Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Benjamin Britten 1: The 20th Century Mozart

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are the only two 20th century composers whose operas have become staples of the repertory in opera houses worldwide, but in my perfect world, their works would be replaced by those of Leos Janacek (1854-1928) and Benjamin Britten above (1913-1976), whose music only sounds better with each passing year.

Britten was an English middle-class mama's boy, the youngest of four kids with a dentist father, who happened to be a freakishly gifted child when it came to music. He started composing as soon as he could write, which was about the age of four, and his singing mother would hold evening recitals in their home with Ben on piano accompanying mom in various themes: Brahms, Beethoven, or "modern music" consisting of Scriabin and Schoenberg.

According to the wonderful book "Britten's Children" by John Bridcut:
"Childhood friend Basil Reeve remembered, 'She was the queen bee that controlled the outfit', he says, 'and you were allowed in and out. It was almost absurd - like being at boarding-school, where everything is controlled.'...most days Edith Britten required her son to play Wagner's Siegfried Idyll to her as she rested in the drawing room in the early afternoon - which he did at the piano, from the miniature full score.

Reeve remembers that Edith Britten had 'a pleasant singing voice', but she sang with 'an unusual sound'. Many years later he heard Peter Pears sing, and the particular quality of Pears's tenor reminded him immediately of Mrs. Britten's soprano."

Britten spent a couple of years in a public school, where he began his lifelong dedication to political pacifism. He was privately tutored by the British composer Frank Bridge, before going to the Royal College of Music in London with a composition scholarship at age 16. His composition teachers, John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams, thought him too clever by half. Graduating at age 20, Britten wanted to study with Alban Berg, but his parents were advised by somebody at the college that Berg was 'immoral.' According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography,
"I said at home during the holidays, 'I am going to study with Berg, aren't I?...The answer was a firm, 'No, dear.' Pressed, my mother said, 'He's not a good influence.'

Instead, he used his scholarship money for a tour of the Continent with mother, which sounds like it must have been painful for a young homosexual wanting to explore the world, particularly since Edith had become a Christian Scientist who wanted to visit all the local branches. Benjy later went to Italy on his own but soon returned home because his father died. It was time to get a job, and he went for an interview at the BBC. According to the Carpenter bio:
"Britten was depressed at the prospect of working for Adrian Boult, the BBC's musical director, who was one of his two least favorite conductors (the other was Beecham). Indeed, after Vienna he was altogether appalled by the English musical scene. "It was hopeless," he wrote following a broadcast of contemporary music conducted by Vaughan Williams (pictured above). "RVW I know is a very nice man, but he shouldn't conduct...oh, the ragged entries, the half-hearted & doubtful playing--& the beastly tone." The music chosen to represent contemporary composers appalled him as much as the playing: "I struggled for about three or four minutes with R.O. Morris & then switched off. I tried to be politely interested in Robin Milford, but failed utterly. The fifteen biblical songs of RVW finished me entirely; that "pi" and artificial mysticism combined with, what seems to me, technical incompetence, sends me crazy, I have never felt more depressed for English music than after that programme...especially when I felt that this is what the public, no, not the public, the critics love and praise...O for Wien!"

In a stroke of good luck, "the BBC phones at breakfast saying would I get into touch with a certain film impresario, Alberto Cavalcanti (pictured above), which I do, with the result that I lunch with him (and another director Mr. Coldstream) at Blackheath -- where the GPO Film Studio is--and that I am booked to do the music to a film on the new Jubilee Stamp..." This led to a series of documentary film-scoring jobs which, according to Britten, "was extremely good practice for me as a young composer, to take exact instructions."

It was as part of this film unit that he met the poet W.H. Auden (pictured below right, with Britten) who contributed a verse to be sung on the soundtrack of Coal Face by women's chorus. "When he heard Britten's setting...Auden was struck by the young composer's 'extraordinary musical sensitivity in relation to the English language. One had always been told that English was an impossible tongue to set or sing...Here at last was a composer who set the language without undue distortion." Auden introduced Britten to his mostly gay, left-wing, artistic circle of friends, including the novelist Christopher Isherwood.

Two earthshaking events occurred for Britten in 1937: the death of his mother which filled him with the contradictory emotions of grief and relief, and one month later meeting his eventual life partner and musical collaborator, the tenor Peter Pears. Two years later the pair set off for North America for a concert tour that started in Canada and ended in New York where Auden had emigrated two years earlier. World War Two began, and as a gay pacifist couple, their prospects didn't look good. The short trip ended up being three years of exile, ending in San Diego.

Ronald Duncan, a friend of Britten's from Royal College of Music days and the librettist for the opera "The Rape of Lucretia," wrote a score-settling memoir in 1981, five years after the composer's death, called "Working with Britten." In it, he makes the astute observation:
"Auden and Isherwood had settled in the United States a year or two earlier and taken out American naturalisation. They had urged Britten to follow them. When he left for America he too intended to emigrate. I never took this intention seriously. When we had gone to Paris together a couple of years before the war he had been homesick before he reached Calais."
San Diego, California must have seemed like the end of the world for Britten, but it was where he ran across an essay in 1942 by E.M. Forster about the 19th century English poet George Crabbe and his series of Suffolk-set poems, "The Borough." One of the poems featured the character of Peter Grimes, the composer recalled, "and in a flash I realized two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged." They returned to England later that year.

Benjamin Britten 2: Castleton Festival Opera

The 81-year-old conductor Lorin Maazel, who recently retired from his post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, has had a long and controversial career. In a Sunday London Times article from 2009, Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote:
"Despite his six-year tenure at the helm of America's most famous orchestra, despite his formidable career, Maazel has had an almost comically bad relationship with the critical establishment. For two decades, he has been the conductor that the critics have loved to hate, a target of some of the most vitriolic and entertaining name-calling in recent musical history. “His efficient concerts,” read one review, “have the heart and soul of a sausage machine.” Maazel is a “vulgarian”, “imperious”, “greedy”, a “latter-day Napoleon”, “a little man with a big ego”, the “widely detested conductor of the New York Philharmonic”.
I had never heard the man conduct live before last week's run of two Britten operas at UC Berkeley, but after those musically sloppy performances, I am ready to join the bashing crowd.

Maestro Maazel has done rather well for himself, and lives with his third wife Dietlinde on a 600-acre estate in the rural town of Castleton, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. Two years ago, they started the Castleton Music Festival, which according to their website features:
"an intimate and acoustically superb Theatre House, sitting on the foundations of what was once a large-scale chicken coop...In recent years, the Foundation's work has focused most prominently on the growth of young artists; advanced students and emerging professionals on the cusp of major careers. Starting with the Castleton Residency, a program launched in 2006, such artists have come annually to Castleton Farms to live and work together intensively under the inspiring guidance of Maestro Maazel, producing a series of chamber opera productions in the intimate Theatre House."

Their first four productions were all deliberately composed for small ensembles and theatres by Benjamin Britten in the 1940s and 1950s: "The Turn of the Screw," "The Rape of Lucretia," "Albert Herring" and a reorchestration of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera." The Festival went on tour with their productions of "Lucretia" and "Albert Herring" to UC Berkeley last week using their original casts of "emerging professionals," while employing a pickup orchestra featuring members of the Berkeley Orchestra. Unfortunately, the four performances were presented at Zellerbach Hall, which seats over 2,000 people, instead of the far more suitable 500-seat Zellerbach Playhouse next door. The results were that the acoustics were all over the place depending on your seat, and the intimate operas got lost.

It also didn't help that the staging by director William Kerley was conservative, dumb, and consistently clumsy in both productions. In "The Rape of Lucretia," the Male and Female Narrators are supposed to provide a Christian framework for a tale about Evil destroying Good and its repercussions -- the Romans supposedly kicked out the Etruscans as their rulers, using Lucretia's rape and suicide as the catalyst. In the original production (Peter Pears and the extraordinary contralto Kathleen Ferrier in her operatic stage debut as Lucretia, pictured above with Britten), the two narrators stood to the side of stage left and right. In the Castleton production, Vale Rideout and Arianna Zukerman were directed to interact in the middle of the stage with the actors of the Roman tale, and instead of being provocative it just looked ridiculous. They both had lovely voices, but Zukerman looked like she was searching for a lost sandwich half the time, and Rideout looked like he belonged in a different opera.

Even worse was the actual rape scene where the sexy baritone Matthew Worth as Tarquinius (above) was staged to look as if he was more in lust with the gauze surrounding Lucretia's bed than with Lucretia herself. After tearing down the gauze and hugging it, he upended the prop bed and the two singers laid down behind it so that one could see an occasional body part flying above the bed like a Looney Tunes cartoon fight. The scene ended with poor Mr. Worth dragging the bed off the stage with Ekaterina Metlova hiding behind it, looking all the while like he was going to have a hernia. It recalls a story from Britten's contemporary composer friend, Michael Tippett, who saw the opera performed once in Italy:
"The curtain is supposed to fall just as the rape begins, but on this occasion it stuck, leaving the singer playing Tarquinius utterly at a loss. And he didn't get on with the rape, and then suddenly there were shouts from the audience: 'Coraggio, coraggio!' It was marvelous! But I would never have told Ben that."

"Albert Herring," written a year after "Lucretia," is a village comedy about a shy mama's boy who momentarily breaks away from his loneliness as part of a semi-disastrous May King festival. The Castleton Festival Opera production, again directed by William Kerley, was ugly, plodding, overemphatic, and not funny. I felt sorry for all the poor singers, except for Andres Beck-Ruiz as the child Harry, who was natural, funny and sweet-voiced onstage.

One of the oddities of this tour is that it felt a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle in that there are plenty of small operatic ensembles in the Bay Area who have performed these works at a much higher artistic level than what was on display in Zellerbach. The Merola and Adler "young professionals" programs at the San Francisco Opera have produced both operas at the tiny Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason, and the results were enchanting. In fact, I ran into Sheri Greenawald at the opening night of "Lucretia," and told her I much preferred her production of about five years ago featuring Elza van den Heever and Eugene Brancoveanu. "Me too," she replied. (For more on these performances from the always interesting Patrick Vaz, click here and here.)

Most of all, it angered me that people unfamiliar with Britten's operas went away from these performances thinking his work is dull and insipid. It is not. Britten's first major opera, the 1945 "Peter Grimes," strikes me as the last great Verdi opera, complete with huge orchestra, large choruses, arias, ensembles, and dozens of characters. It was a controversial success at the time, but there was no real template for an internationally successful British opera composer since there hadn't been one since Purcell and Handel centuries earlier. It took great courage, then, to change course in 1946 and write for small forces, eight singers and twelve instrumentalists, in "The Rape of Lucretia." Though the verse libretto by Ronald Duncan is probably the worst Britten ever worked from, he still managed to create a musical masterpiece. (Has a harp ever sounded as sinister as it does throughout "Lucretia" or as patriotically pompous as it often does in "Albert Herring"?)

Duncan, in his memoir, wrote:
"Britten reminded me of his ambition to write an opera which would return to the limitations and economy of means which, since Mozart, had been lost in the Wagnerian circus. He saw there were advantages in writing for a small orchestra and looked forward to tackling the problems of obtaining a full musical effect with fewer instruments. He thought it possible that a greater intensity and clarity might be obtained."
And he was right.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hemingway and Gellhorn in the Hood

Police signage has sprung up on Franklin and Hayes Streets surrounding the San Francisco Unified School District offices telling people not to park there today or Monday through Wednesday next week.

"Hemingway and Gellhorn," a made-for-HBO movie about Ernest and one of his photojournalist wives during the Spanish Civil War and World War Two, is being made by the local film director Philip Kaufman, who has had one of the weirdest careers in Hollywood history.

The 74-year-old writer/director's fairly infrequent films range widely over the last 40-plus years, from 1979's "The Wanderers" and the 1983 "The Right Stuff," to the screenplays for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and its sequels, writing/directing arty adult films like "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry and June," and also writing/directing crap like the 1993 "Rising Sun" and the 2004 Ashley Judd vehicle "Twisted."

His only real masterpiece as a director, as far as I'm concerned, is the creepy 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with Donald Sutherland and Veronica Cartwright, where bad things happen in San Francisco's Civic Center and its Public Health Department, which means its topicality remains undiminished.

There is lots of lobbying at City Hall for more tax breaks and benefits to lure TV and movies here for location shooting, but in truth most of the filming ecostructure, such as food-and-drink craft trucks, are brought in from elsewhere, usually Los Angeles.

The occasional Hollywood shoots do provide plenty of money for the local stagehands unions, though, who are even being fed beautifully, though lunch is at 1:30 and they had better stop asking for more.

There were widespread calls for extras in this film, but they reminded auditioners that in the 1930s and 1940s, Americans weren't fat yet, and they were looking for "lean physiques," so I did not apply, and wasn't able to hang out for minimum wage with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen and hundreds of cigarette-smoking extras in the seismically unsafe auditorium at the back of the SF Unified School District building.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

HELIOS: Eadward Muybridge at SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently opened a fascinating, extensive show of photographs by the pioneering San Francisco (by way of Britain) photographer Eadward Muybridge, whose motion studies in the 1870s at the newly opened Stanford University essentially ushered in movies and the modern age.

As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her fine 2003 book, "River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West":
"The experience of time was itself changing dramatically during Muybridge's seventy-four years, hardly ever more dramatically than in the 1870s. In that decade the newly invented telephone and phonograph were added to photography, telegraphy, and the railroad as instruments for 'annihilating time and space.' The big corporations were spreading their grasp across wider spaces and into more subtle interstices of everyday life. The Indian wars were reaching their climax and their turning point. The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

2011 Castro Farmers Market Season Begins

A half-block of Noe Street just north of Market has been blocked off during part of the last couple of years for a tiny farmers market, and this year's "season" just opened last Wednesday, the 16th. There were a few politicians in attendance for the ribbon-cutting, including City Attorney and mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera (above left), and District 8 Supervisor Scott Weiner (center).

The ubiquitous drag queen celebrity Donna Sachet was also on hand for the ribbon cutting, having just dashed from similar duties at a new Mollie Stone's grocery store.

The miniature outdoor market is charming, and you can grab a table on the sidewalk at Cafe Flore for serious people watching. The market is open from 4PM to 8PM on Wednesday evenings and the season has been expanded yet again to December 21st.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Yes Skaters, No Tweakers

The cool looking DLX Skateboards shop is on Market Street near the Octavia Boulevard intersection mess.

The store features a riot of logos and artwork, but one charmingly homemade sign predominates on their front door, a polite request for "Crackheads" and "Methies" to stay away.

This may be the first time this message has been offered publicly outside of the "men seeking men" personals on Craigslist.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Twitter Tax Break and Randy Shaw

Before Gavin Newsom left his mayor's position earlier this year to became California's Lieutenant Governor, he made a number of promises concerning tax breaks and public land giveaways to the likes of Larry Ellison and the Web 2.0 company, Twitter. The latter is still trying to figure out how to make money off of its 140-character messaging service, but financiers are investing a lot of money into the company and for the moment it is expanding and thriving.

On Wednesday in City Hall at a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance sub-committee meeting, there was discussion and public comment on the proposed exemption of Twitter from San Francisco's payroll tax if they would move their headquarters from their present South of Market location to the huge, 1937 Art Deco Furniture Mart building at 9th and Market Streets, which has lost most of its tenants in the last two years to Las Vegas.

There's a good case to be made for replacing San Francisco's payroll tax with a gross receipts tax, an idea put forth by Board President David Chiu which went nowhere, thanks to pushback by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and its allies. It also turns out that the main reason Twitter is looking for the exemption is that all employee stock options are taxed by the city as part of the payroll tax if and when the company goes public. Since going public will probably happen sooner rather than later for Twitter, that detail alone would provide a very good reason to move to the non-payroll-taxing suburbs rather than staying in San Francisco, where they would be employing union janitors like the group from Local 87 of the SEIU above.

The Twitter payroll tax exemption legislation is being carried through by new District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who gained election with the strong support of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic's Randy Shaw (above) and his legions of SRO (single-room occupancy) tenants in the Tenderloin. Mr. Shaw has been lecturing San Franciscans about housing justice for decades, while profiting off of government subsidies for poor people and living in the East Bay.

Somehow, while this legislation was percolating, the one-time payroll tax exemption for Twitter has mestastasized into a 30-block radius of tax exemptions that now includes a big chunk of mid-Market Street and most of the Tenderloin neighborhood. For a fairly comprehensive account of how that happened, click here for an account by Steven Jones (above right) at the SF Bay Guardian.

During public comment at Wednesday's meeting, Randy Shaw stepped to the podium for his two minutes of commentary, but instead of offering an explanation of the new payroll tax-exempt boundaries, he instead gave a testimonial to his own fabulousness. He explained how he personally stopped gentrification, commercial and tourist development in the Tenderloin while simultaneously whining that there was no investment in the neighborhood, and that "there's no level playing field," meaning he wanted even more government subsidies and special tax breaks.

Here are Mr. Shaw's comments verbatim, which are a bizarre mixture of the megalomaniacal and pugnacious:
"Thank you, Supervisor, Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. You know, I’ve been asked by people, “why are you so passionate about this legislation, why do you think it’s so vital?” And the reason is, you know I came to the Tenderloin in 1980, began working full-time at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic as the first employee in 1982. When I got there, there was no heat in residential hotels, I brought a Chronicle reporter around, ended up in nationwide press headlines, I wrote new heat and hot water laws. It used to be if you were a tenant in the Tenderloin and you didn’t pay the rent, the landlord didn’t bother with eviction procedures, he just literally locked your door, called the police and had you arrested or threw you down a flight of stairs and you were gone. So we did a big protest at the police station to change those policies. You don’t see lockouts in the Tenderloin anymore. We then stopped the hotline hotel program which had taken all of the SRO rooms in the Tenderloin, turned them into transient facilities instead of the permanent housing they historically were."

"Then when we elected Art Agnos mayor, he signed legislation on May 12th, 1990 that protected all of our residential hotels. I rewrote the entire ordinance and made it enforceable. In 1985, we also passed the rezoning of the Tenderloin to stop commercial development, to stop all tourist development, stop buildings over eight stories.

So in 1990, I was asked by a committee putting out a document called “Tenderloin 2000” if I was concerned about gentrification in the future of the neighborhood, and I said in 1990, and it’s in the document, “Gentrification. We’ve stopped gentrification. Our problem is we can’t get any investment. We are a neighborhood starved for investment.” This was 1990. We then had the dot-com boom, the biggest economic explosion the city’s ever had, but it bypassed mid-Market and the Tenderloin. We then had the housing bubble which turned Fresno and Stockton into booming areas, but did not do so for the uptown Tenderloin or mid-Market."

"So when people say to me, “Why is it so important?” it’s because we cannot compete on a level playing field. Hasn’t history shown that? If you study the history of the mid-Market and the Tenderloin (GONG for two-minute time limit), they are combined, they are joined. (“thank you,” says a supervisor trying to get him to stop). The people coming to the theaters on mid-Market Street (“thank you”), patronize the restaurants in the Tenderloin (“thank you”), so I urge you to support this legislation (“thank you”)."

My friend h. brown, who is an alcoholic, former drug addict living in a Tenderloin SRO, was so appalled by Shaw's speech that he hoofed it three blocks to the Board chambers in City Hall to set the record straight, and delivered one of the more pointed and entertaining public eviscerations heard in that room. Here are excerpts:
"I’ve been in the Tenderloin between 30 and 40 years, and I can tell you exactly what happened there. When I moved in, mid-Market was booming, a lot of burlesque places and stuff like that, but it was all working class people living in these SROs. What happened? Two things happened. First, all of the working people moved out. The reason they moved out…is because a young man came to San Francisco with a business plan. He got control of the buildings through the city, and he filled the buildings full of drunks and drug addicts and insane people. And you know why? Because the government, all branches of government, send checks to him every month to take care of their rent. He doesn’t have to worry about a poor family that was going to move out.

That man’s name is Randy Shaw. The guy standing up here wanting to avoid gentrification, he did reverse gentrification. You have twelve to fifteen thousand drunks, drug addicts and insane people living in that area. In one building, the Seneca, he had 464 police calls in the last six months. This guy is going to be your saviour?"

After mentioning that the city missed its chance to warehouse the worst of the deadbeats at the newly decommissioned Presidio and Treasure Island sites, Brown concluded:
"Remember, the reason that neighborhood is holy hell is because of Randy Shaw’s business plan. All the drunks, insane people, and addicts who are there are his customers, and the drug dealers who come in from the East Bay come in to service them. That’s your problem."
Click here to see a YouTube clip of his entire commentary.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Manila go braugh

At the green newspaper kiosk near the corner of Market and Third Streets on this Saint Patrick's Day, there was a homemade sign on the closed doors.

The Tagalog word "Mabuhay" is akin to "viva" or "vive" or "Long Live," and it was cheering to see someone had retired and was happily going back to their island home.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

San Francisco St. Patrick's Parade 2011

Last Saturday's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in San Francisco seemed larger than usual this year, with 130+ contingents marching up Market Street to Civic Center Plaza...

...that included boys playing soccer, or maybe it was Gaelic football...

...little girls dressed up as ballerina faeries...

...and very serious looking adolescent Irish step dancers.

There was a large political contingent, demanding reunification of Ireland which has been partitioned since 1921...

...and a Chinese dancing contingent from the Fei Tian Academy of the Arts, a Falun Gong school at the base of Potrero Hill. They seem to show up at just about every public event in San Francisco lately except for the Chinese New Years Parade where they are not allowed.

All the city unions were represented, from the police and fire departments to the building trades, including the Plumbers and Steamfitters above. "They're late," the Parade Marshal in front of me was saying to a friend while looking at his schedule. "Must have been enjoying themselves early."

There were high school marching bands from far and wide, including the group from Nevada above who were the whitest contingent I have seen in some time.

A quartet of drunken teenage boys (NOT pictured above) were heckling the band members below as they marched by. "You look like a bunch of faggots," they yelled. "What's that you're playing? The skin flute?"

The band members did their best to ignore them as did other spectators. Personally, I was hoping for a Maureen O'Hara matriarch to slap their cheeks and tell the teenagers to behave or they'd be in real trouble.