Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Leaving The Smoke Behind

Friday night the SFO airport was packed with passengers and a few dogs waiting for planes delayed by the smokey air conditions caused by a week of fires in the North Bay.

Like many others, I started to have breathing problems by the end of the week and a coincidental holiday scheduled for Palm Springs turned out to be a salvation.

If you have the luxury of time and/or money, I would suggest a sabbatical away from the crappy Bay Area air as soon as possible. Your lungs will thank you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Wild Night at the SF Symphony

A loud heckler during Penderecki, a vibrating mobile Amber Alert chorus accompanying Mendelssohn, and a stupendous Shostakovich 10th Symphony made for a wild night Saturday evening at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.

The brilliant young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański started the concert with Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a short, iconic avant-garde composition from 1960 for 52 strings by Krzysztof Penderecki (click here for a recording by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra). Though excerpts have been used in everything from Wes Craven's 1991 film The People Under The Stairs to David Lynch's recent Twin Peaks reboot, I had never heard the amazing piece live. About halfway into the 10-minute atonal, aleatory, incantory composition, a woman's loud voice could be heard throughout the huge auditorium shouting something which sounded like "THIS IS CRAP!" Everyone looked around in the orchestra section but we couldn't see where the voice was coming from. A couple of minutes later, the same lady was shouting, "REALLY?" in a way that implied the phrase should be, "Like, are you serious, really?" There were a couple more outbursts before the piece ended, and in a demonstraton of solidarity with the conductor and the musicians, the audience gave them a standing ovation. The ladies sitting in front of us thought that the crazy shouting was possibly a part of the score, a 1960s "happening," but it turned out that it was a patron in the expensive Loge section who decided she needed to have her opinion heard.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with soloist Augustin Hadelich, was evidently more her style since there was no more yelling, but her clamor was replaced by intermittent moments of what sounded like feedback from the amplification system used for announcements at Davies Hall. It turns out the noise was caused by an incessant, public Amber Alert, and everyone who had set their mobile phones to vibrate caused a weird electronic chorus that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Hadelich and the orchestra gave a sweetly soulful performance of the warhorse concerto, while the audience kept looking around to figure out what was up with the sonic sabotage.

After intermission, Urbański gave a lecture/demonstration on Shostakovich's 1953 Tenth Symphony, having sections of the orchestra perform various themes, while demonstrating how they were transformed over the course of the hour-long work. He also tossed off a few amusing biographical asides, such as "Shostakovich had just gotten married for the second time, and they didn't even like each other!" This kind of patter and music appreciation demos usually annoy me, but this symphony is long and dense and the musical examples were useful signposts for everyone in the audience.

The orchestra then proceeded to give one of the greatest performances of any music I have ever heard in Davies Hall with Urbański dancing ecstatically around the podium. The latter also could have been annoying except it was obvious he worshiped the music and the the sound coming from the orchestra was breathtaking. In two weeks, Urbański will be conducting another program with the SF Symphony at Davies Hall that includes Dvorak's Cello Concerto and another modernist Polish work, Lutoslawski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra. The Lady Heckler of the Loge might want to sit this one out, but everyone else should buy a ticket now. Urbański is a rare talent and he clicks with this orchestra.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Live Personal Soundtrack with Giacomo Fiore

Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen's Live Personal Soundtrack, a conceptual art piece from the Soundtracks exhibit at SFMOMA, involves an individual patron being serenaded by an electronic guitarist as they wander the permanent collection on the second floor of the museum.

The duo are sonically connected via headphones which feels oddly intimate since they are sharing a musical experience that nobody around them can hear.

Different musicians are in residence on different days, Thursday through Sunday from 12 to 3 PM, and last Saturday my friend Louisa Spier and I were treated to the luxury musicianship of Giacomo Fiore, a classical guitarist who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The museumgoer leads the guitarist to various works of art who then improvises a musical reaction, and it is a strange, slightly telepathic experience, where I found myself noticing new details in familiar paintings on account of the sonic mind meld.

For some reason, the guitarist has been hidden in a stairwell in an unpopulated section of the second floor, but ask around and you will eventually find the place to sign up. Highly recommended, and if you happen to stumble across an afternoon featuring Giacomo Fiore, you are very lucky.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Bartok and Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Last week's SF Symphony program featured two eccentric masterpieces, Bartok's Second Piano Concerto from 1931 and Berlioz's first symphony, the 1832 Symphonie Fantastique. The Bartok soloist was Jeremy Denk above, who did a magnificent job in one of the most difficult pieces of piano music in the repertory. The concerto bounces back and forth between quick, percussive, astringent melodies and strange, delicate, moody night music, with Denk making sense of the disparate elements which is not always the case. For an encore he played a delicate, simple Mozart adagio which was spellbinding, partly because Denk has such an unusual affinity for the composer's music. I discovered Denk at a 2007 Summer in the City pops concert, where he and the young conductor James Gaffigan created totally unexpected Mozartean magic, and have been following him ever since. It's nice to report that he can also play Bartok at his most fiendish with aplomb.

The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique after intermission did not make me as happy. The wildly bizarre early 19th century symphony that smashed open the doors of Romanticism was written by a lovesick composer in his 20s who sets the second half of the hour-long piece in a bad trip opium nightmare, marching with a famous earworm to the gallows before falling into the middle of a witches' sabbath. The orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas sounded great, like a sleek machine, with all imperfections smoothed out, but I wanted the feeling of being inside the crazy opium visions of the young Berlioz. This was a minority opinion, by the way, since my friend Patrick enjoyed himself as did Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle and a gentleman across the aisle from me at Davies Hall whose entire body was rocking with the music in an amusingly spastic, slightly off-the-beat way.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Boat Ride to Angel Island

Last Sunday was an exquisitely warm, still Northern California autumn day, so on a whim we pretended to be tourists and hopped on a Blue & Gold ferry boat from Fisherman's Wharf to Angel Island.

I had not visited Angel Island, a California state park one mile off the wealthy Marin enclave of Tiburon, since the 1980s, and the place was looking well tended.

We hiked up a set of steep stairs and onto the Perimeter Road where you can walk around the entire island in two to three hours, depending on your speed.

We walked to the U.S. Immigration Station, built in 1905 as a West Coast counterpart to Ellis Island.

As the remarkably honest entry on the California State Parks website states: "Surrounded by public controversy from its inception, the station was finally put into partial operation in 1910. It was designed to process Chinese immigrants whose entry was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882. A rush of immigrants from Europe were expected with the opening of the Panama Canal, but international events after 1914, including the outbreak of World War I, cancelled the expected rush, but Asians continued to arrive on the West Coast and to go through immigration procedures...During the next 30 years, this was the point of entry for most of the approximately 175,000 Chinese immigrants who came to the United States. Most of them were detained on Angel Island for as little as two weeks or as much as six months. A few however, were forced to remain on the island for as much as two years."

"Today, most visitors to Angel Island find the Immigration Station a place of reflection. While often called the Ellis Island of the West, the U.S. Immigration Station, was in fact quite different. Arrivals at Ellis Island were welcomed to this country by the near by Statue of Liberty and screened primarily for medical reasons leaving an average of 2-3 hours of arriving. At Angel Island, the objective was to exclude new arrivals, the memories of many returning visitors are therefore bittersweet."

The existing barracks turned into POW camps during World War Two, followed by the military using the island as home for Nike anti-aircraft missiles during the Cold War with Russia. The military finally ceded control to the State of California in 1962 and the place has slowly been turned into a recreational Shangri-La. When I went to the Angel Island Conservancy welcome hut to find a map, Italian opera was playing on the speakers which seemed unusual, until I looked up and saw that the greeter was none other than Chenier Ng above, a friend from Balcony Standing Room at the San Francisco Opera. It felt like serendipity and it was delightful seeing an immigrant as the welcoming concierge after all that ugly history.

