Michael Christie will conduct world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017

Santa Fe’s 2016 season has also been announced

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Santa Fe Opera (SFO) general director Charles McKay has announced that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a new opera by Mason Bates, will have its world premiere as part of the company’s 2017 season.

The announcement was made Aug. 5 at a press conference in Santa Fe. The opera’s libretto will be by Mark Campbell, who is well known as the librettist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night. The stage director will be Kevin Newberry, and the conductor will be Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera and former music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival. This will be Christie’s Santa Fe Opera debut.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has been commissioned by the SFO, where it will be the company’s 15th world premiere.

Santa Fe's unique opera house

Santa Fe’s unique opera house

Known as an adventurous company, the Santa Fe Opera has attracted both audiences and press from around the world for their world premieres, including this year’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, co-commissioned with Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. (Limited seats are still available for Cold Mountain performances Aug. 17, 22 and 14.)

The company has also recently announced their 2015–16 season, which will not include premieres, but will feature several operas that are not often heard. The operas scheduled for July and August 2016 are Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod; Capriccio by Richard Strauss; Vanessa by Samuel Barber; La Fanciulla del West (The girl of the golden West) by Giacomo Puccini; and Don Giovanni by Mozart. Tickets will be on sale on the SFO Web page in the fall.

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Librettist ark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates's

Librettist Mark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates’s “(R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

Mason Bates is known both as a composer and as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area. His compositions are characterized by the inclusion of electronic effects into orchestral works and other music. His “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud” for chorus with electronic sounds was performed last year by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers and director Thomas Edward Morgan.

For The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Bates said that he will include electronic elements, some based on samples of early computing gear, and acoustic guitar, an instrument that Jobs especially loved. “You will not have heard these sounds before in an opera house,” he said at the press conference.

In a statement on his Web page, Bates wrote “What fascinates me about the story of Steve Jobs is that it exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication—and I think that can make for thrilling opera.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

“Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs—an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how eerily beautiful those sounds can sound when supporting the mystical textures of a low bass voice.

“In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera—which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. . . .

“Because the subject is so well known, we’ve taken a poetic and non-linear approach. Anchoring this imaginative, non-chronological telling are numbers—real musical numbers—and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices, when people are so messy? We’ll travel with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection.”

NOTE: Edited Aug. 16 to include that fact that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be Michael Christie’s debut with the SFO.

Final weekend at CMF includes the sweet and the sour

Composer Hannah Lash is 2016 “Click” Commission winner

By Peter Alexander

The 2015 Colorado Music Festival (CMF) came to a solemn conclusion last night (Aug. 9) with music from Handel’s Ode for St. Cecila’s Day, part of a final weekend that had its ups and downs.

Or as CMF board co-president Jane Hossière said before the final concert, it was a “sweet and sour” occasion.

Composer Hannah Lash

Composer Hannah Lash

Hossière also announced that Hannah Lash, a young composer on the faculty of Yale University, has been selected by the CMF audiences as the winner of the 2016 “Click Commission.” She will receive the commission for a new work to be premiered during the 2016 festival, other works by her will be performed during the summer, and she will be in residence during the festival.

The final Festival Orchestra concert had already been presented Thursday and Friday (Aug. 6 and 7). Music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducted a potpourri of pieces representing the close relationship between America and France. His fellow French-Canadian, pianist Marc-André Hamelin, was the soloist. The program included the very familiar—Gershwin’s American in Paris and the Overture to Bernstein’s Candide; one genuine masterpiece—Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; and the very unfamiliar—George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony and Darius Milhaud’s A Frenchman in New York.

The concert opened with a highly charged, very fast reading of the Candide Overture. It is certainly a tribute to the players that Zeitouni’s tempos were no obstacle to a clean, precise and exhilarating performance. Zeitouni seems to love the low brass, but here I thought a little less tuba would have made a better performance.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

Marc-André Hamelin. Photo by Fran Kaufman.

The real high points of the concert were the performances with Hamelin, particularly the Ravel Concerto. Hamelin is a muscular pianist who can stand up to the full CMF orchestra—with one hand tied behind his back, as it were. The sheer sound he got from the piano was impressive, if a little thick in the lower register. His commitment to the piece and technical command made this a performance to be treasured.

Hamelin and Zeitouni returned to the stage for a programmed “encore,” Antheil’s Jazz Symphony which, in its 1955 version, is small-scale piano showpiece. Antheil described himself as “the bad boy of music,” and based on the Jazz Symphony, he may have misbehaved because of ADHD. He apparently couldn’t keep his mind on any one thought, as the piece jumps from jazzy idea to jazzy idea. All are catchy and fun, though, and the whole ensemble—Zeitouni, Hamelin and the orchestra—negotiated Antheil’s many tempo and mood changes effectively.

Reversing the printed order, Zeitouni started the second half of the concert with Milhaud’s Frenchman in New York, a piece I am sure few in the audience had ever heard. Milhaud has written some jaunty, rhythmically catchy pieces—if you don’t believe me, see Le Bœuf sur le toit—but this is not one of them.

