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Georgia Rowe

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.

Articles by this Author

Feature Article
September 6, 2009

With autumn upon us, the Bay Area's classical music groups are tuning up for hundreds of intriguing events. San Francisco Classical Voice asked several of our critics and editors to comb through the performance announcements available to date and pick their favorite choices for September through December. We've put the season in chronological order for the convenience of music-lovers organizing their datebooks.

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Upcoming Concert
August 20, 2009
Opera San José, which closed out its 2008-2009 season with Bizet's Carmen, opens the 2009 fall season with another operatic bad girl: Manon. Jules Massenet’s 1884 opera opens Sept. 12 at the California Theatre.

The sociopolitical milieu of Manon’s 18th-century France lies, of course, a considerable distance from Carmen’s Seville. Still, the two title characters have much in common. Carmen, based on Prosper Merimee’s novella of the same name, and Manon, inspired by Abbé Prevost’s 1731 novel L’Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, are among opera’s most complex and charismatic doomed heroines.

Manon, however, takes a decidedly longer fall. She starts Massenet’s 1884 opera as a shy 15-year-old on her way to the convent; a chance meeting with the young chevalier Des Grieux directs her to an entirely different path. Manon is pure at heart, but deeply flawed — fickle and shallow, with a penchant for making unfortunate choices — and her devotion to Des Grieux, pitted against her taste for the glittering Parisian high life, leads her to a tragic end.

If Manon is unable to escape her inevitable outcome, she makes her descent on a torrent of glorious music. Massenet wasn’t the only composer to respond to Prevost’s original story (Puccini’s Manon Lescaut derived from it, as well, with less satisfying results), but in Manon, with a fine libretto by Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille, he brought the character to life in vibrant musical terms. With arias such as the Act 2 “Adieu, notre petit table” (Farewell, our little table) illuminating Manon’s inner thoughts with exquisite tenderness, Manon is Massenet’s most enduring opera; along with Carmen and Gounod’s Faust, it remains one of the most beloved works in the French repertoire.

No wonder so many sopranos have been drawn to the role, which has seen great interpreters, including Beverly Sills (who described it as “the French Isolde”), Reri Grist, and Victoria de los Angeles. In recent years, top names such as Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, and Natalie Dessay have made their marks, as well.

Opera San José’s production, which launches the company’s 26th season under General Director Irene Dalis, features two alternating casts. Sopranos Khori Dastoor and Rebecca Schuessler will alternate in the title role; the role of Des Grieux will be sung by tenors Alexander Boyer and Michael Dailey. Krassen Karagiozov and Daniel Cilli alternate as Lescaut, and Silas Elash and Isaiah Musik-Ayala sing the Count Des Grieux. Joseph Marcheso and Bryan Nies will share conducting duties; Dianna Shuster is the stage director.

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Feature Article
August 10, 2009

Santa Fe Opera has always exerted a powerful pull on opera lovers from the Bay Area and beyond, and this year was no exception. With five productions offered throughout July and August in the company’s 2,200-seat, open-air theater, the 2009 season — Charles MacKay’s first as general director — offered myriad musical rewards in a congenial setting.

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Artist Spotlight
July 28, 2009

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein began her career at age 4 when her grandmother presented her with a homemade instrument assembled from cereal boxes. The young musician gave her first public concert six months later, albeit on a more traditional cello. Since then, Weilerstein — the daughter of violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein — has been widely acclaimed as one of the leading interpreters of her generation, in a variety of repertoire.

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Opera Review
July 24, 2009

L’amico Fritz is one of opera’s neglected gems. As the follow-up to his hugely acclaimed Cavalleria rusticana, Pietro Mascagni’s 1891 commedia lirica never quite achieved the popularity of its predecessor. These days, with arts funding at a new low, productions of it are as rare as hen’s teeth. Yet the Merola Opera Program’s revival, presented over the weekend at the Fort Mason Center’s Cowell Theater, suggested that Fritz is well worth revisiting.

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Festival Review
July 19, 2009

With its feast-for-the-senses blend of performance, art, and culinary events, Festival del Sole has become an attractive summer destination for music lovers throughout the Bay Area and beyond. The annual Napa Valley extravaganza, a spinoff of Italy’s Tuscan Sun festival, has also turned out to be a great place to experience the work of up-and-coming conductors.

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Upcoming Concert
June 18, 2009
When an opera company’s mission is to give young singers, conductors and directors opportunities to explore the repertoire, Puccini is always a good place to start. Throughout its 18 seasons, Festival Opera has scored numerous hits with productions of the composer’s La Bohéme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica. This month, though, the Walnut Creek-based company aims to climb a slightly higher mountain with Puccini’s Turandot.

Under artistic director Michael Morgan, Festival is staging its first production of Puccini’s final opera. A coproduction with Opera Birmingham, it features Canadian soprano Othalie Graham in the title role and tenor Christopher Jackson as her suitor, Calaf. Soprano Sjöwall appears as Liù, and bass Kirk Eichelberger, a Festival Opera favorite, returns to the company as Timur. Bryan Nies will conduct four performances, July 11-29, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. David Cox directs.

Turandot, which features a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, was adapted from Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play of the same title. Set in ancient Peking, the opera tells the story of a princess who decrees that she will marry the first prince who can solve the three riddles she has devised. If he fails, he must die; many have tried, and all have failed.

Puccini was enthusiastic about the subject, but the opera became the orphan in his family of works; the composer died in 1924 before the score was complete. The young composer Franco Alfano stepped in and, working from Puccini’s sketches, spent six months finishing the score. The opera received its first performance (without Alfano’s ending) on April 25, 1926, at La Scala, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Noted for arias such as “Nessun Dorma,” the work has been a standard of the repertoire ever since.

It’s a big opera with big requirements, but Morgan says that Festival Opera is ready to take it on.

“We’ve been talking about it for some time,” Morgan explained in a recent interview, “and we’d had Othalie Graham here a few years ago as Tosca. Turandot is a role she’s done a lot, so we knew we could cast it. And of course it’s a favorite with everybody.”

Morgan, who also serves as music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, allows that the challenges of Turandot are daunting. But he says they’re not insurmountable.

“The challenge for any conductor is that there are so many moving parts,” he says. “The other consideration, for a small company such as Festival Opera, is that the opera rests so heavily on the chorus. Fitting it into our space is also a challenge, but small companies are doing more of that these days: what you lose in terms of the large orchestra, you gain in the audience’s proximity to the singers.”

There’s also the question of the title role. Turandot requires a soprano equipped with a rare combination of lyrical beauty and dramatic weight; Callas, Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Leonie Rysanek were among the 20th century’s leading exponents. When the San Francisco Opera last offered the work, in 2002, it was with the formidable Jane Eaglen at the head of the cast.

“The most important thing about a Turandot,” says Morgan, “is to be able to have enough power to rise above the orchestra, and yet be able to produce the power with beauty. You can make a lot of noise and have it not be particularly beautiful. But to be have that power, the projection, the top, and that beautiful sound is the mark of a great Turandot. It’s a big, demanding part that takes a voice of size and stamina. And that’s what Othalie has.”

Graham launched her career in 2004 at Opera Delaware with the role; the Delaware Courier-Post described her as possessing an “imperious presence and powerful voice.”

Morgan first heard Graham in 2006, when she was singing the title role of Tosca with Sacramento Opera. She auditioned for him, and he cast her in Festival’s production of the opera later the same year. Her performance was widely praised by Bay Area critics; The San Francisco Chronicle noted that she “soared effortlessly through the role.”

Turandot, however, remains Graham’s signature role. She has returned to it with opera companies around the country, including Utah Festival Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre, and reprised it in Boston in May of this year with Chorus Pro Musica.

Morgan describes the new production, which was presented at Opera Birmingham in January of this year, as lavish and traditional. With a large cast and an augmented, 75-member chorus prepared by James Toland, the production represents Festival’s largest undertaking to date.

Morgan, who will conduct and direct the company’s new production of Gounod’s Faust in August, says that one of the rewards of heading the company is working with young artists. When it came time to schedule Turandot, he says he turned the production over to Nies and assistant conductor Joseph Marcheso with complete confidence.

“We’re very happy to be supporting them,” he says. “Bryan and Joseph are also working together at Opera San José. Joseph, who assisted in our Trovatore last year, is doing the Manon that opens the season there, with Bryan assisting him. These two artists are our next generation opera conducting team. So that’s another very forward-looking thing the company is doing.”

More about Festival Opera »
Artist Spotlight
June 17, 2009

At 30, Inon Barnatan has established an international reputation as a pianist of uncommon depth and maturity. The Tel Aviv-born, New York-based artist, who studied with Leon Fleisher and the late Maria Curcio, has earned acclaim in a variety of repertoire from Beethoven to Messiaen to Schubert. In 2007, the latter composer inspired Barnatan to assemble a group of like-minded (and similarly youthful) colleagues for “The Schubert Project,” a series showcasing late-life Schubert solo, chamber, and lieder works.

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Feature Article
May 26, 2009

Has Porgy and Bess finally arrived? Despite its troubled history, George Gershwin’s 1935 opera may be coming into its own at last. As the San Francisco Opera prepares three full productions and a concert running May 29 – July 5 at the War Memorial Opera House, Porgy seems poised to emerge as the jewel in the summer season crown.

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Upcoming Concert
May 11, 2009

Volti’s motto is “Singing without a net,” and the San Francisco-based vocal ensemble led by Music Director Robert Geary does indeed stay on the forefront of contemporary choral music.

Currently in its 30th anniversary season, the group returns in May with a far-reaching program featuring premieres by Donald Crockett and Robert Paterson, along with contemporary choral works by Kirke Mechem, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Sungji Hong.

Of particular interest is Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains. Composed on commission from Volti, with texts by Katherine Vincent, the set of five movements is inspired by the folk music traditions of Tuva. Geary praises the beauties of the score, calling it “evocative of sweeping landscapes and a pastoral and meditative existence.”

Paterson’s On the Day the World Ends (another Volti commission) is a cycle of three pieces incorporating poetry by Czeslaw Miosz, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Elizabeth Frye. Also included are Mechem’s Three Madrigals, a setting of texts by the composer’s father, poet and author Kirke F. Mechem, and Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations, which incorporates writings by 13th-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg. Hong’s Emendemus in melius completes the program.

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Upcoming Concert
April 28, 2009
Volti’s motto is “Singing without a net,” and the San Francisco–based vocal ensemble, led by Music Director Robert Geary, does indeed stay on the forefront of contemporary choral music. Currently in its 30th-anniversary season, the group returns in May with a far-reaching program featuring world premieres by Donald Crockett and Robert Paterson, along with contemporary choral works by Kirke Mechem, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Sungji Hong.

Of particular interest is Crockett’s Daglarym/My Mountains. Composed on commission from Volti, with texts by Katherine Vincent, the set of five movements is inspired by the folk music traditions of Tuva. Geary praises the beauties of the score, calling it “evocative of sweeping landscapes and a pastoral and meditative existence.”

Paterson’s On the Day the World Ends (another Volti commission) is a cycle of three pieces incorporating poetry by Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Mary Elizabeth Frye. Also included are Mechem’s Three Madrigals, a setting of texts by the composer’s father, the poet and author Kirke F. Mechem, and Kernis’ Ecstatic Meditations, which incorporates writings by a 13th-century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg. Hong’s Emendemus in melius completes the program. Performances are at 8 p.m. on May 15 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley and May 16 at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco; and at 4 p.m. on May 17 at All Saints’ Church, Palo Alto.

This weekend, meanwhile, audiences can hear a program celebrating the culmination of Volti’s acclaimed high school outreach program. On May 2 at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the ensemble’s Choral Institute Concert will bring together the combined choirs of the Acalanes High School Chamber Singers, the Head-Royce School Colla Voce, and Piedmont Choirs Ecco with the Jubilate Orchestra in a performance of J.S. Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude. Geary conducts. Each choir will also perform separately, in repertoire ranging from Claudio Monteverdi to Imogen Heap. The music starts at 8 p.m.

More about Volti »
Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
April 26, 2009

There’s a lot to be said for youthful exuberance, particularly when it’s combined with the kind of stylish and refined playing offered by the Australian Chamber Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Zellerbach Hall.

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Upcoming Concert
April 21, 2009
Orchestral concerts often include a single Aaron Copland work as a nod to American music, but this month’s Marin Symphony program gives the great 20th-century composer an entire bill. In performances May 3 and 5 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, Music Director Alasdair Neale conducts an all-Copland program that includes Hoe-down, Appalachian Spring, and the Third Symphony.

While these works hardly amount to a survey of Copland’s music (no one program could accomplish that), they do illuminate one of the composer’s most fertile periods: the years between 1942 and 1946, when he refined the distinctive American vocabulary — the spare harmonies, spacious textures, forthright melodies, and vital rhythms we have come to think of as quintessentially Copland. Hoe-down, part of an orchestral suite excerpted from the 1942 ballet score Rodeo, paints a vibrant picture of the American West — one that Copland, a Brooklyn-born Jew who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, had never actually seen.

No matter — written for dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille, who gave the ballet’s wildly successful first performance in New York, the work remains a singularly inventive vision of the American West, and an exuberant example of this composer’s most accessible work. So, too, does Appalachian Spring, also created for DeMille; the austere and serenely beautiful 1944 score, built around the Shaker tune A Gift to be Simple, never fails to move an audience.

The Third Symphony rounds out the program. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky, who called it the greatest American symphony to date, the 1946 score evokes both a mythical America, and a specific one. The fourth movement incorporates music Copland wrote earlier as a tribute to the ordinary men and women who were “doing the dirty work” in World War II — a short piece for brass and percussion he titled Fanfare for the Common Man, which went on to become one of the most popular and oft-performed musical works of the century.

The program concludes Marin Symphony’s 2008-2009 season. Neale, who has a proven track record with Copland’s music, both in Marin and during his previous tenures as San Francisco Symphony’s associate conductor and music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, gives a preconcert talk one hour before each performance.

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Opera Review
April 18, 2009

Under the right circumstances, Carmen can turn up the heat like no other opera. Opera San José’s serviceable new production keeps it at a steady simmer, but never quite reaches the boiling point.

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Chamber Orchestra/Orchestra Review
April 10, 2009

This is the time of year when San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, for better or worse, yields the podium to a series of guest conductors. Later this month, and in the first part of May, Oliver Knussen, Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Bernard Labadie will take up the baton; this past weekend it was Stéphane Denève’s turn.

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Opera Review
March 29, 2009

Have you seen La favorita lately? If you live in the Bay Area, the answer is probably no. Even in the best of times, Donizetti's 1840 melodrama has never ranked among the composer's greatest hits, and these days, with opera companies forced to bank on box office certainties, new productions are woefully few and far between.

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Recital Review
March 26, 2009

Like other great countertenors before him, David Daniels established his career singing works from the Baroque repertoire. Since then, he’s made a point of expanding his horizons — and the public’s perception of what the high male voice type can do — with composers from other eras up to the present. His Bay Area performances in recent years have included music by Brahms, Berlioz, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and his gloriously pure-toned voice, keen musical intelligence, and superior technique have supported his choices at every turn.

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Choral Review
March 17, 2009

Chanticleer was founded in 1978 to explore the vocal music of the Renaissance, but the ever-questing 12-man chorus makes a regular habit of looking to the future. Last Tuesday, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, the San Francisco–based ensemble ushered three newly commissioned works into the repertoire, giving each the kind of vibrant, lustrous performance that has become synonymous with the Chanticleer name.

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Recital Review
March 3, 2009

The American song repertoire is often an afterthought for recital singers, but soprano Nicole Cabell made it the centerpiece of her program Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. It was a wise choice, one that showed the young artist’s voice to better advantage than the more traditional repertoire that comprised the balance of the program.

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Early Music/Baroque Review
March 3, 2009

With their magical imagery and multiple musical cues, the plays of William Shakespeare have been a constant source of inspiration, for composers from the playwright’s era to our own.

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