Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Obsession and Creation at SoundBox

Two years ago the San Francisco Symphony initiated SoundBox, a monthly concert series designed to lure younger audiences with a hip, fresh, cutting-edge "nightclub-like setting" in a cavernous rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall. There are innumerable reasons that the effort could and should have been a disaster, from condescension to cluelessness to institutional stodginess. The concerts instead have been a surprisingly organic success, selling out every month within minutes of going on sale and entertaining unusually quiet, attentive audiences that range from classical newbies to sophisticated music lovers.

Contributing enormously to every SoundBox concert have been the multimedia screens created by Adam Larsen, whose imagery ranges from understated to hyperactive, depending on the piece being performed. Most multimedia efforts combined with classical music have struck me as intrusive and distracting, but Larsen manages to avoid the usual pitfalls, enriching the music with intelligence and flair.

Larsen is part of a Los Angeles creative collaborative called Chromatic, which curated this season's final concerts, starting with an amusing art installation in the antechamber dedicated to Harry Partch (1901-1974), the gay California microtonal composer who invented many of his own instruments.

The sound artist Chris Kallmyer was laid out on a white square being serenaded with Bach partitas by violinist Andrew McIntosh while on an adjoining table the evening's conductor, Christopher Rountree, was whipping up a bowl of rose-petal jam with Chromatic designer Peabody Southwell.

Rountree later explained to the audience that Partch hated Bach and loved making rose-petal jam at his house in Petaluma every year so Kallmyer decided to bridge the love-hate divide with this installation.

The concert itself began with commissioned premieres by two brilliant young composers who have already been featured at SoundBox, Ted Hearne (above) and Nathaniel Stookey.

For the love of Charles Mingus, Hearne's short, bracing opener for six electric violins, was performed in front of the stage about two inches away from the audience, with Florin Parvulescu and Raushan Akhmedyarova above focusing intently on the difficult, pulsing music with its strange bowings and sound effects.

Stookey's Yield to Total Elation is a 20-minute homage to the San Francisco outsider artist Achilles G. Rizzoli who created fantastic architectural drawings in the 1930s of an imaginary city that were "symbolic portraits" of various friends.

During the performance, on a catwalk bisecting the audience, three dancers including Nicholas Korkos above were creating chalk outlines of their own imaginary city.

Stookey above also performed on an electro-acoustic stringed instrument created by Oliver DiCicco called the OOVE. According to Stookey's online notes, the instrument "provides the harmonic background from which YTTE emerges; later, the OOVE rejoins the orchestra, which has gone very far afield in the meantime, as though to remind us of that lineage." The instrument sounded somewhere between an organ, a theremin, and a synthesizer, and the entire piece was ambitious, architectural and beautiful, swelling to a satisfying, transcendental climax.

After intermission, we jumped back centuries with Purcell's obsessive 1680 Fantasia on One Note, with instrumentalists that included violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Barbara Bogatin above.

This was followed by a performance from soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Salome singing the magnificent 1675 aria Queste lagrime e sospiri from Italian composer Alessandro Stradella's oratorio Giovanni Battista. Breckinridge was in fine voice and her interaction with the dancers stunningly theatrical as she demanded the head of John the Baptist.

Rountree introduced the next piece, Frederic Rzewski's 1971 Attica, with an explanation for young people about the New York penitentiary riot which left scores of prisoners and guards dead after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ill-advisedly sent in troops during a hostage situation. He mentioned that the piece was democratically scored, in that the musicians were allowed within certain parameters to play whenever and however they wanted, and that the audience was encouraged to join vocalist and Chromatic co-founder Peabody Southwell who was intoning the musical phrase "Attica." (Pictured above are Chromatic director James Darrah and Marnie Breckenridge, who joined the singalong while sitting on the catwalk.)

Attica is the second section of a piece called Coming Together, and because of the subject matter I was expecting a harsh, brutal and dissonant sound. Instead, it was a sweet, hippie-dippie, hypnotically gorgeous tune repeating over and over, with Southwell intoning Attica as a prayerful chant with many in the audience joining in on their own. This included composer Ted Hearne above who wandered onto the stage and sang out full voice. It was an amazing experience that had me crying by the end, and after checking out other versions on YouTube I can attest that the orchestra and the audience gave what may have been the most soulful rendition of the music imaginable.

The third set was devoted to three pieces from Frank Zappa's final early 1990s work, Yellow Shark (click here for a YouTube concert of the entire album), which felt slightly anticlimactic after the previous performances even though the orchestra swelled to twice its size. To make room for all the extra players, the audience front rows were evicted. We were amusingly led to the side of the stage where there was illuminated signage designating the area as "VIP Seating" after being offered pieces of bread slathered with Rountree's freshly made rose-petal jam which was unexpectedly delicious. (Pictured above is Nicholas Pavkovic on keyboards.)

The entire evening felt simultaneously loose and structured, improvisatory and tightly honed, a perfect summation of West Coast experimentalism. The Chromatic group above did themselves proud and I hope they return soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cherry Blossom Intruder Bunnies

Five, 23-foot white rabbits have been installed in Civic Center for most of the month of April.

Australian artist Amanda Parer created the public installation in 2014, and since then the bunnies have been traveling the world.

