Bach’s Adventure through Every Key
April 4, 2010

Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I
Caruth Auditorium, SMU
Dallas, TX
Thursday, April 1, 2010
8:00 p.m.

The title of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier refers to a tuning that allows musicians to play in all twenty-four keys, major and minor, unlike the “just tuning” that stacks Pythagorean fifths (intervals of a 3:2 ratio) on top of each other to produce the twelve notes of the Western scale, which subsequently makes some keys sound out of tune. Yet, because the distance between each note is not equal in the well-tempered tuning, as it is in modern “equal tempered” tunings, each prelude and fugue of Bach’s WTC has a different disposition.

“Color” is the staple word to describe the different characters of each key, which is the origin of the word “chromatic.” The WTC has a clear design, then, as it is organized chromatically, one prelude and one fugue in every key. The triumph of Bach’s masterpiece is not limited to the colors that the well-tempered tuning allows, but the range of styles, tempos, and emotions is astonishing and what gives this collection its staying power.

Nine piano students and teachers from the Meadows School of Music joined together to give an audience the rare experience of listening to the first book of Bach’s WTC in its entirety.

Each piece has its own character: the C major prelude is a beautifully simple; the F minor fugue is intriguing and cerebral, the G Major prelude is a whirlwind of sparks; the D Major fugue is stately and proud; the B flat minor prelude is haunting.

And each performer had his or her own character, too. Hannah Payne played sensitively while using full, broad lines. Thomas Schwan’s style was serious and formal, while Alberto Peña’s was bold. David Karp played in a more Baroque style, simplifying the dynamics and letting the harmonies of the interweaving lines speak for themselves, until the F minor prelude, which was too saucy.

Lucille Chang played too much in the Romantic style for my tastes. Worse, her resolutions at the ends of phrases were harsh and sometimes downright ugly. Alessio Bax was the star performer, playing more preludes and fugues than anyone else and playing them better than anyone else. He was the only performer who could maintain three simultaneous voices with three different dynamics. His technique coupled with his imagination made the E major fugue the highlight of the evening.

On Monday, April 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Caruth Auditorium in the Meadows building on SMU’s campus a similar group of  pianists will perform the second book of Bach’s WTC. The concert is free. I will be there.

Set and Costumes Louder than Music in SMU’s Spring Semester Opera
February 9, 2010

SMU’s Meadows Opera Theatre
Saturday, February 6
8:00 p.m.

Mozart – Il Re Pastore

Hank Hammett, director
Paul Phillips, conductor

At Southern Methodist University, the Meadows Opera Theatre production of Il Re Pastore, or The Shepherd King, was something of a cerberus. The three heads of the set, the costumes, and the blocking were all vying for the audience’s attention. One would expect “music” to be in the running since it is ostensibly the most important part of an opera. The set and costumes, however, were so loud, I had a hard time hearing the music at times.

The set was intentionally laughable. A big-faced sun with his sixty-plus foot sun beams and his cloud-smiling friends dominated the stage. The style was a humorous yet disturbing mixture of anime and Don Hertzfeldt cartoons. The bushes created silhouettes similar to the pointy, fiery hair of the characters from Aaron McGruder’s comic strip / animated-cartoon The Boondocks. The sheep props were cute and earned a well-deserved laugh, especially when they returned at the end wearing crowns like their former shepherd now king.

Aminta, the shepherd king, was dressed like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood wearing a neon orange construction-site hazard vest. Alessandro wore a similarly unlikely fire truck red, double-breasted suit with red shoes. While Agenore wore a tamer grey suit, it was highlighted by Malvolio socks and matching yellow bow tie. Elisa’s costume, however, took first place in silliness: tights and two thin layered tops in blue, green, and purple pastels. The costumes would have successfully matched the surreal set, but Tamiri dressed in period throwing the bizarre atmosphere into contradiction with itself.

Ever Mr. Hammet’s favorite, Ms. Donasco took the lead role as Aminta (originally cast for castrato, for those confused about the gender). She was relatively staid compared to the over-acting we’ve seen from her in the past. She left the stage antics to Ms. Galka (Elisa) and Mr. De León (Alessandro). The former flitted about confusing Elisa’s love for Aminta with seductive flirting; the latter reduced Alexander the Great to a self-absorbed metro-sexual buffoon.

…and there was music, too. Mr. Phillips was, as always, solid and sensitive, despite the dull dry acoustics of Bob Hope Theatre. Ms. Donasco’s “Aer tranquillo” was excellent, and her duet with Ms. Galka to end Act I was another treat. Mr. De León sometimes lacked the rhythmic fortitude to push through Mozart’s devilish sixteenth-note runs and turns, but his addition of a pause in one or two key moments showed an otherwise respectable musicality.

For the production, the voice of note was Ms. Galka’s, whose clarity made her arias ring, particularly the opening to Act II, “Barbaro! oh Dio mi vedi divisa dal mio ben.” As one of only two undergraduate students and the youngest singer to land a role, let’s watch for her in the future.