Thursday, July 29, 2021

Katya Kabanova at West Edge Opera

The music of the early 20th century Czech composer Leoš Janáček is not for everyone, but for those who fall under its spell, any opportunity to hear it live is a special occasion. West Edge Opera is currently offering his 1921 opera Katya Kabanova at their temporary home in the Cal Shakespeare outdoor amphitheater in Orinda, and though the staging by director Indre Viskontas is dull and the unnecessary sets are clunky, the vocalists are all superbly cast for their roles and manage to make the opera work its magic. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
The source material for the opera is The Storm, an infamous five-act Russian drama by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, the premier Realist playwright of mid-19th century Russia. The rural merchant class are the villains in this work, personified by Dikój and Kabanicha, two middle-aged, rich autocrats who control and destroy the next generation. Philip Skinner (above), who I have been hearing and seeing since the early 1990s, played Dikój, and his bass voice seems to be getting stronger every year.
Kristin Klayton played Kabanicha, overbearing mother to her son Tichon, horrifying mother-in-law to Tichon's new bride Katya, and contemptuous guardian to the foundling Varvara. She was saddled with a black leather dominatrix overcoat for most of the production, which was unnecessary because Ms. Clayton in voice and stage presence can dominate the stage without any absurd costume props. Alex Boyer performed as Tichon, her weak-willed, pathetic son married to Katya, and he brought sweetness to a role that is usually played for grotesquerie.
Saddled for the entire production with a bizarre prom dress from costume designer Alina Bokovikova, the soprano Carrie Hennessey gave a radiantly beautiful vocal performance as the titular Katya Kabanova who is trapped in a new marriage in a hell house. Tenor Christopher Oglesby was also outstanding as her young, urban lover stuck in the sticks with his awful uncle.
The real joy of this production was Sarah Coit as Varvara the foundling who has seen all the hypocrisy of her household, and Chad Somers as her boyfriend Kudrjas, a smart, sunny young schoolteacher who even bursts into dance in one scene. When these two young lovers decide to leave their country relatives and escape to Moscow in the final act, you want to cheer.
The biggest disappointment was the sound mix for the orchestra, because there was a 29-piece chamber orchestra conducted by Jonathan Khuner under the stage that was sounding great but VERY distant. The discreet sound amplification at the amphitheater is some of the best I have ever heard, but the orchestra needs to be amped up considerably because their role in the opera is so important. The offstage chorus from the surrounding forest in Act Three, however, was perfection.

It didn't matter. The controversial apex of the play, once considered obscenely vulgar, is when the two couples sneak out one night to the banks of the Volga and make out in the bushes, with both couples exchanging roles as lookouts and lovers. Janacek's musical depiction is infused with love, spirituality, and sexuality, and the performers were so good that they made me cry.

Monday, July 26, 2021

teamLab: Continuity at the Asian Art Museum

After years of fundraising and construction, a large new wing for special exhibits finally opened this month at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco's Civic Center.
The space is being inaugurated with a spectacular installation from the multimedia magicians of techLab, a collective based in Japan. They describe themselves thus on their website: "teamLab (f. 2001) is an art collective, interdisciplinary group of ultratechnologists whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world. Various specialists such as artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects form teamLab...which aims to explore a new relationship between humans and nature, and between oneself and the world through art."
The elaborate warning signage at the entrance to the exhibition is not overstating the dangers. In a half-dozen very dark rooms, some with mirrors, thousands of constantly moving images appear on walls, floors, and the ceiling, and many of them are interactive, meaning they react to touch.
The effect is completely discombobulating, and we had to take a break after about ten minutes, but returned and planted ourselves in a room with backrests. The experience is completely psychedelic, and for kids, it's the ultimate frolic. As one amused security guard said to us in the darkest room, "Where was this when I was twelve years old?"
Just be careful not to walk into any mirrored walls, and be sure to click on the Asian Art Museum website here to buy tickets as soon as possible because once the word gets out, this is going to be sold out.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Back to the Future Is Female with Sarah Cahill

In June of 2020, back when nobody knew how long the COVID pandemic would last, the Old First Church concert series made plans to open for safely distanced concerts with a piano recital by Sarah Cahill featuring little-known female composers. As the numbers of infected continued to rise across the country, there was a last-minute decision to cancel the live concert and broadcast it live over YouTube from an Oakland living room with a beautiful rug. It was an interesting concert, which you can read about by clicking here, but it confirmed that watching musical performances digitally while hunkering at home was not going to be for me, and I took up 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles instead for most of 2020.
Old First Concerts finally opened their live concerts over a year later, and last Friday Sarah offered another "The Future Is Female" concert, with completely different pieces and composers.
This strange in-between-time we are experiencing with the new variants among the vaccinated and unvaccinated has prompted an array of mitigation efforts. Having been to enough "return to performance" concerts over the last few months, they all seem completely arbitrary. The most effective, in my mind, is what the San Francisco Symphony has done at Davies Hall, where proof of vaccination is required to enter. At Old First Church on Friday, there was no such screening, but the audience was asked to keep their masks on throughout and every other row was to be kept empty, an instruction we didn't realize until we were kicked out of a row close to the stage. We relocated to the front row of the balcony, which turned out to be great seats.
The concert started with the 1997 Music for Piano by the 74-year old Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh who has been writing fusion music between traditional mugam music and Western modernists like Arnold Schoenberg. The piece calls for a beaded necklace to be placed on the treble strings of the piano, which made it sound like the tar, a long-necked, plucked lute that has a zither-like sound. This alternated with the unmodified bass section of the piano in a fascinating way. This was followed by On the Chequer's Field Array'd, a three-movement work by the British composer Hannah Kendall that was brainy and involving, following a chess game narrative that felt like a more intellectual version of The Queen's Gambit.
My favorite piece of the evening was by Anna bon di Venezia, who wrote Six Keyboard Sonatas in the mid-18th century at the age of 19 before disappearing into marriage and historical anonymity. Sarah played Sonata #5 in B minor and gave a beautifully articulated performance of music that was probably written for a harpsichord. This was followed by a pair of short, unpublished works from the 1910 Au sein de la nature by Leokadiya Kashperova, famous for being Igor Stravinsky's piano teacher and Anton Rubinstein's best student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
The major work of the evening was by Agi Jambor, a half-Jewish Hungarian piano prodigy born in 1909 who lived one of the most dramatic lives imaginable. Her Wikipedia page is about 12 terse sentences and here are a few of them : "From 1926 to 1931, Jambor studied piano with Edwin Fischer at the Berlin University of the Arts. In the early 1930s, at the height of her popularity, she fled to Paris and into exile. In 1933, Jambor married Imre Patai, a physicist and pianist. Trapped with her husband when the Nazis overran Holland, and unable to escape to the United States, she later returned to Hungary, which was still neutral. The Nazis invaded in 1944 and Jambor participated in the Resistance, often dressed as a prostitute in seductive clothes and heavy makeup, calling herself Maryushka. She refused to return or perform in Germany again. She and her husband came to the United States in 1947. Her husband died two years later, his health destroyed by the war. Between 1955 and 1957, Jambor recorded five albums for Capitol Records in New York City, New York. After leaving Baltimore for Philadelphia in 1957, she began performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where she became a favorite soloist of Eugene Ormandy and was acclaimed by conductor Bruno Walter. She received rave reviews and made 12 recordings for Capitol Records."

She was also the fifth wife (out of six) of movie star Claude Raines in the 1950s when she anonymously wrote a three-movement piano sonata dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz. The Sonata is ferocious music, with obsessive, repeating bass patterns mingling with sounds that were like Shostakovich meets Ligeti. Afterwards, Sarah played three slight pieces by Zenobia Powell Perry (the 1960 Rhapsody) and Madeleine Dring (the 1963 Blue Air and Brown Study), but they were overwhelmed by what had preceded them.
Everyone is coming out of their pandemic shells at different speeds and with differing levels of psychic wounds. It was a pleasure watching so many people reconnecting for the first time in over a year, including the Italian composer Luciano Chessa above, who is presently esconced in Berlin after years in Berkeley.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Diego Rivera Pan American Unity Mural at SFMOMA

The famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint two murals in San Francisco in 1930, at the SF Art Institute on Francisco Street on Russian Hill, and at the San Francisco Stock Exchange's private dining room (now the City Club). The major impetus for these commissions was the San Francisco-born architect Timothy Pflueger, who designed everything from the Castro and Paramount movie theaters in San Francisco and Oakland respectively, to the art deco masterpiece that is the former SF Stock Exchange building. In the late 1930s, after the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges had just been built, civic boosters including Pflueger managed to get huge amounts of federal money for a world's fair on a newly dredged landfill called Treasure Island. The plan was for it to become the city's municipal airport, which didn't happen because World War Two arrived, and the U.S. Navy took ownership of the mid-bay landfill for decades. The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition was a financial flop so a second year was added with new attractions, which included the "Gayway" where "sights included sideshow-style attractions, such as little people in a Western setting and a racetrack featuring monkeys driving automobiles." In what was designed to be an airplane hangar, Pflueger commissioned a collection of artists to create pieces for a live audience. It was called Art in Action, and the star attraction was Diego Rivera, returning a decade after his earlier visit to create a 74 by 22 foot mural on ten steel-backed panels.
The Expo, including Art in Action, was open from May to September 1940, but Rivera didn't finish the work until November. At the delightful Diego Rivera Mural Project website (click here), they write: "November 29, 1940, the public was again invited to Treasure Island to view Rivera’s finished work. An estimated five thousand people privately previewed the mural. A public viewing of the mural was open on Sunday, December 2nd. An estimated 25-30,000 people crowded into the building to celebrate the masterpiece and to mourn the end of the Exposition. The fresco was then packed into ten crates and put into storage. Pflueger died in 1946 and his [San Francisco City College] library was never built. Rivera’s politics made him the frequent subject of controversy. That reputation in the climate of the post-war “Red Scare” kept the fresco in storage until after Rivera’s death in 1957."
Timothy's brother, Milton Pflueger, convinced the San Francisco School Board to install the work in a new "Little Theater" lobby in a cramped, curving space in 1961. It was better than nothing but impossible to see the mural whole. Recently, there were plans for a new Performing Arts Center at San Francisco City College where the mural could be properly displayed, complete with a formal announcement in 2017, but money problems and the pandemic have put a halt for the time being to any of those plans. In the meantime, SFMOMA has disassembled the ten panels and put them back together in the huge street-level room on Howard Street across from the Thirsty Bear Brewery. The entry is free and the mural will be living there for the next three years.
Pan American Unity was Rivera's largest mural and his last in the United States, so it's something of a scandal that it's been effectively removed from public view for eighty years after its Treasure Island debut. According to the mural website: "The current hope is to move the mural to a new venue on the SF City College campus, where it can be seen from outside through a glass facade as Diego Rivera and Timothy Pflueger had planned."
Also on the Project website is a timeline which records in detail the events of 1940 in the lives of both Rivera and Frida Kahlo, which can best be described as eventful. Frida had divorced Diego earlier in the decade, but remarried him at San Francisco City Hall in December. Meanwhile, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, their Mexico City houseguest and Frida's occasional lover, was assassinated in August on the orders of Stalin, and Frida was interrogated for days by police before being allowed to escape to San Francisco and join the mural party on Treasure Island.
The Diego Rivera Mural Project also tracked down the many Bay Area assistants who helped create the piece in 1940, and their extraordinary diversity in terms of gender and race seems unusual and heartening. Be sure to check out this slice of history if you're downtown.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Thievery Corporation at Stern Grove

We were invited by a friend who had secured online reservations for a free concert by Dessa and Thievery Corporation at Stern Grove last Sunday.
I hadn't attended a Stern Grove concert in decades because it's always too cold and too crowded, and last Sunday was no exception, but it turned out to be a fun afternoon. This was mostly because we snagged one of the last open spaces in the lower tiers where the four of us spread out for a delicious picnic.
Our neighbors were a joy, including a pair of couples who were following the Eurocup Final in real time on the one phone that seemed to be receiving cell service in the sunken forest grove.
We had hoped the new online reservation system would limit the number of people, but the place was jammed. Attendees who had not lined up at noon when the gates opened for the 2PM show had to climb up the hillside, hoping to see something through the trees.
Thievery Corporation is a DJ duo that started in 1995, and they are still chugging along with their brand of trance-style EDM that includes lots of guest vocal soloists and world music influences.
The music didn't strike me as very interesting, but the people-watching was spectacular.
We even stood up and joined in the general dancing.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Weekend Ferries Resume

One of the first casualties of the pandemic was weekend ferry service in San Francisco Bay, which seemed counterintuitive since it allowed for people to take public transportation while being outside.
This Fourth of July, Golden Gate Transit offered free ferry rides from Saturday through Monday to publicize the resumption of weekend service, finally.
I stumbled across this news on the internet Monday morning, the 5th, and raced to the Ferry Building for a trip on the Larkspur ferry, a spectacularly beautiful 45-minute boat ride.
Across a road from the Larkspur Ferry Terminal is a small retail and dining complex where you can have lunch and browse at the Book Passage.
Disembarking around noon, there was a huge line of passengers waiting for a ride into San Francisco, many of them on their way to a Giants game on the waterfront.
On the 2:10 PM return trip before the 3PM game, the line was even longer. The situation could have been a disaster, but there were helpful, competent Golden Gate Transit employees making sure it ran smoothly, and they had added an extra boat if the first one grew too full.
The next Saturday we pulled out our Clipper cards and paid for a boat ride and lunch to Sausalito.
The noontime ferry was relatively uncrowded, with lots of romantic tourist couples looking like they were having the time of their lives.
It's been a relentlessly cold, foggy San Francisco summer this year, but reading heatwave horror stories from everywhere else in the West has made me cease the traditional whining and instead feel grateful for our chill microclimate.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Diana Markosian's Santa Barbara at SFMOMA

A strange, funny, and oddly disturbing photography exhibit by Diana Markosian opened at SFMOMA last week and it's worth a visit.
The show, in one large room on the third floor, is a series of evocative still photos re-enacting her mother Svetlana's 1996 immigration story, staging different scenes with actors.
Moscow Breadline is the only scene from pre-immigration, when Soviet Russia was falling apart and so was Svetlana's marriage to a starving Armenian artist who had taken up with another woman.
The NBC daytime soap opera, Santa Barbara, ran on American television from 1984 to 1993, but had a second, more spectacular life when it was the first U.S. television show to be broadcast in Russia from 1992 to 2002. It became a countrywide obsession, Dynasty and Dallas rolled into one. Mikhail Iossel wrote a brilliant 2017 essay in Foreign Policy (click here) about the Soviet Republic breakup and this gaudy American fantasy: "For 10 long years — all through the crime-ridden, chaotic 1990s, the early post-Soviet years of timelessness and hardship — life in large cities, small towns, industrial settlements, and snowbound villages across Russia’s 11 time zones would come to a standstill as the remarkably cheery sounds of Santa Barbara’s intro issued from millions of TV sets. “Run on home — you don’t want to miss Santa Barbara,” the kindly pharmacist from a TV commercial would say to the old woman at the counter. It was that big a deal. Missing an episode was considered to be a personal mini-tragedy."
Svetlana found a foreign mail-order bride service and discovered a middle-aged man from Santa Barbara who was looking for a fairytale princess, so she fled Moscow with her two children, Diana and David. (The above photo is entitled First Meal in America: IHOP.)
The fantasy of Santa Barbara gave way to disappointing reality. (The photo above is entitled On the Riviera, which is an inside joke for locals like myself who grew up with June Gloom and a section of Santa Barbara foothills known as The Riviera.)
Just like every virtual dating service, from mail-order brides to OK Cupid, nobody ever looks like the picture they put out as a lure. In a long New York Times profile about the making of this project (click here), Jonathan Griffin writes: "The marriage, however, was never grounded in reality. One night, when the family was about to relocate from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, Eli dropped Svetlana and the children at a motel, and never returned...The relationship, Ms. Markosian notes dryly, lasted nine years — the same as “Santa Barbara,” the television series."
Svetlana is still alive, living in Portland, while Diana went to the Columbia School of Journalism, then made her name as a photojournalist in Chechnya. The prestigious Magnum Photos cooperative invited her into their midst, and then she resigned because she felt constrained by their rules, the ultimate in nose-thumbing artistic integrity.
There is also a video in a separate room that was too crowded, but it felt unnecessary. The still photos are remarkably resonant on their own.