Thu, October 23, 2014

Partenope: Can you Handel it?
The Bay Area Reporter

Conductor Julian Wachner in his SFO debut keeps things moving right along, while highlighting some very pleasing detail. If you think Baroque opera isn’t your cup of tea, Partenope just might change your mind and switch you to champagne.

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Partenope: Can you Handel it?

Published 10/23/2014

by Philip Campbell

The San Francisco Opera's latest foray into the challenging and musically rich world of Baroque opera opened last week with George Frideric Handel's Partenope. The well-cast, attractive, and exceptionally witty production, first staged at English National Opera in 2008, won an Olivier award as Best New Opera Production in 2009, and it has obviously held up well during the interim.

Christopher Alden's marvelously stylish, often risque and endlessly inventive direction moves Handel's rarely performed romantic comedy forward in time some 200 years to the glittering 1920s Paris of salons, Surrealists and sexual ambiguity. There are lots of references to the art world of the Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, and especially American modernist Man Ray, that sleekly define the look of the production (set designer: Andrew Lieberman) and allow some surprisingly timeless and insightful looks into the moral ambiguity of the confused (and often confusing) characters.

Handel's libretto surrounds the titular (oh-la-la) soprano role with a collection of suitors – one of whom is a woman dressed as a man – keeping tabs on one another; a handsome prince who has left her at the altar; one who starts as her sworn enemy; and a would-be Casanova who hasn't the courage to tell her. Sounds more like Offenbach than Handel, and Alden picks up on the deliciously sly possibilities with every trick and physical joke he can find appropriate to the period.

The Roaring 1920s certainly keep Partenope's busy salon energized with le jazz hot. Martinis, the Charleston, voguish posing, and visual takes borrowed from the cinema of Harold Lloyd and glamorous Hollywood musicals fill the stage with amusing detail. It takes awhile for the audience to match the musical content to the direction, but by the time the final curtain falls, everyone is in synch with the amazing matchup. Alden is naughty, brilliant and sometimes a little adolescent in his humor, but the whole concept works to clarify a sometimes bewildering but good-hearted story about the war between the sexes, and the battle between reason and emotion.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with soprano Danielle de Niese returning to the War Memorial in a deserved starring role, and favorite countertenor David Daniels looking and sounding terrific as her preferred suitor. There are some delightful standouts in the rest of the ensemble, notably tenor Alek Shrader as Partenope's enemy-turned-supporter, and most especially countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo making his SFO debut in a part that makes both extraordinary physical and vocal demands.

Mezzo Daniela Mack as the jilted Rosmira looks convincing in drag despite the pencil moustache, and she is also obviously at home in a real girl's dress after the, how shall we put it?, reveal in Act III. Her voice is steady and full-bodied, and her acting is believable. Like all the characters, Mack's Rosmira gets plenty of opportunity to show off, and she nails her arias with rich tone and crisp ornamentation.

Shrader also has a fine voice that combines both power and purity. He proves himself to be adept at physical comedy, whether lying on his back in a yoga posture or singing one of his difficult arias through the transom window above a locked water-closet door.

Cute-as-a-button Anthony Roth Costanzo beats him with arias sung while falling upstairs, tap dancing like Fred Astaire, and declaring his love shirtless from a balcony. He also isn't afraid to customize his voice to the part, injecting a whining nasal quality that clearly isn't his natural sound.

As the captain of Partenope's guards, current Adler Fellow Philippe Sly is changed here to be her gay best friend, and while he gets fewer moments in the spotlight, he is always an attraction. Wait till you see his get-up before the duel in Act III!

Of course, we have come to expect elegance and excellence in David Daniels' Handel performances, and he doesn't disappoint. His Arsace has some of the loveliest music in the score, and he relishes every moment with an often-wistful quality that touches our hearts.

Danielle de Niese has the looks and vocal allure to make Partenope a signature role, and despite a few (really only a few) moments of slight breathiness at the top of her register, she sails through the long evening looking and sounding every bit the glamorous vamp.

Conductor Julian Wachner in his SFO debut keeps things moving right along, while highlighting some very pleasing detail. If you think Baroque opera isn't your cup of tea, Partenope just might change your mind and switch you to champagne.

Thu, October 23, 2014

Life Can Be Such A Drag
My Cultural Landscape

Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera’s momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Life Can Be Such A Drag

by George Heymont

It's that time of year again. October in San Francisco always evokes images in a resident's mind of:

The Blue Angels buzzing around the Bay during Fleet Week.
Sailors clad in dress whites who (in the post "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era) can freely socialize in gay bars where their presence will please a population that loves the sight of a man in uniform.
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall all lit up to look like a giant pumpkin.

Busy costume preparations for Halloween celebrations.
The sudden onslaught of pumpkin-flavored  everything.
San Francisco City Hall basking in the glow of orange lighting.

This month, two of the Civic Center's stages are awash in gender confusion. Over at the War Memorial Opera House two countertenors appearing in traditional male costumes must cope with a confused mezzo-soprano seeking revenge in yet another trouser role. Meanwhile, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, one of the Bay area's most talented drag artists is holding center stage in the kind of hysterical farce in which one of the more clueless characters is described as "an 11-inch dong that deserves to have my luggage tags hanging from it" and, to everyone's relief, subtlety is on sabbatical.

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The San Francisco Opera is presenting the company premiere of George Frideric Handel's romantic farce, Partenope, which had its premiere in London some 284 years ago on February 24, 1730. The opera's American premiere did not take place until 1988, when it was staged by Opera Omaha (in 1998 it was co-produced by the Glimmerglass Festival and the New York City Opera).

The current production, directed by Christopher Alden, originated as a co-production between the English National Opera (where it premiered in October of 2008) and Opera Australia, which subsequently staged the work in Melbourne and Sydney. It may be the only operatic production whose press notes include a statement that "singing from behind the bathroom door is slightly amplified."

Heavily influenced by the Dadaism and Surrealism movements of the early 20th century, the opera's plot has been updated to a 1920s Parisian salon where parties and card games are hosted by Partenope (who, in the original version, is the Queen of Naples). While everyone loves Partenope, she's not always sure whose love she can trust or, for that matter, whose love is worth reciprocating. As a result, much of the opera's action is based on misguided lovers chasing after those who either should not or can not return their affection. As Alden notes:

"Partenope is a subversive, urban, gender-defying work that is witty but, at the same time, raises questions about societal assumptions. The libretto turns the norm around so that the powerful monarch in this piece is a woman. The men are all vying for her political/romantic favors and, like anyone in power, Partenope can never be sure whether these people are attracted to her or her power. Handel takes that from the story and writes music that makes her a fascinating, sympathetic, three-dimensional character.

There's a very camp aspect to Handel's operas, especially this piece. It can't be proven that Handel was gay, but he was an unmarried man who chose to live in a sophisticated city, who had unmarried male friends in his circle and his relationship with powerful divas was a big part of his life. The idea is not to airlift the piece into a specific modern context. It's a very open-ended visual context that allows the audience to focus on the relationships and on the text and the music."

Over the years, Alden's productions have been known for their gimmickry. Although his Partenope employs all kinds of modern touches from toilet humor to tap dancing (and has characters freely throw glasses and bananas against the walls), each sight gag is carefully calibrated to frame a character's motivation, frustration, and sense of inadequacy or rage. The audience around me chuckled in glee at many of Alden's gimmicks, clearly enjoying a night of Handel more than they had ever anticipated.

When push comes to shove, the quality of the singing is one of the biggest concerns in any production of a Handel opera. While strong performances came from mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (doubling as Rosmira and Eurimene) and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace (the lover who humped Rosmira and then callously dumped her after falling for Partenope's charms), I was shocked by the mushy coloratura work that compromised so much of tenor Alek Shrader's performance as Emilio. Baritone Philippe Sly's Ormonte (both in and out of drag) added a nice sense of balance to the ensemble.

Much of Alden's production requires singers who can not only act, but can move like dancers. Danielle De Niese had a luscious, intensely feminine appeal in the title role (wearing Jon Morrell's costumes with a rare sense of style and grace). As far as I'm concerned, however, the evening's top honors went to countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who, as the timid and lovesick Armindo, not only sang magnificently but handled his tap dancing chores and pratfalls as if he had been born to physical comedy (not something one can say about most opera singers).

I was particularly taken with Andrew Lieberman's set designs for this production. Conductor Julian Wachner kept the opera's momentum moving forward without ever overpowering his singers. Here's some footage from San Francisco Opera's production of Partenope:

* * * * * * * * *
For nearly two-thirds of the 20th century, the Cunard Steamship Company was the dominant brand in transatlantic travel. Long before Cunard Line became a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, the company's advertising campaigns were based on the simple slogan: "Getting There Is Half The Fun!"

That motto could easily be applied to Act I of the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of Charles Busch's stage farce, Die, Mommie, Die! (which, at its 1999 premiere in Los Angeles, was subtitled The Fall of the House of Sussman). For Act II, let me quote Alan Yuhas's take on the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera's controversial production of The Death of Klinghoffer: "It had all the deft touch of a sledgehammer."

Believe it or not, that's a compliment for Die, Mommie Die!'s director, F. Allen Sawyer, who has taken Busch's catty romp and used it as a template for the best kind of camp madness. Set in 1967, the plot revolves around a toxic Beverly Hills family whose lust for wretched excess is, at the very least, excessive. With references to numerous bitch fest B-movies from the 1950s as well as an ancient Greek tragedy, the cast of characters includes:

Sol Sussman (Joe Wicht), a fabled Hollywood producer whose luck at the box office has run dry. Head over heels in debt to the mob, Sol has been unable to finance his artistic dream of having Elizabeth Taylor star in a biopic about Billie Holiday. To make matters worse, a private detective has confirmed Sol's wife's infidelity (she's been screwing her sexy tennis instructor). Meanwhile, Sol's constipation has become the bane of this angry old Jew's existence.
Edith Sussman (Ali Haas), Sol's father-worshipping, mother-hating, Electra-like daughter who has some unresolved issues of her own to deal with.
Lance Sussman (Devin S. O'Brien), Sol's ditsy gay son who has been experimenting with drugs, finding new ways to express himself in a college theatre department, and can be obsessively captivated by the pull-chain switch on a table lamp in the family's living room.

Angela Arden (J. Conrad Frank), Sol's diva-like wife who is desperately hoping to make a comeback on the cabaret circuit and has even landed a contract to perform in a small hotel in the Catskills.
Tony Parker (Justin Liszanckie), the not-very-bright gigolo who has been shtupping Angela while trying to convince her to move to New York with him where he hopes to resurrect his acting career. Tony is more than willing to put his hefty endowment to use titillating Edith and Lance if the ends will justify the means.
Bootsie Carp (Marie O'Donnell), the wise-cracking Thelma Ritter-like maid who, for years, has been dividing her affection between her employer and Richard Nixon.

Clues drop with a resounding thud throughout Busch's play.

Who knew that Angela had such skill at throwing knives and scissors? 
Or that she could be driven to murder Sol with a silvery suppository (the size of an extra-large burrito) that had been laced with arsenic?
Why would Angela recoil at the sight of the LP recording she once made with her long-deceased identical twin, Barbara?
And why does Angela deliver so many lines as if she were channeling Bette Davis in Act II?

Thanks to her enterprising children (who slip some LSD into Angela's evening cup of coffee), plenty of secrets are revealed against the background of Kuo-Hao Lo's deliciously vulgar unit set. While many may assume that the role of Angela would forever belong to its creator, Charles Busch, New Conservatory Theatre Center has triumphantly cast J. Conrad Frank as Angela.

Over the years, Mr. Frank has been perfecting his own cabaret act as the failed Russian opera diva, Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy (who is now forced to work at the cosmetics counter in Macy's). With a series of gowns designed by "Mr. David," the statuesque Mr. Frank dominates the stage in the manner of a performer who knows his way around high camp, low morals, divine outfits, and operatic posturing. His comic timing is rock solid. His Angela knows how to milk a line (as well as Tony Parker's prized piece of anatomy) like a champ.

Although far more sinister than Madame Arcati's séance in Blithe Spirit, Angela's Act II acid trip is every bit as hilarious and revealing. In a comedy built to showcase and revolve around a fading star, Mr. Frank knows how to work Angela's diminishing force of gravity for all it's worth. The rest of the cast orbits around her with maniacal glee, with particularly energetic performances coming from Ali Haas and Devin S. O'Brien as Angela's scheming children. I also very much enjoyed Marie O'Donnell's performance as Bootsie.

Performances of Die, Mommie, Die! continue at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through November 2 (click here to order tickets).

Wed, October 22, 2014

Christopher Alden’s staging enlivens San Francisco Opera’s new Handel production
Classical Music Examiner

That expert pacing was also due, in no small part, to the conducting technique of Julian Wachner, making his SFO debut. Like our own Nicholas McGegan leading the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Wachner takes a spirited approach to conducting Handel, working without a baton and always using his hands expressively to give each phrase its own characteristic shape.

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Christopher Alden’s staging enlivens San Francisco Opera’s new Handel production

by Stephen Smoliar

Sitting in the War Memorial Opera House last night during the new San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope (originally created by the English National Opera and Opera Australia), I realized that I was getting on to twenty years of going regularly to SFO performances. I also realized that, over that period, I had been exposed to some of the most refreshing interpretations of operas by both Handel and Claudio Monteverdi that I had encountered over a lifetime of opera-going. This was particularly evident almost exactly three years ago, when for the first time I saw a staging of Xerxes (HWV 40) that played up the plot for all of its comic value. Just about all of the operas from the eighteenth century and earlier appreciated the popularizing value of inserting at least one humorous episode within even the darkest tragedy (a technique William Shakespeare grasped with masterful results); but there was something comforting in discovering that Handel knew how to relish full-out comedy.

Partenope is very much comedy in the Shakespearean tradition, even if the Bard had no hand in the libretto. (We do not know who wrote the libretto for Partenope. We know it was an adaptation of a libretto of the same title by Silvio Stampiglia written in 1699. Antonio Caldara provided music for that libretto in an opera that Handel may have seen in Venice in 1710.) The plot is a romantic comedy first complicated by characters in disguise and eventually resolved as their true identities are revealed. The title character is the founding Queen of Naples; and, over the course of the narrative, she is pursued by four of the five remaining characters. (The fifth, Ormonte, is not identified but is most likely a courtier or possibly a servant.)

Among all of her suitors, Partenope’s favorite is Arsace, Prince of Corinth. What she does not know, however, is that Arsace abandoned Rosmira, to whom he was presumably betrothed. Thus, one of the other suitors, Eurimene, who presents himself as a shipwrecked Armenian prince, is actually Rosmira in disguise. Over the course of the plot, Rosmira not only recovers Arsace but helps Armindo, Prince of Rhodes, to win Partenope’s hand through a series of complications and resolutions that could have fit right into Shakespeare’s As You Like It, complete with its own cross-dressing heroine.

The SFO production has been staged by Christopher Alden, setting the action in Paris shortly after the end of the First World War. This was a time when surrealism was on the rise, and two of the characters have been translated into leading figures of that time. Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader), Prince of Cumae, who thinks (mistakenly) that he can win the heart of Partenope (soprano Danielle de Niese) by conquering Naples with his army, has been translated into Man Ray, complete with camera and the assembly of a massive collage from photographic prints throughout the third (and final) act. Partenope herself may have been inspired by Ray's photograph of Nacy Cunard, which graced the cover of the program book. At the same time the massive beard sported by Ormonte (bass-baritone Philippe Sly) makes him a ringer for Francis Picabia, at least as the painter appearing in René Clair’s 1924 short film “Entr’acte,” where he does a series of ballet turns as a “Les Sylphides” ballerina. (Ormonte has his own cross-dressing scene in the third act of the opera.)

There are any number of other cultural cross-references in this production. The set for the first act could have served equally well in a performance of Noël Coward’s Design for Living. In that set Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, making his SFO debut) has considerable trouble negotiating a curved staircase involving routines that would have served Buster Keaton very well. In the second act, on the other hand, Emilio is locked in a bathroom; and his efforts to escape recall some of the physical struggles of Harold Lloyd in a precarious position. By the time we get to the third act, it seems as if Alden was determined to pile on any cross-references he had missed in the first two acts. Armindo now takes a turn as Fred Astaire, while Emilio emerges as one of the secondary characters from E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

Alden puts all of this zaniness to good use. Partenope is very much a traditional Handelian opera. Just about every number is a da capo aria, using the ABA form to reveal the character of the individual doing the singing. Even the most devoted fans occasionally find their attention lagging as these arias parade by on the stage. However, Alden’s staging provides its own sense of time-consciousness, using the action to augment the character development but drawing upon Handel’s repetitions only where he sees fit. He even takes his own turn at da capo form, concluding the final act with the same image of all the characters seated at a card table that he used to begin the opera. The result is three and one-half hours of opera that goes by at a remarkably bracing clip.

That expert pacing was also due, in no small part, to the conducting technique of Julian Wachner, making his SFO debut. Like our own Nicholas McGegan leading the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Wachner takes a spirited approach to conducting Handel, working without a baton and always using his hands expressively to give each phrase its own characteristic shape. He also played harpsichord for the recitative passages, while all remaining harpsichord continuo work was taken by Peter Grunberg, performing with Michael Leopold on theorbo and David Kadarauch on cello. The orchestra was, for the most part, a reduced string ensemble with flutes, horns, and trumpet engaged on selected occasions for “special effects.”

The vocal resources consisted entirely of the six soloists. If a chorus was intended for the opening and closing numbers, it was not missed when the soloists sang as a blended ensemble. Countertenor David Daniels was at the top of his game with his usual solid command of Handel invoked to portray every confused twist in Arsace’s character. Rosmira, such by mezzo Daniela Mack, was really the character that kept the narrative moving forward; and Mack performed with all the sure-footed confidence required of her character. On the other hand de Niese always knew how to convey her position of power in the title role; and, if her pitch seemed to falter of a few occasions, her confidence was always right on the money.

Taken as a whole this turned out to be a perfectly delightful encounter between eighteenth-century musical styles and early twentieth-century visual sets, costumes, and staged action. The entire evening was thoroughly memorable. Indeed, it was so rich that the full extent of the action probably cannot be grasped by memory after only a single exposure. Can we expect a video recording of this production?

Sat, October 18, 2014

Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera

“Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

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Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

October 18, 2014

by Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Mary Behm-Steinberg

More than many works, “Partenope” is a bit difficult to review because, by its very nature, it is emotionally inaccessible. You can’t easily care about any of the characters because Baroque opera lacks the narrative structure typical of late 18th century to 20th century operas with which contemporary audiences are more familiar. Rather, Baroque operas, of which “Partenope” is both example and critique, are mostly series of arias designed to show off the vocal skills of the performers while only loosely relating a story.

In Handel’s time, operas weren’t meant to be viewed silently in the dark: they were social events, more akin to seeing a cabaret show or a live band at a dance club (not to mention what might go on in a private, curtained box on the upper levels of the theatre). In such a context, a four hour long opera, where the performers mostly just stand and sing, would be perfectly acceptable. Because such an approach would never work in a contemporary performance, modern stagings of Baroque operas offer a blank slate: the music is more or less the same, but everything else is up for grabs.

“Partenope” has no chorus, no ballet, and precious little recitative. One person sings, then another person sings.

This particular production of “Partenope” employs lavish stage sets and fills much of the open space around and between the arias with physical comedy. While the story, such as it is, could be set in any time or place, the choice of a Dadaist/Surrealist set of references and a 1930’s monochromatic modernist salon reasserts the emotional inaccessibility of the work, as if the staging was meant to render “Partenope” as dream, with archetypes, rather than real people, as characters.

The story line is both simple and needlessly complex. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is being courted by three male caricatures (manly Arsace, sensitive Armindo, and brutish Emilio) when, unexpectedly, a fourth, Eurimene, turns up. Eurimene, however, is Rosmira in disguise. Having been jilted by Arsace, she is seeking revenge by upending his relationship with Partenope. Arsace still loves Rosmira as well as Partenope, and is torn. Eurimene/Rosmira encourages Armindo to openly declare his feelings for Partenope so that she can have Arsace for herself. And Emilio, resembling a cross between Man Ray and Buster Keaton, declares war. That’s act one.

Each act’s set is a different kind of space whose alteration mimics the dreamlike progression of the characters through the plot. The enormous pristine white wall in act one is grafittied with the suggestion of Partenope’s body. The plot of act three could be summed up by the completion of a giant photo collage of Rosmira’s body, whose true gender, revealed at the end, sorts out the various entanglements as arrestingly as the popping of a very lovely soap bubble.

By the end of the opera, one has a sense of each of the characters through the variety of arias they sing expressing various aspects of their feelings. We care about them because they mirror our own memories and feelings of love and jealousy.

The production features some standout musical performances, particularly Danelle de Niese as Partenope, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, and Alek Shrader as Emilio. All of them perform their vocal acrobatics with skill and elegance. Countertenors David Danels (Arsace) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo) both sing roles originally meant for castrati, and Daniels seems to have problems projecting at several points in the show. Costanzo performs physical comedy with extraordinary grace, singing while falling down stairs, hanging from a stairwell, and dancing with a rebellious hat, a reference to Hans Richter’s 1927 Dadaist film “Ghosts Before Breakfast“. Shrader as Emilio is also physically brilliant with his gymnastics in a public restroom and his hand shadows over Man Ray projections on the rear wall. Some of the stage business leans too heavily on postmodernist clichés, such as having characters at various points walk very slowly across the stage for no apparent reason other than to give them something to do. And the boob jokes in act three are juvenile at best.

The music and visuals alternately resound and dissipate as the characters declare their feelings, become frustrated, rewarded and released.

If one is looking for a concise, realistic plot, this opera will seem disappointing. Instead, “Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

Fri, October 17, 2014

Why ‘Partenope?’ A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera.

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Why PARTENOPE? A Questionable Choice for San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean

I have often said that when attending a Handel opera, even for the first time, as was the case when I heard Partenope on Wednesday, October 15, one comes out of the theater feeling one has heard the opera three times. This is because Handel followed the da capo pattern of his era, structuring each and every aria in an ABA pattern in which the aria is first sung all the way through, then developed with variation, and finally repeated “from the beginning” with or without further vocal embellishment. When listening to Handel, this ABA pattern can be extremely tedious. 

Handel’s Partenope, first produced in 1730 in London, at more or less a mid-point in Handel’s career as an opera composer, is a case in point. Especially, since even the impresario, Owen Swiney, who first introduced Partenope to the operatic stage in London in 1730, admitted that this opera “put me in a sweat… for it is the very worst book … that I ever read in my whole life.” Indeed, the anonymous libretto for Partenope, based on texts meant to serve previous operas, is more than a bit contrived and frivolous.  

Partenope has never before been seen here. In fact, this opera is rarely seen anywhere. Perhaps there’s a reason. However, Director Christopher Alden, who oversaw this staging, had created in 2008 an award-winning production of Partenope for English National Opera. Further, Alden had ties with San Francisco Opera, having previously directed productions, among others here, of Hans Werner Henze’s Das Verratene Meer (1991) and Stuart Wallace’s musically sophomoric (but locally celebrated) Harvey Milk (1996). So San Francisco Opera’s General Manager David Gockley chose, for better or worse—and ’m of two minds on this question—to bring to San Francisco Alden’s staging of Handel’s Partenope in this Fall’s season at the War Memorial Opera House.  

In his staging, Alden tried his best to make Partenope both interesting and relevant to our contemporary audiences. Handel set the plot in the Kingdom of Naples, where Partenope reigns as Queen. Director Alden set the opera in the Paris of the 1920s, in an era of artistic ferment enlivened by revolutionary movements in art and politics such as Dadaism and Surrealism. Alden makes Partenope a socialite hostess of a literary and artistic Parisian salon, where creative types gather around her and seek amorous favor from their “Queen Bee.” While Alden succeeded in some respects, he clearly overreached in others, alternately drawing laughs and trying our patience in an already long evening of listening to Handel’s musical repeats. (To their credit, San Francisco Opera made many musical cuts, shortening Partenope from a running time of over four hours to three hours and twenty minutes. However, even this shorter version seemed tedious and far too long, made only somewhat bearable by a number of sight gags thrown in by Director Alden to alleviate the tedium.) 

On paper, the cast seemed well-chosen. Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese as Partenope and countertenor David Daniels as Arsace are both noted Handel interpreters. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack seemed—and was—an excellent choice for the role of Rosmira, who dresses as a man (Eurimene) to win back—and/or take vengeance—on Arsace, who has betrayed her before the opera begins. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was selected for the role of Armindo, who moons in vain (until the ending) after Partenope. However, none of these noted singers managed to project anything whatsoever of the Italian text, and several of them, most notably Anthony Roth Costanzo, couldn’t consistently project their voices adequately in the War Memorial auditorium. In this respect, only tenor Alek Shrader, who sang the role of Emilio, exhibited both the vocal power and diction to make the Italian text clearly heard whenever he sang. 

Countertenor David Daniels as Arsace had ample opportunity in this opera to sing melancholy laments and longing expressions of forlorn love. Danielle de Niese as Partenope had a variety of different moods to express in her many arias, all of them beautifully sung, with a few lapses in the high notes, but totally absent of clear diction in Italian. Daniela Mack sang beautifully, expressing a variety of moods; but she too failed to make the Italian text clearly heard. Counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo had a pleasant voice but was simply not strong enough to make much of a vocal impression.  

As the opera gets under way, all the male characters (and one female disguised as a male) seek to court Partenope. For her part, Partenope initially declares Arsace her favorite. Arsace, however, finds a young man named Eurimene dis-turbingly similar in looks to a woman, Rosmira, he has very recently jilted. This ‘Eurimene’, it soon turns out, is Rosmira disguised as a man; and when Arsace dis-covers this fact he is both remorseful and sworn to secrecy by Rosmira/Eurimene. Armindo and Emilio also declare themselves infatuated with Partenope, who seems to have them all wrapped around her little finger. 

In Act I, Director Alden stages much extraneous hi-jinks, such as having Armindo crawl rather than walk up a flight of stairs, then hang by his fingertips from the stairs while continuing to sing, then falling down a whole flight of stairs. Mean-while, Partenope and the other guests playing cards at her salon inexplicably don gas masks—a totally random bit of stagecraft unless one checks out the photograph in the opera program by Lee Miller, Man Ray’s lover, of a man wearing a gas mask from World War I. At this point, Alden’s staging seems all too arch and strained. 

In Act II, the staging becomes even more arch and strained. The action, if one can call it that, is simply a battle by the men for Partenope’s affections. The set includes a bathroom where, first, Partenope, retires, closing the door behind her. Soon we hear a toilet flush. Meanwhile, Emilio, who doubles as the photographer Man Ray, projects on a wall an abstract bit of film (actual footage by Man Ray). While singing, he then uses the projector’s light to throw hand shadows on the same wall. When Partenope exits the bathroom, Armindo replaces her and is locked inside by Emilio, who wants Partenope for himself. Armindo opens the transom and sticks his head out, singing his indignation. Finally, Armindo kicks the door open, but now Arsace is locked in the bathroom; and when the door is finally opened by Partenope, Arsace, seated fully clothed on the toilet, has covered himself with toilet paper. In short, we have descended to toilet jokes. Of course, what can a stage director do to counter the static quality of Handel’s da capo repeats? Christopher Alden has undoubtedly gone overboard; but something— if not toilet jokes—was needed to alleviate the musical tedium. How much coloratura roulades can one take? I am sympathetic to Alden’s problems, if not to his solutions. 

Act III brings about a resolution, of sorts, to the amorous goings on. There is a lovely trio involving Partenope, Rosmira, and Arsace, in which each protagonist expresses different and conflicting emotions. Eventually, realizing how steadfast Rosmira has been in seeking to win back Arace, Partenope renounces her infatuation with Arsace and quickly turns to Armindo, taking on a new lover as easily as she sheds the previous one. These characters are hardly believable! And we care not a whit about any of their amorous ambitions, with the exception of Rosmira and her deeply felt but conflicted feelings for Arsace who betrayed her. 

Finally, a word must be said about the conducting. Due to an illness, the scheduled conductor, Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn, had to be replaced at fairly short notice. Into the breach stepped Julian Wachner, music director of Trinity Wall Street in New York. Wachner has a conducting style that is all too flamboyant for my taste. In the overture to Partenope, Wachner swayed back and forth, flapped his arms, waved his hands, jabbed and pointed, jumped up and down, and lunged hither and yon. He continued in these exertions throughout the opera. While I cannot fault Wachner’s choice of tempos, except in an early aria by David Daniels, which I thought the conductor took too slow, I found myself irritated and distracted by Wachner’s antics. This was Wachner’s San Francisco Opera debut. I hope he will not be invited back.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven ‘Partenope’
Opera Warhorses

What trumps all is the artistry of the six principals and the bright sound of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Julian Wachner in his San Francisco Opera debut.  I recommend this performance to all opera lovers with an appreciation of the baroque style of operatic opposition, and who wish to see a brilliantly performed, nicely staged version of a superb Handel opera.

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Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope”
October 16th, 2014

The San Francisco Opera was founded in 1923 but did not perform its first regular season opera composed by George Friderick Handel until 59 years later when Handel’s most performed operatic work, ‘Giulio Cesare”, was first mounted.

In the 32 San Francisco Opera seasons that followed the 1982 “Cesare” eight different Handel operas have been performed. The eighth to be introduced to San Francisco Opera audiences is “Partenope”, a romantic comedy from 1730 about some interpersonal relationships of  the queen who founded the Italian city of Naples.

However, Handel’s only tangentially relates to ancient Naples. All action is centered around the actions and emotions of six characters who are friends or enemies of the Queen.

San Francisco Opera chose to introduce the work utiliIizing Christopher Alden’s bright production which located the action in a 1920s salon in Paris. Here Queen Partenope is not a royal, but a celebrity.

Every one of the six characters were cast with care. Handel’s operas typically follow the 18th century tradition of alternating recitative in which plot exposition is advanced with solo arias, each expressing the emotional reaction to what has just been discussed by one of the characters. Each aria is a gem, and each requires the technical vocalism and the ability of the artist to convey whatever emotion (love, despair, anger, jealousy) that the character expresses.

The title role signalled the return to San Francisco of lyric soprano Danielle De Niese [see Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010] in the first Partenope of her career.

De Niese is internationally recognized as a superb Handelian, and Handel’s operas were a major element in establishing her reputation.  Her arias were filled with energy, a healthy vibrato gleaming through her fast-paced lyric coloratura passages.

Daniels has performed five roles at ths San Francisco Opera, four in early 18th century operas by Handel (previously the title role in “Giulio Cesare” in 2000, Bertarido in “Rodelinda” in 2005, and Arsamenes in “Xerxes” in 2011 [for the latter, see my review at  Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011.]

Arguably the most famous counter-tenor currently performing today, Daniels was a forceful presence.

In my interview with Daniels, he stated that both of the last two roles that he has sung at the War Memorial – Arsamenes and Arsace – are two that he feels best fits his voice.

Arsace was a man rocked with guilt as he desired Partenope, even though he was fully conscious of his betrayal of his previous lover, Rosmira. Daniels is so effective in exhibiting the inner conflict of a plaintive Handelian aria that no one is surprised when the affections of Daniels’ Arsace are restored to Rosmira at opera’s end.

In my recent interview with Alec Shrader, soon to be published on this website, he observed that his leggiero tenor voice has been gaining weight, and that his vocal future lies with the lyric tenor repertory. His vocal transformation can be detected in his strong vocal performance in the often hefty demands of the role of Emilio.

This was never more evident than in his bravura aria Barbaro faro si! that elicited one the biggest ovations of the evening.

What has not changed is Shrader’s aggressive athleticism, so evident in his recent performances as Ernesto, which stage director Alden used effectively in his surreal conceptualization of Emilio as a surrealist photographer.

Daniela Mack opened the Santa Fe Opera 2014 season in the title role of Bizet’s “Carmen” [Review: Stephen Lawless’ Creative New “Carmen” Production Opens 2014 Santa Fe Opera Season – June 27, 2014].

Her characterization of Rosmira – disguisesd first as a man, but ultimately revealing her actual gender – had a feistiness that worked.

Rosmira has one of the opera’s big showstoppers, the second act Furie son dell’Alma mia, which she dispatched with verve, receiving one of the evening’s big audience ovations as her reward.

I suspect that were the audience polled on which of these attractive cast members was the audience favorite, many votes would be cast for Anthony Roth Costanzo, whose smitten but shy portrayal of Armindo for his San Francisco Opera debut proved to be most affecting.

Like Shrader, Costanzo is adept at physical comedy, and watching his drunken staircase staggering was a breathtaking experience.

Last season at the Glimmerglass Festival, he showed  ability in the incorporation of modern dance into opera.  In San Francisco Costanzo showed great skill in incorporating tap-dancing into operatic comedy.

Holding his own amid this brilliant cast was the Ormonte of Adler fellow Philippe Sly, whose Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” marked him as a future leading man in opera.

The production is that of American director Christopher Alden, originally created for London’s English National Opera in 2008. In the spirit of a comedy written for the Elizabethan stage, the story concerns two pairs of lovers, both of whom will be married by opera’s end, but not without a series of events and misadventures.

The catalyst that moves the plot is the decision of Rosmira, in love with Arsace, to disguise herself as a man. Because Arsace has become infatuated with Partenope, it is Rosmira’s intent to inject her/himself into the situation to foil any long-term Arsace-Partenope relationship. Fortunately for Rosmira’s long-term strategy, there is another suitor for Partenope’s hand, Armindo. Despite Armindo shyness, as a conseuence of Rosmira’s actions, as he ultimately wins Partenope.

Two other characters are present. Emilio, the rather eccentric ruler of a neighboring city, who is yet another suitor, and the sage, Ormonte. Battle lines are drawn, literally. (Both Emilio and Partenope command trrops of soldiers, which one, of course, never sees.) Duels are threatened, but, in the end, abandoned.

Even though Queen Partenope is associated with the mythology of ancient Naples, the opera has a generic plot, no more time-and place-specific than Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” of over a half century later.

Alden, who likes to find modern parallels in the plots of baroque operas, decided to center the opera in Paris in the 1920s, in the middle of the salon like that conducted by a historical person, the steamship heiress Nancy Cunard. Cocktails and card games are prominent.

Since Cunard’s salon was associated with the surrealist photographer Man Ray, so too may be found an Emilio who himself is a photographer not unlike Man Ray. Photographer Emilio, as is Emilio in Handel’s plot, is a disruptive presence.

These references to cultural icons of nearly a century past are intriguing, but whether one’s knowledge of the period is deep or shallow, it has only so much to do with the performance. In the end, all the preparations for battle or for duels lead to nothing more than a double marriage.

What trumps all is the artistry of the six principals and the bright sound of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Julian Wachner in his San Francisco Opera debut.

I recommend this performance to all opera lovers with an appreciation of the baroque style of operatic opposition, and who wish to see a brilliantly performed, nicely staged version of a superb Handel opera.

Thu, October 16, 2014

‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera
The San Francisco Examiner

...the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

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‘Partenope’: Handel á la Cirque du Soleil at S.F. Opera

by Janos Gereben | October 16, 2014

Spectacular singing and acrobatics meet to offer unusual entertainment in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House.

It took Handel's 1730 "Partenope" two and a half centuries to be staged in San Francisco, but director Christopher Alden's production, acclaimed at its London premiere, makes up for the delay by dazzling, amusing and entertaining audiences - or dismaying some viewers - at its opening Wednesday evening.

The original story, about Queen Partenope of Naples and her three royal suitors (one a woman appearing as a man) is undecipherable. Alden transfers the action to 1920s Paris, and throws in everything but the kitchen sink (although there is a toilet), prompting patrons to simply give up trying to figure out what it's about. Arias, scenes and actions don't connect. Production notes refer to the spirit of Dadaism and Surrealism, which may explain why countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo performed a brilliant aria while swinging from a grand staircase. His alarming pratfall over the length of stairs was another matter.

Handel's 42 operas - which run for hours, have repetitious arias and disjointed stories - are different from his famously accessible and linear "Messiah."

This "Partenope" in the War Memorial, which cuts about an hour from the original, is "only" 3 1/2 hours, and jazzed up to make the Baroque sounds accessible to today's audiences. But, unlike director Nicholas Hytner, who effectively and judiciously freshened up Handel in his 2011 San Francisco Opera production of "Xerxes," Alden overdoes it with "Partenope," rarely allowing the music to breathe - even though the orchestra, directed masterfully by Julian Wachner, plays splendidly.

Everything and everybody is in constant motion. Not only does Danielle De Niese in the title role sing magnificently and vamp around seductively, she's at the mercy of shticks that are at odds with characteristics of a queen or great soprano. (To her credit, De Niese seems to enjoy the proceedings.) Illustrious countertenor David Daniels also gives an exemplary performance, even while dealing with Alden's requirements. Other principals - former Adler Fellows Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader and Philippe Sly - also give wonderful vocal performances.

On opening night, the audience enjoyed the fun and games, further buoyed by announcements regarding the S.F. Giants' lead, and ultimate victory, over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Kinderkuchen for the FBI

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.

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Think of her as one of a pair of twin girls:  PeNELope and ParTENope.  Penelope, Partenope, Penelope,  Partenope.  You'll be close enough to how to pronounce it.

We are referring, of course, to the Handel opera Partenope now playing at the San Francisco Opera.  Get up from your couch and get down to see this.

I was ready for this because I read this tweet from David Daniels:

"Opening Night of PARTENOPE  #Cards #Bourbon #cigarettes #gasMasks & #HANDEL TOYZ!"

It has all this and tap dancing, toilet paper, bare chested man not baritone and a gorgeous homage to art deco.  Favorite joke:  Sound of a toilet flushing followed by Arsace saying "I hear her."  It all kind of went like that.

The production, originally in English at the ENO, is a constant flow of references to the artists of Paris in the twenties.  There is a film by Man Ray, gas masks a la photographer Lee Miller, Ezra Pound, etc.

The plot can be briefly summarized.  Partenope has three male suitors:  Arsace, Armindo and Emilio.  At the start of the opera she prefers Arsace and has completely rejected Emilio.  She is ambiguous toward Armindo.  Rosmira arrives disguised as a man who wishes to kill Arsace.  At the end Arsace has returned to Rosmira and Partenope has turned to Armindo.  Ormonte is a servant?  As Baroque plots go, it is quite sweet and uncomplicated.

This is the first time in all my years at the San Francisco Opera when I have seen a Dramaturg listed in the program.  A dramaturg is someone who conducts historical research and places the action within the historical period.  You see this in European opera companies quite a lot.  So why would you need a dramaturg for Partenope?

They have moved the action from 1730 to 1930 Paris.  Or perhaps, since Partenope is an historical figure, from 300 b.c. to 1930 Paris and the great art movements between the wars.  So Partenope may or may not be the photographer Lee Miller, Arsace may or may not be the writer Ezra Pound and Emilio is definitely the photographer Man Ray.  Or Maybe Arsace is Tristan Tzara, also a writer.  I'm sure there were more historical references I didn't pick up on.  Perhaps the dramaturg is for making any sense at all of the historical environment of 1920's Paris.

I simply loved it.  It was beautiful to see and hear.  The set was simply gorgeous, and it was populated by some of the most gorgeous singers around.  The countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo entertained us with beautiful singing, astounding acrobatics on the staircase, a scene where he bares his chest for Partenope and tap dancing.  AND he gets the girl.

Alex Shrader photographs people, develops the pictures and hangs them on the wall, all while entertaining us with some spectacular singing.  One aria is sung while....  I'm giving too much away.

Danielle de Niese gets four wonderful costumes, including a tuxedo, to display gracefully while she sings her arias.

The sweetest arias were for Arsace, sung beautifully by David Daniels.  I can't exactly explain the effect this had on me which consisted of smiles and contentment.

In spite of all the smoking I didn't smell any tobacco smoke in case you are worrying about that.

Oh, and I forgot shadow puppets.

Thu, October 16, 2014

SF Opera’s Partenope
The Opera Tattler

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner…The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor…

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SF Opera's Partenope

Christopher Alden's delightfully humorous production of Partenope opened at San Francisco Opera last night. The stylish set (Act I pictured left, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Andrew Lieberman, was enhanced by Adam Silverman's lighting. Costume designer Jon Morrell did a wonderful job evoking 1920s Paris and Man Ray. The staging matches the absurdity of the plot rather well, embracing silliness with use of bananas, dancing, and hand shadow puppetry. It was refreshing to see something a little less sedate than the other offerings of the 2014-2015 season so far.

The reduced orchestra of only 39 musicians sounded fresh and vital under Maestro Julian Wachner. The horns had a rough start but in the end managed to sound sublime. The continuo was played beautifully by the conductor and Peter Grunberg on harpsichord, cellist David Kadarauch, and theorbist Michael Leopold.

The most of the singers employed much physicality in their performances. Philippe Sly danced foppishly and sang with warm effortlessness. His outrageous costume in Act III involved a puffy pink flowered gown, red evening gloves, and a Pickelhaube festooned with bananas. Anthony Roth Costanzo was an endearing Armindo who managed to sing his first aria ("Voglio dire al mio tesoro") while falling down or hanging on to stairs. He also tap danced during "Ma quai note di mesti lamenti" in Act III. The clarity of his voice came through despite all these antics.  Alek Shrader's tenor sounded robust, and as Emilio he put on a hand puppet show that was amusing and engaging.

David Daniels (Arsace) gave a nuanced performance. He seemed slightly behind the orchestra in "Furibondo spira il vento," but sang has a lovely and tender "Ch'io parta?" in Act III. Daniela Mack seemed to perfectly embody the role of Rosmira and sounded pretty too. She spends most of her time on stage pretending to be a man, and the contrast between Mack and the titular leading lady was marked. As Partenope, Danielle de Niese sparkled and was vivacious. Her voice seemed heftier and throatier than I remembered. Her dancing was particularly sharp. Everyone sounded fully present in the moment and the finale of the piece was especially rousing.

* Tattling * 
Our neighbors in Box I introduced themselves and shared a chocolate strawberry with us. There was a confrontation between a man at the back of Box H with a woman who showed up in the middle of Act II. He suggested that she did not have a ticket for Seat 4 and mentioned she had not been there for the first third of the performance.

Thu, October 16, 2014

Top Hatters
Parterre Box

Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

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Top hatters

by Greg Freed | 5:46 pm | Oct 16, 2014

When Mike Nichols was honored at the Kennedy Center, Elaine May said of his work: “Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful, and that have real impact, and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they’re as much fun as if they were trash.” Christopher Alden has pulled the same bit of trickery at the San Francisco Opera with a production of Handel’s Partenope that is so erudite and theatrically audacious and also such a rollicking ride, it’s hard to believe it isn’t crap.  

In its opening tableau, Alden’s conception threatens a certain Egoiste-commercial affectation, but it is immediately rescued by the director’s arsenal of responses to the inherently static nature of a three and a half hour parade of da capo arias. There is room in Alden’s vision for camp and slapstick and heartbreak and sex—the last mostly offstage, but for one instance of, well, jobus interruptus. (They hardly know us, they hardly know us.)  In the third act, there are flights of whimsy that teeter on the brink of precious, but by that time, it’s impossible to muster much objection.

Alden and his design team (sets by Andrew Lieberman and costumes by Jon Morrell, both masters of faintly disreputable elegance) have packed the stage with explicit visual references to Dada and surrealism and imbued it with an air of the cinematic. The setting, we are told, is Paris in the 1920s, but the characters, though mad as hatters, are modern and relatable, at least to those of us who are also mad as hatters.

All evening long, despite my delight in the production, I fretted over the idea of writing about Danielle DeNiese. The thing about reviewing for a blog you’ve read basically since Jenny Lind was on tour is, you figure out which singers bring out the Mean Girl in opera queens.

But, you know, fuck it. There are problems there—the middle register can be breathy in a way that detracts from lyrical pieces like “Qual farfaletta” and makes it hard to know how the fioratura is actually going in showpieces. Her ornamentation is intermittently tasteful. All singers are flawed, and these didn’t truly stand in the way of what I’d have to call a pretty complete performance. The dramatic craft was fully realized and the singing was, if unextraordinary, satisfying.

Alden imagines a physicality for his actors that is nearly as specific as that of Robert Wilson, if less ritualized. DeNiese inhabited this with a great deal of poise and spontaneity. She was not the only one to rise to the challenge: Anthony Roth Costanzo, apparently game for anything, sang one of his arias dangling off the edge of a spiral staircase and another, I shit you not, while tap dancing—with a limpid legato, no less.

Alek Shrader, in the finest performance of the night, dashed fearlessly through “Anch’io pugnar sapro” hanging halfway through a transom with seemingly limitless breath and staggering facility. His Emilio also pulled off unquestionably the funniest piece of stage business I’ve ever seen in an opera during “Barbaro fato”— the kind of thing that elicits actual laughter where most opera comedy strains for a titter.

It was a pity not to hear what he could have done with Emilio’s more lyric “La speme ti console”, which was cut, but a privilege to see what he and Alden made of this not quite fascinating character. If you remember Shrader from The Audition or the actual auditions that year, you will recall perhaps his floppy hair and also that he is not at all hard on the eyes, though he was done up here as the love child of Man Ray and Harold Lloyd.

Recent performances by David Daniels in the tedious pastiche Enchanted Island had led me to wonder in my artless Japanese way: what is it that’s supposed to happen to countertenors as they pass out of their jeune premier years? There is, sad to say, no countertenor Marschallin or Kostelnicka unless it’s Arnalta in Poppea, which ain’t much. Daniels’ solution, on the evidence of his Arsace, is to power through the things that are no longer easy on sheer will—”Furibondo” used to be a calling card and something he then seemed almost unfazed by and now is not—and sing the less flashy numbers with an exquisite, supple line that makes the other stuff seem tawdry.

Daniels was, after all, maybe the first countertenor who brought operatic phrasing to the Baroque and seemed not to be a part of that movement that played early music as if it were math homework. “Ch’io parta” was sung by someone who could, mutatis mutandis, sing great Verdi (putting aside that, long ago, in a less formal setting, he did.)

Daniela Mack, a former Adler fellow, charmed the audience greatly in “Un altra volta ancor”, working the warm, even sound and impeccable technique that got her to the finals in Cardiff.  Philippe Sly, though young, seemed like luxury casting in the short role of Ormonte, handsome of voice and ridiculously assured in his florid singing. Conductor Julian Wachner seemed to share Alden’s mercurial perception of the piece, matching his hairpin changes of tone with luxuriant fits of brooding and elation, and his four-player continuo created endless nuance in recitatives.

If I’m not stepping on Opera Tattler’s turf, I should note that, at each intermission, the supertitle board displayed the score of the big cribbage game or whatever it was that was happening across town, because god forbid there be some space in America where sports aren’t automatically the overriding subject of conversation.

As Shrader crept onstage before the third act, holding what appeared to be a newspaper, some wag a few rows behind me posited aloud, in the spirit of life-as-caption-contest that has lately overtaken us all, “Giants won!” Because sports. I guess it’s not Just Plain Folksy of me, but the only Giants I need to hear about at the opera house are the ones in Wagner.

Thu, October 16, 2014

A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera
San Francisco Classical Voice

The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington [D.C.] Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

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A Siren to Fire Partenope at S.F Opera

By Robert P. Commanday

October 16, 2014

The San Francisco Opera took Handel’s comic opera Partenope a few strides beyond his own parody of opera seria conventions into satire, even camp, and then burlesque. Happily, since the name of the game remains “music” and especially vocal virtuosity, the art was respected in the gambol that is Christopher Alden’s staging. Unlike the disastrous 2002 staging here of Handel’s Alcina, the soloists’ arias were not sabotaged by monkeyshines upstage. While the stellar Danielle de Niese or her colleagues were singing the sensational, florid arias, the stage activity was in ultra-slow motion, and curiously undistracting.

From the outset, the audience was set up to accept the unexpected.

Partenope comes from the Greek parthenos (“maiden’s voice”) but this opera’s dominating woman, named after a siren who failed to entrap Odysseus, is no maiden. More of a femme fatale, she is passionately and, as shown explicitly here, actively attached to Arsace (the great countertenor David Daniels). She also reciprocates when her enemy Emilio embraces her before rejecting him. Finally, she winds up in the arms of the other countertenor, Arminio (Anthony Roth Costanzo) who has been haplessly mooning after her for two hours and 40 minutes (not including intermissions). That’s without the more than eight numbers that were cut — a long song.

The second take-off or parody by Handel and his librettist (unknown) is on the then already common device of a woman masquerading as a man. Rosmira, the Argentinian mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, appears disguised in order to either punish or recapture her Partenope-ensnared lover Arsacio, It’s all about love-hate and the battlefield of love. This is where the plot thins but the humor in the staging keeps getting cleverer.

The production, designed by Andrew Lieberman, with costumes by John Morrell, opens on a gleaming white opening set featuring spectacular sweeping stairs. Early on, Arminio (Costanzo) pratfalls down the stairs, singing as he clambers up to cling to them. The audience has already been puzzled by the character who turns out to be Emilio (Alek Shrader) peering through a white rectangular sheet of paper as a mask and wandering about with flash camera. (This turns out to be a recurrent motive, the camera presumably signifying the characters being revealed.)

Perhaps connected to that idea, gas masks passed around by Partenope briefly serve as facial covers. Along with Partenope’s romancing, playing her as a driven, aggressive predator, de Niese gets to sing one knock-out aria after another. Her soprano is among the most beautiful of the generation, crystal clear, shimmering, continuously vibrant and exciting. The technical display dazzles. Not to put her colleagues in the shade. They’re too good. Daniels, taking his turn at the roulade and fioriture-laden music, “I? Leave you?” being a capper. He was his as-ever top-notch counter-tenor. Later, with Arsace’s sleep aria, “Mà quai note,” he would work his expressive magic. Costanzo’s counter-tenor, while not as big and commanding as his colleague’s, was fluid, true and his singing musical. Mack’s arias were strong and also virtuosic, befitting the trouser-role character. She has the opera’s single stop-time contemplative piece, an exquisite accompanied recitative that she sang lovingly.

Like Arsace’s sleep aria that it follows, it was also set apart by its gentle accompaniment by two flutes, muted strings, pizzicato basses, and theorbo. The conductor was Julian Wachner, the highly regarded conductor of the musical groups at New York’s Trinity Church and others ensembles including the Washington, D.C. Chorus. Conducting from one of the two harpsichords used, he drew a fine, early music-styled performance from the orchestra and rendered the score with a lively, rhythmically crisp, yet expressive continuity.

Meanwhile, of course, a lot was going on the stage and while not musical, at least it was not anti-musical. The company’s commentary described the production concept as DaDa/Surreal, the setting in 1920s Paris, the aesthetic, “after Man Ray.” A door with a frosted glass panel in the center of Act 2’s wall opened to reveal a toilet, a character, fully clothed, ensconced on the commode. After defeating Emilio in his war on Partenope, Arsace locked him into the toilet. Later, climbing the inside of the door to the opened transom, and hanging half-through the transom, Alek Shrader as Emilio sang a stirring aria, his tenor as bright and shining as the music. Throughout, he and most of the other characters do a lot of faux-cigarette “smoking,” in stress situations. It was the twenties, after all.

Next, Act 3 reveals a third wall (great for acoustical backing) on which Shrader is pasting panels of paper that form, sort-of, the upper half body of a naked woman. Shrader, now an accessory character, “the photographer,” shows a brief movie of abstract patterns on the wall. Frustrated, he rips up the film, does a funny hand-characters shadow play using the projector’s light, sings a ripping tenor aria, to a deserved acclaim. As Oronte, a secondary character, Philippe Sly, sang in a good, firm bass-baritone. Later on, Costanzo as Armindo does an amusing tap dance routine, complete with top hat and, tossed from the wings, cane.

Rosmira, out to show up her faithless but still beloved Arsace as a coward, challenges him to a duel but he outwits her, insisting that it be fought bare-chested. She gives up and reveals her true identity and former relationship to Arsace. Now furious at Arsace, Partenope denounces him and takes up with Armindo. Happy ending, or maybe.

As successful as this production turned out to be, musically, creatively, given its length, there were early leavers. They lost. With this production and those that preceded it, the company is on track for one of its vocally finer seasons.

Thu, October 16, 2014

S.F. Opera review: ‘Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight
San Francisco Chronicle

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

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S.F. Opera review: 'Partenope’ a fizzy, free-associative delight

Joshua Kosman | October 16, 2014

“I don’t quite understand what this is about,” one character sings to another midway through Act 2 of Handel’s “Partenope.” Patrons at the San Francisco Opera’s fizzy, delightful and bewildering new production, which opened Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, are apt to feel similarly — and not to mind at all.

This is not the occasion for worrying too much about the literal meaning of the action onstage, or for following the vicissitudes of a plot that keeps looping back on itself as if to defer any resolution through sheer force of will. All that matters are the elemental forces of love, the glorious streams of vocal invention in which the composer has bathed his characters, and the witty, free-associative byplay that director Christopher Alden provides to help keep things aloft.

If that doesn’t sound like enough — if pitilessly precise logic is your thing — then this “Partenope,” which takes its inspiration from the French surrealists, may not be to your taste. But surrender to its buoyant charms, and you may soon find your senses ravished and your funny bone delicately tickled.

“Partenope” is a striking rarity among Handel’s operas. It’s a romantic comedy, and even more, it’s one that tweaks the conventions of serious opera with subversive wit.

The intersection between love and war, which is so often a weighty theme in 18th century opera, comes off here as a chic game. The cross-dressing warrior maiden — a staple of serious opera even as late as Rossini — is treated with some of the sexy freedom of “Twelfth Night” or “As You Like It.”

Alden’s vivaciously inventive production, which premiered at the English National Opera in 2008, retains that spirit of looseness without letting the proceedings devolve into chaos. And a mostly first-rate cast, nimbly led by debuting conductor Julian Wachner, brings Handel’s score vividly to life.

A Parisienne

The title character, originally the founding queen of Naples, is reimagined as a sleekly devil-may-care Parisienne of the 1920s, holding court in her spacious white-on-white apartment (Andrew Lieberman’s sets, expertly lit by Adams Silverman, are a marvel of unfussy elegance).

Orbiting around her is a constellation of hangers-on who seem to live only for love — although the patterns of desire and deception are so fluid and complex that not even a helpful diagram in the program book will quite sort them out. Suffice it to say that nearly everyone ends up with someone, which is all that romantic comedy really requires.

Alden’s invocation of Dada and Surrealism — one character is explicitly cast as a reincarnation of the artist Man Ray — could easily have turned into a license for anything-goes mayhem. But he uses his liberty with impressive discipline.

Yes, there are many moments in the production that come out of left field, including a tap-dancing countertenor, shadow puppetry, toilet jokes and a wonderful homage to the silent film genius Harold Lloyd. But because the work’s emotional logic remains so focused, the whimsical phantasmagoria of the staging feels inviting rather than forced.

Much of the emotional truth of the evening — the sudden bursts of rage and scorn, the drooping evocations of self-pity and despair — derives from the acuity of Handel’s writing, and the beauty and sensitivity with which this cast sings it.

Although Partenope gets top billing, the true heart of the opera is with two other characters: the princess Rosmira, who has arrived in male disguise to chase down her errant lover Arsace, and Arsace himself, who is too susceptible and weak-willed to choose between Rosmira and Partenope.

As Rosmira, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack delivered a superb follow-up to her star turn in last season’s “Barber of Seville,” delivering athletic, perfectly tuned coloratura and letting the audience feel viscerally the depth of the character’s ardor and pain. Countertenor David Daniels is never less than arresting onstage, but even by those standards his Arsace was a triumph: full-toned, expressively probing and marked by vivid vocal colors.

Unfortunately, the evening’s one weak link was the Partenope of soprano Danielle de Niese. She looked stunning (Jon Morrell’s costumes were eye-catching throughout), and she inhabited center stage with dazzling charisma, but apart from one long and exquisitely shaped aria midway through Act 2, her singing was beset by breathy tone and shaky high notes.

Strong singing

No such complaints could be made about the rest of the cast. The young American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo made an unforgettable company debut as Armindo, who spends the entire evening mooning after Partenope; Costanzo shaped his character with an abundance of vocal allure and physical resourcefulness.

Tenor Alek Shrader was a vocal dynamo as Emilio, the invading general whom Alden has reinvented as Man Ray, and bass-baritone Philippe Sly as Partenope’s captain of the guard — here wittily recast as the gay best friend — sang magnificently in his all-too-few arias.

The continuing integration of Handel’s work into the mainstream of our operatic life remains one of the great success stories of the past decades. A production like this one, blending musical seriousness with theatrical panache, can only help matters further.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. E-mail: Twitter: @JoshuaKosman

Thu, October 16, 2014

Review: Handel’s ‘Partenope’ hilariously updated to 1920s
San Jose Mercury News

Wachner, the music director of New York’s Trinity Wall Street, also made an indelible impression. In his first San Francisco Opera appearance, the conductor led a buoyant reading of Handel’s score, one that supported the singers well and kept the orchestral contributions flowing at a luxuriant pace. The audience, laughing and cheering, did the rest.

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Review: Handel's 'Partenope' hilariously updated to 1920s

By Georgia Rowe, Correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO -- The course of true love nearly runs amok in "Partenope." The new San Francisco Opera production of Handel's opera is a glorious romp through the world of amorous attraction.Women wear the pants -- literally -- in this passionate 1730 comedy. Disguises, deception, cross-dressing and sexual innuendo drive the opera, which opened Wednesday in the first of six performances at the War Memorial Opera House.This is the first time the company has produced "Partenope," and the production -- directed by Christopher Alden, conducted by Julian Wachner and featuring an agile cast well-suited to the extreme demands of Baroque singing -- turns the opera's gender-bending plot into a nonstop parade of visual and vocal delights.

To put it delicately, the characters in "Partenope" are hot to hook up. Queen Partenope is loved by three men: Arsace, Armindo, and Emilio. Rosmira, rejected by Arsace, disguises herself as Eurimene, a young man who comes to court claiming he's been shipwrecked.Arsace, struck by Eurimene's resemblance to Rosmira, wonders if he still carries a torch for his former flame. Partenope, meanwhile, spends most of the opera in a state of fevered indecision: She vows to marry Arsace, yet feels a powerful attraction for Armindo -- all the while keeping Emilio on a string.If this sounds confusing, it all becomes clear in Alden's heated staging. The director keeps the libidinous stirrings of these six characters on the front burner throughout.AdvertisementHis production, originally created for English National Opera and Opera Australia, sets the action in Paris during the 1920s. It's a slightly surreal vision, as if we've been plunged into a Dada film by Man Ray. Alden's design team -- Andrew Lieberman (sets), Adam Silverman (lighting) and Jon Morrell (costumes) -- make Partenope's salon an ideal place for parties, card games and frequent trysts. The first of three acts (with two intermissions) opens on a sleek white set, with an elegant Art Deco staircase.

Alden's machinations are hilarious. The director plays the characters like chess pieces, moving them through episodes of love and rage, agony and rapturous bliss. Faces are slapped; undergarments are thrown. The lovers smoke, fortify themselves with cocktails and suffer. The plot finally turns when Arsace challenges the disguised Rosmira to a bare-chested duel.

"Partenope" is a comedy, but there's a deep feeling of longing and pathos underlying the laughs. If the lovelorn characters are trapped in absurdities of their own making, the range of emotion expressed in Handel's score is affectingly real. At Wednesday's opening, the singers mined it for every nuance.

Countertenor David Daniels, a veteran Handel singer, was the evening's standout as Arsace. His voice is a marvel: large, brilliant and full of feeling. And he's equally adept in the role's comic business. His account of the aria "Ch'io parta" combined melting beauty and an apt air of devastation. Soprano Danielle de Niese, singing her first Partenope, gives a magnetic performance. Appearing onstage initially in a slinky trouser suit, she made an appealingly chic queen, and her singing was strong and vibrant throughout. Her great aria, "L'amor ed il destin,'" was a highlight.

As the groveling Armindo, Anthony Roth Costanzo's displayed a velvety countertenor and broad vaudevillian skills; he falls down the stairs while singing one number and tap dances through another. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack sounds dazzling in Rosmira's rage arias. Firm-voiced tenor Alek Shrader makes Emilio a shadowy artist who photographs the amorous proceedings, and Philippe Sly is a sturdy Ormonte.

Wachner, the music director of New York's Trinity Wall Street, also made an indelible impression. In his first San Francisco Opera appearance, the conductor led a buoyant reading of Handel's score, one that supported the singers well and kept the orchestral contributions flowing at a luxuriant pace. The audience, laughing and cheering, did the rest.

San Francisco Opera

Presenting "Partenope"Music by George Frideric Handel, libretto writer unknown
Through: Nov. 2
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$370; 415-864-3330,

Wed, October 1, 2014

Julian Wachner – Works for Orchestra and Voices

The other large work in the collection, “come, My Dark-Eyed One” was commissioned for a concert with the Brahms Requiem. For contrast, Wachner chose a secular subject, the loss of a loved one and the emotions it triggers. I found the work quite compelling as the protagonist works his way through to acceptance. To my ears, it sounded like a companion piece to Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” — and one that seems to be more successful in its evocation of atmosphere and drama.

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Julian Wachner – Works for Orchestra and Voices

Oct 1st, 2014 | By Ralph Graves

In the liner notes for this three-CD set, Julian Wachner writes,

“My music lives in a sound world that seeks to balance harmony and melody, movement with stasis, simplicity with chaos, and contemporary techniques with unabashed borrowing from the past.”

And for the most part, he succeeds in achieving that balance, as this new three-CD collection shows. For the most part, this release presents Wachner’s works for orchestra and voices. Wachner’s extensive background as a church musician has given him an intimate familiarity with the possibilities of the human voice, which makes his writing for it particularly effective.

Wachner’s musical style isn’t easy to pin down. Sometimes his music is aggressively atonal, sometimes tonal, but always in his own voice. The First Symphony is a good example. The way Wachner voices his chords sometimes give the orchestra a hollow and ethereal sound. And his layering of voices and cross-rhythms make the orchestra sound massive, while blurring the edges.

The other large work in the collection, “come, My Dark-Eyed One” was commissioned for a concert with the Brahms Requiem. For contrast, Wachner chose a secular subject, the loss of a loved one and the emotions it triggers. I found the work quite compelling as the protagonist works his way through to acceptance. To my ears, it sounded like a companion piece to Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles” — and one that seems to be more successful in its evocation of atmosphere and drama.

And there’s much more to this collection. There are several short sacred songs that are absolute gems, as well as the duet for trumpet and organ “Blue, Green, and Red,” that takes this instrumental combination far beyond the world of Jeremiah Clarke.

Overall, this collection provides a good overview of Wachner’s style. There are large, complex works, and short ones of more modest aims. Whether you’re interested in choral music or contemporary music, this one’s highly recommended.

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 and Other Works
NOVUS NY; Choir of Trinity Wall Street; Majestic Brass Quintet; Trinity Youth Choir; Jessica Muirhead, soprano; Christopher Burchett, bass-baritone; Steven Burns, trumpet

Fri, September 12, 2014

Review: Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices
Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon…

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner, Symphony No. 1, Works for Orchestra and Voices

Over the centuries there have been many composers who spent a good deal of time conducting others' works and learning a great deal thereby on the specifics of orchestration and musical conception of the greats first-hand. Julian Wachner is a contemporary who has done that. He has especially done so in the context of sacred music, holding down a number of musical directorships/conducting positions at such institutions as the famous Trinity Church on Wall Street.

He comes to us today in the guise of a composer, and an excellent one he is. Specifically we have a three-CD set of his music, performed under his conductorship, in the Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations, Works for Orchestra and Voices (Musica Omnia 0604 3-CDs).

The set contains so much that is worthwhile that trying to discuss each work might get a bit tedious. Suffice to say that the 13 works proffered in the set cover a good deal of time, from the 1989 "Psalm Cycle I" to the 2014 "Blue, Red and Green". In the process the set covers a developmental traversal of musical space as well. A good bit of it is sacred music, most is very contemporary in tone, though a few channel early church music styles to their own end. Wachner has an excellent knack of getting stirring sounds from voices, both soloists and choirs. He also has mastered orchestration so that the instrumental parts work together for a lucid transparency or a rousing mass of varied voices.

Wachner has a pronounced rhythmic sensibility and puts it to good use in movements that have shifting meters and a dynamic thrust to them. At some point you occasionally detect a Bernstein influence (the Mass sometimes comes to mind as a precursor), other times some of the voicings and counterpoints of later Reich also seem to be launching points, still other moments there is a jazziness to it all. But then there are the tender and mysterium aspects, too. None of it sounds derivative. It does seem an integral part of a developed grand tradition of sacred music, with Wachner taking his place in a potential pantheon. But time will be the judge of that.

In the meantime we have this set to appreciate. The works are substantial, the performances lucid and bold in outline (listen for example to the Trinity Choirs) and the sound well-staged, spectacular.

Anyone who wants to know what's good out there in American modern sacred music must hear this. If that is not your specialization you will still be well-served by this set. The music comes from a composer who needs to be attended to, for music that holds its own in a modern contemporary tonal mode.

Very recommended.

by Grego Applegate Edwards

Fri, September 12, 2014

Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1, “Incantations and Lamentations” and Voices

[Wachner’s] comprehension of massive orchestration shine[s] through in a vast spectrum of sound. Wachner’s work, though based in the current ideas of mixing styles, tonality and rhythmic structures, is very much a style all his own.

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Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1, "Incantations and Lamentations" and Voices

by Steven Bergman
Friday Sep 12, 2014

Musica Omnia has released an extensive, three-disc set of music by the young composer/conductor, Julian Wachner. With over three hours of music to absorb and enjoy, it is blatantly evident why Wachner is such an in-demand musician.

As many musicians worship at the altar of the composers of pre-1900, from Bach to Mozart, Wachner clearly has a strong affinity for his Bernstein, Copland, and Stravinsky. His compositions, a diverse melange of material written over the past 25 years, show a strong dedication and understanding of the more current greats, in addition to Wachner's own mentor, Lukas Foss (1922-2009).

The most impressive works adorn the first disc of this collection. Wachner's "Symphony No. 1: Incantations and Lamentations" (2001) is a tremendous piece that give us our initial listen to his own ensemble, NOVUS NY, and The Choir of Trinity Wall Street, of which Wachner has been the director since 2011. The groups display a clear appreciation of Wachner's style as both a composer and their conductor, and create a powerful sound through the polyphonic sections, as well as a soulful interpretation of his softer movements.

Soprano Jessica Muirhead exhibits a strong, resonating sound throughout her contributions to this recording, especially on Wachner's two "Psalm Cycles." A string quartet, Muirhead, and Wachner himself present the composer's "Psalm Cycle I" (1989), and the Majestic Brass Quintet accompany's the artists on "Psalm Cycle III" (2003). Both pieces are predominantly lightly orchestrated, allowing Muirhead to completely draw in the listener with the sacred texts.

Two other works were commissions, and include "Come, My Dark-Eyed One," commemorating Boston's Back Bay Chorale in 2009, and Wachner's, "Blue Green Red," written for the International Trumpet Guild, with Trumpeter Stephen Burns.

Wachner's vast experience music directing and composing for church groups from Boston to Montreal, have clearly given the musician an expansive knowledge of the sacred texts, and his comprehension of massive orchestration shine through in a vast spectrum of sound. Wachner's work, though based in the current ideas of mixing styles, tonality and rhythmic structures, is very much a style all his own.

Sat, August 30, 2014

The diverse talents of choral director and composer Julian Wachner
Classical Music Examiner is hard to resist the spell of Wachner’s high-energy rhetoric, particularly when he is working with large numbers of resources…

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The diverse talents of choral director and composer Julian Wachner

by Stephen Smoliar

August 30, 2014

I first encountered Julian Wachner and his Choir of Trinity Wall Street in September of 2012 with their release of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 54 oratorio Israel in Egypt. That performance made a sufficiently deep and stimulating impression to be included in my “Memorable recordings for 2012” article. More significantly in the “real world,” it received a nomination for Category 74 (Best Choral Performance) in the 55th annual GRAMMY awards. I am sure I was not the only one to be highly disappointed when it did not come away with the award in that category.

Nevertheless, as I have learned more about Wachner, I have come to believe that he is more interested in building an extensive portfolio of repertoire than in garnering a shelf of awards. In 2010 he began a project with Naxos to record his own choral compositions as part of their American Classics series. The first volume in that project consisted of a single CD sampling both secular and sacred compositions. The second volume then virtually erupted with a three-CD set that Naxos produced in conjunction with Musica Omnia.

While the first volume consisted almost entirely of a cappella performances by the Elora Festival Singers conducted by Noel Edison (with organ accompaniment provided by Michael Bloss on four of the tracks), the second volume was subtitled Works for Orchestra and Voices. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street served as the primary vehicle to showcase Wachner’s compositions, joined by NOVUS NY, a contemporary music orchestra that is also affiliated with Trinity Wall Street. The third CD also features instrumental performances by the Majestic Brass Quintet. In addition, there are vocal solos by soprano Jessica Muirhead and bass-baritone Christopher Burchett, an instrumental duo for trumpet (Stephen Burns) and organ (Wachner), and the participation of the Trinity Youth Choir on several selections.

All this has the potential for a healthy abundance of spectacle, and Wachner’s rhetoric certainly does not shy away from the spectacular. His musical education began with cello and piano lessons at the University of Southern California at the age of four and continued all the way up to receiving a Doctor of Music Arts degree from Boston University’s School of the Arts, where one of his teachers was Lukas Foss. If he learned nothing else from Foss, he probably learned how to approach any compositional project, no matter how large or how intimate, with a total absence of fear.

Note that NOVUS NY is definitely not a “chamber” orchestra. It is a large-scale symphony orchestra, whose personnel are listed in the accompanying booklet. That includes six percussionists, and the album is organized in such a way that one quickly appreciates how Wachner can keep all of them busy. The first two tracks of the first CD are the two movements (which Wachner calls “parts”) of his first symphony, subtitled Incantations and Lamentations, these being the titles of those parts. In spite of its title, “Incantations” is strictly instrumental; but, if the goal of an incantation is to establish focused attention on a ritual, then this part of the symphony certainly achieves that goal, even if the nature of the ritual itself is not particularly clear. (For many of us, going to a concert hall to experience a performance is ritual enough.) The second part is divided into sections entitled “Prayer,” “Exile,” “Remembrance,” and “Reconciliation.”

At this point it is worth noting that the 36-page booklet that accompanies this recording does not include texts for any of the vocal selections. It does, however, provide a URL for finding those texts; but, as of this writing, that URL is ineffective. This is unfortunate, since it is clear from the booklet text (as well as the selections on the first volume) that Wachner has a keen sense of literature, as well as music. He has clearly given considerable attention to the relationship between words and music. However, he also tends to weave thickly-textured fabrics, whether in a cappella settings or in conjunction with instrumental accompaniment on a massive scale.

The attentive listener definitely deserves support from full knowledge of his texts, particularly when they are at their most literary. In this respect the first volume is preferable for those just beginning to know Wachner’s compositions, since the URL for the text sources is more reliable. On the other hand it is hard to resist the spell of Wachner’s high-energy rhetoric, particularly when he is working with large numbers of resources, even if one is not always exactly certain of what the words are trying to say.

It is also important to observe that Wachner is willing to engage his resources in the service of contemporary composers, rather than solely for his own music. His latest Musica Omnia recording, released a little over two weeks ago, presents a single composition, the Opus 16 of Ralf Yusuf Gawlick, entitled Missa gentis humanæ (mass for the human race). This is scored for eight voices a cappella and is dedicated to both Wachner and the “Eight Great” Trinity Wall Street vocalists participating in the recording, sopranos Sarah Brailey and Linda Lee Jones, altos Luthien Brackett and Melissa Attebury, tenors Steven Caldicott Wilson and Timothy Hodges, and basses Thomas McCargar and Jonathan Woody.

Gawlick is a German composer of Kurdish descent. Ironically, he has never lived in his native land or the town in which he was born. One result of his background, however, is a polyglot approach to text that goes beyond the Latin origins of the Mass text. Opus 16 has the subtitle “Von B-A-S-I-A beflügelt,” which basically means that the music was inspired by the letters of his wife’s name, Basia. Following the German “spelling” conventions, these provide the names of pitches as follows:

B = B-flat
A = A
S (Es) = E-flat
AS = A-flat
SI = B natural

Opus 16 begins with the vocalists humming these pitches. They then sing them to the names of the Hebrew letters, followed by singing Basia’s name. The names of the letters are then sung in Greek, followed by the Introit text sung in Latin. As the Mass itself proceeds, Gawlick interpolates texts from other sources as diverse as Virgil, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert.

One cannot help but be reminded of the relationship between sacred and secular text in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem;” but the vocal resources are so intimate in Gawlick’s music that there is no danger of confusing the two composers. Indeed, it is because of this intimacy that Gawlick’s Opus 16 rises above the level of mere intellectual exercise. One gets a clear sense of his own religious seriousness of purpose in this music and his ability to invoke secular sources to affirm that seriousness.

Wachner thus deserves as much credit for bringing a composer like this to the attention of the listening public as he does for his efforts to record his own music.

Thu, August 28, 2014

Wachner issues Boston-born compositions on CD
The Boston Globe

Since Wachner’s work is weighted heavily toward sacred music, “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” stands somewhat apart…

...the series of moods that unfold is astonishingly clear, from yearning to playfulness to painful solitude. The third movement is an unmistakably erotic scene built around Sara Teasdale’s “Joy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!”

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Wachner issues Boston-born compositions on CD

By David Weininger | Globe Correspondent  

August 28, 2014

Julian Wachner — composer, conductor, keyboardist, teacher, and all-around musical polymath — is now best known as director of music and the arts at Trinity Wall Street, a New York church with an enviably robust music program, but he was once a prized member of Boston’s musical scene. He holds degrees from Boston University, and became the organist and choirmaster at BU’s Marsh Chapel while still an undergraduate. He directed Back Bay Chorale and the Providence Singers, and cofounded the short-lived yet valuable Boston Bach Ensemble. To every post he’s brought an ambition to expand boundaries, along with the endless energy necessary to maintain the number of simultaneous commitments he manages to juggle.

So it’s always worth keeping an eye on Wachner’s activity, which on the conducting side has included the Washington Chorus since 2008 and Trinity Wall Street since 2010, as well as guest conducting stints. On the composing side, the Musica Omnia label has just released a second volume of his choral compositions. The 3-CD set comprises works written over a 25-year period, spanning a gamut from highly specific liturgical pieces to large-scale concert works.

It’s a significant collection, and not just because of its size. “This recording completes my catalog,” Wachner said recently by phone from California. “I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks, and now it’s possible for all my music composed up to this point to be available in recorded form. And now I’m going to go on to the next chapter in my life.”

It’s worth noting at some length the two pieces that take up the first CD: the set’s longest, most ambitious works, with particularly strong Boston connections. Wachner wrote his First Symphony, “Incantations and Lamentations,” for Back Bay Chorale, which first performed it in May 2001, just prior to the composer’s departure for a position at McGill University. “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” composed for the same ensemble, was premiered in 2009 under its current director, Scott Allen Jarrett. Both are written for chorus and orchestra; the later work adds baritone and soprano soloists.

Since Wachner’s work is weighted heavily toward sacred music, “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” stands somewhat apart. Its libretto, which was assembled by Wachner’s then-fiancee, soprano Marie-Ève Munger, weaves together a series of poems that outline what Wachner called “kind of a ghost story between two lovers. You don’t know whether one’s dead, one’s alive, what the story is.”

‘I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks, and now it’s possible for all my music composed up to this point to be available in recorded form. And now I’m going to go on to the next chapter in my life.’

The narrative may be shadowy, but the series of moods that unfold is astonishingly clear, from yearning to playfulness to painful solitude. The third movement is an unmistakably erotic scene built around Sara Teasdale’s “Joy” and Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” Wachner recalled that after the first rehearsal of the movement, Jarrett wisecracked, “Anybody else need a cigarette?”

One eerily poignant aspect of the work is that its construction dovetailed with the dissolution of Wachner’s relationship with Munger. “Really, what the whole project becomes, for both of us, is the process of ending our relationship. It’s amazing, because our relationship ended with us just looking at each other and crying over the fact that this just could not work.” (Wachner married Emily Bloemker, a Trinity priest, in 2012.)

Where “Come, My Dark-Eyed One” is accessible enough for talented avocational choirs, the First Symphony, a series of psalm settings, is a fearsome specimen of post-expressionism, moving with hair-trigger speed between fury and uneasy stillness. The rhythms are almost feverishly violent.

The ferocity is theological as well as musical. The psalms on which the work is built span faith, anger, comfort, and suffering. Indeed, the core issue underlying the piece, so skillfully brought out by the music, is that the interleaving of all of these are necessary aspects of any true religious faith. As BU professor Wesley Wildman writes in a program note for the symphony, “Comfort in the face of suffering and loss is the hard-won fruit of a faith in God that does not shrink from welding together praise and accusation, hope and brokenness.”

For Wachner, the most difficult part of the composition was the setting of Psalm 137, a lament from the Babylonian exile. It contains a line that brings many up short: “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones/ And dashes them against the rock.” Wachner said that some of the singers at the premiere told him that they felt sick singing it.

“Most people avoid it,” he said of that line and its deep bitterness. “And I went headlong into it. Not to support its message, but to bring it to the forefront. It’s like, this is the issue we’re talking about: People who are so displaced that they can’t allow themselves into a forgiveness place.”

For all its stridency, the symphony ends in an oddly stable, if not quite serene, place. “I imagine this David figure, on the hills in this vast desert, these canons just echoing around. And the piece ends very questioningly but, to me, optimistically.”

Since the beginning of his career,
Wachner has negotiated a delicate balance between the roles of conductor and composer, fighting, much like Bernstein and Mahler did, to keep the former from overwhelming the latter. That struggle has grown more acute over the last few years, yet in the face of his demanding role at Trinity, he’s still able to compose, and will have a chamber symphony premiered next month.

“It’s just going to be the dance I have to do the rest of my life,” he said. “Because I will never be able to just sit in a room and compose. I need that activity as a conductor. Keeping the two going is important.”

David Weininger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

Thu, August 21, 2014

Family-Focused Reviews: Songs Sacred and Secular

The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers.

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INFODAD.COM: Family-Focused Reviews

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August 21, 2014

Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song—Music of the English Renaissance and 20th Century. Yale Schola Cantorum conducted by Simon Carrington. Delos. $16.99.
My Beloved’s Voice—Sacred Songs of Love. The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge conducted by Mark Williams. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Ralf Yusuf Gawlick: Missa gentis humanæ. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Julian Wachner. Musica Omnia. $13.99.
Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) and other works for orchestra and voices. Musica Omnia. $23.99 (3 CDs).
Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Man; Movie House; Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Roderick Williams, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Verdi: Lieder. Ramón Vargas, tenor; Joanna Parisi, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Capriccio. $16.99.

     Choral music is a niche product for classical-music aficionados, and religious choral music even more so – and modern choral music even more so. Yet although the result is niches within niches, there are some very fine recordings available for people whose tastes run in those directions, even if the CDs are not the sort to attract previously unconvinced listeners to the kind of music they present. Both Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song and My Beloved’s Voice, for example, combine some choral music that is very old indeed with some that is quite recent. The Yale Schola Cantorum’s performance on Delos includes the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner (1490-1545), a plainly set and for that reason emotionally effective work; the moving Te lucis ante terminum by Thomas Tallis (1503-1585); and Glorious and Powerful God and Second Evening Service by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), with Lucas Wong on organ. To the old Latin settings the CD adds The Glory and the Dream by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) – a curious and strangely effective centerpiece of the recording, using poems by William Wordsworth that celebrate nature as well as God, and do so in musical language that differs from that of the Renaissance but complements it surprisingly well. The beautifully balanced performances led by Simon Carrington make this a very engaging disc, and Thomas Murray, organist for the Bennett work, makes a noteworthy contribution to it.
     In a similar vein, but utilizing shorter pieces, the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge under Mark Williams presents 20 different works of highly varied provenance on a Signum Records release. These range from Sicut lilium by Antoine Brumel (1460-1515) and Nigra sum by Pablo Casals (1479-1528) to four pieces based on the Song of Solomon by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and Set me as a seal by Nico Muhly (born 1981). Indeed, the Song of Solomon is the underlying unifying factor for nearly all this music, whether interpreted in its original Old Testament form as a deep and highly sensual love song or, as Christians prefer, as a parable of the “wedding” of Christ and the church. The differing exegeses of the text allow for a wide variety of approaches to music based on it, and they are what Williams explores here – sometimes in highly interesting ways, sometimes in curious ones generated by the juxtaposition of music from very different times (e.g., Clemens non Papa, 16th century, followed by Louis Vierne, 20th; and Martin de Rivafrecha, 16th century, followed by one of Edvard Grieg’s Four Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies, 20th). The singing, in any case, is warm and emotionally communicative throughout the CD.
     There is warmth and beauty as well in the voices of eight members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in the Missa gentis humanæ (“Mass for the Human Race”) by Ralf Yusuf Gawlick (born 1969). Laid out like a traditional Latin Mass, the work is in fact a hybrid that mixes Mass elements with selections from the Gospel of John and poetry and prose by Virgil, Brecht, Plautus, Dostoevsky, Brecht, Sir Walter Scott and others. The result is a very unusual work indeed, celebrating within an entirely religious overall structure the things that make humans human and worth saving – by whom or what, when and under what circumstances, is another matter. Pagan, Christian and irreligious, the juxtaposed texts are intended to illuminate the many forms taken by faith throughout the ages, the intent being to unite all believers, and even unbelievers, under the grand umbrella of what it means to be human. A very ambitious piece that constantly seems ready to come apart at the seams – and that certainly shows those seams often enough – Missa gentis humanæ gets sensitive shaping and a high level of understanding from Julian Wachner on a Musica Omnia disc. But the work remains, when all is said (or sung) and done, a piece that strives mightily without ever managing to be as engaging or moving as Gawlick clearly wants it to be.
     Wachner does an equally effective conducting job in his own music – and is a fine organist in it, too. Musica Omnia’s three-CD compilation of Wachner’s works includes much that is jazzy and energetic as well as a good deal that is intended to be uplifting. This is a lot of Wachner, and as such is a release of even more limited appeal than is usual for a recording of contemporary music. In addition to Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) (2001), the recording includes Come, My Dark-Eyed One (2008); Regina Coeli (2002); Canticles (1990); Jubilate Deo (2006); Psalm Cycle I (1989) and Psalm Cycle III (2003); Blue Green Red (2014); Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances (1995); Holy, Holy, Holy (2009); Joy to the World (2004); and All Creatures of Our God and King (1992). The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers. These include NOVUS N.Y., a new-music orchestra; the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Choir; the Majestic Brass Quintet; singers Jessica Muirhead (soprano), Steven Wilson (tenor) and Christopher Burchett (bass-baritone); Stephen Burns on trumpet; Caroline Cole on harp; and Janet Yieh – as well as Wachner himself – on organ. Wachner also serves as conductor, and he certainly knows how to evoke the expressiveness of his own music. But, again, there is a lot of it here, and a certain tedium does set in as the settings progress, despite Wachner’s attempts to make the material as sonically varied as it can be – consistent with its subject matter.
     The subject matter mixes the sacred and the worldly on a new Naxos CD featuring music for baritone and full orchestra or chamber ensemble by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956). Falling Man (2009-10) is a dramatic scena based on Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel; here there is an attempt to find meaning in an ultimately meaningless act of vicious mass murder, with Fuchs using excerpts from DeLillo’s prose to try – as have many others – to extract something of value from an act of war perpetrated by determined killers. Roderick Williams’ singing is effective – not only here but also throughout the disc – but the subject matter has been handled so often, with much the same intent, that the work is less emotionally potent than Fuchs intends. Movie House (2007) is something quite different: a setting of seven poems by John Updike, and an altogether lighter and less-fraught work. At more than half an hour, it goes on rather too long for the quality of its material, although it does contain some well-chosen and well-set words. More moving and thoughtful, and ultimately more meaningful even than Falling Man, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1977), in which Fuchs sets four poems by William Blake – whose strange, sometimes mystical sensibility stays with the listener far more tellingly than does the much more straightforward and self-consciously emotive work of DeLillo and Updike. Fuchs’ setting does not compare to the far more extensive and deeper one of William Bolcom – one of the genuine masterpieces of 20th-century music. But Fuchs’ handling of the material is careful, involving and knowing, and shows his attraction to and understanding of Blake’s unusual, sometimes difficult-to-fathom visions. JoAnn Falletta leads the London Symphony Orchestra with sure-handedness and a clear comprehension of the music, giving Fuchs’ works plenty of opportunities to connect with listeners and move them.
     Vocal connection with the audience – as viscerally as possible – is what the operas of Verdi are all about. Even Verdi operatic excerpts can make a strong emotional connection with listeners, which is why there are so many CDs of them. But the new Capriccio disc featuring tenor Ramón Vargas is not just another one of these. Vargas here presents a side of Verdi that is almost as unfamiliar as his chamber music: his songs. These are works in which the opera composer experimented with the emotions he wanted to evoke and the music in which he wanted to cloak those feelings. Like the sketches of a painter, the songs of Verdi are simpler and often more-forthright, more-raw visions of what he would later do in his opera arias and ensembles. They are pale by comparison with his theatrical works for voice and orchestra, and will not be particularly gripping even for most Verdi fans; but they do provide insights into the way Verdi used music and words to characterize particular individuals and to bring forth the emotional expressions that he wanted to convey. Vargas here offers two sets of Romances, with six songs in each, plus individual tracks both secular and sacred. On the worldly side are L’esule, La seduzione, Il poveretto and Stornello; on the religious one are Tantum ergo and Ave Maria. Ably accompanied by pianist Charles Spencer on all the songs and by soprano Joanna Parisi on a few of them, Vargas evokes and emotes words by St. Thomas Aquinas, Goethe (via Luigi Balestra), poet and librettist Andrea Maffei, and others, showing that although Verdi was scarcely an expert in lieder, he was quite capable of utilizing the form of the song to explore a variety of thoughts and feelings – and later expand upon that form to produce arias with far stronger emotive qualities. Fine singing and unusual repertoire combine to make this disc an intriguing one, albeit for a decidedly limited audience.

Tue, August 12, 2014

Trinity Wall Street’s Music Director Considers Himself a ‘Composer Who Conducts’
The Wall Street Journal

“One of the difficulties of being the conductor is there’s a built-in power dynamic,” said composer Nico Muhly. “You have to exploit that and undo it, and different people have different ways of doing that, and Julian’s is a successful one. He seems to be universally beloved and make great music at the same time.”

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Trinity Wall Street's Music Director Considers Himself a 'Composer Who Conducts'
'I'd Never Survive as a Guy Who Sits in a Log Cabin,' Julian Wachner Says

Musica Omnia is releasing a three-disc set of works by Julian Wachner, the music director at Trinity Wall Street. Photo: Polina Yamshchikov for the Wall Street Journal

Corinne Ramey

If there are two types of classical composers in the world, the artist-colony type and the extroverted sort, then the composer Julian Wachner falls squarely in the second camp.

"I'd never survive as a guy who sits in a log cabin, composing," he said. "I need the energy of people. I need the energy of music-making."

In New York's classical music scene, Mr. Wachner, 44 years old, is best known as a conductor and music director at Trinity Wall Street, the downtown church where he has created an ambitious music program, focusing on early and Baroque music, new commissions and festivals of works by composers like Stravinsky and Britten.

But the problem with his success at Trinity, he has found, is that it overshadows the reason he took the job in the first place.

"I think of myself as a composer who conducts," Mr. Wachner said recently, in a hotel lobby near his Tribeca home. "I always said that everything else in life was to support that habit."

On Tuesday, the label Musica Omnia, which is distributed by Naxos, releases a three-disc set of Mr. Wachner's compositions. The album showcases a range of forms and styles, from symphony to oratorio to choral works, performed by the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Novus NY, the Trinity-based contemporary music ensemble founded by Mr. Wachner.

Asked to describe his music, Mr. Wachner started with what it's not. "It's an American-sounding music, and it's so not the Bang-on-a-Can, post-Philip Glass world that most of my colleagues are living in right now," he said. (For the record, he has nothing against that minimalism-infused style, and loved conducting Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields" at the New York Philharmonic's biennial.)

"I see his work as very Americana, firmly following in the steps of Copland and Bernstein," said the creative producer Beth Morrison, referring to the hopeful, melodic aspect of Mr. Wachner's music.

Mr. Wachner's former teacher Marjorie Merryman, who is now provost and a dean at the Manhattan School of Music, called it "modern, but not pandering," with a strong sense of motion bolstered by direct harmony.

Composing, said Mr. Wachner, comes from improvisation. "I try to improvise daily, just to get the creative juices going," he said. "But the real way I write is by someone saying, 'I want you to write this piece, and your deadline is next month.' "

Born in Hollywood, Calif., Mr. Wachner grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and New York City. He began writing music at age 4 (and has the original manuscripts), and went through a rebellious teenage phase that involved dyeing his hair and playing at the punk-rock club CBGB.

These days, Mr. Wachner maintains a schedule just short of manic, commuting regularly between New York and Washington, D.C., where he directs the Washington Chorus. (An Amtrak enthusiast, he "knows all the redcap guys.")

At Trinity, he's not only programmed challenging music rarely heard in a church setting but integrated nontraditional music with church values.

"Julian brought into the picture an opera about human trafficking," said the Trinity vicar Anne Mallonee, of Du Yun's opera "Angel's Bone." "That was a great example of social outreach and music and education coming together to make a statement that people aren't even aware of."

Today, Mr. Wachner lives in Tribeca, with his wife, Emily, and their American bulldog, Sophie. Ms. Wachner is a reverend at Trinity, and the couple met at work.

One night, while the two were backstage after a Gotham Chamber Opera production, he realized that the woman on whom he had a crush was a minor celebrity.

"All the opera singers knew her. They were like, 'You're 'What Not to Wear' Emily!'" (Ms. Wachner holds the distinction of being the only Episcopal priest to have been on the TLC makeover show.)

Knowing Trinity's strict policies on sexual harassment, the two nervously went to their boss. "We were like, 'Who's going to get fired? Who's going to quit?'" recalled Mr. Wachner. "But the rector was like, 'This is great! You're in love! We like love.'"

Colleagues and friends described Mr. Wachner as a big personality with a hearty laugh, who is loved by his musicians.

"One of the difficulties of being the conductor is there's a built-in power dynamic," said composer Nico Muhly. "You have to exploit that and undo it, and different people have different ways of doing that, and Julian's is a successful one. He seems to be universally beloved and make great music at the same time."

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