If Only In My Dreams

Date posted: 14 Nov 2013

Remarks presented to introduce All Is Calm presented by Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati and Cincinnati Opera – the initial event of Cincinnati Remembers World War One. November 11, 2013 - at Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati.<br/br><br/br/> Thank you Dean Greenwell. Thank you members of the Christ Church Vestry especially Bertie Ray. Thank you Stephen Casurella, Director of Music here at Christ Church Cathedral proceed now jump4loves.com/russian-mail-order-bride/ and thank you to Robert Beiring, longtime Christ Church parishioner, long time Cincinnati Opera supernumerary and our dear friend and advocate. Please take a moment to silence your cell phones or anything else that makes noise, as a courtesy to your fellow audience members and to our performers.<br/br><br/br/> Tonight we begin together an amazing journey of remembrance. From now, until July, Cincinnati Opera will have the privilege of collaborating with nearly twenty Cincinnati organizations beginning with this one, to present Cincinnati Remembers World War One. This is the kick-off event and I can think of no more appropriate way to begin this season of Thanksgiving and reflection than with this beautiful concert. As you will hear, the program tells the true story of a genuine Christmas miracle-when on December 24th and 25th of 1914, the first Christmas of what we now call World War One, troops on all sides of the conflict spontaneously laid down their arms, crawled out of the trenches and fraternized with the enemy. What did they find? They found that they had more in common than the political differences which had propelled them to this war. They found that they were all sons, brothers, husbands, and lovers of people back home. For a precious twenty-four hours, the war stopped.<br/br><br/br/> This summer on July 10 and 12, Cincinnati Opera presents Silent Night, this story as re-imagined for a full-scale opera by the American composer Kevin Puts and his librettist Mark Campbell. Serendipity initially placed the opera in our summer 2014 schedule. When we realized we would be producing it within days of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, this series of events we call Cincinnati Remembers World War One was born. My mind immediately went to the program you are about to experience as the ideal way to start our months of events. My partner Thom and I saw it at Christmastime of 2007 in Minneapolis where Cantus is based and where we were living at the time. It made a profound impression on us, long before the Silent Night opera was written.<br/br><br/br/> Music has been part of warfare since the conflicts of the ancients, all over the world. Drum beats set the pace of marching into battle. Bugle calls served as a shorthand to help direct troops on the deafening battlefield and songs, above all songs, grew out of war. Songs of fierce patriotism, but also songs of longing for home, a home the soldier knew he might never see again. What is the final line of that beloved Christmas song from 1943, made famous by Bing Crosby? “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Join us now on this special day we now call Veterans Day. It is a day that began in 1919 as Armistice Day, commemorating on November 11, the one year anniversary to the day of the end of World War One. In 1954, it became Veterans Day, acknowledging sacrifices of our men and women in World War Two and in Korea. Before you leave this evening, please take a look at the Book of Remembrance in the vestibule. In it are inscribed the names of all the parishioners of Christ Church who fought in World War One. If a name has a cross beside it, it signifies that soldier died in battle. We also have with us tonight, Mr. Jim Wilson. Mr. Wilson is the son of World War One veteran John Wilson who witnessed the truce described in tonight’s concert.<br/br><br/br/> If this program has a message to take away into the snowy night air, perhaps it is this. War is made by politicians and despots. It is fought by men and women. Even in the midst of terrible battles, the creative spirit of the soldier survives in the form of poems and songs. You can kill men and women, but you cannot destroy the legacy of their creativity. You will hear that creativity tonight, in letters written from the battlefield, often possessing an eloquence both simple and grand. And you will hear the music that lifted their spirits in the darkest nights of despair. Take a moment this evening with our performers to remember that music, as old as the oldest war still has the power to offer solace to our fighting men and women of today. The music our brave troops take into Afghanistan and elsewhere may be very different from the music you hear in this concert, but the same sentiments prevail-let us hope that many more of those living men and women we honor today, Veterans Day, who are still in service will be home for Christmas, and not only in their dreams.<br/br><br/br/>

It's Called Getting It Right

Date posted: 25 Oct 2013

In a little hilltop village in Tuscany last night I imagined I knew what it felt like to be a Medici Prince. Along with forty other very lucky music lovers I heard a concert of exquisite music, ate food lovingly prepared from the richness of the Tuscan earth and absorbed it all in buildings rescued from oblivion by a visionary.

