Thursday, May 18, 2017

Larry Sultan's California at SFMOMA

Larry Sultan (1946-2009) was a well-known California art photographer who I had never heard of before visiting SFMOMA last weekend. He was a child whose parents were part of the Jewish diaspora from the Old Country of Brooklyn, New York to the New World of San Fernando Valley, California. Sultan went to art school in the 1970s at the San Francisco Art Institute, which is where he met his partner in whimsical art crimes, Mike Mandel, who is still alive and being given an exhibit that opens on the same third floor as Sultan this Saturday the 20th. The two young bad boys collaborated on all kinds of stunts, including art-fake billboards on real billboard spaces. I think I even remember seeing "Oranges on Fire" somewhere South of Market in the mid-1970s, though my memory may be hallucinating.

As a solo artist, Sultan's breakout work was a book and exhibit called Pictures from Home, documenting his healthy, vital looking parents growing old. The vision is clear-eyed almost to the point of brutality, but is leavened by humor and kindness. At this installation, there are wonderful quotes on the wall where Sultan is describing how pissed off his father was about the representations of him and his wife, and Larry's response, "She may be your wife, but she's my mother, and I have a different view of her." It's like an Oedipal Marx Brothers routine. (The picture above is mom and dad with faces obscured by periodicals, a biz journal for dad and a Robinsons catalog for mom.)

Pictures from Home in this exhibition slides without any transition into Sultan's 2004 The Valley, where he documented professional porn movie shoots in rented homes in the neighborhood he had grown up in. Boogie Nights may have taken place in the 70s, but the same houses with the same kitchen cabinets were still being used in the 1990s.

Sultan's final major work was called Homeland, and it explores the liminal spaces between suburban housing sprawl and nature sprouting right from its edges. This is where I grew up and continue to live, and Sultan gets everything right, from the light to the strangeness. Check it out, and also click on this link to his still-extant website for his portfolio of San Francisco Society. His photo of Dede Wilsey in an emerald dress, posing in front of her gold living room curtains, with an Asian maid slightly out of focus lighting candles, is some kind of masterpiece.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Handel's Resurrection

Two Sundays ago at St. Marks Lutheran Church, the American Bach Soloists offered a splendid performance of an early (1708) Handel oratorio, La Resurrezione. The previous evening I heard the SF Symphony in a Requiem by Berlioz, so a Handel Resurrection the next afternoon felt like an unintentionally perfect double bill.

As far as Passions of Christ go, La Resurrezione is probably the most cheerful version of the story ever composed, eliding the torture and crucifixion by focusing on the weekend rumors and eventual confirmation of the resurrection. Much of the narrative involves an Angel from Heaven admonishing Lucifer with lines like, "Silence, for soon they shalt see Him, arrogant monster!/Thou shalt see how Death,/outwitted, flies from Him." Soprano Mary Wilson was the Angel while baritone Jesse Blumberg was a perfect incarnation of a handsome Devil.

Kyle Stegall as St. John the Evangelist has a sweet, unforced tenor infused with musical sensitivity, and his perforance was a continuous delight.

He was joined by soprano Nola Richardson (above right) as Mary Magdalene and mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle, both of them in very fine voice.

Jeffrey Thomas and his small, action-packed orchestra were a joy, keeping the propulsive energy flowing until the final jubilant chorus consisting of the five soloists singing "Let praises sound in Heaven." Thomas not only conducted but he wrote the amusing program notes besides. Handel was living in Hamburg when he first went to Italy for four years where he was a guest of royalty (the Prince of Tuscany), cardinals, and brilliant musicians. Thomas writes: "Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili had some considerable talent as a poet and wrote several librettos that Handel would set to music and an ode in which he compared Handel to Orpheus, a reference in that day to homosexuality. Pamphili thus revealed some kind of affection to the composer. Handel was in his early twenties, and it is said that Handel was quite attractive as a young man." News to me.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Berlioz's Mass for the Dead

An augmented San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, including over 300 performers, performed Berlioz's gargantuan Requiem last weekend at Davies Hall led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. I have long felt sincere admiration for the 80-year-old Dutoit during his previous appearances in San Francisco, and also unconditional love for the eccentric early 19th century music of Hector Berlioz, so I was hoping for an overwhelming experience with my first live attendance at the 90-minute, 10-movement behemoth, but it was oddly disappointing.

The SF Symphony Chorus, which sings throughout the entire work, was wonderful and so was the orchestra with its ten timpani and brass ensembles stationed all over the performance space. The problem was Dutoit's conducting. The trio of loud movements were toe-curlingly sensational, psychedelic waves of sound that were probably the 19th Century Parisian version of a Led Zeppelin concert. A few of the quieter movements also had a lovely grace, particularly the penultimate Sanctus where tenor soloist Paul Groves finally appeared and sang a haunting solo aria with ethereal support from the sopranos, which sounded like a convincing depiction of a greeting from angels in heaven. But the piece turned out to be trickier to conduct than I imagined, requiring a leader who could maintain a propulsive musical line between wildly diverse movements rather than simply relying on LOUD, soft, LOUD, soft, LOUD, soft dynamics to provide the drama. For instance, there is a semi-sour, downward brass refrain in the first movement which reappears at the end, a sound that should be strange and disquieting but it was simply four more notes in this performance, coming and going without any emotional effect.

Still, it was great to finally experience the Berlioz Requiem live, and I would love to hear it again, preferably in a big-ass French cathedral with 400 choristers and brass ensembles providing a Sensurround experience from all four, reverbating directions in the church. In fact, this has become a new bucket list item.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Temple of Glory

In a labor of love involving scholarship, performance, and global collaboration, The Temple of Glory, a 1745 French opera with music by Rameau and an allegorical libretto by Voltaire, was resurrected in its original form at Zellerbach Hall last weekend for the first time in over 270 years. The extravagant rarity was produced by San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and France's Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, with lots of dancing by the New York Baroque Dance Company. (Pictured above is Aaron Sheehan as Apollo in one of costume designer Marie Anne Chiment's wilder creations.)

The opera was written for Louis XV to celebrate the end of a war in what was to become Belgium, and was lavishly staged in a new theater on the grounds of Versailles. The narrative involves a prologue with Envy, Dancing Demons and Muses, followed by three acts where three leaders try to enter the Temple of Glory. Belus and Bacchus are refused entry on account of the mayhem they have unleashed on the world, while Trajan brings home prisoners of war but frees them in a moment of mercy as a tribute to his wife, which opens the doors to the Temple by Glory herself. In other words, Voltaire was instructing his ruler to "Make Love, Not War" which reportedly did not sit well with the king. (Pictured above is an ostrich who was an amusing non sequitur in the funny, inebriated, orgiastic Act Two featuring Bacchus, fauns and satyrs.)

Rameau wrote some of the liveliest dance music of the Baroque era and though I have heard some of it played live before, this was the first time hearing it with dancers, which was delightful. Unlike Italian opera, where ballets often feel silly and intrusive, Baroque French operas were more of a variety show with equal parts singing and dancing. The choreography by baroque dance veteran Catherine Turocy was interesting, sometimes professionally virtuosic but other times restrained as if these were demonstrations of latest dance steps that the Versailles public could learn to perform themselves.

The principal singers were mostly from France, and their abilities were all over the map, though it was hard to tell if some of the vocal unevenness was due to the acoustical nightmare that is Zellerbach Hall. Camille Ortiz-Lafonte and Gabrielle Philiponnet managed to project nicely and played the different roles of goddesses, wives, and lovers with elan. I also liked Philippe-Nicolas Martin as Belus in the soldier outfit above.

Also a pleasure to watch and hear were Aaron Sheehan as Apollo at the beginning and magnanimous Trajan at the end, along with Chantal Santon-Jeffery as La Gloire (Glory) herself.

The most consistently beautiful sound came from the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, singing with a perfect fullness that sounded like a group twice their size. It probably helped that they were seated in front of the proscenium.

Philharmonia Baroque Artistic Director and conductor Nicholas McGegan (not pictured) has nourished a dream of producing this opera since its manuscript made its way from the estate of pianist Alfred Cortot to a UC Berkeley music library in 1976. For a Baroque opera orchestra, the forces are huge, close to 40 instrumentalists, and they were integral to the pleasure of the three-hour Sunday matinee. I hope the production is taken on the road so the rest of the world can see it.