ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Symphony performs at Weill Hall Thursday night—the magnificent Mozart “Sinfonia” is on the program

San Francisco Symphony principal violist, Jonathan Vinocour, will solo, along with Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, in Mozart’s magnificent “Sinfonia concertante” on Thursday evening at Weill Hall. Vinocour joined SFS as Principal Violist in 2009, having previously served as principal violist of the Saint Louis Symphony and guest principal of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. He plays a 1784 Lorenzo Storioni viola, on loan from SFS. Vinocour and Barantschik have never together performed this virtuosic double Mozart concerto for viola and violin. SFS’s final concert at Weill Hall will also include Samuel Adams “Radial Play” and Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Photo: Eyegotcha

It’s old news by now but, after two seasons of glorious performances at Green Music Center (GMC), San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is not returning to Weill Hall.  Our loss.  The reason, straight from SFS—despite the best efforts to build an audience for the series, attendance was very inconsistent and did not build to a level that could sustain further appearances at Weill Hall.  I can’t understand how we in the North Bay let this slip through our hands as every SFS performance in Weill Hall was magical, not to mention incredibly convenient.  SFS’ final scheduled concert at Weill Hall is this Thursday, “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra,” a wonderful mix of challenging classical and contemporary music featuring awe-inspiring solos and the famed MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) at the helm.

SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour will solo in Mozart’s “Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola.”  Then, SFS will perform Bartók’s brilliant five movement “Concerto for Orchestra” in which each section of instruments solos. Rounding out the program will be Samuel Adams’ six minute “Radial Play,” which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered by the National Youth Orchestra in July 2014.  Adams, who lives in Oakland, is the son of composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O’Grady.   His modern “Drift and Providence” was performed at Weill Hall in 2012 and his career has been championed enthusiastically by MTT.

ARThound is particularly excited about the “Sinfonia concertante,” which Mozart composed in 1779, in Salzburg. Violists, who have been somewhat shorted in showcase repertory, have long sung the praises of this piece as the closest Mozart came to writing a viola concerto. The 30 minute piece is scored in three movements with very prominent viola and violin solos and is one of Mozart’s more recognizable works, showing up in several movies and even in William Styron’s famous novel Sophie’s Choice (when adult Sophie, who is plagued by PTSD, hears the “Sinfonia concertante” on the radio, she is transported back to her childhood in Krakow).

Principal violist Jonathan Vinocour, who has been with SFS for six years now, has never before played the Sinfonia with SFS.  He’s been practicing at home for hours on end for the past 10 days and the Weill Hall audience will be the second audience to hear him play it, after the Davies Hall performance on Wednesday evening. “All three movements of the piece are wonderful — it’s Mozart, after all — but it’s the second movement, the Andante, that people usually remember most,” said Vinocour.  “Mozart sets up an intricate conversation between the viola and the violin, almost like a couple talking. It’s very emotional, but also a quintessential piece of musical one-up-manship that continues into the third movement.”

Vinocour and Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik were soloists together in June 2013, when they played Benjamin Britten’s “Double Concerto for Violin and Viola” and they have also performed many chamber concerts together.  “Sasha [Barantschik] and I have such a familiarity with each other’s style, we enjoy the parts of the piece that are more spontaneous. We don’t plot out every detail, because the Sinfonia should come out sounding elegant and graceful, but also free-feeling and very natural.”   

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with “David,” the famous1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio. Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall. The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

For more insight, ARThound turned to San Francisco Symphony violist Wayne Roden of Cotati, who auditioned for the SFS with this Mozart piece in 1973, 42 years ago.

“Back when I auditioned, the solo piece that was asked for was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, which Jonathan and Sasha will be playing. In years since then, the repertoire for solo pieces has often included a choice of either the Bartók or Walton Concerto, and sometimes Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher.  These 20th century pieces are very virtuosic, but the Mozart is required because it really shows you a tremendous amount about how someone plays. Musicians sweat blood over playing Mozart. I’ve sat on many audition committees, and have heard a lot of violists who played the hell out of the Bartók or the Walton–but within two lines of the Mozart, you can tell whether they’re good enough. A musician is really exposed in Mozart, more than in any music other than Bach, because of the nakedness of the musical expression.”

By the way, few will lament the loss of SFS at Weill Hall more than SFS’ three Sonoma County musicians (Roden, percussionist Tom Hemphill and bass player Chris Gilbert) who were saved the grueling commute to and from Davies Hall when SFS performed in Sonoma County.

Details: SFS will perform “MTT conducts “MTT Conducts Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall on Thursday, May 21, 2015, 8 PM.  Tickets: $20-$115, at sfsymphony.org or 415-864-6000.

Prepare yourself:

To read ARThound’s interview with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, on his January  2014 performance at Weill Hall, where he performed Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” click here.

A free podcast about Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is online at sfsymphony.org/podcasts.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts "Barantschik and Friends," at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and "Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn," at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: SFS

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts “Barantschik and Friends,” at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn,” at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On stage at Davies Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik seems to epitomize the intense and mysterious Russian.  The virtuoso always looks quite serious as he juggles his orchestra leadership role with that of first violinist who plays “The David,” the illustrious 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú violin, famed for its rich dark sound.  I’ve always wondered what makes Barantschik tick and about the particulars of his Russian musical upbringing.  When I had the chance to interview him in conjunction with “Barantschik and Friends“—his upcoming performance at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this Thursday (and on Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun at Davies as “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn“)—I jumped.  We chatted on the phone last Friday and he couldn’t have been warmer as he shared his amazing story.

