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

 

 

 

San Francisco Symphony’s “American Optimism” March 17

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, presented a brilliant, diverse program, March 17, 2018, at Davies Symphony Hall. Given the title, “American Optimism,” the program offered the works of three very different composers: Charles Wuorinen’s world premiere, Sudden Changes, Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 26, and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. Wuorinen and Copland are both American composers. Prokofiev’s Concerto was premiered in Chicago with Prokofiev as the soloist.

Charles Wuorinen ( New York, 1938–)

Sudden Changes, Short Fantasy for Orchestra (2017), Charles Wuorinen’s premiere commissioned by the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, was a serious delight. It was serious as Wuorinen’s music is always serious: complex, varied, intellectually and musically challenging. It was a delight in its sprightly temperament, witty changes of rhythm and mood, and the way his music rewards one’s close attention. This listener especially appreciated the rhythmic changes: a break into jazzy sounds, a walking rhythm. There was also surprising and welcome lyricism. Wuorinen was Composer in Residence for the SFS, 1985-1989. He also directed the programs of New and Unusual Music, the SFS’s forum for contemporary music. He received a Pulitzer Prize in Music and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His work in multiple forms–chamber music, opera, ballet, orchestral works–is performed worldwide. Michael Tilson Thomas, introducing Sudden Changes, reminded the audience of the composer’s deep ties to SFS. The Maestro lowered his voice when he mentioned that Wuorinen explores “new dimensions” of (whisper) twelve tone writing. Michael Tilson Thomas knew that news could be scary. However, everyone in the fully packed hall stayed put and heard something fresh and engaging.

Sergei Prokofiev (Russia, 1891-1953)

Prokofiev, while vacationing on the Brittany coast of France, 1921, wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 (Easter break is coming; what are you going to do?). It is the most popular and critically acclaimed of his five piano concerti. It combines great musical variety with steel trap focus and unity. Prokofiev’s gifts as a pianist must have matched his genius as a composer; the soloist’s part is absolutely stunning. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s performance was astonishing. He has virtuoso, knock your socks off skills but also embodies profound understanding and connection to the music. One characteristic of this concerto is the balance between piano and orchestra. The orchestra is an equal player in what Prokofiev referred to as an “argument.” The first movement, Andante-Allegro, opens with a clarinet solo in lyrical melody. The orchestra joins in and then, almost as a surprise, the piano enters with energy and elan.

Behzod Abduraimov ( Uzbekistan, 1990–)

The dialogue between orchestra and piano begins. A new theme is introduced; the orchestra returns to the clarinet’s theme while the piano projects a variation evoking wisps of memory.  The movement ends with the two forces in a dissonant harmony. The middle movement is Theme (Andantino) with five variations. These include one with jazzy syncopation, one with an airy, celestial feeling. At the movement’s end, the partners’ contest has the orchestra playing the original theme in the original rhythm–which is half time of the variation that preceded it– while the soloist plays double time. Bassoons and strings begin the closing movement, Allegro ma non troppo. The piano enters with a contrasting theme. Slow woodwinds are singing. The piano makes an ironic reply. The eye opening, virtuosic Coda seems to explode as the pianist, moving so fast that his hands were a blur, plays “double note arpeggi.” Let’s just say incredibly difficult and incredibly fast. The Concerto ends in fortissimo splendor.

Aaron Copland (New York, 1900 – 1990)

Copland’s Third Symphony (1946) contains the theme of his famous Fanfare for the Common Man. Even now, hearing the trumpets taking their time to announce and salute the Common American Citizen, it makes me sit up straighter and remember being a mid-western child saying the Pledge of Allegiance, late in the 1950s. The Fanfare came about because, in 1942, Eugene Goossens, Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares for brass and percussion. All were prominent composers; most wrote fanfares celebrating a US ally or military unit. Copland stated later that “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Working on the Third Symphony from 1944 to its premiere in 1946, Copland wanted it to have “an affirmative tone…it was a wartime piece–or more accurately, an end-of-war piece–intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.” It does. While it has no specific, recognizable program or narrative, the symphony as a whole is a magical ride from the first movement, Molto moderato, with simple expression, to the fourth, Molto deliberato (Fanfare)–Allegro risoluto. A very deliberate and resolute Allegro. This writer uses the word “magical” which would not have been appropriate in 1946 when so much blood, hard work, and dedication had brought American society to a peak of optimism. Copland is the composer most able to express the essence of America’s best idea of itself and faith that the country could become just that.

Photograph of Charles Wuorinen by Susan Johann courtesy of www.charleswuorinen.com

PhotoFairs: Pictures Tell a Tale

PhotoFairs returned to San Francisco, February 22 – 24. The vast exhibition at San Francisco’s Fort Mason included works from 40 galleries from 15 countries and 26 cities. With offices in Shanghai, London, and San Francisco, PhotoFairs shows photography and moving image work it considers “cutting edge.” For this viewer, wandering through the almost endless display of photographs, the work that most attracted my attention included images which suggested stories. These were not specific narratives, but the onlooker could imagine, was even invited to imagine, what had happened.

Amikam Toren’s works, Replacing No. 1, 1975(bottom photo) and Replacing No. 2, 1975 (top) engaged my eye and thoughts. In each photograph, on the left there are broken pieces and on the right there is an object that has been made by putting the pieces together. One sees the cracks in the “finished” product and also some flaws which might mean that a piece is missing. Why was it broken? Why was it mended? Is the broken thing still the same thing it was before it was broken?

Replacing No. 1, 1975, Amikam Toren

Replacing No. 2, 1975, Amikam Toren

In these closer views does the title “Replacing,” mean that all the pieces have been put back in  place or that the broken thing now replaces what was once whole? Can Humpty Dumpty be put together again and still be what he was?

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, Apartment Windows, 1977, invites as many stories as there are windows; actually, there are more possibilities than windows.

Apartment Windows, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1977.

Some windows are open, others completely closed. Some have just the drapes pulled together, some have shades and drapes. What is happening on the other side of the windows? The various approaches to open, closed, covered, partly covered invites speculation about the stories within each apartment. Who closed the drapes or pulled the shades all the way or part of the way down? Why was the choice made to cover the window rather than leave it open? When the window is open, it’s not just that someone outside could look in, but also that someone inside could look out.

Tang Feng Gallery of Miaoli City, Taiwan, presented photographs by two artists, one working in classic black and white and the other in color in a smaller format. The images are evocative, seemingly straightforward, suggestive of mystery. A man sits in a decorated cart; a pedicab driver, he is taking time to relax.  The photographer captures the moment from above, showing the man momentarily at rest.

The Native Gaze 0005, by Chang-Ling, 2016The Native Gaze 0006, by Chang-Ling, 2016

In Chang-Ling’s The Native Gaze 0006, something photographic is happening. A young woman turns to talk with someone we don’t see. Everyone else is focused on something happening beneath the arc of balloons. Its intense color, the light coming from at least three different sources, and the young woman looking a different way play with the onlooker’s ability to know what is happening.

The Old Man and the House He Built, 2014, Wei-ming Yuan

In The Old Man and the House He Built, the Old Man walks past a house that appears to be built of mismatched materials. How did he build something that could stay standing with these objects? There is a story behind that house, that man, and the equally old dog which might be following him. The onlooker cannot know the whole story or all the stories, but it is fascinating to wonder about it.

Tai Chi, by Wei-ming Yuan, 2005

The artist also shows images which become nearly abstract due to his closeness to the subject or the movement in the subject. In Tai Chi, he looks up through the rock of a slot canyon in the American West.

These selections are not the most “experimental” of the works shown, but they held my interest for the stories they might tell.

Photographs of the photographs by Jonathan Clark, Mountain View, CA

See www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?s=photofairs  Hedgehog Highlights article about PhotoFairs, January 29, 2017

Notes on photos: Amikam Toren (Israeli, b. 1945), Replacing No. 1, 1975; Replacing No. 2, 1975;  Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1948-1989), Apartment Windows, 1977; Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Estate; Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis; Chang-Ling (Taiwan, 1975) and Wei-ming Yuan (China, 1948), Tang Feng Gallery, Miaoli City, Taiwan.

 

 

 

SF Symphony & Boyreko: Entertaining and Enlightening

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Guest Conductor, Andrey Boyreko, February 24, created a world of exciting, entertaining music and deep, desperate music exposing the reality of Stalinist Russia. Boyreko showed that he was the master of the lyrical, dynamic, and challenging Bernstein works as well as Shostakovich’s Symphony. The program included Divertimento (1980) and Serenade (1954) by Leonard Bernstein. These great pieces were performed with verve, enthusiasm and tremendous musicality by the SF Symphony. Part of the salute to Bernstein in the year of his 100th Birthday, the performance proved that the artists of the SFS have wholeheartedly embraced Bernstein’s music and do a brilliant job of communicating it to their audiences. Divertimento has eight movements, each one completely different: from the Waltz and Mazurka to the Samba and Turkey Trot, and because it is Bernstein, the Blues. Sometimes fun or funny, always totally original, was a terrific example of Leonard Bernstein’s inventiveness and ability to make music of every kind.

Andrey Boyreko (Left), Leonard Bernstein (Right)

Vadim Gluzman, the Guest Artist, solo violinist, demonstrated why he is celebrated world wide. In his comments online, quoted from the music journal, Strad, he says that Serenade is about love. That sums it up. Bernstein uses the theme of Plato’s Symposium with each philosopher in attendance choosing to express a different kind of love: physical, mythic, dancing, dedicated. Mr. Gluzman truly captures the high spirited and loving feelings of what is actually complex music. His whole presence played with the characters of the music and the visions of Bernstein. If you have any chance to hear him perform, do not miss it.

Vadim Gluzman

The second half of the program was Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47 (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is interesting to me that I heard several times before the concert the “official” response from an unnamed, Soviet critic*, saying that the Symphony No. 5 was “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

The problem is more with those who hear or read that without knowing what Shostakovich faced in his life or cannot imagine living in a totalitarian state. There were those who took that comment to mean that this enormous work by one of the greatest composers was somehow a step back from his true art. I cannot accept that idea. To hear this music is to hear protest in the rapid, almost rasping repetitions by the violins and the nearly ear splitting high notes that come again and again. It is a symphony of beauty and rage. Its militaristic sound comes to the audience as irony, making bitter fun of the militaristic regime which put poets and artists in the gulags to die and persecuted Shostakovich to the point that he would stand outside his house late at night so that when “They” came to take him away, “They” would not disturb his family. This brilliant, heart wrenching symphony is no step backward. It is a blatant, powerful act of resistance available to all who will listen. Guest Conductor Boreyko and the SF Symphony propelled this alert to all humans into alarming, moving, completely unique music. Lengthy, standing applause for Vadim Gluzman, Boreyko, and the Symphony demonstrated that the San Francisco audience got it.

*There are various theories of the identity of the critic. some believe Shostakovich himself put it out. If it did come from him, the irony runs deep.

SF Symphony Tonight! Boreyko, Bernstein, Shostakovich

The Hedgehogs are very excited about tonight’s performance at the San Francisco Symphony. Andrey Boreyko will conduct two exquisite pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Divertimento and Serenade, and the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich. Featured artist is Vadim Gluzman, violin.

Just a week ago, we heard Maestro Boreyko conduct his orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, in Naples, FL. It was a memorable, outstanding performance. There he conducted Bernstein’s Serenade and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As both Hedgehogs had never before heard the Serenade, we were delighted by the beauty, wit, and inventiveness of this work. Our wish to hear it again comes true tonight. The Naples Philharmonic, under Boreyko’s direction, presented a deeply moving, triumphant performance of the Mahler. Even Mahler lovers brought up by Michael Tilson Thomas could stand with hats off for this musical journey from pain to glory. Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 is an enormous work which may present deeply coded messages about the Stalinist regime which often persecuted Russian artists, including Shostakovich. Though he won some approval for this symphony, his art was always a passionate resistance.

Pictures: Top: Leonard Bernstein, Middle: Shostakovich