The whole piece is dominated by thick, massed chords that represent the imposing buildings of Manhattan. That may well be what most impressed Milhaud in New York, but it did not lead to great music. I heard none of the bustle and energy and none of the jazz of New York. There is a reason it is so rarely played.

The final work on the program was Gershwin’s American in Paris. The audience loved it—it’s a familiar piece, and it was performed with great energy. The exploitation of the orchestra’s full dynamic range created dramatic contrasts. But on the whole, I found the performance a mixed bag.

Going full out in tempo and giving the brass free reign leads to some exciting moments, but also to occasional passages that are out of balance, or not quite together. So while the excitement was there, the whole was not quite at the level of Zeitouni’s best performances this summer.

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The “sweet and sour” were of course the mixed feelings one has when a happy time comes to an end. With Sunday’s choral-chamber orchestra concert, the CMF said farewell to what has been a fascinating, and largely impressive, first year with a new music director. Zeitouni put a personal stamp on every concert, and achieved some very fine results.

The program, titled “A Royal Finish!”, had vocal, choral and orchestral music by Mozart and Handel. The soloist was soprano Mary Wilson, a last-minute substitute. She performed ably in pieces by both composers, some of which may not be part of her ready repertoire.

It seemed an odd choice to start with Mozart’s tender, late work for chorus, strings and organ, the Ave verum corpus. One of the gentlest and most lovely pieces ever written, it was a very soft start to the proceedings. Here it was little more than a beautiful sigh, so well controlled that it failed to rise even to a modest peak.

Soprano Mary Wilson

Soprano Mary Wilson

Wilson arrived onstage for Mozart’s virtuosic solo cantata for soprano and orchestra, Exsultate, jubilate. Here and in the following Regina Coeli for soprano with chorus and orchestra, Wilson sang with a bright, unforced sound and sparkling technique in the fioratura passages. She sang with great attention to the text and phrasing, but it was all so pretty that it ran the danger of becoming music-box Mozart. I believe there is more drama in Mozart’s music than we heard in these performances, delightful though they were.

As someone who believes that Handel, outside of the unavoidable Messiah and one or two ubiquitous instrumental pieces, is under-performed and under-appreciated, I was delighted to have the splendid coronation anthem Zadok the Priest and portions or the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day on the program. The chorus, so restrained in Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, rang out impressively in Zadok. Their entrance will wake up sleepy listeners as surely as the chords in Haydn’s famous symphony.

This was followed by a fast and noisy performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks—and that is not a criticism. Taking full advantage of an orchestra of modern instruments, Zeitouni led a performance that achieved a greater dynamic range, and a faster tempo, than would be practical on Baroque instruments. This is not particularly “historical,” but it makes a splashy effect, which is what Handel was after in the first place.

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

CMF music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Especially memorable were the rattling drum rolls and the brilliant work of the CMF trumpets. Not as noticeable but equally effective were the horns and woodwinds, adding their weight to music that was, after all, written to be played outdoors.

The concert and season ended with four of the 12 movements (why not more?) of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day. An homage to music, of which St. Cecilia is the patron saint, this was specially chosen by Zeitouni to end the festival. Here all the performers came together: the chorus, impressive in their dynamic control; Wilson, impressive with her brilliant technique; and the orchestra, impressive with their clean sound and sparkling flourishes.

The final movement, “As from the power of sacred lays,” is chorus with soprano celebrating the power of music until “the trumpet shall be heard on high, the dead shall live, the living die, and music shall untune the sky.” It is not a rousing finish, but a more solemn one that offers the audience more a sense of appreciation than excitement as they leave the theater: yet another way that Zeitouni put his own stamp on the festival.

Edited for clarity on Aug. 10, 2015.

Santa Fe audience cheers Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’; additional performance added

Rigoletto and Salome are also part of 2015 summer season

By Peter Alexander

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

The audience stood and cheered when composer Jennifer Higdon came onstage at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) Wednesday night (Aug. 5).

The occasion was the second performance of her new opera Cold Mountain, based on the Charles Frazier novel, which had its premiere at the SFO last Saturday (Aug. 1). The opera is playing to sold-out houses, and has in fact been so successful and generated so much demand that the SFO has added a sixth performance Aug. 24 to the original five planned dates. As of this writing, tickets are still available for that performance.

Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain is a powerful and assured effort from a very skilled composer. Future performances are planned by the Santa Fe Opera’s co-commissioners Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. Based on the reception by the Santa Fe audience, we can expect Cold Mountain to enter the ranks of the most successful American operas.

One of Higdon’s strengths has been the ability to build powerful momentum from rhythmically charged modules and the piling up of brass chords. That skill was particularly evident in the many scenes of threat and violence within the disturbing story of a wounded Confederate deserter’s flight. For the opera, she added to that a remarkable ability to conjure scenes of quiet, comfort and even humor, and to provide gentle, colorful support for the voice in lyrical moments.

The use of orchestral sound, ever varied, to set the mood for the contrasting scenes of the opera is one of the impressive strengths of the score. Treating the instruments as individual voices, Higdon finds a kaleidoscope of different chamber-like combinations to accompany the singers. This points in turn to another virtue: the orchestra almost never overwhelms the voices, and only where the buildup of momentum justifies it. Almost all the vocal solos and small ensembles are accompanied with extreme restraint, making them easily audible and understandable.

Higdon is especially effective in handling the transitions from scene to scene and from one mood to another. Sometimes subtly overlapping the sounds, and even the characters, and sometimes sliding seamlessly into a new musical environment, she keeps the music moving without obvious breaks or pauses.

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The same is true when she introduces the individual “numbers”—arias, duets, and larger ensembles—that simply emerge without any obvious signal. Each number follows its own arc, then merges back into the musical flow. Among moments I found particularly moving are Ruby’s aria telling of her childhood; several duets between the leading characters, Inman and Ada, particularly “Four Novembers come and gone” in the second act; and above all Ada’s “I feel sorry for you,” sung to Ruby’s father, which conjures in a single aria the cumulative meaning of much of the book.

Equally memorable is the use of the chorus throughout, and especially the beautiful, consoling chorus “Buried and forgotten,” recalling the numberless dead of the Civil War.

For all the breadth of Higdon’s expressive palette, one thing is missing: melodies that bloom in the voice and linger in the memory. Soaring song is the reason for opera, after all, and without it the music sometimes does not rise to the lyrical level of the text, and does not reach a convincing emotional climax near the end when Ada and Inman are finally together. The music at this point is not ineffective, but it does not transcend what has gone before, as we feel it should.

Those who know the book will notice several changes, including the omission of several of the book’s many scenes and the creation of composite characters. Opera being an art form of its own, this is unavoidable, but two changes should be noted.

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Teague is introduced from the very beginning, changing him from an unseen threat for much of the story into a familiar menace—none the less evil but more human than in the novel. And Inman and Ada’s connection is strengthened. In the novel, Inman embarks on his odyssey not knowing if Ada will even want him when he returns, whereas in the opera they are both longing to reunite throughout. Doubtless this makes for more lyrical moments and better opera.

On the other hand, fans of the book will happily recognize several lines of dialog that survive directly into the libretto, including Ada saying to Ruby of Inman, “I know I don’t need him. But I think I want him,” and Ruby’s laconic reply, “Well, that’s a whole different thing.”

Robert Brill’s set of slanted and moveable planks may unhappily remind some operagoers of the recent awkward Metropolitan Opera Ring cycle, including the use of projections over the entire stage and even outside onto the proscenium. In this case, however, the set was used effectively to represent the many different locales of the story. Dark areas of the set helped create the mood of menace that dominates the story, with danger often emerging from the shadows, while lighting was used well to direct attention to individual characters. Projections were used with restraint but impressively.

Leonard Foglia’s direction was efficient and clear. In an opera of many scene changes, from place to place and backwards and forwards in time, it is an accomplishment that only once or twice was I briefly wondering where we were.

Ada is the beating heart of the story, and soprano Isabel Leonard was a graceful, poised presence throughout. Her transformation from a sheltered city girl to a competent farm dweller was conveyed by costume and movement, and she sang with conviction and beauty of sound. Her moving performance of “I feel sorry for you” was a highlight.

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Oper

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Her foil, Ruby, was brought to life by the excellent Emily Fons. At first, I thought the character verged on stereotype—clumping around the stage, drawing out her vowels like a country bumpkin—but as the Ada-Ruby relationship developed I liked her performance more and more.

As Inman, the man who abhors violence but finds himself good at it, Nathan Gunn gave a solid performance. He sang expressively and blended well in his duets with Ada, and his characterization was effective. Jay Hunter Morris was a strong-voiced and thoroughly despicable Teague who relished the melodramatic boos at his curtain call.

The remainder of the large cast ranged from very good to superb. I particularly enjoyed Kevin Burdette as Ruby’s father Stobrod, Robert Pomakov as the doomed Owens, and Deborah Nansteel as Lucinda. Each embodied a strongly etched personality that left a mark on the story.

I have mixed feelings about the use of an accent—those drawling vowels and dropped Gs runnin’ though the text. On one hand, it comes perilously close to southern redneck parody; on the other, it helps place the opera in a world apart. To the credit of the cast, they used it pretty consistently and made it work.

The SFO orchestra handled Higdon’s musical demands ably. The chamber-like combinations were beautifully played and well balanced, and the climaxes were powerful. The composer has complimented the players for handling her constant changes—including those made after the first performance, making the performance I saw another premiere of sorts. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya kept it all moving marvelously well and provided support for the singers.

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The night before Cold Mountain I saw Santa Fe’s serviceable and moving, if flawed, Rigoletto.

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

The star of the evening was Georgia Jarman’s Gilda. She sang with a radiant voice, and placed an expressive weight behind the notes that made her the emotional center of the opera. Her exquisite performance of “Caro nome,” Gilda’s signature aria, earned a well deserved and prolonged ovation (in spite of having to compete with an unfortunately noisy stage turntable).

Beyond her vocal strengths, Jarman personified Rigoletto’s young and innocent daughter as well as anyone I have seen. Her physical movement onstage and her interactions with other singers contributed strongly to her portrayal of a delicate girl who finds the strength to die for love.

