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IN Music News
Nov. 28, 2006

The City's New Major Concert Hall

Grand Names on the Symphonic Marquee

Big Names in a Small Mansion

"Opera on
the Brain"

John Veale In Memoriam

Robert McFerrin Sr. In Memoriam

Hands at
the Opera House

Blue Jay's Symphony No. 5

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Merola Gold

By Janos Gereben

The San Francisco Opera Center announced yesterday that the 1957 creation of the Merola Opera Program (by Kurt Herbert Adler and James Schwabacher) will be marked next year by the premiere of a commissioned work from Thomas Pasatieri, part of a celebration called "Voices Heard 'Round the World."

Now 50 years old, Merola (named after Gaetano Merola, 1881-1953, S.F. Opera's founder and first general director) is believed to be the oldest existing opera-training program in the world. There are now more than 1,000 former participants, including some of the biggest names in opera. For all the alumni, see a complete list of the "Merolini." Merola Board President David Hugle, Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald, and San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley spoke at the anniversary season announcement.

The commissioned opera, Hotel Casablanca, to be performed on Aug. 3 and 5, is based on Georges Feydeau's 1907 Une puce à l'oreille (A flea in her ear), but set in 1940s Texas. (A Texan, S.F. Opera boss David Gockley commissioned what was to become Pasatieri's best-known work, The Seagull, in 1972, at the beginning of Gockley's 33-year-long run as general director of the Houston Grand Opera.)

Other anniversary year Merola events include a gala concert on May 19 with Rossini's Cenerentola (Martin Katz, conductor; Jose Maria Condemi, director; Erik Flatmo, designer). On July 13 and 15 there will be free performances in Yerba Buena Gardens (coaches to include Frederica von Stade and Thomas Allen). The last performance is on July 29, before the Merola Grand Finale on Aug. 18, conducted by Patrick Summers.

Although a July 1, 1957, performance in Stern Grove is the official beginning of Merola, there were training programs here even before then, but not in the current format and organization. In 1954, the antecedent of today's program was called the Merola Fund, established to help with auditions for comprimario roles at the Opera.

David Hugle, Sheri Greenawald, and David Gockley
at the Monday announcement

& & &

The City's New Major Concert Hall

In the ongoing unveiling of facilities within the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's new building on Oak Street, the jewel in the crown is about to make its debut. The 450-seat Concert Hall — architecture by San Francisco's own SMWM (née Simon, Martin-Vegue, Winkelstein, and Moris) and acoustics by Kirkegaard & Associates — will have its first concert on Dec. 9. Marin Symphony Music Director Alasdair Neale will conduct the Conservatory Orchestra. On the program: John C. Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major (with Keisuke Nakagoshi), and Holst's The Planets (an appropriate test of acoustics).

Following that, on Dec. 11 violist Kim Kashkashian will hold a chamber music master class. The event, which begins at 7:30 p.m., is free, as are Dec. 16 performances (at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.) of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel by the Conservatory Opera Theater. Richard Harrell and Kathy Cathcart are the stage and music directors, respectively. And then, there will be hundreds and hundreds of music events in the Conservatory's new facilities, which add significantly to the Civic Center's cultural conglomerate of symphony, opera, theater, chamber music, and museums.

A preopening photo
of the Conservatory's Concert Hall

& & &

Grand Names on the Symphonic Marquee

Back in 1986, there was an orchestra in Moraga called the New Contra Costa Symphony (previously Symphony of the Mountains). But when Barry Jekowsky became music director, he went for a bigger name — California Symphony. That bold name upgrade has now been trumped out in Sonoma: The Cotati Philharmonic has become not the state's orchestra, but the country's — the American Philharmonic, led by Gabriel Sakakeeny. As before, the orchestra's concerts are all free, for the upcoming season, as well. On tap Feb. 16-18 in Rohnert Park's Spreckels Performing Arts Center: Mahler's Symphony No. 5 and Mendelssohn's Capriccio Brilliant, with Lauren Xie, winner of the Evert Person Memorial Etude Club Music Scholarship.

& & &

Big Names in a Small Mansion

Some of the San Francisco Symphony's top musicians will play, not for their supper, but rather for the benefit of the quaint and unique music program at Kohl Mansion. Violist Geraldine Walther (in Berkeley for a concert with the Takács Quartet) joins her former Symphony colleagues to play at the benefit event. Her company includes pianist Robin Sutherland, violinist Amy Hiraga, cellist Peter Wyrick, bassist Scott Pingel, and clarinetist Luis Baez.

The Dec. 17 program: Beethoven's String Trio in C Minor, Op. 9, No. 3; Schumann's Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales), Op. 132, for viola, clarinet, piano; and Schubert's Piano Quintet in A Major, "Trout." Besides the concert, there will be a reception to meet the artists, and yet another opportunity to participate in the school's Adopt-an-Instrument program. Kohl Mansion is partnering with Music in Schools Today (MuST) to place donated instruments in the hands of public school children. Members of the audience are invited to donate or pledge musical instruments they no longer use.

Robin Sutherland, due in Kohl Mansion

& & &

"Opera on the Brain"

Those perplexed by some bizarre happenings in the San Francisco Opera's current production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut should consider revisiting the opera on Dec. 10. The matinee performance on that day will be followed by "Opera on the Brain," an analysis of Manon Lescaut from a psychological perspective, offered in conjunction with the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. The event is held at the Café Grillades (501 Hayes Street). Why analyze Manon, rather than Salome or any of the characters from The Rake's Progress? Read on.

Although I have spent many a misguided year thinking that Puccini's work is a romantic melodrama, rather than a matter of Freud vs. Jung, after seeing the show, the advantage of engaging psychologists in the discussion seems obvious. The question before the house is not why Donald Runnicles channels Beethoven, Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky in leading the orchestra (which played its collective okole off, magnificently, symphonically, and roof-shakingly). The question is what's up with Karita Mattila's retarded-drugged-insane stage persona?

Not that it matters all that much: Mattila's vocal performance is an overwhelming experience, even for those who were beneficiaries of her previous appearances here. More than ever, Mattila sings effortlessly, with a totally gorgeous sound that permeates the hall with power and beauty seldom experienced since Montserrat Caballe's last visit here. Mattila's "In quelle trine morbide" made you shout "Brava!" and wish to have a timeout before taking in anything else — a memorable time- and showstopper.

And yet her acting is beyond bizarre. After her glorious vocal-stage performances here as Ilia, Eva, Elsa, and Kat'a Kabanova, what happens in Manon Lescaut must be the responsibility of the director (Olivier Tambosi). In this production, at first Manon is virtually sleepwalking and then she becomes a kind of robot. That is perhaps explainable in the context of the dance lesson among leering courtiers. But it is carried through long after that scene, with grotesque gestures and grimaces. Without the benefit of the "Opera on the Brain" seminar, you are at a loss, distracted and perturbed ... even as you are grateful for the production's musical gifts.

& & &

John Veale in Memoriam

John Veale, a little-known but important composer who once lived in Berkeley and wrote an orchestral work (Panorama) about San Francisco, died last week in his native England, at 83. The message, according to musicologist John Abbott, active in both London and San Francisco, is about the "sad struggles of a largely unrecognized composer (taught by Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, and Roy Harris!), from the backwaters of British music."

Veale scored numerous films, including The Purple Plain, The Spanish Gardener, and Portrait of Alison. Among his concert works was a 1952 string quartet, premiered by the Amici String Quartet; a concert overture, Metropolis, introduced in 1955 in the Royal Festival Hall by the London Symphony and conducted by Sir Charles Groves; and the Clarinet Concerto of 1954, performed with Sidney Fell under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent.

The Oxford scholar received an American Commonwealth Fellowship, which allowed him to study in the U.S. from 1949-1951, including a stint in the Bay Area. His biography refers to "an increasing pattern of early successes, including an evocative portrait of San Francisco, the Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge, which he called Panorama, introduced by Boult and the LPO in 1951 and heard at the Proms in 1955."

& & &

Robert McFerrin Sr. in Memoriam

Robert McFerrin Sr., the first black man to sing solo at the New York Metropolitan Opera and the father of Grammy-winning conductor-vocalist Bobby McFerrin has died, he was 85. He died Friday of a heart attack at a suburban St. Louis hospital.

In 1953, McFerrin won the Metropolitan Opera national auditions. He appeared just three weeks after contralto Marian Anderson made her historic debut Jan. 7, 1955, as the first black to sing a principal role at the Met. His 1955 debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Amonasro in Aida made him the first black male member of the company. He performed in 10 operas over three seasons.

& & &

Hands at the Opera House

The most accommodating management in San Francisco Opera history might have gone too far in being helpful. Surely it's with the best of intention that ushers are now posted on the Van Ness steps of the War Memorial Building. They pass out programs, which allows extra time for their perusal, unlike the traditional "get your program when you're seated" paradigm.

But here's the catch: Chances are you're dressed for November in San Francisco, meaning more layers than usual and an umbrella or two. Add to that the possibility of holding the doggie bag from a nearby restaurant and a sundry of other items. Now you have the extra load of the program, before disposing of items at the check room, and ... can we talk here about attending a rest room? Both hands are, or should be, washed simultaneously, relegating the program and everything else to being held between the knees. My unscientific survey shows that most of the audience, especially former dancers with outturned feet, prefer to receive the written instructions on the final approach to the seat.

On the subject of hands, Chapter 2: Once upon a time, hands at the opera were used at the end of each act to applaud the artists, whether they deserved it or not. Then some years ago, something inexplicable happened. Intermission curtain calls disappeared altogether. And now, to confuse us even further, during the current Manon Lescaut performances there are curtain calls! Well-used to instant egress as the curtain comes down after each act, most of the audience is caught in a situation that requires them to walk ahead as they clap backward. (In the old days of consistent curtain calls, the routine was simpler: First applaud, then walk.)

What does the Opera administration say about this? There is no firm new policy one way or another. But apparently David Gockley is bringing back intermission curtain calls on an "as needed" basis. What would constitute such a need? Perhaps when a major character is not coming back later in the opera (the art form is rife with victims of fatal misdeeds) or just had a big aria before intermission ... the possibilities are interesting and many. Opinions on the weighty subject are welcome.

& & &

Blue Jay's Symphony No. 5

Two years ago, a 60 Minutes segment introduced Jay Greenberg, then 12 and a child-prodigy composer whose talent was considered by his teachers to be "among the likes of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Saint-SaŽns." On Sunday, 60 Minutes followed up on the career of the boy who signs his works as "Blue Jay."

Jay "Blue Jay" Greenberg
Photo by Bill Phelps

The segment took place in Britain, where José Serebrier and the London Symphony Orchestra were recording Greenberg's Symphony No. 5, composed last year. He began writing it in his history class, where he wrote a few bars of the first movement and quickly expanded it to its full length of 190 pages. One of the more bizarre items in the interview is that Greenberg doesn't edit and revise his works "because it just usually comes — it comes right the first time." His professor at Juilliard, Sam Adler, commented that not being satisfied and the desire to improve compositions "comes with maturity, and I think that's going to happen to Jay."

He is easily the youngest composer ever signed to exclusive contracts with IMG Artists and Sony Classical. His first CD from Sony will include his Symphony No. 5 and the Quintet for Strings, with the Juilliard String Quartet and cellist Darrett Adkins.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved