Saturday, October 27, 2018

Arabella at the San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera is presenting the 1933 Richard Strauss operatic rarity, Arabella, in a production that I enjoyed much more than expected. Set over the course of one day and night in Vienna on Shrove Tuesday, the libretto is a bizarre German comedy featuring disagreeable Austrian aristocrats, including a compulsive gambler count and his silly countess wife who are trying to marry off their daughter Arabella to somebody rich so they can pay their bills. Richard Paul Fink gave an amusing, amiable performance as the paterfamilias as did Michaela Martens (above right) as the Countess who religiously consults with a fortune teller played by Jill Grove, as well she should since the entire plot is accurately foretold in the first scene. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Arabella (Ellie Dehn) has a sister, Zdenka (Heidi Stober), who is being raised publicly as a boy to cut down on debutante costs for the family. This leads to all kinds of complications, and an exquisite duet between the two sopranos in Act One as they both imagine Mr. Right.

Imagine if Cyrano de Bergerac was actually a woman who was secretly in love with the soldier Christian who then pretends to be Roxane in a darkened bedroom for a sexual tryst, and you have some idea of how bizarre the plot becomes in Arabella. Daniel Johansson above is the lovesick young officer, Matteo, who longs for Arabella while being best buddies with the phony transgender Zdenka who is lovesick for him.

There are reworkings of scenes and characters from earlier Strauss operas, including a sequel to the stratospheric soprano role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne aux Naxos. Hye Jung Lee, who has been so spectacular as Madame Mao in Nixon in China, Olympia in Tales of Hoffman, and Ah Sing in Girls of the Golden West, had another great turn in the absurd role of "The Fiakermilli, a cabaret singer" at the Coachman's Ball where Arabella has been named The Queen.

The star of the show was the orchestra under debuting conductor Marc Albrecht, weaving in and out of quick conversational modes with full-out arias and duets. The singers were all very strong, and worked well together, but the role of Arabella is purposely written for a genuine opera star. As lovely as Ellie Dehn sounded most of the time, she doesn't quite have that charisma which would make you believe she would be worshiped by suitors and strangers every time she enters a room or descends a staircase. In fact, I kept waiting for the chorus to burst into "Hello, Dolly!"

Mandryka, the rich country heir from the Austro-Hungarian provinces, was sung by baritone Brian Mulligan in a richly sympathetic performance of a role that can be oafish and repellent. You could believe he would wrestle with a bear in the forests of his vast estate, and that he would make a good husband for the young prima donna that is Arabella. There are two more performances, one on Sunday the 28th at 2 PM, and the finale on Saturday, November 3rd at 7:30 PM. Chances to hear this opera live in English speaking countries are fairly rare, so it's worth seeking out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Mayya & The Revolutionary Hell Yeah!

The Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library has a display case in the atrium with posters and zines from the city's late 1970s/early 1980s punk rock scene...

...focusing on female performers...

...raising the roof at the Mabuhay Gardens restaurant, among other locations.

One of the founding mothers, Penelope Houston of The Avengers, actually works at the library and she introduced an hour-long live concert held on the Larkin Street steps of the main branch.

The opening band was Mayya & The Revolutionary Hell Yeah!

The music was loud, tuneful, sexy, and full of energy.

You can hear and download the songs on Bandcamp (click here).

At the site, there's a short bio: "Diminutive in stature, Gargantuan in spirit". Mayya was born in Russia, grew up in the Tenderloin in SF. she is inspired by david bowie, gogol bordello, iggy pop, funk music, george harrison, pretty much anything w energy and good melodies...

Even the crazy street people hanging outside the library seemed to enjoy the music.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Prokofiev and Dvorak at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony last week presented a Prokofiev and Dvorak program featuring Austrian guest conductor Manfed Honeck and Norwegian cello soloist Truls Mørk that looked wonderful on paper, but was disappointing in real life. Six years ago, after conducting a rehearsal of Prokofiev's oratorio from Eisenstein's three Ivan the Terrible films, Vladimir Jurowski gave an interview where he noted: ""Prokofiev is still being discovered. There are a handful of his pieces that get played all the time, but there is so much wonderful music that nobody knows." Case in point, Prokofiev's 1950 Sinfonia concertante in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, which I had never even heard of before last week's Symphony performance.

The three-movement work is a dense grab-bag of styles from Prokofiev's entire career, spanning his astringent modernism of the 1920s through his Soviet Realist lyricism of the 1940s, and to make the disparate elements work, it needs a great conductor like Jurowski who can make the most jarring segues in the composer's music sound inevitable. Manfred Honeck was not up to that level, and never resolved Prokofiev's tricky rhythms, so the piece sounded even more disjointed than it really is. Truls Mørk gave a heroic performance in the fiendishly difficult solo cello role, which barely allows for a break in the 45-minute piece, but there was a tentativeness to his playing where the work seemed to be owning him rather than the other way around. It probably didn't help that I had been listening to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich's version on YouTube all week. Rostropovich helped commission and shape the Sinfonia with the composer for its debut, and his version is both authoritative and astonishing, which is almost unfair to later cellists.

