Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ASO Chorus highlights for 09/10

If you watched the ASO's live webcast earlier today, you've already heard about all the wonderful things in store for the 2009-2010 season. In case you missed it and don't feel like sitting through an hour and 20 minutes of press conference, I'll hit the highlights for you. (For the full season, look here.)

The biggest news, at least for the chorus, is that we have been invited back for a third time to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic. We'll be singing Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, perhaps the most beloved of all German choral works, once again under the baton of our brilliant and irresistibly charming principal guest conductor, Donald Runnicles. As if that isn't good enough, we'll be going December 14-21 – hallo Weihnachtsmarkt, here I come! Oh, and did I mention our soloists for this engagement? Gerald Finley, my baritone love! (I've not heard the soprano, Genia hmeier, but I'm sure she is equally stunning.) If for some reason I don't return from this trip, you can safely assume I have run off to the Alps with Gerry.

The Brahms also opens the season at home for the chorus in October, but two weeks prior to that, the ASO's chamber chorus will present Stravinsky's opera The Nightingale in concert form, continuing the recent streak of operas at the symphony. On the same program, Yo-Yo Ma will play the world premiere of a cello concerto by Angel Lam. We're taking the show on the road in November, first to Athens (Nov. 5) and then to Carnegie Hall (Nov. 7) as part of their China festival.

In 2010 we've got Rossini's Stabat Mater, Mahler's Symphony No. 3 and Verdi's Requiem on the docket, and we finish out the season with another world premiere of a choral work by "Atlanta School" composer Michael Gandolfi. The last two concerts will be reprised in mid-June for the League of American Orchestras and Choral America conferences in Atlanta. And then we'll all pass out for a month or two.

Of course, I might miss all of those spring concerts if I'm off gallivanting about Europe with my dreamy baritone boyfriend...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Opera 101 done right

If you read my last post, you know that Akhnaten is probably not the best "starter opera" one could attend, at least to my mind. A far more popular toe-dip in the waters of opera is Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, auf Deutsch). The fanciful tale of a prince on a quest to rescue a fair maiden, the daughter of a malicious queen, from her captors, Magic Flute has fairy-tale elements, comic characters, memorable tunes, and a dash or five of freemasonry for Mozart and his friends. Each year in recent memory, New York's Metropolitan Opera has mounted an abbreviated English-language version of the puppet-heavy Julie Taymor production around the Christmas holidays as a draw for families.

In short, this is a great first foray into the world of opera. As I was airing my complaints about Akhnaten Wednesday night to a former classmate via facebook chat, he directed me to YouTube, where my alma mater Northwestern University's 2005 production of Die Zauberflöte can be found in its entirety. "Dritter Knabe," or third boy, was my one and only opera role during my undergrad years -- unless you count the role of knitting/laughing chorus nun in Suor Angelica. Now that it's online, I can relive my collegiate opera days whenever I like. Woo!

As an explanation of my character, the trio of three boys are usually sung by young boys with unchanged voices, but many productions will use three women instead and call them "spirits." In this gang it would appear that Cindy, the first soprano, was the cute girly one; Kate, the middle voice, was the normal one; and I, on alto, was the chubby one. In a Kerri Strug wig. It's actually pretty humorous... At least I'm ridiculously cute.

For those of you who want to bypass the parts not involving me (though there are some pretty hilarious wigs and costumes, as well as hilariously bad acting), I made the effort to find the spots featuring yours truly. (The Queen of the Night was pretty awesome in this production though, so I'd recommend checking her out too.)


Find Kathleen at: 31:42, 40:00, and as a bizarro dancing woodland creature at 48:40


Find Kathleen at: 29:30, 30:45, and in her big scene from minutes 37 to 50. If you want a taste of her infamous childhood sulk routine, keep your eyes out at 49:45 or so. Also, that's me on the far right in the video box freeze!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Philip Glass: not for beginners

For those of you who may be rookie opera-goers, let me give you some advice: do not make anything by Philip Glass your first.

While I've been to dozens of operas in my day, never had I seen a performance of the famed minimalist's music before this evening. I attended the final dress rehearsal of the Atlanta Opera's concert-staged production of Akhnaten, the last in Glass's trilogy of so-called portrait operas, which is based on the life of the ancient-Egyptian pharaoh of the same name. (The companion works, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, depict Albert Einstein and Mahatma Ghandi, respectively.) Here, "concert-staged" meant full costume and makeup for all but the chorus, clad in black and seated at the back of the platform; minimal set and lighting effects; and supernumeraries and props aplenty. If there's an industry standard for concertizing operas -- more often than not an awkward endeavor -- I'd love to see it. On most occasions I find myself wishing they had gone one way or the other and not just split the difference.

Tonight's open dress was billed as one for high school and college students. Also present, probably in greater number than either of the aforementioned groups, were opera donors and gaggles of elementary-aged kids, dressed to the nines. When General Director Dennis Hanthorn appeared onstage to welcome the audience, he asked for a show of hands of those who had never seen an opera before: At least a quarter of the audience, perhaps even a third, was experiencing live opera for the first time.

Which brings me back to my point. If you've never been to an opera, this is perhaps the worst place to start. I am a curious person who is accepting of most musical genres and styles, but tonight I learned that Philip Glass's particular brand of minimalism really doesn't do it for me. His music is unrelentingly repetitious, pushing listeners to the point of boredom and eventually annoyance. You could tell the orchestra musicians were listless, too -- only minutes in, their playing grew tired and imprecise. The music would be fine for a film score, supporting visuals and action onscreen, but lacked the depth and momentum I have come to expect from opera, where music is the driving force. (My date and I both surmised that a straight-up concert performance might have been the best presentation.) There's only so much that an A-minor arpeggio has to say.

What may have been more troublesome for the neophytes in the audience is the fact that the title role of Akhnaten is sung by a countertenor. Operas employing this voice-type -- a man singing in a woman's range -- are generally not ones I would recommend for young children (easily confused) or males below the legal drinking age (infantile fratboys). My fear is that dozens upon dozens of kids in attendance will have been insufficiently prepared for the experience and subsequently freaked out by the strange man in Cleopatra eyeliner, singing like a girl. (I realize that this opera probably ties in with some school curricula that have been devised to take advantage of the King Tut exhibit, in Atlanta through May. I am grateful that opera is part of these children's education, but disappointed it wasn't a better, more engaging production.)

In this Atlanta Opera staging, the performers were about as dynamic as artifacts in a museum exhibit. (Incidentally, this setting provided the story of Akhnaten with modern-day bookends -- a heavy-handed tactic that was, frankly, lame.) That's not entirely their fault; the story has no fun or even sympathetic characters that we can laugh with or relate to. I don't think we heard everyone singing at his or her best, either. Soprano Kiera Duffy, playing Akhnaten's mother, Queen Tye, was under the weather and marked her performance, singing quietly an octave below where her part was written. A male trio of three advisors and priests lacked any semblance of balance in its ensemble singing, overwhelmed by the tenor; the opera chorus rushed and shouted its way through pages and pages of ah's. Don't even get me started on the orchestra brass.

In the end, I'm glad I went, if only to realize how vastly Philip Glass and apparently I differ in our conceptions of music, opera and drama. I'm interested to read the eventual review in the paper from Pierre Ruhe, one of the few remaining arts & culture types on staff at the AJC these days. Since Dennis Hanthorn took over directorship of the Atlanta Opera from William Fred Scott, nearly every production has been hailed a resounding success. I don't see how this could possibly qualify as such, at least in terms that go beyond the novelty of performing and selling tickets to late-20th-century opera in Atlanta.

[Editor's note: Indeed, Pierre gushed over Akhnaten, interpreting the sold-out event as an indication of Atlanta's ever-improving standing in the music world. What I found interesting about his review is that I agreed with pretty much everything he said about the production -- mostly stated as fact -- but we differed on one key point: he liked the music, and I did not. Minimalist masterpiece, you say? That may be so, but minimalist works should be held to the same standards of quality and musicality as more familiar pieces from earlier periods.]

Monday, January 19, 2009

I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you.

Tonight, before our regular Monday evening rehearsal, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore came to speak to the chorus about our role in the 2009-2010 season. We had the privilege of being the first to hear the details this year, though we were sworn to secrecy, or at least tactful discretion, until the season is officially announced. Vulgamore and Robert Spano will meet with the orchestra musicians on Wednesday, and the rest of the world will be informed at 11 a.m. on January 27 via a live webcast. Spano, Vulgamore, Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles and Board Chair Ben Johnson will host the announcement, with messages and/or appearances from some special guests.

It's no secret the past year has been particularly difficult for the arts, and recent headlines paint a bleak picture for the immediate future -- engagements are being dropped and productions cut at organizations all across the country. The ASO is not immune to these conditions. However, Vulgamore assured us that, as the board and the administration look to cut costs and stave off a deficit, they will make every effort "not to cancel the art."

In spite of hard times, it looks like next season will be phenomenal (or, pick one of the words Vulgamore used: joyful, thrilling, outrageous, super-cool). I'm excited about the repertoire we'll be performing, the conductors we'll be working with, and the audiences we'll be stupefying with our Shawian sleeve of sound. As Vulgamore told us tonight, the ASO is an institution of ensembles in great demand, and the season to come clearly supports her assertion. Tune into the webcast or check back here on January 27 for the good word.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Timesuck of the Day

An alternate title for this post might be "How Paste Magazine is beginning to redeem itself of a year of busy-redesign overkill and subpar content," because Paste is the creator of my new favorite time-killer, Obamicon.Me. Whoever came up with this is a GENIUS. Even if it is the dude who likes five different fonts in eight different colors on one page.

Pretty much everything looks cooler Obamiconned. Take me, for instance:

BEFORE: Nice headshot. Meh.

Pop art icon! Yeow!

Of course, making commemorative posters of myself was not the first thing I did with this exciting new procrastination tool. I tested it out on the family pets, starting with Emily's mischievous boys. (Note: The cat pictured in "RAAA" is actually named Bubba. Not Raaa.)

Leroy wins on inspiration, Bubba wins on ferocity, and Jake wins on just plain awesome. Here's one of my own docile Little Man. (I'm sure I can do better than this, but my iPhoto was taking its sweet time. It does have a sort of "Meet the Beatles" charm, though.)

The novelty wore off after an hour or two and I needed a break, but after a good night's sleep, I admit, I was back at it again. I'm still searching for the perfect shot of my Llama...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Office retreat

Today's takeaway:

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Best of 2008

I intentionally delayed compiling a best-of list until after the new year because I was supposed to go to a kickass concert at the Variety Playhouse (owned by an alum of the 'Monster, as I just discovered) on New Year's Eve and I suspected it might make the cut. Finally! New year's plans guaranteed not to suck!

But alas, the Gods of Rock decided I had gotten more than my fair share of awesome in 2008 and conspired with the equipment on Jon's plane from Spokane to deny me the chance to ring in the new year with The Whigs, Band of Horses, and a sweaty throng of Chuck-Taylored dudes in indie-rock glasses and secondhand t-shirts. (The upside is that it was a really easy ticket to offload, so I didn't lose any money on the deal.)

Without any further ado, I offer up to the blogosphere my top eight concerts for 2008. (The two Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus concerts are ones in which I performed, just to clarify.) Here's the breakdown, in chronological order:

1. The Whigs
Mission Control album release party
January 25, The Earl, Atlanta

Because headliners at the Earl start playing on the far side of really late, I and other early types stood through two mediocre openers before the Whigs plugged in: the Sammies, from Charlotte, and Wax Fang, from Louisville. I recall being wholly unimpressed by the former. The Earl is easily my favorite of all the venues where I've seen the Whigs play -- low ceilings keep the decibels high and a small space means the rowdy crowd has to get friendly (and watch out for sweat and spit flying from the stage). The new awesomeness of Mission Control got the audience just as riled up as the old chestnuts from the band's 2005 debut album. (Example: toward the end of the show, an ecstatic fratboy flung his PBR tallboy into the air, dousing me and the other folks at the front of the crowd in the process.) In summary, they rocked my face off.
photo: www.thewhigs.com - visuals

2. Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten
with Anthony Dean Griffey
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Metropolitan Opera Live in HD
March 15, AMC Discover Mills 18, Lawrenceville

Similarly, the Metropolitan Opera's production of Britten's Peter Grimes rocked my face off, but in a big-screen sort of way. The Live in HD format has some advantages over being in the opera house, and this production is a case in point: while patrons at the Met were made to stare down a hulking wooden wall for the duration, multiple cameras enabled operagoers in multiplexes the world over to experience different angles, to see close-ups and wide pans, and to frequently ignore the fact that the size of the stage had been at least halved by the ginormous set piece. I should also mention that Anthony Dean Griffey and Patricia Racette gave incredible performances, both vocally and dramatically. I now own this on DVD and am beyond excited.
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times - nytimes.com

3. Colin Meloy
April 10, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta

Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) is my new favorite. This solo show was loose and quirky and completely enchanting. In case you can't discern the detail from my high-quality cell-phone photo, to Meloy's left is a little round table with a bottle of red wine, a glass, and a strange little shrine that he picked up on a previous tour stop. Just a dude, his guitars, some booze... and a shrine. As you do. The music was sincere and pithy and the stories that filled the gaps amusing, but what struck me most was that Meloy came across as a totally normal guy -- one who really, really loves with what he does.

4. The New Pornographers
April 17, Georgia Theatre, Athens

I've come to the conclusion that The New Pornographers are one of the best bands on the face of the earth. There are many reasons for this, principal among which are:
  1. Neko Case
  2. singing in harmony
  3. an accordion
This was the second time I had seen them in the space of six months. Now it's been about eight months and I think I'm going into withdrawal...

5. Requiem by Hector Berlioz
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus with the Berlin Philharmonic
Donald Runnicles, conductor
May 15-17, Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany

Performing in Berlin with the Philharmonic under Donald Runnicles was an incredible thrill and a privilege -- it's difficult to even put into words. Each evening had its own strengths and weaknesses but, if pressed to pick one that stood out, I'd have to go with our final sing on Saturday. The best part was knowing someone in the audience -- my late grandpa's Berliner friends were there waving at me from the last row -- and hearing the people's reactions to the music afterwards. All I can say is that it was amazing, and I hope I have the chance to do it again in the near future.

I also had the opportunity to share the ASOC's Berlin experience with the folks back home in Atlanta as a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's now-defunct ATLarts blog -- you can find links to those dispatches here.

6. Pearl Jam
June 22, Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.

Yep, that's me ON THE FRONT ROW. THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE IS BEHIND ME. I nearly started crying when the usher showed us to our seats -- they were dead, I mean DEAD center. On row 1.

Allow me to explain: Perl Jam's fan club, Ten Club, has always distributed concert tickets based on seniority. This particular eight-date mini tour marked the start of a new policy whereby the first four rows of seating are chosen randomly from the entire fan club pool. In short, there is a god, and he loves me very very much.

This is another concert experience that I can't really put into words, but in a totally different way than the previous one. From where I stood pressed against the security rail, Eddie Vedder wasn't 15 feet away from me. It didn't even feel like I was at a concert: all those things concerts normally entail for me -- standing on tiptoes, dealing with a purse, craning my neck to see the stage -- didn't apply. It was just me and Eddie, with naught but a security grate, a four-foot stage and some sound equipment between us.

So close was I that the shot below, taken with my trusty cell phone, was not zoomed in at all. I also made eye contact with Eddie Vedder on at least one occasion, prompting him to toss me a half-empty water bottle from which he had just taken a swig right before he launched into "Given to fly." At the end of the show, drummer Matt Cameron threw me one of his personalized Pearl Jam wrist-sweatbands. Toss in my ticket and front-row wristband and I've got a pretty sweet collection going.

To my left there was a thirty-something mom who had brought her 11-year-old son to the show as his first concert and had landed on the front row by the same stroke of luck Jon and I had. The band members were constantly chucking guitar picks at the kid. Eddie bent down at a couple points to ask him if he played guitar and was he any good, and during the encore they pulled him up onstage to play. !!! (Afterwards he and his mother got to go backstage. DAAHH.)

I still don't think I've fully processed the experience. Unbelievable. Epic.

7. Ra Ra Riot
October 10, The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta

Ra Ra Riot, a band out of Syracuse University that was just starting to get good attention when I was in grad school there, has redeemed the fact that Northwestern produced exactly zero worthwhile groups during my time in Evanston. Like the New Pornographers, Ra Ra Riot is a larger-than-usual co-ed group with interesting instruments -- the two female members play electric violin and cello, respectively (not just tambourine). This date marked the second time I've seen them in Atlanta, the first being in August of '07 at Vinyl (photo is from that concert). At the Drunken Unicorn, the group was rolling out the material from its first full-length album The Rhumb Line, some new, some reimagined, all pretty damn awesome. If you haven't looked into Ra Ra Riot, do so posthaste.

8. Doctor Atomic by John Adams
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
with Gerald Finley and Jessica Rivera
Robert Spano, conductor
November 21 and 23, Symphony Hall, Atlanta

If any of you has talked to me in recent months, you are probably aware that Doctor Atomic is my latest obsession. Gerald Finley (right, pounding a very watery martini) had me all aswoon from the moment I first heard him in the Met Opera Live in HD broadcast on Nov. 8, and the situation only got worse once he arrived in Atlanta. Nathan Gunn who? Finley is my new baritone love. Sigh...

But I digress. The ASO and ASOC, supporting singers largely from the recent Met production, mounted the opera in a "semi-staged" format -- often a difficult pill to swallow, in terms of concert presentation, and here the production's weakest aspect. In spite of a preponderance of park-and-bark blocking, Gerald Finley and Jessica Rivera were undeniably stunning in their well-worn roles. A sizable majority of the chorus detested the music, but I found that the more time I spent with it, the more brilliant and beautiful the score revealed itself to be. I was among the apparent few who were sad to have to turn in our scores -- although I was not at all sad to part ways with the staging.

Regardless of whether or not Doctor Atomic resonated with you, the fact that Bob Spano and the ASO challenge Atlanta audiences each season by programming top-quality contemporary works is something worth noting and supporting. (I reeeally wish the AJC hadn't discontinued its arts blog just before the performances took place because I would have loved to have heard more feedback.) As a performer, I haven't been this excited about anything in years. John Adams was there. The singers from the Met and the original production in San Francisco were there. The chorus worked its collective ass off and sang its role better than any other chorus has to date. The whole experience made me want to be a better musician and strengthened my resolve to find a way to make creative and cultural endeavors the focus of my professional life.

The stars of Doctor Atomic, with director James Alexander,
conductor Robert Spano, and composer John Adams.
photos: someone at the ASO (I got them off the chorus website)

Bring it on, 2009.