Thursday, June 27, 2019

San Francisco Opera's "Rusalka"

All the reports are true about the excellence of the current San Francisco Opera production of Rusalka, Dvorak's 1901 operatic version of The Little Mermaid fairy tale. There are so many moving parts to an opera production, that when they all come together with the right director, production, conductor, and cast, it feels like a bit of a miracle. The cast is headed by soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen as the water nymph who falls catastrophically in love with a handsome prince embodied by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, and they actually make you care for the cursed lovers from two realms, human and (super)natural. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

Acts One and Three of the nearly four-hour opera take place around a dark forest lake where wood nymphs cavort in song and dance. The integration of ballet dancers with three superb young Adler Fellow singers was ingenious. Natalie Image, Simone McIntosh, and Ashley Dixon were choreographed to be both hilariously graceful and clumsy while surrounded by professional dancing nymphs.

Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was a late replacement for the role of the Water Goblin, who preys upon humans and nymphs alike, and I can't imagine the role being sung and acted better, a mixture of malice and loving kindness towards his water nymph daughters, including Rusalka.

The luxury casting continued with the great young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as the witch Jezibaba who engineers the species-shifting and the many curses associated with it. She was played as a comic horror who has seen it all, and Barton's huge voice was once again a joy to hear.

The second act in the prince's palace was magnificent and frightening, with the mounted heads of hunted animals providing foreboding ornamentation to an impossible love. The production by David McVicar for Lyric Opera of Chicago doesn't shy away from the darkness of the tale, while debuting conductor Eun Sun Kim had the orchestra playing Dvorak's late music with rare, light beauty.

Rusalka, though composed in 1901, is essentially a modern opera in most of the world, because it only entered the repertory outside of the former Czechoslovakia in the last three decades, partly because of the advent of supertitles, and a recognition that Czech operas sound so much better in their native language. The San Francisco Opera has had a remarkably good track record with Slavic and Russian works, from the operas of Janacek to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. Seeing Rusalka for the first time makes me wonder what else is waiting to be discovered.

Not only was this my first Rusalka, but strangely enough it was the first version of The Little Mermaid I had ever experienced, somehow missing the Hans Christian Anderson story, the ballet version, or the animated Disney musical. The love-sick masochism and cruelty of the tale I found unpleasant rather than emotionally moving, but as the days wore on after seeing the production on Saturday night, I realized the fairy tale had seeped into my unconscious and was coloring the way I looked at love, impossible or not, an example of art changing life.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Reich and Prokofiev at SF Symphony

After a long work week, I impulsively bought a $25 rush ticket Friday evening for the SF Symphony, and was offered a seat in the first row of the orchestra, in front of Assistant Concertmasters Wyatt Underhill and Jeremy Constant above.

A silver lining to the dark news about Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas canceling a month worth's of concerts for heart surgery is the welcome appearance of exciting young conductors filling in for him. Last month it was James Gaffigan and newly appointed Santa Rosa Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong. Last week it was Joshua Gersen, above, who led a spectacularly successful concert, starting with Arvo Pärt's 1977 Fratres for strings and percussion.

Though usually a fan of Eastern European mystical minimalism, I have never quite understood the popularity of this short piece. However, it made the smart woman seated next to me cry, so the fault is probably mine. The composer calls his musical style "Tintinnabuli," which he partially explained in a 2000 London interview: "Tintinnabuli is the mathematically exact connection from one line to another.....tintinnabuli is the rule where the melody and the accompaniment [accompanying voice] one. One and one, it is one – it is not two. This is the secret of this technique."

It was a perfect set-up piece for a new Steve Reich composition, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, since the minimalist composer (above in the baseball cap) has always been about weaving simple materials into complex patterns. One, in his world, can become two or four or eight or sixteen. At age 82, Reich is a founding minimalist composer who formed his own chamber performing troupe before being commissioned to write for full orchestras during the 1980s. He stopped writing for orchestras in 1987, according to a program note, "because the orchestras who were being asked to perform his music were 'completely out of touch with my idiom and were unable to play it well at all.' Dissatisfied and disheartened, Reich ceased composing for orchestra altogether. Today, however, the orchestral landscape is very different. 'A lot of the orchestral musicians know my style,' Reich says, 'particularly the percussionists, and there is a new generation of conductors that are well aware of my music and very skilled at performing it.'

The 25-minute work was gorgeously mesmerizing, with principal players seated horseshoe style around Gersen with the following instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 vibraphones, 2 pianos, 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, bass, and electric bass. Behind them was the "orchestra," a sort of drone layer of strings and four trumpets that came and went.

After intermission, pianist Yefim Bronfman was soloist in Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, and gave one of the most electrifying performances of my concert-going life. I was afraid being seated so close to the open grand piano would be too loud for the wild, pounding sections of the four-movement concerto, but instead every moment was thrilling. Bronfman modulated his dynamics with rare musicality and the insanely difficult piece sounded like the masterpiece that it is. The audience broke with protocol and applauded after each movement, which Bronfman acknowledged by standing up each time and giving a short mock-bow that seemed to be saying, "Hey, kids, that may have sounded impossible to play, but it was nothing because I'm fabulous." In truth, I wasn't sure he would still be alive by the final cadenza. The orchestra under conductor Gersen was a worthy partner, and the piece instantly became one of my favorite Prokofiev works.

Listening to Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor after that great performance felt absurd, particularly since stagehands had to slowly lower the piano to the basement before the orchestra could perform again, so I left early, with Prokofiev's wild music still rattling in my brain.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Warhol at SFMOMA

Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again is a huge retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum in New York which is currently installed at SFMOMA before traveling to Chicago.

The painter David Salle wrote a brilliant appraisal of the artist and the show in the New York Review of Books earlier this year (click here for the PDF). He writes: "At the beginning of the 1960s, Warhol's work looked new because of a technique new to art—the half-tone silkscreen. It was the ultimate low-to-high inversion...Warhol was the first artist to grasp the potential for pattern and rhythm released by the screen-print process; it could be both mechanical and expressive at the same time."

Salle continues: "Perhaps as a result of emphasizing the "artist as a young striver" version of Warhol's life and times (a version he would likely have approved of), the show feels rather light on masterpieces, though it more fully fleshes out how his lifestyle informed his development."

The show itself is fun, whether you are a Warhol fan or not.

And you don't have to handle the Silver Clouds with care, as you can see.

My favorite pieces are the Chairman Mao paintings.

David Salle seems to agree: "I used to think the large portraits of Mao (who was still very much alive in 1972, when Warhol began painting them), with their large blocks of color and brushwork that underlie and surround the Chairman's countenance, were some of the best things that Warhol made."

Warhol was a devout Byzantine Catholic from Slovakian immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, and in a fascinating article in a Catholic magazine called Angelus, Mike Aquilina writes: "Scholars note the similarities between Warhol’s art and the traditional Byzantine icons of his childhood. He favored gold backgrounds and flattened human figures. His images of Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy have been compared to Madonnas. His repeated motifs are like the multiple Hail Marys in the rosary. Like icons, Warhol’s artworks are not historically accurate, but symbolically rich. Where the iconographers used books, birds and buildings, Warhol used product logos. If Christ is Light of the World, Warhol presents him with the logo from General Electric lightbulbs. If the Redeemer embodies divine wisdom, Warhol portrays him with the Wise potato-chip logo. If Christ receives the Holy Spirit as a dove, Andy borrows his dove from a package of soap." The above painting is a camouflage version of The Last Supper.

Aquilina further notes: "His religion seems to have left other areas of his life untouched. Some members of his inner circle say that he refrained from sexual contact, but enjoyed watching others having sex — and filming and photographing them while they did. Colacello and others believe he was a sadist-voyeur."

His final years before his early death in 1986 at age 58 involved collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat, including the 1984 Paramount above. As Salle writes, "It might be difficult, in this time of critical approbation and market adulation, to grasp just how devalued Warhol had become by the early 1980s, even among his own inner circle...The art historian Barbara Rose had recently begun a review with this zinger: "Andy Warhol has sunk back into the commercial ooze from which he emerged." Let's just say I have always felt ambivalent about the artist and his highly publicized New York Art Scene, wavering between admiration and repulsion, and this retrospective incites both. You should check it out.

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.)