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A 'Little' Break in a Big Schedule

Music: Between 'Florencia' and 'Billy Budd,' Rodney Gilfry commemorates Brahms' anniversary.

October 11, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Following a performance of "La Boheme" with the L.A. Opera in September, Times Music Critic Mark Swed proclaimed baritone Rodney Gilfry "the Marcello of choice anywhere." Another Times reviewer had appraised the 38-year-old's voice in July as "vibrant, honeyed and virile," and his "Le Nozze di Figaro" effort in June "as sublime as Mozart intended, and all accomplished within the space of only five bars of music."

Gilfry's reaction?

"If I'd known that I could make such an impression with Mozart in only five bars, I wouldn't have sung the rest of it!" he said by phone earlier this week from his Rancho Cucamonga home.

Gilfry, who sings in Costa Mesa tonight, was obviously in high spirits the morning after his opening night performance as Riolobo the river god in Daniel Catan's new opera, "Florencia en el Amazonas," at the Los Angeles Music Center.

According to Gilfry, he'll reprise his title role in "Billy Budd" at the Paris Opera before taking a half-dozen other operatic star turns abroad this season; he'll create the role of Stanley Kowalski for Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" in San Francisco next year. "But right now, I'm working on doing a little concert this weekend," he said.

The "little concert," sponsored by the William Hall Master Chorale, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Johannes Brahms and is at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Gilfry will be featured in the composer's "Ein deutsches Requiem" (A German Requiem) and "Vier ernste Gesange" (Four Serious Songs).

Those who may have missed the actual centenary of Brahms' death--it was in April--shouldn't feel bad. It's hardly inspired the fanfare (i.e., marketing blitz) surrounding the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death in 1991.

Why not?

"Good question," Gilfry said. "I think they need to make a movie called 'Johannes!' "

In a novel bit of programming, the Master Chorale begins its season with Brahms' brief German folk song "In stiller Nacht," then abandons the stage shortly after taking it for a performance by the Angeles String Quartet of the composer's Quartet No. 2 in A minor. Pianist Grant Gerson accompanies Gilfry for the scripture-based "Vier ernste Gesange." The chorale returns to the stage for the monumental Requiem, which closes the program.

The "Four Serious Songs," inspired by Clara Schumann's final illness and written soon before the composer's own, are new repertory for Gilfry; this will be his first performance.

He's no stranger to the Requiem, however. He recorded it with conductor John Eliot Gardiner on the Philips label when Gilfry lived in Europe (1987-94); he also sang it in 1981 while living in Orange County (he earned his bachelor's degree in music at Cal State Fullerton) under Alvin Brightbill at Saddleback College. He considers both experiences invaluable.

Gardiner, he noted, used period instruments including wooden flutes that achieved a transparency that should quash any complaints about Brahms' orchestral balances.

"The [modern] flute playing high in its range can only play so softly and make notes sound," Gilfry explained. "Because today's woodwinds can't play softer, some chords always seem jarring. I'm speaking as a singer who doesn't know that much about orchestration, but it sounded to me very obvious that with the older instruments it all fell into place. Brahms knew what he was doing."

He gained other important insights into "Ein deutsches Requiem," or at least its title, while preparing for the Saddleback concert with Brightbill.

"I showed up for rehearsal and opened my score," Gilfry recalled. "Alvin said, 'Rod, you know we're doing this in German.' My score was in English! I had never really studied German, the performance was the next day--what a shock! I crammed that night. Al says that I said, 'Oh German, fine,' picked up the score and sang it perfectly--but it wasn't like that at all."

Since Gilfrey returned to the U.S. with his wife and three children three years ago, musical high points of his career, in his own estimation, have included his performance in the title role of Britten's "Billy Budd" at Royal Opera Covent Garden in London and a semi-staged performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw with Gardiner. He was less successful recalling low points.

"I guess I've forgotten them," he said. "I heard an interesting comment from Arnold Palmer. When asked how it feels to make a certain kind of shot from the rough, he said, 'I don't know; I've never made one.' He was reminded that he'd made one two years before at the U.S. Open. 'Oh, I don't remember it.'

"One thing important to success seems to be to forget the bad times, emphasize the good ones and move on. I'm sure I've had distressing times, but I've forgotten--and, if you don't mind, I'd rather not recall them."

Gilfry's memory may have been jarred when, mid-interview, his new puppy, a 4-month-old black Labrador named Buddy, suddenly found his voice, a discovery in which the pup took obvious and great delight.

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