Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why we live in cities: Five exceptional musical performances

Cities are crowded, noisy, dirty, dangerous, expensive, and vulnerable to natural and human disasters. So why do we live in them?

Over the past month or so five exceptional live musical performances reminded me why it can be worth putting up with all the aggravations of life in a modern metropolis. This is why we live in cities:

1. Alcina at Exit Theatre, San Francisco, April 8, produced by Black Box Baroque

Alcina (1735) is perhaps Handel's finest and most affecting opera, and it was written for the greatest voices in the world. For a small company with limited means to take it on is a bold choice, but Black Box Baroque founder Sara Hagenbuch is nothing if not daring: the company had already produced Handel's Orlando and Ariodante, the other two operas in his Orlando Furioso trilogy. (For more on the background and story of Alcina, please see "Opera Guide 6.")

Stage director Sarah Young's minimalist production focussed attention on the interactions among the characters, who were performed with skill and conviction by the excellent ensemble. Especially notable were Danielle Sampson as the besotted knight Ruggiero, Ellen Presley as his cross-dressed fiancée Bradamante, Kelly Rubinsohn as the sorceress Alcina, and Hagenbuch herself as Alcina's lovestruck sister Morgana. In opera productions on this scale sometimes musical accompaniment is provided solely by piano or harpsichord; Black Box Baroque had the 11-member period instrument group Albany Consort in the pit. It made for a very vivid and immediate experience in the intimate Exit Theatre space.

Bay Area audiences will have a chance to see Black Box Baroque perform highlights from Alcina as part of the Berkeley Early Music Festival and Exhibition Fringe; see the BFX Fringe website for details. Below is a short video featuring excerpts from Black Box Baroque's first production, Orlando, and including brief interviews with Hagenbuch and Jonathan Smucker (Oronte in Alcina):

2. The Haydn Project at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley, May 9

In 2013 four members of the SF Chamber Symphony began a survey of the 68 string quartets of Joseph Haydn, who created the string quartet as we know it. The Haydn Project now consists of Robin Sharp, violin; Julie Kim, violin; Ben Simon, viola; and Hannah Addario-Berry, cello. Once or twice a year they appear at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse to present a program of two quartets. The nonprofit Freight & Salvage, primarily a folk and bluegrass club, is a very informal setting; you can sip a beer or a glass of wine while you listen (it was also the venue for the West Edge Opera's performances of the other Barber of Seville and the other Bohème this past season).

It was the perfect setting for the Haydn Project's low-key, unpretentious approach to performing. Ben Simon (who doubles as the music director of the SF Chamber Symphony) gave a brief introduction to each quartet that pointed out some key musical details (he also served as the MC for the entertaining Haydn trivia contest at intermission). The quartets performed were No. 4 from Op. 9 (1769), perhaps the first set of quartets to begin to fix the structure of the form, and No. 1 from Op. 64 (1790), an example of Haydn's mature mastery.

The Haydn Project's musicians emphasized the works' lyricism. Addario-Berry is an especially eloquent musician, and her playing made the song-like qualities of the slow movements wonderfully apparent. Here is a sample of one of the pieces we heard: the third movement, Adagio cantabile, from Op. 9 No. 4, performed by the Festetics Quartet:

Beyond even the Haydn Project's high level of musicianship, though, what made the evening so enjoyable was that it felt like a gathering of friends. I'm looking forward to their return to the Freight & Salvage in the fall.

3. Philippe Jaroussky at the First Congregational Church, Berkeley, May 12, produced by Cal Performances

Jaroussky is a countertenor primarily known for re-creating for modern ears music that was written for the castrati; his albums devoted to arias written for Carestini and for Farinelli are both astonishing. But this concert was a departure from his usual Baroque repertory. It featured song settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine by 19th- and 20th-century composers such as Ernest Chausson, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Reynaldo Hahn.

Jaroussky's pure voice and superb musicality are well suited to chansons. With sensitive support from pianist Jérôme Ducros, he presented a carefully thought-out program that offered contrasting settings of the same Verlaine poems by different composers. For Verlaine's "La lune blanche," for example, he performed Poldowski's "L'heure exquise" and Chausson's "Apaisement," saving the most famous setting, Hahn's "L'heure exquise," for his final encore. This was a concert we'll long remember.

For me the revelation of the evening was Léo Ferré, an older contemporary of Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. Here is Jaroussky performing Ferré's setting of "Colloque sentimental":

This performance is taken from Jaroussky's recent double album of Verlaine songs, Green (Erato, 2015), on which he is accompanied by Ducros and Quatuor Ébène.

4. Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, conductor, Weill Hall/Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, May 14

For some reason this concert was not included as part of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's regular Bay Area season, but instead only presented on tour. Fortunately the second stop on the tour was only 50 miles from San Francisco. We were also fortunate that an excellent restaurant, Prelude, is located next door to Weill Hall. It made for a wonderful late afternoon and evening on the park-like Sonoma State campus, as new graduates wandered happily about.

We were mainly anticipating the first part of the program, which included arias and duets from some of Handel's more rarely performed stage works: the operas Giustino and Flavio (Scholl), the semi-opera Semele (von Otter), and the oratorio Solomon (both). And these performances were indeed highly enjoyable. But unexpectedly I found the second half of the concert, devoted to songs by the contemporary composers Arvo Pärt and Caroline Shaw, to be even more so. The transparency of texture of the period instruments of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra worked beautifully with the spare music of Pärt and Shaw.

Here is Andreas Scholl performing "Vater Unser," Pärt's setting of the Lord's Prayer, with the Morphing Chamber Orchestra (I've cut off the final minute or so of (well-deserved) applause):

Another Pärt piece performed during this program was "Es sang vor langen jahren." At Weill Hall it was sung by both Andreas Scholl and Anne Sofie von Otter; in the linked video it is sung by Susan Bickley. I will definitely be seeking out more of Pärt's haunting music for solo voice.

5. The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles at Marines Memorial Theater, San Francisco, May 22, produced by Ars Minerva

Molly Mahoney (Cillene), Kindra Scharich (Florinda), Aurélie Veruni (Pulcheria), Coral Martin (dancer), Tonia D'Amelio (Auralba), Casey Lee Thorne (dancer)—and I think hidden behind D'Amelio is Cara Gabrielson (Jocasta)
Ars Minerva's founder Céline Ricci's artistic mission is to uncover works that have lain forgotten in the archives for centuries, and bring them to life. Her latest project was Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate, performed for the first time in 1679 and never since—until last weekend.

The original production was spectacular: according to Dr. Paul V. Miller's program notes, contemporary accounts report that it featured 200 supernumeraries portraying Amazon and Moorish warriors, and 50 men on horseback riding in formation at the finale. Ricci wisely did not attempt to overwhelm us with spectacle. Instead she mounted a semi-modern-dress production, with striking scene-setting projections by Patricia Nardi and witty supertitles by Joe McClinton, that focussed on the human relationships at the opera's core.

One of those relationships involves the love of the Amazon warrior Auralba (Tonia D'Amelio) for her comrade Florinda (Kindra Scharich). While this isn't the first lesbian relationship portrayed on the opera stage—the nymph Calisto is very willingly seduced by the goddess Diana in Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), she just doesn't realize that "Diana" is Jupiter in disguise—it is remarkable that Auralba's feelings are, if anything, taken more seriously than the often changeable emotions of the other characters.

As in many Baroque operas, the human relationships can be quite tangled: the Amazon princess Pulcheria (Aurélie Veruni) falls in love with the shipwrecked Moorish soldier Numidio (Ryan Matos), who professes feelings for both her and Florinda, who is torn between him and Auralba. Meanwhile, Pulcheria is facing the teenage rebellion of her daughter Jocasta (Cara Gabrielson) and trying to fight off the surprise attack of the Moorish army—unaware that Numidio is an agent of the Sultan (Spencer Dodd). Especially memorable were some bitter denunciations of love by Auralba, a lament by the wounded Jocasta, and a sleep scene for Florinda (sleep scenes are surprisingly common in Baroque opera).

This opera was very much worth remounting, especially in such a clever and well-performed production (the four central women were especially good, and Scharich's rich mezzo-soprano in particular is gorgeous*). It's astonishing that a company of Ars Minerva's size is producing modern world premieres of forgotten Baroque operas, and doing it so well. Ricci's sense of adventure puts to shame opera companies with budgets many orders of magnitude larger. I can't wait to see what her next discovery will be.

* I learned too late that the night before The Amazons opened (!) Scharich sang Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Strauss' Four Last Songs in arrangements for the Alexander String Quartet; I also missed these artists performing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder last year. Here's hoping that a recording is in the works, and that the sponsoring organization, Lieder Alive!, will present these artists again soon.

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