Saturday, May 29, 2021

Boats and Trains and No Automobiles

Growing up in Southern California beach towns, watching paradise relentlessly paved over by highways, parking lots, and strip malls, I decided to opt out of car culture and never get a driver's license. This has required some tricky maneuvering, but also a lifelong appreciation for public transportation, particularly boats and trains.
Last weekend, we flew to Seattle for a birthday/honeymoon trip, and escaped their Fisherman's Wharf style downtown waterfront by embarking on the commuter car ferry to Bainbridge Island.
The late afternoon was unusually sunny and warm for Seattle...
...and the views were remarkable.
The ferryboat was huge, with different levels to hang out...
...including triangular jutting areas that were a thrill.
Unlike Sausalito, for instance, Bainbridge is not really a tourist destination...
...but you can walk up a hill to a small commercial district and drink a local brew.
The return at sunset was breathtaking.
The next morning we boarded the Amtrak Coast Starlight train in a Deluxe Bedroom...
...and headed south along Puget Sound, which had reverted to its usual grey.
The sun finally emerged in the afternoon in southern Washington... we passed strange roadside businesses...
...and all-white crowds at rural station stops.
The white supremacist movement that has emerged out of the Pacific Northwest finally made sense to me visually.
The most beautiful section of the journey was in southern Oregon in the Cascades...
...and the sweetest part was being rocked to sleep overnight while journeying back to San Francisco.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

James Gaffigan Conducting the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony continued with their semi-post-pandemic concerts at Davies Hall last Thursday. The lobby is empty, everyone wears masks, and you need proof of vaccination to sit in the orchestra section. At this point, only strings and percussion are allowed onstage because wind instruments, including voices, are designed to blow air outwards.
One of my favorite conductors, James Gaffigan, was on the podium introducing his program that started with Talisman by a young British composer, Freya Waley-Cohen, followed by Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and finished off with Barber's perennial Adagio for Strings.
I listened to Talisman a couple of times on YouTube (click here) and couldn't make heads or tails of the piece written for 13 strings. Often a live performance will make a new piece more audibly legible, but that wasn't the case and the fault was probably mine. Kosman at the SF Chronicle appreciated it and so did my concert companion, remarking that he loved the delicacy of the sounds made by the 13 players each doing their own thing. (The photo above and all those following are by Kristen Loken.)
The meat of the program was Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), written for a string sextet in 1899 at the beginning of the composer's career, and expanded for a string orchestra in 1917. The work is High German/Austrian Romantic, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel about a couple in the dark woods where the woman confesses ""I am carrying a child, and not by you." In the second half, the man accepts and exalts the situation out of transcendent love. Before the musical performance, Cassandra Hunter recited an English translation of the poem with grace.
Gaffigan explained that they were going to be projecting the poem at its various musical moments on supertitle screens. "And if you hate that, don't look at it," he advised. I didn't know the famous work at all and appreciated the titles which were useful markers for the densely chromatic, sensual music as it made its way to a rapturous finale.
Though Barber's Adagio for Strings is a staple of classical music radio stations and movie soundtracks, this may have been my first live performance. Gaffigan kept the schmaltz factor to a minimum, building clearly and deliberately to the emotional climax. His conducting and evident joy in his string ensemble felt like a burst of sheer energetic joy all evening.
These concerts are continuing on Thursday and Friday evenings for five more weeks, and the SF Symphony just announced that on account of changes in the pandemic regulations for San Francisco on June 15th, the final two concerts conducted by new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will feature the entire orchestra, including brass instruments, in performances of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Schumann's Symphony No. 3.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Spotlight 2021

West Edge Opera has continued its wandering ways, and this year is performing outdoors at the Bruns Amphitheater in the hills of Orinda where the California Shakespeare Shakespeare Theater has its home. It's a beautiful location, though if there are freezing summer winds headed across the East Bay from the Pacific Ocean, this place is directly in their path. Last Sunday afternoon was one of those days. I have not been that cold in a communal setting since Giants night games at Candlestick Park decades ago.
It didn't matter. People were so eager to share an artistic experience with other people after a year of pandemic solitude that the company added a second performance after the first one sold out.
Seats had been taken away to create distanced household pods, and everyone was asked to wear masks throughout, but the truth was that virtually everyone in the audience and on the stage were two weeks past vaccination. This was a coming-out moment for everyone.
Many arts organizations have foundered during the pandemic, but General Director Mark Streshinsky and his board have seem to be accustomed to challenges, and this first shot at unmasked singers outdoors with a live (masked) audience was inspired, cold winds notwithstanding. Snapshot features self-contained operatic vignettes along with excerpts from longer works-in-progress, and this year's edition was the strongest so far.
The show began with Aléxa Anderson as a spoiled Princess in The Lingering Life, a reimagining of Noh theater by Japanese-American playwright Chiori Miyagawa with music by Anne LeBaron and a libretto by the ubiquitous Mark Campbell. In a video introduction, the three creators expressed their feminist sympathies, and Miyagawa said she wasn't fond of the "crazy, evil women" narratives that are a mainstay of Noh theater, but the story relates how a Princess is told that an old gardener at the palace is in love with her so she plays a trick on him with a phony assignation.
Daniel Cilli, singing as the old gardener, commits suicide after the cruel trick, and his spirit joins with a young gardener sung by Chad Somers to haunt the Princess for every remaining day of her life. The spare music was lovely, and so were the singers.
The Glass Cage also featured a ghost in its complicated narrative about sexual assault and PTSD in the U.S. military, with Kevin Gino above very affecting as a soldier who may or may not have raped a female sergeant. The music and libretto were by Stanford University polymath Noah Fram, who was in attendance. The original instrumentation includes electric guitars and it would be interesting to hear in its rock-tinged orchestration.
Musical accompaniment throughout was provided by the new music group Earplay, who performed heroically all afternoon in tough conditions. They all deserve a mention of their own: Tod Brody, flute; Peter Joasheff, clarinet; Terrie Baune, violin; Ellen Ruth Rose, viola; Leighton Fong, cello; Richard Wom, bass; and Brenda Tom, piano. Their music director, Mary Chun, conducted two of the pieces on the program while West Edge Opera's Music Director, Jonathan Khuner, conducted three. (Pictured above is Krista Wigle, who was amusing in her turn as a U.S. Congresswoman.)
Emily Senturia conducted excerpts from Bulrusher, a work in progress from local composer Nathaniel Stookey from a 2005 Pulitzer-nominated play by Eisa Davis, niece of Angela Davis, and an accomplished singer, actress, and writer. Shawnette Sulker, above, sang an aria as the title character who is found in a basket on a river, like Moses, in Anderson Valley's Boonville in the 1950s.
Besides Sulker's aria, there was a patter dialogue in the arcane 19th century argot called Boont, and a long, fascinating scene between a logger and a madam at the local brothel, sung by Jo Vincent Parks and Deborah Rosengaus above.
Stookey is a gifted composer and this full-length opera could be something special. It will be interesting to see and hear how it progresses.
The fourth, self-contained work was Ten Minutes in the Life or Death of... with music by Tyler J. Rubin and a libretto by Marella Martin Koch. Pictured above are tenor Chad Somers and cellist Leighton Fong.
It is a short fantasia about a dying man and his memories, sung by Chad Somers, J. Raymond Meyers, and Kevin Gino at various stages of his life and death. Rubin's music was lovely, and so was the singing, but the libretto by Marella Martin Koch felt like one cliche after another, so I stopped looking at the supertitles halfway through. (Pictured above are Somers, Rubin, Khuner, Koch, Meyers, and and Gino.)
This was followed by Invisible, an intense scene with an art curator played by Erin Neff and her new, young assistant played by Julia Hathaway who is dealing with a recent sexual assault. Neff turned in a convincing, brilliant performance, as she had earlier in The Glass Cage as a female Army medic who was losing her mind. Julia Hathaway complemented her perfectly.
The libretto by Paula Cizmar was one of the best of the afternoon, and the music by Guang Yang used only two sopranos and a violin, played by Terrie Baune, that managed to conjure a whole world.
The final work, The Promise, was a bit of a dud, with a Hallmark Channel plot involving a trucking company widower (Daniel Cilli), who has a new girlfriend (Molly Maloney), and a daughter (Julia Hathaway) who doesn't want to take over the family business. Joining in the afternoon's theme, there is also a ghost. The music by Peter B. Allen, a Santa Rosa composer who specializes in hymns and religious music, was pretty and quite singable, but the libretto by Allen and George Pfirrmann was risible. It does have a happy ending, where Daniel Cilli announces that he and his new fiance are "moving to California."
West Edge Opera's summer season of three operas is at the same location in late July and early August (click here for information and tickets), and if you are a Bay Area local, you don't have to move to California to see them.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

SF Symphony Returns to Davies Hall

The San Francisco Symphony reopened Davies Hall for concerts last week, with attendance limited to audiences who showed proof of a negative COVID test or full vaccination two weeks after their last shot.
The entrance process was smoother than anticipated for the 50% capacity audience, all wearing masks.
A small army of ushers directed people to stations in the lobby where ID and vaccination cards were checked, colored wristbands issued to identify your seating area, and tickets scanned either from patrons' paper printouts or their mobile phones.
These concerts were planned before the fortuitous announcement this week from the CDC that the COVID vaccines have been working, and that masks are no longer necessary if you're in an all-vaccinated group.
There are absurdities such as 6' distance signage in the lobby...
...when the audience at the front of the orchestra section was seated shoulder to shoulder.
The concerts have been shortened to an intermissionless 75 minutes, and because breath-emitting instruments and voices are still considered high-risk for airborne spread, the orchestra has been truncated to mostly strings, each player with their own music stand and distanced from fellow players.
What was truly gratifying was the quality of the concert itself, led by the pianist Jeremy Denk from the keyboard, and the total absence of a persistent concertgoing annoyance. During the entire 75 minutes, I did not hear a single cough from the audience. It felt like a miracle, and is proof positive that masks allay a whole host of communicable, airborne diseases like flu and the common cold.
Denk is not only a fine musician, but a superb writer as well, which was reflected in his short, informative, and witty introductions to the pieces he played. "One of the silver linings of the pandemic," he noted, "is discovering music and composers that I had never heard of before, such as William Grant Still." The American composer's 1939 Out of the Silence was a dreamy, impressionistic, jazzy miniature for piano and strings that made me want to hear more of his music.
Denk introduced the next work, J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor with "And now we leave that opium den to a work that couldn't be more different, with moments where Bach is almost demonic." He noted at the beginning of the concert that the orchestra was playing as a chamber ensemble without a standup conductor which required incredible listening powers from everyone, and the communal effort had a rawness that energized the music. After hearing enough original instrument ensembles like the Philharmonia Baroque and the American Bach Soloists, I've become accustomed and prefer a harpsichord for Bach, but in a large symphony hall like Davies, the piano worked well, especially in Denk's committed performance.
The third piece was another rarity, the slow, sweet Eclogue for Piano and Orchestra by the 20th century British composer Gerald Finzi.
The final work was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, which was my introduction to the composer at the age of 13, and its exquistely beautiful slow movement still gives me shivers. Denk is a great Mozartean pianist, and it was a joy hearing him with this music.
Denk also performed an outrageously entertaining encore, the stride pianist Donald Lambert's jazz reworking of the Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser. "I apologize in advance to any Wagner fans out there," he told us. (Click here for a YouTube rendition of Lambert playing the piece himself.) There are a half dozen more concerts in this series, every Thursday and Friday evening at 7:00 PM. Click here for the calendar.