Thursday, May 25, 2017

Michael Jinsoo Lim Dances Over the Strings

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

INTERVIEW: Michael Jinsoo Lim

McCaw Hall

From soloist to chamber player to concertmaster of the “best ballet band in America,” award-winning violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim’s capable hands have serenaded music lovers in concerts in the top halls of the US, in recordings for well-known labels, and even on NPR.

A co-founding member of the Corigliano Quartet and artistic director and violinist of the Seattle-based ensemble Frequency, the ever-versatile Lim recently premiered a violin concerto written for him by Andrew Waggoner and appeared as a theater artist in Tempo of Recollection, a show about composer Erwin Schulhoff, directed by Nick Schwartz-Hall.

Few Ballet orchestra concertmasters have had as many major solo opportunities as Lim. In Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, Lim grabbed audience attention with a solo of concerto-like proportions and also has performed Stravinsky’s hugely demanding Violin Concerto with the company. In PNB’s upcoming Pictures at an Exhibition, opening June 2, 2107, Lim performs the equally challenging Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 in the ballet Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal.

Lim, William Forsythe, photo Angela Sterling
 EM: Michael, you studied at Indiana University with iconic violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold. What was that experience like? 

MJL: Studying with Josef Gingold was one of the great joys and honors of my life. Every time I pick up my violin I think about him. He was an amazing violinist, with the most beautiful sound you can imagine. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument, and a kind and generous way of imparting his wisdom to his students. On top of that, he was one of the nicest, most genuine people you would ever hope to know in life. Gingold had wonderful stories about his experiences with legendary artists like Toscanini, Heifetz, Kreisler, and Ysaÿe, whom he studied with. He loved being a violinist, and he loved teaching the violin. I’ve often said that the single greatest thing that I got from Mr. Gingold was the love of the violin. Before I studied with him, I didn’t have much of a relationship with the instrument; playing the violin was something that I did and was good at. After studying with Gingold, I loved the violin and couldn’t live without it. 

EM: High praise indeed for a great master. You have become known as a champion of contemporary music. When and how did you first become involved with new music? 

MJL: When I was in college. At that time, it made you a bit of an outsider, which I liked. I started to really like the experience of playing pieces no one had ever played before. With new music, you can really create your own path. Instead of following a traditional way of playing a piece, you can start a new tradition that others who follow can embrace or reject. Toward the end of my studies at Indiana, my wife (violist Melia Watras) and I founded the Corigliano Quartet, to play one concert for a contemporary music festival at Indiana. We were asked to play John Corigliano’s then newly-composed String Quartet, which won a Pulitzer Prize. After the concert, John took us out to dinner and told us how impressed he was with the way we played his piece. He was surprised we were not an established group; that we had just formed for this concert with no intention of continuing on. John encouraged us to try to make it as a string quartet. We took the plunge, and named ourselves in his honor. 

That was 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, with the quartet, and as a soloist and chamber musician, I’ve had the pleasure of working with numerous composers, commissioning new works and recording quite a bit. The quartet made new music a big part of its repertoire, for which we were awarded an ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventurous Programming. Don’t get me wrong, I love the standard repertoire; but I strongly believe we need to keep Classical music alive and moving forward by playing works that are being created today. 

Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras;
photo Michelle Smith-Lewis
EM: Tell us about your ensemble, Frequency.

MJL: Frequency is comprised of violist Melia Watras, cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and myself. In addition to being a trio, we are what I like to call a modular chamber music group: breaking into other formations and playing with distinguished guests to present programs with a variety of styles and instrumentation. We play all kinds of music, from Bach to Berio and beyond. We formed in 2016, and just completed our first season together. I feel fortunate to get to work with Melia and Sæunn; they are such incredibly creative and wonderful musicians, and two of my favorite people in the world! We’re really excited about next season, as we have a lot of interesting music on tap. 

EM: How did you first become interested in playing for PNB? 

MJL: Melia and I moved to Seattle in 2004. She was hired as the new viola professor at the University of Washington. I had started a job in NYC, playing in the first violin section of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, and for a few years split time between New York and Seattle. I remember attending a performance of PNB in 2005, when Peter Boal had just become artistic director. Melia and I used to watch Peter dance when he was at NYCB, and were excited that he was hired at PNB. The performance was wonderful; I loved hearing the orchestra, and I thought at the time, if there was one job that I really wanted in Seattle, it would be concertmaster for PNB. Of course, you never know if a job like that will open up for many, many years. I was fortunate that 4 years later PNB was looking for a new concertmaster. It really is a dream job for me. I love working with amazing people like music director Emil de Cou and our fantastic orchestra, and getting to collaborate with dancers, choreographers, composers and ballet masters.

Lim, Seth Orza, Kylie Kitchens; photo Erin Baiano

EM: I remember feeling the same when I played for ABT. How would you describe the difference between performing a solo piece with orchestra on stage as opposed to in the pit? 

MJL: I find playing in the pit more challenging. There is certainly more physical discomfort to deal with: less room to operate in and less lighting! It can also be difficult to judge your own sound and how it is carrying in the hall. But you learn to block out the physical things, and begin to develop a sense of how to translate your sound from the pit to the audience. I’d say the biggest difference when playing a concerto for ballet is that you have to be very flexible with tempos. The tempo that sounds the best doesn’t always look the best. There are also slight changes from night to night, depending on who is dancing. On the other hand, there is something about performing music when you are not visible to the audience. Everything you are producing is with sound, with no visual elements from the musician to communicate to the audience. In a way, it’s a very pure way of making music. 

EM: Aside from performing the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 with PNB next month, what is coming up for you in the near future? 

MJL: Next season at PNB will include Swan Lake, with all of those beautiful concertmaster solos that Tchaikovsky wrote. I’ll also play week two of the run of Red Angels, which is danced to a solo work for 5-string electric violin by composer Richard Einhorn. After the season ends in June 2018, the company is off to Paris for a tour, and I’ll get another opportunity to play the Prokofiev Concerto there. Of course, lots of fun stuff coming up with Frequency, and next season in Seattle I’ll perform music by UW composers Melia Watras and Richard Karpen, and the Beethoven Triple Concerto with cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, pianist Cristina Valdés, and the UW Symphony conducted by David Rahbee. I’m also excited about recording the world premiere of Andrew Waggoner’s Violin Concerto, with multiple Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman. It should be a busy and fun year! 

EM: Sounds fantastic. Thanks so much, and Toi, Toi, for the Prokofiev!

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

PNB’s Pictures at an Exhibition will be performed at McCaw Hall Jun. 2-11.


Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis, Angela Sterling, Erin Baiano
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Young virtuoso wows the SBCMS Patrons’ Concert

REVIEW: Ray Ushikubo plays Chopin, Beethoven, Suk and Wieniawski

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

Ray Ushikubo
Having nothing more than a layman’s notion of how arms, hands, and digits work as biological engineering, I wondered at points during this recital whether the training and practice needed to excel at violin or piano are inimical to what is required for the other instrument. Given 15-year-old Ray Ushikubo’s remarkable prowess both as a pianist and violinist, will he have at some point to curtail the keyboard so as to develop further his violin skills, or vice versa? I hope not, but should it prove necessary, then his future as a virtuoso of whichever is his chosen instrument must be assured.

From the start of the SBCMS’s celebratory end-of-season Patrons’ Concert, the breadth of Mr. Ushikubo’s musicianship was clear in an account of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major Op.61 that not only embraced both the pianistic accuracy and wide dynamic range the work requires, but just as importantly the long-range planning for tempo relationships and maintenance of underlying pulse needed to sidestep the pitfalls of the work’s length and discursiveness.

These qualities were yet more evident when he turned to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor Op.27 No.2. The Moonlight’s celebrated opening slow movement is marked Adagio sostenuto, but his approach to it entirely avoided the kind of torpor-inducing crawl that can sometimes follow an over-literal aim at timeless profundity. Not only did he keep the movement alive and in motion, but his strict observation of the attacca into the following Allegretto, coupled with a quite measured view of that tempo, ensured continuity between these first two movements where the wrong kind of jolt can sometimes happen. And then the final Presto agitato was indeed just about as fast as human fingers can manage, keeping thoroughly at bay any audience dozing tendencies on a very warm Sunday afternoon.

Dr Jason Lo
The other (relatively) large work was also by Beethoven, his Violin Sonata No.1 in D major Op.12 No.1, and for it and the remainder of the recital the soloist duly relinquished keyboard for violin, his place at the piano-stool being taken by Dr. Jason Lo. Here, I wasn’t quite as won over as I had been by Mr. Ushikubo’s pianism. For one thing, the tempo of the first movement (no exposition repeat taken) seemed too slow for Allegro con brio, and judged by the highest standards his violin tone, though brilliantly incisive, was to my ears just a little hard and undifferentiated. The theme-and-variations second movement, however, was led off at just the right tempo by Dr. Lo, whose unobtrusive excellence came into its own in the expansively skirling piano writing of the minor-key third variation, a relatively early (1798) example of Beethoven’s endlessly surprising and wonderful variation-writing.

The duo concluded with a couple of what the late great English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham would have termed “lollipops”, both from composers only a handful of years older than Mr. Ushikubo when they were written. The first of Josef Suk’s Six Piano Pieces Op.7, subtitled Love Song, was composed in 1891, but in its arrangement for violin and piano it sounded, even more than the piano solo original, as if it was prefiguring the accompaniment to some Golden Age Hollywood scene of Bette Davis sweeping down a grand staircase in a ball gown. 

Finally, Wieniawski's 1853 Polonaise brillante No.1 Op.4, which also exists in a version with orchestral accompaniment and is sometimes titled Polonaise de Concert, formed a neat and no doubt entirely intentional closing of the circle with the similarly nationalistic concert opener by his illustrious Polish predecessor. One of those “So that’s what that’s called…” pieces, its pyrotechnics, including some stratospherically high fortissimo double-stopped octaves, were handled by Mr. Ushikubo with a dazzling display of virtuoso aplomb that had the SBCMS audience on its feet and cheering. Let’s hope he can be heard here again in future seasons, as pianist, violinist, or both.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Saturday, May, 2017
Photos: Ray Ushikobo: AU Photography; Jason Lo.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Good friends play Schubert at Rolling Hills


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Cécilia Tsan
A few weeks ago we lucky South Bay chamber music aficionados enjoyed a powerful performance by the Pacific Trio of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 100 D.929 in the SB Chamber Music Society’s last concert of its 2016-17 season at the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Last Sunday, halfway down the hill at RHUMC, it was the turn of the “other one”, the Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 99 D.898, performed by three avowedly good friends, Martin Chalifour, Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cécilia Tsan, Principal ‘cellist of the Long Beach Symphony, and virtuoso pianist Steven Vanhauwaert.

Scholarship seems not to have settled whether these two masterpieces were composed sequentially, if so in what order, or concurrently, though the balance of opinion tips towards the numbering being correct. What is not in doubt is that both belong to what Benjamin Britten called arguably “the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history [… ] the period in which Franz Schubert wrote his Winterreise […] his last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces.”

Martin Chalifour
Despite their similarity – both being large-scale, four-movement structures (sonata-allegro/ slow movement/ scherzo-and-trio/ fast-paced (the B-flat) medium-paced (the E-flat) finale) – the two trios are different in mood, a difference that seems in a way to radiate outwards from their respective slow movements. Whereas that of the E-flat is a dogged march, from the outset seemingly anticipating strife, that rises to a pitch of anguish and despair from which the composer seems barely able to recover, the B-flat’s Andante un poco mosso keeps darkness thoroughly at bay, blithely turning at the smallest hint of clouds into yet another sunlit vale.

Steven Vanhauwaert
Overall this work, from its proudly unison opening to the bounding conclusion of the rondo finale, enshrines collaboration and smiling conversation between all three protagonists, but the shining exception where one of them sings out soloistically is the ‘cello solo that opens the slow movement. Ms Tsan’s pace here was easeful and flowing, entirely avoiding indulgent sentimentality and with a clear-eyed tenderness that was exactly matched by Mr Chalifour when he took over Schubert’s heavenly melody, both strings firmly but discreetly supported by Mr Vanhauwaert’s chordal piano accompaniment.

Indeed this was throughout a fleet and affectionate performance, coming in at a few seconds under 37 minutes, sans repeats in the first and second movements for time considerations, but nowhere feeling rushed or neglectful of the myriad subtleties in Schubert’s wondrous score. There was still time, however, for a short encore, the first of the five Novelletten Op. 29 by the Danish composer Niels Gade. Like so many early-mid 19th century Romantics whose names are not Mendelssohn, Gade has by now virtually disappeared under that master’s shadow, but is well worth looking out for. I hope that these three friends some time let us hear live those other four Novelletten (which a quick YouTube listen shows to be quite varied and different in mood from the bubbling jollity of the first).


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Photos: Martin Chalifour (Gary Coronado, LA Times); Steven Vanhauwaert; Cécilia Tsan: Courtesy Long Beach Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Melia Watras Reveals The Power of '26' Strings

Melia Watras, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis

CD REVIEW: Melia Watras

Sono Luminus Records

The much-neglected viola finally gets its due in this fascinating new recording featuring performances by multitalented composer and violist Melia Watras and three colleagues: Atar Arad, former Cleveland Quartet violist; Garth Knox, former Arditti Quartet violist; and Michael Jinsoo Lim, concertmaster of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Also included is a work by composer and digital arts pioneer Richard Karpen.

