Sunday, December 31, 2023

12 Wonderful Musical Performances 2023

This best-of list is incomplete because there were plenty of musical events I didn't attend, so here is a chronological account of a dozen favorite things in 2023. In February, the 95-year-old conductor Herbert Blomstedt returned to the San Francisco Symphony for his annual visit to the orchestra where he was once Music Director. The program was a newly discovered 1823 symphony by Jan Václav Voříšek and Dvorak's Symphony #8 in performances of surpassing beauty. Pictured above is assistant concertmaster Wyatt Underhill assisting Blomstedt to the podium. (Click here for the review.)
Also in February, Cal Performances brought back the Mark Morris Dance Group to perform The Look of Love at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. It was a compilation of Burt Bacharach songs with live performances by Ethan Iverson on piano, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Simon Willson on bass, Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, and Marcy Harriell on vocals. The performance was so captivating that it changed my mind about Bacharach's music, which I had previously disdained. Now I can't get it out of my head. (Click here for the review.)
April featured a memorial concert at Herbst Theater for composer Ingram Marshall who split his career between his native New England and California before his death at age 70 in 2022. Friends and collaborators gave him a moving send-off with performances of music he had written for them. From left to right are Timo Andres, Libby Van Cleve, Ben Verdery, John Adams, and Sarah Cahill. (Click here for the review.)
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under conductor Martin West, is one of the city's unsung treasures and they were superb all season. Particularly demanding and brilliantly performed was Prokofiev's full-length ballet score for the 1945 Cinderella in a sumptuously creative production by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. (Click here for the review.)
In May, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a screening of the 1929 G.W. Pabst/Louise Brooks masterpiece, Pandora's Box at Oakland's Paramount Theater. The legendary Club Foot Orchestra, augmented with a few SF Conservatory instrumentalists, performed their jazzy, brilliant original score to accompany the film. (Click here for the review.)
In its summer season, the San Francisco Opera mounted Richard Strauss's weird, gargantuan fairy tale opera, the 1919 Die Frau Ohne Schatten. An old David Hockney production from London was bathed in sonic splendor from a stellar cast and a huge orchestra led by former Music Director Donald Runnicles. I didn't write about it at the time, but Lisa Hirsch did. (Click here for the review.)
At the same time across Grove Street, the San Francisco Symphony presented Kaija Saariaho's 2006 opera, Adriana Mater just days after the Finnish conductor passed away at age 70. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars, and lighting designer James Ingalls created the 2008 U.S. premiere production in Santa Fe, and reunited for one of the first revivals of this dramatically dark, musically splendrous opera. Pictured are the four principal singers: Nicholas Phan, Axelle Fanyo, Fleur Barron, and Christopher Purves. (Click here for the review.)
In July at the Masonic Temple fronting Oakland's Lake Merritt, West Edge Opera presented a 2010 "mariachi opera," Cruzar la Cara de la Luna. The music was composed by José "Pepe" Martínez, a popular Mexican composer who was dubbed "the Mozart of Mariachi." The work was unexpectedly moving and the production by a mostly local Latino cast, mariachi band, and artistic team was superb. (Click here for the review.)
In October, SF Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a major, infrequently performed John Adams "symphony," Naive and Sentimental Music. Salonen had conducted the world premiere in 1988 with the LA Philharmonic and it was a treat to hear a live revival. (Click here for the review.)
The following week Salonen presented the world premiere of a piano concerto by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg written for pianist Emanuel Ax. In fact, Hillborg's second piano concerto has the subtitle, The MAX Concerto. It was fabulous, and so was a rock-and-roll rendition by the orchestra of Beethoven's Second Symphony. (Click here for the review.)
The San Francisco Opera had a consistently excellent season all year, highlighted by three new operas that the company had co-commissioned. The first two were El Ultimo Sueno de Frida y Diego by composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz followed by The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell. Both were successful on their own terms and were widely enjoyed, but the opera I fell in love with was Omar by composer/librettist Rhiannon Giddens and composer Michael Abels. Its story of an African Muslim scholar who spent most of his life as an American slave was an unusual mixture of history and religious ritual, highlighted by a definitive performance in the title role by Jamez McCorkle. All three operas, by the way, were enhanced by extraordinarily beautiful and creative physical productions. (Click here for the review.)
The SF Opera season ended with a genuinely funny, charming production of Donizetti's 1834 comedy, The Elixir of Love. Pene Pati gave a perfect performance that combined physical comedy chops with a glorious, seamless tenor as the naive, lovesick hero, and debuting conductor Ramon Tebar had the chorus and orchestra in fine form. (Click here for the review.)

