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Show Boat’s Voyage into the Opera House

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Saturday Afternoon at 12:00 pm


When Lyric Opera of Chicago added the music theater piece Show Boat to its schedule in February of 2012, it seemed like a departure to some, a reconciliation to others. Many felt the gesture was long overdue; that is, opera companies should produce American musicals.

Lyric’s production was soon staged by the Houston Grand Opera followed by the San Francisco Opera, the feature on this week’s Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. American director Francesca Zambello, whose credits include operas like The Flying Dutchman and companies like Teatro la Fenice in Venice, commented, “I have long believed that musical theater is ‘our’ version of opera.”

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“Show Boat” director Francesda Zambello

 
Indeed, music schools often marry the two into one program. The show tune anthology Great American Songbook sits on the shelves of many opera singers, which suggests the divide has more to do with the public face of vocal music in the theater, than with artistic differences. After all, even stylistic differences get blurry when it comes to shows like Porgy and Bess or Pirates of Penzance.

Shows like Show Boat or The Sound of Music were conceived on a grand scale – like an opera – with large casts, orchestra, chorus, and sets. They aren’t practical for many Broadway theaters, but can readily be staged in an opera house.

Renée Fleming, who orchestrated Lyric Opera’s Rodgers and Hammerstein series, suggests: “it may be time to reexamine the role of an opera house in American communities in the 21st century… After 100 years in this country, the American musical has achieved “classic” status, and opera companies with extraordinary artistic resources are uniquely positioned to present productions at the highest level…”

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Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie, Morris Robinson as Joe; c. Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Show Boat is as American as it is relevant, and shares with opera the ability to issue biting social commentary. Just this week, opera has been a flash point in New York City as protesters simmer over the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. For its part, Show Boat puts in plain view the cruelty of racism on the Mississippi nearly 90 years before tensions began to flare over the shooting of an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. In Chicago and San Francisco this production of Show Boat made producers squirm over the use of the n-word, a term that was commonplace when Oscar Hammerstein II penned the book for composer Jerome Kern in 1927.

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“Show Boat,” c. Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Show Boat has it all,” Zambello declares. “It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville, and musical comedy, but – equally important – a compelling American story of social and political importance. Based on the classic Pulitzer-Prize winning novel [by Edna Ferber], it tells a complex tale of the inhabitants of a Mississippi River show boat from the 1880s through the 1920s, in which the lives of the Hawks family and their troupe on the boat parallel the vast social changes of the time. Through Magnolia Hawks, a young girl coming into womanhood, the story confronts the powerful issues of miscegenation and racial injustice along with the tenderness of youthful love and the tragedy of abandonment with a child. Ferber’s story took a clear-eyed, revolutionary look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South – issues still with us today. Kern wrapped it in joyous and heart-breaking songs that have become part of the fabric of our lives. The work is compellingly historic and contemporary all at once.”

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Opera star Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne in Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” at the San Francisco Opera

Show Boat necessitates one departure from the typical Saturday afternoon opera broadcast fare: the singers are miked. As a rule, opera singers don’t use microphones; Broadway singers do and can’t project to the back of the theater without them. (On the other hand, Broadway singers sometimes do nine shows a week. Most opera singers in a lead role are good for two.) This production of Show Boat pulls performers from both worlds. The microphones even out the sound and provide balance when Kern calls for dialogue over orchestral accompaniment.

Hear Francesca Zambello’s production of Show Boat presented by San Francisco Opera, starring Heidi Stover, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, Kirsten Wyatt, Morris Robinson, and John Bolton on Saturday, October 25 at 12:00 pm.

Utrecht Early Music Festival on Baroque&Before

A hand carved scroll on a period instrument from the Utrecht Early Music Festival

A hand carved scroll on a period instrument from the Utrecht Early Music Festival

Thursday at 10:00 pm


This week, Baroque&Before offers early music in settings steeped in history and tradition.

Each year, the Utrecht Early Music Festival draws top performers for a season of concerts set in locations that, in some cases, are as old as the music. Specializing in repertoire from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque, the festival hosts nearly 100 concerts, spanning 1,000 years of music  in churches and castles throughout the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

WFMT is able to offer performances from the Utrecht Early Music Festival through a relationship with the European Broadcasting Union.

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The Latvian Radio Choir

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Two images, early and contemporary, of Amsterdam’s Waalse Kerk (Walloon Church). Built in 1409, the Kerk hosts concerts from the Utrecht Early Music Festival. The unadorned walls and clean lines are typical of northern European Calvinist churches.

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Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594): Domine ne in furore tuo; De profundis clamavi
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767): Deus Judicium tuum, TWV 7:7; Oratorio des Kapitänsmusik, Final Chorus: so gehe hin
Le Parnasse français/Louis Castelain

Traditional: Latvian Folk Song
Latvian Radio Choir/ Sigvards Klava

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen, iPads, and Turning 50

Esa-Pekka Salonen, c. Benjamin Suomela

Esa-Pekka Salonen, c. Benjamin Suomela

Wednesday at 8:00 pm


He was hailed as a wunderkind when he seized the reigns of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at 34, half the age of other prominent conductors. Many observed that his boyish good looks made him seem even younger, but the people of Los Angeles quickly discovered this much-hyped maestro to be an intense and serious musician.

“This sense of having reached a watershed was heightened by the fact that I turned 50, the kind of number that brutally wipes out any hallucinations of still being young.”

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Violinist Leila Josefowicz

 

In 2009, seventeen years later, the Finnish conductor stepped down from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to focus on composition. “It felt like a seismic shift in my life, and during the composing process of “Violin Concerto” I felt that I was somehow trying to sum up everything I had learned and experienced up to that point in my life as a musician. This sense of having reached a watershed was heightened by the fact that I turned 50, the kind of number that brutally wipes out any hallucinations of still being young.”

But like any seismic shift, one never knows how the earth will settle beneath one’s feet. New technologies emerged, and Salonen had begun a new relationship as principal conductor and artistic adviser of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in 2008.

Today, halfway through his fifth decade of life, he circles the globe as guest conductor, making regular stops in LA and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With the Philharmonia he issued “The Orchestra” app for iPad in 2012. This year, Salonen became the subject of an Apple commercial featuring his Violin Concerto (2009) and Leila Josefowicz as soloist. According to Alex Ross of The New Yorker, the Apple commercial collected over 100,000 views in a day. Apple also produced a slick web feature, including a free download of the concerto.

Since his departure from the position of music director in Los Angeles, Mr. Salonen has premiered only two of his own compositions, an orchestral piece called NYX, and a choral setting of Dona Nobis Pacem.

Esa-Pekka Salonen now serves as conductor laureate to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He returned to LA’s Disney Concert Hall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its opening with violinist Leila Josefowicz and the Violin Concerto. Hear that concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Wednesday, October 21 at 8:00 pm

More on Esa-Pekka Salonen.

 

 

 

 

Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)

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Fans are mourning the loss of American composer Stephen Paulus who died on Sunday at the age of 65. Paulus wrote works for many American artists and ensembles, including Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Cleveland and Minnesota Orchestras, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Singers were particularly drawn to his treatment of the human voice, which prompted commissions from Deborah Voigt, Samuel Ramey, Thomas Hampson, Elizabeth Futral, and conductor Dale Warland. Vocal ensembles ranging from Chanticleer to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to King’s College Choir in Cambridge have recorded his choral works.

Stephen Paulus was born in Summit, New Jersey in 1949 and earned a PhD from the University of Minnesota. Even as a graduate student, he was becoming a driving force in the advancement of contemporary music, co-founding the American Composers Forum with fellow composer Libby Larsen.

The Minnesota Composers' Forum, now the American Composers' Forum, 1977 (left to right) Randall Davidson, Monte Mason, Stephen Paulus, and Libby Larsen

Staff photo: Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composers Forum, 1977 (left to right); Randall Davidson, Stephen Paulus, Monte Mason, and Libby Larsen

John Nuechterlein, now President and CEO of the Forum, said on Monday, “Stephen’s music touched the lives of many, but we also honor the enormous contributions he made in time and talent on behalf of fellow composers.  He gave generously, and there are hundreds of composers who are grateful for all he did to support them and nurture their careers.  The very existence of the Forum is testament to the vision that he and Libby Larsen shared many years ago.”

Stephen Paulus suffered from a stroke in July of 2013 and had been staying in an assisted living facility. He died of complications from the stroke. He is survived by his wife Patty, their two adult sons, and his mother. A funeral is planned for Saturday, November 8 in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Shostakovich as a “Calling Card”

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Monday at 8:00 pm
Wednesday at 12:15 pm


The pairing of performers and compatriot composers is such a satisfying notion (like having a French meal at l’Ecole Le Cordon Bleu Paris) that in a field crowded with artists trying to carve an identity, it happens a lot. It almost seems cliché for a Russian quartet to focus on Shostakovich – except so many reviewers are saying the Atrium Quartet’s performances of Shostakovich really are special.

The members of the Atrium Quartet were all born in the late 1970s, 3-4 years after the composer died. They got together in 2000 in St. Petersburg while studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and won the London International String Quartet Competition in 2003. As part of the prize, they recorded the Shostakovich String Quartet No.5  for EMI, a piece that Gramophone magazine calls their “calling card,” saying, “This is undoubtedly the finest recording of the Fifth Quartet to have appeared during recent years…”

James M. Keller, author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide and program annotator for the New York Philharmonic called them “captivating storytellers.”

Atrium2At the 2013 Reykjavik Arts Festival, the Atrium Quartet played all 15 of Shostakovich’s quartets in a single day, a twelve hour event. They are performing the entire set over this season as well.

On Monday, October 20, The Atrium Quartet, now based in Berlin, will play Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Live from WFMT, hosted by Kerry Frumkin at 8:oo pm.

On Wednesday, October 22, they will perform on the lunchtime series, The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, which starts at 12:15 pm and is hosted by Carl Grapentine.

Artur Rodzinski, A Fire Breathing Maestro

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Tune in for two fascinating documentaries.


Artur Rodzinski: A Perfectionist’s Legacy on WFMT, Friday, October 17 at 8:00 pm

Maestro Rodzinski on WTTW HD, Thursday, October 16 at 10:00 pm; Monday, October 20 at 4:00 am; and on WTTW Prime on Friday, October 17 at 4:00 pm

Polish-American conductor Artur Rodzinski, née Rodziński, is remembered for his fiery temperament on and off the podium. Stories abound of his having kept a loaded pistol in his pocket. Some rumors, likely apocryphal, go so far as to claim that he once waved it at Leonard Bernstein – a more measured account in The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None by Donald Rosenberg stated that Rodzinski had told his own son that carrying the gun was part of a good luck ritual. Whatever the truth, his volatility was legendary among musicians and administrators.

Rodzinski was born in Split, Dalmatia in 1892 and grew up in Poland. He came to America at the invitation of Leopold Stokowski in 1925 and went on to head the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Eventually he became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Eager to expand the symphony orchestra’s repertoire, he began doing operas in concert with his various American posts.

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He was famously demanding and difficult to please. In New York, he dismissed fourteen members of the Philharmonic, including the concertmaster. Tensions flared and they parted ways after four seasons, earning him a Time magazine cover story (February 17, 1947).

Nevertheless, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra trustees saw an opportunity to re-energize their music community by bringing on the gifted maestro. One of the most talked about performances was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde starring Kirsten Flagstad at the Civic Opera House. Rodzinski conducted the five hour opera with the CSO in the orchestra pit.

In Chicago, Artur Rodzinski’s light burned twice as bright and not even half as long as in New York. After only one season, he split with the trustees and was not awarded a new contract. In a report by Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune column On the Aisle, the CSO musicians were instructed by management not to extend to Maestro Rodzinski the customary “tusch” (a fanfare played by the brass and percussion) as a farewell. According to Cassidy, some musicians complained that management had coerced them to take sides in the dispute and protested the omission of the tusch.artu

Artur Rodzinski was a protégé of Arturo Toscanini. In fact, the younger conductor was instrumental in the formation of Toscanini’s legendary NBC Symphony Orchestra; it had been his task to hire and prepare the musicians for Toscanini’s arrival, which he did by poaching top players from other American orchestras, including Joseph Gingold, Oscar Shumsky, and William Primrose.

In the book Last Stop Carnegie Hall by Brian Andrew Shook, New York Philharmonic trumpeter William Vacchiano remembered, “Rodzinski and Szell were the same kind of conductor; they were what you call a “task-master” – very strict and dramatic…very exact. Rodzinski was hectic and disoriented much of the time and he had a nervous tick [sic].” In the same breath, Vacchiano described Rodzinski as a great conductor.

Impromptu with Marc-André Hamelin and Takács

WFMT's Lisa Flynn chats with Geraldine and Edward

WFMT's Lisa Flynn chats with Geraldine and Edward

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Pianist Marc-André Hamelin at a WFMT Impromptu

The virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin joins the Takács Quartet for a concert at Symphony Center on Thursday, October 16. Mr. Hamelin and two of the quartet players stopped by the WFMT studios for a live Impromptu. Mr. Hamelin played Haydn and Debussy. Violist Geraldine Walther and violinist Edward Dusinberre joined him in conversation with Lisa Flynn.

The Thursday evening concert includes the Haydn String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 64, No. 3, Debussy’s String Quartet; and the Franck Piano Quintet.

 

 

 

 

Impromptu Program

Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Haydn: Sonata in Bb, Hob.XVI:41 (two movements)

Debussy: Images, Book II, nos. 1 and 3

Hamelin: Pavane variée

A Last-Minute Concerto Hits Home

Walt Disney Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall

LA Philharmonic, Wednesday at 8:00 pm


On Wednesday evening, hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic play the piece that was written in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. According to reports, the piece was a last-minute substitution for what had been intended to be a new piece by Oliver Knussen. As the concert drew near, Mr. Knussen acknowledged he would be unable to complete his commission in time. Magnus Lindberg was offered a separate commission for a cello concerto, his second, which he turned around in just a few months.

Funding for the Linderg piece came out of the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund, which was set aside to honor the Finnish maestro (in part, according to reports, to keep him coming back) when he stepped down from the orchestra after serving as its music director for 17 seasons. That the commission should be awarded to Magnus Lindberg was no surprise to the Philharmonic musicians; Lindberg’s music was played a lot during the Salonen tenure, and not unenthusiastically. According to Mark Swed’s review of the concert in the Los Angeles Times: “The playing was superb. The audience was large and acutely enthusiastic. A sense of well-being seemed to pervade the hall. Anyone wanting to understand why Disney has been such a success and the L.A. Phil appears an unusually happy orchestra…could find out why with this program.”

Magnus Lindberg and Anssi Karttunen

The soloist, Anssi Karttunen, happens to be best friends with the composer (sometimes they perform together as a cello and piano duo called Dos Coyotes).

Magnus Lindberg served as composer-in-residence to the New York Philharmonic between 2009-2012, and is now in residence with the London Philharmonic; though it’s Esa-Pekka Salonen who seems to be his unflagging champion. Throughout his professional life, Mr. Salonen has taken Lindberg’s compositions to orchestras across the globe.

The Disney Concert Hall was designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry and bears a family resemblance to Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion, also by Frank Gehry. The Disney Concert Hall opened in October of 2003.

Chicago’s Incubator for Opera Singers

Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as "Don Giovanni"

Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as "Don Giovanni"

Broadcast: Monday, October 13 at 6:00 pm


Lyric Opera of Chicago has succeeded in cultivating an almost filial connection between Chicago and the young artists of its training program, the Ryan Opera Center. Indeed, some of the singers make it big – and take with them a bit of Midwestern pride. After all, they’ve given one to three years of their lives to Chicago, singing minor roles on Lyric’s main stage or even, as was seen by over 3,000 fans last week, making a last-minute appearance as the star of the show (more on that in a moment).

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Opera Center Alum Susanna Phillips

Watching these performers blossom, from Millennium Park or Rush Hour concerts to major opera houses, gives Chicagoans a sense of “I remember when…” Counted among Ryan’s alumni are opera stars like Matthew Polenzani, Nicole Cabell, and Susanna Phillips.

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Soprano Laura Wilde

The truth be told, members of the Ryan Opera Center are not that green. Many have post-graduate degrees and have done other young artist programs. All of them know how to give their Chicago fans a good show. This is not to say they feel ready for the actual challenges of an opera career. For the Ryan staff, which includes Lyric Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, Ryan Music Director Craig Terry, and executive director Dan Novak, it’s a matter of taking on singers who they feel they can help to the next level: the major opera house.

The process of helping the singers happens not only in the rehearsal room, but in performances at schools and venues across the city. Opera star Renée Fleming, who serves as an adviser to the Ryan Opera Center, likes to quip, “You’re only in perfect voice about seven days a year – and you’re usually off on those days.” One of the cornerstones of the Center’s program is the honing of the performer’s instincts through continual engagements in the community.

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Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges

Opera singers constantly battle with the fact that they live inside their instruments; tension, muscles, health, nerves – all sorts of things can interfere with consistency. They need technique, experience, and all manner of tricks to overcome the body’s roadblocks so they can do their job when they are called upon to do it.

Additionally, by their mid-twenties, singers are refining acting skills, musicianship, diction, and interpretive choices; not to mention acquiring the ability to sing like a native speaker in French, Italian, and German. Sometimes a singer is just waiting for the stars to align; for readiness to have a meeting with opportunity.

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Ryan Opera Center Music Director Craig Terry

One of those chance opportunities happened last week when Ryan’s second-year bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba, who was the “cover” for Don Giovanni star Mariusz Kwiecien, got the call at 10:00 am: “Mr. Kwiecien will not be able to sing today. You’re on.” He had four hours until curtain.

“The instant I got the call, adrenaline shot through my system, but after the initial shock I immediately went into work mode and the only thing I could tell myself was ‘Just do your job, and get it done.’”

For such a big break, Mr. Ollarsaba had a greater support system than most understudies. He had sung the Don in a workshop with the Ryan Opera Center last summer; a minimally staged production in the William Mason Rehearsal Room, backstage at the Civic Opera House. For this, the Ryan ensemble worked with diction coaches, voice coaches, a native Italian speaker, as well as stage director Matthew Ozawa. Mr. Ollarsaba and fellow Ryan ensemble members performed the entire opera for an audience of journalists and benefactors. “I do have to admit, due to the workshop ROC put on this summer – and I did have a couple opportunities to rehearse [the main stage production] – all in all I felt very secure and never felt more prepared to go on for a role at short notice.”

Throughout the season, the Ryan artists have master classes and play supporting roles with the stars on the main stage; but that nurture gets magnified when one of them gets bumped into the spotlight – especially for the Don’s role. As the character around which the others orbit, the entire cast has a stake in his success. According to Mr. Ollarsaba, “I couldn’t have worked with a nicer, more courteous and supportive group of singers. Everyone was so accommodating and helpful. I felt incredibly comfortable sharing the stage with them.”

By 5:30 pm on Wednesday, October 8, the Don Giovanni cast had taken its bows. The Ryan Opera Center’s Richard Ollarsaba had sung the libertine Don opposite Ana María Martínez, Marina Rebeka, and Kyle Ketelson. Mr. Ollarsaba’s Facebook page was flooded with congratulations.

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Ryan Opera Center Recital Series host Colin Ure

WFMT is proud to host the 2014-2015 Ryan Opera Center ensemble in a series of recitals on the first Monday of each month (save October, which was delayed due to the live opening night broadcast from Lyric of Strauss’s Capriccio). The ROC broadcast season opens with a duo recital of Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges in duets from Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Bellini’s Norma, and solo pieces by Brahms, Ravel, and Peter Derose. They’ll be accompanied by the Ryan Opera Center’s Music Director, Craig Terry. Colin Ure is the program’s host. This broadcast recital will be repeated on Sunday at 11:00 pm.

See the stars of this month’s Ryan recital, Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges, in video from this summer’s celebration Make Music Chicago:

 

 

Chicago a cappella Impromptu

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ChiACap3Chicago a cappella gave an Impromptu on Tuesday at WFMT, previewing a concert they’re billing as the musical intersections of the world’s faiths, exploring mystical, harmonically mesmerizing, and contemplative sacred vocal traditions. The ethnic basis for the music is widespread: Jerusalem, Athens, Tbilisi, Accra, Rome, and Mumbai. The music comes from the Jewish, Hindu, Baha’i, and other traditions. Composers include Allegri, Purcell, and Tallis.ChiACap2

The concert series called “Global Transcendence” runs October 18-19.

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