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October brings performance ensembles

by Philip Campbell

LEFT: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale music director Nicholas McGegan is retiring after nearly 35 years leading PBO. Photo: Courtesy PBO    RIGHT: Bard Music West's festival celebrates Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. Photo: Courtesy of the National Digital Archives of Poland
LEFT: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale music director Nicholas McGegan is retiring after nearly 35 years leading PBO. Photo: Courtesy PBO RIGHT: Bard Music West's festival celebrates Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. Photo: Courtesy of the National Digital Archives of Poland  

Two Bay Area institutions, well-established Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) and youthfully ambitious Bard Music West (BMW), are ready to light some musical bonfires in October. Since the gala openings of the San Francisco Symphony and SF Opera post-Labor Day, autumn concerts keep building momentum. The only downside is the mid-month start of both PBO's season opener "A Cosmic Notion" and BMW's weekend festival "The World of Grazyna Bacewicz." Personal taste and interests may help decide choosing between the events or planning multiple attendances.

Known as one of the best and biggest historical performance ensembles in America, PBO celebrates the amazing tenure of music director Nicholas McGegan, who is retiring after nearly 35 years. His last season, called "Reflections," sums up the maestro's Northern California career, with music from Baroque to Classical and Romantic, to a commission by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.

Two fully staged productions of Baroque operas, Handel's "Aci, Galatea e Polifemo" Jan. 22-Feb. 1, 2020, and Leclair's "Scylla et Glaucus" April 15-19, 2020, feature some exciting young singers. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (loved him in San Francisco Opera's "Partenope"); bass-baritone Davone Tines (impressive SFO debut in "Girls of the Golden West"); soprano Lauren Snouffer, whose repertoire ranges from Monteverdi to Berg; and Ricky Ian Gordon fill the starring roles.

From Dec. 5-8, McGegan leads Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabaeus," with popular tenor Nicholas Phan in the title role. Mezzo-soprano Sara Couden joins as Israelitish Man. I saw them together at the San Francisco Symphony as half the quartet of soloists in a memorable performance of Beethoven's Ninth conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

The first concert in McGegan's farewell season is "A Cosmic Notion," opening Thurs., Oct. 17, at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, continuing Oct. 18 in Palo Alto, and Oct. 19 & 20 in Berkeley. The program includes the world premiere of "The Listeners," a PBO commission by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. Her attraction to Baroque style and period instruments fits with McGegan's quest to keep historical performance alive and kicking.

Rising star Avery Amereau is a rarity in music, a true contralto whose voice soprano Joyce DiDonato describes as "like velvet, caramel chocolate." She appears with bass-baritone Dashon Burton (he is also at "Stanford Live" Thurs., Oct. 3, as member of vocal project Roomful of Teeth). The Philharmonia Chorale adds contrast to the soloists and participates in Handel's beautiful, infrequently performed "Eternal Source of Light Divine." philharmonia.org

Imaginative Bard Music West's third festival, "The World of Grazyna Bacewicz" combines narrative and music in three concerts Oct. 18 & 19 at Noe Valley Ministry, Sanchez St. (at 23rd), San Francisco, that invite listeners into the life and legacy of a great overlooked composer and performing musician.

BMW's marvelous 2018 festival "The World of Henry Cowell" showed, through interviews, music by influential composers and contemporaries, and Cowell's own groundbreaking works, how to take a deeply informative and entertaining look at a fascinating life and career. The successful template holds exciting promise for another celebration of a composer deserving wider recognition.

Surviving war and political tyranny, Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69) wrote hundreds of scores, building her style, influenced by everything from folk music to the avant-garde. San Francisco-based pianist Allegra Chapman is Artistic Co-Director and Executive Director of BMW. Cellist Laura Gaynon is Artistic Co-Director and Associate Director. During a trip to Poland in 2017 to create a program based on Chopin, the adventurous pair discovered Bacewicz. After intensely researching her life, music, and contemporaries, they determined to share a mutual conviction with new audiences. Bacewicz is one of the most significant and moving composers of the 20th century, with music that still resonates today.

Program 1: "A Rising Star," 7:30 p.m., Fri., Oct.18, quickly immerses listeners in the festival. Exploring the start of a young violin virtuoso living and learning in Paris, the concert covers influences ranging from her native Poland; neoclassicism; and her teacher, the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Selections include works by Monteverdi and Debussy, Stravinsky, Boulanger, and two brilliant early chamber works by Bacewicz herself.

Program 2: "From War to Warsaw Autumn," 4 p.m., Sat., Oct. 19, and Program 3: "Evolution and Persistence-Bacewicz and Her Legacy," 8 p.m., Sat., Oct. 19, complete the festival. Free with ticket purchase to any concert event, a special screening 3 p.m., Sat., Oct 19, of "The World Only Sees My Cheerful Face" features rare biographical film footage and clips of the composer's music.

The roster of participating artists includes some of the best young talent in California. For a closer look and description of the festival: www.bardmusicwest.org

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