Posts filed under:  Concert and Cultural Reviews

The Breath of Life, Through Lynn Harrell’s Cello

Cellist extraordinaire Lynn Harrell teaching Samuel Walter in a memorable masterclass at Haverford College

Cellist Lynn Harrell plays with such ease, it’s as if the bow he holds in his right hand is a natural extension of his body.  I’ve seen only two or three other artists play with this same degree of relaxed command. In a concert and masterclass he gave last fall at Haverford College, he revealed his secrets to that physical ease, and to his approach to music.

One of the keys to his playing stems from a sense of timing tied to breath. In his playing of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C, he achieved a mixture of sonic plushness and suspense, in phrasing that was completely unpredictable, yet utterly inevitable. Listening to him play Bach is like being in conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with, and they’re about to tell you something fascinating and brand-new. After hearing Lynn Harrell’s Bach, I’ve decided that Bach should always be played with that kind of freedom. In the Debussy Cello Sonata that followed, in which he was admirably joined by the impressive and sensitive pianist Pauline Yang, he achieved a huge array of color and a sense of un-boxed-in release that left his audience enchanted.

Over dinner after the concert, he attributed his sense of breath and timing to his father, the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died when Lynn was only 15, but from whom he still draws inspiration. During a masterclass Lynn gave immediately afterward, he reiterated the importance of breathing, of singing, when playing an instrument, so:

“I knew that man once,” he sang, to demonstrate a phrase from the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, for a student group. “I KNEW that man once,” he said, emphasizing a different part of the sentence — and then, with a sense of resolution: “He was a lovely man.”

Equally important to timing is knowing how to handle sound production.

Forte does not mean loud,” he said. “It means strong. It has nothing to do with volume, but more with a feeling of effort. In fact, piano and forte dynamics are quite close together in volume, but different in texture.

Piano is soft in texture, like the fur muff that Mimi’s friend Musetta brings to her in the final act of La Bohème. ‘O, piano, piano,’ Mimi sings.

Mezzo-piano is a little more muscular. Forte-piano, fp, means a normal volume of communication. Poco forte is Brahms’ invention, and the abbreviation, pf, means full-bodied and singing. When you see pp, pianissimo, don’t play less loud necessarily, play more voluptuously and use more bow.”

“Because of the thickness of the parts in Brahms’ early writing, you have to bring out some voices and back off in others. For instance, when the second viola plays off-beats in the first movement, compact the rosin granules in the bow, play a little more detached and accentuated. It should sound like a burr or a thorn in your side, against the sweet and charming melody.

“And where there is an important melody to be heard, even if it’s marked ‘p‘, the listener needs to hear it — go to it, be a bull in a China shop.

Lynn complimented student Samuel Walter in his performance of the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but had plenty to offer; first, “sculpt out the strings” to give the opening statement more bite and definition, but in the lyrical second theme, “release the pressure, as if you are cuddling or petting a kitten. In virtuoso passages, be pointed rhythmically, and use an intense and faster vibrato, with feeling.

“The climax of the concerto comes on the big diminished chord — but then, be like Alfred Hitchock — don’t let ‘em go, don’t let ‘em go — then wait for a BIG silence, which makes the orchestra respond more ferociously.”

In considering Samuel’s precise nature, Lynn suggested, “Don’t be cool, calm and collected. Don’t ritardando too evenly. Have a huge variety of vibrato speeds. Be a bass singer. Then be a soprano. A singer has to manipulate his or her vocal cords for ever single note.”

In the Kodály Duo that Samuel and fellow student Dora von Trentini (violin) played, Lynn suggested, “Make it more ferocious. Feel the rhythm like a dancer, and draw back for your punch.”

Lynn gave general practice suggestions: to achieve stamina for extended big passages, “Be in that ff realm when you practice. Practice again and again and again. Change your bow grip to accommodate different tones you want. Think about thumb placement, and how far your forearm is from the hair of the bow. Sometimes more relaxed fingers on the bow is not the way to go — for instance, when you want precision in Bach.”

