2020 was the year in which I had to make the transition from going to performance venues to watching and listening to my computer monitor. (Actually, it was also the year in which I discovered that my xfinity service included a YouTube app, meaning that I could view many performances from just about any room in my Opera Plaza unit, rather than just behind my computer table.) This year the transition began to take place in the opposite direction. For the most part, my “physical” experiences have been limited to the second half of the year at the War Memorial venues: Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, Herbst Theatre, and the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the latter two both being in the Veterans Building. Where most other venues are concerned, for the most part I am still live-streaming. That said, here is my month-by-month account with hyperlinks to the associated articles:
January: SFO Streams La Traviata. Opera is ON, the video streaming service provided by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) provided my wife and I with the opportunity to revisit some of our favorite productions that we had previously seen as subscribers. One of those took place in the spring of 2014, when Laurie Feldman revived John Copley’s delightfully opulent staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, which was first performed in the fall of 1987. The revival took place when Nicola Luisotti was Music Director, and he served as conductor. Casting featured soprano Nicole Cabell in the title role of the courtesan Violetta Valéry, tenor Stephen Costello as her lover, Alfredo Germont, and baritone Vladimir Stoyanova as Alfredo’s father Giorgio. The video was produced by Frank Zamacona, who captured just the right balance of intimate close-ups with the broad view of the entire stage.
February: Premiere of Mark Winges’ Violin Concerto. “Spun Light” was a “distanced concerto” for violin and quintet accompaniment that Winges composed for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. All six of the parts were recorded separately. As a result, the concerto performance was “created” by Winges, who took full responsibility for mixing all of the content. Violinist Hrabba Atladottir was responsible for the “ultimate distancing,” since she recorded her part in Reykjavik, the capital of her native Iceland. The ensemble musicians, Stacey Pelinka (flute and alto flute), Phyllis Kamrin (viola), Leighton Fong (cello), Michel Taddei (bass), and Allegra Chapman (piano and toy piano), all recorded their parts in the Bay Area. While this process threatened to be the musical equivalent of a dog walking on its hind legs, the listening experience could not have been more satisfying.
March: Der Ring des Nibelungen. March was a big month for the Opera is ON videos streamed every weekend by SFO. Over the course of those four weekends, each of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s monumental saga was streamed. (Note that each of the four words of the title has a hyperlink corresponding to its own unique opera.) This was the staging that Francesca Zambello created for both SFO and the Washington National Opera, and the San Francisco performances saw the return of former Music Director Donald Runnicles. Zambello’s use of contemporary settings made the narrative as accessible to “Wagner virgins” (Zambello’s phrase) as it was to those of us hooked on both the music and the narrative for decades. Once again, the video was directed by Zamacona.
April: Volti sings Pamela Z. Volti, the Bay Area’s a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, presented four mini-concerts for streaming. The last of these was Pamela Z’s Ink, a five-movement suite realized as an elaborately composed video recording. Like “Spun Light,” this was a composition that existed only in the domain of edited video content, rather than performance before an audience. The result was engagingly witty and very much unique it is creative strategies.
May: Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet. San Francisco Ballet concluded its 2021 Digital Season with its contribution to Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance in 2015. That contribution was a full-length account of the ballet Romeo & Juliet choreographed by Tomasson to the score composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This amounted to a translation of the staged version first performed at the War Memorial Opera House in March of 1994, subsequently reworked to leverage the affordances of video. Of greatest interest, however, were the many episodes through which Tomasson established his own unique reading of William Shakespeare’s text, realizing his personal interpretation through his choreography.
June: With Friends Like These. This was the title of a free video-streamed concert prepared by composer Paul Dresher. HIs “friends” included pianist Sarah Cahill, performing a solo work that Dresher composed for her in 2011, Vân-Ánh Võ performing on traditional Vietnamese instruments, and singer/musician Rinde Eckert, whose partnership with Dresher goes back about 40 years to when they were both part of the George Coates Performance Works. The remaining “friend” was Joel Davel, currently Dresher’s partner in the Dresher Davel Invented Instrument Duo. The entire performance lasted for about 40 minutes, and the experience could not have been more absorbing with its diversity of instruments and styles of execution.
July: Garrick Ohlsson Concludes his Brahms Cycle for SFP. On February 21, 2019, Garrick Ohlsson performed the first of four recitals for San Francisco Performances (SFP), which he organized to present the complete solo piano music composed by Johannes Brahms. The cycle was scheduled to conclude on March 31, 2020. Instead, it was the only one of the four programs that had to be postponed due to COVID. This past July SFP returned to live performances in Herbst Theatre in a series entitled Summer Music Sessions. Ohlsson’s contribution to the series was the conclusion of his Brahms project; and that achievement was one of the high points of the entire series.
August: SFO Returns to the War Memorial Opera House. The next major revival of the practice of performing for an audience marked the reopening of the Opera House. The selection was Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, and the selection could not have been more appropriate. This was the first SFO production in that venue, and it was also selected to launch the return of SFO to the Opera House in the fall of 1997 after having been closed for eighteen months due to earthquake retrofitting. It also marked the first performance to be conducted by Eun Sun Kim in her newly appointed position as Music Director.
September: Cross Rhythms at Old First Concerts. This program was prepared for Current: A Piano Festival, presented by the Ross McKee Foundation and performed as part of the Old First Concerts schedule. The program itself was the product of a weekly sharing of ideas among pianists gathered via Zoom and coordinated by Sarah Cahill during lockdown conditions. Six of those pianists performed last night, Cahill herself, along with (in alphabetical order) Allegra Chapman, Gloria Cheng, Monica Chew, Jerry Kuderna, and Regina Myers. While I often feel overwhelmed by “too much content,” there was a freshness to this program from beginning to end.
October: Lyra. This was the high point of the SFP PIVOT Festival. It was performed in the Taube Atrium Theater and made impressive use of the full extent of that venue’s technological affordances. That included a “spatial” performance of the score composed by Samuel Adams, who realized his effects through his own command of the audio control technology. The performers included The Living Earth Show (TLES) duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and drummer Andrew Meyerson and members of Post:ballet performing choreography by Robert Dekkers. That choreography was executed not only in the Atrium space but also on a film projected during most of the performance. That abundance of media could have led to “too much information;” but all of the participants found just the right “sweet spot” to present a consistently engaging performance.
November: Messalina. Ars Minerva, led by Executive Director Céline Ricci, returned to the ODC Theater with its latest take on pre-Baroque opera. Ironically, this was performed at a time when SFO was presenting Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 opera Fidelio, which originally had the subtitle The Triumph of Marital Love. Those familiar with Fidelio will quickly recognize Messalina’s character as an “anti-Leonore.” I summarized the opera as “a joyous romp through sexual infidelities and dalliances among at least half a dozen different characters.” Ricci has consistently approached farcical operas from the pre-Baroque period with a sharp wit, and it was a delight to encounter that wit in practice again.
December: Simone Young conducts SFS. Since making her SFS debut in April of 2019, conductor Simone Young has consistently prepared and executed thoroughly engaging programs. She began her latest visit with a performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto in B minor. Her soloist was violinists Christian Tetzlaff. They served as a “dynamic duo” for one of Elgar’s most passionate compositions. Following the intermission, passions were just as intense in her account of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor.