WHEN HE DIDN’T GET THE SUPPORT a motivated young musician needs, Paris-born Michel Singher changed his life’s direction. At Harvard, instead of music he majored in history and literature. Fleeing France after the Nazi invasion the family immigrated to the US. The son of successful Metropolitan Opera baritone Martial Singher and grandson of famous German conductor Fritz Busch, the younger Singher, as a teen, played piano to accompany his father and joined him at the Aspen and Marlboro music festivals. That was when he was discouraged from seeking a professional career in music.
But the calling remained strong and, with scholarships in hand, he “caught up some on his conservatory training.” He attended the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart, then Indiana University where he earned a Master’s degree with “High Honors” in Instrumental Conducting.
After a long career as a professional conductor, much of it on the West Coast and in the SF Bay Area, he and his artist wife, Elizabeth Kaminski, retired to Felton in 2005. After a hiatus from actively doing what he loved to do, he decided to establish Espressivo, “a small intense orchestra.” He told me, “It was not to make a point, but rather to make good music with a number of players between chamber music and chamber orchestra, with a dozen or so musicians.” Espressivo’s two concerts so far in this inaugural season have demonstrated a very high level of professionalism.
Their program this Thursday at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz will test that standard to an even higher level. It includes a staged version of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and opens with Schoenberg’s early Pierrot Lunaire, a “melodrama” which calls for solo “Sprechstimme,” a cross between singing and speaking, whose roots grew out of his earlier cabaret songs.
Why these two works by major 20th century masters who displayed little admiration for one another? “They were composed about five years apart, bracketing World War I,” Singher says. That war has inspired many centennial recollections; this is one of them. The Schoenberg came first. “It was fin de siècle, decadent, expressionistic,” he says, adding “It was the solar plexus of the mind at the start of the 20th century.” With Pierrot Lunaire (in moonlight), “Perhaps lunar plexus,” he jokes. Then there’s “the understated, cubist L’Histoire, about a soldier returning from the war.”
These two works illustrate the profound impact the war had on 20th century music, divergent influences that would be felt well into the 1960s and up to the emergence of minimalism.
Singher began his fulltime professional career in music in 1966, at the Hamburg State Opera where he was rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor. Over a 12-year period he conducted many orchestras and in opera houses in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, numbering hundreds of performances. During summers, he acquired additional experience as assistant to Maurice Abravanel at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Once repatriated to the US permanently, in his late 30s, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington, then the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In both positions, in addition to teaching conducting, he was music director of the symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, and opera. Highlights of his Oberlin years included the inception and organization of an all-encompassing, multi-media Alban Berg Festival (1985) in collaboration with Oberlin College and the Oberlin Museum. He took the Oberlin Orchestra to Lincoln Center for a Beethoven Society concert, and several of his concerts were broadcast on NPR’s Performance Today series.
In the ‘70s, Singher became music director of the Mid-Columbia Symphony in eastern Washington State and repeatedly conducted both the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Spokane Symphony. His career with opera companies has included Anchorage, Boise, Buffalo, Denver, Grand Rapids, Juneau, Tallahassee, Tucson/Phoenix, and at the Music Academy of the West. He has conducted several productions for West Bay Opera, and earlier this season prepared that company’s Rigoletto. He enlisted Daniel Helfgot as his partner running the opera program at San Jose State between 2005 and 2010. In 2006 he conducted two performances of La traviata at Opera San Jose.
While Stravinsky’s L’Histoire “goes down pretty easy nowadays,” the Schoenberg will challenge his musicians. Only concertmaster Roy Malan and clarinetist Peter Josheff have previously performed the work. Meanwhile, Singher gave two Osher Lifelong Learning lectures on Pierrot at Peace United Church recently. “They were completely into it,” he says of the enrollees. “It became as clear as a Schubert song or a Bach passion oratorio.”
Singher has already announced Espressivo’s next program, in October, including Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Janáček’s Concertino featuring pianist John Orlando, and Schubert’s Octet for Winds and Strings. For March 2017, he’s eyeing Yankee composers.
Photo by Susan Hillyard