24 January 2015

Familiar Face Considers Running for President in 2016

DES MOINES -- With the Republican caucuses in Iowa less than a year away, another familiar face is considering a bid for the White House — alongside such potential once-and-future candidates as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee, as well as Jeb Bush, the third member of his family to seek the Presidency in the past 35 years; and Ryan Paul, who may seek to expand on the voter base tapped by his father in previous elections.

“I believe that time has passed, the mistakes I made in my last campaign have been forgotten, and America is ready once again for my leadership,” former President Herbert Hoover told reporters here in Des Moines today.

Citing his longstanding ties to Iowa, his birthplace, Hoover continued, “It’s not hard to construct a scenario in which I’d win the caucuses and build enough momentum to go on to New Hampshire and beyond.”

Hoover’s last campaign, in 1932, was marked by belligerent crowds and even a few assassination attempts. The incumbent President at the time, Hoover was unable to persuade Americans that “prosperity was just around the corner,” and he lost the popular vote to his opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, by 39.7 percent to 57.4 percent.

Political analysts give Hoover’s candidacy mixed grades, citing on the one hand his lengthy record of defending free-market economics and low taxes; and on the other his death in 1964.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s too soon to rule him out,” said Republican analyst Lotte Polster. “Declining educational standards today mean that most Americans don’t even know we had a Depression, much less that Hoover was President when it happened. After so many decades out of office, he’s the ultimate Washington outsider, and a lot of Republican voters do respond well to his kind of message.”

One conservative voter, Archibald Bunker of Queens, NY, clearly agrees. “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,” Bunker said.

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22 January 2015

Interview: Jennifer Rivera on Rossini’s Sins

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera.

After Gioachino Rossini completed William Tell, in 1829, he never wrote another opera — thus crushing for all eternity the dreams of millions of mezzo-sopranos, for whom he’d created so many gratifying roles, but no more. “Retiring” to Paris until his death in 1868, the composer pursued his interests in good food and good company, bestowing his name on dishes that pleased him and reigning benevolently over much of Parisian society. And yet he was still a man who’d written 39 operas in 18 years. Music had seemed to bubble up from him irresistibly, like a natural spring of Champagne, and even in retirement, his source did not run dry. Little bits of musical invention kept slipping out: Les Pêchés de Vieillesse, he called them, “The Sins of Old Age,” occasional pieces to be played or sung primarily for the amusement of his friends.

Now Jennifer Rivera, one of the brightest mezzos of her generation, is turning to the Pêchés for a recital on Saturday, January 24, at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium, under the aegis of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. This is a no-fooling, not-to-be-missed opportunity to hear a young artist whose Rossini singing has been praised by none other than Marilyn Horne: in one of my first conversations with that great lady, she bragged about Rivera and urged me to hear her whenever I could. It’s as if Abraham Lincoln told me whom to vote for. You just don’t argue with that.

“Picking some of Rossini’s French music was a must,” Rivera says, given the aims of the Salon/Sanctuary series and even the auditorium itself, which may look more like a ballroom than a Second Empire salon, but which is close enough in spirit to give audience members the sense that they’re hearing the music in the environment for which it was created.

Rossini, as the Parisians saw him.

Long before Rossini retired, Stendhal used the word “delightful” to describe his music, and the word applies to the Pêchés, as well. “These songs certainly don’t sound like they come from someone who has given up their craft,” Rivera says, answering a few questions by e-mail. “I guess what delights me about them is how full of character the ones I have chosen are, and what incredible contrast in style they demonstrate. Rossini is obviously a master at creating vocal drama — that is, he is able to create a sense of drama within the context of the vocal line, whether through acrobatics or beauty of melody. I know that well from his operatic writing, but it’s exactly the same type of very clear characterization in his song writing.”

A prodigiously early bloomer (as was Rossini himself), Rivera began singing leading roles with New York City Opera while she was still a student at Juilliard; I have particularly fond memories of her work in Hansel and Gretel and Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Among her other successes with NYCO was Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, also the vehicle for her debut with the Berliner Staatsoper. “I really first discovered Rossini when I was in high school, which is when I first started singing ‘Una voce poco fa’ and getting to know parts of Rosina (if you can believe it),” she says. Around the same time, she heard Marilyn Horne as Isabella in “Italian Girl in Algiers” at San Francisco Opera (“a very formative experience”) and, on video, Frederica von Stade as Angelica in Cenerentola. By now, Rivera has sung Rosina and Angelica many times, and she’s eager to sing Isabella, the first chance she gets. She looks exceptionally, almost disturbingly good in trouser roles, at which Rossini excelled, and so I’d like to hear her tackle a few of those, too.

Who’s a pretty boy, then?
As Nerone in Handel’s Agrippina.

Rivera first sang Rosina at the Juilliard Opera Center. Kenneth Merrill coached her and conducted that production, and “since that was my first leading Rossini lady, I really learned to sing that style of music from him,” she says. On Saturday night, Merrill will accompany her on piano, after a mishap waylaid the pianoforte he originally intended to use — “but I’m sure Ken will have just the right tough that will make the music feel in period on whatever instrument he is given. …We have never performed a recital together before now, so it is extremely fitting that we would be performing Rossini!”

In addition to Merrill, another of Rivera’s Rossinian mentors is Marilyn Horne, with whom she studied at the Music Academy of the West. I asked Rivera what Horne can teach the next generation. “I would say the biggest thing young singers can learn from listening to Marilyn’s recordings is about style,” she says. “She had a tremendous penchant for the clearest and most definitive version of bel canto style. A lot of Rossini singing today is of the ‘ha-ha’ ilk — that is, to put a small aspiration between each note for clarity. But Marilyn’s style was to retain the speed and clarity of the coloratura, yet in a true legato where there was no break between the notes.”

As Rosina in Central City, 2013.
Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

“While this other style can certainly be very exciting,” Rivera continues, “I think Marilyn truly embodies the basic nature of bel canto singing by always keeping the line, and by having an extraordinarily even sound from top to bottom. It’s the healthiest way to sing, and that’s a great lesson for any young singer. There will never be another person who possesses anything quite like Marilyn’s iconic sound, but the technical ease and style with which she dispatched all music, and particularly bel canto, is an ongoing master class to all who hear it.”

Saturday’s program will also feature songs by Pauline Viardot, who (like most of her family, including her sister, the legendary Maria Malibran) sang Rossini’s operas in her time and presided over a Parisian salon of her own. “As a composer, she was clearly very influenced by Rossini (and you can tell especially in her florid writing),” Rivera says, “but she also had her own voice. And it’s a treat to sing music composed by lyric mezzo by someone who possessed that exact voice type herself. I can’t imagine I’ll have another occasion to write that sentence.”

Oh, don’t ask why: Rivera as Weill’s Bessie.
Photo by Richard Termine,
courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

I last saw Rivera in Gotham Chamber Opera’s Baden-Baden 1927, a re-imagining of the quadruple-bill of one-acts that included Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel. As Weill’s whiskey-bar-seeking Bessie and as the cunning Nurse in Toch’s Princess and the Pea, Rivera once again proved herself an extraordinarily expressive artist, with a rich, supple, immensely appealing instrument, at once dark and lustrous. In repertoire that ranges from Handel to Jorge Martín, from Early Music to half an hour ago, Rivera represents the kind of versatile, intellectually curious, artistically adventurous American singer I admire so much. She’s also a fine writer whose essays for the Huffington Post are acclaimed and passed along by other young singers, confirming her status as a leading voice of her generation in one more way. And she takes her writing as seriously as her music, doing actual reporting and interviews to get the latest on the attempts to revive New York City Opera, for example. (Professional journalists aren’t covering the story nearly as well.) Since NYCO’s demise, her New York appearances have been all-too rare — one more reason to rush to hear her on Saturday.

Salon/Sanctuary Concerts present
Rossini in Paris

Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Merrill, piano
Saturday, January 24, 8:00
Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium
417 East 61st Street, New York
For more information, click here.

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21 January 2015

Salon/Sanctuary’s ‘More Between Heaven & Earth’

Star-crossed lovers: Jefferson (Cake) and Cosway (Errico).
All photos by Stephen de las Heras, courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

At the risk of turning this blog into a sort of “Salon/Sanctuary Newsletter,” I record my responses to Sunday’s performance of More Between Heaven and Earth, the latest presentation of a site-specific, multi-disciplinary concert that’s become one of Salon/Sanctuary’s trademarks.

Really, calling it “site-specific” and “multi-disciplinary” doesn’t convey enough sense of the imagination and energy behind this concert, which I’ve now seen twice. Actors walk among us, reciting from letters exchanged by Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway; musicians perform works that Jefferson and Cosway heard while in each other’s company (plus two songs that Cosway wrote); and all of this in Fraunces Tavern, where Jefferson kept an office while Secretary of State. At least one of the letters was written in the Tavern. Short of summoning Jefferson and Cosway back from the dead — and thus engaging in precisely the sort of supernaturalism Jefferson disdained — there isn’t much one could do to get a clearer sense of the circumstances portrayed. We hear what they heard, we learn what they learned.

Luminous: Errico sings one of Cosway’s songs.

Written and directed by Erica Gould, based on a concept by Jessica Gould (who also researched the music), More Between Heaven and Earth plausibly depicts Jefferson and Cosway as star-crossed lovers, and Sunday’s performance brought extra force to that interpretation. The Jefferson I’d previously seen, Campbell Scott, played an intellectual more at ease with philosophy and statecraft than with romance. Jonathan Cake, on Sunday afternoon, made his Jefferson a practiced yet passionate charmer. Both interpretations are valid, I think: in his letters, Jefferson expresses frustration that could easily derive from his own awkwardness in writing about his feelings, and yet he could just as likely be frustrated because the threat of scandal made it impossible for a public figure to be open about those feelings when writing to a married woman.

And if Jefferson had acted on his attraction to Cosway, the risk of scandal would have increased. If Cosway ever divorced her husband — further scandal, compounded by her Catholic faith. Thus, whenever Jefferson talks about the separation of church and state, we understand — in this context — that he’s thinking about a society based on laws and reason, where a love like theirs might stand a chance. It’s an extra nuance that doesn’t trivialize Jefferson’s position: it personalizes it.

Gould and Boutté

The luminous Melissa Errico once again proved herself a magnificent Cosway: smart enough to keep up with her American correspondent, coquettish enough to thrive in Paris, lovely enough for anyone to cherish. Of course Jefferson fell for this woman, and when she appeared with the utterly engaging, flawlessly American-accented Cake, I felt the nearly irresistible urge to tear up all the history books and start rewriting, so these two could wind up together after all.

In the two songs by Cosway, Errico sang with limpid simplicity and thoughtful emotion, making one yearn for her to record an album of similar material. (Songs from the Age of Jane Austen might be a marketable concept. Somebody make this happen, please.) Errico’s vocal approach also created a compelling contrast with the rich soprano voice displayed by Jessica Gould in the arias from Sacchini’s Dardanus. One woman is singing for a particular man, the other is singing for the publique parisien, and we hear the difference.

Errico and Boutté.
(With violinist Daubek at center.)

In Dardanus, the titular hero’s love is thwarted when the Princess Iphise is promised to another, a poignant circumstance, surely, for Jefferson and Cosway as they listened. Erica Gould’s staging raised the stakes in the evening’s most effective operatic number, “Il me fuit, il ne m’écoute plus,” in which Jessica Gould chased Cake around the room, bringing Iphise’s drama directly to Jefferson and fully conveying the fury of a woman scorned. Tony Boutté brought excellent French diction and sweet tone to his numbers, and like Gould, he seemed in his element when interacting with the rest of the cast.

Christen Clifford struck intriguingly modern and androgynous notes as the Narrator, supplying useful background information and gently pushing our sympathies even closer to Jefferson and Cosway. Deborah Wright Houston (with assistance from Allegra Durante) provided the sumptuous costumes, including gorgeous gowns for Errico and Gould and a man’s suit for Clifford. I did prefer the darker, more dignified costume Scott wore a year ago to the Dresden Shepherd outfit that Cake wore, and I don’t remember Boutté’s wig possessing those distracting peyos — but these are quibbles.

Hell hath no fury: Gould and Cake.

At the harpsichord, Elliot Figg led members of the Salon/Sanctuary Orchestra in a crisp, energetic reading, which included instrumental spotlights on him (in Duphly’s “La Médée”) and on violinist Tatiana Daubek (in the adagio from Correlli’s Sonata in G-minor). So very little of this music is familiar to modern audiences that it’s easy to feel that we, like Jefferson and Cosway, are hearing it fresh from the composers’ pens — another way in which More Between Heaven and Earth succeeds.

In our own time, when religion and politics are mixing again, with headlines every day announcing results sometimes ludicrous (schoolbooks without science) and sometimes tragic (the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo), it’s healthy to reflect a while on Jefferson’s words — not merely to have them declaimed to us, but to have them presented in a context that would have meant a great deal to him personally.

A few more self-evident truths:
Cake as Jefferson.

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15 January 2015

Interview: Jonathan Cake on ‘More Between Heaven and Earth’

Jonathan Cake

“Whenever I’m called upon to do something that’s absolutely alien to me, I’m thrilled,” says Jonathan Cake. “This is one of the great privileges of being an actor: people will open a door that had been locked to you and give you the privilege of going through and looking around.”

On Sunday, January 18, Cake ventures into new territory with More Between Heaven and Earth, an environmental, multi-disciplinary performance piece that’s become one of the principal calling-cards of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts. Written and directed by Erica Gould, the piece reveals the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and the painter Maria Cosway, through their correspondence, through the music they heard together, and through music that Cosway herself wrote. Singing actress Melissa Errico reprises the role of Cosway, and once again soprano Jessica Gould and tenor Tony Boutté will join her at New York City’s historic Fraunces Tavern — where Jefferson wrote some of his letters to Cosway. Christen Clifford will narrate the performance, which starts at 4:00 PM.

Though Cake says he listens to quite a lot of the music of his own time, “I have absolutely no relationship with Classical music, absolutely nil,” he admits. The prospect of hearing music of Jefferson’s time, as Jefferson heard it, “was absolutely delicious to me and un-turn-down-able. The strangeness of the unknown!” He’s especially eager to hear Cosway’s music. “That must have been a gift, to be able to write a piece of music for such an intimidating man, who was himself a musician. …It seems an extraordinary act of love, to write a piece of music for somebody else.”

Melissa Errico as Maria Cosway
At Fraunces Tavern, December 2013.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Just learning more about Jefferson is part of the adventure for Cake, an English native and graduate of Cambridge. “I have to say to my shame that I knew not nearly enough” about him, Cake says. He ticks off the “basic facts”: “the third President and one of the Founding Fathers, and his extraordinary political and philosophical catholicism, and how interested and interesting he was about all sorts of extraordinary things and what a polymath he was. How he’s been claimed by the Left and the Right over the years, and yet he was entirely unique in himself as a man and in his own mind.”

Jefferson’s philosophical concerns — and their immediate impact on the establishment of religious freedom in the fledgling United States — are a principal focus of More Between Heaven and Earth, and in Gould’s script, Jefferson’s deepening involvement in government takes a toll on his relationship with Cosway. Cake says he’s coming to understand “that the public and the private were indivisible, that what the statesman was expressing was what the private person really believed, in all its conflicting ways and its brilliantly complicated ways. It wasn’t watered-down or filtered. It wasn’t politically expedient.”

Source of fascination: Jessica Gould and Tony Boutté sing arias Jefferson and Cosway enjoyed.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Seen at Fraunces Tavern just over a year ago (with Campbell Scott as Jefferson), More Between Heaven and Earth so clearly portrays the link between Jefferson’s public and private selves that the presence of Maria Cosway becomes a tantalizing source of speculation and regret. Especially in Errico’s luminous, beautifully sung portrayal of her — profoundly intelligent, gifted, and wise — one sees Cosway’s potential to make Jefferson a better person and a better leader.

Yet even as he got to know Cosway, Jefferson had begun his troubling relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. And as Errico observed in a conversation with me after the 2013 performance, Cosway didn’t necessarily stand up to the men in her life. A Catholic, already married (unhappily) when she met Jefferson, Cosway couldn’t divorce her husband and run off with another man — no matter how much we’d want her to. Able to do little to improve her own lot, Cosway late in her life blazed a trail for others by founding a school for young women.

A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Cake first came to my attention in his Broadway debut, as Jason in Euripides’ Medea, opposite Fiona Shaw, in 2002, “a lifetime ago,” Cake says. “I’m so happy it still exists strongly in people’s memories. It’s rare that I’m in New York and someone doesn’t say something about that show.” Despite sometimes playing to less-than-full houses in the course of a limited run, “It’s become one of those shows that it seems everyone saw,” he says, adding, “It certainly didn’t seem that way at the time!”

Cake with Fiona Shaw as Medea, 2002.
Please note: I really did see this show.

Endowed with a frankly seductive speaking voice and a rugby-honed physique, Cake can tackle just about any role, and he’s compiled an enviable variety of credits on stage, film, on television, in Britain and in the States, performing in everything from the classics to Desperate Housewives — but thus far very, very little musical theater. “Like most people, I think I do [sing],” he says, “though other people might completely disagree…. I’m getting to the age where all sorts of things deserve to be invested in. So I would love to have a go at musical theater, and I would love to try to fool someone into giving me the opportunity.”

While he won’t sing as Jefferson, “There’s something about being next to a live orchestra and hearing it produce the sound that it does for the first time, that is absolutely magical. It plays such a huge part in this piece.” Performing any piece for the first time often entails “a strange magic,” he says, and in this case, he expects that the newness of the experience, when “strange and slippery things are drifting past you as fast as you’re doing it,” will help to bring out “the really lovely, fragile beauty of their relationship.”

Errico as Cosway.
Costumes by Deborah Houston.
Photo courtesy of Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

Ultimately, Cake says, More Between Heaven and Earth — “not quite theater, not quite musical, it’s all of that, and of enormous historical significance” — represents the kind of “ambitious, uncategorizable pieces that go on in New York … a sort of cultural blessing.” “In The New Yorker, there’s a little section I always read called ‘Above and Beyond.’ This fits perfectly into The New Yorker’s ‘Above and Beyond.’”

Salon/Sanctuary Concerts Presents
More Between Heaven and Earth

Script and Stage Direction by Erica Gould
Program Concept and Music Research by Jessica Gould
Fraunces Tavern
54 Pearl Street, New York City
January 18, 4:00
For more information, click here.

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12 January 2015

Kerry Says He’ll Fly to France to Show U.S. Solidarity

Be fair: He’d be even later if he walked to France instead of flying.

In a bold display of the impeccable timing, profound sensitivity, and strategic planning that made his failed presidential bid an inspiration to so many Republicans in 2004, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Monday that he would fly to Paris at the end of the week in a gesture of support for the French government’s struggle against terrorism.

Kerry is scheduled to arrive nine days after the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead and shocked the nation, and four days after the largest demonstrations in French history united more than 40 world leaders and millions of French citizens calling for liberty and peace.

“The United States has been deeply engaged with France from the moment this horrific event took place,” Kerry told reporters. “But appearances matter. It’s important that the world see for itself the strength of this, our oldest alliance. Let no one doubt when I stand for America and proudly say, ‘Lafayette, we are here’ — less than two weeks after the fact.”

Not pictured: President Obama.
Or the Vice-president, or the First Lady, or the Clintons, or any high-ranking members of Congress, or any of their friends, or any of their friends’ neighbors, or that guy they went to school with, or George Clooney, whom the French really like quite a lot.

Yesterday’s rally in Paris saw Hollande joined by one of his chief political opponents, former President Nicolas Sarkozy; as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, two of France’s historic rivals; Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority; and the President of Ukraine and the Foreign Minister of Russia, setting aside their differences in a display of solidarity.

While more than one million demonstrators converged on Paris’ Place de la République, the ranking American in France yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder, appeared on the Sunday talk shows but did not attend the rally. The U.S. Ambassador to France, whom nobody has ever heard of, represented American interests on the Place de la République.

“I really hated to miss out on the big event,” said Kerry, a former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. “But you know how it is when the Pats are in the playoffs.”

Kerry added, “I’m hoping [French President François] Hollande can organize something while I’m there. Nothing major, just a couple of hundred thousand people. I realize we can’t get all those heads of state to come back to Paris on short notice, but Belgium is close, right? Or Luxembourg. I’m sure Luxembourg isn’t busy right now.”

Kerry will be in France from Thursday night to Friday afternoon, he said, “More than enough time to show the world the importance of this relationship and the seriousness of our mutual response to terrorist threats. Besides, I’ve got to represent the United States at Princess Diana’s funeral. If I don’t hurry, I’ll miss it.”

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