Geneva Anderson digs into art

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale perform Handel’s “Messiah” at the Green Music Center Sunday, December 9, 2012

Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki leads the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in Handel’s “Messiah,” at the Green Music Center on Sunday, December 9, 2012.

Japanese conductor Masaaki Suzuki leads the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale in Handel’s “Messiah,” at the Green Music Center on Sunday, December 9, 2012. Photo: courtesy PBO

Handel’s beloved Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742 and combines Old and New Testament texts concerning prophecies of a Messiah, or savior. One of the most loved of all musical c ompositions, it is synonymous with the holiday season.  Guest conductor Masaaki Suzuki—director of Bach Collegium Japan, and a formidable Handelian joins the Bay Area’s incomparable Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, and soloists from Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music for a joyous performance of this extraordinary 18th-century masterpiece on Sunday, December 9, 2012, 3 PM at the Green Music Center’s (GMC) Weill Hall.  If you haven’t yet visited the acoustically stellar GMC, tis the season!

There is nothing in music more unstoppably beautiful than a Handel aria moving in slow, regal splendor. It is like a godly machine, crushing all ugliness and plainness in its path. (Alex Ross, New Yorker, May 8, 2006)

Guest conductor, Masaaki Suzuki.  Suziki, a renowned interpreter of sacred music, will conduct PBO and Chorale for the first time on Sunday and he hand-picked the 4 vocal soloists, all recent graduates of his exclusive Schola Cantorum at Yale University.  He combines his conducting career with his work as organist and harpsichordist and eminent teacher.  Born in Kobe, he graduated from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music with a degree in composition and organ performance and went on to become a leading Bach scholar.  “Suzuki is one of the world’s leading Bach conductors,” says Robert Cole, GMC’s programmer, who helped put Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley on the musical map, “I had him and his group at Zellerbach many times and he always made a lasting impression.  In this hall, well, I can’t wait to hear it—it’s going to be great.”

Soloists alumni from Yale University’s Schola Cantorum

Sherezade Panthaki, soprano

Claire Kelm, soprano

Fabiana González, alto

Dann Coakwell, tenor

Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Philharmonia Chorale, Bruce Lamott, director

Messiah Facts:

  • A  performance of Handel’s “Messiah” lasts about 2 1/2 hours. Amazingly, Handel composed the entire oratorio in only 24 days.  It was begun on August 22, 1741. The first part was concluded August 28, the second, September 6, the third, September 12, and the instrumentation, on September 14.  It is an illustration of Handel’s almost superhuman capacity for work, that at the age of fifty-six he wrote this masterpiece in 24 days.
  • Until   Wagner’s work in the 19th century, virtually all opera and oratorio texts  were written by someone other than the composer.   For “Messiah”, Handel set to music the text taken from the literal words of Scripture, and the libretto was arranged by Charles Jennens, who was not satisfied with the music.   In a letter written at that time, he says: “I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called ‘Messiah,’ which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the ‘Messiah.'”
  • “Messiah” is presented in three parts. Part I (the Christmas portion) starts with the prophecy and coming of Christ. Part II (the Easter portion) describes the passion and death of Christ.  Part III promises eternal life for believers.
  • “Messiah” is the exception to the definition of oratorio because it has no characters or even a plot but it is highly contemplative.
  • No hoop skirts!  No swords! :  The first rehearsal took place on April 8, 1742 in the presence of “a most Grand, Polite, and Crowded Audience,” according to “Faulkner’s Journal.”   The same paper, referring to the first public performance, which took place on Tuesday, April 13, 1742, says:   “At the desire of several persons of distinction, the above performance is put off to Tuesday next.  The doors will be opened at eleven, and the performance begins at twelve. Many ladies and gentlemen who are well-wishers to this noble and grand charity, for which this oratorio was composed, request it as a favor that the ladies who honor this performance with their presence would be pleased to come without hoops, as it would greatly increase the charity by making room for more company.” Gentlemen were also requested to come without their swords. “In this way,” it is said, “the stewards” were able to seat seven hundred persons in the room instead of six hundred.

More About Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra:  Now, in its 31st season, San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has been dedicated to historically-informed performance of Baroque, Classical and early-Romantic music on original instruments since its inception in 1981. Under the direction of Music Director Nicholas McGegan for the past 26 years, Philharmonia Baroque has defined an approach to period style that sets the current standard.  The group has been named Ensemble of the Year by Musical America, and “an ensemble for early music as fine as any in the world today” by Los Angeles Times critic Alan Rich.

PBO performs an annual subscription series in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is regularly heard on tour in the United States and internationally.  The Orchestra has its own professional chorus, the Philharmonia Chorale, directed by Bruce Lamott, and regularly welcomes talented guest artists such as mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, countertenor David Daniels, conductor Jordi Savall, violinist Monica Huggett, recorder player Marion Verbruggen, and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

PBO musicians are listed here, along with information about the period instruments they play. In some cases, the instruments are historical treasures dating from the baroque and classical eras.  In other cases, the instruments have been produced by modern craftsmen working in the historical tradition.

PBO’s New Recording Label:  PBO has made 32 highly-praised recordings on original instruments, including its Gramophone award-winning recording of Handel’s Susanna-for harmonia mundi.   In 2011, PBO launched Philharmonia Baroque Productions, its own label and has 5 CD’s out, all of which will be for sale on Sunday at Weill Hall, along with their other older recordings.

The inagural CD for the label was the hauntingly beautiful  “Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été / Handel: Arias”  featuring the great mezzo-soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.  This was a newly released live recording from 1995 of Hunt singing the Berloiz cycle named after teh French translation of the title of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night Dream.”   The Handel selections were recorded live in 1991.  Hunt Lieberson was born in San Francisco, performed often in the Bay Area on her way up and never lost her Northern, CA identity.  She  died in 2006 of breast cancer and this is a particularly arresting recording which captures the essentially primal appeal of her distinctive voice.      

PBO’s newest CD is Brahams Serenades, which I’ve played continually since receiving it and keep finding inspirational passages that delight me.  Writing of the live performance from which the Brahms CD was made, which I did not have the pleasure of hearing, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Nothing affirmed the power of [the historically-informed] approach like the splendid performance of the Serenade… [McGegan] embraced every opportunity to give the music a musky physicality – especially in the outer movements, whose rhythmic force was arresting.”

PBO performs Beethoven, Symphony 9, 2nd movement (complete), Molto vivace:

Details:  Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performs Handel’s “Messiah” on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3 p.m. at Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Tickets are $90 to $35 and can purchased online (click here) OR by phoning the Box Office at (866) 955-6040. Box Office hours: Monday–Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. OR  in person at the Green Music Center (same hours as above).  The Box Office is also open 1 hour prior to all performances.

Parking for this Green Music Center performance is included in ticket price.  Enter via Sonoma State University’s main campus entrance or its Rohnert Park Expressway entrance (closer to GMC). Park on campus in lots L,M,N and O.  For more information, visit or phone 1.866.955.6040.

December 8, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: San Francisco Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” lacks that vital spark, runs through November 10, 2011

Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, plays Don Giovanni in San Francisco Opera’s new production of the Mozart classic. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni, holds a special place.  A fusion of tragic and comic impulses based on the legendary scoundrel Don Juan and set to breathtakingly gorgeous music, it never fails to entertain.  A new production of this masterpiece opened at San Francisco Opera last Saturday (October 15, 2011) and while enjoyable enough, it failed to ignite the passions.  Inconsistent singing and unconvincing acting were the main culprits.  The production is hinged on the all important title role filled by baritone Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, with a rich and glorious voice who has delivered several stunning performances at SF Opera.  He was vocally adequate but lacked the commanding presence─charisma, swagger and roguishness ─ to be utterly beguiling and magnetizing, which is essential to the rake’s part.  His chemistry with the ladies─Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna, Serena Farnocchia as Donna Elvira and Kate Lindsey as Zerlina─was plain flat, both when he was required to be sexy or violent.  He played Don straight, as a cold-hearted jerk, and wore aviator-style sunglasses throughout the performance and a stylish dark leather coat which gave the impression that, while he had wealth and power, he was basically a rich coward in hiding.  

Music director Nicola Luisotti, by contrast, was the life of the party, bursting with energy and passion and thoroughly engaged with his orchestra at all times.  As magnetizing as he was to watch though, he was not able to elicit the nuanced performance he pulled from his orchestra in Turandot, which opened SF Opera’s fall season.  At times on Saturday, the orchestra outpaced the singers.  For those who have been watching Maestro Nicola Luisottiwork his magic since he joined SF Opera as its music director in 2009, the choice of three Italians, who all have their U.S. debuts─director Gabriele Lavia, set designer Alessandro Camera, and costume designer Andrea Viotti─ seems evidence of his broadening influence at San Francisco Opera.   Despite his reputation in Italy as an acclaimed film

Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design for SF Opera’s new production of “Don Giovanni” features 22 large 300 pound mirrors in ornate gilded frames that descend dramatically onto a stage that is virtually empty. Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira) in Act I. Photo by Cory Weaver.

director, Mr. Lavia’s production was not a particularly imaginative or fluid take on this musical masterpiece.  He placed the story in traditional period setting and there it decidedly sat with Don Giovanni as a brute. Andrea Viotti’s lush period costumes were executed in restrained hues with the exception of Don Giovanni, who wore a long leather coat and sunglasses.   

Most striking was Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design.  As the opera opened, 22 large (6’ wide x 16’ tall) dark mirrors in ornate gilded frames descended dramatically onto a stage that was virtually empty stage, save for a few scattered Louis XV style chairs.  Coming fresh from Richard Serra’s drawing retrospectiveat SFMOMA, I was struck by how powerfully and elegantly geometric forms can define space.  As these mirrors descended, shifted, and settled in at different heights, they impacted the viewer’s sense of

In “Don Giovanni,” Lucas Meachem plays the lecherous Don Giovanni who tries to woo Zerlina, (Kate Lindsey) who is celebrating her wedding with Masetto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

mass and gravity, ushering in a dark and ominous presence, and making for an experience that was as visceral as it was visual.  (Click here to read about how these special polycarbonate mirrors were constructed backstage at SF Opera).  The program notes indicate that Lavia’s symbolic take on the mirrors–reflecting on the essence of man and witnessing his many sides.  That said, the initial brilliance of this grand entrance of the mirrors wore thin when it was repeated in the same fashion a few more times in subsequent acts. Aside from the mirrors, the stage remained quite empty, save for tombstones and mist in the cemetery scene and an elegantly set dinner table in the final scene where Don Giovanni’s feast is interrupted by the Commendatore who ushers his descent to Hell.  

Stand-outs: Italian bass Marco Vinco, making his United States debut as Leporello, Don Gioivanni’s discontented servant, who is actually on stage more than any other singer, delivered a thoroughly convincing, endearing and humorous performance.  Bass Morris Robinson, also making his SF Opera debut was exceptional in the role of the Commendatore. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay, also debuting at SF Opera, as Zerlina, the young girl who catches Don Giovanni’s eye at her wedding party to Masetto, sang lyrically in her duet “Là ci darem la mano” “There we will be hand in hand “) but will be remembered for the way she suggestively spread her legs on stage.    

The epilogue was cut in this Luisotti-selected mix of Vienna and Prague versions of the opera.  All told, it is Mozart’s music that shines most in this production. 

Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni), Marco Vinco (Leporello) and Morris Robinson (The Commendatore) at an uncomfortable pre-dawn dinner just before Don Giovanni’s descent to Hell, Act II of “Don Giovanni” at SF Opera through November 10, 2011. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Performance Dates: Sung in Italian with English supertitles, there are seven remaining performances scheduled for October 21 (8 p.m.), October 23 (2 p.m.), October 26 (7:30 p.m.), October 29 (8 p.m.), November 2 (7:30 p.m.), November 5 (2 p.m.) and November 10 (7:30 p.m.), 2011.

Bruce Lamont Lectures:  All performances will feature an informative Opera Talk by educator and chorus director, Bruce Lamott. Talks begin 55 minutes before each performance in the orchestra section of the War Memorial Opera House and are free of charge to patrons with tickets for the corresponding performance.

Details: Tickets are priced from $21 to $330 and may be purchased at or through the San Francisco Opera Box Office [301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove Street), or by phone at (415) 864-3330]. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; tickets are $10 each, cash only.

The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, San Francisco. Casting, programs, schedules, and ticket prices are subject to change.  For further information:

October 21, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment