Monday, January 24, 2005

Just a day job: Fleming's Berkeley recital

Renée's recent CD of Handel Arias

During the encores portion of her recital Sunday afternoon in Berkeley, Renée Fleming had some trouble offering from the stage a description of the lyrics to Strauss' song, "Morgen." After much awkward fumbling while attempting to translate the words, the divine Renée joked, "I think I'll be keeping my day job."

Problem is, Miss Fleming is increasingly treating her "day job" like a "day job." Sporting a dazzling skin colored, body hugging Oscar de la Renta gown, the soprano goes through the motions as a sophisticated star diva -- managing concert tours, gala engagements, TV and high-profile appearances with the poise and assurance of a seasoned veteran in the public eye -- yet seems a tad desperate when attempting to define her artistic self.

Accompanied by the excellent pianist Hartmut Höll, Fleming opened the recital with a set of Handelian arias, mirrowing the selections in her recent CD release. Handel provides ample opportunity for the soprano to exhibit her glorious sustained high notes, and no doubt hardcore Fleming fans appreciate these. Yet the heavy handed approach, the tremulous middle register, and above all her excessive use of portamenti provides a version of these arias that is downright bizarre. You gotta give the woman credit for trying to be interesting, but Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs and John Kander's overly sentimental A Letter from Sullivan Balou are hardly choices which suit a soaring operatic voice such as hers, or the tastes of her key audience.

I'm sure that Miss Fleming's spirit of championing contemporary composers is sincere. However, selecting something as stilted as Andre Previn's dismal The Giraffes Go to Hamburg makes her seem like a singer that tries to program contemporary music, only because that is what "serious" artists do. True, opera singers often have trouble searching and defining their non-operatic repertoire, yet it is possible to make this very search into an element which complements one's artistic identity -- as evidenced in Ben Heppner's repertoire choices at his Davies Hall recital, only a week ago. Fleming gets a lot of slack for that glorious voice and her million dollar tricks, but her overreaching repertoire simply offers no focus these days, making her soprano sound like a splendid instrument being misused.

In the concluding set of Schumann songs, the soprano found a safe environment in which could be again at ease, and regained much of her footing. Fleming concluded the recital with four encores: Puccini's "O mio babbino caro;" Morgen; Gershwin's "Summertime," and a repeat of "Cäcilie," heard recently when she appeared at MTT's birthday bash.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Denyce and Susie sounded good

It was L'Incoronazione di Giorgio in DC today. The
production cost over $120 million in private and public
subsidies, and was simulcast nationwide on all networks,
except PBS. Denyce Graves and Susan Graham sounded
radiant, though their parts were small.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Friday, January 14, 2005

MTT turns 60; acknowledges partner

That Michael Tilson Thomas actually turned 60 on Dec. 21 just past is but a mere detail. Yet at last night's bash at Davies Hall, the San Francisco Symphony made a convincing effort to make up for the belatedness of the acknowledgment.

The birthday boy speaks

With all the pizzazz of a celeb-filled gala event, MTT was joined on stage by Frederica Von Stade, Renée Fleming, Lisa Vroman, Audra McDonald and Thomas Hampson, with program choices that ranged from Bizet's L'Arlesienne to selections from Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne; Verdi's "Eri tu" from Un ballo in maschera; ensembles from Bernstein's On the Town; the scherzo from Mahler's First Symphony; entries by Copland, Ginastera, and Tchaikovsky; and showtune standards by Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Michael Tilson Thomas' own songs were also offered convincingly, in readings one a piece by the soloists.

Flicka, Vroman, MTT, Audra, Renee: More applause, please

Tom asks Renée: "How come your bouquet is bigger than mine?"

The evening's line up reminded one of Apple's new iPod "shuffle", a playlist of disjointed entries designed to accommodate the birthday boy's wishes and the celebrity performers at hand. But performances were all top notch, with both soloists and orchestra dutifully coming thru with the goods for MTT.

Lots of coyness and puffy charm to go around, but there were some genuine moments scattered throughout the evening, as MTT attempted to establish a mood of intimacy with a crowd of 3000. In particular, this was the first time (to my knowledge) that MTT, in thanking the audience and supporters, publicly recognized his partner Joshua Robison's support, from the maestro's podium. Notably, Gavin Newson was in attendance.

MTT's Bday party: Brazilian band Boca do Rio sets the beat

The concert proper was followed by another one of the SF Symphony's fabulous tented parties, decorated by Stanlee Gatti on a theme of blue and orange polka dots. Patrons danced to the Brazilian beat of a group called Boca do Rio, while drinking champagne and chomping on glazed cupcakes iced with the initials "MTT." An odd but welcome surprise was a bonus performance by a gamelan ensemble and Balinese dancers -- apparently the latest fad amidst MTT's interest pursuits.

Heck, you can do anything you want when you're 60.

MTT's Bday party: Gamelan

MTT's Bday party: Balinese dancer

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Comings and goings at SFO

The proverbial rumor mill is working overtime, as the city bites its nails awaiting the SF Opera's impending announcement of the company's next General Director. The SF Chronicle's Josh Kosman openly posits that HGO's David Gockley is the search committee's top contender at the moment.

David Gockley

Assuming that the Opera's search committee wants to hire an American general director, Gockley is not a bad choice at all. The guy has a long and proven track record of fiscal prudence, great working relationships with top singers and conductors, and above all a well document spirit for innovation -- a remarkable feat given that his base of operation is in the heart of Bush country. Gockley will sometimes shoot into the dark, but is otherwise a great visionary and supporter of baroque and contemporary opera -- under-served repertoire I personally would like to see more often on the War Memorial stage.

Pamela Rosenberg

Still, most sensible opera lovers will look at Pamela Rosenberg's departure with sincere regret -- she steered the company through one of the most tumultuous and challenging periods in SFO's history, and yet she managed to produce opera that was by and large uncompromised in excitement. Inheriting a company that was set on automatic pilot towards financial disaster, she made the hard decisions -- faced naysayers with elegance and dignity, took voluntary paycuts, fired upper management, dealt assertively with unions -- and still brought us thought provoking and well prepared productions, populated with fresh, interesting new voices infused with a rich vein of personality. No other General Director has brought so much excitement in such a short tenure to one of the major American opera companies.

Meanwhile, the 2005-06 season has been officially announced -- no big surprises from what had been rumoured before. The cast for Norma looks very promising, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson is confirmed in the cast of the John Adams' Dr. Atomic premiere. Other season highlights include Handel's Rodelinda, with David Daniels and Catherine Naglestadt; Christine Brewer's Leonore in Fidelio; and the return of Olga Borodina, in a new production of L'Italiana in Algeri. Check SFO's website for details.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Faltering, errant panelists

So I tuned mid-way into the Live from the MET Otello broadcast yesterday, and caught a portion of the intermission Quiz. The host, I gather, was Brian Zeger, and the topic was something about prayers in opera. Not sure who the panelists were. Excerpts are played, and everyone gets Musetta's prayer at the end of Boheme, and someone gets the hard one -- a prayer from Jenufa. Then, amazingly, Fiordiligi's great Rondo "Per Pieta," from Cosi fan Tutte is played.

And no one gets it right!!!

One panelist identifies it correctly as Fiordiligi, but can't name the aria. The other one, identifies the aria but totally misses the context and improvises it: "She's is praying for her lover's safe return from war," he says. The host "corrects" him, and says, "no, actually she is praying to God to give her strengh in her fidelity," or something to that effect. Of course, that is also wrong!

In that particular excerpt, one of the most amazing pieces of music Mozart's ever created, Fiordiligi is not really praying, but actually making a plea of forgiveness to her absent lover -- "Per pieta, ben mio, perdona!" -- for her errant, faltering soul who begins to weaken in her resolve.

So there you have it.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Friday, January 07, 2005

Roughly Glagolitic -- MTT does Janacek

Cheerful, enigmatic and evocative all at once, Janacek's irresistible Glagolitic Mass is in many ways a disaster-proof piece. And that's a good thing, because it is a incredibly challenging piece of music -- from the trickiest of compound rhythms to the crushing tessitura of the difficult soprano and tenor solos; the challenging diction of the Old Church Slavonic text; the conductor's tight-rope act of balancing the marvelous orchestral voicings against the boisterous brassy sections; and the massive, frenzied final organ solo.

That's essentially what we had this past week at the San Francisco Symphony, when Michael Tilson Thomas brought back this marvelous piece to Davies Hall, after a ten year absence. The work's irrepressible dynamism was all there, as was the mystic moods and rhythmic vitality. I'll take energy and spirit over precision any day, yet one must note that it this was a reading lacking in polish and refinement -- sort of in the way when a crack team of musicians perform severely underehearsed.

With a poorly coordinated orchestra and chorus serving as the backdrop to an odd set of soloists, the performance suffered with persistent balance problems. Constantly, the brass section would drown out the beautiful, intricate rhythmic patterns, set against the tender and wistful melodies of Janacek's modal universe. To top it off, Thursday evening's performance evidenced the sloppiest rendition I've ever heard of the monstrous organ solo, chunky and disconnected, played by guest organist John Walker.

Still, the evening provided many new revelations. Sporting an outsized 'fro' hairdo with elegant highlights, the young Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman proved to be an enormously promising dramatic soprano in the making, as she offered a credible full-voiced account of her assignment. The only indication that her instrument might benefit from a more judicious maturation came in the emphatic upper reaches of Janacek's writing, when Brueggergosman pushed her tone a bit excessively in an effort -- entirely unnecessary -- to be heard above the orchestra.

The other surprise was veteran tenor Sergei Larin, whose body mass has shrunk dramatically since his last local appearances, and apparently so has his voice. He is now a Tamino-sized tenor, and against the uncompromising volume of orchestra, he stood little chance of being properly heard -- MTT could have helped him by reigning in the orchestra a bit, but apparently chose not to. Mezzo Jill Grove delivered her miniscule assignment with warm aplomb, as did Armenian bass Tigran Martirossian.

Janacek's setting of the liturgical text is a decided change of pace from the traditional treatment of the Latin Mass text. The cries of "Veruyu" (the traditional Credo in the Latin text), for instance, are not a jubilant affirmation of one's belief in one god, but rather a frightful revelation -- as if a bunch of sinners had just witnessed a miracle which makes them repent. Vance George's San Francisco Symphony Chorus seemed to enjoy itself, as it captured the work's shifting moods and proper spirit.

The first half of the evening was occupied by a delightful series of Luciano Berio's instrumental duets, written for teacher-pupil pairs. It gave MTT the opportunity to invite gifted members of the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra to perform in a main subscription concert, pairing them with the orchestra's regular members. This was followed by "Island Music," a piece by Tilson Thomas himself, scored for a marimba ensemble. Though it had obvious charms, one felt a bit captive in seated in the hall, as the plunking went on in a seemingly amorphous manner.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)

Saturday, January 01, 2005

That was mean!

Who was it that yelled "BRAVA!" at Bejun Mehta, at the
end Unulfo's aria in today's broadcast of Handel's "Rodelinda"
from the MET? That was mean... but kinda funny too.

Otherwise, David Daniels sounds fabulous as Bertarido --
and he's bringing the role to SFO next season; that alone
should justify renewing a subscription.

© 2005 C. Chang

Want to be notified of new Bay Buzz articles? Send an e-mail message with the subject "PLEASE NOTIFY ME" to this address. (Names and addresses kept strictly confidential.)