Filed under: Reviews | Tags: Adam Flatt, Amy June Cain, Anna Montomery, Denver Philharmonic, Gene Stenger, Melissa Wimbish
Passion is the word that was in charge of the performance of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra Friday night, February 17th. I have never heard the DPO exhibit such passion in a performance. Not only a passion for the music that they were planning, but I am convinced there was a generous share of passion directed to the four young soloists who were the winners of the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra’s Vocal Competition.
In addition, Maestro Adam Flatt once again demonstrated his ability to program seldom heard, but truly gorgeous, music. When is the last time any of you readers have heard the Puccini Capriccio sinfonico or Verdi’s Ballet Music from Macbeth? Yes, it is true that since there were four young singers as soloists from the competition, it would seem to be natural to choose operatic music. However, I was very impressed with how all of the music of the entire evening was such a wonderful fit.
Friday evening’s concert opened with the overture to Verdi’s Nabucco, the story of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. It was Verdi’s first unqualified success, and came at a time when Verdi was suffering greatly from the loss of his wife, and from the lack of any kind of musical success. As a matter of fact, this opera was so enormously successful, that one of its choruses, Va, pensiero, which in Italian means Fly, my thoughts, became the unofficial anthem of the Italian national liberation. Verdi was always active in politics and was elected to the first national parliament in 1861.
There are some difficult rhythms in the opening of this overture, but the DPO was absolutely and totally together section by section. Everyone was in tune, and they played with a great deal of excitement. It was as if the orchestra finally realized the excitement with which it could play, and that, in turn, fed upon itself. The orchestra seems to have finally developed a sense of “togetherness” as far as making music is concerned, where they realize that all of them have to do their part to make a concert successful. It was certainly a marvelous way to open this concert.
Following the Verdi overture, the tenor, Gene Stenger, the only male competition winner, sang a short aria from Bach’s Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243. Mr. Stenger has already distinguished himself with numerous performances with Opera Fort Collins and with the Opera Scenes Exchange Program with students at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. He has sung the Magnificat with conductor Helmuth Rilling, and will soon perform in Germany with the same conductor.
The title of the Bach comes from the Scriptures wherein Mary comes to the final realization that the Angel Gabriel’s prophecy was true. He had appeared to her and informed her that she was to bear the son of God, but at that time all she could say was, “I am the servant of the Lord. Do with me what you will.” Later her realization of what was happening, and its elation, made her exclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” It is from this second exclamation that Bach basses his text for the Magnificat.
The aria that Mr. Stenger sang is from the text, He hath put down the mighty (hence the Latin, deposuit). Gene Stenger has an incredibly light and airy tenor voice, but at the same time, it is quite powerful. It is very well suited to this particular aria, but I also sat listening, and imagining what role an opera he could sing. Of course, the first role that came to mind was that of Rudolfo in La Bohème. As a matter fact, his voice quality reminded me of one of my undergraduate classmates at Indiana, Ray Naldi, who went on to sing with the Met.
Following the Bach, Stenger sang, Comfort Ye, Every Valley and Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted, both from Handel’s Messiah. Aside from Stenger’s obvious excellence in vocal technique and voice support, his diction was absolutely perfect. I could understand everything that he sang, and I emphasize that diction was one of the outstanding aspects of all of the soloists who performed with the DPO Friday evening.
Following Mister Stenger’s wonderful performance was Melissa Wimbish, a truly fine soprano with an amazingly dark quality to her voice. She performed the song Chanson perpétuelle, by the French composer, Ernst Chausson. Chausson was a student of César Franck, hence his flowing chromatic style. He was not a very prolific composer by any stretch of the imagination, and that is partly due to the fact that he died at a very young age from injuries that he received in a bicycle accident. He also started his musical training at a very late age.
The dark quality of Melissa Wimbish’s voice lends itself very nicely to the text of this song, which involves a young woman who has been abandoned by her lover, and is now contemplating suicide. Wimbish also has outstanding vocal support and a wonderful vocal mechanism. She has the ability to infuse what she sings with the raw emotion of the song. And she, like Gene Stenger, has incredible diction, and her French pronunciation was absolutely perfect. Her phrasing, which was quite emotional (and yes, phrasing can create much emotion) and her pitch were absolutely gorgeous. Quite frankly, I could not believe my ears. There are so many young singers today who want to display their voice, rather than their musicianship. Stenger and Wimbish have good voices, but they also felt the artistic necessity to be good musicians as well.
Immediately prior to the intermission, the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra performed the ballet music from the opera Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi revised this opera for its Paris revival in 1865 adding, among other things, the ballet in the third act for the witches. This addition made it conform to the style of the French grand Opera, which usually has a ballet in the third act, or even as the third act.
Some of the audience members may have noticed that the ballet music wasn’t necessarily the beautiful and lyrical kind of ballet music one expects, for example, from Tchaikovsky, because this ballet does deal with witches. Once again, the orchestra proved itself, even though there were a few funny little spots in the violins. But almost every orchestra you can name has suffered through a few “funny little spots.” Maestro Flatt certainly worked very hard the entire evening, but his efforts seem to be very different from efforts in the past. Friday night, his conducting approach seemed to be one of encouragement to the orchestra, rather than “Keep your eyes glued to me. You are in trouble.” There is an enormous difference in these two approaches, and the former is based entirely upon the belief that the orchestra and the conductor are on the same side. And again, I have to mention, that the performance of this ballet music from the opera is such a breath of fresh air because it is so seldom performed outside the opera.
Puccini’s Capriccio sinfonico was performed immediately after the intermission. This work was written as a graduation piece at the Milan Conservatory in 1883 where Puccini finished his studies. It is an important work, because it is his first piece where we can hear not only themes from future operas, but we can also hear a readily definable “Puccini sound.” He certainly combines the Italian bel canto style with his almost Wagnerian treatment of the orchestra. A year earlier, he had completed the famous Preludio sinfonico which also contains themes that will be used in future operas.
The performance of this piece demonstrated that the DPO is capable of very intense passion. In fact, the entire orchestra appeared to wallow in its ability. It has been quite some time, if ever, that I have heard the DPO perform with such remarkable depth of tone. It was truly a splendid performance.
Following the Puccini, Amy June Cain, soprano, appeared and sang Elle a fui, la tourterelle from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. Ms. Cain has graduated (with a full vocal scholarship) from Wichita State University where she studied with Dr.Vernon Yenne. The aria that Ms. Cain performed comes from Act III of Offenbach’s Opera. In the opera, Antonia, sung by Amy Cain, has been forbidden to sing by her father, because she is afflicted with a disease which becomes fatal if she sings. However, having fallen in love with Hoffman, she cannot contain herself and bursts into a very sad aria about a turtledove. As soon as she finishes, she collapses and dies.
Amy June Cain is an absolutely phenomenal singer. She has an excellent sense of drama, and several members of the audience were becoming quite emotional as she sang this tragic aria. Her French pronunciation was superb as was her diction. She has a huge voice that is extremely powerful, not only in its volume, but in its emotional quality. She has the unquestioned ability to act as well as to sing, and that makes her a valuable asset to the music world and to opera in particular. She was a joy to listen to and to watch.
Next on the program, Anna Montgomery sang the aria, Que-fais-tu blanche tourterelle, from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.
Anna Montgomery is the youngest winner of this competition sponsored by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, at the age of 18. She is a senior at the Holy Family High School, and has studied with Mary Louise Burke and James Myers. She has already performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall under the direction of the composer and arranger, Kirby Shaw.
The aria that she performed Friday evening is traditionally sung by a soprano, even though the character is that of Stephano, Romeo’s page. This is an insulting and sarcastic aria which Stephano sings outside the Capulet Palace (remember that Romeo was a Montague). Ms. Montgomery, as do her co-winners, has an excellent sense of theater, and I am quite sure that those in the audience who did not understand the context of the aria could, nonetheless, understand that something incredibly sarcastic was going on. Montgomery has an absolutely beautiful voice and absolutely remarkable sense of stage presence. She seemed truly at home in front of the audience. She is an absolutely scintillating artist.
As a finale to the concert, Maestro Flatt and the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra performed the Triumphal March from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Aïda. There is ample opportunity in this March for the brass section to display their technical ability, and every single one of them did. It was an exhilarating performance.
Concerning the orchestra: there are several things that stand out in my mind about the evenings concert. I have mentioned several in the above article, but some of them bear repeating. The Denver Philharmonic under the leadership of Maestro Adam Flatt has progressed to a degree that I would not have thought possible, and in saying that I do not mean to cast any disparaging remarks about its players. This is a community orchestra and not a professional orchestra, but if they are not careful, they are going to sound like a professional orchestra if they keep their momentum going. And I’m sure that Maestro Flatt will see that they do. They have found a new precision, and it seems to me, a new pride in what they do. And Adam Flatt, through his leadership and teaching ability, has shown them what they are capable of, and they are doing it.
Concerning the competition winners: all of them deserve to be winners because they are winners, and they are also exceptional musicians. It is so refreshing to see young people who are serious about serious music and accomplishing serious roles in their life. In the arts, one can never come to this realization too soon. It is my hope that these young people will go to the best undergraduate and graduate schools they can find which suits their artistic abilities and role. It has been a while since I have heard four vocalists, each with their own outstanding abilities. All are possessed of good vocal production and diction and language ability, in addition to a sense of drama. They are proving to a cynical world that music and the arts have a place, and they are passionate about it. I know they will succeed.