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Voice Program to Present Britten’s Opera Adaptation of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’

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Shakespeare is in the air at Chautauqua this season, and as the halfway point of the summer approaches, the School of Music Voice Program will put on four productions of Benjamin Britten’s three-act operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The show opens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 in McKnight Hall.

The voice students are not the only ones to tell the story this season — alongside Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Shakespeare’s original play and the Inter-Arts Collaboration performance that also hits the stage tonight, the Voice Program’s production is one of three versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be performed on the grounds. This version, however, is unique because it’s a full opera.

Besides cutting the first act of the original play and making some minor additions to account for this change, Britten’s version is “religiously faithful” to Shakespeare’s masterpiece, said Stage Director John Giampietro. The removal of the first act does a service to the music; instead of opening with an act set in the city of Athens, the opera begins in the forest, with a mystical mood.

Right off the bat, Britten starts us out with this mysterious, magical music, and we’re just plunged into the world,” Giampietro said. “If he started in Athens in the first act, the texture of the music would have been different. So this way, he just throws (us) into the middle of this magical world, which is great.”

Britten kept the language of the original text and even preserved much of the rhythm and meter of Shakespeare’s poetic intent in his melodies. However, those who are familiar with the original work will find something new in this opera — even Giampietro, who has directed the original play five times.

“I knew Shakespeare’s rhythms so well; they were just a part of me,” Giampietro said. “Then when I was studying the opera I almost had to unlearn the Shakespeare to get the Britten into my body and my heart.”

The music for the opera was originally written for a full orchestra, but Music Director Julias Abrahams managed to reduce the score for an ensemble of seven: two flutes, two horns, one trumpet, one trombone and one harp. This ensemble is composed entirely of members of the Music School Festival Orchestra.

The opera will have four showings this week, and will make use of a rotating cast — meaning that the major characters of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, as well as the four lovers Lysander, Demetrius, Helena and Hermia, have multiple people cast and the person playing each character will change each show.

It has made rehearsing this an adventure beyond belief,” Giampietro said. “Because basically, we have to do everything three times.”

Tonight’s opening performance will feature countertenor Sam Siegel as Oberon, soprano Meredith Wohlgemuth as Titania, tenor Santiago Pizarro as Lysander, bass baritone Luke Sutliff as Demetrius, soprano Mackenzie Jacquemin as Helena and mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa as Hermia.

Additionally, School of Music alumnus, guest faculty and award-winning operatic bass Matthew Rose will play the part of Bottom — a particularly difficult role — in every show.

“He’s done the role,” said Donna Gill, head voice coach and coordinator of voice scheduling. “He’s sung a lot in Britain, he sings at the Met, he’s a very accomplished professional. … (It’s) good for the students to be working alongside a professional like that.”

The casts have been rehearsing for about three weeks — an incredibly short amount of time considering that professional operas might rehearse for four to six weeks with only a single cast, and that Britten’s music is sophisticated and complex. Additionally, it’s a long opera — about three hours in length, according to Giampietro.

“(The students) are amazing,” Giampietro said. “They’re rising to the challenge of the music and the piece. They’re collaborators in it — we’re building this thing together and they have something to say about the piece. And they’re so supportive of each (other), even the three who are sharing a role.”

Additional performances of the opera are at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in McKnight Hall. Seating, which will be partially outdoors, is limited to the first 100 attendees.

They’ll be brilliant,” Giampietro said. “I’m just eager to see them succeed and see them realize what they’ve done — what a challenge it was, and how they met it.

Inter-Arts Collaboration of ‘Midsummer’ to Bring Four Arts Disciplines to Amp Stage

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Two Pucks, eight lovers — no, you’re not seeing double.

At 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 in the Amphitheater, four of Chautauqua Institution’s art disciplines — Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, Chautauqua Theater Company, the School of Music Voice Program and the School of Dance — will come together for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Inter-Arts Collaboration is co-directed by CTC Artistic Producer Sarah Elizabeth Wansley and Artistic Director Andrew Borba.

“We’re excited about (this collaboration) because it takes one of our masterworks, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we all have these different contribution points to make it something that is not only well-known, but uniquely Chautauqua,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts.

The CSO will be performing Felix Mendelssohn’s score to Midsummer, directed and conducted by Rossen Milanov; CTC, School of Dance and Voice Program will follow the lovers — Demetrius, Helena, Lysander and Hermia — and fairies’ storylines. 

The different organizations are weaving their work together to create one interdisciplinary performance with a few essential design gestures,” said Maggie Wilson, CTC marketing and communications director.

Mendelssohn’s composition is made up of 14 shorter numbers, including instrumental songs like the famous “Wedding March” and vocal songs like “The Spells,” “The Removal of the Spells” and “Ye spotted snakes.”

“It’s a really known work,”  said mezzo-soprano voice student Sarah Zieba. “ ‘The Wedding March’ in the last movement is really the most famous part of it, so I’m excited to hear the whole piece because I’ve never heard it live, and being part of that is really cool.”

Zieba and soprano Lydia Graham will each have a solo as elves in the fairy chorus, part of Oberon and Titania’s — the king of fairies and his queen — court.

Honestly, they haven’t really told us much about it, so we’ll see how it goes,” Zieba said.

Apprentice and Festival School of Dance students will perform as core fairies and lovers, weaving and interacting with the actors and vocalists. Additionally, Festival ballerino Jack Grohmann will dance as Puck, alongside CTC’s Kayla Kearney.

In some scenes, the actors will replace the dancers during poignant moments throughout the comedy, according to Sasha Janes, the School of Dance director of contemporary studies. Janes also hinted that some dancers will have minimal speaking parts and will be dancing to the actors’ unaccompanied monologues.

If you’re going and expecting to see a Shakespearean play verbatim, you’re not going to see that — you’re going to see something different,” Janes said.

In addition to tonight’s performance, Voice Program students will stage Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opera at 7 p.m. tonight through Friday in McKnight Hall. CTC will be performing Jeff Whitty’s modernized A Midsummer Night’s Dream throughout the summer; the next performance will start at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Southern Tier Brewing Company.

Staff writers Julia Arwine, Duard Headley and Val Lick contributed to this report.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and CSO to Present Abridged ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and Balanchine’s ‘Rubies’

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Story by Val Lick and Maggie Prosser-

Preparing for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Chautauqua performance was a considerable feat, as it involved coordinating artistic powerhouses in two cities. But the result, said PBT Artistic Director Terrence Orr, emanates the PBT’s, School of Dance’s and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s shared “love for dance.”

Returning to Chautauqua Institution for the first time since its debut in 2017, PBT will present two beloved ballets — George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” and an abridged Sleeping Beauty — at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 13 in the Amphitheater.

This is a Sleeping Beauty … of a different sort,” said Orr, who announced he will retire in June 2020. “I’m not really telling the story; I’m just going through and doing the divertissement, the different dances that go on.”

Orr’s Sleeping Beauty, accompanied by the CSO, will open with the christening of Princess Aurora and six fairy variations. Act I will include, in Orr’s words, the ballet’s “key scene” — the Rose Adagio, a pas de deux between Aurora and four suitors.

Act II will feature 24 students from the School of Dance in the garland dance, and Act III, the wedding, will feature six couples from the School of Dance, the usual line of characters — Bluebird, Puss and Boots, the White Cat — and PBT’s traditional ending to the ballet, Orr said.

In total, Aurora will be played by three PBT dancers and Aurora’s love interest, Prince Desire, will be played by two dancers.

The CSO’s rendition of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s musical score, under the direction of CSO Music Director and Conductor Rossen Milanov, will be the second of three performances in its inaugural “Russian Festival.”

Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is one of the three big ballets, alongside Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, that really made him one of the most important composers in the ballet world,” Milanov said.

Milanov said Sleeping Beauty focuses on the visual and auditory aspects of the performance, rather than dramatic elements.

Sleeping Beauty is a little more decorative in nature; it’s more about the ballet itself than having some big, dramatic, controversial, romantic story like Swan Lake,” Milanov said. “This one is mostly for the eyes, and of course the ears; Tchaikovsky was one of the most colorful orchestrators and masters of the short formats. … He had the gift to find the perfect music to match the dance variations that occur throughout the ballet.”

Prefacing Sleeping Beauty will be “Rubies,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.” “Rubies” — the electric second movement of George Balanchine’s three-act Jewels — will feature renowned pianist William Wolfram.

“This particular piece belongs to the period (of Stravinsky’s work) in which we could hear very strong influences of Russian folk music,” Milanov said. “It’s not as abstract as some of his later works, but it has this incredible ingenuity — the way he works with musical material and combines them together. There is always a fascination of how these collages of sound could function together.”

This will be PBT’s second performance with the CSO, its second performance on the Amp stage, and its first collaboration with the School of Dance. Prior to the performance, the Chautauqua Dance Circle will host a dance preview with PBT at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 13 in Smith Wilkes Hall.

This is going to be great fun,” Orr said. “It’s an honor to be part of such an incredible institution.”

CSO and Guest Conductor John Beal to Bring Magic to Amp With ‘Azkaban’ Film and Score

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If the Institution grounds appeared on the Marauder’s Map, thousands of footprints would be appearing Saturday around the Amphitheater.

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Concert” at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 6 in the Amphitheater. Conducted by internationally recognized conductor and film composer John Beal, the CSO will perform the film’s score live while the film plays overhead.

Beal, who first visited the Institution last year as the guest conductor for “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert,” said there is no better way to experience a film’s score than with a live orchestra — and these scores will become the next classic compositions.

I am a strong believer that there is nowhere else but on the concert stage one can experience the emotional impact of a film score properly presented with a living, breathing group of master musicians,” Beal said. “This is the new ‘classical’ music of our era, and our major film composers are right up there, in my estimation, with the greatest composers of history.”

Many concert attendees may be unfamiliar with symphony music, Beal said — but the performances are an opportunity to experience the music beneath the movie.

“For some people, this is the first time they have ever heard a full symphony orchestra perform,” Beal said. “Some have no idea that this is what is happening underneath the dialogue and action in a movie. I hope these experiences will bring more and more people into the symphony hall to hear everything they possibly can from our musical heritage.”

Beal said the score of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is his favorite of film composer John Williams’ works because of the music’s versatility and complexity.

This particular score of John’s is quite interesting, in that it pays tribute to an extremely wide range of musical history, from early Renaissance to jazz to traditional John Williams,” Beal said. “The colors are fascinating, and the challenges of performing these incredibly varying tempos and styles while staying in perfect synchronization with the movie are psychologically and emotionally exciting, for both the orchestra and the audience.”

Beal finds that the Harry Potter franchise’s fanbase brings exceptional energy to the concerts.

“Every show is packed with fans of all ages wearing Harry Potter clothing,” Beal said. “I went to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend and there were 16,000 people — many of whom were quite middle-aged adults — in all sorts of Harry Potter looks.”

To Beal, audience excitement and involvement is an integral part of these concerts.

“One of my favorite things about conducting these great shows is being able to hear the audience responding — and we definitely encourage that,” Beal said. “We hear delighted children, we hear the cheers and boos from teens and adults. It makes the incredibly difficult challenge of intense preparation and performing worthwhile.”

Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said that every season, Chautauquans turn up in the thousands for the Harry Potter events.

“One of the most exciting things for us is seeing the Amphitheater — every seat filled for an orchestra concert,” Moore said. “Even though we always have healthy audiences for orchestra concerts, we are not used to having almost 4,000 people for orchestra concerts.”

That audience, Moore said, is made up of all ages — especially young people, who can experience the films they grew up with in a brand new way.

Seeing every seat filled and seeing such an intergenerational audience is particularly thrilling for us, to see so many young people seeing a live orchestra performing something that is meaningful and magical for them,” Moore said.

CSO & Michael Preacely to Celebrate Independence Day with Crowd Favorites

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The audience in the choir loft waves flags during the Independence Day Pops Celebration by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the Amphitheater, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will celebrate Independence Day with a special guest performer, musical favorites, and what guest conductor Stuart Chafetz calls a “festive party atmosphere.”

The CSO’s Independence Day Celebration will take place at 8 p.m. tonight, July 4, in the Amphitheater. It features Chafetz, principal pops conductor for the Columbus Symphony and CSO timpanist, as well as a newcomer to Chautauqua: baritone Michael Preacely.

Preacely, a professional opera singer and vocal soloist, first met Chafetz at a Cincinnati Pops Orchestra concert, where the two found that their excellent onstage chemistry led to an unforgettable concert.

“There was such good chemistry between he and I that after the concert, we were like, ‘Hey, when is another opportunity for us to connect?’ ” Preacely said. “(Chafetz) took my information, he contacted my agent, and hey — I’m here.”

The concert will feature a broad range of music: Broadway selections, songs from movie soundtracks and classic patriotic tunes. The setlist includes “The Star-Spangled Banner”; “The Impossible Dream” from The Man of La Mancha; “Cantina Band” from “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope”; a tribute to American composer John Williams; and Alan Silvestri’s “The Avengers” theme, among others.

Preacely will sing with the CSO for seven of the concert’s 17 selections. Preacely said he and Chafetz designed the program to showcase their musical versatility and to make sure that all audience members find something to enjoy.

“(Chafetz is) very aware of my versatility as an artist, so he really wanted to showcase that as well as what he does; he’s very versatile in his program choices and his style of conducting,” Preacely said. “We have this type of platform where we want to show that. You want to give someone something that they can chew on, regardless of what their tastes may be.”
Conductor Stuart Chafetz turns to the crowd after end of the “1812 Overture” during the Independence Day Pops Celebration by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the Amphitheater, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Beyond that, Preacely wants to create an atmosphere where audience members can celebrate independence, music and their local community.

“We’ve had a really good time going back and forth putting together this program, and I want the audience to go away happy and excited — not only about celebrating Independence Day, but about the art,” Preacely said. “We’re going to talk, we’re going to sing, we’re going to dance, we’re going to have a great time in the name of independence — and in the name of just being together under one roof … with this beautiful music.”

Overall, Preacely said he is excited to visit Chautauqua for the first time — especially in such a festive, energetic concert.

“I’m looking forward to just experiencing the electricity of this atmosphere,” Preacely said. “I can’t wait for that.”

Chafetz is a timpanist with the CSO, and every summer he guest conducts the annual Independence Day concert and the Opera Pops concerts at the Institution. He said he tries to bring crowd-pleasing favorites to the audience for Independence Day.

“We try and focus on music that everybody loves,” Chafetz said. “We do a bit of movies, a little bit of Broadway, a bit of patriotic music and we have some American Top 40, which is so much fun to perform, especially with our festive party atmosphere.”

Chafetz said Preacely’s guest performance will play no small part in that atmosphere.

“Michael, he is an absolutely amazing singer and he’s going to just rock the house,” Chafetz said.

Chafetz hopes Chautauquans will enjoy the performance and celebrate Independence Day with CSO and Preacely.

“As with all of the Fourth of July performances, we want people to have a good time, sing and dance, and do whatever they normally would do on a festive holiday: feel right at home,” Chafetz said. “We want the Amphitheater to feel like their favorite party spot to enjoy, unwind and celebrate America with a great performance.”

Guest Critic: CSO Performs Tender Franz Schubert, Stirring Johannes Brahms

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  • Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of "A Saturday Evening of Symphonies" in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Review By Johanna Keller:

A pair of beloved Romantic symphonic masterworks — by Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms — were performed back-to-back without intermission to close out the first week of Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season. The news of the night was that about half the concerts this year will be intermission-free, due to popular demand from the audience, a change announced by Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, in her opening remarks from the stage.

On a more serious note, Moore also paid tribute to Peter Haas, principal bass player of the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, who performed with the CSO for 24 years and passed away last autumn after a year-long battle with cancer. It was a profound loss for the close-knit community of Chautauqua, and in an interview after the performance, Haas was fondly remembered by bass player Kaitlyn Kamminga, who called him “a consummate professional and great colleague.”

The evening’s performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, dubbed the “Unfinished,” was appropriately dedicated to Haas’ memory.

So, it was in this somber mood that Music Director Rossen Milanov took the stage and stood for a long moment before conducting a singularly poignant interpretation of the two movements that Schubert wrote in 1822.

In the Allegro moderato opening, Milanov kept his gestures small, maintaining a restrained dynamic throughout. He pushed the lyricism of phrasing, demanding sweeping arcs of sound, so that the cellos and violins seemed to sing, while the sforzandi provided a muted punctuation. One of the most shattering moments in this work comes when Schubert abruptly halts the gorgeous second theme, follows it with a full measure rest and then brings in an unrelated chord, in C minor. The crispness of the CSO’s playing made this interruption freshly shocking. In the Andante con moto, each of Schubert’s unusual transitions and daring key changes — often a kind of pivot on a solo instrument — seemed transparent, even fragile. The pizzicati (plucked passages) in the low strings were on tiptoe.

