Tag Archives: Mozart

SF Opera’s FIGARO: Magnificent Music & Funny, Too

This will be a short review article. We have spent too much time searching for superlatives for the superlative cast of The Marriage of Figaro.  Mozart’s opera of 1786 is now being presented by the SF Opera. There is no time to waste: go buy your tickets. This is a spectacular performance of an opera which will delight your intellect, satisfy your brain’s beauty receptors, activate your physical response network. Future dates: October 19, 22, 25, 27, November 1. Curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. except for the 2 p.m. matinee on Oct. 27. Be there.

Michael Sumuel, American bass-baritone is Figaro

Mr. Sumuel is a perfect Figaro. He is handsome, he has great presence, his voice is just wonderful. He communicates wit, grit, and intelligence laced with revolutionary spirit. He is in love with Susanna, but he has not let love mess with his brain. Not too much. Figaro is the character invented by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Despite his aristocratic name, Beaumarchais “got it” about relationships between servants and those they serve. His play, The Marriage of Figaro, was written in 1778. The American Revolution had knocked the British back across the Atlantic. Louis XVI’s censors were not happy about Beaumarchais’ play, so the wily playwright changed the setting to Spain. Louis XVI had reason to be jumpy: the play opened in 1784; the French Revolution opened 5 years after. In the play, the servants are as smart or smarter than the spoiled nobles. They have to be to stay employed and still keep their personal identities.

Michael Sumuel with Jeannine De Bique, Soprano, Ms De Bique sang Susanna making her debut in this role and her first performances with the SF Opera. Ms De Bique is originally from the Barbados.

Among the privileges said to be enjoyed by the aristocrats was the despicable practice of the “right of the first night.” That meant that the lord of the manor could replace the groom for the bride’s wedding night. In the opera, Figaro and Susanna find ways to put off Count Almaviva’s advances toward Susanna and get the Count to allow them to marry. The Count is a philandering cad who has neither work nor hobbies except for trying to assaul every female within range. He does this despite being married to a beautiful woman who, though continually wronged by her husband, is true to him and, mostly, still loves him.

Hungarian baritone Levente Molnar sang the Count

American soprano Nicole Heaston sang the Countess.

Ms De Bique completely embodied Susanna. She is saucy, smart, loving but aware of the snares she must dodge. Her voice is such a delight. This is her first Susanna; it surely is the first of many. She and Mr. Sumuel make a great pair. He is strong and adorable; she is adorable but still strong. Neither one is anyone’s fool. Ms De Bique and Ms Heaston are also a good pair as  ladies who make complicated plots to fool their husbands. The plots are so complicated that they never work in the favor of the plot planners. Ms Heaston’s Countess is a knowing, understanding wife but never taken in by her less than noble Count. Her lovely voice was deeply touching in her aria as she observes herself trapped in her position and yearning for the Count to realize who she is.

Nicole Heaston and Italian mezzo soprano Serena Malfi as Cherubino

Cherubino, a teen age Lothario around the palace, longs for the love of the Countess. Ms Malfi in this “trouser role” was superb. From the first note she sang, her liquid, velvety voice captivated everyone. The Count is fed up with Cherubino and sends him to the army which he avoids. Plots have sub-plots and the sub-plots spawn sub-sub-plots. These marvelous singers are also flawless performers with great timing and ensemble interaction. They are funny, laugh out loud funny. Take a look, and listen well, for example, at mezzo soprano Catherine Cook as Marcellina and bass  James Creswell as Doctor Bartolo. Wonderful singers who are excellent in their ridiculous roles.

Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo turn out to have significant roles in Figaro’s life, a special surprise to all three.

Each character was played with conviction. This made them even funnier. The voices were splendid throughout.

Tenor Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio.

If the glory of Mozart’s music and the glorious voices of the stellar cast cannot get you to the box office, the opportunity to see an opera character with Don Basilio’s coiffure should do it. Throughout the performance, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was outstanding. Conductor Henrik Nanasi was a great favorite with the audience. Together the orchestra and maestro captured the delicacy, precision, and tunefulness of the score. The libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte will never go out of style. It is sharp, and its humor reveals serious depths.

Tickets range from $26 to $408, Contact 415/864-3330, visit sfopera.com, or go to the Box Office at 301 Van Ness.

Photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.


Over the years, the Merola Opera has made it possible for The Lively Foundation friends to attend some of its wonderful performances in San Francisco. Named after Gaetano Merola, the first director of the San Francisco Opera, Merola is THE great training program for professional singers. They spend a year in Merola and go on to become world famous stars. Just a few of their graduates are Ruth Ann Swenson, Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voight, Brian Asawa. In July, Lively friends attended a comic Mozart opera performed by the Merolini (singers in the program carry this festive name), Il re pastore.

Zhengyi Bai as Alessandro in Il re pastore

Patricia Westley as Elisa in Il re pastore

On August 18, a group of Lively friends will attend the Merola Grand Finale at the San Francisco Opera House. It will be a sensational evening. All of the 2018 Merolini will perform. The program includes arias, duets, and other groupings selected from many different operas. The voices will be excellent. Watch the Lively Foundation News & Events and the Hedgehog Highlights on livelyfoundation.org for a report and review of this great event. It’s the Merolini’s graduation party, and we are invited!

photos by Kristen Loken, courtesy Merola Opera

Ax & SFSymphony: Mozart & Schoenberg, A Brilliant, Varied Concert

January 13, 2018, the San Francisco Symphony performed a sensational concert with pianist Emanuel Ax. The variety of challenging pieces chosen for the program demonstrated the excellence of the SF Symphony and Mr. Ax, surely one of the absolute top pianists in the world.

Emanuel Ax     First on the program was the Leonore Overture, #3 (1806). This overture, written with Beethoven’s only opera in mind, has so much energy and color, the listener can absorb the revolutionary new principles of freedom embraced by Fidelio, the female character who comes to rescue her lover, a champion of liberty. These were also Beethoven’s principles; they imbue the music with the celebration of the rights of man instead of the rights of dictators.

Ludwig van Beethoven

After the rousing beginning of the concert came Mozart’s Piano Concerto,No. 14, in E-flat Minor(1784). Complicated and beautiful, this concerto manages to offer inventive, complex music which is written so perfectly by Mozart that the listener absorbs its beauty rather than be transfixed by its complications. Mr. Ax transmitted the restlessness and concentrated construction without a hesitation. He so completely embodied the music that he and the SF Symphony nearly disappeared. The music became a living presence. The second movement, Andantino, came as a surprise. It was elegant, almost peaceful, an incredibly eye opening change. The Concerto ends with a rondo, Allegro ma non troppo. The rhythms are engaging; the movement sweeps the audience away to a new level of aesthetic excitement.

Wolfgang Amadeo Mozart

Matching the Mozart concerto with Schoenberg’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 41 (1942) was daring and brilliant. When Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas turns to address the audience, everyone present is tremendously lucky, about to be enlightened by SFS Music Director, MTT, about what we will hear. It was a very beneficial offering. In addition to describing the famous, or infamous, 12 tone method, MTT had Mr. Ax play some of the music from the Concerto as it would have been written in the traditional, major -minor system. That provided an “Aha!” moment. While I wouldn’t pretend to “understand” the composition principles, hearing that example opened a door. It was an intense, dramatic, performance. Both Mr. Ax and the SF Symphony showed that they were able to triumph in this “new” music as well as in the Beethoven and Mozart.

Arnold Schoenberg, photograph by Man Ray

The concert finale was Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, After the Old Rogue’s Tale, Set in Rondo Form for Large Orchestra, Op. 28 (1895). This piece has a special place in my musical education. In my elementary school in St. Louis County, one year, maybe during 4th grade, a Music Lady came to play music and talk about it. She played Smetana’s The Moldau and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. No Peter and the Wolf for us. Ever since that time, I have avoided Till because I remember being told that he was so mischievous, had so much delight in his practical jokes, that he was hanged. The story terrified me. Too much fun? Off to the gallows.

Medieval woodcut of trickster, Tilll Eulenspiegel, courtesy, San Franciso Symphony

Fortunately, I pushed that memory aside and enjoyed a performance that revealed the determined individualism of Till, a character in  many German legends. The music does not involve moralistic commentary. It plays hide and seek with Till’s personality and adventures. The concert, which had begun with the inspiring Leonore Overture, closed with an emphatic exploration of  a character who came to life on the outside of accepted society. The audience was completely charmed by Till and roared its approval.



James Conlon & S F Symphony: Triumphant Concert

jamesconlon_photo_by_chester_higgins__largeJames Conlon led the San Francisco Symphony in a bracing, thought provoking, thoroughly satisfying performance, June 11, at Davies Symphony Hall. The varied program included Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20 (1940), by Benjamin Britten; Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Maj., K. 482 (1785), by Mozart; Symphony No.8 in G maj., Op. 88 (1889), by Antonin Dvorak. In addition to great works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the selections offered a range of emotions and connections to human experience. The SF Symphony seemed completely in synch with Maestro Conlon. Bravo Bravo Bravo–one for each performance. And Bravo times two to the SFS and James Conlon.

BBrittenBefore beginning the Sinfonia da Requiem, Maestro Conlon addressed the audience to explain the origin of the composition. The Japanese government sought a European composer to create music for the celebration of the Imperial family’s 2600th anniversary as the ruling dynasty. The British Council, cultural arm of British diplomacy, approached Britten. Although Britten had been assured that he need not write nationalistic bombast, the Japanese rejected the Sinfonia. Britten had come to the US in 1939, the fateful, desperate year. Though far away, Britten was deeply distressed by of war across Europe and Asia. James Conlon concluded his remarks by observing that the Sinfonia was a requiem for the culture that was destroyed by the war. His voice caught a bit as he said this; it is plain that Conlon felt deeply the horrors of the war and the permanence of loss.  This is a great, surprising work in three movements, each named for Christian liturgy. Lacrymosa, the first, comes from a medieval hymn describing the Day of Judgment: “Lamentable is that day on which guilty man shall arise from the ashes to be judged.” There is nothing comforting about it; it has a driving, percussive force and cries from a saxophone. Without pause, the second movement, Dies irae begins. It is an irregular dance, fast and harsh. One might remember depictions of the dance of death in medieval art, but, sadly, it is not necessary to search art history to find meaningful connections. The final movement’s title, Requiem aeternam, comes from the Mass for the Dead: “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let everlasting light shine upon them.” Phrases for flutes and horns alternate; chords from harps, clarinets and strings build fervently. All grows quieter and fades to eternity.

JanLisieckiJan Lisiecki was the soloist for Mozart’s Concerto. A twenty-one year old phenomenon, his mastery of the lovely Mozart work was secure and admirable. The concerto is notable, in addition to the brilliance of the piano, for the clarinets which Mozart included for the first time in a concerto. This work has everything that delights in a Mozart concerto: complexity of design and also complexity of feeling. While there are dashing themes and splendid allegros, it poses formal, spritely 18th century dances along with the sweetness of life in music.

220px-DvorakClosing the concert with Dvorak’s 8th Symphony was a gesture of affirmation. It is a compact work which gains power through compression. There are joyful, happy sounds of birds, dance rhythms, music which seems to pour directly from nature. Yet, despite the cheer, there is a sigh of awareness that this beauty is fragile. As the last movement, Allegro non troppo, rounds through music of our natural world, the listener senses a smile from Dvorak. There is strife and sadness, but we still enjoy the birdsong. The Hedgehog is grateful to James M. Keller for this quotation from Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelk, when rehearsing this Symphony: “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle–they always call to the dance!”   James Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera, Principal Conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, Torino, Italy; he has also been Music Director of the Ravinia Festival and Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera. He first performed with the SFS, 1978. FOR MORE HEDGEHOG HIGHLIGHTS on Mozart, please see April 26, 2016, Hilary Hahn, violinist, playing Mozart’s Sonata in G maj. K379 (373 a), and Oct. 4, 2015, Andras Schiff, pianist, playing Mozart’s Sonata in D maj. for Piano, K.576. Pictures, from top: James Conlon, Jan Lisiecki, Antonin Dvorak.


Ax & Perlman: Dynamic Duo of Music in San Francisco

IPerlmanEmAxjpeg  Emanuel Ax, piano, and Itzhak Perlman, violin, performing together at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Jan. 18, 2016, was exactly what one would expect: superlative beyond the same old superlatives. These are two of the greatest musicians currently on our planet. We are lucky to be in the world at the same time as they are. Although the quality of the performance was so great as one might expect, their program was far from anything “usual.” They performed Sonata in C major, K. 296, by Mozart; Sonata No. 1 in A major, Opus 13, by Faure; and Sonata in E-flat major, Opus 18 by Richard Strauss. These are not familiar selections. The listener was rewarded with new expressions, colors, and musical emotions.There was also a touching, dramatic presence to the musicians’ partnership. When they entered the Davies stage, Mr. Ax seemed to hold back to defer to Mr. Perlman, but once they were positioned to play, their own personalities were not on show. It was all about great music.

  mozart-kraft-1819-150x150  The Mozart selection, Sonata in C maj., K.296, was brilliant with bright, jewel-like colors and a perfection of partnership between piano and violin. It has Mozart’s brilliance in the sense of fantastic, playful wit, as well. The surprise was the satisfying expressiveness that came with Mozart’s brilliance and the musicians’ embodiment of the quick, starry music. 

FaureGabriel Faure (1845-1924)wrote Sonata No. 1 in A major, Opus 13, in 1876. He was well on his way to his long and great career yet still in early days. The Sonata has a seductive beauty which captures the listener like the course of a river carrying a boat along. There is passion and also hesitation; the Sonata has a character all its own. It is certainly a work that called upon the virtuoso musicians to unleash their own powers which they did magnificently both in partnering the two instruments and allowing the instruments to follow their own ways.

R.StraussRichard Strauss (1864-1949)was dedicated to creating chamber music early in his work. This sonata, written when he was twenty-three, took up the second half of the Perlman-Ax program. It is grand in its size and in beauty. The listener could take time out to think, oh, yes, later Romanticism; Strauss must have revered Brahms. There is no time out available for such observations. The music is sometimes introspective and also projects a feeling of improvisation, as though it were being created by the musicians as they played. Improvisation: Andante cantabile is the title of the second movement. Strauss’s Sonata has the force and energy to pull the listener into a gorgeous world, intense and full of power.

The audience, standing and vigorously applauding was most reluctant to let Perlman and Ax leave.  Mr. Perlman has a history of giving encores and introducing them with humorous commentary. The full house demanded extra treats. On this night, the audience was treated to four encores. Each time, the duo exited to applause and, after a bit, returned. They bowed and then, seeming to confer about what they might play, went back to perform. Mr. Perlman is the spokesman. The first selection, by Dvorak, he said, had intimations of Americana, Dvorak’s own Americana.  One could hear suggestions of what might have African-American music, forerunner of blues. Kreisler’s, Schon Rosmarin, came next, after another exit and return; then, Kreisler’s Love’s Sorrow. A young woman and her daughter who had made their way down to the edge of the stage presented them with a bouquet and a teddy bear. Mr. Perlman made a point of giving the bouquet to Mr. Ax, embracing the teddy bear for himself. They reappeared one more time, this time Mr. Ax was allowed the bear, to play Kreisler’s Love’s Joy. Mr. Perlman assured the audience he would not  leave them with Love’s Sorrow. The interplay between the musicians was delightful. The warmth of their stage presence never stepped over the line to interfere with the  seriousness of their performance. Hear Itzhak Perlman and Emanuel Ax on their Deutsche Grammophon album of sonatas by Faure and Strauss. They perform together on tour throughout the US this season. For other Hedgehog Highlights about these musicians please see entry of January 11, 2015, on recital by Emanuel Ax and entry of January 18, 2015, on recital by Itzhak Perlman.


2-Photo-By-Paul-Labelle-120x67Any opportunity to hear Pinchas Zukerman perform is almost too good to be true. His performance with the Budapest Festival Orchestra at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, January 26, 2015, was truly wonderful. Playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, Mr. Zukerman captivated the audience and enjoyed a perfect musical match with the BFO. To see Mr. Zukerman perform is enlightening in this era of show boats flinging arms in the air, bows pointed skyward and, one hopes, not into the eyes of their colleagues. With Pinchas Zukerman, it is all about the music. He stands calmly, listening, and plays whatever dauntingly difficult music as though it is his way of breathing. He is a demonstration that charisma can be found in quiet perfection.


The BFO was a splendid partner throughout, playing Mozart with brightness, clarity, and a sense that they understood what they were doing. At one moment, Mr. Zukerman stood close to the Concert Mistress, Violetta Eckhardt, and leaned toward her and violinist Agnes Biro as though he were making a gift to them as well as playing with them. The program notes that Mr. Zukerman played two cadenzas which were written for him “as a gift by a close friend” and a third which was written by Fritz Kreisler. All three were brilliant, intricate wonders performed with lively perfection. No. 5 is the final violin concerto written by Mozart. It conveys a feeling of continuity and natural beauty that is an awakening to delight. The audience did all but rush the stage to pull Mr. Zukerman away from the exit. He offered the encore, Brahms’ Lullaby, to send his friends the BFO on their way home. He invited Conductor Ivan Fischer to come forward to sing with the audience. Mr. Fischer, sitting in the orchestra, declined, but many in the audience sang, turning the

