Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Home for The Holidays

We went nowhere for the holidays and it was wonderful. Forget Burning Man. When San Francisco really clears out is during the Christmas season, as people go on vacations or visit family. I have been working this month in Silicon Valley and using public transport, which involves, each way, two Muni bus rides, a Caltrain trip, and then a shuttle bus. It's a hellish commute, but this week it's been a dream, with Muni buses not jammed to the gills, train cars empty, and rush hour gridlock in SOMA miraculously absent.

We also had Christmas lunch at our version of Cheers, a pub with food called The Bell Tower on Polk Street. No family drama, no late airplanes, no broken down trains, no tornadoes or blizzards. It was heaven.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Classical Music Top 10 for 2015

San Francisco boosters overuse the phrase "world-class," but the Bay Area's classical music scene deserves the description. This is true for most of its manifestations, high and low, from the San Francisco Opera to the Tenderloin storefront of the Center for New Music. So let's have a Top 10 List for 2015 (in sorta chronological order), even though I have cheated and put up multiple performances in one category because there was so much good music last year. (Pictured above at a March concert by Wild Rumpus at The Center for New Music, soprano Vanessa Langer vocalised and played digitally interactive metal sheets in Oakland composer David Coll's Position, Influence.)

1. New Music Gathering at the SF Conservatory of Music

Langer gave a bravura performance of the same David Coll composition in January at the first annual New Music Gathering. This was a long weekend organized by four Brooklyn friends (left to right above: Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, combining East Coast and West Coast performers and composers in a remarkable cross-pollination that included performances by everyone from the ICE flautist Claire Chase to pianist Sarah Cahill playing Terry Riley with the composer in attendance. The Gathering seemed to be more about artists meeting each other rather than putting on a show for an audience, but the concerts were still extraordinary. A second edition of the Gathering is scheduled for the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in a couple of weeks, and if you are in the area, check it out.

2. American Bach Soloists

The early music ensemble headed by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas gave a number of wonderful performances around the Bay Area in 2015. My favorite was Handel's pastoral oratorio, Acis and Galatea, with soloists Kyle Stegall and Nola Richardson as the doomed young lovers. Both singers were originally discovered/nurtured at the ABS Festival Academy in the summer for young professionals, which was particularly rich this year in performances from the French Baroque.

3. Berio's "Sinfonia" at UC Davis

Every two years the Music Department at UC Davis puts on a New Music Festival, and this year's edition included a rare performance of Luciano Berio's 1968 Sinfonia for large orchestra and eight amplified singers that was mind-blowingly good. The soloists were recruited from San Francisco's Volti chorus and the piece was conducted by Christian Baldini, posing in front of his soloists at a reception after the concert.

4. San Francisco Symphony

There are so many concerts over the course of a season at the San Francisco Symphony, ranging from dull to thrilling and everywhere in between, that it is tricky deciding which to attend. One nearly fail-proof strategy is to go to any concert featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under director Ragnar Bohlin, who can sing anything from Bach to John Adams superbly. My two favorite performances from them this year were in the Brahms German Requiem conducted by Herbert Blomstedt and Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass conducted by Andras Schiff, above right.

Another good bet at the SF Symphony is any music by 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. A series of guest conductors and soloists have performed with the orchestra over the last decade with breathtaking musicianship and skill, and the latest examples were Vasily Petrenko (above left) conducting the Technicolor Symphony #12, The Year 1917 in March and violinist Christian Tetzlaff (above right) playing the Violin Concerto #1 in October with conductor Susanna Mälkki.

5. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

The musicians at Left Coast Chamber Ensemble seem to play whatever amuses them, mixing up 19th century chamber works with modernist world premieres. 2015 was an ambitious, successful year, with concerts in Mill Valley and San Francisco, including the world premiere in March of violist/composer Kurt Rohde's first opera, Death With Interruptions, and a visit from composer Kaija Saariaho. (Pictured above are Daniel Cilli and Nikki Einfeld as Death, and cellist Leighton Fong with Saariaho before he played her Papillons.)

6. Soundbox

The San Francisco Symphony's new winter and spring nightclub in a large rehearsal space at the back of Davies Hall has been a serendipitous success, where everything works when it could have so easily gone wrong. The mixture of symphony players with great local musicians like pianist Sarah Cahill and composer Nathaniel Stookey (above left) and guest artists like Meow Meow (above right) has been invigorating for all. The programming of short pieces from the entire spectrum of classical music history has been inventive and adventurous. The Meyer sound system is a perfect fit for the acoustically dead space. The projections by Adam Larsen are consistently absorbing and unobtrusive, a tricky balancing act. Best of all, the audiences tend to be one of the quietest, most concentrated groups I've experienced at SF Symphony concerts. Plus, everyone gets to talk to each other during the frequent intermissions from their adjoining black divans while sipping cocktails. What's not to like? Congratulations to everyone involved, and a special shout-out to Symphony PR goddesses Louisa Spier and Amelisa Kusar who were part of the planning.

7. The Trojans at the San Francisco Opera

The grandest of French Grand Operas was finally given its full due at the San Francisco Opera in June. The casting, headed by Bryan Hymel and Susan Graham, was luxurious, and every role exquisitely sung. Donald Runnicles conducting the Opera Orchestra was some of the best Berlioz ever heard, and the chorus was outstanding in demanding stretches of music. The five hour Trojans felt shorter than many operas half that length, and it was exciting to realize how stageworthy this gargantuan piece can be. I stood in the balcony for four performances, joined by many of the hardcore music lovers of the Bay Area, including Charlise Tiee and Terence Shek above. This was one of the top ten productions I have experienced in five decades of attending the San Francisco Opera. Kudos to everyone involved. Now, will some enterprising musical group please program Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ next Christmas instead of another Messiah? I have still never heard the delicate Berlioz oratorio live.

8. West Edge Opera

The spunky, produced-on-a-shoestring, East Bay opera company newly branded as West Edge Opera produced an insanely ambitious season of three concert operas in the spring and three staged operas in a summer festival at various locations in Oakland that included a punk rock club and an abandoned train station. The result was an astonishing success. The concert operas, rare works by famous composers, had their highs and lows in terms of casting and chamber orchestra reduction, but hearing Rossini's Zelmira, Donizetti's Poliuto, and Verdi's I Due Foscari at low prices in odd venues (Rossmoor's new social hall and Berkeley's Freight & Salvage) was a treat.

I didn't see the universally lauded production of Berg's Lulu with the breakout performance by Emma Lynn McNairy because I was too busy playing half a dozen supernumerary characters in Laura Kaminsky's recent transgender opera, As One. This was given a sensitive, committed performance by Dan Kempson and Brenda Patterson as two sides of the same person, with exquisite musical accompaniment by the Friction String Quartet. I did make it to Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria staged in a large Burning Man warehouse space in West Oakland, and it was a delight in every way. It was led by conductor Gilbert Martinez and a beautiful original instruments orchestra, with witty staging by company director Mark Streshinsky of a uniformly strong cast.

9. More Monteverdi with Gardner and Stewart

In April, the venerable British early music pioneer John Eliot Gardner brought his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists to Davies Hall for an intermissionless, semi-staged concert of Monteverdi's first proto-opera, L'Orfeo, and it was enchanting in every way. In September at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Berkeley-based Warren Stewart and his early music group Magnificat performed an all-Monteverdi madrigals concert that was just about perfect. Pictured above right are Christine Brandes and Jennifer Paulino.

10. Savitri and River of Light at Festival Opera

Festival Opera, which used to perform in Walnut Creek's downtown music center, has imploded like many other small opera companies, but there is a group trying to keep the organization alive. In November, they presented a double bill at the Asian Cultural Center in downtown Oakland of Gustav Holst's Hindu religious mythical one-act, Savitri, in a double bill with River of Light, Oakland composer Jack Perla's recent one-act opera about cultural alienation/assimilation after emigration to the U.S. The music in both operas was wondrous, and the performances by a small female chorus, Western and Indian instrumentalists, and a handful of vocal soloists was superb. Pictured above are Daniel Cilli and Maya Kherani as the mixed-race couple trying to figure it out in Oakland.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unsilent Night

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players organized a neighborhood caroling walk of Phil Kline's magical 1992 Unsilent Night in Civic Center and Hayes Valley last Saturday at twilight.

Volunteers were asked to download one of four tracks to their mobile phones or bring old-fashioned boomboxes that would play one of the tracks on cassettes.

The crowd consisted of about 200 people...

...including Tony Hurd and composer Pamela Z above.

Even SF Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman above showed up, and he videotaped parts of the procession, which were posted on SF Gate (click here).

The Civic Center neighborhood essentially turns into a Christmas cultural factory during the month of December, with two daily performances of The Nutcracker by the SF Ballet on one side of Grove Street and everything from Handel's Messiah to a screening of Snoopy's Christmas Special at Davies Symphony Hall on the other side of the street.

It was delightful being part of a non-monetary seasonal cultural experience, ambling along city sidewalks with friends and strangers, surrounded by a moving, colorful, ambient soundscape that brought unexpected pleasure to passersby.

Jon Yu (above left) was the amiable group herder for the expedition as we zigged and zagged around the neighborhood. He even lent me a powerful little boombox which I returned with thanks when the procession passed in front of our apartment building on McAllister Street.

If you ever get a chance to be a part of Unsilent Night, which started in New York's Greenwich Village and has become an international happening, do it. It's like being inside of a moving choir, orchestra, and belfry, and is an enchanting experience.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St. Ignatius

The American Bach Soloists conducted by Jeffrey Thomas performed J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio last weekend at St. Ignatius Church, the beautiful, imposing Jesuit stronghold at the top of Fulton Street on the USF campus.

The huge church was packed on Saturday evening for the first ABS performance of the massive work in eight years. The 4 soloists, 16 choristers, and 28 original instrument players were all superb and just about every one of them had a moment to individually shine. The Christmas Oratorio is a recycled grab bag Bach created near the end of his life, consisting of six earlier cantatas with rewritten text depicting the birth of Christ, angels alerting shepherds of the miracle, a circumcision celebration, and finally the Three Wise Men being deceived but not outwitted by King Herod.

Bach's 200+ cantatas are my favorite music from the composer, twenty to thirty minute paeans to God, written for one to four vocal soloists, a small chorus and a chamber orchestra. I wasn't sure if sitting through six of them in a row on a hard wooden pew would turn out to be a trial or a triumph, but happily it was the latter, helped on immeasurably by the wonderful performances by every musician. The soloists were soprano Helene Brunet, alto Agnes Vojtko, tenor Kyle Stegall and baritone Jesse Blumberg (the latter two are pictured above).

It was wonderful hearing the piece live for the first time, and running into the Classical Cool Kids (James Parr, Charlise Tiee and Terence Shek). The only criticism of the evening is that St. Ignatius has weird acoustics for music, possibly because the sound goes straight upwards. Even with good seats the music was muffled, as if it was coming through a wet piece of fabric, and made one wish ABS was performing the work in their smaller, usual haunt of St. Marks Lutheran Church on Geary. It didn't matter. After an aural recalibration, it was easy to simply enjoy the fine performance.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bad Santas

Many people hate the frat bro, binge drinking spectacle called Santa-Con, but I enjoy its annual appearance.

For one thing, the Christmas costumed participants are more varied than the stereotype, everyone from elderly ladies on Muni... a French Bulldog hanging outdoors in front of The Bell Tower on Polk Street...

...where a young man who had gotten too drunk too early was being given advice about how to get a ride home by the bouncer wearing a Christmas tree.

Further south on Polk Street, the Santa crowds were meeting up in long lines in front of pubs...

...and the costumes became progressively sillier.

It reminded me of 2003 while visiting my sister Susan in the Central California town of Arroyo Grande around the holidays, and she wanted to go to a movie matinee with her two sons, Marshall (age 11) and Matthew (age 13) along with a young friend of Matthew's.

"What about 'Bad Santa,' it looks like fun?" she asked, and I told her that the reviews were really good but from everything I'd read it was a bit too hardcore for children. "Oh, nonsense," she replied, "they've heard all the dirty words on TV already. Things have changed since we were kids."

At the theater, it didn't take long for us to realize that my apprehensions were actually understated. The movie was gleefully, insistently, and outrageously profane. (If you haven't seen it, do. It's a Christmas miracle.)

When the lights came up in the theater at the end of the screening, I waited for a moment of silence and said, in a voice that could be heard by everyone in the small stadium multiplex, "How could you possibly take your children to a movie like that? I'm ashamed of you."

Monday, December 14, 2015

Meow Meow at SoundBox

The Australian cabaret diva Meow Meow above opened the second season of SoundBox concerts in the back of Davies Symphony Hall last weekend, and the concert was a triumph on every level. It was effortlessly hip, musically ambitious, and lots of fun.

Edwin Outwater, the former assistant conductor of the SF Symphony, mentioned that his first thought on seeing the layout of SoundBox was, "This is a cabaret!" With that particular insight, he partnered up with Meow Meow for a remarkably coherent program of miniatures, ranging from Schubert to Laurie Anderson.

They started with Meow Meow singing Schubert's Die Forelle (the Trout), and the happy surprise was her lovely, expressive voice. This was followed by the fourth movement from the same composer's Trout Quintet, complete with huge video projections of trout in a brook, which was less literal and more mesmerizing than it sounds. The Brecht/Weill Ballad of a Drowned Girl sung by Meow Meow crawling up a stage in the center of the room completed the underwater first set.

The second set included Meow Meow singing Weill's Surabaya Johnny (in English) and Pirate Jenny (in German with projected titles). Weill is tricky. Performers often overdo the emotional affects when what the music needs is a mixture of over-the-top and restrained, sweet and sour, quiet and rage. Meow Meow provided all that and then some, going from bruised romantic masochist in Johnny to murderous dreaming chambermaid in Jenny with very different deliveries. I could have happily listened to her sing this music all evening. The chamber orchestra arrangements by Australian Iain Grandage were superb, and Outwater was in his element in some of the best conducting I have heard from him. In between the two songs, the orchestra played Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 in a lively performance that prompted the question, "Who knew Hindemith could be such fun?"

For the third set, Meow Meow grabbed a volunteer from a divan and made him help her carry a lengthy score to Schulhoff's 1919 Sonata Erotica across the concert hall while she sang exact notes for what is essentially an extended proto Donna Summer orgasm ditty, with Outwater remaining onstage and translating the German with a deadpan delivery.

It was funny, sexy and silly without being dumb.

Upping the ante was the appearance of operatic soprano Nikki Einfeld in Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, an excerpt from his opera Le Grande Macabre, where a police inspector morphs into a kinky diva midway.

Musically and dramatically, it's a very difficult showpiece and requires courage to perform. Ms. Einfeld took no prisoners.

The final number was a sweet lullaby called The Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin) by Laurie Anderson, again with an arrangement by Grandage. It was a perfect ending.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wind Storm

If you are driving to the Civic Center for a matinee today (Sunday), it is probably best to avoid McAllister Street as it has been closed between Franklin and Gough.

The wild rain and wind storm this morning took down a big tree on McAllister...

...crushing a few cars.

The tree is now being taken apart with chainsaws by a small army of Department of Public Works employees who are constantly yelling directions at each other.