Ex-chemistry major cooks up brilliant musical formula

Note-Worthy October 4, 2013 0 Comments

AVA’s first fully staged operatic production will be of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” The sophisticated comedy will be presented Nov. 2, 5, 7 and 9 in the school’s own Warden Theater at 1920 Spruce St., Nov. 13 in Haverford School’s Centennial Hall, and Nov. 16 at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington.

by Michael Caruso

The Academy of Vocal Arts launches its 2013-14 season of performances with its annual Giargiari Bel Canto Competition at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. AVA’s first fully staged operatic production will be of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” The sophisticated comedy will be presented Nov. 2, 5, 7 and 9 in the school’s own Warden Theater at 1920 Spruce St., Nov. 13 in Haverford School’s Centennial Hall, and Nov. 16 at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington.

Heading AVA as its president and artistic director since 1987 is longtime East Falls resident K. James McDowell. Born in Texas, McDowell was educated at Furman University, where he majored in chemistry but also studied music. When he was accepted into the Young Artist Program at the Santa Fe Opera, McDowell decided to redirect his career toward music. He came to Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute of Music and, upon graduation from Curtis, he was accepted at AVA.

Upon graduating from AVA, McDowell enrolled at Temple University to pursue a master’s degree in business administration and finance. He continued at AVA by working as its concert manager and director of public relations. After a year in that position, he was invited by AVA’s board of directors to assume the position of executive director upon the retirement of director Dino Yannopoulos.

McDowell’s tenure has seen AVA’s stature in the operatic world rise. Its students and alumni are winning vocal completions left and right and are currently singing in all of the world’s major opera houses. But his principal concern at the moment is the completion of the renovations to 1916 Spruce St., the third of three Victorian brownstones built in 1868 and now forming a contiguous home for AVA.

“We bought 1916 Spruce St. in 2008,” McDowell recounted. “The owner knew that we were motivated to purchase the property to extend the available space for the school. It took until this year to begin the renovations because the stock market collapse damaged our endowment. Fortunately, we were able to continue renting the apartments in 1916 until we were ready to proceed with the work.”

The new addition to AVA will be named after Sally Paxson Davis, the granddaughter of Helen Corning Warden, the first chairman of AVA’s board and the woman whose name graces the school’s theater at 1920 Spruce St. Adele Warden Paxson’s name adorns 1918 Spruce St.

The large front room of 1916 will be a lecture/recital hall while the large room in the back will house the public portion of the library. The second floor features the circulating library for faculty, staff and students, while the third floor complements the library with archives and offers a spacious rehearsal space.

For more information regarding AVA’s 2013-14 season, call 215-735-1685 or visit avaopera.org.


Yannick Nezet-Seguin opened his second season as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director with a trio of concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Sept. 26-28 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. I caught the Saturday performance and joined the sold out audience’s enthusiastic welcoming of the dynamic young maestro to the ensemble’s podium.

“I couldn’t be more eager to get back to work with the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra and to start our second season together,” Nezet-Seguin told me last week. “That wonderful electricity we generated together last season and to get ready for more this year. We have a very special partnership, a deep connection that I can only describe as magical. It brings me great joy to be at the start of a wonderful journey and to have so many years ahead to look forward to.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the archetype of the large symphonic work for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra. It became the fountainhead for the entire Romantic epoch in music, with even Richard Wagner pointing to it as the inspiration for his operas. Lasting 70 minutes, the Ninth starts with three long movements in the traditional symphonic form. These are followed by a final movement the size of most classical symphonies in their entirety that includes a choral repeat of its instrumental first half. By the conclusion of that choral setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text, it’s safe to say that Beethoven’s has definitely pulled out all the stops.

Saturday night’s performance featured Nezet-Seguin at his most energetic. He commanded his forces by memory like a general. Not a note was either played or sung that he didn’t inspire. He motivated the interpretation and oversaw its rendition. If there were passages here and there that veered toward the bombastic rather than the monumental, the young maestro’s youth is probably the most valid explanation. It should be fascinating hearing him lead the same score a decade from now.

It came as no surprise that the Philadelphians responded to Nezet-Seguin’s leadership with superb playing. Pleasantly surprising was the singing of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. Though comprised of students, its tone was darkly colored and resonantly projected.


Opera Philadelphia opened its 2013-14 season with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.”

Opera Philadelphia opened its 2013-14 season with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” I caught the Sunday, Sept. 29 matinee in the Academy of Music and came away not altogether convinced by some aspects of the mounting.

Director Thaddeus Strassberger framed “Nabucco” with trappings of Verdi’s own mid-19th century, even though the composer only wrote one contemporary opera – “La Traviata.” All the rest were set a century or so previously – with “Nabucco” placed nearly 2000 years before. As a result, this “Nabucco” leaned toward being a testament to Verdi’s commitment to the cause of Italian unification. Unfortunately, the unified Italy that Verdi dreamed about has produced the most dysfunctional major nation in Europe. Italy’s 20 regions are not merely diverse; they’re discordant. They neither work nor play well together.

Far better to have focused on the actual story of the ancient Hebrews longing to return from Babylon to the Holy Land, setting the production in ancient rather than bourgeois times. This still resonates today in the wake of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

All the same, Sunday afternoon’s performance was memorable. Corrado Rovaris conducted the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus with a sure yet sensitive hand. Baritone Sebastian Catana’s acting was a trifle melodramatic as Nabucco, but he sang with unforced projection and tonal clarity. Soprano Csilla Boross was an exemplary Abigaille, Nabucco’s presumed daughter. Her ringing tones filled the house, and her acting coursed with intensity. Tenor Adam Diegel was a stellar Ismaele, loved by both Abigaille and Fenena, Nabucco’s other daughter. Handsome and athletic, Diegel’s voice possesses that special “ping” that sends it out into the house yet remains sweet in its timbre. Bass Morris Robinson was splendid as Zaccaria, the Hebrew High Priest. Only mezzo Margaret Mezzacappa disappointed as Fenena: her acting was reminiscent of silent films, and she occasionally sang flat.

“Nabucco” continues October 2, 4 and 6. Call 215-893-1018 or visit operaphila.org.

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