Vallejo’s Empress Theater
Vallejo’s Empress Theater

Editor’s Note (Jan. 4): This performance has been postponed, with a reschedule date yet to be announced.

Marketing communications in overdrive, Vallejo Center for the Arts is preparing a promising performance dubbed “The Greatest Wagner Concert Ever!” — title complete with exclamation mark.

But look behind MarCom liberties and you will find much of interest at the event on Jan. 15. With Thomas Conlin conducting the Vallejo Festival Orchestra, the concert features soprano Othalie Graham. Highlights of the large, ambitious program include excerpts from Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Der fliegende Holländer.

Thomas Conlin
Conductor Thomas Conlin

Conlin, whose wide-ranging career has included recording everything from George Crumb’s Star-Child with the Warsaw Philharmonic to the piano concertos of Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri, told SF Classical Voice that he doesn’t consider himself a Wagner specialist “but rather as an advocate for the noble and ennobling aspect of his music dramas.”

Conlin’s experience includes an engagement in 1967 as rehearsal pianist for Herbert von Karajan’s Ring des Nibelungen at the Metropolitan Opera. “From Karajan I learned more about music — about Wagner’s music in particular — than during my entire four years as a conservatory student. Expecting to be collaborating with a difficult taskmaster, I instead found him to be a very generous colleague who was willing to share his vast knowledge about Wagner.”

About the Vallejo concert, Conlin says, “I think that people attending their first symphony concerts are typically impressed and moved most by the sheer sonority of the sound of the orchestra. In that regard, the Wagner concert may be a wonderful way to introduce the art form. Our smorgasbord of excerpts consists entirely of stand-alone selections from Wagner’s works that the composer himself endorsed as a way to introduce his music to novices. Wagner, perhaps more than any other composer, can be counted on to deliver the ‘goosebump’ factor.”

Soprano Othalie Graham, soloist at the concert, told SFCV: “I have always loved Wagner. My first voice teacher, Lois McDonall, sang Freia on the Reginald Goodall Chandos recording of Das Rheingold and that was the first Wagner recording I heard.

Othalie Graham
Soprano Othalie Graham

“She immediately recognized that I would sing this repertoire in my career, and we spent a lot of time listening and learning different parts of his operas. I will sing Freia later this season with her score. I have sung Wagner in concerts all over the world and I love his music.

“Standing in front of an orchestra and singing Isolde or the Immolation Scene is such a thrill. That wave of sound is always so exciting. Wagner has some of the most beautiful music in the world, and hopefully we will start to see more diversity in casting in Wagner operas.”

Graham is the daughter of a Jamaican couple who immigrated to Toronto, Canada, where she was born and educated. In the 5th or 6th grade, her teacher would not let her sing with the other children because she felt Graham’s voice was overpowering the other children.

Early in life, a Leontyne Price concert was a life-changing experience for Graham. Although initially hesitating between biology and music as a major, she eventually attended the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and her career took off from there.

Graham says one of the most rewarding aspects of her career is when parents bring their children to see her perform: “I’m honored that future generations might become inspired by my singing just as I was at Ms. Leontyne Price’s performance.”

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