Sunday, January 27, 2008

Metropolitan Opera Auditions results

Once again Spivey Hall has had the pleasure of hosting the Southeast Region Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Twelve young singers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida took part, each singing two (and in some cases three) arias for a panel of expert judges: Paul Kilmer, Director of Artistic Administration, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis; Felicity Jackson, Associate Director, Chicago Opera Theater; and George Darden, the long-time pianist, coach and assistant conductor of The Metropolitan Opera who has also performed in recital with many celebrated vocalists.

This year's winners were announced by Dr. John C. LaForge, Southeast Regional Auditions Director (also Coordinator of Music for Fulton County Schools and a member of the Spivey Hall Education Committee):

+ The Atlanta Opera Guild Encouragement Award ($300): mezzo-soprano Sarah Limper, age 26, Florida

+ The Peg Gary Encouragement Award ($300): mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn Costello, age 22, Georgia

+ Third Place Winner ($400 Metropolian Opera National Council Award; $600 Southeast Regional Fund Award): baritone Nimrod Weisbrod, age 27, Florida

+ This year there are two First Place Winners, each of which will receive $4000 and will travel to New York to sing at The Met National Audition Semi-finals on Sunday, February 17. (The National Grand Finals Concert is Sunday, February 24.)

These prizes are generously funded by numerous donors:

> The MRS. EDWARD TOBIN AWARD ($800) - An annual national award given to the First Place Winner in each of the 15 Regions
> The CROSS FOUNDATION in honor of Mrs. John (Margaret) Talmadge, Chairman of the Southeast Region Auditions ($1000)
> An anonymous award given in honor of Mrs. Gilbert W. Humphrey ($720)


soprano Carolina Castells, age 25, of Florida


tenor Rene Barbera, age 23, of North Carolina

Congratulations to all the contestants! Thanks are also due to David D'Ambrosio, staff accompanist for all of the contestants save tenor Martin Nusspaumer, whose accompanist was Benny John Plasencia; and to J. Barry Schrenk, Director of Membership and Finance for the Southeast Region.

An aside about pianos: We had a little on-stage drama with our pianos today. As many of our patrons know (and as was amply reported in Pierre Ruhe's feature that ran in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the Sunday after Thanksgiving), Spivey Hall has two magnificent New York Steinway "D" concert grand pianos. One was the instrument that Emilie Spivey had in her home. Here at Spivey Hall, this instrument very naturally goes by the name of "Emilie." Our second Steinway grand, selected for us by outstanding American pianist Richard Goode, is named "Walter" -- since of course Dr. Walter & Emilie Spivey were the visionary philanthropists who led the creation of Spivey Hall, and whose Foundation generously funds our operations.

"Emilie" was the instrument of choice at today's auditions -- until she developed a problem with a buzzing string. About two weeks ago a string snapped on Emilie, and the new string (which stretches and takes some time to acclimate) apparently hasn't quite settled down. It was fine Friday night when Martin Katz performed with countertenor David Daniels (a very rewarding recital indeed), but today it created a very noticeable noise that distracted the artists and the audience.

So, after Rene Barbera's selections in the second half of the program, "Emilie" got to take a nap in her storage area (our piano technicians will pay a visit to her shortly), and out came "Walter" for his moment in the Met auditions spotlight.

"Walter" was Emanuel Ax's instrument of choice for his December 2nd recital, and I expect we'll be seeing (and hearing) more of him in the coming months, since over the summer and into the early fall he's had lots of TLC from our two first-rate piano technicians, Craig Miller and Chuck Cook.

Curious to know which is which? You can tell when "Walter" is on stage, because "Steinway & Sons" is visible on the side of the piano facing the audience; "Emile," appropriately discreet, has no such emblem.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A weekend of great singing

We've got just a handful a tickets left for this Friday's January 25th recital by countertenor David Daniels and pianist Martin Katz. They performed on Saturday in Boston, and the Boston Globe critic heard much to his liking.

Take a look:

David Daniels makes his Santa Fe Opera debut this summer in Handel's Radamisto -- another performance I greatly look forward to hearing.

More great singing this weekend comes by way of the virtuostic Dutch vocal ensemble, Quink, on Saturday evening, January 26th. Their far-ranging program featuring works of several centuries includes a wildly imaginative contemporary piece by Simeon ten Holt, Bi-Ba-Bo -- the likes of which you probably haven't heard before.

I knew Quink had sung in an earlier Spivey Hall season, but I didn't know their work from first-hand experience, so about 18 months ago I put on a sampler CD in my office that their manager had supplied. I listened happily to the first several selections that music of the Renaissance. I had my office door open; the music wafted into the box office. When Bi-Ba-Bo came on, suddenly I had several people at my door, asking "WHAT is that?" It's an astonishing piece, and Quink performs it brilliantly. Tickets are still available -- come and let your ears be amazed.

Great singing continues on Sunday with the Metropolitan Opera National Council Southeast Regional Final Auditions -- always an exciting occasion when we get to hear the most promising vocal talents from throughout the Southeast. Each singer performs two selections with piano accompaniment, and the winner goes on to sing in the Grand Finals on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (if I'm not mistaken, David Daniels was once such a winner -- he hails from South Carolina). This highly popular and eagerly anticipated event has just a few tickets left, in pit the seating area, close to the stage. Get 'em while you can, and catch a rising star.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deep listening

I spent six days in New York this month, visiting with artist managers, meeting musicians and attending performances. A highlight of my trip was hearing Wagner's Die Walkuere at the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel.

Since Maazel has been long absent from the Met podium, his return was newsworthy, and I was eager to attend. I greatly admire his technique -- there are few conductors I know who can communicate to an orchestra with such masterful economy of gesture -- and I had a third-row orchestra seat, with Maazel just to my left, from which to observe him readily.

I'm in awe of Wagner's Die Walkuere, and the cast was strong. Vocally resplendent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was most impressive -- a commanding Flicka whose admonitions any Wotan would be compelled to obey!

But what astounded me most was the playing of the Met Orchestra. With Maazel in control at their helm, quiet and attentive audience members around me, the singers so close in front of me, enough room so that I didn't feel cramped, and (critically) with enough energy and presence of mind to give myself fully to the performance, I had what I call a "deep listening" experience. I felt fully engrossed in the performance, and intimately connected to Wagner. Extraneous thoughts rarely entered my consciousness. I was totally "in the moment."

Performances that inspire experiences of this nature are incredibly moving, and the source of tremendous joy in my life.

They're not everyday occurrences. At any performance, there are threats to full attention that deep listening requires. Some are environmental and external -- what's happening around the listener; some are personal and internal -- distraction, fatigue, an unreadiness to engage with the performance.

In the course of the Met performance, a cell phone went off -- the unmistakably cheerful opening of "Spring" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons in chirpy electronic tones -- and it didn't come from the audience, it came from the pit! Maestro Maazel had a very special glance to offer one of the sections of the orchestra at that moment... Thankfully, it didn't ruin a rapturous moment.

Deep listening does ask us to give ourselves entirely to what's happening on stage. Unlike the superabundance of entertainment options available to us these days, live performance of great music wants our undivided attention in order for the music to work its magic. This isn't always easy, but when it happens, it's memorable and wonderfully rewarding.

When creating each new concert season, I aspire to these moments that deep listening brings: when everything comes together to enable the artists on stage to connect through great music to the people in the audience. This Met Walkuere was a powerful reminder to me of how exhilarating such listening can be.

At Spivey Hall, we're privileged to enjoy performances by excellent international musicians who are inspired by the hall's superb acoustics and the connection they feel with the audience. As a result, we probably get more than our average share of deep listening opportunities. I certainly feel that way, and suspect it's one of the reasons our most loyal patrons feel so passionately what happens here.

As the second half of the 2007/08 season begins in earnest, even though we'll never have the Met Orchestra in the pit and eight mighty Valkyries singing lustily from the Spivey Hall stage, I'm confident we can look forward to plenty of deep listening experiences and all the pleasures they afford.