Geneva Anderson digs into art

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performs Vivaldi tomorrow at Napa Valley Opera House—Bay Area novelist and Vivaldi scholar Barbara Quick will be signing books

San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) will perform January 15, 2013, at the Napa Valley Opera House as part of their "Four Seasons Tour."  Image: Randi Beach

San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) will perform January 15, 2013, at 8 p.m.,at the Napa Valley Opera House as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.” Image: Randi Beach

Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock will be the soloist on a 1660 Andrea Guarneri violin with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) at the Napa Valley Opera House, as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.”  Widely admired as a performer of compelling verve and eloquence, Blumenstock has collaborated with PBO since 1981 as a soloist, concertmaster, and leader.  Those who experienced the glory of PBO’s “Messiah” at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall in December, or who have heard PBO perform elsewhere, know that whatever piece of early music the internationally renowned orchestra performs, the experience is unforgettable.  Both Maestro Nicholas McGegan and Elizabeth Blumenstock will be signing copies of PBO’s new “Four Seasons” CD tomorrow evening.   North Bay author Barbara Quick, who wrote the album’s liner notes, will be there too, signing copies of her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins (2007: Harper Collins), which has sold some 50,000 copies in English and been translated into 15 languages.  Over the past year, it has been my pleasure to attend several musical performances with Barbara quick, who lives in Cotati with her husband Wayne Roden, a long-time violist with the San Francisco Symphony.  We talk frequently about the task of bringing music, which has its own life, to readers.    

Bay Area novelist and poet Barbara Quick is the author of the international best-seller, Vivaldi’s Virgins (Harper Collins, 2008).  Photo: courtesy Barbara Quick

Bay Area novelist and poet Barbara Quick is the author of the international best-seller, Vivaldi’s Virgins (Harper Collins, 2007). Photo: Margaretta K. Mitchell

“I was thrilled when the PBO asked me to write the liner notes for their Four Seasons CD,” said Quick. “Ever since I first started doing the research for my novel, I’ve been inspired by the passion and authenticity they bring to their performances of Vivaldi’s music, which was first performed by the all-female orchestra of Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta.”

The Pieta was a world-famous cloister for foundlings and orphans in 18th century Venice. The most musically talented girls and women among them comprised an orchestra and choir led by some of the best composers of the time, including Vivaldi, who was for many decades their resident composer and maestro della musica. Their faces hidden from view, these girls and women performed for the elite of Venetian society as well as for musical tourists, including royalty, who came from all over the world to experience the “mystic rapture” of hearing them.

Through his music, Vivaldi gave these cloistered musicians a window onto the world outside the walls of the Pieta.  By showcasing the talents of so many of the figlie di coro—or daughters of the choir, as they were called—Vivaldi allowed them to shine as individuals, even within a painfully institutional setting in which it was all too easy to feel abandoned, forgotten and alone.

 This 18th century world, seen through the eyes of the foundling musician Anna Maria dal Violin, a real resident of the Pieta and Vivaldi’s star pupil, is brought to life in Quick’s moving and historically accurate novel.  To do the research, she learned Italian, took three trips to Venice to dig in the archives there and experience the landscape firsthand, and immersed herself—“…to the extent possible, for a non-musician!” she told me—in the history, scholarship, texts and contemporary performances of Vivaldi’s music.

Barbara Quick's "Vivaldi's Virgins" (Harper Collins, 2007) has been translated into 15 languages.

Barbara Quick’s “Vivaldi’s Virgins” (Harper Collins, 2007) has been translated into 15 languages.

According to Quick, Vivaldi wrote a great deal of his music to showcase his own virtuosity as a violinist.  She reports that he was said to be freakishly talented!   But in the world pre-recordings, he was completely dependent on the technical skills and musicality of the performers who made it possible for his work as a composer to be heard and known.  He taught them, Quick surmises, not only how to interpret his music but also how to experience the emotional depth it required.  In one memorable passage in her novel, Quick shows Vivaldi sneaking some of his string-players out of the cloister, bundled up and masked, to experience a “fourth season,” when Venice had its coldest winter in a hundred years and the Grand Canal actually froze. As Quick writes in her liner notes for the CD (page 5):

Life imitated art for Quick.  She had no formal training as a musician or music scholar, but became immersed in the world of music and musicians after Vivaldi’s Virgins was published. She’s given pre-concert talks for the PBO and several other Bay Area ensembles, including, most recently, an on-stage lecture at the Herbst Theater for the San Francisco Girls Chorus. But, most significantly for Quick, she met and married violist Wayne Roden. “Music is as much a part of my world now as it was for my novel’s protagonist and Vivaldi’s favorite student, Anna Maria dal Violin.”  As Anna Maria says in Quick’s novel,

I’ve come to believe that music is the one companion, the one teacher, the one parent, the one friend who will never abandon me.  Every effort I give to it is rewarded.  It never spurns my love, it never leaves my questions unanswered.  I give, and it gives back to me. I drink, and—like the fountain in the Persian fairytale—it never runs dry.  I play, and it tells me my feelings, and it always speaks the truth.  (Vivaldi’s Virgins, p. 179)

Program: Tuesday, January 16, 2013

Conducted by Nicholas McGegan, Elizabeth Blumenstock, guest violinist

CORELLI Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 in D major
PERGOLESI Sinfonia in F major
VIVALDI Violin Concertos, Op. 8, Nos. 1-4 The Four Seasons
Violin Concerto in E major, RV 269, La primavera (Spring)
Violin Concerto in G minor, RV 315, L’estate (Summer)
Violin Concerto in F major, RV 293, L’autunno (Autumn)
Violin Concerto in F minor, RV 297, L’inverno (Winter)
LOCATELLI Concerto Grosso Op. 7, No. 6 in E-flat major, Il pianto d’Arianna
DURANTE Concerto No. 5 in A major

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

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

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” (2011) is 1 of 5 cd’s in PBO’s own recording label.

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

PBO’s New Recording Label: PBO has made 32 highly-praised recordings on original instruments, including its Gramophone award-winning recording of Handel’s Susanna—for harmonia mundi (1992; re-issued 2003). In 2011, PBO launched Philharmonia Baroque Productions, its own label and has 5 CD’s out, all of which will be for sale on Tuesday, along with their other older recordings. 

Details:  Elizabeth Blumenstock and PBO will perform Tuesday, January 15, 2012, at 8 p.m. at the Napa Valley Opera House, as part of their “Four Seasons Tour.”  The Napa Valley Opera house is located at 1030 Main Street, Napa.  Tickets: $40-$55.  Purchase tickets online here.  Visit for more information.   Elizabeth Blumenstock and Nicholas McGegan, will be signing cd’s and Barbara will be signing books in the lobby before and after the concert. 

PBO will perform “The World of ‘The Four Seasons’” on Wednesday at Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall, the final performance in their Four Seasons Tour.”  Stay tuned to ARThound for a review of the new concert hall and last Friday’s opening performance at Bing.

January 14, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Merola Artists’ Magnificent “Grand Finale” Concert, Saturday, August 18th, 2012

2012 Merola Opera Artists performing Puccini’s “Già che il caso ci unisce…Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” from “La Rondine” in the Merola Grand Finale Concert, Saturday, August 18, 2012. Magda – Elizabeth Baldwin, Lisette – Jennifer Cherest, Ruggero – Casey Candebat, Prunier – Joshua Baum, Celesta – Sun Ha Yoon, Chorus – Tutti Merolini. Photo: Kristen Loken

Saturday night’s Merola Grand Finale performance at War Memorial Opera House gave the public a chance to experience what a summer of intensive training has done for the 23 talented young singers in the prestigious opera book camp.  The three hour concert featured a captivating and eclectic mix of 19 demanding opera arias, duets and songs, chosen by the fellows to showcase their voices.  The audience, packed with family members, friends, and opera lovers, was so enthusiastic that, twice, it burst into spontaneous applause interrupting a performance in progress.   No problem!…all was taken in stride.

Tenor Casey Candebat, from New Orleans, delivered a remarkable and haunting “Porquoi me réveiller,” the third act aria in Massenet’s Werther.  Candebat sang with so much feeling that he transported the audience right into Werther’s melody.  Candebat’s chemistry with mezzo-soprano, Sarah Mesko, as Charlotte, who sang with passion to match his, was palpable.  The duet evoked whoops and cheers all around.  Candebat is one of 6 strong lyric tenors in the Merola program this year, quite a feat.

