Press

Sat, January 3, 2015

Review:  Saul NEW YORK CITY Trinity Baroque
Opera News

Wachner’s forces by and large sounded splendid, the many marvels of Handelian orchestration —celesta in a chorus, the flute and drum in the famous “Dead March,” the lamenting bassoons under bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s thrillingly intoned Ghost of Samuel — emerged tellingly. The Chorus of Trinity Wall Street displayed fine ensemble with precise cutoffs and proved commendably sonorous throughout.

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Saul

NEW YORK CITY
Trinity Baroque
1/3/15

For Trinity Baroque’s staging of Saul in St. Paul’s Church, a centerpiece of its increasingly essential annual Twelfth Night festival, director James Darrah and conductor Julian Wachner streamlined Handel’s striking 1738 score considerably, shedding the overture and many numbers (and even a recurring character, the High Priest) but fashioning an entrancing, ultimately moving music drama in the relatively intimate, acoustically excellent space. With the orchestra and — save for key dramatic moments — chorus at one end of the church, the action largely took place on a raised table surrounded by tables at which many spectators sat; others sat or stood in galleries above. No one could have been bored. Robert and Rachel Danes’s apt, handsome costumes (largely black and white) and the precise lighting by Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald forged a simple yet effective aesthetic, and Darrah deployed his singing actors like chess pieces.

Heard January 3 — the second of two performances — the whole cast merited praise. Christopher Dylan Herbert’s king — jealous and touchy from the get-go and starkly raving soon enough — evoked Sergei Eisenstein’s cinematic Ivan the Terrible, Nikolai Cherkassov, in both the affecting-but-almost-over-the-top-suffering and the youthful, vigorous good looks. For the Lear-like patriarch Charles Jennens’ text evokes, Herbert’s Saul looked an age with his daughters and David and younger than his son Jonathan; even graying his temples might have helped. An effective baritone with decent agility, Herbert strove to provide the power and color his instrument understandably lacked on the lower end of this bass role. 

As his youthful involuntary foil David, Anthony Roth Costanzo gave a musically and dramatically inspired performance. An assured and subtle Handelian, Costanzo’s legato-based countertenor sounded especially entrancing in the hero’s slow numbers:  he launched his initial aria “O King” with the first of several spectacular messe di voce and crafted challenging, stylish cadenzas, keeping the audience raptly at attention. Costanzo owned and inflected the text expertly — though oddly, like the rest of the cast, his words fuzzed over when singing while kneeling, in his case in the remarkable prayer “O Lord, whose mercies numberless”, with its trill-laden flourishes. A detailed actor, he revealed the pain and pride of the successful outsider to the court and made credible and telling the shepherd boy’s erotic attraction to both the princess Michal — whom Darrah wisely had tend David’s bloody wounds — and her brother Jonathan, his staunch advocate. Another countertenor, the stylish Ryland Angel, took the tenor role of Jonathan soundly enough and with abundant expression but with unexpected registration, often baritonal and merely occasional resorts into headiness at phrase endings. In a further Ivan the Terrible touch, Darrah had Saul strangle Jonathan viscerally at the end of Part II. Unorthodox as it was — the death of both father and son in battle is reported in Part III — the choice made visual sense, as Jonathan’s body remained onstage for his sisters and beloved friend to mourn. 

Wachner cast both sisters with fine, emotionally communicative sopranos. Jessica Muirhead’s bright, daring singing lit up the church. With a darker timbre and despite somewhat occluded diction, Marie-Eve Munger offered a moving, technically assured Michal. Alto Melissa Attebury riveted attention as a clarion Witch of Endor

Wachner’s forces by and large sounded splendid, the many marvels of Handelian orchestration —celesta in a chorus, the flute and drum in the famous “Dead March,” the lamenting bassoons under bass-baritone Dashon Burton’s thrillingly intoned Ghost of Samuel — emerged tellingly. The Chorus of Trinity Wall Street displayed fine ensemble with precise cutoffs and proved commendably sonorous throughout.  [spacer]  

DAVID SHENGOLD  

Sun, December 28, 2014

A Feast and a Lions’ Den, Conveyed in Multiple Ways
The New York Times

This event was part of the fourth annual Trinity Wall Street Twelfth Night Festival, a 12-day series at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, produced with the Gotham Early Music Scene. This production of “The Play of Daniel” was originally commissioned by the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Minter’s staging was conceived with that specific space in mind.

But the production proved very adaptable to Trinity Church when it was presented there for last year’s Twelfth Night Festival. I could imagine this music drama becoming a popular holiday season offering.

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A Feast and a Lions’ Den, Conveyed in Multiple Ways
‘The Play of Daniel,’ at Trinity Church

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

DEC. 28, 2014

When attending any kind of music drama written in a language other than English, American audiences have come to expect that the text will be performed in an English translation or some system of projected supertitles will be employed.

But for its acclaimed production of “The Play of Daniel,” the medieval music drama that dates from 12th-century France, Trinity Church has a charming solution to the problem that allows both for easy understanding of the story and fidelity to the original sources.

This production, directed by Drew Minter, with music direction by Mary Anne Ballard, begins with a storyteller, a woman costumed appropriately to biblical times, who welcomes the audience in conversational English. She then tells the whole story of the play based on “Belshazzar’s Feast” and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” two incidents from the biblical account of the Hebrew prophet Daniel. As she speaks, she introduces the costumed singers from the cast who essentially mime the entire play in under 10 minutes. Then, the actual music drama, which lasts about an hour, begins, with the text sung in the original Latin and Medieval French.

On Saturday afternoon, for the first of four performances, the storyteller was the affable Sarah Jane Harshman. When the music started with a solemn chant in Latin, even the children in the audience seemed engrossed, since they already knew what was going to happen.

This event was part of the fourth annual Trinity Wall Street Twelfth Night Festival, a 12-day series at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel, produced with the Gotham Early Music Scene. This production of “The Play of Daniel” was originally commissioned by the Cloisters, the Washington Heights branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Minter’s staging was conceived with that specific space in mind.

But the production proved very adaptable to Trinity Church when it was presented there for last year’s Twelfth Night Festival. I could imagine this music drama becoming a popular holiday season offering.

“The Play of Daniel,” scholars believe, was first performed by male youths of Beauvais Cathedral in France in the part of the 12th century. The source materials include the texts and vocal lines with only scant indications of what instruments might have been used. The vocal lines have long passages of chant and the medieval equivalent of pop tunes. But the rhythms of the melodies are not indicated. So Ms. Ballard had to rhythmatize, so to speak, the music.

As presented here, “The Play of Daniel” represents an informed speculation about what the music was like. The music is splendid, the story remains wonderful, and the performance by the cast, accompanied by an ensemble of recorders, lutes and other medieval instruments, was delightful.

The tenor James Ruff brought a virile voice and dignity to the role of Daniel, held captive by King Belshazzar, here the stentorian bass-baritone Peter Walker. The countertenor José Lemos was aptly eerie as the usurping King Darius. The soprano Sarah Pillow radiated calm as the wise Queen, Belshazzar’s mother.

“The Play of Daniel” is for the most part a choral work, and these appealing singers, costumed colorfully (by Sasha Richter) as obsequious counselors, Magi, soldiers and two angels, performed the processional chants and fetching songs with penetrating sound and rich character.

Fri, December 26, 2014

Performing Arts: 2014 in Review
Washington Life

1.  A First of Many: The Washington Chorus gave a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” for its season opener. The chorus itself has performed the work several times before, but it was the first time music director Julian Wachner had ever conducted the work professionally. In his post reception remarks, Wachner shared the fact that he steered away from approaching the work because he never had a choir that could perform it. The maestro could not have asked for a better first outing with such a large-scale work. Homegrown bass Kevin Thompson got the opportunity to make his Kennedy Center main stage debut unexpectedly after being called to replace the previously cast bass soloist. What a heartwarming moment it was to witness two young men experience two unique musical milestones in the context of a large-scale performance.

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Performing Arts: 2014 in Review
Posted on 26 December 2014

A look back at top performances and highlights of the Washington arts scene.

By Patrick D. McCoy

It has been quite a vibrant year for the arts in our nation’s capital. We’ve rounded up our “Top 5″ highlights from 2014 and we look forward to continued coverage of our mainstay performances at the Kennedy Center and the Music Center at Strathmore, as well as new outings, performances and conversations with great artists.

5. Recordings, sopranos and divas:  You don’t have to go very far to find star-quality opera singers, especially sopranos. Two talented sopranos embarked on unique concert and recording projects. Danielle Talamantes recently hosted a launch recital for her new CD “Canciones espanolas” featuring the music of Spanish composers not commonly recorded. Accompanied by pianist Henry Dehlinger, the recording is a wonderful musical exploration of vocal repertoire that sometimes does not get equal attention in the concert hall.   Downtown at All Soul’s Church, Marlissa Hudson took it all the way out of the box in a special program she assembled called “The Conversation.” A concert fusing jazz, gospel and classical music together, Hudson uniquely created a space that allowed seemingly different genres to co-exist together.

4. Saving the day: Washington National Opera presented duo opera couple soprano Ailyn Perez and tenor Stephen Costello in what was billed as a joint effort. The program actually became the impromptu Kennedy Center recital debut for Perez in light of her husband’s illness which prevented him from performing with this wife. Though the audience may have been disappointed at first, Perez wowed them with a diverse program of recital repertoire and opera arias. We left wanting to hear more from this voice that certainly has the making of a superstar soprano.

3.  Across State Lines: WL Performing Arts served as moderator for the symposium series at the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC. Founded by Lee Pringle, the festival celebrates the contributions of African American classical musicians.  Also participating from the Washington arts community was Folger Consort manager Jennifer Bowman and Wayne Brown, who served as director of music and opera for the National Endowment of the Arts before becoming CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre.

2.  New Lady in Town: This year’s addition to the pantheon of arts leadership in Washington was Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. Rutter, the center’s first female president, had her first official outing at the National Symphony Opening Ball Concert. Also on hand for the festivities was concert violinist Joshua Bell, who added to the air of celebration apparent with Rutter’s arrival.

1.  A First of Many: The Washington Chorus gave a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” for its season opener. The chorus itself has performed the work several times before, but it was the first time music director Julian Wachner had ever conducted the work professionally. In his post reception remarks, Wachner shared the fact that he steered away from approaching the work because he never had a choir that could perform it. The maestro could not have asked for a better first outing with such a large-scale work. Homegrown bass Kevin Thompson got the opportunity to make his Kennedy Center main stage debut unexpectedly after being called to replace the previously cast bass soloist. What a heartwarming moment it was to witness two young men experience two unique musical milestones in the context of a large-scale performance.

As we move into 2015, we await the many performance opportunities ahead as the arts get into full swing.

Thu, December 18, 2014

Again, the Angels Sing
The New York Times

The Trinity performances, conducted over the last decade or so by Julian Wachner, are more stable from year to year. The vocal soloists are drawn from the splendid choir, and the period-instrument band, led by the estimable violinist Robert Mealy, includes some of New York’s finest players.

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Again, the Angels Sing
‘Messiah’ by the Philharmonic and the Trinity Choir

By JAMES R. OESTREICHDEC. 18, 2014

The perennial “Messiah” productions in New York split between change and sameness in varying degrees. The two that returned this week — those by the New York Philharmonic, on Tuesday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra, on Wednesday evening — in some ways represent the extremes.

A certain amount of change has been built into the Philharmonic performances in recent years, as the orchestra has turned to a rotating roster of early-music conductors. This year, Gary Thor Wedow, who made his Philharmonic debut with “Messiah” in 2012, has returned.

The changes can be subtle and hard to detect amid an orchestra of modern instruments playing at modern pitch (a half tone higher than Baroque). This year, for example, Mr. Wedow introduces a theorbo (a twanging, long-necked lute, played here by Daniel Swenberg) into the continuo mix, though its “marvelous sonorities,” as Mr. Wedow rightly calls them in a program note, scarcely register.

More obvious is his introduction of a boy soprano in the recitatives of angelic prophecy. The 11-year-old Connor Tsui is utterly charming in his short proclamations, which he performs from memory (being, after all, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus).

But Mr. Wedow’s playing of a virginal, a small harpsichordlike instrument, to accompany those brief numbers, with a harpsichordist available, seems mere affectation. The curious-looking instrument stands in front of him throughout, almost wholly unused, as a mere distraction.

Other elements of change include the vocal soloists, different from year to year. The standout this time is Iestyn Davies, a light-voiced but alluring countertenor, in the alto arias. The others — Camilla Tilling, soprano; Michael Slattery, tenor; and James Westman, baritone — offer more conventionally operatic weight, which sits heavily on Handel. The Westminster Symphonic Choir is typically excellent.

The Trinity performances, conducted over the last decade or so by Julian Wachner, are more stable from year to year. The vocal soloists are drawn from the splendid choir, and the period-instrument band, led by the estimable violinist Robert Mealy, includes some of New York’s finest players.

Especially notable among the vocal soloists this year are Marie-Eve Munger and Jessica Muirhead, sopranos; Luthien Brackett, mezzo-soprano; Clifton Massey, countertenor; and Stephen Sands, tenor. Christopher Burchett, who handled most of the bass arias well on Wednesday, hit the shoals in his big number, “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Was it a matter of trying too hard to impress? That, in any case, is where the performances at Avery Fisher and Trinity Church converged.

In both, there were numerous instances of melodic embellishment run riot. Graceful (yes, the appropriate little ornaments used to be called graces), tasteful little turns and flourishes can add immeasurably to performances of Baroque music. But each of these offered several instances of gross display, with the music sometimes almost rewritten.

It is hard to believe that much of this was, in the motto that Trinity has arrogated to its performance, “the way Handel intended.”

Tue, November 18, 2014

The Season at SFO
The Wall Street Journal

Baroque music specialist Julian Wachner led a molto simpatico orchestra of 40, and played harpsichord continuo. Anyone comfortable with Handel’s early operas would have been pleased with the music.

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Opera Review

The Season at SFO
San Francisco Opera performs Bellini’s “Norma,” Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Puccini’s “Tosca,” Handel’s “Partenope” and Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”
By David Littlejohn

San Francisco

Taken altogether, I prefer the better operas of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner—along with a few works by modern composers—to those of Vicenzo Bellini. But the astonishing vocal quality of the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” which opened the fall season in September, convinced me that it may be the one perfect opera, even if it is almost impossible to get it right.

This emotionally compelling music-drama, which reveals the loves of two druid priestesses for Pollione, the leader of the invading Roman forces, was the best-sung version of the opera I have heard since January 1958, when Maria Callas quit after one spellbinding act in Rome. I have heard stronger Polliones than Russell Thomas, although he held his own alongside the two female leads. In a major local debut, Jamie Barton sang Adalgisa, Norma’s protégée and rival for Pollione’s affections, as well as anyone I have heard since Marilyn Horne in 1982. Sondra Radvanovsky, repeating her triumph at the Metropolitan Opera last year, was the finest Norma I have encountered in over half a century, despite a couple of millisecond breaks and screeches on high notes. The dialogues, duets and trios of the three achieved a rare and blissful union, within and over Bellini’s sublime music. Unfortunately the sets, costumes, direction and physical acting fell below the level of the singing.

***

The first two acts of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” although graced with some lyrical arias and duets, were muddled by comic-opera performers and irrelevant, inconsequential action. More suave conducting, clever direction and imaginative sets might have helped.

The production was saved by the Amelia of Julianna Di Giacomo, who has a glowing, creamy soprano. At age 59, baritone Thomas Hampson may be slightly past his prime, but his duets and his mixed-emotion “Eri tu” were excellent. Ramón Vargas’s thin, pinched tenor was overwhelmed by Ms. Di Giacomo in the first two acts, but he came into his own (before and after being shot) during the masked ball. Dolora Zajick, now 62, can go on singing throaty Verdian witches as long as she likes.

***

The 2014 production of Puccini’s “Tosca” was designed in 1997 for the San Francisco Opera’s 75th anniversary, in a free adaptation of Armando Agnini’s traditional, historicist sets of many years ago. More elegant than expressive (her “Vissi d’Arte” was a showstopper, but then the aria always is), Lianna Haroutounian in the title role lacked the house-filling power of great Toscas I have heard in the past. Brian Jagde, her Cavaradossi, crooned all of his three big arias with a warm, well-placed tenor. But he also showed little of the ringing tone or vocal power of better predecessors. A major disappointment was Mark Delavan’s Scarpia: A memorable Wotan/Wanderer in our “American” Ring of 2011, he lacked the resonance and ring of evil this operatic arch-villain demands.

***

“Partenope” (1730), a little-known opera by Handel, uses one of his nonsensical plots of classical kings and queens in love. San Francisco Opera had the wisdom to engage a genuine diva, Danielle de Niese—the ruling mistress of the rapid, evenly spaced baroque trill—who displays in the title role a silvery voice that races all over Handel’s nearly impossible-to-sing score while she performs convincing love scenes, dances and circus acts. The company also had the audacity to rent Christopher Alden’s surrealistic Paris-in-the-1920s production from the English National Opera, which adds its own kind of nonsense on top of Handel’s. The gorgeous, inexhaustible Ms. de Niese was happily paired with David Daniels, the world’s leading countertenor, and three other suitors—one of whom is a woman in disguise. Baroque music specialist Julian Wachner led a molto simpatico orchestra of 40, and played harpsichord continuo. Anyone comfortable with Handel’s early operas would have been pleased with the music.

Mr. Alden’s chic, modernist production is set around an endless card party in a white Paris apartment, constantly interrupted for drinks from a bar alongside a spectacular curving staircase. Characters from 1730/1920 tap-dance, twirl batons, tumble down the stairs, get locked in a toilet, take off their clothes, make love onstage—all while hitting each hemidemisemiquaver precisely on target.

***

The real star of the company’s “La Cenerentola” (Rossini’s racy, racing 1817 version of “Cinderella”) was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988), who first designed and directed this production in 1969. It has been seen here during six seasons, as well as in many other places. The two gray, sculpted Maurice Sendak-style Renaissance sets (Don Magnifico’s tattered mansion and Prince Ramiro’s elegant palace) are a delight for a well chosen cast to play in. The singers—seven near-perfect principals and a clever 20-man chorus (the prince’s entourage)—were set dancing both by the almost unfailingly witty score and the ingenious direction of Ponnelle and his sympathetic re-creators. Three of the lead singers were new to us this time around—Karine Deshayes, a delicious French coloratura-mezzo, as enchanting as Magnifico’s mistreated housemaid as she was as a princess-to-be sparkling with diamonds; Carlos Chausson from Spain, who has sung Don Magnifico (one of the great basso buffo roles) all over Europe; and René Barbera as Prince Ramiro—with Efraín Solis (an Adler Fellow from Mexico) as his valet and alter ego—pushing his high tenor further than was wise.

The one problem I have with this jolly opera comes from Jacopo Ferretti’s hastily written (and largely borrowed) libretto. To transform a simple fairy tale into a full-length opera, he padded out every part with superfluous additions, which grow more irrelevant and repetitious as the work goes on. And on. The first hour of this 2½-hour-long work, in which the basic story is established, is pure Rossinian joy—for singers, audience and orchestra: Jesús López-Cobos and his bouncing band had the composer’s rhythms in their blood. But after that point, number after number leads one to ask, Why is this song here? If Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” is performed far more often than his “Cinderella,” there is reason for their relative popularity.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.

Mon, November 17, 2014

Wachner, Washington Chorus give powerful performance of ungainly ‘Missa Solemnis’
The Washington Post

Wachner, the group’s music director and conductor, didn’t try to paper over the work’s oddities. If anything, he highlighted its contrasts: the tension, for instance, between the quartet of soloists — individual voices in an essentially formal presentation — and the massed chorus, huge yet capable of an immediate intimacy. Toward the end of the opening “Kyrie” movement, after the ornate tangle of voices had meshed in tapestry, the unison chorus quietly emerged with the “son” in the word “eleison,” vivid and briefly free of the trappings of the orchestra that surrounded it.

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Wachner, Washington Chorus give powerful performance of ungainly ‘Missa Solemnis’

By Anne Midgette

Classical music critic/The Classical Beat November 17

We’re sometimes led to think that musical masterpieces of the past fit partly into molds: sonata form, symphony, concerto. In fact, however, many of them are sui generis, remembered less for exemplifying a genre than for exploding it.

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” is an example so ungainly that it has only a tenuous foothold in the standard repertoire: not exactly a rarity, but certainly less beloved than other genre-busting pieces, such as Verdi’s Requiem, or Brahms’s. Is it a religious work? A personal meditation? Uneven, discursive, inspired, all of the above? Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus offered no easy answers Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center. They simply presented the work, quirks and all, in an ultimately powerful performance.

Wachner, the group’s music director and conductor, didn’t try to paper over the work’s oddities. If anything, he highlighted its contrasts: the tension, for instance, between the quartet of soloists — individual voices in an essentially formal presentation — and the massed chorus, huge yet capable of an immediate intimacy. Toward the end of the opening “Kyrie” movement, after the ornate tangle of voices had meshed in tapestry, the unison chorus quietly emerged with the “son” in the word “eleison,” vivid and briefly free of the trappings of the orchestra that surrounded it.

It wasn’t a reading that necessarily aimed at beauty — fittingly enough, given the work’s inherent thorniness. The chorus’s tenor section often sounded strident and forced, baying out open-throated notes in their upper register on entrances — an approach that finally made sense in the final movement, the “Agnus Dei,” when their sound contrasted forcefully, in the “miserere,” with the warm, earthy bass of the soloist Kevin Thompson. (Thompson, substituting for an indisposed Morris Robinson, is a local talent with a burgeoning international opera career.)

The sense of unevenness and individuality extended to the four soloists; Thompson was the urbane fundament to a varied quartet. Beethoven was arguably not a natural writer for the voice and was completely deaf by the time he composed this work; the result is challenging music that sometimes flows beautifully and sometimes taxes the singers. This was most true, on Sunday, for the soprano and tenor: Julia Sophie Wagner’s shining soprano was, at one point in the “Sanctus,” forced to a near-scream, while Vale Rideout’s distinctive, baritonal tenor sounded strained for part of the performance. Rideout is clearly doing something right, though, because he sang his way into the piece and delivered his best work in the final movement. Daniela Mack provided a firm, clear mezzo.

Although this is a wild tangle of a piece, it elicited one of the most physically contained performances I can remember seeing from Wachner. Usually a conductor of big, emphatic gestures, he was unusually economical in his movements Sunday, and more authoritative, although I didn’t always hear from the orchestra the effects of the gestures I could see. He conducted graphically during the violin solo in the “Benedictus” but refrained from the superfluous gesture of conducting the soloist herself — Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra and of Sunday’s pickup orchestra, who occasionally drifted slightly flat but played radiantly in one of Beethoven’s gifts to violinists and those who love to hear them. Wachner also emphasized the off-kilter quality of some instrumental passages — in, for instance, the Sanctus (“osanna”) and Agnus Dei — which lurched lustily rather than lilted.

A flaw of the “Missa Solemnis” is rhetorical: Its movements often trail off as though unable to sustain the weight of their own arguments with a decisive conclusion, and its end is one of its weaker parts. Credit, then, to Wachner and the robust, well-prepared Washington Chorus for offering a reading in which this final movement, with its orchestral interleavings, seemed to make sense, not necessarily as a culmination, but simply because there was no more to be said.

Fri, November 14, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW: A Note on Philharmonia Baroque, with Julian Wachner & Andreas Scholl
The Berkeley Daily Planet

Wachner, following his San Francisco Opera debut with Handel’s Partenope, which featured countertenor David Daniel, a favorite with Philharmonia Baroque listeners, made his Philharmonia debut with grace and humor, acquitting well the various orchestral pieces—Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, Telemann’s Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe & Two Horns, as well as the prodigious First Brandenburg Concerto at the end of the program, which featured a half dozen winds and the violino piccolo.

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Arts & Events
MUSIC REVIEW: A Note on Philharmonia Baroque, with Julian Wachner & Andreas Scholl

Ken Bullock
Friday November 14, 2014

Last weekend saw a very rich musical program at the First Congregational Church, with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Julian Wachner conducting, playing Bach, Handel and Telemann, with countertenor Andreas Scholl singing arias from Handel's Giulio Cesara and Rodelinda as well as the Bach Cantata No. 170, "Vernügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust." 

Wachner, following his San Francisco Opera debut with Handel's Partenope, which featured countertenor David Daniel, a favorite with Philharmonia Baroque listeners, made his Philharmonia debut with grace and humor, acquitting well the various orchestral pieces--Bach's Sinfonia from Cantata No. 42, Telemann's Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe & Two Horns, as well as the prodigious First Brandenburg Concerto at the end of the program, which featured a half dozen winds and the violino piccolo.  

Wachner repeatedly brought the audience's attention to the excellent soloists, having horn player R. J. Kelley demonstrate the properties and style of his ancient instrument, different from the modern French horn in many ways, with some comments by Kelley ("There're very few people in the world who have mastered this valveless instrument," said Wachner of Kelley), and led the group in achieving a very bright, upbeat orchestral sound on a beautiful late Fall Sunday afternoon.  

He also commented on the music of both Brandenburg No. 1 and the Telemann Concerto, hoping to erase the possible sense that the more traditional Telemann was chosen merely as foil for the Bach: "It's quite a wonderful piece ... the Bach's still shocking, though!" 

Scholler's singing was brilliant, crystalline, sparkling and pointed, with charm and clarity of tone, and an occasional wistful or plaintive edge, quite different than that famous "melancholy" of Daniel. On the Bach Cantata, he showed a great sense of fluidity and continuity To repeated callbacks by the enthusiastic audience, he gave as encore an affecting rendition of Handel's "Ombra Mai Fu." 

Both singer and conductor are also composers--Wachner a very modern artist, Scholl more modest, known for his music to Deutsche Grammophon audiobooks of Hans Christian Andersen stories.  

It was a wonderful match of orchestra, guest conductor and guest artist, a satisfying afternoon.




 

Fri, November 14, 2014

Wachner auf: when a performer seeks to disturb
The Washington Post

So here’s a case study of how criticism can be unhelpful. Julian Wachner, the conductor and composer, made his debut with Philharmonia Baroque, an early-music orchestra, while I was in San Francisco, and had his performance reviewed 17 times and discussed intensely by the Rubin Institute fellows, most of them young musicians themselves. Their reviews represented a whole spectrum of opinions, but most of them took some note of the first Brandenburg concerto, which concluded the program. I was struck by that Brandenburg myself, and not in a good way; it was very fast and chaotic, especially at the beginning, to the point of seeming out of control.

I later posted on Facebook the two professional reviews of the performance that Julian linked himself. A Facebook friend, who had been at the concert, commented on my page that she had stayed after the concert for the post-concert talk, during which Julian stated that he had deliberately taken it very fast, and “that he hoped the listener found this section [the first movement] disturbing, because he believes it should be.”

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Wachner auf: when a performer seeks to disturb

By Anne Midgette November 14 at 11:19 AM

In the Washington Post: my profile of the conductor and composer Julian Wachner, who will lead the Washington Chorus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this afternoon.

I’ve been thinking about criticism with a particular self-conscious focus of late in the wake of, first, the story about Dejan Lazic, the pianist who wrote the Post asking that a review be taken offline, and second, my participation in the Rubin Institute in San Francisco, a workshop that seeks to identify and encourage the next generation of music critics, and involved talking about criticism for hours every day.

So here’s a case study of how criticism can be unhelpful. Julian Wachner, the conductor and composer, made his debut with Philharmonia Baroque, an early-music orchestra, while I was in San Francisco, and had his performance reviewed 17 times and discussed intensely by the Rubin Institute fellows, most of them young musicians themselves. Their reviews represented a whole spectrum of opinions, but most of them took some note of the first Brandenburg concerto, which concluded the program. I was struck by that Brandenburg myself, and not in a good way; it was very fast and chaotic, especially at the beginning, to the point of seeming out of control.

I later posted on Facebook the two professional reviews of the performance that Julian linked himself. A Facebook friend, who had been at the concert, commented on my page that she had stayed after the concert for the post-concert talk, during which Julian stated that he had deliberately taken it very fast, and “that he hoped the listener found this section [the first movement] disturbing, because he believes it should be.”

This was, to me, a bracing reminder of the occasional weakness of the critic-performer relationship: when an artist deliberately does something different and provocative, and the critics are quick to squeal, “Different!” without thinking about the reasons behind that difference, or whether it might have been intended. You could argue, of course, that the performer should let the audience know, through onstage remarks or program notes what he’s trying to do; but part of the effect would be slightly muted if the conductor said, “I want this to disturb you!” before conducting something disturbing. We shouldn’t need to be spoon-fed; and it might behoove us to be slightly more sophisticated in our responses — in classical music in particular.

Fri, November 14, 2014

A polymath in D.C.: The long ascendancy of conductor-composer Julian Wachner
The Washington Post

“He just has a big personality, an astounding high level of energy, and an incredibly positive attitude . . . and that’s infectious,” said Dianne Peterson, the Washington Chorus’s executive director, in a recent e-mail. “His creativity in programming has attracted new audiences. Our ‘Essential Puccini’ in 2009 was an enormous success and started the ‘Essential’ series.” She added, “The singers are dazzled by his talent, his extensive knowledge, his ability to command the podium and his highly engaging approach.”

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A polymath in D.C.: The long ascendancy of conductor-composer Julian Wachner

By Anne Midgette Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

November 14 at 9:59 AM

Julian Wachner bounds up to the podium, tall and loose-limbed and eager, dark hair flopping, teeth bared in a huge smile, as energetic and eager to please as a golden retriever.

Wachner is a conductor, or a composer, or a keyboard player, depending on which week and which city you happen to pick. He comes on stage pretty much the same way, and conducts with the same big, loose, convulsive gestures, regardless. His most recent outings were in San Francisco, first as a last-minute replacement conducting the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Handel’s “Partenope,” and then in a planned debut with the Philharmonia Baroque. But you could have seen the same thing at a contemporary music concert in New York, where he’s the music director of Trinity Wall Street. And you can see his style regularly in Washington, where he’s the music director of the Washington Chorus, and where he’ll lead Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” with the group Sunday afternoon.

Diversity isn’t necessarily an advantage.

“The elite choral types are like, ‘You’re not a real choral conductor,’ Wachner, 45, said the other day, sitting outside a coffee shop in downtown Washington between his San Francisco commitments. “I have members of my own baroque orchestra who are like, ‘He’s just a tourist. This [music] isn’t all he breathes. I’ve had that my whole life. ‘He’s not a real composer. He writes Gebrauchsmusik” — that is, music designed to be used and liked, such as flashy Christmas carol arrangements for the Washington Chorus. “And then: ‘Your music’s way too hard and complicated. No one’s ever going to want to listen to it or do it.’ ”

Gradually, though, Wachner is coming into his own. When he arrived in Washington in 2008, he was bristling with nervous energy, both eager and a little defensive about his role as choral conductor. Then, in 2010, the Trinity Wall Street job came along, giving him the ability to program and perform a wide range of music, both baroque and contemporary, in the heart of New York City. “I don’t know any other performing arts organization or church program that’s like this,” Wachner says. Audiences — and music critics — have enthusiastically embraced his programming.

Then, this fall, came “Partenope,” perhaps Wachner’s highest-profile engagement to date.

“I learned the opera on the trip out,” he said. “I had the first orchestral rehearsal the next day. Which was my birthday. So they all played ‘Happy Birthday.’ And it was really perfect, because they were schmaltzing it up, and I was like, ‘Thank you so much, okay. That’s the last time you are ever going to use vibrato.’ It was such a great way to introduce that topic, because everyone laughed.” (Vibrato, the pulsing beat that’s de rigueur in performances of the standard symphonic repertoire, is not part of early-music style.)

The upshot: a positive experience; a well-received production; and the ongoing question of whether Wachner is moving onto the larger stage to which he has aspired.

He is not universally well-reviewed. His gestures, like the man, are larger than life, and sometimes a little sloppy. “Wachner put his stamp on it throughout,” wrote Joshua Kosman, in the San Francisco Chronicle review of the Philharmonia Baroque concert, “for better and worse.”

But the cellist Matt Haimovitz, a friend of Wachner’s from the conductor’s days as head of the opera department at McGill University in Montreal, praises his musicianship. “The clarity in the baton, in his expression and his gestures,” he said by phone two weeks ago, speaking of performing a new concerto for cello and choir written by Luna Pearl Woolf, Haimovitz’s wife. “He knew how to work with the singers, but I felt also as an instrumentalist the clarity of the pulse.”

“He just has a big personality, an astounding high level of energy, and an incredibly positive attitude . . . and that’s infectious,” said Dianne Peterson, the Washington Chorus’s executive director, in a recent e-mail. “His creativity in programming has attracted new audiences. Our ‘Essential Puccini’ in 2009 was an enormous success and started the ‘Essential’ series.” She added, “The singers are dazzled by his talent, his extensive knowledge, his ability to command the podium and his highly engaging approach.”

Wachner has clearly been trying to figure out how to channel his talent and intelligence since childhood. His former stepfather, Robert Cole, worked as a conductor under the likes of Stravinsky and Bernstein, before taking over the presenting organization Cal Performances. His mother, Mary Spire, is a former pianist who became an instructor in the Feldenkrais Method, a form of bodywork that promotes physical awareness and that many musicians, in particular, prize. (Wachner is now a Feldenkrais instructor). Wachner was a choir boy at the church of St. Thomas from the ages of 9 to 13, but moved away from classical music during high school in New York, instead writing for a rock band, going to clubs, and working after school at high-end delicatessens in Manhattan. “I learned how to slice nova lox the old-fashioned way,” he says.

Music soon won out. Within a few years of arriving at Boston University, Wachner was holding down posts from organist and choirmaster at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel — regularly writing new music for services as well as playing them — to music director of the Back Bay Chorale. He was active, frequently reviewed — and eventually realized that he could remain at the same level for the rest of his life. He therefore pursued the job at McGill — and a dose of humility. “I got to Montreal,” he says, “the year Yannick [Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director] became famous.”

Wachner soon acclimated to McGill, and Canada. Still, when the Washington Chorus position appeared, he was seriously considering quitting music and going into Feldenkrais full-time. Whether because of Feldenkrais, his current jobs, or marriage — his wife, Emily, is an ordained Anglican priest at Trinity, where they met — Wachner has mellowed since his D.C. arrival.

“Mellowed” is a relative term. Talking to Wachner is still like getting on a log ride at the amusement park; it’s easy and fun, and a lot of information comes at you very quickly. Just get him talking about his next piece with the Washington Chorus: Alberto Ginastera’s massive 1975 “Turbae ad Passionem Grigorianam,” which he describes as “wicked hard. It’s all twelve-tone. Gnarly.” He’ll conduct it in February at Carnegie Hall with both his choruses, and the National Cathedral’s children’s choir thrown in for good measure — 300 people on stage, he says, “which will give us at least 600 in the hall.” Then, they’ll record it, in time to release it for the Ginastera centennial in 2016.

“My mom was seven months pregnant with me when she did her master’s recital, and she played Ginastera,” Wachner says. “I think my music is informed by his music more than Bernstein. I want to do, in 2016 at Trinity, what I did with Britten” — that is, a year-long project of performing as much of the composer’s music as possible. “It’s harder [with Ginastera],” he concedes, “because all of his works are epic scale.”

“And then,” he says, after describing his Ginastera plans, “we have the little Ives Fourth on the first half,” and breaks out into a cackling roar of laughter at the audacity of performing so much great, unpopular music.

Got all that? And if you do: How can you resist going?

For all of his range of activities, Wachner is perfectly clear about what he really wants.

“When I look in the mirror,” he says, “I’m like, I’m a composer. And if I lose that, I’m screwed. And everything else has always been to support that habit.”

The Washington Chorus and Julian Wachner perform Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” on Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.

Mon, November 10, 2014

Andreas Scholl and Philharmonia Baroque: Great Music Mixed With Fun
San Francisco Classical Voice

As Wachner lays out in the program notes, he favors an approach to Bach that is no longer purely rational and mathematical, or even numerological, as was de rigueur a few decades ago. Instead, he deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

With his theatrical — in a good way — conducting style, Wachner elicited a festive, generous, and free-flowing sound from Philharmonia Baroque that resonated remarkably well in the responsive acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. A PBO concert is always a pleasant experience, but this concert showed the ensemble in an even finer musical form than usual.

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Andreas Scholl and Philharmonia Baroque: Great Music Mixed With Fun

By Niels Swinkels

November 10, 2014

Nothing is more moving and uplifting than great art. Except great art that is also a party for performers and audience alike.

Because that’s what elevates it to “Great Art”.

Julian Wachner deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

This most certainly applied to Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s Friday night concert with German countertenor Andreas Scholl and guest conductor Julian Wachner, who recently made his debut at San Francisco Opera with Handel’s opera Partenope.

Wachner kindly extended his stay in San Francisco to lead a wonderful program with PBO in which Scholl sang several of his signature arias from operas by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as well as Bach’s Cantata No. 170.

The orchestra opened the concert with a different composition by Bach, the Sinfonia to Cantata No. 42. As Wachner lays out in the program notes, he favors an approach to Bach that is no longer purely rational and mathematical, or even numerological, as was de rigueur a few decades ago. Instead, he deliberately emphasizes the sensuality and the religious and human emotions in Bach’s music.

With his theatrical — in a good way — conducting style, Wachner elicited a festive, generous, and free-flowing sound from Philharmonia Baroque that resonated remarkably well in the responsive acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. A PBO concert is always a pleasant experience, but this concert showed the ensemble in an even finer musical form than usual.

The presence of a truly gifted artist like Andreas Scholl certainly was inspiring. In his extensive solo in Bach’s cantata “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) after intermission, the magnificent countertenor gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

This was even more true in the three Handel arias he performed before intermission: “Va tacito” and “Aure, deh, per pietà” from Giulio Cesare, and “Dove sei” from Rodelinda.

The magnificent Andreas Scholl gave meaning to every syllable, and purpose to every note he sang.

The way in which Scholl deploys his unique instrument is unbelievable. Any attempt to accurately describe and give praise to the splendor of his tone, the depth of his expression, the clarity of his diction, his subtle vibrato, and his delicate use of trills and other little adornments is doomed to fall short.

For each of the Handel arias, Scholl established a specific musical-dramatic environment. In “Va tacito” he engaged in a stately vocal dance with R.J. Kelley’s accompanying part for valveless horn; in “Dove sei” he poignantly embodied the pathos of the maligned king Bertarido, singing a love anthem to his beloved Queen Rodelinda.

Especially in his encore, “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Xerxes, Scholl created such intimacy that he seemed to be singing directly to every individual audience member — which is probably what he was doing. Hearing and seeing him perform was truly a treat.

The party atmosphere stemmed directly from the symbiotic energy between conductor Julian Wachner and the musicians of Philharmonia Baroque, specifically in Telemann’s Concerto in F Major for violin, oboe and two horns, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1.

Both compositions offered plenty of solo opportunities for PBO’s wonderful wind players, but the Telemann also incorporated two cellos, buzzing like an agitated beehive, plus a very attractive solo violin part.

It was a blast.

Sat, November 8, 2014

Philharmonia review: Star soloist meets challenging conductor
San Francisco Chronicle

Wachner’s leadership throughout, but especially in the instrumental offerings, was marked by an open, full-bodied looseness that at times spilled over into fuzziness. The opening Bach Sinfonia was probably the program’s most convincing orchestral selection, with warm instrumental textures and an almost seductive rhythmic pull.

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Philharmonia review: Star soloist meets challenging conductor

Joshua Kosman | on November 8, 2014

Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra have been a single performing unit, with a single style, for so many decades now that it can be startling to hear what they sound like apart. The first moments of Friday night’s fine concert under guest conductor Julian Wachner brought just such a surprise.

The opening strains of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata No. 42 were recognizably the work of this orchestra, with its richly colored string playing and pungent woodwinds. But Wachner’s fluid, rounded approach to rhythm and phrasing could hardly have been more different from the briskly clipped character that has always been McGegan’s hallmark.

There’s more than one way, clearly, to skin this particular cat.

Friday’s concert in Calvary Presbyterian Church was devoted to the music of Bach, Handel and Telemann, and Wachner — the innovative music director of New York’s Trinity Wall Street who just finished conducting the San Francisco Opera production of Handel’s “Partenope” — put his stamp on it throughout, for better and worse.

Yet the evening’s star attraction was the German countertenor Andreas Scholl, whose vibrant and coolly eloquent singing set the tone for the entire proceedings. In a trio of Handel arias (supplemented at the end by a glorious encore of “Ombra mai fu” from “Serse”) and again in Bach’s death-besotted Cantata No. 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” Scholl brought a blend of sweetness and emotional urgency that proved endlessly affecting.

What’s most notable about Scholl’s artistry is how deftly he balances a limpid, almost disembodied vocal tone with a robust interpretive presence that keeps that sound from seeming emotionally unconnected. In “Dove sei,” from Handel’s “Rodelinda,” Scholl’s sustained melodic lines and impeccably turned phrases captured all too poignantly the character’s distress; “Ombra mai fu” was a virtuoso display of gleaming sonority and stately rhythms.

Admittedly, the more heroic cast of “Va tacito e nascosto” from “Giulio Cesare” — an elaborately metaphorical aria depicting the hunter stalking his prey — found Scholl sometimes struggling to make himself heard. But the Bach cantata, with its alternation of vigorous, almost confrontational recitatives and sedately reflective arias, had all the immediacy of a skillfully wrought sermon.

Wachner’s leadership throughout, but especially in the instrumental offerings, was marked by an open, full-bodied looseness that at times spilled over into fuzziness. The opening Bach Sinfonia was probably the program’s most convincing orchestral selection, with warm instrumental textures and an almost seductive rhythmic pull; it contrasted with the blatty, somewhat chaotic account of the “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 that concluded the program.

In between, Telemann’s Concerto in F for Violin, Oboe and Two Horns offered individual members of the ensemble a chance to shine. Hornist R.J. Kelley, who had already contributed superbly shaped obbligatos to “Va tacito,” gave the audience a brief guide to the valveless horn before launching into the concerto, along with violinist Carla Moore, oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz and hornist Paul Avril.

Sat, November 8, 2014

Julian Wachner shifts his attention from SFO to Philharmonia Baroque
Classical Music Examiner

At the end of the generously lengthy program that visiting conductor Julian Wachner brought to the podium of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which performed last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major (the first) at a breakneck pace. This was not a matter of mere athleticism. Rather, it was Wachner’s way of putting the cap on an evening in which he continued those same practices of execution that made his musical leadership of six performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO) such a delight…

...nothing could match the bizarre rhythmic eccentricities that Wachner brought to the Polacca section at the end of BWV 1046, pulling at what is normally a routine 6/8 pulse as if it were taffy and lending an extra kick to the forte disruption of the second section of the movement.

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Julian Wachner shifts his attention from SFO to Philharmonia Baroque

by Stephen Smoliar

At the end of the generously lengthy program that visiting conductor Julian Wachner brought to the podium of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which performed last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1046 “Brandenburg” concerto in F major (the first) at a breakneck pace. This was not a matter of mere athleticism. Rather, it was Wachner’s way of putting the cap on an evening in which he continued those same practices of execution that made his musical leadership of six performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO) such a delight.

Those practices involved just the right balance between a comprehensive understanding of execution techniques with a commitment to honor the expressiveness behind the notes themselves to the fullest. Rather than a race to the finish, the performance of BWV 1046 was an ebullient celebration of the very act of individuals gathering together to make music, as they most likely did at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen (possibly with the prince joining them) or later in the more bourgeois setting of Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. BWV 1046 also concluded a survey of expressiveness in different musical settings, which included both the secular and sacred sides of Bach, the operatic world of Handel, and a virtuoso concerto by their compatriot George Philipp Telemann.

This was an evening that favored solo voices, both vocal and instrumental, performing in the setting of a highly reduced string section and continuo. The soloist who received the most attention was visiting countertenor Andreas Scholl. He accounted for Handel’s share of the program with selections from the HWV 17 Giulio Cesare and the HWV 19 Rodelinda. From HWV 17 he performed two arias sung by Cesare, in which first he prepares to confront his enemies in the spirit of a hunt (complete with the obligatory pair of horns played by R. J. Kelley and Paul Avril) and later finds himself facing defeat with darker introspection. That same introspection also pervades Bertarido’s opening aria in HWV 19 (when the audience discovers that rumors of his death were premature).

Each of these was a highly personal aria, and Scholl found just the right level of assertiveness to fit the character of each of them. His chemistry with both Wachner and the instrumentalists was always right on target, while delivering all of the required expressiveness for the most dramatic selections on the program. During the second half of the evening, he transplanted that expressiveness into the sacred domain with Bach’s solo alto cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul, BWV 170). That rest is, of course, death. However, Scholl’s account was anything but maudlin, dwelling, instead, on the Lutheran idea of death as the much-needed rest after the toils of a life well spent.

The energy of BWV 1046 could thus be taken as a more upbeat reflection on the concept of conclusion, complementing the enthusiastic energy level of the opening selection of the evening, the instrumental sinfonia that begins the BWV 42 cantata. Indeed, in the spirit of BWV 1046, this sinfonia amounted to a concerto in miniature, featuring the solo work of two oboes (Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Marc Schachman) and a bassoon (Danny Bond) “conversing” with the string ensemble. This concertante style also filled the middle of the program with Telemann’s TWV 54:F1 concerto for violin (Carla Moore), oboe (Ruiz), and two horns (Kelley and Avril). Structured around the dance forms of a suite, this was a feast of virtuoso solo work that paired nicely with BWV 1046. Still, nothing could match the bizarre rhythmic eccentricities that Wachner brought to the Polacca section at the end of BWV 1046, pulling at what is normally a routine 6/8 pulse as if it were taffy and lending an extra kick to the forte disruption of the second section of the movement.

As might be guessed, audience enthusiasm for Scholl was rewarded with an encore. Following his Bach solo work, he returned to Handel, performing “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria from the HWV 40 Serse. While the overall tone of this opera is comic, the aria is a serene serenade such by Xerxes to his favorite plane tree, conceived to remind the audience of how precious shade was in a desert setting.

As was the case on Thursday night with the San Francisco Symphony, this concert had a pre-performance talk produced in partnership with The Stephen and Cynthia Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Last night’s speaker was Heidi Waleson, opera critic for The Wall Street Journal. While her topic was the “mainstreaming” of early music, she managed to weave a fair amount of introductory material for the works on the program into her text. Nevertheless, her dry academic delivery contrasted sharply with all that overflowing joy in making music that made last night’s concert both exciting and satisfying.

Mon, November 3, 2014

Julian Wachner’s approach to Handel perfectly complements the SFO production
Classical Music Examiner

I have already noted how Wachner’s pacing of the orchestra excellently complemented the rapid-fire comic turns of Alden’s staging, complete with drunk scenes, pratfalls, bathroom humor, and tap dancing. This is definitely the shortest three and one-half hour opera I have ever experienced. I was also impressed with his ability to balance the modern instruments of a reduced string section and oboes (with a few brief moments for flutes) with the historical instruments, which included two harpsichords, theorbo, and two natural horns…

...What I could better appreciate from my new vantage point was how well Wachner connected with all of the vocalists on stage. It was through his chemistry with each of the performers that the music came off with the intimacy of a piece of chamber music that happened to have more musicians than usual.

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Julian Wachner’s approach to Handel perfectly complements the SFO production

by Stephen Smoliar

the new San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope half-way through its six-performance run, I was almost entirely absorbed by the ingenuity and wit (often at the belly-laugh level) of Christopher Alden’s staging, originally created for the English National Opera and also shared with Opera Australia. Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for the final SFO performance, taking my subscriber’s seat that provides me with as rich a view of the orchestra pit as of the stage. This gave me an opportunity to appreciate better the contributions of conductor Julian Wachner.

I have already noted how Wachner’s pacing of the orchestra excellently complemented the rapid-fire comic turns of Alden’s staging, complete with drunk scenes, pratfalls, bathroom humor, and tap dancing. This is definitely the shortest three and one-half hour opera I have ever experienced. I was also impressed with his ability to balance the modern instruments of a reduced string section and oboes (with a few brief moments for flutes) with the historical instruments, which included two harpsichords, theorbo, and two natural horns. My only regret was that the horns did not do more. Their major appearance came at the end of the first act with a metaphorical hunting song delivered by Rosmira-as-Eurimene (Daniela Mack at her most splendid); and the sounds of those natural harmonics, tempered only by breath control, made the experience both chilling and consistent with the off-kilter tone of Alden’s production.

What I could better appreciate from my new vantage point was how well Wachner connected with all of the vocalists on stage. It was through his chemistry with each of the performers that the music came off with the intimacy of a piece of chamber music that happened to have more musicians than usual. This was not always an easy job. Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) had to deliver one aria while trapped in a bathroom; and Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) had to negotiate some of the most elaborate embellishments while hanging on for dear life to the edge of a staircase. (Needless to say, having a countertenor sing one of Handel’s most richly coloratura arias while playing a drunk scene is more than enough to boggle the mind.)

Wachner also made some shrewd choices in allowing certain solo instruments to fill the entire space of the Opera House. I was particularly impressed at the number of recitative passages that were accompanied only by Michael Leopold’s theorbo. Peter Schickele used to make jokes about the inaudibility of the lute. The theorbo is much larger. (Anyone sitting on orchestra level can only see its neck sticking out above all the other musicians in the pit.) In addition to the usual rank of strings fingered through the fretwork, there are long bass strings that are only plucked; and they resonate with remarkable intensity. Leopold’s continuo work was often all that was required for the intimate scale of the verbal exchanges in the recitatives.

Also, it appeared that continuo cellist David Kadarauch was given a rest for the one aria that had an extended cello solo. Unless I am mistaken, that solo was taken by Victoria Ehrlich, a musician many readers may recognize from the Music in the Mishkan chamber music series organized by Randall Weiss at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. I assume that it was Wachner’s idea that the “voice” of the cello for this aria be different from the “continuo voice,” thus establishing a different relationship between solo vocalist and solo musician.

All this made for one of the richest operatic occasions I have had the pleasure to experience. Indeed, it was so rich that it was almost impossible to balance attention between the music and the staging. This was definitely an occasion that deserved coming back for a second time.

Tue, October 28, 2014

A Witty, Colorful, Extravagant Partenope
Seen and Heard International

And none of the shenanigans affected the music, with refined and idiomatic Baroque singing all around. The orchestra offered refreshingly unmannered playing led by conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, where he conducts both the contemporary and Baroque orchestras.

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A Witty, Colorful, Extravagant Partenope

by Harvey Steiman

October 28, 2014

A Händel opera can be a daunting proposition for those accustomed to the more varied and emotionally lifted styles of operas that came later. But plenty of examples can prove that there’s a lot more to Händel than one aria in “A-B-A” form, repeated several times with increasing ornamentation. The music can get to an emotional truth while it entertains with every-increasing roulades and complexity, not to mention the unusual sound of a counter tenor (or two) accompanied by light orchestration that relies on harpsichords, theorbos and the occasional splash of musical color from valveless horns and oboes.

Partenope may not have as many memorable arias as, say, Giulio Cesare or Xerxes, but it has its musical charms. For the San Francisco Opera, an impressive cast did justice to every musical gesture while gamely, inventively—and often effectively—using their bodies in unexpected ways in director Christopher Alden’s blithely surreal production.

First seen in 2008 at English National Opera, this staging updates the complicated comedic plot from the city-state of Naples to a salon in 1920s Paris. Instead of the queen’s chambers, it’s set in the salon of a louche socialite who likes to surround herself with artists. Everyone, to put it bluntly, has the hots for someone.

The original version revolves around a love affair gone wrong between two visitors to Queen Partenope, the founder of Naples—Arsace (prince of Corinth, and the queen’s current lover) and the mysterious Eurimene, who is actually Rosmira in disguise, intent on avenging her bitter breakup with Arsace. To complicate matters, the two other men are there to pursue the queen—Emilio (prince of Comae, who has brought his army with him to back up his intent to marry her) and the painfully shy Armindo (prince of Rhodes, who can’t bring himself to declare his love to the queen). And then there’s Ormonte, the queen’s major domo.

Updating all this to a social circle in Paris—one mad for artists who push the envelope of propriety—fits the plot and opens the door to a panoply of physical shtick inspired by the excesses of surrealist art. As Emliio, tenor Alec Shrader dons a Man Ray mask and wanders the stage photographing the other participants. As Rosmira/Eurimene, mezzo soprano Daniela Mack performs a sort of strip tease taunting Emilio. As Armindo, counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sings arias without missing a note as he crawls up a spiral staircase, dangles from the edge in homage to the silent film comic actor Harold Lloyd, climbs through a water closet transom and, in Act III, tap dances, complete with top hat and cane. Bass-baritone Philip Sly emerges as Partenope’s exuberantly gay pal, at one point serving as a duelist, clad in a pink frock with an extra-wide bustle.

As Partenope, soprano Danielle De Niese sings her arias while showing off her tightly clothed form clubbing onto tables, chairs and, at one point, astride Arsace. As played by counter tenor David Daniels, he’s the one character who avoids physical histrionics.

All of this could have sent the proceedings way over the top, and for some fuddy-duddies no doubt it did. But the audience, in the fourth of six performances, lapped it up. And none of the shenanigans affected the music, with refined and idiomatic Baroque singing all around. The orchestra offered refreshingly unmannered playing led by conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music and the Arts at New York City’s Trinity Wall Street, where he conducts both the contemporary and Baroque orchestras.

The standouts for me were Costanzo and Mack. Both delivered their arias with eye-opening precision, brilliantly executed coloratura and clear, pure sound, while creating flesh-and-blood characters that often touched our deepest emotions. Daniels sang languid laments with his customary panache and beautiful tone, and served as a center of gravity to the loopiness around him. Shrader poured out unforced fioratura in a silvery tenor, and threw himself into a surreal characterization. Sly handled his two arias with such aplomb it left some of us wishing he had more to do.

That leaves De Niese. Opening-night reviews were not all kind to her, but in this performance she had total command of the stage and, if her Baroque technique lacked the precision of some of the other cast members, the molten copper sound of her voice and the unrestrained sexuality of her presence created a character that believably could create a band of followers in thrall to her.

As with any true comedy, the plot wraps up with everyone paired off with the “right” partner—in this case gay, straight and painfully shy. The combination of exuberant staging, fearless singing and sprightly playing produced enough fizz to keep 3-1/2 hours of Händel’s more genial music sailing along. Who couldn’t smile?

Sat, October 25, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Handel’s Partenope
Operaville

Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria.

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San Francisco Opera: Handel's Partenope

by Michael J. Vaughn

Those concerned about the relevance of opera in the 21st century should see this English/Australian production, in which director Christopher Alden took a lesser-known baroque opera and gave it such a wildly imaginative treatment that it won an Olivier Award for Best New Production. The Olivier Award is the British equivalent of a Tony. A theater award. For a baroque opera.

What Alden and cohorts apparently saw beneath the melismas and da capos was a story, based on Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, that presents a bracingly intimate buffet of the several combinations of power and love. As a Pat Benatar song, it would be “Love is a Battlefield.” Indeed, the actual physical battles of the original story are transformed into sexual face-offs, which is really what they were to begin with.
A quick sketch of the action would reveal the queen, Partenope, as the target of three suitors: the aggressive Emilio, the meek Armindo, and the moderate Arsace. The initial winner is Arsace, mainly because Partenope is in love with him. Naturally, there are complications.

Alden’s first stroke of genius is to remove the action from ancient Greece to 1920s Paris, and to make all the characters into members of the Surrealist art movement. This serves to make the characters more accessible to modern viewers, and to open the door to all kinds of wackiness (once you’ve played the Surrealist card, you can get away with anything). The most identifiable inspiration is Emilio, who is based on the photographer Man Ray, which leads to all kinds of visual possibilities.

The second stroke of genius is Alden’s demand that his singers – baroque virtuosi all – perform all manner of weird actions to illustrate their predicaments. Finding himself locked in a bathroom after a failed attempt at seduction, Emilio (tenor Alek Shrader) climbs to the upper window and, dangling across the opening, lights and smokes a cigarette, all without interrupting the marathon runs of his aria. The mere mention of his beloved’s name causes Armindo (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) to lose control of his limbs; he falls down a spiral staircase and, later, dangles in mid-air from the side of it, all without missing a note of his melismas. Later, when matters improve for him, he performs a song of triumph while tapdancing.

The genius of all this “stage business,” besides causing general hilarity, is that it solves a basic problem of Handel’s operas. The endless melismatic runs, invented as a show of virtuosity, are just not all that enjoyable to listen to. That’s why they didn’t make it out of the baroque era (and were replaced, in a sense, by the Rossinian patter song). The classical/romantic cadenza became a much more agreeable way to showcase a singer’s skills. In this production, the singers take the virtuosity to such a Cirque de Soleil level that the spectator has no time to feel irritated, or to worry about singers needing scuba-level breathing techniques to get through the next twelve measures.

What fares better, at least in Partenope, are Handel’s slower arias. Faced with his former lover’s refusal to forgive his sins, Arsace sings a gorgeous, yearning aria about her cruelty, revealing the exquisitely haunting quality of David Daniels’ countertenor. Playing that spurned lover, Rosmira (mezzo Daniela Mack) delivers many similarly touching passages.
The showpiece comes from soprano Danielle De Niese, who is goddess-like in every way. Wearing top hat and tails, she declares her love (and lust) for Arsace in a very public manner, indulging in Fosse-like vamps and humping her way through Handel’s rhythmic shifts, creating the sexiest performance of a baroque aria that one is likely to see. She also is very successful (with Stampiglia’s surprising libretto) in transforming Partenope from a predictable attention-whore to a full-fledged woman, pursuing the deeper bonds of soulmatehood.

Andrew Lieberman’s sets are spectacular, and applause-inducing, particularly the stylish, blinding-white interior that opens the performance. Costume designer Jon Morrell plays off of this canvas by dressing his cast members in single-color suits, with the exception of the uber-camp servant Ormonte (Philippe Sly), whose final outfit resembles a Samurai as done by Hello Kitty. Conductor Julian Wachner, an early-music specialist making his SFO debut, is a marvel to watch, working without a baton and often seeming more like a dancer than a conductor. The effects of the period instruments are captivating, particularly the horns in Rosmira’s hunting-themed aria. The production team cut eight vocal numbers, sparing the audience from a performance that would otherwise have lasted for over four hours.

Through Nov. 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, http://www.sfopera.com 415/8,64-3330.
 

Fri, October 24, 2014

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo—A Stunning Debut in ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera
The Huffington Post

Julian Wachner, a stellar figure in the world of early music, conducts the orchestra which is now more in view. The tone is crystalline, transcendent. Wachner drives the shape and momentum of the score’s “too many notes” to perfection.

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Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo -- A Stunning Debut in 'Partenope' at San Francisco Opera

by Sean Martinfield, San Francisco cultural critic

Posted: 10/24/2014 5:34 pm EDT Updated: 10/24/2014 5:59 pm EDT

San Francisco Opera's current production of Handel's 1730 comedy, Partenope -- now transported to a high-toned Parisian salon in the 1920s -- is an intoxicating whirlwind of fresh air. Directed by Christopher Alden, Partenope is the most desirable musical (maybe game) ticket of the season. Alden's concept is stupendous. The director maneuvers Handel's collection of immoderate misfits through a series of lofty schemes and quandaries -- a sextet of polished pandemonium -- for three-and-a-half hours.

The show is perfectly cast. The performers color the frosty-white setting with ravishing mood swings, sizzling comic timing and coloratura gymnastics that spin on a dime. Julian Wachner, a stellar figure in the world of early music, conducts the orchestra which is now more in view. The tone is crystalline, transcendent. Wachner drives the shape and momentum of the score's "too many notes" to perfection. This is a Partenope -- an alluring siren born out of Greek mythology -- that can turn every head and tune every ear toward a whole new world. Baroque opera is blooming in the 21st Century.

I met with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo the day after the opening night performance. Anthony sings Armindo -- one of three suitors jockeying for the hand of Partenope (Danielle De Niese), here a glamorous fashionista of the Jazz Age. Arsace (countertenor David Daniels) is Armindo's chief rival -- along with the determined Emilio (tenor, Alek Shrader) who is skulking his way into first position. As fellow artists, Daniels and Costanzo appeared together in 2012 at Michigan Opera Theatre as Caesar and Tolomeo in Handel's Giulio Cesare. In December that year they were in the Met's production of The Enchanted Island -- David as Prospero, Anthony as Ferdinand. He would later assume the role of Prospero when Daniels became ill.

"When I was a teenager," said Anthony, "David Daniels was having his big moment. I remember his profile in Opera News. That had a big impact in my thinking about how this might be a career path. Countertenor is the term that blankets everything -- whereas with sopranos, you can call them a lyric, spinto or dramatic. That said, I really don't have a classification in terms of register. There are some countertenors who are singing crazy high notes. I'm not a male soprano. I sang High C as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus at the Met this season. I've done roles that sit very low, such as Henze's Phaedra where I went way down into the baritone range. Through a diversity of experience I've learned how to negotiate different registers of the voice. I'm sort of a bargain countertenor in that sense -- like PDQ Bach."

Now 32, weighing-in at around 125 pounds, Anthony Roth Costanzo has accumulated an impressive resumé of Baroque roles. He is now in collaboration with contemporary composers writing music for him. At age eleven, he was Jason in the Broadway National Tour of Falsettos. At thirteen, things began churning when he appeared at Lincoln Center in a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors followed by his interpretation of Miles in Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at the New Jersey Opera Festival.

"Because I had hair on my arms and a low speaking voice," said Anthony, "the opera people sort-of said that maybe I had gone through puberty and was a countertenor. I didn't know what a countertenor was! But I thought if I could continue singing high -- which I think most boy sopranos who have had a career want to keep doing -- then that's what I'll do. When I was in grad school at Manhattan School of Music, I started to understand which companies and which young artist programs would make it work. I was very fortunate to have won a lot of competitions where the judges would have preferred to have heard a Verdi aria than one by Handel. In that context, I had to find a way to make the Handel compelling."

"I was able to be a part of this resurgence of Baroque music, but also have my own voice and find a way to make it exciting for audiences who are still biased to not love this repertoire. I'm working with eight different contemporary composers now who are writing things for me or that we're working on projects together. It means extending my technique and learning how to use all my different registers in different ways -- not just for Handel or Gluck. I'm really excited to be premiering Jake Heggie's new opera. It's called Great Scott -- with Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, and Nathan Gunn. Terrence McNally has written the libretto. He's created a diva, Arden Scott, who is coming back to her hometown to revive a dead bel canto opera. It's a comedy and I think it's going to be really fun."

Anthony was born in North Carolina and moved to New York about twenty years ago. His parents, both psychologists, are native New Yorkers who teach at Duke University. They were very supportive, he says, though not stage parents in any way. I suggested that somewhere in this history is a roaring comedy about a pair of shrinks with a precocious son running super-high scales and heading straight towards the Eighteenth Century.

"It's true! They always said, 'You want to do this, we'll make it happen for you.' It might have been hard for a thirteen year old boy to sing in essentially a woman's range, but it was never an issue. My mom is someone who has worked a lot with gender and studied that. But it was always 'do what you want to do and make it feel natural'. They'll be here next week to see this production."

"I would live in this period of the Twenties. It's so much fun to be in it -- for four hours at a time. On top of that, I think Christopher Alden has very cleverly exploited the satire in Handel's opera, to make for wonderful and almost vaudeville moments -- especially for my character. Armindo is withdrawn, brooding, and neurotic. But he has these Buster Keaton moments of physical comedy, like falling down a flight of stairs and a tap dancing sequence in Act III. I just do it -- and it works. It's been a fun challenge to make sure the singing stays at the highest level. You know? Making your debut at San Francisco Opera?"

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
TheatreStorm

“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.

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