We took the last, 4:25 PM ferryboat back to San Francisco.

On the way, we stopped in Sausalito where there were hundreds of people waiting to join us.

Most of them seemed to be tourists who had rented bikes and ridden over the Golden Gate Bridge.

In our current hideous bout of American political nativism, it was refreshing to see visitors from all of the world...

...including tipsy, giggling French women...

...and beautiful young people like the couple above who alternated between stealing kisses and taking selfies with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

New Horizons with New Century

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened its 26th season last week in Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Rafael with a concert called New Horizons led by their new "Artistic Partner," British violinist Daniel Hope. He first appeared with the ensemble last year, and I wrote: "The New Century Chamber Orchestra is looking for a new leader after announcing that Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is leaving her music director post after the upcoming season. Daniel Hope is probably too busy to be interested in a job halfway around the world from his base in Vienna. Plus, he is taking over the Zurich Chamber Orchestra this year from Roger Norrington. Still, it was obvious that Hope worked beautifully with the New Century musicians, and it would be nice to see him return." See, wishes do come true sometimes.

The concert at Herbst Theatre on Saturday started with a misfire, Mendelssohn's 1825 Octet for Strings. "This was originally written for eight musicians, but we all wanted to play, just because..." Hope explained, and though the sentiment was lovely, the clarity of the original octet turned into sludge with double the amount of players, sounding more like Brahms than Mendelssohn at times.

The next piece was the world premiere of a three-movement violin concerto by composer Alan Fletcher above, written for Hope to perform with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, the Savannah Festival, and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. The composer rambled on a bit before the performance about its relation to water sounds and the seven miniatures constituting the slow second movement, but the music grew progressively more interesting as it went along, and Hope obviously loved playing the concerto.

After intermission, we were treated to Orawa, a wonderfully energetic, minimalist-tinged ten-minute piece by the recently deceased Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar. I had never heard the work before this week and it was a delightful discovery (click here for a fun YouTube version by a Polish youth orchestra). New Century played the heck out of it.

The evening ended with an emotional, beautifully performed rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1880 Serenade for Strings.

It's encouraging that Daniel Hope has signed on for three years as Artistic Partner. His energy and musicality are a delight, and the orchestra has never sounded better.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Brooklyn Raga Massive In C

Last Saturday afternoon at Yerba Buena Gardens, a musical ensemble called Brooklyn Raga Massive performed a version of San Francisco composer Terry Riley's 1964 minimalist masterpiece, In C.

The group was an interesting looking and sounding mixture of traditional East Indian ragas and Western Jazz.

They were accompanied by the San Francisco hipster classical music ensemble Classical Revolution on various instruments, and they seemed to be most at home in the Riley work.

The idea of a raga-influenced performance of In C was interesting on paper, but the result sounded more like jazz than minimalism, with the leader of the ensemble directing instrumentalists and singers to quiet down when various instruments had a solo. Though there are plenty of performer choices involved with a live performance of the work, one of its major joys is as a communal experience, where a group of musicians play off and over each other, with no solos involved.

We did not stay for the whole performance, and darted across the street for more Edward Munch madness. James Parr is posing with Self-Portrait with Spanish Influenza.

Then we went to the 7th floor, looked at the strange new skyline South of Market from their terrace, and experienced Ragnar Kjartansson's hour-long The Visitors again, which was oddly closer in musical style, communal spirit, and emotional affect to In C than the live performance across the street.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Elektra at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is presenting a very good production of Richard Strauss's shocking 1909 opera, Elektra, propelled by one of the best casts imaginable in the world, headed by Christine Goerke in the title role. The soprano is onstage from the pre-show open curtain to the final notes two hours later, singing the insanely difficult role with lyrical beauty, power, and intelligence. It is one of the greatest operatic performances I have heard at the San Francisco Opera over the last 40-plus years. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

The new production by the British director Keith Warner opened last year in Prague, where it received pretty dismal reviews, partly because it didn't have this astounding cast. The concept seems to be that the entire story is taking place in an unstable woman's mind after she remains behind after closing hours at a sleek, contemporary museum in a room dedicated to artifacts from Agamemnon and the cursed House of Atreus. Some ideas worked better than others, but the production didn't get in the way of the essential story, and the set design by Boris Kudlička and lighting by John Bishop was striking and visually engaging, with dioramas representing different rooms in the palace appearing and disappearing smoothly.

The murdering mom, Klytemnestra, a role that is usually assigned to legendary sopranos on their last vocal legs, was sung beautifully by the comparatively young mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens. Styled like an alcoholic, imperious housewife/queen, she was genuinely pitiful. I only wished there had been a more interesting staging of her terrifying entrance music, usually accompanied by bloody sacrifices to the angry gods who plague her dreams.

The sweet sister, Chrysothemis, who is given the most lyrical music, was sung almost perfectly by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, and though she refused to help Elektra hack her mother to death with an axe, her delight at the murderous deeds during the finale was one of the high musical moments of the production.

Orest, the exiled brother in disguise, was well sung by baritone Alfred Walker and his horror movie rampage near the end of the opera was very satisfying.

The 100-piece orchestra, the largest ever assembled in the pit at the War Memorial Opera House, was conducted by the young Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, and he led the ensemble in an amazingly transparent rendition of the extraordinarily complex score which can easily turn into a muddy mess. The individual musicians should be proud of themselves because they sounded like one of the best operatic orchestras on the globe. There are only three more performances, tonight (September 19th), this Friday (September 22nd), and Wednesday, September 27th. Make sure you get to one of those performances if you can, and if you're feeling poor, standing room at the SF Opera is still an unbelievably inexpensive $10.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

SF Symphony Gala 2017

An old friend, Joshua Contreras, had left a pair of Stacy Adams wingtips in our closet for the last 10 years, lost and forgotten. Last month he sent an SOS from El Paso, asking if they happened to still be in the closet, and they were. Before sending them off to the Lone Star State, though, I took them out for a last spin at the San Francisco Symphony Gala Opening last Thursday.

I was joined by my friend Steve Susoyev above who was wearing the other pair of fancy footwear as he guided Frances Hsieh around the Prosecco Promenade in the Davies Hall lobby.

Frances managed to upstage us both.

The annual fundraising gala opens with a quintet of dinners and cocktails at City Hall, a party tent next door, and the tiny Wattis Room for the truly elite.

After dinner, the crowds join each other in the lobby to see and be seen.

This year's edition was younger and mellower than usual, and the people watching was perfectly delightful.

There was also an opening musical concert wedged in with music director Michael Tilson Thomas leading the audience in a sing-along Star Spangled Banner, a Happy 90th Birthday arrangement which he sang to Bernard Osher who was perched in a stageside box, and a quartet of classical music bon-bons with the orchestra.

The concert started with a rambunctious performance of Bernstein's overture to Candide, which the orchestra will be presenting complete in January. This was followed by the star of the evening, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, playing the Saint-Saëns Cello Conerto #1 and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. This was the first time I had heard Yo-Yo Ma play live, which felt a bit like checking off a box on a bucket list. Decades ago, I heard an older Isaac Stern make a mess of a Mozart violin concerto so I was a bit apprehensive about encountering another legend late in their career (Ma has been performing in public since child prodigy days in the early 1960s), but there was no reason to worry. It was easy to hear why he is a legend.

The concert ended with yet another traversal through Ravel's Bolero, followed by parties and dancing in the tent and outdoors on Grove Street. Even with our magic shoes, we were wimps and only lasted about an hour, but the food and drink and people were fun.