Tuesday, July 23, 2013

We Are Young...Musicians

Young musicians seem to be in training all over San Francisco this summer, including the San Francisco Opera's Merola program, where a couple of dozen aspiring opera singers are selected from around the world for an intense period of instruction and performance. They are housed at the homes of Merola donors around town and also given a small stipend to live on. At the end of the summer, a handful are chosen to be Adler Fellows, which involves a two or three year apprenticeship with the San Francisco Opera, singing smaller roles on the main stage and being coached by the staff there. Classical music is a competitive, grueling business and most will not make a living in professional performance, but their determination is fascinating to watch.

The Schwabacher Summer Concert last Thursday at Everett Middle School in the Castro featured eight Merola singers performing long scenes from famous operas. The performers were mostly confined to a tiny strip downstage in front of a full-sized orchestra conducted by Kevin Murphy. Half of them were good enough that they sounded ready to move on to the next professional level, including mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede above left and baritone Alex DeSocio above right. Not only did they have gorgeous voices, but both transcended schtick-filled staging in scenes from L'Italiana in Algeri and Don Carlo. (Schwabacher photos by Kristen Loken.)

Part of the appeal of these concerts for the predominantly elderly audience is watching stars being born, and this year there were two standouts, with Issachah Savage above right singing the title role in the fourth act of Verdi's Otello creditably. Pene Pati above left sang Edgardo's big tenor aria in Lucia di Lammermoor with a voice so huge and pretty that he will soon be singing lead roles in opera houses around the world. I just hope that the two of them take care and don't wreck their voices with too much oversinging in difficult roles, like Otello for instance.

The local American Bach Soloists organization, led by conductor and music director Jeffrey Thomas, held their fourth annual Festival & Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music over the last ten days. It is an interesting mix of professional Baroque music specialists and paying students, performing and coaching side by side. The schedule is filled with master classes, lectures, chamber concerts, two performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor, along with another major early music vocal work, which in this year's case was Handel's first English oratorio, Esther. The festival seems to be growing in stature and popularity quickly, with most of the weekend concerts this year selling out.

The half professional, half student original instruments orchestral playing Friday evening in Esther was superb and seamless. The dozen student singers were more variable but overall quite good. There are five tenor roles in Esther, and all five of them were excellent, so let's call this the Summer of the Tenors. I particularly liked Jon Lee Keenan as Ahasuerus (not pictured) and Jason Rylander above right as Mordecai. Kyle Stegall above left was particularly entrancing as the 1st Israelite, with a light, fluid, flexible tenor perfect for Handel. May his career prosper and San Francisco see him again soon.

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