Sunday, November 4, 2018

Why we live in cities part 2: Exceptional musical performances

As a sequel to Why we live in cities: Five exceptional musical performances, here are another half dozen (plus one more) musical reasons why we put up with the crowds, noise, dirt, danger, and expense of living in a modern metropolis. In chronological order, some exceptional musical performances of 2018:

1. Women of the Mediterranean (Ars Minerva, performed at the Italian Cultural Institute, San Francisco, March 28)

Céline Ricci as the title character in Pietro Andrea Ziani's La Circe (1665) at ODC Theater, September 2017. Photo: Ars Minerva

Strong, fierce, and sometimes dangerous women are at the heart of Baroque opera. This program highlighted arias featuring heroines and anti-heroines such as Cleopatra (from Handel's Guilio Cesare), the goddess Circe (from Ziani's La Circe), the Amazon Queen Pulcheria (from Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni), and the Roman Empress Ottavia (from Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea). If some of the composers' names in that list are unfamiliar, it is because the artistic mission of Ars Minerva is to discover worthwhile operas that have languished unperformed for centuries and bring them to new audiences.

Dressed in Matthew Nash's simple but beautiful antiquity-inspired gowns three stars of Ars Minerva's previous productions, Aura Veruni, Kindra Scharich, and Ars Minvera Artistic Director Céline Ricci, were sensitively accompanied on keyboard by Derek Tam. In a charming and very enjoyable touch, each singer gave a brief spoken introduction to the character she was portraying before performing her aria. The final piece, beautifully sung by Ricci, was from Giovanni Porta's Ifigenia in Aulide (1738). It certainly whetted the appetite for Ars Minerva's upcoming performances of Porta's opera on November 30 and December 1 at San Francisco's ODC Theater.

Website: Ars Minerva

2. Purcell: Dido and Aeneas (Voices of Music and San Francisco Girls Chorus, produced by the San Francisco Early Music Society 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, performed at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, seen June 7)

Henry Purcell's great tragic opera Dido and Aeneas (1688?) was written to be "perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's boarding-school at Chelsey. By young gentlewomen." For the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, Voices of Music joined forces with the SF Girls Chorus to offer a hint of what such a performance might have sounded like. Professional adult singers, soprano Mindy Ella Chu and baritone Jesse Blumberg, performed the title roles, with members of the Girls' Chorus taking on all of the other characters. Especially delightful was Allegra Kelly's boozy Sailor, but all of the chorus members performed with exceptional skill and assurance.

There is strong evidence that in the original performances at Priest's school the "young gentlewomen" took all of the roles, including that of the Trojan hero Aeneas; for a debate on this question between yours truly and lutenist David Tayler of Voices of Music, please see The Mysteries of Dido and Aeneas and its comments thread. But how closely Voices of Music and the SF Girls' Chorus re-created Dido's original performances is ultimately immaterial; this production succeeded beautifully on its own terms. A suggestion for the 2020 Festival for these same forces: John Blow's Venus and Adonis.


3. Mozart: Il re pastore (The Shepherd-King, produced by the Merola Opera Program and performed at SF Conservatory of Music, seen July 21)

Photobombing the wedding picture: Charles Sy (Agenore), Cheyanne Coss (Aminta), Patricia Westley (Elisa), Zhengyi Bai (Alessandro), and Simone Macintosh (Tamiri). Photo: Kristen Loken/Merola

Mozart composed Il re pastore in 1775, when he was just 19 (although it was his tenth opera!), using an existing libretto by Pietro Metastasio. In staging 18th-century opera many contemporary directors are concerned that modern audiences lack familiarity with the conventions of opera seria or the patience to sit through a series of lengthy da capo arias. Director Tara Faircloth applied a common solution to these issues by trying to turn this (semi-) serious opera into a comedy, and at first it seemed that she had overdone it: in her initial arias rich-voiced soprano Cheyanne Coss (as Aminta, the "shepherd-king" of the title) was asked to do painful-looking pratfalls and engage in other not-very-funny slapstick. But about midway through the first act the farce got turned down a notch, and the emotional dilemmas of the characters as expressed in Mozart's glorious music began to come to the fore. And when that happened the comic action became much more effective, because something was at stake.

It helped that the opera was crisply conducted by Boston Early Music Festival co-artistic director Stephen Stubbs, and superbly sung by its young cast. In addition to Coss the singers included Patricia Westley as Aminta's true love Elisa, Simone Macintosh as the deposed princess Tamiri, Charles Sy as Tamiri's lover Agenore, and Zhengyi Bai as Alessandro (Alexander the Great). Bravi tutti!


4. Handel: Semele (American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy, performed at SF Conservatory of Music, seen August 10)

ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Photo: Gene Kosoy/ABS

In the early 1740s Handel was forced by financial failure to give up composing Italian opera and turn to English-language oratorios on Biblical and mythological subjects. In Semele (1744), though, he tried to unite the two forms. Semele was in English and was performed as an oratorio (that is, it was not staged), but like opera it treated a frankly erotic subject: the adulterous passion of the god Jupiter and the mortal Semele. Evidently the combination was not to the audience's taste, because after the year of its premiere Semele was never revived in Handel's lifetime.

In our day, of course, when the blurring of genre boundaries is more common, Semele has deservedly become one of Handel's most popular works. The young singers and musicians of the American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy, under the leadership of ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, gave a superlative account of Handel's great score. Of special note were Arwen Myers as Semele, with a sensual "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" and a bright "Myself I shall adore"; Patrick Kilbride as Jupiter, with a lyrical "Where e'er you walk"; and Graham Bier as a sleepy Somnus, with a very funny "Leave me, loathsome light." By singling out these singers I don't mean to slight the rest of the cast: as with other ABS Festival and Academy productions we've seen, the level of accomplishment of the young artists was uniformly high. We're looking forward to the 2019 Festival.

Website: American Bach Soloists

5. Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (produced by the Claude Heater Foundation and performed at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, August 26)

Juyeon Song and Roy Cornelius Smith in Act II of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: David Perea/Claude Heater Foundation

It didn't sound promising. A pickup orchestra and a group of singers unknown to me in a single performance of Wagner's colossal masterpiece? This is a work so difficult that after 70 rehearsals in Vienna in the early 1860s the intended premiere was abandoned (it finally premiered in Munich in 1865). A work so taxing that the first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, and two conductors, Felix Mottl and Josef Keilberth, died shortly after performing it. A work so harmonically daring that it didn't become established in the repertory until two decades after its premiere. A work so punishing that some of the world's greatest tenors, such as Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann, have shied away from undertaking complete live performances.

But the work evidently held no terrors for conductor Jonathan Khuner or his remarkable cast. Roy Cornelius Smith was a powerful Tristan, showing no fatigue even in the last act (a grueling marathon in which Tristan holds the stage virtually on his own for nearly an hour). Amazing as Act III was—it ends with Isolde's great "Liebestod" and the resolution of the opening Tristan chord first heard four hours previously—Act II was even better. As Smith's Tristan and Juyeon Song's Isolde sang a rapturous love duet, and were then confronted by Philip Skinner's anguished King Marke, the performance reached peak after peak. Under Khuner's direction the orchestra brought out all the lyricism in Wagner's sweeping score. At the end the Herbst Theatre audience sat stunned for a moment before erupting with applause and cheers. We can only hope that a concert performance of Die Walküre is in the planning stages for next summer.

Website: Claude Heater Foundation

6. SF Music Day (produced by InterMusic SF at the War Memorial Veterans Building, San Francisco, September 30)

Trio 180: Sonia Leong, Ann Miller, Vicky Wang. Photo: Joy Chiang/Trio 180

SF Music Day is a truly astonishing annual event. In the course of a single day something like three dozen musical groups, ranging in style from jazz to contemporary to classical to uncategorizable, give 30-minute concerts in four different venues inside the War Memorial Veterans Building. And it's free, although if you come and enjoy even some of what you hear—and how couldn't you?—a donation to InterMusic SF is in order.

Somehow, although SF Music Day has been taking place for a decade, I only found out about it a few years ago. And each time I've attended I've experienced a revelatory performance. In 2016 it was soprano Kindra Scharich and her accompanist George Fee offering a program of great German songs from Schubert to Strauss. Last year it was the Sylvestris Quartet playing "250 years of French chamber music in 30 minutes," ending with a lovely performance of the slow movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' String Quartet No. 1.

This year the great discovery for me was Trio 180, the faculty piano trio-in-residence at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. Violinist Ann Miller, cellist Vicky Wang and pianist Sonia Leong performed the first movement of Brahms' Piano Trio in C Major (1882) together with the two movements of Jennifer Higdon's Piano Trio (2003), "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red." This was a wonderfully chosen program; at one point in the lyrical "Pale Yellow" the three musicians played the same melody in unison, echoing a similar moment that had occurred the Brahms piece and forming a subtle connection between them. And as its name implies, "Fiery Red" was fast-paced and required of the performers a truly jaw-dropping level of virtuosity. I'm already looking forward to the discoveries I'll make at SF Music Day next year.


Bonus track: The Avengers (SF Public Library west entrance, October 20)

The Avengers performing on the steps of the SF Public Library October 20.

As we approached the San Francisco Public Library one recent afternoon we heard the sounds of a rock band. "This sounds like punk," my partner said. Sure, I thought. Is there a post-Green Day rock band that doesn't try to sound like punk? But then we got closer, and the band started their second song. I recognized the refrain, and, astonished, turned to my partner. "It's the Avengers," I said.

If you aren't already familiar with the Avengers, back in the day they were one of the most pissed-off and articulate bands in the SF punk scene. They also wrote songs with irresistible hooks that made you want to sing along (and move to San Francisco and form a punk band). When the Sex Pistols played their final concert at Winterland on January 14, 1978, the Avengers were the opening band. The Pistols' guitarist, Steve Jones, was so impressed with them that he produced several tracks for their second EP.

A song from that EP, "Uh-Oh," as performed at the SFPL show:

Anti-harassment anthems like "Uh-Oh" ("When a girl says no. . .the answer is NO!") and lyrics like "It's the American in me thinks it's an honor to die/in a war that's just a politician's lie" (from "The American in Me") are unfortunately just as relevant today as when they were written, and the Avengers are just as impassioned and vital as ever. One of my favorite moments in the show happened during the song "Teenage Rebel." It's probably a few decades since the Avengers' lead singer Penelope Houston has been a teenage rebel, so when she got to the refrain she found a (delighted and embarrassed) teenage girl in the audience and sang "I'm a teenage rebel" to and with her.

I had never before had a chance to see the Avengers; they broke up in 1979, perhaps feeling that they had said what they came to say. As Houston says to the 5000-strong Winterland crowd (the biggest audience the Avengers or the Sex Pistols ever played to), "I see you all came, you want to see the Sex Pistols—what are they going to tell you that you don't already know? What are they going to tell you? You've got to figure it out for yourself!" ("I Believe in Me" ends at 29:17)

After the breakup Houston went on to perform and record as a solo artist. But perhaps feeling that the music she created with the Avengers is still meaningful, she has gotten the band back together every so often to play live. The current incarnation of the group includes guitarist and Avengers co-founder Greg Ingraham, bassist Joel Reader (from Mr. T Experience and Pansy Division), and drummer Luis Illades (from Pansy Division).

In fact the SFPL Avengers show had a specific purpose: it was intended to highlight the library's SF Punk Archive. Houston works at the library, and the Punk Archive is her initiative, founded on her collection of posters, zines, and other ephemeral artifacts from that cultural moment. But the SF Punk Archive isn't about nostalgia—it's about documenting and embodying the creative ethos of do-it-yourself culture for this and future generations. And these days we've got more need for creativity than ever.


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