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Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine, November 2009

…a well-crafted post-tonal work…the score’s eclecticism is often appealing, roaming freely among hymn, blues, and barbershop quartet…

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, September 2009

For those who already know Shining Brow and simply wish to learn of the quality of the recording, I can report that the orchestra and conductor acquit themselves well. Pacing is sensitive to mood and the often-challenging transitions are well handled. Playing standards are high, despite a few sections of slightly scrappy playing. …The recording balance is weighted toward the singers, but the orchestra is sufficiently present to have impact in the interludes. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, August 2009

The cast is uniformly excellent, Robert Orth convincingly egomaniacal and suitably rough in his portrayal [of Frank Lloyd Wright] while at the same time genuinely repentant (or at least emotionally affective) in the last moments. Brenda Harris is a wonderful Mamah Cheney, and the rest of the cast quite generous in their acting and vocal abilities…The Philharmonic plays the music quite adeptly, with Maestro Falletta in possession of a commanding knowledge of the score that she imparts to all forces with rigorous authority. This piece has found an audience and doesn’t need my approval or disapproval; perhaps seeing it in the theater would answer some of my lingering questions about it. For now, this recording is a milestone for a work that certainly deserves a hearing, and for which the public so far is inclined to accept.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, July 2009

Now in his late forties Daron Hagen has been eminently successful for many years in a wide variety of musical genres: orchestral, concertos, chamber music, vocal and opera. He has received commissions from leading American orchestras like the New York Phil, the Philadelphia and the National Symphony and from numerous instrumentalists. He numbers among his teachers Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Witold Lutosławski and Leonard Bernstein. With such diverse musical influences it’s no wonder that his own compositional style is eclectic, a remark that is in no way deprecating. It only denotes that he is at home in a variety of styles and is able to adjust to the requirements for each specific composition. I have listened to excerpts from a number of his compositions and the remaining impression is that here is basically a warm romantic with ability and willingness to write gorgeous melodies. Romeo and Juliet for flute, cello and orchestra is a splendid example and the second movement from his third piano trio Wayfaring Stranger (2007) is extremely beautiful. He is just as adept at writing rhythmically fresh and rather naughty music for brass—the Invention from Concerto for Brass Quintet!. He is also accomplished when writing for the human voice. I haven’t heard any of his solo songs—of which there are a lot—but his choral writing is extremely affecting. The Waking Father for six male voices is music to return to. His musical idiom is largely tonal though he employs various modern techniques for expressive reasons. Mixing styles—high and low—is one of his hallmarks and he is a splendid communicator, which his first opera Shining Brow aptly demonstrates.

It was in July 1989 that Daron Hagen was asked by the Madison Opera to write an opera about the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Together with the chosen librettist, Paul Muldoon, Hagen worked out a synopsis and set to work with the first act, which fizzed along without problems. The second act was tougher and he met Leonard Bernstein several times for guidance. Bernstein died in October 1990, before the opera was finished, and it is dedicated to his memory.

Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with a client’s wife Mamah while outlining their house. They left their respective wife and husband, went to Europe. Eventually returning to the USA, they built a house in Wisconsin, Taliesin, which is Welsh for ‘Shining Brow’. In 1914, when Wright was in Chicago, his manservant murdered seven people in the house, including Mamah and her two children and then set the house on fire. Two survivors managed to put out the fire but the house was seriously damaged. This is essentially the story of the opera. Frank Lloyd Wright lived until 1959 and probably his most famous creation is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Musically Hagen’s score is a conglomerate of the manifold styles I referred to in his other works, but wholly efficient and personal. Shining Brow is a number opera with arias, choruses, orchestral numbers and ensembles. The music is very varied to mirror the dramatic and emotional contents of the story. The chorus of draftsmen (CD 1 tr. 2) has ‘go’ and makes me think of Orff and Carmina burana. Wright’s arietta (CD 1 tr. 5) is melodious and agreeable and his wife Catherine’s aria (CD 1 tr. 6) has echoes of Broadway musical. The Sullivan Variations (CD 1 tr. 8) is hymn-like brass music and there is another chorus with plainsong character. In act II there is a barbershop quartet (CD 2 tr. 8) and the Canapé Variations (CD 2 tr. 9) is a long gossip scene at a cocktail party played against the waltz from Der Rosenkavalier. Initially there are quotations from the Presentation of the Silver Rose from the same opera. Symbolically this ‘theft’ of another composer’s music is a parallel to Wright’s ‘theft’ of another man’s wife. Sullivan’s arietta (CD 2 tr. 15) is a song that should be on many opera-lovers’ list of the most beautiful opera arias. It is followed by an a cappella chorus that nods in the direction of Bernstein’s Candide (the Westphalia chorus). The rhythmic elements are often very much in the foreground and there are no longueurs. To my mind this is a truly inspired and dramatically convincing opera and readers who prefer operas with melodies should know that there is a wealth of melodic inventiveness.

The cast is a good one and several of the members have taken part in earlier productions, including Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright and Brenda Harris as Mamah. They are both excellent and Robert Frankenberry as Wright’s one-time mentor and friend Louis Sullivan sports a fine lyric tenor. The Buffalo forces are splendid and JoAnn Falletta brings out the dark dramatic side of the work as well as the lyrical music of which there is also a lot.

The recording can’t be faulted and the few stage noises only enhance the feeling of a real occasion. While writing the final paragraphs of this review I have been listening again to large portions of the opera and can report that it grows further with renewed acquaintance. The orchestration stands out as superbly varied, brilliant and expressive and the melodic material is organically interwoven with the story. The only regrettable thing is that there is no libretto available. We get only a synopsis that gives the outline but leaves you in limbo as far as detailed understanding is concerned.

Anyway, relatively contemporary operas are rare guests in the record catalogues. Shining Brow, like Carlson’s Anna Karenina that I reviewed a short while ago, are extremely valuable additions to a repertoire that far too seldom reaches beyond Puccini. Daron Hagen has no intention to challenge Puccini; he has his own musical world that is just as valid—and it shouldn’t be less accessible to opera-lovers.

Uncle Dave Lewis, May 2009

From the recording it is easy to hear why this opera has caught on with audiences; it is suitably dramatic and moves forward with an inexorability that keeps the listener captivated. About Hagen, The New York Times commented once that he “has a gift for the big tune,” and this is true; he’s not afraid of melody and understands its value in keeping the action moving forward and focusing the ear. Hagen also has a gift for interesting orchestration that supports the story and adds color and also utilizes purely instrumental passages that are, in themselves, well done and are indivisibly linked to the story. Shining Brow is not made up of wall-to-wall singing, as so many post-modern operas are. Falletta’s command of the Buffalo Philharmonic is indispensible to the success of the recording; the orchestra never covers the singers, but comes in with authority in passages where they are the main event. There is only a summary provided with no libretto, but if you speak English, you won’t need one. The singing and diction are so clear throughout that everything is easily understood, not a common attribute with recorded operas in English. Some of Hagen’s most inspired writing attaches to those scenes where Wright is off on a tangent, expressing his bold visions about his given profession. This naturally goes toward character building and not toward developing the plot, and many composers would find such material boring and not linger on it, but not Hagen, who understands that power of the man is principal motivation for the ultimately awful things that happen to him. Shining Brow is a compelling, substantive, and strong entry into the canon of American opera, and Naxos’ recording of it speaks volumes about just how vital and fresh opera has become in the twenty first century.

David Vernier, May 2009

JoAnn Falletta keeps things moving at what seems like a reasonable pace, and her excellent orchestra delivers well-articulated, responsive, sensitive accompaniment. The sound in this live production (from November 2006) is well-recorded, with minimal stage and audience noise.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2009

Few living American composers have written more operas than Daron Hagen (six, at age 47), and among his most widely performed is the 1993 Shining Brow, about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Imagining how it would work theatrically is difficult just from hearing the recording, but the ceaselessly inventive score hooks you early on, easily embracing a wide range of predominantly tonal modes of expression, from barbershop quartet to Der Rosenkavalier quotations. The music’s theatrical timing and naturalistic sense of language—so problematic in other contemporary operas—feels effortlessly right. Dramatically speaking, the portrayal of the great architect is so unflinching that Wright (played with many layers of irony by the excellent Robert Orth) borders on being too unsympathetic to carry this sizable, two-act opera. Particularly effective is the musical creepiness that sets in as Wright’s high-ego world grows refracted from reality. In many ways, this is an artist-as-monster portrait; such things need to be said, and some unstable but text-attentive vocalism in this mostly solid recording doesn’t obscure what Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon have so deftly projected., April 2009

Shining Brow (1992) is now available on CD for the first time, and it is a considerable achievement. The title is the English translation of the Welsh Taliesin, the name of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous and ill-starred houses, and the opera is a set of scenes about Wright, two of the women in his life, and his relationship with Taliesin and with the architectural establishment. Hagen is essentially a tonal composer, but Shining Brow is also filled with polytonality (reflecting the interrelationship of principal characters) and a variety of 20th-century techniques (reflecting their emotional state)…Shining Brow is an often-effective opera that it is good to have on CD—JoAnn Falletta keeps everything moving smartly, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra handle their roles with strength and even passion. This Naxos set is a worthwhile purchase for anyone curious about one direction that American opera is now taking.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Regarded as one of the most successful American operas in the second half of the 20th century, Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, relates an episode in the life of the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It comes at a very difficult time for opera, those still working in lyric tonality often finding little to offer that is new, while hard-core modernists find themselves cut-off from opera audiences. Hagen has gone down the first path, composing a score that readily communicates, the opera built from conventional arias, choruses and orchestral interludes. The story relates the affair between Wright and Mamah, the wife of a couple whose house he has designed. They elope, but she soon realises he is wedded to his life as an innovative architect. Tragedy strikes when she and her children are hatcheted to death before the house Wright had created was set on fire with the staff burnt to death. The chef is accused of this horrific murder and is found with his throat burned drinking acid. At the close the thing seemingly uppermost in Wright’s mind is to rebuild the house. I find a score that can reach great heights, the big sweeping aria and duet that ends the first act as good as anything in modern opera. But this story needs more to set the scene, and only when we get into the opera’s ‘scherzo’, at the beginning of the second act, does it take off, and from therein grips your attention, the ending sounding to have come from Britten’s Peter Grimes. The main roles of Wright, Mamah, and her one-time husband, Edwin, are well sung by Robert Orth, Brenda Harris and Matthew Curran, and it is on this trio of characters that much of the work resides. I wish the bottom end of the cast list had been stronger, and the men of the Buffalo chorus find it hard going. Hagen certainly could not be better served than by conductor, JoAnn Falletta, and her Buffalo orchestra, the balance between singers and orchestra expertly handled. I doubt we will be engulfed with recordings of the work, so we are grateful for Naxos’s support of modern music. I just wish other labels would do the same.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group