Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reviews: Pops Plays Puccini and A Chorus of Hits

I had already put everything the library had by the Cincinnati Pops on my "to listen to" list, but as far as my interest went, the Pops Plays Puccini CD was at the bottom of the list. This all changed Oct 24 2009. That was the evening I went to "A Chorus of Hits" with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Jack Everly conducting.

At first glance I expected to enjoy the first half of the program more than the second. It had popular tunes like "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, "The Sleeping Beauty Waltz" (which turned out to be the Walt Disney version with words), Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem: Pie Jesu", "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, "Duel of the Fates" from Star Wars, and concluded with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus". In short, mostly pieces I recognized and knew at least some of the words to.

The second half included opera, which I've never particularly cared for as it's typically too high to understand and often not in English making comprehension impossible. But, Wow! Even with just a short introduction to the plot of Madama Butterfly to provide context for "The Humming Chorus" at the end of Act II and the orchestral "Prelude to Act III", I was amazed at how beautiful and enjoyable the music by Puccini was. As was mentioned by Maestro Everly, he certainly has a way with melody.

Just to conclude the concert discussion before moving onto the CD I was going to actually write about, the rest of the second half was equally amazing. Everly's own arrangements are typically show stoppers for me, and while "Two On The Emerald Aisle" (a medley from Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow) won't be one of my most memorable, it had some great moments with the chorus "going home with Bonnie Jean". "Polovtsian Dances" by Borodin also added to my time at the library post concert as I searched for (and found!) a recording. I also spent time reading the all knowing Wikipedia to learn it was from another opera, Prince Igor, yet themes are used in "Stranger in Paradise" from Kismet. The pure choral version of Dvorak's "New World Symphony: Largo" was hauntingly beautiful. Before the chorus performed the piece Mr. Everly read the back story of how in a women's POW camp a chorus was started where they arranged pieces from memory (including this one), rehearsed in secret, and continued until too many of them had died. Knowing this has definitely added depth to the meaning and changed the way I will hear this piece from now on. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture"- enhanced choral version, had it's Canadian premiere with this concert. They sang more than the recording I had heard not long before with the Cincinnati Pops, but still more orchestra than chorus. It certainly had everything though: chimes, chorus, simulated cannons via a big bass drum, a good attempt to recreate Tchaikovsky's original plan for a grandiose performance. A great conclusion which brought the people to their feet and forced an encore of "Climb Every Mountain". Wonderful concert all around!

Going back to the original topic...that concert sparked me to get Pops Plays Puccini earlier than I otherwise would have. It's subtitled "Puccini Without Words", and for an introduction to great themes from opera, it's perfect. I've listened to it repeatedly and never fail to get caught up in the soaring feeling of Gianni Schicci: O Mio Babbino Caro, and the ever popular Turandot: Nessun dorma. It includes both the Humming Chorus and the Orchestra Prelude to Act III from Madama Butterfly, so I get to re-live at least part of the concert. I've read plot summaries to some of the other operas featured, which include Tosca and La Boheme, but I still like the pieces from Butterfly the best. Perhaps I will eventually progress to versions with words, although for just enjoying great music and melody, this recording is excellent.

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