I’m back for my annual musings on the finest SF/Bay Area live performances of the year (#whatiattended)! As always, there’s a very healthy dose of opera, musical theatre, and jazz here, so they are more than well represented. And, I’m well aware of some great shows I had to miss because of my budget, or other commitments, but alas…it’s still a scrumptious array. Reflecting on these is a favorite way I savor and reexperience them once again.
What were your favorite Bay Area performances of the year?
1) Champion, Opera Parallèle, SFJAZZ Center
This unique jazz opera by Terence Blanchard is about the life of world champion boxer Emile Griffith, including his struggle with trauma-related dementia. A deeply affecting, tragic story, with gay content that was very impactful on a personal level. It features a great score, which deserves to land on the stages of the top American opera companies. It was heading to the Kennedy Center next, so it at least also had that audience. Unfortunately, it’s up against Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird” (featuring Lawrence Brownlee), so I fear it’s doubtful two jazz/jazz-oriented operas can have major legs. But, I get ahead of myself. This evening (Feb. 27th) had a sense of event, with Tuck and Patti, and Terence Blanchard in the audience, and lingering in the lobby afterwards as well. And we had the good fortune there of briefly meeting the contemporary opera legend, baritone Robert Orth, who passionately played Howie Albert.
The opening scene was so alive it reached out and grabbed the audience. The orchestral palette was rich, with the percussion and bass real stand outs. The orchestral hand-clapping-as-percussion really resonated. Former Merolini Karen Slack lit up the stage as Emelda Griffith, as did Arthur Woodley as the elder Emile, who was devastatingly real. The Herman’s Hole/”pussy” scene, with its fluid sexual expression was compelling and confusing, reflecting his confusion and the surrounding culture. Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny ‘Kid’ Paret was also very touching, a great physical actor, with a pleasing lyric voice in the midst of all the dramatic voices. A couple of scenes featured an actual boxer/dancer/percussionist who moved onstage in an unstoppable fashion.
Some lighting/projection cues revealed glaring flaws, and a couple of voices sounded tired. Also, where we sat there were frequent challenging sight lines, but it was thrilling to experience this opera in a true hall to jazz.
2) Dolly Tour: Pure & Simple, Shoreline Pavilion (Mountain View)
Not much needs to be said about this legendary woman. There may be many great drag impersonators of her, but there is only 1 Dolly. Her mix of goodness, simplicity, and yet worldliness and acceptance seems to be without peer.
It was a lovely night out as well, reminding me of concerts of my youth at Riverbend in Cincinnati. My favorite songs/moments included “Little Sparrow/If I Had Wings,” “9 to 5,” and two vocal quartets: “I’ll Fly Away,” and “The Seeker,” which skewed more towards bluegrass. Also, “Coat of Many Colors” and her new single “Pure and Simple” were really lovely.
I was in some disbelief that she sang it all live. The nuance and tone was so fresh…as if she was 25 again. She offered many quotable moments. When inviting a handsome band member to the spotlight for a featured musical moment, she shared: “I said I was married I didn’t say I was blind.” Her costumes take a page from Elvis’ book…bell bottoms and sequins for days!
3) Cabaret, National Tour, Golden Gate Theatre
The Emcee, Randy Harrison surely brought in audience based on his Queer as Folk celebrity, but he exceeded my expectations on stage. He offered a more solid, robust voice and technique than I expected, and than most of this role previous exponents had. I also appreciated that he used his voice in a somewhat less caricature-y fashion. He expressed plenty of lithe, engaging movement as well.
Andrea Goss, a petite Sally Bowles, was fantastic, offering a gamine, pixie appeal. Her small-scale delivered a big presence and impression. My date, who has seen a dozen or so Cabaret productions put her in his top 3…the slew of past celebrity Sallys not holding up real great by comparison.
As is often the case with this show, the love story between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz tugged on many a heart string. The set design, and how it was used was engaging throughout, integrating the orchestra in an authentic way, true to the milieu.
It’s time for my seventh annual Top 10 Bay Area round-up. Seventh?! Can it be? As always, this doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive Bay Area review list, more a fun way to highlight what was most memorable for me in ’15. As a student working full-time, there are plenty of great offerings I have to pass on (i.e. dance and plays are sadly missing from this Top 10), but this tradition is a constant reminder of the embarrassment of riches we have to draw upon here. No doubt one of the things that keeps me in the Bay Area, despite the ever-unfriendly cost of living. Care to share your favorites of ’15?
1) Stacey Kent, Venetian Room, The Fairmont Hotel
Stacey was near the top of my list in ’11. She was slated to return to SF in ’13, but had to cancel. After that long wait, she returned at last again this year. She and her band were as transfixing as before. Few can weave the spell she does. There is a sort of personalized intimacy about her craft.
In some patter between songs she shared that she had taken part in the commemorative Corcovado festival honoring the Cristo Redentor monument in Rio de Janeiro, telling magical stories of meeting and working with the great Marcos Valle. With excited humility she said that one of the Brazilian jazz greats had upheld her to the younger generation as the model for modern bossa nova technique (perhaps more than even the current native Brazilian singers, was the assumption). I wasn’t surprised by this. Her clean, distinct, but always compelling tone and delivery are like a modern day Astrid, or Blossom Dearie. Never to be mistaken for another, but in that lineage.
In this concert she performed This Happy Madness, Só Danço Samba, The Face I Love (Marcos Valle), Waiter Oh Waiter, O Barquinho, The Changing Lights, So Nice, One Note Samba, How Insensitive, Waters of March (duet with husband, Jim Tomlinson), I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face, and Ice Hotel.
After she performed “How Insensitive” she said “I be that hit home.” To see if that’s true, check out the lyrics here.
2) Les Troyens, Opening Night, SF Opera
This opera sat on my wishlist for decades. There was a false start during the Rosenberg era, when it was announced but pulled due to the onset of the recession. It was last mounted at SFO in the late ‘60s. So rarely performed, and so challenging to mount, it’s no surprise it took so long for the SFO to do so. It was worth the wait.
Opening night held three surprises. The first was the 25th Anniversary of Susan Graham’s debut with SFO. The second was the onstage presentation to La Graham of the SF Opera Medal by David Gockley. This whole affair was very moving, and included long, rapturous applause. During her acceptance speech, she spoke about her debut as Minerva, in Ulysses, as well as notable memories from Iphigenie…, and Xerxes. The third was that this was one of only a few performances that included stellar high tenor Bryan Hymel, as he pulled out early in the run.
The orchestra, chorus, and ballet were essential to the production’s success. Highlights included Graham’s devastating Adieu, fière cité, during which she stood onstage alone, in front of a plain black curtain, and appeared to be welling up as she sang. The audience was rapt. The Nuits d’ivresse duet was sensual and intoxicating, with Hymel particularly tender and affecting. He had a more slender voice than expected, but a thrilling top, which he is lauded for. Chong Wang and Rene Barbera delivered glorious ariettes of sorts. Antonacci proved her singing-actress status. Sasha Cooke was stunning, offering a dark, clarinet-like tone. She seemed a true vocal successor to Susan, and it felt as if one could see a passing of the torch here, in their particular vocal fach. The metallic-looking horse was a stunning, giant malleable puppet, not unlike the dragon from the SFO Ring Cycle. Berlioz’s orchestration was like a soothing bath.
3) Mighty Real, The Brava Theater
This musical based on the life of local, SF legend Sylvester was the love-child of a gay couple from NY. Broadway producers had turned it down, but they championed this important SF story. One of them, Anthony Wayne starred in the title role. Another producer, Cheryl Lee Ralph, was present, and offered a moving speech after the bows. She shared that “Sylvester was a man who walked in the light of his own truth.” Indeed. The musical made that loud and clear. And they brought him very much to life.
Many from the local City of Refuge fellowship were in the audience. This added to the aliveness of the show, through audience reactions. Wayne as Sylvester offered a falsetto that never faltered and stellar storytelling abilities. The supporting cast was very memorable, especially the women who portrayed Martha Wash and Tina Turner (in Proud Mary). It made me long for the disco days, which I am too young to have fully experienced (aside from a long-time Donna Summer obsession via cassettes).
It shared a story of sadness and loss, but also transcendence. It was deeply moving to mix with men seated near us who lived through this SF era.
My show-going in 2014 started out slowly, all thanks to grad school. But, thankfully, by the summer, it was in full swing again. So, there is plenty to gush about on my annual list. Always so grateful for the Bay Area offerings…and no doubt one of the reasons I continue to call it home, especially as travel is a bit fewer and farther between these days. Performer friends, if you’re show’s not on here, I didn’t see it <wink, wink>. I hope you enjoy my musings! What were your favorites of the year?
1. Cher, with Cyndi Lauper, at SAP Center – San Jose
Cher tops my list. Surprised? Cyndi was her opening act, with a voice still in surprisingly rocking’ shape. Can she really be 61? And, for that matter, can Cher really be 68?! (Don’t answer that.) Highlights were “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “Believe” (a remix), a “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” and “Half Breed” carnival-themed set, and a Burlesque-themed set (incl. “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”), a duet with Sonny, and a staging in which she was floated above the audience, as if a religious icon (not that she isn’t). The show was really perfectly crafted…and OFFICIALLY her last. It indeed felt like a farewell. No one could pull off what she did. My friends and I had a ball, shaking our tail feathers and lip-syncing from our nose-bleeds once things heated up.
2. Matt Alber, at Great American Music Hall
Matt is the only solo repeater this year. He topped last year’s list. His brother, Lou Jane was the opening act this time. Matt’s set included “The Wind,” “The Stars,” “Field Trip Buddy,” “Rivers and Tides,” “Handsome Man,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Rescue,” “Make You Feel My Love,” “House on Fire,” “Spectacularly,” “Brother Moon” (duet with brother, Lou Jane), “Always” (a jazzy, ACAP cover), “End of the World,” “Walking on Sunshine,” “Send in the Clowns”. It was a transfixing and warm, familial night. He alternated between piano and guitar accompaniment. His band and some classical instrumentalists joined for various songs, including a sensitively played cello, and his dad sweetly tickled the ivories as well.
3. Karrin Allyson, Jazz at Filoli Gardens
Her smoky tone and easy swagger make her one of my jazz favorites of late. Highlights included “All You Need to Say (Never Say Yes),” which features the moving line: “Search to find true happiness and the world will say yes – yes is all you need to say.” Also, Simon & Garfunkel’s “April Come She Will,” “All I Want” (Joni Mitchell), “What a Difference” (with Kenny Washington), Cat Steven’s “Wild World,” “O Baquino,” and “I Can Do Anything As Long As I Know You Love Me,” a beautiful new song by her. This is also a fantastic, intimate outdoor venue.
4. “Luster,” SFGMC, with Ann Hampton Callaway, at Davis Symphony Hall
This show featured “Tyler’s Suite,” a commissioned tribute to Tyler Clementi. Out of the three SFGMC shows I attended this season, this one was the stand-out. The chorus soloists were surprisingly solid, and the chorus delivered finely textured harmonies. Ann did an improvisational piano solo before which she asked for names and local/SF places of note from the audience, and incorporated them into her song. She had us rolling in the aisles. And that voice! So soulful, nurturing, contralto-ey. Cuts to my heart.
5. Nutcracker, SF Ballet
This production is still very fresh after 10 or so years, and delivers on all its holiday promise. Highlights were the Grand Pas de Deux, featuring Yuan Yuan Tan, and her VERY dashing prince, Luke Ingham (not pictured; I wonder if HE was “taught to be charming, not sincere”), and the magical snow scene, very moving with audible en pointe and snowfall onstage. They do NOT scrimp on the amount…for five minutes your head is in the Sierras. Calling the Zamboni!