In the title role Quinn Kelsey sang with great power throughout. At his best, as in the second act, he became a deeply moving figure, portraying Rigoletto’s bitter torment. I thought he was less effective in other scenes, such as his duet with Gilda in the first act, when his performance seemed slack and unmotivated.

Kelsey is a large man, and he was not helped by the costuming, which made him more of a hulking figure onstage than a downtrodden and powerless jester trapped in a dissolute court. His hatred of the Duke was apparent as the opera moved toward its tragic conclusion, but the power differential between them was not always easy to see.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

The Duke of Mantua is not a role with a wide emotional range. Almost the only thing he sings about is love—by which he means lust—that he is “a slave to love,” and famously, the inconstant character of women. As the Duke, Bruce Sledge sang ardently of love, with ringing tones and a pleasing tenor voice.

Others in the cast were all effective. Anne Marie Stanly raised Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, from an easily overlooked background figure to an angry woman whose betrayal of Rigoletto was based in overt contempt. Singing another doomed man, Robert Pomakov put great weight into Monterone’s curse. Peixin Chen as Sparafucile and Nicole Piccolomini as his sister Maddalena filled their roles admirably.

The production seemed unsure of itself. At first, I thought it was set in Verdi’s time, effectively the late nineteenth century. Many of the characters had a Dickensian look. But others could be mistaken for wearing modern clothes—at the end, the Duke appeared to be wearing Dockers and a burgundy work shirt—as if they came dressed for rehearsal.

The direction and costuming made the depravity of the Duke’s court more than clear. The mannered writhings and groping in the first scene were almost comical, and the harlots in hot pants looked out of place, whatever the time period of the opera, except as reminders that the court was a really bad place.

The unit set, mounted on that noisy turntable, was mostly effective, with doorways and stairs and lairs that served all the needs to the plot. On the other hand, I was never clear why Rigoletto sometimes carried a crutch that looked like a borrowed prop from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, and sometimes managed without it.

But all reservations aside, the Santa Fe night worked its magic. Where better to watch the final scenes of Rigoletto than under the stars, with a breeze blowing though the theater?

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I also saw the SFO production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, an opera that has now been done 11 times as part of the company’s advocacy of the composer’s works. Filled with symbolism and saturated with depravity, Salome is an opera that directors cannot resist interpreting for us—and that includes the current stage director Daniel Slater and designer Leslie Travers.

The production begins with an effective coup de theater as a stone wall across the back of the stage opens to reveal a banquet table, as well as the real-life sunset beyond the stage. The audience spontaneously applauded the lovely scene, but things soon began to get murky.

Sal.24 Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The costuming placed the story in Belle Époque France, a believable time for depravity among the powerful. But placed in that period much of the story fails to make sense: the Biblical prophecies; Herod’s fear of the denunciations intoned by Jochanaan (John the Baptist); and claims that the Messiah has appeared. None of this fits late 19th-century France.

But the producers have a specific aim in mind: instead of letting the story stand for itself as Oscar Wilde and Strauss wrote it, they want to show us what it is really “about.” And so Salome is presented as a Freudian family drama played out among Herod, his wife and former sister-in-law Herodias, and his stepdaughter Salome.

This is most obvious in Salome’s dance, which was presented not as a dance but an exploration of the deepest levels of Salome’s psyche. After a few desultory dance steps, she stepped to the side while a series of pictures opened behind her. She was shown as a child, with (apparently) her real father strangled before her by Narraboth, who later (but earlier in the opera) kills himself over his infatuation with the now teenaged princess. After seeing her father killed, the child Salome retreated into a cramped space in the back wall.

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome,’ with child Salome behind. Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Obviously this shows how Salome is trapped by the damage she endured as a child, which is supposed to explain her hatred for her stepfather and her depraved infatuation with Jochanaan. And sure enough, after her bloody orgy with the severed head, instead of being killed—as Herod commands—she goes back to the cringing child and frees her. In other words, John the Baptist’s death serves to rescue Salome from her past.

The point is not that this interpretation is wrong; the point is that the opera contains more than that. There is the religious theme, which, apart from the text, largely disappears in this interpretation, and there is a great deal of action portrayed in the music that does not occur on stage. Strauss did not portray psychoanalysis, he portrayed a dance; he did not portray Salome freed from her demons, he portrayed her death. Substituting psychological explanation for the action of the drama not only discounts the audience’s ability to interpret the drama on its own, it also drains the music of much of its impact.

The musical performance was another matter, and was generally on a high level. The role of Salome is one of the most difficult in the repertoire: she must appear to be a petulant adolescent while singing music worthy of Isolde. Given that difficulty, Alex Penda was generally effective. She played the bored teenager very well, even though her voice was not always strong enough to carry over Strauss’ orchestra.

Nevertheless, Penda carried off the musical climaxes and reached the high notes well. And it should be noted that she was not helped by the direction, which left her far upstage in an enclosed space—Jochanaan’s cell—or singing toward the wings for several of her critical scenes.

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Her scene with Ryan McKinny as Jochanaan, when he keeps rejecting her demented advances, was played with great intensity by both singers. This is the crux of the whole opera: nothing that comes later will work if this is not brought off. In spite of the jarring anachronisms of the production, this was one of the best parts of the performance.

