John Adams

SF Opera's Girls of the Golden West Review

03_Stefan_Cohen_GGW* Notes * 
Last night's world premiere of John Adams' Girls of the Golden West (Act I Scene 1 pictured, photograph by Stefan Cohen) at San Francisco Opera had some gorgeous singing and playing. But neither the music nor the artful, elegant stagecraft could save a stilted and tedious libretto.

Tellingly, the best moment of the opera is without words. The music for Lola Montez's Spider Dance held my attention after the monotony of lines and lines of narration from Gold Rush era primary sources. It helps that ballerina Lorena Feijóo looked fantastic in her red, white, and blue ruffles and danced with absolute conviction.

The playing seemed very much together under the direction of Maestro Grant Gershon, and the woodwinds sounded especially lovely. The chorus too had a cohesiveness to be admired. In fact all of the singing and acting was impressive, from the supernumerary miners and dancing girls up to the youthful leads.

Much, if not all, of the opera's text comes from original sources rather than from librettist/director Peter Sellars, and as such, there is a lot more telling than showing. There is little in the way of dialogue and it isn't always easy to understand what exactly is going on since the characters sing at us rather than interact with each other. This is especially prominent for Dame Shirley, whose words are all her own, drawn from her letters. In this leading role is soprano Julia Bullock and her fine voice seems wasted on lines enumerating mining terms she doesn't understand and the like.

The parts of the libretto that work best are based on songs or poetry, as with the miners' songs sung by the chorus or the Cantonese rhymes brought to life by talented soprano Hye Jung Lee as prostitute Ah Sing. Mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges is a dignified Josefa Segovia, a Mexican-American woman who kills her would-be rapist Joe Cannon and is subsequently judged guilty of murder and hanged. Her words come from poems by Alfonsina Storni.

I really wanted to like this opera as it features John Adams, my home state, and a brilliant cast that includes many people of color. But sadly I found myself rather bored, especially during the first act (the one bright spot being Davóne Tines' aria as Ned Peters at the end). It felt more like a discombobulating lecture in a dream than an opera, though I'll give the piece another chance next week, as it is in my subscription.

* Tattling * 
The orchestra level and boxes looked very full, and standing room had a respectable crowd at the rail. A standee did collapse during Act I, but was apparently fine and did not need to be taken out of the hall.

The audience was very polite, and tried to clap after some of the main arias, but was most enthused by the Spider Dance. The opera did get a standing ovation, though I might have heard someone mutter that Peter Sellars deserved a pie in the face.


The Gospel According to the Other Mary at SFS

Sfsgospelmary010* Notes *
Last weekend San Francisco Symphony continued celebrations for John Adams' 70th birthday with The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The oratorio was tastefully semi-staged (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley, Jay Hunter Morris, Kelley O'Connor, and Tamara Mumford pictured left; photograph by Stefan Cohen) and featured a truly resplendent cast.

The libretto, compiled by Peter Sellars, is a mish-mash of the Bible and texts from Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich, and Primo Levi. The collage makes for a narrative that is disjointed and jumps from different time periods, but essentially recounts the story of Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus and their interactions with Jesus.

The music is vivid with textures and rhythms, and there is much for the three percussionists to do, as they share a dozen instruments including timbale, almglocken, and cimbalom. Not a note of this seemed gratuitous in the least, though it did seem very difficult. Maestro Grant Gershon looked as if he was counting and cuing constantly, and this did give the music a bit of a square feel.

The singers were unreal. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor showed off some alarmingly low notes and beautiful clear high ones as well. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford also displayed a dark richness as Martha. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris was able to navigate choppy lines as well as ones more lyrical and legato.

The trio of ghostly countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley were effective as was the small chorus, whose members were very together. Everything was impressively loud, and microphones were used but were not distracting in the least.

Tattling *
The audience was quiet but there was a noticeable amount of attrition during intermission.


John Adams' World Premiere at SF Opera

Atomic_072_terrence mccarthyGirls of the Golden West, a new opera set during the 1850s California Gold Rush by composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars (pictured left, photograph by Terrence McCarthy), will have a world premiere at San Francisco Opera in November of 2017. More details will be released next January as part of the Company's 2017–18 repertory season announcement.

Press Release | SF Opera's Official Site | John Adams' Official Site


MTT Conducts L'Histoire du soldat

Mahler51213* Notes * 
This weekend Michael Tilson Thomas (pictured left, photograph by Kristen Loken) is conducting seven members of the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat. The vivid piece is narrated by Elvis Costello, who does a fine job declaiming his lines. Nick Gabriel (The Soldier) is earnest and Malcolm McDowell (The Devil) certainly is charming. It is adorable when MTT himself speaks the lines of The King in Part II. The playing is incisive and spirited. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik sounded particularly lovely, as did clarinetist Carey Bell.

The performance starts with John Adams conducting his 1982 piece Grand Pianola Music, which is being recorded for future release. Adams addresses the audience before commencing the piece, explaining the genesis of the piece and its influences. He also notes a tuba solo in Part I, which he called a "bovine moment."

The work, in fact, is startlingly beautiful. The pianists, Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin play cohesively. The orchestra, which included woodwinds, brass, and percussion, sound grounded. Synergy Vocals is wonderfully ethereal, the three singers make for haunting sirens.

* Tattling * 
The audience on the orchestra level was very quiet for the John Adams. For the most part people were also quiet for the Stravinsky, but a woman in Row W Seat 102 was compelled to whisper to those adjacent to her as the ensemble played in Part II.


The Death of Klinghoffer at the Met

Kling_1463a* Notes * 
A sixth Metropolitan Opera performance of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer (Act II, Scene 2 pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard) was held last Saturday. There were a handful of protesters with signs reading "Shame on Peter Gelb Met Opera" and so forth. The opera itself is not particularly contentious, if anything, it is a mild, mournful piece. The characters are shown as rather human, and of course there was a choice line from Leon Klinghoffer regretting his hatlessness. One imagines that this production might not be as well-attended were it not for the vehemence of the demonstrators.

The orchestra had a graceful clarity under the baton of David Robertson. The strings were particularly lucid, as were the woodwinds. The Met chorus also sounded strong and cohesive.

The principal singers all seemed suited to their roles. It was a joy to hear former Adler Fellows Sean Pannikar (Molqi) and Maya Lahyani (Palestinian Woman). Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock had a strikingly disturbing aria as Mamoud in Act I, Scene 2. Baritone Paulo Szot made for an appropriately conflicted Captain. Baritone Alan Opie (Leon Klinghoffer) sang his finale aria with gravitas. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens was poignant as Marilyn Klinghoffer, her voice is rich and full.

Tom Morris' production makes use of projected text and historical photographs. The text is somewhat burdensome, and the photographs less so. The effect of the bright sun in Act II is haunting. The dancing, choreographed by Arthur Pita, is impressive, especially in the case of Jesse Kovarsky (Omar).

* Tattling * 
I repeatedly hushed the woman behind me in Family Circle, as she spoke during the quietest parts of the music at the beginning of Act I. She informed me that she was reading the projected text that she could see to the two blind women she was with, and I sheepishly apologized at intermission.

I moved down to the right side of the last row of the Grand Tier to sit with some friends. A young composer seated near us may have spoken quite a lot during the music, but it was difficult muster annoyance at this, having already been so mortified by my own previous behavior.


Met Cancels Klinghoffer Live in HD

According to a press release from today the Met has canceled its Live in HD transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer scheduled for this fall. The Met's General Manager, Peter Gelb says "I'm convinced that the opera is not anti-Semitic but I've also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe."

Press Release | Production Web Site


Nixon in China Opening at SF Opera

Sfopera-nixon-hye-jung-lee-2012 * Notes * 
A new production of Nixon in China had a Bay Area premiere at San Francisco Opera last night. Lawrence Renes conducted a crisp performance, and for the most part the singers were audible over the amplified orchestra. The amplification of the principals and eight members of the chorus made it difficult to gauge the weight of the voices, creating a more uniform quality. The odd flattening of sound and Alice Goodman's libretto of charming non-sequiturs set to John Adams' memorable tunes make for a rather disorienting but attractive work.

The principal cast is convincing. Patrick Carfizzi is an appropriately disturbing Kissinger. Chen-Ye Yuan sang Chou En-lai sympathetically. Simon O’Neill sounded powerful as Mao Tse-tung, his high notes secure. Maria Kanyova impressed as rather human Pat Nixon, a contrast to Hye Jung Lee (pictured above, photograph by Cory Weaver) as Chiang Ch'ing, at least in Act II. Lee is outrageously talented, her voice flexible and lyrical. She could be frightening without ever producing an ugly sound, and could purr lines when necessary. The only picky point one could make is that her accent is noticeable in certain words. Brian Mulligan may not perfectly embody Nixon, being a tad too young, but his movements and expressions are persuasive. Mulligan has an appealing voice, its richness is perhaps dulled by the amplification and the high tessitura of the part.

Michael Cavanagh's direction suits the opera rather nicely, not too literal with pleasant touches of whimsy. The set, from Erhard Rom, is uncluttered and lit expertly by Christopher Maravich. The projections, by Sean Nieuwenhuis, make novel use of space. The fluttering flags are a bit contrived, not to mention boring, but most of the other images are effective. Wen Wei Wang's choreography is acrobatic and the soloists are especially accomplished dancers.

* Tattling * 
Fifteen minutes before the performance, David Gockley gave a toast to the press corps covering the opening with Schramsberg sparkling wine, as this was served at the banquet depicted in the opera.

A loud mobile phone rang twice in center section of the Orchestra Ring during Act II It also rang just before Act III started.

During the first intermission I checked out the "Photo Corner" at San Francisco Opera, where one is meant to take pictures and upload them to Facebook or Twitter to be entered into a drawing.


4th Performance of Nixon in China at the Met

Kathleen-kim-nixon-in-china * Notes * 
Though the fourth performance of Nixon in China at the Metropolitan Opera was simulcast yesterday, the Opera Tattler was nonetheless to be found in Family Circle standing room. While Adrianne Lobel's set was streamlined and efficient, Peter Sellars direction seemed overblown. The dancing, choreographed by Mark Morris, was attractive. The lines were good, though not completely exact from dancer to dancer.

The orchestra sounded together under the baton of the composer himself, John Adams, whose sense of timing is apparently impeccable. The chorus too appeared synchronized and clear.

Richard Paul Fink's role of Kissinger may have been small, but he certainly made the most of it. In the title role, James Maddalena looked and moved like Nixon, but he sounded strained and wobbly. Russell Braun sang Chou En-lai with conviction, and Robert Brubaker likewise impressed as Mao Tse-tung. Janis Kelly struck me as a bit shrill at first, but her "This is prophetic!" had great charm. Kathleen Kim was terrifying as Chiang Ch'ing. Her big aria in Act II was both imposing and arresting.

* Tattling * 
The line for standing room was only 20 people deep in the morning, but there were quite a lot of people standing by the time the performance began. The person behind 202 of the last row of the house was not particularly considerate. He encroached so much on the person next to him that she had to ask an usher to intervene. Near the end of the performance, he began to make a great deal of noise as he got himself ready to leave.

I must admit I was not well-behaved either. At intermission I may have been seen "accidentally" tossing someone into one of the lobby walls, after which I collapsed into hysterical giggles. After careful consideration, the (pernicious) fellow at hand was kind enough to not press charges, for which I am quite grateful.


El Niño at SF Symphony

Adams_john_175x175 * Notes *
John Adams is conducting his nativity oratorio El Niño at San Francisco Symphony this week as part of Project San Francisco. The work was modestly staged, with direction from Kevin Newbury, set from Daniel Hubp, costumes from Paul Carey, and lighting from Kirk Bookman. The most charming bit might have been the Charlie Brown Christmas tree downstage for the second half. Adams kept time impressively, but for the most part had an introverted conducting style. Much amplification was used and the overall effect was richly textural and rather loud.

The chorus sounded pretty, but did not always seem together. It was especially difficult to discern what they were singing in the beginning. The soloists were amplified, so did not have to contend with being lost under the rest of the music. The trio of countertenors did sound angelic, as did the San Francisco Girls Chorus that came in at the end. Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu seemed to have a good heft to his voice. His sibilants were somewhat whistled. Mezzo Michelle DeYoung created a pleasant, pewter-like sound. Soprano Dawn Upshaw was bright and also very lovely. Everyone sounded so comfortable singing in English that when they occasionally switched to Spanish, it was noticeably stilted. There were small errors in Spanish pronunciation, initial voiceless stops were aspirated and some vowels were not clear.

* Tattling * 
There was light talking in the first half, but the most of the offenders left at intermission so that the audience was unusually quiet for the second part.


Robertson conducts St. Louis Symphony

David-robertson * Notes * 
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra came to San Francisco for two performances at Davies Hall, the first of which occurred yesterday evening. David Robertson had the musicians well in hand, they seemed entirely together and produced a gorgeous, clear sound. The performance started with Christopher Rouse's Rapture, which has an apt title and did sound quite like spiritual exaltation. The trombones were particularly fine in their playing. Gil Shaham joined the orchestra as the soloist for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor. The second movement was stunning, and the low strings were especially moving. Shaham's playing was vivid.

The second half of the program began with Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 in C Major. The brass section was lucid, and the horns were exceptionally good. The Vivacissimo was just that, spirited and brilliant, and the tempi in general seemed appropriate. The performance ended with the Doctor Atomic Symphony from John Adams, who was sitting in Loge A. The piece sounded beautiful, and the trumpet solo was absolutely ravishing.

* Tattling * 
Though San Francisco Symphony very kindly provides press tickets to me, I still have a subscription and occasionally buy single tickets in the Center Terrace. There was some light snoring during the second movement of the Prokofiev, but very little noise until the last piece. A plump, grey-haired woman old enough to be my grandmother just behind me was speaking at full volume during John Adams, and after turning around once to express my displeasure, to no avail, I was forced to hushed her. She leaned over and hissed "Bitch" into my hair, to which I could only laugh. After the ovation, I asked her if she had really hurled an expletive at me during the performance, to which she responded "Why, yes I did." I thanked her for being quiet for the rest of the performance, and her companion told me that I should hear the things she calls him.


Dudamel conducts City Noir

Adams-dudamel * Notes * 
On Friday Gustavo Dudamel conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a program of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lou Harrison, and John Adams. The Salonen is heavily orchestrated in the manner of much contemporary music, with a plethora of percussion, including six bongos and four tom-toms. Dudamel kept the volume to non-deafening levels, even if the brass did have harsh moments. The Piano Concerto from Harrison that followed had significantly fewer orchestra members on stage. At times it seemed that the soloist, Marino Formenti, and the orchestra were not playing in the same piece. This kept the music quite interesting, in any case. Formenti's playing was appealing and sensitive, yet could be brutal.

City Noir had a world premiere at LA Phil last month, but John Adams was in attendance nonetheless. The work has nearly twice as many sorts of percussive instruments as the first piece. The musicians seemed together and engaged, the viola solo in the second movement was particularly fine, as was the trumpet solo in the last movement. If nothing else, Dudamel certainly conveyed excitement.

* Tattling * 
There was no whispering or talking in the Terrace View, and very little noise in general from this section. Coughs could be heard throughout the hall. It was remarkable to see how few empty seats there were, given that the program consisted entirely of new music.


Osmo Vänskä and Antti Siirala at SFS

Osmo-vanska * Notes * 
Last night Osmo Vänskä lead San Francisco Symphony in a program of John Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Dvořák's Symphony No. 7. Slonimsky's Earbox was quite cute, a sort of jaunty circus music. The orchestra crackled under Vänskä, and it was a good opportunity to hear the new principal violist, Jonathan Vinocour, who played his solo beautifully. The horns were not perfectly clear in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, but the oboe sounded lovely. The pianist, Antti Siirala, was unobtrusive but still engaging. The last movement was downright alarming. The second half of the performance gave us a lush, dramatic rendition of Dvořák. The playing was persuasive, Vänskä brought out the best in the woodwinds and even the brass.

* Tattling * 
Some talking and whispering was noted, especially from those in E 105 and 106 of the orchestra level. Siirala received a standing ovation, but Adams did not.


John Adams at JCCSF

John * Notes * 
John Adams was interviewed yesterday by historian Kevin Starr as part of the JCCSF's Arts & Ideas series. We heard about how Adams came of age when contemporary classical music was hostile to communicating with an audience and about how he came to California in a VW Bug without intending to stay for more than a year. Adams stayed out here, of course, teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for several years. His most famous pieces were discussed including Shaker Loops, Harmonium, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, On the Transmigration of Souls, The Dharma at Big Sur, and Doctor Atomic.

Adams spoke of the piano as a tyrannical paradigm for composers, and interestingly he learnt clarinet rather than piano as a child.  He seems to strive for erudition, Gibbon is one of his favorite authors and he mentioned with disdain that young people do not find it cool to read Henry James or Dante. His advice to young composers was to "know everything." Likewise his comments on opera were rather amusing, that the essence of opera is surreal and that it also is a sort of specatator sport.

* Tattling * 
The "high sperm count" of Stravinsky's early works was mentioned, in opposition to his "taking the veil" in his serial period. Adams also spoke about how no one knew what to do with the Belgian-invented saxophone for a good thirty years until jazz came along. There was much teasing between Adams and Starr, and the latter was stumped about where the name for Adams' memoir came from.

In contrast, the audience was on fairly good behavior, there was no electronic noise in the form of cellular phones or watch alarms. Scattered talking was noted, but this was not terribly distracting.


Doctor Atomic Live in HD Met Simulcast

DoctorAtomic * Notes * 
Penny Woolcock's new production of Doctor Atomic was shown as a simulcast over the weekend. The set design, by Julian Crouch, was somewhat busy, and involved a wall of cubbyholes meant to be offices. Andrew Dawson's choreography was likewise overwrought at times, as when dancers held contortions within the small office spaces. Video was used as well, and as is the pitfall with such things, it was somewhat distracting from the music at times. Catherine Zuber's costumes were pretty, one especially appreciated how she put the red-haired Sasha Cooke (Kitty Oppenheimer) in pinks and fuchsias.

Alan Gilbert conducted energetically, and the cast was uniformly strong. Sasha Cooke was a bit harsh at times, but she had lovely moments as well. Cooke is also quite beautiful, even glamorously so. Meredith Arwady was wonderful as Pasqualita, as she was in Chicago. Thomas Glenn (Robert Wilson) Eric Owens (General Leslie Groves), Richard Paul Fink (Edward Teller) all gave performances consistent with their work in San Francisco and Chicago. Gerald Finley was especially good as J. Robert Oppenheimer, his aria in the finale of Act I was absolutely gorgeous. It was also unhampered by strange, mime-like choreography.

* Tattling * 
The sound and picture stopped for a few seconds during the Bhagavad Gita chorus. The audience was mostly well-behaved, though there was some talking. My companion fell asleep and snored at least on one occasion. Also, someone tripped over her feet at one point. Worst of all though was someone's watch or cellular phone alarm. It rang about 80 times during the beginning of the second act. The alarm sounded about 10 times at a time every few minutes.


West Coast Premiere of Popcorn Superhet Receiver

 * Notes *
The Wordless Music Series had a sold-out San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre last night. The concert featured the very solid Magik*Magik Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Shwartz. The evening began with John Adams' Shaker Loops (1978) for string septet, that is, three violins, one viola, two celli, and one bass. The piece is characterized by a good deal of itchy relentlessness in the fast bits and sliding loops in the slower parts. I found the literalness of the piece, the title interpreted as sound, to be quite pleasing. The mania relieved by unison in the last movement was also enjoyable. I was less crazy about Save As (2005) by Fred Frith, the work reminded me of a performance piece for art school. The cellist and percussionist involved both had fun, they got to fling tin cans around and crumple paper. The best gag was when a ping pong ball was thrown, it made a very satisfying noise as it hit the stage.

My favorite piece of the evening was at the beginning of the second half, Arvo Pärt's gut wrenching Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) for string orchestra and percussion. Icarian Rhapsody (1999-2001) from young Mason Bates made little impression on me, though the music did evoke floating and waves. Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver (2006) was less pretty. It started off insectile in the high strings, but with this floating over the warm glow of the low strings. The pizzicato parts were charming, especially a percussive flamenco-like section near the end. Overall the piece reminded me of being on an airplane and hearing the white noise in that situation as ethereal music.

The five works went together nicely, unlike how new music is often programmed. I much prefer this sort of concert to being tricked into hearing contemporary pieces because they are paired with famous classics. It was less jarring and there was not the palpable discomfort often felt in the symphony hall when anything 20th century or later is attempted.

* Tattling *
The audience was exceedingly well-behaved, there were absolutely no mobile phone rings, watch alarms, or talking aloud. The young woman next to me did text during the first half of the Frith, and whispered during Pärt. Another young woman behind me giggled at inopportune moments, but for the most part, one could have heard a pin drop during the rests. If only the audience at Davies could be this attentive!

I was in a roped-off section on the ground floor for press and such, and though I was mistakenly stopped before hopping over said rope, I still gleefully made my way to the very middle. Sidney Chen of The Standing Room stopped by to say hello, and noted that I was quite bold, and he sat on the aisle, being more demure or at least, wanting to make a better get-away. At intermission I was happy to see sfmike of Civic Center as well, where you can see both me and the inimitable Monsieur C.

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