Bay Area Rainbow Symphony Begins Ambitious Season
Dawn Harms, the new conductor of the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS), is not one to shy away from challenges. For her ambitious season opener on Saturday, September 7, she has chosen a program that has the potential, in the symphony’s words, “to redefine perceptions of LGBTQ music and increase awareness of the beauty, talents, and accomplishments of fellow LGBTQ individuals and groups.”
“This is a pretty meaty program for an all-volunteer community orchestra,” she admits. “I do have a few sleepless nights, but it’s just because I want to reach the very high level that I know we’re capable of.”
The operatic program honors the Verdi bicentennial by opening with the composer’s Overture to La forza del destino. Then follow the radiant trio and duet from the third act of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, sung by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and sopranos Melody Moore and Marisol DeAnda; von Stade soloing in Jake Heggie’s “Primary Colors”; and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2.
Harms has been around orchestras all her life. A longtime member of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, as well as associate concertmaster for the New Century Chamber Orchestra and co-concertmaster with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Paradise, CA native has been performing since she left home, at age 17, to tour with the New England Youth Ensemble. She next spent three years as music director of a youth orchestra in Amarillo, TX. At the same time, she began serving as a member of the Harrington String Quartet and principal violin of the Amarillo Symphony.
Harms got her first taste of opera while playing in the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.
“Der Rosenkavalier was the first opera I ever played,” she told SFCV. “When I started playing, I looked up from the pit and saw two women frolicking in bed. At that moment, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to love opera.’”
She acknowledges that she was extremely naïve, given that one of those women was playing Octavian, a young man. Nonetheless, she says, “They were frolicking, with that incredible music swirling, and Flicka [von Stade] was Octavian. It was just magical, and I said to myself, ‘One day, I want to conduct that.’ And now it’s come full circle, because I’m conducting it with Flicka!”
Saving for another interview the tale of how she was in the midst of searching head first through a garbage can when she next met von Stade, Harms moved on to the rest of the program. “Primary Colors,” part of Heggie’s song cycle, The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love, sets the words of Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking.
Originally written for and performed by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and flutist Eugenia Zuckerman, who premiered it in July 2002 at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival with Heggie on piano, it was subsequently orchestrated in 2005 for Joyce DiDonato and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was also recorded by both Zheng Cao (in the original version) and DiDonato (with orchestra). Flicka, who is a friend of, and collaborator with, all those artists and also sang in the premiere of Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking, knows the music inside out.
Rachmaninov is one of Harms’ favorite composers. “It’s because of his music’s natural ebb and flow,” she says. “There’s really nothing to figure out. Even though the notes are difficult, it’s a natural progression. It calls for a flexibility that is a real growing experience for the orchestra.
“Rachmaninoff has such emotion and passion in his music. In the Second Symphony, he is emoting almost all the time. The music is very dramatic — almost like a mini-opera without singers — and I’m a drama queen, even though I'm a woman. Who doesn’t love drama?”
The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony performs on Saturday, September 7, 8 p.m., at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. More information and tickets.