Saturday, May 26, 2012

Cleveland Public Theatre: Akarui [Bright]

Cleveland Public Theatre, presenting world premiere of playwright Jen Silverman's Akarui now through June 9th, always manages to pack in surprises.
Photo: Steve Wagner/Courtesy CPT
Akarui is no exception -- a mix of stories and fables, pounding music and drama -- with settings ranging from an American bedroom to Baba Yaga's chicken hut and a rave cave "at the end of the world" is a compelling story of acceptance and the power and right to change.

Aside from phenomenal acting -- which I'll get to in a moment -- the set, lighting, and sound design were all among the best of those productions in recent (and not so recent memory) effectively and creatively supporting the story without being intrusive and a completely believable portal to another dimension through the theatre's proscenium.

I don't do blood, guts, or surgery well -- I'm known to pass out with detailed descriptions -- but typically with plays I'm able to put it aside as fiction without problem. At one point near the end of Act I, Akarui's story combined with persuasive acting had me feeling a little lightheaded (and Rachel asking "are you alright...?")

Photo: Steve Wagner/Courtesy CPT
Beth Wood's demented portrayal of Baba Yaga [yes, the same Baba Yaga as also appears in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition] as mad scientist kicked the action off to an amusing start and her appearances throughout rarely left without a worried chuckle ("Why do you insist on torturing yourself when I'm already torturing you?" perhaps being my favorite line from the show) -- but compelling didn't end there.
A DJ (Chris Siebert) watches over and occasionally guides the happenings. Each of the interlocking stories is a character undergoing change -- female to male, alive to dead, manta ray to man -- and struggling with acceptance, of their own status and as well as their status as seen by others -- before arriving at a rave "at the end of the world". And that rave is full of energy that spills out into the audience.

About two hours including an intermission, the show's pacing and overlapping stories held even my attention and it felt only about half as long.
(Directed by Raynond Bobgan, Cast: Chris Siebert as DJ Akarui, Beth Wood as Baba Yaga, James Alexander Rankin as Joshua, Molly Andrews-Hinders as DC, Davis Agulla as Fish/Manta Ray, Richard Brandon Hall as Mateu, Lew Wallace as Stack, Dionne D. Atchison, Roxana Bell, Carly Garinger, Fay Hargate, Jeremy Paul, Amy Schwabauer, Adam Seeholzer, Rose Sengenberger as Chorus; Todd Kripinsky, set design; Alison Garrigan, costume design; Benjamin Gantose, lighting design; Chris Siebert, pervussion coach; Michael Roesch and Raymond Bobagn, sound design; Richard Brandon Hall, choreographer; Danielle Case, production stage manager; Jennifer Caster, assistant producer)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra: Salome Opera-In-Concert

Richard Strauss: Salome (Based on the play by Oscar Wilde)
Franz Welser-Most, Conductor -- full cast list at the end of this

The Cleveland Orchestra is presenting its annual opera this year as an "opera in concert" breaking from the recent years "fully staged opera". Also a little different for this year the Orchestra is taking the opera on the road for two performances at New York's Carnegie Hall before returning to Cleveland with a final performance on Saturday, May 25th.

As opera in concert I wasn't sure what to expect, perhaps an "opera sized" orchestra with soloists on stage. Instead, The Cleveland Orchestra came out in full-force with a densely packed stage full of musicians and an usual platform for the singers projecting as a peninsula into the sea of musicians accessed by removing a section of the decorative organ pipes that typically grace the back of the Severance Hall stage.

This staging was visually satisfying -- in that it both elevated the majority of singers above the orchestra and lessened the gap between singer and surtitles -- but may have contributed to the one less than desirable  thing that both Rachel and I noted: The men's voices, particularly, tended to disappear in the musical expanse of the instruments--the "problem" didn't seem as pronounced with the women who typically clearly cut through.

The program note mentions that "Other observers were less concerned with the work’s alleged decadence or blasphemy than they were with the question: Is it an opera? Gabriel Faure was among the first, and certainly notthe last, to call Salome 'a symphonic poem with voices added.'" and certainly with this format it's easy to see how a listener would get that impression. And I rather liked it.

I typically have a hard time with fully staged opera because of how many moving parts are involved -- there's the set, the blocking (movements of singers and props), singing (along with reading surtitles if there's any hope to follow the plot), and music, and opera in concert really cuts to the core. You can listene to the singers and the orchestra while reading the surtitles and not have to worry about interpreting the set or the blocking or the costuming -- thus the closest I think I've come to truly following the story in an opera.

That said I was mostly there for the musical ride and Mr. Welser-Most certainly seems to be at home conducting opera. The opera runs just about an hour and a half of continuous music and is performed without intermission, but was never boring. The emotion -- which in many cases would be highlighted by blocking -- was clearly conveyed in the music.

The highlight of the evening for me, though, was Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils, though the story at the end of the opera kept me glued to the action.


The cast list:
Rudolf Schasching, tenor, Herod; Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano, Herodias; Nina Stemme, soprano, Salome; Eric Owens, bass-beritone, Jochanaan; Garrett Sorenson, tenor, Narraboth; Jenniver Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, Herodia's Page and a Slave; Rodell Aure Rosel, tenor, First Jew; Matthew Plenk, tenor, Second Jew; Bryan Griffin, tenor, Third Jew, James Kryshak, tenor, Fourth Jew; Darren Stokes, bass-baritone, Fifth Jew and A Man from Cappadocia; Evan Boyer, bass, First Soldier and First Nazarene; Sam Handley, bass-baritone, Second Soldier; Brian Keith Johnson, baritone, Second Nazarene.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Susan Britton (violin) and Olga Gorelik (piano) Recital

Faure: Clare de lune (1887)
Beethoven: Sonata no. 1 in D major, Op. 12 (1796)
Grieg: Allegretto tranquillo from Sonata No. 2 in G major, Op. 13 (1867)
Ysaye: Sonata no. 3 in D minor - Ballade, Op. 27 (1923)
de Falla: Suite populaire espagnole (1914)
Debussy: Beau soir (ca. 1885)
Susan Britton, violin; Olga Gorelik, piano.
At the Herr Chapel, Plymouth Church, Shaker Heights.

It seems I picked up a cold as an unexpected birthday gift but despite feeling a bit under the weather I wasn't about to miss tonight's  recital featuring violinist Susan Britton and pianist Olga Gorelik.

And I wasn't disappointed. This evening's recital featured a variety of music and moods spanning 150 years and was full of soulful playing on the part of both musicians. The result was delightfully blended and very passionate.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Announcing Column & Stripe @ClevelandArt (with Solstice Ticket Offer)

One of the few areas where I've felt that the Cleveland Museum of Art was lacking was that there was no organization for young professionals, or rather events didn't seem geared to young professionals needs and scheduling.

I'm happy to report that for the past few months I've been serving on two of the committees (along side a diverse group of other engaged Clevelanders) for what has become Column & Stripe: The New Friends of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

While a lot of specific programming is still being determined, a lot of the possibilities that we're discussing sound really great -- everything behind-the-scenes looks at museum departments [if you know me, you know that's a personal favorite] to walking tours of public art in Cleveland, to social opportunities (with and without curatorial staff).

While social this certainly won't be another happy hour drink-and-hang-out group, and membership will open doors to free and discounted unique programming, in addition to supporting one of Cleveland's cultural gems.

The best part is if you're already a Museum member Column & Stripe is only $50 more for an individual or $75 for two. (If you aren't already a member, the combined Cleveland Museum of Art membership along with Column and Stripe benefits starts at only $100 per year -- that's less than nine bucks a month, and includes unlimited no charge access to the museum's ticketed exhibitions [the permanent collections are always free] as well as access the exclusive Column and Stripe programming we're planning.

And the first 100 people to join Column and Stripe before we officially launch at the museum's Solstice Party on June 30th get a free ticket to Solstice. Already have your Solstice Ticket? Join Column & Stripe at Solstice to save 50% on C&S dues.

For more information see the Column & Stripe page on the Cleveland Museum of Art's website.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra: Stravinsky's The Firebird

Kodaly: Dances of Galanta
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 197 (Alisa Weilerstein, cello)
Unannounced Encore for Solo Cello (Alisa Weilerstein, cello)
Roussel: Suite from The Spider's Feast [Le Festin de l'araignee]
Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird [1919 revision]
Lionel Bringuier, conductor

You can tell the general way a concert is going by the number of smiles you see on the box level at intermission; tonight people were absolutely beaming. At the end of the concert, leaving my box at the end of the evening I passed a gray-haired gentleman who, to no one in particular, remarked "wow, that was inspiring".

And indeed it was. For the fifteen-minute, five movement Dances of Galanta I was transfixed; played without pause I didn't realize that it was a multi-movement piece until referring to the program at the end of the piece. The first half of the piece strikes as a series of picturesque vignettes lead from the winds and beginning with ear catching work by Franklin Cohen's clarinet and shifting to other winds enthusiastically supported by the rest of the orchestra. As the end of the piece approached the full sound and energy of the orchestra was brought forth and I caught myself toe-tapping at times.

Next up and tonight's winner, Shostakovitch's Cello Concerto No. 1 with the solo part played by native Clevelander Alisa Weilerstein.  As the arc of the piece progressed my ear made me think of a lovers' quarrel. The first movement starts with a harsh repetitive sequence of notes in the cello and answered by the orchestra, perhaps the beginning of an argument. The second movement is toned down and instead of aggression has a romantic sound, particularly amongst the section strings; perhaps trying to sooth an upset lover. The third movement, on the other hand, is an extended performance by solo cello passioned and in increasing speed and coherence. Bringing the piece to a close, soloist and orchestra come back together though with a slightly sarcastic sense -- perhaps not quite ready to trust each other again.

I'm pretty sure this is the closest my eyes have come to outright watering in Severance Hall.

Next, Ms. Weilerstein offered an unannounced encore in the form of a delightfully rich solo piece.

The programming after intermission was good but not quite as compelling with the new-to-me Suite from The Spider's Feast, a six-continuous-movement program beginning with the prelude and entrance of the ants, dance of the butterfly and funeral of the mayfly. Though this is the story of a butterfly trapped in a spider's web I didn't really get a sense of urgency on the part of the struggling butterfly and the power of the marching ants was only fleeting.

Concluding the program, a 1919 suite from Stravinsky's The Firebird, which, per the program notes, premiered about three weeks after and mere miles away from The Spider's Feast. Though not as provocative as that composer's Rite of Spring, it has compelling moments -- though like the last time I heard the piece, I didn't particularly care for the first two movements with The Infernal Dance of King Kaschei and Bercuese ("Lullaby") being the most interesting.

The program repeats on Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 3. Friday a subset of the program (including the Cello Concerto and Firebird suite is presented as part of a Fridays@7 event including pre- and post-concert activities.

As the Severance season winds down, over the next two weeks on Saturdays May 19th and May 26 bookending a performance at Carnegie Hall, the Orchestra will be presenting Salome as Opera-in-Concert.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Heights Arts House Concert: 3Bs - Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok

Beethoven: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18 No. 2
Bartok: Thrid String Quartet (1927)
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115
The Omni Quartet (Jung-Min Amy Lee, Alicia Koelz, violins; Joana Patterson, viola, Tanya Ell, cello) with Robert Woolfrey, clarinet)
At the Maron Penthouse, Downtown Cleveland.

The first Heights Arts house concert I attended was in the Maron's spectacular downtown Cleveland penthouse and it was a real treat to be back (this time also having the privilege of Ms. Maron showing Rachel and I through their beautiful home prior to the concert).

Having received some unfortunate financial news earlier today -- there may or may not be a separate post on that down the road -- I wasn't in the highest of spirits going in to this evening's concert but nonetheless, this concert, performed entirely by members of the Cleveland Orchestra (some of whom had played a concert at Severance earlier today) was the most enjoyable of recent memory.

The Beethoven String Quartet kicked the concert off to a lively start as the sun started to descend over the beautiful Cleveland skyline behind the musicians. The second movement turned more introspective with in the second movement before hitting a minor but unified celebration. Near the end of the piece I had the vision of the orchestra as a band of fellows kicking a rock down a dusty road as the same general motif bounced from instrument to instrument.

Taking a dramatic change of period, the second piece on the program was Bela Bartok's Third String Quartet which Ms. Ell provided a very engaging introduction for highlighting some of the things to listen for in the fifteen minute piece whos movements were played without pause. Starting with something bleak, and almost depressingly lonely (Ms. Ell related it to the Cleveland winter, but it seemed even more desolate and lonely than that to me) with a bit of anger before coming in to a eerie folksong with some eerie undertones -- perhaps indicative of angry spirits. The piece also featured some unusual instructions including col lengo -- where the stick [wood] of the bow is used to hit the strings rather than the bowhair.

Brahms Clarinet Quintet was passionately sweet with Mr. Woolfrey's clarinet seeming to take the place of a longing lover while the ensemble seemed to the the hero or heroine moments away from taking his or her own life. The second movement continued this impression with an compellingly anguished sound, while the third movement -- lead by the clarinet -- was more moving and showed a restoral of hope while the piece concluded with a passionate, longing and almost remorseful fourth movement.

