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IN Music News THIS WEEK:
February 21, 2006

Small Company,
Big Effort

De Cou Steps Into Henderson's Shoes

Klezmer From
New Orleans

David Paul Babbitt in Memoriam

Mozart for Dummies

California Symphony Contract

Opera Libretti — The Price Is Right

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By Janos Gereben

Gold Mountain in Gold Country

Michael Morgan's Sacramento Philharmonic is preparing a notable 10th anniversary season that includes several commissioned new works, including one by André Previn (see below). A series of events surrounding the orchestra's "Gold Mountain" project is already in progress. The project's two parallel commissions are from Jon Jang and Gang Situ, honoring Chinese contributions to California. Situ's work is a concerto for guitar and orchestra; Jang, primarily known as a jazz composer, is writing his first symphony. The project is supported by several grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Jon Jang

Gang Situ

Michael Morgan

It was four years ago that the Philharmonic launched "California Compositions," a multiyear project that commissions new works of music to celebrate the state's greatest achievers. "Gold Mountain" is the second project in the series, its title invoking the the name early Chinese immigrants gave to California. Besides Morgan, Jang, and Situ, the project involves composer Francis Wong, guitarist Brandon Yip, visual artist Flo Oy Wong, gallery and visual arts director Kim Curry-Evans, Philharmonic executive director Jane Hill, assistant conductor Ming Luke, and others. "Gold Mountain" includes seminars, lectures, and residencies between now and performances of the new works in 2007.

The Philharmonic's next season opens on October 14, with Previn's Night Thoughts, the first "California Compositions" commission, written in honor of Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud. Postponed from last April, the composition has now been delivered, and warmly welcomed by Morgan. He has described it as "by turns contemplative and exuberant ... lyrical in some passages, rhythmic and even jazzy in others. I am impressed by the variety in it. I can't wait to hear it done by the full orchestra."

& & &

Livermore: Small Company, Big Effort

If opera is a kind of sweet sorrow, Raquel Holt is a glutton for punishment. The founder of Livermore Valley Opera is on the company's board, she is in charge of the current production of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow ... and she sings in the chorus.

That's dedication, no, passion, and that's the quality that suffuses the presentation of this funny and melodic 1905 work that straddles the worlds of opera and operetta — seen Sunday, at the second performance.

In the less-than-opulent setting of Livermore High School, a whirl of ball gowns and tuxedos propels an eagerly willing, if not always nimble, chorus line in the background of a cute-silly story about an impoverished kingdom trying to cash in on the fortune of an instant widow of means.

Up front, hard-working soloists sing Lehár's sweeping, waltzing melodies, their voices sometimes cutting through the orchestra, sometimes not. Thank goodness for the English supertitles of the English text — otherwise much would be lost. The fault for intermittent communication is not of conductor Alexander Katsman, or of the fine orchestra; there is a lack of good projection even from some singers with big voices, and muddy diction from most.

On the plus side, there is baritone Anthony A. Taylor, as Count Danilo, the male lead, with projection, diction, and stage presence. If only the rest of the cast measured up to that standard, Andrew Morgan's stage direction would have worked splendidly. Even so, there are moments in this production, such as a men's cancan number that really ... could, and did. Jimmy Kansau's Camille was excellent, especially in view of the fact that he sang both performances in the rotating casts.

Ross Halper is responsible for the translation, an interesting effort that complies well with the music, but shifts the language to contemporary American vernacular, complete with "shove it" and similar phrases. Were the rest of the production — sets and costumes — also updated 100 years and transferred from Paris to, say, Livermore, the English libretto would have been fine. As it is, against the gilded cardboard statues and trees, and turn-of-the-century gowns, the language of text-messaging sounded way out place.

Still, the gung-ho spirit of Holt and of this hard-working company shines through, with a jolly good time being had by performers and the audience. The show runs another weekend, in the English version by another Ross (Adrian, in 1907), "Hark to the music there, at the ball, will you not follow its call?"

& & &

De Cou Steps Into Henderson's Shoes

Former San Francisco Ballet conductor Emile de Cou will lead an important concert in Carnegie Hall on February 24 — the return of the New York Pops, three months after the death of the series' founder and leader, Skitch Henderson. Since its beginnings in 1983, N.Y. Pops has embraced classical, pop, Broadway, jazz, hit songs, patriotic anthems, and so on, because, as Henderson said, "There is so much wonderful popular music out there ... the Pops keeps it alive for those who remember it and introduces it to those who do not."

