Theatre Critics Panel Discussion at SFIAF

Fort-masonI feel obliged to inform you that I am participating in a panel discussion entitled "Social Media, 24 Hour News Cycles and The Future of Reviewing Theatre" presented by the San Francisco International Arts Festival and San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. The event takes place this Thursday at 6pm at the Magic Theatre (Building D Third Floor, Fort Mason Center for Art and Culture). This takes place just before opening night of Pan Pan Theatre from the Republic of Ireland at 8:00pm.


Susan Graham at SFS

Susan-Graham-by-Dario_Acosta* Notes *
Susan Graham (pictured left, photograph by Dario Acosta) is singing Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre with San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas this weekend. The piece, a replacement for the previously announced Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, is quite suited to Ms. Graham. Her clear high notes and fully developed sound work well with its descriptive, declamatory nature.

The orchestra supported her in a characteristic glimmering way. The basses were particularly nice at the end. Graham sang "L'île inconnue" from Berlioz's Les nuits d'été song cycle as an encore.

The Berlioz was sandwiched by more 19th century music including Brahms' rather odd Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Schumann's Fourth Symphony. The cello and oboe were lovely in the Schumann, which was recorded for a future release.

* Tattling *
There was light talking during Brahms and even some whispering during Schumann, though we were asked emphatically not to make noise because of the recording.


Opera Parallèle's The Lighthouse

Opera-parallele-lighthouse-2016* Notes *
Opera Parallèle has opened yet another impressive production with Peter Maxwell Davies' chamber work The Lighthouse, which has a three performance run this weekend at Z Space in San Francisco. Scored for only about a dozen instrumentalists and three singers, the music is rich and vivid. The tense atmosphere of the narrative, which involves the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers, however, was not terribly dramatic.

The boredom, fear, and claustrophobia of being in a lighthouse without knowing when relief will come definitely comes through in the music. Tenor Thomas Glenn (Sandy, Officer 1), baritone Robert Orth (Blazes, Officer 2), and bass-baritone David Cushing (Arthur, Voice of the Cards, Officer 3) all are clearly talented, and are carefully characterized.

Orth's brightness was particularly macabre in "When I was a kid our street had a gang," and the banjo playing from David Tanenbaum here was also splendid.

Maestra Nicole Paiement kept everyone clear and together. It did not seem to matter at all that hornist Susan Vollmer played from offstage in the prologue and percussionists William Winant and Ben Paysen were separated from the rest of the orchestra.

Director Brian Staufenbiel employs a metal frame version of a light house. The scenery involves large panels of fabric manipulated by four dancers in hooded unitards, culminating in a fog scene in which ghosts appear to the lighthouse keepers. The layers of fabric swirl and obfuscate and make good use of the space.

The libretto, written by the composer, is spare, the piece is only 72 minutes long. While it is creepy, I did not find it as stirring as the music, the central conflict of two characters not getting along and being cooped up together is easy to relate to but isn't necessarily great theater.

The end also seemed to demystify the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. Perhaps I am misunderstanding, as Davies has stated his opera "does not offer a solution to the mystery," but I could not help feeling that whatever did happen, it was obviously more mundane than supernatural.

* Tattling * 
The announcement to turn off cellular telephones and locate emergency exists before the performance sounded like something out of Disney's Haunted House.


SF Opera's Les Triplettes de Belleville

Triplettes-de-belleville-2016* Notes *
SF Opera Lab hosted a cine-concert version of Les Triplettes de Belleville in mid-April. The 2003 animated film was projected on the south wall of the Atrium Theater as composer-conductor Benoît Charest not only lead seven instrumentalists and the chanteuse Doriane Faberg, but also played guitar.

The last evening of the run, on April 23, was completely immersive and charming. The piece has little dialogue and it is easy to take in the performers and the film at the same time without losing the thread of the narrative.

While the piece has many traditional instruments such as bass, saxophone, and such, it also requires playing a bicycle and newspaper.

Tattling *
Even the smallest children at the concert were utterly silent during the movie. This was a much different experience than seeing films with SF Symphony playing, perhaps because of the intimacy of the venue.


Opera San José's Streetcar

Streetcar10* Notes *
Opera San José's 2015-2016 season ends with a musically impressive but dramatically wanting A Streetcar Named Desire (pictured left with Matthew Hanscom, Ariana Strahl, and Stacey Tappan; photograph by Pat Kirk), which opened last weekend. The orchestra has never sounded better and there is much fine singing, but the minimalist production is not completely successful.