The production turned Jochanaan into what looked like a 19th-century radical, writing revolutionary manifestos in his crumbling study. It’s hard to see how that fits with the text and music that Strauss gave Jochanaan, but that said McKinny sang with the kind of booming certainty the role requires, and was vocally impressive.

Robert Brubaker’s Herod and Michaela Martens’ Herodias were accurately sung, but only intermittently as expressive as the roles require—which I attribute to the fact that in this production they were not acting much of what they were singing. As Narraboth Brian Jagde was memorable, displaying his fatal obsession with Salome with musical and physical intensity.

The most satisfying aspect of the production was the SFO orchestra, which under conductor David Robertson gave a powerful performance of Strauss’ virtuoso score. The full sound was resonant, and all the solos were immaculate. Slater had the demanding score under control from the beginning.

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For tickets and information on the remaining performances in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 season, click here.

Edited for clarity and to correct a minor typo Aug. 8, 2015.

Name of the conductor of Salome was corrected Aug. 10, 2015. David Robertson is the conductor; Daniel Slater is the stage director.

The good and the unfortunate: News of recent visitors to Boulder

Terrence Wilson, Stephen Lias, Time for Three

By Peter Alexander

Recent visitors on the boulder musical scene have been in the news, with stories that range from near-tragic to positive to fascinating. They concern Terrence Wilson, the pianist whose performance of Michael Daugherty’s Deus Ex Machina piano concerto electrified audiences at the Colorado Music Festival just last month; composer Stephen Lias, the world premiere of whose Gates of the Arctic opened the 2014–15 season of the Boulder Philharmonic to great acclaim; and Time for Three, the “classically trained garage band” trio of two violins and bass who have upturned many expectations for classical audiences, at CMF and elsewhere.

Pianist Terrence Wilson suffers great losses in fire

Terrence Wilson (right) with conductor David Danzmayer (l) and composer Michael Daugherty (c) following the performance of

Terrence Wilson (right) with conductor David Danzmayr (l) and composer Michael Daugherty (c) following the performance of Daugherty’s “Deus Ex Machina” at CMF

On July 9 and 10, Terrence Wilson was dazzling CMF audiences with Daugherty’s virtuoso Deus Ex Machina. Barely two weeks later, he lost all of his music and his piano when a fire broke out in his apartment building in Montclair, New Jersey.

According to a report published by TAPinto Montclair, Wilson had left his fourth-floor apartment briefly to get something to eat. “As soon as I turned the corner, I could smell the smoke and see them fighting the fire,” the report quotes him saying. That story continues, “He lived two floors above the second floor apartment where the fire started. When he returned, Wilson said that his entire apartment was in flames.

“Wilson was in tears as he pondered the losses of his prized possessions, including his Grammy memorabilia, music scores and his piano.”

Daugherty sent out an appeal through Facebook: “This past weekend, my friend and pianist Terrence Wilson‘s New Jersey apartment was tragically burned down in a fire. In addition to losing years of musical scores and personal belongings, his grand piano was destroyed. He had no renters insurance. Please consider making any small contribution at the GoFundMe page below to help Terrence rebuild his life.”

If you would like to help Wilson, you may contribute through the GoFundMe page.

Composer Stephen Lias offers a new CD of music inspired by the national parks

Encounters.coverStephen Lias has made a career of writing music about our National Parks. He has secured residencies in several parks, each time creating a new work from the experience. He has combined that experience with his teaching for the last four summers, through the field course “Composing in the Wilderness.”

For the 2015 program, Lias took nine composers into the Denali National Park and Preserve and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska for eight days. At the end of the course, the composers had the opportunity to hear their new works performed at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The past year also saw a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a CD of music by Lias that was inspired by Big Bend, Mesa Verde, Carlsbad Caverns, Yosemite and Denali national parks. The CD was timed to be available for the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service, with the hope that the CD will be sold in national park bookstores around the country.

In the meantime, you can sample the CD or purchase downloads of the five works on Lias’s own Web page. The recording is also available for purchase through Amazon and iTunes.

Time for Three announce a personnel change

Nikki Chooi Tf3

Nikki Chooi (center) with Ranaan Meyer (l) and Nick Kendall (r), the new lineup of Time for Three. June Etta Photography.

Zach De Pue, the co-founding violinist who has been with Time for Three since the trio was founded 15 years ago, has announced that he has decided to focus his time on his position as concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. Over the next year he will leave the group, to be replaced by Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi, winner of the 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition.

The announcement on the Time for Three Web page states: “This has been an incredible new door for us to open, and there is a lot planned as we take steps together towards a new, fulfilling future!!

“Nikki will be appearing on selected dates with Time for Three during the 2015-16 season, fulfilling his schedule of international concert dates while starting to play as a full time member of the band. In coordination with his duties at the Indianapolis Symphony, Zach will intersperse appearances with TF3 throughout and until the end of the same season, helping Ranaan and Nick make the seamless transition. Nikki will take over fully beginning with the 2016-2017 season.”

Chooi has said he is “beyond thrilled” to join the highly successful and fun group. You may read a longer story about the transition in Strad Magazine.