The village is Castiglioncello del Trinoro. You’ll look hard to find it on a map, but it’s there, nestled above the town of Sarteano situated in the heart of the Val d’Orcia. In the village church of Sant’ Andrea soprano Silvia Frigato along with three instrumentalist friends sang of love, loss and hope. Frigato is already a celebrated young Italian soprano, specializing in Baroque music and singing in the major opera houses and concert halls of Europe. She sang the music of the greatest Renaissance and early Baroque masters including Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Merula and more. In little over an hour she and her gifted colleagues reminded us why opera could have begun only in Italy, so nearly perfect was the match between the poetry of the words and the sublimity of the melodies created to carry those words directly into our hearts.

Castiglioncello has been rescued from a crumbling, nearly deserted village by the Italian-American Cincinnati lawyer Michael Cioffi. With many dedicated colleagues he has restored homes, stables and public buildings to create what he lovingly calls Monteverdi, a hotel made up of many of those rescued ruins. But it’s not just a hotel. It’s a mission and last night’s concert was an example of that mission which I have christened “Getting It Right.” Cioffi feels that buildings are only ‘alive’ when they are a beehive of activity. So, he’s created an art gallery, restored the church for concerts and made the hotel a gathering place for the local residents. By his work he has breathed new life into the area.

The mission of the concert was two-fold. Mainly, Cioffi loves the 17th century Renaissance and Baroque music that was being created when the village was new. He has become a close friend of John Eliot Gardiner, the celebrated conductor for whom this repertoire forms a large part of his performing life, Monteverdi in particular, hence the name of the hotel. The second reason is that Cioffi knew he’d have a group of guests in late October made up of Cincinnati Opera patrons, all of whom needed to fall in love with this music-Cincinnati Opera will produce its first-ever Baroque opera in July, 2014, Cavalli’s La Calisto. This era of opera will be new to many of them.

Cioffi succeeded in getting it absolutely right with a program that transported the audience back to a time when exciting young composers and performers were making a new art form called opera. The cradle of that art form was right here, in the heart of Italy at the Tuscan courts and soon enough to the north in Venice and the south in Naples (not Rome, because the Vatican highly disapproved of such heathen activity-but that’s another blog).

I’ve been going to concerts of ‘early music’ since the 1970s. Early on, they could be pretty dreary affairs, all earnestness with far too much out-of-tune playing that passed for ‘authentic.’ And even though much of the music was from Italy, there were no Italians. The early music revival was owned by the English, the Dutch, Germans and eventually Americans. Italians may have been late to the party, but in the last fifteen years they have reclaimed their patrimony with a vengeance. Now, the world is filled with a vibrant, young generation of Italian instrumentalists and singers whose passion for early music equals their passion for Verdi and Puccini.

And so it was that Miss Frigato and her instrumentalists playing harp, harpsichord and viola da gamba inhabited the words set by Monteverdi, especially the solo cantata ‘Lamento d’Arianna’. It’s all we have from his lost opera Arianna. Monteverdi, syllable by syllable charts a psychograph of pain, anger and abandonment felt by the legendary Ariadne. But what is also apparent, even in this early era is that Monteverdi and his contemporaries could express a world of emotions with the simplest of means.

Nowhere else in this concert was this economy of expression more apparent than the real ‘find’ of the evening, a lullaby titled ‘Hor ch’e tempo di dormire’ by Tarquinio Merula, a younger contemporary of Monteverdi. It is one of those deeply felt premonitory songs, ostensibly a cradle song to the infant Jesus but also one that contains visions of his Passion to come. What makes the piece breathtaking is the accompaniment-until the coda it is two notes, a half-step, nearly a drone alternating under the expressive vocal line. If you have Spotify, it’s easy to find and it will haunt you for days after you listen. Over and over again during the concert, whether it was vocal or instrumental music we were reminded that the late Renaissance and Baroque Italians re-invented how deeply music can affect us, heart to heart.

We left the church of Sant’ Andrea in Castiglioncello changed, transported, refreshed and awed by what music lovers often hope, but rarely achieve-that sense that for an hour, the world stops and all that matters is the connection between you and the music and in a space and atmosphere that gets it right. At a reception in one of his exquisitely restored reception rooms, our host had organized a feast of local food, lovingly prepared and presented by talented young chefs from the region, specializing in the bounty of Tuscany. In his introductory book to Monteverdi , the hotel, Cioffi quotes two of the maxims that came to typify the High Renaissance in Italy: ‘Appetito di belleza’ (a taste for beauty) and ‘piu bello che si puo’ (as beautiful as possible). Those sentiments are alive and well in Castigioncello.

The concert at Castiglioncello

Remembering Van Cliburn

Date posted: 28 Feb 2013

In the 1960s Van Cliburn’s music making and his status as a musical ambassador in the depths of the Cold War opened new worlds of understanding to my teenage, budding love of classical music. At age thirteen I started to work as a part-time salesman for Ann Arbor Michigan’s Liberty Music Shop. Cliburn was then at the zenith of his career. His newest recordings were eagerly anticipated and his television appearances, while not rivaling the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show were must see events.

It was his piano sound, along with Horowitz and Rubinstein that formed my personal world-view of grand, Romantic pianism. Oddly, I did not hear Cliburn, the youngest of these three idols ‘live’ until 1989 At The Mann Center in Philadelphia, long after I’d been fortunate enough to hear both Rubinstein and Horowitz at close range at home. No matter, even in late middle age, that roar of sound Cliburn produced at the keyboard was still electric.

Thousands of living musicians and music lovers will be posting recollections and reminiscences of Cliburn the artist and Cliburn the man. I offer just a couple of vignettes dating from the year I finally met him, in the spring of 1989, at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. I had been chosen to produce a multi-part national radio series about the Competition. WFMT, Chicago sent me there to collect interviews, broadcast the finals concert ‘live’ and begin preparing a series of programs that would examine piano repertoire and pianism through the prism of the Competition, its performers and performances.

Fort Worth, Texas, home to Van Cliburn and the Competition goes piano mad in those quadrennial weeks. Where else can you go into a simple coffee shop at 8AM (before the ubiquity of Starbucks) and hear piano music playing the background. When I complimented the cashier (who looked a bit like my Aunt Fran) on having classical music playing, she replied: “Oh The Wanderer Fantasy? We’ve got the Arrau recording here but I prefer Kempff!!” You get an idea of the depth of love of this instrument and its music that Van Cliburn imparted to the town he called home for so many decades.

Part of my assignment that spring was to interview the man himself. It wasn’t easy. Cliburn wasn’t exactly coy, but he was hard to pin down. Four or five dates were set and cancelled. Finally, word came from Richard Rodzinski, the long-time and infinitely patient Director of the Competition in those years that Van Cliburn would see me the next evening at 1AM at his home! Cliburn was a night-owl and also preferred interviews on home turf.

Not knowing what to expect I arrived promptly at 1. A small party was in full swing, subdued, but still a party. Van was entertaining three or four friends and his mother, the formidable Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, then a spry ninety-three. I was invited to come into the spacious kitchen, large enough to cater a party for 100. There, at a commodious table groaning with food Rildia Bea sat at the one end, Van at the other and the rest of us gathered around the table as courtiers.

Fifteen minutes into this gathering I realized the real interview was happening right there. Van and his mother traded stories going back to his boyhood. At one point when Van was regaling us with a humorous incident in Russia, Rildia Bea, who seemed to have nodded off at her end of the table instantly corrected her son on a precise date-something that had happened thirty years prior!

Eventually, Van got comfortable enough with my presence to suggest we go into the ‘drawing room’ and conduct the recorded interview. Over the next hour, slowly but surely, the platitudes fell away and while Van never completely let his guard down, the excessive formality and politesse that clouded so many of his other interviews relaxed. I don’t think I came away with any real revelations into his artistic persona or his private life, but I did leave that morning (at 3:30!) with a deep appreciation of how difficult it must be to have been in the public spotlight relentlessly for so long. A certain cautiousness, a polite wariness creeps into your public utterances.

First and foremost I was reminded that Van Cliburn was a man of the South, with everything that implies. Polite to a fault, gracious to one and all, and private. But once in a while in that interview I got a glimpse of the passion for music that drove him to work so hard in his youth to achieve that sound, that musical drive and above all that poetic utterance that seemed to be his alone in many generations of American pianists before and since.

Finally, later in the summer of 1989 at the Mann Center in Philadelphia I got to see and hear what it was all about, something I had only been able to intuit from countless hours of listening to his recordings. Van, like so many artists of his generation was a personal friend of the charismatic Freddy Mann, the Philadelphia impresario whose name was memorialized on a splendid concert pavilion in West Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, one of the summer homes of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Van’s connections to the Mann and to the Philadelphians ran deep. He performed and recorded with Eugene Ormandy and was a regular presence at first at the Robin Hood Dell and after 1976 (he played in the inaugural season) at The Mann many summers from the beginning of his career.

I stood in the wings (there was not seat to be had in the 4,000 seat pavilion) but it was no hardship, because I could watch Cliburn play from a great vantage point. If there was a ‘secret’ to his playing it was a concentration of power whose focal point was his fingers. Cliburn was not all that demonstrative at the keyboard. Not unlike Horowitz, he squared his shoulders and created a flow of energy using his whole torso as the piston that drove his fingers.

It was not a note-perfect performance, but that did not matter. Some musicians have an aura about them. They seem to be able to connect to what they are playing or singing or conducting in a way that permits them to seem at once larger than life and nearly invisible. The sound, the contours of their interpretations seem inevitable just as the music of Bach seems inevitable-what you are hearing is exactly the way it should be heard in an ideal world. I know that sounds a bit wooly because it is difficult to put the aura certain artists create into words. ‘Presence’ doesn’t do it justice. ‘Charisma’ is over-used. To the best my ability the word I prefer is ‘channel.’ Those rare gifted artists apply all their skill to making themselves the most potent intermediary between the composer and the listener. Cliburn, at his best, had this. Effortless technique, a depth of sonority and a gift for making that percussive instrument called the piano sing like the opera divas he so loved.

He is gone but lucky are we to have the recordings of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin and so much more to treasure for as long as recorded sound can be shared. I don’t know if he was ever truly happy with his work. I am reminded of a portion of a letter from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille. To me it sums up the questing soul of any great artist. It seems to fit my lasting impression of Van Cliburn:

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.

And If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Keep the channel open... No artist is pleased...

There is no satisfaction whatever at anytime There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes "us" MORE alive than the others”.

Martha Grahm

Van Cliburn at The Robin Hood Dell ( circa 1968)

Voices From Dublin

Date posted: 3 Feb 2013

From January 24th to February 1, 2013, Thom and I visited Ireland for the first time. Though we lived in London for nearly a decade and frequently visited Scotland and Wales, Ireland eluded us. That oversight was rectified in fine fashion with an invitation to adjudicate the 7th Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition.

When the Competition’s charming artistic administrator Dearbhla (pronounced DER-vlah) Collins told me my fellow judges would include conductor Richard Bonynge, Lenore Rosenberg of the Metropolitan Opera, Henning Ruhe of the Bavarian State Opera, Christian Schirm of the Paris Opera and Ireland’s beloved soprano Suzanne Murphy, I said yes immediately. Clearly Ms. Dunne commands great respect in Europe.

The Competition was a model of how these events can be run when the organizers understand what they are trying to accomplish. The purpose of the Veronica Dunne Competition, as reiterated by Ms. Dunne herself in a beautiful welcoming address, is to identify talent worthy of promoting and worthy of further encouragement. Veronica Dunne (she insists everyone call her ‘Ronnie’) repeatedly reminded competitors to sing from the heart and to enjoy their performances.

The 80-plus entrants were a fine cross-section of singers 34 and under. Asia, North America, Scandinavia, Great Britain, Israel, South Africa, Eastern Europe and of course Ireland were well represented. Right away, in the preliminary round we judges got a sense of the state of singing today, both its merits and its challenges.

There was much to commend in the precision and presentation of many of the singers. And one always hopes that there will be a few moments of revelation: a phrase beautifully turned, a new talent discovered, or even a performance from a singer who may not make it to the finish line but whose artistry causes you to sit up and take notice. Even after fifteen performances of Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette, there were many such moments for me. These included a tenor who did not pass from the Preliminary Round who sang David’s tricky monologue from Die Meistersinger with superb storytelling ability; a mezzo, just barely twenty who sang Dido’s Farewell from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with wisdom and pathos beyond her years; and a baritone whose very first phrase signaled a talent I hope we’ll hear and see on the stages of the great opera houses soon.

We also heard a number of singers with shortcomings including over-embellishment of Baroque music, a lack of proper musical style (especially in bel canto repertoire) and performing pieces not suited to their developing voices. To address these challenges the organizers of the competition gave us judges the opportunity to have one on one sessions with any competitor who wanted feedback.

As the competition drew towards the finale our discussions as judges were lively but always respectful of different points of view. The competition had chosen its panel of judges, comprised of singers, impresarios and conductors, wisely. In addition to those already mentioned, Patrick Ringborg, General Music Director of the Kassel Opera, joined us for the final rounds and conducted the finals concert. The irrepressible Jane Carty, herself a passionate champion of young singers, chaired the jury and provided clear-eyed leadership in helping us achieve a fair result.

The Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition is a hidden gem. They could do with more visibility on the international competition ‘circuit’ since the prize money is serious and the opportunities that can arise from winning are considerable. In these still-shaky times of financing the arts all over the world, but perhaps especially in Ireland, what is most impressive is the level of commitment from the Irish citizens and organizations that support the undertaking. Even the Irish President Michael D. Higgins is Patron of the event and personally gives the prizes at the finals. The funds to put on this triennial event come from a relatively small number of individuals and institutions. Every penny must be raised. As Ronnie reminded us, these singers may have God-given voices but He did not give them money!

Dublin itself, even in rainy January, is filled with treasures, from the superb collection at The National Gallery (including a priceless trove of Turner watercolors on display only in January) to Trinity College with its awe-inspiring Book of Kells, to the churches filled with art and the Georgian architecture that stands out in high relief much more so than its counterparts in London where it may be abundant, but obscured by the sheer density of that city.

A word must be said about the incomparable Irish hospitality. They show a kindness towards strangers, who remain so only briefly, before being enveloped in the warmth of friendship. They are passionate, voluble and keen to regale you with the delights of Dublin, Ireland and its people. They are proud of their small island country, their capital city, their independent nature, and their support of the arts and young artists.

We heard many an Irish welcome during our stay. My favorite will remain, since it encapsulates the sincerity and generosity of its people: "Céad míle fáilte" – A thousand welcomes! We enjoyed every one of them.

For a list of the winners and more details about the competition, go to: http://www.vdiscompetition.com/

Evans and Veronica Dunne at the closing celebration

Keeping The Edge-in the recording studio

Date posted: 19 Aug 2012

Two or three times a year I’m asked to produce a recording. The most recent journey to the studio has been with violinist Frank Almond, our third collaboration since 2006. As it was in our first disc, pianist William Wolfram brought his lustrous tone and fiery technique to the party as well.

It’s been gratifying on many levels. First and foremost, to be able to help a colleague and a friend realize his or her artistic vision is at the heart of what I try and do in all my professional work. In addition, recording production keeps the producer’s musical ‘chops’ in shape. As I spend much of my life making plans for concerts and operas into the future, it is valuable to get into the trenches, so to speak, and listen as carefully as is possible, participate directly in the music-making process.

And so, I’ve spent the last few days in Milwaukee (Frank is also concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony) cloistered in one of the performance spaces of the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center making a disc of familiar and rare pieces associated with Frank’s priceless ‘Lipinski’ Stradivarius. All four compositions have a direct connection with this ‘fiddle’ which was once owned by Giuseppe Tartini, author of the ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata.

The instrument gets it sobriquet from a later owner, the Paganini rival Karol Lipinski. The full story of this amazing violin is on line at Wikipedia and elsewhere. Suffice it to say, Frank chose wisely and as always, assembled a disc that I think will be a delight from beginning to end-the fine Schumann D minor sonata, the aforementioned ‘Devil’s Trill, plus two rarities, a fiendishly difficult caprice by the violin’s namesake and a sonata by the German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen. To the best of our knowledge, this will be the first recording of the Röntgen Sonata, quite something in this age of Naxos!

Making a recording can be like that saying about the making of sausage and politics-you can enjoy the end product but you don’t want to see the process! Making this disc was quite different. I often say to music enthusiasts that I wish they all could attend rehearsals or recording sessions for concerts and opera from time to time. The process is exhilarating. Watching superbly gifted musicians find new things in the music with each passing moment, sharing in the often-electric atmosphere of rehearsals and recordings is a privilege. This was the case with the disc Frank is calling ‘A Violin’s Life’.

The biggest challenge is the instrument itself. Singers often give their voices an identity apart from their own bodies. How many times have I heard: “the voice is acting up today” as opposed to the more correct possessive “my voice". A Strad is the same, even though it is genuinely inanimate and outside the player’s own body. It still possesses a personality, quirks, temperament and a power that needs taming. Frank has been using the Lipinski Strad as his main instrument for several years now, but Mr. Lipinski can still be something of a wild stallion with no saddle.

Frank tells stories of days when it seems the devil of the ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata must be inhabiting the violin! It takes a combination of coaxing, command and infinite patience to release the grandeur of this ‘Golden Period’ Stradivarius. And lucky for us, Lipinski, Tartini and all the other previous owners of this amazing fiddle seemed to be pleased we were making this recording as the instrument was in as fine a form as its player for these days. It purred, soared, growled (when need be) and roared when the grandeur of the romantic pieces called for it.

Be on the lookout in a few months when this disc becomes available through the enterprising AVIE label. Play it on a dark and stormy night and then maybe in your own subsequent dreams an apparition will come to you too, dictating a new masterpiece like the Tartini!

August 19, 2012 Milwaukee