San Francisco Opera: Terrific & Tragic Billy Budd

The San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Billy Budd ended with the matinee, Sunday, September 22, and still the music and drama play in my mind. The voices: absolutely first rate. The acting, set, costuming, direction, orchestra and conductor: all superb. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, captured Britten’s oceanic sound as well as the delicacy of the piccolo solo as Billy waits for execution. Readers, you may have missed this production of Billy Budd, but I hope this report encourages you to attend the opera when and where you have the opportunity. The excellence of this production promises greatness in the rest of SFO’s season.

John Chest, American baritone, portrayed Billy Budd. Eager, confident, honest, with a voice that possessed Billy’s “handsomeness, beauty, goodness” and pulled the listener into his heart while breaking the heart of the listener.

Benjamin Britten, major 20th century English composer, wrote the music set to a libretto by the great English author, E. M. Forster(Passage to India, Room with a View, Howard’s End) and Eric Crozier, a librettist and theater producer who directed Peter Grimes, Britten’s first opera, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells theater, in London. He also wrote the libretto for Albert Herring, another Britten opera. Billy Budd is based on an unfinished novella by Herman Melville. His manuscript was discovered one hundred years ago; this year is the two hundredth anniversary of Melville’s birth, in 1819. Now considered one of the central, most significant American authors, even Melville’s Moby Dick, disappeared soon after publication. He had critical and financial success with his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, but, after his later works were ignored, gave up writing novels, tried poetry, and then, in 1888, began Billy Budd. Melville passed away, in 1891.

Benjamin Britten (Nov. 1913-Dec. 1976)

Both Britten and Melville had a close relation to the sea. Britten was born in Lowescroft, a fishing port on England’s east coast. Melville actually was a sailor on whaling ships and in the Navy. His travels took him around the world. He had first hand knowledge of the closed  community on board ship and knew about the English tradition of “impressing” ordinary folks, kidnapping men and boys, to be in the Royal Navy. Britten’s music for Billy Budd captures the surging sound and rhythm of the ocean. The opera does not try to follow the novella exactly. Forster uses the characters, setting and part of the story line as a way to jump into some themes which Melville did not develop. These include the spiritual resolution offered in song by Billy and by Captain Vere. Melville did not appear to have a strong focus on religion or a specifically Christian understanding of death. Also, in the opera, there seems to be more awareness of what contemporary music writers refer to as “homo-erotic” sensuality. Having spent six months or more at a time on ships, Melville would know about relationships, but to the extent it appears in Billy Budd or Moby Dick it is more a reflection of reality than a theme.

American tenor William Burden portrayed Captain Vere with straightforward nobiity. His voice projected clarity, balance, humanity; it is a voice one could hear with pleasure for a long voyage.

The opera opens with Captain Vere, now old, beginning the story of what happened on his ship, HMS Indomitable, in 1797. In Michael Grandage’s brilliant production, the audience is enveloped in the ship. Built on the stage in a horseshoe shape opened toward the orchestra and house, the set shows the decks of the ship, the men/SF Opera Chorus kneeling on the deck/floor continually to scrape the salt off the ship. The production fit the opera ideally; I can only imagine it now with this set and direction. It also worked so well that the violence –flogging the Novice and hanging Billy –happened offstage as in classic Greek drama. The atmosphere is close; there is nowhere to go. There are no families, no pub, no market. The common sailor’s life is dictated by work enforced by cruelty. Three new sailors are brought aboard. They have been impressed and taken from the ship ironically named the Rights o’ Man. Claggart, the master-at-arms, uses the name of the ship as his first attack on the new sailor. Billy calls out farewell to friends and to the ship giving Claggart the opportunity to call Billy a revolutionary who must be watched.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn portrayed Claggart. He embodied the evil of the character. His powerful voice could command, insinuate, strike like a snake. 

From his first appearance on the Indomitable, Billy, has “handsomeness, beauty and goodness.” When he is under pressure, he stammers. He is liked and even admired by the men and hated by Claggart. The hatred has no special reason. It is total hate like Iago’s for Othello, a man who is better than he in so many ways. The audience feels apprehension that something terrible will happen and waits in suspense to know how it will unfold. Claggart preys on the weak Novice who was brutally flogged. He threatens the Novice with more violence if he does not cooperate in setting up Billy. At first, the Novice refuses because Billy is kind and good, but fear defeats him. This cast of seventy-five artists, forty-four of them from the SF Opera Chorus, is astoundingly good. Each projects a character, and all create a true crew. There are moments that lighten the tension. For example, in Act I, scene 3, the crew gathers to sing a late 18th century version of Rap, with each man’s rhyming verses entertaining the crowd. Billy offers to get Dansker tobacco. American bass-baritone, Philip Skinner, sings Dansker with a great, satisfying voice appropriate for a brave, true friend. Billy’s tobacco has been taken from his kit. He fights with Squeak who was set by Claggart to make trouble for Billy. American tenor, Matthew O’Neill as Squeak with presence and just the right voice creates the character willing to betray Billy who is then betrayed himself. The men are eager to attack the “Frenchies,” but fog and still winds keep them from a battle.

The crew of HMS Indomitable ready to attack the French.

Claggart (Van Horn) presses his case with Vere (Burden).

Then Claggart tells Vere that Billy is fomenting mutiny and has gold coins to bribe the crew. Given a chance to defend himself, Billy stammers. In frustration he strikes Claggart who falls dead. Vere calls three officers to serve as a court-martial. They can believe Billy, but Billy struck and killed an officer. By the Laws of War, he must die. The three officers are horrified by what they have done and ask Vere, the only witness, to stop the process, but Vere says he cannot.

Billy taken away for execution.

Surely one of the  most chilling, touching and beautiful songs in the opera is Billy’s solo while he waits to be executed. He is frightened and does not want to die. He imagines himself under the water, gone. Then, he imagines that he will be anchored by, what? Is it faith? Is it heaven? He sings, “I’m strong and I know it, and that’s enough.” He sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far–shining sail, and I’m content.” Vere reappears looking back through time and repeats Billy’s words about that sail. Vere also says he could have stopped it. And there’s the eye-opening, hair raising moment. He had said there was nothing he could do. He had to follow the letter of the law although he knew he was killing an angel. Now, he says, both that he could have done something and that he is “content.” In the battle between good and evil, Claggart won, but he only won by being killed. The optimism that the Goodness of the Good will find a safe harbor and that the humane regret of Captain Vere will somehow reach a contented resolution does not seem very Melville-like. The ambiguity of human life does, though. Imperfect and unfinished, just like the novella Billy Budd, that is what we are. Perhaps wisdom is to decide to be content. Perhaps.

Photo of John Chest by Andrey Stoycher; Billy taken for execution, Claggart with Vere, whole crew by Cory Weaver, courtesy the San Francisco Opera. Future operas of SFO’s season: The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 11-Nov. 1, Manon Lescaut, Nov. 8-26, Hansel & Gretel, Nov. 15-Dec. 7.

 

Merola Grand Finale: LIVELY AT THE OPERA

The Lively Foundation was delighted to invite our music loving friends to attend the GRAND FINALE of the Merola Opera at the SF Opera House. Every voice was extraordinary on August 17 when our Lively group of twelve attended. Through their Merola months, the artists perform full length operas, the Schwabacher Concerts of select opera acts, and recitals. The Grand Finale is their graduation celebration. Their performances are with the full San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In the Grand Finale, the “Merolini” perform a selection of arias, choruses and groups. In some “greatest hits” performances, there will be one or two pieces which are fabulous and maybe one or two which do not please. Each audience member might have his or her favorite or least favorite. In this performance, each presentation truly made the audience open eyes wide, catch the breath, and applaud. The applause only slowed because the next selection would begin a few breaths after the previous one ended. The program presented the song in its setting, so each selection is performed in the dramatic context of the opera from which it came. This allowed the performers to engage in their characters and show the audience their acting ability. It was done so successfully that for the time of that scene the audience experienced the pain or joy in the moment of the story.

Named in honor of the first director of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola, the program brings singers who are already beginning their careers to San Francisco for twelve weeks of intensive training and performing. Merola is widely considered among the finest training programs in the world. International stars launched by Merola include Ruth Ann Swenson, Susan Graham, Deborah Voight, Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Rolando Villazon, Thomas Hampson, Quinn Kelsey, Conductor Patrick Summer and so many more.

Among memorable moments were Alice Chung, Mezzo-Soprano, as Gertrude and Timothy Murray, Baritone, as Hamlet, Stefan Egerstrom, Bass, as the Spectre, in Hamlet by Thomas. (L to R) Timothy Murray and Alice Chung

Ms Chung’s presence was powerful even as Mr Murray castigated her for the death of her husband, Hamlet’s father. Their voices gave the Mother-Son relationship a new dimension beyond the usual lascivious Queen and up-tight Prince. Esther Tonea, Soprano, as Fiordiligi; Michael Day, Tenor, as Ferrando; and Edward Laurenson, Baritone, as Don Alfonso, gave Non son cattivo cornico…L’abito di Ferrando sara buono per me…Fra gli amplessi from Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti the lilting, teasing buoyancy of this opera of practical jokes in the war of the sexes.

(L to R) Esther Tonea and Michael Day

A tense scene from Maria Stuarda, by Donizetti, had all 2,000 listeners on the edges of their seats. Chelsea Lehnea, Soprano, sang Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I of England); Salvatore Atti, Tenor; Conte di Leicester; Rafael Porto, Baritone, Lord Cecil. The Queen cannot make up her mind: should she sign the execution order and have Mary, Queen of Scots killed or not? As the threesome debates the political pros and cons of allowing Mary to live or killing her, the voices soared. It was a gut wrenching and magnificent experience demonstrating the expressive and musical gifts of opera.

In a lighter scene, Elisa Sunshine, Soprano, sang Marie, in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment (Daughter of the Regiment) and Andrew Dwan, Bass-Baritone, was Sulpice, who acts as her adoptive father. Both voices were outstanding. Ms Sunshine surely deserves her last name. Her actions as well as her musicality made her performance an absolute delight. What can I do now? Running up against a word limit when the Grand Finale’s incredible artists have not all been given their well deserved salutes? A rush to mention more does not do them justice. Hat’s off to Laureano Quant, Baritone, who sang Sir Riccardo Forth from Bellini’s I Puritani, Kneeling, down stage center, he reached into our hearts. Brandon Scott Russell, Tenor, sang the Prince from Dvorak’s Rusalka with a voice and presence that were surely royal; Jeff Byrnes, Baritone, was Germont, the father trying to spare Alfredo, his son, sung by Salvatore Atti, Tenor, who has lost himself to Violetta, in Verdi’s La Traviata. Mr. Byrnes, with a baritone which gets that musical term “burnished,” makes the father figure sympathetic. His distress is in his voice as the foolish lover, besotted Mr. Atti, his son, runs after that woman.

Keep track of these names! Soon you will see them perform around the US and the world. How exciting to be able to say, I was there when Anne-Marie MacIntosh sang Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, or Brennan Blankenship sang Stephano in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Cara Collins, Anna Dugan, Victor Starsky, Amber R. Monroe, Hyeree Shin, Patricia Westley, Edith Grossman, Nicholas Huff. Each one a star. No kidding, keep this list!

New York City History Found & Lost

Introduction:  In studying history I was fascinated to learn how details of ordinary life can fill in the whole picture of an era or a place. In her essay below, Nancy Fryer Croft, art restorer and art historian, demonstrates how the search for a particular kind of silk reveals the dramatic changes in New York City from the late 1990s to the present. Part of this essay appeared first in the Vassar College Reunion Book, June, 2019.  Leslie Friedman

New York used to be a place where you could buy virtually anything, and have several kinds of that thing to choose among. While I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the late 1990s, an exhibition was organized featuring two nearly identical versions of Jan van Eyck’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, one from Philadelphia’s Johnson collection, and the other on loan from the Turin museum. Philadelphia’s painting is barely postcard-sized, and set in a maroon velvet mat within its frame. The staff wished to reframe the only slightly larger Turin picture in a similar manner for the exhibit, so that the settings for the two paintings would be comparable. A conservator had been all over Philadelphia looking for maroon velvet like that of the Johnson mat, checking home furnishings as well as apparel fabric sources, but all she could find was far too purple.

St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Jan van Eyck, 1430-1432, dimensions 5 X 5 3/4

I went to graduate school in art history after Vassar, and only later switched to art conservation. I was ahead of my conservation classmates in the program, since I had already gone beyond the art history requirements. Although I had no background in Far Eastern art, I was given several Tibetan thankas to treat, scroll paintings mounted in antique textiles. Old silks are invariably in poor condition, and I became familiar with the multitude of fabric shops on West 38th and 39th Streets, near 7th Avenue, in the heart of the garment district. I would get swatches from scores of variants of the colors I needed, sometimes subtly off-black, or navy with a brownish cast, so I could choose a mounting fabric compatible with the ancient textile back in the conservation lab.

I told the Philadelphia conservators I was fairly certain I could find some maroon velvets in New York whick might be suitable for the reframing, and spent the next day around 7th Avenue, gathering swatches. Back in Philadelphia the following day, the curators and conservators were delighted with my finds. They held the little samples of cloth next to each painting, and finally came to a consensus on one with “just the right liver-ish tone” (I believe it was a bolt leftover from something Donna Karan had made).

Most of those fabric stores are now gone, as are nearly all of my other favorite resources. I also mourn the loss of the city’s little auction galleries, which I found nearly so instructive in teaching discernment as are the great museums. I’m glad to have experienced something of an earlier era in my city, a time of neighborhood hubs of diverse crafts and trades, with shops stocked to the dusty ceilings and quirky shopkeepers. Money, however, has always trumped all in New York, and real estate and art, whatever their human values, have become commodities.

by Nancy Fryer Croft

SF Symphony Visits a Bad Child in Beautiful Music: L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Let us begin with a confession: this writer is one who recoils just a bit, one step back, upon hearing that a symphony will be accompanied by multi-media. Believing that music is enough on its own and that Bartok, Debussy, Ravel are complex enough to require and reward careful, focused listening, yes, a step back is in order. The performance of Maurice Ravel’s one act opera, L’enfant et les Sortileges, June 28, changed that outlook. It was an exciting performance in which all the many elements worked together so well that it is now difficult to imagine the music without the entire SF Symphony, the Symphony Chorus, the Young Women’s Chorus, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the nine vocalist soloists, and the phenomenally attractive, animated figures of armchairs, frogs, bats, trees and other natural creatures, including the enormous hand of Maman, a mother who has had it with her child.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The story in the opera was written by Colette, the popular French author whose marvelous writing about cats, love, nature, growing up, getting older can capture a reader’s attention until every last page is read and re-read. The history of the opera’s creation includes World War I. The Director of the Paris Opera suggested Colette write a libretto for an opera. He also suggested various composers; Colette was sold on the project as soon as Ravel’s name was mentioned. Ravel, however, was at Verdun, in 1916, a place and battle whose horrors define that war. The composer was a driver in the Motor Transport Corps. Colette’s story was sent to Verdun. What could they be thinking? It was lost. In 1917, another was sent. Ravel was demobilized and able to study the story and begin thinking of his music. The opera’s premiere was at the Theatre de Monte-Carlo, Monaco, in 1925.

Photograph courtesy of the website of artist/animator Gregoire Pont from the premiere of L’enfant et les Sortileges, Lyon, France, 2016.

The title of the story can be translated in many ways; The Child and the Magic Spells suits what happens. On the stage there is a thin curtain hanging between the back of the conductor and the area nearest the audience (down stage). The Child, a boy brilliantly played by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard wearing shapeless shorts, tee shirt and hat, is reprimanded by his mother for failing to do his home work and messing up the house and his work book. He is not going to have a nice dinner, and he feels rebellious. He would like to pull the tail of the cat and, if he could find one, cut the tail off a squirrel. A giant hand appears on the curtain in white outlines. The Child cowers a little before it, but then he continues his rebellion. Two armchairs appear on the curtain (sung by Marnie Breckenridge and Michael Todd Simpson). They are the first of a series of objects and animals which are projected onto the curtain and enacted by the singer soloists. Each character describes the ways in which the child has harmed it. When the scrim is covered in images of insects moving up and down in columns, one sees a dragonfly flitting across the vertical rows. Then, a singer stands alongside the human sized image of the dragonfly’s wings. He (Jennifer Johnson Cano) sings of the painful loss of his mate, killed by the Child. There are trees (Mr. Simpson) which have been stabbed by the child’s knife. There are two cats who love and fight (Kelly Markgraf and Ginger Costa-Jackson), a Wedgewood tea cup (Ms Costa-Jackson), saucer, and tea pot (Ben Jones) which the Child has broken. Bats (Nikki Einfeld) fly away, terrified by the Child. All sing through the presence of the soloists who interact with the gracefully drawn images. Frogs swim across the ceiling of the concert hall.

Fire in L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Anna Christy, soloist, stands on a block and sings Fire. A long, loose cloak drapes her while changing colors of orange, red, yellow are projected on her and all over the screen. The Child has not only transgressed by playing with the fire, but also endangered the whole house. Fire tells him “Good Children get warm, Bad Children get burned.” Ms Christy sings the role of the Princess in a fairy tale. The boy wants to be her hero. He says, “If only I had a sword,” and a knight’s helmet with great plumes appears on the screen exactly over his head as the sword is “drawn” into his hand. The Princess sings, “You are too weak” and “how long can a dream last?”

The creatures and objects are tired of being oppressed by the boy. They join forces and fight with him. A general impression could be that the child realizes it is safer to be good than to be bad. In the libretto, the child sees that a baby squirrel’s paw has been injured. He decides to bind its wound. He also observes that the others have each other and love, but he is alone. Suddenly, he calls out “Maman.” The others recognize this as a magic word that the child uttered as he did something good. The action of the Child caring for the squirrel was not included in this performance. So, having the other soloists begin to sing that the child is “wise” and good, was startling. He’s not good, not yet. Seeing the Child attack every aspect of nature and objects of civilization including china, a clock, furniture, and learning may look different to today’s audience observing mass extinctions; extreme hurricanes, fires, floods; and the melting of the Arctic thanks to human’s lack of care for their own world than it did to audiences and artists who had survived and witnessed the gross destruction of human life in World War I. The Child yearned for his mother at a time of crisis; one might say he reaches out for the good.

The projections were created by Gregoire Pont, a French artist who began to study animation at age 8. He calls his work Cinesthetics described on his website as”in complicity with a group of musicians, he draws and animates live, creating a unique experience where music and motion interplay.” Among his other works are Ravel’s La Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) presented in London’s Festival Hall and the Paris Philharmonic; Shonberg’s Gurrelieder presented in Gothenberg; Debussy’s La Mer presented in Tokyo. The singers interacted with the projections by becoming part of the picture or striking toward the screen to make the image change or singing notes that made the images change rhythmically. It was a fantastic performance, both visually and musically inspiring.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins was a cheerful sorcerer bringing forth beauty, curiosities, musical tales and philosophy. He is the Music Director of the English National Opera. The first half of the concert evening included works with themes or images related to childhood. Pianist John Wilson performed three solo selections from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. With musicians from the SFS, he performed Debussy’s La Plus que lente. All were beautifully performed and delightful. An SFS chamber group including Helen Kim, violin; Matthew Young, viola; Sebastien Gingras, cello; Sayaka Tanikawa, piano, performed Faure’s Allegro molto from Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Opus 15. Debussy’s Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (A carol of the homeless children, 1916) was a  cri de coeur sung with appropriate pain and passion by Ginger Costa-Jackson with pianist Peter Grunberg. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Grunberg played the piano four hands work by Ravel, The Enchanted Garden, from La Mere L’Oye. The entire concert was an Enchanted Garden which thoroughly charmed, enlivened, and lifted the audience sending all home with sparkles in their eyes.

 

YEFIM BRONFMAN & SF SYMPHONY PLAY PROKOFIEV

On June 22, the Hedgehogs were in the audience for the powerful performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano, Opus 16. It was a privilege to be there. Yefim Bronfman, the pianist, is surely one of the greatest pianists. His mastery of this Concerto reveals his mastery of Prokofiev’s music and of the art of the piano. Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 is demanding on every level: technique, emotion, physical abilities. Bronfman triumphs

Yefim Bronfman

in every category with magnificent partnership of the SF Symphony. Bronfman made the challenges of playing this grand, gorgeous, overwhelming music seem to come to him naturally. He breathes the music and the Davies Symphony Hall audience was captivated as he led them on an enormous journey. Mr. Bronfman will continue touring through the US and abroad this summer. If you are anywhere near one of his concerts, go. Do not miss his performances. Everyone who loves music will talk about the experience forever.

The composer, Sergei Prokofiev, found this concerto’s piano solo difficult to play. It is said that he complained of how hard it was for him to learn and perform. Prokofiev won first prize in piano from the St. Petersburg Conservatory so his opinion of playing his creation must be accepted. The Concerto No. 2 is the second in more than one way. His first composition of it was lost in a fire, in 1918. Not yet published, the concerto was lost. Prokofiev had fled the revolution in Russia and gone to Paris. In 1923-1924, he reconstructed it from notes and added new music. The concerto is melodic, suggests dances, machine sounds, and, in the third movement, even sounds threatening. Throughout, the meter changes grabbing the audience’s attention to a piano that is played almost faster than one can listen. It is a giant, life journey.

Yefim Bronfman was born in Tashkent, in Central Asia, a former part of the Soviet Union. He and his family immigrated to Israel where he studied piano with Arie Vardi, head of the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University. Moving to the US, he studied at the Juilliard and Marlboro Schools of Music and at the Curtis Institute of Music. His teachers were Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher, and Rudolf Serkin. He became an American citizen, in 1989. Among his honors: he won the Avery Fisher Prize, 1991. He has been nominated for 6 Grammy Awards and won in 1997 for a recording of the three Bartok piano concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Also on this program were Fratres for Strings and Percussion by Arvo Part, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra by Steve Reich, and Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.

Alexander Borodin

The SF Symphony’s performance of the Polovtsian Dances was beautiful as the SFS captured the exquisite, dancing music and enchanting, exotic folkoric sounds. Just when the listener comes close to being lulled into a dream, the 12th century military campaign of Prince Igor against the Polovtsian tribe re-enters with force and  passion. Bravo, Borodin!

Mahler’s 9th Meets MTT: Not a Farewell

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911)

Gustav Mahler composed nine symphonies and began his tenth. His Symphony No. 9 was completed in April, 1910, one year before his death, and premiered June, 1912, one year after. With ahistorical hindsight, many have regarded the 9th as a summation of the composer’s life and a farewell to life and music. This is faulty history and a bad way to hear the complex, astonishing music. In the course of this ninety minute symphony, one may hear myriad forces of nature, human experience, and the poignant, irregular pulse in the music. There are pauses; floods of sweeping phrases; galumphing, country dances; a final, transcendent adagio. The movements end as though falling apart, with a harsh punch, or evaporate into another form of being. This writer has heard it said the Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is not the most sought after for performance. It happens in multiple dimensions at once. It cannot be summed up — it is not “the one with a thousand voices”–it is music made of Mahler’s measureless understanding of music. In the few years preceding his death, Mahler’s life was full of events. He resigned from a ten year tenure as the Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, a role in which he and the orchestra flourished despite constant difficulties, not least the anti-Semitic attacks on Mahler. He desired more time for composing. His four year old daughter, Maria, died. Within days of her death, Mahler learned he had a severe heart problem and needed to curb his activities. An energetic outdoorsman, hiker, swimmer, Mahler was forced to limit the athleticism he loved. This was not a time of giving up: he became Director of the New York Philharmonic and composed Das Lied von der Erde.  He continued to lead a life of creative accomplishment and leadership given to large institutions. He was not an artist in retirement or an invalid marking time. Having seen tv dramas in which someone plays more than one chess game simultaneously, and having tried but not pursued playing even one chess game at a time, one could imagine an unusual person succeeding at that but could not guess how . The structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has a multi-layered complexity put together in a way that creates a unified beauty. It encompasses human emotions and the endless fascination of the natural world. To know one flower, one must look closely and also envision the earth.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the superb, mind-opening, heart-tearing performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, June 13-16, 2019. The Hedgehogs attended the June 16th concert which will be Maestro Tilson Thomas’ last performance with the SFS until his return on September 4. He is taking a leave to have heart surgery, in Cleveland. He was to conduct the Symphony’s programs programs June 20-22 and June 27-30. His composition, Street Song for Symphonic Brass, on the program for June 20-22, will not be performed. His devoted following, truly a chorus of thousands, wish him well and await his return.

 

 

MONET: The Late Years, De Young Museum, SF

By the time you read this, the exhibition MONET: The Late Years may have closed. It is scheduled at the De Young Museum from opening February 16 to closing May 27, 2019. I went twice. I had to see it more. I felt a need to be surrounded by the jumping, flowing, springing energy of these pictures. The light beams from them in colors which pulsed into my own pulse. This great exhibition was organized by the Fine Arts Museums San Francisco and the Kimbell Art Museum, Ft. Worth, “with the exceptional support of the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris” which was the source of many of the paintings. Waterlilies, yes, and also there were the Japanese bridge Claude Monet created for his garden and his paintings, the willows, agapanthus, iris, day lilies, and roses. The onlooker feels there is a mystery to these flowers and trees which on an average spring or summer day one might walk past, hardly noticing them.

Water lilies under the Japanese Bridge.

Monet observed his own powers of observation quickening as he looked with more care. He wrote: “It took me some time to understand my water lilies…I cultivated them with no thought of painting them….One does not fully appreciate a landscape in one day….And then, suddenly, I had a revelation of the magic of my pond. I took my palette. From this moment, I have had almost no other model.” The model includes the reflection of the sky’s colors and clouds in the lily pond. He pictures the inclusive reality of the plant he might touch and the entire atmosphere in which that plant and the reflection of the plant must live. The colors do not stop anywhere between these realities.

The roses arching over a path.

The “late years” of Monet’s life, he was born in 1840 and passed away in 1926, brought him personal grief as well as new artistic visions. He lost his wife, Alice Hoschede,1911; his first wife, Camille, had also died; his step daughter, Suzanne, died in 1899; his eldest son died, in 1914, the year World War I began. His eyesight was failing due to cataracts. He had surgery, which he had feared, in 1923. It was successful enough to allow him to work more vigorously. The exhibition includes works which come in series: a weeping willow described in swirling lines and dense brush strokes is seen in mostly red tones, mostly blue, mostly green. He is captivated by the changes we see every moment depending upon the time of day and weather as well as one’s own point of view.## See it now, that now is already gone and replaced by this, oops, no, that, new now. The motion of the water, the drifting clouds change the reflections one may see; both phenomena will move the waterlilies just as a breeze will make the iris leaves lift and fall. These plants are alive. That means that in the deepest reality they are always moving. Comments about his broad, free brush strokes which suggest more than delineate the exact shape of a flower overlook this fact: the rose is never the same, the lily is never still, they are in motion because they are alive.

Claude Monet in his garden.

When I arrived in Golden Gate Park for the first visit to this exhibition, there was no place to park. It took a lot of time circling to find a place. We had driven from Mountain View, about 48 miles away. It took nearly two hours to get there. Could they all be there for Monet? I thought it was the most crowded I had seen the park and a museum since the days of King Tut. Why were so many drawn to this exhibition. My theory is this: we hunger for beauty. We give our love for this gift of beauty. Is it out of fashion? Do serious artists turn away from beauty? The audience for Monet felt excited, surrounded, maybe caressed, by color and beauty. Monet painted to present the reality of the plants and water and sky all around him, and the reality was beauty.

##Please see Susan Embers’ review of Jonathan Clark’s photography exhibition, “Gator Time: Gulf Variations” in Hedgehog Highlights. The link is www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=2722. Ms Embers points out the mastery of technique and vision that allows Clark to be perhaps the one other artist who has purposefully made his art by penetrating the mystery of time, place, weather changing what one may see even when looking at the very same place and subjects.

MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN: Phenomenal Pianist at San Francisco Symphony

The recital by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Sunday, March 31, at Davies Symphony Hall was phenomenal. Mr. Hamelin is a great artist. Read this article, then get a ticket to fly somewhere soon to hear him. His technical brilliance is well matched by what appears to be his total immersion in the music; he understands it, he knows it, there is not a note that is not important to him. Not only can he play at warp speed, he can play slowly, even very, very quietly. I am tempted to call it playing “magically,” except it is not magic. The music is real. The musician is of this real world. The program knocked my sox off. Mr. Hamelin, however, is not a flamboyant presence. He is all about the music.

Marc-André Hamelin (photo by Fran Kaufman)

J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita in D minor, No. 2, BWV 1004 as arranged by stellar pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) opened the performance. It was representative of the now seldom performed 19th-early 20th century transcriptions of Bach’s monumental works. Whatever the historical instrument and performance style fans might think, it was fascinating musically. There was Bach but something different. It thoroughly engaged the listener’s attention. Written for the violin, translating it into piano language gave it different sounds, textures, and a different spirit. It was a wonderful introduction to Mr. Hamelin’s playing as he demonstrated his total mastery over the many dimensions of the piano.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Opus 17 is a gigantic work conveying myriad emotions as it ventures into different rhythms and suggests images. Having seen Mr. Hamelin play it, one can barely think anyone else would approach its technical difficulty and multiple meanings. The music explodes with Romantic energy and ideals and, in its third movement, seems to hover in moon glow. It is sometimes closer to a symphony than a sonata and draws on all of the young Schumann’s piano knowledge and technique as well as imagination unbound. Schumann wrote part of it in 1838, during the time he was separated from Clara Wieck, his true love, by her father. He wrote to Clara telling her, “I think  it is more impassioned than anything I have ever written–a deep lament for you.” Yes, romantic in every sense. They were married in 1840: she recognized as one of the great if not greatest pianists in Europe and he as a leading composer. Let us leave their history there before the tragic story’s end.

Mr. Hamelin is known for exploring less well known composers as well as the most celebrated, classical masters. His program included Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trénet. Mr. Hamelin found a recording, Mr. Nobody Plays Trénet, of Trénet’s songs which typify French cabaret in the era from 1930s-1950s. The pianist who recorded the songs was Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012). Mr. Hamelin created a score from listening to the recording and then received arrangements of four of the six songs from Mr. Weissenberg’s granddaughter. The performance of the six very different songs was a delight: personal and intriguing music with a special lilt and character. A wonderful addition to the recital.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi (Cypresses), Opus 17 was a revelation to those of us unfamiliar with this composer. The music calls out visions of the cypress trees which were in the environment of the place in Italy where Castelnuovo-Tedesco spent summers in the 1920s. For this listener, the image of eucalyptus in the Bay Area mist immediately came to mind. It is a relatively brief, but beautiful and completely original work. The composer wrote extensively for the guitar as well as piano, symphony and voice. Like other artists who were fortunate to leave Europe in the 1930s, Castelnuovo escaped to Los Angeles in 1938. The beauty of this composition with its slightly mysterious sound impels me to look for his operatic work for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

One may often hear Chopin’s work described as “jewel like” meaning both brilliant and, especially in comparison to a symphony, small. The thing about Chopin’s work is that it is perfect. This was my rejoinder to a friend who thought Chopin’s lack of symphonies made him less a composer. No. His work is perfect, that is in addition to enchanting, beautiful, entirely only itself. The two pieces chosen by Mr. Hamelin, the Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Opus 61, and the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54, were vigorous and large, full of invention. Chopin’s performances and compositions helped to enlarge the piano’s world in technique and sound. Mr. Hamelin seemed to revel in the bright, ebullient and continually challenging music, and so did the audience.

Standing and cheering for Marc-André Hamelin, the audience brought him back for bows and then received two encores. The first was his own composition, Toccata on L’homme armé. Fast, incredibly intricate, it had thirty premieres as all the contestants in the 2017 Van Cliburn contest had to play this work by Hamelin, one of their judges. Bowing to the insistence of music lovers greedy for more, Mr. Hamelin also played Herberge from Schumann’s Forest Scenes. It was played lovingly, and with careful attention to the unusual phrasing and a surprise rest before the delicate ending.

Mr. Hamelin performs all over the world, and he will be in Madison, WI, April 12- 14. The ice has probably melted. You will be glad to be there even if it has not.

FERLINGHETTI’S 100th BIRTHDAY! GET THE POSTER!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday is March 24. Just a few days ago he turned 100. Celebrate this great life landmark with an exclusive poster designed by Jonathan Clark. His birthday is also March 24th! but not his 100th. Not yet. The poster is colorful with a strong image of Lawrence’s painting. Buy one now for yourself and another as a gift. It was a limited edition poster of which Jonathan is offering some of what he has in his own collection.  In 1994, Jonathan –Lively’s technical director as well as an internationally acclaimed photographer and fine art printer—was the Chair of the Visual Arts Committee for the City of Mountain View, CA. He organized and presented the first major exhibition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s paintings. Well known as a poet and publisher, Ferlinghetti’s visual art was not well known. Soon after the exhibition in the Mountain View City Hall, the exhibition moved to San Francisco to be shown in The Lively Foundation’s new studio at the corner of Grove and Gough Street, just a block from the SF Ballet and the SF Opera House. It was Lawrence’s 75th Birthday Party and our opening; a great day with a great crowd of art lovers and many who were devoted to Lawrence’s role in the cultural life of San Francisco.

Original poster. It is 18″ x 24″

Cost for one poster is $18. If we mail it to you, cost is $25; that includes mailing tube and postage. Yes, that really is the postage. This is a real deal. You will not find this anywhere else, and it is terrific. Email us at livelyfoundation.org   Let us know your name, address and how many posters you would like. This is first come, first served. Mail a check made out to Jonathan Clark to Jonathan Clark, 550 Mountain View Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94041-1941. You will love having this historic poster celebrating an individual who is a significant cultural force and who has done so much for many artists. Do it today!

Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey at de Young Museum, SF

The story of Paul Gauguin’s life (1848-1903) lends mystery and romance to the idea of an artist. He left the over developed, over civilized, expensive world of Paris to free himself and find his art in Tahiti. The exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey, expands the reality of Paul Gauguin as artist and spiritual seeker. It is not so much denying the romance of a man working as a stockbroker, a humdrum job, and revolting against number crunching to seek primitive beauty as it is enriching our understanding of the complicated, thoughtful greatly talented individual. The works in the exhibition come from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek , Copenhagen, and from works in the Fine Arts Museums of SF own collection.

Photograph of Paul Gauguin

In his early life in France’s Merchant Marine and Navy, he sailed around the world and completed his military service. When he returned home, he established a close relationship with Gustave Arosa, who became his legal guardian after the death of his mother. Arosa had a an art collection distinguished by works of Delacroix, artists of the French Salon, and ceramics from world wide origins. In this environment, Gauguin’s interest in art became a passion. Through Arosa, he met Camille Pissaro. The great Impressionist became Gauguin’s friend and mentor. Gauguin had no formal art training. Mette Sophie Gad, a Danish woman, met him in Paris; they married in 1873 and had five children. The stock market  crash in 1882 was a fortunate fall; it opened a door for Gauguin’s full time devotion to his art. Although Mette and Paul would eventrually separate when he turned to painting full time, she loyally supported his work, organized an exhibition in Copenhagen, and sold his paintings. Other painters were also important in his life as friends and companions. He and Emile Bernard met in Brittany where Gauguin made important strides in creating his own style. The Bretons with their distinctive dress and their emphatically not-Parisian life style and environment were nearly foreign and exotic.

Breton Girl, 1889, is in exhibition at de Young

Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh painted side by side in Arles, in the south of France. Each had his own vision creating art, but the few months together surely had an impact. Gauguin left Provence shortly after Van Gogh cut off his own ear. Gauguin continued searching for a pure, wild or “sauvage” home in which he could get in touch with a culture and spirituality which was not influenced by the industrialized, urban world of Copenhagen or Paris. He left Mette and his family to travel to Panama and Martinique. He made his first trip to Tahiti in 1891 under the auspices of the French Ministry of Fine Arts. What he found in Papeete was not an untouched paradise; the colonialism of the French empire had inevitably modified Tahitian existence. He moved onward to another part of the island, Mataiea. On his second trip to Tahiti, his ship was delayed in Auckland, New Zealand. He closely observed and collected Maori art.

Flowers and Cats, 1899, Tahiti, in the de Young exhibtion

His story is not one of finding the original, pure society he sought; instead, it is one of continual seeking. He went to Hivo Oa in the Marquesas Islands, in 1901, and died there in 1903. Among the many glorious surprises in this brilliant exhibition are Gauguin’s ceramics. These are not thrown on a wheel but hand worked in fascinating character. To see his earlier paintings which glory in nature and humanity in nature, and his drawings and paintings of Breton life which present the differences of life style, forms, and pattern established through the shapes of costume and patterns of movement is a spiritual journey for the exhibition visitor. It expands one’s understanding of this artist’s many journeys to come closer to the world as a whole and to immerse himself in particular ways of living which were never entirely his own. Gauguin was also a collector of art. His collections expose his profound interest in other forms of living and other forms of worship. The exhibition closes on June 23. Do not miss it.