Note: This story was edited Aug. 2, with minor grammatical corrections.

Central City Opera offers unique one-acts, powerful Man of La Mancha

Performances are still available for all works in the 2015 summer season

By Peter Alexander

CCO2015WhiteBackgroundHiResCentral City Opera (CCO) is going on the road with two small-scale, one-act operas that could not be more different.

The comic romp Don Quixote and the Duchess by Baroque composer Joseph Boidin de Boismortier, and the sober religious parable The Prodigal Son by Benjamin Britten supplement two 2015 summer season mainstage productions. Both shows opened in alternative venues in Central City this week, where they will be repeated later this summer.

Don Quixote and the Duchess

 It started with a vacuum sweeper.

Michael Kuhn (Sancho) and James Dornier (Don Quixote). Photography by Amanda Tipton.

Don Quixote and the Duchess: Michael Kuhn (Sancho) and James Dornier (Don Quixote). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The servants of the titular Duchess were sweeping up the “castle” as the last of the audience took their seats in Central City’s Atwill Gilman Studio at the Lanny and Sharon Martin Foundry Rehearsal Center, just up the hill from the historic Opera House. The flat floor and hard-backed chairs do not make this an ideal performance space by any means, but any discomfort was quickly forgotten by most as the audience got into the slapstick spirit of director Kyle Lang’s production—starting with that vacuum sweeper and lasting straight though to the end.

Like most French operas from the Baroque era and well into the 19th century, dance was a large component of the score. The music, if not exactly memorable, is at best delightful, rhythmically engaging and expressive. Conductor Christopher Zemliauskas led a well defined, spirited performance by the chamber orchestra and cast.

Since no virtuosic Baroque ballet moves were called for, the young cast of CCO apprentice artists were equal to the director’s modest dance demands, tending more to fun than artistry. They danced, and sang, and mugged when appropriate, with great pleasure and energy, giving the audience a lot to enjoy. This is not a deep or thoughtful work, but it is fun for everyone: the children I saw in the audience were captivated by the colorful costumes and the antics of the cast.

Members of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program. Photography by Amanda Tipton.

Don Quixote and the Duchess: The ensemble, members of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

If there is a problem, it is in understanding of the text. Good diction and projection is a must, but in that space I only made out about 50% of the words. In general the men, with fewer decorations in their musical lines, fared better than the women at conveying the text.

Everyone sang strongly, but one performer stood out: soprano Maya Kherani as Altisidore, the Duchess, who also appears as “The Queen of Japan” (Baroque opera favored foreign characters and locations, but was not strong on geographical accuracy). Her bright, strong voice and fluid dancing were notable strengths of the production. James Dornier as Don Quixote, Michael Kuhn as Sancho, and Joshua Arky as Merlin, aka the Duke, all made strong impressions.

Finally, it is worth noting how many of the archetypes of 18th-century opera are incorporated into, and made fun of in this short and satirical work. There is a hero on a quest (Don Quixote) with a comic sidekick (Sancho); there is a wizard (Merlin) with a cruel servant (Montesinos); there is a magic garden and magical transformations. Never mind that here these are all delusions or deceptions; they were ripe for satire because they figured so prominently in Baroque operas well known to Boismortier’s audience. Most of those works are little known today, but the same elements can be found in operas throughout the 18th century, including Mozart’s Magic Flute, still one of the most popular works in the repertoire.

Don Quixote and the Duchess will be repeated in Central City at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 1, and performed at noon Aug. 6, in First United Methodist Church in Fort Collins. Tickets are available here.

The Prodigal Son

Audience awaiting entrance to the Central City Opera production of The Prodigal Son. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Audience awaiting entrance to the Central City Opera production of The Prodigal Son. Photo by Peter Alexander.

As far removed as possible from Boismortier’s frothy comedy, Britten’s Prodigal Son opens not with highjinks or noise, but with a procession of monks singing unaccompanied chant. This announces immediately that the subject is serious, and the meaning deeply spiritual. And in spite of the somber subject, I was happy to see that the show was sold out, with a line waiting entrance before the curtain. Three cheers for Benjamin Britten and CCO’s adventurous audience!

The Prodigal Son is one of the three “church parables” that Britten composed in the 1960s that reflected the composer’s interest in both medieval liturgical dramas and Japanese Noh plays. These unfamiliar models and the conceit of having the work performed as a play-within-the-play by an all-male cast of monks combine to distance the work emotionally. In this case, the production by director Ken Cazan creatively sought to bridge the gap by bringing the actors into the audience/congregation throughout the performance. People in my row mimed giving alms to the begging choir members who were extending their empty caps.

The Prodigal Son: Sheldon Miller (Organist), Bille Bruley (Tempter), Matt Moeller (Father), Michael Kuhn (Younger Son). Photo by Kira Horvath.

The Prodigal Son: Sheldon Miller (Organist), Bille Bruley (Tempter), Matt Moeller (Father), Michael Kuhn (Younger Son). Photo by Kira Horvath.

Tenor Bille Bruley bravely took the role of the Tempter, a role composed, like most of Britten’s high tenor roles, for the bright, edgy voice of Peter Pears—and made it his own. His strong, clear voice rang out forcefully, especially when warning of the havoc he would create. Indeed, all four lead singers—Bruley, Matt Moeller, Nicholas Ward and Michael Kuhn—were unintimidated by roles that had been originated by some of the best known English singers of their generation.

In Central City’s lovely St. James Methodist Church—the oldest protestant church still in use in Colorado, built in 1859—the words were clear from all the singers, which added greatly to the impact. Britten takes credit for this as well: his sense of instrumental sound and economic use of his small ensemble—alto flute, trumpet, horn, viola, double bass, harp, organ and percussion—provide both a clean canvas for the singers and an expressive dressing for the text.

All the players executed their parts well, but special mention should be made of the virtuoso trumpet and percussion parts that drive much of the music. Because the score was originally written with free meters and was intended to be performed without conductor—a hugely daunting task in most settings—conductor Zemliauskas had a notable challenge providing more regular meters to keep everyone together. Happily, he succeeded admirably.

The Prodigal Son is to be performed at noon July 30 in the First Christian Church in Colorado Springs, and will be repeated in St. James Church in Central City at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 5. Tickets are available here.

Man of La Mancha

I have already reviewed CCO’s superb La Traviata, the first of the mainstage shows to open, in the pages of Boulder Weekly. The production, with Ellie Dehn’s standout performance at Violetta, runs though Aug. 8, with tickets available here.

Filling out the season is Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s 1965 musical Man of La Mancha. If you only know this evergreen show through the innumerable community and high school productions, you owe it to yourself to make the drive to Central City. The CCO production of director Paul Curran and designer Court Watson recaptures both the gritty immediacy and the anti-establishment convictions of the ‘60s which were so much a part of the original show.

Man of La Mancha: Lucy Schaufer (Aldonza), Andy Berry (Behind in Gray - Carrasco/Duke) and Robert Orth (Don Quixote/Cervantes) with the Ensemble. Photo by Kira Horvath.

Man of La Mancha: Lucy Schaufer (Aldonza), Andy Berry (Behind in Gray – Carrasco/Duke) and Robert Orth (Don Quixote/Cervantes) with the Ensemble. Photo by Kira Horvath.

Consider: the main character, Cervantes/Don Quixote has been imprisoned by the Inquisition for his failure to conform to the established beliefs. He is accused by his fellow prisoners of being an idealist, a bad poet, and an honest man—common enough descriptions of leaders of the ‘60s counterculture. And at one point, a character says “facts are the enemy of truth,” a line that had great meaning during the civil unrest of the Vietnam war years, when “truths” announced by the establishment were often undermined by facts.

The result is a production that does not gloss over the dark sides of the story. The language does not pull many punches, and there is a painfully graphic rape scene in the second act. At the same time, the show, like the ‘60s radicals that survived into the following decades, refuses to give up its idealism and its hopes. The production leaves one with a greater respect for the creative work of Leigh and Darion, and with much to think about as well.

Man of La Mancha opened July 18; the performance I saw is thus about midway in the show’s run, which continues until Aug. 9. Robert Orth, who has been much praised as Cervantes/Don Quixote, was absent due to a family emergency, and his role was taken by an apprentice understudy, Alexander James York, who took the stage with great assurance and gave a strong performance.

The understudy who saves the performance and jumpstarts a career is one of the oldest clichés of theater, but sometimes impossible dreams come true. York was a commanding presence and sang with a lovely lyrical baritone. I expect to hear him back at Central City in future as a full-fledged artist.

Man of La Mancha: Lucy Schaufer (Aldonza), Robert Orth (Don Quixote/Cervantes), Keith Jameson (Sancho Panza). Photo by Kira Horvath.

Man of La Mancha: Lucy Schaufer (Aldonza), Robert Orth (Don Quixote/Cervantes), Keith Jameson (Sancho Panza). Photo by Kira Horvath.

The cast of La Mancha is consistently strong. Keith Jameson is a Sancho Panza who could steal any show with his endearing comic persona. In Lucy Schaufer, Central City has an Aldonza who more than holds up her part in the show. Aldonza is a crucial character—her transformation from angry kitchen slut to a loving presence at the end has to be believable and moving. Schaufer grasped the role with great energy and carried the audience with her.

The depth of the cast was on display in the number “I’m only thinking of him,” performed with appropriate sneering glee by apprentice artists Andy Berry, Michael Kuhn and April Martin (all of whom have roles in the one-acts as well). It is a strength of the production that the words are clear throughout.

Comic impact was also provided by Adelmo Guidarelli as the Innkeeper/Governor, Alex Scheuermann as the barber, and many others in the smaller roles that complete the tapestry. The multi-talented Maya Kherani appeared as the Moorish dancer. Mention must also be made of conductor Adam Turner and the excellent CCO orchestra. Hearing a Broadway musical with a full orchestra of the highest quality in the pit is a delight, and it reveals a depth in the music that is not otherwise apparent.

Tickets for the remaining performances of Man of La Mancha are available here.

NOTE: Updated for grammar and clarity July 30.

