Barry has been a music, theater and travel writer for over a decade for various publications, including Epoch Times. He is a voting member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle, two organizations of theater critics that give awards at the end of each season. He has also been a member of NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association)
Latest by Barry Bassis
By Barry Bassis | December 5, 2013
“The Great American Songbook” generally refers to the most enduring popular songs from the 1920s to the 1960s. Many came from Hollywood and Broadway as well as the world of jazz and venues like the Cotton Club. CDs from that era and beyond have recently been released honoring these songs.
Probably no one has had more classic songs written for him than Fred Astaire. He and his sister Adele were the leading dance team on stage during the 1920s and after she retired to marry into British royalty, he went out on his own.
Astaire soon found another ideal partner in Ginger Rogers. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Sony Masterworks have just issued a 2-CD set, “Fred Astaire: The Early …
By Barry Bassis | November 29, 2013
To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth, Deutsche Grammophon has released a 7-CD set, “Grandioso! Great Verdi Recordings from Caruso to Pavarotti.” This is a treat for serious collectors rather than for casual listeners.
While musicians disagree about what famous compositions sounded like before the inception of recordings, this set showcases the first Otello, performing two arias from the opera. Francesco Tamagno sang the role at the premiere in 1887.
In 1903, when Tamagno was 53 years old and suffering from a heart condition, which caused his death two years later, he made a number of recordings at his holiday retreat. On the set are two arias: Otello’s dramatic entrance, “Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar” (“Rejoice! …
By Barry Bassis | November 20, 2013
NEW YORK—With his tall stature and mane of white hair, Dmitri Hvorostovsky is one of the most striking figures in contemporary opera. For “Rigoletto”—his first performance of this opera at the Metropolitan Opera— he was uglied up to fit the role.
The court jester is a hunchback and, since this is the Michael Mayer production that changes the setting from 16th century Italy to Las Vegas in 1960, the Russian baritone is made to resemble comedian Don Rickles. In addition to the lump in his back (which the comic doesn’t have), Hvorostovsky is given a paunch and a few hairs combed across his head.
When the opera begins, the Duke (who is presented here as a Sinatra figure) expresses his …
By Barry Bassis | November 12, 2013
PentaTone releases three CDs
Some notable writers and composers have gone back and forth between the worlds of business and the arts. For example, the poet Wallace Stevens and the composer Charles Ives were both insurance executives and the novelist Louis Auchincloss was a wills and trusts attorney.
Gordon Getty is a billionaire businessman who has composed a number of works in various forms, including choral, orchestral, solo piano pieces, and operas. In advance of his 80th birthday this December, PentaTone classics has released three CDs of his compositions in superbly engineered and well performed recordings: “Piano Pieces,” “Plump Jack,” and “Usher House.”
These recordings reveal him as a traditionalist, inspired by 19th century composers and literary works from different …
By Barry Bassis | October 28, 2013
NEW YORK—To honor the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), the Metropolitan Opera is reviving the 1996 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Britten wrote the music and co-authored the libretto with his partner Peter Pears.
On a recent Saturday night the house was packed, with a number of children in attendance. Because the production started at 8 p.m. and lasted almost until midnight, some of the families with youngsters left after Act 2. At least one boy whose parents stayed to the end had to wake him from a deep sleep. It’s too bad because the ending is especially magical and is preceded by comic hijinks.
As long as the opera is, it actually omits about half …
By Barry Bassis | October 9, 2013
NEW YORK— The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” and, judging from a recent performance, it should be retitled “Tatiana” because of the performance of Anna Netrebko.
The opera is based on a novel in verse by Pushkin. The work has the same basic theme (albeit in a different country and social class) as Fellini’s film “La Strada” and has a similar ending: A man rejects love and realizes his loss after it’s too late.
The opera had a personal meaning for the composer since a woman he had met briefly when she was a conservatory student sent him a letter professing her love. Unlike Onegin, though, Tchaikovsky married the letter writer (which turned out …
By Barry Bassis | October 7, 2013
The Brazilian singer-songwriter-guitarist-percussionist Vinicius Cantuária appeared at Jazz Standard with his quintet: Helio Alves on piano, Paul Socolow on bass, Adriano Santos on drums and Dende on percussion. On his albums and in live performances, Cantuária works with a mix of Brazilian and American jazz artists. He has collaborated with Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, and Brad Mehldau, among others. At his show, he brought out as a guest Jesse Harris, the singer-guitarist and composer of such hits as Norah Jones’ “Come Away with Me.”
Though Cantuaria has been living in New York since the 1990’s, he still performs all his songs in Portuguese. He once said that he became more Brazilian when he moved away from his homeland. (There are …
By Barry Bassis | September 23, 2013
NEW YORK—The extraordinary jazz singer Cassandra Wilson has a distinctive contralto voice. She produces a dark, smoky sound that is at home with the blues and sultry ballads. Visually, though, she always seems ebullient and exudes charm. She was in top form at her recent show at the Blue Note club.
Before she came out, her band performed an instrumental piece featuring harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret. Then, Wilson appeared and showed off her Mississippi roots with Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” Her interpretation was as fresh as it was when she recorded it for her breakthrough album, “Blue Light ’Til Dawn.”
She reminded the audience that this is the 20th anniversary of that recording. She not only sounds …
By Barry Bassis | September 18, 2013
Make that two tenors and a baritone
Despite the fact that Mario Lanza was immensely popular and influenced many foremost tenors, he is not listed in any of the critical works about classical music.
The tenor was discovered by conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who upon hearing him at an audition, immediately gave the young singer a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Festival. After Lanza left the army, he spent 1947–1948 touring as a member of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and George London (who went on to become an opera star in Europe).
In 1951, Lanza starred in “The Great Caruso,” which was a big hit. His recordings sold in the millions and he made movies sporadically.
By Barry Bassis | September 9, 2013
Rereleased CDs of Nina Simone and Chris Connor
At the moment there is a play on Broadway, “Soul Doctor,” about Shlomo Carlebach in which his friendship with Nina Simone is portrayed. The actress playing Simone, Amber Iman, sings some of her songs and is charming, but she sounds nothing like the late singer.
There is also a biopic that has been announced about Simone, which has sparked controversy because of the light skin of Zoe Saldana, who is slated to step into the lead role.
Actually, the best way to understand the importance of Nina Simone is to listen to her recordings.
Simone, the late great singer-pianist-songwriter (1933–2003) had a voice that possessed a raw sound redolent of the blues …
By Barry Bassis | September 3, 2013
When bassist-composer-bandleader Charnett Moffett plays with his family and friends, he is invariably performing with eminent artists. Charnett was only eight years old when he first recorded with his father, drummer Charles Moffett (1929-1997). By the time he was 16, he was playing with Wynton Marsalis. Between 1993 and 1995, he was a member of Ornette Coleman’s group. (His name is a combination of his father’s and Ornette’s names. Charles had played in Coleman’s group during the 1960’s.)
Charnett has just issued two new albums on Motema, one a solo (“The Bridge”) and the other (“Spirit of Sound”) a group effort (though his playing and mostly his compositions are featured throughout).
While the idea of a solo bass recording might …
By Barry Bassis | August 29, 2013
Classical audiences know that they are not supposed to applaud until a piece is over. Nevertheless, when Joshua Bell and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra conducted by Louis Langrée, the Festival’s music director, finished the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the house erupted in applause. The musicians did not look surprised, since this no doubt happened the night before at Avery Fisher Hall when they performed the same program.
This concert, part of the final week of the Festival, started with a Mozart symphony and ended with Tchaikovsky’s concerto. What did the two works have in common, aside from the fact that they were created by two of the most popular composers of all time? The answer is the …
By Barry Bassis | August 27, 2013
After Sinéad O’Connor’s galvanic performance at last year’s tribute to Curtis Mayfield, Lincoln Center Festival invited her back to put together two concerts of gospel music at Alice Tully Hall. I attended the second concert.
The Irish singer’s work has often dealt with religious themes—one of her albums was titled “Theology.” She is also an avowed fan of gospel artists like The Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Indeed, she had two members of those groups on-stage with her, bass player Benjamin Odom and guitarist Sam Butler Jr., respectively, in an excellent band under the direction of composer and pianist Bob Telson (most famous for his score for the Broadway musical “The Gospel at Colonus”). Also in the …
By Barry Bassis | August 27, 2013
In “The American Opera Singer,” Peter Davis recounts an incident in which Franco Corelli (newly arrived at the Metropolitan Opera) asked Richard Tucker (1913-1975) for advice on how to sing a tricky passage in “Tosca.” Tucker replied, “To sing that correctly, Franco, you have to be Jewish.” The response evoked laughter and the two competitive tenor stars maintained cordial relations thereafter. Tucker may have been joking, but the two box sets released to celebrate Tucker’s 100th birthday reveal that, while you may not need to be Jewish to sing Puccini, in Tucker’s case, there was a link between the two.
The two box sets are “The Opera Recital Albums” (10 CDs including seven “first time on CD releases) and the …
By Barry Bassis | August 26, 2013
Each recording by Cecilia Bartoli not only reflects vocal and dramatic artistry but also musical scholarship. She has previously made albums of music by Steffani and Vivaldi and arias written for castrato tenors and legendary singer Maria Malibran (1808-1836).
Her latest release is a double-CD set of Bellini’s opera, “Norma.” On first blush, this would not seem especially novel since the work has long been recognized as a bel canto masterpiece and is frequently performed. However, the recording is based on a new critical edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi and is played on period instruments. The Orchestra La Scintilla is conducted by Giovanni Antonini.
The title role has been portrayed by some of the leading …
By Barry Bassis | July 7, 2013
NEW YORK—The Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910–1953) is generally considered the first great European jazz musician. He is one of the few jazzmen who can be identified by one name, like Dizzy or Miles.
Django developed a unique style after he was badly burned in a fire, which deprived him of the use of two fingers on his left hand.
In 1934, Django was a founding member along with violinist Stéphane Grappelli of the ensemble that became known as the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. They played a kind of gypsy swing music, with string instruments. The quintet included Django’s brother Joseph on rhythm guitar, and usually had no drummer.
Famous American jazz musicians sought Django out …
By Barry Bassis | May 21, 2013
NEW YORK—The Metropolitan Opera revived John Dexter’s 1977 staging of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites” for three performances only. I was fortunate to catch the last one and hope that it returns in the near future.
Poulenc (1899¬–1963) had a sort of musical split personality, with one side witty and irreverent (as exemplified by “Les Mamelles de Tirésias” and many of his songs) and the other side deeply religious. “Dialogues des Carmélites” certainly falls into the second group.
Poulenc wrote not only the music but also the libretto, which he adapted from a play by the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos. Bernanos was author of the novels “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Under the Sun of Satan,” both of …
By Barry Bassis | May 6, 2013
Claire Martin has been a fixture of the British jazz scene since her 1991 debut on Linn Records. Her latest album on the label, “Too Much in Love to Care,” maintains the high standard of her recordings. This is her first CD made up exclusively of love songs from the Great American Songbook. She recorded it in New York with a first-rate group of jazzmen: Peter Washington on drums and Kenny Washington on bass (who both play in Bill Charlap’s trio), the exemplary Kenny Barron on piano, with guest sax and flute player Steve Wilson. There are some jazz singers who take off on wild flights that show off their vast ranges. Martin is more in the tradition of vocalists …
By Barry Bassis | April 15, 2013
NEW YORK—When the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Peter Gelb came out on stage before the April 9th performance of “Giulio Cesare,” there was a collective groan from the audience. He started by saying he had some bad news but a positive note as well. Soprano Natalie Dessay, who had appeared at the first performance as the female lead, Cleopatra, to rave reviews, had to cancel because of illness.
On the plus side, Danielle de Niese was in town with her husband and was supposed to sit in Gelb’s box that evening. Instead, he asked her to step into the role that she had performed in the same production, directed by David McVicar, when it played at Glyndebourne in 2005. The …
By Barry Bassis | April 10, 2013
Several new CDs this season offer Russian performers and composers.
Soprano Dinara Alieva studied with Montserrat Caballé, who described her talent as a “gift of Heaven.” Her new Naxos CD titled “Russian Songs and Arias” supports this assessment.
Born in Azerbaijan, Alieva has sung at Bolshoi Theatre as well as the Vienna State Opera, Oper Frankfurt, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. She has also won a number of international competitions and appeared at Carnegie Hall.
On the new CD, she is accompanied by the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky.
She begins with a sublime rendition of Rachmaninov’s wordless “Vocalise” and shows her capacity to convey emotions with Tchaikovsky songs (with orchestral accompaniment rather than piano) plus a …