Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Music

Favorite live music events:

Jill Tracy (photo credit: Neil Girling)

Jill Tracy and Daniel Handler: "The Ballad of Fantômas." City Lights Books, San Francisco, April 6; presented by Peter Maravelis' Fantômas-By-The-Bay centenary celebration

Jill Tracy is a gothic cabaret chanteuse who has composed soundtracks for silent films, including Murnau's 1922 horror classic Nosferatu. Handler, among other activities, is an accordionist who has played on projects with Stephin Merritt (Handler appears on The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs as well as albums by The 6ths and The Gothic Archies). Together they performed an unforgettable version of Kurt Weill and Robert Desnos' Ballad of Fantômas, which enumerates, in graphic detail, the many crimes of the title character. The performers were helped along on the gruesome choruses by an enthusiastic absinthe-soaked crowd (absinthe generously supplied by St. George Spirits). Dark cabaret, indeed.

For a taste of Jill Tracy's work, here is a short film of her song "The Fine Art of Poisoning," directed by Bill Domonkos:

Philippe Jaroussky & Apollo's Fire, "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Hertz Hall, Berkeley, October 30; presented by Cal Performances

The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is a truly amazing performer, and his appearance with the period instrument ensemble Apollo's Fire was far and away the most thrilling live music event we witnessed this past year. You can read more details about this electrifying concert in my earlier post.

Favorite classical music recording:

Philippe Jaroussky: Carestini — The Story of A Castrato. Le Concert d'Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor
[Carestini] rendered everything he sang interesting by good taste, energy, and judicious embellishments. He manifested great agility in the execution of difficult divisions from the chest in a most articulate and admirable manner. It was the opinion of Hasse, as well as of many other eminent professors, that whoever had not heard Carestini was unacquainted with the most perfect style of singing.
—Charles Burney, A General History of Music v. 2, pp. 782 - 783
The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has many excellent recordings, but Carestini perhaps best showcases the full range of his gifts. This recording of arias written for the castrato Carestini includes examples of both lightning-fast coloratura and affecting slow arias. The works performed include some less-familiar arias by well-known composers such as Gluck and Handel, as well as wonderful arias by such undeservedly neglected composers as Capelli, Graun, Hasse, Leo, and Porpora. Like Cecilia Bartoli, Jaroussky seeks out underexplored areas of the repertory and brings his most exciting discoveries to renewed life. This is a superb disc, and of his recordings perhaps comes closest to suggesting the excitement of his live performances.

Favorite opera performances (live):

Handel: Acis & Galatea. Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, June 18; presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

I wrote about this brilliantly staged and beautifully performed chamber opera in an earlier post. We were fortunate to see one of its stars, Aaron Sheehan, as Orpheus in our other favorite live opera experience of 2011:

Charpentier: La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers. Magnificat; Warren Stewart, director. St. Mark's Episcopalian Church, Berkeley, October 15

Another superb evening of music from Magnificat. Orphée retells the myth of Orpheus' liberation of his beloved Eurydice from the underworld realm of Pluto and Proserpine. Charpentier's chamber opera compresses a huge range of emotion into a compact package. Magnificat's principal singers—Aaron Sheehan (Orphée), Laura Heimes (Euridice), Jennifer Ellis Kampani (Daphné, Aréthuze, Proserpine), and Peter Becker (Pluton)—performed Charpentier's exquisite music beautifully. Another triumph for the singers, Magnificat's instrumental ensemble, and director Warren Stewart.

Favorite opera (broadcast):

Renée Fleming (Rodelinda)
and Andreas Scholl (Bertarido)
Handel: Rodelinda. Met Live in HD broadcast, December 3

For Rodelinda Handel wrote some of his greatest music and created one of his most affecting heroines. Renée Fleming, the title character in this production from the Met, has a voice that at this stage in her career seems to have lost some agility and is showing some wear. The countertenor Andreas Scholl, as Rodelinda's husband Bertarido, was also not in his best voice for this broadcast. However, all hesitations were swept away by their total commitment to their roles. Their farewell scene at the end of Act II was passionately convincing; during Rodelinda's Act III mourning aria "Se 'l mio duol non e si forte," real tears coursed down Fleming's cheeks; and the kiss Bertarido/Scholl planted on Rodelinda/Fleming at the conclusion of the opera was full of unfeigned affection.

San Francisco Opera might take note of how effective Stephen Wadsworth's thoughtfully detailed but straightforward production was; it required no updatings to fascist Europe, and refused to undermine Handel's drama with jokes or camp. The contrast with SF Opera's well-sung but emotionally inert production of Rodelinda from several seasons ago couldn't have been more stark.

Most clueless audience members:

Philip Glass: Satyagraha. Met Live in HD rebroadcast, Century Cinema 9, San Francisco, December 7

Satyagraha is about the young Gandhi's encounters with injustice in South Africa and the formation of his philosophy of compassion and non-violent resistance. In the final scene of the opera, Gandhi (Richard Croft) steps forward and sings an extended solo on an excerpt from the Bhagavad Gita which means in part "I come to earth...for the protection of good, holding back evil and upholding virtue." Suddenly the screen was illuminated by a flash—a woman sitting several rows in front of us had taken a flash picture of the screen. Not only is that incredibly rude, it's incredibly stupid: when you take a picture of a lighted screen, using a flash will both wash out the screen image and brightly illuminate anything directly in front of you (like the backs of the seats in the next row). Evidently this woman was indeed unhappy with the quality of her picture, because as the scene progressed she went on to take several more. After the third or fourth flash, a guy a couple of rows behind her screamed "IF YOU TAKE ONE MORE PICTURE I'M GOING TO COME DOWN THERE AND KILL YOU!" Meanwhile, Gandhi sang on about compassion and non-violence.

Jill Tracy
City Lights Books
The Fantômas Website
St. George Absinthe Verte
Philippe Jaroussky (in French)
Apollo's Fire
Boston Early Music Festival
Aaron Sheehan
Metropolitan Opera Live in HD

More Favorites of 2011:
Bollywood, Books, Movies, and Television

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