Now it’s time for CMF to present “something completely different”

Igudesman and Joo, who grew up watching Monty Python, bring their music comedy to CMF Saturday

By Peter Alexander

Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo. Photo courtesy of Michael Sachsenmaier.

Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo. Photo courtesy of Michael Sachsenmaier.

“We like to have the audacity to attempt to do crazy things.”

Aleksey Igudesman, a Russian-born violinist, is talking about the origin of his music-and-comedy duo with pianist Hyung-ki Joo. “We actually wanted to create a new type of performance which truly embraces music, classical music, but also theater, and comedy, and make a kind of a very special marriage of those three genres,” he says.

In other words, “something completely different”—which makes sense when you know that Igudesman and Joo both grew up watching, and loving, Monty Python.

The music and comedy duo will present their “A Little Nightmare Music” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, in the Chautauqua Auditorium as part of this year’s Colorado Music Festival. Terry Jones, he of Monty Python fame and director of Life of Brian and Month Python’s Meaning of Life, called the show “very musical, very engaging and very funny.” You may purchase tickets here.

The first thing to know about Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo—the individuals apart from the duo of Igudesman and Joo—is that they are superb musicians who have their own careers part from their partnership. They perform as soloists and chamber musicians, and both are composers as well.

Aleksey Igudesman © Julia Wesely

Aleksey Igudesman © Julia Wesely

“I love conducting orchestras, especially my own compositions,” Igudesman explains. “For both of us composition has always been very important. Even in our shows it’s all our arrangements and original compositions, but we write and publish a lot of music outside of the shows as well.

“I’ve also been doing a lot of film music work, whenever I’ve had time. I’ve worked with Hans Zimmer, so that’s always been a fun side thing to do. We worked a lot on the Sherlock Holmes movies together, so all of the fiddling on that was me.”

Professional musicianship is the foundation on which their comedy is built—and make no mistake, they are virtuoso performers. (For example, notice just the quality of playing in this excerpt from one of their shows.) Without the virtuosity, most of their acts would not be possible. Igudesman believes this is one of the things that sets their shows apart from other comedy acts in music—that they are not primarily comedians, but first of all musicians who happen to take comedy seriously, too.

Hyung-ki Joo and Aleksey Igudesman. Photo courtesy of Michael Sachsenmaier.

Hyung-ki Joo and Aleksey Igudesman. Photo courtesy of Michael Sachsenmaier.

“We are an act who do music,” he says. “We are musicians, we’re passionate about music, but we are also passionate about humor. We have been very lucky to have wonderful orchestras invite us to perform with them. (They) have taken us seriously because we are very serious about both music and humor.”

Igudesman, who was born in Russia, and Joo, born in England to Korean parents, met when they were both students at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Their decision to perform a comedy act was inspired first of all by the many different kinds of music they encountered in school.

“We were inspired by many different things,” Igudesman says. “By reading theater, for example: Chekhov and Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde were all full of humor. At the same time we grew up watching Monty Python, we loved Monty Python.

“We were always passionate about classical music, but we were a little estranged about how serious the music business took itself—you know, how serious the whole thing around concerts tended to be. We always found that practically comical, that you’d have all of this passionate music, and people would play and then suddenly between movements nobody says a thing, just a few people cough. Somebody comes on stage, bows, doesn’t say a single word to the public, and then starts playing.”

Igudesman thinks it is a good thing that the worshipful seriousness around classical concerts is starting to change, and that performers talk and interact with audiences more than they did 40 or 50 years ago. “It’s going toward a much better direction,” he says. “In a way, it’s not going forward, because in the 19th century concerts were a lot more fun. (Performers) used to talk to the public, and used to do fun things, funny things between pieces.

“Of course with our shows we take it to the extreme. But we’ve been very lucky, (since) we manage to have a lot of audiences that not only love classical music but also audiences who don’t go to classical music coming to our concerts and then enjoying it and therefore getting into music. That’s a big bonus, I think.”

Igudesman likes to point out that a lot of the classical music they play has its own humor already. “It’s in most works,” he says, adding with a chuckle “maybe a little less so in Brahms’s Requiem.”

Of the music they use in their comedy act, he says, “one has the humor that people understand who know the music, and then there’s the humor that everybody can get. We try to combine that so that nobody is left out, and still to keep all of that on a very high level.

“That mix is very fine, and very difficult to get. That’s why it takes a lot longer than writing a regular piece, because you have to have all of those different levels. And then at the same time we try to make it look like it’s completely spontaneous and we just made it up on the spot, which makes it quite difficult.”

Occasionally, he says, a presenter will ask for a new sketch that might go with a regular concert program being planned a few days after their performance. He generally tells them, “give us year and we’ll see what we can do.”

Because it takes so long to perfect each sketch, he says that they are always working with new material. Even a set show like “A Little Nightmare Music” will have material that is new, or in the process of being fine tuned. “We always do that,” he says. “No two shows are the same. We always try to vary and have fun with them, so the people who come back will always see something new.”

Clearly, just listing a program for “A Little Nightmare Music” would not be helpful—you have to see each show to know what it really is. But if you want a little sample, here is the official preview of “A Little Nightmare Music” on YouTube.