Symphony & Opera: A Fall Preview

by Philip Campbell
Monday Sep 9, 2013

Single-ticket sales for the San Francisco Opera's 91st season went on sale Aug. 5, and across the street on Grove the San Francisco Symphony's box office has been helping music-lovers cherry-pick concerts since late July. Looks like it might be time to put down the umbrella drink, brew a pot of coffee, and make a little list. The fall season is here, and it is filled with promise.

As we go to press the SFS has already celebrated the gala start of its 102nd season with a program featuring the adorably ubiquitous Audra McDonald singing tunes from the American Songbook. We will report on the festivities later, but it isn't too late to nab tickets for repeats of the same program on Fri., Sept. 6, and Sat., Sept. 7, with violinist James Ehnes taking over McDonald's guest spot. He will be performing the gorgeous Samuel Barber concerto, and Gershwin's jaunty "An American in Paris" finishes the night.

The following week takes a more serious turn with a West Coast premiere (the first SFS New Voices commission) and a return appearance from pianist Yefim Bronfman playing the Tchaikovsky First Concerto. There is buzz about Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri's "Lineage," and the concert includes Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Prokofiev's Symphony No. 3. MTT has a winning way with Prokofiev, and we anticipate another satisfying encounter.

A curious grab bag of short compositions ranging from Aaron Copland through Rachmaninoff, and a return visit from another piano virtuoso, Emanuel Ax, ends the month. There is some Delius, Grieg and Mahler on the bill with Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. We suspect all will be made clear later.

October brings guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado back to DSH for two weeks of concerts that juxtapose two dissimilar voices who still share some interesting thematic interests: Felix Mendelssohn and modern master Thomas Ades. If you missed Heras-Casado in the past, don't let it happen again. He is the real deal, and his concerts sizzle with energy. The programming this time couldn't be more enticing, and some great guest artists add to the bills. Violinist Leila Josefowicz essays the Stravinsky Concerto, and strong singers, including local favorite Rodney Gilfrey, will be joining the young Spanish maestro a week later for a Shakespearean concert featuring scenes from Ades' wonderful "The Tempest" and Mendelssohn's beloved take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

October gets spooky as Halloween approaches with a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and showings of some of his greatest thrillers. The SFS is supplying live musical accompaniment. This could be especially luxurious when the full symphonic treatment is given to Bernard Herrmann's Wagnerian score for "Vertigo" and the orchestra's strings slice their way through the same composer's remarkable music for "Psycho."

November is anchored with conductor Semyon Bychkov's return to DSH with An Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. Majestic and remarkably free of kitsch and bombast, the "Alpine" remains one of the composer's most impressive orchestral works. The month ends with another must-hear, the Benjamin Britten "War Requiem." Not only is it a chance to experience one of Britten's greatest masterpieces live, it is also an opportunity to celebrate the composer's centenary. It may be a sober way to gear up for the ensuing winter holidays, but it should keep us spiritually nurtured throughout the rest of the year.

Opera Box

The San Francisco Opera kicks off its 91st season with the resurrection of Canadian director Robert Carsen's fabulous production of Boito's "Mefistofele." It originally premiered in the late 1980s, and was seen again in the mid-90s with beloved hunk Samuel Ramey in the title role (he started the shirtless divo trend). We look forward to yet another viewing. It is a little late to be calling Carsen a wunderkind at 59, or even a Canadian after years of international acclaim, but "Mefistofele" was the first production to get the talented showman on our local radar.

The breathtaking Prologue alone is worth the price of admission, and Carsen's insightful touches and carefully controlled spectacle throughout make this a classic worthy of another revival. Ildar Abdrazakov has some big shoes to fill in the title role, but if photos of him portraying Verdi's Attila are any indication, we know he can handle the beefcake side. Ramon Vargas is Faust, and Patricia Racette is Marguerite/Elena. Nicola Luisotti conducts the starry proceedings.

Patricia Racette will also be starring in the Opera's following production, though she didn't know about it until recently. SFO General Director David Gockley's latest commission for the company "Dolores Claiborne" is based on the Stephen King novel, with music by American composer Tobias Picker and a libretto by J.D. McClatchy.

We were interested, surprised and slightly incredulous when we first heard of the commission, originally intended for mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick. Upon consideration, it seemed the project actually held some unusually compelling promise. Stephen King is not only a massively popular novelist with a penchant for the dark and bizarre, but he is also one hell of a storyteller. It is the stuff opera is really made of. Tobias Picker is also a uniquely talented artist, with a haunting lyrical quality to all of his best work.

A panic-inducing, last-minute twist of fate for the premiere came with the sudden withdrawal of Dolora Zajick for health reasons (including personal voice issues). Her replacement in the title role is none other than Patricia Racette. I doubt there is any subtext in the move by Zajick. She is a well-respected pro who wants the best for her own career and the upcoming production. Curiously enough, I have a gut feeling it is playing out for the best. I'll bet Racette will nail it, and it certainly adds additional frisson to an already intriguing project.

Next up is Verdi's autumnal masterwork and a life-long personal favorite: the composer's wise and warm, sparkling and witty "Falstaff." I last saw it years ago at the SFO, in a well-worn production that was starting to look frayed around the edges. The new production to San Francisco comes from Lyric Opera of Chicago, and stars the foremost Falstaff of the day, Bryn Terfel. I have seen Terfel in Gordon Vick's mean-spirited Royal Opera production, and he still managed to convey the vulnerability of the role despite the general nastiness of the direction. He can also sing the doublet off the part, and that is a genuine bonus.

Ainhoa Arteta (a big hit in "Cyrano" here) will make a lovely Mistress Ford, and Heidi Stober (we just saw her in the Santa Fe Opera's Oscar ) is Nannetta. Nicola Luisotti is on the podium.

Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" is another new production, starting Oct. 22 and continuing in repertory through Nov. 15. Greer Grimsley stars, with Petra Maria Schnitzer as Senta and Ian Storey as Erik. Patrick Summers leads from the pit. For anyone wanting to test the deep waters of Wagner's genius, I can't think of a better introduction.

The fall season concludes with another new production (!) and another visit with Rossini's endlessly popular and endearing The Barber of Seville. Lucas Meachem is followed by Audun Iversen as Figaro, and Isabel Leonard is followed by Daniela Mack as Rosina. The director is Emilio Sagi, and the conductor is Giuseppe Finzi. A good production of "The Barber" is a reminder of everything we love about the sinfully delightful old Rossini, and this one has all the ingredients for success.

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