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December 6, 2011

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Flicka Gala: So Much More Than Opera's First Lady

Flicka at the gala Photos by Drew Altizer“Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham are here courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera,” Marilyn Horne told a full house in Herbst Theatre Saturday. “Richard Stillwell is here courtesy of the Chicago Lyric. I am here courtesy of Sloan-Kettering and Johns Hopkins.”

Who but Horne can elicit howls of laughter with a reference to overcoming a particularly deadly kind of cancer?

Not Zheng Cao, who has battled metastasized stage-four lung cancer and two dozen brain tumors, with Flicka (Frederica von Stade) at her side. Heroic (and triumphant) as that struggle was, on this night Zheng dissolved in tears, singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” She and Flicka, Zheng said, sang that and much else “in hospital corridors and during biopsy.”

But “Celebrating Frederica von Stade” was otherwise a lively, happy evening, reflecting the personality of the celebrant. Never assuming the mien of a diva, this true star burst onto the stage hilariously with a breathless “Non so piú cosa son.” It was in the role of Cherubino that Flicka made her San Francisco debut in 1972.

And she and Horne made sure that realism, truth-telling, and humor permeated what could have turned into a formal, official occasion. “You are such a wonderful person,” Horne gushed. “I don’t think I ever knew you to have an evil thought.” With a raised eyebrow, Flicka responded: “That’s because you weren’t around during my divorce.”Marilyn Horne

At 66, Flicka is as vibrant and fabulous as ever. She sang through the 2½-hour event without a look at a score. And the voice is in good shape, somewhat diminished in power, but otherwise it’s “all Flicka.”

As Nancy Adler Montgomery, Sarah Billinghurst, Ruth Felt, David Gockley, and her fellow singers sang her praises as an artist and “the most giving person in the world,” Flicka took it all in stride, returning the event again and again from a Grand Occasion to a concert.

There are few artists in the world who are called — globally and constantly — “beloved,” the way Flicka is. But nowhere is that sentiment as sincere and intense as it is in and around San Francisco, her home, where she has not only participated in the work of many musical organizations but has launched and supported many careers, from that of Jake Heggie to thousands (yes) of children, mostly underprivileged.

At her initiative, the gala evening’s proceeds are going to two of the institutions she has long supported: UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland.

Musical highlights of the evening included Flicka’s understated performance of Mahler’s “Liebst du um Schonheit”; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music (sung in place of a scheduled duet with Thomas Allen, who couldn’t make it, and who sent a touching love letter instead, read by Gockley); an aria from L’Enfant et les sortileges; a modified and updated “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with Samuel Ramey; and Jake Heggie’s “The Years Roll By” sung alongside Kiri Te Kanawa.Cellist Emil Miland, pianist Jake Heggie, mezzos Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato

A moving “Sciogli, sciogli la lingue” duet from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with Stillwell was a high point of the evening, along with DiDonato’s “Hotel” by Poulenc. DiDonato also sang an aria from La cenerentola, the opera in which she made her local breakthrough as a Merolina in Stern Grove.

Te Kanawa looked great and her speech was sincere and convincing, but the voice is threadbare, especially in a painful rendition of “Ach, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute. However, it wasn’t her fault alone that the Rosenkavalier Trio fell flat and disjointed. Te Kanawa’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian, and Susannah Biller’s Sophie simply didn’t come together, probably due in part to lack of rehearsal.

There must have been very little preparation available for the rest of the evening (lack of time was made up for with high spirits, as shown in a hilarious video shot by Graham of DiDonato trying to sing), and yet, apart from those exceptions, it all went well, some thrillingly so.

Heggie and John Churchwell provided piano accompaniment, and S.F. Opera musicians Kay Stern, Emil Miland, and Jose Gonzalez Granero participated.

My regret: Flicka’s now-thwarted dream of departing the stage in the role of the Marschallin wasn’t even ameliorated on this night by assigning her to the Trio. It would have gone better with her, without a doubt. Chances are it bothers me more than Flicka; she looked radiant joining in the final chorus, the wistful-and-accepting “Some Other Time,” from On the Town:

Just when the fun is starting,
Comes the time for parting,
But let’s be glad for what we’ve had
And what’s to come.

Shinji (Mr. Eshima to a Few) Honored

Shinji Eshima Just when there is so much (justified) talk about Flicka, here’s news about another musician with the same kind of warm glow around him. Composer, double bass virtuoso, and music lecturer Shinji Eshima is being honored tonight with a proclamation by the City of Berkeley for his contributions to arts and culture. Previous honorees include Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Robert Haas, and Kent Nagano.

Eshima has been a member of the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet orchestras since 1980 and 1982, respectively. He has written music for a variety of venues, including theater, documentary films, chamber music, and opera.

His ballet, RAkU — choreographed by Yuri Possokhov — premiered at the S..F Ballet in February, and will return for more performances next year. A CD of the composition, which the Ballet Orchestra recorded at Skywalker Ranch, will be released next month.

A grandson of one of the first female Buddhist monks in the U.S., Eshima has composed works that often draw inspiration from or are informed by Japanese culture or history.

Damian Smith in an SF Ballet performance of <em>RAkU</em> Photo by Erik Tomasson“Even though I was born and raised in the U.S. and have visited Japan only once, my music sometimes incorporates Japanese cultural references or elements,” Eshima is quoted by Denize Springer as having said in a S.F. State News report.

RAkU began as a violin and double bass duet titled ‘August 6,’ which reflected on the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.” It features Zen monk chants, which were performed live at each of the Ballet performances by monks from the San Francisco Zen Center. Eshima is currently at work on another composition for the renowned dancer and choreographer Jacques d’Amboise.

Eshima has taught double bass at S.F. State since 1992, and hosted last summer’s international bass conference, which brought hundreds of musicians to campus. He notes that students of such instruments as the double bass must devote most of their time to music if they hope to pursue a career as a musician. “It’s a really competitive business,” he said. “For double bass there are only three or four openings each year in the whole country.” And none at the S.F. Opera and S.F. Ballet orchestras in the near future.

Grammy Nomination for Philharmonia Baroque, S.F. Conservatory Faculty

Along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, no less, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque is being nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

This second nomination for Nicholas McGegan’s band is for the Philharmonia’s own label CD of Haydn symphonies, engineered and produced by David v.R. Bowles of Swineshead Productions. The three symphonies were recorded live at First Congregational Church in Berkeley between 2007 and 2009.

Two S.F. Conservatory faculty recordings also received Grammy nominations in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category: Kingdoms of Castille, a Sono Luminus release featuring guitarist Richard Savino, guitar alum Paul Psarras, and fellow faculty harpsichordist Corey Jamason; and Sound the Bells!, American Premieres for Brass, a Harmonia Mundi recording by the Bay Brass, most of whose players are Conservatory brass faculty, as well as members of the San Francisco Symphony. Both albums were recorded at Skywalker Studios.

Another S.F. Conservatory Alum on the Rise

Tango Distinto, the debut CD by Achilles Liarmakopoulos on the Naxos label, featuring the work of Astor Piazzolla, is being released this week.

Liarmakopoulos, the newly appointed trombonist with the Canadian Brass, will appear with that ensemble for holiday performances at Yoshi’s San Francisco, Dec. 16–17. He was a student of Mark Lawrence at the Conservatory, from which he graduated in 2006.

Mermaid Antidote in Sweet Nutcracker Time

Yuan Yuan Tan is SFB's Mermaid Photo by Erik TomassonWith the myriads of sweet, charming Nutcracker performances all around, there is the antidote of John Neumeier’s self-described, “darkly emotional interpretation” of Hans Christian Andersen’s haunting tale of love and loss. Unlike sugarplums dancing in the air, this one is definitely not for the children.

San Francisco Ballet’s Little Mermaid, while not a personal favorite, is an important achievement, significant enough for Great Performances to telecast it nationally on Dec. 16 as part of the PBS Arts Fall Festival.

Locally, the telecast is scheduled on KQED-TV at 9 p.m. on Dec. 16, repeated at 3 a.m. (thank you, KQED; most children are in bed by then!) the next day, then at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 12, and at 1:30 a.m. the following day.

Lera Auerbach’s score, Yuan Yuan Tan in the title role, an all-around excellent — and large — cast, and impressive production values make it recommended viewing, at least for adults, who don’t mind a legless ballerina locked up in an isolation chamber, and such. Or, as the press release puts it:

Those expecting a simple ballet adaptation of the Disney animated film will be surprised to find a complex and intense portrayal of unrequited love and the resilience of the human spirit.
Meanwhile, it’s Nutcrackers galore, at the San Francisco Ballet and elsewhere.

'Music for a City' Event at the Main Library

The final event at the San Francisco Public Library’s S.F. Symphony Exhibit, Music for a City, Music for the World, is scheduled on Dec. 13 from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. Four SFS musicians will offer backstage stories and musical selections.

The program features pianist Robin Sutherland (38 years with SFS), piccolo player Cathy Payne (15 years), horn player Jessica Valeri (1 year), and Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert (39 years with SFS). SFS Artistic Administrator Mark Williams will moderate.

For early arrivals, beginning at 5 p.m., curator Joe Evans will lead a guided tour of the exhibition he organized. The show closes on Jan 9.

The Boston to San Francisco

Boston Symphony Managing Director Mark Volpe told Classical Voice about the orchestra’s concerts in Davies Hall tonight and tomorrow:
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is delighted to take part in the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary festivities, presenting two programs that very much reflect the singular spirit of the BSO.

