Monday, August 28, 2023

Two Requiems for the Price of One

On Saturday the 19th, the San Francisco Choral Society performed two Latin requiems in Davies Symphony Hall. The first was written by contemporary Ukranian composer Alexander Shchetynsky in 1991 and revised in 2004. The other was written by Mozart in 1791 and the incomplete score was finished by Austrian composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
Though not a big fan of requiems as a general rule, I attended partly to hear a friend sing a small soloist part in the Shchetensky, which was a lovely 20-minute work firmly in the vein of other Eastern European composers like Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt who migrated from serialism to simpler, ascetic, spiritual music. (Pictured above is bass-baritone buddy Sid Chen, who sounded clear and resonant, standing next to ginger giant Russell Carrington.)
The San Francisco Choral Society under Music Director and conductor Robert Geary started in 1989 and have been giving performances of major symphonic choral works ever since. I have heard them sing Haydn's The Seasons at Calvary Presbyterian Church, David Lang's battle hymns at the Kezar Pavilion in Golden Gate Park, and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in Davies Symphony Hall, and they were all thoroughly enjoyable performances.
Part of the joy comes from the enthusiastic energy of non-paid, auditioned amateurs performing at high levels with professional singers and orchestral musicians. The freelance orchestra for this concert was billed as the California Chamber Symphony, contracted by violinist and teacher Eugene Chukhlov. It was an unusual combination of seasoned pros and a few students who looked like they had barely passed through puberty. They sounded good, though.
Mozart's Requiem starts off fabulously and then becomes pedestrian in the middle sections written by Süssmayr, but this was the most enjoyable version of the work I have heard live. (Pictured above is Bob Ashley, Principal Bass of the Marin Symphony, among other gigs.)
The soloists were Emily Sinclair, soprano; Shauna Fallihee, mezzo-soprano; Michael Jankosky, tenor; and Eugene Brancoveanu, bass-baritone. Sinclair had pitch problems, but Fallihee and Jankosky were lovely, and Brancoveanu sounded as good as ever, booming beautifully through the large hall.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Presidio Tunnel Tops Park

A new, $118 million park opened last summer on top of the tunnels connecting Presidio Parkway to the Golden Gate Bridge.
We made our first visit last Friday and the 14-acre site on multiple elevations was actually larger than anticipated from photos.
The site is a stunning addition to San Francisco's public spaces, with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge...
...huge cargo ships...
...a really fun looking kids' playground...
...and good-looking exercise enthusiasts.
There are long, sinuous benches along the vista walkway...
...that have become popular hangouts for small birds...
...who appear to be unfazed by nearby humans.
In another welcome development, the #30 bus line which goes through SOMA, the Financial District, Chinatown, North Beach, and the Marina has finally extended its route all the way into the Presidio to the Sports Basement store parking lot (seen above). The pavement there is about to be torn up soon for an extension of the park with more picnic tables and shade. It's a joy to watch the Bay Area reclaiming its waterfront for public use after decades of trashing it with landfills and industrial waste.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Dolores Huerta as Operatic Heroine

On August 12th in San Francisco's Veterans Building, a "workshp" performance was given of Dolores, an unfinished opera about the legendary California labor, civil rights, and feminist activist Dolores Huerta. And who should show up but the 93-year-old icon herself.
The opera by Nicolás Lell Benavides with a libretto by Marella Martin Koch was incubated by the West Edge Opera troupe during the pandemic, which held a composing contest for new works. Sunday was the first live run-through of about an hours' worth of the opera, which already has multiple regional companies co-producing the work that is slated to premiere in 2025.
Composer Benavides, in his introductory thank you remarks, singled out brilliant Bay Area conductor Mary Chun (above left) who was raised in the San Joaquin Valley, the resonant geography of the opera. He also gushed about Southern California native mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra (above right), who performed the title role.
The libretto focuses on the year 1968, three years into the United Farm Workers union table grape boycott, when Cesar Chavez began a very public hunger strike before ending it after a visit from presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Dolores's organizing skills were a huge boost for Kennedy's eventual California primary win, and he thanked her publicly during his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel right before he was assassinated. Other historical characters appear, like Samuel Faustine as Tricky Dick, above left, in two scenes that play as Nixonian satirical cabaret. Another character is Larry Itliong, an important Filipino labor organizer ally, given an intense, well-sung performance by David Castillo, above right. (Not pictured is Alex Boyer as Robert Kennedy who delivered a splendid aria that sounded like the verbatim victory speech.)
Benavides also thanked West Edge Opera General Director Mark Streshinsky for coming up with the money to add a chorus to the opera's forces. Their repeated interjections of "Uvas no (No grapes!)" was one of the highlights of the afternoon. (Pictured are Andrew Green, Julia Hathaway, Alexis Jensen, Michael Kuo, Richard Mix, and Leandra Ramm.)
In one affecting aria, Sergio González played Juan Romero, a busboy who met Kennedy on that ill-fated evening.
Dolores had nine children over the decades so there were a lot of cousins present at this preview performance, including composer Nicolás Lell Benavides himself.
My late, leftist mother adored Mexican culture and helped poor farmworker families jump through bureaucratic hurdles. For years, her favorite snack on the Southern California beaches where we swam every day had always been green grapes, but for five years she was adamant in boycotting them in support of the long, grueling strike. To see Dolores Huerta in person decades later felt like a circle being closed. May the operatic tribute prosper.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Pistahan Parade 2023

The annual Filipino Pistahan Parade begins in Civic Center, marches down Market Street, and ends downtown at an outdoor festival in Yerba Buena Center.
Like any good parade, the event is eclectic, with an opening biker contingent that looked like a smaller version of the Gay Pride Parade's Dykes on Bikes.
There was what looked to be an ROTC drill team...
...and dancers in traditional garb...
...including scantily clad young men.
A bevy of health worker groups were represented, including Kaiser. If all Filipino health workers collectively called in sick one day, the entire system of Western health care would collapse in an instant.
Among the politicians and various Bay Area communities, first prize goes to South San Francisco...
...who seriously represented with a large turnout...
...including Mayor Buenaflor Nicolas waving to us all from a tiny float.
The most pointed politics prize goes to a solo gentleman wheeling SMASH WHITE SUPREMACY signage down Market Street.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

West Edge Opera Stravinsky and Schoenberg

West Edge Opera's annual summer festival at Oakland's Scottish Rite Temple concluded with two early 20th century modernist works, Stravinsky's 1914 The Nightingale in Russian and Arnold Schoenberg's Ewartung in German. The Stravinsky is a tricky piece to pull off because there are so many characters and musical themes compressed into three acts over 45 minutes. The costumes by Ralph W. Hoy were delightful but confusing, and the same could be said for the direction by Giselle Ty. (Pictured left to right are Kristen Choi as Cook, Patrick Scully as Emperor, Kevin Gino as Fisherman, Helen Zhibing Huang as Nightingale, Alice Chung as Death, and Chung Wai-Soong as Chamberlain.)
One of the shining stars of the final Sunday afternoon performance was soprano Helen Zhibing Huang as the Nightingale, whose crystalline soprano was breahtaking. You could believe that Death might take a holiday after listening to her sing.
Another astonishment was the large, 30-piece orchestra led by Music Director Jonathan Khuner, with a particular shoutout to Tod Brody playing the flute as the Nightingale's musical partner in the Stravinsky.
The 30-minute Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg is a monologue for a soprano and huge orchestra (reduction by Khuner) where a woman wanders through a forest having a nervous breakdown after possibly killing her lover. This production transposed the action to a hospital, with a forest hinted at in the background of Mikiko Uesugi's set design.
Mary Evelyn Hangley as The Woman was tremendous in the demanding solo role, tortured one moment and rhapsodic the next.
She was accompanied by six dancers choreographed by Lucas Tischler, who were a bit superfluous during their ballet interludes in The Nightingale but compelling while creating characters and moods with modern dance movement during Ewartung.
West Edge Opera's season is not quite over yet, however. At intermission, I ran into composer Nicolás Lell Benavides who has been composing an opera about the United Farm Workers legend Dolores Huerta. An orchestral run-through is being presented by West Edge Opera this afternoon (Sunday the 13th) at 3PM in the Taube theater in San Francisco's Veterans Building. See you there.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Tudors at the Legion

I've never been able to keep track of the six different wives of King Henry VIII, let alone all the royal figures in the century-long reign of the Tudor dynasty in England. So The Tudors exhibit which recently opened at the Legion of Honor, turned out to be a concise history refresher, illustrated with treasured objects from the period. (Pictured is Portrait of Henry VIII of England, 1540, by Hans Holbein the Younger.)
The first Tudor king was Henry VII, followed by his son Henry VIII whose serial marriage spree spawned a son (Edward VI) and two daughters (Mary I and Elizabeth I). After Henry VIII's death the 9-year-old Edward VI was installed with violent, dogmatic Protestants as the powers behind the throne, and when he died six years later at age 15, the Catholic Mary I was installed and Protestants started being burned at the stake. (Pictured is Edward VI as a Child, 1538, by Hans Holbein the Younger.)
Mary died at the age of 42, making way for the long reign of her Protestant sister. And thousands of plays, operas, movies, and TV series were spawned for the next five centuries. (Pictured is Elizabeth I, 1599, from the workshop of Nicholas Hilliard)
When this exhibit opened at New York's Metropolitan Museum earlier this year, there was a fascinating article by Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Review of Books detailing just how bizarre and punitive England was in the 16th century: "To an Italian who traveled to England in the late sixteenth century—say, one of the artists commissioned to paint portraits of the Elizabethan elite—the island might not have appeared, as it had to the ancient Roman poet Virgil, “wholly separated from all the world,” but it would certainly have seemed strange."
Having separated their Protestant island from the mostly Catholic European continent, they looked for more far-flung allies and trading partners, such as Morocco. The painting above is a 1600 portrait of a diplomatic ambasador from that country, 'Abd al-Wahid bin Mas'ood bin Mohammed 'Annouri.
The real showstopper of the exhibit is a display of huge tapestries on the main floor of the museum, which you can check out without having to pay the hefty special exhibit admission fee.
Henry XVIII commissioned a huge number of tapestries for his many royal castles, all of which were created by foreigners, continental tapestry weavers in Brussels and painters from Germany and Italy. (Pictured is Creation and Fall of Man, part of a 10-piece set of Story of the Redemption of Man, probably Brussels, 1502, for Henry VIII.)
Contemporary political resonances abounded in the exhibit, including a detail from the tapestry above, which could be set in present-day Florida. (Pictured is a detail from Saint Paul Directing the Burning of the Heathen Books from a nine-set piece, Life of St. Paul, Brussels 1497-1502.)

Monday, August 07, 2023

American Bach Graces Under Pressure

The American Bach Soloists was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 and has recently truncated its organizational name to simply American Bach. Their annual educational Academy Festival is also a bit truncated this summer as it gradually returns from the pandemic. There are still a number of attractions this week at this year's edition, held at the SF Conservatory of Music on Oak Street.They include a pair of faculty concerts and daily master classes at 2:30 and seminars at 4:15 by faculty musicians, which the public is invited to attend for free. Last Wednesday, Baroque violinist Robert Mealy was the seminar speaker.
The American Bach website billed Nealy's talk as “Graces Under Pressure” or, “If you can’t improvise, just make something up instead.” It also offered "a practical guide for how to accessorize your own adagios."
Mealy was a delight, mixing history, musical demonstrations, and hints on where, when and how over-the-top somebody might want to go with their Baroque ornamentation.
He mentioned that music education was passed down through families and guilds and not written down until "rich people" wanted to learm how to be musically graceful. Then there was a whole flurry of ornamentation manuals printed in 16th century Italy which Mealy recommended as still useful today for a student trying to build a personal musical vocabulary.
Attending this seminar felt a bit like being in a secret session for musicians teaching musicians and it was perfectly fascinating.