Music News: Nov. 29, 2011

Janos Gereben on November 29, 2011

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 Theater 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 battled metastasized stage-four lung cancer and two dozen brain tumors, with Flicka at her side. Heroic (and triumphant) as that struggle was, tonight 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 on the stage hilariously with a breathless "Non so piu cosa son." It was in the role of Cherubino that Flicka made her San Francisco debut in 1972.

And she and Horne made it sure realism, truth-telling, and humor permeated what could have turned into a formal and official occasion. "You are such a wonderful person," Horne gushed, "I don't think I ever knew you 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 2 1/2-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 in and around San Francisco, her home, where she has not only participated in the work of so many musical organizations, but where she launched and supported so 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 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 "The Years Roll By" with 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
r'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, and yet besides those exceptions, it all went well, some thrillingly so.

Heggie and John Churchwell provided piano accompaniment, SFO 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 tonight 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 for 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."

Berkeley Symphony Wins NEA Grant: Onward and Upward

Three decades of collective effort under Kent Nagano's direction established Berkeley's admittedly "regional" (meaning small) symphony orchestra as a major presence in adventurous, contemporary programming and support for local composers.

The news from Berkeley, where Joana Carneiro has been in charge for the past two years, is that the more things change, the more that distinction remains. $15,000 doesn't go far these days, but as the Berkeley Symphony received that portion of National Endowment for the Arts' 863 grants and $22.543 million in funding nationwide, it was turned into two commissions — from local composers (other than John Adams, great as the man is, but with a virtual monopoly on commissions).

Hurdy Grand

Imaginative, entertaining, whimsical Steven Stucky and New Music Prophet Paul Dresher will contribute new works to be premiered during the 2012-2013 season. Stucky's collaboration will be an extended residency program over the course of the season, Dresher's work will feature two of his numerous invented instruments.

They are the Quadrachord, an instrument resembling a guitar, which can be plucked or bowed; and the Hurdy Grande, which resembles an oversized hurdy-gurdy. Both composers will also act as mentors for young artists participating in Berkeley Symphony's Under Construction project.

Berkeley Symphony has been recognized in seven of the past nine seasons with an award for Adventurous Programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). In addition to its subscription concerts and Under Construction new music series, Berkeley Symphony regularly partners with Cal Performances to provide music for visiting artists.

Berkeley Symphony's year-long Music in the Schools program reaches every public elementary school student in Berkeley. San Francisco public radio station KALW 91.7 FM is Berkeley Symphony's broadcast partner, airing all the orchestra's subscription concerts.

Merola Rigoletto now Liège's Dutchman: Story with a Moral

Mark Rucker as the Dutchman at the Friday premiere in Liège When I wrote last week about Mark Rucker singing the title role in the L’Opéra Royal de Wallonie-San Francisco Opera coproduction of The Flying Dutchman, the name sounded familiar. Still — as it became clear later — that was through the haze of almost three decades.

Turns out many Bay Area Merola fans, myself included, heard him sing Rigoletto in Villa Montalvo and Western Opera Theater performances, and at the Merola Finale in 1982.

This and much more came to the fore when receiving this e-mail after last week’s Music News:

Hi, this is Sadie Rucker. My husband, Mark, is singing his first Dutchman in Opera de Wallonie’s production of Der Fliegende Hollander. The premiere is Friday and we are looking forward to it and the webcast on Nov. 29. [The webcast started at 11 a.m. PST today, but it will stay up on the site for several days.]

This is quite an amazing production, great cast, Manuela Ulm as Senta, Alastair Miles as Daland, Jason Collins as Erik. The orchestra under Paolo Arrivabeni is superb as well as the opera chorus under the direction of Marcel Seminara. Interesting sets with projections and staging by Petrika Ionesco. [San Francisco’s Cyrano de Bergerac last year was Ionesco’s production.]

The tent actually is very good acoustically — better than we had imagined: you forget it’s a tent. The seats are from the opera house, which is being refurbished and added onto right now. Although the stage isn’t as large as the War Memorial, it’s good and even though there isn’t a pit, the orchestra under Maestro Arrivabeni is beautiful and sensitive to the singers. Hopefully many in the U.S. will see it online. Thank you for posting it.

 From Ionesco's Liège production, which will come to San Francisco

When I looked up Rucker’s biography, there was mention of the S.F. Opera Orchestra, but not an appearance with the company. The answer to that question:

That reference was to the San Francisco Opera competition finals in 1982. The orchestra played for those finals. I don’t know if they have the same competition now. Mark was in the Merola program that same summer where he sang his first Rigoletto.

I know he sang at Villa Montalvo, but there were several other venues as well (I was teaching at the time so I couldn’t go to all the performances). He then sang Rigoletto on the Western Opera Theater tour, which really was an amazing opportunity for such a young singer to perform that role literally cross country.

All those tours presented a unique opportunity for emerging opera singers to learn those roles and get real experience. It seems as though they are not practical for companies now, and there are more regional companies doing great things but it’s still a shame they’ve been discontinued.

We do worry about young singers having venues in which to sing. Many established singers try to do benefit concerts for opera companies and do outreach when they are performing different places. Mark and I help Martina Arroyo with her young artist program in New York when he’s available in the summer. What’s encouraging is that there are a number of talented young singers out there who are determined to pursue their life’s dream. We’ll all just try to keep the places going for them to realize those dreams.


Safe in the Treehouse, Baez to Sing at OEBS Holiday Concert

Joan Baez

Joan Baez is headlining the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Let Us Break Bread Together” holiday concert on Dec. 11 in the Paramount Theatre, much to the relief of OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan and everybody else.

Baez was scheduled last year, but a fall from the tree house where she sleeps sent her from her Woodside home to Stanford Hospital. Fortunately, the injuries turned out to be minor, but she had to cancel anyway.

She is back, and she will join the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Terrance Kelly and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, Mt. Eden High School Choir, and the Klezmer group Kugelplex. The program includes gospel, classical selections, holiday favorites, and sing-alongs.

Napoleon, OEBS to the Paramount

Scene from Ganze's <em>Napoleon</em> Another notable program on the Oakland East Bay Symphony schedule is to provide the music for Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film Napoleon.

This will be an important event, the U.S. premiere of the complete restoration of the epic by Kevin Brownlow. A new orchestral score, by Carl Davis, will also have its premiere, the composer to conduct OEBS.

Screenings in the Paramount Theatre are scheduled on March 24, 25, 31, and April 1. Producing the event and handling tickets is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The film’s finale is in Polyvision — a triptych, employing three specially installed synchronized projectors that will expand the screen to triple its width. The logistics and expense of screening Napoleon properly with full orchestra and special equipment have made it nearly impossible to mount. It hasn’t been screened theatrically in the U.S. with live orchestra for nearly 30 years, and there are no plans to repeat the SFSFF event in any other American city. [It might have been about 30 years ago that the film was presented in the War Memorial Opera House.]

Each screening of the 5½-hour epic will begin in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break.

Mad Cow Threat Jeopardizes Baroque String Instruments

European Union regulators apparently don’t realize that to catch Creutzfeldt¬-Jakob disease (CJD) — the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — from violin or cello strings from an infected animal, you would need to eat several feet of them. Few musicians eat their strings, but the regulation threat persists.

The Telegraph reports that musicians have warned that the works of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi, and Bach may never again be heard as their composers intended because of EU rules to stop people catching “mad cow disease” from their instruments.

Regulations that tightly control the use of certain types of animal tissue are unwittingly threatening the centuries-old technique of making musical instrument strings from beef gut.

Implementing regulations strictly could force gut-string manufacturers to close, with disastrous consequences for the “period orchestra” movement — including the Bay Area’s Philharmonia Baroque and American Bach Soloists — which aims to re-create every aspect of music as it was first performed in the years 1650–1750.

Verdi in Basel: Do Not Resuscitate

Cacophonous Verdi medley in Basel In the Old World, old opera, especially works by Verdi, has long been under siege “to make it relevant.” Regieoper, EuroTrash — call it what you will — has overdone itself with outrageous (for others, “interesting”) productions, going as far as Calixto Bieito’s imposition of extreme violence and evidence of mental illness on audiences.

And now, Shirley Apthorp reports from Theater Basel, it’s Verdi’s music, too, that’s subject to extortionate revision.

Christoph Marthaler’s Lo stimolatore cardiaco (The pacemaker ) dismantles the music of Giuseppe Verdi as it meanders through a series of reflections on human frailty and passion. Women in neat 1950s hats and coats pause on the staircase to intone passages from Verdi’s Ave Maria. A man in a suit, his hands clutching his head in a pantomime of despair, sings Iago’s Credo. The music ties itself into endlessly repeating loops or stalls on a particular phrase.

Marthaler, abetted by two conductors and a dramaturg, snatches tufts of Verdi from Otello, from Luisa Miller, from Traviata, Falstaff and Trovatore.

While the chorus sings the storm scene from Otello, surgeons in hospital green perform a postmortem on a swordfish. When the Moor requests a last kiss from an unresponsive Desdemona on the stairs, his phrase is taken up by a second woman, then others; an unorthodox love rectangle plays “catch” with Verdi’s notes until repetition robs them of meaning. What are these people doing here? Who are the patients?

Lo stimolatore cardiaco occupies the knife-edge space between pathos and absurdity. Through two hours of music, slapstick, monologue, repetition and allusion, Marthaler guides his performers and his audience on a one-way trip towards final darkness. Two overall-clad workers carry a piano doggedly up the stairs and back down, staggering from scene to scene in a labour so predictably pointless that you could scream. An actor repeats phrases from Toscanini’s famous rehearsal tantrums. Cast members fight a losing battle to stop themselves singing along with Falstaff. Melodies are remembered, fragmented, dismantled.

At the end of the evening, the only ones left are conductors Bendix Dethleffsen and Giuliano Betta, picking out a handful of notes on a virginal in the gloom. The light fails, the music stutters to a halt. No heart beats forever.

Bolshoi, Royal Opera in HD Screenings

Svetlana Zakharova in the Bolshoi's 2011 <em>Sleeping Beauty</em> The Bolshoi Ballet Theater in Moscow and the Royal Opera House in London are featured in the Balboa Theater’s winter schedule of operas and ballets, filmed live in high definition, and presented in HD Dolby 5.1 on the Balboa’s Meyer Sound System.

The Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty is screening at 10 a.m. Dec. 3 and 4, and at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7. It features Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg in new choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, after the original Marius Petipa work.

Says Grigorovich: “We have breathed new life into the principles of dancing, symphonic dramatization, and harked back to Petipa at the same time. Pompous retrospectives were replaced by performances where the human world of the protagonists was the main motivating force of the story line, the focus upon which the choreographer’s thoughts and emotions could concentrate.”

Hallberg made history by becoming the first American to join the Bolshoi, reversing decades of Russian dancers defecting to the West, although no political motivation is involved in this event.

One review from the premiere said: “Hallberg electrified the audience from his first entry, bounding across the stage with fearless jumps, his legs seemingly effortlessly extended to 180 degrees in midair.”

Of the production: “The monumental decor created by an Italian team, led by designer Ezio Frigerio, is colorful to the point of kitsch while the jewel-encrusted costumes threaten to overshadow the performances.”

The Royal Opera production of Tosca is with Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, and Bryn Terfel, conducted by Antonio Pappano. It is showing at 10 a.m. Dec. 10 and 11, at 7:30 p.m.

Another Merola Triumph

Charles Castronovo (Merola 1998) was vocally and dramatically marvelous with Placido Domingo in Daniel Catán’s Il postino, telecast from the Los Angeles Opera production last weekend on KQED-TV. Besides being one of Domingo’s finest recent performances, the production also featured an exceptional cast, with Amanda Squitieri’s Beatrice making a special impression. The late composer (he died in April), of Rappaccini’s Daughter, Florencia en el Amazonas, and Salsipuedes, may yet be represented in a future San Francisco Opera production.

Salonen Concerto, Coming to S.F., Receives Award

Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto has won the 2012 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition from among 165 entries.

The work will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony, Dec. 8–10, under Salonen’s baton, with Leila Josefowicz as soloist. The program also includes Sibelius’ Pohjola’s Daughter and excerpts from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

The four-movement, half-hour-long violin concerto begins with a solitary violin, moves on to embrace a series of themes ranging from a quiet heartbeat to urban pop music, and ends on a chord unlike any other in the work, said Marc Satterwhite, director of the Grawemeyer Award. “The piece is eclectic in its influences but has a distinct personality all its own.”

Salonen, 53, is now principal conductor of and artistic advisor to the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. (See SFCV’s profile.) He conducted the world premiere of his violin concerto in Los Angeles in 2009, at one of his final concerts with the orchestra he had led for 17 years.

SFS Musicians Return to Kohl Mansion

In a holiday concert tradition for Music at Kohl Mansion, interrupted during the past two years, San Francisco Symphony musicians will be featured on Dec. 18 in the mansion lavishly decorated for the holidays.

SFS violinists Dan Carlson and Amy Hiraga, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and cellist Peter Wyrick, with San Francisco Opera violist Joy Fellows, perform Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516; Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87; and Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade (for string quartet).

Take note of Music at Kohl Mansion’s Adopt an Instrument program, in association with the Bay Area nonprofit Music in Schools Today, which provides donated musical instruments to public school children.

Change of Plans at the Conservatory

S.F. Conservatory of Music’s “Preparing a Role: The Brahms–Schumann Project,” led by Lotfi Mansouri and Frederica von Stade, has been postponed from Dec. 9 and 11 to May 6 and 7.

The Opera Program’s “Preparing a Role” performances on Dec. 9 and 11 remain on the calendar, but now will pair Act 3 of Puccini’s La bohème with Mozart’s The Impresario.

Sena Jurinac dies at 90

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Sena Jurinac in <em>Der Rosenkavalier</em> One of the best-loved, most accomplished sopranos of her generation and a favorite in Vienna, London, San Francisco, and major opera houses everywhere, Sena Jurinac died last week at age 90.

After her performance in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House, the son of the librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, sent her a telegram saying that she was the most beautiful, the most deeply felt Marschallin, he had ever seen. In Vienna and Salzburg, she was encouraged by the conductor Herbert von Karajan.

Jurinac’s chief trademarks were a rich, full, vibrant tone and an absolute directness and sincerity of expression. “Those qualities, combined with her good looks, made her a favourite in every operatic center that she graced,” writes Alan Blyth in The Guardian.

Born Srebrenka Jurinac at Travnik, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to a Croatian doctor and a Viennese mother, she made her debut at age 21 at the Zagreb Opera as Mimi, in La bohème. From 1945 on, she was a star of the Vienna State Opera.

Her range — vocal and dramatic — was astonishing, including Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), Marzelline (Fidelio), the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos), Octavian, and then the Marschallin, Manon, Mimi, and Ilia (Idomeneo), Dorabella and Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), and many, many more.

In San Francisco, where she was a great favorite, she sang from 1959 through 1980, appearing as the Composer, Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Eva (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), the Marschallin, Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), and Kostelnicka (Jenufa) — a repertory stretch few singers can accomplish.

Year 101 for Pacific Musical Society

Pacific Musical Society is holding its 101st annual Winter Gala to support young musicians. The dinner, performances, and auction will be held in the Fairmont Hotel on Dec. 17.

Hilda Huang featured at the Dec. 17 fundraiser

The gala honors Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra Music Director Nicholas McGegan and features young musicians who have been supported by the Society, notably 15-year-old pianist Hilda Huang, who is already a recognized rising star of Baroque music.

She was 10 years old when she made her first appearance at the Society competition, winning the first of many awards, which included top prize in the International J.S. Bach Competition in Würzburg, Germany, becoming the first American and the youngest award-winner there. Last year, Huang appeared with the Philharmonia Baroque, conducted by McGegan.

She says of the Winter Gala: “It’s a good occasion to maintain a relationship with the Pacific Musical Society. It’s a wonderful institution, the longest active music organization in the Bay Area. In these times that seem so short on classical music, the institution is a blessing for everybody.”

Huang will perform on a single manual harpsichord based on mid-18th-century Italian Florentine models. John Phillips, widely regarded as one of the world’s best harpsichord makers, built the instrument in Berkeley and furnished it for the celebration. Members of the Philharmonia Baroque will accompany Huang, and McGegan will also perform a Corelli Trio Sonata with members of the orchestra.

Performers include Pacific Musical Society competition winners guitarist Ashwin Krishna, composer Nicholas Carlozzi with tenor Brian Thorsett, and soprano Marcelle Dronkers.

Exchange Tickets at Your Peril

There will be better experiences to relate, and worse ones. Please do either in Comments at the end of the column. But meanwhile, I rely on SFCV contributor and frequent symphony reviewer Lisa Hirsch’s account, both personal and extensively researched:
A couple of weeks ago, I needed to exchange a San Francisco Symphony ticket from a Friday to a Sunday. I picked out a seat on the Web, phoned, and made the exchange, which took perhaps two minutes. To my surprise, I was charged $10 for this, even though I’m a subscriber. I looked up SFS ticket exchange policies and was even more surprised.

- You have to exchange at least 24 hours in advance
- Exchanges are free by mail or in person if you’re a subscriber
- Exchanges cost $9 by fax if you’re a subscriber, $19 if you’re not
- Exchanges cost $12 by phone if you’re a subscriber, $22 if not (I still don’t know why I, as a subscriber, was charged $10)

Across the street at the War Memorial Opera House, policies are different:

- Exchanges for the same opera are free if you’re a subscriber and it’s more than 24 hours in advance
- Within 24 hours, exchanges cost $10, up to two hours before the performance
- Exchanges for a different opera are free if you have a full or half subscription; if you have a different subscription, it’s $10
- Subscribers can exchange over the phone
- If you’re not a subscriber, you appear to be out of luck

I also checked the exchange policies of some large organizations located elsewhere. Exchange policies vary considerably. Los Angeles Opera requires 48 hours’ notice with a $5 per ticket fee; between 48 hours and 2 hours before the performance, it’s a $20 per ticket “emergency” fee. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which uses Ticketmaster for ticketing, exchanges are free except for last-minute exchanges, for which there’s a $10 fee. Tickets must be mailed in or brought to the box office in person.

At the Metropolitan Opera, subscribers can exchange up to one week in advance, with a fee after the first exchange. Nonsubscribers can’t exchange. Across the plaza, the New York Philharmonic allows you to exchange subscription tickets, add-ons, and advance purchase tickets with no fee. Most individual tickets can be exchanged for a $10 fee.

It’s worth thinking a bit about these policies. They are intended to cover expenses and reduce ticketing “churn.” Exchanges at these organizations cost from nothing to $22. SFS favors people who can walk up to the box office over people who can’t. I live in Oakland and work on the Peninsula; sometimes I have to make an exchange too close to a performance to even think about mail. Does most of the Symphony’s subscriber base really live or work downtown, or have an hour or more to make in-person exchanges? Does making an exchange really cost up to $22?

In addition, both SFO and SFS tack on fees for buying tickets over the Web, but not in person.

Surely every organization has a good estimate of the actual cost to it of ticket exchanges and Web purchases. Why not roll them up into overall ticket prices, rather than annoying patrons by nickel and dime-ing them? In these busy and costly times, performing arts organizations that tack on all of these extra fees start to feel a lot like airlines, except that airlines don’t also beg us to make donations every December and with every purchase.

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