Thursday, July 26, 2018

Composed for Sarah Cahill

This blog began publishing 13 years ago in 2005 and one of its first subjects was the New Music Seance, a marathon fundraising concert for the Other Minds Music Festival at San Francisco's Swedenborgian church in Presidio Heights. The main performer at the trio of concerts which stretched from noon to almost midnight was the Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, playing the transcendental music of everyone from Scriabin to Cowell to Rudhyar to Kyle Gann. I became an instant fan and have been covering her work ever since, studying up close one of the most interesting musical careers in the world.

She decided early in her musical performing career to leave the piano competitions to those who wanted to focus on being virtuoso soloists in the standard repertory, and to concentrate instead on contemporary music which was what she was interested in anyway. She's a rare spirit who channels composers of very different temperaments like she's their best friend and interpreter.

On Sunday afternoon, Cahill presented a concert at Old First Church of a small selection of the music which has been written for her by living composers over the last four decades. Listening to her settle into a new piece of music is akin to watching a great stage actor premiering a role and then varying the performance over the years. For example, she premiered Samuel Adams' 2014 Shade Studies, written for Cahill's commissioning project around composer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. This was the third time I've heard the delicate, half-acoustic, half-electronic piece and it has sounded different every time partly because of hall acoustics but also because Cahill grows into a piece over the years.

Samuel Adams, above, introduced his work and talked about hanging out at a party with Terry Riley "and after all the food and the drink, of course Terry goes to the piano and improvises for the next 90 minutes, playing all kinds of music from celtic to rags to raga, and I found myself underneath the piano just touching it and the feeling was amazing." Cahill also played China Gates, one of John Adams' first, charming essays in minimalism. Conjuring two modern classics from father and son composers is undoubtedly a rare category, which is possibly why she was receiving an award from a Minnesota outfit called the American Composers Forum, with John Nuechterlein announcing her new title as "2018 Champion of Music" in the photo below. Awards are both stupid and fabulous, so I have decided to create a public award: "The Goddess of Music" and Sarah Cahill has just won the First Annual 2018 edition. Her successors will have to work hard to measure up.

Her concerts over the years have been all over the map, some more successful than others, but always rewarding focused, intelligent listening from the audience, which after a number of minutes starts clearing one's hearing which then starts rewiring one's brain. Last Saturday, besides the two Adams pieces, she played the 1998/2009 Steppe Music, a distillation of Meredith Monk's 40-minute piece into five; then Ingram Marshall's 2000 Authentic Presence which was a gorgeous mixture of moods and styles that was constantly surprising and touching; Pauline Oliveros' 2001 Quintuplets Play Pen, her first notated score in ages "which is incredibly hard to play," Cahill mentioned; Annea Lockwood's 2001 RCSC written for a Ruth Crawford Seeger commissioning project by Cahill; Phil Kline's 2008 The Long Winter, which in context of the other music was violent and despairing; and finally Terry Riley's Be Kind to One Another (Rag) written for her A Sweeter Music commissioning project in reaction to the Iraq War/Occupation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Mozart's Il Re Pastore at Merola

San Francisco's Merola summer intensive training program for beginning opera singers presented an early Mozart opera, Il Re Pastore, last week at the SF Conservatory of Music. The young singers (from left to right) Charles Sy, Cheyanne Coss, Patricia Westley, Zhengyi Bai, and Simone McIntosh all had strong, beautiful voices and were perfectly capable in their roles. The conducting by Stephen Stubbs of a pickup orchestra, seated directly in front of the front rows, was lively and charming. The antic production by director Tara Faircloth, with colorful scenery by Laura Fine Hawkes and 1950s costumes by Callie Floor, was successful on its own merits. The mostly elderly audience was happily entertained by the constant silliness of the staging, and the reviews have been laudatory. So why did the Saturday afternoon performance turn me into a dissatisfied Grinch? (All production photos are by Kristen Loken.)

There were two main objections, one musical and one dramatic. Though the voices were lovely, all five principal singers oversang, which forced them into occasional shriekiness. Mozart's music, even at its most difficult, should sound clear and effortless to be truly effective, and in a small, 400-seat hall, there was no reason for everyone to be singing so loudly. I don't blame the singers since they are all trying to make a huge impression and move up the career ladder, but do question the conductor and Merola musical staff for their lack of coaching in that regard. (Pictured above with cutesy sheep props is Patricia Westley as Elisa, a maiden in love with the shepherd Aminta, performed by Cheyanne Coss below).

The libretto was by Pietro Metastasio, the most popular lyrical poet of 18th century opera, whose specialty was opera seria where the plots usually involved absolute monarchs learning to behave ethically while surrounded by lovers who are thwarted and often reunited in happy endings. Metastasio was a fascinating character whose life would make an extraordinary miniseries. Born in Rome in 1698 to a shopkeeper's family, he was a pretty, 10-year-old poor boy in Rome when he was adopted by an educated noble who heard him on the street performing poetry extemporaneously. For the next four decades, it was one male or female after another who fell in love with Metastasio and his poetry, and many left their fortunes to him after death. At the age of 32 he went to the cultural capital of Vienna and wrote many of the lyric plays which were used as the basis for over 800 operas, including Mozart's Il Re Pastore and La Clemenza de Tito and Rossini's Semiramide.

Metastasio's opera seria went permanently out of style with the gradual abolition of absolute monarchs so it's a challenge to stage sincerely in the 21st Century, but lampooning the story and layering it with comic schtick did not work for me, and having Zhengyi Bai as Alexander the Great channeling Mr. Chow from The Hangover movie while surrounded by supernumerary security guards transformed a noble character into a buffoon.

The real problem with making everyone cartoon caricatures is that you don't give a damn about any of them, even when they are singing Mozart's heart-rending arias that are distillations of love, jealousy, anger, and joy. (Pictured above are the wonderful mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh as deposed Princess Tamiri and Charles Sy as her beloved Agenore who everybody seems to beat up in this production.)

Part of the disappointment on Saturday was that some of the best Mozart productions of my life have been presented by Merola over the last decade in small theaters with talented young singers. Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and La Finta Giardiniera were revelations, particularly after sitting through productions in the too-large-for-Mozart War Memorial Opera House. I hope Merola presents the other Metastasio/Mozart collaboration, La Clemenza de Tito, sooner rather than later, and that somebody figures out how to present this antiquated style seriously.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

40th SF Ethnic Dance Festival

The 40th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival opened last weekend at the SF Opera House, the second year the event has taken place in the fanciest theater in town, and it's a surprisingly perfect fit.

The huge stage of the opera house works well for the largest dance ensembles, and it was a treat seeing many in the audience enjoying the glamorous building for the first time, at affordable ticket prices, $25-$45, which you can still buy for this weekend's second set of shows (click here).

Last weekend's show featured local groups specializing in the dance traditions of North India, Spanish Flamenco, Chinese Dragon Dance, Afro-Cuban, the Philippines, Bolivia, Mexico and Tahiti.

Like any variety show, some numbers worked better than others, but the overall quality was high and in a few cases truly exceptional.

One of my favorites was the North Indian Chitresh Das Youth Company, where about three dozen women twirled and clicked their feet with dizzying precision in some bizarre fusion of traditional dance, the Rockettes and Bollywood. They were accompanied by the Toronto Tabla Ensemble who were outstanding. Most of the groups last weekend were accompanied by brilliant percussion ensembles and it was fascinating hearing the global resemblances and differences.

Other favorites were the Afro-Cuban Arenas Dance Company, with a huge contingent of glorious looking women performing Manos de Mujeres a la Obra (Women's Hands at Work), with a great percussion group of their own. The Philippine Parangal Dance Company, the Bolivian Bolivia Corazon de America, the Mexican Ensembles Ballet Folklorio de San Francisco, and the Tahitian Te Pura O Te Rahura'a all offered wildly ambitious pieces, with contemporary takes on traditional folkloric dance.

At the end of the performance, all the troupes arrive onstage in backwards succession and then flood the aisles and the lobby where they all dance together. Pictured above are members of the Nunamta Yup'ik Eskimo Singers and Dancers. In the gorgeous free program, there was this remarkable sentence about their strange, beautiful, mystical performance of The Shimmering Moon which opened the show on Saturday night. "This is a dance that has not been presented publicly for over 200 years and we are honored to have this work shared with us." It was less an artistic performance and more of a summoning of the spirits, slow and beautiful, a mixture of incantation by two soft drummers, a narrator, and four singers swaying in ritualistic dance.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Falun Gong Bastille Boat Ride

The Falun Gong religious cult is so strange.

We have a front row seat to their more theatrical public displays because they often have their movement/meditation events in Civic Center Plaza as if it was their personal front yard.

Most religious cults I have encountered in California over a lifetime have concentrated on finding young people to be unpaid slaves and hand over their money. Falun Gong instead targets older people who are looking for a physical and spiritual elixir belief system, and of course they hand over their free labor and money too.

It's an evangelical cult aggressively looking for converts, and I found my spouse Tony looking very annoyed after being hounded with literature by the lady in yellow above while I was off taking photos.

The San Francisco branch now has a marching band, complete with uniforms and instruments, which I first saw in the St. Patrick's Day Parade last March.

I asked a band member what they were doing, and he replied they were marching in a parade to Chinatown. "Down Market Street or through the Tenderloin?" I asked, and he had no idea of the actual route. It turned out to be down Market Street, confirmed two days later by a work colleague who got stuck in the accompanying traffic jam.

The day was so beautiful that I suggested, "Let's go to the Embarcadero and jump on any ferryboat that's departing soon," and it turned out to be for Oakland.

Our scheduled ferryboat didn't show up so we ended up with a large group on a small vessel, which made for enforced intimacy. The couple sitting next to me had just moved from New York to teach at the University of Chicago in anthropology and Caribbean literature, and were so smart and beautiful that I blurted out, "You two are literally the poster children for progressive values."

It was a pleasure welcoming them to California.

On our return to San Francisco, we cruised by the Bastille Day celebration at the Embarcadero in the Plaza formerly known as Justin Herman which is Still-to-be-Named-Later. The beer/wine area above was much too small so everyone was crammed between fences over a few tables.

Still, there were a few tents offering interesting French experiences, including the pop-up salon above, which made me love San Francisco all over again for attracting somebody who can calmy carry off a Marie Antoinette wig and a beard.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Beach Volleyball on the Bay

Lean and tall was the dominant impression from the AVP professional beach volleyball tournament last weekend.

The three-day event was held at Pier 32 on the Embarcadero with the Bay Bridge as background.

The admission pricing was strange, with shaded VIP sections being sold at $80-$115 a seat, while General Admission was free.

The VIP sections looked empty...

...while the two large General Admission bleachers were nearly full.

We arrived too late for the center court pro matches, but watched a quartet of teenage athletes from the Santa Cruz High School Beach League play.

The people watching was fun...

...and even the corporate team building competition looked enjoyable.

This tournament is an annual event, and you should consider checking it out next year during a walk on the waterfront.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Two Murals on Olive Street

The Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater strip club has long had rotating murals on the back of its building flanking Olive Street which is actually a three-block alley.

The current mural is Archon's Dream, a fabulously psychedelic offering from Max Ehrman who goes by the nom de plume EON75. At his website opening page, there is a wonderful little video showing him marching out his front door, crossing the city, and painting the wall (click here).

Across Polk Street, flanking a parking lot, is an ironic Summer of Love mural by Italian artists Jorit Agoch and Leticia Mandragora. (Click here for a great article about the piece and the artists by Jonathan Curiel at SF Weekly.)

The red paint is fading fast, but "LOVE" has been crossed out and "HOMELESS" is scrawled above. According to Curiel's interview with the artist: "The poverty I saw in San Francisco shocked me, not so much because of the material poverty, [which] I encountered in other parts of the world, but because of spiritual poverty due to the lack of sense of community and morals."

On the Fourth of July, the pair above had drunked/drugged themselves too early, and were a perfect complement to the wall art behind them.

Friday, July 06, 2018

An African Army in Civic Center Plaza

A conceptual art installation has arrived in Civic Center Plaza with the unwieldy title, Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness. The Invisible Man refers to the Ralph Ellison novel and the Masque of Blackness to a lavish, racist pageant put on by the 17th century Queen Anne of Britain.

The artist Zac Ove is a Londoner who is originally from Trinidad, and he is the rare artist who can explain his art well, as you can see in this YouTube video and in this video which shows the same installation on a perfect English lawn.

As a child, he was taken for a visit to West Africa with his father, and they brought back a 42-inch sculpture which Zak grew up with as a token of his changing height over the years.

In this art installation, the original figure has grown to twice its size, seven feet.

And there are 80 of them, constituting a small surrealist army.

The African dudes will be hanging out until November in Civic Center Plaza, and if you're interested, the artist will be in town on July 19th from 5-9 PM for a public opening. There will probably be dull political speeches and proclamations, but you can meet the artist and welcome his strange inspiration to town.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Put This Baby in Jail

In towns and cities across the United States, there were public protests last Saturday decrying the sadistic behavior of immigration agents at our southern border.

The San Francisco edition marched from Dolores Park to Market Street and then down to City Hall on Polk.

The marchers were allowed on the north side of Market Street, and the continuous funnel of people lasted for over an hour.

They still managed to snarl traffic, particularly at the Octavia Street freeway onramp, where a sympathizer got out of his vehicle and honked his horn continuously to encourage the crowd.

A couple of vehicles tried to drive through the crowd, but they ended up being detained by sheriff's deputies.

There was lots of signage with Nazi analogies...

...which are unfortunately apt.

Babies and small children being ripped out of their parents' arms...

...has horrified anyone in this country with a conscience...

...and for parents of young children it is a particularly potent nightmare.

The reactions on view ranged from angry... funny... defiant.

There were a few welcome, makeshift marching bands...

...and a broader range of ethnicities than usual.

The sign above sadly encapsulates what some of us are feeling on this Fourth of July, usually my favorite holiday because it's all about summer fun, unless you live in San Francisco and are shrouded in fog.