Advance Casting is Murdering Opera

Lately, more and more operagoers are gripping about how one particularly atrocious singer ruined the whole show for them. “The staging was fantastic, but that tenor was horrendous!,” audience members everywhere are saying.

This wouldn’t be surprising if it were only happening at your local community theatre. But it isn’t. It’s happening at the Met, La Scala, Chicago Lyric. Why would so many A-list houses have this same issue? Is there some commonality between these venues? Turns out there is!

You might think that major opera houses run auditions just like every other house. At the end of last season, there were auditions and all the roles for the next season are filled from that pool. Right? Wrong.

Instead of regular auditions, many opera houses contract their lead roles years in advance. (I wonder when Netrebko last auditioned for something.) Some houses cast half a decade ahead of schedule. This strategy is lucrative for the well-established, well-managed singers, but not for the others. My theory is that this concept of “advanced casting” is ruining audiences’ operatic experiences.

Now, a lot can happen in those interim years. A singer could develop nodes, they could have a baby, they could overbook themselves. . . the list goes on. A singer can overstrain themselves and show up in less than stellar form; it is increasingly hard to fire them. The contracts have become bulletproof. Even if the whole show sags because of an overbooked artist’s performance, the only way to replace them is to buy out the original contract AND pay the new singer’s fee.

In the past, even as late as the 1960’s, Rudolf Bing used to plan the next season of the Met as he was on the spring tour for the previous season, hiring the best of whomever was available at the time. Now, houses scramble to book a shrinking pool of “world class” singers three, four or five years in advance. Meanwhile, this strategy hangs the “not so world class but damned fine” out to dry. The only way to make your big debut at many of these houses is to land an understudy gig and step in at the last minute for an ailing superstar.

Oftentimes, much to the chagrin of both rising stars and the people who paid hundreds for their tickets, the house will retain the original singer regardless of their capabilities. In short the art form is suffering from an overreliance on the often outdated status of lead singers, leaving both promising singers and fans in the cold.

Now that doesn’t seem economically feasible or even smart. . . Does it? 


Reynolds: Essay


Jeremy Reynolds

I use legérès and I am not ashamed. Yes, I admit it. Instead of fighting those pesky bits of cane like clarinetists did in the olden days, I’ve sold out. I’ve compromised.

Wait a second. What exactly have I compromised?

What exactly am I loosing by using synthetic reeds? Certainly not quality of timbre or pitch. And there isn’t the same obsession with historically authentic clarinets as with other instruments because frankly the clarinet hasn’t been around that long. Using legérès doesn’t limit my capacity for musical expression. Point of fact, they don’t detract in any way from my playing. But I thought they would. And I know many clarinetists that still view legérès as second rate, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

So where does the bias come from? I can only speak to my own experience, though I wouldn’t be surprised if others’ have had similarly formative experiences. It’s important to understand where this bigotry stems from in order to overcome it.


My first experience with legérès took place in the summer of 2010 on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. If this seems like a random place to come into contact with plastic reeds, take a closer look at a map — it’s the home of the Brevard Summer Music Festival. As a rising junior in high-school I was delighted with the opportunity to attend the festival. It was a chance to travel a bit and spend the summer doing the things I truly loved with similarly minded students: playing in orchestra and chamber groups and taking lessons from a different teacher with new ideas.

Walking into my placement audition at the beginning of the program, I remember being utterly nonplussed. Where I thought I’d be playing solely for the professor of clarinet from Northwestern University, Steve Cohen, I was thrown off of my groove by the presence of another gentleman in the room.

How odd.

Now, I should mention that I had caught a summer cold earlier in the week and had taken about four times the recommended dose of cough syrup in a vain attempt to numb the pain in my throat. (Throat pain and clarinet playing don’t go well together for obvious reasons). So when I walked out of the humid summer heat into the air-conditioned goodness of the Brevard clarinet studio, my first thought was something akin to “why did Steve Cohen bring his butler with him?”

I soon found out that the second man was Eric Ginsberg (not a butler), another clarinetist and teacher at the festival. I had never heard of him before. I remember being slightly put out that three out of my six weeks at the program would be spent learning from some no-name instead of professor Cohen. I remember that indignation evaporating almost immediately after my first lesson with Ginsberg.

To briefly compare the two, where Cohen was biting or sarcastic to make a point, Ginsberg was gentle. Where the former was overbearing or settled for mediocre improvement, the latter was patient and worked with me till we’d solved an issue and I could replicate the solution on my own. In short, Cohen was a good teacher, but Ginsberg became a mentor.

And certainly my impression of the two performers’ character informed my opinion of their abilities. When I heard professor Cohen perform the Copeland Concerto for clarinet and orchestra with the faculty orchestra about halfway through the festival, I found myself looking for ways that I could justify disliking the performance. And I found one.

Steve Cohen uses legérès!

I couldn’t believe it. At the time I thought that only students used plastic reeds to avoid paying for “real” reeds or out of laziness. This was my first encounter with a professional clarinetist using a synthetic reed. I hated it. In retrospect it was probably quite a good performance, but at the time I was quite certain that I’d never heard anything less musical in all five of my years playing the clarinet. And all because I disliked his teaching style!

Having Eric Ginsberg there, the “good” cop that used traditional reeds acted as a foil and catalyst for my distrust of Steve Cohen and his plastic abominations. I wouldn’t go near the things for years after that, simply because I heard one performance by one player that I didn’t care for. My mistake.


Legérès have been around for a while — twenty-seven years in fact. Guy Legérè and Mark Kortschot, originally chemists by trade, settled upon a blended polymer with a “very fine microtexture” (http://www.legérè to simulate the low density properties of a cane reed. Effectively, they are precisely the same shape, texture and density of their natural counterparts without any of the drawbacks. Legérès do not warp or crack or require constant adjustment. They do not change shape or resistance from day to day and hour to hour based on the slightest difference in temperature, humidity or altitude. Plenty of professional clarinetists aside from professor Cohen have noticed the benefits to using synthetic reeds, my current teacher at the Oberlin Conservatory, Richard Hawkins, included.

The amazing thing is that I was so convinced that legérès sounded bad that I didn’t even notice for my first semester that my professor used them. I remember one of my fellow clarinetists turning to me at one point during the spring while Hawkins was demonstrating a beautifully lyrical passages and whispering “I can’t believe he uses plastic reeds!” I couldn’t either. Hawkins has a particularly beautiful sound, filled with color and nuance, nothing like Steve Cohen’s.

I was intrigued, but still skeptical. I started talking with him about why he had made the change. He told me that it all boiled down to one thing: consistency. To be able to pick up the clarinet on any given day and have it feel exactly like it did the day before was nothing short of a miracle. “But don’t you loose flexibility of timbre or tone?” I pressed, convinced that there had to be a catch.

Nope. No catch.

So why doesn’t everybody play on legérès? All I can figure is that its for the same reason that I was so hesitant to trust them. Too good to be true, inauthentic, etc. etc. I finally asked to try a couple after I had four reeds warp on me in the space of an hour during one particularly horrible day of practicing. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting: would I sound like Richard Hawkins? Or perhaps (shudder) Steve Cohen?

Of course not. I sounded like me. Admittedly, they took a little bit of getting used to — for the same reason they are consistent and don’t soften so quickly legérès feel a bit more resistant than your average cane reed. But I quickly discovered something that should have been obvious from the beginning: the reed does not make the clarinetist. A good musician will make beautiful melodies no matter what his equipment, just as a less inspired performer will not miraculously transform into Paganini if he suddenly acquires a Stradivarius.

I have never looked back from my foray into the uncharted territory of synthetic reeds. The benefits far outstrip any negative side effects to using them. True, I get the occasional sidelong glance from my studio-mates in rehearsal, that faint but oh-so-familiar curl of the lip that so snidely indicates the superiority of the cane reed. But I can handle that. I can even handle the not-so-passive aggressive questions by the instrument lockers about why I switched to synthetics: “Do you just not like working on cane?” “Was cane too difficult to use?”

I think there’s an element of masochism to using traditional reeds, a sense of bonding over the unimaginable pain and suffering that those inch and a half pieces of wood cause. Besides, if clarinetists didn’t have cane reeds, what would we have to complain about? How would we compete with the constant wood-measuring that takes place among all wind player of who has the biggest instrumental handicap? If this sounds ridiculous, it is.

This is where the bigotry I mentioned towards the top of the page comes in. If there is any way we can bypass physical shortcomings on our instruments to enhance our musicianship, then surely we should take them, and authenticity be damned! Perhaps Mozart would prefer a clarinetist to squeak their way through the final movement of his clarinet concerto due to a suddenly warped or chipped reed, but it seems just as likely that he wouldn’t have a problem with a stable polymer that sounded almost identical. In short, if we have the means to become better then why not take them?

I said that I have never looked back. I don’t think I ever will. Sure, using a synthetic reed isn’t as life changing as, say, air conditioning in North Carolina, but convenience without cost is not inherently evil. There is a pronounced stigma against using legérès that I hope will diminish with time. Whether it stemmed from the wrong performers using them or simple bias against unnatural reeds it is unquestionably outdated. For any who disagree, look up any of the recordings on Hawkins’s website, and argue that that isn’t one of the smoothest legatos that you’ve ever heard. I’ll be here to argue back. Here with my legérès. Unashamed.

Profile: Ed Vermue

Ed Vermue: A Curator for Texts

Jeremy Reynolds

Ed Vermue and I failed to acknowledge each other as we impatiently brushed past in the hallway before whirling in a simultaneous double-take, recognition arriving just a second too late. I had caught him mid-errand, and rather than pop back into his office (for reasons I discovered later), we settled into a pair of comfortably cushioned chairs in the hallway just outside of the Special Collections on the fourth floor of Mudd Library, the main branch of Oberlin College’s library system.

Pinned between a row of blue lockers and the wall of windows that separate the hall from the sun deck on the roof of the building, Vermue reclined against the back of his seat as he began to explain what the positions of Preservation Librarian and Special Collections Librarian entailed.

“I wear two hats,” Vermue said, crossing one leg casually over the other, a fleece pullover complimenting a pair of worn tennis shoes that had clearly seen some mileage. “There’s hardly a typical day.” As we spoke, he fiddled gently with a pair of reading glasses in his hands, squinting slightly against the glare of sun through the windows and speaking with slow, clear cadence. Almost like a lecture.

But even though his daily routine may be rather irregular, Vermue’s work, like that of any college professor, can generally be divided into two time periods: that of when academic classes are in session (the fall and spring semester along with winter term) and breaks (fall, spring and summer). During the latter intervals, the librarian works primarily with a small group of students to ensure the survival of the books in Oberlin’s circulating collection. Together, they work to repair and prevent damage to the aging books on the lower floors of the library so that future generations can continue to benefit from their knowledge.

Most of his interaction with students, however, comes through his work with the college’s Special Collections, which feature an ever developing assortment of historical artifacts relating to the evolution of printed media.

“It’s not just a rare book collection, but a special collection on any subject,” Vermue said. The fourth floor of Mudd houses everything from a sizeable number of 18th century manuscripts to anti-slavery literature to a collection of world maps that chart the development of nations to original 20th century Star Trek fan-fiction. And that barely scratches the surface. Each manuscript tells its own story, and Vermue acts as a liaison between the physical indications of each artifact and the teachers and students that peruse them.

In addition to working with the manuscripts directly, Vermue has approached the Special Collection with a more hands on attitude. In an effort to help students to understand exactly how some of the materials in the collection were made, Vermue has developed a working knowledge of the skills necessary to replicate some of the historical processes involved in print culture. He regularly runs work-shops on using the letterpress on the second floor of Mudd, and has introduced students to the intricacies of marbling paper and the techniques involved in setting type for print.

Educated in Canada, Vermue received an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. He went on to attain a Master of Arts in Religion and Culture at the same university before completing a second Masters degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario. Vermue joined Oberlin’s staff in July 2000 and continues to attend a variety of seminars and work-shops relating to different aspects of the history of the book.

When I asked where he had picked up these skills, he smiled gently and said that he traveled throughout the year to different conferences focusing on the history of the book. “I sure didn’t learn it in library school,” he said, explaining that most of his education had been focused on using the digital information systems that most libraries now employ. Now, Vermue uses that training to renegotiate the relationship between the library’s physical collection and digital text. He helps students understand how book culture developed and where its all going and that many of the most meaningful clues to the historical, economic and social context of a given text are firmly wrapped up in the physical attributes of the manuscripts in the collection.

Vermue leaned forward in his chair, setting his glasses aside as he grew more excited about explaining his work; “I don’t see my function as being a warehouse – I see Special Collections as having a laboratory purpose,” he said, his piercing blue eyes lighting up with obvious passion. Under his care, the Special Collection has increasingly spotlighted those book arts that have been forgotten from the days when everything was made by hand. This focus on the interpretation of physical artifacts makes his job more like that of a museum curator than a librarian. Vermue looks for reader marks, binding flaws, patterns of wear, or even indications of censorship to tell the history of the vast range of books under his care.

I asked if there were any particularly popular areas in the collection. There aren’t. Or rather, according to Vermue, there are but interest in the various niche’s on the fourth floor of Mudd tends to shift with the curriculum. At the moment, the medieval literature is drawing a large amount of interest, but so is the collection of ephemeral documents and artifacts from the 20th (19th?) century. “Telegrams aren’t as sexy to look at as a medieval manuscript,” he quipped, explaining that the growing interest in these more recent artifacts is linked to their casual nature (pop culture, zines, comic books, kind of exciting.). Vermue’s face brightened again as he talked about the Special Collection’s small but growing collection of artifacts of optical culture, which the college’s Art History, Cinema Studies and Comparative Literature Department have all developed a particular interest in recently.

The librarian works directly with professors to continue to build and develop the collection. Collection building occasionally involves purchasing additional manuscripts or accepting donations, but according to Vermue, the majority of his time is spent trolling through existing sections of the collection and reinterpreting their potential applications. “Collection building is a little bit of a sleight of hand,” he said before going on to explain how the same material could be relevant to a range of different courses. As interest in extra-textual objects increases, Vermue talked about perhaps acquiring a selection of quills and exploring the history of calligraphy and paleography in more depth for his next venture.

He also talked about cycling objects out of the collection. The fourth floor of Mudd offers only limited space, and as Vermue continues to study the archives he said that he regularly finds texts that don’t belong in Special Collections. When this happens, he simply relocates the material to the main floors and the object enters circulation with the rest of the library’s books. Rather than a comprehensive assortment of any particular literary epoch or genre, Vermue said that he keeps only a sample — enough to teach with — of each kind of work. After we had finished talking, I stopped by the librarian’s office to check scheduling for the rest of the week: literally every surface was covered with one sort of text or another, books and manuscripts all unapologetically clamoring for attention.

“Working with professors is a two way street as far as who approaches who,” Vermue said at one point while we were talking. A couple of days after our conversation, I watched him work with a class taught by Professor Laura Baudot that was studying 18th century British print culture. While the students may have been bleary-eyed and possibly coffee-deprived and 9:30 in the morning, Vermue moved energetically around the table in the classroom of the Special Collections department, preparing each of the original manuscripts that the students would be working with.

After Professor Baudot explained that the lab would be focused on the extra-textual aspects of the selection of texts, Vermue laid down the ground rules of working with older manuscripts. Gently but firmly he talked about the texts as if they were human beings; “don’t force them to do something that they don’t want to do,” he said. “You wouldn’t force a human leg above the head if it didn’t want to go there.” As the class progressed, Vermue surveyed the class like a hawk, a stern, almost fatherly expression on his face as he let the students handle the collection, with the occasional “be careful” directed at some of the more enthusiastic students.

