Sunday, December 31, 2017
A Dozen Favorite Musical Events in 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.