Monday, November 29, 2004

Hear Lorraine's Urlicht

Click here for an excerpt of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's Urlicht from the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with MTT and SF Symphony -- offered by special permission from the SF Symphony (all rights reserved).

This is the live broadcast version; the pristine SACD recording has just been released by SFS Media, the Symphony's own private label.

© 2004 C. Chang

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Mahler's second coming at the Symphony:
MTT's new Resurrection

The label "Resurrection" has stuck to Mahler's great Second Symphony like a presage. More than an implicit association with the content of this opus, each generation since Mahler's has felt compelled to rediscover this piece on its own terms, pondering upon its timeless meaning, obsessing over its vast dimensions, and marveling in the miraculous manner by which it connects with the human experience. Just ask the millionaire American investment banker Gilbert Kaplan, who during the fat years of the late 20th century used his own cash to book Carnegie Hall (and hire an orchestra and chorus) to put on his own performances -- very legitimate, it turns out -- of the great Resurrection.

A quick search on the net will reveal that there are well over one hundred documented recordings of Gustav Mahler's great Second Symphony in existence, with several of them still in print. Still, one can only welcome the latest addition to this work's lengthy catalog by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, with the SF Symphony Chorus and soloists Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Isabel Bayrakdarian.

[An excerpt from the 4th movement "Urlicht" of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 by the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas; June 2004 broadcast version. Offered by kind permission from the SF Symphony, all rights reserved.]

Released under the Symphony's own SFS Media label as part of Michael Tilson Thomas' highly acclaimed cycle of Mahler symphonies, this is actually the SF Symphony's second recording of this massive work. In 1992, the Symphony under then music director Herbert Blomstedt enjoyed an exclusive recording contract with Decca/London, and released a very fine commercial recording with the orchestra, chorus and soloists Charlotte Hellekant and Ruth Ziesak. Appropriately enough, it also marked something of an observance of the rebirth of Davies Hall, after a massive acoustical revamp.

So what does Tilson Thomas offers this time, that Herbert Blomstedt or others haven't already? On the surface, Blomstedt's tempi are generally much faster than those of MTT. The former maestro offers a rich, thick and liquid rendition of the score, tinged with more than an occasional hint of the dense Scandinavian flavor, accentuated by Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant's full-bodied sound.

MTT's new version offers a more ample, airy feel, where the heavily layered Mahlerian textures emerge with crystalline clarity, with contrasts sharpened and thunderous climaxes rendered in beautiful control and poise. Aided by a strong sense of pulse, separate elements and individual events are rendered with superb definition within Mahler's massive architecture.

As if for the first time, the listener readily notes the ominous presence of the fatidic horn calls in the early movements; or the impossible sweetness of the wistful, heaven bound melodies. At Mahler's magnificent apocalyptical landscapes, some might prefer the frenzied chaos and abandon of the Blomstedt version, but to my ears, his approach begins to sound a bit more dated than the mere 12 years since its execution might suggest.

While MTT's reading does sounds more analytical, it is nonetheless every bit as emotionally wrenching and spiritually edifying as any reading of this piece I am familiar with. Rather than stifleness, one suspects that the vibrancy and immediacy of the current reading rather comes from the clear sense of structure it provides. And above all, MTT's scored big time in his choice of Bay Area mezzo Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as the soloist (along with a more modest contribution by the young Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian). Hunt-Lieberson's rendering of the luminous Urlicht is one of unbearable poignancy and closeness to the heart. Paired with the distant horns and William Bennett's touching oboe obbligato, the performance becomes a breathtaking musical moment.

© 2004 C. Chang

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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

"Aubernica" -- d'après Picasso

I thought this was pretty funny.

© 2004 C. Chang

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Runnicles' Birthday Present

Christine Brewer, soprano

At Donald Runnicles' 50th Birthday concert last night at the Opera House, that snake thing Carol Vaness used as a prop for Elettra's aria "D'Oreste, d'Ajace" (from Idomeneo) was a plush toy from that IKEA store in Emeryville.

The delivery of the aria was great, but we hadn't yet seen the campiest from soprano that evening. At the concert's end, stage hands rolled out a giant birthday cake on stage, and Miss Vaness jumped out of it wearing a white low cut dress and a blond Marilyn Monroe wig, singing her own version of "Happy Birthday" on the verge of an orgasm.

Anyhow, the irony is that Donald's orchestra sounded very rough last night, but hardly mattered since it turns out maestro Runnicles' real birthday present was the awesome Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer, making her SF Opera debut singing Isolde's Liebestod. It was a moment of re-affirmation for every Wagnerite in the house, that yes, there are voices walking among us who can do justice to this music.

We would have been happy with the Liebestod, but that Brewer and Juha Uusitalo (the current Dutchman) came back after intermission to do the final scene from Die Walküre was truly the proverbial icing on the cake. Hers is a truly "golden age" type voice, something to get really excited about. Brewer's sound soars easily over a large orchestra in the manner of Karita Mattila, but the hefty tone is rich and creamy, and her cool control of it is just amazing! One can only hope that her presence at this event signals the fact that the company has signed her on for a meaty role in an upcoming season.

© 2004 C. Chang

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Monday, November 15, 2004

Schade Shines in Schubert

Michael Schade

Turns out the much heralded tenor shortage of the early 90s was just chicken little stuff.

Really, who cares that Pavarotti doesn't really have a voice anymore, and that Domingo is getting ready to collect Social Security. These days, opera companies and the world's soloists rosters can be populated with the likes of Ramon Vargas, Ben Heppner, Marcelo Alvarez, Richard Margison, Roberto Alagna, José Cura, Marcello Giordani and Vladimir Galouzine, with plenty of other names to go around. And in the horizon, we see the emergence of fresh, exciting new voices in Daniel Shtoda and Joseph Calleja, side by side with the still young careers of Juan Diego Florez, Salvatore Licitra and Rolando Villanzon.

The numbers have become such that there is even enough room for some specialization among the ranks these days. Case in point, Berkeley's Cal Performances presented on Sunday a recital at Hertz Hall by German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a hefty lyric voice of obvious operatic qualities, that nevertheless carries an uncommon sensibility for the art song.

Often, art song and opera don't mix well in the tenor voice, but Schade had already proven himself on both here in San Francisco, when he sang a fine David in Wagner's Die Meistersinger at the SF Opera; and when the tenor made a greater impact -- in the opinion of many, including yours truly -- than Thomas Hampson when Michael Tilson Thomas paired the two for performances of Mahler's orchestral song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde.

Accompanied by the affable Malcolm Martineau at the piano, Schade offered the crowd a voice of seamless beauty and technical ease. He opened the program with Beethoven's Adelaide Op.46, phrased with a pleasant, expansive feel, exemplifying a disciplined and well schooled approach to style.

Interestingly, Schade provided later in the program Schubert's less famous setting of this song, and yet it turns out to be a far more interesting take. Schubert's Adelaide D.95 brims with convincing intensity, while by comparison, LVB's setting becomes mere juvenile infatuation. Schade's theatrical skills soon became evident when he closed the Beethoven set with comic song, Der Kuss ("The Kiss") Op. 128, with well timed ironic pauses and long, moaning notes held in depiction of the narrator's frustration.

But it was in the Schubert set, where the singer displayed his most impeccably controlled artistry, a stylistic approach that was both disciplined and original. The famous Was ist Silvia D.891 ("Who is Sylvia," based on Shakespeare's lyrics) had a deliciously impatient, prancing and confident feeling that this beloved Sylvia woman was safely his already.

Schade's operatic training betrays him a little bit, in Trost: an Elisa D.97, when he raises both his arms in the air and booms his voice at top notes. And though the usually infallible pianism of Martineau was a tad aggressive in the gorgeous song Ganymede, D.544, the results were still quite splendid.

Franz Liszt's triptych of Petrarca sonnets brought the first half of the recital to a rousing conclusion. With ardent displays of messa di voci and impressive, crowning top notes, it was obvious that Schade was comfortable in the Lisztian environment, both in voice and temperament. The crushing, edge-of-despair torment captured by his reading were a perfect reminder that unrequited love really, really sucks.

Curiously, for a singer who is consciously trying to build his appeal as an artist in the Austro-German tradition, Schade's Strauss songs were the least effective. The grand sweep of Cäcilie lacked more translucent, colourist qualities; while the sensuous ethereality of Morgen, suffered from a slight disembodiment in the tone as the singer attempted to scale his voice down to the softest possible pianissimi. The fervent calls of "Heilig, heilig an's Herz dir sank" from Zueignung, the final Strauss selection, showed that Schade is still more at ease with the grand, declamatory statements.

The recital program concluded with a set of four Viennese Folk songs by various composers -- a bit too many bonbons & champagne for my taste, but were all nicely and idiomatically rendered. Reaffirming his affinity for Schubert's songs, Schade returned for encores with Nacht und Träume and Der Neugierige; in addition to an almost obligatory Viennese operetta offering, Franz Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!"

© 2004 C. Chang

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Friday, November 12, 2004

The Scotsman stays

Donald Runnicles created a stir recently when he announced that he would leave the United States if Bush won the elections. (I feel his pain...) But I guess he won't be leaving after all, since the SF Opera Association has just renewed maestro Runnicles' contract thru 2009.

Some details from the SF Opera's announcement:



SAN FRANCISCO-The San Francisco Opera Association and General Director Pamela Rosenberg announced today that Music Director Donald Runnicles’ contract has been extended through 2009. The Maestro, whose contract was due to conclude in 2006, will remain with the Company at least though the close of the 2008-09 Season.

“San Francisco Opera continues to play a vital role in the life and community of this great city,” said Runnicles. “It has been a privilege over the past twelve years to help shape the Company and I have had an enormous enjoyment working with Pamela. I am honored to have the chance to deepen my relationship with this extraordinary organization and am excited about its future.”

“My partnership with Donald has been one of the highlights of my career,” Rosenberg commented. “His leadership of the Orchestra has been inspiring and he has contributed immeasurably to the artistic success of this Company. He is a treasure for San Francisco Opera and for this community.”

Opera Association President Karl O. Mills remarked: “Donald is simply one of the finest conductors of opera anywhere. Here in San Francisco he has brought this Company to the musical forefront. Whether it is Puccini, Verdi, Shostakovich or Messiaen, when he steps onto the podium you know you are in for something very special. He makes the music come alive with energy and emotion and brings out the full potential of all who work with him. We feel so fortunate to have him here as a key member of our ongoing artistic leadership.”

Maestro Runnicles, who turns 50 on Tuesday, November 16, will be honored by San Francisco Opera with a special birthday concert and separate gala at the War Memorial Opera House. As part of the festivities, there will be an investiture ceremony on the Opera House stage where British Consul General Martin Uden will present Maestro Runnicles the insignia of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire on behalf of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. He was named an OBE in the Queen’s birthday list of honors announced in June 2004. <<<<

© 2004 C. Chang

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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Michael Boder withdraws from Macabre

An emergency surgery has forced conductor Michael Boder to withdrawn from this week's performances of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, the SF Opera has just announced. German conductor Alexander Rumpf takes over the remaining performances starting this Friday, making his unscheduled company debut.

“Our thoughts are with Michael who is recuperating very well and is in good spirits,” says SF Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg. “Depending upon the swiftness of his recovery, the doctors say that there is a chance he may be able to return before the final performance."

Rumpf has conducted "Le Grand Macabre" in a concert version in London, starring Willard White, Caroline Stein and Graham Clark, three of the principals who are also featured in the SF Opera's current production. The music director of the Oldenburg State Theatre in Oldenburg, Germany, he has also conducted Ligeti's opera at his company.

© 2004 C. Chang

Ligeti's car horns

photo by Ken Friedman

There were a lot of funny quotes from various composers in Le Grand Macabre, in the manner of what John Corigliano does with Mozart in "Ghosts of Versailles." At the SF Opera performance last Friday, I was amused to hear several Afro-Latin beats in that car horn tocatta which opens each act of Le Grand Macabre.

I suspect the sound that Ligeti really wanted were not really car horns, but rather this Afro-Brazilian friction percussion instrument called cuica, which is like a drum with a stick attached to the inside skin. You rub resin on the stick, and it gives the sort of mocking and wailing quality that goes so naturally with those beats. Maybe Ligeti didn't know what a cuica was, or maybe he thought cuicas would be hard to find in Scandinavia. And Sweden being the land of Volvos, the car horn became the viable alternative.

Click here to hear a sample of the cuica I found on the web.

2004 C. Chang

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