Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Taylor Mac's Bark of Millions at Cal Performances

Bark of Millions, a four-and-a-half hour, intermissionless, queer rock opera with lyrics by Taylor Mac and music by Matt Ray moved into UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last weekend for three marathon performances, and it was a pleasurable privilege to experience the extravagant work.
I only stayed for three hours at Friday's opening night because of worry about missing the last BART train back to San Francisco, and sensory exhaustion from the succession of new music and abstract, often incomprehensible lyrics.
With the assistance of Louisa Spier, Cal Performance's PR person extraordinare, I returned for the whole shebang on Sunday afternoon, and was completely won over. It helped that Friday's visit had lodged quite a few of Matt Ray's catchy tunes in my brain and the audience was more awake and involved in the show on Sunday.
Taylor Mac (center, standing) is a California boy who went to New York to be an actor, and after 30 years is an overnight, internationally successful "theatrical artist." And a very busy one too. After this weekend, Mac will be starring as Orlando in a new play by Sarah Ruhl at the Signature Theater in New York in April, and wrote the book for a new musical version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which is premiering at Chicago's Goodman Theater this summer. Global fame came with the 2016 marathon: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which unspooled continuously for 24 straight hours, decade by decade. HBO/Max just started showing a documentary about the show which has expanded Taylor Mac's fan base exponentially.
Theatrical productions backstage tend to become extended families, with varying degrees of functionality and dysfunctionality that mirror the biological ones. Throw in sleep deprivation, a shared endurance experience, and moments of transcendent joy, and they can easily become cultlike. In the program notes, Taylor Mac writes, "Here's something that terrifies me about the work (and also makes me laugh): there's an unintentional cult-like...motif? It's something that happens when you get a bunch of queers on a stage and have them harmonize. They seem like a cult."
This show is partly a byproduct of the pandemic, as Taylor Mac would send lyrics inspired by a historical queer person or mythical god/dess to musical composing partner Matt Ray until they had completed 55 separate songs, one for every year since the Stonewall riots in 1969. The lyrics are not hagiography ("some are real assholes," Taylor notes) but a jumping off place for thoughtful, sometimes abstract songs. (Pictured above are Taylor Mac, Wes Olivier, and El Beh singing Sylvia Rivera.)
For me, the most astonishing surprise of the show was the depth and greatness of the omniverous, eclectic mix of music composed by Matt Ray, who is pictured above singing Felix Yusupov. The score is comparable to Galt MacDermot's Hair, with its mixture of hard rock, Broadway, soul, gospel, ballads, jazz and more. Both Ray and MacDermot were educated and performed in jazz ensembles, and their skillful playfulness with many kinds of musical styles is a form of genius. The problem with Hair was always its threadbare book but Bark of Millions dodges that problem by not having a book at all.
Led by Matt Ray on piano, the band assembled for Bark of Millions is a knockout, and they gamely joined in the physical shenanigans of the singers and dancers for a few numbers. They are so good they deserve to be singled out: Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks, drums; Viva DeConcini, guitars; Ari Folman-Cohen, bass; Greg Glassman, trumpet; Jessica Ivry, cello; Dana Lyn, violin; Joel Mateo Ramos, percussion; and Lisa “Paz” Parrott, woodwinds.
The extraordinary ensemble of about a dozen singers and dancers made for a stunning chorus, sometimes accompanying their fellow players as background singers and other times taking the lead as a group. Individually, they were all given their solo moments to shine in the sun, like Stephen Quinn above singing about San Francisco's 19th century trans-man, Jack Bee Garland.
The costume designer Machine Dazzle started off as a young queer refugee from darkest Idaho escaping to New York where he designed outrageous outfits for himself and fellow club kids. This led to designing outfits for theater where he has becoming something of a legend for his maximalist costumes for Taylor Mac over the last couple of decades. He even gets to join this show onstage for the entire duration, where he seemed to be having a blast. (Pictured above is the amusing Herman Melville where the Moby Dick author is spurned in love by Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
The elaborate costumes and wigs started to come off in the last hour of the show, with about half the cast nearly naked by the end. The Oscar Wilde number was an orgiastic finale complete with audience standing ovations for each individual performer. However, it wasn't quite over. In what felt like a bit of post-coital tenderness, Taylor Mac and Matt Ray led the ensemble in a quiet song called You & Me in an explicit gesture towards inclusion in this queer theatrical cult. If you can catch a live performance somewhere in the world in the next couple of years, do it. (Pictured are Taylor Mac and Steffanie Christi’an performing the really lovely song, The Ladies of Llangollen.)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

British Icons at the SF Ballet

Everything was beautiful at the San Francisco Ballet last week when they presented their second program of the season, British Icons.
They were presenting two ballets from the early 1960s by a pair of British choreographers, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton, whose work has been more known through reputation than actually seen in San Francisco. The gentleman above was attending the show for the second night in a row because he was so enamored of the hour-long Mahler song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, which forms the score for MacMillan's Song of the Earth.
The woman above had seen the ballet 40 years ago performed by the Royal Ballet and had flown to San Francisco from Southern California just to revisit it.
The song cycle is one of Mahler's last works, with a tenor and an alto singing alternate movements depicting drunken revelry and pastoral joys before leaving the world through death in the long, final Abschied movement . The texts were loosely based on Chinese poetry translated by German writers, with the music and the choreography occasionally gesturing toward the Eastern pentatonic scale. The hour-long score is almost unrelievedly dark, and Mahler supposedly confessed to conductor Bruno Walter, when hesitating about putting the piece before the public, "Won't people go home and shoot themselves?" (All production photos are by Lindsey Rallo.)
Although most of the ballet was abstract, there was a slender narrative involving a male protagonist being gently stalked by Death and taken away from his female counterpart. (Pictured above are Isaac Hernández, Wei Wang, and Wona Park from opening night. We saw the final performance where Joseph Walsh and Esteban Hernández assumed the two male leads.)
The dancing and the choreography were consistently fascinating but the real thrill for me was hearing the music played so well by the SF Ballet Orchestra under conductor Martin West, and the two wonderful young singers, Gabrielle Beteag and Moisés Salazar, whose voices easily soared over the huge orchestra. Beteag (above) in particular was extraordinary, filling the huge opera house with creamy, impassioned sound.
The second ballet, Marguerite and Armand, was created by Ashton for the pairing of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet, and from this short YouTube clip, it's easy to see why it was a sensation. Coming after Song of the Earth, however, this condensed version of the Camille story that's the basis of the opera La Traviata felt a bit silly and trivial. It probably should have opened the evening rather than ended it.
The music was fun, though, an orchestration of Franz Liszt's 1853 piano sonata in b-minor, played with verve by Britton Day (above).
The new Artistic Director of the company, Tamara Rojo, appeared onstage at the final curtain call, microphone in hand. We were wondering if she was going to say something about the recently revealed $60 million anonymous donation by a longtime patron of the ballet who was thrilled by the new energy and direction that Rojo is bringing to the company. Instead, she was there to announce the elevation of a Soloist to Principal Dancer, something I have never seen done onstage before.
The announcement seemed to come as a total surprise for Jasmine Jimison, who had just danced the role of Marguerite with partner Isaac Hernández as Armand. (Both are pictured above with conductor Martin West.) It was a lovely moment for the ballerina and the audience besides.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Wolfgang Tillmans Retrospective at SFMOMA

The 54-year-old German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has a retrospective exhibit that was created for MOMA in New York City, moved on for a visit to Toronto, and is now residing on the entire 7th floor of SFMOMA for another three weeks.
Tillmans famously installs his own exhibits with a small team, changing it for each space. He has long made it a practice to eccentrically jumble the large and the small, the framed and the pinned, the singular and the photocopy all together. His quoted mantra is: "If one thing matters, everything matters."
I have been through the exhibit three times over the last couple of months, and still don't quite know what to make of it.
Take the two photos from San Francisco above, for instance. There is a huge color photo of the cable car stop at Van Ness Avenue and California Street, looking up towards Nob Hill, a desultory take on a tourist institution.
Next to it is a small candid of two naked hairy male backs at the Hole in the Wall, a gay bar at 8th and Folsom Streets.
One of the last published pieces by Peter Schjeldahl, the late, great art critic for the Village Voice (1990-1998) and The New Yorker magazine (1998-2022) was about this exhibition when it opened in New York. Though not enthused by everything, he declares at the onset: “To look without fear,” the immense, flabbergastingly installed retrospective of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, at the Museum of Modern Art, persuades me that the man is a genius." (Click here for a link.)
With each visit, what I have come to most enjoy are certain individual photographs, some of them candids and some of them deliberately staged.
There is a sweetness to many of them, even when shrouded with a Germanic dourness.
There is also a slide show presentation, Architect's Book, in a darkened room where 450 photographs of buildings, or parts of them, are shown in odd juxtapositions with each other, one after the other. Most fine architectural photography aspires to the pristine, but these photos are almost the opposite of that aesthetic, with air conditioners, people, rotting walls, and odd bits of marginalia intruding on architectural perfection. It's fascinating, though it turned off my photographer friend Donald who said, "As I have painfully found out, artists shouldn't curate their own work." To which I replied, "If you're proclaimed a genius, they let you do it."