Friday, November 10, 2006

Kids and Schoenberg - a winning combination

Okay, here's a short post: this morning (Friday, Nov 10) we have two more-than-sold-out houses of school children (mostly high school with some middle school), teachers, homeschool parents and chaperones listening with rapt attention to Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg, performed by the highly-acclaimed string sextet, Concertante. The name Schoenberg conjures up mixed reactions from adult audiences -- his later 12-tone works do not always yield their rewards easily to the casual listener -- but this early work is a prime example of what I like to call "ripe, rich, almost-ready-to-rot late Romanticism." It's lushly, deeply expressive music.

This string sextet is inspired by an 1896 poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel. A woman who is desperate to have a child meets with a stranger and conceives. She then encounters another man, her true soul mate, but she fears he cannot love her, because she has borne her child by another man. Her soul mate accepts the child as his own, taking their love to a higher realm. All very passionate indeed, and the music reflects the spirit of the poetry masterfully.

Concertante's musicians, making their collective debut here today, are all extremely talented Juilliard School graduates. They're not only illustrating excerpts of the music before playing the entire work, they're reading the poetry to the students and explaining the connections, providing an important "way in" to understand this composition. At 9:15 in the morning, this topic is probably not your average children's concert fare, but in an age when children encounter issues like this in the media (not to mention in real life) , they can relate to it -- and to the music, when presented in this way -- without a problem. Coming out of the concert, the kids snicker a bit at the poetry, but like the idea that true love can be compassionate and transforming.

What's even more gratifying is that they connect with the beauty of the music, which Concertante is performing exquisitely. The piece ends extremely quietly, and having gone on the musical journey with Concertante's performance, the students are utterly engrossed. I think this is truly fantastic!

Transfigured Night is on the program Concertante will perform tonight at 8:15 PM, along with the excellent Brahms B-flat Sextet, and the elegant Introduction to Capriccio (the opening of the actual opera, for string sextet) by Richard Strauss...a heady dose of deliciously high-cholesterol German Romanticism. There's a free pre-concert talk at 7:15 on Transfigured Night by Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller. If you want to be transported in deep-Romantic musical bliss, good seats are available.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Great singing thrives at Spivey Hall

The last several weeks have been full of singing here. Following the success of the Spivey Hall Treble Honor Choir Workshop and final concert, the Spivey Hall High School Honor Choir Workshop culminated with a concert led by guest conductor Dr. Christopher Cock, visiting from Valparaiso University. I was particularly impressed by their performance of "Sing a Mighty Song" by Daniel E. Gawthrop. The students made great strides in the course of their rehearsals, and the concert was a joyous occasion. All in all, Spivey Hall served more than 200 students in 12 counties who are better musicians because of their experience here. One teacher reported to Spivey Hall's Education Manager, Amber Dimkoff (who does a tremendous job of organizing these major events), that her participating students taught one of the Australian pieces from the treble workshop to the rest of her choral students -- evidence that beyond the 200 students the workshops touch directly, these important educational programs serve others, too. Such programs are central to Spivey Hall's mission. Many thanks to all the parents, teachers and coaches who contributed their time and talents to making the workshops resounding successes again this year.

We had more than 220 people attend our free concert on November 2nd: Measure for Measure: The Music of Shakepeare's Plays, featuring Ensemble Chaconne (a wonderful early-music ensemble from the Boston area) with mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal. All the musicians performed splendidly, with lutenist Olav Chris Henriksen offering interesting, informative and well-researched comments from the stage about music used in Shakespeare's plays, in The Bard's lifetime as well as in subsequent decades. In addition to being in great voice, Pamela sang with fantastic diction, a keen dramatic sense, and very winning personality, bringing the songs vividly to life. She was particularly animated and engaging in the final selection, "Come Away, Hecate" -- a tune by Robert Johnson, which ended the concert strongly to warm applause. Feedback I received from audience members who completed surveys afterwards was highly positive and complimentary. I'm very pleased we could have an early-music performance of such high quality with a program that had special relevance to Clayton State University students (especially Dr. Gregory McNamara's Shakespeare class) -- available for free to the public. Many thanks, , Clayton State University Lyceum and Dr. Susan Hunter, Head of the Department of Language & Literature, for your support and assistance in making this concert possible.

Last Sunday, November 5th, Chanticleer returned to Spivey Hall. Chanticleer has had a long relationship with Spivey Hall, one of its favorite places to sing -- and we're always honored and delighted to welcome this uniquely accomplished men's vocal ensemble (otherwise known as "An Orchestra of Voices") to sing on this stage. We were beyond sold out -- we had so many requests for tickets, we added seats in the aisle along the front rows, in addition to extra seats in the orchestra pit. Without question, Chanticleer's performance was a peak event of the season. Under the leadership of music director Joseph Jennings, these 12 amazing men create the most incredible sound, performing a vast array of repertoire in immensely expressive, imaginative, refined, and musically insightful ways. They sing a cappella: they simply stand and sing, with no accompaniment. Their voices encompass the entire vocal range, from high soprano to basso profondo. The sing with an extraordinarily well balanced, blended sound, but each singer is a soloist whose vocal character is distinct and colorful. I marvel at the sheer visceral beauty of such music-making -- it has an honesty, directness and humanity that speaks to me like little else. It's also music making with lots and lots of heart. I'm not alone in this feeling, I think; cheers for Chanticleer resounded lustily through the hall. The entire program was great. I will remember the gratifying physical sensation I felt hearing the perfectly-in-tune, richly expansive sonority of the final chord of Brahms's "Nachtwache I" for a long, long time. The tune that I cannot get out my head from this performance, however, was one of the encores: the hauntingly simple and soulful "Calling My Children Home," which is on Chanticleer's CD, Our American Journey. To the men of Chanticleer -- huge thanks for such a deeply satisfying performance. I'm working with ICM Artists to be calling Chanticleer home to Spivey Hall time for a pair of performances.

The great singing continues. There's more to come. This Saturday, November 11, Spivey Hall is proud to present the North American debut of the 35-voice RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, aka the RIAS Chamber Choir of Berlin. What, you may ask, does "RIAS" mean? It's an acronym for "Radio in the American Sector" -- reflecting the creation of the choir in the mid-1940s in post-war Berlin, to sing a cappella performances for radio broadcast. It has earned a sterling reputation in the subsequent decades (the RIAS Kammerchor took part in the inauguration of the Berliner Philharmonie with Herbert von Karajan in 1963) and has risen to special distinction in recent years, performing and recording in Germany and Europe with other highly distinguished conductors includingFrans Brueggen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Rene Jacobs and Philippe Herreweghe. I was very taken by their recording of Handel's Saul with Rene Jacobs, and driving in rural Ontario to my family's vacation home last summer, lo and behold, courtesy of CBC Radio, I heard another impressive performance featuring the Kammerchor taken from a festival in France. About 18 months ago, when I learned they were coming to the US for their first North American tour, I jumped at the opportunity to bring them to Spivey Hall.

Their current music director is Daniel Reuss, but for this tour, they perform with the distinguished British guest conductor and composer, James Wood. Their program includes a cappella choral masterworks by Romantic composers Brahms, Schubert and Schumann (if you've not heard Schubert's "Die Nacht," you're in for a very happy discovery). Also in the program are two Mahler songs, arranged for choir by Clytus Gottwald-- one of which is high on my list of all-time favorite, desert-isle, must-have, defines-the-meaning-of-my-life songs, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the world"), from a set of songs to poetry by Friedrich Rueckert, who inspired many great composers. The recording I love most of this song, in its orchestral version (Mahler first wrote it for piano and voice), is by mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, recorded for Columbia Masterworks/SONY. This is sublime, deeply spiritual, transcendently beautiful music...a performance for the ages. (Okay, the Christa Ludwig, Maureen Forrester and Kathleen Ferrier fans can post their OWN tributes! Great artists all!) I have high expectations for how the RIAS Kammerchor will perform "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," since I yearn for any deeper understanding I can gain of this song. I'm confident we shall all be rewarded.

The RIAS Kammerchor's formal program closes with extraordinary works by the late Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti. The general public may know Ligeti chiefly for the music that is heard in Stanley Kubrick's landmark film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the giant monolith first appears, inciting the apes to hysteria. It's other-worldly music, eerie, unpredictable, complex, alive and exciting...almost haunting. Ligeti's Three Songs after Friederich Hoederlin, which the RIAS Kammerchor will perform, have a similar effect on me...highly original, arresting, amazing music. I can't wait. Dr. Christopher Arrell, Director of Theory & Composition at Clayton State University's Department of Music, is giving the free pre-concert talk at 7:15 PM , and he'll be focusing on Ligeti's works. If you're planning to attend the concert, don't miss this talk, for his analysis will enhance your understanding of this fascinating music.

The RIAS Kammerchor Berlin enjoys a sterling reputation. In the tradition of great choral singing established here by Robert Shaw, this is exactly the sort of concert that Spivey Hall should be doing, and I'm very proud to presenting what turns out to be not just their Atlanta debut, but their very first North American performance. I'm also grateful for the wonderful collaboration of the Wolfgang Schroeder, Executive Director of the German Cultural Center of Atlanta, and Dr. Lutz Goergens, Deputy Consul General, German Consulate General of Atlanta, for their generous assistance in welcoming these artists here. There's a post-concert reception in celebration of the RIAS Kammerchor's debut, which these two organizations and The Friends of Spivey Hall are hosting, to which the artists and the entire audience is invited. Excellent seats are still available. If you care at all about good singing, you won't want to miss this concert.

But wait...there's more! This same weekend, one of the world's leading tenors, star of the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Wiener Staatsoper, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, Berlin's Staatsoper Unter der Linder, Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper, and many other prestigious opera houses (not to mention the Salzburg Festival), Rolando Villazon, makes his Atlanta (and Southeast US) debut Sunday, November 12th at 3:00 PM. Renowned for his international successes in Puccini's La boheme, Verdi's La traviata, Massenet's Manon, Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman, and a long list of other operas, he is also a regular recitalist. I heard him just a few months ago at the LA Opera, singing Alfredo to Renee Fleming's Violetta in La traviata. The voice, the musical intelligence, the stage presence, the personality...he is, as they say, "the complete package." This promises to be one of the great concerts of the entire season (I keep saying that, I know, but we've got a bumper crop of off-the-charts-good concerts this fall)'s been sold out for some time, though we've had a few turn-backs, so if you don't already have tickets, call the box office (678) 466-4200 and you might get lucky. Mr. Villazon will perform Schumann's song cyclel, Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love), plus Italian opera arias by Handel and Bononcini, French songs by Faure and Massenet, Tosti's "Chanson de l'adieu," and four selections from Fernando Obrador's Canciones Clasicas Espanolas. And I imagine we might be regaled with some rather stunning encores as well. Mr. Villazon's pianist is Bryndon Hassman, a 17-year veteran of the San Francisco Opera's music staff who, in addition to an impressive list of professional achievements, also coached actor (and San Francisco resident) Robin Williams on the Rossini aria "Largo al factotum" for the film Mrs. Doubtfire...and lives to tell the tale.

For insights into the program, don't miss the 2:00 PM pre-concert talk by CSU's Director of Vocal Activites and Opera, Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller, himself a tenor, and our popular and frequent pre-concert speaker. Once again we are grateful for the gracious assistance of our international partners in welcoming Mr. Villazon for this recital: both the Mexican Consul General in Atlanta, Remedios Gomez-Arnau, and Lucilla Ruvalcaba, Executive Director of the Instituto de Mexico, are joining The Friends of Spivey Hall (our loyal donors) to host a private reception for the artists. Mr. Villazon is, by reputation, vivacious, high-spirited and expansive in his passions. He's also (like the great tenor Enrico Caruso before him) an excellent cartoonist, so Spivey Hall's backstage corridor, lined with headshots signed by the world-class artists who have appeared here, might soon be graced with some original art...!

I'm going to flunk my "shorter blog post" test again this time.... But lastly...and very constant refrain: none of this oustandingly high-quality, joyful music -- none of this -- would be possible without the constant, deep-pocketed generosity of The Walter & Emilie Spivey Foundation. I sing Walter & Emilie's praises daily. Because of the Spiveys, great singing really DOES thrive at Spivey Hall.