Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tomb Treasures at The Asian Art Museum

An astonishing exhibit of items unearthed during the last decade from Chinese Han Dynasty royal tombs has opened at the Asian Art Museum, with objects ranging from sculptures of dancing girls...

...to intricate animal sculptures used as weights for textiles.

Like ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) emperors believed that you can take it with you after death, so they packed their royal tombs with treasures which are still being discovered over 2,000 years later.

This is the only stop for these objects outside of China, and it is surprising that they were let out of the country so soon after their retrieval.

There is even a body suit made of jade and gold thread that looks like it belongs in a science fiction film, not to mention bronze dildos that wouldn't look out of place at Good Vibrations.

The exhibit is definitely worth a visit.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Gospel According to The Other Mary

The composer John Adams' month-long, 70th birthdaypalooza continued at the San Francisco Symphony last week with a performance of his 2012 Passion Oratorio, The Gospel According to The Other Mary. The original commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic was for a 90-minute work but the piece kept expanding until its blossomed into a nearly 3-hour epic that can stand with the J.S. Bach Passions. Much of the initial reaction from critics was puzzled and hostile, because Adams had left most of his minimalist signatures behind and struck out into new musical territories. Plus, the work is so relentlessly rich, dark and dense that it is difficult to absorb on a first hearing. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen.)

The performing forces are similar to Adams' other biblical oratorio, the 2000 El Niño, with three vocal soloists divided between two women and one man, a trio of three countertenors handling most of the narration, a chorus and huge orchestra. From left to right above, Jay Hunter Morris sang Lazarus, mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Tamara Mumford sang his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, and Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley were the otherworldly countertenors. (Daniel and Brian were also part of the original cast of El Niño.)

The director Peter Sellars provided another collage style libretto, half Biblical sources and half poetry that ranged from Dorothy Day's descriptions of homeless shelters and being arrested with Dolores Huerta during the 1960s farmworker strikes to impassioned poetry by Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen and Ruben Dario. The first half of the oratorio ends rather like the Batter my heart aria in Adams' opera Doctor Atomic, with Lazarus singing a Passover poem by Primo Levi, Tell me: how is this night different. The biblical/poetic potpourri struck me as one of Sellars' more successful cut-and-paste jobs, and next to the clunky, old-fashioned libretto of Mark Adamo's similarly themed opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which premiered at the SF Opera in 2013, Sellars' blueprint felt like genius.

Much of the audience last Saturday had a difficult time with the piece, partly because it starts so slowly. When Lazarus is brought back from the dead by Jesus about twenty minutes in, the dramatic and musical interest spikes sharply and doesn't let up until a long, ruminative ending that extends past Jesus' crucifixion to his resurrection, ending with Erdrich's poem The Sacraments:
It is spring. The tiny frogs pull
their strange new bodies out
of the suckholes, the sediment of rust,
followed by a biblical account from the Book of John describing Mary meeting a gardener who is the resurrected Jesus.

The performers, most of them singing in the 2012 premiere, were excellent. The tenor Jay Hunter Morris seemed to be having difficulties with some of the more strenuous lines, but mezzo-sopranos O'Connor and Mumford were flawless and deeply moving. The use of the trio of countertenors strikes some friends as weird, but I love their sound, both in their many unison sections and occasional solos, and the performances by Bubeck, Cummings and Medley were definitive. Grant Gershon from the Los Angeles Master Chorale (below center) kept the complex score transparent and dynamic. The San Francisco Symphony orchestra and chorus demonstrated once again how expertly fluent they are in Adams' tricky music.

The Gospel According to The Other Mary has been performed around the world as a straight oratorio and also with elaborate staging, including dancers. At the SF Symphony performances, there was a starkly simple staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer of the six singers against a white wall and a few props that worked fine, although I missed Adam Larsen's projections which have so enhanced SoundBox and James Darrah's staged productions at Davies Hall. There was slight amplification of the soloists which was some of the best, least obtrusive sound design by Mark Grey I have heard in that big barn.

Living in the Bay Area while John Adams has emerged as one of the Western world's most successful composers over the last four decades has been a joy, with multiple world premieres and original performers on our doorstep. There were plenty of walkouts during the performance on Saturday because the oratorio is dark and challenging, but I would have gladly gone back to hear The Other Mary the following night. Happily, the birthdaypalooza continues this weekend, and we get to hear the SF Symphony tonight finally perform Scheherezade.2, the 2015 "dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra" with soloist Leila Josefowicz, for whom it was written.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Opera Parallèle's Flight

Last week Opera Parallèle offered a production of Flight, a British comic opera set in an airport departure lounge by Jonathan Dove which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998 and has since been successfully performed around the world. There was much talk about the current relevance of the piece, since one of the main characters is a refugee stuck without papers for years on end at the airport, and the Opera Parallèle production was occurring simultaneously with Trump's "Muslim ban" playing out at airports across the United States.

That current controversy probably didn't help Flight because the opera was written when airports were still thought of as aspirational places where one could take flight to a new adventure. After 9/11 and its subsequent security theatre, and now with the Trump regime's attempts at creating Fortress America at customs areas in airports across the nation, the stock comic characters in Flight felt a bit boring and trivial. What kept the nearly three-hour opera interesting was the marvelous, colorful musical score with its hints of John Adams and Britten exquisitely performed by a sterling pick-up orchestra under Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, along with a splendidly designed production, and top-notch performances by ten singers.

Baritone Hadleigh Adams and soprano Maya Yahav Gour played a pair of randy flight attendants, and they were such lively, marvelous fun to watch that at times I yearned for the opera to be about them, an operatic version of a West End farce such as Boeing-Boeing or No Sex Please, We're British.

Soprano Amina Edris and tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali played Tina and Bill, a couple having marital problems because Bill is supposedly so uptight, and they continuously quote from a marital self-help manual's bromides as they await a tropical vacation that will reawaken their passion. The roles felt like stock caricatures, as did the Older Woman awaiting her younger "fiance" sung by Catherine Cook, but the singing by all three was so good that it surmounted much of the dramatic falseness.

Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu and mezzo Renee Rapier played a diplomat newly posted to Minsk and his pregnant wife who decides not to board the airplane with him at the last minute, culminating in an awkward birth scene in the departure lounge. It was good to see the stalwart Brancoveanu again, but the revelation was Rapier, whose voice has blossomed into sheer gorgeousness.

The refugee was performed by countertenor Tai Oney in a sweet, touching style and the Air Traffic Controller by soprano Nikki Einfeld in a high-flying, virtuosic performance that reminded one Facebook friend of a "jealous deity." Bass-baritone Philip Skinner was luxury casting as the Immigration Officer, who hunts down the Refugee throughout the opera, but finally shows mercy and promises to cast a blind eye on his presence at the airport. Though based on the true story of an Iranian refugee stuck for years at the Charles de Gaulle airport in France, the plot point felt unbelievable for England with its rigid customs officials and particularly the United States, where the man would probably just be shipped to Guantanamo.

The many supernumeraries did a fine job marching on and off invisible planes, although it looked as if they all decided to travel to Minsk and return on the very next flight. The staging by Brian Staufenbiel was lively and inventive and the set designer David Dunning, Media Designer David Murakami, and Lighting Designer Matthew Antaky outdid themselves with a beautifully evocative production. The greatest asset was Artistic Director Nicole Paiement. I listened to a YouTube performance from Glyndebourne of Flight ahead of time, and the music did not sound half as rich and beautiful as it did live under Paiement. She's a magician who should be Music Director of some major opera house, but am selfishly glad she is not because Nicole is an irreplaceable Bay Area treasure.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sequence at SFMOMA

The huge, Richard Serra oxidized steel sculpture, Sequence, is at the Howard Street entrance to the newly expanded SFMOMA.

You can wander inside and outside the sculpture for free because the ticketing area for the museum is on the mezzanine above.

I have never been a fan of Serra's brutalist, macho work...

...and can understand why many have protested his site-specific sculptural installations...

...in locations ranging from the Federal Building Plaza in New York City to the Cal Arts Campus to the front of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.

Who needs more huge metal structures competing with nature or disrupting pedestrian traffic on a public plaza?

Having said that, I must confess that this particular sculpture is beautiful fun when walking inside its serpentine paths...

....with vertigo inducing slanted walls throwing you into a tilted wonderland.

It's also a great place for kids to run around and play tag and hide and seek. Check it out.

Monday, February 13, 2017

John Adams at SoundBox

The world-famous Bay Area composer John Adams was the host for the latest SoundBox nightclub concert at the back of Davies Hall on Saturday night. The concert turned out to be a generous, fascinating introduction to the work of three young composers augmented by a few chamber works by Adams himself. He began his introductions with a story about meeting Aaron Copland when that dean of American composers was about 70 years old, the age Adams is turning on February 15th. “He listened to a piece I had composed that was very aggressive, with lots of found noise including recorded samples of pots and pans banging against each other, and a roommate reciting excerpts from Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. Copland’s reaction to the piece was that he found it ‘intimidating,’ which was very sweet. So the music I’ll be introducing tonight will be from young composers whose work I find intimidating.”

The concert started with Try, Andrew Norman’s work for chamber orchestra that Adams noted was an extreme test for every instrumentalist, “pushing them as far as they can go in terms of virtuosity.” Christopher Rountree, above, was the conductor in an exuberant performance that turned spare and spiritual for the final five minutes after a manic ten minute opening.

This was followed by Hallelujah Junction, Adams’ 1996 work for two pianos, a rambunctious and motoric piece of “road music,” played with ferocious brilliance by Orli Shaham and Molly Morkoski, with a video specially created for the occasion by photographer Deborah O’Grady.

Adams introduced the piece by mentioning that after a pastoral interlude in the middle, Hallelujah Junction gets wild, and that he expected to see smoke coming out of the pianos by the end of the performance the previous evening. On Saturday night, that description didn’t sound like hyperbole. (Pictured above are left to right O’Grady, Morkoski, Shaham and Adams.)

After intermission, Adams introduced the composer Ashley Fure, whose Shiver Lung was one of the most interesting soundscapes I have ever heard. “It’s just about perfect for SoundBox,” Adams commented, because the Meyer Sound system was ideal for the ring of subwoofers circling the audience projecting sound waves too low for human ears to register. Performers slid their hands across the surface of the speakers which literally drew out the sound from them, starting delicately and gradually intensifying into an apocalyptic nightmare.

When Adams asked Fure to explain the piece, she mentioned that it was part of a longer installation opera, The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, and that this section involved “two sopranos trying to send a warning by whispering indecipherable messages through bullhorns in an unintelligible language.” Amy Foote and Danielle Reutter Harrah, on a raised stage in the center of the room, gave fearless, striking performances, alternating between cries, whispers, and snatches of melodic singing.

Adams waxed rhapsodically about the next piece, Ripple the Sky, by Jacob Cooper. As a thematic starting point, the composer took the historic farewell of the manic-depressive 19th century composer, Robert Schumann, from his wife Clara on his way to a mental institution where he spent the rest of his life. Cooper not only wrote the charming minimalist-tinged music for a chamber orchestra and vocal soloist, but created an accompanying Matthew Barney style video of a man trudging across sand being entangled with a woman whose face is covered in flowers. (Clara famously gave Robert a bouquet as he left in the carriage to his incarceration.)

The singing by Jonathan Woody above of fragments from Ophelia’s “mad songs” and the Schumanns’ diaries and letters was lovely.

I wasn’t able to stay for the final third of the concert because my companion got sick. That was disappointing because they played excerpts from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, Adams’ 1994 piece written for the Kronos Quartet which begins and ends with the irresistibly charming Judah to Ocean which depicts a ride on San Francisco's N Judah Muni streetcar line. In the 1970s, Adams was a resident composer with the San Francisco Symphony and was in charge of putting together the New and Unusual Music series. This concert felt as if he had come full circle, and if SoundBox manages to survive past its three-year trial run, my fervent wish would be for a John Adams curated concert every year.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Return of James Gaffigan at the SF Symphony

After the Women's March two Saturdays ago, we went to Davies Hall to hear guest conductor James Gaffigan lead the San Francisco Symphony. Gaffigan was the associate conductor of the orchestra from 2006 and 2009 before launching an international career based mostly out of Europe. I was a big fan when he was the associate, particularly in his handling of Mozart with the SF Symphony, so I went into the Saturday concert with high hopes which were met and exceeded in a marvelous range of Russian and Austrian music.

The concert started with Mussorgsky's original orchestration for A Night on Bald Mountain from 1867. I like most of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestrations of Mussorgsky's music, which are big and plush and smooth, but the composer's originals are generally weirder, starker, and more interesting. This newly rediscovered version, published for the first time in 1968, was no exception. The orchestra gave a rich, colorful performance of familiar music that sounded brand new.

This was followed by Prokofiev's 1935 Violin Concerto No. 2, written while he was bouncing around from the U.S. to France to Russia and elsewhere around the globe. Even though I know and love much of Prokofiev's music, this is a major piece I had somehow never heard before, and it has become an instant favorite. Listening to different versions on YouTube (the favorite was an old recording with violinist David Oistrakh, pictured above playing chess with Prokofiev), the piece became an enchanting earworm. After a brilliant first movement, the Andante revolves around one of the sweetest, simplest melodies Prokofiev ever wrote, and the final movement is a demonic corker with motoric, dissonant thrusts of the violin embroidered with castanets, in a nod to Madrid where the concerto premiered.

The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma above was the soloist, and the performance was as good or better as any of the recorded versions on YouTube, not to mention that hearing this live makes all the difference. Balancing Prokofiev's competing rhythms between soloist and orchestra in this concerto is a tricky business, and Gaffigan got it just right.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Mozart's Symphony No. 36, which the composer whipped out on commission in four days. It's odd how many conductors go astray with Mozart but Gaffigan seems to have an instinctive affinity for his music, and the musicians responded with a lively performance.

The real surprise of the concert was the finale, the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss's opera, Salome. I have never heard the huge orchestra sound this good with the music of Strauss, with a clarity that sounded like Christian Thielemann conducting Elektra at the SF Opera in the early 1990s. If Gaffigan can make an overplayed pops piece like the Dance of the Seven Veils sound this magnificent, imagine what he could do with a whole opera. Please, San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera, invite him back.