Monday, November 24, 2008

Double Header

I have a busy musical schedule this week, of which Saturday's Kuhnau and Zelenka performance was just the first step. The concert went very well, and we had a big turnout, always gratifying. I wish we could do each program more than once, and I know everyone else in Chora Nova feels the same way. Our Board of Directors has been careful about our budgeting, and that is a good thing; when we have the financial means and audience to expand, we will.

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Mahler's gigantic and sonically overwhelming Eighth Symphony at the San Francisco Symphony. As I told a friend who had tickets for Friday, the opening is like a rocket taking off, and the intensity barely lets up for the next 90 minutes. I could not fault the chorus's beauty of tone, clarity, precision, or diction; hats off to the magician Ragnar Bohlin, chorus director for the last 18 months. Special props to MTT for conducting a coherent, well-balanced, beautifully-paced, very intense performance of an impossible piece. The sound of the orchestra in the first ten minutes of Part II will linger long in memory (those pizzicatos, those harps, the winds), as will the glorious end of the piece.

I mostly loved the soloists; Erin Wall led the way with brilliant tone, joined by the darker-voiced Elza van den Heever, who alone among the soloists looked like she was having a good time. Yvonne Naef impressed with her rich-hued tone and Katarina Kareus with her power and focus. Laura Claycomb was luxury casting for Mater Gloriosa's two lines. I'd love to see Wall, Naef, and Karneus in opera, and I'd love to see van den Heever and especially Claycomb again; David Gockley, where are you? Among the men, Quinn Kelsey was the star, singing with reserves of power, very fine diction and phrasing, and extremely beautiful tone. I can fault Anthony Dean Griffey only for being perhaps a bit light for his role. Of James Morris....well, his performance raises issues I will blog about in another posting.

This was the third Mahler 8 set since 2000. It is so expensive and time-consuming to perform that I have to think it will be a while until the next set, and that makes me sad. Here's hoping it's performed to the south at Disney Hall; I would fly down for it, no question.

Believe it or not, after the cheering had died down, I got on BART and headed to Hertz Hall, where I caught a screening, with live music, of Carl Dreyer's 1927 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. I had seen only one Dreyer film previously, his Vampyr, many years ago at the Pacific Film Archive. As the program notes said, Joan is on every film critic or scholar's short list of the greatest films ever made, and rightly so. The cutting, pacing, cinematography, and acting style must have seemed alien to contemporary viewers, because they are far more like a film made in the 1980s or 1990s than in the 1920s. It is one grim film, compressing Joan's trial and execution into just one day; it contains one of the most shocking screen images I have ever seen, and also one of the greatest acting performances, from Maria Falconetti, as Joan.

The accompanying score, Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, was composed in the early 1990s; it was performed by various UC Berkeley choirs and a group of instrumentalists. It is mostly minimalist, with a semichorus as Joan's own voice and the massed choirs singing...other text. It is a beautiful score, and so well integrated with the film that they really did seem to be one.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available on DVD, and one of the soundtracks available on the DVD is the Einhorn score.


Civic Center said...

The performance of the Mahler Eighth on Sunday really was something, wasn't it? Just put up some pics over at Civic Center, including Elza crying and smiling. She was having an extraordinary time.

And yes, I think Mr. Morris and Mr. Ramey need to think about doing a dueling basses farewell tour, and this is coming from a fan of both of them.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oooo, I'll go look. Yes, it was a humdinger. A friend who saw all four said it was far and away the best.

I am going to add a couple of things to this posting later. And I'm working on a posting about when it's time to say goodbye. Their presence raises a couple of other issues, too: none of the reviews said a thing about Morris's vocal condition. And when is an institution like SFS or SFO justified in buying out a singer's contract? I could name 20 bases who could have sung the Mahler better than Morris did.

Laura said...

Hi, I found your blog looking for my own blog (I obviously don't write on it often enough...) I just wanted to tell you that James Morris was NOT in good vocal health and was VERY aware of it. If you noticed his limp, he actually had foot injury which, when operated on, got that horrible super-mega hospital virus. (I can't remember the name of it.) He had been on IV antibiotics for months, and this was his first engagement after all that. He was highly aware that his singing was not up to normal par, but aside a few notes that he just did not have back (yet), I thought his performance was still convincing. Perhaps he should've cancelled, but there was the recording we were making of the performance, as well. I bet he thought his voice would come around, but just never did. I think he lacked the OOMPH sheer physical strength that you need to sing such a role. He's still feeling fragile. I doubt that will ease your disappointment at his performance, but I just thought you should know the WHY's of his performance. Don't write him off just yet! It's hard to sing when you're in optimal health, but when you are weak, just imagine. One could argue he should've pulled out himself, but I'm betting he just didn't know how weak he was until he was in the middle of rehearsals, and always had the hope his strength would come back. By then, it was too late to get a great replacement.

Oh well - I'm glad you enjoyed the concert, nonetheless! We certainly did! Elsa made me want to cry every night right before I had to come in and sing. It was an overwhelmingly emotional night, every night for us. I hope you felt it, as well.

For those who might object to luxury casting in my bit part (I got a few sniffs my direction from patrons suggesting it was wasteful to bring me in from Italy at such cost), the recording was definitely more than enough reason to bring me in, but I'll have you all know that that minute of singing is some of the most nerve-wracking singing I do in my career. And this is coming from someone who sings Lucia, Zerbinetta, Ophelie... It has to be perfect and you can't fudge one little thing. And I think those few moments I sing are crucial to pulling off this gargantuan piece, don't you? Maybe I'm just trying to justify a reason to get to be a part of such a wonderful evening! Oh well - glad you enjoyed it!

All my best,
Laura Claycomb