Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Beethoven under the stars - A kiss for all the world

What has more than 8,000 feet, thrives on heat and humidity, and loves Beethoven’s 9th?

Why, it’s the audience attending Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first gig at the Mann Center in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park!

More than 4,000 attendees were recorded at the SRO event June 24, though it’s hard to keep track of seated patrons when there is wine, beer, and Rita’s Ice to purchase in the open-air lobby.

Events at the Mann are festive occasions, and one does not hold performers to concert-hall standards, but Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra did very well. From his opening words, clearly visible and heard via two large screens and speakers on both sides of the stage, the conductor set the tone for an evening of inspiration and perspiration. It’s as close to camping as classical music lovers generally get, but comfortable and fun in a way that classical music can and should be.

The first half of the program featured Yannick conducting the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra in Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Nice work, youth, and a performance worthy of a mature professional ensemble. But the fact that the Philadelphia Orchestra was not to play this work seems to have been a closely guarded secret. I was as surprised as anyone to discover that talented young people would be performing, not the orchestra I expected to hear.

The Overture was followed by a lively rendition of four sections of the Philadelphia Community Mass, an imaginative work that merges contemporary musical riffs with the classical structure of the Latin mass. This was conducted with grace and fervor by Nolan Williams, Jr., featured an impassioned Philadelphia Community Mass Choir. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more of this Mass and more from Dr. Williams in the greater Philadelphia community, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, the reason most of us attended this Monday night concert was to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the Ninth Symphony of the creative genius Nézet-Séguin rightly called the greatest symphonic composer of all time. And you can also refer to him as the greatest creator of string quartets, piano sonatas, and a few other genres.

One of the charms of hearing the orchestra in an alternative venue was the change in perspective. From where I was sitting (in the green seats under the awning), the performance looked like an animated conversation between Yannick and principal timpanist, Don S. Liuzzi. Both men, wearing white, have a commanding presence and infectious energy. Their powerful gestures reinforced the centrality of percussion to this fiery musical experience, that starts with a throaty murmur in the first movement, percolates in the second (taking every repeat), and rises like a sweet permeating perfume in the third. The fourth movement, of course, is a universe in itself.

The performance of the entrance of the main tune in the fourth movement had to be the softest I’ve ever heard, making the later shouts of jubilation all the more intense. As befits a conductor seasoned in the ways of opera, Nézet-Séguin sculpted the dynamics and drama of the work to bring out maximum contrast and development.

Things that could have been better? A more pronounced articulation of the shocking discord that appears twice in the opening (it was hard to hear over the timpani). I suspect the heat and humidity also weighed heavily on the quartet who sang just before the final chorus.

All in all, however, it was a captivating night. At the conclusion, a shower of glitter and balloons fell on the jubilant audience, followed by fireworks, and I couldn’t help but hope the great Master was looking down from heaven, hearing restored, with a kiss for all the world.

Harvard Square article on Invictus book launch

Here is a link to a fabulous article on the launch of L.L. Holt's Invictus in June 2019:

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Mozart's Requiem, the Velveteen Rabbit, and Recollections on the Moldau

Although it has been stitched together from odd scraps and pieces, like the Velveteen Rabbit, the Mozart Requiem remains one of the most perfect creations of man or God.

We stand in awe before it, as before Bach’s B Minor Mass or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And yet, unlike those mighty works, there is something wounded and vulnerable in the Requiem. It may be because we know something about the deeply personal story behind it: Mozart feverishly trying to outpace the Grim Reaper as he struggled to meet the deadline for a much needed commission, and losing that race.

Then, his assistant Süssmayr rising to the occasion to provide a finished edition two years later. Or did he? The music is nothing like anything the acolyte produced before or since. How much of the work truly was composed by Mozart, how many of those mysterious scraps of paper with notes and instructions contributed to the completion, did Süssmayr really provide anything of substance? And what about discoveries of more scraps and hints in the 1990s, including a complete “Amen” fugue after the “Lacrimosa”?

Ultimately, who cares? Whether we hear the earliest Süssmayr version or the now more widely accepted edition by Robert D. Levin, this is music etched in the DNA of humanity. If you have heard it even once in the past, it has already taken root in who you are. It is as inescapable as eternity.

Sentimental imaginings of composers' deaths 
were popular art subjects in the 19th century

Probably the best performance I ever heard of the Requiem was in Dvorak Hall next to the Vltava River (“the Moldau”) in Prague. The year was 1998; it was the Prague Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, I don’t remember the conductor. The ensemble was small but sonorous, musically rich yet full of that spiritual brokenness that we all share with Mozart on some level. But the Requiem can be heard as a large-scale work as well, and that is what I heard April 12, 2019, as the Philadelphia Orchestra and more than 150 singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir joined forces to produce a much larger sounding Requiem than I am used to, but one with a memorable tale to tell.

Bernard Labadie, a Baroque and Classical specialist, conducted the orchestra, while Joe Miller directed the choir, joined by four distinguished soloists. Michele Losier’s warmly enveloping mezzo voice blended beautifully with the grainy bass-baritone of Neal Davies and the bright tenor of Jeremy Ovenden. But I was singularly impressed by the pure, bell-like tones of soprano Amanda Forsythe. The pristine clarity, the sense of always holding just a little something back made her voice so appealing, so dramatically effective. There was a sensuousness about her voice that at times seemed to reach out for the words rather than simply articulate them. Her expression was sincere, a little pained, but hopeful, yes, unfailingly confident, perhaps redeemed. What a privilege to hear and see her perform so affectingly.

This may actually be the first time I heard the “Amen” that was added 20-some years ago, and it nicely stitched together the conclusion of the Sequentia and the opening of the Offertorium. The orchestra and choir provided a large, heart-stopping sound, sometimes a bit too grand for my taste, and oddly ended on a subdued note in the “Lux Aeterna.” The peroration spins higher and higher in a kind of dust devil of ecstasy, but instead of slamming home that last measure after the dramatic key shift, Labadie seems to hold back the timpani, and pull in the power at his fingertips. The audience’s failure to launch into applause seemed more tied to not being sure this was actually the end, rather than a moment of silent reverence at the completion of a masterpiece. But this is nit-picking; the performance was splendid and the composition itself, gorgeous beyond words.

The program opened with Mozart’s less than stunning Masonic Funeral Music and the popular “little g minor” Symphony No. 25, featured in the film, Amadeus. The concert was held in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., USA.

Last page of Mozart Requiem, original edition,
courtesy of Petrucci Library, IMSLP

Monday, April 8, 2019

First TV Interview with L.L. Holt about "Invictus"

Here is a link to a half hour interview with L.L. Holt, author of Invictus, on Back Story with Joan Goldstein, Princeton TV. The interview is being telecast throughout April 2019. Please copy and paste the vimeo link into a browser if the link is not working.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Romeo & Juliet & Tristan & Isolde

by Linda Holt

I had the great pleasure (April 5, 2019) of hearing the entire Romeo and Juliet ballet of Sergei Prokofiev, in a revelatory performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The sold-out concert took place in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa. This is a rare treat, and I say this as someone who has never cared for the suite distilled from the lengthy ballet score. The suite is a lop-sided synopsis, the complete ballet a universe rich in feeling, a treat for the brain, and dynamically adventurous.

While normally complete ballets work best supporting a dance production, this is not necessarily the case with Romeo and Juliet. The score was bounced around among Soviet dance companies in the 1930s before finding a site for its premier in what was then Czechoslovakia. Prokofiev is an elusive creator, his compositional identity morphing from hard-edged modern to dewy-eyed traditionalist. It’s all tangled in the sounds that Romeo and Juliet make. And yet we hanker for a visual element, some physicality of expression.

To provide this without becoming a ballet where we would do more watching and less listening, the Orchestra turned to another Philadelphia company, JUNK, an edgy dance troupe founded by Brian Sanders that defies easy categorization. Think of it as a marriage of Pilobolus-style dance, Cirque-du-Soleil aerial gymnastics, with shades of performance art.

