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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Chris Komater and Nick Dong at Mercury 20

I went with my friend Austin to the wilds of downtown Oakland for a triple opening at the artist-run gallery Mercury 20 on 25th Street.

The San Francisco photographer Chris Komater revived a project he created in 2002, Jack and Mack, a series of portraits of two large, hairy gay porn stars who were major objects of public desire in the early oughts. Komater photographed the two of them in poses taken from Renaissance painters, specifically Caravaggio and Giovanni Bellini.

The Bear movement is a gay subculture that formed in reaction to the dominant images of thin, gym-bodied, manicured, young men that were long marketed as the pinnacle of desirability.

The Bear movement is about guys who are attracted to what most middle-aged American men actually look like, and you can see the larger culture picking up on those erotic possibilities. Think James Gandolfini in The Sopranos or David Harbour in Stranger Things.

Komater has moved onto other projects, such as obsessing over pixels, and you can check out his work at this website. He's still interested in bears, though, like his lover Hugh. When Komater introduced him to his recently deceased mother, she blurted out, "He's a big fella, isn't he?"

Ruth Tabancay was also gave an artist's talk about her Geometricity 3.0 display, but we missed it while scarfing down strawberries, champagne and beer.

The reason I was there was to see Nick Dong, who I discovered last year. His work is some of the most beautiful, innovative and spiritual sculpture in the world. If you think this is an exaggeration, check out his website, do some exploring, and make sure your sound is on.

I was intrigued by his conceptual/practical Mendsmith Project, which centers on grief and jewelry. The Mercury 20 website explains: "It all started when a dear friend of Nick Dong lost her husband and all that remained was his wedding ring. Given his background as a jeweler, Dong felt that he could do more than offer heartfelt condolences; rather, he could use his skills to take both his friend and her partner’s wedding rings and forge them into something new, something she could hold onto as an eternal representation of love long after the marriage vows had broken. The ring Dong created for her – a combination of the couple’s wedding rings that set her ring inside her partner’s ring, fixing them in an eternal embrace – is just the start of a project he hopes will enable others to heal through the repurposing of these symbols of love and commitment."

The site continues: "Visitors to the exhibition who would like to participate in this project are asked to bring two jewelry pieces or other small objects of personal significance to be “mended,” one belonging to the visitor and one belonging to the visitor’s loved one. During the scheduled consultation, Dong will ask the visitor to share stories and memories of the lost loved one. Photos, letters, or other artifacts will help Dong understand their special relationship. Dong will work with the visitor to create a concept and design a new piece of jewelry for the visitor with the two objects brought in as the material. The finished piece will be given back to the participants free of charge."

I even brought a metal and turquoise bracelet of my late spouse but tucked it away after realizing I didn't have a piece to offer of my own because I have never worn jewelry.

Maybe it's time to start.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Orfeo ed Euridice at West Edge Opera

Gluck's 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, premiered last Sunday at the West Edge Opera Festival in the Bridge Yard warehouse in the Oakland harbor. I'm most familiar with Gluck from his mentions in Hector Berlioz's Memoires, where Hector and his music loving pals would sit in the cheap, front seats at the Paris Opera. When the conductor or instrumentalists deviated from the original score, which Berlioz had memorized because he worshiped Gluck, Hector would stand up and heckle, "Not two flutes, you fool, two piccolos!"

I had never heard Orfeo ed Euridice before, so listened to various versions on YouTube all week which sounded amazingly different from one version to another, sometimes accompanied by a large, thick orchestra and other times with a chamber ensemble. The male role of Orfeo had three different voice types for its European premieres: alto castrato in Vienna, soprano castrato in Parma, and haut-contre (high tenor) in Paris. These days the role is usually performed by a mezzo-soprano. In other words, the opera has gender fluidity baked into its essence, so when it was announced that this production was going to be "all-female," and then amended to "non-binary," my reaction was, "What else is new?"

The young director KJ Dahlaw, above, writes in the program bios: "KJ Dahlaw is a queer dance artist, parent, partner and teacher who moved to the Bay Area in 2017. KJ is deeply honored to direct Orfeo & Eurydice, which is a collection of individuals of a variety of genders, cultures and other intersecting identities who aspire to confront white supremacy and other hegemonic systems of oppression."

That's fine and dandy, but Dahlaw's direction was lackluster and somnolent and the choreography for seven dancers amateurishly inept. It reminded The Opera Tattler of "yoga combined with Graham technique." My ungenerous assessment was dancercise performed by a collegiate modern dance class. These may have been the least threatening Furies guarding Hades ever put onstage, which was a problem because Orfeo ed Euridice is in the French opera tradition of half vocal music and half ballet. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Who did move well was mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Orfeo. Onstage from beginning to end. Printz gave a heroic performance in a hugely demanding role, but the acoustics of the space sometimes defeated the singer.

Shawnette Sulker was a welcome delight as the goddess Amore, gaining ovations for her two arias, but the deus ex machina role didn't make much sense because the director changed the happy ending that Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi inserted that has Amore taking pity on Orfeo and restoring Eurydice to life.

Eurydice doesn't sing until the final, third act but soprano Maria Valdes made the most of her laments. The essence of the myth is the pull towards the underworld of death upon a grieving survivor from a deceased beloved. That spiritual tug is a real phenomenon I witnessed repeatedly with widows of the AIDS plague and personally with the death of my own spouse last year, and there was no sense of that primal story being conveyed in this production.

The real heroes of the production were the orchestra and chorus standing in the pit under conductor Christine Brandes (above center), who conveyed the heartbreaking beauty of the musical score with sensitive skill. I look forward to hearing the soprano-turned-conductor lead another opera.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Threepenny Opera at West Edge

Opening night at the West Edge Opera Festival at their new Bridge Yard warehouse space featured amazing, rarely seen views of the Oakland Harbor from their wine/beer garden and elevated deck.

The Opening Night work was the 1928 Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera, with a roster of talents that were encouraging, including director Elkhanah Pulitzer and conductor David Moschler leading a cabaret ensemble of seven.

Unfortunately, the show didn't work for me for reasons that have little to do with the performers and the creative team. The Bridge Yard warehouse space is large, long and high so the acoustics are tricky to say the least. There was amplification for this show, including floor mics, but the volume within songs and stretches of dialogue fluctuated all over the place. Thank the goddess for supertitles, especially since the production used the rough, profane translation by Robert MacDonald from the 1994 Donmar Warehouse production in London.

In the central roles, Maya Kherani as Polly Peachum and Derek Chester as Macheath felt miscast. They looked great and their voices were pretty, but neither one was convincing as charismatic sharks. The long swaths of dialogue didn't help, either, because they needed to be projected broadly for the large house, SF Mime Troupe style, so the original savage wit and ironies of Brecht's play mostly disappear. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

The one indomitable standout in the cast was Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, whose character soprano voice is still so strong it filled the entire warehouse with ease, and her acting and physical movement was funny and right. She was the only one who arched the divide between "is this a musical which requires real actors or is this an opera which requires real singers?" After seeing this production, I'm voting for the former. Jonathan Spencer, above, is from the musical/operetta realm and he also fared well, although he was upstaged by Ms. Cook in every scene just because you could not take your eyes off of her.

I also liked the costumes by Christine Crook and a lot of the ensemble's work, especially the women who sing the opening Mack the Knife in Pulitzer's most effective staging during the first act. The cabaret orchestra had started with an Overture, which is written to be somewhat out-of-tune as a rhubarb to conventional opera, but they played it so out-of-tune that one wasn't quite sure if it was a conscious choice or just terrible musicianship. The accompaniment picked up in musical quality immediately after.

I left at intermission and am sad not to have seen Sarah Coit as Jenny Diver or more of Robert Stafford as Police Chief Tiger Brown. His Cannon Song duet with Macheath was one of the other highlights of the first act, though its casual jokes about slaughtering colored people hit a little too close to home during our country's White Supremacist Massacre Weekend. The reason I left is that the free shuttle service the Festival provides from the West Oakland BART station is wonderful, but the show started at 8:30, ran 3 hours, and it was possible there would be too many people to crowd onto a shuttle in return for the last, late-night BART trains in both directions. Too scary, for me and quite a few other patrons who found alternate transportation that night.