Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Noontime Concerts: Schola Cantorum

Concert today!Noontime Concerts
Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 12:30pm
Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Schola Cantorum San Francisco
Paul Flight, artistic director

Choral Music for the Holiday Season

At today's Noontime Concert in Old St. Mary's, 11 members of Schola Cantorum, led by artistic director Paul Flight, presented this seasonal program of mostly 16th century Spanish songs about the nativity. Besides the 16th century works, they performed a Besançon Carol (People Look East) & 2 songs by Peter Warlock (Where Riches is Everlasting & Benedicamus Domino). Schola Cantorum's sound is straight-toned & clear. Their performance was restrained & measured rather than merry. The program was well-attended, & the audience gave the group a warm ovation. Schola Cantorum responded by encoring Benedicamus Domino, "since it's short". I continue to be impressed by the appreciative audience that turns out for these concerts.

She Stoops To Comedy

The SF Playhouse
She Stoops To Comedy
By David Greenspan
Directed by Mark Rucker

Liam Vincent: Alexandra Page
Amy Resnick: Kay Fein/Jayne Summerhouse
Sally Clawson: Alison Rose
Cole Alexander Smith: Hal Stewart
Carly Cioffi: Eve Addaman
Scott Capurro: Simon Lanquish

Saturday, 19 December 2009, 8:00pm

She Stoops To Comedy is an odd little production. The play is a 90 minute post-modern farce. The main action concerns an actress disguising herself as a man in order to play opposite her ex-lover in As You Like It. The actress is played by a male actor, in this case the watchable Liam Vincent. His version of the character seems to be a flamboyant gay man rather than an impersonation of a woman. I suspect that this, like many elements of the play, is simply meant to be out of whack. The cast seems to be performing several mutually exclusive drafts of a play simultaneously. A scene may jump in time & place, with the action continuing in a manner inconsistent with what just happened before. Often the actors merely narrate a scene instead of acting it out. Characters can be confused as to their own identifies. The comedy arises out of these deliberately half-assed situations.

There is a steady stream of lightly amusing jokes, though no huge laughs. A highlight is a set piece in which actress Amy Resnick ends up having to portray both sides in a 2-character scene. It's as if the playwright forgot that he was doubling roles. I liked Carly Cioffi's pitch-perfect embodiment of an intelligent young woman caught up in an unfulfilling relationship. This subplot, as well as a sad & bitter monologue delivered by Scott Capurro, keeps the play from being entirely fluff. In the last scene, one of the characters tells us that the plot is modeled after The Guardsman, which of course I have never seen. It's entirely possible, therefore, that the entire thing is going straight over my pointy head.

There were many empty seats, even though the venue is small. I think the play is just strange enough that it is having problems finding an audience. & the play wasn't the only thing off-kilter that night. I held a ticket for a seat A12, which did not exist. I sat in seat A14 instead, with no ill effects.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Turkish Classical Music

Asian Art Museum
The Many Worlds of Turkish Classical Music
A Talk and Musical Demonstration with Three Turkish Masters

Saturday, December 19, 1:00 pm
Samsung Hall

Necati Çelik, oud
Yavuz Akalin, ney
Tumuçin Cevikoğlu, bendir, vocalist

So many people showed up for this opportunity to hear Turkish music that the start was delayed for 15 minutes while museum staff retrieved more chairs for the SRO audience. This was followed by a 30-minute content-free talk, followed by a break. It was close to 2:00pm before the musicians got to do their thing.

We heard 2 sets of classical pieces, largely from the 19th century. The musicians played continuously for each set, bridging the different pieces with short improvisations. The long & sinuous melodic lines evoked the human voice. The oud & ney almost always played in parallel. The tempos all had an unhurried, pulse-slowing gait, even in the dance that concluded the 1st set. There is a sense of high seriousness about this music. Mr. Cevikoğlu sang Sufi songs in the 2nd set. I enjoyed hearing the way he sustained syllables with an elongated wobble of the voice.

This musical tradition is very much an unexplored landscape to me. The performance often felt inward & meditative & perhaps even a bit sad. The audience was patient & appreciative. Afterward, I took a peek at the music left on the stands. It looked like typical western-style sheet music.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blythe sounds the part

A Latecomer to the Opera

"I know there are other girls who look more like Carmen than I do, but I'll tell you something: I sound more like her. The voice is what chooses the role."

Stephanie Blythe, interviewed by The Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Fugue, Fantasy and New Companions
December 14, 8pm
The Green Room
San Francisco War Memorial

Anna Presler, artistic director, violin
Thomas Nugent, oboe
Phyllis Kamrin violin
Kurt Rohde, viola
Leighton Fong, cello

Benjamin Britten: Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in Bb, Op. 133
Sam Nichols: Refuge for String Quartet
Kristin Kuster: Midnight Mirror

Even though we were gathered for a program of new music for string quartet, the pre-concert chatter was all about Lady Gaga's concurrent appearance at the nearby Bill Graham Auditorium. Our own show began with an early Britten piece with oboe that made me think of a jaunty walk through the English countryside. The members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble had obvious fun playing together, & there is good communication among them. Their Grosse Fuge was tight & rattling. I liked the playing of 1st violin Anna Presler, whose sound has a nice bite & whose phrasing decisions are very clear.

The 2 string quartets in the 2nd half were specifically commissioned for this program & intended as companion pieces for the Grosse Fuge. Both works were about 15 minutes long, & so on the same scale as their model. Composer Sam Nichols was present & spoke a few amusing words about his work, referencing a story line from The Sopranos when explaining his take on the meaning of "companion." His piece was akin to the Grosse Fuge in its many abrupt shifts of mood, some of them quite violent. I liked the funny ending, with its pizzicato notes getting quieter & quieter as they sneak in from different instruments. Kristin Kuster's contribution similarly used fragments of chords & intervals from the Grosse Fuge & mostly had the instruments playing vigorously in parallel. It made for a finale that was loud & full of exertion.

As well as their CDs, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble had a light-weight tote bag for sale. We were invited to join members of the ensemble at Momi Toby's Revolution Cafe after the concert.

Monday, December 14, 2009

SFSFF: Sherlock Jr. and The Goat

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
The 5th Annual Winter Event
Sherlock Jr. and The Goat
Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, aided by foley artist Todd Manley with special sound effects.
December 12, 2009 7:00PM
Castro Theatre

I would have been interested in seeing every film shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's one-day Winter Event, especially the Abel Gance WWI story J'accuse. Instead I ended up at the 2 Keaton comedies, which was fine. First up was the The Goat, which I may have never seen before. Keaton looks like he's breaking his neck with every pratfall. I was surprised by an athletic gag where Keaton escapes from a locked room by vaulting over a table & his foe's head before diving through the transom. Also stunning is a shot of a train barreling directly toward the camera. Just before it is about to run us over, it halts, & we see Keaton sitting impassively on the cow-catcher. This stunt is especially peculiar, as it has no connection to the story.

The films were introduced by Frank Buxton. Between the movies, Mr. Buxton chatted briefly on stage with Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster Keaton's granddaughter. This was a curious bit of actuality, as she could only tell us a few stories about visiting her grandfather's home as a child. She never saw Keaton's movies until she was an adult, & she has no connection with the movie industry.

Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite silent comedies. I still find the best stunts, such as the 2 trucks that momentarily close a gap in a bridge, to be inventive, suspenseful & funny. The movie-within-a-movie gags are post-modern meta-jokes. As always, the savvy Castro Theater audiences go a long toward making these events work. It was also a pleasure to hear a little girl seated behind me laugh delightedly every time Keaton took a spill. In addition to Dennis James at the organ, Todd Manley provided cartoony sound effects.

Formenti Plays Lang & Haydn

Looking at the scoreMarino Formenti, Piano
Aspects of the Divine
Friday, December 11, 8pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church

Seven Last Words:
Bernhard Lang: Monadologie V - 7 Last Words of Hasan (US Premiere)
Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross

When I entered the church venue for Marino Formenti's unusual program of Lang & Haydn, I became aware of an ambient electronic drone. Every few minutes the sound changed. By the time the program was about to start, it sounded like the hum of a UFO about to land nearby. After the lights dimmed, the hum began to fade. After a few moments of silence, Mr. Formenti & his poker-faced page turner walked to the piano. Ignoring our applause, Mr. Formenti immediately sat down & started pounding out tone clusters. These were followed by rapid runs & more fierce hammering. This introductory movement of the Lang ended with a clear, isolated statement of a theme from the Haydn to come.

The Lang appeared inhumanly difficult to play, but Mr. Formenti attacked each movement fearlessly, often snorting & grunting. I liked the way he made the low chords in Sonata 2 sound like breathing. I let out a little laugh at the way he spit out the left hand notes in Sonata 3 as if he were having trouble lighting a match. At the close, his hands jumped away from the piano as if the keyboard were suddenly too hot to touch. Afterward, I walked up to the piano, trying to peer at the music. Others were just as curious & even bolder, & soon the piano was surrounded by curious audience members leafing through the score. They had to be chased away by the management.

The electronic drone resumed at the intermission, so when the lights dimmed & the sound again faded, we knew not to clap & allowed Mr. Formenti to sit at the piano in silence. Instead of being classical, balanced & even, his interpretation was introspective, inward & meditative. His rhythm could be a bit halting, & he often sounded like he was pushing through molasses. He allowed notes to blur, & he winced when playing soft passages. A few of the more intense moments recalled the Lang piece. The last, thundering earthquake movement linked the end of the recital directly to its abrupt start. There was a long pause before the audience felt it was safe to applaud.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wozzeck Sneak Preview

Reserved for mr feldheimLast night at the SFCM, I attended Ensemble Parallèle's preview of their up-coming Wozzeck. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement talked about the opera's rigorous formal structure & its expressionistic techniques. She obviously enjoys studying this score, & her love & admiration for it shine through in her speaking. I was impressed by her clear ideas about how the score relates to the drama. She pointed out how Margaret's vocal line switches from tonal to atonal in the scene in the tavern, reflecting Wozzeck's increasing paranoia. The opening scene's musical structure is based on the Baroque dance suite, because the Captain is an older establishment figure dominating Wozzeck.

Live musical examples were performed by Bojan Knezevic (Wozzeck), Erin Neff (Margret), & Michael Desnoyers (Fool), accompanied by Keisuke Nakagoshi on the piano. Mr. Knezevic sang Berg's very modern vocal lines with surprising lyricism. His big voice was a little frightening in that small studio space. I expect him to be very effective in the actual production. Ms. Neff, though suffering from a bad cold, immediately dropped into character as the slatternly Margaret.

John Rea's chamber orchestration reduces the orchestra to 20 players. Ms. Paiement explained that he combines timbres to make us think we hear instruments, such as the tuba, that are not there. She played us an excerpt with a full orchestra followed by Mr. Rea's reduction of the same music to demonstrate that none of the complex texture has been lost. The reduction sounds crisper & less weighty.

This production will incorporate large video projections, both pre-recorded & live. Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel was on hand, & we got a preview of a prerecorded sequence showing Wozzeck's nightmare. Even the cast was seeing this for the 1st time. It's deliberately designed to look like an expressionist silent film, with a grainy, jumpy image quality & an iris shot. Mr. Knezevic would have been a great silent-movie actor. Underwater scenes will be shot next week.

This production seems to be in good hands. Though innovative in some ways, the production looks like it will sacrifice none of the beauty of the score. Ensemble Parallèle's Wozzeck will be presented January 30 and 31, 2010, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Nathan Gunn's Workout

For those of us wondering how baritone Nathan Gunn keeps looking so fit on stage, The Wall Street Journal today has an article describing his workout. The article is very comprehensive (Mr. Gunn & I favor the same brand of running shoes). There are more pictures of him being athletic in the on-line summary of the article. I've seen Mr. Gunn a few times at the SF Opera but never in any of the shirtless roles for which he is famous.

Monday, December 07, 2009

PBO: Gloria!

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Gloria! A Holiday Celebration
Bruce Lamott, conductor and director
Elizabeth Blumenstock, leader and violin
Philharmonia Chorale
Sat, Dec 5, 8:00 pm
First Congregational Church, Berkeley

Vivaldi: Magnificat In G Minor, Rv 610
Torelli: Concerto Grosso In G Minor, Op. 8, No. 6,"Christmas Concerto"
Vivaldi: Credo In Unum Deum, Rv 591
Vivaldi: Concerto In F Minor, "Winter," Rv 297, From The Four Seasons
Sammartini: Concerto Grosso In G Minor, Op. 5, No. 6, "Christmas Concerto"
Vivaldi: Gloria In D Major, Rv 589

Somehow I got talked into attending this concert, even though it started a mere hour after Marino Formenti's fiendish Messiaen recital. At least the 2 venues were a walkable distance apart. But after the Messiaen, it was difficult for anything else to make an impression on me. Fortunately the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra program was light & undemanding. It had a Christmas feel without resorting to usual seasonal repertoire such as the Corelli Christmas Concerto or excerpts from The Messiah or Weihnachtsoratorium. With a chorus of 24 & an orchestra of about 20, the balance between voices & instruments was perfect. In addition, the acoustic of the First Congregational Church is very live. It was especially easy to pick out the tenors.

The tempos were swift & bouncy, especially when orchestra leader Elizabeth Blumenstock led the instrumental works. She played even faster as soloist in the Vivaldi concerto. I just wish she had not been so shy & had stood in front of the orchestra instead of behind a music stand amidst the principal strings. The audience enjoyed her solo turn & gave her a standing ovation.

When Ms. Blumenstock was leading the instrumental numbers, she sat several inches above the rest of the orchestra, as if she were in a tall barber chair. I thought it looked a little odd. She seems to be a good leader, so why not just stand proudly? I like that they have a theorbo in the continuo, though I had a hard time convincing myself that I was hearing it.

Formenti Plays Messiaen

Aspects of the Divine
Messiaen: Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus
Marino Formenti, Piano
Saturday, December 5, 5pm
St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley

I found the setting for this particular recital to be severe. My concert companion looked up at the plain crucifix hung on a concrete column & pronounced it "brutal." When the lights came down, it became very dark except for a bright spot on the piano. Marino Formenti, followed by the page turner, entered down the aisle, sat at the piano & fidgeted as he adjusted the bench several times. For the next 2 hours I could not take my eyes off his large head or allow my attention to wander. Mr. Formenti is as much a performance artist as a pianist. Each Regard was an exploration of a state of mind, & his playing went to extremes. He made me think of both demons & saintly ascetics. He could be quiet, calm & measured, playing with even, legato chords. In the next moment he would explode into cascades of pounding runs that pushed me back in my pew & made me grit my teeth. He wailed on that piano, often snorting like a bull. I would have been terrified to be his page turner. Sometimes he threatened to end up in her lap. About a third of the way through, I started worrying about his hands. Does he put them in ice after each performance?

I'm not especially a fan a Messiaen, but Mr. Formenti sold me on this music completely. Highlights included X. Regard de l'Espirit de joie, full of joyous singing & sounding like an explosion in Gershwin's head. I liked that Mr. Formenti let it be schmaltzy. I also liked the soothing & meditative XIX. Je dors, mais non coeur veille, played with effusive romantic gestures. Mr. Formenti ended his recital with a flourish at the low end of the keyboard that brought him right up to his feet. It was impossible not to want to cheer. Mr. Formenti is disarmingly modest, though, & he held up Messiaen's score to us when he returned for another bow.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Little Match Girl Passion

The green room
The Little Match Girl Passion
Pacific Mozart Ensemble
Lynne Morrow, Music Director
Friday December 4, 7:30 pm
The Green Room
War Memorial Veterans Building

Ave Maria
Sanford Dole

Excerpts from Vespa Rjad (Vespian Paths)
Veljo Tormis

Ilya Demutsky

The Little Match Girl Passion
David Lang

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
Traditional Spiritual

Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters
Michael T. Roberts

Veni, Veni Emmanuel (A Christmas Prayer)
Cary Boyce

Hymn to St. Cecilia
Benjamin Britten

Psalm 21
Dave Brubeck

Rise Up Shepherds and Follow, trad. Spiritual
Go, Tell it on the Mountain, trad. Spiritual
Adeste Fideles
Angels We Have Heard On High

The Pacific Mozart Ensemble, an a cappella community chorus of around 45 voices, offered a diverse holiday program in the Green Room on Friday night. They are well-rehearsed & produce a beautiful, blended sound. They sing with great pride. Their director Lynne Morrow leads with a clear beat & gives hints rather than dictates. The centerpiece of the 1st half was the West Coast Premier of David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion. It is a 40 minute series of lugubrious numbers interspersed with the text of the story, intoned in short, halting phrases. The atmosphere is one of unrelieved yet ethereal suffering. The chorus did a fine job sustaining the mood & made a silky, wafting sound. Everett Q. Tilden provided the discrete percussion accompaniment, playing bass drum, xylophone, crotales, chimes & at one point a rusty bucket. One of the sopranos had a dizzy spell at the end of the final narrative. A colleague helped to her to the floor, though this did not impede the progress of the piece.

Bass Dale Engle opened the 2nd half by singing the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child from one end of the room. Mr. Engle has a way with low notes. The major work of the 2nd half was a clean, well-prepared rendition of Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia. The audience joined in the program's final 2 Christmas carols, & Ms. Morrow complimented us on our singing. The attendees seemed to be largely friends & family of the choristers, giving the event a warm, community feeling. Cookies & punch were served afterwards, & I was personally encouraged to come back for their next concert featuring Bach.

Is the Book Dead?

Is the Book Dead?
High Tech and the Written Word

Moderated By Alan Kaufman
Oscar Villalon
Daniel Handler
Brenda Knight
John Mcmurtrie
Annalee Newitz
Scott Rosenberg

Mechanics' Institute Library
Thur 3 Dec 2009 6:30pm

Following the members' meeting at the Mechanics' Institute on Thursday evening, Alan Kaufman led a panel discussion about the future of the book. This panel was similar to a previous one I attended at Books Inc. but with a better mix of speakers. When Mr. Kaufman mentioned Nazis & the Holocaust in his opening remarks, I was afraid that we were in trouble. Fortunately the panelists were less paranoid & were in fact often puzzled by Mr. Kaufman's remarks, such as his suggestion for an international body to enforce ethical behavior from the high tech industry.

A fear of technology dominated the discussion. This obscured what I think should have been the real topic. Scott Rosenberg came closest to stating it when he observed that the Internet threatens industries based on the scarcity of information or on the control of access to information. As the Web removes these barriers, what happens to writers' & publishers' economic incentives? No one seemed to have any special insights here.

I enjoyed Daniel Handler, who is a bit of a performer & whom I had never seen before. He told us how trying to read William Vollmann's 1300 page Imperial on Muni made a good case for the electronic book. I loved Annalee Newitz's story of using a Kaypro back in the 1980s to connect with other book lovers on-line. She also told us about Noisebridge, which she described as a high-tech version of the Mechanics' Institute.

The Mechanics' Institute members, as one would expect, are a well-informed crowd, though their questions sometimes got off-topic. Next time I will arrive earlier. They knew no shame when it came to the food table.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ji Young Yang & Gerald Thompson

San Francisco Performances
Salons at the Rex
Ji Young Yang & Gerald Thompson

Wednesday, December 2, 6:30pm
Hotel Rex

Ji Young Yang, Soprano
Gerald Thompson, Countertenor
John Parr, Piano
Steve Lin, Guitar

PURCELL: Sound the trumpet; Lost is my quiet
HANDEL: "Da tempeste il legno" and "Caro, Bella" from Giulio Cesare
MOZART: "S'io non moro a questi accenti" from Idomeneo; "Ah perdona al primo affetto" from La Clemenza di Tito
HANDEL:"Rompo i lacci" from Flavio; "Bramo aver mille vite" from Ariodante

ARR. TARRAGO: Canciones Populares Espanõlas
Campanas de Belen (Córdoba)
Tengo que subir (Asturias)
Jaeneras que yo canto (Andalucia)

ARLEN: Stormy Weather
DELUGG & STEIN: Orange Colored Sky
HOWARD: Fly Me to the Moon

MONTEVERDI:"Pur ti miro" from L'incoronazione di Poppea

Encore: Alleluia from Mozart's Exultate, Jubilate

It's a great treat to hear operatic voices close up. I'm so glad that San Francisco Performances gives us these opportunities in their Salons at the Rex series. About 70 of us, a sold-out crowd, in closely-spaced chairs, jammed the salon at the Hotel Rex. It was clearly an opera audience. Many people brought in drinks from the bar. Both the singers are former Adler Fellows at the beginning of their careers. Soprano Ji Young Yang has a bright, youthful sound that she produces with seeming ease. Countertenor Gerald Thompson has a surprisingly big, concentrated sound & performs all those Baroque runs very cleanly. He improvised a startling run up to a big high note in the Handel aria Rompo i lacci.

I was never in doubt as to the meaning of the songs. Sound the Trumpet was indeed celebratory. Bramo aver mille vite felt like ardent passion. Ms. Yang & Mr. Thompson, with their well-matched sounds, made a good case for the Baroque convention of combing high voices in a love duet. They also did a modest amount of acting with their glances & gestures.

Ms. Yang sang the Spanish songs, which are special favorites of hers. She told us that when she came across the music in the New England Conservatory library, she wanted to steal it. She expressed the emotions of the songs so clearly that the printed translations were unnecessary. As an added bonus, she was accompanied by Steve Lin on the guitar.

Mr. Thompson, also accompanied by the guitar, sang the 3 jazz standards. These countertenor covers were so unexpected that I was on the verge of chuckling the whole time. Sadly, I'll probably never again hear a countertenor declare, "Wham! Bam! Alakazam!"

The musical program lasted no more than 65 minutes. Afterward the singers stayed on to answer questions from the audience. We learned about some of their early musical experiences & about life after the Adler program. Ms. Yang was frank about her worries getting engagements before she got a green card.