March 4-7, the New Century Chamber Orchestra presents an enticing program of Wolf’s Italian Serenade, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. NCCO is participating in a food drive at these concerts, which you can read about here.
San Francisco Performances has some very exciting concerts: on March 9, violinist Jennifer Koh plays Bach, Ysaye, Saariaho, Carter, and Salonen; then on March 16, British composer Thomas Ades plays Janacek, Liszt, Prokofiev, Schubert, Beethoven, and the US premiere of his own Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (his strange and strangely moving opera).
March 4-7 the San Francisco Symphony has Christian Tetzlaff playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, along with the world premiere of Victor Kissine’s Post-scriptum and works by Liszt and Ravel. March 11-14 Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Mahler 2 with soloists Laura Claycomb and Karaina Karneus, but be forewarned that the Friday concert is one of those 6.5 things so presumably you’ll have to endure endless conductor-blather before you get any actual music.
San Francisco Ballet presents a mixed program featuring the SF Ballet premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, and the US premiere of a new evening-length Little Mermaid.
On March 21, Ian Bostridge performs Winterreise in Berkeley; unfortunately it's in cavernous Zellerbach Auditorium, so take that under advisement.
I've started going through my playbills (yes, I have them all, except for maybe the five first shows I saw) to put together an opera life-list. I'm a little surprised at how well I remember everything so far, though maybe I will remember less as I get into years when I saw more and more stuff. I've come across a few discoveries as well: I remembered being taken with a high school class to hear Seiji Ozawa conduct the San Francisco Symphony in the Pastoral Symphony, but apparently I also heard the Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 with Peter Serkin, whom I always associate with Boston concert-going. That's the only symphony concert until Boston. And there are things that I probably did not fully appreciate at the time: I did not remember that I heard Harbison's Mirabai Songs at a Composers in Red Sneakers concert. And it appears the first time I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was in Agrippina at Boston Lyric Opera; the cast list has Lorraine Hunt as Nero, and I barely remember seeing this. (Though perhaps I heard her earlier in some non-operatic musical performance, since I'm only skimming those programs as I proceed through the stack.)
My first opera was Porgy and Bess, my senior year in high school. Here's the list up to my first mainstream opera, which was Rigoletto, back when the Met used to tour up to Boston (Onegin was the night before Rigoletto, and I think it was considered sort of a rarity at the time, since all these years I've had it in mind that Rigoletto was the first "standard" opera I saw). The second Verdi opera I saw was Simon Boccanegra, so I didn't exactly insist on swimming in the mainstream after that.
I've excluded musicals and oratorios but included Gilbert and Sullivan. I made some arbitrary decisions about what to include, so that Philip Glass's The Photographer is there but not Robert Wilson's Civil Wars. These are alphabetical by composer:
Anon, Robin Hood, The Friends of Dr Burney 1985 Robert Ashley, Songs from Atalanta, MIT 1985 Gershwin, Porgy and Bess, Houston Grand Opera touring company 1977, Radio City Music Hall 1983, Metropolitan Center 1983 Gilbert & Sullivan, The Gondoliers, Harvard G&S Players 1983 Gilbert & Sullivan, Patience, Musical Theatre Co of Cambridge, 1983 Gilbert & Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance, Broadway 1981, Harvard G&S Players 1982 Gilbert & Sullivan, Ruddigore, MIT 1981 Glass, The Photographer 1984 Handel, Acis & Galatea, BSO 1985 Handel, Orlando, ART 1982 Haydn, House Afire! (Die Feuersbrunst), Boston Premiere Ensemble 1984 Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse, Boston Shakespeare 1983 Rameau, Zoroastre, Banchetto Musicale 1983 Stravinsky, Renard & Persephone, Musical Theatre Co of Cambridge, 1983 Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Met Tour 1985 Weill, 3Penny Opera, ACT 1978, Charles Playhouse 1982 Weill & Bach, Soiree de Gala, Opera Co of Somerville (Peter Sellars) 1982
I had a basic love of music and theater, so clearly I would eventually be drawn to the union of the two. But what strikes me most here is that I came to opera from two directions: baroque/early music and contemporary/avant-garde music and theater (or combinations of the two: Orlando was the Peter Sellars production; The Lighthouse was also directed by Sellars). I wish more opera companies would realize that there are paths to opera that don't start with Boheme/Zauberflote, and that they should encourage those other travelers to stop in.
The image above is from 6th Avenue in New York City. Happy new year to all the Tigers out there, since it is your year. Chinese New Year is so much more fun than the dreary January 1 holiday. I'd say it's because I'm not obligated to do anything, but I have no January 1 obligations either.
This is some sort of holiday tsunami, what with the beginning of the lunar new year, and then Mardi Gras on Tuesday (and of course all celebrants will be fasting and repenting on Ash Wednesday, motivated by more spiritual causes than just a hangover), and Presidents' Day, though since I have to work I'm afraid Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan will have to go unhonored by me.
And I join Marge Simpson in wishing everyone a Happy Love Day. Here's some hilarity from the Onion, and an image for the day from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is a detail from Lorenzo Lotto's Venus and Cupid. I was looking at Titian's Venus and Adonis in the same gallery and had only seen the Lotto out of the corner of my eye when two middle-school students, a boy and a girl, walked up to it and suddenly the girl went, "Ooooooh!" in that "this is so gross!" way and started giggling. So it was then I figured out that Cupid must be peeing. The wall label assured us that what it delicately referred to as "Cupid's action" is an "augury of fertility" and "confers a mood of light-hearted wit" on the scene.
Good auguries and light-hearted wit to all in abundance.
Ensemble Parallele gave a much-needed jolt to the Bay Area opera scene with its triumphant production last weekend of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (in John Rea’s chamber-opera version). It was so outstanding that if I want to bitch about something in that endearing way I have, I have to reach for the peeviest of my pet peeves, like they started late. Well, and maybe I’ll also complain that there were only two performances on one weekend, so anyone who was out of town would miss the production entirely, which is a shame since I doubt we’re going to see this brutal and beautiful masterpiece anytime soon over at the increasingly inert San Francisco Opera.
Under conductor Nicole Paiement, Artistic Director of the Ensemble, the orchestra played so wonderfully that I never really felt the music was stripped down; instead, without undue lingering over details, the shock and beauty of Berg’s score were clearly laid out for us (even though, I have to say, I’m really more of a Lulu guy). Full credit to her and to Stage Director and Concept Designer Brian Staufenbiel; I’ve never seen the complexities and ironies and even the strange absurdist humor of the work brought out so clearly. There was a simple set (Mathew Antaky did set and lighting design), two mobile half-houses that could be turned around for interior scenes, pushed together for the tavern, or moved aside for the outdoors. I don’t know exactly why, but I thought the staging would be really stripped down (I mean stripped down in a “we don’t have money” way, not in a "deliberate aesthetic choice" way), but I never had the feeling that they were skimping in their efforts to realize the work.
The set was augmented by video projections by Austin Forbord; I had read beforehand that there would be video inspired by German expressionist films, and though that’s one of my favorite film eras, I was a little concerned, as it is way too easy to go overboard with both video projections during operas and with German expressionism – all those enticing jagged shadows and intensely, even overly, dramatic gestures! But the projections were never allowed to swamp the staging. In the first scene, when Wozzeck (Bojan Knezevic) is shaving the Captain (John Duykers), the video feed is live, and looming in the back of the stage we see a close-up in silvery black-and-white of the Captain’s face as he lectures Wozzeck. The camera never leaves his face, never switches to Wozzeck, and there’s a slightly disorienting effect since the Captain’s lips are slightly behind the words we hear. And this is how the Captain appears to Wozzeck. We are immediately brought inside Wozzeck's head (the same technique – a close-up on only one speaker of the dialogue, shot live – is used in the scene with the Doctor (Philip Skinner); only those two scenes are shot live).
In other scenes the video simply shows a field, or we see the swaggering drum major (AJ Glueckert) as he appears in the longing, lonely thoughts of Marie (Patricia Green). In the murder scene, the video riverbank starts to fall in on itself (an effect that reminded me of the buildings collapsing on Emil Jannings in one of my all-time favorite films, The Last Laugh) while the moon grows larger and larger and turns redder and redder until the whole stage is bathed in red light. The second tavern scene, after the murder, is much more stylized in the Expressionist way than the first, which is before the murder; the production uses expressionism as it’s meant to be used, for strong emotional expression, and not just for decorative or period effect.
The entire cast was superb and the singing was always expressive and heartfelt. My initial thought was that Knezevic was bringing the crazy a little too soon, but then I saw that he was going back and forth from disturbed to normal (well, normal is disturbed, which is what’s going on here) from scene to scene, and his distance and strangeness help shed a sympathetic light on Marie, his poor beaten-down common-law wife who is made so happy by the gaudy earrings the Drum Major gives her as present and payment. There's a wonderful, subtle moment when Marie realizes Wozzeck has brought her to the riverbank to kill her for her infidelity, and her body slumps slightly towards his, passive and doomed. I’ve never been so touched by a Marie. Duykers and Skinner were expert at the menacing cruel comedy of the Captain and the Doctor. Just to complete the list of major roles: Andres was J Raymond Meyers, Margret was Erin Neff, the First Apprentice was John Bischoff, the Second Apprentice was Torleff Borsting, the Madman was Michael Desnoyers, and Marie’s son was Kai Nau. Consider them all gushed over by me.
My only other experience with Ensemble Parallele was their premiere of Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar three years ago. Apparently they are hoping to stage an annual chamber opera, and it’s probably pretty clear by now that I’m really hoping that happens. The Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena is perfect for chamber opera (so I take back what I said earlier about the Bay Area not having a theater suitable for something like The Rape of Lucretia). Ensemble Parallele’s announced upcoming projects include a new opera from Dante de Silva on Gesualdo and a chamber version of Harbison’s Great Gatsby – I’m very eager to hear them both, but particularly the Harbison, since I saw it at the Met and found it fascinating though flawed, done in by some major miscasting (Hadley as an unmysterious Gatsby and Upshaw as Daisy; I love Upshaw, but the qualities that make her fans love her – her intelligence and adventurousness and down-to-earthness – are all wrong for Daisy, a sheltered golden daughter of privilege; it’s a tricky role to cast anyway, like Helen of Troy, since she functions as a projection, a vision that will differ with each viewer).