Posts for:  February 2010

Talkin’ Tea

A visual feast, but where's the meat?

A visual feast, but where's the meat?

Last year a friend gave me tickets to Opera Philadelphia’s performances of Fidelio and Gianni Schicchi. I loved both productions. In Fidelio, Beethoven’s sublime music was well-served by Christine Goerke’s tremendous soprano voice, and the story was given a fresh sensibility by Jun Kuneko’s whimsical video set design. In Gianni Schicchi, the cast’s superb comic timing had me laughing when I was not all choked up from the sheer gorgeousness of Puccini’s score.

Convinced, I decided to splurge and, for $100 a ticket, became a Philly Opera subscriber this season.

On Friday my husband and I headed to the Academy of Music for the second show of our series, the East Coast premiere of Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. I’ll admit that the title of the opera sounded a bit static, but I was eager to see and hear the new work, and glad to go on a date with my husband. When we took our seats, we were enchanted by the beautiful stage set on view, an Asian mirror-like gold-leaf screen that formed the backdrop to a platform that gave the impression of a reflecting pool.

As the lights dimmed, an aged hag shuffled downstage with the rest of the cast and began swirling incense. She swirled and swirled, hunched over her bowl, and soon the hall began to smell like a church on a High Holy Day. Why this hag was significant was never made clear, as she delivers no important curse or prediction. However, she provides an interesting visual prop, as do the three young women with slender arms suspended on platforms above the stage, playing rhythms into clear basins of water. Also entertaining are the young women who glide down the center aisles, sliding lighted batons along electronic instruments that look like electric bug zappers.

Tea: A Mirror of Soul is a visually stunning production with fabulous costumes, and an imaginative, sumptuous set. My favorite set piece was the enormous cube with the Taoist symbol on front, that opens up to reveal a staircase and an outsize design of peonies.

The music does not offend or inspire – although there are no memorable vocal lines, Tan Dun makes effective use of rhythm and orchestral color, often evoking Asian-inspired harmonies and instrumentation. But to me the production would benefit from greater emotional plausibility and narrative drive, and a more poetic libretto. It feels less like a drama in music, and more an effective work of visual art, fit more for a museum than for a performing arts hall.

As several women in the ladies’ lounge complained, “But I want to know what’s the significance of the tea?

I agreed. We wanted to be moved by whatever was supposed to be so mysterious and spiritual about tea, or at least enlightened about the subject. Though the visual and auditory effects of the opera are certainly spectacular, we needed to believe the story more to become convinced.

But who am I to complain about Tan Dun’s vision? As my mother would say, “He’s up there, Debbie-ya, and you’re not.”

Sigh. Maybe I’ll go drink a cup of tea.

Making the Connection

Vera Wilson

Vera Wilson

Long ago, if you lived in Paris, and loved art, and were lucky in friends, you might be invited to the salon of a wealthy, discerning patroness, and hear Chopin or Liszt perform their latest works. You would drink champagne and discuss what you’d heard with other art lovers. You would make a personal connection with the artist, and the whole experience would be heady, and marvelous. You would be a fan for life.

Salons flourished in Europe up to the early 1900′s, and provided an ideal outlet for contemporary art, for artists, and for connoisseurs. Nowadays, we learn about new artists in concert halls, on television, radio, U-tube and even in movie theaters. But the salon is not dead! One woman who understands this is Vera Wilson, who founded a remarkable organization called Astral Artists eighteen years ago.

I met Vera recently at a salon given by my friends Charlie and Sue Davidson for the rising young pianist Di Wu. Vera is an elegant visionary who served in the past as assistant to Eugene Ormandy. Once her three children were on their way to independence, she decided to start Astral in order to help young artists find an audience. Her devotion and energy have launched many a world-class career.

“It’s not a competition,” she told me. “Young artists apply and audition, but they need more than sheer talent to be accepted. We present them in concerts at various venues in Philadelphia, from concert halls to hospitals, and in private homes too. But the career consultation is the most important thing we do for them. While we help them, it’s important for them to work with us in developing their careers.”

An Astral artist who has been extremely successful in developing her career is Di Wu, who in the past year has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and given her New York debut recital at Alice Tully Hall. At the Davidson home that evening, evoking a great range of color from their Steinway, she gave a dazzling recital of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann (Davidsbuendler Taenze) and Ravel (Miroirs.) She ended with a thunderous performance of Franz Liszt’s concert paraphrase of Gounod’s Waltz from Faust.

Just as charming were Di’s comments about the works, describing Robert and Clara’s intense love for each other, her noshing and mingling with the audience in the kitchen at intermission, and her restaurant recommendations for a couple who were traveling to New York City the next day.

We were in a Pennsylvania living room that evening, not a Parisian salon of the 19th century, but we made a personal connection with the artist. And that, in any time or language, is what it’s all about.

Pianist Di Wu with Charlie Davidson

Pianist Di Wu with host Charlie Davidson

Portrait of the Musician as a Young Man

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Students often ask me what it takes to enjoy a successful life in music. Well, talent is a must, of course. Beyond that, I think you have to be both 1. single-minded and 2. open-minded.

One young man who possesses all these qualities is Isaac Harlan. Right after graduating from Penn State University with a major in classical piano performance, Isaac won a national search and landed a full-time position as assistant musical director of Penn State’s Musical Theater program, one of the top-ranked such programs in the country.

I caught up with Isaac while he was on tour with the theater program, after a performance at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. With drummer Cory Daniels, Isaac skillfully drove the hour-long show, which ranged from sensitive ballads like “It Might as Well be Spring” to high-powered ensemble dance numbers such as “Michael Jordan’s Ball” from The Full Monty.

A glance at Isaac’s music score revealed sketched-out charts but no detailed notation. “And here’s a 32-bar dance break,” he said, showing me a few bold scribbles on manuscript paper.

Isaac began piano lessons at the age of twelve at home in Mount Lebanon, PA. Twelve is fairly late for a professional artist to begin training, and even then, he was not an enthusiastic practitioner until high school, when he began studying at Duquesne University’s City Music Center, where he learned jazz theory and improvisation from pianist Ron Bickel.

Also crucial at this time was his grandmother’s influence. Grandma gave him a recording of jazz pianist Gene Harris. After one hearing, Isaac said, he became “obsessed.” Suddenly, he was determined to make music his life, and at 18, he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s undergraduate jazz piano program.

When family economics forced Isaac to switch from an out-of-state university to a public one without a jazz major, he immersed himself in classical music, and became grounded in piano technique under the guidance of his Penn State University teacher Stephen Smith. He also worked in the university music library, took organ lessons and harpsichord lessons, and became equally obsessed with the classical record collection of his father Christoph (a business executive and former professional classical guitarist.) Adept and curious about every era of music, Isaac played with the Baroque Ensemble but served as official accompanist of the University Choir and Gospel Choir as well.

When a notice appeared on the music school bulletin board asking for a pianist to play for a production of the PSU Thespians, Isaac showed up. Even though he had never played a show before (this one was Footloose,) his background in jazz improv and his newly solidified classical technique proved indispensable -– especially when the musical director of the show suddenly quit, and Isaac found himself in charge.

Soon he became deluged with requests from vocal students to accompany and coach them. At the end of his senior year, the assistant musical director position at the university became open, and, despite his youth, Isaac decided to apply. I can only imagine the search committee’s five-second conversation: “An application from Isaac Harlan? Chuck the others.”

What’s ahead for Isaac?

Ever open-minded, and not content to drum along in a full-time job with full benefits, Isaac wants to continue to develop as a musician -– either in a top collaborative piano masters degree program, or in the professional music world of the Big Apple. With his talent, single-minded focus and love for music, and his open-minded ability to see and enjoy opportunity, I have no doubt he’ll succeed.