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Trixxie Carr Channels Cyndi Lauper at The Oasis

A few weeks ago Austin and I went to a drag show honoring Cyndi Lauper at the Oasis nightclub on 11th and Folsom.
The tickets were a last-minute gift from a pair of friends who couldn't make it, and the seats were for the deluxe front row runway, where the performers would bend down or crawl on their knees to receive cash tips from the patrons.
The organizer and main diva of the evening was Trixxie Carr who has been worshiping the singer since her 1983 debut album, She's So Unusual.
Joining her were for a few numbers were friends Queera Nightly...
...and Miss Raina, who usually appears in drag king events...
...and the fabulous, steely-eyed Mary Vice.
During one song, Trixxie brought up revolting imagery from Cyndi's shameful public moment, her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice.
I never did quite figure out Trixxie's cis gender, but it did not matter, and her colleagues spanned the gender globe.
For the finale, Trixxie sang two numbers with her own pretty, on-pitch voice, accompanied by Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and they were a lovely duo.
Though I've probably seen one too many drag shows over the decades, having been a gay guy who liked to go out, this was still a heartening show, and the Oasis is a cool nightclub that is very much its own magical place. Check out their calendar here.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Let's Glow SF 2023

There are extraordinary projections on iconic buildings in downtown San Francisco this December, including the Ferry Building, from 5 to 8 PM.
On Saturday evening, the crowds were minimal and you could snag a free lawn chair on the Ferry Building Plaza...
for a looping presentation accompanied by a musical score.
Further west on Market Street at Bush on what was once the Crown Zellerbach Building...
...there are abstract projections in a show called Hyperion Monolith by Adam LaBay from Precision Lasers.
The side of the Hobart Building at the intersection of Market and Montgomery is also being used as a canvas.
The free evening shows have been running since December 1st and the evening of Sunday, December 10th, is your final chance to encounter the event, which has a few additional Financial District locations.
Check out this Let's Glow SF 2023 website for maps and more info. The artistry involved exceeded all expectations.

Thursday, December 07, 2023

The Adlers Concert 2023

The annual Adlers Concert took place last Saturday in Herbst Theater with nine apprentice singers from the San Francisco Opera, singing arias and operatic scenes together, backed by the full SF Opera orchestra. (For an interesting history of the evolution of the company's young artist training programs, click here for a post by Janos Gereben at SFCV.) In the Adler program, less than a dozen young singers who are embarking on operatic careers are given training in stagecraft, languages, and musicianship for two years, while being given smaller roles onstage and covering for principals during the SF Opera season. I tend to find these concerts sort of heartbreaking because the odds of making a full-time living as an opera singer are small, and becoming an international star even rarer. But it does happen. (All photos, except one, by Kristen Loken.)
So this is not a review so much as a listing of a few of my favorite things, starting with soprano Mikayla Sager as Leonora in Il Trovatore, singing the difficult aria Tace la notte placida in splendid fashion, with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz supporting her as Inez.
Appearing throughout the evening in many of the scenas, Jongwon Han displayed a deep, luscious baritone that easily stretched into bass territory during his solo turn in Massenet's operatic version of Don Quixote, singing the aria Riez, allez as Sancho Panza defending his crazy master.
Tenor Edward Graves was a highlight during all his appearances including as the Duke in a quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz nearly stealing the show as the duplicitous Magdalena.
Printz also sang a riveting aria, I was a woman, from david lang's prisoner of the state, a contemporary, streamlined riff on Beethoven's Fidelio. Printz has been onstage frequently in the Bay Area in everything from cabaret to opera to singing while performing as an aerial trapeze artist. The non-binary performer knows how to command a stage, and it showed.
I became a fan of tenor Moisés Salazar this summer when he performed in West Edge Opera's production of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which was preceded by a mariachi concert hosted by Salazar himself. He has a huge, bright tenor that sounds ready for the big time, as he demonstrated with a rendition of Nessun dorma from Puccini's Turandot. Salazar is leaving the Adler program after one year, presumably to continue his professional career, and I wish him all the luck in the world.
Finally, one of the delights of the evening was the Spanish conductor Ramón Tebar, who is conducting the current production of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love at the SF Opera. The orchestra, which is usually hidden in the pit, were a joy to watch and hear onstage, and Tebar's sensitivity to his young singers was palpable. (The above photo is by Michael Strickland.)

Monday, December 04, 2023

Botticelli at the Legion of Honor

For those of us who can't make it to Florence for Christmas this year, there is a lovely Botticelli exhibit at the Legion of Honor for the next two months.
The show is called Botticelli Drawings, and its concept is to take a closer look at the preparatory drawings for some of Boticelli's famous paintings. (Pictured is Head of a Woman in Near Profile Looking Down to the Left, 1470)
I'm not very interested in art scholarship and was afraid the show would be a lot of text and rough drawings, but the happy surprise is that there are over a dozen remarkable paintings, including a few that have never traveled out of Italy before. (Pictured is The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist, 1470
And what paintings, including one depicting the Angel Gabriel shooting holy rays at the Virgin Mary. (Pictured is The Annunciation,1485-1493)
Also delightful is that there are no dying or dead Jesus paintings in the bunch. His only appearances are as a holy child. (Pictured is Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Six Singing Angels, 1490)
It seems that the Italian Renaissance painter's posthumous reputation was fairly non-existent until the 19th century, when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood championed his work over the prevailing orthodoxy that Raphael was the model of artistic perfection. (Pictured is Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Six Singing Angels, detail, 1490)
The paintings are large and you are allowed to get surprisingly close to them. Botticelli's final painting is included, subtitled Mystic Nativity, and it's mystic indeed. (Pictured is The Nativity of Christ (Mystic Nativity), top half detail, 1501).
The exhibit will be at the Legion through February 11, and it's highly recommended. (Pictured is The Nativity of Christ (Mystic Nativity), bottom half detail, 1501).