When most folks think of cabaret, I expect the image that comes to mind is that of a single performer backed up by a piano, possibly augmented with bass or percussion. That’s certainly the most common arrangement but, as singer (and visual artist) Dionna Raedeke and guitarist Mike Krysl will be demonstrating this Friday, it’s by no means the only one.
A relatively new addition to the St. Louis cabaret scene, Ms. Raedeke has garnered raves for her singing and musical taste. “Dionna is one of my new favorite singers,” says actor, singer and teacher Jason Graae. “Her voice has such a haunting beauty and it comes directly from her soul.” New York-based singer, songwriter and music director Rick Jensen—who accompanied Ms. Raedeke for her 2011 show Sight – Sound—agrees, describing her as a “vocally compelling and consistently original in her performance.”
For her new show, titled Ebb and Flow, Ms. Raedeke has put together an evening in which the sound will be acoustic, the mood mellow, and the song choices rather different from the Great American Songbook standards that are so often associated with cabaret. Expect 70s rock, contemporary singer/songwriters, and even some new tunes. Ms. Raedeke, with a nod to her visual artist side (and with tongue somewhat in cheek), describes the evening as a “carefully curated” one that features “everything from Pink Floyd to PINK.”
Expect arrangements that will make you re-think familiar songs as well. An inventive musician who lists influences as diverse as Robin Trower, Django Reinhardt and Leonard Bernstein, Mike Krysl has often impressed me with both the ingenuity and virtuosity of his inventive and original takes on rock and pop standards. I remember being particularly blown away by what he and singer Shauna Sconce did with some of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at their recently concluded monthly sessions at The Wine Press.
“Mike Krysl’s sound is taut, deep and brilliantly soulful,” says local cabaret artist Katie McGrath. “Dionna’s voice is plaintive, joyous and straight-arrow true. My favorite musician with my favorite singer. And the angels smile.” As someone who has been both a critic and performer on the local cabaret scene for many years and who has had the pleasure of seeing both Ms. Raedeke and Mr. Krysl in action, I heartily concur.
The one and only performance of Ebb and Flow is this Friday, August 9th, at 8 PM at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive at the intersection of Skinker and Wydown. A not-for-profit music venue, performance space and art gallery, The Chapel has played host to a number of cabaret shows over the last few years. It’s an attractive, unconventional space in a quiet residential neighborhood that provides its services free to local musicians as part of its mission to support the arts in St. Louis. I think that’s pretty admirable and worth supporting.
Tickets, which are available at the door and at ebbandflow.brownpapertickets.com (along with some free sample music tracks), are $20 and include two free drinks. Parking is free as well. Come on down Friday and smile with the angels.
The history of pianist Leon Fleisher’s career is one of the great comeback stories in American life.
His genius was apparent as early as age 9, when he became the youngest pupil ever to be taught by the great Artur Schnabel. By age 16 he was appearing with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux. When he signed a deal with Columbia/Epic in 1954 to record every major piano and orchestra work from the standard repertoire with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit of musical history in the making—and he was only in him mid-20s. The recordings he made for the label between 1954 and 1963 are still considered classics.
Then, at the height of Fleisher’s career, disaster struck in the form of focal dystonia of the right hand in 1965. Undaunted, he continued to record and perform, concentrating on works for the left hand alone. There’s more of that than you might think thanks, in part, to the many works written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (older brother of famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), who lost his right hand in World War I.
By the early years of the 21st century, though, Fleisher began to recover the use of his right hand as a result of botox injections and the system of soft tissue manipulation known as Rolfing. In 2004 he made his first two-handed recording in forty years and continues to concertize today. In a review for 88.1 KDHX of his performance of Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand” with the St. Louis Symphony last April, I described his playing as “both powerful and elegant.” “Mr. Fleisher may walk like an octogenarian,” I wrote, “but he doesn’t play like one.”
In recognition of Fleisher’s fifty-five year career, Sony Classical (which now owns the Columbia/Epic library) is issuing a 23-CD set titled “Leon Fleisher: The Complete Album.” It’s scheduled for release on July 16th, in anticipation of Fleisher’s 85th birthday on the 23rd. Fleisher himself will observe his birthday year with a concert tour that will include a performance with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on July 28th.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously claimed that there were “no second acts in American life.” Leon Fleisher is one of the more famous examples of how wrong that assessment can be.
Palm Springs-based cabaret artist Jerome Elliott is making his St. Louis solo cabaret debut this Saturday (June 29) at 8 PM at the Chapel with “My Favorite Springs,” produced by Mariposa Artists. But Mr. Elliott’s relationship with St. Louis goes back several years. He sees St. Louis, in fact, as “the birthplace of my work in cabaret” due to his participation in the St. Louis Cabaret Conference in 2007.
“Prior to the 2007 workshop,” he said in an email interview, “I had done a couple of cabaret shows in Palm Springs, going by instinct only. The first St. Louis year propelled me to dig deeper into the craft and led me to the Yale Conference in 2008. In turn, the Yale Conference made me want to investigate even more, which brought me back to St. Louis in 2009. Since then I’ve created five original shows that I have performed in Palm Springs, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. I would not have accomplished that without the work I did in St. Louis.”
Mr. Elliott also appreciates the vitality of the St. Louis cabaret scene. “I look at the St. Louis cabaret community,” he notes, “as a model for keeping this art form moving forward. As a direct result of the annual workshops, you have created a very supportive and nurturing environment for cabaret. Through social media, I’ve kept up with many of the friends I met during my two visits and I admire how many of you have continued to study and grow. I am amazed at the breadth and frequency of cabaret activity that goes on in St. Louis.” Indeed, he asked Katie McGrath (of Women Under the Influence) to do an opening set for his show here precisely “because she exemplifies what I like to call the Spirit of St. Louis.”
Based on an earlier Palm Springs show, “My Favorite Springs” pays homage both to the season spring and to the famous hot springs of his hometown in the California desert. The eclectic song list spans eight decades and includes works by Noel Coward, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart, Harry Chapin, William Finn, Amanda McBroom, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Marzullo, Mark Campbell and Jerry Herman. There’s even a number (Coachella Valley Blues) with lyrics by Mr. Elliott himself.
Music director and pianist for the show is Jasmine co-founder and Webster University faculty member Carol Schmidt, whose work is frequently scene on local cabaret stages. Carol is also the music director for The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic series at Tavern of Fine Arts
Mixing a rich baritone with a sly wit, Elliott has received accolades for his performances in New York (The Duplex), Los Angeles (M Bar), Seattle (Julia’s and Egan’s), as well as at many cabaret venues in the Palm Springs area. His work in Southern California music and theater has garnered seven nominations for the Desert Theatre League’s annual Desert Star Awards.
Mr. Elliot, though, says he thinks of himself primarily as “an actor who sings” rather than a singer per se. “I’ve learned that one of my natural abilities is story-telling. I like to give myself leeway to improvise within the patter. I love to write patter and a good third of my show consists of talk.”
“My Favorite Springs” bounces on to the stage at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive in Clayton, on Saturday, June 29, at 8 PM. As its name implies, The Chapel is a converted chapel that now serves as both a performing arts venue and a gallery space, which makes for a very friendly and mellow vibe. For more information: brownpapertickets.com; look for event 365191.
|The view from the stage|
If the rest of the League of American Orchestras conference here goes as well as the special St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert they saw tonight did, it will certainly be a week to remember. Maestro David Robertson conducted a very full program (two and one-half hours with intermission) that showed off the orchestra’s versatility: arias and overtures by Mozart and Wagner (with powerful performances by bass-baritone Eric Owens) along with Sibelius’s 7th symphony (which still sounds strikingly original nearly 90 years later) and John Adams’s flashy but (to my ears) rather empty “Doctor Atomic” symphony.
There was heroic work by the brass and percussion in the Adams and fine playing all around. The string sound in the Sibelius was particularly striking.
After a week in Fort Worth for the Cliburn Competition and another week in Boston for the Boston Early Music Festival, it was nice to settle back with the home town band at Powell Hall—even if I am more aware of its acoustic shortcomings as a result of my travels over the last twelve months. It’s still a lovely space and, to quote a Tom Lehrer lyric, “what the hell, it’s home.”
The biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF), which ran June 9 through 16 this year, is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.
The fourth and last day (Sunday, June 16) was a one-concert day for me, but it was a good one: “Angeli, Zingare e Pastore: Symbols and Allegories in Italian Renaissance Music” by The Royal Wind Music, a recorder ensemble created by Paul Leenhouts, the director of early music studies at North Texas University and a professor for recorder and historical development at Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. The program apparently draws from their CD of the same name on the Lindoro label.
|It’s a big family|
Most recorder ensembles I’ve heard have been small—maybe three or four players—and limited to the higher-pitched members of the family. The recorder clan, however, is actually quite a large one, ranging in size from the twelve-inch sopranino to the massive sub-contrabass (over 10’). The thirteen members of The Royal Winds play all of them, producing a sound that is organ-like in its depth and sonority.
The parallel isn’t exact, of course. The Baroque organ had a much more varied sound, with stops that imitated other instruments. As an all-recorder band, The Royal Wind Music produces a wide range of pitches (several octaves worth) but a relatively limited tonal palette. When I think of Renaissance and Baroque wind music, I tend to think in terms of mixed groups like the late Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica or contemporary ensembles like Piffaro that augment the recorders with shawms, sackbuts, crumhorns, and bagpipes. The Royal Wind Music tends to sound a bit monochromatic by comparison.
|Paul LeenhoutsPhoto: Toon Vieijra|
That said, there’s no denying that, taken on its own terms, The Royal Wind Music does itself proud. It’s clearly a virtuoso assembly of versatile players, nearly all of whom appear to be comfortable with multiple members of the recorder family. Whether performing in trios, quartets, or quintets, or as a full ensemble, the sound they produced was uniformly pleasing. Mr. Leenhouts’s arrangements showcased the instruments and players nicely.
The program, while varied and interesting, did not strike me as being structured as effectively as possible. In the first half, for example, four slow, reverential late 16th-century religious works were grouped together in a way that threatened to produce what Peter Schickele (in a radically different context) describes as “a confused slumber.”
The second half of the concert changed things up a bit more, though, with some dance-inspired works by (among others) Orazio Vecchi (1550-1605) and Giovanni Maria Trabaci (ca. 1575-1647). A set of galliards by the latter brought the concert to a lively conclusion, followed by a standing ovation and a full ensemble encore.
Taken as a whole, this was a satisfying way to end my four-day immersion in early music. After being immersed in the 19th and early 20th century piano and orchestra repertoire at the Cliburn Competition the week before, the music of the 16th and 17th centuries made for a pleasant contrast.
Running June 9th through 16th this year, the biennial Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF) is a biennial cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I covered it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA), which had its annual conference this in conjunction with BEMF.
Day two of the festival and conference could have been called a Manic Monday, except that it was Friday. MCANA members had a 10 AM session on Baroque opera in general and the festival’s production of Handel’s “Almira” in particular, followed by lunch, followed by a Q and A session on early music. Both of those sessions were interesting enough to deserve their own blog posts, so I won’t go into detail on them here.
The first concert of my day (at 5 PM) was at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, site of the majority of the BEMF concerts. It featured four members of the Italian ensemble Gli Incogniti (Amadine Beyer, Baroque violin; Baldomero Barciela, viola da gamba; Francesco Romano, theorbo and Baroque guitar; and Anna Fontana, harpsichord and organ) in “Viennoiseries: Austrian Music in the Stylus Fantasticus from the 17th Century.” Stylus Fantasticus, according to program notes by Ms. Beyer, is a compositional approach associated with the Austrian Hapsburg courts of the latter half of the 17th century and is characterized by “a flamboyant and original style not found in other music of the period.” If what I heard at Jordan Hall on Friday was any indication, this is also music that demands considerable virtuosity—which it certainly got from this group.
Ms. Beyer was particularly stunning in von Biber’s “Sonata violino solo representativa,” in which the soloist is called upon to imitate a variety of birds and beats (including Musketeers!) as was Francesco Romano in a Toccata from Johannes Heironymous Kapsberger’s 1640 “Libro Quarto”, but all four members impressed me with their skill. I’m told Ms. Fontana, who worked with a harpsichord stacked on top of an organ console, thereby enabling her to elegantly play both at once, had a terrific solo of her own towards the end of the program. Alas, I missed it, because I had to dash across town to the Cutler Majestic Theater to make the 7 PM curtain of Handel’s “Almira.”
|Almira and ladies in waitingPhoto: classical-scene.com|
“Almira” was the first operatic hit by the 19-year-old Handel, who got the commission to compose it because, essentially, he was in the right place at the right time. The libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking is a preposterous romantic comedy set (more or less) in medieval Spain and revolving around what appears to be a star-crossed romance between the newly crowned Queen Almira (Ulrike Hofbauer) and her secretary Fernando (Colin Balzer). All difficulties are eventually resolved via a ludicrous plot twist worthy of W.S. Gilbert, but not before we’ve had nearly four hours of impressive arias da capo and some lavish set pieces (demanded by the Hamburg audiences), including a Grand Procession of the Continents (Europe, Africa, and Asia; America didn’t count yet).
A four-hour youthful Handel opera might sound like a bit of a slog but in BEMF’s production it was anything but. Director Gilbert Blin and music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs treated both the music and the audience with respect. The production was a scrupulously historic re-creation of the original, complete with forced-perspective sets that looked exactly like the ones I’ve always seen in the history books, period dances, and a historically appropriate acting style that relied on precisely choreographed gestures (hands spread wide to appeal, had extended and finger ranged to admonish/repel, etc.).
And it worked, both as music and drama. Every performer was thoroughly invested in his or her character, each was perfectly cast, and every one sang beautifully.
Ms. Hofbauer and Mr. Balzer were exceptional all the way through. Amanda Forsythe, as Princess Edilia, had what must be the best revenge aria ever in the second act. Jason McStoots got his share of laughs as the comic servant Tabarco. Others in the uniformly fine cast were Christian Immler as the buffoonish Consalvo, Zachary Wilder as his social climber son Osman, Tyler Duncan as the disguised King of Mauretania (who seems to be on board only to make the triple betrothal at the end possible), and Valerie Vinzant as Princess Bellante (ditto).
|Áine Ní Dhroighneáin|
The orchestra, which used instruments appropriate to the period, sounded glorious. The production received a wild ovation and multiple curtain calls. Alas, I had to rush out while they were still going on to make an 11:15 performance of “My Small Dark Rose: Early Irish Songs and Harp Music” at Emmanuel Church a few blocks away.
The titular song and fifteen other traditional Irish songs and instrumentals were performed with consummate style by singer Áine Ní Dhroighneáin and early Irish harper Siobhán Armstrong, although Ms. Ní Dhroighneáin’s singing did not always do justice to the strong emotions in some of the texts—most notably in “Táimse im’ Chodldh” (“I am asleep and don’t waken me”) with its open call for violent rebellion against the English. It was a program of delicate, intimate music—the early Irish harp’s metal strings don’t create a very big sound—that was poorly served by the church’s vast, echoing acoustic. The artists deserved better.
And on that note, I reeled (puns intended) into bed, another day of remarkable music in the offing.
|The Newberry Consort|
It’s been a chilly, soggy day today in Boston, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from swimming their way into the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to hear a pair of sharply contrasting concerts as part of the Boston Early Music Festival (BEMF).
Running June 9th through 16th this year, BEMF is an annual cavalcade of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music featuring top early music performers and ensembles from around the world. I’m covering it along with a raft of other critics from the Music Critics Association of North America, which is also having its annual conference this week.
“Cantigas” is a collection of four hundred and twenty-seven pieces extolling the virtues of (and inventing stories about) Mary. It may or may not have been written by the prolific Alfonso X, King of Castile, León, and Galicia around the middle of the 13th century. Listening to the lyrics, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how much the medieval Mary resembles the goddesses of pre-Christian religions. She demands loyalty from followers, rewards the faithful with magic, and generally carries on like something out of Bullfinch. If, as is often suggested, the cult of Mary was a conscious effort by the early church to co-opt existing goddess cults, it clearly succeeded.
The performances were hypnotic and entertaining. Some of the poems are comical and whimsical in their view of Mary’s miracles, others deeply reverential. English translations of the texts were projected on a screen above and behind the performers, as were scans of the illustrations that accompany the stories in their original manuscripts. Twenty-first century technology helped bring this 13th century music to life.
Next was a program of (mostly) theatre music from the 17th century, performed with great style by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra. Highlights of the program included a suite of dances from Lully ballets (accompanied by dancers executing period choreography) and suites by John Blow and Georg Muffat. The combination of Baroque-era tuning (A=392 Hz instead of 440 as is the case today) and reconstructions of period wind instruments produced a transparent sound with considerable bite. It’s a different from what most of us are used to hearing from a modern orchestra and rather refreshing.
Tomorrow: 17th century Austrian music by Gli Incogniti, a fully-staged production of Handel’s “Almira”, and Medieval Irish music for voice and harp.
|Fort Worth, Texas|
The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now history and I’m winging my way home, using the flight time to record some post-competition thoughts.
First, I want to congratulate the Cliburn organization and the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau for making our delegation from the Music Critics Association of North America feel so welcome and for doing such an impressive job of catering to our every need.
Our Cliburn contact, Maggie Estes, was unfailingly helpful, as were all of the volunteers back in the pressroom. How helpful? Well, on Sunday night, a button popped off my sports coat on the way to the awards ceremony. Not wanting to look like a slob at the black tie reception afterwards, I asked a volunteer if she could locate a sewing kit for me. Within minutes, one of the mangers had located a lady identified as the “backstage mother” who repaired the coat for me in time for the ceremony. That, I think, it going above and beyond the call of duty.
The Cliburn organization also threw one heck of a party for everyone Sunday night at the Worthington Hotel.
CVB’s Jessica Dowdy also threw a great party for us at the Zoo, bought us a first-class dinner at Reata, and gave us a chauffeured tour of the Fort Worth museum and stockyards districts. She even took my wife and I to CVS. I’d heard great things about Fort Worth’s hospitality towards journalists in advance of our trip. Clearly, they were all true.
Fort Worth itself proved to be a fascinating city. Their downtown comes to life after dark with restaurants and bars, and we all felt completely comfortable walking back to our hotel after the concerts. Bass Hall is an excellent concert space, with good sight lines and acoustics, and conveniently located. My wife, the naturalist of our family, also had a great deal of praise for the city’s botanic garden and nature areas.
The Cliburn is a great source of pride to Fort Worth, and understandably so. It brings the world to Texas every four years and is one of the highest-profile piano competitions on the planet. That said, I found myself wondering what impact it and other competitions have had on the larger concert world.
A Cliburn medal, as Joseph Horowitz pointed out in his 1990 book The Ivory Trade, is no guarantee of a concert career. When asked at the Friday symposium whether or not he would offer a concert engagement to the Cliburn gold medalist, for example, Maestro Leonard Slatkin said he would not—but that he might make an offer to “one or two” finalists. Indeed, if you look through the list of prior winners in the Cliburn’s fat press information book, you can’t help noticing that most of them have not achieved particularly high-profile careers, and many left public performance altogether.
To a certain extent, that’s unsurprising. There’s no reason to believe the Cliburn jury is any better at predicting the future than any other group of professionals—including those who make their livings at it (economists, for example). But I think it’s also possible that piano competitions don’t prepare their participants for concertizing so much as they prepare them for entering piano competitions. In much the same way that our public school system seems to be creating generations of professional test takers, piano competitions may be creating generations of professional competitors, many of whom go on to careers teaching the next generation of competitors. It starts to look like a keyboard circle game.
That’s not to say being a Cliburn winner (or finalist, for that matter) isn’t important. It provides international exposure, and the medalists get three years of valuable career guidance. I just can’t help wondering whether or not the concert piano world is better or worse off for the many competitions that take place every year. It’s an unanswerable question, of course, but that doesn’t stop one from asking it.