Tuesday, December 30, 2014

14 Musical Moments from 2014 (Part 2)

8. Tetzlaff Plays Bartok
The German violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff played Bartok's monumental 2nd Violin Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a stunning performance that was both virtuosic and soulful.

9. Vladimir Jurowski
I was able to see my favorite conductor in the world, Vladimir Jurowski, twice this year. The first opportunity was in May, during his debut with the New York Philharmonic where he conducted Szymanowski's Violin Concerto #1 with Nicola Benedetti as soloist and Prokofiev's Cinderella ballet. The concert was on my birthday during my first visit to Avery Fisher Hall, with press seats kindly provided by the Philharmonic which made me feel like I had made it in New York City without even having to move there. The second Jurowski sighting was in October when he conducted the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall in a great, ear-shattering performance of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony.

10. Peter Grimes
As the capstone to a Benjamin Britten festival in June, the San Francisco Symphony presented a "semi-staged" production of Peter Grimes which was so outstanding it left both performers and audiences in a state of shock. The cast was as strong as any in the world, with Elza van den Heever and Stuart Skelton leading the way, the chorus sublime, the orchestra under Tilson Thomas perfection, and the understated staging by James Darrah absorbing and powerful.

11. Don Giovanni
The young Los Angeles director James Darrah pops up twice in a row on this list because after finishing Peter Grimes, he hopped over to the Merola Opera Program for a staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni at Everett Middle School in July. Set in a successful young artiste's loft, the production was inventive, musical, and at times genuinely shocking. The student singers in the cast sang and acted with complete conviction.

12. Wild Rumpus
The Bay Area suddenly has an abundance of contemporary chamber musical groups started by young performers and composers, and Wild Rumpus became an instant favorite after I heard a program at Old First Church in September. Attending an open rehearsal in November with the group practicing world premiere compositions at the Center for New Music in November just confirmed that this is a smart, interesting group of musicians.

13. Norma
The San Francisco Opera opened their fall season with Bellini's Norma which made me fall in love with the opera all over again after one too many bad/mediocre productions over the years. This production was silly and serviceable, but the conducting by Nicola Luisotti of the SF Opera Orchestra was exciting, and the singing by Sondra Radvanovsky, Russell Thomas, a beefed up SF Opera chorus, and especially Jamie Barton was Golden Age exceptional.

14. Dvorak's Stabat Mater
The Czech Philharmonic, complete with four vocal soloists and a huge chorus, performed Dvorak's achingly beautiful Stabat Mater at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall in November. Jiří Bělohlávek, the founder of the orchestra, conducted smoothly and there was a standout performance by tenor soloist Jarosla Brezina. The final movement of the 90-minute work had me in tears.

14 Musical Moments from 2014 (Part 1)

2014 was probably the richest year in my experience for the breadth, depth and great performances of both old and new music all over the Bay Area, by institutions grand and small. Here are 14 moments that were exceptional.

1. Cahill Plays Cowell at San Quentin
In January the Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill produced and performed a brave, visionary program of music by California composer Henry Cowell, written while he was imprisoned for four years during the 1930s at San Quentin on a spurious "morals charge." The two performances took place over a morning and evening at the chapel of San Quentin Prison itself in front of an audience of inmates. If you believe in spirits, it was obvious that Cowell's was presiding over the concerts that day.

2. Magik*Magic Orchestra at the Fox
The freelance orchestra of young conservatory-trained musicians who back up everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to Zoe Keating threw themselves a five year anniversary concert party at Oakland's downtown Fox Theatre in February. It was beautifully produced and the long roll call of collaborators performing onstage was fun and impressive.

3. Joan La Barbara
The New York composer/singer and pioneer of extended vocal techniques visited the Bay Area in March, collaborating with young improvisational performers at the Center for New Music in the Tenderloin (click here). Later in the week, she gave a solo performance at the UC Berkeley Art Museum that only confirmed her divinity (click here).

4. BluePrint of The Soul
As an instructor, Nicole Paiement above selects the cream of the crop at the SF Conservatory every year and presents performances of contemporary music that are some of the finest concerts in the Bay Area under the BluePrint imprint. In April, she gave a concert that included music by Lou Harrison, John Adams, Terry Riley and a wonderful world premiere called The Exact Location of The Soul by local boy Ryan Brown, one of the founders of the Switchboard Festival and a new Conservatory instructor himself.

5. Herbert Blomstedt
The 86-year-old former SF Symphony Music Director certainly makes a good case for the healthy lifestyle of the Seventh-day Adventist church because he hasn't seemed to age physically over the last 30 years, and his conducting just gets better. In April he guest conducted SF Symphony in the Clarinet Concerto of Carl Nielsen with Carey Bell (the tall dude) as the soloist, but the shocker was Schubert's Symphony in C Major, The Great, which I had always considered a very dull hour of music until this performance where it sounded supremely beautiful.

6. Mahagonny Songspiel/Les Mamelles de Tiresias
Under the music direction of Nicole Paiement and the dystopian mashup conception/direction of Brian Staufenbiel, Opera Parallele pulled off a tricky, brilliant operatic double bill of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel and Francois Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias in April. Poulenc's music was a revelation, and being a supernumerary guard onstage allowed me the pleasure of hearing it over a period of weeks. The baritones above are Gabriel Pressler and Hadleigh Adams, members of an exceptionally good ensemble cast with no weaknesses.

7. Ted Hearne and Volti
In May, the Center for New Music hosted an open rehearsal by the choral group Volti of Ted Hearne's cantata Sound from the Bench for electric guitar, percussion and chamber chorus with the young composer leading the affair. Hearing the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on corporate citizenship translated into hard-edged music turned out to be perversely thrilling.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Clear Day

After a month of blessed rain, the Northern California coast has become crystal clear, with Point Reyes miles away appearing on the horizon like a hallucinatory mirage.

At Ocean Beach on Friday, there were hundreds of tourists out to see the ocean sunset...

...while surfers caught the last waves of the day below the Cliff House.

The Farallon Islands looked like a short walk across the water rather than 30 miles away.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Brass Boys for Christmas

A quintet of handsome young brass players arrived at Patricia's Green in the Hayes Valley last weekend and played Christmas music for passersby.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has partnered up with the Civic Center Community Business District the last couple of years to offer free outdoor Christmas concerts in the neighborhood, and I wondered if this was the SFCM Brass Quintet in action.

I wrote to Sam Smith at the school for confirmation, and received the following reply, "These are not the same players hired by the CBD, but they look suspiciously Conservatory like!"

So whoever you are, mystery brass quintet, you sounded good and this is coming from somebody who can only take a little bit of Christmas music before turning into Scrooge.

Merry Christmas to everyone, and happy birthday to Heidi, my Santa Barbara buddha.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Bye Bye to the Berkeley Art Museum Building

Designed by the San Francisco modernist architect Mario J. Ciampi in the 1960s, the 1970 Berkeley Art Museum on Bancroft Street closed its doors as a public museum on Sunday with a free admission day of "revels" and ceremonial final performances.

Though the cast-concrete building has always been a bit brutalist for my taste, the place was very important. Besides its decades of art exhibits, the building also hosted the original home of the Pacific Film Archive which burst on the scene in the early 1970s as an equal to the Paris Cinematheque.

The list of creative live performances by musicians, dancers and artists will soon become historic legend, and some UC Berkeley PhD candidate should get to work now interviewing and cataloguing the enormous range of performers and performances held in the space, with its fabulous sightlines and weird acoustics. A good place to start would be Joan La Barbara who recorded a live album in the building in 1976 and returned for a farewell concert earlier this year.

Those interviews should also include the pianist and concert "curator" Sarah Cahill who has been hosting Friday night concerts for years with the enthusiastic collaboration of Museum Director Larry Rinder above.

Their final collaboration in the building was a performance of György Ligeti's 1962 Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. Composers, musicians, museum staff, donors, friends and patrons were recruited for this final musical gesture with about 50 people divided among the 100 metronomes.

A friend, Patrick Vaz, jokingly asked me if the performance used "original instruments," and the serious answer was "yes, the piece is going to become rarer and rarer because wind-up metronomes are going the way of the slide rule on account of digital technology."

After a short rehearsal with our metronomes, we fled an overamplified dance performance for the safety of the Durant Hotel bar across the street, and returned for the extraordinary composer and performance artist Dohee Lee's leaving the building ritual.

"This is imporTANT!" she instructed. "You must feel the floor with your feet before you leave it, stomp on the floor with the beat and really grasp it," and the audience surrounding her did just that.

After a few mercifully short speeches from a trio of museum directors, the metronome volunteers including myself assembled at our various tables. My table was under the direction of UCB Chorus Director Marika Kuzma above, with her former student James Parr roped in at the last minute.

Sarah Cahill gave a short explanation of the piece to the audience, turned to the assembled throng of performers and cued our ritualistic winding of the microphones (three full-turns or six half-turns), finally giving us the signal to unleash the phasing cacophony which wound down to a single metronome 28 minutes later. For a video of the entire performance by Tony Hurd, click here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hands Up, Public Defender

A protest vigil by the Public Defender's Office, headed by Jeff Adachi below, was held at noon on Thursday in front of San Francisco's Hall of Justice, the one-stop court and jail complex at 8th and Bryant Streets.

The protest was being held in conjunction with Public Defenders' offices throughout the Western states since they are in the front lines when it comes to witnessing institutional racism in the justice system.

Adachi noted that the problem was larger than bigoted police departments, declaring that "We are all complicit. We see judges and prosecutors routinely asking for higher bail and longer sentences for people of color for the same offenses committed by whites. And if public defenders' offices provide a lousy defense, that can be the worst thing imaginable to happen to a defendant."

He pointed out that San Francisco's population is 6% black while 56% of the jail population is black, before urging the small crowd to chant, "Black Lives Matter" for the inmates in the jail above us.

