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IN Music News THIS WEEK:
July 27, 2004

Young Canadians in SF Symphony's POPera

San Jose Singers Win Silver in Llangollen

In the Works: Phantom of the (Gruesome) Opera

BaBarians to the Opera

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By Janos Gereben

Mozart at 30

When Midsummer Mozart opens its 2004 season on Thursday, founder-director George Cleve will be on the podium . . . for the 30th year. Just about nobody expected back in 1974 that this small-scale and yet ambitious musical event would be still around three decades later, but here it is, going strong, even after the grave financial difficulties coincidental with the pesky new century.

This feat of survival impressed San Francisco Mayor (and music lover) Gavin Newsom sufficiently to declare a "Midsummer Mozart Week" in honor of Cleve and the festival, among the many other similarly exalted enterprises and events. Cleve, music director of the late San Jose Symphony for many years, has recently conducted the Mozart Requiem in Moscow, at the invitation of Moscow Virtuosi's Vladimir Spivakov, and led the New York City Ballet Orchestra in performances during the 100th anniversary observation of George Balanchine's birth. In the fall, Cleve will conduct in Singapore, and Bizet's Carmen with Opera San Jose in the renovated California Theater.

Among soloists returning to Midsummer Mozart: pianists Seymour Lipkin and Jon Nakamatsu, and soprano Christina Major. Festival concerts, through August 8, will be given in San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church, Saratoga's Villa Montalvo, San Jose's Le Petit Trianon, Sonoma's Gundlach Bundschu Winery. See www.midsummermozart.org.

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Young Canadians in SF Symphony's POPera

"Opera's Greatest Hits" to a fault, the San Francisco Symphony's Summer in the City (née SFS Pops) concert last week served up two voices making the trip to Davies Hall worthwhile. The return of former SF Opera Center Adler Fellow James Westman fulfilled high expectations. An eminently "musical singer" from his student days on, Westman has been steadily developing a voice that may be dubbed a "high baritone" in other throats, but sounds a "luminous baritone" in his case. Westman's diction, projection, voice production are all clear and appealing; the sky is the limit for him.

Well-known as Westman is here, Erin Marie Wall came new, unknown... and terrific. Born in Calgary, educated in Vancouver and in several US schools, the soprano from the Chicago Lyric's young-artist program is very young, indeed, with a very big voice. Standing on the stage with a full-size orchestra around her, in the voice-unfriendly barn of Davies Hall, Wall sang up a storm, but not by being loud.

Solid, foursquare, and pleasant as her appearance, Wall's voice is on the money, and the ease with which she handles Puccini (Gianni Schicchi), Kálmán (Countess Maritza), and La Traviata today is clearly promising for even heavier Verdi roles and who knows what else in the future. For phrasing and interpretation, she is well on her way, with obvious space for improvement, especially in singing the music, rather than being The Singer. Her youth and the famously sensible Canadian environment should take care of that . . . although her upcoming New York City appearances may counteract progress, especially if she tarries long in that un-Canadian city.

Also on the program: another former Merola singer, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, didn't make a good impression. Beyond a small range of comfort in the middle, the voice sounded dry and forced. Peter Grunberg conducted supportively for the singers, in a restrained and effective fashion in the orchestral numbers. He directed a non-histrionic Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo, and a notably un-bumpy William Tell Overture, the music graced by the performances of cellists Peter Wyrick and Margaret Tait.

About the program: it's understood that "La donna é mobile," the "Toreador Song," "Au fond du temple saint," etc. are the staple of a pops (sorry, SUMMER) concert, but wouldn't it make sense to sneak in one or two arias or orchestral excerpts not from the top of the hit parade? Besides those brand-new to opera, there were quite a few marginal or beginning opera fans in the nearly full hall — for both groups, hearing something from outside the realm of advertising background music might have been a supportable idea.

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San Jose Singers Win Silver in Llangollen

Daniel Hughes' eight-year-old group, The Choral Project, won second place in Mixed Choral Competition, in its very first outing to Wales' International Eisteddfod. Of the 650 choirs auditioning for the 58th Eisteddfod, only nine were chosen to compete. In its category, Choral Project scored 274 points out of the possible 300, trailing the first place choir by only one point. The San Jose group also received the highest individual score of any group (95 out of 100) for one of its performances. Competition at Llangollen was the culmination of the Choral Project's second international tour, performing in some of the great cathedrals in Scotland and England, and at a Baslow concert, benefitting the Village AiD Program. See www.choralproject.org.

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In the Works: Phantom of the (Gruesome) Opera

Doors in front of the War Memorial Opera House are locked these days, but the stage entrance is busy as the San Francisco Opera is in high gear, preparing for the fall season. The production that's sure to get the most attention, György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, requires more work than others because of its difficult music, complicated staging and big chorus numbers.

Controversy is writ large over the piece, beginning with that word in the title which means "gruesome, shockingly repellent, inspiring horror." Even in Ligeti's mostly humorous treatment, there is no denying what has been said after the European premiere: "Ligeti has not done anything more calculated to enrage and bemuse than Le Grand Macabre, an opera that portrays everything from sadomasochism and nymphomania to infantilism and a failed apocalypse."

Responses to the music — a mix of shades of Monteverdi, Verdi, Rossini and "repellent" cacophony — range from ". . . magical, funny and delicious, as `The Magic Flute' . . . powerful and filled with beauty," to words that cannot be readily repeated except in the opera itself. For production information, see www.sfopera.com.

Members of the Opera Chorus (still waiting for their contract) have reported on the eventful first rehearsal for Macabre: it took place on the very day when in-house notices were posted of Pamela Rosenberg's decision not to seek extension of her contract as general director. Our own Choral Deep Throat writes: "The chorus read the announcement on the bulletin board as we signed in for the rehearsal. No one said anything, but the rehearsal started off in an energized mood. By total coincidence, the first thing we rehearsed was a scene in which we sing `Our great leader! Our great leader!' again and again, followed immediately by the exclamation `Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!' many times over. Talk about surreal!"

Here are some snippets of the music: from the Car Horn Prelude, http://tinyurl.com/4kn4t; "Shut Up," http://tinyurl.com/6apmh; "Amanda, can do no more," http://tinyurl.com/4pnl7.

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BaBarians to the Opera

Opera and high-energy physics — the natural connection. If you check into activities of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (and who wouldn't?), you'll find that many of the 600 physicists and engineers of the BaBar Collaboration (www.slac.stanford.edu/BFROOT) are heading to a Dresden conference in September.

Besides their devotion to the study of B mesons produced by the PEP-II storage ring, the scientists are paying close attention to the situation at the Semperoper. Among the "Hot Items" sent to members is this: "OPERA TICKETS MUST BE ORDERED NOW!" Looks like only 100 tickets are reserved to Don Carlo for conference participants, so the race is on: www.babarmeeting.tu-dresden.de.

(Janos Gereben, a regular contributor to www.sfcv.org, is arts editor of the Post Newspaper Group. His e-mail address is janosg@gmail.com.)

©2004 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved