Sibeius Swan of Tuonela & Shostakovich 11


GSA Stages Mozart's Magic Flute
ODU Theater, March 12, 2016 (also March 13 with a different cast)
Review by John Campbell

Die Zauberflöte, W. A. Mozart’s title for his German language opera, was staged in English as The Magic Flute in a charming, insightful Governor's School for the Arts production by Director Alan Fischer. Set in Egypt in legendary times, the story revolves around conflicts of night versus day, men versus women and treachery versus goodness.

The student cast sang their hearts out, conducted by Shelly Milam-Ratliff and accompanied by Stephen Z. Cook at the piano and Kelly Vaughan on an electronic keyboard for special musical effects.

Chased by a fire-breathing monster, Prince Tamino (Earnest Kiah) has wandered into the territory of the Queen of the Night where her Three Ladies slay the monster after the Prince passes out from fear. The Ladies (Leah Finn, Camryn Finn and Leah Shewmaker) competing with each other, sing, hoping the handsome young man will awaken and choose one of them, coming together finally in a fine vocal blend where they decide to leave together and go tell the Queen.

The Prince awakes, meets Papageno (Delvin Joppy) the Queen’s bird catcher,who takes credit for slaying the monster. When the Three Ladies return Papageno’s lie earns him a padlock on his mouth and some humorous hummed answers to questions. The Queen wants Tamino to rescue her daughter from the realm of the evil Sarastro. He is given a locket with a picture of Pamina—the Queen’s daughter, a magic flute and Papageno as a traveling companion who is given magic bells and Three Spirits to guide them. Ultimately Tamino is promised Pamina (Brianna Drew) by the Queen of the Night (Lilly Camacho).

The mirrored ball overhead in the center of the theater is illuminated when she sings her famous aria, echoing Karl Friedrich Schinkel's famous stage-set. Her make-up and that of the Three Ladies was fabulous. The Design/Tech students of the GSA Theater and Film Department who created the make-up design and carried it out were Josie Bukon, Andy Chavez and Jason Goodwin. Costumes for the chorus were smocks in a variety of textured fabrics designed by Ricardo Melendez and Melanie Ortt. The principals wore richly appropriate clothes while Monostratos’s henchmen were in quasi-martial arts uniforms.

The flexible set design by James Lyden, lighted by Elwood Robinson, worked effectively with continuous visual interest as the activities unfolded. A pyramid shape at the back of the stage and a sleek platform became a stage for bass-baritone Ricky Goodwyn as Sarastro.

Tamino is led there by the Three Spirits (Mackenzie Staicer, Samantha McCarty, Sammi Garcia) to Sarastro’s temple. There he learns the truth of Sarastro’s noble order and that he is required to become enlightened to be worthy of Pamina.

Papageno finds his way into Pamina’s chamber and with his magic-pipes scares off the lecherous Monostratos (Calvin Bremer) and his henchmen with a fairytale charm of stuffed animals. Once they’re gone he tells her of Tamino’s love. Using pipes and flute the buddies communicate with each other. When the lovers come face-to-face they immediately bond with a hug. As the chorus sings beautifully the trails begin as each lover’s face is covered with a hood and they’re separately led away.

Later Monostratos approaches Pamina as she sleeps but is foiled when the Queen arrives, demanding that she stab Sarastro.

Papageno has challenges of his own. When introduced to an ugly, old woman he declines her advances, only later to learn that she is his wife-to-be Papagena (Devin Koehne) in disguise. Though he talks through the trial-by-silence, shows great fear and complains all the time, he, too, is rewarded with a sweetheart.

When she meets Tamino, who has been sworn to silence as one of his trials and refuses to speak to her, she’s convinced that she has been deserted and attempts suicide. The Three Spirits stay her hand.

With Pamina at his side, Tamino emerges victorious from his final trials by fire and water. Monostratos is punished for his sexual advances toward Pamina. The Queen and her Ladies, foiled in their attempt to storm the temple, sink into the earth. In a grand ceremony, Sarastro proclaims the triumph of light over the powers of darkness.

The Speaker, Jaelin Mitchell; Priest, Abigail Munday; the Armored Men, Margaret Hallauer, Emma Giometti; rounded out the cast. The victory really was that of the total group of students, faculty and production team in this complete staging of the Magic Flute. Bravo to all!

Jeffrey Phelps Leads GSA Orchestra in Shostakovich Symphony No. 11
Roper Performing Arts Center, June 7, 2016
Review by John Campbell

Only two works were offered in the concert to close the school year of the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia. The first was the 1895 The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2 from the Lemminkäinen Suite by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Jeffrey Phelps, elegant in white tie and tails, stood before a large orchestra of 75 well-dressed players. Neither their playing nor the setting gave a hint that his was not a professional group, except for their eager, youthful faces, including a dozen first-year students. He raised his hands. A distant chord was heard and slowly the sound expanded, enfolding the audiences in a lovely melody. The voice of the swan on English horn was played majestically by Sophie Rosenberg. High, clear woodwinds are accompanied by a darker, intense tone underneath the apparent beauty. The black swan glides over the dark waters of hell and death in this mythical tale of overcoming challenges. After completing the satisfying final statement, Conductor Phelps acknowledged English horn player Sophie Rosenberg. Violinist Jordan Goodmurphy and violist Alexander Antonio were also singled out in the ovation as was cello soloist Yann Chémali.

After intermission, the second challenge for the players was the hour of continuous playing of Symphony No. 11 in G minor by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). By 1957 Stalin had been dead for four years and the Soviet attitude toward the creative arts was improving but there was still danger. The symphony was titled “The Year 1905” and was written to mark the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution that brought the Communists to power. The second movement, titled “The 9th of January,” depicts the Czar’s troops firing on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators in the square in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

We in the West have not always been clear on the meaning of this dark and intense work. Any sense of celebration is superficial. In 1956 the U.S.S.R. had violently suppressed an attempted Hungarian revolution and as Shostakovich said: “Many things repeat themselves in Russian history…” It’s called 1905 but it deals with contemporary themes. “It’s about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over.” The Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy explains that only a few select friends could know Shostakovich’s true feelings and that is why his son, Maxim, at a rehearsal of the 11th Symphony whispered in his ear “Papa, what if they hang you for this?”

In the first, Adagio, movement “The Palace Square” (the Romanov Czar was still in power), snare drums represent the protestors gathering there. Two themes of two mournful revolutionary songs from the 19th century, Listen and The Prisoners, are used and later developed. Ominous, thudding drums and eerie-sounding strings add to the growing sense of unrest. The second movement is titled “The Ninth of January,” the day when crowds descended on the Winter Palace. A tense calm in the music precedes the bloody melée when a thousand workers were gunned-down. The rhythm accelerates, bell sounds are muted, marching snare drums and strings saw away as the overwhelming, brutal percussion climax takes place.

Without pause the third movement, “Eternal Memory” or “In Memorium," offers a gentle harp sound. Plucked cellos and double basses soothe away the intensity. The funeral march uses themes from the 1905 Revolutionary song “You fell as victims” which was sung by Lenin and his companions in exile when they heard the news of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre. The orchestra offers lyrical, expansive music as if an epic tale were being flashed before us. The theme of another song, Welcome, the Free World of Liberty, sounds and is followed by a powerful climax. The finale, fourth movement, “Tocsin” (alarm bells), opens with an ominous, slow rhythm march. The pace accelerates into feverish urgency—its the theme used for Stalin in his 10th Symphony—and the snare drum once again puts in an appearance during the violent climax. Quiet, introspective music follows with the haunting cor anglais melody from the first movement. After the extended solo the bass drum is struck again and again, building to another impressive climax—snare drums marching, alarm bells ringing. It is over.

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