Monday, November 30, 2015

You Can Go Home Again

Willie is an old, sweet, near-crippled white labrador...

...who greets you at the door of my sister Susan's house in the Central Coast town of Arroyo Grande.

Last week I visited, partly to help out my brother-in-law and cool nephews in some of their agricultural labors.

They were all a pleasure in every respect, and so were their dogs, including ancient Annie above and hyperactive young Yoda below.

They were hosting a huge family and friends Thanksgiving, and I escaped back onto Amtrak the day before the event.

One afternoon I went to the Fair Oaks movie theater downtown, which was my childhood magic movie palace. Bizarrely and delightfully, it has not changed since, with music instead of ads before the previews, and a single screen devoted to a single movie. It was a kick seeing 1957-1960 period detail onscreen in a movie theater which I actually frequented in 1959-1960. You can go home again, it seems, at least through movie theaters stuck in time.

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Hardhat Tour of SF Opera's New Digs

Last Monday, the San Francisco Opera offered a hardhat press tour of the fourth floor of the newly retrofitted Veterans Building, which will be their new office headquarters, their new costume shop replacing an old warehouse at 9th and Howard, their new Education Center complete with a beautiful skylit space, their new professional archives with public galleries, and a new 299-seat theater equipped with the latest Meyer Constellation sound system. (Pictured above left to right are Opera Communications Director Jon Finck, KQED radio journalist Cy Musiker, and SF Opera General Director David Gockley.)

Gockley explained the origin story of the project, beginning with a plan to build a $65 million annex to the back of the historic Veterans Building, which was scrapped due to money and time constraints. The War Memorial Board instead offered the opera company the basement and fourth floor to help bring their operations together that have been spread out in multiple locations throughout the city for decades. The project is costing about $21 million and will be completed at the end of this year under the direction of architect Mark Cavagnero above, responsible for the SFAZZ Center and the rebuilt Oakland Museum of California, among other projects.

Gockley is stepping down from his position this year after ten years, and he deserves gratitude for a host of initiatives, including steering the company out of a precarious financial situation through judicious cost-cutting, procuring a few multimillion dollar donations, and now consolidating the patchwork of SF Opera offices along with the Costume Shop. "If we had stayed on Ninth Street, the rent would have soon quadrupled. It's a bad time to be in the commercial real estate market in San Francisco, unless you're the owner."

The overall project is being called the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, after Ms. Wilsey spearheaded the project with a $5 million donation, and the new 299-seat theater will be named the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium for another pair of donors. Joining the hardhat tour were Helen and John Meyer above of Berkeley's Meyer Sound, which is transforming acoustics in concert halls all over the world.

The theater is being shared for six-month stints between the SF Opera Lab, headed by the young director Elkhanah Pulitzer above, and the War Memorial Performing Arts Center, represented by Jennifer Norris below right flanking SF Opera Education Director Ruth Nott, which means groups outside of the SF Opera will be able to use the space.

The SF Opera Lab will initiate the hall with the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, followed by Matthias Goerne in a multimedia production by William Kentridge of Schubert's Winterreise. This will be followed by Svadba-Wedding, a 2011 Canadian a capella opera about a Serbian Wedding, a series of "cine-concerts" of the French animated movie The Triplets of Belleville with live musical performances by its composer-conductor Benoit Charest, chamber concerts with members of the SF Opera Orchestra and Adler singers, and a cabaret confessional called Voigt Lessons with soprano Deborah Voigt.

The Education Center atrium will also be rentable by groups outside the SF Opera, and the site is already looking to be a stunning addition to the neighborhood.

According to architect Cavagnero, there have been a series of pleasant surprises when uncovering walls and finding original scagliola pillars that were hidden from view during the fourth floor's incarnation as SFMOMA.

The new costume fitting space is a far cry from the dusty little alcoves at the Ninth Street Costume Shop, and the many light-filled offices for administrative staff look like they will be a dream to work in after decades of cramped little cubicles in the War Memorial Opera House and elsewhere.

In one section of the tour, Gockley made the offhand remark that "these offices will be for the Development staff which will soon be 200 people while the Artistic Planning staff will be whittled down to 3, if present trends continue."

Whatever the case, the place already looks like a marvel.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Sibelius and Schumann at the SF Symphony

Last week Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the San Francisco Symphony for a program of Sibelius and Robert Schumann that was very entertaining. It started with Sibelius' moody tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, and the orchestra sounded fabulous.

This was followed by the same composer's famous Violin Concerto with the celebrated Greek violin soloist Leonidas Kavakos, looking a bit like Nina Mouskouri's younger brother. Kavakos' rendition was less surface brilliant and more darkly soulful than is usual with this concerto, and it was an interesting interpretation that made the piece sound new, not an easy feat.

During the long sections when he wasn't playing, Kavakos would turn his back to the audience and simply stare at the orchestra before turning around again and delving into his part, something I've never seen before.

The symphony under Tilson Thomas are recording Schumann's four symphonies in live performances, and concertgoers were warned by signage in the lobby that they might be unwitting extras in marketing and supplemental materials, which made critic Lisa Hirsch very cranky. Since we're all being recorded in one way or another all the time in our new surveillance society, this did not particularly bother me.

Schumann's Symphony No. 3 depicting the Rhine River is a joyous piece that was given a very stately, sluggish reading by Tilson Thomas which seemed to miss the spirit of the music. Maybe things will pick up this week when the orchestra performs the same composer's first symphony.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Savitri and River of Light at Festival Opera

The East Bay's Festival Opera, in an ongoing attempt to resurrect itself from fiscal crisis, presented a double-bill of East Indian themed operas at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center this weekend that were an unexpected delight. On Saturday morning, I took a ferry boat to Jack London Square with West Edge Opera board member James Parr and coloratura soprano Mithuna Sivaraman, who was born in Singapore and raised in New Jersey. "We are counting on you to tell us how good or bad the cultural appropriation is at these operas," we told Mithuna, and she replied, "You mean, on a scale from one to Lakmé?"

The first chamber opera was the 1908 Savitri by Gustav Holst, written for three solo voices, a small wordless female chorus, and an instrumental combination of two flutes, a cor anglais and a double string quartet. In an episode taken from the Mahabharata, the soprano Maya Kherani as Savitri welcomes Death after he has come for her young husband, and manages to charm him into restoring her spouse.

The staging by Tanya Kane-Parry was a bit clunky, but the musical performance by Kherani, Jorge Garza as her husband, and Philip Skinner was superb, as was the chamber orchestra under conductor John Kendall Bailey. It's a wonder the opera is such a rarity because the musical forces are simple and beautiful, and the story of love overcoming death affecting.

The style is very austere, almost like Benjamin Britten in his Church Parables, but the women's chorus took the piece onto a new level of musical richness.

The companion piece was Jack Perla's River of Light, a 2013 opera premiered in Houston about a driven young career woman from East India who marries an American, and in this version moves to Oakland where she tries to negotiate her cultural displacement in a series of scenes set during American holidays like Fourth of July and Halloween. After the birth of a daughter, she has a homesick breakdown during Diwali, the Indian holy festival of lights, wondering how she can pass on her own culture to her child.

Kherani and Daniel Cilli as the mixed culture pair sang beautifully and were thoroughly convincing in their roles, joined by the entertaining Molly Mahoney and Michael Boley as neighbors at various holidays. What was genuinely exciting about the 40-minute piece was the integration of Eastern and Western musical styles in the chamber orchestra, which consisted of Arjun Verma on sitar, Nilan Chaudhuri on tabla, Brian Lee on violin, Amy Brodo on cello, and Ben Malkevitch on keyboards. This wasn't Western music masquerading as Eastern or vice versa, but something new, rather like the jam session I once heard at the SFJAZZ Center with tabla master Zakir Hussein along with bass player Edgar Meyer and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck.

"So was it a one or was it Lakmé?" I asked Mithuna on the ride home, and she confessed to being very impressed. "Maya was obviously the only one who sounded like she understood classical Indian singing during the raga section, but Perla added grace notes to the score for Western singers that imitated Indian style brilliantly."

Perla might consider adding an optional women's chorus to the opera because the pairing of the two chamber operas is an inspired match, and could easily become a new repertory staple for everything from music conservatories to small outfits like Festival Opera.