After intermission, Honeck conducted the orchestra in Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, which has almost as many recognizable tunes as his New World Symphony No. 9. Though it is played on heavy rotation in broadcasts from classical music radio stations, this was the first time I was hearing the symphony performed live, and was looking forward to it, but Honeck led a rendition that was loud, flashy, and bludgeoning.

The four-movement work is essentially pastoral, with one of the most beautiful slow second movements in the symphonic literature, but you would not know it from last week's performance. In James Keller's program notes, he writes: "I shall never forget [the Czech conductor] Rafael Kubelík in a rehearsal when it came to the opening trumpet fanfare, say to the orchestra: ‘Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle–they always call to the dance!’" Though the San Francisco Symphony sounded great, by the end of the evening, it felt like a bloody war had just finished, which made much of the audience excited enough for a standing ovation, but which left me feeling battered.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thiebaud at SFMOMA

The 97-year-old California painter, Wayne Thiebaud, has a sweet pair of exhibits on the second floor of SFMOMA, divided between his own works along with his selection of favorite paintings from the museum's permanent collection.

I often mistake his landscape paintings with those of Richard Diebenkorn, who was a longtime friend and mutual admirer, although Thiebaud's tend not to be quite as abstract.

Living in Sacramento and teaching at UC Davis for decades, his landscapes embody California in a vivid, vertiginous way.

There are also many figure drawings and paintings, mostly of women...

...including the 1973 Girl with a Pink Hat above.

His most identifiable work are the simultaneously abstract and realistic depictions of pastries, pies, cakes, gumball machines, and other colorfully manufactured food on neutral backgrounds.

The Artist's Choice exhibit features Diebenkorn and Matisse paintings, in an echo of the blockbuster Diebenkorn/Matisse exhibit at the museum last year.

Thiebaud's other choices are idiosyncratic and interesting, including Tamayo's 1932 The Window.

About one third of the selections have descriptions of the works by Thiebaud himself, which are fascinating and blessedly free of artspeak.

Both exhibits are well worth visiting.

Upstairs on the fourth floor, the great Magritte exhibit is heading into its final two weeks, and because it was so crowded I spent most of my time looking at the people looking at the paintings, except almost everyone did so through an intermediary, whether it be the phones on their cameras, the museum-provided audio tours, or studying the signage.

One middle-aged woman was a complete anomaly as she actually engaged with the paintings themselves, looking at each of them closely, from a distance, and from different angles. I complimented her near the end of the exhibit on actually looking at the paintings rather than through her phone, and she burst into laughter. "It is crazy, isn't it?" she replied.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Philip Glass in Carmel

The composer Philip Glass spent last weekend in Carmel as his 2000 Kafka chamber opera In The Penal Colony was given three performances by San Francisco's Opera Parallèle troupe.

In 2011, Glass started the Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur/Carmel, a fairly remote location which you have to work at seeking out, a theme that has been one of the running threads in the composer's life. This year the festival included performers from Tibet and Mexico, two of the cultural traditions that have most influenced him.

The opera was being performed at the 330-seat Golden Bough Playhouse, which has a tenuous link to the original leftist Bohemians who flocked to Carmel in the first three decades of the 20th century who created radical art of every sort, including theater.

These days it is run by a local professional troupe, Pacific Repertory Theatre. The ambience was strikingly reminiscent of the rich women's Monterey Peninsula TV miniseries, Big Little Lies, and brought back amusing memories of the subplot involving Reese Witherspoon and her adulterous affair with the theater's artistic director while fighting Laura Dern over the suitability of presenting Avenue Q.

Glass's memoir, Words Without Music, was published in 2015 and I stumbled across it last month in an airport bookshop. The book is well worth reading, jumping between intimate family stories, the sketching of artistic milieus, philosophy musical and otherwise, and his travels over the decades and the globe in the pursuit of transcendental enlightenment. One of my favorite sections is early 1960s Paris, when Glass is young and newly married to genius theater director JoAnne Akalaitis. Both of them were part of the avant-garde theater troupe, Mabou Mines, who formed a relationship with Samuel Beckett in Paris that continued with colaborative productions over the next two decades. Glass composed some of his first professional music for random interstices in the text of Beckett's Play, and was bitten forever by the theatrical bug.

He writes:
"If you're not a minimalist, what are you?" many have asked over the course of my career.

"I'm a theater composer," I reply.

That is actually what I do, and what I have done. That doesn't mean that's the only thing I ever did. I've written concertos, symphonies, and many other things. You only need to look at the history of music: the big changes come in the opera house. It happened with Monteverdi, with his first opera, L'Orfeo, first performed in 1607. It happened with Mozart in the eighteenth century, Wagner in the nineteenth century, and Stravinsky in the early twentieth century. The theater suddenly puts the composer in an unexpected relationship to his work...Once you get into the world of theater and you're referencing all its elements—movement, image, text and music—unexpected things can take place."
At the same time, Glass was studying for two years with the formidable Parisian musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, famous for shaping a century's worth of American composers from Copland to Glass. My favorite anecdote in the memoir involves her:
One afternoon I arrived with my usual stack of counterpoint—at least twenty very dense pages. She put them on the music rack of the piano and began to speed read her way through them. At one point she stopped and caught her breath. She looked steadily and calmy asked me how I was feeling.

"Fine," I replied.

"Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?" she continued.

"No, Mlle. Boulanger, I am really fine."

But now I was getting worried.

"Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially."

"No, Mlle. Boulanger."

She paused for only a moment, then, wheeling around in her chair, she practically screamed at me, while pointing to a passage in my counterpoint, "Then how do you explain this?!"

And there they were—hidden fifths between an alto and bass part.
(Pictured above are actors David Poznanter playing the sadistic prison guard and Michael Mohammed the condemned prisoner between a double-header of performances on Sunday afternoon and evening.)

At the same time Glass was a student, friend and collaborator of Ravi Shankar. He writes:
There were countless moments during my years in Paris where Mlle. Boulanger or Raviji passed on to me insights about music in particular and life in general. It was if I had two angels on my shoulders, one on the right and one on the left, both whispering in my ears. One taught through love and the other through fear...And, between teaching with love and teaching with fear, I have to say the benefit of each is about the same."
In 2011, Opera Parallèle presented the first of Glass's Cocteau operas, Orphée, in an exquisite production at the Herbst Theatre, with Brian Staufenbiel directing and artistic director Nicole Paiement conducting. Last year, they performed the last opera in Glass's Cocteau trilogy, Les Enfants Terribles, and the composer flew out to see a few rehearsals of an infrequently produced work. He was so delighted that he returned on a red-eye flight for an actual performance. Out of that encounter, the opera troupe was invited to present another fairly obscure Glass opera, In The Penal Colony, at his annual Days and Nights Festival. The opera is composed for two male singers, two actors, and a string quintet and is based on Kafka's dark, absurdist, and sadistic short story.

Glass introduced the work by describing how Kafka was never published in his own lifetime, and that he wrote his dark stories for friends as deeply black humor. The composer has always had a taste for outsiders (Celine and Genet were his favorite modern French writers, for instance), and Kafka certainly fits into that category. In the memoir he writes: "The real secret of writing operas is having a good libretto..." I'm not sure if his friend Rudolph Wurlitzer's libretto fits into that category, but it was graceful and was easily understood, even without the usual operatic surtitles. I would have probably enjoyed myself if the work about colonialism, torture and capital punishment had gone more in the black humor direction rather than the seriously somber, but that is the direction the surprisingly lyrical music takes. I do know that it will be impossible to forget seeing this production, particularly with the composer himself sitting in the seat behind us for the whole show.

The Opera Parallèle troupe did a remarkable job of making a static, baritone-and-tenor-and-strings opera absorbing, using the theater's new turntables with abandon, and illustrating the horrors in abstract animated projections by David Murakami and Jon Altemus. Noah Kramer's horrifying Death Contraption also did its job. Tenor Javier Abreu sang "The Visitor" with absolutely beautiful tone that was never forced, and was always a pleasure to hear, although the fey characterization didn't really work. Iron Man baritone Robert Orth is one of the continuing wonders of the operatic world, and he gave yet another amazing performance as the nostalgic, murdering Officer while singing almost continuously for 80 straight minutes. (Click here for his "Dark Bio", one of the greatest artist biographies ever, starting with "ROBERT ORTH is the best baritone in his price range.")

Opera Parallèle and Philip Glass are an oddly perfect fit, and I hope they collaborate further. One of the incidental details of Glass's memoir is that he was close friends with the British writer Doris Lessing for over 30 years, and created two operas based on installments from her Canopus in Argos science fiction series. I would love to see at least one of them in this lifetime.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Bikers, Sailors, and Strikers

Saturday afternoon on a solo stroll, I had lunch in the Embarcadero backyard of Red's Java Hut while surrounded by a Chicano biker gang. The guys were quite sweet, but some of their girlfriends were genuinely scary. The woman above gave one of the best death stares imaginable while this photo was being taken, and I stayed far away.

Behind us was a Navy ship berthed in the bay for Fleet Week.

Watching young men wandering the weird city of San Francisco in porno sailor's uniforms makes just about everyone happy.

It's too bad they are accompanied by the Blue Angels synchronized war machine ballet that blasts the city with their abusive soundtrack every year.

Walked by the disastrous new Salesforce Transit Center, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle which opened last month and then immediately closed because of structural flaws.

The project, subsidized heavily by taxpayers, was sold to the public as San Francisco's version of Grand Central Station, except that in this case nothing actually goes to the place other than a few bus lines. No trains, no MUNI, no BART, no Central Subway.

The probable amount of graft mixed with incompetence is staggering, and if we lived in a just world, everyone in the San Francisco City Family who was part of this mess would be in prison, starting with Willie Brown, Jr.

But we do not live in a just world, as demonstrated by the many strikers at fancy hotels downtown...

...with the simple demand of a living wage for backbreaking work.

The human cacophony was a cheering sonic counterweight to the Blue Angels' machine brutalism, and it was amusing to see them in front of the St. Regis Hotel, where Willie Brown, Jr. lives.

I hope they win.