6. Norma, SF Opera
The level of musical attunement, and true bel canto shared between Sondra Radvanovksy and Jaime Barton is a rarity these days. It harkened back to the Sutherland/Horne pairing in its best moments. How to say it…Rad’s voice is never not interesting to me. I don’t understand her vocal production, which makes it fascinating. It’s richly textured at best…buzzy at worst. Reminiscent of Callas in the lower range, and belted utterances. She was very liberal with the gossamer pianissimi, and offered some thrilling full-throttle high notes. Barton displayed moments of Horne in her lower chest. She knows how to move, and seems really “in her body,” which offered a sensuality. She’s also the most youthful Adalgisa I’ve yet seen, which made Pollione’s passion all the more believable. The production offered some nice detail, but didn’t inspire, and the Avatar-style makeup was mystifying. Norma’s two children were beyond precious.
7. Jimmy James, at Rebel
Highlights included his impersonations of Cher, Bette (doing “Feliz Navidad“), Barbra, Billie, and Liza (doing “Single Ladies”!!!) had us alternately in tears and stitches. He is a very skilled entertainer, with an incredibly versatile and impressive voice. I hope he’s fast becoming more of a gay household name that he should already be, aside from his ’80s appearances on the talk show circuit as THE perfect Marilyn impersonator.
8. Esalen Work Scholar “Reading,” in the Solarium
It was a privilege to sit in on this informal, private event. It featured teacher John Smith’s “If I Were a Robin,” and included original songs and poems/prose by the students. My emotional response to the event was no doubt stoked by the Big Sur setting, and the crackle of new writers growing their creative wings. Here’s “…Robin” from a previous show.
9. Showboat, SF Opera
What a treat to see this great american musical for the first time, and performed at this level. Standout performances were by Morris Robinson as Joe, and Kirsten Wyatt as Ellie Mae. Patricia Racette’s rendition of my favorite “Bill” was beautifully and movingly handled. Not operatic in the least. Perfectly scaled down. The production was beautiful and really served the piece.
10. Mary Lambert, at the Nourse Theatre
Mary is such an open-hearted, disarming, and authentic artist. She warmly invites you into her unique vision and storytelling. Highlights included “Jessie’s Girl” (cover), “My Body,” “She Keeps Me Warm,” and “No Secret” (encore). Her themes of body image, and mental illness/health are much needed in our current culture. Young Summer was the opening act. She was reminiscent of Lana del Rey.
Other Notable Performances:
• Michael Fabiano, as Rodolfo, La Boheme, SFO, delivered Golden Age tenorial squillo and passion
• Heidi Melton, in recital, SF Performances, SF Conservatory of Music, a Merola/Adler star returns again, incl. idiomatic and stunning Sibelius and Strauss sets
• Jef Valentine, in Panorama, ACT Costume Shop, a beautifully committed and personal vision of the Peter Pan legend
• Sean Patrick Murtagh, in Holiday Test Drive II, Martunis, incl. a perfect, refulgent “Oh Holy Night”
Favorite Drag Show of the Year:
MASCARA “Burlesque,” hosted by the Castro Country Club, featuring irreverent, moving, messy, unforgettable numbers by Uphoria, Serenity Heart, Jada Stevens, Dina Isis, Dusty Porn, and more. All in service of, to inspire, and raise funds for the queer recovery community.
Top 5 Best Movies of the Year (that I saw):
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Into the Woods
4. Love is Strange
5. The Theory of Everything
Share your favorites. And, here’s a toast to what 2015 brings!
My Christmas / holiday / solstice greeting for you, sharing a story of the gravitas and beauty of our humanity, from life in San Francisco…to our world. It combines a music track of mine, with some favorite illustration work.
I hope it resonates to you. ❤
The music track is from “Christmas in the Ballroom” 2011, with solos by myself, Nicholas Patton, and Gina DiRado. Also featured are Ann Assarsson, Ryan James Brandau, Katie Brennan, Ivy Depner, Matt Peterson, Kathleen Pheneger, and Trond Gilberg on piano.
Illustrations are by Nikki Mclure, Paul Madonna, Barrie Maguire, Paul Bommer, Maggie, Marco Cibola, Mike Brennan, Aline Candido, Cathy Trautmann, Clifford Harper, Artflakes, Tugboat Print Shop, and misc. street artists (Berlin, and elsewhere).
I don’t own the rights to these illustrations, and use them humbly and with great admiration for the artists. This is not for any commercial purpose or broad circulation.
Well, Olympics and figure skating fanciers, it’s that special time again, as we’re on the cusp of another Winter Games: Sochi 2014! Care to share any dream podiums or predictions? My dream podiums contain sentimental or personal favorites. Predictions are simply that…predictions, no preferences applied.
Here are mine:
MY DREAM PODIUMS:
It was another stunning year of live performance in the Bay Area and beyond. I’m forgoing reviews this time, thanks to grad school demands. I’m grateful yet again for the embarrassment of riches…one of the many reasons I gladly call San Francisco home!
1) Matt Alber @ The Rickshaw Stop
Presented by SF Bear Pride
With NAKIA, Jeb Havens…
Program incl.: Monarch, The River, Velvet Goldmine, Old Wallingford, Tightrope, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Field Trip Buddy, Hide & Seek, Always (ACAP), End of the World, Yellow, New York, Old Ghosts…
A taste of Matt live
2) Pink Martini @ The Hollywood Bowl
With China Forbes, Storm Large, Saori Yuki, Ari Shapiro…
Program incl.: Brazil, Zundoko bushi, Splendor in the Grass, Eugene, Hang on Little Tomato, Get Happy/Happy Days medley, And Then You’re Gone/But Now I’m Back medley, Yo Te Quiero Siempre…
3) Mephistopheles, San Francisco Opera
With Ildar Abdrazakov, Patricia Racette, Ramón Vargas, Marina Harris…
4) Anything Goes, Broadway Tour, Curran Theatre
With Rachel York, Fred Applegate, Erich Bergen, Alex Finke…
In the midst of the embarrassment of riches jcm partook in this year, above all, it was the year of the art song, “Hasa Diga Eebowa,” and contemporary american opera (and THIS without even having seen Moby Dick ;-(. This was particularly good news for art song and american opera, as it’s more the norm to bemoan their demise these days.
In capturing the highlights of the year, the performance and production were weighed most heavily, but in the case of new material, the script and score were of course considerations. Oh, and who can help some personal biases slipping in? Not jcm (ie: West Side Story = the greatest show ever written)! SO, here goes…
1) Sandrine Piau, (Susan Manoff, piano) CalPerfs, Hertz Hall
It was as if a gentle, gamine spirit had landed for just an hour or two, gracing us with her rare magic. She left us transfixed, susceptible to the whims of her potent storytelling. The program was studio-ready in its refinement and attention to detail, yet never bland or white-washed. She uses her lyric instrument to full advantage, painting a broad palette of tones and expressions. The very satisfying program featured french, german and english sets of Fauré, Bouchot, Chausson, Mendelssohn, Strauss and Britten, followed by a generous set of encores: “Voyage a Paris,” “Clair de lune,” and Strauss’s “Madchen Blumlein.”
Karina Gauvin, (Michael McMahon, piano) Weill Hall at the Green Music Center
The Bay Area has been given a great gift in the form of the new Green Music Center. In structure it is reminiscent of the great Musikverein of Vienna. It is nearly all wood, which is visually rich, and acoustically perfect. In a word, intoxicating. This was the inaugural recital of the hall’s vocal series. They programmed very well, especially as Karina’s Bay Area appearances are rare. Highlights included: “Le Printemp” by Hahn, “Phylidé” and “L’Invitation au Voyage” by Duparc. For her encores, she performed Weill (ie: Weill Hall) and the Scottish “Ae Fond Kiss.” The latter was deeply satisfying. Her english diction is stunning, and her textual delivery particularly soulful. On a personal note, her sister and mother were in the audience, just a few rows in front of me. She shared that this was the rare performance they were able to attend, and dedicated a song to her sister. A special night indeed.
2) The Book of Mormon, National Tour, Curran Theatre
It takes you by the balls, and won’t let you go. I’ve rarely seen the kind of go-for-broke commitment from a cast as this. 21 year-old Grey Hensen, who played Moroni and Elder McKinley, as well as Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham stole the show. I live for Gavin Creel, but oddly he seemed not to embody the role as much as to act it. Surely he’s settled into it by now, or will fully by its UK West End run. The first 20 minutes have to be the most perfectly crafted portion of almost any Broadway show I’ve seen LIVE. You know…those laughing-and-crying at the same time moments? The vocal power in the ensemble numbers was very impressive. Having an 8 year-old behind us in the audience made the profanity and vulgarity seem even more raucous and saucy.
Why LLS (Light Lyric Sopranos)? Why now?
In April, I attended the Cal Perfs recital of Sandrine Piau at Hertz Hall. I’ll wait until my “Top 10” EOY post to review it, but needless to say, she was sensational. I bought my tickets well in advance, knowing it would be the sleeper of the season.
However, at the time it crossed my mind that the recital came and went without much fanfare, she had no SF Opera presence in this or any season to date, the hall was only half full despite its intimate size, AND even few if any of my opera friends in-the-know had it on their must list. The reasons? Her career has been almost entirely in Europe, she’s essentially a “specialist” (ie: early music, Mozart, and lieder/art song), and she’s an LLS. Unfortunately, this fach rarely commands the same mainstream attention as the big guns, and in more standard operatic fare usually serves ensemble or comprimario roles.
I’ve spent much time on jcm raving about my beloved coloraturas, dramatic sopranos, and at times full lyrics, but it’s time I shed a spotlight on the finest LLS of our time (all of them active). I hope you discover an artist new to you.
Wikipedia shares that an LLS “has a bigger voice than a soubrette, but still possesses a youthful quality.” SO, clearly this doesn’t include the full lyrics, typified by a Fleming, Moffo, or Steber. Their predecessors are Elisabeth Schumann, Bonney, and Cotrubas.
What are the qualities I want in my LLS?
I look for well modulated technique, emission “on the breath” (unless for expressive purposes), singing within one’s “column of sound” (— L. Price), a balance of sweetness and brightness (not too much of one), good taste (which is VERY important in this fach, lest they become cloying), and of course unique interpretive and expressive abilities/gifts.
There’s no hard line drawn between fachs, so some of these singers have characteristics of a coloratura, soubrette, and lyric, but I believe they are at their essence LLS. It should come as no surprise that many of their coloratura skills are astonishing, as a leaner voice is wont to move fast at times.
She was the inspiration for this post, because, she, like Sandrine is offering a Bay Area recital this year (this weekend!), which I’m not going to miss. As with Sandrine, it likely won’t be sold out, has been rather under-marketed, BUT will surely contain some of the finest singing the Bay Area has heard all year. Her holiday album Images de Noël is always a part of my Christmas. I also recommend her Baroque duet album with Marie-Nicole Lemieux: “Streams of Pleasure.”
She is the definition of good taste, portraying a supreme elegance, self-possessed carriage, and pristine tone. Her Mozart aria recital CD is superior to Dessays, but she’s less flashy and more reserved, so not the mainstream marketing darling that Dessay has become. (I admire Dessay’s art too for different reasons.)
Shortly after the World Figure Skating Championships were a wrap in Nice, France, I messaged a friend who attended my frustrated questions and musings about the results to see if he could offer an insider point of view. They included questions about the Chan/Takahashi, Davis & White/Virtue & Moir, and Weaver & Poje/Pechalat & Bourzat rivalries. I wondered if seeing their performances live might shed light on the results in a way that my tv viewing couldn’t.
Well, Aaron over at Axels, Loops & Spins answered all of my questions in rather grand fashion. I was pleasantly surprised by his thorough responses, via his blog.
Read his responses in “Post Nice Reflections”
“What happened to the House of Sato/Dunjen?…”
“Were Kavaguti/Smirnov decked for their public commentary on the ice?”
“Did Weaver/Poje deserve the bronze?…”