Tag Archives: Singletary Center for the Arts

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Scene&Heard: LexPhil’s Thunderous Season Opener

As the audience filed into the concert hall, the orchestra onstage made an unholy din. Tuning their violins, practicing one particular phrase on the trumpet, testing out the reeds on the oboes one last time, the Lexington Philharmonic prepared itself to open their 2017-2018 season. Performing at the Singletary Center for the Arts, Maestro Scott Terrell and the Philharmonic presented a program that lived up to the title of the concert, Bright. With a variety of works in several styles and ‘voices,’ the Philharmonic had a glittering evening at the start of their year.

The concert began with a contemporary piece by the American composer Michael Torke. Torke is known for his synesthesia—he sees colors when he hears music. This particular piece, called Bright Blue Music, is a clear and straightforward exploration of that color. The Philharmonic proved a guide through the work, with a performance clear and straightforward enough to direct the listener’s ears to the development and unfolding of the piece. 

Michael Torke | Photo by Brian Hainer

A simple theme developed with a particular rhythmic flair, and the development clear and direct enough that even the most novice listener can follow the progression from one movement to the next. (Whether the listener sees blue a somewhat subjective matter: the whole piece read as rather yellow to me.) The brass would occasionally overwhelm the strings, though whether this was a problem of composer or conductor is unclear. Energetic and simple, but with enough surprises— and banging timpani here, a snap of the snare drums to cut off the winds and emphasize the strings, a screeching wail of the horns and flutes there— Maestro Terrell and the Philharmonic kept the piece from the monotony minimalist and post-minimalist music is often accused of.

The first half of the concert, however, was dominated by the Grieg Piano Concerto. Guest soloist Joyce Yang, a young pianist who is part of an emerging generation in the process of shaking up sometimes stuffy concert halls, took to the front and center of the stage and immediately commanded her instrument.

Joyce Yang | Photo by KT Kim

Yang played with her whole body— hunched over the keyboard for staccato descents, practically rising out of her bench for the dramatic flourishes up and down the keyboard that predominate the concerto. She would keep time by flicking her head this way and that, directing visual attention to an emphasis on a certain chord or progression. Said emphasis was pounded in by the relentless thundering of the keyboard; Grieg is not a subtle composer, and both soloist and orchestra went for the full melodrama. The piano roared, howled, clamored, practically leaped out at the audience. Very little of the concept was played at anything less than full volume and intensity.

While I appreciated it from the back of the house, I did worry about the eardrums of those whose tickets placed them closer to the action. And that action was powerful— at the end of a particularly intense cadenza towards the end of the first movement, Yang slammed down the final chord and her entire body rocketed away from the keys, so intense was the emotion. The audience, somewhat caught up in it, spontaneously applauded between the first and second movement (an unusual breach of symphony protocol, it caught Yang and Terrell off guard, which she covered with a quick bow).

The thundering, however, became a tad monochromatic towards the end of the piece. The keys of a piano cannot be pounded indefinitely without at a certain point pulverizing all sensitivity of some listeners’ ears. While a quiet and subtle treatment took over the beginning of the second movement, it was soon back to a total sonic offensive. And in the last few minutes, the never-ending proclamations of melodramatic stampeding up and down the piano and through the orchestra began to run together. There are only so many crescendos a performer can make before they top out at the height of emotion and intensity.

Regardless of any quirks in interpretation, the performance of the concerto was filled with a kind of wild energy— partly from the slightly strange harmonic progressions of Grieg, which foreshadowed Stravinsky and the chord clusters of modern concept music— but mostly from the infectious power bouncing back and forth between Yang, Terrell, and the orchestra. Soloist and conductor were obviously familiar with each other, as Terrell had only to glance at the piano, and Yang had only to give one of her nods, to open up the bellowing sororities of the full orchestra. The performance was an obvious and immediate crowd-pleaser: Yang and Terrell gave some half a dozen bows to a standing ovation.

After the bows and ovations were concluded, the orchestra took an interval in which the technical crew replaced Yang’s piano with two harps and a handful of specialist wind instruments, a rather large choir joined the orchestra, and I furiously scribbled notes onto a writing pad.

Maestro Terrell dashed back onto the stage and immediately threw himself into the downbeat of the first piece of the second half, selections from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia.

This music was simply tremendous. In writing a ballet about Argentine farmers and cowboys, Ginastera hit upon the muscular and vibrantly beating heart of Latin American concert music, which more than any other tradition (at least to my mind) is written for the average listener to immediately grasp on to and not just understand, but deeply enjoy. While the second half of the evening was entirely ballet music— music written to dance to— Ginastera’s selections from Estancia were imbued with the kind of infectious danceability that quite literally gets people moving.

Even Maestro Terrell was affected, jumping up and down on the podium in his excitement for particular slams of the timpani, never more expressive than when Ginastera pins his entire dance rhythm to the drums. The percussion section as a whole did some really tremendous work with Estancia— using everything from a tambourine to a marimba to a bass drum that literally shook the seats, Estancia was not just a musical but a physical experience.

After the Dionysian delights of Ginastera’s dance music, the concert closed with the more Apollonian music of Ravel.

Full of coloristic flourishes and effective at creating an entire atmosphere from only a few rich chords, Ravel’s Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe is a distinctly French take on a Greek story. The impressionistic and almost totally a-melodic music of Ravel immerses the listener into a world of impressions, of not quite distinct color.

The orchestra carried off this task— not the easiest one— with aplomb. Aided by an extensive choir, the piece moved seamlessly from one overstuffed and pregnant bloom of chromatic color to the next. As a set of selections from a larger ballet, and as a more moment-to-moment composition than a more melodically dominated piece might be, it would have been dangerously easy for the orchestra to present a disconnected and incoherent series of flashes in the musical pan. The deft baton of Terrell, however, maintained a clean and clear pace throughout the piece, and his direction charted a course and current that connected the brightest climaxes and the quietest flutters of the flute into a single whole. The choirs, normally a focal point of attention for the listener, blended seamlessly into the tapestry of the orchestra, becoming simply another color in the palette of composer and conductor. The overall effect, while certainly magical, was artfully restrained and balanced. 

With a varied and virtuosic start to the season, the Lexington Philharmonic has proved not just worthy of their hall, but worthy of their audience. 

(Photos by Richie Wireman unless otherwise credited)

Arts

The Enchanting Ute Lemper: A New Year’s Concert to Remember

As 2014 comes to a close, Lexington bids farewell with a welcoming: a special New Year’s Eve performance of the incomparable chanteuse,  Ute Lemper.

Photo by Lucas Allen

Photo by Lucas Allen

The evening pays tribute to the sounds of the Moulin Rouge, including musical selections from Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose to Bertolt Brecht’s Surabaya Johnny.

The program begins with an orchestral Tribute Medley to the Moulin Rouge, concluding with Jacques Offenbach’s famous “Can-Can” from his satirical opera, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Ute Lemper takes the stage to perform classic French songs by some of the nation’s most beloved singers, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel. After intermission, the show continues with the orchestral and cabaret selections of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.

On the selection of Ute Lemper as the featured soloist of the NYE Celebration, LexPhil Music Director and Conductor, Scott Terrell describes Ute as, “an internationally acclaimed chanteuse that I am honored to bring to the LexPhil stage this season. Her range of cabaret songs from Edith Piaf to Bertolt Brecht will dazzle the audience for a truly memorable New Year’s Eve!”

Ms. Lemper, a native of Münster, Germany, spent her first eighteen years there, before traveling the world, living in Paris, and finally settling in New York City, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

I chatted by phone with Ms. Lemper, concerning her upcoming date in Lexington, her many awards and talents, and what makes her tick.

You lived in Germany until you were 18. What made you leave at that time and pursue the arts?

I was in the original Viennese production of Cats after studying in Vienna in the early 80s. This was after I graduated from the Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminary Drama School in Vienna.

And this led to other opportunities?

Yes. Particularly playing the original European Sally Bowles in Cabaret. This was in Paris. Then Velma Kelley in Chicago. We did that in London and New York, and I won the Olivier Award in London for the performance.

Then voice-overs for films dubbed for German-speaking audiences?

They called me to do the voice of Ariel for Disney’s Little Mermaid and for Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the German-releases, yes.

But, more than anything, you’ve become known for singing Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, and singers who have seemed absent in the last generation. Is that accurate?

I have quite a bit more in my repertoire, like show tunes and original songs I’ve written. As a matter of fact, I’ve been writing a lot more of my own material in recent years, but I became known for singing the songs of these artists. I put out an album in 1987 called Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill, and it was a huge success. In the early-90s I followed it with a second album of Weill’s songs and it did well too. I do Weill songs in my performances, among other pieces.

What do you feel is the common thread in your performances? What are you trying to achieve?

One common thread is to make a journey through time, to bring people on an historical journey. Making classical sounds more contemporary. But I have also fallen into this niche of keeping alive many songs that have fallen by the wayside or in some cases were purposely forgotten.

Purposely Forgotten?

Yes. Like many of the Weill songs, which were abandoned in post-war Germany because they reminded the people who lived through those times of the horrors. It’s only many years later that they can be reflected upon and brought out into the light. The wounds were too deep for decades.

Photo by Lucas Allen

Photo by Lucas Allen

I imagine you feel a strong connection to this, having grown up in post-war Germany?

Yes, it is part of my heritage, but this also happened when I went to live in Paris.

What exactly?

When I lived as a Parisian, I found myself becoming an ardent pupil of the French chanson. As a result, I have incorporated many of Edith Piaf’s songs and Brel’s pieces into my show.

For a sampling, here is Ute performing Piaf’s La Vie en Rose.

So you’ve become something of a torchbearer for these artists who may very well have been left behind?. 

I’m not sure if they would have been left behind, but each of them speaks to a certain time and place and the music is very good. I feel drawn to these more cabaret-style pieces. At one point I was a dancer in Maurice Bejart’s company. I paint. I have many creative and artistic outlets, but the song is what I’m really known for and what I do the most. And with my performances, they are a mish-mash of many songs, with many histories behind them. Many of the songs from one artist can sound and feel different, however. Weill is a good case in point. Like so many of his contemporaries, he had the first half of his career in Europe, then came to the States. The songs from later in his canon have a different feel than those earlier songs. This is what cabaret should be: a blending of many different tones and feelings for variety and appeal.

(Ute was part of the German reunification of artists after the Wall was torn down in 1989. She performed in Roger Waters’ staging of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, celebrating Germany’s historic move toward peace and solidarity.)

You were part of the German unification after the Wall fell?

Yes. It was and still is a complicated process, unifying the artists from East and West. While it’s had its challenges, there has been no other day like it in history. Unbelievable and overwhelming. Most artists had difficulty even expressing the feelings of it in their work, it was so intense and powerful. I wrote a song, Ghosts of Berlin, concerning it.

Do you feel the unification has been good for Germany, 25 years past the demolition of the Wall?

Absolutely. Today we face other issues, like Solidarity tax.

Solidarity Tax? 

When the Wall fell, a Solidarity tax was imposed on West Germany to rebuild East Germany. While this was supposed to last only a few years, to get East Germany on their feet, it continues to this day. While West Germans are perhaps bitter about the tax, there is no doubt that the freeing of East Germany, and the money used to rebuild it from the West is nothing but a success story. Sadly, this cannot be said for many similar situations in the European Union.

Do you feel the wounds and ghosts of the past have healed and settled enough to bring out many of these songs in places so affected by wartime?

I did a concert with Zubin Mehta back in 1988. There were at least 50 holocaust survivors, people with numbers on their arms, that attended. One is not sure about the healing and settling, even with sufficient time passing.

What’s the next exciting step for Ute Lemper?

I’ll be doing a 70 years of liberation concert in Rome. I’m showcasing songs that were written in the death camps. Most are in Yiddish and German. I’m finishing up a great project with Paul Coelho called 9 Secrets, from his work, Manuscripts found in Accra. I did the original music for it, so I’m very excited about that.

I also released an album of love songs based on the poems of Pablo Neruda.

Ute, thank you so much for your time. Lexington’s lucky to have you for this special night!

Of course. Thank you!

Photo by Lucas Allen

Photo by Lucas Allen

Tickets to the New Year’s Eve Celebration range from $25-$75 with $11 student tickets as available. Special seating is also available for parties of four with bottle service of champagne at prices of $500 for cabaret tables and $600 for box seating. Price of the special seating includes one bottle of champagne. Bottle service is limited to ticket holders over 21-years of age. Valet parking is available for $10 per car at the Short Street Entrance to the Lexington Opera House.

A New Year’s Eve Dinner at Portofino’s will be hosted following the concert by LexPhil for $75 per person. Tickets include a three-course prix fixe menu and Champagne toast, and must be purchased in advance by December 26, 2014.  20 percent of dinner ticket is tax-deductible, as allowed by law, and will benefit LexPhil.

Ute Lemper will perform at the Lexington Opera House on December 31st at 7:30. To purchase tickets, click here, or call (859) 233-4226.