Concert Review

The Gospel According to the Other Mary at SFS

Sfsgospelmary010* Notes *
Last weekend San Francisco Symphony continued celebrations for John Adams' 70th birthday with The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The oratorio was tastefully semi-staged (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, Jay Hunter Morris, Kelley O'Connor, and Tamara Mumford pictured left; photograph by Stefan Cohen) and featured a truly resplendent cast.

The libretto, compiled by Peter Sellars, is a mish-mash of the Bible and texts from Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich, and Primo Levi. The collage makes for a narrative that is disjointed and jumps from different time periods, but essentially recounts the story of Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus and their interactions with Jesus.

The music is vivid with textures and rhythms, and there is much for the three percussionists to do, as they share a dozen instruments including timbale, almglocken, and cimbalom. Not a note of this seemed gratuitous in the least, though it did seem very difficult. Maestro Grant Gershon looked as if he was counting and cuing constantly, and this did give the music a bit of a square feel.

The singers were unreal. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor showed off some alarmingly low notes and beautiful clear high ones as well. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford also displayed a dark richness as Martha. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris was able to navigate choppy lines as well as ones more lyrical and legato.

The trio of ghostly countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley were effective as was the small chorus, whose members were very together. Everything was impressively loud, and microphones were used but were not distracting in the least.

Tattling *
The audience was quiet but there was a noticeable amount of attrition during intermission.


Das Klagende Lied at SFS

Harvey Cooke* Notes *
Last weekend Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony presented Das Klagende Lied with some wonderful vocal soloists (Joélle Harvey and Sasha Cooke pictured left with dancers, photograph by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Symphony) and a somewhat incoherent but pretty staging. The early Mahler cantata is narrated by four singers and a chorus, since the characters aren't played by the vocalists, having a staging confuses the plot.

The biggest problem with the performance was not James Darrah's direction, which involved four dancers, two children, and lots of tree video art from Adam Larsen. It was the piece itself, which dates from 1880, and is one of the earliest works of Mahler's that still exists. It sounded a lot like substandard Wagner, and while interesting, it did not make for compelling drama.

The singers were great, baritone Brian Mulligan is rich toned, tenor Michael König is robust, and soprano Joélle Harvey is as clear as ever. Best of all is mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, whose ethereal voice has brilliant high and low notes. She also sounded lovely in the Songs of a Wayfarer that was performed before the intermission.

The orchestra sounded shimmery throughout the Sunday afternoon performance and the brass was clear and bright in the beginning Blumine. MTT kept a stately pace.

Tattling *
The audience was patient and silent, giving a standing ovation at the end.


Adler Concert

12.2.16_SFO-1885* Notes *
San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows had an especially impressive annual concert at Herbst Theater last Friday. Supported by the talents of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Maestro Jordi Bernacer, the new resident conductor, the singers gave one electrifying performance after another.

San Francisco Opera has been keeping the Adlers busy this fall, and it was great to hear the likes of tenor Pene Pati and baritone Edward Nelson take center stage for a change. Pati is arresting every time I hear him, and as Tebaldo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, he sang "Che sei tu che ardisci aggirarti furtivo?" with utter conviction, making Nian Wang (Romeo) seem a bit weak in comparison. Pati was charming in a duet with his wife Amina Idris (pictured above, photograph by Kristen Loken), they sang "Quoi, vous m'aimez? ... De cet aveu si tendre" and were very cute. Pati also did very well with "Quango le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller.

Edward Nelson was another standout, his acting was perfect for the duet he sang with soprano Toni Marie Palmertree from Pagliacci. He was completely engaging in "Look, through the port comes the moonlight astray" and one hopes to hear him cast as Billy Budd sometime in the future.

Julie Adams had my favorite aria of the evening with "Glück das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt, a reminder both of her incredible voice, put to use only in smaller roles like Kate Pinkerton and Kristina lately, and of the amazing run we had of this opera back in 2008. Adams also gave a riveting performance of "The trees on the mountain" from Susannah.

I was most taken aback by hearing bass Anthony Reed in Song of the Viking Guest from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko, he sounded really nice. Oftentimes I find it hard to appreciate the Adlers with lower voices, as they tend to be less far along in their development, and it's hard to extrapolate how their voices will be in decades to come. Reed often sounds a little underpowered to me, and his youth is always at odds with the old man roles he plays on the War Memorial stage.

 

* Tattling *
It has been so long since I've been to one of these concerts that I didn't realize it is held in Herbst rather than the War Memorial. I had to scurry over and thank goodness traffic hadn't been worse, or I would not have made it in time.

I sat next to a critic who asked me if Toni Marie Palmertree had to step in as Butterfly for a performance, which I confirmed, she sang the role on November 18. On the other side of me was an enthusiastic man who forgot to turn off his phone, which rang before the singing started for the first aria, but kept making sounds as he tried to disable it.


Simon Rattle and Berliner Philharmoniker

Simonrattle* Notes *
The day before Thanksgiving last week I went to hear Maestro Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic play a second performance at Davies Hall on their current tour. The concerts mark Rattle's farewell as principal conductor as he will not extend his contract when it ends in 2018. The orchestra sounded clean without feeling uptight or frightened, and played with a lot of joy.

The performance began with Rattle speaking about the first pieces about to be played, which were an answer to the previous night's program which featured Mahler's 7th. This evening included Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, which was played as a "14 movement suite or Mahler's fictional 11th Symphony" according to the conductor.

The pieces all had a lot of percussion and the four musicians in charge of this had a lot to do. The Schoenberg was sinuous and graceful, while the Webern was much more spare. It was clear when we got to the Berg because everything became much more lush. The large hammer "with non-metallic tone" used in this piece is comically huge and was very amusing to watch and hear.

The Brahms, Symphony No. 2 in D major, was wonderful to hear. Played with absolute jubilation, it was one of the only times I have heard this composer without thinking of pastures and cows and was instead engaged with the cheer and vibrancy of the musicians. The horn was especially great, warm and secure without sounding overly loud or sterile.

Tattling *
The audience well-behaved, everyone clearly wanted to be there aside from one or two who left at appropriate times and without making a fuss.

It was a fitting send-off for House Usher of Davies, Horacio Rodriguez, who retired after this performance.


Susan Graham at SFS

Susan-Graham-by-Dario_Acosta* Notes *
Susan Graham (pictured left, photograph by Dario Acosta) is singing Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre with San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas this weekend. The piece, a replacement for the previously announced Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, is quite suited to Ms. Graham. Her clear high notes and fully developed sound work well with its descriptive, declamatory nature.

The orchestra supported her in a characteristic glimmering way. The basses were particularly nice at the end. Graham sang "L'île inconnue" from Berlioz's Les nuits d'été song cycle as an encore.

The Berlioz was sandwiched by more 19th century music including Brahms' rather odd Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. The cello and oboe were lovely in the Schumann, which was recorded for a future release.

* Tattling *
There was light talking during Brahms and even some whispering during Schumann, though we were asked emphatically not to make noise because of the recording.


SF Opera's Les Triplettes de Belleville

Triplettes-de-belleville-2016* Notes *
SF Opera Lab hosted a cine-concert version of Les Triplettes de Belleville in mid-April. The 2003 animated film was projected on the south wall of the Atrium Theater as composer-conductor Benoît Charest not only lead seven instrumentalists and the chanteuse Doriane Faberg, but also played guitar.

The last evening of the run, on April 23, was completely immersive and charming. The piece has little dialogue and it is easy to take in the performers and the film at the same time without losing the thread of the narrative.

While the piece has many traditional instruments such as bass, saxophone, and such, it also requires playing a bicycle and newspaper.

Tattling *
Even the smallest children at the concert were utterly silent during the movie. This was a much different experience than seeing films with SF Symphony playing, perhaps because of the intimacy of the venue.


ABS Performs Alexander's Feast

Abs-alexanders-feast-2016* Notes *
American Bach Soloists gave a splendid performance of the fittingly titled Alexander's Feast, or The Power of Music yesterday afternoon in San Francisco. The oratorio by Händel is adapted from John Dryden's ode for Saint Cecilia's Day of the same name.

ABS was played with the composer's Concerto in B-Flat Major for Harp after the second recitative and Concerto Grosso in C Major before Part Two. The harp concerto was especially impressive. Maria Christina Cleary played the triple harp with a fearless and sparkling intensity.

Maestro Jeffrey Thomas kept the proceedings clean and neat. Only the horns had a brief misstep in the middle of the first half, but regained their footing as far as intonation is concerned. The chorus sounded robust and cohesive.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan sounded bright and had some incredible breath control as was evidenced by his first air, "Happy, Happy, happy Pair!" He was fittingly strident in "War, he sung, is Toil and trouble." I also liked soprano Anna Gorbachyova, who has an icy, resonant sound. Baritone William Sharp could be gravelly and thin in his lower register but was otherwise fine.

* Tattling *
The rows and seats in the balcony of St. Mark's were unmarked because of a problem with a printer, leading to a fair amount of confusion that was resolved by a helpful usher.

Beeps and rings were heard during both halves of the performance.


Ted Hearne at SFS

Sfs-susanna-phillips-2015* Notes *
San Francisco Symphony is in the midst giving the West Coast premiere of Ted Hearne's Dispatches as part of its New Voices initiative. The opening performance on Wednesday night was engaging, Hearne's music is richly textured and highlights percussion and celli. The cello players in fact each had to place wine corks between the G and D strings for the middle movement.

The new music was paired with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Soprano Susanna Phillips gave a crystalline account of the piece, her voice was never overwhelming, but has a brightness that cuts through the orchestra without being harsh. Her face is very expressive.

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, known as Pathétique. Clarinetist Carey Bell played especially well, sounding lovely from top to bottom.

* Tattling *
The people around us on the left side of the orchestra level were fairly quiet. Among those seated nearby was composer John Adams.


NCCO and Ailyn Peréz

074_Ailyn_Perez_by_Paul_Marc_Mitchell_PMM_2056R-e1438108110214* Notes *
Dazzling soprano Ailyn Peréz (pictured left, photograph by Paul Marc Mitchell) replaced Susanna Phillips in New Century Chamber Orchestra's 2015-2016 season opener last night in Berkeley, traveling to the Bay Area between her performances of La Bohème at La Scala and the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Great Scott in Dallas. The program, which will be performed in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and San Rafael in the following days, features Russian composers and Jennifer Higdon.

Peréz, dressed in a sparkly silver gown with matching heels, sang a limpid Vocalise by Rachmaninoff, every note vivid and beautifully colored. Her voice is exceedingly bright. The performance of the Letter Aria from Eugene Onegin was similarly evocative and NCCO sounded full and lush, especially for such a small string ensemble.

Lead by the inimitable Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, NCCO is a well-oiled machine that plays with a lot of fire. The concert also included Pärt's stately Trisagion, some Jennifer Hidgon pieces that went from dramatic to serene and back again, and Shostakovich's Elegy and Polka, the former played with elegant grace and the latter with sardonic verve. The encore of Schnittke's Polka was great fun.

 * Tattling * 
Lots of talking in the second half from the man in L 101.


Merola Grand Finale 2015

MGF 7*Notes*
As another
The Merola Grand Finale (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) marked the end of the San Francisco Opera Center's training program this year last night. This is a chance to hear everyone after weeks of work and to speculate on who might be chosen to come back to be part of San Francisco Opera's apprentice program as Adler Fellows in 2016.

As such, it is always fascinating to hear how the voices have developed, but it presupposes, perhaps, a certain amount of knowledge and interest in singers. The singing is strong, these are among the best out there, having gone through tough auditions. It is also when we get to see the apprentice stage director's work, in this case, Mo Zhou.

It is striking that each year this young artists program of people between the ages of 20 to 34 attracts a rather elderly viewership. Many of the younger people seen in the audience for Merola performances seem to be singers or employees of the opera. Of course, this is not lost on the administration of Merola, and there was only recently an outreach event at Chez Poulet in Bernal Heights the previous Thursday.

As described to me, the event was a mixer for people with an interest in opera, there were young opera singers there, drinks, and 80s music. One of the biggest barriers to going to arts events is not having anyone to go with, so certainly this makes sense. However, at the intermission of the Merola Grand Finale, as an aged opera neophyte seated next to me asked if I was able to follow what was going on, it occurred to me this was not the best experience for those without a lot of background in opera already.

Since the program is designed to showcase the voices of the Merola participants, the assortment of pieces is eclectic and we are dropped into different scenes of all sorts of operas in a variety of languages. We heard selections from no less than 15 operas in French, German, Italian, Russian, and English.

Stage director Mo Zhou used what looked to be the set for Sweeney Todd. Her production made much use of umbrellas, a bird cage with a candle in it, and red roses. This did not help much in explaining the action to someone unfamiliar with the operas at hand, but definitely showed her point of view and aesthetic.

The evening was not terribly consistent. There were times when the orchestra and singers became off track entirely, most noticeably in "Vy tak pyechalni... Ya vas lyublyu" from Queen of Spades and "Condotta ella in ceppi" from Il Trovatore. There were many intonation problems from the singers.

On the other hand, there was much singing that impressed. Toni-Marie Palmertree was arresting as Medora in "Non so le tetre immagini" from Verdi's Il Corsaro. Her voice is exquisite and she stood out as the Sandman in a scene from Hansel und Gretel in the second half of the night.

Both Michael Papincak and Alex DeSocio did well with scenes from Jake Heggie's Moby Dick. Papincak seems suited for the role of Ahab, which makes him quite a rarity, given that so few people have this vocal type. DeSocio sounded solid as Starbuck.

The high point of the performance came with Raehann Bryce-Davis (Santuzza) and Kihun Yoon (Alfio) in "Oh, il signore vi manda" from Cavalleria Rusticana. The evocative singing had a palpable reality, both singers utterly present in the moment.

* Tattling *
Surrounded by music critics, there was not much bad behavior in my immediate vicinity, other than the aforementioned confused person in Row L Seat 5, who was vocal and counted in German during "Papagena! Papagena!." There were lots of cellular phone rings heard whenever a particular piece did not have heavy orchestration.


Beethoven Marathon at SFS

Karita_Mattila-Headshot-PhotoCredit-LauriEriksson* Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony recently recreated a 1808 concert at the Theater an der Wien of Beethoven works. The engaging performance on Saturday night lasted four hours and forty minutes with three intermissions and required a chorus, two different versions of the orchestra, seven vocal soloists, and a pianist.

Undoubtedly a high point of the evening came when soprano Karita Mattila (pictured left, photograph by Lauri Eriksson) sang Ah! perfido, Opus 65, the second piece on the program. Her voice is gloriously resonant from top to bottom and her performance was riveting.

The other major soloist, Jonathan Biss, played Piano Concerto No. 4 with precision. He is not without passion, but channels the emotions of the piece with subtlety. Later, in place of where Beethoven improvised on the piano in the original concert, Biss took the stage for Piano Fantasy in G minor, which showed his virtuosity.

The concert began with one set of personnel making up the orchestra, playing the first half starting with Beethoven's Sixth. It was strange to hear this piece without William Bennett playing the oboe soli, though both clarinetist Carey Bell and bassoonist Stephen Paulson played beautifully. The horns were not clear. Somehow the phrasing of the music did not have a nice arc. The Fifth, which came after the second intermission, was significantly stronger.

The chorus sounded cohesive in the selections from the Mass in C major. Of the four soloists, tenor Nicolas Phan was a stand out, though they all sang well. Everyone did wonderfully in the Choral Fantasy that ended the concert, and the piece made sense as a finale for this epic performance, as it brought back our piano soloist, most of the principal singers, the chorus, and the orchestra.

* Tattling *
Someone behind a friend of mine in the Right Terrace kicked his chair and insisted he was being disrespectful for not applauding enough.


Meredith Monk at YBCA

Meredith-monk-38-of-56* Notes * 
Composer and vocalist Meredith Monk (pictured left) and her ensemble are currently performing On Behalf of Nature at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The opening performance on Friday was mesmerizing. The six singers all move beautifully, and it is impressive that one of them, Allison Sniffen, plays keyboards, violin, and French horn. The other two instrumentalists, Bohdan Hilash (winds) and John Hollenbeck (percussion), are also clearly accomplished players, though their choreography was understandably less elaborate.

The vibrant, visceral work is an entire world filled with pre-verbal babbling that spans a great emotional range; humming, textural instrumentals; stark, simple movements; deconstructed costumes made from the each performers old clothing; and gorgeous lighting design.

Ellen Fisher did some wonderful spins in the middle of the piece, donning a costume with panels to accentuate the movement. Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffen had a moving duet. The blue light that bathed the stage for part of the second half was striking, as was the last costume change which had all of the cast in white. I particularly liked the sound of bells and the very loud droning that seemed to shake the whole theater.

* Tattling * 
There was no intermission for this 75 minute performance, which was evidently difficult for some members of the audience.


Rachel Podger at PBO

Rachel_Podger_violin_credit_Jared_Sacks* Notes * 
Violinist Rachel Podger (pictured left, photograph by Jared Sacks) lead Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Vivaldi concerti from La cetra, La stravaganza, and L'estro armonico recently. The performance at the SFJazz Center last Friday in San Francisco was fiery. Podger had the eleven violinists and three violists standing, and lead with warmth and intelligence. As one would expect, the cellists and theorbo player sat, the bassist stood, and Hanneke van Proosdij stood at her organ but sat at her harpsichord.

The soli were all quite clear, and it was also wonderful when the orchestra or the soloists played in unison. Podger had particularly nice rapport with Elizabeth Blumenstock in Concerto for 2 Violins Op. 3, No. 8 in A minor, RV 522 and with Carla Moore in Concerto for 2 Violins Op. 9, No. 9 in B-flat major, RV 580. David Tayler had a lovely solo in the first half of the program, and it was nice to hear the theorbo by itself for a change. Cellist Phoebe Carrai gave a ferocious performance, and was particularly strong in Concerto for 2 Violins and Violoncello Op. 3, No. 11 in D minor, RV 565. Ellie Nishi's viola playing in Concerto for 4 Violins and Violincello Op. 3, No. 10 in B minor was also quite strong.

The violinists deftly switched places between pieces, with minimal fuss or disruption. The encore was the Largo from La Stravaganza, Op.4, Concerto No. 12 in G major, RV 298.

* Tattling * 
A man across the aisle from me in Row G occasionally spoke loudly to his companion in the first half but settled down in the second.


ABS Performs Matthew Passion

440x440xBach-ChesterW-1024x1024.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AZdbkahVbB* Notes *
American Bach Soloists is currently performing sold-out St. Matthew Passion concerts around the Bay Area. Jeffrey Thomas conducted a fastidious performance in Berkeley last night. The orchestra played neatly. The soloists were not entirely even, and the choral singing often sounded most cohesive.

Tenor Derek Chester (pictured left) sounded lovely as the Evangelist. His voice carries well, and he though he did have a few squeaks here and there, he sang compellingly. William Sharp gave an elegant performance as Christ, and also sang "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein," the last baritone aria of the piece.

Hélène Brunet had an ABS debut as first soprano and sounded quite clear. Clara Rottsolk (Soprano II) has beautiful low notes. Agnes Vojtko (Alto I) also had a fine lucidity in her singing. As Alto II, countertenor Jay Carter was somewhat strained, but his "Können Tränen meiner Wangen" was effective.

Tenor Charles Blandy has a bright sound with some rough edges, and tenor Jon Lee Keenan a pretty, reed-like voice that is perhaps less resonant. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza (Basso I) was easier to hear than baritone Joshua Copeland (Basso II).

* Tattling *
The person in Row H Seat 114 during Part II had difficulty being quiet. Not only did she speak to the woman she came with but she hummed along with the American Bach Choir and was rather out of tune.

My puerile companion was amused that one of the witnesses was sung by the countertenor.


Paul Goodwin Conducts SFS

NewGoodwin_MannyEspinoza* Notes * 
Conductor Paul Goodwin (pictured left, photograph by Manny Espinoza) is leading the San Francisco Symphony in a rather traditional program of Bach and Mozart this weekend. Goodwin, however, is anything but staid. He has a clear point of view and the orchestra sounds powerful under his direction. Last night's concert began with a stately rendition of J.S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3. The trumpets were particularly vital and in tune.

These performances mark the San Francisco Symphony debut of soprano Lydia Teuscher, who sang two Mozart arias and Bach's Wedding Cantata. Her voice is bright and pretty. The tenor clarinets were lovely in "Al desio, di chi t'adora." The oboist sounded quite happy in the Bach, and the string soloists also played well. The bass player seemed to be having a lot of fun.

The evening ended with Mozart, a rousing Symphony No. 31, Paris.

* Tattling * 
There was some whispering noted in the orchestra. Someone seated around Row N Seat 5 left in the middle of the Wedding Cantata, climbing over other patrons while quietly apologizing.