The artist's stated intention is to highlight the environmental devastation rabbits have caused on the continent of Australia after the non-native species were introduced by European immigrants in the 18th century.

On Sunday morning, there was an additional resonance to the art installation as the annual Japanese American Cherry Blossom Festival Parade was assembling on Polk Street before marching to Japantown on Geary Boulevard.

Australia has been famously, historically racist in its immigration policies, doing its best to keep out the Asian hordes surrounding its white, Anglo culture...

...which made the juxtaposition of people dressed in Japanese manga costumes posing in front of the rabbit "intruders" even odder to witness.

In the United States throughout most of the 20th century, Japanese Americans were legislated against as foreign intruders...

...and during World War Two they were sent to concentration camps, including a holding center at what is now the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno (click here for a recent historical account by Gary Kamiya in the SF Chronicle).

The entire concept of what is "native" and what is an "intruder" is a thorny one, depending very much on who is supplying the historical narration.

Particularly in the two Edens that are California and Australia, we are all intruders, except for the aboriginal tribes who were here centuries before other humans.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Posthumous Symphonies and The Divine Sasha

Last week Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a pair of famous symphonies that were premiered after the deaths of their respective composers. The first half was devoted to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony which the composer wrote in 1822, shelved after two movements, and premiered in 1865 decades after his early death. The melodies are so catchy that it's easy to hear why the piece is so popular but MTT's interpretation last Saturday evening was grave and serious, finally settling into the lugubrious.

Things picked up immensely after intermission with Mahler's mammoth 1909 symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde or The Song of the Earth. It was a 2007 performance with MTT leading the SF Symphony with tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Thomas Hampson that finally converted me to the strange piece, an hour-long setting of six Chinese poems translated into German that glides seamlessly between utter delicacy and total cacophony.

As great as that 2007 performance was, this version was better because the two soloists were extraordinary. Simon O'Neill, who memorably performed as Chairman Mao in SF Opera's Nixon in China a few years ago, managed to sing over the huge orchestra with beauty and humor, especially in his near-impossibly difficult opening Drinking Song of Earthly Woe, which ends with "Leert eure gold’nen Becher zu Grund!/Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!" or "Drain your golden goblets to the last/Dark is life, dark is death!" His counterpart was alto Sasha Cooke whose voice was so meltingly beautiful I alternated between wanting to cry and to laugh because Mike Myers as Linda Richman kept coming to mind with her catchphrase, "Her voice, it's like buttah!"

The 30-minute final song, Der Abschied, with Mahler saying goodbye to the world (he died six months before the first performance) was exquisite, and if you don't know the music, you should (click here for Christa Ludwig singing with Otto Klemperer conducting on YouTube).

The orchestral playing all evening was fabulous and the orchestra will probably sound even better tonight in Carnegie Hall where the orchestra is repeating this program on tour.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Svadba-Wedding at the SF Opera Lab

The San Francisco Opera is presenting a contemporary a capella opera by Ana Sokolović for six female voices, Svadba-Wedding, at their new adjustable theater space on the top floor of the retrofitted Veterans Building.

Before the Sunday afternoon performance, Sokolović was interviewed by Opera Lab Programming Director Elkhanah Pulitzer. The composer is a Serbian immigrant to Montreal, Canada who loves her new world, though she mentioned that at first she was offended when people commented on how her music had "great Slavic soul. I thought of myself as a modern, avant-garde composer, not a folk artist, but finally realized that it was a compliment."

The hour-long Svadba-Wedding is more of a song cycle than a dramatic opera, with five Serbian girlfriends in seven scenes hosting a bachelorette party for their friend Milica: getting sentimental, then tipsy, quarreling, making up, before sleeping it off and saying goodbye to their bride-to-be in her wedding dress.

The theater-in-the-round staging by director Michael Cavanagh and the lighting, projections and production design by Alexander V. Nichols were superb, with scenes creatively playing out on a round platform in the center of the circular room and in various tall alcoves.

Though the music was easy to listen to, with an unusual variety in its limited palette of soprano voices and the occasional percussion instrument played by the singers, it also sounded fiendishly difficult to perform. Conductor Dáirine Ní Mheadhra was kept busy running around the hall from one music stand to another, trying to keep up with her rotating bachelorettes. Jacqueline Woodley, Laura Albino, Andrea Ludwig, and Kristzina Szabo were in the original 2011 Toronto cast, and were joined for this production by Liesbeth Devos and Pauline Sikirdji who have performed in subsequent European productions. They were uniformly wonderful.

At the "after-party" with cake and champagne following the show, I asked one of the singers if the music was hard to perform, and after an amused sigh, she replied, "Yeah, you have NO idea." There are more performances through Sunday, April 10th, and you can find tickets here. (Production photos by Stefan Cohen.)

Monday, April 04, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Detritus

Late Sunday morning in Civic Center...

...there were stragglers from the Transamerica Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon...

...listening to a vocalist fronting a band...

...who were doing their best to entertain a small crowd.

To the side, in the Westin corporate hospitality center, cramped runners were receiving massages...

...next to a pair of dudes sprawled on deck chairs looking like gangsters at a Black Sea resort.