Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Dozen Favorite Musical Events in 2017

It was another extraordinary year in the Bay Area music world, and here are a dozen favorites in chronological order:

1. The Return of James Gaffigan

Gaffigan was the Associate Conductor of the SF Symphony from 2006 to 2009, which was when I became a big fan. Since then, he has forged an interesting career in Europe, becoming the Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. He returned to the SF Symphony in February with a grab-bag program of Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Mozart and R. Strauss that demonstrated not only how good his musical instincts are in different kinds of music, but how much he has grown. In December he returned to lead the SF Opera orchestra in the Adler Showcase and was a virtuosic, sympathetic accompanist to the young singers in music ranging from Bellini to Wagner. My New Year's wish is that the SF Symphony and/or SF Opera would seriously audition him for the role of Music Director because he has musical greatness and versatility written all over him.

2. John Adams 70th Birthday Lollapalooza

The Berkeley resident who is also a world-famous composer used to offer world premieres of his symphonic and operatic works in the Bay Area on a regular basis, but seemed to recently abandon us for Los Angeles and London. (Well, who can blame him?) On the occasion of his 70th birthday, however, we were flooded by one late masterwork after another, starting with his hosting of a superb SoundBox concert featuring his own music and that of younger composers he admires in February. This was followed by the SF Symphony's local premiere of his three-hour Christian Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, followed the next week by the local premiere of his hour-long feminist take for violin and orchestra Scheherezade 2.0. To top it all off, the world premiere of a new opera about the California Gold Rush, Girls of the Golden West, debuted at the SF Opera in November, a work that pissed a lot of people off which should be encouraging for a one-time 70-year-old firebrand. I loved the piece, even though the opera is as dark and disturbing as it was intended to be.

3. The Source

Another brilliant American composer, Ted Hearne, has written a rock-inflected, multimedia, collage-style opera, The Source, about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. Presented at the new SF Opera Lab on the top floor of the SF Veterans Building, it was the best use of that space I have yet seen.

4. SoundBox

The San Francisco Symphony's monthly winter/spring nightclub experiment, SoundBox, went from strength to strength in its third season. One of its best editions was in March when Associate Conductor Christian Reif curated Rebel featuring the music of Weimar Germany, Shostakovich, and contemporary Americans. There were a number of highlights but it was baritone Davóne Tines who eventually stole the show, as he did once again singing a major role in Adams' Girls of the Golden West later in the year. Additional good news is a fourth season of SoundBox opened in December, which was not always a certainty.

5. The Temple of Glory

In May, Cal Performances presented a collaboration between San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, singers from France's Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, and dancers from the New York Baroque Dance Company in a performance of The Temple of Glory, a forgotten (for 270 years) operatic collaboration between Rameau and Voltaire. The performance was a triumph and fun besides.

6. Other Minds Music Lou Harrison Centennial Concert

In June, the Other Minds Music Festival presented a Lou Harrison centennial concert at Mission Dolores Basilica where the recently deceased (2003) West Coast composer had studied Gregorian chant as a teenager in the 1930s. The concert was filled with old friends, collaborators, and musicians who had premiered some of the extraordinary music in the first place. Ancient, brilliant Bay Area Bohemia was well represented in the pews, and the evening felt historic, capping off with a rapturously beautiful performance of the 30-minute, Esperanto La Koro Sutro for large chorus and gamelan orchestra.

7. Vijay Iyer and Friends at Ojai North

Cal Performances presents an abbreviated version of the Ojai Festival in June following its Southern California fortnight. This year the jazz pianist/composer Vijay Iyer was the curator/music director, and one of his programs was an improvisatory jam session with three East Indian musicians, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam. They were all brilliant, but Aruna Sairam was transcendent. I have no idea how and where she took us with her voice, and have never experienced anything quite like it.

8. The Chastity Tree at West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera continued with its wandering ways, having been forced out of its abandoned Oakland train station by city authorities, and moving to another abandoned West Oakland factory for this summer's season. (They are moving to yet another factory space with real bathroom facilities rather than porta-potties next year.) This summer's season was not as spectacularly successful as the last couple (which statistically was close to impossible), but there was a standout production of a Mozart-era rarity L'arbore di Diana (translated as The Chastity Tree) by Vicente Martín y Soler. The music was gorgeous fun, the libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte a sex-positive delight, and the young, frisky, beautifully voiced cast made it all work.

9. The Visitors at SFMOMA

The hour-long, nine-screen multimedia work The Visitors was created by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson in 2012 shortly after divorcing his wife. He sings repetitive snatches of her poetry while sitting with a guitar in a bathtub in a decaying Astor mansion on the Hudson River, surrounded by friends in separate rooms joining him live. The effect is rather like an immersive, interactive opera where you can walk inside the performance, and I would love to see somebody use the technique for a more traditional opera. The fact that it is all one take, complete with burps and occasional flies on the tub, gives it an immediacy that is oddly absent in most "Live From..." broadcasts. You have one more day (New Year's) to see this at SFMOMA, so get to it.

10. La Circe with Ars Minerva

Celine Ricci's fledgling Ars Minerva troupe presented their third annual early Venetian opera, La Circe, a 1665 opera by Pietro Andrea Ziani. The story finds Circe in a not very good mood just after Ulysses has abandoned her, and there's hell to pay for every other character around her. What was most gratifying about the production was the amazing quality of the young local singers who can sing this kind of Renaissance music as if they were born to it. They included Kyle Stegall, Jasmine Johnson, Aurélie Veruni, Jonathan Smucker, Igor Vieira, Ryan Belongie, Kindra Scharich, along with artistic director Céline Ricci as the tormented sorceress herself.

11. Elektra at San Francisco Opera

To be effective and not just sound like three sopranos screaming over noise for two hours, Richard Strauss's 1909 opera Elektra needs a superb conductor and a world-class, powerhouse cast that can sing confidently over a 100-piece orchestra. SF Opera's September production had both, headed by soprano Christine Goerke in the title role, which propelled local True Opera Lovers into an informal competition on who could attend the most performances.

12. Krzysztof Urbański at the San Francisco Symphony

One of the weirdest evenings I have ever spent at Davies Hall was in October when the young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański conducted Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima while being heckled by a patron sitting in the Loge. This was followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto accompanied by an Amber Alert which made the audience's muted cellphones join in an ambient electronic background buzz. After intermission, the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony was accompanied by stunned silence because the performance was so good.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas Oasis

If you drive from Palm Springs north along Ramon Road across the Coachella Valley... will eventually reach the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve.

The magical spot has an underground spring surrounded by ancient California Fan Palms...

...with beautifully maintained bridges and hiking trails...

...winding their way through the trees.

A mile long trail along the San Andreas Fault is bordered by signage warning about scary animals like rattlesnakes and mountain lions which did not phase Critter Dude Chris Campbell above.

At the end of the trail is the McCallum Oasis, which has a huge pond...

...surrounded by more spectacular California Fan Palms.

If you are ever visiting the Coachella Valley, the place is worth a visit and entrance to the Preserve and its hiking trails is free.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Enlightened Nepotism at SoundBox

The SF Symphony's wondrous nightclub experiment, SoundBox, was chiefly financed by an anonymous donor for three years to build new audiences, and it was uncertain whether the monthly winter and spring series would continue for a fourth year. Last weekend it returned, with a bang. The Bad News: The ticket price for general admission has gone up $10 to $45 and donation sponsorship opportunities for $200 to $1,000 will get you in the door before anyone else. The Good News: After a hiccup in its final show last season, SoundBox is back and brilliant as ever. This month's curator was the soon to retire Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and the theme of the wildly eclectic program was "Connections," which in this context meant family connections. At the start of the evening, SF Symphony Principal flute player Timothy Day's 28-year-old pianist son, Britton, joined MTT for a fun, high-spirited performance of Poulenc's 1918 Sonata for Piano Four Hands.

Britton was then joined by his father for Faure's 1898 Morceau de concours and Ibert's Spanish-inflected Entr’acte in a pair of charming performances.

Finishing the first, French section of the evening was the cellist Oliver Herbert, son of longtime principal timpanist David Herbert who decamped to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013. Oliver played a solo excerpt from Dutilleux's 1976 Trios Strophes sur le nom de SACHER, which was interesting enough it would have been good to hear the entire piece. This was followed by Debussy's marvelous, bouncy 1917 Cello Sonata in D Minor. Herbert was wonderful, though MTT sounded a little rusty accompanying him on the keyboard.

The second section of the concert was devoted to a five-movement suite of music by Kazakhstan doubra virtuoso and composer Karshyga Akhmedyarova (1946-2006). His daughter, Raushan Akhmedyarova (above), has been playing violin for the SF Symphony since 1991 and recently commmissioned a string quartet based on her father's music.

This weekend was the world premiere of an expanded chamber orchestra version of the suite, led by conductor Christian Reif who is a delightful presence at SoundBox, conducting one moment, accompanying on piano the next, and occasionally playing genial emcee. The doubra is a two-stringed variation on a zither that should be extremely limited, but in the hands of Karshyga Akhmedyarova, it's an extraordinarily versatile instrument. Click here for an example on YouTube and another example in a bizarre Kazakhstan auditorium can be found here.

The composer responsible for Sketches from Kazakhstan, Sam Post of Washington, D.C. (above), did a nice job expanding and coloring the music for orchestra.

The third part of the concert continued with familial powerhouses, starting with SF Symphony violinist Chunming Mo playing a pair of duets with her daughter Alina Kobialka. They started with Shostakovich's 1955 Präeludium from Five Pieces for 2 Violins and Piano with Christian Reif on piano. The performance was so good that once again I wished they were playing the whole piece.

Instead, they continued with an exciting, passionate traversal of Ligeti's 1950 Ballad and Dance. "That's going to be a hard act to follow," cellist Peter Wyrick (below, center) commented as he introduced the Wyrick Family Chamber Quintet.

Wyrick turned out to be a funny, charming speaker as he introduced his wife, SF Symphony violinist Amy Hiraga, his daughter Mayumi (with her back to the camera) on violin, "honorary family member" Nancy Ellis on viola, and "Herbert Oliver is stepping in on cello for our other daughter, who is, well, somewhere, who knows where?" he related in a "Father Knows Best" impression. The makeshift quintet then gave an exquisite performance of the Scherzo from Schubert's hour-long String Quintet in C major.

SF Symphony Principal Bassoon stepped to a small stage in the middle of the audience and gave a solo performance of a transcription of J.S. Bach's Prelude from Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, and everyone stopped breathing while waiting for the bassonist to take a breath himself.

For the finale, Stephen was joined by his son Greg who studied violin in his youth but veered into an electric guitar during his teens. Subsequently, he helped form the heavy death metal band Arkaik which has produced four albums (click here for a sample). The duo with Greg on guitar and Stephen on amplified bassoon with a track behind them didn't quite work because it was too quiet compared to the original. I wish they had managed to round up the whole band for a live number with Stephen Paulson improvising away on amplified bassoon. In any case, heavy death metal felt like a perfect way to end the opening of this fourth year of experimentation. As usual, the projections by Adam Larsen and lighting by Luke Kritzeck were an integral part of the evening's success. Looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

SantaCon on Polk Street 2017

Many San Franciscans hate the annual Bacchanal that is SantaCon...

...where young people from the Bay Area roam the sidewalks of the city... silly Christmas outfits...

...while pub hopping and trying to get laid.

We stumbled onto the event this year while on our way to lunch on Polk Street at the Bell Tower, and my spouse was quickly surrounded by revelers. "Beards, boobs, it's all good," said the two women as they posed for a picture.

There is very much a white frat bro vibe to the event...

...not to mention the women who love them...

...but there was plenty of color represented too...

...not to mention zombies...

...and general goofballs.

Any event that bursts into spontaneous dancing in the streets... fine by me.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Girls of the Golden West

The new John Adams opera, Girls of the Golden West, is just finishing up its world premiere run at the San Francisco Opera and the reviews have been mostly "mixed/deeply disappointed" with a few outliers, from the savage (Kosman in the SF Chronicle with "tofurkey") to adulatory (Mark Swed in the L.A. Times). Oddly enough, I don't really disagree with any of the reviews, and can see why they loved/were disappointed/hated the opera, but put me in the love column. This is an extraordinary score by Adams, simpler to absorb and more direct than his recent large-scale pieces Doctor Atomic, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and Scheherezade 2.0. It also deromanticizes the usual California Gold Rush story and brings wider exposure to the real history, which is Yankees arriving en masse for treasure, murdering the non-white natives, pillaging the earth, and creating a racist structure that we are all still living in. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen or Cory Weaver, courtesy of SF Opera.)

The spine of the libretto that Peter Sellars compiled from original sources and poems is taken from the Dame Shirley letters, 23 missives sent by Louise Clappe describing the Feather River Gold Rush adventures she was witnessing with her young doctor husband, Fayette. Julia Bullock above played Clappe and Davóne Tines played Ned Peters, the mulatto Renaissance man: stagecoach driver, violinist, chef, entrepreneur. The staging hinted at an extramarital affair between the two of them while a supernumerary playing Fayette wandered around in a top hat looking clueless. The impression I had reading the letters was that Ned was probably gay – he worships Louise like a queen, makes her gourmet meals out of scraps, and helps her decorate her meager housing. It did not matter, though, because Bullock and Tines worked together so well and were so obviously delighted with each other that you hoped they were secretly carrying on. And their miming of a rough stagecoach ride together while singing is one of the first highlights of the opera.

Many audience members had a hard time with the first act which has a collage quality, one character and situation after the next presented in a meandering fashion. A lot of people also complained about the slowness, which probably comes from the early scene above where Louise sings a striking section direct from one of the early letters about coming across a group of female Indians. It is equal parts 19th century racist and poetically poignant and the music which accompanies it is very beautiful, but the scene stops the heady momentum of the minimalist pickaxe opening with Paul Appleby and Ryan McKinney, followed by the Louise/Ned stagecoach scene.

The Empire saloon in Rich Bar on the Feather River, where most of the miners lost whatever gold they had to professional gamblers, is the setting for the first big male chorus. As Sellars explained before the performance, the texts are all taken from settings of actual miners' songs, "which are sort of sad-sack tales set to Pop! Goes The Weasel." A friend wrote on my Facebook feed, "the insipid choral songs are not even Broadway worthy." Now there I disagree. The choruses are extraordinary, the text short, plainspoken, a bit brutal and the music seemingly simple but insanely difficult and complex to perform, with meters changing every other measure. The upsurge in musical quality between the first and fifth performances was huge, not only for the chorus but for all the performers who are still settling into this simple-on-the-outside, complex-on-the-inside music.

Hye Jung Lee and Paul Appleby play the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing and miner from Missouri Joe Cannon. Lee slayed everyone as Madame Mao in Nixon in China a few years ago, and followed it up with a great Olympia in Tales of Hoffman. As Ah Sing, she negotiates the practical, hard-minded character of someone who was sold into sex slavery at age 10 with the hopeful adult who wants to marry the handsome young miner, Joe Cannon, and have her own farm. Appleby does wonders to make a racist, drunken jerk a sweetly sexy guy you can see Ah Sing might fall in love with, and gives a great vocal performance with the text of more actual miners' songs.

Act Two unfolds over one night on the Fourth of July and much of the action takes place on a large redwood stump. The sinister, exciting opening features Louise and the wonderful Ryan McKinney as Clarence performing a scene for the miners from Shakespeare's Macbeth, and it sets up the darkness to come. Later, Ah Sing performs another musical highlight, where she ethereally spins out one sweet high note after another while singing of the new land. Meanwhile, the chorus of miners sits on folding chairs at the foot of the stage singing in counterpoint about this rich land ready for plunder. This sequence is as good as anything John Adams has ever composed.

Joe Cannon begins his string of bad behavior while singing about how he's "trapped in a tiger cage," presumably referring to the Chinese golddigger he has been squiring. After fleeing, the miners stop Ah Sing from following him, and form a mob to drive out all non-white miners from the camp.

Two other characters, J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia and Elliot Madore as Ramon (both excellent), who work at the gaming tables of The Empire hotel, are onstage most of the second act as their household becomes a haven for fellow refugees from the violence, some of whom have been whipped or had their ears cut off.

The next musical highlight is Davóne Tines singing a solo aria taken from Frederick Douglass' speech, "What to a slave is the Fourth of July?" Both the music and Tines' performance were so electrifying that the moment became an instant classic. Black Lives Matter might want to adopt it as an anthem, especially if they can have Tines perform.

Mayhem, whipping and the lynching of Josefa after she has stabbed Joe Cannon to death finish up the evening's festivities, and the opera ends with Julia Bullock as Louise Clappe singing an exquisite passage from the letters about the unfathomable majesty of the Sierra Nevada surroundings.

I went to a symposium in Herbst Theater on an evening after the cast had just finished their first piano dress rehearsal. They looked thrilled and exhausted in equal measure. The most interesting moment was when the non-white singers talked about the strange, new thrill accompanying their first rehearsal. "I am almost always the only person of color in any opera production cast, but I arrived for this and we were everywhere."

The director and librettist Peter Sellars (above right, with J'Nai Bridges and Elliot Madore) rubs a lot of people the wrong way (I've read "cis Harvard white man") but he really does walk the walk when it comes to racial issues and casting. When he presented his grand L.A. Festival in the 1990s, he didn't open it at the downtown Music Center but at a cliffside park in San Pedro, with the artists and audience joining in a walk and performance down on the beach. My late, Los Angeles beach woman mother was there, and she thought it was easily the coolest thing she had ever witnessed culturally in L.A. I'm not convinced by Sellars' work as a stage director, but as an inspirational figure helping to birth works of art, rather like Diaghelev and his Ballets Russe, he is unparalleled in our time. There were complaints about his cut-and-paste libretto for Girls of the Golden West, but it was the same technique he's been using since El Niño, so it should not have been a surprise to anyone, and I think the Girls libretto is one of his better ones.

The last performance will be this Sunday at 2PM at the SF Opera House and you will probably find me in balcony standing room because I want to hear the full stereophonic sound of the spectacularly great orchestra under conductor Grant Gershon up there. Join me. This opera will eventually be a classic and you can say you were there.