Thursday, January 29, 2015

Happy Nymphs and Happy Swains

The American Bach Soloists gave a series of vibrant, beautiful performances last week of Handel's early pastoral oratorio Acis and Galatea. The tale of the demi-god water-nymph Galatea (Nola Richardson) and her mutual love for the handsome young shepherd Acis (Kyle Stegall) is taken from Ovid. In the first act nothing happens at all except for the chorus praising the beauty of nature and sex, Galatea longing to see her beloved, and Acis pining away for Galatea.

At the end of the act, the two are joined together where they sing what may be the most beautiful earworm music of Handel's career, the duet "Happy, happy we."

They are eventually joined by the chorus who spin their own celebration of romantic pleasure with the same refrain. Somehow, I've made it through life without ever having heard this music before this month, and it was a delightful joy to get to know it through YouTube recordings and this live performance.

The second act has a lot of drama, with the giant monster Polyphemus, well-sung by Mischa Bouvier above, demanding Galatea's love and then killing Acis, which makes everyone very sad. Tenor Zachary Wilder, not pictured, also did a great job with the role of Damon, the sweet best friend who gives good advice that is ignored by everyone.

The American Bach Soloists organization started a summer teaching Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music a few years ago, which has become the equivalent of the Merola/Adler programs at the San Francisco Opera. Both Nola Richardson and Kyle Stegall above were both standout students during recent Academy sessions and it's nice to see them being offered leading roles with the professional ensemble. Stegall in particular has a soulfulness to his singing that is something that can't be taught, and it was wonderful hearing the young tenor in a role that could have been written for him at this point in his career.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Lariat

A world premiere chamber opera, The Lariat, opened last weekend at the tiny Thick House Theater on Potrero Hill. The music and libretto were both written by Lisa Scola Prosek, a local Princeton-trained composer who has already composed over a half dozen operas. The story about the Monterey Bay Essalen tribe of Native Americans interacting with 1790s missionaries is taken from a 1920s novella by Jaime De Angulo, the fascinating Berkeley linguist, shamanistic explorer, ethnomusical transcriber, and guru to poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.

The name that drew me to the production was bass/baritone Philip Skinner above, who is one of the most reliably talented opera performers around, playing the tormented Father Luis who falls under the spell of both an Essalen woman and Native American shamanism.

There were lots of characters, including singing animals above (Maria Mikheyenko and Alexis Lane Jensen with The Shaman Hualala sung by Clifton Romig). There was also lots of narrative compressed into a series of short, disjointed scenes over 75 minutes, but I grew to appreciate the lack of paint-by-numbers narrative, as if the entire audience was familiar with De Aguelo's obscure novella.

What was a surprising knockout was Prosek's music, which was delicate, dramatic, and simple without being dull, a rare achievement. Her orchestration of Northern Californian Native American music written down by De Angulo contrasting with Latin plainchant mixed with Spanish jotas was fascinating and the varying musics were given equal weight.

The sound of the four-piece orchestra under conductor Bruce Olstad was extraordinary, with Joel Davel on percussion, Diane Grubbe on flutes, the great Leighton Fong on cello, and the composer herself playing a muted piano part. It sounded a bit like Lou Harrison at his best, joyful music reduced to its essence.

The other standouts in the cast were Joe Myers/Raymond as a punitive friar who only cared about food. In a part that could have been a cartoon villain, Joe played him as an amusing monster of practicality. Crystal Philippi as Ishka, the Esselen Carmen of the opera, had a beautiful voice and presence, making the madness and joy any number of male characters go through believable. Also worthy of note is the half-Spanish, half-Essalen cowboy Ruiz played by Mark Hernandez, who exits with a bear.

There are two more performances this weekend, and you can buy tickets by clicking here. Besides its intrinsic merits, the performances are also worthy of support for extra-musical reasons, involving a tormented production history with a shady producer which I will be detailing in a future post. The blurry people in the above photo are the composer Lisa Scola Prosek and the conductor Bruce Olstad.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Abortion Protest in Civic Center Plaza

Tens of thousands of people arrived in Civic Center Plaza on Saturday morning...

...via chartered buses, planes, and on foot from all over the West Coast and a few points further east.

The occasion was a pro-life, anti-abortion rally that made its way down Market Street from Civic Center to Justin Herman Plaza on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade ruling.

The march and rally were part of an organized effort by the Catholic Church nationwide to rally the troops in public against abortion, and the numbers who marched through downtown streets surprised people all over the country.

The directive from organizers was that the rally was to be overwhelmingly positive, and there were to be no confrontations with godless baby killer counter-protestors or graphic posters with fetuses being waved around. The display above was the only one I saw in Civic Center that skirted the "graphic" prohibition.

The rest of the messaging was defiantly upbeat...

...such as the Defend Life signage above...

...which was one of many ready-made signs printed in Spanish.

Whenever one thinks the battle about women's autonomy over their own bodies has been settled, patriarchal religious traditions push back with full force.

The U.S. House of Representatives has just offered yet another restrictive abortion bill that sounds like a precursor to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and watching the Catholic Church moralizing yet again in the public sphere is disturbing.

After revelations about widespread, ongoing, predatory pedophilia among the clergy, and the Irish church's virtual enslavement of wayward women in the Magdalene laundries throughout much of the 20th century, this is an institution that needs to heal itself before lecturing others.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Death of a McDonald's

One of the few silver linings to the current gentrification of San Francisco is that the occasional ugly building or horrible business dies, such as the recently shuttered McDonald's at the corner of Van Ness and Golden Gate Avenues.

The location of the burger behemoth was controversial in 1978 when it was built, because San Francisco city government at the time was worried about the incursion of suburban fast food franchises into urban spaces. They insisted on the hiring of a reputable architect to create a modernist design for al fresco seating.

The problem was that the site immediately became a gathering place for street people, many of them acting out...

...while others use the outdoor seating as a combination bathroom and bedroom.

Even days after the building was boarded up, its clientele is still hanging out on the sidewalk in front...

...and nodding off on nearby curbs.