Thursday, January 29, 2015

Happy Nymphs and Happy Swains

The American Bach Soloists gave a series of vibrant, beautiful performances last week of Handel's early pastoral oratorio Acis and Galatea. The tale of the demi-god water-nymph Galatea (Nola Richardson) and her mutual love for the handsome young shepherd Acis (Kyle Stegall) is taken from Ovid. In the first act nothing happens at all except for the chorus praising the beauty of nature and sex, Galatea longing to see her beloved, and Acis pining away for Galatea.

At the end of the act, the two are joined together where they sing what may be the most beautiful earworm music of Handel's career, the duet "Happy, happy we."

They are eventually joined by the chorus who spin their own celebration of romantic pleasure with the same refrain. Somehow, I've made it through life without ever having heard this music before this month, and it was a delightful joy to get to know it through YouTube recordings and this live performance.

The second act has a lot of drama, with the giant monster Polyphemus, well-sung by Mischa Bouvier above, demanding Galatea's love and then killing Acis, which makes everyone very sad. Tenor Zachary Wilder, not pictured, also did a great job with the role of Damon, the sweet best friend who gives good advice that is ignored by everyone.

The American Bach Soloists organization started a summer teaching Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music a few years ago, which has become the equivalent of the Merola/Adler programs at the San Francisco Opera. Both Nola Richardson and Kyle Stegall above were both standout students during recent Academy sessions and it's nice to see them being offered leading roles with the professional ensemble. Stegall in particular has a soulfulness to his singing that is something that can't be taught, and it was wonderful hearing the young tenor in a role that could have been written for him at this point in his career.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Lariat

A world premiere chamber opera, The Lariat, opened last weekend at the tiny Thick House Theater on Potrero Hill. The music and libretto were both written by Lisa Scola Prosek, a local Princeton-trained composer who has already composed over a half dozen operas. The story about the Monterey Bay Essalen tribe of Native Americans interacting with 1790s missionaries is taken from a 1920s novella by Jaime De Angulo, the fascinating Berkeley linguist, shamanistic explorer, ethnomusical transcriber, and guru to poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.

The name that drew me to the production was bass/baritone Philip Skinner above, who is one of the most reliably talented opera performers around, playing the tormented Father Luis who falls under the spell of both an Essalen woman and Native American shamanism.

There were lots of characters, including singing animals above (Maria Mikheyenko and Alexis Lane Jensen with The Shaman Hualala sung by Clifton Romig). There was also lots of narrative compressed into a series of short, disjointed scenes over 75 minutes, but I grew to appreciate the lack of paint-by-numbers narrative, as if the entire audience was familiar with De Aguelo's obscure novella.

What was a surprising knockout was Prosek's music, which was delicate, dramatic, and simple without being dull, a rare achievement. Her orchestration of Northern Californian Native American music written down by De Angulo contrasting with Latin plainchant mixed with Spanish jotas was fascinating and the varying musics were given equal weight.

The sound of the four-piece orchestra under conductor Bruce Olstad was extraordinary, with Joel Davel on percussion, Diane Grubbe on flutes, the great Leighton Fong on cello, and the composer herself playing a muted piano part. It sounded a bit like Lou Harrison at his best, joyful music reduced to its essence.

The other standouts in the cast were Joe Myers/Raymond as a punitive friar who only cared about food. In a part that could have been a cartoon villain, Joe played him as an amusing monster of practicality. Crystal Philippi as Ishka, the Esselen Carmen of the opera, had a beautiful voice and presence, making the madness and joy any number of male characters go through believable. Also worthy of note is the half-Spanish, half-Essalen cowboy Ruiz played by Mark Hernandez, who exits with a bear.

There are two more performances this weekend, and you can buy tickets by clicking here. Besides its intrinsic merits, the performances are also worthy of support for extra-musical reasons, involving a tormented production history with a shady producer which I will be detailing in a future post. The blurry people in the above photo are the composer Lisa Scola Prosek and the conductor Bruce Olstad.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Abortion Protest in Civic Center Plaza

Tens of thousands of people arrived in Civic Center Plaza on Saturday morning...

...via chartered buses, planes, and on foot from all over the West Coast and a few points further east.

The occasion was a pro-life, anti-abortion rally that made its way down Market Street from Civic Center to Justin Herman Plaza on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade ruling.

The march and rally were part of an organized effort by the Catholic Church nationwide to rally the troops in public against abortion, and the numbers who marched through downtown streets surprised people all over the country.

The directive from organizers was that the rally was to be overwhelmingly positive, and there were to be no confrontations with godless baby killer counter-protestors or graphic posters with fetuses being waved around. The display above was the only one I saw in Civic Center that skirted the "graphic" prohibition.

The rest of the messaging was defiantly upbeat...

...such as the Defend Life signage above...

...which was one of many ready-made signs printed in Spanish.

Whenever one thinks the battle about women's autonomy over their own bodies has been settled, patriarchal religious traditions push back with full force.