But neither Rachel nor I had any remorse about attending this evening's concert.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cleveland Orchestra: Ton Koopman Conducts Mozart

Locatelli: Introduzione teatrale, Op. 4, No. 4
Boccherini: Cello Concerto in D major, G479 (Mark Kosower, cello)
JCF Bach: Symphony No. 20 in B-flat major, HW.I/20
Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Little Night Music] Serenade No. 13 in G major for strings, K525
Mozart: Symphony No. 31 ("Paris") in D major, K297
Ton Koopman, Conductor

If you needed any reminder as to the genre of tonight's concert, the short (at about five minutes, perhaps the shortest I've heard the orchestra perfrom) Introduzione teatrale left no room for doubt that you were in for an evening of baroque. A sngle movement whith a tangy slow middle bookended by fast outer sections it was interesting -- and I realized that "tangy" is the sound I associate with the period.

Mr. Koopman is clearly not the kind of conductor to hold back, nor is he one who seems to leave doubt as to what he desires from the orcehstra and you would hope the sound of the ensemble benefits from both of those qualities -- but it seemed uncommitted

Next up, Boccherini's Cello Concerto featured orchestra principal Mark Kosower. I've had the pleasure of hearing him preform with small ensembles before and have loved his sound, but tonight something seemed just a little baroque-n (if you can excuse the inexcusable pun). During solo passages and when the cello was clearly in front of the ensemble it was delightful -- especially in the powerfully sweet second movement -- but when cello and ensemble were on a more even footing it seemed as if I was listening to two different pieces that weren't quite gelling.

The final piece before intermission finds us with JCF Bach's Symphony Number 20, which had a more modern sound than the first two, and the first movement was particularly lighter; the prominent sound of the flute made me imagine a small and agile bird fluttering over the orchestra, but the remaining three movements were less remarkable.

The highlight of the concert came following intermission with Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or the common English rendering, A Little Night Music, with the first movement passionately played and unmistakably familiar and fun to hear with a sense of celebration. Once we had departed the territory of the familiar we were taken into the realm of romantically lyrical before turning slightly festive.

The last piece on the program, Mozart's Symphony 31, Paris, was pleasant to hear but passed without making any lasting impression on my conscious (the extent of my notes are "(e)(1) ? (2) ? (3) ?") which was generally my feeling about the concert -- and based on the lackluster response from the audience I don't think I was alone.

As a scheduling note, since my dad will be in town for my birthday next weekend I'll be attending the concert on Thursday instead of my traditional Saturday outing -- with Stravinsky's Firebird I have high hopes.

(As a postscript, in conversations with various people both leaving the hall and since, I've heard an unusally high -- e.g. universal -- displeasure)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Interview with conductor Sasha Makila

Conductor Sasha Makila
Finnish conductor Sasha Makila is wrapping up his two-year term as one of two Assistant Conductors with the Cleveland Orchestra. Recently appointed as the Music Director for the St. Michel Strings Chamber Orchestra, based in Mikkeli, Finland, Sasha graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts and answer some of my questions before he leaves Cleveland.

Announcing his appointment, the press release notes that he is “gaining recognition as one of the most prominent rising talents of his generation” and I must confess a personal bias – Mr. Makila is one of, if not, the most sociable and accessible I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Not to mention the concerts I’ve heard Sasha conduct have an unusually wonderful synergy between conductor and orchestra which makes for an utterly captivating sound. 

About His Time in Cleveland
“The only thing I wish is if I could have done this assistantship earlier,” Sasha avers, having conducted professional orchestras for the better part of a decade with an established guest conducting schedule, yet “I both learned a lot and benefited from being connected to such a great institution”.

With the institution came the opportunity to observe and learn beside a cadre of well-known guest conductors. I was a bit surprised by one of the other lessons learned when Mr. Makila noted that he “also learned how to work in a very efficient and fast way since all of my concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra were done with just one short rehearsal.”

“My debut with the Cleveland Orchestra is impossible to forget, of course.” Sasha remarks when asked about his favorite memory. “It was a Halloween concert where I was pushed onstage in a box of swords. And concertmaster Peter Otto was playing the violin solo of Dance Macabre dressed as Lady Gaga and with shades he could barely see anything through!”

Continuing, he mentions Beyond the Score conductor Andrey Boreyko being a surprise collaboration (here’s a post from Sasha’s blog), and Hans Graf [my post, Sasha conducted the women of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus off stage] who Sasha says “we share a passion of linguistics and learning new languages with him”.

Appearing on the Severance Hall stage not just upon the conductor’s podium but in the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (he is nothing if not versatile),  “I cannot forget my performances in the ranks of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus - especially the last ones, singing Beethoven's 9th under the baton of Christoph von Dohnanyi.” [my post]

As A Musician and Conductor
Coming from a musical family (both parents play instruments and his mother is a professional musician) and studying Cello at the Helsinki Conservatory, Maestro Makila says he came to conducting by chance.

“I started conducting amateur and student groups and came to conducting kind of by immersion,” he says, “Without any plan or any grandiose dreams I just happened to conduct more and more until I was doing it more than playing my cello. But I think the deciding moment was when I met professor Korchmar in Russia. He saw in me something I could not myself see at the moment, and he had enormous faith in me and my talent. He really pushed me until I realized the fact that with the talent I have it is my duty and my responsibility to use it for this purpose. I cannot say there was a single moment of discovery, but after I left his class in St. Petersburg there simply was no return. Ever since, conducting has been a priority in my life.”

Based on the concerts and works I’ve heard Mr. Makila conduct (see the end of this post for a partial list), Professor Korchmar certainly found a talent. Since the connection between Maestro Makila and orchestra seems more responsive than many other conductors, with a more enjoyable sound I was eager to ask how he accomplishes that. His answer was fascinating:

“I think it is a combination of many factors. When you stand in front of a hundred musicians everything you do or say, or even your body posture, will have effect on the result. Your personality matters, too. I recently had a musician come to me after a concert and tell me ‘How nice it was to work with a nice person’. That player might have had hard time with ‘the other type of conductor’ before, and for sure she gave more of herself in my concert.”

“I try to be patient in the rehearsal and treat every musician with respect. I know everyone might have better and worse days, someone has a sick kid at home, someone is struggling with his mortgage, but it is a fine line to walk, you know. My ideal would be that when the first notes start to sound everyone would just forget about their problems and be transported in the pure realm of music and work towards one goal - a beautiful concert.”

“Then there is of course the matter of conducting technique. Many people come to tell me how I seem to transform the sound of the strings in any orchestra, and it has to do with the fact that I'm a string player myself. I know how to give the strings time to sound and what kind of conducting movements encourage a free and relaxed manner of bowing. Also, my teacher in Russia always told me to ‘draw’ the sound out of the orchestra, and never ‘beat’. Some players might have a problem with no beating but I say it just encourages everyone to listen each other more carefully!”

Looking Forward to Taking the Helm as Music Director
With his time in Cleveland coming to a close, Sasha has an exciting opportunity as Music Director of the St. Michel Strings, one of the first orchestras that he conducted on a regular basis “The chemistry between me and the musicians was always good,” he adds.

“A guest conductor does best if he’s not too picky and demanding for the week he is working with the orchestra, but the music director has the license to demand more since he will be with the orchestra most of the time.” Illuminating this point, “If I’m not happy with the way the musicians play certain things, I can continue working on them the next week. I really want to realize my ideal sound with this group and I am looking forward to the process”

The St. Michel Strings has been sailing without a music director at the helm for several years. “It’s not a healthy situation for any orchestra,” Sasha says, “and I know the musicians are eager to make a difference now that they again have artistic leadership”.

Asked about his expectations, “During the first six months I am going to demand a lot from myself. If I am not giving 100% I don’t have the right to demand that from my players either.” Being realistic, he doesn’t expect a huge difference in the Orchestra’s playing in the first six months but within a year, “I hope we have found our own way of interpreting certain core repertoire and will start to have our own recognizable sound,” with the goal of taking the orchestra on tour in two years.
And about that sound “During past years the Orchestra has played a lot of modern music, but I want to get us back to the core repertoire, which I know is in the best interest of our listeners as well. If there is a legacy to preserve, it is the versatility of the group which I hope not to spoil during my tenure”

Though Mr. Makila says that it’s a welcome change to live permanently in Finland again, he promises it won’t affect his guest conducting much. “I am traveling around the globe like before or even a little bit more” – hopefully those travels will bring him, and perhaps his new orchestra to Northeast Ohio… or I shall have to find my way to Finland.

(Some of the concerts I've heard Mr. Makila conduct include: The CIM Orchestra with works by Smetana, Sibelius, and Shostakovitch in 2011, the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra portion of the Cleveland Orchestra's From Russia with Love, The Cleveland Orchestra's Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, and more)