Minimalist setting lets 'Rigoletto' shine

25. Mar. 2006 – Minimalist setting lets 'Rigoletto' shine


A near-capacity audience at the Opera House on Friday got a chance to see and hear why Verdi's "Rigoletto" has such a firm grip on the opera-going public. The Spokane Symphony production showed that great opera can be made without budget-busting expenditures on sets and costumes.


Friday's "Rigoletto" had some splendid soloists in the principal roles and a production team that captured the opera's shifts of mood and scene with clever use of lighting and fabric and an absolute minimum of props, with opera characters appearing in modern dress.


Baritone Charles Robert Stephens was a powerful force in the title role as the hunchback jester whose pleasure at the suffering of others showed a mind as deformed as his body. And coloratura soprano Lambroula Pappas sang and acted Rigoletto's innocent daughter Gilda as though the role were written for her.


The Duke is a difficult character to make convincing. If he is just an evil dolt, why does every woman - even an experienced prostitute like Maddalena - fall for him? Lyric tenor Eric Fennell, though his voice was a bit light to fill the huge space of the Spokane Opera House, had clear, well-projected sound that was a pleasure to listen to. Fennell made a good case for viewing the Duke as a perpetual teenager, a self-centered, handsome lug with raging hormones.


Bass-baritone Dean Elzinga met the challenge of playing both the part of Monterone, who invokes a curse on Rigoletto, and that of Sparafucile, the assassin who makes that curse come true. Slightly more power in his voice would have made those parts more threatening, but Elzinga brought a convincing gravity and subtlety to both. Barbara Rearick brought a juicy sensuality to the mezzo-soprano role of Sparafucile's prostitute-sister and accomplice.


Despite the presence of two of opera's most famous arias, Gilda's coloratura showpiece "Caro nome" and the Duke's breezy "La donna e mobile," Rigoletto is really an ensemble opera.


Friday's cast was composed of excellently responsive musicians. Their interplay in singing and acting let the drama unfold in a series of duets, trios and the famous Act III quartet to its crushing conclusion as Rigoletto finds that his hired assassin has murdered Gilda instead of the Duke.


Verdi's ensemble interplay also includes brilliant and innovative strokes of orchestration, particularly the splashes of woodwind and brass coloration to the string ensemble.


Eckart Preu proved himself as adept at larger forces of voices and instruments in opera as in the symphonic repertoire.


Impressive, too, were the choral parts sung by members of the Spokane Symphony Chorale, led by Lori Wiest, and the comprimario roles well sung by visiting and regional artists.


Opera meets the eye before it meets the ear. Stage director Jeffrey Sichel's and stage and lighting designer Andrew Hill's minimalist production, staging and lighting allowed Friday's audience the welcome chance to pay attention to just who these singing characters are and what they are doing to each other and themselves.


A festive evening, top to bottom


By Travis Rivers


Spokesman Review



The Spokane Symphony's concert Friday gave its enthusiastic audience lots to cheer about. The concert was a celebration from start to finish - opening with the premiere of a newly commissioned work, having as soloist one of the world's great musicians, and ending with an encore that acknowledged the orchestra's 60th anniversary.


The premiere presented "Purple Prose" by Conrad Pope. The work lived up to its title by its brilliant orchestration and its propulsive energy abetted by conductor Eckart Preu and the symphony's musicians.


Pope is a composer who has nearly 20 years experience as a composer, arranger and orchestrator in Hollywood. The skills he honed there enabled him to produce a work that filled the Opera House with the huge quantity of sound we are used to in the theaters at the multiplex - no small challenge since the Opera House eats up sound with the same voracity that a lion might consume a can of tuna.


Pope's cinematic style made "Purple Prose" seem familiar. The singing string melodies against a busy background, the piccolo shrieks, the wall of brass sound, the Gershwinesque jazziness and the imaginative use of percussion - all could be traced to the movie blockbusters Pope has worked on. But familiar-sounding or not, "Purple Prose" grabbed your attention and held it.


If there is anyone who can make playing the clarinet seem easy, fun and beautiful it is Richard Stoltzman. Who knows how many times he must have played Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto - 100 times? 200? In Stoltzman's hands, the Copland concerto had the same wet-on-the page freshness Friday as when Benny Goodman played it first in 1951.


The concerto's gentle, slow opening showed just how songfully beautiful Stoltzman could make Copland's angular melodies. And the soloist took impish delight in the shift of gears that takes place in the solo cadenza, where peaceful lyricism gives way to the jazzy swing Goodman was famous for. The finale was a barrage of fast shifting accents that showed Copland's love of Latin American rhythms as well as jazz.


Preu and the orchestra of strings, harp and piano were excellent partners to Stoltzman's showmanship and grace.


The program had a built-in encore with George Gershwin's foot-tappingly familiar "Walking the Dog," a short piece tossed off for the 1937 movie "Shall We Dance." Stoltzman served it up with the same verve Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers brought to the movie.


Paul Hindemith, whose bright star dimmed after his death in 1963, is enjoying something of a resurgence these days. The Hindemith comeback owes a lot to conductors such as Preu who find wit as well as Germanic seriousness in Hindemith's music. Preu brought a light touch and a transparency of sound to Hindemith's formidably titled "Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Weber."


Hindemith must have had a great time spreading solos around the orchestra for this work. And the Spokane Symphony soloists clearly relished them. I was especially taken with Bruce Bodden's long flute obbligato and the slower moving brass melodies in the andantino and the splashy percussion work in the scherzo.


Preu selected "More Tomorrow," one of Pope's songs, as an encore. The song is built around "Happy Birthday" in celebration of the symphony's 60th anniversary. A fitting close for a festive evening



A delightful date with Bach, Handel


By Travis Rivers


Spokesman Review



Together, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel represent the gold standard of baroque music. And the Spokane Symphony gave its large audience its money's worth Sunday afternoon with the final concert in the orchestra's Symphony at The Met series.


Eckart Preu, the symphony music director, mixed one very familiar work by Handel with one rarity by Bach alongside one of Bach's greatest hits and an unusual performance of a fairly familiar Bach composition. Aside from a bit of ragged playing as the concert began, the orchestra responded with zest and style.


Preu opened Sunday's concert with Bach's seldom performed Sinfonia in D Major (BWV 1045) for solo violin with the kind of orchestra Bach reserved for his most festive music. As Preu explained in his program notes, nobody knows what Bach's intentions were for this piece. Added mysteries are: Why did he leave the solo part notated in a sketchy musical shorthand and why didn't he finish it?


Symphony concertmaster Kelly Farris gave a lively account of the solo part, improvising some daring string-crossing figuration modeled on Bach's fully completed violin concertos. As it stands, the work is a tantalizing torso of a piece and one wishes that Bach would have completed it.


Almost as a midprogram encore, Preu led the orchestra strings in the Air from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, a work sometimes called Air on the G String - one of the most memorable of Bach's Hit Parade. Preu and his players showed the rich, dense weaving of the tapestry of this apparently simple piece.


Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 was performed with only seven players, an excellent choice using three small groups of players: two solo violas, two solo cellos, and a basso continuo - kind of a rhythm section made up of one cello, one string bass and harpsichord. Symphony violists Nicholas Carper and Jeanette Wee-Yang made easy work of the work's taxing viola parts, seconded by cellists Helen Byrne and Karen Conlin and the basso continuo group of cellist John Marshall, string bassist Chang-Min Lee, with Preu conducting from the harpsichord.


There was a clarity, energy, and a dance-like quality in this minimal instrumentation that is often lost in versions with more instruments.


Handel's "Water Music" takes its place along with the "Music for the Royal Fireworks" as his most famous instrumental music. Preu chose 10 of the "Water Music's" 20 movements in a fascinating chain of dances and concerto-like pieces - just the sort of thing that would have entertained King George I as the royal party boated from Whitehall to Chelsea.


As Preu obviously sought, the concert showed the strong points of each of the great baroque pair: Bach's linear complexity and harmonic daring, and Handel's full-bodied sonority, easy-to-follow harmonies and catchy tunefulness.


It was an afternoon of splendid music, lively performances and effortless learning.


Stamford Symphony celebrates American Music


By Jeffrey Johnson

Special Correspondent


Published March 23 2006


Symphonic programs of modern American music have traditionally been eclectic. But few are designed and presented as well as the Stamford Symphony's "American Legends" concert.


The program, described by conductor Eckart Preu from the podium as "different voices from the American musical landscape," was designed in two, almost mirrored halves.


Each opened with a programmatic and somewhat atmospheric piece, followed by high-energy chamber music and concluded with what might be called a "new classic."


The evening opened with a work less than five years old: "Blue Cathedral" by Jennifer Higdon. In assessing stereotypical reaction of audiences to new music, Preu assured us that in this work "nothing bad was going to happen." Chuckles rippled throughout the hall. He also asked for a quick demonstration of a few of the effects created in the work by a glass armonica and rattled Chinese health balls. The work itself effectively contrasted solo writing against strongly lyrical larger forces. This performance felt connected, and succeeded in weaving together atmospheric strands and musical line as the work developed. The ending dissolved in an otherworldly texture that was wonderfully resonant. The clarinet solos were balanced particularly well.


Next was "Lex." If you are unfamiliar with the music of Michael Daugherty, then fix that. He is talented, outrageous, and clever. "Lex" is the opening movement of the Metropolis Symphony, each movement of which is based on the "Superman" comic series. The music is scored for an ensemble of four mostly keyboard percussionists, timpani and two electronic keyboards. Erica Kiesewetter played the villain Lex's amplified violin part as well as I have heard it played live. It was clean, fiery and conveyed the mechanical intensity of perpetual motion with the humor and parody appropriate to textures that are articulated by stereophonic referee's whistles. I wish that the amplification was even louder -- it would have made an even stronger impact.


Wendy Warner joined the orchestra as soloist in the "Barber Cello Concerto." She has a very warm sound and a fluid ability to navigate the cello as though it were a much smaller fingerboard. She has an engaging way of snapping figurations and embellishments, a unique sonic poise, and I can see why she was drawn to this work. The second movement was incredible. Melanie Feld worked her breath-defying oboe solo into a gorgeous legato and Warner listened carefully as the cello interacted with the oboe -- easily the highpoint of the evening.


After intermission, we heard music by Charlie Chaplin for his final film, "Limelight" (1952). Michael Fink was kind enough to explain in generous terms that Chaplin "had remarkable musical instincts" and worked with "real" composers to achieve the final results. Something of the Chaplin personality is preserved in the music, and this was a creative and welcome choice for a program like this.


An example of the orchestral music of Frank Zappa was next on the program. "G-Spot Tornado" continued the mirrored structure of the program halves by using a smaller ensemble, and, following up on the pop-music influence on Daugherty, this piece articulates classical music's influence on Zappa. It was a charismatic work, but occasionally slightly out of control in this performance.


The evening concluded as the Greenwich Choral Society joined the orchestra for the "Chichester Psalms" by Leonard Bernstein. The Greenwich Choral Society delivered a highly rhythmic and energetic reading, particularly in the opening movement, dominated as it is in an irresistible 7-time.


Tucker Fisher swept us away with his Treble solo in the famous second movement. Rarely is this solo navigated with as sure a sense of strong musicality as he brought. The quiet ending brought a convincing close to the evening of music



Review: Symphony proves strong during its second concert of the season


By Jeffrey Johnson

Special Correspondent


Published November 20 2005

The Stamford Symphony took us through a musical labyrinth last Saturday evening with their second program of the new season. The first half began with some rarely heard music by Bach. The Sinfonia in D Major (BWV 1045) is a cantata fragment in the form of a concerto movement.


The solo was realized as a compendium of double and triple stops played with fury by concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter. After this piece Maestro Eckart Preu added to the program the "Battalia ‡ 10" by Heinrich von Biber (1664-1704). This piece employs avant-garde techniques including what might be referred to as "prepared bass": the use of paper under the strings to imitate snare drums.


The first movement sounded strangely like the opening movement of the Stravinsky "Three Movements for String Quartet" with music of diverse key and time signatures clashing.


The Connecticut premiere of "Made in America" by Joan Tower was next. This piece was commissioned by a consortium of 65 orchestras representing all 50 states. Preu and the orchestra chose to bring into strong relief the ringing mixture of trills and bowed tremolos that surround the returning perpetuum figuration. The derivation of materials came across clearly in performance and the work made an impression.


But the highlight of the evening was the "Concerto for Two Pianos" in D minor by Francis Poulenc. Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg joined the orchestra for one of the most consistently inspired live performances of this work. Sivan Silver was all intensity and fire, and Garburg was about atmosphere and shading, approaching with the laidback energy of a jazzman.


You can count on the Stamford Symphony to respond to passionate playing in kind accentuating the marvelous sense of colliding ideas that flow continually throughout all three movements. A highlight was the gamelan section near the end of the first movement where the exotic atmosphere between players and orchestra was perfection itself.


After this long first half, ending at nearly 9:30 p.m., the second half featured the Sibelius third symphony. Of all possible interpretations one could consider, Preu said he thinks of this work as "a preparation for the winter to come soon." The orchestra did approach the work with an unbroken sense of motion rather like a weather system. In fact, this quality would have been made even more manifest with less pause between the movements, perhaps even attaca. The section horns produced fantastic sound throughout, and Michael Finn's bassoon solo over the viola perpetuum leading to the recap in the first movement was extraordinary. The lyrical second movement featured carefully considered balances between flutes and clarinets in shaping a shared melodic idea with a cadential figure that just won't quit.


The evening closed with a gesture of remembrance for Skitch Henderson, who was director of the Stamford Symphony for six years. Preu said that he worked with members of the orchestra in choosing the perfect piece, "Nimrod," from Elgar's "Enigma Variations," and quoted one musician who had worked closely with Henderson as giving the ultimate endorsement: "Yeah, he would have liked that."


Copyright © 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.




Opener sets high standards for symphony's 60th season;

Spokesman Review, The (Spokane), Sep 17, 2005 by Travis Rivers Correspondent




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The Spokane Symphony with pianist Jean-Philippe Collard


Friday at the Opera House


Conductor Eckart Preu said last week that he was aiming for a flashy opening night concert. Friday's performance with the Spokane Symphony provided plenty of flash, but with lots of warmth along with the glitter to a nearly sold-out house.


The program of waltz-based orchestral showpieces by Strauss and Ravel and a virtuoso piano concerto by Rachmaninoff placed heavy demands on the orchestra's musicians for their first concert of the season. But the players, Preu and piano soloist Jean-Philippe Collard set a very high standard for the rest of the season.


Preu began by announcing that this was the orchestra's 60th season, and in honor of the occasion, he produced a tiny music box that played "Happy Birthday." As though that were not enough happiness for the occasion, he conducted Stravinsky's amusingly warped arrangement of "Happy Birthday," as well.


The official program began with the Suite from Richard Strauss's heavily waltz-laden opera "Der Rosenkavalier." Preu led a very old- fashioned sounding performance of the suite - old-fashioned in a way that suited the piece perfectly: The waltzes had the characteristic Viennese lilt familiar to anyone who has ever listened to a New Year's Day Concerto of the Vienna Philharmonic. The string players gave just a dollop of sweetness to their tone, by subtly gliding from one melodic note to another, rather than jumping. And Preu's tempos had a flexibility that made the instrumental dialogues seem to flow naturally rather than in a metronomic rigidity.


The result evoked turn-of-the- century Vienna, just as Strauss would have wanted - a bittersweet nostalgia that evaded sugary sentiment.



Beethoven works soar with attention to detail;

Spokesman Review, The (Spokane), Oct 15, 2005 by Travis Rivers Correspondent


The Spokane Symphony


Friday at the Opera House


Beethoven and the Spokane Symphony enjoyed a sold-out house Friday night. And the audience at the Opera House clearly loved Beethoven's two most justly popular symphonies - the Third and Fifth - under the baton of Eckart Preu.


Preu's purpose, he said earlier this week, was to recover some of the qualities of these two works that made them so startling to their first audiences. He succeeded through his choices of tempos - some of them strikingly different from the average - and the care with which he emphasized Beethoven's use of wind instruments, which so often are buried under layers of string sound.


The evening opened with Beethoven's Third Symphony, usually referred to as "The Eroica." It is a heroic masterpiece of immense length and complexity. There were times of not-quite-together ensemble and passages in the strings where intonation lapsed. But the overall effect was fresh as the energy accumulated relentlessly in each movement, whether the energy was somber as in the Funeral March second movement or humorous as in the scherzo.


The capstone of "Eroica" lies in the huge variety of moods in the finale, beginning with the statement of a stark bass line that serves as the foundation for an unfolding set of variations. Preu led the audience through Beethoven's increasingly complicated counterpoint that threatens to become hopelessly tangled until it dissipates in a wild gypsy dance, and then the long slow section, which is some of the most compelling music in all Beethoven's work. The final lunge to the end came as a great release.


No matter how many times audiences hear the "Eroica," that conclusion never fails to bring a thrill. And Friday's audience rose to reward Preu and the orchestra for that thrill.


The Fifth Symphony is a very different work. Just how different was shown in Jason Steinbrecher's emotionally compelling reading of portions of a letter Beethoven wrote before beginning work on the Fifth. In it, he bemoans his deafness and the lack of understanding he received from his fellow men. Preu immediately launched a performance of the Fifth whose first movement reflected Beethoven's torment almost as powerfully as the words of that letter.


I have always wondered about the odd combination of lyrically beautiful passages with those of stately pomp in the Andante. It struck me Friday that these were the very things Beethoven thought he was missing - the beauty of nature and human intimacy and the recognition he knew he deserved. Preu made the remaining two movements seem a triumphant overcoming of these torments.


The Fifth is jampacked with emotion and condensed to a far greater degree than the "Eroica." Again Preu allowed the details of the wind parts to emerge with greater clarity and effectiveness than is often the case.


The performance Friday ran longer than usual with a full-length program plus an encore of Beethoven's battle music to his semi- symphony "Wellington's Victory." This noisy piece, completed with (computer generated) artillery, is decidedly less than Beethoven at the level of the Third and Fifth symphonies. It was a bang-up close to the evening.












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