Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Eun Sun Kim and the Adler Fellows

An email invitation to attend an onstage Major Announcement was sent out by the San Francisco Opera earlier this month.

The most viable guess for the drama was that the company was announcing a new Music Director. Lisa Hirsch (above right) speculated at the Iron Tongue of Midnight blog who the top four contenders might be (either Eun Sun Kim, James Gaffigan, Christopher Franklin, or Henrik Nánási), and one of her hunches was correct.

The 39-year-old Eun Sun Kim, who conducted Dvorak's Rusalka in her company debut last summer, was chosen, a decision ecstatically received by many in the orchestra, chorus, backstage crew, and management, not to mention the conductor herself.

San Francisco Opera didn't have a Music Director for its first sixty years, relying on guest conductors with overall music direction dictated by the company's two General Directors: founder Gaetano Merola (1923-1953), followed by Kurt Herbert Adler (1953-1981), with both conducting the occasional production. Merola died before I was born, but I did hear Adler conduct a number of times in the 1970s, sluggishly and with an authoritarian streak towards performers that became infamous. The Music Director position was created in 1985, filled by Sir John Pritchard, who was at the end of a long, distinguished career at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. He seemed bored by most of his assignments at the SF Opera, with a few notable exceptions such as an electrifying Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with Josephine Barstow, and he died in 1989 at the relatively early age of 68. The young, energetic and fabulously talented Donald Runnicles took the helm in 1992 for the next 17 years and the overall musical quality of both orchestra and chorus rose inestimably, while Runnicles' own conducting abilities seemed to grow with each year. His successor, Nicola Luisotti (2009-2018), was hired on the basis of a sensational conducting job on a production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, but just about everything after that felt like a slide downhill or inappropriate for his particular musical affinities.

The new General Director Matthew Shilvock made the announcement of Kim's appointment and filled in her biography briefly. She was born in 1980 in Seoul, South Korea where she studied composition at the Yonsei University. A professor was so impressed with her coaching a student production of La Boheme that he encouraged her to focus on conducting. She continued her studies in Germany, with a doctorate from the University of Music in Stuttgart. Her apprenticeship in various European opera houses began at Madrid's Teatro Real in 2008, and continued in houses throughout Germany.

In an onstage interview, she recounted the difficulty of her U.S. debut with a production of La Traviata at the Houston Grand Opera weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city in 2017. The production moved to an improvised pop-up theater in the George Brown Convention Center and Kim conducted the orchestra from behind the performers on a circular stage, rather like SF Opera's productions at Bill Graham during the opera house's 1996 earthquake retrofit. The experience went well enough that the company immediately named her Principal Guest Conductor.

During the audience interview portion, I asked her if she had any particular affinity for certain composers, and she declined to name any favorites. A few other questioners asked a variation on the same question and the response was the same, basically that whoever she is studying and conducting at the moment is her favorite.

The following evening, Shilvock introduced Kim to the audience at the annual Adler Fellows The Future Is Now concert, which she had long been scheduled to conduct. This grab-bag of scenas and arias seemed a good way to hear how she navigated composers from Handel to Bernstein.

Unfortunately, she was faced with the same dilemma as in Houston, conducting the large SF Opera orchestra on the small Herbst Theatre stage with singers at her back, which necessitated a lot of neck-twisting and contortions to keep everyone together. (Production photos are by Kristen Loken.)

Within these constraints, she did a remarkable job of conducting, starting off with the best live rendition of Bernstein's Candide Overture that I have ever heard, making it sound more seriously soulful than satirical hijinks. Her Verdi was very good, she doesn't get Mozart at all (it's surprising how many great conductors share that blind spot), her Handel was pulsing and sublime, and her Puccini was extraordinary. Tenor SeokJong Back sang a very creditable Recondita armonia from Tosca and the orchestral accompaniment was so richly colorful that it made me reassess my boycott of Puccini operas.

The Adler program is a two-year residency at the SF Opera, performing smaller roles and covering lead singers, for young musicians about to make their way into a professional career. My favorite performer of the evening was graduating baritone Christopher Pursell who was all Russian brooding in an aria from Rachmaninoff's obscure opera, Aleko, and then sang a funny, swaggering bit of bragadaccio about war and women from another obscurity, Thomas' comic French opera Le caïd.

The programming for these annual Adler concerts has always been weird, with operatic standards in every language surrounded by obscure French fluff. After intermission, for instance, we were offered arias from a Rossini French opera (Le Comte Ory), Massenet's Cendrillon and Le Cid, Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Ete, Thomas's Le caïd, and Donizetti's French opera La Fille du Regiment (pictured above, with soprano Natalie Image doing a good job rallying the troops).

Other favorite moments were first-year tenor Zhengyi Bai singing Le Postillon de Lonjumeau by Adam, a funny piece where a handsome young postman is plucked for his qualities by a queen to be king. First-year Adlers, soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley as Elisabetta and Christopher Colmenero as Don Carlo, have huge, rich voices which they demonstrated in a duet from Verdi's Don Carlo. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen astonished everyone the first time he opened his mouth as a Merolini three years ago, and he continued astonishing with a gloomy aria from Handel's Siroe.

Good luck to all of them in their careers, and welcome, Eun Sun Kim, to the San Francisco Opera. May the union between company and music director be a harmonious one.

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