Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lesbians Who Conduct and Sing

The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) held their 10th anniversary gala concert at Herbst Theater last Saturday with a starry, ambitious program.

This was the first concert of the gay and lesbian community orchestra I had attended, partly out of musical snobbery, but was curious to hear whether the ensemble could perform Mahler's massive, difficult Symphony No. 1 without a train wreck.

Going to so many concerts, there are a few people you run into who become markers of taste. If I see Gene Nakajima (above, top right) at an SF Symphony concert, the chances are good that it will be especially interesting. Gene plays clarinet in BARS and had urged me over the years to check out his community orchestra.

Though it was a very tight fit, the orchestra somehow managed to cram close to 100 musicians onto the small Herbst Theatre stage, and not only did they perform the symphony without a disaster, but they managed to give a superb performance. The soft, high, ethereal opening of the Symphony No. 1 did not quite work, and I settled in for a long evening, but was happily surprised when the entire orchestra soon joined in and gave a committed, skillful performance for the next hour.

The last time I heard the work live was in 2010 with Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall and I walked out after the first movement because the tempos were so wrong and the playing sloppy, so it was a particular pleasure to hear this favorite symphony again done right. Much of the praise should go to Music Director Dawn Harms (above right with the concertmistress whose name I don't know). Harms plays viola professionally with the SF Opera Orchestra and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, but who knew she could conduct? There are a lot of cross-rhythms and moving parts in this symphony which can easily get muddy, so it was a joy to hear the clarity Harms and the orchestra brought to the music.

The second half of the program featured opera star Patricia Racette in a pair of songs from Kern's Showboat followed by four Edith Piaf songs with full orchestra.

Racette came out publicly as a lesbian in 2002, a brave career move at the time, and for years has been married to mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton (above left), who gave a speech about the evening's charity recipient, The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline for gay and lesbian teenagers.

In 2014, Racette sang in Showboat at the SF Opera and was very fine, but the happiest surprise of the evening were the Edith Piaf songs that followed, which fit Racette's current voice unusually well. The orchestrations were lush and well played by the orchestra, and Racette sounded relaxed and soulful, with wonderful French pronunciation thrown in besides. A lot of opera singers sound ridiculous performing popular songs, but Racette is an exception. Congratulations to her and to this community orchestra for sounding so good and taking music so seriously.

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