André Previn's opera, based on the famous play by Tennessee Williams, first premiered in the Bay Area nearly twenty years ago at San Francisco Opera. The production at San José, designed and directed by Brad Dalton, features a rather bare stage in front of the orchestra. The two rooms are represented by furniture -- a bed, two tables, and eighteen chairs -- that are moved around by seven rough-looking male supernumeraries.

There isn't a good sense of what is inside and what is outside, it isn't clear what the supernumeraries are doing on stage besides changing the set (often unnecessarily, since much of the action simply happens in the same two rooms) and echoing the look of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in stage and film versions of the play.

The scenes that reference the upstairs of the building are especially problematic. The upstairs neighbor Eunice stands on a chair to represent her calling from above at one point, and at the end of Act I Stanley interacts with Eunice, Blanche, and Stella all upstage, but with him downstage facing the audience.

Dalton also makes use of ghosts, having the young collector played by Xavier Prado stand in for Blanche's ill-fated husband and Teressa Foss (who also is cast as the nurse) wander through as one of Blanche's dead relatives. Perhaps this is to re-enforce how crazy Blanche is, but it was more of a confusing distraction than anything else.

All this said, I do very much appreciate Dalton's creativity, and that he did not simply recreate the well-known set of the play or film. Having the orchestra behind the singers also worked very much in the piece's favor, the playing never overwhelmed the voices.

Maestro Ming Luke had the orchestra sounding cohesive and perfectly in tune. Despite the fact that the conductor was behind the singers, there was hardly any synchronization issues. The screens above the ground floor of the audience used to cue the characters apparently worked very well. The jazzy parts of Previn's music swung and sounded idiomatic.

The singing was excellent. Tenor Kirk Dougherty had the perfect amount of awkwardness for Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, and his scenes with Strahl were convincing. On the other hand, baritone Matthew Hanscom lacked a certain sexual dangerousness for the role of Stanley Kowalski. Though Hanscom's voice is strong, his performance comes off as cartoonish.

Soprano Stacey Tappan (Stella Kowalkski) had a strong Opera San Jose debut, her voice is sweet and her post-coital hum at the end of Act I came off beautifully. Soprano Ariana Strahl also had a fine debut with the role of Blanche DuBois, and sang with a devastating brilliance and incredible ease. Her clarion tones were a wonderful contrast to Tappan's, you could never mistake one for another. In the end the drama does come through in the music, Stahl portrays Blanche's harrowing experiences with conviction, and the performance was satisfying despite the flawed staging.

Tattling *
There was the usual light chatter when the orchestra played but no one was singing.

A watch alarm was heard in the last act.


SF Opera's Svadba-Wedding

Svadbawedding_stefancohen044* Notes *
SF Opera Lab had its first new production premiere last night with Svadba-Wedding last night. The a cappella opera for six female voices by Serbian Canadian composer Ana Sokolović is the perfect scale for the Atrium Theater and director Michael Cavanagh's made use of the whole space.

Sokolović's opera is pretty without being cloying, the Balkan rhythms employed hold much interest. This is much closer to being avant-garde than most of the world premieres we've heard at the War Memorial in the last decade. There were moments when the music reminded me of Kitka, but Sokolović has a very charming and peculiar point of view. Often there is much humor in the onomatopoeic sounds the singers produce. The piece is short, a mere 60 minutes, but has a timelessness to it, and not at all in a bad way.

There are many instruments used by the singers including metal drinking cups with chains and spoons; tom-tom drum; gong; rainsticks, and ocarinas (ancient wind instruments). The voices have a haunting quality, there seemed to be three sopranos and three mezzo-sopranos. The singing was clear and had an immediacy in the small room.

Cavanagh's staging uses a central round platform and five other littler platforms all around the room. The audience is seated at round tables, much like a wedding reception.

Tattling *
It was hard for the audience members to talk much, given how immersive the performance was, and how the singers basically surrounded us at different moments.

After the performance was an actual reception, complete with croquembouche, champagne, and a DJ.


SoundBox's Outré

IMG_0914* Notes *
SoundBox's latest program, titled Outré, featured French avant-garde music over seven centuries. Beautifully curated, the engaging music ranged from Pérotin's polyphonic Sederunt principes with a cappella male voices and portative organ to Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité celeste for solo piano and instrumental ensemble, including the many gongs seen in the photograph to the left.

Michael Tilson Thomas lead the musicians and amiably talked the audience through the pieces one by one. Selections from Jean-Féry Rebel's Les élémens was a cheerful place to start, and the sprightly French Baroque music was such fun. This certainly set the stage for the program to come.

It was lovely to hear the musicians of San Francisco Symphony in this more intimate venue. Principal oboist Eugene Izotov played Ravel's Pièce en forme de Habanera and Saint-Saëns' Molto allegro from Oboe Sonata in D major, while principal flutist Tim Day played Debussy's Syrinx. Principal percussionist Jacob Nissly especially impressed in Darius Milhaud's Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra, Opus 109. Ending with an excerpt of Milhaud's Scaramouche was a festive touch.

The French-inspired garden installation designed by Luke Kritzeck with a digital reflecting pool by video designer Adam Larsen was rather pretty. The videos during the music did not distract but did not look like screensavers either.

Tattling *
The youngish audience was mostly quiet. There seats are not guaranteed for these sold-out events and we were lucky enough to find a friend in line just before 8pm. Those who did not line up mostly milled about at the back of the venue, though a couple did stand directly in front of my date (we were seated by the west side of the first stage) for the second set.


Kentridge's Winterreise

Kentridge-winterreise-sf-2016* Notes *
SF Opera Lab began with visual artist William Kentridge's production of Winterreise last weekend. His beautiful meditations on Schubert's Lieder are deeply immersive and the incredible performers, baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser though very talented, seemed almost incidental to the work.

The effect Kentridge gets with mostly black and white projections on a surface layered with paper is compelling, so much so that it was hard for me to focus in on the music. The landscapes and figures dancing or walking across dictionary pages completely held my attention for the 80 minute performance, which seemed much shorter to me.

Goerne has an absolutely gorgeous voice, vital and strong, but I was glad I had heard him before, because in this it might have been lost on me. The sound in the Taube Atrium Theater seemed properly adjusted, some of the weird echoey effects noticed at Daniel Okulitch's Schwabacher were not in evidence.

Tattling *
The audience was quiet. We were asked to look at our programs before the performance began and the lights were kept off, so browsing the translations was not a true option.

The much-touted cup holders were not in use, as we were asked to not bring beverages into the hall for this performance.


SF Opera Lab Preview

Sfopera-lab-2016My preview of San Francisco Opera's series at the Taube Atrium Theater and new audience initiatives for classical music organizations such as SoundBox, PIVOT, and Berkeley RADICAL is up on KQED Arts.

I heard no less than three performances at the Wilsey Center for Opera: the first iteration of ChamberWORKS that I already described, an Adler recital for donors, and the second Schwabacher recital in the space, which featured bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and pianist John Churchwell. Definitely curious about the William Kentridge production of Winterreise this weekend to be held as the first official event of SF Opera Lab.


SF Symphony's 2016-2017 Season

September 7 2016: MTT conducts Steve Reich, Rossini; Renée Fleming, soprano and Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
September 8 2016: MTT conducts Copland, Vivaldi, Rossini; Susanna Phillips, soprano and Alexander Barantschik, violin
September 9-10 2016: MTT conducts Copland, Reich; Susanna Phillips, soprano and eighth blackbird, chamber ensemble
September 11 2016: MTT conducts Steve Reich 80th Birthday Celebration
September 14-17 2016: MTT conducts Haydn, Sibelius, Beethoven
September 18 2016: MTT conducts Beethoven Discovery Concert
September 22-24 2016: MTT conducts Marcello, Berio, Verdi; Michael Fabiano, tenor; Swingle Singers, vocal ensemble; Eugene Izotov, oboe
September 28- October 1 2016: MTT conducts Bright Sheng, Shostakovich, Stravinsky; Yuja Wang, piano; Mark Inouye, trumpet
October 9 2016: Vincent Dubois, organ
October 13-15 2016: Brad Lubman conducts 2001: A Space Odyssey
October 16 2016: Chamber Music with members of SFS
October 19-22 2016: Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Mozart, Schumann, Dvořák; Alisa Weilerstein, cello
October 23 2016: Chamber Music with members of SFS
October 27-30 2016: MTT conducts Allegri, Mozart, Brahms; Rudolph Buchbinder, piano; Pacific Boychoir
October 31- November 1 2016: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
November 2-4 2016: MTT conducts Chopin and Bruckner; Yuja Wang, piano
November 5 2016: Día de los Muertos Concert
November 6 2016: Jacek Kaspszyki conducts Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Yulianna Avdeevat, piano
November 9-22 2016: Asia Tour with Yuja Wang
November 20 2016: Christian Reif conducts SFS Youth Orchestra
November 22-23 2016: Simon Rattle conducts Berlin Philharmonic
December 3 2016: Edwin Outwater conducts Music for Families
December 4 2016: Chamber Music with members of SFS
December 4 2016: Yu Long conducts China Philharmonic Orchestra; Julian Rachlin, violin
December 9-10 2016: SoundBox
December 11 2016: Christian Reif conducts SFS Youth Orchestra in Peter and the Wolf
December 11 2016: A Merri-achi Christmas
December 15-17 2016: Patrick Dupré Quigley conducts Messiah
January 7-8 2017: David Newman conducts On the Waterfront
January 13-15 2017: MTT conducts Mahler
January 16 2017: Itzak Perlman, violin & Rohan De Silva, piano
January 21-24 2016: James Gaffigan conducts Musssorgsky, Prokofiev, Mozart, and R. Strauss; Simone Lamsma, violin
January 20-21 2017: SoundBox
January 26-28 2017: Lionel Bringuier conducts Kodály, Ravel, Beethoven; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
January 28 2017: Edwin Outwater conducts Music for Families
January 29 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
January 29 2017: Emmanuel Villaume conducts Prague Philharmonia; Gautier Capuçon, cello
February 1-3 2017: Herbert Blomstedi conducts Beethoven
February 4 2017: Chinese New Year Concert
February 5 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
February 7 2017: Lang Lang, piano
February 9-12 2017: Herbert Blomstedt conducts Beethoven and Brahms; Yefim Bronfman, piano
February 10-11 2017: SoundBox
February 16-18 2017: Joana Carneiro conducts John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary
February 19 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
February 22-25 2017: MTT conducts John Adams, Prokofiev; Leila Josefowicz, violin
February 26 2017: James O'Donnell, organ
March 1-4 2017: MTT conducts Gnesin, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky; Gautier Capuçon, cello
March 5 2017: Christian Reif conducts SFS Youth Orchestra
March 9-12 2017: Marek Janowski conducts Beethoven, Hindemith, Brahms; Arabella Steinbacher, violin
March 10-11 2017: SoundBox
March 13 2017: András Schiff, piano
March 16-18 2017: Juraj Valčuha conducts Schreker, Barber, Beethoven; Gil Shaham, violin
March 18 2017: Christian Reif conducts Music for Families
March 19 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
March 19-20 2017: Yuri Temirkanov conducts St. Petersburg Philharmonic
March 23-24 2017: MTT conducts Cage, Robin Holloway, Bartók; Jeffrey Anderson, tuba
March 25-26 2017: MTT conducts Cage, Bruch, Bartók; Nicola Benedetti, violin
March 26 2017: Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin and Lambert Orkis, piano
March 30- April 2 2017: MTT conducts Mahler
April 2-3 2017: Fabio Luisi conducts Danish National Orchestra
April 5-8 2017: US Tour
April 7 2017: Ragnar Bohlin conducts San Francisco Symphony Chorus
April 14-15 2017: SoundBox
April 14-15 2017: Emil de Cou conducts Raiders of the Lost Ark
April 19-22 2017: Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff; Denis Kozhukhin, piano
April 27-29 2017: Fabio Luisi conducts Schumann and R. Strauss; Igor Levit, piano
April 30 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
May 4-6 2017: Charles Dutoit conducts Berlioz's Requiem; Paul Groves, tenor
May 7 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
May 10-13 2017: Charles Dutoit conducts Sibelius, Mozart, Falla, Debussy; Emanuel Ax, piano
May 14 2017: Christian Reif conducts SFS Youth Orchestra
May 17-21 2017: Roberto Abbado conducts Schumann and Mendelssohn; Veronika Eberle, violin
May 25-27 2017: Manfred Honeck conducts Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky; Matthias Goerne, baritone
May 28 2017: Chamber Music with members of SFS
May 31- June 1 2017: Alexander Barantschik, violin leads Vivaldi, Mozart, J.S. Bach
June 2-3 2017: Sarah Hicks conducts Casablanca
June 3 2017: Christian Reif conducts Music for Families
June 4 2017: Wayne Marshall, organ
June 9-11 2017: Susanna Mälkki conducts Debussy, Beethoven, Stravinsky; Garrick Ohlsson, piano
June 15-18 2017: Vasily Petrenko conducts Glinka, Lalo, Rachmaninoff; Joshua Bell, violin
June 23-25 2017: MTT conducts Ives, MTT, Harrison, Antheil; Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo-soprano
June 28- July 1 2017: MTT conducts Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; and Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone


ABS Performs Alexander's Feast

Abs-alexanders-feast-2016* Notes *
American Bach Soloists gave a splendid performance of the fittingly titled Alexander's Feast, or The Power of Music yesterday afternoon in San Francisco. The oratorio by Händel is adapted from John Dryden's ode for Saint Cecilia's Day of the same name.

ABS was played with the composer's Concerto in B-Flat Major for Harp after the second recitative and Concerto Grosso in C Major before Part Two. The harp concerto was especially impressive. Maria Christina Cleary played the triple harp with a fearless and sparkling intensity.

Maestro Jeffrey Thomas kept the proceedings clean and neat. Only the horns had a brief misstep in the middle of the first half, but regained their footing as far as intonation is concerned. The chorus sounded robust and cohesive.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan sounded bright and had some incredible breath control as was evidenced by his first air, "Happy, Happy, happy Pair!" He was fittingly strident in "War, he sung, is Toil and trouble." I also liked soprano Anna Gorbachyova, who has an icy, resonant sound. Baritone William Sharp could be gravelly and thin in his lower register but was otherwise fine.

* Tattling *
The rows and seats in the balcony of St. Mark's were unmarked because of a problem with a printer, leading to a fair amount of confusion that was resolved by a helpful usher.

Beeps and rings were heard during both halves of the performance.


Atrium Theater's Inaugural Event

Sfoperalab-qa* Notes *
SF Opera Lab held the first event at the new Taube Atrium Theater last night. The evening was open to certain San Francisco Opera donors but involved having to call the box office to reserve tickets, as the space only has 299 seats.

The theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which consolidates SF Opera's operations on the fourth floor and basement of the Veterans Building. The space, which originally housed SFMOMA, includes an education studio that can also be used as a rehearsal venue, a costume studio, the San Francisco Opera Archive, exhibition galleries, and administrative offices. The opera moved in two weeks ago, though not everything is quite done, there has been painting and such in the interim.

The performance ended up being a salon curated by members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, part of SF Opera Lab's ChamberWORKS series. The intimate setting had a casual feel, performers addressed the audience and introduced many of the pieces. There was no printed program, instead titles were projected over digital wallpapers from the Cooper Hewitt.

The performance started with cellist Thalia Moore playing Vivaldi's Sonata No. 6 in B flat major, RV 46 accompanied by Adler Fellow Ronny Michael Greenberg on harpsichord who were joined by flutist Stephanie McNab, percussionist Rick Kvistad, and mezzo-soprano Adler Zanda Švēde, who sang a setting of ten Shakespeare sonnets to music by Pauls Miervaldis Dambis. Dambis seems to have a penchant for the Renaissance, hence the harpsichord rather than the piano.

Greenberg did shift to playing piano, and one of the highlights of the evening was certainly Robert Muczynski's Sonata for Flute and Piano Op. 14. Played with verve by Stephanie McNab, Greenberg's playing was crisp and supportive. We also got to hear a piece of Kvistad's called "Blues for Wilsey," in which the percussionist plays a drum set along with the other musicians playing their respective instruments. Greenberg played piano in this and McNab played both flute and piccolo.

The performance was capped by the Habanera and Seguidilla from Bizet's Carmen, accompaniment arranged for vibes, cello, flute, and piano by Peter Grunberg. Švēde is brilliant, getting the emotional import of all the words through her voice. She made her entrance through the audience, and it was a testament to how great the Meyer Sound system is, because it sounded nicely balanced -- not too loud or dry.

* Tattling *
The audience was extremely focused and quiet. It was fun hearing the musicians speak, especially Kvistad, who joked the more he studied music, the less notes he was allowed to play, especially at the opera, where he must be the highest paid musician per note.

The theater can get rather warm, and the controls to the AC system have apparently not been handed over to the opera yet, as we learned from the Q&A with the performers and Elkhanah Pulitzer, Director of Programming for the SF Opera Lab (pictured above). Also, one of the lenses of the projection system needs replacement, most of the images were pretty blurry.


West Bay Opera's Eugene Onegin

Wbo-onegin-2016* Notes *
My review of West Bay Opera's Eugene Onegin is up on San Francisco Classical Voice.

* Tattling *
The Lucie Stern Community Center was secured for much of the performance on Sunday because Hillary Clinton was having an event there while the opera was going on. The general director of West Bay Opera joked that he had asked Hillary for a "Secretary of Opera" if she wins the election.