Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorites of 2017: Live performances

Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet: produced by Lieder Alive! at the Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco, September 10.

To open the 2017/18 Liederabend Series rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, accompanied by the Alexander String Quartet, presented a program of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), Rückert-Lieder (Rückert Songs), and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

Mahler published these song cycles in orchestral and piano versions; Zakarias Grafilo, first violin of the Alexander Quartet, has now arranged them for string quartet. The quartet versions offered both intimacy and lushness, and Scharich's voice floated beautifully over the strings. These performances were superbly realized on the part of everyone involved.

The Mahler cycles are being recorded for release in 2018. I hope that Lieder Alive!'s recording project will also include Grafilo's arrangements for Scharich and the ASQ of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder.

Through the commissioning of these arrangements, the sponsoring of performances and the successful crowdfunding of support for the recordings, Lieder Alive!'s director Maxine Bernstein is showing what a small but visionary organization can accomplish. For more on the 2017/18 Liederabend Series, see Lieder Alive!'s website.

Four opera productions  (in chronological order of performance):

Each of these productions showed what can be done despite limited means when you have a daring imagination and dedicated performers.
  • Atalanta (music by Handel): produced by the SFCM Baroque Ensemble at the Hume Concert Hall, SF Conservatory of Music, March 12. 
A talented young cast accompanied by the SFCM Baroque Ensemble conducted by Corey Jamason brought Handel's comedy of false identities and romantic confusion to vivid life. Especially impressive was soprano Morgan Balfour in the trouser role of the lovelorn Meleagro/"Tirsi." Another in a series of excellent Baroque opera performances by SFCM; for more on SFCM's free and low-cost concerts, see the SFCM Performance Calendar.
  • The Chastity Tree (music by Vicente Martin y Soler, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte): produced by West Edge Opera at the Pacific Pipe Company, Oakland, August 12.
Although the vast Pacific Pipe warehouse in industrial West Oakland might not seem like the most obvious venue for 18th-century opera, WEO's director Mark Streshinsky made a virtue of necessity in this bold and campy production. As I wrote earlier, "Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly." For more of my review please see "The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana"; for more on their upcoming productions, see the West Edge Opera website.
  • La Circe (music by Pietro Andrea Ziani, libretto by Cristoforo Ivanovich): produced by Ars Minerva at the ODC Theater, SF, September 8.
La Circe is based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and takes place after Ulysses and his men have left Circe's island. Circe is a sorceress who at first welcomes shipwrecked travellers, and then transforms them into wild beasts, trees, brooks and rocks when she grows tired of them.

As with the other productions mounted by Ars Minerva's intrepid artistic director Céline Ricci, Ziani's opera has not been performed since the time of its creation. Ricci not only unearthed the opera and directed the staging (aided by Patricia Nardi's beautiful scene-setting projections), she sang the title role compellingly. Other standouts in the excellent cast included Kindra Scharich as Andromaca and Aurélie Veruni as Scylla. In bringing unjustly forgotten operas to new life Ricci is performing an invaluable service for lovers of Baroque music.

Ars Minerva has already announced its new project, Andromeda, a Cosmic Tale.
  • The Rape of Lucretia (music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Robert Duncan): produced by the SFCM Opera Department at the Hume Concert Hall, SF Conservatory of Music, December 10.
This production of Britten's dramatically compelling opera took place amid the ongoing eruption of sexual assault allegations made against powerful men. No allusions to the #MeToo movement were made in the program notes or in director Heather Mathew's staging, but they didn't have to be. A powerhouse performance by Chantal Grybas of the heroine's overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame was given an even greater resonance because of the cultural moment. Britten's score was incisively played by the Conservatory Orchestra under conductor Curt Pajer, and the real-life context made the entire experience especially memorable.

SF Music Day 2017: produced by Intermusic SF at the War Memorial Veterans Building, San Francisco, September 24.

During this annual day-long event Intermusic SF (formerly SF Friends of Chamber Music) presents a huge variety of performances and panel discussions, all for free. This year I counted more than 30 groups performing in four different venues around the vast Veterans Building. It's impossible to take in everything, but I saw wonderful performances by Musica Pacifica, the Minsky Duo, MUSA, Alam Khan and Arjun Verma, and the Telegraph Quartet.

But I think the highlight of the day for me was the period-instrument Sylvestris Quartet playing (as they announced from the stage) "250 years of French string music in 30 minutes." The music ranged from François Couperin to a meltingly beautiful rendition of the slow movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' String Quartet No. 1. (The performance in the video below is by the Quartetto d'Archi Venezia.)

I look forward to hearing more from these musicians in the coming year; a performance calendar is available on the Sylvestris Quartet website. For more on Intermusic SF's programs, see the Intermusic SF website.

(click on the image for a readable version; here is the full version)

Fun Home (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel): produced by Fox Theatricals, Barbara Whitman and Carole Shorenstein Hays at the Curran Theater, SF, January 28.

Translating Bechdel's brilliant graphic memoir into a Broadway musical would seem to have been an impossible task, but somehow Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron managed it: the Broadway version won five Tonys, including best musical, best book, best original score, and best direction. From the evidence of the roadshow version it deserved them all. The book and music were amazingly well done, and Sam Gold's direction kept the ever-shifting time-frames perfectly clear. Special praise goes to the actors playing Bruce Bechdel (Robert Petkoff) and all the Alisons: Kate Shindle (as Alison), Abby Corrigan (as Middle Alison), and (I believe) Alessandra Baldacchino (as Young Alison; no announcement was made). Even for someone very familiar with Bechdel's memoir and entering the theater with a certain skepticism, it was an intensely moving experience.

Takács Quartet Beethoven cycle: produced by Cal Performances at Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, October 2016 - April 2017

It was a privilege to be able to hear the world-renowned Takács Quartet perform all of Beethoven's string quartet music, and to participate in the many residency activities (open rehearsals, panel discussions, interviews and master classes) that surrounded the concerts. My thanks once again to the members of the Takacs Quartet, who were amazingly generous with their time, wonderfully open to interaction with the audience, and surprisingly funny throughout, and to producer Cal Performances. For my reflections on the experience please see:
Honorable mentions

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: La Temple de la Gloire (Rameau): produced by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, April 30.

This production featured excellent singers, striking Baroque dances re-created by Catherine Turocy of the New York Baroque Dance Company, wonderful sets and costumes, and brilliant music performed by one of the world's premier period-instrument ensembles, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. What more could one ask for?

Well. . .how about an engaging narrative? In opéra-ballet each act tells a different story related to the overall theme, which in the case of La Temple de la Gloire is the Good King. The final act is one long celebration of the magnanimity and virtue of Trajan (read: Louis XV), which does not exactly make for compelling drama.

This was a huge undertaking for both PBO and Cal Performances, and deserves to be applauded—it is difficult to imagine a better production of this work. Fittingly it took place on the UC Berkeley campus, since the university's music library houses an original manuscript score and libretto. But according to the program notes the audiences of 1745 felt that this was a philosophical treatise disguised as an opera, and I have to say that the passage of 270 years has not provided reasons to alter that assessment.

Les Arts Florissants: Actaéon (Charpentier) and Dido & Aeneas (Purcell). Produced by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, November 9.

These two Baroque chamber operas are linked not only by period and scale, but thematically: the tragic myth of Actaeon is referenced in Dido & Aeneas. They were given musically and vocally excellent modern-dress performances by Les Arts Florissants, with stage movement thoughtfully directed by Sophie Daneman.

However, the small instrumental ensemble (there were only seven players, including music director William Christie leading from the harpischord) and the relatively light voices of the singers, many of whom were recent graduates of LAF's young artist program Le Jardin des Voix, meant that the performers had difficulty filling the 2000-seat Zellerbach Hall with sound. As a result, some of the power and immediacy of these works was lost. A more intimate venue, such as the 700-seat Hertz Hall, would have better served both the artists and the works.

More favorites of 2017:

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