Music Reviews

A Listener's Guide To Schubert's 'Die Schöne Müllerin'

By Cathy Fuller   |   Friday, August 12, 2011
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August 11, 2011

Matthew PolenzaniWhat does an opera star love about singing intimate art songs from a barren stage with no sets and no other singers? Lyric tenor Matthew Polenzani adores the sheer directness of it. With no props, no costumes and no distractions, he is free to sing into the very eyes of his audience. While that can be frightening, it's clear that he finds the intimacy refreshing.

"You can sing right to someone and deliver a stab right at them," he says. No fake daggers needed for that kind of stab — just an awful lot of depth, honesty and control.

Critics give Polenzani the highest praises for the near-perfection of his technical command. There's an incredible clarity and flexibility in his voice. It rings even when it whispers. Audiences are riveted — and so was I, sitting close to him in our Fraser Performance Studio, listening to him sing these songs from Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin.

Polenzani has been singing with pianist Julius Drake for five years now. It was Polenzani's manager who suggested the match when the idea of recitals came up. Both artists are relaxed and quick to smile, and they're both happy to rethink their musical decisions. Being a part of such a team means spending time searching together for truth and meaning in the poetry. And, harder still, understanding the brilliant, often devastatingly simple ways that a composer like Schubert amplifies his chosen text.

In the song "Die Liebe Farbe" (The Beloved Color), a wandering miller faces the devastating reality that the girl he loves does not love him in return. Drake marvels at the heartbreaking, unrelenting sadness that Schubert unleashes by keeping one note tolling throughout the song.

"I don't know how he does it," Drake says of the composer. These are the kind of Schubert moments that artists analyze from every conceivable angle, and yet they still find themselves awestruck. As the miller's heart follows its sad and unstoppable march toward grief, Drake remains faithful to the music's constant tolling. He is focused and quiet at the piano. He gives Schubert's blooms of harmony a sad warmth and a deep feeling of resignation. I could see Polenzani falling instantly into the sadness of the atmosphere. You'll hear him allow a new vulnerability into his voice.

It's fascinating to consider the kind of technical awareness that a singer has to maintain, especially at emotional climaxes. How do you keep and lose control at the same time? Polenzani says that, no matter whether you're singing Verdi or Schubert, it doesn't always work. When it does, though, it's as good as it gets.

Full NPR article with playlist.

May 7: Lúnasa

Thursday, June 2, 2011
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Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons: The Reviews

By Brian McCreath   |   Sunday, March 20, 2011
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Mar. 20

Ever since the announcement of James Levine's resignation from his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which you can read and hear about via our BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO, and segments on both the Emily Rooney Show and the Callie Crossley Show), one of the names that's popped up consistently as a potential successor to Levine is that of Andris Nelsons.

I'm pretty sure his name would be on most observers' short lists no matter what, based on reviews and impressions of his work as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. But the BSO fanned those flames substantially by engaging the 32-year-old Latvian to replace Levine for the BSO's Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on March 17.

And here are a few impressions from that concert:

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe wrote that, "he scored a triumph on Thursday night in his BSO debut ... And in what is high praise from this orchestra, the BSO musicians stayed seated during one of Nelsons’s bows and joined the crowd in applauding him, shuffling feet vigorously." Eichler described his presence on the podium as "youthful but unflashy, leading with a podium technique that is far from conventional," which led to an "organic quality of the music-making, a sense of deep and thoughtful immersion in the musical moment at hand" and "some of the strongest playing of the season."

Overall, Eichler saw and heard "the full partnering of conductor and ensemble in the creation of a vibrant performance." Read the full review at the Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, James Oestreich heard something quite different from the Nelsons/BSO combo. According to him, Nelsons "did not have [the BSO] sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance." Calling the performance "muscular" (and that's not meant as praise in this work), he went on to say that, "Almost everything was at least a notch too loud, and almost everything surged to the foreground. Textures were cluttered. Accompanimental figures often seemed italicized."

It wasn't completely unsuccessful, as "Mr. Nelsons persuasively stressed the humor in the scherzo and the wildness in the Rondo-Burleske." But clearly Oestreich is not yet convinced that this relationship need be explored further. Full review (plus impressions of the concert conducted by Roberto Abbado, available at the New York Times.

Finally, a blog I only became aware of because of this concert, thousandfold echo, says that Oestreich's perceptions were accurate, but that rather than consider them a negative, the attention to detail is actually a positive: "Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural."

And the writer, Michael, noticed the same reaction of the players after the performance concluded: "When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet."

That last point may turn out to be vitally important. Part of the reason Levine came to the BSO in the first place was the enthusiasm of the players for his work. And major orchestras like the BSO can be downright cranky when they're not on board with a conductor. So if there really is the enthusiasm from the musicians as described in two of these three reviews, BSO management will, in my opinion, be very wise in considering another opportunity to bring in Andris Nelsons for a series of concerts.

I can say, by the way, that Andris Nelsons is a name I thought of, too, when Levine's departure was announced. In the series of concert performances I program for the radio each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm, there have been a couple conducted by him, and my memory of these one-time-use recordings is that they were stellar. I'm intending to do a bit more digging around to see whether we might be able to secure a few more of his concert performances to offer on the air. Stay tuned, as they say.

And if you have more to add about Nelsons or other potential BSO conductors, just pop your thoughts into a comment below.

Top 10 Classical of 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010
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Classical In The News

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, November 30, 2010
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Wednesday, Dec. 1

NPR has been on quite a roll lately featuring some pretty interesting stories about classical music.  Here's a roundup:

Ohio composer Jack Gallagher's music has been released on a new CD, and you can read a review of it at NPR Music.  This CD (with the funky artwork from Naxos at the left) was also featured in a previous Host Note, and it was also one of Keith Lockhart's recent choices on Keith's Classical Corner with Laura Carlo, which you can listen to here:

Boston's Lynn Chang, a member of the Boston Chamber Music Society and a faculty member of Boston University, has been asked to perform next week at the ceremony honoring the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who is being prevented by the Chinese government from attending.  More from NPR.

Robert Spano was profiled in recognition of the 10th anniversary of his appointment as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  One hallmark of his time there has been an embrace of new music that has energized audiences and formed a new identity for that orchestra.  Hear the whole story at NPR Music.

Finally, Science Friday devoted a segment to a new book by physicist and composer Dr. John Powell called "How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond."  Check it out at Science Friday.

Take a bit of time and enjoy the stories!  And feel free to leave any feedback or comments below.

A New Pergolesi Stabat Mater

By Cathy Fuller   |   Saturday, November 27, 2010
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Monday, Nov. 29

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi died when he was only 26. 18th-century opera lovers were wild about his comic opera “La Serva Padrona” and a Pergolesi craze erupted after he succumbed to tuberculosis.

For a very long time, it was believed that he had managed to write some 320 works, until it was discovered that publishers had been printing pieces by obscure composers with Pergolesi’s name attached. In the end, there are only thirty-six that are certainly his.

One work that has profoundly affected people throughout these last 300 years (born in 1710, this is Pergolesi’s tricentennial year) is the Stabat Mater, written just before he died. There has been great temptation to imagine Pergolesi writing it on his deathbed, bringing up the similar and painful picture of Mozart and his Requiem. But it was apparently conceived in many stages, intended to be sung each Friday in Lent at the church of San Luigi di Palazzo in Naples.

The great philosopher/writer/composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “The first movement of the Stabat Mater is the most perfect and most moving that has ever issued from the pen of any composer.”

The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin has a new recording of the Stabat Mater and one of Pergolesi’s Salve Regina settings. The voices belong to soprano Anna Prohaska (left) and mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink. We’ll hear some of it at 10am on Monday on New and Notable, as well as conductor Valery Gergiev’s recent release on the LSO Live label of music by Ravel with the London Symphony Orchestra.

(Visit ArkivMusic to purchase Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin's Stabat Mater and Gergiev's Ravel.)

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