Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Italian Journey with the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony offered a wacky program last week that they were marketing as An Italian Journey. In its jumps through centuries and musical genres, from Baroque chamber music to a 1960s avant-garde symphonic masterpiece to Verdi choral music to old-fashioned solo arias, the program could have been a disaster or a major success. It's a treat to report that the latter was the case. The concert started off with new principal oboe Eugene Izotov giving a superb, soulful account of Marcello's early 18th century Oboe Concerto in C Minor. He also lead a chamber ensemble of first-chair players and it was one of the better Baroque performances I've heard from the SF Symphony at Davies.

This was followed by the forbidding, insanely difficult (to play and absorb), amusing, and endlessly interesting Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, written for the New York Philharmonic in 1969. The soloists are eight amplified singers, and the original vocalists were the Swingle Singers, which has to be the greatest chamber chorus name ever. The English ensemble still exists with replacements from the current generation, and they were the soloists at Davies Hall on Saturday evening.

My only complaint is that Davies Hall has some of the crappiest amplified sound systems in San Francisco, and the definitive sound of the Swingle Singers was muted and a bit muddy when it should have been thrust much further into the foreground. When I heard this piece live last year for the first time at the UC Davis Mondavi Center, the vocal soloists were a much more important part of the texture. As good as the student orchestra was at UC Davis, hearing the expert Mahler orchestra that is the SF Symphony play the third movement of Sinfonia, with Mahler's Scherzo from his Resurrection Symphony sliced and diced, was an exquisite treat. The crazy music has been running through my head for the rest of the week.

After intermission, the great San Francisco Symphony Chorus sang Verdi's Te Deum, a short (13-minute) sacred choral piece that the anticlerical composer wrote near the end of his life. I had never heard it live before and it instantly became one of my favorite Verdi pieces ever.

The programming for this concert, in fact, felt a bit like the SoundBox concerts, with their surprising mixture of short musical styles and repertory discoveries, impeccably performed.

The finale of the evening involved young tenor superstar Michael Fabiano singing a trio of Italian opera arias, including Donizetti's Una Furtiva Lagrima and an aria from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Il Corsaro, the latter ending the evening with the urgent backing of the men's chorus. My favorite was Luciano Berio's orchestration of Il Poveretto, a song by Verdi about a poor person on the street.

Though Fabiano is not my favorite current tenor, he's got a lovely, forceful voice, and has some of the best Italian singing diction around. My companion for the evening drooled over his performance, by the way, as did many others in the audience.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Saturday Civic Center Security Standoff

At the corner of McAllister and Van Ness on Saturday around noon, we noticed yellow caution tape across McAllister Street and scores of police, fire and other security vehicles. As we jumped onto a Muni bus to Russian Hill for lunch, I guessed it was one of those occasional bomb scares at City Hall which eventually turn out to be somebody's forgotten gym bag.

We walked back to Civic Center because traffic a couple of hours later on Van Ness was at a standstill, and the situation looked the same.

I asked a news cameraman (not pictured above) what was happening, and he replied, "There's supposedly a man with a gun in Civic Center park, but the police won't shoot him because he's white."

I wondered how the police had even noticed a man with a gun in Civic Center Plaza, since open drug injection, people threatening others with knives, and all manner of illegal mayhem are daily occurrences in and around the plaza, and the SFPD tends to ignore their behavior. The mystery was solved after reading an SF Gate story which reported that the man had phoned the police himself and was promising suicide and possible harm to others.

I returned to the neighborhood at 6:30 PM when the first security vehicles were beginning to depart and talked to another newsperson who had been camped out most of the day. "They talked him down, but it turns out the gun was a fake, plastic replica," he said.

At least it was a warm, lovely day for the SFPD, the Fire Department, the FBI, and who knows what other security agencies managed to involve themselves in the standoff. They seemed to be enjoying their time together, although people whose cars were trapped in the Civic Center area for close to seven hours were probably not as amused.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Dream of The Red Chamber

Composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber is my favorite world premiere at the San Francisco Opera since John Adams' Doctor Atomic in 2005. Like the Adams opera, Dream of the Red Chamber will probably spend most of its life on the fringe of the operatic repertory, but both operas have such interesting scores that they will probably have a long life. The production by Hong Kong artist Tim Yip, the designer for the Ang Lee movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was one of the most lovely and inventive collections of sets and costumes I have seen on that stage. The backdrop consisted of painted ephemera, deliberately shown hanging from strings, that constructed themselves into an almost realistic whole and then deconstructed surrealistically while transitioning into other, dreamlike scenes.

The costume for Karen Chia Ling-Ho above as Princess Jia, the Emperor's favorite new concubine in a court filled with schemers, was one of the most amazing pieces of clothing I've ever seen. I wish Cory Weaver, who took all these production photos, gave us a shot of Ling-Ho with the whole costume monty. Her robe went on seemingly forever, one embroidered yard after another.

Her character doesn't come to a good end and neither do any of the other matriarchal and young female figures who populate China's most revered novel, a 4,000-page, five-volume, 18th century poetic, philosophical, and romantic tale of the end of a few aristocratic family clans during the Manchu dynasty. Currently, I sit next to two Chinese-born coworkers in adjoining cubicles in Silicon Valley, and both of them knew the tale from reading the book in adolescence. One of them even memorized the poems written by Dai Yu (the reincarnated Flower, sung by Korean soprano Pureum Jo above, with the contralto Qiulin Zhang as the soulful Granny Jia) and my coworker can still recite them.

The music by Bright Sheng, a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution as a young person, and a survivor of American academia as an older one, has written a complex score that's also very accessible, with traditional, almost Italianate arias mixing it up with 21st century percussion and interesting differences in tone from scene to scene. It never sounds cross-cultural gimmicky which could have happened very easily, and was brilliantly performed by the SF Opera orchestra under conductor George Manahan. At one point early in the opera, Bao Yu goes off to her bamboo forest quarters and sings a very famous poem from her heart while strumming on a qin, an ancient plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings played in the pit by Shanghai-born musician Zhou Yi. It was enchanting.

The one male hero of the tale is a teenager, Bao Yu (the reincarnated Stone to Dai Yu's Flower), and he was perfectly sung and acted by tenor Yijie Shi, in a performance so sweet, smart and attractive that I can imagine him becoming a matinee idol in Hong Kong where this production is traveling next. All the singers, most of them making their SF Opera debuts, were very good, including Hyona Kim as Lady Wang below, a scheming villain played as an honorable person who ends being foiled by the even more scheming Emperor.

My companion at the Sunday matinee was James Parr, who grew up in China as a child, and whose excellent spoken Mandarin tends to astonish people who are not expecting to hear that language coming from his mouth. There were both English supertitles over the stage and vertical Chinese titles on the side, and James mentioned that the latter were way more interesting and poetic than the clunky English of the original libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang, working from the composer's scenario. At intermission, we were introduced to one of the Chinese supertitle translators, and I mentioned how much more poetic my companion was finding the idiograms to be. "We went back to the language of the original novel as much as possible," she replied. I think for this opera to really prosper it should immediately be translated into Mandarin, "with as much of the original as possible," and presented as such. The condensed novel scenario and music and production are already wonderful.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mozart and Glass at New Century

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their 25th anniversary season with unusually attractive programming last week. The program started with a rediscovered (in 1962) Webern string quartet movement, Langsamer Satz, that was orchestrated for string ensemble by the late Gerard Schwarz in 1992. It's a short, gorgeous piece that sounds like late Mahler.

This was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto #13, which has been one of my favorite stretches of music in the world for close to 50 years, and this was the first time I think I have heard it performed live. It was a lovely, idiomatic account by soloist Inon Barnatan above, and though I'm used to Alfred Brendel's more integrated performance with Neville Marriner on disc, this was an interesting soloist versus orchestra concerto performance, and I didn't miss the percussion or the woodwinds and brass at all.

After intermission, the string orchestra played Philip Glass's Third Symphony. Glass wrote the piece for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1995 and I listened to a few YouTube accounts that didn't do much for me, but live the music was stirring and serious and altogether transformed. The NCCO gave a great performance.

They finished the concert with a musical joke by Peter Heidrich, Happy Birthday Variations in the style of composers from Bach to Wagner. It was slightly unsatisfying after all the great music that preceded it, but the 15-movement piece elicited plenty of guffaws from musical cognoscenti.