Arts & Events

AROUND AND ABOUT the Performing Arts: Busy End to Spring Season (Notes on Curious Flights' Concert 'The Age of Flight' & Theater at the SF International Arts Festival)

Ken Bullock
Saturday June 04, 2016 - 09:39:00 AM

Around this time every year, the Spring performing arts season, instead of winding down, goes into a burst of activity for maybe a week or two past Memorial Day, then fades into summer productions and festivals both in and out of town ... 

This year one Festival started a week before the holiday and continued since, including this weekend after Memorial Day--the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason, with representative companies and solo artists from just about all the arts around the East Bay, the Bay Area and the world--and a Memorial Day weekend concert that could have been--and still should be--gracing a festival some where in the world, Curious Flights' season ender, 'The Age of Flight,' with unusual performances of several midcentury contemporaries in differnet styles and formats, all around a revival, the West Coast premiere of Marc Blitzstein's epic saga of flight and the air war of World War II, 'Airborne,' an ambitious work that premiered in 1946 with full symphonic orchestra, soloists and chorus and a narrator.

At Fort Mason, the activity on the last weekend of the San Francisco International Arts Festival's still dense through Sunday night in the third and final week of performances by artists from all over. 

One to be singled out, with shows at 6 on Saturday and 2 Sunday in the old Firehouse, Berkeley's Inferno Theatre continues with the second installment of the ongoing trilogy--triptych, I want to say--of founder Guilio Perrone's 'Quantum Desire,' the first part, 'Quantum Love,'' seen at last year's SFIAF, and this one previewed in shorter form at Inferno's annual weekend-long Diasporas Festival a month ago at South Berkeley Community Church, home base to Inferno, where I saw it share the stage with other artists and companies Inferno assembled.  

"Desire, my love, what is it you long for?" 

It's probably the best--and on the surface, in terms of apparent production, the simplest--of the notable string of originals Perrone's staged since he and an ensemble of three inaugurated Inferno not quite six years ago at the City Club with a kind of intimate chamber epic of the Baroque, 'Galileo's Daughters.' 'Quantum Desire' continues the couple-by-couple (and the couples uncouple and couple up again!) and contrapuntally ensemble movements amid impassioned monologues and dialogue of physical science (shades of Galileo, but in Copenhagen?) and attraction that last year's first part displayed, which I tried to do justice to by describing it as a kind of locus buzzing with rash sppeches, exchanges and physical acts, ending up like the Laocoön, with the cast intertwined ...  

But 'Desire' features a highly-committed new ensemble (Wei-Shan Lau, Benoît Monin, David-James Silpa, Brittany Sims, Tenya Spillman, Baela Tinsley, Vicki Victoria) in an even warmer, faster-paced and more direct mutual encounter. Asking Perrone last month what made the difference, he replied that from the start he was focusing more on the quality of the shifting relationships than before; in 'Love' the ground (and background) for the whole trilogy--or, again, triptych had to be laid and filled in. 

Some moments are like processionals celebrating desire, a bawdy pas-de-deux followed by carnival ... There's charm and exhilaration in the movement and tableaux (reminiscent, but just for a second, of Bernini's group sculptures, often from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' the inspiration for another Inferno show) 'of the couples and ensemble, genuinely erotic, talking impassioned speculation, never at rest, but at ease in endless motion. ( --also for code for discount tickets to the final performances) 

The first week of SFIAF saw performances by a touring company of Ireland's Pan Pan Theatre of their outlandish pastiche, 'The Seagull & Other Birds,' set like a rave-up (or a Rave), highly visible sound table onstage, no set--unless you count the dustcovering-like sheets draped over the performers, a foggy sculturesque group entrance, after some pre-acting with the audience.  

Some fell for the seeming conceit whole cloth, though it quickly appeared more satiric-not so much a "deconstruction" (read: conceptual sketch) of Chekhov as a sly yet outrageous satire on putting on a show in the days of post-post-modernism and the mutual immolation of public and private life. In fact, the troupe acted out bits and pieces from that pioneer play about making a play out of nothing while the real melodrama quietly rages all around, interspersed with snippets of other work, like the "make a scene" climax from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' instead of the brutally indifferent card game at the conclusion that muffles Constantine's suicide--and periodic ballet études (including a few stumbling, cross-dressed ballerinas in tu-tu, one a slight, bearded middle-aged actor) ... meanwhile taking the piss out of each other, a fine night'sself-entertainment down at the shabeen. 

Unlike an older San Francisco, populated--especially South of the Slot--by gossoons and shanty and lace curtain alike, the wryness of the doings didn't inspire much laughter in the crowd, though it gave Pan Pan an appreciative ovation--making me recall the cackling at moments in Beckett not usually played as funny here, when a crowd of Jackeen ex-pats, drawn by the venerable Gate Theatre's tour of 'Endgame' that Cal Performances hosted, thronged the audience at Zellerbach Playhouse a few years back. Pan Pan fit into its own niche among the progressive and very professional theatrics the Gate and Druid, also produced by Cal Perfs (with Berkeley Rep) have brought to us. 

There's more to the SFIAF than theater alone--music, dance, solo shows ... just one example on Sunday: afternoon and evening shows by Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra's celebration of, 56 years after, Max Roach's epic-making album of 1960, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, with lyricist Oscar Brown, Jr, and the participation of artists like Coleman Hawkins and Abbey Lincoln ... some of the finest players of the East Bay and whole Bay Area unite for this Civil Rights classic of the music in a fraught election year. ( ) 

And Memorial Day weekend saw the triumph--really, the most ambitious of astring of triumphs--when the still new, ongoing concert hall project of Curious Flight, brainchild of Brenden Guy and his fine, committed collaborators staged an evening more like a special night at an eminent summer muic festival than the last of a season's concerts, an ambitious program The Age of Flight at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring works instrumental, choral and with vocal soloists by several contemporaries of the 1930s and 40s, dramatically showing something of the mid-century's range of styles, from songs out of Hollywood film scores by Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, sung winningly by tenor Brian Thorsett in a long-gone style right out of Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist' (later Michael Freeman telling a few of us old repartée of Korngold and Max Steiner: "Why is your music getting so much worse and mine always getting better?" ... "Because I'm stealing from you--and you're stealing from me!"); Aaron Copland's Sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet (featuring excellent playing by Guy on clarinet and Miles Graber, piano); Samuel Barber's stirring chorale, with Spanish Civil war lyrics by Stephen Spender, A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, sung by the Curious Flights Chorus, conducted by Bobby Chastain ...  

And after intermission, a veritable blockbuster, a panoramic mural of a piece, Marc Blitzstein's The Airborne Symphony, from the presaging and beginnings of human flight to the air war of the 30s-40s, expertly put across in its West Coast premiere, almost 70 years after its debut, by the Curious FlightsSymphony Orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Neale (of Marin Symphony), with an augmented chorus and splendid work by Thorsett and baritone Efrain Solis--whose moving shift of tone in the segment "Dear Emily" of a "white-faced 19 year old bombadier" trying to write his girl before a mission was one of the evening's highlights--and narrator David Latulippe, in a role originated by Orson Welles ... From the brash, slangy chutzpah of American airmen joining up to their sardonic sense of the War as Hurry Up & Wait, to facing mortality alone in a fragile machine aloft--the concert proved to be an immersion into a recent-enough but seemingly-distant epoch, its public and private--and artistic--sensibilities; one of the things the arts are supposed to do, return us to our origins, remind us of our antecedants. 

An auspicious prequel or early start to theseason of festivals--and looking forward to those local, or with local connections: theEarly Music Festival, coming right up; also the Ojai Festival in Berkeley, produced by Cal Performances, including a performance of Kaija Saariaho's hailed "mono-opera" about Simone Weil--and next month the Valley of the Moon Festival of early Romantic chamber music on period instruments and the weeks-long Mendocino Music Festival, featuring all kinds of music, jazz to opera, chamer music to Big Band, orchestral compositions to folk, by the ocean in the town of Mendocino.