MEROLA OPERA GRAND FINALE: A LIVELY EVENT!

Over the years, the Merola Opera has made it possible for The Lively Foundation friends to attend some of its wonderful performances in San Francisco. Named after Gaetano Merola, the first director of the San Francisco Opera, Merola is THE great training program for professional singers. They spend a year in Merola and go on to become world famous stars. Just a few of their graduates are Ruth Ann Swenson, Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voight, Brian Asawa. In July, Lively friends attended a comic Mozart opera performed by the Merolini (singers in the program carry this festive name), Il re pastore.

Zhengyi Bai as Alessandro in Il re pastore

Patricia Westley as Elisa in Il re pastore

On August 18, a group of Lively friends will attend the Merola Grand Finale at the San Francisco Opera House. It will be a sensational evening. All of the 2018 Merolini will perform. The program includes arias, duets, and other groupings selected from many different operas. The voices will be excellent. Watch the Lively Foundation News & Events and the Hedgehog Highlights on livelyfoundation.org for a report and review of this great event. It’s the Merolini’s graduation party, and we are invited!

photos by Kristen Loken, courtesy Merola Opera

San Francisco Symphony: Sibelius & Rachmaninoff

The San Francisco Symphony, June 24, gave an altogether satisfying, inspiring concert of Jean Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7, with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The piano soloist Daniil Trifonov was astonishing. Soon to begin his last season as Music Director of the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas’ brilliance was obvious conducting and in creating this program.

.Jean Sibelius, 1913 (1865 – 1957, Finland)

Recalling the Sibelius symphonies, the word “enchanting” comes to mind. The Hedgehog hesitates at writing it as it also brings the Hallmark channel to mind, but this music came from deep enchantment, serious magic. It is the magic of a pine tree being green all winter. Sibelius was attached to the natural world of Finland. He wrote from a place in his heart which made him feel he, too, was part of Finland’s nature. The music flows as though Sibelius wrote it on a single breath. In Symphony No. 6, Opus 104 (1923) its calm reigns supremely over the events of growth, expressing that natural mystery with no strain or struggle. It is sublime. Sibelius set out to write his Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105 (1924) as three movements. As it turned out, they are unified into one great ribbon of music. In the Vivacissimo, set between two Adagios, it sounds like a love song. It’s not a song of longing but one of wholeness. Experiencing it, it feels ethereal, but music is physical and exerts its force on all the air and objects around it. In Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, the musical force and the world affected by it are one. It charms the listener and has the great daring to be quiet. It is at rest but never still.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873, Russia-1943 California)

Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 30 is stupendous. It does it all: lyricism, expansive energy, darting changes of direction. It is probably not the concerto you are thinking of, but it still has that richness of song. Rachmaninoff’s constant invention keeps the songs tumbling over one another like water over Yosemite Falls. It is complex and passionate. It has musical adventure like climbing a steep precipice and dancing on the edge of a sheer drop. The partnership of the soloist and the orchestra is especially notable. Think of a pas de deux in which the young Nureyev supports the elegant Fonteyn in a way that allows her to let go as together they set the stage on fire.

Daniil Trifonov (photo by JKruk)

The SF Symphony showed power and restraint in maintaining its partnership with soloist Daniil Trifonov. He won the 2018 Grammy award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. His sensational performance of the demanding concerto did not seem to tire him at all though many in the audience seemed to be exhausted by traveling with him through the music. However, the audience was not too tired to applaud the SFS and Mr Trifonov until he returned to perform an encore. This SFS concert had excitement, thrills, and music of great beauty.

CONTRAPTION: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists @ Contemporary Jewish Museum

San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum revels in showing the works of diverse artists in diverse media, but in the show CONTRAPTION, it changes its norm and focuses on a group of Californian Jewish artists. The group includes living artists and some who have passed away as well as very well known artists and some who are under-recognized. The theme is artists’ responses to machines. The result is a collection of imaginative, inventive work by a wide variety of artists creating in many different ways. The show will stay up through July 29. This writer visited it twice and found new delights each time.

.Photo box by Bruce Handelsman, (b. 1953 – d.1992), San Francisco, CA

The collection includes paintings, drawings/cartoons by Rube Goldberg, sculptures, installation art. There are remarkable, hanging sculptures that look like twisted, spinning ribbons but are made out of many #2 pencils. There is an elaborate, very large contraption which weaves a long thread hanging from the ceiling. The process of making it begins with two visitors pedaling. Rube Goldberg’s smiling influence is present.

Miriam Dym (b. 1969), Berkeley, CA. Ms Dym took on a long term project anthropomorphizing machines, first in ink and acrylic works. This process developed, using computer graphics, into complex installations filling whole rooms’ walls and floors and becoming sculptures.

The exhibition’s art reacts to traffic, factories, pollution, as it also embraces the ease of machinery or the humor of machinery. Visiting this exhibition opens the imagination of the visitor and encourages contemplation of one’s own interaction with the contraptions that shape our environment, the devices we clutch and poke at.

Bella Feldman (b. 1930), Oakland, CA , sculptor, creates “anxious objects.”

Wandering through the exhibition and taking time to relate to the works very likely will inspire the creation of one’s own useful or aesthetically pleasing contraptions.

This year, the Contemporary Jewish Museum celebrates its 10th Anniversary in its landmark building on Jessie Square. It is built on the site of an historic Pacific Gas & Electric power plant. The front of the plant and other parts have been maintained in the building designed by internationally acclaimed architect, Daniel Libeskind. The CJM does not have a permanent collection. Instead, it welcomes distinguished exhibitions and allows its curators to establish new, thought provoking and beautiful exhibitions. The result is that there are always things happening and new experiences to absorb.

Other current exhibitions and events include:  In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art–Oxossi Ayofemi and Risa Wechsler (July 28-July30): Visual artist Oxossi Ayofemi and her partner, Stanford physicist Ris Wechsler present Black Matter, discussing the “nature of the elusive dark matter that fills the universe, as well as notions of presence and absence, and latent abundance in African American culture.”    What We Hold: Youth Voices on Roots and What Matters Most. “Over 70 teens, ranging in age from 14-18 created individual audio segments reflecting on family journeys, music, food, traditions, language, and moments of choice that have made an imprint on their identities.” (through March 25, 2019)

Visit the CJM at 736 Mission Street, San Francisco and online at thecjm.org     It is open daily (except Wed.) from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. People aged 18 and younger are ALWAYS FREE.  FREE admission FOR EVERYONE on Tues, July 3. PHOTOS:  B. Handelsman photo by JKA Photo; M. Dym photo by Jeannie O’Connor; B. Feldman photo by Matty Nematollah. All photos courtesy of the CJM.

 

RUBE GOLDBERG!!! Great Show at Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Run, don’t walk–no kidding: the Rube Goldberg exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum runs through July 8. It is fascinating, totally original and too much fun to miss. This is the right time to celebrate Rube Goldberg; he was born on the 4th of July,1883, in San Francisco. His father was the Sheriff of San Francisco County. Known for inventing insanely complicated machinery to accomplish simple tasks, the name Rube Goldberg is still applied to nutty, sometimes bureaucratically snarled up operations.

.Instead of making difficult tasks easy, as most modern technology would seek to do, a Rube Goldberg machine makes simple tasks incredibly difficult, usually by using ordinary objects and actions to achieve the goal. They are ridiculous machines created with a careful understanding of humans. The exhibition includes many cartoons, drawing, writing, even videos.

Rube Goldberg married, had two sons, moved to New York City where he continued his work and won a Pulitzer Prize among other awards. He also started an award contest for cartoonists.

Rube Goldberg passed away in 1970, in New York City, after making the USA a brighter place. Go see the show! Admission is FREE, July 3 ( and Aug. 7 and Sept. 4).The CJM is located at 736 Mission Street. Information: thecjm.org and 415/655-7800  Hours: Open daily (except Wednesday) 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m

 

PRE-RAPHAELITES AT THE PALACE OF THE LEGION OF HONOR MUSEUM

The exciting exhibition, Truth & Beauty, at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum casts  an aura around visitors with its romance and jewel-like colors. It opened on June 30 and closes on September 20. Visiting the works of English artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) , Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and of the artists of the Northern and Italian Renaissance, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, ca. 1483-1520), Sandro Botticelli (ca.1444/1445-1510), Jan Van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441), gives the viewer sensual delights, an understanding of the inspirations of artists, and an appreciation of a generation’s efforts to throw off conventional ways and create something of its own.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Director, Max Hollein standing next to The Lady of Shalott, painting (circa 1888 – 1905) by William Holman Hunt. Director Hollein appeared 6/28, his last day as Director before he left to become Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the very next day.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed by a group of young artists, men and women, in mid-nineteenth century England. They were consciously establishing a new aesthetic and defined their goals for all to know: “1 To have genuine ideas to express; 2 to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3 to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4 and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.” They had unusual opportunities to view great art from early times. Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) was a devoted collector of early German and Netherlandish paintings and helped organize an exhibition, “Art Treasures,” in Manchester, 1857. It showed early masters of Netherlandish and German art. In 1848, the British Institution, London, showed an exhibition of paintings from early Italian artists from “the times of Giotto and Van Eyck.” These exhibitions, even when including “misattributed” works awakened English artists to fourteenth and fifteenth century accomplishments.

Visitor to the exhibtion views work(left) by Fra Angelico (ca.1400-1455) (copy of The Annunciation), and (right) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (1852)  The early artists like Giotto (ca.1267-1337) in Italy or Jan Van Eyck in the Netherlands had been given credit primarily for inspiring the generation of Michaelangelo rather than for their own revolutionary vision. This included their use of perspective, Giotto’s representation of humans who looked like ordinary humans, the golden boards of the late thirteen century into fourteenth century paintings. Giovanni Villani wrote that Giotto was the foremost painter of his time and “drew all his figures and their postures according to Nature.”

The Pre-Raphaelites did not ignore the beauties of the Renaissance. In fact, in the literary and visual art sources of their inspiration as well as their personal ways of dressing or hair styles, they assimilated their interpretation of medieval values, working them into their modern, mid to late nineteenth century outlook.

(Left) Raphael self-portrait; (Right) Sandro Botticelli (near left) Idealized Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1475)

(Left) Beata Beatrix (1871/1872) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; (Right) A Crowned Virgin Martyr (Saint Catherine of Alexandria) by Bernardo Daddi (ca.1280-1348)

In Beata Beatrix, Beatrix seems to experience a moment of ecstasy while Dante, in his red cloak, is pictured at a distance behind her. Dante, his love and life stories, figured prominently among the literary inspirations for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ideas about medieval chivalry and heroic love were celebrated in their paintings and also in poetry and prose by William Morris (1834-1896), a “second generation” Pre-Raphaelite, and Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), Dante Gabriel’s sister. In addition to his writings, left wing politics, and business successes, Morris focused on designs derived from nature. The close observation of nature, a Pre-Raphaelite tenet, shows up in the lovingly, accurately drawn plants in so many paintings as well as Morris’ repeating vines and leaves made for wall papers and furnishings.

(far Lt) Flora; (near Rt) Pomona, by Edward Burne-Jones; (low Ctr) Bayes Chest, by Jessie Bayes (1878-1971) assisted by Emmeline Bayes (1867-1957) and Kathleen Figgis. The chest (ca. 1910) is decorated with pictures and quotes from La Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. The story of King Arthur’s death and interest in the Arthurian legends (or history), combined tales of romance and chivalry that inspired the Pre-Raphaelites.

Renewed interest in the Pre-Raphaelites’ art and their personal histories quickened during the late 1960s-early 1970s.  A person in her twenties could be moved by the Pre-Raphaelites:  William Morris’ idea that everything from spoons to tables in a cottage or a castle should be made with art as well as his imaginative and revolutionary writing; Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s shoulder length hair (and his lamentable, tragic drug use); their unconventional love lives; the deep, shining colors of their paintings; their close attention to nature. There was the revival of medieval styles in clothing: homespun looking shirts with wooden buttons and wide, loose sleeves for men; floor length skirts for women; long hair for everyone. Some aspects of these trends were superficial and some were approached with attention to deeper significance. A longing to “go back to nature” may not be so greatly in the news, but its offspring, the longing to save what’s left of nature goes on.

(Rt) Veronica Veronese (1872), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her left hand plucks a violin. Her right hand rests near a daffodil; a circle of daffodils is below her desk. A leafy vine hangs from a bird cage in the upper left, behind her. For further information see: legionofhonor.org/truth-and-beauty      Museum hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 pm, Tuesday – Sunday

PHOTOS:  All photographs by Jonathan Clark, Mountain View, CA The title of the exhibition comes from Ode On a Grecian Urn, by John Keats, an English Romantic poet who was also inspired by ideas of the medieval times.

 

BORIS GUDONOV: SF SYMPHONY PRODUCTION Puzzles & Notes

Modest Mussorgsky wrote both the libretto and the music for Boris Gudonov, a masterpiece of music and theater.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony

Presented at the San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Hall, June 14 – 17, 2018, there were at least sixteen artists involved in the creation of the multi-media, semi-staged production. This includes artists: Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor and Music Director of the SFS;  Ragnar Bohlin, SFS Chorus Director; Andrew Brown, director of the Pacific Boy Choir; stage director, James Darrah; lighting designer, Pablo Santiago; video designer, Adam Larsen; associate video designer, Hana S. Kim; scenic and costume designers, Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jay Mock; choreographer, Christopher Bordenave; assistant lighting designer, Alexa Oakes; assistant to the director, Sergey Khalikulov; production stage manager, Angela Turner; assistant production stage manager, Julie Chin; supertitles, Ron Valentino; Russian diction coach, Yelena Kurdina. This list does not include the full cast, the members of the two choruses, the dancer/actors, or the IATSE Stagehands or Theatrical Wardrobe members who make a production click along backstage so that onstage, theater can happen.

The effect of this network of collaborations was enormous and impressive. To describe the semi-staged productions presented by Michael Tilson Thomas: The orchestra is on stage. The cast of the opera performs in front (downstage) of the orchestra, on stairs or a ramp that goes alongside of the orchestra and across the back of the orchestra (upstage and literally up–on a higher level than the orchestra). The walls on the sides of the orchestra were wrapped in order to project images and video onto them.  At the beginning of the opera, Russian texts/Cyrillic letters were projected as the six dancer-actors crawled on the stage floor or stooped over to paw through pages of books and papers.  Other times, the projections were multi colored, looking like colored oil on slides. Watching the projections change was fascinating and rarely took my attention away from the music, singing, acting, and general progress of the plot.

The cast of dancer/actors were highly skilled movers and as a group had a strong presence on stage. They took various roles. Sometimes they were peasants, sometimes vicious ruffians. The director did not spare them or even the leading singers from doing the physical work of fighting or torturing another actor. There were a few times this audience member could not figure out why they were doing what they did. There was a point when they each picked up a red-orange piece of cloth, kept it in hand, and waved or flipped it around. That action’s peculiarity was its main distinction. Could it have symbolized celebration of Boris’ ascension to Czardom? Only a guess. The actions and the fabric did not seem to add up to a coronation or to a protest.

Stanislav Trofimov

No one person is given credit in the program for the overall vision of the presentation or for coordinating the artists accomplishing so many different aspects of the production. Without knowing for sure, it seems most likely that MTT called together the director and designers who could put his ideas into real time onstage. It is a huge achievement.

On the SF Symphony’s video of brief interviews with MTT and the costume designers, the costume artists describe taking great efforts researching the costumes of Boris’ era. In performance, some costumes created a sense of time and place and added power to seeing these particular people going through terrible experiences–some of their own making. At the same time, Boris Gudonov (Bass, Stanislav Trofimov) and Prince Shuisky (Tenor, Yevgeny Akimov)  wore gray, slightly baggy, 20th century, business suits. Why? Boris also wore glasses and a wristwatch. That could not have been an accident with so many people back stage and in the cast available to remind him to take them off. Were they generic, gray suits or were they meant to symbolize a particular time? Were they meant to reflect on Khrushchev during his visit to the US? How would that contribute to the development of the opera? It’s puzzling. Andrei Shchelkalov (portrayed by Baritone, Aleksey Bogdanov ) also wore a suit. His had a Victorian aura perhaps only because, as I remember it, it was dark and had a vest.

The story of Boris Gudonov is a puzzle itself. The history is murky; nothing is clear except confusion and danger. An imposter, dressed in a glittering white costume, takes the throne at the end. it is another example of the lies that become reality in the era and the opera. It is not a satisfactory resolution of the rule of a Czar said to be a monster, but history seldom has tidy resolutions. The impact of this production was powerful and alarming: an oncoming MACK truck of music, drama, historical horror. In his video interview, Michael Tilson Thomas calls it a “sonic spectacular.” San Francisco Symphony’s magnificent production was most definitely that.

Photography by Jonathan Clark at Smith Andersen North: Profound & Original Vision

GATOR TIME: Gulf Variations, Recent Photographs by Jonathan Clark, by Susan Embers

Strolling through San Anselmo, CA, I had not expected to come upon the most significant photography exhibition I have seen in at least a decade, but that is what I found. It’s at the Smith-Andersen North Gallery, 20 Greenfield Avenue. It will be up through June 9. {Note: It was extended and taken down on 6/14}. If you are looking for work by an artist of vision and the highest level of technical accomplishment, go. Whether your interest is painting, sculpture or photography you will find the gold at the end of your rainbow in “GATOR TIME: Gulf Variations.”

Jonathan Clark with a photograph in Gator Time: Gulf Variations at Smith Andersen North

These are photographs taken by Jonathan Clark over several years in southwest Florida. He stood in the same spot on a bridge overlooking a bayou off of the Gulf of Mexico. The photographs are of the reflections of the sky, a building, and an alligator. The water is sometimes disturbed by rain, illuminated by sunshine, or colored by sunset. Every image is different. The alligator’s head moves and causes ripples. Green dots of algae, the sequence of distorted squares that are the building’s windows offer a painterly excitement. The three dimensionality of the images in the water adds the shapeliness so satisfying in sculpture. And yet, this collection reveals the genius of photography. It captures a moment, the truth of each moment. Unique and disappearing, there is the world in each moment. Look, it’s gone; look again, it is completely different and then gone; look, snap, look, snap: gone.

This photographer’s art conveys a philosophy without ever pressing it forward. This is art that is above the trends of manipulated images. In his eloquent artist’s statement, Clark wrote: “The interplay of substance and reflection becomes a dialogue with nature, creating ever-changing metaphors of reality that the camera alone can capture and preserve.” Jonathan Clark’s work is in collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Getty Library and Museum, Los Angeles; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, as well as distinguished private collections.

 

Smith-Andersen North Gallery hours: Tuesday – Friday 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.; Saturday Noon – 5:00 p.m. Tel: 415/455-9723     info@smithandersennorth.com

 

 

 

Boris Godunov: San Francisco Symphony Triumphs

The San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of Boris Godunov, Modest Mussorgsky’s magnificent opera, was sensational. On Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ long list of semi-staged productions, this one may be the best, which is saying a lot. Mussorgsky, composer and librettist, based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s play, written, in 1827. The Russian censors kept the play off the stage until 1866 portrayals of a czar were not allowed. Mussorgsky had to obtain a special license for his opera which he finished it in 1869.  If the plot seems tangled it’s because the historical subject, set in 1598-1605, is impossible to clarify.

. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

When Ivan the Terrible died, his son, Fyodor, became Czar. He was truly too good to rule and allowed his brother-in-law and head minister, Boris Gudonov, to take charge. Boris was not troubled by ethics. Fyodor’s half-brother and true heir, Dmitri, died in mysterious circumstances. Ironically, the Hedgehogs saw the opera on Father’s Day. Pushkin decided Boris was the murderer. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. Think of Shakespeare blaming it all on Richard III and the evidence that even if he was a rotten guy, he wasn’t the murderer of the little princes in the Tower. The power of a good story always, shall we say, trumps the facts. In the opera, Boris is tortured by guilt, but it is not plainly revealed for what. He knows that the public blames him for bad crops, bad weather, and the death of Dmitri. He sings that he poisoned his family, but he says that just after complaining that the public blames him for everything. So, the comment may be part of the list of things he didn’t do. Mussorgsky does not give anything away. In fact, there are no facts except that everyone is plotting, lying, and when possible, killing. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, representing the long suffering Russian people, suffers and, short of bread, devours what ever rumors come to it, even when they contradict the last set of rumors they devoured. This opera is about the evils of Fake News.

Stanislav Trofimov sang the role of Boris Godunov

The cast was impressive both for brilliant voices and for portrayals of the rascally, deceiving, greedy for power characters. Mr. Trofimov’s every movement and expression revealed Boris’ deep emotions. What a voice! His powerful bass was resilient at every note. He was fearful for himself, his son and daughter and, he was right to be. Soon after Boris’ death, strangers appear to capture the czar’s heirs. The daughter has a blindfold over her face and is manhandled off the stage. They are not playing pin the tail on the donkey. Yvegeny Akimov played Prince Shuisky. Isn’t it great to have a tenor be a bad guy? He was a manipulative liar, like Iago in Othello, and like Charles Boyer in the movie Gaslight, he worked to drive Boris mad. He appeared to support Boris, but flipped allegiances quickly. Shuisky belonged to no side except his side. His strong, flexible voice fascinated the audience. When the Czar and Shuisky physically assault each other, it is over for the Russians.

Yevgeny Akimov portrayed Prince Shuisky

They were all bad guys, as it turns out, but as singers they were over the top fantastic. It is a huge cast and more than this writer can fit into a Hedghog entry, though each deserves bouquets. All but two of the male roles were taken by Russian singers. The solemn friar, Pemin, was played by Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev. He seems dedicated to religion and writing Chronicles of his era. It’s good to remember that the historian, especially when he is the only historian, is in the best position to make sure it is his party which wins–in the very long run. It will be his Fake News handed down through centuries, or at least until more people become literate and record their own favorite lies. Sergei Skorokhodov sang the role of Grigory, the Pretender. He first appears as a monk longing for contact with the real world of armies and adventure. He manages to elude those sent to capture him and survives to present himself, all cleaned up, as Dmitri, believed to be dead but now back to claim his throne. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov sang Andrei Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma (Russia’s “parliament” of aristocratic advisors). In history, Shchelkalov was a greatly feared “diplomat;” in the opera, Bogdanov gave him a calming presence. He speaks for Russia itself. Bogdanov’s appearances provide brief feelings of certainty in the midst of chaos. The presence of a Holy Fool extends the sense of Shakespearean theater that courses through Mussorgsky’s libretto. In Shakespeare, the Fool is there to speak the truth, even if in riddles and songs. This being set in Russia in the last years of the 16th and first few of the 17th century, he is Holy. Tenor Stanislav Mostovoy turned this small role into a powerful light in the midst of darkness. The American tenor, Ben Jones, played Missal, and American bass-baritone Philip Skinner was Niktich. Each left his mark embodying the characters with voice and stage presence.

