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February 28, 2017

Music for the Afterlife in the Han Dynasty

The Asian Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” highlights the exceptional care for all creature comforts provided to the dearly (and expensively) departed. Royalty and the upper crust had everything in the tomb they had enjoyed in life — including music and dance.

Jay Xu, director of the museum and co-curator of “Tomb Treasures,” made sure that this aspect of Han life is represented during the exhibit’s run with live shows in the North Court at noon and 2 p.m. on March 19, April 16, and May 21. The shows are free with admission to the exhibit.

The local instrument inventor group Pet the Tiger will team up with musical ensemble Gamelan Encinal, for presentations featuring three centuries of instrument building. Custom-built instruments by musician Bart Hopkin, designed with the same tuning as the Han dynasty Bianzhong bronze bells, create a contemporary “orchestra.”

Each performance features percussion and wind instruments in rearrangements of traditional gamelan melodies, the graphic score of Yantra Meditation by local composer David Samas, and new compositions for special guest artists.

In March, local instrument inventor Peter Whitehead performs melodies for voice and overtone flute. In April, Pet the Tiger and Gamelan Encinal perform new works for pipa (Chinese flute) and the Han bronze bells by Sophia Shen and Stephen Parris, with Shen as pipa soloist.

In May, the two ensembles will join the Cornelius Cardew Choir to perform composer Brenda Hutchinson’s work Last Words, an inquiry and meditation that “asks what we want to take with us to the afterlife — and what we want to leave behind.”

Guests of all ages are invited to join the orchestra by building their own instruments from everyday objects in the Education Studios: you can construct a soda straw oboe or boba straw pan pipes that can be tuned to the ancient scales of the bronze bells.


Chaliapin Favorite Don Quixote in Alameda

One of the first great performances I heard on record (it was a real record, made of vinyl) at a young age was Feodor Chaliapin, singing the final scene from Massenet’s Don Quixote (Don Quichotte in the original French). The experience stayed with me for decades. The role was a favorite of the great Russian bass, and he gave it depth, pathos, and majesty.

As with many entries on Massenet’s huge list of operas, Don Quixote is rarely performed in the U.S., so grab the opportunity when Island City Opera offers it March 1–12 in the Alameda Elk’s Lodge Ballroom. The cast features William Pickering in the title role, Buffy Baggott as Dulcinée. Igor Vieira sings Sancho Panza, and he is also stage director. Philip Kuttner is music director.

The opera was Massenet’s last, and it’s said to have autobiographical references. Musical highlights match the story’s famous turns — the windmill, the prayer, the duet with Dulcinée, the mountain scene, when Quixote and Sancho Panza are besieged by bandits, and finally, the touching death scene. The score is distinguished by both Massenet’s sweeping Romantic melodies and Spanish dance music.

As Massenet’s swan song, it was also Chaliapin’s. A recent program note from the Mariinsky Theater says:

The opera is lively and light, rich in humor and the varied natures of its characters —devoid of that sense of tragedy and doom that the public expect from a stage version of the classical Don Quixote ... it is superbly orchestrated, the simplicity of its language shaded by the refinement of the instrumentation.

Massenet’s decision to tackle the subject was to a large extent influenced by Fyodor Chaliapin, who had long held a dream of creating such an image on the operatic stage. Chaliapin sang at the opera’s premiere in Monte Carlo and in its first production in Russia at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Chaliapin’s work on the stage incarnation of Don Quixote has been ranked alongside the singer’s other crowning glories in opera — Boris Godunov and Salieri. Chaliapin’s shadow long hung over Massenet’s work — where can you find a singer who can not only sing but who can create a suitable image as well? There were no newspapers, either in France or in Russia, whose critics were not delighted with the great singer’s final role. And almost all of them agreed on one matter: “Don Quixote is not merely the bearer highly idealistic intentions. He infects others with them ... Chaliapin — Don Quixote — a symbol.


Unusual Offering — As Usual — from Festival Opera

Calling it a “pairing of sinful operas,” Festival Opera is scheduling a double bill of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci — not with the customary Cavalleria Rusticana — but with the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Seven Deadly Sins. As well known as Pagliacci is, Weill’s music is heard mostly in concert, rather than as an opera. Twenty years ago, San Francisco Symphony performed it, under MTT’s direction, and more recently Sara Jobin conducted a “fire version” of it at the Crucible in Oakland.

Originally composed as a sung ballet, The Seven Deadly Sins was the last major collaboration between Weill and Brecht. The story is about Anna, a young woman who leaves home to make her way in the world. She is portrayed by two characters — two sides of the same person: Anna I, who sings (mezzo-soprano Laura Bohn for Festival Opera), and Anna II, who dances.

Anna travels to seven cities, each representing a sin, and returns home with the knowledge that great passions can lead to great misfortune. Kirk Eichelberger and Jonathan Smucker round out the roster of singers, along with a cast of professional dancers.

Michael Morgan will conduct the Festival Opera Orchestra, with Lynne Morrow directing the Festival Opera Chorus. Director-choreographer Mark Foehringer returns to Festival Opera as stage director and choreographer. He directed and choreographed Festival Opera’s 2011 productions La Traviata and The Most Happy Fella.

Tenor Alex Boyer makes his Festival Opera debut as Canio in Pagliacci. Soprano Rebecca Garcia, who appeared as Juliette in the 2004 production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and as Micaëla in Carmen in 2007, returns to Festival Opera as Canio’s unfaithful wife, Nedda. Baritone Hadleigh Adams sings the role of Silvio; Roberto Perlas Gomez is Tonio; and Robert Norman is Beppe in Pagliacci.

Festival Opera’s free Opera in the Park summer concert takes place June 11, 2017, in Walnut Creek’s Civic Park, with performances by Alex Boyer, Rebecca Garcia, and members of the Festival Opera Chorus.


Checking Up on S.F. Symphony’s Grand Keeping Score Project

Alas, this is a case of “no news is bad news.” It’s in the answer from San Francisco Symphony publicist You You Xia — newly arrived from the Seattle Symphony — about “Keeping Score”: “We are not recording new episodes of the series at the moment, but that is not to say that we wouldn’t in the future. Meanwhile, the DVDs can be purchased from the SFS online store.”

Alas, the “moment” has lasted for an awfully long time because Keeping Score thrived mostly between 2006 and 2011 — and yet it’s fresh in the esteem of its many fans. These programs are rich, passionate, spectacular, and uniquely “educational” in the best sense of that often-abused word.

In the first three minutes of “Mahler: Origins and Legacy,” for example, the SFS plays his music, Michael Tilson Thomas tells how he first encountered Mahler at age 13 (“that edgy little melody cut through me”), and a series of brief, memorable testimonials about Mahler’s magic are delivered by Susan Graham (“Mahler takes your heart and squeezes it”), Frank Gehry (“it brings one to tears ... to joy”), Patrick Stewart (“I found a huge calm in it”), and Yo-Yo Ma (“it hit me like a bolt of lightning”). And then the program begins.

At the time when Keeping Score really flourished, MTT explained why he invested so much in it: “At this point in my life, the whole purpose of performing and musicmaking is passing things on. People were so generous to me in my youth ... cluing me into a lot of backstories and important information that made the music come alive. This is a way of doing that.”

The programs had wide distribution: They aired on KQED and were broadcast nationally, were part of the radio series, 13 Days When Music Changed Forever, and were published as DVDs. In addition to programs on Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Copland, and Stravinsky, MTT’s presentations on Ives and Shostakovich are of special interest. 


Leontyne Price: Ageless and Peerless

I was part of the audience Saturday in the Sundance Kabuki Theaters, awed and thrilled along with everybody by Leontyne Price’s on-screen appearance during an intermission of the excellent Met HD cast of Rusalka. Price is the centerpiece of the (slightly delayed) celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Met’s "new home" in the Lincoln Center, scheduled for May 7, 2017.

She starred in the hall’s gala opening on Sept. 16, 1966, with Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and now — a half a century later — she spoke of that landmark event with the immediacy of an event just around the corner. At 90, Price looks amazing and speaks with the youthful energy that has always characterized her.

The intermission presentation was excerpted from a commemorative DVD likely to be issued in time for the May gala. 

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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