Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Almost Too Much of a Good Thing: My Mini Concert Tour of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio

Some days, you just get the burning desire to fly 2,700 miles across the country to hear a great orchestra. At least I do, being the unabashed nerd that I am. Last month, as I continued to adjust to life post-PhD and search for a full-time job, I decided to take a short trip to the Northeast/Midwest to visit some cities, see some friends, and, yes, hear some concerts. With an unusually generous helping of something called “free time” at my disposal—a concept still somewhat foreign to this recent graduate—why not?

I don’t normally take selfies, but when I do, it’s in front of buildings of historical significance.

My travels took me from New York City, down to Philadelphia, across to Pittsburgh, and then a bit further west to Ohio. Over the course of twelve days, I attended five orchestra concerts and an opera, each of which displayed some impressive repertoire and truly top-notch music-making. It was also my first time visiting this part of the country during the fall, and it was a bonus treat to experience the gorgeous weather and stunning colors along the way (because, let’s be honest, our excuse for “fall” in Southern California is more often than not a hot, dry, fire-ridden joke).

So, how was my experience? In a word: remarkable. It was an absolute joy to hear some of our nation’s top orchestras on their home turf, several of which I had never before heard live. The only downside? I attended so many excellent performances in such a short time that it became slightly tricky to distinguish them after a few days; they were all fantastic in their own way. But perhaps experiencing almost too much good music is the best kind of side effect of a trip like this (and of being currently unemployed). Overall, this mini “concert tour” was a total blast, and I’d love to do it again someday.

Below is a brief “review” of each concert I attended, along with some additional thoughts and observations. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it…

Metropolitan Opera

Program

• Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District


• Keri Lynn-Wilson, conductor

• Svetlana Sozdateleva as Katerina Ismailova

• Brandon Jovanovich as Sergei

• John Relyea as Boris Ismailova

• Et al.

The Metropolitan Opera is a complicated institution. Though one can’t deny its rich history, recent years have seen the company dig itself out of several holes of its own making. From a horrendously belated response to accusations of sexual misconduct to its disappointing track record of presenting operas by women and composers of color—not to mention its failure to pay its musicians during the early months of the pandemic—the Met is struggling to stay in touch with the fast-changing society around it. (Not to mention that the aesthetic of the Opera House itself, while beautiful, is super 1960s and hasn’t aged super gracefully, IMO.)

The cast of Lady Macbeth during the curtain call.

All shade aside, it was quite an experience to hear an opera at this storied institution… and a Shostakovich opera at that! His tragedy-satire Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District is talked about more often than it’s programmed. (That infamous 1936 article in Pravda, which denounced the work as “muddle instead of music,” is still perhaps the most common place it comes up.) It’s a shame, too; this opera is ridiculously wacky. It’s got deceit, revelry, murder, sex, political satire… what more could one want?

The Met’s production amped the wackiness up to eleven (see the video below for a taste). Created by the late English director Graham Vick, this version transports the original story to the 1950s, in a sort of America-meets-Soviet Russia fever dream. Here, Katerina is a suburban housewife who shares a picture-perfect “white picket fence” lifestyle—complete with Sedan and working lawn sprinkler—with her dull husband, Zinovy, and slimy father-in-law, Boris. Slowly, though, these trappings of suburbia begin to crumble as Katerina falls in love with the toxic but alluring laborer Sergei, and is ultimately driven to commit heinous acts.

This delirious, fast-paced performance was a total delight from start to finish. Scenes of laugh-out-loud hilarity—the cavalcade of murderous brides in the second Act I interlude—were balanced neatly with moments of searing pathos—Katerina’s final aria in Act IV, for instance. The cast was phenomenal. Svetlana Sozdateleva, Brandon Jovanovich, John Relyea, and Rodell Rosel were particular standouts as Katerina, Sergei, Boris, and the hilariously-lewd peasant, respectively. The orchestra and chorus were also top-notch, and the whole ensemble was corralled marvelously by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. (I was also a big fan of the “Met Titles.” It was so much easier glancing down at translations right in front of you than looking above the stage and then back down to the action.)

All in all, it was a total blast to hear this striking opera, since it is unlikely to be performed around here anytime soon, but here’s hoping I’m proven wrong!

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Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

As Joni Mitchell so aptly put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. If the pandemic (and the year 2020 in general) has taught us anything, it’s that very lesson. Though the year was abysmal for numerous reasons, for many people—myself included—the gradual cancelation and ultimate absence of live music was one of the more disappointing casualties of that raging dumpster fire. As the months dragged by, I couldn’t wait to sit in a darkened concert hall once again and even surmised what the experience might look like in a post-COVID world.

The cover of our 2021 program book. The lovely artwork is by the Aspen-based artist Isa Catto.

Although we’re not in a post-COVID world quite yet, live music has once again become a reality. (At least, for now… PLEASE get vaccinated, people!!!) Because of this, I recently had the opportunity to spend a third summer working as the Assistant Program Book Editor at the Aspen Music Festival and School. While program book and various other work responsibilities took up a sizable portion of time—i.e., lots of proofreading—I was still able to attend several concerts during the Festival’s eight-week season. This was, in a word, wonderful. After spending well over a year getting my music fix from live streams and Spotify, it was so, so refreshing to hear in-person concerts again (and in the gorgeous mountaintop setting of Aspen at that). Though concert protocols looked a bit different than normal years—mask-wearing, distanced seating, etc.—it was nonetheless a memorable summer filled with some incredible performances.

I’ve always wanted to do some sort of post-season wrap-up of my summers at the Festival, but the looming responsibilities of grad school always (rudely) got in the way. Well, since I’m now solely writing my dissertation—not that this isn’t a looming responsibility in itself!—and don’t have to worry about classes, I thought this would be the perfect year to compile some thoughts on Aspen’s 2021 season. That said, here are a few of my favorite concerts and performance highlights from the summer:

Favorite discovery: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major

While the music of Felix Mendelssohn is justly celebrated, it has too often eclipsed the output of his just-as-talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. This is slowly starting to change, though, as musicians begin to grant Hensel a rightful place in the spotlight. One such case occurred at a recital presented this summer by the Pacifica Quartet. Alongside quartets by Florence Price and Sergei Prokofiev (both marvelous works), the program featured Hensel’s sole String Quartet in E-flat. I only became aware of Hensel’s output several years ago, but this piece eluded my radar for some reason. Hearing it for the first time at this concert was a delicious surprise—it’s a brilliant work packed with craft, lush beauty, and charming wit. My favorite moment: in the second movement, Hensel throws in a short fugato as if to say to her nineteenth-century haters, “Oh, so you think women composers can’t write counterpoint? Well, how does it feel to be WRONG?” (There’s also a fiendishly difficult cello part in this movement that actually made me chuckle out loud.) A truly wonderful discovery.

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30 Days with Bach

On September 28, I embarked on a somewhat odd task: to listen to a single classical piece every day for 30 days. Why you ask? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps it was out of a desire to really, intimately get to know a piece of music. Perhaps it was to spice up the doldrums of daily life as we pass the six-month mark of the pandemic. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the idea was there and I was eager to try it out.

Me listening to Bach each day

Once the task was set, I selected Bach’s Cantata BWV 150 (Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich or, “Lord, I long for you”) to be the “guinea pig” piece and settled on a good recording of it—specifically, the 2017 recording with the choir Vox Luminis and conductor Lionel Meunier. (However, I decided early on that it would be OK if I wanted to venture to other recordings on occasion.) I also decided early on to pair this 30-day challenge with a series of blog posts. After each day’s listen, I would write a short entry that provided a tidbit, historical factoid, thought, reaction, or musing about the piece. Ultimately, each entry would build into a chronicle of my month-long listening journey.

Since I was writing on the blog every day, I decided to keep the entries short—just a few sentences to a short paragraph or two (although there are a few quite a bit longer than that!) It’s also worth pointing out that I was pretty well acquainted with this Cantata before starting the challenge, so a few of the entries contain thoughts that had already come to mind well before this. Nevertheless, it’s the first time these thoughts have been put to paper (or screen, in this case). Additionally, three brief notes:

  1. When referring to English translations of the German text, I alternated between using Pamela Diehl‘s translation on Emmanuel Music and the translation on All of Bach.
  2. Throughout the daily blogs, I often reference specific musical moments in Bach’s Cantata. In most cases, the blog text is accompanied by a hyperlink, cued up to a YouTube recording that begins at the corresponding moment. If you would like to listen to these, click the bolded text throughout. (There are some other hyperlinks throughout as well that link to other things.)
  3. At the bottom of this post, I included a Spotify playlist containing six full recordings of the Cantata, each of which I listened to at some point during the month.

Without further ado, here are my 30 days with Bach…

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