Richard and I heard the Manhattan School of Music Chamber Orchestra on 1/20. I got their season brochure in the mail last summer and put this concert on our calendars because of the four pieces on the program:
John Adams, *Shaker Loops*
Heitor Villa-Lobos, *Bachianas Brasilieras #5*
Igor Stravinsky, *Ebony Concerto*
Darius Milhaud, *La Création du Monde*
Hold the phone - - I just figured out how to write an <<accent égue>> on my MacBook! That's the French accent that goes from southwest to northeast, as I used in the word <<création>> above, also in the word <<égue.>> By the way, I'm using French-style quotation marks just to show off.
*Shaker Loops* is one of the pieces that put John Adams on the map. He wrote the original version for six string players in 1978 and then a version for string orchestra in 1983. We heard the version for orchestra. It's a thrilling piece, a real workout for the string players, sawing away the whole time, but so beautifully constructed, it's a joy to hear. Conductor George Manahan was supreme, such a treat to watch him conduct. He was fluid yet clear, and when he had to cue a particular part, he did it with a karate chop of deadly precision. I'm telling you, he gave a cue to the violas at one point and it was like Bruce Lee breaking through a wooden plank.
Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote nine *Bachianas Brasilieras*, pieces in which he was paying tribute to Bach but in a Brazilian style. *BB #5* is his most famous piece, and it's impossibly gorgeous. It's written for soprano and eight cellos, and you would not believe the depth and color he gets out of eight cellos. This piece (the first movement in particular) is one of my desert island pieces.
The soprano was first-year master's candidate Hyeree Shin. I have to tell you what she was wearing, right? A strapless teal gown with rhinestones along the top, beautifully draped along the bodice and waist. Richard thought the satin was a little heavy, but I liked it.
I warned Richard that I might cause a scene if she didn't pronounce the Portuguese correctly. I first came to know this piece through the Anna Moffo recording, then Arleen Auger, Renée Fleming, Kathy Battle, etc. I even found Nana Mouskouri doing an excerpt with guitarist John Williams on youtube. She reroutes the vocal line to suit her own needs. You can guess how I feel about that.
Anyway, all those North American opera singers sound gorgeous but don't really do justice to the Portuguese. My friend Grace (who knows about these things) told me they might be using a Portugal Portuguese pronunciation, when they really should be using the Brazilian. I could tell the difference when I heard a recording by Brazilian soprano Leila Guimares. One word in particular tells the whole story - - near the end of the middle section she sings "a cruel saudade", loosely translated as "a fierce desire." It's the word "saudade" - - Moffo pronounces it as you would in Italian: sow da day. Guimares pronounces it CORRECTLY: zow da jee.
So I had my ears tuned to that frequency when Shin started singing. Well, the piece starts with her singing "Ah" for the first verse, so I started by just hearing her voice! Which is gorgeous, she's a lovely lyric soprano, a nice even voice from top to bottom, creamy, sings with ease. She has a little bit of what I call Zero Gravity Arms, but I'm willing to overlook that. She came in with the words, and when I could understand her words, I could tell that she was making an effort to use Brazilian Portuguese. But I was hardly able to understand any of her words, so really, what was the point. She was using the universal language I call Sutherlandish - - beautiful vowels unencumbered by excessive consonants, in the manner of notorious mushmouth Joan Sutherland.
The real adventure was in the second movement. Things got off to a good start - - Shin was in a groove, the cellos were doing their thing, all was right with the world. Then I don't know if Shin came in early, missed an entrance, or sang something wrong, but everything came to a screeching halt. The conductor stopped the cellos, he called out a measure number, checked in with her to make sure she knew where they were starting - - they started again, and she was in the wrong spot. He stopped, showed her in the score, where they were, they started and they went through to the end of the piece without incident.
Now here's what I think about this. Any performer is bound to screw something up at some point in their career. The real test is how do you recover from it. Shin never lost her composure or her confidence, and sounded just as beautiful and at ease as she had in the flawless first movement.
Years ago a soprano friend of mine (email me privately if you want to know her name) sang the first level of the Met auditions in Waukesha, WI. The standard procedure is for the singer to choose five arias. He or she opens with a chosen aria, then the judges choose one of the four remaining arias. My friend's opening aria was Violetta's whole act one scena from *La Traviata,* all the way from "É strano" to the "Sempre libera." She sounded great, was singing with aplomb and with a sure sense of the Italian style - - and as they'd say in the preview of a Hollywood biopic, Then Tragedy Struck. She sang the optional high E flat at the end of the aria, and she made the worst non-deliberate sound I've ever heard come out of a human mouth. It sounded like she was picking up short wave radio.
She held it for a while, I imagine hoping it would work itself out. It didn't. She went down to the A flat, the last note of the aria, the pianist (was it you, Melinda Moser?) played the finish, The End. There was what felt like a very long pause. The judges chose an aria from *Der Freischütz*, "Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen." She sang it with pert charm and her voice sounded great. I was very impressed. I thought, that's a real pro.
On to the second half. We had a whole new batch of kids - - it had been nothing but string players on the first half, and now we had a lot of wind players and percussionists added. And a harpist, would you believe.
Woody Herman commissioned Stravinsky to write the *Ebony Concerto* in 1945. I'll quote from the program notes by Jane Vial Jaffe:
Stravinsky's plan was to write "a jazz concerto grosso with a blues slow movement" for the prescribed accompaniment - - five saxophones, bass clarinet, five trumpets, three trombones, piano, harp, guitar, double bass, tom-toms, cymbals, and drums - - to which he couldn't resist adding a French horn.
How cute is that? The piece itself was very cute, a quirky mix of highbrow classical and lowbrow jazz. Delicious writing for the trumpets. Hyojun Kim played the solo clarinet part with verve and dash, he was darling.
The last piece was Milhaud's *La Création du Monde,* aka The Creation of the World. He was commissioned by the Ballet Suédois, it had its premiere in Paris in 1923. It was a noisy piece, I might even say cacophonous! A gorgeous saxophone solo, played with elegance by some cute chubby blond guy.
I heard a tune in the middle section that furrowed my brow - - either Milhaud was stealing from Gershwin or Gershwin was stealing from Milhaud. I need to check the timeline on that.
The highlight of the piece was a moment near the end. The tom tom player at the back of the orchestra had a sequence where he played two notes over and over, in different moments in the overall pattern, but always the same two notes in the same sequence. Let's call it a "cuckoo." Over and over again, cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo - - sometimes at the start of the measure, sometimes in the middle, sometimes on the downbeat, sometimes on the upbeat. those cuckoos were all over. I was paying attention to him (in the midst of all the surrounding orchestral chaos) because I thought it was amusing. And THEN - - he got flustered and left out the first note, all we heard was the "koo." He immediately looked at the conductor, in a panic, to see if Manahan had noticed. Knowing Bruce Lee, he had.
A few youtube treasures:
Anna Moffo doing the *BB #5*, first movement. The "a cruel saudade" is at 4:52:
Leila Guimares doing the same piece, sounding for all the world like a young Leontyne Price! "A cruel saudade" is at 4:24:
And the inevitable Nana Mouskouri: