Long-Haired Music 

Delilah gets Samson and the spotlight in this classic French opera

As a general rule, classical music tends to produce only two basic kinds of composers: those who write symphonies, and those who stick to opera. Beethoven, with his nine archetypal symphonies, is a classic example of the former. Verdi, on the other hand, is known almost entirely for his operas.
As a general rule, classical music tends to produce only two basic kinds of composers: those who write symphonies, and those who stick to opera. Beethoven, with his nine archetypal symphonies, is a classic example of the former. Verdi, on the other hand, is known almost entirely for his operas.

Camille Saint-Saëns, the 19th century French composer, fell squarely in the symphonic camp, yet ironically his best piece may well be his opera Samson and Delilah, which opens Nashville Opera’s 2007-08 season. The gripe you always hear about Saint-Saëns is that his music is technically brilliant but superficial. That’s perhaps true of the composer’s various concertos, Organ Symphony and Carnival of the Animals. But you can’t say that about Samson and Delilah.

“This is one of the most lush and emotionally charged operas in the repertory,” says John Hoomes, Nashville Opera’s artistic director. “In this opera, Saint-Saëns got it right.”

But Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Ferdinand Lemaire, did change a few things. For instance, the work’s libretto, based on Chapter 16 of the Book of Judges, largely ignores the biblical strongman’s legendary deeds, such as his doing the job on those Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Instead, the opera focuses on Delilah—indeed, Saint-Saëns lavishes so much attention on her that you wonder why he didn’t name the work Delilah and That Other Guy.

Samson doesn’t sing a single solo aria in his own opera. Delilah, however, gets to sing three, and one of those tunes—“Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”)—is so popular it’s practically a classical music hit single.

Not surprisingly, the role of Delilah has become a warhorse for many of the world’s great mezzo-sopranos. Stacey Rishoi, who sings the part for Nashville Opera, seems poised to become the next great Delilah diva. In fact, Hoomes says her pipes seem tailor-made for Delilah.

“What’s great about Stacey is that she has a terrific bottom voice, which you might expect from a mezzo-soprano, but her top voice is strong, too,” says Hoomes. “You should hear her B-flat.”

Samson may come in a quarter note behind Delilah in this opera, yet the part has nonetheless always attracted great tenors. Jay Hunter Morris, who will sing Samson in Nashville, has already established his Wagnerian chops singing in Meistersinger at San Francisco Opera and in Fliegende Holländer at Arizona Opera. “He’ll bring the necessary vocal heft to Samson,” says Hoomes.

Other notable performers in Nashville Opera’s production will include baritone Luis Ledesma as the High Priest of Dagon, bass-baritone Jamie Offenbach as the Old Hebrew and bass Steve Aiken as Abimelech. John Hoomes and conductor Dean Williamson have also recorded a podcast for the opera, which can be downloaded for free at apple.com/itunes and at nashvilleopera.org.

Tango!

There’s something about ethnic music that appeals to the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Last spring, the ensemble gave the world-premiere performance of Michael Rose’s Arguing With God, a klezmer concerto. This weekend, it showcases the sensuous sounds of Argentine tango.

“I love concerts like this because they cross-pollinate Nashville’s audiences,” says Paul Gambill, the NCO’s artistic director. “We get to introduce tango fans to classical music and classical fans to tango.”

Tango has had a serious influence on at least two classical composers of genius: Osvaldo Golijov and Astor Piazzolla.

The Argentine-born Golijov (pronounced GO-lee-hoff) is the composer du jour of contemporary classical music. He first gained prominence in 2000 when the Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, commissioned him to write a Latin American setting of the St. Mark Passion.

Gambill and the NCO will perform Golijov’s Last Round, a work inspired by Piazzolla. In his program notes, Golijov describes his piece as “an idealized bandoneon. [Piazzolla was a famous bandoneon virtuoso.] The first movement represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh.”

Piazzolla will be represented on the program with one of his most substantial works—the Concerto for Bandoneon, a work that mixes abstract classical melodies and Argentine nightclub riffs. Raul Jaurena, who Piazzolla himself once described as one of the world’s great bandoneon players, will solo.

“This is one of the most energetic pieces I know,” says Jaurena. “It will definitely make you want to dance.”

The performance will also feature accordion virtuoso Jeff Lisenby, concertina player John Mock and tango dancers Carolina Jaurena (Raul’s daughter) and Anton Gazenbeek. The dancers, especially, are guaranteed to make you blush.

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