Google Barantschik. You’ll learn that he’s nicknamed “Sasha” and that this former concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras has served under Music Director MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) for 14 years through acclaimed cycles of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and that he has premiered important works by André Previn and Viktor Kissine.  He’s played exquisite instruments throughout his career too. The fact that Barantschik’s first auditions in the West—for a seat and then for the concertmaster position at Germany’s Bamburg Symphony—were performed with a violin he bought in a department store as he was leaving Russia, is a little known detail I nudged out of him that makes his story all the more fascinating.  As we were talking, I got the impression that he’s a bit private but that didn’t stop me from asking for “a bit more detail.”

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with "David," the famous1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio.   Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall.  The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with “The David,” the famous 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio. Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that, even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall. The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On Thursday, Barantschik returns to Green Music Center to lead the Orchestra in an irresistible program he’s put together showcasing strings.  Following a lovely early Mozart “Divertimento in F major for Strings,”  Barantschik takes center stage to play Mendelssohn’s “D minor Violin Concerto,” one of the Romantic master’s finest creations and a delightful surprise for concertgoers who only know its more famous sibling, the E Minor.  He’ll be playing “The David,” the 1742 Heifetz Guarnerius del Gesù violin owned for many years by his idol, Jascha Heifetz.  The violin, valued at over $6 million, was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in 1989 by Heifetz and offered as an extended loan to SFS in 2002, where it has been cared for and played by Barantschik.  Barantschik insists that the dollar value on the instrument is “completely irrelevant” as it’s priceless and could “never be replaced.”  Of course there are a few restrictions. This will be “The David’s” second appearance at Weill Hall—1 of 2 locations outside of San Francisco where he is allowed to take it, the other being the Mondavi Centerfor the Performing Arts at UC Davis.  Aside from these two exceptions, the instrument never travels outside of Davies.  Also on the program is Britten’s winsome “Simple Symphony,” a salute to the composer’s centenary and “Melodia-Libertango,” the sultry music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, the king of nuevo tango, with guest performer Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon.

Where did you grow up in Russia and what was your first experience with the violin?  

Alexander Barantschik: I was born in 1953 in St. Petersburg, Russia (then ‘Leningrad’), which was and still is the cultural capital of the country.  My family wasn’t musical, no musicians except for a very distant relative, Yefrem Zimbalist, who lived in the States but I never met him because he’d emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was pure coincidence that my mother tried to get me some lessons at the music school which was just across the road from our home.  I could walk there by myself every day and my parents thought this would keep me busy and off the streets, which was just what happened.  I was almost six when I was admitted.  My first instrument was an accordion because there was no space for another violin student in the school.  I don’t remember anything about that accordion but a violin spot opened up and the teacher thought I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and pitch and so I started playing the violin.  After a few years, I made some progress.  I can’t say I was completely dedicated to practicing or spent many hours at it but I loved music.  It took quite a few years before I truly understood the importance of practice and of the violin itself.  I was probably 12 or 13 when I started thinking this might be forever, this might be my life, and then I started practicing and then I started making real progress.

Historically, was there a “Russian style” of music playing and was that around when you were studying and is it still around today?  Who were there big mentors that you looked up to, or, perhaps, wanted to topple?

Alexander Barantschik: When we think of a Russian school of violin, we should think about Leopold Auer, basically the first teacher who could claim that he was important for the whole process of teaching great players.  His students, apart from Heifetz, were phenomenal violinists.  He wasn’t Russian but a Hungarian Jew who came to Russia (in 1868) and his Russian wasn’t perfect but he was teaching his students in a unique way—they all had something special in common.  That tradition of playing was very deeply appreciated after he left and went to live in New York for the last part of his life.  I cannot say there is a Russian tradition of violin playing that exists right now.  The world is smaller, faster, and within one week, you can be in three different continents, so things are not as personalized.  There are great players of the past who are impossible to imitate…Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin—great players who were absolutely unique.

How do you feel about David Oistrakh’s playing and did you ever happen to meet him? 

Alexander Barantschik: I loved his playing and heard him play much more than any other violinist as he was in Russia and played regularly with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.  I was dreaming of becoming his student at the Moscow Conservatory and was able to audition with him when he was performing in St. Petersburg.  I met with him in his hotel room and I played for him for about 20 minutes and he was extremely nice and accommodating and sympathetic.  He listened and made some corrections and tried to see how I reacted to his comments.  His last question after I had played was simple—’Do you think you really love violin?’—and he looked straight into my eyes as he asked me that.  I think I said, ‘I dearly love violin.’  After a second, he said, ‘Ok… I will accept you into my class.’  I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. As I was preparing to take other exams at the conservatory, I heard the tragic news that he been on tour to the Netherlands and had died in Amsterdam after his concert.  I never became his student and that was the end of my training but I’m so glad I have this wonderful memory of playing for him.

What were the circumstances that brought you to the West?

Alexander Barantschik: By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and toured regularly.  I had visited Western Europe and Japan but I felt that, for my musical development, I needed to absorb different cultures and traditions and that the only way to achieve this was to emigrate from Russia, which I did at 26.  My first country was Germany, where I was concertmaster with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.  This was my first job and I spent three years there learning all about German traditions—Beethoven, Bückner, Haydn—and I broadened my view and I’m still learning from different traditions today.

How difficult was it to get out of Russia to Germany?

Alexander Barantschik:  It was not easy and, let’s say, it was made difficult.  I left Russia with one suitcase—no money, no job, no references and almost no violin.  My violin was not a Guarneri but it was a nice little violin from Tirol, Austria, and at the last minute, I was not allowed to take it with me.  I ended up going to a department store, to the music section and buying a simple violin that had been made in a furniture factory.  It looked horrible and sounded accordingly.  I played my first audition, for the section, on that.  Afterwards, the committee came to me and said they were happy to offer me a job with the orchestra but that in one week they would have another audition for concertmaster and they asked me if I’d like to participate.  I didn’t think about it and just said yes.  They then asked me about my violin which was very bright red and said they’d never seen anything like it before.  One week later, I returned for the concertmaster audition and played all the solos and concerti and I got that position.   That was when they presented me with a very beautiful Guadagnini violin made in Cremona and the legend was that it has belonged to a famous German violinist Joseph Joachim who was a close friend of Brahms and who wrote cadenzas to almost every important classical violin concerto.

Do you still have that red violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  No.  I lent it to someone and this person never returned it and for that I am very sorry.  I would love to frame it and hang it on the wall for my students at the conservatory to see what my beginnings were.

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared his 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesú to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—"dark, rich and complex."  Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor.  Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by "worthy performers.''  Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings.  Image: FAMSF

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared “The David,” his 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú, to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—”dark, rich and complex.” Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor. Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by “worthy performers.” Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings. Image: FAMSF

What did it feel like the first time you had Jascha Heifetz’s fiddle in your hands?  How long has it taken you to become truly comfortable with the fact that this is now your violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, the very first time I held it, I was speechless because the sound of Heifetz had been with me in my ear since I was a child…I’ve listened to his recordings all of my life.   The violin is legendary, with a very special history of ownership and craftsmanship but it is not easy to play.  Players need to find the way to produce the sound it’s capable of and that requires a special technique.  It took me many months, perhaps a year, to meet its demands and to make it my friend so it started to like me as well.

Do you think that Guarneri has a unique voice? One of your SFS colleagues mentioned that he thought he heard a familiar voice from the Heifetz recordings when he heard you play it.

Alexander Barantschik:  I never tried to imitate Heifetz’s sound.  First of all that’s impossible as there was only one Heifetz and there will never be another.  So it’s not my intention but it does have a unique dark-colored sound and maybe some low notes sound a little familiar for those who are familiar with his recordings.

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú).  Photo: Stewart Pollens

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú). Photo: Stewart Pollens

You were MTT’s concertmaster in London Symphony Orchestra right?  You obviously have a special rapport.  What clicks?  Do you and MTT ever share a vodka before or after a performance?

Alexander Barantschik:  We met in London.  I joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the same year he started as principal conductor. We met in the recording studio when the orchestra was recording Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which has a huge important violin solo.  We had just one rehearsal and we didn’t have time to discuss things or work out the details—it was spontaneous—we both just trusted each other as musicians.  After this very important and stressful recording session, we immediately became friends.  I still have the cd and it’s one of the best I ever made.  Our collaboration has continued for a little over 30 years now.

As for the vodka, usually, we are both pretty exhausted after a performance and we don’t have any vodka with us.  Maybe, on a couple of occasions, when it was the end of the season, we shared a drink.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

What’s the most stressful aspect of being the concertmaster?

Alexander Barantschik:  It is a stressful job but maybe a better word is complex.  The most stressful period was when I first started my career as a concertmaster and I had to basically learn the entire orchestral repertoire, an endless body of work.   I’m still learning new pieces and relearning old pieces and forced to make important decisions.  It’s not only about playing—it’s about preparing sheet music, working with guest conductors, auditioning musicians and all of that is very complex in this huge organization.

Historically, the SFS concertmaster has been the only musician not to have tenure.  In the last SFS contract, you were given tenured status and all concertmasters, hereafter, were given the chance to be tenured.  Was that important to you?

Alexander Barantschik:  I think the most important aspect was the recognition of me being an integral part of the orchestra, not as being slightly different from the others.

Why did you select the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor and what sets it apart from his Concerto in E Minor, one of the five great violin concertos?

Alexander Barantschik:  The D Minor that I will be playing is written for violin and strings whereas the E Minor is written for the whole orchestra with wind and brass.  This program is dedicated to SFO strings and that was my main reason.  It is also rarely played and, in fact, was completely ignored until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1970’s and edited the score and performed it for the first time in a couple of hundred years.  So, this is not so popular but it was a master work when Mendelssohn wrote it as a 13 year old and it has all the qualities of the works he composed in his advanced age.  You can hear from hear very first few bars that it is Mendelssohn—it is youthful, beautiful, dramatic and it speaks to my heart.

Any contemporary music for violin that you find intriguing?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, it depends what we’re talking about…in terms of the 20th century, which is already the last century, I love Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich the most.  If we are talking later, and more avant-garde, then there are very interesting pieces that have a new language.  The only way to encourage young composers to write is to perform their works. Without performing, we’ll never know where music is going.  On two occasions (2003 and 2012), I played the “Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra” (written in 1984 as a commission for the Berlin Festival) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I was a little nervous about how the audience would react as it’s a very complicated piece, not easy listening, but he’s one of my favorite composers and this is one of my favorite concertos.   The audience and the orchestra loved it in 2003 and when I played it nine or ten years later, it was the same story…successful.  Now, I am learning and I hope to play a concerto by John Adams.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik with "David," the famous Heifetz Guarneri which rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, except when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Barantschik will play Mendelssohn's "D Minor Violin Concerto" (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn's music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed.  The D minor concerto hasn't been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952.  Photo: Lowres, SFS

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik will play Mendelssohn’s “D Minor Violin Concerto” (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn’s music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed. The D minor concerto hasn’t been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952. Photo: Lowres, SFS

Where else aside from Russia, London and CA have you lived and which place do you consider “home”?

Alexander Barantschik:  Without any doubt, home is where my family is— my wife Alena and son Benjamin—and we’ve been here since 2001, 13 years already.  I am very happy to call CA, the Bay Area, specifically San Mateo, where I live, my home.  After I left Russia, I lived in Germany for three years and then in Amsterdam for 22 years where, for 16 years, I combined my job as concertmaster with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with my concertmaster position at LSO.  I then moved to California and started my job here at SFS.

Does your son have any interest in pursuing music? 

Alexander Barantschik:  He’s a high school junior now.  He loves math, science, and computer science and he plays piano for his pleasure and loves classical music but he has no desire to pursue music professionally.

Russians have a marvelous and highly creative form of cursing.  What’s your favorite Russian curse?

Alexander Barantschik:  Honestly, I don’t curse so much.  We do have a saying, ‘Ni puha ni pera,’ which is something like ‘break a leg,’ which is what you say to every musician or performer about to go on stage.  The reply to that is always ‘K chortu,’ which is ‘Go to hell,’ a good omen for Russians.

How do you feel about performing at Weill Hall?

Alexander Barantschik: We are used to our hall, Davies, where we perform and rehearse every day and it’s challenging to leave that.  Weill Hall is much smaller than Davies, has a completely different shape, and is very different acoustically from Davies.  Since we don’t have any rehearsals at Weill Hall, or at the Mondavi Center, it’s always challenging to get the sound just right.  We don’t have any experience just sitting in the hall and listening either.  On stage, we are hearing things that are so different from what you’re hearing and we have to adjust immediately without even hardly having a chance to play. This time, we’ve got a small ensemble.  I will come a bit early and check out the acoustics to make sure I remember what it’s like there.

Details: Alexander Barantschik and SFS perform “Barantschik and Friends” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. AND “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn” at Davies Symphony Hall on Wed (Jan 22, 8 p.m.), Fri (Jan 24, 6:30 p.m.), Sat (Jan 25, 8 p.m.) and Sun (Jan 26, 2 p.m.).  Tickets at Green Music Center are $20 to $156 (click here to purchase) and are $15 to $109 at Davies (click here to purchase.)  For more information, call (415) 864-6000.  For more information about San Francisco Symphony’s four concerts this season at Weill Hall, click here.

January 22, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: San Francisco Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” at San Francisco Opera through July 6, 2013

 

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

At last Wednesday’s opening performance of Offenbach’s classic, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), at San Francisco Opera, it was Olympia (soprano Hye Jung Lee), the mechanical doll,  who stole the hearts of the audience and mezzo-soprano Angela Brower who triumphed in her remarkable company debut as the Muse/Nicklausse.  Lee seemed to flutter magically across the stage, singing gleefully and hitting incredibly high notes with precision.  For Brower, who sings throughout the entire opera, it was an act of wooing the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice. 

This is French director, Laurent Pelly’s new co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and L’Opéra National de Lyon which had its premiere in Barcelona earlier this year. The libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.  The story takes real life German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and places him in three stories of failed love.  Singing the title role is tenor Matthew Polenzani, whom many will recognize from his lead role in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the delightful comic opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 season and was transmitted to millions via “Live in HD.”   He was joined by the French soprano Natalie Dessay, as Antionia; Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Olympia; mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Giuletta in her company debut, and American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend Nicklausse. 

The opera’s staging, with set designs by Chantal Thomas, based on the moody work of the Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was exquisite in its simplicity.  Massive blue walls framed the action and then angularly closed in or moved out, just like the cropping tool in Photoshop, resulting in refreshing new orientations.  Low lighting bathed the set, evoking a dream-like space which lent itself to the dark tone of the story.  Since 1988, Thomas has collaborated with Pelly in roughly 40 productions and two seem to be in harmony.  Her ingenious Act II staging for Olympia the mechanical doll, which employed wonderfully zany machinery to spirit the doll across the stage, brought down the house.

Tenor Mathew Polenzani immediately caught my attention in the Prologue with his Il ètait une fois à la cour d’Eisenach, Hoffmann’s ballad about the dwarf Kleinzach, which sets the stage for his mind to wonder back to beautiful women and his love life.  Throughout the evening he was in top form with lively and powerful singing but less commendable acting—on many occasions, it was hard to actually feel the love whose loss he was lamenting.

The surprise stand-out of the evening was American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower in her company debut as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend and constant companion Nicklausse.  In a move that is truly operatic, Bower stepped in rather later to replace Alice Coote in the production.  She nailed it from the moment she stepped on stage, showing a real command of the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements and trumping most of the other better-known singers with her powerful voice, capable of such sweet and tender emotion.    Her Act I aria Une poupèe aux yeux d’èmail was lush and energetic.  Sung in the eccentric scientist Spalanzani’s parlor room, it warns Hoffman of a mechanical doll that looked human but fell in love with a copper bird.  Brower comes to San Francisco fresh from her success in the role last season at the Bayerische Staastoper opposite Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazón— a performance that was broadcast on European television and captured for DVD.  She is an ensemble member of the Bayerische Staatsoper.   She was also quite lovely in her Act III duet with mezzo Irene Roberts, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amou.

If you saw nothing but Act I, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia, the mechanical doll, it would have been worth the price of admission.  Lee, a Merola Program alumna, dazzled SF Opera audiences last summer with her company debut performance as Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China.  As Olympia, she outdid herself.   Dressed in a silver gown, she fluttered around the stage, legless, leaving the audience to wonder how  it was happening.   She then took to the floor.  Wearing hidden inline skates, she glided all around the stage, literally running circles around Hoffmann, all while hitting notes in the stratospheric range of E and F with precision.  The audience gave her, and the ingenious device which served as her chariot, a well-deserved long ovation with several whoops and whistles.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

It’s been six years since Natalie Dessay’s San Francisco Opera debut, and sole Bay Area appearance, in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor.  She was enchanting in Wednesday’s Act II as “Antonia,” and despite a noticeable decline in her upper register; she was lovely in her mid-range throughout the entire performance.  Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann’s unattainable love.  Dessay was originally scheduled to sing all three, a feat that only a few—like Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberoa—had pulled off in the past.  Apparently, she pulled back after re-evaluating where her voice stands.  She was wonderful in C’est une chanson d’amour, her love duet with Hoffmann.  Its drama was heightened by the wizardry of the staging which transformed yet again, pulling them apart from each other into separate balconies where they sang longingly to each other.

There’s just one Dessay.  Anyone familiar with her performances can’t help but love the verve and mettle this petite French dynamo brings to any role, many of which have been made accessible through the Met’s “Live in HD” telecasts.  A special turn of her head, the flash of her eyes, a quick dash—I was living for identifiable “Dessay moves” and there were many.   Her trio with her mother’s ghost (Margaret Mezzacappa) and Dr. Miracle (Christian Van Horn) was also lovely vocally but the creepy projected image of the ghost cast such a dark pallor over the idea of a benevolent spirit, that it was hard to feel the love connection between Antonia and her late mother.  Copyright law prohibits a reproduction of the program cover which features Spilliaert’s intensely dark and oppressive self-portrait from 1907-8 where he seems to be transitioning into an angel of death.  The heavy milieu of this work seemed to fuel this very disturbing and macabre video projection.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Tenor Steven Cole imbued his four servant roles (Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio) with distinct personality as did bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, who sang his villainous roles (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) with aplomb, especially Dapertutto’s difficult Act III Scintille, diamant.  As Stella, Hoffmann’s Milanese love interest, Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino ended the long evening with a burst of bright energy.

Patrick Fournillier’s conducting was impressive throughout.  He kept the orchestra under rein while evoking a beautiful and vibrant sound.

Details:  The Tales of Hoffmann runs through July 6, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

Remaining Performances: The eight remaining performances of The Tales of Hoffmann are June 11 (8 p.m.); June 14 (8 p.m.); June 20 (7:30 p.m.); June 23 (2 p.m.); June 27 (7:30 p.m.); June 30 (2 p.m.); July 3 (7:30 p.m.); and July 6 (8 p.m.)  Click here to see cast scheduling information.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

Cast:

Hoffman—Matthew Polenzani

Antonia—Natalie Dessay

Olympia—Hye Jung Lee

Giuletta—Irene Roberts

Stella—Jacqueline Piccolino

Nicklausse, The Muse—Angela Bower

Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf—Christian Van Horn

Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio—Steven Cole

Antonia’s Mother—Margaret Mezzacappa

Spalanzani—Thomas Glenn

Crespel—James Creswell

Nathanael—Matthew Grills

Hermann—Joo Won Kang

Schemil, Luther—Hadleigh Adams

Creative Team:

Conductor—Patrick Fournillier

Director—Laurent Pelly

Set Designer—Chantal Thomas

Lighting Designer—Joël Adam

Associate Director—Christian Räth

New libretto version/ dramaturg—Agathe Mélinand

Chorus Director—Ian Robertson

 

June 11, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

interview: Marin artist Michael Schwab talks about his latest poster for San Francisco Opera’s “Nixon in China”

Marin artist Michael Schwab signs copies of his “Nixon in China” poster at the Opera Shop at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on June 17, 2012. Schwab has created three posters for SF Opera and has been commissioned to create a poster for Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” which has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Well before John Adams’ opera Nixon in China opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season, a striking poster featuring Richard Nixon’s silhouette in profile set the mood across the Bay Area.  That artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists, whose iconic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others dynamically capture our lifestyle.  With his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms, Schwab’s work also lends itself perfectly to opera.  His Nixon in China poster was especially commissioned by San Francisco Opera to celebrate the first time San Francisco Opera is presenting the work, the 25th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, and the 40th anniversary of the historic trip that President Nixon made to Communist China in 1972.  The artwork, which also graces the opera’s program cover and appears as a huge three-sheet outside War Memorial Opera House, completely transcends Nixon’s dubious post-China legacy and is destined to become a classic.

Schwab’s sense of color is integral to his memorable compositions.  Nixon’s huge silhouette is executed in a subdued gray-red-mauve, an unusual color, that is set against a vivid orange-red background, evoking the red field of the Chinese flag.  As Nixon hovers in the background, the viewer’s eye is directed to the expectant figure in a black suit at the bottom, on stage, with outstretched arms, beckoning.  Behind him, in a darker hue of that unique gray-red-mauve, there’s a crowd of onlookers, in silhouette, that form a strong horizontal. Together, they evoke a poignant scene in the opera’s last act.  Blazoned across the top in a custom typeface, in a bright yellow gold that recalls the stars of the Chinese flag, is “John Adams Alice Goldman Nixon in China,” set against a black backdrop.  And on the bottom, in gray text, surrounded by black, is “San Francisco Opera June July 2012.”  In terms of mood, the poster has an ominous feel and lends itself to endless reflection on the fascinating personalities associated with this historic trip, primarily Nixon, but also Kissinger, Chairman Mao, Pat Nixon, and Chaing Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and their aspirations as individuals and as public figures.

Twenty years ago, in 1992, San Francisco Opera commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Mussorgsky’s great Russian opera, Boris Godunov, and last year, after interviewing several artists, SF Opera again commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).  And did he deliver!  His poster features a striking image of the heroic Brünnhilde, silhouetted against a fiery orange background evocative of the final immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, the cycle’s concluding opera.

“People came to the Ring from the four corners of the globe,” said Jon Finck, SF Opera’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs. “They bought that poster and took it home and it serves as reminder of that extraordinary experience they had here in San Francisco.  We’re looking at these posters as artworks, not advertising and we don’t include a lot of wording, we don’t need that.  Michael’s work has a lot of energy in it and it marks with a punch, evoking the drama and splendor of our operas.  There’s just no second guessing that this is Michael Schwab’s work.  His palette is bold and the typography is exciting and is a combination of a contemporary look that also harkens back to a more classic look from the 1930’s and 40’s, so it’s very classic but contemporary.”

Michael Schwab’s “Nixon in China” artwork is available in two sizes as a poster; it appears as three-sheet outside the opera house and it graces San Francisco Opera’s program cover for “Nixon in China.” Image: Michael Schwab.

San Francisco Opera has also commissioned Schwab to create three additional posters, so that there will be a set of five posters, not counting the Boris Godunov poster, that will mark the final five years of David Gockley’s tenure as General Director of San Francisco Opera.  In addition to The Ring (2011) and Nixon in China (2012), Schwab will create a poster for Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene that has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer and two additional, yet to be named, commissions.  “There will be not only local but national and international attention on Adamo’s work,” said Jon Finck.   “It will be a very daring and provocative opera given the libretto which suggests a particular relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  This will be powerful on stage and David Gockley felt that we needed to have a powerful counterpart in terms of the image and Michael’s our guy, no question.”

After last Sunday’s riveting performance of Nixon in China at the War Memorial Opera House, I caught up with Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he was busy greeting audience members and signing the poster he created to commemorate San Francisco Opera’s production.   Earlier in the week, I had conducted a phone interview with him about his artwork for San Francisco Opera.  Below is our conversation—

Are posters really influential in people’s decision to go to an event?

Michael Schwab:   Absolutely.  A poster is like a label on a bottle of wine―it’s visually representing what’s inside.  There’s creativity in that bottle – and the label, like the poster for the opera, should evoke the personality of the wine.  It’s an integral part of the opera.  It’s exciting to arrive dressed for the evening and walk up the steps of the War Memorial Opera House.   The 3-sheet poster out in front and the program that you are handed are the first creative impressions of the evening and should reflect the excitement, thrill and integrity of the opera.

What makes a really effective poster?  And, why are so many posters today so bad?

Michael Schwab:   Simplicity.  There’s way too much visual noise out there.  Graphic messages are conveyed much more effectively when the design is simple, bold and efficient.

What was your conception for the Nixon in China poster and how did you approach a design project like this?

Michael Schwab:   I started out attempting to portray the two men, Mao and Nixon, shaking hands in that historic moment.  I eventually realized that the image of Nixon alone was more intriguing. It was more powerful to have the big Nixon head as opposed to two men with more detail, shaking hands.  It was a more effective composition.  More dynamic.

Michael Schwab’s first commission for SF Opera was a poster for Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in 1992. Image: Michael Schwab.

My designs work better when they are very singular in subject matter.  People typically want to say too many things with one design – rarely the best strategy. You’ve only got one or two seconds to earn someone’s attention.  For me, less is more.

Because this was a poster for opera, was there anything inherently different about it?

Michael Schwab:   As a graphic artist, I have much more freedom with these projects.  The artwork should be lyrical and unique.  It’s like an album cover—it’s part of the event.  If I wasn’t a graphic designer, working on posters and logos, I would probably be involved in theatre somehow.  Part of the success of my work is drama – there’s some theatre in my artwork.  At least, I hope so.

Did you listen to the opera or music from Nixon in China while working on the poster?

Michael Schwab:   Yes, and it is a great opera.  I was able to watch the video of the Vancouver Opera (VO) production (March, 2010) whose physical sets, scenery and costumes are the ones that San Francisco Opera is using in its production.  I usually listen to music in the studio.  Typically jazz.

What types of source materials do normally you use?

Michael Schwab:  When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise.  I pose and shoot my own photos myself.   For Nixon, of course, there was no model, so I had to rely on historic photographs.

How much of your work is done on a computer and how has that changed over time?  Do you start with freehand drawing?

Michael Schwab:  When computers first came out, most of my illustrator and designer pals were going over to the digital world.  I knew that I really enjoyed working at the drawing table – not a keyboard.  I decided to go in the opposite direction and keep my work very hand-drawn, with obvious craftsmanship.  And I still work at a drawing table, with pencil and paper, and then pen and ink.  I first draw rough pencil sketches, then create technical pen and ink drawings that eventually get digitally scanned.  We then work with Adobe Illustrator fine tuning the colors and shapes precisely.

How did you settle on the colors? 

Michael Schwab:  For the Nixon project, I knew up front that my poster was going to be a very strong red with golden yellow evoking the Chinese flag.

After you’ve nailed the image you’ll use, how do you decide on a font and it’s size and positioning?

Michael Schwab’s 2011 poster for Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” was an instant hit. 15 x 21 inches, digital studio print on archival paper. Image: Michael Schwab.

Michael Schwab:   Many times, I use my own font, “Schwab Poster,” created back in the ‘90’s.  I work with that typeface a lot.  It’s not commercially available but I have it here in the studio.  I used that for the National Parks series.  For the Nixon poster, I used an old wood block font because it just felt right.  We altered several of the letters to make it just right.

In your creative process, do you work up several different images, or, focus on just one?

Michael Schwab:   I usually work up two or three ideas for myself and typically show those to the client.  With Nixon in China, I shared 3 or 4 sketches with Jon Finck and David Gockley and told them why I thought the singular image worked best and they agreed.

What is your lead time in developing a poster like this?

Michael Schwab:   Is this case, I had a month or two, so it wasn’t too bad.  Sometimes deadlines are two weeks and sometimes two years.  There are no rules.

When I see some of your images, the word ‘bold’ comes to mind, but there is also a romantic/nostalgic aspect as well, harkening back to old woodcuts.  I get that sense from  the color, strong line and the overall energy in a lot of your works.

Michael Schwab:  My heroes were always the old European poster artists—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre, from France, and Ludwig Holwein, from Germany, and the Beggarstaff Brothers from England.  There’s lots of graphic romance and drama in those images.  I also have a deep respect for old Japanese woodcuts.

What’s the first poster you made?

Michael Schwab:   My first professional poster was for Levi’s, back in 1975, for creative director, Chris Blum.   I’ve been a graphic artist now for almost 40 years.   My first opera poster was for San Francisco Opera’s Boris Godunov in 1992.   Talk about bold and simple—that was extremely bold and simple.

Yes, not much more than a silhouette but it really communicated the pagentry of that opera.

Michael Schwab:   Next time you look at it, tell me if you’re in the audience looking at him from the audience or if you feel like you’re on the stage behind him.   That was a silk-screen poster with gold metallic ink border, which was probably toxic as hell…but it was gorgeous.  A couple of decades went by and here I am, at the opera again and thoroughly enjoying it.

Michael’s Schwab’s popular series of posters for the National Parks are synonymous with Northern California. “Golden Gate Bridge,” 1995, 22 x 30.75 inches, 7 color, silk screen. Image: Michael Schwab

 Is silk-screen still used?

Michael Schwab:   Yes, but it’s so much easier and cleaner to create a digital print.  They can really match colors beautifully on archival paper.  However, I still love serigraphs (silkscreen prints).  They are like paint on the paper.

Do you do your own print work as well or do you work with a printer?

Michael Schwab:   I work with several printers, but for the opera posters, I work with David Coyle at ArtBrokers Inc. in Sausalito.  He is a master printer and publishes many artists and photographers.   He and his staff did a stunning job.

Your website has a fabulous gallery of work, which are your favorites and why?

Michael Schwab:   It’s kind of like asking which children I like the best. I’ve had a few home runs, not everything works incredibly well, but the images for the Golden Gate Parks are a favorite.  I’m also proud of the work I’ve created for Amtrak over the past several years.  Several individual logos I feel very good about—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo,  Pebble Beach,  David Sedaris, to name a few.  And the opera posters—Nixon is my third.  I have a commission for the next 4 years with them.

 What are you working on right now?

Michael Schwab:   The big project on my drawing table now is the poster for America’s Cup 2013.   It hasn’t been printed at the time of this interview, yet but it’s been approved, and everybody seems to like it.  I’m also working on the graphic for a highway project up in British Columbia—The Sea to Sky Highway.  It seems like I always have a wine label project going on too.  Currently, it’s Area Code Wine Company.

Information about Purchasing Schwab’s posters:  

Michael Schwab’s Nixon in China poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an unsigned 16″x24″ poster ($75) and a signed 24″x36″ collector’s poster ($150) through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House and online at www.sfopera.com .  A limited number of his out of print Boris Godunov posters, 24″ x 36″ are available for $625 through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House.

To visit Michael Schwab’s website, click here.

To read ARThound’s previous coverage of Michael Schwab, click here.

Details about Nixon in China performances: San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China runs for seven performances June 8-July 3, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House.  Tickets and information: www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330.

June 24, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marin artist Michael Schwab will sign his “Nixon in China” posters following Sunday’s opera

Marin artist Michael Schwab was commissioned by San Francisco Opera to create the poster to commemorate John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China,” which opens San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2012 Season. Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

I’ll be at tomorrow’s matinee performance of John Adams’ Nixon in China which opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season to rave reviews on June 8, 2012.  Afterwards, I’m going to meet acclaimed Marin artist Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he will be signing the striking limited edition poster he created especially for this San Francisco Opera production.  His bold portrait of Richard Nixon in profile, against a vivid red backdrop, is elegant in its simplicity.  While focused on Nixon, it implies much more and the closer you look, the more you see.  The artwork is available as a limited edition poster, reproduced in two sizes, and is also featured on the cover of the Company’s Nixon in China program book.  Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Michael Schwab about his creative process, something like a studio visit by phone, and will be publishing that shortly.

From his studio in Marin, Michael Schwab has established a national reputation as one of America’s leading graphic artists. Dramatic in its simplicity, Schwab’s work is easily recognized by his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms.  He has created award-winning images, posters, and logos for numerous clients, including the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Muhammad Ali, Nike, Robert Redford, and most recently, the poster for the America’s Cup 2013 in San Francisco.  His previous collaborations with San Francisco Opera include posters for the Company’s 2011 Ring Cycle and Boris Godunov in 1992.

Schwab’s Nixon in China poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an unsigned 16″x24″ poster ($75) and a signed 24″x36″ collector’s poster ($150) through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House and online at www.sfopera.com .  Following the Sunday, June 17, 2012, 2 p.m. matinee performance of Nixon in China,  Michael Schwab will sign posters of both sizes at the Opera Shop immediately following the performance.

Details: San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China runs for seven performances June 8-July 3, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House.  Tickets and information: www.sfopera.com.
or call (415) 864-3330.

June 16, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Santa Fe’s Chamber Music Festival: Dawn Upshaw Sings Bach

The public is invited to attend dress rehearsals for several of the more popular performances at The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, July 17-August 22, 2011. Here, in the historic St. Francis Auditorium, artists warm up for their Bach sonata, one of three Bach pieces, performed on July 23, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Santa Fe was attending a Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival Bach performance featuring renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw in the historic St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art.  Upshaw is the festival’s Artist-in-Residence this summer, and is performing in five concerts, including a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s autobiographical song cycle Ayre, written especially for her.  The festival, in its 39th season, runs from July 17-August 22, 2011, and includes over 80 concerts, recitals, master classes, youth concerts and open rehearsals featuring the works of numerous composers performed by 68 artists and five ensembles. Concerts take place in downtown Santa Fe at the intimate St. Francis Auditorium and the Lensic Performing Arts Center.  One of the very best aspects of this fabulous festival is that several of its most popular (and sold-out) concerts have free open rehearsals which afford audiences the chance to really see how a performance comes together.

Upshaw sings Bach Cantata No. 199

The concert I had the pleasure of attending on Saturday, July 23, 2011, was the first in the Festival’s popular Bach Plus series. It featured Dawn Upshaw singing Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (“My Heart Swims in Blood”), BWV 199, with oboist Allen Vogel, violinists L.P. How and Kathleen Brauer, violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues, cellist Ronald Thomas, bassist Marji Danilow, and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh.  Also on the program was British violinist Daniel Hope in Bach’s beautiful Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 (1720) and violinists Jennifer Gilbert and Harvey de Souza in Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043 (ca. 1721).

