First, a few classical music items: After 38 years of companionship, SF Symphony musical director and most famous acronym MTT has tied the knot with his partner Joshua Robison. Congratulations, Michael! It looks like the honeymoon will take them to hotbeds of romance like Cleveland and Kansas City: it's where the orchestra is going on tour next week, as well as New-York, Boston, Ann Arbor or Miami. Joining them on tour, violinist Gil Shaham, whom we talked with on Tuesday. Gil and the SF Opera tune up for their journey with bon voyage concerts this week at Davies Symphony Hall. Finally, SF Opera's season continued with Partenope and Tosca. Next in the batter's box: Rossini's Cinderella.
Gil Shaham burst onto the classical music scene when in 1989, just eighteen year old, he replaced Itzahk Perlman on short notice for a series of concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas. The relationship has continued over the years. He made his SFS debut in 1999 at Isaac Stern’s 70th birthday celebration in 1999 in Stern Grove, and he’s been a guest artist with the symphony almost every season since. Together, they perform this week at Davies Symphony Hall the two programs they will take on the road for a seven cities US tour: Mozart's violin concerto No. 5 in A Major, and Prokofiev's 2nd violin concerto.
The second concerto falls into a project Gil has been working on for a few years, about the violin concertos of the 30s. That decade saw a flourish of violin concertos by a list of all the major composers of the period: Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Alban Berg, Sergei Prokofiev, William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith, Karol Szymanowski, Darius Milhaud
and Shaham has been exploring those relentlessly.
We talked with him about his concerts with the symphony and the benefits of touring while sleeping in his own bed, as the SF Symphony performs in NYC where Gil lives.
You and MTT go back a long way. How is it to work with him?
Gil Shaham: It's always such a thrill to be with the orchestra. I'm always thrilled to be with Michael Tilson-Thomas. He's a brilliant mind and a brilliant musician. There's an aura and an excitement and a love of music that inspires everybody around it, on stage and off stage. When I first started working with him in 1989, that's 25 years ago, it became clear to me very quickly that he knows the violin repertoire better than I do. He's a conductor and I'm a violinist. Now, 25 years later, I suspect it might still be true. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and tremendous experience with music making. I always learn. For example, I remember learning the William Schuman violin concerto. Basically, Michael taught it to me. I didn't know the piece before, I remember spending a long time discussing the piece with him. It's true that there is an excitement about music that he brings everywhere he goes.
This week and on tour, you will play violin concertos by Mozart and Prokofiev. Can you contrast those?
There are both similar in that they both ended up being the final concerto for violin of the composer. I remember hearing that Prokofiev had plans to write a concerto #3 but he never did. The story with Mozart's concerto is that he was prepared to write a folio of six, which was common practice at the time to publish music in group of six. When he was ready to compose number five, he was ready to scrap the whole project and throw away these five great treasures that we still have.
The pieces are very different. Mozart is basically a funny piece in A Major. The first movement has an unusual marking of allegro aperto (open), it has an even sunnier affect than the other concertos. In general, you'd be very hard pressed to see Mozart marking anything aperto. The piece is mostly in the major mode. It has a sublime 2nd movement and rondo-dance 3rd movement. And it may be most famous for the minor mode interlude in the last movement, where Mozart uses Turkish vernacular, he turned to the folk music of the Turks that he heard at the time in Austria, and then he comes back to the Major. It's a culmination of his study of the violin concerto genre. Of the five concertos, this is the longest and grandest in scale, and maybe the most experimental. The first movement stops in the middle and the violin comes in with an adagio aria just in the middle, and then comes back as if to say, "now, to the real meaning of the music." It's perfectly written of course, the technique of it is beautiful. He writes this aria to start with a violin arpeggiation. It takes the audience by surprise. It seems unrelated, this A-C#-E arpeggio. The violin finishes this cadence, a very beautiful, very refined cadence, but it still leaves you questioning where we are. It comes back to the allegro we heard before, except this time, the allegro has a counter point in the violin solo. That counterpoint comes from the A arpeggio. And in fact you realize: this is the melody. What you heard in the beginning was the counterpoint to this melody. It's an incredible effect, and very experimental. There isn't anything like that before. People think of other forms as being strict, but in the hand of great masters, they can take great liberty with it. There are all sorts of effects. In the last movement, the cellos play con legno, with the wood of the bow. It was a special effect, an experimental sound.
By contrast, I think of the Prokofiev as a much darker piece, even more than I thought before. The other connection between the two concertos: Prokofiev also uses this vernacular of folk music. In this concerto, you hear imitations of balalaika, and of bayan (the Ukrainian accordion) and there are certainly some melodies that sound like Russian folk melodies. Actually, in the last movement, he uses castanets, probably for the purpose of the premiere of the piece, which was in Madrid in Spain. It was commissioned by Robert Sutton, a French man, and premiered in Madrid, and Prokofiev incorporated these castanets. These days, I wonder if there was, between the lines of the music, some other message. Besides these beautiful melodies and references to folk traditions, there is also a counterpart, this machinist vein in the music. In fact, it ends with this machinist vein. I wonder if Prokofiev had some darker message about the Russian soul. The opening melody is in the minor mode. It sounds like a traditional old Russian folk song, and it transforms during the piece into this very short, kinda grotesque, ghostly variations, with somewhat dissonant machinist passages in the violin and the orchestra.
You started your own label after your contract with DG was not renewed. You mentioned you would keep recording as long as each release could fund the next. How have the economics of the music business changed with services like Spotify?
You know the truth is, I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough to answer this. My understanding is that it is a difficult period of transition for the entire music industry. There is so much free content out there. Even in the pop world, or the traditional part of the music business, we're still not quite at the model where we know how musicians can make a profit. I feel very lucky with our label.When we started, we said: if there is enough demand to make another one, we'll make another one. We started with a recording of Gabriel Faure chamber music. I was very proud that we were on the billboard charts, it was a best seller and we made some more. We expanded a little bit, my wife Adele Anthony released a recording of concertos by Sibelius and Ross Edwards, an Australian composer. My sister Orli Shaham has released a new piece by Steve Mackey and this year, I will release the solos sonatas and partitas of Bach. We enjoy it and so long as there is demand for it, we're happy to make recording.
Every time we see you, we note that you move a lot and seem to almost dance with the music. Do others comment to you about it?
I wish I was more in control of my body. I suppose I should take some posture lessons and it couldn't hurt for all of us to dance the minuet and any of these dances that we all play. When I see myself, it's so embarrassing. I wish I didn't move the way I do. Often people comment and try to help. I must say, I have gotten better. When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I used to practice the violin walking up and down at home. And I remember going on stage once and I was walking and getting off stage. And I'll never forget the pianist I was playing with, Sandy Rivers [ed: Sandra Rivers], she was like: "where are you?" and I'm off the stage!
Partenope at SF Opera: There's nothing staid about a 284 year old opera, at least in the SF Opera's production of Handel's Partenope. In its first ever performance in San Francisco, the piece has been staged as a sexy farce full of vitality. The story line centers around queen Partenope who has recently shacked up with Arsace, who was just vowing eternal love to Rosmira in the kingdom next door. Meanwhile, Emilio lusts for Partenope, and so does Armindo. Rosmira shows up at Partenope's door, dressed as a man intent on wooing the queen, and takes a ticket for the long line of suitors.
It sounds silly, and a lot of of the story is just a pretext for lovely music, but the staging here manages to put everything into a somewhat coherent vision, an exploration of love which turns into an examination of physical desire. Basically, it's taking the appropriate 18th century facade for the charade it is, and just making explicit the very sexual tension between the characters. There is also a gender confusion to add onto this tension: Rosmira cross-dresses of course, but both Arsace and Armindo are sung by counter-tenors, with rather feminine voices. As an aside: it is somewhat sad that opera lost the inventiveness which makes Handel write a score for these registers. Sure, the "evil baritone-dashing tenor-loving soprano combo" has some of the most amazing music ever written, but when again will we see two dueling counter-tenors?
David Daniels as a lost in his thoughts Ascarce
The focus on sexual desire takes rather graphic aspects, and we were slightly embarrassed to witness some of the quite lewd acts involved in the staging: we worried our guest would misread our invitation to join us for the performance in light of the over-the-top sexiness. Fellatio jokes may be inappropriate if you're not that intimate. But the overall atmosphere created by stage director Christopher Alden was light hearted, fun, not particularly refined but not afraid to go for it.
The sexy Danielle DeNiese was a perfect fit for both the vocal score and the wacky staging. Her perky voice is light and fluttery, thin in the bottom and sharp at the top, but fun, appropriate, and full of sparkles. Her cabaret sequence was downright raunchy, but her sweetness in the butterfly aria was innocently charming. David Daniels manages to emanate the manly attractiveness which draws both Rosmira and Partenope while singing high notes with both volume and lyricism. He never feels strained and stays colorful.
The staging makes some incredible demands on Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo) and Alek Shrader (Emilio). The former belts while doing pull-ups hanging from stairs, a feat that would result in a complaint filed with the performer's union by a lesser singer. We can't do pull-up without catching our breath, let alone sing throughout. Shrader outdoes him by singing hanging out of the window atop a bathroom's door, or pulling a yoga routine in the last act. Yoga, like singing, involves breath control, but they are supposed to be incompatible with each other, not funny as hell together. Here's a side story to the performance: Daniella Mack and Alek Shrader met as Merola attendees in 2007 and later got married.
The orchestra sounded fantastic, led by Julian Wachner in his SF Opera debut, especially the valveless period horns and the oboes given great lines by Handel.
Lianna Haroutounian lit up the stage in Tosca
Tosca at SF Opera: SF Opera also revived the classic Tosca production by Bosquet we have seen many times. It featured pretty much the same cast as last year: Brian Jagde as the painter Cavaradossi, Mark Delavan as the evil Scarpia, Dale Travis as the Sacristan and Joel Sorensen as Spoletta. But two key newcomers: soprano Lianna Haroutounian in the title role, and maestro Riccardo Frizza in the pit and do they make a difference.
Sure, Jagde was pretty good last time around. An Adler fellow with the SF Opera, he had floored us in one of our first encounters with him in Puccini, that seems to be his territory. He's still growing into the role, finding more confidence and more heft in his voice. And the familiarity of the cast with the staging ensured that all flowed smoothly, with none of the slight hesitations you may encounter on opening night.
We still recall the caution in last year's soprano Angela Ghorgiu's blocking last year. She seemed a bit restrained and not fully engaged with the staging (to her credit, she wasn't feeling well and had to leave at the first intermission to be replaced by Melody Moore). And while it was her first show on this set -on this stage, even- Lianna Haroutounian had no hesitation. She fearlessly hurled herself into the performance, just like she hurled herself off the roof of the Palazzo Farnese to end the night: fully committed to give her all.
Her Vissi d'art suspended time in the opera house, so sad, tender and lyrical. Her "Qual'occhio" duet with Jagde in the first Act gave us chills up and down the spine, one of these moments of transcendent emotion being communicated through music that makes opera so wonderful. The 6'2" Jagde and the diminutive Haroutounian formed an unlikely couple, but heavenly matched in that duet. There is one more performance on Tosca on Friday, do yourself a favor and check Haroutounian out. She'll blow you away.