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