Another benefit by Frederica von Stade, another quirky, terrific program,
another world premiere: ho-hum. Ah, but there is good news tonight. Da
Voice! Da Voice! Us mortals - the lucky ones - may age, but apparently
Flicka is immune. Even in a huge, barn-like church with a triple echo, her
voice came across clearly, with all the warmth, the legato, the magnificent
soaring quality of 10 or 20 years ago. She also looks sensational, making
a simple white blouse (a man's shirt?) appear as elegant as any gown.
There is just no end to Flicka's work for good causes... or to her
participation in the creation and performance of "new and unusual" music.
Her contribution today, in a series of decades-long benefit concerts,
covered all that ground, and then some. It was - ready? - the Sonos
Handbell Ensemble's "Runaway Child: The Life and Stowaway Adventures of
Isaac Albeniz," in San Francisco's First Unitarian Church (a handsome
place, but the pits for voice - spoken or sung).
Sonos artistic director James Meredith researched the life of Albeniz (who
did run away from a life of child virtuoso, a teen stowaway from Spain to
Cuba and Latin America), compiled and transcribed works for this musical
Not only did Flicka lend her name to the event, but she sang through the
concert, sitting in the audience for the all-orchestral segments. She
started in a low key, with four Sephardic romances in Ladino - "Dime
Rozina," "Nani, Nani," "Morenica a mi me llaman," and "Durme, Durme"
(that's "sleep, sleep") - singing with utmost simplicity befitting the
material, the voice in wonderful shape, except for faltering on one high
note toward the end (and never again through the two-hour concert).
Five songs from Ginastera's "Canciones Populares" followed - "Chacarena,"
Flicka hitting one of the event's highlights in "Triste," "Zamba,"
"Arrorro" (a deeply felt lullaby), and laser-beam projection against the
handbells at their rowdiest in "Gato," in which a cat tapdances on a "pine
guitar with chords of steel."
The concert's musical-vocal highlight came in two of de Falla's "Siete
Canciones Populares Espanolas" - "Asturiana" and love-cursing "Polo,"
Flicka hitting the high notes with full force while maintaining the line
of melody and her usual examplary diction.
And then: a world premiere, Libby Larsen's "Hell's Belles," four songs
to quirky text, for mezzo and a five-octave handbell ensemble, one of the
concert's attractions... and only disappointment. Larsen composed some
fine music 20 years ago, but lately, I don't hear much *music* in her
works. And so it was this time: sparse accompaniment to the voice,
low-key sound effects, a soundtrack, not music that you can either identify
as such or remember in any way. Instead of minimalist music, this is a
minimum of music. Flicka, of course, had a field day with quotes from
Talulah Bankhead, Billy Jean King and Gertrude Stein, the full text of
"When I am an old woman" (improvising an added "and wear glasses" to
wearing purple as she slipped on some reading glasses), and a song (?)
written to an interview with Armor Keller, creator of The Magic City Golden
Transit, a.k.a. an over-decorated 1980 Toyota station wagon. All this
could have easily become tiresomely precious in other hands - but Flicka
made the text work, even without music.
Meredith, also director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus and of Olivia
Stapp's Festival Opera Chorus, has done an amazing job in developing Sonos.
The orchestral selections - especially Albeniz's "Preludio" ("Asturias"),
"Cordoba" and "Seguidillas" and Moszkowski's "Bolero" - were valid musical
performances, not curiosity pieces you'd expect from, well, handbells.
I'll be on the lookout for the new opera "Gaia Sophia," which has a major
part for Sonos.
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