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4. The recent artistic debacle at the New York City Opera is cause for concern among every serious opera lover (as opposed to canary fancier). Since its founding in the 1940’s by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, this company has introduced important singers who have gone on to major international careers. City Opera has also been the place to see new and unfamiliar repertoire that would not otherwise be presented in New York or elsewhere in America (particularly at the Met). After Paul Kellogg resigned following a decade as general director, the board hired French impresario Gerard Mortier. (Apparently the board’s chairperson met Mortier at a dinner and was charmed by him. Is that artistic judgment?) A bigger mismatch could hardly be imagined. Mortier, used to European government largesse, planned an ambitious, highly expensive season for 2009-2010 (focusing on contemporary opera). Intending to adopt the European staggione system of one production at a time instead of repertoire rotation, Mortier was banking on shaking up New York’s cultural habits. Many of his ideas were exciting, to be sure, but they proved too expensive, even before the present economic downturn. Faced with this situation, Mortier resigned and was quickly hired by Madrid’s Teatro Real. Meanwhile the board decided not to present a season in 2008-2009 while the New York State Theater was being renovated. They apparently did not realize that they still would have to pay the weekly contracts of their orchestra and chorus. The result was financial disaster. Recently they have consulted Kennedy Center CEO Michael Kaiser – aka Mr. Fix It for the arts. The New York City Opera is too vital an institution to disband (as Orange County’s Opera Pacific and apparently Baltimore Opera recently have). What City Opera needs is an innovative, practical director to put the house in order. The model can be found in City Opera’s not so distant past. From 1989 to his death in 1995 the brilliantly gifted American conductor Christopher Keene was director of City Opera. Today, his tenure or even his name is rarely ever mentioned. Could it be that his death from leukemia caused by AIDS is an embarrassment to New York’s artistic establishment? (Courageously, he was on the City Opera podium less than two weeks before his death.) Keene was a creative, inspiring guiding force. He presented such important 20th century works as Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron, Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten and Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The Met has since presented the Schoenberg score and the Lincoln Center Festival presented a highly acclaimed production of Zimmerman’s controversial work this past summer. (Again Keene was not given credit for his pioneering productions in articles about these more recent presentations.) He balanced these adventurous offerings with imaginative, theatrically compelling productions of standard repertoire. A smart talent hunter, Keene introduced such stellar vocalists as Lauren Flanagan and Mark Delavan. What City Opera can use today is someone with Keene’s sense of adventure, industriousness and ability to present great art without breaking the budget. On January 15, 2009 the City Opera board appointed just such an individual. George R. Steel, former director of the Miller Theater performance series at Columbia University, is City Opera’s new General and Artistic Director. Unlike Paul Kellogg, his predecessor, Steel is a conductor. City Opera has a rich tradition of conductors as top management. The company was founded by the Hungarian maestro Laszlo Halasz, a protégé of Arturo Toscanini. His successors included Joseph Rosenstock, Erich Leinsdorf (very briefly), most significantly Julius Rudel and Keene. Each of these artists combined management with an active conducting presence in the City Opera pit. (The tenure of the late soprano Beverly Sills in the director’s chair was an anomaly in this regard.) Steel is noted for his innovative programming. At Columbia he presented concerts of Baroque and contemporary music and small scale opera productions. As a conductor, he has specialized in Baroque music which is perfect since City Opera has produced numerous Handel and Rameau works under the Kellogg regime. (Indeed that may be Kellogg’s principal legacy. His programming otherwise tended to be safe and there was a dearth of significant young vocal talent on stage. Major conductors likewise were lacking on the City Opera podium under his management.) Steel faces major financial obstacles. A greatly reduced budget and truncated 2009-2010 season will limit his programming and artistic choices. Nevertheless his distinguished record of unconventional, successful presentations is reason for hope. New York City Opera has faced these crises before. Each time an adventurous director took the reins and produced important productions and great art. Steel appears to be the right director at the right time.

 

5. Is Stephen Dankner the most underrated composer in America today? A resident of the Berkshires and professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Dankner is a prolific creative artist with a large catalogue of chamber music, solo and orchestral works. His musical voice is highly distinctive. While many compositional influences of the past century find space in Dankner’s oeuvre, his music speaks in original modes. The lyricism of his String Quartet No.9 (heard at its premiere in Williamstown last summer) is deeply affecting; an emotional catharsis of beauty and poignancy. The superb Amernet String Quartet has been his collaborator of choice in most of his chamber works. On January 6, 2009, the Amernet players concluded their string seminar at Miami’s Florida International University (where they are quartet in residence) with a gala concert featuring Dankner’s Cello Quintet – fun unser miolin zu Gotts oiren. Originally commissioned by stellar Israeli born cellist Yehuda Hanani for his Close Encounters with Music series in the Berkshires, the quintet channels klezmer influences through the sensibility of Janacek or Kodaly – vibrantly mixing indigenous World Music and folk influences with modernist classicism. Vigorous rhythms, yearning melodies, astringent textures, foot stomping shouts of Hey! by the five musicians all combine for a heady, joyous musical brew. Beneath the music’s festive aura, Dankner’s mastery of instrumental timbres and formal rigor shine with abundant panache. Hanani (Professor at the University Of Cincinnati College Conservatory Of Music) joined the Amernet foursome for a performance rich in zesty panache and subtly haunting colors. Hanani’s effervescent musicianship was contagious in a rendition both fiery and mellow.

Violist Toby Appel (longtime Professor at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music) also added luster to the proceedings with a rare performance of Joaquin Turina’s evocative Escena Andaluza (Andalusian Scenes), beautifully dovetailed by pianist Jose Lopez and the Amernet strings. Appel and the quartet concluded the proceedings with Dvorak’s masterful, endlessly melodic Viola Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.97, a product of the composer’s late 1890’s American sojourn. Appel absolutely commands his instrument. Here was chamber music playing at its very zenith. The Amernet Quartet is a first rate ensemble of world class distinction.

6. Russian pianist Polina Osetinskaya has written a disturbing memoir Farewell Sadness (published by Limbus Press in St. Petersburg, Russia). The book can be characterized as a musical daddy dearest – a dark portrait of her father Oleg Ossetia, a prominent Russian filmmaker and cruel, brutal taskmaster who now claims his methods resulted in his daughter’s success. Osetinskaya’s virtuosity can be heard in live and recorded performances on her website – http://eng.osetinskaya.ru. If her book makes more listeners aware of her musical gifts, it will have served a vital purpose in linking audiences and artist. Again this proves that the artist’s life is not all glamour. There can be pain, exhaustion and self doubt along the way. Kudos to Osetinskaya for triumphing over physical and artistic adversity!

7. FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL VOICE NEWSLETTER - Michael Tilson Thomas celebrated turning 61 on Dec. 21 by taking on Shostakovich's most Mahlerian Symphony No. 7 ("Leningrad") with his New World Symphony in Miami, getting such rave reviews as "monumental aural canvass ... proving an awesome vehicle ... [forming] a searing, emotionally powerful soundscape," wrote Lawrence Budmen in the Miami Herald. 

The unique thing about the high-achieving New World Symphony is that it is a post-conservatory training organization, called "America's Orchestral Academy." It is the first opportunity for many young musicians to play in a professional orchestra. For considerably longer than his decade in San Francisco, MTT has headed the New World, which he founded in 1987. Venturing out of its Lincoln Theater base in Miami (a former movie theater), the young musicians have performed in New York's Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, London's Barbican Centre, Paris' Bastille Opera, and Argentina's Teatro Colón.

 

All material copyright protected - Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, Florida USA


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