JUNK performers--the men frequently bare-chested in jeans, the women in fluttering chemises--appear in scarcely a third of the more than 30 thematic sections of this four-act production. This allows the Orchestra to claim center stage, and that it does very well. Nézet-Séguin and the musicians have become comfortable with each other during the seven years of their partnership. There is a depth and maturity to this performance, leaving no doubt that the music itself is center stage no matter how heart-stopping the acrobatics on a small platform behind and above the Orchestra.

Yet it was impossible to look anywhere else whenever the athletic performers, more muscular than many winners of Olympic gold, whirled around poles suspended like trapezes, or, in the case of Julia Higdon as Juliet, climbed a rope suspended from the ceiling with the agility of a South Sea islander. Each set piece was more impressive than the previous. Higdon and her partner, Teddy Fatscher as Romeo, expressed the yearning but also the fulfillment of desire, becoming one body, one spirit, one artistic entity, whether dancing, kneeling in prayer, or awakening after a night of love.

As I inhaled the music and felt my heart lifted by these gifted performing artists, I recalled a performance of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, that I attended last September at the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Philippe Jordan, who is conducting the Ring cycle at the Metropolitan this spring, including last week’s simulcast of Die Walküre, elicited a large, commanding sound, redolent of brine and the sea, from the Orchestre de l'Opéra national de Paris. This is the celebrated Peter Sellars production fusing live opera with cinema, but there is so much more.

In Tristan, the story unfolds as a symbolist, black-and-white film on a large screen behind the singers, Martina Serafin as Isolde and Andreas Schager as Tristan. In the film, two unidentified actors portray the doomed couple. The use of film allowed the singers to focus entirely on music, and also permitted the presentation of something few opera singers would care to incorporate in their performances: full frontal nudity.

Unlike the JUNK production, the lead film performers were not superhuman physical specimens. In fact, their undeveloped bodies and plain features underscored the vulnerability of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary web of desire.

The film began with two figures walking toward us from afar, slowly disrobing, and interacting with various symbolic depictions of water, later candles and fire. Yet the relationship between the two protagonists, whether in film or through some of the most heavenly music ever composed, remains one of tenderness rather than explosive passion, of mature affection, not adolescent intensity. Poison may destroy the body in all its frailty, but love remains eternal, like the rolling sea so eerily omnipresent in Bill Viola’s video artistry.

With both productions, it was clear that the music directors honored and respected the composers’ original intentions even as new visual material was incorporated. This will be key to the success of similar innovations to come.

Photos: Above, Brian Sanders of JUNK (photo by Steve Belkowitz). Below, photo from the Bill Viola video for Tristan und Isolde, Peter Sellars production (photo by Charles Duprat).

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fireworks in the Dead of Winter

by Linda Holt 

January 25, 2019--I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert, with its theme of Death. But the program’s two seldom-performed works belied the gloomy prospect with fiery performances and visceral passion.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra began the program with Leonard Bernstein’s colossal Symphony No. 3, the “Kaddish,” so named for the Jewish prayer for the dead. Bernstein’s centennial may be past, but the renewed awareness of his musical genius lingers on (two biopics about Bernstein, Hollywood’s signal that someone matters, are in early stages of production).

As a composer, Bernstein was not only a master technician and stylist, but he also captured the unrest, consternation, and malaise of the second half of the 20th century in America as no other. It was fitting that his Third Symphony, hard on the heels of the Second subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” should question the very existence of God and shout out humanity’s frustration when confronted by the pain and cruelty of existence.

The Kaddish employed about 100 musicians, as many choir members, a boy choir, soprano soloist (Nadine Sierra) and speaker (Charlotte Blake Alston). From her first powerful words, “I want to say Kaddish,” Alston had the audience in thrall, declaiming Bernstein’s own challenging text throughout a performance of non-stop brilliance by all participants. A celebrated storyteller, Alston can make the hairs on your neck stand on end simply by aspirating the final syllables of “magnified” and “sanctified.”

Philadelphia Orchestra before The Kaddish
Conducting without a baton, Nézet-Séguin seemed to mold and sculpt the musical content of three stirring movements. Bernstein manipulates 12-tone technique to musically describe through discord our experience of heartbreak and anger. He kneads atonal chord progressions into a kind of halo surrounding a return to tonality at the end of the work. It’s an approach that could be too obvious in the hands of a lesser master, but is convincing and moving under Bernstein’s touch.

Wearing a backless red sheath gown, Sierra rose like a flame in her solo passages, which included a lullaby to God delivered with tenderness, lyricism, and deep feeling. Even nearly 60 years after its composition, Bernstein’s own text is unsettling in its taunting cynicism, almost making fun of the Deity by suggesting that humanity can nurse a dying Godhead back to health. While this may seem odd to us today, it reflects the growing Angst, introspection, and egocentrism of the era (early 1960s) in which it was written.

And yet, words won’t change anything. But music can “The dawn is chilly,” states the Speaker near the conclusion of the final movement, “but has come. If I die, You come with me,” she says quietly as the soundscape rises from minor to major and the entire orchestra and choirs together soar into a finale of almost unbearable exultation. Humanity’s questioning and cajoling have served their purpose. In spite of everything, we are left with a notion of splendor and hope.

Gioachino Rossini is best known for his popular light operas (The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, et al.). He took early retirement in his 30s, and while his opera-writing days were over, he did turn his hand to the occasional musical composition, such as the final work on this concert, the Stabat Mater. Sometimes referred to as a hymn, a Stabat Mater is actually a form of its own, a Roman Catholic text set to music and performed as a religious or concert selection. Dating to the 13th century, the Stabat Mater text honors the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. Although not as popular as some other religious narratives, the Stabat Mater has been set by a number of notable composers, including Pergolesi, Vivaldi, and Dvořák.

Rossini’s version, in 10 movements, calls for orchestra, four singers, and choir. Not surprisingly, the work begins with low, melancholy passages in the orchestra and choir, painting in sound a portrait of Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple John at the site of the Crucifixion. In his original version of 1833, Rossini had composed only movements 1 and 5 through 9, adding additional movements a number of years later after one of those complicated legal squabbles that riddle the history of classical music.

It may be the break in time that accounts for the peculiar difference in tone between the first movement and much of what follows. Not only are the second and third movements much lighter, but they have a jaunty lilt that seems to foreshadow some of Verdi’s biggest hits. In a way, encountering these tunes, which could easily have been married to racy lyrics, was as unsettling as hearing Bernstein’s Speaker hurl insults at God. 

The hour-long work is a bit tedious for the first 45 minutes, although musicians and singers performed impeccably. Individually and together, the four soloists crafted a series of beautifully sung solos, duets, and a quartet from the meager material presented to them. But all that changed after the Inflammatus/Day of Judgment (Movement 8). Here, Nézet-Séguin shifted into a higher warp factor at the helm of his own version of the USS Enterprise. Suddenly, we were off, and it was an unforgettable flight. 

Rossini, too, had a few surprises up his sleeve. Who thought he could write such a magnificent fugue as in the final movement, with a cascade of “Amen”s tumbling from the awakened Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under the direction of Joe Miller? Who indeed thought it was possible that Death would have his comeuppance on that dreary winter day?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 (The Kaddish) and Gioachino Rossini's Stabat Mater. Artists: Charlotte Blake Alston, speaker; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano; John Osborn, tenor; Krzysztof Bączyk, bass; Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under Joe Miller; Philadelphia Boys Choir under Jeffrey R. Smith. Jan. 24 and 25, 2019; Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., USA. , 215-893-1999 .

Linda Holt is the author of The Black Spaniard (2016) and Invictus (May 2019) and writes for the Broad Street Review.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Bates channels Borges, DiDonato sings of the sea

by Linda Holt

Is Mason Bates the man who can save serious (aka “classical”) music? And can serious music be fun?

The answer to both questions may be yes to judge by recent performances of the young American composer’s work by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestra brought Bates’s lively score, Alternative Energy, to life last year, with the composer as performer (see review by Linda Holt April 17, 2017, at  

On Nov. 9, 2018, Bates was in the audience, rather than on the stage, for a performance of Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, his tribute to the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges. The concert was held in Verizon Hall of the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., and later repeated in New York City. 

The 11-movement suite gains its inspiration from Borges’s 1957 collection of more than a hundred imaginary beasts. Performances Nov. 8, 9, and 10 are the work’s Philadelphia premier.

Everything about this work is fresh and exciting, starting like a pop of champagne with a sparkling flute (Patrick Williams) and the chatter of unconventional percussion instruments. Something lively is always happening throughout the 30 continuous minutes of this work, its movements named for imaginary creatures such as the Gryphon, Zaratan, and Madrugada.

Bates takes a playful, but democratic approach to highlighting the gifts of the orchestra’s musicians. Instead of always tapping the orchestra’s excellent concertmaster, David Kim, for every violin solo, Bates appears to have chosen violinists at random throughout the orchestra to do the honors. In addition, there is a section in which two solo violinists play off-stage (Julia Li from the first violin section was offstage on the violin side while Amy Oshiro of the second violin section played offstage on the bass side, both deserving to be heard more often in solo capacity), causing audience members to crane their necks to see the source of these disembodied melodies. 

The work captures and engages the listener’s attention throughout with its variety and creative use of instrumentation, such as the silvery Flex-A-Tone, a unique instrument that creates a wave of eerie, saw-like sounds through varied pitches. Yet, traditional classical instruments also were showcased. The light-hearted virtuosity of clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Sam Caviezel in the “Nymphs” section was a delight to hear, while the shimmering tone painting in “Midnight,” with the string section rising and falling like a single glissando, created a mood far distant from the world of tam-tams, ratchets, and hi-hats in other parts of the score. 

The work ended by deliberately collapsing in on itself. Great blocks of sound, chiseled with grinding discords, crashed into an exciting conclusion begging for the inevitable explosion of applause.

My only complaint was the difficulty in figuring out which section was playing at any given moment. Perhaps overhead titles, as used in opera performances, or a full-page in the Playbill, with the movement names in bold, and the approximate times for each, could serve as a real-time guide to this captivating zoological romp.

Sounds of the sea

Joyce DiDonato, one of the most celebrated mezzo-sopranos of our time, appeared after intermission in a performance of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer (Poem of Love and the Sea). The singer wore a strapless teal gown, all a-glitter, which, with her commanding stage presence, gave her the aura of an aquatic goddess or mermaid.

Consisting of two poems for mezzo and orchestra separated by an interlude, Chausson’s work is a midpoint between stormy European tributes to love and the sea. Composed in 1893, it falls between Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859), which it is often compared to, and Debussy’s La Mer (1905), which the orchestra played Oct. 12. My ears are still pleasurably ringing from a performance of Tristan I attended this September with Philippe Jordan conducting the National Opera of Paris and Martina Serafin as Isolde. 

Mason Bates, composer (Photo by Ryan Schude).

Although these other musical depictions of tempestuous seas were remarkable in their own ways, Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation brought out a unique depth of turbulence within the orchestra. This emotional depth and sweeping vision required a singer of tremendous self-confidence, tenacity, and control to rise and fall with the waves of passion, and DiDonato brought these qualities in abundance. If there was one word I could use to describe her performance, it would be “conviction.” Without it, the heart-felt lyrics of Maurice Bouchor would fall flat as a sand dollar. The work contained many instrumental delights, including some incandescent moments by cellist Priscilla Lee.

The work opens with the poem, “Water Flower,” a tender song of loveliness and loss, and after an orchestral interlude, concludes with the mournful “The Death of Love.” DiDonato’s beautiful voice caressed the French text, proving she is not only a shining light on the great opera stages of the world, but an insightful artist even alone, stationary, and virtually immobile.

The concert opened with a lovely rendition of Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, emphasizing some of its whisper-soft passages, and concluded with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, four impressions of flowing water. Philippe Tondre performed brilliantly as guest principal oboe throughout the program, and other memorable soloists, too numerous to mention here, contributed substantively to a satisfying concert with an aquatic theme.