6|12|11 La Crosse Tribune
Sunday afternoon brought Alexander Platt’s…—Alan Becker, February 15, 2010, South Florida Classical Review
Waukesha Symphony evokes glamour of movies—Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/25/09
2008 SAW MANY HIGH POINTS—Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 12/20/08
Reduced Waukesha Symphony gets Haydn’s humor—By TOM STRINI Journal Sentinel music critic Posted: 4/6/08
Attractive, Rare French Songs at Maverick
…the concluding item,…brought the members of Sequitur back for Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. These poems are attractively mysterious, and Ravel’s settings of them are masterful, musically adventurous, brilliantly scored, consistently fascinating. Given a chance to sing longer, more lyrical phrases, Nessinger [Mary], shone, and the ensemble’s playing under Platt also sparkled. Platt had given this music a big buildup in his introduction but it justified all his enthusiasm.
—Leslie Gerber, Boston Musical-Intelligencer
“‘This,’ announced COT’s director of artistic operations, Jerry Tietz, ‘is live theatre at its livest!’ Not to worry; conductor Alexander Platt spirited his players through the score with rollicking grace, with the musicians now placed upstage of Anya Klepikov’s unit setting….This was a fun night and, as the obvious merriment of the capacity audience verified, a delicious opportunity to hear Shostakovich as one has rarely heard him before.”
—Mark Thomas Ketterson, OPERA NEWS, July 2012
CHICAGO—What are the Russian words for “zany,” “light-hearted romp” “that old razzle-dazzle”?Whatever they are, they’re not usually associated with Dmitri Shostakovich, he of the darkly jagged string quartets and turbulent symphonies. But Chicago Opera Theater’s effervescent new production of his long-forgotten operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki requires such evocations of onstage froth and more. Unveiled April 14 at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago, the production opens Brian Dickie’s final season as COT’s general director. It offers the combination of superb onstage talent, inventive production ideas, and colorful orchestration that has made COT such a valuable player on Chicago’s musical scene during Dickie’s 13-year tenure.
A comic tale of young lovers looking for rooms of their own amid the frustrating maze of the Soviet housing system, Cheryomushki, written in 1958, has had a checkered history. In the post-war era, Soviet audiences adored operettas and Broadway-style musicals, whether live or on film. There were operetta theaters all over the country. Shostakovich was also a fan, and as a student he earned money as a movie-house pianist and composer of pieces for jazz band in the 1930s.
But his love for that particular style of song and dance seems to have been a guilty pleasure. He disparaged Moscow, Cheryomushki in a note to a friend just before its premiere, though the show’s immediate success may have soothed his embarrassment. Three years later the operetta, named for an actual Moscow housing development called Cherry-Town, moved to the big screen, transformed into a splashy movie musical. A cross between the Technicolor ebullience of Singin’ in the Rain and the sentimental magic of It’s a Wonderful Life, Moscow, Cheryomushki became an icon, the go-to film for Soviet families during the New Year holidays.
As the Soviet fad for operetta waned in the 1960s, however, the stage version of Moscow, Cheryomushkivirtually disappeared. It wouldn’t resurface until the mid-1990s when a Russian recording and a production by England’s feisty Opera Pimlico brought its snappy patter and catchy tunes back to life.
COT’s crack musical and production teams have refurbished Moscow, Cheryomushki from top to bottom without damaging its underlying charm. Gerard McBurney’s brilliantly colored musical arrangement— created for Opera Pimlico and expertly led in Chicago by Resident Conductor Alexander Platt—reduces Shostakovich’s large orchestra to a 15-member dance band. (As McBurney points out in a program note, Shostakovich used the same forces of tootling flute, smoky sax, and impudent brass in his Jazz Suite No. 1.) Librettist Meg Miroshnik has retained the rhyme schemes of the original songs and spoken dialogue. There are occasional clunky spots, but in general her blend of straightforward conversation and poetic flights speeds the show along while honoring its sweetly youthful optimism.
Visually, the world of COT’s Moscow, Cheryomushki—created by stage director Mike Donahue, set and costume designer Anya Klepikov, and lighting designer Julian Pike—is as brightly colored as a child’s playroom. The setting is a construction site, and the chorus bustles about in neon yellow hard hats, orange safety vests, and work boots. Twin scaffolding towers resemble an Erector Set glazed in primary colors. A ridiculously perky pink-and-yellow Porta Potty gets wheeled in and out.
Sporting bold stripes, tight Capri pants, demure shirtwaist dresses and crinoline skirts, the ladies of the show look like models from an issue of Seventeen magazine circa 1958. Boris (Paul LaRosa), an explosives expert, was a handsome hunk in madras shirt and corduroys, a confident ladies man compared with Sergei (Dominic Armstrong), a sweetly bumbling teddy bear in a chauffeur’s leather jacket and cap. Slinking about in skinny suit, skinny tie, and shades, Fedya Drebednyov (the long, tall Matt Boehler) was the very image of an oily Soviet bureaucrat.
Running approximately three hours including intermission, the show was briskly paced, its dance numbers, songs, and dialogue unfolding in a generally seamless stream. All the more remarkable since a last-minute glitch in the Harris Theater’s pit equipment forced the orchestra to move onstage. Arranged behind the singers, the musicians sat with their backs to the audience while Platt faced out.
One of Dickie’s great gifts as an opera company general director is his talent for spotting rising talent, and Moscow, Cheryomushki is packed with it. COT borrows liberally from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center apprentice program, and several singers in the cast are Ryan Center members or alumni. Among them is mezzo-soprano Emily Fons who brought a rich voice and comically frenetic personality to Masha, the recent bride pining for a night at home alone in her own apartment with her beloved hubby, Sasha. Baritone Adrian Kramer, an endearingly nerdy Sasha, plied her with equally overwrought ardor.
As Lusya the crane operator, an unrepentant optimist, Sophie Gordeladze made us believe every one of her naïve dreams and schemes. A native of Tbilisi, Georgia, she unleashed a radiantly expressive, bright soprano. Sara Heaton’s Lidochka, a serious-minded museum guide hoping to find an equally serious-minded man, offered a neat balance between brutal practicality and youthful hope. Soprano Ashleigh Semkiw was delightfully arch as Vava, Drebednyov’s blonde bombshell of a trophy wife. Bass-baritone Paul Corona brought just enough sputtering outrage to Barabashkin, the beleaguered but corrupt apartment manager. Paul Scholten was touching as Baburov, Lidochka’s aged father clinging to memories of his old Moscow neighborhood.
Chicago opera audiences have seen some fabulously inventive dancing this year in Lyric’s new productions of Showboat and Rinaldo. That winning streak continues with Moscow, Cheryomushki,choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, associate choreographer forShowboat. Dancers from both Lyric shows are among COT’s cast, and everything from the show’s magic ballet to its hilarious 1950s style jitterbug number is done with sophisticated flair and impeccable technique.
This is one of COT’s not-to-be-missed shows, a perfectly crafted confection of wacky satire and gentle hope. What’s Russian for “Be there or be square”?
— Wynne Delacoma, Musical America
It’s ironic that a musical about the Soviet housing crisis and shoddy construction was nearly done in Saturday night by a malfunctioning elevator.
One hour before the curtain of Chicago Opera Theater’s season-opening performance of Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki, the Harris Theater orchestra-pit elevator broke, rendering it inoperable for Saturday’s performance. The artistic staff had to scramble and quickly relocate the musicians at the back of the stage behind the sets with some on-the-fly adjustments to the stage action as well. As Jerry Tietz, director of artistic administration, put it in his remarks explaining the situation, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is live theater at its livest.”
Considering the last-minute chaos, the show went on with minimal visible distractions. The chamber orchestra had somewhat less presence but not enough to affect the performance and the cast gamely carried on even with conductor Alexander Platt invisible to the singers at the back of the stage. The only obvious glitch was a loud mechanical clicking that repeatedly intruded on the quiet moments in Act Two.
Operetta was a guilty pleasure for Shostakovich and his Moscow, Cheryomushki became an unlikely hit in the Soviet Union in 1958. The romantic comedy concerns a group of Muscovites looking for apartments during the postwar Soviet housing crisis, specifically four couples trying to secure flats in the new development of Cheryomushki.
Moscow, Cheryomushki inhabits a different universe from the bleakness and death-head desolation of Shostakovich’s familiar symphonies and string quartets. The style hovers between operetta and musical theater, crafted in the light, populist vein of Shostakovich’s jazz suites, with snappy songs, ensembles, dance numbers, and lively choruses, often mining—and satirizing —material that would have been familiar to Russian audiences of the day.
Gerard McBurney’s reduction of the score from a huge Soviet orchestra to chamber ensemble takes its instrumentation from Shostakovich’s jazz suites and is done with consummate skill and sympathy.
Meg Miroshnik’s new libretto for this production proved more of a mixed bag. She was consistently inspired in matching lyrics to the music, yet somewhat less successful in the dialogue. Her free translation often took too liberal a hand with its jarring American colloquialisms. Also Lusya’s repeated straight-faced exhortations to the Cheryomushki residents’ “Collective Will” sounded more hollow and propagandistic than anything in the ironic, wryly subversive original. If anything, beneath the surface froth Moscow, Cheryomushki remains relevant in its message that people have a right and responsibility to stand up to entrenched bureaucracy and a government—any government—that seeks to forcibly impose its will and strip away their freedoms.
Anya Klepikov’s effective unit set offers a pair of three-story scaffolding towers symbolically painting the wedding-cake architecture of the era enhanced by her roll-on sets and colorful period costumes. Mike Donahue’s imaginative direction was an object case in making something out of minimal resources with Donahue investing his cast with a comic energy and youthful enthusiasm that largely carried the production through its nearly 180 minutes. (The last half-hour runs out of steam with an anticlimactic thud of a final scene that clearly needs some work.)
As Boris, the cynical ladies’ man who just wants to marry a woman with an apartment but unexpectedly falls for the prim museum guide Lidochka, Paul LaRosa sang well if overdoing the American swagger a bit too much, seeming more like an overgrown frat-house jerk at times than a likable hero. He showed some impressive physicality with his Russian dance moves, something they don’t teach you at the music conservatory.
Following up her impressive COT debut last year in Death and the Powers, Sara Heaton provided some of the best singing of the evening as the intellectual tour guide, Lidochka. She delivered her patter song about her extensive education with pinpoint clarity and precision and brought expressive depth to her melancholy aria when she and Boris have parted. The audience went wild over the extended dance sequence for her and LaRosa, with enthusiastic applause that literally stopped the show.
Dominic Armstrong was a consistently engaging presence as Boris’s shy chauffeur friend Sergei, showing ease in the musical vernacular and singing sweetly with his high tenor. As the construction forewoman Lusya, the object of Sergei’s affections, Sophie Gordeladze sang with a gleaming voice in her Act 2 aria. Her cardboard character suffered the most in this new libretto, though the Georgian soprano showed personal courage in repeatedly climbing the side stage ladder to reach her “crane” high atop the Harris stage.
As the randy newlyweds Sasha and Masha, Adrian Kramer and Emily Fons provided spirited comedy and worthy singing, Fons’ high mezzo heard to particularly fine effect. Paul Scholten, as Lidochka’s displaced father Semyon, provided one of the vocal highlights with his nostalgic aria about old Moscow.
As Drebednyov, the Soviet apparatchik who uses his “connections” to steal an apartment for his wife Vava, Matt Boehler proved a worthy comic villain and Ashleigh Semkiw was a hoot as his manipulative sexpot wife. Paul Corona was perfect casting as Barabashkin, the put-upon superintendent of Cheryomushki, singing with a booming bass-baritone and faultless comic timing.
Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel provided some lively moves for the singers who energetically threw themselves into the dance routines as well as more sophisticated ballet for the superb corps of professional dancers (Nebi Berhane, Jennifer Goodman, Craig Kaufman, Todd Rhoades and Teanna Zarro).
All credit to Alexander Platt and the orchestra who had to quickly convert themselves into an on-stage banda. Even with that last-minute retooling, Platt and his 14 musicians put across Shostakovich’s engaging score with terrific verve, brash energy and wit.
Don’t let the title and unfamiliarity put you off. Even with quibbles, Moscow, Cheryomushki is a hugely enjoyable evening for fans of opera as well as musical theater. There are only three more performances, so don’t wait to snap up a ticket. It’s unlikely that this delightful musical will come your way again.
— Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
In theater, as in real life, things don’t always go according to carefully-laid plan.
Only an hour before the curtain was to go up on Chicago Opera Theater’s season-opening production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Moscow, Cheryomushki” Saturday night at the Harris Theater, company officials learned that the elevator in the orchestra pit had broken down. What to do with the orchestra? Some quick thinking was required.
With the cool resourcefulness that has been one of the attributes of Brian Dickie’s 13 years as COT general director, conductor Alexander Platt’s chamber orchestra was re-installed behind the two large construction-site scaffolds that dominated Anya Klepikov’s colorful unit set. Right on schedule, the show went on, without any apparent glitches. In fact, if the audience hadn’t been told of the problem beforehand, few would have guessed anything unusual was going on.
Shostakovich’s only operetta, chosen as one of COT’s “peopel’s operas” in a company fundraiser in 2009, is the 23rd Chicago premiere of Dickie’s tenure and one of the most enterprising rarities he’s brought to the city. The cast is young, energetic and engaging, made up, for the most part, of present and past members of Lyric Opera’s artist development wing, the Ryan Opera Center. Everyone on stage appears to be having great fun, and, thanks to that, so did Saturday’s audience.
While the flimsy plot of “Moscow, Cheryomushki” is padded out to evening length by fantasy-ballet sequences and gobs of spoken dialogue, director Mike Donahue keeps the human traffic moving at such a zany pace (abetted by Eric Sean Fogel’s fluid choreography, beautifully danced) that one barely notices any longueurs. And Shostakovich’s music is such a thoroughgoing delight as to silence whatever reservations remain.
Composed in 1958, “Cheryomushki” takes its name from an actual place, one of those hideous, high-rise apartment blocks Nikita Khrushchev put up on the cheap all around Moscow during the 1950s. Three young couples desperately seek housing in the complex, but their bourgeois aspirations are thwarted by red tape and corrupt local officials. One of them, the party boss Drebednyov (Matt Boehler, hilarious), grabs one of the vacant flats for himself so he can install his mistress, Vava (Ashleigh Semkiw), a pneumatic floozie who really should have been named Vava-voom.
The central romantic couple is Boris (Paul LaRosa), a macho explosives expert whose pursuit of the prim museum guide Lidochka (Sara Heaton) is hampered by his reputation as a skirt-chasing lothario. Newlywed lovebirds Masha (Emily Fons) and Sasha (Adrian Kramer) long for the privacy of their own apartment.
And then there’s Boris’ childhood buddy, the chauffeur Sergei (Dominic Armstrong), who’s too shy to declare his love for Lusya (Sophie Gordeladze), the forewoman of the construction crew. Paul Corona is Barabashkin, the hated “super” of Cherry Tree Towers who lugs around the coveted keys on an enormous chain.
Although comic in tone, “Moscow, Cheryomushki” does have an ironic point to make about the disconnect between the characters’ youthful idealism and the bureaucratic reality that stifles their ambitions. Nothing short of magic can help realize them, and, sure enough, everything is made right by a magic garden that contains a truth-telling bench, a phone booth that only connects calls made with a pure heart and a fountain that washes away the world’s ugliness. The ending is a triumph of what the proletarian heroine Lusya calls the “collective will.”
As satire goes, “Moscow, Cheryomushki” is pretty mild, not to mention dated. A more biting, topical translation would have helped, but the one COT commissioned from Meg Miroshnik, with its unidiomatic English and clumsy scansion, is much too bland to match the tang of Shostakovich’s nifty score.
The Russian master adored the light operas of Offenbach and Lehar, and here he proved he could craft a charming theater confection of his own. His music is packed with memorable melody and parody-filled orchestral writing —a conspicuously cartoonish touch most listeners would hardly associate with the grim, chain-smoking composer of stark symphonies and dark string quartets.
The effect is intensified in the 1994 reduction for 14 players by Chicago Symphony creative director and Shostakovich scholar Gerard McBurney, which harkens to the brittle razzmatazz of the young Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites. Platt keeps his merry band perking along with vigor, authority and a precision that was remarkable for the risky positioning of his chamber orchestra just behind the riot of singing and dancing.
The cast makes a tight ensemble. Who knew that LaRosa and Heaton, who are such terrific singers and comic actors, also are such terrific dancers? Their Act 2 pas de deux, a fantasy sequence in which they get to glide like Fred and Ginger, is a knockout that brings down the house. Fons and Kramer are adorable as the amorous couple whose flat is invaded by partying neighbors and a wrecking ball. Gordeladze reveals a luscious soprano in her U.S. opera debut as Lusya. Boehler and Semkiw play their scenes to the madcap hilt. Paul Scholten is fine as Baburov, Lidochka’s uprooted father; so is Corona as the put-upon Barabashkin.
Scene changes are wittily handled by choristers and dancers wearing orange construction vests and yellow hardhats.
It’s one of those rare and happy coincidences that the CSO should be playing Shostakovich (the Fifth Symphony) in Moscow the same week COT is playing Shostakovich in Chicago. Dickie’s final season at COT is off to a strong start.
—John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
It’s the year for shockingly good operetta in Chicago. Lyric Opera of Chicago recently offered a sparkling Show Boat that showed why the early American musical theatre has a place in the opera house. And now Chicago Opera Theater is giving the local première of a constantly tuneful, utterly charming, frequently insightful, and laugh-out-loud hilarious musical comedy, Moscow, Cheromushki (Moscow, Bird Cherry Towers) by, of all people, Dmitri Shostakovich.
Yes, that Shostakovich, the often mournful composer born into Russian revolutionary turmoil, a teenager under Lenin, survivor of Stalin, who somehow made it into the gloriously inglorious Brezhnev era. Between shotgun-commissioned hymns to the people, war symphonies, and songs and dances of death, it turns out that Shostakovich was a devotée of cabaret and operetta—we already knew that he had a soft spot for jazz and Tin Pan Alley —ducking out of his studio for weekly doses of singing dames and gents and big Franz Lehár-sized, job-providing orchestras.
In 1958, during the relative thaw of the Khrushchev era, he wrote a show of his own, enlisting veteran—and careful—Soviet satirists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky for book and lyrics and packing it full of numbers from bright and cheery to acid-cutting with nary a dud among them. All of Shostakovich’s technical and magpie abilities are here but put at the service of a wholly different field in which, with a less capricious state and easier cultural exchange, he also could have been a contender.
At a time when young people in even the world’s wealthiest country are having economic trouble leaving the nest, an Oklahoma!-like celebration of potential apartments in new, suburban, concrete public housing developments can ring many a jazzy and coosome bell. And that master caster Brian Dickie, launching his 13th and final Chicago Opera Theater season with his 23rd (!) area première, has filled the stage with youthful singers as great to look at as they are to hear—and who can dance, too! With resident conductor Alexander Platt, responsible for key triumphs of the Dickie era, returning to lead the 14-piece band—onstage at least on opening night Saturday due to a busted pit elevator—and a production team that must wake up smiling every day, this three-hour evening is a winner from start to finish.
Lyric’s Ryan Center members and alumni make up much of the cast roster along with those from other international programs. In her U.S. operatic début, heart-grabbing soprano Sophie Gordeladze of ex-Soviet Georgia provides additional authenticity as the plot-framing crane-operator Lusya, voice and advocate of “the Collective Will” of the ragtag group of apartment builders and seekers. Homeless newlyweds Masha and Sasha are animated by mezzo Emily Fons and Canadian baritone Adrian Kramer, both as sexy as they are musically gifted.