Catherine Cook appeared as the Innkeeper.

There are only a few female roles. Each one was sung by singers who can hold the stage. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan portrayed Boris’ daughter. A delicate woman who lost her fiance to political murder, she is sad and needs the comfort of her Nurse, sung by mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen. Catherine Cook played the Innkeeper with a robust mezzo-soprano voice and a canny way with government guards as well as outlaws. The Czar’s son was a trouser role for mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet. She projected the defiance, fear, and confusion of the young man who was the legitimate heir of the not exactly legitimate Czar.

Left: Wiliam Shakespeare (1564-1616; Right: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

In the Elizabethan world view, the ruler is truly the head of the nation. If the head is lost, ill, displaced by someone who does not belong on the throne, the body of the country will suffer civil wars, famines, plagues, foreign invasions until the rightful ruler is in place. Pushkin admired Shakespeare and, from his vantage point in Russia, would have understood that the metaphor played out in horrible chaos in the real world. If the head of the nation has no interest in the health of the people, their works, the country’s forests and rivers, it is also a case of the head being sick and infecting the body of the country. Nothing will be right until that one is removed. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and a long series of successors had to be removed. It’s the trick of great art: it lets one experience chaos, the dissolution of civilization, while sitting safely in a chair believing it couldn’t happen here.

 

 

AMADEUS: Movie of Mozart with SF Symphony

Near the end of Amadeus, the award winning movie from 1984 which was presented by the San Francisco Symphony, April 6 & 7, with the SF Symphony present playing the film’s score and the SFS Chorus present performing the vocal music, there is a moment when a coffin is lifted out of a coach. As men walk forward carrying the coffin, the viewer noticed the coffin’s smaller end flap open and shut. Something was wrong with this picture. The coffin is tipped, a bundle covered in white cloth slides out; it lands on a pile of other bundles in a big ditch. That bundle was the body of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart (1756-1791) painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Dead at age 35, Mozart’s celestial music goes on.

This is a painful, gorgeous movie. Seeing it with live music accompaniment was a great benefit as hearing the music created in the  moment made Mozart’s life’s work all the more real. The SFS Chorus had provided the vocal music in the film, another plus to the movie/live music experience. Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, the Symphony, Chorus, Choral Director Ragnar Bohlin all deserved the continuing cheers of the audience. “Wolfie,” as his wife Constanze calls him in the movie, wrote more than 600 works. That’s right, 600 works of perfect beauty; turn off the computer, now ( when you finish this short article is ok, too.)

Tom Hulce enacted Mozart in Amadeus

Tom Hulce’s performance as the “loved by God” composer is breathtaking. He has the outrageous giggle, bawdiness, conscience-free, child-like behavior and the focused concentration of a true genius when at work. F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, the competitive, court composer devoured by jealousy, captures the many sides of a man capable of appreciating how extraordinary Mozart’s music is and still wanting to destroy him. Both actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards; that time Salieri won.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus

The movie is so powerful that it is difficult to remind oneself that this is fiction based on some historical fact and a lot of historical rumor. No one can know what caused Mozart’s death. His grave was not marked; there is no hope for posthumous analysis. Renal failure is one interpretation, but more than one hundred explanations have been given. The rumor that Salieri poisoned Mozart was alive and well long after both composers were gone. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian author, wrote a play based on the rumor. The movie is based on the play by Peter Shaffer who drew on Pushkin’s work.

The movie plus live music phenomenon is made possible by a fancy computer rig. One  could see the laptop on the Conductor’s podium. There was a pulsing, large, white dot and different lines which seemed to coordinate the entrances for music and chorus. Timing is everything. The live participants must not be even a nano-second early or late as the dialogue and some on-the-film music go on. It is a wonder. The 2018-2019 season offers films such as Jurassic Park and Mary Poppins with live music.

The problem with the rumor is that it is so believable. Artistic rivalry and deadly jealousy, not so surprising as one might wish. The audience experiences the suffering of a man who was, as the play’s Salieri sees, composing as though angels dictated to him. The loss of what more music he might have created is impossible to measure. Redwoods killed by drought, right whales going extinct, children made asthmatic by air pollution: all those losses of life and liveliness and the loss of Mozart himself. Humans got lucky that he was here at all. What if, after its few productions Don Giovanni had simply disappeared? We would all be less than we could be and not know it.

SF Symphony: Transcendent Concert of Berg & Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

It is rare to hear a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that is not superb, gorgeous, interesting, entertaining. One can easily run out of fresh adjectives and re-use the same ones that are useful to describe the experience of a beautiful performance of beautiful music. The concert on March 24, 2018, however, soared into another realm. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) with violinist Gil Shaham as guest artist and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902). The performance surpassed any expectations.

Albano Maria Johannes (Alban) Berg (1885-1935)

Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is doubly tragic. Berg died the day before Christmas the year he wrote the concerto; the concerto was his last completed work. It was written to commemorate Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, Mahler’s widow, and architect Walter Gropius. At age eighteen, Manon died from polio. Berg had known her since her childhood. He wrote “To the Memory of an Angel.” on the manuscript. He dedicated the work to Louis Krasner, a violinist based in Boston who had asked Berg early in 1935  to write a concerto for him. Krasner played the premiere, 1936, in Barcelona. The concerto sums up the passages of the life lost so young. It has two two-part movements. The first is Andante-Allegretto; the second Allegro-Adagio. The Andante has an ethereal, daydreaming atmosphere: a girl watching clouds scud through the sky. The Allegretto is playful and dancing. In the last part, the drama of the girl almost growing up and then twisted with pain grabs the listener physically just below the ribs. The structure of the music in the Adagio refers to a chorale of the Lutheran church that prays “It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You.” The terror of Manon and for her; the need for resignation in the face of inevitable death; the struggle of life to remain alive is reenacted in the soloist striving over the other strings. In the end, the solo violin seems to resolve the pain. There can be acceptance and a fitting harmony with loss.

Gil Shaham, Violinist

Gil Shaham is an extraordinary violinist. His gifts are of the heart as well as in his hands. He plays with verve and power and also tenderness and anguish. His presence as a performer lights up all of Davies Hall.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 travels from sounds of a funeral to renewal of life. There is so much variety of emotion, experience, exaltation on the way that the listener’s senses rocket from depths to heights and back again. Holding one’s breath, afraid to miss any single event in this music it is as though by living with the music one can experience multitudes of lives from the inside rather than from observation. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is justly renown for conducting, teaching, expanding Mahler’s audience. The SF Symphony met every challenge of the music and fulfilled their Maestro’s vision. This is the Mahler symphony with the Adagietto, now so famous that it is often played as a separate piece on classical radio. This quiet, very slow movement could be “Mahler’s heartache” as described by the late music writer, Michael Steinberg, or it could be the most purely sensuous classical music ever written. The symphony ends with raucous, joyful music shouting with exuberance. The listener lived in the music as Michael Tilson Thomas seems to have every phrase and its musical meaning in every cell of himself.

Conducting without a score, the Maestro reminded me of Charles Dickens traveling the world, taking all the parts to enact scenes from his novels. Now, imagine someone else, not the writer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Bleak House being able to recite and act the whole of one of those enormous books with nearly countless characters, events, plots, subplots, descriptions of landscapes and ballrooms. That’s what Michael Tilson Thomas does conducting Mahler. It was a transcendent performance.

Hedgehog Highlight on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=669     Hedgehog Highlight on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1585

www.sfsymphony.com, gilshaham.com, michaeltilsonthomas.com

photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony