what seemed like an effortless first half, it was interesting to hear him reveal the physical strains that some of the pieces impose, and the ideas behind others. His comments on the closing work, Piana’s Aprés une lecture de Liszt (After a reading of Liszt), were particularly helpful, as it contains some tongue-in-cheek humor that Pompa-Baldi explained and then executed nicely.

The concert was part of the Tri-C Classical Piano Recital Series, which returns to the museum in January. All the performances are free, as are all the concerts in CIM’s chamber music festival. For edifying winter warmers, one could hardly do better.

For more on the Cavani Quartet:

For more on Antonio Pompa-Baldi:

Cavani Quartet photo by Christian Steiner

Friday, November 22, 2013


Finney Chapel
November 20

An opportunity to watch a virtuoso at work.

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma titled his latest Silk Road Ensemble release A Playlist Without Borders, reflecting the group’s international makeup and focus. That would also have been an appropriate title for his recital in Oberlin on Wednesday night, which covered a remarkable musical and geographic range, from 19th-century European Romanticism to modern Latin dance music. With longtime piano accompanist Kathryn Stott providing driving rhythms and tasty embellishment, Ma held a packed house spellbound.

Part of the attraction was the chemistry between the two players, who have been collaborating for nearly 30 years. They seem to communicate by telepathy, rarely glancing at each other while nailing fancy breaks, unusual timing and flashy finishes with razor-sharp precision. Their duets have a strong organic feel, with emotional passages swelling in tandem, or one instrument dropping back while the other articulates a sensitive line or inventive phrasing.

And they don’t need a single note of warm-up. From the opening bars of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, their sound was perfectly clean and well-defined, seamless in construction and elegant in execution. Each of the five movements had a distinctly different character, with Ma giving the music a lyrical quality – not a term one typically uses to describe Stravinsky. Light and playful in the duo’s spirited treatment, the suite made a lively, engaging opener.

Ma dug into his 2003 Obrigado Brazil album for a medley of three Latin songs, starting with Villa-Lobos’ “Alma Brasileira,” which featured Stott on lead. He brought dark emotional hues to Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” then played Camargo Guarnieri’s “Dansa Negra” as a dialogue with Stott, who set a snappy dance floor pace with rolling barrelhouse rhythms.

The mix of elements in de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas (Seven Spanish Folk Songs) was rendered with exceptional clarity. Stott set a tone of passionate intensity that Ma matched at times, or played against with incredibly fine, delicate lines suggesting the French impressionist influence. The rich array of moods and colors they created culminated in a smart, swirling treatment of a flamenco number, “Polo.”

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), a seminal work in the chamber repertoire, includes a movement for cello and piano, “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus” (In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus). Ma was brilliant in bringing its earthly anguish and spiritual yearning to life, holding long vibrato lines with his head tilted back and eyes closed, like a man in a trance. Which he apparently was. After drawing the piece to a whisper finish, he sat silent for almost a minute. Some musicians let the final notes reverberate and fade away for dramatic effect. But in this case it seemed Ma couldn’t move until his spirit returned from a faraway place to reinhabit his body.

After all those exotic excursions, it felt almost mundane to return to the mainstream canon for the closing work, Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. Ma and Stott gave it a brisk, animated reading, pumping some fresh energy into a staid classic. Ma showed masterful control of his instrument, particularly in a piece that was written for violin and piano. Playing the string part on cello is difficult enough; making it look easy is the work of a virtuoso.

Yo-Yo Ma makes everything he touches look easy, one of the reasons he occupies such a prominent and respected niche in the classical music world. Another is his open-heartedness and unfailing generosity. He came back for three encores after this performance – Elgar’s sweet Salut D’Amour, “Cristal” from the Obrigado Brazil album, and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, a sure crowd-pleaser. Audiences in Oberlin like to show their approval with their feet as well as their hands, so there was plenty of stamping accompanying the final rounds of applause.

This was the third time Ma performed in northeast Ohio over the past year, though the first in a chamber setting that gave the audience a close-up opportunity to watch him work. He throws himself completely into the music, playing every piece with a brilliant combination of technical finesse and double expression –the feeling he puts into the music, and the emotions on his face. At one point during the Oberlin recital, he looked ready to burst into tears.

That kind of naked emotional honesty establishes a powerful bond with the audience, and makes Ma’s departing smiles and goodbye waves seem real rather than forced. No one – not even the elderly gentleman sitting next to this critic who fell asleep – leaves his concerts unhappy.

For more on Yo-Yo Ma:

For more on Kathryn Stott:

Photo: Roger Mastroianni


Museum of Contemporary Art
November 14
Transformer Station
November 13

At 80, still pushing the electronic envelope.

They sing the body electric. But that doesn’t make all electronic musicians equal. Back-to-back concerts last week offered a rare opportunity to see two well-regarded practitioners in action, and to hear the difference between a technician and a true master of the form.

Morton Subotnick was mobbed by admirers after his Thursday night performance at MOCA, which packed the museum’s west lobby performance space. The enthusiastic turnout was a bit surprising, given the esoteric nature of the program, though certainly appropriate. Subotnick, 80, is one of the pioneers of American electronic music, a visionary composer who started incorporating tape-recorded sounds into his work in the late 1950s. He made history in 1967 with Silver Apples of the Moon, an album commissioned and released by Nonesuch Records that marked the first serious treatment of synthesized music.

Subotnick’s use of traditional elements like pitch, tone and rhythm helped give his work wide accessibility and applications; it’s been used in theater, dance pieces and live performances with musicians and singers. And he’s continued to pioneer new uses of technology, most recently using the iPad to teach music composition to young children.

His performance at MOCA started like the break of day, with small insect noises giving way to chirps and howls that were suddenly overwhelmed by monstrous mechanical noises, as if giant construction machinery were tearing into a forest. The noise faded to an amiable popping, and then a new set of sounds emerged – echoes bouncing around the quad speakers, bubbles, blips, low cycles, high-pitched whistling, metallic hissing and screeching. At one point a volcano of percussion erupted, like dozens of conga drums beating at once. Subotnick also used his voice – not for vocals, which showed up in occasional tape loops, but to create abstract noises that he could manipulate.

While the sheer variety and cacophony of sounds were riveting, most impressive was Subotnick’s musicality. Within the noise were clear structures, compositions built on melodies and variations. What’s different is that Subotnick uses electronic sounds instead of musical notes, which takes some getting used to. Once you’ve dialed into his vocabulary, however, distinct patterns and individual pieces become discernible. Some even sound like soloists are playing different parts.

Subotnick’s music may occupy a narrow niche, but there is no denying its intelligence and breathtaking inventiveness. Small wonder that his acolytes flooded the stage while his encore was still reverberating around the hall, drawn like iron filings to a magnet.

High-pitched pain.
By comparison, Mark Fell’s performance at the Transformer Station the previous night was one-dimensional. Fell, 47, is a British sound artist with a taste for techno who does installations as well as performances. His soundscapes are comparatively abstract, almost academic at times, and technically complex – a 2008 “generative sound piece” was composed for a 48-speaker system.

Fell sat cross-legged at a low table with a laptop, seemingly oblivious to the two dozen people sitting in front of him in scattered chairs or lying on floor mats. For the first 10 minutes or so of his 50-minute performance, only the barest buzz was audible from the six speakers surrounding the audience. Gradually the sound built to a sharp electric hum, then got louder and louder until it seemed capable of shattering eardrums. Essentially, it was one long crescendo, with only changes in volume and tone offering any variation.

Straight from this critic’s notebook, a small sampling of the time elapsed and aural impressions: 23 minutes: Layers of dysfunctional appliances; 27: A high-pitched whine like a mosquito in your ear; 29: A bathroom exhaust fan with bad bearings; 33: Airplane engines revving up; 35: The cyclotron on Forbidden Planet; 37: A freight train going 90 mph outside your bedroom window; 39: A teeth-rattling submarine engine room right next to the propellers.

Punishing stuff, though only one of the many directions electronic music has taken since Subotnick started playing with tapes. From dance clubs to conservatories, electronics have proven to be endlessly adaptable, with new possibilities opening up as the technology continues to evolve. Still, there’s nothing like hearing it from the source.

For more on Morton Subotnick:

For more on Mark Fell:

Subotnick photo: MOCA/Kory Dakin

Friday, November 15, 2013


Oberlin College
November 9

A wacky wicked witch with tasty plans for Hansel.

Anyone expecting a typical fairy tale opera in Oberlin this past weekend was in for a pleasant surprise. Instead, director Jonathon Field played Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel for laughs and splash, with animated characters in outrageous costumes poking, punching and brawling their way through big, colorful sets. German Romanticism was never so much fun.

Field, an associate professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, has a longstanding reputation as an innovative opera director. He was one of the first to use video-projected and computer-generated scenery, and has handled material ranging from Mozart and Rossini to Adams and Glass. Other contemporary work includes the American premiere of Lost Highway, an opera based on the David Lynch film, and the world premiere of the jazz opera Leave Me Alone.

When the curtain opened on Hänsel und Gretel Saturday night, it looked like the classic children’s story: an impoverished brother and sister working in a barren forest cottage, complaining of hunger pangs. But these were not helpless innocents. Hänsel (Marisa Novak in a trouser role) traded verbal and then physical jabs with Gretel (Alexis Aimé), and soon the two were squaring off like boxers. When their mother (Kayleigh Decker) came home she proved to be even more of a bruiser, whacking the kids around and, in a witty foretaste of the wicked witch, shoving Hänsel’s head into the fireplace.

Arriving after the rambunctious siblings were sent to the deepest part of the forest to pick strawberries, dad (Daveed Buzaglo) affectionately threw his wife to the floor and declared “I’ll give you a smack!” after she called him a “tavern cavalier.” In almost any other context, this would be domestic abuse. But Field’s choreography was superb, with the fights more like dance scenes and the spills decidedly slapstick. Brisk, colorful music from the pit helped keep the atmosphere light and the narrative in high gear.

As darkness closed in around the children in the forest, the music turned suspenseful without losing its grace and sparkle, and magical characters began to appear. The Sandman (Micaela Aldridge), looking like The Shadow, sang Hänsel and Gretel to sleep. A full moon rose and shattered in a cloud of pixie dust that brought 14 angels in white gowns onstage to surround and protect them. In contrast to the combative tone of the opening scenes, the ensemble piece was delicate and endearing, as soft as a goodnight kiss.

A different kind of wake-up call.
The second half opened with the Dew Sprite (Emily Peragine), a dizzy character in elaborate white fringe and silver glitter, awakening the children (and herself) with a magic hammer. Gretel was about to go after songbirds with a slingshot when the trees parted to reveal the gingerbread house, a Gaudi-inspired riot of pastels at impossible angles festooned with candy canes, sugar trim and gingerbread children – some dolls, others live faces embedded in the walls.

The witch (Karen Jesse) appeared first in dark notes in the music, then in an electric outfit straight out of Little Nemo in Slumberland, topped by a black bowler with feathers. The only nonstudent in the cast (though an ’04 Oberlin grad), Jesse made the most of her brief time onstage, showing great dramatic flair and a strong voice with a wicked cackle. Having Gretel shove her in the oven wasn’t enough for this production; her body was dragged out and Hänsel cut off her head, which he and Gretel stood holding during a concluding choral number that included their parents and children freed from the witch’s magic spell.

The gruesome touches reflected an understanding and appreciation of the source material, which has been sanitized in most modern collections of Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Field’s genius was in preserving that element while packaging it in a nonthreatening way, undercutting the horror with laughter. He was aided greatly by conductor Raphael Jiménez and the student orchestra, who kept the atmosphere bubbly and bright.

The student singers showed poise and promise, with particularly strong work from Kayleigh Decker. In some ways the sets were even more impressive, big and smart enough for a professional production. Even the supertitles got an occasional laugh, with lines like the witch’s reaction to Hänsel not being fat enough to eat: “Then pretty little Gretel is the blue-plate special.”

In all, a witty and entertaining production, and another reminder of how lucky we are to have Oberlin.

For more on the Oberlin Opera Theater Program:

For more on Karen Jesse:

Photos: Oberlin Conservatory/John Seyfried


E.J. Thomas Hall
November 12

The banjoist, center, was a neat fit with a string quartet.

The good thing about seeing the first show on the new Béla Fleck/Brooklyn Rider tour is that you get to hear the world premiere of...well, the piece actually didn’t have a name when the ensemble debuted it on Tuesday night. The not-so-good thing is that a lot of the songs are still rough, and in need of polishing.

That said, all five of the players are accomplished, innovative musicians, and anytime they get together it’s a special event. Oddly enough, their current collaboration had its genesis in empty space on a CD. After recording his 36-minute concerto The Impostor with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Fleck needed something to fill out the disc. He approached Brooklyn Rider with some sketches for a “banjo quintet,” and the result was a three-movement work titled Night Flight Over Water. That finished the CD and became one of the core pieces on the current tour.

The big question on Tuesday was what four strings and a banjo would sound like together. In his appearance as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra last December, Fleck played well, as did the orchestra. But the sounds just didn’t mix. No one has worked harder than Béla Fleck to expand the reach and possibilities of his instrument. In the end, however, there are some places that the limited tonal range of a banjo can’t go.

The string quartet turned out to be a much better fit. Long ago bluegrass and folk married banjo and fiddle, so the combination sounds right. More importantly, the ensemble isn’t a soloist playing with a backup band. They play like a five-man group, changing roles and taking turns on leads and solos. On some songs, Fleck took a back seat as part of a three-man rhythm section with cellist Eric Jacobsen and violist Nicholas Cords.

The full group warmed up with two vintage Flecktones numbers, “Next” and “The Landing.” Fresh arrangements gave both some bite. Then the quartet had the stage to themselves for Culai, a five-movement taste of Romanian gypsy music by Russian composer and violist Lev Zhurbin. With its virtuoso flourishes for each of the instruments, the piece plays to Brooklyn Rider’s strengths. But it was remarkably sedate, with only occasional flashes of the uptempo exuberance that characterizes most gypsy music. If the suite were being played by a Balkan weddings and funerals band, it would be mostly funeral music.

Fleck returned for the unnamed world premiere, which a member of the audience cleverly suggested be titled “Akronism.” That seems appropriate for a piece using a classical framework to explore an expansive contemporary musical terrain, giving each of the players a chance to improvise on the changing themes. They did an impressive job blending very fine string and banjo lines, though a brief detour into dissonance didn’t work. Overall, it was an interesting and ambitious piece that would benefit from some sharpening and shortening.

Fleck opened the second half with a solo set that included his usual nod to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, this time combined with “Pop Goes the Weasel.” More interesting was a quiet song he wrote (so as not to disturb a new baby at home), a charming melodic strummer that called to mind Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey.” Fleck also played solo excerpts from his Banjo Concerto, which sounded better without an orchestra.

The quartet joined him for Night Flight Over Water, another wide-ranging excursion that was the most integrated piece of the night, with the players trading tight leads and licks and Fleck providing a driving rhythm. It was surprisingly uneven, virtuosic in parts and seemingly on the verge of falling apart in others. A week or two on the road should remedy that.

A smart arrangement and precision performance of João Gilberto’s “Undiú” drew the most enthusiastic applause of the night, perhaps because it offered a distinct melody after so much improv and abstract fare. The closing piece by violinist Colin Jacobsen featured the fanciest arrangements and tightest playing of the night, though didn’t merit much of a sendoff. The applause quickly died down when the band left the stage, precluding an encore.

Whatever its flaws, this quintet is fearless and imaginative in blending instruments, styles and influences from all over the world. Their live performances will get better. And hopefully their collaboration will continue, blazing new trails in American music.

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