Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Musical Week 2: SF Symphony Plays the Sibelius Fifth

Susanna Mälkki started her second week of guest conducting the San Francisco Symphony last Thursday in a program that contained highs and lows. The curtain raiser was the 1998 Alma III: Soma, a ten minute piece for huge orchestra by the contemporary Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu which was marvelous. In the program notes, Jeanette Yu mentions that "since the 1980s, Tiensuu has refrained from providing program notes and does not conduct interviews...[An admirer relates that] Tiensuu is trying to grant his audience the full joy and responsibility of reception." Let's just say that the music was bright, sparkling and delicate at the same time, sounding a bit like an aural version of the aurora borealis.

This was followed by Simon Trpceski playing Chopin's 1830 Piano Concerto #1, which the Polish composer wrote when he was 20 years old before his exile in France. In the program notes by James Keller, he points out that "received opinion" early in the 20th century was that this was "not Chopin at his very best," and then makes a spirited defense of the concerto. Since I have nothing but admiration for Chopin's piano music, I'm sorry to agree with received opinion, but this concerto is a huge bore, and its 40 minutes duration felt like four hours.

After intermission Mälkki conducted Sibelius' 1919 Fifth Symphony in a perfect performance. After listening obsesively as a teenager to a Bernstein recording of the symphony, I have heard the piece played live four or five times conducted by everyone from a young Simon Rattle to an old Semyon Bychkov, and they all managed to get it wrong. The symphony needs to be be filled with tension from beginning to end, and many conductors get mired in the beautiful byways rather than letting the music propel itself. Mälkki and the San Francisco Symphony sounded even better than that old Bernstein recording, and it was a complete joy to hear the piece live, played right, at last.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Musical Week 1: SFCMP Plays Gerard Grisey

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players opened their new season last Wednesday at the SF Conservatory of Music with a concert called Songscape. The evening started with death speaks, a 2012 David Lang companion piece to the little match girl chamber opera, with bits of chopped-up text from Death speaking in various Schubert songs set to Lang's usual high-pitched, droning minimalism. Soprano Alice Teyssier, above right, did a fine job intoning the texts, accompanied by Ray Malan on violin, Travis Andrews on electric guitar, and Kate Campbell on piano.

In a program note from the composer, he writes: "Art songs have been moving out of classical music in the last many years – indie rock seems to be the place where Schubert's sensibilities now lie, a better match for direct storytelling and intimate emotionality." I attended a performance of Lang's huge Civil War choreographed choral piece battle hymns three years ago with the SF Choral Society at the Kezar Pavilion, and it was a thrilling theatrical event. On the other hand, the little match girl struck me as overpraised and annoyingly precious, while death speaks should not worry any indie rockers. I wish there had been more moments like the finale, when guitarist Travis started singing along with soprano Alice. The piece finally came alive, so to speak.

This was followed by a welcome blast of energy, with David Wegehaupt on baritone sax and Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet playing Lee Hyla's 1992 We Speak Etruscan. I heard Wegehaupt play this before with Sophie Huet at a Wild Rumpus concert, but this was a better performance, partly because the music is literally so male that the nine minute duet sounds like the ultimate brass version of opera's Barihunks blog, except in this case it's more Barisaxstuds.

This was followed by an improvisation from composer Ken Ueno making weird noises through a megaphone and oboist Kyle Bruckmann slowly wandering from the back of the concert hall to the stage, echoing each other. It was fun until they ran out of ideas, one of the hazards of improv.

The major piece on the program was after intermission, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, which translates roughly as Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold. The French "spectral" composer Gerard Grisey wrote it in 1998, then suddenly crossed the threshold himself at age 52 from a brain aneurysm before he could hear the premiere. I first heard music by Grisey at a 2012 SF Symphony concert conducted by Susanna Mälkki, a section from Grisey's major work, Les Espaces acoustiques, which started off being boring until it recalibrated my hearing and became fascinating. The same was true for the 40-minute Quatre chants on Wednesday, offering a strange austerity that pulled one in slowly but was eventually completely absorbing.

The performance under Music Director Steven Schick was ambitious and magnificent, and Alice Teyssier gave a virtuoso performance, even after having sung continuously for 25 minutes in the David Lang piece. (Take care of that voice, Alice, it's a treasure.) The 17-piece chamber orchestra was an odd mixture of lots of woodwinds and brass, three string players, a harp, and three percussionists including local legend Willie Winant. The piece started and ended each of its four continuous moments with a rustling on drums that sounded like wind on a desert shifting the the sands of time.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Christian Tetzlaff in a Stunning Shostakovich Violin Concerto

On Sunday afternoon at Davies Hall, I heard one of the most stupendous, virtuosic, soulful musical performances of my long concertgoing life. The German violinist Christian Tetzlaff played Shostakovich's 1948 Violin Concerto No. 1 with more colors than one thought possible, fierce and demonic one moment, soft and introspective the next. It is an almost impossibly difficult piece of music to play, according to David Oistrakh who premiered the work in 1955 when Stalin was safely in the grave, and music not written expressly for the proletariat was being allowed to premiere in public again.

My friend Michael Nava, posing under a Dia de Los Muertos display in the lobby, thought Tetzlaff looked like an Italian Renaissance painting of Jesus. He certainly played like a contemporary god, and the orchestra under Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki kept up with Tetzlaff every step of the way.

After intermission, the orchestra played Prokofiev's World War II era Fifth Symphony. The performance was widely admired by others, but after the Shostakovich, it sounded bombastic, incoherent and musically regressive. This was especially true after hearing the same composer's complex, progressive and witty first string quartet from 1930 performed by the Pavel Haas Quartet earlier in the week. There is some great music by Prokofiev from his return to Soviet Russia era (1936-1953), the ballets and film scores in particular, but the Fifth Symphony is not aging well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Cultural Corridor Proxy Event

Students from the San Francisco Ballet were dancing to live music played by young musicians from the SFJAZZ Center on a makeshift stage in the Hayes Valley Saturday afternoon.

One of the pieces looked choreographed but the rest looked improvised.

The primary sponsor was the African-American Shakespeare Company who had joined up with the SF Ballet School, the SF Symphony, and a few other local arts organizations to put on a free show linking the "cultural corridor" of the Hayes Valley to the Fillmore District.

There didn't seem to be a lot of ethnic mixing, with the African-American performances taking place further west on Fulton and mostly white performers at Hayes and Octavia.

After the charming dance performance, an SF Ballet spokeswoman tried to get members of the audience to join in a dance-a-long piece.

This was followed by a musical comedy singer from a Bay Area theater company, and then by a string quartet from the SF Conservatory of Music playing Verdi, although the music was mostly drowned out by a noisy generator providing the electrical power for the show.

In the middle of the piece, they were interrupted by a drum corps that was marching down Hayes Street, merging the two performance spaces. They stopped playing when they saw they were winning an unintentional battle of the bands, and took the stage after the quartet finished with Verdi.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Pavel Haas Quartet at SFJAZZ

Last week the San Francisco Performances brought the young Pavel Haas Quartet to town for the fourth time in the last five years. (Pictured above are violinists Veronika jaruskova and Marek Ziebel, violist Pavel Nikl, and cellist Peter Jarusek.)

The title for the evening could have easily been Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Presents, because the grande dame of American chamber music of the 20th century commissioned two of the works, Prokofiev's 1930 String Quartet #1 and Bartok's 1934 String Quartet #5, both premiered at the Library of Congress concert hall which Coolidge somehow managed to get built via two acts of Congress early in the Depression. For a wonderful warts-and-all appreciation of Coolidge by Professor Cyrilla Barr, click here. Coolidge (1864-1953) was a Chicago daughter who married a Boston Brahmin doctor in the late 19th century, and she became a wealthy orphan and widow within the space of a year in 1915-16. The list of her accomplishments thereafter, including financial encouragement to the classical chamber music world of the 20th century, is a wonderful legacy.

I had no idea that Prokofiev even wrote a string quartet (there are two), which is strange because it is such an interesting piece of music. The quartet is infused with his slashing wit but also soulful, meditative passages, including a final movement Andante that is unexpectedly probing and serious. Following this with Beethoven's String Quartet in F minor, "Serioso" was brilliant, because the work sounded fully as modern in its own way as the Prokofiev.

The consensus opinion is that the two accomplished masters of the 20th century string quartet are Shostakovich and Bartok. I don't know either of their string quartet cycles well enough, but the masterful performance by the young Czechs of the Bartok Fifth made me hope they record both composers in their entirety. They are great musicians.

This was especially apparent because the SFJAZZ Center has sadly turned out to be a terrible place for non-amplified music. The problem is that the acoustics are as dry as the State of California. The ensemble worked with this reality, and made sure their unison attacks reverberated even in the absence of an architectural echo.

San Francisco Performances will be returning to the acoustically improved Herbst Theatre this Friday, October 30th, with a dual piano concert by British composer Thomas Ades and pianist Gloria Cheng. They will be playing Nancarrow, Ligeti, Ades, and Messiaen, so if you're interested in interesting, challenging contemporary music, you should check it out. The duo performed the program earlier in the year in Los Angeles, and LA Times music critic Mark Swed went a little bonkers with praise.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lucia Di Lammermoor at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera opened a new production of Donizetti's 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, based on the dark, ghost-ridden novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Bride of Lammermoor. The production by Director Michael Cavanagh, Scenic Designer Erhard Rom, and Costume Designer Mattie Ullrich was an honorable attempt to modernize the Gothic tale of a young woman driven mad by her lover, brother and an arranged marriage. The 18th Century Scottish setting has been updated to the "corporate" near-future with choristers and supernumeraries variously decked out as armed stormtroopers, business executives, or fashionable ladies from The Hunger Games. A friend who appeared in the production noted, "even though it's supposed to be fifteen years in the future, it looks very 1980s." The ocean and sky projections by Rom were evocative, but kept reminding me of 1960s movies like A Summer Place or The Sandpiper. Maybe they should have gone all the way in their updating and moved the setting to 17 Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula. (Production photos by Cory Weaver.)

I have never cared for the sadistic libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, also responsible for the similarly nasty libretto for Verdi's Luisa Miller which opened the San Francisco Opera season last month. In Lucia, the romantic hero Edgardo spends most of his time feeling sorry for himself and questioning his secret fiancee's faithfulness, while the villainous brother Enrico is one of the more dislikable major characters in opera. The original novel by Scott makes more dramatic sense. For one thing, Enrico (Henry) and Lucia (Lucy) are not orphans. Their parents are Lord Ashton, who has married above his station, and his aristocratic wife who blocks the happy engagement of Henry and Lucy. Lady Ashton is not having her daughter marry any penniless family enemy.

The Wikipedia summary of the novel ends with: "While the guests are dancing, Lucy stabs Bucklaw in the bridal chamber, severely wounding him. She descends quickly into insanity and dies. Bucklaw recovers, but refuses to say what had happened. Edgar reappears at Lucy's funeral. Lucy's older brother, blaming him for her death, insists that they meet in a duel. Edgar, in despair, reluctantly agrees. But on the way to the meeting, Edgar falls into quicksand and dies." Now that's the opera I want to see. Brian Mulligan as the older brother Enrico gave the most vocally secure performance at the Sunday matinee, and it was a delight hearing that powerful baritone without the amplification from Sweeney Todd which he starred in last month.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala appeared as Tamino in a 2007 Magic Flute at the SF Opera. Though he didn't get much notice at the time, I thought it was one of the most beautiful tenor voices I have ever heard live, and it's been fun watching his career take off around the world in the intervening years. He's been singing just about every major Italian tenor role at the Met and elsewhere, so there was worry that his voice had taken a beating, but it's still beautiful, sweet, and powerful. Please bring him back in anything.

The chorus and the orchestra under Nicola Luisotti did a fine job, and the famous sextet was marvelous. The crazy wedding party dresses for the womens' chorus were a kick, though it seemed more than a little bizarre that they walk en masse into the bridal chamber after the murder rather than the usual staging of a bloody Lucia wandering among the wedding guests in a ballroom. Chong Wang, who made such a good impression as Hylas the Sailor in this summer's Les Troyens was impressive again as the ill-fated groom, and Zanda Svede as Lucia's companion Alisa looked amusingly like a Bond Girl as she glided about all afternoon.

The big hole in the center of the production was Nadine Sierra as Lucia, which was not her fault. The role requires a serious diva, or Lucia can come across as a passive ninny, unworthy of anything other than pity. Diana Damrau, who was so sensationally good at her 2009 SF Opera debut in La Fille du Regiment, was originally scheduled to sing the role but canceled at the last hour with the apology that she needed "vocal rest" for a number of months, so Nadine Sierra was hastily called in to cover. She sounded pretty and hit every note, but there was a generic dullness to the performance, and even her famous mad scene was literally upstaged by the splatter-film scenic design and the bare behind of debuting supernumerary Charlie Martinez, body double for Chong Wang.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

András Schiff's Austrian Marathon at the SF Symphony

András Schiff, the famous Hungarian-in-exile "pianist, conductor, pedagogue and lecturer," conducted and performed music by Mozart, Haydn and Schubert at the San Francisco Symphony last week in a concert which was close to three hours long with two intermissions. That's a short evening at the opera but a lengthy marathon by symphony concert standards.

The evening started off with Mozart's final piano concerto, No. 27 in B-flat Major, with Schiff conducting while also playing the piano. It's a ravishing piece of music, but it sounded a bit too genteel and pretty-white-wig Mozart in Saturday evening's performance. This was especially true of the solo piano sections as Schiff bounced up and down from the piano bench to conduct the orchestra when he wasn't seated at the keyboard. Because this was not a universal opinion, an internet flame war raged over the weekend among a few online music critics who thought it was the the most perfect Mozart performance imaginable and those who did not.

There was no disagreement whatsoever about the piece after intermission, a 1798 Mass in D Minor by Joseph Haydn from late in his long composing career. This particular mass is nicknamed "Lord Nelson" for a number of apocryphal reasons surrounding an important Lord Nelson victory in the Napoleonic Wars.

The performance was stupendous in every way: the conducting by Schiff, the orchestral playing, the singing by four obscure European vocal soloists, and the ever astonishing San Francisco Symphony Chorus who were the real stars of the evening.

The performance was so good that I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the British short story writer, Saki: "People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die." My paraphrase would be any religious system that could produce a musical hymn of praise this fine will also never truly die. (Pictured above left to right are Schiff, chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, soprano Anna Lucia Richter, contralto Britta Schwarz, tenor Werner Gura, and bass Robert Holl.)

Then there was another short intermission while the piano was brought back up to the stage, and the four soloists along with a chamber assortment of choristers cozied up around Schiff who led a 7-song Schubert lieder recital, which felt both bizarre after the grand Haydn Mass and oddly fitting. There seemed to be some overarching theme to the evening's musical selections, private to Schiff, which made the concert more interesting. It's wonderful that the SF Symphony was willing to accommodate that vision.

The great voice of the evening was undoubtedly soprano Anna Lucia Richter above, barely out of the conservatory, who spun one beautiful line of sound after another throughout Davies Hall, which is a tricky place to project. During the Schubert lieder section, she sang two songs about Spring after tenor Werner Gura sang two sexually suggestive songs about fishermen and nature. The great performance in this section was from bass Robert Holl, who had sounded old and wooly in the Mass, but who turned a gravedigger's lament at being alone while dying himself into a completely harrowing mini-opera without ever treading into the maudlin. Bracketing the Schubert lieder section was contralto Britta Scharz who sang the same song twice, Standchen. It seems that Schubert spent a lot of time in taverns and he got confused by a sudden commission. It was supposed to be for a teenage soprano and a girls' chorus but he wrote it for a mens' chorus instead, and then rewrote it when he was apprised of his mistake. We got to hear both versions, which was lovely.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Monks and Movies in the Hayes Valley

There was a small group meditating in front of the David Best temple on Patricia's Green Saturday morning, quiet and serene within the busy square.

I asked a young woman seated at a picnic bench nearby if she knew what the group was about, and she told me they were followers of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. According to his Wikipedia page, the 89-year-old Nhất Hạnh had a severe stroke in 2014 at his home in France. There was also this bit of news: "As of July 11, 2015, Thay has been flown to San Francisco to speed his recovery with an aggressive rehabilitation program through UCSF Medical Center. In September 2015, Nhất Hạnh spoke his first words since his stroke."

Across the street, the outdoor screen at Proxy, which originally had something to do with a workout group that never materialized, was being doubled in width.

Tony, my other half, commented, "Good. They can finally show movies in the proper aspect ratio."

I'm still wondering why there needs to be a big black structure in what is essentially a parklet. With luxury condos going up on every available piece of land nearby, what the neighborhood needs is open space.

It also needs open skies, even ones decorated with ads created by choreographed planes.

Speaking of choreographed air shows, the rooftop of the new 100 Van Ness luxury rental skyscraper was jammed with residents meditating on the excitement of Blue Angels death machines.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

SF Symphony Fall Preview

It's guest conductor season at the San Francisco Symphony this month and there are some interesting programs on the schedule. Tonight, Saturday the 10th, is the final performance for Hungarian piano legend Andras Schiff leading the orchestra in Mozart's final piano concerto followed by Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass with the Symphony Chorus, and topped off with 40 minutes of German art songs. The Haydn Mass is a rarity which I have been obsessively playing on YouTube because it is such a fabulous discovery. There are $20 rush tickets available for this evening's performance, and you don't have to be a senior or a student to buy a pair.

The SF Symphony Rush Ticket hotline number is (415) 503-5577, by the way, and it's one of the better deals in San Francisco. Next week from October 15-18, the sensationally gifted violinist Christian Tetzlaff is performing Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, surrounded by a Mussorgsky overture and Prokofiev's fun, bombastic Fifth Symphony.

Those concerts will be conducted by the Finnish Susanna Malkki, who is visiting for two weeks this year. Her second set of concerts from October 22nd to the 24th starts with contemporary Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu's Soma and ends with my favorite Sibelius symphony, #5, which I have never heard played live satisfactorily. Maybe this time. In between, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski plays Chopin's First Piano Concerto. Though Simon disconcertingly resembles a young Mel Brooks, he's a musical poet on his instrument.

The following week, October 28th to 30th, brings the legendary violinist Gidon Kremer (of Kremerata Baltica fame, among other accomplishments) playing Bartok's First Violin Concerto. The young Latvian conductor Andrey Boreyko will be making his debut with the SF Symphony, bookending Kremer with Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite and Tchaikowsky's Suite No. 3.

On Halloween at 7:30, local drag legend Peaches Christ is the host for a 40th anniversary showing of the movie version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The throwing of rice, toast and the use of waterguns will probably not be allowed in Davies Hall, but I have been assured there will be goodie bags with props to ensure the proper communal experience.

On Saturday, November 7th, the annual Dia de Los Muertos concert features the amazing Mexican-American ranchera and jazz vocalist Lila Downs, who is making her symphonic debut. The concerts have grown in popularity over the years, so this year there are two, at 2PM and at 8PM. Make sure you arrive an hour early for the festivities in the various lobbies, which are genuinely festive.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Politicking at the 2015 Castro Street Fair

The annual Castro Street Fair has turned into one of the sweetest little street festivals in San Francisco.

For decades, it was a huge, claustrophic scene like the Haight Street or Folsom Street Fair, but it has somehow managed to downscale into a manageable crowd where you can run into old friends you haven't bumped into for years.

It probably helps that the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival absorbs tens of thousands of free concertgoers in Golden Gate Park on the same Sunday, and that most gay sex tourists have literally come and gone the weekend before at Folsom Street.

There are a few nods to the gay, nudist, hippie-ish beginnings of the event in the 1970s such as a body painting tent in front of the Castro Theatre, but that particular bacchanalian energy no longer seems to exist on San Francisco's public streets, for better or worse.

What did stand out at the fair was how many people were politicking for various politicians and propositions in advance of next month's elections.

The handsome young man with the megaphone above looked like he could have fit seamlessly into the Castro of the 1970s, and he was busking for a pie-throw-at-the-politician fundraiser for the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.

District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim was one of the victims, but nobody seemed to want to throw a pie at her, possibly because violence towards women is a current topic of awareness.

A cute young heterosexual couple asked me why Kim was at the Castro pie-throwing booth since this wasn't her supervisorial district. "That's because this is for the leftie Harvey Milk Democratic Club, and she's friends and sometimes allies with them, while the right-wing real estate lesbians and gays are at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club booth up the street, and they're BFFs with Scott Weiner, who is the supervisor for this district and who is thankfully nowhere in sight."

I continued, "Most of this is just sectarian schisms, though. It's all about being an insider and having a piece of power, which unfortunately flows directly from the old-time criminal cabal which actually runs San Francisco, badly. There's no way they become one of the insiders without being co-opted."

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi (above right) was campaigning personally for reelection on Sunday, while his opponent Vicky Hennessy was represented by a pair of odd looking sign carriers. Mirkarimi used to be a part of the City Family when he was on the Board of Supervisors, but he crossed the cabal by running for Sheriff against an approved candidate and narrowly winning. His subsequent vilification for domestic violence by the DA, SFPD, San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee, the SF Ethics Commission, every city-sponsored domestic violence nonprofit in the Bay Area, and various Supervisors was strangely over-the-top and revealed more about how San Francisco is governed than was probably intended.

Up the street, the gay-focused Bay Area Reporter weekly newspaper, which has always had a capitalist, politically conservative slant, was offering a raffle for tickets to the San Francisco Opera House appearance of the ultimate current public distraction.