San Francisco Opera Refrain 2021-22 Evaluation: Farewell Live performance for Ian Robertson

It was an intimate setting for a choir, the Taube Atrium Theater in San Francisco. Rows of benches slanted on either side of the polished grand piano, which stood like grand pianos. Thirty-five choir members, all dressed in black, took their places in a solemn procession. Ian Robertson, San Francisco Chorus Master, and Fabrizio Corona, Associate Chorus Master, followed.

It was immediate and personal, but far from informal. The entire performance was sovereign in its polished performance. It was festive and bittersweet as the choir bid farewell to Ian Robertson after his 35-year tenure. This concert was full of miracles.

The concert spanned 300 years of music, from excerpts from Charpentier’s “Te Deum” and Bach’s “Wohl mir, das ich Jesum” from Cantata BWV 147 to Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” from “Candide”. It included choices in Latin, French, German, Spanish, English; Opera from Handel and Mozart to Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini; Poetry; Folk songs and much more. The moods ranged from devout to a little salty, melancholy to happy, each piece its own island of beauty and commentary, the texts projected onto a large wall that worked smoothly and effectively. Who could ask for more?

A lively leader

Ian Robertson conducted and related his attunement to the audience, the content and style of the music, and the choir members and accompanist Fabrizio Contorno created a performance narrative that remained both interesting and aesthetic. No wonder the San Francisco Opera Chorus performed so well during the years of Ian Robertson’s tenure. It was the perfect combination of leadership, music and performance.

The soloists and choir members worked in perfect harmony. Clare Demer, Sara Colburn, Whitney Steele, Andrew Truett, Mitchell Jones offered a rich and beautiful start to the concert with the “Te Deum”. Thomas and Demer have reproduced selections from “Idomeneo” and “L’Elisir d’Amore” with extraordinary finesse. Michael Jankosky delivered a touching Edgardo from “Lucia di Lammermoor”. The choir supplemented this with a moving performance of the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, which was sung especially to commemorate the many losses caused by the pandemic.

This was followed by colorful portraits of “Noi siamo zingarelle” and “Di Madride noi siamo mattadori” from Verdi’s “La Traviata”. To highlight these, as Robertson and Contorno did, was to highlight just a few of the varied textures that a great opera like “La Traviata” contains. They remind us that it’s not just the centerpieces that make it shine. The well-known choir “Va, Pensiero” from Verdi’s “Nabucco” ended the first half.

Putting women composers in the spotlight

The second half was great with repertoire choices, especially with a number of female composers. While choirs from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” started, the moving chorus of “Dead Soldiers” by Jennifer Higdon, “Cold Mountain”, set the tone with haunting lyrics to Civil War dead with a men chorus. In addition to Jennifer Higdon, we heard works by Joan Szymko, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kate Rusby and Cava Menzies, whose “Invitation to Love”, based on a wonderful poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, premiered. Menzies, who was present, got up to bow. The music was rich and original, the lyrics moving and captivating. The future was there, unfolding, and it was right.

Among the soloists we heard Kathleen Bayler, soprano, and Phillip Pickens, tenor, in a Picante duet “Bailèro” from Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne”; and Angela Moser, Silvie Jensen, Alan Cochran, Mitchell Jones, who perform Ravel’s delightful “Trois Chansons”. This was followed by Joan Szymko’s “All Works of Love” with texts by Mother Teresa, which inspired the reflective strand of the concert, which was interwoven throughout.

A wonderful contrast followed when Michael Belle sang “We’re goin ’round'” from “Treemonisha” by Scott Joplin, which made us want to hear more. The “mountain songs” of the Peruvian Andes came after that and were only sung by the women. They were complex in their rhythms and rendered breathtakingly. Elizabeth Baker, mezzo-soprano, did more than justice to Underneath the Stars, composed by Kate Rusby and arranged by Jim Clements.

Before the “Candide” finale, Matthew Shilvock, General Manager of the San Francisco Opera, gave a formal “Ave” and “Atque Vale (Hail and Farewell)” to Robertson. It was graceful and graceful, listing the 2,000 performances and over 375 productions that Robertson mastered. Shilvock also commended Robertson for creating a family of singers, each with a passion for excellence. Even the happy audience felt the authenticity.

“Make our Garden Grow”, a lyrical interpretation by the well-known American poet Richard Wilbur of Voltaire’s famous “Il faut que nous cultivar notre jardin” was the “Pièce de résistance”. Jesslynn Thomas, Chester Pidduck, Claire Kelm, William O’Neill and Wilford Kelly said goodbye to us wonderfully. This is a good reminder for today – in the world where we seek to be connected, we sometimes push boundaries.

We left the theater, enriched by this diversity of talent and imagination, and we were filled with gratitude shared by Ian Robertson and the San Francisco Chorus as we have so many seasons. Hats off to the conductor, accompanist and all the performers in the group.

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