Monday, February 29, 2016

"Champion" at SFJAZZ

Last week Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ co-produced a newly revised version of the 2013 Champion, "an opera in jazz" by Terence Blanchard about the 1960s welterweight boxing champion of the world, Emile Griffith.

The eight-performance run sold out the Miner Auditorium and the reviews were rapturous, particularly for the singers who gave beautiful, committed performances in what had to be a grueling schedule for a three-hour opera.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg, who is at least six-feet-five, doesn't look anything like Emile Griffith, who weighed in at 144 pounds for his life-altering welterweight title fight against Benny Paret in Madison Square Gardens in 1962, where Paret ended up in a coma and died ten days later.

It didn't really matter, as Kellogg fully commanded the stage as the adult Emile Griffith in his prime, aided by the magnificent Arthur Woodley as his older self in a nursing home living with dementia, and Evan Holloway as his younger Caribbean self tortured by his Cousin Blanche for being "bad like his mother," who had abandoned seven children for a life in New York.

Karen Slack played the feckless mom with energy and a great soprano voice. She was joined by the reliably brilliant tenor Robert Orth as Emile's real-life trainer Howie Albert, Mark Hernandez as a staccato Ring Anouncer, Michelle Rice as a garish fag-hag bar owner, and Andres Ramirez in a sweet, sensitive portrayal as Luis, who is Old Emile's caretaker.

The music for the first opera written by trumpeter and film score composer Terence Blanchard (above right) was an odd mish-mash. Though billed as "an opera in jazz," the piece kept alternating between a traditional classical orchestra and a starry jazz trio with Marcus Shelby on bass, Edward Simon on piano, and Jaz Sawyer on drums. The jazz sections were generally electrifying while the orchestral accompaniment to the various arias tended to be unmemorable, generic, "classical" music. The best moments were the fully integrated scenes where the jazz trio played off the brass section in the orchestra, and the musical language suddenly felt new and vibrant.

The libretto by playwright/screenwriter/actor Michael Cristofer (above left) was his first attempt at an opera too. Though I'm a big fan of Cristofer as the CEO of Evil Corp on the TV show Mr. Robot, I am not as enthusiastic about his writing, which includes screenplays for movie bombs like Bonfire of the Vanities and the Streep/De Niro Falling in Love. Framing the story of Emile Griffith as the tragedy of a bisexual black man punched into dementia seemed reductive in all the wrong ways. Emile wrestling with his conflicted sexuality seemed to have more to do with 71-year-old, public closet case Michael Cristofer than with Griffith himself. Take a look at the photos below with Emile's lover and adopted son Luis Rodrigo Griffith, and see if you can find any signs of "conflicted" sexuality.

Adoption was how some gay people obtained legal property protections for their partners before the arrival of gay marriage. (The composer Gian Carlo Menotti and the photographer Horst come to mind.) You would think the relationship would have been acknowledged somewhere in the libretto, but I had to Google an LA Times obituary of Griffith to find out: "He had a long relationship in the 1990s with Luis Rodrigo Griffith, a young man whom he later adopted. Griffith married a woman, Mercedes Donastorg, in 1971, divorced soon after and told [biographer Ron] Ross he preferred physical relations with women "but felt more comfortable with men, and could confide in them."

The conducting by Music Director Nicole Paiement was splendid, and director Brian Staufenbiel used his small stage brilliantly, coaxing great performances from the entire cast. There were a few miscues, like a gay bar from an alternate universe, populated with unconvincing drag queens, lesbians, leather/levi guys, and a fag hag owner with her own aria about being "the only pussy in this hole." Again, this seemed to be librettist Cristofer working something out from his own life.

The SFJAZZ Center Miner Auditorium was a perfect venue for Champion because the space already looks like a small boxing arena surrounded by stadium seating. The amplification all evening was subtle, and a relief after Sweeney Todd at the SF Opera House and a few misfires at Davies Hall. Congratulations to everyone involved, and I hope the SFJAZZ Center and Opera Parallèle find a way to partner up again.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Devil's Chessboard

San Francisco journalist David Talbot recently wrote a long, popular history entitled The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government, which deserves to become an instant classic. The 700-page, deeply researched book detailing the machinations of Allen Dulles and the CIA from World War Two through the JFK assassination is written in a breezy, episodic style jammed with character studies, and possesses the compulsive readability of a good thriller. Unfortunately, the book is non-fiction, and its disturbing history of a U.S. "deep state" answerable only to itself reverberates uneasily today.

Allen Dulles and his older brother John Foster Dulles above were pillars of the Northeastern WASP establishment, spending much of their careers as lawyers for the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which has been the legal representative for every leading plutocrat from J. Pierpont Morgan to the Rockerfeller family since the firm's founding in 1879. In the 1950s, John Foster became Eisenhower's Secretary of State and Allen became the fifth director of the recently created CIA, a position he held until being fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961. They were both stalwart anti-communists during the Cold War who believed any means justified the ends of protecting capitalism. By the end of Talbot's book, it becomes clear that Allen at least was a complete and utter psychopath.

The first third of the book details Allen's career in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the World War Two predecessor to the CIA. Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS, wanted Allen posted to London to keep in touch with his rich international clients, but Dulles managed to get himself posted to Bern, Switzerland where he forged alliances with a host of Nazi security agents who he eventually helped to avoid the Nuremberg trials, setting up escape routes to Latin America, the United States, and the eventual Western German security apparatus. Anybody familiar with Robert Ludlum's early thrillers knows that most of their plots centered on former Nazis joining up with CIA agents and international industrialists forming vast conspiracies to rule the world. Reading Talbot's book, I had to keep pinching myself, "You mean this was all true?"

The second section of the book recounts Dulles' career as the head of the CIA. He had already sent a Czech girlfriend to her certain death in World War One while playing spy during that conflict, and his ruthlessness only increased over the years. Both his wife and his mistress in Switzerland privately called him "The Shark" between themselves, and after reading this succession of horrifying stories from his tenure at the CIA, the nickname seems apt. Dulles was an enthusiastic sponsor of the MKULTRA program, where brainwashing experiments using massive doses of LSD and other psychotropic drugs were given to unwitting individuals. Victims included his own son who had returned from the Korean War with mental difficulties from a brain injured with metal shrapnel. Allen Dulles sent his son to various CIA neurological experimenters at Columbia University in New York and McLean University in Montreal until the young man escaped to a Jungian sanitarium on a Swiss lake where he stayed until the paternal monster died in 1969. The son somehow managed to survive, and now lives with his sister in Santa Fe.

Dulles' stint at the CIA was highlighted by the routine use of assassination and coups against foreign leaders not sufficiently compliant with American business interests. These included the CIA engineered coup in 1953 against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran where he was replaced by the Shah, the disposal of democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 to be replaced by decades' worth of military dictators, and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, in 1960. Incidentally, if you wanted information about any of this history while it was happening, the best sources were oddly enough in popular culture rather than in journals of record such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, which Talbot convincingly demonstrates were willing mouthpieces for whatever propaganda the CIA wanted to broadcast.

While reading The Devil's Chessboard, I stumbled across a pair of 1960s films on TMC directed by the legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen). The Liquidator from 1965 is a Bond spoof, complete with Shirley Bassey title song, but its politics are odd as you watch old white farts like Wilfred Hyde-White and Trevor Howard blithely sending Rod Taylor on one amoral assassination mission after another. Even more disturbing is the 1968 Dark of the Sun with Rod Taylor as a mercenary in the Congo soon after the country disintegrates following Lumumba's assassination.

The final third of the book details the JFK administration and its relations with the national security establishment. Talbot points out that the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba seemed to be intentionally set up to fail by Dulles and his cohorts, as they figured JFK would have to send in the Marines to overthrow Castro when the mission failed. JFK did not send in the Marines, however, and was infuriated by the mess, eventually sacking Allen Dulles from his post. Dulles continued to run the CIA ex-officio, with frequent visits to his home from its top staff and operatives, and Talbot posits that he was one of the chief architects of the CIA/Mafia/Cuban exile conspiracy which murdered JFK in Dallas in 1963. Assassination under Dulles had become such a routine part of international statecraft within the CIA that murdering a U.S. president probably did not feel like that large a leap. The newly declassified reports Talbot cites of the CIA working with right-wing militarists in 1960s France in their multiple attempts to assassinate Charles De Gaulle are genuinely shocking.

A decade ago I read the 1,100-page Norman Mailer novel Harlot's Ghost about the CIA which takes place in roughly the same period as The Devil's Chessboard, and which includes many of the same nonfictional characters – Howard Hunt, William Harvey, and James Jesus Angleton, among them. At the time, I thought Mailer's stories were fanciful exaggerations based on reality, but again, the truth turns out to be even stranger and scarier than fiction. The final irony of the JFK assasination is that the Warren Commission, according to interviews with people who served on it, should have been called the Dulles Commission. Allen, fresh out of retirement, somehow got himself appointed to the investigative body by LBJ and he spent the most time working on it, making sure the official story substantiated the Lone Nut with Superhuman Marksmanship Theory.

David Talbot has had a long, distinguished career in journalism, was one of the founders of the online journal Salon, and has written a pair of popular histories about JFK and RFK (Brothers) and San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s (Season of the Witch). If he does nothing else, the hugely ambitious Devil's Chessboard detailing the shadow side of modern American history would be a major capstone. The power of the book comes not from new revelations, but how he has been able to calmly and entertainingly connect the dots. He doesn't even need to bother underlining that the unaccountable deep state regime continues unabated, with our actions in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan offering ample proof that the American empire is askew. What he does make clear is that the U.S. security state has been ignoring presidents and elected representatives from its inception, so the next time you wonder why Obama hasn't been able to close down the Guantanamo gulag after eight years in office, the answer just might be that somebody is not allowing him to do so.

The book has been rapturously received by readers, but The New York Times and The Washington Post have steadfastly refused to review The Devil's Chessboard even though it has shown up on their bestseller lists. Next time you read an article in those newspapers of record that sounds suspiciously like CIA misdirection and propaganda, the truth is that you are probably reading planted lies, artfully arranged. Their cheerleading for an invasion of Iraq during the Bush era is only the most egregious of recent examples. (A young Congressman Rumsfeld was one of Dulles' acolytes in the 1960s, which helps explain a lot.) Mr. Talbot deserves thanks for a disturbing map of our world and how we got here.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Transcendent SoundBox

Ragnar Bohlin (above), the Swedish San Francisco Symphony Chorus director, was the curator for this month's edition of the Davies Hall nightclub SoundBox, which featured "transcendent" music about love, war, and God.

The opening number was the wildly exciting Raua needmine from 1972 by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The title translates as Curse Upon Iron, with the text decrying a world where humans forge iron into weapons to slaughter each other.

The 15-minute piece is written for a drummer (played with real passion by Bohlin on Saturday evening), a pair of male soloists including baritone Matthew Peterson below, and chorus.

Though the piece is seemingly a classic anthem in the greater Baltic world (click here for a YouTube version with heavy metal electric guitar and chorus), it might have been helpful for the bewildered SoundBox audience to have a spoken introduction on what they were about to hear.

This was followed by a short, ethereal prayer, Columba aspexit (The Dove Peered In) by Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century mystical visionary and Benedictine abbess from Germany.

For this number and the final Mahler selection of the evening, the a capella chorus was both onstage and encircling the audience for maximum SurroundSound.

After intermission, a small string orchestra headed by SF Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik joined the chorus and conductor Bohlin in the substantial 1985 Te Deum of Estonian minimalist religious mystic Arvo Pärt. It was given a delicate, magnificent performance, and made me wish the SF Symphony programmed more of Pärt's music on the main stage at Davies Hall.

The third section of the evening started out with a lively, wonderful rendition of a Monteverdi madrigal about love, Ardo avvampo mi struggo (I Burn, I Blaze, I Am Consumed), but the final two pieces didn't quite work. They were sweet, goopy arrangements for mixed chorus of two Mahler songs meant for solo voices, Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen which were much too elegaic for a crowd that had been drinking most of the evening.

At the end of the concert, we were invited to join the chorus ranged about the audience in a German and a Swedish drinking song, but there were no titles on the screen so it was more than a little tricky to do so. Still, it was a pleasant musical nightcap for another interesting SoundBox concert.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Palm Springs Modernism Week

Ten years ago a group of Modernism architecture and design afficionados in Palm Springs started a February event called Modernism Week that has exploded exponentially in size and ambition.

This year there were over 250 public events, ranging from doubledecker bus tours to swanky parties at local Modernist homes...

...and free cooking demonstrations in a tented Bosch kitchen.

Modernism Week now extends over 10 days, and last Saturday the 13th I dragged my Palm Springs friend Steven Wibben above to the North Palm Canyon Design District.

Every art gallery seemed to be having an opening party, so we wandered in and out of them imbibing free cocktails.

Our favorite was at the Ted Casablanca Gallery (Ted is second from the right)...

...which was having an opening for a quartet of artists including Monica Orozco (standing above).

She was offering photographic self-portraits a la Cindy Sherman, but more fun, even when she's looking crazed on a lawn in Weed Wacker above.

Up the street was a huge crush of people inside a store devoted to the art and design of Shag aka West Hollywood/Palm Springs artist Josh Agle.

Shag's work is ubiquitous in Palm Springs these days.

The art is relentlessly commercial, reminiscent of a more sophisticated, Modernist Thomas Kinkade.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

San Francisco Snapshot

I looked out my kitchen window last Friday and saw a man sprawled half on the sidewalk and half on the street, with his belongings in a garbage bag in the crosswalk nearby.

Whether he was drunk and/or drugged and/or just had a heart attack, nobody seemed to know or care.

The young man on his mobile device ignoring the old man in a pose of crucifixion felt like a perfect snapshot of San Francisco right now.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Green California

I jumped on a Coast Starlight Amtrak train last Thursday in San Luis Obispo... it headed north to Oakland.

The El Niño weather phenomenon hasn't quite lived up to expectations this winter...

...but for the first time in a number of years the hills of the Central Coast are green instead of brown.

It felt a bit miraculous... we wound our way up the Cuesta Grade.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Super Music Week 5: The Other Barber of Seville

As an antidote to the newly evolving United States national holiday celebrating male aggression, I spent Super Bowl Sunday at Oakland's Mills College where the undergraduates are all women. The excuse was to attend a rare performance of Giovanni Paisello's 1782 opera, The Barber of Seville, a popular success written 34 years before Rossini's operatic version of the same Beaumarchais play which quickly supplanted the Paisello.

The West Edge Opera company has moved its Medium Rare concert opera program this year from the Rossmoor Community Center to Lisser Hall at Mills, which is a little jewel box of a theater seating around 200 people.

What appeared to be close to a full house was entertained by the familiar story and the odd differences in its telling. For instance, who knew that the jack-of-all-trades Figaro (baritone Nicholas Nackley on the left) wrote unsuccessful operas in Madrid while seeking his fame and fortune away from Count Almaviva (tenor Jonathan Smucker on the right)?

The music is well worth hearing, melodic and inventive, more in the manner of Mozart and Haydn than the "modern style" of Rossini. There are plenty of comic arias and ensembles, along with sweet arias for the young lovers, Count Almaviva and Rosina, the only female role in the opera who everyone is scheming with, against, and around. Sara Duchovnay sang well and didn't overplay the cuteness of Rosina which I've seen in too many productions of the Rossini opera.

Pierre Beaumarchais has to be one of the most fascinating characters of 18th century Western history. He was an apprentice to his watchmaking father in Paris, invented an escapement that improved accuracy, had the idea stolen by a royal watchmaking mentor, then made a public stink in the press claiming he was the real inventor. Pierre became a celebrity overnight and was appointed royal watchmaker by Louis XV. He married two rich women with titles who mysteriously died early in their marriages, dabbled in get-rich schemes, published the collected works of Voltaire soon after the philosopher's death, lobbied and organized practical aid for the American Revolution, and wrote a series of very successful plays. If his Wikipedia page is to be trusted, he also spent a large chunk of his life in litigation, suing and being sued. 18th century France seemed as lawsuit-crazy as the United States is today, which possibly explains all the many disputed contracts that appear in his plays. (Pictured above is Nackley as Figaro playing acoustic air guitar while Almaviva sings a serenade which was one of the funnier moments of the afternoon.)

Beaumarchais was also a music teacher to Louis XV's four daughters who played the harp, and it was fun seeing the music teacher Don Basilio played by the baritone Ben Kazez (above left) as a pliable and bribeable young man on the make rather than the irascible old fart that is usually portrayed in the Rossini opera. Carl King as Don Bartolo trying to take advantage of his wealthy ward Rosina is the same unlikable character from every commedia dell'arte play that features an old lecher being foiled by young love. How Don Bartolo is really foiled is through sheer economics. Count Almaviva not only has noble blood and handsome youth on his side, but he can bribe everyone to do what he wants. This unvarnished version of the play in the Paisello opera feels a bit more revolutionary than the post-French Revolution Rossini.

The uncut, slightly over two-hour opera was lovingly performed by Musical Director Jonathan Khuner in an amazing display of speed as he would jump from complex piano accompaniment to an electric keyboard standing in for the harpsichord continuo, pausing only to look up at his three-person orchestra and the singers at crucial moments. There were no major vocal standouts in the cast, but there wasn't a bad singer in the bunch, which was remarkable, and everyone worked beautifully together. Pictured above are left to right Nikolas Nackley as Figaro, Alex Frankel as Giovinetto, Jonathan Smucker as Count Almaviva, Sara Duchovnay as Rosina, Ben Kazez as Don Basilio, Carl King as Don Bartolo, and the always dependable John Minagro as Svegliato and A Notary.

Leoncavallo's version of La Boheme is up next in what West Edge Opera is calling its Doppelgänger Season, at Mills again on March 20th and at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on March 22nd.