Paul LaRosa is the second of the male Cheryomushki singers singled out by the “Barihunks” opera fan website and, as Boris, the fellow on the make who proves to have a big heart in the end, is a perfect match to soprano Sarah Heaton’s Lidochka, the museum guide who can also swing. When the two tackled Shostakovich’s ode to young love and nascent rock ’n’ roll they, and Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography, literally stopped the show. Tenor Dominic Armstrong is the AWOL chauffeur and sweet wooer of Lusya, baritone Paul Scholten is wholly convincing as Lidochka’s father who can’t imagine leaving his old neighborhood for a sterile tower, and former COT Young Artist Ashleigh Semkiw vamps vampily as Vava the Vamp.
Bass-baritone Paul Corona and bass Matt Boehler (the third designated “Barihunk” along with Kramer and LaRosa) are hilarious in their you-love-to-hate-them roles as the building’s super, Barabashkin, and Drebednyov, the bureaucrat who can make apartments—and himself—“disappear,” respectively. A shame that Shostakovich did not give Drebednyov a Damn Yankees “Those Were the Good Old Days”-style solo number; the purple-suited Boehler has more than the chops to pull one off.
Errol Girdlestone has prepared a top-notch 12-member chorus of COT/Roosevelt University Young Artists, and Todd Rhoades leads a five-member dance corps that brings more than a bit of MGM to the Harris Theater. Anya Klepikov’s sets and costumes light up the sky, literally, along with Julian Pike’s lighting. Débuting director Mike Donahue and librettist/translator Meg Miroshnik know how to bring this Soviet satire smack into the here and now. (There are effective supertitles as well.) And Platt’s alternately impassioned and lilting leadership of Gerard McBurney’s band reduction of the score just makes you wish that Shostakovich had written more in this genre—Russian and Jewish folk songs, genuinely fine ballads, and a master’s understanding of how to move the story along power the steady success here of “the Collective Will.”
—Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times
Little in either the biography or most photographs of Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich shouts out, “Let’s put on a show!”
However, like many Russians, the often dour artist, who died in 1975 at 68 after years of broken health, was a man of many parts. Among his prolific output of more than 200 works, a number of them powerful and tragic symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and song settings, there were also lighter pieces, some of them inspired by or written for film and theatre. Weekly visits to local music halls and musical theatre houses helped keep his nervousness and well-earned fear of political and personal persecution somewhat at bay.
In 1958, with two prominent satirists, he wrote his own musical comedy about workers hoping for flats in a new, cheap public housing development: Moscow, Cheryomushki. It’s Good Times meets Avenue Q meets Rodgers and Hammerstein and The Communist Manifesto, “We’re Living It” edition.
“This is an exuberant example of a serious composer at the top of his game making a wholly enticing diversion out of his artistic vice of musical comedy,” said Chicago Opera Theater resident conductor Alexander Platt, who will be conducting the new production for COT in its Chicago première. Starting in 2001, Platt, who now heads four orchestras in Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Dakota while remaining based in Chicago, led some of COT’s greatest achievements, including Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Britten’s Death in Venice, and John Adams’s Nixon in China. The four performances at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park run from Saturday through April 25.
“It’s a dense and complicated score—this is Shostakovich. But even if you did not have the hilarious goings-on on stage, the incredible design—a sort of Khrushchev-era Mad Men—and these wholly appealing young singing actors, the humor and sheer wackiness of the music comes out through the score itself,” Platt said. “It just jumps out of the jazz band/chamber orchestra of 14 we’ll have in the pit.”
This reduced scoring, presented here in two acts totaling about 2 hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission), is the work of Shostakovich expert Gerard McBurney who doubles as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s artistic programming advisor and “Beyond the Score” creator.
“Gerard gets every reference—whether it’s Borodin or Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich’s own hugely popular Fifth Symphony or the soundtrack and style of Jolly Fellows, a smash 1934 Soviet musical comedy film, if you can imagine,” Platt said. “And his arrangement not only allows this piece to be presented in theatres— it also takes it closer to much of the source material and the hapless-seeming characters on stage.”
This musical version was created in the 1990s for the small and unusual British Pimlico Opera. For this staging, COT general director Brian Dickie, launching his last season with the company with his 23rd (!) Chicago première, commissioned a young team of director, translator/adaptor, designers, and choreographer to give the work a fresh feel and also to get away from some of the weightier ways it has been produced.
“This is not Brecht,” said Platt. “And it’s not dark like The Threepenny Opera. Of course there are darker aspects— people struggling to make ends meet and find a place to live in a hopeless, tottering system. But everyone in the initial audiences in Moscow already knew all of that. Shostakovich was giving them a way to laugh at their situation.”
The ensemble cast is studded with top young members and alumni of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center. Mezzo Emily Fons plays museum guide Sasha, whose husband, Masha, is sung by baritone Adrian Kramer, from the Canadian Opera Company’s training program. Their two characters dream of actually being able to live together in their own room. Tenor Paul LaRosa and baritone Paul Scholten, who play more sinister figures, are joined by bass Paul Corona as the payoff-expecting building super, Barabashkin.
Returning rising performers include bass Matt Boehler (a chilling and hilarious Leporello in COT’s 2008 Don Giovanni) and soprano Sarah Heaton from last year’s Death and the Powers: The Robots’ Opera. Three other singers bow, the whole cast selected by talent-spotter Dickie.
COT and Lyric stalwarts chorus master Errol Girdlestone, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, and lighting designer Julian Pike round out the team of emerging director Mike Donahue, librettist Meg Miroshnik, and set and costume designer Anya Klepikov.
Immediately after stepping outside of himself with Cheryomushki, the then-53-year-old Shostakovich orchestrated/completed Mussorgsky’s great, dark opera Khovanshchina and wrote his central Seventh and Eighth Quartets, and, a year or so later, his Thirteenth Symphony, Babi Yar, his most stinging criticism of the Soviet Union and of anti-Semitism. Those are different worlds from this work, which is more akin perhaps to the composer’s 1927 “Tahiti Trot,” his own version of “Tea for Two” from that gravely political and oh-so-socially-conscious American musical, No, No, Nannette.
Now, thanks to COT, Shostakovich’s “Bird Cherry Tree Town” will at last bloom in Chicago.
—Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times
More than 1,000 people in Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center knew they saw and heard something special Saturday night. They erupted with applause and one of the longest standing ovations I ever witnessed for the Symphony.
It wasn’t because of some phenomenal performance by a great pianist or violinist as a guest artist. It was simply a sensational and stunning performance by the La Crosse Symphony and its season-ending concert: no doubt, one of the best performances and concerts by the orchestra in the last three decades. (I’d say THE BEST performance by this symphony in 30 years and, who knows, maybe in its 113-year history.)
Alexander Platt, the orchestra’s first-year conductor and Music Director, pulled out all the stops and brilliantly led and conducted this orchestra to a new level—somewhere between here and the next galaxy.
This concert had the potential from the start with Schubert’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony— two perfectly written masterworks. All the movements of both symphonies were a joy with marvelous melodies and orchestration. But the orchestra performed both symphonies so well that most people looked at each other with that kind of “wow” gleam in their eyes, and smiled. It wasn’t that this orchestra suddenly got so much better, because it has been quite good for some time; but it gave an extraordinary performance clearly and concisely led under the careful control of Alexander Platt.
The orchestra is at the top of its game. The violin section played cleanly, fully with passion and sensitivity. The violins have never sounded better. The rest of the strings performed wonderfully in beautiful balance and dynamics among the different sections. The woodwinds, which usually are superb, played better than ever. This woodwind section easily could be part of most major orchestras. The brass section was brash and bold. All sections clicked in an aerobic orchestral workout.
The orchestra opened with Schubert’s Fifth, a gorgeous symphony with all those gorgeous melodies; it was perfectly suited for a spring concert. The orchestra played the piece with a lightness, sweetness and elegance from a bouncy first movement to the hilarious romp in the fourth movement.
Platt said that he wanted his orchestra to knock themselves out in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth; they did. This concert performance will go down in LSO history as one of the great ones. But I think this foreshadows what is to come if people strongly support this orchestra.
—Terry Rindfleisch, Music Critic La Crosse Tribune, June 12, 2011
The rhapsody seemed to be the perfect fit for Alexander Platt’s debut in conducting his first regular season subscription concert for the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra Saturday in Viterbo University Fine Arts Center Main Theatre.
Platt, who took over as the symphony’s 13th conductor/music director, conducted a wonderful evening of repertoire, and the orchestra played its heart out. The ravishing rhapsody repertoire was varied, intriguing and entertaining.
Some sections of the repertoire proved a bit difficult for the orchestra. But for the most part, the orchestra played well some technically and musically challenging pieces.
Guest artist and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester is a tremendous talent, performing Claude Debussy’s “Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra” and Aaron Copland’s clarinet concerto with beauty, technical precision and marvelous musicianship.
Franch-Ballester has complete mastery of the clarinet with terrific tone and elegant emotional expression. He captured the wide range of the clarinet from the Impressionist style in Debussy’s work to the jazz and folk tunes in Copland’s concerto.
The “Norfolk Rhapsody” by Ralph Vaughn Williams was a treat rarely we get to hear at a concert.
The orchestra played with tenderness as well as boldness in two fantastic rhapsodies—Georges Enesco’s “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” and Franz Liszt’s sixth Hungarian rhapsody.
The audience just sat back and enjoyed the rich melodies of the folk songs. The orchestra ended on a flashy, gypsy symphonic note with Liszt’s piece. The orchestra worked hard to bring out the best in both rhapsodies.
Each sections shined at various times. The music showed off the strength of this orchestra’s brass and woodwind sections, and the strings continued to play more like one.
The audience rewarded Franch-Ballester with standing ovations and the orchestra got the same treatment.
This concert was delightful in part for the variety of romantic rhapsodies. It was a sampler concert of music not familiar to many people. It was refreshing and something to be relished. —Terry Tindfleisch, Copyright 2010 lacrossetribune.com.
Sunday afternoon brought Alexander Platt’s final appearance as the Boca Raton Symphonia’s principal conductor. Next year Phillipe Entremont takes the helm of what has become one of South Florida’s premier orchestral ensembles. Platt can take great pride in his accomplishments with the orchestra since his appointment in 2007, and the good news is he will return to join the Boca Symphonia in the newly created post of principal guest gonductor.
Sunday’s well-attended concert at the Saint Andrews School introduced the audience to Samuel Barber’s ebullient Capricorn Concerto for flute, oboe, trumpet and strings. Capricorn, was the name of Barber’s home in Mt. Kisco, New York where he lived with his partner and fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti for many years.
Written in 1944 when the composer was serving in the army, it’s a neo-Classical piece in three pithy movements, and presents a golden opportunity for the three soloists to strut their stuff. This they did, in glorious spirit and sound, with Jeffrey Kaye’s deft trumpet playing, the sprightly flute of Jeanne Tarrant, and the supple oboe tones of Erica Yamada. Barber’s Adagio for Strings was added to the program in memory of the recent tragic events in Haiti
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor is actually the composer’s first in order of composition but the second to be published. It’s a gem of sustained lyricism and delicate filigree passagework; the orchestra, however is given little to do of interest beyond accompaniment.
Italian pianist Alessio Bax, who took first prize at the Leeds Competition and the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan gave a refined, gentle performance, carefully caressing the keyboard. His tonal spectrum was of enchanting beauty, especially in the Larghetto where time seemed to be suspended on soft string chords and shifting harmonies. The final Allegro vivace began almost imperceptibly, with its subsequent permutations unfolding with great charm, including the rhythm of the Polish mazurka. With the orchestra’s smaller string section, woodwind solos stood out with greater clarity than usual.
Platt concluded his program much as he had begun three years before, with the 22-year-old Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D major. Called the “Paris” Symphony, because of the composer’s six-month stay in 1778, it reveals none of the tragedy that befell the composer when his mother took ill and died during his stay. The music, as if divorced from the personal happenings in his life at the time, is full of the joy of creativity, and his discovery of the colors available to him in expanding his orchestral palette. Unlike in Salzburg, clarinets were now available to him here, and this is his first symphony to make use of them.
The strings sounded transparent and crystal clear in Platt’s well-shaped performance. If an occasional lapse in unanimity of attack did show up, it was of minor import in view of an overall interpretation that served Mozart very well. Even the original extended Andante did not seem a note too long this day.
—by Alan Becker, 2/15/10, South Florida Classical Review
El Paso’s two premier music makers hooked up for the fifth time to take advantage of common purpose and personnel.
El Paso Pro-Musica’s Chamber Music Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary series, and El Paso Symphony Orchestra staged a season concert smack in the middle of the festival, with Pro-Musica’s artistic director Zuill Bailey as guest performer.
Since the non-profits need to shave expenses without shedding quality, one answer for EPSO was waving a bow right in front of its bottom line.
Zuill, on his way to becoming a household name, hangs his cap in El Paso when he isn’t concert touring. He could continue to run the festival and still perform Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto in B minor” with EPSO.
Zuill and orchestra were on track in the gleaming high-spirited first movement. His lustrous duet with flute put on a virtuosic display of artistry before joining full orchestra for an intense display of broken chords.
Zuill’s eloquence was evidenced in the quieter passages of the second movement. He became one with the music, eyes closed, lost in introspection. An occasional wan smile slipped out.
The cello’s sensuous voice profoundly penetrated the joyous finale laden with rhythmic impulses. Sustained audience applause was rewarded with a sublime Bach “Prelude No. 1.”
Symphony audiences had the advantage of hearing Zuill in a polished performance under the masterful control of the orchestra with guest conductor Alexander Platt. The Dvorak took up the second half of the concert, as Platt observed: “No one could follow Bailey!”
Even so, Platt did a fine job in the first half of conducting the unfamiliar “Rustic Wedding Symphony” by Karl Goldmark. Fairly melodic with five movements, not very memorable. But it was worth hearing.
It was pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s big hurrah the second week of the festival. As Zuill’s duo partner in concerts nationwide, Simone is no stranger to El Paso audiences. She first enlivened the chamber festival stage in 2004, when she was still little known.
In 1997, she boldly self-produced a recording of the challenging Bach “Goldberg Variations” and instantly swept onto Best Classical CD lists around the country. Now Simone has critics and fans fawning over her. We’re fortunate her 10-year association with Zuill kept her accessible to El Paso’s annual chamber music festivals.
Faithful festival fans jammed the El Paso Museum of Art’s Gateway Gallery again for the first free Bach’s Lunch concert Jan. 14. They heard Simone play Bach’s “Suite No. 4,” while Zuill unleashed his voluptuous cello with Bach’s “Preludes, 1, 2 and 3.”
Simone’s unpretentious deportment focused her intense concentration on the Suite’s six sections. She exhibited a special expressiveness in the opening Prelude, and prompted emphatic, sensual and dreamy elements all the way to the final Gigue. Her virtuosic approach was spellbinding.
Zuill’s rich cello strains marked the colorful No. 1 Prelude, the strong, powerful embodiment of No. 2 and a bracing sensation in No. 3 as his magical bow whipsawed at a fast and furious pace. An added plus to the program was a repeat of the commissioned “Suite de Canciones” by Roberto Sierra, which had premiered the previous week, with Zuill and pianist Dena Kay Jones.
Simone brought a lively string quartet with her. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble is a remarkable ensemble of fine young musicians that concentrates on promising contemporary music as well as established composers.
Simone led off the Saturday concert in the packed recital hall at the University of Texas at El Paso with effortless and poetic Bach “Preludes and Fugues, No 5, 2, 3 and 9.” The ensemble joined her in another Bach work, “Keyboard Concerto No. 1.” The three movements expressed seamless balance between piano and strings consisting of Clarice Jensen, cello and director; Yuki Numata and Caleb Burhams, violin; and Nadia Sirota, viola.
The first Allegro included a delightful duo with piano and viola. The following two Adagios contained a crisp embodiment of gaiety and continued its capricious sparkle to a frisky finish.
The concert’s second half unveiled the ensemble’s rambunctious side as it performed “String Quartet No. 3” by Jefferson Friedman (b. 1974). My notes indicate a demented Introduction with not much melody. Bows crawled over the strings like a nest full of bees. Jensen demonstrated her ability to play one note in a long ostinato using two bows at the same time.
The final Bach “Keyboard Concerto No. 5” sparkled with Simone and ensemble in a brilliant sharing of virtuosity ending in a rip roaring finish.
Sunday’s concert at First Baptist with Simone and the ensemble showed off impressive and powerful teamwork in a superb reading of Dvorak’s “Piano Quintet in A major.” It was a polished performance as the final work in a concert that first presented Schubert’s “Impromptus,” played with lyrical finesse by Simone. Those works were sandwiched around Phil Kline’s (b. 1953) “The Blue Room and Other Stories,” our lesson in learning new music!
Short and sour, tart really, the work was sorta like listening to paint dry. No melody but with each instrument pumping, scratching, bumping, they produced different effects that hypnotized. I need to hear it again before giving it thumbs up or down.
—Betty Ligon, The El Paso, Inc.
There has been no shortage during the past century of American composers who have been willing to write violin concertos.
But there has been a dearth of conductors and orchestras who have been willing to turn those concertos into repertory pieces (or at least try). A tip of the hat, then, to Alexander Platt and the Boca Raton Symphonia, who did their bit Sunday afternoon for the Violin Concerto of Ned Rorem, a highly original, colorful piece that could certainly stand to be heard more often.
Rorem’s concerto, written in 1984, is more of a six-movement suite than it is a concerto in the traditional sense with which most audiences likely are familiar, but nevertheless it adheres broadly to a standard fast-slow-fast structure. The soloist at the Roberts Theatre on the campus of St. Andrew’s School in Boca Raton was the violinist Livia Sohn, a young player to whom Platt gave the title of the Rorem concerto’s premier interpreter.
Sohn is indeed a fine violinist, a performer with a strong, rich sound who presented the straightforward lyricism of the third movement (derived from a song Rorem wrote in 1953) with unaffected purity, and the loopy spin-cycle bravura of the fifth movement with impressive technique and nonchalance. With the brusqueness of its opening statement, the savage hammering of the timpani in the second movement, and its passages of stark calm in the fourth movement, it adds up to a concerto of widely varied moods, and Sohn was at ease in presenting all of them.
The Symphonia did an expert job for its part, with good solo work by timpani, flute and trumpet at key moments, and an overall sensitivity to the soloist throughout. This is a worthy, interesting concerto, and performing it is exactly the sort of thing an ambitious American chamber orchestra ought to be doing as a matter of course.
Sohn followed the Rorem with an encore, a tender account of the Louré movement from the solo Partita No. 3 in E (BWV 1006) of J.S. Bach, which showed that she also has a good grasp of Baroque style and applies it with restraint and sobriety.
Sunday’s concert opened with another rarity, the Symphony No. 1 (in D major, D. 82) of the 16-year-old Franz Schubert. This precocious symphonic essay is in some ways closer to an hommage than it is simply derivative, with the tyro composer’s influences laid out clearly for everyone to hear: Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and even Rossini, as Platt suggested in remarks made before the performance.
The Symphonia gave this work a tight, springy sound in its faster movements, which worked admirably with the scalar main theme of the Haydnesque first movement and the virtual Beethoven quote of its secondary theme. The orchestra also played it with vigor and power, which had a way of demonstrating that despite its student origins, this is actually a big work, and would come off just as well played by a large ensemble.
