Saturday, February 02, 2008
Thomas Glenn Sings Vaughan Williams
Making a career as an opera singer is an insanely tricky, difficult business. In fact, it might almost be easier to just make up one's mind to become an internationally famous movie star instead. The San Francisco Opera has a series of professional coaching programs for auditioners from around the world, and the most prestigious is the Adler Fellows, who stick around San Francisco for two years singing large parts in small productions and small parts in large productions, which is how I discovered the Canadian tenor Thomas Glenn (above).
A few of the singers, such as the recent graduate Elza van den Heever, have a freakish vocal talent that is soon recognized by powerful music agents, but for the most part the Adler Fellows are on their own after their two years in the program. Their careers after that point are very much at the mercy of "la forza del destino" (the force of destiny), with timing, luck and connections usually making all the difference. In Thomas Glenn's case, his bit of karmic luck was covering the part of physicist Robert Wilson in the John Adams world premiere, "Doctor Atomic," in 2005. Not long before the opening, the singer essaying the part was "sadly and reluctantly" dismissed, and Glenn went on instead, where he had a great success. Two years later, the opera has just been performed in Amsterdam and Chicago, and later this fall it will be given its second staging in a new production being shared by the Met in New York and the English National Opera, and Glenn is very much part of the cast in a role he originated.
Glenn was the star at Friday's tribute to the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams on the anniversary of his death 50 years earlier at the acoustically beautiful Old First Church on Van Ness and Sacramento, which was sponsoring the 11th in a series of concerts called "Basically British." The concerts are the musical inspiration of the San Francisco Opera's Head of Music Staff, John Parr (above), who loves 20th Century British music.
According to the two gentlemen in the pew in front of me, the entire series has been beyond exquisite, and I feel slightly guilty about not having attended any of the earlier installments because I'm also partial to modern British music, particularly Benjamin Britten who has been a mainstay of the series. My excuse is that going to a chamber music concert in a church all by oneself feels more than a bit lonely, especially when one has a partner and friends who could care less about this kind of music.
Though I have an aversion to classical "art song" concerts, Friday evening turned out to be exquisite, partly because Thomas Glenn has such a distinctive voice, a very high and almost otherworldly tenor, and also because the half-dozen performers from the San Francisco Opera orchestra played chamber music with a passion that took my breath away.
They played the "Fantasia" movement from the Piano Quintet in C Minor with such beauty and passion that I put the music on my Amoeba list immediately, while wondering why they didn't play the entire piece. The performance was extraordinary, with extra props to the wildly expressive and sexy bass player Michael Taddei.
The program started off ascetically with "Six Studies in English Folksong" which the program warned us were "very melancholic," continued with a song cycle for violin and tenor called "Along the Field" to poems by A.E. Houseman, and finished off the first half with insanely Pre-Raphaelite lushness to a song cycle set to Dante Gabriel Rosetti poems called "The House of Life." The second half included the quintet excerpt and another Houseman song cycle for a piano quintet and tenor called "On Wenlock Edge" that was really wonderful. We all floated away from the church quite content.