Tenor Casey Candebat and mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko sing “Ah! Mon courage m’abandonne…Pourquoi me réveiller?…N’achevez pas” from “Werther” by Jules Massenet. Photo: Kristen Loken

Mezzo Soprano Erin Johnson, from New Jersey, was exceptional in “Their spinning wheel unwinds Dreams,” from Benjamin Britten’s two act chamber opera, The Rape of Lucretia.  Her lush and lovely legato, and dramatic stage presence transported us into Lucretia’s world of loss and despair.  Johnson’s voice blended beautifully with soprano Rose Sawvel and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Mesko and Carolyn Sproule.

Powerhouse soprano Elizabeth Baldwin wowed me with her sensational voice and commanding presence in the second half of the program.  As she sang Medora’s stunning solo from Act 1 of Verdi’s Il Corsaro, I felt chills…caught in the grips of overpowering but doomed love.

Tenor AJ Glueckert, from Portland, Oregon, who left his mark on all who heard him as the Man with the Paint Brush in July’s Merola performance of Postcards from Morocco, closed the first part of the evening with the pleasing and very difficult duet “At Last I’ve Found You,” from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, performed with soprano Melinda Whittington.

In addition to singing, most of the fellows can act.  The program trains them in movement and acting, role preparation and offers several performance opportunities throughout the summer. (See ARThound’s 7.17.2012 article The Merola Opera Program presents Dominick Argento’s rarely performed opera,“Postcard from Morocco,” this Thursday and Saturday, at Cowell Theatre, Fort Mason.)  Canadian Bass baritone, Gordon Bintner, who has that “it” factor in spades, along with dashing good looks, lent a natural comedic air and grace to his Belcore in Donizetti’s “Come Paride vezzoso” and to his Taddeo in Rossini’s “Orsù, la tua nipote…Pappataci! Che mai sento!,” from L’Italiana in Algeri which he performed with Tenor Joshua Baum as Lindoro and Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico as Mustafà.  Baritone Joseph Lattanzi doned goggles and hammed it up as Jupiter, a buzzing singing fly in the annoyed ear of soprano Rose Sawvel.  The duo were hysterical.

Bass Andrew Kroes, from Wisconsin, delivered Marcel’s moving battle song “Piff, paff,” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, with great aplomb.

Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin performs “Egli non riede ancora!…Non so le tetre immagine” from “Il corsaro” by Giuseppe Verdi. Photo: Kristen Loken

The accompaniment, under the Nicholas McGegan’s apt conducting, was impressive, especially Berlioz’s exhilarating masterpiece overture, “Béatrice et Bénédict,” which opened the evening.   In the first song, Lully’s “Il faut asser,” from Alceste, I had trouble hearing the voices over the orchestra, a problem which quickly resolved itself.  Adam Luftman’s lush trumpet solo in the program’s second half— “Povero Ernesto!…Cercherò lontana terra” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale—was divine.

Apprentice stage director Jennifer Williams’  staging was baffling—she went for a minimalistic look, placing a tufted velvet divan on one side of the stage and an antique chair tilted on its side on other side.  In between them was a lamp sporting a naked light bulb.  All this was against the elegant arched wooden back-drop of the Moby Dick set.  A few prop pieces were added here and there to give diversity to the 19 scenes that she was responsible for, but she did not waver from her minimalist approach.  It was awful to be in the audience, in a darkened environment, hoping to see the singers’ faces and instead be subject to the intense and unrelenting glare of that blasted bulb.

The evening ended with a glorious “Già che il caso ci unisce…Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso,” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Rondine (The Swallow), bringing most of the fellows on stage.  Once again, soprano Elizabeth Baldwin, as Magda, made an impression.  Her powerful richly textured voice projected above the others—and with her commanding stage presence—I could not help but circle her name and scrawl beside it several exclamation points.  All these singers are going places but she’s on my watch list.

More About Merola:  Guided by Sheri Greenawald, San Francisco Opera Center Director and internationally acclaimed soprano, the Merola Opera Program is an independent nonprofit organization which operates in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera.  Founded in 1957 and named for San Francisco Opera’s founder, Gaetano Merola, the Program is recognized as one of the most prestigious operatic training programs in the world.  The Merola Opera Program typically receives more than 800 applications for approximately 30 positions. Throughout the summer, the Merola artists participate in master classes and private coachings with opera luminaries and go on give several public performances.  Participants—who include singers, apprentice coaches and an apprentice stage director—also receive training in operatic repertory, foreign languages, diction, acting and stage movement.

August 20, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment