Dusinberre, Katsarelis and Pro Musica premiere concerto by Jeffrey Nytch

Powerfully expressive work, written from the heart, reaching out to hearts

By Peter Alexander April 15 at 12:15 a.m.

A remarkable new work by Jeffrey Nytch, the Violin Concerto: Costa Concordia, has been brought to Colorado audiences by the Colorado Pro Music Chamber Orchestra, conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and violinist Edward Dusinberre.

The official premiere was Friday (April 13) in Denver, with a second performance, which I attended, last night in Boulder (April 14). Both performance and work were assured, polished, and deeply moving.

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Composer Jeffrey Nytch. Courtesy CU photo archive.

Nytch is an associate professor of composition and director of the Entrepreneurship Center for Music at the CU College of Music. He was inspired to write the concerto by the fate of the Hungarian violinist Sandor Feher, who died when the cruise ship Costa Concordia sank in 2012. When the ship collided with the rocky shore, Feher first assisted other passengers, including children, and then went to retrieve his violin. He never came back.

“I heard this story and felt that I had to respond to it in a musical way,” Nytch has said. What he chose to do was to tell the story of the violin, not the violinist. This is a highly original creative decision, one that led Nytch away from the events of Feher’s story, toward the moods the story passes through. The concerto is thus more universal, and more deeply moving.

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Sandor Feher

Looked at in another way, the concerto is programmatic, but not in the usual sense. That is, it does not have a program of events, with music representing the collision or Feher’s descent back into the ship. Instead it has an emotional program, portraying in turn the jollity of the fiddle and its player in good times, the loneliness of their separation, and finally a vision of their reunion in another realm.

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The Costa Concordia sinking (2012)

The result is a powerfully expressive work, because Nytch found effective musical means to convey each step of this emotional journey. And that emotional program, written from the composer’s heart, pulls the listeners in and reaches out to their hearts.

The concerto starts with a deep and foreboding prologue, with a ”churning,” the section title tells us, that could be the ship’s propellers swirling beneath the waves. This is followed by an impassioned cadenza that dramatically invokes the unity of player and instrument. Here Dusinberre became the ideal interpreter, playing with intensity and technical brilliance.

The next section of the work, titled “Dancing, lighthearted,” has hints of Eastern European rhythms and dances that Feher might have played, but without sounding like quotes of folk music or specific Gypsy tunes. The lighter mood gives away to ever more frantic fiddling until a furious climax is reached.

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Edward Dusinberre. Courtesy CU photo archive.

The remainder of the concerto contains the most arresting and original music of the piece. First there is a lengthy passage of utter emptiness, suggesting loneliness yet without despair. Borrowing from Dusinberre’s description, “there’s an extraordinary disembodied quality to it, (as if) the violinist ceases to be there, (leaving only) the sound of the instrument.”

Slow moving, tonal chords used to represent a sweet, consoling ending is one of the most obvious clichés of Western music, and yet Nytch makes them fresh and effective. The sheer beauty of the final section feels like the inevitable outcome of the concerto’s emotional journey. This, I thought, is the story that Nytch had to tell: not the specifics of Feher’s heroism and sacrifice, but a universal yearning for transcendence.

Dusinberre, more often heard as first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, was an inspired interpreter of the concerto. He had mastered the concerto’s many technical demands, playing with a consistency and beauty of tone. He easily soared above the texture, in spite of the sometimes urgent activity of the orchestra. Based on this riveting performance, I would like to hear him more often as a concerto soloist, if only his other far-flung commitments would allow it.

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photo by Glenn Ross.

Katsarelis and the players of Pro Musica gave solid and committed support, ideally matching the composer’s moods. Before Costa Concordia, they gave an assured and well prepared performance of Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. Throughout, the different episodes from which the score is constructed were well characterized, all of the changes of mood clearly delineated.

They did not hold back for the more bumptious sections or the most piercing climaxes, which were well contrasted with moments of near silence. The Divertimento represented a satisfying performance of a piece that Katsarelis and the players obviously enjoy. Sometimes, that’s just what you want.

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Simone Dinnerstein brings performance magic and a new piece to Boulder

Concerto by Philip Glass receives standing ovation at Macky Auditorium

By Peter Alexander

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Simone Dinnerstein. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein brought her deep sensitivity and considerable magic to Macky Auditorium last night, performing a remarkable new piano concerto by Philip Glass with the string sections of the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman.

Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3 was written for Dinnerstein, and her Boulder performance was part of the world premiere tour of the concerto. It is a major work that should achieve considerable success with audiences in the years to come, as it did last night in Macky.

Glass’s characteristic gestures are easily found in the score, but they have been transfigured. His usual pulsing rhythms are more gentle, serving and supporting melody and harmony. The music has an emotional immediacy throughout, and the third movement in particular has moments of seductive beauty. The ending is extended, creating a hypnotic, almost ritualistic quality around lovely bits of melody. The slow unfolding of these final thoughts quietly recalls compelling passages from Glass’s previous works.

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Philip Glass

At 80, Glass is entitled to write with a more valedictory and consoling tone, but there are likely two specific reasons for the nature of this piece. First, it was written for Dinnerstein. When she told Glass how much it fit her playing and her personality, he said “Well, I wrote it for you.” It’s hard to know how her influence manifests itself, but I heard a deep poeticism and introspective lyricism, qualities associated with Dinnerstein’s playing that also mark many moments in the concerto.

The other reason is the influence of J.S. Bach, a composer Dinnerstein is renowned for playing and whose Keyboard Concerto in G minor will be paired with the Glass on the current tour. There are no quotes or direct echoes of that specific piece in the Glass score, but I found it notable that the music is shaped largely by harmonic patterns, as if it were based on a Bach-like chorale, but one that wanders into unpredictable turns and paths.

Dinnerstein had both the notes and the inner life of the piece well under her fingers. Playing with evident love for the concerto, she found depths of expression in the music, including some of the simpler moments technically. Her playing was ably supported by Butterman and the Phil.

Not everyone loves Glass, but for me the performance was deeply moving, revealing both the quiet humanity of the composer and the commitment of the soloist. Standing ovations are de rigueur in Boulder, but this one seemed especially heartfelt.

The rest of the program was musically fascinating—a symphony by C.P.E., son of J.S. Bach, and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) on the fist half, and J.S. Bach’s G minor Concerto preceding the Glass. However, all three works, calling for only strings, suffered the same fate of being swallowed by Macky Auditorium’s unforgiving acoustics. Small ensembles, and strings in particular, invariably sound distant and a little cold in the hall.

The C.P.E. Bach Symphony received a refined performance, with transparent textures, and a smooth transition between the first two movements. But the characteristics of C.P.E. Bach’s mid-18th-century Rococo style, the use of sudden and shocking harmonic jolts and unexpected stops and starts, lost the larger share of its impact in the hall. The more’s the pity: C.P.E. Bach is a fascinating composer who should spice up any program—but only if the effects land with the audience.

Butterman introduced Schoenberg’s piece with a useful listener’s guide to the main ideas of the music, and how they are laid out in the score. One of the great musical/emotional outpourings of the late Romantic musical style, Verklärte Nacht portrays a passionate story of forgiveness and redemption, in which a dark and gloomy forest path is transfigured into a glittering scene of starlit beauty by the power of love.

The audience is meant to be enveloped in the lush harmonies of the score, and indeed I could see that the orchestra was playing with great intensity. Alas, the sound again was swallowed by the hall. It was well conducted and well played by the orchestra, but from Row U, it sounded all too polite and restrained to fit a story of passion.

The performance of J.S. Bach’s G-minor Concerto was a little cotton-woolish in the orchestra when more lean muscle would serve the music better, but likely this is another manifestation of Macky’s acoustics. Dinnerstein played with a clear sense of line and overall form. With a Steinway grand and modern string instruments, this was not a historically-informed performance, but Bach’s music is so ideal in conception that it does not depend on the medium.

All other issues aside, Dinnerstein, Butterman and the Boulder Phil scored a great success with the Glass Concerto. It’s only January, but that should be on any list of the year’s highlights.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra and soloists delight with rare, youthful works

Performances of music by Mendelssohn and Janáček were ‘charming and expressive’

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Nov. 10), Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra gave charming and expressive performances of two little known works: Mendelssohn’s Concerto for piano, violin and strings, written when the composer was 14; and Janáček’s Idyll for Strings, written when the composer was 24.

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Bahman Saless and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Keith Bobo.

Both scores have been eclipsed by greater works that came later in the composers’ careers. But last night’s performances were refined and stylish, making a case for the Concerto and the Idyll.

The program and others this year mark a return to genuine chamber orchestra repertoire for the BCO, after an excursion into the large-symphony realm last year. This is a good decision: the BCO sounded better and more comfortably at home with these two works than ever. It is one the best concerts I have heard them give.

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Zachary Carrettin and Mina Gajic

The soloists for the Mendelssohn, pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin, ripped through their often-virtuosic parts, tossing off Mendelssohn’s adolescent show-off riffs with aplomb. The young Mendelssohn was clearly drawing on classical models for structure and syntax, but he did not hesitate to use more dramatic Romantic gestures for the solo parts.

For example, the Concerto opens with a Mozartian introduction that would not be out of place in the catalog of any Classical composer. The piano then seems to drop in from another planet—call it the world of heroic soloists—entering with stentorian chords and flamboyant arpeggios. Gajić played with complete command, and was matched by Carrettin’s flourishes on the violin.

The mixture of styles is especially evident when Mendelssohn begins to develop his carefully balanced melodies, spinning off into unexpected keys and sudden changes of mood. Writing for himself to perform on piano with his violin teacher, he seems unable to resist showing everything he can do with the material.

Much of the slow movement is a Romanza for the two soloists, which provided some of the best moments. The Finale bounces between light-hearted jollity and stormy outbursts of passion, much as we can imagine the 14-year-old Mendelssohn doing with his own playing. Gajić and Carrettin followed Mendelssohn through every twist and turn, matching one another note-for-note through all the movement’s many scampering scales and runs.

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Bahman Saless: Czech in a former life?

Saless and the BCO came into their own with the Janáček Idyll, a suite of seven movements marked with the sweet melancholy and dance rhythms of Czech folk music. Saless spends part of every year in Prague and has said that he must have been Czech in a previous life.

If so, his performance of the Idyll was clear evidence of his identification with Czech culture. His interpretation was sensitive and deeply expressive throughout. Apart from an occasional muddiness in the lowest parts—likely due more to the venue than the players—the performance was exemplary. Though little known, the Idyll contains music of unexpected beauty.

The performance will be repeated, tonight at 7:30 in Boulder’s Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Both pieces are well worth hearing: the Mendelssohn is a delightful glimpse of a young genius at play, brought delightfully to life, and the Janáček is filled with wistful beauty, played with deep expression.

You can order your tickets here. You won’t be sorry.

“Happy Concert” opens Pro Musica Colorado’s 2017–18 season

Music by Ravel, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Stravinsky performed with energy, enjoyment

By Peter Alexander

The Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra opened their 2017–18 season last night (Oct. 21) with a program conductor Cynthia Katsarelis calls “probably the happiest concert we’ve ever done.”

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Cynthia Katsarelis and Pro Music Colorado Chamber Orchestra (photo from a prior season)

The program featured three ebullient neo-classical works written between the First and Second World Wars. This is music that is ideal for a chamber orchestra of Pro-Musica’s size and quality, and it was performed with obvious energy and enjoyment. Pace Katsarelis, it was not happy throughout, since there were moments of melancholy here and there, but on the whole the program was indeed light in texture and mood.

The opening work, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (“The tomb of Couperin,” a form of musical homage to a deceased composer), is one of the great works for smaller orchestra. Originally composed for piano, it is a set of Baroque dances stylistically descended from the great keyboard suites of Françoise Couperin. Ravel orchestrated four of the original six dances in the years immediately after World War I.

There is a slight sense of melancholy beneath the surface, since every movement is dedicated to the memory of one or more of Ravel’s friends who had died in that terrible war. But the graceful Baroque-style dances are more reflective of cherished memories than mourning, and the music can be enjoyed without knowing the deeper motivation.

From the first moment, the crucial wind parts were crystal clear and well played. The strings were occasionally less distinct, but the sound was warm and lovely to hear. The players were secure and achieved a sense of ensemble under Katsarelis’ direction. The final movement (Rigaudon) was particularly enjoyable, with nice contrast among the different sections.

Ideally, the orchestra should breathe and move together like the two hands of a single pianist. A certain amount of rhythmic expansion and contraction is an essential part of the style. Instead, I found the interpretation a little rigid and too steady of tempo, but never less than enjoyable.

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Guitarist Nicolò Spera

The Concerto No. 1 for Guitar and Orchestra of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, performed by CU music faculty member Nicolò Spera as soloist, was a real highlight. Spera is clearly a master of his instrument who plays with a palpable love and joy in every note. His easy virtuosity made this piece, one of the great concertos for guitar, look easy. He has the ability to take expressive freedom with the music without every losing a strong sense of beat, of meter, and of phrase.

The second movement, described by Katsarelis as a sort of farewell to the composer’s homeland of Tuscany before he had to flee Mussolini’s Italy, is wistful throughout. Probably the least “happy” music on the program, it was eloquently performed by Spera and the orchestra. The finale, marked Ritmico e cavalleresco (“rhythmic and knightly”), was delightful from beginning to end.

Katsarelis and the orchestra provided stylish support for the soloist. Spera’s joy in playing this music was contagious to all, orchestra and audience alike, making this a performance to relish and remember.

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Cynthia Katsarelis

The final piece on the program, Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella, is a good example of why we “play” music. Here there is nothing but happy music, and when performed as it was by Katsarelis and Pro Musica, it is fun for conductor, for players, and for the audience. The performance had great energy and drive.

The score is filled with solo bits for nearly every instrument in the ensemble, some quite showy, all played with evident virtuosity. Concertmaster Stacy Lesartre gave outstanding technical and expressive leadership for the ensemble, and while I hesitate to list individuals for fear of slighting someone, I have to praise string bassist Paul Erhard, another CU faculty member. I have never heard the bass solos played with greater beauty and purity of sound. The entire wind section—flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, trombone—was outstanding.

The only criticism was that the sound was occasionally a little heavy-footed. This may be due to the venue, which is new for Pro Musica: Boulder’s Mountain View Methodist Church. The very high A-frame ceiling may reinforce the longer wave lengths; certainly the bass was well heard all evening. But it was never muddy and the texture was generally clear, which cannot be said of the sound in their prior home, First United Methodist in downtown Boulder.

Mountain View has another great advantage over any of the downtown venues: its own parking lot. This is not a musical issue, but it is an important one. Boulder lacks a decent concert venue with adequate parking, and in particular the crowding in central Boulder on busy weekends may discourage some people from making the effort to go to live performances. I see no downside to using Mountain View: the entryway makes a suitable lobby, the sanctuary is comfortable, the sound is good, and the parking seems like a luxury after all the nights I have cruised downtown neighborhoods looking for an open space.

I hope Pro Musica will make the move permanent.

Edited to correct minor typos 10/22.

Boulder Phil opens their season with an outstanding soloist, great works

Pianist Jon Nakamatsu weds technique and expression for Schumann’s Concerto

By Peter Alexander

Last night (Sept. 24) conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2017–18 season with “The Boulder Phil at 60,” a successful and well balanced program that featured an outstanding soloist, two great works, and a (relatively) new piece that that was co-commissioned with 47 other orchestras around the country.

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Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra

The performance was introduced by Boulder City Council Member Jan Burton reading from a proclamation declaring Boulder Philharmonic Day, congratulating the orchestra for realizing its mission to reflect the Boulder community as well as for its longevity. While the program did not have the Boulder-centric focus of the recent seasons, it was received with enthusiasm.

The concert opened with Dreamtime Ancestors by Christopher Theofanidis. Commissioned by a consortium of orchestras in 48 of the 50 states, including the Boulder Phil for Colorado, it has been played around the country starting with its world premiere in 2015, and has now made its way to Boulder.

Dreamtime Ancestors was supposedly inspired by, and has titles reflecting, Australian Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, but you would be hard pressed to discern that in the music. The highly characteristic and mystical Aboriginal beliefs are reflected in only the most general way; about the best you can say is that Theofanidis tastefully avoids any patronizing faux-exoticism in the music.

Instead, the score is composed in a more-or-less contemporary Western orchestral style, with a discernable profile and structure that makes the music easily accessible. Avoiding any bold gestures, the music holds nothing that would disconcert a contemporary classical-music audience. Played with warmth and firm musicality by the Boulder Philharmonic, it made an unchallenging but agreeable opening for the concert.

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Pianist Jon Nakamatsu

The first of the two great works was Schumann’s familiar Piano Concerto in A minor, played by soloist Jon Nakamatsu. The pianist’s sure technique was used in service of a deeply expressive performance that clearly moved the audience. In a work of many moods, his interpretation was striking for its use of gentle lyricism in the quiet, reflective moments to contrast with the more robust portions of the concerto.

This was especially effective in the slower middle movement, which was played with great beauty and tenderness. In the first movement, however, I found the style of the quieter moments overdrawn. Nakamatsu’s lyricism was lovely, but the tempo sometimes slowed so much that these quieter passages seemed to interrupt the overall momentum and continuity of the movement.

The contrasting moods were better matched in the finale, which danced along convincingly as Nakamatsu met every expressive demand. Butterman and the orchestra provided secure support for his interpretation. A standing ovation from a nearly-full Macky Auditorium brought Nakamatsu back onstage for a lovely and touching encore performance of Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu.

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Michael Butterman

The orchestra came into its own for the other great work, forming the full second half of the concert: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor. Sometimes celebrated as the composer’s greatest symphony, the Seventh is less known, and notably more somber than either the cheerful. folkish Eighth Symphony or the ever-popular Ninth Symphony, famously composed in the New World.

This symphony is a challenge for both conductor and orchestra, requiring stylistic commitment and perception, as well as musical precision and control. Butterman and the Phil met the challenges head on, with a strong conception of the work. The very beginning was a little ragged in pitch and rhythm—a reflection of the musicians having been apart for the summer?—and the orchestral sound was not initially consistent, lacking a solid core.

Happily, the players soon settled in and the performance grew stronger and stronger. Individual moments were musically expressive throughout, and the first movement ended forcefully. The second movement was stylish and well paced. The third movement, titled only “Scherzo,” has an obvious folk-dance quality throughout, a feeling that was well captured by Butterman and the Phil.

The stormy finale was the best movement, with well controlled pacing that reflected the composer’s calculated withholding of a major-key resolution until the very last measures. Individual players shone in their solo passages, including one of the best propulsive punches for a timpanist to be found anywhere in the orchestral world. Once again the audience stood, celebrating Boulder’s fine orchestra, its remarkable 60-year history, and the successful start of a new season.

Santa Fe Opera premieres remarkable, powerful opera about Steve Jobs

‘Total work of art’ from composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell

By Peter Alexander

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Santa Fe Opera; The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered July 22 by the Santa Fe Opera and performed last Friday (Aug. 4), is a remarkable first opera by the composer and electronic DJ Mason Bates.

Equally remarkable are the high-tech and musical resources that the Santa Fe Opera assembled for the production, which is eloquent testimony to the company’s unmatched commitment to new opera. I have no doubt that this work will be high on the list of important premieres in the SFO’s history, both for the quality of the work and for the excellence of its execution.

The opera itself and Santa Fe’s production in particular represent an impressive monument to the marriage of arts and technology. Performances feature an extensive sound design that blends lightly amplified voices, guitar and other naturally produced sound with electronics into an overall sound scheme, and a scenic design using projections on a series of movable screens that seamlessly transport the locale from the Jobs family’s famous garage to the Apple boardroom to Yosemite National Park.

The result is a powerful work that immerses the viewer in an artistic and emotionally charged sensory experience that is in some ways more than a performance. It is a 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art,” Wagner’s term for his own works) and a definitive statement of what can be accomplished in theaters today. And it suggests what might be achieved in the future.

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The real Steve Jobs

One of the most performed composers in the United States today, Bates lives and works at the intersection of art and technology. This made him an ideal choice to write an opera about Steve Jobs, who once said “I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.” It was Bates who suggested Jobs as the subject of his commission from the Santa Fe Opera, which was then completed with librettist Mark Campbell.

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Garrett Sorenson as Woz and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs in the famous garage. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

One problem that Campbell and Bates confronted was the absence of obvious opera-worthy drama in Jobs’s life. Product design and the distribution of corporate stocks are not usually operatic. In a way, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs unfolds as a series of powerful character portrayals, of Jobs himself, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ early girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, the Zen monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, and Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell Jobs.

But Campbell and Bates also found ways to build an effective dramatic arc of rising tension, punctuated with humor and quieter lyrical moments. A single act of 90 minutes is arrayed in 18 scenes plus a prologue and epilogue. Many iconic scenes from Jobs’ life are included: the development of the first Apple, his attraction to Zen Buddhism, his initial denial of his paternity of his daughter Lisa, and others.

Recognizing that Jobs was a showman and his product announcements were very theatrical, Campbell placed the first scene at the greatest of these, the 2007 unveiling of Apple’s transformative “one device,” the iPhone. This pulls the audience in from the first, launching the opera directly into the story of a man we remember and a product that has profoundly touched our lives.

The remaining events are carefully arranged not in chronological order, but in a taut dramatic structure with a powerful emotional climax near the end. Borrowing the Japanese concept of ensō, the hand-drawn circle that represents enlightenment and the minimalist aesthetic that Jobs embraced, the libretto often circles back to earlier scenes, reinforcing the most important events while creating a kind of musical structure.

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Sasha Cooke as Laurene and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs at the opera’s emotional climax. Photo by Ken Howard.

The most dramatic moments—Jobs’s denial of paternity of his daughter Lisa, his brutal abuse of employees and his departure from Apple in 1985—are placed together about two-thirds of the way through. This forms the opera’s climactic scene, and in a perfectly constructed pattern of tension and release, it is immediately followed by a return to 2007 and the opera’s emotional core, when Laurene forces Jobs to face his own mortality.

The opera ends with gestures of symmetry. In the final scene at Jobs’ memorial service, Laurene recalls the first scene and the iPhone launch when she sings “The very second this is over, for better or worse, everyone will reach in their pockets or purses and . . . look at their ‘one device’.” Completing the symmetry, the epilogue briefly recapitulates the prologue, when Paul Jobs gives his young son a work bench as ”a fine place to start.”

Bates expertly combines the acoustic orchestra and electronics, as in his previous works. He creates a different sound world for the different characters: guitar and electronica for Steve Jobs, flute and Tibetan bowls for Kōbun, strings for Laurene Jobs. These are arrayed skillfully, and the build-up of sound in the climactic scenes integrates well with the visual electronics and the rising dramatic arc.

The vocal part are never less than serviceable, and they get better as the opera goes along. The distribution of the voice parts and the strategic placement of songs for the individual singers adds to the characterizations. The songs, or arias if one prefers, emerge comfortably from the musical fabric, and they are all expressive. Jobs’ “Something we play,” Kōbun’s “Take one step,” and Laurene’s passionate “”When will you let in the truth?” stand out in my memory, but there were other equally enjoyable numbers.

Jobs has to carry the opera: he is on stage almost every minute, and the opera largely takes place within his mind. In Edward Parks Santa Fe Opera has a singer who has a solid baritone voice and looks enough like the later Steve Jobs to satisfy audiences who remember him—tall, bearded, balding, and of course wearing a black turtleneck.

Parks’s movements, gestures and poses accurately captured what we remember from Jobs’ photos and public appearances. He was strong enough to dominate scenes vocally and physically when required, but he was able to turn softer at the end. His successful performance was one ingredient the opera could not survive without.

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Jobs (Parks) and Chrisann (Jessica E. Jones) in the apple orchard. Photo by Ken Howard.

As the women in Steve Jobs’s life, Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs and Jessica E. Jones as Chrisann Brennan sang well and were effective character actors. In her several scenes, Cooke found just the right level of dignity, loving compassion, and flirtatiousness when she first meets Steve. Jones was pert and funny when she and Steve took LSD in an apple orchard, and she was even better when she faced Steve Jobs’s final rejection, going from wounded and needy to crushed and defiant

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Jobs (Parks) and Kobun (Wei Wu). Photo by Ken Howard.

Wei Wu, a 2013 University of Colorado graduate whose blossoming career has taken him to major opera companies around the world, sang with a deep resonant bass as Kōbun. In a role filled with both wisdom and wry humor, he captured the changing nuances perfectly. Garrett Sorenson brought a soaring, resonant tenor and some passion at the climactic moments to the relatively small but essential role of Wozniak. Kelly Markgraf as Paul Jobs and Mariya Kaganskaya as a calligraphy teacher made solid contributions.

Michael Christie, well known in Boulder as the music director of the Colorado Music Festival for 13 years, held the ensemble expertly together. There is a lot to manage, and he seemed in control every minute, managing the flow of the complex score and getting the big moments right where they should be. The chorus under the direction of Susanne Sheston sang Bates’s complex music with precision.

The previously praised sound design by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach was expertly done and always well balanced. Opera singers generally hate amplification of voices, but here it is part of an overall electronic concept, and it was subtle enough that I often could not hear that the singers were amplified.

Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s scenic design and the projections from the London and New York-based international firm 59 Productions created an appropriately high-tech feel along with the various sites of the story. It is probably the highest praise to say that the costumes of Paul Carey and direction of Kevin Newbury fit the familiar times so well as to be almost unnoticeable: everything looked exactly right.

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Edward Parks as Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

There are still four performances of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs to come in Santa Fe, including one Aug. 22 that was added to the schedule due to demand and that has the most seats available; click here for ticket information. The last Santa Fe performance is Aug. 25. The opera will later be presented by co-commissioners the Seattle Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

 

Three musical triumphs at the Santa Fe Opera

Productions of Lucia, Alcina and Golden Cockerel offer musical treasures

By Peter Alexander

The Santa Fe Opera 2017 season, which continues through Aug. 26, offers three productions of remarkable musical accomplishment.

The stagings, however, are less consistently successful, ranging from one that is brilliant in conception and execution to another that is bafflingly undramatic. The operas are Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Handel’s Alcina, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s infrequently performed masterpiece, The Golden Cockerel, all of which I saw the week of July 31.

The world premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, performed Aug. 4, will be reviewed separately.

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Soprano Brenda Rae as Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Brenda Rae, singing the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor Aug. 31, gave a virtual master class in bel canto singing. She sang with uncommon control and purity of sound, achieving an unimpeachable evenness of line across all registers and levels of volume. Every note was part of a phrase. The coloratura was thrilling, even at pianissimo.

Agility, lyricism, range, expression—the whole package was present. Her portrayal of Lucia’s descent into madness was particularly effective, making the famous mad scene not a stand-alone show-piece, but as it should be the culmination of Lucia’s dramatic arc.

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Brenda Rae and Mario Chang. Photo by Ken Howard.

Rae was well supported by the rest of a remarkably strong cast. Mario Chang was vocally superb as Edgardo, matching Lucia with a strong, resonant tenor. His arias were deeply expressive and he paired well with Lucia in their duets.

As Lucia’s brother, Enrico Ashton, Zachary Nelson had a strong, weighty and when, necessary, malevolent baritone. The intensity of his increasing demands for Lucia to sacrifice herself for his honor ratcheted the dramatic tension effectively. With voice and presence, he was as villainous as the story requires.

As the chaplain Raimondo, Christian Van Horn’s powerful bass commanded the stage when he announced the discovery of the bridegroom’s lifeless body and Lucia’s madness. His character is ambivalent, first defending Lucia, then advising her to accept her destiny, and he was equally resolute in these changing declarations.

Stephen Martin was effective as the scheming Normanno, as was Carlos Santelli in the small and thankless role of Lucia’s doomed bridegroom. Sarah Coit was everything that is needed for the standard role of the soprano’s confidante.

Corrado Rovaris and the outstanding Santa Fe Opera orchestra provided strong support for the cast. One member of the orchestra deserves extra mention: Friedrich Heinrich Kern played the glass harmonica, a welcome and spooky return to the original orchestration of the mad scene, instead of the more usual flute. Kern, who works and teaches composition in New York, was hired for the summer specifically to play the glass harmonica part in Lucia—an example of the SFO’s uncompromising commitment.

I have less to say about the production, which was minimal to the point of emptiness. Designer Riccardo Hernandez created a high-walled reflective box that is supposed to represent the increasingly cramped realm in which Lucia is caught as her fate closes in on her. The barest minimum of furniture is employed, while lighting projections by Peter Nigrini represented changing locales, from forest to hall.

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Opera in a box: Scene 1 of Santa Fe’s Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard.

This might have impact if everything else was meaningful, but alas it was not. Stage director Ron Daniels often seemed to leave the singers to fend for themselves on an empty stage, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Due to space limitations in the box, the chorus often could do little more than stand in a row and sing.

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Lucia at the “fountain.” Photo by Ken Howard.

Among other infelicities, when a fountain is called for in the second act, what appeared to be a large plastic Petrie dish with a few inches of water rose noisily from below stage. The stairs that Lucia must descend for her mad scene appeared and disappeared for no evident reason. In the final scene, the chorus that reveals Lucia’s death to Edgardo was arrayed in a single curving row far above the stage, looking like judges assembled to condemn the solitary miscreant below. Doors opened and closed noisily, to the detriment of music and drama. Contradicting the force of the musical performance, none of this added up to drama.

But bel canto opera is first of all about the music, and in that regard this was a Lucia to remember.

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The production of Handel’s Alcina (which I saw Aug. 2) is highly entertaining, sometimes distracting, clever, campy, over the top and musically superb. Director David Alden, known for his politically charged, updated interpretations, has placed Alcina in the 1950s.

Clearly the era was a great source of inspiration. In Handel’s original, Ruggiero is the latest sexual slave held captive on a magical island by the sorceress Alcina, whose previous lovers have been changed to wild beasts and stones. In Adlen’s Alcina, Ruggiero has snuck into an abandoned movie theater in order to imagine Alcina as an ideal woman and seductress.

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Elza van den Heever, Jacquelyn Stucker and Anna Christy in Santa Fe’s campy, entertaining Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Without that information, found in the program book, I’m not sure what the audience would make of the production—people in movie-usher uniforms who change into gorilla suits, a brownie flash camera, vaudeville acrobats with animal masks who tumble on and off stage, and at the end, a smaller-than-life model of a perfect little suburban neighborhood symbolizing Ruggiero’s return to sanity.

The clarity of the foundational symbolism aside, the performance was marked by great energy and commitment from all performers. Alden asks a lot of the singers—to sing with a cigarette between clenched teeth, while hopping about the stage, while being lifted and carried by the acrobats, while being wheeled about the stage on a dissecting cart—which the cast undertook with cheerful enthusiasm.

In his day Handel wrote for entertainment, and so it is a form of authenticity to make Handel’s operas entertaining for modern audiences. For this purpose Alden has many wonderful ideas—sometimes too many ideas. At times the constant activity upstages the  singers and subverts the Baroque ideal of placing attention on vocal prowess.

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Daniela Mack as Bradamante in the safe, sane world of ’50s suburbia, at the end of Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Nonetheless, there were moments of great beauty and emotional impact, and it is telling that the greatest of these came when there was only a single singer onstage with no hijinks to upstage the music. And it certainly does not hurt that just about the entire cast sang beautifully, handling the Baroque style with aplomb.

It seems unfair to single out any individual from the strong cast. As the enchanted Ruggiero, Paula Murrihy sang with a clean, clear voice that was meltingly beautiful in her arias. Daniela Mack did a fierce and brilliant rage aria as Bradamante/Ricciardo. As her tutor Melisso, Christian Van Horn sang with a full rich bass and commanding expression.

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Anna Christy romps as Morgana in Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Anna Christy, known to Colorado audiences for her Lucia with Opera Colorado and Baby Doe with Central City Opera, was a bright, saucy and fully engaging Morgana, a role with great comic potential that she grasped with glee. Alek Schrader was her equal as Oronte, conveying in action and voice his changing moods alternately in love with and furious with Morgana.

In the title role, Elza van den Heever was a convincing enchantress, pink glove and all. She sang with careful control, a beautiful pianissimo and long, expressive lines, in spite of occasional discomfort with the Handelian ornamentation.

Harry Bicket, Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor, led a stylish modern-instrument performance. Gideon Davey’s scene and costume design and Beate Vollack’s choreography supported Alden’s interpretation effectively.

Some purists will be uncomfortable with the transformation of Alcina into a semi-modern parable, and the frenetic activity behind some of the scenes. A few sexual suggestions are in questionable taste. But I found it almost entirely a delightful entertainment, first-rate musically and wonderfully provocative.

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If you have only one opera to see in Santa Fe, do not miss Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous fairy-tale opera The Golden Cockerel. Scarcely known in the U.S., the opera was more than redeemed by the SFO’s brilliant production. Director Paul Curran took full advantage of the satirical aspects of the plot, creating a production that is magical, laugh-out-loud funny, and touching.

This is one of Rimsky’s most brilliant scores, full of bright colors and lush orchestration. In spite of the satirical elements, there are moments of serene beauty, as when the buffoonish Tsar Dodon is sleeping. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led an unrushed, luxurious performance by the excellent SFO orchestra and cast. I cannot imagine a better realized, musically beautiful, or satisfying performance than I heard (Aug. 3).

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Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

Equally noteworthy are the ingenious scene design and colorful costumes of Gary McCann. The costumes are spectacularly beautiful recreations of authentic Russian clothing of the early 20th century. The set—a stark reflective metal spiral—was enhanced with inventive projections by Driscoll Otto and the lighting design of Paul Hackenmueller.

The opera is a double satire of the vanity and foolishness of dynastic rulers. It was first a satire of Tsar Nicholas I, known for his endless wars against Russia’s neighbors, in the form of a poem by Pushkin written in 1834. Rimsky took Pushkin’s story and made it into a satire of Nicholas II and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War 71 years later. Unsurprisingly, the Tsarist censors of 1905 forbade performances of The Golden Cockerel. Rimsky refused to make changes, and died 3 years later without ever seeing it performed.

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General Polkan (Kevin Burdette) leads Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) gloriously to battle in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

The cast again is superb. Tim Mix did a great comic turn as the bumbling Tsar Dodon. Not only did he sing strongly, he conveyed Dodon’s pompous self-regard with every step and gesture. His wide-eyed infatuation with the Queen of Shemakha in the second act was comedy gold—and who could forget his mock-heroic exit to battle, backwards on a large hobby horse?

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The Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva) leads the wide-eyed Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) by the beard. Photo by Ken Howard.

The second act belongs to the Queen of Shemakha, 45 minutes of glittering coloratura and high-soprano showmanship. Venera Gimadieva sang with mastery of her part. In her best moments her capricious taunting of Dodon was fearsome, although she occasionally seemed too casual in her demeanor for the flirty, haughty queen.

The other roles large and small were more than capably covered. Barry Banks brought a penetrating tenor voice to the difficult role of the Astrologer who sets the story in motion, singing with impressive control of the daunting heights demanded by the role. Meredith Arwady was a deserving audience favorite as Dodon’s ebullient housekeeper Amelfa. Kasia Borowiec sang brightly in the small, repetitive but critical role of the Cockerel. And certainly not least, Kevin Burdette was wonderful, vocally and dramatically, as General Polkan, Dodon’s unfortunate general whose severed head is handed around at the opera’s climax.

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Meredith Arwady as Amelfa in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard,

Like everything else in the opera, the severed head is only an illusion. In the brief epilogue, the astrologer comes back to life—after being summarily dispatched by Dodon—to assure the audience that only he and the queen are real. Everything else has been conjured—and magically realized on the Santa Fe Opera stage.

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All three operas reviewed here have performances left, ending with Lucia di Lammermoor on Aug. 26. For dates of performances, visit the Santa Fe Opera 2017 calendar. Ticket information and pries can be seen here.