The secret to his playing with utter physical ease? He relaxes the upper arm, forearm, and uses the muscles of his back as if he’s playing tug-of-war. “It’s tricky sometimes because there are not as many nerve endings in the large muscle groups. It makes a difference where the energy is coming from. Have the ideal of strength, with freedom from any constriction.”

The secret to his freedom of expression? His understanding that “music represents every emotion in life, even when we’re murderously angry.”

The secret to making everything sound unpredictable and new, as if you’re having a conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with? “In repeated performances of a piece, if I do a passage successfully, I have to let it go. I have to make it fresh each time, and original.”

Lynn Harrell, American original, does just that. And we listeners can’t help but fall in love.









First Lady of Soul

Bettye LaVette and her band at World Cafe Live in the city that finally loves her, Philadelphia

On a frigid January day in 2009,  my siblings and their kids traveled from around the country to meet in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s historic first Inaugural Celebration. The only hotel we could find was several miles away from the furthest D.C. Metro stop, way out in Virginia, but part of the magic of the day was boarding the empty train and being joined by an accumulating mass of bundled-up, happy people at each station, until finally we were part of a peace-able, joyous throng of 400,000 strong at the Washington Mall, waiting to hear a concert.

As a musician, I was skeptical that sound could be transmitted in any sort of acceptable way from Jumbotrons placed around the grounds. But the concert was great. Among the star-studded line-up (Herbie, Stevie, Beyoncé, Renée Fleming) the one performer who embodied power, intensity, and burn-in-your-brain “remember this” was the one performer I had never heard of. Bettye LaVette was that unique.

So when I heard she was coming to our genre-busting Philadelphia venue World Café Live, Tom and I got tickets right away for her show last week. We waited in anticipation while her band of young guys (Darryl Pierce, drums, James Simonson, bass, Brett Lucas, guitar) vamped for her entrance. Her keyboard player and music director Alan Hill intoned, “Please welcome the First Lady of Soul — Ms. Bettye Lavette,” and Ms. LaVette, almost 70, wisp-thin and petite, strode onstage in 3-inch heels and a sleeveless black jumpsuit.

She’s been singing, for long periods unnoticed, since the early 1960′s, when she came out with her first hit single, “My Man –He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She explained that the suggestive song wasn’t what the mainstream expected from a 16-year-old, especially not Dick Clark, who didn’t book her. “Oh, I wanted to be on American Bandstand in the worst way. All my friends were going on, but they were doing things like –” and she demonstrated a teenybopper, cutesy kick.

Ms. LaVette is anti-cutesy, anti-sweet, anti-fake. There is no sugar-coating or lying to herself or anyone else in song or word. For the show, she sang all the tracks from her new CD “Worthy.” “This is what I do — I go on the road when a new CD comes out — not that there have been that many,” she added with customary candor and a smile.

Her smart, bitter take on tunes by Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable”) and the Stones (“Complicated”) rendered their provenance unrecognizable by the audience, when she quizzed us on who we thought had written them. “C’mon, white people!” she chastised us.

Yet, she was gracious too, thanking her musicians and the sound engineers at World Cafe Live for their excellent, perfectly mic’ed acoustic.

For over an hour, Bettye LaVette stabbed us with raw, unfiltered emotion — what she delivers is not just singing, but cajoling, growling, pleading, moaning, crying. Her show culminated in a heart-wrenching rendition of her hit “Let Me Down Easy.” Rarely have I witnessed such bare vulnerability — onstage or off.  I’ll remember it forever, and tell my students today and in the future — that’s the kind of caring you aim for. For now, Bettye LaVette is certainly “worthy” of her title “First Lady of Soul.”