The U.S. House of Representatives has just offered yet another restrictive abortion bill that sounds like a precursor to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and watching the Catholic Church moralizing yet again in the public sphere is disturbing.

After revelations about widespread, ongoing, predatory pedophilia among the clergy, and the Irish church's virtual enslavement of wayward women in the Magdalene laundries throughout much of the 20th century, this is an institution that needs to heal itself before lecturing others.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Death of a McDonald's

One of the few silver linings to the current gentrification of San Francisco is that the occasional ugly building or horrible business dies, such as the recently shuttered McDonald's at the corner of Van Ness and Golden Gate Avenues.

The location of the burger behemoth was controversial in 1978 when it was built, because San Francisco city government at the time was worried about the incursion of suburban fast food franchises into urban spaces. They insisted on the hiring of a reputable architect to create a modernist design for al fresco seating.

The problem was that the site immediately became a gathering place for street people, many of them acting out...

...while others use the outdoor seating as a combination bathroom and bedroom.

Even days after the building was boarded up, its clientele is still hanging out on the sidewalk in front...

...and nodding off on nearby curbs.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Grand Pianola Music

Last week at the San Francisco Symphony, the composer John Adams above conducted Grand Pianola Music, his own early, psychedelic masterwork for wind instruments, percussion, two pianos and a trio of sopranos. He wrote and premiered the piece in 1982 at the old Kabuki nightclub as part of the SF Symphony's New and Unusual Music Series, and according to his own account the first performance was something of a disaster. Even more upsetting was the reaction at a new music festival in New York later that year, where some in the audience booed the work.

As Adams notes in the Nonesuch Earbox collection of his music: "True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came toward the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia-Princeton school. In the context of this otherwise rather sober repertoire, Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking...The piece could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-twentieth-century music. Beethoven and Rachmaninov soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa."

I've loved the music since first hearing it on a recording in the Earbox set, and the performance on Sunday was superb, with luxury piano soloists Orli Shaham and Marc-Andre Hamelin rippling and banging away, and the soprano sirens Micaela Haslam, Joanna Forbes L'Estrange, and Heather Cairncross (alto) singing to utter perfection.

The second half of the program was Stravinsky's one hour chamber theater piece with music, A Soldier's Tale, with celebrity narrator Elvis Costello, and British actor Malcolm McDowell above playing the devil. Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle ruined this for me with his mean, accurate review, and I didn't make it through the halfway point. The musicianship of the seven instrumentalists under Tilson Thomas was great, but the entire concept needed to be worked out further. Plus, Davies Hall is just too big for A Soldier's Tale. This would have been a perfect piece to offer at the smaller SoundBox series with the added bonus of theatrical staging and lighting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Music Gathering Day 2: Bay Area

My second evening at the New Music Gathering last weekend at the SF Conservatory of Music started with one of the more astonishing musical stunts I have ever witnessed. In a tiny recital room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, over the course of 90 minutes, the Japanese pianist Taka Kigawa played the entire piano works written by Pierre Boulez, the arch modernist post-WWII composer. Kigawa did this from memory, without a score, which is is a feat of memorization akin to reciting Pi to the 10,000th decimal point, with a memorized dynamic for each number besides.

I was a lightweight, and lasted 30 minutes through Kigewa's performance because a shower and dinner after a day of work beckoned before attending the main, three-hour concert later that evening. The Brooklyn organizers (Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks, not pictured Daniel Felsenfeld) programmed East Coast composers and performers on Day 1 of of the New Music Gathering, while Friday was devoted to the Bay Area.

The concert began with the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble being represented by composer/violist Kurt Rohde above playing his ...maestoso...misterioso... with violinist Anna Pressler. The performance of this inventive, amusing piece for violin, viola, gongs, vocals, toy instruments and electronics went much better than at its premiere a couple of years ago, possibly because Sam Nichols on electronics was taking care of the technical details.

Volti, the San Francisco based acapella chorus devoted to contemporary music, offered a set of four selections from composers Huck Hodge, Aaron Jay Kernis, Mark Winges, and Gabriela Lena Frank. It could just be my lack of discrimination, but they all started sounding the same except for Frank's Chicanophobia! which bordered on Latino minstrelsy.

Conductor and Volti Artistic Director Robert Geary gave a speech after Resident Composer Mark Winges' selection, which was the first movement from Pandora's Gift, a 30-minute work for Volti and the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir. Geary wanted the audience to know that children were perfectly capable of learning complex modern music, and that the composers in attendance should be sure to write for them.

The chorus was followed by the chamber ensemble Wild Rumpus with the marvelous soprano Vanessa Langer above vocalising through the eight short movements of Lee Weisert's subtle, fascinating Minutiae which the ensemble commissioned.

The Minutiae movements were bisected by the world premiere of Joshua Carro's Spectral Fields in Time, which was unfortunate because it was abrasively loud in context with the Weisert and Artistic Director Dan VanHassel's electric guitar solos drowned out the other fine musicians onstage, including percussionist Mckenzie Camp above and pianist Margaret Halbig, bass clarinetist Sophie Huet, trombonist Weston Olencki and double bassist Eugene Theriault.

The headliner for the evening, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, offered an 80th birthday concert for legendary California composer Terry Riley, who was in attendance. In a characteristically gracious introduction, Sarah pointed out that "Terry Riley concerts always seem to have lots of twenty-somethings in attendance, there's something in his music that speaks to them," and to that end Sarah has commissioned a number of young composers to write birthday music for a series of recitals she will be performing this year, including at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on January 29th.

After playing the fiercely demanding 1960s era Keyboard Studies by Terry Riley, Sarah introduced Poppy Infinite by the composer's son, the guitarist/composer Gyan Riley. It was an interesting piece that roamed all over stylistically. This was followed by Shade Studies from Samuel Carl Adams above, a delicate tribute that may have been my favorite piece of the evening. Every other composition at The New Music Gathering seemed to feature live acoustic instruments augmented with electronics, but this was the subtlest example of that synthesis imaginable, with the piano being echoed softly by electronics within the instrument. Dylan Mattingly is composing an autobiographical YEAR for the occasion, and Sarah played an excerpt from January and February that was good enough that it made me want to hear the whole work.

The commissions weren't all by young pups. The 82-year-old Pauline Oliveros contributed the conceptual A Trilling Piece for Terry where Sarah and the 25-year-old composer Danny Clay explored the entire piano. Oliveros begins her instructions with: "A Trill is an alternation between single to multiple pitches and/or sounds. The alternation may vary from very slow to as rapid as possible with a wide range of tempi between two or more fingers of one hand, or in both hands simultaneously or between both hands. Different mallets, sticks and an electric vibrator could be used on the strings, soundboard and wood as well."

This was followed by a new transcription by Toon Vanderhorst of The Philosopher's Hand which is the fourth movement from Requiem for Adam, written in 1998 for David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet after his 16-year-old son suddenly died of a blood clot while hiking with his family on Mount Diablo. The final piece was a change in mood with the charming, three-movement Circle Songs by Danny Clay above, who noted that he had never met Terry Riley before this moment, and that they shared the same birthday, "so there's that."

At the end of the concert, Riley was asked by Sarah to come onstage where he took a bow with the young composers. In a Facebook post, organizer Lainie Fefferman confessed that she had all kinds of brilliant remarks saved up to offer Riley, her longtime musical hero, when she joined him onstage, but instead simply burst into tears. "And not the pretty kind of crying either," she noted. It was a nice ending to an emotional evening for everyone who had been influenced by Riley over the years.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

New Music Gathering Day 1: Brooklyn

A remarkable event was born this week in San Francisco. Called the New Music Gathering, it is a three-day conference that features panels, lectures, concerts, and cross-pollination between East and West Coast composers and performers, and everything outside and in between. The event was organized by the four Brooklyn-based composers/performers above: Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks.

The first evening's concert on Thursday was devoted to mostly New York performers, headed by flutist Claire Chase who just received a MacArthur Award a couple of years ago. With some of the loot from that award, the performer is determined to commission a whole new solo flute repertory with 100 pieces by 2036. On Thursday she played two solos by Felipe Lara, pieces augmented with electronics by George Lewis, Mario Diaz de Leon, and Du Yun, and ended with Edgar Varese's Density 21.5 which fit in seamlessly.

She was followed by BRIM, led by Eve Beglarian above, a composer/performer who is writing a long musical cycle devoted to the Mississippi River which she just finished rowing/kayaking.

She was joined by the phenomenal violinist Mary Rowell, who has played with everyone and everywhere, including as concertmaster of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, and the local electric guitarist Giacamo Fiore who read a DaVinci quote with the proper Italian accent it required. The three songs they performed were lovely and absorbing, a mixture of electronics, acoustics and occasional vocals.

Then Rachel Beetz and Jennifer Bewerce of Autoduplicity offered a short sampler from their "body music" concert which is taking place this Monday at the Center for New Music. They performed something called ?Corperel by Vinko Globokar, and it involved lots of rubbing and clapping and thumping on their own bodies.

Estrogen was replaced by raging testosterone with the next performers, Blarvuster, led by composer/performer Matthew Welch on sax, bagpipes and vocals above, with the wildly energetic Will Northlich-Redmond on electric guitar, Jordan Glenn on drums, and Aaron Germain on bass below. They played a long piece called The Finger Lock that was loud, jazzy, and thoroughly entertaining, particularly when Welch vocalized in some unknown language and then trooped around the auditorium playing his bagpipe while the band rocked out onstage.

The special pleasure of this and the following concerts I've attended is that not only are the participants some of the most interesting musicians in the world right now, but the attendees are mostly fellow composers, performers and students rather than the usual press gang and audiences waiting to be amused. There's a final "marathon" of concerts this Saturday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is highly recommended. You can then brag that you were at The First New Music Gathering years from now.