At San Francisco Opera, “The Magic Flute” gets a second run after its big 2012 debut and it’s still magical─through November 20, 2015
Wildly colorful costumes, constantly shifting digital projections, huge puppets, adorable bird-like creatures and kids in contraptions in the sky are a huge part of the fairy tale magic in San Francisco Opera’s sparkling revival of its 2012 co-production, The Magic Flute. And, of course, there’s the music and singing─at San Francisco Opera (SFO), Mozart’s whimsical masterpiece about the power of love and the forces of good and evil is presented in full splendor with sparkling arias, glorious ensembles, and breathtaking orchestral passages. Designed by Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein, with David Gockley’s English translations of Schikaneder’s libretto, the beloved favorite opened on October 20 for a ten performance run.
A lot happens in three years though─the novelty of those groundbreaking digital projections, based upon 3,000 of Jun Kaneko’s tempura and chalk drawings, which so mesmerized me upon my first two viewings of the opera, has begun to fade. These projections, thankfully, are now commonplace in opera and have done more to revitalize staging than anything I can think of. (Read my review for the groundbreaking 2012 production here.) Having witnessed that magical innovation firsthand, I can now better appreciate the opera’s total package─singing, music, staging. This review pertains to Sunday, October 25, matinee performance.
Under Lawrence Foster’s baton, Mozart’s opera with its lively arias, thrilling coloratura moments and intricate passages so well-suited to vocal harmonizing was in good hands. He makes his SFO debut with this production and will go on to conduct The Fall of the House of Usher in December. Foster, an LA native of Romanian descent, guest-conducts frequently stateside but has mainly worked in Europe. His tie to War Memorial Opera House is special: when he was just 19, he made his debut conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Since 2013, he has been music director of l’Opéra de Marseille and l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille.
On Sunday, as he guided the SFO orchestra in the lush overture, I found myself growing impatient with Kaneko’s hypnotic visuals which seemed to enforce the music’s slow pace making it seem almost static. The overture itself begins quite slowly and winds through various harmonies before it builds to its rousing conclusion. We were watching a series of straight and wavy colored lines, appearing one by one, slowly build an interwoven grid and then shift through blocks of color and various patterns. It didn’t seem as fresh as it once had. At other times, when singers were on stage, these projections were an enthralling accompaniment and enforced the mood of the music wonderfully, if only they could be better synced to the music, on a micro-level.
Nimble soprano Sarah Shafer as Pamina, sang her famous Act 2 aria of lament “Oh, I feel it” (“Ach ich fuehl’s”) lyrically and hauntingly. She sang Rosetta in this summer’s world premiere of SFO’s La Ciociara (Two Women), and is capable of great empathy in her singing and acting. Her wonderful chemistry with Papageno/Efraín Solís made their Act 1 duet “In men, who feel love,” (“Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”) pure joy, aside from its very vernacular language. Shafer was applauded enthusiastically after each of her solos and given a standing ovation at the end of the opera. Soprano Nadine Sierra will sing the role in November.
Second year Adler Fellow, tenor Efraín Solís, as Papageno, has such a warm and engaging speaking voice and a natural flair for comedy that he immediately won the hearts of the audience. He imbued his wonderful singing with so much personality that he made his zany character the opera’s focal point. And his endearing Papagena, second year Adler Fellow, soprano Maria Valdes, made the most of her brief time on stage as well.
Queen of the Night, Soprano Kathryn Bowden, subbing for Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, grabbed my attention in Act 1 with her first recitative and demanding aria, “Oh, Tremble not, my dear son” (“O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”). The former SFO Merola participant and winner of the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (Florida District sparkled in her high range as she aimed to persuade Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from the grips of Sarastro. In Act 2, when she is enraged that Tamino and Pamina are collaborating with Sarastro, she let loose full force with the Queen’s more famous aria, “Hell’s vengenace boils in my heart” (“Der Hölle Rache”), singing powerfully, scornfully to Pamina while thrusting a knife into her hands and ordering her to kill Satastro. While she didn’t quite achieve the raging high drama that completely undoes an audience, she hit all the high notes and pulled off the exhausting passagework with great precision.
Lyric tenor Paul Appleby made his San Francisco Opera as the young Prince Tamino. His expressive voice was wonderful in his Act 1 aria “Oh heavenly and rare image” (“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”) but his acting not as expressive.
German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter, as wise High Priest Sarastro, had a very imperial manner and put his rich deep voice to great use in the lower ranges called for by his role. On the other hand, Greg Fedderly’s Monostatos looked and acted like a character straight out of The Cat in the Hat.
While all the singers were special in their own way, I was drawn to two sets of triplets: the delightful Three Ladies─Jacqueline Piccolino (First Lady), Wang (Second Lady) and Zanda Švēde (Third Lady) who sang so harmoniously together, each with a wonderful voice and the adorable three young boys/guiding spirits (Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram Rafael Larpa-Wilson) who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. The boys sang angelically with their delicate high voices while hovering above the stage in brightly colored triangular containers.
The English translations by David Gockley, SFO’s General Director, with additional material by Ruth and Thomas Martin, were contemporary and very well-rhymed (when called for) but went way too far into vernacular and slangy language for my tastes. Papageno’s “ Oy vey,” in particular, got to me.
Details: There are 6 remaining performances of The Magic Flute─Wed, Nov 4, 7:30 PM; Sunday, Nov 8, 2 PM; Thurs, Nov 12, 7:30 PM; Sat, Nov 14, 7:30 PM; Tues, Nov 17, 7:30 PM; Fri, Nov 20, 7:30 PM. Tickets: $26 to $381. For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
San Francisco Symphony performs at Weill Hall Thursday night—the magnificent Mozart “Sinfonia” is on the program
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.”
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.
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.
