Monday, April 21, 2014

San Diego Opera Continues Its Battle for Survival

By Erica Miner

On Thursday, April 17, controversy over the closure of San Diego Opera took a startling turn when a Town Hall meeting with the theme, “San Diego Opera Moves Forward: Alternative models of Opera in America” for supporters of the company’s survival, and a meeting of the Opera’s Board of Directors, took place simultaneously. The atmosphere at the former (which I attended) was upbeat and hopeful and ended with cheers from the overflow crowd at the Civic Plaza Copper Room. The latter reportedly was chaotic and contentious and resulted in walkouts and multiple resignations from Board members, including its president, Karen Cohn.

Those who have followed SDO’s journey since General Director Ian Campbell made his shocking announcement on March 19 of the company’s impending closure are familiar with the circumstances. Citing declines in ticket sales and donations, and the near-depletion of a $10 million dollar endowment, Campbell encouraged SDO’s board to shut down the company’s operations at the end of the current season, with the final performance scheduled on April 13. The board voted 33-1 in favor of Campbell’s recommendation. 

Volatile reaction came swiftly from company members, longtime SDO supporters and opera lovers, not only locally, but also across the entire US via the Internet and social media. 400 employees, including singers, San Diego Symphony musicians, stagehands, staff members and many more, were in danger of losing their incomes. Battle lines were drawn as San Diegans stood up to voice their opposition to the planned closure. 

Before long it was evident that the implications reached far beyond San Diego. In fact, the situation aroused concerns nationwide about the future of opera. Well-established New York City Opera had already closed in recent months. The Met was having labor disputes that portended possibly insurmountable difficulties. The potential demise of SDO had opened a Pandora’s box of fear and worry among opera aficionados. So many people love opera; how could this beloved art form suddenly be poised on the chopping block? 

However, it also became clear that SDO was not going to go down without a fight. The crusade to save the company has received almost daily coverage from local media. A group of employees, staff and opera supporters formed a “White Knight Committee” (WKC) to fight the closing and to pressure the board to rescind its decision. Via emails and the Internet the WKC called for opera lovers to sign an online “Save San Diego Opera” petition; over 20,000 signatures signaled an overwhelming desire to keep the company alive. Company singers filed a lawsuit to force SDO to submit arbitration over their contracts. Little known facts about the company’s financials began to circulate. Campbell was mercilessly criticized for giving up on the company, and for drawing a salary that was inordinately generous, given the company’s financial precariousness. The high-rent penthouse SDO offices were cited as exceedingly posh and expensive.

Clearly, if the opera were to survive change was needed, in the form of economizing, cutting down expenses, and choosing new leadership. The WKC and its proponents insisted the opera was salvageable and mounted a persuasive campaign to prove their hypothesis. Nightly features began to appear on local San Diego TV stations. “Can the Opera Be Saved?” was a recurrent theme in the media, one of many arias that were being composed in the opera within an opera of the company’s saga. Soon, public outcry motivated a pressured Board to extend the closure deadline to April 29. The “Save SDO” movement gained momentum at an accelerated pace, resulting in the April 17 “San Diego Opera Moves Forward” Town Hall Meeting at Civic Plaza. 

420 attendees in the Copper Room and numerous others who watched via live stream on monitors in the hallway listened carefully as three opera-expert panelists discussed viable alternatives to keep SDO alive. Nicolas Reveles, the Opera’s Geisel Director of Education and Outreach and well known to San Diego opera aficionados as the company’s superbly knowledgeable pre-opera lecturer, moderated the discussion. Presenters Marc, Scorca, President and CEO of the national organization Opera America, and David Devan, General Director of Opera Philadelphia, informed the audience as to the types of business models that other US opera companies have implemented to bring opera into the 21st century.

Reveles started by defining opera. Grand Opera in a 3,000-seat theatre no longer was relevant to SDO, he claimed. New business models using smaller theaters and different types of operas such as musical theater, Baroque operas with smaller casts and orchestras, and Mexican-themed operas such as Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which was performed in the 2012-2013 SDO season, were necessary to enable the company to adhere to the realistic budget realities of our times and to attract audiences. Opera is an art form that tells stories in music, using classic issues involving community, politics, and (audience laughter here) political corruption.

