Through December 3, Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting its first-ever production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth 1858 drama Les Troyens. For many Chicago opera lovers, that makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which puts them one up on Berlioz.
As I wrote in my review of the 2014 San Francisco production of Les Troyens, by the time Berlioz died in 1869, only the last three of his five acts had been performed, and then only in a drastically truncated and badly produced version by the Théâtre Lyrique, the Paris Opéra having dithered over it too long. The first full production didn't take place until 1890, and even then it languished for most of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, taking on the reputation of (in the words of Berlioz biographer Ian Kemp) "a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size."
That reputation wasn't entirely undeserved. Running around four hours and 45 minutes in Lyric's slightly trimmed version (a full-length production can run five hours and some change) and requiring a huge cast, massive orchestra, and (at least in the composer's original conception) elaborate stage machinery, Les Troyens requires both pockets and a talent pool of considerable depth.
The Lyric production certainly has that deep talent pool--and a good thing, since this modern dress version comes up short on visual impact. Troy is represented by a massive, semicircular, partly collapsed wall, mounted on a turntable and taking up the entire stage. Carthage is the same wall rebuilt and painted a bland white on the inside. The Trojan horse is literally a shadow of its legendary self, being reduced to a simple gobo that projects the horse's shadow on the ruined wall of Troy. The result is something less than the spectacle that Berlioz had in mind and that I had expected.
The story of Les Troyens begins on the eve of the fall of Troy, as the Greek army has apparently fled the scene, leaving behind only the fabled horse, which despite the dire warnings of Cassandra, the Trojans take into the city. The opera goes on to chronicle the fall of Troy, the suicide of the Trojan women, and Aeneas' tragic affair with the Carthaginian queen Dido. It ends with Dido's suicide and a chorus of vengeance by the Carthaginian people.
Through it all Berlioz (who wrote his own libretto, after Virgil's Aeneid) cannily mixes intimate solos and duets, massive choral scenes, elaborate ballet sequences, and vivid instrumental writing (he was, after all, a master orchestrator) in ways designed to keep the viewer engaged. Even without the visuals, this Troyens gives us the great sweep of historical events and the implacable hand of fate but never lets us lose sight of the intimate human relationships that are at the core of the story.
Heading the cast is mezzo Susan Graham as Dido, a part with which she has become strongly associated. When I saw her in the San Francisco production of Les Troyens two years ago, I wrote that her voice had a full, silky quality that, combined with her tasteful acting, made her character's heartbreak all too real. I see no reason to change that appraisal now.
Matching her in every respect was tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas. Although coping with a cold when we saw him, he displayed no signs of vocal strain. His long love duet with Dido in Act IV was flawless and his acting was never less than credible.
Soprano Christine Goerke was a deeply troubled Cassandra, almost physically incapacitated by the strength of her prophetic visions. The role is written for a mezzo, but Ms. Goerke was vocally powerful even if her lowest notes. Moreover, the migraine-level intensity of her prophecies made it easy to understand why they're deemed unbelievable, even by her doomed lover Chorebus. That role was sung with great authority by baritone Lucas Meachem.
Mezzo Okka von der Damerau brings a self-aware amusement to the role of Dido's sister Anna that made the character very engaging. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who was so imposing as Dido's minister Narbal in San Francisco, reprises the role here with equal effect.
There is a host of other fine performances in smaller roles, including tenors Mingjeie Lei and Jonathan Johnson in the cameo roles of Iopas and Hylas, respectively. Each character has one lyrical spotlight aria, and both singers did very well by them. Bass-baritone Bradley Smoak, a familiar face at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, was properly fearsome as Hector's Ghost.
The chorus has a lot to do in Les Troyens, and Chorus Master Michael Black's singers deserve applause for singing with great clarity and force. Sir Andrew Davis leads a huge orchestra (including a sizeable complement of offstage players) in an authoritative interpretation of Berlioz's wonderfully varied and bracing score.
Ballet plays an important role in Les Troyens as well. The French always loved seeing dances in their operas, but Berlioz uses dance for narrative purposes as well as for sheer spectacle. The "Royal Hunt and Storm" sequence of Act IV is probably the most famous example, with Dido and Aeneas becoming separated from a hunting party during a storm and consummating their lover affair in a sheltered grotto. Unfortunately, director Tim Albery has tossed out everything leading up to that consummation, instead choosing to show (in his words) "multiple Didos and Aeneases living out her dream of a passionate affair with him."
Practically speaking, that involved choreographer Helen Pickett's lithe dancers dashing about in what came close to a parody of an orgy with an impressively three-dimensional forest projected on the wall as scenery. It doesn't match up with the story vividly depicted in Berlioz's music very well.
There's a lot to admire in the Lyric's Troyens, but in the final analysis the decision to make it drably contemporary robbed it, at least for me, of some of the epic sweep of the narrative. For information on upcoming performances, visit the Lyric Opera web site.
Last Saturday, November 12, former music director Leonard Slatkin conducted the St. Louis Symphony in a highly entertaining program of works by American composers. Ironically, given the outcome of our recent election, the evening was a celebration of our nation's diversity, with music informed by African-American and Jewish-American culture, as well as two major works by gay composers: Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto and Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid ballet suite.
Commissioned in 1959 by the piano manufacturer G. Schirmer as a vehicle for John Browning, the Barber concerto is heavily influenced by the big, muscular sound for which the late American pianist was famous. Resplendent in a shimmering turquoise gown, soloist Elizabeth Joy Roe -- a late substitute for the scheduled Olga Kern -- proved to be more than equal to the work's technical challenges, tearing the place up with a display of steely power that belied her diminutive appearance. You could hear that most obviously in her pristine rendering of the fire hose of notes that Barber pours out in the first movement cadenzas, as well as in the rapid-fire virtuoso flourishes of the last movement.
In a review for Classical Source, Colin Anderson called Ms. Roe's recording of the Barber concerto last year with the London Symphony "full of power and crusade and with no shortage of subtlety." I couldn't agree more. Her encore, a Rachmaninoff-esque arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love," was an ideal choice, melding virtuosity to lyricism. This was a very promising local debut for the young Chicago-born pianist. I hope to see more of her here in the future.
Mr. Slatkin and the orchestra haven't played the concerto since 1992, when Mr. Browning was the soloist, but they sounded entirely comfortable with it Saturday night.
The second half of the concert opened with the suite from the 1938 ballet Billy the Kid by our second gay composer, Aaron Copland. Composed to a scenario by Lincoln Kirsten for Ballet Caravan, Billy the Kid was the first of Copland's two "cowboy" ballets (the other one is the popular Rodeo) and the first major work to display the popular "open" sound that would come to characterize his most often-played pieces.
Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO recorded the entire ballet for EMI back in 1985, and it was interesting to compare the two performances. His tempi are more brisk than they were back then, but otherwise the grandeur, drama, and the flashes of droll humor in the score came through with the same clarity. The orchestra sounded great in the many solo and small ensemble moments Copland sprinkles throughout the work, and the percussion section deserves a shout-out for the "Gun Battle" sequence.
The concerts closed with Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture for Orchestra by the noted composer and arranger Robert Russell Bennett. It's a work featuring African-American musical ideas translated for the stage by a Jewish-American composer and then arranged by a native Missourian who would go on to work with some of the biggest names in Broadway and Hollywood -- a quintessential example our nation's rich, multicultural heritage.
Bennett includes pretty much all of the "greatest hits" from Gershwin's original score, although the fact that they're out of sequence can feel a bit disconcerting if you know the opera well. Still, he intelligently expands on Gershwin's orchestrations while still respecting the composer's intent, and Mr. Slatkin conducted the musicians in a smartly turned out performance that did full justice to all of Gershwin's and Bennett's colors.
There was excellent work here by Cally Banham on English horn and Karin Bliznik on offstage trumpet in the opening sequence, and by the four additional sax players in the grand seduction of "There's A Boat that's Leavin' Soon for New York." "It Ain't Necessarily So" had real sinuous ease, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" had true heart and soul, and the finale ("Lord, I'm on My Way") had the same mix of triumph and tragedy as the operatic original. I still love Gershwin's own Catfish Row suite, but Mr. Slatkin and the SLSO musicians made a fine case for the Bennett suite as well.