The highlight was Upshaw, one of the leading sopranos of our day, who is blessed with a luminous voice that seems to know no bounds.  In 2007, she was named a MacArthur Fellow, receiving an award commonly referred to as the “genius grant.”  She first came to prominence as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program, as a protégé of James Levine, but gradually became better known for carving her own very unique repertory. Her 1993 recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” familiarized many with her stunning voice and paved the way for more work in new music with leading composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho, who seem to be as inspired by her as she is by them.  After taking time off to battle early-stage breast cancer in 2006, she re-emerged seemingly even stronger.  This June, as Music Director of the Ojaj Festival, she collaborated with Peter Sellars in the eclectic new production of George Crumb’s The Winds of Destinywhich had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.  She sang the role of a traumatized veteran, home from Afghanistan.

World-renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw is the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s Artist in Residence. Photo: Brooke Irish/Ojaj Festival

This was my first time hearing Upshaw live.  This particular cantata, the perfect vehicle for her to display what’s so special about her singing, combined with the inviting and beautifully frescoed environment of the St. Francis Auditorium and the enthusiasm of the audience, enforced how important it is for us and for performers to participate in live performances, no matter how fine our audio collections are.  Upshaw met these very accomplished chamber musicians on their own turf, not only in her mastery of her voice but also in her approach to the technically demanding Baroque music itself—with precision and superb expression and the deep emotional reservoir required for its interpretation.  She had recorded the cantata in 1997 for her 2001 release “Angels Hide Their Faces.”   

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, first performed in 1714, is one of his earliest cantatas and was written while he was employed as organist and chamber musician for the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, one of the most cultured nobles of his time.  The cantata is scored for a solo soprano and a tiny orchestra of one oboe, strings and continuo.  The cantata’s text is by Darmstadt court poet and librarian Georg Christian Lehms and draws on what would have been the Gospel for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Luke 18:9-14), which relates the parable of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector.   The theme is humility and repentance.  Bach wrote the cantata in eight parts, placing the emphasis on the soprano, who sings an alternating sequence of recitatives and arias across the duration of the piece.  The cantata opens with a deeply emotional recitative, a sinner’s dark confession of a guilty conscience and the horror of being separated from God.  The first aria is a grief-stricken supplication, accompanied by solo oboe, while the second aria is a plea to God to remain patient with the sinner.  The final aria is cast in the form of a gigue—a lively dance of the Baroque era written in compound time—underpinning the singer’s joy, basking in the light of God’s forgiveness.  Upshaw traced the emotional arc of the eight segments not only in her expressive voice but in her face which literally beamed at the end.

Upshaw and the players performed with such clarity that all of the richly layered polyphonic voices emerged clearly throughout.  Allen Vogel was superb in his oboe obbligato and engaged in a lyrical and balanced interplay with Upshaw, one voice standing out momentarily then receding to give the other the spotlight.  

After the concert, I had the opportunity to ask Upshaw why she sang this particular cantata.  She explained that it was chosen for her by the Festival director, Marc Neikrug.  “I was thrilled,” said Upshaw, “because this is my favorite cantata that I’ve ever worked on and it’s so beautiful as well as so challenging.  I don’t have the opportunity to sing Bach all that much now as I am doing a lot of new music. I am doing some Bach with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) which I am partnering with through the 2012-13 season, but otherwise I’m not doing the Passions really any more.  I think we can all relate to feeling regret and feeling that kind of darkness and wondering if there’s a way out.  Thank goodness there’s redemption at the end.  There’s hope!”

Two New Chamber Music Commissions:

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival is contributing to the contemporary chamber music repertoire with two new commissions this summer season by internationally acclaimed composers Christopher Rouse  (String Quartet No. 3, July 28th & 29th), and Sean Shepherd (Quartet for Oboe & Strings, Op 114 August 11th & 12th; world premiere). In conjunction with these performances, the Festival presents pre-concert talks with both composers, open to the public. The Festival also offers private master classes with Mr. Rouse and Mr. Shepherd to area conservatory/college music students through its American Composer Residency program.

Festival Highlights Still to Come:

Golijov’s Ayre performed by Artist-in-Residence soprano Dawn Upshaw and eleven festival artists (July 31 & August 1);

Flutist Joshua Smith and harpsichordist Kathleen McIntosh and cellist Joseph Johnson  perform Bach’s sonatas in B Minor, E Major, E Minor and A Major (August 6);

Pianist Joyce Yang makes her Festival solo recital debut (August 9);

World premiere of the co-commission by Sean Shepherd (August 11 & 12), plus a pre-concert talk with the composer (August 12);

David Shifrin and the Orion String Quartet perform the Festival premiere of Marc Neikrug’s Clarinet Quintet (August 15);

Ida Kavafian, Peter Wiley and Anne-Marie McDermott perform the complete Beethoven Trios over the course of two nights (August 17 & 18);

Time for Three performs in concert at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (August 19);

Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires on August 13 and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on August 20;

The season’s finale (August 22) includes pianist Cecile Licad and Victor Santiago Asuncion performing Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion with percussionists Jeffrey Milarsky and David Tolen.

Open Rehearsals:  The Festival’s popular Open Rehearsals are free and open to the public, providing a unique and informal look at the dynamics of Festival performances and artists.  Click here for the open rehearsal schedule.

Details:  The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues through August 22, 2011.  Tickets may purchased by phone 505.982.1890 or visit the website at www.SantaFeChamberMusic.com.  Specific seat selection is available only with phone and in person purchases.  There is no additional handling fee. To purchase tickets in-person, the Festival Ticket Office is located in the lobby of the New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue (at Lincoln Avenue) on the northwest corner of the historic Santa Fe Plaza and is open daily from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Chamber Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment