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!

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

Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

Laura Poe is a musician of kaleidoscopic talent. Besides being an outstanding solo pianist, she is an accompanist, vocal coach (or répétiteur, as the French say), music editor, arranger, and educator who has worked around the world with some of classical music’s finest artists. Though equally comfortable in the concert hall, her primary home is the opera house. She is an ensemble member at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (in Düsseldorf and Duisburg) and San Francisco Opera, where she helps prepare numerous productions each year. The repertoire she works with is stylistically vast and eclectic, ranging from beloved favorites by Wagner and Mozart to more recent works by John Adams and Oliver Knussen. Simply put, Laura is the rightful bearer (and wearer) of many musical “hats.”

Laura’s association with the music of John Adams is of particular note. For the past several years, she has worked closely with the composer on his two latest operas (Girls of the Golden West and Antony and Cleopatra), accompanying staging rehearsals, coaching singers, and performing with the orchestra in the pit. To top it all off, she also helped prepare the piano-vocal score, or piano reduction, for both operas, a monumental task in its own right.

As readers of this blog know, John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. So, one can imagine my excitement when my dad and I recently had the opportunity to fly up to the Bay Area and attend one of the first performances of Antony and Cleopatra at San Francisco Opera. While a curious detour from Adams’s well-trod “turf” of stage works based on twentieth-century historical events—most famously with Nixon in China—this more-or-less straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was magnificent. It had everything one could want in a new opera: thrilling and gorgeous music, a stellar cast—namely Amina Edris (who heroically stepped in for Julia Bullock), Gerald Finley, and Paul Appleby—and a dazzling 1930s Hollywood-inspired production. Such a venture was a huge creative risk for Adams. Early reviews have reflected this, ranging from enthusiastic praise and acclaim to disappointed shrugs. Whatever the critics may think, my dad and I loved it, and thought the gamble paid off handsomely. (We also had the honor to chat with Adams for a bit at intermission, a huge “geek out” moment for us.)

Laura, my dad, and me after the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

Before the performance, my dad and I met up with Laura for brunch near the opera house. Laura was a student in my dad’s middle school music program in Irvine, California, many years ago, and we all had a wonderful time talking about music and hearing some of Laura’s behind-the-scenes stories about the opera’s development. Several weeks later, Laura and I sat down over Zoom to chat more about her career, her association with Adams, and her experience working on Antony and Cleopatra. What follows are excerpts from our fascinating and wide-ranging discussion.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with opera? What first led you to work in this world?

Every path I took with my education somehow led to where I am today. I knew I wanted to work with people but didn’t know yet in what capacity. I have a music education degree; I don’t have a solo piano degree and was never striving toward that.

After I finished my undergraduate program, I met a new piano teacher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro named Dr. Andrew Harley. I started taking lessons with him and one day, he asked, if I would consider pursuing my Master’s at UNC Greensboro, and continue studying with him. That was never a part of my plan, but I thought that it couldn’t hurt to have a Master’s degree. He was a very dedicated teacher, and I will be forever grateful. He came to every recital I accompanied, and during that time, he encouraged me to audition for my first music festival, which was Music Academy of the West. He was a wonderful teacher who nurtured my love of collaborating with people and gave me not just the encouragement but the idea that I could do it. A few years later, I ended up in New York City where I pursued a Graduate Diploma degree in Collaborative Piano at The Juilliard School.

Upon graduation, I auditioned for several doctoral programs and the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. At one point, I had the great fortune of having to decide whether I wanted to go to the Met or do a doctorate at the New England Conservatory… and I chose opera. From there, it was a sharp right turn to a life in the opera house—getting lessons in piano and conducting and prompting, playing for legendary singers and coaches, and soaking in as much information as possible. My wonderful mentor, Margo Garrett, encouraged her students to attend as many live performances as possible during our Juilliard years, and it is advice that I have carried with me to this day. A typical day would start around 9:00 in the morning and end around 5:00 or 6:00. I would rush to get a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria and then stay for an opera. I watched almost all the operas each season between four to eight times. I did that for two intense years and loved it.

When did you first meet John Adams?

In 2009, I was a vocal coach for the Department of Vocal Arts at Juilliard. One of my first assignments was to prepare the singers for a semi-staged performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, with John Adams conducting. It was a three-week process where we coached the singers before John arrived. At the first rehearsal, he surprised us by saying that he did not want to conduct the rehearsal but wanted to watch what we had been preparing. And we looked around, wondering, “Who’s going to conduct it?” The other pianist looked at me and said, “I’m not conducting!” So, when I first met John Adams, I conducted a run-through of Klinghoffer (without the choruses).

Laura and John Adams after a 2011 masterclass at Juilliard. (Used with permission)

The night before the performance, he asked if I could sit in the front row of the Peter J. Sharp Theater and assist him by cueing all the singers during the performance. (The solo singers were behind him as it was semi-staged; there was no pit.) I think it was the naivety of youth because now, as an adult who has been doing this for almost fifteen years, part of me wonders, “How did I do that?” But I just sat there with my music stand and gave every single cue. Afterward, John was very grateful. His memoir, Hallelujah Junction, had just come out, so he went to the Juilliard bookstore and bought me a copy as a thank-you gift.

Continue reading “Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe”

Diversity. Now.

Like countless people across the nation and the world, I am shocked, angered, and grieved by the recent events that have unfolded in the United States. The needless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are a sobering reminder that there is so much work to be done to dismantle systemic racism, implicit biases, and other systems of power that unjustly discriminate against people of color and other underrepresented groups. This is a significant historical moment, and coming together alongside these communities to mourn, listen, learn, and help enact positive change is more crucial now than ever.

As I’ve processed the events of this past week, my mind has occasionally turned to thinking about some of the similar, deep-seated systemic issues facing the classical music industry. I’ve written about diversity problems in classical music programming on this blog before (which you can read here), but now is the time to address it once again.

While many arts organizations are making great strides in the realm of diversity (such as the LA Phil), noticeable changes across the board are still not apparent. Works by women and composers of color are still programmed infrequently or appear on one-off, “themed” programs. Women conductors are still somewhat of an anomaly, even more so for black conductors and performers. Some opera companies and singers still insist on using blackface for specific roles, despite issues of racial and cultural appropriation. Certain instruments—such as brass—are still implicitly or explicitly gendered and widely considered to be appropriate only for men and boys. (To the people who think the tuba is a “guy’s instrument,” look up Carol Jantsch right now.) And of course, recent sex scandals surrounding James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Plácido Domingo, and others have done nothing to improve classical music’s image, making it seem skeevy, disingenuous, and out-of-touch with society.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, it’s clear that widespread discrimination, harassment, abuse, bias, and economic barriers still lurk beneath the industry’s seemingly pristine surface. These are complex and frustrating issues, and conversations must be had about how to hold the industry to a higher standard and make classical music fairer and more inclusive for ALL, whether it be composers, performers, administrators, or listeners. Something has to be done. But what?

Continue reading “Diversity. Now.”