Sunday, April 19, 2015

SDO Again Proves Itself Worthy of “Must-See” Status

By Erica Miner 

San Diego Opera has done it again. Last night’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, featuring a display of operatic and symphonic talent rarely seen and heard on one stage, provided another joyful musical experience for performers and audience alike. In conjunction with the San Diego Symphony, which generously donated their usual concert venue for SDO’s benefit, the cooperative effort was a Grand Succès: vocally, dramatically and musically. 

It was an evening of celebratory firsts for SDO: the anniversary of their first 50 years in existence, their first concert performed together with SDS on the stage of Copley Symphony Hall, and the final offering of their first season as a reborn company. The array of seven singing soloists sparkled so brightly with their vocal expertise and stage presence, that at times the hall seemed to vibrate from the sheer force of their cumulative talents. All of the numbers performed were hugely difficult, and were executed with skill and panache. 

Perhaps the most luminous star of all was Charles Prestinari’s chorus. Always a class act, they seem to outdo themselves with each successive production. This time, with a docket of noteworthy numbers one after another, they knocked the audience’s shoes right off their feet. Starting with the difficult first high note the tenors sang in the opening (Bravi, tenors!) of the “Entrance of the Guests” from Wagner’s Tannhauser, the ensemble sang as one instrument, presenting difficult choruses from Puccini’s Tosca and Verdi’s Nabucco and Aida with vocal consistency and power. Even the extremely quick tempi of conductor Karen Kamensek did not daunt these expert choral singers from producing a sound that was both forceful and beautifully rounded. 

As to the soloists, theirs was a veritable constellation of stunning arias, duets and ensembles. American soprano Lise Lindstrom had the most strenuous job, with four major arias to perform: Dich, teure Halle from Tannhauser, In questa Reggia from Puccini’s Turandot, Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, and Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Any one of these would have provided effective proof of Lindstrom’s vocal proficiency; all four of them together comprised an agenda that would test the mettle of any soprano, and few would attempt such a demanding list. Lindstrom moved from one aria to another with apparent ease, showing her voice to its fullest capabilities in the Strauss. 

From the moment he sang his first exquisite notes of his SDO debut in Bizet’s duet, Au fond du Temple Saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, René Barbera’s glorious tenor shimmered its way through the atmosphere of the hall and into the audience’s hearts. His vocal beauty and ease and phenomenally consistent technique, reminiscent of the vocal assurance and comic flair of Pavarotti and the technical prowess and golden tones of Flórez, mesmerized listeners, whether in the sensuous Bizet or the always-challenging Ah! Mes amis... of Donizetti. In the latter, the celebrated nine High C’s were a lock: effortless, formidable but not overwhelming. He made sure to sing the two verses on both stage right and left, providing equal listening opportunity to the entire house, and gave the impression that a tenth High C would present no problem whatsoever. One hopes not to have to wait too long to hear him in a full role at SDO. 

Stephen Powell always nails whatever musical challenge he attempts. An imposing Tonio in SDO’s Pagliacci last season (, Powell delivered a stunning performance as Baron Scarpia in the Te Deum from Tosca, and provided perfect balance to Barbera in the Bizet duet, with a gorgeous sound and potent presence that equaled Barbera’s in every way. In this they were perfectly matched vocally and dramatically, as they also were comically in the duet, All’ idea dí quel metallo, from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Soprano Emily Magee gave a stunning first impression in her rendering of Tosca’s signature aria Vissi d’arte. The unusual timbre and range of her powerful, sensuous voice was a perfect fit vocally and dramatically for the tragic 19th century diva, and even more so in the encore final ensemble (see last paragraph). 

Equally lush was Marianne Cornetti’s voice in the mezzo-soprano tour de force aria from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, presented to its best advantage in its lower and middle range. She showed great dramatic flair in the duet from Verdi’s Don Carlo, with soprano Erica Austin, who displayed a youthful, sparkling and captivating voice that one would very much like to hear more of in the future. 

Bass Reinhard Hagen, who played the Commendatore in the company’s recent Don Giovanni, is a familiar and much-admired presence at SDO. His passionate rendering of the aria Lyubvi fse vozrastï pokornï from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin gave the audience a welcome demonstration of his impressively deep low notes, rendered capably and with profound feeling. 

Another SDO favorite, bass-baritone Scott Sikon, provided listeners the pleasurable opportunity to hear him more extensively than usual in the ever popular Non più andrai from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.  

Karen Kamensek conducted with her usual command and authority, showing her capabilities especially effectively in the French repertoire. 

The evening ended not only in Gloria all’Egitto ad Iside but also in triumph for San Diego Opera. As an added symbol of the company’s determination and grit, the audience was regaled with an encore of the final ensemble from Bernstein’s Candide, which aptly pointed out SDO’s hopes, dreams, and thus-far accomplishments with its exhortations to “Build our house and chop our wood” and “Make our garden grow.” With the impending and much anticipated arrival of new General Director David Bennett ( in mid-June, such phrases symbolize the renewed hope and anticipatory joy of a company on the threshold of great accomplishments. 

Photo used by permission of: San Diego Opera 
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, April 13, 2015

Tan Dun’s Water Passion bathes all in excellence

By Douglas Neslund

Ten years ago, Maestro Grant Gershon and the peerless Los Angeles Master Chorale brought Chinese-born Tan Dun’s “Water Passion after St. Matthew” to Walt Disney Concert Hall. For a first reading, the near-operatic work electrified the audience (if water and electricity may safely be used in the same sentence). So when Water Passion was scheduled for reprise in the current season, a buzz developed around the weekend performances. As well it should have.

Carefully rehearsed over the past few weeks, the performance on Sunday was meticulously presented, with vocal soloists soprano-in-excelsis Delaram Kamareh and basso profundo-in-extremis Stephen Bryant dazzling in challenging roles that preclude nearly all potential soloists, given their respective tessituras alone. Stupendously high notes and long leaps not heard since Yma Sumac were the challenge, with Ms. Kamareh’s hands and arms dancing and text-shaping along. Mr. Bryant was asked to perform frequent Tibetan overtone throat and fry sounds, to one member of the audience a bit too frequently, especially at odd moments in the English text thankfully projected above the performers. His vocal production was prodigious and beautiful.

Also soloing to great effect were percussionists David Cossin, Theresa Dimond, John Wakefield and instrumentalists Shalini Vijayan (violin), Cécilia Tsan ('cello) and almost hidden behind the men’s chorus, Yuanlin Chen on the digital sampler.

Composer Tan Dun

Seventeen translucent bowls of water formed a cross on stage, and contained microphones to pick up the various hand slaps, what appeared to be tin cans bobbed on the water surface, and other sometimes bowed odd objects that created sound through the water. Each bowl was lit from below, with a color scheme to reflect various moods arising from the Passion story.

Throughout the work, Mr. Cossin, Ms. Dimond and Mr. Wakefield played in this watery world and were surrounded by kettle and bass drums, with Ms. Dimond having a set of chimes to play as well. Almost in traditional jazz format, Mr. Cossin was given a solo turn at one point, with astonishing adeptness with his bare hands, playing and perhaps inventing new rhythms along the way on what appeared to be miked gourds.

Regular patrons of Master Chorale performances have come to expect vocal perfection, and on this occasion, were richly rewarded with not only singing par excellence but also rock rubbing and banging, Tibetan bell tinkling, and during the brief thunder-and-lightning at the death of Jesus, realistic metallic thunder claps.

