A view of the bay helped lure the maestro

Photograph of San Francisco opera music director Nicola Luisotti by Cory Weaver

Photograph of San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti by Cory Weaver

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Maestro — and neighborhood resident — Nicola Luisotti opens the San Francisco Opera’s summer season this month, conducting eight performances of Verdi’s heart-wrenching Rigoletto.

Italian to his core, Luisotti, who’s been music director of the opera company since 2009, is particularly renowned for conducting the works of his most famous musical countrymen. He will open the fall season conducting Puccini’s beloved Turandot in early September and Verdi’s romantic La Traviata later that month.

But if not for the charms of the neighborhood, he might not be in San Francisco at all.

You’ve worked in opera companies all over the world. What brought you to San Francisco?

I will never forget that important moment of my artistic life. I was in L.A. in 2005 conducting Pagliacci, by Leoncavallo. I’d been invited to conduct La Forza del Destino, by Giuseppe Verdi, in San Francisco, and I had to start the rehearsals. But I was so tired, I was close to canceling my engagement.

I decided to come here for two days; my wife, Rita, remained in L.A. When I entered the apartment S.F. Opera had arranged for me in Pacific Heights, the windows provided a spectacular view of the bay and Alcatraz — a view I couldn’t have had in any other neighborhood. I immediately called Rita and said: “You will love this city!”

And it was one of the best musical experiences in my life. The S.F. Opera orchestra and chorus were just amazing. Four years later, when I was asked to become music director, I was in paradise.

And back in Pacific Heights.

I fell in love with what the neighborhood first gave me — that view. Our apartment building in Pacific Heights was built in 1932, and I thought it was truly fate, since that was the year the Opera House opened. And Pacific Heights is so quiet, beautiful and elegant — just a perfect place for a musician to be inspired.

You began your career at age 10, playing the organ in your village church in Tuscany, learning to read music by watching the priest — and a year later you were conducting the church chorus. How did you become an opera conductor?

The first time I attended an opera, it was Madama Butterfly, when I was 12. But the first time I fell in love with an opera was La Bohème, when I was 21. When I saw it, I understood that one day, I could become an opera conductor. For sure, a bit of talent, a lot of work and some luck can contribute to achievement. Perhaps being Italian is why many theaters ask me to conduct Italian works, and so it can be said that I bring my Italian traditions to the music.

What exactly does an opera conductor do?

My colleagues in the orchestra pit and on stage each knows his or her own role intimately. But the conductor brings his knowledge of the entire opera, acting almost like a medium, channeling the composer through the score. When everything works, we have magic.

What do you enjoy on your time off?

Rita and I love to cook and we do not eat out very often, although we have been many times, either on our own or with visiting friends and family, to Pizzeria Delfina. We walk all over Pacific Heights and shop at Sur La Table on Union, the Apple store and Lucca Deli on Chestnut, and go to Whole Foods on California several times a week. We love the services of Deluxe Cleaners on Laguna, and Rita attends Pilates classes at the Dailey Method in Cow Hollow. We bike from home to Crissy Field and beyond and like to hike in the Marin Headlands.

Alas, you’ll be moving on after next season. What are your plans?

I have just been named director asociado at the Teatro Real in Madrid. I will also conduct a lot in New York at the Met, and in Paris, London, Munich, Rome, Turin and many other places around the world.

What you will miss?

I will simply miss everything about this fantastic, charming city that gave me so much. But I will come back here as a guest, and sooner than expected. Remember that all who have lived in this city have left their hearts in San Francisco!

A world premiere on Fillmore

Michael Conley: Strip mining "is a tragedy that diminishes us all."

Composer-conductor Michael Conley: Strip mining is “a tragedy that diminishes us all.”

“APPALACHIAN REQUIEM,” a new work for chorus and orchestra responding to the environmental consequences of strip mining in Appalachia, will have its world premiere on Sunday, May 7, at 3 p.m. It will be performed by the Calvary Presbyterian Church choir and orchestra at the church at 2515 Fillmore.

Composer Michael Conley is also the music director at Calvary. He assumed the position in 2015, succeeding Alden Gilchrist, who served the church for more than 60 years until his death in 2014.

“I went to college on the outskirts of Appalachia and my parents still live there,” says Conley. “It was important for me to give voice to the farmers and miners whose homes, lives, hopes, traditions and physical environments have been permanently erased,” Conley says. “It is a tragedy that diminishes us all.”

He says of his new composition: “The piece follows the normal order of a Latin requiem mass, but I draw its texts from Appalachian poets and inspiration from traditional Southern hymns, folk music and Native American chants.”

The concert, entitled “From These Mountains,” will also include performances of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and “Southern Grace” by  Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon.

A pre-concert talk, “Of Mountains, Mines and Music: Appalachia in Crisis” will be presented on Saturday, May 6, at 3 p.m. at Calvary by Conley and Earthjustice attorney Marie Logan. The talk is free. The suggested donation for the concert is $20.

Finding a home with the S.F. Ballet

Photograph of Ellen Rose Hummel by Erik Tomasson

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

When Ellen Rose Hummel left Greenville, South Carolina, for San Francisco and a home in Pacific Heights in 2007, she couldn’t know that less than five years later, she would be selected to join the San Francisco Ballet. As a member of the corps de ballet, she’s danced in everything from Nutcracker and Swan Lake to works by George Balanchine and contemporary ballets by hot young choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon, who won a Tony last year for choreographing and directing a dance-centric American in Paris on Broadway.

In Wheeldon’s Cinderella, the final program in the S.F. Ballet season, Hummel steps out of the corps to portray Clementine, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.

When did you know you wanted to be a ballet dancer?

I have two older siblings, and my mom put all of us in ballet; I started taking lessons when I was about five. My brother went into sports, and my sister loved ballet but didn’t want to make a career out of it. I definitely knew I was interested, but I didn’t get serious until I was about 12 or 13 — that’s when I had to start adjusting my schedule for ballet and sacrificing certain things. I went from three or four days of ballet to six, and my mom had to drive pretty far for my lessons. Then when I was 16, I moved to San Francisco to take lessons with the San Francisco Ballet School.

At 16? — and by yourself?

Yes, the school has a dormitory on Jackson Street in Pacific Heights. I remember how wonderful the transition was at such a young age. It really helped to be with kids my age who loved ballet like me, even though we came from different parts of the world. Being in a new city can be lonely at first, but Jackson House felt like home, and my friends became family. We were so fortunate to be in such a beautiful neighborhood, surrounded by artists who share the same goal.

That’s how I got involved in the neighborhood. Then when I got accepted into the company I had to move out, and I was lucky enough to find an apartment here. I think [S.F. Ballet artistic director] Helgi Tomasson lives on the same street.

What about dancing as Clementine?

Clementine is a bit softer than her sister, Edwina. She’s the more geeky one. She has glasses and she’s a little clumsy. I see her more as the positive, helpful one. There’s a sweet side to her. Before Cinderella, Clementine was the one who had her place in the household. Where the stepmother and stepsisters are being mean or hitting Cinderella, she doesn’t really want to; you see a little seesaw process with her.

The dancers really have to be actors, too, don’t they?

You can get really absorbed in the steps, but once I paste those glasses on, I’m Clementine. I love being in character. You have to believe it as much as or more than the audience does. The costumes are amazing. The sets, too — like the table, and the way it rotates at the beginning as we’re eating the porridge. I love that part of the ballet, because it gives you a moment to get absorbed in it.

Neighborhood resident Ellen Rose Hummel (right) dances in the S.F. Ballet's production of Cinderella.

Ellen Rose Hummel (right) dances in the S.F. Ballet’s production of Cinderella.

And I’ll be dancing Spring, too. Spring has the green wig and green costume, green face paint, even glitter on the arch of the eyebrows, framing the green. It always feels like putting leaves on my face.

What is a typical day off like for you?

I’ll find time to take a walk down Fillmore or meet up with a friend. I love La Mediterranee; the people are always super nice in there. I love their salmon. I love the atmosphere — it’s very authentic and very cozy — and I like that it’s not super loud.

Palmer’s has very good drinks; sometimes I’ll meet with friends there. I love the atmosphere there, too, and I’ve always enjoyed whatever I’ve gotten. Fillmore Bakeshop — the food is always really fresh, and it’s very family oriented. And Peet’s Coffee, right next to the bookshop — it feels like it’s been there forever. It feels like community.

A musical journey

Chris Nichols performing at Oxford Lieder Festival in 2016.

Chris Nichols performing at Oxford Lieder Festival in 2016.

FIRST PERSON | CHRIS NICHOLS

My day job in the tech world is rewarding, but music is my passion. And much of my musical journey has played itself out on Fillmore Street.

It started two decades ago with a friend’s invitation to a Thursday night rehearsal of the choir at Calvary Presbyterian Church at Fillmore and Jackson. Alden Gilchrist was directing — my first encounter with this world-class musician and wonderful human being, who was at the heart of Calvary’s musical excellence for more than 60 years, until his death in 2014.

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Full House, fuller street

Fans of the Full House TV show flock to 1709 Broderick Street.

A new sign greets fans of the Full House television show flocking to 1709 Broderick Street.

FOR YEARS, residents of the 1700 block of Broderick Street, between Bush and Pine, have struggled with an overabundance of love from fans of the beloved ’80s sit-com Full House, supposedly set at 1709 Broderick.

When a sequel, Fuller House, was launched last year, the opening credits still showed the Italianate Victorian at 1709, and the daily confluence of fans intensified.

Now neighbors are bracing themselves for what comes next after learning the house has been sold, for $4 million, to Jeff Franklin, the creator and producer of Full House and Fuller House.

“The house came on the market and really, I just thought, I have to buy this house,” Franklin told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s great to have the house in our Full House family and be able to preserve it for the fans.”

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TV for a desert island

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BOOKS | DAVID THOMSON

In writing my new book, Television: A Biography, I revisited a lot of shows that were old favorites. Some stood the test of time; some did not. What follows is a list of 10 shows I’d like to have on a desert island — not my top 10, you must understand, just an assortment of good stuff. I hope the island has a sofa.

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Val Kilmer is Mark Twain at the Clay

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FILM | ANDREA CHASE

The last generation or two thinks of Hal Holbrook when it comes to one-man shows about Mark Twain. Not to take anything away from Holbrook’s dry wit and perfect timing when performing Twain’s words, but Val Kilmer with Citizen Twain makes a compelling argument to join him as another master interpreter of those words. He will be presenting the piece one night only in San Francisco, December 22, at the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street.

In Kilmer’s telling, the voice is deeper than Holbrook’s, the performance more physical, but the delivery is just as spot on. Kilmer is also more sardonic, yet finds an almost self-deprecating way with Twain’s take on humanity, making it clear that he doesn’t spare himself when passing judgment. He brings a contemporary vibe to Twain’s reminiscence about a particularly sadistic schoolteacher he enjoyed taunting, despite the teacher’s liberal use of corporal punishment, his still prescient take on politics and his unabashed love of adulation.

Distilling a lifetime of Twain’s splendid writings into a 90-minute piece cannot be easy, but Kilmer — who wrote and directed the play now filmed from a live performance for cinematic presentation — has made choices that are equally splendid, leaving viewers tickled and wanting more.

“Citizen Twain” is a thoroughly engaging reminder of why Twain is still a pleasure to revisit for both his biting satire and his uncanny insight about what makes people tick.

Instead of a general release, Kilmer is presenting his film one city at a time, hosting the screenings he calls Cinema Twain, and making himself available for a Q&A with the audience. More information about the December 22 screening at the Clay here.

Sheba keeping jazz alive on Fillmore

Sheba owner Netsanet Alemayehu is almost singlehandedly preserving live jazz on Fillmore.

Sheba co-owner Netsanet Alemayehu presents live jazz nightly with no cover charge.

SALOONS | CHRIS BARNETT

The Queen of Sheba, the Old Testament tells us, was a stunning Ethiopian temptress who dazzled King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. with a caravan of camels laden with gold, jewels and spices to promote lively trade between Israel and Arabia.

A mere 31 centuries later, the co-owner of Sheba Piano Lounge at 1419 Fillmore Street is a regal Ethiopian promoting live jazz in the Fillmore every night of the week with no cover charge.

Netsanet “Net” Alemayehu and her sister and business partner, Israel, aren’t trafficking in gold and jewels. But they jet into SFO from their homeland three times a year loaded down with hundreds of pounds of fragrant Ethiopian spices for the Abyssinian dishes and creative cocktails on their reasonably priced menu.

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Coming home to Fillmore

Kim Nalley performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

Kim Nalley performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

FIRST PERSON | KIM NALLEY

Being a musician is kind of like being a foodie. If you grew up poor, you’re really excited just to have food. Then, after you get accustomed to having food and are exposed to good food, you want something better. You eat at great restaurants and become able to distinguish the different components and learn which wines are best paired with each. Your palate is ruined for fast food. You seek better food experiences and make better food at home. But every once in a while you get misty-eyed for mom’s mac and cheese, made with government cheese, because it tastes like home.

In the beginning, I really just wanted a gig singing. I was cleaning houses at the time. I gave the owner of Harry’s Bar on Fillmore, Keith Provo, a demo cassette tape I had made by exchanging house cleaning for studio time. There were only three songs on that demo: an R&B song, an uptempo jazz scat and a ballad, “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Mr. Provo loved the ballad. His son Chris called on a Thursday morning and offered me a weekly gig — if I could put together a band and play that night. I had to stiff the owner of the house I was supposed to clean, but I did get that every-Thursday gig. They paid me $400 a night, and my rent was only $250 a month. I could hire A-list musicians who were much older than me to be my accompanists. I thought Harry’s Bar was the center of the universe and I felt really important at age 18 having a regular gig on Fillmore.

But soon I wanted more. I wanted to play the Fillmore Jazz Festival.

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JazzFest a tribute to lost icons

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By JASON OLAINE
Artistic Director, Fillmore Jazz Festival

In Tribute. That’s the theme of this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, coming on July 2 and 3.

Perhaps it would be fitting to hold a tribute festival every year. Invariably, some artist who changed the game or played with unbelievable virtuosity or defied genres or created timeless art passes on to the next stage — literally — leaving behind a legacy for others to build upon, be inspired by, or just enjoy.

This past year, though, we witnessed a jaw-dropping exodus of some of our most visionary and visceral musical artists: Prince, David Bowie, Ernestine Anderson, Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire, trumpeter Mic Gillette of Tower of Power, Dan Hicks, Natalie Cole, Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, alto sax jazzman Phil Woods, Allen Toussaint. We also said goodbye to R&B and soul icon Otis Clay, jazz singers Mark Murphy and Frank Sinatra Jr., country legend Merle Haggard and, sadly, many more.

The artists performing during the weekend at the 2016 Fillmore Jazz Festival were chosen not because they sound like or exclusively play the music of the icons we lost, but for their own creativity and talent. However, most will be playing and paying some tribute to one or more of these fallen heroes. As you wander up and down the Fillmore, you’re likely to hear songs by artists you may want to learn more about, including the Cuban trumpet marvel Chocolate Armenteros or the adventurist jazz pianist Paul Bley. You’re also certain to hear new arrangements of songs by familiar artists who are no longer with us.

It is with gratitude we salute these music masters who left us with a legacy of music to soothe our souls or make us want to dance or scream or jump and shout.

In Tribute. We give thanks and honor their spirit by offering new music for all to share.

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