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Author: Paul Hertelendy

OBSCURE OLD VIENNESE SYMPHONY REVIVED

OBSCURE OLD VIENNESE SYMPHONY REVIVED

A skillful orchestrator, the Viennese composer Franz Schreker has vanished from the radar a century later, alas, now revived by the S.F. Symphony via his Chamber Symphony of 1916. Indeed, the only trace of him I’ve run across before on the West Coast was a 2010 Los Angeles Opera revival of his “Die Gezeichneten” (The Designated Ones).

His nebulous, ear-tingling sounds, closer to Debussy or Charles Koechlin than to any  than any of his Germanic cohorts, produce remarkable, memorable effects via intermingling of diverse keyboards and harp in the high registers. The timbres recall some wispy French idiom, creating an alluring sound spectrum, with harmonies that are unresolved.

Though I greatly enjoy the sparkling world of wonderment that Schreker (1878-1934) spins in his 26-minute opus, the evolution of musical ideas here is less interesting. There’s a jolly clarinet-led pastorale, a scherzo, and a finale with the harp (Douglas Rioth) playing a delicate role en route to a soft, deft finale. The scaled-down orchestra, often sounding more like a nonet than orchestra, played it beautifully when heard on March 17.

This program was imported by the Slovak guest conductor Juraj Valcuha (pronounced U-rah-ih Val-u-ha, both with 1st-syllable accentuation) from Italy, who brought a sensitive touch here totally missing in his subsequent bombastic Beethoven Seventh Symphony. The Beethoven sounded like a timpani concerto, given that instrument’s prominence and the hard mallets used, sounding more like gun-shots than musical ingredients. And he led it with flamboyant bravado, encouraging maximum impact.

In between came the perennially-smiling audience favorite Gil Shaham and the Barber Violin Concerto with a high-velocity, high-performance exhibition, followed by a solo Bach encore in response to the ovations. In the slow movement, Eugene Izotov offered the best oboe solo I’ve ever heard him do since becoming principal here—enough to make glaciers melt. Shaham added an unaccompanied Bach suite after the ovations.

SCHREKER NOTES—Schreker got some of his deftest effects with unusual interplay of piano, celeste, harp and harmonium. (The harmonium is a reed organ, here played by a synthesizer keyboard, a substitution rarely resorted to at the SFS, otherwise a stickler for fidelity to the score).

Guest conductor Juraj Valcuha & the S.F. Symphony in programs of March 16-18. Davies Hall, S.F. For info: (415) 864-6000, or go online. www.sfsymphony.org

CONDUCTOR KAHANE RETURNS TO PIANO ROOTS

CONDUCTOR KAHANE RETURNS TO PIANO ROOTS

BERKELEY—I’ve been fascinated by the California pianist Jeffrey Kahane ever since the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition. He didn’t win it (gold went to André-Michel Schub). But media reports established that, in the opinion of various finalists, though Kahane was unlikely to get the gold medal, he was considered the best keyboard performer of the lot. A rare accolade among high-echelon pianists!

Happily, Kahane bounced back two years later, winning the Rubinstein International Competition.

Although a successful symphony conductor over the past three decades, Kahane, 60, still finds time for piano recitals, such as his March 12 one at Hertz Hall. Now his strong suit at the keyboard is not his lyricism of old, but rather his on-going interest in contemporary repertoire. Between sonatas of Schubert and Chopin, he spotlighted pieces of thirtysomething composers Timo Andres and Gabriel Kahane written in this decade, both under 10 minutes in length.

Gabriel K.’s fluency in mainline pianistic style and harmonies was evident in “Works on Paper,” starting with the whimsical “Death to Advertising” and closing out with an imagined folk song. In the central “Veda” section, after a Joan Crawford movie, the piano has the supreme challenge of portraying regret—the judgment is still out on that one! In a less conventional mode, the score calls for the pianist (here, Gabriel’s father) repeatedly to pluck individual strings in reach-over pizzicato with the left hand, giving the effect of an accompanying instrument.

