full moon through trees, December 2021
Here we are again, though like everyone else I'm unsure where exactly here is. Things seem to be reviving, but, just as there were almost two years ago, ominous signs (or portents) appear: shows shutting down on Broadway, infection rates rising, cancellations due to an "abundance of caution". . . . Nonetheless: below are some performances of interest in the Bay Area this month. As in the Before Time, I only list things I would go to (so this is not a comprehensive list of all happenings), and only live events, though some of these have streaming options, if that's your jam. I would suggest checking for cancellations before buying tickets or venturing out; also, assume that all venues require proof of vaccination and masking. I will always wear a mask as required or requested, but let's not pretend that's not an issue (my glasses fog up, and none of the proffered solutions really work well; also, masks make my nose drip, I have trouble breathing, I hold my jaw oddly; and, if I had to wear them more often, I would undoubtedly get mascne). You will know what your own comfort/risk level is. Best wishes to all for health and happiness in the new year, and long lovely lives to the Arts and the artists who create it!
San Francisco Playhouse continues its run of Twelfth Night in the musical adaptation by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, directed by Susi Damilano, through 15 January; then from 26 January to 5 March it's Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery, directed by Bill English.
The touring company of Broadway's The Band's Visit, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, comes to the Golden Gate Theater from 11 January to 6 February.
The Curran Theater presents JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child starting in January 2022, but the website is currently vague on any other details.
January was, even in the Before Times, a slow month for opera, but this month keep an ear out for the San Francisco Opera's season announcement, and since this will be the company's centennial season, expectations are running high (standard opera-fan caviling and quibbling are sure to follow, of course).
Lieder Alive! presents bass Kirk Eichelberger and pianist Simona Snitkovskaya on 16 January at Noe Valley Ministry, performing Rachmaninoff's Romanzen and Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Soprano Golda Schultz, last seen here as the Angel Clara in San Francisco Opera's 2018 production of Jake Heggie's It's a Wonderful Life, will be joined by pianist Jonathan Ware at Herbst Theater on 21 January to perform works by Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger, and Kathleen Tagg, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.
Philharmonia Baroque presents soprano Rowan Pierce and pianist Christopher Glynn in a program of English songs from Purcell to our contemporaries (or near contemporaries) on 22 January in the Taube Atrium Theater.
Cal Performances presents tenor Paul Appleby with pianist Conor Hanick on 30 January at Hertz Hall, where they will perform lieder by Beethoven, Berg, Schumann, and Schubert.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, joined by pianist Kirill Kuzmin, comes to Davies Hall on 30 January under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony to perform an entire program of world premieres written during the (on-going) pandemic and dedicated to Cooke, by composers Caroline Shaw, Kamala Sankaram, Matt Boehlerm Missy Mazzoli, John Glover, Rene Orth, Christopher Cerrone, Gabriel Kahane, Andrew Marshall, Huang Ruo, Timo Andres, Nico Muhly, Hilary Purrington, Lembit Beecher, Frances Pollock, Joel Thompson, and Jimmy López.
Clerestory returns to live performances with Phoenix Rising, featuring "works from the Renaissance to the present day", and you can find out what those works are on 15 January at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco and on 16 January at Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley.
Pianist Solomon Ge visits Old First Concerts on 7 January, when he will play works by himself as well as Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Prokofiev.
The San Francisco Symphony presents pianist Hélène Grimaud at Davies Hall on 9 January, playing pieces by Silvestrov, Debussy, Satie, Chopin, and Schumann.
On 16 January the San Francisco Symphony presents violinist Itzhak Perlman with pianist Rohan De Silva; the program has not yet been announced.
The Yamato Drummers of the Nara Prefecture, Japan, visit Cal Performances and Zellerbach Hall on 29 - 30 January to perform a new program titled Tenmei (Destiny).
Ben Simon leads the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in Fanny Mendelssohn's Overture in C major (a rarity which also appears on the SF Symphony schedule this month), the Beethoven Piano Concerto 4 (with soloist Hilda Huang), and the Beethoven 4; that's 31 December at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, 1 January at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, and 2 January at Herbst Theater in San Francisco.
Here's what's going on at the San Francisco Symphony this month: from 13 - 15 January, Christoph Eschenbach leads Fanny Mendelssohn's Overture in C major, Beethoven's Piano Concerto 4 (with soloist Jan Lisiecki), and the Brahms 1; from 20 - 22 January, former Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Shostakovich Cello Concerto (with soloist Gautier Capuçon) and the Prokofiev 5, and then from 27 - 29 January he leads the Liszt Piano Concerto 1 (with soloist Yuja Wang) and the Mahler 1.
On 21 January at the Paramount Theater Leslie B. Dunner leads the Oakland Symphony in Amy Beach's Symphony in E-minor, the Gaelic, along with the west coast premiere of Sanctuary Road, an oratorio with music by Paul Moravec and words by Mark Campbell (based on the writings of William Still, a conductor for the Underground Railroad), with soloists Hope Briggs (soprano), Melody Wilson (mezzo-soprano), Noah Stewart (tenor), Damien Geter (baritone), and Phillip Harris (baritone), along with the Oakland Symphony Chorus led by Lynne Morrow.
Daniel Hope leads the New Century Chamber Orchestra and soprano Leah Hawkins in a program exploring the Harlem Renaissance and the sound of mid-century America as found in works by David Diamond, William Grant Still, Harry Lawrence Freeman, Florence Price, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland; you can hear the program on 20 January at First Congregational in Berkeley, 21 January at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, 22 January at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford, and 23 January at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Jazz Center seems to be back in the swing of things: on the main stage, Monsieur Periné welcomes in the new year from 30 December to 2 January; trumpeter Chris Botti takes over from 4 to 9 January; Bob James, David Sanborn, and Marcus Miller revisit James and Sanborn's 1986 album Double Vision from 13 to 16 January; and then Wynton Marsalis's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra closes out the month from 27 to 30 January. Meanwhile in the Joe Henderson Lab, there is a series called The Hotplate Festival: on 20 January, tenor saxophonist Jessica Jones plays Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come; on 21 January Amy D sings Sarah Vaughan's After Hours; on 22 January, Caroline Chung plays Nina Simone's Silk & Soul; and on 23 January, Rick Vandivier and Adam Shulman play Jimmy Smith's Back at the Chicken Shack.
Brothers Ilmar Gavilán on violin and Aldo López-Gavilán on piano perform music by the latter on 23 January (at 5:00 PM) in Zellerbach Hall, presented by Cal Performances.
Early / Baroque Music
The Cantata Collective kicks off the new year on 2 January at Saint Mary Magdalen in Berkeley with Bach's Christmas Cantata BWV 64 and his New Year's Cantata BWV 153, featuring soprano Tonia D'Amelio, contralto Sara Couden, tenor David Kurtenbach, and baritone Ben Kazez.
The San Francisco Early Music Society has two interesting programs this month: on 14 January at First Congregational in Berkeley you can hear Quicksilver Baroque performing works by little-known composers (such as Antonio Bertali, Johann Joseph Fux, Johann Caspar Kerll, Giovanni Legrenzi, Johann Rosenmüller, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and Romanus Weichlein) active in Vienna in the seventeenth century; and on 29 January at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco you can hear Profeti della Quinta exploring the development of the Italian madrigal through works by Cipriano de Rore, Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Carlo Gesualdo, Scipio Lacorcia, and of course the man most of us associate with the words "Italian madrigals", Claudio Monteverdi.
On 20 January San Francisco Performances launches its Salon Series with the first of four programs curated by tenor Nicholas Phan that will explore several centuries of under-performed works by women, beginning with composers of the baroque period including Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Maddalena Casaluna. Phan will be joined by soprano Maya Kherani, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, violinist Carla Moore, harpsichordist Katherine Heater, and Elisabeth Reed on viola da gamba at the Education Studio at the War Memorial Veterans Building (please note the start time for the salon series is 6:30 PM).
American Bach Soloists presents Sweet Harmony in the undeniable form of music by Bach and Handel, on 21 January at Saint Stephen's in Belvedere, 22 January at First Church in Berkeley, 23 January at Saint Mark's in San Francisco, and 24 January at Davis Community Church in Davis.
Modern / Contemporary Music
Slow Wave (clarinetist Kyle Beard, violist Justine Preston, and pianist Naomi Stine) visit Old First Concerts on 8 January, when they will play works by JooWan Kim, Julie Barwick, Kalevi Aho, Brett Austin Eastman, Kyle Hovatter, and Emma Logan.
Left Coast Chamber Ensemble starts the new year Living in Color, featuring Sarah Gibson's I Prefer Living In Color, the Left Coast Composition Contest Winner 2019, along with John Luther Adams's Three Canticles of the Birds, Szymanowski's The Fountain of Arethusa. Kenji Bunch's The 3 G’s, Errolyn Wallen's Dervish, and Fauré's Piano Trio in D Minor. You can hear all that on 9 January at the Berkeley Hillside Club or 10 January at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco.
Soprano Chelsea Hollow and pianist Taylor Chan perform Cycles of Resistance, a program exploring resilience in and rebellion against an oppressive world, featuring songs by Sophie Xuefei Zhang, Anthony R. Green, Michael Wiener, Myron Silberstein, Özden Gülsün Keskin, Lauren McCall, Molly Joyce, and Jason Cady; that's at Old First Concerts on 28 January.
Ensemble for These Times visits the Center for New Music on 29 January, where they will perform Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers, featuring a world premiere from Emily Doolittle (Below the Surface, a setting of poems by Bay Area writers Rella Lossy and Rachel Richardson), as well as works by Du Yun, Lisa Bielawa, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Gabriela Ortiz, Angélica Negrón, Akshaya Avril Tucker, Jungyoon Wie, Seo Yoon (Soyoona) Kim, and Manjing Zhang.
On 31 January Earplay visits Herbst Theater to perform Andrew Imbrie's Dream Sequence (celebrating Imbrie's centennial), Tyshawn Sorey's For Fred Lerdahl, Fred Lerdahl's Reflection, and Hyo-shin Na's To the Ice Mountains (the latter two Earplay commissions and world premieres).
The San Francisco Symphony has two chamber music programs this month: on 16 January at Davies Hall you can hear works by Jennifer Higdon, Frank Bridge, and Schubert; and on 30 January at the Gunn Theater at the Legion of Honor you can hear works by Haydn, Hummel, and Brahms.
Saturday mornings at 10:00 AM in Herbst Theater, San Francisco Performances presents lecturer Robert Greenberg and the Alexander String Quartet exploring the chamber music of Dvořák: on 22 January, you can hear (and hear about) the String Quartet in D minor, Op. 34 and the String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51, “Slavonic” and on 29 January Cypresses for String Quartet and the Bass Quintet, Op. 77.
Violinist Basma Edrees and pianist Ava Nazar perform at Old First Concerts on 23 January, in a program highlighting the folk-based, Bartók-inspired music of contemporary Iranian composer Reza Vali, along with works by Piazzolla and Brahms.
San Francisco Performances presents cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Connie Shih playing Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff at Herbst Theater on 29 January.
Old First Concerts hosts the Ives Collective on 30 January in a program of Mahler, Schubert, and Max Bruch.
The Pacific Film Archive has lots going on, including several series of exceptional interest: films produced by Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope run through to 27 February; the films of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty run from 21 January to 20 February; a retrospective of the great Barbara Stanwyck runs from 14 January to 26 February; and a treasure trove of films by the irreplaceable master FW Murnau runs from 8 January to 27 February.
Painting & Suchlike
You have until 17 January to see the Joan Mitchell exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Color into Line: Pastels from the Renaissance to the Present continues at the Legion of Honor until 13 February.
At the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD), Soul of Black Folks, an exhibit of portraits by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, runs until 27 February.
Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism runs at the Oakland Museum of California through 27 February.
Two views of the complications of love: foreground, a Virgin & Child from twelfth century Lombardy; background, Oskar Kokoschka's Two Nudes (Lovers), a self-portrait of the artist with Alma Mahler. This photo was taken at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on my 2017 trip (I believe the Virgin & Child has been moved someplace else since then).
detail of The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, now in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (in Christian art the peacock is a symbol of resurrection/eternal life/Heaven, but it mostly seems to show up in scenes of the adoration of the Magi, perhaps because its sumptuousness goes well with the Magian finery)
detail of Mosaic Panel of a Skeleton Holding Two Askoi (Wine Jugs), from the House of the Vestals in Pompeii, seen as part of the Legion of Honor exhibit Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave
Kino Lorber recently released on Blu-Ray the nine films Mae West made between 1932 and 1940; she did make a few others (notably a couple as late as the 1970s), but these nine movies are what she is mostly remembered for. The first of them is Night After Night.
