Tuesday, September 27, 2022

SF Symphony Gala Opening 2022

The San Francisco Symphony's Opening Gala on Friday evening was utterly delightful simply for watching women in elaborate dresses...
...float across the polished lobby floors of Davies Hall.
The Symphony offered a special pre-party outdoors for what is left of the jackals of the press, including this blogger in a tuxedo and David Latulippe, known among arts enthusiasts as The Voice of KALW.
This year's edition of the Gala was not as lavish as in years past, appropriately acknowledging the reality of pandemic and fragile economies, but there were plenty of moments of fabulous excess such as this woman's red dress that would not fit into any seat.
The entertainment for the evening was the incidental music Felix Mendelssohn wrote in 1842 for a German production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Overture, which Mendelssohn wrote as a teenager in 1826, is a classical radio staple, and his Wedding March from the 1842 suite has been used at every other wedding in the Western world ever since. However, I'd never heard the full incidental music before, which included a women's chorus and lovely magical forest melodies.
Professional actors from the local African-American Shakespeare Company were the core cast of a stripped down version of the play that was performed in between musical movements. They were wonderful, funny and had perfect diction. Unfortunately, they were joined by local celebrities, reading off scripts, and generally being clumsy. It didn't matter. The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe still made me laugh uproariously.
A local circus troupe was hired to add color to the outdoor after-party on Grove Street, and they were charming...
...as we watched young swells drink expensive scotch on the streets...

...and musical artists like Chung-wai Soong above hold court in their own arena.
It was a lovely party.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Berlin 1938 in San Francisco 2022

