Katherine Jenkins: Believe U.S. Debut

Welsh opera singer, former Doctor Who guest star and current Dancing With The Stars contestant Katherine Jenkins’ Believe is finally being released in the U.S. I reviewed the album when it was initially released in the U.K. two years ago. You can read my full album review by clicking here. As I said then, “The Welsh mezzo-soprano’s pristine, rafter-scraping voice is beautifully displayed on her new album…Katherine transforms classics by The Beatles, Queen and Edith Piaf into gorgeous arias and also covers newer songs by Evanescence and Sarah McLachlan. You can watch the official videos for her covers of “Angel” and “Bring Me To Life” below…

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Muruch Album Review

Katherine Jenkins Official Site

DVD Review: Twin Spirits

Remarkable! Extraordinary! What an astonishing piece of work Twin Spirits is, I’ve never seen anything like it.

A stage tribute to the love and music of Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara Wieck, Twin Spirits stars Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, as the classical composing couple.

Derek Jacobi narrates the event as Sting and Trudy read aloud from love letters Robert and Clara sent to each other.

The music of the two German composers is performed in vignettes by a trio of classical musicians with opera singers, Simon Keenlyside and Rebecca Evans, portraying the couple in song.

Twin Spirits is a beautiful, dramatic, poignant, incomparable live performance DVD.

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Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “Song of the Earth”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Song of the Earth” concerts were held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this past weekend.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and tenor John MacMaster joined Maestro Grant Cooper and his orchestra for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).”

Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler is my third favorite composer (just after Chopin and Beethoven), so I was very excited to hear the WV Symphony tackle another of his substantial works. A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was as famous for his arrogance as he was for his brilliance. His compositions possess a complexity and grandeur to rival Wagner.

“Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” was composed for two vocal soloists and an orchestra. The sixty-five minute, six-movement symphony is comprised of six independent songs. Mahler’s work contains several Chinese motifs, with lyrics both inspired by and culled directly from Hans Bethge’s German translation of ancient Chinese poetry.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion with orchestra member Tom Beal, Maestro Cooper encouraged the audience to reflect on what meaning this ancient Chinese poetry – first translated into German and then expounded upon for Mahler’s composition – holds for the 21st century.

An obvious Mahler enthusiast, Cooper called the discovery of Mahler’s music a life-changing event for himself. He shared his passion for this particular piece, his knowledge of the composer’s life and his pleasure at the resurgence in popularity Mahler’s music has enjoyed in recent decades after having been banned by the Nazi regime.

According to Maestro Cooper, Mahler called “Das Lied von der Erde” his most personal work and the poetic scenes of the original Chinese text are clearly painted by Mahler through his music. Cooper also extolled the virtues and multi-layered nature of opera (though “Das Lied von der Erde” is technically a symphony), particularly how the orchestra can reveal a singer’s true thoughts and emotions when they are singing something entirely different.

Rather than opening with another work as usual, Maestro Cooper and his orchestra instead spent the first hour of the performance dissecting Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” While I understood Cooper’s desire to educate the audience in hopes of enhancing their listening experience and greatly appreciated his insights, I felt the musical “spoilers” performed by the symphony during the lecture diminished the power of the work when they finally performed it in its entirety. I think it would have been more effective to have incorporated that segment into the “Preludes” discussion or scheduled it for the second half of the evening. That small complaint aside, however, the actual performance of “Das Lied von der Erde” was lovely.

The first movement, “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde (The Drinking Song of Earth’s Misery),” masks a lament of human mortality beneath the ignorant bliss of inebriation.

The earth will stand firm for ages – and forever bloom in sping. But you, Mankind, how long will you live then?

The second movement, “Der Einsame im Herbst (The lonely one in Autumn),” is a softer, gentler dirge. The slow death of nature’s beauty as winter approaches mimics the weariness and loneliness of age.

The autumn in my heart has lasted too long

The third movement, “Von der Jugend (Of Youth),” seems to yearn for the careless mirth of youth, but is really a metaphor for the trivial phases of life that can never be recovered.

Friends, beautifully dressed, are drinking and chatting

The fourth movement, “Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty),” sings of the fleeting passions and beauty of youth. Cooper pointed out that Mahler altered the description of the horses in this verse to refer to the trampling effects of life.

The agitation of her heart leaps after him, lamenting

The fifth movement, “Der Trunkene im Frühling (The drunken man in Spring),” contrasts the self-absorption of a drunkard with the renewal of Spring.

What does Spring mean to me? The chance to be drunk!

The finale, “Der Abschied (The Farewell),” is a wistful rumination on life’s passing into death as the day passes into night.

Quiet is my heart, even while waiting for its final hour!

What I enjoy most about the piece is the juxtaposition of voice and instrumentation in Mahler’s arrangement. Rather than focusing heavily on vocals – which can be a composition’s downfall in the wrong hands (or voice) – the singers must compete here with the dynamic energy of the orchestra.

Tenor John MacMaster was especially capable of such a contest. His powerful voice initially engaged in a lilting dance with the orchestra before exploding into the musical equivalent of two thunder clouds colliding.

Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was also quite good, though she at times lacked the projection necessary to truly dazzle. Granted, it would be difficult for any singer to surpass Audrey Babcock’s performance of Mahler with the WV Symphony in 2009.

Throughout the performance, the WV Symphony played as beautifully as always. The orchestra skillfully and gorgeously portrayed the subtle, emotive nuances of Mahler’s arrangement – from blithe frivolity and radiant jubilance to simmering melancholy and delicate resignation.

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share.

WV Symphony Official Site

Live Review: WV Symphony Presents “The Wonder Of Love”

West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “The Wonder of Love” concert was held at The Clay Center’s Maier Foundation Performance Hall this weekend and featured guest mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock.

Maestro Grant Cooper led his orchestra through performances of Richard Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan und Isolde,” Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

The Pittsburgh Symphony kindly granted the use of The Verdin church bells for the latter, and the nearly 600-pound cast iron bells were hidden off-stage as Berlioz originally instructed when he composed the piece.

During the pre-performance “Preludes” discussion, Grant Cooper shared some of the very specific instructions Berlioz wrote for his “Symphonie Fantastique.” These included the particular kind of stick to be used for striking the drums and the infamous hidden bells.

Cooper also gave a preview demonstration of the range in sound of the bells – from a soft, muffled illusion of distance to the thunderous peals of a looming cathedral bell tower.

The Symphony began with the “Prelude” to German composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” a three-act opera depicting the legendary medieval romance between a Cornish knight and an Irish princess (a story which also inspired the Arthurian stories).

Wagner’s composition was mostly based on Gottfried von Strassburg’s poem “Tristan,” but it was also inspired by Wagner’s affair with married author Mathilde Wesendonck as well as the theories of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

“Tristan und Isolde” is considered to be one of the most influential works of the nineteenth century (the 2006 James Franco film Tristan and Isolde was based on Wagner’s opera), and its tonality is often credited as turning classical music in a new direction for the early twentieth century. Wagner was influenced by Weber and Beethoven, but his own work would inspire Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, and countless other composers.

I’ve always thought Wagner’s works were a bit overrated, but “Tristan und Isolde” is the exception. The “Prelude” possesses a sweeping, cinematic beauty and elegance, and it was handled with tender grace in the many capable hands of the West Virginia Symphony.

Award winning mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock joined the orchestra for “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” by Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler. This was the piece I was most excited about, as I’ve recently become enamoured with Mahler’s music (particularly his eighth symphony). After Beethoven and Bach, Mahler has skyrocketed to the top of my favorite composers list.

A contemporary of Brahms and Bruckner, Mahler was known to be intelligent, sophisticated, neurotic, and egotistical. Considering the brilliance, scope, and complexity of his compositions, I don’t blame him at all for such arrogance.

The four-movement “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer) was Mahler’s first song cycle and was apparently inspired by the end of Mahler’s love affair with soprano Johanna Richter. You can read lyrics from all four songs at Wikipedia.

