New young artists among the world's most talented

by Michael Caruso
Posted 11/27/20

The Academy of Vocal Arts continued its virtual season with its most hopeful program of the year: the New Artists Recital. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s most recent series of virtual concerts featured three scores focusing on woodwinds.

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New young artists among the world's most talented


Undaunted by the frightening spike in coronavirus cases in Greater Philadelphia and throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Academy of Vocal Arts continued its virtual season with its most hopeful program of the year: the New Artists Recital.

I caught the roster of performances given by seven of the entering class of singers November 14, and, through their fine singing, came away convinced that we’ll somehow make it through the dark night of COVID-19 and return to normal daylight, hopefully sooner rather than later.

East Falls’ Kevin McDowell, AVA’s president & artistic director, continues to successfully navigate the ship through the dangerous waters of this storm. The recital was organized and accompanied by Jose Melendez, assistant to music director Christofer Macatsoris and a splendid pianist in his own right. Melendez played with unparalleled sensitivity and orchestral sonorities at the Steinway.

The program featured performances by seven of AVA’s incoming freshmen and included music composed by Strauss, Schubert, Tosti, Ovalle, Debussy, Satie, Duparc, Grieg, Chaminade and West Chester’s Samuel Barber, among others.

AVA’s incoming students are among the most talented young vocalists in the world. This year’s roster includes tenor Shawn Roth from Johnstown, PA, mezzo Monique Galvao from Brazil, bass Peter Barber from Virginia, soprano Loella Grahn from Sweden, baritone Kevin Godinez from Costa Rica, baritone Benjamin Dickerson from Vermont, and soprano Ethel Trujillo from Mexico.

I was mightily impressed by Peter Barber’s rendition of Schubert’s “Der Wanderer.” He caught the feeling of foreboding that strikes the listener from the first notes of the song’s piano introduction. His command over the full range of his voice from top to bottom was unshakeable.

Benjamin Dickerson’s interpretation of Barber’s “Solitary Hotel” was equally memorable. He sang it with utter simplicity and powerful conviction, transforming what might seem like random observations into a surprisingly modern narrative of life’s experiences.

For more information about AVA’s virtual season, visit


The Philadelphia Orchestra’s most recent series of virtual concerts, streamed Nov. 11-15 from Verizon Hall, featured three scores focusing on woodwinds. Led by conducting fellow Lina Gonzalez-Granados, the program offered Glazunov’s “Concerto for Saxophone & Orchestra,” Villa-Lobos’s “Fantasia for Saxophone & Orchestra” and Dvorak’s “Serenade for Winds.” Branford Marsalis was the soloist in the first and second while Philippe Tondre, the Orchestra’s new principal oboe, led the playing in the third.

Branford Marsalis, older brother of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, was heard on the soprano saxophone in the Glazunov and the alto sax in the Villa-Lobos. In both scores and on both instruments, he displayed an ironclad digital technique, inexhaustible breath control and an eloquent lyricism.

He caught the brooding melancholy of the Glazunov, composed when the Russian was in exile in Paris following the Bolshevik Revolution. The music drips with nostalgia, yet Marsalis refused to succumb to its sentimentality and, instead, maintained a steady keel from start to finish.

When both works were written – in the 1930s & 1940s, respectively – the saxophone was still a rarity in the classical repertoire, even though it had been invented as a classical instrument in the 1840s. It still seems unfair for such an expressive instrument to remain on the periphery of classical orchestration, especially since I suspect that its regular use in Jazz has unintentionally worked to maintain that estrangement.

Although the scoring of Dvorak’s “Serenade for Winds” includes cellos and contrabasses, it doesn’t boast violins. As a result, it’s the oboe, the instrument that leads the tuning of the ensemble at a concert’s start, whose player acts as the “concertmaster” of the orchestra. This time around provided a double treat for me. I love the oboe, and I had the chance to hear the playing of the Philadelphians’ new principal oboist, Philippe Tondre.

His tone is a tad more pointed than what we’ve become accustomed to in Philadelphia. Following in the footsteps of Marcel Tabuteau, John de Lancie and Richard Woodhams, all three of whom projected an amply rounded tonal color, Tondre’s characteristic sound is more focused and less plump without ever veering into the tart timbres typical in European orchestras. In the context of the Bohemian heartiness of Dvorak’s music, it made the perfect fit.

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