As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, supporting players in 1933's Flying Down to Rio whose one big dance number led to their beloved series of starring vehicles, West has only a small role here, but it launched her in her own series of tailor-made films, a series so successful that the first, She Done Him Wrong, was credited with saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. She was a writer as well as actor, and already in Night After Night she was given a free hand to rework her scenes. The disc's informative commentary track, by film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson, gives the background: the film's official star, George Raft, knew West from their days on the New York stage and in the New York demimonde and recommended her for the role of Maudie Triplett, an ex-girlfriend to his character, the Everymanly-named Joe, a bootlegger/gangster trying to make good as a night-club owner. West came out to Paramount and after several weeks received a draft script; when she told the producers that they could get anyone to play the part as written, they told her she could rewrite her scenes.
West had by then had several plays in New York that were hits despite or because of censorship attempts by groups such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice, giving her a reputation as a bad woman, at least in prudish eyes, and as a daring and provocative performer among people who weren't all that committed to repressing the Society's idea of vice. Her first scene in Night After Night shows her considerable skill in stagecraft: we first see her outside the door of the night club – actually, we don't see her, exactly; we know she's there, as we can hear her distinctive voice (an effective use of the still relatively new technology of talking pictures); what we see is the tuxedoed backs of a number of young swells, who (this comparison comes from Heller-Nicholas on the commentary track) form a curtain of men, parting to reveal her. She is clearly a force as she goes into the night club, ignoring with great good humor the attempts of Joe's loyal aide to pretend he's not there at the moment. And within minutes of her entrance we get one of her all-time classic lines: the friendly hat check girl, who can't help noticing her dazzling jewels, exclaims, "Goodness! what beautiful diamonds!" And she responds, of course, again with great good humor, "Dearie, goodness had nothing to do with it." What really marks her out as an actor who knows what she's doing is that while she clearly knows this is a great line – her dialogue flashes in this first brief scene, with this line exploding like the final big effect on fireworks night at the ballpark – she also knows she doesn't need to milk it, or even bask in it, because she's letting us know there're plenty more where that came from – she just delivers it and moves off confidently, as no topper is possible, and the camera agrees, as it cuts right away.
Years ago when Desperately Seeking Susan was new I read a review announcing that we just can't take our eyes off Madonna and, on the contrary, I always found it very easy to do so (oddly Madonna is mentioned a few times in the commentary track; the reference seems a bit dated to me, but then Madonna. like Michael Jackson, Keith Haring, and Ronald Reagan, is one of those 1980's cultural icons whose appeal I never understood, even in the 1980s). But you really can't take your eyes off West when she's on screen (Madonna, by contrast, was just a poor imitation, with a few other stars like Dietrich thrown in occasionally to vary the tune).
West (for our purposes, the character she's playing is always "Mae West", regardless of the particular avatar she appears under in each film) is headed to the table where Joe is trying to impress Miss Healy (Constance Cummings) a young society woman, whom he has noticed for several nights visiting his night club solo – it turns out the building was her formerly wealthy family's residence, lost in the stock-market crash of 1929. There is already a third party at their table, as Raft had earlier invited Mabel (Alison Skipworth), the stout and refined middle-aged woman who is tutoring him in the ways of the haut monde, to join them for dinner and, as part of her Henry Higgins duties, help him impress the upper-crust beauty (just the fact that she's inevitably referred to as "Miss Healy" tells you all about her status) by guiding the conversation so he can impress her with the opinions he's been told to have on Important Subjects like global politics.
Mabel is quite delighted to be asked to the dinner, as she has never been in a night club, or, you suspect, in any romantic relationships. It's an interesting light on her character, and the first hint that she's not like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' films, or some snooty dragon-guard of the sort you might expect in a '30s film about crossing social boundaries; we realize her status is liminal, as she has the manners and knowledge of the educated classes, but not much life experience or, as we discover later, income. West orders a waiter to bring her a chair and plops herself down, quipping all the way, and, again contrary to what you might expect in a movie like this, not only are Mabel and West not antagonists, after a few drinks they hit it off quite splendidly and end up sleeping it off in one of the nightclub's guest rooms, and not only in the same room, but in the same bed.
