Articles by Sebastian Spreng

  • Article

    Seraphic Fire opens 2015-16 season with moving tribute to late benefactor

    October 26, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    Knight Arts grantee Seraphic Fire.

    An unforeseen context surrounded the first concert of Seraphic Fire’s 14th season–one that ultimately enhanced its artistic value. Remarkable and deeply emotional, the concert was “fired up” by the memory of its benefactor, Ruth Sackner, who died three days before the event. From the beginning, Ruth and husband Marvin, creators of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, were unconditional fans and supporters of the choral ensemble, and the program–planned months ago–turned out to be, from beginning to end, a tribute as extraordinary as it was unexpected.

    Comprising 19th century German and Austrian compositions and a new commissioned piece by young American composer Jake Runestad, the concert’s theme was, in sum, love and death. It was suffused with Johannes Brahms’ severity, Ludwig van Beethoven’s humanism and Franz Schubert’s innocence, plus Josef Rheinberger’s mysticism, George Frideric Handel’s nostalgia and Runestad’s fresh approach. The result was a felicitous one-and-a-half hour amalgam of the voices of Patrick Dupré Quigley’s talented ensemble and the strings of The Sebastians.

    The first piece, Beethoven’s “Elegiac Song,” could not have been more fitting for the occasion (“Gently, as you lived, have you died, too holy for sorrow!”). It was followed by Brahms’ Psalm 13, impeccably sung by the female section, later joined by the men for “O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf,” one of the two beautiful motets in the composer’s Opus 74 for a capella choir. Performed at the All Souls’ Episcopal Church on Miami Beach, the voices seemed to multiply, movingly conveying both the serenity of the Beethoven piece and the restraint of the Brahms’ composition.

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    Two great British pianists grace Miami's music scene in January

    January 26, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    Arturo Toscanini and Gustav Mahler, among others, are credited for saying, “There are no bad orchestras, only good or bad conductors.” This statement was borne out on Friday, Jan. 15 at the Wertheim Performing Arts Center at Florida International University, before a large audience that braved traffic, wind and rain to be present. British conductor James Judd, making a rare and most welcome appearance in these parts, challenged the FIU Symphony Orchestra to sound like a professional ensemble. Judd achieved the seemingly impossible after wisely canceling one of two planned concerts because he felt he and the orchestra had been given insufficient time to prepare.

    Propped up by guest professionals in key positions, the student orchestra more than made up for the cancellation, delivering a solid, commendable performance. Judd had obviously worked hard, and his passion infused the orchestra with the energy necessary to support Judd’s outstanding countryman, pianist Stephen Hough, in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto.” At all times, Hough proved an unconditional and invaluable ally to the conductor, and he lifted the quality of the concert to unexpected levels.

    The audience was deprived of Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, but was treated instead to a great performance of Beethoven’s No. 5. Hough displayed precision and deep intelligence in his treatment of every piano intervention, including the first “fortissimo” chord. That beginning heralded the artist’s unconventional approach to the piece, which he adopted after studying the original manuscript. Hough, the first classical artist to receive a MacArthur “Genius” grant (in 2001), is a Renaissance man: a musician, composer, poet, painter, writer and lecturer–skills that were on display for the audience during a post-concert Q&A session with Judd. The two not only saved the evening but made it distinct and even exemplary.

    Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo by Decca.

    If Hough emerged as a fine representative of English piano-playing, the recital, two days later, of fellow Brit Benjamin Grosvenor (presented, like the Jan. 15 concert, by the Friends of Chamber Music of Miami) spoke of a young citizen of the world. Miami is fortunate to be following so closely the career and development of such a prodigy. This is Grosvenor’s fourth Miami concert since 2011, despite a busy calendar that includes Carnegie Hall and other major venues on the international circuit. His performance left no doubt that he has developed and matured, and that we are in the presence of a great artist.

    It is possible that Grosvenor is the greatest pianist of his generation.

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    Ave Maya, the death of the illusion

    May 12, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    03_03 copy Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya, (Moscow, Nov. 20, 1925 – Munich, May 2, 2015)

    In Sanskrit, the word “maya” has many meanings. It is that which exists but changes constantly. It refers to the goddess of prosperity, power and love, of the material. It is the magic that seems but is not. It is palpable reality, the reflection of what we believe ourselves to be - in plain talk, illusion. Curiously and coincidentally, on Saturday a mythical creature died, one who transcended illusion, an illusion that in her case was doubly so because she also embodied it: Maya Plisetskaya.

    She was much more than a dancer, than an actress, than a musician. Just as we might say, “Where conductors are concerned, there’s Carlos Kleiber and the rest,” “Where sopranos are concerned, there’s Maria Callas and the rest,” and “Where pianists are concerned, there’s Martha Argerich and the rest,” where dancers are concerned, there’s simply Maya and the rest. As with Callas, nothing was lacking, nothing was superfluous. Hers was the perfect musical expression. She was an esthetic phenomenon. She was characterized by an indefinable, non-transferable quality that went beyond magnetism. She irradiated the link between heaven and earth. She was a tree with roots in the ground and branches reaching out to heaven.

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    Anne-Sophie Mutter and Les Arts Florissants with William Christie lead star-studded wrap-up of music season

    April 24, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    Long-awaited debuts and interesting programming are in store for fans as South Florida’s 2014-2015 music season draws to a close. First, Anne-Sophie Mutter is scheduled to perform with the New World Symphony, conducted by Founder and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, in the same program they will perform at Carnegie Hall a few days later. As part of her overdue debut in our city, the renowned German violinist will play Alban Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, one of her warhorses, and the American première of Norbert Moret’s En rêve, a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra that the Swiss artist, who died in 1998, composed for Mutter in 1988. The concert ends with Debussy’s La mer and Schubert’s incidental music for Rosamunde. A season finale with all the bells and whistles, the show will be also be wallcast on Saturday, April 25, at 8 p.m. fileadmin-media-presse-2013pix-Mutter_2013_07_M9A4129b-3 copy

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    Classical South Florida is coming to a sudden end, and we should all mourn

    July 13, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    Sebastian Spreng is a South Florida visual artist and classical music writer

    Every time a theater, a library or, as in this case, a radio station devoted to classical music closes, a community and its people are bereaved. It sounds tragic because it is tragic, especially if the station’s finances were on the mend. After losing millions of dollars for years, it was just starting to recover, rallying with optimism. It’s true that Classical South Florida was still losing money, but it had gone from losing nearly $3 million in 2012 to $2.4 million in 2013 and $1.6 million in 2014. Prospects looked good, audiences were responding and programming was beginning to adapt to the needs and tastes of the South Florida audience, thanks to the efforts and innovative contributions of local staff.

    Unfortunately, that momentum was cut short by the devastating news that the owner, Minnesota-based American Public Media, sold the station for $21.7 million to Education Media Foundation, a California-based religious nonprofit. The news struck the local music community like a thunderbolt, as it had long considered Classical South Florida an unconditional ally and an indispensable voice that informed and educated the public about its activities.

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    World premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’ sparks excitement at Santa Fe Opera Festival

    August 27, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    Stravinsky and Georgia O’Keeffe were right in going crazy over Santa Fe. In fact, they were as sane as the visionary John Crosby, who, fascinated with the New Mexico desert, decided to start an opera company in an environment where silence rivals music.

    Crosby’s adventure in 1957 was highly successful, and today the Santa Fe Opera nears its 60th anniversary while enjoying worldwide prestige and generous support. Every July and August an international crowd converges on the spectacular outdoor theater nestled between mountain ranges for five operas, a season that includes rarities and premieres that delight critics and the public alike.

    The undimmed star of 2015 was “Cold Mountain,” the first opera by Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, who happily summarized the essentials of the novel by Charles Frazier (it was made into a film by Anthony Minghella in 2003).

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    Season opener leaves audiences clamoring for more from Miami's ‘21st-century chamber orchestra’

    October 7, 2015 by Sebastian Spreng

    Season opener leaves audiences clamoring for more from Miami's ‘21st-century chamber orchestra’

    If you’ve ever wondered what it might have been like to hear Kurt Weill play ‘Berlin’ music in the city’s 1920s musical heyday, NuDeco Ensemble’s recent performance of ‘Miami’ music at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse potentially offered a semblance of that experience. At the concert that opened this Knight Arts Challenge winner’s first full season, the energy in the venue, the enthusiasm of the audience and the dedication of the artists had a cumulative effect that went beyond the purely musical; it took us back to other times, other cities. Yet it took place in Miami–smack in the middle of Wynwood, to be exact.

    To have a contemporary chamber orchestra with a cast of local musicians perform in an alternative space is an occasion that should be welcomed, celebrated and, obviously, supported. It adds to the city’s musical geography, in the way that fellow Knight Arts grantee Seraphic Fire did in its inception, or, decades ago, the New World Symphony (where many of Nu Deco’s young musicians more recently had their starts).

    Seraphic Fire, the choral group helmed by Patrick Dupré Quigley, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jacomo Bairos and Sam Hyken’s Nu Deco Ensemble. However, both fulfill an important function. They facilitate, suggest and set standards for their older siblings–that is, more established entities also struggling to survive and succeed. Within a rather formal program, structurally speaking, Nu Deco’s young, classically trained orchestra performed music of its time and of its city–hence the parallel with the likes of Weill in Berlin and Aaron Copland in New York. Theirs is music that reflects them, that depicts them. It is music that is alive, interesting and curious. Music that, in a Wynwood space, with the performers surrounded by an audience seated in an amphitheater-like arrangement, made for a unique evening.

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    A guide to the 2016-17 classical music season in Miami

    September 19, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    A guide to the 2016-17 classical music season in Miami
    Seraphic Fire, which commences its season in October with excerpts from “Einstein on the Beach" by Philip Glass.

    An overview of the upcoming musical season in Miami suggests more cautious programming than in previous years–but still a robust schedule featuring artists that have already proven themselves worthy of and welcome to local stages. This time, the emphasis is, more than ever, on new music, curious combinations and experimental interactions. In addition to several premieres, the season also showcases the talents of a young and rising Cuban American generation of musicians.

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    Seraphic Fire explores the African-American concert spiritual in new recording

    February 9, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    “Steal Away,” a new recording by Seraphic Fire.

    The voice of the African-American spiritual is incomparable. A fascinating, unequivocally American fusion, it is at once searing and soothing. And whether sung in church or in a concert hall, it occupies a select place in the history of music.

    In the text that accompanies a newly released album, “Steal Away,” Patrick Dupré Quigley explains the spiritual briefly but with impressive clarity. As the founder and director of Seraphic Fire, the New Orleans native knows the subject matter well–to the point that it was practically necessary for the vocal ensemble (a Knight Arts Challenge winner) to record one of the many successful concerts it has devoted to spirituals. Making this record proved to be an excellent decision, as it beautifully highlights the Miami-based group’s continued growth and success.

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    Soprano Christine Goerke returns to Miami to sing and teach

    July 11, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    Christine Goerke. Christine Goerke has proven to be the most notable American dramatic soprano of this young 21st century. And fortunately for Miamians, she will be teaching master classes at the brand new Wagner Institute at the Miami Music Festival, as well as performing in a not-to-be-missed concert alongside eminent bass baritone Alan Held on July 16 at at the New World Center. It’s been said that culture and summer are like oil and water–making the coming months an unlikely time to explore and celebrate the work of Richard Wagner. But the famous Bayreuth Festival–a mecca for Wagner fans–takes place in July and August during the unpredictable German summer, without air conditioning, in the theater designed by the composer. So why not a touch of Wagner in Miami, with air conditioning and a super soprano capable of exciting even the unaware (not to mention her fans, who are already awaiting both events anxiously).
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    Miami Wagner Institute debuts

    July 28, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    Miami Wagner Institute debuts
    Organized by the brand new Miami Wagner Institute, the July 16 concert at the New World Center was the high point of the third season of the Miami Music Festival’s advanced training program. The concert’s success proved that you can do Wagner in Miami, even in midsummer, and that the demand is there, given the size of the audience. The first thing to note is the admirable performance of the student orchestra conducted by festival founder Michael Rossi, infinitely better than last year’s. In the first part of the program, it dared tackle the “Der Rosenkavalier” suite that Richard Strauss quickly composed on the heels of the resounding success of the opera of the same name. The performance was solid, though a Wagner overture–“Tannhäuser” and “Rienzi” or “The Flying Dutchman”–might have been a more appropriate prologue to the singing. The parade of young Wagnerian singers trained to perfection in a week of intense work by opera coach Kathleen Kelly and soprano Christine Goerke–who was summoned back to Miami by Rossi after her sensational master class last year gave rise to this project–evinced dedication, fervor and promising talent. We will definitely be hearing from some of them again.
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    How to prepare for the Florida Grand Opera's 2016-17 season

    October 18, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    How to prepare for the Florida Grand Opera's 2016-17 season
    The 2015 production of "The Barber of Seville" by Florida Grand Opera.

    It’s a good idea to start preparing for the Florida Grand Opera’s upcoming season because the more you know about an opera–both plot and music–the more you're likely to enjoy it. Trite but true: Opera is a complete meeting of many arts, and one learns to appreciate it as one does good wine. The process may take time, but the reward is well worth it.

    One way to become acquainted with an opera and prepare for a live viewing is to take advantage of the vast selection of video recordings now available. While the options might seem overwhelming at first, the selection can be pared down, as first-rate videos require first-rate productions at first-rate venues. Some videos are so precious or conceptual–or both–that they don’t create the right first impression.

    If you can do without the visual aspect and concentrate only on the music, an audio recording (whether via CD, internet download or YouTube) can be the operagoer’s perfect companion.

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    Rising opera star Michelle Bradley makes Miami debut

    November 14, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    The work of a music critic demands, among other things, good judgment, responsibility, concentration, balance, distance, being true to oneself and, above all, honesty. It is quite a job, providing excitement, joy, boredom, displeasure, too many frustrations and some rewards. Pleasant surprises occur–often when you least expect them. And once the initial dazzle of a strong performance has passed, the critic must come down to earth, examine, remember and attempt to be temperate. In the case of Michelle Bradley, doing so is difficult.

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    Art Basel Miami Beach 2016: an art carnival with treasures worth the hype

    December 13, 2016 by Sebastian Spreng

    Art Basel Miami Beach 2016: an art carnival with treasures worth the hype

    Early work by Howardena Pindell at Art Basel Miami Beach.

    After overcoming two hours of infernal traffic, and then parking and entering Art Basel Miami Beach, the local trek felt like a personal triumph. This is the time of year when the city collapses. It shows its fragility. Its inhabitants escape or crouch down, hiding in their homes, as if facing yet another hurricane. In a way, that is what Art Basel is—even though this year one saw fewer people than in previous years, something that would be confirmed shortly after the fair wrapped up.

    In its 15th edition, the fair is a microcosm beating to a First World pulse. Sped-up, chaotic, dizzying, success-driven, banal, scary, apocalyptic. According to its management, the giant international art fair has doubled its original size, and it’s responsible for putting once-sleepy Miami on the map.

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    Trio’s tour celebrates 40 years of harmony

    January 13, 2017 by Sebastian Spreng

    Trio’s tour celebrates 40 years of harmony

    Gusman Concert Hall, where Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio performed recently. Photo by Jaine on flickr.

    In 1977, the then-youthful trio Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson debuted at the presidential inauguration. Then, classical music mattered more than today as a weapon of feeling and thought, as a model vehicle of presentation and class. “It was a different time, what a time it was,” the tango lyrics say. Honest, perseverant, come hell or high water, these three notable performers recently celebrated 40 years of an impeccable career, celebrating it as it should be celebrated: playing as if it were the first time, with the same spirit and dedication, as if it was yesterday.