Music News: July 29, 2014

July 29, 2014

Music News is supported in part by Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C.      Schoenberg Family Law Group

Darrah: Opera Future

July 29, 2014

James Darrah, talking about his many projectsHe just turned 30, so his career is ahead of him. But James Darrah, now working on the Merola Program's upcoming Don Giovanni also has an exceptional track record, some of which is reflected on his website (which he is too busy to update, he explains, apologetically).

The UCLA and NYU graduate (music, theater, and the classics) started directing opera at age 22 through a serendipitous invitation to work at the Split Summer Festival in Croatia.

Then, in just eight years, Darrah went hyperactive in Europe, Seattle (Semele), The Juilliard (Radamisto), Chicago (Teseo and Médée), Frank Zappa's 200 Motels with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Omaha Agrippina; collaborations with Peter Sellars in staging John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary in Los Angeles, London, Paris and Lucerne; and with Christopher Alden for the LA Philharmonic’s Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy, and more ...

Locally, Darrah made a name for himself with exceptional work on the San Francisco Symphony's Peter Grimes and Peer Gynt.

His work and his words resonate with aspirations given voice by Stephen Sondheim to Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George: "Bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Tension. Balance."

Darrah on the set he and his team have created for <em>Don Giovanni</em>It is balance that's the most important and challenging factor in the direction of opera — balance between keeping works fresh and staying true to their essence, balance between doing something interesting or going off into the deep end. As Darrah put it in an interview at the Everett Auditorium, which he is transforming for Don Giovanni:

I and my collaborators come from theater and other fields, not opera, none of us were really coming at opera feeling like we have to pay homage to the 1950s and 1960s "golden age of opera." We are looking for ways to activate a piece, to bring an opera to life that is both theatrically compelling and [remains true] to the text and the music. You can't do things that are overtly against them.

The music tells you what to do. With Don Giovanni, I tell the cast: I want you to think that if you were to write out the stage directions I give you, it would read like a music score.

In life we function associatively, everything flows from one to the next, it all connects — that's how stage directions should function. With that, you can explore new avenues but it's all based in the music, and you are not arbitrarily deciding to set Don Giovanni in a '40s gangster world for no reason.

Chromatic and Don Giovanni

July 29, 2014

DarrahJames Darrah (see item above) comes in a package he has been putting together, which he started during his UCLA school days: He is the founder-leader of Studio Chromatic, a group of young artists working on stage direction, design, lighting, and video produced in a creative collective. "One of the great advantages of structuring a production company," says Darrah, "is that we manage the problem that makes it hard to ascertain how to fit traditional billing for design elements — everything is so overlapped!"

The core of the flexible Studio Chromatic, headed by Darrah, is Adam Larsen (projection design), Cameron Jay Mock and Emily Anne MacDonald (scenic and lighting design), and Sarah Schuessler (costumes, usually in collaboration with Darrah). The collaboration in the group is so close Mock and MacDonald are now married.

For Don Giovanni, Darrah, Mock, and MacDonald are responsible for the entire production, including sets, lights, and costumes (while Schuessler and Larsen are away — she to costume HBO's The Newsroom, and he to finish a documentary).

The larger Chromatic family includes mezzo-actor-writer Peabody Southwell and dancer Janice Lancaster (both seen in the SFS Peer Gynt), playwright and director Roxie Perkins (with whom Chromatic is developing a new play), and Christopher Rountree, founder of the wild Up modern music collective, who will conduct Adams' A Flowering Tree, which Darrah and Chromatic will produce at Opera Omaha and elsewhere.

The Merola presentation of Don Giovanni is scheduled for July 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 2 at 2 p.m., in Everett Auditorium, 450 Church St.

Merolini featured in the cast are baritone Edward Nelson as Don Giovanni; bass-baritone Szymon Wach as Leporello; bass Scott Russell as Il Commendatore; soprano Amanda Woodbury as Donna Anna; tenor Benjamin Werley as Don Ottavio; soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho as Donna Elvira; bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Masetto; and soprano Yujin Kim as Zerlina. Martin Katz is music director.

National Youth Orchestra: From Weill to Weill

July 29, 2014

Josephine StockwellThe National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, founded last summer at the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall, is heading to Green Music Center's Weill Hall for a concert on Aug. 2, as part of its much-acclaimed international tour. (Weill Institute and Weill Hall are both beneficiaries of Sanford Weill's support.)

