Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Free SF Symphony Concert in Civic Center This Sunday

This Sunday, August 27th at 2 PM, there will be a free concert given by the San Francisco Symphony.

The program includes the Mendelssohn violin concerto played by the baby-faced 24-year-old soloist Benjamin Beilman above left, along with Edwin Outwater conducting a few musical bon-bons by Mozart and Tchaikowsky. If you are thinking of attending, my suggestion is to bring a blanket and/or beach chairs because the hard-packed dirt seating area is uncomfortable.

The quadrangle was a lawn for decades before then-Mayor Gavin Newsom had it ripped out in the summer of 2008 for Alice Water's "Victory Garden," and the grass was never replaced for some reason. Newsom is the binge thinker who gifted the city with a $15 million debt via his embrace of the America's Cup races, gave us the disastrous Ed Lee as his successor "caretaker" Mayor, and is currently suing San Francisco to overturn the recently passed Proposition B. In his role as one of three members of the California State Lands Commission, Newsom doesn't believe voters should have any say in land use decisions. If his casual destruction of the Civic Center lawn is any indication, Gavin is the one who should be restrained from making those kinds of decisions.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bach's Inspiration

The American Bach Soloists opened their annual fortnight summer Festival & Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory on Friday evening with a concert entitled Bach's Inspiration that consisted of one unexpectedly beautiful musical treat after another.

The concert started with a short, wild cantata by J.S. Bach's older cousin, Johann Christoph Bach, taken from the Book of Revelation entitled Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel about the war in heaven between Michael and his angels and Satan and his dragon, complete with drums, brass, five soloists and an exquisite chamber chorus. Leading the energetic violin section was Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy above.

This was followed by Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, a chorale for four soloists and the same chorus from one of J.S. Bach's composing heroes, Dieterich Buxtehude, that was similarly expressive.

Derek Chester above was the tenor soloist for Johann Kuhnau's early 18th century cantata Wie schon leutet der Morgenstern, with Chester weaving in an out of the chamber orchestra and chorus quite elegantly.

The only dull spot on the program was Frederick the Great's Concerto for Flute in C Major (#3), which brought to mind Gordon Getty's subsidized compositions, though at least Frederick mostly confined himself to composing tranverse flute sonatas, which was his own instrument. Sandra Miller performed her best on Friday, but after the great choral music, it felt like a letdown. There was no such problem with Alessandro Marcello's 1717 Concerto for Oboe in D Minor, dispatched by the small orchestra and soloist Debra Nagy above with stylish energy, helped by the fact that the piece is one of the best Italian style concerti ever written.

The wonderful capstone of the evening was J.S. Bach's rewrite of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, which is called Tilge, Hochster, meine Sunden in German. Possibly because good Lutheran Protestants are not Mary worshipers like Holy Roman Papists, the text has been changed from a Latin lament by the Virgin Mary standing at the cross under her crucified son, and becomes an entreaty from a sinner to God. Although slightly reorchestrated by Bach, it's essentially the same music, and the performance by countertenor Eric Jurenas and soprano Mary Wilson above on Friday was simple and moving, and the blending of their two contrasting sopranos was often miraculous. At times, you couldn't make out which soprano was starting a musical phrase and who was finishing it. Really, really lovely.

The Festival continues through next Sunday, and there are free seminars during the day, $10 student concerts in the evening, and performances by a commingling of students and teachers throughout next weekend. Highly recommended. Click here for a schedule.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

World Cup Final in Civic Center

A huge crowd showed up for the Sunday noontime live broadcast in San Francisco's Civic Center of the World Cup Final from Brazil.

There were a pair of screens set up at the corner of McAllister and Polk where the Argentine fans congregated...

...while another pair of screens were set up in front of the hard-packed dirt in the center of the plaza...

...which is where the Deutschland fans had set up camp.

The Argentine crowd was enthusiastic and enormous fun to watch, and their team performed valiantly...

...but the heavily favored Germany triumphed in extra time for a thrilling finish.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Takes a Streetcar Named Desire

The summer-long Merola Opera training program for young professionals started its public performances last Thursday with a reduced orchestration version (in a nice job by Peter Grunberg) of Andre Previn and Philip Littell's 1998 opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the famous Tennessee Williams play. I was having problems with a persistent cough, so ducked out after the first act, but was impressed with the production while reacting to the opera in the same way as during its starry Renee Fleming debut. The music and the libretto don't add a single thing to the beautifully written original play, and in fact tend to obliterate the natural musicality of Williams' writing genius.

My concert companion Charlie Lichtman sat through the entire three acts on Thursday and wrote me this report:

When I saw the original opera ’Streetcar’ in the Opera House, I didn’t particularly care for the piece, but on seeing the broadcast of the same production on PBS TV, I liked it better. It didn’t work for me in the Opera House because the story is so intimate, to be viewed close-up rather than at a distance, and I hoped that a smaller venue would help. The junior high school Everett Auditorium is a much cozier room than the the Opera House, and I was hoping for the best, but overall the evening was a disappointment. The individual elements of the performance were mostly quite good, but the sum of the parts did not add up to a particularly memorable whole.

Steven Kemp’s static set of the Kowalski apartment was visually interesting, and integrated intelligently with the action of the story. Eric Watkins’ lighting was, for the most part, well conceived, except for the Act Three ‘what time is it?’ sequence, when the lights were brought down and back up again too often to represent the passage of time, and became annoying. Kristi Johnson’s costumes were true to the period, location, and characters.

The singers were all in fine voice. There were a couple of stand-out moments, including the extended arias of Julie Adams (Blanche Dubois) and Casey Candebat (Mitch) in the second and third acts, which were much appreciated by the audience. The second act scene with the young newspaper collector (Mingjie Lei) and Blanche almost worked. Upon realizing that he was being seduced, the collector had a look on his face as if he was surprised about nearly getting lucky, instead of appearing genuinely embarrassed. That relatively small directorial touch ruined the otherwise well-performed scene.

Thomas Gunther presented a convincing Stanley Kowalski. Although admittedly not as physically flawless as his iconic predecessors (Marlon Brando and Rod Gilfrey, among others), he certainly looked working-class enough for me. His actions in the later scenes of the opera, especially when drunk, convincingly exposed the more brutish side of his character. Unfortunately, and this has nothing to do with Mr. Gunther, both the love scene with Stella and the rape of Blanche were accomplished in less than thirty seconds each, which rendered both scenes silly.

After seeing the debut of the opera, I realized that none of the music stayed with me. Seeing it again Thursday evening, Stella’s post-coitus humming music was the only moment that was immediately recognizable, where the orchestration got down to a more primal level, and it made me realize why I didn’t like the opera overall – it was the music. Previn was attempting to approach some kind of New Orleans jazz sound, but it seemed more jazz for the upper class, not working class. George Gershwin “got it” with Porgy and Bess, even Leonard Bernstein “got it” with West Side Story. Previn composed a whole lot of music for Streetcar, but it wasn’t the right fit.