Saturday, September 29, 2018

Metallic Dreams

San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday was being gussied up for a Dreamforce convention party.

A major army of event staff were busy setting up for the VIP party later that night...

...which supposedly benefited Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff's children's hospital charity.

The setup for the outdoor party in Civic Center Plaza for Salesforce conventioneers was ongoing through most of the week...

...which brought up the old controversy of using public space for private events.

The featured entertainment in the evening was the ancient heavy metal band Metallica, while Janet Jackson was simultaeously performing inside the adjacent Bill Graham auditorium.

Around 6PM they started sound checks with recorded music which was so loud that I walked through the neighborhood with fingers in my ears.

Meanwhile, the usually invisible SFPD was out in force all day in the neighborhood, rousting junkies and street people from their usual sidewalk hangouts.

The event was above all a major boost for the gig economy.

The Metallica concert later in the evening was loud enough to be heard miles away, according to an SFGate article. Even though our apartment is two blocks away, the sound wasn't all that bad because it kept traveling westward towards the ocean. If you were standing in front of a reflective surface, however, the cacophony could be deafening.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sunny Stravinsky at SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony is presenting a two-week all-Stravinsky festival, with three of the usual suspects (Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring) and a couple of rarer birds, including the 1934 mélodrame, Perséphone. It is easy to see why the nearly hour-long work is rarely done, since it requires a huge orchestra, a full chorus augmented by childrens' choruses, and in the original incarnation for ballet diva Ida Rubinstein who commissioned the piece, there were dancers too.

The story of Perséphone is sung by a tenor soloist and narrated by a woman speaking poetic lines from librettist Andre Gide over the orchestra. The tenor was Nicholas Phan who was his usual intelligent, pretty-voiced self, although he had some serious troubles with a half-dozen high notes at the final, Sunday performance. The French language narrator was none other than 87-year-old movie star Leslie Caron, and her contribution was exquisite. Narrators with music behind them often fall into sing-songy rhythms that sound dumb, but Caron was musical while avoiding that trap. Sounding a bit like an ancient grandmother telling an important fairy tale, she made Perséphone and her abduction to the underworld a surprisingly touching tale, even with the deliberate distancing devices of both Gide and Stravinsky.

The music itself was so amazingly beautiful I was surprised never to have heard it before last week. Though every note of the score is identifiable as Stravinsky, his characteristic astringency is swathed in delicate, gentle tunes. Even the Shades in Hades are less frightening than sweetly pathetic. The SF Symphony Chorus was fabulous as were the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the Pacific Boychoir, joined by the SF Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas at his best.

The second half of the program was the full ballet score for The Firebird, Stravinsky's 1910 breakout hit for the Ballets Russes. It could have been that I have heard this music one too many times, or the fact that the full score (and conductor MTT) dawdled interminably before the surefire, sensational ending that always brings on a standing ovation, but it felt like a letdown after the magic of Perséphone. I liked the descriptions on the supertitle screens letting us know where we were in the ballet, and the three horns doing Sensurround above the orchestra were terrific, but this may be one piece I don't need to hear again for a very long time.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Patriarchy Times Two: Cav/Pag at SF Opera

A lively, colorful production of two naturalistic Italian one-act operas, Mascagni's 1890 Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's 1892 Pagliacci, has opened the San Francisco Opera season. There are three more performances in the run, including this Saturday evening, and the show is worth seeing, even though the murderous machismo running through both librettos eventually becomes revolting. This particular production, devised by the Argentinian tenor Jose Cura, has moved the action to an Italian neighborhood in Buenos Aires in the 1920s, and has combined the two different storylines into one, which sometimes works and sometimes just feels clumsy. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

The principal singers in the opening Cavalleria Rusticana are all superb, starting with (left to right) soprano Laura Krumm as Lola, tenor Roberto Aronica as Turiddu, and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Santuzza in a sloppy romantic triangle that involves adultery and an unmarried pregnancy. The singers were good enough that the three rather unlikable characters became sympathetic, nestled in among a village chorus which was a viable presence in itself.

Reviewing the opening performance for the SF Chronicle, Joshua Kosman slagged the music and dramaturgy of Cavalleria while praising that of Pagliacci, which led to an amusing Facebook thread where opera fans were choosing which side of the Cav/Pag divide they preferred. I confessed to being a Cav fan, mostly for its gorgeous music, which was played sumptuously by the SF Opera orchestra under debuting conductor Daniele Callegari. (Pictured above is baritone Dimitri Platanias, playing the cuckold Alfio who murders Turiddu in a duel.)

The clown who cries on the inside is the theme of Pagliacci. For the opera to work you need to feel some sympathy for Canio the Clown, but the character struck me as such a classic domestic violence abuser that it was impossible to feel anything other than disgust and horror. It also didn't help that tenor Marco Berti as Canio sang and played him thuggishly while his wife Nedda is performed by Lianna Haroutounian as a supremely sweet, radiant soul.

I stopped going to Puccini operas a while ago, so only read the glowing reviews for Haroutounian in her earlier performances as Tosca and Madama Butterfly at SF Opera. It turns out she really is that good, vocally and dramatically, which only made her predicament in Pagliacci that much more awful.

Baritone David Pershall as her young lover who wants to help Nedda escape the tyrannous old clown gave yet another strong performance after standout cameos in Andrea Chenier and Manon in the last couple of years, and tenor Amitai Pati (below left) was a delight as Beppe.

With the war on women constantly in the news these days, Pagliacci's libretto felt dated in an unpleasant way. In a director's note, Cura writes: "The relevance of Canio's character to today is overwhelming: an artist in decline, crushed by life and alcohol. Never before today have we seen so much talent thrown away once its "novelty" has worn off: actors who fall from grace after two films, or worse, giants of the stage and screen being relegated to play bit parts..." That's a bit like saying the theme of a Jack The Ripper tale is the tragedy of a doctor with diminished surgical skills from alcohol. Forget the stabbed women. They are relegated to playing bit parts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Great Debate Cabaret at C4NM

On Sunday evening, September 9th, at the Center for New Music in the Tenderloin neighborhood, a theatrical event rook place which was billed as "Erling Wold's Fabrications: The Great Debate Cabaret. Political Debate 2018 as Subtext Wrestling Match/Genderbending wrestling love orgy. Featuring Nikola Printz and Laura Bohn (pictured above) as the contestants, Hadley McCarroll as the master, Erling Wold master of ceremonies."

I arrived about 15 minutes late and missed the concept explanation from composer/MC Erling Wold, but my friend James Parr filled in for me: "Nikola (pictured above) represented the far left and did her dialogue in a convincing Bernie Sanders-esque accent while wearing a dowdy, ill fitting suit. Laura represented the far right and put on an excellent southern-drawl ala Jeff Sessions, although I'm pretty sure she's considerably taller than Mr. Sessions."

I arrived as the narrative was unraveling, as were the costumes.

I sat back and made up my own story, which was easy to do, because the performers were so committed, talented, and daring that the air was ripe with references and suggestions. The music set list ranged all over the Western musical universe, from the Adler/Ross Whatever Lola Wants above... songs and arias by Korngold, Berg, Weill, Bernstein and Britten.

There were also a quartet of pieces by the composer and ringmaster Erling Wold from operas old and brand new: UKSUS, Rattensturm, and She Who Is Alive.

As the two performers became less confrontational and more worshipful with each other, the music selections veered towards the French: Massenet, Saint-Saens, and Delibes.

Their exit music that stuck in my head for the next 4 hours was the instant earworm that is The Flower Duet. The show was put together quickly and on a whim by musicians who love to work together, and it felt like one of the hippest, playfully artistic occasions in the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Redrum at SFMOMA

Went to SFMOMA last Sunday with friends Shinya and James, who posed in front of a Cy Twombly painting before we went through the Magritte exhibit for the fourth or fifth visit. For the first time, the special galleries weren't at maximum capacity so we were able to get close to the paintings and noticed all kinds of strange new details.

Exhausted by all that art viewing, we lounged outside at the outdoor sculpture garden coffee shop on the fifth floor and found it hard to return inside because the weather was so gorgeous.

On the third floor, there is a career retrospective of the Magnum photojournalist Susan Meiselas that includes much of her mass murder chronicles of the wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and Kurdistan over the decades. Many of the photos have become iconic, but are still hard to view.

The surprise for me was her photojournal of Carnival Strippers in New England in the early 1970s, which are raw in a way I have never quite seen before. It's fascinating to view the backstage tawdriness through a woman's eyes, and made one wish The Deuce TV show, for instance, were written and filmed through a female lens.

On our way out, we made a pit stop at the bathroom facilities next to the coat check on the second floor which puts one into a red fever dream straight out of The Shining.

It's difficult not to mutter "REDRUM, REDRUM" while washing your hands.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Roberto Devereux at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is presenting Roberto Devereux., Donizetti's 1837 Italian opera about the elderly Queen Elizabeth I and her ill-fated romance with the young Earl of Essex who she had executed for treason in 1601, two years before her own death in 1603. It's a tricky opera to pull off, partly because the four major roles are so difficult to sing, and partly because the narrative conventions of early 19th century bel canto opera tend to look absurd in the 21st century. It's a pleasure to report that this production is a major success, anchored by a bravura performance from soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elizabetta in an intelligent staging by director Stephen Lawless which has been seen in Dallas and Toronto over the last decade. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

The long overture, which contains an anachronistic snippet of God Save The Queen, is used as a soundtrack for a series of tableaux illustrating who Elizabeth I was in history for those who hadn't seen Bette Davis or Cate Blanchett in the movies or Glenda Jackson on television in Elizabeth R, culminating in the amusing representation above of the ill-fated Spanish Armada.

The real triumph of the production was musical, with propulsive conducting by Riccardo Frizza and another fine outing by the SF Opera Chorus who are used rather like a tragic Greek chorus providing sideline commentary for the principals' drama. There were also a pair of fine supporting performances by tenors Amitai Pati and Christian Pursell as Roberto's antagonists, Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh.

The narrative invents a thwarted love affair between Roberto Devereax, Earl of Essex and Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, to ignite the jealousy and vengeance machinery of the plot, and tenor Russell Thomas as Roberto and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Sara have such extraordinarily creamy, gorgeous voices that you wanted them to run away together for a happy ending.

Baritone Andrew Manea, an Adler fellow in the Opera's training program, was rushed into the major role of the Duke of Nottingham at the last minute when the originally cast performer had to cancel after an accident. As the faithful friend of Roberto, and eventual jealous husband of Sara, he managed a respectable performance but wasn't at the same superstar level as the other three members of the love quadrangle.

The final scene of the opera is a long tour-de-force for Radvanovsky who has to act and sing through just about every major emotion imaginable, from vengeful to pleading to sorrowful, and she aces all of them. Reading on the internet from opera addicts who have seen her in previous renditions of this role at the Met and at the Canadian Opera, the verdict seems to be that she has outdone herself in this San Francisco outing.

I was distracted at Saturday's opening performance last Saturday, so returned for the second performance on Tuesday evening in balcony standing room with OperaVision screens, a perfect mixture of close-up sight and enveloping sound. Most people are scared away from opera by the high ticket prices, but that standing room ticket cost $10, which is easily the best deal in all of San Francisco. A great orchestra, some of the best singers in the world, and a beautiful opera house with world-class productions at that price is a genuine rarity, and I would encourage everyone to take advantage of it this fall. There are four more performances on Friday, September 14, on Tuesday, September 18, a matinee on Sunday, September 23, and a final outing on Thursday, September 27. Those last two performances also feature OperaVision in the balcony and all true local opera lovers will probably be there. (Click here for tickets.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Making Murals and Dancing in the Street

The Rise for Climate march finished at San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza Saturday afternoon, and unlike the finales of most other protest marches in my experience, there didn't seem to be any strident speakers preaching to the converted.

Instead, there were a small army of volunteers painting exquisite murals on the streets surrounding the plaza.

Click here for a wonderful post at Grist entitled, "Grandmothers stalled the police as climate protestors created the largest street mural ever" which also has an aerial shot of the 2,500-foot-long, 50-foot-wide mural.

Sadly, the art had been power-washed into oblivion by the next morning, which was a disgrace.

It's particularly maddening since a Global Cliimate Action Summit, hosted by California Governor Jerry Brown, will be taking place in San Francisco's Moscone Center this Wednesday through Friday (click here for the website).

My favorite street theater of the afternoon was a small group standing tall in the streets... human foliage.

It was also fun to watch somebody ditching their mobile device...

...and dancing in the streets.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Rise for Climate March

A global, grassroots movement to address climate change and environmental degradation held marches in over 190 locations on Saturday, and the San Francisco edition had a remarkable 1960s look and feel to it.

Tens of thousands of people gathered at the Embarcadero for the 11AM march up Market Street to Civic Center.

Rather like the annual Gay Pride march, the event was divided into contingents, and you were welcome to march with any group you felt like joining, including queers...


...mothers and grandmothers...

...indigenous groups...


...and RuPaul's Drag Race fans.

We were going to march with the gay contingent...

...but the march monitors at the front were going impossibly slow... we walked ahead and joined the Guardians of the Forest...

...and Spanish language revolutionaries...

...and Filipinos...

...marching in solidarity with Native Americans...

...some of whom were dancing in the streets.

By noon, the march had only proceeded about six short blocks up Market to the intersection with Third Street, and I confronted a middle-aged man who was one of the monitors at the front. "Why is this going so damned slow?" I asked him, and he replied that he had decided the march needed to proceed at a stately pace. "There are tens of thousands of people behind you who are still waiting to march. Pick up the pace, you fool, or everyone's going to peel off elsewhere." To my surprise, they seemed to do just that.

More to come from the rally at the Civic Center (and no, the gentleman pictured above is not the silly march monitor).