Sunday, April 27, 2008

All-Haydn Program at SF Symphony

Friday April 25, 2008 at 8:00

Bernard Labadie, conductor
Christine Brandes, soprano
Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
John Tessier, tenor
Nathan Berg, bass-baritone
San Francisco Symphony Chorus

Haydn Te Deum for the Empress Maria Therese
Haydn Symphony No. 100, Military
Haydn Mass in Time of War

A great program for those of us who feel like we don't know Haydn as well as we should. I just discovered that I don't own a single Haydn CD. All the pieces on this program were written by Haydn in hs 60s, yet they all sound happy & fresh. There were clumps of empty seats in the hall, so I guess either Haydn or Labadie are not big draws.

Labadie had a full-sized chorus but cut the orchestra down by about half for the entire program, so the balances definitely favored the voices. The Te Deum was a grand way to start, but the performance sounded a bit fuzzy around the edges to me.

The Military Symphony was the most satisfying interpretation of the evening for me. There was impressively fleet playing by the winds, & it was fun to hear the Turkish march appear in the slow movement. Labadie is very busy on the podium, giving lots of phrasing cues & even hopping up & down on occassion.

The Mass is dominated by the chorus. The soloists usually just interject short statements here & there. The only thing resembling an aria was the Qui tollis for the bass, accompanied by Grebanier doing a beautiful job with the high obligato part. I felt like I didn't get to hear enough singing by the soloists, though I liked the sound of the bass Nathan Berg (sporting a pony-tail) & the deep-voiced Kelley O'Connor.

Events at Stacey's

Stacey's bookstore was quite the forum of ideas this week. I went to 3 interesting book events. On Monday, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez talked about The Soloist. It's his way of bringing attention to the appalling plight of LA's poor on skid row. He recounts his relationship with a musician struggling with mental illness & homelessness. Mr. Lopez tells a tough & inspiring story, & he's really part of the story himself, becoming friends with the musician & spending the night with him on skid row. He eventually gets his friend housing & entree into Disney Hall. Soon to be a major motion picture.

On Tuesday, Gary Marcus described how our memories & thought processes can be quite faulty. His book has the amusing title Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. There is no reason that evolution has to hit upon the optimal design, & our memories do not work like addressable computer memory at all. Sounds like the book contains good arguments against intelligent design.

On Friday Susan Jacoby discussed her book The Age of American Unreason, which is about how we've all gotten so dumb in public discourse. It's pretty disheartening to be in a book store & hear that the reading culture is going away. I was intrigued by her suggestion that the Internet actually allows people to isolate themselves from differing view-points instead of challenging them with new ideas. Ms Jacoby is an excellent speaker, concise, energetic & funny. You can tell that she enjoys a good argument.

Stacey's runs these events efficiently, not letting things go on for too long. I'm not a fan of the Q & A format, but the people attending seem to be a well-informed lot.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

August Wilson's Fences

This past Friday night I saw August Wilson's Fences at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. This is a poetic & multi-layered play which I've read but never seen before. This production was very straight-forward & unadorned. Occasionally the lighting changes to highlight one of Troy's monologues, but otherwise there is little theatrical artifice. The front yard set was impressively realistic, complete with a dirt floor & a brick wall backdrop with a faded Coca-Cola ad.

The play is a showcase for the actor playing Troy Maxson, in this case the likable Alex Morris. He may be almost too likable for a character who is not only funny but also annoying, frightening & cruel. Very convincing were Elizabeth Carter as the maternal & reliable Rose & Hosea Simmons Sr. as the spiritually touched Gabriel. He was believably brain-damaged without being uncomfortable to watch. I liked how all of the characters had a distinctive way of moving as well as of speaking.

August Wilson ends the play with an open-ended stage direction that announces Troy's ascent into heaven. In this case, the production opted for a very simple solution to the challenge, with a celestial light suddenly shining down on the characters. It's not an especially daring or theatrical moment, but it does fit with the realistic & grounded style of the production.

The audience I saw the show with included a contingent of students from the San Francisco School of the Arts. I didn't even know we had such a school in the City. There was also a pre-show pitch for donations involving a confusing Macy's coupon offer.

