Music at Kohl Mansion

By Janos Gereben

PERFORMING ARTS organizations trying to cope with the challenges of pandemic times rarely stick to their usual format … and then there is Music at Kohl Mansion. It is unusual in maintaining the usual. The current 38th season presenting ensembles from around the world seems similar to “normal” seasons, except for virtual presentations replacing live concerts in Burlingame’s enchanting mansion.

Music at Kohl Mansion Executive Director Patricia Kristof Moy calls the season a realization of “our core belief that the arts are essential to the health of our communities at all times. We are determined to play a key role as ‘second responders’ in providing relief and comfort through easily accessible, affordable virtual programming this season, and to preserving the vitality of our music community by supporting and promoting artists who have lost so much in the past year.”

There is an element of persistence and recycling in that all the ensembles were originally booked to perform live this season, having been booked before the pandemic, and Moy is “thrilled that each one of these brave artists has enthusiastically embraced the virtual medium.”

Moy also sees a silver lining, “some advantages to offering online broadcasts, including the ability to serve a global audience, the opportunity to provide ‘encore’ performances, which we cannot do in our live seasons, and the surprisingly personal and intimate visits to our artists’ hometown venues around the world.”

Individual tickets for all five programs in 2021 are now on sale, priced at $20 per household, with a “Buy Four, Get One More” promotion through Jan. 28. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) Box Office, (650) 762-1130. Each concert includes a preperformance talk by musicologist Kai Christiansen.

“The shooting locations of our Virtual Season 38 are a source of special interest to us,” says Moy. “The historic Teldex Studio in Berlin, site of multiple Grammy-award-winning classical, pop, and rock recordings (Fauré Quartett, streamed on Nov. 1 and 5); Goodwin Recital Hall at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (Amit Peled, streamed on Nov. 15 and 19); our very own Great Hall at Kohl Mansion (Alexander String Quartet). We have some surprises in store for the rest of this season’s shooting locations that will offer some lovely discoveries.”

Music at Kohl Mansion continues the season with its local mainstay, the Alexander String Quartet (pictured above), on Jan. 24 (repeated on Jan. 28) — first concerts begin at 7 p.m., the repeat at 6 p.m. The only ensemble Kohl presents regularly, a baker’s dozen since 1993, the Alexander has also been visiting local middle and high schools in San Mateo County as part of the Kohl for Kids/Music in Schools Program.

The program will be part of the quartet’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Opus 130. This concert will be one of the last performances to hear the quartet perform with founding violist Paul Yarbrough, who has announced his retirement this season. Fred Lifsitz, Alexander second violinist, told SF Classical Voice:

By definition a performing ensemble thrives and grows through its relationship with a live audience. This year has felt like the “year of the pen pal” in terms of reaching our audience though virtual means. It has, in a profound way, made us all aware of the very strong and precious bond we have formed over decades with our friends at MAKM.

The great support and ability to continue to share the musical works we all treasure with our audience — and to receive so much generous feedback —has helped us keep our eyes, ears and hearts set on the day, not too far off, when we will gather together in the same Great Hall at Kohl Mansion to experience the vibrations of Mozart, Beethoven, and others, together with dear friends. Keeping our eyes on that prize.”

The Maxwell Quartet follows on Feb. 28 (repeated on March 4), with Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Opus 106, and a selection of Scottish folk songs. The ensemble was formed in 2010 in Glasgow, Scotland, and has won prizes in many competitions, including the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition.

“I happened to be in New York at the time of the U.S. debut of the Maxwell Quartet, and after hearing the quartet’s very first North American concert [at the famed Schneider Concerts at the Mannes School of Music] in early January 2019, I booked them on the spot,” says Moy.

“Little did we suspect that all touring would abruptly end just 14 months later, making their live Music at Kohl appearance impossible. Known for infusing their concerts with the sounds and sights of their native Scotland, the Maxwells will treat us to some of their favorite Scottish folk tunes, and will wear their customary kilts, of course.”

Originally founded by the Ying siblings in 1988, the Ying Quartet performs on March 14 (repeated on March 18), playing Smetana’s String Quartet in E Minor, From My Life; Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade in G Major; and Giacomo Puccini’s I Crisantemi (The chrysanthemums).

Moy’s comment: “I am personally fascinated by family ensembles. The Ying Quartet is a favorite — originally four siblings, now three sibs.” (After the retirement of Timothy Ying as first violinist Robin Scott joined the quartet in 2016.)

The French-Belgian Quatour Danel with clarinetist Pascal Moraguès gives a concert on April 11 (repeated on April 15), playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581, and and other work to be announced.

“Being French,” says Moy, “I’m proud to have introduced superb French chamber musicians to our audiences in the past: Quatuor Parisii, 2006; Quatuor Modigliani, 2007; Paris Piano Trio, 2008. It’s been almost a dozen years since our last concert by a French ensemble, and we jumped at the chance to offer the celebrated French Quatuor Danel, after several years of trying to find a date that worked for them. And as a bonus, we will be treated to Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Quintet with the principal clarinetist of the Orchestre de Paris, Pascal Moraguès.”

Another family ensemble, the Horszowski Trio, is scheduled for May 9 (repeated on May 13), with a program of the Sibelius Piano Trio in C Major (“Lovisa”), and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major, Opus 99.

“I’m always fascinated by the dynamics of familiarity, such as the Ying Quartet, in these small, intimate musical ensembles” says Moy, “and the Horszowski Trio, whose founding violinist and pianist are husband and wife. Both groups are beloved at Kohl.” The trio takes its inspiration from the late piano master, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, whose last pupil at the Curtis Institute was Rieko Aizawa, the Trio’s founding pianist.

Since its debut performance in New York in 2011, the Horszowski Trio has toured extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Critically acclaimed by Gramophone as “the most compelling American group to come on the stage,” and hailed by The Boston Globe for its “eloquent and enthralling” performances, the ensemble traverses the extensive oeuvre of traditional piano trio repertory as well as commissioning and premiering new music.

Horszowski Trio violinist Jesse Mills comments on their appearance:

“The Horszowski Trio is honored to be performing once again for Music at Kohl Mansion this Spring. We are appreciative that we can share our music with their audience virtually this time, given the circumstances.

Of course, we are aching to connect again in a live format, and the vaccines are extremely exciting because we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, but for now we need to be patient and respectful of this deadly virus.

We marvel at the possibilities given to us by technology, and we are excited to share these two wonderful works by Sibelius and Schubert, which are joyful, uplifting and colorful! Perfect for an optimistic springtime for all of us.”


A Trump opera?

By Joshua Kosman

LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I watched the first presidential debate last week in numbed dismay. All the national horrors of the past four years — the mendacity, the moral degradation, the heedless, wanton destructiveness — seemed to have been compressed into 90 minutes of unwatchable and unavoidable television.

And I thought: What could an opera composer make of a scene like this?

The question kept recurring during the frenzied and implausible days that followed, as Trump announced a positive test for the coronavirus, checked into Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment, then checked himself out again. The debate, the ensuing medical drama, indeed the entire Trump presidency, might seem at first glance to be ripe for an operatic interpretation. There was something undeniably theatrical about the proceedings, so why not add vocal music to the soundtrack?

We’re accustomed, after all, to think of the opera house as a place where larger-than-life conflicts play out, amid crashing orchestral textures and powerful vocal exertions. And the standard operatic repertoire offers a broad array of deep-dyed villains, among whom Trump might seem to be well at home.

There is, most notably, Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” the corrupt Roman police chief who uses his political power not only to root out dissidents, but also to line his own pockets and commit sexual assault. There is the blind, but apparently all-seeing, Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” who sits in the shadows and creates Machiavellian schemes of chilling ruthlessness, or the malicious Iago in the same composer’s “Otello.” There’s Alberich, the malevolent dwarf in Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, for whom love is expendable but the thirst for power is unquenchable.

Perhaps even closer to the mark is Nekrotzar, the self-styled emperor of death in György Ligeti’s surrealist comic masterpiece “Le Grand Macabre,” which had its US premiere in 2004 at the San Francisco Opera. Pompous, humorless and self-infatuated, Nekrotzar rises from the grave with an apocalyptic mission to spread death and destruction throughout the world, only to be thwarted by the life-enhancing forces of music, sex, alcohol and fearless resistance.

These are all bass and baritone roles, because the operatic tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries has taught us to associate villainy with the deep, rumbling sound of the low male voice. But there’s room to cast Trump in the guise of a reedy, high-flying countertenor as well (a few years ago, the Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata assembled a recital disc devoted to music for the bad guys in Handel’s operas).

I don’t think the debate itself would lend itself to musical treatment — for one thing, opera singers need to be able to take a breath — but it isn’t hard to envision how a composer and librettist might press some of the more outlandish episodes of our day into a lyric scenario. “He was a war hero because he was captured; I prefer people who weren’t captured” is an aria waiting to happen. A news conference or rally monologue could become a mad scene shot through with menace.

For those who believe that an operatic Trump would confer unwarranted nobility on him, or somehow whitewash his misdeeds and those of his administration, there exists an interesting precedent. “Nixon in China,” John Adams’ 1987 depiction of the former president’s meeting with Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1972, has faced similar criticism.

In the years since its premiere, “Nixon” — which combines a tenacious and wondrously expressive score with Alice Goodman’s hauntingly poetic libretto — has claimed its rightful place as one of the landmarks of late 20th century opera (the San Francisco Opera’s belated premiere in 2012 only cemented the case).

Yet, at the time, the entire project, initiated in a spirit of contrarian brilliance by director Peter Sellars, seemed both absurd and politically tone-deaf. Nixon was — at least for the wing of the political spectrum best represented in the world of opera — an embodiment of everything that was most corrupt and reprehensible in American life, and to transmute him into an operatic character struck many observers as an unjustified rehabilitation.

That argument still carries some weight, but it’s made more intricate by the nuance and psychological heft of the work that resulted. “Nixon in China” is a far cry from the historical operas of the 18th century, in which faceless rulers from Roman imperial history were fitted out with whatever characteristics would suit the story (or would most effectively flatter the composers’ own patrons).

The title character in “Nixon” is recognizably the same person many of us watched on the evening news: sweaty, duplicitous, simultaneously power-mad and deeply insecure. Yet the opera teases out a rich and often affecting inner emotional life for him, created out of a combination of subtle insight and artistic invention.

Does anyone believe that something similar could be achieved in the case of Donald Trump? Because this is where the notion of a putative Trump opera, for all its possible theatrical vividness, comes crashing to the ground.

I would never want to rule out the possibility of an artistic rendering before an actual artist had taken a stab at it, but it’s difficult to imagine what moral or psychological material any operatic creators could find to work with here. Like Alberich and Iago before him, Nixon had a certain dramatic complexity that lent some potential human interest to his story. Trump has none.

Which means that the answer to my original question — what could an opera composer do with all this? — may well be a dispiriting “Nothing at all.” This could be one of those cases where the events of real life, in all their tawdry, Technicolor absurdity, will have to stand on their own.