"Time heals all wounds -- and wounds all heels," as Groucho Marx famously quipped, is a phrase that seems particularly apt with regard to 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber, who lived from 1910 to 1981. Despite winning two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his 1958 opera, "Vanessa," and another in 1963 for his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Barber was roundly denounced by the contemporary music hard-liners of his time, a group that included both composers and music academics, as being a "hopeless conservative, shameless neo-Romantic and lushly tonal panderer." Many, including some of my own professors, labeled his music "too pretty."
According to Mark Streshinsky, the innovative general director of Berkeley's West Edge Opera, the passage of time can indeed make a difference in how works of art are perceived. Says Streshinsky, "These days, we have consigned the harsh atonal compositions of the mid-20th century to the archives," adding that today, most audiences "are delighted to experience the intense lyrical beauty of Barber's music." (Barber is also the composer of one of classical music's biggest hits, the ravishing "Adagio for Strings.")
Bay Area audiences can decide for themselves by taking in one of the two semi-staged performances of Barber's "Vanessa," to be presented at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday by West Edge Opera in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., in downtown Berkeley.
"Vanessa" was inspired by Danish writer Isak Dinesen's (aka Karen Blixen) "Seven Gothic Tales." It is a sort of Nordic "noir" story of a beautiful, but aging, neurotic woman who has retreated to the solitude of her mansion to await the improbable return of Anatol, her married lover from 20 years before. Vanessa's only companions in the mansion are her difficult, highly judgmental mother, the Baroness, and Erika, her naive young niece.
Amid a great deal of beautiful, emotionally provocative music, abetted by Gian Carlo Menotti's lyrical English libretto, an Anatol finally does appear at the mansion -- but it is to inform its residents of the death of his father, Vanessa's original Anatol. A triangle ensues when Vanessa chooses to consider the young man her original Anatol, and Anatol seduces Erika, who in turn, becomes pregnant. Young Anatol becomes besotted with Vanessa, and the two go off together. Erika aborts the baby, and fate compels her to assume the solitary role formerly filled by Vanessa, with only the imperious Baroness as company.
The semi-staged production will feature Marie Plette singing the role of Vanessa; Jonathan Boyd, Anatol; Nikola Printz, Erika; Malin Fritz, the Baroness; Philip Skinner, the Doctor; Timothy Beck, the Major Domo; and Calvin Wall, the Footman. Jonathan Khuner will conduct a 30-piece orchestra as well as members of Berkeley's Chora Nova.
Tickets, $35 to $125, are available at 510-841-1903 or www.westedgeopera.org.
ALL ABOUT BACH: The American Bach Soloists, under the leadership of Jeffrey Thomas, is gearing up for its 25th anniversary with an entire season celebrating the mastery of Johann Sebastian Bach, during which rarely heard compositions will be programmed alongside more familiar masterworks. All the concerts will feature the American Bach Choir along with the orchestra, which features some of the world's most virtuosic early period instrument players.
The season opener will be an ABS gala dubbed "Silver Soiree" at 5 p.m. Saturday at St. Stephen's Church, 3 Bayview Ave. in Belvedere, where ABS was founded in 1989. The event will feature a festive concert as well as fine wine and dining, and a fundraising auction.
ABS will return to Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill in San Francisco for its annual performances of Handel's "Messiah" on Dec. 11 and 12, as well as an additional performance in the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis on Dec. 15. The annual Christmas concert will be held on Dec. 14 and will feature the virtuoso Baroque trumpeter John Thiessen in two Bach cantatas as well as a selection of carols and works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Rutter, Howells, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's own David Conte.
Additional concerts will be given in January, February and April at locations in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco and Davis. The 2014 ABS Summer Festival, titled "Bach's Inspiration," will be from July 11 through July 20 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Subscriptions range from $64 to $243 and single tickets from $20 to $94. Call 415-621-7900 or go to www.americanbach.org.
Contact Cheryl North at firstname.lastname@example.org.