Monday, September 28, 2009

Smuin Ballet 1: Medea

On a blazingly hot Sunday, at a second-floor dance studio on Otis Street just a few blocks away from the annual Folsom Street Fair, the Smuin Ballet company held one of their final rehearsals for their upcoming Fall/Winter program which opens this Friday at the Palace of Fine Arts.

The company had invited online journalists to watch the rehearsal and take pictures if they were so inclined, and it was a fascinating, intimate affair with the dancers just about twirling into our laps. First up was choreographer Amy Seiwert's world premiere dance to four selections from the 1992 Kronos Quartet recording "Pieces of Africa" with music by Obo Addy, Justinian Tamusuza, Foday Musa Suso, and Dumisani Maraire. The music is so compellingly danceable I was half tempted to join in.

Next on the program is Michael Smuin's "Medea" which the late choreographer created for the San Francisco Ballet when he was co-director of that company from 1973-1985.

The music is by Samuel Barber, written for Martha Graham in 1946, and Smuin's choreography still packs a punch.

The company's director, Celia Fushille, explained that the ballet was the story of a happy family, Medea and Jason and their two sons, "until the Princess shows up and all hell breaks loose."

Medea and the boys murder the princess in an amazing sequence...

...which doesn't make the two-timing Jason very happy...

...and then Medea kills their two sons.

Robert Sund and Celia Fushille above danced the roles of Jason and Medea earlier in their careers, and it was fascinating watching them recreate certain movements that were not quite right in the rehearsal.

Smuin Ballet 2: Fly Me to the Moon

Michael Smuin died two and a half years ago at the age of 68 while in the middle of rehearsals for his namesake San Francisco company which he started in 1994. (Click here for a nice career wrap-up by Steven Winn.)

His career had enough ups and downs for half a dozen different performers, with triumph and disasters on Broadway, in film, and choreographing for various ballet companies around the world.

His dismissal from the San Francisco Ballet was a watershed both for him and the company itself, when he was replaced by the Balanchine trained Helgi Tomasson who is still in charge.

His ballets tend to be showy and a bit vulgar, but they are also immensely theatrical and fun. His version of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" for the San Francisco Ballet is still the best version of the half dozen I've seen over the years, and there's even a videotape made for PBS that proves it.

Smuin knew how to tell a story in dance, which is not as common a talent as it would seem, and his musical taste was wide-ranging, from classical to pop. For the small company he formed in 1994, the taped music for dances ranges from Bach to Frank Sinatra.

It's the latter who is the subject of the third ballet in the program, "Fly Me to the Moon," which has emerged as a genuine crowd pleaser. For ticket info, click here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Turkish Janissary at The Opera

Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" has opened at the San Francisco Opera, featuring an appearance by yours truly above as a Turkish Janissary supernumerary in the final minutes. Though I've never particularly cared for the opera itself, the music is growing on me in an alarming, earworm fashion.

From the accounts of friends, critics and people I trust who have seen it, the production is better than anyone expected. My favorite part is watching the 29-year-old German conductor Cornelius Meister (above), who looks to be about sixteen. His joy and skill in conducting Mozart's music is infectious and by the end of the run, it should be even better.

For the decidedly mixed reviews, click here for Janos Gereben's kind account, Kosman's "middling" judgment, and The Opera Tattler's description.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

SFMOMA 2: Not New Work

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, following in the footsteps of a number of museums around the country, has started a program of having local artists go through their storage warehouse and curate a collection of rarely-seen works.

The current curator is a successful 40-year-old local sculptor named Vincent Fecteau (for an interesting interview with Kenneth Baker at SFGate, click here).

The idea is a good one, but I wish the museum had given Fecteau a bit more room and allowed him a larger show.

As it stands, the exhibit is one and a half small rooms with mostly tiny works of art getting lost.

There was the delightful shock of seeing gay porn icon Tom of Finland represented by one of his less explicit drawings, wedged between a dull Jess drawing and a duller Diego Rivera painting.

Also amusing was Judy Chicago's "George O'Keeffe Plate" from "The Dinner Party," complete with an upraised technicolor vagina. "That sure looks like it would be difficult to eat anything off of it," I blurted. "It's meant to be more conceptual than practical, I believe," my patient host Patrick Vaz replied.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SFMOMA 1: The Provoke Era

On the third floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, there is an interesting collection of angry looking black-and-white Japanese photographs from the 1960s...

...along with more contemporary photographs from northeast Asia.

My favorites were all from China...

...with their traces of surrealism, such as the painting vendor above sleeping under his Van Goghs...

...and their relative gentleness.

China in many respects is still a Brave New World to modernity and it's fascinating to see it pictured from the inside.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mahler Mania at the San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony usually put on a thematic two-or-three-week festival at the end of each season around June, but this year the festival is opening the season instead with three weeks of Mahler.

The orchestra has already recorded all nine symphonies and "Das Lied von Erde," but have decided to chug ahead and be completist with recordings of Mahler's song cycles with orchestra, including last week's "Ruckert Lieder" sung by the American mezzo soprano Susan Graham (below right).

After the five short German songs, the orchestra played Mahler's wildly eccentric First Symphony, written in 1889 and then extensively revised for the next 20 years while keeping the original weirdness.

The local reviews for the concert were all over the map: disparaging (Joshua Kosman), glowing (Georgia Rowe), and ambivalent (Patrick Vaz). I have heard both so-so and great Mahler performances by MTT and this orchestra over the years, and really wasn't sure which one would be showing up, so it was a happy relief when the Saturday evening performance turned out to be splendid.

I've noticed over the years that performances often improve over the course of a short run at the opera house or Davies Symphony Hall, and the critics usually don't get to see the really good stuff because they generally attend on opening night. In any case, the fabulous Susan Graham, who was reportedly underpowered on Wednesday and Thursday, sounded every inch the great operatic diva and her beautiful voice soared over everything on Saturday.

The opening movement of Mahler's First Symphony could have been a bit slower and more mysterious, and the third movement with the Frere Jacques funeral dirge being run over by a klezmer band could have been more obviously grotesque, but those are quibbles. The performance overall was great, and the long finale, which can easily descend into noisy banality, was genuinely thrilling.

The major joy of the evening was taking my concert buddy Charlie Lichtman above to his first Mahler symphony. Charlie knows lots about classical music but somehow had this huge gap where Mahler is supposed to be, and his reaction at the end of the concert was fun. "Wow! Where's the rest of his stuff? This is the most exciting performance of a piece of music I'd never heard before that I can remember."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bay Crossings

The Larkspur Ferry between San Francisco's Ferry Building and Marin Country's Larkspur Landing is one of the most beautiful boat rides in the Bay Area.

For years, the heavily subsidized commuter boat line was the best bargain around at $2.65 for the forty-minute trip, but over the last five years, the price has jumped to $7.85.

There's good news on the pricing front, however. If you buy a TransLink card, you are assumed to be a commuter and the price is only $4.90.

On the weekends, Golden Gate Transit runs the older, slower boats that have plenty of comfortable outdoor seating for the extraordinary views...

...and you can chat up fellow passengers like the Terra Linda art student above who had spent the night in a penthouse at The Four Seasons in San Francisco celebrating a girlfriend's birthday party.

I was on my way to a barbeque in San Rafael and decided to walk the three miles along suburban Marin Country roads, skirting San Quentin prison, two shooting ranges, the Marin Central Sewer, not to mention legions of SUVs and latex clad bicyclists who all seemed intent on running me over.

The only thing I didn't see during the hour and a half walk was another pedestrian. It was a joy getting a ride back to urban walking culture.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Night at The Opera

The San Francisco Opera opened its 86th season with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" in the first seriously good production of that opera I've ever seen. The cast was as strong as any in the world right now, the orchestra under new music director Nicola Luisotti played with a propulsive drive that carried all before it, and the David McVicar production with its cool turntable is swift and coherent, avoiding the usual clunkiness and absurdity of the many other versions San Francisco has seen over the last couple of decades.

At the second performance of the run on Wednesday evening, we didn't have to contend with the opening night socialites who tend to be a fairly unappreciative crowd, and the audience was mostly silent and loudly enthusiastic at the proper moments. There was a middle-aged standee in the balcony who passed out cold during Azucena's big aria in the gypsy camp, which necessitated a long, noisy session with a doctor and a few useless ushers while everyone in the balcony strained their necks trying to see what the ruckus was all about. And in a demonstration of the power of gypsy witch curses being flung about recklessly onstage, we were greeted at the exit by a fire/rescue truck and an ambulance careening to the carriage entrance at the end of the opera.

I bought a standing room ticket and went to the top of the house for the OperaVision experience, which are two retractable Jumbotron screens which come from the roof at the front of the balcony. However, last night the screens only came halfway down and all the shots were framed at a ridiculous widescreen aspect ratio, which made me feel sorry for the fine videographers. In any case, the experiment didn't work very well as it felt a bit like watching a Cinerama film on an iPhone.

Update: It turns out that the ballpark screen where "Il Trovatore" is being broadcast on Saturday is quite a bit wider than it is tall. According to General Director David Gockley, "The squat image was because we were rehearsing shots for the shape of the ball park screen. We should have stuffed an explanation in the balcony programs. We'll make sure that it does not happen again, though actually it will happen once more Saturday, the actual simulcast. Usually we have Opera Vision at the end of the run, when we are better prepared with the shots. No excuses."

The only weak link in the cast on Wednesday was the Swaggering Siberian, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as the evil Count di Luna. His beautiful voice and stage presence are still remarkable but he seemed to be having vocal problems, and in his big "Il balen" aria, he was audibly gulping down huge breaths between each phrase. I hope he recovers soon from whatever the problem might be. Stephanie Blythe as the gypsy witch Azucena couldn't obliterate the memory of Dolora Zajick, who has owned the part here for the last two decades, but Blythe's voice is a force of nature. I haven't had my ears pinned to the back balcony wall by a mezzo soprano quite like this since Olga Borodina sang Dalilah back in 2001.

Most of the lavish praise in the reviews for this production have been for Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, and she's fabulous in a famously difficult role. I don't particularly like the sound of her voice, but that's a taste issue which is completely subjective. She gave a great performance. Marco Berti as Manrico has been a bit trashed in the reviews, but I liked the sound of his voice. There was nothing very elegant or particularly musical in his performance but he was not even remotely overpowered by the two strong women singers and his Italian belting style was just fine for the lover/soldier/hero.

Finally, the expanded men's chorus was simply sensational all night, as they bounced back and forth being gypsies and soldiers, and they followed Luisotti's sometimes eccentric tempos seamlessly.

David Gockley (above) is to be congratulated for putting on a warhorse with such care, unlike in years past when repertory staples were often undercast in San Francisco because the powers that be figured it didn't matter. It's a very good sign of things to come.