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Winter 2011 CD and DVD-Audio Reviews for the Audiophile

Annette Cantor "Songs to the Earth" Source Being Productions

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Winter 2011 CD and DVD Reviews for the Audiophile

The extremely evocative, beautiful voice of Annette Cantor that elevates this album of seven songs for meditation and healing is the same voice that, years ago, helped make master musician Deuter’s Garden of the Gods (New Earth Records) one of my favorite New Age albums. Both artists, as it turns out, were born in Germany and live in Santa Fe. Cantor’s migration to the United States, however, came after a period of training in opera and voice in Vienna, and a prolonged immersion in Gregorian chant and the music of 12th century mystic Hildegard von Bingen.

One of Cantor’s initial resting places was New York City, where she utilized dance, movement, and song for healing. She also studied Alexander Technique and became a certified practitioner / teacher. After moving to Santa Fe to get closer to nature, she began pursuing vocal improvisations, and collaborated in performance with a number of poets.

Cantor composed her songs - a mixture of Christian Gregorian and Native American Chant with more than a passing nod to the music of India - during a year that included long walks in the high desert while she was healing cancer. “Gaia Dreaming” is a song to the Earth Mother, “To the Great Mother of Compassion” a universal prayer requesting help in dealing with suffering, and “Ave Generosa” a chant by Hildegard that praises the divine feminine.

Cantor’s music is as rooted in the earth as it invokes the forces that transcend all. To the mostly improvised sounds of Patrick Shendo-Mirabal’s American flutes and vocals (also heard on his brother Robert Mirabal’s recordings), Mike Chavez and Gregory Gutin’s grounded percussion (both men have performed with Ottmar Liebert), and Michael Kott’s evocative cello (Sons of Ganesh, Robert Mirabal, Moontribe), Cantor’s voice soars. Her Christian/Native American blend may seem more than a little curious to peoples whose culture and land have been taken from them by various and sundry cross-bearing missionaries and soldiers, but the integrity of Cantor’s faith, and the deep connectedness of her vision, resound of profound truth.

Cantor first explored her blend of distinctly different spiritual traditions on her album Sacred Fusion with Shanti Shivani, who sang East Indian Hindustani Dhrupad to Cantor’s Gregorian chants, droning tambura, and other Indian instruments. With Deuter, she mixed Gregorian chant and New Age instrumentation on Adore Te, sang German folk songs to Deuter’s accompaniment on Die Blaue Blume, and augmented her voice with her violin playing on the aforementioned Garden of the Gods as well as Earth Blue and Mystery of Light.

Cantor’s album quotes a Buddhist blessing: “Earth, air, fire and water. Combine to make our home. Numberless beings give their lives and labor that we may thrive. May we be nourished so we may nourish the earth our home.” On this very special album of songs dedicated “to our earth with respect and reverence,” the sounds of Cantor’s wide-ranging voice reach deeply into the sacred core of our shared being.

Maneesh de Moor "Signatures on Water" Sounds True

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Winter 2011 CD and DVD Reviews for the Audiophile

From the sounds of Signature on Water, Maneesh de Moor is one of relatively few major New Age composers who truly tap into a higher source for inspiration. If you seek meditation music that transcend the clichés of airy ambiance, synthesized choruses, and overdubbed nature sounds that lead to ennui rather than nirvana, this is it.

De Moor, born in the Netherlands and “currently travelling,” has become known for his collaborations with Deva Premal & Miten and a number of other spiritually centered artists. Grounded in classical piano and pop music, he brings his MDMsound expertise to full flower in Signatures on Water. Composed in November 2009 in the south of Portugal, this self-described “five-phased backdrop for meditation and healing” uses keyboards, gongs, bells, and synthesized sounds to help listeners transcend everyday thoughts and emotions. Even if the very concept is paradoxical – if you wish to still and empty the mind so that it does not cling to thoughts, why would you substitute sound for silence? – de Moor’s journey is structured to take listeners deeper and deeper.

The first three tracks, “Mindfulness,” “Galaxies Within,” and “Silent Mirror” are designed to lead you to a state of serenity. The fourth track, “OM,” introduces the sound of universal peace, and invites you to join in if so moved. “Compassion” intends to offer a glimpse of “the infinite substance of which this universe is composed.” Here the CD ends, because there’s nowhere else to go from here but farther up and deeper in. That is up to the listener.

This is not the first time I’ve reviewed this artist’s music. In the fall of 2007, I reviewed Om Deeksha, an earlier album by Maneesh de Moor. Also on the Sounds True label, the disc contains sacred chants and meditative instrumental music intended to manifest a special form of “Oneness Blessing.” Defined as “a non-denominational benediction… a transfer of Divine Energy which, over time, is designed to bring about the state of Oneness in the recipient,” I found the music of “exceptional clarity and purity of expression. Distinguished by an extraordinary sense of devotion, I was moved by its sacred, heart-opening beauty.

This music is equally calming, centering, and transporting. Signatures on Water works for me. Not only does it relax me to the core, but it also helps open my heart and elevate my spirit. Highly recommended.

Versions of the following reviews first appeared at sfcv.org, the website of San Francisco Classical Voice

Rossini "Gullaume Tell" EMI Classics

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Winter 2011 CD and DVD Reviews for the Audiophile

When Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell debuted triumphantly at the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829, no one imagined that it would serve as the 37 year-old composer’s operatic swansong. That he was at the height of his powers becomes clear from EMI’s superb new recording of the original French version, recorded live in a near complete concert performance in late 2010 at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.

The entire second act, beginning with Princess Matthilde’s (Malin Byström) great soprano aria, “Ils s’élongement enfin – Sombre forêt” and extending through a series of duets, trios, and choruses, thrills with its beauty and power. More knockouts arrive in the two subsequent acts, not the least of which are Tell’s (baritone Gerald Finley) “Sois immobile” and Arnold (tenor John Osborn’s) near impossible scene, “Ne m’abandonne point…Asile héréditaire.”

A dramatic work of near Wagnerian proportions – the recording occupies 3 CDs and lasts almost 3 ½ hours – William Tell shows a far more profound side of Rossini than do Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. Rossini’s love of vocal fireworks remains, not least in Matthilde’s challenging runs and booming high notes, and Arnold’s near-impossible string of 54 B flats, 15 Bs, 19 high Cs and 2 C sharps. But these displays serve not merely as visceral titillation, but more so as means to drive home the epic monumentality of the protagonists’ emotions and actions.

Conductor Antonio Pappano has assembled a sterling cast. Finley’s voice has grown even more beautiful with age, and he sings with a power and elegance that befit French opera. Byström is more a dramatic soprano than a coloratura – she cannot clearly articulate the notes in her demanding runs, and sounds labored in the unaccompanied passage that ends “Sombre forêt” – but her exciting high notes, impassioned delivery, and vocal glamour go far to compensate. Osborn has none of her technical limitations: his voice has substantial weight, and the high notes are thrilling. His bravura performance of “Asile héréditaire” and the C sharp with which he caps ”Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” deservedly bring the house down.

As Tell’s wife, Hedwige, Marie-Nicole Lemieux is excellent, combining vocal glamour and dramatic heft in equal proportion. Carlo Cigni sounds a bit too elegant as the evil Gessler; his vocal beauty bespeaks a much nicer character. To Tell’s son Jemmy, Elena Xanthoudakis brings a naïve, light soprano; her high, uncomplicated, and occasionally imperfect sound convinces. Supporting roles are sung well, and the men of the Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia are especially strong.

Pappano again proves himself a master. He can’t prevent the three Divertissements from sounding like tedious excuses for formal French ballet. But when given the opportunity to show his worth, as in the famed “William Tell overture” and the pacing of soloists and chorus, he invariably transcends cliché.

I considered comparing this recording to other well-regarded efforts from Gardelli (Bacquier, Caballé, and Gedda) and Chailly (Milnes, Freni, and Pavarotti). Then I realized that comparisons, albeit always illuminating, were unnecessary. This recording is so fine that all that really matters is finding enough time to sit back and marvel.

Mark-Anthony Turnage And Richard Thomas’ Anna Nicole "Opus Arte DVD"

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Winter 2011 CD and DVD Reviews for the Audiophile

When Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole, to libretto by Richard Thomas, premiered at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on February 17 of this year, the entire opera world was watching. Watching more than listening, perhaps, given the sex-sational nature of the subject matter. In fact, more than likely watching through dark-colored glasses, lest anyone blow the whistle on their prurient sojourn into the land of post-Salome operatic titillation.

While the opera is still warm in the can, so to speak, Opus Arte’s Royal Opera House imprint has issued it on DVD and Blu-Ray. The Advisory Warning on the back cover: “Contains explicit language and scenes of a sexual nature,” only begins to tell the tale. But that tale, it must be stated up front (pun intended), is equally spiced with sex, exploitation, and tragedy; both are hyped to operatic levels, of course. As if it were even possible to hype Anna Nicole Smith’s 40 tragic years on planet Earth any more than she did herself.

For anyone like me who does not follow the comings and goings of media-manufactured celebrities of little substance, Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy’s 1993 Playmate of the Year, was born in 1967 to a Texas white trash family. Thanks to a generous helping of silicone breast implants, the former Wal-Mart employee and waitress moved on from her work as as a stripper and lap dancer to the Playboy centerfold.

TV, movies, and lord knows how many exploitive photo ops followed. So did her 1994 marriage, at age 26, to 89 year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. Marshall’s death thirteen months later began a 10-year fight over who would inherit his money. That painful decade culminated first in the drug-induced death of Smith’s beloved son Danny, then the drugged-out death of Smith herself. (You’ll hear the names of more drugs than you’ll ever want to take in the second act). In between came the fabled weight gain and loss, the infant daughter whose fathership was hotly contested, and more media appearances than you can shake your bootie or whatever at.

If Act I of the opera presents one high-powered, four-letter foray after another – Richard Thomas, after all, also wrote the libretto to Jerry Springer: The Opera – with music whose ultimate worth is a matter of conjecture, Act II presents a far more musically nuanced portrayal of Smith in decline. In fact, the second act is so sobering, tragic, and moving that it helps put the super-octane overdrive of Act I in perspective.

At the opera’s center stands, lies, blows, and sighs the incredible singing and acting of Eva-Maria Westbroek. Managing to replace her native Dutch accent with Anna Nicole’s 100% Texan, Westbroek is absolutely sensational on every level. Her Sieglinde in San Francisco Opera’s recent stand-alone Die Walküre only hinted at her dramatic and vocal abilities.

Equally intense are Susan Bickley as Anna Nicole’s mom, and Alan Oke as Marshall. Gerald Finley acts the part of Anna Nicole’s lawyer/lover Stern very well, but his voice is too urbane. The rest of the cast is excellent. Anthony Pappano conducts, not only the Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, but also a drummer, guitar, and bass guitar trio that includes John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin).

Anna Nicole may not be the new Madame Butterfly, but its subject matter certainly constitutes a modern-day Götterdämmerung of sorts. Prudes run for cover, ‘cause almost everything is out in the open. Everyone else gotta see it.

Aaron Copland "Fanfare For America" Arthaus Musik DVD

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Winter 2011 CD and DVD Reviews for the Audiophile

Doubtless few Americans head to a film/DVD about Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland expecting to hear German dialogue. Momentarily disconcerting, albeit less so than for a German hearing Schubert sung by someone born in the Bronx, the German narration, complete with English subtitles, hardly impedes Andreas Skipis’ film with the hr-Sinfonieorchester (former Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchester) from making its mark.

Part of the film’s success is due to its American conductor, Hugh Wolff. His orchestra does not sound as idiomatic as the New York Philharmonic, but they are as musical and convincing as the historic footage of Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Taking an equal place alongside those much too short excerpts from historic performances are recent and lengthy American language interviews with Wolff and Copland biographer Howard Pollack. To set the mood, the conversations with Pollack are filmed on an elevated subway car, successors to the cars Copland rode in as New Yorker.

The other reason the film works is because, for once, the filmmaker resists the temptation to constantly sacrifice music for dialogue. Instead on a progression of rapid cutaways, we hear/see sizable portions of Wolff-led performances of Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, and other major works from different periods in Copland’s output. The straight-ahead editing may not win awards for originality, but substantial musical examples from the breadth of Copland’s output enable us to hear what Wolff and Pollack are speaking about.

The biographical material, all of which was shot before the film’s initial release in 2001, is hardly complete. Copland’s dedication to freedom is covered; the excerpt from A Lincoln Portrait is quite moving. So is Copland’s run-in with Senator Joe McCarthy and his modern-day inquisition, with Copland discussing a bit of what happened. Copland’s closeted homosexuality, however, and its impact on his relationships with Bernstein and others is totally ignored. Nor do we end up with a full sense of the career devastation wrought by McCarthy’s blacklists, or exactly how Copland managed to emerge with nothing more than a temporary banning of performances of his music.

What we do get are plenty of broad and welcome insights in Copland’s childhood. We also get glimpses into his tutelage with Nadia Boulanger, and a sense of the influence of Mahler and 12-tone music on his “distinctly direct American music.” For those wishing to dive deeper into Copland’s legacy, and an oeuvre that captures the “pep and zip of American life,” this DVD is a nice place to start.