Friday, December 09, 2005

The Hummer and the Nightingale

On Grove Street between Van Ness and Polk, directly across from City Hall, there is a huge gallery run by the San Francisco Art Commission that sits next to a vacant lot.

Only about the first 20 feet of the one-story, block-long gallery can be used because the rest of the building is seismically unsafe and is reportedly set for demolition at some point in the future.

The following description of the present show appears on the San Francisco Art Commission website:
"This winter the Gallery at 155 Grove features Andrew Junge’s civilian Hummer H1. Created during his three-month tenure with the SF Recycling and Disposal’s Artist in Residence Program and standing over 6 ft. high and 17 ft. long, the Hummer is constructed entirely of Styrofoam scavenged from trash. To sculpt this work Junge bonded together thousands of individual pieces of shaped polystyrene and then hand-carved the vehicle brick by Styrofoam brick."

Alright, Houston, is this art or not?

Down the street at Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony is presenting an ambitious operatic double-bill this weekend of two Stravinsky pieces, "Le Rossignol" and "Oedipus Rex."

Last month a group of supernumeraries from the opera crossed the street to the symphony hall to help rehearse "Le Rossignol" with director Patricia Birch and her assistant Joe Duffy, pictured above, before the principal singers arrived.

Pat Birch has quite a wide-ranging resume as a director and choreographer over the years as the Symphony program relates:
"In a career that crosses all media, director Patricia Birch has earned two Emmy Awards, five Tony nominations, as well as Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Barrymore, Billboard, and MTV awards, and a Directors Guild Award nomination and the Fred Astaire Award for her choreography and direction of music-driven projects ranging from Sondheim to The Rolling Stones. She has created the musical staging for more than a dozen original Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Me Nobody Knows, Grease, A Little Night Music, Candide, Over Here, Diamond Studs, The Happy End, Pacific Overtures, They’re Playing Our Song, Gilda Radner: Live from New York, and The Great Ostrovsky."

Her staging was quite imaginative, but there were a couple of problems. The amount of stage space offered to her was absurdly small, particularly given the number of people involved, and her working style is to change everything on the fly, not just at every rehearsal but seemingly every fifteen minutes, which managed to confuse quite a few people, particularly those extras stationed at the moving screens that set the various scenes.

Her assistant, Joe Duffy, was wonderfully competent and patient within the daily nuttiness, but there was only so much he could do.

As part of the payment for our time, the supers were invited to the final dress rehearsal on the evening before the performances, and I invited M.C-, a fellow blogger who is one of the best writers on the internet, as he discourses about the travails of parking in San Francisco and the joys of listening to music around the world. Click here to get to his site, "The Standing Room."

"Le Rossignol" is early Stravinsky, written just before and after his "Rite of Spring" period, and it's exquisitely beautiful, strange music. Even listening to a tinny recording on a boombox during rehearsals, I fell in love with the piece, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen's gentle fairy tale, "The Emperor and the Nightingale."

Unfortunately, just like the semi-staged Gershwin musicals Tilson-Thomas performed earlier this year, the balances were all wrong. The orchestra was much too predominant and the chorus way too large.

Plus, putting the principal singers on a tiny raised stage behind the orchestra just didn't work. The staging was cramped and the voices, particularly the men with lower registers, didn't project out into the auditorium at all. The soprano singing The Nightingale, Olga Trifonova, had a lovely voice until she sang in the highest registers, when the sound was suddenly like an icepick to the brain.

In fact, even knowing the piece and what the staging was trying to do, the production still came across as very confusing. The Nightingale was being played simultaneously by a singer, a dancer and a prop bird which looked like a big white dove even though the libretto called for a small, grey nightingale. Even the contortionists, who were so amazing to watch in rehearsal, didn't read well as the Mechanical Bird from the Emperor of Japan.

Early on, M.C- leaned over to me and whispered, "Mike, the round scrim looks like a condom."

He was right, of course, and I spent the next fifteen minutes giggling at the incongruity. "Remember the gold coin condoms?" I asked him. "It looks exactly like one of those."

At the end of the night I said goodbye to M.C- and got to see his convertible, the subject of many indignities from corrupt parking officers over the last year.

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