A Happy Revelation, A Prejudice Overcome

Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg, a once-in-a-lifetime production from the Metropolitan Opera


As someone who’s transfixed by great live singing, I’m moved by the magic that occurs when one is in the physical presence of a wonderful singer, whether in a concert hall, opera house, church, or home. I like to be in the same room as the singer; I like to have my eardrums vibrate in close proximity as they hit their high notes. As such, I’ve never gotten excited by the prospect of seeing opera broadcast in HD in a movie theater. But sometimes logistics prevail. If I wanted to hear James Levine conduct his favorite opera, one that is infrequently performed, without trekking to New York during a hectic season, I would have to trek instead to the movie theater near the mall, and settle for what I thought would be a somewhat second-rate experience.

And so it came to pass that two Saturdays before Christmas, I made my way to our nearest multiplex to see the simulcast of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg from the Metropolitan Opera House. At the ticket booth of the King of Prussia Regal Movie Theaters (a much less glamorous venue than the Met,) there was a lone attendant working at a very relaxed tempo, waiting on a growing line of patrons who were anxious to see “Interstellar.” By the time I paid for my $20 ticket and hurried into “the opera,” Wagner’s majestic overture had begun. Onscreen, the orchestra musicians played intently while I groped in the dark for an empty seat. (Later, when the houselights came up at the first intermission, I realized that I and another gentleman and his large picnic lunch, which included fragrant oranges and some kind of sausage, were occupying the short row that was meant to accommodate a patron with a wheelchair.)

One striking fact about every production of Die Meistersinger is its running time: six hours. I reasoned, it being such a hectic season, that I ought to leave at one of the intermissions; I had music of my own to learn, and a holiday to-do list as long as Denali. But the opera riveted me. James Levine’s conducting was perfectly paced and alive, drawing performances from his singers and instrumentalists that were both rich and transparent. The singers were blessed with magnificent voices, yes, but they also inhabited their roles in a way that made you believe these were real people up there, ones you would like to get to know. Annette Dasch was not only an honest and intelligent Eva, but a mischievous one. Johannes Martin Kraenzle played Beckmesser not only with despicable pomposity, but with lovesick vulnerability.

What made six hours fly by was not the superb music-making, the comic acting, the sonic and visual feast — it was all these things in the service of the human story, in revealing these multifaceted characters’ lives and desires through art.  During the surprise ending of the last act, the brilliant Michael Volle, as the hero cobbler/poet Hans Sachs, sang his final aria, “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.” Sachs makes an impassioned argument, in song, about fighting to uphold the standards of art, music and literature to keep the dark forces of the world at bay. On hearing this, I cried like a baby, just as if I were there, at the opera, in person.

I realize now that the act of broadcasting this incredible production to a truly wide audience is an art form in its own right. I stand humbly corrected. So I say — if you have a chance to see a great opera production live —  of course, that’s the best of all worlds — go. But if the movie theater better fits your time frame and budget — go! You may cry like a baby, just as if you were there in person.

Happy New Year!

How To Succeed in Classical Music: Part II: Sharon Isbin

Guitarist Sharon Isbin in the 2014 Festival Opening Concert for Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society

Even though I’d heard of guitarist Sharon Isbin for years, mainly because of my guitar aficionado husband’s CD collection, I did not hear her live until a few weeks ago. No doubt because of those album covers, I assumed that she was flashy, but maybe not so deep. I was surprised, therefore, when attending the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society’s festival opening concert, to see a diminutive, serious woman with ramrod straight posture take the stage. She was wearing a plain outfit and flat shoes. Her hair was definitely not salon blow-dried. She held her guitar horizontally when acknowledging the audience, in the European manner. Regal, yes, flashy, no.

There are many parallels between solo guitar playing and solo piano playing. Both instruments can go it alone without need for an accompanist, as both instruments are able to supply the essential elements of music on their own: melody, harmony, rhythm. And although many performers are getting away from the practice, solo guitarists and pianists traditionally perform from memory, which ramps up concert preparation time ten-fold. Sharon Isbin played her entire lengthy program from memory.

Her phrasing, tone color and structural interpretation were interesting from start to finish, in repertoire that ranged from Albeniz and Britten to contemporary work written for her. At the end of her program, the audience immediately rose as one, understanding that we had heard a masterful concert from a performer in total control of her instrument.

At the next morning’s masterclass, she sat onstage beside each student, intently observing. Often, the masterclass format can be a platform for a famous teacher to hold court, to enjoy the limelight, to draw attention and entertain. This was not the case with Ms.Isbin. Her comments were practical and serious. She explained the details of her approach to right hand and left hand fingering as it applied to each piece. She gave advice on how to memorize (away from the instrument, mentally, sitting in a chiar, at slow speed, then up to tempo.) How to avoid injury by using correct grip and hand position.

She said, “A lot of this is explained in my Classical Guitar Answer Book. I still have 4 copies with me. They are twenty dollars each. Raise your hand if you want one, and you can pay me after class.”

Many more than 4 hands shot up around the room.

This little interlude spoke volumes. Besides talent, hard work, and sharp intelligence, this is what created Isbin’s international career. This is what caused the Juilliard School many years ago to create a guitar department with her at the helm. This is what convinces famous rock musicians to collaborate with her, and what inspires composers to write new work for her. Whatever else is in play, Isbin is always looking for new ways to express herself, to teach, to perform, to be noticed in a major arena. She takes herself seriously and she does not apologize for it.

What a message this is for women, for aspiring artists, for any musician who wants to make his or her mark in this world.

How To Succeed in Classical Music — Three Women Show How: Part I: Kristin Lee



Violinist and generous young visionary, Kristin Lee

My friend Charlie recently asked the head of the Curtis Institute how he’s advising their incredibly gifted students about the job market for classical music, which, as everyone knows, is a thinning slice of a shrinking pie.

Roberto Diaz’ answer:  ”We tell our graduates they need to be entrepreneurial and creative. They need to take charge of their own careers.”

In the short span of 3 evenings, Tom and I have witnessed three women classical musicians who are doing just that. My series of posts about these remarkable evenings will begin with the youngest artist, whose work is magnanimous and daring in spirit.

Four years ago, I first heard Kristin Lee in several concerts for Astral Artists. She played virtuosic violin works from the concert repertoire with brilliance and heart, and a gutsy, rich sound. A little while later, I heard her play some rhythmically tricky contemporary recital music that was equally impressive for her precise and seamless collaborative work with two different pianists.

Later, we both appeared in a promotional film for Astral; I was a talking head, while Kristin was shown in several scenes, one in which she wears headphones in a recording booth, playing the crossover music for the film.

So I was curious to hear what she would do for LiveConnections at World Cafe, the performance space/bar/restaurant of WXPN at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two years, Kristin had raised the money to a.) commission five composers to write new work for her and b.) pay fellow musicians to premier these works with her onstage.

The bistro space in the basement of World Cafe is spacious, with a balcony and a main floor filled with long, communal tables. Waiters pad around bringing food and drink to patrons who wait in semi-darkness for the show to begin. The non-traditional, open atmosphere increased the audience’s anticipation for something new, and for who-knew-what?

Kristin put together a program (what she called a “Playlist”) that could not have been more global or colorful. It began with Patrick Castillo sitting beside her, speaking the words, “Last night I dreamed I was in Paris…” Kristin began to play over computer sound loops he’d created, that repeated along with his recorded and live speaking voice, in overlapping layers. This was followed by Kristin and percussionist John Hadfield accompanying Shobana Raghavan’s haunting, clear South Indian Carnatic singing.

Jason Vieaux*, renowned classical guitarist, joined Kristin in Vivan Fung’s “Twist,” in which they both mimicked the sounds of classical Chinese instruments.

Most unbelievable was the virtuosic steelpan work of Ian Rosenbaum, who played Andy Akiho’s “Deciduous” (we learned later in the Q and A that Ian, a percussionist, learned the piece AND the instrument in the past month.)

Most novel, hard-to-describe, and entertaining? Jakub Ciupinski, who “played” the theramin, not as an instrument for a horror movie soundtrack, but as an input device for the computer-generated sounds he’d created. Jakub’s flowing hair and hand motions, as he took visual cues from Kristin, displayed an arresting and energetic choreography.

Most beautiful moment? For me, this was a piece from the traditional repertoire. Kristin performed Camille Saint Saens’ “Fantaisie,” Opus 124, with Bridget Kibbey*, a harpist of astounding musicality and freedom, who can imbue a seemingly simple chord progression with urgency and meaning.

In keeping with the “breaking down barriers” nature of the evening, LiveConnections’ classical curator Mary Wheelock Javian led a Q and A with the audience. After answering a question from a concerned lady who wanted to know how much her promising 15 year-old nephew ought to be practicing (“he’s not going to want to hear this, but four to five hours a day,”) Kristin answered the question “Why this project?”

She talked about being trained in the classical tradition, which she loves. She talked about  being introduced to indie rock by an enthusiastic young relative. She talked about wanting to change the mindset that divides audiences into camps: contemporary music in one camp, traditional classical music in another. She wanted to bring divided audiences together.

“It’s all music, right?” she said. “And there’s nothing better than music.”

The joy and generosity she’s brought to this project shows that she’s succeeded.  I know we will see and hear many more cutting-edge collaborative projects from Kristin in years to come.


*Jason Vieaux and Bridget Kibbey are both Astral Artists alumni.


Vermeer’s Secret

Tim Jenison, an inventor obsessed

Like the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the paintings of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) still capture us, centuries after they were created. Witness this past holiday’s phenomenon of lines of people in their heavy winter coats, snaking down Fifth Avenue, patiently waiting to see The Girl With the Pearl Earring at the Frick Collection, on loan from the Maritshuis in the Netherlands.

Hundreds of thousands of other people devoured The Girl With the Pearl Earring the novel, and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue the novel. You know a painter has literary caché when he makes it as a lead character onto the contemporary fiction best-seller list.

Now an Iowan/Texan inventor named Tim Jenison proves that even scientists succumb. Jenison, who founded the highly successful 3D video company NewTek, became so obsessed with Vermeer he worked relentlessly for eight years to re-create a work of Vermeer’s in a most unusual way. His perseverance and the questions his obsession provoke is documented in a newly released film from Sony Classics, produced by Penn and Teller, called Tim’s Vermeer.

As an inventor of new technology, Jenison became interested in the idea that Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces, famous for their incredible detail and depiction of light, not by painting in the conventional way, but by using technology that he may have invented. Jenison read books by Philip Steadman and the British painter David Hockney which postulate that some of the Old Masters, Vermeer included, used optics, special lenses and a camera obscura, to create their super-realistic work.

Tim Jenison took the idea a step further — well, many steps further. He thought and thought, and experimented, and came up with a device, using a simple lens and a small mirror, that would allow him, even with no prior artistic training, to paint an image on canvas exactly as it appears in life. He wanted to prove that using this device, he could re-create Vermeer’s famous The Music Lesson, which currently hangs on a wall at Buckingham Palace.

In order to accomplish his goal in the most authentic way possible, Jenison set up a room in a warehouse in Austin Texas that looked exactly like the room in The Music Lesson. Since the 17th century objects in the room no longer existed, he had to produce them himself. He made all the furniture in the room, including the shell of the virginal (in the movie, one can see Jenison turning the instrument’s legs on a lathe.) He made the glass windows, with their 17th century style panes and iron frames. He commissioned a textile mill to produce the same rug covering the table in the foreground of the painting, down to the individual wool knots. He even got his daughter Claire to pose as the young woman at the virginal (her sisters fixed her elaborate 17th-century up-do.)

He mixed his own paints for the canvas using the pigments that would have been available in Delft in Vermeer’s time. When he sat down to paint using his lens and mirror contraption, it took hours, days, weeks, and months of painstaking work; in the film, one sees him carefully using a tiny brush and applying oils to canvas, a task so meticulous and tedious that Jenison admits on camera that he would have quit, were he not being filmed.

In the end, Jenison does paint his own The Music Lesson. It is a work so credible that Hockney and Steadman, upon examining it, can’t help but laugh. They admit there is a great probability that Jenison may have thought up the very device Vermeer could have used.

