Music News: March 29, 2011

Janos Gereben on March 29, 2011

Heggie Celebrates the Big Five-O with a Masterclass

"It's common for young singers to learn works of great composers from two or three centuries ago, but to have the opportunity to work with a living composer is a rare occasion," says the enthusiastic statement from the Young Musicians Program (YMP).

The composer in question is the very much alive Jake Heggie, turning 50 on March 31, who will meet 12 teenage YMP singers learning to perform his songs. Heggie, who's been looking 30 for the past two decades, actually turning 50!

The free master class, open to the public, will be held from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, in Oakland's Lake Park United Methodist Church.

Although Heggie has been known mostly for his five operas, including Dead Man Walking, which has had many productions around the world since its premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, his first love was the song. Interpreters of Heggie's songs include Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Carol Vaness, Bryn Terfel, and Joyce DiDonato.

Heggie's comment on the YMP project:

What an honor and thrill to work with the lavishly gifted singers of the Young Musicians' Program. This is what inspires me to keep writing music — the joy, imagination, enthusiasm, and sense of adventure young people bring to every note and phrase. I can't wait to work with them, learn from them, and hopefully share something of value with them, too.
YMP, founded in 1968 with three volunteer teachers, has grown into one of the leading music training
Young Musicians Program Singers
programs in the nation with 90 students (ages 10-18) and 50 teachers.

Daisy Newman, director of the program, says each student comes with an untold story and an unsung song. Through the YMP experience, a student's potential is identified and developed by pursuing academic and musical excellence, tempered with an ongoing process for personal growth.

The multitalented students represent over 60 middle and high schools from four counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. The high-quality training that students receive propels them into leadership roles in their schools' music ensembles, as well as in the area's youth orchestras, bands, and choral ensembles.

Over the last 23 years, all graduates of the program have been accepted to the top colleges, universities, music schools, and conservatories in the country.

Lessons of 'Pan-Global Culture'

In a Financial Times article last weekend, with the headline "Does China Need Puccini?" Peter Aspden considers the dual nature of art — national roots, universal appeal — and writes about the difference between artists' tasks in the past and present.

Artists have always aspired to universality, Aspden writes, but "were spared the calamitous task of having to create their work for the global marketplace. How it would have diluted their vision and weakened the singularity of their approach. Their concerns were local, their protagonists trapped in historical circumstance, and more richly drawn as a result."

In contrast, our age values speed and breadth, as life is driven by the jet engine and microchips. Ideas and art in that environment travel "across boundaries almost before they are fully formed. They help create more froth and noise than can be imagined, on cheery behalf of 'global culture'."

Aspden then offers this conclusion, with a measure of unexpected optimism:

Can pan-global culture achieve true depth? It is, to echo Zhou Enlai on the French revolution, too soon to say. [As some Chinese audiences may be confused by wilder excesses of Hollywood fantasy], we too, I hope, will be mystified by some of the culture that will come out of China in the coming years. That will be its challenge, its harbinger of significance.

Culture needs to ask questions of us, otherwise it doesn't bite. Art is not simply a commodity, to be freely exchanged to the advantage of all. Some of it, at least, needs to be difficult. When all of it is accessible to all the people, all of the time, it will have lost some of its transformative magic.

Festival Del Sole: Can Summer Be Far Away?

First among the area's many summer festivals, Festival del Sole, the Napa Valley music-dance-art-food-wine bacchanalia, is announcing its sixth season, to run July 15-24.

Following the great success of ballet added to the festival last year, the next season will feature another dance gala, with principal dancers from the Bolshoi, San Francisco, and New York City ballets, and American Ballet Theater.

The Russian National Orchestra returns, and among the artists coming are the Emerson String Quartet, the Baroque group Les Violettes, violinist Sarah Chang, cellist Nina Kotova, songwriter David Foster, guitarist Angel Romero, pianist Joyce Yang, tenor Francesco Demuro, conductors Stéphane Denève and Omer Wellber, and sopranos Nino Machaidze, Aleksandra Kurzak, and Marnie Breckenridge.

Admission-free concerts will also be given, as part of the Bouchaine Young Artists Series, along with two free concerts featuring the United States Army and Russian National Orchestra brass quintets paying tribute to veterans of the Second World War.

Guest-Conductor Season: the New Vogue

California Symphony is doing it, Berkeley and Santa Rosa did it (until finding a music director), somewhere in Napa, San Jose, and elsewhere it's also the way of life, and now Diablo Symphony is joining the ranks of orchestras with guest conductors only.

But with one important difference: Rather than keeping all options open, Diablo is committed to selecting one of five to be its next music director, to succeed Joyce Johnson Hamilton, who is retiring May 15, after 30 years at the head of the orchestra.

The 48th season, held in the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, features:

  • Geoffrey Gallegos, music director and conductor since 2004 of the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Oct. 2
  • Timothy Smith, music director and conductor of the Contra Costa Chamber Orchestra, Nov. 27
  • Ken Raskin, associate conductor of the Sacramento Philharmonic, Feb. 12, 2012
  • Matilda Hofman, conductor and artistic director of the Kreisler Ensemble, March 18
  • Jonathan Knight, music educator and conductor of band and brass ensembles at Los Medanos College, May 13

News of Rescheduling: Maltman, Griffey

Last week, Christopher Maltman canceled his San Francisco Performances recital, and the baritone, along with the sponsoring organization, promised to reschedule. Word comes today that the recital is scheduled for Jan. 19, 2012. (Baritones are busy people.)

Another previously canceled SFP recital, by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, accompanied by pianist Warren Jones and fiddler Paul Brown, is coming to Herbst Threatre on May 4, with a program reflecting Griffey's native South, including Paul Bowles' Blue Mountain Ballads, Stephen Foster songs, and fellow North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle's nostalgic Songs in the Rear View Mirror.

Reminder: Dialogues

Toby Branz as Mother Marie
Photo by Betsy Kershner

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's production of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites will be at Fort Mason this week, Thursday through Sunday. The double-cast performances and the Conservatory Orchestra will be conducted by Michael Morgan.

Among the singers (first mention is the Thursday-Saturday cast, the second Friday-Sunday): Julie Adams and Julia Metzler as Blanche; Kate Allen and Toby Branz as Mother Marie; and Emma McNairy and Elise Kennedy as Sister Constance.

Kristen Choi and Evgenia Chaverdova sing the Old Prioress; Sara Duchovnay and Kelly Britt are Mme. Lidoine, the new prioress.

Branz has already performed two mezzo title roles in Conservatory productions of Dido and Aeneas and Giulio Cesare, but she is now singing as a soprano. Metzler is a student of Cesar Ulloa, coach for many now-famous singers (see next item), and she was admitted into the I Sing Beijing Program for this summer.

Tenor Dominic Domingo, grandson of the other tenor by that surname, sings the role of the Father Confessor in the second cast, an Officer in the first.

In a macabre inside joke, two severed heads onstage in the final scene are casts made of stage director Rick Harrell and prop master Julia Hathaway. Ah, the funny world of opera!

Word (and Video) from Eleazar

S.F. Conservatory and Merola veteran and Cesar Ulloa student Eleazar Rodriguez checks in from Germany, saying that just a year ago, he was singing here in a Fort Mason Rake's Progress, but in the short time that has passed since, he's been singing steadily in Germany.

He is sending a video of poor quality, which may still be of interest to his many fans here.

The tenor is joining the Badisches Staatstheater opera company in Karlsruhe, where at the same time John Parr, San Francisco Opera's Head of Music Staff, will become casting director and senior coach.

(Parr in San Francisco will be succeeded by John Churchwell.)

Eleazar sends his best to his "Bay Area family."

Paul Taylor Dance This Weekend

Paul Taylor, 80, is bringing his dance company once again to San Francisco, a delightful routine going back several decades.

The Yerba Buena programs include early favorites, such as Orbs, Cloven Kingdom, and Promethean Fire, plus the local premiere of Brief Encounters, set to Debussy's Children's Corner in an orchestral arrangement. The New York Times review called it "movements of desire and narcissism."

Program A, on March 30, has Cloven Kingdom (pulsating drum interruptions of a peaceful Corelli score), Black Tuesday, and Promethean Fire.

Program B, on March 31 and April 1: Orbs, Also Playing (ballet music by Donizetti propels a vaudeville revue with acts ranging from an Apache dance and a tap-dancing horse to a striptease and a flag-waving march).

Program C, on April 2 and 3: Brief Encounters, Three Dubious Memories, and Brandenburgs (a celebration of life, to J.S. Bach's music).

Lee Hoiby Dies

Composer of songs and opera, the Wisconsin-born Lee Hoiby died in New York City on Monday, at the age of 85. A pianist child prodigy, Hoiby went on to play with Harry Partch's Dadaist ensembles, and studied at Mills College with Darius Milhaud.

He then studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with Gian Carlo Menotti, who introduced Hoiby to opera and involved him in the Broadway productions of The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street.

His operas included The Scarf, 1957; Natalia Petrovna, 1964, now known in its revised version as A Month in the Country; The Tempest, 1986; and a one-act chamber opera, This Is the Rill Speaking, 1992, to text by Lanford Wilson (who died last week, at age 73).

Britten in Los Angeles, Glass in Long Beach

A report from SFCV's own Lisa Hirsch:

With the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries just over the horizon in 2013, one opera company is keeping in mind an important centenary coming in the same year — that of Benjamin Britten, perhaps the most successful opera composer of the second half of the 20th century. Thus it was that a short trip to the Southland started with the March 25 performance of Britten's Turn of the Screw at the Los Angeles Opera.

Following last season's bank-busting, but artistically towering, Ring, the company is focusing on smaller-scale productions. If this Turn of the Screw is typical, Los Angeles audiences are in for still more triumphs.

Jonathan Kent's production, originally for the Glyndebourne Festival, moves the action from the Victorian era to the 1950s, and plays the opera within a single light-box set. Clever use of the Chandler Pavilion's turntable and of a small number of properties turns the stage, quickly and efficiently, from train to nursery to parlor to bathroom to the grounds of Bly.

A large, clear panel that can be raised, lowered, or tilted acts as windows, walls, or the surface of a pond. David Manion's beautiful lighting design helps reinforce the spooky atmosphere of the opera. Paul Brown's costumes, especially for the Governess and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, neatly evoke the 1950s.

All this would be for nothing without a good cast, and L.A. Opera has assembled a cast that isn't merely good: It is a great cast, as individuals and as an ensemble. Boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo is a sensational Miles, singing with exceptionally beautiful tone and acting with a chilly and creepy nonchalance as he changes before our eyes from an apparently innocent lad to a puppet of the ghosts.

San Francisco favorite Patricia Racette makes her role debut as the Governess, a role firmly in line with others in which she has been successful: as the young, innocent woman with a steel backbone. The Governess is a good fit for her, vocally and dramatically, though at times the steel backbone, and Racette's own maturity, came through more strongly than youthful innocence. On the other hand, the Governess is sufficiently knowledgeable about corruption that one might wonder just how innocent she really is, especially with the opera set in the 1950s.

Tenor William Burden, in his first L.A. Opera appearance, is superb as the evil Peter Quint, bringing perfect enunciation and a beautiful tenor voice to the role, singing his character’s florid music with fluid ease. He's matched by the budding dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson's scary, dark-toned Miss Jessel.

The Irish mezzo Ann Murray, also new to L.A. Opera, made a perfect Mrs. Grose, a deferential servant rising to the occasion when the children are threatened. Nearing her 62nd birthday, Murray sang miraculously, with the freshness and control of a singer half her age. Soprano Ashley Emerson was a fine Flora, impersonating a child so well that it was not until I read the program that I realized she was an adult.

James Conlon conducted with unobtrusive excellence, his tiny orchestra — all of 13 players — ably realizing the myriad beauties of this most haunting of operas. One performance remains, on March 30th — catch it if you can.

Meanwhile, the ever-adventurous Long Beach Opera took on Philip Glass' esoteric Akhnaten as its second production of the season. It tells of the rise and fall of Akhnaten, who brought, or tried to bring, monotheism to ancient Egypt.

What an odd beast this is — more a series of tableaux than an opera, considering how little singing there is, and how little interaction among the characters. The music is about what you might expect, instantly identifiable as Glass and much like the rest of his operas. He varies the orchestral color from time to time, with striking results — and he writes well for the voice, so that listeners might wish there were more solos, and more singing, over the opera's three hours.

Within these musical constraints and with an exceptionally static libretto, LBO did a terrific job with the piece. Eschewing elaborate sets in favor of complex interactive video and just a few simple properties - boxes, cloth banners, and a curious ramp that could be raised and lowered into various positions - director Andreas Mitisek and video designer Frieder Weiss created a series of eye-catching stage pictures. Kaleidoscopic gold dust, evidently representing the sun or rays of sunlight, recurred frequently. Multiple images of the singers and dancers could be projected on a scrim in real time. A good bit of the action was provided by the dancers of the Nanette Brodie Dance Company, with Ms. Brodie contributing the choreography.

Musically, the opera was also well-served, though with one oddity. Countertenor Jochen Kowalski, singing the title role, was announced as fighting a cold and unable to sing. He acted the role, while Darryl Taylor, using a score, sang from the pit and the back of the stage behind Kowalski.

This division of labor isn't ideal, but the two made it work, and Taylor, who stepped in between the first and second performances, received a giant, and well-deserved, hand at the curtain. He has a fine, clear countertenor, and was especially good in the hymn to the sun god Aten, the longest solo in the opera.

The other vocal standout was Peabody Southwell as Nefertiti, Akhnaten's wife. Jack of all trades Andreas Mitisek conducted the LBO Orchestra, all of whom played (and counted) like champs, as did Benjamin Makino's superb and accurate chorus.