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.

Love Fest

I walked by Civic Center later Saturday afternoon while the Love Fest was fully underway. It was incredibly loud. All I was aware of was the pounding bass. It was like standing next to an airplane engine. I don't really understand this event, but I think it's cool that people dress up in costumes for it.

Epic Battle!

MP3 ExperimentI showed up at Dolores Park on Saturday afternoon wearing a yellow t-shirt & armed with an umbrella & an uninflated balloon. At 2:00pm on the dot, I started up an MP3 on my iPod Nano & followed the voice in my head, along with about 2 or 3 hundred others. We did stretches, hugged, chased each other, jumped up & down, played human twister, & engaged in an epic battle. It was good clean fun.

Favorite moments:
  • Trying to move around the field while being blocked by a guy yelling at me, "Don't move, you're my defender! Defend me!"
  • When we gave up trying to synchronize our jumps & just kept jumping.
  • When the 2 armies roared back & forth to each other.
This was Improv Everywhere's MP3 Experiment, sort of a flash mob taken to the next level. They had several video cameras going & even a helicopter taking aerial shots, so the event is going to be well-documented. My fear is that in a few weeks I am going to show up on their site looking very dorky.

SF Symphony at Justin Herman Plaza

San Francisco SymphonyBenjamin Shwartz, conductor
San Francisco Symphony
Bernstein: Overture to Candide
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Gershwin: An American in Paris

The rain held off Friday afternoon, so it was a fine day for the San Francisco Symphony to give its free noontime concert at Justin Herman Plaza. We had to sit through a few obligatory speeches & the national anthem, but we were rewarded with an all-American program of dance-inspired popular classics lead by Benjamin Schwartz.

The orchestra is just back from their New York tour, & the playing was very crisp. The amplified sound system sometimes made the oboe solos sound unusually prominent, but fortunately they were also beautifully played. I liked the trumpet soloist's tricky pitch pending in the Gershwin.

Classical music becomes very susceptible when performed outdoors. The Ferry Building clock struck the half-hour mark loudly & right on top of Nadya Tichman's delicate violin solo in the West Side Story suite. A trolley horn barged into An American in Paris. The musicians took it all in good humor.

The crowd of office workers eating their lunches was very large & quite respectful. This was good evidence for Loen Botstein's article debunking the death of classical music in that day's Wall Street Journal. The audience did interrupt the Gershwin with applause after a big climax, but this was quite acceptable given the setting.

After the concert, I visited the KDFC table & filled out a raffle entry. A tall man with a familiar voice was behind the table chatting with listeners. A man suddenly said to him, "Are you Hoyt Smith? It's so weird to see your face!" I, on the other hand, refrained from asking Hoyt why they only play 1 or 2 movements from a symphony.

Friday, October 03, 2008

La Scala at the Vogue

We can see La Scala Opera at The Vogue Theatre on Sacramento Street this month. Some of the casts looks great. I doubt that Roberto Alagna's walk-off from Aida is included, though.