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their season last weekend at the Presidio Theatre with Berlin 1938. It was an ambitious show looking at the year, month-by-month, in Germany and the United States through the lens of songs and snippets of radio broadcasts from the tumultuous year.
The veteran operatic baritone Thomas Hampson boomed out news tidbits, serious and trivial, with projections by Hana Kim illustrating many of them, such as Benny Goodman and his racially integrated orchestra making their debut at Carnegie Hall.
On the other side of the stage, Horst Maria Merz mirrored Hampson with news from Germany, as its Jewish population was being squeezed into exile and death.
The English songs ranged from Strange Fruit, written by the German exile Abel Meeropol, to Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine, which became a worldwide hit in 1938 with bandleader Artie Shaw's famous arrangement.
The German pieces were mostly a strange, powerful stew of darkly satirical cabaret songs that charted the darkness closing in, and the "chansonnier" Horst Maria Merz was simply fantastic. You didn't even have to understand German to catch every syllable and nuance of songs from Hanns Eisler (On Suicide), Mischa Spoliansky (Barbed Wire Song), and George Kreisler (Strike 'em Dead).
The Presidio Theatre opened in 1939 on the former Presidio Army base, which deteriorated over time and was restored as an Art Deco masterpiece to the tune of $40 million in 2019. (Click here for an article by Janos Gereben on the transformation.) Its refurbished design was a particularly apt setting for the show, with brilliant contributions by Lighting and Scenic Designer Luke Kritzeck.
The first half of the show felt scattered, with narration about the newest Ford car alternating with pronouncements on the latest prohibitions on Jews, but the second half accumulated power as fascism cemented its stranglehold, culminating in November's Kristallnacht. The penultimate capper was Hampson singing Ravel's arrangement of the mournful prayer, Kaddish.
NCCO is a string orchestra specializing in classical music, but they transformed into a swing band and cabaret orchestra quite nicely under Music Director Daniel Hope. They were augmented by pianist Peter Grunberg who was also the Artistic Director of the show, Christy Kim on flute, Mary Fettig on clarinet/saxophone, Artie Storch on percussion, and the excellent John Freeman (below) on trumpet.
The real star, however, was the extraordinary Horst Maria Merz who finished the show sitting on the stage while crooning Norbert Schultze's Lili Marleen with rewritten lyrics that had Hitler hanging from a lamp pole at the end.The parallels to what has been occurring in the United States over the last six years went unmentioned, but were chillingly obvious.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Antony and Cleopatra at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is celebrating its 100th anniversary season with a world premiere adaptation by composer John Adams of Shakespeare's 1607 tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. Portents of disaster for this momentous event were lurking everywhere: Samuel Barber's 1966 operatic version opened the new Met at Lincoln Center in a lavish, infamously disastrous Franco Zeferrelli production; Adams composed the role of Cleopatra for soprano Julia Bullock who was a late withdrawal due to pregnancy; Adams' last world premiere opera in San Francisco, the 2017 Girls of the Golden West, was widely disparaged though I thought it remarkable; and finally, there is the historical track record of Shakespeare operas over the centuries, which is not good, other than a few exceptions such as Verdi's trio of Otello. Falstaff, and Macbeth, and Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. So it is wonderful to report that Adams' Antony and Cleopatra is a triumph. (Pictured above is the morning after in Cleopatra's boudoir with a hungover Marc Antony underneath Cleopatra's glittering courtiers. All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
The five-act Shakespeare play flouts the Aristotelian Unities with abandon. Its 42 scenes, 40 characters, and frequent scene changes throughout the Mediterranean mixes politics, battle scenes and the romantic couple at the heart of it all. The adaptation by Adams, with the assistance of stage director Elkhanah Pulitzer and dramaturg Lucia Scheckner, is masterful. It retains the sprawling nature of the play while condensing the characters and battles into a sleek narrative. (Pictured above are baritone Hadleigh Adams as Agrippa, tenor Paul Appleby as Caesar, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Octavia, baritone Gerald Finley as Marc Antony, and bass Philip Skinner as Lepidus.)
Adams may have written the role of Cleopatra for Julia Bullock, but Amina Edris made the role her own and then some. Born in Egypt and raised in New Zealand, Edris was the first Cleopatra I have ever seen on film or stage who didn't seem ridiculous. (Pictured above is Alred Walker as Enobarbus describing how Cleopatra seduced Antony with "her infinite variety" while floating down the Nile.)
Edris sang Adams' difficult music with confidence, beauty and multiple shadings, making the often unlikable character constantly fascinating. (Pictured above are Edris with her two constant attendants, mezzo-sopranos Taylor Raven as Charmian and Gabrielle Beteag as Iras who join their mistress for a triple suicide in the final scene.)
Choral music has always been an integral part of John Adams's operas over the decades, but in this three-and-a-half hour work there are only two short chorus scenes. The opera instead focuses on intimate drama rather than the epic. This is true of most of the orchestral music too which skittishly plays under Shakespeare's English at understated volumes, except during the uninterrupted scene changes whene the orchestra erupts into compressed symphonic movements. (Pictured above is Gerald Finley surrounded by dispirited mariners in the Battle of Actium scene where all is lost for him.)
Paul Appleby is very good as a repellent young Caesar, eventually the Roman Empire's first emperor, who comes across as a mixture of a Silicon Valley Master of the Universe and Mussolini. After reading that Pulitzer was staging the opera in the Glamorous Hollywood of the 1930s, I was apprehensive. However, the result was more a design decision, evoking Bertolucci's film The Conformist with its Art Deco Italian Fascism more than Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 Hollywood spectacle with Claudette Colbert. The understated film projections by Bill Morrison also reinforced the Fascist associations, with newsreel films projected onto the full set that included the 1930 marriage of Mussolini's daughter Edda to the fascist propagandist and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano.
Gerald Finley as the defeated, grizzled old warrior Marc Antony was perfect casting, and his singing throughout was superb. (Pictured above is Marc Antony trying to summon the courage to fall on his own sword in a botched suicide along with his follower Eros, sung beautifully by Brenton Ryan.)
Everyone involved with this production has done some of their best work, from composer Adams, to new Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducting a very tricky orchestral score, to director Pulitzer and her production team, and to the entire, gifted cast of singers. There's not a weak link. It's not a beginner's opera or an easy piece to appreciate, but I believe it's a great work that will have a long life. If you want to brag in the decades to come that you were there for the world premiere, click here for tickets. (Pictured above is Cleopatra holding Antony in her arms as he dies from his self-inflected wounds in a deeply sad, rueful ending focusing on mortality and the death of empires.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Sarah Cahill Partners Up

Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill, legendary for her skillful introduction of new music to the world, headlined the first Faculty Recital Series of the year at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Monday night. Though most of Cahill's performances are as a soloist, she loves to play with others and I've seen her perform with string quartets, solo violinists, orchestras, and other pianists. Last night was a two-piano extravaganza with Regina Myers, a longtime two-piano collaborator.
First up was the 1991 Three-Day Mix by Jamaican/British composer Eleanor Alberga. It was described in the program by the composer as a fun bit of music, nothing serious, but it turned out to be way more complex than that description, with intricately intertwined piano lines unknotting themselves into dance rhythms and then knotting up again in a different way.
Next up was Meredith Monk's Ellis Island, which was written for a 1982 short film she made, and in this context sounded like a meditative sorbet between 3-Day Mix and Errollyn Wallen's crazed 1990 The Girl in My Alphabet.
Written for four pianists on two pianos, the work begins with the most intense, gnarly disonnances possible and then somehow morphs into variations on The Girl from Ipanema while straddling strikingly different musical styles with elegant conviction. The pianists having a blast with the piece were Jerry Kuderna, Monica Chew, Regina Myers and Sarah Cahill.
Mr. Kuderna was a last-minute replacement for an ailing Allegra Chapman, and gave one of the great sight-reading performances imaginable. His partner, Monica Chew, was probably the real heroine of the performance as she traded places on the piano benches with Kundera depending on whether the treble or bass had the trickiest line at the moment. It was immense fun to watch and hear. Also on the program was Elena Kats-Chernin's Dance of the Paper Umbrellas, a lovely piece that used the two pianos in the most traditionally tuneful musical dialogue of the evening. The final piece was Riley Nicholson's 35-minute world premiere commission, Up, and I didn't stay for it because my stomach was rumbling. Stephen Smoliar enjoyed it, however, which you can read about here.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Faith and Pharoah at the deYoung

Earlier this year, the 91-year-old American artist Faith Ringgold was given her first comprehensive show in her hometown of New York City at the New Museum in the Bowery.
The exhibit has traveled to the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and it's stunning. Pictured above is Ringgold's 1965 Self-Portrait.
Born in 1930 to what seems to have been a loving, culturally sophisticated family in Harlem, Faith was the youngest of three sisters and asthmatic, which meant she spent a lot of time indoors making art with crayons under the eye of her fashion designer mother. She made her first impact on the New York art scene in the 1960s with the highly political American People Series. Pictured above is the 1963 American People Series #2: For Members Only a memory piece of what she saw staring at her when her Harlem Sunday school took a field trip to Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers, New York, and a gang of white men with sticks demanded they return home.
A lot of political art doesn't age well, but Ringgold's certainly has. The 1967 American People Series #18: The Flag Is Bleeding, now looks and feels iconic.
According to a Wikipedia account, "In 1968, fellow artist Poppy Johnson and art critic Lucy Lippard founded the Ad Hoc Women's Art Committee with Ringgold and protested a major modernist art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Members of the committee demanded that women artists account for fifty percent of the exhibitors and created disturbances at the museum by singing, blowing whistles, chanting about their exclusion, and leaving raw eggs and sanitary napkins on the ground. Not only were women artists excluded from this show, but no African-American artists were represented either." Pictured above from that period is her 1969 Black Light Series #12: Party Time.
In 1972, she partnered with her seamstress/designer mother, Willi Posey, on feminist, Nepali-style tankas where a painting is framed by fabric, for pieces in the Slave Rape Series. The trio above are entitled #1: Fear Will Make You Weak, #2: Run You Might Get Away, and #3: Fight to Save Your Life.
In the 1980s, after not being able to find a publisher for a memoir she had written, she began to create painted quilts with written stories surrounding the perimeter left and right. Above is a 1987 story-quilt beginning in the 1920s of seduction, family secrets, and love, called Bitter Nest. Sadly, these story-quilts are separated and in different collections around the country, so this exhibit's Bitter Nest only has three parts out of the five. Thank goodness for the internet where it's possible to piece the story installments together, and discover that the drama has a happy ending.
The same might be said of Ringgold herself. She married a jazz pianist in 1950, gave birth to two daughters, and separated from her husband on account of his heroin addiction. She remarried auto assembler Burnett Ringgold in 1962 with whom she lived happily for over 50 years. Ringgold not only had her memoir eventually published, but her first children's book in 1991, Tar Beach, was an instant, bestselling classic. From 1987 to 2002 she also taught at UC San Diego. Pictured above is A Family Portrait: The American Collection #2, 1997.
In 1997 Ringgold revisited her own work with The Flag Is Bleeding #2: The American Collection, where gender and race have changed from the original.
It is only in the last few years that Ringgold has finally been receiving the institutional acclaim that her work deserves. Pictured above is the 1997 Born in a Cotton Field: The American Collection #3.
Be sure to check out this long overdue exhibit of an artist most people, including myself, have never heard of before. The exhibit will be at the de Young through November 27. Pictured above are the 2010 Jones Road Part II fabric paintings: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1: Escape to Freedom, Sojourner Truth Tanka #2: Ain't I a Woman?, and Martin Luther King Jr. Tanka #3: I Have a Dream.
The Faith Ringgold exhibit is not particularly crowded and there are no extra fee add-ons to general admission to the museum, which means you can see it for free on Saturdays if you are a Bay Area resident. Where it is crowded is the traveling Egyptian blockbuster exhibition, Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs. Pictured is the Upper Part of a Colossus of Ramses II.
There are cedar coffins and animal mummies and jewelry and statuary glorifying the most powerful and long-lived of the ancient pharoahs, Ramses II. Unfortunately, all of his treasures and personal effects were stolen over the centuries by graverobbers, so the exhibit is sort of a marketing cheat.
The $40 admission fee gets you into a group that watches a widescreen history video together, and then you can wander freely among small, tight, claustrophobic spaces with too many people trying to squeeze amongst each other to take photos. Pictured above is a Statue of Khaemwaset, holding a figure of Ptah.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

San Francisco Opera 2022 Preview

The San Francisco War Memorial Opera House has been my clubhouse, college, church, and dream palace for over 50 years, and the San Francisco Opera is having its 100th anniversary this year. In other words, over half the life of this cultural institution has been entwined with mine, from standing room in my teens to subscriber to onstage supernumerary to a writer about the company.
I still love standing room in the top balcony where the sound from the huge stage blends as it rises, hits the top back wall, and reverberates through more parts of your body than just your ears. After being shut down by the pandemic, standing room is back, and it's still a miraculous $10. You can buy a ticket from the box office on the day of a performance and join the Children of Paradise. Also, if you're new to the San Francisco Opera and haven't been to the War Memorial in three years, the Dolby Corporation is subsidizing two good, expensive seats for $10 as a centennial promotion. Click here to sign up for Dolby's Opera on the Bay. So what should you see?
The opening opera is Antony and Cleopatra, a world premiere commission from Berkeley composer John Adams, based on the Shakespeare tragedy. It's a big frigging deal, and whether or not it's successful or a disaster or both, it will be an event that will be talked about for as long as we're alive, so you should go if you have any sense of adventure.
This will be the first opera Adams (pictured above at the SF Symphony) has written without the director/librettist Peter Sellars as collaborator, and it will be his first attempt at setting Shakespearean verse. I recently read the play for the first time and it's long (40+ scenes in 5 acts), weird, discursive, with oddly unlikable characters, but it has moments of true grandeur, and I can hardly wait to see what they do with the play and the English poetry.
Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin is up next, and it's almost a perfect opera. As a young musical snob, I looked down on Tchaikovsky's music until discovering the two operas he wrote on Pushkin works, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, and had to reassess a few ignorant prejudices. San Francisco is restaging the Robert Carsen production that was created for The Met in 1997. It was controversially stark at its premiere, but by all accounts has aged well.
Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is a Catholic martryrdom opera about 16 Carmelite nuns who were executed during the Terror of the French Revolution. Premiered at La Scala in 1957 and the San Francisco Opera later the same year, most of the opera takes place in a convent and includes a great deathbed scene for an old soprano who has lost her faith at the worst possible time and an outrageous finale where the sisters sing Salve Regina while getting their heads lopped off one by one. The music is one of my favorite 20th century opera scores, strange and seductive and, yes, spiritual.
The final two operas this fall are a brand new production of Verdi's perennial favorite, La Traviata, and the rarely performed 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice by Christof von Gluck. They are being promoted as important debuts of two young stars, soprano Pretty Yende in La Traviata and countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Orfeo. Neither of them excite me on paper as much as the previous three, but one of the joys of any opera season are the happy surprises. Hope to see you this fall at the War Memorial.