Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Tale of Two String Quartets

I attended a pair of concerts a couple of weeks ago by two young string quartets which were gender-inverted mirror images of each other. The Bay Area based Friction Quartet (top) has three males and one female while the Manchester, England based Elias Quartet (bottom half) has three females and one male. Both quartets featured wonderful musicians, but for sheer adventurousness in programming and virtuosic technique, the nod goes to Friction who have been amazing me since I first heard them at the SF Conservatory of Music in 2013.

The Friction Quartet (left to right above, violinist Otis Harriel, violist Taija Werbelow, cellist Doug Machiz, and violinist Kevin Rogers) have been commissioning new music, and this was "Concert 1 of Friction Premieres" where they offered two works for the first time. The concert venue was the tiny Center for New Music in the Tenderloin where we were basically in the musicians' laps, which was fun.

The first world premiere was Two Hearts, a gorgeous, two-movement work by Sarang Kim, a young Korean composer studying at UC Santa Cruz. The work incorporates Korean tuning techniques at the beginning and shades into propulsive Western minimalism in the second half. The composer could not attend the concert because of her pregnancy which is what the two hearts was referring to: "My heart has enabled me to breathe from the moment I was created. It is now breathing stronger than it ever did before to keep another heart, a smaller one, beating. The two hearts are beating for each other and sensing each other's presence for about 280 days. One day, the smaller one will be able to work without the bigger one's help, keeping a new human being breathing. This piece describes the process from the very beginning when the two begin to coexist to the last moment they start beating separately." Unlike a lot of extra-musical descriptions by composers, you could actually hear all this. A recording of the performance is already up on SoundCloud where you can listen by clicking here.

The second piece was the relatively ancient ABACISCUS by Geoffrey Gordon from 2013. The four movements are titled Circus Scene, Orpheus, Bikini Girls (the favorite of introducer Kevin Rogers above), and The Angel before St. Joachim, all based on mosaics the composer had encountered in the Mediterranean. It was interesting music (click here to check it out) but it felt rather male and assaultive after Kim's piece. I'd never thought about gender based music before, but this juxtaposition brought it unintentionally into focus.

The concluding world premiere was El Correcaminos (The Roadrunner) by Nicolas Lell Benavides, one of my favorite composers to make his way through the SF Conservatory and join the larger musical world (he's just moved to Los Angeles). It's an ambitious work depicting his home state of New Mexico through the centuries.

The detailed narratives Benavides offered in person and in the program turned out to be unnecessary because the music works on its own. From modernist frenzy in the first movement, Latino rhythms in the second, a long, still and repetitive softness in the third, and an attempt at capturing the spirit of a roadrunner in the finale, it was all sort of wonderful.

A few evenings later I heard the Elias String Quartet (left to right above violinist Sara Bitlloch, violinist Donald Grant, violist Simone van der Giessen, and cellist Marie Bitlloch) in a San Francisco Performances concert at the Herbst Theater. The printed program was upended to make more sense, with the Schumann String Quartet #1 starting off the evening in a silky, plush rendition.

The violinist Donald Grant, with the most charming Scottish accent imaginable, introduced the next work, the String Quartet #4 ("Nine Fragments") by British composer Sally Beamish which the quartet premiered last year. It was commissioned to be a musical response to the Schumann we had just heard, and Grant gave us a few instructive examples, but the piece will probably live better on its own.

After intermission, they played the piece that had attracted me in the first place, Britten's String Quartet #2, written soon after he had returned to Britain during World War Two. The Elias Quartet gave a superb performance of a real masterpiece I had never heard live before, with precision but also enough passion they could have been confused for the Friction Quartet.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Today It Rains with Opera Parallele

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the world premiere production of a new chamber opera, Today It Rains, and it's been surprisingly difficult to write about. The production by Brian Staufenbiel at Opera Parallele, the music by Laura Kaminsky, the conducting by Nicole Paiement of a brilliant, 11-piece chamber orchestra, and the singing by a cast of eight were all impressive. The energy, time and care of Opera Parallele's first commissioned work were everywhere apparent, which is why it's sad to report that I didn't care for the opera. I'm going to blame Mark Campbell, who not only shares the libretto with Kimberly Reed but has an odd credit, "Original premise by". (All of the gorgeous production photos are by Steve DiBartolomeo.)

The one-act, 80-minute opera focuses on a train trip the painter Georgia O'Keefe made while leaving her husband, the influential New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, for a life in New Mexico. Baritone Daniel Belcher played Alfred in a series of flashbacks, and though Stieglitz did sport a walrus moustache and wire-frame glasses, the singer looked more like a sad, glum John Bolton than an artistic entrepreneur. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert played Georgia O'Keefe, and though I liked her voice much better than Joshua Kosman, she looked and sounded miscast, soft and langorous where O'Keefe always projected the strength of a Texas sharecropper woman straight out of a Dorothea Lange photograph.

The supporting cast was superb, musically and theatrically. Marnie Breckinridge as Rebecca Strand, a fellow painter married to photographer Paul Strand, just about stole the show with her bright soprano, musical intelligence, and theatrical savvy. She deserves a bigger career.

My favorite performers were the four-person ensemble of Elliott Paige, Kindra Scharich, Maya Kherani, and Gabriel Presser. They were set movers, supernumeraries, and a gorgeous vocal ensemble. In fact, they were given the most interesting music by Kaminsky throughout, and I started wishing it was their story or Rebecca Strand's story.

The story instead was about a generic woman artist striking out on her own, tentatively, and her difficult journey encapsulated in one train ride. This might have worked if it had stayed on the train exclusively while informing us that Stiegletz, O'Keefe and the Strands were a Bohemian 1920s foursome who had all had affairs with each other at one time or another. In fact, Georgia O'Keefe and Rebecca Strand became lovers for the next six years on their New Mexico sojourns, but we never have a hint of this and instead linger in lugubrious breakup scenes between Stieglitz and O'Keefe.

Why this opera may last is because the music by Kaminsky is so very interesting. Her aria writing, particularly for O'Keefe, is a bit meandering and dull for my taste, but the vocal writing for the ensemble and subsidiary characters was delightful. And her chamber orchestra was gorgeous and intricate. I had the perverse wish to not see the staging in front of me and just focus on the orchestra instead. Joe Cadigan at SF Classical Voice seemed to be in accordance.

However, the staging throughout was smooth, complex and imaginative. Director and designer Brian Staufenbiel loves puzzle-piece sets and staging, and this was one of his most ingenious and successful efforts. The film projections by co-librettist Kimberly Reed of the countryside from a blurry train ride were unobtrusive and arty, but they eventually became too insistent, drawing the focus away from the performers. The embarrassingly conceived character of porter Aubrey Wells, who gives our conflicted heroine a piece of black folk wisdom while playing jazz, was performed by tenor Nathan Granner with such a beautiful voice and theatrical flair that he made the penultimate Driving Miss Georgia scene entertaining.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Sunday in the Park with Mike 3: Hippie Hill Drummers

Walking further east in Golden Gate Park, I passed half-naked sun worshipers everywhere.

The drum jam session at the base of Hippie Hill near the tennis courts was unusually sunny on this St. Patrick's Day.

Some variation on this pickup drumming jam group has been playing here since at least the 1960s.

It's usually a bit sloppy and looks way more fun to participate in than listen...

...but on this particular Sunday they were sounding good.

My two favorite things were the vintage hippie chick above, radiating authentic joy...

...and this accordion player who sat about a dozen feet away from the drummers but who added immeasurably to the music. There was also an old gentleman with an electric bass and a small amp turned down low who also contributed a continuo. It was perfectly lovely.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday in the Park with Mike 2: The Fell Swoop

Walking east up a carless JFK Boulevard, I stopped in front of the Arboretum because there was more music in the air.

This time it was live musicians...

...playing at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel under a bridge.

They were called The Fell Swoop, a seven-piece local band who were featuring a few guest artists in Golden Gate Park.

According to their website bio, "When not playing traditional venues, the band is often found busking on the streets of SF. Powered by battery amps and a suitcase drum kit, they've been known to create dance parties right on the sidewalks of the Mission district."

They were tight, funky, and good musicians. Stumbling across them felt like a small, surprising blessing.