Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mary Wilson Sings Handel

Next month American Bach Soloists releases a CD of 3 Handel sacred works featuring soprano Mary Wilson. Handel's music is of course attractive & vigorous, & I'm happy that the CD includes Silete venti, which the same personnel performed so gorgeously last season. Ms. Wilson is a great fit for this repertroire. Her voice is wonderfully warm, smooth & gleaming & communicates joy. She executes the many virtuosic passages with ease. In the bravura Alleluja of Silete venti, her singing is agile & her rapid notes connected yet distinct. She sounds perfectly smooth & gliding in the long phrases of the "Suscitans a terra" of Laudate Pueri Dominum. Just like ABS's live performances, this recorded performance is well-prepared & immaculate. Oboist John Abberger's solos are impressively clean & sustained. The orchestra & chorus sound tidy, & the tempos are regulated & balanced, feeling neither too fast or too slow.

The CD will be officially released on December 10th, 2013 & is available for pre-order on iTunes. If you buy it on iTunes, you can download the 1st track now, & the rest of the album will download automatically on December 10th. Program notes are also on-line.

§ Mary Wilson Sings Handel
American Bach Soloists
Jeffrey Thomas, music director
Mary Wilson, soprano

Silete venti HWV 242
Laudate, pueri, Dominum HWV 237
Gloria HWV deest

Release date: December 10th, 2013
Pre-Order on iTunes

Thursday, November 21, 2013

SFO: Barber of Seville

Alessandro Corbelli (Doctor Bartolo) and Lucas Meachem (Figaro).
Photo by Cory Weaver.
San Francisco Opera's current production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia is double cast, & line-up I heard Tuesday night was solid. As the Count, tenor Javier Camarena has a gorgeous, velvety voice, & his singing was seductive. He had great dynamic control, executed all the tricky coloratura passages with virtuosity & even accompanied himself on guitar. It was exciting to hear him deliver the usually cut "Cessa di più resistere," which received fittingly prolonged applause. Baritone Lucas Meachem was a somewhat hunky Figaro, sporting a major 5 o'clock shadow & making a roomy & athletic sound. Mezzo Isabel Leonard played a spitfire Rosina. Her singing was consistently strapping & her high notes secure. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli must be close to 70 is over 60, but his singing & acting as Doctor Bartolo were vital & tight. It was wonderful to hear bass Andrea Silvestrelli's bottomless pit of a voice as Don Basilio. The difference in height between him & Mr. Corbelli was comical in itself. It was also nice to hear baritone Ao Li's deep, round sound as Fiorello.

The set consists of a diagonal slice of floor & moveable walls along one side, containing doors & windows. It looks incomplete to me. The staging is packed with random visual jokes & is very busy but not very coherent. I never felt that anything was really at stake. Props include an exercise bicycle, cotton candy & a gigantic bust of Rossini. 8 Spanish dancers participate in the action, & characters sometime crawl out from beneath the set. At the end of act 1 the principals attempt to exit down ladders into the orchestra pit & then find themselves on the wrong side of the descending curtain. I was confused about what part of the house the characters were in during the elopement scene in act 2.

SF Opera Box Office photo IMG_20131119_192408_zps91663da1.jpgThe orchestra played extrovertedly under conductor Giuseppe Finzi. Tempos were brisk, & there were a few moments when the orchestra & singers were not in sync. I liked hearing the clarinet & flute solos. A harpsichord accompanied the recitatives for Bartolo & Basilio while a fortepiano accompanied the younger characters. I was in upstairs standing room & spent a lot of time watching the woman seated in front of me bounce up & down to Rossini's music. During intermission the odor of pot wafted from a knot of older patrons on the outside balcony.

§ Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Music by Gioachino Rossini

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi
Director: Emilio Sagi

Fiorello: Ao Li
Count Almaviva: Javier Camarena
Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli
Figaro: Lucas Meachem
Rosina: Isabel Leonard
Don Basilio: Andrea Silvestrelli
Berta: Catherine Cook
Ambrogio: A.J. Glueckert
Notary: Andrew Truett
An Officer: Hadleigh Adams

Tue 11/19/13 8:00pm
War Memorial Opera House

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host photo IMG_20131117_140314_zps27ac6dcf.jpgSunday afternoon I saw public radio broadcaster Ira Glass & dancers Monica Barnes & Anna Bass in a live performance with the ungainly title of Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host. The hybrid show combined interviews from This American Life with Mr. Glass's live commentary & dance. Mr. Glass stood at a lectern, which he assembled on stage at the start of the show, & triggered audio clips with an iPad. I'd never had a clear idea of what he looks like before, & it took me a while to adjust to his tall, lanky appearance. The dancers were incorporated into some stories & also performed their own numbers. The audience cheered Mr. Glass when he bravely danced a few times himself.

The show ran an intermissionless 2 hours & was packed with many disparate stories. I liked hearing about the cast of Riverdance trying to win the lotto & about a businessman who approaches his marriage like a marketing campaign. A segment about the death of poet Donald Hall's wife was very sad & accompanied by the dancers moving in a slow embrace while precariously standing on a small table. It was fun to hear an outtake from a David Rakoff interview that was too obscene to broadcast. Mr. Glass made it obvious when he went off script, & at one point he confessed to being "terrified."

Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host photo IMG_20131117_134300_zps1013d95c.jpgThe show took place on a bare stage, but effective use was made of lighting & a small number of props. At one point, 6 audience members were pulled on stage to recreate a middle school dance, complete with disco ball & balloon arch. The show's finale included baton twirling & a confetti explosion. The Nourse Theatre looked full. The audience was attentive the entire time & gave the show a standing ovation.

§ Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host
Performance | Monica Bill Barnes, Anna Bass and Ira Glass
Words | Ira Glass
Choreography | Monica Bill Barnes
Lighting Design | Jane Cox
Set/costume Design | Kelly Hanson
Production Director/Stage Manager | Robert Saenz de Viteri

Nourse Theater, San Francisco
Sunday, November 17, 2013, 2p

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Luciano Chessa at the Columbarium

Luciano Chessa photo IMG_20131116_184436_zpsce7bb7ad.jpgI dropped in at the Columbarium on Saturday evening to catch Luciano Chessa's LIGHTEST, a performance art piece that concluded a full afternoon of site-specific events presented by the SFMOMA. The audience, which had just watched a film, was being asked to rearrange their chairs around the center of the rotunda when I arrived. The piece took place in the dark & lasted just under half an hour. It was evidently about searching. At 1st, 7 performers roamed the building with flashlights while boom boxes on different floors played overlapping tracks of conversations & songs. I recognized The Great Pretender & The Muppet Show theme song. The centerpiece of the performance was Mr. Chessa playing an amplified saw under the rotunda. He produced an unexpected variety of sounds, from scraping metal to thunder claps to high metallic pitches. After his solo, the other performers converged on him, attached their lights to his clothing & then led him blindfolded around the building. The piece ended when they reaching their goal, the niche of Harvey Milk. The performance had a receptive audience. A photographer & videographer recorded the proceedings, even though it was very dark.

§ Luciano Chessa: LIGHTEST
Saturday, November 16, 2013, 6:00 p.m.
Neptune Society Columbarium

Thursday, November 14, 2013

American Promise

For the documentary American Promise, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson filmed their son, Idris, & his classmate, Seun, as the boys entered kindergarten at Dalton, a progressive Manhattan private school. They were among the few African Americans in the predominately white student body. For the next 13 years, the filmmakers made observational footage of them at school, at extracurricular sports & with their families.

The implicit context for the film is the Black Male Achievement Gap, a phenomenon in which black males do far worse academically than their white counterparts. Idris & Seun are neither poor students nor brilliant ones, but we see how fear of her son falling behind causes Idris's mother to frantically supervise his homework. Idris's father, a Stanford graduate, is equally fearful as he tries to goad his son with foreboding speeches. The film is a bit flaccid at nearly 2 and a half hours long. I did not leave feeling like I knew its subjects well, though I enjoyed a scene of the 2 boys discussing cardigans, which exposes a social gap between them. American Promise open in the Bay Area on November 15th.

§ American Promise (2013)
A Documentary Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
140 minutes

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Armstrong Lie

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney originally set out to film a comeback story about Lance Armstrong's return to the Tour de France in 2009. He filmed Mr. Armstrong in training & during the race & had nearly completed the film when the doping scandal broke. The film was put on hold. Then, earlier this year, Mr. Armstrong's confessional interview with Oprah gave Mr. Gibney the opportunity to refashion his movie as the story of Lance Armstrong's rise & fall. The Armstrong Lie shows Mr. Armstrong visiting cancer wards filled with young children & taking a random drug test administered by officials who turn up at his home, but it also features a post-Oprah interview & interviews with less-than-admiring journalists & colleagues. We get glimpses of Michele Ferrari, the cagey Italian physician who oversaw athletes' doping regiments. The focus is on the brazen lies & evasions all around, though there's no new information here.

I liked the thrilling footage of the Tour de France race, some of it shot by cameras mounted on bicycles. Drunken spectators who run onto the racecourse are one of the race's hazards. The idea of doping is put into context by an amusing sequence showing competitors in the early days of the Tour de France drinking alcohol to keep themselves going. Mr. Gibney narrates the film, & his ambivalent attitude toward Mr. Armstrong is partly its subject, but since we now know that everyone was doping, it is not clear why censure should fall on Mr. Armstrong in particular. The Armstrong Lie opens in the Bay Area on November 15th.

§ The Armstrong Lie (2013)
Alex Gibney, writer & director
USA, 123 min.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

MIS Historic Learning Center

Fittingly for Veterans Day, I saw the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center in the Presidio. The refurbished building finally gives the National Japanese American Historical Society it's own building. It's on the site of the US Army's secret language school, set up in 1941 & staffed with bilingual Japanese American soldiers. The school relocated to Minnesota the next year, when the government evacuated all Americans of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.

Boys Scouts led us in the Pledge of Allegiance...

and provided a bit of band music.

There was a good turn-out of venerable war veterans, whose average age must be 90.

Somehow the organizers managed not to have a working PA system, so I could not hear the speakers & had no idea who they were.

After 90 minutes of ceremony, we were let into the building. At the moment it's pretty basic, but it houses a classroom, space for temporary installations & a gift shop.

§ Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center (Bldg. 640)
San Francisco Presidio
Ribbon Cutting Ceremony
Monday, November 11, 2013 – 9 AM.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Philippe Sly at Rex Salon

Wednesday evening I heard bass-baritone Philippe Sly, accompanied by guitarist John Charles Britton, sing 15 Schubert songs in a sold-out Salon at the Rex. The 2 musicians sat close together on 2 chairs & shared one music stand. Mr. Sly told us that he purposely omitted translations from the program, so he instead read the translations to us before each song. He scaled his performance to the quietness of the guitar & the small venue. Both his speaking & singing voice were soothing, & his sound was clean, unfussy & often soft. The youthfulness of his voice fit the music well. He sang "Mein!" with nice contrasts, & his "Abschied von der Harfe" had a sustained quality. Mr. Britton did his own guitar transcriptions, which seemed very literal & also very challenging. He sometimes struggled to play all the notes.

Salon at the Rex photo IMG_20131106_181448_zps8fba1f55.jpgThe salon audience was attentive & appreciatively applauded each song. In the Q & A afterward we learned that German is Mr. Sly's favorite language to sing & that he finds it harder to sing in a language he speaks fluently. Mr. Sly comes across as an exceedingly pleasant person. He joked about the audience's drinking & laughed when Mr. Britton reminded him to read one of the poems. He readily allowed that excerpting from Die schone Müllerin & Winterreise was "blasphemy" but explained that he picked songs based on accompaniments that worked for the guitar. Apologizing for such a dark & serious program, he gave us the 1st song from Ravel's Don Quichotte cycle as a light encore.

§ Philippe Sly, bass-baritone
John Charles Britton, guitar
Salon at the Rex

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)



Lachen und Weinen

Auf dem Wasser zu singen

Der Tod und das Mädchen

Du bist die Ruh

Abschied van der Harfe

An die Musik

from Die schone Müllerin
    Der Müller und der Bach

from Winterreise
    Gute Nacht
    Der Lindenbaum
    Der Wegweiser
    Der Leiermann

1st song from Ravel's Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Falstaff at SF Opera

Last week I attended the 2nd to last performance of Verdi's Falstaff at SF Opera. The production was well-cast, though bass-baritone Bryn Terfel was obviously the star. His voice was full & cushy & seemed to get warmer & more comfortable as the evening went on. He sang with variety & expression, & his performance had a spontaneous feel. His Falstaff was good company & comical without being cartoonish. The audience particularly laughed when he appeared in act 2 extravagantly dressed in red, looking like a cross between a rooster & a pitcher of Hawaiian Punch.

The female singers all had strong voices. Soprano Ainhoa Arteta as Alice sounded consistently sturdy. Contralto Meredith Arwady's voice was robust, & she played Dame Quickly with a bold sense of fun. Baritone Fabio Capitanucci was a theatrical Ford & fell to the floor when giving vent to his character's jealousy in act 2. The voice of tenor Francesco Demuro as Fenton rang out clearly, with a bit of tension in his high notes. Tenor Joel Sorensen put a lot of character into his singing & physical acting as the bandy-legged Dr. Caius. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli was Pistola, & his deep, orotund voice is so distinctive that it popped out at me whenever he opened his mouth.

The set was composed of flat wooden surfaces & looked similar for all scenes. It was perhaps meant to evoke a Renaissance stage. A large trapdoor hinged up from the middle of the floor to represent the Garter Inn, making it look like Falstaff lived in a giant, brick-lined clam shell. A lot of white laundry linen is tossed in the air during the scene in Ford's house.

San Francisco Opera photo IMG_20131030_192119_zps03feb75f.jpgMaestro Nicola Luisotti's conducting was brisk & extroverted. The orchestra played out, & there were nice woodwind solos. For the final scene, a musician dressed as a huntsman stood in box A & played the opening horn calls on a valveless horn. The grand pause at the end of the finale was dramatic, & Mr. Terfel's pianissimo utterance of "Tutti gabbati" was striking. I watched the performance from upstairs standing room. There was plenty of room at the railing, & I noticed 2 people reading scores. Many attendees arrived late & had to be seated after the 1st scene.

§ Falstaff
Music by Giuseppe Verdi

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Olivier Tambosi

Falstaff: Bryn Terfel
Alice Ford: Ainhoa Arteta
Nannetta: Heidi Stober
Dame Quickly: Meredith Arwady
Fenton: Francesco Demuro
Ford: Fabio Capitanucci
Meg Page: Renée Rapier
Bardolfo: Greg Fedderly
Dr. Caius: Joel Sorensen
Pistola: Andrea Silvestrelli

Wed 10/30/13 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House