New York Arts in Boston

Crowned: Opera Odyssey’s June Festival, plus Guerilla Opera and Commonwealth Lyric Theater, and OperaHub

Verdi's Un giorno di regno, ensemble.

For a city that hasn’t seemed very welcoming to opera, Boston has had a lot of opera going on lately. Since Opera Boston closed on January 1, 2012, there’s been only one major opera company left, the Boston Lyric. But last fall, Gil Rose, former music director of Opera Boston, returned as the head of an important new company, Odyssey Opera, leading a rare performance in concert of Wagner’s first opera, the epic Rienzi. It was a critical success, and now, at the intimate BU Theatre, Odyssey has let its other shoe drop with two programs of fully staged smaller-scale but equally unusual repertoire: Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), the first of his only two comedies and one of the biggest flops of his entire career; and a double bill of Mascagni’s even rarer “lyric scene,” Zanetto, last seen in Boston in 1902, when Mascagni himself brought it on an American tour (and was  thrown into the Charles Street jail for not paying his company), and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1910 farce, Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s “secret” being her unladylike addiction to cigarettes).

Handling Handel: Mark Morris’ Acis and Galatea, plus more Handel, Monteverdi, BLO’s I Puritani, the Met’s Cenerentola, and other adventures in opera-land

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.

The Mark Morris Dance Group was back in Boston with the East Coast premiere of a major new work, Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one of the co-commissioners. I loved it. Or to put it more accurately, I’m in love with it, and saw three of its four performances at the Shubert Theatre. Morris has now staged several complete operas and one Handel oratorio. At least two of these are generally regarded as his masterpieces: Purcell’s one-act opera, Dido and Aeneas (1989), in which all the singers are offstage and the dancers play the main characters; and Handel’s L’Allegro,il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), in which the singers are also offstage, and there are no charactersBut in Rameau’s delectable Platée (1997) and in Morris’s productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Handel and Haydn Society, 1996; the Metropolitan Opera, 2007), singers played the leading roles and appeared on stage along with the dancers.

Pianissimo: Memorable keyboard art by Russell Sherman and Marc-André Hamelin and chamber music by the Takács and Borromeo String Quartets trigger some personal reminiscences

Lloyd Schwartz, 1988, by Robert Giard

This season marked the 75th Anniversary of the Celebrity Series of Boston, founded by Aaron Richmond, whose widow, Nancy Richmond Winsten, sponsors the piano events and is still a familiar attendee. I have a deep sense of nostalgia about the Celebrity Series. The very first concert I ever attended in Boston was with the Budapest String Quartet (my favorite quartet) in 1962. It was my first year of graduate school (I was a very young grad student) and I was living on a $1500 a year scholarship. I had neither time nor money for anything as frivolous as a chamber music concert. But I had to go. The Jordan Hall box office told me the performance was sold out… unless I was willing to take a cheap stage seat. So there I was, sitting a few feet away from the Budapest Quartet playing Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. It remains one of the greatest concerts I ever heard in my life.

B-List Works Shine Forth at Symphony Hall. Andrew Davis leads the BSO in Vaughan-Williams, Prokofiev (with Yuja Wang), and Rimsky-Korsakoff

Ralph Vaughan-Williams

The oeuvre of the each of the greatest, most familiar composers can be imagined as a personal cosmos, a collection of works of great power and quality, spanning a wide range of style and expression. Mention of their names is almost enough to arouse expectations of music belonging on the A-List. Other significant but less ubiquitous composers can be known to concert audiences through small numbers of repeatedly performed works that possess an identifiable sound, style, and mood. Less familiar but important works by two such composers, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Serge Prokofiev, received fine performances by the Boston Symphony in late March, along with an A-List favorite by Rimsky-Korsakoff. These works gave audiences a chance to savor some less familiar, even surprising sides of their composers’ artistic personalities, and to provoke curiosity about what other works by these composers might be lurking in the shadows of the B-List.

Better on Paper? Gerald Finley’s Winterreise, Kirill Gerstein’s Piano Recital in Boston

Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873), Paris Catacombs

I can’t think of any musical event this season I was more looking forward to than Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing Schubert’s Winterreise at Jordan Hall (February 7), and I’d been almost equally excited about hearing Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein return to Boston for a full length Jordan Hall piano recital (January 31). Both concerts were sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, and both sounded great on paper.

Boston Symphony Orchestra—Life in Winter: Poga and Ohlsson, Eschenbach, and Haitink

Garrick Ohlsson with Andris Poga and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Photo Stu Rosner.

On January 25th the Boston Symphony Orchestra and assistant conductor Andris Poga completed a series of concerts that, to judge by that final evening, made for one of the season’s high points. Mr. Poga completes his term with BSO this year and moves on to take over the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra in his native Riga. He is an imposing figure onstage—vigorous but not flamboyant, authoritative in his gestures—and on this occasion showed a remarkable inwardness with all the music he conducted.

Nachtmusik: Sondheim, Anne Hutchinson, Denk, Levin, and Abbado

David Kravitz as Frederick, Krista River as Charlotte, Kristen Watson as Anne (Julian Bullitt photo)

The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.

Good Times, Bum Times: Last Year in Boston

Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from Follies seems especially suitable for this past year in Boston, and for the classical music world in general. There was a lot of terrible news: the folding of the New York City Opera, the cancellation of Minnesota Orchestra concerts and the ensuing resignation of Osmo Vanskä, the music director who put it on the map (even George Mitchell couldn’t make peace between labor and management). The worst thing to happen to Boston, especially for the arts, was the sudden shutdown of its most important weekly newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (I’m biased, of course, having written for the Phoenix for some 35 years). With only a day’s notice, some wonderful writers were suddenly out on the street, and the go-to place for listings and reviews became the sound of silence.

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