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.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

2019 SF Silent Film Festival

The Castro Theater hosted the annual SF Silent Film Festival for five days and 24 movies last week, featuring an unusual number of rarities and restorations from around the world.

Opening night started with an award ceremony for Gian Luca Farinelli, the director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, an annual nine-day festival in Bologna, Italy of films restored to their original splendor, including the evening's featured 1928 movie, The Cameraman, Buster Keaton's first for MGM and his last great silent feature.

Filmed mostly on location in New York, the movie is the usual Keaton tale of Buster trying to impress a girl and getting himself into all kinds of trouble, in this case posing as a freelance newsreel cameraman getting tangled up in ticker-tape parades, a Chinatown Tong War, a public swimming pool, and a yacht race. I had never seen or even heard of the film before, which was surprising because there are sequences as funny and brilliant as anything in Keaton's career, and to see it in a beautifully restored print was heavenly.

To add to the experience, there was a seventeen-member orchestra from the SF Conservatory on hand playing an original score that was commissioned in 2010 by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from conductor/composer Timothy Brock.

Brock, above, conducted his surprisingly detailed and complex score with verve, and the young performers were very, very good. It would be wonderful if SF Conservatory musicians playing at the festival becomes a new tradition because they added a whole new dimension to the movie. Plus, it must be fun to perform for a full house of over a thousand audience members who gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.

On the second evening of the festival, the legendary, 81-year-old British film director and silent film archivist Kevin Brownlow, who was responsible for putting Abel Gance's Napoleon back together, introduced The Signal Tower, a 1924 melodrama shot on location at a lonely railway signaling station in the mountains of Mendocino. Brownlow related a long, hilarious story of trying to get the only surviving print from a recalcitrant hoarder in England who would not give it up for anything because "It's my favorite railroad movie." After Brownlow's decades-long, fruitless attempts to get his hands on the print, the owner finally died and his heirs told Brownlow to pick it up with ALL the other films and VCRs in the decedent's home, "which were thousands of recordings of terrible American television shows."

The film starred Wallace Beery as a smooth, evil snake renting a room in the self-built mountain home of a sweet railway signalman living with his pretty wife and son. The movie was surprisingly good, and the English hoarder was right — it is a great railroad movie.

Providing brilliant musical accompaniment was the pianist Stephen Horne and percussionist Frank Bockius. It was impossible to tell what parts of the score were notated and what was improvised, but the partnership between the two musicians was seamless.

Saturday afternoon I attended a 1933 ethnographic film called Goona Goona: An Authentic Melodrama of the Isle of Bali, directed by a pair of Frenchmen, Andrew Roosevelt and Armand Denis, with musical accompaniment by the Clubfoot Orchestra blending their jazz-inflected score by Richard Marriott with two Balinese performers on gamelan percussion instruments. One of them even supplied vocals for a few scenes that were exquisite.

According to the beautifully printed, 148-page festival program, Goona Goona films were essentially bare-breasted exploitation movies posing as ethnography which were shown in Elks Lodges and other U.S. locations where Legions of Decency couldn't shut them down. The movie was a fascinating look at Bali before plumbing or electricity, populated by strikingly beautiful people with bad teeth. Even the tragic love triangle that constituted the "melodrama" was absorbing, though the fact that the heroine looked to be barely past puberty was discomfiting.

I only went to three films but wished I had seen more, though the marathon viewers at the festival started to look like Mole People by the weekend, blinking at the sunlight outside as if it were a foreign substance. My friend Patrick Vaz saw 23 films, for which he deserves some kind of award certificate.