ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: Two Italian Dynamos—Nicola Luisotti and pianist Giuseppe Albanese—and the SF Opera Orchestra, kick off SF Opera’s Summer Season at Zellerbach Hall

Nicola Luisott conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

Nicola Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3 in F major”. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro!  Last Friday’s symphonic concert with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall, a San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances co-production, was everything we’ve come to expect when Luisotti is at the helm of this very talented orchestra—heart-felt passion and mesmerizing music.  It was wonderful to be able to actually see this talented orchestra, which normally resides in the pit during operas, and to place some faces with soloists we’ve come to respect and love.  Last Friday’s program included Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese; Puccini’s early piece, “Capriccio Sinfonico;” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.

The surprise treat was Giuseppe Albanese, in his West Coast premiere, who not only proved to be un talento enormo on the piano but a curly-haired young Italian heartthrob to boot.  He appeared in bright red shoes, a feat not many guys (apart from Jean-Yves Thibaudet!) can successfully pull off ..…he owned it.  It was his smile, sensual verve and engagement with the music and orchestra that melted the audience and led to several standing ovations and a sensational triple encore.   His encore included an uncannily virtuosic rendition of Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2), which he knocked out with playful swagger. I would have sworn there were at least two hands on that keyboard if I hadn’t seen Albanese’s right hand alternately hanging by his side or pressed up expressively against his heart.

The evening opened with Puccini’s “Capriccio sinfonico,” a rarely performed work the composer wrote as a 25-year-old at the conservatory in Milan. The Capriccio was Puccini’s final student work, written to satisfy the requirements for his graduation in July 1883. He hadn’t yet written his first opera (although the work is full of operatic grandeur—and even contains passages that the maestro later used in “La Bohême”).  One of Puccini’s biographers, Julian Budden, has this to say about the Capriccio: “Performed at the annual students’ concert on July 14, it at once alerted the critics to a new voice in Italian music.  Filippi of La perseveranza shed all his reservations of the previous year.  ‘In Puccini,’ he wrote, ‘we have a decisive and rare musical temperament and one which is especially symphonic. There is unity of style, personality, character.  In his Capriccio sinfonico there is a good deal that more experienced composers . . . have not succeeded in doing. . . There are no uncertainties or gropings in the young author. . . The ideas are clear, strong, effective and sustained with much truth.’  (PUCCINI: HIS LIFE AND WORKS by Julian Budden, 2002)

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013.  Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

A three encore night for Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese who had his West Coast debut with Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013. Photo: courtesy Giuseppe Albanese.

The opera orchestra’s performance of this precious archive from Puccini’s repertoire was indeed inspired and so was Luisotti’s conducting, a feat of passion and pure embrace of sound. Luisotti, who at times appeared to be writing in the air with his sweeping gestures of the baton, guided the orchestra into a lush performance, reminding me that it’s hard to beat an Italian conducting an Italian.

Up next was pianist Giuseppe Albanese in Nino Rota’s rarely performed “Piano Concerto in C,” a piece that had his curly hair flouncing and his fingers flying as he executed complex crossovers matching blow for blow Luisotti’s passionate baton waving and flying locks.  As both men became one with the music and the orchestra, it was a pleasure to sit back, watch and listen.  Rota has composed four piano concertos but is best known for his film scores, which date back to the early 1940s.  He’s collaborated with Federico Fellini, Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (he received the Oscar for Best Original Score for The Godfather II), King Vidor, René Clément, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo.  Additionally, he composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo.  It’s natural to wonder whether his film and concert music are similar.  The Piano Concerto in C has a strong melody but didn’t evoke any filmic moments for me.   The drama and passion was injected by Albanese who had the audience’s rapt attention throughout.   So much so that, afterwards, he received a long standing ovation and came out for an encore— Denis Zardi Prelude, Op. 6, No. 24—followed by another ovation.  It was his second piece— Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand” (Op. 9, No. 2)—where he delivered the goods, a technically challenging one-handed performance of great beauty and emotional richness. After that, as if egged on by Luisotti behind the curtain to “go for it,” he came out again with Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” arranged by Earl Wilde, a familiar piece he played to the hilt while taking every opportunity to lap up the much-deserved limelight.

The evening concluded with Brahams “Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90,” which I had never before heard.  All  four of it movements end quietly and its most powerful moments are quite restrained.  Coming on the heels of the robust first half of the concert, this subdued but highly complex piece was a soothing end to the evening.  The third movement started with a wonderfully low and flowing cello passage that was followed later by Kevin Rivard’s tender horn solo.   What a treat to hear this masterpiece for the first time performed with such passion by Luisotti’s orchestra.

Author Barbara Quick, well-known for her best-selling novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins, has just finished a new historically-accurate novel called “Saving Puccini” and gave ARThound a good deal of insight and perspective on the Puccini performance.

For more information about San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2013 season, which includes Tales of Hoffman (6/5-7/6/2013), Cosi fan tutte (6/9-7/1/2013), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (6/19-7/7/2013),  click here.

For more information about upcoming performances at Cal Performances, whose next performance is Ojai North! by Mark Morris (6/12-6/15/2013),  click here.

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May 22, 2013 Posted by | Chamber Music, Classical Music, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SF Opera starts off the summer with Nicola Luisotti conducting the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a rare symphonic performance, Friday May 16, 2013

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro!  Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

There’s only one Nicola Luisotti—the magical maestro! Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in concert on Friday, May 17 at 8 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The program includes Nino Rota’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C featuring Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, Puccini’s Capriccio Sinfonico and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major. Photo: Terrence McCarthy

Exceptional in the pit, the renowned San Francisco Opera Orchestra will get a chance to shine on stage this Friday night at Zellerbach Hall in a rare performance of touchstones of the symphonic repertoire—Puccini, Rota and Brahms.  Whenever Nicola Luisotti, Music Director, San Francisco Opera, conducts, there’s magic.  Bring it on! Tickets just $20

Program:

Puccini     Capriccio Sinfonico

Rota          Piano Concerto in C (with pianist Giuseppe Albanese)

Brahms     Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90

Program Notes click here.

DETAILS: Luisotti conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra on Friday, May 17, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall.  Tickets: $20.00.  To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.  As of Thursday, ample tickets in all sections.

Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.

Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.

Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays

May 16, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

interview: Bay Area artist Naomie Kremer shares how her gardens grow—she created the digital sets for the new opera “The Secret Garden,” at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall through Sunday, March 10, 2013

Naomie Kremer, visual designer "The Secret Garden," photo" courtesy Naomie Kremer

Naomie Kremer, visual designer “The Secret Garden,” photo” courtesy Naomie Kremer

San Francisco’s Opera’s new opera for its spring season, “The Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere last Friday in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is an exciting adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Directed by Jose Maria Condemi with music by Petaluma composer Nolan Gasser, libretto by Carey Harrison, and visual design by multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, the entire project has been captivating since its inception.   Following in the footsteps of its visually intoxicating 2012 production of “The Magic Flute,” the SFO’s first opera to fully incorporate digital projection technology, this co-production with Cal Performances also fully capitalizes on digital technology for its set design. Video technology has moved opera in a new direction—visual design, always thought to be somewhat static and subservient to the musical component, now has the chance be dynamic and just as compelling as the music.  Naomie Kremer created all of “The Secret Garden’s” digitally-projected sets—a prologue and 13 scenes—and she agreed to talk about what went into visually styling this two hour production.

Written in 1910, the timeless story is about a spoiled young girl who finds herself alone in a bleary and unfamiliar land, until she discovers the hidden wonder of a secret garden and experiences the healing power of nature.  While it has been adapted to the stage and screen many times, the classic struck SF Opera general director David Gockley as perfect for opera and in 2010, he began to talk publicly of developing it as a family opera.  Naomie Kremer captured his attention with her masterful one hour video backdrop for the Berkeley Opera Company’s 2008 production of Béla Bartok’s 1918 opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” (A kékszakállú herceg vára).   This was the painter’s first stab at video projected stage design but, based on its strength, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins invited Kremer to create a video backdrop for Light Moves,” a production of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company involving a synthesis of dance, live music, poetry, animation and recurring cycles of light, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in November 2011.

Partly because of the success of Light Moves, Gockley’s attention turned to Kremer again when The Secret Garden opera was developed, and he asked her to submit a proposal.  Soon after, she was hired to do the entire visual design for the production.

ARThound first discovered Naomie Kremer last September through her detailed FAMSF (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) blog posts where she wrote about using FAMSF portraits in the opera’s set design to “hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women.”  For the pivotal scene where Mary hears moaning sounds and decides to explore the hallway, she planned to line a dark and flickering hallway with portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee (ca 1757) by Thomas Gainsborough.  “Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera,” wrote Kremer.  “The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open.  My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears”   Indeed, that very elasticity, is what makes digital sets so intoxicating. 

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The Secret Garden had its world premiere last Friday (March 1, 2013) to a sold out house and I had the privilege of talking with Naomie Kremer about her otherworldly digital set designs. Below is our conversation—

Give us an overview of what you were responsible for and the types of materials you used as source materials.

Naomie Kremer: As the visual designer, I was in charge of all aspects of the set design, including the props.  This is my first assignment for SF Opera.  They contacted me in July 2011, I presented a proposal in November 2011, and was hired at the beginning of 2012.  I started shooting video right away.  It’s really been a long and involved process which morphed as I was working on it.  I started by creating a lot of raw material— footage that I shot in England, Spain, France, here (CA) and New York, a few things from the Internet, some of my own paintings, and portraits lent by the FAMSF—and then, I began to mix manipulate it all.  My process involves layering a lot of different content to arrive at a slightly unreal vision that you would not see in the real world but that is familiar.  I call that “enhanced realism.”

What are some previous productions that you’ve worked on and some techniques that you’ve developed that you apply to digital design?  

NK: This is my third experience with set design. It all started with Béla Bartok’s“Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the Berkeley Opera Company’s did in 2008.  It’s a one hour opera, notoriously hard to stage because the story involves seven doors that open onto 7 completely different worlds that include a torture chamber, a garden, “the realm.”  I was introduced to Jonathon Khuner, director of the Berkeley Opera, by the composer Paul Dresher.  I showed Khuner some of my painting animations, and he invited me to do a video-based set for Bluebeard.  He didn’t expect me make it as comprehensive as I did—I basically did a one-hour music video, with a continuous flow of moving visuals, essentially turning Bluebeard’s Castle itself into an actor in the production.

It was a consuming process that took nine months.  The visual design was very well received, and I was very intrigued with the process and the results.  I ended up with many many hours of footage and content that was not used, and it led me to develop a whole new body of work that I call “hybrid paintings.”  

These “hybrid” works consist of paintings or works on paper onto which I project video, transforming them into mysterious, luminous objects that challenge our perception of surface, space, depth, and materiality through a hybrid of painting and video.  I think of the experience as one that “both orients and disorients.  The viewer is uncertain which part is paint and which is projection until the spot where the gaze is resting starts to move.  I’m interested in the ambiguity of the relationship between projection and reality, stillness and motion. The stillness is that of the painted canvas.  The motion is an animation I create, sometimes by selecting and choreographing segments of a finished painting, sometimes by manipulating video footage.  All of that came out of working on Bluebeard’s Castle.

Margaret Jenkins saw the opera, as well as my hybrid paintings in an exhibition at Modernism (my gallery in San Francisco), and became intrigued with the idea of creating a hybrid of dance and video.  She invited me to do a set for the work that became Light Moves, which premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November, 2011, and subsequently toured to Maryland and Chicago.

When you heard about the opera, what’s the first image that popped up for you visually?

NK: Many images came into my head. I traveled in India in my early 20s, and this story begins in India. I also lived in England for three years subsequent to that trip, and had strong visuals in my mind of English gardens, with their incredible, softly lit lushness.  And, of course, the importance of identifying a forbidding, almost haunted manor house, of which there are many in England!

The thing I was always looking for in shooting footage for the opera was movement. Without it, you would think you’re just looking a photograph—so wind and rain and weather were a very important component. The importance of motion to the set can’t be under-estimated. I think it’s critical to simulating reality, because in the real world there is always motion in our peripheral vision, whether or not we are aware of it. But I wanted the motion not to be so compelling that we are distracted from the action on the stage. There was a balance to be struck.

What role did music play in this for you and in your visual choices?  Since Nolan Gasser was in the process of writing the music and everything was coming together at once, how did that work? Were there particular pieces of the opera, or instruments, or natural sounds that were particularly important?

NK: The music was not done until December 2012, and I had to have most of the video long before that.  But the atmospherics of the music were definitely in my mind as I put together the imagery.  I had parts of the music to refer to, and I felt instinctively that my own snippets— the content that I was gathering—would work with the rhythms and sonorities of Nolan Gasser’s score.  Once I heard the music played by the orchestra (which didn’t happen till the rehearsals began in February!) I was delighted with the instrumentation and how well it worked with the visual rhythms I had created.

Were there particular images that you prepared for specific instrument solos?

NK: The appearance of the robin was always associated with a certain musical passage. Intricate cuing is required to make the video and the stage action and the music come together at critical moments.  The sets have to perform over the whole course of a scene, so I had to stay very sensitive to the coordination of the music, the stage action and the video.

The robin is key to the novel. How does that play out in the opera?

NK: The robin was my biggest challenge, because you just can’t stage direct robins.  In a funny coincidence, a robin built a nest in the courtyard at my house a couple of years ago, and laid gorgeous blue eggs (I wasn’t aware robin’s eggs were blue!).  I shot lots of video of that, but it wasn’t quite the action needed for The Secret Garden. Then, I discovered a grove in Central Park populated by a whole bunch of tame robins, so they didn’t run away as I approached to videotape them.  Then, one day it dawned on me to Google English robins and I found out that they look completely different than American robins, so I wasn’t able to use any of the footage I had!  In desperation, I went to the internet and found some footage that I was then able to modify by deleting the extraneous background content.

How does the ability to paint a scene with digital media change things for you as an artist?   Before you had very static sets, painted on boards, and used limited props.  Of course, you can still have the best of those but you’ve got this whole other element that brings unlimited opportunities. 

NK: It’s incredibly exciting and it’s wide open.  You can really visualize and paint a whole world, constructing it from different locations, using diverse content to invent a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.  It’s an incredible extension of the medium of painting.

The garden is of course KEY to the unfolding and mystery of the story.  What were specific inspirations for the garden you created both time-wise and the style of garden you created?  Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Victorian looking back at the Romantic-era gardens which were so wild and poetic.  How did you approach this?

NK: I travelled quite a bit in the course of the past year.  I had to come up with two gardens—the house garden, which is the one that is first seen when Mary goes out to play, and the secret garden, which she discovers later.  I wanted to make the house garden appear distinctly different from the secret garden and was looking for a formal and very structured garden to use.  I ended up videotaping in Grenada at the Alhambra, as well as in Yorkshire, and a combination of the two became the formal garden.  For the secret garden, I traveled to Norfolk and Yorkshire in England, as well as videotaping in my own and friends’ gardens. I then created video collages of this footage.  The secret garden also needed several versions.  When Mary first discovers it, it’s overgrown, seemingly dead. Then, it transitions into early springtime and ultimately into full bloom in the final scene.  I masked out certain areas of content in the video and reinserted paintings that I had done so there’s a look that you could not achieve by simply videotaping. To create specific moods and seasonal changes I used color and light. 

I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

As in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I am struck by the contrast in this story between these dark repressive interiors and the bright and vital outdoors.  And that’s what heals the little boy, coming out into the light and the garden air.  How do you handle those contrasts and mood shifts in the opera?

NK: I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly.  Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors.  I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.

You’ve included several portraits from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection to hint at Mary’s venerable family.  Can you talk about a scene where these are particularly important for setting a mood. 

NK: There’s a particular scene where Mary decides to venture out into the hallway to investigate this mysterious wailing sound that she hears, which no one will explain except to say it is the sound of the moors.  It was interesting to me to try to create some sense of family history in that hallway and to capture that foreboding mood, so I have the hallway lined with venerable family portraits.  To emphasize the progress she’s making, it’s scrolling by as she walks, and to set the mood for this slightly scary journey, it distorts and kind of comes out at her.

You’ve been working in fragments, visual fragments for some time…When did you first see your work joined with the music and what was your reaction? 

NK: I was very pleased…It really all came together quite recently, basically when it was in rehearsal.  Before that, I had to hold all these fragments together in my head, though I created detailed storyboards as reference points.   

The last step was to program the video the MBOX, a performance management system which permits the video to be cued to the stage action.  I worked with the team over the past month to adjust brightness, contrast, speed, and so forth so when that the opera’s live the content matches what’s happening on stage.  It’s quite complicated!

Naomi Kremer’s exhibition “Sightlines”— An exhibition of Naomie Kremer’s artwork is on display work at Modernism Gallery, 685 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 27, 2013. For more information, call 415.541.0461

DETAILS:  There are 2 remaining performances of “The Secret Garden,” Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall.  Tickets:  The Sunday matinee is sold out.  There is limited availability for Saturday evening.  Tickets start at $30.  To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.

Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.  

Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.  

Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain.  Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays

March 9, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Upshaw sings Bach Cantata No. 199

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two New Chamber Music Commissions:

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

Festival Highlights Still to Come:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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