Friday, May 29, 2015

The Palm Springs Buzz

Palm Springs is experimenting with a free bus loop on its two major roadways, Palm Canyon and Indian Canyon Drives.

The buses run every 15 minutes from 11AM to 1AM Thursday through Sunday in an attempt to get tourists and residents out of their cars, particularly after they have been drinking.

The vehicles are designed as motorized trolley cars, with passengers facing each other across a central aisle, while radio station rock music plays in the background.

The trial trolleys are being called The BUZZ and their brightly colored paint jobs have become a new local landmark.

They are still working out some of the kinks, such as inadequate signage and sun shelters at the various stops around town, but it's a remarkable attempt at introducing public transportation to auto-addicted Southern Californians, who seem to love the service.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Hung Liu Summons Ghosts in Palm Springs

The first major survey of the art of Hung Liu was organized by the Oakland Museum of California in 2013, traveled to the Kemper Art Museum in Kansas City, and made its final stop at the Palm Springs Art Museum. It's the rare knockout exhibit that makes you look differently at the world after seeing it.

Hung Liu was born in Changchung, China in 1948, survived a Cultural Revolution reeducation work camp in the 1960s, and emigrated to California in 1984, where she studied at UC San Diego and became a professor at Oakland's Mills College. Her combination of archival photography, drip painting, and sculptural elements is utterly original, and her images of mostly women and children laborers in extreme situations manage to be equally disturbing and beautiful. (Photo above is by Paul Andrews for KCUR.)

Upstairs at the Palm Springs Art Museum is a collection of gold sculptures by Ai Weiwei of the Chinese animal zodiac that look inconsequential and mannered next to Hung Liu's art, though a set was recently auctioned off in New York City for over 4 million dollars.

It is odd to keep keep stumbling across great, little known Bay Area artists while at the Palm Springs Art Museum rather than in San Francisco. Six years ago it was Mexico City turned Bay Area artist Enrique Chagoya who was the major revelation.

There's something endlessly charming about the museum as tourists happily take selfies with Duane Hansen sculptures...

...and whatever art complements one's finest desert casuals.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Palm Springs Perfection

Recharging for two weeks poolside in Palm Springs with 80 degree temperatures is some kind of perfection. To add to the pleasure, after decades of working as a freelancer, I am enjoying the first paid holiday of my life from a "real" job I took on last year. Sometimes life is good.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Stephen Hough Plays Chopin and Debussy at SFJAZZ

The British pianist Stephen Hough above just spent a fortnight performing a piano recital of music by Chopin and Debussy. According to Hough's blog entry about the concerts, it was "London on Tuesday, then Manchester and Glyndebourne; and the following week Boston, New York and San Francisco." The final concert was hosted by San Francisco Performances and held in the relative intimacy of the SFJAZZ Center, which made most of those attending feel very lucky.

The program was unusual, with the four Ballades of Chopin in the middle surrounded by Debussy pieces, with La plus que lente and Estampes in the front and Children's Corner and L'isle joyeuse in the back. It turned out to be an inspired stroke of programming, though, and the concert grew more absorbing and virtuosically difficult as it went along, with a sweet respite at the Children's Corner before the voluptuous island finale which Debussy confessed, "Lord, but it's difficult to play."

Hough writes about the two composers on the program:
"They were both romantics on the surface but underneath Chopin was a classicist in his tastes...whereas Debussy was, arguably, the first modernist (hat tip: Pierre Boulez) with his revolutionary approach to form and harmony and his exploration of a musical language fragmenting into a new vocabulary and meaning...

The [Chopin] Ballades are stories – epic tales, in scope if not in length, operas in miniature. All of the Debussy pieces are poems, vastly suggestive beyond their duration in time or their presence in aural space."

Hough is one of the most technically amazing pianists I have ever witnessed, and there were moments in the quicker sections where his hands turned into virtual motion blur in front of your eyes, all while maintaining the most perfect musical clarity. Add to this a scary-smart intelligence along with beautiful musical instincts and you have an artist who is very special. The performance surpassed expectations, and the extraordinarily quiet and attentive audience gave him the attention he deserved.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sausalito Ferryboat Workaday Getaway

The ferry boat from Sausalito to the San Francisco Ferry Building and back is one of the greatest public transportation commutes in the world.

There's a coffee-in-the-morning, alcohol-in-the-afternoon bar, views that make tourists go crazy with their cameras...

...and lots of cute, romantic visitors mixed in with locals.

If you work in downtown San Francisco and want to get away to another country for a couple of hours, I can't recommend a quick trip on the Sausalito ferry strongly enough.

The Marin Golden Gate transit agency clips the tourists with a one-way fare of $10.75, but if you use a Clipper card, presumably making you a local commuter, the fare is $5.50, one of the great nautical deals around.

Once in Sausalito you can do the shopping thing, have lunch and/or a drink, or simply sit along the shoreline and absorb the beauty.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mahler and Bernstein Conducted by MTT

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to town after a long hiatus with a program that looked superb on paper, but which turned out to be a disappointment. The first half was devoted to Leonard Bernstein's Symphony #2 which was supposed to be a loose musical interpretation of W.H. Auden's long World War Two era poem, The Age of Anxiety, about a group of New York barflies who spend a night together.

Many of Bernstein's attempts at "serious" composing during the 1940s and 1950s sound like they were lifted directly from Prokofiev, and much of this symphony sounded like a subpar Prokofiev piano concerto. There is a section near the end of the 30-minute piece where the sound gets jazzy, and the piano, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet above, duets with the percussion section. You can finally hear Bernstein's actual composing voice and the effect is exciting, but it doesn't last very long. I heard David Robertson conduct this orchestra in the symphony in 2005, and thought the piece was a goofy mess that was fun and interesting, but in Sunday's matinee performance it simply sounded like a mess.

The second half was devoted to Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and I was wondering which MTT was going to show up to conduct, the inspired genius who elevates the orchestra into another sphere or what I think of as the taffy-puller Tilson Thomas where the conductor takes every pretty phrase and stretches them out so all tension and sense of musical line vanishes. Unfortunately, it was the latter guy on the podium, and the performance fell flat. In recent months, the San Francisco Symphony has sounded like one of the greatest orchestras in the world under a series of guest conductors such as Pablo Heras-Casado and Vasily Petrenko. It's a little disconcerting to have the Music Director return and the musical quality fall so noticeably, including a brass section plagued with flubs all afternoon long. Let's hope it was just a hiccup.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Virtual Shrubbery in Civic Center

Yet another large party tent has gone up in Civic Center Plaza this weekend for some upcoming private event, and the new wrinkle this time is the fake photoreal covering on the chain link fence which has the appearance of natural shrubbery. With sleeping street people and Falun Gong devotees on the outskirts of the faux shrub exterior, the sight was genuinely surreal.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Joni Mitchell Worship at SFJAZZ Center

The SFJAZZ Center is holding its annual Gala Fundraiser this evening, and the guest of honor was originally scheduled to be Joni Mitchell in an evening devoted to her music. Unfortunately, Joni ended up in a Los Angeles hospital recently, in a confusingly reported condition reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor's many near-death experiences over the decades, so she was unable to attend the gala where everyone from Kris Kristofferson and Joe Jackson and Patti Austin are singing her songs.

I first heard the album Ladies of the Canyon as a Southern California teenager while falling tragically in love, and it became a personal soundtrack. Some years later, while visiting a friend in Humboldt County, I was in a car driven by a funny young, flannel-shirt lesbian listening to the radio when Joni's latest song from The Hissing of Summer Lawns was played. It was all about wealthy people being alienated, and about halfway through, the driver switched to another station with, "I can't relate, Joni." Close to 30 years later, while looking for soundtrack music, I listened to every album Joni ever produced, and all of it was unexpectedly great. The early, middle and late work were all distinctive, and there was a belated realization that Joni is probably the greatest songwriter of my generation.

I heard her live twice, sort of. The first time was at the Concord "Sleep Train" Pavilion in 2000 in one of Joni's final tours, with a full orchestra, singing American standards and her own songs in a low contralto (click here for an example). The second time was in 2009 when the New York performance artist John Kelly brought his drag incarnation of the young, high soprano Joni to the old ODC theater (click here for a clip of him singing "Blue.") It was one of the oddest, loveliest performances imaginable, and when Joni saw the show for herself she was amused and enchanted, and came backstage to give Kelly her dulcimer to use in future shows (click here for the backstage video).

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Why You Should Buy a Ticket to The Trojans

It's rare for this blog to urge people to buy a ticket to any particular musical event for a number of reasons. Live performances are unpredictable by nature so that what looks great on paper can turn out to be a dull disappointment (and reversed, a happy surprise). People's musical tastes are also so varied that it's a bit presumptious to insist that something is a must-see. So let me just say it plainly. Buy a ticket for the San Francisco Opera's June production of Hector Berlioz's mammoth opera, Les Troyens, a five-and-a-half hour adaptation of Virgil's Aeneid. (Click here to find tickets.)

In the late 1970s I had an operation that made it almost impossible to sit down for about a month, and I ended up laying in bed reading the most entertaining autobiography of a 19th century artist ever written, the French composer Hector Berlioz's Memoires. He knew everyone, from Paganini to Liszt to Georges Sand, and wrote about them all in a prose style that recalls Stendahl in its clarity and wit.

The two literary gods for Berlioz were Virgil and Shakespeare, and one of his lifelong projects, besides inventing the modern role of the orchestra conductor, was to translate Virgil's Aeneid into a Paris Grand Opera, which was the most sumptuous genre in the entire Western World at the time. Rather like London and New York have been since World War Two, Paris was the center of cultural distribution for most of the 19th century, and you needed to make it there for the rest of the world to take one seriously, which is why there are so many French Grand Opera versions of Rossini and Verdi operas. Unfortunately, Berlioz's music was too eccentric for contemporary taste and he had made too many political enemies as a journalist over the decades, so that his grandest creation, Les Troyens, was never properly produced in full in his lifetime. In fact, it was close to 100 years later that the opera was finally given its due in a production conducted by Colin Davis at Covent Garden in the late 1950s.

Les Troyens is actually two operas. The first focuses on Cassandra and her unheeded prophecies about the fall of Troy which ends with the mass onstage suicide of its aristocratic women to save their honor from the conquerers. The second focuses on the love story between Dido and Aeneas in Carthage, which contains long stretches of the most exquisitely beautiful music ever written, and the saddest ending imaginable when Aeneas leaves Dido to go off and found Italie.

The production at SF Opera comes from Covent Garden, directed by David McVicar, and it's received reviews that make it sound perfectly serviceable and visually interesting. The singers are the best you could find in the world for these parts right now, with the starry young Bryan Hymel singing the impossibly long and difficult role of Aeneas, Susan Graham as Dido, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra, and Sasha Cooke and Brian Mulligan as part of the subsidiary luxury casting. Donald Runnicles, the great former Music Director of the SF Opera, is returning to conduct. Let me reiterate. This is the one performance you don't want to miss this year, or you will be shamed by cultured friends forever. I'll probably be hanging out in balcony standing room at most of the performances because the chances to see and hear this opera doesn't come along very often. (Photo above of the Trojan Horse in the London production by Bill Cooper.)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Klinghoffer Choruses in Berkeley

The Berkeley Symphony's ambitious final concert of the season was given Thursday evening in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. The program paired Mozart's Requiem with choruses from the controversial 1991 Israel-Palestine political opera, The Death of Klinghoffer by Berkeley composer John Adams who was in attendance.

The major problem for the opera's detractors, who were out in force during the opera's belated New York Metropolitan Opera debut last fall, is that it challenges and complicates the narrative of Evil Terrorist Muslim Maniacs slaughtering Innocent Jewish Victims by depicting the Palestinian terrorists as human beings rather than abstractions. Using the awful incident of a 1980s hijacking of a Mediterranean cruise ship that goes awry, which ends with an elderly, wheelchair-bound, New York Jewish tourist being thrown overboard to his death, the opera examines the victim narratives of both cultures, making it quite clear that this has been accreting over centuries whether the contemporary players are aware of it or not. Another reason for the violent reaction to the opera is that the libretto by the gifted poet Alice Goodman is an insider's jab at the "romantic nationalism" of Zionism. In a great 2012 interview in The Guardian, Goodman relates:
"I saw my [Episcopal spiritual] director yesterday, and I mentioned this [opera] had caused a great amount of controversy and had been very tough and that I hadn't done anything else since and he said, 'Why was that?' And I said, 'Well, because the bad people in it are not entirely bad and the good people are not entirely good.'"

This, she argues, was her mistake: to depict terrorists as human beings and their victims as flawed. In one particularly caustic attack in the New York Times in 2001, Richard Taruskin denounced the opera for "romanticising terrorists". Taruskin noted that Adams had said the opera owed its structure to Bach's Passions. But in Bach's Passions, argued Taruskin, every time Jesus is heard, an aureole of violins and violas gives Christ the musical equivalent of a halo. Klinghoffer has no such halo, while the Palestinian choruses are accompanied by the most beautiful music in the opera.

"What upset Taruskin was giving beautiful music to terrorists," snaps Goodman. "They have to sing ugly music. There has to be the equivalent of a drumroll when [1960s cartoon villain] Snidely Whiplash comes in because – God help us – we can't have complexity. People will love evil if we give terrorists beautiful music to sing and we can't have that, can we? Sorry, I can hear my voice becoming high-pitched and irritable.

"There's a certain romanticism to the hijackers and that's something, again, that Taruskin picks upon. But the trouble is they think romanticism is good. Romanticism good, romanticism attractive. I don't think that. I actually think the most dangerous thing in the world is romantic nationalism. Not religion, but romantic nationalism. And if it's true, it's also true for Israel. Israel is not exempt from the problem I have with romantic nationalism. If it's an evil, it's an evil all over the world."

The opera was co-commissioned by a half dozen opera companies, premiering in Brussels in 1991, going to a few other European locations, and then arriving at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the Klinghoffer family and the Jewish Defense League were out front picketing the performances. From there, the Peter Sellars directed production, with the Mark Morris dance troupe as its luxury ballet contingent, came to San Francisco and Sellars decided to add about two dozen supernumeraries to his very abstract production. Happily, one of those extra numbers playing Achille Lauro hostages was myself, which is how I grew to love the music from the inside out. In truth, the recitative sections moving along the plot didn't strike me as particularly successful, but the many, large choruses commenting poetically on the action were breakthrough music for John Adams, and are still breathtakingly beautiful. They are also harder than hell to perform, which is another reason this piece is never going to be a community opera staple like Carmen.

The San Francisco Opera Chorus in the early 1990s, one of the most sophisticated groups of musical sight-readers I have ever known, required flesh-colored band-aids on their hands with personalized notation to keep up with the rapid shifts in complex time signatures throughout the score. It also did not help that Adams was conducting, a skill he's improved on over the years, but in those days it was pretty rough. Adams also doesn't appreciate or write for big, vibrato filled operatic voices, and the SF Opera Chorus was quintessentially that sound. However, the Chorus eventually gave some of the greatest performances in their long history in this opera, and I've never heard the music sound better, more impassioned or more precise than their rendition.

With the sound of those performances still residing in my brain twenty-plus years later, the Berkeley Symphony performance conducted by Joana Carneiro and the beefed-up University Chorus under Marika Kuzma felt slightly overmatched by this music. It was a joy to hear five of the seven choruses from the opera live, and phrases from them have been suddenly reappearing as odd earworms for the last four days in my brain, but this music can sound so much better. Part of the problem could be the horrible Zellerbach Auditorium acoustics which even the wizards at Meyer Sound cannot mitigate, as hard as they try.

John Adams licenses the Klinghoffer Choruses with the liberating proviso that the presenting musical organization can perform as many or as few of the seven choruses as they want. What I would like to suggest to Adams is that he add to that collection the finale, where Marilyn Klinghoffer sings an aria to The Captain that starts "You embraced them..." and winds around a wordless chorus that is some of my favorite music in the world. It would make for a fitting ending to an abbreviated Klinghoffer Singspiel.