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April 3, 2012

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Conservatory Orchestra's Joyful Mozart

Conductor Giuseppe FinziFriday was a special day for San Francisco Opera Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi. He celebrated his 37th birthday by leading the S.F. Conservatory Orchestra in an exceptional performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.

Beginning with the sparkling overture, and Sydne-Mychal Sullivan's soaring oboe solo (see next item), the student orchestra — trained under Andrew Mogrelia, who left his position last month — played with the kind of verve and passion that's not always present in opera houses.

The young musicians put their hearts into an exciting, Italianate performance. For those following the Conservatory Orchestra over the years, and lucky enough to have heard it under the direction of John Adams and Simon Rattle, no less, it wasn't a big surprise, but still a delightful re-discovery. Except for Finzi's exaggerated support for a couple of singers by slowing the tempo to a crawl, overall tempi, balance, intonation were flawless. Strings played together (Erik Malmquist is the concertmaster) and woodwinds excelled, right from the beginning.

Oboes (Sullivan and Joan Oh), clarinets (Jonathan Szin, Kevin Tang), and bassoons (Justin Takamine, Justin Cummings) led the way. The brass behaved well: horns (Michael Shuldes, Sarah Burgstahler) and trumpets (Erik Vertz, Baldvin Oddsson). Finzi provided the continuo for recitatives himself, conducting from the harpsichord.

Erik MalmquistThe production, on Peter Crompton's imaginative but not always stable sets, and with Maggie Whitaker's opulent costumes, had the benefit of Heather Mathews' dynamic and clever stage direction, which mostly stopped short of being hyper — a usual problem with Cosi. The Conservatory's opera program is under the direction of Richard Harrell.

The production was double-cast; on Friday night, the standout was Jessie Neilson's Fiordiligi. Hers is a powerful voice, excellent projection (and in one comic fainting scene, her acting was beyond hilarious), still needs work sustaining low notes. She is a soprano to watch.

Raquel Fatiuk's Dorabella and Sarah Young's Despina served the music theater aspect of the opera well; the same goes for Cole Grissom's Don Alfonso — fine, funny acting, mostly unforced. Sidney Ragland and Ryan Bradford sang Ferrando and Guglielmo. Seven young singers provided a chorus powerful beyond its numbers.

Oboist With a Name to Remember

Oboist Sydne-Mychal SullivanThe Conservatory Orchestra's principal oboist, who did such a great job in Cosi fan tutte (item above) was listed in the program as Sydne-Mychal Sullivan. Being a namefreak, I wondered about the origin of this very unusual name. More importantly, I was compelled to follow the first rule of journalism — to spell names correctly — and needed confirmation.

She (as it turned out — I wasn't even sure about the gender) replied to e-mail and explained where the name came from:

It's a name that certainly confuses a lot of people, and has always been the source of many questions. My mother likes boys' names for girls, and she really liked the unusual spelling of "Michael" which she actually got from the LA Lakers player Mychal Thompson. She grew up in Arkansas and was used to people being called by their first and middle names, so she hyphenated mine so that people would call me "Sydne-Mychal."

When I was a young child, I asked my mother why she didn't put a "y" at the end of my name, and she said it was because at the hospital you had to pay by the letter and we didn't have enough money. I believed that story for years.

The oboist with the playful mother will give her (master's) graduation recital at 8 p.m., April 29, in the Conservatory Concert Hall. She will play the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with the Conservatory Chamber Orchestra, including the remarkable string players from the Cosi performance, under the direction of SFS principal bassoonist (and Symphony Parnassus music director) Stephen Paulson. The concert also features pianist Xiyan Wang and bassoonist Kris King.

The recital is free — as are all the upcoming Conservatory graduation recitals, a great opportunity to hear introductions to star musicians of the future. Check the Conservatory calendar.

S.F. Girls Chorus Season, Interim Director Announced

With Susan McMane out as music director of SFGC, Brandon Brack stepped up from guest conductor to interim music director, and a new season was announced on Monday.

Highlights of the 2012-2013 season include the premiere of an oratorio, Holy Daughters, by Gabriela Lena Frank (named Composer-in-residence) and Pulitzer-winner Nilo Cruz, premieres of new Christmas music by Gordon Getty and young composers, and guest artists soprano Jessica Rivera, Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Soloists, members of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Marcus Shelby Trio, and Joana Carneiro. Details of plans for the season will be published next week.

Cupertino Student Wins National Music Competition

Jeremy Tai of Cupertino won top honors at the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Junior String Competition. A San Francisco Conservatory of Music prep student, Tai made his concerto debut with UC Davis Symphony Orchestra at age 13, as a result of being the grand prize winner of Mondavi Center Young Artist Competition. Other awards include first place of Music Teachers Association of California and Chinese Music Teachers Association of Northern California competitions, and second place from the Pacific Musical Society. At age 10, Tai was chosen to perform the entire Bach Cello Suite No. 3 at the Junior Bach Festival in Berkeley, California. He is taught the cello by Jonathan Koh and attends Kennedy Middle School.

The MTNA Junior Performance Competition took place on March 24, during the 2012 MTNA National Conference in New York City. As a national competition winner, Tai received $1,000, provided by the Yamaha Corp. of America, Orchestral Strings Division.

Borromeo's Youthful/Electronic Adventure

Borromeo and a young quartet joined for the Mendelssohn Octet Photo by Henry KwongPatricia Kristof Moy, busy executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion, took time out Monday, at my request, to report on Sunday's special event at the mansion. The Borromeo String Quartet joined four teenage musicians to perform the Mendelssohn Octet, all using computers to read the score:
The ensemble used rented laptops (courtesy of Music at Kohl) and foot pedals to turn pages, home-made by Borromeo's Nick Kitchen, reading from the electronic version of Mendelssohn's original score, written when Mendelssohn was 16.

The published version we know was revised when the composer was 24. The original version has brilliance that was lost when the "mature" 24-year-old Mendelssohn revised his score for publication. We got the real thing Sunday, with kids the age of Mendelssohn when he wrote it. Phenomenal.

Besides rehearsing with the Young Chamber Musicians, the quartet also performed three outreach concerts for Music at Kohl: one at the French-American International High School, and two at Aragon High School in San Mateo. They presented the "real Mendelssohn Octet" in a 90-minute narrated presentation (with the YCM Quartet) at SFSU on March 29, under the sponsorship of the SF Friends of Chamber Music, in partnership with Music at Kohl, Young Chamber Musicans, and the Alexander String Quartet.

On April 1, it was back to Kohl Mansion for a marathon double-bill, a slightly abbreviated version at 5 p.m., followed by the full concert at 7 p.m., including Bach's Fugue in C-sharp Minor, arranged for string quartet by Kitchen; Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131; and Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 ("Razumovsky"), this one with original manuscript by Beethoven projected on screen (quite amazing to look at, especially in comparison with the young Mendelssohn's beautiful, even, meticulous script.)

You can see all of Beethoven's markings, erasures, rewrites, change of mind, and the whole tortured birthing process. Awesome.

Four months of rehearsals coached by the indefatigable Susan Bates (SF Conservatory, Young Chamber Musicians) with a distinguished mentor quartet (including the SFS's Yun-Jie Liu, whose daughter Emily was the YCM violist on this project).

The Borromeo String Quartet: Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, violins; Mai Motobuchi, viola; Yeesun Kim, cello. Young Chamber Musicians Quartet: Yujin Ariza, Ethan Tsai, violins; Emily Liu, viola; Jeffrey Kwong, cello.

An Ambassador of Our Own at SFCV

Ambassador John Christopher StevensJohn "Chris" Stevens, who turns 52 this month, has been confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate as Ambassador to Libya. Any Music News relevance? Very much, as he is the son of retired Marin Symphony cellist Mary Commanday and stepson of SFCV founder Robert Commanday. Local connections go far beyond that. Writes the proud mother:

Chris graduated from Piedmont High School, U.C. Berkeley, and Hastings Law School. He served two years in the Peace Corps in Morocco between university graduation and law school. The Peace Corps sent him to Morocco because he spoke French, and he received instruction in Arabic as well.

Ironically, in Morocco, they then sent him off to the Berber country, up in the mountains, so he had to learn Berber there. When he decided, after a couple of years in international law with a private firm, to go into the State Department, they said, "Well, since you speak Arabic, we'll send you to Saudi." So he's been in Arabic-speaking countries ever since, for some 20 years now. Each of those countries speaks a different Arabic (but they have the same written Arabic), so he's had to learn a new version in each of his posts there. By now, his Arabic is very good.

So good, in fact, that Stevens was sent to Benghazi to represent the U.S. in February, 2011, shortly after the beginning of the insurrection, when Gaddafi was in charge everywhere else and the rebel territory lived a precarious and extremely dangerous existence. Stevens stayed with the insurgents, supporting their progress to Tripoli and the overthrow of the dictator.

Any music in his background? Says Bob Commanday:

He played saxophone, about at the Bill Clinton level, but marginally in public. And he performed in one or two musicals at Piedmont High School but his only legitimate musical links are to his mother and me.

'Bohemian Elegance,' Leek Soup for Brahms

Brahms' Streicher pianoSpring Liederabend, a collaboration between Lieder Alive and Salle Pianos will feature bass Kirk Eichelberger and pianist John Boyajy, playing a Bosendorfer. On the program: Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) and works by Schubert.

For the occasion beginning at 7 p.m. on April 14, the suggested dress code is "Bohemian elegance: dresses, scarfs, tuxedos, hats, colors ... but no jeans." Continuing coverage of the musically peripheral, here's what is offered at the reception: Schnapps, wine, German potato leek soup, beet salad, and French desserts.

The next Liederabend, on May 19, will feature mezzo Kindra Scharich, singing works by Schumann, Brahms, and Strauss, accompanied by Boyajy.

Maxine Bernstein's Lieder Alive has an impressive record, with events featuring Heidi Melton and John Parr, Marilyn Horne, and Thomas Hampson. In September, Håkan Hagegård will conduct a five-day Singers' Studio program, culminating in a public master class on Sept. 8.

First, a Former Vice President, Now Mice and Ferrets

It's just a heartless dummy coverHeart transplants (or, in some cases, implants) are in the news these days, so EMI Classics is jumping on the bandwagon, especially after the latest medical/musical report from Japan, which states unequivocally that "mice who underwent heart transplants survived much longer if they were exposed to Mozart or Verdi." Here's the April 1 press release, verbatim:

If there’s one thing that we here at the EMI Classics US offices have struggled with over the last year, it’s been the wrenching tragedy of having our mice die after complicated heart transplant procedures. Fortunately, all that will change with the latest release from our beloved catalog reissue series Music for Recently Operated-Upon Pets (with its best-selling flagship title Music to Soothe Your Neutered Ferret).

The stunning new 14-track compilation Music to Give Your Mouse a Heart Transplant To offers the perfect soundtrack for your rowdy rodent’s new ticker, and includes both Mozart and Verdi, which have been scientifically-proven in recent studies to dramatically improve the lifespan of newly re-organed mice.

How disappointing to find that this was a heartless joke on April 1! Evidence about the benefits of music for animals and humans (slightly misquoting Shakespeare, music "soothes the savage beast") keeps piling up, as seen in the completely humorless Medical Xpress.

'Sing for America' Launched

Rachelle Perry-WardSan Francisco Opera Chorus members Aimée Puentes, Chris Jackson, Pedro Rodelas, and Rachelle Perry-Ward will be featured as soloists when Sing for America makes its debut on April 17 in Herbst Theatre, under the direction of guest conductor Ian Robertson.

The inaugural concert includes the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus, Broadway singers Marcus Lovett and Michael Maguire. Brett Strader is artistic director of the organization whose aim is "to raise money for Bay Area arts organizations ... half of the money raised by members going directly to the organization of their choosing, the other half is distributed to arts organizations through grants."

The program features opera arias and choruses, such as the "Brindisi" from La Traviata and "Va pensiero" from Nabucco. The Boys Chorus joins in singing "American Hymn," which they sang at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Lovett and Maguire will perform selections from Man of La Mancha, Carousel, The Music Man, and Les Misérables.

Our Folks in Santa Barbara

Every week, there is news of Merolini and Adlers featured around the world, more recently in Long Beach, and various German opera houses. What's interesting about the upcoming Opera Santa Barbara production of Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice is that the entire cast and production crew hail from these parts:

San Francisco Opera's José Maria Condemi directs, West Bay Opera's José Luis Moscovich conducts, KUNST-STOFF's Yannis Adoniou is the choreographer. In the cast: Layna Chianakas (Orphée), Marnie Breckenridge (Eurydice), and Angela Cadelago (L’Amour).

Meanwhile, back here, in River City, on April 20, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov (Merola Class of 2001) will perform in the Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion, 66 Page Street. He will be accompanied by Adler Fellow Robert Mollicone, in a program of Russian, English, and French songs.

An All-Adler Love/Hate

Collaboration between San Francisco Opera Center and ODC Theater will produce the world premiere of Love/Hate, a chamber opera by composer Jack Perla and librettist Rob Bailis, April 12-15. Described as a "dark-hued comedic rhapsody on contemporary intimate partnerships of every persuasion," it aspires to channel "Canterbury Tales meets Milan Kundera, with a splash of Dr. Ruth." The story involves the meeting of two strangers who daydream during five minutes years of "what-if," involving their fears and fantasies of love.

The cast features five musicians and four singers in multiple roles. The Adler Fellows are soprano Marina Harris, mezzo Laura Krumm, baritone Ao Li, and Adler alumnus tenor Thomas Glenn.

M. Graham Smith, who recently directed the West Coast premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera for Ray of Light Theatre, will direct with musical direction from another Adler Fellow, David Hanlon.

Love/Hate promises styles "from pop and jazz to serialism and classical opera, to reflect the stream of consciousness of the characters and their own cultural references — including The Doors and The 5th Dimension."

Parnassus Scales Musical Heights

Nadine SierraCharlie Cockey found himself confronted by unexpected experiences last week in the S.F. Conservatory Concert Hall:

I love surprises, and the Symphony Parnassus concert was definitely that: a lovely surprise, a wonderful concert. Guest Conductor Dawn Harms for Stephen Paulson's band didn't make it easy for her friends in this "community orchestra," made them work hard, in fact.
Starting with Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, something so bald and musically exposed is like entering the arena to face the bull without a cape or even the ritual sword; like Mozart's slower pieces, it makes no accommodation for the tenuous, the timid, anybody less than self-secure. The piece is so contained, yet must feel as if it will at any moment burst from the seams so obviously restraining it; but it must not do so until the given moment. But start with it they did, contain it they did, and burst free with it they did. Despite a flutter or two out of the gate, this was boldly and handsomely done.

Next came the world premiere of SCATTERED by Clarice Assad, full of jazzy polyrhythms and screwball syncopations. The orchestra seemed to nail it, while the pianist-scat-singer-composer and percussionist Keita Ogawa, rode on the crest. This despite a daunting technical glitch: the mike for the scat singer wouldn't work, and the second mike didn't fit the stand, so was hand-held for her. Harms fended off this potential calamity with grand style, bon mots and hilarious patter.

Then came excerpts from Richard Strauss' Rosenkavalier, preceded by the sad announcement that Federica von Stade could not be there to perform, due to a family emergency, and here in place of humor, Harms rose to the occasion with caring grace. Given her forthrightness and explanation, not one member of the audience could begrudge the no-show, and more, were from then on wholeheartedly with her, the orchestra and the singers-minus-one.

And those two singers — oh, my, what a pair. Mezzo Melody Moore's voice has a deep well of passion, while soprano Nadine Sierra's voice is not only beautifully clear, but it's produced effortlessly. Amazing how well the Trio worked, even as a kind of ghost duet.

As for Hansen's Symphony No. 2, ("The Romantic"), the orchestra was over any hurdles and fully in sync; they just soared through this one. It's a lovely piece, with one huge problem in programming it: Its lush writing has been so often cannibalized for film scores that one's first thought is to dismiss the symphony as trite or cliche. But of course it was written in 1930 and is the source of much of this later (mostly lesser) film music that is trite and cliche. You can't fault the wellspring for the muddy water in the delta, and you can't fault Hansen for writing something so instantly accessible that it's been incessantly gleaned, borrowed and sometimes outright plagiarized. Blame the copycats. It was good to hear the real thing.

This was a community concert, which in many ways created a community of its audience.

Kristin Lee at Menlo-Atherton

Kristin LeeThe young but already acclaimed Korean violinist Kristin Lee, long associated with [email protected], is giving a recital in the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center on April 9. Unfortunately, as usual, both that site and the Sequoia District Web site are useless, the latter citing "Violin Concert PAC and PAC Cafe, 5-11:00 PM." Lee's own website places her in Columbia April 2-9, New Jersey April 13-15. All that turned out to be incorrect.

The program, I guess, consists of works by Saint Saens, Ravel, Dvorák, and Mozart. It is presented by Oikos University. Proceeds will be donated to the Korean-based nonprofit Institute of Asian Culture and Development. The accompanist is Kwan Yi.

Lee has participated in the [email protected] Winter Residency and was both a performer and faculty member at [email protected] for the past three years, and will be returning this summer.

Musical Nuptual of the (Young) Century

Sara Gartland and David Lomelí sing during their first dance at the wedding reception Photo by Peter DaSilva Two Merola/Adler veterans, Sara Gartland and David Lomelí, getting married (to each other) is news. Having the event covered by The New York Times indicates a bigger news yet. Finding out about the bride's close brush with death and nine groomsmen getting stuck in the elevator at the wedding — well, you know ...
When an opera audience eagerly watches a young tenor excel as Alfredo, the conflicted young lover in La Traviata, its joy and exuberance can radiate through the sort of applause and cheers that rang in David Lomelí’s ears when he made his San Francisco Opera debut in the role in June 2009. Yet while the bravos for Mr. Lomelí echoed through the opera house, Sara Gartland, a soprano, sat silent in the audience.

Both singers — she is from Minnesota, he from Mexico — were in fellowship programs at the opera, yet had not met. She went to Mr. Lomelí’s dressing room intending to offer congratulations. Instead, she did something more suited to a performance — she burst into tears. "I was bawling, the kind of crying reserved for superstars," said Ms. Gartland, now 33. [Lomeli is 30.]

Seizing the moment, even though he was no longer onstage, Mr. Lomelí immediately took Ms. Gartland in his arms. "A gorgeous woman was acting like I was Justin Bieber, what else could I do?" he said.
...
[Later] With thousands of miles and an ocean now separating them, they spoke on Skype for hours at a time. Ms. Gartland said her previous relationships had been with men who did not understand the demands of her professional life.

"David was different," Ms. Gartland said. "His heart is huge, and from the start he gave great thought to my career."

Mr. Lomelí’s relationship with another soprano had failed, he said, because of the demands of his schedule and the highly competitive nature of their work. But Ms. Gartland always made time for their calls. "Our connection immediately felt bigger than the space between us," he added. "Sara is a lioness. I saw her fighting to be with me and also fighting for my career."
...
In the fall of 2009, when the days they had actually spent together could be counted on one hand, they met in Ecuador for a wedding of a friend of Mr. Lomelí’s. Both remember that trip as defining. "I’d found the lady of my dreams, a princess, the right and perfect fit," Mr. Lomelí said. He added that he "wanted to scream — melodically — about being in love with the most noble, principled person I’ve ever met."
...
He continued traveling almost constantly while she completed her fellowship in San Francisco. He was in France last May when Ms. Gartland suddenly appeared on Skype, unable to speak. She was crying, slurring and motioning to him, and he recognized that she had suffered a stroke. (She had hit a key of her computer after being stricken.) Horrified, he set off a relay of emergency calls, though she was able to call 911.

She was in the hospital for four days. Though doctors discovered a heart arrhythmia, she recovered her voice and attended a rehearsal the day after she left the hospital.

Still, the cause of the stroke was, and remains, unknown, and Ms. Gartland underwent a long, and sometimes painful, series of tests. While performing Wagner she wore a concealed heart monitor, and between the premiere and the second performance of Heart of a Soldier in September 2011 she had an angiogram. The stroke brought them closer, and they decided to marry.
...
Their wedding, on March 10 at the Church in the Forest in Pebble Beach, started 90 minutes late because nine groomsmen were stuck in an elevator. Ms. Gartland, in a strapless Pronovias gown and bolero, joked with her wedding party, while her bridegroom fretted. Inside the elevator, the groomsmen found a YouTube video on fixing elevators. Firefighters, who were just outside, passed in a crowbar through a tiny space in the door.

Once the groomsmen were freed, the bride entered to a trumpet fanfare and the couple said their vows before the Rev. Dr. William B. Rolland, a Presbyterian minister, and more than 100 guests.

At the reception, Mr. Lomelí jumped onstage with members of his old band. Though they had not played together for six years, they harmonized perfectly on two of their songs.

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