Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Music for a Modern Age at the SF Symphony

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the San Francisco Symphony last week with an adventurous, theatrically staged program entitled Music for a Modern Age featuring works by American composers Charles Ives, Lou Harrison, George Antheil, and Tilson Thomas himself. The result on Sunday afternoon was a mixed bag, with many successful elements and a few misfires. Two short, early 20th Century Ives pieces, From the Steeples and the Mountains and The Unanswered Question, began the program with an astringent, bracing blast of modernism. Bass and woodwind players performed onstage, percussionists banging on chimes were on the side terraces, a few other instruments were perched in the balcony, and in The Unanswered Question an entire string section played a delicate tune from the lobby (the doors to the auditorium were kept open). The program booklet noted that there was video by Adam Larsen, but the curving screens stayed blank during the Ives, though the stage was dramatically lit by Luke Kritzeck. (All photos in this post are by Cory Weaver.)

This was followed by the "West Coast premiere" of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, an ambitious setting by Tilson Thomas of a famous 1920 Carl Sandburg poem about time and the death of "the greatest city,/the greatest nation:/nothing like us ever was." The music was a deliberately jarring mixture of classical modernism and Broadway pop, featuring the superb soprano Measha Brueggergosman convincingly singing music that sounded like Lukas Foss one moment and Dreamgirls the next.

She was joined by Mikaela Bennett and Kate Dugan as "golden girls" and the trio were entertaining as they sang and danced synchronized routines staged by director James Darrah all over the stage and terraces, backed by explosive splashes of color in the reliably brilliant videos by Adam Larsen.

I am not sure what to make of the work itself except to note there was one major problem on Sunday, namely the horrible amplified sound in Davies Hall. The mixture of acoustic instruments and amplified singers/bar band may have worked well at the New World Symphony's concert hall in Miami where Playthings premiered earlier this year, but Davies Hall has some of the crappiest amplified sound of any venue in San Francisco. This concert was publicized with the promise that it would be bringing the experience of the SF Symphony's hipster nightclub, SoundBox, into the larger Davies Hall, and my first thought was, "Can you bring the Meyer sound system from SoundBox while you're at it?" As my concert companion put it, "One of the great voices and orchestras in the world playing live, and it sounds like we're listening to AM radio."

After intermission, Nadya Tichman and a half dozen Symphony percussionists reprised their December 2016 SoundBox performance of Lou Harrison's Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, an achingly lyrical piece co-composed by local violinist Richard Dee. It's a seven movement suite, and they played only three of them at SoundBox and four on this program. One of these days, Nadya will be allowed to perform the whole thing, which would be a delight because she obviously loves the music and made me cry all over again during the final Chaconne. Interestingly, this sweet, quiet, passionate work was the unexpected audience favorite on Sunday afternoon, possibly because it was an island of calm surrounded by assaultive musical seas.

The final work was George Antheil's 1925 original version of A Jazz Symphony, a fun and rambunctious mix of dissonant pianistic modernism and tuneful American jazz. The theatrical icing was "conceived for the stage" by Michael Tilson Thomas and directed/choreographed by his friend, the Broadway veteran Patricia Birch. It would be nice to report that the result was sophisticated and sexy, but in truth it struck me as old-fashioned and sexist, with the excellent dancers Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore shaking their asses as stylized versions of Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker in 1920s Gay Paree. "This looks like entertainment you'd see on a cruise line," my concert companion muttered, and though I have never been on a cruise, that sounded about right.

It was too bad because the musical performance of the innovative symphony was so good, including brilliant, over-the-top performances by solo pianist Peter Dugan above and SF Symphony principal horn player Mark Inouye.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Vijay Iyer and Friends at Ojai at Berkeley



The long-running, annual summer contemporary music festival in the Southern California hamlet of Ojai has been producing a satellite event with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley for the last seven years. The NoCal version of the SoCal festival usually features a few highlights of the previous week's outdoor music fest which is programmed by a different Music Director each year. Those directors have ranged from Igor Stravinsky to Michael Tilson Thomas to Pierre Boulez to Kent Nagano to Mark Morris. This year's leader was jazz pianist and MacArthur "Genius" Vijay Iyer, which brought a welcome infusion of Bay Area, Indian audiences to Zellerbach Hall last weekend.

Last Saturday afternoon, there was a program entitled Vijay Iyer and Friends: Confluence which was an improvisatory jam session among four musicians with roots in Western Jazz and Classical Indian music. The only reason I attended was to join a good friend who had just returned from her first, transformative trip to India, and was not expecting much because I have never been a Western jazz or Indian music fan, mostly out of ignorance. So it was a special surprise when the afternoon turned out to be one of the more memorable musical experiences of my life.

In Vijay Iyer's introduction of his friends, he noted that saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has been a collaborator for decades in various jazz ensembles while the tabla master Zakir Hussan who has played with seemingly every interesting musician in the world over the last five decades "needed no introduction." Then Iyer told about being interviewed by a magazine and asked who his favorite Indian musician was, and he thought, "Well, nobody's going to read this so I might as well be honest," and he named the Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam above as his top pick. "As it turned out, she did read it, and managed to get my phone number, and suddenly I was receiving a call from her saying let's work together, and here we are." (All four are in the blurry photo below.)

"This is the second time we have played together in public, and I'm hoping there will be more chances in the future," Iyer said, and after listening and watching these supremely talented, gifted musicians play with each other, I hope so too. The set list was a mixture of compositions by Iyer and Mahanthappa along with a few Indian pop and classical favorites that half of the audience knew and could clap along with.

The saxophone was a little overwhelming in sound and a bit too Western Jazz in style for my tastes, but watching Hussain and Sairam throw each other rhythmic curves while seated cross-legged next to each other was thrilling. Meanwhile, Iyer offered a seamless, unobtrusive, endlessly fascinating set of riffs on the piano. It was the 64-year-old vocalist Aruna Sairam, however, who took this performance into the sublime. On her website is the following statement: "When on stage Aruna enters into another realm. The audience, while listening to her and watching her perform, experiences a timeless and spaceless sensation." Ordinarily, that kind of hyperbole would strike me as silly, but in this case was the transcendant truth.

There is a wonderful quote on the website from a 2011 London Evening Standard review that sums it up: "Hail a New Queen of Soul…The mesmerising star of this concert at the Royal Albert Hall was South Indian singer Aruna Sairam. She is a soul singer up there with Aretha Franklin. I was trying, and failing, to think of a classical singer with the same status and artistry – Jesse Norman, Cecilia Bartoli? I'm afraid not. Aruna Sairam has the universal power to take you to another world." Stumbling across her performance last Saturday was like discovering a Maria Callas or Leontyne Price or the Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum without any idea of what was coming. For a taste of her divinity, check out a few of these YouTube videos by clicking here and join the diva worship cult for Aruna Sairam.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Back to the 70s with Mike Mandel at SFMOMA

Last month SFMOMA opened an exhibit dedicated to the recently deceased photographer Larry Sultan, and this month an exhibit dedicated to his friend and artistic collaborator, the very much living Mike Mandel, opened in an adjoining gallery.

The two Los Angeles artists met in the early 1970s at the San Francisco Art Institute, and embarked on a number of conceptual pranks together, including actual billboards that advertised nothing and an influential book assemblage of photographs called Evidence "sourced from scientific, industrial, police, military and other archives."

While the Sultan exhibit takes us through California from the 1970s to the present time, Mandel's exhibit takes you down a wormhole squarely into the 1970s, Bay Area art school subdivision. Most of the work consists of black and white photographs featuring the goofy-looking young Mandel posing Zelig-like with various individuals and groups of people.

One amusing series has Mandel photobombing the San Francisco Giants of the mid-1970s, with pitcher John Montefusco sporting the hairy chest in the clubhouse.

For the summer months, SFMOMA has extended their Saturday hours to 8 PM, which must be hell on overworked security guards who are holding down multiple jobs, but nice for museumgoers who work Monday through Friday.

I bought a membership a couple of months ago and have been learning how to navigate the huge, maze-like structure of the expanded seven-story building. After experiencing the scruffy B&W 1970s of Mandel, I walked down to the 2nd floor permanent collection to get back some color in my life...

...and indulge in some world-class people-watching.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Terrific Rite of Spring at the SF Symphony

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki (above right) returned to guest conduct the SF Symphony last weekend, and though I tend to love her concerts, I wasn't going to attend this one because the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto #1 and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Not being a big Beethoven fan and having been terribly disappointed in 2013 when Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Stravinsky in 2013, this didn't sound like my cup of tea until I heard from an insider that the Rite of Spring was sounding sensational in rehearsal. So I attended the final Sunday matinee performance, and the insider was right, the Rite of Spring performance was off the charts, one of the most extraordinarily exciting musical performances of my concert going career. During the first half, the long, ambitious Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 was close to being interesting because Mälkki and the orchestra offered a musical reading full of intensity and verve, but the piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson (above left) gave a performance that seemed to be in another, more genteel, duller reality, completely competent but without an ounce of passion.

The concert started with Stravinsky's Opus 3 from 1907, a 10-minute Scherzo Fantastique that chirped along nimbly but didn't really go anywhere. The orchestra sounded wonderful in it, though, a harbinger of the full-out, virtuosic, communal masterpiece they conjured after intermission with The Rite of Spring. Conductor Mälkki somehow managed to establish a musical through-line in the jagged, disjointed, episodic ballet music that never wavered. The transitions in dynamics between fortissimo and pianissimo in the same phrase were seamless and breathtaking, and her sense of rhythm was sure and steady while allowing a space for crazed offbeats and shrieks.

What was most impressive is that the performance managed to strip away decades of interpretation and make the piece sound brand new and genuinely wild. For the first time, the shock of what this music must have sounded like in 1913 came through loud and clear, and at certain moments (I'm thinking of the end of Part 1), it became almost unbearably exciting. To make a standard piece of the repertory feel vital and brand new is a special gift. Susanna Mälkki did the same thing in a performance of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony a couple of years ago. She is now one of my handful of favorite living conductors in the world, and I hope she does not object to the photo above of her looking a bit crazed after that mind-blowing performance on Sunday. She certainly looks like I felt after hearing it.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

SF Silent Film Festival

The 22nd annual edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival unspooled 18 films over four days last weekend. The festival seems to get bigger and better every year, with a rotating roster of musicians from around the world accompanying the films.

Somebody once described artistic director Anita Monga (above) to me as "The one person in the world who knows where the only existing print of an obscure film is hiding in someone's attic." As programmer of the Castro Theatre for decades during the 1970s through 1990s, she probably brought more joy and interesting movies to my life than anyone else. As programmer for the Silent Film Festival and Eddie Muller's annual Noir Film Festival, she continues as one of the reigning cultural treasures of San Francisco.

Saturday afternoon I saw a brand new restoration of the complete 1920 Outside The Law, a crime thriller set in San Francisco's Chinatown and Knob Hill (as the titles put it). Directed by Tod Browning of Dracula and Freaks fame, the film starred Priscilla Dean, his leading lady for nine movies that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Crookdom." Her looks of contempt at her wannabe lover while holed up in the Knob Hill hideaway were almost the highlight of the film, but there was also Lon Chaney as an Irish crime boss and a Chinese servant, massive shootouts on the streets of San Francisco, a society ball with San Francisco swells, and a demented boy actor with a bowl haircut who would bounce into the hideaway and insist on kissing everyone repeatedly on the lips. The most interesting twist was that the Chinese characters, even though portrayed by white men, are presented as wise and judicious Confucian advisors to cops and criminals alike rather than the usual sinister Orientals.

What elevates this festival to another level is the musicianship of the accompanists, including my personal favorite Stephen Horne, who usually plays solo on a grand piano while occasionally pulling out a flute or an accordion.

He was joined by percussionist Frank Bockius on a drum set (above right) for Outside The Law, an inspired choice for the fast-paced scenes of mayhem.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Lou Harrison Centennial Concert at the Mission Dolores Basilica

The Other Minds Festival's 22nd annual edition offered a pair of concerts devoted to the music of Lou Harrison (1917-2003) on what would have been his centenary year. Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian wrote in the program notes that Lou was not only a composer, but a "poet, dancer, dance and music critic, playwright, Esperantist, builder of instruments, painter, calligrapher, essayist and teacher." He was also a shining prototype of a West Coast, gay, leftist, pacifist, multicultural hippie artist, and his music is aging well. (Pictured above is Amirkhanian in front of portraits of Harrison and his lover/partner Bill Colvig which were part of a silent auction benefiting the festival.)

The concerts were given at the Mission Dolores Basilica, a perfect location as it allowed for a large audience at a venue with surprisingly good acoustics, and it turns out that Harrison studied Gregorian Chant at the Basilica when he was a San Francisco teenager. Amirkhanian asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever met Lou Harrison and half the crowd did so. This was probably the hippest crowd of old artists and their supporters I have encountered in one place.

Amirkhanian collaborated with Harrison on multiple projects, beginning in the late 1960s when Amirkhanian became musical programming director of Berkeley's KPFA radio during its glory decades. They continued as friends and admirers over the years at Harrison's Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz and Amirkhanian's Other Minds Festival in San Francisco.

I missed the first concert this winter but managed to catch the second on Saturday, May 20th. The program ranged from a pair of wild organ pieces, continued with delicate chamber music, and culminated in a huge mixed chorus singing in Esperanto over a gamelan percussion orchestra. Jerome Lenk, the Music Director and principal organist of the Basilica, started the concert with the 1946-47 Praises for Michael the Archangel for organ with a style derived from Schoenberg who was Harrison's teacher for a couple of years, and finished with the 1987-89 Pedal Sonata for Organ where no keyboards are harmed and all the sound is created with footwork on the pedals. Having a personal aversion to solo organ music, this wasn't my favorite part of the concert, but Lenk gave a virtuosic performance on a splendid sounding instrument. In between, Meredith Clark above played the 1990 Threnody for Oliver Daniel for Harp.

Clark was joined by cellist Emil Miland for the five movement, 1948 Suite for Harp and Cello in a lovely performance that underlined what is so special about Harrison's music: its distinct mixture of complexity and simplicity with a sheen of rigorous beauty.

The second half offered a performance of the 1974 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, co-composed with Richard Dee who was in the audience. With his lover William Colvig, Harrison assembled an American Gamelan nicknamed "Old Granddad" in the late 1960s. According to the program, it was "based partly on traditional Indonesian designs and partly using found objects. Aluminum slabs, tin cans, electrical conduit and empty oxygen tanks, cut to various sizes and struck with sawed-off baseball bats, replacing the gongs of the Asian gamelan." The Original Granddad is still housed at UC Santa Cruz, and was reassembled on the Basilica pulpit where it looked right at home. Violinist Shalini Vijayan above was the soloist and the William Winant Percussion Group (with Winant pictured above) played the amazing instrument. Just when you think the five-movement suite can't get any more lyrically gorgeous, the final Chaconne takes you to another realm. It was a wonderful performance by percussionists and soloist alike, and when Michael Tilson Thomas reprises it later this month at one of his American Maverick concerts, I hope they play the whole thing instead of excerpts as was done at a SoundBox concert earlier this year. The piece deserves it.

The finale was the 1972 La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra), written for the Old Granddad gamelan, harp, organ, and a huge mixed chorus. From a prayer in the Bhagavad Gita, the text has been translated into Esperanto, the "constructed" language from the late 19th century which was meant to usher in world peace once everyone could speak to each other. At least half the words in the language end in an "o" or "a" which makes it perfect for vocal settings, and the live performance by the combined forces of the Mission Dolores Choir, the Resound Choir, and a few assorted guests exceeded all expectations.

William Winant recorded the 30-minute work in 1988 and I have been listening to that CD as meditative morning music for decades. It was a rare treat to have him leading his percussion ensemble on the original instruments.

The wonderful young percussionists playing with Winant all deserve recognition: Sarong Kim, Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, and Henry Wilson.

Imagine the combination of a Balinese gamelan orchestra mixed with a 100-person Gregorian Chant chorus and you will have some idea of what this magical piece sounds like. There have been a number of attempts at synthesizing Western classical music traditions and Eastern classical music traditions, but none quite as perfectly integrated as this strange masterpiece. The pop-up chorus was also unexpectedly great in very exposed music.

Credit for that should probably go to conductor Nicole Paiement, who I had seen earlier in the day rehearsing her Opera Parallele company in the Philip Glass opera Les Enfants Terrible. Where she gets her energy is anybody's guess, but there could not have been a better leader for these two gamelan pieces. She was a friend and mutual admirer of Harrison in Santa Cruz, and though she is always a great conductor, I think even she was surprised at how well this performance of La Koro Sutro turned out. Everybody on the pulpit looked rather dazed at the end, where the extremely delicate, trancelike music finished with an uproarious blast of cacophonous energy from everyone. There was an air of, "What did we just do? That was amazing." And it was.