Monday, January 30, 2012

Copeland String Quartet with Janet Jackson Witman

Janet Jackson Witman, harpist, was guest artist at Sunday’s Copeland Quartet concert at the Church of the Holy City. Ms. Witman played Aria in classic style by Marcel Grandjany in a version for harp and string quartet. Grandjany, a French harpist who emigrated to North America, wrote this as a concert etude to show the exploits possible with arpeggios on a harp. Ms. Witman executed the arpeggios with clarity, dexterity and a lyrical but gentle sound that resounded in the small church. Since every pew was full, there was little reverberation, yet harp sounded quite clear even in the back pews.

The next piece Ms. Witman chose was a piece that the Pleyel company had commission of Claude Debussy, Danses pour harpe chromatique. As orchestral parts for the harp began to include more and more chromatic passages, Pleyel tried to develop a harp with two sets of strings so the harpist would not need so many pedal changes. Unfortunately, the harpe chromatique did not win over the world of harpists and, like Ms. Witman, they had to learn to make incredibly fast pedal changes rather than deal with so many strings.

The quartet had been more of an accompanying orchestra for the harp in the first two pieces, but the Beethoven ‘harp quartet’, (String quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, opus 74), showed us they were quite capable of taking on more prominent roles. The players gave each voice its own character in Beethoven’s very long coda at the end of the first movement, providing a harmonic balance and shaping each chord with great musical sensitivity. The adagio ma non troppo second movement was a vehicle to show all of the melodic nuances of each of the four instruments – with the presto demanding their precision and alternating and exchanging of melodic phrases with seamless timing and matching lines. For four musicians to trade off a phrase and have it sound as if one person planned the slurs, intonation and dynamics is quite a feat, but nothing compared to their brave finale at the end of the allegretto con variazioni.

They will be at the Church of the Holy Trinity on April 1 or you can hear them by buying one of their two CDs.


OperaDelaware Delivers with Oberto

By Guest Blogger, Chuck Holdeman

The Saturday, January 28, performance at the Grand of "Oberto" turned out to be an afternoon of thrilling opera. "Turned out to be" because an un-staged version of Verdi's very first, and almost never performed opera would not necessarily inspire great anticipation. Aida or Traviata anytime, or even Verdi's first hit Nabucco, but Oberto is just not on the radar. At age 26 Verdi must have felt the need to fulfill expectations for what popular opera was supposed to be, and indeed there is quite a bit of music that sounds like that famous opera composer of the preceding generation, Donizetti. But when the overture begins with a trumpet duet, and then later an aria is accompanied with cascading arpeggios from the bassoon, the listener discerns Verdi's originality in orchestration, so appreciated by opera players- I was one of these myself for many years. There are important roles, too, for trombones and tuba, not always heard in 1939 when Oberto was premiered.

So why was Oberto so successful yesterday? Wonderful performers! the cast, conductor, chorus, and orchestra. Credit is also due to the co-producers, OperaDelaware and Philadelphia's renowned opera training school, the Academy of Vocal Arts for conceiving of this unique collaboration, a highly satisfying approach to Verdi's neglected first opera. For this concert version, the cast was in formal attire rather than costumes, the large-by-opera-standards orchestra right behind them on stage, the modern convenience of supertitles added much (English with the singing in Italian), and there was also the minimal though complete staging, i.e. acted-out interactions among the five main characters  which made for clear story-telling.

The excellent chorus was a combination of OperaDelaware's own, along side AVA students. They entered and exited as the story required, standing behind the second violins. The four large roles and one smaller one were sung by the greatly talented AVA artists-in-training who already possess big mature voices, with the intensity of fine acting to match. When the curtain calls arrived, it seemed that soprano Michelle Johnson had truly captured the hearts of her listeners, due in part to the conflicted and pathetic vulnerability of her character, Leonora, who, prior to the events depicted, had been seduced and then abandoned by the tenor, Riccardo. The mezzo, Cuniza, is now his fiancee, but becomes Leonora's greatest advocate, via opera's penchant for the absurd yet dramatic. Leonora's father Oberto, the baritone, chooses his passion for revenge rather than entering a briefly open doorway to offering forgiveness, while Cuniza's servant Imelda, played by mezzo Sasha Hashemipour had some beautiful lines to sing, though a bystander to the overblown preoccupations of her employer's circle.

Michelle Johnson possesses a voice of rich timbre which retains its focus and color in the highest register. Verdi's daring two-octave descents revealed an exceptionally strong and expressive low range as well- she has it all. The huge voice of Margaret Mezzacapa who played Cuniza was equally gripping, and her acting matched Johnson's intensity. It was only her character's role as an intermediary among the other principals which limited her effect on the audience. Musa Ngqungwana as Leonora's father Oberto was a strong baritone, whose character starts out wounded, searching for relief. But when his vengeful passion, ultimately leading to his own death, finds its full flower, Ngqungwana gripped the listeners with the force of his character's emotion. Tenor William Davenport, who was having his only shot at performing the role which was rotating through 3 tenors in 4 performances, came off powerfully as Riccardo, a confused young man, first swayed by romance, then by an advantageous betrothal, and tragically by the challenge to duel Oberto, a much older man whom he knew he would in effect murder. Davenport has a Pavaratti-like timbre, as well as many of the affects of an Italian opera tenor. He was a convincing bad-guy, while perhaps not quite convincing us that such a character is as human as the rest of us, not an easy task in many a 19th century opera role.

Another advantage afforded by the concert format was a clear view of conductor Christofer Macatsoris, who is also the general music director for AVA. Without cover of the usual orchestra pit, we could see the drama in his every gesture, the way his baton goes from hand to hand, his expressive fingers and wrists doing much of the work. His involvement with the singers is constant, also finding occasion to cajole lines ascending from the depths of the 'cello section. Macatsoris tensile strength might seem his most prominent feature, still he delights in the airy gestures of the bel canto style. His orchestra of Philadelphia professionals, some of whom are also OperaDelaware regulars, was highly disciplined, responding securely to their demanding maestro. Veteran clarinetist Joseph Smith was particularly expressive, as was flutist David DiGiacobbe, while all the sections maintained uniformly high standards. An opera in two acts, Oberto's intensity rose as each act drew to its close, and it was then, as emotions reached fever pitch, that all the power and imagination of Verdi's nascent talent showed through.

One performance remains, January 31 at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall.


Friday, January 27, 2012

HONK, if You Want to see a Fantastic Family Show!

The Delaware Children’s Theatre, Delaware’s home of storybook productions, has gone to the countryside with its latest production of the family musical, Honk!
Honk!, a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic The Ugly Duckling, is a lesson in accepting others for who they are and not based on their physical appearance. Ugly, played with great charisma by Tripp Ivie, is a newly born duckling that doesn’t resemble his siblings or the other ducklings in their area.
Ugly’s mother, Ida, played by the talented Lucy Marie Smith, loves him unconditionally and is unfazed by his hideous features. She teaches her son how to swim and advises him to stay away from the sinister Cat, played by the sly Daniel Schmitt.
Unfortunately, Ugly’s siblings and the other farm animals aren’t as kind as his mother and eventually shun him from their activities. Longing to be accepted, Ugly gives in to Cat’s temptation of a play-date and lunch. However, Ugly doesn’t realize he’s on the menu. Once he understands Cat’s true intentions, he escapes and begins his adventure to find his family. While on his jaunt, he meets some colorful animals, including the snazzy Bullfrog, played effortlessly by Dan Healy, who teach him valuable life lessons. While Ugly is working his way home, his worried mother leaves the family to find him.
Will mother and son find each other? Will Ugly ever become handsome? Does he win the love of his siblings and the other animals? I’m sure you can guess the answers to all of these questions, since this is a children’s show!
The production is delightful! The cast transforms into their respected animal characters and charms the children in the audience. Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Smith give enchanting performances. My eye was particularly drawn to one cast member, Lynne Lew as the pesky duck Henrietta, who shows continuous enthusiasm during the production.
The only issue, as with many community theater productions, is at times the band was louder than the performers, making it difficult to hear the lyrics. Regardless, Tom Marshall has directed a show that will entertain the whole family and teach an important lesson to the young and the young at heart!
The show runs through February 12. For more information visit

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Time Stands Still at DTC

While photos of the horrors of war draw viewers into places and events with startling intimacy, it's not often that we think about the photographer beyond that decisive moment. Does she have a family? A circle of friends? Does she live in a house in the country or an apartment in the big city? What would it be like if the situations laid bare for the world to see were hers?

"Time Stands Still," in its first regional production since it closed on Broadway in January 2011, turns photojournalism on its head by showing the other side of the camera, it all of its imperfect glory.

Susan McKey, Kevin Kelly, Bruce Graham, and Megan McDermott. Photo by Matt Urban.

This Delaware Theatre Company production is a partnership with the Act II Playhouse in Ambler, PA, the theatrical home of director Bud Martin. Donald Margulies' vision of an intimate and strikingly realistic slice of one photojournalist's life after an injury overseas works incredibly well on the DTC stage -- it's as if you're a fly on the wall.

The play features four characters: Photojournalist Sarah (Susan McKey), her longtime partner James (Kevin Kelly), her friend and editor Richard (Bruce Graham), and Richard's young, bubbly girlfriend Mandy (Megan McDermott). The acting is spot on. As you get to know these people, you start to relate to them on different levels (which characters you relate to most depends a lot on your own experiences and personality). Despite the fact that the subject matter is war, with Sarah having been injured in Iraq, there is no heavy-handed political message. It's a story about people and relationships, of love and loss and passion.

It all takes place in Sarah and James' Brooklyn loft, beautifully designed by Dirk Durossette. It's not a place you'll soon forget.

"Time Stands Still" runs through February 5.  For tickets, visit

For more, see my review for STAGE Magazine.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Warm hats and notes for Mėlomanie

Mėlomanie invited guest composer Kile Smith for the premiere of his work The Nobility of Women for harpsichord, ‘cello, viola da gamba, violin, flute and oboe. The work is a series of dances which have both a baroque inspiration and a modern treatment– especially the fanfare of the Overture. Smith’s mastery of detail (his years as librarian of the Fleischer collection made their mark) was evident in his his careful consideration of each instrument as a soloist.

As is their wont, Mėlomanie mixed it up and presented a more modernist work by Mark Hagerty, Variations on a theme by Steely Dan which came out surprisingly well using harpsichord as the keyboard. Priscilla Smith and Kim Reighley were able to trade styles and melodic lines as they followed Hagerty’s merry romp through the gamut of baroque to bop. Doug McNames was also at ease letting loose with his ‘cello acting the dancing double bass and bringing a surprising twentieth century rock style to the fun grouping of baroque players.

Long-time member Donna Fournier played one of her best concerts with her performance of the Suite in D Minor by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. She has really become a master of the viola da gamba and it was an exhilarating experience to hear her play.

Priscilla Smith brought a very fresh and unadorned mastery of baroque oboe to the fore as she played the beautiful, quiet and almost vibrato-free melodies of Telemann and Couperin. Her youth and talent promise a great deal for her future. She already has an impressive resume of performances as a baroque player.

Mėlomanie accepted donations of gloves, scarves and hats in lieu of tickets to benefit Friendship House.