Monday, November 29, 2010

Elina Makropulos Finally Dies

Sunday's final matinee performance of Janacek's "The Makropulos Case" at the San Francisco Opera enticed cool operaphiles from near and far, including Washington D.C. blogger Alex Wellsung (above) and Sidney Chen (below).

Sidney hadn't been to the opera in some time, but after combing his bicycle helmet hair and changing his ensemble, he managed once again to be plucked from the orchestra standing room rail at the beginning of the performance by a charitable patron who had an empty seat. In a box.

I happily stood in the top balcony where the OperaVision live video was good enough that they could just release the results as is, and the orchestra, including brass player Zach Spellman above, sounded sensational up there.

Matthew O'Neill, a young tenor who played an old "geezer" in love, had bleached his hair and goatee for the part and could hardly wait to shave it off at the end of the last performance. O'Neill gave a wonderful comic performance, the best I have ever seen from him.

The first-year Adler fellow Brian Jagde, who has just transitioned from baritone to tenor, has a voice that easily and pleasingly filled the top of the opera house...

...and Miro Dvorsky (above right) gave his best performance on Sunday out of the three that I heard.

Karita Mattila stopped for a small group of autograph hounds at the stage door before being whisked away in a town car filled with VIPs. After these astonishing debut performances as Elina Makropulos, she is now and forevermore a San Francisco Opera legend.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sarah Cahill and The Mystical Tone

San Francisco Performances has been sponsoring a series of intimate music recitals in a small room at the Hotel Rex...

...a century-old boutique establishment on Sutter Street a block away from downtown's Union Square.

On Wednesday, November 17, the pianist Sarah Cahill above presented a recital of music by Satie, Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford, and the 20th century English medium Rosemary Brown who supposedly channeled a number of 19th century composers such as Chopin and Schubert. The concert was called "The Mystical Tone," and for those in the audience who had come to hear "Hearts of Space" type of ambient music, the program must have been something of a shock, since most of the evening was dissonant and ear-opening rather than soothing, New Age droning. (For more on the music, check out Not For Fun Only.)

Cahill talked with the audience afterwards, and my favorite question was "What does mystical mean?" for which the interrogator seemed to want an answer that was 25 words or less, which Ms. Cahill couldn't supply. She's talking above with composer Luciano Chessa, who is curating a concert this Thursday evening celebrating Sylvano Bussotti at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In the interim, I visited the foundational site for some of Sarah's program, the century-old Theosophist "Temple of the People" in Halcyon on the Central California coast. More on that later.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Feeding Frenzy

After a couple of days of rain, the Central California coast has been supernaturally beautiful this week.

In Avila Beach, just past the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, a small beach was the hanging out grounds for scores of pelicans.

Let us be thankful for Rachel Carson and her 1960s warnings about DDT or they might not even exist right now.

Just past the beach is the old San Luis Pier, which was the major commercial port for the area until World War Two, when it became the major port for transferring oil.

That ugly, polluting industry is finally dead in this bay and the sealife near the pier these days is amazing.

There were a trio of sea lions playing king of the dock on a lower section...

...while dozens of seals were swimming frantically to and fro...

...competing with hundreds of pelicans... a Thanksgiving feeding frenzy with schools of bait fish.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

SFMOMA 3: Wine and Design

On the fourth floor of SFMOMA, next to the "Exposed" photography show, a new exhibit has opened called "“How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now.”

There are soil samples, wine labels arranged by theme, smelling stations, architectural models and photographs of modernist wineries, videos and so on.

Henry Urbach, curator of architecture and design, talked and talked about what it all meant in a wider cultural context, but I felt rather like Axel at "Not For Fun Only" who thought the exhibit seemed like a particularly luxe Visitors' Center at a winery, except there was no Tasting Room at the end of it.

The 1976 starting date commemorates "The Judgment of Paris," the famous blind tasting in Paris between French and California wines where the California-bottled Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Cabernet 1973 beat their French counterparts.

There's a good 2008 movie with Allan Rickman about the event called "Bottle Shock," which strangely enough isn't mentioned in the exhibit, possibly because of copyright problems. Instead, the museum has photoshopped together a mural of photos of the original participants in the style of "The Last Supper." In front of the mural above is Harvey Steiman, the longtime "Wine Spectator" writer and editor, who blends in quite nicely. He also has an interesting write-up of the show at his "Wine Spectator" blog.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SFMOMA 2: The More Things Change

Also newly installed on SFMOMA's fifth floor is a show called "The More Things Change" which is a sampling of works in the permanent collection that are from the present decade.

A particular favorite was a huge sky intermittently sparkling with neon signage.

Overlooking the sculpture garden is an art project masquerading as a gift shop or maybe it's the other way around. "Shadowshop" is selling the work of local artists and according to the website, they are specializing in "Four themes — artwork-as-commodity, cultural souvenirs, bootlegs and counterfeits, and alternative distribution systems — will contextualize selected projects that are both complicit with and critical of capitalist circulation."

A grand opening party with the critically capitalist artists in attendance will be hosted by the artist curator above, Stephanie Syjuco, next Thursday evening, December 2nd from 7-8:30 PM. This is something of a must-attend evening at the museum because they are also hosting the legendary Italian avant-garde composer and theatre/opera director Sylvano Bussotti in a film screening and concert of his music in the atrium by sfSoundGroup from 7-9:30 PM.

SFMOMA 1: Bill Fontana's Sonic Shadows

Three new exhibits opened last week at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. My favorite is on the fifth floor, but you can't actually see it, since the piece is a sound sculpture by Bill Fontana (below left) called "Sonic Shadows."

According to the museum website, "This sound sculpture utilizes ultrasonic speakers and vibration sensors to create an acoustic translation of the dramatic architectural space below the oculus skylight. As visitors cross over the bridge, their footfalls contribute to real-time recordings of ambient sounds."

The piece uses the same modern, ultra-targeted speakers (above) as Fontana's recent installation in San Francisco's City Hall, and features a lot of the same kinds of random, high-pitched sounds which I rather miss hearing while walking under the rotunda.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Cat, The Reality TV Star

My year-old cat is named Tiger Woods because as a kitten he was fascinated by the pro golfer and would leap through the air to try and capture his balls on the high-definition TV.

After filming a couple of cute cat videos of Tiger and Tiger in action, somebody suggested that we send them to the Golf Channel which has an annual "Golf's Amazing Videos" competition. That was months ago, and we'd completely forgotten about it, until a representative from the Golf Channel called on Friday and told us the video was in the Final Four nationally, with internet voting through December 7th determining the outcome.

If you would be so kind, please click on the photo below which will take you to the Golf Channel voting page. All you need to do is put in your email address for a submission, and you can vote once a day. Wish us luck since there's $5,000 attached to the winner.

Friday, November 19, 2010

All Things Makropulos 1: Janacek

The composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928) should be named the patron saint of Artistic Late Bloomers. Janacek, pictured above and below, didn't become internationally known until age 62, when his breakthrough third opera "Jenufa" was produced in Vienna in 1918 and then swept the world. In the remaining ten years of his life, Janacek composed almost all of the great music for which he is known: the operas "The Excursions of Mr. Broucek," "Katya Kabanova," "The Cunning Little Vixen," "The Makropulos Case," and "The House of the Dead," along with the "Glagolitic Mass," "Sinfonietta," "Taras Bulba," the two string quartets, and a host of other compositions.

Janacek was sent away from his village home at age 11 as a poor, talented scholarship student to a Catholic music school in the provincial city of Brno. It is just north of Vienna and southeast of the Czech capital Prague. A good analogy for the place might be Pittsburgh, between New York and Chicago, with its own history, wealth and culture, but not a world city like the other two.

After graduating from a teacher's college, Janacek went on to music conservatories in Prague, Leipzig and Vienna, before returning to Brno and becoming the head of the organ school at the same teacher's college, and marrying a 15-year-old student, Zdenka Schulzová. He continued as head of this school until 1919, while his marriage became more difficult every year, exacerbated by the deaths of his two children and his falling in love with two other women later in his life.

The town of Brno was a majority German culture, with German being the language by law of schools and government. Janacek was part of the minority Czech cultural revolt from his Catholic school days, and as a music teacher, he organized Czech bands, choirs, and instrumental ensembles. He was also a major ethnomusicologist, traveling to remote villages and recording non-notated folk music which informed his own music for the rest of his life.

It was at the organ school in Prague that he started writing music journalism which he continued to do his entire life. He wrote honestly and fiercely, with an acerbic wit that managed to get him into lots of trouble. Negatively reviewing a mass that the head of the organ school had conducted got Leos kicked out of school briefly before they relented and let him back in. More damaging, in 1887 he wrote a mean review of "The Bridegroom," a comic opera by Karel Kovařovic (pictured above). Unfortunately for Janacek, Kovařovic became head of the National Theatre in Prague from 1900 to 1920, and so was able to keep "Jenufa" from being performed there until 1916, twelve years after its triumphant premiere in Brno. Kovarovic also insisted on reorchestrating some of the opera, including the finale, and it was his version that was played for decades until Janacek's original was rediscovered.

The Czech composer Josef Suk was the person who contacted the very well-connected, German-Jewish Prague resident, writer Max Brod (above left, with his best buddy Franz Kafka) and told him he needed to go hear "Jenufa." Brod did so, was overwhelmed by the music, and summoned the composer from Brno who knew this was his chance, finally, at the big time.

From Brod's autobiography: "He showed his hand immediately. Everything depended on my translating Jenufa. He told me that during his train journey he could not sleep. He thought only of me the whole time. And since six o'clock this morning he has been walking around my house, saying to himself, if this Brod will translate Jenufa, everything will be all right. If he refuses, I'll remain where I was. Everything will be as before. I shall not break through...When I saw him sitting in front of me, completely devoted to his work, I felt this is the kind of man that God wanted...I have postponed all other work and promised to translate Jenufa."

Brod not only midwifed the posthumous published works of his friend Franz Kafka into the world's consciousness, but he did the same for the living Leos Janacek. The two had a great collaboration until Brod, just like Kovařovic, decided to "improve" one too many of Janacek's supposedly naive instincts. In the case of the German translation of "The Cunning Little Vixen," he pretty much destroyed the meaning of the original (he confessed at one point that he had zero understanding or sympathy for nature). The final breaking point was on "The Makropulos Case," where Janacek stood his ground and demanded that Brod's "improvements" in the German translation be deleted and a simple transcription of the original Capek play be reintroduced.

Karel Capek (1890-1938), above, was a wildly original Czech writer who specialized in speculative plays and fiction. His 1922 play, "The Makropulos Case," is a Shavian black comedy centering on a 337-year-old opera diva who was given an elixir by her alchemist father. The story is set on the day she comes back to Prague in the 1920s to find the formula because time is finally running out, and the tale deals with issues of mortality, morality, and a 100-year-old legal case that is "Bleak House" by way of Kafka.

Janacek saw the play during its initial run in Prague, and was enchanted. He asked Capek for the rights for an opera, which the writer didn't want to give him because "I have too high an opinion of music -- and especially of yours -- to be able to imagine it united with a conversational, fairly unpoetical and over-garrulous play." Capek told his sister privately, "That old crank! Soon he'll even be setting the local column in the newspaper. It's good that he is not asking me to help him with it; I don't feel like working up a libretto from it, I probably wouldn't bring it off, I don't have the time, and even if I had, I wouldn't even want to do it." So Janacek, simply by cutting certain sections of the play, created his own libretto. "He did it a hundred times better than I could ever have even imagined!" Kapek is quoted after attending the 1926 Brno premiere of the opera.

For the last decade of his life, while writing his great works at a furious pace, Janacek had been carrying on an intense infatuation with Kamila Stosslova, a young, married woman with two children who became his muse. He sent her hundreds of letters, and treated her as his soulmate, which confused Kamila and tortured his wife Zdenka. The erotic energy in the "Makropulos" music for an ice-cold, terminally bored diva is probably intertwined with that personal drama, and led to one of the most unusual, advanced operatic scores of the twentieth century.

All Things Makropulos 2: Mattila at the SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera has a fairly distinguished track record with the operas of Janacek. In 1966, they gave the U.S. premiere of "The Makropulos Case" with Marie Collier. I saw the revival in 1976 with Anja Silja, and couldn't make heads or tails of the thing. This was before supertitles had been introduced, so the work had been translated into English, though you could barely understand a word. Janacek in English tends to be disastrous because his entire form of composing was based on the natural musicality of speech. At the premiere of "The Makropulos Case" in 1926, he praised cast and conductor but "again and again he returned to the performance of Mrs. Jezicova, who took the quite tiny part of the Cleaning Lady, and in particular to the manner with which she 'spoke' her few words. What he appreciated in it was that her parlando preserved the exact musical notation, but at the same time was completely natural."

In 1980, the company mounted their first Janacek opera in Czech, a production of "Jenufa" with Elizabeth Soderstrom and Sena Jurinac that is still legendary, and then repeated in 1986 with the amazing duo of Gabriela Benackova and Leonie Rysanek. During the Pamela Rosenberg years, there was a "Katya Kabanova" with an exquisite Karita Mattila sabotaged by a dumb regie production, and a "Cunning Little Vixen" with Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Allen that was just about perfection.

In 1993, the great, recently deceased conductor Charles Mackerras (above) joined the company as a principal guest conductor and led "The Makropulos Case" beautifully, but it was in service to a mediocre Lotfi Mansouri production. From the 1950s onwards, Mackerras did as much to usher in the operas of Janacek to the English-speaking world as Max Brod had done in the 1920s for the German-speaking world. In Mackerras' case, though, he was scraping off the encrusted changes and "improvements" of others and restoring Janacek's scores to what the composer wanted in the first place.

A few years ago, San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley asked the Finnish superstar diva Karita Mattila if she would be interested in singing Elina Makropulos. She agreed, on the condition that she could work with the conductor Jiri Belohlavek (above), who has taken over the Janacek mantle from Mackerras and who brings a Brno born authenticity to the music besides. Sharing the cost with the Finnish National Opera, this new production premiered last week and it's sensationally good, as confirmed by Brian, Lisa, Charlise, Axel & The Beast.

The opera never made much sense to me before, with its convoluted legal case and men falling at the diva's feet every other minute, but after this production I am officially a convert. Much of the reason can be attributed to Karita Mattila (above), who has had a rough run recently with her "Tosca" at the Metropolitan in a new production trashed by everyone, but this performance is a complete triumph.

Mattila first appeared in San Francisco as a beautiful blonde ingenue with a perfect voice in the late 1980s, singing Mozart and Wagner ("Meistersinger" and "Lohengrin"), then returned for a 2002 "Katya Kabanova" and in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" a few years ago, a part that seemed all wrong for her even though she could sing it well enough. The ancient, weird and glamorous Ms. Makropulos, however, is so perfect for her age, looks, charisma, acting chops, and vocal abilities that I can't think of anybody else even attempting this role for years after this production. She literally owns it.

I attended the first and third performances, and can report that the production is becoming freer and livelier as it goes along, with the singers playing off of each other brilliantly. Best of all was watching the orchestra musicians leaving through the stage door, beaming with excitement. Along with Mattila, the orchestra and conductor Jiri Belohlavek are the serious stars of this production.

There are only three more performances, and if you live in the Bay Area, you should do everything in your power to try and catch one of them (click here to order).

(All production photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of the SF Opera.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Buddhist Christmas Tree

The sycamores in Civic Center Plaza received their severe annual pruning this weekend for winter, even though the weather has been bizarrely warm lately.

The three-headed, six-armed Buddha sculpture by Shanghai artist Zhang Huan continues to dominate the plaza...

...although a "holiday tree" was installed on Monday at the end other end of the dirt square.

Though everyone official is going out of their way to identify both the sculpture and the tree as secular symbols, let's get serious. The Buddha now has its own Christmas tree, and why not?