Adachi mostly played emcee for a series of smart speakers, including Oscar Grant's "Uncle Bobby" Johnson above. Johnson had just returned from Phoenix where they are having their own police shooting controversy. When I Googled "Phoenix Police Shooting" to see what the story might be, it turned out that the Phoenix police have shot and killed three different people this month, but the first one was a white cop shooting and killing the black, unarmed Rumain Brisbon.

As Adachi pointed out, the problem is structural and everywhere, not just Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland or San Francisco.

According to Yolanda Jackson above, the new Executive Director of the Bar Association of San Francisco, lawyers of all stripes need to be part of the effort to change the system, and quantifying the injustice is going to be a huge part of that effort.

The vigil ended with four and a half minutes of silence on the Hall of Justice steps, in remembrance of the four and a half hours that Michael Brown was left on the streets to die in Ferguson.

I used to write more about local politics on this blog but found the provincial, corrupt San Francisco City Family too depressing to think about after a while. There are a few exceptions among San Francisco's elected officials, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi is first in line, the most admirable local politician I have met since Harvey Milk. He's smart, compassionate, honest, an inspiring leader, and a great speaker. We would be lucky to have him as Mayor of San Francisco, but that will never happen, partly because he had the temerity to point out during the last mayor's race that the current municipal compensation and pension system is unsustainable, particularly among public safety unions. You don't say those kind of things and get elected Mayor.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

12-13-14: SoundBox

Saturday night the San Francisco Symphony premiered a new "late-night, experimental music performance space" called SoundBox in a large, undecorated, 50-foot-ceiling room at the back of Davies Hall that is primarily used as a rehearsal space for the San Francisco Opera. Knowing the room well from decades of Opera rehearsals, I was dubious about the proposition, but the evening turned out to be a fun, surprising, exuberant success on every level. The enchantment started with the sunken orchestra pit at the entrance to the hall which had been transformed into a cactus garden where performers created an ambient soundscape "derived from John Cage's Branches" by manipulating amplified plants.

The sound installation was the background for the first hour of drinking and socializing in the dark, theatrically lit room with comfortable, low-to-the-ground seating, flanked by a full bar with stand-up cocktail tables on one side and two performing stages on the other side.

The larger stage was surrounded by vertical screens while a smaller stage to the side was dominated by a huge screen that created the fourth wall of the room, all of them featuring projections by Adam Larsen that were very striking without competing with the music.

The theatricality extended to the contingent from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus who arrived singing in a procession as if we were in a cathedral as they intoned ancient liturgical music by "Anonymous" and Josquin des Prez (Plainchant and Kyrie from Missa Pange lingua). The chorus then jumped in time to Panda Chant II from a 1984 science fiction opera by Meredith Monk, complete with choreographed stomping and hand jive movement.

Attention then shifted to the smaller stage where five master percussionists, including Jacob Nissly above, played Steve Reich's 1973 minimalist masterpiece Music for Pieces of Wood. Watching the intense concentration of the performers as they tried to stay in or out of phase with each other was hypnotic.

What was unexpected was how quiet and attentive the audience was throughout the musical sections, which were broken up by two long intermissions for drinking and socializing. The older audiences at Davies Hall concerts tend to be quiet but burdened with constant coughing fits, particularly this time of year, while you could hear a pin drop during most of SoundBox's Saturday performances.

At the beginning of the concert, Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas explained how dead the natural acoustics of the room usually are and how they had been enhanced by the Berkeley based Meyer Sound Constellation Acoustic System. I was dubious about this too, because I usually hate amplification of classical music and my experiences at Davies Hall whenever they have used electronics has been awful. I also wasn't that impressed with the Meyer Sound system at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. However, the discreet amplification at SoundBox was an unobtrusive marvel, especially since it changed properties for each musical number in a sort of sonic sampler.

The second act opened with the projection of a short, boring 1986 art film called Voice Windows by Steina featuring the incomparable voice of Joan La Barbara.

This was followed by the 1904 chamber piece Introduction and Allegro by Maurice Ravel played with grace and commitment by some of the finest musicians in the world about five feet from our ottomans. (Above are violinists Alexander Barantschik and Dan Carlson, violist Jonathan Vinocour, cellist Amos Yang, and clarinetist Crey Bell.)

The real star of the performance was harpist Doug Rioth above, flanked by Bell and flautist Tim Day.

Tilson Thomas then led a contingent of brass and percussionists in Varese's Integrales, a modernist landmark that sounded perfectly at home in the space. After another intermission, we were treated to the Magnificat from Monteverdi's 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine, complete with chorus and soloists ranged around the room echoing each other as if they were in an Italian cathedral. The Meyer sound system came through again perfectly.

After a day of drunken Santas, racial justice protest, and a gay rugby tournament party (in the immortal words of Anna Russell, "I'm not making this up, you know"), this concert felt like the topping to an extraordinary San Francisco day. The SoundBox series continues with more concerts in early January, and tickets are only $25 for general admission. Click here to check it out.