Direction in Philip Glass's "Orphee"

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

I had a great conversation today with Sam Helfrich, the stage director of the Pittsburgh Opera production of Philip Glass's "Orphee." Mr. Helfrich is no stranger to Pittsburgh. He directed a staged production of Handel's "Messiah" with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2011, as well as two operas ("Eugene Onegin" and "The Turn of the Screw") and an American scenes concert with Pittsburgh Opera.

"Orphee" uses as its source material the Jean Cocteau film of the same name, itself inspired by the Greek myth Orpheus. The libretto is hewn directly from the film's French script. Mr. Helfrich described the movie as "breathtakingly beautiful," and he has seen it roughly 20 times. Still, when crafting the direction for this production – first staged at Glimmerglass in 2007 – he said he didn't want it to be at all like the film.

"The language of film is so different from the language of opera or theater in general," he said.

Cocteau's version, he pointed out, is very much of its time. Released in 1950, it drips with post-war imagery. For example, dress suits worn by the film's judges wear hints at those worn at the Nuremberg trials, and a bombed-out city is reminiscent of Europe's urban ruins.

"We didn't want the opera to be a museum piece," he said.
The film, he said, also emphasizes Orphee's artistic neurosis and individual struggles. Mr. Helfrich believes the opera (and consequently, his interpretation) more strongly emphasizes the relationships between characters – in particular, the difficult marriage between Orphee and Eurydice.

Orphee, a poet, is pulled between his desires for creativity and immortality and the love, security and family life that Eurydice offers. Interestingly, Mr. Helfrich drew on other films – such as "Scenes from a Marriage" and "The Anniversary Party" – to explore marriage for the production.

Another device that is critical to the production (for the sake of both plot and metaphor) is the mirrors through which the characters travel in both the film and opera.
"We took the idea of reflection and doubling and incorporated that into every aspect of the design," he said.

Those are just a few of the concepts that inspire the direction. In any case, he hopes that audience members will come into the theater "with no expectations." Intrigued? Check out the Pittsburgh Opera production yourself, running April 26 to May 4 at the Benedum Center. Tickets and additional information at Check out the Post-Gazette next week for Robert Croan's opera preview.

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Liner Notes Vol. VI

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

OK, I know I always say this, but this entry really does have a lot of fascinating stuff in music journalism, including some long-reads that are worth savoring. Enjoy!

From the L.A. Times, a Robert Ashley appreciation,0,2675910.story#axzz2va6X11do

From Wired, Amazon Prime pricing and music streaming

From Aeon, why we love repetition

From Wired, turning colors into sound

From the New York Times, the Detroit Symphony’s cutting-edge streaming service

From the Washington Post, the opera singer on “The Bachelor”

From the New York Times, musicals spilling into opera companies

From Al Jazeera America, young black classical musicians

From the Wall Street Journal, the best composer-conductor you’ve never heard of

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Fawzi Haimor promoted to PSO resident conductor

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

More from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: 

PITTSBURGH—Fawzi Haimor, assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra since 2012, has been promoted to resident conductor, effective immediately, a title he will share with Lawrence Loh, resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony since 2007.
"In the two short seasons that Fawzi has been with us, he has shown amazing versatility, dedication and work ethic," says James Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony. "His warmth and talent create immediate connections to musicians, guest conductors and, most importantly, the audience. We expect great things from him in the future, here at Heinz Hall and around the world."
As resident conductor, Haimor will continue to conduct a variety of concerts, including classical, pops, education and outreach concerts, as well as serving as cover conductor for guest conductors and Music Director Manfred Honeck, conducting pre-concert talks and working on concert recordings. In the 2014-2015 season, Haimor will add leading the Fiddlesticks Family Series to his responsibilities.
"I am thrilled to continue to be a part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I can't imagine a better way to hone the craft of conducting than with an incredible music director like Manfred Honeck and world-class musicians like those in the Pittsburgh Symphony," said Haimor. "I look forward to sharing the responsibilities of resident conductor with my colleague Lawrence Loh and continuing my adventure in music."
Prior to his position at the Pittsburgh Symphony Haimor was assistant conductor of the Alabama Symphony for two seasons. He also has worked with the Jacksonville Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Amman Symphony, Orquestra Sinfonico do Porto and has just made his Italian debut with Filharmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, which resulted in an immediate reinvitation for next season. Further forthcoming debut appearances include those with Württembergisches Kammerorchester on tour in London, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and with Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.
He has served as a cover conductor to esteemed conductors including Manfred Honeck, Leonard Slatkin, Gianandrea Noseada, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Jan Pascal Tortelier. Born in Chicago in 1983, Haimor was raised in the Middle East and the San Francisco Bay Area. He began playing the violin at the age of 4 and completed his training at the Jacobs School of Music in Indiana University. He studied under David Effron and Arthur Fagen as well as attending master classes around the world led by highly respected conductors including Herbert Blomstedt, Jorma Panula and Gustav Meier.

Haimor earned bachelor's degrees in both music and neurobiology, physiology, and behavior, and a master's degree in conducting from the University of California-Davis before completing his second master's in instrumental conducting from Indiana University. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, Houda, and their daughters, Aleena and Layla.
More about Haimor can be found at More about the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra can be found at

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Pittsburgh Festival of New Music details

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Over the summer, I wrote about the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music. Well, details of the festival have been announced, and it looks like an awesome few days of new-music-making. Check out details of the festival below, from the press release: 

Festival of New Music to transform Pittsburgh's soundscape May 22-25

Alia Musica Pittsburgh presents The Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, four days of public events spanning a wide range of contemporary chamber music, May 22-25. Framed by two unique musical events happening in unconventional venues throughout the city, the Festival includes performances by Pittsburgh's most active new music organizations, artists of national and international renown, and guests hailing from Chicago, New York, Michigan, and Houston.

May 22: Perfect Lives by Robert Ashley
Miniature operas staged in everyday locations

On March 22, New York collective Varispeed presents its acclaimed arrangement of Robert Ashley's seminal work Perfect Lives, a daylong crawling concert installed in sites throughout the city. As performers and audience members journey from location to location — a park, a bank, a church, a backyard — participants imagine a folksy, Midwestern town where the bank tellers know the captain of the football team, and everyone drinks together at the end of the night.

Originally conceived as a 7-episode TV opera, Perfect Lives debuted on the BBC in 1986. The piece weaves together overlapping subplots: an unspoken crime, an elopement, and the mischief of two itinerant musicians. Ashley, the composer of what Fanfare has called "nothing less than the first American opera," died in NYC in 2014. "He would have been 84 at the end of the month," says David Ruder of Varispeed. "He was a great guy and we miss him already. Doing Perfect Lives in Pittsburgh is going to have an additional level of catharsis & meaning."

May 24: Rzewski plays Rzewski
The composer/pianist performs a rare program of his own works
New Hazlett Theater, 7:30pm

American maverick composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski has made his home in Brussels since the 1970s. Now 76, his appearances in the US are less and less frequent. Compared by turns to legendary pianist Glenn Gould and blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger, Rzewski's works are often anarchic, sometimes satirical, and always powerfully virtuosic.

Rzewski's first-ever performance in Pittsburgh is long overdue, as he has Pittsburgh ties -- his two sons, Daniel and Alexis, live here. "When I was talking to him during his last visit," says Federico Garcia-De Castro, director of Alia Musica, "and mentioned our plans for the Festival, he realized, right then and there, that he actually had never played in Pittsburgh before. I knew that I had to take the chance." See this not-to-be-missed performance at the New Hazlett Theater on Saturday, May 24, 2014, at 7:30pm.

May 25: Inuksuit by John Luther Adams
Drums, gongs, and glockenspiels transform Lake Elizabeth Park, 2pm

Scores of musicians converge on Lake Elizabeth Park in Pittsburgh's North Side to perform Inuksuit, by John Luther Adams, 2012 receipient of the Heinz Award. Inuksuit is meant to be played by 99 musicians dispersed in a large outdoor area, using an incredible array of instruments including conch shells, air raid sirens, gongs, bells, shakers, drums, cymbals, and glockenspiels.

Inuksuit is the ultimate environmental piece, designed to heighten our awareness of the sights and sounds that surround us every day and to energize our experience of our own environment. The work, "a sonic and scenic glory almost beyond description" according to critic Alex Ross, has been performed around the world — in Melbourne, Toronto, Chicago, Berkeley, Lisbon, the Hague, and Belo Horizonte, Brazil — and was recognized among the most memorable performances of 2011 in New York City by The New Yorker, Time Out New York, and New York Magazine.

May 24: The Pittsburgh Soundpike
The pay-as-you-exit event that encourages discovery
New Hazlett Theater, 2pm

Pittsburgh's lively new music scene has a dedicated place in the Festival, as the most active local organizations join forces in a marathon concert dubbed The Pittsburgh Soundpike. Groups include Trillium Ensemble, the Black Orchid String Trio, Directions Duo, the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (ELCO), and features a performance of Steve Reich's monumental Different Trains by the Freya String Quartet. "We wanted to create an ideal setting for audience cross-over and mutual discovery," says Garcia-De Castro about the novel marathon concept where listeners pay for their tickets as they exit the performance, and the price depends inversely on the length of their stay—the more groups they hear, the less they will pay.

Additional Programs
Alia Musica Pittsburgh and the Bugallo-Williams Duo

Also at the New Hazlett, the festival presents the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo (Thursday, May 22). Consisting of Pitt professor Amy Williams and Argentinean pianist Helena Bugallo, the duo made a place for themselves as the foremost interpreters of Conlon Nancarrow's music, and have recently turned to the piano-duo music of Gyorgy Kurtág. Their Festival performance also includes music by Williams herself, Garcia-De Castro, and more.

On Friday, May 23, Alia Musica Pittsburgh performs Luciano Berio's famous cycle of Folk Songs in its entirety, with New York-based soprano Jamie Jordan. The ensemble, entering its eighth year of performances, also presents music by University of Pittsburgh professor Eric Moe, CMU and Pitt graduate Matthew Heap, and Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas.

Major support for the Festival comes from The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation. Other partners include the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts, the Sprout Fund, and Music on the Edge. Outdoor events are produced in partnership with the Office of Public Art, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and James Simon's Sculpture Studio. The City Paper is media sponsor of the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music.

Thursday May 22, Perfect Lives (Varispeed), episodes at 11am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm, 9pm, 11pm. Starting at Market Square, venues across the city. Free.

Thursday May 22, 7:30pm: Bugallo-Williams piano duo. New Hazlett Theater. $10. Music by Kurtág, Williams, Garcia-De Castro, and more.

Friday May 23, 7:30pm: Alia Musica Pittsburgh. New Hazlett Theater. $15. Music by Berio, Heap, Moe, and Haas. Featuring Jamie Jordan, soprano, and Houston's Duo Scordatura.

Saturday May 24, 2pm: Pittsburgh Soundpike featuring Steve Reich's Different Trains (Freya String Quartet), plus performances by Trillium Ensemble, Black Orchid String Trio, Directions Duo, ELCO, Alia Musica, and members from the CMU Contemporary Ensemble.

Saturday May 24, 7:30pm: Rzweski plays Rzewski. New Hazlett Theater. $15.

Sunday May 25, 2pm: Inuksuit by John Luther Adams. Lake Elizabeth Park. Free.

Sunday May 27, 5pm: Guests' Concert: Duo Scordatura (Houston), Clocks in Motion (Michigan). New Hazlett Theater. Free.

Bugallo-Williams: $15
Alia Musica Pittsburgh: $15
Rzewski plays Rzewski: $15
Pittsburgh Soundpike: $5-$15
Two-event pass: $20
Full festival pass: $40

Tickets will be available online starting April 10th.

412 361 0194

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Filling in at the last minute

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

Happy Opening Day! In baseball, there are often last-minute shuffles to the lineup, and athletes need to step up their game in replacing stars. It's true of classical music, too; one of the genre's most enduring traditions is late substitutions. When Bruno Walter withdrew from a New York Philharmonic concert, he helped launch a young Leonard Bernstein's conducting career. When tenor Vladimir Kuzmenko fell ill during a Pittsburgh Opera performance of "Aida" in 2008, music director Antony Walker sang the role of Radames instead, even while he was still conducting. (Mr. Kuzmenko lip-synched from the stage.) 

This past weekend continued that illustrious tradition. Tenor Eric Barry took on a few extra performances of "La Boheme," another Pittsburgh Opera production. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck filled in at the last minute for an ailing Gustavo Dudamel to lead the New York Philharmonic in works by Claude Vivier and Bruckner. His performance received a rave review from New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini. Props to all, and happy opening day!

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