San Francisco Performances

Wispelwey Plays Bach Cello Suites

Sfp-wispelwey* Notes * 
Pieter Wispelwey performed Bach's Complete Suites for Unaccompanied Cello last Saturday at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco. His playing is focused, rapid, and crisp. The phrasing and inflection of the notes was idiosyncratic, and one could never mistake Wispelwey's playing with someone else's. Though one would be hard pressed to call his sound beautiful, his interpretations were far from boring and the audience, especially for the afternoon performance of the first three suites, seemed captivated. Wispelwey played the Praeludium from Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007 as the encore for the evening performance.

* Tattling * 
Though two couples I sat in front of for the second performance in Row K Seats 14-20 were annoyingly loud during the music, I was glad to speak to the man next to me in Row J Seat 20, who absolutely loves the pieces and had recommendations for various recordings of them. He suggested the performers János Starker, Anner Bylsma, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Pablo Casals, at least, to start.

Philippe Sly's Salon at the Rex

Sly2* Notes *
Bass-baritone Philippe Sly (pictured left, photograph by Adam Scotti) gave a recital with guitarist John Charles Britton for the Salons at the Rex series Wednesday evening. The evening's music consisted of fifteen Schubert Lieder, including ones from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. Instead of providing the text in the program, Sly read translations of each before singing. The guitar arrangements were done by Britton himself, some worked better than others, since the instrument is so different from piano. The quietness of guitar is quite lovely in a salon setting. Sly's voice is youthfully exuberant, but he has control of his volume and is able to scale it down for a small room. "Du bist die Ruh" was particularly lovely. The encore was Chanson romanesque from Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, which Sly sang with much vim and perhaps sounded best with Britton's guitar.

* Tattling *
Nearly every seat was taken, and I felt quite lucky to have gotten a ticket for the performance. A mobile phone rang while Sly was reading one of the translations, but otherwise there were few disturbances to the music.

Matthias Goerne at SF Performances

SFP-MatthiasGoerne-02* Notes * 
San Francisco Performances presented baritone Matthias Goerne (pictured left, photograph by Marco Borggreve) in recital with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes on Monday. The performance focused on six Shostakovich songs from Suite on Verses of Michelangelo. These were interspersed selections from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder. Goerne's voice is unreal, velvety and perfectly legato. He sounds unlike anyone else. "Wenn dein Mütterlein" and "Urlicht" were particularly heart-wrenching. The Shostakovich was also sung beautifully, especially his "Death" near the end of the program. Andsnes played assertively, with an insistent breathlessness. The contrast between singer and pianist could not be more marked, giving the proceedings an interesting tension.

* Tattling * 
The audience seemed entranced, and the performance was so gripping it was difficult to even clap between sets. Besides a mobile phone that rang just before the singing started, there was no electronic noise.

Ute Lemper at SF Performances

SFP-UteLemper-03* Notes *
Last night Ute Lemper (pictured left), the Vogler Quartet, and Stefan Malzew made their San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre. The performance commenced with the three of Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet (1924), played by the Vogler Quartet. Before Lemper took the stage, Malzew brought out his accordion and clarinet, and set up by the piano opposite the quartet.

The songs began with Piaf, first "Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle" and then "L'accordéoniste." In between she explained the narrative of the performance, not only of the individual songs, but of a journey from Paris to Berlin and then eastwards and southwards, around the world, only to end back in Europe. She introduced the other musicians and was sure to point out that Malzew had arranged all the songs. Two Weill pieces followed, "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End and "Mack the Knife" ("Die Moritat von Mackie Messer") from The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). These were sung with phrases in English and German, as were the Eisler songs that came next, these being "Der Graben," "Über den Selbstmord," and "Ballad vom Wasserrad." They went right into the Russian folksong "Tyomnaja Notch" ("Тeмная ночь") and ended the first half of the program with Alberstein's "Stiller Abend," sung in Yiddish. Lemper bends the vowels rather dramatically, so it is difficult to understand exactly what words she is singing. Nonetheless, she communicated the meaning of the text anyway, by her manner and movements.

After the intermission we heard the rest of the Schulhoff piece, then Alberstein's "Ikh stey unter a Bokserboym." There were issues with the amplification, and one of the speakers hummed noisily. This was rectified for the Piazolla songs "Yo Soy Maria," "Oblivion," and "La última grela." This was perhaps the weakest part of an otherwise intensely engaging evening. Thankfully, Brel's "Chanson de Jacky," "Ne me quitte pas," and "Amsterdam" were performed with verve. The encore was a startling improvisation of Weill's "Speak Low," which featured Lemper scat singing with each of the other musicians in turn. Lemper is completely fearless. Her voice has not a trace of prettines. It is a sound that is the epitome of "jolie laide," somehow both beautiful and ugly at once, or even beautiful because of its ugliness.

* Tattling *
The audience clapped for each of Schulhoff's pieces. Someone may have booed during the ovation before intermission, and there was noticeable attrition after the first half. Someone else was very excited to hear Ms. Lemper, screaming "Ute" perhaps a dozen times.

Quatuor Ebène at SF Performances


* Notes *
Tonight Quatuor Ebène (pictured left, photograph by Julien Mignot) had a San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre. The evening started with Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, which was played with much personality, and what seemed to be an entirely historically uninformed manner. Somehow the confidence and rapport of the players made the latter irrelevant. Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 in D Major may have been better suited to the style of the ensemble, the playing was lush without being cloying. The third movement Noctturno: Andante was especially delightful.

The second half of the program consisted of Ravel's String Quartet in F Major. It was clear the quartet took the tempo markings to heart. The rhythms in the second movement were quite exhilarating and the changing meters in the last movement came off well. The encore was introduced rather coyly by cellist Raphaël Merlin as a piece by a quartet from Liverpool. The following instrumental version of Lennon and McCartney's "Come Together" was therefore all the more charming.

* Tattling *
The audience was silent and attentive until the encore.

Alexander String Quartet's 30th Anniversary


* Notes * 
The Alexander String Quartet (pictured left with Jake Heggie and Joyce DiDonato, photograph by Brian Byrne) celebrated 30 years with a new commission presented by San Francisco Performances. Yesterday's performance at Herbst Theatre began with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing Hahn's Venezia, accompanied by Jake Heggie on piano. DiDonato sang these evocative songs with a beautiful legato line. Alexander String Quartet took the stage next with Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (1893). The playing was balanced, and second movement Scherzo was especially charming.

After the intermission came the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. The music was pretty and often wistful. DiDonato enunciated clearly and was clearly moved by the songs. The fifth song, The Gossips, was, for this listener, most striking. The quartet played all together here, and the rhythms were attractive. The encore was Richard Strauss' "Morgen!" with DiDonato accompanied by not only the string quartet, but by Heggie on piano again.

* Tattling * 
Members of the audience only occasionally whispered, most were quiet. I seemed to be seated next to the music historian-in-residence of San Francisco Performances and his date. It was entertaining to hear exchanges between the former and his various friends. At one point Italian was spoken, and this ended with someone saying "Spaghetti!" and someone else responding "Meatball!"

Karita Mattila at SF Performances

  Karita-Mattila-SFP * Notes * 
The third recital of the 2011-2012 vocal series at San Francisco Performances featured soprano Karita Mattila (pictured left, photograph by Lauri Eriksson) accompanied by pianist Martin Katz. Yesterday evening's performance started with Poulenc's Banalités, a set of five songs using texts by Apollinaire. The pieces did not readily relate to one another. Mattila sang them with a sense of humor, "Hôtel" and "Voyage à Paris" were particularly charming. Next we heard Debussy's Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, which were a good deal more disturbing, especially the fourth one, "Recueillement." Mattila has a strong, beautifully supported voice and was complemented by Katz's tasteful playing. The singer exudes a serene confidence and was completely unruffled by the various small snags of the performance, which included sheet music forgotten backstage, untimely applause, and electronic noise.

After the intermission came Neljä laulua unesta (Four Dream Songs) from Sallinen. It was exciting to hear Mattila sing in her native language. The pieces were rather dark and strange. The program ended with five songs in German by Joseph Marx. Mattila coughed before "Waldseligkeit" and even after singing the first half, but one was never in doubt that her sound would still be perfectly gorgeous. Katz was able to show more bravura in these songs. The first encore was a highly idiosyncratic version of "I Could Have Danced All Night," complete with dancing. The second encore was a Finnish folk song, "Minun kultani kaunis on," arranged by Ralf Gothóni. Mattila ended the evening by singing the last verse of "Tonight" without accompaniment.

* Tattling * 
The audience was rather quiet, no talking was noted. Unfortunately, someone's mobile phone rang at the end of "Le jet d'eau," while Mattila sang the very last line.

Nadine Sierra's Salon at the Rex

Nadine-sierra* Notes *
Soprano Nadine Sierra gave a recital with pianist Tamara Sanikidze for the Salons at the Rex series Wednesday evening. The two Adler Fellows created a genial atmosphere, speaking to the audience at length about the pieces and about how they first met at Music Academy of the West. The short program included "Je veux vivre," "Summertime," "A Sleeping Bee," "Vilja," Grieg's "Ein Traum," "Beautiful Dreamer," and "O mio babbino caro." Sierra's voice is pretty and doesn't betray a bit of strain. Sanikidze played gamely. The encore was "Les chemins de l'amour."

