In a twist that some might read as sadly ironic, Fresno Grand Opera’s music director, Ryan Murray, has won a first place 2016-17 American Prize in conducting for his work in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a joint production of the Fresno company and Modesto’s Townsend Opera.
The news comes just two weeks after Fresno Grand Opera announced it is filing for bankruptcy.
“Obviously it’s quite a bittersweet honor in light of recent events,” Murray said Tuesday.
The “Streetcar” production, performed in February 2015, was the first joint venture between the Fresno and Modesto companies. It was an auspicious debut. I opened my review with this: “Why opera? Because under the right circumstances, when the theatrical stars align and the ingredients come together to spark the right kind of live-performance magic, opera can soar higher and louder.”
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Murray was judged based on video excerpts of his conducting. The American Prize is administered by Hat City Music Theater, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Danbury, Conn.
“This award wouldn’t have been possible without the talented orchestra members, vocalists and everyone who had a hand in making this production what it was,” he said. “I’m grateful for everyone’s dedication; this award is really a testament to the Central Valley arts community.”
This is the first time he’s been given the award. Second place went to Walter Morales of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s “Summer Fest.” Third place went to Warren Puffer Jones of Arbor Opera Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich.
In my review I wrote that the orchestra, conducted with sensitivity, was “robust as it played Andre Previn’s jazz-infused score. But it never overpowered the singers.”
Murray said Tuesday that he tried to bring out the rhythmic aspects of the score, really going for the syncopated figures and accents, and accenting the jagged edges rather than smoothing them over. He also tried to keep the tempos moving along especially in the recitative sections.
“I am sure that in large part, it was the overall impact of the production itself that made my conducting stand out to the judges; the instrumentalists, the singers, the stage direction,” he said. “Conducting doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so I am really grateful to all who were a part of this amazing show.”
After the breakup between the two companies, Townsend Opera will continue under Murray as artistic director.
“I really enjoyed being a part of the Fresno arts community,” he said. “I do hope I have a chance to return to Fresno in the future.”