The audience was very responsive, though I wasn't sure what to make of some of the audience reaction. I often felt there was a lot of inappropriate laughter. Was this an unsophisticated audience? Was it nervous laughter? Someone suggested to me that perhaps we've come full circle & that some of these situations have become stereotypes all over again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jazz + Silent Film Festival

Saturday, April 12, 3PM
Jazz + Silent Film Festival
Castro Theatre
Sherlock Jr.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Club Foot Orchestra

This weekend was warm & sunny, & such days are rare & precious in The City, even in the age of global warming. I, however, spent most of the Saturday in the Castro Theater to hear the Club Foot Orchestra accompany 3 silent movies as part of the SF Jazz Festival. I've heard them do each of these movies before, but never in one day. These are really fun events, & there was a full house for all the shows.

The Club Foot Orchestra scores are especially fun because they do not merely accompany the action on screen but also comment on it. When Buster is rejected by this girlfriend's father in Sherlock Jr., we hear a bluesy guitar riff. On a bigger scale, whenever the vampire in Nosferatu is biting someone, we get a version of slinky burlesque-show music at full volume. At this distance, Dr. Caligari & Nosferatu may be more important for historical reasons than for their entertainment value, but the Club Foot Orchestra's modern scores go a long way to making them effective again. Sherlock Jr. is possibly Keaton's best, minute for minute packed with some of his cleverest gags.

Each screening was preceded by the Castro's organ & then the animated short Felix the Cat Woos Whoopee. For the Felix cartoon, the orchestra improvises freely to the wild on-screen images. Since I ended up sitting through this 3 times, I got to hear the band get better & better at matching the movie's timing.

All the movies seemed to be DVD projections instead of actual film. There were a couple of glitches when the image froze momentarily. The versions of Dr. Caligari & Nosferatu were in really poor condition & looked terrible. Nosferatu seems to be missing scenes. I hope that better restorations of these films exist.

Monday, April 14, 2008

András Schiff Beethoven Cycle IV

4/13/2008 07:00 PM
Davies Symphony Hall
András Schiff, Piano
Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15
Encore: Bach French Suite #5 in G

This was the biggest audience I'd seen for the cycle so far, no doubt because we reached the Moonlight Sonata with this program. To build anticipation, Schiff even left the stage briefly before playing it. Usually Schiff has remained on stage between sonatas. Typically his use of the sustain pedal is sparing to non-existent, but for the 1st movement he held it down through changes in the harmony. The accumulated chords created a kind of blurry halo of pitches. The accompaniment moved evenly & deliberately, with just a hint of a pulse. The mood was restrained, delicate & fragile. Schiff usually goes straight from one movement to the next, attaca, & in this case the contrast between movements was extreme. Schiff does a good job of preserving the sometimes weird character of Beethoven's music. He received a partial standing ovation before intermission for his rendition of this famous piece.

Schiff continues to play intelligently & with exacting precision in these recitals. I like improvisatory feel he gave to the meandering & sometimes halting Rondo of Sonata #15. He made it humorous & surprising.

As another generous encore, we got the whole of Bach's French Suite in G, executed with Schiff's now familiar crystalline dispatch, plus embellishments.

To emphasize the fact that some of these sonata movements are very quiet, we had a relatively noisy audience. There was a magnificent cougher during the 1st movement of the 1st piece who had 2 outbursts that nearly stopped the performance. Another cougher then made himself known during the 1st movement of the 2nd piece. A couple of other times it sounded like someone slapped a heavy object to the floor.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Olympic Torch Bait-and-Switch

I was part of the crowd at the Ferry Building at 2:00pm, hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic torch. It was a big turn-out. Clearly thousands of people lined the closed-off Embarcadero. There were plenty of the expected protesters as well. At one point I was between 2 different groups of banner-waving protesters marching down the route. A rumor went through the crowd that the police had put the torch on a boat in McCovey Cove & were taking it to the Ferry Building over the water. I confirmed this with someone back at my office who was on the Web. But this was probably a decoy.

I went through Justin Herman Plaza on my way back to the office. It was filled with media people, lion dancers & a noisy rock sound track. The video screen set up there suddenly started broadcasting an aerial view of the torch relay, which was apparently going north up Van Ness. At this point it was obvious that the relay had been completely re-routed, though it wasn't clear how it could have made it to Van Ness from the ball park. I was side-swiped by a group of students with flags running at full speed towards Market Street.

Back at my desk, I followed the confusing turn of events through Team Tibet's twitter feed. The torch ended up in the Marina, & closing ceremonies at Justin Herman Plaza were canceled. The most dramatic event was the report of a torch bearer who pulled out a Tibetan flag & then was ejected from the relay. Gavin Newsom will no doubt claim that this was all done for the sake of safety & order, but he duped not only the protesters but thousands of legitimate spectators.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

András Schiff Beethoven Cycle

Sunday April 6, 2008 7:00 PM
Davies Symphony Hall
András Schiff, piano
Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos. 19, 20, 9, 10, 11
Encore: Bach Partita #1

Now that Schiff is a known quantity to me, I settled into my seat secure in the knowledge that this would be an evening with a lot to admire. The program began with a pair of short sonatas. Though these are light pieces, Schiff made them substantial with his full & solid sound. He ornamented both of them, which added a nice improvisatory element. In fact, Schiff's playing often has this feeling, as though even he isn't quite sure what is going to happen next. It's a fine illusion, since at the same time it's obvious that he's worked out very detailed interpretations.

He made the Sonata No. 10 into a small comedic masterpiece. In the 2nd movement theme-and-variations, Schiff teased us with the short, overly-insistent repeated notes of the theme. It was so captivating that the audience burst into applause immediately after its coyly explosive ending. Or maybe they simply mis-counted the movements. Schiff ended the final movement with a bit of physical humor, throwing down the final 3-note figure with his left hand just as he stood up to take a bow.

I really like Schiff's incisive phrasing & solid sound. I feel like he's on top of every note when he presses down those keys. So far he has been very sparing in his use of he pedal. He often uses an effect where the sound has a definite start & cut-off, as if the sound just stops instead of decaying.

More importantly, Schiff has ideas & communicates them. For instance, when the fugal entrances occur during No. 11, the sense of something urgent & emphatic happening is unmistakable. No. 11 was the major sonata in this grouping & the only piece after intermission. He filled out this short 2nd half with a virtuoso rendition of the Bach Partita No. 1 in B-flat major. His playing was crystal clear & unfussy. I especially enjoyed the introspective Sarabande & the effortlessly swift & even Gigue. It was as good as anything else in the program.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Ukiyo-e at the Asian Art Museum

I was at the Asian Art Museum yesterday to see the exhibit Drama and Desire: Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850. The works contain a lot of pictorial details about the clothes, objects & manners of this subculture. I was impressed by the great colors & especially the depictions of the kimono fabrics. The paintings of Katsushika Hokusai rise above the decorative nature of most of the exhibit. I really liked his elongated Phoenix screen in comic-book colors & the reflective composition of Li Bi Admiring a Waterfall. He's also represented by a pair of cool hand-painted paper lanterns with dragons snaking around them.

I usually don't have the patience to sit through videos in the galleries, but this time I watched with interest the video about the British Museum's painstaking restoration of a Ukiyo-e screen. I learned that these screens have paper hinges that cleverly allow the panels to hinge in either direct.

I also took a quick peek at Zhan Wang's humorous
shiny silver model of San Francisco built from restaurant supply store merchandise.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Free the Piano Player

Interesting review of a new book about how the piano recital went from thrilling & spontaneous to stodgy & formal. What impresses me about current performance practice is the uniformly high level of technical proficiency everywhere. Flawless execution is now taken for granted.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Nikolaj Znaider

Wednesday, March 26 8:00 PM
Herbst Theater
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Robert Kulek, piano

BEETHOVEN: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in E-flat Major
BACH: Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin
SCHOENBERG: Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 47
BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 96

BRAHMS: Hungarian Dances No. 17 & 7

I had never heard of Nikolaj Znaider before. I was attracted to this recital by the great program. The printed program listed the Bach 1st, but Znaider made his 1st entrance followed by his accompanist. He explained that due to the special nature of the Partita it made more sense to end the 1st half with it, leaving the silence after the Chaconne uninterrupted by Beethoven. This may have been a calculated bit of showmanship, but the Partita was indeed the highlight of the evening. Znaider has a complete & easy technical mastery, & he played the Partita with an intense focus. The Gigue flew by, & my ears were almost ringing after the sustained onslaught of sound of the Chaconne. Znaider got a scattered standing ovation after the Chaconne.

Znaider is a tall man, & the violin looks tiny in his hands. I kept watching his rapid bow arm & his use of the entire length of the bow. The program allowed him to show off his proficiency in different styles. He played the early Beethoven Sonata in a tight classical style, but played the final Beethoven Sonata broadly. He managed to give the Schoenberg a sense of shape & momentum, placing a climax near the end of the piece. Znaider is Danish, but the apparent ease of his playing reminds me of Israeli violinists like Perlman or Shaham.

Znaider's accompanist was a little sloppy, & musically I did not feel that there was a lot of communication between the 2 of them, even though they sometimes conferred between movements.

For some reason the audience applauded immediately after the 1st movement of the Beethoven Sonata that opened the program. I have no idea why this happened, since after this no one interrupted any other piece with inappropriate applause. Znaider gave us 2 vigorous encores & even threw in a down-bow staccato all the way to the tip of the bow in Hungarian Dance #7.

Alan Gilbert Leads the SF Symphony

Friday March 28, 2008 8:00 PM
Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco Symphony
Alan Gilbert conductor
Richard Goode piano

Stucky Son et lumière
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 18
Nielsen Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments

I've heard Alan Gilbert conduct here before, but he never made a big impression on me. Now that he's the in-coming music director of the NY Phil, I thought I should give him another hearing. This turned out to be a very nice program. The Stucky piece is percussion-heavy & audience-friendly. It kept sounding like it was about to turn into something by either Stravinsky or John Adams. Gilbert made sure that the matching opening & closing percussion ensemble was tight.

In the Mozart, I found Richard Goode's interpretation to be very respectful of the composer. His playing is light & crisp. I felt like he wasn't trying to add anything to Mozart. In contrast, Gilbert was much more emphatic & urgent. Oddly, Goode was using a score for his performance.

Nielsen can be a cool customer, but this symphony was very accessible & easy to follow in a programmatic way. Gilbert has a very active podium style & is always doing something from moment to moment. He does a lot of cueing, though at times he is conducting along with the orchestra instead of being ahead of it.

I enjoy reading Opera Tattler's catty remarks about the audience, but in this case I'd like to tattle on the orchestra. A 1st violinist in the 1st movement of the Nielsen went bowing the wrong way for quite a noticeable stretch. The Symphony's strings are quite uniform in their playing these days, so this lapse stood out. The player seemed a bit amused by it himself.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Paul Galbraith Recital

Sunday, March 30 at 2:00 pm in the Florence Gould Theater
Chamber Music San Francisco

W.A. Mozart Andante cantabile
Lennox Berkeley Theme and Variations for Guitar, opus 77
J.S. Bach Cello Suite No.4
Franz Schubert Piano Sonata in A-flat major, D. 557
W.A. Mozart Piano Sonata in F major, K. 280

Guitar recitals must be among the most rarefied of chamber music experiences. The strongest impression I came away with was the quietness of it. There aren't that many shared quiet experiences in modern life. The classical guitar is not a loud instrument, & Paul Galbraith is not a demonstrative player. The audience has to be very still in order for this to work at all, & this audience was admirably quiet. In fact it was so quiet that I could hear sounds of the restaurant next door, the tapping of someone's foot nearby, even a door opening backstage. When someone started clapping after the 1st movement of the Bach, she was quickly shushed.

The auditorium was almost completely dark. The stage was dark too, except for a spot light on Galbraith. He was dressed mostly in black, so the stage picture gave the impression of 2 disembodied hands flitting around the guitar.

Galbraith plays a custom guitar with 8 strings. The most obvious difference in range is the low notes it can play. He sits on a kind of throne a foot & a half high & plays the guitar like a cello. The instrument sits upright between his knees, supported by an end-pin. Instead of bowing, he plucks it, but his left hand is positioned just like a cellists. Some of the left hand stretches look very wide.

He gave a brief, knowledgeable introduction to each piece. His interpretations were contemplative, deliberate & without showiness. The slow movement of the Mozart was particularly exquisite. I got the feeling that he had spent a lot of time working out how everything was going to go, so that a piece sounded pretty much the same each time he played it.

The Legion of Honor was a happening place that afternoon. There were a lot of people of at the museum, no doubt for the Annie Leibovitz exhibit. The start of the recital had to be held for 10 minutes due to the crunched parking situation. While I was in the museum I also saw a jazz singer in the restaurant & an organ recital in the atrium.

Dr. Allan Hamilton at Stacey's

I was at Stacey's Bookstore on my lunch hour today & heard Dr. Allan Hamilton talk about his book The Scalpel and the Soul. The book seems to be about the author's encounters with the supernatural during his career as a doctor working with patients in medical crises. He's a good presenter & had all his anecdotes lined up, though the 1st couple of stories sounded like ghost stories. As far as the supernatural aspect of this goes, I'm skeptical, but he did have some good criticisms of the way patients are typically treated in hospitals. He also had an interesting piece of advice for people undergoing surgery: make yourself a CD of your favorite music for coming out of anesthesia. Apparently music helps ease this transition.

He had a much bigger audience than the much more relevant Eric Alterman last week. He ended his talk with an unusual give-away proposition. He gave us a secret code that, along with a book receipt number, allows the buyer of his book to download a bonus chapter about getting the most out of one's doctor.