Scorca cited difficulties in the state of opera over the past decade: increases in the “Opera Price Index” of two to two-and-a-half times the cost of living increase; a decrease in audience attendance of as much as 24% in top-level companies; more sophisticated audiences resistant to subscriptions; competition for audiences in entertainment and philanthropic dollars. Nonetheless he gave examples of a positive nature. In recent years the number of opera companies across the US has increased from 120 to 500. Opera is now a multimedia art form; young artists of unprecedented high quality are creating their own companies and finding donors. Specialty companies are commissioning new works. Smaller venues are being balanced by HD transmissions in stadiums. Companies such as Dallas Opera, which cut back from five to three productions, are now able to slowly increase the number of productions while still reducing costs.

Devan presented a similar view in what amounted to a much-needed pep talk for a crowd hungry for good news. He pointed out that, just as Philadelphia was not New York, San Diego was not Los Angeles, and needed to come up with its own unique “SDO plan.” As a smaller city, Philadelphia had faced a challenge he called “subscriber crisis.” Opera, competing with such media as Netflix, was a waning model, too costly to remain the same, an art form that needed to reach beyond the opera house, with a civic footprint as important as its product footprint. Philadelphia Opera reinvented itself by creating partnerships in innovative co-productions with such established musical entities as the Philadelphia Orchestra and Curtis Institute of Music; balancing major opera performances in large venues with chamber operas in smaller venues; creating a Composer-in-Residence program; broadcasting at Independence Mall; and fueling innovation by asking people to commit to investing in new ideas through a “Venture Philanthropy” concept. These efforts have garnered numerous positive results, including an increase of 24% in ticket yield among the coveted 25 to 34 age group. He emphasized that “Version 2.0” for San Diego would necessitate a long-term plan. The enthused listeners seemed more than willing to devote the time and energy needed.

 As the meeting ended, news filtered in via text from the Board meeting. Board President Karen Cohn had resigned along with twelve other Board Members. Ian Campbell and his former wife Ann Spira Campbell had walked out prematurely. A cheer emanated from the crowd when it was announced that the San Diego Opera Association had deferred its previously announced April 29 date for closure of operations to at least May 19, to permit the reconstituted Board and the Special Committee led by Board secretary Carol Lazier to explore opportunities to continue the Opera Association's mission.

Later news revealed that Lazier, who earlier this month had donated $1 million to explore new ways forward for the opera company, was named acting board president. New hope emerged for a retooled, “fiscally responsible” 2015 SDO season, with advice coming from outside experts including Opera America. A meeting of the Opera Association Members is being organized for the near future. Whether plans for a resurrected San Diego Opera with new donor and fundraising options will come to fruition remains to be seen. What is clear thus far is that passionate lovers of opera in our city have not been willing to give up the battle. That fervor seems unlikely to diminish any time soon.


Logos used by permission of
Photos used by permission of John Menier

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Opera Behind the Scenes: From the Score to the Stage

1994 Zauberflöte, after Schinkel Photo Monika Rittershaus (c) Staatsoper Unter den Linden
by Rodney Punt

In an era when opera's standard repertory has coalesced around a few famous composers -- Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and a handful of others -- it is the stage productions that differentiate one  Traviata or Boheme or Carmen from another. Name directors like Robert Wilson, Peter Sellars or Francesca Zambello top theater marquees in new and old works, each with his or her own signature style. Yet far less is known by the public of the art of stagecraft and how it has evolved over time than of the works and vocal stars of opera.

Jacket design: Jill Shimabukuro, after P. B. Algieri
The current emphasis on staging is what makes important and timely the arrival of Evan Baker's new single-volume survey of four centuries of European opera production: From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

In this large, richly illustrated book, written in lucid and accessible prose, Baker, a former dramaturge and stage director himself, lifts the veil from behind the scenes of opera. He traces the long journey of stage production from the genre’s origins in seventeenth century Italy, where arias strung together to tell a story were melded into the grand public events of ducal courts, to the lavish nineteenth century spectacles of the Paris Opéra, and on to the next century’s pared down post-war abstractions. Baker wraps up the survey in 1976, when the most ambitious operatic project in history, Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, was given a celebrated modern staging by director Patrice Chéreau for the centennial of the work’s premiere at Bayreuth. While Baker considers in his epilogue the current era of Regietheater ("director's theater" innovated in Germany), he leaves for another day the definitive study of its still evolving vogue.

From the Score to the Stage focuses on Continental Europe’s three most important operatic traditions: those of Italy, France and Austria/Germany, with occasional reference to other European practices. Dividing his history into nine half-century chapters, Baker captures the flow of artistic and technical advances as they criss-crossed Europe. The introduction of gas lighting in 1822, for instance, heightened staging possibilities everywhere, making obsolescent the spare luminescence of candlelight. The electronic age further liberated light as a tool for emotional expression; suddenly, tinted hues could precisely and subtly project heightened psychological states. 
Schinkel's 1815 Zauberflöte design. Photo (c) BPK, Berlin
Personalities known only as names today come alive in this survey: Italy’s formative opera impresario Marco Faustini; the protean librettist and stage director Pietro Metastasio; the entrepreneurial Emanuel Schikaneder who revived Mozart’s career with the libretto and stage direction for Die Zauberflöte; Italy’s Domenico Barbaja who introduced roulette to finance opera; music publisher Giovanni Ricordi, who promoted Rossini and Donizetti; his grandson Giulio Ricordi who encouraged Verdi to write Otello and Falstaff; and two game-changing early modernists: Alfred Roller, the Secessionist set designer, and Max Reinhardt, the stage director who transformed opera acting.
Stage innovations add novelty to opera productions. The reader will discover how the brothers Galliari incorporated “practicals” (three-dimensional elements like steps and stairs) in mythological settings; how trap doors were used in Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable and later Gounod's Faust for fantastical effects, and how the stage of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck matched its shocking music with expressionistic sets and lighting. Baker's own translations from German, French and Italian texts help clarify obscure meanings from source material for the stories.
Wieland Wagner's Walküre. Photo (c) NUFDR-W-S, Bayreuth
One of the author's most interesting chapters deals with management at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus after the Second World War. During this period of austerity, Wieland Wagner (Richard’s grandson) had taken over production and made a controversial decision to pare down traditional stage sets in favor of an abstract lighting scheme. Audiences were initially shocked. Baker:
Wieland Wagner’s visual aesthetics and psychological ideas influenced opera staging styles throughout Germany. His new style, now known as Neu-Bayreuth, signaled a complete break with the past. Wieland’s interpretations provoked the audience into thinking for itself about the scenic and dramatic situations unfolding on the stage. His aesthetics required only minimal scenery and lighting as integral parts of his productions. His blocking of the singers freed them from the old idea that specific instances in the music dictated their movement, and stars who could not act had no place in his productions.

Anyone associated with the production and planning of opera, not to mention also audiences and students of theater and cinema, will want to own From the Score to the Stage, which, for its comprehensive scope and sheer panache, has no competitor. Whether read cover to cover or used as an easy-to-navigate reference on particular topics, it is the indispensable single-source guide to the opera stage. 


Illustrations from 'From the Score to the Stage' used by the author's permission.

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Furlanetto Conquers La Mancha - With Dignity

By Erica Miner 

For two magical hours, Ferruccio Furlanetto lifted an embattled San Diego Opera from its doldrums to the lofty heights only such an artist can invoke, in his exquisite rendering of Jules Massenet’s noble, genteel Don Quixote.

This timeless work about an ageless man existing in a materialistic world devalued of spiritual ideals premiered at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in 1910, toward the end of Massenet’s life. Written in a style uniquely different from his usual, this work incorporates a pastiche of fascinating elements. Massenet's orchestration is at times delicate, at times almost Wagnerian, reflecting his admiration for the German composer and his use of leitmotifs. His obsession with Spanish music and culture, a pervading characteristic of late nineteenth century French composers, is evident in this opera’s distinctive Spanish flavor as it is in Le Cid and his first full-length opera, Don César de Bazan. The influence of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is clear. Massenet even quotes from his compatriot Léo Delibes’ mythology-based battle-themed ballet, Sylvia. Massenet’s personal identification with his protagonist Quixote also showed in his tender feelings for his original Dulcinée, Lucy Arbell, and in his anxieties about death, which, along with love, is one of the opera’s key themes.

The iconic role of chevalier de la longue figure is a pinnacle for an artist with Furlanetto’s legendary status as a singer and actor, with his consummate command of vocal color, emotion and intention. It provides a supreme opportunity to show the deep humanity of a character within a fairytale setting, a personage whom Furlanetto feels every man should be in life: a man, young of heart, whose age is only on the exterior; who goes weak in the knees, whether from worship of an ideal or from his age, with unrelenting passion; whose fervent prayers come straight from the heart; who with pure adoration toward life and nature unconditionally loves whatever surrounds him. In our recent interview, Furlanetto affectingly expressed the Don’s principles: “He’s exactly what men should ideally be for three hours in their life: love for everything that’s around us, whether it’s nature, sky, air, other persons, animals.”

It is difficult to imagine any other singing artist today who could so totally live this character under the skin and capture his essence - his profound sadness without regret; his appreciation of the delicatesse and sacredness of women; his ability to absolutely own his pains, joys, and rapture - with such a degree of dignity as Ferruccio Furlanetto. He creates an atmosphere so magical that he is able to dominate the stage for the entire evening, expressing his visions and dreams with an innocence belying the character’s chronological age, without any pretentiousness. Furlanetto’s quixotic idealism showed whether singing to Dulcinée or to Sancho Panza. Not one soupçon of imperfection surfaced in his singing. The richness never quit, even in the throes of death.

Supporting him was a duo of expert singers whose character portrayals were outstanding. Argentinean bass-baritone Eduardo Chama was the Don’s perfect foil as Sancho Panza, thoroughly in synch with Furlanetto both vocally and dramatically, embodying his share of a relationship in which both characters deeply care for and respect each other. He skillfully balanced his vocal, dramatic and comedic approaches between the lighter, more Mozartean aria early in the opera and the heavier, more imposing singing required of him in the later acts. His La Donna É Mobile monologue was utterly convincing in its vocal sonorousness, consistency, and characterization. As Dulcinea, German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung sang with spirit and vocal assuredness, effectively showing the contrasts between her character’s capriciousness and her eventual ability to be touched by the depth of Quixote’s soul.

Joel Sorensen as Rodriguez, Simeon Esper as Juan, Micaëla Oeste as Pedro, and Susannah Biller as Garcias, the lively quartet of Dulcinea’s suitors, contributed vocal and dramatic vivacity to the narrative. (And who doesn’t love seeing a woman, albeit dressed as a man, sporting a sword?)

Conductor Karen Keltner demonstrated her remarkable affinity for French repertoire by making the score come alive, alternating between highly charged energy and graceful delicacy. Keturah Stickann’s stage direction made use of her background as a choreographer by adding subtle touches and details to the characters’ movements, all of which seemed natural and well integrated, and marrying the cleverness and poignancy of the libretto with affecting, uncontrived actions.

San Diego Opera is justifiably proud of having created this production. Ralph Funicello’s simple, handsome set designs were superbly effective, giving each of the five acts its own individual atmosphere, and his imaginative solution for the horse and donkey worked well: both were very lifelike and moved nicely for the needs of the characters. The lit up, spinning windmills with their realistic knight-errant attached were fascinating to watch. Marie Barrett’s magical lighting design was strikingly highlighted by the splendid carpet of stars on the sky drop. Kristina Cobarrubia’s vivacious flamenco-style choreography, made more charming by the participation of children, and the symbolic love-rejection-heartbreak mime adding poignancy to Act Four, were enhanced by Missy West’s beautifully detailed costumes. Kudos should go to the expert stage crew for the numerous quick scenery changes required of them during the evening.

