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Archive for the ‘Sam’s Music and Opera’ Category

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Note:  Nearly three months after this review first appeared at WitD I ran into CAS financial officer Ralph Jones at the home of a very close mutual friend at a Labor Day weekend barbeque.  I asked Jones, a headstrong pedant why he never acknowledged the review, one of many done in behalf of the group where he serves mainly in a marked unartistic capacity -his choral singer wife is the reason he is involved- why he never acknowledged its publication.  He responded with an annoyed quip that I “mispelled” the director’s name.  Going back to the review I found that I spelled Martin Sedek as Martin Sedak.  I erroneously substituted the “e” in the director’s name for the incorrect “a”.  One letter spelled wrong and Jones opted not to acknowledge the review which was done as a favor, and which took me time from a  busy day to complete.  This is not the first time Jones has called me on the carpet for a review I wrote in his behalf.  A few years ago he made a major stink because I wrote “Arts Society” instead of “Art Society” though it was the very first review I had written on the group.  Truth be said Jones is easily threatened when someone comes along who has a far more vast and studied grasp of the classical canon, in my case many years of attending concerts by the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, City Opera and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra via partial season subscription.  I am also a regular at many local venues including those staged by the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra and the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company.  Jones’ chief involvement with his wife’s choral group is a technical one, but he still struts all he can.  I have never myself been very impressed with his personal contribution, though it is clearly a no-brainer.  Here is the hitch:  Jones never tried to contact me to change the single letter typo in the 1,000 plus word review.  He knows well all he could have done was e mail me and I would have changed the single vowel immediately as the site administrator.  But Jones had no desire to do that.  He much preferred to “play the role” for his director with nose way up in the air.  He needed to impress Sedek against the affrontery of “disrespect” no doubt to prove what a  loyal guy he is.  No matter to Jones that the review praises Sedek to the high heavens, he used this opportunity to play internet police, most reprehensibly at my expense.  Too bad Jones himself hasn’t a speck of talent to conduct himself in that manner.  Instead of concerning himself with the quality of the review, the discussion of the music and glowing appreciation of the CAS he obsesses over a single letter.   As long as Ralph Jones is involved, this was the final concert by this group my wife and I will ever attend.  We’ve traveled all over to attend about eight (8), mainly out of respect for our very dear mutual lifelong friend, but I have reached the end of the line with Jonze, oh I mean Jones.

by Sam Juliano

The May 14th concert by the Choral Art Society of New Jersey featured work by some of classical music’s most iconic figures, but it was the reunion of a student playing one of his one-time mentor’s most celebrated compositions that brought a special emotional heft to the proceedings.  Performed at the acoustic-friendly Presbyterian Church in Westfield -the group’s home base for decades, the night brought CAS Music Director Martin Sedak and his previous instructor – the composer Matthew Harris – together in a glorious presentation of the latter’s Oceanic Eyes, a four part cantata commissioned in 2006 based on texts by celebrated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and distinguished by the employment of classical guitar that allowed the work’s distinct Spanish romanticism to shine through.  The composition’s lilting metaphors and colorful imagery seems inspired by the British poet Alfred Noyes who wove undying nocturnal passions into the narrative of his arresting “The Highwayman.”  Yet it was the highly emotive, stirring and soulful reading by the committed singers of the CAS who injected Harris’ work with a sense of immediacy, aided by the prism of water, which flows through universal appreciation.Sedak’s decision to open the show with a rarely performed song by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams proved to be a masterstroke of mood and staging.  To be sure “The Lover’s Ghost” (from Five English Folk Songs)  is one of the most sublime and haunting choral pieces from anyone, replete as the piece is with color, form, harmony and expression but especially prominent for its contrapuntal construction.  Sedak directed the singers to create two lines in the space between the central orchestra and the sides, making all the more of a powerful impression.  Though the second work is another infrequently negotiated composition, the fact that it was written by Beethoven elevates it immeasurably for classical music fans who can never get enough of one of the form’s supreme immortals.  A Calm Sea & A Prosperous Voyage is noted for the composer’s setting the text by Johann von Goethe and as an earlier example of his evocative nature writing that is strikingly evident in his later symphonic masterworks, so expertly visited by the CAS. (more…)

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sibelius

Sculpture of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose ‘Finlandia’ is one of classical music’s most beloved compositions.

by Sam Juliano

The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra have been performing for seventy-six years in the affluent Bergen County, New Jersey town that bears its name.  Their annual concert schedule usually allows for three full venues, which are usually organized by way of form, common instrument, composer or theme.  The concert of Friday, November 7 brought together two famed organ compositions – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, also referred to as the “Organ” Symphony.  Completing the classical quartet that comprised the concert were two renowned nationalistic works: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius and The Moldau (Vltava from Ma vlast).  While no classical music lover attends these local venues because they are expecting the polish, expertise and experience of the New York Philharmonic, they usually are able to revel in the passion and commitment of an ensemble that includes talented music students from local high schools and orchestral free lancers who are thrilled to secure such opportunities.

The idea of nationalism has been subverted in recent years, as the intended spirit has been hijacked by fanatics, who equate patriotism with terrorist acts against innocents.  Yet as he grew up Sibelius lived in a Finland controlled by Russia.  He also lived in a time when his countrymen were expected to speak Swedish.  Sibelius dodged these resented influences to attend a Finnish School, where he later developed an appreciation of his country’s rich literary tradition, which many years later he turned to when he wanted to write music to express his opposition to the Russianization of his country.  The patriotic poem, “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River” served as an inspiration for a four-episode tone poem, which eventually came to be known as Finlandia.  One of the most stirring compositions in the classical repertoire, this “tone poem for orchestra” has long been regarded as the unofficial Finnish national anthem, and it debuted at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, where it was performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic.  The piece opens with repeated brass turbulence which projects a measure of foreboding.  Ridgewood’s players were fully up to this provocative opening statement, which segues into a benign calm before the storm, and then on to a brisk and energetic passage in celebratory mode before the rapturous and expansive main theme makes its appearance – a theme of incredible emotional power that would rouse even those in a coma with its hymn like coda that beckons it’s listeners to offer their undivided attention and reverence. You don’t have to be Finnish to be moved to tears.  One of western music’s most renowned melodies then yields to a comparatively bombastic passage which encores the rapturous hymn at the start, but it is clear what passage has won its listener’s hearts. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The ABCs of opera.  Aida.  Boheme.  Carmen.  This triptych expression has come to denote not only the essentials for a newcomer to the form, but also the most pared down assessment of these three quintessential works that continue to rate among the most performed operas year after year worldwide.  The middle of the three, Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Boheme may well have emerged the most popular opera of all-time over the past ten or fifteen years if we further examine some telling statistics.  Certainly there can be little doubt that it is the most perfectly composed of the composer’s works, and the one that boasts the most clarity of structure.  It is also (along with Carmen) one of the two most frequently mentioned operas by musicologists to have made converts of non-believers of the form.  La Boheme is the perfect choice for one’s first introduction to opera, whether in attendance at the opera house, via HD broadcast or on an audio CD.  Charming, sublime, lyrical, sentimental and suffused with soaring emotions, this four-act work of moderate length (by opera standards) is finally unbearably poignant, but along the way it showcases some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Puccini’s incomparable melodic felicity -often attacked back in the day as shameless and ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve – by the cynics, is now regarded as old-fashioned melody-making that very few have been able successfully emulate.  Though the composer crafted several operas that border on master-class (Turandot, La Fanciula de West, Manon Lescaut, Gianni Schicchi –the latter contains the beloved suprano aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” while the first-mentioned features the electrifying tenor standard “Nessun Dorma”) La Boheme is one of the three unquestioned masterpieces (Tosca and Madama Butterfly are the others) that have beguiled and ravished opera goers for many decades, and no doubt will continue to do so well into the future. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

When a freak accident claimed the life of Polish composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda at the age of 38 in 1969, the film community lost an invaluable talent at the peak of his artistic powers and a young man was cut short well before his time.  Indeed, director Roman Polanski, in the liner notes to a 1997 Komeda tribute album wrote: “Krzysztof Komeda was not only a valued professional collaborator but a close and dear friend, and it is my abiding regret that his untimely death robbed me of him in both those capacities.”  Komeda developed a personal style that brought the jazz form a new prominence in a communist country that frowned on what was seen as an American creation.  Komeda expanded the jazz parameters by injected a generous dose of ‘slavic lyricism’ and poetic atmosphere that eventually gained the young composer a following in his native country and abroad.  One of Komeda’s most enthusiastic fans was none other than Polanski himself, who courted the fellow Pole to score his first film, Knife in the Water, after engaging the composer on his student film, after many months of attending him on the nightclub circuit.  By that time the composer had received a few other offers (which he accepted) and he came through for Polanski with a low-key jazz score to serve as a counterpoint to the mounting tensions in Knife, employing saxophone and a string-bass driven sound.  The mournful romanticism of the main theme is what most remember most compellingly from the score, but the music throughout is exceptionally applied.  Polanski again called on Komeda for his 1963 Cul-de-Sac, allowing the composer to again write a nifty  jazzy composition, with a dominant use of the moog, bongo and warbling horns.  At around that time Komeda was also composing for the Danish director Henning Carlsen, contributing scores to Kattorna, People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Heart and the director’s masterpiece, Salt (Hunger), for which a provocative chamber music design was written.  Komeda’s most famous album to this day remains his landmark jazz work “Astigmatic” (1965) which is noted for it’s extraordinarily sublime coordination of piano harmonies and rhythms.  Komeda also worked with Polish titan Andrzej Wajda, penning the score to Innocent Sorcerers, which exhibited the experimentation of form and dark tonalities typical of some of his earlier film music. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work “The White Shadow” will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event.  The film preservation theme of course is at the center of this cinematic lament.  We can certainly hope for  a miracle. Be sure to donate!]

Printed prominently on the CD artwork and in the elaborate booklets included in the “Brigham University Film Music Archive Collection” launched in 1995 and still running series of film music releases is this specification: All proceeds from this limited edition compact disc go towards the acquisition and preservation of film music elements.  The series now includes a relatively-scant 14 releases, each a miracle of production, in almost all instances produced from master tapes and manuscripts that were donated to the university, and are presently managed by the curator, James D’Arc, who has sereved as producer for each of the releases.  The published “mission statement” of the project reads:

The Film Music Archives (BYU/FMA) exists to acquire, preserve, catalog, and make 
available to scholars and other interested parties original motion picture music manuscripts and recordings that document the history of music composed and recorded for motion pictures. (more…)

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Philidor: Sancho Panca (CD) ~ Perry Cover Art

by Sam Juliano

The appearance of eighteenth-century opera on CD is a blessing for both fans of opera comique and those looking to broaden the horizons of  a form that takes risks far too infrequently.   The French composer Francois-Andre Danican Philador is thought to be the first to achieve real distinction in a style that eventually merged with Italian opera in the early nineteenth century, in the form of comedy buffa.  Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Don Giovanni are seminal works in the later category.  Philador’s major contribution to the emergence of the opera comique as a respectable musical genre, is the application of realistic characters and situations.  It can be concluded that he handled his limited orchestral resources cleverly, and the vocal lines are rich, melodious and descriptive.

History does relate that there were charges of plaguerism against Philador, published years after his death from the likes of Berlioz and other music critics that he had plundered the work of Gluck, Galuppi, Pergolesi and Jommelli.  The fact that Philador had actually seen Gluck’s Orfeo opened him up for accusations for music that he wrote for Ernelinde and Le Sorcier, two operas that bear more than remarkable similarities.  But both the dubious degree of intent and the non-consumation of such charges should stop the skeptics in their tracks, and allow Philador’s standing to hold sway for this style and time period.  The composer’s most famous (and best) opera is Tom Jones, composed in 1765, and presented in three acts.  Sancho Panza, which was recently recorded and released by Opera Lafayette with Ryan Brown conducting, is considered a more obscure Philador work, but it has gained in reputation over the past decades.  Antoine-Alexandre Poinsinet (1735-1769) created the libretto of Sancho Panca from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governership of an island for his faithful service – a dream that the duke and dutchess features in Part 2 fullfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho.  When faced with the real demands of governing the imaginary land -the island of Barataria – Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Franco Zeffirelli achieved what no other had managed before or since.  He scored major successes on the opera stage, in the theatre and the cinema, and eventually brought these forms together to become the greatest director of “opera films” in a prolific run in the 1980’s.  Once a student of art and architecture, Zeffirelli reportedly turned to the theatre after watching Olivier’s visually arresting Henry V, and while working as a scenic painter in Florence was hired to work as an assistant director under renowned film director Luchino Visconti, for the film La Terra Trema, released in 1948.  Zeffirelli later worked with Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, and in the 1960’s achieved moderate success directing and designing his own plays in New York and London.  His special gift was remarkable visual design and he eventually crafted extraordinary sets for the works of Verdi, Puccini, Bizet and Mozart on opera stages and directed some lush period films based on Shakespeare and religious figures.  In the latter pursuit Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, a stunningly beautiful color film that has retained it’s popularity in schools and on internet chat boards decades later,  featured attractive teens in the lead roles.  While that film remains the one the director is principally known for among film fans, he achieved no less a critical success the year before that with another Bard standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  In 1973 he again produced visual ravishments with Brother Sun Sister Moon based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and then directed a mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth that still hold high ratings when aired today.  But Zeffirelli to the delight of the purists has always been a staunch traditionalist.  This has endeared him to the brass at the Metropolitan Opera and for those who strongly favor the period trappings and the original intentions of the works’ creators.

The director’s celebrated run of four opera films (two by the master Giuseppe Verdi) was accomplished during a period where he was directing stage productions at the Metropolitan Opera.  One of the films, La Traviata, based on one of Verdi’s five irrefutable masterpieces is considered by many if not most as the greatest opera film of all-time, and the one that above all others stands as the model.  Featuring the then matinee idol singer Placido Domingo, and a model of operatic intensity, the soprano Teresa Stratas in the leads, the resulting film is a benchmark of sumptuous imagery in the service of what many see today as the most all-encompassing art form. (more…)

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