Pittsburgh Opera receives grant from Pennsylvania

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Happy Fourth of July! The holiday weekend brought welcome news to Pittsburgh Opera, which has received a hefty grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The Strip District company was awarded a $350,000 state grant to support its 2016-17 season, which includes the world premiere of Daniel Sonenberg's "The Summer King." The opera centers on the life of former Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson, who spent most of his career in Pittsburgh.

Democratic Rep. Adam Ravenstahl of Allegheny County announced the grant, which was approved by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, on Friday. 

"Funding for the grants stems from the Pennsylvania Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund Program, which was established to fund community and economic development projects in Allegheny County through revenue generated from all casinos," according to a press release.

The company generally receives some funding — about $165,000 — from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, but Friday's announcement marked the first time it received this particular grant, general director Christopher Hahn said. Producing a world premiere adds to the already steep sticker price of the operatic art form, so the company made this request specifically for "The Summer King," he said.

"The costs of this season are a larger because of the world premiere," Mr. Hahn said. "We're very grateful indeed, and it allows us to expand into our outreach to the sporting community and the African-American community in ways we wouldn't previously be able to do."

Performances of "The Summer King" take place April 29-May 7, 2017, at the Benedum Center.

"The grant provides vital funding for the opera company's four mainstage productions on tap this fall and next spring," Mr. Ravenstahl said in the release. "It helps pay for everything from center rentals and wardrobe to paying the highly skilled professionals — conductors, orchestra, stage crews — who make the season so highly anticipated." 


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PSO returns from Europe

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

The Pittsburgh Symphony wrapped up its latest European tour this weekend. In case you missed it, here is the Post-Gazette coverage of the tour: 

PSO-in-Berlin-1 1Music director Manfred Honeck displays his Pittsburgh pride — and a Terrible Towel — at the Berlin Philharmonie. Read more about it here. (Photo: Kent Logsdon)  

ADDENDUM [June 13, 2016]: Here's video of the orchestra's concert at the Berlin Philharmonie on May 22. More info on the orchestra's website.

And here's one more nugget: Violist Paul Silver shares a bit about his experience on tour — including the special chance to perform in Europe alongside his daughter, Sarah, who plays with the San Antonio Symphony. 

Mr. Silver explained that he normally likes to plan some adventures during PSO tours:

"But due to the fact that I'm still recovering from leg surgery and our very busy concert and rehearsal schedule, I decided to take it easy today," he wrote last week. "A group of us enjoyed a relaxing, restful day walking around the small island portion of the town of Lindau [Germany], where we are staying, and taking an hour and a half boat ride around the eastern portion of Lake Constance, or as they call it here, the 'Bodensee.' Some of our colleagues chose to go a bit farther afield — renting a motorcycle, journeying to nearby Liechtenstein, and hiking in the nearby mountains, to name a few ... In addition, our symphony patrons (who are traveling along on the tour), along with Manfred and some orchestra members, went to Wolfegg Castle for a tour of the site where Manfred's summer music festival, the Internationale Wolfegger Konzerte, takes place. (He has been artistic director of the festival since 1994.)

"For me, the unquestionable highlight of this tour has been the opportunity to share the music making and the travel experience with my daughter, Sarah, who was hired as an extra violinist for the tour and the two weeks of concerts in Pittsburgh prior to departure. She was lucky enough to be excused from her regular position as assistant concertmaster on the San Antonio Symphony. Touring provides a unique challenge for an orchestra — playing each night for new audiences in new venues with distinctly different acoustics. During my 35 years in the orchestra, I've found touring provides a great bonding experience for our orchestra, not only amongst the players but also between the orchestra and our music director. The opportunity to play the same music but to do it a bit differently every night makes us stronger and more flexible as an ensemble. When you can share all of these experiences with your flesh and blood on the stage, it's quite a thrill. Then, afterwards, to be able to discuss the musical experience, the reaction of the audience, and how we felt individually and collectively, makes it that much better."

Sarah chipped in her thoughts, too:

"It is difficult to find the words to express just how wonderfully special this tour is to me," she wrote. "Not only am I playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but I also get to sit on stage with my dad. We are getting to travel through Europe together, playing in world famous concert halls with the world class orchestra that I grew up listening to. When we finish a Tchaikovsky symphony in the prestigious Musikverein and the audience bursts into applause, I get to look over at my father smiling toward the standing audience and glancing in my direction to share in the prideful moment. Pittsburgh should also be incredibly proud."

Sounds like a very special experience for the Silvers! It's also worth noting that the orchestra features another father-daughter duo: co-principal clarinetist Thomas Thompson, who was hired by the PSO in 1966, and cellist Alexandra Thompson, who joined it last season. 

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"Elektra" at the Met, two ways

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

On Saturday, I had the good fortune of seeing Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in a new production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Elektra 3311-sWaltraud Meier played Klytämnestra and Nina Stemme took on the title role of Strauss' "Elektra" at the Metropolitan Opera. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan had seen this production in the Met's Live in HD broadcast on April 30, so we agreed to do side-by-side takes on the production.

I've gushed about the Met's Live in HD productions before. Here are the details for next year's offerings. There are also four encore broadcasts over the summer; more at this link

FYI, the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform the "Elektra" Symphonic Rhapsody, a suite conceived by music director Manfred Honeck and arranged by Tomas Ille, this weekend at Heinz Hall. So if you couldn't see "Elektra" in the movie theater or at the opera house, you can experience Strauss' remarkable score in a symphonic setting. 

Elektra setRich Peduzzi designed the set for the Met production of "Elektra." (Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)

Now, onto the reviews:

NEW YORK—At most opera productions, there is a bit of a ceremony before the actual performance begins. The orchestra tunes, the conductor comes out to warm applause, the curtain goes up, the musicians play. It is a ritual that we know and find comfort in.

The mood that opened of the Metropolitan Opera production of "Elektra" on Saturday night was different. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen seemed to sneak up to the podium, evading applause. The opera began not with the severe opening chords of Strauss' score, but with a servant brushing at the steps of the Palace of Mycenae. Her sweeps, deliberate and crisp, like a breath, resounded throughout the massive space of the house. For the first several minutes of this two-hour opera, this was the only sound we encountered.

It was in this way that the Met's tremendous production of "Elektra" opened — not with the loud, brash sounds of Strauss, but with these engrossing, eerie sweeps, "as if to purge the primal sins that earlier had occurred there," as general manager Peter Gelb put it. Even after having read his note in the program, I was still shocked at this moment. It was as if the fourth wall had been constructed without our consent.

This new production was the brainchild of the French director Patrice Chereau, who died in 2013, a few months after this "Elektra" debuted in France. His staging, revived at the Met by Vincent Huguet, unearthed the emotional and musical dimensions of this work, and the Met's dramatic and musical forces delivered a knockout realization of his intent.

The production embraced what seemed to be the classic, timeless nature of this one-act opera, which is based on the Greek myth and features a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Elektra avenges the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Klytämnestra, with the help of her brother Orest. Richard Peduzzi's stone-colored sets, with their clean, stark lines and high central arch, evoked an ancient city on its way to becoming ruins.

The singers and orchestra offered this thorny, challenging music with zeal and purpose. In the title role, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was masterful, delivering a hefty yet nuanced interpretation of the complicated Elektra — twitchy yet full of ardor. Her scene with the fierce mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, portraying Klytämnestra, was a highlight, a carefully crafted moment that humanized the characters.

Adrianne Pieczonka, playing Elektra's sister Chrysothemis, seemed to get better over the course of the performance and impressed with the substance of her singing in the upper register, while Eric Owens offered a bold, steely take on Orest. Mr. Salonen sculpted a confident, wrenching interpretation, and the orchestra's detailed performance was a rich sound-world unto its own.

—Elizabeth Bloom

Elektra 3666-sEric Owens portrayed Orest in Strauss' "Elektra." (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

It's always best to experience an opera live in the theater. But if you can't get to New York, and your local company is not likely to produce Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in the foreseeable future, the Met's invaluable Live in HD series is an excellent substitute. Moreover, the screen version brings out details that are impossible to discern even from the best seats in the house. This was particularly evident in the superlative production of "Elektra" that closed the 2015-16 Live in HD season on April 30. Notable was the highly nuanced portrayal of the title character by Nina Stemme, seen in close-ups and at unusual angles that showed every gradation of expression and reaction.

When he wrote "Elektra" in 1909, Strauss pushed the musical techniques of his day to their limits, calling for a mammoth orchestra of approximately 100 players, advancing traditional harmony, upping the emotional thermometer and adding a Freudian element — in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's masterful adaptation of Sophocles' ancient Greek drama — that is only hinted at in the original.

Strauss' contemporaries, notably Arnold Schoenberg, would carry musical expressionism further, into the realm of "atonality" and so-called 12-tone music. Strauss took a different route, turning backward after "Elektra" to write neo-Mozartean operas for the rest of his life. As it stands, the Strauss-Hofmannsthal "Elektra" remains one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater ever written, 105 minutes of high tension and inexorable beauty, a cathartic experience in the fullest sense of the Greek definition.

The late Patrice Chereau, staging this opera at Aix-en-Provence in 2013, updated the work to emphasize its timeless message and concentrate on individual feelings and responses. Contrary to tradition, Elektra is no raving lunatic, rather a frightened, abused woman obsessed by the horrendous events she has witnessed. Klytämnestra, too, is portrayed by Waltraud Meier as a still attractive woman living in fear and guilt after murdering her husband, Agamemnon and taking his enemy, Aegisthus, as her lover. The slayings of Klytämnestra and Aegisthus are shown on stage. At the end, Elektra does not dance herself to death, but lingers catatonic and immobile, while Orest returns from the building's interior to walk proudly out the palace gate.

The greatest glories of this performance were musical: conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's magnificent rendition of this immensely difficult score, and the extraordinary all-star cast. The Met's orchestra is arguably the best orchestra in the world today, and it was in top form. Ms. Stemme is a consummate singing actress, whose ironclad soprano can weather engulfing orchestral torrents, or produce meaningful pianissimos when required by the musical or dramatic context.

Ms. Meier, regal and in top form at 60, was not the usual caricature of an evil harridan. Her confrontation scene with Elektra was probing and credible. Filling out this trio of troubled women was Adrianne Pieczonka's unusually spunky Chrysothemis, a full-voiced rendition that suggests she might graduate to the title role sometime down the road.

Most affecting was the recognition scene between Elektra and Orest. As the long-lost brother who returns to avenge his father's murder, Eric Owens was a commanding presence whose resounding bass-baritone caressed the ear and made every one of his lines significant and eloquent.

Casting was generous down the line. Aegisthus was Burkhard Ulrich, a German character tenor new to the house. The Overseer was Susan Neves, who has sung Tosca and Turandot with Pittsburgh Opera. And cast as the fifth servant woman was a fresh-voiced 67-year-old Roberta Alexander, returning to the Met after an absence of 25 years.

—Robert Croan


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Cineshape opens the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

The Pittsburgh Festival of New Music is coming back.

The last installment, in 2014, was a highlight of the musical year, and this one has some intriguing offerings on tap. I'll be writing a full article about the festivities next week, ahead of a flash mob performance of Stravinsky's "The Firebird" in Market Square (!), but there is one event happening before the others that I wanted to highlight here:

At 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the festival teams up with Music on the Edge, Pitt's Office of the Provost and Humanities Center, and the Andy Warhol Museum to present Cineshape, part of the museum's Sound Series.

Cineshape is a project between composer/pianist Amy Williams, a member of the Pitt faculty, and video artist Aaron Henderson. It also features several musicians who specialize in the performance of new music, including the JACK Quartet, flutist Lindsey Goodman and percussionist Scott Christian. Ms. Williams has been working on the project with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Cineshape is also featured in Pitt's Year of the Humanities.

From the press release:

"Cineshape is an innovative collaborative performance made up of five compositions by Williams, each inspired by an existing film, and five new video pieces inspired by the original music. Williams invented the word, Cineshape, back in 2003 when she wrote the first piece in the series (now there's an app to add a 'shape overlay or mask to a video for social networks'— which didn't exist in 2003!). The word refers to musical compositions that draw structural inspiration from films."

Tickets are $15 in advance, $10 for students, and $5 more at the door. You can get them at the Warhol's website. Enjoy!

Liz ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )


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Pittsburgh representation in the NYO-USA

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Congratulations to the four Pittsburgh musicians who were accepted into the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America!

The NYO-USA, a project of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, is an ensemble composed of 109 young musicians (ages 16-19) from across the country. Entrance is based on a competitive audition. Launched in 2013, the annual program includes a training residency at Purchase College, State University of New York, followed by concerts at some of the top venues in the world.

In July, the group will perform at Purchase College, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Smetana Hall in Prague, Tivoli Hall in Copenhagen and Opera Berlioz in Montpellier, France. The group's list of starry collaborators include conductors Christoph Eschenbach and Valery Gergiev and pianists Emanuel Ax and Denis Matsuev. 

Four musicians will represent Pittsburgh in the orchestra:

  • Jimmy Cunningham IV, viola, a junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 (and the son of WQED-FM artistic director Jim Cunningham)
  • Julie Choe, violin, a senior at North Allegheny Senior High School
  • Jerry Meng, violin, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School
  • Devin Moore, violin, a junior at Chartiers Valley High School

These local musicians are doing the region proud, as only a few cities will be represented as well as Pittsburgh is in the NYO. All of the musicians are members of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra; Devin and Jimmy also participate in the Youth Chamber Connection, a chamber music program that is a collaboration between PYSO, Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras and City Music Center.

pysoFrom left to right: Devin Moore, Julie Choe, PYSO music director Francesco Lecce-Chong, Jerry Meng, and Jimmy Cunningham were accepted into the 2016 National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. (Photo courtesy of PYSO) 

In addition, PYSO violinist Devin Lai, who lives in West Virginia, will be a member of NYO2, a new intensive training program for musicians ages 14-17 launching this year. NYO2 has "a special focus on those from communities underserved by and underrepresented in the classical orchestral field," according to a press release from Carnegie Hall. And here's another local connection: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal bassist Jeffrey Turner and principal bassoonist Nancy Goeres will be on the NYO faculty.

NYO-USA's July 21 performance at the Royal Concertgebouw will be streamed live for free at Conducted by Mr. Gergiev, the program includes Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune," Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 (with Mr. Matsuev) and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 4.

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