Unlike most youth orchestras, the National enjoys the collaboration (and tutelage) of major figures in music. The ensemble's first concerts were conducted by Valery Gergiev, the current tour is led by David Robertson, and the soloist is Gil Shaham. The orchestra has 120 members (including 24 returnees), ages 16 to 19, representing 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Carnegie Hall's Synneve Carlino talked to young musicians from the Bay Area about their participation in the project; 17-year-old viola player Josephine Stockwell from El Sobrante says:

With NYO, it's a remarkable experience to just be around all these great musicians, all of the time. In some ways, this time has felt like a closing and then an opening of doors for me in terms of how it has inspired me to elevate my own playing. I learn so much from my peers in the orchestra: by playing alongside them, listening, and even just by watching all of them. And it's been in an environment that is so down-to-earth and supportive which is great.

It's also been incredible to have the chance to work with artists like Gil Shaham and David Robertson. With David Robertson, it's moving to see how emotionally engaged he gets in the music. At Tanglewood, we were performing the Britten concerto and there was a spot at the end of the piece where he became clearly emotional in a way that hadn't happened at the other performances. I personally can get emotional while listening to music, but not usually when I'm actually playing because I'm too focused on what I'm doing. In that moment with him, I couldn't help but get teary, along with others around me. It felt like such a unifying moment for the orchestra.

Oliver HerbertAnd from 16-year-old cellist Oliver Herbert of San Francisco:

For me, it's been inspiring to work with all of these players from across the country who are performing at such a high level. It's special to have been selected to represent young musicians from across the U.S., and to have the opportunity to perform in so many great venues.

As part of the tour thus far, playing in Carnegie Hall was very special to me. It was my first time playing in the hall. I remember, after the cut-off of the last notes of Pictures at an Exhibition how well the audience received it — it was like a big wave of energy coming toward us on to the stage. It was moving and, as I walked off, I couldn't help but think of all of the great musicians who performed on that stage and feel a little emotional. It's a moment I'll always remember.

The program in Weill Hall includes Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Britten's Violin Concerto (with Shaham), Samuel Carl Adams' Carnegie-Hall-commissioned Radial Play, and the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition.

Return of the Native: Vardanega, Chan

July 29, 2014

Audrey VardanegaThis column has followed the activities of two remarkable San Francisco child prodigies, pianist Audrey Vardanega and cellist Nathan Chan from the time of their early teens. Now they are studying in New York: Vardanega is a sophomore, majoring in political sciene at Columbia University while continuing with piano lessons.

Chan, also at Columbia, is a senior in the Juilliard School Exchange program and studies with Richard Aaron. He recently won the Juilliard Cello Concerto Competition, playing Strauss' Don Quixote under Leonard Slatkin, and is featured in a documentary film called Nathan Chan: Breaking the Wall.

At Friday's Midsummer Mozart concert, conducted by George Cleve and with Vardanega in the audience, watching, Seymour Lipkin, her teacher at Juilliard perform, I remembered when Cleve told me about how he found Vardanega. She was "this Italian-Chinese pianist from Oakland, looking about 14, with an astounding natural feeling for Brahms — an ‘old soul’ playing.”

Nathan ChanVardanega was actually only 13 then, but she went on to play violin with the San Francisco Youth Orchestra, compose, and pursue piano studies, soloing with Midsummer Mozart in a piece performed by the a teenage student of the young Mozart at its 1784 premiere.

Incidentally, Vardanega's middle name is "Jm." Being a name enthusiast, I just had to ask, and was then provided full — if still puzzling — explanation: "My mom had the brilliant idea of making my middle name a combination of the first letters of both of my grandmothers' names, so Jiao and Mary, therefore Jm. On the bright side, it's a conversation starter." No explanation for the lowercase 'm.'

But to business: Vardanega and Chan are celebrating their summertime homecoming by giving a concert in Old First at 4 p.m. Aug. 17; the program includes the Brahms Cello Sonata F Major, Beethoven's Magic Flute Variations, and selected solo works for both instruments.

Still Available: Half Ring From Bayreuth, Live and Free

July 29, 2014

Catherine Foster and Lance Ryan in the Bayreuth <em>Siegfried</em> Photo by Enrico NawrathThe 2014 Bayreuth Ring cycle, under the direction of the remarkable Kirill Petrenko, is being streamed live by several sources. Check schedule and stations. Remaining operas are Siegfried on Wednesday and Götterdämmerung on Friday; both beginning at 7 a.m. Pacific Time.

Casts are largely new, at least to American audiences, except for Lance Ryan as Siegfried, but reviews have hailed most of the others, even while blasting Frank Castorf's direction at the cycle's premiere last year:

I have never heard booing that matched the loudness and endurance from the outraged audience at this week's Bayreuth festival.

This display of vehement displeasure, at the end of Frank Castorf's production of the Ring cycle, was aimed at the Berlin-based Castorf and his creative team, including set designer Aleksandar Denic and the costumes, lighting and video of Adriana Braga Peretzki, Rainer Casper, Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull.

Castorf's take on the Ring was ultimately — and perhaps deliberately — incoherent. Before the cycle began, Castorf held a press conference. In it, he explained that this Ring cycle, focusing on oil, would tease out ways that our greed for it and its wealth re-enact the impulse for the riches, power and destruction on which Wagner's Ring is centred.

In its first two parts — a Rheingold set in a Route 66 U.S. gas station and motel inhabited by Tarantino-style characters, and a Walküre set in the Caspian oil fields just before the Russian revolution — it was just about possible to discern a link, albeit a loosely drawn one, between these two settings and the professed oil theme.

But the two final parts of Castorf's cycle had almost nothing of this theme, beyond the dark polluted clouds that formed its permanent backdrop. Instead, the settings were increasingly dominated by the remnants and echoes of East Berlin before the fall of communism.

At least, the pictures are better on the radio.

Fortuitous Ripping of the Great Curtain

July 29, 2014

CurtainIt's called the S.F. Opera House's "great golden curtain," but Jennifer E. Norris says there is no gold in it. Norris is assistant managing director of SFWMPAC (translation coming up) and she knows all about the curtain — and about the various components of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

SFWMPAC includes the War Memorial Opera House, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall (with the Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall), the War Memorial Veterans Building (with Herbst Theatre and Green Room, plus the future Wilsey Center for Opera).

Norris was the logical source to contact when I heard the great curtain covering the 52-foot-wide proscenium opening has been removed. She confirmed the rumor and provided details, to which I am adding some additional information.

The curtain figured prominently in the report about the reopening of the War Memorial on Sept. 5, 1997, after the building's 21-month-long, $88.5 million, seismic renovation:

The new curtain, an exact reproduction of the former gold curtain [which was first raised on Oct. 15, 1932], rose to reveal soprano Deborah Voigt standing alone center stage to sing "Dich, teure Halle" (Beloved hall, I greet you) from Wagner's Tannhäuser. Voigt is one of the many graduates of the SFO's famed Merola Opera training program who has gone on to international stardom."

So why was the curtain removed? It was the result of an accident, but something that couldn't have been timed better if was planned carefully in advance: a large and spreading rip was found in the lining — Norris says caused by the weakness of the fire-retardant sprayed fabric — at the very last performance of the Opera's summer season, the July 20 Traviata matinee.

The curtain was not needed for the balance of the opera, and the gold velour split drape, already in the air, was used in its place. This same drape will be used for the Merola Grand Finale on Saturday, Aug. 16, which is the only public performance prior to the repaired curtain being reinstalled.

The 1,500-pound main curtain was taken down (that must have taken some doing!), boxed, shipped out for repair, at the cost of $7,000. It will be returned to the Opera House with a new lining in time for the opening of the company's fall season on Sept. 5, with Norma.

Why not just fix the rip without shipping the whole thing out? The curtain lining was already scheduled for replacement in the summer of 2016. "We decided that while the curtain was down for repair it made sense to conduct the lining replacement now rather than waiting until 2016," Norris explains, "so the whole curtain was shipped out to get a new lining.

Life in Penzance, Here-and-Now

July 29, 2014

Deborah Rosengaus as Ruth, Samuel Faustine as Frederic, and Ben Brady as the Pirate King in <em>The Pirates of Penzance</em> Photo by David AllenSan Francisco's venerable and evergreen Lamplighters are about to revive their acclaimed production of The Pirates of Penzance, but off-stage, alas, life is not all "Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!," but rather more along the lines of:

I find my duty hard to do today
My heart is filled with anguish dire,
It strikes me to the core.
Away, away !

In a startlingly candid and straightforward statement, the Lamplighters have announced:

The board and staff of Lamplighters Music Theatre have spent a lot of time over the last few months discussing business models and the long-term sustainability of a company that is dedicated, mostly, to the works of Gilbert & Sullivan.

Having recently celebrated their 60th anniversary, they are are looking forward to planning a 70th anniversary and beyond, but continue to run into the problems of an aging audience, lack of education in the schools, reduced G&S awareness amongst the younger generations, increasing production costs, etc. etc.

Whoa! And then, instead of going on with a fund-raising appeal (completely understandable and in order), the Lamplighters initiated action by inviting other G&S companies from around the country to a "Gilbert & Sullivan Summit" with the goal of building a closer community, "encourage brainstorming and idea-sharing, and possibly even future collaborations."

The summit is now a reality, and during the Pirates of Penzance run at the Yerba Buena Center, Aug. 15-17, at least 15 such companies will participate.

(Linda Ronstadt, an unforgettable Mabel on stage and screen, received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama in a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.)

R.I.P. Kristin Panokin

July 29, 2014

Kristin Pankonin, with Frederica von Stade"Beloved" is a word often used in obituaries, but in talking about the death of pianist-accompanist Kristin Pankonin it is spoken far beyond the circle of her family and friends, encompassing much of the Bay Area music community. As she supported both young singers and famous stars during her career, they all rallied around her when she was in need of "accompaniment."

During her brave and public battle with cancer since 2009, fund-raising concerts for her included Frederica von Stade, Marnie Breckenridge, the late Zheng Cao, Catherine Cook, Michael Dean, Lisa Delan, Nicolle Foland, Maryam Mahvi, Nanette McGuinness, J Raymond Meyers, Christa Pfeiffer, Bruce Rameker, Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai, Krista Wigle, and pianists Tim Bach and Robert Schwartz.

With special interest in contemporary music, she worked extensively with such composers as Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Jake Heggie, David Garner, and Gordon Getty.

Pankonin died on July 20, at the age of 54. She received her master's degree in piano accompanying from the S.F. Conservatory in 1989, and served as staff accompanist at the Conservatory and Mills College, seeing a whole generation of singers launched on their careers.

Besides her work in the Bay Area, Pankonin's appearances included venues such as Lincoln Center, Festival del Sole (Napa) and the Tuscan Sun Festival (Cortona, Italy), Carmel Music Society, Mainly Mozart Festival (San Diego), the A. Jess Shenson Recital Series at Stanford, and others. Her commercial recordings include And if the Song be Worth a Smile, Phenomenon, and The Hours Begin to Sing, all on PentaTone Classics.

In 2001, Pankonin was appointed Music Director of the Danville Congregational Church, a position she held until her death. From 1989 to 2001, she was married to Gregory Dahl; their daughters are Adrienne and Julia Pankonin-Dahl.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. July 31 at Danville Congregational Church.

R.I.P. Carlo Bergonzi

July 29, 2014

Carlo Bergonzi in the title role in Verdi’s <em>Ernani</em> Photo by Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan OperaEven among the greatest tenors of the last century, there was something unique about Carlo Bergonzi, who died on Friday in Milan at ago 90. There was an unrivaled elegance in his voice, he always felt the music, his singing was consistently effortless and beautiful. His San Francisco appearances were few but memorable: Don Alvaro in the 1969 La Forza del Destino, Gustavo in the 1985 Un Ballo in Maschera, and a recital in 1986.

Neither his appearance nor the power of his voice made him the star he was. As Peter G. Davis is quoted in The New York Times obituary:

More than the sound of the voice, it is Mr. Bergonzi’s way of using it that is so special. He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable — the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them — a rare instinctual gift, possibly the most precious one any musician can possess.

Of his looks — "more like the neighborhood butcher than, say, the dashing Duke of Mantua" — Bergonzi said:

I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino. I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.

It is that pure, wonderful line that can be heard in Bergonzi's "Una furtiva lagrima," his "Questa o quella,", "E lucevan le stella," or any of his recordings, even late in a glorious career.

In live performances, even in response to a failed comeback in 2000, loving respect for Bergonzi still prevailed, such as in Martin Bernheimer's Financial Times review, a blast at the event itself, but recalling the past:

He sang with unfailing beauty of tone, with discerning taste, with rare elegance, irresistible sweetness and reassuring warmth. He was uncommonly poised yet poignant as Riccardo, elementally sad as Canio the betrayed clown, endearingly whimsical as Nemorino, the hapless hick. Other tenors looked like matinee idols; he was rather portly. Some colleagues were convincing actors; he was usually content to stand and sing. Others sang higher and louder; his heroism always came on a human scale. Yet this man knew his limitations, and made the most of his strengths

Unlike most rivals, he cared enough about the score to attempt the trills in Verdi’s Il trovatore, and he respected the composer’s dynamic instructions enough to file the climactic B-flat of “Celeste Aida” down to a shimmering pianissimo. Most tenors are singers. This one was an artist.

New Assistant Conductor for LA Philharmonic

July 29, 2014

Mirga Gražinyté-TylaMirga Gražinyté-Tyla, 28, from Lithuania, has been named Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a two-year term. She is a former Dudamel Fellow and a winner of the Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award. She is already set to conduct the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 7, in a program of Brahms and Mahler, and at Walt Disney Concert Hall next March in a program to be determined.

As part of her duties, Mirga Gražinyté-Tyla will also serve as the cover conductor for Music Director Gustavo Dudamel and guest conductors throughout the orchestra’s subscription season and on tour. LA Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said of the appointment:

The face of the conducting world is changing and Mirga is of that change. In addition to being tremendously talented, she has a keen intellect and impeccable communication skills. We already consider her part of the LA Phil family and look forward to our continued relationship with her.

Gražinyté-Tyla is also First Kapellmeister of the Bern Opera House, scheduled to conduct productions there of La traviata and The Cunning Little Vixen. For two seasons before, she was conducting opera and concerts at the Theater Heidelberg. During her Dudamel Fellowship in Los Angeles she stepped in on a very short notice for an ailing Ludovic Morlot.

Russian Choral Extravaganza

July 29, 2014

Slavyanka Chorus of San Francisco is the presenter, the Rachmaninov Festival Chorus of America is the founder of the International Russian Choral Music Festival, the third edition of which is taking place in San Francisco and Berkeley, Aug. 3-10.

Featuring Slavyanka itself, Burlingame's Church of All Russian Saints Choir, San Francisco's Choir of Holy Virgin Cathedral, KITKA, and Kostroma, festival performances take place in the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco on Aug. 3, 7, 9; Berkeley's St. Mark's Church on Aug. 8; and Berkeley's First Congregational Church on Aug. 10.

Lerew Wins National Composition Contest

July 29, 2014

A score by Todd LerewLos Angeles composer Todd Lerew, 28, has won the 2014 National Composition Contest with his work Flagging Entrainment of Ultradian Rhythms and the Consequences Thereof. The piece was commissioned by the American Composers Forum (ACF), along with works of two other finalists — Michael Laurello (Yale School of Music) and Kristina Warren (University of Virginia), all workshopped by So Percussion as part of the the group's Summer Institute at Princeton University and premiered on July 20.

As So Percussion is participating in the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts Visions series this fall, the new works may be heard at UC Davis.

Lerew works with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. He is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which uses a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford's CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles.

He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children's game of Telephone. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng is entitled Lithic Fragments. His works have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).

Osipova: A Different Kind of Prima Ballerina

July 29, 2014

Natalia Osipova in the Royal Ballet’s <em>Connectome</em>

"I am not interested in sporting diamond tiaras on stage, or having my point shoes cooked and eaten by my fans," muses Natalia Osipova, referring to two old ballet anecdotes.

"Ballet has evolved and the ballerina figure with it. The world around us offers new challenges, new stimuli and new opportunities, and I believe that it is the responsibility of every artist to be constantly ready to respond to these. There is simply no reason, nor time, to perpetuate century-old clichés, such as the remote, semi-divine figure of the 19th-century ballet star."

How strange and wonderful for a Russian ballerina, now a Royal Ballet principal, to say this. Read the interview with her in The Spectator, which calls her "the last in an illustrious line of Russian artists — Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, and Galina Mezentseva are among the ones she mentioned — who were and still are legends but never 'divas.'

Osipova says: "Their art, and their devotion to their art in particular, was and still is at the core of my artistic creed. I was also inspired by their eclecticism, and their desire to engage with diverse choreographic styles and genres."