Tag Archives: Opera

Opera at the Bar and (Ideally) Everywhere

Helios Early Opera’s production of Pimpinone at Good Life Bar in Boston featured snappy, tuneful music, a short, straightforward story and a lighthearted performance, all at a stylish yet simple venue.  You can read my review of this great performance in The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

So given all the laughs and lightness, of course this is one of the most important performances of its kind.

The fact is that if this music is ever going to be seen (and supported) as anything more than the diversion of an elite, it needs imaginative choices of repertoire and venue as well as energetic interpretations, just like what Helios offered on Saturday night.

Please enjoy my coverage, and believe me, I wish you could have been there.

Photo courtesy of Zoe Weiss

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From Verdi to Little Milton: Soul Music Throughout the Centuries

Photo Courtesy of Stax Music Academy (Stax Museum of American Soul Music) via The Boston Globe on Boston.com

“Wattstax Revisited,” presented by students from Stax Music Academy, honored the fortieth anniversary of Stax Records’ 1972 concert of soul music and soul-lifting.  Stax Records has encountered financial ups and downs, but the label’s cultural legacy was flying Tuesday night courtesy of the music of artists like Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, performed in original arrangements by the young singers and instrumentalists onstage at the Berklee Performance Center (and which this blogger was able to experience courtesy of his employer).

The performers’ excitement was palpable, yet youthful energy only goes so far: this ensemble was expressive and strong as well as enthusiastic.  Grammy-winning saxophonist and Stax CEO Kirk Whalum was able to play alongside his students without having to carry them.  Attendees dancing in their seats and eventually in the aisles seemed like a foregone conclusion given the group’s galvanizing choreography and engaging stage demeanor.

Of course great music (ideally) drives musical stagecraft.  This blogger kept coming back to the earthy vocal and instrumental textures, in concise yet powerful arrangements, and lyrics of late night love, old-fashioned heartbreak, and, in short, the best of times as well as the worst:

Instrumental solos incorporated some dense jazz phrases as part of more visceral, direct storytelling that modern jazz was just beginning to transcend (read, forget) when these tunes were first recorded.  References to classic blues and gospel ranged from underlying to overt but were never absent.

Theatricality was as much a part of the music as the show, in big displays of big emotions crafted in soaring vocals, choruses and ensembles, with juicy horn chords,  popping bass lines and an infectious beat all in constant state of tension and release.  Vocal and instrumental confidence is just as crucial to the music.  Soul music isn’t all about technique, but the sheer power to play and sing has to be there.  It’s hard not to notice and be floored by strong voices soaring to the heavens and sticking around to toss off melismas and pentatonic runs, or subtle but telling touches like the quicksilver sax and flute cascades behind the singers.

Display,  theatricality, and grand emotions orchestrated to maximize emotional impact on an audience: take out the flatted thirds and sevenths and replace the horns with strings, and it begins to seem (if not sound) a lot like opera.

It might take Verdi‘s ears a few measures to acclimate to the harmonies, rhythms and instrumentation of soul music, but the godfather of late Romantic opera would have appreciated this style’s ability to reach and pull at an audience.  Verdi knew all about emotional blackmail:

For that matter, a lot of music consigned to the classical bin and connotations of cultural capital and refinement shares those goals.  Listening to Baroque instrumental composer Valentini’s works the next day, telling their sad little epic and pitting plaintive soloists against a lush orchestra and an ominous repeating bass line, the distance between centuries and cultures became much smaller:

G. Valentini: Op. 7, Concerto No. 11, I. Largo

Melody and rhythm, crafted smartly and passionately: some things never go out of style.


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“Get to Know…” a Venetian Popera Composer

Thanks to The Boston Musical Intelligencer for running my piece on pop star of yestercentury and neglected composer Baldassare Galuppi.  I am thrilled to see the spate of Galuppi recordings over the years, and hope this article will entice more listeners to experience Galuppi’s characteristically lyrical, often witty and always beautiful music.

You can read my recap of Galuppi’s works (and his rotten tomato worthy debut) on BMInt here.  All of the music mentioned is also available on YouTube, so happy listening!

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An Orchestrated Double Entendre

Musicologist Daniel Heartz advises that the “wooden” music Vivaldi wrote for the words of the first act duet in La Fida Ninfa (translated from Italian below) never seems to “soar”:

Girl: Tell me, shepherd…
Boy: Nymph, speak to me…
Girl: If I give you my heart,
Boy: If love binds me,
Both: What will I gain for my suffering?

The lyrics aren’t very riveting on paper, but they’re designed as a springboard to a musical depiction of two young lovers’ uncertainty.  Vivaldi casts the scene as an upbeat call and response in a jolly major key, with his signature harmonies bouncing back and forth:

Vivaldi’s setting is bright, rhythmic and seemingly oblivious to the insecurity packed into the word “penar” (“suffering” or “torments”).

Yet while the librettist‘s words are limited to hesitation, the composer’s music conveys the joy that await this couple, maybe what they’re already anticipating (assume that even the powdered wigs and church-every-Sunday crowd of Vivaldi’s day understood that “love” wasn’t just a matter of looking into each others’ eyes or holding hands).  The composer isn’t missing an opportunity, he’s letting it “soar” to a much more nuanced, optimistic place.  The modern listener in turn experiences irony, fear of commitment and sexual tension from a bygone age, and Matthew Weiner is nowhere in sight.

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Cimarosa Rediscovered: Giving an Eighteenth Century Star His Groove Back

Though known for his humbleness, Domenico Cimarosa was probably proud to never accomplish the same feats as his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Cimarosa didn’t compose a variety of complex, emotionally probing works.  He wasn’t misunderstood or criticized for his music.  He didn’t even inspire passionate stories about dying sick, young and penniless.  Instead, Cimarosa’s comic operas made him immensely rich and popular, and were still well-known after he passed away ten years later and seventeen years older than Mozart.

Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto actually received the most famous encore in operatic history, when Leopold II requested the whole work be repeated directly after its premier.  Tuneful, catchy and a little bawdy (even without the risqué stage direction below), no wonder His Majesty couldn’t get enough:

In addition to a Holy Roman Emperor and the Austrian wunderkind himself, Cimarosa’s other fans included Haydn, who staged several of Cimarosa’s operas for his own patron, French realist writer Stendahl, who actually preferred Cimarosa’s music to that of you-know-who and Rossini, who apparently couldn’t stop whistling the Cimarosa arias he heard as a boy.  Yet aside from Il Matrimonio Segreto, most of Cimarosa’s works are rarely if ever performed.  At some point in history Cimarosa’s modest goals and immense success came to be classified as shortcomings.

While the current critical script is that even second-rate Mozart is preferable to the best efforts of a composer like Cimarosa, fresh listening is never a bad idea.  For starters, it’s helpful to hear Cimarosa as Cimarosa, rather than “not Mozart” or some other composer i.e. as a musician who enjoyed straightforward harmonies, rounded melodies and bright textures, with a lot of woodwinds thrown in for added color.  Atene Edificata doesn’t offer any intricacies in terms of music or story: the “characters” (really just allegorical mouthpieces for Cimarosa’s onetime employer Catherine the Great) praise god and country in lyrical phrases [just click “Play” below to listen]:

and runs that fall easily on the ear, with good momentum and without chromatic surprises [skip ahead to 2:40 in the following clip]:

Cimarosa was best known for his comedies, but tense drama and psychological insight were never really priorities in any of his works, nor were they as important to his contemporary listeners as they are for current operagoers.  Cimarosa’s opera seria graft his bright style onto the vocal acrobatics and highfalutin stories eighteenth century audiences craved.  “Superbo Di Me Stesso,” from Cimarosa’s setting of Metastasio‘s warhorse L’Olimpiade does provide a novel musical treatment for this well-worn text [starting at 0:39 in the following clip]:

The minor chords and wide intervals proclaiming “Superbo di me stesso, andrò portando in fronte” (“I’ll proudly go, bearing in front”) and the sweeter curlicues for “quel caro nome impresso, come mi sta nel cor” (“that beloved name, as it’s written in my heart”) convey how seriously this speaker takes the task of competing under a friend’s name to earn that friend a prize, and how dear that friend’s name is to the character.  The skipping variation on “quel caro nome impresso” just reinforces his sentiments.  Not a bad bit of character painting, especially for a libretto that had been set dozens of times previously and a composer now known for his “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” music.

On the other hand many of L’Olimpiade‘s arias are pure vocal exhibition.  “Mi sento, O Dio, Nel Core” (“I feel, oh gods, in this heart”) for soprano with obbligato oboe is a magnificent traffic jam of an aria [which starts at 1:38 in the clip below], with an overly long, tacked on introduction, an impossibly high tessitura (even for a pro like Patrizia Ciofi) and gratuitous (even for eighteenth century audiences) coloratura.  It also seems to go on forever, but makes for a hell of a show.  In Cimarosa’s time, even serious opera was rarely “drama,” and “high art” only well after the final curtain: it was was vocal showpiece, spectacle, an athletic event and even a competition, a night of ” can they make it?”

As for that “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” sound, YouTube user Thrax1982 (who posted the above videos and whose dedication to lesser known operas is invaluable) offers the best analysis of Cimarosa’s music as “often (not [always]) seem[ing] like it’s put together of Lego blocks.”  While that description might imply simplicity, sameness and a lack of emotion, it also suggests the use of familiar materials to create vivid, recognizable structures.  Cimarosa’s compositional process is pretty transparent; no advanced theories or formal curveballs lurking under all those glistening surfaces.  That might just be artistic choice on the composer’s part.  Besides, Legos are fun, and they can make some pretty impressive stuff.

Gli Orazi e I Curiazi, a tale of political duty, romantic love and familial loyalty set in ancient Rome, leaves lots of room for big choruses, lush eroticism and deadly serious situations.  Cimarosa flexes his theatrical chops at several key moments (including an unusually grim ending) and the second act’s oracle scene is as far removed from Cimarosa’s comedies as possible [Thrax’s commentary in the following clip is especially informative]:

Yet Cimarosa’s musical instincts for a sheerly beautiful effect enhance even stock scenes.  Three-part harmony between the heroine, her Roman brother and an enemy of Rome that she just happens to be in love with depicts a brief truce as a moment of peace and celebration between siblings, lovers and nations [skip ahead to 3:44 below]:

It’s not dramatic verisimilitude or advanced music theory, but it does make for some great music.  Shortly after, the brief duet between the couple, “Ti giura il labbro e il core amore e fedeltà” (“My lips and heart swear love and fidelity to you”), is so pure it brings the narrative to a halt:

Taken on its own terms, this simple, perhaps “superficial” writing works for Gli Orazi, due in part to Cimarosa’s knack for a distinct melodic hook.  The lovers’ quarrel that opens Act II features some particularly juicy strings in the accompanied recitative, expressing this scene’s intensity in a highly stylized but effective manner:

The violins behind the ensuing duet “Se Torni Vincitor” (If You Return Victorious,” starting four minutes into the above clip) are touching, memorable and in musical terms, just plain gorgeous.  Occasionally “beautiful” is enough, as is building with blocks rather than marble or watercolors.  Cimarosa, as well as other musicians stuck on the historical unemployment line, remind us that it might be time for some prepositional reversal to the old adage “good, but not Mozart.”

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Rethink This…Music

Is It Ever a Bad Idea?

The second annual Rethink Music conference wrapped up yesterday here in Boston, though the ideas behind the event are meant to keep going.  Presented by Berklee College of Music in association Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the two-day program and “Impact Weekend” brought together “the strongest minds from across all facets of the music industry to examine current challenges and formulate paths forward.”  If it affects the present and future of music performance and business, Rethink Music means to cover it.

This blogger wasn’t able to attend Rethink Music (darned rent-paying, emotionally fulfilling day job!), and due to my affiliations with the higher education community, chose to opine about the event after the fact.  Yet something tells me that as a devotee of jazz reissues, small classical labels and other specialized outlets for “old” music, there wasn’t much there for me anyway.

Then something else tells me I’m wrong.

The fact is that Rethink Music should have something (if not everything or exactly the right thing) to say to anyone who cares about any form of music as something more than a diversion.  Panels such as “Music and Technology” and “Building an Artist Brand” might seem better suited for Justin Bieber or P. Diddy’s clientele, but those topics deal with marketing and utilizing today’s resources to grow audiences, issues that even Louis Armstrong and Mozart’s current “handlers” need to consider.  Every niche label owner, audio restorer, record collector, local orchestra manager and purveyor of the pop of yestercentury should be listening.

Talented Teenager with Personal Issues? Get This Guy an Agent!

YouTube, blogs, digital downloads and other online platforms have revolutionized the way listeners find and hear music.  They’re not perfect, but they certainly have their advantages (unless we all have the time and money to shop for 78’s, or fly to that opera we want to hear).  As for “branding,” has anyone ever thought to publicize “Satch” and “Wolfie” as anything more than historical objects, or suppliers of medicine that’s good for audiences even if they don’t like the taste?

In short, Rethink Music is talking about access and adaptation, two words which are too often criticized by aficionados of “good music.”  Discussions about the death of classical music and  jazz often come down to a lack of new audiences, or degenerate into sweeping generalizations about the banality of popular taste.  Yet the fault, as well as the hope, is in our hands: if we want to keep hearing the music we love, and if we want our children to hear it all, we’ll start paying attention to what meetings like Rethink Music have to say.

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Mozart the Monopolist, and the Tough Breaks of “Tito”

Ever hear a song that reminds you of another song? How about an opera that makes audiences forget dozens of other works? Emmanuel Music’s (powerhouse) performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito on Saturday night accomplished both ends for this writer.

Recycling the same opera libretto was an acceptable, even welcome practice throughout the Baroque and Classical eras (eighteenth century audiences, just like twenty-first century ones, enjoyed the familiar), and Mozart’s Tito was just one of about forty “covers” of Metastasio’s tale of passion versus honor in ancient Rome. Whether it’s due to Mozart’s music or simply his name on the score, mention of those other operas is mostly limited to the preconcert lectures, program booklets and liner notes that accompany the hundreds of performances and recordings of Mozart’s version.

A few curious scholars and conductors have resuscitated other versions of Tito. Comparisons are inevitable, and in some cases justify the judgment of history. In Mozart’s score, Tito’s aria “Del Più Sublime Soglio” becomes an ideal introduction for the titular character. Mozart uses a lilting vocal line and lush harmonies for the emperor’s first aria, where Tito describes generosity as the sole joy amidst the burdens of power:

In Gluck’s hands, the same text suffers from a pacing rhythm and a repetitive, at times whiny melody. Mozart’s music makes Tito seem superhuman, while Gluck orchestrates him as a sap:

Yet those “other” Tito’s also reveal some great “new” music, for example Gluck’s simultaneously raging and forlorn “Come Potesti O Dio,” depicting the old adage about “Hell Hath No Fury, etc.” in a section of Metastasio’s libretto which poet Caterino Mazzolà saw fit to excise from Mozart’s opera:

In other cases, stacking Mozart’s well-known music next to these now forgotten musical doppelgangers offers a different lens onto each of the characters. Galuppi’s minor key and palpitating strings cast “Ah Perdona Al Primo Affetto” as an urgent plea for forgiveness from one lover to another:

while the resourceful team of Mozart and Mazzolà combine this apology with the romantic aria “Amo Te Solo” and sculpt a duet of reconciliation and utterly beautiful eroticism:

Caldara was the first composer to set Metastasio’s text, and he imagines the librettist’s chorus of thanks to god and country in a solemn light [just click “Play” below]:

while by Mozart’s time, those friends, Romans and countrymen are all feelin’ the spirit:

“Parto Ma Tu Ben Mio” is a young man’s parting words just before the woman he loves sends him to assassinate his ruler and friend (that’s opera!). Mozart’s mixture of  infatuation, regret and frustration, with a clarinet offering commentary in the background, have made his treatment one of the most famous opera arias of all time:

On the other end of historical recognition, Galuppi’s “Parto” zeroes in on the simply pathetic aspect of this scenario, and makes due with just strings. Emotionally and musically Galuppi’s aria is much less complex than Mozart’s, but in terms of lyrical, stylized sadness, it works just fine:

Gluck’s “Parto” features a halting rhythm set to a cresting harmonic accompaniment.  This person is just plain scared; it’s perhaps the most “realistic” characterization of all:

Wikipedia tells us that Mysliveček set “Parto” as a duet, but without the time and resources of a full-time academic, that’s all the experience with Mysliveček’s “Tito” available to potential listeners.  It’s still far more attention than many other composers receive.

There’s always Mozart. There’s literally always Mozart.

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Obscurities On The iPod: Paul Specht, Jane Archibald’s Haydn And That Other Bach

Paul Specht
Retro-Specht (1925-31)
Vintage Music Productions
Paul Specht led one of the most popular bands of the Jazz Age, and Retro-Specht is a sample of what made Specht a mainstay of gramophones and dance floors.  Most of these sides are geared for commercial audiences of the time, with lyrics ranging from sentimental to humorous, sung by animated vocalists (some apparently right off the vaudeville stage) over a rhythm more “peppy” than “stomping.”  Specht originals such as “Static Strut,” “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Cornfed” would receive hotter treatments from other groups, while Specht ‘s upbeat, cleanly executed aesthetic emphasizes the tune proper.  There are also some novel ensemble touches throughout, such as a violin peaking out from within the brass and reeds, or the use of three part soprano sax sections (for example on “Honey Bunch”).  Specht never hired star soloists or distinct arrangers like his contemporaries Jean Goldkette and Ben Pollack, and therefore never received the same critical accolades.  These recordings remain firmly in their time, and a good way to dip into the past.

Jane Archibald

Jane Archibald, Orchestre Symphonique de Bienne/Thomas Rosner
Haydn Arias
ATMA Classique
Haydn’s operas can seem lightweight next to the historical and musicological heft of his symphonies and quartets. Taking the arias heard here on their own terms i.e. entertainment (that dirty word!) composed for Haydn’s patron Esterhazy, makes for a charming example of the composer’s melodic wit and sense of lyricism.  The opening “Al Tuo Seno Fortunato” (“To Your Joyous Breast”) might as well be a concerto for voice, an excuse for sprinting coloratura despite a cliche text.  Vocalist Jane Archibald starts strong and stays that way.  Some listeners may find her unadorned delivery too detached, but the soprano’s surefire technique and light (never thin) voice lets Haydn’s music speak for itself.  “Filomena Abbandonata” (“Philomena Abandoned”) is an elegant statement of despair, and Archibald conveys a young girl’s first flowering of love in the recitative and aria from L’Isola Disabitata with credibly girlish restraint rather than showy histrionics.  The Orchestre Symphonique Bienne under the direction of Thomas Rosner ably accompany Archibald and contribute a few instrumental overtures.  Not much groundbreaking, but plenty of beauty and fun.

Harmonices Mundi/Claudio Astronio
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Complete Harpsichord Concertos
Brilliant Classics
W.F. Bach may be the earliest known case of “a low down dirty shame.”  Bach’s eldest son struggled professionally and personally in his own time, and many critics who have forgiven him for selling off his father’s works still place him firmly in his dad’s shadow.  This collection reveals a composer equally influenced by his famous father’s athletic, technically polished works as well as the easy lines and lighter textures developing around him.  At the same time W.F. Bach sticks to his own melodic and thematic guns.  The first movement of the F minor concerto surges forward over hammering sturm und drang chords, before inserting keyboard fireworks and ensemble counterpoint that do the elder Bach proud.  The Concerto in F is a more modern outing, playing sunny orchestral passages off against Galant solo episodes, and the “Concerto in F for Two Harpsichords” unfolds as a tuneful dialog between two keyboards.  Harmonices Mundi’s one player per part scoring is intimate yet powerful enough to keeps things in the hall rather than the chamber.  Harpsichordist Claudio Astronio handles his solos with confidence and flair, knowing just where to push the emotional envelope.  He illuminates works by a “transitional” composer and shows that in W.F. Bach’s case, influence does not preclude individualism.

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The Fine Art of Cluelessness

Remember when you had all the time in the world to devote to a book or really get absorbed in a film?  Neither do I.  Thank goodness for museums and live performances, where you get a receipt showing that you paid fair and square to get out and enjoy art for at least a little while.

Most of my listening is done to and from places, through the ubiquitous blessing we understate as an “MP3 player.”  Part concert hall, part time machine, and part social leveler,  to paraphrase one of our greatest living philosophers it’s a miracle we take for granted every day.  Yet listening to Jommelli’s Demofoonte during my morning commute made that miracle seem like an awkward fit for opera.  Until someone invents a big iPod that can display cast, instrumentalists, the date and place the work was premiered, not to mention libretto with translation, the most popular medium for recorded music leaves out a lot of details many opera fans will say are crucial.  Opera has poetic and dramatic dimensions on par with the actual music, or so we assume because it usually has supertitles and a stage attached to it.

Independent of language and story, Jommelli’s rhythms, orchestrations and treatment of the voice as a musical instrument were more than enough.  The slight but noticeable melancholy in the way he voices a string section, with woodwind colors peeking out just under the surface,  may or may not always reflect the characters’ emotions, but purely as a sound it paints a whole different musical world than Mozart or Haydn, or for that matter Gil Evans or Lady Gaga.  During accompanied dialogue (where my limited Italian can’t keep up), the way the orchestra haltingly enters, then plays call and response with the singer before exploding underneath a buckshot of vocals,  that illustrates something momentous in the story far more effectively than mere syllables or words could.  And beyond any fictional story, I can hear an actual composer’s mind at work.  If he died a few hundred years ago, it’s all the more impressive that he’s still getting work in this economy.

Context opens up an experience that transcends sculpted sound, or for that matter molded clay or images on a screen.  In opera, context often (not always!) entails a lot of heavy lifting we can’t get to.  I’ve been listening to and loving opera for years, and even I get intimidated by that context.  Yet treating the music as, well, MUSIC, as a pool of sound to splash around in, can be helpful when all that history and drama isn’t handy.  Understanding can be overrated.  If that sounds like something a a hurried, narrow-minded postmodern slacker might say, keep in mind that pretty much all of Handel’s operas, sung entirely in Italian, played to English audiences in London.  And that was pop music.

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