Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Music of Julius Eastman at Old First Church

Last Sunday afternoon at Old First Church, there was a huge audience for a concert devoted to music by Julius Eastman, a black, gay composer who died homeless of AIDS in Buffalo, New York in 1989. Eastman and his music were essentially forgotten and discarded until Mary Jane Leach, a friend and fellow composer, took up his cause. In a 2016 post from SUNY Buffalo where Eastman studied with Lukas Foss, they relate: "Spreading the word, starting in the late 1990s, that she was looking for Eastmania, she became a clearinghouse for information, bits of scores and audio, and in 2005 helped organize the first commercial release of his work, a gripping three-disc, three-hour set called “Unjust Malaise.” Since that time, live performances of his works have increased exponentially, creating something of a fad, which is fine because the music deserves the attention.

The first half of the program was stark and spare, with the bottomless bass Richard Mix singing the acapella Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc, a repetitive and anguished plea to the saints for 13 minutes that was hypnotic. This was followed by a two-piano transcription of the 1982 Touch Him When with pianists Luciano Chessa and Regina Meyers, and then a short, beautiful acapella duet for Richard Mix and baritone Kevin Baum of the 1989 Our Father. The liturgical overtones fit perfectly into the Old First Church pulpit.

The concert was curated and organized by composer and musicologist Luciano Chessa, who I first encountered at a Sarah Cahill piano recital of Italian music at Old First Church in 2006, when he was still a young academic at UC Davis (above).

Besides his own compositions, Chessa has continued with a wide array of musical projects including a worldwide concert tour of "Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners." Most recently, he edited and conducted a world premiere of Eastman's Second Symphony last November with the Mannes Orchestra in New York's Alice Tully Hall which from all accounts was a resounding success.

The final piece on the first half of last Sunday's program was the 1984 Hail Mary where Regina Myers tinkled a simple tune on the piano while Luciano repeatedly recited the familiar prayer of Hail Mary, full of grace over a megaphone complete with intentional feedback. Some in the audience were mesmerized while others thought it interminable (put me somewhere in the middle). There are two very well-written reviews of the concert, by the way, by Joshua Kosman at SFGate and Tysen Dauer at SF Classical Voice.

During a brief break, four grand pianos were moved onto the stage side by side for the afternoon's major piece, the provocatively titled Crazy Nigger. For close to an hour, pianists Chris Brown, Regina Myers, D. Riley Nicholson, and Lucano Chessa pounded away and created huge waves of hallucinatory music that often sounded like an entire orchestra. I could have sworn there were hidden horns playing somewhere while other audience members heard cellos, string sections, woodwinds depending on their own ear-to-brain wiring. At certain moments, I thought I was in the middle of the more ecstatic sections of John Adams' Harmonielehre.

In a 2017 Alex Ross New Yorker article on Eastman, he wrote: "Classic minimalist works tend to introduce change by way of horizontal shifts: Reich’s “phasing” effect, in which instruments playing the same music slip out of synch with one another; Glass’s “additive” process, in which notes are added to a repeating pattern. Eastman’s method, by contrast, is vertical. He keeps piling on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur."

Ross continues: "Something about this music can’t be fixed in place, and recordings are a pale echo of the live experience. In the closing minutes of Crazy Nigger, additional pianists emerge from the audience and join the players onstage, to assist in the unfolding of a clangorous overtone series. The collapse of the wall between performers and onlookers feels like the start of an uprising." Just about everyone filed out of Old First Church last Sunday looking energized and stunned. (Thank you to Steve Susoyev who took the snaps from the balcony with his phone because I had forgotten my camera.)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Circus Bella at Treasure Island

I spent New Year's Eve on Treasure Island attending Circus Bella's first "Winter Showcase" called Kaleidescope.

The one-ring circus began in 2008, and their first year, big-top show was a delight on all kinds of levels.

There were individual acts, such as Paul Resell the Aerialist (above center) and Willem McGowen the Diabolo Juggler who joined in group acts that involved juggling...

...clowning and balancing with Uzbekistan circus artist Ruslan Khusinov performing difficult feats throughout.

The evening's individual acts started with the exquisitely lithe 19-year-old aerial artist Katja Orlow-Ornstein performing aerial straps.

This was followed by the wild, strange family balancing act from the Gentile Family. The composer Erling Wold happened to be in the audience not far from us and I asked him at intermission what he thought of the family act where very small children were being spun around in the air on their parents' feet, and he said it was marvelous. "What about you?" "I thought it was borderline child abuse," I told him, but in truth family circus acts are primal. By the way, the elevated band under composer Rob Reich was consistently extraordinary all night, and if an act became a bit repetitive, I just concentrated on the music.

The Cuban dancers/gymnasts Manuel Acosta and Ilenay Pena were so beautiful that their balancing act felt almost superfluous. They were wonderful to watch.

The trapeze artist and dancer Abigail Munn, one of the founders of the company, reserved one of the final individual acts for herself, a trapeze solo that started a bit dull, became more intensely poetic, and finally had you desperately desiring to fly through the air like Ms. Abigail.

I have an antipathy towards most circus clowns, but the trio of Calvin Ku, Sara Moore, and Steve Smith were not bad.

The beyond gender clown of Sara Moore even had a touch of genius.

Circus horror only started at the end of the show when we tried to drive off of Treasure Island back to San Francisco.

There is only one exit off the island onto the congested Bay Bridge, and with a crowd of circus attendees and seemingly half the East Bay having arrived at midnight to see the fireworks on the SF Embarcadero, it took close to three hours to get off the island. The idea that this toxic landfill barely above sea level is slated to have 10,000 new condos as part of a corrupt development deal between the Lennar Corporation and SF city leaders over the last two decades is mind boggling. Stop it before it's too late.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

10 Fabulous Musical Events of 2018

It's getting a bit late for a listing of 2018 musical highlights, but I've been busy with a full-time job. This also meant missing a lot of worthwhile concerts, but the following were some of my favorite things last year. In March, on the freezing top floor of the McRoskey Mattress showroom on Market Street, 24 pianists gave a marathon tandem performance of of J.S. Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Nicholas Pavkovic, above, was one of the organizers and pianists in a long evening that became richer as it headed for the third hour.

Also in March, Trio Foss made their performing debut at Old First Concerts in front of a tiny crowd. Violinist Hrabba Atladottir, cellist Nina Flyer, and pianist Joseph Irrera gave remarkable performances of the 1939 Bergerettes by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů and Dmitri Shostakovich's 1944 Piano Trio No. 2.

In April, Bard Music West had their second annual festival at the Noe Valley Ministry, this year dedicated to the late California composer Henry Cowell, along with his friends, influencers, and followers. Violinist Luosha Fang, pianist Allegra Chapman, and cellist Laura Gaynon above gave a great performance of the Charles Ives Piano Trio. The entire festival was extraordinary, with Saturday afternoon dedicated to World Music, a concept Cowell pioneered.

In June, the SF Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre held a virtual musical festival over four days, with various performers accompanying remastered and rediscovered silent films. The revelation this year was the newly restored, 200-minute version of the Swedish masterpiece from 1924, The Saga of Gösta Berling, with a trance-like music score by the Swedish musician Matti Bye and his ensemble. It was amazing, and after three and a half hours of Scandinavian melodramatic gloom, there was even a happy ending.

The Ojai Festival this year was led by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and its northern offshoot at Cal Performances included a number of amazing performances at Zellerbach Hall by the young woman, her parents, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, among others.

West Edge Opera found another factory building to throw their tent up for a summer opera season, and the surprisingly lovely production of the three-opera festival was Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, a very tricky opera for any organization to pull off, and the company did themselves proud.

The San Francisco Opera presented Wagner's Ring Cycle this summer, but as I said earlier I have a full-time job so missed most of it, which was no big loss since Nina Stemme's performance as Brunhilde the last time this production was presented was still so vivid. This fall a fairly obscure Donizetti opera about the ancient Elizabeth I, Roberto Devereaux, was presented with luxury casting that made the formulaic music occasionally sound profound. Sondra Radvanovsky chewed the scenery and sang her heart out as the queen, and Jamie Barton and Russell Thomas as thwarted true lovers were exquisite.

Another obscure piece, Richard Strauss's Arabella was also given a surprisingly effective production at the SF Opera, with the wonderful debuting conductor Marc Albrecht leading the great SF Opera Orchestra and a non-stellar cast that rose to the occasion and managed to carry the weird, curdled Viennese comedy off.

The SF Symphony had a mostly dull season last year, though prospects are looking brighter for this one. My favorite concert was conducted by the young Czech, Jakub Hrůša, who led Shostakovich's Violin Concerto #1 with the fabulous soloist Karen Gomy, Borodin's Second Symphony, and Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite. There are plenty of pitfalls in every one of those pieces of music, but they all came across as sonic masterpieces.

The annual excavation by Ars Minerva of forgotten early opera masterpieces presented the long, major Baroque opera, Ifigenia en Aulide by Giovanni Porta this December, and it was an amazing achievement for a shoestring budget company. It made me happy to live in San Francisco where wonders like this and my other Top 10 concerts exist.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Amtrak Xmas

For the Christmas holidays, I took the Coast Starlight Amtrak train from Oakland to San Luis Obispo...

...and the train was overbooked just like an airplane, so I was bumped from my seat around San Jose for a large family group...

...and then hung out during the beautiful six-hour trip in the domed Observation Car.

The final destination was my sister Susan Diggins' house on a hilltop in the small town of Arroyo Grande.

Though she often complains about a lack of rain in these recent drought years and too many people moving into the area...

...the truth is that she lives in paradise with a million dollar view.

Christmas morning was all about Guys & Dogs...

...including the Pug Named Yoda.

Speaking of paradise, the daily Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. It was a joy spending Christmas evening clacking along on its tracks on the way home.