Mr. Slatkin followed the Gershwin up with an unexpected encore: an American folk music pastiche by his father, Felix Slatkin, titled "Devil's Dream." The original is from the 1962 LP Hoedown! The Fantastic Fiddles of Felix Slatkin that I still remember with fondness (it includes a truly memorable "Orange Blossom Special"). All of the original arrangements have been lost, but Leonard Slatkin's wife, composer Cindy McTee, has been painstakingly reconstructing them from the master recordings. If "Devil's Dream" was any indication, she's doing one hell of a job.
Speaking of Felix Slatkin, the concerts open with Kinah (Hebrew for "elegy") written by Leonard Slatkin and first performed by him last December with the Detroit Symphony, where he is currently Music Director. It's a memorial to his late father, who died at the tragically young age of 47 the day before he and his wife, the cellist Eleanor Aller, were scheduled to perform the Brahms Double Concerto in public for the first time.
Written in a style that is both obviously contemporary and deeply romantic, Kinah struck me, from the very first notes, with a sense of delicate beauty, longing, and loss. The work is based on a four-note motif drawn from the second movement of the Brahms concerto, but that actual passage isn't heard in its original form until the very end, after a vast wall of sound that could have come straight from the pen of Alan Hovhaness. In the ensuing hush, an offstage violin and cello try, but always fail, to complete the phrase, just as the elder Slatkin and Ms. Aller never completed their performance. It was profound and heartbreaking and beautifully done.
In an added personal touch, the offstage cellist was the man who played the part at the work's Detroit premiere, Mr. Slatkin's brother Frederick Zlotkin. The violinist was SLSO Associate Concertmaster Heidi Harris.
Next at Powell Hall: David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus with soloists Caitlin Lynch, soprano; Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Kevin Thompson, bass in Mozart's Requiem and John Adam's On the Transmigration of Souls, along with The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 18-20, at Powell Hall in Grand Center.
In a laudatory review of Han-Na Chang's Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, with the Oslo Philharmonic earlier this year, critic Lars O. Fyldal called her "one of this generation's most exciting conductors." Having heard her interpretation of the Fifth with the St. Louis Symphony this past Friday, November 5, I'm inclined to agree.
Like the symphonies that bracket it, the Fifth deals with the composer's obsession with fate and his attempt to find happiness despite his depression and the stress of being gay in Czarist Russia. It's less structurally coherent than the sixth or (especially) the fourth symphonies, but its triumphant final pages have a power that can't be denied. Under Ms. Chang's baton, this familiar music came to vibrant and electrifying life.
Ms. Chang, who made her SLSO debut this weekend, seems to be particularly fond of the Fifth, having often performed it in the past. She conducted without a score and had clearly internalized the music so thoroughly that she was able to bring out nuances that I hadn't heard before, starting with the opening andante statement of the "fate" motif on the clarinets, played with great sensitivity by Scott Andrews and Tina Ward. Ms. Chang had held the opening downbeat for a moment or two in order for the audience to settle in and become almost completely silent, so the melody began in a slow, reverential hush. When the allegro con anima of the movement kicked in, the marked contrast generated real excitement.
In fact, "real excitement" effectively describes the entire performance. Ms. Chang knows how to build Tchaikovsky's big climaxes effectively, making them feel more inevitable and less episodic than they sometimes do. She also allowed some of the more lyrical moments to really "breathe" -- the second subject of the first movement was a good example -- which heightened the sense of drama overall.
Her second movement, with the famous horn solo gracefully rendered by Thomas Jöstlein, was expertly paced. The third movement waltz was beautifully fluid. And the allegro vivace of the final movement dashed along with exhilarating speed. Tchaikovsky concludes the movement by playing "can you top this" with himself multiple times, but Ms. Chang made each big moment feel both necessary and inexorable. The standing ovation that followed the final chords was immediate and entirely justified.
If you missed her Tchaikovsky Fifth this weekend, by the way, you can catch her complete 2014 performance with the Qatar Philharmonic at the 2014 Proms on YouTube.
The other big piece on the program this past weekend was Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19. The soloist was another newcomer to the Powell Hall stage, the young Czech violinist Jan Mráček. Like Ms. Chang, he also made a very strong impression, with an intelligent and fiercely committed performance of this technically and artistically challenging music.
You could hear that commitment immediately in the gentle, singing tone he brought to the opening of the first movement. Marked sognando (literally "dreaming") it has the soloist playing softly over tremolo strings, and both Mr. Mráček and Ms. Chang gave it a properly haunting feel. The vivacissimo second movement was both fierce and controlled, and the tricky ascending trills at the very end of the piece came off flawlessly. Mr. Mráček threw himself into this music with complete abandon, with very satisfying results.
The concerts opened with brisk and energizing romp through the overture to Mikhail Glinka'a 1842 fairy tale opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. The opera itself hasn't gotten much traction outside of Russia but the overture is one of those pieces that used to crop up often as "filler" on classical LPs -- a function it still serves on classical radio stations today. Its alluring melodies and neat little solo tympani part are irresistible.
Ms. Chang's tempo was snappy and the orchestra's playing was clear and precise all the way through, with Shannon Wood doing the honors on the tympani. Here, as in the rest of the program, Ms. Chang's podium style was fascinating to watch, combining big gestures with precisely executed individual cues and a very neat and eloquent use of the baton.
It's always fascinating to see new performers on the Powell Hall stage and watch how the audience responds to them. If the warm response at Friday night's concert is any indication, we have not seen the last of Ms. Chang here. I certainly look forward to her return.
Next at Powell Hall: Leonard Slatkin conducts the orchestra with piano soloist Olga Kern in Barber's Piano Concerto, Copland's Billy the Kid Suite, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture for Orchestra, and Slatkin's own composition Kinah. Performances are Friday at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m., November 11-13.
Music makes history come alive. The November 6 performance of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis presented three works by composers who all shared common Germanic roots but who collectively portrayed a panorama of the evolution of thought and culture. Once again we see the value of music and the arts as both a reflection and sculptor of humanity.
Throughout his career, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) worked in the service of the nobility and the church. His station did not prevent him from achieving international fame, but his style of composition was influenced by the formal elegance and austerity of the Classical period. Deeply creative, he nevertheless adhered to the rules of systematic composition laid down by the European traditions of harmony and form. His Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat Major for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon was written during his triumphant tour of London in the 1790s. The work is a well-crafted showcase for the contrasting capacities of each instrument. Hearing two woodwind instruments juxtaposed against two string instruments demonstrates the beauty of each family of instruments.
MOSL players Ann Homann, oboe; Donita Bauer, bassoon; Cathie Lehr Ramos, cello; and Marilyn Park Ellington, violin, joined forces as a quartet of soloists. Together, they formed a tight, solid group of able performers. They seemed united in their conceptual approach to phrasing and dynamics, and all displayed well-honed technical command. Once again, the orchestra, led by Music Director Wendy Lea, provided a firm backup without overpowering the quartet.
The Sinfonia Concertante was composed during the period of the French Revolution, whose course and aftermath changed the course of European history forever. Scarcely twenty years later, Ludwig van Beethoven penned his Symphony No. 8 in F Major in 1812. Yet this ebullient work marks an amazing departure from the style of Haydn. The Eighth Symphony shows Beethoven at his jolliest and most uninhibited best; the melodies seem to fly about the hall as they are chased by the instruments of the orchestra. The brass and percussion add constant emphasis and punctuation to the melodic lines. Unlike Haydn, it becomes clear that Beethoven is throwing off the old and declaring his independence. Whereas Haydn employs a formal and stylized elegance, Beethoven builds on the traditional framework of harmony and form to express his own uniqueness. The juxtaposition of these two works is an almost startling illustration of how quickly the tides of history can alter a people and their tastes.
By 1870 the Classical period in music had long given way to the Romantic era, ignited by the fire of Beethoven and characterized by increasing individualism and a willingness to explore new styles. It was then that Richard Wagner composed his Siegfried Idyll, the opening work on this program, for his lover Cosima von Bulow. In marked contrast to the Haydn and Beethoven pieces, it is a meandering work of tremendous inner contemplation, dreamlike in character. The listener feels like a wanderer in a mythic forest created from Wagner's own poetic and fertile imagination. Some have argued that the work is repetitive and perhaps too long, but the melodies are hauntingly beautiful, filled with the sounds of bird calls, wind and running water. Listening to the three works on this program, one can hear a succession from the more impersonal style of the 1700s to the deeply personal style of the 1800s and beyond. Each composition is beautiful and unique in its own way, yet each depicts a different time, viewpoint and way of life.
Conductor Wendy Lea continues her fine work as Music Director of the Metropolitan Orchestra. Over time, listeners have come to see the various sections of the orchestra develop a refined sheen under her guidance and that of Conductor Laureate Allen Carl Larson. The woodwind section stood out in particular with its crystal clear intonation and bright flowing tone. The brass and percussion sections of the orchestra play with a youthful exuberance that occasionally overpowers the other sections, but yet in so doing enriches the excitement and stimulation of the live performance. As the largest section, and the very essence of what defines an orchestra, the strings face a special challenge. Although there were a few intonation problems at the beginning of the program, the MOSL strings have likewise shown an increasing confidence and unity in their performance. Without doubt, audiences will continue to support and clamor for this fine ensemble.
As the St. Louis Symphony concerts this past weekend demonstrated, the familiar can still feel fresh and new, especially in the hands of inventive and skilled performers like conductor Jun Märkl and pianist Jeremy Denk.
The concerts of October 28 and 29 opened with a work which, while probably familiar to many classical music lovers, was nevertheless new to the Powell Hall stage: Liszt's symphonic poem Prometheus. Originally written as the overture for Johann Gottfried Herder's play Prometheus Unbound in 1850 and then reworked five years later as a concise orchestral essay, the piece was inspired by the Greek myth of the god who gave humanity the secret of fire and was horribly punished for it.
For Liszt, it was a story of suffering and glorious redemption -- a theme that runs thorough many of Liszt's baker's dozen of symphonic poems (most famously in Les Preludes from 1854). In Prometheus the struggle plays out in an elaborate fugue, culminating in a short but triumphant coda. It's all a bit episodic, but Mr. Märkl gave it a sense of discipline that was very persuasive. The orchestra responded beautifully. The brass section sounded especially polished when we attended on Saturday night.
Next up was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, the tenth of a set of twelve remarkable concerti the composer premiered in Vienna between 1784 and 1786. It's a work filled with many surprising touches, including a first movement cadenza that anticipates the harmonic developments of the Romantic era and an elegiac adagio second movement that hints at tragic depths without actually plumbing them.
In a 2013 interview for San Francisco Classical Voice, soloist Jeremy Denk observed that "a very important part of playing a Mozart concerto is the wonder of each moment." His impressively nuanced and sensitive performance certainly made the most of the work's many innovative moments while never losing sight of the concerto's structure overall. And like last week's soloist, Orli Shaham, Mr. Denk was always fully engaged with both the both the music and with Mr. Märkl's equally thoughtful interpretation.
His encore, the andante second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, showed that same intense concentration. It's not a technically challenging piece -- Mozart himself described the sonata as being "for beginners" -- but Mr. Denk found real depth in it nevertheless.
The concert concluded with Arnold Schoenberg's remarkable 1937 orchestration of Brahms's 1961 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. Dark, dramatic and arresting in its original form, this music becomes in Schoenberg's radical re-imagining a stunning symphonic essay that sounds both old and new simultaneously.
Schoenberg uses a large orchestra with instruments that Brahms would never have employed, such as the bass clarinet and a sizeable percussion battery including a xylophone, resulting in a somewhat schizophrenic feel at times. The string quartet peeks out of this great mass of sound occasionally -- mostly notably in the final movement subtitled "Rondo alla zingarese" or "Gypsy Rondo," which also included a nice solo by concertmaster David Halen -- but for the most part this is music of Wagnerian intensity. Conducting without a score, Mr. Märkl brought out all of this work's wild variety, including the drama of the first movement, the agitation of the second, and the good-humored excess of the finale.
In an interview in the program book, SLSO bassist Sarah Hogan Kaiser says that Mr. Märkl is a favorite conductor with the musicians because "he has a way of expressing his love of music through his conducting in a very sincere and humble way. Everything he does makes the music better, it's not about anything except the music." I certainly heard that dedication to score Saturday night and the symphony musicians responded with virtuoso performances all the way around.
Next at Powell Hall: Han-Na Chang conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Jan Mráček in Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., November 4 and 5.