Category Archives: review

Festival Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I had heard such wildly contradicting opinions on Benjamin Britten’s operas that naturally, I was intrigued. Yet cautious. Last night, I found myself back at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek to watch Festival Opera’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. This was my second time there, having watched Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore a few months back.

It’s a big testament to opera (and a big improvement to the operas I used to watch in high school at the LA Opera) how all the elements of performance all point to a purpose. Like multiple arguments that support a thesis, everything from the singing styles of each performer to the sets to the lighting to the score pointed to the dreamlike atmosphere of this opera, which made for a complete experience. The score was deliciously complex and wistful in its gentle yet dizzying dissonance. It wasn’t the dissonance that I’m usually sensitive to, but like eerie sounds coming from an enchanted woods or the sounds that fairies make, there was a nonintrusive quality to the dissonance that I found unexpectedly pleasing. If there are two camps that either love Britten operas or don’t, I am definitely in the positive camp and am interested in hearing more. If the score didn’t have the catchy melodies of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, it made up for it in its complexity of contrasts (a held note being sung on stage, accompanied by an ascending staccato in the symphonic bass line) that enveloped the audience in an almost narcotic atmosphere that was transporting.

Some elements were more successful than the others. In theory, it was a fitting addition to incorporate choreography into this opera, especially as the opera opens, the sleepy rise of the dancers’ limbs (as wood sprites or Puck’s sidekicks perhaps?) immediately set the tone for the rest of the performance. However it becomes painfully obvious that the dancers mostly serve no other purpose than fillers for the glorious music that had enough legs to stand on its own.

Like Il Trovatore, the cast for Midsummer excelled expectations. It was uncanny how the singing styles contributed to character and plot development, from the clean light style of Helena (sung by Stacey Cornell) was a testament to Helena’s flighty, desperate character, to the earthier full singing voice of Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Hermia which described her more realistic yet fully emotional nature. The casting in this opera was spot on. Countertenor William Sutherland as Oberon, costumed unfortunately as Rod Stewart in drag, had a voice dripping with sensuality with a touch of smokiness in his falsetto, albeit lacking a consistently strong projection. Ani Maldijian as Tytania had a coloratura voice and a sex appeal that sparkled. The men in the quartet of lovers with Jorge Garza as Lysander and Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius were excellent as the ardent lovers who seemed to get more passionate when they were loving the ones they weren’t supposed to after the influence of Puck’s doings, but lacked that special spark to truly believe that they were in love. The opera really came to life with the appearance of the rustics – the working class men who perform the play within this opera. Each and every single one of them were scene stealers in their own rite, all with impeccable comic timing. Kirk Eichelberger, who made an impressive showing in Il Trovatore, took over the stage with his commanding stage presence, big voice, and acting skills as Bottom. The rest of the rustics achieved the delicate balance between exaggeration and earnestness, each with their own flair – John Minagro as Quince with a dry Eeyore-like humor, Jonathan Smucker as Flute with a touch of gentility, Trey Costerisan as Snout as the very funny “Wall”. As an ensemble they were a golden combination; all of them were equally deluded yet earnestly so, and it was performed with that perfectly balanced comedic touch. Last but not least, Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian as Puck impressed not only his voice but also the dance skills to make Puck come to life.


William Sauerland as Oberon, Kurt Krikorian as Puck. Photo by Robert Shomler

Kirk Eichelberger (Bottom), Joshua Elder (Starveling), John Minagro (Quince), Jonathan Smucker (Flute), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug). Photo by Robert Shomler

An additional special shoutout to the lighting, by Patrick Hajduk and sets by Frederic O. Boulay. Lighting and the setting are extremely underrated in performance, but I’ve been appreciating it more and more, especially following who wins the Tony’s for best lighting and set design, and why. I’ve seen lighting (and sets) ruin a show, and I’ve seen both be a vital part of a show, as it was for this opera. The scenery seemed to be bathed in a dreamy aura, thanks to the the sets and the lighting, that brought the audience to its magical place immediately.

If you’re curious about Benjamin Britten’s operas, or are a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I highly recommend this opera. It’s also a great opera to bring a newcomer – admittedly, there are a few slow spots (especially with the lovers – despite their excellent singing, a lack of chemistry really bogs down these moments) but the comedic acting and the thoughtful detailed performance and wonderfully precise singing is well worth it.

Festival Opera. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on August 17.

Other takes: (being updated fast and furiously as they are posted)

“Bare” is Back!

A cover story in the Sacramento Bee on Artistic Differences’ production of Bare. Ian Cullity as Jason.

Bare is a small musical that seemed unstoppable on its one-track path to Broadway. It had a plot guaranteed to garner a following of Spring Awakening and Rent-like proportions – an edgy modern story of love, sex, identity, forgiveness, and religion about two boys struggle with their love and identities within the backdrop of a Catholic high school. It had a powerful score that rocked, and lyrics to break your heart. It had a superstar cast when in NY, included the unbelievable Michael Arden and stars that later went onto star in big Broadway shows like Wicked and Legally Blonde. Starting in Los Angeles, Bare moved to NY and was slated to go to the New World Stages when the show unexpectedly disappeared. There were Bare posters still left up inside the theater with a sign that said, “Coming Soon”, a hollow promise left unfulfilled. That was in 2004, and now that all that exists is a small but devoted group of fans that have not given up hope, constantly speculating on when and where this show will reappear again. Imagine my surprise when I heard through the grapevine that a local Sacramento theater called Artistic Differences was performing Bare. After experiencing the show through its 11 track sampler (with the AMAZING Michael Arden) and a grainy bootleg video, I grabbed at the chance to be able to see the show live.