I have heard the “Unfinished” played countless times with dozens of approaches — it can sound muscular, bouncy, tragic, dramatic, stately, yearning. But I have never heard it sound so tender. Such a subtle approach requires the kind of musical imagination that Milanov possesses, as well as a true fusion and trust between conductor and players that has obviously developed during his five years on the CSO podium.

Conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The mystery of why Schubert never completed his Eighth Symphony has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and the consensus seems to be that after writing his first six symphonies that hewed to fairly conventional classical structures, Schubert suffered a kind of artistic crisis — and it certainly couldn’t have helped that he also contracted syphilis. It is theorized that he was blocked by comparing himself to Beethoven, then a towering musical figure at the height of his renown. Schubert had sketched out a Seventh Symphony and then set to work on the eighth, composing two movements and leaving a third movement in an incomplete sketch.

By the time of his death in 1828, at the age of 31, Schubert left dozens of projects incomplete or abandoned, yet he was among the most prolific of major composers. He had written more than 600 songs, nine or 10 symphonies (or sketches, depending on how you count them), 15 string quartets, two piano trios, two quintets, 21 piano sonatas, 10 operas and other incidental music for the stage, seven full masses and a whole lot more. The two completed movements of the “Unfinished” symphony show Schubert experimenting with bizarre key modulations and harmonies, in a direction Beethoven never pursued. We are left to wonder how much more Schubert would have written, and how his music would have evolved, had he not died so young.

By contrast, after a short pause (not an intermission), Milanov hopped onto the podium and dove headlong into Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Brahms. Hans Richter, who conducted the premiere, called this robust 1883 piece “Brahms’s Eroica,” referring to the nickname for Beethoven’s “heroic” Third Symphony. Both works open with a spirited Allegro con brio, and Milanov flung out his arms and stirred the orchestra into a full-out rendition that had the strings swirling while the brass and woodwind sections interwove those Brahmsian motives.

A particularly telling moment occurred in the third movement, Poco allegretto. The cellos introduce this throbbing minor key theme that is then handed around the orchestra and repeated again and again. This is a movement that can unfortunately become lugubrious and sentimental. But Milanov took it at a brisk pace and pushed the articulation in a fascinating way. Usually the two phrases of the main theme are played (bear with me here) Dah-dee-Daaaaah, Dah-dee-Dah. But Milanov demanded a legato that crescendoed into the second phrase with an extra surge at the top, so that it turned into Dah-dee-daaahHH-DAH-dee-dah. The difference in phrasing may seem minor, but it is just such a detail as this that turns a good performance into a great one, and demonstrates Milanov’s intelligence and refined taste.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in the performance of “A Saturday Evening of Symphonies” in the Amp Saturday, June 29, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Composers have often gotten their jollies by incorporating cryptograms — sequences of notes whose letters spell out words or names. Most notably, Bach spelled out his name (in German music, B-flat was named B and B-natural was H), and Robert Schumann inserted a form of his name into his music as well. Brahms had a friend and collaborator, Joseph Joachim, whose musical motto was “Frei aber einsam” (Free but lonely). A lifelong bachelor, Brahms converted Joachim’s motto into his own theme on F-A-F, to signify “Frei aber froh (Free but happy), and sprinkled it throughout the symphony.

Alas, it must be said that three times during the evening, dogs being walked by their clearly unmusical owners, added unwelcome interruptions, and always at the quietest and most sublime moments; why can’t Chautauqua institute a dog-free No Barking Zone on orchestra nights?

Speaking of acoustical matters, while I usually prefer to sit two-thirds of the way back to enjoy the surprisingly well-blended sound in the Amphitheater, I took this opportunity to take a seat in the choral section behind and above the orchestra, an experiment I recommend to any serious listener. Of course, the sound there is dry, like being in a recording studio, so that you hear the sections of the orchestra separately, including sonic details like the slight rasp of the bows. You also miss the visceral blare of the brass section (they are sitting 15 feet below with their bell ends pointed away from you). On the other hand, you get to closely observe the interactions of the players and see the conductor from the perspective of the orchestra members; it is revelatory to watch Milanov use his gaze and facial expressions to elicit the sound he wants from his players.

Finally, it should be noted that a new element has been added to the orchestral season — program books. Handsomely edited, the 51-page booklet contains repertoire, guest artist bios and David Levy’s fine musicological notes for the opening few weeks of the season. Best of all is the list of orchestra members with a photo of each and a note about their other institutional affiliations. Highlighting each musician is a great idea that all orchestras should adopt. It’s just another reminder of the atmosphere of Chautauqua, where each individual voice contributes to the whole.

Johanna Keller received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for her essays on music in The New York Times. She writes for Opera and The Hopkins Review and teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Guest Critic: CSO Season Opener Delivers ‘Unforgettable Performance’

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  • Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opens the season with conductor Rossen Milanov and pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk Thursday, June 27, 2019 in the Amphitheater. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by Johanna Keller:

The 90th season of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra opened with heavenly performances of three works that, in various ways, revolved around the theme of Hell.

Conductor Rossen Milanov, beginning his fifth season as music director, chose Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32, as his challenging opener, which immediately plunges the listener into darkness and the swirling, stormy sufferings of the underworld. Programming it as an opener was a bold move, since the slashing strings and eddying woodwinds allow no time for orchestra players to warm up — welcome to Hades.

Doomed lovers abound in literature and myth: think of Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet. Once just as well-known, the story of Francesca’s illicit love affair with her brother-in-law Paolo inspired numerous operas, including one by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The tale comes from Dante Alighieri’s epic “The Divine Comedy,” and there are no more beloved passages than those of the fifth canto of The Inferno, when the author Dante reaches the second ring of Hell. There, raging winds eternally buffet those who committed the sin of lust. In the midst of this storm, Francesca tenderly recounts how she and Paolo fell in love. Rendered in Dante’s delicately rhymed three-line stanzas (terza rima), Francesca’s story so moves Dante that when she finishes speaking, he writes that he faints from emotion.

Tchaikovsky’s 1876 fantasy on the Francesca theme alternates lyrical moments (props to the soaring phrasing by Chautauqua’s principal clarinetist Eli Eban) with thunderous tutti passages that depict the netherworld’s storms as well as the storms of sexual passion. Milanov drew on his enormous range of communicative gestures to pull out of the orchestra sweeping, singing phrases that built to a final climactic accelerando, and was answered by cheers from the audience. It was an auspicious beginning.

In the world of classical music, one of the most bizarre characters has to be violinist and composer, Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), who played so brilliantly, he was rumored to have sold his soul to Satan. Paganini’s abilities on the violin — he also played the viola and guitar — were the stuff of legend, and he invented new ways of playing the instrument in his 24 Caprices that bedevil violinists to the present day. A tall, spectrally thin man, Paganini brought some audience members to shrieks with the physicality of his performances — think of Mick Jagger crossed with a young Elvis. In recent years, much has been written about the theory — which was referenced by Chautauqua’s resident musicologist David Levy in his excellent pre-concert lecture in the Hall of Christ — that Paganini had Marfan syndrome, and was double-jointed, accounting perhaps for some of his unusual dexterity.

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk took the stage for the fiendish, knuckle-breaking challenge of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 43. Like Paganini, Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso performer, one of the great pianists of his century, so the keyboard technical challenges are abundant.

Gavrylyuk, who also serves as the Heintzelman Family Artistic Advisor and artist-in-residence for the Chautauqua School of Music Piano Program, delivered an electrifying interpretation with propulsive energy, cascades of notes transformed into sheer veils and gigantic Rachmaninoff chords that demand not only power but astute voicing. Better known outside of the United States, Gavrylyuk is on track for a stellar international career. Milanov kept the orchestra with him every step of the way, with plaintive solo violin work by acting concertmaster Vahn Armstrong.

Theme and variations are playful forms that show off the inventiveness of the composer. Early on, Rachmaninoff gives us a wink with hints of the Dies Irae — the often-quoted Gregorian chant that summons up images of death — to allude to Paganini’s demonic reputation.

Most famously in this work, at the apogee comes a most exquisite tune (I hear it in my mind’s ear as I write these words), a tune you would recognize. Tchaikovsky invented it, or discovered it, when he inverted Paganini’s theme and recognized it as a stunner. He treats it with a full-out sobbing rendition in the orchestra and then lets the piano caress it alone, just once, before the next variation begins. A lesser composer than Tchaikovsky would have brought the hit tune back at the end, but instead, it gains all the more poignancy for its brief but spectacular, singular appearance. Milanov drove his orchestra through the final variations that pound out the Dies Irae to the shattering conclusion, with the tiny tail of a piano flourish at the very end that always brings a laugh from the audience. Wit indeed. The loudest cheering of the night came for Gavrylyuk, a favorite at Chautauqua.

At intermission, some of the audience filtered away, unfortunately missing one of the rare opportunities to hear Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony from 1939. On the surface, this extremely unusual work has nothing whatsoever to do with Hell. There are no infernos, no hellish storms, no Dies Irae, and no souls sold to the devil — or are there?

Throughout his early life, Shostakovich (1906-1975) suffered from the vicissitudes of the dictator Stalin, living in an atmosphere of terror that most of us (I hope) have never experienced and can scarcely imagine. Unfortunately for Russian artists, Stalin took a great interest in them and their work. A word misspoken or misunderstood, a work of art deemed “too formal” or “not socialist realism,” could land one on the wrong side of history — or in the gulag. Or shot. The midnight knock at the door: Such things happened under Stalin, when it is estimated that more than a million Russians died in the gulags over 20 years; others died uncounted.

In 1934, Shostakovich had written an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, that got him denounced by the Communist Party after an anonymous article appeared, perhaps written by Stalin himself. Shostakovich managed to redeem himself by composing, as his Fifth Symphony, a triumphant celebration of Soviet might. For his next symphony, he announced he would use poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s paean, “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” and would convey “spring, joy, youth.” On the surface, this plan sounded like a surefire way to further ingratiate himself to Stalin. But when it comes to Shostakovich — his music or his life story — the surface is always a betrayal.

Mayakovsky had been one of the most famous poets in Russia and tapped the young Shostakovich years before to provide some stage music. But the poet had his own political problems. He was a futurist: Stalin disapproved. The poet died by suicide in 1930, and afterward, and still to this day, there are arguments that it was actually an assassination.

So, for whatever reason, the symphony Shostakovich wrote was not as announced. There is no Mayakovsky poem, no chorus. Instead, it begins with a Largo that takes up more than half the work. Somber and based on minor third and diminished seventh motifs, its thickly orchestrated passages give way to moments when one instrument — piccolo, flute or English horn — are virtually isolated. It is impossible to hear this effect without thinking of the way Stalinist terror could isolate and silence individual voices. The composer finishes with two shorter movements: an Allegro and then a Presto that, for all their energy and verve, are underpinned with the bitter irony that mark this great composer’s work. There are various kinds of hell — and perhaps this symphony describes one of them.

Milanov and the orchestra members turned in an unforgettable performance — the strings bearing down on the lacerating passages, outstanding solo turns from the woodwinds and brass and percussion providing what sometimes sounded like an alarm. Milanov whipped up a galloping finale that propelled the audience to its feet and, after a sustained ovation, out into the safe and peaceful darkness of the charming streets of Chautauqua.

Johanna Keller received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for her essays on music in The New York Times. She writes for Opera and The Hopkins Review and teaches journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk to Open Orchestra’s 90th Anniversary Season

CHQDaily

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 90th season opens tonight with a highly anticipated performance featuring one of Chautauqua Institution’s favorite musicians: internationally renowned pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk.

At 8:15 p.m. tonight, June 27 in the Amphitheater, the CSO will accompany Gavrylyuk in a performance from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43. The concert will also feature Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, op. 32 and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 45.

For CSO Music Director and Principal Conductor Rossen Milanov, this concert marks the beginning of a landmark anniversary season.

“We have been planning the season for almost two years now,” Milanov said. “We were looking for something that would not only mark the importance of the anniversary, but also showcase the incredible diversity of approach that we have to the repertoire, the excellence of the orchestra, our connection to the audiences in Chautauqua and the importance of live music in the Chautauqua mix.”

Milanov is entering his fifth year as CSO conductor. He said that the CSO draws together the Institution’s unique performances by performing solo, with guests and with the Institution’s dance and opera companies.

“The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is that connective tissue that pulls everything together,” Milanov said.

This season will show the importance of both the anniversary and the orchestra itself, according to Milanov.

“This is going to be a season like no other in recent years,” Milanov said. “We’re happy to mark this occasion and happy that the Chautauqua audience can hear the best of the repertoire, whether it’s traditional or contemporary.”

Milanov said that Gavrylyuk, a renowned musician and a local favorite, was the perfect choice for the CSO’s 90th opening concert. Gavrylyuk is the Institution’s Heintzelman Family Artistic Adviser for the School of Music Piano Program.

“I cannot possibly imagine a summer without Alexander being present both as a soloist of the orchestra and as a teacher with the piano department,” Milanov said. “He has a huge following; people love him, people love the freshness that he brings to everything that he touches.”

Gavrylyuk and Milanov performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini together at a set of concerts in Spain earlier this month. When the original guest for tonight’s concert, pianist Daniil Trifonov, was unable to attend, the Rachmaninoff piece was the natural choice.

Gavrylyuk said the piece is famously complex.

“(Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) is one of the most famous works for orchestra, and probably the most advanced compositions by Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra,” Gavrylyuk said. “It’s a piece which has many variations, and each variation is like a miniature picture. … Every variation has a small message, like a small theatrical play or a small painting.”

Gavrylyuk said the piece’s variations make it challenging but rewarding for musicians and listeners alike.

“It’s quite difficult, this piece,” Gavrylyuk said. “It’s one of the most difficult works, but it is equally rewarding.”

Tonight’s concert will also open the CSO’s Russian Festival, which will feature two other performances of Russian compositions: “Sleeping Beauty” with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre on Saturday, July 13, and “Prokofiev & Rachmaninoff” on Thursday, Aug. 1

Flamenco Company of Columbus, Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra deliver ‘colorful, evocative, technically adept’ season finale

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  • Griset Damas Roche and Flamenco Company of Columbus perform "Tientos-Tangos Flamencos" on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018 in the Amphitheater. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Among themes for orchestra programs, few are more common than Spain. The evening of Spanish music.

Give the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra extra credit, then, for breathing new life into the concept. On its season finale Tuesday night at the Amphitheater, the CSO and Music Director Rossen Milanov rewrote the Spanish playbook, augmenting their own sparkling performances with the work of a legitimate flamenco dance troupe.

What a treat it was. Flamenco alone is compelling enough, but witnessing it in combination with live orchestra was an experience this listener won’t soon forget.

Not that the Flamenco Company of Columbus or dancer Griset Damas-Roche couldn’t have held their own. On the contrary, the troupe, which included a vocalist, guitarist and percussionist, easily could have headlined the evening. No offense to Milanov or the CSO.

On the company’s first appearance Tuesday, performing what was listed as “Tientos-Tangos Flamencos,” the four guest artists held the nearly-full house in the palms of their hands. For every varied, passionate phrase supplied by the musicians, Damas-Roche delivered an exact, ferocious replica with her heels or toes, tapping or stomping on a piece of special dance flooring.

The precision of it was remarkable. No matter how rapidly or slowly the guitarist strummed or the drummer pounded, the team remained in perfect alignment, collaboratively raising the pulses of every person under the roof.

Damas-Roche did the same thing two more times at evening’s end. In separate dances with fan and castanets, the dancer fleshed out her artistic personality and steered the CSO even clearer of any Spanish routine.

In Ruperto Chapi’s Overture to La Revoltosa, Damas-Roche treated the brilliant red fan in her hand as much more than an accessory. She didn’t just snap it open and shut, in traditional flamenco fashion. She waved, embraced and paraded it, as if it were a human partner. The effect was mesmerizing.

But the showstopper, literally and figuratively, was Las Bodas de Luis Alonso, by Geronimo Gimenez. There, Damas-Roche revealed herself to be a castanet virtuoso as well as a star dancer.

Milanov may have been the conductor, but it was Damas-Roche who was in charge, belting out incredible licks with her hands in time with the orchestra, even as she kept up twirling and stomping.  Never has the label “triple threat” applied so well.

The other half of the evening belonged to the orchestra, and the orchestra owned it. Milanov and the CSO may have been playing familiar scores, but their performances were such that the music sounded anything but tired or threadbare.

Chabrier’s España got the night off to a sparkling start. Thanks especially to vivid contributions from the orchestra’s brass and percussion sections, the brief rhapsody was impossible to resist.

Ditto the two suites from de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat.” In that case, though, it was harder to credit any one individual. The entire ensemble proved as colorful, evocative and technically adept as could be. What’s more, Milanov led with passion and a palpable understanding of the many dance forms involved. The crowd was right to clap in the middle.

No Spanish evening is complete without Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, and the CSO’s season finale was complete in every respect. Acting concertmaster Vahn Armstrong gave a dynamic performance of the work’s chief solo part, and his peers in the woodwind, brass and harp sections added character to an alert, well-paced reading already full of life and animation.

Had the evening ended there, listeners could have gone home happy. At that point, though, the CSO still had more to offer, in the form of Damas-Roche with her fan and castanets. After that, all went home ecstatic.

Zachary Lewis is the classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

Flamenco Company of Columbus to join Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for season finale

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The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra has been on tour through Southern Europe this August, from the impressionist salons in Paris to the Galician countryside to the opera houses in Italy. Tonight, its musical travels come to an end with the sounds of Spain.

At 8:15 p.m. Tues., Aug. 21, in the Amphitheater, Rossen Milanov and the CSO will give this year’s final concert, featuring an all-Spanish program. Flamenco dancer Griset Damas-Roche and the Flamenco Company of Columbus will also perform, both with the CSO and on their own.

Flamenco dance, according to Damas-Roche, has its roots in Spain’s long, multicultural history, drawing on the country’s Arab invasion, discrimination against gypsies and influence from India. Damas-Roche came to flamenco in her native Cuba, where she was trained by Spanish teachers.

Damas-Roche will join the orchestra for two selections of zarzuela, La Revoltosa (The Troublemaker) and Las Bodas De Luis Alonso (The Wedding of Luis Alonso). Zarzuela is a form of Spanish drama similar to Viennese operettas or American musical theater, Milanov said.

Flamenco dance can have many facets — for example, in one of the zarzuelas, Damas-Roche will perform with castanets, and in another she will be using her abanico, or hand fan. These additions make preparation a long and arduous process, according to Damas-Roche.

“For La Revoltosa, I isolated myself in my studio, changed my summer routine and listened to it hundreds of times before creating the choreography because I wanted to do it with my abanico,” she said. “I also wanted to pay homage to one of my teachers, who was one of the great choreographers of zarzuela in Cuba and who died a few months ago.”

Damas-Roche will also perform a selection with her dance company, which will involve a guitar player, a vocalist and a percussionist. The first section of the piece will be a form of flamenco known as cante jondo, or “deep song.”

Cante jondo, Damas-Roche said, is the most serious of the flamenco genres, and has its origins in “pain, deep sentiments, darkness and the intensity of the human being, and the hardness of life.” The second part of her choreography will retain the deep sense of emotion, but will be more festive.

The orchestra will also be performing Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, Manuel de Falla’s “The Three Cornered Hat” Suites No. 1 and No. 2 and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34.

España and Capriccio Espagnol are two of the most often performed works of Spanish music, despite the fact that their composers were not Spanish (Chabrier was French; Rimsky-Korsakov was Russian). According to Milanov, that’s somewhat of a trend — people often joke that the best Spanish music was written by foreigners.

The ballet “The Three Cornered Hat,” however, was written by a Spaniard. De Falla received his education in France, though, and used the musical language of the great impressionists like Debussy and Ravel to capture the culture of his native Spain.

The ballet was premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the legendary ballet company responsible for premiering famous early-20th century works like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” It was a landmark moment for Spanish music and culture, according to Milanov.

“(‘The Three Cornered Hat’ is) one of the most famous scores of Spanish music, and when it was presented in Paris, it was a sensation,” Milanov said. “It was not danced with the accustomed classical style of ballet, but with Spanish folk dance instead and a lot of pantomime. You can only imagine how that looked with the original sets by Pablo Picasso on stage. So it’s very innovative because it takes Spanish tradition and includes it as part of European cultural history and presents it in a light which is pretty authentic.”

Staff writer Lexie Erdos contributed to this report.

World-renowned classical guitarist Sharon Isbin to join Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra

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More than 30 years ago, guitarist Sharon Isbin and composer John Corigliano found themselves in the same line at the post office. Isbin asked if Corigliano would write a guitar concerto for her, and Corigliano said no — the in-demand composer was too busy at the time.

But Isbin persisted. She checked back with Corigliano every year for eight years, and eventually, Corigliano agreed to write her concerto.

Sharon Isbin

In 1993, Isbin finally premiered Corigliano’s “Troubadours (Variations for Guitar and Orchestra).” Their collaboration would reach many ears. Just two years after the premiere, astronaut Chris Hadfield brought Isbin’s recording of the piece to space, where he presented it to Russian cosmonauts.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, Isbin will join the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Rossen Milanov for a performance of Corigliano’s “Troubadours,” and the orchestra will perform Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell and Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A major, op. 90, “Italian.”

According to Isbin, Corigliano finally capitulated to her request because Isbin suggested the theme of the troubadours, lyric poets of the Middle Ages. That idea, she said, came to her in a dream after Corigliano’s publisher suggested she come to Corigliano with a “historical and dramatic” theme for the proposed concerto.

The troubadours existed in Southern France and surrounding areas from the late 11th century to the late 13th century, and are credited with major advances in European poetry. Their poems were often set as songs, with some 300 troubadour melodies surviving into the modern era.

Corigliano selected a melody from trobairitz (female troubadour) Comtessa de Dia to form the basis for the concerto’s main theme. The comtessa was a fitting pick for a concerto written for Isbin — just as it was unusual for women to be troubadours in the Middle Ages, it was unusual for women to play the classical guitar when Isbin was beginning her career.

“In the past, the role models have been men,” Isbin said. “It takes time to really create the vision for younger people to know that they can follow their passion and their heart even if it’s an instrument or profession not commonly associated with their gender.”

Isbin has certainly done that — she’s won two Grammy Awards (the only female classical guitarist to ever do so), performed around the world as a soloist both in recitals and in front of orchestras, and she founded the guitar program at The Juilliard School in New York.

Isbin has also been a major force in bringing the guitar into the contemporary concert hall. She’s had 10 guitar concertos written for her by some of the most well-known contemporary composers, from Christopher Rouse to Joseph Schwantner and Corigliano.

“Like most artists, I think there’s something to be said for being part of our time, especially when there are some amazing composers like John Corigliano,” Isbin said. “He’s one of the true greats. Fortuitously, meeting him was almost like fate, and while it did take some effort and arm twisting to bring him to an instrument that he wasn’t familiar with, he grew to love it.”

CSO, Charlotte Ballet’s performance honors Mark Diamond’s 30 years with Chautauqua

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Written by Lexie Erdos

Charlotte Ballet will join the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra to showcase a mix of neoclassical choreography and classical music at 8:15 p.m. Thursday, July 5 in the Amphitheater. Choreographers Mark Diamond and Sasha Janes created en pointe dance pieces to complement and energize the classical scores of Scherzo by Beethoven and The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.

The choice to select well- known classical pieces to be performed by the orchestra (the program also includes Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo in forma di Sonatina) was made by the curators of the performance, including Charlotte Ballet’s Artistic Director Hope Muir. The pieces have the advantage of being both popular with audiences and familiar to the musicians.

“The dancers will only have the opportunity to rehearse with the orchestra once before the performance, so it is really important to ensure that the music is already part of their repertoire,” Muir said.

By choosing pieces that are known both by the orchestra and the dancers, the curators hope to deliver a performance with the polish of a well-rehearsed piece.

Additionally, because the two scores were originally not written as a dance collaboration, the choreographers and dancers are given the liberty of being able to create the routines from scratch, with no pre-conceived expectations of what should be performed or included in the dances.

“We like to curate pieces that allow the dancers to have the freedom to express themselves creatively, which these pieces do,” Muir said.

Janes, the choreographer of “Four Seasons,” is also particularly interested in providing comfortability and flexibility to his dancers.

“The piece was originally made for the company three years ago for a different group of dancers,” said Janes, who is also associate artistic director of Charlotte Ballet and Chautauqua School of Dance’s director of contemporary studies. “As some dancers leave and we bring other ones on, we have made adjustments to the piece to make sure that each dancer is comfortable with the movements required of them.”

