Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Berlin and Zimberoff at PALM

On the top, fourth floor of the Veterans' Building, where half of the old Museum of Modern Art used to reside, there is a beautiful central room with a skylight.

This worked well when showing off art in filtered but natural light but it's a disaster for the current occupant, which is the San Francisco Legal Library.

It's supposed to be a "temporary" location for them, after the 1989 earthquake and the City Hall retrofitting, but they have all given up hope on ever getting out of here.

The main problem is that the skylight really heats up the room, which seems to have no air conditioning, and it's not very good for all those volumes of law books. Oh well, the people working at the front desk were cheerful and charming, and they're offering "Free Legal Help."

Not so cheerful and charming is the neighbor down the hall, the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum.

There's a small exhibition room with a librarian in charge and a "NO PHOTOGRAPHY" sign prominently posted, and there is usually absolutely nothing of interest on its walls or in its exhibit cases.

There is also a large room where "researchers" can separate the treasures from the dross. Outside the large room is a hallway where the public exhibitions mostly take place.

The presentation tends to be rather haphazard, and this special Irving Berlin exhibit was no exception.

Later in the fall, the 42nd Street Moon theatre group is putting on a concert version of "Miss Liberty," pictured above, at the Eureka Theatre. Click here to check out the production and to buy tickets.

If you are actually interested in the Irving Berlin story, your chances of finding any coherent information are much better on the web than at this exhibition, including the museum's own well-designed web site, which you can get to by clicking here.

The most interesting site I found about Irving Berlin was on a nonprofit Washington state group's website called "Parlor Songs." Click here to get there.

I hadn't been aware that Berlin wasn't a trained musician, so that he needed an arranger all his life to get the tunes in his head onto the page. There's an interesting examination of how he left his arranging collaborators in complete anonymity on the "Parlor Songs" website, along with this great quote from Alec Wilder:

"I heard Berlin play the piano, back in vaudeville days and found his harmony notably inept. -- Yet Robert Russell Bennett states unequivocally that upon hearing someone's harmonization of his songs, Berlin would insist on a succession of variant chords ...and was not satisfied until the right chord was found. I must accept the fact that though Berlin may seldom have played acceptable harmony, he nevertheless , by some mastery of his inner ear, senses it, in fact writes many of his melodies with his natural, intuitive harmonic sense at work in his head, but not in his hands." (Wilder, p. 93)

Ethel Merman, when I saw her as an older actress in bad 1950s-1960s films, always quite terrified me as a child for reasons I still don't quite understand. She was a favorite of composers, though, including Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, because she not only had that monstrously large voice but her diction was beyond impeccable. You could understand every word in the last row in the days before amplification.

The main reason to go to the fourth floor of the Veteran's Building is to see a permanent photography show that is hidden at the very end of the building.

The lighting isn't all that great, but the large black-and-white photos of conductors "out of tuxedos," taken between 1982-1988 by a local professional photographer named Tom Zimberoff, are totally cool.

Go to Zimberoff's website by clicking here to check out more of his work. There's also a really interesting interview with him on the site that's worth checking out. The above photo, by the way, is of the very scary old Nazi Herbert von Karajan.

The photo above is of Calvin Simmons, a local musical genius who died way too young in a canoe accident on a lake in the East Coast not all that long after this photo was taken.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Single Ticket Morning at the Symphony

This morning at 8AM, single tickets went on sale at the San Francisco Symphony.

Most of the tickets are sold earlier in the year as part of subscription plans.

So this is essentially the time for the Discerning Music Lover, who really doesn't need to hear Beethoven's Nine Symphonies ever again, to do a pick-and-choose among the 30+ concerts that make up the symphony season.

The wait was long, over an hour at least, but there were some lovely compensations.

There was free coffee put out by the Symphony.

And though I'm not a big fan, there were free donuts too.

The employees were even going up and down the line offering season programs to us so we could figure out what we wanted to buy.

The time went by quickly because I had a ridiculously interesting person to jabber with named Denny Berthiaume, a 62-year-old jazz pianist/composer/playwright/former professor who was brilliant and interested and who liked talking about music. Click here to check out his website where he has samples of his music and is selling his own Jazz CDs.

Standing between us all morning was a fretful Russian woman who was waiting for an absent sister to show up. Denny offered her the use of his cell phone but she was too frightened and used the pay phone instead.

San Francisco has had an invasion of Russians in the last ten years, mostly Jewish, mostly elderly. What they all seem to have in common is hating having their pictures being taken by a stranger, a love of shiny, sparkly things (at least on the women's part), and an adoration for cheap, live classical music, particularly when there is a Russian composer or performer involved.

The only single ticket I couldn't get for myself was a $20 Center Terrace seat for Rostropovich conducting Shostakovich later in the season.

The Russians had already bought them in the two hours since the box office opened.

My ticket seller was friendly, helpful and had a huge smile.

Part of that was because HIS computer wasn't malfunctioning and neither was his printer.

That was the fate of the people next to me, who called in "Techical Support" who was doing a great "Who Me?" shrugging act. "You know how computers are," he seemed to be saying as the ticket sellers looked like they were going to have a nervous breakdown.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Norma on a Scorched Earth Stage

"Norma" is an early 19-century Italian opera by Vincenzo Bellini that is one of the masterpieces of the repertory, and easily Bellini's finest work. The simple plot takes place during the Roman occupation of England (which lasted 400 years) with Norma, the top Druid Priestess, having an affair with a Roman officer before the curtain goes up, secretly bearing two children by him. (Hey, it's a dark forest.)

When Adalgisa the Vestal Virgin comes to Norma for advice about HER love of a Roman soldier, Norma is quite sympathetic until the Roman walks in and it's Pollione, the same guy who fathered her two children. Potential Medea action ensues, until Adalgisa, in a great proto-feminist moment, tells Norma that she is giving up her love for Pollione because he's already Norma's guy, and they sing "Mira, O Norma," one of the greatest female duets ever written.

Pollione the Roman tenor, however, is a cad and insists on sticking with the younger woman, so Norma goes a bit insane and in the final scene calls all her Druids to her in the middle of the forest and announces that there is a "traitor amongst us." The expectation is that she's going to name Adalgisa, but instead she announces, "and it is me." Pollione, the Roman cad, is moved by her noble gesture and goes to Norma as they make their way to a funeral pyre where they are burned alive together as the chorus sings how sad they are.

Opera really doesn't get any better than this, which is why the initial staging for the chorus and supernumeraries earlier this week was such a disappointment. Instead of a beautiful Druid forest, the set was an ugly collection of wood that is painted black on the first ten feet to represent a "scorched earth" policy by the Romans who have been burning down the forest. I thought this was a ridiculous invention of the director, but an older Irish-American woman told me today at lunch that it was true, the Romans did burn down forests in their pursuit of the Druids who were fighting them.

I found a few sites on the internet that confirmed the information, and are interesting of their own accord. If you want to know about Druids, click here.
If you're interested in a history of the Roman Invasion of Britain, click here.
If you're interested in reading about Boudicca, a real Woman Celtic Chieftain who took on the Romans and burned down an early version of London while she was at it, click here.

However, the "concept" is so at odds with the lilting, dancelike music of Bellini that it's laughable. I've never seen a production where the chorus scenes weren't at least slightly ridiculous just because getting a huge group of singers on and off the stage never makes much sense, but this is going to be truly wrong. This became clear every time the conductor, Sara Jobin, would conduct a bit of music and sing as a cover for the bass Oroveso (Norma's dad)...

...while the rehearsal pianist played the beautiful music that seemed to have nothing to do with the "masculine, muscular" brutality that was supposedly happening onstage.

The debuting director, James Robinson, an American who runs the Colorado Opera Company in Denver, explained that early in his career he had staged a "Norma" in Europe (Sweden, actually) that was very "pretty," but that he was dissatisfied with the result because the music and the production were just all "too pretty." This production was created for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 1998, and was meant to be more of a dissonant approach, with pretty music and "ugly" staging.

We all agreed that we would much rather be in his "pretty" staging instead, with a pretty forest. Part of the reason is that Pamala Rosenberg, the recently ousted General Director of the San Francisco Opera, has a taste for dark, monochromatic, "Eurotrash" Productions with a Concept, complete with a Dramaturg, and though some of these have worked, most of them have not.

There was an odd moment at the beginning of the first rehearsal when Ms. Rosenberg (not pictured) came onstage and thanked the director, David Robinson, for being there and how much we were all going to enjoy working with him and how "Norma" was greatly anticipated by San Francisco audiences.

The only problem was that David Robinson, wearing a nametag, was a fellow supernumerary and JAMES Robinson, the director was sitting on a chair downstage while she was making this announcement. It was a major brain fart on her part, and I heard the male chorus behind me muttering, "she doesn't even know who she's hired."

On the second night we rehearsed a scene where 17 Celtic Warriors come onstage in loincloths with their pointed sticks and Sizzler Steakhouse salad bowls which are to be filled with mud. We were directed to sit all the way downstage in front of Oroveso and the men's chorus who sing a beautiful three minutes worth of music while the supernumeraries were directed to be "muscular, masculine, like a Greek frieze" as we mimed applying mud to each other's bodies as war paint in Celtic patterns.

My partner was none other than David Robinson and we tried our best not to get the giggles. "I want pecs painted on," he insisted.

One of my favorite fellow supers, John Janonis, a wild man at age 62, confessed that he was going to be the only Celtic Warrior with a pot belly. "Hey, I told them that I had a mature man's body."

Another one of my favorite supers, Lucas Rebston, got the plum role of a Roman soldier who is being murdered as the curtain goes up by bloodthirsty Celtic warriors, and then hung up against the wooden set. In the second scene, Pollione the tenor comes in with a half-dozen Roman soldiers, including me, and we take him down while Pollione sings to him. "Hey, I should have been dead four years ago from lymphoma," Lucas told me. "The role's not much of a stretch."

Katherine Braziliatis, who has been backstage for 26 years, is playing one of the five Druid Priestesses who flank Norma during her entrance aria, "Casta Diva," one of the most famous and difficult soprano arias in the repertory.

Unlike most of her fellow supernumeraries, including yours truly, Katherine's actually a great actress and a joy to watch onstage. Katherine and her four fellow priestesses were directed to pull out chunks of prop mistletoe from a tree stump and then mingle with the chorus, who take little bits of the plant from them while the diva continues singing "Casta Diva."

At some point, the chorus was directed to lay on the floor and sing their background music while "ritually" waving bits of mistletoe in the air.

This is either going to work or it's going to give the audience the giggles.

And you don't want the audience to be giggling during "Casta Diva." They should be holding their collective breath wondering how anything so beautiful can be sung so exquisitely. We'll see.