Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"The Pressure" at Other Minds

An utterly original work of musical theater, The Pressure, was given its world premiere by the Other Minds Music Festival last Saturday at Yerba Buena Center.

Composed and narrated by Brian Baumbusch (above left) to a poetic horror narrative written by his brother Paul Baumbusch (above right), the 90-minute work was a strange amalgam that was somewhere between an opera and a German Expressionist silent film such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Charles Amirkhanian, the founder of Other Minds, introduced the work in the program as follows: "This year's Other Minds Festival concentrates on the work of two hyper-creative individuals [the other being Ivan Wyschnegradsky] whose performance requirements, like those of other mavericks, including Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and Lou Harrison, pose challenges that limit opportunities for wide exposure. There is no doubt that Brian Baumbusch is a rare young composer with abundant talent, energy, intellect and charisma to make an exceptional mark in music. His work largely is composed for instruments of his own design, in remarkable tunings and with exacting notational detail...Bringing onto the stage an ensemble of 23 players is, in and of itself, unusual in new music. But to integrate elements of visual art, projections, and movement as well is a daunting challenge."

The performing forces were an unusual combination, with the Lightbulb Ensemble playing gamelan instruments built by the composer himself along with more traditional percussion, the Friction Quartet playing as a string quartet and as soloists, a vocal quartet singing everything from faux Bach chorales to Ligeti-like soundscapes, and Margaret Halbig playing an electric Casio organ along with Brett Campbell on a second organ and toy piano.

The entire work was anchored by Brian Baumbusch (above) narrating the tale into a microphone over a demented disklavier (player piano). The music throughout was eclectic, haunting, sometimes very beautiful. The libretto was an interesting foray into gothic fairy tales like The Pied Piper, except in this case the traveling Stranger destroys a village through a sinister promise to the inhabitants through gizmos that will protect their apple orchards from monstrously sized hailstorms.

My only serious criticism is that the composer should not have taken on the role of Narrator, mostly because he's not an assured enough actor to pull it off and the overloud amplification of his voice was annoying. A Narrator as good as the surrounding musical performers would have made a huge difference.

Among the most interesting sections of the work were the instrumental "Night" interludes for various forces, including the always brilliant Friction Quartet that even included a few solo stretches for the individual players. Above is cellist Doug Machiz and violist Tajia Warbelow, who is leaving the quartet after these performances. (Actually, you can catch her and the rest of the performers at the Garden of Memory Solstice concert at Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland this Friday where excerpts from the work will be performed.

The quartet of vocalists, singing mostly in German for some reason, were soprano Shauna Fallihee, alto Melinda Becker, tenor Ryan Matos, and bass Sidney Chen. They were fabulous in a wide range of musical styles, and so was Nathaniel Berman, the conductor of this huge conglomeration.

The "multimedia" turned out to be lots of projected black-and-white illustrations by Spanish illustrator Fede Yankelevich that looked a bit like German woodblocks, both specific to the narration rather like a graphic novel while also being abstract. They were evocative without being distracting, a tricky balance. Congratulations to everyone on the ambitious project, especially for passing the new music test of whether I would like to hear it again. The answer is yes.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Crazy in Love at Handel's "Orlando"

The main reason to attend the San Francisco Opera production of Handel's Orlando is the extreme beauty and rarity of the opera itself. First presented in London in 1733 for ten performances, the work disappeared for almost 250 years, reappearing in an abridged version with English mezzo Janet Baker in 1963. The San Francisco Opera presented the work for the first time in 1985 in a memorable production headed by mezzo Marilyn Horne as the title character and a breakout performance by soprano Ruth Ann Swenson as Dorinda the shepherdess, conducted by the late, great Charles Mackerras. 34 years later, the company is presenting it for the second time in a Scottish Opera production directed by Harry Fehr that shifts the story from a 9th century sylvan setting to a 20th century London military hospital during World War Two. Without a chorus, the opera has only five singers, beefed up in this production by a half dozen supernumeraries skillfully playing orderlies and nurses throughout. (Hat tip to super Steve Lavezzoli above in a production photo by Cory Weaver).

The director's high concept worked well most of the time, but the spirit of nature so pervades both the music and the libretto that I wish Fehr had gone more in the Downton Abbey WWI/Bridehead Revisited WWII direction of a country estate being used as a makeshift military hospital, with lovely gardens for the quartet of love-besotted characters to roam.

The conducting by debuting Englishman Christopher Moulds was lovely, though a little slow and monochromatic for my taste. The singing was mostly great, and at certain moments transcendent, such as the trio that ends Act I above, where the broken-hearted Dorinda (Christina Gansch) is consoled by the lovers Medoro (Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen) and Angelica (Heidi Stober).

The 25-year-old Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was a replacement for David Daniels, the star countertenor embroiled in a particularly nasty gay version of a MeToo scandal, who has been dropped by opera houses and concert halls around the world over the last year. Cohen is still in the company's student Adler program, so this was quite a career jump, but vocally he projected well and may have had the most beautiful, effortless-sounding soprano voice of the afternoon. One oddity of the libretto is that nobody loves the title character while Dorinda and Angelica are both in love with Medoro. At one point in the translated supertitles, one of them confesses she is in love "because he is young, handsome, and strong," which got a laugh from the audience even though Cohen fit the bill.

Medoro is in love with the noble-born Angelica, sung by Heidi Stober. Last year she was in Strauss's Arabella at the SF Opera, and her soprano seemed more suited for that music than for Handel, which is both tricky and extremely exposed. Still, she commands the stage well, was a convincing upper-class princess, and she's a good musician.

Debuting Austrian soprano Christina Gansch stole the show as the low-born nurse Dorinda who in her big Act Three aria simultaneously sings of how sad she is while describing how ridiculous love can be. She got the biggest ovation of Sunday afternoon's opening performance and deserved it. Besides a pure, flexible, high soprano voice, she also modulated her singing to give each aria more drama than anybody else in the cast.

The disappointing hole in the center of the production was Sasha Cooke as Orlando in the first subpar performance I have ever heard from her, and I'm including the title role of Mark Adamo's godawful The Gospel According to Mary Magdelene. Cooke looked great as a male soldier with PTSD driven crazy by unrequited love, but the role was written way too low for her voice. In a well-written interview in the program of Marilyn Horne by Jeffery McMillan, the celebrated mezzo confesses: "I was never quite happy with Orlando because it is a little low, even for me. If I were doing it today, I might move it up a tone." In other words, we need a new Ewa Podles to tackle the part. Cooke did her best, and the performance was always well acted and musically intelligent, but at times she was barely audible. The fifth singer, bass-baritone Christian van Horn (standing in the first photo) was an authoritative magician/psychiatrist, and I loved hearing his gorgeous deep voice occasionally breaking up all the sopranos.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

The Chronicles of San Francisco at SFMOMA

A digital black-and-white mural by the French graffiti and photo artist JR has gone up on the ground floor of SFMOMA at the museum's Howard Street entrance.

Getting closer to the mural, you realize that many of the figures are moving in slow-motion, GIF-type loops.

The patchwork mixture of people and places, high and low, celebrated and not, elicits an amazed "how in the hell did they do that?"

To add to the surreal excitement, the entire mural also moves slowly from left to right as if on a scroll.

1,200 people in San Francisco were photographed and interviewed over the previous year for the project, and there are a series of kiosks to the side where you can listen to the subjects' stories.

I am not sure if dogs were included in the interview process, but they were my friend Jim Horn's favorite detail. The mural is in the free entrance section of the museum and will be there for an entire year. Swing by and check it out because there is nothing quite like it in the world. (For a well-written background story by Jonathan Curiel at SF Weekly, click here.)

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"From The Field" and "Artemisia" at Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble has been ambitiously stretching into contemporary opera, and last weekend at Z Space they presented a winning pair of one-act premieres. The opener, From The Field, was billed as a "micro opera" by composer Christopher Stark with a libretto by his sister, Megan Stark. The message piece about the US government dismissing scientific reality over the centuries was actually quite elaborate. The opening scene has soprano Nikki Einfeld singing about J.W. Powell who warned that the American West could not be "tamed" by East Coast agriculture because of its natural aridity, and nobody listened. The second scene Einfeld inhabits the 1930s photojournalist Dorothea Lange who is documenting Dust Bowl refugees while the federal Farm Security Administration has hired her to show off "agricultural progress." The finale is primarily an edited video of Montana professor Steven W. Running explaining his discouragement at warning the government about climate change over the decades with no results.

The orchestra consisted of cellist Leighton Fong and violinist Anna Presler, sawing away furiously in the first scene, lyrically in the second, and interjecting occasional musical underlines during the final video. The music was consistently interesting and their playing was great, as was the singing by Nikki Einfeld, whose voice is sounding as good as I have ever heard it. She also was credited as the director, and the minimalist production worked well. Especially noteworthy were the beautiful projections by Andrew Lucia that incorporated the libretto so supertitles were unnecessary. The opera works well on its own terms. The message is obvious, but thought-provoking and evocatively illustrated. My only suggestion would be to further edit the final video because it's twice too long, especially for a "micro opera."

Up next was Artemisia, a 75-minute chamber opera composed by Laura Schwendinger (above right) from a libretto by Ginger Strand about the 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. In 2010, I had heard a long, complex, and brilliant violin concerto by Schwendinger at the SF Conservatory conducted by Nicole Paiement, and the chamber score she has written for Artemisia is similarly absorbing.

Artemisia is Schwendinger's first opera, and her vocal lines were not half as interesting as the seven-member orchestra's music, although there were moments when Kyle Stegall, Marnie Breckenridge, or Nikki Einfeld were singing that the vocal score briefly soared. (From left to right, Nikki Einfeld, Jonathan Smucker, Kyle Stegall, Betany Coffland, Marnie Breckenridge, Igor Vieira.)

Ginger Strand's ambitious libretto is framed by the middle-aged artist's final days where she is losing her sight and is being tended to be her assistant Tommaso who was sung by tenor Kyle Stegall with sweetness of tone, musical accuracy, and perfect English diction. Mezzo-soprano Bettany Coffland played the titular artist, and she was less than compelling in her acting and singing as we slipped through time and space to her rape by a trusted artistic mentor, leading to her many paintings that touched on female victimization and revenge. Director Matilda Hofman kept most of these time/space leaps smooth and intelligible. (From left to right Marnie Breckenridge, Jonathan Smucker & Igor Vieira playing various baddies, and Betany Coffland as Artimisia.)

Marnie Breckenridge played the biblical Susannah tormented by dirty-minded elders, and every time she appeared the opera grew in intensity. Just a month ago in the same Z Space theater, she performed as Georgia O'Keefe's best friend Rebecca Strand in Today It Rains for Opera Parallele, and this is the second time I have seen her almost walk off with the show. (All production photos are by Vivian Sachs, and all candids by Jim Horn.)

Friday, May 31, 2019

An Amazing Month of Opera in San Francisco

An unusual bounty of opera, from the familiar to the off-beat, is being presented in San Francisco this June. First up this weekend is a pair of contemporary operas presented by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble at Z Space on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. The opener is Dorothea, a 15-minute "micro-opera" about the photographer Dorothea Lange by composer Christopher Stark. This is paired with composer Laura Schwendinger's Artemisa, about the female Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - c.1656), who had one of the wildest biographies imaginable. The painting above is of Susanna and the Elders with the artist posing as the wronged innocent. The opera recently had its premiere at Trinity Wall Street and you can see/hear that production on Vimeo by clicking here. The complex music gets better the more you listen to it, and a great cast has been assembled this weekend that uses some of my favorite local singers like Marnie Breckenridge, Kyle Stegall, and Nikki Einfeld. Click here for tickets and more info.

The San Francisco Opera puts on three operas each June and this year's trio looks great on paper, although the banners going up all around the neighborhood are certainly strange.

"OPERA IS ALIVE" is a truly banal marketing slogan, especially when paired with "OPERA IS GRIPPING," "OPERA IS MOVING," and other emotional adverbs over black and white stock photography faces.

First up is Bizet's Carmen in a well-worn Francesca Zambello production new to SF Opera but used at Covent Garden and elsewhere repeatedly. Carmen is only true warhorse of the month, but one which I am looking forward to because mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges is making her role debut in the famous role. Bridges was striking in John Adams' Girls of the Golden West a few years ago, and it will be interesting to see what she makes of the Gypsy heartbreaker. Matthew Polenzani is cast as her Stalker Lover, Don Jose. He was superb in the demanding title role in The Tales of Hoffman at SFO in 2013, and I'm hoping he is still in his prime for this difficult role. One of my favorite conductors, James Gaffigan, will be making his SF Opera debut and am looking forward to hearing what he does with an opera that has more familiar top tunes than you can count.

Next up is a new-to-SF production of Handel's Orlando, with a fabulous, five-member cast which includes mezzo Sasha Cooke, Heidi Stober, Christian van Horn, and the new countertenor sensation Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. The well-reviewed 2011 Scottish Opera production by director Harry Fehr updates the ancient Orlando narrative to a World War Two psychiatric hospital in London, and why not?

The final production is Rusalka, Dvorak's version of The Little Mermaid, with favorite tenor Brandon Jovanovich as The Prince, the remarkable mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as The Witch Ježibaba, and soprano Rachel Willis‐Sørensen singing to the moon in the title role. The well-reviewed 2014 David McVicar production is from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the music is very beautiful.

On June 15th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Other Minds Music Festival will be presenting The Pressure, a commissioned world premiere by Oakland composer Brian Baumbach. It is not being billed as an opera but rather a multimedia "horrortorio." Here's a description from the OM website: "...a tale of gothic horror told in music, harking back to world of German expressionist silent film­­ with a story straight from the Twilight Zone. A snake oil peddler comes to town – a town suffering from painful barometric pressure – and promises a cure. There are unforeseen consequences… be careful what you wish for. It features more than 24 performers including The Lightbulb Ensemble and Friction String Quartet, 3 keyboardists, a vocal quartet, and the composer as narrator. Making their debut will be an array of newly created gamelan-style instruments in original tunings." Whenever bass Sid Chen or The Friction Quartet are involved in something, it's usually fascinating.

At the end of June, the SF Symphony is presenting Ravel's one-act L’Enfant et les sortilèges in a production from Opéra National de Lyon. Conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the production stars mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard who was so great in another Ravel one-act at the SF Symphony, L'heure espagnole, back in 2015. She's joined by a host of other singers, including Marnie Breckenridge and Nikki Einfeld, who are also in Dorothea and Artemisa, so we have come full circle.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Palm Springs Birthday

I invited friends to Palm Springs this week for a birthday celebration, including my high school friend Heidi above. Some of them expressed worry about possible 100+ degree heat, but the temperatures were historically low, in the 60s and 70s.

On the actual Wednesday birthday, the skies turned threatening...

...and it rained all day before what was supposed to be a pool party.

It did not matter in the least. Old friends arrived, like Markus the schoolteacher...

...and Grant the environmental planner...

...and Hank the artist...

...and Michael the writer.

It all turned out joyously and the week has been heaven.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gaffigan Redux at the SF Symphony

The SF Symphony presented a wildly eclectic program last week that was entertaining for a lot of reasons, but principally because Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas withdrew suddenly with illness and was replaced by conductor James Gaffigan who had been on the podium just last month. The original program was a lot of Debussy, which MTT was recording, along with Ligeti's Piano Concerto. Last-minute substitutions started with Saint-Saens' 1876 Bachanalle from Samson et Dalila. Reviewer Johua Kosman described the music "as cheesy and racist a collection of Orientalist hoochie-koochie as any composer of the 19th century ever penned." He's not wrong, but that opera and the Philistine Orgy scene in Act III in particular are favorite guilty pleasures, and Gaffigan obviously enjoys it too, leading a fun, dancing performance.

This was followed by some of the brainiest music imaginable, Ligeti's 1988 Piano Concerto, with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard who has been playing this concerto almost since its premiere. He gave an authoritative performance of difficult, oft-kilter music and seemed to be enjoying himself besides.

I went to the final performance on Saturday evening, and it was amusing watching the small chamber orchestra filled with principal players congratulating and hugging each other at the end of the five movements, partly just to have gotten through the difficult piece as well as they had. The first movement starts off with a deceptively jazzy tune that fractures into varying time signatures that start to sound like one of Nancarrow's multi-layered player piano pieces, except this was being performed by real people in real time. The second movement is slow, dark, Bartokian, that builds beautifully into piercing bursts of sound. The third through fifth movements were spare, complex, and strange, and I'd have to hear the music a bunch more to make any sense of it, but Ligeti is one of the few composers I always give the benefit of the doubt.

After intermission, there was an ode to the City of Detroit called Something for the Dark. Commissioned in 2016 by the Detroit Symphony from composer Sarah Kirkland Snider above, the 12-minute piece seemed to be one brass fanfare after another, interspersed with pretty music for a large orchestra. After the Ligeti, the piece sounded bizarrely old-fashioned, plush in sound and thin in invention.

The final piece was Debussy's 1905 tone poem about the sea, La Mer. The mixture of misty pointillism and bold Technicolor tunes makes it a tricky piece to pull off. Gaffigan managed to give both the delicacy and the bravado their due in the best live performance I have heard of this pictorial work. I finally heard all the different waves for the first time.