Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Monteverdi Madrigals with Magnificat

An unusually beautiful and accomplished concert of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi was performed on Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church by Magnificat, a Bay Area ensemble under cellist/artistic director Warren Stewart (above center) that specializes in 17th century music. I had never heard them before, but the group has been around for over two decades, and if this concert was any indication, the loss was mine.

After an opening "madrigale morale" called O ciechi, ciechi about the the vanity of pursuing land and treasures while paying no attention to your soul, soprano Christine Brandes sang a long love letter song, Se i languidi miei sguardi. Brandes was in great voice and dramatically intense, making one almost understand the 17th century Italian without consulting the program. The continuo accompaniment by harpsichordist/organist Jillon Stoppels Dupree above was understated and compelling all afternoon.

There were a pair of instrumental pieces by Monteverdi's contemporaries, the Sonata Decimaquinta by Dario Costello and the Sonato in Eco per tre violini by Biago Marini, where the bearded Rob Diggins above played a solo sonata that was echoed from hidden locations by other violinists in the back of the church. The effect was magical. (Pictured above are David Wilson, Rob Diggins, and Jolianne Einem.)

The first half of the program ended with the proto-opera, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, where tenor Aaron Sheehan did a spectacular job narrating the sad story of Tancredi and Clorinda fighting and killing each other during the Crusades. Long ago I owned a recording by the English early music specialist Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra of this piece, but Leppard orchestrated the madrigal with brass and extra strings. Though the sound was entertaining, Monteverdi's music stripped down to its essentials as it was meant to be performed is more dramatically engaging, as this performance and West Edge Opera's recent production of Il Ritorno di Ulisse demonstrated.

The second half was filled with more treasures, including a sublime soprano duet between Brandes and soprano Jennifer Paulino, Ohime dov'e mil ben.

There was also a hilarious parody of a War Madrigal where the enemy is Love and the soldiers completely unequipped to claim victory against this insidious foe which turns their lives upside down. Throughout the entire afternoon, the vocal mixture between the five vocalists (two sopranos, one tenor, one countertenor, and one bass) was extraordinarily smooth and rich. Pictured above are the vanquished by Love soldiers: tenor Andrew Sheehan, countertenor Andrew Rader, and bass Robert Stafford. The finale was Ballo: Tirse e Clori, a pastoral duet between Paulino and Sheehan, which turned into a choral ballet for the entire ensemble. It was exquisite and fun.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

SF Symphony Opening Gala

The San Francisco Symphony opened its 104th season on Thursday at Davies Hall with the usual hoopla: dinners, wine, parties, a few musical bon-bons performed by the orchestra and a quartet of vocal soloists, more parties, and dancing.

The press were wined and dined in a room of their own, including Stephen Smoliar and his wife Linda above. Like the San Francisco Symphony, she had just returned from a European tour.

The concert's first half was the orchestra sounding in superior form playing Respighi's flashy Roman Festivals, with principal trumpeter Mark Inouye leading the way in the huge brass fanfares. The second half was devoted to Broadway musicals, featuring selections from Carousel, South Pacific and My Fair Lady. Nathan Gunn sounded unusually woolly in Some Enchanted Evening, Alexandra Silver as Eliza Doolittle was fun to watch but sang off-pitch, and Kelsey Grammer was unexpectedly good as Henry Higgins. The musical highlight was "special surprise guest" Stephanie Blythe above who knocked everyone out with a hall-ringing rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.

Afterwards, there was an outdoor party on Grove Street between Davies Hall and the SF Opera House, along with a lavish tent affair...

...complete with cocktails, more food...

...and a Michael Jackson cover band called Neverland who were surprisingly good.

Lindsey Bacolini above posed for a photo with her Haight-Ashbury neighbor Norman who attends seemingly every classical music concert in San Francisco.

The evening was tremendously fun from beginning to end.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Ailyn Perez and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra scheduled soprano soloist Susanna Phillips to join their opening concerts of the season but she canceled at the last moment. Her replacement was Ailyn Perez, jetting into San Francisco between assignments at La Scala and the Dallas Opera. For sheer glamor and radiant beauty, Ms. Perez turned out to be hard to top, making even the audience feel frumpy in comparison.

She sounded beautiful too, in Rachmaninoff's wordless Vocalise, where she spun out one perfect "Ah..." after another with the string orchestra backing her.

The concert started with the 1994 Trisagion, a 15-minute piece of mystic minimalism by the Estonian composer Arvo Part in a transfixing, meditative performance.

It continued with a trio of string pieces by the contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon that were excerpted from larger works, containing lots of pizzicato plucking framing a serene piece of nature painting of the Grand Tetons called String Lake. It was particularly fun watching Isaac Melamed above leading the cello section because he seemed to so thoroughly enjoy himself while playing, rather like cellist Peter Wyrick at the San Francisco Symphony.

Music Director and Concertmaster Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg led the second half of the concert with a pair of contrasting Shostakovich pieces from 1931, an Elegy extracted from the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and a wild Polka taken from his ballet The Golden Age about a Soviet soccer team in Paris, of all things.

Perez returned in another gorgeous outfit for the long Letter aria from Tchaikowsky's opera, Eugene Onegin, where the teenaged Tatiana pours her heart out to her first love which is cruelly rejected by the title character.

It was a lovely performance and the irresistable final tune of the aria has become my earworm of the week.

Monday, September 21, 2015

SF War Memorial Veterans Building Reborn

For over two years, a huge, $150-million+ seismic retrofitting and construction "improvements project" has been taking place at the 1932 Veterans Building on the corner of Van Ness and McAllister next door to the opera house. Though the upgrade won't be finished until early next year, a substantial portion has been completed, and the first two floors of the four-story building were open for tours last week.

The ground floor lobby has been cleaned up, with the round kiosk in the center removed and spiffy new elevators replacing the old metallic monstrosities.

The Green Room on the second floor has gotten a new catering kitchen and bar, and been given a fresh coast of paint and gilding, making it look even more luxurious for your wedding reception party.

The outdoor balcony area off of the Green Room has been retiled and is looking very elegant.

The Veterans offices and meeting rooms have been moved from the first floor to the second, which includes a lovely men's room where you can look into my living room window if you pull up the large shade. (Be sure to wave.)

Herbst Theater, which extends to both the first and second floors, has never looked better. The clunky old 1970s style boxes have been replaced with plush, red velvet versions that are going to be a huge help with the acoustics in the hall.

Elizabeth Murray, Managing Director of the War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, detailed how the ugly paint scheme from the 1970s rehabilitation of the theater had been jettisoned for a simpler color scheme which helps to make the 1945 United Nations murals pop out from the background.

The Herbst Theatre stage used to have virtually no wings, and though it's still a bit cramped in terms of backstage space, the offices in the back of the first floor have been transformed into artists' dressing rooms, complete with natural streaming light.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of SF Opera

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, is making its San Francisco Opera debut in a mostly marvelous production from Paris, starring the remarkable baritone Brian Mulligan as the title character and Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime. (All photos by Cory Weaver.)

The original Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince on a huge Industrial Revolution steelworks set, was instantly legendary, though it only ran for 18 months. I still regret not attending the 1980 touring version at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco when it arrived with the original cast of George Hearn (replacing Len Cariou) and Angela Lansbury. It's a wild, strange musical, a black comedy where five principals are graphically murdered onstage in the last 20 minutes. The story was originally published as a serial in an 1846 London newspaper called a "penny dreadful" for its violent, salacious content. After many variations on the tale onstage and onscreen, playwright Christopher Bond wrote a London theatrical adaptation in the 1970s, which captivated Sondheim.

The musical score is extremely ambitious by traditional Broadway standards, requiring strong voices with perfect diction for Sondheim's witty, machine-gun rapid lyrics. The most comprehensible singers in this production are Matthew Grills as Tobias and Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett above, but in general it was impossible to understand the English lyrics, requiring what my friend Janos called "Supertitle Speed Reading." The biggest problem was the sound design by Tod Nixon and the disastrous amplification that was literally all over the place, which somehow made it difficult to understand what anyone was singing. The sound did improve between the first and third performances, with no crackling feedback like opening night, and the various mic levels sounded like they belonged on the same stage which was not the case at the opener.

I wish the production had decided against amplification altogether, particularly for the orchestra under conductor Patrick Summers, since the voices onstage were perfectly capable of being heard without microphones. Brian Mulligan has one of the most powerful, beautiful operatic baritones in the world right now and the great Stephanie Blythe not only sings well but turns out to be a deft comedienne.

There have been many versions of Sweeney Todd since its premiere, from bowdlerized high school productions, to the recent Tim Burton film with bad singers, to stripped down chamber versions where the singers play their own musical instruments, to the full operatic version seen here. They all have their champions, but I'm glad to have seen it for the first time at the San Francisco Opera. The British director Lee Blakeley has done a wonderful job, particularly with the opera chorus who play mobs of shoppers, diners, and lunatics with unusual flare, and the production does a skillful job of balancing the humor and the serious horror of the piece. The rest of the cast, headed by Heidi Stober, James Asher, Wayne Tigges, AJ Glueckert, Elizabeth Futral, and David Curry are all good actors and in fine voice, even when fighting with the sound design. Highly recommended, and there are four more performances, including tomorrow afternoon at 2PM.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Scenes from a Dreamforce

Howard Street between 3rd and 4th Streets in front of Moscone Center has been closed to auto traffic this week for the annual Salesforce convention named Dreamforce.

Plenty of people have been bitching about the inconvenience and the resulting traffic snarls downtown, but I like it.

Hanging out in an outdoor/indoor space with interesting working people downtown with no cars, no bicycles, and nothing but pedestrians should be considered as a permanent feature.

There were free cornhole games on the synthetic lawn on Tuesday...

...and the opportunity to mingle with odd celebrities...

...and drink free beer in the early evening.

I made my way through the expo and never did quite figure out what Salesforce did (thank the technology gods for Wikipedia), other than the San Francisco based global conglomerate had something to do with cloud computing and was an offshoot of Oracle.

Another vague picture from the media was that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is sort of the socially conscious yin to the piratical, dark yang of Oracle's Larry Ellison as they both acquire one company after another in an attempt to build the future.

The design of the booths and the giveaway swag and the attempts to wow were very well done...

...and the atmosphere was a mixture of half Grand Bazaar and half Barnum & Bailey.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

SF Opera Opening Gala 2015

The official opening of Society Season in San Francisco took place at the War Memorial Opera House for the 93rd year in a row on Friday night.

The perennial class struggle between the haves and have-nots is currently branded as "income inequality," and it was difficult not to think of the phrase while walking by.

This was reinforced by at least a dozen beat cops on the sidewalks around the opera house, a sight one rarely sees in San Francisco.

There's always been a populist, democratic streak at the San Francisco Opera House, though. On my last visit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, they didn't let the peasants into the building until a half hour before the performance because Society hadn't finished eating dinner under the Chagall murals. In San Francisco, there are inexpensive seats to be had on opening night in the balcony, and the standing room tickets are still an astonishingly low $10.

Above all, it's a social event rather like Giants Opening Day, where you can see old friends who share some of the same musical obsessions. I joined Charlise Tiee (above), the Opera Tattler, who was happily drinking bubbly with Terence Shek in the box level bar, one of my favorite places in the world.

Local celebrity Sid Chen stopped by with Greg Freed, who was writing about the opening night performance of Verdi's Luisa Miller for Parterre Box, the New York opera queen blog site.

I went to check out the dresses on the ladies in the lobby, including the woman above who was teetering between The Little Princess and Miss Havisham.

It was heartening to see a real drag queen in a formal gown, a phenomenon that has been occurring for decades at San Francisco Opera Gala Openings.

There were also beautiful young women dressed to the nines like Lilia Eshoo and Teresa Concepcion above.

On the way home from the opera, I noticed City Hall lit red, white and blue and wondered which local team had those colors. A security guard offered that it was a commemoration of 9/11, something I have been trying to put out of my mind since it happened.