Monday, December 31, 2018

The Telegraph Quartet at SF Performances

The Telegraph Quartet, one of my favorite young ensembles in the world, offered a concert of Eastern European composers at Herbst Theater earlier this month for SF Performances. Pictured above are (left to right) Eric Chin, violin; Pei-Ling Lin, viola; Jeremiah Shaw, cello; and Joseph Maile, violin

Joseph Maile gave an introduction to the program, noting that two of the composers, Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), were both Jewish and their fine music not very well known because of historical circumstance (concentration camp and Soviet Russia, respectively) rather than its quality.

The concert started with Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet from 1923, a spiky, lively, eccentric sounding set of dance miniatures. Pictured above are Eric Chin & Jeremiah Shaw.

This was followed by Dvorak's 1879 String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 51, which was given a sweet, delightful reading but it suffered from what I think of as The Janáček Effect. If you start off a concert with a piece by Leos Janáček, everything played afterwards will sound like the aural equivalent of weak tea. Schulhoff's music has a similar impact, and the Telegraph gave it a sensationally good performance. Pictured above is Pei-Ling Lin.

The second half was Weinberg's String Quartet #6, a work written in 1946 Soviet Russia, where the Polish composer fled the Nazis earlier during WWII, and not given its live world premiere until 2007. It's a great work, sounding a lot like his mentor Shostakovich but with plenty of Weinberg's own distinctive voice.

A Shostakovich quartet rather than the Dvorak might have been a better choice for this bold program. I've heard the Telegraph play Schoenberg, Cowell, and Webern over the years, and they are a terrific, intense young ensemble that plays brilliantly off of each other. Can't wait to hear what they tackle next.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Concert

San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows gave their annual concert earlier this month at Herbst Theatre and I felt the usual mixture of excitement for the young singers mixed with sadness that only a handful will actually make a living as an operatic, classical music singer. It's a tough, competitive career. The programming of arias, duets, and scenas at these concerts tend to skew towards obscure selections, and this year that was true to the extreme. After an overture by Verdi from his first opera, Un Giorno di Regna, Natalie Image, soprano, and Ashley Dixon, mezzo, performed a non-famous scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Later in the program the two joined up for another Donizetti duet scena from L'Assedio di Calais, an opera I had never even heard of before.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is in his first year as an Adler. The training program usually runs for two to three years, but Cohen sounds ready for the major leagues already. Countertenors at their best sound like a magical mixture of a pure boy soprano combined with the heft of an adult mezzo-soprano, and great ones are rare and valuable. Cohen sang arias from Admeto by Handel and Tancredi by Rossini. The latter was an odd choice since it was originally written for a mezzo rather than a castrati, but hey, why not?

Christian Pursell, bass-baritone, sang an amusing aria about a besotted opera fan from Rossini's Il Viaggo al Riems.

Second-year Adler Fellow Amitai Pati is one of my favorite young tenors ever. His voice is not Pavarotti sized like his tenor brother Pene Pati, but it's a sweet, smooth sound buttressed by unteachable musical instincts. Unfortunately, at this concert he was given arias from the operettas Martha by von Flotow and Das Land des Lacheins by Lehar, which didn't fit his voice, and I kept wishing we were hearing him in Mozart, Rossini, or Donizetti.

Soprano Sarah Cambidge sang an aria from Richard Strauss's Die Agyptische Helena, and though her huge voice doesn't hit any of my pleasure centers, my friend Janos Gereben was thrilled by her performance.

Another huge voice belongs to tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven who performed a scene from Wagner's final opera, Parsifal with Andrew Manea as the wounded Amfortas. Kyle might be one of the next big Wagnerian heldentenors, singing roles like Siegfried, or he might not. He doesn't quite have control of his instrument yet, but I really like its sound, which has an uncanny echo of controversial, legendary tenor Jon Vickers.

The first half of the concert had Christian Pursell and Andrew Manea singing a manly bromance duet from Bellini's I Puritani, and it was delightful.

After intermission, we moved on to Ashley Dixon singing Marguerite's aria from La Damnation de Faust by Berlioz

Andrew Manea then tackled an aria from Verdi's Atilla, and in the photo above he's head to head with conductor Christopher Franklin, who did a wonderful job with the great SF Opera Orchestra onstage behind the singers.

The evening ended with Kyle van Schoonhoven and Sarah Cambidge singing a love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and though it seemed a hurdle too high for the young singers, I was again charmed by Kyle's invocation of Jon Vickers.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Brassaï at SFMOMA

An exhibit of the midcentury, Hungarian-turned-Parisian photographer who went by the name of Brassaï is currently on the third floor of SFMOMA, and it's almost perfect.

The photos are a decently large size for museum viewing, and the show is curated, meaning there are not an overwhelming amount of photographs so you can take it all in. (The photo above is Christmas Eve Mass, Les Baux-de-Provence, 1950.)

Brassaï's subject matter was largely people, and he managed to capture both high and low cultural ensembles with the same degree of artistic sympathy. (Photo above is Soiree at the Home of Princess Chavchavadze, 1947.)

His photos from the 1920-1930s of the Parisian demimonde are iconic and brilliant. (Photo above is Kiki at the Cabaret des Fleurs, Boulevard de Montparnasse, 1932.)

The frank sensuality of the photos is amazing up to the present day, although it's odd now to see just about every person in every photo, no matter what they are doing, holding a cigarette in one hand. This is not a show you should visit if you are having nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Winter Park at Civic Center

a Christmas-themed Winter Park has gone up in Civic Center Plaza this year for the first time...

...and it is unexpectedly charming.

There is face painting and various activities for children...

...including a full-size ice skating rink.

Like everything else in San Francisco, it's a little pricey...

...but it is still fairly uncrowded.

Best of all, there are curling lessons every day in December from 10:30 to 11:30 AM... by the Granite Curling Club...

...whose reps looked like a fun bunch.

There are a also a few straightaway skating lanes where beginners hold on to the side rails for dear life, and champions like the girl above glide gracefully down the ice.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Ifigenia in Aulide

Last weekend at ODC in the Mission District, the Ars Minerva troupe presented their fourth annual early music opera, the 1738 Ifigenia in Aulide by Giovanni Porta. The bare-bones production was yet another surprising success, and if you don't believe me, click here for Lisa Hirsch's index of rave reviews. The cast of mostly local singers was strong enough that three-and-a-half hours went by without the tedium that can accompany a Baroque opera production. From left to right above, they were Teucro: Matheus Coura, Arcade: Spencer Dodd, Ifigenia: Aura Veruni, Achille: Céline Ricci, Elisena: Cara Gabrielson, Ulisse: Kevin Gino, Clitennestra: Shawnette Sulker. (Not pictured is the fabulous Agamennone: Nikola Printz.)

The three previous Ars Minerva productions have focused on modern premieres of 17th century Italian operas, which in the style of Monteverdi are closer to spoken theater with a lot of dialogue sung in recitative, and quick, bouncy narratives. 18th century opera became more the province of songbirds with fairly rigid formulas stretched out over long evenings. Céline Ricci, artistic director, stage director, and singer kept the staging lively and the various personal complications clear, starting with the sadsack Teucro sung by countertenor Matheus Coura whose expressive eyebrows were a performance in themselves.

Poor Teucro is in love with Elisena, a political prisoner from Lesbos, who is not who she claims to be. It's the juiciest part in the opera, sort of like Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo, and Cara Gabrielson took advantage of every one of her lamentation, revenge, and seduction arias.

The libretto is a mashup of Euripides and the French playwright Racine. The story of Ifigenia's sacrifice to the god Artemis so her father Agammemnon can sack Troy has a number of variations on its tragic ending. Pictured are the very sweet-sounding Ifigenia of Aura Veruni with her betrothed, Achille, sung by Art Minerva director Céline Ricci.

Nikola Printz kicked ass as the conflicted Agamennone, playing patriarchal tyrant with his daughter and wife Clitennestra, who was sung and acted brilliantly by Shawnette Sulker. Their trio in Act 3 was not only gorgeous, but it carried serious emotional heft.

By the second act, you actually started caring about these mythological characters, and the theatrical spell was cast.

In this version of the story, Ifigenia is not spared at the last second by the goddess Artemis and replaced with a sacrificial deer, but instead it turns out that Elisena's real name is ALSO Ifigenia so she is sacrificed instead. Since she has caused so much mayhem throughout the opera, this feels very much like a happy ending. It was also fun seeing Ulysses being writen and portrayed as a conniving asshole, sung well by a strutting Kevin Gino.

The most exciting element of the evening was the chamber orchestra conducted from the harpsichord by Derek Tam. They were so good, relaxed, and tireless they deserve to be named individually. Violin 1: Cynthia Black, concertmistress, Anna Wasburn, Toma Iliev, Violin 2: Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, Tyler Lewis, Viola: Aaron Westman, Cello: Gretchen Claassen, continuo: Erik Andersen, Theorbo: Paul Psarras.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Proper Hotel Mural

At one of the grittiest intersections in San Francisco, consisting of Market, Jones & McAllister, a thin, triangular office building was transformed into Hotel Shaw in 1927 (click here for an interesting history). As the neighborhood became sketchier from the 1960s on, the building went through a number of owners and names. Its last incarnation was the Renoir Hotel, which seemed to be a budget site for Euro tourists, but it has been reborn in the last couple of years as a luxury hipster establishment called Proper Hotel, complete with an instantly successful rooftop bar.

The neighborhood is still a den of thieves and drug addicts acting out on the sidewalks, but the Proper Hotel seems to have dealt with that reality by being very secure and closed off architecturally from its ground-floor surroundings.

Whatever misgivings I might harbor about wealth slumming in squalor, the new mural going up on the backside of their building on 7th Street is a magnificent addition to the neighborhood. It made me smile while sad, which is a remarkable feat for public art.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Unsettled in Palm Springs

The Palm Springs Art Museum is the third and final stop for Unsettled, an extraordinary exhibit curated by Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha and JoAnne Northrup at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

The show features work by over 80 artists from the "Greater West," stretching from Alaska to Patagonia. The second stop for the exhibit was at the Anchorage Museum of Art, where they were probably amused by 1980, 1970, 1960, totem poles by Brian Jungen created out of golf bags.

Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone's installation Campo de Color (Color Field) used terracotta bowls filled with spices.

I've never been a fan of Ed Ruscha's paintings, but the half dozen pieces included in the exhibit are all wonderful, including the 2003 Charles Atlas Landscape...

...and the 1980 Intense Curiosity–Gross Neglect above.

Agnes Pelton (1881–1961) was a German immigrant who spent the last 30 years of her life in Cathedral City where she painted mystical desert landscapes, including the 1952 Idyll.

A sense of doom and disaster underlies some of the art, represented here by The End, a 1983 watercolor from the Western Shoshone/Washoe artist Jack Malotte, depicting a Nevada landscape during a nuclear war.

Atom bombs are depicted even more explicitly in Bruce Conner's 20-minute CROSSROADS film from 1976. With music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley, Conner took 1946 documentary footage from the atom bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, slowed it way down, and created something that's equal parts beautiful and horrifying.

The exhibit includes work by lots of Native Americans (rather than works depicting them), including the Tlingit/Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin's 2012 photo mashup, Things Are Looking Native, Native's Looking Whiter of an early 20th century woman and Princess Leia.

With the collaboration of Nep Sidhu, Galanin is also responsible for the 2016 No Pigs in Paradise, referencing the disappearance and murders of Native women in the north.

There are also works that seem to be there just because they are so gorgeous, such as the 1998 ceramic by Pilo Mora who splits his working time between Phoenix and Chihuahua, Mexico.

Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, who currently lives in San Francisco, went to the U.S.-Mexico border where she painted the wall blue to match the sky, which is documented on a video and a painting, Erasing the Border (Borrando la Frontera).

My favorite work was a 7-minute film recreating the opening sequence of The Sound of Music, except Julie Andrews singing and running through through the Alps is replaced by a Peruvian boy soprano in the Andes singing "The hills are alive..." in an indigenous language. It's simultaneously funny and touching.