A big Figaro, up close and personal in Cinnabar’s intimate schoolhouse theater is a treat you can’t pass up. After last season’s sold-out run of Carmen, Artistic Director Elly Lichenstein and Music Director Mary Chun reunite to close Cinnabar Theater’s 41st season with Mozart’s glorious marriage of music and theater. The opera opened last Saturday to a sold-out house and closes June 15 but it has been so successful that an additional performance has been added on Wednesday, June 11.
For those who haven’t experienced Mozart’s magical farce, The Marriage of Figaro which premiered in Vienna in 1786, Cinnabar’s is a wonderful introduction. It has all the special touches that we associate with Cinnabar’s bankable perfectionism and it’s in English. Jeremy Sams’ smooth translation of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto eliminates the fuss of subtitles and lays out all complex plot twists, of which there are many. For those who know Figaro, here’s a chance to sit back and enjoy the scheming, with a new twist—it’s set in the 1920’s rather than the usual 18th century.
The performance takes place on a small ground-level stage with gorgeous sets by Wayne Hovey that take their inspiration from a well-appointed Downton Abbey-like estate. Wherever you’re seated at Cinnabar, you’re just a few feet from the action, so you can take in the expressions on the singer’s faces and the fine details in the costumes and props, making it intense and immersive, just as opera should be. You’re in for a visual treat with the 1920’s inspired costumes created by Lisa Eldrege, who outfitted the entire cast of 22 in hues of black and white, gray, and gold. The gents sport country tweeds and linens and the ladies, lavish evening attire and gowns appointed with delicate lace. The chorus members wear individualized servant’s uniforms.
Figaro is one of my favorite operas because of the wonderful match between Mozart’s lively music and the onstage drama. Mary Chuni and her small but ample orchestra of ten outdid themselves AGAIN. Snuggled between two walls and sitting in a snaking line, they opened with a gorgeous overture and proceeded to play beautifully for all four acts, in perfect sync with the action.
Soprano Kelly Britt, as the young maid Susanna, glows with bright energy and has natural chemistry with her fiancé, Figaro (Eugene Walden), and with Countess Rosina (Bharati Soman) and a palpable revulsion for the skirt-chasing Count. Susanna does the most singing of all the characters and Britt’s powerful voice carried her through the opening night performance, growing lovelier and more nuanced as she relaxed into her role. Her Act III duet with the Countess, about a letter intended to the dupe Count, was a wonderful blending of two naturally lyrical voices. Her Act IV garden aria, “Come Here” (“Deh vieni”), where she sings of love and confuses Figaro, was touching.
Soprano Bharati Soman has her debut at Cinnabar as the Countess Almaviva and what a lovely voice and countenance she has. She’s in love her husband, the Count, but knows that he wants to cheat on her with gorgeous Susanna, her maid, who is engaged to Figaro, the Count’s servant. At times regal and at times terribly vulnerable and regretful, Soman sang the Countess’s two great arias with poise and great tenderness— Act II ”Oh Love give me some comfort!” (“Porgi, amor”) and Act III “Where are the beautiful moments?” (“Dove sono I bei momenti”).
Baritone Eugene Walden, as Figaro, has a natural comedic flare and excelled in his solo arias and in the wonderful ensembles. In the Act I duet, “Five, ten, twenty” (“Cinque, dieci, venti”), where he’s taking measurements in the bedroom, his endearing chemistry with Susanna set the tone for the rest of opera.
Charismatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek sang the role of the scheming lord of the manor, Count Almaviva, impressively, revealing his brooding insecurity. Almaviva fancies himself a wild womanizer but without his money and position, he’d be washed up. Smith-Kotlarek’s Act III revenge aria, “Shall I live to see” (“Vedro, mentr’io sospiro”), is an incisive commentary on class, revealing the Count’s seething anger about his vassals Susana and Figaro outwitting him and finding the happiness that has eluded him.
Standouts in the ensemble include the wonderfully animated mezzo soprano Krista Wigle as Marcellina (Dr. Bartolo’s housekeeper) who claims Figaro owes her money and, if he doesn’t pay, he will have to marry her. Wigle has the “it” factor—it’s impossible to take your eyes off her and she’s a delight in every scene she’s in.
Mezzo-soprano Cary Ann Rosko shines in a pants role as Cherubino, the Count’s flirtatious young page, whom the Count suspects is having an affair with his wife. Rosko’s impish antics are delightful, especially when Susanna and the Countess dress him in girl’s clothes as a disguise. Rosko’s Act II aria “You ladies know what love is” was well sung and the leap out the window that followed comically executed.
Cudos to Wayne Hovey, who spent years doing Cinnabar’s lighting, and is now applying his engineering skills to set design. His set of fluidly shifting walls get top billing, right along with the music and singing—they expand, contract and pivot to create a garden and three beautifully appointed rooms replete with period paintings and portraits.
Details: Cinnabar Theater is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. The Marriage of Figaro has 7 remaining performances—June 6 (sold-out), 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, and 15. Buy tickets online here. ($40 General, $25 under age 22, $9 middle-school and high-school.)
Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the eve of his performance at Weill Hall with the San Francisco Symphony
Born in Voronezh, Russia, in 1979, classical pianist Kirill Gerstein was the winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award. Gerstein first touched foot in the U.S. at age 14, when he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a jazz pianist (their youngest student ever). There wasn’t any live jazz to be heard in Voronezh, but Gerstein fell in love with it by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection and it was his skill at improvisation that led to a scholarship to Berklee. He went on to tackle classical repertoire in summers at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s at the Manhattan School of Music at 20. Gerstein, now 35, has spent his life balancing his love of classical music and jazz but chose to focus his energy on classical playing. And what a life he’s crafted. With his technical prowess and ability to communicate his connection to the music, he’s emerged as one of the most respected and insightful pianists of his generation. He manages a global touring schedule that includes recitals, chamber music and concerto solos and carves out time to teach. Since receiving the Gilmore Award, he has commissioned boundary-crossing new works from Oliver Knussen, Chick Corea (Jazz), Brad Mehldau (Jazz) and Timothy Andres, and additional commissions are in the works. This Thursday, at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Gerstein performs Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony. Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10” is also in the program. Composed after Stalin’s death in 1953, this piece, since the late 1970’s, has been seen as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia and is considered one of the most devastating essays in the twentieth-century symphonic literature. This is the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. The concert will also be performed at Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Gerstein’s latest album, Imaginary Pictures (Myrios Classics) which features Schumann’s “Carnaval” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will be made available this week at Weill Hall and at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, before its general release on June 10. Immediately after each concert, including Thursday’s performance, Gerstein will be greeting the audience and signing copies of the new cd in the lobby. Gerstein’s recording in 2010 of the Liszt Sonata “Humoresque” and a piece by Oliver Knussen, also on Myrios Classics, was considered one of the best recordings of 2010.
Typically, a soloist as busy as Gerstein would perform one concerto and move on, but the Bay Area is in for treat because on Sunday, June 8, we will have the special opportunity to hear Gerstein perform Chamber Music with Members of the San Francisco Symphony. This is gorgeous music that musicians love to play and audiences live to hear and Gerstein will be playing Dvořák’s “Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Opus 90, Dumky” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor, opus 57.”
Yesterday, in between rehearsals, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirill Gerstein about his extraordinary career and his commissions. Known for his fiery, dramatic playing, his vocal style is crisp and to the point. In short time though, he demonstrated that his musical curiosity and insights are profound.
Here is our conversation—
You were born in 1979 in very interesting part of Russia, Voronezh—the intersection between Urals and Siberia and Caucasus and Ukraine…a real hinterland. What did you do for fun there growing up? And when did your love of music really take hold?
I generally have fun and I don’t think, even as child, that I made a distinction between fun and non-fun—it was all fun and I didn’t have any realizations about something missing in Voronezh. I enjoyed studying music and reading and my parents made sure that I spoke with a lot of people. I wasn’t the tortured prodigy you sometimes read about. I practiced but not those crazy amounts you hear about.
And when did your love of music really take hold?
Kirill Gerstein: Music has always accompanied me. My mother is a musician and she taught college but she also taught at home and the piano was there and she was my first teacher. I don’t remember any time without music or the piano. So it wasn’t a certain moment or lesson, it was just always there and my interest increased. Most of my exposure was to classical music. I went to a lot of concerts. The jazz was only from recordings as there wasn’t really an active jazz scene in Russia. There was a bit in Moscow, but not very much, and certainly not in Voronezh which was not a capital city. I really liked Chic Corea and Keith Jarrett and listened over and over.
In reading about your life, it seems like praise has been heaped upon you since you were a child. Who’s been the most influential teacher you’ve had and why and what hurdle did that person take you over? Did you immediately win him or her with your playing, or was it more of a brutal relationship where you really had to strive?
Kirill Gerstein: There was a lot of praise and heaped is correct. Studying music is a process where you encounter a lot of criticism that accentuates your weak spots as a player and as a person and that’s how you learn. The process is to do justice to the music. The two most important teachers I had were Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest. Both of them, especially the first time, were very harshly critical of what I did but it was clear to me that they had some very valuable information that I wanted and needed. So, in spite of the ego bruising, I stayed with them and worked with them. With Dmitri Bashkirov, who I had heard in Voronezh in concert as child, because he happened to give regular concerts there, I was transfixed, so that was particularly important. I first played for him in Spain when I was about 17 and he was harsh but there was such insight. I kept returning and, finally, I broke through and began to really develop my playing and took his class. I worked with him for years.
The lives and careers of Beethoven and Shostakovich were separated by over a century and in their works we can see how they wrestled with these big themes of freedom, liberty, and politics. The concert, I hope, will illuminate some of the subtler, musical traits that these composers have in common. What comes to mind for you in the pairing of the No. 2 and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”?
Kirill Gerstein: I think this is a good pairing. In terms of Russian composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich was a composer of great symphonies. The symphonic composer was really defined, or let’s say redefined, by Beethoven in ways that impacted every subsequent generation from Brahms onwards, including Shostakovich. Mozart and Haydn wrote very important symphonies but Beethoven with his nine symphonies is really a towering presence who went beyond classical music to impact all of Western culture. Shostakovich was aware of this and in many ways inspired by these symphonic models and the two do go very well together. You could say that, in some ways, Shostakovich modeled his compositional ideals on Beethoven, not necessarily the style but concept behind it, and you have the important body of string quartets by both composers for which this also holds.
The two pieces on Thursday’s program are very different in sprit and mood because the “Symphony No. 10” is a later piece of Shostakovich whereas the Beethoven “Piano Concerto No. 2” was actually composed first. This is really the most youthful of his five piano concertos, where he’s just starting to depart form the models of Mozart and Haydn but it does so boldly, just as he lived his life. In this concerto, he does show that he has studied and absorbed the great models of Mozart and Haydn but also that he has much to say that’s very original. It’s also a piece filled with lots of humor and a beautiful second movement that’s very much inspired by the Italian operatic traditions because one of his teachers was Antonio Salieri, very influential.
On Sunday, at Davies you’ll be performing a very special chamber music concert which includes the Shostakovich “Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57 and the Dvorak “Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor, Opus 90.” The third movement of the Shostakovich is this amazing scherzo and trio that has a kind of dark sarcasm to it. What’s your favorite part of this piece?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I clearly like the entire piece. You’re right, the third movement is a style of overt optimism, projected and fitting for the Soviet period but underneath anyone can detect this is not happy at all but quite the opposite. This was a very common M.O. for Shostakovich…happiness on the face and darkness in the soul.
How do you prepare before a performance? Is there some routine you adhere to?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not to subscribe to any routines because then you end up breaking the routine and it becomes all about that. There’s a lot to coordinate—your own travel schedule, rehearsal times vary, the pieces are all varied. Trying to have a routine is a very futile undertaking. And the preparing, well, the performance is really a window into something that’s a very continuous process that I think about all the time. I practice the piano whether there is or is not a concert. Of course, a public performance brings a wonderful inspiration to the performer who has his life in music.
You have an ongoing collaboration with Charles Detoit, who will be conducting this Thursday. You obviously have a special rapport. What clicks?
Kirill Gerstein: Well, I met Charles probably ten years ago and he has been a wonderfully supportive collaborator and mentor in quite a variety of repertoire—German, modern pieces, and now the Beethoven Concerto No. 2. I really feel an established musical and personal connection with him and can say that he is someone who is always inspiring to be with. Professionally, he’s very accomplished and generous.
Your new album, Imaginary Pictures, to be released June 10 by Myrios Classics, features Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Schumann’s famous “Carnaval,” both cycles of piano pieces in which the visual was the departure point that fired the composers’ imaginations—in one case actual drawings by Victor Herman and the other, masked revelers at a party. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your pairing of these magnificent works. Also, in preparing for the recording, was there anything new you found in these works?
Kirill Gerstein: There are several reasons to pair the two. Certainly, they both have overtly visual starting points but it’s not just ‘simple paintings in sound,’ which is the obvious parallel. Both composers go much deeper to create a psychological portrayal of how they viewed the subjects and ultimately it becomes more about them as observers. The composers themselves were both self-taught and they had this kind of wild unbridled imagination in common which led to unexpected wonderful things appearing from nowhere. They knew the academic and classical traditions very well but were always pushing the boundaries, so even though their music sounds quite different, the creative spirit is a kindred one. And yes, the pieces are very popular but that wasn’t sufficient—unless there was something new and somewhat subjective and different to bring to the piece, there was no point to record it. I decided to record them because, when I looked at the score on the page, some things appeared differently to me than I was used to hearing. For example, in “Pictures at an Exhibition”—one of the most played pieces in the piano and orchestral repertoire—some things felt like discoveries to be explored. Of course, the process of recording itself stimulates this feeling of discovery.
I heard that you wrote the liner notes for this album too.
Kirill Gerstein: I did that for my previous cd too by the way. Generally, I enjoy writing. I’ve written for the gallery section of the New York Review of Books website and that’s something I intend to do more of as I enjoy the process. To me, that’s part of being a well-rounded expressive person not just a pianist pressing buttons on a keyboard. (Click here to read Kirill Gerstein “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Wrong’ Note,” NYR Gallery, August 13, 2013.) Specifically, this was also an invitation to think more about the pairing and what the music is trying to express, the philosophical territory.
Speaking of visual inspiration, many composers embrace other art forms for inspiration with their music. What other art forms have you found strong inspiration in?
Kirill Gerstein: In general, movement is inspiring, so dance is influential, but so are painting, poetry, prose and performances from great actors as well. Architecture is something that is inspiring for thinking about music. But these aren’t direct influences; they are indirect and after some time. It’s letting myself be inspired by the many things I encounter, like seeing a great sushi chef cut the fish with a fluid movement that repeated by his hand time and time again—that’s an aesthetic pleasure that has inspiration. In the end, it’s about walking with your eyes open.
You won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, which is given every four years—one of the most prestigious and generous awards a concert pianist can receive. The cash prize of $300,000 stipulates that $250,000 is to be put toward “career development.” I understand that you are putting that to use by commissioning works by living composers, including jazz composers. Can you tell us a little about the pieces you’ve commissioned so far and what is in the works? Do you have ongoing interaction with these musicians?
Kirill Gerstein: I’ve purposefully chosen very different individuals. There’s a great figure in modern music, Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor. On the other hand, there’s the young up and coming American composer and pianist, Timo Andres. Andres’ “Old Friend” had its world premiere at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Jan 31, 2014 and I played the piece. There have been a couple of jazz-related commissions—the great jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea, have both written pieces for me. The idea was to pass this money on to other artists, in this case composers, and in return, to get an artwork that for the initial period is exclusive to my concert programs, an additional benefit. Eventually, the pieces will be for each pianist to play and they will add variety and enrich the piano repertoire. It’s been very rewarding being part of the impetus that gets new pieces created and out there. The exchange between the music creator/composer is another source of inspiration and something that shows you how some of the great golden composers—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff—may have participated in that process of collaboration between composer and performer.
Did the composers you commissioned meet your expectations?
Kirill Gerstein: I try not the have expectations. I let myself be surprised not only by the composers but by life in general—it’s mentally more efficient. I have been very satisfied with all of the works and inspired by the process.
Speaking of inspiration, what type of music do you listen to when you want to relax?
Kirill Gerstein: When I relax I don’t listen to music usually. It’s such an intense process for me that it snaps me back into this very engaged mode. And I don’t listen to background music either.
You started life in Russia, moved early to the States and now your parents live in Boston and you teach at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule, and your wife, Noam, is from Tel Aviv. Which place do you consider home and how do you define home?
Kirill Gerstein: This is very philosophical and should be the subject of an entire interview but, having had this varied history, I feel at home in many places. Obviously, you give up some feeling of being rooted but on the other hand what I’ve gained is being at home and comfortable in many places in the world and in different cultures and circles. Something lost, something gained.
Have you ever been to the Wine Country where you’ll be preforming this Thursday?
Kirill Gerstein: Yes I have. I really enjoy the wine making region so this is a special dream and tickle. A lot of the wine that I particularly enjoy comes from this area.
Concert Details: For tickets and more information for Thursday’s Weill Hall performance “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich”, click here. Tickets can also be purchased in person tomorrow at the Green Music Center Box Office for this concert, at 7 PM, one hour in advance of the concert. For the three San Francisco performances of the concert at Davies Hall, click here. For tickets and more information about Sunday’s Chamber music concert, click here.
Stars in the Making…San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows perform “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes,” at SRJC’s Newman Auditorium this Sunday, March 9
Lively, eloquent, and intensely determined, this year’s twelve Adler Fellows are literally the most talented young opera singers in the country and many will go on to become opera legends. This Sunday, at 4PM, five Adlers will perform an intimate program of beloved opera arias, classical and cabaret songs at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Newman Auditorium as part of the college’s Chamber Series. Performers are sopranos Maria Valdes and Erin Johnson; mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (former Adler 2005-6) and pianist Noah Lindquist. (Full program listed at end of article.) Normally, seeing the Adlers perform entails a lot more work—crossing the bridge and parking—but SRJC has brought these young singers right to our doorstep.
In February, I had the pleasure of seeing two Adlers who will perform Sunday— Maria Valdes and Eugene Brancoveanu. They were involved in a rare performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s one act comedic opera, “Rita,” with dynamo Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). The venue was San Rafael’s intimate Oscher Marin Jewish Community Center where the audience sits at candlelit tables drinking wine and snacking while the performance unfolds just a few feet from them. Soprano Maria Valdes was fabulous in the title role of Rita, a tyrannical and abusive wife who is tormented by two husbands. She sang like an angel, juggling conversation, song, drama and comedy. We had ample opportunity to experience her tremendous vocal reserve along with her ability to calibrate it to the setting, sustaining high notes without ever coming off as shrill or too forceful…a true star in the making. The production was impressively staged and directed by former Adler, Eugene Brancoveanu, who also tweaked the script, adding spoken dialogue in English. His modern set was minimal and included an ironing board and some clever space saving props. Brancoveanu, born in Romania, has an unforgettable baritone and has sung at the Met, La Scala, San Francisco and Berkeley Operas as well for Opera Parallèle. I heard him sing Sam last April in Opera Parallèle’s wonderful production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti, a role which tested his range and acting ability. He was on top of every note, emotionally searing and impossible to take your eyes off…what stage presence Oh, he’s also been mentioned several times in the blog Barihunks, enough said. You’re in for a treat on Sunday.
It’s rewarding to see young artists perform early in their careers and to track them as they move on to the world’s leadings opera houses and concert halls. Renowned sopranos and former Adlers, Deborah Voight (1986) Leah Crocetto (2009), are shining examples. Both are coming soon to Green Music Center’s Weill Hall—Crocetto is in recital on March 9 and Voight on April 10 (Click here for details).
More About the Adler Fellow Program: The Adler Fellows all go through a grueling national competition to enter the ranks of the Merola Opera Program, a prestigious summer resident artist training program in San Francisco sponsored by San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Opera Center. A select few perform so well that they are invited to continue their training in the elite two-year Adler Fellow residency program. Named for the late great San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the Adler Fellowship Program is the Princeton of performance-oriented residencies, offering exceptional young artists intensive individual training, coaching, professional seminars and a wide range of performance opportunities throughout their fellowship. Adler fellows frequently appear in SFO productions.
2014 Adler Fellows are sopranos Erin Johnson, (Washington, New Jersey), Jacqueline Piccolino (Chicago, Illinois), and Maria Valdes (Atlanta, Georgia); mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde (Valmiera, Latvia); tenors A.J. Glueckert (Portland, Oregon), Pene Pati (Mangere, Auckland, New Zealand), and Chuanyue Wang (Hei Long Jiang, China); baritones Hadleigh Adams (Palmerston, New Zealand), and Efraín Solís (Santa Ana, California); bass-baritone Philippe Sly (Ottawa, Ontario). Johnson, Piccolino, Glueckert, Wang, Adams, and Sly are returning as Adler Fellows. The two pianists selected for Apprentice coach Fellowships are Noah Lindquist (Brooklyn, New York) and returning Adler, Sun Ha Yoon (Seoul, South Korea).
Other Upcoming Adler Fellow Performances: Select Adler Fellows will perform Schwabacher Debut Recitals on March 30 at 2:30 PM and April 27 at 5:30 PM. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets online or call the SF Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330. The season culminates with a special year-end concert featuring the singers in an evening of opera scenes and arias with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This year’s concert, The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert, showcasing the acclaimed 2014 Adler Fellows, takes place in November, 2104, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
SRJC Chamber Concert Series Details: An acclaimed annual series of six concerts featuring a musicians performing in an intimate environment, exactly how chamber music is intended to be heard. After this Sunday’s Adler Fellows performance, there is one remaining concert in the 2013-14 series, Afiara String Quartet on Friday, April 25, at 7:30 PM at Newman Auditorium, Emeritus Hall, Santa Rosa Junior College. Tickets are $25 adult/$15 youth. Parking is included for all performances. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets by Phone: (415) 392-4400. City Box Office Hours—M-F: 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM or Sat: 12 noon to 4:00 PM. Order on the Web at www.cityboxoffice.com . Parking is included in the price of the performance.
Details: “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes” is Sunday, March 9, 4 PM, at Newman Auditorium, Emeritus Hall, Santa Rosa Junior College, 1501 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets by Phone: (415) 392-4400. City Box Office Hours—M-F: 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM or Sat: 12 noon to 4:00 PM. Order on the Web at www.cityboxoffice.com . Parking is included in the price of the performance.
