Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Italian Journey with the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony offered a wacky program last week that they were marketing as An Italian Journey. In its jumps through centuries and musical genres, from Baroque chamber music to a 1960s avant-garde symphonic masterpiece to Verdi choral music to old-fashioned solo arias, the program could have been a disaster or a major success. It's a treat to report that the latter was the case. The concert started off with new principal oboe Eugene Izotov giving a superb, soulful account of Marcello's early 18th century Oboe Concerto in C Minor. He also lead a chamber ensemble of first-chair players and it was one of the better Baroque performances I've heard from the SF Symphony at Davies.

This was followed by the forbidding, insanely difficult (to play and absorb), amusing, and endlessly interesting Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, written for the New York Philharmonic in 1969. The soloists are eight amplified singers, and the original vocalists were the Swingle Singers, which has to be the greatest chamber chorus name ever. The English ensemble still exists with replacements from the current generation, and they were the soloists at Davies Hall on Saturday evening.

My only complaint is that Davies Hall has some of the crappiest amplified sound systems in San Francisco, and the definitive sound of the Swingle Singers was muted and a bit muddy when it should have been thrust much further into the foreground. When I heard this piece live last year for the first time at the UC Davis Mondavi Center, the vocal soloists were a much more important part of the texture. As good as the student orchestra was at UC Davis, hearing the expert Mahler orchestra that is the SF Symphony play the third movement of Sinfonia, with Mahler's Scherzo from his Resurrection Symphony sliced and diced, was an exquisite treat. The crazy music has been running through my head for the rest of the week.

After intermission, the great San Francisco Symphony Chorus sang Verdi's Te Deum, a short (13-minute) sacred choral piece that the anticlerical composer wrote near the end of his life. I had never heard it live before and it instantly became one of my favorite Verdi pieces ever.

The programming for this concert, in fact, felt a bit like the SoundBox concerts, with their surprising mixture of short musical styles and repertory discoveries, impeccably performed.

The finale of the evening involved young tenor superstar Michael Fabiano singing a trio of Italian opera arias, including Donizetti's Una Furtiva Lagrima and an aria from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Il Corsaro, the latter ending the evening with the urgent backing of the men's chorus. My favorite was Luciano Berio's orchestration of Il Poveretto, a song by Verdi about a poor person on the street.

Though Fabiano is not my favorite current tenor, he's got a lovely, forceful voice, and has some of the best Italian singing diction around. My companion for the evening drooled over his performance, by the way, as did many others in the audience.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Saturday Civic Center Security Standoff

At the corner of McAllister and Van Ness on Saturday around noon, we noticed yellow caution tape across McAllister Street and scores of police, fire and other security vehicles. As we jumped onto a Muni bus to Russian Hill for lunch, I guessed it was one of those occasional bomb scares at City Hall which eventually turn out to be somebody's forgotten gym bag.

We walked back to Civic Center because traffic a couple of hours later on Van Ness was at a standstill, and the situation looked the same.

I asked a news cameraman (not pictured above) what was happening, and he replied, "There's supposedly a man with a gun in Civic Center park, but the police won't shoot him because he's white."

I wondered how the police had even noticed a man with a gun in Civic Center Plaza, since open drug injection, people threatening others with knives, and all manner of illegal mayhem are daily occurrences in and around the plaza, and the SFPD tends to ignore their behavior. The mystery was solved after reading an SF Gate story which reported that the man had phoned the police himself and was promising suicide and possible harm to others.

I returned to the neighborhood at 6:30 PM when the first security vehicles were beginning to depart and talked to another newsperson who had been camped out most of the day. "They talked him down, but it turns out the gun was a fake, plastic replica," he said.

At least it was a warm, lovely day for the SFPD, the Fire Department, the FBI, and who knows what other security agencies managed to involve themselves in the standoff. They seemed to be enjoying their time together, although people whose cars were trapped in the Civic Center area for close to seven hours were probably not as amused.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Dream of The Red Chamber

Composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber is my favorite world premiere at the San Francisco Opera since John Adams' Doctor Atomic in 2005. Like the Adams opera, Dream of the Red Chamber will probably spend most of its life on the fringe of the operatic repertory, but both operas have such interesting scores that they will probably have a long life. The production by Hong Kong artist Tim Yip, the designer for the Ang Lee movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was one of the most lovely and inventive collections of sets and costumes I have seen on that stage. The backdrop consisted of painted ephemera, deliberately shown hanging from strings, that constructed themselves into an almost realistic whole and then deconstructed surrealistically while transitioning into other, dreamlike scenes.

The costume for Karen Chia Ling-Ho above as Princess Jia, the Emperor's favorite new concubine in a court filled with schemers, was one of the most amazing pieces of clothing I've ever seen. I wish Cory Weaver, who took all these production photos, gave us a shot of Ling-Ho with the whole costume monty. Her robe went on seemingly forever, one embroidered yard after another.

Her character doesn't come to a good end and neither do any of the other matriarchal and young female figures who populate China's most revered novel, a 4,000-page, five-volume, 18th century poetic, philosophical, and romantic tale of the end of a few aristocratic family clans during the Manchu dynasty. Currently, I sit next to two Chinese-born coworkers in adjoining cubicles in Silicon Valley, and both of them knew the tale from reading the book in adolescence. One of them even memorized the poems written by Dai Yu (the reincarnated Flower, sung by Korean soprano Pureum Jo above, with the contralto Qiulin Zhang as the soulful Granny Jia) and my coworker can still recite them.

The music by Bright Sheng, a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution as a young person, and a survivor of American academia as an older one, has written a complex score that's also very accessible, with traditional, almost Italianate arias mixing it up with 21st century percussion and interesting differences in tone from scene to scene. It never sounds cross-cultural gimmicky which could have happened very easily, and was brilliantly performed by the SF Opera orchestra under conductor George Manahan. At one point early in the opera, Bao Yu goes off to her bamboo forest quarters and sings a very famous poem from her heart while strumming on a qin, an ancient plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings played in the pit by Shanghai-born musician Zhou Yi. It was enchanting.

The one male hero of the tale is a teenager, Bao Yu (the reincarnated Stone to Dai Yu's Flower), and he was perfectly sung and acted by tenor Yijie Shi, in a performance so sweet, smart and attractive that I can imagine him becoming a matinee idol in Hong Kong where this production is traveling next. All the singers, most of them making their SF Opera debuts, were very good, including Hyona Kim as Lady Wang below, a scheming villain played as an honorable person who ends being foiled by the even more scheming Emperor.

My companion at the Sunday matinee was James Parr, who grew up in China as a child, and whose excellent spoken Mandarin tends to astonish people who are not expecting to hear that language coming from his mouth. There were both English supertitles over the stage and vertical Chinese titles on the side, and James mentioned that the latter were way more interesting and poetic than the clunky English of the original libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang, working from the composer's scenario. At intermission, we were introduced to one of the Chinese supertitle translators, and I mentioned how much more poetic my companion was finding the idiograms to be. "We went back to the language of the original novel as much as possible," she replied. I think for this opera to really prosper it should immediately be translated into Mandarin, "with as much of the original as possible," and presented as such. The condensed novel scenario and music and production are already wonderful.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mozart and Glass at New Century

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their 25th anniversary season with unusually attractive programming last week. The program started with a rediscovered (in 1962) Webern string quartet movement, Langsamer Satz, that was orchestrated for string ensemble by the late Gerard Schwarz in 1992. It's a short, gorgeous piece that sounds like late Mahler.

This was followed by Mozart's Piano Concerto #13, which has been one of my favorite stretches of music in the world for close to 50 years, and this was the first time I think I have heard it performed live. It was a lovely, idiomatic account by soloist Inon Barnatan above, and though I'm used to Alfred Brendel's more integrated performance with Neville Marriner on disc, this was an interesting soloist versus orchestra concerto performance, and I didn't miss the percussion or the woodwinds and brass at all.

After intermission, the string orchestra played Philip Glass's Third Symphony. Glass wrote the piece for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1995 and I listened to a few YouTube accounts that didn't do much for me, but live the music was stirring and serious and altogether transformed. The NCCO gave a great performance.

They finished the concert with a musical joke by Peter Heidrich, Happy Birthday Variations in the style of composers from Bach to Wagner. It was slightly unsatisfying after all the great music that preceded it, but the 15-movement piece elicited plenty of guffaws from musical cognoscenti.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Soltron at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival is an annual May through October free concert series held on the lawn above the Moscone Convention Center between Howard and Mission near 3rd Street.

I always forget about the performances because I tend not to go downtown unless someone is offering pay for work, but whenever stumbling across a free performance at the Yerba Buena Gardens, I'm always impressed by the quality of performers in every musical genre imaginable.

Plus, it's not an overcrowded, claustrophobic scene like Stern Grove or Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, possibly because others feel the same way about downtown and the decades-long redevelopment mess that is the Yerba Buena Center.

Last Saturday afternoon there were two Latino bands, La Cafetera from Los Angeles, with the local Mission District ensemble Soltron opening up for them.

Soltron's music was not only lively, tight, fun and cross-cultural...

...but everyone was beautiful to look at too, in very different ways...

...including guitarist/vocalist Manolo Davila above.

Unfortunately, I didn't stay long, because there was a date with a friend for a first-time tour of the new SFMOMA building across the street. Pics and a few observations to come.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Copland and Reich at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony's opening concerts of the season, after their Gala opening last Wednesday, were a very odd mixture of the music of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Steve Reich. The three composers all share the distinction of being Jewish New Yorkers working in popular classical musical styles, but otherwise they made for a strangely discordant fit. The concert started with a suite from Copland's first successful ballet score, the 1938 Billy the Kid, and though the sampled cowboy tunes were gorgeously orchestrated, I kept wishing we could watch a ballet instead of listening to the big, boisterous orchestra performing what sounded like an overplayed pops piece.

Copland's few attempts at writing vocal music have always struck me as the efforts of somebody who was given no special gift in that regard. Some composers have it and others do not, which is a mystery. Copland knew his own strengths and weaknesses, so he didn't write much vocal music but did work for over two decades (the 1950s-1970s) on a song cycle based on 12 Emily Dickinson poems, eventually orchestrating eight of them for a chamber ensemble. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas' favorite young soprano of the moment, Susanna Phillips, was the soloist and though she did her best and has a pretty sound, the four excerpted songs on the program did not make much of an impression. Especially if you have heard John Adams' exquisite depiction in his early choral symphony Harmonium of The Chariot, with its opening stanza of:
"Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality."
you would also think Copland's setting was very weak tea indeed.

Possibly to keep in tune with the Opening Gala atmosphere, Ms. Phillips sang two songs by Gershwin, Summertime from Porgy and Bess and I Got Rhythm, originally an Ethel Merman song from the musical Girl Crazy. Phillips hit some beautiful notes in Summertime, but I spent most of the rendition wishing it was Nina Simone or Cleo Laine or Leontyne Price who was singing. The bad amplification for I Got Rhythm did the opposite of what was intended, making the lyrics mostly unintelligible.

After intermission there was a performance by the young, Chicago-based ultra-hipster sextet, Eighth Blackbird, of Steve Reich's Double Sextet from 2007 which was written for them and promptly won the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year. It's a great, late Steve Reich composition and the "Double" in this case was not the original sextet playing to a recording of themselves in counterpoint but live, first-chair players from the SF Symphony. This is the kind of interesting programming and cross-performance magic that's been happening at the SoundBox concerts over the last two years, and it was heartening to see it finally occurring in Davies Hall as part of an opening week subscription concert. Too bad we had to listen to all that boring Copland to get to the excitement.

The twenty-minute Double Sextet consists of mirroring sextets made up of violin (Yvonne Lam for 8B and Alexander Barantschik for SFS), cello (Nicholas Photinos for 8B and Amos Yang for SFS), flute (Nathalie Joachim for 8B and Tim Day for SFS), clarinet (Michael J. Maccaferri for 8B and Corey Bell for SFS), piano (Lisa Kaplan for 8B and Robin Sutherland for SFS), and vibraphone (Matthew Duvall for 8B and Jacob Nissly). The flute and clarinet parts are occasionally written for very high registers and the sound becomes electronic and otherworldly over the constantly changing pulse of the pianos and vibraphones, while the two strings (which sounded electrified, but subtly amplified) added their own richness.

Then the entire huge San Francisco Symphony trooped back onto the stage for Reich's 1985 Three Movements. Reich was being feted for the week in honor of his 80th birthday on October 3rd. At a quick Q&A at the SF Conservatory of Music last Thursday, my friend Patrick Vaz reported that somebody asked Reich about Three Movements and he replied that "it isn't a very good piece," and he's right. Unlike Copland, Reich occasionally writes splendid vocal music but large orchestras have never really been his medium. Glad to heave heard the piece once, though.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Red, White and Blue 9/11

San Francisco City Hall was lit up red, white and blue on Saturday night, and there was plenty of discussion and confusion among Van Ness Avenue pedestrians about what the color scheme might mean. Since city government, with their millions of dollars worth of PR professionals, can't be bothered to share information, we were all guessing.

Was it a nod to the Gala Opening of the San Francisco Opera's Andrea Chenier on Friday night, which was set during the French Revolution? Or was it a pre-emptive commemoration of the 9/11 attacks fifteen years ago?

Nothing about that disaster makes me feel patriotic, particularly the subsequent 15 years of murder and torture of thousands of people by U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan nor the ridiculous, wasteful, and expensive security theater at U.S. airports. Though the Veterans Building across the street from City Hall was lit red on the same evening in honor of the world premiere of the opera Dream of the Red Chamber, it seemed a more fitting color scheme for 9/11 and the horror it unleashed than the old red, white and blue.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber Preview

The San Francisco Opera Guild hosted a preview last week of the world premiere opera, Dream of the Red Chamber, which is opening this Saturday. The participants onstage at Herbst Theatre were left to right SF Opera dramaturg Kip Cranna, conductor George Manahan, composer Bright Sheng, soprano Pureum Jo, and tenor Yijie Shi.

Singing the male lead, Yijie Shi mentioned that he was probably born to play the role but the prospect was a little daunting because all of China knows the characters from the famous 18th century Chinese novel on which the opera is based, and he is the only major male character, a dreamy teenager torn between two girls and many competing matriarchal interests.

The composer of the opera, Bright Sheng, noted that four of the major creators were all ethnically Chinese of about the same age, but with very different backgrounds. Sheng was born and raised in Shanghai but has spent most of his adult life in the United States. His co-librettist, David Henry Hwang, is from Los Angeles and works as a playwright in New York. The director, Stan Lai, is from Taiwan and works quite a bit in Europe, while Production Designer Tim Yip is based in Hong Kong and often works in China, including designing a 50-hour television adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber which aired in 2010. (According to reviews on IMDB, the 36-episode Chinese television version from 1987 was better.)

Librettist Hwang wrote the plays M. Butterfly and Yellow Face, and he insisted that the principal singers for the premiere productions in San Francisco and Hong Kong be Asian rather than "yellow face" white singers, although the minor characters in the opera are being sung by SF Opera Adler Fellows, who come from all over the world. Not all the principals are Chinese, by the way, such as the Korean soprano Pureum Jo above as the reincarnated flower to Shi's reincarnated stone.

There have been movie adaptations, stage plays, Chinese operas, and TV series based on the classic novel by Cao Xueqin, but this is the first Western style opera variation. Let us hope it's better than Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter, based on the silly Amy Tan novel, which was given its world premiere at SF Opera a decade ago.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


Bay Area composer Erling Wold has written UKSUS, an absurdist chamber opera about the surrealist Russian writer Daniil Kharms, who was born at the end of the Tsars and starved to death by Stalin’s regime in a psychiatric hospital in Leningrad during World War Two. UKSUS premiered last year in San Francisco and after performances in Europe, returned for an encore with many of its original performers last week at the Oakland Metro Opera House, a rock club in Jack London Square. (Pictured above are left to right Laura Bohn, Nikola Printz, Timur Bekbosunov, and Roham Sheikhani.)

Having read Joshua Kosman’s review of the 2015 premiere and a few accounts of the revival, I was a bit apprehensive about an intermissionless deep dive into absurdist, surreal skits set to music, but thought the final Sunday afternoon performance was thoroughly absorbing and a complete triumph on its own terms. (Pictured above are Timur Bekbosunov as Pushkin/Kharns and Roham Sheikhani as M2.)

Part of the reason is Erling Wold’s score, which sounds like Kurt Weill meeting up with Philip Glass, with a strain of jazzy rock and roll enlivening the mix, filled with enough variations and dynamics to remain continuously interesting for close to two hours. The onstage chamber orchestra was sensationally good, with the great Beth Custer on clarinet (and even singing an aria), Rob Wilkins on trumpet, Joel Davel on percussion, Diana Strong on accordion, John Schott on guitar, Elzbieta Polak on violin, and Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass. Conducting from the middle of the audience was Bryan Nies above, who seemed to be having a ball leading the ensemble. Nies should call himself the Oakland Metro Opera House Conductor after leading West Edge Opera’s As One production in the same space last year.

In a fascinating New York Review of Books essay by Ian Frazier called A Strangely Funny Russian Genius, Frazier explains the cultish appeal of Daniil Kharms and that his OBERIU poets group’s “rejection of plot, sense, logic, and other consolations of meaning came out of a deep asceticism. ‘I’m always suspicious of everything comfortable and well off,’ Kharms wrote to a friend in 1933. Their aspirations were also, in a sense, patriotic. To their critics, they replied that they were seeking “a genuinely new art” for all of Russia. Their methods tapped the spirituality that Russians have turned to before in drastic times. Kharms admired contemporary mathematicians of the Moscow School who used mystical, nonrational thinking to crack previously unsolved problems in set theory and the nature of infinity. He idolized the formalist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, twenty years his senior, who had cofounded an artistic movement called zaum, from the Russian za um, “beyond mind.” Kharms’s friend and close OBERIU collaborator Vvedensky declared his three themes to be “time, death, and God.” As Eugene Ostashevsky explains, “Vvedensky strikes one as a religious mystic in that very modern manner which, identifying religion with doubt, regards the absence and even nonexistence of God as facets of His infinite transcendence.” Or to put it another way: the absurdity and chaos of existence, and the manifest absence of God in the whole ongoing mess, are themselves proofs of a transcendent God. And, may one add, of a funny God? Of a God possibly enjoying a laugh at our expense?”

Frazier continues: “Nowadays, at least in America, writers often describe themselves as storytellers. They may add that stories are how human beings live, and that we connect with one another through stories, etc...Whatever Kharms is, he’s not a storyteller. In fact, he is so far from being a storyteller that his work shows up all this story-storyteller-storytelling business for the humdrum received wisdom it is.” (Pictured above are left to right, Nikola Printz as Our Mama, Bob Ernst as Michelangelo and Laura Bohn as Fefjulka.) .)

The libretto, attributed to VADA with direction by Jim Cave, admirably takes on this spirit of utter absurdity, weaving in bits from Kharm’s biography and his adult writings, which were only published in the 1980s after being hidden and stored away in Russia for decades. They range from parodies of Pushkin hagiography to absurdist stories of old women. This could be tiring in its senselessness but there is enough variety in both the stagecraft and the music that the opera stays interesting, helped along immeasurably by the beautiful voices and fearless, pratfall-filled acting of the cast.

Particularly impressive in the central role, the young Kazakh-American, Los Angeles based tenor Timur Bekbosunov above gave a lovely performance, a calm center in the midst of the craziness, looking as if he had wandered in from a Soviet silent film version of Candide.

It would be fun to see him with his glam-rock band Timur and The Dime Museum, possibly battling the forces of Stalin (above, played by Nikola Printz).

My only real criticism is that the singers were amplified when they didn’t require it at all, particularly in the smallish Oakland space. Having just heard Laura Bohn in West Edge Opera's Powder Her Face and Nikola Printz in The Cunning Little Vixen filling the Oakland Train Station with their unamplified voices, it felt like a defacement of their gifts, and I know Timur and Sheikhani would have been fine without amplification too. Still, it’s the composer Erling Wold’s call, and since he appeared throughout as a supernumerary Soviet Guard (above center, flanked by Nikola Printz, Laura Bohn, Timur Bekbosunov and Bob Ernst), he obviously was satisfied with the sound.