San Francisco Symphony: Barbary Coast and Beyond
Friday, May 11, 2012
Better than: Your grandparents' (but maybe not your great-great grandparents') symphony.
When you hear there are gonna be banjo pickers and fiddlers on the stage, you tend to expect a high-lonesome hoedown of the hillcountry style, not Sousa and Tchaikovsky. But this is San Francisco, where all traditions are embraced and hybrid forms thrive. At Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, the San Francisco Symphony regaled a packed house with a multimedia retrospective on the city's early history as a leader in world-class music and theater.
Led by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the symphony pushed the limits of respectable black-and-white concert-going: giving a trio of string-pluckers their own raggedy showcase, flashing half-naked pics of legendary Old West floozies on the video screen, and encouraging singalongs to goofy old-time tunes like "Hello, Frisco, Hello!" Of course, the audience loved all of this. Reverential but not chained to the past, the SFS delivered hybrid art, as Thomas put it, in "high brow, low brow, and no brow" forms -- a worthy tip of the bowler to our pioneer ancestors.
The evening was narrated by Beach Blanket Babylon alum Val Diamond, a bubbly personality that Thomas called a "San Francisco icon." She relished her role as slideshow barker, regaling us with gold dust visions of bawdy parlors, opium dens, and grand theaters where innovative performers entertained a rough-and-ready clientele.
Classic characters like violinists Ole Bull Himmelstormeren and Henryk Wieniawski, pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and singer-actress-stripper Lola Montez (aka Betty Gilbert) came to life via the virtuosic talents of Vadim Gluzman, Anton Nel, and Laura Claycomb, respectively. Claycomb, a former Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera Center, was a frighteningly resonant songbird on the Montez showcase, Bellini's "Ah! Non credea mirarti... Ah, non giunge." She did that extended vowel thing that kids mock in opera singers, her vocal acrobatics intentionally humorous, at times, and always astonishing. Nel, a Johannesburg expat, played with sensitivity, power, and the kind of hand-over-hand dexterity that leaves you wide-eyed. Gluzman, a Ukraine native, burned through arpeggios and rich, full melodies across the register with high drama. Whether bending the notes fiddle-wise or teasing out the purest tone from his 1690 Stradivarius violin, Gluzman was clearly a master of technique, but his stage presence was distracting. It was hard to tell whether he was deeply feeling the music or merely full of himself, or both, probably both. In the end, the music was all that mattered, and the music moved in great swells of positive energy.
A highlight of the show was a banjo showcase (dedicated to Warren Hellman, the late founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival), featuring Bill Evans, Jody Stecher, and Scott Nygaard. Tunes like "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "A Ragtime Episode" kicked up a little dust in the concert hall. As you can see in the photo, it was such a good time, Evans couldn't hold back a huge grin while he was finger-picking. Even better was the singing saw of Caroline McCaskey on the Overture to Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, which you may not know by name but would have recognized instantly when it kicked in as the trademark can-can bounce-bounce-boom-baaaah! Freakishly, McCaskey's saw sounded like a theremin. It was a strange fusion of old-new-world and high-low-no-brow for a serious-fun performance resurrecting the city's storied past.