Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The San Francisco Conservatory Baroque Ensemble

A couple of weekends ago, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music offered two free performances with alternating student casts of Handel's great 1724 opera, "Julius Caesar in Egypt," which involves lots of political machinations between Julius, Cleopatra, her brother Ptolemy, and various other characters who are either suicidal in despair or wildly in love with the wrong person.

This offers opportunities for hours of astonishingly beautiful music which was written primarily for castrati (gelded boy sopranos who grew up into superstars), and which is now performed mostly by sopranos and male singers with the score transposed downwards.

We arrived about forty minutes before the performance at the Conservatory's newish campus on Oak Street near Van Ness, and managed to get first dibs on seats in what turned out to be a full house.

The beautiful 450-seat concert hall used to be the Grand Ballroom of the old International Center, which was primarily used as an athletic club for decades. Though the acoustics are a little dodgy because of the high ceilings, the size and aesthetics are perfect for a small concert hall.

We only stayed for the first act because the costumes and and stage direction by Erica Schuller were hilariously awful, with some of the worst choral and supernumerary blocking I've ever seen on a stage. As my friend Charlie put it, Cleopatra performed as if she had wandered in from the "You've Gotta Have a Gimmick" number in a roadshow production of "Gypsy," and Tolomeo's bald pate along with his/her comically evil expressions were straight out of a Coneheads skit. Ms. Schuller might be wanting to consider a different career path.

In total contrast, the student orchestra known as the San Francisco Conservatory Baroque Ensemble were so good that they compared favorably to any Baroque musical performance I've heard up the street at the San Francisco Opera, Symphony, or Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. There was a liveliness and passion mixed in with exact playing that's rare to hear.
The group is led by Elisabeth Reed and Corey Jameson, who conducted the "Caesar" performance magnificently. The ensemble will be playing a free concert on Wednesday, April 21st, at 8:00 PM (click here for more info), and I seriously recommend going out of your way to hear them.

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