astoria music festival – week one

Angela Meade
Angela Meade

It was a whirlwind week of rehearsals, driving, and more rehearsals, and then a couple of fantastic performances at the first week of the Astoria Music Festival, 2014 edition. Verdi made an appearance again this year, this time on Saturday night’s performance in the form of his perennial favorite, La Traviata. Angela Meade was Violetta, and she showed why she is one of the top sopranos in the world today in her virtuoso performance. Richard Zeller, as Germont, nearly stole the show with his powerful singing. It’s easy to overlook his immense talent, as he spends a lot of his time here in his native northwest, but he is a tremendous artist who is always a pleasure to listen to and perform with. There were some standouts in the orchestra as well for this opera. Principal clarinetist Mark Dubac played with remarkable passion and restraint (and just a hint of subtle vibrato) in his big Act II solo. Concertmaster Inés Voglar Belgique’s heartbreaking solo in Act III, as Violetta lay dying, was pitch perfect. The Portland Festival Opera Chorus also sang with power and several of their number played subsidiary characters in this concert version of the opera as well, all under the able direction of Festival Artistic Director and conductor Keith Clark.

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Sarah Kwak

On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra focused on the work of Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday took place just a few days ago on June 11th. His works were paired with those of perhaps his own favorite composer, W.A. Mozart (though some wags might say instead that Strauss’ favorite composer was himself). After the Overture to Don Giovanni, Oregon Symphony concertmaster Sarah Kwak came to the stage to play Mozart’s D major violin concerto. She did so with customary beautiful tone, expansive phrasing, and flawless intonation. We are indeed lucky to have an artist of her caliber leading our string section! The second half of the concert returned to the Don Juan legend, this time in the form of the eponymous work by Strauss. Principal oboist Karen Wagner played the role of the ingenue under the spell of the great lothario with tenderness and endless phrases spun out seemingly effortlessly. Principal horn Joe Berger led the horns with some bravura playing, and Sarah Kwak’s incidental solos were sensitive and seductive. Strauss’ Four Last Songs followed, with soprano Amber Wagner (who you may recall sang them to great acclaim with the Oregon Symphony last season). She was in fine voice, though I wonder if perhaps the orchestra was too loud for the phrases in her lower register. Again, Sarah Kwak played the definitive version of the solo in the third song, Beim Schlafengehen (Falling asleep), with a rich sound and endless phrases. The final cap on the afternoon’s concert, a bit like a huge dollop of Viennese schlag on an already rich dessert, was the final trio from his great opera Der Rosenkavalier. Three wonderful singers took part – Amber Wagner as the Marschallin, Angela Niderloh as Octavian, and Amy Hansen as Sophie. It’s the most excessive of pieces by a composer who specialized in excess, and was received with a prolonged ovation.

Sergey Antonov
Sergey Antonov

Next, rehearsals begin for the second opera in the festival’s run, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a chamber setting, a Festival All-Star chamber music evening, and the concluding concert of Dvorak’s cello concerto with Sergey Antonov, and the rarely performed Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra by Alexandre Guimant, with organist Hector Olivera. It promises to be a wonderful week of music making!

strange things are afoot at the circle k

Bogus. Heinous. Most non-triumphant. Ah, Ted, don’t be dead, dude. – Bill S. Preston, Esq.

Last night was the first of our classical series concerts for this weekend. It’s a great program, one that everyone in the orchestra is pretty stoked about. Rehearsals had gone well, everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Of course, this should have rung warning bells in everyone’s heads immediately.

Everything in the Mozart Serenade “Posthorn” seemed to be a bit off kilter. Not bad, but not great, either. There were some interesting moments in each of the minuets (always mentally difficult to navigate, especially when there are two of them, one of which starts with an upbeat, the other which does not, as is the case in this Serenade), and some truly interesting moments revolving around which pitch level the orchestra actually tunes and plays to – part of the orchestra voting for A=440, the other for A=445. In spite of this, however, it was wonderful to have to apply one’s concentration over such a span of time (45 minutes) to such wonderful music. The winds truly own the day in this piece, and special recognition must go to the principal winds – Jessica Sindell, flute; Martin Hebert, oboe; and Carin Miller, bassoon; for their many beautiful solo contributions.

The second half seemed to go a bit better, but it’s an exhausting half to play, since we joined the Strauss Death and Transfiguration and Four Last Songs without pause.

The D&T went well, with some spectacular playing by the winds and brass (and the strings – ok, we all played pretty well). In particular, the last wind chord was phenomenal – perfectly balanced and voiced, and absolutely in tune, like a giant, and incredibly soft, pipe organ chord.

Soprano Amber Wagner was tremendous in the songs, with ample power and sensitivity that produced chills down my spine. Concertmaster Sarah Kwak provided her own subtle fireworks with her two gorgeous solos in the Bein Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot songs. As one colleague noted “her solos are always sick”.

recordings for this week’s concert

While I’m not a reviewer of recordings, I do have some recordings that I do especially like. This week’s program of works by Mozart and Richard Strauss is one of my favorite of this season, and so I want to share some of my favorite recordings of the week’s program with you.

A short and sweet list of my favorites, with links to purchase at arkivemusic.com (for physical cd’s), and at amazon.com (for mp3’s).

Strauss: Four Last Songs

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Felicity Lott, soprano; Neeme Järvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos 10075).

The recording that started it all for me. This particular album includes most of the other songs for soprano and orchestra in addition to the Four Last Songs. Highly recommended.

Strauss: Death & Transfiguration

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Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 410892)

This is an incredible recording of both orchestral virtuosity and compelling musicality. Worth it for the searing recording of Metamorphosen alone, but having D&T as a coupling makes for a fabulous disc.

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If you’re interested in a Karajan/Berlin set of all the Strauss orchestral works, there is an excellent budget-priced set from DG that looks excellent at the price of $32.99 for five cd’s ($24.99 on Amazon).

Mozart: Serenade No. 9 in D major, K. 320

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Claudio Abaddo and the Berlin Philharmonic (Sony 48385)

A nice marrying of historical performance influences with modern instruments.

If you prefer a more historically-informed version on period instruments, then this looks like a good bet:

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Roger Norrington and the Stuttgardt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hänssler Classic 93213)