astounding Mozart experience into a sweet love fest. PZukerman While the Violin Concerto, No. 5 is said to have been written in 1775, Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, was written in 1791 and premiered just two  months before his death at age 35. The January 26 performance opened with the Overture to The Magic Flute. It was interesting to begin the concert with an overture, meant to start us out, which is also an ending as it came so close to Mozart’s death. It contains all the spritely, mysterious, serious, and silly characterizations that appear in the opera. The Magic Flute presents an allegory of a prince who must go through trials to learn about good and evil before he can become who he is: a man meant to rule others. It creates an enchanted world which leads the audience to follow a playful bird catcher whose fun and adventure seem much more important than any philosophy. It was a brief but apt introduction to the program of work by the two greatest prodigies of Western classical music, Mozart and Mendelssohn. FelixMendelssohnThe Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performance of Selections from Incidental Music for Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61, was fantastic both in the musical representation of fantasy and the magnificence of their performance. They were joined by Anna Lucia Richter, soprano, Barbara Kozelj, mezzo soprano, and the Pro Musica Girls Choir, directed by Denes Szabo. Ms Richter and Ms Kozelj were stunning singers; the charming Choir sang very well.Together with the BFO they created a world of music inhabited by two worlds of creatures, the human and the spirits, elves, fairies. Actually, three worlds because there is the man who becomes a donkey (an ass); there are the lost lover humans and the “rough mechanicals” humans. There are the fairy King and Queen and the many kinds and ranks of other fairies. The music also is rich in life: the hee haws of Bottom, busy, flying fairy sounds, the beatific theme that is the wedding of all. It is a world of so many worlds and so many creatures, flowers, plants. Mendelssohn and now Ivan Fischer have given us a gift even beyond what Mendelssohn conceived at age 17 and a half when he made this particular masterpiece. We who are now its audience live in a world watching extinctions go past us like a medieval parade of death. The world once crowded with myriad forests and enriched with busy fantasies is being simpled down, clear cut, with species narrowed down to a few representatives in museum like zoos. Then here comes Mendelssohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream to remind us of the rich diversity of life bounding, swarming, creeping,hopping around us. Once again, Maestro Fischer led his BFO in an a capella encore.FHensel


This time, a lovely song by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix’s gifted sister. Maestro Fischer’s conducting style involves many movements. In one which caught my eye more than once he raises both his arms in a rounded shape reaching up. I took it as an act of benediction for the music, his orchestra, his audience, and I was grateful for it, too. pictures: from above: Pinchas Zukerman, Ivan Fischer leading the BFO with P. Zukerman,P. Zukerman, Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

Barantschik, Zukerman, Kremer: Great Violinists in San Francisco, Part I

BandoneonPart I: Music lovers in San Francisco had a festival of great violinists from late January to Groundhog’s Day. It was easy to forget the inevitable post-holiday let down when in the presence of artistry that lifted the spirit while demanding an open heart and mind. Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony’s Concertmaster, was leader and soloist on Jan. 22, 2014, when members of the SFSymphony joined him in works by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Britten, and Piazzola. With the exception of Piazzola’s works, each composer wrote the selections when very young. Very young: Mozart was 16 when he wrote Divertimento in F maj.; Mendelssohn was 13 when he wrote Concerto in D min. for Violin and String Orchestra; Britten was 10-13 when he wrote the themes, songs, and tunes which he made into Simple Symphony when he was 20. The words charming, delightful, beautiful are the ones which instantly come to mind for the Mozart Divertimento. The second movement Andante has a delicious lyrical, nearly seductive style. It ends with a Rondo which is bright and exciting. The players did so well capturing the light-on-water brilliance. Barantschik’s playing in the Mendelssohn Concerto had all the virtuosic abilities the piece deserves. He is an appropriate inheritor of the piece which was written for Eduard Rietz, the violinist to whom Mendelssohn dedicated important works and who was Concertmaster when Mendelssohn revived Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Before joining the SFS, Barantschik served as concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra. San Franciscans are fortunate to hear his performances with the orchestra and in chamber performances. The Concerto is full of energy and musical invention. Mendelssohn demonstrates his ability to see the many different dimensions in which the music can be arranged, altering the order of phrases and finding new combinations for them. Never more devoted to chess playing than to music making, the young genius gives us music that thrills the audience. Britten’s Simple Symphony was a surprise to audience members who know Britten only through “heavy” music like operas Turn of the Screw. This was fun and tuneful. The four movements, Boisterous Bourree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, Frolicsome Finale, live up to their titles to create a frolicsome suite. The musicians played with relish. I first heard Piazzola’s music when a friend played tapes he had brought back from Argentina many years ago. It is tango, but it is more than “just tango,” and also shows how complex and rich tango can be. Barantschik was accompanied by soloist Seth Asarnow on bandoneon and the SFSymphony players. At the risk of robbing the music of its fascination, it’s worthwhile to assert that it is serious music. It is music that grew in a composer whose consciousness included jazz and Stravinsky (and Stravinsky was a composer whose consciousness had said hello to jazz as well). Tango is popular music which might prevent some music writers from taking it seriously; not this one. After all, the tango is famous, and infamous, for being about sex, a very mysterious and serious source of art.BarantschikFelixMpictures: top: a bandoneon; above, L to R: Alexander Barantschik, Felix Mendelssohn; below, Astor Piazzola, Benjamin Britten.PiazzolaDownloadedFile-3