What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March. My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines.
Not to be missed—something new and something old! The outstanding musicians who have worked with conductor Justin Bischof for some years with noted success in New York City and Westchester county are now reorganized as The Modus Opera Orchestra, resident in St. Mary's Church in Long Island City. This coming Saturday, November 23rd, their inaugural concert will begin with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in a performance which is sure to be exciting and fresh, followed my Rossini's William Tell Overture, which is partly inspired by Beethoven's Fifth and his "Egmont" Overture. Follwing that soprano Elyse Ann Kakacek will join the orchestra for Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 and an Alleluia by Mozart. The concert will conclude with Wagner's Overture to Tannhäuser. I think we may assume that the unusual sequence of works, pretty much the reverse of standard classical programming, hints at something new and extraordinary to expect from Maestro Bischof and his superb musicians.
In the heat and humidity of July, which was unmitigated in tranquil Otsego county, the Glimmerglass Festival proved, yet again, that opera and musical theatre can coexist and beat the Arts-in-the-Trashcan odds in today’s society. So much of Glimmerglass’s success must be conceded to Francesca Zambello’s untiring, hands-on management and her supreme skill in selection, execution and coordination. The topic du jour in beds and breakfasts throughout Cooperstown this year is classical opera’s fate in the coming years. Most opera houses in the U.S. are in dire straits: talk of the Fall of Opera is bruited about the Metropolitan Opera in the wake of administrative cataclysms and scandals; small, independent opera houses are clinging on with white nails suffering from dwindling endowments and audiences.
As always, I seek some unifying subtext for the offerings, and this year the quest was, at face value, quite simple: birds. An outdoor avian sculpture and a birder challenge in the program booklets left no doubt of the “theme” intended. However, the degree of suggestion varied from the most obvious (Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie) to the surreal (Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd) and merely suggestive in the others. Rossini's rarely performed dramatic comedy, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was the most interesting production this season. While I would never concur with Toscanini's equating Rossini’s talent to that of Mozart (in quality and not merely in youthful quantity), the mix of comedy and high drama certainly had pretensions to some of Mozart’s great operatic moments. Perhaps, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte served as models for the young composer; he even manages some near literal quotes of these works in the second act.
Davies Hall, San Francisco
September 26, 2015
The San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Ravel – Menuet Antique (1895/1929)
Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21 (1830)
Rossini – Overture to …
The Mark Morris Dance Group was back in Boston with the East Coast premiere of a major new work, Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one of the co-commissioners. I loved it. Or to put it more accurately, I’m in love with it, and saw three of its four performances at the Shubert Theatre. Morris has now staged several complete operas and one Handel oratorio. At least two of these are generally regarded as his masterpieces: Purcell’s one-act opera, Dido and Aeneas (1989), in which all the singers are offstage and the dancers play the main characters; and Handel’s L’Allegro,il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), in which the singers are also offstage, and there are no characters. But in Rameau’s delectable Platée (1997) and in Morris’s productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Handel and Haydn Society, 1996; the Metropolitan Opera, 2007), singers played the leading roles and appeared on stage along with the dancers.
Here in San Francisco we are fortunate to experience in fairly rapid succession the world's great violinists, especially the young ones rising. (And sometimes the older ones falling: Pinchas Zukerman's recent rough and scrapie visit with the Royal Philharmonic was disappointing—a soaring career tumbling for the nets). But it has generally been a feast: James Ehnes, Simone Lamsma, and now Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang, just to name a few. Given the level of excellence these days, it is sometimes hard to pick a winner and know what winning means. All are remarkably good. But I'll go out on a limb here.
Vivica Genaux has recently appeared in a George London Foundation recital at the Morgan Library, and Vivaldi's opera Ercole has recently been released in a superb recording by EMI with Europa Galante led by Fabio Biondi, in which she sings the part of Antiope. This is the third and final part of an interview held on December 13, 2011. MM I remember when I heard you in Paris in L'Italiana in Algeri—and I have to apologise that I never got a review out for that performance, which was great—but you were having some trouble at the time (At least it was announced in the house.), and all one noticed in the performance was that you were a little quiet for part of an act, and then you were right back into it.