Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.
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With the exultant opening exclamation of “Veni, creator spiritus,” the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus recapture the torrential excitement they unleashed in their November 2008 performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Davies Symphony Hall. In one sense, that shouldn’t surprise. This recording, like the others in conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ magnificent Mahler cycle, was set down live during those concerts last fall.
This year, Gordon’s idea of fun involves not only music, but also pictures, colored lighting, spoken narrative, and a dash of playful stage business. For two performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which Gordon calls “statistically the most recorded composition in history,” the festival will heighten the listening experience with projected paintings and stage lighting keyed to the program of the movements: a harsh orange light of the sun for “Summer,” something thinner and blue-toned for “Winter.”
As for the paintings, Gordon is tapping the composer’s Venetian contemporary Sebastiano Ricci, who actually may have inspired Vivaldi’s famous four-panel concerto. Instead of simply projecting full-frame images by Ricci and others of the period, a strategy that risks literalizing the score, Gordon plans a more impressionistic approach. Twelve scenes, of trees, sky water, shepherds, and so on — one for each section of The Four Seasons — will appear in partial, semiabstract, vague, or slightly blurred treatments on a five-by-10-foot screen at the Sunset Center Theater. Muslin drapes will add a further softening touch.
“The idea here is not to draw attention to how trendy and geeky we are, but to enhance the music’s affect and heighten our sensory awareness of it,” notes Gordon, who began his 21-year tenure at the festival as a tenor soloist. By employing the “basic principles of classical rhetoric — to entertain and engage the heart and thereby open opportunities for learning and insight” — Gordon believes this fresh approach to Vivaldi will remain true to the festival’s core mission.
This kind of experiment is a Carmel first. Details of how all the elements will come together are still being worked out. Gordon and Music Director Bruno Weil considered something similar a few years ago, when the idea of combining Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Albrecht Dürer etchings was proposed. But the match felt too specific and confining. The mixed-media scheme was scuttled until the right piece came along.
Festival regulars may feel more at home when it comes to “Haydn Seek: An Aha! Concert” scheduled for July 21 and 28. In a format first used in Carmel four years ago and repeated every year since, the “Aha!” programs merge spoken commentary and, recently, some visuals with the music. “It’s not a lecture concert,” Gordon hastens to explain. “We’re not telling the life of the composer or building some kind of argument. It’s a potpourri concert with a narrative thread.”
Built around movements from various symphonies, a piano trio, The Seasons, Mass in Time of War, and more, this year’s “Aha!” will touch on everything from Haydn’s superstar career in London to his depressions and his reputation as a ladies’ man. Don’t expect to have any gentle Papa Haydn predispositions confirmed. “People may experience a Haydn who is more exciting, more innovative, and more original than they think,” says Gordon, who will serve as onstage narrator.
No picture of Haydn would be complete without a nod to his humor. In what’s billed as a “reenactment” of the “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45, in F-sharp minor), the musicians will get into the act by getting offstage.More about Carmel Bach Festival »
The pattern changed decisively with Inferno, an ambitious two-part opera based on Dante’s epic poem. This was Robles’ idea from the start, a dramatic work in which hell is treated as a music-theater analog for the psychological stages of depression. “It might have been called Melancholia,” noted Josheff. “The spirit is immobilized.”
Previewed in an instrumental suite that was performed at San Francisco’s Temple Emanuel-El in April, the first half of Inferno receives its theatrical world premiere June 17, 18, and 21 in a San Francisco Cabaret Opera staging at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley.
Tenor Adam Flowers and soprano Eliza O’Malley star as the doom-kissed lovers Paolo and Francesca, with bass Richard Mix cast as Hell’s Wind, the story’s detached, demonic force. An ensemble from the Huckabay McAllister Dance troupe embodies the chorus. Eric Zivian, Josheff’s comrade in the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, performs the piano-reduction score. Cabaret Opera’s Harriet March Page directs, with choreography by Jenny McAllister. Robles designed the urban, dead-end alley set.
Josheff’s musical touchstone for his Inferno – The Second Circle of Hell: The Lustful is “popular song and the way it influences our emotions.” When Paolo launches into his doo-wop inflected crooning, the composer wants listeners to feel complicit in the seduction this “washed-up singer” is spinning for his beloved.
Francesca, by contrast, “is very aware of what’s going on. She’s stuck in hell, and pleading — sometimes directly with the audience.” Josheff likened the characters to a street person, “someone who’s in this loop of telling her story over and over again. You can identify with her pain and still mistrust it a little.”
As for Hell’s Wind, the final singing role of this operatic triad, a slight resonance with Baroque recitative and aria is meant to characterize a figure who is both tormenting and commenting on the lovers. “The characters are blown about by a wind,” said Josheff, “an infernal wind that represents the passions they could never control in life.”
Josheff, a noted new-music clarinetist as well as a composer, and Robles, a writer and editor/publisher of the Five Fingers Review, have been approaching the idea of a full-length opera since the early 1990s, when they contemplated a project about the first Gulf War. Getting Inferno up onstage after a long wait has Josheff feeling “ecstatic. It’s a fulfillment of something that’s been developing for a very long time.”
Writing frankly lyrical vocal music for this 70-minute opera has freed Josheff to give his musical ideas “their natural size and length.” He continued, “I make my living playing complex, virtuosic, contemporary music. The music I compose is in some sense therapy for the music I perform.”
Further treatments await. Inferno – Part Two: The Ninth Circle of Hell is already in the works, with hopes for a production sometime in the next several years.More about Goat Hall Productions »