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.

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.


Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich and Schnittke is a Don’t-Miss Concert

This week’s Masterworks program at the Seattle Symphony promised to be an exciting one and it delivered in spades Thursday night, an all-Russian concert with Russian composers, a Russian conductor, Andrey Boreyko, and a Russian soloist, concertmaster Alexander Velinzon. (There are several Russian instrumentalists in the orchestra also.) The final concert is Saturday evening.

Shostakovich’s great “Leningrad” symphony, his No. 7, came after intermission; first came the extraordinary Violin Concerto No. 4 by Alfred Schnittke.

Schnittke’s music has somewhat a reputation of being hard to listen to and take in, but this is not so, particularly in this concerto. The music is described as polystylistic, which only means that the composer drew on all sorts of musical styles, from rock, jazz, minimalist and more as well as classical, for his work. But so did popular Gershwin—jazz and classical together.

Like Gershwin, Schnittke brings them into a coherent whole in this concerto, sometimes tonal and upbeat, sometimes dissonant, sometimes both simultaneously with the soloist in one mode, the orchestra in another. While the orchestra is massive for this, the music is not, often even spare. Velinzon’s violin sang throughout: mellifluous, lyrical in many areas, soaring or contemplative in others, fast, wild or arpeggiated in still more, peaceful or powerful, but always with a firm, rich tone, never scratchy, which fit the music like a glove. Schnittke includes some unexpected instrumentation, like a prepared piano which often had a raspy, honky-tonk timbre, and duets for the soloist with other instruments. Twice, Schnittke has the orchestra rise to great sound and fury and has the violin solo continue in the air, not on the strings, as it couldn’t have been heard anyway over the orchestra. Boreyko gave masterly leadership to the orchestra which responded to his every nuanced gesture shaping the music.

Shostakovich’s symphony was a beacon of hope to Russia when it was first performed in March 1942. He composed it near the beginning of the long and terrible siege of Leningrad, which caused massive hardship and death both in the city and among the siege troops. Shostakovich was one of those ordered to evacuate the city, his home, not long after the final encirclement of the city and the siege began (though the city had been under fire for some months before that). By then he had composed the first three movements, and he completed the fourth shortly after. The symphony had its premiere in Kuibyshev, a safe area many miles east of Moscow.

It’s not a battle symphony. Rather, it is a paean to the steadfast people of Leningrad, who never gave in to the German armies; people Shostakovich knew well, living in a situation for which he was present in the early stages. What came through Thursday night under Boreyko was a sense of determination, of courage threaded through the 68-minute work. It’s not sad, not terrible, but immensely colorful.

Halfway through a serene and unhurried first movement the rhythm of marching feet begins softly and grows inexorably, tension building gradually to threatening, with clashes and the feel of scurrying, cacophony below, loud dominating march above. One gets a sense of efforts at normal life in the second and third, and in the last, it’s positive, energetic, elegiac as well, but with this sense of determination dominant.

Boreyko, who stands rock solid on the podium, sometimes conducted with minimal gestures at others described exactly what he wanted with poesy and clarity in his arm movements. He brought out all the nuances and made vivid Shostakovich’s intent. There were many fine orchestra solos, including all the wind principals and the cello. The whole was moving, even breathtaking in its sweep, color and emotional intensity. One could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

Mostly Nordic Chamber Music Series Visits Sweden

Lena Moén, soprano
Lena Moén, soprano

I had no idea Swedish art song existed, but of course it does. At the Nordic Heritage Museum Sunday afternoon, Mostly Nordic treated the audience to a concert of such songs, largely from the 20th century but dipping back to the 19th, in the third of its annual performances highlighting the music of a specific Nordic country. (There are two more concerts in the Mostly Nordic series this spring, featuring music from Norway, May 2, and Iceland, May 31.)

