Tag Archives: Daniel Hope

Hope Plays His Swan Song in Savannah in an Epic Exit

Review: Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating its 30th season, the Savannah Music Festival is weathering a series of transitions that began less than a year ago. After 16 seasons as the SMF artistic and executive director, Rob Gibson abruptly resigned last summer. Marketing director Ryan McMaken moved up to the artistic directorship and David Pratt, formerly with the Queensland Symphony in Australia and the Savannah Philharmonic, returned to the US as the new SMF chief executive.

The new leadership didn’t stumble dramatically in the shadow of a 2018 classical lineup that included guest appearances by Murray Perahia, Audra McDonald, Marc-André Hamelin, the Zukerman Trio, Yekwon Sunwoo, and a residency with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, newly headed by star violinist Daniel Hope, SMF’s associate artistic director in the classical sphere. Lars Vogt, Juho Pohjonen, The Tallis Scholars, and the Jerusalem Quartet are on the bill for 2019, and in the first full-scale collaboration between the Festival and the Savannah Philharmonic, a new piece by jazz pianist Marcus Roberts will premiere in a Phil concert that will also include works by Borodin, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.

Perhaps the news that was forthcoming from Hope was telegraphed when Zurich did not commit to repeating its visit in 2019. Stating that the decision had been made “to reduce the amount of international travel time to which he is obligated,” the announcement that Hope’s 16th season at SMF would be his last officially dropped on March 5 – barely three weeks before the 2019 Festival began.

We can begin to grasp the impact of Hope’s departure on SMF’s 2020 programming by surveying the scope of his participation this year. Easily the most active performer at the Festival, he is slated to appear in five of the six “Daniel Hope & Friends” concerts. During the 17-day festival, Hope is also performing with the Atlanta Symphony (March 30) and teaming with Saebstian Knauer on an “Homage to Yehudi Menuhin” (April 12). In what will no doubt be a touching valedictory, Hope will play and his novelist father will narrate “Christopher Hope Presents ‘My Son the Fiddler.’” (April 13).

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In his first three performances of 2019, Hope was playing with a zest and dedication that indicated he is sorry to be leaving. Few of the occasions I’ve covered in the past 10 years – only the “Kreutzer Sonata” he played with Knauer in 2011 comes instantly to mind – saw Hope in the same fiery form he brought to the stage of the Lucas Theatre on Saturday night, playing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, pianist Wu Han and her husband, cellist David Finckel.

The crowd, the occasion, and the gauntlet laid down by Beethoven’s score – not to mention having his name up in lights on the Lucas’s movie theatre marquee – might have actually given Hope a touch of the jitters as he fussed over the location of his iPad-holding music stand near the lip of the stage. Frankly, Finckel was the steadier string player in the first solo salvos of the Triple’s opening Allegro, but after the ebullient trialogue with Han and a spirited interjection by Robert Spano and the Symphony, Hope was locked in and absolutely brilliant, his double-bowing as sharp as steel.

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Finckel was a mellowing agent throughout, graciously restoring calm in the outer movements and surpassing himself with a heartfelt intro to the middle Largo. Han proved to be an equal partner and provocateur in the outer movements, especially conspicuous in the closing Rondo alla Polacca where she delivered dreamy excursions in the middle and an extended ramble away from closure before Hope pounced on the presto-paced exchange that carried us to the end. Hope’s fireworks with Han had made it obvious that applause was forthcoming at the end of the epic opening movement, and a standing ovation was no less inevitable here.

Gravitating toward the extreme downstage at the Lucas, Hope and his trio mates were unintentionally underscoring the acoustic problems faced by Spano and his orchestra. Behind the proscenium, the strings tend to get muddied and high frequencies are noticeably muffled. Cellos and clarinets sound best, but extra piccolos would have made the ending of “Overture to Egmont” sound more like Beethoven intended, though Spano beautifully judged the contrast between the final rousing rally and the calm that preceded it.

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Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony No. 1 showcased Spano’s deftness even better, with sharper section work from his players and balances that played better with the hall. There was fine thrust from the strings stating the opening Andante, although brighter percussion sounds other than the triangle were missing on the fringes of the later Allegro marking. Cellos and French horns excelled in the ensuing Larghetto, where Spano sculpted the fluid tempos and dynamics into pleasing shapes. Repetitions of the big tune never dulled the penultimate Scherzo, and the Allegretto animato e grazioso brought the evening to an exciting close, with the drums, trombones, and strings delivering the knockout punch.

Hope didn’t appear at the first “Hope & Friends” of the season on Friday night, and his entrance at the Lucas the following evening, notwithstanding the marquee, was without any fanfare marking his farewell season. Touchingly, that moment came late Sunday afternoon when Han mounted the Trinity United Methodist Church platform and warmly dedicated the ensuing Chamber Music of Lincoln Center concert to Hope, describing the joys of his playing and the joys of playing with him. Han also proved quite adept at emceeing, personably introducing the three piano quartets on the bill. She vividly described the relationship between Suk and Dvořák and detailed the despondency that sparked Brahms’s Quartet No. 3, along with the gun-to-the-head moment that concludes it.

Han, Finckel, Hope, and violist Paul Neubauer did the rest of the talking with their instruments – until Neubauer’s ill-fated maiden voyage playing with an iPad after intermission. While Hope sat back in his chair, grinning and laughing and in no hurry, Han explained the situation and helped turn the damn contraption on. Hope’s ease and relaxation probably served him best in the ensuing Dvořák Piano Quartet No. 2 when we reached the luscious Lento second movement. After yet another achingly lovely intro by Finckel – and an exquisite fadeaway – Hope began the same melody extremely softly yet piercingly, working up to a blaze of high intensity. Another ebb then flowed into a reprise from Finckel. With Han’s interjections, the movement was like a miniature concerto until the give-and-take abruptly ended with a couple of unison sforzandos that tossed us into a maelstrom.

The Suk that opened the program was brimming with inspiration and showy bowing. Yet it was useful for Han to have reminded us that this was Josef Suk’s Opus 1, finished with Dvořák’s encouragement and premiered when the composer was just 17. For all its excitement and appeal, I couldn’t push away the thought, especially in the tempestuous outer movements, that a Beethoven or a Brahms would have made even more of the inspired materials that Suk was working with. The inner Adagio, with another soulful Finckel intro was a nice foretaste of the Lento to come from Dvořák – not to mention the wondrous Andante at the heart of the epically anguished Brahms 3, which began with an eloquent and sad intro from Finckel and featured Neubauer’s best moments.

Both the Brahms 3 and the Dvorak 2 had been presented twice before in Savannah at previous festivals, but the Suk was an SMF premiere. With such a dazzling quartet of musicians advocating for it so passionately, the Suk proved worthy of such esteemed company.

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A similar mix of familiar and unfamiliar informs the “& Friends” concerts. Hope sat out the all-Mozart opener that I attended, but Pohjonen was at the keyboard for both piano quartets – with an extraordinary feel for the composer – so all was well. This was the second go-round for No. 1 and the fourth for No. 2, but the String Duo No. 2 for Violin and Viola and the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 for String Trio were new to Savannah. The “& Friends” sequel offered edgier fare, with Hope playing lead violin opposite Vogt in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, the third time this gem has been presented during Hope’s tenure, alternately raucous and haunting in its pivotal Scherzo and Lento movements.

Otherwise, Hope sat on the sidelines. Rebecca Clarke’s Dumka, ranging from pizzicato delicacy to Gypsy fire, was presented by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips, Neubauer, and violinist Simos Papanas. Nice to know that this piece, championed by Hope on a Naxos recording, was getting a second hearing at SMF, but Schubert’s Fantasy for Piano Four Hands and Niels W. Gade’s String Sextet were actually receiving their SMF premieres.

As the stage was being reset for the Sextet, Hope sauntered to the front of the church from his seat in the second row of pews, not bothering to climb up onstage, and gave us an impromptu introduction to Gade. Our host emphasized Gade’s talents, his travels back and forth from his native Copenhagen to Leipzig, and his association with Mendelssohn, then the director of the Leipzig Orchestra. It was the first time Hope had addressed an audience at the 2019 Savannah Music Festival, seemingly spontaneous and unplanned.

Keeping Hope’s remarks in mind, I suspected that Gade had taken some of Mendelssohn’s influence back home with him when he wrote his Sextet some 16 years after his mentor’s death, for there are echoes of the elder’s Octet in the Dane’s music, especially in the opening movement. The Kim brothers, violinist Benny and cellist Eric, longtime members of the Festival’s “& Friends” ensemble, played the leads on their instruments, prime reasons why this premiere was a resounding success.

Getting ready for the long drive home to Charlotte, I turned around in my front row seat and told Hope, “Well done, sir.” Shrugging, he replied, “They did all the work,” no doubt assuming that I was referring to his prefatory remarks.

Reading this, he’ll likely see otherwise.

Savannah Vamps Toward Opera, In Bite-Size Pieces

Mozart in Prague: Edward parks, from left, Micaela Oeste, and Chad Johnson perform the Act I trio from 'Le Nozze di figaro.'(Frank Stewart photo)

By Perry Tannenbaum

SAVANNAH — Until recently, operatic singing was rarely a component at the Savannah Music Festival. Vocalists from other sectors – including jazz, folk, Americana, and world music – were heard far more frequently at the festival. SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson had connections to these musical realms through his stellar associates: pianist-composer Marcus Roberts for jazz, violinist Daniel Hope for chamber music, and mandolinist-composer Mike Marshall for much of the remainder of the festival’s wide-ranging offerings.

During my first four seasons at this 17-day festival, which continues this year through April 9, only two classical singers graced the bill, Nicolle Cabell (2010) and Christine Brewer (2011). There was a wisp of opera at Brewer’s recital but none at all at Cabell’s. American musicals got even shorter shrift, represented only by Andrea Marcovicci and her tribute to Savannah icon Johnny Mercer in 2009.

MilnesThe pendulum began to swing – dramatically – toward opera in 2011, when renowned baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, came into the picture. Operating their Milnes VOICExperience program, a series of workshops for promising artists, they were approached by one of their New York students, Rebecca Flaherty, who believed that this program would be perfect for her hometown of Savannah.

“We came to cultivate in 2011 to see whether there was a possibility of doing a program,” says Zouves, “and Rob Gibson was one of the first people that Rebecca called.” So the seeds for an eventual team-up between the operatic couple and SMF were planted early.

It became clear to Gibson that Milnes could fill the SMF’s opera void when VOICExperience took root with three programs in 2012, including one with the Savannah Philharmonic, giving rise to the Savannah VOICE Festival in August 2013, a two-week explosion of teaching and performing.

With the advent of the VOICE Festival, Savannah became the nerve center of the Milnes-Zouves enterprises, expanding even further when VOICE landed a prominent spot at last year’s Savannah Music Festival. Two-thirds of Puccini’s Il Trittico was staged at the Lucas Theatre, with Verónica Villarroel and Mark Delavan in the title roles of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, respectively. Gibson counts the production as one of the festival’s proudest moments during his 14-year tenure.

But neither of the performances at the Lucas sold out,and Angelica/Schicchi was fated to be a losing proposition even if they had. So there’s agreement on both sides of this SMF-SVF collaboration that cultivating an appreciation – and a following – for opera in Savannah remains a work in progress.

“Southerners are slow to grasp on to something,” says Milnes. “Fair enough. You’ve got to invest time. I think we’re perhaps showing them that there’s a difference between hamburger and filet mignon. If you don’t know the difference, and you love hamburger – you’ve never had a filet mignon – you don’t know that you’re missing something.”

In a sense, both of the programs devised for the 2016 festival were “filets” of opera, prime cuts of operatic repertoire served up invitingly. The first, “Arias & Encores” on March 31, was a freewheeling mix of operatic selections and Broadway fare. Two nights later came “Mozart in Prague,” distillations of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

The first ensemble of “Arias and Encores” genially telegraphed what we were in for. Lyrics of Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” were re-purposed for the occasion as “Opera Tonight” and peppered with familiar soundbites from Pagliacci, Carmen, and Lakmé. The ensuing potpourri included such staples as the “Sempre libera” from La traviata or the “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, offset by novelties including “Canción del Arlequin” from Amadeo Vives’ La Generola or “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß” from Lehár’s Giuditta.

Jessica Ann Best sang a number from 'Evita' in the 'Arias and Encores' program. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Milnes hosted the concert while Zouves provided the stage direction at Christ Church Episcopal, moving the seven singers on and off the chancel, deploying them artfully down the center and side aisles of the sanctuary, extending the stage and lubricating the flow. In his pedagogy and programming, Milnes believes that American singers should be prepared to explore the best of Broadway’s musical theater. So opera novices and cognoscenti had the chance to savor songs from Evita, Les Misérables, Kismet, and South Pacific.

When my wife and I arrived for “Arias and Encores,” it was already packed to near capacity, consigning us to one of Episcopal’s side sections – and acoustic grief. Only two of the performers were impervious to the eroding effects of the overhanging balcony, which turned a couple of other voices into distant echoes.

The two mightiest, soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra and baritone Edward Parks, were fortuitously paired as John and Magda Sorel in “Now, O Lips, Say Goodbye” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul – for me, the meatiest discovery on this program. Standing well behind this husband and wife, mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best as John’s mother was virtually inaudible in this trio.

But Best harmonized exquisitely with Shoremount-Obra in “Mira, o Norma” from the Bellini opera and had some luminous moments in the Broadway bonbons, starting with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”  Best also teamed up with baritone Marco Nisticò on a three-tune sequence from South Pacific, starting with “Cock-Eyed Optimist.” Nisticò gamely tackled his half of “Twin Soliloquies,” and there was less than once-in-a-lifetime passion in his “Some Enchanted Evening.” Additional instrumentation beyond Dan Gettinger’s ardent piano might have helped.

Although he didn’t sound like he belonged on the same stage with Shoremount-Obra when he briefly peeped in on her bravura account of “Sempre libera,” tenor Chad Johnson was quite personable as Tonio in “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, straining only slightly at the end. The most intense emotion came from soprano Elizabeth de Trejo in “Alerte! Alerte!” from Gounod’s Faust. But the space ravaged her voice more noticeably than anyone else’s, leaving the top of her range powerfully secure but making unpredictable inroads as she went down. It was the sustained coloratura at the end of the “Poco fa” that redeemed the bumpy ride to get there.

Micaela Oeste: seductive in songs of Vives and Lehar. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Most enigmatic of the vocalists was soprano Micaëla Oeste, subtly seductive in the Vives and Lehár trinkets. Or was that merely the beauty and that red dress? After her unimpressive role in the “And This Is My Beloved” quartet from Kismet, I found myself asking that same questions I occasionally ask myself on the subject of Renée Fleming.

My concerns that Oeste was little more than a pretty songbird would be dispelled in the “Mozart in Prague” program at Trinity United Methodist Church by the enchantment of her Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Since Milnes was the first American to play the title role of Don Giovanni at the same Prague theater where Mozart premiered it in 1787, the baritone’s fondness for the place clearly parallels the composer’s.

Milnes didn’t fritter away this unique advantage by taking his role as Narrator too literally. His words in this multimedia event were far less about the story lines of Figaro and Giovanni than about Mozart and Prague. A modicum of space in the projections shown behind the players was devoted to the supertitles, but what was otherwise visible on screen didn’t merely simulate the rooms and outdoor scenes where the operas unfold. Time after time, they  showed us Prague, taking up Milnes’ cues. When a close-up filled the screen, showing the plaque marking the spot where Mozart stood when he conducted the first performance of Giovanni, it obviously became personal for the 81-year-old baritone.

At Trinity, the relative strengths of the voices were still faintly evident, but the sound was smoother and more pleasant than it had been at Episcopal. There was also more polish to this production, which included projections, lighting changes, and co-stage director Andrew Bisantz conducting from the harpsichord, accompanying some of the recitative but more often cuing pianist Caren Levine.

Most importantly, there was more operatic immersion in the stage direction from Zouves and Bisantz, beginning with Nisticò as Figaro pacing off the measurements of the marriage bed he and Susanna will share perilously close to the lecherous Count Almaviva. We could luxuriate more extensively in Parks’ power and manliness in the farcical Act 1 trio in which  Almaviva discovers Cherubino hiding in a chair – and later in the evening when he returned as the wily and devilish Giovanni.

Johnson was more secure on this night as Don Basilio in Figaro and even better as the good-hearted Don Ottavio in Giovanni. De Trejo was also far better suited for Donna Elvira than she had been two nights earlier for Rossini’s Susanna, and she was nicely nettlesome as the elderly Marcellina opposite Oeste in the duettino with Mozart’s Susanna.

Marco Nistico's Figaro and Oeste as Susanna. (Frank Stewart)

Huddled in the chair as Cherubino, Best’s outing was comically pleasing but noticeably abbreviated, relegated to an impetuously delivered “Non so più cosa son.” The more familiar “Voi che sapete” remained on the proverbial cutting-room floor alongside Figaro’s delicious “Se vuol ballare.”

Nisticò’s performances as Figaro and Leporello were still the most revelatory of the evening, eclipsing all the mediocrity I’d heard from him before. He was absolutely commanding in his mocking military send-off to Cherubino, the familiar “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso” aria. Leporello suited his temperament even better. Borrowing the loose-leaf book from Milnes’ lectern, Nisticò went through Giovanni’s lengthy journal of conquests for Elvira, “Madamma, il catalogo è questo,” and his subsequent impersonation of Giovanni in the “Ah, taci, ingiusto core” was the comic highlight of the evening.

Oeste chimed in all too briefly as Zerlina in the Giovanni distillation, a charming and sensual “Là ci darem la mano” with Parks, but she had already been superb as Susanna. Bringing us the only snippet from the epic garden scene that closes Figaro so satisfyingly, Oeste was most characterful and impressive, teasing her unjustly jealous Figaro with the “Deh, vieni, non tardar”and demonstrating a fine strand of gravitas woven into her mischief – with some captivating pianissimos.

Milnes’ warmth toward Prague parallels his growing affection for Savannah. He feels the community’s love and has the rewarding sense of filling a void – and he sees the synergy between his other VOICExperience enterprises and his contributions to SMF. Unlike the efforts we’re reviewing here, with paid professionals, opera productions at the Savannah VOICE Festival are more of a showcase for Milnes’ and Zouves’ students.

“Our desire is that every singer we work with, we bump them up a notch or more, and they have a career,” says Milnes. “We want to keep doing professional dates with the singers who emerge and improve.” Clearly, the new operatic component at the Festival can serve as a platform for those aspirations.

And the Savannah Music Festival itself serves as a calling card for the upcoming Savannah VOICE Festival on August 7-21. Milnes promises to launch that festival with a two-hour-and-15-minute reduction of Roméo et Juliette that eliminates the choruses and preserves the sinew of Gounod’s opera, August 7 and 9. Operatic highlights also include a reprise of Michael Ching’s new Alice Ryley, a Savannah Ghost Story on August 16.

Gibson succinctly summarizes what Milnes and Zouves have brought to the arts here: “Really, they’re godsends for Savannah and for the festival.”

Photos by Frank Stewart, Dario Acosto, and Elizabeth Leitzell