Monday, November 17, 2014

Rapunzel Lets Down Her Hair at BluePrint

Conductor and professor Nicole Paiement presented a rich, theatrical, fascinating concert last Saturday as part of her BluePrint contemporary music series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The evening started with the first scene from Lou Harrison's foray into twelve-tone vocal writing in his 1953 opera Rapunzel. It's an adaptation of a poem abstracted from the fairy tale by the 19th century poet/designer/political philosopher William Morris, and it was so interesting I wish that Paiement and singers Cara Gabrielson, Mariya Kaganskaya and Sergey Khalikulov had continued through the whole hour-long opera.

Instead, we heard what was billed as a world premiere of Natural Systems by the 31-year-old composer John Glover with lyrics by Kelley Rourke above. The theme was the early 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus and his system of naming nature.

The orchestral writing was skittish, propulsive and absorbing while the vocal writing struck me as underwhelming. Baritone Daniel Cilli above gave a very good performance, though, with excellent diction and theatrical flair in the recited sections.

After intermission we were treated to a flute concerto called Terrestre by Finnish composer Kaiha Saariaho.

This was the only piece on the program without text so BluePrint decided to create a ballet on one side of the stage to keep it theatrical with dancers Dudley Flores and Vanessa Thiessen performing choreography by KT Nelson.

The dancing was charming but they were consistently upstaged by the extraordinary performance of flute soloist Bethanne Walters above. The entire chamber orchestra of two harps, a violin, cello, and percussion accompanying her were also top-notch.

The final piece was another take on the Rapunzel story by the recently deceased Conservatory professor Conrad Susa. It was taken from his most successful composition, a 1973 opera called Transformations that musically illustrates a series of poems telling twisted versions of classic fairy tales by the defiantly neurotic poet Anne Sexton. I had forgotten how dark the story of Rapunzel is. A prince tries to rescue a princess in a tower imprisoned by a witch, but he's foiled by the old crone and is blinded by thorns as he falls to the ground from the tower. Years, maybe decades later, he hears Rapunzel singing, calls to her, and her tears at his condition fall on his eyes and cure his blindness. In the Sexton version, the relationship between Witch and Princess is explicitly a May/December lesbian love affair that ends unhappily when the princess dumps her for a male prince.

San Francisco Opera used to have a spring opera season where they would perform offbeat, sometimes contemporary operas in smaller houses like the Curran Theater and the Palace of Fine Arts. Transformations was one of the operas they gave in the 1970s/1980s, and I remember it being very successful on its own terms, with lots of interesting vocal music for eight singers and a jazz-style chamber orchestra. It's a perfect piece for student ensembles and surprising that it's not performed more often.

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