Review of Seattle Opera’s production of Katya Kabanova

by James Bash Added 08.03.2017
Tragedy can happen anywhere. That’s why the 1950s setting in the United States looked comfortably appropriate in Seattle Opera’s production of “Katya Kabanova.” Designed by Genevieve Blanchett and Mark Howett, the white picket fence, the expansive living room of a ranch house, and the video projections of wild rivers updated the setting from a village near the Volga River in the 1860s to a small town that could easily have been in the...

Relax, it’s just contemporary music

by Michael Johnson Added 02.03.2017
A friend of mine in Italy who has recorded some of John Cage’s prepared piano pieces struggles with many of the new keyboard works coming down the pike, devoting hours of practice to the mind-bending notation. He concludes, alas, that the level of contemporary composition has “plunged dramatically” in the past few years. I am with him. Too much of it is computer-aided, offhand or just awful. My least favorite works are those that thump and...

Voltaire comes home with an American accent

by Michael Johnson Added 28.01.2017
The Leonard Bernstein incidental music for Voltaire’s Candide seems even fresher today than it did 60 years ago when it flopped on Broadway. Over time the production has been reworked, massaged and matured, and now is finding remarkable popularity in the United States and around the world. As musicals go, it is vintage New York – with creative staging, energetic choreography, acting/singing by a large cast, and of course Bernstein’s...

Impresario Leiser fears young piano talent will get left behind

by Michael Johnson Added 17.12.2016
  Veteran impresario Jacques Leiser, summing up his 60 years of toil with some of the world’s greatest performers, is worried about today’s drift in the music business. He believes that too many young artists fail in their first few years because professional management no longer guides them through the labyrinth confronting them. “They can’t do it on their own, and sadly they get left behind,” he says. Jacques Leiser What has gone wrong...

Young Russian brings personal élan to Mussorgsky’s Pictures

by Michael Johnson Added 13.12.2016
  Ilya Rashkovsky is a rising young Siberian pianist, now based in Paris, whose new CD injects fresh élan into Modeste Mussorgsky’s delightful Pictures at an Exhibition. The performance shows no sign of battle fatigue despite being a mainstay of his recital repertoire for the past seven years. Rashkovsky says he has played it 30 times in public. A native of Irkutsk, Rashkovsky has built a repertoire spanning classical and romantic eras but...

Angelich revives a Beethoven warhorse

by Michael Johnson Added 18.11.2016
The Franco-American pianist Nicholas Angelich delivered a freshly crafted version of a Beethoven warhorse, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, together with the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine conducted by Paul Daniel, in the Auditorium of Bordeaux Thursday evening (Nov.17). There was nothing tired and hackneyed about this accomplished performance. It brought the familiar Beethoven strains magically back to life. Angelich is a...

Big Songs – the Power Behind the Old Broadway Musicals

by Michael Johnson Added 03.11.2016

Three Delightful Sides of Thomas Adès

by Michael Johnson Added 01.11.2016
Visiting star composer-pianist-conductor Thomas Adès put on a bold show of musical versatility Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall, joining the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in selections ranging from Purcell to Stravinsky. Thomas Adès A true heavyweight (physically, he resembles a prizefighter) in all three disciplines, Adès constructed a program with links to Shakespeare, including a highlight of the concert, his own Court Studies from The...

Soprano Nadja Michael stars in stellar production of “The Makropulos Case” at San Francisco Opera

by James Bash Added 21.10.2016
Humans have always had the desire to live forever. Even today there are those wealthy enough to have their bodies frozen in a cryogenic state and others who fervently believe that the wizards of Silicon Valley will preserve them digitally. Leoš Janáček’s opera, “The Makropulos Case” addresses the desire for eternal youth head on, and San Francisco Opera’s masterful production on opening night (October 14) was a timely reminder that it’s a...

Why Pianist Roberto Plano turned his back on Italy

by Michael Johnson Added 13.10.2016
  Italian piano virtuoso Roberto Plano has made the big career move so many artists dream of – leaving home to find a better musical life elsewhere. Plano’s move leaves Italy behind and takes him to the United States, to an environment that he believes is more conducive to the development of his considerable talents. He brought with him his pianist wife Paolo del Negro and their three young daughters. A month ago the Planos settled in...

The intimate John Cage

by Michael Johnson Added 05.10.2016
Virtually all writing, talking and thinking about American experimental music in the 20th century turns eventually to the defining genius of the era, John Cage. His life, his anarchic music and his writings upended traditions beginning in the third decade of the century, continuing without interruption into the last.  Today, music students study his explosive innovations and his seminal works; young composers follow in his footsteps; and...

“Just Call Her ‘Tailleferre’ ”

by Michael Johnson Added 01.09.2016
We have come a long way since the day when female composers suffered denigration for their supposed inability to compose anything of substance. That battle is over, and the women have won. There is no longer any such thing as “women’s music,” if there ever was. Male music-lovers once imagined they heard a more satisfying growl and grumph from the men composers and just a lot of tinkling and charm from the women. Going by the logic of this...

Così Fan Tutte: racial and sexual abuse should shock audiences, not the titillation

by Eleanor Smith Added 30.08.2016
The new production of Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s classic opera Così Fan Tutte has attracted no shortage of controversy. After its premiere in Aix-en-Provence in France in July, the organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival wrote to all ticket holders offering a refund “due to the adult nature of some of the scenes” and its unsuitability for younger audiences. Christophe Honoré, better known as a novelist and auteur film director,...

Interview with Serge Bulat: Grappling with the concept of time

by Michael Johnson Added 26.08.2016
A new sound in the realm of electronic music is evolving from the mind of a transplanted Moldavan avant-garde composer now struggling to make his way in New York. He has based his recent work on “lounge electronica” but, he adds, “with a classical twist”. Serge Bulant, face painted Serge Bulat, 30, a music-school product from post-Soviet Moldava, dropped his radio career and fled his homeland to seek artistic freedom in New York. “I wanted...

How to negotiate the tricky territory of 'fascist music'

by Ian Pace Added 10.08.2016
Certain musicians or pieces of music, for one reason or another, will always carry unsavoury associations. Wagner, whose music was co-opted by the Nazi party, is the obvious example. The overture of his opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was featured in a Nazi propaganda film. And there are many other examples of music that have been performed to great acclaim in societies that have conventionally been labelled fascist, and as a result...

Music day and night: a summer festival in France

by Michael Johnson Added 26.07.2016
France is a favorite European venue for summer music festivals, attracting international artists and audiences from throughout the world. Somehow, despite the often-predicted dropoff in classical concert attendance, the festivals all seem to thrive. One of the longest-running events, the Festival de Saintes, recently concluded with record results – 11,145 tickets sold and an average 85 percent seats filled in 35 concerts and recitals....

Drawing on musical emotion --- it’s all in the eyes

by Michael Johnson Added 28.05.2016
For the past few years I have focused my critical sense mainly on piano music and my artwork on the performers who struggle to play it. The faces of some pianists mirror the creative process and thereby inspire my approach to their portraits. My challenge is to capture their moments of deepest feeling – be it joyous or tragic – in drawings.  In a book-length treatment now in preparation, I am bringing together the critical commentary and the...

Sendak restorations highlight “The Magic Flute” in Portland Opera production

by James Bash Added 14.05.2016
Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” sounded better than ever in Portland Opera’s opening night performance (May 6th) because of the sets that were designed by Maurice Sendak, the beloved children’s book illustrator and author who created “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak’s whimsical scenery elicited numerous oohs and aahs from the audience at Keller Auditorium and seemed to inspire the performers as well. Sung in English from a translation by...

Big hair: Classical pianism meets show business

by Michael Johnson Added 06.05.2016
Many young pianists, increasingly desperate to draw attention to themselves, are resorting to new levels of flamboyance at the keyboard – sometimes in their interpretations, more often in excessive showboating antics. It would seem that everyone wants to be a Lang Lang. Lang Lang, as seen by the author Michael Johnson As young graduates spill out of the conservatories and jostle in the music scene, the trend threatens to get worse. Although...

Prokofiev on fire in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Added 29.04.2016
“Alexander Nevsky”, the cantata version of Sergei Prokofiev’s film score from 1938, captivated a full house at the Bordeaux Auditorium last night (Thursday, April 28) with a degree of fire and heart that other orchestras often lack. Paul Daniel conducted the Orchestra National Bordeaux Aquitaine and a 75-voice chorus in this pristine performance. Mezzo-soprano Aude Extrémo sang the lament for dead warriors, a scene artfully staged and...
All reviews