Sunday, October 24, 2021

Fidelio at the San Francisco Opera

The current San Francisco Opera production of Fidelio is the most vital version of Beethoven's opera that I have ever seen. The 1805 work is a rescue tale set in Spain where a brave young woman disguises herself as as a male guard in a jail where her political prisoner husband is in secret confinement. Director Matthew Ozawa and production designer Alexander V. Nichols have updated the piece to a contemporary U.S. for-profit prison in a warehouse, and the result is energizing for singers and audience alike. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
The cast was as good overall as any I have heard, starting with Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, the jailer's daughter who has fallen for the fake guy and with her father's blessing, is about to be betrothed. She was bouncy, funny, with a gorgeous soprano voice, and brought us into the contemporary jail/office setting with conviction. Her suitor, sung by tenor Christopher Oglesby, was delightful in his thwarted courting.
The opera itself is strange and clumsy, starting off sounding like a Mozart comedy and concluding as a precursor to Wagner, but the music has always been my favorite Beethoven work, partly for that raw awkwardness. The villain, Don Pizarro, is just about impossible to sing, with a series of high, resounding barks for a low bass-baritone. Greer Grimsley did as well as possible, and the fact that he resembled the current governor of Florida just added to the sense of evil. The baritone James Creswell as Rocco the jailer gave the best performance of that usually dull role I have ever experienced, while making the character believable. Creswell also made great impressions in small roles in Manon and The Marriage of Figaro at the SF Opera in the last few years before the pandemic, so my plea to the artistic casting director is to hire him back, often.
Please also bring back soprano Elza van den Heever who was magnificent in the title role. When I saw her last Friday, she was having a wild night, tripping over stairs, knocking props off the set, and almost tackling Rocco in a strong embrace, while singing her heart out. Some of her music is almost as impossible to perform as Pizzaro's, but she negotiated the difficulties well, and her voice was strong and heart-meltingly beautiful throughout.
She also brings complete dedication to her acting which in this production was crucial. Her imprisoned husband, sung by Russell Thomas, was not at quite the same dramatic level but he sang well, and seeing a contemporary staging set an American prison with a black man at its center felt resonant in all kinds of ways.
The expanded chorus was simply awesome in their two big scenes, and once new Music Director Eun Sun Kim had gotten over a weirdly bumpy overture, the music flowed well and the singers worked well with the orchestra and each other. There are two more performances, this Tuesday the 26th and again on Saturday the 30th. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I think there are probably plenty of tickets. Click here to find them.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Oakland Ferry Boat

Last weekend's final heatwave before blessed, longed-for autumn rains arrived was a perfect excuse for a boat ride, so we jumped on the ferry from San Francisco to Jack London Square in Oakland.
Across from us was a delightful Mission Bay couple on their way to visit breweries in Alameda.
After a lovely lunch at the outdoors, upscale, wood-fired pizza joint on the waterfront, we studied the Supply Chain situation in the Oakland harbor...
...and marveled at the gigantic U.S. Navy ship...
...named after astronaut John Glenn.
Cranes and trucks and railcars were in a constant state of motion...
...trying to make up for the disruption in trade on account of the 18-months-and-counting Covid pandemic.
This would seem to be an opportune moment to bring back more manufacturing jobs and facilities to the United States rather than cheaper locations abroad, but politics in this country is so screwed up right now that the opportunity will probably not be met.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Modern French Music at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony's new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, led a challenging, all-French music program this week that was stunningly successful.
The concert was bookended by two familiar Debussy works, starting with the 1894 Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, which the conductor/composer Pierre Boulez considered the "birth of modern music." It was a lovely performance, highlighted by Lorna McGhee's insinuating flute solos representing the horny faun on a warm afternoon.
The next piece was Oiseau exotiques (Exotic Birds), Messiaen's 1956 chamber concerto for piano, percussion, woodwinds, and horns.
The 47 exotic bird calls incorporated into the work are about as far away from lyrical, pastoral pieces like Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending as can be imagined.
These exotic birds are shrill, cacophonous, and brilliant sounding, and so is the entire 20-minute piece.
The piano soloist was Jeremy Denk who seemed to physically inhabit each bird while playing their voices from the keyboard. Certain composers like Mozart bring out the best in Denk's musicianship and Messiaen should be added to that list. It was a great performance, and a funny one too.
More birds followed after intermission, with the 2001 Aile du songe: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra by the contemporary composer Kaija Saariaho. She is actually Finnish, but she's lived and worked in Paris for enough decades that her music can be considered French, especially this piece which takes flight from poetry by Saint-John Perse (1887-1975) who won the Nobel for literature in 1960. Before the performance, a video of Saariaho attempting to explain the work was shown, offering a few signposts for the five-movement work that is broken into two parts, with Birds in the Air and Birds on the Ground.
The flute soloist was Claire Chase, giving a knockout performance that guided one through the strange, textural dreamworld of the orchestral music. At the Friday evening performance, Chase looked like an animated Peter Pan who was about to fly into the air herself, and the musical movement where the bird (flute) teaches a village (the orchestra) to dance was thrilling.
The final work, Debussy's 1905 La Mer, used the full resources of a huge orchestra for the first time in the concert. Debussy's tone poem about the Mediterranean Sea has never been one of my favorites, but a great performance conducted with this orchestra by James Gaffigan a couple of years ago changed my mind (click here). Hearing it after the Messiaen and Saariaho could have made it sound old-fashioned, but instead underlined just how radically modern the work still remains. There's a matinee today (Sunday) where you can hear the final performance, and it feels Covid safe because you need to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask which the audience around me was doing quite responsibly. They were also a surprisingly young and enthusiastic crowd.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Escape from the Blue Angels

Fleet Week in San Francisco is fun except for the Blue Angels air show, whose rehearsals were so low over the city last week that I could make out faces in cockpits as they flew by my rattling apartment windows. On Saturday afternoon, I decided to escape the cacophony and jumped on a ferry boat to Sausalito.
As we were crossing the bay, the four-hour air show started with a United Airlines jumbo jet ascending and descending over the bay and city landmarks.
"Does pointing a jumbo jet at a city's downtown bring 9/11 to mind for you?" I asked a visitor from Boston, and she laughed. "It does seem a little tone deaf, especially after last month's 20-year anniversary."
Sausalito was delightfully uncrowded since most tourists were on the San Francisco waterfront.
The day was so blissfully beautiful that it was difficult to be anything but grateful to the universe.
On the ferry back, a family trio were on their way to the second game of the Giants playoffs early that evening, which was envy making until the Giants were eventually routed by the LA Dodgers.
On the back of the boat a Golden Gate ferry employee stood with a walkie-talkie, alerting the the captain of nautical obstacles.
"Speedboat quarter mile to the south heading directly at us, for some reason," he relayed.
The array of small boats along the San Francisco waterfront were a stunning sight...
...and a Boy Scout contingent on our ferry were enraptured by the daredevil planes in the sky.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Marine Ceremonial Band in Patricia's Green

The USMC 1st Marine Division Ceremonial Band showed up at Patricia's Green in the Hayes Valley at noon last Tuesday for a neighborhood concert during San Francisco Fleet Week.
According to a 2016 New York Times article, the U.S. federal government annually spends three times more on military bands than the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.
This seems absurd, but it is heartening to know the federal government is paying young people a living wage to perform music, even if they have to join the military to do so.
The young woman playing emcee was also a vocalist and she performed a nice rendition of America the Beautiful. The song always brings to mind going to Darcelle's drag nightclub in Portland in the 1970s and seeing her lipsync to the Kate Smith recording while wearing an outrageous red, white and blue outfit and snapping a bullwhip at the audience. (To my utter amazement, I just looked up Darcelle on Google, and found out she's still alive and performing six nights a week at the age of 90. Click here.)
In any case, watching handsome young men in uniforms walking through San Francisco all week is a pleasure. I just wish the event could excise the noisy Blue Angels air show which scares the crap out of animals and people like me.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

New Century Chamber Orchestra Returns to the Herbst

Violinist Daniel Hope, leading the all-strings New Century Chamber Orchestra, returned to Herbst Theater last Saturday for the first performances with the ensemble since the pandemic began. Fittingly, they started with a co-commission from British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage called Lament, which did just that musically in a simpler style than I have heard from him, with a strain of Eastern European mystics like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki in the 15-minute work memorializing the dead. It was surprisingly beautiful.
Speaking of Eastern European mystics, the next piece was the Concertino for Violin and Strings by Polish/Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996). It's a mostly sunny work by a usually dark composer who has finally been discovered by orchestras around the world over the last 10 years. It was a fine performance, and a reminder of how good Daniel Hope is as a violinist.
Hope talked about the final piece, Josef Suk's Serenade for Strings, Op. 6, with one of his usual smooth, pointed introductions. "Josef Suk was Dvorak's favorite composing student, and Suk eventually married one of Dvorak's daughters, keeping it all in the family. Dvorak encouraged Suk's talent, but noted that he wanted to see Josef write something with a smile rather than a frown for a change, because everything he had written before the Serenade was in minor keys. So Suk wrote this four-movement work in all major keys, but it still turned out to be sort of sad music."
The performance was lovely, and though the reopening of NCCO's concert season was happy, the musical program was streaked with sadness.
I look forward to hearing their upcoming concerts. Click here for details.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

SF Giants at Red's Java House

For the first time since they won the World Series in 2012, I have been following the San Francisco Giants for a full season, and it's been a delightful distraction during this second pandemic year. The team was not predicted to be a contender for the playoffs, but somehow managed to have the best winning record in Major League Baseball this year.
We were disheartened by the penultimate game on Saturday afternoon where they lost to the San Diego Padres and failed to clinch the division. Austin was feeling too nervous to watch the final game of the season on Sunday, but I insisted it was our duty as faithful fans to make the effort.
So we walked to Red's Java Hut on the Embarcadero for burgers and beer, with a back bar featuring a single television and a few ardent fans.
Adding to the atmosphere was the presence of the Giants stadium a fifteen minute walk away where the game was being played.
The game turned into a blowout win for the Giants over the Padres and the rival Los Angeles Dodgers had their NL Western Division winning streak snapped after eight straight years. The ragtag baseball team had pulled off a small miracle, and there was joy at Red's Java House.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

SF Symphony Gala Re-Opening

The San Francisco Symphony presented a Gala Re-Opening on Friday evening that was extraordinary in every sense of the word. I have been attending these lavish shindigs since 2009 when the arts publicist Louisa Spier (above left) invited me because she liked this blog. (To her right are our dates, my new spouse Austin and Louisa's Cal Performances colleague, Tiffani.)
The tented dinner party for wealthy donors in the adjoining Lake Louise parking lot was canceled this year on account of the pandemic. This allowed for the concert to take center stage for a change, which was serendipitous because it was exciting and filled with unfamiliar music.
Michael Tilson Thomas struggled with the formula for this event over the decades, sometimes programming "serious" music and other times veering towards light pops, usually with a superstar soloist as an anchor. Last night was completely different, starting with the setup of the orchestra, with all the strings on stage right and all the winds and brass on stage left, facing each other. Instead of beginning with long speeches followed by a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, we were offered a disarmingly short speech by a woman saying, "Hello, I am the Prin---," and she stopped, restarting with "I was about to say, I am the Princess of the San Francisco Symphony but I meant to say I am Priscilla Geeslin, the President of the San Francisco Symphony." The gaffe was met with laughter and applause.
The new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, arrived onstage and without a word picked up a baton and launched the orchestra into Berkeley composer John Adams' 1996 Slonimsky's Earbox. It was a perfect 15-minute opener, in a great, propulsive performance.
Next up was Estancia, a 1941 ballet suite by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera that was accompanied by dancers, a delight to see and hear. I sometimes wish every concert hall performance of ballet music would do the same.
The local modern dance troupe, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, performed on a thrust stage with choreography by the 69-year-old King.
The music is fun, sounding like a rowdier, Latin version of Copland's Rodeo, with a percussion section that made the audience want to rise up and dance like a gaucho themselves.
The bass player/vocalist/self-professed musical healer esperanza spalding has been collaborating with the octagenarian jazz saxophone player and composer Wayne Shorter, and their 2013 Gaia was the centerpiece of the evening, a 25-minute work that was sort of a concerto for jazz quartet and orchestra. Spalding not only played bass but sang throughout to her own libretto.
Unfortunately, amplification at Davies Hall has always had its issues, and not only was every word she sang unintelligible but the amplification was too hot. The other members of the jazz quartet were Leo Genovese on piano and Terry Lyne Carrington, with the uncredited Ravi Coltrane showing up to play saxophone. The jazz sections worked better for me than the orchestral, but it was an interesting oasis from the hard-driving Adams and Ginastera pieces.
The finale was Noche de endantamiento by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. He wrote a score for the film La noche de los Mayas in 1939, a year before drinking himself to death. In 1960 a champion of Revuelta's work, Yves Limantour, created a four-movement suite from the film score and this was the wild, final movement. Besides having four different percussion ensembles at the back of the orchestra improvising off of each other, there was even a moment when one of the brass players rose to play a haunting solo on a conch shell.
The party afterwords on Grove Street and in the Lake Louise parking lot, renamed the Nosh Pit, was delightfully uncrowded compared to previous years, and still filled with beautiful young women in striking outfits.
The food was gorgeous and plentiful, including monster paella pans.
There were local minor celebrities galore, like the composer Nathaniel Stookey above and the singers Chung-Wai Soong and Sylvie Jensen below.
The evening felt like an authentic renaissance and a cultural rebirth of the neighborhood.