July 17, 2012
- Less Is More: Glorious Music Without the Electronic Din
- A Quiet Gem of a Sweeney Todd
- Choose Your Fair Lady in the Smallest or Biggest Venue
- Pocket Opera's Big Bargain
- Salkind to Head New Century Chamber Orchestra Board
For an incredible half-century now, Broadway and touring musicals have routinely blasted audiences with gross overamplification. I still remember protesting way back when the practice started spreading, but the trend was so swift and decisive, there was no point crying (without amplification) in the electronic wilderness.
Against that background, I was surprised and delighted by two miniature productions of big musicals opening last weekend: Ray of Light Theatre's Sweeney Todd on Friday, San Francisco Playhouse's My Fair Lady on Saturday. By necessity, both were on small scale; by dedication and talent, both succeeded — by wise decision, both were minimally, almost imperceptibly amplified. See individual reviews below, but first let me gush a bit about the music of this Todd.
After what seems to be a lifetime of revering Sondheim, I heard Todd for the first time in the Eureka Theatre, and let me tell you: It's a miracle of contemporary music.
When I say first time, I discount two dozen instances of seeing or hearing Todd, from Broadway to Honolulu, all conspiring to destroy ear drums.
Ray of Light is doing something shockingly different. Gone are the shrill factory whistle, the amplified orchestra, overamplified singers. Instead, five musicians seated on the stage reveal a complex, ravishing score, which is transparent, clear, utterly contemporary, and in the class of the best of Ligeti, Pärt, and Adams.
To make the transformation even more significant, consider that this is the same Ray of Light which sound-blasted the audience with otherwise fine productions of Jerry Springer the Opera, and Sondheim's Assassins.
It is only now, looking up the Assassins review that I remembered the plea closing it:
Möschler conducts a band of seven from the piano; they and all the singers are amplified in the tiny theater, not in excess, but still occasionally interfering with diction, which is so important in a Sondheim musical. Wouldn't it be a pioneering adventure, worthy of Ray of Light, to get away from the half-century-long bane of amplification in venues that don't need it?
Add it to the list of Answered Prayers.
Sweeney Todd is one of Stephen Sondheim's biggest, most operatic Broadway musicals. In the current Ray of Light Theatre production, it's revealed in a new light, sounding almost like chamber music.
With Ben Randle staging and Robbie Cowan's music direction, it is a musical-theatrical treat. Cowan, an S.F. Conservatory of Music alumnus, is responsible for this luminous reduction of Jonathan Tunick's re-orchestration of the original 1979 Broadway production (with 26 musicians) for the 1993 London presentation (nine musicians).
Splitting up the five to stage right and left is an interesting decision, fraught with danger, but it works. Balances are mostly good, the instruments only occasionally overwhelming voices. It's an unusual, fascinating and rewarding musical performance, bolstered by Maya Linke's ambitious stage design and Miriam Lewis' costumes.
Musicians, usually relegated to the end of reviews (if that), are the headliners here: Sean Forte (conductor/piano), Robert Moreno (keys/percussion), Lucas Gayda (violin, with some spectacular solo passages), Bill Aron (reeds), and Zach Taylor (bass).
Adam Scott Campbell is the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose obsession with revenge for the terrible wrongs he had suffered is the singleminded focus of the piece. It's a difficult role, portraying a madman, both a victim and a criminal, but Campbell succeeds, creating sympathy and horror. His singing has range and, in the quiet passages, affecting beauty.
Mrs. Lovett, the irrepressible maker of "the worst pies in London," is sung by Shelley Crowley, now using the stagename of Ms. Sheldra. She shone in "By the Sea" and the show's comic highlight, "A Little Priest" (enumerating the varieties of cannibalistic pies). In the beautiful duet, "Not While I'm Around," Kevin Singer, in the role of Tobias, took the lead.
Johanna, Todd's abducted daughter, is the musical's most operatic role; Jessica Smith's voice comes close to meeting the challenge. Matt Provencal, as Anthony, enamored of Johanna, combines good looks, straight-arrow acting, and appealing singing.
Michelle Jasso succeeds spectacularly as the mysterious Beggar Woman, whose identity is revealed, shockingly, only at the end of the show. Ken Brill is Judge Turpin, responsible for the dark deeds launching the plot; J. Conrad Frank is The Beadle, the judge's servant and partner in crime. Terrence McLaughlin has a showstopping turn as Pirelli, the Irishman pretending to be an Italian barber, challenging Todd, and selling a smelly Miracle Elixir.
