Girl at the Opera

Sequence of Sounds: Brandon Bell at Rice University
Thursday December 11th 2014, 8:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


How does sequence affect sound? I wondered this last night watching Brandon Bell move quietly from playing a wine glass with a bow to wringing wet washcloths out on his knees. His dynamic recital in the Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall, “Plugged In: New Music for Solo Percussion and Electronics,” began with a bell, ended with a flame, and made aural chronology an introspective experience.

Bell is the Malcolm W. Perkins Teaching Fellow at the Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and innovation seems to attach naturally to his work. Last September, for example, he organized the Houston premiere of John Luther Adams’ 2009 “Inuksuit” at the James Turrell Skyspace. Adams, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for the mysterious and epic “Become Ocean,” is rising quickly in the ranks of great American composers, although his work is rarely heard in Houston.

Unwinding sounds, Bell programmed a concert of four premieres. The first, “[relictumne sum]” is a new piece by Ian Power, commissioned by Bell with the support of a Presser Graduate Music Award from Rice. A memorable piece of music will ask provoking questions. [relictumne sum] began with a repeated ringing sound, shifted to a bowed wine glass, and culminated with washcloths and water dripping musically off of Bell’s fingers. It’s an understatement to say the piece was refreshingly evocative. It was followed by Andrea Mazzariello’s “Forms of Practice,” which spiraled rhythm to finally groove into a common time signature.

The icy music of Matthew Burtner, “The Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier,” was stunningly beautiful. Electronic sounds of running water complemented shuddering pulsations from a golden vibraphone, inspiring mercurial visions of liquid. Bell is a serious performer who commits fully without any trace of pretentiousness. In concert, he gives the impression of respecting each sound individually, as if they have come to a peaceful understanding. As he slid a bow against a vibraphone key to end the piece, it was like watching two friends embrace.

Moving from ice to fire, the final piece on the program, “500 Great Things About Wichita,” was described in the program by its composer, Chapman Welch, in the form of a haiku:

ritual click bait

sparks on electric jelly

inside crab orchards

Bell started this piece by slapping his hands against his chest. The stark contrast between electronic sound blaring and the sound of the human body added incredible intention to the aural progression throughout the concert. This piece ended, dramatically, with striking flame from a Zippo lighter. “Sparks on electric jelly / inside crab orchards” lined up with the flickering purple glow. With such attention to the chain of musical sounds—increasingly new and surprisingly radiant—I can’t wait to hear what Bell does next.

Christmas Lists
Monday December 08th 2014, 2:53 pm
Filed under: Da Camera,Houston Grand Opera,Houston Symphony,Opera in the Heights

HGO premieres A Christmas Carol with music by Iain Bell and libretto by Simon Callow. It is the worst kind of bad–a boring bad. Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

In happier holiday news, read my Top 5 classical and opera picks of 2014, also at Houstonia. Cheers to a merry 2015!

A Little Schumann with Your Beethoven?
Sunday November 30th 2014, 9:55 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

A pizzicato—the string vibrating against the fingerboard, sound reverberating against the air for a tiny moment—opened all three pieces on the program last night at Jones Hall. Concluding Houston Symphony’s “Three Weeks of Beethoven,” the First and Fourth symphonies were staple gems. But Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, sandwiched in between and performed by Brinton Averil Smith, was the surprise highlight.

After Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Schubert lamented, “Who would be able to do anything after Beethoven?” and with good reason. Beethoven’s work is masterful, insightful, and more radical than many audiences realize. The First Symphony was first performed at the turn of the century in 1800, and its attaches to more formal traditions of the eighteenth-century while edging toward Romantic ideals.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada opened the Adagio molto—Allegro con brio deliberately. The delicate lyrical passing from first violins to second, from flutes to cellos, was jerky when it should have been glassy, which could have been covered more seamlessly with a faster tempo. Orozco-Estrada bounced on his knees to start the Andante cantabile con moto—a movement that calls for even more intricate lyrical weaving and overlay between sections. It’s a fragile yet sparkling machine, but this performance lacked the spark. The opening timpani boom was an invigorating turn in the third movement, and with hardly a breath in between, Orozco-Estrada headed into the fourth. He’s a fun conductor to watch. When he released the violins into the Allegro with a pop of his hand, I heard several people chuckle around me. With so much energy radiating from his every gesture, it didn’t make sense that the orchestra’s sound didn’t match in vigor.

As charismatic as Orozco-Estrada is, he knows not to steal the show when there’s a soloist. Swaying and hugging his cello, Brinton Averil Smith brought poignancy to Schumann’s Concerto. He pulled a dark, amber sound from the C-string, rounding it out with a warm vibrato—Smith knows how to draw a phrase and gently free it. In moments of passion, Smith bit the string with his bow, cutting the deeper notes into clean slices of sound. The highlight was the duet between Smith and the first cellist, Anthony Kitai. Smith is usually in that position as Houston Symphony’s principle, and the camaraderie between the instruments spoke a certain familiarity that might be missed with a visiting soloist. The lines folded over each other beautifully.

The gradual opening to Beethoven’s Fourth can sizzle with anticipation. Last night, it met the air cumbersomely in the form of a flat flute. But by the Allegro vivace, it was rousing and lively. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Fourth Symphony, which is so overshadowed by the Third and the Fifth. How can something come after the majestic Eroica or preface even the iconic four-note phrase of the Fifth? Orozco-Estrada gave the Fourth its own character. The Allegro ma non troppo took off at a wild speed, gathering momentum right up until the last note when Orozco-Estrada held on to the podium support with one hand while cutting the air with the other.

Houston Symphony has done some incredible things with great, big works like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, and most recently Mozart’s Requiem. Beethoven’s Symphonies are a natural fit for its skill set, and so I was disappointed that the orchestra started off sounding almost bored. By the end, though, this concert was exciting. Who knew that a little romance from Schumann could galvanize the mighty Beethoven?

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Passionate Control: Orozco-Estrada Continues to Impress at HSO
Monday November 24th 2014, 9:36 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

Houston Symphony presents a moving program of fateful works from Beethoven and Brahms to Mozart’s Requiem. Read my review at Bachtrack.

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OH’s Hänsel and Gretel will Knock Your Socks Off
Saturday November 22nd 2014, 9:20 am
Filed under: Opera in the Heights

Katie Dixon (Gretel), Jenni Bank (The Witch) and Hilary Ginther (Hansel). Deji Osinulu Photography

Just because a story is about children doesn’t mean it’s only for kids. Opera in the Heights’ production of the Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 Hänsel and Gretel (with libretto aptly written by his sister, Adelheid Wette) is a marvel. With singing this good, Hänsel and Gretel is no trifle.

No doubt this opera was a success because of many talented people, but Artistic Director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo has truly outdone himself here, particularly with the score. It’s supposed to be for a much larger orchestra, and the parts are difficult. But the sound was full and vibrant. More than once I watched the violinists’ fingers scatter across the fingerboard to pull off Engelbert’s perilous arpeggios with total adeptness. And my hat goes off to cellist H. P. Scott Card who played some astoundingly graceful solos with genuine poise.

And where to begin with the Emerald Cast’s singers—all of whom were excellent? Singing the plucky part of Hänsel, Hilary Ginther proved a gifted mezzo-soprano with a knack for comedy. Her voice, even in the cross-gender role of a young boy, has an impressively pure timbre—accurate and daring and exciting to listen to. Soprano Katie Dixon as Gretel complemented Ginther with a certain sweetness that I expect blossoms into something quite rich and golden when in a more serious, adult role. As the parents Gertrud and Peter, soprano Cassandra Black and baritone Brian Schircliffe exemplified an ideal combination of light humor and profound talent. As the only male voice against a cast of women, Schircliffe’s hearty baritone particularly soared over the stage.

Perhaps most memorable was Jenni Bank, the hunch-backed villain Knusperhexe who flew in on a broom in the third act and made this opera her own. She might have been baked into gingerbread cookies, but her voice is what I’m still marveling over. With a complex mezzo-soprano timbre, flush with color but technically exact, it was a surprise that Bank could also cackle and crackle her evil spells “Hocus pocus!”

Stage Director Mary Birnbaum, finally, was a real catch for this production. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen from OH before. The set, by Robert Roldan and Joshua Slisz, was bare but tasteful. Wispy pines, accompanied by an ethereal mist, set the magical mood of the fairytale. Walls rolled around cleverly to turn the forest into a charming gingerbread house. And the period-piece lederhosen costumes, by Dena Scheh, were right on the mark.

Introducing the opera, Executive Director Allison Hartzell said, “This children’s chorus will knock your socks off!” and she wasn’t kidding. The seventeen-strong choir from HITS Theatre strolled out and delivered beautiful singing. And they were visually delightful to boot, not only because of their gingerbread outfits, but also because of some smart blocking.

I admit that I was surprised by this performance. It’s utterly fantastic. There are only two more shows—one tonight and one Sunday afternoon. Go see it.


For tickets and other info, visit Opera in the Heights’ website.

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A Wig Slip Wonder: Cosi at Houston Grand Opera
Tuesday November 04th 2014, 11:32 am
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera

A vanilla production of Mozart’s very fine Cosi, except for one refreshing accident! Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

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For Philip Guston
Monday November 03rd 2014, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Da Camera

I sat for five hours in the Rothko Chapel on Sunday listening to Morton Feldman’s rarely performed For Philip Guston–a performance that was out of this world. Read my review of Da Camera’s courageous undertaking at Houstonia Magazine.

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HGO’s Otello leaves last season in the dust
Monday October 27th 2014, 12:33 pm
Filed under: Houston Grand Opera

My review of HGO’s remarkable Otello at Houstonia.

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In Brief: On Riyaaz Qawwali
Wednesday October 22nd 2014, 12:29 pm
Filed under: Intermission

From Theodore Bale, a thoughtful review of an extraordinary Qawwali concert at the Menil on Monday. Rarely does Houston’s art scene remember this side of music in town.

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Kozhukhin at Houston Symphony
Monday October 20th 2014, 7:56 am
Filed under: Houston Symphony

An astounding performance by Denis Kozhukhin of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 at Houston Symphony. Read my review at Bachtrack.

You can watch his sublime encore of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” here: Kozhukhin Encore

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