February 14, 2017
In the flood of major national and international news last week, it was possible to miss the sad report that tenor Nicolai Gedda and Mahler expert Henry-Louis de La Grange died. Gedda was 91 and de La Grange 92, both leading lights in their fields through decades, always respected and even beloved.
Gedda was one of the most intelligent, elegant, uncompromising artists of his generation, fluent in Swedish, Russian, German, French, and English, with impeccable diction and affecting musical phrasing.
Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda was born in Stockholm in 1925, abandoned by his parents, raised by relatives speaking Swedish and Russian, lived in Germany until Hitler came to power, and returned to Sweden. He was working as a bank teller when the legendary record producer Walter Legge (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s husband) auditioned him and wrote, as he launched Gedda on his career:
He sang the Carmen Flower Song so tenderly yet passionately that I was moved almost to tears. He delivered the difficult rising scale ending with a clear and brilliant B-flat. Almost apologetically I asked him to try to sing it as written — pianissimo, rallentando, and diminuendo. Without turning a hair he achieved the near-miracle — incredibly, beautifully, and without effort.
That was also the experience of audiences in the world’s greatest opera houses when Gedda sang. I was lucky to hear him in Rossini’s William Tell, a performance crystal clear in memory after decades. That was in Italy in the late 1970s. Gedda sang in San Francisco before then just a few times: in the title role of Fra Diavolo, 1968–69; as the Italian Singer in Der Rosenkavalier, and as des Grieux in Manon, 1971–72.
The Guardian obituary calls Gedda “one of the most versatile and cosmopolitan singers of the 50s and onwards, as much admired in concerts and recitals as in opera.” At his very debut, in Stockholm, in 1952, he sang the role of Chapelou in Adolphe Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau, conquering with ease one of the most difficult tenor arias in all of opera, with high D’s. For Gedda, the D-flat and even Arturo's impossible high F in I Puritani seemed effortless.
De La Grange, similarly to Gedda, was a multilingual luminary of the world. Born in Paris, in 1924, to a French father and American mother, he studied at the Sorbonne and Yale University, started his career as a music critic with major American and French newspapers. In the early 1950s, de La Grange became “shocked and fascinated” by the music of Gustav Mahler and subsequently dedicated his life to research and advocacy.
Besides writing the definitive multivolume study of the composer, de La Grange also founded the essential archives, Médiathèque Musicale Mahler and Bibliothèque Gustav Mahler. De La Grange told SFCV during his acclaimed visit to San Francisco to participate in Michael Tilson Thomas’ 2009 Mahler Festival:
By 1946, when I went to Yale, I had already bought half the available Mahler records and then I bought the other half in New Haven. They were heavy and bulky albums to carry around but it did not take me long to decide that Mahler was the greatest of the unknown and underrated composers ... or the most underrated of the great composers. In any case I quickly decided that Mahler needed someone to write about him and to find out the available facts.
Still today, I find Mahler’s provocations, his excesses and paradoxes, an essential part of his greatness. How could anyone go that far at that time?
Music and Dance on Screen at the Asian American Film Fest
For those who were there at the beginning, it’s hard to believe that the 35th season of what is now called CAAMFest 2017 (but stubborn traditionalists know as the S.F. Asian American Film Festival) is upon us, March 9–19. Along with the important headline events, here are some of the performing-arts films of interest:
Poi E: The Story of Our Song (March 12, 12:20 p.m., Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) — Directed by Tearepa Kahi, the film revisits the song that took New Zealand by storm, and the pride it continues to inspire more than 30 years later.
My Next Step (March 14, 6:30 p.m., Alamo) — Cheuk Cheung’s documentary about fading traditions of Chinese opera, and an intimate portrait of a last wusheng (martial hero) opera performer.
Singing in Graveyards (March 14, 8:50 p.m., Alamo) — Directed by Bradley Liew, the film deals with the out-of-touch and out-of-mind world of a musician bent on following the footsteps of his Pinoy (Filipino) rock legend idol.
Thao Nguyen documentary (March 15. 6:20 p.m., Alamo) — Todd Stan Krolczyk directed the film that follows S.F.-based indie singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen on her travels to Vietnam to reconnect with family and culture.
Bad Rap (March 16, 4 p.m., S.F. Jewish Community Center) — The documentary directed by Salima Koroma follows Asian American rappers Awkwafina, Dumbfounded, Rekstizzy and Lyricks as they break ethnic and music-industry stereotypes. The event also includes live performances.
In Search of Perfect Consonance (March 16, 7 p.m., S.F. Jewish Community Center) — Ruby Yang’s film is of a journey across Asia with young musicians, illustrating their passion and dedication.
Dancing Through Life: The Dorothy Toy Story (March 18, 3:10 p.m., New Parkway Theater) — Rick Quan directed the film about the famous tap dancer, interviewed at age 99 and highlights of her career shown.
The Tenor (March 18, 4:15 p.m., New People) — Kim Sang-Man’s feature-length documentary about tenor Bae Jae-chul’s path back to the stage after losing his voice to thyroid cancer.
Internationally acclaimed soprano Erie Mills is beginning her new job as Livermore Valley Opera’s artistic director with a production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro set in the style of 1940s Hollywood films.
The company’s two previous productions of the opera were traditional, but Mills was looking for something new:
I thought it was time for us to see it done in a different, yet meaningful way. This production will be interesting for those who know it as well as for those who have never seen the opera.
We have a fabulous cast featuring baritone Bernardo Bermudez (Count Almaviva), soprano Lacy Sauter (Countess Almaviva), soprano Christie Conover (Susanna) and baritone Efrain Solis (Figaro), and I trust Brian [Luedloff] and our Music Director Alexander Katsman to give our audiences an experience they will not forget. It has the potential to be the La La Land of opera!
The opera is staged by Brian Luedloff, who sees a parallel between the aristocracy depicted by Mozart and Hollywood film stars:
A film stage setting will allow us to reveal some of Figaro’s scenes in a traditional way with period costumes (those scenes being filmed) and in a more immediate way in the behind-the-scenes elements of the story — and all without losing a bit of the delicious humanity and humor that Mozart, [librettist] daPonte and [playwright] Beaumarchais intended!
There will be four performances in Bankhead Theater between March 11 and 19, along with an opening night gala and activities including preopera talks and a free student dress rehearsal on March 9. Audiences are encouraged to participate by coming to performances in 1940s attire.