Posts filed under:  Concert and Cultural Reviews

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.

Wizard Hamelin astonishes at the Kimmel Center

Marc-Andre Hamelin

Marc-Andre Hamelin

One of the joys of blogging is that I get to write about remarkable artists and cultural events that fly below the radar of mainstream media. However, on occasion, exceptions will be made, and there’s no better case for it than a concert played last night by Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented Hamelin at one of my favorite halls in Philadelphia, the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, to a packed and enthusiastic crowd. Even though a review will no doubt appear in the Inquirer, I feel it’s my duty as a pianist to opine about one of the best concerts of the season, or of any season, for that matter.

Hamelin began with Alban Berg’s one-movement B minor Sonata, in an interpretation that was clean and transparent — more delicate angles than curves, more Capriccio than Salome. This was simply the warm-up act to an astonishing offering of the Liszt B minor Sonata. Hamelin’s speed, power and virtuosity gave this piece what it deserves and so rarely, by necessity, can get –- a breathtaking sense of direction that made one forget that bar lines had ever been invented. I have never heard the difficult parts of this piece played so convincingly and so fast. As a result, the scope of this long one-movement Sonata, one of the most important in the piano repertoire, was clear, fresh, and compelling.

The second half of the program began with four of the virtuosic Preludes from Debussy’s second volume. In these pieces, as well as those that ended the program, a selection of Hamelin’s own etudes, the pianist exploited the full range, color, and technical capacity of the Steinway at his command. His encore, the Haydn C Major Fantasy, was humorous and brilliant –- you’ve never heard Haydn like this, on the verge of full orchestral bombast yet winking with Charlie Chaplin-like pratfalls.

I take my hat off to Marc Andre-Hamelin. You’ve inspired me to give up blogging so I can practice more — almost!

New Year’s Gift — Diabelli Variations

The beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Trinity. Piano awaits.

The beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Trinity. Piano awaits.

Not many pianists would attempt to perform Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations at all, let alone right after Christmas, and especially not a few days after getting married! But Matthew Bengtson, just wed, tackled Beethoven’s monumental late composition fearlessly. I was one of the fortunate to hear his sensitive and virtuosic rendition on December 30, along with my daughter Alysa, home from Germany, and her friend Miriam, a recent graduate of Reed College. Both girls are accomplished musicians and gave the concert four thumbs’ up. I asked Miriam for a few thought about Matt’s program, which began with Schumann. This is what she had to say:

The conquering pianist and happy bridegroom

The triumphant pianist and happy bridegroom

“Matthew Bengtson’s interpretation of Schumann’s Nachtstücke, op. 23, four short pieces inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, transmitted the sense of the uncanny that links the Nachtstücke with Hoffmann’s writing. Speaking to the audience before he played, Bengtson explained that the final movement, Einfach (Simply,) is Schumann’s way of commenting on and summing up the rest of the piece. As in Hoffmann’s famous story “The Sandman,” the narrative voices of Einfach are convoluted and often overlap, and create a doubling that mimics the conflation of characters and their autonomy (or lack thereof).

“The Nachtstücke cast an interesting shadow over Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, as another example of the uncanny, or Das Unheimliche (literally the un-home-ly.) It shows how a composer is able to take something familiar and make it ‘strange.’ Beethoven wrote these variations in response to a competition held by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli, who composed a simple theme for thirty-two prominent composers of the day to embellish. The quality of ‘making-strange’ is inherent in any set of variations on a theme, but especially apparent in these variations. Beethoven moves Diabelli’s simple waltz through thirty-three variations, taking the music so far from its ‘Diabelli home’ that it becomes completely Beethoven. ”

Alysa said she was particularly moved by the later slow variations, whose spiritual nature were in keeping with the concert’s setting, the intimate Church of the Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. Roses, trailing evergreen, cascading ribbons and white candles (rather than the typical poinsettias) and a full-sized nativity scene at the altar captured the Christmas spirit. The concert was part of the Brown Bag lunchtime series offered every Wednesday at 12:30. As the audience quietly ate their sandwiches and munched on cookies, their tummies were nourished as well as their souls. It was an uplifting way to finish the holiday season and begin a new year.

Alysa and Miriam discuss the program at home

Alysa and Miriam discuss the program at home

Christmas Gift — The Nutcracker

A Sugarplum Fairy awaits young fans in the lobby

A Sugarplum Fairy awaits young fans in the lobby

My older daughter has been living and working in Germany since August, and I’ve missed her so much that having her home for two weeks was what I wanted most for Christmas. When I asked her over Skype what she wanted for Christmas, she said without hesitation, “Can we see the Nutcracker?”

“Of course,” I said, although I have to admit that normally I would rather attend productions of works I’ve never seen before. However, The Nutcracker is close to her heart, since she danced several parts in the Columbus Youth Ballet production when she was a child. She’s been a Gingersnap, a Candycane, a Soldier, and a Party Guest, and she never tires of it. So I happily got tickets for the Pennsylvania Ballet’s evening performance, the day after Christmas.

Well, folks, it was spectacular. The dancers were in fine form, technically and artistically; the orchestra, under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, played expressively and at an almost fearless pace. The Academy of Music, in all its gilt, crystal, and red velvet splendor, is the perfect setting for a ballet that has substance and depth to its layers of confection.

The over-the-top retractable crystal chandelier in the Academy of Music

The over-the-top retractable crystal chandelier in the Academy of Music

The Pennsylvania Ballet performs the famous version created in the ’50′s by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. Alastair Macauley explains Balanchine’s innovations, both artistic and psychological, in an article for the New York Times that’s fascinating to read. What strikes me watching this production are the wonderful touches of humor in the First Act (the energizer bunny drummer, the tipsy Grandma, the naughty, hyper little boys, the ammunition of Swiss cheese) and the magical transition of Marie’s Christmas Eve party into her dream world of the Land of Sweets. The big corps de ballet numbers, the Snowflake Dance and the Waltz of the Flowers, are, in their moving symmetry, deeply emotional, and remind me of the perfect form of J.S. Bach.

The score Tschaikowsky composed in 1892 still sounds fresh — tension builds in chromatic progressions as monumental as in his symphonies; color and melodic invention continually evolve. Who has ever heard created anything more hypnotic than the music for the Arabian Dance, for instance? I have no doubt that what makes this great ballet endure is Tschaikowsky’s music.

I’m sure it’s worth the expense to mount the fabulous sets (expanding Christmas trees and snowy landscapes,) and the elaborate costumery of tutus, satin, and lace. Most of all it’s well worth the added effort of involving a great number of talented children -– not just child dancers, but child singers as well. What a genius touch, actually, because the audience, even at night, was full of children. Booster seats were available for the tiniest of ballet watchers (and some of them were pretty tiny,) but I didn’t hear a single child cry, talk, or complain during the performance. The average age of those sitting in the seats was far lower than for the usual ballet, opera, or orchestra audience. I think that’s something to dance about.

Perhaps no one understands the Nutcracker better than a musician who’s performed it for 25 years, as has violinist Charles Parker. “If you have to play the same piece 25 to 30 times in a 3 week period, thank God it’s Nutcracker! ” he says. “Any other piece would truly drive me insane. And, any time that it starts to become boring, you hear a child in the audience laugh or say something like ‘Look at the mouse, Mommy!’ You feel privileged to be part of their new memory, and you play like it’s your first performance.”

I’ll applaud that.

Black, blond, and brunette heads among the gray in this audience

More black, blond, and brunette heads than gray in this audience

Heidi and Julia, Part Two

Julia Alvarez (with red boa, center) and Haverford College students. Ida Faiella, soprano far left

Julia Alvarez (center right) with Haverford College students, and soprano Ida Faiella (far left), composer Heidi Jacob and Prof. Theresa Tensuan (far right)

On December 1, Bryn Mawr College hosted a cultural double bill called Julia Alvarez: Words and Music. Last week, I wrote about the first part of the evening, which showcased the four new songs Haverford music professor Heidi Jacob composed to poems of Julia Alvarez. Today I’ll talk about the second half of the show, in which Ms. Alvarez took the stage to read her poems and to speak about her life and unusual literary influences.

What radiates beyond both words and music is Ms. Alvarez’s irrepressible personality, a trait she deliberately tried to tone down when she moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States at the age of ten. At the time, she wanted more than anything to be an All-American girl (not realizing until later that she was already American.) Holding back her warm Latin side was a challenge, as the cultural differences puzzled her. For instance, when one of her teachers said, “Julia, I’m very disappointed in you,” she had a hard time believing the woman because the criticism was delivered in such a controlled, calm tone of voice.

My friend Ariadne, who was in the audience and who teaches advanced-level Spanish, told me later that she found herself thinking, “Yes! Sometimes I want to say to a student – you turned in such a bad paper, you can do so much better – I want to kill you! In Mexico City I would say that, but of course I can’t here.”

I suspect that Julia Alvarez’s irrepressible nature might have less to do with her cultural background, and more to do with who she is. As a child, she was “overly affectionate,” only allowed to fully express her love for her family members when she ironed their clothes. Ironing, she explained, was a privilege and a step up in the pecking order of domestic chores because “You could be trusted with something you could do damage to.” It’s beautifully shown in the poem she read called Ironing Their Clothes, where she is “forced to express my excess love on cloth.”

Domestic chores in general were the unlikely catalyst for her first collection of poems. She described how, as a young fellow at the MacDowell Colony, with the lofty canon of English literature in her ear (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” and so on,) listening to the other fellows busily clacking away on their typewriters while she waited vainly for inspiration, she was suddenly freed by the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the hallway. She realized that her first training was in the household arts. She thought, “Why dismiss this?”

And so she produced her first collection of poems, Homecoming, as well as the poems in the following collection El Otro Lado about her muse, Gladys, a warm-hearted maid from her childhood who was always singing (and who, in the poems, abruptly stops singing whenever Ms. Alvarez’s formidable mother appears on the scene – perhaps a metaphor also for parental repression of Alvarez’s natural, exuberant impulses.)

Another of Ms. Alvarez’s muses was the old photographer who had the unenviable job of trying to capture all 24 of her father’s siblings and their offspring in the annual family photo. “You don’t know they are muses until you look back,” she said. Nor is it obvious at first what will become a departure point for writing -– an image as random as “men coming out of holes” (like manholes) has proved a recent whimsical influence for her lately.

The day following the concert and reading, Julia Alvarez spoke even more frankly about her work at an informal luncheon at the Women’s Center at Haverford College, when she spent time with students in Theresa Tensuan’s Contemporary Women Writers class. When Homecoming was published, Ms. Alvarez said, she wanted suddenly to silence herself, afraid of her family’s reaction. However, not a single person questioned her honest portrayal of family life; her aunts and mother even proudly displayed the book on their coffee tables. Since it was poetry, nobody actually read it! But when her first novel came out, exploring some of these events and observations in prose, her family was outraged, her mother especially.

“Why do you have to write about unhappy things?” her mother demanded.

Implied was the larger question, “Why read?” Ms. Alvarez described how, growing up in the outgoing Dominican culture, people told her, “If you read too much, you will get sick. If you read too much, nobody will want to marry you -–” a pointed reference to a bookish maiden aunt, who had given Julia and her sisters a much-loved copy of Scheherezade.

Ms. Alvarez said that as a child, she was not much of a reader; she did not like reading the censored material taught in the Dominican Republic, and she fidgeted in class (she thinks that nowadays she most likely would have been diagnosed with ADHD.) The stories she heard were not found on the printed page, but were told around the kitchen table.

Later, when she moved to the U.S., she discovered books. The kids on the playground were not particularly friendly to her, but in books, she was “welcome at the table” again. In the world of stories, she “could become anybody.” So although she came to reading late, she knew early on that this fellowship of writing, of story-telling, of words and literature, was where she wanted to be.

Julia Alvarez shared other insights into her creative life. Among the folders in her file cabinet, she keeps one called “Curiosities,” and another called “Letters Not Sent.” She writes, not to tell, but to find out about things. When asked why she did not write the screenplay for the movie version of her novel In the Time of the Butterflies, she quoted Chaucer: “Time is so short and the craft so long.”

A wise thing for all artists to remember.

Heidi and Julia, Part One

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Several years ago, my colleague Heidi Jacob took a sabbatical from conducting and teaching at Haverford College in order to study for her Ph.D. in composition. I was impressed; having earned two terminal degrees myself, I would not want to become a doctoral student again. Heidi was excited by the prospect, though; I could tell she couldn’t wait to plunge in.

She’s been back teaching for a couple of years, but I had yet to hear any of her compositions. So I was delighted to see a poster announcing that four of her songs based on poems of Julia Alvarez would be premiered on the Bryn Mawr College Creative Writing series, with Julia Alvarez herself in attendance.

“Tell me about this!” I said, when we saw each other in the hallway at the beginning of the semester.

With an enthusiasm she usually expresses for a particularly talented student we share, Heidi talked, eyes shining, not about herself, but about the great Dominican- American author’s work. “Gladys,” Heidi said. “Remember Gladys? The first song is about her.” We agreed we both loved How the Garcia Girls Got their Accents. And In the Time of the Butterflies. And Yo!

Accelerando to December 1, the evening of the premiere, which Bryn Mawr appropriately named “Words and Music.” When I arrived, a crowd had already gathered at Thomas Great Hall, on the majestically gothic Bryn Mawr campus.

Stepping into Thomas Hall is like stepping into a minor wing of the Houses of Parliament -– it is an enormous, rectangular space with a soaring ceiling, stone walls, and high mullioned windows. Acoustically it can be tricky, but the sound produced by L’Ensemble (the professional chamber group made up of Ida Faiella, soprano; Barry Finclair, violin, and Charles Abramovic, piano) was clear, focused, and full.

“Gladys sang as she worked

in her high, clear voice”

began Faiella, in her commanding, expressive soprano. Radiant, harplike colors produced by pianist Abramovic, and playful, sweet trills from violinist Finclair, gave Gladys Singing the compelling sound of tropical bird song.

However, nothing remains easy and amiable in this piece. At the end of Gladys Singing, the mother of the singer/narrator roars up the driveway in her powerful car, and in her high heels click-clacks up to the front door to enter the suddenly silent house. The birds stop singing, the music becomes static as a “tomb,” and the listener understands why Gladys, warm-hearted Gladys of the author’s childhood, became a muse and a symbol of life to her.

In the next song, Folding My Clothes, Heidi Jacob has changed the structure of Alvarez’s poem so that the bitter-sounding phrase composed to the final words

“until I put them on, breathing life back

into those abstract shapes of who I was

which she found so much easier to love”

is redeemed, musically, by the re-appearance of the rounded, berceuse-like first line, “Tenderly she would take them down and fold the arms in and fold again…”

Are we all ill with acute loneliness” is the shortest song, yet terrifying in its bleak and deliberate use of pizzicato descending minor seconds (doubled by the piano) and the use of Sprechstimme to harshly speak the question, “and we are all well?”

The most dramatic song in the cycle is the final one, Beginning Again. In this complex piece, the listener is brought face-to-face with the immigrant girl’s sense of anxiety and loss, depicted by restless shifting meter and spiky dissonance. Gradually, the listener travels with the immigrant singer/narrator through reconciliation and hope, depicted by the use of an open-sounding descending modulation by thirds, an oasis of A major, a celestial-sounding B-flat major texture, and at the end, a sprightly and regular rhythmic pattern which brings us –- and are we not all immigrants, in our own way? — to the acceptance, and anticipation, of home.

With this last statement, Heidi Jacob achieves a satisfying symmetry for the cycle: the first and last songs are the longest, and, as the mood of the first song begins with comfort and ends with a sense of desolation, here, in the last song, the composer begins with unease and ends with hope.

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

There was a pause following the enthusiastic applause as Julia Alvarez mounted the stage and took the microphone. With her high cheekbones and petite frame, she bears a resemblance to Bryn Mawr’s most famous alumna, Katherine Hepburn, though the glamour this night was endearingly softened by a green pencil stuck into her upswept bun. Clearly touched by the musical tribute, she looked straight into the audience and said, “Who needs a funeral?”

She then began to read her poems with the poise, timing, and phrasing of a fine musician.

It was ear-opening to hear the author read the same poem that Heidi had set to music with such different results, most notably in Folding my Clothes. The inflections were in different places, the cadence hypnotic. Occasionally I have found myself at poetry readings, brain straining, wishing I were at a concert instead, but not in this case. The pure words, as read in Alvarez’s musical voice, held the audience captive with phrasing as seductively compelling as a Chopin melody.

Her introductions to the poems she read and the pearls of wisdom she bestowed on young writers will be discussed in my next post.

After the reading, I asked Julia Alvarez what it was like to hear her words re-interpreted through music.

“Like I said, who needs a funeral?” she said, glowing. “Heidi was able to bring out the emotion inside the lines.”

I thought about that. Emotion is outlined, heightened and dramatized by music in a way that enhances the words. Music makes us listen in a different way, forces us to experience the words with greater intensity –- that is, when the words are good, and the music’s good. They certainly were that night.

Julia and Heidi, words and music

Julia and Heidi, words and music