Sunday, March 23, 2008

US recital debut: English soprano Kate Royal

English soprano Kate Royal makes her US recital debut this Friday night (March 28, 2008) at Spivey Hall. Ms. Royal has generated significant excitement among fans of great singing, principally through her appearances in opera at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Paris Opera, the Royal Opera Covent Garden and the English National Opera, as well as in concert appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the BBC Proms in London. She's given recitals in London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Cologne. I first knew of her from her Hyperion recording of Schumann Lieder with Graham Johnson, and then received from her London management an early copy of her debut CD for EMI Classics, for which she now records exclusively.

After listening to the EMI sessions for about 20 minutes, I picked up the phone, called the UK and invited her to sing in recital here. It's rare that I act so directly (almost impulsively) to engage a new artist, but such artful, gorgeous, beautifully intelligent, nuanced and expressive singing is not commonplace!

Thus I'm proud her North American recital tour begins here at Spivey Hall. Ms. Royal will perform with the excellent pianist Roger Vignoles. From Atlanta they go cross-continent via the Northeast (New York's Frick Collection, Middlebury College and Montreal) to Vancouver, British Columbia and Berkeley, California.

Their program focuses on Spanish songs of Rodrigo and Granados, selections from Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, three of Debussy's exquisite Cinq poemes de Baudelaire, and to close, a generous offering of Lieder by Richard Strauss, including the Mädchenblumen (Maiden-Flowers), Opus 22, as well as "Einerlei," "Ich wollt ein Sträusslein binden" and "Als mir dein Lied erklang."

One of my duties at Spivey Hall is proofing every program book we publish. There is a vast amount of detailed information presented in program books, especially in those of vocal recitals, for which we always strive to include the original texts and translations (and for chamber music and piano recitals, program notes). Plus there are always the bios of the artists, which artists and managements submit in various degrees of correctness and consistency when it comes to spellings of institutions, musicians and work names, presented in about a dozen languages, for which legitimate variants exist.

This is detailed and highly time-consuming work. Thankfully I don't do it alone -- Sue Volkert and Nick Jones are my valiant comrades in preparing the books, shepherding them through their various versions of edits and more edits, week after week -- but ultimately I have to sign off on them...which is why, on a Sunday afternoon (Easter Sunday, no less), I've just spent three hours poring over four program books.

I do this -- we do this -- because reading the program books is a significant dimension of our audiences' experience when they come here to listen, and making that connection between artist and audience through the performance of fine music is what Spivey Hall is all about. And I tend to read and edit best when it's quiet, people are gone and the phone isn't ringing.

There are times I rant and rave about editing program books, and curse it as an onerous obligation -- there's always so much in addition to this work I could be doing. But more often, reading the material and thinking about the program selections gets me in the mood for the music we're about to hear.

I've just had such an experience, both in recalling and eagerly anticipating the beauty of the Strauss songs. I applaud Ms. Royal for her selections -- not only are they likely to illustrate her artisty to great effect, but the Mädchenblumen, in particular, are to my way of thinking perfectly appropriate for springtime. The German poetry is by Felix Ludwig Julius Dahn, and Ms. Royal's management has kindly supplied (and secured rights to) translations by Emily Ezust, which read naturally, easily, clearly and fresh air.

The songs and their texts are wonderfully evocative -- and indeed timely, since now in Atlanta, even after damaging tornados last weekend and the ferociously heavy rains, it's getting warm, and the trees, the bushes and the flowers are starting to bloom. Spring really is in the air, so these songs, even though they're not about spring flowers, per se, will nonetheless be sung at an opportune moment. Alas, my blog program apparently won't cooperate in listing parallel columns of original texts and translations, but here, at least, is the English. Read for yourself, and see if this doesn't get you in the mood for spring.

Richard Strauss
Op. 22 (Felix Ludwig Julius Dahn)

Kornblumen (1888)

Cornflowers I call these figures
that gently, with blue eyes,
preside quietly and modestly,
placidly drinking the dew of peace
from their own pure souls,
communicating with everything that is near,
unconscious of the precious sensitivity
that they have received from
the hand of God.
We felt so close to you,
as if you were going through a field of crops
through which the breath of evening blew,
full of pious quietude and full of mildness.

Mohnblumen (1888)

They are poppies, those round,
red-blooming, healthy ones
that bloom and bake in the summer
and are always in a cheery mood,
good and happy as a king,
their souls never tired of dancing;
they weep beneath their smiles
and seem born only
to tease the cornflowers;
yet nevertheless,
the softest, best hearts often hide
among the climbing ivy of jests;
God knows one would wish to
suffocate them with kisses
were one not so afraid
that, embracing the hoyden,
would spring up into a full blaze
and go up in flames.

Epheu (1886–8)

But ivy is what I call that maiden
with soft words,
with the simple, bright hair,
gently waving brown about her,
with brown, soulful doe’s eyes,
who so often stands in tears,
in her tears simply
without strength and
unadorned with secret
yet with an inexhaustible, deep
true inner sentience
that under her own power she can
never yank herself up by the roots;
such are born to twine
lovingly about another life:
upon her first love
she rests her entire life’s fate,
for she is counted among those
rare flowers,
those that only blossom once.

Wasserrose (1886–8)
Water Lily

Do you know the Water Lily,
fairy-like and celebrated in legend?
It waves its colourless,
transparent head
on an ethereal, slender stem,
and it blooms on a reedy pond in a wood;
protected by the lonely swan
that circles round it,
Sit opens only to the
whose silver gleam it
Thus it blooms, the magical
sister of the stars,
desired by the dreamy,
dark moth
which yearns for it from afar on
the edge of the pond,
and never reaches it for all its
Water Lily is my name for the
raven-haired maiden with
alabaster cheeks,
with deep foreboding thoughts
in her eyes,
as if she were a ghost
imprisoned on earth.
Her speech is like the silver
rippling of water,
her silence like the foreboding
stillness of a moonlit night;
she seems to exchange glances
with the stars
who she understands because
their natures are the same;
you can never tire of looking
into her eyes
surrounded by long, silken
and, as if bewitched by their
blessed grey,
you believe all fanciful dreams
about fairies to be true.

Dahn's poetry inspired Strauss to write some glorious music. I have high hopes for this Friday, and urge everyone who loves great singing to hear Kate Royal, either here at Spivey Hall, or elsewhere on her Spring 2008 Recital Tour, for I expect it will be a most memorable experience.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The building's shaking, and we're happy

When the organ's being played at Spivey Hall, everyone here knows it. The three-manual, 77-rank, 4,413-pipe Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ, built by Fratelli Ruffatti of Padua, Italy, sets the whole building shaking. In the back offices of the Hall (a space no longer given over to dimly lit storage and a lonely marketing manager's desk after this year's refurbishment), conversations are covered by the constant whoosh of air through the adjacent blowers and wind chambers. In other offices next to the recording control booth, closest to the auditorium itself, it's hard sometimes to hear yourself think, far less talk. The roar of the organ pipes comes straight through my walls, too, particularly the lowest notes that make lots of ordinarily quiet objects (including the windows) shudder. In big climaxes, it feels as if Spivey Hall is about to launch into outer space.

I'm not complaining -- it's magnificent! And this week, the forces are even mightier, since the organ is augmented by more musical star-power: the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet. As I type, the brass players -- trumpets Tom Hooten and Michael Tiscione, horn Richard Deane, trombone George Curran and tuba Michael Moore -- are rehearsing with Spivey Hall's organist-in-residence Richard Morris. Truly, I have not heard a more robust or glorious sound in this hall!

The six will be playing together in such varied works as Salvum fac populum tuum by Charles Widor, Rolf Smedvig's arrangement of "Sheep May Safely Graze" from Bach's Cantata BWV 208, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" as arranged by Vaclav Nelhybel (a book fell from one my shelves just a minute ago during that one), Gary Olson's setting of "Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee," Brahms' Op. 30 (of a quieter, more contemplative nature, comparatively speaking), and the Grand Choeur Dialogue by Eugene Gigout, in Rich Mays' arrangement. Plus there's the sprightly Voluntary No. 1 by William Boyce for two trumpets and organ, with all its buoyant ceremonial splendor.

Talk about BIG! This is a larger-than-life experience that will have music surging through every member of the audience, and may actually lift some of them off their seats. (And in a strange way, it's somewhat consoling to know that the acute annoyance of any errant and disruptive @#&$ 7$*&! cell phone left on by its inattentive and inconsiderate owner, should this wretched device happen to ring during the performance [unpublishable invective from the Executive & Artistic Director deleted], may be utterly swallowed up by the sound of what people REALLY want to hear.)

In addition to the arrangements, there are works for solo brass (Anthony DiLorenzo's Fire Dance and "Londonderry Air" in Robert Hepple's setting) as well as for solo organ (Bach's G-major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 550 and the lovely Aria by Charles Callahan, which highlights the diverse tonal character of Spivey Hall's organ so attractively).

Richard Morris and the ASBQ perform this Saturday, March 15th at 3 PM. The organ also gets another workout this weekend when the Southern Crescent Symphony gives an afternoon concert featuring three local organists -- Ann Manuel, Rick Massengale, and Jackie Reed -- performing highlights of the repertoire for organ and orchestra, including the third movement of Copland's Organ Symphony, the Poulenc Organ Concerto for String Orchestra and Timpani, and the very popular concluding Maestoso from the Saint-Saens "Organ" Symphony, all under the direction of conductor Richard Bell. Concert time on Sunday, March 16th is 3 PM.

Of distinctively different character (and not requiring the organ) will be our kick-off of St. Patrick's Day festivities with the all-star Irish instrumental quintet, Lunasa. Throughout the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Europe and beyond they win accolades as one of the finest, freshest Irish bands to reach international prominence in recent years, taking traditional Irish music in new directions to new audiences. Inspired by Ireland's great 1970s group, the Bothy Band, Lunasa uses melodic interweaving of wind and string instruments, pairing flutes, fiddle, whistle and pipes. Check out their website, The boys in the band are celebrating their 10th anniversary as Lunasa, and we'll be having a good time with them this Friday (March 14th, 8:15 PM) -- hope you can join us.

Friday, March 07, 2008

This weekend: Brentano Quartet & pianist Imogen Cooper

It's another weekend of extraordinary artists performing great music at Spivey Hall. Since announcing the 2007/08 season more than a year ago, I've long been awaiting this pair of performances.

We're honored to have the Brentano String Quartet back to Spivey Hall tomorrow (Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 8:15 PM). Their program opens with Mendelssohn's F-minor Quartet Op. 80 (among his final works before his premature death, following the loss of his beloved sister, Fanny) and closes with Beethoven's incomparable Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127 -- a work that astonishes me every time I encounter its power and eloquence --
Beethoven at his best. Brentano first violinist Mark Steinberg has written extensive and very revealing program notes for both quartets, which will certainly inform listeners' understanding of the Brentano Quartet's interpretation of these masterworks.

So, serious works to start and finish. We may expect full-blooded, passionate performances from the Brentanos, who win accolades everywhere they go. In between the Mendelssohn and Beethoven, we'll hear the Southeast premiere of a recent work, commissioned by Music Accord (a consortium of music organizations dedicated to enriching the repertoire with new music) expressly for the Brentano String Quartet, written by Bay-Area composer Gabriela Lena Frank. It's entitled Quijotadas, and is inspired by Cervantes' tales of Don Quixote (or in alternative orthography, Don Quijote). Ms. Frank writes of her quartet:

Quijotadas (2007) for string quartet is inspired by El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616). Widely considered the birth of the modern novel, this tale satirizes post-Conquest Spain by relating the story of a middle-aged lesser nobleman who undertakes absurd adventures in pursuit of romantic — and seriously outdated — knightly ideals. Cervantes’ brilliant and colorful social commentary still reverberates for us today.

Quijotadas, which is Spanish for extravagant delusions wrought in the Quixotic spirit, is in five movements. They are:

Alborada: Traditionally a Spanish song of welcome or beginnings, this is in the style of music for the chifro, a small high-pitched wooden panpipe played with one hand. It is often employed by a traveling guild worker to announce his services as he walks through the streets of town.

Seguidilla: This free interpretation of the spirited dance rhythms of Don Quijote’s homeland of La Mancha also evokes two typical instruments – the six-stringed guitar, and its older cousin, the bandurria, which finds its origins in Renaissance Spain.

Moto Perpetuo: La Locura de Quijote: This movement is inspired by an early chapter in the novel that describes Don Quixote sequestering himself in his hacienda, reading nothing but novels of chivalry, the pulp fiction of his time. The teasing promises of grandeur make him dizzy and he eventually goes mad.

Asturianada: La Cueva: The style of this traditional mountain song (whereby a young male singer issues forth calls that rise and fall with great emotion and strength) is used to paint a portrait of the Cave of Montesinos. In an important episode of the novel, Don Quijote fantasizes about the legendary hero Montesinos trapped under enchantment in a highland cave.

La Danza de los Arrieros: Throughout the tale, Don Quijote constantly rubs up against arrieros (muleteers) who, for Cervantes, are the embodiment of reality in contrast to Don Quijote’s fantasy world. The encounters with these roughnecks are always abrupt and physical, usually resulting in a sound thrashing for Quijote. Each beating brings him closer to reality, and in the end, he must poignantly reconcile himself to the fact that his noble ideals do not find a hospitable home in the contemporary world.

I look forward to hearing this work with great interest, and expect that Quijotadas, heard after the Mendelssohn and before the Beethoven, will make this program both expansive and rewarding listening.

Coincidentally, Spivey Hall audiences will hear another new work by Gabriela Lena Frank later this season: renowned guitarist Manuel Barrueco and the celebrated Cuarteto Latinoamericano will give the Georgia premiere of her Inca Dances on Saturday, May 3, 2008 at 8:15 PM. This work was commissioned by the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society in honor of its 20th Anniversary. Mr. Barrueco lives and teaches in Baltimore, and the piece will be heard there on April 19th, so I'll be keen to learn more about it (we are again promised a program note by Ms. Frank).

Gabriela Lena Frank is a remarkable person as well as a highly accomplished and successful composer -- learn more about her life and her music at

Also tomorrow (Saturday, March 8, 2008), at 11:00 AM, the wonderful British pianist Imogen Cooper gives a master class here, working with three pianists on matters of technique and interpretation in music of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, prior to her Spivey Hall recital debut on Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 3 PM. (I believe this is also her Atlanta debut.) She offers us a beautiful program devoted principally to Viennese Classical composer Franz Schubert: his four Impromptus, D.935, and his magnificent Sonata in A major, D.959 (another final work from a composer who died tragically young), both favorites for those who love the piano repertoire.

Imogen Cooper has earned consistent praise for her deeply considered and insightful interpretations of Schubert. Recording enthusiasts prize her critically-acclaimed six CDs on the Ottavo label dedicated to all the piano sonatas of Schubert's last six years, for which the pianist has also written superb CD-booklet essays.

I first knew of Imogen Cooper from Sir Neville Marriner (music director of the Minnesota Orchestra in the early days of my career in orchestra management) and finally heard her perform a decade ago in Australia, where she is a regular and welcome guest. Like Richard Goode and Christian Zacharias (both of whom we've heard here in recent seasons), she is an immensely thoughtful pianist who loves the central European repertoire (Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schubert, Brahms). She appears as soloist with the best international orchestras, and is an avid recitalist in leading music venues around the world, including, of course, Wigmore Hall; she is also well known to people who love good singing for her marvelous Lieder collaborations (in concert and recording) with baritone Wolfgang Holzmair (who has previously performed at Spivey Hall with a different pianist).

Imogen Cooper is without question a virtuoso -- not in flashy, extravagant or grandiose ways, but in masterful, musical, strong, subtly expressive, deeply satisfying ways that faithfully evoke the spirit of the composer, as I'm sure we will hear in her master class and her recital. We're delighted to welcome her to Spivey Hall, and grateful for the kind cooperation of one of our international consular partners, the British Consulate-General in Atlanta, to celebrate her debut. With The Friends of Spivey Hall, the Consulate-General is graciously co-hosting a post-concert reception in her honor. The reception will be held in the Spivey Hall lobby, and the entire audience is cordially invited to attend.

A forthcoming Spivey Hall debut: pianist Joyce Yang

The wonderful young Korean pianist Joyce Yang makes her Atlanta debut at Spivey Hall on Sunday, May 4, 2008 at 3 PM. She's just given a recital in Houston which includes several of the works she'll perform here, including Schumann's Carnaval, Brahms' Piano Pieces Op. 119, and Bach's Chromatic Fantasia & Fugue in D minor, BWV 903.

Here's what the critic of the Houston Chronicle had to say:

So, Yang's playing of the Fantasy and Fugue on the Steinway rather than a harpsichord had little effect on the brilliance of the work. Indeed, the joyous energy she brought to the fugue and the meticulous distinction between the fugue theme and its counter melody were exhilarating.

Both the Brahms and Schumann sets were character pieces — Brahms' abstract, Schumann's laden with extra-musical connections through the titles of the 21 movements. Yang stressed the dreamy side of Brahms and the sometimes quixotic, quick-cut changes of character in the Schumann pieces. She delivered both sets with authority, superb musicianship and, above all, a simplicity that was beguiling.

All this rings true to me. I first encountered Joyce Yang in concert when I attended the final rounds of the most recent Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, where she was honored with the Silver Medal. Her connection with the audience was unmistakable, and I was very taken by the musicianship she revealed in all of her performances. She also was enthusiastically recommended by the Takacs Quartet (also performing at Spivey Hall this spring -- Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 3 PM), with which all the Cliburn Competition finalists performed chamber music, and this endorsement strenghened my resolve to invite her to Spivey Hall. She was already enjoying a very promising career before becoming a Cliburn Competition winner, and since then has moved from strength to strength.

In Fort Worth and in Houston, Joyce played the Piano Sonata No. 1 by Australian composer Carl Vine with special success. I know Carl Vine and his work from my days of managing artists and repertoire for the national network of the six Symphony Australia orchestras, for which he has written several symphonies, well-received by musicians and audiences alike. Alas, Joyce won't be playing Carl's Sonata for us in May (I believe this has to do with repertoire she must prepare and perform later this spring; her Spivey Hall program will close with Brahms' bracingly virtuosic Variations on a Theme by Paganini). It's an extremely effective piece, one that I've enjoyed hearing time and again over the years (I last heard it in concert at the Aspen Music Festival in 2001). Pianists continue to program and perform it, and I'm delighted it seems to be finding a permanent place in the repertoire. I encourage anyone who loves solo piano music to hunt down a CD and give it a listen -- or better yet, hear Joyce or another solo pianist perform it if you have the opportunity. It's a fantastic piece.