Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lou Harrison, The Gay Hippie Father of Us All

A biography of the composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was published last year on the centennial of his birth, and though I knew he was an interesting character, I wasn't quite prepared for how interesting. The biography, written by a pair of percussionists from Portland and Claremont respectively, is dense with intelligent musical analysis (which you can skip if incomprehensible) and fascinating stories about Harrison's interactions with everyone from his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg (now that's a hat trick) to his friends John Cage and Virgil Thomson.

The most poignant section for me was the depiction of his youth in Burlingame in a middle class family struggling in the 1930s Depression, followed by his teenage and early-20s adventures living in San Francisco. Harrison composed and improvised rehearsal music for modern dance troupes throughout the city and at Mills College in Oakland while living in both the Upper Haight and North Beach. Having lived in both places during San Francisco's 1970s gay bohemia, I can attest that everything we did Harrison and his sweet circle of artistic friends had already done first, almost as a template.

He was openly gay with one boyfriend after another (Sherman Slayback above was an early, older live-in); multicultural before the term existed (attending Chinese opera performances in San Francisco's Chinatown long before he ever saw a Western opera); an outspoken, pacifist leftist (he became fluent in Esperanto, for god's sake); and a polymath artist (poet, calligrapher, dancer, writer, painter, and above all an inspired composer). He spent the 1940s in New York City which made him literally insane, landing him in a mental institution for a number of months, before he eased his way back to sanity teaching at rural Black Mountain College. Finally, he returned around 1950 to the California coast, living in an isolated cottage on a hillside in Aptos, creating music for himself which mixed Asian and Western classical musical traditions in a manner that was completely his own, filtered through a love for beauty and melody which was deeply unfashionable in contemporary Western serious music of the time. His work is aging brilliantly, by the way, accessible and simple on the surface but deeply complex at the same time.

In the early 1960s he and gay composer Ned Rorem were at a musical event at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, which hosted concerts, and the two of them both flirted with what looked to be a lumberjack, Bill Colvig (above right). Harrison won out and the pair became a passionate, quarreling couple to the end of their lives. Colvig was an engineer and a musician, and together they built gamelans out of brake drums and other found objects, and retuned every instrument they could find to "just intonation" which Harrison came to prefer over the Western standard of equal temperament tuning.

Those instruments still exist, and most of them were bequeathed to the Bay Area percussionist William Winant who brought some of them to a Lou Harrison concert at The Strand theater presented by San Francisco Performances and hosted by pianist Sarah Cahill last Wednesday. Unfortunately, the theater's photo policy is insanely strict, and the ushers seemed to be ready to tackle any mobile phone user trying to take a photo of the stage before the concert began, so I didn't even pull out my camera.

That means you won't be able to see Sarah with her flaming red hair matched by a flaming red dress or the amazing mixture of instruments that Winant had brought that included the gamelan Harrison and Colvig had bought on their first trip to Indonesia, and porcelain bowls "from Lou's kitchen." You also don't get to see the beautiful young percussion troupe that Winant brought along or the Alexander String Quartet who premiered Harrison's exquisite 1978 String Quartet Set, or violinist Kate Stenberg joining Winant and Cahill in the 1986 Varied Trio. The chance to hear these original instruments with original performers with such original music was extraordinary, and won't last much longer because time marches on. The concert was sort of a ramshackle affair, but that felt oddly appropriate for San Francisco's prototype gay hippie genius.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Candide at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a concert version of Bernstein'sn 1956 musical/operetta, Candide. Paraphrasing from A Chorus Line, I would give the performance a Music 10, Drama 3. There are as many performing editions of Candide as Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, and for these concerts the Symphony resurrected a stripped-down version with narration and no dialogue created by John Mauceri and John Wells in 1988 for the Scottish Opera. The baritone Michael Todd Simpson above doubled as the Narrator and the foolish philosopher Dr. Pangloss, and he was given some updated, local jokes to throw into the mix, such as "The town of Westphalia would be considered in sophistication something like Fresno." (All production photos by Kristen Loken.)

The tunes throughout the two-hour production are irresistible, a collection of ballads, romantic duets, tangos, polkas and operatic parodies that manage to lodge in your brain as earworms for days on end. (I still have a half dozen of them solidly wedged there a week later, and one friend in the SFS Chorus put out a plea on Facebook, "Quiet head!!!!! Stop singing Candide music!!!") Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a tight, zippy reading of the score.

The principal singers (from left to right Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde, Andrew Stenson as Candide, Vanessa Becerra as Paquette, and Hadleigh Adams as Maximilian) all sang well, but even with amplification I could only understand about one out of every ten words of the brilliantly witty lyrics, and there were no supertitles to bridge the comprehension gap. In 2002, the SF Symphony presented a wonderful, semi-staged version of Candide under conductor Patrick Summers with Broadway musical stars George Hearn, Jason Danieley, Jennifer Welch-Babidge (the only operatic outlier), Rita Moreno, Keith Phares, and Marin Mazzie, and I remember being able to understand just about every word. The difference in diction between opera singers and Broadway performers is real.

It didn't help that the singers were wedged on a narrow platform behind the large orchestra and the even larger SF Symphony Chorus, or that there seemed to be no real stage direction, so everyone just hammed it up which looked like amateur hour. The most effective was Sheri Greenawald above as The Old Lady, partly because she didn't overdo the shtick.

The real star of this production was the chorus, which was large enough for a Berlioz Te Deum. Though their massed sound seemed like overkill for a Broadway musical, it was still glorious, and even this grumpy monkey got teary-eyed at the Make Our Garden Grow finale, one of the greatest endings for a musical ever written.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Women in Revolt

My old friend Dayala and her husband Danny made a date to go with us to the Womens March last Saturday in our Civic Center neighborhood. "We'll be downstairs at noon," she announced, and I replied, "You don't want to go sit and listen to boring-ass speeches for two hours, do you? Let's have lunch and then march instead."

"Well, if you put it that way..." she replied, and when we arrived at Civic Center Center plaza around 2:00 and heard the same strident speakers who always seem to be at San Francisco protest rallies preaching to the converted over bad sound systems, we felt like wise, seasoned protesters.

Like last year's inaugural marches, the homemade signage was witty, thoughtful and occasionally obscene...

...as befits a political moment when our Grab Them by the Pussy President resembles nothing so much as mentally unstable Roman emperors Nero or Caligula.

The last year under this regime has been one horrible, surrealist moment after another, and where it will end nobody knows.

One silver lining has been the political wakening and radicalization of so many people who would ordinarily prefer not to think about politics on a daily basis.

There is also a massive sea change right now for women's rights taking place that is starker and more powerful than anything I have seen over the last five decades...

...and it is a joy to witness.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Stimulating New Music with SFCMP

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players offered an unusually varied, interesting concert last Friday at the SF Conservatory of Music. It started with the powerhouse duo of guitarist David Tanenbaum and violinist Roy Malan playing Twist, a 2014 piece by Vivian Fung (pictured below).

The combination of guitar and violin is unusual enough that I can't recall ever hearing of a piece for that duo before, but the 15-minute, three-movement work was fascinating, with the instruments sometimes harmonizing together and at other times existing in opposition. If you would like to hear the work, click here for a YouTube performance.

This was followed by a performance from pianist Kate Campbell of four Etudes (2009) by jazz clarinetist and composer Don Byron that each started off with a simple rhythmic pattern that then explodes and blossoms in all directions. They were interesting and short enough I wish she had played all seven. (Click here for Lisa Moore playing Etude #1 and Etude #2.) This was followed by the 2010 Under the Rug, a short piece from Ryan Brown (pictured below) which featured percussionist Nick Woodbury and harpist Karen Gottlieb above, with Clio Tilton on viola.

According to the program notes, the piece was a response to Bjork's album Vespertine, but it seemed more reminiscent in its beautiful, transparent use of harp, viola and percussion of the late California composer Lou Harrison. To hear a performance on Brown's website, click here.

Then the new, incoming SFCMP Artistic Director Eric Dudley joined contemporary music legend Meredith Monk for an onstage interview. She explained a bit of her background studying at Sarah Lawrence in the 1960s where she had her Eureka moment, realizing that vocals could be treated as a purely musical instrument rather than a narrative voice.

She described the origins of the two pieces on the evening's program and mentioned that though her music looks easy on a written score, they are actually extremely difficult to perform effectively and require memorization "so they are absorbed into the body." There was a wonderful moment of self-deprecating humor when she described an upcoming major project as "beautiful" and then laughed, "Wait, you can't say your own work is beautiful, my next major project..." Finally, after mentioning how delighted she was at the quality of the music so far ("a new music concert, hurray!"), she gave a moving testimonial to her luck at being a lifelong working artist into her 70s.

Monk had spent the day before at the SF Conservatory giving master classes and rehearsing two students, mezzo-soprano Marina Davis and soprano Courtney McPhail (above left) in the 1988 Cave Song from her film Book of Days. It seems that the piece had not been memorized which caused a bit of drama, but after two hours, the work had been absorbed by the two singers and they came through with a beautiful performance accompanied by harpist Karen Gottlieb.

This was followed by Ellis Island, a short work for two pianos "blending into one big piano," as Monk described it, with Kate Campbell and Conservatory student Taylor Chan performing.

After intermission, a large ensemble augmented by a few Conservatory students tackled Frederic Rzewski's 1969 experiment in the joys of musical disintegration, Les Moutons de Panurge where a simple tune, through the addition and subtraction of its 65 notes becomes a cacophonous whirlwind. One of Rzewski's instructions is as follows: "In the melody...never stop or falter, always play loud. Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold." The performance was a lot of fun for both players and the audience. (Click here for a YouTube performance by Taller Atlántico Contemporáneo TAC.)

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Cobra, John Zorn's 1984 improvisatory "game" piece which was probably enjoyable to participate in, but was a long, dull slog for most in the audience, despite the great musicians onstage being led by the legendary percussionist William Winant.

Even the enjoyable drumming of Nick Woodbury above couldn't sustain interest and I snuck out after about ten minutes. It was sort of a crappy way to end the concert because all the other music was so compelling.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sea Lions vs. Swimmers

After a couple of years of declining population, California sea lions have made a comeback according to SFGate.

This is good news not only for the critters themselves, but for tourists at Pier 39 who are enjoying the 28th anniversary of the invasion of sea lions on what were originally intended as marina docks for boaters.

This is my favorite animal attraction because, unlike zoos or aquariums, there are no cages or enclosures and the large mammals are free to come and go as they please.

Half the fun is watching the bad boy behavior as they play King of the Dock...

...pushing and nudging each other off of the platforms back into the water.

Further west on the waterfront at Aquatic Park, the interactions between sea lions and swimmers have recently been less playful.

At least four people have been bitten or bumped by the critters over the last month, and swimming was even banned for a few days.

However, swimmers from the local Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club have been venturing into the very cold, unclean waters of San Francisco Bay since the 1870s, and a few sea lions will probably not stop such determined characters.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On The Waterfront

Saturday dawned gorgeously in San Francisco after two weeks of winter weather, so we joined thousands of people walking the Embarcadero.

The downtown waterfront is a rotting, glorious wonder, open to all and free for the moment from grotesque high-rise development, but not if ex-mayor Gavin Newsom and his California State Lands Commission has anything to do with it. (Click here for the latest wrinkle where Lands Commission lawyers argued in Superior Court last week that city voters were too stupid to make land use decisions.)

The Ferry Building was restored and retrofitted about 15 years ago and turned into an upscale foodie emporium that I thought would never take off.

Gosh, was I wrong.

The place has organically evolved into a great farmers market with extraordinary vendors and thousands of people shopping and dining on street food. (Roli Roti with their rotisserie chicken and pork sandwiches seemed to have the biggest line above.)

Even the buskers are lovely.

Further along the waterfront, we were serenaded by an erhu player...

...followed by a strikingly handsome acrobat with what sounded like an Australian accent...

...entertaining hundreds of visitors.

Even the crudely touristic Fisherman's Wharf looked beautiful today...

...and my newly skinny Italian-American spouse Tony looked right at home.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Trimming the Heart of the City

The sycamores in Civic Center plaza were being trimmed to their winter nubs by a hardworking quartet from Rec & Park this morning.

I asked one of the arborists what the whimsical fabrics were about on some of the trees.

He replied, "a community arts group was granted a permit to put on tree sweaters."

When I raised my eyebrows at the absurd name, he added, "I'm ambivalent about them myself. I'm not a big fan of putting staples into trees."

Continuing on towards the Heart of the City Sunday Farmers Market while navigating between local schizophrenics...

...I stumbled across the final day of an occasional art installation put together over the last six months by the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum on Fulton Street. "Does the city still even have a heart?" I asked one of the young organizers. "I may have been here too long to believe that it does."

"Yeah, I've lived here all my life, and know what you mean," the young woman replied while continuing to hang up signs insisting on messages to a conceptual heart.