The slow movement, echoing the Andante of Mozart’s Prague Symphony (with a sly chromatic-scale quote at the very end), was warm and expansive, and Platt was surely right in the third movement to play the minuet with force and speed to make a better contrast with the ländler of the trio.
In the finale, Platt and the players stressed lightness and wit, giving it enough distinction to stand out from the first, which it otherwise resembles in sheer bigness and scope. All in all, a fine reading of a sharp piece that could easily be in the Classical rotation on orchestral programs. The concert closed with another Symphony No. 1, this one by Schumann (in B-flat, Op. 38, Spring).
Here the chamber size of the Symphonia was decisive; this is a work usually heard with larger forces, but it works well with an orchestra the size of the Boca ensemble, and textures were clear and rarely sounded thick.
The Symphonia’s Schumann was a traditional one as far as tempos and general outlook are concerned, and it was a fitting tribute for the composer’s bicentenary this year. But the violins sounded somewhat ragged and tired, especially in the first movement, which got the music off to an anemic start.
Things were better in the ardent slow movement, where the sense of long line was evident as the melody was passed from section to section, and there was plenty of life and bumptious energy in the scherzo and the big-hearted finale.
—Greg Stepanich, the Palm Beach Arts Paper
—Alan Becker, South Florida Classical Review; Boca Raton Symphonia, November 9, 2009
“Conductor Alexander Platt demonstrated why his soon-to-end tenure at the helm of the orchestra has been such a good one: Fresh, even risky programming, and committed performances….What Platt has created is another decent Mendelssohn symphony, more on the order of the Reformation rather than the Scottish or Italian Symphonies, yet clearly well worth doing, and he deserves great credit for thinking of it and for having the courage to try it. It adds a good early Romantic score to the repertoire of smaller orchestras, and allows some worthy music that would otherwise be overlooked to have new life.”
—Gregory Stepanich, PalmBeachArtsPaper.com, Boca Raton Symphonia, November 9, 2009
—Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2009
PLATT, WAUKESHA SYMPHONY END SEASON WELL —“A low groaning of cellos and basses opens Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2, which ended the Waukesha Symphony’s season Tuesday evening….Alexander Platt conducted with a great appreciation of the melodic ravishment of this music, and it was ravishing. But he heard more than that, so his players could deliver more and we could hear more. I started to say that he made us hear its architecture, but this epic work compares more properly to planetary forces. I heard in this very committed reading the slow, inevitable and logical movement of tectonic plates.”
—Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 20, 2009
“Peter Brook’s “La Tragedie de Carmen” is not your grandfather’s “Carmen”, nor, at several points, Bizet’s, for that matter. For the central production of its spring festival, Chicago Opera Theater is presenting Brook’s 1981 chamber re-casting of Bizet’s celebrated opera, which received a vivid, vocally impressive performance Sunday afternoon at the Harris Theater….Alexander Platt conducted the chamber ensemble with incisiveness and flexibility, bringing out the clever felicities of Constant’s re-scoring, and providing firm dramatic momentum, the opera unfolding in a seamless arc.”
—Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review, May 11, 2009
—John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2009
CHICAGO OPERA THEATER’S “CARMEN” MAKES BIZET LESS BUSY —“Those with a passion for the minimalist aesthetic will be enthralled by “La Tragedie de Carmen” — the cut-to-the-chase version of the Bizet classic now in a Chicago Opera Theater production at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance….As reworked by the 20th century Romanian composer Marius Constant, and adapted by the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and British director Peter Brook, this experiment in condensation and modernization, first produced in 1981, has a running time of just 80 minutes, a cast of seven characters, no chorus, no dancing, and a chamber orchestra under the fleet direction of Alexander Platt…”
—Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times, May 3, 2009
Artymiw, Shostakovich shine at Boca Symphonia—Area concertgoers haven’t had enough opportunities in the past 10 years or so to hear live performances hereabouts of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, an important group of works whose best examples are likely to swell in stature as the years go by.
Now they can add another one to that small list, as Alexander Platt and the Boca Raton Symphonia gave a vivid, vigorous reading Sunday afternoon of the Russian composer’s Ninth Symphony (in E-flat, Op. 70), a short, chamber-style work exactly suited to the size and heft of the Symphonia. It could be argued that Platt’s programming of the piece, and his group’s fine execution of it, made a good case for smaller orchestras everywhere to add it to their usual stock of Mendelssohns, early Beethovens and Borodins.
Though the Ninth, written in 1945, doesn’t compare in size and force to works such as the Fifth or even the Tenth (which got a credible performance a couple years back from the Lynn University Philharmonia), the Ninth is still quite difficult, with virtuoso-style chops needed for the violins and woodwinds in particular. That they were up to the challenge was apparent from the beginning, with the flutes throwing out all the sparkle and wit of this side of Shostakovich, and with a remarkably good high-stepping moment from a solo horn.
Platt’s tempo was swift and strong in the first movement, and nicely paced in the slower second movement, which despite an unfortunate cracked high clarinet note in the first pages had the right kind of moodiness and tension that this music demands, with the strings especially poignant as they took up the melodic burden. The woodwinds and trumpeter Jeffrey Kaye stood out in the impish third movement, as did the rest of the brass in the short fanfares of the fourth.
Some fine solo bassoon work led evocatively into the fifth-movement finale, which Platt began at quite a slow tempo, giving him and the orchestra plenty of room to wind up to the dash and exhilaration of the symphony’s closing pages. This was a sharp, smart, muscular interpretation of this terrific piece, and putting it on the program as the closing work made an even better argument for it.
The first half of the concert, held at the Roberts Theater on the campus of St. Andrew’s School, featured the American pianist Lydia Artymiw in the Piano Concerto No. 21 (in C, K. 467) of Mozart. Nearly five minutes were spent on stage in seriocomic fashion before the work began as Kaye, a technician and finally Artymiw herself labored to fix a recalcitrant music stand on the piano. Fortunately, this glitch didn’t spoil the listening mood for the audience, which is good because a subtle, elegant performance of the concerto soon unfolded.
Artymiw has a large, pretty sound and the technique to go with it, and she also showed she has good taste. One of the special beauties of the opening movement is its frequent mixing of major and minor keys, and in the first such such solo example, Artymiw made the most of it, lingering just enough on it to give it a good measure of Mozartean poetry. That provided excellent contrast with the even strings of sixteenth notes had to spin out for the rest of the movement, and it also hinted where the famous Andante would go.
That movement was notable for the deeply sensitive accompaniment of the orchestra; on the second go-round of the main theme, the pulsing strings were almost inaudible, which made for a lovely effect and also allowed Artymiw full rein to stress the embellishments. In the finale, Artymiw played with a gentle sparkle, and the Symphonia was appropriately restrained until the final measures. It was an admirable partnership of a fine soloist and a sensitive orchestra, and both served Mozart well.
The program opened with another work in C major, the First Symphony of Beethoven (Op. 21). Despite the last-minute loss of one of the first violins, the string sound here was full and confident, and the Symphonia gave the Beethoven a rendition that was sinewy in the first and third movements and sweetly charming in the second, without being too precious.
The finale was businesslike and less pointedly jokey than some performances I’ve heard, and it worked successfully. This reading was a perfect example of how exactly suited orchestras of the Symphonia’s size are for Beethoven’s first symphonic essays, and what it cannot match in a full-size group in sheer power it redeems in the inner strength and clarity with which it presents the music.
The most important aspect of this group’s work is its fresh programming, and the fifth-season brochure that was available Sunday promised more of the same next season, including a performance of the Capricorn Concerto of Samuel Barber and the Violin Concerto of Ned Rorem. Concertgoers by now should confidently expect that these works will be presented with respect and thorough preparation, and a larger eye toward expanding the repertory in general. www.bocasymphonia.org.
—By Greg Stepanich
Rousing Performance—Mendelssohn, Ravel, Larsen and Tchaikovsky in South Florida—The Boca Raton Symphonia is doing some of the most arresting programming in South Florida. Principal conductor and artistic advisor Alexander Platt imaginatively combines rarely heard scores with emotionally compelling contemporary pieces and a smattering of more familiar repertoire. Platt, a discerning interpreter of wide ranging musical vistas, was in great form on 8 February 2009 as he led the ensemble (now in its fourth season) in a typically eclectic program in the Roberts Theater at Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, Florida, USA .
Platt’s clearly delineated, precise baton technique drew strongly accented, adept performances from his highly polished chamber orchestra. Opening with a vigorous, tautly gauged performance of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Platt was equally at home in the lyrical impressionism of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte (‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’)—a gossamer performance that cast its hypnotic spell.
Minnesota-based composer Libby Larsen conceived her setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1993 for the illustrious American soprano Arlene Auger. Like Peter Lieberson’s recent Neruda Songs, Larsen’s six song cycle revels in sensuous orchestral colors, strings and harp painting evocative backdrops to the often high lying vocal arioso. The score begins with the ringing of chimes as prelude to I thought once how Theocritus had sung, as the writer anticipates death. At the conclusion of the final setting How do I love thee? chimes again ring out as the singer intones the final line ‘I shall but love thee better after death’. Larsen effectively mirrors Browning’s volatile moods (and sense of doubt) with jittery orchestral figurations and wild leaps in the vocal line.
Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy successfully met the composer’s formidable vocal demands. Her beautiful, luminous timbre and fearless high register were matched by a pure, firmly focused core of tone and exquisite word painting and textual clarity. A veteran opera conductor (and currently resident conductor of the enterprising Chicago Opera Theater), Platt led a soaring accompaniment, bridging ethereal orchestral tone portraits with the mercurial vocal writing.
Platt concluded the matinée performance with Tchaikovsky’s rarely played Orchestral Suite No 1 in D minor, Op 43. (This was probably the work’s first performance in Florida.) Composed after the composer’s Fourth Symphony, brass fanfares of a similar nature appear early in the piece. The specter of Swan Lake seems to haunt this balletic music. Indeed the Divertimento movement (a sentimental waltz) and concluding Gavotte could well have appeared in one of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. Although the charming Marche miniature, a favorite encore piece of conductor Arthur Fiedler, is fairly well known, the remainder of the work remains a rarity. This is all the more surprising since the six movement suite is replete with typically Tchaikovskian melodic beauty and opulent orchestration. The Intermezzo recalls the sentimentality and melancholia of the slow movements in the Serenade for Strings and Souvenir de Florence while the Scherzo is an invigorating miniature in the manner of similar movements from the composer’s early symphonies.
Platt changed the order of the movements, resulting in greater contrasts of mood, character and instrumentation. The Boca Raton Symphonia responded to his superbly coordinated leadership with a colorful, rhythmically crisp, vivacious and rousing performance. Led by concertmaster Misha Vitenson (first violin of the Amernet String Quartet), the orchestra’s silken strings had a field day with Tchaikovsky’s lush textures and beguiling melodies.
—Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA
Alexander Platt conducts the Boca Raton Symphonia in Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, Shostakovich’s Symphony No 9 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 (with soloist Lydia Artymiw) on 22 March 2009. For information, see www.bocasymphonia.org
BOCA RATON—Fresh programming enlivens Boca Symphonia concert —At a time when the sound of belts tightening across the land would seem to invite cultural groups to play it safe, you have to hand it to the Boca Raton Symphonia for putting art first.
On Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew’s School, the chamber orchestra that’s now in its fourth season of concerts offered a fine work by a contemporary American composer as well as a rarely heard piece by Tchaikovsky on a program that also featured two briefer favorites. It was an impressive afternoon of music, intelligently conceived and expertly played, and while the level of orchestral finish was not consistently high, the freshness of the programming more than compensated for it.
Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy was the soloist with the orchestra and conductor Alexander Platt in a setting by American composer Libby Larsen of six poems from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets From the Portuguese. Larsen is currently in the middle of a two-year residency at Florida Atlantic University, and is composing several new works for the college’s ensembles that will premiere in April.
Platt called the sonnet settings—written 20 years ago for the late Arleen Auger—Larsen’s “masterpiece,” and the work has all the more distinctive features of Larsen’s aesthetic: a sharp ear for good orchestral color, respect for English prosody in setting words to music, and a mild harmonic framework that gives her music a sense of geniality. Larsen knows how to frame a poem and make it come alive as a song, and that might be the most attractive thing about these pieces. Here, the singer’s voice isn’t simply one among many other instruments, as it often is contemporary classical music, but a graceful being apart.
Lundy’s voice is creamy, pleasant and rather intimate, and well-suited for these pieces, which are not vocally extravagant. On a line such as The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years (from the first song, I Once Thought How Theocritus Had Sung), which Larsen sets to a bluesy melodic line, Lundy conveyed a sense of matter-of-fact confession quite well, an effect aided by her good diction.
There’s something of the flavor of Debussy in this score (particularly the second song, My Letters) and even more of Samuel Barber (especially the sixth song, How Do I Love Thee?). The orchestra was sensitive to Lundy throughout, but not averse to exploring the more richly orchestrated pages, giving the cycle flashes of instrumental vividness as the poems explored Barrett Browning’s growing confidence in her love.
This season’s Boca Symphonia concerts have as their theme the work and influence of Tchaikovsky, and for the second half of Sunday’s program, Platt led the group in the First Orchestral Suite (in D minor, Op. 43), which as he rightly said is the most obscure of that composer’s four suites. Platt switched the order of movements three and five, placing the Scherzo before the Miniature March instead of after it.
There is some very fine music in this suite, written in 1878, and its neglect is hard to fathom. The large audience at the Roberts Theater loudly acclaimed it, and a repeat of the fourth-movement march served as the afternoon’s encore.
There were some rough spots here and there, such as the intonation of the brasses with the bassoon in the A major chord just before the violins offer the main theme of the introduction, but overall there was a good deal to admire, including the lovely lightness of the march, the exciting texture of the strings in the busy first-movement fugue (Tchaikovsky was a theory teacher early on), and the intensity with which the orchestra played the long lines of the Intermezzo.
The concert opened with the Hebrides Overture (or Fingal’s Cave, Op. 26) of Mendelssohn, an orchestral perennial that got a very swift, almost too-pushed performance as Platt sought to stress the firepower rather than the Victorian probity of the composer. And this was a reading with an abundance of energy.
Next came Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, which had some horn slippage at the higher end of the melody, but in general came across as luminous and deeply felt. The piece, and the concert, were dedicated to the memory of the bassoonist Arthur Weisberg, a veteran educator, performer and composer who died last month of pancreatic cancer at 77.
A mention should also be made about Platt’s approach when he talks to the audience. He is a fascinating speaker whose monologues on the music to be made have a kind of dinner-party stream of consciousness that give good insight not just into what the music will be all about, but about how Platt approaches it.
On Sunday, he discussed his listening habits (all 11 discs of the complete Mendelssohn choral music, beautiful stuff that is never played) and displayed his grasp of musical and intellectual history (Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings, Tchaikovsky’s post-marriage emotional crisis), but mostly gave the impression of a man deeply committed to his orchestra and his art.
For its next concert Sunday, March 22, the Boca Symphonia and Platt will be joined by American pianist Lydia Artymiw for the Piano Concerto No. 21 (in C, K. 467), of Mozart. Also on the program are two symphonies: Beethoven’s First (in C, Op. 21) and Shostakovich’s Ninth (in E-flat, Op. 70). 2:30 pm, Roberts Theater, St. Andrew’s School, Boca Raton.
Call 376-3848, 888-426-5577, or visit the orchestra’s Website.
Waukesha Symphony evokes glamour of movies— Imagine sitting in a trendy Hollywood cafe in the 1940s or ‘50s and watching the stars go by. Hearing the front end of Sunday’s Waukesha Symphony was a little like that.
Korngold’s “Captain Blood” overture? There goes Errol Flynn, with all his dash and swagger. David Raksin’s theme for “Laura”? Lush and gorgeous as Gene Tierney. Max Steiner’s “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone with the Wind”? That would be someone grand and dignified—Gregory Peck, maybe.
None of it meant a darned thing, but it was all entertaining and even a little thrilling. Korngold’s 1945 Violin Concerto, which draws heavily from his movie music from the 1930s, aspired to more and entertained less.
Alexander Platt presided lovingly over all of this music and over his very well prepared Waukesha Symphony. All the glitzy Hollywood music set the stage for the centerpiece of the program, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3(1936). This symphony is in the same idiom, but its sentiments are not whipped up to order, and its forms were made for attentive ears gathered in concert halls. This is not background music.
A simple Russian Orthodox chant heard at the outset underpins the whole symphony. In the first movement, a blazing fanfare of a first theme seems worlds apart from the dreamily lyrical second. But when Rachmaninoff knots them up in the development, you can no longer tell them apart. He untangles them miraculously in the recapitulation, and then lets us hear the chant one more time. In a pleasing flash of retrospective understanding, you can hear how closely related they are and how the other themes derive from the chant.
The orchestra, at the top of its game, responded instantly and whole-heartedly to Platt’s expressive flex and dynamic nuance. Nothing about this music is obvious, and everything within it is subtle and complex, but Platt and the WSO got to its brooding, secret heart.
This concert took place in Shattuck Auditorium at Carroll University.
—Tom Strini of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Posted: Jan. 25, 2009
Radiant Rachmaninoff— Though the Waukesha Symphony Orchestra’s January 25th concert had the apt title “Rachmaninoff & Hollywood,” Maestro Alexander Platt also dubbed it the “diaspora concert” —all the works spanned the war-torn ‘30s and ‘40s and most of the composers had escaped totalitarianism’s tight grip on Europe. The concert opened with a spirited performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Overture to Captain Blood (1935), one of several Erroll Flynn swashbucklers Korngold scored for Hollywood. The WSO’s brass was especially effective in this rousing piece of classic film music. This was followed by music from 1944’s Laura (David Raskin), wherein the WSO’s strings dominated in sumptuous sonority. Then came music from 1939’s Gone With the Wind, featuring the famous “Tara Theme,” by Max Steiner, another fine example of mood-setting. Violinist Lara St. John was the soloist for Korngold’s Violin Concerto (1945), a lush and challenging work given a bravura performance and superb reading.
The second half of the concert consisted of a work Platt admitted has been a favorite his whole life—Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44 (1936). Apart from a brilliant use of the orchestra that is quite striking in its own right, perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the Symphony is the music’s radiance—lyrical, dramatic, extremely colorful. The first movement requires expansive warmth, the second enchantment and fantasy, and the third an outpouring of exultation and jubilation; and the whole work tinged with nostalgia. The performance made Platt’s acknowledgement of affection for the Rachmaninoff Third superfluous, for the WSO has seldom been as tight, as harmonious, as precise, or indeed, as radiant. —John Jahn – Shepherd Express
2008 SAW MANY HIGH POINTS— “It’s midseason in music and dance, but year-end on the calendar…..The WAUKESHA SYMPHONY does not so much compete with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as live in a parallel musical universe. Music Director ALEXANDER PLATT has a knack for odd, intruiging programs, and his pickup orchestra plays with uncommon zeal. The WSO’s chamber-sized concerts in the chapel of St.John’s Northwestern Military Academy are particular pleasures.”
—Tom Strini, Music and Dance Critic, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 20, 2008
GRANDLY ROMANTIC: Vadim Gluzman onstage with the Boca Symphonia— The great Russian school of violin playing has produced many distinguished artists…….Vadim Gluzman is truly phenomenal…..On 7 December 2008 Gluzman turned Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto into freshly minted gold at the opening concert of the Boca Raton Symphonia….Gluzman boldly reinvented this thrice familiar opus, realizing Tchaikovsky’s sweeping originality and melodic glories. The Boca Raton Symphonia’s new principal conductor Alexander Platt offered keenly projected, supple support…..the thirty-two member Palm Beach County-based chamber orchestra made a strong showing under Platt’s invigorating direction. The conductor captured the intricate contrasts and interplay of instrumental choirs in Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in E-flat major, the 20th-century master’s modernist concerto grosso. Drawing transparent textures from a reduced ensemble, Platt gave equal weight to the score’s bracing neo-classical astringencies and primitive folkloric elements (in the mode of Petrouchka, Le Sacre du Printemps and Les Noces). The light and shadow, wit and pathos of Stravinsky’s inedible work were vividly revealed.
In Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K.504 (“Prague”), Platt emblazoned the Beethovenesque drama beneath the music’s genial high spirits. The strings wove the bewitching melody of the Andante with silky filigree. Platt’s taut, no-nonsense pacing of the Presto finale brought the symphony to an effervescent conclusion.”
—Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/17/08
GLUZMAN’S TCHAIKOVSKY IGNITES BOCA SYMPHONIA OPENER— “The Ukranian-born Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman gave a blazing performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Sunday afternoon in Boca Raton, using the very violin once owned by the man to whom the work was dedicated in 1878. Gluzman’s performance at the season’s first concert by the Boca Raton Symphonia on the 1690 Stradavarius that belonged to Leopold Auer…..had it all: beautiful tone, flawless technique, a hell-for-leather approach to its virtuosic demands, and a heartfelt identification with its most soulful moments.
Conductor Alexander Platt and his orchestra got a serious workout with Gluzman, finding themselves constantly on their toes as the soloist played with tempi and dynamics. But they did an admirable job of doing so…..Platt in general is an involved conductor whose immersion in the music is plain to see, ad that enthusiasm gives his podium work a freshness and liveliness that brings the audience along with him on a journey of discovery. This is a good trait for a music director to have, and it augurs hopeful things for the Boca Symphonia.”
—Greg Stepanich, Music Ciritic, The Palm Beach Post, December 8, 2008
Waukesha Symphony Orchestra: New work for bassoon is intriguing— “Russell Platt’s new Concerto for Bassoon and Strings is a lock to becoming a standard work for bassoonists aspiring to more than sideman status in classical music……Alexander Platt, Russell’s twin brother and music director of the WSO, conducted with great zeal and understanding…..throughout the Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” (transcribed for bassoon and strings), Mozart’s Divertimento in D and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Platt knew where to put the stress to bring out the ache in the harmony, how to express the arc of the phrase and where to spring off the beat to make the music dance.”
—Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel November 17, 2008
WSO excels in tough program— The electric charge that soloist Andrew Armstrong put into nearly every note of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Tuesday was a function of technical skill and interpretive decision. He put a little accent and a little staccato on nearly every note. He favored fast tempos, and he tilted toward louder dynamics. The result was an energetic and exciting Third, with thousands of notes flying into the hall like so many vigorously thrown darts.
And I wish he’d listened more deeply to the Waukesha Symphony and how conductor Alexander Platt built Rachmaninoff’s climactic surges and how Platt and his orchestra made them break at the crest of the wave. I’m thinking especially of the falling theme at the start of the second movement, which builds from a lyrical oboe solo to a great orchestral outburst. The effect was not only passionate, but also elegant. I think such elegance is essential to Rachmaninoff. Armstrong’s treatment of similar material was powerful, but crude by comparison. He sometimes banged on the piano, and that misses the point of Rachmaninoff.
The Waukesha Symphony, which has a number of new faces in its ranks, has never sounded better, at least since I’ve been listening. The WSO aced a difficult program, which in addition to the concerto, comprised Dvorak’s “Carnival” Overture, Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet” (for string orchestra) and R. Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.”
In every case, the WSO went beyond accuracy and deep into the spirit of the piece: the riotous color and tumult of “Carnival,” the speech-rhythms and lyrical rhetoric of the gorgeous but rarely played “Hamlet,” and the antic, gestural extravagance of “Till Eulenspiegel.” Bold, justified confidence bolstered the many exposed solos in this repertoire, with especially notable contributions by horn principal Wes Hatch, concertmaster Robin Petzold and clarinetist Dan Roberdeau. But the first bow must go to Platt, for demanding so much from his part-time suburban orchestra and for getting what he demanded.
This program took place at Carroll University’s Shattuck Music Center.
—TOM STRINI Journal Sentinel music critic Posted: Oct. 14, 2008
Reduced Waukesha Symphony gets Haydn’s humor—The Waukesha Symphony, miniaturized and in top form, played Sunday afternoon at the beautiful chapel of St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield.
Twenty-four players sounded just right for Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 80 and 81, composed for Prince Esterhazy’s Hungarian estate. Music was in flux in Haydn’s earlier years, with certain aspects of Baroque music holding on, and the gracious, decorative galant contrasting with the more melodramatic sturm und drang.
Music director Alexander Platt seems to hear Haydn mixing and matching styles in mischievous ways in these symphonies. Blunt, village-band orchestration puts a comic, lowbrow tilt on the usually stately minuet in No. 80.
In the 81st, the onrushing, proto-Romantic D-minor opening theme hits the immovable object of the dopiest imaginable ländler folk dance tune. It’s supposed to be the second theme, but it’s truncated to a single phrase. It was like Laurence Olivier bumping into Adam Sandler on the set of “Macbeth.” Platt and his players sold that joke, and the one about everything being on the wrong beat in the last movement, and the one about the heavy, determined tread of the minuet theme going on tiptoe after the double bar.
Sometimes, the WSO string sections have trouble staying together in fast passages. Sunday, Platt had whittled the orchestra down to its best, and they were accurate and sensitive without fail. The first violins—all four of them—especially impressed with their singing tone in the operatic adagio of No. 81. It’s not enough to be funny; with Haydn, one must be funny and beautiful.
Mathieu Dufour, the principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony and a frequent guest in Waukesha, was the soloist in John Corigliano’s “Voyage” and Mozart’s Flute Quartet No. 1.
The quartet, originally for flute, violin, viola and cello, sounded completely convincing as a little concerto for flute and string orchestra. The flute part comprises virtuoso flights, which show off the player’s agility and speed, and long cantabile lines that show off breath control and sensitivity of phrasing. Dufour brought impeccable elegance to both.
Dufour’s Mozart sound was clear and pure. He applied a very different sound and sensibility to Corigliano’s one-movement work. “Voyage” is an idyll, a reverie of shifting, overlapping sonorities. In “Voyage” and, as an encore, in Debussy’s “Syrinx,” the flute was dreamy, sensual, seductive and mysterious.
—By TOM STRINI Journal Sentinel music critic Posted: April 6, 2008
Boca Raton Symphonia puts on vivid, crisp performance. A glimpse into the future of the Boca Raton Symphonia was on display Sunday at the Roberts Theater when recently appointed Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Alexander Platt led the ensemble in a program that traversed the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Platt is a strong orchestral technician and lively musical presence. His performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.97 was especially buoyant and invigorating. Platt’s approach was an appealing combination of lithe, transparent contemporary performance practice and an older school of Haydn interpretation that emphasized greater musical weight and spaciousness.
In the second movement Adagio, the conductor enchantingly projected the embroidered filigree of the theme and variations without exaggeration. In a grandly aristocratic Menuetto that was definitely not for dancing, Platt delightfully illuminated the humor of the unexpected drum rolls.
Vivacious, incisive string articulation in the final Presto brought the symphony to a sparkling conclusion. The orchestra’s precise ensemble and superb playing recalled the best years of the Florida Philharmonic.
—Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/11/08
Boca Symphonia. Under a new name, and with its new permanent director, Alexander Platt, at the helm, Boca’s large chamber orchestra demonstrated great subtlety and finesse in an ambitious program in November that included beautiful readings of Bach’s O Mensch, bewein dein Sonde gruss in an arrangement by Max Reger, Mahler’s Bach suite, and the first persuasive rendition I’ve heard in years of the Reformation Symphony of Mendelssohn. Roberta Rust was a fine soloist in the Schumann Concerto, and overall, this concert showed that this group has made real progress since its founding.
—Greg Stepanich, Palm Beach Post, 12/30/07
The Boca Raton Symphonia entered its third season with another important step in its development, the ascendance of Alexander Platt.
For his debut as the Boca Raton Symphonia’s principal conductor and artistic adviser, Platt charmingly connected the dots in a themed tribute to J.S. Bach—without actually playing Bach.
So to speak. Though two short Bach compositions were on Sunday’s menu at the Roberts Theatre, both were later arrangements by admirers of the 18th century composer’s work. Meanwhile, Platt noted, the ghost of Bach hovers over the program’s main items by personal friends Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn.
Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor featured a generally sparkling guest performance by Lynn University’s Roberta Rust, though the impressive clarity of her passagework grew mushy at times during the opening movement’s cadenza.
Platt led the chamber orchestra through Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D, the Reformation, that found both quiet reflectiveness and Pentecostal exuberance, moving easily from the early movements’ interpolations of the Lutheran Dresden Amen toward the large-scale choral fervor of the closing theme, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
The opening Suite for Small Orchestra, arranged by Mahler from Bach’s 1067 and 1068 orchestral overtures, was a clever shakedown for the Symphonia’s season debut. Trills fluttered lightly through the strings at the outset, giving way to a scampering flute both in the overture and through the Badinerie of the second section.
Platt carefully sculpted the soft elegance of the famous Air, but cohesion suffered at times in the lively closing Gavottes.
Following intermission, Platt served up what he called a “uniquely obscure” century-old arrangement, by German composer Max Reger, of Bach’s setting of the Lutheran hymn O Mankind, Bewail Your Great Sins. The Symphonia’s violas rose to shine in this short, reverent piece, hovering expressively over the deeper tones of cello and bass.
As for the important steps, the Symphonia is moving forward in a deliberate, careful manner. Taking up residence in the modestly sized Roberts Theatre a year ago was a smart move that matched good acoustics with the ensemble’s audience base.
Platt’s appointment brings focus and continuity to the artistic endeavor without—as the conductor put it—bringing in a dictator to superimpose a vision.
Platt is conducting two Symphonia programs this season; the next is Feb. 10.
Company president Harry Shuford announced Sunday that intentions are for Platt to conduct all five of the Connoisseur Series programs at the Roberts.
—Jack Zink |Theater/Music Writer | South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com | 11/13/07
It’s the best thing I’ve heard the Boca Raton Symphonia play.
Max Reger’s arrangement of the Bach chorale, O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross (O man, bewail thy grievous sin), is a mere seven minutes long, written for strings alone. Yet for its season opener Sunday afternoon, the Symphonia lavished on it not only soulful grief but also quiet elegance and unusually warm sound.
Responding remarkably to new Principal Conductor Alexander Platt, players shaped the little-known piece into their most expressive and smoothly polished playing, the sum of many excellent points in a thoughtful, inventive program that included the national anthem and Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
Platt conducted the Reger without a baton, shaping every measure with his hands. It came right after new board chairman Harry Shuford announced that Platt, who will lead only one other concert this season, would conduct all five concerts in 2008-09, far more than expected.
Guest pianist Roberta Rust gave another of the performances that stood out as remarkable. Making her Symphonia debut, the Lynn University Conservatory of Music professor lent a lyrical grace and velvety warmth to Schumann’s beloved Piano Concerto in A Minor.
There were a few keyboard splotches and orchestra uncertainties, tempo shimmies and breath-holding spots. But Rust lived and breathed the Schumann. Her powerful connection to the work was clear in her fluent singing and beautifully weighted tone. She draws you into the work’s strength of character as well as its distinctively solemn joy. Even after the music ends, she makes you want to hear more.
In a lovely, romanticized Bach Suite for Small Orchestra arranged by Mahler, and the triumphant concluding Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 (Reformation), it was clear: The Symphonia has grown. A 3-year-old, but not a toddler, it is maturing at a surprising, but gratifying pace.
—Sharon McDaniel | Palm Beach Post Music Writer | Tuesday, November 13, 2007
“Platt themed [the Waukesha Symphony concert] around British music composed during World War II. He opened with the four stormy Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”, an opera about social breakdown in a fishing village. He ended it with the Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5, a hymn to transcendent reality……..The Vaughan Williams was pure bliss, played with enormous confidence and unimpeachable understanding of the aesthetic.”
—Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, October 3, 2007
“Mr Platt’s arrangement (of David Del Tredici’s FINAL ALICE) retained the work’s epic sweep and buoyant fantasy. If his ardent direction made one wish to hear him conduct the original version, it was no insult to the ingenuity of his orchestrations…Mr Platt deserves praise for providing a workable alternative.”
—Steve Smith, The New York Times, 9/3/2007
After the impressive success of Filumena, expectations for John Murrell and John Estacio’s second opera were extremely high, making Frobisher an even bigger challenge. As with Filumena, Frobisher was a joint venture between Calgary Opera and the Banff Centre for the Arts. When it opened in Calgary in January, it played to full houses but mixed reviews, including the review in Opera Canada. Whereas Filumena is a straightforward story opera, Frobisher is an ideas opera in which the narrative element takes second place to a complex web of suggestive dramatic juxtapositions that serve the function of plot. The result is a storyline that in its initial run tended to come across as sometimes obscure or morally preachy, depending on one’s point of view.
While the opera’s title suggests it is about the historical charactor of John Frobisher and his search for the Northwest Passage, the opera is really about the nature of human striving—its heroic element, how the pursuit of a goal can be all-consuming and, finally, whether the pursuit, however noble it may be, is ultimately wise or the best focus for a life.
These fundamental human questions are given dramatic voice across time through people living now, living in the past and, in a sense, living in the future. For most of the opera, the heroism in striving for a goal—the central dramatic leitmotif—is embodied in two main characters, Michael and Anna, who are trying to make a film about Frobisher. But the opera also includes appearances by the dead Frobisher as a spirit, his engagement with Queen Elizabeth I, and also the spirit of Michael, who dies early in the opera. All these are mediated through Anna’s consciousness.
For those who saw the initial run, the central question in the Banff production [seen Aug. 8] was: would the creative team make any changes in light of the Calgary experience? The answer seems to have been: yes, a few. The first act played almost exactly as it did in January, finishing with an impressive finale that, in the Banff production, was even more thrilling and humorous than in the initial performance.
The principle reason for this extra zip was conductor Alexander Platt’s very different conception of the scene. In Banff, the tempi were notably quicker, the rhythms perkier and the sentimental aspect [while still present] much more muted. The sense in Banff was of a considerably more modern opera in its musical sensibility; with this came a more dramatic unfolding of the story. Platt has a very good way with the pastiche elements in the score, and the quasi-Gershwin sections came across as musically much more effective than in Calgary. There were other measurable gains, notably at the end, where the important psychological time shift to the present was more successfully realized. The critically important duet between Michael and Anna shortly before the end also had more force and provided the needed emotional climax.
A slight tweaking of the narrative line in the second act clarified aspects of the story that were unclear in the first run. For me, at least, this revised version, both as opera and in performance, was considerably more compelling than the January premiere.
The singers, while not generally as experienced as those in Calgary, were nevertheless impressive, particularly the three male leads—Thomas Macleay vocally and dramatically a first class Michael, Benjamin Covey a full-voiced Frobisher and Andrew Love an effective Wagman, the Hollywood producer. Christina Tannous was an appealing Anna and fully conveyed the complexities of the character, although her voice tended to excessive vibrato when the dynamic level rose. In all, however, hers was a very commendable account of a very difficult role. Both Heather Jewson as Anna’s mother, Jessica, and Leslie Davis as Queen Elizabeth I projected their roles with firm vocal tone and clearly conceived dramatic interpretations.
Kelly Robinson’s stage action was similar in general outline to the Calgary presentation, but small touches here and there made the action more believable and better paced. The humorous element was notably more pointed and clever. The orchestra was fully prepared and delivered Estacio’s complex and richly melodic score with understanding and high technical polish. The sense of “Opera As Theatre,” the mantra of Banff’s summer program, could be felt everywhere. While the opera is fundamentally very different from Filumena, Frobisher in its Banff incarnation proved no weak sister to its elder sibling and constitutes an impressive accomplishment for both the opera’s creators and performers.
—Kenneth DeLong August, 2007
“As the second presentation of its 2007 season, Chicago Opera Theater presented BLUEBEARD and ERWARTUNG in an often revelatory pairing…Conductor Alexander Platt drew a thrilling orchestral performance from his players, meticulous in observing the myriad detail in this difficult music; those oscillating flutes in BLUEBEARD have rarely sounded so eerie. An extended ovation required that the company’s final bow be taken after the house lights had been turned on—an enthusiastic endorsement of these two pivotal musical creations.”
—Mark Thomas Ketterson, Opera News, July 2007
“The double bill (ERWARTUNG, BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE) was a triumph for conductor Alexander Platt and soprano Nancy Gustafson as the lone character in the Schoenberg. More than 60 musicians constituted over twice the largest orchestra COT had used in the past. Platt handled them with superb control and their sounds were gorgeous.”
—Richard Covello, Opera Canada magazine | June 2007
“American conductor Alexander Platt led a double bill of two early modernist masterworks, Bartok’s 1911 hourlong “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle“ and Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 30-minute monodrama “Erwartung” (“Expectation”). Platt already had proven himself with assured performances of contemporary works by John Adams, Benjamin Britten and Robert Kurka…The reunion of Platt with director Ken Cazan(which previously resulted in a revelatory “Death in Venice”) assured both riveting theater and ravishing orchestral playing. Each work in the just-concluded run prompted such an ovation at the Harris Theater that you would have thought that the audience had just heard Callas in “La Traviata.”
—Andrew Patner, Bloomberg.com | 5/30/2007
“Alexander Platt conducts with great authority in both works. Bluebeard includes some of the loudest chorales ever to peal forth from an opera orchestra, and Platt lets them ring, but he also has a grasp on the quieter passages. Schoenberg’s bag of Expressionistic tricks is also easily handled.”
—Marc Geelhoed, TimeOut Chicago, 5/17/2007
“Fortunately COT’s superior orchestra under Alexander Platt supplied the missing illumination (in Schoenberg’s “Erwartung”) with a sensitive regard for subtleties of texture and color at Wednesday’s opening. The resident conductor’s grasp of the Bartok idiom proved firm yet flexible.”
—John von Rhein, The Chicago Tribune | 5/11/07
“As led by COT resident conductor Alexander Platt…the musical interpretations of these difficult scores (BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE, ERWARTUNG) would hold their own against those of major international ensembles.”
—Andrew Patner, The Chicago Sun-Times | 5/11/07
Composer’s Palm Sunday work is given a fine reading in a grand setting
“The Waukesha Symphony staged an apt revival of Mozart’s rare Litaniae de venerabilli altaris sacramento, from 1776. Mozart wrote it for Palm Sunday, and it was Palm Sunday; he wrote it for Salzburg Cathedral, and the WSO played it in the splendid chapel of St John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield.
Conductor Alexander Platt drew fiery playing and singing from his orchestra, from Mark Aamot’s Jubilate Chorale, and soloists……..Their sound, in the live acoustics of the old, stone church, rose to hair-raising at the peaks. The quiet valleys were just as compelling……..these were thrilling readings of an extraordinarily imaginative program. Platt’s musical curiosity seems inexhaustible, and he never fails to convey his enthusiasm to his players.”
—Tom Strini, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 4/2/07