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baliOld age isn’t for sissies or the timid and I think the same thing can be said about writing for the stage, especially if it’s the operatic one. It took Verdi years before he produced something that worked on the boards. Evan Ziporyn’s no stranger to the stage–he’s written and performed Shadowbang–and his new two-act 140 minute amplified opera A House in Bali has much to recommend it. The story is drawn from gay Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s (1901-1964) 1946 memoir, with ancillary material drawn from the words of the two other main Western characters–anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. A piece about a composer seems an odd choice for anyone but another composer, though McPhee’s success at combining Balinese gamelan sonorities and rhythms into a western orchestral idiom impacted Ziporyn’s work bigtime, The problem is there was little real dramatic juice in the piece, which is a shame because Ziporyn’s music for New York’s 6-piece Bang On A Can All-Stars and Bali’s 16-member Gamelan Salukat is striking, even arresting.

Drama means “action” and even interior action has to be explicit — we can’t take it on faith. But Ziporyn and his librettist Paul Schick have created a script that mostly tells rather than shows. The words have an “intellectual ” rather than emotional rhythm, and sometimes no discernible rhythm at all. And what is anyone, much less French tenor Marc Molomot, who sings the part of McPhee, to make of lines like ” But here / I feel suddenly shut in, / and I can hardly wait / for the end of the concert. ” It’s not as bad as ” the only saviors are the ham sandwiches and the hot coffee ‘ in Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ self-important dud Dr. Atomic, but that’s not saying much. The book for a purportedly avant garde show like this should be as solidly built and serviceable as any for the Broadway stage where we’re rarely in the dark about who does what and why.  Jay Scheib’s direction didn’t clarify what was going on either, and any well-directed piece — no matter how complex it looks (say the party scene in La Boheme) should make its points simply and directly. But Scheib wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. Instead he did things that may have looked good on paper as “concepts” but simply didn’t work on the stage. Like having the gamelan players build McPhee’s house (the scenic designer was Sara Brown) as an angled well-lit room parked stage left which we could hardly see into, save through the lens of a videographer stationed inside. And there was never a sense of constriction when McPhee was supposed to be falling apart. How could there be on Zellerbach’s huge open non-proscenium stage which easily accomodated Ziporyn’s band in the center and Gamelan Salukat to its left.

But the biggest failure of the piece was portraying McPhee as just another alcoholic composer, which he was, and a repressed gay man which he most decidedly wasn’t. Yet Ziporyn would rather have it his way. ” I have no way of knowing,” he told interviewer Jonathan Leibovic, “whether he ( McPhee ) acted on these feelings ( for the young Balinese boy Sampih, played charmingly here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi). I don’t ever suggest that he did and in fact I’ve always presumed that he didn’t in this case.” That contradicts what McPhee said in a letter to his psychiatrist . ” Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual relationship that was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.” Which means that Ziporyn didn’t really do his homework regarding this important matter. But without this driving passion, or if you will, obsession, beautifully revealed in an ultra simple and very soft vocal line for Molomot, with transparent contributions from the All-Stars (the audience heaved a collective ” ah “), the piece had hardly any center, and hardly anywhere to go. It doesn’t have to be a male to male version of Butterfly but conflicts and/or misunderstandings between cultures have to be made in personal terms. But Ziporyn made his piece a tragic love story about two divergent cultures which got him off the hook of dealing directly with subject matter he’s obviously uncomfortable with.

But Ziporyn’s comfort level with the music is complete. And the sounds he devised for the All-Stars — hard driving or evocative, or the gamelan players with their gold hammers ever ready — clangorous, with complex layered rhythms and startling but perfectly logical shifts in timbre and dynamics, and a spectacular chorus for flutes — there even seemed to be some polytonal stretches in the score — held one’s attention when the words and stage action action didn’t. It was also strongly sung by the three Western principals and there was a startling passage, in falsetto for Molomot, who’s a counter tenor. Especially good was soprano Anne Harley ( Margaret Mead ) who had a highly ornamented passage — she does lots of Baroque music which makes similar demands — which she projected with refulgent warmth and charm. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov was also impressive and impressively tall as the confident, even arrogant Spies. All the other Balinese perfomers — Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Made Sarti Laksmi , I Nyoman Catra — made stong impressions, as did the choreography by Aryani and Catra. If only Ziporyn and company had built a house which was more than sum of its component parts.

[ed. note — corrected the spelling of Mr. Ziporyn’s last name.]

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We like to think that we live in the light, or as the current phrase goes — “it’s all good ” — when in reality everything really seems to happen in the dark where angels are wrestled with. This came forcibly to mind when I caught the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Restless Dreams concert on the June 13th at San Francisco’s Old First Church. The program — 8 pieces by 8 composers–also bore out music director Mark Alburger’s from the stage quip that it was Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony in reverse — instruments were added instead of subtracted as it progressed. Restless Dreams also appeared to go from meditation to conflict, or light to dark.

Philip Freihofner’s Obelisk, which the composer wrote over a long period and “finalized” for this concert, could be described as meditative and/or minimalist in gesture. We tend to think that only loud pieces are powerful , but Freihofner’s soft one, which Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Adams played, backed by a repeating figure on synth with passion and point, hit home. Lisa Scola Prosek’s Voodoo Storm, performed clarinettist Rachel Condry, trumpeter Eduard Prosek, cellist Juan Mejia, and pianist Scola Prosek was delicate and expressive, with subtle yet highly individualized part writing — Condry giving way to Eduard Prosek and vice versa — and it ended, in mid phrase, as so much in life does. Read the rest of this entry »

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Photo:Jerome de PerlinghiIt’s sometimes said that composers are either German or French, and American vanguard one Frederic Rzewski, with his much vaunted admiration for Beethoven, is clearly on the German side.  But how could he not be when some of his composition teachers like Dallapiccola and Babbitt forsook a flowing lyric line for a jagged dramatic one, whose aim is not to seduce the ear, but to wow with intellectual rigor?  But that doesn’t mean that Rzewski’s work is insincere, or lacks power — it has that in spades — but that it tends to be aimed at the mind and not the heart. It’s often confrontational, too. But that’s a good thing because any real musical interaction, like any real human one, has a built in   confrontational element, and confrontations help us grow.

Rzewski’s 1976 solo piano piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated (El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido) is certainly a work in which he confronted the musical possibilities of all kinds of things that had been appearing in his output until then.  He was 38 at the time he wrote it and his discoveries here power lots of his subsequent work. I t’s as much as a watershed piece for him as Glass’ massive ensemble work Music In 12 Parts (1971-74) was for him.  It’s also a kind of compendium of rhythmic, harmonic and coloristic approaches to Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s song for Salvador Allende on which it’s based. There are 6 variation sets of 6 each plus a coda, and Rzewski seems to use every possible pianistic device in it. Read the rest of this entry »

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Some people like to think that music is always somehow about something… usually them.  My bad love affair, the world will never understand me, much less remember me.  And lots of music — from the troubadours with their songs of courtly love  to the meditations and dramas of the romantics to the skitterings and upheavals of the New Vienna School — have been a kind of narrative of this beleaguered self, or if you will, the audience’s identification with the composer’s ups and downs. But the New York School  of Earle Brown (1926-2002), Christian Wolff (1936-  ),  John Cage (1912 -1992), and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) threw  this book out the window. Like the abstract expressionist painters with whom they were friendly, they believed in the concept of art as abstraction, not a representation of something external.  They wanted their listeners to experience music as sound unmoored from any story frame, an event in and of itself. Morton Feldman made a career out this approach and his focus on the specifics of sound was his calling card.

FOR JOHN CAGE (1982), which violinist Graeme Jennings, late of the Arditti Quartet, and and Christopher Jones performed here in mid-September as part of the sfSound Series, has all the stylistic hallmarks of his late work. It’s ultra soft – down to ppp – has an evenness of color, and its duration –78 miniutes– is roughly the same as a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, or the Beethoven 9th. But what happens in that time frame is an entirely different  story.

Feldman isn’t after a logical dialectical continuity but an ahistorical present, and this can make his music, with its fragmentary gestures, seem odd, or even empty. But Jennings and Jones made that lack of “content “ convincing,  and urgent. A slow steady sequence of quietly inflected piano chords sounded as if they were going somewhere, and Jenning’s playing of Feldman’s circumscribed violin gestures — cells, simple, spaced chords, harmonics -– was equally acute. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the composer achieved a kind of Brechtian alienation effect/affect by having the violinist use a leather mute, and the pianist play with the damper pedal half depressed so that the music appeared to disappear as it was being heard.

Classic masters like Brahms meditated on the past in the solo movements of his violin sonatas, but that past existed within a kind of narrative frame, whereas here only a present  past survived. Feldman’s music is both annoying –- when will it change, and where will it end ? –- and transcendent, and Jennings and Jones came down squarely on the side of the latter. And  the music seemed to gain much of its poetry from the place where it was played. A big mirrored dance rehearsal studio, with a spic and span Steinway grand where each sound had its tenuous, and all too fleeting life.

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We take so much for granted – the sun will go down , the sun will come up – that we never seem to realize that some day it won’t be there or we won’t be here to see it.  Same thing is true of friends you could always count on. So when I got an e-mail from my composer-conductor friend Gerhard Samuel’s companion, Achim Nicklis, that Gerhard had passed away a few weeks ago, I was shocked.  Sure, I sensed he wasn’t well – repeated e-mails saying he’d changed his address indicated as much. – but the sad fact remains. He’s not here anymore.

One comes to know a person through what they say, or don’t say, do, or don’t do, and if that person’s an artist one gets to know them through their work. I first encountered Gary’s music when I was driving my sister Kathi’s car in Belmont Shore, Long Beach, and was so moved  when I heard the La Salle Quartet perform his String Quartet # 1 (1978) on the radio, that I stopped the car until it was over. But isn’t that what art’s supposed to do, and isn’t its awareness meant to make us more aware?

Other pieces had just as much impact. There was his original and very touching “gloss ” on Mondeverdi, Looking at Orpheus Looking  (1971), which he wrote for the Oakland Symphony when he was its extra innovative music director, Requiem for Survivors  and suddenly it’s evening  (1974), which he composed as a memorial piece for his Oakland successor, Calvin Simmons, when he was Mehta’s assistant conductor at the LA Philharmonic; the chamber piece, Nocturne on an Impossible Dream (1980), which he wrote with his mother in mind;  the 1998 chamber work with tenor and saxophone solo, Hyacinth From Apollo, to a poem by his frequent collaborator, Jack Larson, who was the original TV Jimmy Olsen; and the 1994 Transformations for chamber string orchestra and solo violin. And though these were all completely different in style and expressive intent, they couldn’t have been more of a  piece with who Gerhard was – passionate, charming as all get out, refined, yet always full of surprises.

Like that September evening in 1998 – the 19th, to be precise – when Tony Gualtieri and I presented him on KUSF-FM’s 3-hour Classical  Salon, and he, during the time his music was playing, seemed completely at sea, and I said “ Don’t worry, “ as Tony looked across the room at us from “ Studio A”, to our  perch at the little table which was “Studio B”, and then when our mikes went on rose to the occasion like the pro he always was. Which reminds me of a story he told me of what happened when he was conducting one of the Stravinsky ballets. The composer was backstage, hand cupped to his ear, listening intently as his wife, Vera, said “Why’s he doing that? He’s heard it a million times!” And Gerhard said “ Because he wants to hear it again!” which was a lot like him too– completely in the present, where everything is. 

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My dear late best friend Danny Cariaga, classical music critic extraordinaire of the Los Angeles Times, once observed that people went to Wagner’s operas when they were new because they had more time. But now, with the onslaught of e-mails, IMs, cells with text messaging, to say nothing of headsets, call waiting, call forwarding, numeric pagers and the like, time seems fractured beyond repair. Are we really that far gone? And if so how can we get back to the unalterable truths of life, like love and death?

These questions came to mind when I caught The Met’s penultimate performance of Philip Glass’ 1979 opera Satyagraha on Monday 28th April. One of its subjects is time itself, and Glass’ mature music has always played with our perceptions of it. How long is short, and how short is long? Glass’ exquisite and utterly involving 3-act meditation on Gandhi – its subtitle is “M.K. Gandhi in South Africa (1893 – 1914)” – shows how he transformed himself from an ordinary barrister thrown off a train into one of the most seminal spiritual and political figures of the last century whose ideas continue to reverberate. A tall order, for sure, but one that co-director designers Phelim McDermott and Juilan Crouch’s Improbable Theatre made incredibly vivid and tremendously moving.

Glass and his scenarist Constance De Jong, assembled their libretto from the Hindu holy book The Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord“), and the verses they culled from it pinpoint what Satyagraha is really about — self-mastery in the service of spiritual growth. Gandhi developed his non-violent passive resistance movement, satyagraha — it roughly translates as “truth force”, or even “the force of love” –during his work in South Africa, which Glass’ opera dramatizes in seven highly allusive and mysterious scenes. The composer cites his absorption in the Khatikali theatre of Kerala , South India, and the extended and abruptly short mosaic-like approaches in Brecht plays like Galileo, and ,of course, his with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1975), as inspirations for Satyagraha though a “Western“ source, or point of reference, is Stravinsky’s from Sophocles via Danielou and Cocteau’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1926-27) though their aim, like the ancients, was to provoke pity through terror. Glass’ aim is entirely different. His music and its staging strive to educate the audience in the most non-didactic way to what Gandhi and his followers were all about. And he and his collaborators here do this through slowly evolving sonic and visual images which provoke, distance – the Brecht, Lehrstuck and Stravinsky neo-classic tactic – and enthrall.

Much has been made of Glass’ supposedly “simple “ music, as if his “poverty of means” translated into poverty of effect, and affect, but nothing could be further from the truth. Of course he fashions each scene as a series of ground basses or chaconnes, but his imagination is in full flower here, even through this is his first orchestral piece since his Juilliard days (1958-1962). And it really does show how he’s bent his pit band of 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, strings 1 and 2, violas, cellos, and double basses, and a Kurzweil synthesizer, to his own deeply expressive ends.. Act 1’s opening scene, The Kuru Field of Justice, unfolded from its 2+3, 2+3, 2+3, 2+2… rhythmic structure, like a steadily opening flower, with Gandhi (tenor Richard Croft), in barrister suit and briefcase at the lip of center stage, being set upon – his valise rifled by the supers – as his solo’s joined by that of mythological figures Prince Arjuna, in blue face ( tenor Bradley Garvin ), and in Indian cap and white tunic pants Lord Krishna (bass Richard Bernstein), while warring parties, representing the internecine conflict of the Kuru clan, in Victorian and Indian dress, face off, and larger than life papier mache puppets, do battle.

(Paragraph revised per Walter’s comment) The succeeding scene – Tolstoy Farm (1910) was just as imaginatively realized, as Gandhi, his wife Kasturbai (mezzo Maria Zicak), Gandhi’s German secretary Miss Schlesen (soprano Rachelle Durkin) , Mrs Naidoo (soprano Ellie Dehn); and Improbable’s co-workers built Gandhi’s ashram in miniature.A  nd nowhere could Gandhi’s and Glass’simplicity of means be shown to more effect than in the long – 60 plus minutes, though 31 minutes in Christopher Keene’s CBS LP set –  stretch of Act 3’s single scene,  Newcastle March (1913) where the composer’s “limited means “ – roughly three themes / harmonies — seemed to burrow into the listeners’ psyches/hearts, until all was “released” at the final but not so final cadence/chord.

Glass’ music has always trafficked in the down to earth and the mystical, and Satyagraha provides both as 2sides of the same coin. And it’s not for nothing that the third, and concluding scene of Act ii, Protesttextural, harmonic, and yes, melodic variety than all of Satyagraha combined The Met’s forces rose to its challenges as true “athletes of the spirit”, proving that it shares deep yet deeply contrasting familial resemblances to its other siblings in Glass’ portrait trilgy – Einstein, and Akhnaten (1983). And that his spectacularly moving 2005 opera of John Coetzee’s 1980 Waiting for the Barbarians – which Orange Mountain Music will release this June – continues even more difficult explorations of the human condition. ‘ A man lost in a cruel and stupid dream / But still I keep walking / Walking. “ Improbable’s production differed in many respects from the Bruce Ferden led – he’s sadly dead from AIDS in 1993 – version of the David Poutney/Robert Israel 1980 Netherlands Opera production which I caught twice – and once with Danny Cariaga – at the SF Opera in 1989. And its immersion in themes of social injustice – will they ever solved – continued in Glass’ SF Opera commission, Appomattox, which bowed here last November. What happened – and this went on in the mind, body, and dare we forget it – heart? – can only be sketched here.

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The world has always been violent, hence the classical desire to restrain the beast within.   But is this kind of art enough when the world seems to spin out of control more and more each day, with headlines soaked in blood, and anger and distrust every way you turn? Should art address disjunction/disconnection, or should it act like Bocaccio, who entertained his guests with stories while the plague raged outside his door?

These are essential questions, and The San Francisco Ballet’s four- work Program 5, which I caught Saturday evening 15 March at the Opera House, seemed whether consciously or not, to be asking them. And all the music here was either modern or contemporary.

Brit choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Pas de Deux from After the Rain (2005), uses Arvo Part’s 1978 violin/ piano duo “Spiegel im Spiegel “, as its score, which was played here live by Roy Malan, and Bruce McGraw. Composed just after Part parted company with serialism, it’s not as interesting or as fresh as some of his 80’s and 90’s  work which can be quite striking, and sometimes very affecting too. Sure, you can read it as meditative, or “spiritual”, but music that’s performed in the theatre had better have some dramatic juice, and Part’s piece didn’t. And Wheeldon’s dance for the alienated/struggling couple – Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Villanoba – made it sound like a kind of decorous décor. But the dancers brought lots of nuance to their parts which often depended on very slow lifts.

Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), which was first performed in Richard Rodgers’ centennial year–2002–at Lincoln Center, was an hommage  to this wonderful composer. And while the choreographer studiously avoided using anything that smacked of Broadway, what he came up with was obvious – having the dancers move in a circle like a slowly gyrating carousel, or letting them become carousel horses with poles attached to an non-existent top – and trite. Recent revivals of Rodgers’ 1945 musical have apparently stayed closer to the dark tone of Ferenc Molnar’s play Lilom, which Hammerstein based his book on. But Wheeldon’s dance wasn’t the least bit dark, though Mark Stanley’s expert lighting was. The choreographer’s use of vernacular movement made it look contemporary, but in his heart of hearts he seems to be a let’s be a polite at all times classicist. Still, the 24 strong corps, who’d performed it six hours before, and soloists Dores Andre and Joan Boada, made it look almost effortless.

A similar lack of connection to the musical material at hand undermined Helgi Tomasson’s 2008 dance – this was its premiere – to Rachmaninov’s 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Why any choreographer would deliberately ignore this score’s variation structure is anybody’s guess, but this one defiantly did. Either the music inspires, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t what’s the point? Tomasson’s setting was so blandly unimaginative – ditto Martin Pakledinaz’s scenic and costume design – that I kept wishing I could see the orchestra, but my friend and I were parked on the ground floor. Music director Martin West and his band gave a serviceable and streamlined modern take on the score, with no string portamenti to give it extra expressivity. But piano soloist Roy Bogas, whose teacher Rosina Lhevinne exemplified the Russian romantic style, used rubato at several points to give it rhythmic variety, just as Rachmaninov did when he played this piece.

Neither rhythmic variety nor textural subtlety figured in either music or dance in Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden, which the Stuttgart Ballet premiered in that city last year, and I think its point of origin says a lot about the final product. The Germans. after all, have never been big on giving their audiences unalloyed pleasure, but beating them up with “important “ messages, and this piece certainly tried to be important.

Charles Balfour’s lighting made everything look deadly earnest, and McGregor’s choreography for nine, emphasized angularity, and a kind of physical dysfunction which had to be meaningful. Steve Reich’s aggressively monochromatic score sounded like the snare drum tattoos in Bolero on auto pilot. But what does one expect from a composer – what’s happened to this once vital artist? — who sits down with his wife and collaborator on this piece, vid artist Beryl Korot, to choose the most significant technological events of the 20th century, form THREE TALES (2002), of which this, Dolly, is the last?  Dolly is of course the sheep cloned in 1997, and Reich and Korot’s talking heads, from MIT and Oxford – mercifully absent here – go on and on about this issue. The composer even dragged out a quote from Genesis – “ And G-d  placed him in the garden of Eden, to keep it and to serve it, “ to give it mythical stature, and McGregor seemed to buy it.

A white tree of the knowledge of good and evil descended from the flies, and some of the dancers came and went via a lift in the stage. McGregor and his game dancers produced some striking and even nightmarish images. But a piece that starts in the head, and stays there, can’t be anything but dead on arrival. Guest conductor Gary Sheldon and his musicians produced harsh, overly amplified, and badly mixed sounds, which assaulted the ear. Eden/Eden failed to say anything fresh, and will, I think, date quickly “like yesterday’s mashed potaotoes” in Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s song “ A Fine Romance.“  When you’re on you’re on, and when you’re not, you’re not.    

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Things happen when you pay attention. Resemblances line up, and disjunctions jar. These things certainly happened when I caught Word for Word’s theatricalization of James Baldwin’s Harlem-set story Sonny’s Blues, and Spain’s flamenco group Son De La Frontera on successive nights in San Francisco last weekend.  Word for Word used every possible dramatic device, including fine actors, to make each syllable of the story come alive while the Spanish musicians produced a thoroughly non-verbal experience though there was lots of singing.

The paradox was that both performances — even the wall to wall words of Sonny’s Blues — delivered language-free meanings, and that, whether we’re aware of it or not, art is always a fundamental emotional experience, even with words. And — it should get us where we live.                                                                                                                                                                  Flamenco provides one of the rawest, purest, and most sophisticated musico-dramatic experiences on the planet. And the 6-member Son De La Frontera,  presented by The Bay Area Flamenco Partnership at The Yerba Buena Center for The Arts Theater Saturday 1 March, are masters of this ancient form, which began in India with the gypsies who crossed North Africa, and settled in Spain’s Andalucia, where flamenco flourished in the intermingled soil of its Islamic, Jewish (Sephardic), and Christian cultures. Son De La Frontera delivered it clearly, honestly,and without regret. Virgil Thomson once declared that composers did everything but speak the language of the heart. But these Spaniards, who paid tribute to composer-guitarist Diego Del Gastor (1908-1973) here, certainly did. And their music, which comes from Del Gastor’s, made the divided chambers of the heart visceral, and incredibly real.

The two-hour, no break concert began with a guitar solo, a martinete, by Gastor’s nephew, Juan Del Gastor. The martinete is a kind of not-in-any-set meter improv, and Del Gastor’s was ripe with subtle yet powerful touches and myriad colors, like a dream of Spain’s fairest flower. Things got obviously more intense when guitarists Raul Rodriguez and Paco De Amparo took the stage with singer Moi De Moron, and the compas, or rhythm section provided by him — handclapping on the palmas, or the sordas — and Manuel Flores, and Pepe Torres, who also danced. Rodriquez and De Amparo’s unisons and solos were a harmonic and coloristic anchor to the intricate polyrhythms of the other three musicians, especially the phenomenally fancy footwork, or taconero, by Torres, who had  tons of that essential flamenco ingredient, duende, and whose turning, lurching, and jumping was powerfully controlled, the scarlet back of his black vest the only note of color in the show. 

Flamenco has a rich vocabulary of differently accented 12 count (beat) rhythms which form the basis of the buleria, the solea, which were stunningly played, sung and danced here. The group also gave knockout performances of the fiesta, cantina, sevillana, as well as the 4 count (beat) tanguillo, and tango. Flamenco is about all the basic passions of love, hate, abandonment, fear, despair, and revenge. It gets them down as no other art form can, and doesn’t make them pretty. But this brutal, in the best sense of the word, form lets them sing. And I was reminded of the late great Spanish mezzo Rocio Jurado, who sang on the soundtrack of Carlos Saura’s 1985 film of De Falla’s El Amor Brujo, when listening to Moi de Moron. You don’t have to know or even “hear”  the words to feel whats he’s saying. It doesn’t get any better, or more real than this. 


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filling.jpgDance is always about music, and music is, more often than not, about dance. But how does dance animate music, and music animate dance? This seemed to be the central question when I caught Program 1 of the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary season at the War Memorial Opera House February 9th. Classical ballet and modern dance sometimes plays against and even ignores the music’s rhythmic structure which would never happen in the deservedly popular Dancing With The Stars. But we rightly or wrongly cut the highbrow forms a bit more slack.  

Virgil Thomson’s music for SF Ballet’s founding choreographer Lew Christensen’s Filling Station (1938) brought these thoughts center stage. And though the composer has defined his score as a collection of waltzes, tangos, a fugue, a Big Apple, a hold up, a chase, and a funeral, one was barely aware of these disparate forms. Instead, what caught the ear and eye was the happy disjunction between these elements, not their literalness. But that’s odd when you consider how this ballet, to a story by Lincoln Kirstein, is routinely described as a pop piece.

Well, maybe, but one which uses vernacular movement — way before the Judson Church crowd did it — in still fresh, even startling ways. The moves for James Sofranko’s filling station attendant Mac were exaggerated but somewhat naturalistic too. But the gestures Christensen devised for the other dancers, like the hilariously bombed Rich Girl Erin McNulty, tended to be more stylized, as Thomson’s music shifted gears — jubilant one moment, deadly serious the next — as in his viola-dominated tango for her, which didn’t make rational, but emotional sense. Thomson was always a subtle and sly composer, and his clever but utterly sincere moves were on full display here, and. Martin West’s orchestra made the music go on many levels. Thomson once told me that everybody’s after freshness and this score couldn’t have been more fresh, and perfectly modern because of that. 

Modernist choreographers have tried their hand at setting dances on Bach’s music, with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco being one of the most famous. SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who’s sometimes been too much of a Balanchine acolyte, seemed to break free of the master in his 7 For Eight (200 ), to music from Bach keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, and the music’s mathematical lucidity and calmly ordered sequences seemed to make him go further and deeper than he usually does.

Bach is regularly advertised as peerless and one certainly felt that here in Tomasson’s 7 sequences for 8 dancers which were as contained and deeply expressive as the music, with 3 duos alternating with 1 trio, 1 quartets, and 1 solo.

Company star Joan Boada shone, but so did all the other dancers here who negotiated Tomasson’s from a classical vocabulary moves with both elegance and gravity. David Finn’s subtly modulated lighting scheme of mostly bluish greys and off blacks made the stage pictures both beautiful and highly suggestive ,which the costumes by Sandra Woodall — who dressed Kronos years ago — unobtrusively complemented The expert piano soloist here was Michael McGraw. 

Would that Balanchine’s 1967 mostly general dance, Diamonds, from Jewels, were as successful or interesting as the two dances which preceded it. Instead it came off as a kind of white on white version of Balanchine’s hommage to Sousa; The Stars and Stripes, with the stage almost always full of the 32 member corps executing endless formations and deformations with lots of chandelier-like port-a-bras, which though meant to look elegant ended up being cloying, with 4 of the 5 movements of Tchaikovksy’s 3rd Symphony serving as the score. Balanchine was as much as an entertainer as a high art guy–his long association with Stravinsky– but this just seemed like admirably danced fluff. Martin West’s pit band accompanied with effortless grace,well-judged tempos, and transparent ensemble throughout. And in none of the 3 pieces did he ever encourage his orchestra to push. This is a deservedly acclaimed company with a very fine orchestra.     

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Human behavior’s funny. The more we try to change the more we don’t seem able to. Are we cursed to repeat the same mistakes in our private lives — with lovers, friends — as well as in our public ones? Are we genetically condemned to disjunction, discord, and war, like Sisyphus trying to keep that enormous rock from crushing him each day? Philip Glass’ SF Opera commission, APPOMATTOX, which world premiered 5 October, and which I caught 16 October, seems to accept these things as givens. Its ostensible subject is Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865, and its subsequent impact. But its central question seems to be how can we change history if we can’t even change ourselves?   

These are weighty questions, and Glass’ music addresses them with seriousness and point. The opening figure for double basses and wind mixtures is immediately affecting. Then Julia Dent Grant (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) emerges from a backlit alcove in Riccardo Hernandez’s umbrous metal set, her posture contained, “The spring campaign ___  In four short years I have grown to dread those words … ”  She joins four other women — Mary Custis Lee (soprano Elza van den Heever), her daughter Julia Agnes (soprano Ji Young Yang), Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano Heidi Melton), and her black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo Kendall Gladen) — in an almost Baroque lament on the sorrows of war — ” never before has so much blood been drained … Let this be the last time.. ” The women who stand behind their men and keep it all together are, of course, the unsung heroines of any war, and Glass’ immediate focus on them, signals this piece’s unwavering depth.

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