Music News: November 23, 2010

Janos Gereben on November 23, 2010

SFCV Awarded NEA Grant

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman today announced the latest round of NEA funding totaling $26.68 million awarded through 1,057 grants to nonprofit organizations nationwide. San Francisco Classical Voice was awarded its first-ever grant of $10,000 to support the addition of podcasting and videocasting features. The project will promote deeper knowledge and experience of its audience throughout the greater Bay Area and beyond.

Musical Society's 100 Candles, Thousands of Beneficiaries

How long ago was 1910? Back then nouns were not made to serve as adjectives. True, you are reading Music News, but a hundred years ago, founders of the Pacific Musical Society wouldn't have thought of such newfangled shorthand.

This eminently civilized organization is also serving as a bastion of hope against the very real danger of what a music teacher once warned about: "a world without culture and music is chaos."

Pacific Musical Society, celebrating its centennial this month with a glittering fund-raising gala at the Fairmont Hotel on Dec. 11, is one of our oldest and most important organizations, but not often in the headlines. It should be.

With its large annual competition and awards for the winners, the Society has played a historical role in the careers of some world-renown musicians hailing from San Francisco, including violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci, and pianists Leon Fleisher and Ruth Slenczynska.

Slenczynska, a famed prodigy in Europe almost eight decades ago, will play Brahms and Chopin at the centennial gala. Other performers include such 10-year-old competition winners of the present day as pianist Elliot Wuu and violinist Kevin Zhu.

Robert Commanday's take on the organization:

In the good old days, during the first half of the last century, San Francisco’s musical and educational life was nurtured and enlivened by its music clubs, music stores, music schools, and even music magazines. The Pacific Musical Society is the sole survivor of that great tradition, still flourishing, still discovering, supporting, and enabling the best young and emerging talents. At the programs I have attended, including a couple pretty far back, there was no mistaking the love of music and the animating spirit that keeps the flame alive.

As usual at all benefits, Frederica von Stade is lending her name and talent to the centennial gala, accompanied by composer-pianist Jake Heggie. Flicka speaks of the Society in glowing terms:

God bless the Pacific Musical Society and every organization that champions the nurturing of young musicians.

In Alameda where I have lived for the past 20 years, there was a gentleman who taught music in the public schools and he always said that a world without culture and music is chaos. His son is one of our most treasured musicians, the cellist Emil Miland.

(The late Emil Q. Miland was the coordinator of music for the Alameda schools, who witnessed the dismantling of his 30 years of work when public funding ended after Proposition 13 in 1978.)

"In the last several years," says Flicka, "I have had the joy of working with many young musicians through the Young Musicians program at Berkeley and the St. Martin de Porres School in West Oakland where I've helped start a choir and now a program for violin. Music has offered these kids discipline, order and the supreme joy of expressing themselves freely. This gift is immeasurable and sacred; may it continue forever!"

UC Berkeley Young Musicians Program faculty member James Meredith, also artistic director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, is a vice president of the Society, and he speaks of his own experience:

As a teenager I was encouraged and helped by several people to pursue my dream of being a musician. Their support made a huge difference in my life.

Big theatrical or sporting events can be thrilling, but when you listen to a 10-year-old performer, expressing something that such a young life could not possibly have had the experiences to reflect, when they reach in and grab your heart, you know something truly wonderful has happened. That's why we have music, to speak to us when words fail.

The Society is headed by Halim Habiby, and the coordinator of the annual competition is soprano Marcelle Dronkers, who will also perform at the gala.

The 2010 competition resulted in 25 awards of cash and performance opportunity in instrumental, piano, vocal, and composition categories to contestants between ages 8 and 25.

Besides Flicka, Heggie, Slenczynska, Wuu, Dronkers, Meredith and Zhu, participants in the centennial gala concert include pianists Ronald Graham and David Ko, cellist Matt Haimovitz (former award winner) and mezzo Evgenia Chaverdova, winner of the 2010 senior vocal category. Carol Channing will make a video guest appearance.

Berkeley's Ultimate 'Xerxes'

The Sunday matinee was both the last of the woefully short run of Berkeley West Edge Opera's Xerxes and a performance "highest in degree."

It was a bit surprising, but mostly just extremely gratifying, to witness a cast of (mostly) young singers — known for their work in choruses, the Conservatory, in the Merola — emerge together, as full-fledged opera stars. And, in not just any opera, but in this difficult, demanding Baroque work.

They had help: wonderful instrumentalists in the pit, conducted by Alan Curtis, and in an exceptional regieoper direction by company Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky. What's an exceptional regieoper? One that's lively, funny, engaging, and makes sense. Call it what you want, it's good.

There were telephones (a Streshinsky signature) and hilarious prewedding copulation under the sheet, and so on ... Handel would have loved it. The audience certainly did.

In the title role: Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo of power and lyricism; hers is a marvelous instrument, which she uses to its best advantage. As Arsamene, the young countertenor Ryan Belongie gave notice of the arrival of a major singer who sounds utterly natural and pleasing even in this "unnatural" fach.

Angela Cadelago's Romilda was simply beautiful in voice and appearance. Too bad she doesn't have Netrebko's headline-making disposition because she could easily become a star of tabloids — if that's what she wanted to be.

Big, burly, bald Donald Sherrill was also quite beauteous as Elviro, especially when in drag and singing falsetto.

The orchestra was so lively, precise, and "right" that they must be given individual credit, although they certainly played together, wink, wink.

Curtis himself played one of the two 18th-century harpsichords (by Jerome Prager and Kevin Fryer, respectively), the other played by Gilbert Martinez. Lisa Weiss was concertmaster, leading a violin section of Chase Spriull, Noah Strick, and Katherin Button.

Oh, and the object of Xerxes' (first) affection, the tree, was a marvelous abstract wire creation, by Mark Canepa. As everything else in this production, it was exactly right. Ombra mai fù, indeed.

Another Up and Coming Countertenor

Just as we are welcoming the rise of Ryan Belongie comes news of another young and terrific singer: Philippe Jaroussky, 32, a French countertenor. He made his debut in 1999, at age 21, and has been scoring big since with Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, and Gluck.

Says The New York Times article:

Forty years ago, there were perhaps half a dozen countertenors on the world stage. Today the South Carolinian David Daniels or the German Andreas Scholl fill concert halls and opera houses, and every season brings a new wonder boy from Croatia or the Ukraine. The 32-year-old Jaroussky's exceptionally pure voice, combined with his cherubic good looks, have won him a passionate following.

Our Man in the Himalayas

Vance George

An e-mail about the Berkeley Xerxes to S.F. Symphony Chorus Emeritus Conductor Vance George brought a startling reply: "Wow! Wish I were there, but I am in the foothills of the Himalayas with no central heat." (He didn't bother to add the obvious; that late November in San Francisco is quite different from near the Tibetan Plateau, even far beneath Mount Everest.)

A very-long range and frequently interrupted interview resulted in the following information:

During the Korean War, George was drafted, but as a pacifist, he was sent to an international school "to teach Western music for three years in the mountains." During this time, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India, and attended several concerts by the school where George was teaching and conducting. "He is two years younger than I, a wonderful human being, had tea with him and also an audience once."

Now, George is invited back for three weeks to teach music (choir, band, and orchestra) in the same school, where the choir room is named after him. "It's gorgeous here," he reports, "one and a half hours north of New Delhi, at 6,500-foot elevation, where the best basmati rice is grown. Climb another 500 feet, and you see crystal-clear snow. The mountains are so huge, so close ... Tibet is 40 miles to the right, Afghanistan to the left."

And after? "Istanbul, Athens, through Italy, then Dresden, and Christmas with friends in Berlin." And the promise of blogging his way through the world. Awaiting further communication.

Pulling Strings With Diablo Symphony

Danville-based Fratello Marionettes will join duo pianists Alex Chien and Eric Tran and the Diablo Symphony on Nov. 25 in the Lesher Center for the Arts, performing Camille Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals.

During the piece, the puppeteers will enact the stories of "Three Little Pigs," the "Tortoise and the Hare," and the "Ugly Duckling."

Chien is the winner and Tran the runner-up in the Symphony’s Young Artist Competition. Music Director Joyce Johnson Hamilton, celebrating her 31st year with Diablo, conducts the program, which includes a medley of holiday favorites.

A propos Makropulos

Looks like the great success of the San Francisco Opera production of Janácek's Makropulos Case, with Karita Mattila — there are just two more performances left: Wednesday and Sunday! — revived local interest in the composer.

There is a good piece about Janácek in the (S.F.) Civic Center blog and for those wishing a total immersion, the recommendation is for Mirka Zemanová's biography. Read an exerpt, about Makropulos, here.

It's been some seven years that I saw Brian Friel's Performances in Dublin (look for "Janácek at the Gate"), and I don't know where it may be produced these days, but if you find it, there is nothing better for quenching your thirst for more Janácek.

Fricsay on Music Treasury

The Music Treasury program for tonight on KZSU 90.1 FM, and online, features performances by conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963), and recordings with soprano Rita Streich (1920-1987).

Fricsay conducts Mozart, Haydn, Kodály, and the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (with Artur Grumiaux); Streich is heard in Mozart and Mendelssohn arias.

Graham on PHC

Susan Graham was the star of last weekend's Prairie Home Companion from Houston, with some hilarious sketches about a mezzo's soprano-envy.

The 1987 Merolina and now the toast of town in New York, Paris, and elsewhere sang Mozart and Handel arias, and tried out her Butterfly — "not the walk-on [mezzo] role of Kate Pinkerton," but the soprano heroine. Graham complained that mezzos don't get roles to die on stage, to be carried through the streets, and to have desserts named after them. She hired Garrison Keillor as her agent, and pretty soon she became queen of the ringtones.

It was a hoot, and if you missed it, the Nov. 20 show should be soon available in the archives.

Elza's Return

Elza van den Heever will be always one of those one-name-only stars, both because of the relatively unusual (Afrikaans, in her case) spelling and the absolutely certain operatic fame that's to be her future.

She made a triumphant return last week to San Francisco, where she attended the Conservatory, made the best of opportunities in Merola and as an Adler Fellow, and made her eventful S.F. Opera debut as Donna Anna in a 2007 Don Giovanni, replacing the originally scheduled soprano.

Wednesday, she sang with the S.F. Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, in Strauss' Four Last Songs, earning a partial standing ovation from an enthusiastically partisan crowd. If she sang something better suited to a young soprano, arias rather than lieder, chances are everybody would have stood.

Even remembering her many previous performances, it was startling to hear her trumpet-like high notes, shaking the rafters in normally singer-unfriendly Davies Symphony Hall. Hers is not only a huge voice, but also powerful, remaining clear and effortless at all times.

Her interpretation of Strauss' end-of-life contemplations was impressive: She sang the music well, and put her heart into it.

The problematic aspect of the performance was her virtually nonexistent diction. Even if you know the text by heart, you'd be hard put to recognize a word in "Frühling." There was some improvement in the two middle movements, but most of "Im Abendrot" appeared slurred.

Inevitably, allowing the musical line to suppress the text resulted in a kind of sameness through the cycle, rather than expressing the subtle progression of the work from spring's blue skies to the approach of death at sunset.

MTT and the orchestra were grand, which means both a big sound and somewhat lacking in subtlety; Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik's solos were exceptional: heartfelt but unsentimental.