Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Curious Flights: The Age of Flight

Over the weekend I attended the final program of Curious Flights' 2015-2016 season. Artistic Director Noah Luna briefly introduced the evening & proudly noted that we would be hearing the West Coast premiere of Marc Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony, first presented by Leonard Bernstein in 1946 in New York. The 1st half of the concert provided context with works from the 1930s & 40s.

Tenor Brian Thorsett sang 3 yearning & lyrical love songs by Korngold, composed for Hollywood films. Mr. Thorsett's high, clear voice was controlled, even & caressing, & he elegantly shaped the songs & gave each a full range of dynamics & vocal color. The high notes of "I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" were beautifully clean & full, & he ended the song with a wonderfully gentle falsetto. Pianist Miles Graber's accompaniment was soft-edged & unobtrusive.

Copland's Sextet got a fun, perky performance. There was good communication between the musicians, & Brenden Guy's clarinet sound blended well with the strings. It felt like a lively conversation among friends. Closing the 1st half, a male chorus of 16 performed Barber's grim Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, based on a poem about the death of a solider in the Spanish Civil War. Bobby Chastain's conducting was orderly, & the chorus sounded ghostly & somewhat attenuated. Amusingly, the distracted timpanist did not notice when Mr. Chastain singled her out for a bow during the applause.

For the WWII-themed Airborne Symphony, Curious Flights fielded an oversized orchestra with plenty of brass & percussion, a male chorus of 24, a narrator & 2 vocal soloists. We also got a wind machine & a harp. Maestro Alasdair Neale's conducting was clear, precise & calisthenic. He often rose up on his toes. Ensemble was impressively tight, & the performance progressed confidently. The hammer blow chords were pointed, & cutoffs were exact. The piece is loud, & the orchestra sometimes drowned out the other performers. The music felt vaguely like a big Russian symphony. I was puzzled by the ending, which balked at its triumphal coda.

Mr. Thorsett's voice was overwhelmed by the heavy orchestration of the 1st section, but he got to provide comic moments when he interjected commands about electrical cords. Baritone Efraín Solís sounded robust in the choral numbers then created an intimate dramatic scene when he portrayed a bombardier writing a love letter home, his voice soft, tender & warm.

The chorus, positioned on the terrace, sounded distant but sang gamely. They often represented soldiers, both barking Nazis & griping American airmen. It was entertaining to hear "fubar" in the libretto. An amplified David Latulippe delivered the narration with great earnestness, though the demotic & self-assured tone of the text has dated rather badly. It was also just plain weird when he read lines with a German accent & gave a fascist salute.

The audience was supportive, & many gave the performers a standing ovation. The stage crew were fast in resetting the stage for every number. I was in an aisle seat, & during the Blitzstein a teenager in my row left the hall & came back twice, forcing me to stand up 4 times.

§ The Age of Flight
Curious Flights

"Sweet Melody of Night" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"Tomorrow" from The Constant Nymph (1944)
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Miles Graber, piano

Sextet (1937)
    Curious Flights Chamber Ensemble
    Brenden Guy, clarinet
    Tess Varley, violin
    Cassandra Bequary, violin
    Ivo Bokulic, viola
    André Vera, cello
    Miles Graber, piano

Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, Op. 15 (1940)
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Bobby Chastain, conductor
    Lily Sevier, timpani

The Airborne Symphony (1943-44)
    Curious Flights Symphony Orchestra
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Alasdair Neale, conductor
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Efraín Solís, baritone
    David Latulippe, narrator

May 28, 2016 | 8:00 p.m.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Lady in the Van

Yesterday I saw a preview screening of The Lady in the Van, a charming film written by Alan Bennett, directed by Nicholas Hytner & starring Maggie Smith. The movie is based on the play based on the memoir by Bennett, about the elderly homeless woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, who lived in a van parked in the author's driveway in North London for 15 years. The nearly plotless script is drily humorous, the drama coming from the gradual revelation of Miss Shepherd's stranger-than-fiction backstory. Classical music plays an important part, particularly Chopin's Piano Concert No. 1, & the Catholic church is the film's bad guy. Although it's clear that Miss Shepherd is filthy, humorlessly self-aggrandizing & generally unpleasant, Maggie Smith portrays her captivatingly & makes the case that she is admirably strong-willed, obdurate & self-sufficient.

Alan Bennett also uses the story to explore how his writing intersects with his life. Alex Jennings portrays the author pleasingly & impersonates Bennett's drawn-out accent & meek manner without parody, coming across as wry, benign & oddly cute. At the start of the film he posits that "Writing is talking to oneself," & seamless special effects allow him to interact with his imaginary double as he commentates on his telling of the story.

The film was playfully shot in the actual street where the events occurred & is peopled with bright cameo performances. I especially enjoyed Roger Allam as a snooty, opera-going neighbor. Members of the original cast of The History Boys pop up in various guises, as does Alan Bennett himself.

The Lady in the Van opens in San Francisco on January 22nd & in other Bay Area location on January 29th.

§ The Lady in the Van (2015)
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett From His Memoir
UK, 103 mins

§ Opens January 22
Landmark Clay Theater in San Francisco
Century 9 in San Francisco
§ Opens January 29
Landmark Albany Twin in Berkeley
Camera 7 in San Jose
Century 16 in Pleasant Hill
CineArts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto
CineArts @ Santana Row in San Jose
Regency Cinemas Six in San Rafael

Friday, December 25, 2015

ABS: Weihnachts-Oratorium

Earlier this month, I heard the American Bach Soloists perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio in St. Ignatius Church on the USF campus. In his introductory remarks, conductor Jeffrey Thomas told us this was the 1st ABS performance here. The large interior was well-lit & decorated with garlands, so the setting felt especially grand & festive. Performance forces were minimal: 4 soloists, 16 choristers, in a widely spaced row behind the orchestra, & about 20 instrumentalists, mostly one per part. The sound was not as muddy as I had expected, but it did seem to dissipate into the cavernous space rather than fill it.

Everyone gave punctilious, scrupulously consistent performances. Maestro Thomas's tempos were often fleet, but his beat was always perfectly regular & so never felt rushed. Tenor Kyle Stegall had a wonderfully bright, flexible voice & very clear diction. He sang his recitatives expressively, & his virtuoso arias sounded fluent & agile. He seemed to take breaths in comfortable places. I enjoyed the firm yet easeful voice of baritone Jesse Blumberg. He singing was athletic & elegant, & his high notes warm & open.

Soprano Hélène Brunet's voice was high, warbling & youthful & appropriately angelic. Mezzo Agnes Vojtko made a grounded, sustained sound. She executed long phrases efficiently, without seeming to take breaths, & was steadfast. The choristers were secure & dispatched their contrapuntal choruses pristinely. The soloists joined in the chorales, which were stately.

Individual orchestra members stood when they had obbligato parts, & there were many excellent solos. The trumpet's trills were impressively rapid & even. The tone of the flute was pleasingly pure & without breathiness. Debra Nagy's oboe playing is beautifully liquid, & her accompaniment to "Flößt, mein Heiland" was flowing & had clear-cut dynamics. The aria's off-stage echo voice always came in neatly on time. The strings played vigorously, & leader Elizabeth Blumenstock gave a vivid, wave-like motion to her part in "Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen." The horns struggled to be in tune.

The concert was well attended, & the sober-minded audience refrained from applauding between the separate cantatas, though many stood enthusiastically for the performers at the end. There were long lines for restrooms, even if one ventured outside to a nearby building. Late-comers squeezed themselves into a non-existent seat next to my concert companion, not realizing that they were in the wrong pew.

§ Bach's Christmas Oratorio
American Bach Soloists
American Bach Choir
Hélène Brunet, soprano
Agnes Vojtko, alto
Kyle Stegall, tenor
Jesse Blumberg, baritone
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Saturday December 12 2015 7:30 pm
Saint Ignatius Church, San Francisco

Thursday, December 17, 2015

NCCO: Holiday Program Rehearsal

Wednesday morning I attended the open rehearsal for New Century Chamber Orchestra's holiday concert this week. The mood was festive, & right before the rehearsal, Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg asked the orchestra to play "Happy Birthday" for a cellphone video she sent to a certain "Mastah G."

The morning started with the program's 2nd half, featuring Klezmer clarinettist David Krauker, performing traditional songs in his own arrangements. His playing was immediately arresting, exuberant & jazzy. Audience members compulsively nodded their heads to the beat & frequently broke into applause. His arrangement of "Wedding Dance" asks the orchestra to improvise slides, pizzicatos & slaps to accompany his raucous yet steady solo. Mr. Krakauer encouraged the musicians to be playful, & he was confident with the results. "Hanukkah O Hankukkah" was contrastingly slow & waltz-like, & Mr. Krauker played with swing.

We were lucky to hear his "Synagogue Wail" solo improvisation, which he said he usually doesn't do in rehearsal because he likes to surprise the orchestra. His piercing, energetic solo employed extended clarinet techniques & a lot of circular breathing which looked deceptively natural. We also got to hear his encore, a duet on a popular tune with Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg. At the end of it, she asked the audience, "Was that fun or scary?" It was interesting to hear Mr. Krakauer explain his intentions using analogies to things like boiling water or a traditional New Orleans marching band. Mr. Krakauer was often upstaged by the presence of 3 preschool girls in the audience who naturally became more rambunctious as the morning progressed.

After the coffee and donuts break, the orchestra rehearsed 2 Bach arrangements by Clarice Assad, which Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg prefaced by asking the audience, "You've heard of the phrase 'And now for something completely different'?" The musicians gave "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" a soft, lilting mood, & there was a lot of discussion about tempos, dynamic levels, & whether or not to use mutes. The arrangement of "Sheep May Safely Graze" felt romantic rather than Baroque, & its opening reminded me of the Barber Adagio. There was more discussion about ensemble & working out of cues. A cellist questioned the contrast between the opening notes played without vibrato vs. the sweet, rapid vibrato of Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg's solo.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus participates in the program as well, but they were in school this morning.

§ New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Music Director

Program 2: Holiday Lights
San Francisco Girls Chorus
David Krakauer, Clarinet

Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring from Cantata 208
(arr. Clarice Assad)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata 147
(arr. Clarice Assad)
Traditional/John Jacob Niles: I Wonder as I Wander
Various: Medley of Christmas Carols
Baldassare Galuppi: Dixit Dominus
Charles Gounod: O Divine Redeemer
Traditional: Hanukkah O Hankukkah
(arr. Kathy Tagg)
Traditional: Wedding Dance
(arr. David Krakauer)
Traditional: Der Gasn Nign (The Street Song)
(arr. David Krakauer)
David Krakauer: Synagogue Wail for solo clarinet
Traditional: Der Heyser Bulgar (The Hot Bulgar)
(arr. David Krakauer)

Open Rehearsal
Wednesday, December 16, 2015, 10am, Kanbar Performing Arts 

First Congregational Church
Thursday, December 17, 2015, 8pm

Palo Alto
First United Methodist Church
Friday, December 18, 2015, 8pm

San Francisco
Herbst Theatre
Saturday, December 19, 2015, 8pm

San Rafael
Osher Marin Jewish Community Center
Sunday, December 20, 2015, 5pm

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Up-Coming: A Day of Silents

This coming Saturday the SF Silent Film Festival presents a special 1-day festival at the Castro Theatre. The 5 programs range from star vehicles for Douglas Fairbanks, Harry Houdini & Anna May Wong to a documentary & a French avant-garde fantasy. All are accompanied by live music.

The day starts with a splash with Douglas Fairbanks in the swashbuckling, technicolor The Black Pirate. The BFI National Archive will present a compilation of travelogues & newsreels of pre-war China, which ought to be an interesting time capsule. Harry Houdini stars in The Grim Game, a film until recently thought to be lost, in a restoration that premiered earlier this year. It is famous for footage of an unintended airplane crash which was then incorporated into the plot. In the evening the festival presents L'Inhumaine, a fantastical French melodrama, & Piccadilly, a British drama featuring Anna May Wong.

§ A Day of Silents | Films & Tickets | Passes
San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Castro Theatre

§ Schedule at a Glance

11:00 am
1926, USA, 84 min
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

1:00 pm
Filmed 1900–1948, 68 min
Compiled in 2015 by the BFI National Archive
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

3:00 pm
1919, USA, 73 min
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

6:30 pm
1924, France, 122 min
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

9:15 pm
1929, UK, 92 min
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Etsy Holiday Crowds

This Saturday afternoon around 3pm, I showed up at Pier 35, thinking I would check out the free Etsy Holiday Emporium. Instead I came upon 2 long lines extending from either side of the entrance.

Staff were admitting people in waves of 50 at 5 minute intervals. A woman near the head of one line said she had been waiting 40 minutes, & more people kept joining the lines.

I was agape at both the crowds & the eager willingness to wait.

According to facebook posts, the venue became dangerously over-crowded within an hour of opening this morning, & some called the event a fail. Apparently Etsy was unprepared to have such an insane hit on its hands.

§ SF Etsy Team Indie Holiday Emporium
Sat–Sun, Nov 28–29, 11:00am–5:00pm 
Pier 35

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SFO: Meistersinger

Last Wednesday night I attended the opening performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at San Francisco Opera. Starting with a languidly paced overture, conductor Mark Elder led with slow, measured tempos that seemed chosen to give every note of the score its full value. The resulting music had a dull, even sheen. There were many beautiful instrumental solos, but the slow tempos may have strained the musicians. There was a surprising blooper from the off-stage band in act 3, & the violins sometimes sounded tired. The violas had a warm, velvety tone, & the harp had an emphatic clarity.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Walther sounded lyrical, masculine & ardent & was convincing as a young, noble military officer. He nearly missed a high note during the 1st act song trial, & before the 3rd act it was announced that he was singing through a cold. He sounded slightly cautious but made it through fine. Baritone James Rutherford was a mildly gruff Hans Sachs & sounded firm & youthful. His singing was impressively consistent & taut throughout. The production asks for naturalistic acting, & Martin Gantner's Beckmesser was eager, foolish & vain but not cartoonish. HIs singing was crisp & characterful & felt stylistically correct.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen had a solid, steely voice & portrayed a grown-up Eva. Bass Ain Anger sang Pogner with weight & a natural ease. I enjoyed the Magdalene of mezzo Sasha Cooke, whose bright, sparkling voice had a powerful presence. Tenor Alek Shrader was an appealing David. His voice was high & nimble, & he moved with agility. It was marvelous to hear bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the night watchman. His resonant, cavernous voice wafted easily through the auditorium, even though he remained at the back of the stage.

David McVicar's production, originating from Glyndebourne, is set during the Napoleonic Wars, & the attractively costumed cast look like they are in the latest Jane Austen adaptation. The entire opera takes place under an ornate vaulted ceiling, & the chorus & the Meistersingers were all distinct individuals, members of a small, lively community. Twice in act 1 the apprentices break into a synchronized dance routine with knee slaps & stomping. The stage fighting during the act 2 riot is rough & vigorous. In a surreal moment in act 3, shoe boxes in Sachs's workshop come to life. The busy meadow scene features stilt-walking jugglers & an extended dance routine. Many scenes had strong lighting coming in from the wings.

The performance ran 5 & 3/4 hours, not including the curtain calls. I noticed considerable attrition in the balcony by act 3. The remaining audience gave an appreciative ovation, cheering the cast & orchestra.

§ Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Richard Wagner

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Mark Elder
Production: David McVicar
Revival Co-Directors: Marie Lambert, Ian Rutherford

Eva: Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Magdalene: Sasha Cooke
Walther von Stolzing: Brandon Jovanovich
David: Alek Shrader
Sixtus Beckmesser: Martin Gantner
Veit Pogner: Ain Anger
Hans Sachs: James Rutherford

Balthasar Zorn: Joel Sorensen
Ulrich Eisslinger: Joseph Hu
Hermann Ortel: Edward Nelson
Konrad Nachtigall: Sam Handley
Kunz Vogelgesang: AJ Glueckert
Fritz Kothner : Philip Horst
Hans Foltz: Matthew Stump
Hans Schwarz: Anthony Reed
Augustin Moser: Corey Bix
An apprentice: Laurel Porter
A night watchman: Andrea Silvestrelli

Wednesday, November 18, 6:00PM
War Memorial Opera House