Thursday, October 10, 2019

Chessa Boudin for San Francisco DA

An ardent young political volunteer was canvassing the lightly attended Castro Street Fair last Sunday advocating Chessa Boudin for San Francisco District Attorney in next month's election. George Gascon, the widely disrespected current DA, announced last year that he would not run for re-election, and for the first time in a century there was a district attorney election in San Francisco without an elected or appointed incumbent in the race. That was true until last weekend.

Gascon made an announcement last month that he was retiring from his job three months early, which allowed for Mayor London Breed to appoint candidate Suzy Loftus to the position. This kind of maneuver has been standard operating procedure in the corruptly provincial world of San Francisco politics for decades, but this was a particularly blatant, egregious example of gaming the electoral system, and it may possibly backfire. For more details and commentary on the situation, click here for the SF Examiner's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and David Talbot in the SF Chronicle. Remember, there are three other candidates running other than Loftus, and we have ranked choice voting in San Francisco, so vote for whoever you want in whatever order, but be sure that Loftus is neither Choice #1, #2 or #3.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Computer Meltdown Sabbatical

Ever since being a teacher's assistant at the San Francisco State Multimedia Studies Program in the early 1990s, I have been a stickler for keeping liquids away from computers. Last night, however, the contents of an unsipped martini went flying across my laptop, and the fault was mine. So Civic Center is taking a little sabbatical until I get around to buying a new computer. Sorry, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, your Japanese themed concert was wonderful last weekend and there are some nice photos, but they are probably unsalvageable. Will be back soon, I hope.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Fin de siècle at New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their new season last week with a program devoted to music from the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century featuring a young piano soloist who wasn't even born until the 21st Century.

Music Director Daniel Hope gave graceful introductions to all the short pieces in the first half of the program, which ranged from Elgar (Introduction and Allegro, Chanson de Matin) to an early Schoenberg Notturno for Strings and Harp, with a slow movement from a violin concerto by the Norwegian Christian Sinding seguing into Massenet's Meditation from the opera Thais. As usual, Hope was an impassioned, accomplished soloist fronting his newly energized string ensemble.

The Greek violinist Simon Papanas was appearing as "Guest Concertmaster" and besides leading the chamber orchestra, he played a violin transcription of the vocal line of Richard Strauss's famous song, Morgen. Though the accumulation of relentlessly pretty pieces during the first half of the concert started to feel like a collection of perfumed bon-bons, it was certainly fun.

The second half of the concert was devoted to one work, but gosh, what a piece it turned out to be. Like most of the audience, I had never heard Ernest Chausson's 1891 Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, a four-movement, 40-minute-plus chamber work that was astonishingly good. The string quartet parts were expanded for the entire chamber orchestra, which worked better in some movements by giving the music symphonic heft and not as well when maximum clarity for the violin and piano was required, but it didn't matter because the "concert" was so consistently varied and given such a passionate performance. Adding to the excitement was the West Coast debut of the 16-year-old piano wunderkind Maxim Lando from New York. Daniel Hope pointed out that the piano part was one of the most challenging in the entire chamber music repertoire, and he was right, but Lando seemed to have absolutely no difficulties with its intricacies.

Best of all, Maxim looked like he was having a hell of a lot of fun, and his youthful energy seemed to spread through the entire ensemble. In addition, his shy, sly looks for synchronizing cues at Hope and the other instrumentalists while hunched over the piano were adorable. I'm not a big fan of youngsters onstage at professional, adult musical events, but Lando felt like an exception, and his musical virtuosity felt special for any age.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Weird-Ass Stravinsky at the SF Symphony

Please excuse the click-bait title but was having a difficult time coming up with a better adjective. Instead of the usual Firebird or Rite of Spring, Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a trio of off-kilter, concentrated late Stravinsky compositions last week, and it was wonderful. The evening started with 1955's Canticum sacrum where Stravinsky played with Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional style in a strange, jagged prayer with a huge chorus and a tiny orchestra bereft of violins and cellos. The baritone and tenor soloists were local oratorio favorites Tyler Duncan and Nicholas Phan, respectively, and they made the thorny vocal lines sound gorgeous. The chorus was an occasional, thrilling presence, but Tilson Thomas took the pace too slow, making it sound dirge-like. The work is more startlingly interesting when taken at a quicker, more disjointed pace.

The 1930 Symphony of Psalms, another piece for huge mixed chorus and a larger orchestra (but still no violins or violas), was given a virtually perfect performance, and the unearthly beauty of the final Alleluia movement sent most of the audience floating out of the auditorium. It may be my favorite Stravinsky composition, especially after hearing this.

After intermission, there was a non-Stravinsky amuse bouche, Haydn's Cello Concerto #2 with the young Oliver Herbert, who used to play with the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra, as soloist. Herbert had a sweet, flawless tone but is not yet at that interpretive place where music takes flight beyond the notes. The orchestral accompaniment was lively in the long first movement, but the performance started to drag in the final two, and made one wish for more Stravinsky.

Which we got, the 1945 Symphony in Three Movements, a 20-minute blast through a World War Two New Yorkscape that had enough ideas for a piece three times that long. The first movement had a few moments that amusingly presaged Philip Glass, while the second movement Andante played with a fractured tune that sounded like a similar refrain in Stravinsky's 1951 full-length opera, The Rake's Progress. The final movement is a rambunctious barn-burner, perfect for a composer conducting its premieres with various orchestras around the world, including the SF Symphony in 1946. The evening was one of MTT's better programs, and made me realize how much we'll miss him.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

I Still Dance at the SF Symphony

The composer John Adams was commissioned to write a piece commemorating the last, 25th season of Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony. Dedicated to both MTT and his spouse Joshua Robison, I Still Dance is an eight-minute blast of energy for a large orchestra that strikes me as one of the best pieces Adams has ever composed. Think of Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine, triple the complexity, all underlaid by a propulsive rhythm that doesn't stop until the surprisingly apt, gentle ending.

At the bows, Adams pointed to Robison in the stage right box. From the title of the piece, some people expected a riff on a ballroom dance rather than this ferocious, richly energetic piece, but it made me want to stand up and dance to its constantly changing rhythms. Can't wait to hear it again when it will be paired with Mahler's 6th in March before visiting Carnegie Hall.

This was followed by Rachmaninoff's Fourth Piano Concerto with the latest fleet-fingered Russian sensation, Daniil Trifonov. The marketing materials for Trifonov make him look like a dreamy Russian version of Ryan Gosling, but in person he came across across as wildly eccentric. His long hair obscured his face for most of the performance, with his back curving into hunchback positions, and extraordinarily long fingers that looked like they could play anything, even Rachmaninoff at his most fearsome, with perfect ease. I'm not much of a Rachmaninoff fan and SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman slagged Trifonov's earlier performance on Thursday, so expectations were low. However, the concerto itself is weird and all over the place in an interesting way, and Trifonov gave a memorable, virtuosic performance, and the orchestra under MTT was superb. I enjoyed myself completely.

After intermission, MTT conducted Schumann's Symphony #3 "Rhenish". 19th Century music has never been Tilson Thomas's strength, but there have been some spectacular exceptions over the decades. This wasn't one of them, though the stately, brooding fourth movement, Feierlich, was moving, but the the remaining four movements just felt slow,

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Good News from Heart of the City

There are advantages to living in the Civic Center, including proximity to cultural institutions, public transport, and the Heart of the City Farmers Market in United Nations Plaza. The large, inexpensive collection of vendors sell everything from fish to fruits to orchids every Wednesday and Sunday, and new signage has appeared announcing that the market is expanding to Fridays, which is terrific news for the neighborhood.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Billy Budd at SF Opera

"I am an old man who has experienced much" is the opening line of Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten's 1951 opera. The line had a special resonance for me since I saw Billy Budd at its 1978 West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Opera when I was about the age of Billy Budd, and last Saturday attended the company's fourth production while closer to the age of old Captain Vere.

Britten's music is not everyone's cup of tea, but it has entranced me since discovering his War Requiem in my teens. I rate him with Monteverdi, Mozart, and Verdi as a supernaturally gifted opera composer, and Billy Budd is one of his genuine masterpieces. Based on Herman Melville's tragic, homoerotic novella about a beloved sailor on a British battleship during the 1790s Napoleonic Wars, the opera has a huge, all-male cast with an excellent libretto by the novelist E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier that alternates between brutal realism and ethereal abstraction.

The first SF Opera production from 1978, revived in 1985, was based on the original designs from the 1950s by John Piper, which were minimalist while evocative of the wide, surrounding sea. That 1985 revival may have been my favorite. It starred Dale Duesing (above) as a believable, sweet-souled Billy, the late-career tenor James King as Captain Vere singing the hell out of the role as if he was channeling Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes, and the young bass-baritone James Morris as the frighteningly sadistic master of arms John Claggart. The 2004 Willy Decker production with baritone Nathan Gunn flexing his gym-toned pecs never quite worked for me, partly because it was too abstract and never gave one a sense of the sea, which is a character in itself.

Michael Grandage, the British director of the current SF Opera production which originated in Glyndebourne, has stated: "Britten has this brilliant capacity to conjure up the huge, surging sound of the sea through the orchestra. Therefore, I wanted to leave the sea to the orchestra and focus on creating the claustrophobic, violent, capricious shipboard world that these characters inhabit." It's a valid approach, and the set by Christopher Oran is boldly impressive (it even moves!) but I still miss the sea because the opera is not just about these characters but their place in the wider world. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

By all means, you should try to see this production in one of its four remaining performances (click here for the SFO website). The huge, all-male chorus, both onstage and offstage, were magnificent and so was the orchestra under conductor Lawrence Renes who was last here leading Nixon in China. I heard musical details from the orchestra and the chorus that were brand new.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sounded great, particularly his Iago-like aria where he vows to destroy beauty, handsomeness, and goodness. His characterization was a bit too suave for my tastes, which meant he veered into silent-movie villain rather than a recognizable, poisonous, closet case sadist. William Burden as Captain Vere gave the best performance in that difficult role I have ever heard, and his English diction was so masterful you could understand almost every word without the provided surtitles.

Baritone John Chest certainly looked like the young pretty boy sailor Terence Stamp portrayed in the early 1960s Peter Ustinov movie, but he seemed to get lost in the shuffle of all the activity onstage during Act One, vocally and dramatically. One reason for that was the extraordinary cast of singers in smaller roles surrounding him. Matthew O'Neill as Squeak was funny and awful (somebody should cast him as Mime), while Philip Skinner as Dansker was so powerfully voiced that he wasn't quite believable as the oldest tar on the battleship. Edward Nelson, Hadleigh Adams, Wayne Tigges, Philip Horst, Christian Pursell, and Robert Brubaker also shone in their various roles as officers and seamen. Tenor Brenton Ryan (above) was so poignant and sang so beautifully as the Novice who is given 20 lashes that he threatened to walk off with the opera.

John Chest came into his own during the second act, and particularly in his long aria while awaiting his execution, where he didn't try to do too much and was all the more affecting for it. His voice blossomed beautifully and it was hard not to cry. Now I can't wait to go see and hear it again.

Monday, September 09, 2019

SF Symphony Gala 2019

The San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala last Wednesday evening celebrating Michael Tilson Thomas's 25th and final season as the orchestra's music director was especially enjoyable.

During the Prosecco Promenade before the actual concert, we shared a lobby table with the lady above, and after I had taken her photo she burst into laughter. "I was just texting my therapist about how photographers keep backing up into me while they are taking pictures of somebody else, so thank you for the boost to my self-esteem. By the way, my spouse died five months ago, and it's been hard but if he was alive, I would never be here doing something like this."

I replied, "Well, my spouse of 24 years died last November, so why don't you join us and let's go watch the rich ladies make their way from the dinner tent up the stairs to the concert?"

And so we did, where the recent widow ran into two old friends and there was a joyous reunion.

The concert, led by a genial, funny, and nostalgic Michael Tilson Thomas, was a particularly fine blend of lighter pops music and "serious" classical music. In the former category, there was Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, a trio of American songs orchestrated by Aaron Copland and Gordon Getty featuring baritone Ryan McKinny and the SF Symphony Men's Chorus, and a brilliant performance of Benjamin Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. If you have seen the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom, the opening credits feature this series of deconstructed variations on a beautiful theme from Purcell, and the very entertaining lighting scheme pinpointed each section of the orchestra as it was being highlighted.

The concert concluded with the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with soloists Susanna Phillips, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Jonathan Tetelman, and Ryan McKinny joining the extraordinary SF Symphony Chorus in the Ode to Joy. Even though I've never been much of a fan of MTT's Beethoven, it felt like a fitting finale for the celebratory occasion.

The parties in a tent over the "Lake Louise" parking lot and a closed-down Grove Street were lavish and delightful...

...filled with great people watching...

...and running into old friends like chorister Chung-Wai Soong.

Just about every adult male looks great in a tuxedo...

...including my Palm Springs friend Jim Horn...

