Friday, December 25, 2015

ABS: Weihnachts-Oratorium

Earlier this month, I heard the American Bach Soloists perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio in St. Ignatius Church on the USF campus. In his introductory remarks, conductor Jeffrey Thomas told us this was the 1st ABS performance here. The large interior was well-lit & decorated with garlands, so the setting felt especially grand & festive. Performance forces were minimal: 4 soloists, 16 choristers, in a widely spaced row behind the orchestra, & about 20 instrumentalists, mostly one per part. The sound was not as muddy as I had expected, but it did seem to dissipate into the cavernous space rather than fill it.

Everyone gave punctilious, scrupulously consistent performances. Maestro Thomas's tempos were often fleet, but his beat was always perfectly regular & so never felt rushed. Tenor Kyle Stegall had a wonderfully bright, flexible voice & very clear diction. He sang his recitatives expressively, & his virtuoso arias sounded fluent & agile. He seemed to take breaths in comfortable places. I enjoyed the firm yet easeful voice of baritone Jesse Blumberg. He singing was athletic & elegant, & his high notes warm & open.

Soprano Hélène Brunet's voice was high, warbling & youthful & appropriately angelic. Mezzo Agnes Vojtko made a grounded, sustained sound. She executed long phrases efficiently, without seeming to take breaths, & was steadfast. The choristers were secure & dispatched their contrapuntal choruses pristinely. The soloists joined in the chorales, which were stately.

Individual orchestra members stood when they had obbligato parts, & there were many excellent solos. The trumpet's trills were impressively rapid & even. The tone of the flute was pleasingly pure & without breathiness. Debra Nagy's oboe playing is beautifully liquid, & her accompaniment to "Flößt, mein Heiland" was flowing & had clear-cut dynamics. The aria's off-stage echo voice always came in neatly on time. The strings played vigorously, & leader Elizabeth Blumenstock gave a vivid, wave-like motion to her part in "Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen." The horns struggled to be in tune.

The concert was well attended, & the sober-minded audience refrained from applauding between the separate cantatas, though many stood enthusiastically for the performers at the end. There were long lines for restrooms, even if one ventured outside to a nearby building. Late-comers squeezed themselves into a non-existent seat next to my concert companion, not realizing that they were in the wrong pew.

§ Bach's Christmas Oratorio
American Bach Soloists
American Bach Choir
Hélène Brunet, soprano
Agnes Vojtko, alto
Kyle Stegall, tenor
Jesse Blumberg, baritone
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Saturday December 12 2015 7:30 pm
Saint Ignatius Church, San Francisco

Thursday, December 17, 2015

NCCO: Holiday Program Rehearsal

Wednesday morning I attended the open rehearsal for New Century Chamber Orchestra's holiday concert this week. The mood was festive, & right before the rehearsal, Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg asked the orchestra to play "Happy Birthday" for a cellphone video she sent to a certain "Mastah G."

The morning started with the program's 2nd half, featuring Klezmer clarinettist David Krauker, performing traditional songs in his own arrangements. His playing was immediately arresting, exuberant & jazzy. Audience members compulsively nodded their heads to the beat & frequently broke into applause. His arrangement of "Wedding Dance" asks the orchestra to improvise slides, pizzicatos & slaps to accompany his raucous yet steady solo. Mr. Krakauer encouraged the musicians to be playful, & he was confident with the results. "Hanukkah O Hankukkah" was contrastingly slow & waltz-like, & Mr. Krauker played with swing.

We were lucky to hear his "Synagogue Wail" solo improvisation, which he said he usually doesn't do in rehearsal because he likes to surprise the orchestra. His piercing, energetic solo employed extended clarinet techniques & a lot of circular breathing which looked deceptively natural. We also got to hear his encore, a duet on a popular tune with Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg. At the end of it, she asked the audience, "Was that fun or scary?" It was interesting to hear Mr. Krakauer explain his intentions using analogies to things like boiling water or a traditional New Orleans marching band. Mr. Krakauer was often upstaged by the presence of 3 preschool girls in the audience who naturally became more rambunctious as the morning progressed.

After the coffee and donuts break, the orchestra rehearsed 2 Bach arrangements by Clarice Assad, which Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg prefaced by asking the audience, "You've heard of the phrase 'And now for something completely different'?" The musicians gave "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" a soft, lilting mood, & there was a lot of discussion about tempos, dynamic levels, & whether or not to use mutes. The arrangement of "Sheep May Safely Graze" felt romantic rather than Baroque, & its opening reminded me of the Barber Adagio. There was more discussion about ensemble & working out of cues. A cellist questioned the contrast between the opening notes played without vibrato vs. the sweet, rapid vibrato of Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg's solo.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus participates in the program as well, but they were in school this morning.

§ New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Music Director

Program 2: Holiday Lights
San Francisco Girls Chorus
David Krakauer, Clarinet

Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from Cantata 208
(arr. Clarice Assad)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata 147
(arr. Clarice Assad)
Traditional/John Jacob Niles: I Wonder as I Wander
Various: Medley of Christmas Carols
Baldassare Galuppi: Dixit Dominus
Charles Gounod: O Divine Redeemer
Traditional: Hanukkah O Hankukkah
(arr. Kathy Tagg)
Traditional: Wedding Dance
(arr. David Krakauer)
Traditional: Der Gasn Nign (The Street Song)
(arr. David Krakauer)
David Krakauer: Synagogue Wail for solo clarinet
Traditional: Der Heyser Bulgar (The Hot Bulgar)
(arr. David Krakauer)

Open Rehearsal
Wednesday, December 16, 2015, 10am, Kanbar Performing Arts 

First Congregational Church
Thursday, December 17, 2015, 8pm

Palo Alto
First United Methodist Church
Friday, December 18, 2015, 8pm

San Francisco
Herbst Theatre
Saturday, December 19, 2015, 8pm

San Rafael
Osher Marin Jewish Community Center
Sunday, December 20, 2015, 5pm

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Up-Coming: A Day of Silents

This coming Saturday the SF Silent Film Festival presents a special 1-day festival at the Castro Theatre. The 5 programs range from star vehicles for Douglas Fairbanks, Harry Houdini & Anna May Wong to a documentary & a French avant-garde fantasy. All are accompanied by live music.

The day starts with a splash with Douglas Fairbanks in the swashbuckling, technicolor The Black Pirate. The BFI National Archive will present a compilation of travelogues & newsreels of pre-war China, which ought to be an interesting time capsule. Harry Houdini stars in The Grim Game, a film until recently thought to be lost, in a restoration that premiered earlier this year. It is famous for footage of an unintended airplane crash which was then incorporated into the plot. In the evening the festival presents L'Inhumaine, a fantastical French melodrama, & Piccadilly, a British drama featuring Anna May Wong.

§ A Day of Silents | Films & Tickets | Passes
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Castro Theatre

§ Schedule at a Glance

11:00 am
1926, USA, 84 min
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

1:00 pm
Filmed 1900–1948, 68 min
Compiled in 2015 by the BFI National Archive
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

3:00 pm
1919, USA, 73 min
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

6:30 pm
1924, France, 122 min
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

9:15 pm
1929, UK, 92 min
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin