Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Severance Hall
October 24, 25, 26

Back at the podium for too much of a good thing.

Sometimes, less is more. A small ensemble or a carefully chosen piece can stand in for something much larger. But the opposite is also true: Sometimes, more is less. By the final notes on Saturday night, that was the inescapable conclusion of “Fate and Freedom.”

The title itself hints at the awkward pairing of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Beethoven and Shostakovich festival. Two giants who changed the course of classical music, both engaged with the struggle for liberty and freedom of expression, each the creator of highly personal works – these are obvious and well-known parallels. What Music Director Franz Welser-Möst hoped to achieve by pairing three sets of their symphonies on successive nights was a deeper appreciation of their artistic ties and achievements, and a sense of how great music captures and reflects its times.

Overload is one way to accomplish this, though a fatiguing choice. Any one of the symphonies that Welser-Möst chose (Beethoven Nos. 3, 4 & 5, Shostakovich Nos. 6, 8 & 10) is a lot to absorb and digest. Two is a package that offers interesting contrasts. Six within the space of 72 hours is like going through a museum on roller skates, even with a fat program book that included an enlightening essay by Welser-Möst, smart observations by visiting commentator Frank Oteri, and the usual fine background and analysis for each of the pieces.

More consistent performances that showcased a continuity of ideas would have helped. After three months away from the orchestra, Welser-Möst seemed rusty on opening night, starting with a flaccid Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) that didn’t take on heroic proportions until the final movement. The conductor’s Beethoven is usually delightful – light and nimble yet very dynamic, with room for details to blossom and ideas to develop, carefully balanced between expression and technical finesse. But in this performance the ardor seemed strained, and the message confused. Is heroism a grand ideal? Or a burden? Or a false hope? Despite some fine solo work by individual players, it was hard to tell.

Shotakovich’s Symphony No. 6 poses its own internal challenges, with a long, tense first movement that gives way to animated, even playful second and third movements. Welser-Möst captured the tension very well and maintained a beautiful transparency through the late cacophony, but overall the piece lacked cohesiveness. Were the cheerful second and third movements supposed to ring hollow? Is it all about the censors with Shostakovich, or something deeper? Again, it was hard to tell.

The Friday night concert was the best of the three. From the opening notes, Beethoven No. 4 had what No. 3 lacked – depth, vibrancy, a commanding voice and radiant glow. Welser-Möst wove in dark tones that kept the piece anchored, and conducted with clockwork precision; even the disparate, exuberant elements of the fourth movement were a seamless fit. If the symphony didn’t have much to say about either fate or freedom, it nonetheless offered a revealing portrait of the composer’s personality and musical development.

Welser-Möst’s Shostakovich tends to be less fiery than most, a trait that worked to good effect in No. 8, which the conductor approached as an outcry against the horrors of World War II. Within that framework he crafted fine textures and gradations of sound, soulful solos, and a dazzling range of colors and emotions. The first movement ended like a tone poem, while the second had a reeling, almost dizzying quality, and the third conclusively demonstrated that the Cleveland Orchestra can rock. The concluding movements were like smoke drifting over a battlefield, punctuated by seemingly random, inchoate sounds with an undercurrent of loss and despair. One may or may not agree with Welser-Möst’s interpretation, but it was presented with clarity and conviction.

The Saturday concert drew a sellout crowd, largely on the appeal of Beethoven No. 5, which offered the most heartfelt performance. Welser-Möst’s Beethoven is always textbook-clean and elegantly understated. This piece also had a rich emotional warmth and air of nobility that put it more squarely in the thematic frame of the festival, reflecting the composer’s determination not to let his encroaching deafness dim his highest aspirations. It was the most economical and yet most powerful of the Beethoven symphonies.

Shostakovich No. 10 is a technical tour de force that Welser-Möst painted on a broad canvas, ranging from an almost docile introduction to some of the most incendiary passages of the entire festival. The first movement was so delicately done, with low murmurs weaving a hypnotic spell before rising to dissonant flashes, that there was an audible exhale of breath in the audience when it finished. The slicing strings of the second movement and repeating motifs of the third turned up the burners, which were muted for a bright, nuanced finale. Perhaps less despairing than Welser-Möst intended, it was still a remarkable synthesis of the composer’s hopes and fears.

So what did we learn? Essentially, that these two towering figures shared similar passions heavily shaped by their eras and circumstances. The contrasts were interesting and the occasional points of intersection revealing, though not with any remarkable new insights. Mostly, it was an opportunity to hear Shostakovich pieces that don’t get performed nearly as often as they deserve.

But then, audiences come out for Beethoven, not Shostakovich. So as a marketing move, it was brilliant. And a successful exercise in tempting fate.

Photo by Roger Mastroianni


E. J. Thomas Hall
October 27

Great music from another unlikely combination.

In need of a palate cleanser after three nights of heavy-duty classics, Mr. Culture ventured south for another odd pairing, this time of pop stars: Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck. The genre was wildly different, but the number of parallels were striking, starting with two seminal figures who represent distinctly different strains of their art.

Brian Wilson, 71, may not have invented surf music but he was its foremost practitioner, the driving force behind The Beach Boys and writer of most of the band’s big hits. He single-handedly revolutionized rock ’n’ roll with the group’s 1966 album Pet Sounds, and after a long series of personal setbacks, reemerged in the early 2000s as an honored elder statesman of rock with a new solo career. 

Jeff Beck, 69, is one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists who ever lived, and the only one still on his feet turning out fresh material and playing blistering concerts. As good as Clapton and Page and arguably as inventive as Hendrix, he is a musician’s musician, as likely to unveil an arrangement of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” as he is to play a screamer like “Eternity’s Breath.”

After Beck joined Wilson in the studio earlier this year to work on the latter’s forthcoming album, they decided to tour together. Actually, “together” is a bit of a misnomer; each plays a separate set with their own bands, sharing the stage only for a few songs. Still, those provided some of the best moments of the night.

Wilson played the first set, seated at a piano in front of an 11-piece backup band that included former Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Lee Marks. Everyone else either played multiple instruments or sang in the high Beach Boys register, or both. The band was sharp and the harmonies were pitch-perfect, up to four voices at a time carrying the melody and another four or five providing the lush, deep backgrounds that characterize Wilson’s best recordings. He took the lead on several songs and sounded surprisingly good.

The most satisfying songs were from the Pet Sounds/Smile era – gems like “Heroes and Villains” and “Sloop John B,” and self-confessional classics like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Those expanded the vistas of pop music when they were released, and are still marvels of craftsmanship that reveal the higher possibilities of a simple form. Wilson’s 20-song set gradually devolved into early hits like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Help Me, Rhonda” – the least interesting music, though predictably what the audience liked most.

Jeff Beck always travels with a smokin’ hot band, and this one includes a classically trained violinist, Lizzie Ball (concertmaster of Nigel Kennedy’s Orchestra of Life); Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier, who brings Mideastern flavors to the music; jazz drummer Jonathan Joseph; and Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith, who has played with a long list of major stars that includes Prince, Beyonce and George Clinton.

Beck and his band were tight, though comparatively restrained. Given a full night, the players will push the sonic possibilities of their instruments to dizzying extremes, and Beck will rip the very air to shreds with soaring, slashing solos. There were flashes of those pyrotechnics, but in the limited time and format the emphasis was on tasty covers of rock icons like “Little Wing” and “A Day in the Life,” and compelling guitar/violin harmonics on “You Never Know” and “Corpus Christi Carol.”

Wilson and several vocalists joined Beck’s group for three cuts from Smile: “Our Prayer,” “Child is Father of the Man,” and “Surf’s Up.” How to collaborate on such vocally intensive fare? After an a cappella “Prayer,” Beck took over the lead vocal on his guitar, with the singers providing backup harmonies. It was an inspired treatment, retaining the emotional yearning of the music while putting a fresh face on it.

The entire Wilson band returned for the encores, a short jam of Beach Boys hits to send everyone home dancing and happy. And Beck closed out the night with a sweet cover of “Danny Boy,” a brief preview of Wilson’s new album.

It wasn’t Beethoven and Shostakovich. But there was one major advantage: These composers are alive. They can still add new dimensions to their work, particularly in a collaboration like this one. The classical repertoire may be an inexhaustible resource, but it’s frozen in time – monumental, immutable, changing only in interpretation. Music that lives and breathes offers exciting new possibilities, even when it’s rock ’n’ roll. And especially in the hands of two masters of the form.

For more on Brian Wilson: http://www.brianwilson.com/

For more on Jeff Beck: http://www.jeffbeckofficial.com/

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Polish-American Cultural Center
October 20

Roberto (Matthew Miles) gets a taste of Villi vengeance.

Heartbreak. Betrayal. A tragic death avenged by frenzied ghosts.

If it all sounds implausible in a nondescript building in Slavic Village, that’s only because you didn’t see Opera Circle’s production of Le Villi. With its usual combination of pluck, charm and cheerful enthusiasm, the company put on a spirited performance of Puccini’s first opera that filled every seat in a small dance hall on Sunday afternoon. Theater-in-the-round staging put the action literally in the audience’s laps, with plenty of room for energetic choreography.

Composed in 1883, Le Villi is a short two-act work that enjoyed some early success. Gustav Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere in 1892, and the Metropolitan Opera double-billed it with Cavaleria Rusticana in a 1908 performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Still, it’s not hard to see why Le Villi isn’t staged very often. It’s like watching the beginning and end of an opera – a strong opening act and a strong closing act, with everything that happens in between summarized by a narrator. And it’s a hybrid that calls for a small cast to be equally good at singing, acting and dancing.

But there are flashes of the Puccini to come, and the story is promising: Anna, who lives in a village in the Black Forest, pleads with her lover Roberto not to leave on a trip, fearing the worst. Roberto leaves and soon falls into a life of sin, leaving Anna to wither and die. When he finally returns, Anna’s father Guglielmo calls on the Villi, wild female spirits who live in the forest, to avenge his daughter. They summon up Anna’s ghost and literally dance Roberto to death.

A victim of love.
Soprano Dorota Sobieska was in good voice as Anna, hitting soaring notes of passion from her opening aria and maintaining a feverish intensity. Tenor Matthew Miles matched her emotional fervor as Roberto, showing an impressive, at times even heroic voice. The two were particularly good in duets, singing in great dramatic tones that made it clear why early critics dismissed the opera as warmed-over Wagner.

The supporting cast was also solid. A seven-person chorus opened the performance with a sharp song and dance routine, and sounded good singing offstage in the second act, warning of Roberto’s impending doom. Baritone Jeremy Gilpatric made the most of his brief appearances as Guglielmo, with vocals that were rough in spots but convincing in his heartfelt pleas for vengeance.

The Villi were played by four dancers who were fluid and accomplished, captivating in their blue-green fairy costumes. But they were hampered by the choreography, which never advanced much beyond running and jumping. A professional dancer and choreographer, Sabatino Verlezza, was brought in to create their movements, so the weak results were puzzling. The routines might have looked better on an elevated stage. But even that would likely not have saved the key climactic moment of Le Villi, the dance of death, which came off as more amateurish than deadly.

Opera Circle’s less-is-more approach was most effective in the music, which was played by a piano, violin and cello trio led by Jacek Sobieski at the keyboard. The sound was ideal for the space and more than enough to support the singing, which actually benefited from the tight quarters, giving the voices a compressed power and impact.

As always, there were some awkward moments. For no apparent reason a walking tree came out to open the second act, nearly getting hung up in the curtain hanging across the doorway entrance. For a few seconds, it could have been an Our Gang comedy. But the Opera Circle crew is nothing if not professional, and the players recovered quickly, pulling the audience back into the cascading tragedy – no small feat for singers who had their backs to the musicians most of the time, and no conductor to follow.

In a city otherwise rich in classical music, opera is a gaping hole. Dorota Sobieska, her husband Jacek and their daughter Wanda are tireless in their efforts to fill it with minimal resources. For that alone, their productions are an inspiration.

For more on Opera Circle: http://www.operacircle.org/


Severance Hall
October 17

A youthful flair for the Central European repertoire.

Jakub Hrůša makes a good case for bringing some new blood to the podium. The Cleveland Orchestra attracts a steady string of distinguished conductors – in recent weeks, Marek Janowski and Vassily Sinaisky, with names like Marin Alsop and Pierre Boulez to come. Hrůša, 32, may not have their experience. But the energy and flair that he showed at Severance last week put a fresh, exciting edge on the music.

The opening piece on the Thursday night program, Haydn’s Symphony No. 60, offered a tantalizing pairing: an early classical work rendered by a young conductor schooled in the Old World style. Typically, American orchestras can’t help but put a modern burnish on the Baroque and early Classical repertoire, characterized by a brisk, breezy approach to the material.

With Hrůša setting a spirited but stately pace, a chamber-sized version of the orchestra went deeper, building a rich, refined sound that had both heft and grace. Substantial on the bottom and elegant on top, it carried authoritative weight without losing any of the light, crisp finish. The fourth movement, a rapid-fire Presto, literally sparkled.

Symphony No. 60 started life as incidental music for a play, and as a concert suite it retains a strongly descriptive character. This gives the conductor plenty to work with, and Hrůša took full advantage of the whimsical turns and vibrant colors, showing in particular that he knows how to use the orchestra’s silken strings. The sixth and final movement includes a comic bit where the strings drop the melody and raucously tune their instruments, which Hrůša played off nicely with an exasperated reaction shot at the audience. It was an entertaining finale to a beautifully realized period piece.

Another appeal of visiting conductors is the opportunity to hear their national music, interpreted as only natives can. After intermission, Hrůša led the full orchestra in two Czech works not often heard in this part of the world: Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Janáček’s Taras Bulba. Both are vivid, entertaining pieces that deserve far greater exposure.

The Golden Spinning Wheel is one of a trio of symphonic poems Dvořák wrote based on Czech folk legends. It tells the story of Dornička, a peasant girl whose marriage to a king is nearly thwarted by her evil stepmother, until her wicked plan is revealed by the magic spinning wheel. Hrůša painted the story in bright hues with a sound so warm that it might have been a Czech orchestra onstage. The Romantic core of the music is in the Cleveland Orchestra’s wheelhouse, but the narrative flow, copious detail and remarkably light, nimble sound were all Hrůša. It was a captivating performance and a welcome reminder that there is much in Dvořák’s oeuvre to explore beyond the usual symphonies and cello concertos.

Taras Bulba was no less exciting, though not as satisfying. A rhapsody written in Janáček’s distinctive vocabulary, it recounts three dramatic scenes from Gogol’s eponymous novella. The occasionally thin top and ragged edges in this performance suggested that it would have benefited from more rehearsal time – not surprising, given the complexity of the piece. But it retained the brilliant colors and fine transparency of the Dvořák work, with Hrůša giving the dances and battle scenes a majestic, epic sweep.

It’s a shame there were so many empty seats at the concert. This is classical fare that anyone can appreciate – accessible, edifying, thrilling. And fresh repertoire that added some spice to the usual programming. Hopefully Hrůša will be back, bringing a dash of youthful vigor and more authentic Central European sounds.

For more on Jakub Hrůša: http://www.jakubhrusa.com/

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Severance Hall
October 10

At his best in an operatic setting.

Ordinarily it’s the conductor who makes the strongest impression at Severance. Especially when the conductor is a prominent veteran like Marek Janowski, who has led orchestras around the world. At 74, he is renowned for his work in opera houses throughout Europe and the U.S., and an impressive discography that includes a complete, well-regarded Ring cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

For all that, it was the soloist who shone brightest at Janowski’s concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra last week. Lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani showed why he is a regular at the Metropolitan Opera with a finely crafted, moving performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Many of Britten’s vocal works were written for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, and are showcases of style and technique. In Serenade the vocalist is paired with a French horn player, to great effect. Opening and closing horn solos offstage set a melancholy nocturnal atmosphere. And the harmonics of the horn as it plays with and off the singer during his six songs are captivating, offering everything from heightened emotion to humorous commentary.

Brilliant Britten.
The songs are musical settings of works by Tennyson, Blake, Keats and other English poets, and the diction that Polenzani brought to his reading was sterling, a beautiful combination of phrasing and clarity. The first piece, “Pastoral” by Charles Cotton, starts in countertenor territory, with succeeding pieces gradually descending to standard tenor range. Polenzani handled the transitions flawlessly while bringing eloquent expression to each of the poems – sadness in Blake’s brief “Elegy,” ominous overtones in a 15th-century dirge, and wrenching emotion in a Keats sonnet. It’s rare to hear English-language text sung so clearly and sensitively, with just the right balance of passion and restraint.

That tone was matched by Richard King, the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal horn player. He was just as nuanced as Polenzani, weaving soft colors and bright contrasts into the intricate vocal lines. In King’s hands the horn had a voice of its own, complementing the singer’s with cool hues and warm responses.

Janowski was at his best in the Britten piece, showing his opera background with a superb balance between the two soloists and the orchestra. The music always underpinned the foreground performances, never overwhelmed them. And his ability to conjure up moods and visual effects in the orchestral accompaniment was breathtaking.

All of which made the opening and closing works on the program surprisingly disappointing. Janowski creates an elegant Old World sound, which gave Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas and Mélisande a radiant glow. But the piece slogged along to the point of becoming ponderous, not leaving much of an impression.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor – the only symphony he wrote – is a big piece that sloshes around, aspiring to a dramatic impact that it never quite achieves. Janowski rendered it with a finely calibrated transparency, and showed great skill in his ability to take the orchestra from a roar down to hushed whispers. Otherwise the piece seemed pro forma, a token nod to the Dutch composer that did not play to the conductor’s strengths. Nor, for that matter, the orchestra’s.

Still, it was a treat to hear the Britten piece. And in his 100th anniversary year, there is more to come.

For more on Matthew Polenzani: http://www.matthewpolenzani.com/


Fairmount Presbyterian Church
October 11

An impressive start on the new season.

Happy, happy, happy. That’s the standard operating mode of Apollo’s Fire, and how it pitches most of its music. “A high ranking on the happy scale,” the program notes say of a Telemann concerto. “The happiest of the Brandenburgs,” conductor and harpsichordist Jeannette Sorrell says in introducing No. 4.

Happy is how the audiences typically leave as well, buoyed by the ensemble’s bright sound and energetic approach to playing the Baroque repertoire. What impressed about this season’s opening concert, though, was not so much the mood as the caliber of playing. The ensemble sounded sharp and deep, showcasing captivating duets, trios and quartets with rich, lively orchestral accompaniment.

The opening piece, the first movement of Telemann’s Concerto in D for two flutes, violin and cello, set the tone for the evening: An effervescent sound with a light, airy quality characterized by fine detail and precision solo work. As always, violinist Olivier Brault provided much of the detail. But the charm of the Telemann concerto was in the two traverso (Baroque flutes) played by Kathie Stewart and Francis Colpron, whose lines were like butterflies flitting through the main melodies.

Two pieces by J.D. Heinichen (pronounced like the beer) also featured spirited solo and ensemble work, though were interesting mostly as examples of the sophisticated compositions produced in Dresden in the 1720s. Selections from Heinichen’s Concerto Grosso in G major included a sublimely sweet quartet played by Stewart (traverso), Colpron (recorder) and violinists Brault and Johanna Novom. A trio of woodwinds – Stewart, Colpron and oboist Debra Nagy – were even more enchanting in his Concerto Grosso in C major. Still, what lingered were the composer’s arrangements and uses of color and tone, which sounded surprisingly modern.

Seeing Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins in B minor performed is like watching an early version of a guitar heroes band, with the violinists lined up to trade leads and lines and see who can dash off the fanciest phrases. This is right in the ensemble’s wheelhouse; Brault and Newsom are both outstanding players, as is Julie Andrijeski. Andrew Fouts is not quite on their level, but his edges were equally sharp, and the ebullience of the full quartet embodied the joyful spirit of Vivaldi’s music.

Cellist René Schiffer opened the second half with the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No. 5 – not the most gripping movement in that piece, but technically challenging nonetheless. Schiffer showed impressive range and command, though his style is too legato for this critic’s tastes, rendering much of the music as a monotone.

Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin in C minor featured Nagy and Novom, who were superb. With elegant backing from the ensemble, they wove intricate lines together and apart, combining fluid technique with eloquent expression. Perhaps more than any other piece on the program, this one demonstrated what Apollo’s Fire does best – take a familiar work and give it new life with enthusiastic playing and virtuoso musicianship.

The Brandenburg Concertos are the ensemble’s bread and butter, the mainstay of a North American tour it embarks on next week. This version of No. 4 sounded uptempo and a bit thin, with the traverso lacking definition. But Brault can always be counted on to fill the gaps with blazing filigree. And when he and Andrijeski led the ensemble in an encore of an Appalachian fiddle tune, no one was worried about the fine points of the performance. It was hoedown time, pure and simple.

And to judge by the audience reaction, a bell-ringer on the happy scale.

For more on Apollo’s Fire: http://apollosfire.org/

Photo by Daniel Levin

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Oberlin Conservatory
October 5

Overflow crowds both onstage and in the audience.

Modern music is alive and well in Oberlin, where a packed Warner Hall audience heard some impressive performances on Friday night from the college’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and eighth blackbird, the Chicago-based sextet that includes five Oberlin alumni. With CME Director Timothy Weiss handling the conducting chores, the caliber of playing was strikingly good, far out of proportion to the young ages of the musicians.

Eighth blackbird is in a category of its own, combining the expertise of a dedicated contemporary music ensemble with the energy of a rock band and a flair for theatrics. The group formed the backbone of a 12-piece ensemble that played the opening work, Skipping Stones by Tom Lopez. Using the splashing sounds that a flat stone makes as it skips across the water as a departure point, the piece offers a series of delicate surface movements, then dives into deeper sounds that eventually include rattling and knocking. With Lopez adding electronics from the sound board, the group played the piece with surgical precision, sans conductor. It ran out of gas at the end, but otherwise made a light, witty opener.

Kaija Saariaho’s Amers was the only piece on the program from the international repertoire, a 1992 French-inspired spectral work played by a 14-piece ensemble fronted by ’96 grad Nicholas Photinos on cello. Weiss created a backdrop of vibrant colors and sparkling clarity for an energetic performance by Photinos, who took his instrument from frantic grumbling to ultra-fine extended single notes with finesse. Amers is interesting mostly as an example of its genre, but Weiss made it rich and evocative – no small accomplishment with a piece that is mostly floating textures – and Photinos added a frothy gusto.

Whirligig is a piano piece for four hands by eighth blackbird keyboard player Lisa Kaplan, who had great fun bringing out three different colleagues to join her in a round robin for the three movements. The mechanics are absurd, and deliberately so. Kaplan described the work in the program notes as “getting in each other’s business and relishing it,” with crossing hands the least complicated thing the players are required to do. The first movement ends with one player literally pushing the other off the piano bench. Whirligig got some laughs during the performance and a big hand afterward, offering an entertaining reminder that contemporary music need not all be serious and cerebral.

Derek Bermel’s fast-paced Tied Shifts gave eighth blackbird the stage to themselves and a chance to indulge in a bit of choreography, with the musicians moving around to play in different combinations. Stockhausen notwithstanding, such movements are typically more about style than substance. But eighth blackbird’s are done in service to the music, adding another dimension to the sound. With Bermel’s lightning rhythms driving both the music and the movement, it was a smart, spirited excursion.

One had to wonder if any of the 17 players onstage for Benjamin Broening’s What the Light Was Like were old enough to vote, much less play complicated contemporary music. Credit Weiss with a light touch and particularly fine hand with sonic effects, creating a carefully layered, often dramatic sound. The music was highly descriptive and if not one of Broening’s more memorable works, still a broad, richly colored canvas on which individual players were able to leave their marks.

The evening closed with Peter Swendsen’s Six Ways Through a Glass of Absinthe, which mixes a grab bag of influences (Picasso, Stravinsky, French pop) with recorded sounds (a café, a carousel) to create a mosaic that ranges from minimalism to street music. It never quite jelled, with the number of players onstage (12) finally seeming cumbersome. The piece calls for some sharp changes of timing and atmosphere, which a smaller group might have handled more nimbly. Or maybe it’s just impossible to maintain such a high caliber of playing with so many musicians across so many different styles.

Either way, there is no failing in being overly ambitious. And for the most part, this was not only a good concert but a reminder of the talent that Oberlin attracts and produces, with two of the composers and almost all of the players Oberlin students or graduates. And that enthusiastic fan base! Stockhausen should be so lucky.

For more on eighth blackbird: http://www.eighthblackbird.org/

For more on the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble: http://www.oberlin.edu/nyc2013tour/artists/cme.html

Photo by Roger Mastroianni


Plymouth Church
October 5

An engaging exploration of women in distress.

Erudition and aesthetics rarely come together as sweetly as they did in “Woman Scorned,” the opening program of Les Délices’ fifth season. With visiting mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker providing the vocals, Debra Nagy and her French Baroque ensemble served up a confection with body, a quintet of lush musical excerpts whose beauty belied their troubling themes.

The women in question were mostly tragic characters from Greek and Roman mythology – Juno, Phaedra, Circé and Medea, along with Armide, the beautiful witch of Tasso’s La Gerusalemme liberata who became the subject of operas by Lully and Gluck. In a long set of well-informed program notes, Nagy made the case for them as strong, loyal women driven to extremes by betrayal and rejection. The double thread of power and vulnerability that she developed in prose was carried through with intelligence and sensitivity in music recounting their anguish.

Jean-Féry Rebel’s sonata La Junon provided a tasty opener. Written originally for a trio, it developed nicely with Michael Sponseller setting a tempo on harpsichord and Nagy, on oboe, striking engaging sonorities with violinist Julie Andrijeski and viola da gamba player Emily Walhout.

Feeling the pain.
Smucker joined the group for the Ohio premiere of Thomas Louis Bourgeois’ cantata Phédre et Hipolytte, which recounts the tragic death of Hippolytus and his stepmother’s remorse. Smucker has a full, richly emotional voice that almost overwhelmed the quintet at times. But it fit the subject matter perfectly and was instantly dominant, filled with longing and regret. The strings provided animated accompaniment, colorfully describing Hippolytus’ demise and then underpinning Phaedra’s guilt and pain.

A cathartic break was in order, and Sponseller provided it with a solo interpretation of a well-known passacaille from Lully’s Armide, arranged for harpsichord by Jean-Henry d’Anglebert. A bit uptempo and choppy at times, it was more expressive in Sponseller’s hands than precise, though engaging in its melodic flow, which sounded almost modern.

Smucker returned to the stage for Medea’s riveting “Quel prix de mon amour” from Charpentier’s Medée, rendered with exquisite craftsmanship by the ensemble. The vocals were drenched in emotion, as Smucker imbued every syllable of her impassioned 19 lines with just the right balance of sadness and vengeance.

The final piece was another Ohio premiere, Colin de Blamont’s cantata Circé. It’s a bit of a departure for an early 18th-century work, featuring dissonant colors and colorful chromatics in a staggered opening, and soaring vocals. Smucker was piercing without being harsh in the higher registers, and tender in the contemplative passages. After invoking the power and despair of Circé’s wrath, she found notes of joy in the final resignation of love won and lost. Skillful, detailed work by violinist Andrijeski added to the impact of the piece, which had the power of a full-blown operatic excerpt.

The program left this critic wanting more, and marveling at how much Nagy and her players are able to squeeze out of seemingly simple, often obscure works. In theory, such rarefied fare should appeal to only a small group of listeners. But in Les Délices’ hands, the combination of serious scholarship, fine playing and enthusiasm for the material has provided entree to a rich repertoire for a solid and growing audience. Magnifique, n’est-ce pas?

For more on Les Délices: http://lesdelices.org/Index.html

For more about Angela Young Smucker: http://www.mezzoangela.com

Photos: Ensemble courtesy of Debra Nagy/Smucker by Wendy Benner Photography