Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Antony & Cleopatra" on New Year's Eve

Just finished the program notes for Ars Lyrica's upcoming performance of Johann Adolph Hasse's "Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra," and thought I'd post them here for anyone who is interested in finding out more about this remarkable work before the program on New Year's Eve. Tickets are going fast, so get yours now by visiting Ars Lyrica


In 1721 a young German tenor by the name of Johann Adolph Hasse traveled to Italy to hone his craft and seek his fortune. His work at the Hamburg Opera and at the Brunswick court assured entrée into Italian musical circles, and he quickly found opportunities in Rome, Venice, and Florence, much as the youthful Handel had done just a few years earlier. Settling in Naples, he studied composition with Alessandro Scarlatti, the grey eminence of Italian opera and oratorio, and began to write seriously for the stage. By 1730 he produced at least seven operas, eight intermezzi, and three serenate, the most significant of which is Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra.

As a genre, the Italian serenata (or “serenade”) falls somewhere between solo cantata and full-length opera seria. Owing perhaps to the long tradition of lover’s serenades, the Baroque serenata typically sets a familiar love story and was often used as a kind of compositional gift for an important patron, though the dimensions and scoring of such works vary considerably. Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra was written for a Neapolitan banker, at whose palace the work was first performed in 1725 by two of the greatest singers of the age: castrato Carlo Broschi (aka Farinelli), who took the role of Cleopatra, and contralto Vittoria Tesi, who sang as Marc’Antonio. Though today such cross-casting seems bizarre, in Baroque opera gender-bending reinforced the artificial nature of the theatrical experience (naturalistic acting styles had not yet been invented, either).

The libretto, by poet and impresario Francesco Ricciardi, begins with Antony’s great military loss to Octavian’s superior forces. Rather than submit to Rome, he and Cleopatra jointly decide that they’ll be better off in the next world. Hasse’s score makes vivid their complex emotions in eight arias and two duets, the whole preceded by an introductory Sinfonia in two movements. Though the work is scored for just strings and continuo, in several movements we’ve added various woodwind colors (oboes, recorders, flute, and bassoon), which render even more colorful Hasse’s imaginative and supple ideas.

Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra likely had several performances in Naples and elsewhere and was mentioned by German theorist Johann Joachim Quantz (in 1755) as one of Hasse’s most successful works. It brought him considerable fame in Italy, where Hasse was henceforth known as “il Sassone” (the Saxon composer). The work likely resonated deeply with Neapolitans — who, like our famous lovers, faced the unpleasant prospect of domination by a foreign power. But unlike Antony and Cleopatra, who choose death over captivity, Naples had grown so accustomed to Hapsburg rule that even this serenata has an obligatory bow (in its final recitative) to Emperor Karl VI and his consort Elizabeth.

From 1730 onwards Hasse served as Kapellmeister to the Saxon court in Dresden and was widely admired for his superior understanding of the lyric style. His operas were among the first seen by the young Mozart, and though Gluck’s reforms threatened to put an end to Italian opera seria, Hasse continued to produce his works in Vienna, Venice, and other major cities until the early 1780s. He and his wife, the great soprano Faustina Bordoni, were perhaps the first “power couple” in operatic history!

© Matthew Dirst

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jan 3 Organ Arrival!

Friends in Houston (and especially organists) are cordially invited to drop by St Philip Presbyterian Church on Sunday, Jan 3 anytime after 12:30 pm or so to help unload the new Paul Fritts organ. The case, action, and pipes will be taken off the truck and spread around the interior of the church, and the next day the organ builder and his crew begin the process of putting it all back together in the rear gallery. Reassembly will take about 10 days, then 6-8 weeks of voicing follow, since all the pipes must be tonally finished in the church. We'll be able to use the various stops as they are finished on Sunday mornings, so St Philippians will get to know the wonderful new sounds of the Fritts gradually. Completion is expected by mid-March at the latest, with inaugural festivities planned for Sunday, April 18.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fritts Organ for St Philip

It's almost here: the new Paul Fritts organ for St Philip was feted at an open house at Paul's shop this past Sunday and is due to arrive in Houston on Jan 3. It's looking and sounding fabulous, and we're eagerly awaiting it at the church (we've already sold the mighty Johannes electronic substitute!). The case is being painted a slightly darker, creamier off-white before it leaves Tacoma, the carvings will get some painted highlights as well, and a few facade pipes are still being made, but these pics should give a pretty good idea of the magnitude of the project. It's a great step for St Philip, and a very significant addition to the local musical scene. Inaugural festivities are already scheduled for Sunday, April 18 -- mark your calendars and come join us!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Red Priest red hot!

Red Priest gave an amazing performance tonight for Houston Early Music, complete with their trademark rearrangements of famous Vivaldi concerti and Halloween-inspired shenanigans. These four players, led by recorder virtuoso Piers Adams, have been compared to the Rolling Stones (among other groups), and now I see why. They play with an enthusiasm that goes well beyond the familiar swaying and ducking of even the most physical of early music practitioners. It's a fascinating combination of both spot-on playing with the imagination -- and sheer nerve -- of the best jazzers or rock musicians. Utterly fascinating, though some of the music -- particularly the Corelli "Folia" at the end -- came completely apart in their hands, though no one there (myself included) seemed to mind!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Gramophone Review!

Ars Lyrica's debut CD on Naxos, with music by Alessandro Scarlatti, has gotten good reviews so far, including a great notice in the October issue of Gramophone, the leading magazine of the classical recording industry. Only sorry I can't put a link to it here, since Gramophone chooses not to make its monthly content available online unless you subscribe. So go to your local bookstore, get a copy, and read all about soprano Melissa Givens' "impassioned performance of strongly characterised and eloquent music," cellist Barry Sills' "exemplary skill and taste," and my own "impressive" work with a Scarlatti toccata. And if you haven't yet bought the CD, get one from us at Ars Lyrica.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Solo Bach CD

I'm delighted to announce my just-released recording of Bach Organ Works for the Christmas Season, on the Centaur label. The disc was recorded on the Fisk-Nanney organ at Stanford Memorial Church. The Fisk, one of several organs in Stanford's "Mem Chu," can be seen in the center of this picture; surrounding it are the twin cases of the indestructable 1900 Murray Harris instrument -- which has survived numerous major earthquakes! The Stanford Fisk is a marvelous vehicle for Bach especially, since it plays in two historical temperaments and has a wide variety of German Baroque colors.

This new disc is available from Ars Lyrica or from Centaur. Enjoy!
Yesterday Ars Lyrica joined Block 7, a new local wine bar and retail shop, for a wine tasting and preview of the 09-10 season. It was great to see many of our supporters there, and even better to meet so many new people. Here's a toast to Ars Lyrica's new publicist, Monica Danna, and our fearless executive director, Kinga Ferguson, for organizing such a wonderful event!

The season gets underway in just a week, with "A Musical Offering" on Sunday Sept 20 at 5 pm, in the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall. This program, the first stop on our season-long "Musical Grand Tour," offers music of Bach and Telemann written for princely patrons and famous cities. We'll sample from Telemann's "Paris Quartets" and hear a joyous birthday cantata Bach wrote for Prince Leopold of Cöthen, among other works. Good seats are still available, but we're filling up fast, so get your tickets at

Thursday, August 6, 2009

St Philip organ update

The new Paul Fritts organ for St Philip is coming right along, with installation scheduled for the end of this year. Here's a computer model of how it will look in the space, with the proposed painted walls and ceiling of the rear bay. The exact color is to be determined, to complement the mosaic wall in front of the church. Thanks to Sixto for his work on this model! More pics from our recent visit to Paul's shop in Tacoma are at St Philip organ.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Judith Leyster at the National Gallery

Our nation's capital had an abundance of 17th-century art on display last week, from Monteverdi at Wolf Trap to the beautiful Judith Leyster exhibit at the National Gallery. Leyster was a rarity for her time: a prodigiously gifted female artist, who left only a handful of pieces. This self-portrait suggests a spirited and fun-loving character, one who might have done more had she not gotten married and run a household. At the very least, her work puts in perspective that of her contemporaries, by whom she is lovingly surrounded in this wonderful show. It's on view until the end of November, so if you happen to be in DC...

Monteverdi at Wolf Trap

A new production of "Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria" at Wolf Trap was reason enough for a quick trip to Washington DC this week. Standouts among the huge cast of singers were Ava Pine and Jamie Barton , two Ars Lyrica favorites who return to Houston for our New Year's Eve program this coming season. Jamie gave a powerful performance as Penelope, the long-suffering spouse of the absent Ulysses, while Ava sparkled as Minerva, one of the gods who does mischief and good deeds in more or less equal measure in this complicated story of love and patience. Here are pics of both in action.

I was also delighted to see UH graduate Carlos Monzon in the cast, as one of Penelope's suitors in a hilarious bit of theatrical naughtiness in Act III. Tuesday's show was, alas, the final performance of this amazing work, but Houston friends will have the opportunity to hear Ava and Jamie soon!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Our amazing ears

Here's a piece from the NY Times Science page that caught not only my eye but my ear. "When an Ear Witness Describes the Case" tells a fascinating story: our ears are not only supremely sensitive to auditory information, they actually process it faster than our eyes process what we see! Useful to remember the next time you're at a concert and are a long way from the stage or have an obstructed view, or you're sitting in church and can't see the organist flailing away at his Bach fugue. Focus on what you're hearing instead: your ears are telling you a much more interesting story than your eyes can.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

BEMF chamber opera double-bill

"Venus and Adonis," John Blow's operatic masterpiece, is the first of its kind in the English language. The Boston Early Music Festival's production, smartly paired with Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Actéon," made for an achingly beautiful evening last night at Jordan Hall. Both are short "chamber operas" of less than an hour each, and both treat myths having to do with the hunt, and they were written in the same decade (the 1680s), so it made sense to have both on the program. The same small group of singers and players delivered both, in a brilliantly effective semi-staging by Gilbert Blin with period choreography by Lucy Graham.

Standouts in "Venus and Adonis" included mezzo Mireille Lebel, whom Houston friends may remember from her wonderful solo work in "Messiah" this past year at Jones Hall, and the melting soprano of Amanda Forsythe, who had a busy week in both this production and in "Poppea." Aaron Sheehan, a nobly effective "Actéon," spent the last several minutes of this opera wearing a large stag's head, one of several animal heads used in both operas and worn by not only the adults but some of the cutest kids in Boston! The little ones were utterly adorable in both operas: dressed to the hilt in 18th-century finery, complete with blond curly tresses, they were hilarious as hunting hounds.

Tragicomedia then took the stage for a late-night program of mostly Monteverdi madrigals aptly entitled "Here I am, ready for kisses" ("Eccomi pronta ai baci"). This kind of music is what makes casual early music fans turn into raving maniacs: it's amazing stuff, and was delivered with great humor and stage presence by one of the best continuo ensembles in the business and a group of first-rate young singers.

Now back for a few weeks to the Houston heat, much refreshed by several days of superlative music-making and some nice cool Boston weather. Yesterday was glorious: 70 degrees, sunshine, and even a festive Gay Pride parade!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Les Arts Flo and Poppea

Here's a bust of the real Poppea -- enough to banish your empress forever? That's what Nero thought...but then they both came to rather bad ends. Monteverdi's public didn't seem to mind, and neither did the audience here in Boston last night, who ate up this naughty historical tale in a beautiful period production by Gilbert Blin. Gillian Keith is wonderful in the title role, and Steve Stubbs and Paul O'Dette have worked their usual magic with both orchestra and cast. Other standouts were Laura Pudwell (Arnalta) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Ottavia), who commanded the stage with great aplomb, and Zachary Wilder (Nutrice), whose crotchety old lady act is hilarious.

Yesterday afternoon I caught the Oberlin production of Charpentier's "Les Arts Florissants," one of the many the BEMF "Fringe" events. It was great to see this group of talented undergraduates convey a real sense of style in their singing, playing, and even Baroque dancing! Their lovely performance of this brief piece left us all wanting more -- something which doesn't happen often enough in this business!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Boston Early Music Festival

Arrived in Boston yesterday for a few days at the most ambitious early music festival on this side of the Atlantic. Last night's program was spectacular: the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble played a program of "orchestral delights" that included three works for three oboes and bassoons (plus strings and continuo) by Fasch, Zelenka, and Telemann. Amazing stuff, which one hardly ever hears -- ever tried to get three first-rate baroque oboists plus a virtuoso baroque bassoon player in the same room at the same time? Kudos to the wind players especially -- Gonzalo Ruiz, Debra Nagy, Kathryn Montoya, and Dominic Teresi -- for their terrific playing!

I'm hearing "Poppea" tonight and a double-bill of "Venus and Adonis" and "Acteon" on Saturday. This is a baroque opera lover's paradise for the next few days!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Subscribe now and win free tix on Continental!

Ars Lyrica Houston patrons and fans take note: if you subscribe to our 2009-10 season by June 15, you'll have a chance to win TWO FREE TICKETS ANYWHERE IN THE USA ON CONTINENTAL AIRLINES. Many thanks to our corporate sponsor, Continental Airlines, and the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts for making this generous offer possible. To subscribe: visit Ars Lyrica or call the Hobby Center box office at 713 315-2525. And do it today to get your chance at those free tickets on Continental!

Friday, May 1, 2009

MFAH Lecture on May 7

Yours truly gives a free lecture on Baroque Allegory -- with live music, thanks to sopranos Ava Pine and Melissa Givens -- at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston next Thursday, May 7, at 6:30 pm in the Brown Auditorium. For those who are planning on attending the May 10 Ars Lyrica performance of Handel's "Il Trionfo del Tempo" at the Hobby Center, this is an excellent opportunity to learn something about the work before experiencing it live. It's sensational music, and there's some very beautiful art to look at during the lecture as well, including this "Allegory of Prudence" by Luca Giordano.

Verdi Requiem as Concert-Drama

Tonight the Moores School offers an intriguing take on the Verdi Requiem. It's inspired by performances of the work given by prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and uses footage of interviews with survivors plus documentary clips from that era, including some fascinating though repellant propaganda. I attended the dress rehearsal last night and found the historical angle quite interesting, though the production was more like watching the History Channel than seeing a piece of musical theater. Dramatizations of major works are a challenge: the addition of new elements to a well-known score can either distract us from the music or add to our understanding of it...and I'm still sorting out which this is! I'd be interested to hear from readers what their views are, especially if they've seen the work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guns on campus

The Texas Legislature is at it again, and Molly Ivins is no longer around to defend us! The latest crazy proposal: to allow concealed weapons on public university campuses in Texas, where they are presently prohibited (as they are in every other state except Utah). Those in support of this change in the law say that students have a right to defend themselves against violent crime, but virtually everyone who has studied this issue in depth says that more guns = more violence. It doesn't take a genius or a PhD to figure this out: people who have guns use them, and on college campuses where there's living in close quarters, pressure and stress, there have been far too many recent shootings by people who obtained guns legally. What we need is not more guns, it's intelligent gun control. How many more of us will have to die in campus shootings before the NRA loses its total and complete grip on American politics?

If you live in Texas, please contact your state representatives and state senators and urge them to vote NO on this dangerous proposal. It's easy to do online: go to TXLegislature to contact your elected officials and let them know how you feel!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

So Last Century...

I'm doing something kind of unusual (for me) this Friday: an entire program of contemporary music! Yours truly is appearing with mezzo Sonja Bruzauskas, cellist Erika Johnson, and flautist Daniel Alexander at the Rothko Chapel for a song salon program entitled "So Last Century..." which explores how old instruments are used in contemporary work, how old genres and forms get new sounds, etc. More details at Divas World Productions, the sponsor of this free event. There will be music by David Ashley White, Edmund Rubbra, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Samuel Adler, plus wine and cheese and an opportunity for the audience to participate in the discussion following the program. Hope to see some of you there!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Musical Pleasure Garden program postponed

Due to bad weather, the Ars Lyrica/MSM Collegium "Musical Pleasure Garden" program at Bayou Bend has been moved from tomorrow (March 14) to Sunday, March 22 at 5:30 pm. The location remains the same: the lovely grounds at Bayou Bend, which will be just as beautiful on the 22nd, and hopefully rain-free then!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Naxos Scarlatti disc now available online!

I'm delighted to announce that Ars Lyrica's first commercial recording is now available online from Naxos. The official release date is March 31, when the CD will be available in record stores worldwide. You can also purchase one directly from Ars Lyrica at our next event. Stay tuned for news of a CD release party in early April!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ariadnes at Zilkha Hall

Ars Lyrica's upcoming "Women on the Verge" program this Friday features three different settings of the Ariadne myth, so I thought I'd post a summary of the tale, for those who (like me) need a refresher from time to time about matters ancient and sublime. The painting is Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne," one of the most famous of the many canvases devoted to this evocative lady. Her story in brief: Having killed the Minotaur in Crete, Ariadne and her lover Theseus flee to Naxos, where they live happily for a while -- that is, until Theseus has to do the "man thing" and get back on his ship and sail away with his army. His departure causes Ariadne much grief, though she eventually weds Dionysus (aka Bacchus in the Roman-influenced painting). Friday's program features three musical settings of this tale, from Monteverdi’s famous Lament, said by a contemporary to have “moved the whole theater to tears,” to a Montéclair cantata and Haydn's well-known dramatic scena.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

St Philip Organ Update

Here's the latest pic, from organ builder Paul Fritts, of the instrument his shop is currently building for St Philip Presbyterian Church. It's very exciting to see it under construction, after several years of planning and patiently waiting for our turn in line. Some pics are indeed worth the proverbial thousand words, and this one's worth quite a bit more in actual $$. For more images of the organ case and chests in Paul's Tacoma shop, see St Philip Organ. This gives you an idea of the instrument's size: the side pedal towers and central tower will reach to within a few inches of the ceiling in the St Philip rear gallery. The swell enclosure is visible near the top of the case, as are a few of the walkboards and windchests. Delivery is scheduled for November of this year, so stay tuned for more updates.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Favorite singers on view downtown

For those who haven't yet seen it, the current production of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Houston Grand Opera is well worth it. It's a charming production and a winning cast, which features two favorite singers: soprano Laura Claycomb and mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand. Laura was around for our New Year's Eve bash (see the photos at ALH New Year's ) and Marie joins us on Feb 20 for "Women on the Verge," singing Haydn's marvelous setting of "Arianna auf Naxos." In the meantime, go catch both of them at the Wortham Center for a gorgeous account of the Britten.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Purcell concert

Houston Early Music patrons were fortunate indeed to have heard last night the viol consort Fretwork, with mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, in a program of Purcell's Fantazias and Songs. I was in heaven: the counterpoint in these pieces is nothing short of stupendous for its time, always interesting and always fresh -- and oftentmes very surprising! And Ms Wilkinson is about as good as it gets in this repertoire. Kudos to Houston Early Music for inviting them to Houston; let's hope they come back soon!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hats off, Henry!

2009 marks Henry Purcell's 350th birthday, and to celebrate, Houston Early Music is sponsoring an all-Purcell program featuring the viol consort Fretwork along with mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson. The concert is this Saturday, Jan 17 at 8 pm at Christ Church Cathedral. Yours truly gives the pre-concert lecture at 7 pm in the cathedral's chapel (between the Cathedral and the Great Hall). The program includes Purcell's still astonishing Fantasies for Viols from 1680 -- one of my "desert island" collections -- and various songs, including "Music for Awhile" and the great Lament from the end of "Dido and Aeneas." For more information on the concert: Houston Early Music Hope to see you there!