The Dec. 6 program features Richard Goode, a frequent BSO collaborator, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K.503, and BSO principal flute Elizabeth Rowe reprises her American premiere performance of the Flute Concerto by Elliott Carter, a composer who figured prominently in BSO programs during James Levine’s tenure. That program opens with a BSO signature work, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, and ends with Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite, a BSO audience favorite since the 1950s. [Local note: And heard in San Francisco with great regularity, not that I am complaining.]

Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, another work closely associated with the BSO and reflecting its international reputation as one of the great interpreters of French music, is certain to be a highlight of the Dec. 7 program, which also features the Symphony No. 4 of John Harbison, a composer whose close association with the BSO is reflected in the orchestra’s current two-year survey of his complete symphonies.

After a 15-year absence, all of us at the BSO are looking forward to returning to San Francisco and performing for the wonderful audiences of Davies Hall.

Bienvenu!

Innovative Programming — in Miami

MTT conducting the New World Symphony last weekend When Michael Tilson Thomas conducted his “other orchestra” Saturday, Miami’s New World Symphony, he did not coddle the audience with standard repertory, as is the case sometimes in San Francisco.

The concert at New World Center opened with a single player, Melanie Lançon, performing Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute. Niccolo Castiglioni’s 1973 Inverno In-ver followed, described by David Fleshler in the South Florida Classical Review as “a brittle, wintry work for chamber orchestra. In a brief introduction, Michael Tilson Thomas said the work sounded as if Alban Berg had recomposed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, saying ‘This is my kind of Christmas music.’”

And then came Giancinto Scelsi’s 1968 Okanagon, performed on one of the auxiliary stages mounted off to the side above the audience. “Composed for harp, double bass and tam-tam (a pair of large gongs), the work consisted mainly of slow, dirge-like repetitions of single notes, as the three instruments explored the possibilities for variation within that pattern. Quarter tones are employed along with tapping on the bass and harp to provide variety, sounding like some sort of tribal funeral music.”

Ending the program was David Del Tredici’s 1966 Syzygy, two settings of texts by James Joyce, for soprano, horn, and small orchestra, “cast in an astringent, tonally ambiguous style, one not exactly brimming with hummable melodies.”

First English-Language Kleiber Biography

Carlos KleiberAfter seven years of work, drawing on their 15-year correspondence, Charles Barber has completed work on the first English-language biography of Carlos Kleiber. It is being published this week.

“It is the voice of Carlos himself, in letters and faxes and postcards and cartoons. It is also personal, and claims no exacting academic objectivity,” Barber says. “I knew him, and liked him very much, and admired him tremendously.”

Barber is artistic director of City Opera Vancouver, with a longstanding, busy career in California music life, including contributions to Classical Voice. Corresponding With Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber offers unique insights into how Kleiber worked.

This biography considers his singular aesthetic, his playful and often erudite sense of humor, his reputation for perfectionism, his much-studied baton technique, and the famous concert and opera performances he conducted. It explores the great conductor’s musical lineage and the contemporary contexts in which he worked.

It also seeks to repudiate what Barber terms “myths that inevitably crop up around genius,” and reflects on Kleiber’s contribution to modern musical performance:

Common gossip has it that Carlos was the Howard Hughes of the music world, missing only the long hair, Mormons, and fingernails. This view is rubbish. He was intensely private, to be sure. He chose not to invest time in the serpentry of the business. He took pleasure in learning.

He spent much of his career avoiding the egomania of celebrity. He served as music director of no opera house, nor of any symphony orchestra. When such offers came in, he declined or ignored them.

Beyond every other dimension of his talent, Carlos Kleiber was an Ecstatic. There is within traditions of faith and literature such a personality. An Ecstatic experiences the world distinctly. Qualities of prophetic vision abound.

In ecstasy lies a unique capacity to see one’s own name from a distance, and to read it aloud with tremendous cold objectivity, with brutal self-doubt. For the Greeks, ekstasis meant to stand outside oneself, in trance.

Barber describes his first encounter with Kleiber:
It all began in 1987. I was entering my third year in graduate school at Stanford University, there to study conducting with Andor Toth and to make a career in that absurdly difficult field. Prof. Toth was a generous and deeply musical mentor, one of the most graceful and elegant phrase-makers I had ever encountered.

In May of that year my friend Mark, a vocalist and physics major, came to the office and asked if I was interested in going on a bicycle trip. Sure, I said, thinking he meant pedaling four miles west to Woodside or thereabouts. “Let’s go to Los Angeles,” Mark said, and spread out a map.

One night we camped out in a motel instead of the usual parks and ditches. I sat on a bed, channel-surfing, landed on the local public television station, and heard Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. And then I saw the conductor.

Flashing energy and discipline, humor and release, this man was at the same moment doing everything and nothing. It was the most startling display of musical fireworks and singing eloquence I had ever seen on any podium. No other conductor worked like this.

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