Many here in San Diego consider Ferruccio Furlanetto our own National Treasure. As Quixote he embodies, heart and soul, un chevalier en aventure toujours en posture - a knight-errant searching for adventure always at the ready. For those few hours on stage he lives, and we experience, the best of human qualities. In our interview he touchingly evoked the noble Don’s gentility: “His world is collapsing, and like an elephant he goes in a very specific place because he knows he has to die. But he dies beautifully, purely like the rest of his life, with a transparent soul, through which you can see everything: present, past and future.”

Furlanetto also conjures these ideals in terms of the need for a continuing operatic tradition in his “Magic Island” video: “When at the end Don Quichotte is dying and he’s telling Sancho, ‘Do you remember I promised you castles, land, even an island? Now that we are at the end, take this island, the island of my heart… of my poetry… as an inheritance’… I think that music is this island. Music with the emotions that can transfer to somebody who has a sensibility for it, is amazing… something everybody should receive, put in his heart, and keep forever. It makes everybody better... for a few hours you can live in what would be your ideal place.”

The symbolism of this “magic island” would not be lost on any of us here in San Diego. But what matters most about last night’s opening is the incredible work of a devoted team of soloists, choristers, dancers, musicians, directors, designers, stage hands, staff, and countless others who, under exceptionally difficult conditions over these past weeks, banded together to create a distinctly unique “magic island” for its audience. This was an accomplishment that, no matter the eventual outcome of the Opera’s current situation, will forever endure in our hearts and minds.


Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Last photo by John Menier, used by permission of UCSD-TV

Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

Mozart Requiem at First Congregational Church of LA

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles

By Douglas Neslund

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles was filled Friday night to hear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s immortal Requiem in D minor, which was completed by Xaver Süßmayr after Mozart's death. The conductor, Daniel Suk, organized the Dream Orchestra, an assemblage of primarily professional instrumentalists and 22 members of “Opera Chorus of Los Angeles,” who were joined by the young scholars of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Choir. The young people were gifted an opportunity to sing one of the true gems of all music alongside the professionals.

Soloists were soprano Golda Zahra Berkman, mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco, tenor Vladimir Dmitruk, and bass Patrick Blackwell. As a quartet, they were uneven and unblended. Ms. Berkman is but 15 years of age and on this occasion suffered ongoing pitch problems. Mr. Dmitruk spent most of his solo opportunities on the loud side of moderato. Ms. Velasco and Mr. Blackwell sang well but in the disconnected manner of singers who probably had not much experience singing together as a musical unit. John St. Marie prepared the combined choruses.

Daniel Suk and his Dream Orchestra
The Dream Orchestra, with Minh Nguyen playing the church's iconic pipe organ, were excellent as pros would be expected to be, but were rarely called upon to play softer than mezzoforte, and often much louder. When the assembled participants were asked to maximize their collective forces,  the result was deafening. Inasmuch as the writer sat near the front, it is possible that those sitting in the back of the church might have needed the extra musical volume due to acoustical considerations.

That said, this was not a concert concerned with nuance, phrase shaping, subtlety, or acknowledgement of historical performance practice. One could, however, find moments of Mozartean beauty. But chances for serenity or reflection offered in movements such as the Lacrimosa, were missed.

One wishes, in semipro events like this, that funding for two more rehearsals could have been found to elevate the performance to its maximum potential. Without a doubt, Mr. Suk would agree.

The enthusiastic audience was distractingly clap-happy, even in brief pauses within a movement.

The concert coincided with the 46th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve got a dream” speech, a portion of which was declaimed by Teryne Chatman. An additional dedication at the death of Conductor Emeritus of the Los Angeles Master Chorale Paul Salamunovich was graciously given. Malotte’s “Lord’s Prayer,” in a choral-instrumental arrangement, followed the Requiem in something of an odd pairing, and which also served as an encore, bringing the festive evening to a close. 

Most of the costs for the event, including a sumptuous reception afterward, were generously paid for by Ms. Berkman’s parents, Jilla and Shallom Berkman, owners of Urth Caffé.


Photo of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles from Internet sources
Photo of Daniel Suk and the Dream Orchestra by San Marino Tribune, used by permission

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whale Swallows Jonah in Cathedral!

"Jonah and the Whale" (1621) by Pieter Lastman

By Douglas Neslund

Following the general theme of a Biblical story in its annual presentation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles Opera and its Music Director James Conlon were faced with finding a suitable vehicle to succeed Benjamin Britten’s brilliant “Noah” and the excellent medieval play “Daniel.”

The requisite forces were to include two or three soloists drawn from the LAO roster and a myriad of amateur actors, dancers, instrumentalists and singers. And kids. Lots of kids.

A commission was offered for such a work, based on the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, the wicked city of Nineveh, and a man-swallowing whale. This adventurous plan fell through, as the youthful commissioned composer could not fulfill his end of the bargain.

Another composer, Jack Perla, was handed the chance to write the one-act opera ultimately entitled “Jonah and The Whale,” featuring the principals of Jonah, with the title role played and sung by tenor Matthew McNeill, his estranged wife Sarah (Hai Ji Chang), Margalit, Jonah’s mother (Cassandra Zoé Velasco), Captain Mordecai (Valentin Anikin), Townspersons/ Sailors (Rebecca Nathanson, D’Ana Lombard and Joshua Guerrero, and Sailors (Vladimir Dmitruk and Kihun Yoon). A featured vocal ensemble including soprano Lisa Eden, alto Michelle Hemmings, tenor Ashley Faatoalia and bass Vincent Robles contributed.

An aggregated adult chorus made up of members of the Cathedral and eight other churches and groups were joined by a children’s choir comprised of five school and church affiliates. All of the above were supported by a small core of professionals from the LA Opera Orchestra and dozens of young people from various schools and conservatories. And a bell choir, too.

Smaller children had acting roles: some as fish, some as crabs, some were jellyfish, while others played krill. Yes, non-Biblical krill. And were very good at it, too, as they joined Jonah in the belly of the whale.

Fortunately, the principal singer-actors were miked, as one would expect them to be in a very large space as the Cathedral. Although sitting in darkness for most of the time and being unable to verify, it would be expected that additional mikes were utilized in key places amongst the choirs, orchestra and first-chair participants.

The three most principal singers, Mr. O’Neill, Ms. Chang and Ms. Velasco, sang their difficult roles with as much passion, conviction and emotion as allowed by the often incoherent score. There is nothing about the vocal skills of these soloists that would deny them first-rank designation among current practitioners of the operatic arts. But it is not possible, given the artificial volume controls not in their own hands, to evaluate their singing further. The secondary principals were equally fine, but also miked.

Someone, however, apparently misjudged the cumulative sound of orchestra, chorus and soloists in the Cathedral’s space – at least from the writer’s seat in the third row for the second of two performances. A lot of ensemble performance got lost in the miasmic sound waves colliding – too many singers and players playing too many notes and too many chord mashes piling one on top of the previous one, and sound-enhanced principals providing yet another layer. A chorus singer in both events said that the Friday night performance was sonically much superior to the one reviewed on Saturday night, and stated that it sounded as though the amplification was doubled for no apparent reason.

When Mr. Perla’s score first arrived and was made available for study by participants (about six months before downbeat with the composer’s final additions not arriving until February), Director Eli Villanueva was compelled to scrap his first staged concept and start all over. A lack of clarity in the score as regards downbeats due to a constantly shifting rhythmical scheme made it difficult for Mr. Villanueva and his valiant amateurs to form stage pictures with any coherence to the score and story line. Scenery Designer Carolina Angelo and Lighting Designer Tantris Hernandez gave the large audience understandable frames, and Costume Designer Paula Higgins had no problem representing Biblical characters.

Presiding again over the masses of singers, players and krill, was Los Angeles Opera’s Conductor James Conlon, who may not have envisioned a commission turning into quite this much of a challenge, soldiered bravely on through innumerable time changes and wrong entries by principals, although it didn’t seem to matter one way or another.

Thus hangs the question: will a revised “Jonah” join “Noah” and “Daniel” in a three-opera cycle as originally thought (with Britten’s “Noah” being presented every other year)? Or will the present “Jonah” be revised for the 2019 slot or scrapped entirely, and a new commission awarded a new Biblical opera?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mainly Mozart Worships Schubert in Carlsbad

By Erica Miner 

As part of the Mainly Mozart Festival’s 25th Anniversary Season in San Diego, residents of Carlsbad were treated to a unique pleasure on Sunday, March 30, when a cadre of chamber music’s finest performers performed a program to please Schubert and Mozart lovers alike: Mozart’s infrequently performed piano Adagio in B Minor, K. 540, bookended by Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata D. 821, and “Trout” Quintet, D. 667.

Those in attendance were able to worship at the feet of these two musical giants in the airy, cheerful contemporary surroundings of St. Elizabeth Seton Church, picturesquely perched at the top of a treed, flowered hill in Carlsbad. The heavenly setting added to the atmosphere of reverence associated with Franz and Wolfgang and their incalculable contribution to the infinite riches of the chamber music repertoire.

The program opened with the Arpeggione performed by cellist Ronald Thomas. A veteran performer with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of the Boston Chamber Music Society, Thomas dons his many hats as performer, teacher and administrator with great effectiveness. As a prelude to his rendering of the fiendishly difficult work, Thomas explained to the audience the origins of the six-stringed instrument for which Schubert presumably wrote the piece, which resembled a bass viola da gamba and was bowed like the cello but fretted and tuned like a guitar. Schubert’s sonata, which was not published until 1871 when the instrument had long been absent from the musical scene, and is now most often played on the cello, is notorious in cellist circles for its seemingly constant thumb position. Thomas expertly handled the technical demands of the piece without sacrificing beauty of sound: a true challenge when sitting atop an unforgiving concrete floor.

To morph from accompanist to soloist in quick succession is no mean feat, and pianist Anna Polonsky deserves kudos as the consistent trouper of the afternoon, performing with great expertise in both Schubert works and taking a solo turn in the limelight in the Mozart Adagio. Striking a perfect balance between the sensitivity required in a Mozart solo piano work and the declamatory passion so crucial to portray the darkness of the key of B minor, in which the composer seldom wrote, Polonsky superbly evoked the composer’s presumed dark state of mind following a less than stellar success of the 1788 Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni.

The crown jewel of the afternoon was the Trout Quintet, and the stellar ensemble chosen to interpret the piece was equally dazzling. Violinist Steven Copes, known for his versatility in his many roles as soloist, orchestral leader, chamber musician and more, showed equal adaptability as both the ensemble leader and solo violinist. His upper register was exceptionally assured, particularly in the tricky leaps and trill flourishes of the “Trout” movement, and the other passages meshed beautifully with those of the other four instruments. All in all, he made the challenging aspects of the piece look easy. Yura Lee’s lush viola sound provided ample support to Copes’s excellent passagework. Each of them passed phrases seamlessly to each other, to Thomas, and to San Diego Symphony’s principal bassist Jeremy Kurtz-Harris, whose sound was both opulent and well defined exactly as needed. Their renderings were beautifully enhanced by Polonsky’s deft technical execution in the challenging solo passages and sensitivity in the accompanying passages. 

Even Richard Wagner came down from his lofty, self-centered pedestal to bow to the limitless genius of Mozart, when he acknowledged: “The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.” Mainly Mozart does a brilliant job of bringing the composer’s genius to Greater San Diego. As Mainly Mozart’s Executive Director Nancy Laturno Bojanic pointed out in her pre-concert speech to the ample crowd of music lovers assembled for the event, Mozart is the guiding inspiration for the organization’s mission, which is to keep Mozart alive for the San Diego artistic community. When it comes to Mozart, it’s definitely “Mission Possible.”



Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]