26 November 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2016

This year has been a mixed bag, as usual, for most of us, I guess, but I'm also  pretty sure most of us will not be sorry to see it slide off into the past. In the meantime, we have one more month, and let's try to make the best of it. There are some holiday things on the list, but I omit the usual suspects on the grounds that you already know which annual holiday performances are part of your personal joy. (I do make an exception for Messiah, which I love, and which has its own category below, though I have to admit I haven't heard it live in several years – maybe this is the year to re-establish the personal tradition of hearing one or more live performances each season). Some organizations are having "Black Friday" sales; "Black Friday" is the holiday on which we celebrate the birth of Capitalism, and these days it seems to encompass weeks, so you might get a lower-price ticket if you shop early – or, conversely, you might discover as I did that the expensive ticket you bought just last week for a concert next March would have been available to you for almost half-price in a few days, if you had but known, because 2016.

Shotgun Players is finishing off its 25th anniversary season by running all five of this year's shows in repertory. I'm still hoping to write entries on all five shows, because delusional hope is what keeps me going, but here's my quick summary: Hamlet, done with six actors who don't know until ten minutes before the show which part(s) they will be playing that night: I went in thinking this was a gimmick, and kind of an annoying one at that, but I walked out a convert. I've seen it three times and would see it more if I could – don't miss it. The Village Bike: a powerful, unsettling play that has stuck with me since I saw it; unlike a lot of plays, which get weaker in memory, this one has gotten more powerful. It's theater that gets under your skin. Caught: a clever examination of the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we get caught up in – just when you think you know where you are, you find out you're somewhere else. Grand Concourse: a strong and appealing cast, but the play itself is fairly weak and frequently exasperating. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: I felt this was a very good production, but the play itself I find overlong and almost completely unconvincing. I'm sure it was more striking and original when it premiered in 1962, but perhaps it is one of those works that has created the conditions for its own future banality?

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Benjamin Britten's operatic treatment of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw on 9 and 11 December; the performances are free but you must make a reservation.

Christian Gerhaher returns to San Francisco Performances after his notable recital debut a couple of years ago; this time his is accompanied by pianist Gerold Huber in an all-Mahler program. That's 13 December at Herbst Theater.

Cal Performances presents mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato with Maxim Emelyanychev conducting Il Pomo d'Oro in a program of baroque music exploring states of war and peace. That's 4 December in Zellerbach Hall.

San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows perform their annual concert of operatic excerpts and arias, including selections from Der Fliegende Holländer, I Pagliacci, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Carlos, Luisa Miller, Billy Budd, La Fille du Régiment, and others, on 2 December in Herbst Theater.

Sarah Cahill plays an all-chaconne program at San Francisco Performance's Salon at the Rex series on 14 December.

Also note the Dylan Mattingly piece (Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field, performed by Kathy Supove on 9 December) at the Center for New Music, listed under Modern / Contemporary Music.

Modern / Contemporary Music
Cal Performances and the Kronos Quartet present some of the new works commissioned in their Fifty for the Future project; check here for the full list. That's 3 December in Zellerbach Hall.

If you're a modernist looking for a holiday event / old-style happening, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players are reviving Phil Kline's Unsilent Night on 10 December. This year's event will be at Mission Dolores Park; meet on Dolores Street at the tennis courts by the corner of 18th Street at at 5:00 PM with your boombox / phone / whatever plays CDs, tapes, or MP3s. Download the music and walk around, shifting sound and perspective.

The Friction Quartet joins a quartet of excellent singers (soprano Amy Foote, mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney, tenor Michael Desnoyers, and bass Sidney Chen) in a program of new works by Nick Benavides, Danny Clay, Noah Luna, and Mark Winges, each of which is inspired by an artist who died young (musicians Hank Williams, Jacqueline du Pré, and Charlie Parker, and poet Joe Bolton). That's 4 December at The Women's Building on 18th Street in San Francisco.

As always there is a cornucopia over at the Center for New Music, so check out their schedule. Some things that jump out at me for December: an evening of improvisation with guitarist Amy Brandon and trumpeter / vibraphonist Ben Zucker on 2 December; Blurred Music, another evening of mostly improvisation, this time with violinist Biliana Voutchkova and clarinetist Michael Thieke, on 4 December; pianist Kathy Supove playing the west coast premiere of Dylan Mattingly's epic piano piece Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field on 9 December; and a CD release concert for composer-pianist Eric Tran (the ticket price includes a copy of the CD) on 13 December.

Early / Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents Handel's oratorio Joshua, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, with soloists Thomas Cooley (tenor), Daniel Taylor (countertenor), William Berger (baritone), Yulia van Doren (soprano), and Gabrielle Haigh (soprano), and the Philharmonia Chorale (Bruce Lamott, director). That's 1 December at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, 2 December at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, 3 December at First Presbyterian in Berkeley, and 4 December at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette. Note the (sensible and welcome) early start times; baroque oratorios tend to run long.

If you are looking for some festive baroque music that does not involve the Hallelujah Chorus, the San Francisco Early Music Society presents the Archetti Baroque Strings along with baroque trumpeter Kathryn Adduci and soprano Clara Rottsolk in Christmas music by Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Telemann, Bach, Torelli, and Manfredini (I will confess I know nothing about those last two); you can hear them 9 December at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 10 December at St John's Presbyterian in Berkeley, or 11 December at First Unitarian in San Francisco.

Also note that Joyce diDonato and Il Pomo d'Oro are at Cal Performances in a baroque program on 4 December, listed above under Vocalists.

American Bach Soloists continues its popular tradition of performing Messiah in Grace Cathedral; this year you can hear Jeffrey Thomas lead soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Emily Marvosh (contralto), Derek Chester (tenor), and Mischa Bouvier (baritone), along with ABS's chorus and period orchestra, from 14 to 16 December (there are additional performances on 10 December at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis and 18 December at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park). ABS also offers DVDs and Blu-Rays of their Grace Cathedral performances (I have not seen the film).

Cal Performances presents the choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra in Messiah on 10 December in Zellerbach Hall.

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Patrick Dupré Quigley, and the excellent Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, performs Messiah on 15 - 17 December, with soloists Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Anthony Roth Constanzo (countertenor), Zachary Wilder (tenor), and Christian Van Horn (bass-baritone).

You can give in to the urge to join in those mighty choruses by signing up for the Golden Gate Symphony's Sing It Yourself Messiah on 12 December at Mission Dolores Basilica. Urs Leonhardt Steiner leads the group, with soloists Gina Silvermann (soprano), Theresa Cardinale (alto), William Wiggins (tenor), Alex Ip (bass) and Franklin Beau Davis (trumpet).

Paul Flight leads the California Bach Society in a Scandinavian Christmas program, which you can hear on 2 December at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, 3 December at All Saints' Episcopal in Palo Alto, or 4 December at St Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley.

The International Orange Chorale presents The Full Heart: Choral Music of Love and Passion, featuring new works by Ivo Antognini, David Conte, Paul Crabtree, Aaron Jay Kernis, Huang Ruo, Sven-David Sandström, Stephen Smith, Peter Warlock, Eric Whitacre, and Healey Willan. along with the world premiere of Into the Golden Vessel of Great Song by the Chorale's inaugural Composer-in-Residence, Nicholas Weininger; these free concerts are at All Soul's Episcopal in Berkeley (3 December) and St Mark's Lutheran (10 December) in San Francisco. The group's second CD, The Unknown Region, is also now available.

Old First Concerts presents the Lacuna Arts Chorale, led by Sven Edward Olbash, in Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte (The Christmas Story) and Arvo Pärt's Which Was the Son of . . . ; you can hear the concert on 9 December.

The Berkeley Symphony, led by guest conductor Elim Chan, performs the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 with soloist Shai Wosner and the US premiere of James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4; that's on 8 December.

The relatively new conductorless chamber ensemble One Found Sound presents an interesting program on 9 December at Heron Arts in San Francisco: George Enescu's Decet for Winds, Op 14, Aaron Copland's Quiet City (featuring Jessse Barrett on English horn and Brad Hogarth on trumpet), and Zoltán Kodálay's Dances of Galánta.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents A Day of Silents on 3 December at the gorgeous Castro Theater, with a typically enticing line-up including some Chaplin Essanay shorts; Lubitsch's So This Is Paris; Eisenstein's first feature, Strike; Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), one of the first features about homosexual life; The Last Command, for which Emil Jannings won the first Oscar for Best Actor; and Gloria Swanson as prostitute Sadie Thompson, in the first film version of Somerset Maugham's Rain. Lots of great stuff there!

The Silent Film Festival always has excellent live music, and the Day of Silents is no exception: the redoubtable Alloy Orchestra will be accompanying Strike and The Last Command, and while they're in the area they will also assist at showings of Dziga Vertov's avant-garde Russian classic Man With a Movie Camera at the Fox Theater in Visalia on 6 December and also Lon Chaney's HE Who Gets Slapped at Santa Rosa Community College in Petaluma on 9 December. HE Who Gets Slapped is one of my all-time favorite films, and HE's circus act has to be seen to be believed (I tracked down a copy of the original play by Leonid Andreyev, and there's no description of such an act, so hats off to whomever came up with it for the movie).

Among other things, 2016 is the 500th anniversary of the death of the beloved painter Hieronymous Bosch; in a new documentary, Hieronymous Bosch: Touched by the Devil, you can watch "a team of art historians as they travel the world to examine all of the known Bosch paintings with x-ray and infrared cameras"; that's showing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1 to 4 December. Sounds promising, though I've been burned by art documentaries before (like Tim's Vermeer, which I thought was both overheated and underthought; I gave up after half an hour).

24 November 2016

finding the word & a found poem

Is there a word for  the condition of finding the word that describes your condition? Because there should be. I recently came across the Japanese word tsundoku, defined as "the state of buying books and letting them pile up unread," which is as good a description of my life as any. I cannot resist bookstores, and find comfort in the piles of books, all close to hand. I assure myself that some day I will get to each and every one of them, even the ones that have been waiting on my shelves for decades. (We all have our ways of denying our mortality.) Recently while re-arranging the teetering piles, I came across this juxtaposition:

No points to the designers for originality, but it does seem like the quintessential image for a certain sort of nineteenth-century attitude.

Recently Oxford University Press was having another sale so I bought a pile of books from the Oxford World's Classics series, even though I've barely made a dent in the previous piles I bought at their previous sales (hence: tsundoku). I noticed that the backs of most of the books had big pull-quotes in red, and looking through them I felt they were a found poem:

Being persuaded that no woman was chaste, he resolved, in order to prevent the disloyalty of such as he should afterwards marry, to wed one every night, and have her strangled the next morning.

At least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.

These hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself.

I am not a man, I am dynamite.

Arms and the man I sing of Troy. . . 

His rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.

The nearest the general run get to art is Action: sex is their form of art: the battle for existence is their picture.

Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful one who taught by the pen, who taught man what he did not know.

For a wondrous power ordains that I shall walk hand-in-hand with my strange heroes for a long time yet, viewing the broad sweep and rapid flow of life, viewing it through the laughter that the world sees and the tears that it neither sees nor suspects.

19 November 2016

Ray Chen plays with New Century Chamber Orchestra

The Saturday after the presidential election I trekked out to Herbst Theater in San Francisco to hear violinist Ray Chen as guest soloist and conductor for New Century Chamber Orchestra. I believe he also chose the program. It was an evening that brought balm, despite the woman behind me coughing all through the Mozart Violin concerto #3 (followed by an impressive improvised cadenza of constant throat-clearing).

The performance opened with a different Mozart piece, the Divertimento in F major, K. 138. As you might guess from the composer's name, the music was a portal into a world very different from the one most of us have been living in recently. The performers all stood in a semi-circle. Chen is a very physical performer, leaning forward, leaning backwards, sometimes goggling his eyes at others as they saw away (this made one of the people in front of me giggle; I didn't think it was that funny, actually). I had heard him once before, at a subscriber gift concert sponsored by San Francisco Performances, but it was interesting to watch him interact with a whole group and not just one pianist. He conducted too, waving his bow as his baton. He has a full sound, capable of sweetness and pathos. The first half ended with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, in a haunting performance that brought out things I was not expecting from this music, with which I am mildly and vaguely familiar – here it was sadder, deeper, more mystical and mysterious than I had expected.

I'm not a big fan of chat from the stage, though I realize that is yet another losing battle of mine. I have to say that Chen does it better than most; he's very good-humored and extremely charming. He does ramble a bit, but so do they all, and his ramblings at least led us to amusing and unexpected places. At one point he noted that his original Australian accent had returned, as it sometimes does when he speaks publicly (his background is Taiwanese and Australian; he moved to this country at age 16, roughly a decade ago, to attend the Curtis Institute). In discussing his programming, he quoted his father as saying, "Mozart is to music as oil is to the wok," a koanic comparison that led to a moment of apparently stunned contemplation on the part of the audience. He also introduced us to his violin, joking that it was his girlfriend. It turns out he plays the Joachim Stradivarius – the very instrument played by Joseph Joachim, the great nineteenth-century violinist. Chen joked that this means that when he plays pieces like the Brahms Violin Concerto (dedicated to and first performed by Joachim) "the notes are already there, I just have to pull them out." I would have been interested in hearing how he came to play that instrument, but he did not tell us, and it was time to return to music anyway.

The charming Chen can go into different places when he plays (music coming from inside perhaps being a truer form of communication than words directed outwardly), and the second half opened with a stylish yet searching performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto #3 (accompanied by coughing directly behind me, as previously mentioned), followed by the stately rolling clouds of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings.

I can't emphasize enough how good it was to hear this music performed so richly at the end of a week that left most of us shocked, angry, and disgusted. I don't buy a lot of the bromides about art: I think music can divide us as easily as bring us together, I'm not sure anything can heal what has been happening in this country, but it was profoundly moving to see this varied group come together and, working in harmony, create and recreate the fleeting beauty left us by those who have gone ahead of us. What was happening outside had still (and was still) happening, but during the concert I kept thinking about Larkin's lines about the jazz trumpeter Sidney Bechet:

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. . . .

11 November 2016

9 November 2016

My Götterdämmerung t-shirt from my first Ring Cycle (Seattle, 1995).

I am slowly emerging from a state of shock (and the shock is partly that I was shocked . . . ).

Take care of yourselves, and then help take care of the world. The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, environmental and social justice groups, arts organizations – all are continuing their work of inching the world forward. Donate, volunteer, move forward: every ending is a beginning.