* Tattling *
It was pretty amusing to hear that Sierra assumed Sanikidze was a singer, not a pianist, because of her outgoing, lively personality.

Simon Keenlyside at SF Performances

  SFP-SimonKeenlyside-02* Notes * 
San Francisco Performances' 2011-2012 recital series continued with baritone Simon Keenlyside (pictured left, photograph by Ben Ealovega) accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau last night. There were programs this time, and all the texts were provided. As it happened, the recital was so gripping that it was quite difficult to even look at the words. Keenlyside's diction is crystal clear, whether singing in German, English, or French. Likewise, Martineau's playing is very clean without being dry or boring. The evening began with 7 songs from Mahler. "Frühlingsmorgen" was funny and "Liebst du um Schönheit" quite beautiful. Keenlyside sounds very comfortable, but his movements are rather idiosyncratic, and he does not quite what to do with his hands, it seems. The Mahler was followed by the first set of George Butterworth's songs based on poems from A Shropshire Lad. Keenlyside introduced the songs by asking us not to write them off as "English pastoral frippery," noting Housman's poems deal with mortality and became popular during the Second Boer War. The songs are rather dark, "Is my team ploughing?" is particularly distressing, and both singer and pianist pulled these songs off brilliantly.

After the intermission we heard 6 songs from Richard Strauss. The words were all enunciated perfectly, and "Befreit" was especially transparent and lovely. The program ended with songs of Duparc and Debussy, of these, perhaps "Phidylé" was most impressive. The 4 encores were Schubert's "Der Einsame," Ireland's "Sea Fever," Grainger's "Sprig of Thyme," and Schubert's "An Mein Klavier." All were sung and played with the vibrancy and freshness that characterized the entire performance.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet and no electronic noise was apparent. At intermission a certain classical music critic pointed out that many of the panels that had lined Herbst's walls had been removed this season. I could only agree that the sound seems warmer and more focused.

Stephanie Blythe at SF Performances

SFP-Stephanie-Blythe * Notes * 
San Francisco Performances featured mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (pictured left, photograph by Kobie van Rensburg) in a charming recital last night. Somehow the programs for the performance went missing, and we were given photocopies of the most relevant pages. As it turned out, Blythe had not provided the texts in program, and she explained it was because she loved words and worked hard to be understood. She also joked about appreciated seeing people's faces as she sang, rather than the tops of their heads. Blythe and her accompanist Warren Jones read the 12 poems of Emily Dickinson that James Legg set to music, and later read the 3 James Joyce poems used in the Samuel Barber songs that followed. Though I enjoyed the directness of this approach, it seemed unnecessary, as they communicated the content through the music with great clarity. Blythe has excellent diction and a broad emotional range. She does have a great deal of volume at her disposal. Barber's "Sleep Now" was impressively stirring and painful.

The second half of the show was entitled "Songs from Tin Pan Alley" and included Jones playing a few rags by Joplin. Blythe was disarmingly funny, she and Jones hammed it up just enough, and it all seemed natural. Creamer and Layton's "After You've Gone" was especially amusing, as was Berlin's "I Love a Piano." Blythe sang Berlin's "What'll I Do?" with gravity, but without sounding operatic. I believe the encores were another Joplin rag (played by Jones), "How can I keep from singing?" (sung a cappella by Blythe), and "Beautiful Dreamer" (sung by Blythe and accompanied by Jones).

* Tattling * 
The audience was silent and attentive. More than one known Wagner fanatic was noted among the attendees.

Anthony Dean Griffey at SF Performances

AnthonyDeanGriffey * Notes * 
San Francisco Performances presented tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (pictured left, photo by Harry Heleotis) in a recital of songs in English last Wednesday. The evening began with fiddler Paul Brown playing Fisher's Hornpipe. Brown started out of view, playing Griffey and himself onto the stage, where there were two chairs, three banjos, and another violin waiting for them. Griffey sang this set of four traditional songs whilst seated, each one accompanied by Brown on either fiddle or banjo. It all sounded very natural and easy. The second set, pieces from Old American Songs by Copland (and indeed the rest of the performance) was accompanied by pianist Warren Jones. Jones played Griffes' Barcarolle, Op. 6, No. 1 before the third set, Barber's "Sleep Now" and "I hear an Army." This was all quite lovely, and Jones gave a good explanation of the Griffes piece.

Composer Kenneth Frazelle introduced his work, Songs in the Rear View Mirror, which comprised the second half of the evening. A few photographs of William Christenberry were projected on an upstage screen. The pieces were played and sung well, though some of the text was awkward. The fourth piece, about the vine kudzu (Pueraria lobata), was particularly fun. Griffey always enunciated clearly, and could be understood without the aid of supertitles or program notes. The encore was "This Little Light O' Mine," arranged by John W. Work.

* Tattling * 
The lights came up after the second set, so some audience members might have unintentionally started the intermission early.

The Tetzlaff Quartet at SF Performances

Tetzlaff-Quartet-by-Alexandra-Vosding * Notes * 
The Tetzlaff Quartet (pictured left by Alexandra Vosding) is just finishing a tour of the United States. The ensemble's penultimate stop at Herbst Theatre was presented by San Francisco Performances. The evening began with Haydn's String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3, which was played with fire and nuanced dynamics. Violinist Christian Tetzlaff came off as very much a soloist. The second piece, Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 was likewise fine, the third movement was particularly droll. After the intermission we heard Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7, which sounded the most cohesive of the three. Violist Hanna Weinmeister had some lovely moments, as did cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and violinist Elisabeth Kufferath.

* Tattling * 
Someone behind me in Row P of the orchestra level was occasionally humming with the Mendelssohn, and it was disconcerting as she was so close to me it almost felt like the sound was coming through my body. Someone on the right side of the orchestra level intermittently crumpled cellophane throughout the Schoenberg, but left before the encore. Christian Tetzlaff called out the title of the encore, and someone in the audience expressed confusion, so violinist responded rather adorably by putting his hands on his hips and yelling "Dvořák!"

Elza van den Heever at SF Performances

Elza-van-den-Heever-Dario-AcostaWhilst the Opera Tattler attended the sold-out performance of Takács Quartet in Berkeley last Sunday, the Last Chinese Unicorn was over in San Francisco for Elza van den Heever's recital presented by San Francisco Performances.

* Notes * 
My biggest complaint today when it comes to opera singers is that nobody is willing to take risks anymore. Everyone wants to play it safe for fear of cracking or screwing up a note, so they stay within their comfort zone and manufacture one sterile, cookie-cutter performance after another. I quote the character of Florence Foster Jenkins in play Souvenir: "Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy...You say the notes are absolute, but what are they, after all? Signposts left by the composer to guide us."

I heard Elza van den Heever sing this past Sunday and the girl has a gorgeous voice. But singers with lovely voices are a dime a dozen. What sets Elza apart from the rest of the herd is that she is fearless. She understands that singing is not just about producing beautiful, precise notes, but about putting oneself out there even if it means being vulnerable and exposed. Elza is not afraid to relinquish a bit of control and allow the music to take her (and the audience) on a journey, potentially into unfamiliar territory. I have noticed on several occasions that she tears up during pieces and asked her how this affects her voice. "It is a give and take situation. You can either disconnect from the meaning to maintain that clear beautiful sound, but I really have no choice but to be in the moment," she says. "Whatever happens with the meaning of the poetry or the libretto, I am there. For me, staying truthful to the poetry and the message is most important and I just work with my voice as the emotions come and the music happens." Yes, the tears may interfere with her breath and distort her sound at times. She does make mistakes, but she just laughs them off nonchalantly in such a charming and endearing way that the audience cannot help but laugh along with her. Watching Elza's performance made me think about the origin of the word "Bravo," which literally means "brave" or "courageous" in Italian. Elza van den Heever is one soprano who is definitely worthy of that praise.

Elza opened with two Handel arias from Rodelinda and Alcina which, in my opinion, does not belong in her repertoire. Her voice, while perfectly suited for the long sustained phrases of German opera and lieder, lacks the agility to handle the fast-paced scales and ornamentation of Baroque music. In "Mio caro bene" and "Ma quando tornerai" Elza's breathing was somewhat labored and the long runs were a bit choppy. The accompanist, John Parr, was disconnected from the singer and appeared lost in his own little bubble of oblivion with his head stuck in the sheet music. Not once did he look at Elza or offer her a little support when she required slight adjustments in the tempi. However, even though the Baroque was not her forte, Elza's delivery was packed with emotion and sincerity, you could tell she knew exactly what she was singing about.

Elza seemed much more relaxed as she shifted gears and entered the realm of German lieder where it was evident that she was in her element. Strauss' Wiegenlied, one of my favorite songs, was beautifully executed with crisp clarity and nuanced coloring. Her Frauenliebe und - leben, a song cycle by Robert Schumann that documents a woman's passage through love, marriage, motherhood, and the death of her beloved, required no translation. Especially moving was her interpretation of "Du Ring an meinem Finger" and "Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan" where her breaths turned into grieving sobs as her character mourned the loss of her husband. The set of Afrikaans songs was a rare treat. Elza sang these songs that depicted the beauty of her homeland with such enthusiasm and nostalgic melancholy that the smells, sounds, and sights described in the text became almost palpable to the senses. She gave two encores, both by Brahms: "Botschaft" and "O komme holde Sommernacht."

* Tattling * 
There was an error in the program notes. The text printed was for the wrong Wiegenlied that was written by Strauss in 1878 with the text by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallerslebenthat that starts "Die Ähren nur noch nicken." The one that Elza performed was Wiegenlied, op. 41, written in 1899, with the text "Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben" by Richard Fedor Leopold Dehmel.

Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex

Melton_heidi_second_photo * Notes *
Soprano Heidi Melton gave a recital with pianist John Churchwell for the Salons at the Rex series yesterday evening. The first half of Melton's performance consisted of art songs by Sibelius and Korngold. As far as the pieces of the former, "Tuol Laulaa Neitonen" was rather dreamy, while "Hiljainen Kaupunki" had an otherworldly quality. One was impressed by how Churchwell used his breath to play, the phrasing was clear, and he absolutely attacked "Hjertats." Korngold's Lieder des Abschieds, Opus 14 were moving. Melton's voice is creamy and strong, and she was never overwhelmingly loud. The second half of the evening consisted of cabaret and torch songs, which Melton sang with verve. The Kurt Weill and Irving Berlin were especially great, but Melton was engaging in every single number.

* Tattling *
The recital was sold out, even though Adler Concert was programed for the same night. The audience was well-behaved, there was only the slightest bit of talking during the last piece. Melton was very aware of the time-constraint she was under, and at one point asked how we were doing on time. I believe it was jumping clapping man that exclaimed "We've got all night!"

Measha Brueggergosman at SF Performances

Brueggergosman Whilst the Opera Tattler attended the opening performance of The Makropulos Case at the War Memorial Opera House last Wednesday, the Last Chinese Unicorn was at the nearby Herbst Theatre for a program presented by San Francisco Performances.

* Notes * 
As soon as the lovely Measha Brueggergosman stepped on stage she lit up the entire theater. She was dressed in vibrant colors, wearing a luscious, deep red gown with a bright orange wrap draped over her shoulders, but it was her exuberant ear-to-ear smile that was the source of her radiance. She opened her mouth and what poured out was divine. Her voice is the perfect balance of warmth and brilliance. There are some singers who make you nervous and keep you at the edge of your seat because you are never quite certain whether or not they will deliver the next note with precision or enough nuance, or if they might run out of air. Brueggergosman is not one of those. She produces a sound that is deeply anchored in the belly with excellent breath control and effortless delivery. Her voice puts the audience at ease so they can sit back, relax and enjoy the music. She also sings with such expressiveness on her face that there is no need for her to move her arms, which remain firmly planted at her sides.

The program consisted of songs in German (Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, Berg), French (Duparc), and Spanish (Turina) plus two romantic piano pieces played by the accompanist Justus Zeyen, who is also known for his collaborations with renowned German bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff. Zeyen's playing was earnest without the theatrical bells and whistles we too often see from some of the younger pianists today (who will remain nameless, as we all know who they are). His Chopin Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No. 2 was especially poetic. Zeyen played with the physical stillness and stoicism of Arthur Rubinstein, but the notes had a tender song-like quality to them filled with bitter-sweet melancholy. Measha's German diction was certain better than her French. Her "Nachtstück" D.672 by Schubert, "Wiegenlied," Opus 41, No. 1 and "Ständchen," Opus 17, No. 2 both by Strauss were sublime. The Spanish songs were fiery and feisty, with elements of magical realism. Musically I did not care much for the Berg, but I suppose they were fine.

During intermission Measha did a costume change and came out in the second half rocking a full-length sassy sparkly silver sequin number. It was hot. Whistles and gasps were heard from the audience. She even changed her lip color to something a little more bright and pink to go with the outfit. This is clearly a woman who knows how to put together a look. For her encore, the soprano sang Samuel Barber's "Sure on this Shining Night." The real litmus test was passed with the purchase of her newly released CD titled Night and Dreams. That is how much I enjoyed Measha's singing and her charming on-stage charisma.

* Tattling * 
My date complained about some unpleasant body odor emanating from the elderly man sitting next to her. Other than that, the audience was well-behaved and appropriately held their applause for the breaks in between sets.