Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Rogers and Hammerstein Challenge

My first experience with Rogers and Hammerstein was the film Carousel.  I remember thinking to myself “oh my God, they’ve been doing high kicks for twenty minutes!!  Please make them stop!!”  What can I say; I found the movie to be terribly hokey and boring.  But later in life, I got the chance to perform Carousel.  I learned just how beautiful and visceral Rogers and Hammerstein can actually be.  Yet, I’m still a little wary about seeing a Rogers and Hammerstein production because it seems we as singers digress a bit and let our acting skill go to the wayside, relying on stock gestures and movements.  This inevitably makes Rogers and Hammerstein unreal and lame.  So when Winter Opera Saint Louis put on the review A Grand Night For Singing I was anxious to see how they would handle it.  I hoped the company would pass what I call the Rogers and Hammerstein Challenge and find real artistry.

Artistic Director Gina Galati, a Saint Louis native, directed as well as performed in the review.  Instead of a formal review with the singers merely singing their individual parts, Galati set the stage as a kind of party (possibly a rehearsal dinner).  The cast entered the stage; everyone mingling, dressed quite nicely.  With all the different songs in the review, Galati and the singers connected the music to create little vignettes and stories.  There was dancing and flirting, gossip and caddiness, a marriage proposal (hey, it’s a rehearsal dinner.  Someone’s gotta be the thunder stealer), and as with every good Rogers and Hammerstein production, a matriarch figure showing guidance to the other characters.  Though there was no specific plot or leading characters, there were a few featured singers.  Galati and tenor Keith Boyer sang together We Kiss in Shadow and I Have Dreamed from The King and I.  Together, the voices made a lovely pairing.  Warm, passionate singing; the two were quite romantic.  Marc Schapman was truly the “life of the party” turning Honey Bun from South Pacific and Kansas City from Oklahoma into a rip roaring crowd pleasers.  Nora Teipen (the matriarch), sang Hello Young Lovers and Something Wonderful both from The King and I with a sensitive strength as she acted as sort of a muse bringing lovers together.  Stand out performances were Megan Higgins (the thunder stealer) singing I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy from South Pacific, Rebecca Hatfield as the *cough* party girl singing I Cain’t Say No from South Pacific and Sarah Gottman’s in-your-face performance of Im Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair from South Pacific. 

In the end, it was a good performance by all.  Every single person sang beautifully.  The party band under the direction of Steven Jarvi was a lot of fun to listen to and watch.  Choreographer Karen Brewington and dancers from Dance Center of Kirkwood put on an enjoyable tap number.  I will say, some of the performers did not meet my Rogers and Hammerstein challenge but many of them did.  For anyone who enjoys Rogers and Hammerstein, it was definitely a fun evening. 

Upcoming performances with Winter Opera Saint Louis are Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Giacomo Puccini’ La Boheme.  For more information:

A night with Johnny and Wolfy.

Okay, major confession time.  I am almost 30 years old and……… I have never listened to the Mozart Requiem.  Yeah, I know, it’s sinful.  That is until this last week.  I finally got to hear a wonderful concert of the Mozart Requiem as well as a few Bach motets and a violin concerto by the Bach Society of Saint Louis.  And given the performance was held at the St. Francis Xavier College Church - a beautiful hall with amazing acoustics - the evening was quite a gem.

Under the direction of A. Dennis Sparger, the Bach Society began the concert with 3 motets accompanied by the Bach Society Orchestra.  The choir sang Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (heart and mouth and deed and living), Komm Jesu, Komm (come Jesus, come) and the always loved O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht, known in the English speaking world as Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.  It was a rare treat to hear these popular motets performed with an orchestra.  The choir of forty plus singer had a remarkable range, singing the pianissimos to the fortissimos with precision and balance. 

The next section of the program was the Bach Violin Concerto in E major performed by concertmaster Lenora-Marya Anop.  Anop displayed great virtuosity in her playing, capturing the energy and excitement of the piece.  Her performance was enjoyable to listen to as well as watch.

The concert finalized with the Mozart Requiem.  Rather than bring in outside musicians, the Bach Society took full advantage of their talent at hand having their young artists perform the solos of the Requiem.  When one thinks of “angelic” singing, they may imagine a small and light sound, however soprano Stephanie Ball sang with an angelic sound that was graceful and powerful.  Mezzo Soprano Erin Haupt added a warm richness to the musical textures.  Tenor Joshua Stanton sang with a full voice that filled the hall but blended with the ensemble beautifully. From the start of the Tuba mirum, baritone Thomas Sitzler sang with brilliance and a solid core through the entire work.  Mo. Sparger and the choir captured the drama and sacredness of the piece giving each individual section of the Requiem its own charactaristics from the rest while able to bring it all together as a full cohesive work.

The next performance by the Bach Society of Saint Louis will be the Christmas Candlelight Concert at Powell Symphony Hall joined by Soprano Mary Wilson, and the St. Louis Archdiocesan Children's Chorus under Dr. Horst Buchholz December 20th 7:30pm.  Tickets are available at

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Dancing Maestro

The Maestro steps out onto the podium, looks at the audience and says “its top of the 3rd inning, 3-0, Cards”, followed by the audience of the Saint Louis Symphony cheering.  This is of course in reference to the current Cardinals baseball team that very likely can go to the World Series this year.  Just one of the reasons I love going to the Saint Louis Symphony.  Maestro David Robertson is such a delight in many ways.  And this concert of the overture to Wagner’s DerFliegender Holländer, Sibelius’ 1st  Symphony, and the US premiere of a new work by Phillipe Manoury called Synapse proved no different. 

I had no doubt the overture to Der Fliegender Holländer was going to be exciting.  Maestro Robertson, as always, lead the Symphony with enthusiasm and passion.  His movements on the podium were like watching a dance; you always wondered how his body would move to the music.  The Symphony did a marvelous job bringing out all the leitmotifs of the opera and with the exception of a few inconsistencies in the brass, the overall ensemble was a lush rich sounds.

Synapse was the second piece on the program (4-0, Cards, by the way).  I was very excited to here this piece for two reasons.  One, I love modern works, and two, the violinist, James Ehnes, was playing on an Ex Marsick Stradivarius of 1715.  As a violinist, I have never actually seen or heard a Stradivarius in person so this was going to be a new treat.  Maestro Robertson began by informing the audience about the compositional aspect of the piece.  He explains how Manoury uses certain elements to describe an action and how it moves to the next.  This was demonstrated by Ehnes playing the various motives of the piece (the Symphony applauded his virtuosity with certain motives).  The piece was about 31 minutes long.  Overall, I liked the piece.  I liked the use of aleatoric harmonics in the strings but the use of steel drums I found to be slightly distracting.  They just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the piece.  I listened to the description of synapse: the chemical process by which a nervous impulse passes from one neuron to another.  It made sense and I definitely heard what Manoury wanted to portray.  After 15 minutes of it though, I felt it began to lose direction.  The piece didn’t seem to have much of an arc to it other than passing from one motive to the next.  All things considered, James Ehnes’ performance of the piece was brilliant.  His virtuosity and attack of each moment was beautifully done.  I was especially impressed with how well he executed his double stops.  For those who don’t know what double stops are, it is the use of playing a chord on a string instrument, which is significantly more difficult to produce than it may sound. 

After an intermission, the Symphony closed the concert with Sibelius’ 1st Symphony.  I remember playing the 2nd Symphony in high school and was taken back to those fond memories of Sibelius’ music.  Sibelius was a master at incorporating the nationalistic sound of Finnish music as a way of expressing the Finnish people’s desire for independence from Russian oppression.  The 1st Symphony is a shining example of this desire.  Again, watching Maestro Robertson at the podium was magical.  His actions conveyed every nuance to the orchestra and to the audience as well. 

Music you don’t get to hear every day can surely make you appreciate of the art we have in today’s world.  The Saint Louis Symphony is a wonderful place to find such art.  Oh, and bottom of the 8th, 5-1, Card.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

new posts up!

hey friends, so alittle late but I decided to post a couple reviews.  one is from Saint Louis City Opera's production of Gallantry, a Soap Opera by Douglas Moore from last week and one is from WAY back in August, Dead Man Walking at Union Avenue Opera.  enjoy!

"I love you!" "You're married!" ..blah blah blah, gotta love it!

Thanks to summers with Grandma, I can say I have had quite an education on soap operas.  There was probably a time when I could have named the entire cast of The Young and the Restless.  So being involved in opera was not too much of a stretch.  I mean, let's be honest, the plots and characters are very similar.  You could translate O mio babbino caro or Fra gli amplessi and probably find a script for As The World Turns or Bold and the Beautiful (hell, even Greys Anatomy) just like it.  But of course, the difference between soaps and opera is soaps are present day whereas opera takes us to another time: 18th century Seville, Napoleonic Rome, Pioneering Colorado.  So what would you think about seeing an opera that IS a soap opera? *enter old 50's style organ interlude*

Saint Louis City Opera recently performed Gallantry, a Soap Opera by Douglas Moore, a fun little operatic parody of television soap operas.  Written in 1958, the opera is based on the old 50's style soap operas like Hawkins Falls and Young Doctor Malone.  The opera begins with an advertisement for Lochinvar Soap, the sponsor for Gallantry.  At the top of the “episode” Dr. Gregg is professing his love to the anesthetist, Lola as they are about to go into surgery.  Lola explains that though she admires Dr. Gregg, she is engaged to a man named Donald.  Despite this, Dr. Gregg tries to kiss Lola to which she responds with a slap.  This leads to a commercial for Billy Boy Wax, "the waxy wax that spells relax".  As it turns out, the patient they are about to operate on happens to be Donald who, unaware of Dr. Gregg's feelings for Lola, asks how Mrs. Gregg is.  After putting Donald under anesthesia, Lola threatens to expose Dr. Gregg to which Dr. Gregg responds by threatening to stab Donald with the scalpel to which  Lola dramatically saves Donald to which Dr. Gregg chases Lola out of the operating room to which Donald awakes from surgery alone (yeah, soap opera indeed!).  Donald is well, and he and Lola sing of their love followed by a stereotypical “tune in next week!” and one last plug for Lochinvar Soap and Billy Boy Wax.

Saint Louis City Opera director, Allyson Ditchey organized a fun evening of performance and refreshment.  STLCO is a small company operated by, and comprised entirely of local artists.  An organization dedicated to fostering and cultivating artistic growth, STLCO has been very fortunate to receive various donations including libations from Schlafley Beer and Urban Chestnut Brewing Company.
The evening was quite fun. It was not like going to the opera but more like going to a vaudeville or variety show.  The Chapel provided a very relaxed and lighthearted environment; it was a refreshing change from the normal suit and gown evening at the opera house.  Debra Hillabrand was the Announcer and set the scene perfectly.  Her mannerisms and facial expressions were perfect in the old 50's commercials.  Greg Storkan as Dr. Gregg (ironic naming, right?) was perfect as a soap operatic singing actor.  His physical drama and overly done facial expressions were dead on.  Megan Higgins and Clark Sturdevant as Lola and Donald  sang their second half love duet beautifully.  The real charm of the show came from “Poof” Girls - Stephanie Ball and Elise LaBargethe - the Announcer's backup dancers who so comedically described the power of Billy Boy Wax. 

I very much look forward to seeing more performances with Saint Louis City Opera.  This was surely a fun night.  For further information about the company feel free to contact Allyson Ditchey at

Execution of Powerful Art

What makes art powerful is having an element that can grab your attention and keep you engaged.  In Puccini’s Tosca, the first 5 chords of the Scarpia motif grab your attention.  Verdi sets up Rigoletto with a brooding prelude, creating a real sense of curiosity.  In the case of American composer Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking, the first scene will either make you want to watch the whole thing or feel so terribly uncomfortable you will not want to stay for the rest.  In a nutshell, it’s a scene of rape and murder. 

I am a major fan of Jake Heggie’s works and especially love Dead Man Walking.  I have seen the movie, listened to the opera, and have been fortunate enough to perform a scene from it.  But nothing, NOTHING, prepared me for seeing it live.
Union Avenue Opera put on the Missouri premiere of Dead Man Walking this past August.   It is always a risky endeavor for a small company to put on a modern work, even one as frequently produced as Dead Man Walking.  Fortunately, St. Louis has a very appreciative audience for opera.  I saw the show three times and every night was almost a full house. 

Dead Man Walking is based on the book of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, an inmate on death row for the murder and rape of a young girl and boy in late seventies Louisianna.  After his final appeal was denied, Sister Helen worked to help him admit to his participation in the murders and finally accompanied him to his execution. 
Dead Man Walking is Jake Heggie’s first opera, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2000.  Listening to the music, it’s safe to say Jake Heggie hit it out of the ball park.  Every compositional aspect of the music was descriptive of the situations of the story and emotions of the characters.  The orchestra, lead by Artistic Director Scott Schoonover, handled the tough composition with precision and artistry. 

The stage was lined with chain link fence with several moveable platforms of fencing.  The balconies just above the stage were set up as prison cells.  It was a very minimal set with a few simple props that helped describe the starkness of the story.  Lead by stage director Tim Ocel, each scene in the show was properly executed and segued to the next, allowing the actors to help build the drama.  A stand out scene was the opening depicting the rape and murder of the young kids.  Watching a young girl being raped, it was definitely unsettling.

Union Avenue brought in mezzo soprano Elise Quagliata for the role of Sister Helen and Jordan Shanahan for the role of condemned inmate Joseph deRocher.  Elise Quagliata was on stage for almost the entire show except two scenes.  Her vocal and dramatic stamina to carry the role from start to finish was nothing short of miraculous.  She played the role with such character, bringing the lighthearted and quirky nature of Sister Helen out in a truthful and understanding way.  Jordan Shanahan’s rich voice was a perfect match for the convicted criminal.  Even in deRocher's angriest and hatefilled moments, Shanahan was able to touch the audience and give them hope that he just may find the redemption Sister Helen was working so hard to help him find.

Union Avenue is a company that likes to use its local and regional talent.  Debra Hillabrand as Mrs. deRocher, Joseph's mother, and Clark Sturdevant as Father Grenville, the prison chaplain, were stand out examples of St. Louis’ local talent.  As the chaplain, Sturdevant provided a lovely and rich tenor quality in an otherwise non lyric role.  Debra Hillabrand was easily the heartbreaker of the show.  It was impossible to not cry as she sat in front of the pardon board crying and pleading for her son's life.  It was truly a performance beyond measure.  Other stand out performances were Cecilia Stearman as the teenage boy's mother Jade Boucher, Thomas Sitzler as a prison guard, Marlissa Hudson as Sister Rose, and Phil Touchette as the state trooper. 

The Union Avenue Opera Chorus added much to the drama of the story.  While the women of the chorus were only on at the very beginning and in the finales, the men were on stage in the prison cells for most of the opera.  The men of the chorus sang an unnerving sequence as Sister Helen walked through Death Row to visit deRocher for the first time.  In the final scene as deRocher was marched to the execution room, the voices of the chorus sang the most harrowing Our Father I have ever heard in my life.  It was truly the most terrifying thing I have seen or heard on the stage.

I can safely say I walked away from this production quite a changed person.  On a personal level, the show makes you think about capital punishment and the treatment of convicts and those suffering from the crimes.  On an artistic level, it is so wonderful to see a modern work of a large scale like this one.  Union Avenue Opera should be very proud of its work and artists.  I hope to see more work of this caliber from them.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tribal Dancing, Weird Puppets, and One Hell of a Wedding.

Anytime you listen to anything Stravinsky, it's safe to bet you are at least slightly overwhelmed.  I mean, c’mon, Stravinsky is not exactly easy listening.  But we can all agree that Stravinsky is absolutely exciting.  So imagine an evening of Stravinsky's Petrushka, Les Noces, and of course, Rite of Spring.  Yeah, overwhelming and exciting can describe that evening perfectly!

The Saint Louis Symphony and Chorus are currently in performance for their season opener: Rite of Spring.  In addition to Rite of Spring, the Symphony is also performing the ballets Petrushka and Les Noces.  At the top of the evening, Maestro David Robertson began with Stravinsky's arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner, educating the audience of the pride Stravinsky had in his American citizenship.  The Symphony Chorus members lined the stage adding their voices to the event. 

The concert began with the ballet Petrushka.  Throughout the evening, they projected images depicting the scenes and vignettes of the music on a screen above the orchestra.  As entertaining as they were, I have to say they weren’t necessary at all as the STL Symphony so masterfully portrayed the events of the ballet.  I could easily hear whenever the people at the “Strove-Tide Fair” were running around or watching a puppet show, a man  playing his organ grinder, or the ballerina dancing.  I sat there and I felt the pain of Petrushka as he longed for the Ballerina and was taunted by the Moor.  The music making of the STL Symphony was truly theatric and magical. 

The concert goers were granted an intermission between each piece.  One might think the intermissions were for the audience's benefit to regroup from the previous piece, but in all actuality it was for the Symphony's crew to strike the whole stage and set up for Les Noces.  Petrushka is a full orchestra suite; where as Les Noces is for chorus, percussion, 4 grand pianos, and 4 vocal soloists.  The piece itself was a major contrast to Petrushka, musically and dramatically.  Les Noces, meaning “The Wedding” is a dance-cantata describing a wedding day.  It is a very percussive and rather bombastic work describing the chaos of a wedding day.  The percussionists and pianists of the ensemble properly executed the music and portrayed the insanity that can be a wedding day. 

,STL Symphony brought in soprano Dominique Labelle, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Thomas Cooley, and baritone Richard Paul Fink.  Les Noces, which begins without an overture or prelude, is lead by the soprano - the bride - lamenting the end of her childhood.  Ms. Labelle has a lovely voice that had the subtlety of a young bride but the power to carry over the ensemble.  The solo music for the mezzo was rather minimal but Ms. O’Connor commanded the stage whenever her voice was presented.  Her stage presence captivated you and made you pay attention to her rich voice.  Mr. Cooleys voice is not a tenor sound I necessarily prefer so at first I wasn’t sure what I thought.  As his music became more extreme and full of angst, I could hear what Mr. Cooley was having to produce vocally and he sang with such energy, power, and character that made him a powerful presence on stage.  I was very much looking forward to hearing Mr. Fink as I had heard him at the Met.  So I was slightly confused as to how I wasn’t able to hear him over the ensemble.  He brought a lot to his character and was enjoyable to watch.  This was my first time getting to watch the STL Symphony Chorus, which I had been told was a spectacular ensemble.  Well I am happy to say the buzz was correct.  I was thoroughly impressed with the STLS Chorus.  They had such a great musical range and command on dynamics.  As large of a chorus as this one is, there were times of pianissimo and softer when I could still hear them so clearly.  The Chorus really added to the drama of the piece.  This was my first exposure to Les Noces and all in all, it was a pretty great introduction.  I loved the pairing of Petrushka with Les Noces.  Two very different pieces by the same composer.  Both very energetic pieces and very well performed by the entire STL Symphony.

After another intermission to reset the stage for the orchestra, the audience was ready for Rite of Spring.  Now, I’ve seen Fantasia, I was in orchestra in high school, I know Rite of Spring.  I know it in and out.  BUT, I have never seen it live.  So needless to say, I was excited!  The lights go down, Maestro David  Robertson steps out onto the podium.  He does absolutely nothing and out of nowhere, the principle bassoonist Andrew Cuneo plays the “Kiss of the Earth” motive.  Mystical, subtle, and strange, the audience is immediately captivated.  Anyone who knows music knows how complicated and difficult Rite of Spring is, even for professionals like STL Symphony.  The Symphony handled all the polytonalities and polyrhythms beautifully, bringing out every little musical moment.  As they began to play the “Dance of the Young Girls”, the audience was shocked by the powerful sound the Symphony was able to produce.  I heard moments and sections I didn’t know were there as each section of the orchestra brought out everything they had to offer.  The music was enthralling, terrifying, and exciting all at once.  Watching Maestro Robertson all night, he came alive conducting Rite of Spring so much more than he already had throughout the night.  He was practically dancing on the podium.  He gave all his energy to the Symphony and they gave it all to the music.  It was truly a spectacular performance!

There is one more performance of Saint Louis Symphony's performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring tonight, September 17th 8pm at Powell Hall.  Tickets available at