On the commentary track Heller-Nicholas in particular is thrilled with this scene and its (her term) queer-friendly nature. Sure, but I'm not as convinced as she is that we're meant to see that as the inescapable subtext – it's certainly possible, but the very openness of the arrangement makes me think it was just not that unusual in that period for people to share beds non-sexually in a boarding-house – if it had been, more would have been made of it, both in the film and in its reception. You could make more of a case for the queering of Mabel, who, as Maude keeps giving her liquor, asks her if she believes in love at first sight ("I don't know but it certainly saves time" West responds) and then asks if she thinks it really would be possible to lose her inhibitions. But I don't think we're meant to see the two women as even potential romantic partners – it's more to the point that the upper-crust tutor and the cheery broad end up having a lot in common. The two end up helping each other: there's some amusing dialogue at cross-purposes in which West proposes that Mabel join her business, which Mabel assumes is prostitution. It turns out to be a chain of beauty salons, and West could use a high-class woman to act as a manager. In short, the point here is more homosocial than homoerotic; it's women helping each other financially and socially, by owning a stake in an industry, female beautification, that plays a double-edged role in controlling and empowering women.
There are a couple of overt queer references that the commentary track didn't cover. One is when Raft, showing out some equally elegant gangsters who have come to muscle in on his business, is asked by them what flowers he prefers (the implication is for his funeral, if he doesn't cooperate) and he genially replies, "Oh, anything at all but pansies", and so much for queer-friendly. The other moment is in a montage of people partying at the night-club: among the revelers, there's a shot of two women in close-up: one who looks a bit older and has dark hair, cut very short and slicked back like a man's, smiling insinuatingly at a younger blond woman as she offers her a cigarette, which the blond, after a split-second hesitation, takes, breaking into a big smile. I watched the preview for this film, included on the disc as one of the extras, and I noticed it contains that montage, only with the close-up of the two women removed, suggesting that the lesbian reference was clear enough so that it was considered best to slip it in during the film rather than highlight it during a preview. But is this queer-positive, or titillation, or maybe a bit of both? It's interesting that the one reference to male homosexuals is a negative joke, but there is an at least potentially more positive undercurrent of lesbianism.
There is also an implication in that close-up that, as most at the time would have described it, the older woman is "recruiting"/"corrupting" the younger – well, such things happen in the big cities, where the champagne flows and the morals fly! (Again: approval, or titillation?) There's always the temptation with pre-Code films to assume that their openness would be the same as ours, and that openness is acceptance. Inevitably we're reminded that things change. The society girl here clearly loves it when the gangster stops trying to play the country-club boy and grabs her roughly, speaking to her even more roughly – in fact, all along she's clearly been excited by what she experiences as slumming. When West shows up at the dinner table, Miss Healy stops smiling with condescending amusement at the efforts to impress her, and obviously delights (eyes sparkling, lips slightly parted) in Maude's tales of saloon brawls and fights with the police. I doubt a movie these days would be as open about this woman's desire to be overpowered by a man, particularly one of a lower class: here, it's presented as a natural thing, leading rather abruptly to the film's happy ending.
The women (particularly West, of course) are the main attraction here, but I have to mention how impressed I was with George Raft. I haven't seen that much of him, except for his bit part as Spats Columbo in Some Like It Hot, in which his casting is an in-joke about his career as Hollywood's go-to gangster in the 1930s. But he's really impressive here, not only good-looking enough to put one in mind of Valentino, but managing to be convincingly and seamlessly hard as a gangster, suave as a night-club owner, and boyish as a wooer. This is an interesting film, even apart from its fame for West's first appearance on screen, and it looks great in the Kino Blu-ray's luscious black-and-white.
Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross: a detail from The Crucifixion by the Le Nain Brothers, seen at the Legion of Honor's 2016 exhibit The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th-Century France
a detail of Diego Rivera's 1940 mural The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent (also known as the Pan-American Unity mural), currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
detail of a fresco from a garden room, normally in the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii, temporarily at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco as part of the special exhibit Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave
I have no idea which species this rather prehistoric-looking plant belongs to, as it sprang up in my yard unplanted by me (the prehistoric look mostly comes from the trunk, here unseen, but the total effect is like something decorating a dinosaur diorama)
I was actually in a museum this week, for the first time in nearly a year and a half, so this detail of a mosaic panel from the House of the Geometric Mosaics in Pompeii comes from Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave, on view at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through 29 August. This astonishing tableau is one of the treasures of the exhibit, as demonstrated by its many manifestations in the gift shop, and no wonder: not only are the very tiny stones arranged to give an accurate depiction of each of the many species shown, but each fish also expresses a surprising amount of personality, an attribute not usually thought of in connection with sea life.