Friday, December 30, 2016

A Bakers Dozen of Great Musical Moments in 2016

1. Daniel Hope and Ray Chen Leading the New Century Chamber Orchestra
The chamber string orchestra is losing their star Music Director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, after this season but two guest violinist/conductors, the British Daniel Hope and the Australian Ray Chen, both offered invigorating concerts with the ensemble in 2016. Even better, Hope is returning as resident Guest Music Director for the next couple of years.

2. The American Bach Soloists performing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast
In February the American Bach Soloists gave a splendid performance at St. Marks Lutheran Church of one of my favorite Handel oratorios, interleaved with various concertos which was how the piece was originally performed. The greatest joy was the singing of the ABS Chorus who only seem to be getting better every year.

3. SoundBox at Davies Hall
All the SoundBox concerts in the pop-up nightclub rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall have been very, very good, not to mention sold out. Two standouts were the Obsession and Creation concert in April curated by director James Darrah and the December concert devoted to the music of Lou Harrison led by SF Symphony Music director Michael Tilson Thomas. The marketing arm of the San Francisco Opera should study this experiment closely, because instead of dumbing down the art form in an attempt to bring in a younger crowd, the Symphony has instead presented sophisticated mixtures of old and new music for some of the most quiet, attentive audiences imaginable. Plus, you can drink and socialize wherever you happen to be sitting during the intermissions.

4. The Untamed Stage at the Hypnodrome
The Bay Area theatrical treasure Scrumbly Koldewyn, who has been writing songs for everyone from The Cockettes in the 1960s to The Thrillpeddlers today, wrote a new, Weimar Era influenced cabaret score for a surreal, disturbing show called The Untamed Stage. With the election of our new, All-American Dictator, the piece feels horribly prescient.

5. Opera Parallèle production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a thorny, one-act opera by the recently deceased Scottish composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Singers Thomas Glenn, Robert Orth and David Cushing along with a superb chamber orchestra led by conductor Nicole Paiement gave a magnificent performance in May with the Opera Parallèle company at Z Space.

6. Ars Minerva production of The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles
Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci has started a company dedicated to presenting modern world premieres of 17th Century Venetian operas on an annual basis. The May production at the Marines Memorial Theater of Carlo Pallavicino’s The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles was a surprising wonder, with singers who negotiated the conversational style of the music with brilliance and humor.

7. Bernstein's On The Town with the SF Symphony
The combination of a recent Broadway cast of the 1940s musical On The Town, with a fully expanded orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the inspired direction of James Darrah and costumes/singing by Peabody Southwell and projections by Adam Larsen turned out to be unexpectedly magnificent. I saw a good Public Theatre production of this musical in New York's Central Park years ago but this was way better and deeper in its WWII shadings, and the score was a revelation.

8. Janacek's Jenufa at the SF Opera
Jenufa at the SF Opera this summer was about as close to perfection as it gets in a large opera house. Malin Byström and Karita Mattila were stupendous together and so was everyone else in the cast, including the SF Opera Chorus. The orchestra under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek sounded as good as any ensemble in the world. Also wonderful this year were the very good singers in Verdi's Don Carlo. I also enjoyed the gorgeous production of a world premiere in the fall from composer Bright Sheng, Dream of the Red Chamber.

9. West Edge Opera Summer Season
The East Bay opera company had another adventurous, wildly successful summer season at their new temporary home in the abandoned Oakland Train Station. The highlight for most people was Thomas Ades' first opera, Powder Her Face, headed by soprano Laura Bohn triumphing in a fiendishly difficult role, supported by a trio of beautiful young singers who enacted their often obscene antics with fearless aplomb. The Earplay chamber orchestra under Mary Chun was equally accomplished. I also liked the musicianship in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen led by conductor Jonathan Khuner and just about everything in Handel's Agrippina directed by Mark Streshinsky.

10. Merola Opera production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte
The "young professional" summer boot camp connected to SF Opera produced my favorite live production ever of what can be a long, boring, beautiful, mean-spirited Mozart masterpiece. The reason was simple. The young, unforced, perfectly pitched voices of tenor Amital Pati and soprano Yelena Dyachek as Ferrando and Fiordigli were breathtaking. I became an instant fan of both singers and look forward to hearing them again.

11. Erling Wold's UKSUS at the Oakland Metro Opera House
Speaking of becoming an instant fan, Laura Bohn (not pictured, photo above is of Nikola Printz and Timur) followed up her starring role in Powder Her Face with an amusing supporting turn to the wonderful tenor Timur Bekbosunov in local composer Erling Wold's UKSUS, an absurdist chamber opera about the surrealist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. It was difficult to make heads or tails of the piece, but that was part of the point, and the performances of the jazzy, minimalist score by the entire cast was courageous.

12. 2001 at the SF Symphony
The SF Symphony and Chorus supplied the soundtrack for a screening of Kubrick's film 2001, and it turned out to be a fabulous György Ligeti concert with additional music by various Strausses and Khatchaturian, accompanied by some of the most iconic images in the history of Art Film. The experience was so great I actually changed my mind about the film after having disparaged it for decades.

13. Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
The Berlin Philharmonic had a two-night stand at Davies Symphony Hall under outgoing Music Director Simon Rattle. I heard the second concert, an hour of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg without interruption followed by a Brahms Symphony. In other hands, the program could have been deadly but it was one of the finest concerts I have experienced in my life, and the string section sounded like no other I have ever heard in Davies Symphony Hall. We were all transported.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Christmas Special

This year I discovered the LDB (Little Drummer Boy) game where you try to make it from Thanksgiving through Christmas without once hearing the Christmas carol. I was doing quite well, even with groups like the splendid SF Conservatory Brass Ensemble playing on street corners in the neighborhood all month. The fatal moment was walking by the San Francisco Opera House one afternoon where an old man busker with a very good baritone transitioned from "Come, All Ye Faithful" to the dreaded Drummer Boy. LOST!

We went to a perfect Christmas movie on Friday, La La Land, which I was expecting to dislike because so many Facebook Friends had declared themselves "disappointed," but loved it. There were about 100 ways for the movie to be a disaster as it tried to recreate the early 1960s Jacques Demy French musicals in contemporary Hollywood, but they got it mostly right, with beautiful art direction and long Cinemascope takes. An incidental pleasure was how Ryan Gosling looked like a dead ringer for New Zealand opera singer Hadleigh Adams throughout the film, though Hadleigh has a better baritone.

To add to the seasonal joy, Netflix was showing a 90-minute episode of the TV series Sense8 in what was billed as "A Christmas Special."

At a website called the A.V. Club, Rowan Kaiser writes an amusing appreciation entitled Sense8’s Christmas special is the most Sense8 to ever Sense8.

He writes: "Let’s bear in mind that for many, the turning point of the first season of Sense8 was karaoke to one of the most cliched songs in the English language, “What’s Up” -- and then the Christmas Special goes and one-ups that in terms of earnest cliche that somehow actually engenders the exact emotional reaction it’s aiming for! (It’s also entirely possible that the song picked for the Christmas scene wasn’t originally “Hallelujah”--it is not diegetic in any way, meaning it could have been chosen after Leonard Cohen’s death specifically to act as an emotional capstone.) Combine this with the global dance party AND a new orgy scene, and the “Christmas Special” was clearly making a play to be the most Sense8 thing to ever Sense8."

The series is being produced by the moviemaking Wachowski siblings who used to be brothers and are now sisters. Their vision of a multi-racial, multi-gendered, sex-positive global community, starring beautiful thirty-somethings, may be one of the silliest, hopeful and most transgressive shows ever aired on global television (it seems that Brazil has gone crazy over the show). If you haven't checked it out, do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Requiem for 2016 at Chapel of the Chimes

The amazingly beautiful Chapel of the Chimes crematory and columbariam in the Oakland Hills was designed by Julia Morgan early in the 20th century.

For 20 years, the New Music Bay Area organization has presented a Summer Solstice concert on June 21st with dozens of composers and musicians performing throughout the sprawling complex simultaneously while the audience roams quietly from one musical surprise to another.

The Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill above started the solstice concerts, and has been one of the driving organizers of the event with Lucy Mattingly for years. After the shocking, almost simultaneous losses of composer Pauline Oliveros, the young musicians at the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, and the disastrous U.S. election, Cahill sent out a call for a community afternoon last Sunday afternoon...

...with performers ranging from Oliveros students and friends, Ghost Ship survivors, Buddhist monks, and a host of artists from every musical discipline.

They included composer/vocalist Pamela Z above...

...and Meredith Monk singer/dancer Sidney Chen above...

...who joined his Volti chorus colleagues Tim Silva, Ben Barr, and Kelsey Linnett above offering an open rehearsal of requiems by composers from Arvo Pärt to Messiaen.

In another alcove, Andy Meyerson and Danny Clay were playing a delicate percussion piece...

...before moving elsewhere so Sharmi Basu could have an electrical outlet for her performance.

On the top floor, Sarah Lockhart was playing an interactive sound sculpture accompanied by an electronic music tape component, and it was fascinating to watch and hear until she started a new piece with a prerecorded soundtrack that sounded as if she had dialed the amp to 11.

In the main chapel on the ground floor, composer Luciano Chessa played two piano pieces, one by Liszt and one a requiem he had written for a friend.

Chessa was followed by a singer he has long admired, Randy Walker in the persona of Carletta Sue Kay. (Click here for a fascinating 2012 New York Times article by Reyhan Harmanci about Walker.)

We were taken aback by the "tragic drag" appearance and expected the worst, and were quite unprepared for the sheer beauty and power of the acapella gospel song which came out of that mouth, sounding a bit like a Pentecostal Janis Joplin.

Carletta then picked up a small stringed instrument and addressed the audience. "God, this is the third memorial I've sung at. This song is for my friend Cash Askew. And tears are the enemy of singers, so I hope I get through this."

As Carletta wandered down the central aisle, singing a farewell, most of the audience was transported to another dimension and many of us were crying. For a taste of what we heard, click here for a KTVU newscast that features a clip from the performance.

Friday, December 16, 2016

City Hall Christmas Glow Lights

One of the joys of my apartment in Civic Center is the view of San Francisco's City Hall dome looming over the Veterans Building.

Exhausted after a long day at work, I was laying on the couch Thursday evening and thought, "Am I hallucinating, or is the color of the dome changing?"

The answer is that for this year's holidays, the dome changes from red to green and back again every thirty seconds. It's bizarrely hypnotic, so I put on a recording of Lou Harrison's gamelan music and had a meditative California Christmas rainy night by myself which was some kind of perfection.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Music of Lou Harrison at SoundBox

The San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox nightclub series started its third year with a survey of gay, hippie, pacifist composer Lou Harrison’s music, and it was a remarkable, surprising, insightful concert that left the audience wanting more.

Harrison died in 2003 and next year will mark the centennial of his birth in 1917. Last weekend’s SF Symphony tribute was the first of many scheduled to feature the Bay Area composer’s work, and you can find a listing for most of them at the Other Minds website (click here). As much as I love the recordings I have of Harrison’s music, what the SoundBox sampler concert made clear is that it sounds even better live – delicate, intricately rhythmic, a rigorous mixture of the simple and complex that allows performers to shine. (Harrison is pictured above with Bill Colvig, his longtime lover and collaborator in instrument building in Aptos.)

There was some trepidation going in, because the program was divided between excerpts of chamber works and spoken anecdotes from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas that also included film clips from Eva Soltes’ documentary, Lou Harrison: A World of Music. I was afraid MTT would yammer on, but his introductions were smart, concise, and illuminating, and the film clips were short and fun.

The concert started with the 1939 Kyrie from Mass to St. Anthony for piccolo, percussion, and chorus, part of “an earnest protest to Hitler invading Poland,” according to Jeanette Yu’s program notes. It was short, martial, bracing and beautiful, sounding as if it could have been written yesterday.

This was followed by flautist Tim Day joining percussionists Tom Hemphill and Jacob Nissly for the 1939 Concerto #1 for Flute and Percussion, whose first movement is marked “Earnest, fresh and fastish” and the third movement “Strong, swinging, and fastish” with “Slow and poignant” in between. The percussion and flute sounded as if they were operating in two different universes, which was fascinating.

The 1941 Canticle No. 3 was part of what Harrison called his “Mexican period,” and it was soft, sweet and enchanting, with oboist Steven Dibner (above right) playing an ocarina and percussionist Stan Muncy strumming an acoustic guitar while Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich, Tom Hemphill, Loren Mach, and Artie Storch gently laid down a groundwork with percussion instruments.

After an intermission, Tilson Thomas talked about Harrison’s 1940s sojourn in New York where he worked as a music critic with Virgil Thomson at the Herald Tribune for a while before he suffered a nervous breakdown that led to a nine-month stay in a sanitarium. His return to coastal California initiated a new musical style that looked away from Europe and incorporated elements of Asian music. Cellist Sebastien Gingras and harpist Jieyin Wu performed the gorgeous Suite for Cello and Harp from 1949 that initiated this new period.

This was followed by two movements from the 1963 Pacifika Rondo for chamber orchestra, including the fourth movement entitled A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb. The performance was so stirring that we wished they had played the entire piece.

After another intermission, violinist Nadya Tichman performed three movements from the 1973 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.

The percussion instruments in the “American Gamelan” were the originals built by Harrison and his partner Colvig in Aptos out of “found materials (like steel conduit tubing, aluminum slabs, stacked tin cans as resonators).”

MTT mentioned that the final Chaconne was the piece he liked to have on his headphones when he was hiking on Mt. Tam and having a hard time making it over that last ridge. The performance by the percussionists and particularly Nadya was extraordinary, and in that final movement the musicians basically vanished into the transcendant music.

The concert ended with a couple of movements from the wild 1973 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra with Michael Hey as soloist. The whole evening made me proud to be a Californian, or a native of “Pacifika” as Harrison called the West Coast, especially after the horrors of the recent election and the ascension of the worst of “Atlantica” values in this country. For more in musical healing, you might want to check out a free gathering of musicians and performers this coming Sunday from 11AM to 3PM at the Chapel of the Chimes mausoleum in Oakland (click here for details).

Saturday, December 10, 2016

SantaCon 2016

I got over Christmas at age 17 while working as a clerk in the General Store of Death Valley's Furnace Creek Ranch. It wasn't the dusty tinsel draped over palm trees outside or the dying people being taken out feet-first from their RVs on a weekly basis from the neighboring trailer park that helped me turn that sentimental corner. It was thanks to the company party put on by the Fred Harvey Company which owned the Death Valley National Park concession as well as Grand Canyon back in the early 1970s.

We had an old, beautiful little wooden community meeting room at Furnace Creek Ranch, with a proscenium stage and there was an annual employee Christmas talent show which wasn't half bad. It was the end of the evening where I finally got over Christmas. The Fred Harvey company offered its employees a Christmas gift choice between a moldy box of Valentine's Candy that had not been sold earlier in the year at one of the national park gift shops or a carton of cigarettes. I chose a carton of Marlboro Reds and thought, "You can be extremely depressed about this moment, or you can just get over all this Christmas nonsense altogether." I decided on the latter strategy and it was one of the wiser choices of my youth.

Today was SantaCon in San Francisco and elsewhere, where mostly young people put on silly holiday costumes and engage in communal pub crawls. It's one of my favorite unofficial holidays of the year even though I don't participate because I'm too old. It's delightful seeing so many people doing something other than being capitalist consumers buying the latest crap. Instead, they are eating, drinking, walking, talking, laughing, and possibly having sex with each other.

We went to the Bell Tower on upper Polk for lunch today, and it was uncharacteristically empty, possibly because the continuously rainy morning was putting a damper on the festivities.

As we ate lunch, the Santas did start filing in, and the fact that the weather had made the usual mobs smaller and more manageable started feeling like a Christmas Miracle.