24 September 2017

Haiku 2017/267

sky shining waters
which is blue: water or sky?
ripples through the clouds

New Century Chamber Orchestra: season opener

Last Thursday I went to First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear the New Century Chamber Orchestra. The concert was not only this excellent group's season opener, it was the first under new Artistic Partner Daniel Hope after Artistic Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's departure and the first concert (at least that I've been to) at First Congregational since the terrible fire there about a year ago. There was new music, too, so the concert's official title – New Horizons – seemed more appropriate than these things usually are.

The red brick church itself, in its stripped-down New England Protestant style, looks as good as ever, though a little more bare than it used to be inside (if there is an altar it was moved, and their usual banners were not hanging). Outside things are a little rougher than I expected; some of the yard in front of the church is fenced off, and there is a burnt-out parish building still braced and blockaded. I don't know if something is not yet settled in the back of the church, because the players entered and exited by walking down the center aisle. So the rebuilding is still in progress, but it's nice to have this familiar and beloved venue available again.

The new pieces on the program were framed by old favorites; the concert opened with Mendelssohn's Octet and closed with Tchaikovsky's Serenade, both performed with NCCO's familiar sound, lush and deep. I hadn't heard either piece for quite a while and it's nice to have that "oh, yeah, this is that piece" feeling as the music returns to memory. Hope spoke before each piece; his remarks were brief and pertinent, though I continue to feel that if your work-night concert is not even starting until 8:00, then you should eschew the chatting.

Before the second piece we heard a brief introduction from Alan Fletcher, which was fine since he was the composer and this was its world premiere. A co-commission among NCCO, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, and the Savannah Festival, this violin concerto (titled Violin Concerto) featured Daniel Hope as the soloist and is dedicated to him. Fletcher mentioned some of the influences on him while writing it – mostly visual, like moonlight on the ocean off the Maine coast, but also aural, from the natural world, as in the sound of waves and lapping water. (I was a bit amused that in his remarks he mentioned inspirational waters around the Bay Area, along with other connections to this area, while in the program book his notes mostly linked these elements to Zurich and its lake: why not, water is everywhere, and necessary everywhere. There is also a chorale by Reformation leader Zwingli worked into and varied in the music; Zwingli is ineluctably Zurich, but Fletcher did point out how appropriate it was that we were in a Protestant church (though one inclusive beyond the Reformer's dreams or fears).) The piece opens with a cleaner, more stylized "tuning" segment of the sort that gets done informally before each concert, and then it moves off into a more romantic sound world, though instead of working up a few big tunes that get repeated the music frequently swerves off into another view until finally it swirls up and vanishes. There is a lot of landscape-inspired music now, much of it evoking wide-open spaces and airier more evanescent qualities; this piece sounded heftier – more mountainous, if you will. It's a very attractive piece, which I enjoyed quite a lot.

The other new or newish piece on the program came after the intermission, Orawa by Wojciech Kilar. The title refers to a region in Poland, named for the river that runs through it. So as with the Fletcher piece, we had music inspired by landscapes, particularly those involving water, but in this case there was also a concentration on the peasant dances of the region. There is a repeating figure that gets louder, somewhat in the style of Ravel's Bolero, and it ends with the orchestra players all crying out Hey! It was a fun piece. Then came the melodious enchantments of the Tchaikovsky Serenade, followed after applause by a brief encore, a setting of America the Beautiful, and here's where for once I wanted to hear something from the stage, because I was curious who did this arrangement, which managed to shed a poignant grace on the exhausted sentiments of the overly familiar song.

Next up for New Century is a concert series on 8 - 12 November, with violinist Benjamin Beilman leading another combination of music both old (Bach, Biber, Beethoven) and new (Andrew Norman; and should Stravinsky go here or, at this point, under old music?). Check here for more details.

23 September 2017

21 September 2017

20 September 2017

Haiku 2017/263

leaves rattle past us
birds like black specks wheel above
the sun sets early

19 September 2017

Haiku 2017/262

cat perched on a fence
glaring with his mean green eyes
I stroll by, smiling

17 September 2017

Haiku 2017/260

grey haze of twilight . . .
has night fallen already . . .
a passing shadow

16 September 2017

14 September 2017

13 September 2017

12 September 2017

11 September 2017

Haiku 2017/254

when the thunder cracks
even the stately cats stop
then bolt like lightning

10 September 2017

Ars Minerva: La Circe

This Friday and Saturday I was at the ODC Theater in the Mission to see La Circe, Ars Minerva's revival of an opera unheard since 1665, when Pietro Andrea Ziani (and perhaps a few other hands) composed it for the birthday celebrations of the Holy Roman Emperor. This is only the third production by Ars Minerva, an enterprising and invaluable company dedicated to reviving forgotten works of the Venetian baroque, but each production has been outstanding and delightful and a useful reminder of the operatic riches that remain yet uncovered beyond the constant revivals of Traviata and Bohème. Local opera lovers are deeply in debt to mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, the founder, Artistic Director, and guiding force of the group.

She took on the title role of the ancient Greek enchantress Circe with her usual conviction and force. Although Circe is best remembered for her ultimate failure to enchant Ulysses, who persuaded her not to turn his sailors into domestic animals and who eventually left her to return to Ithaca and the faithful Penelope, that wanderer does not appear in this work. Instead, the whole thing takes place right after his abrupt departure, which hangs over the geometrically complicated love affairs and grounds Circe's anger in her recent betrayal by him. The opera opens with two sly and cheerful nymphs singing about the joys of youth, an ebullience rapidly pushed aside when the mournful and shrouded Circe enters, shadowed by an also shrouded dancer, wondering where her lover has gone.

The production (by Ricci) was described in the program as semi-staged, but it seemed fully realized to me. Clever use is made of the intimate theater space, with some characters entering from the back of the audience, others going off to the sides to eavesdrop, either by the exit or by the band on the far edge of the stage. We were close enough to the action for Scylla to hand out lovely chaplets of tiny orange roses to some in the first and second rows, as well as to the musicians. (I was skipped on Friday, but last night she gave me a garland, though sadly it was not large enough for my massive cranium, as otherwise I would have worn it all the way on BART back to my house.) As with Ars Minerva's previous productions, the setting is mostly provided by projections, including lovely and evocative watercolorish paintings by Patricia Nardi as well as stylish black-and-white photographs and collaged old engravings. One filmed view of the island trees showed them opening up so we could see the heroes captivated and transformed by Circe; one composite shot of sottish grinning half-pigs-half-humans was particularly comic and unsettling. There were a couple of dance sequences, performed here by a single aerial acrobat/dancer, Katherine Hutchinson, who also choreographed her striking routines. Her elegant entanglements in a hanging black drapery perfectly symbolized the often self-inflicted love complications of the story.

The main action is the transformation of Scylla into a sea monster by the scheming Circe; as is often the case with water-women in myth and folklore, Scylla has a coy, flirtations, but cold personality, rejecting the love of Glaucus, whose desirability is the fulcrum of the plot. He, passionately in love with the indifferent Scylla, in turn has abandoned the faithful Aegle, who has disguised herself as a man, Floreno, in order to find him. . . . but there's really no point in spelling out the love complications. They are conventional yet also personal to the lamenting individuals affected. This way of feeling universal and even standard-issue troubles as new and particular to oneself is one of the surprisingly realistic aspects of baroque opera, a genre that often spends its time among the nymphs, gentle shepherds, and doughty heroes of bygone times. There are melancholy and thoughtful arias on the relations among grief, anger, longing, and love.

Ars Minerva is a young company without a lot of spare cash, but I never look at their productions and think they're cutting corners to cut costs, the way I sometimes do at better-funded houses. This observation is particularly true of the projections, but the costumes (by Matthew Nash for the men and Lindsi Bristow for the women)  also ranged from suitable to delightful, from the black robes of the sorceress to the ensemble of glittering white-and-gold pants and jacket (no shirt), with their wave- or fin-like scalloping, for the watery Glaucus. In a neat reminder of the island setting, shoes were not worn.

The cast was strong: beautiful voices in the service of memorable performances. As mentioned earlier, Ricci was an intense Circe. Kyle Stegall gave a silken lissomeness to Glauco (Glaucus), and Kindra Scharich gave gorgeous and touching voice to the faithful Andromaca (as well as the Second Nymph at the beginning). Jasmine Johnson was an ardent and striking powerhouse as Aegle/Floreno, whose pain at her abandonment by Glauco kept breaking through her masquerade; though she gets her man at the end, she seems still angry in her triumph and he seems less than happy in his acquiescence, which was one of the clever and insightful touches in the staging. (I would love to know if it was played this way originally, or if there was just a conventional "we're all happy and in love now" moment to seal off the story). Ryan Belongie was a graceful Pyrrhus, the faithful lover of Andromaca (in a minor flub on Saturday night he seemed to forget his place for a moment and had to go over to Derek Tam at the harpsichord for a prompt). Aurélie Veruni was pert perfection as the chaste Scylla (as well as the First Nymph), but also well able to express her grief at her unwonted metamorphosis. Jonathan Smucker was sharply amusing as the cynical comic sidekick Gligoro, and Igor Viera brought a commanding and authoritative presence to several smaller roles.

The music was consistently engaging, ranging from occasional sprightliness to rage and grief. Though it is believed Ziani composed the opera, there were some parts – a dance sequence, a passacaglia towards the end – that are attributed to other composers who are roughly his contemporaries. The collaborative nature of early modern theater is a hot topic right now, and it is interesting to see that it is as true of Venetian opera as it was of Elizabethan theater. The information about the different composers was explained to us beforehand by Paul Miller, who also wrote the program notes; I am not a big fan of chat from the stage and frankly would have preferred to have this information (which is interesting but not really relevant to our immediate understanding and enjoyment of the show) restricted to the program notes. Derek Tam led from the harpsichord, and the excellent ensemble was made up of Adam Cockerham on theorbo, Gretchen Claassen on cello, Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci on violin, and Addi Liu on viola.

The opera ends rather abruptly, not with a chorus or a big number but with Circe in solitude, quietly vowing to dedicate herself to the infernal powers. I was reminded of the way some movies end with what is clearly meant to be the set-up for a sequel. Though I suspect no one is going to discover a score of Circe 2: The Enchantening, I still can't wait to see what Ricci and company come up with for their next season.

Haiku 2017/253

no stars can be seen
they hide under cloud covers
such fluffy blankets

09 September 2017

Haiku 2017/252

The train rolls in, late.
The sun does not seem to sink.
Pigeons sit, staring.

07 September 2017

06 September 2017

05 September 2017

04 September 2017

03 September 2017

Haiku 2017/246

what moves in this heat?
the world, away from the sun;
the rivers of sweat

02 September 2017

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September 2017

We are lucky to have several small and adventurous opera companies in the Bay Area and one of the most exciting is Ars Minerva, now in its third season of reviving operas of the Venetian baroque. This year's offering, which will be heard for the first time since the birthday celebrations of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I in 1665, is Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe, a tale of the ancient Greek enchantress Circe. If this is anything like their two previous productions (La Cleopatra and The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles) it is sure to be a delight. You can check it out 8 - 9 September at the ODC Theater in San Francisco.

San Francisco Opera opens its fall season with Puccini's Turandot in the familiar Hockney production; Martina Serafin sings the title role in the six September performances and Nina Stemme takes over for the six performances in November and December. The 8 September performance is Opening Night, so you may embrace or avoid that depending on your taste. Verdi's La Traviata returns for ten performances in September and October.

The big event at SF Opera this month, though, is undoubtedly Strauss's Elektra with Christine Goerke in the title role; there are only six performances, from 9 to 27 September, so catch it while you can.

The Curran Theater presents Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, in four six-hour parts; Part 1 (15 September) covers 1776 - 1836, Part 2 (17 September) covers 1836 - 1896, Part 3 (22 September) covers 1896 - 1956, and Part 4 (24 September) covers 1956 to the present.

Custom Made Theatre presents How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel from 7 September to 7 October.

You can see another play by Paula Vogel, The Mineola Twins, directed by Ariel Craft, when Cutting Ball Theater opens its season; the run starts 28 September and goes to 29 October.

ACT presents Hamlet, starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Carey Perloff, from 20 September to 15 October at the Geary Theater.

Shotgun Players presents Sarah Kane's Blasted, directed by Jon Tracy, from 21 September to 22 October.

At the San Francisco Symphony, you can hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, along with Jeremy Denk as the soloist in Bartók's Piano Concerto #2, and that's on 28 and 30 September and 1 October. The Symphony is also launching a season-long celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein, and OK, I know he is a Major Figure and much beloved by many people who don't happen to be me, but with the exception of Candide I don't really respond to his music or his personality, so when I look at the all-Bernstein concert on 22 - 24 September, my interest in hearing the always wonderful mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is, I'm afraid, outweighed by my complete lack of interest in yet another go-through of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; your mileage may vary and my indifference to Bernstein says more about me than about the artist, which is usually the case with these things.

New Century Chamber Orchestra kicks off its first season under new Artistic Partner Daniel Hope, the British violinist who replaced Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in a similar role, with the world premiere of a Violin Concerto by Alan Fletcher, Orawa by Wojciech Kilar, the Tchaikovsky Serenade and the Mendelssohn Octet. You can hear the band in an open rehearsal on 20 September at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center and then 21 September at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, 22 (matinee on a Friday) and 23 September at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and 24 September at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.

Chanticleer sings songs of war and peace from the English Reformation up to our own time, including works by Mason Bates, John Musto, and Jennifer Higdon (excerpts from her opera Cold Mountain). The program is 16 September in Santa Clara, 17 September in Sacramento, 22 and 24 September in San Francisco, and 23 September in Pleasanton.

Visual Arts
SFMoMA opens a Walker Evans exhibit on 30 September; it closes on 4 February 2018, and speaking of closing, you only have until 9 October to see the Edvard Munch exhibit, which is worth seeing more than once.

Haiku 2017/245

the smell of berries
bursting in the summer sun
I'm a boy again