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Music at Kohl is now in its 27th season of presenting music and musical education in the South Bay. The current year’s program includes performances by such well-known ensembles as the Borealis String Quartet, the Ives Quartet, and the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players.
In addition to these concerts, which take place at the historic Kohl Mansion located on the campus of Mercy High School in Burlingame, Music at Kohl also offers concerts free to the public in the Oak Room at the San Mateo Public Library as part of its Family Series. Coming up on May 1, pianist Lara Downes will be joined in recital by 14-year-old cellist Clark Pang from Orinda; 11-year-old pianist Alex Chien, a sixth grader from Saratoga; and 14-year-old soprano Meagan Rao, from Placer High School. Music at Kohl and Downes are a natural fit. Music at Kohl is in its 18th year of taking music to San Mateo County schools, and Downes founded the Rising Stars of California program, which performs music in schools and offers awards through competition to performers aged 8 through 18.
Downes herself, along with two of the program’s competition winners, performed at a private donor event at the Kohl Mansion. Executive Director of Music at Kohl Patricia Kristof Moy explains that she was “bowled over by their virtuosity and poise, and asked Lara to return with some of her ‘rising stars’ for our Family Concert series, which was relocated last year to the wonderful new San Mateo Library, which boasts a perfect concert space with a fine piano.”
Lara Downes is a parent herself, with a daughter, age 8, and a son, 6, who she says are both finding their way to music. Downes began piano at age 4 and says that she had previously had the idea that one must begin on piano before learning another instrument, but her daughter’s natural inclination to the cello has caused her to reconsider that idea. Her desire to nurture young talent seems to derive from an awareness of the example and encouragement she herself has been given, as well as a sense of gratitude for those opportunities.
Her founding of the Rising Stars program, she says, came about at the Mondavi Center, where she is a resident artist. “The young-artist competition project started as an offshoot of my performance series. At a certain point, I was just kind of scouting out local talent and it just made sense to start a more formal competition. Some fantastic kids came forward to audition and at the reception, the folks at the Mondavi said they’d like to sponsor it, and it has grown exponentially since then. It’s a great opportunity for the kids.”
Downes is also the founder and director of a program called “88 Keys” that provides pianos and music education to schools. Speaking of the strange and precarious life that musicians face, she says, “I realize how lucky I am that things have lined up so well for me: to go to New York and get a record deal my second year there, the partnership with Steinway [the piano company]. What is interesting for me is to realize that it is a continuum. Everything that happens to you as a kid affects the artist you will become. And this is such a crazy life to have as a musician, so anytime that anybody comes to hear me play and writes me a check for doing so, there’s an awareness of that and a gratitude.”
When asked what she feels is the most important lesson that she can offer young performers, she says that she is trying to encourage the players to think of themselves as artists and, in particular, as communicators. “I’m trying to mentor the young musicians from the very beginning, when they’re thinking so much about technique, to think more globally about communicating to different audiences. That was something I didn’t think about till much later. At that early stage, they’re mostly just thinking about the instrument and the self.”
The artists who will join Downes on May 1 at Kohl are off and running on their careers as musicians, having won numerous awards and performed with symphonies and on radio and television. It is likely that local residents will turn out to see them in this popular series. Moy, Kohl’s executive music director, says that the free concerts have had an extremely positive response from the community. “We are seeing full (and overflowing!) houses at every event this season,” she remarks, “and the demand for our visiting artists in schools program is far greater than we are able to meet. We’re working on it!”
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Compared to Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, Puccini’s La rondine (The swallow), which premiered in 1917, is certainly a less-performed work, though it can hardly be called obscure.
In the past decade, the opera has been performed at the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, and the San Francisco Opera, among other places, all with superstar Angela Gheorghiu starring as Magda. The Met production was also released in HD simulcasts in movie theaters around the globe. In the upcoming production at Opera San José, two sopranos will come home to roost for performances April 24–May 9: Rebecca Davis and Jasmina Halimic.
Davis was a member of OSJ’s resident company in 2008-2009, singing Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Adina in The Elixir of Love, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, and Micaela in Carmen. Halimic is making her OSJ debut and was contracted for the role only a week before rehearsals began. Opera San José has a reputation for nurturing young singers, and that certainly was Halimic’s experience. “I was lucky to be here in this empathetic, encouraging, and positive environment where everyone was always ready to help me get this role off to a good start. [Music Director Dr. David] Rohrbaugh was especially supportive and even gave me extra time and hours to get my voice back on track after illness. It’s very important that singers feel comfortable and confident when the performance time comes, so the fact that we have a long rehearsal period is such luxury. It only tells me that Opera San José strives for the quality in performance.” She goes on to say, “Working with José Maria Condemi is a dream for any young singer. He is a brilliant director, and working with him feels like a master class in acting. We are all very excited about this project and can’t wait to share it with the public.”
Both singers see parallels between the passionate and self-sacrificing nature of this character and Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, a courtesan torn between her love for a man of nobility and the potential harm her own status may bring him. Both singers also see a strong, sympathetic character in Magda. Davis says, “I think at some point of our lives we want something we don’t have. For Magda, she wanted true love, which was quite different from the relationship she is in at the beginning of the story. I think most everyone has been in a relationship that worked, but something was missing. It was important to me to find that true balance of love and a great partner. I’m lucky I found it. In Magda’s case, she finds her true love when she ventures out to Bullier’s nightclub. Unfortunately, she is not able to keep that love when she feels her sordid past makes her undeserving of being welcomed into a virtuous family.”
Comparing Magda to Puccini’s other heroines, Davis says that she thinks Magda is quite different. “Most of his other characters, like Butterfly and Mimi from La Bohème, are victims of circumstance, and they deal with what they get the best that they can. In Mimi’s case it’s illness, and with Butterfly, it’s war that brings her husband, Pinkerton, and then she has to deal with the fact that it was a marriage of convenience for him, while he was stationed in Japan. I really feel Magda is in control of her situation. She knows what she wants and she goes and gets it, and then when faced with a heart-wrenching decision to do something good for her partner, she decides to leave him and go back to her old life.”
Listen to the Music
Halimic also sees a woman who makes choices. “Magda is a woman who made the conscious decision to make the best of what life had offered her. She had a turbulent past as a courtesan, a past that negated every possibility of a future as a honest Christian woman devoted to a quiet family life. Due to such circumstances, she realized that her best option in life is to accept an offer to become the wife of an aging, wealthy banker, and although she clearly loves and respects him, she quietly longs for that passionate, romantic connection. She successfully adapts and conforms to the superficiality of the wealthy society lifestyle while she fights to suppress her desires.”
Halimic continues, saying, “There are moments in the opera where she lets the real self peek out for a moment, but manages to always keep it a mystery. In spite of the comfort of her current situation, she can no longer deny the deep longing she subconsciously seeks. She makes the final decision to follow her heart in order to fulfill this longing. I think most women can relate and at least empathize with Magda’s romantic dreams and desires.”
Those dreams and desires are expressed in the famous first-act waltz aria, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta.” Halimic’s favorite moment in the opera comes in the final act when, for a time at least, those dreams are realized. “It’s complex, as there’s the underlying current of awareness that these idyllic moments are fleeting and that the reality will eventually shatter their dream. In spite of this awareness she clings to now, in these passionate moments she finally gets to live. I love singing the final duet. It breaks my heart every time, yet it’s so powerful emotionally, it almost feels a little masochistic.”
For Davis, the moment comes earlier: “I love drama, so my favorite part is at the end of Act 2, when Magda tells Rambaldo (her sugar-daddy) that she has fallen in love and she is leaving him. It’s very emotional for her because she is taking a huge risk leaving him for someone she has just met. The music really lends itself to the drama.”
Magda’s love interest, Ruggero, will be sung alternately by former OSJ resident artist Christopher Bengochea and current resident artist Alexander Boyer. If you’d like to know more about the opera before you see it, preperformance talks are given at 6:30 p.m. before evening performances (excluding opening night) and at 1:30 p.m. before matinees. Maestro David Rohrbaugh will conduct.More about Opera San José »
A 15-year-old from Cleveland is coming to town to join the California Symphony in a program titled, simply, “Virtuosity.” The concerts on March 7 and 9 will feature the young virtuoso Chad Hoopes playing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. The easy demeanor and youthful enthusiasm Hoopes brought to his recent phone conversation with SFCV has also served him well on national talk shows, including the CBS Early Show and PBS’ From the Top: Live at Carnegie Hall.The acclaimed violinist has performed from Peoria to Oslo and from London to the Napa Valley. When he was 13 he won first prize in the Young Artists Division of the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. Now living in Ohio with his parents, whom he describes as wonderfully supportive, Hoopes also performs in a trio with his two sisters. The eldest is a violist currently studying at Juilliard, and the youngest is a violinist in her senior year in high school.
Studying violin since the age of 4, Hoopes says that he practices between three and five hours a day, but plays between seven and eight hours a day, what with rehearsals and performances. Still, like any 15-year-old, he finds time to “chill out” with friends, and enjoys school and social time, as well as the occasional games of Wii and even “Ultimate Frisbee” and basketball, though he says that he doesn’t play the latter too intensely, to protect his hands. Currently playing a 1713 Stradivarius, he describes his musical tastes as broad, and says that he has such respect for composers that it is difficult to pick a favorite; he does venture that he’s particularly excited about learning the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which he’ll perform in July with the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Donato Cabrera.
Chad Hoopes on CBS' Early Show
As for the 23-year-old California Symphony, it has a history of promoting young artists, having featured in their U.S. debuts such well-known violinists as Sarah Chang and Kyoko Takezawa, and pianists Helen Huang and Joyce Yang. Music Director Barry Jekowsky is no stranger to an early career himself. He began playing on Broadway at the tender age of 14, doing percussion in the Tony Award–winning Man of La Mancha, and moved on to straddle the worlds of classical music and Broadway by continuing as substitute percussionist in various Broadway shows while also subbing with the New York Philharmonic. Jekowsky, former music director of the Reno Philharmonic and associate conductor with the National Symphony, has also taken a particular interest in young American composers, having founded the California Symphony’s Young American Composer-in-Residence Program in 1991. The company has a predilection for American composers, as evidenced in this season’s inclusion of works by Mason Bates (all of 30 years old), a local composer whose work spans both classical and electronica compositions. In addition to Hoopes playing the Bruch, the upcoming concerts will feature John Adams’ Common Tones in Simple Time and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. If the rave reviews Jekowsky has garnered are any indication, perhaps spring will come early to Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, in the form of youthful, blossoming artistry.
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Jeffrey Thomas is preparing American Bach Soloists for their two performances of Handel’s Messiah at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral this weekend. He is also writing a book on Handel’s masterpiece, leading the ABS into new educational territories (including a summer training program), and finding time to create the occasional chilled-avocado and seafood soup.
Tell me how you got started writing your book.