“Death of a Symphony”??……Not so fast!!

One of the negative effects of participating so actively in the operatic forum is that of occasionally becoming musically ‘land-locked’.  After day-in and day-out of rehearsal, where the centerpiece is musical, sometimes the last thing we want to do in our free time is take in more music.  Oft times, I will do anything I can to get away from music.  I listen to talk radio, follow the financial markets, go to museums, or take in a series of “straight-theatre” productions.  However, there are times when an instrumental recital, chamber music concert, a Broadway musical, or symphonic program are in order; and the latter will be the focus of this particular blog posting.

Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, is fixated on the topics of achievement and greatness.  So much so, that it’s protagonist (Willy Loman) commits suicide in an effort to provide his son with enough insurance/seed money to begin business ventures of his own, and hopefully achieve the prominence that so eluded him throughout his life as a traveling salesman.  Fortunately for the city of Dallas, achievement and greatness in their arts scene does not require anyone to sacrifice themself to the death (although some may argue that point to some extent!).

I was fortunate that on Friday March 25, I was able to attend the Dallas Symphony‘s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor (often referred to as the “Tragic” Symphony).  This work was virtually ignored for almost half a century after it’s premiere, at least here in the United States; but has, to some extent, experienced a bit of resurgence in recent years.  As I roamed the magnificent Meyerson Symphony Center, I was struck by many visuals before the concert even began:

There was the sweeping lobby design with it’s artful entryway and modern marble curvature staircases/promenades; the soaring expansive interior with floor to ceiling windows that allowed for wonderful views of the new Winspear Opera House and all of downtown Dallas, and the tasteful (if a bit large) photographs of orchestra members that donned the walls of the lower lobby.  In the concert hall itself, I was struck by the classic wood design, the behemoth pipe organ, and the jutting, aerial suspended, lighting structure that so resembled the starship Enterprise, that I thought for a moment I was watching it fly overhead…just like the opening scene of every episode of Star Trek!

Then the concert began:

I watched a charismatic, and thankfully not too “showy”, Jaap van Zweden conduct a consummate performance of this sometimes less than marketable work. (I will get to the one MAJOR musical flaw of the evening a bit later.)  With it’s animated kick-start Allegro, plucky Scherzo (figurative and literal), heart-stoppingly beautiful Andante, and the bow-shredding Finale replete with two ‘decibel busting’ hammer-blows-of–fate (struck on a giant make shift drum with a “Thor”-esque sledge that would compete admirably with the famed Dies Irae bass-drum from the Verdi Requiem), this was one hour and fifteen minutes of “something for everybody” programming that did not require any follow up or precursor.  Hence, it was the stand-alone work performed this night, whose final chord eventually dissipated and left in it’s wake what can only be described as the most breathless, ear-splitting silence I have probably ever experienced.

But it was not the marble, or the glass, or the wood, the starship Enterprise, or even the glorious sight of 8 shiny French Horns, whose instrumental bodies were often raised parallel to the floor over their practitioner’s right shoulders, OR EVEN THE MUSICAL PERFORMANCE ITSELF (as excellent as it was!) that impressed me so very much.  What impressed me the most was the sight of–not tens, not twenties, but–quite literally hundreds of young ’20’, ’30’, and ’40-something’ aged folks who attended on this Friday night.  I watched them come into the Symphony Center dressed from business casual, to casual-chic, to well beyond ‘the nines’ (young Dallas ladies seem to love those short—and I mean short—dresses and towering high heels), both men and women, of all colors, shapes, and sizes;  and THIS was their Friday night out!  I observed them in their seats, and I watched them leave over free coffee and cookies post concert, (while the Maestro took some time to meet interested attendees), and was quite heartened as I thought about the future of classical music audiences.  That’s the demographic that every arts organization wants in their seats, and the Dallas Symphony has somehow snagged them!  Then I thought about how just a few moments earlier the Dallas Symphony did what the Cleveland Orchestra did so very well during my years of watching them as I grew up and attended school; they literally pulled the audience out of their seats at the end of the performance for a well deserved standing ovation.

So when folks out there talk about the “Death of Classical Music”, or as I entitled this blog-posting, “The Death of a Symphony”; I will simply say “Not so fast!”.  At least not here in Dallas!!

And just for the sake of good order and full disclosure: I do not work for, have never sung with, am not scheduled to sing with, and probably never will sing with, the Dallas Symphony.  I am, however, here to sing with the Dallas Opera in their very upcoming production of Boris Godunov (see previous post). The above is simply what I experienced, the way I experienced it!!

Oh yes; back to that MAJOR musical flaw I mentioned earlier…..It’s probably best to identify it with a question that I will pose to Maestro van Zweden (not that he will ever read this):

Would it have been so terrible to allow that third “hammer-blow-of-fate” to be struck???  I was waiting for it, thought for sure it was coming, but it never did.  Tell you what Maestro; the next time you perform this work, let it happen….c’mon….do it just for me!!!


Boris Godunov at The Dallas Opera; a prediction!!

I sit in the auditorium, on this Monday night, of the spectacular new Winspear Opera House that is now home to a rejuvenated Dallas Opera.  Although the company itself, like so many arts organizations these days, is struggling mightily in the budget arena, it has not stopped them from mounting impressive productions and spotlighting new, or underutilized, talent here in America .

The current production (Boris Godunov) that is still in the rehearsal process is a rather old one (1983, I believe) that had its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  Director Stephen Lawless has been with this particular production since its inception and it is quite a pleasure to work with him again, as he is regularly of good humor, calm, and possesses a unique directorial perspective.  (FYI, a production of Rigoletto is also rehearsing concurrently and will open just days before Boris.)

I am further thrilled to add a new role (Shuysky) to my repertoire, and am delighted to work again with many friends and colleagues from the past, such as Keith Jameson, Mark McCrory, Meredith Arwady and Susan Nicely.  Additionally, I have met several new colleagues, mostly of Russian descent, who more than adequately round out this very fine cast.  As most of you know, however, the success of this particular opera ‘stands or collapses’, ‘rises or falls’, and ‘thrills or disappoints’, based almost solely upon the quality of the title character himself.  Therefore, I am happy to announce that the Dallas audiences are in for what may be the most galvanizing individual performance of their season, if not that of the last several years.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have stood side by side and worked with the finest, (and in many cases, legendary) Bass voices (and Bass/Baritone voices) in recent operatic history .  Rene Pape, Samuel Ramey, Bryn Terfel, Paul Plishka, Matti Salminen, Kurt Moll, Franz-Josef Selig, Stephen Milling, James Morris, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering, just to name a (very impressive) few.  I have become a good judge of voices throughout the years, if by association alone; and further believe that I have the right to a few conclusions of my own after so many decades in this industry.  Therefore, I must tip my hat to Artistic Director Jonathan Pell who has brought Mikhail Kazakov to Dallas to sing this most intensive and demanding of roles.

Those of you who know me well, would probably concur that I am not a ‘gusher’ when it comes to describing voices, nor am I ever ‘star-stuck’.  I, in fact, rather avoid such overage for reasons of propriety and professionalism.  I am, however, quick to compliment and support all of my colleagues as we continue to purposefully meander and navigate our paths in this sometimes very unforgiving business.  Nevertheless, in this particular case, I may be guilty of ‘gushing’ just a bit…..

From the moment Mr. Kazakov opened his mouth, I knew I was in the presence of greatness–with respect to his vocal gifts, of course.  I have (almost) never been so totally overwhelmed by a voice of such rich quality, sensitivity of expression, seemingly limitless volume, and equally impressive ‘pianissimi‘ in this particular vocal ‘fach’.  This a major, MAJOR instrument that has been as gifted to him by God, as it was refined by his teachers and coaches.  It is also a rarefied experience to become totally transfixed by fine singing AND fine acting from even our finest bassos (again, just my opinion).  With respect to this latter attribute, Mr. Kazakov also does not disappoint.  His character is clearly (and believably) conflicted and anguished, tormented and tortured, and as haunted as Hamlet in the ‘ghost story’ elements of that Shakespearean masterpiece.

It does not hurt that this composition is sung in the native language of  Mr. Kazakov, which helps him to excel as Boris in much the same way that Vladimir Galouzine animates the role of Herman in Pique Dame with his clear and obvious command of the mother tongue.  To boot, Mikhail Kazakov is a man of gentle nature and even less ego.  His humility is in itself humbling and appreciated among the rest of the cast.  It is occasionally a challenge to work with some ‘Eastern Bloc’ singers; but in this case, these large voiced, large bodied, ‘stove-piped-larynx’ singers are all very kind, quick to smile, and eager to ply their trade with considerable stage-craft all.

Boris Godunov is a long and heavy opera, with only a bit of comic respite in the Tavern Scene of Act I, scene II.  But those who come and stay for it’s totality will be rewarded, I am quite sure, with an experience that they will not soon forget.  Mussorgsky’s music is infectiously majestic, and filled with pathos and triumph.  The very clever usage of a single unit set actually assists in amplifying the proceedings.  But ultimately it will be Mr. Kazakov’s performance that will carry the evening.

I look forward to potentially hearing from those who may actually see the production to ascertain if their assessments interface with my own unapologetic predictions!


The 48 Hour Wednesday!!! (literally)

So how does one experience a literal 48 hour Wednesday, and completely lose a Tuesday from their life? It’s easy; just head “down-under” and come back really fast!!

You see, I spent a magnificent, long weekend in Montgomery, Alabama (read previous post) working with some wonderfully talented and dedicated young singers as part of my duties as the Artistic Director of the Vann Vocal Institute.  I came away from the weekend rather exhausted, but invigorated by the inspired presentations of the participants. Presiding over a non-stop two day masterclass, while my outstanding musical staff of coaches also worked one-on-one with these excellent students, can be rather daunting and challenging from the standpoint of stamina; but as usual, it’s the excitement and energy of the young that keeps us all going.

Each and every participant came prepared and ready to work, much as I predicted in my previous posting. They were intelligent, well dressed, polite, and eager. With radio appearances, additional lectures, plenty of lunches, dinners, and parties–and of course, my appearance at First Baptist Church (twice) on Sunday morning(!), you can surely agree that I deserved that private jet ride back to NYC on Sunday afternoon. But even that was hardly enough to clear my head…..

As many of you know, I had acquired a penchant for world travel well over a decade ago. Having crisscrossed this globe more times than I can count, and having visited every continent on earth (several times now); I have discovered that a long airplane ride is just the right medicine for clearing your mind. For this, as well as other personal and professional reasons, I hopped on a United Airlines flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Monday morning and headed for Sydney, Australia.  The lie-flat business class seats in the newly configured Boeing 747’s allows one to sleep fairly well on this lengthy flight from LAX or SFO, and you can therefore arrive ‘ready to go’, respectively speaking. I studied music, waxed thoughtfully on the previous weekend, pondered my future in the educational, performance, and personal arenas, all while sipping on very civilized Gin (or Vodka) and Tonics.

After landing in Sydney, I took care of my professional business in the city proper, returned to the airport and shuffled through the many delightful shopping mall style stores, and returned to the Air New Zealand business class lounge (which United Airlines shares as a Star Alliance Partner) to enjoy what Air New Zealand  does the very best……FOOD!! When one flies with the aforementioned carrier, they can expect hot meals on real china with real flatware, and fine wine. Their lounges are no different.  They change the cuisine every few hours, and I’m talking good stuff:  Egg white omelettes, hot popover muffins, grilled breakfast sausages, foot long hot dogs, Italian meats and cheeses, pizza, hot soups, roasted potatoes, grilled panini sandwiches, olive caponata, chicken satay, and oh, so much more.  A plethora of wines, champagnes, and liquors (as well as soft drinks) complement each change of cuisine and one can find plenty of other things to do there to keep themselves busy.  A full business center, and wireless connections, means that you can take care of business matters, or chat with your loved ones via Skype.

Because one crosses the International Date Line while flying over the Pacific, you leave on Monday, but arrive on Wednesday morning into Sydney; thus bypassing Tuesday altogether.  When you arrive, a hot shower in the lovely Air New Zealand lounge’s private shower facility, and a change of clothes, means that you are ready to take on their Wednesday. Remember, it is still summer down-under, so the weather was a lovely 70 something degrees (cooler than usual for that time of year, but nice for those of us who have lived through three blizzards this season!). When it is time to get on that turnaround flight and head back to the States (with only your carry-on luggage, btw!), you live yet another Wednesday, because by the time you arrive into LAX or SFO, it is still Wednesday morning….It’s not quite “Ground Hog Day”, but close.  One usually sleeps on those long flights and when you wake up, it’s morning and you’re close to the airport; but in this case it is two different airports–so I guess it’s “Ground Hog Adjacent”; but you get the idea.

This mind cleansing travel gives me plenty of time to reflect on the things and persons that I love, be grateful for all that I have, and the time to mourn (in a way) the things that are no longer.  I thought about my many close friends that have passed away, moved away, or just moved on. I thought about one of my coaching staff who couldn’t come to Montgomery because of a recent cancer diagnosis.  I thought about the lovely young lady whose company I began keeping only recently, and I thought about a long-time companion whose company I am (sadly) no longer able to enjoy.  I thought about those terrific young ladies and gentlemen from the Vann Vocal Institute that I lectured about ‘dignity’, and the use of the ‘classical vocal arts’ to achieve such–even for a few moments each day–; and I thought about the limitless possibilities that are still available to all of them.  I also thought about the lesser Nation that they are inheriting from this last generation and part of the preceding, and I worry.  I never did have children, and yet I still worry for all of them.  Yes, I thought a lot, about a lot of things, and not soooo much about myself.  That’s when you know that your mind is really getting cleared out…..when you are thinking about so many other things and about so many other people.  As a performing artist, we are so very often hung up on ourselves: How did I sing, how do I look, where do I go to perform next.  Those are not bad thoughts necessarily, but you would be surprised by how a loooong plane ride–and a 48 hour Wednesday–will allow you to think about so much more as well….