PROGRAM: “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes” SRJC Chamber Series
Songs of Travel – Vaughan Williams
The Vagabond Mr. Brancoveanu
The Roadside Fire Youth and Love
The Infinite Shining Heavens
Cinq mélodies “de Venise” – Fauré
Mandoline Miss Švēde
En sourdine Green
À Clymène C’est l’extase
from Floresta do Amazonas – Villa-Lobos
Canção de amor Miss Valdes
Cair da tarde Melodia sentimental
from Cabaret Songs – Bolcom
Toothbrush time Miss Johnson
At the last lousy moments of love Love in the 30’s
The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart
Crudel, perchè finora Miss Valdes, Mr. Brancoveanu
Rodelinda – Handel
Io t’abbraccio Miss Johnson, Miss Švēde
Manon – Massenet
Je suis encore tout étourdie Miss Valdes
Falstaff – Verdi
È sogno, o realtà? Mr. Brancoveanu
Le vespri siciliani – Verdi
Mercé dilette amiche Miss Johnson
Sapho – Gounod
O ma lyre immortelle Miss Švēde
The Merry Widow – Lehár
Vilja Miss Valdes, tutti
interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lovely for the ears and the eyes—Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” is charming in all regards, at San Francisco Opera through July 1, 2013
It’s often said that Così fan tutte is Mozart’s opera score that comes closest to perfection and is Da Ponte’s most challenging libretto. In José Maria Condemi’s production, directed by John Cox and beautifully-designed by Robert Perdziola, San Francisco Opera has found a delightful winner in its summer line-up. The music and singing at last Tuesday’s performance were glorious and the entire cast is youthful and composed of singers just forging their careers….how exciting to experience this opera acted out by young people, as they and their fickle follies were the focus of Mozart’s story. Set in Belle Époque Monte Carlo in a luxury seaside hotel, with gorgeous sets, this co-production with Opéra Monte-Carlo premiered at SF Opera in 2005 and runs at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2013. This is the final opera in the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy led by Nicola Luisotti following Le Nozzze di Figaro in 2010 and Don Giovanni in 2011.
This 1790 comedy of innocence and deception is a classic. Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco), the cynical and worldly friend of two strapping young military officers, Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro) and Guglielmo (bass-baritone Philippe Sly), talks them into betting on the virtue of their sweethearts. He contends that no woman is capable of fidelity and that if the two young men will do all he asks of them in 24 hours, he will prove it. The men agree and a fantastic chain of deceit, disguise and desire is set in motion. Their girlfriends, Fiordiligi (soprano Ellie Dehn ) and Dorabella (mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch), two sisters, are loyal beyond reproach…until their men leave. With Despina, the meddling chambermaid, stirring the pot, the women succumb to seduction..but… in the end, it all works itself out.
At last Tuesday’s performance, the clear stand-outs were Merola and Adler alumna, soprano Susannah Biller, as the maid Despina; Italian bass Marco Vinco as Don Alfonso and Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly as the idealistic Guglielmo. Not only was their singing exceptional, they had the necessary verve and charisma to carry off their satirical roles.
Susannah Biller’s bright-eyed Despina, the chambermaid who sees life and love for what they really are, was particularly comical as she consoled her mistresses and then coaxed them into betraying their fiancées. Her Act I aria, “In uomini, in soldati,” was pointed and humorous and followed by a dazzling “Una donna a quindici anni,” in Act II. Biller literally glows on stage and managed to grab the limelight through the entire performance. In fall 2013, Biller will create the role of Selena St. George in the Company’s world-premiere presentation of Tobias Picker’s Delores Clairborne.
Marco Vinco, as Don Alfonso, the driving character in the opera, was most delightful when singing with Biller (Despina), especially when he initially enlisted her in his scheme and slipped her a bribe and explained that his two rich friends needed consoling. The two were in perfect sync, and while he doesn’t have any major arias, Vinco’s natural charisma and gestures made his every move noteworthy. Vinco made his SF Opera and U.S. debut as the wild;y entertaining Leoporello in 2011’s Don Giovanni.
First year Adler Fellow, the French-Canadian lyric baritone, Philippe Sly, proved on Tuesday that he has it all—he’s a tall hunk with curly blond hair who happens to be a natural at acting. His voice is as sweet and distinct as it is powerful. I was sitting in Orchestra Row H and even at this close distance, I noticed that as soon as he sang, the ladies round me raised their opera glasses to inspect the goods.
Soprano Ellie Dehn, as Fiordiligi, and German mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch, in her U.S. operatic debut as Dorabella, were a bit stiff in their acting but warmed as the evening progressed. Since a lot of the joy in this opera involves watching the transformations the various characters undergo, the ability to act is as essential as the singing. Ellie Dehn’s lyrical Act II “Per Pietá” (“Have Pity”) had a wonderful resonance in the low notes. Lötzsch’s Act II aria, “È amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”) was her best of the evening. Tenor Francesco Demuro was delightful as Ferrando but couldn’t hold a candle next to the more polished Philippe Sly.
As the two men left, and the ladies and Don Alfonso bid them farewell (Act I); their trio, “Soave sia il vento,” one of most moving songs in all of music, did not disappoint. Suffused with the beauty of the orchestra, their voices melded in rapture. “On your voyage, may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires…” If he’d done little else in his career than write this three-minute song, Mozart would have been famous…but, for him, it represented just one song in his 600+ works that are accounted for.
The special recitative accompaniment— Luisotti on fortepiano, Giuseppe Finzi on harpsichord, Thalia Moore on cello, and baroque specialist Michael Leopold on theorbo—with a custom sound for each set of characters, courtesy of Luisotti, was quite creative and energetic. From Row H, I was actually able to see a lot of the finger work entailed in playing these instruments which made it all the more exciting.
Perdziola’s costumes for Fiordiligi and Dorabella were inspired by the costumes of the Ballets Russes as well as by designer Paul Poiret and other WWI-era illustrators. Executed in pastel shades, some with loads of non-flattering pleats and bold vertical stripes, we can be thankful that era is over.
The gorgeous sets, superbly lit by Christopher Maravich, were more effective. From the opening scene in the casino of the luxury hotel, to the panoramic seaside with its candy-cane colored striped umbrellas and coastal town in the background, to the sister’s lavish hotel suite with its lovely Klimt-like paintings adorning the walls, the colors and details (a vase of giant red oriental poppies in the girl’s suite) were magical. In one scene, when the two men, disguised as Albanians, rowed up the center of the stage on a boat and right into the hotel, the crowd gasped with delight.
Details: Così Fan Tutte runs through July 1, 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 4 remaining performances of Così Fan Tutte are June 21 (8 p.m.); June 26 (7:30 p.m.); July 1 (7:30 p.m.) Nicola Luisotti conducts all performances. 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)
Jun Kaneko’s Delightful “Magic Flute”–a digital turning point–at San Francisco Opera through July 8, 2012
San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season closes its opera performances with its magical and revolutionary new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute featuring 3,000 tempura and chalk paintings by legendary ceramic artist and painter, Jun Kaneko. Good bye traditional sets! We’re entering a brand new era–the entire stage contains projection panels and is in constant motion and the effect is utterly impressive. Kaneko’s fabulous costumes add to the experience. This time, the music takes a back seat to the visual.
The Magic Flute is at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Performances are at 8 p.m. on June 16, June 19, June 29 and July 6; 7:30 p.m. June 21 and 27; 2 p.m. June 24 and July 8, 2012. Tickets are $21 to $288 Information: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Opera review: Cinnabar Theatre’s “Don Giovanni,” a new production that is sure to ignite your passions, through April 15, 2012
When Cinnabar Theatre cast baritone Anders Froehlich for the title role in their new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the classic retelling of the Don Juan legend, they were half way home. Not only can Froelich sing, but he has the physique of a lean and muscled Romeo. And, he so convincingly plays the part of Mozart’s suave, seductive, and morally reprehensible aristocrat, that it’s pure pleasure to sit back and experience being seduced by him. Add to that baritone Eugene Walden’s remarkable performance as Leporello, Giovanni’s faithful but grumbling sidekick, and this production soars. Truth be told, the entire cast is superb, the music is glorious and the production is so creative that it represents the opera’s tremendous dramatic possibilities as well a small theatre company at it best.
One of the most amazing aspects of this 225 year-old opera is that it is so filled with fabulous ambiguities, that almost every production emphasizes something different. Cinnabar’s production, staged by Elly Lichtenstein, gives us a Don Giovanni whose beguiling and complex personality is matched by the equally complex women he encounters. After the opening night performance, I found myself ruminating on these women—what they represented in their time and what they bring to the table in the here and now. There’s the unhinged young Donna Anna (soprano Kelly Britt), who has, in the very least, been ravished by Don Giovanni and is mourning the death of her father, who was murdered trying to defend her honor. Normally, she’s depicted as icy cold and hell-bent on retaliation. Here, we also see her warmth and humanity. There’s matronly Donna Elvira (mezzo soprano Eileen Morris) who has been jilted by Giovanni and she too seeks revenge and but, beneath the hurt, she still loves him and can’t free herself of her co-dependent obsession. When she tries to protect young Zerlina from Giovanni’s reckless ways, we see a preservation instinct that we wish she’d exercise on herself. There’s the young peasant girl Zerlina (soprano Emma McNairy), who loves Masetto but is also taken in by the suave Giovanni’s proclamations and the high life he represents. She wants both men and, for a moment, deludes herself into thinking that this can work. And then there is the chorus of women, voluptuous nymphs in all shapes and sizes, writhing in full sensual abandon with each other and with Don Giovanni. The opera’s rich comic and tragic elements are driven by all these interactions and Lichtenstein has really made Giovanni’s journey—to eternal damnation—one riveting ride.
23 year-old soprano Emma McNairy was delightful as Zerlina. Winner of the San Francisco Conservatory’s 2011 Voice Concerto Competition, McNairy’s expressive voice shows incredible range and she has a commanding stage presence. And did she snap into character! She played Zerlina as sweet and crafty, bringing a refreshing and realistic complexity to the role. Her pairing with William O’Neill as Masetto, her hunky intended, produced some of the opera’s most fiery moments, another example of the sizzling chemistry that makes this production pop.
Soprano Kelly Britt as Donna Anna was striking—her distinctive voice was smooth, powerful, and evocative. From the moment she appeared, she displayed a whirlwind of emotional extremes that made the impact of Donna Anna’s rape, or ravishing, by Don Giovanni and the sudden death of her father seem very real. The twenty-three year-old has that extra something coursing through her that produces a riveting sound, not yet honed to perfection but on its way, and that’s very exciting to experience.
First to appear and last to utter a solo, baritone Eugene Walden was a thoroughly engaging Leporello. One of the opera’s most humorous moments occurred during his lighthearted “Catalog Aria,” (Madamina, il catalogo è questo) (Act I, Scene v). As the beleaguered Leporello sings the amazing tally of his boss’s conquests to Donna Elvira, he pulls out a seemingly endless accordion book, chock full of women’s faces and descriptive notes, and flings it towards Donna Elvira. This gesture so captivates and infuriates her that she engages in a tug of war with him over the book. This is just one of Elly Lichtenstein’s clever and amusing touches whose effect is priceless. Another of these magical moments occurs with the famous balcony serenade at the beginning of Act II. Just behind the singer and through a widow, we see a very seductive striptease occurring between two voluptuous women in silhouette—the scene is gorgeously back lit and has all the resonant flair of a fan dance. As the women almost get it on, you can feel the heat rising in the audience. The sensuality is carried through to the famous banquet scene, done wine country style, with Giovanni dining on plump grapes and scantily-clad women. In the opera’s final chilling scene, the powerfully built John Minágro, who makes a very commanding Commendatore, now turned singing statue, comes to swoop Don Giovanni to his just desserts—hell. Froelich’s Don Giovanni’s is so intoxicating that, even on his way to hell, he still gets to us.
One of the pleasures of the hearing Mozart’s dramatic music played in the intimate 99 seat setting that Cinnabar offers is that every musician stands out. Conductor Mary Chun and the orchestra of 10 did a valiant job, offering an elegant and cohesive blending with the voices on stages, but at times the sound seemed understated. I had never heard the opera sung in English before, which is the only opera experience that Cinnabar Theatre provides, keeping with founder Martin Klebe’s wish to make opera accessible to all audiences. The main advantage is an immediate understanding of the story, which means it’s very easy to take it all in and you’re not scrambling with translation. If you know the opera in Italian, its beloved arias such as There, we will entwine our hands (Là ci darem la mano), (Act I, between Zerlina and Giovanni) are made all the more enjoyable by singing them in Italian in your mind and checking your Italian against the English as you go.
Music by W.A. Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Sung in English (da Ponte’s full translation/libretto translation of Don Giovanni is available free online here.)
Mary Chun artistic director/conductor; Elly Lichtenstein, Stage Director
The Cast, in order of appearance:
Leporello— servant to Don Giovanni, Eugene Walden
Don Giovanni—Anders Froehlich
Donna Anna—Kelly Britt
The Commendatore, Anna’s father—John Minágro
Don Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé—Mark Kratz
Donna Elvira—Eileen Morris
Zerlina— Emma McNairy
Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé— William O’Neill
Sandrina, Leporello’s love—Arden Kwan
Paul Gilger, set design; Wayne Hovey lighting design, Tracy Hinman Sigrist, costume design, Barton Smith, choreography
Underwritten by Frank and Mary Lou Schomer and The A to Z Concert series.
Details: Cinnabar Theatre is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. Tickets online: $35 General, $32 Seniors 65 & Over, $25 Age 22 & Under. Tickets also be purchased before the performance but pre-purchase of tickets is highly recommended as the theatre is small. Early arrival is also recommended as there is no assigned seating. For more information, call 707-763-8920 or visit http://www.cinnabartheater.org
Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
There are 5 remaining performances: Wednesday April 4, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2012, at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2012, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 14, 2012, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 2 p.m.
For the past year, the beloved opera superstar Frederica von Stade, a long-time Bay Area resident affectionately known as “Flicka,” has been making farewell appearances and the great opera houses and concert halls worldwide, whose stages she has graced for the past 40 years have been paying tribute, one by one. Now, it’s the Bay Area’s turn. On Saturday, December 3, 2011, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will join in an unprecedented team effort to celebrate the illustrious life and career of our treasured mezzo, arts advocate, and musical celebrity.
Eight extraordinary artists and friends of von Stade─and some as of yet unannounced surprise guests─ will lead the special one night only musical tribute, joined by von Stade and accompanied by Jake Heggie, John Churchwell and Bryndon Hassman: Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Susannah Biller, soprano; Zheng Cao, mezzo-soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Samuel Ramey, bass; and Richard Stilwell, baritone.
The concert will feature highlights from von Stade’s expansive performance and recording career, including arias from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; songs by Ravel, Mahler, Poulenc and Berlioz; selections from American musical theater; and contemporary songs by Jake Heggie. The evening will also feature personal tributes and recollections of working with Ms. von Stade.
An intimate gala reception with the artists in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House will follow the performance, with proceeds supporting University of California Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland.
What’s it like to work with Flicka? Rauli Garcia, who is the CFO of HGO (Houston Grand Opera) made his stage debut as a supernumerary in Dead Man Walking earlier this year and his account “What a rush!”was posted on the HGO (Houston Grand Opera) blog on January 31, 2011.
Recognized as one of the most beloved musical figures of our time, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade began at the very top, receiving a contract from Sir Rudolf Bing during the Metropolitan Opera auditions and since her debut has enriched classical music for over four decades with appearances in opera, concert and recital. The first aria in her career was Thomas’s “Connais-tu le pays”. Von Stade has sung nearly all the great roles with the Met and in 2000, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow. She made her 1971 San Francisco Opera debut as Sextus (La Clemenza di Tito) with Spring Opera Theater and her main stage debut in 1972 as Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), and has appeared with San Francisco Opera in more than a dozen roles, including Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Countess Geschwitz (Lulu) and the title roles of La Sonnambula, La Cenerentola, and The Merry Widow. She created two roles in world premiere productions by San Francisco Opera: Marquise de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons and Mrs. Patrick de Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; she also created the role of Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers, presented in its West Coast premiere by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances in 2008.
Known as a bel canto specialist, von Stade is also beloved in the French repertoire, including the title role of Offenbach’s La Périchole. She is also a favorite interpreter of the great “trouser” roles, from Strauss’s Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Octavian to Mozart’s Sextus, Idamante (Idomeneo), and Cherubino. Von Stade’s artistry has inspired the revival of neglected works such as Massenet’s Chérubin, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, Rameau’s Dardanus, and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and she has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her vast French orchestral repertoire, including Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Canteloube’s Les Chants d’Auvergne. She is well known to audiences around the world through her numerous featured appearances on television including several PBS specials and “Live from Lincoln Center” telecasts.
Miss von Stade has made over seventy recordings with every major label, including complete operas, aria albums, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and popular crossover albums. Her recordings have garnered six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy’s Premio della Critica Discografica, and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. She has enjoyed the distinction of holding simultaneously the first and second places on national sales charts for Angel/EMI’s Show Boat and Telarc’s The Sound of Music.
Von Stade was appointed as an officer of France’s L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998, France’s highest honor in the Arts, and in 1983 she was honored with an award given at the White House by President Reagan. She holds five honorary doctorates from Yale University, Boston University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which holds a Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice), the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music.
Details: Celebrating Frederica von Stade, Saturday, December 3, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tickets for the concert are $50, $75 and $100. Tickets for the gala reception, which includes premium seating for the concert, are $500. Tickets for the concert and gala reception are available at http://www.sfopera.com or the San Francisco Opera Box Office at 301 Van Ness Avenue, or by phone at (415) 864-3330.