Saturday, February 28, 2009

WonderCon 2009

I didn't read many comic books as a child, & I am somewhat pop-culture impaired, so a lot of what was going on at WonderCon was lost on me. I was greeted at the doors of Moscone Center by Star Wars storm troopers, & many of the attendees seemed to be in their Halloween costumes. My friend said that the show was larger last year. I found it vast & crowded anyway.

Most of the merchandise was alien to me. However, in the small press section, I had a fascinating & recondite conversation with Jeff Hoke of the Museum of Lost Wonder. My friend purchased his artful paper model kit of a Rosicrucian temple.

At the end of the afternoon, I fortuitously ran into the wholly amazing Justin Hall, which happens to me with strange frequency. He reminded me to stick around for his panel on The Birth of Gay Comix. He interviewed a group of baby-boomer generation artists who created this niche publication in the 1980's, which was ground-breaking for its frank, personal & humorous stories of gay life in San Francisco. Robert Triptow was exceptionally articulate on the magazine's mission.

At the end of the day I also had the very strange experience of using the restroom at the same time as Mark Hamill, who is at the show signing autographs. Someone told us that Mr. Hamill charges $100 for his autograph, which, if true, seems very mean. Fortunately he did not charge me anything to share the men's room with him.

Anne-Sophie Mutter Plays Gubaidulina

San Francisco Symphony
Thu, Feb 26, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Michael Tilson Thomas

Anne-Sophie Mutter

American Overture, Opus 42

Sofia Gubaidulina
Violin Concerto No. 2, In tempus präsens (US Premiere)

Valses nobles et sentimentals

La Valse

It was a full house this evening for Anne-Sophie & Gubaidulina, quite a contrast with last week's sparse attendance. Prokofiev's American Overture was a substitute for the originally programmed Love for Three Oranges. It requires an unusual assortment of 16 players, including 2 pianos, 2 harps, brass, woodwinds, 2 basses & 1 cello, but no violins. I wonder if this substitution was made to ease the stage management. No violin section was thus required for the 1st half. The piece is bright, noisy & shapeless. It also presents problems of balance. Assistant principal cellist Amos Yang sawed away gamely, but I'm not sure I ever heard him.

The Gubaidulina Concerto also requires no violins but has beefed up brass, woodwind & percussion sections. 2 harps as well! The violin starts the piece & is the center of attention almost continuously. Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing was immaculate & fluid in an obviously technically challenging part. When she had to play high up on a string, which was often, her sound was consistently loud yet smooth. Even her vibrato is expressive. I was frequently startled by the power of Ms. Mutter's up-bow strokes.

I found the Concerto itself to be unrelentingly shrill. Parts reminded me of a buzzing beehive. There is particularly violent section in which the strings play hammer blows, which get fiercer as more instruments join in. I felt tense throughout the entire piece, then cramped & out of balance when it was over.

During the curtain calls, Ms. Mutter acknowledged Ms. Gubaidulina who was seated in box A. Given Ms. Mutter's capabilities, one got the feeling that the composer needed to make no make concessions regarding the performability of the piece. Ms. Mutter also insisted on taking her bows with the orchestra.

Violins were out in large numbers for the 2nd half, & our 2 harpists didn't get to go home yet either. The orchestra was now so huge that the stage looked like it was going to collapse. Valses nobles et sentimentals is a series of short, breezy waltz movements. La Valse became its darker complement, sardonic & grotesque to the point of inviting laughter. MTT swayed, danced & hopped on the podium, sometimes leading, but often traveling along with or even behind the orchestra.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cupcake Opera Paintings

A festive gallery opening took place last night at the Lower Haight branch of the fine dining establishment Squat & Gobble. On display are a dozen or so colorful & whimsical paintings depicting scenes from recent operatic productions put on by the San Francisco & Los Angeles companies. Having seen a few of these stagings myself, I can say that the images capture the mise-en-scène vividly, except that the operas' characters are replaced by delicious desserts. The artist's metaphor is yummy yet obscure.

The crowd of art & music lovers at the opening was intelligent, well-spoken & free of pernicious Belgian influences. The best viewing places are occasionally blocked by people behaving as if they are just trying to eat. This is a shame, as the paintings reward close inspection, some even containing tiny reproductions of musical scores. The artist is said to be abashed by all the attention, though she is apparently a well-known local blogger & patron of the arts. The works will be up through March 11th & are priced to move.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Every Sound You Can Imagine

Every Sound You Can Imagine
New Langton Arts

I found out about this exhibition from a post on The Standing Room, which in turn led me to this blog entry, which provides a great peek into the show. I'd never been to New Langton Arts before, & I walked right by their nondescript entrance on Folsom Street this afternoon at least once before I found the upstairs gallery.

This exhibit explores the visualization of music & is made up of contemporary musical scores, largely from the collection of Robert Harshorn Shimshak. At a minimum, each of the works has to solve the problem of mapping the dimension of time onto a sheet of paper. A wide range of ideas is on display, from traditionally notated manuscripts, to experimental notation systems, to conceptual pieces & even games. Some of the pieces, such as Alison Knowles's Onion Skin Song, work nicely as visual art, but I can't imagine how one performs them.

Many famous names in 20th century music are represented, including Philip Glass, John Adams, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman & John Cage. I liked the page from George Crumb's Macrokosmos in which the parts are arranged in the shape of a peace sign. I also liked Douglas Hollis's conceptual piece for Scored Road, in which ridges or grooves set at precise intervals on a road create pitches in the cars which drive over them. What a great way to improve a long, boring car ride!

The works are on display through March 28th.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Alexander String Quartet

Morrison Artists Series Concert: Alexander String Quartet
February 22, 2009 @ 3 pm
SF State, Creative Arts Building, McKenna Theatre

World War II commemoration
Haydn: Emperor Quartet Op. 76, No. 3
Bartok: Quartet No. 6
Shostakovich: Quartet No. 2

Brahms: Liebeslieder Waltz arr. by 1st violinist Zakarias Grafilo

I was drawn to this Morrison Artists Series Concert by the great program. The afternoon was well worth the trek out to SF State in the rain. After a low-key Haydn, the Alexander Quartet hit their stride with their edgy Bartok. I liked violist Paul Yarbrough's brisk pizzicato strumming in the 2nd movement & the boisterous humor of the 3rd movement Burletta. In the pause after the 2nd movement, 2nd violinist Frederick Lifsitz had to admonish someone in the front rows not to take pictures. We had seen a couple of cameras flashes go off during the 1st half.

The Shostakovich was raw & vigorous. I liked the careful & focused playing in the 2nd movement, with its sustained violin solo against a taut background of the other strings. The quartet plays with great conviction, & their sound is often raw rather than having surface beauty. I like the biting attacks that all the players have. The 2nd violinist often conferred with the other members between movements, & I got that feeling that he was a dominant personality in the group.

SF State was the site of a chamber music conference this afternoon, & there were many strings players in the audience. When announcing the encore, Mr. Lifsitz took this specialist audience into account & made several self-deprecating jokes at the expense of 2nd violinists.

Friday, February 20, 2009

California Academy of Sciences

I finally made my 1st visit to the remodeled California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. My main impression of the day is of the crowds. There's no recession here. Young people, families, tourists & retirees jockeyed for positions at every exhibit. Passes for the planetarium show were gone by the time we arrived in the early afternoon.

The new building is a lot of open spaces, thin columns & glass. My friend thinks it looks fragile. For someone like me who grew up visiting the old museum, there wasn't anything recognizable except for the African hall, the pendulum, & the alligator pool. I'm not sure why penguins now live among the dioramas in the African hall. Claude, the albino alligator, was missing from the alligator pool. A sign said that he had been removed due to illness, which does not bode well.

Inside the Biosphere-like rainforest, I enjoyed spotting frogs, birds & butterflies among the foliage. Maintaining this environment is no doubt a challenge. The painted canvas that hides the elevator tower looks out of place & grubby already. All the kids & lines made it a bit like a visit to Disneyland. I was very impressed by a little girl carefully writing down in a notebook all the animals she observed. Her mother told me that she's not even doing it as homework. A scientist in the making!

The aquarium exhibits have been moved underground & are quite extensive. I was dismayed to see that the two-headed snake, an old favorite, is now a funky-looking skeleton in a jar. It was the saddest moment of the day for me.

At a quarter to five, people were already lining up for the NightLife event, when the museum turns into a nightclub. I stayed for this as well. It's largely a 20s crowd, with drinks & loud music. It got just as packed as during the day.

At the NightLife evening, I did get into the planetarium. The bulbous, industrial-looking Zeiss projector is gone. Instead, it's more like an IMAX movie with a screen that wraps around one's field of vision. I was disappointed by the show, a short presentation reviewing astronomy in the news & ending with a "Powers of Ten"-style zoom out of the galaxy. The show was almost content-free, & the host admitted that he was winging it & that several things didn't go as he expected.

One old reminder of the original planetarium survives. Part of the San Francisco silhouette is on the wall behind the cashier in the children's gift shop. I wonder what they did with that old Zeiss projector.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Masur conducts Bruckner

San Francisco Symphony
Wed, Feb 18, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Kurt Masur, conductor

Sofia Gubaidulina
The Light of the End

Symphony No. 4, Romantic

I came curious to see Masur. I remember being impressed by his appearances with the SF Symphony perhaps 20 years ago. He has aged much since then. Compared to the big physical gestures he used to make, his movement is now limited & clunky, & has hands display a tremor. He conducted the entire evening without a baton.

The audience turn-out for this evening was noticeably sparse. A few favorite principals in the Symphony also seemed to be out this week. Nadya Tichman covered for Barantschik, & William Bennet & Stephen Paulson were absent.

The initial schedule announced the Gubaidulina piece as a new work commissioned by the SF Symphony, but instead we got a 2003 piece that was commissioned for BSO. It's a tone poem that runs perhaps 25 minutes & requires a huge orchestra with lots of woodwinds, brass & percussion. It features a recurring wave gesture that sweeps through the strings & that reminded me of the ocean. Other sections sounded transparent & airy, including a high cello solo, nicely nailed by Grebanier. There was a section in the middle that started with a line in the tuba being taken up by the horns. It was as if the prelude to The Ring was having a hard time taking off. The work ends in silence, & it got a polite but tepid response from the audience. Ms. Gubaidulina appeared on stage to take bows along with the orchestra.

Mr. Masur led the Bruckner without a score. His interpretation was restrained & deliberate. Even in the climaxes, he never let the orchestra simply blast out, so even though the piece is very brass-heavy, I always heard the strings. Tempos were on the leisurely side, never pushing. The performance had good dynamic range. Unfortunately, the scoring of this work really exposed the Symphony's brass section, which was often weak. Still, I enjoyed exploring Bruckner's rustic & organic landscape for an hour. There aren't many experiences in modern life where one is asked to be still for an hour to focus on just one thing.

The audience reception for the Bruckner was cool as well, though a clump of people in the row in front of me did decide to give it a standing ovation. During the intermission, I was hanging out in the lobby with some fellow bloggers, & we were approached by a writer for San Francisco Classical Voice, soliciting our opinion of the Gubaidulina piece. He got our honest reactions, but perhaps I should have just told him he could read all about it online soon enough!

P.S. The SF Classical Voice critic has spoken here. My concert companions & I were not among those quoted with positive comments about the Gubaidulina. I admit that I was completely unaware of the underlying concept of conflicting temperaments. I do agree with the critic about the lovely playing of the viola section in the Bruckner.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jonah Lehrer: How We Decide

How We Decide
Tuesday, February 17th at 7 PM
BookShop West Portal

I'm currently reading Jonah Lehrer's previous book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, so I thought it would be fun to check out his appearance at BookShop West Portal. I was pleased to find the place is very much the neighborhood bookstore. Besides book signings, they sponsor a story time for toddlers, a knitting group & a women's writing group. Mr. Lehrer must have fans. I think they managed to cram in a crowd of 70, made up largely of middle-aged women. I was fortunate to be seated near the front, but the rows of folding chairs were so close together that I felt like I was on an airplane.

Mr. Lehrer is suffering from what he labeled a "book tour cold" & apologized for "sounding like Lauren Bacall." He is very young-looking, slim & probably looks great on TV. He gave a substantive & fascinating 45 minute talk about recent neuroscience research into human decision making, specifically the role of the dopamine system in motivating rewarding behavior. There was also a touch of self-help thrown in, as he implies we can use these findings to improve our own thinking. He had an impressive number of names, facts & anecdotes at his command. People asked a few questions, all focused on the talk's subject matter. He succeeded in making me want to read his new book, How We Decide.

During the Q & A, he gave us a little challenge in lateral thinking: What word can be combined with each of the following words to make a compound word? pine, crab, sauce

If you want to catch him while he's in town, he'll be appearing at the Commonwealth Club on Thursday.

Philip Glass: Music in Twelve Parts

Philip Glass, composer/keyboards

Music in Twelve Parts

Michael Riesman, Music Director/Conductor

Featuring the Philip Glass Ensemble:
Lisa Bielawa, David Crowell, Dan Dryden, Stephen Erb, Jon Gibson, Michael Riesman, Mick Rossi and Andres Sterman

Monday, February 16, 5pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Even though I arrived around 4:30pm to get my ticket at will call, I found myself in a jostling mob with no line control. I did not have my ticket in hand until 5:05, at which point the concert had already started, & the crowed was out to the curb. An usher at the orchestra level was telling people that the next seating break would be in 50 minutes. We filtered into the hall during the performance anyway. An usher tried to get me to my place, but I was unwilling to climb over several people. Instead I took a seat in a nearly empty row at the back of the orchestra section, where I stayed for the rest of the show. So unfortunately I cannot brag that I have sat through an entire performance of Music in Twelve Parts. I guess I heard Music in Eleven Parts. I hope that San Francisco Performances will look into better ways to handle will call in future.

I'm not a Philip Glass fan, so I had my doubts about being able to sit through 4 hours of his music, but at least I can say that I was not bored. There were only 7 musicians on stage: 3 electronic keyboard players, 3 wind players who picked up flutes, clarinets or saxophones as necessary, & one very game soprano. Everyone is miked. The procedure is that the ensemble plays a cell which is repeated several times, then they move on to another cell which is a variant, repeat that one several times, & so on. It's a continuous wall of sound, the foundation of which is the rapid arpeggios played by the keyboards, which sound like a harpsichord on the high end & an organ on the low end. There is little variation in the harmony, the dynamics or the basic pulse. The effect is trance-like. The big events are the abrupt shifts between parts & the end of a set, when the music just stops without warning.

I quickly began to feel sorry for the singer, Lisa Bielawa, whose music is really just another instrumental line. As vocal writing, it seems inhumane to ask the singer to keep repeating those solfege-like figures. Plus she has to keep this up for almost the entire duration of the piece. Ms. Bielawa was admirably clear, consistent & in tune. I missed her in the sections where she was not required. As she sat, poised & calm, with her hands on her knees, I felt she was the hero of the performance.

Glass periodically leans his head back then nods forward heavily, but otherwise there is not much to watch on stage. Michael Riesman is so efficient at the keyboard that he barely seems to move. During the dinner break, a Philip Glass aficionado explained to me that Glass's head nods signal the last 2 repetitions of the current cell. This turned out to be a great help in decoding the performance, as I could now occupy myself with counting how many repititions a cell got & noting the varying cell lengths.

This same Glass aficionado pointed out that Glass himself is not a technically proficient performer. He misses notes, & he is not rhythmically accurate. On the other hand, though there is this rote repetition in the music, natural variations in playing will occur. A performer may even need to drop out momentarily, or someone may be out of sync. It makes me think of those Andy Warhol silkscreens with their serial images. Even though the images are repeated, no two are truly the same, due to small variations in registration or color. I think you need these small differences to give the process life.

Mr. Glass is in his 70's, & his presence was a clear draw for the show. The audience gave the performers an immediate standing ovation, which is only to be expected after such a marathon for both musicians & audience.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
4th Annual Winter Event
The Castro Theatre
Saturday, February 14

Live piano accompaniment by PHILIP CARLI
Preceded by short, Alice Guy Blache's THE DETECTIVE AND HIS DOG (1912)

Live piano accompaniment by PHILIP CARLI
Preceded by short, Alice Guy Blache's MATRIMONY'S SPEED LIMIT (1913)

I spent a great afternoon in the Castro Theatre & out of the rain for the 1st 2 programs of the SF Silent Film Festival's Winter Event. The house was packed for Keaton's Our Hospitality. Several people appeared in period costume. The film was introduced by a board member who showed a slide of himself at the age of 19, working with Buster Keaton in 1949! I'd never seen this Keaton classic before, & I am glad to report that it still delivers its laughs & thrills in the right places. The gags with the toy-like Rocket steam engine are especially silly & foretell the great locomotive chases in The General. The audience applauded the breathtaking waterfall rescue at the end. I like that the big stunts & chase scenes are balanced by smaller, more human, moments of humor. The audience also applauded the gag in which Keaton, struggling with the low headroom of a train carriage, swaps an over-sized top hat for his trademark pork pie hat.

The 2nd feature, A Kiss from Mary Pickford, is a true rarity. It's a Soviet era satire on movie stardom. The entire movie was built around a handful of film clips documenting the visit to Moscow by Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks. The couple had no knowledge that they were also making a Soviet feature film! In a brief & informative introduction, Hugh Munro Nelly explained how the film contradicts the official Soviet account of the visit, which claims that no crowds greeted them. The print has subtitles in Ukrainian, which were read to us in translation.

The film is light yet sophisticated. It features a terrific comedic performance by Igor Illinsky as a hapless wannabe movie star. Crowds play an important part in the movie, & I like how they were populated by individuals, as opposed to being an undifferentiated mob. The movie contains a bizarre scene with 3 sinister & sadistic scientists evaluating the hero's suitability as an actor. It hints at a darker side of Soviet society.

The shorts commemorate Alice Guy Blache. The program notes claim she is the only woman to have owned a movie studio. Matrimony's Speed Limit curiously prefigures Keaton's Seven Chances, down to specific gags involving the hero proposing to unsuitable women against a deadline minutes away.

All the films were accompanied with great stamina by Philip Carli on the piano, who played classical sounding scores that were appropriate to the period. I wished that I had the stamina for the remaining programs, which included one of the my favorites, Murnau's Sunrise.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Art of Coraline

The Cartoon Art Museum is currently presenting a small exhibit of art work & models from the production of the new 3D animated movie Coraline. I would recommend seeing this after you see the movie at the Metreon. It's interesting to see how the character designs evolved. Coraline's father in particular started out looking quite different.

The must stunning item on display is the spindly model for the evil version of Coraline's mother. On examining it closely, I noticed a fantastic detail I totally missed when I saw the movie: Her bony hands are made of sewing needles. Impressive in an entirely different way is the small knit sweater for Coraline. A video at the back of the gallery offers a glimpse of how it was made using knitting needles that look like fine sewing needles themselves.

I only wish that the signage could have been more informative. Especially in regards to the models, it's not clear what we're looking at. Some of the models are obviously prototypes, but others look like they could be the actual puppets used during production. The art work is all labeled as "Digital Print", meaning that they are not originals. Or perhaps all the artwork done at Laika is digital, even the preliminary drawings?

Despite what the museum Website says, this exhibit has been extended through 2/22.


The showing of Coraline in 3-D at the Metreon this evening was packed, though I spotted only one kid. It is a strange movie for sure, having much of the macabre atmosphere of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. It's a complex mix of stop-motion puppet animation & CG. The grotesque character designs & detailed settings are the best things in the movie. I enjoyed many of the bizarre set pieces, such as the musical number featuring an aging & buxom Botticelli angel performing for an audience of scottie dogs.

The plot feels arbitrary. I was never sure what the rules of this particular world were supposed to be. Many elements, such as the 3 ghost children, came out of nowhere. I have not read the original Neil Gaiman story, but someone would seem to have mother issues. Mothers in the movie are either neglecting or controlling, but never actually mothering. The heroine, though not a pleasant character, is at least courageous.

If you see this, be patient enough to sit through the credit roll. There is a short but very cool piece of animation tacked on at the very end. It looks like it may have been part of a test that never made it into the final film.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Alek Shrader's Schwabacher Recital

Schwabacher Debut Recital
Sun February 8, 2009 5:30 pm
Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary

John Parr, Piano

Benjamin Britten:
Ca' the yowes
The foggy, foggy dew
The last rose of summer

Robert Schumann:
Dichterliebe op. 48

Henri Duparc:
L'invitation au voyage
Chanson triste

Franz Liszt:
Drie Lieder aus Schiller's Wilhelm Tell:
Der Fischerknabe
Der Hirt
Der Alpenjäger

Vincenzo Bellini: Per pietà, bell'idol mio
Gaetano Donizetti: Occhio nero incendiator
Gioacchino Rossini: La danza

I was impressed by Mr. Shrader's scene in the Adler Fellows concert, so I glady came back for more. He offered a mostly serious program of songs in English, German, French & Italian. There were several strange minutes before his entrance when the house lights kept going up & down, as if someone was back there fiddling with the dimmer switch, unable to make up his mind how dark or bright the hall needed to be.

Because of the shape of the venue, there's a large expanse between the audience & the stage. It made me think how scary it must be for a singer, stepping out there in front of all these judgmental people, with no instrument to hide behind.

Mr. Shader, a young & handsome fellow, may have no such fears, however. Although at times his high notes sound a little tight, he hits everything & has an easy stage manner. I liked the wistful & charming character he created for The foggy, foggy dew.

He seems to have a naturally sunny personality, which made the tortured Dichterliebe seem like a bit of an emotional stretch. However, his delivery was not without its stormy moments. I enjoyed hearing the Lizst songs with their extravagant piano accompaniment. In both the Schumann & Lizst, Mr. Shrader displayed a surprisingly beautiful & strong lower register. Usually we're listening for a tenor's high notes, but I like his low notes in particular.

Mr. Shrader was most comfortable with the brighter Italian songs at the end of the recital, & he definitely loosened up a bit with these. For his 1st encore he walked out with a guitar, sat down on the steps of the stage, & accompanied himself as he sang Ecco Ridente in Cielo from The Barber of Seville. It was awfully endearing. It reminded me that on my way to finding a seat, I was walking behind an older woman & overheard her say, "I'm sitting in the center. There'll be eye candy here."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Up Coming: Alexander String Quartet

While we're on the subject of free concerts, the Morrison Artists Series is presenting the Alexander String Quartet on Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 3 pm at SF State. The program looks great: Haydn, Bartok & Shostakovich. I've already been to two very different programs in this fine free series.

Clarinet Crazy

Friday February 6, 2009 - 8pm
Herbst Theater

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Simon, Conductor

Dimitri Ashkenazy, Clarinet
Sonos Handbell Ensemble

J.C. Bach: Cembalo Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 13 No. 4 (Arranged for Handbell Ensemble & Orchestra by James Meredith)
Richard Festinger: Clarinet Concerto [world premier]
Copland: Clarinet Concerto
Mahler: Adagietto for Harp and Strings

Still on the search for cheap seats, I decided to check out the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, which offers free concerts. I didn't know what to expect, but I feared a mob scene, so I arrived at Herbst at 7:05pm. There were about 40 people in line ahead of me, but it was all very civilized. The doors opened at 7:15pm, & I easily found a seat right in the center of the auditorium. The hall gradually filled up over the next 45 minutes. There were scattered free seats by the start of the program, so even if you arrived close to the start time, you could probably squeeze in.

For those of us who got there early, Benjamin Simon, the music director, came out at 7:30pm & gave a friendly 20 minute talk about the program, which certainly had variety. It opened with the Sonos Handbell Ensemble replacing a cembalo in a concerto by J.C. Bach. The handbell choir was arrayed behind the orchestra, & it was quite a scene back there, as the busy players scrambled for bells & flicked them at the air. Instead of clanging, the bells make a pleasantly soft & rounded sound. The more I thought about it, the more the whole concept of a handbell choir seemed unworkable & downright goofy, but there it was operating smoothly.

This was followed by the the world premier of Festinger's Equinox. It's a clarinet concerto in one continuous movement about 20 minutes long. Before the performance, Mr. Simon gave a brief tour of the piece & asked the orchestra & soloist to play musical examples. He demonstrated how it evolves out of a chord built up by the orchestra at the very start. The piece is mysterious, atonal & inconclusive, with many slow, sustained passages for the clarinet. Festinger himself was attending a retrospective of his work at SF State, so he was unfortunately unable to be at the premiere of this work.

The soloist was Dimitri Ashkenazy, who I had never even heard of before. His bio indicates that he is nearly 40, but he manages to look & act like an awkward teenager who has never been on a concert stage before. However, he is a secure performer, with a very even tone & good dynamic control. His pianissimo playing in the Festinger was impressive.

After intermission the Sonos Handbell Ensemble offered us an encore of Summertime & There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York from Porgy & Bess. I'm not sure that the Adagietto from Mahler 5 works quite as well with only 17 players plus harp, but it's a great piece to represent the Romantic Era on this varied program. It gave us a chance to hear how the orchestra's sound is anchored by the sturdy & musical playing of concertmaster Robin Sharp & bassist Michael Taddei. The lower strings play especially well together.

Mr. Ashkenazy came back for the Copland Clarinet Concerto, which I had never heard before. It is characteristically Copland sounding, especially in the wide spaces of the lyrical opening. It's also clearly inspired by both jazz & Stravinsky. It's a fun piece, a crowd-pleaser, & Mr. Ashkenazy dispatched it with ease.

This may have been a free event, but there was no skimping on musical values. Mr. Ashkenazy gave us 2 flashy encores in which his playing was much freer. The 1st was a splashy number with a Spanish flavor. Mr. Ashkenazy's rapid-fire playing sometimes made it sound like there were 2 clarinets on stage. He announced the 2nd encore as an excerpt from Artie Shaw's Clarinet Concerto. He showed off some beautiful high notes & then executed an outrageously long slide that got the audience whooping. It was a great way to leave us.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason

I tagged along with a friend who was on a mission to check out a gallery opening at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason. The works I liked the most were Ari Salomon's photographic panoramas of scenes of urban Japan. Mr. Salomon creates them by digitally stitching together photos taken on a rotating tripod. The coolest ones have the panorama extending vertically instead of horizontally, so the view starts at your feet, goes up overhead, then back down on the view that would be behind you.

Chancellor's Concert Series

Chancellor's Concert Series
Date: 2/5/09
Time: 12noon-1pm
Location: Cole Hall, 513 Parnassus Avenue

Peter Wyrick, cello
June Choi Oh, piano

Rachmaninoff: Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19

Inspired by Alex Ross's recent Cheap Seats column, I went to the UCSF campus today to catch one of their free lunch time chamber music concerts. UCSF is quite a bustling place, & Cole Hall turns out to be a pretty good chamber music venue. It has very steep stadium-style seating. The sound is probably better the higher up you go. The auditorium seats several hundred, but I would say that there were only about 60 people in attendance, mostly either old retired folks or UC employees.

The program began with a poetry reading. Today's poem was "Psalm" by George Oppen. I'm not a poetry fan myself, but this was an undeniably civilized way to begin a program. The performers on the series come mostly from the San Francisco Symphony & the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so what we got was a fairly clean, professional read-through of the Rachmaninoff Sonata. I enjoyed the slow andante movement the most. The program was over by 12:50pm.

The series hosts weekly free events. Oddly, next week's program is the exact same Rachmaninoff Sonata, but with different performers. Up-coming programs that look interesting are a Dvořák Piano Quartet on March 12th & a Jennifer Higdon Piano Trio on March 26th.

Heidi Melton at Hotel Rex

Salon at the Rex
Heidi Melton, soprano
John Parr, piano

Wednesday, February 4, 6:30pm
Hotel Rex

PURCELL (arr. BRITTEN): The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation
BERG: Sieben frühe Lieder
MESSIAEN: Selections from Harawi
DEBUSSY: Trois Chansons de Bilitis
BOLCOM: Toothbrush Time; Waitin'; George

Weill: My Ship

Having heard Ms. Melton's huge voice at the Adler Fellows Gala, I was a bit scared to hear her in the small salon at Hotel Rex. A lot of people must have had similar fears, as the back of the room filled up before the front rows. The concert was sold out, so the hostess asked us to make room to fit as many as possible inside. She then added that people left outside the room would probably hear Heidi just fine!

Ms. Melton began by saying that, given the venue, she prepared a program that was not just "Mack Truck" singing. She described the Purcell as a mad scene, & indeed it was a strange & somewhat depressing monologue with many different moods, each of which Ms. Melton clearly communicated. After this she stepped aside, popped open the lid of a diet Coke & took a few sips. She joked at the unprofessionalism of this maneuver & called diet Coke a singer's best friend.

The intense Berg songs that followed were for me the core of the program. I felt enveloped by the music. Ms. Melton voice is not just loud. There is something about the sound that is palpable & physical. I feel it through my chest as well as through my ears. When she sings those big, ringing high notes, it never sounds strained. Instead it sounds like she could expand even more.

The 2 Messiaen selections turned out to be a teaser's for Ms. Melton's up-coming recital at Old First Church on March 8th, when she & Mr. Parr will do the complete cycle. Based on what we heard, this should be beautiful & otherworldly experience.

Ms. Melton acted as well as sang her way through the 3 Debussy love songs, creating contrasting moods of youthful love, joyous expectation & quiet acquiescence. In the last set Ms. Melton indulged her self-confessed obsession with cabaret. The surprise here is that cabaret suits her just as well as Strauss & Wagner. The last song, George, was about an opera-loving drag queen who is stabbed to death by a trick while singing "Un bel di". Ms. Melton got the laughs in the right places even for this affectionate & grotesque song. One was left with the impression that Ms. Melton might easily give up opera & become a cabaret singer instead.

Afterward, she did a Q & A with the audience. Mostly people wanted to know where she was going to be singing next & when we would be hearing her Isolde & her Brünnhilde! She admitted that when she did Isolde in the Adlers Fellows Concert, she had never had a more comfortable role. She felt like she could do it all night. But of course these roles are many years off. The professional danger with the big Wagner roles is that once you start doing them, no one wants to hire you for anything else.

It was a rare treat to hear Ms. Melton this evening, in non-operatic repertoire, in this intimate setting, in the presence of others who also feel that this is a special voice. Her mother was in the audience too. I got to exchange a few words of congratulations with her, & she seemed as awestruck as the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ask a Scientist

A year after my 1st failed attempt, I resolved to make it to Ask a Scientist this Tuesday evening. I got to the Axis Cafe at around 5:50pm, 70 minutes before the start time. Even so, most of the table seating was already occupied. But at least I was able to order a sandwich & get an actual chair to sit in. By 6:15 pretty much all the seating was spoken for. There were probably 80 of us inside. The rest ended up in an overflow area outside. Who knew there was such a demand for science talk?

The event started with an 11 minute video produced for KQED about discovery of rocky outcroppings in Sonoma County that were possibly polished smooth by mammoths of the Pleistocene Era. The video includes an interview with Douglas Long, the evening's speaker. The substance of the evening was Mr. Long's PowerPoint slide lecture on the Pleistocene megafauna, the possible man-made cause of their extinction, & a wacky plan to re-populate North America with Pleistocene megafauna near-relatives.

Until 10,000 years ago, North American was home to giant versions of beavers, rodents, bears, tigers & more marvelous mammals now extinct. The horse evolved in North America, spread to Asia & Europe, then went extinct here, only to be re-introduced by the Spaniards. The cause of the extinction of these animals is a controversy, but Mr. Long feels the evidence is good that over-kill by humans was a major factor.

Mr. Long is an outgoing speaker & gave comprehensive answers to the audience questions, despite starting to lose his voice from a cold. He's a man in control of his subject matter. He also brought a cast of a saber tooth tiger skull, an actual mammoth tooth fossil, & some fine Clovis points, which he described as "professionally carved". I handled all the items, &, like everyone else, was especially impressed by the size & the heaviness of the mammoth tooth. Even though it's just a tooth, it instantly makes one feel puny.

The crowd had its expected science geeks, but there was also a fair share of hipsters & couples. One woman passed the time by working on a needle-point frame. Is this a cheap night out? If I decide to attend again, I'll show up even earlier. It's a long time to sit there, but the Axis Cafe is quite pleasant, my turkey sandwich was great & the staff is friendly & service-oriented.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

David Denby at Stacey's

I was at Stacey's bookstore today at lunch, along with perhaps 60 other New Yorker magazine fans, to see film critic David Denby talk about Snark, his slim volume critiquing the snide tone that he perceives is taking over American media. I doubt that this book will be on my reading list soon, but I was curious to get a peek at a New Yorker columnist in the flesh.

He singled out the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd as a current example of snarkiness. He feels that she is so pre-occupied with being snarky that she misses the actual story.

He has a lot of fears regarding the Web taking over print-based journalism. He fears the loss of authority, the loss of fairness, the loss of investigative journalism, the loss of privacy, the loss of manners, the loss of accountability. He cited Gresham's Law, meaning that the bad drives out the good. In this, Denby allies himself with those many commentators who are telling us that the Internet is making us worse.

The Stacey's staff is good about keeping these events short so that they can sell books before people start to wander off. Denby, though, clearly would have liked more time to engage with his audience.