Monday, October 05, 2015

Politicking at the 2015 Castro Street Fair

The annual Castro Street Fair has turned into one of the sweetest little street festivals in San Francisco.

For decades, it was a huge, claustrophic scene like the Haight Street or Folsom Street Fair, but it has somehow managed to downscale into a manageable crowd where you can run into old friends you haven't bumped into for years.

It probably helps that the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival absorbs tens of thousands of free concertgoers in Golden Gate Park on the same Sunday, and that most gay sex tourists have literally come and gone the weekend before at Folsom Street.

There are a few nods to the gay, nudist, hippie-ish beginnings of the event in the 1970s such as a body painting tent in front of the Castro Theatre, but that particular bacchanalian energy no longer seems to exist on San Francisco's public streets, for better or worse.

What did stand out at the fair was how many people were politicking for various politicians and propositions in advance of next month's elections.

The handsome young man with the megaphone above looked like he could have fit seamlessly into the Castro of the 1970s, and he was busking for a pie-throw-at-the-politician fundraiser for the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.

District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim was one of the victims, but nobody seemed to want to throw a pie at her, possibly because violence towards women is a current topic of awareness.

A cute young heterosexual couple asked me why Kim was at the Castro pie-throwing booth since this wasn't her supervisorial district. "That's because this is for the leftie Harvey Milk Democratic Club, and she's friends and sometimes allies with them, while the right-wing real estate lesbians and gays are at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club booth up the street, and they're BFFs with Scott Weiner, who is the supervisor for this district and who is thankfully nowhere in sight."

I continued, "Most of this is just sectarian schisms, though. It's all about being an insider and having a piece of power, which unfortunately flows directly from the old-time criminal cabal which actually runs San Francisco, badly. There's no way they become one of the insiders without being co-opted."

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi (above right) was campaigning personally for reelection on Sunday, while his opponent Vicky Hennessy was represented by a pair of odd looking sign carriers. Mirkarimi used to be a part of the City Family when he was on the Board of Supervisors, but he crossed the cabal by running for Sheriff against an approved candidate and narrowly winning. His subsequent vilification for domestic violence by the DA, SFPD, San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee, the SF Ethics Commission, every city-sponsored domestic violence nonprofit in the Bay Area, and various Supervisors was strangely over-the-top and revealed more about how San Francisco is governed than was probably intended.

Up the street, the gay-focused Bay Area Reporter weekly newspaper, which has always had a capitalist, politically conservative slant, was offering a raffle for tickets to the San Francisco Opera House appearance of the ultimate current public distraction.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Monteverdi Madrigals with Magnificat

An unusually beautiful and accomplished concert of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi was performed on Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church by Magnificat, a Bay Area ensemble under cellist/artistic director Warren Stewart (above center) that specializes in 17th century music. I had never heard them before, but the group has been around for over two decades, and if this concert was any indication, the loss was mine.

After an opening "madrigale morale" called O ciechi, ciechi about the the vanity of pursuing land and treasures while paying no attention to your soul, soprano Christine Brandes sang a long love letter song, Se i languidi miei sguardi. Brandes was in great voice and dramatically intense, making one almost understand the 17th century Italian without consulting the program. The continuo accompaniment by harpsichordist/organist Jillon Stoppels Dupree above was understated and compelling all afternoon.

There were a pair of instrumental pieces by Monteverdi's contemporaries, the Sonata Decimaquinta by Dario Costello and the Sonato in Eco per tre violini by Biago Marini, where the bearded Rob Diggins above played a solo sonata that was echoed from hidden locations by other violinists in the back of the church. The effect was magical. (Pictured above are David Wilson, Rob Diggins, and Jolianne Einem.)

The first half of the program ended with the proto-opera, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, where tenor Aaron Sheehan did a spectacular job narrating the sad story of Tancredi and Clorinda fighting and killing each other during the Crusades. Long ago I owned a recording by the English early music specialist Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra of this piece, but Leppard orchestrated the madrigal with brass and extra strings. Though the sound was entertaining, Monteverdi's music stripped down to its essentials as it was meant to be performed is more dramatically engaging, as this performance and West Edge Opera's recent production of Il Ritorno di Ulisse demonstrated.

The second half was filled with more treasures, including a sublime soprano duet between Brandes and soprano Jennifer Paulino, Ohime dov'e mil ben.

There was also a hilarious parody of a War Madrigal where the enemy is Love and the soldiers completely unequipped to claim victory against this insidious foe which turns their lives upside down. Throughout the entire afternoon, the vocal mixture between the five vocalists (two sopranos, one tenor, one countertenor, and one bass) was extraordinarily smooth and rich. Pictured above are the vanquished by Love soldiers: tenor Andrew Sheehan, countertenor Andrew Rader, and bass Robert Stafford. The finale was Ballo: Tirse e Clori, a pastoral duet between Paulino and Sheehan, which turned into a choral ballet for the entire ensemble. It was exquisite and fun.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

SF Symphony Opening Gala

The San Francisco Symphony opened its 104th season on Thursday at Davies Hall with the usual hoopla: dinners, wine, parties, a few musical bon-bons performed by the orchestra and a quartet of vocal soloists, more parties, and dancing.

The press were wined and dined in a room of their own, including Stephen Smoliar and his wife Linda above. Like the San Francisco Symphony, she had just returned from a European tour.

The concert's first half was the orchestra sounding in superior form playing Respighi's flashy Roman Festivals, with principal trumpeter Mark Inouye leading the way in the huge brass fanfares. The second half was devoted to Broadway musicals, featuring selections from Carousel, South Pacific and My Fair Lady. Nathan Gunn sounded unusually woolly in Some Enchanted Evening, Alexandra Silver as Eliza Doolittle was fun to watch but sang off-pitch, and Kelsey Grammer was unexpectedly good as Henry Higgins. The musical highlight was "special surprise guest" Stephanie Blythe above who knocked everyone out with a hall-ringing rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.

Afterwards, there was an outdoor party on Grove Street between Davies Hall and the SF Opera House, along with a lavish tent affair...

...complete with cocktails, more food...

...and a Michael Jackson cover band called Neverland who were surprisingly good.

Lindsey Bacolini above posed for a photo with her Haight-Ashbury neighbor Norman who attends seemingly every classical music concert in San Francisco.

The evening was tremendously fun from beginning to end.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ailyn Perez and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra scheduled soprano soloist Susanna Phillips to join their opening concerts of the season but she canceled at the last moment. Her replacement was Ailyn Perez, jetting into San Francisco between assignments at La Scala and the Dallas Opera. For sheer glamor and radiant beauty, Ms. Perez turned out to be hard to top, making even the audience feel frumpy in comparison.

She sounded beautiful too, in Rachmaninoff's wordless Vocalise, where she spun out one perfect "Ah..." after another with the string orchestra backing her.

The concert started with the 1994 Trisagion, a 15-minute piece of mystic minimalism by the Estonian composer Arvo Part in a transfixing, meditative performance.

It continued with a trio of string pieces by the contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon that were excerpted from larger works, containing lots of pizzicato plucking framing a serene piece of nature painting of the Grand Tetons called String Lake. It was particularly fun watching Isaac Melamed above leading the cello section because he seemed to so thoroughly enjoy himself while playing, rather like cellist Peter Wyrick at the San Francisco Symphony.

Music Director and Concertmaster Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg led the second half of the concert with a pair of contrasting Shostakovich pieces from 1931, an Elegy extracted from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and a wild Polka taken from his ballet The Golden Age about a Soviet soccer team in Paris, of all things.

Perez returned in another gorgeous outfit for the long Letter aria from Tchaikowsky's opera, Eugene Onegin, where the teenaged Tatiana pours her heart out to her first love which is cruelly rejected by the title character.

It was a lovely performance and the irresistable final tune of the aria has become my earworm of the week.