January 14, 2020
The rarest of creatures, an operatic tenor of means, James Schwabacher — “scion of a wealthy San Francisco family” — was born with a great heart and a lifelong passion for opera and lieder. He combined those assets in a series of major, lasting accomplishments, championing and co-founding San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program in 1957, San Francisco Performances in 1980, and establishing the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series in 1983.
Schwabacher (1920 – 2006), who sang 14 roles in his years with SF Opera and had a distinguished career as an oratorio and lieder singer, endowed the recital series in perpetuity; it is sponsored by the Jack H. Lund Charitable Trust.
Loyal fans (and supporters) of the recitals have followed them through the years from upstairs in Muldoon Elder’s Vorpal Gallery (two wooden columns flanking/obscuring the singers); to Old First Church for Anna Netrebko’s debut; some at Herbst, if memory serves; then for several years in Temple Emanu-El; and now landing in the War Memorial Veterans Building’s somewhat claustrophobic Atrium Theater.
Among those who made their debuts in the recital series: sopranos Deborah Voigt and Tracy Dahl; mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; tenor Michael Schade; baritone Thomas Hampson; and bass John Relyea.
The four Wednesday concerts of the 2020 recitals begin on Jan. 29, with mezzo Alice Chung and baritone Laureano Quant, accompanied by Nicholas Roehler. The program: Francesco Santoliquido’s I Canti della Sera, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été, Quant’s own Sombras, Luis Carlos Figueroa’s “Berceuse,” and selections from William Bolcolm’s Cabaret Songs.
Chung, acclaimed during her 2017 and 2019 Merola years, told SFCV about her preparation for the concert:
When Laureano, Nicholas, and I were suggesting repertoire for this program, we found songs and sets that featured a common theme: Night. As I continued to work on the music, I realized why so many artists have written and composed to the theme of night. There is a freedom to express and create without the harsh light of ‘day.’ At night, when all the world goes to sleep, we find our truths, fears, dreams, and hope.
Along with our overarching theme, we have a few special pieces on the program. I first learned that Laureano composed as well as sang over our summer at Merola. So we have included a couple of his compositions that he will be premiering on the recital. I, personally, have wanted to share a recital and do selections from William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, some of which we have turned into duets. These songs shift the introspective lens to glances of reality through a shattered glass.”
A native of Colombia, Quant named his composition Sombras (Shadows), inspired by the words of poet José Asunción Silva. The set is composed of two songs: “Las voces silenciosas,” representing the voices of the dead calling out from the underworld, and “Estrellas fijas,” about a love story told from the grave.
On March 4, the recital will feature mezzo Simone McIntosh and baritone Timothy Murray, with Robert Mollicone, member of the SF Opera music staff, on the piano. Merola alum Murray, who is starting an Adler Fellow residency, will juxtapose the impressionistic music of Claude Debussy with the boundary-pushing, contemporary work of British composer Jonathan Dove.
McIntosh, a 2018 Merola alumna now entering her second year as an Adler Fellow, will sing Olivier Messiaen’s rarely performed Harawi, a haunting 1945 song cycle that was named for a style of Andean music that combines romance and tragedy; Messiaen wrote these songs after the passing of his first wife, fellow composer Claire Delbos.
“Messiaen’s cycle brings you into another sound-world, in which abstract text, color, and music make a perfect combination,” McIntosh says. From the moment she first heard Harawi, it was her “distinct artistic goal to perform the whole 50-minute set from front to back.”
The third 2020 Schwabacher recital, on April 1, is by mezzo Ashley Dixon, a 2018–19 Adler Fellow who has performed in such SF Opera mainstage productions as Carmen, Rusalka, Manon Lescaut, and Hansel and Gretel. She participated in the Merola Opera Program in 2015 and again in 2017.
Joining Dixon is pianist Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad, a 2018 Merola participant and now second-year Adler Fellow, who has also performed with Dixon as part of the Adlers’ “The Future Is Now” concert.
Polstiankina Barrad says among her many musical adventures with SF Opera, Merola, and SF Opera Center, working with former SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti and SF Opera Head of Music Staff John Churchwell stand out:
“I absolutely loved working with Maestro Luisotti on Manon Lescaut,” she says. “His passion and love for music were incredibly inspiring and contagious. Playing staging rehearsals under his baton was so exciting and fun.”
Of Churchwell, Polstiankina Barrad says, “His positivity and dedication to serving the music always makes me want to be the best version of myself.”
Dixon will perform works from French and Spanish repertoire, including those by Fernando Obradors, Joaquín Turina, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel and Carlos Guastavino.
SF Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald says Dixon’s dedication to the song recital as an art form can be credited, in part, to one of her mentors, the celebrated pianist Martin Katz. “He instilled a sense of gravity and importance to the delivery of this music, and Ashley took the reins and ran,” Greenawald says.
“We have watched her in many guises on our stage, but my favorite is Ashley the songster. Her languages are beautiful, and her sense of phrasing impeccable.”
Dixon herself sees the recital as a uniquely empowering showcase: “I feel like, in song recital, you can really show your full range of artistic expression. I’m so passionate about French and Spanish repertoire and being able to share that with this audience is a dream of mine.”
Another prominent pianist-coach, Warren Jones, will lead the final Schwabacher recital, on April 22, of three 2020 Adler Fellows: soprano Esther Tonea, tenor Victor Starsky, and baritone Timothy Murray.
“We are so excited to welcome Warren back to the series this year,” says Mark Morash, SF Opera Center director of musical studies. “He is an internationally recognized leader in the field of song, having partnered with countless renowned singers on the top recital stages of the world for well over 40 years.”
Named the 2010 “Collaborative Pianist of the Year” by Musical America, Jones has worked alongside some of opera’s greatest voices: Stephanie Blythe, Marilyn Horne, and Kathleen Battle, among others. Jones is also a dedicated educator, serving on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music.
Tonea told SFCV that she is “incredibly excited to be collaborating with Warren at the April recital. Our portion of the recital will include [Amy] Beach’s Three Browning Songs and several songs by Verdi.
“The first time I worked with Warren Jones was in a master class while I was a student at the SF Conservatory of Music. As a student, it’s easy to get bogged down in doing things ‘the right way.’ The key to bridging the gap between student and young artist, I’ve realized, is to be authentic rather than correct.
“If a performer has done everything ‘correctly’ but hasn’t moved a single soul, the performance lacks purpose. I have, however, seen audiences moved by a performance in a language they didn’t understand because the performer kept the integrity of his or her emotional interpretation intact. I hope to remain authentic to the composer, the poetry, and to myself in order to communicate to the audience as an individual.”
Tonea and Murray co-starred in Merola’s 2019 world premiere performance of Jake Heggie’s If I Were You, receiving high praise in their roles. They and Starsky will perform selections from 19th- and 20th-century composers, including Verdi, Charles Griffes, Charles Ives, and Amy Beach.
Jones “has programmed a brilliant program of Italian and American song that will ideally showcase three of our Adler Fellows,” Morash says.