Andres’ “Heavy Sleep” is a wispy work positioned somewhere between Satie and Debussy. Isolated slow chords are struck at the bottom and top of the keyboard, forcing the performer’s considerable stretching. Gradually gaps in the structure are filled in by the player, but the effect is enigmatic, with a Gallic touch rarely exploited here.

In the standard repertory, Jeffrey K. played with steady-as-she-goes refinement, devoid of flash. His Schubert (G Major Sonata, D. 894) was assertive, stentorian, disciplined, as if building unshakable columns to line his concert. His correct but formal interpretation with a percussive bent was more a battle to be won that a foray to smell the roses.

His Chopin (Sonata No. 3) was more compelling, with its dynamic contrasts and expansive nature, and virtuosic velocity executed in a blur in both the second and fourth movements. I particularly liked the barcarolle effect in the Largo.

Trending these days among recitalists is the banning of sheet music. Where a score is used at all, Kahane like others brings out an electronic-score pad, rendering page-turners obsolete. Batteries included, but the pianist still has to bring his own energy.

ARTS NOTES—Since 1988, Kahane has been more prominent as a conductor, as leader of the Colorado and (for 10 years) Santa Rosa Symphonies as well as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra….Two Californians have made it big in contrasting performing-arts specialties. Am I the only one noting the strong resemblance between the stand-up comic Josh Kornbluth and musician Kahane? (I expect to get two emails shortly: “He doesn’t look at all like me!”)

Jeffrey Kahane, in piano recital March 12 at Hertz Hall, Berkeley, presented by Cal Performances. Info on the latter: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

SALOME JOINS HIGH SOCIETY

SALOME JOINS HIGH SOCIETY

The modern-day Salome arrives formally attired in red in a luxury limousine, and departs the same way, carting the severed head of John in the back seat. And along the way, she drinks controlled substances and staggers stupefied throughout.

The is not reality TV, but rather the S.F. Ballet at the Opera House playing Arthur Pita’s sexually overcharged world premiere “Salome,” more than a century removed from the scandalous stage versions by Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss. Even though she avoids any Dance of the Seven Veils, the head-as-souvenir (passionately kissed, of course) was so repulsive, I’d match this version next to the Wilde-Strauss oldie. which you recall had been vehemently denounced all over Europe and the US.

In the title part we had the latest role by the fast-rising Dores André, playing the sullen, spoiled daughter of Herod (Val Caniparoli)—now no longer a Biblical ruler, but rather an oligarch-millionaire. His wife Herodias is a grande dame of café society, lacking only the long white gloves of some Hollywood diva.

The imaginative reworked scenario has the earthy Salome selecting her partner John (Aaron Robison) from a bedraggled group of eight half-naked male prisoners, as if running a slave trade, forming the nonet of dancers in this story ballet. Salome and John enter into a modern pas de deux till he drops exhausted, and Herod orders his execution. The codicil, with the mesmerized Salome dancing about the severed head, ripping off the coverlet, putting it over her and kissing it, and waltzing off with the trophy, adds up to a lurid ballet destined to be hugely controversial wherever it is performed, whether at the Opera House or elsewhere later on.

Despite some confinement by a floor-length dress, André still impressed in the spotlight, and Robison reflected sinewy power, even when shoved about like a kewpie doll by guards. There were no fireworks this night, just confetti cannons sending up showers, perhaps conveying sexual arousal. The brooding music by Frank Moon fit the dark moods to a T. As for the theme: as much a critique of absolute power (Herod et al) as it is reminiscence of the tragic old John-the-Baptist Biblical saga. Any resemblance to the new D.C. administration is purely coincidental.

The two other works (seen March 11) were clean-cut high-energy pieces, both featuring the habile principals Frances Chung and, in her final season, the Cuban Lorena Feijoo. Yuri Possokhov’s “Fusion” (2008) was an astute concept contrasting Middle-Eastern dervish dancers with Western ballet—then having each group converted to the other culture in a classic Kiplingesque cross-over. Along the way, a scenelet reenacts suppression of women in the East. Possokhov’s adroit work embodies social and political messages again and again.

“Fearful Symmetries” by Liam Scarlett, one of the hottest current choreographers out of England, is a half hour of swirling, spinning bodies moving to frenetic rhythms by John Adams. The wailing soprano sax heard in “Fusion” returns here to give a unique sonic color. Feijoo here was menacing, like a black widow spider about to devour her mate. This very modern piece, devoid of toe shoes, offers a lot of intensity, pelvic wiggles and arm swings, beneath a pattern of rectilinear pencil-like neon lights. On this night, Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno added a fine pas de deux.

BALLET NOTES—You could spot two of the SFB’s prominent choreographers in this program: Possokhov via his “Fusion,” and Myles Thatcher, in person, as one of Salome’s eight prisoners. When not creating new ballets, Thatcher is in the large (and largely anonymous) SFB corps de ballet….SFB casts rotate nightly.

San Francisco Ballet Program 5, seen March 11 at the Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

‘HEROINE-ISM’ SPOTLIGHTED IN MAJOR ADAMS WORK

‘HEROINE-ISM’ SPOTLIGHTED IN MAJOR ADAMS WORK

The essence of the “Scheherazade” tale is not sweeping romantic music, a la Rimsky-Korsakov; composer John Adams outlived that phase of his long ago. Here the essence is the gruesome fate of a heroine faced nightly with becoming murder-victim unless she is a master story-teller on every one of the 1,001 nights. So contends Adams, who introduced his bigger-than-life “Scheherazade.2” (2015) at the S.F. Symphony. This winter the SFS has offered multiple celebrations of his 70th birthday.

Call it a dramatic symphony, like Adams, or call it one of the longest violin concertos ever (at 49 minutes). Either way, this is a testament to the activism, suffering and “heroine-ism” of modern-day women around the world. It is a very large-scale opus, indicative of how deeply felt these issues are to the composer.

The spiky piece is a furious outpouring for a virtuoso violinist, who is playing virtually nonstop in an admirable marathon feat. It’s also a high-energy rhythm-driven opus, going unrelentingly like a race car with throttle wide open all the way. Even in the love music of the slow movement, which Adams says is perhaps the most tender he has written in his 70-year life, there’s an enigma. He has endless well-crafted legato phrases, but they are never quite endearing, never overtly affectionate; you look in vain for a memorable theme or moment of true repose and contentment. Overall he is enmeshed in various musics and jagged lines that are moving farther and farther away from his central audience’s taste. Evidence: accolades where his on-stage bows get greater applause than the music itself.

And the same high-energy frenzy dominates most of the work, where greater contrasts would have been both welcome and refreshing.

Adams’ Scheherazade is clearly a stormy personality, a woman of action and dynamism, of conflict and persecution. The best clue to his content comes in the four movement titles: The Wise Young Woman, Pursuit by the True Believers; love scene; Scheherazade and the Men with Beards; Escape, Flight, Sanctuary.

If you think that these ultra-dense pieces are unplayable, clearly you’ve never heard Southern Californian violinist Leila Josefowicz, for whom these virtuosic solos were intended. Attacking the score like a demon, the explosive and tireless Josefowicz relishes every last 16th-note, every rapid run and every last double stop in this supreme challenge, playing it all from memory. She meshed exquisitely with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who of late has been downright addicted to Adams music. You may not recognize the latest incarnation of virtuoso Josefowicz, who has cut her long hair and adopted a gamin look, perhaps facilitating her mobility for immensely challenging opus in myriad venues.

The big orchestral sound obscures some smaller instruments. Some 20 visible tamtams were barely audible, and the cimbalom at front and center was not heard at all, at least from where I sat in Row J. If Adams so loves the instrument and its unique timbre, he needs to amplify it, much the way that solo guitar or harpsichord is routinely amplified in concertos.

Adams had personally introduced the work at the Feb. 24 performance, intent to voice the social-action message—-not on behalf of a timeless fairy tale of “1,001 Nights,” but rather of the tribulations of modern-day women, a cause in which he believes fervently. Yes, there is one similarity between this and the Rimsky-Korsakov version: In both, the solo violin is Scheherazade.

THE MOST NEGLECTED INSTRUMENT—May just be the cimbalom, which looks like a small piano without keyboard, with strings struck directly by mallets. It is encountered in repertory symphonic pieces only in Kodaly’s “Hary Janos” Suite. However, every gypsy ensemble in Hungary and neighboring lands has a cimbalom, with players all learning by ear, not by score. The SFS’ soloist Chester Englander is a self-taught performer, who had mastered the instrument with each string pitch identified by a letter written on paper directly beneath it. Adams also called on him for “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”

The concert under MTT concluded with MTT’s arrangement of a long suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” 38 minutes long. Rather than match the chronology of the segments in the ballet, he resequenced them instead for concert-hall effectiveness.

S.F. Symphony under MTT’s baton in John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2,” and MTT’s arrangement of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Davies Hall, S.F. Through Feb. 25. For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

THE NIGHT THE GUNFIRE TOOK A REST

THE NIGHT THE GUNFIRE TOOK A REST

SAN JOSE—-A new kind of opera, in which groups of the military play as big a role as the individuals, made its moving West Coast premiere via “Silent Night” by Kevin Puts. While the singing by the 14-member Opera San Jose cast pushing their voices was uneven, the Feb. 11 opening night got a prolonged reception from the sell-out crowd. They witnessed a dramatization of a trench-warfare event that featured an operatic reenactment of the spontaneous Christmas-Eve 1914 cease-fire, with warring troops dropping weapons and fraternizing briefly in No Man’s Land.

Puts’ 2011 hit—a first-time opera!—is a large-concept work with close to 75 soldier-singers on stage, voicing French, German, English, Italian and Latin. It has swept our operatic world, with some dozen productions already. If it really calls for a bigger house than San Jose’s with considerable stage machinery, the piece comes off effectively enough, with beefy soldiers mobilized to roll alcoves on and off stage and to remove battle-field cadavers. The opera even reprised the unforgettable impromptu French-German soccer match between the front lines.

But this is not an opera about death, carnage and soccer so much as about human sentiment and sentimentality, where these warring units find an arcane brotherhood. Within it, as many a veteran of any war will tell you, the biggest antagonists may not be opposing armies so much as their own starchy, inflexible high command behind the lines—the only villains of any stripe in Puts’ concept.

Many of the war-movie clichés turn up—the arrival of mail up front worth more than gold, the guy who left the wife at home, the one who longs to return to mom, the soldiers playing harmonica, bagpipes, or just humming, and of course the beloved little guy who gets killed in a senseless way. And some of it is just preposterous, like the hero Nikolaus bringing his beloved Anna, in a spotless white formal, to wander about the trenches. The fact that they are two opera singers (in the scenario) does not get them off the hook.

But you suspend disbelief through much of this saga, inspired by the unbreakable bonds of humanity on both sides of the firing lines. You want desperately to see the opponents shake hands and reminisce about their home life, however improbable it be under the deadly gales of machine-gun fire.

The music by the 45-year-old Puts is engaging, particularly evocative in his various orchestral interludes, somewhere in a comfort zone between Barber and Britten. The set vocal pieces are few, mostly via the aria and duet involving Anna.

Basing his story mostly on a 2005 film “Joyeux Noel,” librettist Mark Campbell ended up with an unwieldy 14 solo singers and 11 snapshot scenes requiring more movers than an “Aida” revival. What distills out however is the essence of three national groups of combatants, each with a unity and toughness, but a vulnerability kept hidden beneath the uniform.

The lead roles of opera singers Nikolaus and Anna, even digressing into an Italian duet within range of the guns, were played this night by Kirk Dougherty and Julie Adams. Some of the night’s best singing came from baritone Matthew Hanscom playing Lt. Gordon, nearly overshadowed by baritone Brian James Myer as the innocent young victim Ponchel. OSJ Music Director Joseph Marcheso, who brought out a wealth of dimension from his orchestra, had scaled down the score to fit the compact pit. As a group, the ensemble sounded far more secure than instrumental soloists. Stage Director Michael Shell masterminded the crowded stage movement with aplomb.

Kevin Puts’ opera “Silent Night” (multiple languages), with supertitles, at Opera San Jose’s 1,122-seat California Theater, S.J., through Feb. 26. Two hours, 45 minutes; one intermission. For info: (408) 437-4450, or go online.

TERROR IN THE ELEGANT ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ BALLET

TERROR IN THE ELEGANT ‘FRANKENSTEIN’ BALLET

You know there won’t be a happy ending if, in the very opening of a 10-scene ballet, the couple falls in love via a pas de deux. But still, there’s little clue to just how violent and tragic “Frankenstein” becomes during the three-hour span.

This American premiere of “Frankenstein” brings to the S.F. Ballet an unusually lavish and elegant piece set in an English manor, with opulent 18th-century dress, and a bulging cast of some 41. The decline and fall is brought about by the nameless monster (Creature) straight out of Mary Shelley’s two-century-old eponymous opus, the very first horror novel,.

Liam Scarlett’s three-hour dance piece short-circuits many of Shelley’s details, including the climactic confrontation of Creature and hero on the large glacier Mer de Glace, a tourist attraction which you can visit on the flanks of Mont Blanc to this day. (Scarlett also evoked more and better cast miming from the SFB crew than asked for in any modern work.) Scarlett does his most memorable choreography with the principals. The corps de ballet, whether male or female, is downright boring, popping up on stage with stock turns and arabesques whenever there’s a lull.

But the essence is there: Victor’s lab-constructed monster, here quasi-naked, a mentally deficient creation who, when unable to attract reciprocal love from any one, turns to sociopathic bloody violence. He wants to emulate Victor, even aping his steps when dancing with the beloved Elizabeth, though with a menacing style.

This ambitious large-scale work may be repugnant to some, particularly the realistic staging of a public-hanging scene close to the audience, and homicidal forays. But Scarlett has caught the essence of monster and maker quite well, with meticulous reshaping of med-school instrumentation plausible for that era. If you can’t stomach it, the English choreographer appears to say, perhaps best to stay away from the Shelley novel as well. The message appears to be, even the tamest, most bucolic existences can be disrupted when protagonists play with life-death matters in cavalier fashion.

The neoromantic score by Lowell Liebermann is perfectly suited, like a comfortable pair of shoes—no surprises, but highly appropriate, boldly inflected by a sumptuous sound, four French horns, sonic climaxes and generous tone- and mood-painting.

Most novel of all is the huge drop preceding each act, with movable images of skull and skeleton, calling on sophisticated designer John Macfarlane. What looks like acrylic or oil painting is actually an astute projection of a video.

On this night (Feb. 21), the strong triple-casting of this ballet featured the tall and snake-like Taras Domitro as the monster, and, as the lovers, Lauren Strongin and Max Cauthorn. In a rare move, Cauthorn was plucked from the corps de ballet to play the lead, and he played Victor as an enigmatic stoic displaying taciturn conviction, lifting finesse and high mobility. Strongin, a SFB soloist, was ethereal and light-footed, another talent clearly on the way up.

Domitro’s Creature was doubly menacing as he slithered about the floor with agility. Standing, he towered over every one, and managed forceful dancing and dominance as his temper surged out of control. If he could throw the heroine about the scene harder and farther than any one, credit his height and weight advantage,

Julia Rowe played the attractive Justine, condemned in a gross miscarriage of justice. Though a lesser role, Rowe showed some of the cast’s best miming ability as she cowered before her accusers. It’s a testament to the depth of the SFB that 2nd and third casts can meet the need and deliver with impact.

The ballet is a co-production with the Royal Ballet, which had unveiled it in London last May. It is very opulent, with large scenic pieces requiring several railcars or containers, as you might expect from any Covent Garden staging.

BALLET NOTES—The run was triple cast for the principals. Some 41 dancers were needed each night…This is Scarlett’s third ballet for the S.F.B.

Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein” ballet, at the S.F. Ballet through Feb. 25. Three hours, two intermissions. For SFB season info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

MUSIC FROM BRAKE DRUMS—–BUT WHICH ONES??

MUSIC FROM BRAKE DRUMS—–BUT WHICH ONES??

Treasure that 1936 Studebaker! Stash the old brake drums in the safe!

Composer Lou Harrison, a lover of “found instruments” and new sound timbres, called for percussionists to strike resonant brake drums in pieces like “Canticle No. 3.”

But not just any old brake drum. “The ’36 Studebaker had the best ones,” he told me in an interview over 20 years ago. “After that, the car factories all changed the metal (alloy), and the drums wouldn’t ring any more.”

A mini-festival is underway for the centennial of the innovator and beloved local icon Harrison (1917-2003). The Feb. 18 opener of earlier Harrison opuses featured his lively percussion-dominated “Canticle No. 3” and his esteemed brake drums which, considering the rarity of their provenance, should be locked in a vault every night. It’s the least we can do for this jolly and eclectic musical adventurer, who visibly delighted in his innovations and departures.

This one work also features a humble ocarina, perhaps bought at a five-&-dime store years ago, and guitar strums by a non-guitarist. It evolves as an exuberant jam session for the humblest of music-makers.

Was he versatile? You need to pen a fat volume to summarize his diverse achievements: Early atonality in the 1940s mode, four symphonies, a gay puppet opera about Julius Caesar, gamelans, music in the mode of various Far-Eastern cultures, anti-war pieces, tin-can percussion, and pianos retuned to less orthodox tuning systems. And he achieved these via his wide-spread travels, his long residence in Aptos, CA, and faculty posts at Mills College and UC Santa Cruz. All of this accomplished after his nervous breakdown in mid-20th-century, prompting his salutary move west out of the hothouse of New York.

Perhaps his longest-lasting breakthrough was in linking Western and various modes of Far-Eastern music, in part through the introduction of gamelan music & ensembles on the West Coast.

That part of his post-1960 creativity is rendered in the closing festival concert May 20 (detailed below).

The opening concert also featured a pianist in the Grand Duo using the “octave bar,” something akin to a blackboard eraser which, when struck on the piano keyboard, depresses exactly one octave of white keys. Conductor-pianist Dennis Russell Davies, who had been an avid Harrison collaborator in his decade at the Cabrillo Festival, returned to work this device with fast-flying hands at the piano, adding a funky and delectable jarring note in otherwise orderly music. In the Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra (1951) he marshals a “tack piano,” an upright with a tack stuck into the hammers, giving a sound more like a harpsichord. (Don’t try it on your upright: After doing the tack routine, you might well have to remove the stressed hammers along with the tacks.) Other works were expressively performed by violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams.

Another centenary was also noted simultaneously in the fest, a propos the Korean composer Isang Yun from Berlin (1917-1995). Yun was a theoretician with an austere approach who introduced traditional Korean music and style, but on Western instruments. A tragic figure, he was imprisoned by two different authorities: First, by Japanese occupiers for underground activities in the 1940s on behalf of Korean independence, and again in 1967 when South Korean agents abducted him, put him on trial for treason—for his having visited North Korea, a no-no—and given a life sentence. A concerted lobbying campaign by musicians and others in the West brought about his release in just two years. His violin and piano pieces performed here showed his aphoristic formality and aloofness not easily transferred to Western audiences.

The mini-fest presented by Other Minds was given at the Mission Dolores Basilica, a church that had on display for the first time a portrait of an unfamiliar celestial figure, “St. Lou” (Harrison, so labeled).

The highly resonant acoustics of the mission church provided a very unfamiliar ring to the soloists and ensembles.

Festival of Pacific Rim Centennials by Other Minds, opening Feb. 18 at Mission Dolores Basilica, Dolores St. at 16th, San Francisco, marking dual commemoration of Harrison and Yun. Closing all-Harrison concert here May 20 with American gamelan. For Other Minds info: Go online.

THE ‘QUARTER-STAGED’ ADAMS ORATORIO

THE ‘QUARTER-STAGED’ ADAMS ORATORIO

Those patrons streaming out at intermission missed the best part of John Adams’ massive and ambitious oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”

As in his earlier oratorio “El Niño,” this magnum opus links biblical narrative with modern-day people and issues via flashback and flashforward. Modern immigration, farm-workers’ rights and women’s activism enter into the scriptural accounts of Lazarus and Jesus, via the adroit texts compiled by librettist Peter Sellars, a frequent Adams collaborator.

If this succès d’estime was less than a success at the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus (Feb. 16), just pass the shears. The opening 85-minute act needs to be trimmed by half, focusing as it does, with a string of recitatives and soliloquies, on Lazarus’ being raised from the dead—-one of many miracles attributed to Jesus.

In contrast, the hour-long act two springs powerfully to life, a vital musical experience wrapped around Jesus’ passion and death, It is a self-contained entity, eminently suitable for separate performance with great effect.

Adams’ orchestra here finally becomes a dramatic force, with effusive brass and percussion leading the narrative in its jagged rhythms and harmonic instability. This is “gnarly” (his term, not mine) Adams at its most emotion-charged intensity.

His solo-vocal lines are demanding  and far-reaching in range. He again marshals a trio of countertenors in close harmony for commentary (much as in “El Niño”) and for voicing the role of Jesus. The 50-member mixed chorus does the rest—sometimes Jesus, sometimes a Greek chorus repeating visionary poetry.

(If there was a miracle this night, it was the vowel-obsessed SFS Chorus finally spitting out distinct consonants and making the messages intelligible.)

Linking the acts was the story of Mary Magdalene, partly from the Bible, partly from beyond, a woman caught between her religious fervor and obsessive passion. This emphasis was a conscious focus on women—subordinate in the Scriptures, yet so significant in the aftermath. This is played out in the hymns of Saint Hildegard von Bingen as well as the activism of modern-day figures like Dolores Huerta  and Dorothy Day.

For his texts, Sellars alludes to or quotes 20th-century writings of Cesar Chavez, Rosario Castellanos, Ruben Dario, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich and Primo Levi.

After the death and resurrection, Adams inserts a totally serene segment with the stylized sweet sound of frogs, delicately suggesting a renaissance awakening from the tragedy with promise of a brighter future. It is one of the most beautiful moments in all of Adams’ vast musical writings.

The huge opus was visually dramatized with stage, lighting, movement. Since the SFS veered away from terming it  “semi-staged,” we’ll call it “quarter-staged” without further quibble over fractions.

The three solo singers filled the hall with their outpourings, but more vehemently than expressively: The mezzos Kelley O’Connor (title role) and Tamara Mumford (Martha, her sister), and tenor Jay Hunter Morris. The modern and the biblical clashed when ancient figures were spotted running about stage in sneakers. Director Elkhanah Pulitzer was plausible blocking  the tableau-paced stage movement. Grant Gershon conducted with vehemence and rhythmic propulsion.

Berkeleyite John Adams, who has just turned 70  without conceding anything to old age, took bows afterward and was applauded more warmly than the work itself. “Back to the drawing board?”

Adams’ 2012 oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” San Francisco Symphony and chorus, Grant Gershon conducting; a partially staged production. Two hrs., 45 min. Davies Symphony Hall, S.F. (Feb. 16) For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

1917 RUSSIAN REVOLT: IN BALLET

1917 RUSSIAN REVOLT: IN BALLET

The San Francisco Ballet world premiere “Optimistic Tragedy” is a story ballet, but it can’t decide if it will tell a story or just put on a stunning exhibition of male dancers. Yuri Possokhov created a large-scale half-hour work with silent film (much of it from Eisenstein’s “Potemkin”) and videos of crashing surf to portray, not just the launch of the 1917 Russian Revolution in Odessa, but also revolutions in general. To achieve this, line after line of restive Russian sailors wheel and leap about the stage, doing scissors jumps of great elevation, reminding you of the style of the athletic, muscular Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.

The drama is played out between the ambivalent ship captain and the alluring lady commissar (Yuan Yuan Tan), who alternate between conflict and a simmering love affair. A little character development would have been appropriate here. Immense signal lamps and banners play out the bigger-than-life conflict in which, by the final curtain, the number of cadavers strewn about rivals some old English revenge play. By then you’ve almost forgotten that the unfortunate commissar had been sexually and savagely assaulted by the sailors in the chaos, and you may conclude revolutions to be far more repulsive than heroic.

The new music here is by repeat Possokhov collaborator Ilya Demutsky, a piece that is restless and boldly symphonic, heavy on brass and percussion. If the whole work is a mite overplayed, attribute it to Possokhov’s vision of a revolution that changed the world, a moment that many a Russian today would still call the greatest in their long history.

The increasingly disheveled captain was played (at least on Feb. 1) by Aaron Robison, encircled by power upstarts like Jaime Garcia Castilla, Angelo Greco and James Sofranko.

The indestructible veteran Sofranko, now in his 17th year here, also provided the electric moment in William Forsythe’s 21-part “Pas/Parts 2016.” This grabbag collection of solos, duets, trios had the showstopper in midstream with a dazzling Sofranko solo. All the tidy ballet steps that went before paled with his wild, savage, and almost crazed solo veering about the Opera House stage—short, but mesmerizing, breaking up the predictability, as if to say, wake up every one, there’s a yet more dynamic tour-de-force figure roaming the stage, threatening all decorum, and prompting the neighborhood to lock all the doors, fast.

Similar surprises stirred up muddy waters in the white piano ballet, Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas.” That one set out even more predictably with tame and staid ballet steps until Lorena Feijoo took center stage as the inwardly tortured woman of great vulnerability, driven to even greater desperation when her Adonis-like swain (Tiit Helimets) turns away and watches the piano (!) rendering Scarlatti transcriptions with fascination.

Not even the playful, sunny verve of Vanessa Zahorian in the finale could wipe away the impact of actress Feijoo.

BALLET NOTES—Zahorian and Feijoo will both be retiring from the company at the end of the season, come May.

San Francisco Ballet, Program 2, through Feb. 5. Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

A PRICELESS SEGMENT AMIDST A NIGHT OF BALLET

A PRICELESS SEGMENT AMIDST A NIGHT OF BALLET

A jewel of a ballet segment emerged in the middle of a premiere, within the middle of a San Francisco Ballet program (No. 1).

The new work is by the Czech choreographer Jiri Bubenicek, ”Fragile Vessels,” using the beloved Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto music. The slow movement I could see becoming a popular excerpt on its own, with just three dancers emerging from a tangle on the floor. The leading lady (the fast-rising principal Dores André) dances with one, then the other man and makes pregnant pauses, as if reflecting on existence, life and choices. André has that theatrical quality of a potential lead in some time-tested story ballet, above and beyond the expected athleticism. The choreography speeds up, slows down, producing a touching and rather intimate segment led by her persona. Supporting the piece were the contrasting men Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh (on Jan. 29). For once, a human triangle was cohesive, not disruptive.

The outer movements of “Vessels” were vigorous and modern, with figures in skin-tight outfits doing lifts and spins—nine couples producing swirls of motion in giddy accelerations.

Justin Peck’s ambitious “In the Countenance of Kings” (2016) gives specific titles to the six principals but fails to differentiate between them in appearance or role. I suppose you might identify Joseph Walsh as the Protagonist, given the muscular he-man solo carried off at the very beginning. As for Quantus (a male name, given to a thoroughly female dancer), Electress, Botanica, etc., there was not a clue, not even a literary work preceding. And it’s all inspired by the jangling music of Sufjan Stevens, which in turn was inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (!). The dances’ high velocity suggests that at least this was not the expressway in rush hour!

This is a nimble work of skillfully shifting patterns, with some quirky leaps and occasional piles of bodies. It’s also very New York—Peck’s home base—with black tights and white socks that became a hallmark cliché of the late George Balanchine’s preferred on-stage attire. The finale is frisky, jazzy and quite amusing.

The night opened with Helgi Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony,” with coronets and tutus—palace glitz recalling Oulde Czarist Russia of a century ago, though it was not premiered until 1991 on this very Opera House stage. The very classical maria Kochetkova was partnered by the stunningly athletic Italian newcomer, Angelo Greco, whose leaps could draw gasps any time.

Martin West’s orchestra was up to its usual high standard, and the SFB was as nimble and disciplined as ever.

San Francisco Ballet, Program 1, through Feb. 4. Opera House, S.F. For SFB info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.