Swedish soprano Lena Moén  with her frequent collaborator, pianist Lena Johnson, gave us songs by composers Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Bo Linde, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Mogens Schrader, and Gustaf Nordqvist, and included a few from out of the country by Schubert, Grieg, and Richard Strauss. The audience was provided with all the words, a thoughtful gesture which made the songs even more enjoyable.

Moén began with a startling cow call, such as was given by girls calling their family’s cows home. Sounding like a cross between a Swiss yodel and an American cowboy’s “Eee-yoww!”, she explained after that every girl had her own individual call and the cows knew which call to come to.

It was guaranteed to gather everyone’s immediate attention, and Moén continued with a charming selection of songs, mostly about love or spring or both, in a voice unlike anything we usually hear here.

Robust and sturdy, pure but not silvery, with vibrato used artfully or not at all, her voice was ideal for these songs. She reached the highest notes effortlessly, no strain and hitting them squarely except in one song where she had a slight problem with them.

The beautiful songs themselves belong fully in the art song category, not folk, and have accompaniments which are a full component of each piece, performed by Johnson and Moén as a seamless pair.

Lena Johnson, pianist
Lena Johnson, pianist

Johnson also played a few solos, one group by Peterson-Berger, one a Fantasy in B minor by Stenhammar. We are so used to hearing the cream of the cream of world pianists here, that it can be hard to judge others fairly, but while Johnson easily had the technique for all the notes, she tended to be a bit slapdash with nuance and approach.

The more familiar Grieg song “I Love You” came off well, though the Strauss songs, “All Souls Day” and “Devotion” were a little less suited to Moén’s voice. The surprise came with Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock,’ which emphatically did not suit Moen, or perhaps she didn’t suit it. With Seattle’s Sean Osborn providing a clarinet role to die for in its beauty, Moen’s strong voice did not provide the classical sound required. It needed more refinement, to be less “out” there, gentler, more nuanced for this song. On the other hand, the song is difficult in that the notes go fast all over the range with wide jumps and Moén encompassed all of them with rippling ease. Only her topmost notes in the last part of the song failed quite to reach their goal.

Moén and Johnson gave one encore: an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” which she sang softly, and well.

‘One of the finest performances of Swan Lake that I’ve seen’

The stars were aligned Friday night, not just in the firmament, but on stage at McCaw Hall, where Pacific Northwest Ballet put on one of the finest performances of Swan Lake (April 10-19) that I’ve seen. Everything (well, almost everything) meshed into a performance visually satisfying, balletically stellar, emotionally moving.

The men dominated the first act, where the prince, danced by Karel Cruz, was being pushed by his mother to choose a wife. Cruz’s first solo was a marvel of beauty and control; most amazing of all, he achieved eight pirouettes in a row, slowing down the last two with perfect balance–and then repeated them. Truly astonishing. Add to his performance that of Price Suddarth as a quicksilver jester, Matthew Renko as the inebriated tutor—you have to be very good to manage to be off-balance, wobbly, and comic but still in complete control—and Benjamin Griffiths as part of the pas de trois, his line so clean, his timing so musical: all three with balance, style, and quality.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake (Photo © Angela Sterling)

In the second and subsequent acts, it was Carla Körbes who drew the eye as a memorable Odette, the imprisoned swan princess/Odile, calculating daughter of evil magician von Rothbart (Otto Neubert). Each pas de deux with Cruz, a fine and supportive partner, brought storms of applause and bravos; her change of character from gentle, soft and feathery, falling in love, to Odile, quick, decisive, harder, and back again to an anguished Odette, was conveyed by her beautiful line, her exquisite arms, the movements of her head, all supported by rock-solid technique and balance.

Among the delights of Swan Lake are the swans, all 24 of them, dancing in unison to choreography of Ivanov with tweaks by Kent Stowell, all their arms fluttering together, their legs moving as one, their bodies at the same precise angle. This was one of the best corps performances I’ve seen. Four of the smallest company members, one of them still an apprentice, danced the signature cygnet pas de quatre, a charming moment which always stands out, heads, feet, bodies in perfect alignment.

The national dances in Act III are probably the least interesting choreography of the whole ballet, but the sumptuous costumes designed by Paul Tazewell and how they drape on the dancers are a pleasure, as are the sets by Ming Cho Lee, always enhanced by the lighting of Randall C. Chiarelli. Throughout this opening night performance applause was tumultuous with bravos for one after another aspect, not forgetting the orchestra under Emil de Cou which received its own generous applause complete with bravos more than once.

It will be sad not to have Körbes in the company after her retirement this summer, but between now and then there is more Swan Lake and another program end of May/early June as well as her farewell performance in June. Don’t miss them. Then we can look forward next season to the return of Noelani Pantastico, another dancer whose talents reach the stars. She returns as a principal, after seven years with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, to an even stronger company than when she left.

‘Totally, Imaginatively Original': the Forsythe Showcase at PNB

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The first impression left by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening performance of an all-Forsythe repertory (through March 22 at McCaw Hall) was that this choreographer’s work suits the company through and through. The choice of pieces gave an opportunity to show off large numbers of the company from principals to corps members in solo or semi-solo roles, and everywhere there was good dancing, sometimes stellar.

There were three pieces on Friday’s program at McCaw Hall, two new to Seattle: “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” and “New Suite,” and one already in the company’s repertoire: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.”

“Exactitude” has been described as 30 minutes telescoped into ten, and requires lightning speed of movement–which nonetheless never looked rushed on Friday. Danced by three women, Leta Biasucci, Carrie Imler and Margaret Mullin; and two men, Benjamin Griffiths and Jonathan Porretta; it uses music from Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Biasucci danced these fast and intricate steps so cleanly she sparkled, Porretta’s energy lit up the stage, with the other three dancers closely with them.

Forsythe’s genius lies in his creative use of classical ballet moves and the way he combines them both for individuals and in couples, and in relation to the music. He also makes use in his own way of the oppositional balances used to such effect in Greek and Roman statuary, as was pointed out in the preconcert lecture, and this is noticeable throughout, though in fleeting images. Nothing ever looks contrived and it’s totally, imaginatively original.

All this showed particularly in “New Suite,” nine short pas de deux for eighteen different dancers: four set to Handel’s music, one to Bach, and three to that of Luciano Berio.

A slow, flowing Handel largo became embodied in the performance by Elizabeth Murphy and William Lin-Yee. Murphy’s entire body carried through the beautiful shapes of the music’s phrases and the two married to that the unceasing flow of their movements. This set the tone for a series of fine performances, the choreography for the Berio much edgier, very different in emotional quality from the Handel and Bach. Ezra Thomson, Angelica Generosa, Karel Cruz, Sarah Ricard Orza and Jahna Frantziskonis all stood out in what was a very high level of company dance.

In between these two, the PNB orchestra under Emil de Cou played the overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. This season the orchestra has been showcased with a work by itself at every performance in celebration of its 25th anniversary. This time, its unfortunate placing in the program meant there was a buzz of conversation as everybody discussed “Exactitude” after the curtain went down, and they went on talking throughout the orchestra’s performance.

The longest piece, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” doesn’t use the orchestra but is set to electronic music. Setting, costumes and music are reminiscent of a large gym in which one can hear in the background what could be the thwack of balls on rackets, the clang of machines, and the thuds and bumps of crashing cacophony. Add to this nine dancers in dark leotards, with the muscles rippling on the men, particularly Seth Orza and, for the set, just an interrupted band of lighter color high on the back curtain.

An undercurrent of competition goes on and even a little sexy encouragement with some hip sways by at least one–Lindsi Dec in this performance–as one dancer or two comes to the fore to show off prowess. It’s a long piece, perhaps a little too long given the unremitting clash of the music, though not for the dance itself; and high energy, which the dancers kept up to the end.

All in all this is a fascinating program, the first time in this country that there has been a program entirely of works by William Forsythe. It had enough variety to sustain that, and indeed it might take more than one visit to assimilate it.