The absolute key to this enchanting evening was careful preparation. It was clear to those who witnessed the two decade-separated Passion performances that Maestro Gershon’s richly gifted subconscious right brain had been working through the many opportunities to bring light and maintain the translucence of the work, and devise a rehearsal plan accordingly. This was not a run-through, but a carefully thought-out process made public to a delighted audience, that rewarded all with an instant standing ovation, with protracted loud applause punctuated with “bravos” and shrieks one normally hears at a rock concert, demanding a five-bow after the tributary long silence that brought the work to a close, even after the stage lights came up. No one was even breathing. And no one noticed how quickly the 90-minute work sans intermission went.

Maestro Gershon

Master Chorale audiences of the future will be fortunate if composer Tan Dun’s Water Passion is once again scheduled in water-needy Los Angeles, and Maestro Gershon is still at the podium.


Photos courtesy of and Jamie Phan

Monday, April 6, 2015

New SDO General Director Cannot Curb His Enthusiasm

By Erica Miner

David Bennett’s creative spirit and seemingly limitless energy have caught the attention of opera aficionados worldwide over the last several years. On March 12, 2015, San Diego Opera announced that Bennett, who as Executive Director of New York’s Gotham Chamber Opera rose to the top of a short list of incredibly well qualified candidates, would be taking the reins of the company as their new General Director.

Previous to Gotham, Bennett was Managing Director of Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) of lower Manhattan, and Senior Consultant with Arts Resources International. His excitement and enthusiasm over his new post at SDO is as plentiful as the buzz surrounding him. Via phone from New York, he discusses exciting plans for SDO’s bright-looking future.

EM: David, the enthusiasm and anticipation here about your appointment as SDO’s new General Director are palpable. This feels like a perfect match. San Diego loves opera, and so do you, so we feel blessed. We are so excited here for your imminent arrival.

DB: Thank you for saying that. I am absolutely thrilled, beside myself, looking forward. I grew up in the Midwest, lived in Texas, then in New York for almost 15 years. It’s very exciting to take on another chapter in another part of the country.

EM: And we are very lucky to have you in this particular chapter. It’s not every year that SDO names a new general director. I think it’s going to be a mutual admiration society. A wonderful way to begin. Will there be any pomp and circumstance when you officially take the reins on June 15?

DB: There’s some talk about ways to roll me out. I think they’re planning some fund raising opportunities, some new initiatives to try to introduce me to people. A couple of recitals are happening, Pat Racette and Ferruccio, both in the fall. So I will likely make some kind of a public statement, probably a curtain speech for the audience then. But I don’t think there’s any big action planned for my immediate arrival.

EM: “Roll me out,” that’s absolutely priceless. I’ll definitely make a note of that one. I interviewed Bill Mason a few months ago ( Have you been working with him, or are you planning to work with him, on the transition?

DB: I haven’t yet. I’ve been doing a little internal work with staff, but I’m planning on reviewing some of his thoughts, try to pick up on the work he did and make it move forward. A lot of that was how to take the season that was already planned under Ian and modify that to some degree, definitely try to build on that. About half of next season is already planned, so we’re finding ways we can take financial obligations already in place and perhaps produce opera in a more cost-effective way.

EM: As a former opera musician, I’m curious what it’s like to switch over from being a performing baritone to managing Dance New Amsterdam, then running Gotham Chamber Opera, and now to helm an opera company that performs in venues both large and small.

DB: I think many of us in the arts find our paths circuitous, hugely non-linear, so every chapter I’ve had in my professional career has informed the next chapter to some degree. I was a singer and a voice teacher, mostly standard repertoire. I did traditional opera and grew up loving it. Most of us are attracted to opera by first experiences with standard repertoire - the first bohème or Aida, the way it moved you. That’s always been a part of what I love about opera. I moved to New York and worked first as a consultant and then the job with Dance New Amsterdam. I was already an audience member, attending the Met and City Opera, but I also started seeing Gotham’s work because it was produced at a very high level, with talented singers, designers and directors. Gotham defines chamber opera as intended for small audiences or venues. I think there are other ways to define it. Sometimes people will take standard repertoire and cut the orchestra size or cut the chorus and call it chamber opera. That was not the decision Gotham made, so I was very interested in this way of producing unusual repertoire as if it was almost grand opera, beautifully and thoughtfully with very high artistic values. I really loved exploring different kinds of repertoire, audience development, and how unusual spaces can help illuminate works. What I’m excited about now is bringing all of that back together. I still have a passion for what we call traditional grand opera and repertoire. I haven’t been able to work in it for the past 10 years at Gotham, so I’m really looking forward to that, and thinking about how we produce what people think of as traditional repertoire in sometimes surprising ways - it might be different designers or younger directors or things that San Diego hasn’t seen yet.

EM: I’m intrigued by some of the ideas you’ve implemented at Gotham and curious to see how that’s going to play out here. You commissioned Nico Muhly’s opera Dark Sisters for a world premiere. Do you plan to commission contemporary works for SDO?

DB: Certainly. San Diego’s had experience with that, with Jake Heggie’s operas. The audience has reacted positively to Moby-Dick. Great Scott is coming up next season. Daniel Catán’s first US opera, Rapaccini’s Daughter, was actually premiered in San Diego. Daniel was Mexican, became an American citizen, and this was kind of homage to his Americanized home. San Diego might be involved in the production of his unfinished opera, Meet John Doe. It would be a beautiful story to have his first and last opera be shepherded to some degree by San Diego. I’ve also been approached by Fort Worth Opera to see if San Diego would be interested in joining the consortium of cities that have large Hispanic audiences in developing a new opera based on Frida Kahlo. That might be very interesting. We also have a history at Gotham of having partnerships with Opera Philadelphia, who commissions works for both their smaller chamber opera series and their larger theater. I think my relationships with companies like that will probably continue as I move to San Diego. There are so many opportunities to explore. What the right mix is going to be for San Diego we have to still determine, but I imagine commissioning will probably be on the table.

EM: Opera in the 21st century definitely is becoming more global and collaborative. At Gotham, you also collaborated with other New York City arts institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Repertory Theater. Do you foresee similar possibilities in San Diego?

DB: There are lots of possibilities. SDO leadership is allied with a lot of the cultural institutions here, which is very exciting. San Diego is a sophisticated enough city artistically that I think there are opportunities for organizations to engage in ways that mean more than just one organization hiring another, like the Opera hiring the Symphony, but really coproducing. We’ve had preliminary conversations with the Symphony about that. I intend very quickly to have a conversation with the Old Globe. The outdoor theatre would be a lovely place to produce opera, perhaps based on a Shakespeare theme. We haven’t begun those discussions but those are just our dreams, my first glance of thinking about opportunities out there. In New York, we’ve had partnerships that manifested in a variety of ways. Sometimes 50-50 partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we split the expenses and revenue literally right down the middle, to other kinds of partnerships where we carry the majority of the burden of the production, and they might carry part of the expenses of the venue. You get expanded audiences because you pick up audiences of both cultural institutions. You also get this sense of what the organization is within the community that is increasing the civic impact for the opera company as opposed to just being itself inside the theatre. Because of that you have the potential of attracting all kinds of supporters and audiences. Those are things I’m really looking forward to exploring.

EM: You have other programs at Gotham, such as Composer-in-Residence and Internships. Is any of that on your slate for San Diego? Do you plan to implement certain other highly successful programs?

DB: Possibly. The Composer-in-Residence program is a very interesting relationship we have with Opera Philadelphia and another organization, Music Theatre Group, which are the three organizations that co-commissioned Dark Sisters. Out of that could come relationships that could foster young composers. Not a commissioning program, just a way to provide tools for young composers that when they come out of a three-year program they have the skills they need to have major impact on the field of opera. I don’t know if we would replicate something like that in San Diego, but I know young composers coming out of such programs and I think we could take advantage of that. There’s something wonderful about having a composer being part of an institution, which makes new music part of the DNA of the organization. That could have a really profound impact on San Diego. At SDO we’ll continue to produce grand opera but also other things. It will be interesting to find out what that mix is going to be. Of course things will change within the first couple of years. Next year is pretty much going to be three grand operas and some recitals. In the fall I think we’ll start to produce perhaps a little chamber opera, perhaps zarzuela, all kinds of things. There are great opportunities to engage the Hispanic community, too.

EM: Did SDO’s remarkable rebirth and growth over the past year make an impression on you?

DB: One of the things that attracted me to the possibility of this position was that the organizations that had been very successful have been those that have dug really deep within the community and found a way to have impact. Some of that has already happened in San Diego because the community has spoken so loudly in saying, “This Company is an asset we want to keep.” Finding a way to develop the company in such a way that it builds on that energy and excitement, really taking advantage of that, is the challenge and opportunity, and has to be harnessed quickly because that energy can dissipate fairly quickly. We need to jump on that immediately when I get there, to ascertain and talk quickly with the community and learn what the community wants.

EM: How do you envision SDO’s community impact, both short and long term?

DB: In the short term there’s rebuilding, making people feel confident about the health of the organization. Not abandoning the things people love about SDO and making sure we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water - traditional opera, but less of it. Then trying to have a sense of really defined stabilization. The Kroc Fund, which has been virtually spent down, was providing a lot of the cushion to the company over the past decade or so. Finding a way to life size the organization so it can operate, do beautiful and artistic work, and grow some new things - it’s going to take a few years to find the right combination of things that can be sustained and can also be its basis for sound financials. So next season will look a little bit like what we’ve been this season, but the following season I imagine you’ll see a production of something new, though not radically new, on the main stage. Another year down the road we might see main stage repertoire looking a little different.

EM: It certainly sounds different but I think that’s the kind of change we’re all looking for here. What do you feel are the three most important things SDO should focus on over the next five years, between now and 2020?

DB: The most important thing is finding ways to engage the community for maximum impact. Developing the feeling that the company is a really important part of the community that’s deeper than it has been - a community asset with deep civic impact, reaching a broader spectrum of the community than in the past, serving their needs, but not abandoning what was done. Next, rebuilding and feeling like the community sees the company is headed on a plan toward stabilization and fiscal soundness, that we will have permanence for fifty or more years. Third is exploring ways to be curious, investigating new things artistically that have benefit for the company. I think all three of those stick together. Finding new ways and new things to produce certainly is a part of how you build community impact. You’re speaking to repertoire that means something to a part of community that hasn’t been reached before. They all go together, but I think community impact is the most important part of it.

EM: That sounds like an excellent plan. Thank you so much, David, for sharing so much wonderful information with us.

DB: It was my pleasure.

Photos used by permission of: San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, April 3, 2015

Crafty Stephen Cohn Premieres in Pacific Palisades and Pasadena

Composer Stephen Cohn with wind players in 'Aria for Winds' at Shumei Hall

Review by Rodney Punt

Most composers would be happy to have one commissioned work premiered in a year. Los Angeles based composer Stephen Cohn has enjoyed two in the L. A. area just this past month. The first (March 17) was Aerial Perspectives, for flute, viola, cello and piano as part of the ongoing Chamber Music (Pacific) Palisades series. The second (March 29) was Aria for Winds, for a quartet of winds that concluded the Clyde Montgomery concert series at Pasadena’s Shumei Hall.

Today’s composers often favor extra-musical associations to brand their work. John Adams, for instance, expands minimalism’s boundaries into topical socio-political horizons. His namesake John Luther Adams presents himself as the sonic equivalent of the Alaska wilderness. Thomas Adès loves to play naughty with the English classics. Call the tendency high-class music’s version of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.”

Cohn’s style, by contrast, is today’s answer to the intense craftsmanship of eighteenth century composers like J. S. Bach and Joseph Haydn. His works don’t in any way sound like those of the Baroque or Classical eras, but, like them, they treat elements of music as intellectual exercises, constructing and deconstructing thematic material from all sides in a variety of tempos and keys. They may possess colorful titles, but they are really all about their own organic construction.

An old-fashioned sort of modernist, Cohn has as much fun slicing and dicing musical motifs as a cat rolling in catnip. Recent examples of his brainy-but-fun scores include Sea Change (2011) and American Spring (2012), both premiered at Shumei, the former now a hit within art music circles, and making the rounds of festivals at home and abroad. Cohn’s latest two works explore further potentials of his characteristic style.

Aria for Winds is, as Cohn describes it, a “joyful gigue in 5/4 time.” Traditional gigues are in 6/8 time. Thinking in terms of dance, the latter would be one foot for three under-beats and the other for three under-beats. Cohn’s rhythm, however, has the first foot with TWO under-beats and the second with three. The off-kilter playfulness feels peg-leg.

The work’s main theme (a melisma around a G-note introduced by the flute) introduces itself slowly, but is soon off on a wild romp with a plunge into frantic pacing (Cohn’s term: a “shock cut”). The tune turns upside down, is rhythmically augmented and diminished, and dwells in varying harmonies. Its three sections contrast outer movement extroversion with an inner pensiveness. Cohn nods to the kind of jokes Papa Haydn played on his audiences when his bassoon enters well into the work on the same high C-note that famously launched Igor Stravinsky’s Sacra du Printemps, raising the eyebrows of audience recognition.

Aria for Winds wisely employs only the four most nimble winds, giving the mellow French horn the day off. Catherine Baker (flute), Zach Pulse (oboe), Kelsi Doolittle (clarinet), and Alex Rosales (bassoon) -- associated with USC’s School of Music  -- had their work cut out, but deftly conveyed both the work’s craftsmanship and its complex charms.

The Shumei program was joined by equally fine performances of two other wind pieces that worked well with Cohn’s piece: Francis Poulenc’s spicy Sextet for Winds and Piano, Op. 100, and the most well-known work of the otherwise neglected late nineteenth century composer, Ludwig Thuille, whose Sextet for Piano and Woodwinds in B-flat Major, Op. 6, was charming in its retro-Schumanesque way. Another historic curiosity was Franz Liszt’s luxuriant, forward-looking piano arrangement of Beethoven’s early song, “Adelaide.” Pianist Hedy Lee lent superb virtuosity to the super-charged fantasy of anachronistic harmonies and deliciously padded chords.

The earlier performed Aerial Perspectives at Chamber Music Palisades was written for flute (Susan Greenberg), viola (Scott Woolweaver), cello (Sarah Rommel), and piano (Delores Stevens). The work’s rondo-like construction, with its initial theme an alternation between the notes E and G, is expanded and varied in melodic content, instrumentation, tempo and rhythmic scale. The rondo theme, the main protagonist in this story, commences a musical journey and meets other themes, returning to reflect upon them. But it never quite returns the same. Perhaps more than any recent piece of Cohn, a seeming emotional struggle expresses a desire to breakaway from restraining bonds.

As with many of Cohn’s pieces, augmentation and diminution (varying speeds) and changing rhythms are prominent. The composer describes it, “The offering of material in different rhythmic scales and orchestrations gives an overview of its meaning, hence an 'aerial perspective'.” The title of the work seems to clue, perhaps, an uplifting intention to bravely face whatever path lies ahead.

These main points registered in performance, but the balance too strongly tilted in favor of the piano over the flute, and, it must be said, ensemble rhythms were occasionally unsteady on Aerial’s maiden flight. With time and a little more familiarity, however, the work could prove to be one of Cohn’s most compelling.

Cohn is a careful musical craftsman, and his pointillistic scores can have the look of Augenmusik (“eye-music”) in both graphics and formal plan. On first hearing, tricky rhythms and dense lines fly by so quickly, the ear struggles to fully absorb them. When seen in score, the composer’s intentions are more quickly clarified and the ear subsequently hears them. For those who don’t read scores, repeated performances will surely bear fruit, as with all music worthy of the name.