About Gerald Elias

Gerald Elias is an acclaimed author and musician. A former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he has concertized on five continents as violinist and conductor, and his compositions have been performed throughout the United States. Since 2004 he has been music director of the Vivaldi by Candlelight concert series in Salt Lake City, and since 1989 a faculty member of the University of Utah. His award-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series, based upon experiences gleaned from his lifelong musical career, takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world and has won extensive critical praise. Visit his website at www.geraldelias.com.


UTAH OPERA, “The Rake’s Progress,” Capitol Theatre, May 9; through May 17, tickets at 801-355-2787, 888/451-2787 or www.utahopera.org

The role of the forbearing female is no stranger to the opera stage. The fur-bearing female is a different story, and is one of many novelties in Utah Opera’s stylish production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”

As a cautionary parable of humanity’s tendency toward corruption, “The Rake’s Progress” is an oft-told tale, dating back millennia. After all, the Ten Commandments were not written as an academic exercise. Stravinsky’s version draws upon inspiration that doesn’t go back quite that far, only to the eighteenth century and William Hogarth’s series of paintings depicting the decline of humanity from greed, lust, ambition, and idleness, as represented by the tenor lead, Tom Rakewell. Much of the story is metaphorical: Innocence, as represented by nature, the countryside and the feminine, falling victim to vice, as represented by the civilization, the city, and the masculine.

In the tumultuous times of the early and mid-20th century, that theme regained resonance among stage composers. In 1930, in Depression-era Germany, Kurt Weill composed the dark and menacing “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” with a text by Bertolt Brecht. Bookending “The Rake’s Progress” on the other end was Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 more lighthearted (if one can be lighthearted about rape and pillage) “Candide,” based upon Voltaire’s French satire.

Stravinsky’s opera is the momma bear of the three. His classically structured score is a sumptuous blend of Mozartean elegance and richness, never lacking in truly beautiful music (Rakewell’s aria, “Love too frequently betrayed…” as one of many examples). W.H. Auden’s libretto is at least equally masterful; even without the music it would make compelling poetry on its own. The sets, two-dimensional, monochromatic cross-hatched representations, paid homage to the era of moralistic 18th century etchings and woodcuts from which the opera is based, and complemented Stravinsky’s musical nod to the same period.

The performances all around rose to the quality of the score. Soprano Joelle Harvey was a radiant and touching Ann Trulove, whose voice lost none of its glowingly warmth even on a softly contoured high C. Tenor Norman Reinhardt as Tom Rakewell was convincingly versatile in all his emotional permutations, navigating through Stravinsky’s vocal gymnastics with facile confidence. Baritone Mark Schnaible sang a diabolically understated Nick Shadow to great sly effect. Having heard his title role in “Bluebeard’s Castle” with the Utah Symphony, he has carved himself a niche on the evil baritone market with his deep, dark tessitura. Mezzo Jill Grove was refreshingly robust as bearded Baba the Turk, the opera’s only character who truly knew who she was. Unlike the others, there’s no subtlety with Baba, and Grove’s unrestrained singing and verve provided just the right foil.

Equal kudos to the orchestra. Maestro Thierry Fischer has a well-known affinity for Stravinsky and that shone through. The score is not so much for an orchestra as for a kaleidoscope of small ensembles within the larger group. Fischer brought his customary care for clarity, balance, and attention to detail, and the musicians played with buoyant energy and flair. (One would hope that with such fine playing the musicians’ roster would be printed somewhere before page 48 in future program books.)

If there were any musical downsides, they were slight. For example, from time to time the chorus’s diction was not clear; the same was true on occasion with the articulation in the orchestra. That’s a particularly important consideration in Stravinsky, whose trademark is incisive rhythmic punctuation, but more than anything else that can be chalked up to the Capitol Theater’s tricky acoustics.

As opposed to the rich vitality of the singing and playing, the acting was for the most part restrained, Baba being the exception. I don’t know whether this was intentional—perhaps to reflect the classical lines of the music and set—or not. The result was occasional static and subdued lapses which did not correspond to the busy-ness of the music, with its constantly changing textures and colors that invited motion and action.

To compound that, the length of the final act is a miscalculation, being overly drawn out and lacking Stravinsky’s best music. The graveyard scene, in which Rakewell outwits Nick Shadow (the devil in disguise) is more clever than convincing and suffers in comparison with the card scene in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in which the relentless hand of Fate wends it inexorable way through the superficial gaiety surrounding it. Likewise, the madhouse scene, in which Anne Trulove unaccountably abandons her true love to his horrifying fate, goes on longer than necessary for a dénouement. In “Don Giovanni,” for example, when the flames of hell engulf Giovanni, Mozart wisely wraps things up in a few minutes of happy choral moralizing, understanding that after the climax the drama is essentially over. Nor does the conclusion of “The Rake’s Progress” elicit the tears of a Puccini finale. No matter how many times I see Mimi die in “La Boheme,” I always find myself hoping against hope that maybe this one time she’ll make it through.

It’s hard to know whether this “one-step-removed” quality is the result of the aloof part of Stravinsky’s personality, or his quasi-comedic interpretation of the parable, or the flatness of the sets (interesting though they were) and acting, or all of the above. Stravinsky himself may have been cognizant that the final act was not quite emotionally fulfilling, because he adds an unexpected and lighthearted Shakespearean twist at the very end with his characteristic craft and wit. Overall, the opera is engaging and thought provoking and the music is unquestionably beautiful, even by the definition of those who might have reservations about 20th century music. Bravo to Utah Opera for expanding its artistic horizons. Might we hope for Britten, Weill, or Bernstein in the future?


CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF SALT LAKE CITY, Meccore Quartet, Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Feb. 11

The great paradox that musicians have in preparing repertoire for performance is that the result of all the untold hours of painstaking rehearsal is to make the music sound spontaneous. Decisions about balance, rhythm, articulation, ensemble, intonation and style, consciously made on virtually every note of a piece, all together create the planned spontaneity we refer to as “interpretation.” The number of permutations among these variables are infinite. When it’s a string quartet…well, what’s infinite times four?

When a piece is under-interpreted, the result is something bland and uninspiring. Musical wallpaper. Sometimes proponents of such playing defend their (lack of) interpretation by claiming to adhere to exactly what was written on the page, forgetting that most of any page of music is white – the spaces between the notes where the music is made. On the other hand, music that is over-interpreted sounds artificial – a thick layer of over-spiced gravy that coagulates over what would otherwise be a tasty dish.

Meccore Quartet (Photo: Courtesy of the Artists)

Wednesday night, at Libby Gardner Concert Hall, the Meccore Quartet found just the right balance. It was one of the most enjoyable string quartet experiences I’ve had in a long time. Their Mozart (No. 21 in D major, K. 575) was light but had character, flexibility, and clarity. Their musical gestures were explicit but sensitive throughout. I jotted down one word in my notes for their timing of the exotic harmonic modulations in the development of the first movement: “Wow!”  Their sense of Mozart’s uncanny ability to set up musical expectations and then either satisfy them or, more often than not, deflect them, was right on the money every time, yet they never whacked the listener over the head with it. Rather, their timing was organically conceived, creating the impression of “this is the way the music is supposed to go,” that made listening to it an absorbing pleasure.

For the Szymanowski Quartet No. 1 the two violinists switched parts, a practice that is becoming more common these days, as it is in symphony orchestras. I suppose the world’s growing embrace of democracy is filtering down to classical music (but don’t tell that to conductors). Another recent practice the Meccore followed is to play standing, except for the cellist, who sat on a podium to bring him up to the others’ level. I’m generally neutral on both of those recent practices. If the musicians aren’t great to begin with it comes across as shtick. The Meccore Quartet, fortunately, are great musicians, and made their decision to stand pay off. The communication among the group was constant and unified, and when, on occasion, one of the inner voices had the lead line, he could literally step forward and make himself heard.

Though Szymanowski’s music has never gathered the huge following as some of his contemporaries, like Bartók or Debussy, his music is often engaging and occasionally compelling. In his quartet, there were echoes of Vaughan Williams, Janacek, Bartók, Shostakovich and even Mendelssohn, yet overall the impression was of a fresh, individual voice. The Meccore effectively communicated Szymanowski’s range of musical colors, from the mysterious and ephemeral to the playful and sardonic.

Most quartets can perform the Tchaikovsky D Major Quartet in their sleep. The trick is to not sound like they are. In that, the Meccore was again successful. From the transparency of their sound in the very opening created by judicious use of vibrato and a flautando bow stroke, to the rough-and-tumble coda to close the piece, their performance was in the moment and continuously engaging. The famous, tear-inducing second movement, Andante cantabile, led by cellist Karol Marianowski, was lovingly done. Afterwards, the person sitting next to me suggested the piece might have been programmed especially for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know whether that was the case, but I’d trade a dozen roses for such a wonderful concert any day.