Singer Audrey Babcock was incredible. A stunning and satuesque beauty, her magnificent voice was perfectly suited to “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.” As much as I love Mahler, this particular piece is a tricky one to carry off successfully since it relies as much on the vocalist as it does the orchestra. I’ve heard recordings that fell flat because the singer’s voice lacked the power to infuse the notes with the great emotion they require. Fortunately, Babcock’s voice was as emotive and lovely during the verses that utilized her lower register as it was in the breathtaking high notes. I was shocked that the audience did not give her a standing ovation.

French composer Hector Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique” is said to be the greatest first symphony ever written, though it was revised repeatedly a few years after the original composition in 1830. His orchestration was groundbreaking in its time – particularly the use of multiple timpani, bells, brass, and his trick of having the string players bounce the bow’s wood on the strings.

Berlioz briefly studied medicine before enrolling at the Paris Conservatory and supporting himself as a music reviewer for a local newspaper. His music was heavily influenced by Beethoven.

“Symphony Fantastique” was born after Berlioz saw a performance of Hamlet starring Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. It was love at first sight for the composer and he poured his emotion into the symphony in hopes of capturing the attention of the new object of his affection.

In concept, the five-movement “Symphony Fantastique” is a bit like a classical Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas in that it follows the imaginary opium-induced visions of a young, lovesick artist. These drug-fueled hallucinations end with the artist being executed for murdering his beloved.

I’ve personally always found the first two movements boring, but my disinterest in the beginning of the piece was no reflection on the Symphony’s performance. The orchestra’s playing was impeccable as always.

Everything changed for me with the beautiful third movement, in which Berlioz made splendid use of the English horn and oboe to represent a country shepard and shepardess.

The fourth movement of “Symphony Fantastique” is astoundingly dramatic, and the orchestra’s performance was so fantastic that the audience burst into spontaneous applause between movements (breaking the unspoken rule to hold applause until the end of the symphony).

Maestro Cooper responded to the outburst by turning to the audience with a mischievous grin and saying, “It gets even better.”

Truer words were never spoken. The final movement was ominous, otherworldly, and well worth the wait. And oh the bells!

Cameras and recording devices were prohibited, so I have no audio or photographs from this performance to share. But I did find videos elsewhere…

Wagner – Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (YouTube Video)
Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (YouTube Video)
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique (YouTube Video)

And there’s a nice interview with Maestro Grant Cooper by my pal Mona Seghatoleslami at WV Public Broadcasting’s blog Classically Speaking.

Wagner CDs @ Amazon

Mahler CDs @ Amazon

Berlioz CDs @ Amazon

Vagabond Opera: The Zeitgeist Beckons

Six-piece Portland ensemble Vagabond Opera is a new addition to my demented circus genre. But despite some similarities to twisted bands like The Dresden Dolls and Tiger Lillies, Vagabond Opera’s new album The Zeitgeist Beckons centers on a more traditional cabaret sound (akin to Camille O’Sullivan) with elements of opera, Eastern European folk, jazz, swing, and klezmer. Led by operatic tenor and accordion player Eric Stern, the band features a wide selection of instruments and styles with a revolving cast of female vocalists.

The cabaret style is omnipresent throughout the album, but front and center in “Welcome to the Opera.” The song introduces the musicians, showcases their eclectic stylistic madness, and finishes with a sample of Verdi’s “Traviata.”

Songs like “Chimaeras Be Met” and “Farewell Kabarista” are heavier on the jazz and swing. The manic cover of Tom Waits’ “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore” can’t compete with Holly Cole‘s interpretation, but it’s not really trying to anyway.

“Milord” is a torchy homage to Edith Piaf that I love, but the sultry snarl of “Ganef” is probably my favorite track on the album. So much so that I was tempted to share it (the band was kind enough to let me choose the mp3), but I feel this track is a better introduction to the band…

Vagabond Opera – Welcome to the Opera (mp3 expired) *

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Vagabond Opera will perform at Mountain Stage next month, and I think it’ll be a very entertaining set.

Vagabond Opera Official Site

*mp3 posted w/ permission of the band