Interview: Soprano Jessica Rivera

Soprano Jessica Rivera’s voice does not just produce the kind of lyricism that trickles through your inner being and leads you to a place of mesmerizing tranquility. It is more. It is thrilling, captivating with a poetic appeal. It is steady, like the flow of rain that dances upon the maple leaves in the forest; smooth and rich like melted chocolate drizzling over a thick cheesecake; and it is calming, like a moment in a garden when you are sitting among the azaleas and there is nothing but you, the flowers and the breeze kissing you softly on the cheek as it brushes by. Still not convinced? Listen to her sing “Lento e largo, tranquillissimo” from Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, op. 36 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”

Soprano Jessica Rivera (photo: Isabel Pinto)

And then there is Jessica, the person, the woman who dreamed at the age of 14 of becoming an international opera star. That dream came true with her solo debut in January of 2001 when she was suddenly asked to stand in for the role of Susanna in LA Opera’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

“I was on my way to a voice lesson before I had to show up at the theater and got a call from the opera to sing,” Jessica explained. “I called the voice teacher to cancel [our lesson] and go on to the show.” Following her debut, she was invited by Tenor Plácido Domingo to work with the LA Opera as a resident artist. A few weeks later, she auditioned for the LA Philharmonic and was invited to sing Joaquín Rodrigo’s Ausencias de Dulcinea (The Absence of Dulcinea).

She spoke with me via telephone in March from her grandparents’ home in Woodland Hills, Calif., where she grew up. She was preparing for a project with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and was working with her teacher to hone her already incredible vocals before heading to Boston. The beauty of her voice vibrated through her delightful personality.

Jessica Rivera will be performing her role of Kumudha in John Adams’s and Peter Sellars’s opera A Flowering Tree with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra June 7 and 9.

The opera, in brief, is about a beautiful but poor girl, Kumudha, who discovers she has the power to turn herself into a flowering tree. She and her sister sell the flowers from the tree to provide a means of living to them and their mother. A young prince falls in love with Kumudha, marries her and then demands she transform herself into the flowering tree. His jealous sister observes the ritual and later tricks Kumudha to do the same for her and her wealthy friends. The transformation is incomplete and Kumudha is stuck in the form of half a tree, half a human. Kumudha disappears and the prince becomes distraught when he cannot find her. He leaves the palace and wanders aimlessly through the country. When he returns, he is almost unrecognizable. His sister, now the queen, takes care of him. She hears of a freakish creature with a divine voice and has it brought to her brother in the hopes the singing will return him to life. She has the creature bathed and brought to her brother’s bed. The prince and Kumudha recognize each other and he performs the old ceremony, which returns her to her human form.

Jessica spoke with me about her upcoming Atlanta performance and what it means to her to work with the ASO, as well as how she chooses her various roles.

JML—What do you hope the audience will take away from the performance of A Flowering Tree?
JR—
What I would like most for people to take away from the story is redemption and hope. It’s about a young girl who finds herself, who finds love, encounters betrayal and is redeemed by a beautiful love. That’s what I would love for people to take away because something we all can appreciate on a human level is being redeemed.

JML—Tell us about your character, Kumudha. What is she like?
JR—
She was young, curious and imaginative and very generous in spirit. This shows in the whole purpose of her trying to turn herself into a flowering tree so she can sell blossoms for a better life for her family—her mother and sister. There is no father in the picture. Out of great compassion for her elderly mother, Kumudha wants to do something to help. I can identify with that in a way. My family is incredibly important to me. I always want to find a way to be an important part of that family and make my family experience as full as possible. This is how Kumudha is able to express her love of family by finding a way to provide for them and make life easier.

JML—What are some of the things you look forward to in working with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra?
JR—
“Flowering Tree” has been such an important part of my career and it came in such an unexpected and beautiful way through Peter Sellars and John Adams. When I met John, it was to let him know what my voice could do so he could write a piece for me with my voice in mind. I feel funny saying he wrote for me, but humbled and honored at the same time. It’s a beautiful story with beautiful lyrics. Unlike other things he’s written, this was a real self-discovery on his part and he wrote something fairy-tale-esque than other operas he’s written based on actual historical events, such as Nixon in China. I met him for the first time in a house in Berkley, Calif., and saw him before anyone had. I thought I’d better pinch myself because [meeting him] doesn’t happen everyday. Since then, I’ve been singing and doing premiers all over world—London, Japan, San Francisco, Paris, New York and now Atlanta—and it’s been so special for me.

My career started a year before I was introduced to “Flowering Tree.” I was with Robert Spano and ASO when we recorded [Osvaldo Golijov’s] Ainadamar. I met Robert in 1998 when I apprenticed as an artist with Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. I was in the chorus and we did The Magic Flute. So I’ve known Robert since and to do a piece with him (Ainadamar) was such a profound gift to me as an artist on both a personal and professional level. So I’m thrilled to be partnering with Robert and the ASO again. The [ASO] has been my home base for symphony performances. I’m from Los Angeles and I enjoy the LA Phil[harmonic] but all the pieces I’ve done with ASO are amazing and it’s special to know I’ve had a rich history with this orchestra in particular and with Robert.

JML—When it comes to choosing a role, whether in a new work or a classic, are there particular standards that factor into your decision?
JR—
Yes. First, my voice should lend itself to the piece and the piece lend itself to my voice. I ask, “Can I sing it and will it sound good?” Also, “is it a story that I have some sort of personal connection with?” The difference to performing well is in singing something you can find a connection with. With A Flowering Tree, an ordained moment for me in my life and career is like putting on my favorite pair of comfortable jeans. [The story was] written with my voice in mind, but because I have an affinity for a good story—drama, love’s lost, love redeemed—I identify with a story that is profound and touching and hopefully there are things I enjoy. I enjoy doing operas with characters different from who I am. I also always enjoy songs. When I was probably eight or nine, I told my music teacher I wanted songs that tell a story and I can communicate in that way.

JML—Can you share with us how you began your musical journey and career?
JR—
My great aunt is a professional musician, an organist at The Peabody Institute [of the John Hopkins University] in Baltimore. I sang for her when I was two and she told my family I could sing in key and I should get voice lessons. I visited my great-grandmother in Maryland when I was eight and sang for her and her friends. They agreed that I could sing. In fact, one friend of my elementary school teacher said she had a “prima donna” on hand and that I needed lessons. I understood musicals, but I didn’t know about classical music. I had an audition with a voice teacher when I was nine and she introduced me to a wonderful repertoire. At 14, she gave me an opera aria to learn. It was then I knew I wanted to be an international opera singer. I loved a good story, drama and the language. I’m grateful for my family and friends that recognized that and guided and encouraged me in this direction.

June 7 & 9, 2012
8:00 p.m.
A Flowering Tree
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

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Why Rachmaninov, Copland and Symphony Orchestras Keep Us Moving

There is an intense wheel many of us find ourselves on, much like hamsters. The wheel of life continues to spin, filled with activity, but there seems to be no end to the mounting responsibilities. As it circles with us in it, we attempt to grab at things that linger on the outside, things we hope will slow us down instead of add to our burden. And sometimes we do slow down, long enough to enjoy that special something that keeps us from giving out on that wheel.

For me, often the burden is preparation and travel to a particular destination, like attending a symphony concert. I have to put the guilt of increasing to-do lists aside for a brief moment of repose. Thankfully, I’m never disappointed. I psych myself up for the music I am going to hear or the performer I will observe and though my evening is lengthy, the music lingers long after the concert and my wheel is not so burdensome when I begin my next run.

Pianist Arnaldo Cohen

The April 20 concert of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra was already a thrill to me before I walked through the doors. They were going to perform Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, op. 18 and as I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve had an extensive love affair with the composer. You can read about it here. So I won’t loiter on the piece itself, but allow me to drool a bit over the pianist, Arnaldo Cohen.

The concerto requires a certain level of dynamic precision, refinement and heightened color and Arnaldo achieved this from the very first few fabulous measures. There is that dramatic, sensual waltz between pianist and orchestra and Arnaldo and the JSO waltzed their finest. There was something in Arnaldo’s manner that made you like him, as well as his performance.

The audience certainly did. He received multiple cheers and bravos and what could he do but perform again? So he and Conductor Fabio Mechetti returned to the stage and both pianist and orchestra performed the last few measures of the epic final movement. That wasn’t enough for the hungry audience and Arnaldo pleased them with a dinner mint—Frederic Chopin’s (1810-1849) Waltz No. 6, “Minute,” op. 64, No. 1 (Ah! Chopin and Rachmaninov in the same night? I almost fainted). There is no doubt my expectations were high before I arrived. Thanks to Arnaldo, my expectations were met and are higher than ever.

Aaron Copland’s (1900-1990) Appalachian Spring: Suite was another piece I looked forward to hearing because Copland is a kind of visionary, yet he maintains a familiarity and down-to-earth style with his works.

The music is extraordinarily unflustered and captivating from the very beginning of Appalachian Spring. Copland draws us into an arena of simplicity with the clarinet, flute, oboe and bassoon and the gentle hum of the strings. One wakes to the sunrise in the mountains of Pennsylvania at the turn of the 19th century. Then we visualize the bustle of farm life as the strings approach the music like the wake-up call from the roosters and we see the farmers sweating in their fields.

Copland wrote the original Appalachian Spring as a commission for dancer Martha Graham. It is a story in which a newlywed couple begin their life in a freshly-built Pennsylvania farmhouse at the turn of the 19th century and they express their various emotions of life, including their highs and lows, through dance. The piece was later revamped into a suite for orchestra.

Both of these major works still hum to me as I set about another busy week. But this is precisely why I pause on my wheel, long enough to absorb the music, which enables me to smile and move on again.

What is it that keeps you moving on the wheel of life?

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performance:
May 10 – 12, 2012

Beethoven’s Ninth
Beethoven: Choral Fantasy
with: Pianist Di Wu
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
with: Soprano Stacey Tappan, Mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, Tenor Stanford Olsen and Bass Matthew Curran

Upcoming Performances with Arnaldo Cohen:
May 12 – 15, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Oregon Symphony

May 18 – 20, 2012
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 25
Kansas City Symphony

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Members of Ritz Chamber Players Perform Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Style

Flair, pizzazz and sophistication are what can best describe the ultra-talented members of the Ritz Chamber Players, who were the featured performers at a recent concert of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Pianist Terrence Wilson, Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins and Cellist Tahirah Whittington performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) glorious Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C Major, op. 56.

Ritz Chamber Trio (from left): Cellist Tahirah Whittington, Pianist Terrence Wilson and Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins.

The opening movement of the concerto, “Allegro,” is jovial, light and instantly seizes your attention. Within a few measures, the cello—the prominent solo instrument—joins the orchestra. Tahirah exuded fierceness and confidence when she struck the cello’s strings. The violin follows and Kelly swept the bow in graceful motion. Finally, Terrence joined them and the piano’s notes rung out both with intensity and ease. All three are a fabulous trio of talent and were harmoniously joined to bring Beethoven to life.

The cello sets the tone for the second movement, “Largo,” a sentimental, melodious tune. The instrument aches to sing and everyone remains quiet and drawn into its melody. Tahirah was pure sweetness here, yet still determined. The piano later chimes in with its calming melody, followed by the alluring violin. Beethoven must have been a romantic, a lover of nature, a lover of tranquility, for such emotions are highlighted here.

The third movement, “Rondo alla polacca,” is when the colors really coil together, leaving trails of turquois blue (Tahirah’s gown was turquoise, while Kelly wore a white Grecian gown) and streaks of pleasantness along the way. Terrence clearly enjoyed his part—his fingers danced on the keyboard, his body moved with the beat and he easily interacted with Tahirah and Kelly. The trio’s conversation at the end was more dynamic, flavorful and rich. The piece is a challenge, but the trio performed as if there was nothing to it.

Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, op. 98 was the final piece in the concert program. Could Brahms have been thinking about Clara Schumann when he composed his final symphony? Their relationship endured until her demise and he loved her like no other woman. (He died not quite a year after her.) The graceful opening waltz in the first movement, “Allegro non troppo,” flows into a deeper, more brooding layout of music and could be Clara inspired. The woodwinds are like voices calling out from the shadows. The violins are the plaintive cries of despair.

The second movement, “Andante moderato,” is a flowing splendor of elegance. The strings’ song grabs at your heart, pulls you in, so that you want to reach out to Brahms. They provide an exquisite melody, genteel glimpses into the composer’s own heart.

Allegro giocoso” is a dance of sorts and the music is uplifting. The pace is quicker, the mood lighter, though it grows dramatic toward the end.

The strings in the final movement, “Allegro energico e passionate,” weave in and out with the brass and woodwinds, creating layer upon layer of color. The flute, again gorgeously played by Les Roettges, is the lone voice crying out in its passionate tone to be heard. Then another cry emerges from the trumpets and horns before the violins and cellos respond with a fury.

The evening was a triple treat with the Chamber Players, Beethoven and Brahms under one roof.

(For an earlier post about Terrence Wilson, click here)

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performance:
March 8 – 10, 2012

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony
Corgliano: Oboe Concerto
with
Eric Olson
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, op. 92

Upcoming Performances with Tahirah Whittington:
April 4, 2012

Spring Concert
Ritz Chamber Players
Jacksonville, Fla.

Upcoming Performances with Terrence Wilson:
May 12 & 13, 2012

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Bay Atlantic Symphony, NJ

Upcoming Performances with Kelly Hall-Tompkins:
March 10, 2012

Mozart: Sinfonia concertante, K.364, E-flat Major
Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Penn.

March 16, 2012
Mozart: Sinfonia concertante, K.364, E-flat Major
Erie Chamber Orchestra, Penn.

April 4, 2012
Spring Concert
Ritz Chamber Players
Jacksonville, Fla.

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