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Music News

July 28, 2009

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

The Devil in Walnut Creek

Festival Opera's production of Gounod's Faust, opening Aug. 8, features a cast near and dear to Bay Area fans.

Kirk Eichelberger, whose entire (still-young) career has been chronicled in these pages enthusiastically — from San José to Fremont to Walnut Creek — will sing Méphistophélès, a role he clearly relishes: "I gallivant around the stage ruining people’s lives, then turn to the audience and laugh about it!"

Michael Morgan conducts the opera, with former Merolinis Brian Thorsett in the title role, Kristin Clayton as Marguerite, and Eugene Brancoveanu as Valentin. Patrice Houston sings Marthe, Erin Neff is Siébel, and Zachary Gordin appears as Wagner.

Thorsett, who previously turned down invitations to sing Faust, spent a month preparing in Paris after accepting the Festival Opera assignment. This work included brushing up on his French and analyzing the original play for a deeper understanding of the opera’s overall architecture. "I love the way Gounod crafted dramatic, character-filled music — while at the same time, writing beautiful convincing melodies." One of the biggest challenges in portraying the corruptible Faust, he says, is the first scene featuring the character’s physical and vocal transformation "from an older disenchanted man to a robust young lover."

For Kristin Clayton, the first opportunity to perform the role in its entirety — after years of singing it in selected scenes and ensembles — is "very special" because she finds it "suited specifically" to her voice. "I love singing in French, and adore the beautiful, romantic melodies throughout the opera."

Performances of Faust are scheduled on Aug, 8, 11, and 16, at Hofmann Theatre, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek. Tickets are also available online.

Merce Cunningham

The death of choreographer Merce Cunningham Sunday night at age 90 was reported in The New York Times as the loss of one among "a handful of 20th-century figures to make dance a major art and a major form of theater":

Cunningham ranks with Isadora Duncan, Serge Diaghilev, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine in making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography, posing a series of "But" and "What if?" questions over a career of nearly seven decades.

He went on doing so almost to the last. Until 1989, when he reached the age of 70, he appeared in every single performance given by his company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company; in 1999, at 80, though frail and holding onto a barre, he danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater. And in 2009, even after observing his 90th birthday with the world premiere of the 90-minute "Nearly Ninety," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music he went on choreographing for his dancers, telling people as they went to say farewell to him that he was still creating dances in his head.

South Pacific Tour to the Golden Gate

The acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific will play at the Golden Gate Theater, Sept. 18 through Oct. 25, on the first stop of a national tour.

The cast is led by Rod Gilfry (Emile de Becque) and Carmen Cusack (Nellie Forbush). Gilfry has sung in the San Francisco Opera's Faust, A Streetcar Named Desire, Doktor Faust, and other productions between 1995 and 2006.

Also in the cast: Anderson Davis (Lt. Cable), Matthew Saldivar (Luther Billis), Keala Settle (Bloody Mary), Gerry Becker (Capt. Brackett), Peter Rini (Cmdr. Harbison), Sumie Maeda (Liat), Rusty Ross (Professor), and original 2008 Broadway cast member Genson Blimline (Stewpot).

This production won seven awards at the 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival and Best Director for Bartlett Sher, a Bay Area native.


Cleveland Piano Competition Web Cast

Solo rounds of the Cleveland International Piano Competition can be heard and seen live via a worldwide Web cast, daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. PDT, today through Aug. 5. The event and its program transmission are similar to the recently concluded Van Cliburn Contest. The first two rounds include solo performances by all 34 contestants, and the semifinal rounds feature solo performances by eight candidates.

Fritz: Friend or Foe?

When a little-known century-old Italian opera comes to town, responses will vary. Except for a few picks here and there, I thoroughly enjoyed the Merola Program production of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz (reviewed in SFCV by Georgia Rowe), but found a polarized postperformance response Friday evening at the Cowell Theater, mostly favorable. That was to my relief because my slumming in the ludicrously sentimental music was a happy occasion.

If Andrew Lloyd Webber had been born a century earlier, and had lots more talent and originality, he might have written Fritz. In the event, the composer was Pietro Mascagni, a man distinct from ALW not only by living in a different era, but also by the fact that he never imitated or copied Puccini. If you want to get an idea of the music, in the best possible light, check out this sample.

Still, here comes the not-so-loyal opposition: A friend, whose identity need not be revealed, was very much in the con group:

We sat at the back where the back wall helped the beyond-loud orchestra eliminate the singing, so I got tired of straining my ears. Also, I felt that everybody was very nervous and not at their best, including the conductor [Warren Jones]. Shouldn't people stick to what they are good at, like piano playing with the best singers in the world, and not start conducting just because they perhaps can?

The orchestra struggled mightily, so nice of you not to mention that. I met with some players who said that they were asked to play much louder than they did during the rehearsals, but did not (since they knew the hall). It is a big score.

I also felt the split staging kept all the possible ump-pa-pah off the story. Remember that there are hours and hours (and hours) of ALW-type music to be had in the archives from the 19th and every other century. I grew up on Viennese operetta (often whistled by great uncles, always beyond-badly sung by great aunties while washing dishes) and promised myself never to enter a musical theater in my life if I had a choice. Luckily, a determined friend in London challenged me on opera and I ventured to hear Parsifal, and life was not the same after that.

On the other hand, passionate opera lover Suzanne Turley is a Fritz-fan, but had her misgivings:

I love the work as you know. I more than got the impression that there were about four of us who had ever seen it, or who were familiar with more than the "Cherry Duet" and the Intermezzo in the room.

The update was fine. The concept of the culture was mostly maintained, but the direction was a bit odd. I did not like the bit of Beppe being one armed. That did not work. A limp or whatever, OK. He is the "fiddler on the roof" for heaven's sake, so let him play the fiddle already! Use the gramophone for the intermezzo, that did work. [The old record player was also used for Beppe's violin solo, concertmaster Robert Galbraith playing beautifully.]

The Cowell venue is death to singers and orchestra. Warren [Jones] had a super tough task to achieve anything resembling balance. I was in Row R for the dress rehearsal, and it was not good. I thought maybe being away from the stage and up would be better. NOT. For the Friday show I was in the way back, and the brasses — ouch! It was out of Warren's hands, short of using a chamber quartet for that neat score.

But as to the opera, now that the ice has been broken after 35 years of neglect here in San Francisco, I hope dust does not gather on the score again. Perhaps Festival Opera should give it a nod.

For me, it became crystal clear why Mascagni's 1890 Cavalleria rusticana is a masterpiece, while the 1891 Fritz is, well, not. In a word, the libretto. The blood-and-gore story of Cav upholds — or, at least, does not negate — the overheated music. The early-sitcom narrative of Fritz would work much better as a Britten chamber opera.

There was nothing small or restrained about the music in Cowell on Friday, Jones whipping the orchestra into a more-or-less permanent frenzy, amazing stuff, but way too loud, not only in throwing up a curtain between the singers and audience, but also disregarding the municipal limits for decibels in a 427-seat theater. Still, rules and regs be damned, it was quite enjoyable.

These young, super-talented artists singing their hearts out, risking it all, going for broke, and really, really meaning it — that was the best part. Give me Sara Gartland's Suzel any time — the soprano from St. Paul gave her considerable all: a soaring, warm voice; great legato; fine diction; and utter sincerity in delivery.

In the title role, Nathaniel Peake sang an effortless, gimmickless, pretty close to faultless performance. Both he and Gartland need to work on stage movement (one of the Merola Program's objectives), but both sang fabulously. It wasn't just the "Cherry Duet" [wish I had theirs to share, this will have to do for now], but all their singing throughout — including that very loud potboiler finale — delighted and beguiled.

Alexsey Bogdanov's Rabbi David was sonorous and effective, Maya Lahyani's Beppe offered a memorable vocal and stage performance. The Israeli mezzo is a powerhouse, with as much existing excellence as future promise. Yohan Yi and Susannah Biller had smaller roles, Eleazar Rodriguez's mustache and vibrant stage presence stood out. A dozen Merolini participated as the unseen chorus.

Attend Bayreuth Tristan Live for $21

For about the cost of a ticket to an HD Met or San Francisco Opera production at a movie theater, you can watch a live performance of the Bayreuth Wagner Festival's Tristan und Isolde in your home. The Siemens Company is sponsoring the transmission on Aug. 9, live and free to big screens around town in Bayreuth, and at the cost of €14.90 ($21) on the Internet worldwide.

The live transmission begins with a pre-performance at 2:45 p.m. local time (5:45 a.m. PDT), and if that's way too early for you (it sure is for me), the Siemens "online ticket" purchase generously allows on-demand repeat streaming at any time between Aug. 10 and 23.

The Christoph Marthaler production is conducted by Peter Schneider; costumes and stage design by Anna Viebrock. The cast:

  • Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
  • König Marke: Robert Holl
  • Isolde: Iréne Theorin
  • Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen
  • Melot: Ralf Lukas
  • Brangäne: Michelle Breedt
  • Junger Seemann: Clemens Bieber
  • Ein Hirt: Arnold Bezuyen
  • Ein Steuermann: Martin Snell

Meanwhile, at the Bayreuth opening night on Monday, the new general director, Katharina Wagner, received a round of boos for a number of complex reasons, and many old skeletons are making noises in the closets of the music world.


Meanwhile, in Los Angeles ...

Most eyes are on Bayreuth just now, but the Los Angeles Opera's upcoming complete Ring is the talk of the town there, with headlines such as "Even if he was a vile anti-Semite, any Ring festival has to feature Wagner — and L.A.'s event is no exception." Further:

Next spring, the Los Angeles Opera will stage its first complete production of Richard Wagner's monumental four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. In conjunction with those performances, more than 70 arts, cultural and educational institutions will produce a 10-week Ring Festival, consisting of concerts, exhibitions, symposiums, lectures and other performances.

It will be L.A.'s largest cultural event since the 1984 Olympics — not only a major aesthetic occasion but also an important step toward attracting the sort of arts tourism many believe will be an increasingly crucial part of the city's economic future. Or, at least it will be, unless county Supervisor Mike Antonovich can persuade his colleagues to approve a letter to L.A. Opera Chief Executive Marc I. Stern demanding that the festival shift its attention from Wagner to other composers.

Antonovich, it seems, has discovered that although Wagner was a composer of undoubted brilliance, he also was a loathsome man whose principal defect was an anti-Semitism so vile and thoroughgoing that it won the admiration of Adolf Hitler. Thus, on Tuesday, Antonovich will ask the other four supervisors to cosign a letter "requesting that the 'Ring Festival L.A.' shift the focus from honoring composer Richard Wagner to featuring other composers as headliners, to provide balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent."

The Ring without Wagner? Hmmmm. And all this in Los Angeles, where Music Director James Conlon is leading "Recovered Voices," the world's most comprehensive survey of the lost generation of composers whose lives and careers were cut short by the Third Reich. (Wouldn't that be a fitting project for Bayreuth?)

The great cycle is unfolding in Seattle in a week, and soon, in San Francisco — both with much less nonmusical controversy, perhaps a good thing. Still, large issues keep fueling controversy, well summarized by Tim Rutten in The Los Angeles Times article quoted above:

The question of what to do about great artists' hateful ideas always is a difficult one. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky are three giants stained by anti-Semitism who come quickly to mind. I'm a passionate lover of opera and classical music, but I choose not to attend Wagner performances or to buy recordings of his work, though it is among the most ravishingly beautiful in the repertoire.

I agree with the novelist Thomas Mann, briefly a fellow Angeleno, who renounced the composer in 1940: "I find an element of Nazism, not only in Wagner's questionable literature," he wrote. "I find it also in his music ... though I have so loved that work that even today I am deeply stirred whenever a few bars of music from this world impinge upon my ear."

These are profound questions that involve not only the heart but the deeply personal recesses of conscience. The Board of Supervisors would be well advised to stick to the things it knows how to screw up.

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