Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Favorites

I felt very fortunate to be numbered among the small audience for Eugene Brancoveanu's intimate salon recital. András Schiff's Beethoven cycle continues to impress me with its high seriousness. The depth & beauty of Matthias Goerne's Brahms moved me to tears. At the opera, my most exciting moment of the year was standing on the stage just 15 minutes before the curtain went up on L'Elisir D'Amore. Safely on the other side of the curtain, I was thrilled by Susan Graham's Ariodante & by my 1st encounter with Die Tote Stadt, vividly conducted by Donald Runnicles. For sheer fun, both Max Raabe & Time For Three were hard to beat.

This year I also feel very lucky to have made the acquaintance of some wonderfully knowledgeable, entertaining & generous music buffs. They have made a big difference in my concert-going life already.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bad Muni

Next west-bound Muni buses at the Sutter & Van Ness stop at around 3:40pm this afternoon:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WKCR BachFest

A friend in New York turned me on to Columbia University radio station WKCR & it's annual BachFest. For those of us not in New York, there's a Web stream available on the Web site. It's a nice choice for something that is classical & Christmas-y & not the Messiah or Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride. I'm listening to Glenn Gould play the French Suites right now. Some of the announcers' pronunciations are interesting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Berkeley Symphony

Berkeley Symphony
Joana Carneiro, conductor

Thursday, December 18, 2008, 8 PM
UC Berkeley Zellerbach Hall

Magnus Lindberg, Chorale
John Adams, Shaker Loops
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

It was a treat to attend this concert at the invitation of a friend, especially since I don't think I've heard the Berkeley Symphony before. They sound good & have many enthusiastic players. It was nice to sit in a full house with such a supportive audience. It felt like an event.

Before starting, guest conductor Joana Carneiro spoke about the program, summarizing it as a celebration of masterpieces by great composers. She explained that the Lindberg is based on the Bach chorale Es ist genug. To remind us what this sounds like, she prefaced the performance with a brass quartet playing the chorale straight.

Carneiro does a lot of conducting. She seems to mark every beat & to cue everything. Even for something as square as the chorale, she flapped her arms vigorously. It reminded me of those slow-motion movies of cranes taking to the air.

The Lindberg piece gives us fragments of the chorale surrounded by unmoored harmonies. It was like looking at a fuzzy, constantly shifting landscape. Then suddenly at the very end it clicks into bright, clear focus. Along the way we get some pleasing orchestral colors.

The ensemble was tight for the entire program, especially for the tense & jittery Adams. I can imagine that it is difficult to keep this piece together, & the orchestra looked very proud of its effort at the end. John Adams himself joined them onstage for bows & received a bouquet of big flowers.

The Beethoven came off cleanly, again with precise ensemble, even in those passages where short phrases are passed quickly around the woodwinds. Carneiro took it at a deliberate pace. But of course those Beethoven codas are impossible to resist. The audience gave the symphony a rousing standing ovation at the end. Carneiro got her own bouquet of flowers as well.

This concert was also an audition for Carneiro as the successor to Kent Nagano. She has an eager stage presence. I got the feeling that she was attempting to take charge of as many things as possible. She moves around a lot & has a distinctive way of throwing her arms down, as if to flick water off them. Sometimes she stomps her feet in emphasis. She's certainly something to see in action, cute & a little flirtacious as she dances around the podium. I haven't heard any of the other candidates, but Carneiro would not be a boring pick.

P.S. In the 1st movement of the Beethoven, the bassoon, instead of horns, played the bridge in the recapitulation. Is this an "authentic" reading?

Why music?

Human evolution
Why music?
Dec 18th 2008
The Economist

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time For Three

Time For Three
Morrison Artists Series
College of Creative Arts, SF State
Sunday, December 14, 2008 @ 3 pm

I was back on the SF State campus this rainy afternoon to check out Time For Three, a trio of 2 violins & a double bass. They did a program of about 15 short numbers, lasting about an hour. The opening piece, Wyoming 307, by the bassist Ranaan Meyer, established right away what the group is about. They exist at an intersection of blue grass, jazz & classical performance. The piece moves quickly through many ideas. It may be sustained & hushed or funky & foot-stomping. There are moments requiring tight ensemble as well as places for wild improvisation. The trio communicates the feeling that they are having the most fun just playing together. & of course the feeling is contagious.

The program was a mix of original compositions by Meyer, traditional pieces like Turkey in the Straw, classic songs like Black Bird from the Beatles, & popular classics like the Brahms Hungarian Dance. All of it is just to showcase their playful fiddling & jazzy jamming. Meyer described the group as a "classically trained garage band".

Classical training is apparent in the group's technical proficiency. The bassist Ranaan Meyer is an exceptional musician & an outrageous flirt. He really made that bass sing & dance. I was even more impressed when he thanked a colleague from the SF Symphony for loaning him the instrument. He moved so comfortably over an instrument that he probably never played before!

The 2 violinists are well-paired. Both play like virtuosos. Nicolas Kendall is the slightly more aggressive-sounding of the two. Zachary De Pue's sound is a bit edgier. Zachary also briefly showed off the alarming ability to bow his violin behind his back. Improvisation is something I don't associate with the violin, but I saw no hesitation here. At one point Zachary played the 1st few notes of Jingle Bells, then, on second thought, immediately dropped it.

The group plays with amplification, which may not be necessary. After the 1st set, Zachary had to leave the stage briefly to have his electronics adjusted.

Tf3 was always having a ball on stage, even when telling their corny jokes they knew weren't working. They were fresh, spontaneous & eager to share their music. There was nothing apparently routine about it. At several points, it looked like Meyer was trying to crack up Kendall & nearly succeeding. We happily ate it all up.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arcadia at SF State

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Fri, Dec 12 8pm
Studio Theatre, Creative Arts Building
San Francisco State University

I read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia a while back, but I had never seen it before. I was curious to see how it actually works in the theater. The action concerns modern day scholars attempting to reconstruct events that occurred 200 years earlier in an English country house once visited by Lord Byron. Scenes alternate between the 2 time periods. We see how the modern-day interpretation of historical facts must by necessity diverge from the actual events. The audience has to keep track of lots of plot details, since the biggest pay-offs come when we add knowledge from our privileged viewpoint to the scene at hand.

Stoppard further flatters us by loading up the play with heady topics like the aesthetics of the Enlightenment vs. the Romantic Era, Newtonian physics, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & non-linear mathematics. Besides being almost too clever, it's also very funny. It's a play for nerds & about nerds.

This student production was competent & satisfying, especially considering the length & complexity of the work. There was a nice feeling of all the actors working toward the same goal. In the last scene, characters from the 2 time periods mingle without interacting. This is one of those things that on the page looks completely confusing to me. However, here it was easily comprehensible & effective. I liked Anthony Cirimele, who played Bernard Nightingale as a champion nerd. Will Hand was equally convincing as the computer geek Valentine Coverly. I liked the way he spoke. He was the one actor that made me think the play might just possibly be set in England. For some reason, they made the decision not to use accents, which I never got used to, since the diction of the text is so British.

The studio space is nice & close-up, with the audience on 3 sides of the acting area. I like seeing plays in such a small space. I sat right down in front & was nearly part of the action when Septimus Hodge & Lady Croom made love on the prop desk just inches from my seat.

The audience was an unusual mix of students & older people. An older couple across the aisle from me fell asleep frequently, & the man snored a few times. I thought for sure they would bail at the intermission, but they stayed for the whole show. Afterward, I noticed Bernard & Valentine hopping on the same late night bus as me going home.

Alisa Weilerstein Recital

Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Inon Barnatan, piano

Thursday, December 11, 8pm
Herbst Theatre

BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2
KODÁLY: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8
CHOPIN: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60
CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65

I had not heard of Weilerstein before. Judging by the small talk of people around me at Herbst on Thursday night, she has a lot of fans. After reading her bio, I see that she is a seasoned performer at only 26.

During the opening Beethoven Sonata she exchanged a lot of glances with her accompanist, & they both looked like they were doing a lot, though I'm not sure I heard as much as I saw. Weilerstein does make big sound, & her high notes are exceptionally powerful. She has a strong left hand.

The Kodály Sonata was the centerpiece of the program. It's a long work & is a severe test of cello technique. It has a ton of left hand pizzicato, harmonics, double-stops, you name it. Weilerstein confidently tackled it from memory. She's a wildly physical performer, & she gives the appearance of being possessed by the music instead of being in control of it. She can be a rough player, & she muscled her way through the piece. It all sounded anguished & doleful, though I think there are more moods than that in it. It was well-received by the audience, with shouts of "Brava!" & a few people standing.

She had a similarly bluff approach to the Golijov piece, also for solo cello. The composer's notes indicate that the piece takes its inspiration from the tango, but I didn't get any sense of the dance from Weilerstein's fast & loud interpretation.

I guess I have my doubts from a musical point of view. Yet these were not poor performances. For me the duo just felt very packaged. The main impression I have of her accompanist is that he looked slim & chic.

As an encore, the duo reprised the slow movement from the Chopin Sonata.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

War Requiem

Derek Jarman Film Series at the SF MOMA
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Phyllis Wattis Theater
1:00 p.m.

I went to one of the last of SF MOMA's Derek Jarman screenings to see his War Requiem. Except for a prologue featuring the last appearance of Laurence Olivier, this is basically a music video of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The soundtrack is the 1963 Decca studio recording led by the composer himself.

The text of the War Requiem is a complicated interweaving of the traditional Latin text with poems of Wilfred Owen. Jarman illustrates each musical section with a scenario, which may be a dramatic scene relating to the text or a more abstract commentary. As in the other Jarman movies I've seen, there is a loose, episodic narrative framed by the death of the main character, in this case the poet Wilfred Owen himself. Tilda Swinton appears as a frontline nurse.

The opening Requiem aeternam includes a symbolic scene of the nurse mourning the young dead poet. She lets out what must be a piercing scream, her mouth open wide, but we only ever hear the musical sound track. A following segment depicts Owen & his friend in training, & it looks like a conventional flashback.

A detailed narrative accompanies the Dies irae. Owen comes upon an initially benign encounter between his friend & a German soldier. However it ends with Owen killing the German soldier who in turn kills the friend, who ends up impaled on a tangle of barbed wire. There are no innocent combatants here.

The climax of the Britten work is the Libera me. In the movie it is accompanied by a gory montage of documentary footage of war killings, climaxing with an atomic bomb explosion. The Strange Meeting section follows the poem closely. We see the dream in which Owen explores an underground chamber & meets the German soldier he killed.

The final chorus is illustrated by Christian iconography & a recreation of the Piero della Francesca painting of the Resurrection of Christ. It's quite a literal depiction of the text. The tone is somber, reverential & ritualistic.

The movie is an interesting experiment. I feel that Jarman is always admirably respectful of the meaning & intent of the Britten work. Jarman has his own very artificial & idiosyncratic aesthetic, but he is at least always true to his own style, & I always feel that he has thought things through. At the same time I find it hard to imagine that he is anything more than a marginal artistic figure now. There were about 25 of us at the museum showing, & I none of the other screenings I went to seemed that much more enthusiastically attended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Derek Jarman's Edward II

Derek Jarman Film Series at the SF MOMA
Thu 4 Dec 7pm

This is supposedly Jarman's most accessible movie. However, I still went to this screening with a little trepidation, since I don't happen to like the Marlowe play on which it's based. I was also anticipating a gory movie, which it is (though no more so than its source).

The movie is similar to Caravaggio in style & structure. It all appears to be shot in a cavernous concrete soundstage. Many of the set-ups have an artificial, tableaux-like look. The play unfolds as a series of flashbacks framed by Edward sitting in a dungeon with Lightborn, his sexy executioner. Jarman mixes & matches lines of the original text & makes heavy use of post-modern anachronism.

Jarman does tell the basics of the story: Edward's infatuation with Gaveston to the neglect of all else, the aligning & re-aligning of allegiances, & the rapid plot reversals. The biggest change Jarman makes to the original is at the end. After we witness Edward's grisly death, we get another ending in which the executioner throws the offending hot poker into water & kisses Edward. Either version may be a dream. I think this is Jarman's way of suggesting an alternative to the universally nasty conduct of all the characters.

There's definitely an angry-gay-man feel to the movie. In the opening scene, Gaveston reads Edward's fateful letter while 2 naked men make out in his bed. In the big sentimental moment, Edward & Gaveston slow dance in their pajamas to Annie Lenox singing Cole Porter's Every Time We Say Goodbye. When Gaveston is banished, he walks a gauntlet of middle-aged men representing the establishment who contemptuously spit on him. The macho military man Mortimer also enjoys being humiliated by a dominatrix in drag. Edward's forced abdication sparks a gay rights protest.

However, the movie may not have aged well. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was Tilda Swinton's tightly contained performance as Queen Isabella. She looks & behaves like a creature from another planet.

The SF MOMA projected a very old print, which no doubt saw the rounds of the art houses back in the day. There were about 20 of us in attendance.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Faust HD Broadcast

The Metropolitan Opera HD Live
La Damnation de Faust
Hector Berlioz
Wed, Dec 3

Conductor, James Levine
Production, Robert Lepage

FAUST Marcello Giordani
BRANDER Patrick Carfizzi

I missed the original live broadcast which was supposedly sold-out in San Francisco, but I really wanted to check this one out. I finally made it to the re-broadcast last week. I'm a sucker for a spectacle, so this production worked for me. The show opens with a stunning image of the aging Faust high up on a wall of books that fills the height & width of the stage. Only after we've taken this in for several seconds does the orchestra enter. It was clear that the visual would take precedence over the musical.

I'm not sure that Damnation is really a narrative opera, & I think that this production does a good job dealing with its episodic, pageant-like structure. For every episode, director Robert Lepage had some sort of scenic magic involving dancers, acrobats & interactive video projections. & you can forget about gravity. Performers appear to drop into a lake & swirl gently underwater. Soldiers march straight up the vertical face of the set, & demonic creatures scamper like lizards across it. I'm sure it's even more fun seeing these stunts live.

I was so fascinated by the visual that I had to keep reminding myself to listen to the music. Whenever I did, I was rewarded by the Met orchestra's beautiful playing & Levine's expansive conducting. He made it seem like they could keep the music flowing effortlessly like that forever.

Susan Graham was a knock-out in her 2nd big scene, singing "D'amour l'ardente flamme" in front of a gigantic real-time projection of her face morphing into flames. I've seen Ms. Graham several times now, & she always comes through with a gripping performance. She must be at the top of her game these days.

I thought it interesting that all the singers claimed to have no idea what was being projected behind them. They are just one element in a complex construction.

We had a couple of unfortunate incidents at the screening. As the broadcast began, a theater announcement on the PA system told us to ignore a false alarm. At the end of the 1st half, a crazy bag lady came in & made quite a bit of noise with her shopping bags. She started yelling at another patron just as the intermission was beginning. Fortunately she decided not to come back after the break.

Adler Fellows Gala Concert

Sat December 6, 2008 8 pm
Conductor, Patrick Summers

Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Giuseppe Verdi
San Francisco Opera Orchestra

Capriccio, Richard Strauss
“Verraten hab ich meine Gefühle!”
The Countess – Tamara Wapinsky
Flamand – Andrew Bidlack

Usher House, Gordon Getty
“Now you have seen”
Edgar Allen Poe – Andrew Bidlack
Roderick Usher – Kenneth Kellogg

Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner
“Weh, ach wehe, dies zu dulden”
Isolde - Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Daveda Karanas
Men’s Chorus

Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns
“Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse”
Dalila - Katherine Tier

Idomeneo, Wolfgang Amdeus Mozart
“D'Oreste, d'Ajace”
Elettra: Tamara Wapinsky

Semele, George Frideric Handel
Act III, Scenes 4 and 5
Semele – Ji Young Yang
Jupiter – Alek Shrader

Cendrillon, Jules Massenet
“Ma pauvre enfant chérie!”
Cendrillon – Daniela Mack
Pandolfe – Kenneth Kellogg

Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss
“Mein Gott! Es war nicht mehr als ein Farce”
The Marschallin – Heidi Melton
Sophie – Ji Young Yang
Octavian – Katharine Tier
Faninal – Kenneth Kellogg

Thanks to an out-of-town subscriber, I had the opportunity to attend the Adler Fellows Gala Concert, which I'd never done before. It's an opera recital with a full pit orchestra but with minimal staging. I thought it was a very enjoyable sampler. The program was heavily German & strangely included no scenes by Italian composers.

The stand-out in the 1st half was absolutely the Tristan scene. Daveda Karanas's 1st dramatic utterance got my attention right away. It was as if the volume of the show had been suddenly turned up several notches. & then Heidi Melton let go with her large, rich voice. Plus she was completely into the character with her acting & expression. I'm convinced she's ready to sing the whole role tomorrow.

Katherine Tier & Tamara Wapinsky were a little less fortunate in their solo numbers, each of them having a problem with a high note. It was a good reminder of just how many risks opera singers take all the time.

I enjoyed the Semele scene that opened the 2nd half. Ji Young Yang has a high, bright voice & a perky stage presence. She looks completely at home on the stage. Alek Shrader has a beautiful smooth sound. I would like to hear him again.

Heidi Melton wowed me again in the Der Rosenkavalier excerpt by sailing right through that Strauss-sized orchestra even as it went to full volume.

The top balcony of the house was completely closed, & I guess I'm surprised that the concert was not better attended. It's not nearly as expensive as a normal opera ticket, & the performances are fine. I like the variety as well. I'd never heard anything from Massenet's Cendrillon before, & now I'm a bit curious.

Oppens Plays Carter

The Complete Elliott Carter Piano Works with a Lecture by Robert Greenberg and Ursula Oppens Performing the Piano Works
Sunday, December 7, 2:30pm
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration
Ursula Oppens, piano

90+ (1994)
Retrouvailles (2000)
Two Diversions (1999)
Night Fantasies (1980)
Piano Sonata (1945–46)
Two Thoughts about the Piano
    Intermittences (2005)
    Catenaires (2006)

Even though I am pretty much ignorant of Carter's music, I didn't want to miss out on the Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration entirely. Fortunately for the uneducated like me, the event included a pre-recital lecture by Robert Greenberg. He gave a fairly technical musical analysis of the major works on the program & rooted Carter firmly in a classical context that includes Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt & Copland. He also taught me an impressive new word: pandiatonicism. Think John Adams or the neo-classical Stravinsky.

The major characteristic of Carter's mature style is a sort of higher-order polyphony in which musical counterpoint may occur at many different levels. For example, the 2nd of the Two Diversions has 2 main voices, one of which gets slower while the other speeds up.

But the most obvious manifestation of this polyphony is the monstrous technical difficulty of the works. This is really dense music. Oppens never looked anything other than calm & confident, but she had a lot of notes to play & a lot of events to keep track of, & things often go by very quickly. She moves her hands around the piano very efficiently. Sometimes it looked like she was tossing handfuls of notes down on the keyboard. Unfortunately the venue was not good acoustically for the piano. The audience sits on risers erected in the middle of a big ballroom. It's like being at a high school basketball game. The room is dry, & the piano often sounded buzzy.

Greenberg was good at giving the audience things to listen for right away, & in the shorter pieces I could usually get some sense of the organizing principle. However, I felt completely lost in the longer Night Fantasies that closed the 1st half. I was most at ease with the Piano Sonata, since it could almost be a kind of late-Romantic piece. However, this is an early work that doesn't represent Carter's fully mature style. The final Catenaires was the one piece I had no problem enjoying. It's a galloping run of single notes, in the manner of C.P.E. Bach's Solfeggio, that was exciting, brilliant, breathless & fun.

The audience for this concert was extremely focused & attentive. I saw someone with the music for one of the pieces, following along. Oppens got a big ovation that included some foot-stamping. As an encore, she performed the 1st part of Matribute, a recent work written for James Levine. A wine & dessert reception followed the concert, so I guess Carter throws an OK birthday party.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Language of the Birds

Language of the BirdsWalking through North Beach around lunch time today, I came upon this art installation at Broadway & Columbus. A plaque on the building says it's by Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn. It depicts a flock of books taking off to fly around the city. Above are white books, suspended from light posts. Below are words, randomly scattered from the books. I like that it's across the street from City Lights Books, since it makes me want to open a book & start reading.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hilary Hahn Plays Tchaikovsky

San Francisco Symphony
Fri, Nov 28, 2008 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

James Gaffigan, conductor
Hilary Hahn, violin

Tchaikovsky: Voyevoda, Symphonic Ballad, Opus 78
Tchaikovsky: Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35
Glinka: Kamarinskaya
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 10

Thanks to an indulgent benefactor, I was able to attend this splashy program of Russian works & to hear Hilary Hahn for the 2nd time in a week. There is no denying her clean & crisp technique. Even her vibrato is very fast & tight. I'm sure that she hit every note in the score. I found her interpretation emotionally cool, however. She obviously had a lot of fans in the hall, & they gave her a standing emotion. In return she gave us an encore, the Sarabande from Bach's Partita #2 in d minor, I believe. It was pristine.

Associate conductor James Gaffigan was visibly busy & hard at work on the podium for this packed program. He's boyish & enthusiastic. At one point during a bouncy portion of the Kamarinksaya, he turned to the audience & yelled something, in Russian, I presume.

I like the way the piano leaps out of the orchestra in the 2nd movement of the Shostakovich. Since Shostakovich was a piano virtuoso himself, I can't help thinking that it's meant to represent him. There are important solos in the final movements for all sections. I liked the nice fat-sounding solos from Barantschik & Grebanier in the last movement. During final bows, even the timpanist got singled out for his exposed drum roll passage.

P.S. Mr. Gaffigan is on this week's NACOcast podcast doing color commentary on the tonality & structure of Beethoven's 1st Symphony.

Short Reads About Music

Bringing improvisation back to classical music:
Making Up the Classics
Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2008

Time for Three, mentioned in the sidebar, will be performing in the Morrison Artists Series at SF State on Sunday, December 14, 2008. These concerts are usually free.
Trouble marketing Yundi Li:
Why Yundi Li Got Cut
Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2008
Gilbert Kaplan, dedicated Mahler amateur, is still at it:
Desperately seeking Mahler
The Economist
Nov 27th 2008
The horn is really hard to play:
The Economist
Nov 27th 2008

Practice, Practice
Wall Street Journal
December 1, 2008


On Black Friday I avoided the shopping hordes but sat in a packed house at the Castro Theatre for the Milk biopic. Even though I & my friends arrived more than half an hour before the show time, we ended up in the back of the balcony. Still, there is no better place to see this movie, right on the block where much of it occurs.

As a San Franciscan I found the movie factual & moving. It's hard not to get emotional seeing Dianne Feinstein's announcement of the assassinations or footage of the famous candlelight memorial march. Even so, I feel like the director kept a cool head & dramatized many sensitive events without sensationalizing them. Sean Penn does a fantastic job depicting Harvey Milk as a man who is determined, capable, happy & brave. Josh Brolin looks just like Dan White & is equally convincing in his portrayal of him as frustrated, repressed, jealous & yet still human.

I don't know if Milk was an opera fan himself, but Tosca plays a prominent role in the soundtrack & in the staging of Milk's death in the film. I was impressed to discover that this is not mere artistic license. SF Opera had a performance of Tosca the weekend before the killings.

A woman in the row in front of me brought her small white dog to the theater, & it sat on her lap for most of the show. After it was over, I wondered aloud if the dog liked the movie, & she assured me that her dog was an out & proud gay pooch.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Coming Up: Sing it Yourself Messiah

San Francisco Sinfonietta Presents
Sing it Yourself Messiah
Davies Symphony Hall
December 14, 2008 - 7:30pm

I participated in one of these many years ago. It's nice to know that music is one of those things where faking it is still an option.

The Legacy of James Simon

While I was at The Legion of Honor yesterday to see Leonardo, I did a quick stroll through their other special exhibit, The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon. This show highlights the patronage of James Simon (1851-1932), an important philanthropist of the era & a German Jew. It's an exhibition of diverse works, spanning cultures & millenia. It's a something-for-everyone show, though it lacks a single artistic theme.

I enjoyed most the 1st two rooms of Egyptian & Babylonian artifacts. I was intrigued by the Babylonian Kudurru, a football-sized black stone covered with cunieform & topped with a band of pictures. I wish there was more wall text explaining it. I was surprised by the presence of Buddhist items collected from the Silk Road. This stuff must have looked very exotic to late 19th century Germans. In the last room, I was charmed by Renoir's portrait In the Summer & both fascinated & disturbed by Luca Giordano's violent & pretty St. Michael.

Leonardo Drawings

Yesterday I made a trip to The Legion of Honor to view Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. They have 11 drawings plus a slim codex on display. In cases where Leonardo drew on both sides of the sheet, the pages are mounted so that we can see the backs as well. The images include rapid doodles, anatomical studies & finished pieces. As one would expect, the level of observation & detail is very fine. Leonardo's gaze must have been intense. In addition to the artistic images, there are samples of Leonardo's mirror writing & his thoughts about manned flight. Makes one realize how much is possible with the mind, hand & eye.


Yes, it's definitely a kid's movie, but I had more fun than I expected seeing Disney's Bolt in 3-D on Tuesday evening. It's got cute characters & a great story that might even say something about the gap between one's self-perception & the reality.

The movie opens with a complex reflection in a store window that gradually becomes transparent to reveal the space inside. The movie is a showcase of these types of elaborate setting & lighting effects. In almost every scene I would spot some detail & be thinking, "Someone had to program that..."

It's also full of great character animation. Everyone's favorite character must be Rhino, the gung-ho hamster, rolling around in his ball, whose dialog is mostly made up of bad movie cliches ("It's a good day to die!"). There's even plenty of life in the realistically designed pigeons & the cartoonish movie studio staff. Actually, the pigeons provide hilarious spot-on parodies of New York, L.A. & Mid-West personalities.

I'm rarely up on the latest movies, so I was surprised by how many previews there were for animated films coming up in the next 6 months:
  • The Tale of Despereaux (Universal)
  • Ice Age 3 (Blue Sky)
  • Monsters vs. Aliens (Dreamworks)
  • Coraline (Laika) -- The art looks really interesting, kind of like Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
  • Up (Pixar)

Origami at MOCA

On Tuesday I visited the Museum of Craft & Folk Art to check out a few more astonishing examples of origami by Robert Lang & Linda Mihara. Their pieces are part of a small exhibition of paper art called The Shape of Things: Paper Traditions and Transformations. The Lang portion includes a diagram of a crease pattern & an example of an intermediate folding stage, but I still don't see how the final product, an exquisite dragonfly, is achieved. Mihara is represented by some of her spheres of interconnected cranes. I've seen instructions on how to create connected cranes, but it's a mystery to me how Mihara gets the cranes to join back on themselves to form 3-dimensional shapes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hauschka at Hotel Utah

Wrist stampThis is not an event I would have considered attending on my own, so I'm thankful to a friend for inviting me to tag along. I'm unhip enough never to have been to the Hotel Utah, so it was an experience just to get my wrist stamped, to avoid stepping on the dog in the bar, & to catch the attention of the preoccupied bartenders. For once I can say that I was not one of the younger members of the crowd.

The show itself was a mixed bag, offering different types of performers & styles but not making up a cohesive evening of music. It was made even more bizarre by the surprise appearance of violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, who is doing Tchaikovsky with the Symphony this week.

The line-up started with chamber works performed by musicians from the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Violinist Gloria Justen performed 3 of her own solo compositions. Each piece has a distinct character & allows the soloist to do a certain amount of showing off. Her performance also incorporated electronic effects. An oboe duo performed Ecstatic Dances (originally for 2 flutes) by the Australian composer Ross Edwards. The pieces are meant to evoke the natural landscape of Australia. They make extensive use of musical echoes. A guitar & flute duo performed a Terry Riley elegy called Francesco in Paraiso.

Next up was a lanky guitarist/singer/song-writer called Tom Brosseau who did about half a dozen songs. I have to admit that I couldn't tune into what he was doing, except to notice that all his songs rhyme. There seemed to be a heavy dose of irony going on, but I couldn't be sure. Hilary Hahn made her 1st appearance at this point, accompanying him tentatively.

Ms. Hahn then performed 2 solos. I had never heard her play before, & I almost fell over when she announced she would play Ernst's version of Schubert's Erlkönig. She has a super-clean technique, yet plays with an understated virtuosity. She is also young & cute, & I'll probably never see her so close up again. When she weirdly lost her place in the Ernst, she simply stopped, announced that the piece is not supposed to end that way, then started back on the right track. She followed this with a contrasting slow movement from an Ysaÿe sonata. At this moment one realized how delicate classical music is in performance. Noises coming from the bar easily & careless crushed the still & quiet mood she was trying to create.

Mr. Brousseau, perhaps unwisely, followed Ms. Hahn with a few more of his songs. Hauschka joined him on the piano for one song, as a way to make a transition to the final portion of the show, I suppose.

The show ended with Hauschka playing a set of his own compositions on the prepared piano. He was accompanied on several of them by an ensemble of 2 cellos, 2 violins & 2 oboes, again from the Magik*Magik orchestra. Ms. Hahn joined the ensemble for the final improvisatory number. Apparently Hauschka has his own band, but he was not able to bring them over from Germany.

Hauschka used an upright piano with the front removed & various items duct taped to the strings & soundboard. Otherwise, he played it liked a normal piano. The primary effect was to dampen the instrument, making it sound like a clavichord or an old saloon piano. I was disappointed not to witness any other extended piano techniques. I still remember what fun it was to see Marino Formenti pick up a hammer & use it on a piano.

Hauschka's music is minimalist in style. It's very friendly, with simple ideas that are pleasant to listen to. Development occurs through the repetition of motives. There is something genuine & sweet about both the music & the performer. Hauschka, speaking fine English, acknowledged his cousin in the audience, who had come all the way from their small home town of Ferndorf to see him. Hauschka also expressed his hope to talk with some of us afterward over a beer. & he really meant it.

I do have one big complaint to make about the show. The venue is really tiny, but for some reason the concert was still amplified. This makes no sense to me. Electronic amplification puts an extra layer of technology between the performer & the audience. Though making things louder, it results in the loss of detail. I think there were a lot of things I did not hear because of the unnecessary amplification. Ms. Hahn was the only performer who asked that her mic be cut, & I was so grateful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Derek Jarman's Caravaggio

The SF MOMA is in the midst of a Derek Jarman Film Series, & yesterday I attended the screening of Caravaggio. I saw this around the time it came out in 1986, & I remember liking it, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be now. I found that I have pretty much the same feelings now about it as I did then. I guess that means my taste in movies hasn't developed in 20 years.

It's definitely an Art movie with a capital "A". The movie is a series of scenes inspired by the life & art of Caravaggio. These scenes play in the artist's mind as he lies dying. It's all very post-modern, with costumes, settings & props spanning centuries. For example, one of these supposedly 17th century characters uses a pocket calculator. Another has a manual typewriter. Caravaggio seems to own a pick-up truck but still has to grind his pigments by hand. The audience has to work to make sense of the disjointed narrative. I still don't understand the voice-overs concerning the character named Pasqualone.

What I like most are the recreations of Caravaggio's paintings within the movie. These are beautiful, visceral & true to the spirit of the originals. Jarman shows the models for the Consort of Musicians taking a break. They eat the fruit props & make innuendos about the artist's relationship with his patron. The Mary Magdelene is about pregnancy. The young female model for Amor Vincit Omnia performs acrobatic moves that are a come-on to the artist.

The movie features a young Tilda Swinton, who truly looks like a creature of another place & time. I definitely remember seeing her for the 1st time here & wondering where on earth they found her. Without Nigel Terry's very human Caravaggio, I think the film would have been intolerably dry.

The film was projected in 35mm, & there were only about 40 of us in a small auditorium that probably seats no more than 300. The screening reminded me of going to art house movies back before the days of video rentals. It was also a terrific bargain at only $5.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Double Dose of Elixir

The Elixir of Love
San Francisco Opera
Tue Nov 18 2008 8 pm

A most thoughtful friend allowed me to tag along with him on a personal backstage tour right before Tuesday night's performance of The Elixir of Love. I'm most grateful. I'd never entered the opera house through the backstage door, & it was pretty awesome. My friend got a real kick out of the chorus's brightly lit make-up room & its bubbly make-up artists. He was all set to jump in a chair & get a turn being made-up!

The techie in me was drooling over the house's video editing suite & server room. There are 10 remote-controlled cameras hidden around the stage for making HD video recordings of performances. I was blown away by the Wenger practice rooms. With the push of a button, you can simulate different acoustic environments in the room.

It was fun to learn that all the food consumed on-stage is real. It's someone's job to load that ice cream truck with real ice cream for each performance!

Just 15 minutes before the performance, I was standing on the stage, right behind the curtain, hearing the buzz of the audience. Our guide claims that the best view of the house is from that stage. I was wishing for a peep-hole through the curtain.

Back in the real world, on the other side of that curtain, I enjoyed seeing the show again & especially Vargas's very musical performance. His rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima was perhaps even more fluid than when I heard it on Friday. He tried the business of throwing up a bit of apple & catching it with his mouth, but he missed. He gave himself another chance & succeeded on the 2nd try. It's a very cute production. My friend sums it up well: "It's only missing one thing: puppies".

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chamber Music at Revolution Cafe

Thanks to a friend who is much hipper than me, I turned up Sunday night for the chamber music night at Revolution Cafe in the mission. The musicians call themselves Classical Revolution. It's like being able to drop in on a chamber music party for young musicians.

