Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet

Now that the next@90 festival of nine new ballets has wrapped up, the San Francisco Ballet has continued its season with Giselle, the oldest (1841) and one of the most popular story ballets ever created, with music by the French composer Adolphe Adam. It's one of outgoing Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's better productions, dating from 1999, and it's held up well. I saw it once years ago and my only memory was boring peasant dances in the first half and exciting ghost dances in the second. (Production photos by Lindsay Thomas)
There are four different casts dancing over the course of this week's performances and the Chronicle's dance critic, Rachel Howard, reviewed three of them over the weekend, finding something to praise in all of them (click here). We saw the opening night duo, Aaron Robison as the caddish aristocrat Albrecht posing as a peasant who breaks the heart of the sensitive peasant girl Giselle, danced by Sasha de Sola. They are both terrific dancers, and Robison's aristocratic reserve worked well with De Sola's impetuous, love-besotted teenager.
When it is revealed by the jealous character of Hyperion that her boyfriend is an aristocrat who is already engaged to another, poor Giselle goes mad and either stabs herself with a sword or dies of heartbreak, it was not quite clear. De Sola was magnificently crazed.
Also magnificent was Nikisha Fogo as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (center), who leads an army of vengeful female ghosts who have died of heartbreak and are out to return the favor on foolish men who venture into the forest at night.
Wili novitiate Giselle does everything she can to help save Albrecht from being forced to dance to death by Myrtha. This was where Robison came into his own, jumping into the air while dancing frenetic, near-impossible steps with a look of terror on his face. It's not made particularly clear whether he survives or not, but supposedly Giselle's intervention and the appearance of the morning sun eventually saves his life.
It was all quite wonderful, and fun to watch corps member Nathaniel Pemez (above left) make a splash in a major role as the jealous Hyperion. He seemed so warm and sexy that you wanted to cry out, "Get together with Hyperion, Giselle, the other guy's no good."

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Bartok and Prokofiev at SF Symphony

Many years ago I was a non-singing Slave in a legendary production of Strauss's opera Elektra at the San Francisco Opera. During its run I hopped across the street to Davies Hall to see the world premiere of a new John Adams orchestral work, El Dorado, and I did not hear anything. "Agammemnon!" and Elektra's Dance of Death music would not dislodge itself from my brain and all I heard of the Adams was a crescendo and a diminuendo and that was about it. Something similar happened during the first half of the San Francisco Symphony program on Saturday, except this time it was Burt Bacharach's insistent earworms from the Mark Morris dance concert the previous evening that was the auditory block.
It didn't matter much for the first piece, Ravel's overplayed Le Tombeau de Couperin which has always struck me as one of his dullest works. This was followed by Bartok's wild Piano Concerto No. 2 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. According to Joshua Kosman, whose ears were presumably unlocked, it was a great performance, but all I heard was a strange concerto for piano and percussion and the occasional huge orchestra while Do You Know The Way to San Jose? danced merrily through my brain.
After intermission, the orchestra musicians who are playing without a contract, offered a brief protest while waving their one-page leaflets around before settling in for Salonen's 45-minute suite of music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. This music did finally dislodge I'll Never Fall in Love Again from my consciousness, partly because Prokofiev's music is so familiar from repeated viewings of the great Michael Smuin production at the SF Ballet during the late 1970s. I was also an onstage extra when the Kirov Ballet brought what was reputedly the original production from St. Petersburg to San Francisco on an American tour, which was a strange, exciting experience. The ancient scenery seemed to be held together by duct tape, the entire cast of young dancers was severely sunburned from a day at Black's Beach in San Diego the weekend before, and the Russian orchestra was superb except on those evenings when they were drunk. The memories came flooding back as the huge orchestral forces in Davies Hall went at the score with full abandon.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Look of Love

The Mark Morris Dance Group performed at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall this weekend in The Look of Love, an hour-long dance set to the music of Burt Bacharach. The show was unexpectedly moving on many levels.
Bacharach's music was ubiquitous during the 1960s and 1970s and I was always a bit contemptuous of it as a young thing, preferring rock and classical to the slick pop music of the time. The choreographer Mark Morris and the jazz genius Ethan Iverson felt differently, however, and after hearing their collaboration with The Look of Love, I am now a Burt Bacharach convert and will never listen to his music in the same way again.
Iverson, who used to play with the experimental jazz trio The Bad Plus, arranged 14 Bacharach songs, including a novelty number written for the 1950s horror film The Blob, and composed some seamless connecting material for the dance suite. The arrangements hewed close to the originals with enough interesting alterations to keep them fresh. They were written for a brilliant musical ensemble, which included Iverson himself on piano joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Simon Willson on bass, Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, and Marcy Harriell on vocals.
Harriell has a perfect voice for this music, cool and crystalline like Dionne Warwick, and able to effortlessly manage Bacharach's complex time signature changes and Hal David's narrative lyrics. She was supported by two backup singers, Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard, who added immeasurably to the sophisticated pleasures of the arrangements.
The ten dancers, outfitted in psychedelic, non-binary outfits from Isaac Mizrahi, were a lovely bunch. Morris's choreography steered away from the temptations of cutesy and camp while offering respect to the yearning, often downbeat love narratives of the songs such as I'll Never Fall In Love Again and Walk On By.
One dancer in the current Mark Morris Dance Group stood out for me, Domingo Estrada Jr. (above), and not just for the 1970s porn stache. He made all the shimmying dances and movement look effortless, rather like Bacharach's deceptively difficult songs themselves.
Before the show, Mark Morris came onstage with the announcement, "Thank Goddess we're back." Cal Performances has been presenting the Mark Morris Dance Group for decades, and were one of the many sponsors of this show. Morris looked like he had come back home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Blomstedt Conducts Dvorak at the SF Symphony

The 95-year-old conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who who seems to have limited mobility these days, returned to the San Francisco Symphony on the arm of Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill last week and it felt like a snapshot of time passing for an orchestra. Violinist Underhill is a brilliant new addition to the ensemble and Blomstedt is close to the end of his career, though he remains stupefyingly great in his ability to coax detailed, transcendant performances out of this orchestra, which he led as Music Director from 1985-1995. (All photos by Stefan Cohen.)
On this annual visit to San Francisco, he programmed two 19th century Czechoslovakian symphonies, one obscure and one a well-known warhorse. The program began with the 1823 Symphony in D Major by Jan Václav Voříšek, a contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna who died at age 34 of tuberculosis. This symphony wasn't even published until 1957 in Prague, but has since become a Czech concert hall perennial. It was delightful hearing a symphony for the very first time that sounded like both early Beethoven and Schubert. The ebullient performance seemed to do it justice.
After intermission, we heard Dvorak's 1885 Symphony No. 8 in G Major, with its beautiful, bucolic flute and woodwind solos topped off by the finale with its instant earworm fanfare that evokes both the military and a dance hall.
I felt like I was hearing the work for the first time because the connective tissue between all the pretty tunes was treated with unusual respect that gave the performance a sense of wholeness that's indescribable. I pray that Mr. Underhill will be helping Blomstedt onstage to his conductor's chair next year too. In the meantime, the new upper management of the SF Symphony had better start treating its musicians right because they were handing out angry flyers in the lobby before the concert.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

SF Ballet next@90 Program 2

SF Ballet's month-long festival of nine new works, next@90, is coming to a close this weekend, and it has been a joy seeing all of them, some more than once. Program 2 on Friday, February 3rd turned out to be my favorite of the bunch, starting with Emergence, choreographer Val Caniparoli's meditation on the COVID lockdown and the tentative return of community. It was set to Dobrinka Tabakova's beautiful, emotional 2008 Concerto for Cello and Strings with Eric Sung (above) as the soloist.
After a prologue over recorded voices talking about their own pandemic isolation, the first movement was a series of solos, the second movement a collection of duets including a same-sex interlude with Lucas Erni and Angelo Greco above, while the final movement involved the entire octet. The Swedish ballerina Nikisha Fogo (above, front left) was incredible, with her long limbs extending forever. Lucas Erni (above, back right) also shone throughout the entire ballet.
The second ballet was The Queen's Daughter, a retelling of the Salome story set to Benjamin Britten's 1939 Violin Concerto, which he wrote during his sojourn in the United States and which I had never heard in a live performance before. The music is splendid and so was the ballet. (All production photos with a logo are by Lindsay Thomas.)
I saw the ballet twice with different casts and they both had their strengths. The first cast featured Sasha de Sola as The Daughter, Jennifer Stahl as The Queen, Tiit Helimets as The King, and Wei Wang as The Prophet. The second cast featured Jasmine Jimison, Elizabeth Powell, Myles Thatcher, and Max Cauthorn. The incestuous child abuse narrative was more disturbing somehow with the first cast while the second cast evoked more sadness. As The Prophet, Wei Wang was in a class of his own, easily believable as a holy person who disciplines would follow.
The final ballet was Yuka Oishi's dance set to Ravel's Bolero, a piece of music I have despised for decades, ever since it was piped in at an Amsterdam youth hostel to get us out of bed at 7AM every morning. There were many compensations, though, starting with the additional music composed by Shinya Kikokawa that amusingly deconstructed Ravel's joke musical piece. There were also extraordinary projection designs by Jun Nishida and Hiroki Inokuchi that initially skirted 80's computer screensavers but flowered into arresting imagery.
The choreography for a huge ensemble was varied and frenetic enough that the video mostly receded into the background, and watching soloists like Joseph Walsh and Yuan Yuan Tan above was a particular treat.
The SF Ballet orchestra has been sounding as good as I have ever heard it throughout the festival, playing Mozart and Mahler and contemporary works with style under Music Director Martin West. I bought $10 standing room tickets for Program 1 last Thursday, principally because I wanted to listen to the first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony accompanying the ballet Resurrection again. The word had gotten out, possibly because everyone had read this photoblog, because the orchestra section of the Opera House looked virtually sold out.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Stormy Ocean Beach

Since the strong winter rains began, I have become addicted to AccuWeather's online radar maps tracking storms in real time. Its reliability, however, is variable as we discovered Saturday afternoon on Ocean Beach after the website indicated there would be a break in the storms.
The rain stopped briefly but the wind was howling, creating northbound sand rivers across the strand.
It felt safest down by the shoreline...
...though the specter of a "rogue wave" carrying us out to sea was ever-present.
We almost reached the Cliff House before giving up and happily returning to the warm coziness of home.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

SF Ballet's next@90 Program 3

Last Friday was a Gay Night Out at the San Francisco Ballet and the Opera House was lit up accordingly.
The third of three programs in the next@90 Festival of new ballets began with Kin by choreographer Claudia Schreier and a commissioned score by the young California composer Tanner Potter. I liked all the contemporary music on the evening's program, including Kin with its succession of swelling fanfares.
All three of the ballets were abstract but seemed to be based on private narratives, including Kin with its two couples and attendant tribes mixing and matching and struggling with each other. Pictured are principal dancers Isaac Hernández and Aaron Robison...
...who partnered Dores André and WanTing Zhao respectively (pictured above). It's possible the ballet was about a same-sex longing between the two women and their partners' and community's vehement disapproval, but that could be totally wrong. In any case, the impossibly tall and elegant WanTing Zhao was worthy of worship by everyone, and casting her as the Austere Queen of Program 1's Resurrection would be fun to see.
The second ballet was Gateway to the Sun, choreographed by Nicholas Blanc to a 2019 score for cello and orchestra by Anna Clyne entitled Dance. Max Cauthorn played a poet, based on Rumi, who watches and occasionally interacts with scenes from his poems, none of which was particularly clear. Sasha de Sola and Jennifer Stahl are flanking the blue poet in the photo above.
The choreography was not as interesting as Clyne's music, and the unisex costumes were unflattering for all genders, but the dancing ensemble was superb, and Jennifer Stahl (above, partnered by Luke Ingham) was entrancing.
The final ballet was Yuri Possokhov's take on Stravinsky's 1931 neoclassical Violin Concerto, set in a ballet studio.
This was another abstract ballet that seemed to have an underlying narrative that boiled down to Everybody Loves Joseph Walsh (above right), including a Muse in pink danced by Sasha Mukhamedov, and Wona Park as his original girlfriend. It was a gay, lovely evening.