Sunday, April 26, 2009

PBO: Athalia

Handel's Wicked Queen
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
24 Friday 7:30pm, at Herbst Theatre, San Franciso

HANDEL: Athalia

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Dominique Labelle, soprano (Athalia)
Marnie Breckenridge, soprano (Josabeth)
Céline Ricci, soprano (Joas)
Robin Blaze, countertenor (Joad)
Thomas Cooley, tenor (Mathan)
Roderick Williams, bass-baritone (Abner)

Philharmonia Chorale
Bruce Lamott, director

This is not a program that typically attracts me, but neither was I foolish enough to pass up an invitation to attend. McGegan led a well-prepared, neat, almost square performance. His tempos were consistently bouncy, & he moved from one number to another almost without a break, so the evening went by very efficiently. The orchestra has a smoothed-over & gentle sound. Even those often temperamental wind & brass instruments sounded mellow. In the second half, there was a lovely obbligato for 2 flutes played at the side of the stage by Stephen Schultz & Mindy Rosenfeld.

Though Athalia is strictly speaking an oratorio & not an opera, the singers would come & go on-stage, act & react to each other. Still, I didn't find myself engaged in a dramatic way, other than to find those Christians an awfully smug bunch. Dominique Labelle as the title character made an impact on me mainly because her voice was twice as loud as anyone else's. I liked the big choruses that included the brass instruments. They sometimes sound like rough-drafts for The Messiah.

I had the pleasure of meeting The Ambassador, who was fresh from Tortelier & Davies After Hours. I enjoy reading his independent opinions, & I found him to display quite the same racy intellect in person.

Bay Area National Dance Week

04.24.2009 Conga line at Union SquareOK, so this is not a timely post, but for the sake of completeness I should report that I just happened to be passing through Union Square at noon on April 24th, & I caught the Kick-Off Event for the Bay Area National Dance Week, a week of free community dance events. The program showcased variety & ranged from Lick students to a professional company performing a piece involving an unexpectedly acrobatic dancer in a wheelchair. The event ended with the scantily-clad Queen of Carnivale teaching the crowd a few dance moves then leading a conga line around Union Square. There didn't seem to be many takers, though there were plenty of photographers hanging around.

There is a also a series of daytime events in Union Square this month under the commercial-sounding rubric of Jewels in the Square.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Magdalena Kožená in Recital

San Francisco Performances
Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano
Karel Kosarek, piano

Tuesday, April 21, 8pm
Herbst Theatre

Henry Purcell (arranged by Benjamin Britten)
A Selection of Love Songs

Robert Schumann
Frauenliebe und -leben, Opus 42

Henri Duparc
L’invitation au voyage
Le Manoir de Rosemonde
Chanson triste

Alban Berg
Sieben frühe Lieder

The concert began with an announcement that Ms. Kožená was battling a cold since her arrival in San Francisco on Thursday. However, she did not wish to cancel, so the show would go on. Ms. Kožená has a slender & elegant figure & a beautiful, meaty voice. She gave a very operatic performance. The only thing I heard that indicated she was in trouble were a couple of throaty low notes early on in the Purcell. The Purcell songs sounded more modern than 17th century to me, perhaps because of the Britten arrangement.

The Schumann has an elaborate piano part that seems more important than the vocal line. Indeed, the cycle ends with an extended passage for the solo piano. Ms. Kožená sang with great characterization, & Mr. Kosarek's playing was romantic & awash in color. He may have been a tad indulgent as well. Ms. Kožená launched into Ich kann's nicht fassen while he was still shuffling his music. When he failed to come in, Ms. Kožená was so surprised that she looked over to her accompanist & stopped. She began the song again & this time the pianist followed.

After the intermission, we got another announcement that Ms. Kožená was having problems with low notes & so she would end the recital with the Duparc. She continued to sound lovely, though, & made much of a striking moment of dissonance with the piano. But the evening must have been a disheartening one for Ms. Kožená, especially as the Herbst Theater audience was extremely sparse. I'm so sorry we did not get to hear the Sieben frühe Lieder. Such a pity.

More Reports
I seem to have had a similar experience as Joshua Kosman & The Opera Tattler.

Monday, April 20, 2009

How to catch a Muni bus

I was riding the 22 Fillmore this afternoon, & at 16th & Bryant the driver shut the door on a woman running for the bus. She yelled & pounded on the bus to no avail. Then while the bus was waiting at the stop light, she pulled it off of its wire. I've never seen someone do this before. She caught the bus.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

I grew up reading Peanuts & am still a big fan, so it was hard for me to pass up the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown this Saturday night. The show was revised for its 1999 Broadway revival, so it is not quite the period piece I thought it might be. In fact, the show didn't evoke the comic strip for me at all, but it was performed with earnest joy by the student cast. It was impossible to resist the appropriately hammy performance of Jimmy Featherstone as Snoopy. Brooke Munoz created a convincing character as the harridan Lucy, & she has a voice that probably needs no amplification. I had fun watching the cast execute the dance moves from the Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon. Other clever bits of choreography parodied Les Miz & Bob Fosse.

Cherry Blossom Festival

Hello Kitty CarThe weather was actually starting to feel spring-like today, so it was a great day to get an unagi bento at the Japantown Cherry Blossom Festival. On the main stage I watched a karate demonstration in which a guy splintered long sticks by having them struck against his body. This was followed by 2 people playing a new Yamaha instrument called a violyre. It seems to be an electronic keyboard instrument that you play with a violin bow. It sounds like an electric violin, only worse. The emcee claimed that this was the 1st public demonstration of the instrument in the United States. Apparently black jumpsuits are required when playing it. I also saw an awesome car completely accessorized with Hello Kitty.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

One Half

Ceramic Rabbit at One Half
I was walking down Polk Street yesterday & stumbled upon One Half, a shop in which you can buy all sorts of stuff for your home. I found myself fascinated but I don't know why. The store's buyers have certainly been highly selective. The stock is colorful & the shop is tidy, despite the crowded shelves. It looks like a Good Will store from a parallel universe.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Medicine for Melancholy

QuicktimeMedicine for Melancholy is a modest movie about a protracted one-night stand in San Francisco between two very pretty but mis-matched young people. It may be a prime example of the mumblecore genre. For a local like me, much of the fun lies in recognizing the clearly identifiable neighborhoods & streets. For instance, we can see that Micah's apartment overlooks the Angel Cafe in the Tenderloin. Immediately following the Saturday, 7:00pm screening I saw at the Roxie, the director Barry Jenkins made an appearance & warmly talked about himself & his movie to an interested audience of about a dozen. It was very surprising to learn that the beautiful burst of color in the final shot was not originally intended but was instead the result of a digital processing error that the production team was never able to fix.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Edward Hopper & Company

On Saturday afternoon, I navigated through heavy crowds in Union Square to see the show Edward Hopper & Company at the Fraenkel Gallery. Hopper is represented by 3 minor but meticulous paintings, plus watercolors & preparatory drawings. These are matched with photographs by other artists, largely from the 1950s & 1960s, which relate to the Hopper works in imagery & mood. The curator's thesis is that Hopper's paintings had a direct influence on the photographers. This point may not be proven, but the show is highly selective & has a pensive & dream-like air of loneliness & neglect. I especially liked the 3 Diane Arbus prints, all showing people in settings of isolation.

I always like peeking into the gallery's administrative offices & wondering if I will ever be cultured, sophisticated & discerning enough to work in such a place. I did glimpse the eponymous Jeffrey Fraenkel, who happened to be on his way out during my visit.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Anderszewski plays Mozart

San Francisco Symphony
Fri, Apr 10, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Stéphane Denève, conductor
Piotr Anderszewski, piano

Jennifer Higdon: blue cathedral
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24
Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande
Debussy (arr. Jarrell): Ibéria from Images pour orchestre

I came specifically to hear the Higdon & the Mozart Concerto & didn't really pay attention to what was on the rest of the program until I sat down. It's a bit of a peculiar line-up, the Higdon, Fauré & Debussy being picturesque & very much about orchestral colors, while the Mozart, an exemplar of classical form & proportion, is something of an interloper.

blue cathedral uses a large orchestra & begins with quietly tinkling bells, to which strings are eventually added. There are serene & melodic solos for flute, clarinet, English horn, violin, & a quartet of violas & cellos. The piece pleasantly put me in mind of soaring through an endless blue sky. It could be the soundtrack for the flying scene in an animated movie. It has a wonderfully atmospheric ending in which the orchestra gradually fade away to uncover 2 ethereal sounds: crystal glasses played with moistened fingers by the brasses, & the jangling of Chinese reflex balls.

Anderszewski is an intense & focused performer with a big mop of hair that falls over his forehead. I liked his pellucid playing, every note individually clear, even when very quiet. His phrasing in the 1st movement had a lot of variety & detail, & he played an unusual, heavy-sounding cadenza that was probably not Mozart's. I got the feeling that he is a moody player, though he smiled often. I don't know if it was because of my seat on the 1st tier side, but for some reason the 1st bassoon stuck out frequently during the concerto.

We were back to dreamy movie music for the rest of the program. Tim Day was a wonderful flute soloist in the Fauré, & Jonathan Fischer (I think), played beautiful, pure-toned oboe solos in the Debussy. Even though Debussy, according to the program notes, only ever visited Spain once on a day trip, Ibéria seems to evoke feelings of Spain better than actual Spanish music (thanks, Entartete Musik).

Stéphane Denève made me think of a young James Levine, with his big head of frizzy hair & good eye contact & involvement with the orchestra. On the other hand, I felt like he didn't always quite connect with the Symphony on this particular evening.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

András Schiff: Beethoven Sonatas VIII

Great Performers Series
Sun, Apr 5, 2009 7:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

András Schiff


Piano Sonatas Nos. 30, 31, and 32

As I read the program for this final evening of the cycle & contemplated the meatiness of these concerts, for a moment it seemed to me reasonable for Mr. Schiff to offer the Diabelli Variations as an encore! Fortunately Mr. Schiff is not so vulgar. As last week, he played the entire program without an intermission & this time without even leaving the stage. Within each sonata, movements followed one another without a break. The program as a whole almost felt like 3 large contrasting movements.

Schiff began No. 30 with an incredibly light, delicate & fluid touch. The sonata ends softly, in a mood of regret. The slow movement of No. 31 is so intimate & flowing that it starts to sound like Chopin. Mr. Schiff did a wonderfully floating passage in which the damper pedal was held down while notes were played with great delicacy over a sustained chord. He also executed what looked like an extremely awkward hand-crossing passage with practiced efficiency. He made the powerful ending feel like a great force was just barely being kept under control.

No. 32 began with 2 ferociously played chords. What followed was a non-stop stream of tonal colors, detailed phrasing & sudden changes of mood, often within the same phrase. Mr. Schiff had an incredible variety of sounds & articulations for each of the variations in the final movement. He did amazingly tight & expressive trills, rang beautiful bell-like figurations from high up the keyboard, pulled dark sounds out of the bass, & flirted with the edges of audibility. I felt like this final sonata was not a culmination but rather a wide-ranging compendium of feelings. Instead of a big noisy climax, the movement ends with a few unostentatious chords, a gesture of kindness instead of might. Mr. Schiff also gave us a final bit of showmanship, holding down the last notes well into silence. Unfortunately an over-eager clapper broke into this silence before Mr. Schiff at last took his hands off the keyboard. Mr. Schiff then put his hands on top of the piano & heavily hoisted himself up to standing. A bit theatrical, but I loved it!

Of course he received cheers & a standing ovation. He was recalled to the stage at least 4 times but tastefully refrained from offering an encore. I was thinking of the challenges Mr. Schiff has faced as a performer over this cycle. I've felt that the Davies Hall audiences have often been restless, & this evening he had to put up with people entering the terrace while he was playing, a ringtone going off quite near the stage, & things being dropped on the floor. Yet he's been a class act all the way.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Contemporary Composers

Kevin PutsIn the past month I've had the opportunity of close encounters with several contemporary composers, all gladly making themselves accessible & wishing to write music that appeals to audiences & performers. Shawn Crouch & Mason Bates were present at the Chanticleer performance of their works. John Adams talked about his career at the JCC. Jake Heggie was recently an affable guest of the Opera Standees Association. Kevin Puts hung out conspicuously during the intermission of the Cypress String Quartet's Call & Response program. Perhaps the huge gap that opened between composers & audiences in the 20th century is rapidly closing in the 21st, with the composers taking the 1st steps to reconcile with audiences. We may have to admit that music of the 2nd Viennese School & the post-war avant-garde has been a failure with the concert-going public.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Cypress String Quartet: Call & Response

Cypress String Quartet
Call & Response
Mendelssohn Bicentennial Celebration
Friday, April 3, 2009 at 8pm
Herbst Theatre

Mendelssohn, String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13
Kevin Puts, Lento Assai (2009)
Beethoven, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135

Thanks to a generous friend who got double-booked this evening, I was able to attend the Herbst Theatre Call & Response concert by the Cypress String Quartet. I was at one of their outreach programs last weekend, so it was nice to see the culminating concert.

Pre-concert, John Clare, a large jovial man with a mohawk, interviewed composer Kevin Puts on stage about his new work & composing in general. Mr Puts told us how difficult it is to achieve a blended sound when writing for woodwinds, though Mozart was a master at this. He shared with us his surprise on hearing the Cypress String Quartet play his work for the 1st time, quite close to the premiere. He discovered that sometimes their interpretation diverged significantly from his intent, causing him to realize the need to add more markings to the score. Mr. Puts is a tall, fit & handsome man, & the audience was clearly appreciative of the chance to hear him speak informally.

The group's executive director Todd Donovan made announcements before the concert & read from a plaque presented to the quartet by state senator Mark Leno. Then before each piece, a member of the quartet made introductory remarks, & Mr. Puts returned to speak briefly before his piece was played. There was a lot of talking at this event.

I enjoyed this program very much. The Mendelssohn piece was precocious & exuberant, & the quartet gave it a lively performance. The Puts work is in a single movement about 15 minutes long. It made me think of a tranquil sleeper who begins to have a troubling dream, but then settles back into a peaceful sleep. The playing in the Beethoven was refined & smooth. The last movement, while very active, had a lightness to it. As an encore, the group played a sweetly lyrical piece by Charles Griffes, based on a Chippewa song. As before, I appreciated the quartet's warm, smooth sound & good communication between players. Cellist Jennifer Koetzel makes a fat & happy sound.

Kevin Puts ScoreAs is appropriate for an outreach program, the audience was made up of many school children & people who probably don't show up at classical music shows much. They applauded consistently after each movement, & a bunch of the school girls had fun screaming for the players when they walked on stage. There was a small exhibit in the lobby, including items like Beethoven's signature & Mendelssohn's letters. Someone had the excellent idea to place the full score of the Puts piece on display as well.

More Opinions
I like John Marcher's commentary on the Beethoven.

Playa Painting

Playa PaintingI arrived too late to catch the creation of Andres Amador's Playa Painting on Ocean Beach this afternoon. Mr. Amador draws large geometrical or organic patterns by raking the beach to expose the wet sand beneath. By the time I got there the surf & sun were already starting to erase the work. What I saw made me think of loopy strands of DNA. I was disappointed to have missed the process of creation. Mr. Amador recruits participants to help him make these through his Web site.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Sweetdish Birthday Party

Candy Store WindowI was in the Sweetdish candy store on Chestnut Street this afternoon at around 2:30 to find a gift. The employees started brusquely ushering people out & setting up a low table in the middle of the narrow shop. I realized that they were closing to host a children's birthday party. Insidious yet cute.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

András Schiff: Beethoven Sonatas VII

Great Performers Series
Sun, Mar 29, 2009 7:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

András Schiff

Piano Sonatas Nos. 27, 28, and 29 (Hammerklavier)

As Schiff nears the end of his Beethoven cycle, he's getting frighteningly intense. I knew that he meant business when I opened my program & read that there would be no intermission. He did leave the stage before the Hammerklavier, but he took only the briefest of pauses. In the end, he played for nearly 1 & 3/4 hours without a break.

As expected, his playing was very crisp & constantly interesting. His playing became increasingly dramatic in No. 28. He made much of the capricious transition between the last movements. On the violent final chord of that sonata, he just about leapt backward off his bench, his arms thrown over his head.

He got even more worked up in the Hammerklavier. At times he resorted to holding down keys & vibrating them. It was an interpretation of extreme contrasts & vehemence. A couple of days later, I'm still hearing some of the really percussive passages in my head. Taking a cue from the fugue of the last movement, Schiff offered an encore of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue which was very clear & pointed. He startled the audience by coming back & sitting down again, trying to calm us by saying, "Don't worry, it's short." He then gave us a rapid & impertinent Gigue by Mozart. Perhaps Mr. Schiff felt that there hadn't been enough humor in this program.

Although there were a lot of empty seats in the orchestra section, the audience gave Schiff enthusiastic & prolonged applause. There was an especially vocal cheering section somewhere in the balconies.