The pieces contained herein were written since 2008, some as recently as 2014, and all are world premiere recordings. The works themselves provide a wealth of contrast in their nature, from ancient and tuneful to starkly contemporary. Watras, currently Professor of Viola and chair of Strings at the University of Washington in Seattle, composed 5 of the 9 works compiled for the CD, which are sprinkled throughout in combination with works by Arad, Knox and Karpen and performed by Watras and Arad on viola, Knox on the viola d’amore, and Watras’s violinist husband Michael Jinsoo Lim.

Michael Jinsoo Lim, photo Michelle Smith-Lewis
The CD’s title, 26, is based on the total number of strings played on by the various combinations of instruments included: four each for violist Watras and Arad and violinist Lim, plus 14 “playing and sympathetic” strings for Knox’s viola d’amore.

In Toccatina a la Turk (2008) for 2 violas, Arad and Watras combine their well-matched, crystal clear tones to portray a polyphony influenced both by the rhythms of Dave Brubeck’s iconic Blue Rondo a la Turk and by the mood and character of the Balkans. One also hears definite rhythms and melodic patterns reminiscent of the 2-violin duets of Béla Bartók. Originally written by Arad for two violins, the violist was so pleased with the results that he arranged it for two violas. Played so deftly, the piece works beautifully in its present incarnation.

Arad was Watras’s viola teacher, and she credits him for her interest in composing. Moreover, his concept of the Prelude to the Bach Unaccompanied Suite No. 3 in C major served as inspiration for her 2014 piece, Prelude, for viola solo. The improvisatory nature of the work shows off Arad's velvety sound and keen sense of phrasing.

Atar Arad, photo Hideki Isoda
Watras and Arad join forces for Arad’s Esther from 2008. Dedicated to Arad’s Bulgarian-born mother, the piece evokes his mother’s spirited singing of songs from her native land during his childhood. The work makes full use of the lyrical qualities of the viola, from top to bottom of the instrument’s range, and the players expertly weave and intermingle their sounds to create a nostalgic atmosphere.

An ancient Irish tune believed to have been written by a 17th century “harper” was the basis for Knox’s 2014 Stranger for viola and viola d’amore, which he dedicated to Watras. Knox and Watras collaborate in this traditional-sounding sentimental tune, which is enhanced by bits of col legno technique and gentle pizzicati. Watras proves her mettle in the swaying, wistful melodies of this piece. One can almost visualize the mist of Ireland hanging over the instruments as they are played.

Garth Knox, photo François Figlarz
Watras writes that her Liquid Voices (2013), performed by her and Lim, was inspired by the short story, The Fascination of the Pool, of Virginia Woolf. Indeed, the ethereal nature of the piece, punctuated by “special effects” of which stringed instruments are capable, gives the work a certain elusive quality; and the half-step-apart dissonances cast the work in a definite modernistic mode. The two players’ sounds meld perfectly together – which, as Watras points out in her notes, is a good thing, since they are married.

Lim demonstrates his polished technique and glowing sound in Watras’s 2013 violin solo piece, Luminous Points. The arpeggios, recalling those in Eugène Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas, are executed with flair and gentility, the leaps smooth and effortless, and the left-hand pizzicati are impressive. Likewise, Watras’s writing and playing in both her Sonata and Photo by Mikel (2012) for viola solo demonstrate a clear command of the technical capabilities of the instrument. Each of the four movements communicates its own individual emotion, from tenderness to introspection, with thoughtfulness and grace.

Richard Karpen, photo Steve Korn
 The meditative quality of Richard Karpen’s 2014 Bicinium for violin and viola, composed for Watras and Lim, provides a highly contemplative finale to this varied program. Karpen has proved to be a forward thinking force in the world of computer applications for music composition; yet this piece shows his versatility in more traditional contemporary modes.

Taken individually and together, this collection of works gives the listener a wide range of textures to assimilate and enjoy many times over.

Melia Watras: 26
Label: Sono Luminus SLE – 70007
Produced by Judith Sherman


Photo credits: David Hartig, Brianna Houston
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis, Hideki Isoda, François Figlarz, Steve Korn

Berlioz’ apocalypse restrained at San Francisco


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall

Berlioz in 1839, two years after the
Requiem’s composition: portrait miniature
by Paul de Pommayrac.
In the program book for the three performances of Berlioz’ Requiem Op.5 H.75 (Grande Messe des Morts) conducted by Charles Dutoit on May 4–6, the note on the work’s instrumentation was headed “For this reduction by Charles Dutoit–” … an ambiguous wording which could be taken to mean that M. Dutoit has his own preferred edition of the work, or that reductions were necessitated by (presumably) space limitations.

Berlioz’ score specifies 192 players including four extra brass groups placed at the corners of the main body of performers, an array unmatched before or since by any work in the standard repertoire; for whichever reason, this was reduced to a total of 113. As well as the anticipated boiling-down of his prescribed string strength (totaling 108) to normal full-orchestra strings (60 players), this halved in number the main orchestra’s bassoons and horns and the roster for each of the four brass groups, which are used only in the three movements (Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa) principally responsible for the Requiem’s famous (or infamous) reputation for “musical gigantism.”

It was, therefore, a pity that this “musical gigantism” was the very aspect of the work emphasized in the pre-performance publicity and the pre-concert talk. I wonder how many audience members expecting to be flattened by an 80-minute sound barrage were surprised to find the Requiem predominantly quiet and contemplative, with even the “big moments” relatively underwhelming.

Charles Dutoit. 
In his talk, SF Symphony Program Annotator James Keller gave a concise and entertaining account of the somewhat convoluted background to the Requiem’s composition and first performance (as well as a well-deserved plug for Berlioz’s Mémoires, surely the greatest work of literature to come from the pen of a great composer), but in his booklet notes he also stated that “the Requiem is usually given with the forces reduced rather than increased, and it is probably for the best.”

At risk of laboring the point, and with respect, no it isn’t. Berlioz cared passionately about this work and calculated precisely the resources he needed to achieve his expressive intent, which surely embraced maximum contrast between awe, terror and majesty on the one hand, and supplication, tenderness and pity on the other. The huge instrumental forces are not an unrealistic ideal to give leeway for comfortable adaptation to circumstances, but his required accompaniment to equally precisely calculated choral forces, totaling 210 singers. Berlioz states: “If space permit, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased [my italics].” 

On this occasion the combined SF Symphony Chorus, Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, and Golden Gate Men’s Chorus numbered 215 and, lest this review seems over-negative thus far, they excelled throughout. However, Berlioz wrote for sopranos, tenors and basses only, rather than the normal soprano/alto/tenor/bass divisions of today, and so these performances used the recent edition by SF-based musician and editor Adrian G Horn, which “constructs a dedicated alto part out of the second soprano and first tenor parts”. This makes the work far more accessible for modern choirs, and I could detect almost no difference from previously heard live performances and recordings.

I wonder, though, if it is a feature of Mr Horn’s edition that the full choral forces are only used in the Dies irae, Rex tremendae, and Lacrymosa? After M Dutoit’s precise, measured, but to my ears slightly matter-of-fact orchestral opening to the initial Requiem et Kyrie, followed by successive quiet divided choral entries (beautifully terraced here), the first fortissimos, marked “unison” by Berlioz, were sung by the SF Symphony Chorus only. The ladies of the Choral Projects and the men of the Golden Gate remained seated and mute. This made for a regrettable loss of impact, and even more so when the same thing happened in the final Agnus Dei, where Berlioz returns to the music of the opening and closes the circle of his colossal structure.

First page of the Tuba mirum, from Berlioz’ holograph manuscript.
The other outsize orchestral demands for the Requiem lie in the percussion department. Starting at the Mors stupebit section of the Dies irae, Berlioz uses no less than 16 timpani plus bass and tenor drums, tam-tams and cymbals. The timps were all present and correct, but after the brass fanfares rang down left and right from the balconies (rather etiolated from the halving of their numbers), M Dutoit quashed the initial ff dynamic for the massed timpani onslaught when the choral basses entered, also fortissimo. Berlioz does not amend that ff marking for the drums when the voices begin, and the effect of strain and visceral terror generated by forcing them to sing through the roar and thunder was all but lost. (Also, sad to say, Berlioz’ ferocious percussion reinforcement for the brass, timpani and chorus, when they come back for the movement's climactic Judex section, was severely emasculated by reducing his required quartet of tam-tams to one only.)

After all this sound and fury, the lonely, wandering choral tenor line of the brief Quid sum miser, punctuated by plaintive English horn with ‘cello and bass underpinning, formed the perfect contrast before the next onslaught, this time triumphant, of the Rex tremendae, while the following unaccompanied Quaerens me (Berlioz once again securing maximum effective contrast from movement to movement), for mixed chorus in six parts and very soft throughout, was for me one of the choral highlights of the performance.

Then came the last of the three brass-and-timps blockbusters, the Lacrymosa. Berlioz sets this juggernaut to Judgment under way with a thrillingly original progression of upward ‘cello and bass rumble, woodwind fanfare, fortissimo violin and viola slash, and dissonant horn blast repeated again and again through the first pages of the movement. Over this swaying, hypnotic repetition, the chorus intones a long-breathed melody with almost incantatory effect. Everything swung forward with seemingly unstoppable momentum, apart from rather disaffected slashings from some upper strings, and when the bands and massed timpani finally joined the fray the effect was suitably overwhelming (how skillfully Berlioz calculates his ascent to the summit!).

The final chord of the Lacrymosa, however, lacked its clearly marked long diminuendo, seeming instead just to stop and thus negating Berlioz’ careful stilling of the previous tumultuous mood for the sublime Offertorium that follows. At the outset of this seventh movement, he allots all the melodic interest to the orchestra, with just intermittent oscillations on Domine Jesu Christe muttered by the chorus. But there’s a conundrum. The final edition of the Requiem published in Berlioz’ lifetime has metronome marks heading each of the ten movements, and if strictly followed, the quarter note=84 marking for the Offertorium results in almost a march tempo. M Dutoit adhered pretty closely to it, but for me the price of such fealty was to lose the sense of slow, winding desolation that other conductors, taking slower tempi, have achieved in this movement.

The brief Hostias eighth movement – another oasis of calm – introduces yet another unprecedented effect. Intoned monotonous chants by the male chorus are interspersed by long-held, stratospherically high flute chords against deep trombone pedal notes offstage. This extraordinary sense of space and distance, from the celestial to the cavernous, with the centrally placed flutes answered by the trombones from left and right, came off marvelously in this performance, as it did again in the final Agnus Dei where Berlioz reintroduces this combination of instruments near the start.

In between these two movements comes the Sanctus – surely one of the cruelest tests for a vocal soloist in the concert repertoire. Berlioz makes his single tenor wait for over an hour until this moment and then requires him to sing his long, exposed high-lying solo with virtually no orchestral introduction, each phrase repeated by the female chorus, pp dolcissimo, against a delicate background of solo flute, four solo violins, and tremolando violas. Any hint of operatic wobble or throatiness kills the ecstatic mood stone-dead, but here the American tenor Paul Groves was outstandingly sure-voiced, firm but without any effortful stridency. At the end of the solo a robust choral fugue on Hosanna in excelcis breaks in, but when this comes to its natural close the opening section returns, the string accompaniment yet more elaborately delicate this time around. And this time around Mr Groves outdid even his earlier effort, floating his high tessitura with the utmost radiance and purity of tone.

This was the high point, in every sense, of a performance of this extraordinary and unique masterpiece which, flawed though it was, still thrilled the capacity audience in Davies Symphony Hall. 


San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, Thursday, May 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

Photos: Berlioz: Courtesy Musée Hector Berlioz and the Hector Berlioz website; Charles Dutoit: Courtesy SFSO; Berlioz manuscript: IMSLP Petrucci Music Library.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

San Diego’s Ling Ends Tenure on High Note

Photo David Hartig

PREVIEW: San Diego Symphony

Copley Symphony Hall

On May 26, 27 and 28, 2017, Jahja Ling will take his final bows as longtime Music Director of the San Diego Symphony. Ling’s dedication in building the orchestra into a major symphonic force has won him many devotees, among both audiences and the orchestra’s fine musicians. 

The award-winning conductor enjoys a deservedly fine reputation on numerous levels: his innovative and creative programming, his proficiency in engaging players who have contributed valued expertise to the excellence of the orchestra’s performances, and a canny proficiency in introducing music never before performed with the ensemble. He has contributed his own unique spirituality to the overall concept of each program. His legacy and vision will undoubtedly continue to have a profound influence upon the orchestra long after he gives his final downbeat. 

Since taking over the ensemble during a post-bankruptcy transitional period, Ling has added 70 excellent new musicians, released 10 CD recordings, and has received enthusiastic receptions from the orchestra’s first appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall and on a groundbreaking China Friendship Tour. The diverse composers whose pieces, too numerous to list, that Ling has premiered with SDS run the gamut from Bernstein to Schnittke, Bach to Mozart, Higdon, Sheng, Harbison and Glass. 

Ling has a special predilection for the late Romantic symphonic composers. Recently he helmed the ensemble in a powerful performance of Mahler’s monumental 3rd Symphony. He had waited until more than a decade of his tenure with San Diego Symphony had passed before programming Mahler’s Symphony no. 7 in November, 2014. Though he had conducted this work elsewhere, his performance was the orchestra’s first in its 103-year history. That was also the time that he announced his departure from the orchestra after a 14-year tenure  making him the longest serving music director since the orchestra's inception. This current season he realized his long-standing dream of conducting the colossal and deeply spiritual Bruckner 8th Symphony. 

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Indonesian-Chinese parents, now a U.S. citizen, Ling is the first and only conductor of Chinese descent to become music director of a major U.S. orchestra, and has conducted every prominent symphony orchestra in North America. His enduring relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he has been guest conducting for 33 seasons, is a mutually respectful, affectionate one. 

Notwithstanding his ethnicity, Ling’s musical background is steeped in European tradition. His history of studying with such conducting icons as Leonard Bernstein, Christoph von Dohnányi and Kurt Masur, he says, has contributed “to all of the accomplishment of making music in the most profound way to move people's hearts.”

Photo David Hartig
Ling enjoys instant recognition around his adopted hometown of San Diego, and the orchestra stands as one of the most important lynchpins of the city’s cultural life. As the only member of the San Diego arts community chosen by the San Diego Tourism Authority to participate in its 2011 San Diego Ambassador Campaign, Maestro Ling likens the city to an orchestra of many diverse instruments put together. 

“There are many facets of color that San Diego represents,” he says. “We have great music, great culture, beautiful ocean and beaches, like an orchestra. A flute, which can represent joy… a cello’s depth, combined with the very warm sound of the horn. People here are really eager to hear excellence in the arts, to be inspired with this great city.” 

Ling started playing piano at age four, won a Rockefeller grant to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, medaled at the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition, and then was awarded a Tanglewood fellowship to study conducting with Bernstein. Some of his more unusual undertakings include conducting at the state visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in San Francisco, and accompanying Whitney Houston’s national anthem at Super Bowl XXV. 

There is also a deeply personal musical theme in the maestro’s life: the love story with his concert pianist wife, Jessie Chang, whom he married in 2001. Chang, who grew up in Taiwan and, like Maestro Ling, began to play piano at age four, has won a constellation of awards for her outstanding artistry and is known among her colleagues and teachers for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive piano style. She was a graduate student in piano at the Manhattan School of Music in 1999 and sang in the choir at the Chinese Community Church of New York when she and the maestro met, and had previously greeted Ling at a Juilliard concert he was conducting. 

“Because of our church relationship with him, we got to go backstage and say hello, like a three-second greeting,” says the soft-spoken Chang. “But it was a very memorable performance.” Later on they got to know each other better when Ling directed the choir at the church, and eventually spoke on the phone everyday about music and religion. 

Chang also impressed the maestro with her deep intellect and a sense of musical feeling that he found mesmerizing. As their romance burgeoned, she showed tireless devotion with her participation in his musical life, traveling with him and serving as an ambassador to his numerous public events, and, along with the couple’s two brilliantly talented young girls, continues to be a shining presence in the maestro’s personal and professional life. 

“Without question Jahja Ling’s legacy as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony will be felt for decades to come,” says SDS CEO Martha Gilmer. “I speak on behalf of so many people - musicians and audience alike - to express our profound gratitude to Jahja Ling for his devotion to his role… and for creating so many magical musical moments in our lives.” 

Ling’s final program with the orchestra will consist of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, performed by famed pianist Yefim Bronfman, along with one of Ling’s signature pieces, the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. 

A fitting finale and tribute to the man who has transformed the San Diego Symphony into one of the music world’s most admired and esteemed ensembles.

Photo Brianna Houston

Jahja Ling’s final performances as SDS Music Director take place at Copley Symphony Hall on May 26, 27 and 28. 


Photo credits: David Hartig, Brianna Houston
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Harry Bicket talks about Handel’s Alcina, Baroque Opera, and Santa Fe

Conductor Harry Bicket
LA Opus’s Desirée Mays chats via telephone with Santa Fe Opera Chief Conductor, Harry Bicket, covering issues that range from the staging of baroque opera in the age of broadband, influences on the conductor’s career, his relationships with his orchestras and his family, and what’s up for the summer of 2017 at one of the world’s most beautifully located opera companies. Bicket conducts the run of Handel’s Alcina in Santa Fe (link: this summer.
LA Opus Publisher

DM: My guest today is Maestro Harry Bicket who will be in Santa Fe this summer to conduct Handel’s Alcina. Welcome, Maestro.

HB: Thank you, it’s nice to talk to you.

DM: I am talking by phone with the Maestro who is in Kansas City. Why Kansas?

HB: Well, we are in the middle of a tour of Handel’s Ariodante with Joyce di Donato singing the title role and this is Joyce’s hometown, so no trip to America would be complete without a visit here.

DM: I understand that this tour, in one week, is taking you to the University of Michigan, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.?

HB: That’s right. We flew in Monday night to Ann Arbor and had a concert on Tuesday night so for all of us, singers and musicians, the third act of Ariodante was being technically performed at 5am London time for our body clocks. So, it’s quite a tough tour.

DM: How do you maintain your sanity with this kind of traveling?

HB: Well, funnily enough, I have two small children under the age of five so I am quite used to sleeplessness these days. My jet-lag isn’t so bad since having children.

DM: You were born in England. Is London your base for you and your family?

HB: Yes, I was born in England. My mother was American and my father’s mother was also American, so I grew up in quite an American community, in Liverpool, which is where I was born. But like many people I gravitated towards London after leaving University and started working there and that’s been my home for almost 30 years.

DM: Let’s talk about Alcina. It premiered in London in 1735. At that time audiences were totally in love with everything Italian. The Santa Fe production will be sung in Italian. Can you tell us what Alcina is about?

HB: There are two answers, one is the literal story: Alcina lives on an island, she takes lovers and then rather brutally turns them into wild animals or rocks or whatever. It is one of those fantastical stories, basically the story of Ruggiero the knight, who is a very small part of the bigger story from Orlando Furioso, the epic written by Ariosto. Handel took this and his operas Orlando and Ariodante from Ariosto. Audiences at the time would have known that this is a little chapter from the bigger work in which Ruggiero turns up at the island and falls madly in love with Alcina and falls under her spell. His fiancée, whom he has left behind, comes to the island to try to rescue him and eventually succeeds. Alcina, having found true love, finds her magic powers slip away and eventually Ruggiero escapes from the island. I think the bigger picture for this opera is that it is about the breakup of a relationship. The whole relationship between Ruggiero and Alcina is finely etched by Handel. It is interesting that Ruggiero and Alcina have the same number of arias which is unusual in a Handel opera because there was a huge hierarchy -- all sorts of politics involved.

DM: Now, our production is not going to be quite in those terms. I understand you first worked on this production in Bordeaux with the director David Alden. Perhaps you could say a few words about his approach?

HB: Yes, David Alden always approaches these pieces with interest in the trappings of the story on one level so, if it’s set on an island you don’t necessarily expect, in an Alden production, to literally see a palm tree and a beach and waves lapping at the side, because what interests him is the story of these characters and how they interact. The production is full of typically David Alden highly theatrical images. He’s a director who responds so viscerally to the music. You talk to any singer who loves or hates David Alden, and there are many in different camps, but the one thing they say about David, it is humbling when you arrive in a rehearsal room with him because he knows those operas better than anybody. You could stand David Alden in a room and he would sing you all Alcina from memory.

DM: That’s very unusual because there are some directors who cannot read a score I understand.

HB: The director who turns up with a CD booklet and the translation and follows along with a finger is what makes your heart sink.

DM: How does the conductor interact with various directors? Clearly you and David Alden are on the same page because you can discuss the music.

HB: We go back a long, long way. We respect each other and know how we work. He has very strong opinions about the music and that can be a problem sometimes, if he has a very clear idea about how the music should go and I don’t agree or the singer doesn’t agree.

DM: How is that resolved? You sit down and talk it out?

HB: How is anything in opera resolved? One of the beautiful things about opera is what you start off with is not necessarily what you finish with and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think if each individual imagines that he is going to end up with exactly what he thought it was going to be, I don’t think it would be a very good show. What’s fascinating is how we all work together and how we feed off each other and we come up with different ideas. And I should say, I’ve been happy to do something different. I can’t imagine how many performances I’ve done of
Ariodante, for instance. With Joyce di Donato there is one particular aria where she wants it at least half the speed that I’ve ever done it. I was shocked when she first said it. “I don’t know that I can do that,” I said, “It’s insanely slow.” She said, “But I really, really want to do this. I really think I can make this work.” We are now doing it that way and I must say she’s right. Whether I would do it again with anyone else I don’t know, but with Joyce it works fantastically well.

DM: Let’s talk a little about the castratos who were the big draws in London in the 18th century. Farinelli was singing for Handel’s rivals, but he had another great castrato sing the role of Ruggiero in Alcina. Today these roles are sung either by countertenors or mezzo-sopranos. How does the transition happen, does it work going from the role as originally cast to either of those voices? Do you have a preference as to which one should take on the castrato role?

HB: You’re right, the castrati were not only big stars but big sex symbols. Women loved them. We know they were very tall, with extraordinary voices, and sang warriors such as Orlando and Rinaldo.

DM: Castrati singers had a very high range.

HB: This wasn’t regarded as strange at all. The good thing now, since there aren’t any castrati, is that occasionally Ruggiero is sung by a countertenor. Personally, I don’t like it, the role is too high for a countertenor. With no disrespect to countertenors, I think that mezzo-sopranos have a lot more range of color at their disposal for a role that has eight arias. One interesting thing, Handel and his audiences were not at all interested in the sex of whomever was singing. It was a tradition onstage, both in the opera and the theatre, to have men playing men or women playing men and it wasn’t regarded as odd. What Handel was interested in was the pitch at which people sang.

DM: It was a much more purist approach in a way because audiences went for the voices, not for gender. I had a question about da capo arias which have many repeats, wonderful ornaments and embellishments. How does it work today as to how those ornaments and embellishments will be sung in any given production?

HB: There is no one simple answer to that. I believe the ornaments need to be there for a reason. Historically, people in the 18th century did just go out there to show off. I have nothing against singers showing off, it’s fine, but I think what many directors have made us more aware of is what is this coloratura singing about. How do we find a theatrical way to justify what these people singing long, long melismas are about? If it’s only about showing off, I don’t think you can sustain that theatrically. So, what we do is try to find a justification for it. In the ornaments of the da capo aria, I don’t like, usually, to pre-ordain the ornaments. There are colleague conductors I know who will send out sheets and sheets of ornaments that they have written and tell the singers to arrive on Day One knowing this.

DM: That must make for problems.

HB: Some people are fine with it saying, “OK, I don’t have to do it myself,” and others say, “Wait a minute, that’s not even suitable for my voice, and anyway it may be in the scene I am doing something completely different and these ornaments would be inappropriate given what we are trying to do.” This cast with Elza van den Heever, Anna Christy, and Alek Shrader have all done this production with me so I expect they’ll all come and we’ll do what we did last time and we can tweak it if necessary. The other singers are all excellent stylists. I find that my job is to help. If the singer is struggling for an ornament somewhere, I am very happy to write something, but I try to do it with them so they feel comfortable and they have some input. Also, I try to give a template as to what kind of ornament we are going to do because there’s nothing worse than one singer ornamenting as though it is Donizetti or Bellini and another ornamenting in another style, because then it seems a bit weird. On the other hand, I have done productions where the foreigners, whether they are magicians or sorcerers, whatever, ornament in a different way because it helps the idea that these people speak a different kind of language.

DM: What is the size of the orchestra you will conduct in Santa Fe?

HB: We will be a smaller orchestra in Santa Fe and what we are going to do is raise the pit so we are higher up. If you play with a bigger orchestra lower down, the orchestra has less chance of hearing the singers. Also, the more musicians you have the less flexibility you have. The thing I ask modern orchestras to do in terms of articulation is very fine and very detailed and very hard to do if you have a huge string section because, with the best will in the world, when you are playing with five desks of violins, the people at the back can’t play the same way as the people at the front do, they just can’t. It would never be together. Then you lose out on the detail of articulation so what we do is have a smaller group but raise the pit up so the musicians hear the singers better, and the singers hear them. You don’t miss the bigger orchestra because our sound is elevated, if you like, and it matches the singers better.

DM: So, an ideal situation must be when the baroque orchestra is onstage with the singers in a concert version, where the singers become like instruments of that one ensemble. That must be much easier?

HG: Oh, it’s wonderful. In these performances, we are doing now, Joyce (di Donato) just joins in. We are playing a little interlude and she just turns around and starts dancing along with the orchestra, as if she were part of the orchestra, another instrument.

DM: You conduct period instruments. What accommodation do you have to make in terms of sound with a modern orchestra?

HB: I don’t think you can make a modern orchestra sound like a period orchestra. These are different instruments, so they are playing on metal strings or wound strings with higher tension, playing with modern bows which are designed to do totally different things, and the pitch is different. So, what I try to get is some basic bowing techniques and ways in which we bow which help the gesture. Gesture is the word which is the most important thing. I think a lot of modern players when they see baroque music, which is not technically difficult for their left hands, tend to be not very interesting with their right hands. In the baroque era, everything was about the right hand. A famous quote from a manual in the 18th century says your violin is your body and the bow is your soul and basically everything is done through the bow. For modern players, it’s sort of the other way around, for what the bow does is to produce the sound and the expression is all with the left hand, either with vibrato or fingering.

DM: So, there was no vibrato with baroque violins?

HB: No, that’s not true. Vibrato was one of the many means by which you would color the sound. Modern players are taught that you don’t play a note on a modern stringed instrument without vibrating and they are taught to vibrate every single note and that’s something one must work quite hard to change. I don’t like it when conductors say they ban vibrato. Sometimes we start saying let’s just do no vibrato, then we’ll add it in because the orchestra feels they must produce a good sound. You simply can’t cut out vibrato, you will sound like a High School orchestra. It’s not nice, and it doesn’t make people feel confident. And the issue of intonation tends to come to the fore because vibrato in fact covers a lot of imprecision in intonation. Think about it, if you are vibrating your finger you are in a minuscule way altering the pitch so you are disguising what your core pitch is, and so you can sound in tune if you vibrate, but if you suddenly take the vibrato away you really realize, wait a minute, that third in the chord isn’t in tune with the other notes, and you must find exactly where that third is.

DM: Fantastic, so it is really a challenge for any musician to switch from one to the other, baroque or modern?

HB: It’s mind boggling. When we did Platée in Santa Fe I remember a lot of the orchestra coming up saying this is harder than Wozzeck in terms of concentration, what we must do on every single note is more exhausting and more demanding for us.

DM: How would you advise people to best prepare for Alcina before they see a performance from a musical standpoint?

HB: I suppose if you are a baroque fan and you know what
opera seria form feels like, you know that the story moves fast during the recitatives but the arias are reflections on the emotional situation. You must let your mind go, in a way, during those arias and not be impatient but instead to relish the opportunity to think about the text and what’s being said, and to relish the glory of the music and the voice. I think that’s the main thing. I’m not a big fan of over-preparation and this is a dangerous thing to say to you, because I know you give the most wonderful pre-performance talks, everyone comes away from them thinking that was so good and so helpful!

DM: Thank you! I preach that opera is about the music. The more familiar you become with these arias the more you fall in love with them, so by the time you arrive in the theatre you are already familiar with the music. This is certainly true of the baroque era, where the most beautiful melodies are hidden within these arias. Is there anything else you would like to share with us about Alcina?

HB: Only that I think Alcina is Handel’s greatest opera, one of the three top ones along with Ariodante and Julius Caesar. Santa Fe has a wonderful cast and I must say I love David Alden’s production, which is fantastically theatrical, moving, funny, and ironic where it needs to be. It is compelling and I am thrilled that we are doing it in Santa Fe.

DM: You are quoted as saying about baroque opera that “the emotional quality of the sound of the singer, the music, and the aria is more than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps you could comment on that in terms of the baroque period and say a little about why you are attracted to this style of music.

HB: I got into baroque music slightly by accident. I had been playing for The English Concert but I had also been conductor at the English National Opera for five years where I did everything: Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, as well as contemporary music. It was only at the end of my time there that I was asked to do Ariodante in 1993 when it really wasn’t a known piece at all. I remember Mark Elder, the music director, saying to me, “Well, you play this music outside the opera house, you know how this goes, so why not conduct it?” Anyway, it was a very big success. People weren’t into Handel opera, which, until then, had been regarded as fairly unstageable, mainly because of the opera seria stereotype of people thinking that it was inherently untheatrical. So, in a very short time I found myself being a baroque specialist, I’m not quite sure how that happened. Last year in Santa Fe I did Romeo and Juliet, in Houston Rusalka, in Canada a Rossini opera, so I continue to do other repertory. I never sought out the 18th century, but the more I’ve done it the more I see an amazing modernity about it. I don’t see an old-fashioned form at all. In fact, something many audiences say to me is how amazingly modern it is, not just in terms of the structure and the melody but the kind of human emotions in Handel’s works, even when he was writing about Alcina, the sorceress, the mythical island, and all this magic. What the arias are really talking about is what it means to be in love or what it means to love someone who doesn’t love you, or betrayed love, and those emotions never change. That is about being a human being, not about being a sorceress.

DM: Isn’t that one of the things that distinguishes the baroque period? In the arias, the singers embody the emotions they are feeling more than getting into character development and story. Baroque opera is also slow; you must gear down for it.

HB: This is it. To pick up on your point about its being slow, I think about it as humans thinking through situations in real time. It is not unusual to say to oneself for ten minutes in real life, I love this person, and then to say for three minutes, but that person just betrayed me, and then to say for another five minutes, I love this person. And, of course, when you say I love this person the second time, that is in the context of their betrayal. It’s a wonderful way of thinking in real time as opposed to Mimi and Rodolfo, for instance, who meet in La Bohème and within three minutes they are singing a love duet. We all know that’s preposterous and unrealistic, and we love it, don’t get me wrong; that’s part of what we are used to now. I think in baroque operas, you let yourself go and allow yourself to just think about the two sentences in an aria and the many ways in which we, as human beings, deal with problems and thoughts. It becomes a very familiar and appealing way of thinking about life.

DM: What you are describing is the da capo aria?

HB: That’s it. It is basically the ABA structure. You say one sentence, then you say another sentence, then you go back to the first sentence. It comes from a dance form and goes on to be the basis of sonata form which then governed the whole musical form right the way through into the 20th century. I think one of the reasons Handel opera has had such a revival is because there are singers who can hold your attention and interest in a da capo aria, and directors who have found a way to make it theatrical and very real, believable, and compelling. Staging opera seria was about the massive egos of the singers that Handel had to write for. They all wanted show-off arias with no-one else onstage. You had your intro and your big da capo aria, and when you repeated the first stanza, as the tradition was, you ornamented to show off your virtuosity, and then you would leave the stage. Nowadays, one of the things directors have managed to achieve is that you don’t sing alone onstage then walk off because everything you sing about has a different impact on everybody else onstage so what you get is this deep psychological understanding of how one person’s words can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. The orchestra adds another layer, sometimes the orchestra is saying something different to what the character is singing about and that becomes multi-layered, very deep, and completely compelling.

DM: It’s amazing how, in the baroque period, in some arias the lead character may be lying but the orchestra is telling the truth and the audience gets it. That’s one of the thrilling aspects of all this.

HB: I completely agree.

DM: You are the chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera and will be here for Handel’s Alcina. Santa Fe must be appealing to you at least for this one reason that you can stay in place for three whole months.

HB: Absolutely. When Santa Fe first approached me about the job, I was of course very flattered. I’ve always loved coming to Santa Fe. But, I have the (English Consort) orchestra in London. My wife is a Professor of Environmental Science and we have two small children and the idea of months away from home seemed too much of an ask, but it also coincides with school holidays and the whole family comes out. My wife fortuitously found herself a job as a visiting Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute so she carries on working when we come out. She can carry on her research at the Institute which she absolutely loves. It is the highlight of her year, as well as mine, to come to Santa Fe for both the work, the environment, and the wonderful company.

DM: Let’s talk about your work with the company. In terms of Santa Fe, what is the definition of a chief conductor?

HB: Well, I always say my job is to look after the well-being and health of the orchestra. It’s very specifically centered round the orchestra. The orchestra is, of course, an amazing group of people who come together only in the summer. They all drive across the country with their kids and basically move their lives to Santa Fe. This is the only time we can get things done on the administrative, planning, or personnel side during those months, so it’s important that when we get together, I am a figurehead for them both in terms of the well-being of the orchestra, being a champion for them and being a good liaison with the management. Of course, I do meet with general director Charles MacKay and artistic administrator Brad Woolbright about repertoire, casting, and all sorts of other artistic matters. But my job title is very much linked with the orchestra.

DM: Your musicians come mostly from out of state. Are they with other orchestras the remainder of the year? What is the makeup of the musician body?

HB: Most of them come from various places, a lot of them play in other opera companies, we have a fair number from Lyric Opera Chicago, Philadelphia, some from Canadian Opera. Many are symphony players because for them if you play symphonic repertory all year, it is nice to get your opera fix during the summer. The main attraction is that this is a very fine group of players who all want to be there. It may sound surprising, but that isn’t a given. There are a lot of summer festivals in my experience where there is a kind of vacation atmosphere. That’s not true of Santa Fe. This is a serious orchestra and they want to be the best and they want to play the best. That always appealed to me, that the work ethic and the desire to dig deeper is very strong with them. They are not an orchestra that is happy if you release them half an hour early from a rehearsal, thinking you will somehow curry favor with them. You’ll get an earful. They’ll say, “Wait a minute, you really think we couldn’t have used that last half hour to get that better.”

DM: We can have up to 90 players in the pit for Richard Strauss operas but Alcina has a smaller number. How many play in Alcina?

HB: That’s a question I can’t answer exactly. It’s a typical small Handel chamber orchestra with a complement of strings, harpsichord, woodwinds, and then two horns that must play one of the hardest arias even written right in the middle of the third act so they must sit around then sound out these very high-lying horn parts. That was very typical of Handel opera because there weren’t very many horn players around in London. So Handel, literally, had to find them, saying, “OK, so you’ll be free at 10 pm in the evening, I’ll write an aria for you in the third act because I know you’ll be playing at Covent Garden at 8 pm.”

DM: That’s incredible. I know in the work schedules at the SFO there are three sessions in a day: morning, afternoon, and evening performances. In June, those musicians play phenomenally long days. I know they get some time off once the five operas are up, but they run from one rehearsal to another for different operas with different conductors. I don’t think people realize the extraordinary challenge for musicians who must be first class to be able to handle it.

HB: Well that’s right and because of that schedule they all come super prepared for each opera. Generally in an opera house with a more relaxed schedule, the first orchestra reading will be that, literally, the orchestra reads their parts without any real depth of understanding of how the opera relates to other people or how the music goes even, whereas in Santa Fe at the very first reading you know everybody is prepared, they’ve practiced their parts, they know how their parts fit with everybody else so you start at a much higher level, but you have to because you can’t find your way into a piece when you are playing four other operas at the same time.

DM: What happens when you include electronics in the mix, as will happen with the Steve Jobs opera this summer?

HB: That’s a very good question. It’ll be a big learning curve. Of course, Santa Fe has a big reputation of doing contemporary works.

DM: Are the electronics in the pit or in another part of the house or has that yet to be decided?

HB: I think in the pit. The confidence I have for that is that the composer, himself, Mason Bates, controls all the electronics and there is also a big part for acoustic guitar. The man who plays guitar has collaborated with Bates all his career and I think Mason knows how these pieces get put on. We have been workshopping this piece for quite a long time, so when we come to rehearsing, we come from a very good level of what exactly is required. But you don’t really know until you get into the theatre and the pit as to what is and isn’t going to work. We must be quite quick and ready to adapt as necessary.

DM: This must be true of all soloists and instrumentalists in opera where they have their own solos whether it is electronics, a flute or even a glass harmonica. Are we going to have that in Lucia di Lammermoor?

HB: We are, absolutely, and thrilled to have it, but how does a glass harmonica actually work in a big space, in an outdoor theatre, ostensibly, in terms of balance, in terms of its being heard in the auditorium and onstage? Most Lucias are used to doing the aria with two flutes and of course they have a very different kind of color and tone quality. I myself will be very interested to see how it sounds. I am very excited we are actually going to do the arias with a glass harmonica.

DM: It has that extraordinary ethereal sound. How does it work when you are conducting, when the instrumentalist can’t even see the singer who is onstage and the voice and the instrument should play as one? What is the role of the conductor in the middle of all that?

HB: Opera orchestras are famously good listeners because that’s what they do the whole time. As a conductor one has many different roles, sometimes it’s leading and being proactive and helping the orchestra if, for example, they can’t hear the singer. What a lot of people don’t know or understand is that the orchestra and quite often the conductor cannot hear the singers even though the audience can. We are down in a pit, the singers are above our heads, quite a long way above the heads of an orchestra. If you are playing a violin, you have an instrument under your chin the sound of which is going in one ear and probably the other ear as well, so when you are playing you are drowning out anything that is happening onstage. Even as the conductor, I spend a lot of my time lip reading. I can’t hear if they are upstage so I lip read and listen for consonants a lot because if I hear an ‘S’ or a ‘T’ I know where we are and I watch their mouths the whole time. So, sometimes I’m helping and being proactive and they should trust me completely, other times I am just being an enabler. I let them listen and if there is any problem I help them get back on track. Most importantly I help them understand what it is the singer is doing.

DM: Here is a final question: is there one opera you would really like to conduct that you have not yet been involved in, a wish-list opera?

HB: Die Meistersinger

DM: And one opera you would never want to conduct?

Les Huguenots.

DM: Why Die Meistersinger?

HB: It’s the first opera I saw, believe it or not, with my family quite by chance. The music teacher at my school had a group going to
Meistersinger and I thought, I’ve no idea what it is, but I’ll give it a go. It made such a huge impression on me. It was in the early 1980s. When the Solti recording came out, I had the cassettes and I used to sit there playing them endlessly. It’s a wonderfully human piece which I have never got to work on.

DM: I must say, Maestro, it has been such a privilege to talk to you. I have been so looking forward to this.

Performances of the Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina will be on July 29, Aug 2,11, 17, and 23rd. You can go to the box office at 800 280 4654 for tickets, or go online to for more season details.

I’d really like to thank you, Maestro Harry Bicket, for being my guest today.

HB: It’s my pleasure, thank you.

DM: This is Desirée Mays. See you at the Opera!