Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Demise of the Juilliard Choral Union

I have been a member of the Juilliard Choral Union for four years. With the ensemble I have performed many wonderful concerts which included staged performances of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, at the Juilliard School, and the world premiere of Peter Martin's ballet Chichester Psalms, with the music of Leonard Bernstein, with the New York City Ballet.

Last Spring, while rehearsing for a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony the ensemble was informed that our director, Judith Clurman, had resigned from the Juilliard School. The members of the chorus, distraught over the fact that the ensemble would not continue, petitioned the president of the school, Joseph Polisi, to keep the group going. It is fair to say that every person in that chorus signed this petition which was delivered to President Polisi's desk before our last concert of the year.

A few weeks ago, the members of the chorus received the following e-mail from the president of the Juilliard School.

Dear members of the Juilliard Choral Union,

Please accept my gratitude for your important contributions to Juilliard’s musical life over the past year, culminating with the success of our Commencement Concert.

As was announced to the Choral Union about three weeks ago, Judith Clurman has decided to resign her position at the Juilliard School. We thank her for her many years of dedicated work on behalf of choral music at Juilliard and wish her well in her future endeavors.

This coming season was going to be, by necessity, one with limited choral activity. The ongoing construction activity at both Alice Tully Hall and within the Juilliard building has had a significant impact on the availability of both rehearsal and, particularly, performance space. Many of the concerts that traditionally take place under our roof have either been cut back or placed in other venues throughout New York City. The Choral Union’s schedule was already planned to be a limited one in the 2007-08 season because of these factors, with no major work planned with the Juilliard Orchestra.

As a result of Judy's decision and the very limited performance schedule envisioned for the Choral Union, we have decided to put the Juilliard Choral Union on hiatus for next year, to allow us time to plan for the future in an appropriate and thoughtful manner.

I am aware of the personal and artistic commitment that many of you had made to the Choral Union over the years. Our decision to suspend the Choral Union's activities for the time being was made only after lengthy discussions with members of Juilliard's Senior Staff. I believe it is the best and most prudent approach for choral activities at Juilliard in the current environment.

Thank you for understanding in this matter, and I hope that you will enjoy a restful and productive summer.


Joseph W. Polisi

I hope that President Polisi is true to his word, and that the ensemble is merely on a one year hiatus as Juilliard makes up its mind what it wants to do with the choral singing aspect of its curriculum. The Juilliard Choral Union was part of the Juilliard Evening Division, and it offered the Juilliard community as well as tri-state area singers the chance to be part of the classical musical scene in New York. Let us hope that one day we can be back making music once again.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Beverly Sills gravely ill

It was reported yesterday that soprano Beverly Sills is gravely ill with cancer. The following is an article from The Washington Post detailing Ms. Sills's condition.

NEW YORK -- Beverly Sills, the opera diva who won over fans worldwide with her sparkling voice and charming personality and later became a powerhouse in the New York arts world, is gravely ill with cancer, The Associated Press has learned.

Sills, 78, was chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera until she resigned two years ago, citing health and family reasons. She remains the Met's chairwoman emerita.

The Met would neither confirm nor deny news of her illness, but people close to the situation said Sills was at a Manhattan hospital, with her daughter at her side.

In an e-mail this week to members of its board, the Met said Sills was "gravely ill." One person said she was suffering from lung cancer. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to announce news of her health.

Sills, a nonsmoker, underwent successful cancer surgery in 1974.

Born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn, the coloratura soprano made her opera debut in 1947 in Philadelphia in a bit role in Bizet's Carmen. She became a star with the New York City Opera, where she first performed in 1955 in Johann Strauss Jr.'s Die Fledermaus. She was acclaimed for performances in such operas as Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, Massenet's Manon, Handel's Giulio Cesare and the roles of three Tudor queens in works by Gaetano Donizetti.

She didn't appear at the Met until 1975, shortly before her retirement from singing -- which made it surprising when the Met asked her to sit on its board in 2002.

Beyond the music world, Sills gained fans worldwide with a personality that matched her childhood nickname -- Bubbles. The relaxed, red-haired diva appeared frequently on "The Tonight Show," "The Muppet Show" and singing with her friend Carol Burnett. As recently as last season, she hosted some of the Met's new high definition theater broadcasts.

Sills retired from the stage in 1980 at 51 and began a career leading New York's performing arts community as general director of City Opera. She became chairwoman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1994.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Kirov Ring at the MET

After much self-debate, I'll be attending the Kirov Ring at the Metropolitan Opera this summer in July after all. I got tickets to this event this week thanks to the MET's choice of selling the remnants of what was not sold as subscriptions as individual tickets. Not the best tickets in the house, but all of them full view, and all of them in the orchestra section of the house. I was happy that there was something left over. I will be going to three quarters of the Ring (I decided to skip Siegfried).

I am not sure what this Ring is going to be like, but I can tell you that for me it does not photograph well. From the few pictures that have been published, I am not too thrilled by the visual aspect of this production, which based on Russian myths (so I have read), has a "Polivetsian Dances" feel to it, and a color scheme right out of Bollywood. For someone like me, who reveres Wieland Wagner and shares his directorial opinion that darkness is more apt for Richard Wagner than lights, this will be a very challenging production for me.

The real draw for me is the Ring itself, of course. We have not heard it in New York in a while, and experiencing it in a production other than what the MET currently offers is a rare event indeed. Also, the most important part will be experiencing what Valery Gergiev will do with this score. We have not heard this work in the hands of someone other than James Levine in years, and I think audiences need to hear what another conductor can do. Gergiev led an amazingly satisfying reading of Parsifal back in 2003, and next season New York audiences will be treated to Lorin Maazel return to the MET in Die Walk├╝re.

It should be an exciting production this summer, and I will be blogging about each one.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Frost/Nixon on Broadway

The genius of Frost/Nixon when it comes to the two figures that the play brings to life is not rooted in the fact that Frank Langella looks and sounds like Richard Nixon. In fact, his performance is as far from an impersonation as it can get. And certainly the same can be said of Michael Sheen's brilliant interpretation of David Frost, the British talk show host who scored the biggest coup of his life when he interviewed the ex-president of the United States in a series of programs that have become the stuff of journalistic legend. The play's power comes from the titanic performances of these two actors, the incredible pacing established by director Michael Grandage and Peter Morgan's powerful script which matches the two men in a power play that often feels like the 15th round of an Ali-Frazier heavyweight bout.

The difficulty in bringing these characters to life has a lot to do with our historical familiarity to them, and also in which side of the Atlantic you saw this play. In the case of Richard Nixon, here in America, we know the man's face and voice too well. As a result, Frank Langella's performance takes a bit getting used to. At first, we fight the fact that he neither looks nor sounds like Nixon, a man who was born, bred, and destroyed under the watchful eyes of the cameras. But as Mr. Langella's performance develops we begin to believe that we are watching the President of the United States. It is a brilliant illusion that can only occur within the precincts of the theater, and Langella is a master of this type of eye-opening sleight-of-hand. After a few minutes we are hooked, and we start noticing mannerisms that Nixon never had, but wished he had. His limp wrist dismissal gesture of European loafers is just priceless.

Michael Sheen's approach to the other side of the coin of this play is very similar to Langella's. He completely avoids an impersonation of the talk show host in favor of capturing the flavor of the man. We believe he is David Frost because of his mastery of style. Mr. Sheen is one of Britain's finest new actors, and part of the fun of Frost/Nixon is observing the different approaches to acting of the two leads. Simply put, Sheen plays his part, but Langella becomes his. It is the classic difference that separates Broadway from the West End, and it is one of the main attractions we should look for when we have the unique opportunity to witness two equal forces headlining a project. The chance to see this phenomenon at work is alone worth the price of admission to Frost/Nixon: don't miss it.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

LoveMusik on Broadway

LoveMusik, the new Harold Prince show, with its lovely title and incredible talent behind it, is a great idea for a musical. However, like most great ideas that go on-stage half-baked, the show just withers away as it tries to present a serious musical biopic of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, but ends up being just a confused jukebox musical.

One can't deny the great talent that has gathered on the stage of the Biltmore Theater. Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy play the composer and his sometime-wife. Here are two Broadway veterans giving performances that end up leaving us cold and distant from the two musical giants that they portray. The book by Alfred Uhry (the Tony, Pulitzer, Oscar winner writer) fails to get inside the skins of the protagonists, or to conjure the time and locale where the action takes place. Likewise, Harold Prince, whose middle name is definitely Broadway, just can't seem to come up with the right ingredients to make the whole thing work. He did it, and he did it masterfully with the original production of Cabaret (with Lotte Lenya herself), but here he treats the pair as immortal icons, and neither Mr. Cerveris nor Ms. Murphy are able to break out of that mold.

Further, the choice of having the stars sing and act with thick German accents (to establish a locale, I suppose) is a bad decision that many times makes their lines unintelligible. On top of that, to add to the accent confusion, some of the songs are sung in the original German. At times, I was not sure exactly what I was suppose to understand. Another unfortunate directorial choice was to have the stars mimic the singing style of the real Weill and Lenya. Now, I am not sure what Weill sounded like when he sang, (if he sang at all) and it seems that neither do the creators. Therefore, they went with the old adage that composers can't sing. Mr. Cerveris is straight-jacketed into performing with a toned-down version of his usual radiant voice, and Ms. Murphy is placed at a great disadvantage trying to mimic Lotte Lenya's unforgettable voice. Neither of the two are totally successful at their attempts, and this hurts the show. The only one who manages to break through is David Pittu, whose earnest and earthy portrayal of Bertolt Brecht deserves the Tony Award.

I recommend that you skip this one, unless you want to catch Mr. Pittu's wonderful performance, or you are die-hard Cerveris or Murphy fans. But do get the Original Cast Recording when that comes out. There are rare Kurt Weill gems that have been gathered, and the orchestra (who were dressed in tuxedos and gowns) under Nicholas Archer plays tastefully, and with the right accent.