Is it possible to imagine J.S. Bach exploiting 18th century technology to compose his Baroque masterpieces? How could any technology help create Bach’s unique and magisterial counterpoint, his sublime melodies? I don’t think it’s possible. We have manuscripts and “fair copies” (handwritten copies) of his work. We have first-hand accounts of how he composed by those who knew him — his creative methods were not secret, (as Vermeer’s were), since his house was always full of students and family members.

Does this mean that music, in a way, is a superior art form to painting?

Music, after all, informs the film. One of the first clues to Jenison’s drive to innovate and to persevere comes at the beginning of the story, in a home movie clip from his youth. It shows him as a young boy, laughing and sitting at a player piano, which he has just taken apart in order to teach himself to play swing.

And then there is the subject of the painting itself: a young woman at a keyboard, her music teacher standing to the side, a viola da gamba resting on the floor.  Decorating the front of the virginal, a proverb in Latin reads:

Musica laetitiae comes, medicina dolorum

“Music is a companion to joy, and a medicine for pain.”

Perhaps Vermeer has given us the answer.




Dial V for Visuals


River in Hunan Province, where the secret Nu Shu language was born

Early this month I saw two concerts in Philadelphia that demonstrate a new trend — using visual effects inspired by film to highlight that purist of art forms, classical music. One concert was high-budget, one low. They were both effective, and they both invite interesting questions.

First I attended the Philadelphia Orchestra’s U.S. premier of Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra. I’d heard about this piece when it was still in the making. My friend Elizabeth Hainen, principal harpist of the Orchestra, mentioned that she was commissioning Tan Dun to write a harp concerto for her.

“I’m going to be meeting with Tan when the Orchestra is in China,” she told me last May. “He said the work will be about Nu Shu, the secret language of women.”

I’d learned of Nu Shu, “Women’s Writing” through Lisa See’s bestselling novel of 2006, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Nu Shu is a centuries-old spoken and phonetically written language developed by women in a remote part of Hunan Province so they could communicate without the interference of men.

Following the example of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, Tan Dun traveled to the interior of his native Hunan Province to a village where Nu Shu is still spoken. With a film crew, he recorded elderly women singing traditional songs in Nu Shu, passing down the words and melodies to the younger female generation. He then set, as it were, an accompaniment, for full orchestra and brilliant harp solo, to these native songs.

The 40-minute piece and film (which was shown on three separate narrow scrolls hanging above the Kimmel Center stage) does not follow a narrative arc in the typical Western sense. It shows — over and over again — short scenes of women’s lives — simple domestic chores, bridal ceremonies, recountings of pain and sorrow. As might be expected of a film composer, Tan Dun uses the color of the orchestra to great effect, as well as unusual amplified sounds, such as the rhythmic dribbling of handfuls of water into a filled vessel — a device he used in his opera Tea: A MIrror of Soul. The audience responded with enthusiasm.

Equally engaging, “Dial L for Liebeslieder” was the low-budget but impressive staging of Johannes Brahms’ Liesbeslieder Waltzes for four singers and piano duo, cleverly conceived and performed by a new entity, the Artsong Repertory Theater Company. The event was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (whose basement hosts many indie-rock concerts popular with GenX’ers.)With a simple stage set and stark lighting, the ARTC used the Liesbeslieder Waltzes as well as other art songs and short jazz-age piano solo works, to tell a story of passion, adultery, and murder.

Complete with film-noir outfits, makeup, and hair (trench coats, pumps, swept-back barrettes) the acting was convincing while still knowing and tongue-in-cheek.

More important, the performance was beautifully sung. Did we need staging to appreciate the music? The richly blended voices of Brian Major, Cara Latham, Cory O’Niell Walker, and Jennifer Beattie, along with the sensitive piano accompaniments of Jillian Zack and Adam Marks were, for me, satisfying in their own right. It doesn’t get any better than great singing of great lieder.