De Cou's program is built on "treasures of Italian opera and Respighi's splashy Fountains of Rome." Another local angle: Edwin Outwater, the resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, leads the Pops Christmas concerts in Carnegie Hall, which have been getting rave notices.

& & &

Klezmer From New Orleans

The New Orleans Klezmer Allstars will open the 21st annual Jewish Music Festival on March 4 in Oakland's First Congregational Church. The band is coming directly from the stricken city's first poststorm Mardi Gras, to open the festival that will run through March 26 in locations around the Bay Area, in a presentation of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. See www.jewishmusicfestival.org.

& & &

David Paul Babbitt in Memoriam

The music director of the San Francisco Bach Choir since 1981, David Babbitt, died unexpectedly on February 4 in his sleep, at his Oakland home. He was 58. He is survived by his wife of 34 years, Patricia Babbitt.

He was a liturgical scholar, choral director, composer, and concert and church organist. Since joining the Bach Choir as its director, Babbitt researched and prepared many practical editions of unpublished works for antiphonal choirs, drawn from such early and middle German post-Reformation composers as Schütz, Scheidt, Schein, Hassler, Hammerschmidt, Buxtehude, Tunder, and Praetorius. Through his efforts, SFBC has been able to present this rare literature and to explore the dramatic performance format of antiphonal singing.

The choir's first CD of the Christmas music of the 17th century Kapellmeister Michael Praetorius was released in 1997, and a second CD of ceremonial music was released at the end of 2002. Babbitt was also the founding director of the Bay Area Lutheran Chorale (now known as Soli Deo Gloria) and a past director of the Valley Choral Society. He was director of music and organist at Zion Lutheran Church in Piedmont at the time of his death.

A musical memorial, featuring the San Francisco Bach Choir and other musical colleagues, will be held at 5:30 p.m. on February 26 at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. SFBC's next concert Babbitt was to conduct, the organization's 70th anniversary celebration on March 11-12, will be led by assistant conductor Joseph Gregorio, with the participation of mezzo Elspeth Franks and baroque trumpet player John Thiessen. See www.sfbach.org.

& & &

Mozart for Dummies

That's the actual headline on a Herald Tribune feature about the 250-year-old birthday boy. The information is presented in the "Dummies" format. It's good reading, even for non-dummies, and it doesn't hurt (we hope) that the only available Web site for the article is the paper's Thai edition: www.manager.co.th/IHT.

& & &

California Symphony Contract

Barry Jekowsky's California Symphony and Musicians Union Local 6 have agreed on a three-year contract that runs through July 31, 2008. No details of the agreement have yet been released.

& & &

Opera Libretti — The Price Is Right

A fellow opera fan, Earl Shay, is forwarding valuable information he has gathered about online libretti and song texts, available without charge:

An excellent site of scholarly articles on the subject: www.impresario.ch. For downloadable libretti in English translation, Shay suggests a for-pay site: www.diesel-ebooks.com. And, if you end up with a German or Italian libretto and no English version online, the last resort may be Altavista's free translation service, www.babelfish.altavista.com. Beware of ludicrous literal translations among a few helpful morsels of information; on the other hand, BabelFish can be vastly entertaining with its bloopers.

A random example: from Act 2 of La bohème:

Questa è Mimì,
gaia fioraia.
Il suo venir completa
la bella compagnia,
perché son io il poeta,
essa la poesia.
Dal mio cervel sbocciano i canti,
dalle sue dita sbocciano i fior;
dall'anime esultanti
sboccia l'amor.
According to BabelFish:
This is Mimì,
gaia fioraia.
Its to come
complete the beautiful company,
because son I the poet,
it it poetry.
From mine cervel
the songs bloom,
from its fingers
bloom the fior;
from the esultanti spirits
the amor blooms.

And in real English:

This is Mimì,
my cheerful flower-maker.
By joining us for supper
she'll complement our fine party.
Because I am a poet
and she is a poem.
Poems of love songs bloom in my mind;
from her fingers flower buds
blossom forth; and our jubilant
spirits bloom with love.

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

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved