Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jamie Barton "a revelation" in Met Opera's NORMA

Georgia-native mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who makes her Spivey Hall recital debut on Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 3 PM, stepped in as scheduled to sing the role of Adalgisa in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Bellini's Norma.  Writing for The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe (clearly a fan of this opera) had glowing words of praise in his review: 

Even more of an improvement on the previous cast — a revelation, really — is Ms. Adalgisa, Norma’s acolyte turned romantic competition.

Ms. Barton, who won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June, has a big, rich voice from the top to the bottom of its range. Singing her first major role at the Met, she entered on Thursday with joyful seriousness and clarity of purpose, tenderly reaching toward the chains of mistletoe left at the altar from the Druids’ rites. In her aching aria, “Deh, proteggimi, o Dio,” she seemed actually at prayer, a private moment on which the audience spied.
Jamie Barton is a singer whose career is strongly on the rise, and an artist not to miss.  Her Spivey Hall recital program includes works by Purcell, Brahms, Sibelius, and Ives, plus Sir Edward Elgar's sumptuous Sea Pictures.  If you don't have tickets, don't wait -- they're available now from the Spivey Hall Box Office (678) 466-4200 or online.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Three worlds: the Tetzlaff Quartet

This afternoon (Sunday, October 20, 2013) at 3 PM we welcome the return of the Tetzlaff Quartet, whose first violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, makes his fourth appearance at Spivey Hall.  He's performed solo Bach for us, and (most recently) a duo program with pianist Lars Vogt.  His Quartet unites four exceptionally strong players who exemplify the expressive power of the genre.  How appropriate, then, that their program opens with Joseph Haydn's C-major "Sun" Quartet, Op. 20 No. 2, which musicologists cite as an important point of stylistic evolution in Haydn's quartet writing:  rather than a solo violin line with accompaniment, all four voices participate fully in the dialogue of each movement.  Hearing good Haydn is like drinking cool water on a hot day and breathing fresh air.  It feeds the spirit in natural, very human, ways.

I can't quite remember the first time I heard Christian Tetzlaff in concert, but it's been at least fifteen years (I recall a dinner at the Sydney Opera House with him and guest conductor Marek Janowski following a Sydney Symphony performance during my Australian days).  I remember more vividly hearing Christian perform the Berg Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre several years later.  The intensity, intelligence, and ultimately, the enlightened radiance he brought to the realization of this amazing work was utterly enthralling, because of the penetrating quality of engagement with the music, and the way that intellect and emotion inform his interpretations, to bring clarity and transparency to what he plays.  All comes into focus.  The essence of the composer's creation is revealed.

Such are the powers of understanding and expression that I expect will inform the Quartet's performance of Bartok's Fourth Quartet.  The more I listen to Bartok, the more I appreciate how original his compositional voice is.  I first encountered this quartet while a music major in college, and I struggled with its density of notes and ideas, its almost relentless complexity of counterpoint.  Over time, hearing different performances, I came to understand its behavior better, and could apprehend more of its architecture.  I also discovered that who was playing this quartet made a profound difference in my ability to grasp it (as illustrated abundantly when I heard a performance by the Emerson Quartet).  Although Bartok may not be everyone's cup of tea, I love this piece because in listening to it, I can "lean into it" as heavily as I like, and this effort is rewarded.  To put it somewhat oddly and awkwardly, it gives my ears something to chew on.  Thus I have high hopes that the Tetzlaff Quartet will again help me and the audience to understand (I first typed "see'") this extraordinary piece, aided by the musicians' remarkable powers of discernment -- to lead our listening in revelatory ways.

Two summers ago, an article by Jeremy Eichler about Christian Tetzlaff appeared in The New Yorker, entitled "String Theorist:  Christian Tetzlaff rethinks how a violin should sound."  For anyone who cares about what it takes to bring works of classical music to life, it's a great read.  These words resonated with me:

"At a time when the modern conservatory system has rendered technical virtuosity a commonplace, Tetzlaff is distinguished by his deep musical empathy -- his ability to open a window into a composer's inner life. Tetzlaff is not a religious man, but he describes his art in frankly spiritual terms.  Performing music, he says, "is the job that has the most to do with the belief in the existence of a soul.  I deal in Berg's soul, in Brahms's soul--that's my job.  And, you can challenge me, but I find that music is  humans' most advanced achievement, more so than painting and writing, because it's more mysterious, more magical, and it acts in such a direct way."

Today's program closes with Beethoven's A-minor Quartet, Op. 132, one of the most openly autobiographical of Beethoven's late works for string quartet, which offers some very telling glimpses into the composer's soul, written after a period of serious illness.  Beethoven included in the score of the third movement (in his native German), "A convalescent's sacred song of thanks to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode."  Here, certainly, is a chance for Christian Tetzlaff, Elisabeth Kufferath, Hanna Weinmeister, and Tanja Tetzlaff to "deal in Beethoven's soul" -- and I expect the results will be marvelous.

In writing this post, I find myself using visual terms. That's probably why "opening a window in the composer's spiritual life" made such an impression on me in Eichler's profile.  Tetzlaff is a truth seeker in sound.  In performing for us, he "sees" for us.

Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller will give a pre-concert talk at 2 PM about this program, and the entire audience is invited to a post-concert reception with the artists in the lobby.  Mr. John Markham, who has sponsored several Spivey Hall guest artists in recent seasons and travels from Florida to attend Spivey Hall concerts, is the Friends of Spivey Hall Concert Sponsor of the Tetzlaff Quartet.  I remain grateful for music-lovers like John whose generosity makes possible great music not just for themselves, but for many others as well.  Thank you, John.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Music trains you to think differently

There's a fascinating opinion piece in The New York Times (October 12, 2013) by Joanne Lipman that anyone who loves music should read:  "Is Music the Key to Success?"

After interviewing numerous notable leaders ranging from Alan Greenspan to Woody Allen, she wrote: "Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking.  And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities:  Collaboration. The ability to listen.  A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously."

Not bad!  And of course, there are the intrinsic joys of making music with others and enjoying great music as listeners.  

And...hmmm...yes... "Collaboration."  More of our representatives in Congress should have studied music.

This is a good, succinct read -- take a look.  (I don't know what I'd do without The New York Times.)

And see?  A shorter post, less than a week later than my last.  As I write, in just a few hours, Imogen Cooper will take us with her on a journey through Schubert's final three piano sonatas.  Can't wait!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Spivey Hall's 23rd Season: We open with Imogen Cooper and Schubert

Celebrated British pianist Imogen Cooper will give us the joyful experience of hearing Franz Schubert's final three piano sonatas this Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 3 PM, to open Spivey Hall's 2013-2014 concert season.  The inception of this event dates from Imogen's second Spivey Hall recital, in February 2011. In the warm afterglow of her performance (in which she drew the some of the grandest and most noble sounds I've yet to hear from our New York Steinway that was Emilie Spivey's, an instrument known to Spivey Hall fans as "Emilie"), she quietly mentioned to me that she would love to bring these three masterworks to us.  Of course I immediately said yes. 

And now, at last, the moment arrives.  Imogen has recorded these sonatas in live performance, CD releases which only expanded and reinforced her reputation as one the piano world's leading interpreters of Schubert.  They are richly rewarding -- but of course every live performance is unique, and there's always the element of surprise and serendipitous insight to be had from what happens "in the moment" -- thus I'm keenly curious about what her journey through the sonatas will tell us on this occasion.

Her US tour this fall has included a recital for the Chopin Society in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at Middlebury College in Vermont.  Shortly after her Spivey Hall recital, she'll be back at London's Wigmore Hall, playing to an already sold-out audience of the highly knowledgeable and passionate listeners that throng this distinguished venue.  (I printed Wigmore's entire 2013-2014 season and almost passed out reading it -- the scope and detail of its programming, and the number of artists and performances, are simply staggering.)   We may be proud, and consider ourselves fortunate indeed, that Atlanta-area listeners will have the pleasure of hearing this glorious music in the superb acoustics of Spivey Hall.

Imogen is also meeting, for the first time, "Clara," Spivey Hall's magnificent Hamburg Steinway.  Imogen was centrally involved in the piano search that brought "Clara" to us.  Fellow British pianist (and good friend) Paul Lewis selected "Clara" in December 2011.  "Clara" made her Spivey Hall debut in Leif Ove Andsnes' recital the day after she arrived (read that story here)

"Clara" thus has several godparents. Of course Paul is among them, and he will return in November for his first recital with "Clara" since he heard her on his second encounter with her, in January 2012, at the Steinway factory in Hamburg -- so there's a happy homecoming of sorts in the making.

It was through Imogen's kindness and timely encouragement, at a pivotal stage in our multi-year international search for a new concert grand, that she referred me to Ulrich Gerhartz, Director of Concert & Artists Service at Steinway & Sons in London.  Ulrich is among the world's most sought-after piano technicians (see "Get Me Gerhartz!" in The Financial Times) and trained at the Steinway factory in Hamburg. He knows these pianos inside and out, and (what's more) he has a profound knowledge of what professional pianists need from Steinways to perform at their best.  Appreciating the nature of our "piano quest," he graciously agreed to advise us in our extended search for just the right Hamburg Steinway to suit Spivey Hall's acoustics.  Not surprisingly, Imogen's schedule was packed with performances that fall, and, sadly, she couldn't be in Hamburg for the long-awaited selection appointment we were given at the factory.  Thankfully, through some miracle of scheduling, Paul Lewis was available, and as a trusted colleague of Paul's, Imogen now will experience first-hand what her beneficent and far-reaching influence has wrought (rather like a wise protagonist in a Henry James novel, but with a plot slightly less complex!).  

Ulrich's assessment and characterization of "Clara" as an exceptionally good and promising Hamburg Steinway concert grand, paired with Paul's thoughtful gravitation towards "Clara" and his estimation of how her personality would likely blossom in the acoustics of Spivey Hall, were of critical importance and guidance in our choice of this piano. Thus Imogen and Ulrich are also warmly regarded among the several godparents of "Clara" -- and for this, Spivey Hall pianists and audiences may be lastingly grateful.

Ulrich will be arriving in Atlanta shortly to prepare "Clara" for her second complete Spivey Hall concert season. As quite a young piano still, "Clara" is in excellent condition, but all pianos need regular maintenance, and "Clara" continues to evolve as she is played by various pianists.  She receives regular tunings to help her settle into her Spivey Hall home (just as new babies need frequent feedings, new pianos need frequent tunings).  The character of her sound continues to be revealed to us.  Just yesterday (October 7, 2013) in a nationwide radio broadcast of American Pubic Media's Performance Today (which is available for a limited time in PT's program archive), listeners heard Angela Hewitt's performance on "Clara" of Bach's French Suite No. 5 from April 2012.  This gave me a chance to hear and compare "Clara" "then" and "now." True to her name, "Clara" (in Angela's expert hands) gave forth a tone that was direct and clear; the textures were transparent, and the inflections and embellishments were highly expressive -- all very pleasing and encouraging. Since that time, I've noticed that "Clara's" bass has opened up quite a bit, and certainly she's had some very vigorous workouts that have exposed contrasting dimensions of her personality (among them Yefim Bronfman's astonishing and powerful Prokofiev Sonata No. 8 performance).

Ulrich will evaluate "Clara's" development and make adjustments to enhance her sound throughout her range, "voicing" her meticulously so that each note sounds as it should when the key is depressed and the hammer strikes the string -- both individually and in the context of all the other 87 notes, at all levels of volume, with and without the una corda pedal.  It's mind-bogglingly detailed work and requires tremendous technical skill, patience, and aural acuity. With this work achieved, and with a piano of this quality, an artist like Imogen Cooper can immerse herself in music-making to summon the spirit of Schubert without having to think too much about the piano or to "manage" it in the course of her performance -- all to the greater benefit of the music, which is why we at Spivey Hall are all here.  As the quote attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche goes, "Without music, life would be a mistake." Right?

I'm excited about our season-opening concert, with the expectation that Imogen Cooper, "Clara," Schubert, and the audience will unite in a memorable experience that will enthrall and delight. I for one am particularly eager to hear once again the slow movement of the A-major Sonata, D.959, which pulls at my heart with its stark beauty, and lingers with wistful, other-worldly melancholy in my spirit for days afterwards. In deeply intimate ways, this (for me) reflects the genius of Schubert.  (Friends of Spivey Hall traveling to the 2013 Schubertiade Schwarzenberg in Austria had the pleasure of hearing several Schubert piano sonatas in the course of a week, notably from Paul Lewis and Andras Schiff, who both performed the last sonata, D.960.  A month later, I was still waking up with Schubert sonata tunes in my head.)

I owe sincere thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Nicolas I. Quintana for their generosity in being the Friends of Spivey Hall sponsors of Imogen's recital, which is our Season Opening Celebration. Our festivities include complimentary refreshments in the lobby for the entire audience (made possible through the support of Friends of Spivey Hall) during the two intermissions of this recital (savory bites at the first, sweet at the second, and beverages to match).  Unlike at Wigmore Hall (which enjoys a size and density of population in London exceeding those of Atlanta), this magnificent recital is not yet sold out -- so if you don't have your tickets yet, don't hesitate, good seats are available, call the Box Office or go online now. 

Soon Spivey Hall will again resound with great music, which is cause for rejoicing. I'm looking forward to seeing faces both familiar and new after our summer break. And once again, I have resolved to blog more regularly.  This likely will not be achieved with blog posts of this length.  I will endeavor to blog more often with fewer words.