Monday, June 30, 2014

Peter Grimes Is At His Exercise

Every opera fanatic is created differently. My conversion arrived at the San Francisco Opera House one evening in 1976. I had sporadically attended operas with $3 standing room tickets because I loved classical music, but thought the art form was mostly absurd, an excuse for rich old people to be entertained by fancy costumes, sets and jet-setting singers. Then I saw Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, and was completely overwhelmed by the experience. It helped that Grimes was performed by the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose mixture of convincing brutality and poetic tenderness will probably never be surpassed, but the entire cast and production was wonderful, with Sir Geraint Evans directing while playing Captain Balstrode, Heather Harper as Ellen Orford, and John Pritchard conducting.

It turned out that Peter Grimes is not a foolproof opera, and in the intervening decades I walked out of a 1994 production at the Metropolitan Opera with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Renee Fleming because just about everybody onstage looked like they would rather be doing something else, like shopping for Christmas presents. In 1998 I was onstage as a supernumerary in that same San Francisco Opera production from the 1970s, with Thomas Moser as Grimes, and though he did a creditable job, that galvanizing excitement I remembered was noticeably absent even though Donald Runnicles' conducting was exquisite. Finally, the San Francisco Symphony offered a "semi-staged" production last week in Davies Hall as the capstone to their Britten Centennial Celebration which was so extraordinarily well done that I fell in love with the opera all over again. Plus, I noticed a number of first timers to the piece who were obviously as powerfully moved as myself all those years ago. This was a complete and unexpected triumph.

Much credit must go not only to music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra playing at their best, but to the stage director and costume designer James Darrah. Along with scenic and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock and video designer Adam Larsen, he transformed the large barn that is Davies Hall into an evocative staging area. Best of all, the staging was simple and to the point, as were the projections which were understated and suggestive. Creating an open strip between the two projection screens for the huge chorus was a brilliant stroke, especially since they are in many ways the major character in the opera. Under director Ragnar Bohlin, the SF Symphony Chorus did themselves proud, giving the most perfect and soul-stirring account of their music that I have ever heard live or on recordings. In the final scene, as the village is searching for Grimes in the fog and singing his name, the chorus spread out through Davies Hall and created one of the most sensurround musical stagings of Grimes' final mad scene ever experienced.

The casting throughout was luxurious and in Sunday's performance felt almost alchemical, particularly the men's smaller roles which are half-comic 19th century British village types, from the drunk to the lawyer to the minister and so on. Pictured above (left to right) are Rafael Karpa-Wilson as the mute boy apprentice, chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, Kevin Langan as Hobson, Kim Begley as Horace Adams, Eugene Brancoveanu as Ned Keene, and John Relyea as Mr. Swallow. (Not pictured but equally fine was Richard Cox as Bob Boles.)

Alan Opie (above left) did a beautiful job as Captain Balstrode, one of the few characters in the village sympathetic to the troubled, brooding fisherman Peter Grimes who was sung in a performance by Stuart Skelton that was as close to the legendary Jon Vickers as I have seen. What makes the character so fascinating is that on the outside he is a solitary, brooding brute who treats his succession of work-house orphans terribly while on the inside there is a poetic dreamer capable of philosophical tenderness, something that only an opera could express so perfectly. In the first scenes, Grimes is musically gruff and defensive, but near the end of the first act, he suddenly bursts into a soliloquy, "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades..." that is one of the saddest, most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Skelton nailed it and most of the house was in tears.

The widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford is the main female role in the opera and she's usually something of a cipher, making one wonder why this nice lady is enabling a monster in the abuse of his boy apprentices. In Elza van den Heever's magnificent performance, it was finally understandable. Unlike everybody else in the village, she intuits Grimes' better nature, and van den Heever's horror when she realizes that she's been wrong about halfway through the opera is almost unbearably sad. Elza completely inhabited the role and with her huge soprano easily soared over the ensembles and choruses without strain. As she stood crying at the front of the auditorium while Peter goes off to commit suicide at sea and the chorus of villagers reprise their opening chorus, she grounded the entire production in reality.

Britten was a snob about other composers, with finely tuned likes and dislikes, including an early adoration of Beethoven that turned into contempt later in adulthood. One composer he always worshiped, however, was Verdi and this huge, breakthrough piece often feels like a Verdi opera miraculously fashioned for the 20th century. Thank you to the San Francisco Symphony for doing it justice.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gay Pride in Civic Center

What a pretty day it has turned out to be for the annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. Be careful out there, though. The event has devolved into a alcohol-fueled fest for young suburbanites, many of them straight, who want to party in public for free, rather like Cinco de Mayo or St. Patrick's Day. My advice is to exit Civic Center early before they get too drunk and violent.

Friday, June 27, 2014


Last weekend Opera Parallele presented its second and final opera of its 2014 season, Anya17, a recent work by the British composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye. The subject was sex trafficking, which seems to have replaced the Sudan as the Western world's social cause of the moment. The story treatment was unrelentingly grim, in an upsetting mixture of what felt like English sexual sadism layered over an account of Eastern European brutality towards women. One blog, whose author John Marcher confesses to enjoying torture porn horror films, called it "vile and disgusting," while Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle panned the opera while mentioning that "the degradation and brutality on display are almost unbearable."

In truth, it wasn't all that rough, and I actually find both Wozzeck and Madama Butterfly (with its candy-coated sex trafficking) more disturbing. Part of the problem with Anya17 is that the women, especially Mila above who was performed by the first-rate Shawnette Sulker, are treated as pure victims without an ounce of personal agency, which ended up feeling oddly sexist. My experience of Eastern European women is that they are some of the toughest characters on the planet, but there was never a hint of that in the opera's libretto, except when the magnificent Catherine Cook as Natalia was playing a pimping procuress. I kept hoping the crazy Ukranian clone Helena from the deliriously enjoyable BBC America TV series Orphan Black would arrive and cut all the bad guys' throats before burning the whorehouse down. Instead, we have Gabriel, a "john with a heart of gold" (Kosman's apt description) who confronts the evil sex trafficker Viktor near the end, and as the program puts it, "They fight and Gabriel, against all odds, manages to kill Viktor."

Whatever the problems with the 80-minute, one-act opera's conception, the production by director Brian Staufenbiel above and his usual crew of collaborators was stunningly good. It was the best, most theatrical use of the Marine Memorial Theatre's small stage that I have witnessed, a melange of scrims, video projections, very good singers, a pair of dancers/supernumearies who could have been silly but were not, and an amazingly accomplished onstage chamber orchestra.

The music by Gorb (above right) was surprisingly good too. He has written a lot of pieces for woodwind ensembles and you could tell, because each instrument made its mark and the piece was endlessly inventive. I wasn't as impressed by his vocal writing, but the performances by everyone in the cast were committed and superb, including Anna Noggle in the title role above left.

It's hard for me to be objective about the Opera Parallele troupe because I've appeared in a number of their shows as a supernumerary, and my admiration for conductor and artistic director Nicole Paiement above only grows with each production. She is simply one of the best opera conductors in the world right now, and was recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Opera. I hope the San Francisco Opera (or SF Symphony) hire her to lead something before she's stolen away altogether because her musicianship is a local treasure.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Modern Elegance Meets Urban Vitality

A new 20-unit condo complex called Onyx Homes, with one-bedrooms starting at $779,000, has just gone up this year at the corner of De Haro and 16th Street at the base of Potrero Hill.

There was an Open House on Sunday, with door signage proclaiming that the complex was where "Modern Elegance Meets Urban Vitality."

I'm not sure if a street person emptying a trash can on the sidewalk in front of your modern, elegant condo is considered "urban vitality," but it sums up the present moment in San Francisco neatly, where bums and millionaires seem to be the only people surviving the latest tech gold rush.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Britten Centennial Celebration at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony continued its Britten Celebration with a performance of the composer's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and the British tenor Toby Spence and San Francisco horn player Robert Ward as soloists.

Most people loved the performance, but I found myself carping throughout. Spence's voice was beautiful but his diction was incomprehensible. Tilson Thomas led the strings on Saturday evening at an unvarying funeral procession pace, and Ward was too recessive for one of the more showy and poetic pieces ever written for his instrument. The real problem was that I heard an exciting and moving account of the Serenade four years ago, played by the New Century Chamber Orchestra with SF Opera Orchestra horn player Kevin Rivard and local tenor Brian Thorsett as soloists (click here for an account). I was crying throughout most of that performance and was steadfastly dry-eyed on Sunday.

Things picked up considerably when the full orchestra performed Shostakovich's 1971 Symphony No. 15, the last he ever wrote. It is one of the most profoundly eccentric compositions he ever created, meandering all over the place while quoting himself, Rossini (the Lone Ranger/William Tell theme) and Wagner. There were odd solos for just about every instrument in the huge ensemble, including Michael Grebanier on cello above, and the performance was completely absorbing. It seemed odd to program it during what is supposed to be a Britten festival, but at least the two composers knew each other and above all respected the others' music, which was the ultimate compliment because they were both musical geniuses and snobbishly dismissive of most of their other contemporaries.

The festival finishes up in grand fashion this week with three performances of Britten's stirring, breakthrough opera of 1945, Peter Grimes, starring tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Elza van den Heever who looks and sounds born to play Ellen Orford. The chorus is really the main character in this opera about a bleak English fishing village, and it should be thrilling to hear the Symphony Chorus have a crack at the music. The performances are on Thursday, Friday and Sunday afternoon, and there are $50 tickets available in the orchestra section (click here to check it out). There is also a special concert on Saturday evening involving the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, if you happen to hate operatic singing, that will be accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner. This is paired with a repeat of Britten's The Prince of The Pagoda Suite which was sensationally exciting music when the Symphony played it two weeks ago. Click here for tickets.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Pop Warner Brown Bombers in Civic Center

Last week a contingent of kids showed up in Civic Center for a Pop Warner team practice that was very entertaining to watch.

The usually homeless-filled lawns of Civic Center Plaza have been striped for kiddie soccer fields lately to give a photo-op to Phil Ginsburg and the SF Rec & Park Department during the World Cup broadcasts, but the dirty little secret of the department is that they don't even bother creating recreational leagues, so they have to import them, even if it is for the wrong sport.

Last week it was the Brown Bombers from the Bayview neighborhood that had been invited to practice in public...

...and their adult coaches were great...

...insisting on excellence while not browbeating anyone.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gorgeous at the Asian

While the new, supersized SFMOMA is being built on Third Street, chunks of their collection have been showing up in other museums around the Bay Area. This summer it is the Asian Art Museum's turn with a high-concept show called Gorgeous, mixing and matching items from both museum's collections.

Many of the pieces from SFMOMA seemed chosen for their shock value, including another Mapplethorple photo of a naked black man (not pictured)...

...along with a couple of pop sculptures by Jeff Koons...

...including his infamous Michael Jackson and Bubbles surrounded by exquisite Asian screens.

Last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum there was another SFMOMA on-the-go show called Beyond Belief that was supposed to be an examination of spirituality.

Oddly enough, this exhibit is a more striking look at the spiritual, which directly informs most of the Asian art on display, and the material, which seems to be the subject one way or another or most of the contemporary Western art.

The Rothko painting above, which was featured in both shows, looks better here, guarded by a deity.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Os Gêmeos Mural at 6th & Market

Walking on Market Street between 7th and 5th Streets, I keep my eyes on the ground to avoid poop, and use peripheral vision to swerve around sidewalk drug deals and crazy people acting out in public. Late Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Ed Lee was conducting a walking tour of the Tenderloin and for the first time in my experience there were beat cops galore walking Market Street, which allowed me to look up, which is how I noticed a striking mural on the side of a building on the corner of 6th Street.

The mural was created by the identical twin Brazilian graffiti artists Os Gêmeos (born Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo in 1974) who have become international art stars over the last couple of decades. The piece was commissioned by the Luggage Story Gallery which resides on an upper floor in the building. The mural went up last fall which tells you how long since I've looked skyward walking these streets.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Prince of The Pagodas

In the winter of 1955-56, the composer Benjamin Britten (above right) had anemia and needed a holiday after an historically prolific writing schedule over the previous decade. Accompanied by his tenor partner Peter Pears (above left) and the German Prince of Hesse and his English wife (above center), the quartet set off across Europe where Britten and Pears gave two-man recitals of his music, and then continued on to India, Singapore and Java. It was Bali however that "knocked him sideways," especially its musical culture, according to a letter in the 1992 Humphrey Carpenter biography of the composer. In another letter to his assistant Imogen Holst (daughter of composer Gustav Holst and a fascinating character in her own right), Britten wrote:
"The music is fantastically rich--melodically, rhythmically, texture (such orchestration!) & above all formally. It is a remarkable culture. We are lucky in being taken around everywhere by an intelligent Dutch musicologist--so we go to rehearsals, find out about & visit cremations, trance dances, shadow plays--a bewildering richness. At last I'm beginning to catch on to the technique, but it's about as complicated as Schoenberg."

Before the trip began, the British choreographer John Cranko was commissioned by Covent Garden to create a full-length, three-act ballet and he asked Britten's advice about possible composers. According to Carpenter, "Cranko was astonished and delighted to find that Britten was keen to undertake it himself." The project turned out to be much more work than Britten anticipated, and in a letter to a friend he wrote, "I've never written so many notes in my life--all those bits of thistledown dancing on the stage actually need a tremendous amount of music."

In the meantime, the visit to Bali and the Asian fairy-tale scenario devised by Cranko blossomed into one of my all-time favorite Britten scores, written with one eye on Tchaikovsky as a model and a gamelan orchestra on the other. There's really nothing quite like it, except in a few scores by Lou Harrison who was also entranced by Balinese music. The British composer and musicologist Colin Matthews has been quoted as saying, "for me The Prince of the Pagodas is the best Britten opera. It's such uninhibited music--something which of course isn't possible when you have to worry about voices."

Britten missed a number of deadlines before completing the final score, and conducted the first three performances himself in 1957. The ballet was a success, playing for 23 performances, a tour of America, and a production at La Scala. And then the ballet virtually disappeared outside of England for the next 60 years, which is bizarre and shameful since it may be the greatest 20th century ballet score written by anyone other than Stravinsky or Prokofiev. There is a great recording from 1957 of a slightly abridged version of the ballet conducted by Britten himself, and there is a long orchestral suite created by Deryck Cooke that was played by the San Francisco Symphony last week as part of their Britten festival this month. The concert on Sunday afternoon started with a performance of a gamelan orchestra piece by the East Bay troupe Gamelan Sekar Jaya above. It was lovely but made me wish we were wearing sarongs in impossible heat surrounded by pungent scents drinking a cold beer rather than sitting in Davies Hall. In other words, it didn't work as Western concert music.

The original program paired Britten with Shostakovich and his First Violin Concerto, but the soloist canceled and Gil Shaham above came in to the rescue and they changed the program to Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. It's a cusp composition from 1935 for Prokofiev, just as he was ready to leave the decadent West for a return to Mother Russia, as he puts his modernist, sarcastic brilliance aside for the most part and attempts simple lyricism instead.

Shaham is an elfin figure who likes to move and interact with everyone onstage while playing his violin which is enormously fun to watch. The first movement is a virtual sonata for violin and chamber string section, and he was in concertmaster Barantschik's face (above) during most of that time. They both seemed to enjoy it immensely. The second movement is impossibly sweet and beautiful, and the third movement reminds you that Prokofiev was the king of demonic, dynamic rhythms.

As enjoyable as all this was, I wish the San Francisco Symphony had really been ambitious and performed the entire ballet score, or at least the 90 minute abridged version on Britten's recording. The suite sounds completely disjointed, and Michael Tilson Thomas' conducting was rather manic, with the loud and propulsive sections amped up to the max and the soft, lyrical moments stretched out and losing their rhythmic pulse altogether. This would have also been a good occasion to play with multimedia because the audience was completely lost as to what was going on during the 50-minute suite in what is supposed to be a narrative ballet, and some visuals would have helped immensely.

None of that really matters, though, because the performance of the various sections of the orchestra were superb and exciting, particularly the huge percussion ensemble above who gave the most virtuosic display of a Western orchestra going gamelan that has ever been heard.

Monday, June 16, 2014

US vs. Ghana in Civic Center Plaza

What a difference a home team makes for attendance at the World Cup telecasts in Civic Center Plaza.

The director of SF Rec & Park, Phil Ginsburg above, was giving speeches during half time at the United States vs. Ghana match where he was trying to lead the large crowd in dumb chants.

Nobody needed much encouragement because the crowd was already thoroughly absorbed and happy about the match with the underdog United States ahead 1-0.

Meanwhile, my friend Janos Gereben (not pictured) was insistently emailing his long list of friends, demanding, "Are You Watching This?"

When I told him to relax, that it was only a game, his response was swift. "Just a game? What an ignoramus. You're talking to somebody from the city where 18 people committed suicide when Hungary lost to Germany in the World Cup [in 1954]. When Hungary lost to Germany in the war, nobody cared. There is football and then everything else."

I needed to use the bathroom so didn't stay for the entire second half in Civic Center but watched the game at home instead on Univision in Spanish where the coverage and announcers are more fun and authoritative than their gringo TV counterparts. After Ghana made a late, tying goal, the United States somehow managed a miracle head-butting goal with only minutes to spare and pulled ahead to win the game in thrilling fashion.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

World Cup Telecasts at Civic Center Plaza

Saturday morning there was a large screen in Civic Center Plaza broadcasting World Cup games to a few spectators, yet another poorly executed, self-congratulatory initiative undertaken by San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department.

The broadcast was appreciated by the young man above, though, who seemed to find it a perfect accompaniment for his sunbathing on the hard-packed ground of the plaza.

Thankfully, a group of Colombians showed up to cheer on their country's team in its first match against Greece, which they eventually won. The upcoming telecast schedule, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, is as follows: Three games each will be broadcast on Monday and Tuesday, June 16th and 17th, from 9AM to 6PM. The big screen will return for another three-game marathon on Sunday, June 22nd, and also on Thursday, June 26th from 9AM to 3PM. After a long hiatus, they will be broadcasting the semifinals on Wednesday, July 9th at 1PM and the Finals at noon on Sunday, July 13th. Be sure to bring a lawn chair.