It's woman with a capital W at the center of the Oakland East Bay Symphony's concert Friday night in the Paramount Theatre. Hector Berlioz's dizzying, swirling "Symphonie Fantastique," the big-ticket item, is a five-movement programmatic piece about a desperate young musician in love, written after Berlioz himself fell from afar for actress Harriet Smithson and felt the urge to sublimate his passion in music. Beethoven's "Leonore Overture" is one of four he wrote for his only opera, "Fidelio," about a heroic woman who disguises herself as a man to enter a dungeon and rescue her husband from certain death.
But the third work on the program may prove the most fascinating, as it puts two powerhouse contemporary women front and center. American composer Richard Danielpour's 2009 song cycle "A Woman's Life," co-commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, will be reprised by conductor Michael Morgan and OEBS on Friday with the same dynamic singer it was written for. Indiana-born soprano Angela Brown, who rose to national prominence with her 2004 debut at the New York Met in the title role of Verdi's "Aida" and garnered more rave reviews repeating it there three years later, was a well-known entity to Danielpour. She had so pleased him with her performance as Cilla in his opera "Margaret Garner" in 2005 that he asked her afterward if he could write a song cycle for her. Without hesitation, Brown told him the librettist had to be prize-winning author and poet Maya Angelou.
As luck would have it, Danielpour, who had worked with Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison on "Margaret Garner," based on her novel "Beloved," already was well-acquainted with Angelou as well and had plans to visit her that summer to introduce her to his new wife. In a video the Pittsburgh Symphony taped before the debut of the cycle, he describes that particular encounter as one that will live in his memory forever.
The august Angelou, when asked if she would consent to write a cycle of poems about a woman's life, from childhood through old age, loftily replied: "I have them, my dear -- they are already done."
An assistant brought out a copy of her collected poems and set them before Angelou on a little stand, with Danielpour and his wife seated on either side of her.
"And holding our hands over her dining room table, she read eight poems," the composer recalled. "And I have to say it was one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed. It was really something else -- I'll never forget it. It was almost like being in church."
Six of those poems found their way into the composer's "A Woman's Life," and a seventh was added from Angelou's published work. The passages Brown will sing begin with "Little Girl Speakings" and proceed through "Life Doesn't Frighten Me," "They Went Home," "Come and Be My Baby," "Let's Majeste" and "My Life Has Turned Blue" before ending, in old age, with "Many and More."
Details: 8 p.m. Friday, 2025 Broadway, Oakland; $20-$70, 510-444-0801, www.oebs.org.
UP POPS 'POPPEA': Operatic composers don't come that much earlier in human history than Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) of Italy, though his countryman Jacopo Peri generally snags the props for getting there first with his now-lost "Dafne," circa 1598. But Monteverdi was the true giant of his era, and the figure who solidly established opera as a bona fide art form for the 17th century. His last work, "L'incoronazione di Poppea" (the coronation of Poppea), is a deliciously arioso- and aria-laden vehicle that is also significant for being the first opera to delve into factual historical events as its subject matter -- in this case, the devious ploys the corrupt Roman emperor Nero's mistress Poppea undertook to get herself crowned empress.
Next weekend, gutsy little West Edge Opera is mounting a new edition of the 1643 opera, supported by a $12,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Artistic director Mark Streshinsky, working with Gilbert Martinez, an expert in historically informed performances, has scaled the work down from its original 3½-hour length to its core plot line, using an orchestration by early music scholar Alan Curtis. Martinez will conduct a nine-piece ensemble of Baroque instruments from one of the production's two harpsichords.
The vocal talent lined up for the project is impressive indeed. Leading Baroque soprano Christine Brandes will play Nero to soprano Emma McNairy's Poppea, and former Adler Fellow Ryan Belongie, who acquitted himself so well as the countertenor in West Edge's production of Handel's "Xerxes" a couple of years ago, is Poppea's spurned lover Ottone. Mezzo-sopranos Tonia D'Amelio and Erin Ness, tenor Brian Thorsett and bass Paul Thompson also are featured.
Details: 8 p.m. Feb. 1 and 2, 3 p.m. Feb. 3, El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury Avenue (at El Cerrito High School); $36-$78, 510-841-1903, www.westedgeopera.org.
Contact Sue Gilmore at email@example.com.