After dividing into pairs, the class warily studied each of the prepared manuscripts, Vermue anxiously roaming around to answer questions and point out details more obvious to his trained eye. Here was the curator in action. Vermue (still sporting those shnazzy sneakers) provided an encyclopedic level of context on everything from the watermark on the paper to the economic status of the print shop that had produced the manuscripts. He had mentioned to me that Masters programs in the history of the book were becoming increasingly popular; I think he was happy that other institutions were developing such an interest in his field. Watching Vermue work with the texts, his style of speech became less congenial, more lecture-like; he almost seemed more professor than librarian.

Baudot chimed in from time to time to point out the relationship of the physical context to specific narrative attributes from the class, but she generally deferred to Vermue on any matters relating to para-textual elements. “You can always look this stuff up on the computer in the other room,” she said. “Or, you know, you can just ask Ed.”

Days of Past and Future: Marvel Reimagines Comic Universe

Days of Past and Future: Marvel Reimagines Comic Universe

Jeremy Reynolds

In the world of Marvel comics, nothing is sacred. Nothing is set in stone. Characters with years of backstory and an enormous fan base often find themselves getting killed off in some appropriately heroic manner, only to be resurrected somewhere down the line with only a flimsy pseudo-scientific explanation offered to justify their return to life. Of course though, this is all just a marketing strategy; sometimes characters are simply worth more dead than alive; I imagine the revenue generated from retiring crowd favorites like the Wolverine or Captain America outstrips their retail value.

But lately, the stakes have been far higher than merely life and death. Lately, writers (and producers) have been systematically reimagining and rewriting the very history of some of the Marvel Universes oldest superhero teams. How are they doing this? Through the flimsiest pseudo-science of all: time travel. The writers at Marvel have long sent heroes into the past or future to irrevocably (or not, I guess) alter the fate of mankind. Indeed, some of the franchise’s most iconic and best loved stories involve time travel, stories like Days of Future Past or Secret Wars. In the past, however, time travel was used sparingly, only as a last resort both to increase the drama of the narratives and for fear of the dreaded “butterfly effect” erasing the continuity of history as we know it in the Marvel Universe. This has not been the case recently.

First, lets look at the latest story arc of Marvel’s flagship X-Men comic, Uncanny X-men. Last Wednesday, the arc concluded when writer Brian Michael Bendis sent a mutant with the ability to manipulate time back to erase the existence of another character through ensuring that his parents never met, returning everything to the status quo of before story began. I find this problematic. For one thing, the potential consequences of altering the past at all are consistently and ominously referenced throughout Uncanny X-men, but here the fallout from even this minor change is casually swept under the rug; I would be surprised if it comes up in a later issue.

A less recent but more perplexing example is the very existence of the ongoing series, All New X-Men (2012 – present), wherein the original five X-men from 1963 travel to the present to witness what becomes of their legacy. Somehow, they are still here, despite the obvious ramifications for when they return to their own time. Sure, memories can be wiped in Marvel, but how three years of aging will be explained away is another question entirely. All New X-Men featured heavily in the X-Men’s 50th anniversary event, Battle of the Atom (2013), which featured a team of mutants from the future joining our present heroes in addition the original five to celebrate (and slightly alter) the mutant’s history. Sound ridiculous? It was.

But the X-Men are not the only ones to witness an increase in time-hopping. Marvel’s other major superhero team, the Avengers, will also feature time travelling heroes adventures this year. Writer Al Ewing is currently developing the plot of Ultron Forever, a comic event scheduled to be released in print in April. Ewing has revealed that a team of Avengers comprised of past, present and future heroes will band together to take down Ultron, a ridiculously powerful automaton bent on destroying mankind. The story will occur fifty years from now in a dystopian future and involve a diverse array of characters from a 1960’s version of the Incredible Hulk to a future-female incarnation of Thor, the god of Thunder. If this sounds like Battle of the Atom to you, then you’re in good company.

Any good Marvelite will recognize May as an important month for the Avengers franchise: Marvel’s next blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron will appear in theatres on May 4. How fortuitous! Ultron will confront the Avengers both on the silver screen and on the page at the same time, and while the stories do not nominally share any plot points, the timing is significant. For one thing, this is almost precisely one year after another Marvel film (albeit, owned by 20th Century Fox instead of Disney) released another film that joined heroes from different eras to battle a common enemy. The hugely successful Days of Future Past served both to reignite interest in the cinematic version of everybody’s favorite mutants and to merge the two different eras of the films into a (somewhat) believable timeline. As a bonus, sales of the 1981 comic event by the same name spiked dramatically. Clearly not a coincidence.

“But wait,” you might say. Its one thing to use time travel to create continuity when pesky movie directors (*cough: Bret Ratner) who don’t know anything about comic books ruin a perfectly good franchise like in X-Men the Last Stand but is it possible that Marvel would even consider rewriting comic book history to line up with the cinematic version of the heroes’ origins and lives?

Well, maybe. The tandem release of Age of Ultron and Ultron Forever may not seem directly suspicious, but everyone knows that only geeky high-school and college students read comic books under a blanket at night with a flashlight, whereas everyone watches movies. Since Disney acquired the rights to make films of all Marvel characters (excluding the X-men and Spiderman, owned by Fox and Sony, respectively) there have been eleven movies featuring Marvel characters under the Disney banner, all of which take place in the same version of reality. There is no official plan to merge the cinematic universe’s continuity with the comic book universe, but its certainly not out of the question, especially in light of Marvel’s next big project which hinges on, you guessed it, time travel.

The 2015 event Secret Wars will feature not only time traveling heroes, however, but also dimension hopping and every other imaginable sort of mayhem. Beginning in May (of course), what Tom Brevoort called “arguably the biggest Marvel comic event ever” will change the past and, by extension, the future of the Marvel universe more drastically than ever before. All of the different timelines, all of the different dimensions, all of the different characters will be swept up by the events of Secret Wars and merged into a completely new Marvel universe.

What will this universe look like? No word yet, the company is keeping quiet on the details. But again, the timing seems critical. With so many events in May, fans of the movies and comics alike must be wondering “what’s next,” or, how will the franchise reconcile the cinematic and comic book versions of their most popular heroes? Without an official word, I can only conjecture. However, the lack of any non-Disney owned characters on the promotional posters may be significant. It’s starting to seem more and more likely that Marvel is putting all of its eggs into one vast, money-making basket. After all, what better way to initiate new fans into the realm of comic books than by linking the books to the hugely successful movies? How better to bypass the complex, convoluted 75 year history of Captain America than by simply sweeping it under the rug and starting fresh?

Of course, this doesn’t completely invalidate the Avengers (or even the poor, forgotten X-Men’s) former history. And I should mention that I love the time travel narratives themselves; like with so much else in comics, if you can just ignore what doesn’t make sense the stories are all well developed and offer fascinating insights into the characters’ histories. However, this recent surge in time-jumping narratives may indicate a possible reboot, the first reboot, of the entire Marvel Universe. And while I enjoyed the cinematic Avengers, I appreciate the differences between those Avengers and the one’s that inhabit pages. The comic Avengers are not written by one voice nor acted by a single star; therein lies their greatest strength. So no matter how time travel is used to rewrite the history of these books to make way for a narrow but profitable future, I can only hope that Marvel will continue to play to its strengths and to reimagine its creations in as many ways as possible.


Imagine Dragons’ Sophomore LP Features Confusing Musical Array

Showtime should come out with some intense new TV shows solely because the American rock band Imagine Dragons’ freshly released Sophomore LP would make an appropriate soundtrack for any melodramatic drama. Aside from making for some decent background music, however, Smoke + Mirrors’ decidedly mainstream vibe fails to rekindle much of the Radioactive spark Imagine Dragons once ignited.

Smoke + Mirrors, released on February 17th, runs for 50 minutes – 10 minutes less than their 2012 debut album Night Visions which included breakout songs like “It’s Time,” “Radioactive” and “Demons.” Now, three years later it appears Imagine Dragons, which formed in 2008, is perhaps running out of inspiration. Their new track list does include some of the band’s more recent hits including I Bet My Life and Gold, which, despite popularity, sound like subpar redoes of true Imagine Dragons gold of yesteryear. It seems the band thinks adding more angst means adding strength; unfortunately this is not that case for Smoke +Mirrors, especially when this strength is only added to a portion of the album.

With a nearly identical sound to the band’s original top songs, Smoke + Mirrors is plagued with a half-hearted intensity that falls below the level of metal, yet includes too much scream-like singing and electronic elements to be considered pure rock. Repetitive lyrics riddle nearly each song and bank on the title word to create ordinary and literal meaning.

The ferocious guitar strumming and sporadic shouting in “Im So Sorry” resembles a sub-par remake of Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” while “Dream,” could pass as a OneRepublic song albeit without much of OneRepublic’s catchy instrumental dynamics and thoughtfully constructed lyrics. Later in a more mellow tune, lead singer Dan Reynolds repeatedly moans, “We all are living in a dream/But life ain’t what it seems/Oh everything’s a mess” throughout each chorus. The soft instrumentals leading into the lyrics are soothingly mellow but are ultimately dulled by repetitive vocals. Ultimately the single line reaches a breaking point where the lack of tonal variation melds into an unbearably annoying stream of noise.

The first song of the album Shots has its moments of excitability but sounds like something the band has already produced. It sounds like it could work perfectly during the end credits of the next rom-com starring Ashton Kutcher. The overall sound of the song is discombobulated: A little lit bit of run of the mill Imagine Dragons excitement, a little bit of poorly rendered choral overlapping and harmonizing, some cool electronic-sounding scales and just a generous dab of 80s falsetto. In their top song Gold, a similar effect occurs. The lyrics must repeat the word “Gold” alone at least a hundred times interspersed with an attempt at an electronic effect that resembles disrupts the flow of the song like a human hiccup. Nonetheless Reynolds sings with an electric grandeur highlighted by a strong guitar solo. These two tracks ultimately prove to be the most successful despite theatrical peaks and valleys.

One of the final tracks, however, truly breaks the album. “Hopeless Opus,” renders Smoke + Mirrors a questionable production.  The song’s beat revs up with a fairly catchy rhythm, and declines instantly once a layer of painfully out-of-tune vocals infiltrates the sound. Reynolds’ choice of words is underdeveloped to say the least. The song appears to be an attempt at referencing and more peculiar song by the indie pop band Of Montréal titled Hopeless Opus Or The Great Battle Of The Unfriendly Ridiculous. In the Imagine Dragons remake, Reynolds muddles along in a tedious lament: “Oh I’m trying not to face what’s become of me/My hopeless opus.” The sporadic interjection of the phrase “hopeless opus” throughout the chorus is unsettlingly weird and may inspire giggling.

Smoke + Mirrors is not mediocre. The enthusiastic energy with which the band crafted most of their tracks is apparent.Reynolds’ passionate singing is complimented by climactic guitar-heavy instrumentals, which makes emotionally investing in his songs easy. Nevertheless, Smoke + Mirrors is exactly what its title suggests: Their overall aesthetic is confounding. A second album should effectively develop upon a pre-existing sound and propel a musical artist further toward realizing their conceptual potential. While its original sound rings clear, Imagine Dragons’ has yet to follow a single musical trajectory. As of now, it appears their trajectory is more soundtrack than the top 10 they will likely achieve.

Reynolds – ARS Review

Jeremy Reynolds – Artist Recital Series

With a thunderous final arpeggio pianist Garrick Ohlsson leapt from the keyboard to claim his accolades before the notes had finished reverberating through the hall. The deservedly wild enthusiasm of his listeners prompted Ohlsson to give not one but three encores to complete last Tuesday night’s installment of the Artist Recital Series, which featured works for solo piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Alexander Scriabin in Finney Chapel.

Ohlsson is a native of White Plains, New York, and he remains the only American pianist to have won the prestigious International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Widely acknowledged as an expert on the Polish composer’s music, Ohlsson also regularly performs works from all periods of the Western art music canon, from Haydn and Mozart to pieces that he commissioned for himself in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The pianist began his Oberlin recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, a work from the composer’s late period that features a wealth of diverse thematic material. From powerful, virtuosic arpeggios to reverent, hushed chorales, Ohlsson carefully shaped each voice within the sonic texture to express his abundantly nuanced interpretation of the German master’s music. With so much attention to detail, however, he failed to present the work cohesively, as his focus on the independent motifs sacrificed the “bigger picture” of the piece’s emotional trajectory.

Conversely, Ohlsson’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, Der Wanderer, paid careful homage to the composition’s cyclic structure. After introducing the energetic first theme with a fiery burst of technical prowess, Ohlsson successfully endeavored to recapture that same vigor each time the opening melody recurred. Schubert based the sonata on a song of his by the same title; the constant reprisal of the opening gesture represents the wanderer’s search for the familiarity of home throughout the four movements, each of which transitions smoothly into the next. As in the Beethoven, however, Ohlsson occasionally lost sight of the overall impact of the fantasy. His constant “rubati” (variation of tempi for musical effect) sometimes impeded the seamless flow of Der Wanderer.

Post intermission, however, the artist settled into his niche and demonstrated just why his playing is spoken of so highly. Ohlsson reclaimed the stage with a enchantingly languorous performance of Scriabin’s musical daydream, Désir, before standing to personally introduce his audience to the Russian composer’s background. Often punctuating his remarks with a delightfully dry wit, Ohlsson explained in his soft voice that Scriabin’s compositional style was strongly influenced by a certain Polish pianist, and that 2015 marks the centenary of Scriabin’s death.

The pianist discussed how the first Scriabin sonata on the program (No. 10, which happens to be the composer’s last) reflects the Beethoven sonata with which Ohlsson began the concert. “Oddly enough, they both seem to be obsessed with trills…” he said. “Beethoven probably wouldn’t have liked [Scriabin’s sonata] very much. But then, great composers generally don’t like each other very much,” he added with a chuckle.

The tenth sonata comprises a single movement during which trills occur almost constantly. Here, Olssohn created a vast spectrum of emotional characters from Scriabin’s nervously agitated tremolos and triumphant, soaring melodies. The pianist delivered the sinuous scalar passages and passionate blooms of color with complete mastery of the keyboard and the music. Though he performed the rest of the program from memory, Ohlsson chose to read this sonata from a score, perhaps on account of the meticulous detail with which Scriabin annotated his music. According to the evening’s program notes by Peter Laki, “One way to approach this piece is to read Scriabin’s unusual performance instructions, given in French, which look like a running commentary on the entire work.” With directions as varied as “with profound, veiled ardor” to “radiant voluptuousness” to “trembling, winged,” Ohlsson created an entire microcosm of sentiment through the tenth sonata — this work was the unequivocal highlight of the evening.

The remainder of the program consisted of three shorter works followed by the fifth sonata. Ohlsson delivered each of miniatures with his customarily polished energy before diving into the final sonata with an sharp BANG! As he had throughout the evening, Ohlsson differentiated between contrasting motifs with clear expression, alternating between the rhythmic fury of the opening gesture and the gentle impressionism of the second theme with confident ease. More than once his body language shifted suddenly from purposefully virtuosic as he swept up and down the range of the keyboard to quietly introverted — he barely seemed to breathe as he painstakingly voiced each chord and motif.

As Ohlsson revved up his dynamic energy for the close of the piece, his gestures became increasingly flamboyant until he abruptly jumped from the piano bench, grinning mischievously, just before the music sounded as though might resolve. He went on to surprise his enraptured audience with three of Scriabin’s short etudes before exiting the stage to still thunderous applause, marking perhaps the most successful concert in the Artist Recital Series this season. Bang on a Can All-Stars will deliver the next ARS concert on February 28th, though they may find Mr. Ohlsson’s program a tough act to follow.