Exploring 18th century carnevale operas

Gramaphone magazine’s rapturous review of this CD introduced me to the superb Swedish soprano Ann Hallenberg. A specialist in Baroque music, she and her musicologist husband have for some years put together programs highlighting various epigones from the 17th and 18th centuries. This album focuses on the eight-week carnival period in Venice between December 26, 1728, and February 27, 1729, with selections from all seven operas performed during that season, including works by such well known names as Albinoni and Porpora.

I am not a major bel canto fan, but when performed as exquisitely as this both technically and expressively, all those runs and roulades can be captivating. Gramaphone’s review rightly laud’s “Hallenberg’s pinpoint virtuosity and lyricism, communicative use of language, idiomatic embellishment, intelligently sculpted phrasing (limpid, gentle or turbulent as the music demands) and astute theatrical characterisation: time seems to stand still in Adelaide’s lament ‘Quanto bello agl’occhi miei’, sung sublimely over a sophisticated rolling string accompaniment, and the voice’s dialogue with violinist-director Stefano Montanari is shaded elegantly in Ottone’s lyrical alla francese aria ‘Vedrò più liete e belle’.”

Exquisitely accompanied by period ensemble Il pomo d’oro, this is a superb listening experience.

Audacious and acclaimed new musical

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It seems bizarrely fortuitous that Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop, which last week won both the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama (musical or otherwise) and the 2019 Hull-Warriner Award, was actually on my list to recommend this week. I was lucky enough to get in to one of the few remaining performances last summer after the show won across-the-board critical raves, and it literally blew me away. This is a daring, take-no-prisoners work, almost stream of consciousness housed within in an enfilated concept: Usher is a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical… etc etc. Jackson’s challenges to the boundaries he views from the world at large, the gay community, and the black community are searingly conveyed in a stream of funny and furious numbers.

This superb recording by the original cast captures the entire show.

Warning: this recording is Not Safe For Work nor for culturally sensitive types. Many expletives and trigger words are used.

Smoothing it out with Ms. Scott

I haven’t kept up with Jill Scott since her eponymous debut Who Is Jill Scott, so was it ever a treat to happen on this 2014 album as the grim covid-19 situation was cresting here in New York. The Light of the Sun is a particularly favorite jam right now. If you need both a diversion and fortitude, grab this. Scott’s skill at smooth, sweet groove backing trenchant lyrics has only improved as she strolls and swaggers joyously in the no man’s land between soul, funk, jazz, and swinging hip-hop beats.

Thom Jurek of Allmusic rightly describes this as “a record of the rocky road to empowerment… Scott expresses spoken and sung gratitude for and about her new baby, career, life, and support system. Poetry and song are woven with elegance in a nocturnal groove… On The Light of the SunScott sounds more in control than ever; her spoken and sung phrasing (now a trademark), songwriting, and production instincts are all solid. This is 21st century Philly soul at its best.”

While every track on this album is a bop, I keep repeating the addictive pre-release single “So in Love”: a modern Philly soul fan’s dream, with its lithe, fingerpopping bassline, shimmering drums, and seeming bliss arising between Scott and Anthony Hamilton, who turn in a grand duet performance.