Thursday, November 16, 2017

Benjamin Beilman and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is hosting and auditioning an international roster of guest violinists/musical leaders this year after the departure of music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg last season. On Saturday at Herbst Theater, the guest concertmaster was Benjamin Beilman above, a sweetly fierce musician who is 26 years old but looks about 16. The program was an interesting grab-bag, starting with Biber's entertaining and experimental 1673 suite, Battalia, which depicts soldiers fighting, drinking, and lamenting through some wild, extended techniques for strings. The movement depicting drunken soldiers, "dissolute company of all types of humours," featured each instrument playing their own tune in their own key, creating a crazed cacophony that wouldn't reappear until the 20th century.

This was followed by the 1946 Concerto in D by Stravinsky. Though I love most of the composer's music, there is an arid, astringent side which has less appeal. This three-movement neoclassical nod to the Baroque never quite connected for me the half dozen times I tried to absorb it on recordings, and the fine live performance didn't change that impression. Beilman then became soloist in Bach's early 18th century Violin Concerto in E major in a driving, passionate performance that melded beautifully with the chamber orchestra around him. The only disappointment was in the slow second movement where the playing sounded mushy and sentimental rather than soulful.

After intermission, Beilman joined seven other violinists for the young American Andrew Norman's short, virtuosic Grand Turismo. On the composer's website, there is an amusing origin story: "Rewind my life a bit and you might find a particular week in 2003 when I was researching the art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla (right) for a term paper, watching my roommates play a car racing video game called Gran Turismo, and thinking about the legacy of Baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure for my next project. It didn’t take long before I felt the resonances between these different activities, and it was out of their unexpected convergence that this piece was born."

I was accompanied by a music-loving, 24-year-old coworker who had never been to a classical music concert, and this was his favorite piece of the evening, possibly because he played the video game when he was a kid. Also, the music has a propulsive energy that is irresistable, and the octet gave a thrilling performance.

The concert ended with Mahler's 1899 transcription for string orchestra of Beethoven's 1810 string quartet, the "Serioso," which was hissed and booed during its Vienna premiere because it was viewed as a gargantuan desecration, rather like Mahler's own symphonies. I found it enjoyable, and the driving unison attacks of the orchestra were expertly performed except for a sag again in the slow movement.

Beilman threw himself into every piece of music with such energy that he looked sweat-drenched and dazed by the end. He was great fun to watch and hear, and I hope NCCO brings him back.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Refuse Fascism Police

A protest movement out of New York City called Refuse Fascism is calling for weekly protests and marches to stop the Trump/Pence Regime from destroying the world. The first iteration was November 4th, and the second attempt was today. So far, the hoped for snowballing effect of gradually increasing crowds does not seem to be working, at least in San Francisco where the crowd of about 50 patiently listened to young speakers preaching to the choir.

The bizarre detail was the huge San Francisco Police Department presence at the event, almost outnumbering the protesters.

They were trying to look cool and unobtrusive, hiding away in the sycamore trees in Civic Center Plaza, but their presence was overwhelming. The real irony is that open drug dealing, needle injection, stolen goods bazaars, bicycle chop shops, and violent fights occur in the same spot on a daily basis, but the San Francisco Police Department manages to be invisible.

Where do these phantom forces usually hang out? Certainly not on the sidewalks of Civic Center unless there is a hint of an antifa protest, and then the military gear comes out.

On an individual basis, the SFPD can be pleasant, as they were in answering a number of questions for the wedding party above who were wandering through the protest site.

The Refuse Fascism movement has a website and they are planning another protest/march at the same time and place next Saturday at 2PM. It would be progress if there were more protesters and less police.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Massenet's Manon at SF Opera

San Francisco Opera unveiled a surprisingly good new production of Massenet's 1884 opera Manon on Saturday evening. It was surprising because I am not a big fan of 19th century French operas other than those written by Berlioz or Italians (Rossini's Guillaume Tell or Verdi's Don Carlos, for instance), and I have walked out of two productions of Manon at the SF Opera over the decades because they were long and ridiculous. The exception was in 1986 when Sheri Greenawald and Francisco Araiza played the young, doomed lovers in the openly corrupt society of early 18th century France, which spurred a sudden realization at how absorbing the music and libretto can be in Massenet's masterpiece. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

This production features the role debuts of Michael Fabiano as the young Chevalier des Grieux who falls in love at first sight with Ellie Dehn as the teenaged Manon Lescaut who is being sent via coach to a convent, which is what families customarily did with extra daughters at the time. The singers both have beautiful voices, although from under the overhang in the orchestra section, Dehn sounded a little underpowered during the first two acts while Fabiano sounded as if he was oversinging a bit in the last two acts. This was completely unnecessary as Fabiano demonstrated during his soft, exquisite rendition of the Act II daydream aria, En Fermant Les Yeux (Le Rêve).

The real strength of this production was the sparkling conducting of the SF Opera Orchestra, by Patrick Fournillier which managed to switch seamlessly from seriously tragic opera to melodrama to musical comedy (think late 19th Century French Broadway, complete with dialogue). On the comic end of the spectrum, Robert Brubaker, who was seen last month in Elektra as the lecherous old King Aegisth at SFO, played another rich old lecher, Guillot de Morfontaine. In the photo above he is accompanied by the dancer Rachel Little, and his three "actress companions" Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte. As a funny, musically sharp little group, they just about stole the show, and my concert companion wished he could adopt three kittens just so he could name them Rosette, Pousette, and Javotte. "Or maybe put together a drag trio for next Halloween and see who recognizes the obscure reference."

Unlike Puccini's fractured-scenes, operatic version of the same tale, Massenet and his librettists Meilhac and Gille retain much of the early 18th century novella by Abbe Prevost, an adventurous fellow who bounced between the military, the monastery and mistresses in a number of European countries, including a Belgian woman who was reportedly the inspiration for Manon Lescaut. This means there are a lot of minor characters, many of them sung in superb solo outings by members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Best of all was the resonant bass voice of James Creswell above as Comte des Grieux, the boring father reminiscent of Germont in La Traviata trying to restore honor to the family after his son's indecent infatuation. David Pershall as Lescaut, Manon's cousin who worries about family honor too little and gambling too much, was not quite as impressive vocally but he transformed what can be an obnoxious character into a charming "bon vivant."

The direction and costume design by Vincent Boussard, who gave us that weird Bellini I Capuleti and I Montecchi in 2012, was also a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usually naturalistic, French froufrou that tends to adorn many Manon productions, this staging was stripped down, with the chorus deployed in a stylized manner that worked much better than the usual run-on, run-off blocking. The chorus also sounded great at every dynamic level. The character of Manon, like Carmen, can be played validly in any number of ways, from neurotically self-destructive to sweetly misunderstood to outrageously selfish. From the very first scene, Dehn seemed to embrace Manon as a nice young woman who is a monster of appetite, and the Act III Cours-la-Reine above looked like a precursor to Marilyn singing Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend (hat tip, E. Christian O'Keefe). Dehn really came into her vocal own at this point and even indulged in a bit of Cirque du Soleil theatrics.

The only serious miscue was the following Saint-Sulpice scene where Des Grieux was about to enter a religious vocation before being seduced yet again by the seductive Manon. Fabiano was directed to perform a Magic Mike cassock costume reveal of a hairy chest just before the two lovers humped each other on the church floor which triggered giggles throughout the audience.

The gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvania was beautifully staged, however, with the chorus kept offstage for most of the action, and the commodification of human relations, which is ever-present throughout the entire opera, came through loud and clear. After insulting a few too many powerful, rich men, our heroine goes from Toast of Paris to convicted prostitute shipped off to the colonies in Louisiana.

There are five more performances of Manon, and this production is well worth seeing, both dramatically and musically. Here's a consumer alert, though: If you are thinking about sitting in the balcony, be aware that you won't see any of the staging that takes place at the top of the stationary wall. The production, which recently debuted in Lithuania and will travel on to Israel, is great for the projection of voices but not so good for balcony sightlines, so you might want to wait for one of the final three performances and be sure to sit where you can see the Opera Vision screens.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Sibelius and Shostakovich at SF Symphony

The Latvian violinist Baiba Skride above played the famous Sibelius Violin Concerto last week with the San Francisco Symphony, and though there were exquisite moments in the quieter sections, the more vigorous passages tended to be recessive to the point of blandness.

The orchestra, on the other hand, under Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, gave a thrilling performance behind her that reminded one of how great the concerto can be. This was also the case with in the opening piece, Finlandia, Sibelius' patriotic 1900 hymn to independence from Russia which did not take place until 1917. It was an eccentric reading, free of the usual cliches, and thoroughly enjoyable.

After intermission, Vänskä led the orchestra in the 1925 Shostakovich First Symphony, which the composer wrote as a teenager in the Conservatory. The young musical genius threw everything but the kitchen sink into this piece, with jazzy piano solos, sections that were delicately scored for a chamber ensemble, and massive full-orchestra climaxes. None of the musical ideas seems to last more than a minute or two and the 30-minute symphony can sound either brilliant and/or a disjointed mess. I listened to about ten different versions on YouTube from Toscanini to Petrenko, and what was interesting was how wildly different they all were from each other. (My favorite was the WDR Sinfonieorchester being conducted by the late Rudolph Bashai, who I had never heard of before.) The performance by the SF Symphony was great, with Vänskä making the piece sound coherent without losing any of its wildness. It was wonderful hearing the music live.