Who says that there's no audience for classical music? The small venue was standing room only, & the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. The audience is crammed in so close that you can stand behind a musician & read his music over his shoulder.

I heard movements of Beethoven Piano Trios & String Quartets & Schubert's Trout Quintet. A tenor hushed the room with Una Furtiva Lagrima & the portrait aria from The Magic Flute. The evening ended with 9 musicians tearing through the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky's Sextet "Souvenir de Florence".

They definitely have a young, hip, bohemian thing going on. The musicians play with a boisterousness that is deliberately at odds with the refined manners of the concert hall. I wonder if performances in these venues create classical music fans who go on to buy concert tickets & cds. Or are the people there already classical music buffs?

American Chamber Players

Morrison Artists Series
American Chamber Players
McKenna Theatre, SF State Campus
Sunday, Nov. 16, 3 p.m.

Miles Hoffman, Viola,
Joanna Maurer, Violin
Alberto Parrini, Cello
Sara Stern, Flute
Reiko Uchida, Piano

Mozart: Quartet for Flute and Strings in D Major, K. 285
Schoenfield: “Three Bagatelles” for Flute, Cello and Piano
Bridge: Phantasie Piano Quartet, F-sharp Minor
Ginastera: Duo for Flute and Violin, Op. 13
Fauré: Quartet No. 1 in C Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 15.

The Morrison Artists Series sponsors free chamber music concerts held at SF State. The audience was an unlikely mix of senior citizens & students. While I was waiting outside, a van pulled up & bunch of little old ladies filed out. This concert must have been a field trip for them.

The American Chamber Players offered a diverse program containing much beautiful music. No doubt it's a challenging program for the performers, but all the members of the group are brilliant players. In the Ginastera Duo, the flutist even performed double-duty by turning pages for the violinist.

The stage management negligently failed to announce that the pianist was guest artist Reiko Uchida, an excellent New York-based musician.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Elixir of Love

San Francisco Opera
Fri Nov 14 2008 8 pm

Conductor: Bruno Campanella
Director: James Robinson

Adina: Inva Mula
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas
Belcore: Giorgio Caoduro
Dulcamara: Alessandro Corbelli
Giannetta: Ji Young Yang

L'Elisir d'Amore is re-set here as an American pastoral, on the eve of World War I. In place of a curtain we see a scrim painted like a plump Thomas Hart Benton landscape. The scrim fades away to reveal a town square dominated by a large white gazebo. Nemorino operates an ice cream truck. Dr. Dulcamara arrives on a motorcycle with a side-car. Instead of being an undifferentiated crowed, the chorus is made up of individual characters: farmers, merchants, a priest, a girl in overalls, 2 old ladies, a football squad, & several children. I felt like I was looking at toys.

Ramón Vargas is outstanding & gives a complete singing/acting performance. His sound is lovely & his interpretation wonderfully restrained. He makes his points musically, not through belting or making grand gestures. All the principals were right for their parts. I liked Giorgio Caoduro's clean coloratura & his cocky acting as Belcore.

Everyone gets genuinely funny stage business to do. Nemorino has to divert attention from his 1st aria to scoop ice cream. Vargas showed off a surprising skill by throwing a piece of fruit in the air & catching it with his teeth. When the young couple at last come to a loving embrace, Nemorino is still clutching his suitcase to his chest. I laughed out loud quite a bit.

The only thing that bothered me about this performance was the conductor's consistent dragging. I was really worried when the evening began with the orchestra tramping tediously through the overture. The lifeless tempos never improved, but fortunately all the other elements were in place. One would have to be pretty mean not to enjoy this light & tuneful opera.

Friday, November 14, 2008

La Boheme Dress Rehersal

Thanks to the kind intervention of 2 friends, I made it through the chaotic process of getting into the Opera House last night for the final dress rehearsal of La Bohème, which opens Sunday. To me, it felt pretty much like a regular performance, except that the voices of the singers were sometimes lowered.

La Bohème is an opera cliche nowadays, but I confess that I always enjoy it. In fact, I start feeling weepy the moment Mimì enters & the love music sweeps into the garret. Fortunately it's not just me. An elderly lady next to me sniffled all through the last scene.

Angela Gheorghiu is of course the main draw here, & she looks great & has a cute & sympathetic stage presence. Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo sounded ardent & youthful. I believe he generously gave us that high C at the end of Act I? Quinn Kelsey as Marcello seemed to produce his large, round sound with ease. He was my favorite singer of the evening.

I was very curious to hear what Nicola Luisotti, our in-coming music director, would do. He was very Italian, from his up-turned collar & white sweater draped over his shoulder, to his sweeping rubatos & big orchestral sound. He made a good first impression on me.

The dress rehearsal audience was more enthusiastic than most regular audiences. Anticipation was so high that they applauded when the lights came down, even before the conductor appeared. All the performers got enthusiastic ovations. This is an attractive production, & it looks like it's going to be a great show.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monsters and Prodigies

Teatro De Ciertos Habitantes
Monsters and Prodigies: A History of the Castrati (De Monstruos Y Prodigios: La Historia De Los Castrati)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting this show in February about castrati. Looks like one of those bizarre things that is either really good or intolerable. According to the company's Web site, we will get one of three versions of the show: "With horse and sand (original version)", "With horse, without sand", or "Without horse". I guess "Without horse, with sand" is not an option.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Noir San Francisco

Film Noir San Francisco
Co-presented by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the San Francisco Film Society
Tuesday, November 11, 7:30 P.M.
Kanbar Hall
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

This was a look at San Francisco as depicted in film noir of the 40s & 50s. The 2 presenters, Miguel Pendás of the San Francisco Film Society & Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, traded off introducing 16 film clips from classic & obscure films. They both have a real love & respect for these movies. I enjoyed most seeing landmarks of San Francisco that are now gone, such as the produce market that used to exist at the Embarcadero, the ice skating rink at the location of the Cliff House, & the Owl Drugs at Powell & Market.

We saw 2 great clips from Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai. The 1st one featured non-stereotypical views of Chinatown, including a Chinese opera performance & the Chinatown telephone exchange. The 2nd clip was the surreal climax which takes place in the hall of mirrors in Playland. I need to see this film.

In the real world, I want to check out the Art Deco house on Telegraph Hill where Humphrey Bogart hides out in Dark Passage. Supposedly there is a Humphrey Bogart cut-out in one of the windows, as an homage to this film. The presenters also recommend a book from the 40s called, rather bluntly, Where to Sin in San Francisco. They say it's great source material for the period. & their favorite San Francisco movie? Same as mine: Vertigo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Heartwarming Boheme

I just heard an ad for the SF Opera's La Boheme on KQED radio. The opera is described as a "heartwarming story" of young artists falling in & out of love & as something for the holidays. Since when did dying young, in poverty, of tuberculosis become heartwarming holiday fare?

Marwood & Adès Play Stravinsky

Anthony Marwood, violin & Thomas Adès, piano
Saturday, November 8, 8pm
Herbst Theatre

- Suite Italienne (arr. Pulcinella)
- Pastorale
- Song of the Nightingale and Chinese March from The Nightingale
- Duo Concertant
- Berceuse, Scherzo and Prelude et Ronde des Princesses from The Firebird
- Chanson Russe (Russian Maiden’s Song)
- Divertimento
-Danse Russe from Petrushka

Encore: Tango

This was a fun recital of show pieces & miniatures that Stravinsky arranged for himself & violinist Samuel Dushkin to play on tour.

It took me a while to get used to Marwood's style & sound. I'm still not sure what it is about his playing, but there is something idiosyncratic about it. He doesn't always make the most beautiful string sound, but he communicates the music well & is something of a showman. He knows how to end a piece with a flourish. At the end of the Scherzo of the Firebird, he nearly jumped back into the wings.

Adès is an intense pianist with a liking for hard, staccato phrasing. I liked the communication between the players. Adès often turned around to look at Marwood. They did a great job expressing the humor of many of the pieces. Their playing of the loping Chanson Russe & the Divertimento made me laugh out loud.

Even though this was a diverse & audience-friendly program, Stravinsky still seems to scare people away. A correspondent told me that the balcony had many empty rows.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dr. Atomic HD Broadcast

Doctor Atomic (Met Premiere) – Adams
Saturday, November 8, 2008 (1:00 pm ET)

Alan Gilbert
Penny Woolcock

Edward Teller - Richard Paul Fink
J. Robert Oppenheimer - Gerald Finley
Robert Wilson - Thomas Glenn
Kitty Oppenheimer - Sasha Cooke
General Leslie Groves - Eric Owens
Frank Hubbard - Earle Patriarco
Captain James Nolan - Roger Honeywell
Pasqualita - Meredith Arwady

I went to this broadcast to check out the production, which is different from the Peter Sellars one I saw here in San Francisco in 2005. The main scenic elements in the Met production are a 4-story wall of human-sized pigeon holes & a mountain range made from a huge suspended cloth. The wall is meant to remind us of the periodical table of elements. Chorus members representing workers at Los Alamos frequently appear in the compartments. At the end of the opera the walls lean forward dangerously, representing the destructive force of the atomic blast.

Both productions feature an accurate reproduction of the bomb itself which hangs ominously over the action. I find it amazing that the actual device looked so jury-rigged.

Gerald Finley is completely at home in the role of Oppenheimer. The highlight of the performance is his intense delivery of the soliloquy "Batter My Heart" at the end of Act I. I also liked Eric Owens in the comic role of the dieting General. Sasha Cooke looked beautiful & glamorous even in extreme close-up.

I still have my doubts about this opera. The libretto is a collage of documentary texts & poems, but it doesn't add up to a dramatic whole. I quickly tired of the weather reports. The Pasqualita character who wanders through Act II feels tacked on. The Act II scenario is thin, being a drawn-out count-down. I often hear Dr. Atomic referred to as a Faust story, but I'm not convinced. I don't know what the central conflict is supposed to be.

I still like much of the music, especially the lyrical Act I scene between Oppenheimer & Kitty, & of course the soliloquy that closes Act I. The music at the end of Act II builds palpable tension & suspense. The pre-recorded sound effects that begin each act make me listen in a different way, so that the entrance of the live orchestra comes as a shock. I was glad that the broadcast translated the recorded Japanese that closes the opera. Now I finally know how it ends!

It did seem like there were more younger people at this screening than usual. I hope that's a reflection of John Adam's popularity. It's impressive how quickly Dr. Atomic has gotten picked up by other houses. It has been done in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Chicago & New York, all within 4 years.

There was a hiccup in the transmission during Act II, when the picture froze & we lost sound for a couple of seconds. It was scarier than the final scene when the bomb goes off.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Blomstedt Conducts Brahms & Nielsen

Fri, Nov 7, 2008 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Katherine Whyte, soprano
Eugene Chan, baritone

Brahms - Violin Concerto
Nielsen - Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia espansiva

I went to this concert mainly to see Blomstedt, who is now over 80. I was very happy to see that he looks healthy & moves freely on the podium. This is a great program for him, playing to his strengths in the late Romantic repertoire.

Blomstedt had a reduced string section for the Brahms, with only 2 stands of cellos & 4 double basses. This resulted in a thin but exceptionally clear orchestral texture. A friend of mine describes Blomstedt's sound as "attenuated".

Znaider is a technical monster. He has a strong, focused sound, & he rips through chords & parallel octaves with ease. I liked watching the rapid left-hand shifts he did in the cadenza. He's a flashy performer. The orchestra liked his playing too & gave him their own bow-waving ovation.

I'm not a Nielsen fan, but Blomstedt can make the hodge-podge of Nielsen's musical ideas flow together for me. The driving, accelerating chords of the opening of the Symphony No. 3 reminded me of the opening of John Adam's Harmonielehre. This gives way to something more lushly Romantic. Later in the movement a bouncy dance theme emerges. Blomstedt moved effortlessly & naturally between these disparate elements.

I didn't hear the soprano in the 2nd movement very well at all, though this may have been a problem with my position in the hall.

In the end, I thought William Bennett was the real star of the evening. He played gorgeous solos in the Brahms & the Nielsen, even summoning up a different oboe sound for each composer. During the final ovations, Blomstedt walked into the woodwind section to single Bennett out for a special bow.

During the evening I got to chat with some members of the San Francisco Classical Music and Opera Meetup. These people know their opinions, so be careful what you say about Mahler!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Transforming Kami at the SF Public Library

Today at lunch time I made it to the Main Public Library to see the other half of the Transforming Kami exhibition of origami sculptures. Again I was panting in disbelief at the models. The pleating technique of Goran Konjevod was completely new to me. I saw this incredible spinal column by Christine Edison & this very funny cartoon frog by Nicolas Terry, plus lots more marvels. These people are out of control!

Also, on the bottom floor of the library, there is a nice exhibit of original art work & pop-up books by children's book creator Robert Sabuda. There are beautiful illustrations in a variety of media & styles, & the exhibit is very colorful. I liked seeing the plain white mock-ups for the pop-up book mechanisms.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Idomeneo at SF Opera

Fri Oct 31 2008 8 pm
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: John Copley

Idomeneo: Kurt Streit
Idamante: Daniela Mack
Ilia: Genia Kühmeier
Elettra: Iano Tamar
Arbace: Alek Shrader
The High Priest of Neptune: Robert MacNeil
The Voice of the Oracle: Kenneth Kellogg
Two Cretan Maidens: Mary Finch / Natasha Ramirez Leland
Two Trojan Men: Chester Pidduck / David Kekuewa

Instead of trick-or-treating on Halloween, I was at the Opera House for the last night of Idomeneo. Alice Coote did not make it back to the production, indisposed due to a back problem, according to a pre-curtain announcement.

Right from the start there was great playing from the orchestra under Runnicles. I continue to enjoy the big clear sound of the principal flutist. The string sections play with exemplary unanimity of phrasing. Some of the audience laughed during the overture, but I couldn't tell what the joke was.

The 1st aria belonged to Genia Kühmeier's Ilia, & I immediately liked her beautiful & smooth singing. By contrast, Daniela Mack had a warbling voice. Iano Tamar's Elettra had a hard-edge sound, appropriate to her angry character. One nice thing about the casting, actually, is that each of the principals has a completely different timbre to his or her voice. There was no chance of confusing them, even with your eyes closed!

Kurt Streit has a high, open voice that is maybe even a little raw. His singing was very even & therefore very Mozartian. Plus he looks pretty good in those heavy 18th century costumes, even though his robe got caught on the steps & delayed his exit after the Act III quartet.

The staging lacked ideas. Singers pace around during their arias, then walk off just before the orchestra stops playing. At the end of Act II, 4 giant horse heads rise into the sky. Then these warriors guys pull a big tarp over the steps, & Idomeneo pops up through a hole in it. It was nonsensical rather than dramatic.

Still, the evening was musically very satisfying. I enjoyed it most when I was just listening to the orchestra & the singing & focusing on Mozart's incredible music. Others apparently did not find it engaging. My section at the extreme side of the grand tier was sparsely populated, & by the last act I had a whole row to myself.

Before Act III, the orchestra honored Runnicles by remaining seated when he gestured for them to stand for the applause. I spotted several Halloween costumes, both in audience & in the orchestra pit. My favorites were the cat & the horned Dracula in the oboe section & Opera Tattler as a lovely Carmen.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

APE 2008

I spent most of this rainy Saturday indoors at the Alternative Press Expo. I quickly felt overwhelmed by the number of exhibitors & attendees. People were saying that they might have to move venues again.

Local phenomenon Justin Hall's queer comics panel was a hoot. For a minute it looked like Mr. Hall was going to moderate the entire discussion in a lucha libra mask. I handled Kramers Ergot 7, which is a stunning object of desire & way too big to shoplift. I got the new issue of Boy Trouble from the hands of editor & cartoonist Robert Kirby (who once drew me before he ever met me).

Most fun at this show is buying from the creators themselves. How often these days do you buy something directly from the person who made it? John Marr sold me the latest edition of his Murder Can Be Fun, one of the great zines. I'm glad that Cathy Leamy waved me down so I could discover her wonderfully personal Geraniums & Bacon. I'm looking forward to reading Nick Mullin's wordless & macabre Kit Kaleidoscope. I'm not creative at all, so I'm in awe of all the exhibitors I met.

Transforming Kami: The Art of Origami

This afternoon I dropped into the storefront space of the National Japanese American Historical Society to see this exhibit of extraordinary origami figures. I've been doing origami as a hobby since I was a kid, but I just don't understand the techniques that make some of these elaborate figures possible. Satoshi Kamiya's dragon is covered with individually folded scales. Brian Chan figured out a way to render realistically Wall-E's tread belt.

Several origami artists were in attendance this afternoon, including Giang Dinh, Joseph Wu, Linda Mihara, Brian Chan, Robert Lang & Jeremy Shafer. I chatted with Mr. Lang for a bit, who was patient with my incomprehension of the advanced folding techniques on display. More models comprising this exhibition are at the SF Public Library. I hope to check these out soon.

More Alex Ross

I just heard Alex Ross on the opening segment of the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge, talking about the influence of modern classical music on pop music. He's followed by a story about a rock band that covers operatic numbers. Their versions of Mozart, Wagner & Handel seem respectful & knowledgeable, but to me they still can't help sounding kitchy.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Alex Ross at JCC

Last night Alex Ross appeared in conversation with The Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman at the JCC. The event took place in the smallish Fisher Hall, but it was a full house of close to 200 people. I guess I have little faith, since I was surprised at the size of the turn-out. Mr. Kosman asked questions for about 45 minutes, then people from the audience questioned Mr. Ross for another half-hour.

Kosman opened the discussion by acknowledging Mr. Ross's recent receipt of a MacArthur Grant, but Alex gave no hint as to what he'll do with the money. The discussion included a lot of rehashing of the book, but I was more interested in some of the other questions that were raised, even if we got no clear answers. When asked why the audience for classical music is so small, Mr. Ross wondered if it could realistically be any bigger. The New York Phil currently sells out 90% of its concerts, & there are plenty more well-attended concerts around.

Mr. Ross observed that the general public willingly cram themselves into museums to see modern masters & gladly read the latest literature, but they are not similarly engaged by modern music. He didn't really have an explanation for this but to note that listening to music is a physical response to moving air. Perhaps because of this it takes a certain amount of effort to perceive certain sounds as pleasant.

I was of course gratified to hear that he embraces blogs. He likes how blogs allow classical music fans to engage with each other socially. He contrasted this with the solitary experience of going into a record store back in the days of LPs & trying to choose a recording. He also likes the way music download services make it easy for people to find music.

Mr. Kosman noted that Andrew Porter, Mr. Ross's predecessor at the New Yorker, wrote weekly & created a comprehensive view of the music scene. By contrast, Mr. Ross has a column only every few weeks, so he has to be highly selective. He hopes that over time this gives some sort of over-all picture as well.

Because Mr. Ross is so obviously smart, it seemed that everyone at the event was taking great pains to be smart & earnest too. Fortunately at the end of the evening we got a glimpse of Mr. Ross's jokey side. He retold the anecdote on page 382 of his book about the premier of Aaron Copland's Connotations in Washington, complete with a practiced imitation of Jackie Kennedy's breathy voice.

P.S. I hope this isn't too much tattling on my part, but I got to witness what will surely go down as an historic meeting between Opera Tattler & Joshua Kosman, who immediately traded a recent story of bad behavior at the Symphony.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keith Devlin at Stacey's

I saw Keith Devlin at Stacey's yesterday, talking about this new book The Unfinished Game. He said that this is the 1st book he wrote that wasn't his idea. He was approached by Basic Books to write a book about a math theory that changed the world. He came up with a letter written by Blaise Pascal to Pierre de Fermat that launched probability theory & the use of mathematics to predict future events. He thinks it's a great case study of how real math is done, starting from messy mistakes & misunderstandings before arriving at the what must be the right answer. I like how Devlin speaks with such enthusiasm & liveliness about math. We often wrongly think of math as being dry, esoteric & apart from real life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dilbert 2.0

Even though I like to sound like the cultured elite in this blog, up until recently my daily life was more like a Dilbert cartoon. I was at the bookstore yesterday & came across this massive Dilbert compilation that prints 20 years of strips. Scott Adams wrote an introduction containing glimpses of his pre-Dilbert work, & many of the strips have his commentary. Interestingly, Dilbert did not start out right away as a workplace strip. It also includes a DVD of all the strips. Pure joy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Coming up: Alex Ross at JCC

On Thursday, October 30th, author & MacArthur Genius Grant winner Alex Ross is appearing at the JCC in conversation with Joshua Kosman. It's a promo for the paperback addition of The Rest Is Noise. I'm not a fan of the "in conversation with" format, but I'll probably turn up anyway. I'd rather see one of his audiovisual presentations.

Schiff Beethoven Cycle VI

András Schiff, piano
Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 22, 23 (Appassionata), 24, 25, and 26 (Les Adieux)
Sun, Oct 19, 2008 7:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Far from tiring of Schiff & Beethoven, I'm anticipating these recitals. This particular program had a nice over-all shape, since each half could end with a major work. & of course the pieces themselves are becoming more deeply romantic. In this program, I really felt like we were approaching the heart of Beethoven's rage & torment.

One of things that makes Schiff's performances so effective is that he knows how to make a big impression at the beginning & at the end of each piece. He's a great showman in this regard. The Sonata No. 22 starts out quietly & leisurely but ends in a racing flurry of notes that culminates in Schiff leaping up from the keyboard at the final chord. The Sonata No. 23 start with a dark & mysterious statement & finishes with a wild coda that suddenly lurches into a higher gear, with Schiff holding on to the reins to keep it just under control.

After the intermission, he used his great variety of touch to craft little gems out of each movement of the shorter Nos. 24 & 25. He executed another stunning ending for the 1st movement of No. 25, having it suddenly flit away to nothing. Schiff did not leave the stage between the sonatas of the 2nd half, so it was all a lead-in to the heaving, almost anguished, No. 26.

Instead of a Bach encore, Schiff offered us the last movement of Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C. He explained that it is connected directly to Beethoven through a quote to the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. It was a choice in keeping with a program that looked toward the Romantic era. His performance of this piece may have been the best playing of the evening. It was so lush & lovely that I listened completely rapt & without any desire to critique. I ran into an acquaintance on the way out, a musician himself, & he said of the encore, "It was yummy!"

Another of the great things about these recitals is that people are actually talking about the music & the playing. On my way out I overheard a piano nerd commenting that in the encore Schiff actually grafted an extended portion of the Fantasie's 1st movement onto the last movement. This was in order to include the Beethoven quote. He seemed taken aback by this lapse in Schiff's musical purity. I'm not knowledgeable enough to verify that this is what happened, but I'll take his word for it. This is one of those things that makes me feel inadequate. Should we have recognized this?

Max Raabe And Palast Orchester

SF Jazz Festival
Max Raabe And Palast Orchester
Saturday, Oct 18 8:00p
Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA

Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, wearing tuxedos & slicked-back hair, perform spot-on renditions of comic & sentimental songs from the 20's & 30's. Think Weimar Era cabaret, Fred Astair musicals & the Comedy Harmonists. The Art Deco Paramount Theatre is a perfect setting architectually for this music. From the very 1st number I was transported to another time & place.

Raabe sings in German & English & gives brief introductions to each song in English. His delivery was droll, dead-pan & ironic. He introduced a dance number as, "A German waltz. The German waltz is not as elegant as one from Vienna, but is much louder." His singing is usually a combination of crooning & falsetto, though in the last number he let himself belt out spectacularly with his chest voice.

The band rocks. They are excellent musicians all, some of them doubling on unexpected combinations of instruments: tuba/upright bass, trombone/viola, guitar/banjo/violin/mandolin. There is only 1 female onstage, a young violinist wearing a sleek red dress. The orchestra always cued itself, & the ensemble was very tight. Raabe never led them. When not singing, he would retreat from the microphone & lean against the piano.

The entire program was superbly executed, with a few surprises thrown in by the band to keep things from becoming routine. The audience responded enthusiastically to every number. For encores we got San Francisco, then an absurd version of the already absurd Oops I Did it Again. Finally, the musicians came out, surrounded Raabe & his microphone, & sang a sweet choral number in German about a farewell kiss. I was a little sad to have to leave this elegant world.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sarah Vowell at Stacey's

I arrived 5 minutes into Sarah Vowell's appearance at Stacey's Bookstore this afternoon. There were perhaps a hundred of her fans in attendance, as well as a babbling baby that I could hear but didn't see. She is plugging her new book The Wordy Shipmates. It seems to be a nerdy but conversational book about the Puritan sect during the Colonial period. I only know Ms. Vowell from her radio stories on This American Life, & it was hard to reconcile that voice of a 12-year-old with the businesslike woman reading from the podium.

During the question & answer section, people were anxious to get her to comment on the current political situation. When asked how she thought things might be different under an Obama presidency, she said that it might be nice if the man sworn in to defend the Constitution had actually read the Constitution. She also recommended that we read FDR's fireside chats, which offer a contrast to the fear-mongering rhetoric of the current administration.

At the end of the reading she thanked the big crowd for giving up their lunch hour & added, "I didn't know that so many people in San Francisco worked."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Double Threat

This is so outrageous it's almost funny: Melvin Chen is going to play 2 of the most difficult virtuoso concertos on the same program, as a violinist & as a pianist. It's this coming Sunday night in San Jose. If I wasn't already engaged for that evening, I'd probably be checking it out, just to see what he can do for an encore!

Melvin Chen plays Paganini and Rachmaninoff in California Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
1st Anniversary fundraising concert.

Salome in HD

10:00am is surely too early in the day for Strauss's gorgeous & sickening Salome, but I was at the Century Theater in the Westfield Mall early Saturday morning for the Met HD Broadcast starring Karita Mattila. The theater was nearly full. I took a seat at the top of the auditorium next a woman who industriously occupied her time before the show with a knitting project. There's no intermission for this opera, but the broadcast opened with a little gag featuring Deborah Voigt knocking on Mattila's dressing room door to see if she had any words for us before the show. We also got an interesting glimpse of Matilla on stage just before the curtain goes up, stretching her lower back like an athlete.

Mattila never convinced me she was a teenager, but she impressed with her strength, her forceful voice, & her total identification with the role. She's believable even when enacting the character's most outrageous behavior. The impact of her performance comes from its physicality as much as anything else. She can do the splits while trying to seduce Herod into her evil bargain. Her dance of the 7 veils is an uninhibited strip tease. A small group in the movie theater audience applauded when her 2 male partners pulled down her pants with their teeth. She even did pole dancing moves.

However, the broadcast cheated us out of her nude scene. At the climax of the dance, we saw Mattila remove her top & then turn around with only her arms covering her breasts, but the camera immediately cut away so that we did not see her topless as the Met audience did. I thought this was unnecessarily prudish. I can't see how the sight of Mattila's breasts for 1 second can be deemed more inappropriate than the sight of her smooching a decapitated head.

The Met orchestra led by Patrick Summers sounded brilliant. All the other performers gave excellent singing/acting performances. I liked Kim Begley's middle-aged, sybaritic Herod & Ildikó Komlósi's cynical Herodias.

The action takes place in a fancy lobby where a non-stop cocktail party seems to be taking place. Jochanaan's cistern is in a crack running through the floor. Sinister looking angels appear at the end, overlooking the action, but I wasn't clear what was going on with them. The costumes were all over the place. Salome is a platinum blond in a Marilyn Monroe dress. The page looks like a soldier from the Middle East. The executioner was a sleek & muscular African warrior. The two Nazarenes were black southern evangelists, dressed in white suits. One of them seems to possess a powerful bass voice.

Strauss is not a favorite composer of mine, but I was glad to have the chance to see that the stir caused by Karita in this role is indeed well-deserved.

P.S. Before the broadcast, they showed previews of the Dr. Atomic broadcast. The production looks very different & more visually interesting than the one that premiered here in 2005.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Schiff Beethoven Cycle V

Sun, Oct 12, 2008 7:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall
Piano Sonatas Nos. 16, 17, (Tempest), 18, and 21 (Waldstein)
Encore: Bach Italian Concerto

András Schiff is now halfway through his complete Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle that began a year ago. From his comments in the program notes, it's clear he works hard to give each sonata its own character & to place it in context with the others. Indeed, his detailed interpretations make me feel that I am inadequate to understand all the nuances. Fortunately he plays a clear intent, & it is easy to follow the musical character of everything. I have been enjoying & admiring these recitals a great deal.

He played the 1st 3 sonatas all before intermission, leaving the stage briefly between each one. This made for a 1st half lasting 1 hour & 25 minutes, but Schiff never showed any signs of fatigue. Sonata No. 16 was humorous & joking. Schiff got a laugh out of the audience in the coda to the last movement, teasing us with what might or might not be the last chord.

The Tempest Sonata was the dark heart of the 1st half. In the middle movement, Schiff created mysterious & impressionist effects, plucking out notes with the sustain pedal down while previous harmonies lingered. It makes me want to know more about Beethoven's pedal markings. Schiff took the last movement significantly slower than my reference for the piece, a recording by Schnabel. It was as if his hands were slowed down by some viscous fluid.

No. 18 was lively & virtuosic, so much so that some miscued applause broke out after the 2nd movement. Schiff looked up momentarily towards the terrace, as if to say, "Wait, there's more!" This got a brief laugh as well.

Schiff pulled out the stops technically for the Waldenstein. In previous recitals, I sat at the back of the 1st tier, but this time I was closer to the stage, so I could really hear how much variety he has in his touch. His playing can be bouncy or he can get deep into the keys. He sometimes tries to add vibrato by shaking a key after he's struck it. I think his technique is expanding with the character of the pieces. There were moments in the program that sounded like Chopin.

The audience gave him an immediate standing ovation at the end. By now we know to expect a substantial encore, so nobody moved during the calls back to the stage. I let out a little "Wow!" when Schiff announced "Bach Italian Concerto" as the encore. He was about to turn to the keyboard, then he stopped and added, "3 movements." I don't think anyone was insulted, there was more laughter, & the evening ended with a terrifically fun encore.

Free Chamber Music Marathon on Sunday

Chamber Music Day
October 19, 2008 3-10 pm
Temple Emanu-El . 2 Lake Street . San Francisco

Looks like a fun event to drop in on & hear some local professional ensembles.

Angel Island Fire

10.12.2008 Angel Island FireI'm posting backwards through the past week here. On my way home Sunday night, I got off the bus near the end of Van Ness at around 10pm & saw a brilliant orange glow from the bay. I had no idea what it was. I walked down to Aquatic Park & saw it was Angel Island on fire. It had been burning for about an hour & looked huge even from that distance. 2 peaks on the island were burning, & I could see the fire spreading down the hills. Occasionally I could see huge flames spout up. The smoke was spreading high up & towards us. Small groups of people came & went. A woman let me look through her binoculars, & there were several people with good cameras taking pictures. It was beautiful & silent. I saw bits of ash floating down on the Marina as I walked home. It must have burned all through the night, because the next morning I could still smell the smoke.

Van Jones at Stacey's

Yesterday I was Stacey's Bookstore to see Van Jones promote his book The Green Collar Economy to an audience of about 60 people. He said this was his 1st event for the book, & he was thrilled by the turn-out. He's obviously an experienced speaker. He uses a lot of inspiring, grass-roots political oratory. He didn't read from his book but instead talked about some of the ideas. If I understand correctly, it's about how we can turn eco-friendly economic projects into make-work programs to help the poor & disadvantaged. It sounds like an optimistic, good news book.

Academy of Sciences: Denied!

Foolishly thinking I could take advantage of the free day today at the California Academy of Sciences, I got there at 9:10am this morning, a good 20 minutes before they open. There were so many people there already that I couldn't see the end of the line. It wound out to JFK Drive, past the 6th Avenue entrance. I'm sure I could have gotten in, but only after waiting a couple of hours. Maybe next year it'll be reasonable to get in. I really want to be on that roof too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Siphon Pot

This past Saturday afternoon, I paid the most I've ever paid for a single serving of coffee. I was at the Blue Bottle Cafe in Mint Plaza. The cafe looks like a chemistry lab. I shelled out $6.51 for a siphon pot of Mexican coffee. It was the most elaborately prepared coffee I've ever seen. The water is heated in a globe-shaped beaker over a high-intensity heat lamp. It then percolates up a tube into another glass beaker where it is infused with the coffee grounds before being filtered back down. The best part is when the barista swirls the water in the bottom half to create a tornado-like funnel of water, into which the siphon part of the top part is inserted. Laughing Squid has some photos & videos of the process.

I can't imagine doing this very often, & the place is ultra-hip, but it was worth it as much for this show as for the very smooth, mellow & gentle cup of coffee that results.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Vertigo at Union Square

I went to Union Square Saturday night for the free outdoor screening of Vertigo. I think it's one of the most beautiful movies shot in San Francisco. There's even a shot of the statue in Union Square, where we were sitting watching the movie.

I couldn't help drawing parallels between the plots of Vertigo & Die Tote Stadt. In both cases, a man becomes obsessed with the image of a woman who is dead, & he wishes to resurrect her through another woman that looks like her. The man is on the edge of sanity, & the climax of the story is the doubling of the death of the 1st woman. Even the names of both of the dead women start with "M": Marie/Madeleine.

It got a little chilly out there, but it was tolerable, & San Franciscans can bundle up in style. A group nearby me was well prepared with blankets to wrap themselves in. They also had an ice bucket to chill their white wine & real wine glasses to drink it from.