Monday, February 18, 2013

A Performing Arts Center Weekend

Since at least the 1970s, there has been talk about the synergistic excitement of a true Performing Arts Center in the Civic Center neighborhood, but the reality has always seemed dimmer than the dream. Recently, however, it has felt like some kind of tipping point has arrived and the streets this weekend were a riot of locals and tourists from around the world zigzagging to simultaneous events situated next to each other. Walking the sidewalks Friday evening, it was easy to imagine that one had been magically transported to New York, London or some other global cultural capital.

There was a San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Hall, the entire Hamburg Ballet company was performing an evening-length ballet about Nijinsky at the Opera House, the SFJAZZ Center was featuring three sets in their newly opened Joe Henderson Lab of Josh Jones playing Ray Barretto, the SF Conservatory of Music was presenting concerts and recitals at their campus on Oak Street, and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was hosting one of five sold-out shows as part of the global farewell tour for Swedish House Mafia, a trio of DJs that have been described as ABBA meets House Electronica. At the Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building, there was also a concert by Philharmonia Baroque above, with Nicholas McGegan leading the original instruments orchestra in early symphonies by Haydn (#44), Mozart (#29), and music by Johann Christian Bach.

McGegan conducted with uncharacteristically slow tempos in most of the Haydn and the CP Bach, and the music sounded a bit plodding to my taste. The bassoon and oboe soloists for the CP Bach Sinfonia Concertante, Danny Bond and Marc Schachman above, were delightful, but probably should have been moved to the front of the stage rather than hidden at the back of the orchestra. For a more detailed and enthusiastic account of the same concert at Stanford's Bing Hall by David Bratman, click here.

Saturday afternoon was spent with the Hamburg Ballet company, which arrived last week for seven performances as part of the SF Ballet season. They are performing John Neumeier's full-length fantasia on the life and career of legendary Polish dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose dramatic artistic career lasted 16 years before being institutionalized for schizophrenia in 1919 for the next 31 years of his life. The 70-year-old Neumeier is Wisconsin born and raised, but after a European dancing career, he became the resident choreographer and eventual Company Director of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973. Neumeier became obsessed with Nijinsky after reading a biography of him at an impressionable age back in Milwaukee, and Nijinsky is one of three ballets he has created about his idol. There was Vaslaw in 1979 and the later Le Pavilion d'Armide in 2009, but it's hard to imagine those ballets being as ambitious as this 2000 effort.

The ballet starts at a society event in a Monte Carlo pavilion in what turns out to be Nijinsky's last ballet as both choreographer and dancer. There are onstage piano pieces by Chopin and Schumann playing as musical background before a swirl of biographical and performance memories takes over and the full orchestra launches into Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, which was choreographed by Fokine for the Ballet Russe over the strenuous objections of the composer's heirs. During a homoerotic sexual duet between Guillaume Cote as Nijinsky and a magnificent Edvin Revazov as the impresario Serge Diaghelev, the sad, slow third movement from Shostakovich's Sonata for Viola and Piano interrupts the R-K Orientalia, foreshadowing the second act, whose soundtrack is the entire, 70-minute Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905.

Onstage, the second act runs out of ideas fairly quickly as Vaslav goes crazy, his brother Stanislaw (the amazing Konstantin Tselikov) goes crazy, and the entire world in the person of World War One goes crazy. The latter is represented by dancers running around in unbuttoned shirts and underwear like Chippendale Soldiers, which was borderline silly, but somehow made no difference. The dancers and movement were so good that what it all meant ceased to matter after a while. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra gave a mesmerizing account of the powerful score with probably half the players that the San Francisco Symphony employed for their great performance of the Shostakovich 11th last fall.

There is one final performance Tuesday evening, and I would recommend the show highly. In fact, I may return for a standing room stint to see the main cast Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky and to hear the Shostakovich symphony again. Click here for the SF Ballet website for any remaining tickets.

Saturday evening continued with Opera Parallele's production of Ainadamar, the 2005 Osvaldo Golijov opera about the assassination of the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca by the Falangists in 1936. Though downtown's Yerba Buena Center, where the piece was being performed this weekend, is not in the Civic Center Performing Arts Center, the Opera Parallele company is definitely a part of the neighborhood. Conductor Nicole Paiement teaches and conducts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she skims the cream of the musical crop for her orchestras and singing actors. Director Brian Staufenbiel usually conducts most of his rehearsals at the Conservatory or the nearby Kanbar Performing Arts Center.

The production displayed the usual Opera Parallele virtues: a visually beautiful production that was musically exquisite thanks to Paiement and her uniformly good cast, along with thoughtful direction. My only problem was with the opera itself. Though not a particular Golijov fan, I enjoyed the Ainadamar original cast recording with Dawn Upshaw. Even with prerecorded gunshots and horses' hooves and other electronic sounds, the score is gentle, written for about 90% female voices, and the girls' choruses sound like the beautiful final girls' chorus at the end of John Adams's oratorio, El Nino.

Listening to the recording, though, insulates one from the banality of David Henry Hwang's libretto which is about a famous poet but which conveys not a single ounce of poetry. As the late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote about Man of La Mancha, "The lyrics sound as if they had been translated from Esperanto," and so does this libretto, which may partly be on account of Hwang writing it in English, and then having it translated into Spanish. The libretto's insistently heterosexual take on a gay character was also weird, especially since Lorca (like Nijinsky) has been a Legendary Gay Artistic Martyr among global subcultures since the day of his death. At least Nijinsky conveyed that historical reality.

I had no problem with Federico Garcia Lorca as a trouser role for a low-lying soprano, but why is the character such a complete cipher? It's hard to care if he/she is killed, especially since in this production the fine singer Lisa Chavez looks like Wayne Newton about to launch into Danke Schon. On a more positive note, Jesus Montoya as the Flamenco Singer bad guy was electrifying, while Maya Kherani and John Bischoff confirmed once again that their voices are joys to behold, and my guest who loves flamenco liked the dancers led by La Tania very much. The womens' and girls' choruses, who seemed to be the only people onstage or in the pit who weren't amplified, were musically lovely.

Sunday afternoon was spent at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony featuring a splashy program with the young Pablo Heras-Casado above conducting. The program started with a recent Magnus Lindberg ten-minute curtain raiser called EXPO, which my guest liked. "It sounds like 21st Century Sibelius," he said, which is about right. The second half of the program was Prokofiev's World War Two era Fifth Symphony, which sounded bombastic and nothing more. I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the same music in 2008, and thought the symphony masterful, so I'm going to put the blame on the young Spanish maestro who doesn't seem to understand the harmonies or rhythms of this composer quite yet. Most of the audience, by the way, loved the loud assault and gave the performance a standing ovation.

In between, the pianist Stephen Hough above gave the other highlight performance of my culturally overloaded weekend, playing the Liszt Second Piano Concerto with an amazing mixture of precision and abandon. At certain moments, Hough's hands were moving so fast that I saw motion blur that looked like an inadequate frame rate for capturing speed, except the effect was in real time. It was a privilege watching and hearing him in action, and a joy to live in a neighborhood where performances like this are happening.


AphotoAday said...

Don't know if you noticed, but while all that fiddling was going on, San Francisco burned to the ground.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Donald: I did not notice, but thanks for the update.

Axel Feldheim said...

What a championship arts-going weekend you had! I agree with you completely about the Golijov. At the moment I'm having a hard time finding anyone who thinks highly of his music. I suspect that his multi-culti background makes him attractive to arts organizations, though. Hiring David Henry Hwang and then having to translate his English libretto into Spanish makes no sense, other than to attach a famous playwright's name to the project.

I was curious to hear Heras-Casado but frightened by the possibility of an overblown Prokofiev, as you seem to have experienced.