Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rebel at SoundBox

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony's nightclub series, SoundBox, featured music from Weimar Germany, Soviet Russia, and Contemporary America, and you can draw your own conclusions. The new SF Symphony Youth Orchestra director, Austrian conductor Christian Reff, came up with the program and conducted a dizzying array of chamber pieces, starting with a lively, entertaining transcription of Kurt Weill's Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera.

This was followed by two movements from the 1923 Kleine Kammermusik, a wind quintet by one of Hitler's least favorite composers, Paul Hindemith. The five players, including Christopher Gaudi on oboe and Tim Day on flute above, were positioned on a tiny stage in the middle of the audience, and the intimacy truly evoked the literal meaning of chamber music.

One of the joys of the SoundBox series has been watching SF Symphony musicians like bassoonist Seven Dibner embracing and being energized by the format and the close-enough-to-touch audiences who are admirably attentive and quiet during the performances.

The final piece from Nazi Germany was by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) who refused to have his compositions performed in Germany during Hitler's regime, spending most of World War Two studying with Webern in Vienna. As one of the few established German artists who didn't go into exile yet remained untainted by the Nazis, Hartmann returned to Munich and was an important musical figure there until his death, writing eight symphonies and introducing music of the 20th century which had been banned since 1933 along with helping to establish contemporary composers like Henze, Xenakis, and Berio. His music has fallen out of favor in Germany and globally, but musical fashions ebb and flow, and from his introduction and conducting, it was obvious young Christian Reff is a devoted advocate. He conducted a string orchestra in the Allegro di molto movement from the Concerto funebre with violinist Dan Carlson above as the impassioned soloist in an exciting, vital performance. The music was so good it made me want to listen to the rest of Hartmann's work.

Soviet Russia was represented by an all-Shostakovch sampler, and why not, since his music is aging better with each passing year. The selections were all over the map, on three stages, starting with a pair of movements from the 1935 Five Fragments for chamber orchestra headed by Nadya Tichman above. Sprinkled in between were three savage, funny songs from the 1960 Satiri (Satires) sung by the reliably brilliant mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who usually appears with the SF Opera.

A highlight was the performance by bass-baritone Davon Tines above of two movements from Shostakovich's death-obsessed Symphony #14 for chamber orchestra and bass and soprano. Tines projected contempt and power while tossing aside paper sheets with the lyrics during The Zaporozhian Cossack's Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople and dark Russian soul during O Delvig, Delvig! He's become a new John Adams favorite, having sung El Nino with the LA Philharmonic last December and premiering a role in this fall's Girls of the Golden West at the SF Opera.

The "Contemporary America" section of the program started with selections from George Crumb's 1970 Vietnam War infused Black Angels for string quartet and gongs, followed by a five-minute chunk of Julius Eastman's 1969 Gay Guerilla. Eastman wrote the piece for four pianos in a variation on Reich/Glass minimalism where, as Alex Ross noted, "Eastman keeps piliing on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur." Local musical polymath Peter Grunberg composed the beautiful transcription, and the accompanying video of a dancer slowly embracing himself was perfection.

Davon Tines returned and strolled through the audience while singing a powerful version of Caroline Shaw's 2016 song, I'll Fly Away, which sounded very different from the folkie styling of the composer (click here for a YouTube video).


The very satisfying concert ended with an excerpt from Jessie Montgomery's 2014 Banner, a multi-culti tribute to The Star Spangled Banner on its 200th birthday. Conductor Reff and his chamber orchestra tore into it with verve, and it was interesting enough I wish they had played the whole piece.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Civic Center Photo Apocalypse

The photos from the last ten years at Civic Center are now broken links. This isn't the first time I have been burned by a tech company offering small amounts of free photo storage in exchange for buzz and usage. When I started publishing this site, I used a Mac.com account and paid something like a $100 annual fee. Then the creeps at Apple decided they were no longer going to support Mac.com, and five years' worth of photo links vanished overnight. Then I migrated everything to Dropbox, using their "Public" option. A couple of months ago, there was an email from Dropbox announcing they were no longer supporting their "Public" folder starting March 15th. I blame it all on Condoleeza Rice who is on their Board of Directors. In any case, I will be very slowly relinking photos in old posts to a new Google Photo Album account, but it will be a long, slow process. If there is a particular photo you would desperately like to see or use, email me at fototales2001@yahoo.com, and I will see what can be done.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hot Air Music Festival 2017

The free, annual, all-day Hot Air Music Festival is the coolest event at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with students and former students playing whatever they want. The eighth iteration was a couple of Sundays ago, and I lucked out seeing a few of my favorite performers, including Meerenai Shim on flute who was playing Bryndan Moondy's recent composition Cascade with Brandon Morris on violin, Samuel Nelson on viola, and Chiayu Chang on piano. You can see Meerenai perform with with the A/B Duo and Areon Flutes.

They were followed by the Friction Quartet, who have played at the last six Hot Air festivals.

Violinist Kevin Rogers explained the quartet originally got together for the Hot Air festival, so that it was a sentimental event for them, though they are getting so good they will probably soon be famous which may put an end to that.

On Sunday they played three movements from Marc Mellits' 2011 eight-movement Tapas, which was beautiful, exhilarating music (click here to listen to the piece on Soundcloud). Violinist Otis Harriel is pictured above.

The Friction Quartet will be appearing tonight, Wednesday the 15th, at the Center for New Music performing eight string quartets. Here's a description of the interesting sounding event from the C4NM website:
The Common Sense Composers’ Collective completed eight string quartets in 2010 up at Banff in collaboration with the Afiara and Cecilia Quartets. San Francisco’s own Friction SQ is about to record these works up at Skywalker and will be preceding these sessions with this one-time only live performance of the whole set of eight pieces. Common Sense is a bi-coastal composers’ collective founded in 1994. All members, which include Marc Mellits, Melissa Hui, Belinda Reynolds, Carolyn Yarnell, Dan Becker, John Halle, Randy Woolf, and Ed Harsh, will be in attendance for this West Coast premiere of these pieces. There will be a celebratory wine reception open to all ticket-holders at 6:30pm before the 7:30pm performance.

Pictured above is cellist Doug Machiz.

Violist Taija Warbelow introduced John Halle's 2002 Spheres with an entertaining demonstration that included clapping her hands against her body to show how each player was performing the same music but with different time signatures ranging from triplets to fifths, and the polyrhythms were fun and fascinating.

Later in the afternoon ZOFO, the four-hand, one-piano duo of Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi played three pieces from an upcoming hour-long project called ZOFOMOMA.

They have commissioned 15 composers from around the world to write a short work for the duo based on a favorite work of art which will be projected while the music is performed, rather like a 21st Century Pictures at an Exhibition.

This afternoon they played Mexican composer Pablo Ortiz's paisaje, Swiss composer Cecile Marti's Wendung, and Japanese composer Kenji Oh's Sacred Chichibu Peaks at Spring Dawn. They were all quite different from each other, and the entire ZOFOMOMA is slated to be completed at some point in 2017-18.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Source at SF Opera Lab

The San Francisco Opera Lab in the Veterans Building offered a two-week run of Ted Hearne’s 2014 opera The Source, and it was a perfect piece for the intimate setting. The audience was seated in two sections facing each other, with four seated vocalists embedded among us, surrounded by four large screens and a hidden instrumental ensemble of seven.

The brilliant libretto of by Mark Doten was culled mostly from the Wikileaks data dump by military analyst Bradley Manning who became Chelsea Manning while in prison. One movement of the 75-minute work is a collage of reporters’ questions to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and another quotes email exchanges between Channing and hacker Adrian Lamo who eventually turned her in to the government.

Hearne’s score is a fractured marvel, sampling songs ranging from Mack the Knife to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and original stylistic variations that range from hard-driving rock to complex contemporary classical music. This was all anchored by four superb vocalists (Melissa Hughes, Samia Mounts, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody) whose amplified voices were processed in real time via Auto-Tune by composer Philip White, sounding much like Laurie Anderson’s early work.

The videos created for the piece by director Daniel Fish and Jim Findlay are mostly close-ups of individuals’ faces as they are watching something. It turns out that they are viewing a 10-minute video from the Wikileaks data dump taken from a U.S. military helicopter as they murder people on the street in Baghdad as casually as if they are pixels in a videogame, a scene that is shown onscreen to the audience at the end of the opera. I only wished we could have watched the band in action because they were so good following music director Nathan Koci on keyboard. So let's name them instead: Jennifer Cho on violin, Natalia Vershilova on viola, Emil Miland on cello, Taylor Levine on guitar, Greg Chudzik on bass, and Ron Wiltrout on drums.

I hope when Chelsea Manning is finally released from prison in a couple of months, thanks to the commutation of her sentence by Obama, that she can see this work.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Farewell to The Hypnodrome Thrillpeddlers

This month the Thrillpeddlers theater troupe lost their strange, cozy Hypnodrome home where they have been producing outrageously entertaining Grand Guignol plays and gender-bending musicals for over a decade.

The theater was housed in the back of an antique store underneath a freeway a half block from Costco on 10th Street. The owners of the building, in a twist on the usual greedy San Francisco landlord narrative, were fans and patrons of the troupe so they offered cheap rent for a couple of years that eventually extended to eleven. In a sad turn, the building was put up for sale at the beginning of this year, and the Thrillpeddlers are suddenly homeless.

So last weekend there was the mother of all rummage sales to clear out every costume, mask, prop, fake blood, glitter, and dildo.

The sale doubled as a going-away party and a fundraiser, and the laughs mixed with tears were plentiful. Theater troupes often become surrogate families, for performers as well as devoted fans and the peripheral characters who enable them such as dressers, box office, graphic artists, scene painters, and stage crew. (Pictured above is writer and backstage dresser John F. Karr, who was collecting money for purchases near the front door.)

Though I have been to plenty of shows at the Hypnodrome over the years, last Saturday was my first venture backstage where the single bathroom for the entire cast and the audience was situated. Like many other male audience members, I always gallantly went outdoors to the bamboo forest surrounding the parking lot for a discreet intermission pee.

Even before their recent demise, the troupe and the physical theater were already being acknowledged as a legendary moment and place in time. Eventually, people will be making movies about the scene.

Anybody who participated gets to justifiably brag about it for the rest of their lives. That includes writer Steve Susoyev above who was helping price costumes on the second floor with Zelda Koznofski, who was so great as the Weimar era emcee in last year's Scrumbly Koldewyn musical, The Untamed Stage.

To be honest, the Grand Guignol shows which were the Thrillpeddlers' bread and butter for decades, were not my squeamish cup of tea, but I always found the group fascinating.

In 2009, the legendary Bay Area composer and musical performer Scrumbly Koldewyn (above right) joined the group for a revival of his reworked 1970 Cockettes musical Pearls Over Shanghai, which was supposed to run for a couple of months and ended up playing for over two years. There were more delirious reconstructions of Cockettes shows, from Hot Greeks to Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. Scrumbly also wrote two completely original musicals for the troupe, last year's The Untamed Stage and this year's Amazon Apocalypse, which still hasn't been fully staged but is rumored to be another Scrumbly treasure.

Russell Blackwood, above, the founder, daddy, mother, director, ringleader, and singing actor of The Thrillpeddlers has been seemingly inexhaustible spinning the many plates involved in keeping a theater troupe alive, and he deserves respect and adulation for what he and his theatrical family have accomplished. He also probably deserves a rest, though everyone looks forward to seeing what he pops up with next.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Scheherezade as a Riot Grrrl at the SF Symphony



The month-long John Adams 70th birthday celebration at the San Francisco Symphony concluded last weekend with a performance of the composer’s long, ambitious Scheherezade.2, a “dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra.” Composed in 2014 for violinist Leila Josefowicz above, it’s a four-movement work that is a feminist take on The Arabian Nights’ central narrator who tells stories to keep from being murdered by her royal husband, Shahryār.



The symphony is late-style Adams, dense and colorful, rather like The Gospel According to The Other Mary, which the Symphony played the week before. Both works also featured Chester Englander playing the cimbalom, a dulcimer style instrument associated with Hungarian gypsies, Asia and the Middle East.



Josefowicz has been performing this work all over the world for the last two years, and she played the fiendishly difficult soloist’s part with a ferocious intensity that would not have been out of place fronting a Riot grrrl punk rock band. It took a couple of movements to adjust to the sound world of the symphony, but halfway through, when Scheherezade confronts the Men with Beards [zealots] and then goes to Escape, Flight, Sanctuary, the symphony moves with an irresistible momentum. This work would make a great ballet, so let’s hope somebody gives choreographer Mark Morris a chunk of money to create one, and somebody besides Josefowicz manages to learn the piece.



After intermission, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a long suite of music he had compiled from Prokofiev’s full-length ballet of Romeo and Juliet, which consisted of most of the first two acts, concluding with The Death of Tybalt. Michael Smuin choreographed a version in the 1970s for the SF Ballet that was inventive and dramatic, but it was replaced in the 1990s with a deadly dull version by current artistic director Helgi Tomasson which I have never been able to sit through. I had forgotten how wonderful this music can be, possibly the greatest full-length ballet score of the 20th century, and the Symphony offered a smashing, exciting performance.