REVIEW: An Orchestra, Almost, In Your Living Room

Abrams-Photo-by-Sam-English

The Louisville Orchestra continued its Neighborhood Series “Music Without Borders” last night, with about an hour of music, to a full house at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Prospect. Billed as a casual concert, the orchestra played a mix of light stage music paired with a couple weightier movements from concertos and symphonies.

Rossini’s overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) made a strong first impression, and for about 7 minutes we were listening in a 19th-century opera house, not a church.

Incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the calling card of a genius named Felix Mendelssohn, a fact underscored by Teddy Abrams in his address to the audience. Mendelssohn’s music is often confused with that of an older composer, not one who died at the age of 38. The fact remains that Mendelssohn, like Mozart, was an anomaly in human achievement. Though Mendelssohn, unlike Mozart, still rests on a second tier in our musical pantheon, coming from that period still reeling from someone named Ludwig van Beethoven.

The brilliant overture, both in intellect and luster, opens with four shimmering chords in the woodwinds, a reference to the four days and “Four nights that will quickly dream away the time,” spoken by Hippolyta. What follows is a blistering forty seconds for the violins, at their most exposed, flittering lightly on their strings. Last night the violins held together, never out of control, but lacking the precision needed for this difficult passage, and similar ones that followed, to sound crisp. Its Scherzo, a jaunty interlude that precedes the entrance of Puck and the Fairies in Act II, bounced and danced, ending with a long, unbroken phrase gracefully played by principal flutist, Kathy Karr.

Spencer Sharp, winner of the 2014 Association of the Louisville Orchestra Concerto Competition, played the first movement of the Dvořák violin concerto with assuredness. Abrams’ account of the first movement of Schubert’s “Unfinished” was impassioned and brooding. Like Mendelssohn, we may never come to terms with Schubert’s short, prolific life.

Beethoven, known for his anguish, showed us a playful and cheeky side with the Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens and the King Stephen Overture. The latter is Beethoven as a caricature of himself: grandiose statements, perky tunes and rousing anthems.

“Music Without Borders” implies a boundary exists, namely in Whitney Hall or the Brown Theater, and between an audience and the orchestra. The audience last night looked no different than the audience at Whitney Hall. The concept is right, but maybe next season will include concerts in Shawnee, Portland or Pleasure Ridge Park.

Music Without Borders continues tonight at 7:30pm, Ogle Center IUS, and tomorrow at 3:00pm at Congregation Adath Jeshrun.

An Englishman in Norway

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To call Frederick Delius’ music “English” would be misleading. Delius was very much a man of the world. but he took special delight in two geographic regions: the American southeast and Norway. With the Chandos CD called “Delius in Norway,” conductor Sir Andrew Davis continues recording the works of Delius with the focus on works either intended for Norwegian audiences or inspired by the country.

The album begins with Delius’ orchestration of Edvard Grieg’s Norwegian Bridal Procession. Although an early effort in Delius’ career, it is a masterful arrangement of what was originally a piano piece.

The tone poem Paa Vidderne (On the Mountains) is a bombastic piece reminiscent of Richard Wagner. The orchestra successfully depicts the sweeping grandeur of the Norwegian terrain.

At first it might seem strange that the Delius work that most fits the “English Pastorale” label, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, is included on this recording. But in fact the main theme from the work for small orchestra is based on a Norwegian folk tune. Delius first heard it through an arrangement by Grieg from his piano settings (Op.66).

The atmospheric Eventyr (Once upon a Time) was inspired by folk tales by Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe. Literally translated as “Tales of Adventure,” the composition is heavy on percussion and even gives the orchestra musicians a chance to shout during their performance.

The longest work on the album is a suite of music Delius wrote for a play called The People’s Parliament. Called Folkeraadet in Norway, the production brought controversy, in part because of a musical parody of the national anthem. At the opening performance nationalistic students rioted and a shot was fired at the English composer (It was later discovered to be a cap gun).

This album also includes Two Songs from the Norwegian and Sleigh Ride. Both are fine performances by Davis with soprano Ann-Helen Moen and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

This isn’t the disc you’re looking for if you’re wanting an album that reflects Delius’ original sound. But it is a generous helping (78 minutes) of music that shows a side of Frederick Delius we don’t always acknowledge. Another work inspired by the Norwegian landscape, The Song of the High Hills, was recorded by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on an earlier Chandos release.

Behind Carmina Burana

Remember, back in October, the hundreds of singers performing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Louisville Orchestra? Here’s a fun behind-the-scenes video, from the good folks at Music Makes a City, about what it takes to pull off a performance on this scale.

Featured Album: Alain Lefèvre’s Chopin Preludes

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Frédéric Chopin, tired of the Parisian winter, grabbed a copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and took his lover George Sand and her family to Majorca for a long vacation. There he wrote some of his Preludes, inspired by Bach. Alain Lefèvre‘s new recording of all 24 preludes is our Featured Album this week. (Above: the only known photograph of Chopin, dated around 1849)

REVIEW: Kentucky Opera’s Thrilling Spaghetti Western

Kentucky Opera The Girl of the Golden West Orchestra Dress

Kentucky Opera’s second production of the 2014-2015 season continues in the lesser-known opera repertoire, with a hidden gem, Puccini’s La fanciulla del west.

The Girl of the Golden West is set during the California gold rush in the mid 1800s, a world away from Mimi’s Paris or Cio-Cio San’s Nagasaki, with a musical language that is almost as foreign. The lack of interest for Puccini’s seventh opera could be due to the overwhelming modern success of operas like La bohème and Madame Butterfly, tragic love stories. In La fanciulla, Puccini opts for a romantic thriller, and continues to explore a style of opera called verismo, portraying realism in everyday life (a style he settled into with Tosca).

The overture was cast as an “opening credits,” harkening back to Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or from a more recent generation, several Quentin Tarantino films, with brightly animated drawings of all three leads projected on a giant screen. Puccini’s score is less opera and more Hollywood, foreshadowing composers like Miklós Rózsa or Jerome Moross. Maestro Jackson confidently led the Louisville Orchestra musicians through a complex, lush, sometimes weird, score. The orchestra was as impeccable as any LA studio.

Puccini doesn’t skimp on grand musical gestures to mark the entrance of a character or indicate mood — Minnie’s theme is full and assertive. Puccini’s La fanciulla spends less time with long, floating vocal lines, opting for short, speech-like phrases, not unlike the differences between speech patterns of Italian and English. There are show-stoppers, though: Jack Rance’s tribute to Minnie in Act I, Minnie and Johnson’s duet in Act II, and Johnson’s excruciating aria in Act III (Let her believe me free…). Puccini locks the arias and duets tightly into the story, giving the audience little room to slow the momentum with applause, but Friday’s audience threw cheers when needed giving the house a palpable energy.

Our heroine, the saloon owner Minnie, is self-assured and independent, equally comfortable with a revolver or a bible. Soprano Michelle Johnson finds depth and meaning in every note. Her commanding presence and voice solidify Minnie as one of the great operatic leads in the repertoire. Tenor Jonathan Burton plays the affable Dick Johnson, a.k.a. the bandit Ramerrez, Minnie’s love interest and Sheriff Rance’s nemesis. Burton gives Dick Johnson a warmness through his velvety tone and empathetic personality. Baritone Franco Pomponi, who could have just as easily walked off a Coen brothers set, played the stern and cold sheriff Jack Rance. Always dressed in all black, Rance is despicable, and Pomponi’s portrayal leads us down his dark descent into jealousy, but always with vocal finesse.

KY Opera The Girl of the Golden West Final Dress rehersal

The rest of the cast, mostly supporting and male, was consistently strong, where even the shortest phrases were present. Of note was Melisa Bonetti’s Wowkle, who provided the perfect “are you serious?” moments in Act II. Lisa Hasson’s chorus was powerful and precise (she makes a cameo in the curtain call, in the middle of her dudes).

Kentucky Opera’s production showed a dramatic cohesion and stability, with an attention to detail that engrossed the audience, who were gasping and laughing in a natural rhythm with the fast-paced drama. Puccini is largely responsible for this energy, but stage director John Hoomes kept the stage and house energetic, even through Puccini’s slower moments. Production designer Barry Steele’s giant, backlit projections, blended with impeccable sets, giving the stage depth and texture, from scenic Sierra mountain backdrops to a blinding snow storm. With any new technology there are expected misfires, and there may have been a couple of odd moments or choices.

Kentucky Opera’s La fanciulla del west has set a high bar for the company, and general director David Roth’s vision of a “repertoire reimagined” may be coming to fruition. Where Fidelio fell short, La fanciulla showed a creative team with vision and imperative, combined with musicians who fully embodied their role. This is as close to a perfect production as a company can strive for.

One final thought about the one “character” named chorus, irrespective of this production, though there were a few odd blocking moments. It’s an unwieldy piece to any major opera. How do you manage a unit of 20-40 people without proclaiming “Here’s the chorus!” every time they sing or walk on stage? The use of a chorus ultimately lies in the nuance. Less is more. A chorus provides musical punctuation and anecdotal depth, in the same way a great film score lets us know how to feel without telling us how to feel. The chorus is an innocent bystander mirroring the emotions of those who are sitting a few feet away in suits and dresses. The best staged choruses, like the film scores, are the ones you don’t notice until they’re taken away.

Kentucky Opera’s final performance of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is Sunday at 2pm at the Brown Theater.