Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memoriam -- Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)

She had the most beautiful voice. Arturo Toscanini said of Renata Tebaldi that hers was the voice of an angel. Of Joan Sutherland, who died in Switzerland yesterday at the age of 83, the Maestro would have no doubt placed her among the Seraphim -- the angels of the highest order whose name means fire. Hers was the second soprano voice I ever heard on records (the first was Tebaldi), and her voice, full of fiery ardor beneath that gorgeous tone, ignited in me a love of beautiful singing that I carry to this day.

I saw her a couple of times live at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 70's and 80's. Once as Gilda in Rigoletto and another time in her signature role, the title character in Lucia di Lammermoor. I missed her singing days in the 1960's when her voice was the purest. However there are the recordings. Sutherland arrived on the opera scene, and with her classical recordings reached a zenith of perfection. Her label was London Records, which always seem to have an edge on RCA and Angel when it came to impressive sound. For me Joan Sutherland was a voice I came to know and appreciate as it was captured in the recording studio.

Her recording of Rigoletto was one of the first opera albums I ever owned, and one of the definitive recordings of that score. Along with the young Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes in the title role, this album is one of the classics in that golden age of opera studio recording. Alongside Pavarotti, she recorded opera's basic repertory (and then some) in one classic album after another, nearly all, conducted by her husband Richard Bonynge. In Giacomo Puccini's Turandot, a recording which also featured Luciano as Calaf, and which was led by Zubin Mehta, she tackled the title role of the icy empress, abandoning bel canto and entering into a realm which at that time was dominated by Birgit Nilsson. Quite often, critics, when mentioning the strength of Sutherland's voice, would comment that she would have made a great Wagnerian. And she did: as the Forest Bird in John Culshaw's titanic recording of Richard Wagner's Siegfried conducted by Sir Georg Solti.

She certainly had her critics. They mostly complained of her acting, and of the fact that her Italian and overall diction left something to be desired. They were right. It was often hard to understand the words that she sang. I remember one of the many Live from Lincoln Center programs where she performed the aria "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" from the operetta The Bohemian Girl by Michale William Balfe, and wondering what language she was singing in. Still, the beauty of her tone more than made up for it.

Let's listen to Joan Sutherland's beautiful voice once more. The following video is from the Sydney Opera House where Sutherland had her first early triumphs. Here she is in the opera Norma singing "Casta Diva," once again conducted by Maestro Bonynge. I can't think of a better way to remember Joan Sutherland than by listening to her in one of her signature roles.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall is always a hot ticket in New York, especially when they are led by Gustavo Dudamel, the young music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Maestro Dudamel chose an eclectic program with music that ranged from Europe to the Americas, and included works by Gioachino Rossini, Leonard Bernstein, Julián Obrón, and Maurice Ravel.

The program began with Rossini's overture to La Gazza Ladra. This well-known piece from this obscure opera never fails to please, and Dudamel brought out exquisite playing from the orchestra. It's wonderful how Dudamel managed to bring out a warm Italianate sound from the orchestra, and it shows the incredible flexibility of this world-famous ensemble. The next piece, Tres versiones sinfónicas by Spanish-Cuban composer Julián Obrón -- a pupil of Aaron Copland, mixes harmonies reminiscent of the American composer with the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Obrón's adopted homeland (he was born in Spain and became a Cuban citizen). Obrón is pretty much a minor figure in 20th century music, and largely unknown in the United States. Whereas thumbnail pictures of the composers were included in the Carnegie Hall playbill, Obrón's likeness was curiously absent. Despite the relative obscurity of many Hispanic classical composers and their music, Dudamel has always been a champion of the composers of the continent of his birth, and his passionate reading of Obrón's rhythmic score had him doing some fancy angular movements on the podium, and oftentimes leaping in the air. He also chose to have key players of the orchestra stand while playing selected passages of the score. This directorial decision has become a Dudamel trademark.

Leonard Bernstein's Divertimento for Orchestra opened the second half of the program. It is a curious piece made up of miniature movements ranging from Latin dances to a Turkey Trot and finishing with a rousing but dissonant march reminiscent of Charles Ives. The piece, which was commissioned in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is one of the composer's late works, and it feels as if Lenny dug into his trunk and found up a few musical ideas that he weaved together for this composition.

The evening ended with two pieces of Maurice Ravel. The short elegy for a dead child, Pavane pour une infante défunte, is a tender composition whose enigmatic title is a companion piece to the composer's other homage to Spanish culture Alborada del Gracioso. The melodic score allowed Dudamel to shape the long phrases with a delicate hand, and the orchestra responded by playing it so sumptuously that it easily turned out to be the highlight of the evening. Bolero, which ended the printed program, began so quietly that you had to bend an ear to hear the opening bars. Before long, it carefully build to a thunderous climax. It was exciting to witness the violin players of the Vienna Philharmonic digging into their instruments with such wild abandon and musical precision at the same time. This is the kind of sound that few orchestras are able to produce successfully.

The audience greeted the program with a rousing standing ovation, and Dudamel took his bows standing in the midst of the orchestra, his customary spot during curtain calls. It's not that he's shy; he clearly enjoys the limelight that his talents have brought him, but this is an artist with a humble streak that always wants to remind us that despite his superstar status he is only a musician, just like the rest of the players on stage. But what a musician, and what an orchestra he led tonight! The kind of concert where everyone -- including the performers -- left the hall wearing a smile.