The excitement of the performance does not end with the live music, the freedom it offers the dancers, or the neoclassical take on classical scores, however. Additionally, “Scherzo” choreographer and associate artistic director Diamond is celebrating his 30th year at Chautauqua Dance. This performance is an opportunity for him to showcase how his work has changed throughout his tenure.

“This season being Mark Diamond’s 30th year with the company, I felt compelled to give him a platform to celebrate his accomplishments, which ‘Scherzo’ does beautifully,” Muir said, “Mark’s piece acts as a perfect celebration of his work.”

According to both Muir and Janes, Diamond’s piece reflects his accomplishments, growth and his funny, eccentric personality.

“Mark’s piece does have a quirky element to it,” Muir said. “He has such a wide breadth of work and many facets to his personality, which I think is reflected in the piece.”

Janes agreed.

“It’s always been great working with (Diamond).He has such an interesting perspective on what he wants to say through his movement quality,” said Janes, who has worked with Diamond since 2001.

Muir said the CSO’s involvement in tonight’s performance will be an exciting experience on both sides of the stage.

“Any opportunity to dance with live music is something I really treasure and certainly wanted to make happen during our stay at Chautauqua,” Muir said. “And of course, any chance to perform for the Chautauqua audience is always such a pleasure.”

Chautauqua Dance Circle will host a pre-performance lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 5 in the Hall of Philosophy with Janes and Diamond.

Anniversary in the Amp

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Doreen Rao leads the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring the works of Bach and Bernstein at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater. Submitted photo.

Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus opens 75th season in concert with CSO

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Doreen Rao

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will celebrate its 75th anniversary with Chautauqua in its season-opening-concert featuring Bach’s “Magnificat” and Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS.” Doreen Rao will conduct the chorus and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.

“Chautauqua is an exquisite intersection between the arts and spirituality,” she said. “It just exudes the kind of an enlightened energy that makes listening to and making beautiful music immediately understood in so many different ways.”

Though Rao and the chorus have visited Chautauqua every year since she became the chorus’ music director in 2008, this is Rao’s first time conducting the CSO.

“There is a vibrancy in the orchestra that I think comes from reuniting every year as a community of musicians,” Rao said. “That combination of orchestra and chorus is, to me, the most exciting place to be. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Tonight’s concert opens with Benjamin Britten’s “Fanfare for St. Edmundsbury,” a work for three trumpets. Rao said she hopes to have the musicians play in different areas of the Amp for the fanfare.

“My goal with this piece is to help the listeners be surrounded by the three trumpets that define the music of Bach’s ‘Magnificat,’” she said. “At the same time, the music of Britten, in a spatial sense, provides the listener an opportunity to prepare themselves to receive the music of the evening.”

Once the invitation to listen is delivered, the concert continues with the air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D Major, BW 1068, which will help to create the stillness of a listening space, Rao said.

“This is created by the lyricism and the melodic beauty of that movement,” she said. “It prepares us, then, for the complex counterpoint that we will hear in the ‘Magnificat.’”

Bach composed “Magnificat” after his appointment to the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, Germany. “Magnificat” was originally intended to be a Christmas piece, but Bach revised it so it could be performed throughout the year.

Rao said the piece is full of wonderful, virtuosic counterpoint and rhythmic dance forms. Its florid musical ideas are exchanged between the orchestra and chorus in a concerto-like format. The piece is challenging for vocalists, because Bach wrote the vocal parts instrumentally.

The choral movements are interspersed with arias, duets and a trio. Soloists for this evening’s performance of “Magnificat” include soprano I Leah Schneider, soprano II Tony Arnold, mezzo-soprano Natalia Kojanova, tenor Jeffrey Thompson and bass Brian T. Zunner.

Thompson is a guest soloist with the chorus and will perform the tenor aria “Deposuit potentes” and alto-tenor duet “Et misericordia.” He has performed with the chorus before and said it is a mature-sounding choir that interprets nuances wonderfully and blends beautifully. He described “Magnificat” as “Bach at his best.”

“It’s harmonically and rhythmically perfect,” he said. “The marriage of that music and the text is perfect and uplifting. It flows just beautifully.”

He will perform “Et misericordia” with Kojanova, who said she enjoys the duet for its sad, melodramatic qualities.

“When you’re happy, it’s generally just one feeling,” she said. “When you’re sad, you can be sad in so many different ways.”

Following “Magnificat,” Rao will lead the orchestra and chorus in Bernstein’s “MASS,” which she edited to shorten the piece and to make it more feasible for school, church and community choruses to perform.

Rao said “MASS” and “Magnificat” complement textually and contrast stylistically.

“Bernstein is saying much the same thing as Bach through his great faith, but uses a 20th-century language, representing American diversity in song styles and a broad sweep of compositional elements,” Rao said.

“MASS” premiered in 1971 during a tumultuous period in American history. Rao said these conflicts are juxtaposed with Bernstein’s personal struggles with his faith and reflected within the text of a Catholic mass.

“He used (the mass) as a unification device to explore the tremendous conflicts of doubt and faith that were occurring at that period of American history and continue, in many ways, to define the problems that we face today,” she said.

“MASS” includes an important role for tenor and guest soloist Joseph Mikolaj, who acts as celebrant throughout the piece. Mikolaj was raised Catholic, which he said helps him have a deeper insight for the role. He enjoys the musical style of “MASS,” which he said has roots in classical music as well as popular music.

“It carries an energy that it borrows from the pop music, but it also carries a weight that, I think, creates something quite brilliant,” he said.
Mikolaj said he’s never heard anything quite like “MASS.”

“I’d like for an audience member to sit down and try to find one thing to hold onto, one thing to take from the piece, because it’s so powerful and can be so moving,” he said. “Be ready. Be forewarned.”

Schneider performs the soprano part in “MASS,” in addition to her aria, duet and trio in “Magnificat.” She said the soprano in “MASS” performs without paying attention to the chorus, creating chaos.

“The soprano represents all that is secular,” she said. “She’s not exactly a character as much as she is representing a feeling.”

Schneider, a soloist and music educator, joined the chorus in 2006 and has enjoyed both performing in the chorus and learning new teaching methods from Rao’s example.

“(Rao is) such a vibrant conductor with lots of energy,” Schneider said. “She really knows exactly how to produce results from singers in the most effective way.”

Kojanova first started singing as a soloist with large ensembles when she joined the chorus three years ago. She said it is incredible to work with the chorus and with Rao.

“She brings so much — everybody says so,” Kojanova said. “Even in concerts, the music changes every time, growing better and better.”

In addition to her work with the chorus, Rao is an associate professor of conducting at the University of Toronto. She is also the founding artistic director of the CME Institute for Choral Teacher Education.

In the near future, Rao looks forward to a new focus in her career, with conducting in the forefront and a continued dedication to music education.

“My career is the bridge between performance and education,” she said. “That is where I live. That is what I love.”


“The Personal and Political in Bernstein’s MASS
Scott Slocum Interviews Doreen Rao

At the heart of MASS was Leonard Bernstein’s passion for peace.  Intended to be ecumenical in both a musical and religious sense, Bernstein used the Latin text of the Catholic Mass as the basis for this monumental and original work.  The mass form unifies the edgy and appealing popular song forms that question the values of faith contrasted with the expressive concert melodies that symbolically reference faith beyond doubt.  The musical tensions created by this mixture of diverse song styles mirrors the tensions of an American period of political unrest.  Bernstein’s prayers for peace and quest for renewed faith heard in his lyrical melodies and probing rhythms in MASS reflect a time in history, not unlike the world today.  Doreen Rao’s concert adaptation, taken from the original full-scale theatre production, celebrates Leonard Bernstein’s life-long dedication to the music education of young people and his passion for peace. 

Conductor Doreen Rao, Music Director and Conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus will conduct her newly edited concert edition of Bernstein’s MASS at the Chautauqua Institution Saturday, July 23.   The concert edition was carefully adapted for the benefit of community, school and church choirs to enjoy the study and performance of this great 20th century classic from the lengthy full-scale theatre production for singers, players and dancers.

Interviewer Scott Slocum is a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.  Scott is a therapeutic masseuse and dancer who sings bass.  The following interview is extracted from a recent discussion between Scott and Doreen Rao in Doreen’s Buffalo home.

SS– I understand that Bernstein MASS was written as a dedication to John F. Kennedy after his death.  I thought it was ironic that President Nixon did not attend the 1971 Bernstein Mass opening of the J. F. Kennedy Center out of a suspected conspiracy that Bernstein was going to try to embarrass the United States Government.  I’m also impressed that Bernstein took the traditional Mass form and developed it in a uniquely contemporary manner.

DR– Bernstein’s music flew in the face of the political climate of the time.  He was considered a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover, and MASS was considered by some critics as a total travesty — a vulgar mélange of ideas.   By others, MASS was considered Bernstein’s greatest composition.  These were not easy times.  Has anything changed?

By using liturgical form alongside American popular song, Bernstein achieved a ‘crossover’ composition that philosophically speaking, united the Church and the people.  He used a liturgical ‘mass form’ to portray faith and hope alongside doubt and despair through the juxtaposition of concert and popular musics.

SS– A garden image comes to mind — the idea of one who knew very intimately how

“life” worked and could bring it forth and cultivate it through the use of sacred tradition set forth in a modern language with modern images – the cultivation of a ‘new’ tradition.  What a wonderful experiment.

DR– It was a glorious experiment.  Perhaps an experiment for all time.  I think Bernstein set the tone for what could be understood as an essentially American musical experience.  By developing an interdependent relationship between the sacred and secular; the concert stage and popular music; celebration and lamentation; faith and doubt, Bernstein was able to portray the relationship between musical styles within the context of a unified work made whole through the mass form.

SS- The thing that really impresses me about that imagery, and the way that you’re putting it, is that contrasting and diversified ideas reflect one another — one face reflects the other somehow — that’s a new and tasty idea, for me.

DR-  Formal religious practice and the liturgical framework for religious faith can provide comfort and assurance.  I think that what Bernstein suggests in MASS is that religion should not be separated from the daily experiences of life.  In MASS Bernstein brings street life to the Church and Church life to the street; the music symbolizes the tensions between doubt and faith.

SS- I think it’s very beautiful if you don’t have to go to church to find church – in this way, you’re always at home.

DR– When I think of the tensions often felt between the experiences of faith and doubt, I remember the ancient Irish saying: “the whole world is sacred.” I think we go to church to be in church, but Bernstein’s music suggests that we can also be ‘in church’ at home, and we can be ‘in church’ in music, and we can be ‘in church’ in a loving relationship.  This I believe is the partial essence of Bernstein’s message.

SS– That’s wonderful. It would seem that because Bernstein showed the “sacred in the secular,” and the “secular in the sacred,” he did a service to both.  MASS ennobled popular music and brought social relevance to the ancient mass form.  How enriching.

DR– In MASS, Bernstein uses a liturgical form to organize popular song forms. And while he borrowed a fair amount of material from his previous theatre works (including West Side Story and the Skin of Our Teeth) the Catholic Mass sung in Latin unifies Bernstein’s effort to portray his own struggles with sustaining faith in God during troubled times in a uniquely original work.  It’s important to remember that the use of these compositional devices like borrowing old material is not unique to Bernstein specifically or to twentieth century composers generally.  J. S. Bach was doing this long ago.  As a devout German Lutheran living in eighteenth century Leipzig, Bach often borrowed material from his previous compositions (cantatas, motets for example) and often used secular melodies (medieval street songs) as the basis of chorale harmonizations and choral counterpoint. As in Bernstein’s MASS, Bach transformed secular melodic fragments (songs) and previously composed materials into works like Magnificat and Mass in B Minor.

So the idea of the ‘secular in the sacred’ can be found throughout music history. Bernstein brought it to America in a form that we consider very “20th century,” but that particular distinction goes way back in music history. This can be found most brilliantly, I think, in the music of J.S. Bach.

SS– That’s wonderful. It’s exciting to know that what’s impressive about Bernstein has been going on at least as far back as Bach.

DR– The thing is, Bach composed in a compositional language unique to German Lutheranism during Bach’s lifetime.  Bernstein used the compositional language of 20th century American song.   While the way Bernstein composed MASS was new in many respects, philosophically speaking, the practices of stylistic variation and borrowing previously composed themes is not new.

SS– That’s a good point.

DR– If I may cautiously approach a comparison of Bernstein with Bach.  We know that Bach’s music is an absolute manifestation of his faith.  His biblical scholarship and unquestioning religious faith are deeply embodied in his compositions.  There is not a note Bach wrote that was not a symbol of his faith.   I think in some ways, the same may be true of Bernstein.  Bernstein felt very much that the African-American traditions — the Negro spiritual and gospel singing for example, were the spiritual essence of American music.  MASS was for Bernstein, a manifestation of his own religious struggles. Every note of this work is deeply rooted in Bernstein’s commitment to diversity and peace making.  As Bach’s cantatas and passions were a celebration of Christian faith, I see  MASS as a celebration of Bernstein’s faith in American diversity as unity.

SS– Tell me about your experience of adapting and editing the Bernstein MASS into a shortened concert version.

DR – I undertook this project a number of years ago in anticipation of Leonard Bernstein’s 90th birthday.   This newly adapted and edited version of Mass seeks to honor the composer’s life-long commitment to music education and bring what Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton called “Bernstein’s most original work” to school, community and church choirs unable to produce the original full-scale theatre production.  I worked diligently to assure that the work’s liturgical form and dramatic intent were carefully preserved.  Every note of this edition is pure Bernstein.

I have always been a great lover of the work of Leonard Bernstein — certainly his compositions and his conducting, but most importantly, his teaching.  Bernstein was the quintessential American music educator, not only as a teacher to generations of young people, but through his compositions themselves.  His music is a way of investigating the world around us. His music broadens our understanding of the Torah, the Bible and also points to the ethical and moral dilemmas of cultural confusion and societal conflicts today.  It is an investigation of life from historical, sociological, anthropological and purely musical perspectives.

The choices that Bernstein made musically in his theater work, symphonies, and in MASS teach us about life in a new voice.  While the music is often very beautiful in and of itself, his works are not just about music for it’s own sake.  Every note of Bernstein is in some way provocative and challenging.  It evokes intellectual curiosity, emotional response and seems to serve as a form of social inquiry.

I’m drawn to Bernstein’s music because it teaches me not only about music, but also about life itself.  Bernstein was not afraid to examine doubt.  He grappled compositionally with the conflicts that people have always stayed away from.  Bernstein’s music allows us to sit still with conflict and examine our faith in relationship to the suffering and doubt that surrounds us. I have always been drawn to the process of examining, investigating, questioning, not because there is one answer, but because I think as human beings we need to be comfortable with the notion that there may not be an answer to every question.  We need to view doubt without fear.

Bernstein’s music explores all this from a broad, existential perspective.  This comes across in all his music. His melodic material, based as it is on what we would call “popular tunes,” is a perfect example of how gloriously beautiful simple melody can be, in both a harmonically tonal and atonal context.  In other words, turning a melody around on its head and doing something really ‘strange’ with it, then stating it again in the original form demonstrates a kind of non-duality.  Bernstein twists his ideas; he turns them around and examines them from a multiplicity of compositional and social perspectives. Bach did the same thing.  I like that.

SS– Me too. Me too.

No power? No problem.

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Guest violinist Joan Kwuon performs the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

John Chacona | Guest Reviewer

Weird night last night.

I should have known that something was amiss at Chautauqua when I found a parking space at the bottom of the lot close to the exit. Paradoxically, the failure of a transformer earlier in the day and the resultant loss of electrical power increased the noise level on the grounds as gasoline-powered generators chugged away.

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra chugged away, too, in a truncated concert in a semi-darkened Amphitheater last night, but the lack of power wasn’t a consequence of the transformer as much as it was of the heat.

Musicians are mortal like the rest of us, and nobody likes to work outside when temperatures are in the mid-90s. Moreover, in hot weather, instruments are hard to keep in tune. Humidity is an enemy, too. So the climatic deck was stacked against the CSO yesterday.

After President Tom Becker made an announcement about the power outage (in a polo shirt and shorts!), Marty Merkley told the slightly thin crowd (many had left to seek food as well as air conditioning) that the program would be shortened so that symphony patrons might find their way home before dark.

The initial movement of the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto and the first three movements of the Dvořák Symphony No. 8 were sacrificed, a decision that was both vexatious and merciful.

Under the circumstances, it seems unfair to offer a review in the normal sense of the term. Does a restaurant critic judge a restaurant solely on the amuse bouche and the dessert?

So I’ll report on what I heard, namely that the CSO players, under conductor Christopher Seaman’s direction, delivered a tidy and sonorous account of the “Meistersinger” overture, with the strings sounding surprisingly rich and well-tuned.

The Prokofiev began with the slow movement, and though it’s not unusual to play individual movements of works in certain settings, starting a work in the middle is rather like reading a book beginning with chapter four. One can get a sense of the author’s style, but not the message. I think the orchestra was a little unnerved, too, as some of the ensemble work was a bit tentative.

Was violinist Joan Kwuon’s small tone a function of the heat, the change in program or was it anomalous? It’s impossible to know, but my heart went out to her in what had to be a thankless assignment, and certainly not the one for which she prepared. The closing pages of the brilliant finale arrived with more relief than triumph.

It was a pity that the Dvořák G major Symphony had to take the hit, because this is supremely outdoor music, and summer music, too. Full of juicy Bohemian folk melodies and the composer’s amiability of utterance, it would have been nice to hear all of it.

Conductor Seaman gave the downbeat before both his feet hit the podium surface, and it was off to the races. The finale was played very fast, with principal flutist Richard Sherman puffing hard to keep up. Not that it didn’t work — sort of. Standing alone, the movement was an undiscovered Slavonic Dance, an encore piece to the half-hour or so concert that preceded it. Like I said, it was a strange night.

By the time you read this — not by candlelight, as Becker warned of the tragic potential of candles and open windows — power should have been restored, but the heat is a more intractable problem than is electricity, and the CSO has a hugely ambitious program on Saturday, with two sets of soloists and a chorus. It may be the highlight of the season. Let’s hope that it may be heard under ideal conditions.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News.

That mesmerizing moment

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Guest conductor Christopher Seaman leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in its Tuesday night performance in the Amphitheater. Photo by Greg Funka.

Violinist Kwuon, guest conductor Seaman join CSO for a concert of Wagner, Prokofiev and Dvořák

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Joan Kwuon
Joan Kwuon

Violinist Joan Kwuon loves the thrill of performing for a live audience and having an active dialogue with an orchestra.

“It never gets old,” she said. “That moment, being surrounded by the sound from the orchestra and contributing the solo line is really quite mesmerizing.”

Kwuon will join guest conductor Christopher Seaman and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater for a concert featuring works by Richard Wagner, Sergei Prokofiev and Antonín Dvořák.

Kwuon made her CSO debut in 2009 with the Jean Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47, in a performance guest reviewer Anthony Bannon said “(found) tempest inside tenderness.”

She originally was scheduled to perform the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63, in 2008, but was unable to appear due to a family emergency. Tonight’s concert features the same concerto, chosen simply because it was a good fit for the musicians and the program, Kwuon said.

She said she enjoys the concerto for its wide range of harmonies and textures.

“The concerto has a lot of flavor,” Kwuon said. “(Prokofiev) is very generous with expression.”

The first movement begins with the solo violin, which sets the mood. Kwuon described the movement as light, reflective and a bit sad. The second movement becomes arching, lyrical and romantic, with fireworks and long, spun phrases above the orchestra’s part. The concerto concludes with a vibrant dance featuring castanets, conjuring images of Spain, where the concerto premiered.

Seaman described Prokofiev as a composer with a very strong personal flavor.

“Prokofiev has this marvelous mixture of elegance, charm and an incredibly dry wit,” he said. “By adding Prokofiev in the middle of the Wagner and the Dvořák, we’ve stirred a little bit of a different spice into the mix, which gives us a very good balance as a program.”

The concert opens with Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The piece is among Wagner’s most popular overtures and preludes. It features marvelous melodies and a big finish, Seaman said.

“It’s a wonderful starter,” Seaman said. “The opera has a huge amount of humanity, which comes out in the prelude.”

Tonight’s program concludes with Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, which Seaman described as a masterpiece. Dvořák had an inexhaustible supply of melodies, as evidenced by the six themes in the first movement — most symphonies feature only two.

“It’s an absolute delight to play — sunshine from beginning to end, with a couple of clouds passing in the second movement,” he said.

After Chautauqua, Seaman will guest conduct in the first of two Australian tours this year. He recently recorded Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “London Symphony” and “Serenade to Music” with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, where he just concluded his 13-year tenure as music director.

Kwuon recently had her South American debut in Caracas with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra. She will appear at the Great Mountains Music Festival in South Korea later this summer and in chamber music concerts at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she is the artistic director of the violin conservatory’s preparatory division. Kwuon also is recording Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas No. 9, Op. 47, and No. 10, Op. 96.

Classical Folk: Seaman to lead CSO through variety of cultural styles, atmospheres

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Christopher Seaman

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

Christopher Seaman was music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for 13 years but has never been to Chautauqua — until tonight.

Seaman will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

“I know that (Chautauquans) are a wonderfully appreciative audience, a cultured audience and an audience with a lot of musical background,” he said. “I’m delighted to visit. I do think that it’s going to be marvelous.”

Seaman just concluded his tenure as the RPO’s longest-serving music director and was honored with the lifetime title of Conductor Laureate. More than 40 of his fans will ride a bus from Rochester to Chautauqua to see their favorite conductor.

Tonight’s program was devised to contain a variety of different styles and atmospheres, Seaman said.

The concert opens with Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture.” Seaman said he has an affinity for the piece because Berlioz was a redhead, and so is he.

“He always did the unexpected,” Seaman said. “He broke all the rules, and yet, was incredibly, musically effective. He had a wonderful sense of drama and color.”

That rebellious originality, as Seaman dubbed it, comes through in the first few seconds of the piece, which starts out as a wild carnival and stops abruptly. With a few trills in the wind section, the piece continues with a solo for the English horn.

Following Berlioz’s overture is another piece by a French composer, Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50. Seaman described Fauré as a man with true grit — a military hero who sparked the resignations of several professors when he was appointed as director of the Paris Conservatoire.

A pavane is an ancient dance, typically composed in memoriam. Fauré’s “Pavane” was written with parts for a chorus, too, but is seldom performed with one, because of its “stupid” lyrics, Seaman said.

“Fauré was obviously sending it up, but like a lot of great composers, what actually comes out exceeded his intentions,” he said. “What we actually have is not just a little send-up, a little parody, a little bit of satire, but the most beautiful, simple, touching dance in 4-time, in the style of a pavane.”

After the pavane, the CSO will perform “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The piece is part of six symphonic poems titled “My Fatherland” and is named for a river in the Czech Republic.

“The Moldau” traces the career of the river, beginning as a small stream and broadening as it goes through different scenes, including a village wedding and a moonlit landscape, and past the ghosts of an ancient army.

The piece builds as the river goes through Prague, where Seaman conducts regularly.

“When I am in Prague, I always go over the Charles Bridge and look at the river,” he said. “The melody of the piece comes into my mind, and I get a big lump in my throat.”

Once the river runs its course, the program continues with British composer Edward Elgar’s “Chanson de matin,” or “Morning Song,” which Seaman called a “delicious little piece,” full of genuine, if dated, sentiment that gives it a nostalgic air. Elgar is famous for his large, important works, but his smaller salon pieces are charming, Seaman said.

The song is followed by another British composition, “Fantasia on Greensleeves” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The piece is based on the well-known tune “Green-sleeves,” which is sometimes rumored as being written by King Henry VIII, but because of its modal scale, its origin is probably a folk song, Seaman said.

He said the piece is beautifully set, simple and touching.

Tonight’s program concludes with the “Firebird” suite by Igor Stravinsky. Seaman called the suite a brilliant orchestral showpiece. The suite is part of Stravinsky’s larger ballet of the same name and is based on a classic Russian tale of good and evil.

Though Stravinsky’s music was experimental, he never stopped sounding Russian, Seaman said, because of his link with traditional Russian folk songs and the modes and rhythms they use.

“Firebird” is popular because of its fantastic colors and great story, Seaman said, but it’s also very organic in the way its sections are linked together and is filled with intellectual unity.

“It hits to the brain as well as the heart,” Seaman said.

The British-born conductor reflected on his career in the United States, where he has held positions as music director of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra in Naples, Fla., and conductor-in-residence of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in addition to his long tenure at the RPO.

“America has been very good to me, and I really am very grateful,” he said. “And it’s still being very good to me, I might add!”

In addition to his regular appearances as guest conductor at orchestras around the world, Seaman also is working on a book about conducting.

“The book is for people who go to concerts, do not have college training and would love to know more about what a conductor does,” he said.

Seaman will conduct with the CSO again on Thursday with guest violinist Joan Kwuon.

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