Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Some Interesting Musical Events in September

There are a whole roster of interesting new musical events this coming month. Following are a few highights. This week brings four performances of Erling Wold’s UKSUS at the Oakland Metro Opera House on 2nd Street near Jack London Square. According to the website, this reprise of Wold’s surrealistic 2015 opera is “an autobiography of Daniil Kharms and the OBERIU in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, a narrative told through their stories and brief lives, as the OBERIU – The Association for Real Art – maintained their love of words and nonsensical art to their deaths in Stalin’s Great Purge.” One of the stars is Laura Bohn, who just knocked everyone out with her performance as the Duchess of Argyll in Powder Her Face with West Edge Opera, and the jazzy chamber orchestra includes the brilliant composers/instrumentalists Beth Custer and Lisa Mezzacappa. To see a YouTube version of an earlier incarnation in Germany, click here, and to buy tickets for this week’s performances, click here.

The following week, the San Francisco Symphony begins their season with a tribute to New York minimalist composer Steve Reich with a Copland/Reich program that will undoubtedly involve Jacob Nissly, above, the symphony’s great young percussionist who played a Reich piece during one of the Symphony’s SoundBox concerts last season. For tickets, click here. There will also be a special all-Reich concert on Sunday, September 11th at 7PM.

The Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill has started a new duo with violinist Kate Stenberg. The pair will be performing Mozart, Brahms, Henry Cowell, Debussy, Lou Harrison and others in a series of concerts at “Music by The Mountain” at Mount Shasta on Saturday and Sunday, September 10th at 7PM and September 11th at 4PM. On Sunday, September 18th, they will be performing at Point Reyes Dance Palace at Point Reyes Station at 2PM and at San Francisco’s Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, 1750 29th Avenue, on Saturday, September 24th at 7:30 PM. On Thursday, September 29th at 7:30 PM, Sarah will be joining pianists Anton Batagov, Jenny Lin, Aaron Diehl, and Philip Glass at the opening of Stanford Live’s season at the Bing Concert Hall. The five performers will be performing the complete piano etudes by Philip Glass.

Speaking of Glass, the New Century Chamber Orchestra begins their season the week of September 15th in Berkeley with the composer’s Third Symphony, which was written for a chamber string orchestra. The program also includes music by Webern, Heidrich, and Mozart’s 13th Piano Concerto, and the concert will be repeated in San Francisco and San Rafael. For more info, click here.

The San Francisco Opera is opening on September 9th with Giordano’s Italian potboiler about the French revolution, Andrea Chenier, and on the following night, Saturday, September 10th, offering the world premiere of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber based on a classic, extremely long, 18th century Chinese novel.

The San Francisco Symphony is offering a bizarrely interesting program September 22nd through 24th called An Italian Celebration, conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. It starts with an oboe concerto by Marcello, continues with Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for Eight Solo Voices and Orchestra (with The Swingle Singers!), followed by Italian arias sung by the young American tenor of the moment, Michael Fabiano. And if all that wasn’t enough, the concert concludes with Verdi’s Te Deum. I heard the Berio piece at UC Davis last year with soloists from the Volti chorus and it’s an amazing, wild ride, rarely performed in the United States and not to be missed. For ticket info, click here.

The second "opera-installation" by Bay Area-based, Italian-born composer Luciano Chessa above is having its site-specific world premiere from September 22nd to September 24th in a small castle in Bolzano, Italy. Entitled Cena Oltranzista nel Castelletto al Lago (Extremist Dinner in the Castle by the Lake), it is a three-day event presented as part of the TRANSART 2016 festival. It sounds fascinating, with influences ranging from the Italian Futurist Cookbook by Marinetti, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Pasolini’s film Salo. From an introductory description of the piece:
"In the capacity of master of ceremonies, Luciano Chessa will lead the ten guests to the castle to meet for a silent lunch and to then begin a symbolic journey. After the lunch, the group will in fact undertake a two-days fasting that will end with a multisensory ‘cena oltranzista’ (extremist dinner): a banquet of aural, olfactory, visual, tactile and finally gustatory sensations. A network of surveillance cameras and microphones will document and stream the whole experience on the web in real time. This opera deliberately merges heterogeneous influences: storytelling, folkloric-ritual art, body art, Medieval mysteries, peep shows, meditation, repurposed Big Brother-esque television references, and the style of ‘manor house mystery’, a classic narrative trope borrowed from the literary genre of mystery tales."
The work will be live-streamed and you can be a viewer/participant by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Merola Grand Finale 2016

The Merola Program, San Francisco's summer opera boot camp for aspiring young professionals from around the globe, wrapped up its season with their annual Grand Finale concert at the San Francisco Opera House last Saturday. 23 vocalists sang arias and duets over a professional orchestra, and as usual the event felt like it went as long as Wagner's Götterdämmerung, but at least it was a fun Götterdämmerung. The talents onstage ranged from the good to the not-quite-up-to-snuff to the spectacularly talented, and half the fun was making up your mind which was which, a completely subjective endeavour. Following are a few of my favorite people. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gave a ravishingly beautiful account of Orfeo's scena with Eurydice (the lovely soprano Teresa Castillo) when he unfortunately looks back during Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurice. Cohen has a great future ahead of him in the odd repertory for male sopranos that includes early music and contemporary operas.

New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati, as he demonstrated during his wonderful performance as Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte earlier this summer, has a smallish, exquisitely on-pitch tenor that is unforced and beautiful. The selections for the various performers are always weird, a mixture of old chestnuts and total obscurities like the scene from Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict above with Pati and mezzo soprano Alexandra Schenck as the quarreling Shakespearean lovers.

Pati returned for one of those old chestnuts with baritone Andrew G. Manea, singing the famous bromance duet, Au fond du temple saint from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles. There is certain operatic music that benefits from young, unhardened voices while others profit from an older, more developed edge, and the Bizet duet turned out to be a perfect vehicle for the former. This was the most beautiful rendition of the duet I have ever heard live, and much of the reason was the sense of innocence and the sheer beauty of Pati's voice and phrasing.

Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven and soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley sang a long scena from Donizetti's Anna Bolena, and this was a case of an opera that profits from older, more seasoned singers. I liked the voices of both sopranos very much, especially during an earlier Schwabacher concert, but this difficult piece didn't particularly bring out the best in either of them.

Soprano Yelena Dyachek with tenor Brian-Michael Moore sang a duet from Flotow's Martha, which was depressing because Dyachek has one of the most extraordinary young voices I have ever heard and Martha, at least from the evidence of this scene, is dreck. She was also in the earlier Merola production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, in the lead role of Fiordiligi, a performance that reminded me of Carol Vaness in her early 20s singing Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza de Tito. What both performances shared was an ability to sing fiendishly difficult music as simply and naturally as if one was warbling to oneself before breakfast. I envy everyone at the Houston Opera, where Dyachek is headed to join their young artist program, because she has what can be called a porno voice. There are plenty of singers with pretty voices and plenty of singers with huge voices, but they very rarely coincide in the same person. Dyachek is one of those special combos, and her musical instincts are good besides.

Tenor Kyle van Schoohoven sang a huge aria from Wagner's early opera Rienzi, and though he's not quite ready for heldentenor prime time, he's just about there. Plus, the student stage director Aria Umezawa gave him six supernumerary women with candles to do fun movement around him, and it worked well as did most of the rest of her staging with minimal props, schtick or sets.

Baritone Cody Quattlebaum sang Guglielmo in that already legendary Merola Cosi Fan Tutte this summer with Dyechka and Pati. In the Grand Finale, he sang There's a law, a weird, sexist aria from Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti that he managed to fill with charm. He arrived onstage with a manbun and halfway through pulled out the restraints and let his long hair down. Quattlebaum has a lovely baritone and stage charisma to burn.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

San Francisco of Modern Art

Long ago in 2010 I wrote a post about a photography exhibit at SFMOMA devoted to Henri Cartier-Bresson, and received an email from the museum requesting that I take down a few photos which were under some serious copyright restrictions from the Carter-Bresson estate. They also informed me that SF MoMA was the wrong way to refer to the museum, and that the correct branding was SFMOMA, all caps, no spaces. Having worked in corporate graphics departments most of my life, I was sympathetic, and the lowly person in the P.R. department who sent that email was sweet and charming in the wording of their request.

The huge new building addition at SFMOMA necessitated by the donation of the late Donald Fisher's massive modern art collection just reopened this year in May, and it looks as if the reconstituted P.R. department is no longer engaging in due diligence. A new signage campaign has just been installed on MUNI buses encouraging people to take the 14 Rapid bus from the Mission downtown to the newly reopened SFMOMA. The only problem is that somebody not only got the SFMOMA branding wrong, but they forgot the word "Museum." Happy Mission District families of color are being encouraged to take the 14 Rapid to the "New San Francisco of Modern Art." That should be the name of a local art movement.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Weekend of Handel

The two-week American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy wrapped up last weekend with a flurry of concerts that included the U.S. premiere of Handel’s 1734 Parnasso in festa, written as a nuptial celebration piece for England’s Princess Anne and Prince William of Orange. As usual, the original instrument orchestra and the American Bach Choir were sensationally good.

The Academy vocal soloists (Suzanne Karpov, Mindy Ella Chu, Katie Clark, Ashley Valentine, Robin Bier, Emily Skilling and Christopher Besch) were very fine too, but unfortunately I didn’t stay for the second half of the piece and missed a few of their contributions. As my friend Patrick Vaz has long been complaining, starting a 3-hour concert or opera at 8PM on a weekday evening can be painful for audience members who have been up since 6AM for work, and I found myself slipping into slumberland last Friday which was not the fault of the performers. For an attentive, appreciative review of the entire concert by Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle, click here.

Kosman was not as enthusiastic about an early Handel opera, Agrippina, presented by West Edge Opera, but I thoroughly enjoyed the production at its final Sunday matinee performance.

The opera started slowly, with the introduction of Agrippina, her husband the Roman Emperor Claudio, her various adulterous lovers, her son Nero who she is attempting to elevate to the throne, along with the sexy, virginal Poppea and her many suitors. (Above is soprano Sarah Gartshore as Agrippina whose foot is being worshiped by Johanna Bronk as Narciso.)

The cast took a while to warm up, but once they did, the singing was uniformly wonderful, with special props for vocal beauty to Gartshore as Agrippina, countertenor Ryan Belongie as Ottone (above), the one decent character who of course is scorned and tormented through most of the opera by all the other plotters, Celine Ricci (above left) as a hormonal Elvis-style Nero, and Hannah Stephens as Poppea, the object of everyone’s affections, looking a bit like Stella Stevens in Palm Springs Weekend.

The direction by Mark Streshinsky was intentionally comic throughout, and there were some great flourishes, such as singers wandering through the audience throwing dollar bills in order to sway the public to acclaim Nero as the new emperor, and having Carl King as the not-drowned-after-all emperor Claudio glad-handing the audience before mounting a podium and imitating the mannerisms of a contemporary presidential candidate who shall remain nameless like Voldemort. (Joining Carl King as Emperor Claudio above is Nick Volkert as the servant Lesbo, Nikolas Nackley as Pallante, and Johanna Bronk as Narciso.) .

Besides Ottone and Poppea, the other characters are as repellent as anybody in Powder Her Face, West Edge Opera’s other opera this season about nasty people behaving badly. In another inspired touch, during the traditional Baroque Opera happy ending with everyone singing an ode of praise, the supertitles informed us about what happened next to all these historical characters, with murder and suicide the predominant motifs.

After the show at the abandoned Oakland train station, audience members and the cast mixed and mingled outside over free beer and wine, and I asked Sarah Gartshore if Nicholas Nackley had really gone the full monty during their onstage sex scene together. “No, it was a costume prop,” she replied, but then added a few other details which made Board member James Parr above gasp in amusement.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Voyage Home

After The Cunning Little Vixen matinee with West Edge Opera in Oakland, I returned to San Francisco on the public ferryboat from Jack London Square...

…which involved great people watching…

…close-up views of container ships and adorable tugboats.

Why hasn’t Pixar made an anthropomorphic Tugs movie yet? It seems like an obvious next subject.

The late afternoon, early evening light was breathtaking…

…as we sailed under the western section of the Bay Bridge, which was recently renamed for a corrupt ex-mayor who is seemingly still running San Francisco.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Cunning Little Vixen

Leoš Janáček's 1923 opera about the cycle of life and death in a Bohemian forest, complete with anthropomorphic animal characters, is a tricky opera to pull off, partly because the moods are so quicksilver as is the music. West Edge Opera's production at the abandoned Oakland train station was visually and musically a feast, with beautiful set design by Sarah Phykitt and evocative lighting design by Kevin August Landesman.

Unfortunately, the staging by Pat Diamond and the wan choreography by Liz Tenuto never made the village/forest community story very clear. For surrealism to work, there needs to be some grounding in realism, and a lot of the time it just looked like not much more than cute children in animal costumes jumping up and down. The fault certainly didn't lie with the singing actors who were cast strong from top to bottom. Joseph Raymond Meyers (above left) is a fabulous character tenor but he managed to get lost as the Mosquito (even with a giant hypodermic) and as the lovelorn Schoolmaster. Tenuto (above center) would flap her arms around as The Dragonfly during a few of Janáček's most inspired musical interludes which made me want to shoo her away.

The musical performance was something else, though. I was apprehensive about a chamber orchestra reduction of Janáček's complex score, but the ensemble under Music Director Jonathan Khuner (above) was astonishingly good, lush and transparent and idiomatic. So was every singing actor, from principals Nikola Printz as the Fox, Nickolas Nackley as a Parson/Badger, Carl King as the murderous Harasta, and a whole host of soloists from the Volti Chorus and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir. Musically, it was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever heard, especially that wordless chorus at the end of Act Two that filled the old marble hall. Musical phrases from the performance are still rolling around happily as earworms in my brain a week later.

Philip Skinner was his beautifully aged bass-baritone self as the Forester and soprano Amy Foote was very good as the Vixen (above, with her Fox, soprano Nikola Printz). Unfortunately, you can't see The Cunning Little Vixen or Powder Her Face anymore because their runs are up today. You can go to a matinee of Handel's Agrippina tomorrow at a 3PM matinee, and I am sure it will be somewhat sensational since it's about Nero and Poppea and evil mothers. Speaking of which, the most fabulously outraged review of Powder Her Face has just been published in the Berkeley Daily Planet. Written by James Roy MacBean, it uses my favorite new all-purpose phrase: "a farrago of bad taste" which appears just after "a blatantly raunchy, pornographic production."

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Cunning Little Seagull

Taking a boat from the San Francisco Ferry Building to Oakland’s Jack London Square is a delightful day trip.

I rode the ferryboat Sunday afternoon to attend The Cunning Little Vixen, Leoš Janáček's 1923 opera about animals and humans in a Bohemian forest, which is being presented as part of West Edge Opera’s summer festival at the abandoned Oakland train station.

As a prelude to the opera, there was wildlife everywhere around the Ferry Building…

…including a fearless seagull grooming itself for the ferry passengers.

Escaping the city’s summer fog for the East Bay shoreline is another delight as is watching container ships from China unloading in the Port of Oakland.

On Sundays there is a farmers’ market at Jack London Square, and you can get breakfast on Broadway at an old-fashioned diner called the Buttercup Grill & Bar or cross the street and eat vegan soul food at Souley Vegan.

You can also jump in a cab or use a rideshare service to get yourself to the West Edge Opera performances, which continue through this weekend.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Swapping Fiances at Merola's "Cosi fan tutte"

The Merola summer opera training program presented two performances last week of Mozart’s Italian opera, Cosi fan tutte, which was highlighted by a pair of spectacular musical performances from New Zealand tenor Amital Pati and soprano Yelena Dyachek above. Amital is the younger brother of Samoan New Zealander Pene Pati who is currently in the San Francisco Opera’s Adler program, while Yelena Dyachek is from a Sacramento area Ukranian family, and just graduated from the Master’s program in music at USC.

Pati’s tenor is unforced, sweet and pure in tone, and his singing of the famous Un’aura amorosa aria was one of the gentlest, most touching renditions I have ever heard. Yelena Dyachek’s voice is a rarity: huge, young, beautiful, controlled in pitch, and rich with color. I mentioned to SF Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald that Dyachek’s singing reminded me of Carol Vaness when she was singing Mozart in her early 20s, and Greenawald replied, “Her voice is even larger than Carol’s. She reminds me of a young Gwyneth Jones. That voice is HUGE!” (In the photo above, the two singers are flanking conductor Mark Morash who led a lively performance of one of Mozart’s most gorgeous scores.)

The opera was staged by director Ted Huffman in a military hospital in a vague 20th century time and place, which made certain scenes nonsensical but overall worked quite well. The opera’s plot involves a cruel bet on whether a pair of sisters are actually as faithful as their fiances believe, with the two male friends pretending to go to war and returning in disguise to woo each others’ sweethearts. In traditional productions, they are usually dressed as Balkan boys, complete with turbans, but the bandaged heads worked splendidly as disguises. Plus, it was easier than usual to believe that the sisters would take pity on these wounded, infatuated young men. Baritone Cody Quattlebaum as Guglielmo was charming vocally and dramatically, while Alexandra Schenk as Dorabella wasn’t in quite the same league as Pati and Dyachek, but very few singers are. (Photo above by Kristen Loken.)

Adelaide Boedecker above sang well and was dramatically funny and commanding as Despina, playing a conspiratorial Rosie the Riveter maid/janitor/cook who is even more cynical about relations between the sexes than Don Alfonso (Josh Quinn, pictured below) who initiates the bet.

As much as I worship Mozart and especially his operas, there always seems to be a moment during the three-and-a-half hour Cosi fan tutte when I think, “Oh god, not another effing gorgeous aria,” and Saturday afternoon’s performance was no exception. Thankfully, the excitement and sheer beauty of Pati and Dyachek’s voices was enough to carry one happily to the end, and in a welcome directorial touch the couples don’t return to their original partners as the libretto suggests, but swap fiances. The tenor really does belong with the soprano and the baritone really does belong with the mezzo, original infatuations be damned.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Falun Dafa in The Outside Lands

On a bitterly cold August Saturday morning in San Francisco, a group of Falun Dafa adherents were engaging in their monthly meditative exercises on the dirt in Civic Center Plaza.

The group is primarily elderly Chinese, and for a publicly proselytizing religious cult, their approach is fairly benign.

When a gentleman tried to hand me a pamphlet and point to a picture of a book I should be reading, I told him it was not my thing and he gave me a sweet smile.

Across the street at Bill Graham Auditorium, Grove Street was blocked off for shuttle buses to Outside Lands, the freezing, foggy rock festival in Golden Gate Park. I am thankful to whatever deity that I will be spending the afternoon indoors watching young people sing Mozart opera instead.