Monday, October 24, 2022

Treasure Island Ferry

On a perfect Autumn Sunday afternoon, I jumped on a new ferry service to Treasure Island.
Most of the island seems to have been leveled recently for the construction of high-end condos.
Climate change and the rising of oceans is real, so building major housing developments right now at sea level in the middle of San Francisco Bay seems genuinely insane.
However, it's easy to see the appeal of living on the island, an oasis from urban ills with spectacular views of San Francisco Bay.
From the ferry terminal, you can walk twenty minutes along the breakwater...
...and have lunch or a drink at Mersea, which felt like a slightly more upscale version of The Ramp in San Francisco's Dogpatch.
The tiny, two-level Treasure Island Ferry feels more like a jitney than a ferryboat as it bumped along over the bay on the short 10-15 minute trip.
On the voyage east from San Francisco, there were only seven of us on the boat, including a couple of pairs of bicyclists, and on the return there were only four passengers. For $5 (cash or card), this is one of the best, most entertaining deals in the Bay Area.
The service is only about eight months old, and when I asked if they were ever going to be part of the larger, more official transportation system that accepts Clipper cards, the answer was "who knows?"
The three-member crew could not have been more charming, including the dreadlocked skipper above. For their surprisingly robust schedule, click here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Dialogues of the Carmelites at SF Opera

On Saturday evening, the San Francisco Opera offered the first production in 40 years of Francois Poulenc's 1957 opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and it's a very good one. Created in 2013 by French stage director Olivier Py for Brussels and Paris, the show balances abstraction and clear storytelling in its account of Carmelite nuns being martyred during the French Revolution. According to Wikipedia, "Py describes himself as Catholic and homosexual...and is known for his emphasis on Catholic and homoerotic themes." So was composer Francois Poulenc, although it could not be quite as openly stated during the composer's lifetime (1899-1963).
The 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz began his memoirs with a story about his first communion, writing "Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept most tender memories of it." I have felt similarly most of my life, but San Francisco's current homophobic, forced-birth Archibishop Cordileone, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, makes it difficult to feel anything but horror at Catholicism and its Holy Martyrs these days. (All photos by Cory Weaver, including the above with Michelle Bradley as the new Prioress in Act Two.)
The opera revolves around Blanche, an aristocratic young woman during the French Revolution who has been an oversensitive, frightened person all her life. In the first scene, she announces her desire to become a Carmelite nun to her father and brother. The role was written for Denise Duval, a soprano who was Poulenc's operatic muse, from Las Mamelles de Tiresias to La Voix Humaine, and she had a distinctive, tremulous, vulnerable voice that is inimitable. Heidi Stober, who has sung everything from Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern's Showboat, sang beautifully but I didn't buy her as a frail, neurotic creature for a second, just as I didn't believe the great Carol Vaness when she played the same role in 1982.
The tenor Ben Bliss was luxury casting as Blanche's brother, and his voice was so exquisitely sensitive and powerful that I wished for a moment we were watching Massenet's Werther with Ben as the oversensitive poet hero.
That's a heretical thought, for which I am ashamed, because Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the few operas where all the major roles are written for women, with a few minor parts given to men. One of the greatest roles for an old soprano in the operatic repertory is Mme. de Croissy, Prioress, who presides over the convent in Scene 2 and dies a blasphemous, terrified death in Scene 4.
Although too young for the role at age 53, German soprano Michaela Schuster did a great job but she was literally straightjacketed by the staging concept where she was strapped to a wall posing as a floor during her death throes. Let the diva move and thrash around, I wanted to cry out.
My favorite performance of the evening on opening night was Deanna Breiwick as Constanze, Blanche's immediate best friend at the convent who is usually an annoyingly chirpy character, but in Breiwick's singing and characterization she was charming, wise, and effortlessly holy.
The reason you should run, not walk to the box office for this production, is that the music is so bizarrely exquisite. No opera sounds quite like it, with its series of strange musical chords underlying a French parlando that is a mixture of speaking and singing. Music Director Eun Sun Kim conducted the orchestra a bit too loudly and emphatically, making it sound more Italian than Poulenc's slightly vinegary French sound, but it was still lovely.
The ending of this opera was intentionally written to be shocking and lurid, as the Carmelite nuns make their way to the scaffold and their chorus of Salve Regina becomes a smaller ensemble with each guillotine swoosh. Sadly, this production went for a sweet and sensitive staging, where the characters disappeared into the starry sky like angels after each whack, but it didn't matter. Check it out.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Yuja Wang Plays Magnus Lindberg World Premiere at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony conducted by new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen is offering a magnificent concert this weekend. It features a rarity by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, a world premiere piano concerto by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, and a modern masterpiece by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The Nielsen concert opener was the 1903 Helios, which he composed while visiting his sculptor wife who was on a study grant in Greece. It's written for a huge orchestra and depicts the Mediterranean sun softly rising out of the sea, blazing across the sky, and softly setting. It prompted my usual reaction to hearing a Nielsen piece, which is that I want to hear his music performed more. (Most of these photos are courtesy of Kristen Loken, and the ones of Yuja Wang dressed in black are mine.)
This was followed by the technically awesome pianist Yuja Wang pounding the stuffing out of Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto #3. (Pictured above are Wang on the right next to composer Lindberg, and conductor Salonen.)
I went to the second performance of this concert and was glad of it because the concerto is astonishingly complex and is probably improving with each playing. Wang had swapped her backless white concert gown of opening night for a black dominatrix concert outfit on Friday, and looked confidently fabulous in both. As usual with this performer, she was impossibly virtuosic whether she was playing long solo candenzas or holding her own while being swamped by the huge orchestra.
The program stated the three-movement concerto was 20 minutes long which turned out to be incorrect. An usher told me it was actually 32 minutes but it felt even longer, in a good way. This is a major work which thoroughly held my interest from beginning to end. Starting softly, the first movement built into a maximalist orchestra that contained so many textures it was hard to keep track until the piano would reassert itself and anchor the music back into a more comprehensible simplicity, especially during the long solo piano cadenzas in the first two movements.
This is the second, fiendishly difficult piano concerto written expressly for Yuja Wang that I've heard this year. The SF Symphony performed John Adams's Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, which was written for Yuja and the LA Philharmonic in 2018 but performed by Víkingur Ólafsson and the SF Symphony this July. It feels amazing to hear new pieces that will probably become part of the classical music repertory for years.
After intermission, Salonen conducted Bela Bartok's 1945 Concerto for Orchestra. Salonen has a characteristic conducting style which sounds like a scraping off of accumulated years of performance practices and starting anew. He led the SF Symphony and Chorus in a massive, magnificent performance of Mahler's Second Symphony a couple of weeks ago that made the piece seem fresh and Friday night he did the same with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. I was hearing and seeing things I'd never noticed before, such as the precise division and combinations of the different horn sections and the importance of the two harps and the sheer weirdness of the five-movement work. Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle noted that the pieces were all there but not put together on opening night, but by Friday the assembly was near-complete. It was a thrilling performance, and if you read this in time, you can buy tickets for tonight's final performance on Saturday.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

The JFK Promenade in Golden Gate Park

Young political activists for San Francisco's Proposition J were sitting on a Doggie Diner head planted in the middle of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park on Saturday afternoon.
Residents of the Richmond and Sunset Districts in the city's western half exist in a strange limbo of urban and suburban. They are city denizens but most live a car culture life and two of their major thoroughfares, the Great Highway on the Pacific Coast and JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, have been shut down during the pandemic. They are furious that neither are coming back post-pandemic and created a grassroots petition campaign to overturn the bans with Proposition I on next month's ballot. The countervailing Proposition J has nothing to say about the Great Highway, but is a vote to keep JFK Drive permanently auto-free.
San Francisco politics are provincial and incestuously corrupt but sometimes they do the right thing, and the power broker consensus right now seems to be that JFK Drive will be car-free forever because they have given it a name with signage, "The JFK Promenade."
Proposition N on the ballot deals with the Golden Gate Parking Garage at 10th Avenue and Fulton, which the city is trying to take over from the outrageously dysfunctional nonprofit that has been running it for the last two decades. Click here for the great Kids Safe SF website which has a smart, enlightening history of the garage and suggestions for change.
Here are a few of their salient points: "1998’s Proposition J mandated the creation of a “pedestrian oasis” in the heart of Golden Gate Park, but that promise never came to pass. 6 of 7 garage board members are museum insiders...The garage board could enact solutions like more ADA parking, lower parking rates, and affordable parking for employees, but for 15+ years they have chosen not to. The museums pretend they have no influence over the garage, which is disingenuous. The DeYoung stated: “We’ve also been advocating for lowered rates in the garage but to little effect” dodging the heavy overlap between the garage board and museum insiders."
"The garage is overpriced: The music concourse garage is nearly as expensive as the SFMOMA garage ($33 daily maximum vs. $35). The garage is underutilized: According to their own IRS filings and pricing history, on average the garage was 28% full in the 5 years prior to the pandemic." Vote yes on N and J is all I have to say.
It was a joy to see thousands of people making their way to the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival without driving cars. I'm not a fan of claustrophobic general admission events, but was very happy to stumble across Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, an old married pair of high level country/rock/jazz session musicians, who gave a joyful, exquisite performance.