Michael Arden in the NY production of Bare

In short, Artistic Differences put on a stirring performance that even moved a finicky heart like mine. This show really calls for the actors to step up to fill the difficult demands of each role and the expectations of Bare‘s fickle fans. This local theater company stepped up and put on one heck of a show. The show relies heavily on the emotion-laden performances of its actors, and this show’s casting was spot-on. Lucas Blair was the boyishly idealistic Peter, and he performed with a subtle yet piercing sensitivity. Ian Cullity played the role of Jason, a confident high schooler who has the world on a string and whose life is slowly derailed as the show progresses because of his love for Peter. Yet in the first act, Cullity plays an almost bewildered Jason lacking a nonchalant confident swagger, surprised and flattered by his popularity with girls. Despite this, Cullity came to soaring life in his songs, and he brought out the darker passionate aspect of the role with a full commitment that gave me chills. Kelly Daniells played the role of the promiscuous yet insecure Ivy who falls for Jason; Daniells sang “All Grown Up” with a sheer raw power that raised the roof. Joelle Wirth most fully embodied her character Nadia, the unattractive girl with a quick quip to cover her insecurity to the world (although it would be more believable if Wirth actually was overweight). Wirth’s performance packed a visceral punch with every line where she pretended not to care. Joshua Glenn Robertson played the role of Matt, the guy hopelessly in love with Ivy and ignored for Jason. Robertson tackled the broad range of emotions that the role requires with ease, from his sweet pursuit of Ivy to jealous rage as he fights with Jason. Natasha Greer as Sister Chantelle gave a rousing rendition of “God Don’t Make No Trash”. Even the minor roles were cast to perfection; a personal standout for me was the priest, acted by Scott Martin, burdened by the sins of the world and his responsibility to tell the world the message of the church that didn’t always make sense, with moments of internalized repressed emotion peeking through. The rest of the cast was just as stellar, with performances that filled the theater with power.

The show is tightly directed by Kevin Caravalho that kept the action moving, peppering the production with interesting personal details such as having Matt accompany himself on the guitar at the beginning of “Are You There?” which added an appropriate lonely, introspective touch. Choreography by Gino Platina added a layer of visual complexity, where I couldn’t help but to wonder if Bare was the precursor for the Broadway hit Spring Awakening, a show which also embodies emotions through dance. Mostly adding depth to the emotions communicated through song, sometimes though, it felt like the movements were too big for a stage of this size, especially in “Portrait of a Girl”. Subtlety and simplicity may have been a better option for this song in a small theater like this one. The beginning of the show was marred by technical sound problems, where it became impossible to hear the actors. This was even more unfortunate because the first three songs immediately throw the audience into the thick of the plot right off the bat. But this is a minor detail that will be fixed I’m sure as the show continues its run.

The success of this show lies in the strength of the material and the theater company that was willing to take the risk to put it on and to meet the challenge of presenting it successfully. A forgotten lyric, a missed vocal entrance, and sound problems paled in comparison to the compelling drama that unfolded onstage. Despite its blatant melodrama, there’s something about this show that always brings me to tears. A love despite all odds, a passion that never dies despite a harsh world – it’s a cliche but surely we’re not jaded enough to still buy into this once in a while. In addition, my favorite part of the show was when Peter with heartbreaking pain comes to terms with his religion and sexuality in his conversation with the priest by acknowledging the shortcomings of the church and being honest with himself. The show presents two very different members of the Catholic church, the priest and Sister Chantelle (who even appears as the Virgin Mary in Peter’s dream). One message of the show may be that organized religion and the people who rule it may be imperfect, but God is not. I find this message to be heartbreakingly honest, deeply courageous, and unspeakably moving.

I feel like Bare is a type of show that defines theater companies, and this is no different. It definitely put Artistic Differences on my radar, and am looking forward to seeing the rest of their season, including Sondheim’s Assassins and See What I Wanna See.


The Sacramento cast of Bare on the cover of Outword magazine

Other reviews:

For those of you who don’t have it yet, download the Bare sampler. Michael Arden’s “Role of a Lifetime” is one of my all-time favorite songs.

Artistic Differences. Bare runs on Thurs – Sat on July 31 through Aug 30. Two notes of caution: be careful where you park near the train tracks, and dress appropriately because there’s no air conditioning in the theater and it got pretty hot.

A Passport to France with the San Francisco Symphony

Champagne, Hell, and the Loveliness of Regret with a French twist
7/24/08 Performance with the San Francisco Symphony with pianist Inon Barnatan

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Symphony presented a prix fixe menu of pieces by French composers. Associate conductor James Gaffigan has previously explained in the post performance Q&A’s that they only have one rehearsal on average per program for the Summer in the City series, and so these programs, as expected, aren’t filled with complex esoteric pieces but light classical fare that especially newer audiences might relate more to, which also is perfect for summer. Conducted by James Gaffigan, this program was as effervescent as sparkling champagne.

The soloist of the evening was a young pianist Inon Barnatan playing the richly hued Saint Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2. In the first movement, Barnatan established the right balance of solidarity and drama, but the technical aspects got the better of him, preventing the music to sing fully. There were some technical cover ups and wildly fluctuating uneasy tempos especially when the melancholy melody first appears. However, he played with increasing confidence as the piece progressed. The highlight of his performance was his featherlight runs, perfect for the soft pastel colors of this piece, especially in the second movement where his fingers skimmed across the keyboard evenly, barely touching the keys. He dug into the high energy of the third movement with a bold sense of humor and sudden contrasts. In the third movement, there is a hailstorm of octaves that sweep down the entire keyboard; Barnatan let loose and played it loud not because it was best musically but because it looked like a lot of fun to play it that way, and it was equally fun to watch. In addition to his display of subtle musicality, his collaborative interaction with Gaffigan brought a cohesive unity between the soloist and the symphony.


Inon Barnatan

Although the program was of French composers, the evening began in Spain with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1. Gaffigan led the symphony out of its usual interpretation as the epitome of the melodramatic, and instead produced a lighter, cleaner, and more flirty rendition of this piece which added an unexpected shot of energy to the piece. The second half of the program was filled with familiar selections by Offenbach, including his Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld and the Intermezzo and Barcarolle from the Tales of Hoffman. Offenbach’s selections were bathed in a shimmery wash of color, and playfully endearing in its familiarity. And in what version of hell/the underworld includes the “can can”, except in the world of the French?

The program ended with Ravel’s La Valse, or as conductor Gaffigan introduced it as, the waltz from hell. It was a regal grand waltz with a darkness that builds, stemming from its oddly pleasing tension that arose from a gentle dissonance that initially sneaks in. The dissonance is never jarring nor attention grabbing, but calmly sculpts the phrases and deepens it. The tension grows to a furiously discordant climax, with the theme reappearing in an eery whisper. This is how I picture the perfect accompaniment to the roomful of waltzing ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted House. Spinning and glorious with a life lived in the moment with nothing to lose, a last dance of your life. Body parts fly, bones clink.

SF Symphony

Child Prodigies: Inspiration and Youth

With Piano Soloists Conrad Tao and Peng Peng

Peng Peng (left, photo by Peter Schaaf) and Conrad Tao (right, photo by J. Henry Fair)

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Symphony featured two young pianists that got me thinking about child prodigies. I walked in with more than few misgivings. First, I feel that too often child prodigies are presented as a circus act. In addition, I personally would much rather see a top artist with mature artistry over a five year old playing fast, any day. I also have problems with the way that prodigies may be forced into an unnatural childhood; as an adult, I can’t do something I like for 8 hours in a row, not to mention practicing. Coincidentally, on my commute to the symphony, I caught an interview with 9 year old child prodigy Marc Yu over the radio on NPR. Click here on “Listen Now”; I was uneasy by how contrived everything sounded, from the careful proclamation that he has lots of friends and lots of time to play and how his lifestyle is actually much better than normal public school attending kids, to the eerie use of the phrase, “dining with the Muses or other gods” in speaking of his future engagement of playing with Lang Lang. What nine year old TALKS like that?? Also, it might serve to present his skills in playing a faster, more technical piece that doesn’t require such deep introspection, like the Chopin nocturne in C sharp minor that he chose to play. Despite my misgivings, I couldn’t resist when I saw that the two young soloists, 13 year old Conrad Tao and 15 year old Peng Peng, were playing the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the San Francisco Symphony. I have a soft spot for this piece, as I played this with a full orchestra (not with the SFS, except in my dreams) with my twin sister at the creaky old age of 17. So I went to check it out.

All my cynicism about child prodigies flew out the water when I heard them play. The technical demands of Mozart are difficult enough due to the transparency of the music where every mistake sticks out like a flashing neon sign, but this didn’t phase the young soloists, as they tackled it with flying colors. I was more struck by the maturity of their artistry, and how different the two players were. Each player brought their own flavor to their own parts and in the words of Paula Abdul, made it their own. Conrad Tao was more logical in his playing, with a light attack and a gentle consideration in the shaping of his phrases, which was perfect for Mozart. Peng Peng was more lyrical and poetic, using bigger contrasts which added intrigue. Peng Peng would perform quick runs up the keyboard with the notes growing softer and would disappear into thin air, and the effect was breathtaking. If Tao was more logical and grounded, Peng Peng was more heavenly. If Tao had more technical clarity and consistency, Peng Peng had more poignancy and sensitivity. I found that this individuality added interest, yet I feel like the piece really calls for two pianists who sound like they are playing as one. Minor details such as occasional rushing (ah, the eagerness of youth), losing steam and strength especially in the high energy third movement where fast runs or the melody (especially in higher registers) weren’t crystal clear seemed completely insignificant compared to the fact that these soloists really displayed an astounding unique artistry in their performance. The notoriously difficult cadenzas were executed flawlessly as the lightning quick runs passed from one piano to the other seamlessly. More than anything, they made this piece sound like a ton of fun, this performance being one of the most colorful renditions that I’ve heard of the piece. What they lacked in brilliant articulation and force, they made up for in enthusiasm and the risk to infuse it with their own personalities. As an encore, the two pianists played a rousing two piano rendition of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” arranged by the players themselves (based on Horowitz’s one piano version), which had everyone to their feet. Needless to say, Tao and Peng Peng really displayed a maturity in their playing well beyond their age, and even impressed a cynic like me.

Despite my suspicions regarding child prodigies, there is something profoundly inspirational about them as well. With Tao and Peng Peng, I got the idea that these two players are really doing something that they truly love doing. I could be wrong, but it was especially telling in the Off the Podium post performance discussion, where they had obviously thought a lot about what they do, and why they do it. Other audience members apparently felt the same way, as I saw more than a few groups of children attend the concert, especially visible in the Center Terrace seats. It was definitely the most number of younger kids I’ve seen at a symphony concert.

The Mozart two piano concerto was one of three Mozart pieces the symphony performed that night. The concert opened with selections of ballet music from the opera, Idomeneo. Conductor James Gaffigan opened by introducing Mozart and narrating certain moods from the music, which my seatmate appreciated, as it felt like Gaffigan was teaching the audience how to deduce certain moods and emotions from the music that they hear. It does encourage more active listening especially from people newer to classical music. The ballet music was typical Mozart – elegant, graceful, and bathed in a warm rosy glow. The ballet music was extremely descriptive, lending easily to be classified into different moods (angry music, pretty music, sad music). The program ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter”. The symphony surged through its different colors, change of keys, and rapid modulations with invigorating assurance. The second movement featured gentle muted strings; I didn’t hear any of the “pathos” that the program notes indicated, just a sweet melancholy. Unsettling chords and swells resolve quickly so tension was never around for long. This concert wasn’t the most diverse Mozart program and started to feel a bit one-note towards the end. There was no strident Mozart, or scary Mozart, or anything atypical Mozart, just his normal classy, playful, warm self. But what was presented was animatedly emotive, and it inspired my seatmate to listen to more Mozart. If this was the point of this concert, then San Francisco Symphony succeeded completely.

A side note: for those of you who haven’t attended the Off the Podium post performance question and answer sessions, I recommend it highly. You can really ask all the questions you want, because there have been some pretty stupid questions and chances are yours won’t be the worst, and it feels like a lot of people are there to listen, not to necessarily ask any questions. Click on the comments to read a story that occurred to me at the Off the Podium.

Recommended recordings:

  • Mozart: Concerto No. 10, K365; Concerto No. 12, K414; Trio, K502: including the Mozart Two Piano Concerto with Peter and Rudolf Serkin. A sparkling rendition as sharp and as present as a glittering diamond.
  • Evegny Kissin‘s recording of the Chopin Piano Concertos when he was 12: my preferred piano prodigy recording of choice – definitely not the worst recording out there, definitely not bad.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Symphony website

Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore

Noah Stewart (as Manrico), Hope Briggs (as Leonora) and Scott Bearden (as
Count di Luna). Photo by Robert Shomler

As a person fairly new to opera, I found that I gravitated towards the lighter operas. I liked comedic ones (such as Barber of Seville which I saw at the Met, or Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment), or my favorite, Mozart operas. The Marriage of Figaro with the LA Opera was the first one that captivated me; I found its themes surprisingly modern. The ones that I had a harder time with were the heavier Romantic ones. In high school, I saw Aida at the LA Opera, where the ‘young sexy slave girl’ was an obese post-middle aged woman with paint on her face. Her ‘hot sexy ardent young lover’ was an obsese post-middle aged man who had difficulty moving around too far or too fast. There were some aspects of the production that kept me from appreciating the music, I think. And everything was so heavy and so long. I don’t remember much else aside from that. With this experience, I can’t even imagine what Wagner must be like. It just sounds like punishment.

So to be genuinely honest, I probably never would have went out of my way to go out and seek another Verdi opera (a tragedy, on top of that) on my own. But when I was kindly invited to attend Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore, I grabbed a friend and went.

The biggest impression of the evening was that I surprisingly fell in love with Verdi. Verdi capitalizes on opera’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls. There are certain emotions that translate so much better in song than through spoken word, such as passionate love, or a cry of anguish. Verdi capitalized on the strengths of this genre to personify love in song. Verdi manages to avoid the pitfalls that I feared. Although this opera is a tragedy, the music isn’t all about heavy and long drawn out phrases or sustained notes. There was an unexpected lightness written into the music, in the form of quick staccato notes in Leonora’s aria (sorry, I don’t know the names of any of the arias), or quick running triplets as a motif. And who can resist love being sung in soaring song? It was a great balance.

The plot of the story is, as my friend put it, a cross between Romeo and Juliet and a soap opera. The last 30 seconds of the show literally include the words, “He was your brother”, referring to a man who was killed by another. Throw in mistaken identity, thwarted love, jealousies, love deferred, and slow acting poison, and you have the plot. But who watches opera for the plot? The music more than made up for it.

The talent onstage was equally impressive. Standouts included Kirk Eichelberger as Ferrando, with nice projection and precision in fast slurred notes and the right amount of darkness. Hope Briggs sang the role of Leonora with a deep honeyed sweetness. There was no real subtlety in details, but her unabashed passion in her love songs gave me chills. Noah Stewart as Manrico personified his character well, with an alluring hint of danger and sexiness. The character of Manrico wears many hats during this opera, from threatening menace to dutiful son to ardent lover, and Stewart rose to the occasion admirably. Patrice Houston fully embodied every note she sang, indulging in the richness of the music. Scott Bearden sang the role of Count Di Luna. Despite his impressive accomplishments listed in his biography, he sounded bright even when he was threatening Manrico. Even at his most passionate Bearden sounded softly romantic, and it was unconvincing that his love for Leonora was a love that moves mountains. I also cringed when Bearden cracked a note and had pitch problems at the end of one of his arias. Overall, it was a great cast, and they served the material well.

The orchestra, under the enthusiastic direction of Michael Morgan, also sparkled. Conductor Michael Morgan was especially fun to watch, as he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the music. Not to the point of distraction, I found myself watching him sometimes to feel more aligned to the music.

On a side note – lots have been written about the audience at the Lesher Center for the Arts. I too noticed the unnerving loud unwrapping of candy throughout the opera, and unluckily, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who needed to leave her seat and walk over me, TWICE, during the first act. (She sat somewhere else for the second act.) She also ripped a part of her program, slowly and loudly, during a quiet spot in an aria to spit out her gum. I didn’t notice any cell phones going off though. I was surprised there was no announcement at the beginning, reminding people to turn off their cell phones or to unwrap any hard candies or lozenges, as they do in Jersey Boys and other shows I’ve been to. The audience may benefit greatly with this reminder.

Being the third largest opera company in the Bay Area, Festival Opera impressively accomplished its lofty goals of bringing great material to the people of Walnut Creek who might not want to make the trek out to San Francisco, nor pay the prices for it. The cast served up an excellent rendition of this opera, convincing me what a musical gem this opera is. What a treat that an opera company not in the middle of a big city can still serve its community with a moving performance.

Other reviews:

Festival Opera. Remaining performances of Il Trovatore on Fri July 18 (evening) and Sun July 20 (matinee)

San Francisco Symphony with violinist Stefan Jackiw

Updated: July 13, 2008

Stefan Jackiw, a young hot violinist and a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony. And by hot I mean “buzzworthy”. Not necessarily “good-looking”. Of course not.

It didn’t even cross my mind to worry about bringing an IT startup techie college friend and symphony neophyte to an evening of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Mussorgsky at the San Francisco Symphony. Although the three pieces on the program were written before the year 1900, certain pieces have the ability to transcend time and to sound freshly current. I’ve talked about masterpieces before on this blog, and what it means for something to be classified in the level of “legendary”. Timelessness has to be a big factor in defining a masterpiece, and no matter when it was written, who can resist the seduction of a sweeping, thoughtfully-detailed musical performance?

The San Francisco Symphony looked sharp in their crisp white ice-cream-man “Summer in the City” series uniform, with associate conductor James Gaffigan on the podium. It’s a delight to see him lead with ease and confidence, bringing out details such as emphasis on a second violin counterpoint in the Bach piece, or the soaring melody in the cellos in the Mendelssohn violin concerto. I find myself looking forward to concerts with Gaffigan standing in front, and seeing what he has in store for the night.

Bach is a Baroque (i.e. very old) composer that is known for his technical and intellectual and not particularly external emotional style, characteristic of the Baroque period. In fact, my mom finds Bach very boring, as his pieces tend to be more cerebral rather than expressive. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d Minor, orchestrated by Stokowski, seems to be an exception, filled with angst, urgency, and fire. The uninhibited timing in its opening call to listen up foretells of the improvisational madness that follows, going off into tangents off of the main theme. By definition, the fugue centers around a theme. A conversation ensues, with the violins talking, and the winds responding and the cellos chiming in. The contrast between the voices added interest, and the secondary melodies were featured lovingly. The strings have never sounded more lush nor more unified.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, as interpreted by Disney

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e Minor followed, featuring soloist Stefan Jackiw. In a string of young soloists that the SF Symphony has featured in the last few times I’ve seen the symphony, he was hands down my favorite out of the bunch. Being such a dramatic piece, there is always temptation of being overindulgent in its gut-wrenching drama, yet Jackiw successfully presented a clean yet deeply emotional performance. There were no extra bells or whistles, just a dazzling purity that left me quietly moved. His playing belied an underlying intelligence in his highly detailed performance. A lightning fast passage was never a passage without purpose; Jackiw took the time to emphasize certain notes instead of barreling through them. Vibrato was gently added to the end of a long sustained note. Quieter moments were savored. He let the melancholy music speak for itself, and played with a maturity beyond his age. It was absolutely astounding, and a very impressive debut with the San Francisco Symphony.

Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition closed the program. This piece was written to honor the passing of an artist friend, Victor Hartmann. Based on Hartmann’s paintings and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, Exhibition is comprised of a series of short sketches, as illustrative as the paintings that inspired them. There is nothing cryptic about these musical sketches, which are as colorfully descriptive as a bright Georgia O’Keefe painting. The piece opens with “Promenade” which presents the grandiose theme that reappears in multiple forms throughout the work. A picture of cattle (“Bydlo”) is represented by the lower strings playing a lumbering melody. In the “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (a costume design for a ballet) a playful harp and flute play a light and flirty tune. In “The Great Gate of Kiev”, the theme reappears in its full glory, with each note of the melody presented to the audience on a platter, accented for emphasis with a beat of the timpani, in case we couldn’t hear it. Subtlety is not a theme here, but bright clarity, however simple or one-note, is a refreshing change from complex uncertainty. This piece featured some standout soloists – on trumpet, Bill Williams (acting principal) played with a haunting croon uncharacteristic of a classic brassy trumpet sound. A lone uncredited saxophone played with a sultry sexiness of a smoky underground French cafe, which left me wondering why the saxophone isn’t utilized more often in a symphony orchestra. In all, the Mussorgsky was played with an expansive generosity of spirit.

Hartmann’s painting of the Great Gate of Kiev. From Wikipedia

This night at the symphony proved to me how classics can still sound vividly contemporary. To me, a night like this holds the key to marketing to younger audiences. Gimmicks aside, great music will always be great music that everyone can enjoy and come back for more. Thanks to an oustanding orchestra and a highly skilled conductor, it was an amazing night at the symphony, as refreshing as the cool summer breezes that flit around the symphony hall.

Youth and exuberance at the symphony

San Francisco Symphony, June 28

Although the San Francisco Symphony is still in the middle of its regular season, performing in their normal black attire rather than their summery white ice cream man ones, it feels like summer has already begun. In general, during their regular season, the big stars such as Argerich, Bell, Lang Lang, and Ma come out to play, and the programming is filled with either big commissions from the hottest big name composers of today or towards more experienced classical music connoiseur tastes, such as Mahler symphonies. In contrast, the summer seems to be filled with newer (i.e. younger) more unknown soloists, and the programming tends to include either really standard classic big hits, such as the Beethoven symphonies, or very modern experimental ones by smaller composers. Summer programming seems less serious and more fun in general, possibly with the intent to draw in newer audiences, and offering more familiar classics or more fun modern ones. The program this past Saturday night fit the bill of a summer concert by the San Francisco Symphony.

Conducted by David Robertson, the program opened with Witold Lutoslawski’s Mi-Parti. Composed in 1976, this piece utilized the idea of “aleatory” , derived from the Latin for dice and gambler. Performers are given the freedom to randomly play their music at whatever speed and time they want. Conductor David Robertson conducted for a majority of the piece by counting with his fingers each period of improvisation. The program notes makes a comparison to a crowd scene in a film; rather than scripting out words for each actor, the actors are given instructions to talk about anything. The notes state that there is a rich possibility of sound with each performer doing something different. However, a flaw in this logic occurs with the fact that random noise begins to sound alike, rather than being a world of wildly varying possibility in each performance. In other words, a counterintuitive convergence occurs in randomness, as crowded rooms tend to sound fairly alike from room to room. Despite this, the piece was intriguing in its use of new ideas, punctuated by a frenzied urgent climax complete with ascending brass and brightly colored percussion.

The program continued with 20th century music, but in the more palatable and traditional fare, with Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by Gogol’s tale of a war-loving Cossack with the same title. As evocative as movie music, this piece favored rich, lilting music of the country. The organ, played by Jeffrey Smith, added a reverent hymnic note, alternating abruptly with lurking war overtones. The second movement said to describe the torture of a soldier to his death, illustrated with a harsh slashing motif passing through each string section, alternating with a lush song marred by a continuous ominous march in the lower strings. The last movement’s air is elation and militaristic victory over defeat. It was Janacek’s brilliance at how without even reading the program notes, political connotations were inherently obvious in the music.

The program ended with Dvorak’s famous cello concerto, played by the young Alisa Weilerstein. My seatmate accused me of only calling musicians young if they were younger than I (she was born in 1982). Weilerstein played as if this piece was written for her, excelling in its melodramatic Romanticism with an exuberance of youth in her intensely dramatic performance, with every note played to its full emotional potential. Fast passages got faster and faster until notes nearly tumbled over each other in a freshly exciting way. The last time I heard this concerto was by Yo-Yo Ma, and the only minor quibble I have is that the emotional intensity stayed tirelessly high at breakneck acceleration during the entire concerto. Even in the quieter moments Weilerstein was pushing through to burst out again, instead of being more in the moment, savoring its quiet stillness. I attribute this to her youth, because in 30 years from now there’s no way that she can continue to play at this high intense level without collapsing from sheer exhaustion. More editing and conservation of energy will have to take place, which will add variety and depth to her already stellar performance. As I always say, give me a passionate musical performance over a technical one any day. She had the technique and the musicality to spare, and will be an exciting performer to watch for in the near future. And how cool is it that she has a degree from Columbia University in Russian history?

It’s so comforting to know that a new generation of musicians such as Alisa Weilerstein are emerging onto the classical music scene, ready to take on the world. I definitely look forward to seeing her again in the future.

From her website.

San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony: Contemporary Music with a dash of Beethoven

I found myself at the lovely Davies Symphony Hall on Friday night, after a particularly rough week at work and after a getogether with a friend at the Chihuly exhibit at the de Young Museum. I highly recommend it, although the price is a bit steep for a short exhibit (especially if you don’t view the rest of the museum, like we did – we favored dinner on the rooftop at the airy Park Chow over musty Mesopotamian art).

The concert was a bit of a slightly disjointed yet diverse program, with the combination of two vaguely similar contemporary pieces with a stalwart Beethoven symphony. The symphony opened with the West Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne. Under the baton of Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony, the orchestra quickly settled into its complexity of layers and amalgation of sounds. This isn’t to say that this piece was not without a sense of structural organization with effortless transitions, a natural climax and resolution. If this piece were a perfume, its top notes would be the shimmery treble violins (a sheer white floral, perhaps, like freesia), with its middle notes being a pastel-like dissonance where even in its brashest moments is never too harsh nor offensive, almost comfortable as comfortable as dissonance goes. Its base notes would be a syncopated base rhythm with a more-than-usual active double bass and a flurry of percussion. As far as modern music goes (of which I am still a baffled newcomer; I’m still trying to get my teeth into it), I grasped onto what was familiarly favorable to me – the organization, the structure, the complexity of still bewildering sounds and rhythms, the fun Chinese blocks covered by more than one percussionist, and that gorgeous cello cadenza by Peter Wyrick, as I mentioned previously, in its torrent of passion and song.

An orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Chansons de jeunesse (arranged by conductor Oramo) followed, with the orchestra accompanying soprano Anu Komsi. The presented songs depicted dreams to me, from the light dreaminess of “Pantomime”, to the gently melancholic yet optimistic “Coquetterie posthume”, to the hazy dream in the heat of summer floating in and out of consciousness that was “Romance”, to the sweetly ethereal lullaby, “Musique”. Soprano Komsi displayed a fine range of control in her voice, holding high notes to a whispery wistfulness.

The night ended with my favorite Beethoven symphony, Beethoven’s Seventh. I was especially waiting for my favorite movement, the second movement. The second movement begins with a sharp but quickly fading A minor chord to get your attention, a mix between a tolling bell and a human cry. A slow but steady march in the lower strings takes over in a steady yet slowly rising melody. This movement signifies quiet stillness with an undeniable sense of movement, like the still surface of a lake with pushing swelling undercurrents. I’ve always wondered why I resonated so much with an intensely dark piece of music such as this one, but as my seatmate pointed out, it’s darkly sad yet still hopeful, as represented by the melody that refuses to stay in the deeper registers but always climbs upwards in swirling persistence and constant evolution. I always find this movement deeply touching, ending with an echo of its first cry (that A minor chord) with a fading air of graceful acceptance.

A benefit to live performance is to be able to follow with my eyes as different sections of the orchestra passed the melody to each other – from the violins, to the winds, to the lower strings, and back again to the violins. The performance ended with the jubilant fourth movement, with its celebratory boisterous brass section, which brought the crowd to its feet.

And thus, my education with modern music continues! This concert displayed an example of contemporary music with its roots obviously in the traditional, for which I was grateful. To be honest, it gets harder and harder for me to write about contemporary music. Especially in reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, it’s hard not to just give up writing about it entirely because there are CLEARLY lots of people who do it much better than I can. It’s also hard not to quell the suspicion that there is a little bit of the Emperor’s new clothes effect going on, with also the opposing feeling that music is evolving too fast and leaving me in the dust so I can never catch up and enjoy it again because that train has passed. But what is impossible to deny are the things that my heart aches for – a sense of intelligence and logic in construction, a fascinating ingenuity in sound, and that dangerously haunting cello solo.

Experience it for yourself! San Francisco Symphony

SF Symphony Conductors on Parade

San Francisco Symphony’s associate conductor James Gaffigan in action

I was listening to the radio last week when someone mentioned that the Bay Area always seems to be on the forefront of everything. I think they were talking about technology, with Silicon Valley right next door, but the arts have started to feel spine-tinglingly exciting these days. Not everything is a homerun crowdpleaser, after all what is risk without some failures? Despite this, glimpses of the future of the arts and its evolution is tantalizing. I was reminded of this when I made my way over to the Davies Symphony Hall last week to watch the San Francisco Symphony showcase three of its topnotch but very different conductors in a dazzlingly modern program.

Benjamin Shwartz

Benjamin Shwartz, SF Symphony’s resident conductor, led the riskiest piece of the evening, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Asteroids, in its world premiere. It’s a piece inspired by asteroids and the Torino Scale, which quantifies the danger of celestial bodies that may hit the using probability statistics and kinetic energy release as a result of the impact. Intricately complex with a huge list of instruments required to play the piece (including four flutes including alto flute, soprano saxophone, klaxon, tuned gongs, police whistle), its aims were simultaneously lofty and austere- to portray the complexity of the science behind the Torino Scale and the cosmos, but ultimately resulting in, to put it simply, chaos. A person can look at the cosmos (or this piece) as a tangled gargantuan sound-and-fury and get a hint of the complicated logic behind it yet not see it at all. Despite my confusion, it wasn’t hard to lose myself in its bewildering alien beauty without understanding it completely. Shwartz tackled and led the somewhat hesitant orchestra through this intricately layered piece with confident determination.

Ragnar Bohlin

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus took the stage to sing Francis Poulenc’s Figure humaine (The Face of Man). Led by director Ragnar Bohlin, the chorus deftly emphasized Poulenc’s jazzy syncopated rhythms with lively precision and its dramatic elements with versatility and skill, from its darker undertones to its tenderly tragic soft unison soprano. The last song titled “Liberty” was hypnotically spellbinding in its repetition of both words and melody in which forward momentum was created in this monotony by its tripping five count time meter switched up with fast meter changes to add an element of unexpected surprise.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik

Associate conductor James Gaffigan opened the second half of the program with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. A stoically restrained performer, he dug in with fervor during the more aggressive and militaristic sections featuring the lower register, with some trouble singing in the higher notes. His lightning precise technique flashed brightly, showcasing his instrument which the program notes states was a favorite of the legendary violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Always conducting with equal enthusiasm and command, Gaffigan finished the program with Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, the piece where the orchestra seemed most at ease, in an exhilarating race to the finish

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San Francisco Symphony

Figaro

(l to r) Jennifer Baldwin Peden as the Countess and Christina Baldwin as Cherubino star in the West Coast premiere of a magical, multimedia Figaro at Berkeley Rep.

This weekend was the last weekend for the season for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and I was lucky enough to catch one of the two shows still playing there, a show that caught my attention since the beginning of the year. Written by Steven Epp and directed by Dominique Serrand, Figaro is a play with lofty goals – it’s a play that tells a story, uses operatic elements and multimedia to flood the senses, and tops it off with an undercurrent of satire on modern American society. As a story, it’s essentially a sequel to the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro, which was a sequel to the Rossini opera, The Barber of Seville. The maddeningly stubborn and now poor Count Almaviva and his valet, Figaro, is struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in a world where class differences that defined their relationship is now gone as a result of the French Revolution. In the midst of their arguing, they often flash back to the past to its operatic prequels in its original musical form, which lends a dreamy air to the flashbacks. Their witty repartee is often humorous and abusive, yet extremely close as they reminisce together of the best of times, times gone by. In the midst of the dialogue, commentary is made of modern American society with Figaro explaining to the Count, saying, “[In America,] they have a president… They call it a democracy.” The Count replies saltily, “I call it de-bullsh*t.” And in chiding Figaro on his quick anger, the Count replies, “Don’t be so sensitive; you’ll end up being a Democrat.” How could you not love that??

The brilliance of this play was that it highlighted the best of both worlds – it melds the witticism of plays with the heightened emotional impact of operatic music. When the Count’s infidelity has finally been exposed by his wife the Countess, he stops in his tracks. With the potential for it to be a hilarious moment as he is caught red handed, the Count starts to sing his true repentance, known to be true only through the sincerity of the spellbinding gentle music. The Countess responds in forgiveness; although her head says no, her heart says yes. This illustrative moment elevated the level of the poignancy of love to heartbreaking levels through song. Incidentally, this was also the moment in The Marriage of Figaro that was used in the movie Amadeus, to show the brilliance of Mozart in his ability to communicate heavenly beauty to the audience.

A clip from the movie Amadeus

Multimedia backdrops and projections of the actors’ closeups are also used, which adds to the fragmented nature of the flashbacks but are sometimes more distracting than functional; the story would have held up on its own dramatic merits without the use of multimedia.

Dominique Serrand, who staged acclaimed productions of The Miser and The Green Bird at Berkeley Rep, returns to direct and star in the West Coast premiere of Figaro.

Figaro is brilliant in its conception, with its only noticeable flaw being that the play occasionally drags. The play already runs at nearly three hours, with the first act clocking in at nearly an hour and a half. The pontification and constant arguing of Figaro and the Count starts out haltingly and starts feeling repetitive towards the end; this could be due to the fact that the role of Figaro was acted at my performance by Casey Greig, the understudy who starts out hesitantly without the brisk timing necessary for the dialogue to trip along. In fact during intermission, the two women sitting next to me disappeared for the second act.

Figaro was comprised of a strong cast of actors and opera singers. Director and lead Dominique Serrand (as the older Count Almaviva) is organically hilarious and heartbreaking in every moment. Knighted by the French government, Serrand alone was worth the price of my ticket and is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen onstage in any theater. Another standout was Bradley Greenwald, the younger Count Almaviva, who also adapted the music for this production. In addition to his skilled singing abilities, he was a standout amongst the singers in his natural acting ability, with impeccable comic timing and confident swagger with a touch of treachery in his quest to seduce Susanna. Julie Kurtz, the alternate Susanna, was a feisty Susanna and deep-voiced Bryan Boyce was an ardent younger Figaro. Christina Baldwin as Cherubino had a lovely deeper timbre to her singing voice, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden sang the Countess as one who experienced one too many heartaches in her life.

The tireless 7th Ave String Quartet (Alex Kelly, Justin Mackewich, Katrina Weeks, Sarah Jo Zaharako, with conductor/pianist Jason Sherbundy) played the equivalent of a full orchestra and two operas, playing parts of the Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, and a chord from Don Giovanni (at least from what I could tell, there’s probably more that I’m missing). This intricate melting pot of a score was brilliantly adapted by Bradley Greenwald, who made the accompaniment sound luxurious and freshly modern.

Figaro was a great way to close the 40th anniversary year of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season, not only for its high quality production, but it also represents what the Berkeley Rep stands for – modernly innovative theater with a purpose. It’s a true local gem that I’m glad to have discovered this year.

Be sure to check out the website for next year’s programming.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

All photos: Photographer: Michal Daniel © Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.