But if clever staging and visuals brings attention to this incredible repertoire, I’m all for it. After all, music lives for its audience. Using the eyes to win over the ears is a W by me.



Music in the Berkshires

Esperanza Spalding, singer, bassist, composer, bandleader, performer extraordinaire

My husband and I arrived in the Berkshires a few Sunday afternoons ago, too late to hear the Boston Symphony with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, which attracted many thousands of music-lovers to Tanglewood Music Festival. No matter, that same evening the young bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding was scheduled to perform.

By the time we entered the festival gates around 6 p.m., with our picnic basket, stadium chairs,and blanket in hand, the lush green grounds had been swept clean of any possible debris and looked as pristine as they must have on opening day. At Tanglewood, there are no gauche waste receptacles for soiled napkins or paper plates — instead, a tidy concertgoer will find gigantic wood handcarts, painted black, which seem to function as much as sculpture (Hommage a Shakers) as trash bins. The pin oaks and pines are shapely and perfectly pruned. The sun sets in spectacular orange behind the Berkshire Hills. Nature seems in perfect harmony.

Seiji Ozawa Hall, the smaller and and newer of the large concert venues at Tanglewood, resembles the interior of a somewhat severe Congregational Church.  By all reports, the acoustics inside this structure are marvelous, but the sound was quite fine out on the lawn, where concertgoers  happily nibbled on their baguette and cheese and sipped wine. It hardly matters in a way what is going on onstage, because sitting under the stars and hearing live music is such an acute pleasure.

But it’s even better when the artist is one of such outsize talent and charm as Esperanza Spalding. This slender young woman in the tangerine-colored silk gown and signature buoyant Afro did all this:

1. Sang like an


-scat singer

-Gospel belter

-Latin diva


2. Playing complex original jazz lines on her

-upright bass

-electric bass


3. Leading her nine-piece big band (her Radio Music Society) comprised of talented jazz musicians, many of whom did double-duty as back-up vocalists and instrumentalists, and whose horn section blended in symphonic, velvet sound


4. Chatting with the audience, with the ease of a talk-show hostess

One would be tempted to be envious of such talent, but there is a term that banishes such thoughts: “no competition.”

Ms. Spalding’s topics ranged from:

-romance; “I spent all this time looking for a prince, until the day I decided what I wanted was a king. A king is someone who, when you realize you won’t be able to get out of work until late, will drop everything and go pick up the kids at 3:10 p.m. That’s a king.”


-the extinction of species


-Trayvon Martin


-the beauties of friendship.

And she did it all with disarming openness and incredible energy, for nearly two non-stop hours.

The audience insisted on an encore, which she finally gave, along with pianist Leo Genovese. In an unembarrassed way she related this story:
“Last night we were at Newport”…. the audience whooped and cheered….” and afterward there was this gala, and Herbie (Hancock) was there and Wayne (Shorter) was there, and everyone wanted Leo and me to do something, so we did this piece of Leo’s. And we were so nervous we kept messing up. It was horrible. So tonight we’re going to make up for yesterday and do it right.”

What followed was a propulsive, Latin-driven piano line with Spalding’s voice sweeping over top in operatic style and astonishing range.

And with that, the final song of the final live show of Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society came to an end. I’m sure it’s just the beginning of something even more fantastic.

For videos of Radio Music Society, see:





A Civil War Christmas has meaning for our time

Mary Todd Lincoln comforts a dying soldier in A Civil War Christmas

Behind a plain door on a narrow street in Greenwich Village, far from the glitter of Steven Speilberg’s Hollywood, my family and I watched Paula Vogel’s imaginative and lyrical play A Civil War Christmas unfold on a bare-bones stage. I sat down to enjoy a drama. I did not expect to be almost immediately moved to tears. What got me going, I realized, was the play’s masterful use of music.

The story is set on Christmas Eve, 1864, a few weeks before Lincoln’s second inauguration. The multiple story lines follow the lives of some pretty interesting characters in and around a turbulent and frost-bitten Washington, D.C. — fictional and historical, children and grown-ups, black and white, Jews and Christians, and even a couple of animals. (The talented cast of 11 play multiple roles.)

Their concerns are both lofty and simple: Abraham Lincoln wants to finalize a war and heal a shattered nation, and at the same time personally retrieve a forgotten Christmas present for his wife. Mary Todd Lincoln visits the wounded soldiers and tries to forget her own torments, and also wants to make the White House more festive with a Christmas tree, not an easily procured item in war-besieged D.C. A slave wants to get her child to safety and freedom. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has bought her own freedom through her sewing and design talent, wants to overcome the guilt she feels over her son’s death in battle. A Confederate boy wants glory. A dying Jewish soldier wants to see his mentor Walt Whitman once more. Perhaps the most powerful character, a black Union sergeant called Bronson, wants to revenge the abduction of his wife by Confederate soldiers. He vows to “take no prisoners.”

What binds these disparate stories together is the interjection of traditional carols, hymns, spirituals and popular song of the time, in arrangements by Daryl Waters and keenly directed from the keyboard by Andrew Resnick. Sometimes dancing, sometimes accompanying themselves on the banjo, accordion and fiddle, the actors harmonize”God Rest Ye Merry Gentelemn,” “Silent Night,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Oh, Christmas Tree.”   The spirituals “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Ain’t That a Rocking,” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” are powerfully delivered.

At the play’s climax, when Bronson spares the life of a Confederate child-soldier in an ingenious way, the melodious Longfellow carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with its message of “peace on earth, good will toward men” takes on new meaning. In light of the slaughter of young innocents in Connecticut just a week earlier, it was especially haunting.

A Civil War Christmas may never receive the publicity or audience numbers of Spielberg’s highly touted Lincoln, but it deserves to. I would like to see it performed every holiday season like The Nutcracker or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a part of our cultural tradition and dialogue, its drama and music passed with care from one generation to the next.

The Tempest, Imagined and Real

Audrey Luna's Ariel, spirit and singer extraordinaire

Despite distant warnings about a hurricane coming our way, Tom and I went ahead with our plans to celebrate our 27th — yes, 27th! — wedding anniversary in New York City. One of the highlights of our trip was taking in a new production put on by the Metropolitan Opera, The Tempest, composed and conducted by Brit Thomas Adès.

What we experienced was a visual treat, with sets, special effects, and costumes that borrow cleverly from pop culture. To depict the tempest at sea, a large gold chandelier descends from the ceiling, inexorably spinning. Hanging upside-down, Ariel, clad in a skin-tight sparkly leotard, twines around the chandelier like an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil. Harry Potter-like effects appear in the form of moving portraits (depicting Prospero’s traitorous brother and henchmen) and video images effectively show the wilderness that the shipwrecked passengers must wander through. The costumes, designed by Kym Barrett, are some of the most luscious I have ever seen, and flatter even the heftiest sopranos and tenors of the chorus.

Thomas Adès score, however, borrows not one eighth note from pop culture. It is angular and dissonant, with propulsive, square rhythms and no particularly hummable melody. Still, the orchestration and vocal balance he achieves is always effective. Some of the singing, in particular colaratura Audrey Luna’s Ariel and mezzo Isabel Leonard’s Miranda, is astounding.

What drives the work forward to its satisfying conclusion is Adès and librettist Meredith Oakes’ understanding of Shakespeare’s final play. They elucidate the Bard’s themes portrayed in his complex protagonist Prospero: the oppressed becoming the oppressor, the destructive nature of revenge, the power of love to transform and unite, the ultimate power of forgiveness. Modern production values and videography aside, relying on good old Shakesperare to provide the framework for a new work that will last — it’s a smart bet.

The next day, we decided to forego our reservation at Becco, one of our favorite restaurants. This real-life tempest was really going to happen, it seemed. Three hours later, the city closed its trains and subways. Eight hours later, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey, and us too, and unlike Shakespeare, we could conjure up no Ariel to clean up the mess.

But today, finally, the sun is shining. The storm of election battles is over. I wouldn’t mind singing about that.