...who was flirting and complimenting every woman who sat down at our Grove Street cocktail table, including Ms. Heidi above...

...and the fabulous Marin County firecracker above who couldn't resist the live Latin dance stage nearby.

Her fellow Marin County buddy joined us, and she said, "Do you know how we met? Decades ago, we were both Playboy Bunnies."

Friday, September 06, 2019

Merola Opera Grand Finale 2019

A highlight of summer in San Francisco every year is the Merola Opera program, which trains more than a couple of dozen young professionals in an intense three-month session, culminating in a Grand Finale in the San Francisco Opera House, where they sing a string of arias and scenas over a full orchestra. This year everyone sounded good, without the highlights (with one exception) and lowlights that are a usual feature of this grab-bag of performances. The singers all wore formal wear which was an incongruous sight on the Billy Budd set where director Greg Eldridge strung together one disparate scene after another in amusing fashion. The mists of time have obscured a lot of my memories of the Saturday, August 17th evening, so I'm going to be linking to three other journalists while featuring some of their favorites. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)

Charlise Tiee at The Opera Tattler was particularly taken with soprano Esther Tonea and tenor Michael Day as Fioriligi and Ferrando in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Clean, clear young voices in Mozart are always a treat, and they were a wonderful pair.

She was also impressed with the trio from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, with soprano Chelsea Lehnea as Elisabetta flanked by bass-baritone Rafael Poto as Lord Cecil and tenor Salvatore Atti as the Conte di Leicester.

Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle singled out baritone Laureano Quant as Sir Riccardo Forth singing an aria from Bellini's I Puritani and tenor Brandon Scott Russell (pictured above) as the Prince singing an aria from Dvorak's Rusalka.

Janos Gereben at San Francisco Classical Voice loved the scene from Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, headed by soprano Amber R. Monroe as Madame Lidoine. One of the funnier moments was the repeated refrain about how humble and poor all the Carmelite sisters are and should be while everyone was singing in ballgowns, topped by baritone Edward Laurenson hiding with them in drag before seguing into the Cosi fan tutte scene as Don Alfonso.

Also appearing in the scene was mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, who everyone raved about, including me. She even made a scene from Thomas' French operatic version of Hamlet sound interesting, which I had previously thought impossible. Her huge voice is still a little unwieldly but it's rich, large, and gloriously musical. Can't wait to hear her again.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Friction Quartet and Sarah Cahill, Together at Last

The marvelous Friction Quartet unveiled Part Two of their world premiere commissioning initiative at San Francisco's Old First Church a couple of Fridays ago. Pictured above are violinist Otis Harriel, violist Lucia Kobza, cellist Douglas Machiz, and violinist Kevin Rogers.

They started with ABACISCUS by Englishman Geoffrey Gordon from 2013, which they also performed at the Center for New Music in the first installment of the commissioning initiative. Having heard the piece twice now, I have to admit that I find Kevin Rogers' introduction to the energetic, fractured, four-movement work more interesting than the actual music.

Joining the quartet in a public performance for the first time was Lucia Kobza, replacing longtime violist Taija Werbelow. Musically, she seemed to blend in without a hitch.

The world premiere of Piers Hallawell's Family Group with Aliens was introduced by the British composer himself. Unlike most of his brethren, he was a wonderful explainer of his own music, and funny besides, explaining that there were three movements to the quartet that were like members of a family wedding party and the "aliens" were the in-laws and cousins commenting on the family. The six movements are written with the instruction that the performers can play them in any order they want, as long as a family movement is paired with an alien. The work is dense, witty and all over the place, and I really enjoyed it. In a 21st century wonder, a YouTube video of the Friction performance has already been posted, and you can hear it yourself by clicking here.

Douglas Machhiz introduced the final commission, The Gila: River, Mesa, and Mountain, a piano quintet by Max Stoffregen featuring guest artist Sarah Cahill. After the rather frenzied intellectual virtuosities of the English Invasion before it, the work was soft, dreamy and delightful, taking you along with the composer on a marathon Southwestern hike. There's a YouTube video of this performance too, which you can hear/see by clicking here.

It was lovely seeing some of my favorite musicians playing together for the first time. Pictured above are violinist Otis Harriel and pianist Sarah Cahill, and Old First Church was a genial concert setting for the group.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Magnificent "Breaking The Waves" at West Edge Opera

Let me join the chorus of praise for the 2016 opera Breaking the Waves in a magnificent production by West Edge Opera, which is closing with a sold-out performance this afternoon. The musical score by Missy Mazzoli is a huge leap for the young composer, the libretto by Royce Vavrek is both colloquial and poetic while being eminently singable, the production under West Edge General Director Mark Streshinsky is restrained and brilliant, and Sara LeMesh in the central role of Bess gives a staggeringly great performance that is destined to become legendary.

Though the 2016 world premiere production in Philadelphia with director James Darrah was highly praised, I arrived at the Oakland Bridge Yard with low expectations. The source material is a 1996 film by Danish director Lars von Trier, which is one of his Female Degradation Parables like Dancer in the Dark or Nymphomaniac (Volumes 1 & 2), a genre I find mostly repellent. He's a real artist, though, and his 1990s Danish TV series The Kingdom is fabulous as is the 2011 Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst, which is a strange mashup of a Robert Altman wedding, an Ingmar Bergman summer comedy, and an apocalyptic sci-fi flick.

My boyfriend Austin saw the movie Breaking The Waves, and thought the opera worked better, a sentiment I heard from others. This is partly because the libretto by Royce Vavrek is such a skillful distillation of the movie's plot and themes, seamlessly mixing the colloquial and the poetic. He also wrote the libretto for Mazzoli's first opera, the 2012 Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt. In 2014, I attended a cabaret style concert at New York City's Le Poisson Rouge presented by Missy Mazzoli of some of her favorite opera arias sung by friends, and the evening was decidedly amateurish. The only highlights were a couple of excerpts from her own Song of the Uproar which sounded a bit like a marriage between Meredith Monk and early John Adams.

In other words, I was not even remotely expecting the rich musical score Mazzoli wrote for Breaking The Waves. In a mostly tonal language, with detours into dissonance when theatrically appropriate, the orchestra under Music Director Jonathan Khuner was variously simple and rich, constantly colorful, and providing both accompaniment to the vocal lines while also veering off into its own musical commentary on the characters. There was even an electric guitar played by John Imholz in the otherwise traditional orchestra, and for possibly the first time in my experience that instrument was used sparingly and with theatrical brilliance. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Mazzoli's ability to write so gracefully for the voice is a rare gift, and each of the principal characters and the ten-man chorus all had distinct vocal lines.

Bess, the main character, even had distinct vocal worlds depending on her emotional state. She not only sang rapturous pleas to God, but she also sang God's replies in a voice that had hints of Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. The local soprano Sara LeMesh handled that duality with ease, along with every other type of musical mood that Mazzoli composed. As a friend put it, LeMesh is a singing machine, and she offered one of the most impressive, virtuosic operatic performances I have ever seen, vocally and histrionically.

In a small miracle, the entire cast was up to LeMesh's quality, including baritone Robert Wesley Mason as her Norwegian oil rigger new husband, who made you believe Bess would see their balls-to-the-wall marital sex as a direct pipeline to the sacred. Mason sounded great and was sympathetic in a tricky role where he's paralyzed for most of the second half. Kristen Clayton as her mother was splendid and believable, and Kindra Scharich stood out as her sister-in-law who is the only person in the Scottish Calvinist community offering Bess kindness. Alex Boyer as Dr. Richardson also did a wonderful job watching the physical and emotional trainwreck up close, as did Brandon Bell as the husband's oil rig friend and Best Man.

I have liked most of the individual productions that General Director Mark Streshinsky has directed for West Edge over the years, but this felt like a giant step up for him. Along with his son Evan Streshinsky, he designed the clean, remarkably effective set with a white scrim house that doubled as church and home with a front structure that hinted at both church steeple and oil derrick. His decision to have the 10-man chorus onstage for the entire three hour length of the opera worked brilliantly as an overwhelming physical manifestation of an oppressive, patriarchal, religious small town. The chorus, who also played a number of small roles were great and deserve mention: William Bassett, Kevin Baum, Jeff Bennett, PJ Dennis, Paul Flynn, Andrew Green, Douglas Mandell, Richard Mix, Nate Pergamit, and Chung-Wai Soong who was genuinely sinister as Sadistic Sailor, another fine piece of staging by Streshinsky.

The Bridge Yard space has been a bit too large for West Edge's other two operas this summer, but it fit this piece perfectly. Every opera house in the world should seriously consider producing it because the opera already feels like a modern classic, and they should try to secure Sara LeMesh for the title role because she is a marvel and her performance felt definitive.