Concert Review

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.


ABS Performs Acis and Galatea

Nola_Richardson_3813* Notes *
This weekend American Bach Soloists is performing Händel's Acis and Galatea with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. During last night's Berkeley concert Jeffrey Thomas conducted a crisp, vibrant Acis and Galatea. All of the soloists sang with a fine lucidity and the chorus sounded decisive.

Nola Richardson (pictured left) had a lovely debut with ABS. Her Galatea is clear voiced and exact. Her Acis, Kyle Stegall, sounded pretty and light. Stegall's tenor contrasted nicely with Zachary Wilder's. The latter's sound is bright and his coloratura in "Consider, fond shepherd" was good. Bass Mischa Bouvier is an imposing Polyphemus. His trio with Richardson and Stegall was great.

The evening started with Bach. The violin soloist, Elizabeth Blumenstock, was not particularly precise but always quite lively. The recorders, played by Judith Linsenberg and Debra Nagy, sounded elegant, especially in the middle movement Andante.

* Tattling *
Parking by First Congregational was exceedingly difficult as there was a basketball game at nearby UC Berkeley.

The concert ended with an encore by the chorus and orchestra of "Happy We."


MTT Conducts L'Histoire du soldat

Mahler51213* Notes * 
This weekend Michael Tilson Thomas (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) is conducting seven members of the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat. The vivid piece is narrated by Elvis Costello, who does a fine job declaiming his lines. Nick Gabriel (The Soldier) is earnest and Malcolm McDowell (The Devil) certainly is charming. It is adorable when MTT himself speaks the lines of The King in Part II. The playing is incisive and spirited. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik sounded particularly lovely, as did clarinetist Carey Bell.

The performance starts with John Adams conducting his 1982 piece Grand Pianola Music, which is being recorded for future release. Adams addresses the audience before commencing the piece, explaining the genesis of the piece and its influences. He also notes a tuba solo in Part I, which he called a "bovine moment."

The work, in fact, is startlingly beautiful. The pianists, Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin play cohesively. The orchestra, which included woodwinds, brass, and percussion, sound grounded. Synergy Vocals is wonderfully ethereal, the three singers make for haunting sirens.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was very quiet for the John Adams. For the most part people were also quiet for the Stravinsky, but a woman in Row W Seat 102 was compelled to whisper to those adjacent to her as the ensemble played in Part II.


Steven Isserlis at PBO

Steven_Isserlis_credit_Satoshi_Aoyagi1* Notes * 
Cellist Steven Isserlis (pictured left, photograph by Satoshi Aoyagi) is playing with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the Bay Area starting with a performance at the SFJazz Center last night in San Francisco. The program is bookended with symphonies by Haydn, the first one being No. 57 in D major, and the second No. 67 in F major. The hall is designed for amplified music, so period instruments can sound rather crackly. However, the sound system can compensate for this, and the second Haydn piece seemed warmer and more resonant than the first.

Nicholas McGegan conducted a jovial and sprightly performance. Symphony No. 57 was a happy way to open. The tuning of the violin duet in Symphony No. 67 sounded a bit strange to me. But the trio that follows of concertmaster Katherine Kyme, principal second violinist Anthony Martin, and principal cellist Tanya Tomkins was beautiful.

Isserlis joined the orchestra for what was listed in the program as Luigi Boccherini's Concerto for Violoncello No. 7 in G major, but was actually Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Concerto for Violoncello in A major. Isserlis gave a sparkling performance, his playing has long lines and a beautiful legato. After intermission, Isserlis informed us we had been subject to a "ghastly hoax" and explained that the Boccherini was to come, as they had already played the Bach. The Adagio was especially lovely. Isserlis played an encore that involved much switching from pizzicato to arco.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet and little electronic noise was noted.


Dutoit conducts Fauré's Requiem

Charles-Dutoit-4x6* Notes * 
At the moment, Charles Dutoit (pictured left) is conducting San Francisco Symphony in performances of Poulenc, Stravinsky, and Fauré. Poulenc's Gloria began the concert on Thursday. The orchestra sounded bright and the chorus was cohesive. The "Laudamus te" was particularly jaunty. The soloist, soprano Susanna Phillips, sounded gorgeous. The "Domine Deus" was clear and haunting.

The Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, took a bit to set up, as the piece does not have high strings and also requires two pianos. The flute, oboe, and bassoon had a lovely moment.

After intermission we heard Fauré's Requiem. The soloists were both strong. Bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann has a rich, powerful voice. Susanna Phillips sounded rather sublime as well. The dynamics of the piece were evident, and the chorus' pianissimo was impressive.

* Tattling * 
There was only a brief exchange around me by one couple at one point during the last piece.