Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Van Ness Avenue Makeover

The gargantuan new Sutter Health CPMC hospital is finally getting its glass sheath exterior, and the building is looking much better than I would have ever expected.

It is certainly looking sharper than the 1960s era Jack Tar Hotel that once took up the entire block between Geary and Post, Van Ness and Franklin.

On the other side of Van Ness Avenue the better part of the block towards Polk Street has also been razed for construction of an associated medical complex...

...and the foundations are currently being poured into a huge hole in the ground.

Concurrently, the SFMTA is starting the first phase of their Van Ness Corridor Transit Improvement Project by eliminating and consolidating about half the bus stops on the busy street in an effort to speed up travel time on the heavily trafficked corridor.

The agency has stationed workers at bus stops along Van Ness, including the gent above, to hand out maps to passengers showing the changes that take effect on Saturday, June 4th.

Though there are plenty of complaints written about the eliminated stops at the SFMTA blog, they make me happy since I have been dependent on the slow, stop-and-start, lunatic-laden Muni buses on Van Ness Avenue for decades. It can only get better.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles

The 1679 Italian opera Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate (The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles), written by Carlo Pallavicino for a Venetian nobleman's outdoor estate, was performed at the Marines' Memorial Theater over the weekend. The "modern world premiere" on Sunday afternoon by the fledgling Ars Minerva ensemble turned out to be a funny, musically gorgeous, triumphant delight.

Ars Minerva started last year with a production of an obscure 17th century opera written by Daniele da Castrovillari for the Venetian Carnival season, La Cleopatra, which received glowing reviews. The company is helmed by director and mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci who is in the center of the above photo, flanked by Kindra Scharich, stylist Zanetta from Metamorphosis Salon, dancer Casey Lee Thorne, and tenor Ryan Matos.

It seems the myth of Amazon warrior women, living without men, was once a popular theme for theatrical spectacles, usually ending with the "natural order" restoring itself when they are defeated by masculine outsiders. It certainly allowed for lots of beautiful soprano singing, and the young voices were all top-notch and unforced, headed by Aurélie Veruni as Princess Pulcheria (above right) and Kindra Scharich as Florinda, her "favorite."

The opera begins after a prologue between Genius, Difficulty & Fear, with a storm that washes Numidio (Ryan Matos) ashore. The goofy, pleased-with-himself tenor turns out to be a duplicitous agent of an African Sultan intent on conquering the Amazons.

Numidio narrowly escapes execution repeatedly, especially after stealing away the heart of Florinda from her lesbian warrior friend Auralba (Tonia D'Amelio).

The Sultan (Spencer Dodd above), thanks to the perfidious maneuverings of his henchman Numidio, manages to conquer the Amazons on their Fortunate Isles, but is magnanimous in victory, allowing Pulcheria to continue ruling at his side.

Cara Gabrielson played Princess Pulcheria's adopted daughter Jocasta and Molly Mahoney was a silly young madwoman throwing various wrinkles into the plot.

Not only was the singing first rate but the small orchestra was excellent, led by Derek Tam on harpsichord, with Adam Cockerham above on theorbo, Gretchen Claassen on cello, Addi Liu and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo on violins, Henry Reed on timpani, tambourine and various percussion, along with Amanda Cienfuegos and Jose Sanchez on ridiculously difficult valveless trumpets.

The wonderful dreadlock extensions and makeup by the Metamorphosis Salon (at 1841 Market Street) were characters in their own right, and the black-and-white still projections by Patrícia Nardi setting the various scenes were evocative and understated. Two dancers, including Coral Martin (below) and Casey Lee Thorne, provided the illusion of an Amazon Warrior Army with lovely choreography by former SF Ballet dancer Muriel Maffre.

Ars Minerva has promised a rediscovered Venetian Carnival opera on an annual basis in San Francisco. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with next.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

SF Opera Summer Preview

The San Francisco Opera is presenting three of my all-time favorite works this summer and they are offering a 30% discount offer if you buy tickets for all of them. Call the box office at (415) 864-3330 to check out the details. I heartily recommend that you do so and following are a few reasons why.

The mini-season begins on Friday, May 27th with Carmen, Bizet's perennial warhorse about the Spanish gypsy who is eventually murdered by her spurned soldier lover Don Jose. There are probably more catchy earworm tunes in this opera than any other musical theater piece in history. You probably know at least a half dozen of them whether you realize it or not. The opera can be problematic to stage, because it's a mixture of sweet and harsh, sexy and violent, that can easily devolve into castanet-clicking cliches. The late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created a wonderful production for the SF Opera in 1981 starring the great Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza (above), but it kept being endlessly restaged by less inspired assistant directors over the years until it started looking like an amateur community pageant.

This summer the production will be from Calixto Bieito, the Spanish opera director who has been scandalizing Europe with his bizarre, scatalogical, violent, and sexual reimaginings of established classics, and this Carmen is supposedly one of his better efforts. It's also the first time one of his productions has been staged in the United States, which is a big deal. Recently seen at the English National Opera in 2015, this updated, stark, violently macho version was almost universally well-received by critics. The double casting of major roles at the SF Opera isn't particularly impressive on paper, but maybe we'll be happily surprised.

The second opera is the massive, four-and-a-half hour Verdi masterpiece Don Carlo, easily my favorite opera by one of my favorite composers. Set in Inquisition era Spain during the reign of Philip II, the libretto is from a serious Schiller play that stands up well, with dramatically complex characters, an endlessly fascinating look at how power corrupts, and a damning denunciation of the Catholic Church in all its cruelties. It also contains some of the most beautiful music Verdi ever wrote, including the great bromance duet between the title character and his best friend Rodrigo. I saw the opera for the first time in 1979 with German baritone Wolfgang Brendel above as Rodrigo and Spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall as Don Carlo, and was so overwhelmed by their characters and the greatness of the musical score that I attended every performance.

Though I never need to see Verdi's La Traviata or Aida again, the chance to experience Don Carlo live will always be welcome. The casting for this summer's production is outstanding and star-filled, with tenor Michael Fabiano as the neurotic prince Don Carlo and the great baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo. Though it will be hard to sound better than soprano Carol Vaness (above) as Queen Elisabetta in 1992, Ana María Martínez is luxury casting in the role this summer as is the magnificent bass Rene Pape as Phillip II. The conductor will be Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who has just announced his retirement after the 2017-18 season, and this music should play to all of his strengths.

Finally, there is Leoš Janáček's breakout masterpiece, Jenufa, an opera that converted me into a genuine Opera Fanatic back in 1980. The San Francisco Opera has a good track record with Janáček, starting with that 1980 production featuring Sena Jurinac (above right), the legendary Vienna State Opera star who late in her career sang the part of the murderous, morally upright Kostelnička. Her stepdaughter Jenufa was sung by the great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström (above left), who was then in her 50's but who was a completely convincing teenager onstage. Even though this was before the advent of supertitles and the opera was being presented in the original Czech (which is all-important for Janáček because his musical rhythms so closely mirror the language he uses), audiences were overwhelmed by the powerful beauty of the music drama.

In 1986, Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek above took the two lead roles and brought a similar level of dramatic perfection to the opera. This year we have the young Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Jenufa, one of the most admirable characters in all of opera, and Karita Mattila as her driven to desperate insanity stepmother. Mattila knocked out everyone in the recent SF Opera production of the same composer's The Makropoulos Case, so expectations are high. The definitive Czech conductor of our times, Jiří Bělohlávek, who did such a stunning job with The Makropoulos Case, will be returning to lead the orchestra. I cannot recommend this opera highly enough, and if you don't cry at some point during the production, I probably don't want to know you.

Photo credits for the archival productions: Ron Scherl for Teresa Berganza in Carmen, Brendel/Aragall in Don Carlo, and Surinac/Söderström in Jenufa; Marty Sohl for Carol Vaness in Don Carlo; Robert Cahen for Beňačková/Rysanek in Jenufa. And many thanks to Teresa Concepcion at the SF Opera PR Department for rounding up all this archival imagery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Delight in Dancing

The New Century Chamber Orchestra closed out their season with music written for dance, including a world premiere commission from composer Jennifer Higdon above. Like much of Higdon's music, the five-movement Dance Card was easily accessible and enjoyable while being simultaneously complex and offbeat. The performers seemed to love it.

The concert in Herbst Theater started off with Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance, complete with a percussionist to punch up the sound, and after intermission was followed by a dry, dull reading of Stravinsky's score for the Balanchine ballet Apollon musagète. The concert ended with a transcription by Clarice Assad of Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss's opera Salome. Even with the return of the percussionist and Peter Grunberg on piano, the chamber version sounded anemic compared to the huge Strauss orchestra for which the music was written. My mind daydreamed back to being onstage at the SF Opera as a supernumerary guard at the cistern of John the Baptist watching Marie Ewing acting crazy as Salome while Leonie Rysanek, sitting on a throne playing Salome's mother Herodias, displayed 300 different ways to upstage another performer (vigorous fanning, playing with jewelry, jumping up and making faces at John the Baptist) while I tried desperately not to break into helpless giggles.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is in her final year as Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and she's brought energy, excitement, and lots of new music commissions to the group over the last decade. Let's hope the ensemble finds an interesting leader to take her place, because the group is playing at a very high level.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Davies' The Lighthouse from Opera Parallèle

The brilliant British composer Peter Maxwell Davies died two months ago at the age of 81, and in a bit of accidental synchronicity Opera Parallèle presented his best-known operatic work, The Lighthouse, earlier this month at the Z Space theater. Davies' prolific compositions were all over the map, from the easy listening of Farewell to Stromness and An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise to astringent, thorny works like the 1968 Eight Songs for a Mad King and the 1979 one-act opera The Lighthouse.

Nicole Paiement conducted the 13-person chamber orchestra in a magnificent performance where every instrumentalist was thoroughly exposed.

The three-man cast of (left to right) bass David Cushing, tenor Thomas Glenn, and baritone Robert Orth could not have been better, as they played both lighthouse keepers stuck on a Scottish island at the turn of the 19th/20th century in a storm while slowly going insane, along with the rescue team that faces a court of enquiry after they fail to rescue anyone.

The highlight of the opera were the three arias where each of the lighthouse keepers sing a song for the others in popular styles (folk song, love song, hymn) with disturbing lyrics. Robert Orth as Blazes starts it off with a comic, horrific tale of murdering a woman and kicking in her face while Thomas Glenn looks back at lost love with a dead friend of indeterminate gender.

David Cushing as a religious fanatic who sees "the beast" coming for them has an astonishingly beautiful, resonant bass voice that makes you want to swim in its richness of sound. Casting directors at San Francisco Opera, please take note. Cushing is incredible.

The staging by director Brian Staufenbiel was imaginative and pretty, but I think the piece might have been better served by stressing the total claustrophobia of both the court of enquiry and the stranded lighthouse. The musicians were a wonder and deserve recognition: Nicole Paiement conducting Stacey Pelinka on flute, Peter Josheff on clarinet, Susan Vollmer on French horn, Scott Macomber on trumpet, Thomas Hornig on trombone, William Winant and Ben Paysen on percussion, David Tannenbaum on guitar and banjo, Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano and keyboards, Dan Flanagan on violin, Ellen Ruth Rose on viola, Thalia Moore on cello, and Richard Worn on contrabass. It was quite a starry gathering of local musical talent.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Burger King Classic Aggression

Walking home from the Civic Center Farmers' Market a couple of Sundays ago, I heard a Mozart string quintet being blasted from what sounded like a boombox, a surrealistic musical choice for the location. This was at the corner of 8th & Market and Grove & Larkin where a Burger King presides over a BART/Muni escalator and set of stairs that is usually surrounded by an open-air drug market, mentally ill street people acting out, and vendors selling stolen goods from the sidewalk.

The sound turned out to be coming from small speakers mounted on the Burger King building in a deliberate effort to drive away the usual crowd by playing loud classical chamber music.

As you can see, the tactic worked. The corner was completely empty on Sunday morning of its usual denizens and continues to be so two weeks later.

Using classical music as a tool for gentrification leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand, I love hearing the music itself while coming up the escalator from the BART/Muni station, and it's pleasant being able to walk up Grove Street without gingerly avoiding crazy people. On the other hand, using classical music as a weapon feels all wrong. It will be interesting to watch and listen how this plays out.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Untamed Stage

Ich Bin Ein Berliner is the first song at a newly imagined Weimar era cabaret at the Hypnodrome, with Zelda Koznofski singing the catchy tune while playing the seen-it-all, done-it-all emcee for the evening.

The Untamed Stage is the latest original musical written by legendary local treasure Scrumbly Koldewyn above, who leads a huge cast from the piano in a series of cabaret tunes and an original one-act "Kabarett Musical Fantasy" which is a wild, surreal, outrageously sexual take on the rise of Nazi Germany.

In the program notes, Koldewyn writes that the musical inspiration was the songbook of Hollaender and Spoliansky. Not being able to get the rights to perform those originals for this show, Koldewyn decided to write his own new material in the style of the 20s Berlin songs. "Not to compete with Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, I chose to carry the irony and the explicitness a step or two further. However, the themes remain the same: man-devouring vamps, the blending of gender, social commentary, etc. These are songs intended to be performed with that certain Berliner attitude: "We are who we are." (Noah Haydon and Diogo Zavadzki above are drag hookers working the audience.)

So there is a song performed by David Bicha about Herr und Frau Anstatt, a married male and female couple who decide to change gender roles in public and private...

...a burlesque striptease with John Flaw serenading the magnificent Bruna Palmeiro in I Just Give 'Em What They Want...

...and the Sapphic duet between Nkechi Emeruwa and Carly Ozard in Having Fun Tonight...

...culminating in a shocking listing of outré perversions in Too Decadent for You by the trio of Jason Wade, Crystal Why and Barney Ford.

Act 2 has the perfectly Teutonic mouthful of a title: The German Thing to Do – or How a Cow Changes History: A Kabarett Musical Fantasy. It begins with a proto-Hitler Youth troupe called the Brown Shorts roaming the country and encountering a cow.

In a role and costume that could have been degrading or a lampoon, Bruna Palmeiro plays "The Existential Cow" as the essence of bovine contentment, eating and chewing and poooping. When she has no milk to give the Brown Shorts and they plot to lead her to slaughter, you actually fear for the poor cow, but in a wonderful plot turn she is saved by the sensitive young Wulf played by Diogo Zavadzki

Now things veer into surrealistic Cockettes territory where Scrumbly was an original cast member and troupe composer. Wulf is taken to Herman Hesse's Magic Theater where a film is projected that looks direct from the LSD-laced 1960s but features the present-day cast. Wulf becomes Kabarett performer Nola after his psychedelic experience...

...while his beloved friend Max played by Barney Ford ends up with mad German scientists trying to create a Superman semen serum.

The Existential Cow is acidentally injected with the serum and she entertains the Wild and Free Gang with her newly phallic appendages in a group orgy.

Through sexual liberation, Germany turns into a proto-hippie paradise and the entire cast sings a rousing anthem, The Divine Bovine, before fascists slaughter everyone and everything onstage. Though not spelled out explicitly, the parallels to 21st century San Francisco/Amerikka and 1920s Berlin/Germany are made fairly clear.

The score by Koldewyn is a marvel and the performers give it their all, including a rotating cast of special guest stars during the first half cabaret. The costume design by Glenn Krumbholz is constantly amazing, the direction by Russell Blackwood is tight throughout, and the show is highly recommended.