All posts by Philippa Kiraly

Classical Music [email] Philippa Kiraly comes to The SunBreak from The Gathering Note where she covered classical music for three years. She has been steeped in her field since early childhood and began writing as a critic in 1980. She has written for a variety of publications, as second critic for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal from 1983-1991 and, since moving to Seattle that year, in the same capacity for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise.

Seattle Opera’s Full-Throated ‘Nabucco’ Powers Past its Awkward Staging

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Verdi’s Nabucco opened last Saturday night at McCaw Hall, with the run continuing through August 22; it will be broadcast live next Saturday evening, August 15, on KING-FM. A smash hit when it was first presented in 1842, it still has that power, which one experiences most strongly in the music in Seattle Opera’s production. The singing is magnificent from everybody, chorus included.

The opera, Verdi’s first major success at age 29, is dominated by the role of Abigaille, which has in the past been considered a voice killer. It has to be sung with ferocious and acrobatic intensity most of the time, but includes a few tender moments as well. Seattle Opera’s former general director Speight Jenkins heard Mary Elizabeth Williams sing it and determined to bring her here to repeat the role. She has performed it all over Europe and it’s good to report that it has not destroyed her voice. Soprano Williams was a Young Artist here in 2000-01 and has gone from strength to strength. She was superb and terrifying as Abigaille, despite a tendency to be a hair under the note on her top Cs. Her acting was splendid and menacing, and in her gentler moments she sounded exquisite.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, making his debut here as Zaccaria, sang with deep well-cored, authoritative richness, a foil to Nabucco, sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins. To begin with Hawkins sounded a little as though he was losing his core, but the voice tightened up and he gave a memorable performance, particularly as a weakened fuzzy-minded old man. Young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Fenena, new here, has a truly beautiful voice with depth and nuance. She will surely be back, while tenor Russell Thomas, another Young Artist graduate, singing Ismaele, is another it will be a pleasure to hear again. In short, every voice was a joy to hear.

The story, with a libretto by Temistocle Solera, is a highly imaginative, emotionally extreme version of the biblical story of Jerusalem’s sack by Nebuchadnezzar, and the subsequent exile of the Hebrews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, as he is called here) takes both his daughters to war with him. One, gentle Fenena, is captured by the Hebrews, only to be freed by her Hebrew lover, Ismaele, negating her hostage value. The other, Abigaille, is consumed by ambition, frustration (she wants Ismaele), and rage against anything in her way, including her father. In Babylon, Nabucco pronounces himself a god and demands worship. The Hebrew god smites him with lightning (a startling lighting moment), he goes mad and weak, and Abigaille seizes the moment to grab the crown, ordering the death of all the Hebrews, including Fenena who has embraced the Hebrew god. They are all about to be slaughtered when Nabucco renounces Baal, embraces the Hebrew god, regains his strength, and cancels the slaughter. Abigaille takes poison and dies in remorse.

In an unusual format, the orchestra spans the middle of the McCaw Hall stage, with the proscenium pushed out over the pit, no doubt with the intention of bringing the major protagonists closer to the audience, thus making the experience more intimate. This extra 20 feet or so may have worked for those in the front half of the orchestra stalls, but didn’t make much difference for those further back, and the division of the stage and visibility of the orchestra made for awkward moments and stilted staging. It didn’t, however, affect vocal or orchestral sound.

In all but one chorus, the Hebrews and Babylonian soldiers stay in the back part of the stage, behind the orchestra. There are only two ways for them to move, left and right, so when the soldiers attack and one would expect the Hebrews to scatter every which way, they can’t. When the Hebrew high priest, Zaccaria, exhorts and comforts them, he is facing the audience from the front of the stage and his flock is behind him. There are several moments like this which don’t feel natural in this staging by François Racine.

Perhaps because of the narrowed front stage, movement around tended to be more static than we usually see here, even when the chorus came on in front to sing the famous “Va pensiero.” Trained by John Keene, it outdid itself and received prolonged applause. However it was jolting to see conductor Carlo Montanero applauding them also from his podium. Montanero paced the performance deftly, keeping the orchestra well balanced with the singers, surely not an easy job with the unusual positioning.

The backdrop sets of Jerusalem and Babylon are abstract, changing video projections by principal designer Robert Bonniol. One vaguely suggests the temple and its destruction, but with a dead horse head and neck in the middle, which seemed mystifying until a couple of acts later when Nabucco mentions his horse. The most concrete are the famous hanging gardens of Babylon presented as plants in huge bubbles which descend from the flies. Mostly they are somewhat puzzling. Props are minimal, just one stool in one act, one large modern chair with side table in another.

With sumptuous blue and gold for the Babylonians, and simple red and brown for the Hebrews, Ginette Grenier’s costumes made welcome splashes of color.

A Very Model of a ‘Pirates of Penzance’ from Seattle’s G & S Society

Seattle is fortunate to have one of the best Gilbert & Sullivan troupes around—and has had for the past 61 years. This year’s production of that perennial favorite, The Pirates of Penzance, opened Friday at the Bagley Wright Theatre for eleven performances (weekends through July 25th: tickets here). Although this is the ninth time the company has presented it (first in 1956), each production has new ideas and clever, imaginative touches while never adulterating the tried-and-true base of the original work.

This time it is as fresh as if they had never performed it before, and also shows a changing of the guard. There are new faces everywhere in this production. There is a noticeably younger generation on stage in roles both principal and chorus. Mike Storie has stepped down from producer (for the past 18 years) in favor of Kim Douglass (who worked with him, and whose title is now producing artistic director), Christopher Nardine has succeeded Christine Goff this year as stage director, and many of the singers are new to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. This is all as it should be and it is a pleasure to report that the true G & S spirit is unchanged and the production as lively, charming and fun as always, much as devotees may miss performers they’ve expected to see forever.

One unchanged old-timer, Dave Ross as the Major-General, has lost none of his inimitable ability to sing pattersong at warp speed while making most of it audible to the audience. His daughters, all 12 of them, are young, pretty, vivacious and good actors and singers, while the heroine, Shelly Traverse making her Society debut as Mabel, is as pert, cute, and feisty as she is intended to be and an excellent actress as well. To have one of her sisters be a bookworm is a delightful touch.

The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. (Photo:  Patrick André)
The Sergeant of Police (Michael Drumheller) goes night stick to cutlass as he attempts to arrest the Pirate King (Brian Pucheu) in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. (Photo: Patrick André)

Derek Sellers as her swain Frederic is the right age and has the requisite agility as well as voice—this is an energetic production and all the males need to be able to leap up, over or around while singing. Many of the pirates are old-timers but have retained their energy while Pirate King Brian Pucheu, another Society newcomer, leaps highest of all and wields a mean sword he doesn’t hesitate to draw.

One of the delights is Erin Wise as the rough-and-ready nursemaid Ruth. For this, Wise cultivates a voice which could cut through metal and a dialect accent to match. Last but not least of the principals, Police Sergeant Michael Drumheller, also a debut here, leads the bumbling constables as they caper through ruins and get thoroughly beaten by the pirates in a thrilling fight choreographed by Ken Michels. And all of them—pirates, police, girls, principals—can act as well as they sing and they all do, all the time. Nardine has done a stellar job of stage direction.

New sets are by Nathan Rodda, colorful costumes by Candace Frank and the whole is tied together by music director Bernard Kwiram with his orchestra of 28, well-paced and supportive of the singers.

The Northwest Boychoir Takes Their Perfect Pitch on the Road

The Northwest Boychoir has just embarked on its latest concert tour, but before leaving Seattle it gave a preview concert Tuesday night for a packed audience at Plymouth Church. The written program included everything the choir would sing while away, each concert having just a selection of these as it did here, one half being sacred music, the other secular.

The Boychoir is a great ambassador for music in Seattle. The quality of the singing is up to the standards of the best English cathedral choirs, not a random observation as the tone is very similar: clear and pure. For the first half, the boys sang, unaccompanied, Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” and Durufle’s very tricky “Tota pulchra es” with absolute perfect pitch sense. It isn’t easy to be that perfect, particularly when singing with no vibrato. The slightest waver in pitch is instantly noticeable and it did not happen here. Piano accompanist Christina Siemens joined them for Randall Thompson’s “The Place of the Blest,” and in Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater,” of which they sang eight sections.

Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)
Northwest Boychoir (Photo: Ben Van Houten)

This was all a delight to the ears musically and the resonant acoustics of Plymouth Church enhanced the boys’ voices. However the acoustics there are death to diction. It was impossible to hear words at any time from two-thirds back in the church, even when conductor and choir director Joseph Crnko announced selections. Since works were not sung in the order given in the program it was sometimes quite a scramble to figure out what was being sung if the music was not familiar.

The same continued in the second half, which ranged from arrangements of folk songs and gospel songs to songs from musicals and even the Beatles. All of the arrangements seemed done with boys’ voices in mind, so that there was a sameness in style no matter what the original was. Thus “When you Wish Upon a Star” had the same feel as “Deep River” or “Home on the Range.” However, all had energy, nuance and dynamics, and the final “America the Beautiful” ended the concert on an uplifted note.

The boys’ demeanor also deserves mention. They stood without fidgeting, their hands by their sides or holding their music books, all the same way, so that nothing distracted from what they were singing. This kind of professional discipline is remarkable in children aged 10 to 14. Crnko deserves great credit for their training in every aspect of performance, as he has done for two generations of boys in the choir.

Emotional ‘Encore’: PNB Bids Farewell to Carla Körbes and Kiyon Gaines

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On Sunday, June 7, at  Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Season Encore program, a near-capacity audience bid farewell to six dancers, among them the ever-popular Kiyon Gaines, who will join the PNB School faculty after fourteen years in the company, and ballerina Carla Körbes, who in her ten years here has been one of the company’s brightest stars.

Each year she has refined details of movement more than one could think possible, so that a single arm movement can be like a flower unfolding, a foot lands feather-light after a leap which makes her seem only as weighty as that feather, her head bending gracefully to continue the movement of her body or to convey an emotion with delicacy.

All of this was evident Sunday as she danced with her frequent partner Karel Cruz an excerpt from the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s Jewels. It’s a partnership which has come into its own the past year or so, the long, lithe Cruz the perfect balance to her radiance. The two were also a joy to watch in the lead on the program‘s final work, Balanchine’s Serenade.

Seeing Serenade from the first tier allows one to marvel at how Balanchine used the corps and the stage to design beautiful patterns like a constantly changing kaleidoscope, all the women in the same bluish-white romantic tutus, the few men in the same color. This piece is all about the corps, and it seemed right to celebrate them as they danced with discipline—essential in this—and as superbly as ever.

Before this however, Körbes danced a solo work, Jessica Lang’s The Calling. A PNB premiere, it could have been created for her. It took place within a pool of light as she stood, her white skirt spread out widely like a morning glory flower around her. She could have been the stem of the flower, moving on the vine. It’s an unusual and lovely work requiring a dancer who can portray much feeling with just the upper body.

Serenade came at the end of the program, but earlier the audience had the chance to see each of the retirees in a solo role, Raphael Bouchard in Andrew Bartee’s Dirty Goods and Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Charles McCall and Eric Hipolito, Jr., in “Emeralds” from Jewels, while Jahna Frantziskonis sparkled with quicksilver precision and pertness in Jewels’ “Rubies.” She is one with great promise it is hard to lose.

The atmosphere of Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement is one of sadness and longing, of a culture in development from an earlier one lost. In their pas de deux from it, Gaines and Elizabeth Murphy brought out the emotions, the yearning, in strong performances which were another highlight of the evening.

As has become the custom, each retiree received a bouquet of flowers at the end of their performance. Gaines received several from a half-dozen family, friends and company members who presented them one by one onstage, showing, as did the audience, their affection for this fine dancer and human being.

At the end of Serenade, Körbes was honored by bouquet after bouquet, from designers and ballet masters, from friends, colleagues and conductors, hugging everyone, and eventually giving her bouquets to her co-principal dancers as they stood with the company behind her applauding. Confetti  showered down [In fact those were rose petals, we’re told—ed.] on her from the flies and more flowers were tossed from the audience, as she took bow after bow. The audience stood and cheered her throughout in an emotional end to an evening of satisfying dance as well as goodbyes.

To tide you over, PNB offers a preview of their upcoming season.

Auburn Symphony Brings Mozart to Mountainview High

ASO conductor Stewart Kershaw (Photo: Auburn Symphony Orchestra)
ASO conductor Stewart Kershaw (Photo: Auburn Symphony Orchestra)

When the Auburn Symphony Orchestra was formed by music director Steward Kershaw 17 years ago it was in order, he said, to give the members of the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra an opportunity to play the general orchestral literature.

Kershaw had been music director at PNB for many years, conducting an orchestra described by many admiring critics as “the finest ballet orchestra in the country.” While there are still many musicians who are members of both ensembles, there are others who belong to one only.

The Auburn Symphony has showed its caliber over the years since in the small city south of Seattle which showed its pleasure in having its own orchestra by giving it support, although finances have often been dicey particularly in the recent recession. (Their annual gala is coming up June 6.)

The ASO normally performs at the Performing Arts Center, which doubles as Auburn High School’s auditorium, but this past season has seen that venue in the throes of extensive renovation, and the ASO has been performing at Auburn’s Mountainview High School instead. Next season it will be back at the PAC.

Meanwhile the final concert of the 2014-15 season had a packed audience Sunday afternoon at Mountainview. The orchestra showed itself at its best in a superb performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29. The orchestra was the right size for this music, about 43 players, and the players in each section played as one, clean and crisp. Kershaw drew expressive details from them, the balance was perfect, and the whole an unalloyed pleasure to hear.

It’s not common to hear the bassoon as a solo instrument, but Vivaldi wrote many concertos for it, and principal bassoonist Mona Butler performed as the soloist in his Concerto in A Minor. The bassoon is the lowest of the wind instruments, but its pitch, timbre, and textures were never overlaid by the orchestral accompaniment. Vivaldi chose in this concerto to intersperse orchestra and bassoon with duets between bassoon and solo cello, ably played by Brian Wharton. It’s a concerto of considerable charm, well played by Butler, but there were many moments where orchestra and soloist were not quite together, which detracted from overall enjoyment.

She returned after intermission for a rarely heard and delightful work by Elgar, a short Romance for bassoon and orchestra. This is unmistakable Elgar from the first notes, with a much larger orchestra and clever orchestration to keep from drowning the soloist. Again however, there were moments when they were not together.

The concert ended with Bizet’s lively “Arlesienne” Suites Nos. 1 and 2, between them eight short pieces, robust, fun, colorful, foot-tapping stuff, most feeling like dances (which they may have been as accompaniments for a play by Alphonse Daudet), and of which the orchestra took full advantage. The whole was a pleasure to hear. Kudos particularly to principal flute Wendy Wilhelmi and piccolo player Laura Werner, for their zestful and musical playing.

Chanticleer’s Sacred Music Concert Soars

It’s hard to provide enough superlatives for San Francisco-based Chanticleer, the men’s vocal ensemble which has been top of the charts for much of its 37 years. While personnel have come and gone, the quality remains extraordinarily high.

Performing to a packed audience on the Early Music Guild Series at Town Hall Saturday night, the twelve singers gave a concert, titled “Mystery”, of sacred songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. These ranged from plainsong from the seventh century—although it may actually be much older than that—to 20th-century Russian music, via many of the great Renaissance and Baroque composers. It’s hard to mention highlights, as every song was more beautiful than the last.

From Spain came music by Alfonso X of Castille and Tomas Luis de Victoria; from Portugal an anonymous and lively dance-style song with tambourine, meant to show music of Portuguese West Africa; from Mexico a European-tinged development of a plainsong melody by Antonio de Salazar; and more from the European greats of the great flowering of choral music from the 15th to 17th centuries: among them Giovanni Gabrielli, Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, Palestrina, William Byrd. Lastly came three from Russia, by Rachmaninov, Georgy Sviridov, and Nikolai Golovanov. Sviridov, like Byrd, lived in fear, both prohibited from writing the music they felt they must: Byrd a Catholic hounded by Protestants, Sviridov under the heavy hand of Communism. Yet all these composers wrote music of sublime beauty.

Listening to Chanticleer, with three voices in each range—soprano, alto, tenor, bass/baritone—the balance between singers made every line audible whether they were singing in four or up to eight parts. In unison the blend sounded seamless, no voice standing out, as the monks of old must have tried to do.

Their diction was clear. It was always possible to find where they were in a song, as the program gave us both the original language and English, plus phonetic translation of the Russian alphabet as well. At times, one or another would sing solo, as in the beginning phrase of the Salazar, or there would be a small group singing antiphonally with a larger group. No vibrato in the voices and the group’s remarkable pitch sense meant intervals were completely pure, a joy to hear.

The soprano voices were astonishing. We are now used to countertenors, but not many sing this high, and all of these sang with a full-throated ease which sounded close to the feminine soprano sound. Only towards the end of the concert—and the end of a three-week tour—did there begin to sound a little strain at the top end of the range, and a few notes which were not quite on pitch.

For an encore, Chanticleer went for something quite difference, a lively arrangement of the old gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sung with the same impeccable attention to detail and style and ending with what seemed an impossibly low note.