A big musical in miniature, up close and personal. San Francisco Playhouse's My Fair Lady is a win-win proposition: For the few who have never experienced how Eliza Doolittle "Could have danced all night," it's an excellent introduction; for the zillion veterans of stage presentations and of the classic film, Bill English's production is a new experience.
This is the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical, not — as one would expect from a theater company — the G.B. Shaw play Pygmalion. Closing San Francisco Playhouse's ninth season, the small cast on a tiny stage performs wonders. (The company will open its 10th season in the fall in a new, bigger home, the Post Street Theater.)
The show is scaled down in every way — to two pianos and a cast of 11, playing a multitude of roles. Nina Ball's minimalist sets invoke Covent Garden with a few columns or the Ascot Racecourse with a portable picket fence. It's all simple, small, intimate — and it works.
But, just for a moment, let's leave the miniature Sutter Street venue, and go to the real London, and the BBC Proms now unfolding in 6,000-capacity Royal Albert Hall. There too is My Fair Lady, coming up on Saturday, with Annalene Beechey as Eliza and Anthony Andrews as Higgins. In case beastly weather and horrible traffic keep you away from London, you can listen to the performance right here on BBC-3, beginning at 11 a.m.
Returning to S.F. Playhouse, half the age of Rex Harrison when he became Henry Higgins in perpetuity, and at least twice as good-looking, Johnny Moreno's dictatorial professor meets his match in the street-tough Eliza of Monique Hafen, a young, daring actress, who is definitely loverly — once the Cockney grime is washed off.
A veteran favorite on stages around the Bay, Charles Dean is Eliza's errant, noisome father, who manages to rally cast and audience to his side so that he may "Get to the church on time."
Richard Frederick is Colonel Pickering, a staunch supporter of poor Eliza. In one of English's imaginative embellishments of the story, Frederick plays the king in Eliza's fantasy about offing the professor as she sings "Just you wait Henry Higgins."
The other actors are in the all-purpose ensemble, working together as a crowd and in a variety of smaller roles. A musical standout is Justin Gillman who, as the lovestruck Freddy, hits "On the street where you live" out of the park.
If you remember Harrison's Higgins, you know that reciting instead of singing Loewe's wonderful music can work, and so it is in this production. It's a cast of actors, not singers, but they do well. The biggest musical challenge is for Hafen, and her musical Eliza is better than Audrey Hepburn herself: all her singing in the film was dubbed by Marni Nixon.
Pianists Greg Mason and David Dobrusky, seated across from each other behind the audience, provide a true stereophonic accompaniment.
With proper English diction at the heart of the story, language is always a problem for an American cast. The director has his actors approximate in key scenes the accents called for ("Why can't the English ..."), but lets them lapse into an American cadence otherwise; considering all the acting and singing challenge of the piece, it's a wise decision.
Tickets are $19 at the Google website, but the deal is available only through mid-day Wednesday. Both performances are Sunday 2 p.m. matinees.
The Salkind in the news is their son, Mark, named today to be board president of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, succeeding founding president Paula Gambs, stepping down after 20 years of leadership.
The incoming present has served on the NCCO board since 2007. Mark Salkind is currently in his 26th year as Head of The Urban School of San Francisco. He first studied piano with his parents beginning at age six and then transitioned to oboe in the sixth grade. As a young performer, he appeared with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in a nationally televised Young People’s Concert in 1966.
In 1967, he appeared as soloist with Seiji Ozawa and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and in the summer of the same year, he soloed with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Symphony in a summer Pops Concert. While he was in college, he began teaching music to junior high and high school students in a summer program in the San Francisco public schools. Salkind said:
Although I no longer perform, music has always been central to me and I believe deeply in its ability to transform all of us — young and old — and make society richer and more fulfilling. I look forward to working with Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the members of the orchestra as we continue to make the New Century Chamber Orchestra a vital, exciting presence on the musical scene, both here in the Bay Area and around the country.”
"This award recognizes those Merola alumni that have gone on to forge truly remarkable careers — careers that change the face of opera. As one of the world’s foremost stars of opera and recital, the compelling and versatile Susan Graham is most deserving of this honor," said Merola Board President Donna Blacker.
Graham, who came to San Francisco for the 1987 program said, "The phone call accepting me into Merola changed my life. Merola changes the lives of young singers, making possible what, 25 years ago, I would never have dreamed would happen to me. It provides a springboard and exposure to the opera world. I cherish this award and Merola will be in my heart forever."
Celebrated as an expert in French music, Graham was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government. Recently, she sang Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and recorded the song cycle for the Symphony's own record label.
Other recent performances include: Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier with the Metropolitan Opera; Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Nicholas McGegan; Berlioz' Damnation of Faust with Lyric Opera of Chicago, which she also performed during the 2008-09 season at the Met and on the HD transmission; the title role in Handel's Xerxes with San Francisco Opera; and Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer, with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis.
Born in New Mexico and raised in Texas, Graham studied at Texas Tech University and the Manhattan School of Music, which awarded her an honorary Doctor of Music in 2008. She won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the Schwabacher Award from San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program, as well as a Career Grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. She was Musical America's 2004 Vocalist of the Year.
The Encounter will begin with a discussion of music and film, followed by a screening of the films accompanied by live music performed by Prutsman, the Escher String Quartet, and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester. Prutsman said of the event:
Bay Chamber Concerts of Maine had asked me for ideas for new music projects involving me as a composer. I suggested silent films, which led to Buster Keaton. Sherlock Jr. was then presented to me as a possibility by a film curator. The performance of Sherlock Jr. with the St. Lawrence String Quartet was successful, and this led to several other silent film commissions, including two with Chaplin.
I think anyone familiar with silent film will be familiar with Chaplin and Keaton. Chaplin actually scored some of his own later works so I opted for two earlier shorts, one of which, One A.M., worked quite well, I thought, with simply clarinet and piano. I loved Chaplin’s portrayal of a drunk trying to get himself into his home and into bed. Sherlock Jr. is a masterpiece — anyone in their right mind would jump at a chance to score that one!
The Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute (BASOTI), a San Francisco opera training institute, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer with productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's Il Trittico in the S.F. Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, and three weekends of scene programs and aria evenings. The Institute is also holding its first vocal competition.
* Il Trittico — 6:30 p.m. July 20 and 21
* Don Giovanni — 8 p.m. July 27, 28, and 31
* BASOTI Vocal Competition — 3 p.m. July 22
Tickets are $18 for seniors and students, $25 general admission.
In preparation for the opening of the new concert hall at the Green Music Center, SRS sustained a high level of artistic and educational excellence while maintaining fiscal strength during turbulent economic times. We should all take pride in these accomplishments, particularly when so many other orchestras continue to struggle with major deficits, cutbacks, and even bankruptcies.
Given recent trends in declining ticket sales and support, lingering effects of the recession, and the need to bolster staffing prior to entering the new hall, we expected a FY 12 deficit in operations while maintaining the same level of service to the community. However, we are proud to say that we will again end this fiscal year in the black! Expenses will come in under budget for the ninth consecutive year in a row with revenues projected at $2,900,000.
This was a memorable year for our endowment fund, though more so due to the success of bequests and donations via our transformation campaign than from earnings from stock market investments. As of May 31, 2012, with these bequests, our endowment fund continued to grow reaching $4,513,799 as of May 31, 2012. Overall, our balance sheet (unaudited) assets have grown to $10,828,258.
Woody Allen's love for opera is getting big play in his latest film, To Rome With Love. He plays a retired music executive and former opera director who travels to Italy to meet his daughter's fiancé. He finds that his future son-in-law's father, an undertaker, has a great operatic tenor ... but only when singing in the shower.
No credit is given to the Flinstones episode in which Barney is the shower-based singer, who ultimately ends up filming a soap commercial. Allen's solution to the problem is less realistic — but very entertaining — as he stages opera around the undertaker in a mobile shower. Think of it as super-clean Eurotrash.
The undertaker is played by tenor Fabio Armiliato, who in the movie's climax is featured in a performance of Pagliacci, staged in the Teatro Argentina, an 18th century theater in Rome. The conductor is Carmine Pinto.
A genuinely funny scene in the film is Allen's recollection of his failed career because, he says, he was "ahead of his time" with an all-mice Rigoletto. Lacking Italian expertise, he is very proud of the review calling him "Imbecille."
As to the film itself, it's pleasant fluff, enjoyable. I just wish they'd actually show that mousy Rigoletto production, instead of Pagliacci, in which Nedda and Silvio must approach the shower to be stabbed. OK, that's pretty good too. Bravo, Imbecille!
- Wed June 5, 2013 (All day)
Recent CD Reviews
Gardiner: Bach Cantatas
John Wilson Orchestra: Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces
Emanuel Ax: Variations