beautiful music together: (l-r) Allen, Abeles in Bard’s
The Chocolate Soldier.
B. Fisher Center, Bard College, through Aug. 15
the building’s larger theater, the final acclaimed performance
of Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera The Distant Sound
sent singers scurrying past, their faces grotesquely painted.
But with an August too clogged to allow me to see both of
this season’s operas, I succumbed to the part of me that likes
froth and happy endings and sentimental tunes.
I hitherto only knew Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier
as a punchline, a payoff for a gag involving forgotten musicals
if The Red Mill or Naughty Marietta won’t do.
And I swear to you, during the drive home I was listening
to a 1966 Jean Shepherd radio show in which he described dining
at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, in a room that “featured four
very proper musicians . . . playing things like selections
from The Chocolate Soldier.”
Bard Summerscape’s mission is to bring you the little-seen
and rarely heard, and director-choreographer Will Pomerantz
did another commendable job in putting this on the stage.
As was the case with his production two summers ago of the
Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing, he was working with
a property that no doubt clogged the stage with chorus and
dancers; this trimmed-down version made intensive use of the
hard-working chorus: it’s impressive how adaptable women can
be with the mere addition of a mustache or two.
The operetta is based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man, although
Shaw completely dissociated from the piece and insisted on
no royalty payments, a decision he must have later regretted.
Escaping Serb soldier Bumerli (baritone Andrew Wilkowske)
is actually a Swiss pacifist who carries chocolates in his
bullet belt. He hides in the bedroom of Nadina (soprano Lynne
Abeles), whose father is a Bulgarian general and whose fiancé
just won a battle against Bumerli’s Serbs—but won it only
by chance, as Bumerli explains to the reluctant but very smitten
So sparks a plot of mistaken identity revealed and pomposity
deflated and ill-matched lovers united with their proper mates.
Songs like “My Hero” and “The Letter Song” must have sounded
in the streets back when this operetta had its 1909 Broadway
run; “Sympathy,” was a lovely duet for Bumerli and Nadina,
whose voices shone throughout despite a fight against the
unkind acoustics of the Fisher Center’s Theater Two.
The ensemble numbers, which brought in Nadina’s father, General
Popoff (the very amusing bass Jeffrey Tucker) and fiancé Alexius
(tenor Glenn Seven Allen), were high points of the production,
nicely staged and never bogged down with operetta’s bane of
High praise also for mezzo Madeleine Gray as mother Aurelia,
soprano Camille Zamora as the coquettish cousin Mascha, the
imposing Jason Switzer as military man Massakroff, menacing
the audience as well as the cast, and Matthew Kreger in the
thankless role of the servant, Stefan, hauled in to round
out the frequent sextet.
James Bagwell led a small ensemble of musicians brilliantly,
a one-player-per-part orchestra that sounded as fin de
siècle as you probably can get.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s season at the Saratoga Performing
Arts Center was heralded with a rousing, everyone-but-the-cellists-on-their-feet
performance of the national anthem, prompting an audience
sing-along that wafted the attar of patriotic halitosis toward
the stage. In other words, we were deep in the heart of tradition.
It’s a tradition going back 45 years, 21 of them with Charles
Dutoit as the orchestra’s music director at SPAC. This is
his final season in that capacity, and while deserved kudos
are lavished, we’re teased with what’s to come.
But we were off to a good start in terms of attendance, with
the house populated as I’ve rarely seen it filled—thanks no
doubt to the guest appearance of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom SPAC
executive director Marcia White unnecessarily likened to a
rock star (the superstar soloist dates at least as far back
But let’s glory in the music. Dutoit gave a hell-bent-for-leather
downbeat and the brassy start of Richard Strauss’s Don
Juan burst forth. It’s the piece that put Strauss on the
map, written when he was 24, and it’s no easy trick for the
A live performance pulses with the excitement of the musical
conversations unfolding around you, with risks taken and achieved—something
we take for granted with recordings. And there’s even a bit
of theatricality, seeing the percussion section rise and thus
knowing something’s about to break loose back there. And it’s
nice to witness.
Juan takes hairpin turns of emotional contrast, but its
cumulative effect is such that once we reach the finale’s
restatement of the opening sequence, we feel we’ve accomplished
a significant journey, all the more satisfying thanks to the
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is Don Juan gone
berserk. The score is lush, seething with unusual orchestral
effects, from drum smashes to solo violin harmonics to what
sounds like Klezmer clarinet. We remember the rawness and
rhythmic intensity, but this performance reminded me how melodic
the ballet score is at generous moments. Again, it needs an
orchestra of virtuosos and a conductor to stoke that brilliance,
so we were in good hands.
Speaking of virtuosos: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s musical prowess
is beyond question. So is his celebrity. He packed the house
with the Elgar concerto, a work he eased from posterity’s
assignment to Jacqueline du Pré, and played it brilliantly
and played it big. He’s a performer of grand gestures. His
upbow starts considerably to the right of the cello, like
a batter with a big, big swing.
As he plays, he gives a cheerful smile to the conductor, then
sways the other way to give a we’re-working-the-salt-mines
grimace to the concertmaster. He could not be a more engaging
platform presence, and this plays to the crowd like gangbusters.
If I heard this performance as a recording only, I’d still
be awed by Ma’s playing. But watching him sweat made it the
more compelling. The concerto’s second movement has a zippy
finish that inspired a burst of audience applause, one of
those pleasant occasions when, classical snobs like me notwithstanding,
the audience was right.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Performing Arts Center, Aug. 7
What do you program alongside Beethoven’s “ninth?” It’s a
long second half for a modern concert, which means you want
something kind of brief that nevertheless will stand up to
The first time I saw the Symphony No. 9 publicly performed
was 40 years ago, and conductor Leopold Stokowski paired it
with Ginastera’s Overture to the Creole Faust and Virgil
Thomson’s Sea Piece with Birds—and repeated the Thomson.
To say that Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit
played it safe by choosing a Mozart piece for the first half,
which was my initial thought, is to woefully underrate the
effectiveness of the work he chose, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante
in E-flat Major, K. 297b.
It has a cloudy pedigree, but I’m happy to accept it at least
as extremely Mozartean if it isn’t in fact the goods. What
made it work in this context was its construction: a concerto
putting a wind quartet up against a string-heavy orchestra.
I think the winds are the secret stars of Beethoven’s ninth,
especially in the third movement, the backbone of the piece.
So there’s a resonant scene-setting putting the Mozart first.
There’s also the pleasure of witnessing the fantastic musical
evolution that took place during the 46 years separating the
works—especially once Beethoven hit his stride. And there’s
much merit in featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal
players. Peter Smith (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel
Matsukawa (bassoon), and Jennifer Montone (French horn) flanked
Dutoit as he took them into what started out as a stiff-sounding
journey to Mozart land. I look for a sense of ease with this
orchestra, and wonder if the piece simply was under-rehearsed.
By the first movement’s cadenza, it felt more relaxed, and
the slow movement was gorgeous. The piece finishes with a
light-hearted theme and variations that gave us all manner
of wind combinations, nicely done.
It’s amazing that so many forces assemble for the Beethoven
symphony to do so little. Bass-baritone Nathan Berg gets the
most face time, exhorting us to sing the praises of universal
brotherhood, but the soloists (who also included soprano Leah
Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips and tenor Philippe Castagner)
don’t even sing the big finish of the work.
But we had the massive Men delssohn Club of Philadelphia to
drive it all home, and it was a firebrand of a performance.
More stately than some, never over-interpreted or lugubrious,
Dutoit’s pacing made the most of the musical detail, the agonized
swells of the first movement pulsing from section to section,
the second movement’s whimsy at the fore (including the composer’s
recycling of his false-ending scherzo joke from the Symphony
No. 7), and, of course, the passion of the third. And
the unalloyed joy of the finale made me understand why this
work—the fee for its soloists and chorus notwithstanding—is
programmed so often: It needs to be enjoyed in person. With
the right piece to open the show.