Thursday, November 25, 2010

Client 9

Eliot Spitzer's appearance in Inside Job amused me so much that I knew I would enjoy Client 9, Alex Gibney's documentary about the Spitzer prostitution scandal. The movie is a series of entertaining interviews, beginning with a wacky New York artist in a distracting hat who turns out to be a high-end pimp. Cecil Suwal, partner in the Emperors Club, actually giggles as she explains the pricing scheme for the escorts. Political consultant Roger Stone is engagingly creepy, & former New York Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone comes across as charming yet dangerous. A woman called "Angelina" is claimed to be Mr. Spitzer's favorite escort. She declined to appear on camera, but her interview is performed primly by actress Wrenn Schmidt. At the end of the film, we are told that Angelina is now a commodities trader. The movie does not completely make its case that Spitzer's downfall was instigated by his enemies on Wall St. & in the Republican party. When discussing the revelations that brought him down, Mr. Spitzer himself displays no traces of personal insight or introspection.

I saw Client 9 yesterday afternoon at a matinee in one of the small screening rooms at the Opera Plaza Cinema. The mostly older audience was duly shocked when a nude photo of former escort Ashley Dupre appeared on the screen.

§ CLIENT 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Director: Alex Gibney

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Janacek Saves a Season

In today's Wall Street Journal, David Littlejohn assesses the current San Francisco Opera season. He sounds a little sour ("I won't name anyone in the cast of 'The Marriage of Figaro,' because no one rose above the joyless mediocrity of the whole"), but he does make me feel grateful that I experienced Mattila's 1st Emilia Marty.

§ Janacek Saves a Season
by David Littlejohn
The Wall Street Journal
Opera | November 23, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

SFMOMA: How Wine Became Modern

SFMOMAFriday afternoon a friend took me along to the members' preview at the SFMOMA of How Wine Became Modern, a design exhibit about the modern wine industry. The exhibit includes sealed petri dishes of dirt (to illustrate the concept of "terroir") & a wall of wine bottles categorized by label design. I do not understand why the collection of impractical-looking wine glasses is in a case that is slowly filling with a dripping red liquid. A useful instructional segment allows visitors to smell odors commonly found in wine. One room is all about wine tourism. The Orson Welles "Sell no wine before its time" commercial plays in one of the video installation. I felt like I was in a wine country visitors' center, except I could not find the tasting room.

I got the most out of the evening by revisiting the Henri Cartier-Bresson show. Also, what I had thought was a fake museum store on the 5th floor is actually a real store called Shadowshop. It sells inexpensive items from local artists. Just as we got up to the 5th floor to check it out, however, the shop was closing, & we were chased out. A few wineries sold $2 tastings at the party downstairs, but my friend opted for a beer while I had a gin & tonic.

§ How Wine Became Modern
Design + Wine 1976 to Now

November 20, 2010 - April 17, 2011

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sarah Cahill at the Rex

Rex SalonLast night at the Salon at the Rex, I heard Sarah Cahill perform a recital of modern piano music organized around the theme of mysticism. In Ms. Cahill's spoken introductions to each work, we learned that Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar & Ruth Crawford each had an active interest in mysticism of some sort, be it Rosecrucianism, Theosophy, astrology or American Transcendentalism. Ms. Cahill chose pieces with similar landscapes. Musical events, without meter or melody, float around an unstructured space. The Rudhyar & Crawford pieces favor dissonant tone clusters, which these composers associate with spirituality. Perhaps this is classical music's New Age music.

A different type of mysticism was represented by 2 pieces that the medium Rosemary Brown penned by channeling the spirits of Chopin & Schubert. Ms. Cahill described them as "interesting to listen to at least once," & they do manifest the musical tics of their putative authors.

Ms. Cahill performed on a baby grand that sounded very dry. Her playing is calm & unhurried. She strokes the keyboard & does not pound it. All the pieces on the program had a similar not-too-fast, not-too-slow tempo. Since the pieces are unmoored from classical structures, I left the recital feeling unsettled. The music invoked a state between wakefulness & sleep in the person next to me, who dozed off during Rudhyar's Stars.

As is the custom at these salon events, Ms. Cahill took questions from the audience at the end. There was not complete agreement on what might be considered "mysticism" in music, & a lady in the audience claimed not to experience this music as dissonant at all.

§ Salons at the Hotel Rex
Sarah Cahill, piano

The Mystical Tone

SATIE: Sonnerie de la Rose + Croix No. 2
SCRIABIN: Five Preludes, Op. 74
DANE RUDHYAR: Stars (from Third Pentagram); Granites
SCRIABIN: Vers la flamme
RUTH CRAWFORD: Preludes #4, 7, and 9

Wednesday, November 17
Hotel Rex

Time Change for Heidi Melton at the Rex

The start time of Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex on Wednesday, December 1st has been changed to 6pm, to accommodate patrons who are also attending the Adler Fellows Gala Concert that evening.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marin Symphony

Marin CenterSunday night I was in San Rafael for a substantial program by the Marin Symphony. I was a bit taken aback by the Marin Center's cavernous size & powder blue interior. The long rows are not split by any aisles, so we had to step on many toes in order to get to our seats in the middle of the orchestra section. The sound from these seats was unexpectedly live & loud, though.

The program began with the world premiere of Avner Dorman's (not) The Shadow, a 15 minute tone poem inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Shadow. The piece is in several distinct sections & is densely orchestrated. A core middle section is introduced by a rain stick & features undulating repetitions of an arpeggio motif. This chugging arpeggio is taken up prominently by the piano, & it reminded me a little of John Adams. The performance sounded very well prepared, with no tentative moments.

I liked the rapport between conductor Alasdair Neale & soloist Jenny Douglass for the bucolic Walton Viola Concerto. Ms. Douglass's playing is clean & pleasant. Her interpretation stressed the picturesque aspect of the concerto. There was a smattering of applause after the cheerful & quick middle movement. After her performance she received flowers from 2 small boys who turned out to be her sons. She also received a bouquet from the viola section, of which she is the principal.

The opening of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony was brash & extroverted. Maestro Neale led without a score, & his gestures were very clear & definitive. The pizzicato movement was nicely done, with good ensemble & everyone having the same phrasing. The final movement was often fast & loud, but Maestro Neale always kept it under control. Concert master Jeremy Constant is a vigorous player, & he occasionally entered excitedly ahead of his section. The audience responded to the finale with a standing ovation.

Someone's cell phone rang twice during the 1st half of the concert, & the owner evidently did not hear it both times. A lady in front of me wore earrings that jangled whenever she moved her head. The tingling noise may have complemented the Dorman piece, but it was distracting for the other works on the program. A mechanical rattle, perhaps coming from the ceiling, could be heard intermittently during the Tchaikovsky. The venue did not seem to offer any beverage service, which I suppose could also be classed as an annoyance.

§ World Premiere & Virtuosity
Marin Symphony
Alasdair Neale, conductor
Jenny Douglass, viola

AVNER DORMAN: (not) The Shadow (world premiere)
WALTON: Viola Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4

Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 7:30pm
Marin Center, San Rafael

SFS: Rufus Wainwright

Davies HallThis concert began with Milhaud's jazz-inspired La Création du monde. It is scored for a motley assortment of instruments, including 2 violins & a cello seated next to a saxophone. The saxophone figures prominently, but my favorite part was a jazzy solo from clarinetist Carey Bell. Conductor Michael Francis made a lot of jabbing gestures & circulating motions with his arms, & he led a tight, rhythmically precise performance.

Davies Hall was quite full, the audience clearly excited to hear Rufus Wainwright premiere his settings of Shakespeare sonnets. Before singing, Mr. Wainwright told us that on the previous evening the conductor pointed out that he had a habit of audibly stamping his feet while he sang, & he was often ahead of the beat. In order not to distract the conductor this evening, Mr. Wainwright removed his clogs, held them up for the audience to see, then performed in bare feet. His song cycle consists of sonnets 43, 20, 10, 129, & 87 & charts a story of unrequited love. The settings are straightforward, & a full symphony orchestra provides background color & texture but is not structurally integral. Mr. Wainwright was of course amplified. His voice has a distinctive throaty warble, & his soft high notes sound barely squeezed out of him. I liked his performance of No. 20 the best, which he gave a strong sense of longing. He frequently looked up at the conductor, which only enhanced his curiously vulnerable stage presence. The audience greeted his performance with cheers & shouts of "Rufus!"

Surprisingly, there was no more than the usual audience attrition after intermission. Weill's sardonic Symphony No. 2 contains many song-like motives & sounds like the composer's theater music to me. Maestro Francis kept the ensemble tight & his conducting was sharp-elbowed & driving. The ending had a brilliant sonic flash. There were prominent solos from all sections, but clarinetist Carey Bell was again the star, playing brightly in a variety of solos.

§ Rufus Wainwright Performs World Premiere
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Francis, conductor
Rufus Wainwright, vocalist

Milhaud: La Création du monde
Rufus Wainwright: Five Shakespeare Sonnets (San Francisco Symphony Commission, World Premiere)
Weill: Symphony No. 2

Saturday November 13, 2010 8:00 PM
Davies Symphony Hall

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Best of Annecy 2010

Friday night's screening of Best of Annecy at the SF International Film Festival started 10 minutes late, due to a last minute rush of ticket buyers & a cumbersome ticketing process that required each ticket to be printed individually. However, the staff was clearly grateful for the full house. The program was a mixed bag of 7 shorts.

Lebensader (Angela Steffen, Germany 2009, 6 min)
Abstract film in which flat, colorful, totemic images of plants & animals morph into one another.

I Forgive You (Pierre Mousquet, Jérôme Cauwe, Belgium 2009, 5 min)
A deliberately tasteless gag cartoon in which 2 steroidal wrestlers teach a lesson in forgiveness. Pehaps they are a Belgian version of Beavis & Butthead.

Jean-François (Tom Haugomat, Bruno Mangyoku, France 2009, 6 min)
Psychological portrait in which a champion swimmer recalls his lost childhood instead of savoring his victory. The film has a lot of moody imagery but minimal animation. The sound was uncomfortably loud at the screening.

Don’t Go (Turgut Akacik, Turkey 2010, 4 min)
Combines live footage of a frisky cat chasing a small computer-generated character with the body of a pink bunny & a giant eyeball instead of a head. The most unexpected thing about this film is that it comes from Turkey.

Love & Theft (Andreas Hykade, Germany 2009, 7 min)
A series of cartoon faces morph into one another in tight synchronization to pounding music. Some of the faces are monstrous while others, such as those of Charlie Brown, Hello Kitty & Gromit, are benignly banal. The effect is hallucinatory & nightmarish.

Angry Man (Anita Killi, Norway 2009, 20 min)
Earnest story about domestic abuse, aimed at children & enacted by paper puppets. Its depiction of a child's fear of an abusive parent is painfully heavy-handed. The situation is resolved through a personal visit from King Harald of Norway, who appears as a kind of Santa Claus of deliverance. Perhaps this makes sense in a Norwegian context, but I did not get it. The tone is so thoroughly serious that one presumes the story is meant to instruct.

The Lost Thing
(Andrew Ruhemann, Shaun Tan, Australia 2010, 16 min)
Shaun Tan's picture book of the same name transferred into computer animation. The whimsical & slightly sinister atmosphere of Tan's work is beautifully preserved in the film's deadpan style. The ambiguous story line has the feel of a parable.

§ San Francisco International Film Festival
Best of Annecy 2010

Friday, November 12, 7:00 pm
Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema

Saturday, November 13, 2010

SFMOMA: Henri Cartier-Bresson

SF MOMAI was really excited to view the large Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the SFMOMA. He is my god of photography, & I was glad that the show included a lot of images that I had never seen before, such as his color spreads for Life about China's Great Leap Forward. The photos are grouped by both chronology & theme. It was interesting to see that he was influenced by Surrealism early in his career. It is almost unbelievable that he managed to be in so many places at key moments, such as in China during the last days of the war or in the American south during some of the earliest civil rights actions. How did he end up photographing wrestlers in Ulan Bator in 1958 or getting right in the middle of Gandhi's funeral?

Even though most of his photographs fall into the category of photojournalism, there is a classical aesthetic at work that gives them a timeless quality. Many of his scenes look like they could have happened at any time. Because Cartier-Bresson does not explain what he shows, the images are open to multiple interpretations. I also think he is brilliant at capturing joy. His 1946 snapshot of a mother & son reunited in New York is typical in combining all these elements.

The prints are mostly relatively small, & many of the earlier ones in particular look faded compared to the high-contrast gallery prints one is used to seeing. Many of the prints come from the Foundation Henri-Cartier Bresson & represent how the images were distributed to print media. I suppose this gives the exhibit a stamp of authenticity. It also raises the question of what authenticity means in the context of a photo exhibition. The show also includes issues of magazines like Life & Match containing his images. The exhibit takes up the entire 3rd floor photo galleries & is really too large to take in at one go, so I hope I will have chances to visit again.

To finish our museum visit, we of course got coffee in the upstairs cafe. From the sculpture garden, we could peek in & see staff installing a fake museum shop in the 5th floor gallery. Items being stocked include colorfully packaged one dollar bills, priced at 99¢. Looks like fun!

§ Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
October 30, 2010 - January 30, 2011

SFO: Madama Butterfly

On Thursday night I heard SF Opera's Madama Butterfly, with conductor Julian Kovatchev taking over from Luisotti & soprano Daniela Dessì replacing the poorly-received Svetla Vassileva. The orchestra sounded light under Maestro Kovatchev, whom I thought dragged. Musically, it was a timid performance overall. The final act seemed to get slower & slower, & the singers often pulled at the orchestra. The principals Stefano Secco & Daniela Dessì have nicely Italianate voices, & Secco has very secure high notes. Ms. Dessì has a soft voice that suggests Butterfly's youth & fragility. She & Maestro Kovatchev did not seem to have agreed on a tempo for "Un bel di", so it did not quite build like it should. My favorite performances were from mezzo Daveda Karanas as Suzuki & Quinn Kelsey as Sharpless. Neither sounds underpowered, & both created strong characterizations.

The picturesque production may be starting to date & look a little kitschy. It features a single rotating set, providing the audience with constantly changing views of the interior & exterior of Butterfly's house. When I realized that the 6 hooded stagehands were only pretending to turn it, though, I thought them unnecessary. The transition between acts II & III is seamless, but the off-stage humming chorus sounded just a little too far away. I felt the same about Butterfly's off-stage singing entrance in Act I, though this may have been due to hearing it from the left side of the orchestra. As one would expect, the performance was well-attended. During the curtain calls, Ms. Dessì made sure that Rebecca Chen, playing Trouble, came forward to join her at the end. I may have fallen asleep during act III, because there are parts of it I don't remember.

Angel Island

Deer on Angel IslandOn Monday I played tourist in my own city & visited Angel Island for the first time since I was a school kid. I accompanied an out-of-town visitor who constantly puts me shame by knowing more about what's going on in San Francisco than I do. There were only about a dozen people on the ferry that morning, so we barely ran into anyone while hiking around the island. I really enjoyed the quiet, with the significant exception of an annoying electronic beep, probably coming from some lighthouse.

Unfortunately the museum at the immigration station was closed, but we could walk around the newly renovated grounds. The decaying buildings at Fort McDowell are strangely picturesque. We hiked to Mt. Livermore at 788 ft & were rewarded with a spectacular 360° view of the bay. We totally lucked out with the weather, which was cool & clear with only a few fast-moving clouds. I am not much of a nature guy, but my companion was absolutely delighted.

The island offers amenities such as food service, tram rides & segway tours, but none of these were available on the day of our visit. The ferry was met by a park ranger, though, who handed out maps & gave directions. We encountered quite a few deer, who were not at all spooked by our presence. We also saw evidence of the fire which swept the island 2 years ago.

Friday, November 12, 2010

SFO: The Makropulos Case

War Memorial Opera HouseWednesday I was in standing room for the opening night of The Makropulos Case at SF Opera. All the elements come together beautifully in this production. Reading the convoluted synopsis before the lights went down, I wished I had done more homework beforehand, but the galloping overture with the off-stage brass band got my attention right away. There was always something amazing going on in the orchestra, which played brilliantly for Jiří Bělohlávek. The textures were vivid yet transparent. I enjoyed the sound of the flute solos & the tight brass playing. Kay Stern played a gorgeous violin solo in the 3rd act.

The cast was excellent, everyone giving equally strong vocal performances & each character having a clear personality. Karita Mattila's voice had the same force whether she was singing very high or very low. She has a kind of animal presence & frank sexuality onstage. In Act II she lifted her foot over her head, did the splits, & put her body into other strange shapes that I did not understand. Matthew O'Neill was grotesquely funny as the ancient Count Hauk-Šendorf, & the audience gave him a round of spontaneous applause at the end of his scene with Matilla in Act II. Susannah Biller, as the gawky young Kristina, sounded solid. Gerd Grochowski was totally convincing as the reptilian Baron Jaroslav Prus. Miro Dvorsky's Gregor was unsettling. Austin Kness & Maya Lahyani shined in their brief scene at the beginning of Act II.

The attractive black & white sets look like large architectural drawings with heavy cross-hatching. Each scene is dominated by a large clock that turns out to be keeping the actual time. All the sets are on a large turntable which we see rotate during the overture. Curiously, the curtain came down at the end of the Act I, causing the audience to applaud before the end of the music. When the curtain came back up, the set had already rotated for Act II.

I came to this performance knowing pretty much nothing about the opera, so I was kept very busy reading the supertitles. I also could not help paying a lot of attention to the orchestra, which drives, comments on & even mocks the action. I was confused by the off-stage men's chorus in the final act, but the effect was other-worldly. In the final moments, the audience gasped when Gregor grabbed the formula from Kristina & set it on fire, a staging which differs from the original scenario.

I arrived early enough to witness the Opera Tattler in the box-level bar as she helped her foppish opera companion get into his tie. SFMike was also in standing room for the 1st half. He had to leave at intermission, but not before bringing me an origami book with lots of great photographs. I should have expected that my favorite degenerate blogger had written the background essay in the program.

§ The Makropulos Case
San Francisco Opera

Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek
Director: Olivier Tambosi
Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann

Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila
Albert Gregor: Miro Dvorsky
Baron Jaroslav Prus: Gerd Grochowski
Dr. Kolenaty: Dale Travis
Vitek: Thomas Glenn
Kristina: Susannah Biller
Count Hauk-Šendorf: Matthew O’Neill
Janek: Brian Jagde
A Stagehand: Austin Kness
A Chambermaid, A Cleaning Woman: Maya Lahyani

Wed Nov 10 2010 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio

3D Glasses at Davies HallJohn Marcher was kind enough to invite me to attend this evening of Beethoven string trios with him, so I arrived at Davies Hall straight from Volti's concert, with my ears still ringing from Flora Tristan. Fortunately these early Beethoven works quickly decompressed my ears. Mutter, Bashmet & Harrell have very different musical personalities, & they were clearly having fun performing together. I liked Lynn Harrell's efficient playing. His pizzicato in the Adagio movement of the Serenade was wonderfully plump. In the Scherzo, he played the short cello chords as if he were angry at Mutter. The audience laughed & was so delighted that it broke into spontaneous applause at the end of the movement. Anne-Sophie Mutter's playing, while very clean, can be rough & slightly harsh. I like how she uses full bow strokes & has an expressive vibrato with at least 2 distinct speeds. Yuri Bashmet was a bit self-effacing, but I enjoyed his soft, almost fluffy, sound. All 3 conveyed a sense of ease & spontaneity, & so I felt very happy too, simply enjoying the music from moment to moment.

The audience greeted the performers warmly, & many gave them a standing ovation at the end. Davies Hall was packed & looked just about sold out. Mr. Bashmet must draw a large Russian constituency, as I was surrounded by Russian speakers all evening. There was a great deal of loud coughing between movements that sometimes threatened to stop the proceedings. The elderly woman seated next to me nodded off at one point, but her husband gently prodded her awake.

§ Beethoven String Trios by the Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio
Great Performers Series

Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin
Yuri Bashmet, viola
Lynn Harrell, cello

Beethoven: String Trio in C minor, Opus 9, No. 3
Beethoven: Serenade in D major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, Opus 8
Beethoven: String Trio in E-flat major, Opus 3

Sun, Nov 7, 2010 7:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall


VoltiSaturday afternoon's performance by Volti was delayed by 10 minutes to give people extra time to find the venue at the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio. Those who lost their way may have included one of Volti's tenors, who slipped in after the 2nd piece on the program. During the opening announcements, another singer was reprimanded when she came in through the wrong door. The venue itself is a shoe-boxed shaped room with a tall ceiling. There were around 60 of us, seated in folding chairs, & this was close to the capacity of the room.

The 1st half of the program contained 4 pieces from different composers. All are in a modern style that is sometimes dissonant but never entirely atonal. They are mostly in 4 vocal parts & do not demand any exotic singing techniques. The composers were all present & looked rather academic. Mr. Flaherty & Mr. Lipten both said a few words before their pieces. The 20 singers of Volti make a very clean, unified sound & they easily filled the live, ringing space. Their ensemble is very close. Unless there was a solo, I could not pick out individual voices.

Soprano Kristen Brown began Frank Stemper's tribute to Senator Paul Simon with a startling, clarion call to arms. The piece, using trite phrases from the senator's writings, feels elegiac & beseeching. It ends dramatically with additional female voices singing to us from the upper gallery. Tom Flaherty set 5 poems by Stephen Crane in alternating fast & slow movements. Each song has a motion that matches the words of the poem, & there is an over-all feeling of story-telling. David Lipten's setting of poems by E.E. Cummings are spare, taut & suspenseful. The delicate "un(bee)mo" was time-stopping. Kirke Mechem set 5 poems about spring from different authors. Each song uses a different musical trope, & the final song -- loud, angry & full of disgust -- quotes the bouncy madrigal that opens the cycle in order to mock its cheeriness.

After the intermission, Kristen Brown & Paul Ingraham, reading from a script, explained the political background of Louis Andriessen's Flora tristan & noted its difficulties for both performers & hearers. We were also told that this performance was being done in conjunction with Artists Against Rape. The chorus is divided into a men's side & a women's side, which move on parallel tracks as they intone a multi-layered text in Spanish, English & French without benefit of melody, melisma or word repetition. The sopranos have to sing relentlessly high, & there are no places for the ear to rest, so the piece is a sonic assault lasting nearly 20 minutes. It ends with several loud climaxes that left my ears ringing. Curiously, a woman seated across from me occupied herself by knitting during the performance.

Unfortunately I had to pass up the dessert & wine reception afterward in order to get to an event at Davies Hall. I did at least grab one of the delicious brownies on my way out.

§ Volti
Robert Geary, Artistic Director

Frank Stemper
: A Brief Message from Makanda, Illinois (2005)
Tom Flaherty: Delusional Paths (2010 Volti Commission, World Premiere)
David Lipten: Time's Dream (2003)
Kirke Mechem: Five Centuries of Spring (1964)
Louis Andriessen: Flora tristan (1990)

Sunday, November 7, 4:00 PM
Walt Disney Family Museum, The Presidio

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Philharmonia Baroque: The Four Seaons

PhotobucketOn Friday night I attended the Philharmonia Baroque concert at Herbst Theatre featuring Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. The 4 concertos, straddling the intermission & bracketed by instrumental suites, formed the core of the program. Soloist Elizabeth Blumenstock's playing was fleet & without much bite. She used music, which I thought compromised her virtuosity, but she was confident enough to ornament some of her lines & flirt a little with the music. The performance had many picturesque details, such as the humorously abrupt cut-off for the violin in the 1st movement of Summer. The orchestra played sul ponticello at the beginning of Winter & seemed to imitate the score to Psycho. There were some strange notes at the beginning of Autumn, as if the soloist had lost her place.

The rest of the program was filled out with chamber suites using the same forces as the Vivaldi concertos. The orchestra plays with an energetic cheeriness, & there is a lot of bobbing up & down. Conductor Nicholas McGegan looks the happiest of them all. I liked his lively gestures of twirling, stirring, tossing & even slapping the orchestra. The opening Corelli Concerto Grosso was stately yet lilting. The elegant Pergolesi Sinfonia sounded very much like the composer's Stabat Mater, the only other piece of his I know. The Zavateri Pastorale, with its 2 solo violins & its depiction of a rural idyll, seemed to continue on from The Four Seasons. Maestro McGegan turned to the audience & quoted Monty Python's "And now for something completely different" before ripping into the fierce Durante Concerto. On the final chord, he swiveled so forcefully that his shoe squeaked loudly.

I'm far from sold on historically informed performances, which I still consider to be experimental. This performance had intermittently wayward intonation, & I wondered whether it was worth it to use the theorbo as a continuo instrument. Though majestic in appearance, its contribution to the overall sound is feeble.

This concert was well-attended. I came with a group of friends with poor time management skills, & we took our seats just as Maestro McGegan stepped onto the podium. He may have noted the commotion & paused briefly before starting.

§ Philharmonia Baroque
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin

CORELLI: Concerto grosso Op. 6, No. 11 in B-flat major
PERGOLESI: Sinfonia in F major
VIVALDI: Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons)
ZAVATERI: Concerto in D major "a Pastorale," Op. 1, No. 10
DURANTE: Concerto No. 5 in A major

Friday, November 5, 8:00 pm
Herbst Theatre

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Miners’ story is the stuff of opera

In today's Financial Times letters to the editor, Mr Tom Brown of Norddeutsche Landesbank makes an impassioned & forcefully expressed case for an opera version of the Chilean miners story, which he sees as evoking Billy Budd, Das Rheingold, La Fanciulla del West, Aida, The House of the Dead, Dr Atomic & Fidelio. Mr Brown ends with this plea:
Mr Adams, Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, Mr Albarn – sharpen your pencils and get composing now: a world premiere with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel would be a fitting acknowledgment that a new Latin America has arrived. Do I hear an offer from Banco Santander to sponsor it?
Those with access to FT online can find the letter here.

SFS: Carmina burana

San Francisco City HallWednesday night's program at the SF Symphony began with Schnittke's jokey Moz-Art à la Haydn, for small string ensemble & violin soloists Alexander Barantschik & Dan Smiley. Conductor Carlos Kalmar & the musicians gave an energetic performance that got laughs from the stage antics as well as the music. Themes from Mozart symphonies survive barely 2 seconds before sagging into dissonances. The ensemble rearranges itself in the middle of the piece, & one of the soloists tunes down his instrument while playing. In a parody of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, the piece ends with the players walking off, leaving Maestro Kalmar tapping on his music stand as all the lights go out. One of my concert companions described it as a piece for classical music nerds. Mr. Smiley got extra applause when he came out for his bow wearing a Giants baseball cap.

This was followed by the equally enjoyable Haydn Symphony No. 97. The tempos were lilting & dance-like, & there were nice terraced dynamics. The end of the 1st movement was punctuated by a single clap from someone in the audience.

Several rows in the 2nd tier that were empty for the 1st half filled up after the intermission for the performance of Carmina burana. Maestro Kalmar's conducting was vigorous & crisp. I liked the clean cut offs & the tempo changes that prevented things from merely chugging along. The famous "O Fortuna" was appropriately monumental while the "Bibit" verses were nicely fleet. Keith Phares has a suave & continuous baritone sound, & he maintained a smoothness even in a high falsetto section. Tenor Nicholas Phan is high-voiced & sang the grotesque swan aria without sounding too unpleasantly pinched or distressed. I wished he had more arias. Soprano Joélle Harvey was wondrously high-voiced as well, & she sang the ridiculously high-flying "Dulcissime" with a supported & unstrained sound. The audience responded to the performance with an immediate standing ovation. The well-prepared children's chorus received especially loud applause.

I was part of a group that sat in the last row of the 2nd tier. Shamefully, one of us was unable to maintain proper audience composure. Another of my concert companions succinctly summed up Carmina burana by noting that the outer "O Fortuna" movements tell us how cruelly fate will throw us around, but the inner movements tell us to grab onto love in spite of it all.

§ Carmina burana
San Francisco Symphony
Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Keith Phares, baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Pacific Boychoir; Kevin Fox, Director
The Crowden School Allegro Chorus; Laura Kakis Serper, Director

Schnittke: Moz-Art à la Haydn (1977)
Haydn: Symphony No. 97
Orff: Carmina burana

Wed, Nov 3, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

SFS: Alice Sara Ott plays Liszt

Davies HallOn Saturday evening I was at my first SF Symphony concert of the season. The program began with Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture, which conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led from memory & without a baton. Pianist Alice Sara Ott sounded more perky than virtuosic in the Liszt Piano Concert No. 1. She was sensitive to her overall context, more in the manner of a chamber musician than a concerto soloist. She received an immediately standing ovation & played a pretty version of Für Elise as an encore. The delighted audience applauded as soon as they recognized the first notes.

With the stage set for György Kurtág's Grabstein für Stephan, it looked like some horrible event had decimated the orchestra. The strings were represented by 3 violas, 3 cellos & a bass grouped at the right edge of the stage. There was a full complement of percussion & brass, but only 1 oboe & 2 clarinets. The piece starts with the open strings of a guitar, then gradually builds to a piercing climax that adds a police whistle to the mix. It then drifts back down to the strumming guitar & closes with a single, very quiet note from the horn, so that the piece does not feel quite symmetrical. Despite the odd instrumentation, it did not seem like a competition between timbres. Maestro Heras-Casado held up the score when he took his bow. Since the piece was relatively short & very compressed, I almost wished that there were time to hear it again.

The program ended with a lot of musicians on stage for the Shostakovich 12. I liked bassoonist Stephen Paulson's incisive & pointed playing in the 1st movement & his plaintive solo in the 2nd. I also like the other soft & long-lined flute & clarinet solos in the slow movement. The final 2 movements were loud & shrill. The performance met with great approval. Many in the audience stood & cheered.

§ Alice Sara Ott plays Liszt
San Francisco Symphony
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Alice Sara Ott, piano

Mendelssohn: Fingal's Cave Overture
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1
György Kurtág: Grabstein für Stephan
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 12, The Year 1917

Sat, Oct 30, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

The Witch of Endor

Witch of EndorOver the weekend I attended Urban Opera's The Witch of Endor, a pastiche of music by Purcell. The site-specific performance took place in the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Union Street. The program began in the courtyard, where an actor impersonating a homeless man recited Kipling's poem En-Dor. The audience was then let into the dark church interior, where a small string ensemble was already playing entrance music. We heard excerpts from King Arthur, Abelazar, The Indian Queen, & other short instrumental & vocal works, culminating in the dramatic scene In Guilty Night. There was also a reading from Samuel by the Rev. Dr. Jason Parkin & a vigorous Caribbean drumming session.

The 5 string players plus harpsichord were a good fit for the relatively small space. The chorus of 36 easily filled the space with sound, & I especially liked their unaccompanied, dirge-like number. As the Goddess of Dreams, Lindsey McLennan sang from the loft above & behind the audience, wearing an overflowing, net-like white dress that she draped over the railing while a large crescent moon puppet was hoisted opposite her.

In the In Guilty Night scene I liked Shawnette Sulker's bright soprano, which was matched by her brilliant orange costume. The Opera Tattler no doubt envied the feathered headdress she wore. As the Ghost of Samuel, John Minagro had a deep & commanding voice. When he entered from behind the audience, it was at first difficult to locate where his voice was coming from, making for an other-worldly entrance.

The spectacle-like staging included a mix of Biblical & voodoo elements, a movie, a clattering film projector, bare-chested soldiers, a scene of physical violence, wafting incense & a procession. At the end, the chorus was revealed to have scary painted faces. When the performers gathered for their bows, it looked like a Baroque Halloween. At barely 45 minutes, though, the event felt thin.

This performance convened a number of local classical music reporters. Joshua Kosman, Lisa Hirsch, John Marcher, The Opera Tattler & Patrick Vaz gathered in a corner of the courtyard before the show. Immediately after the performance I accompanied the Opera Tattler to the airport, where we collected our favorite Belgian blogger. Both of my colleagues reminded me that this was the day 2 years ago that we three first met, at an Alex Ross event.

§ Urban Opera
E.E. "Chip" Grant IV, Artistic Director/Conductor

The Witch of Endor
Music by Henry Purcell

Old Man: Gary Graves
Lector: The Rev. Dr. Jason Parkin
Samuel: John Minagro
Saul: Colby Roberts
The Goddess of Dreams: Lindsey McLennan
The Witch of Endor: Shawette Sulker

Urban Opera Chorus
Urban Opera Orchestra

The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin
October 30, 2010 4pm

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Blogging is like calligraphy

"Writing a blog has become this very old-fashioned thing," said Ben Smith, a blogger and reporter for Politico. "It is like calligraphy or something."

§ Gawker to Drop Old Blog Look
By Jessica E. Vascellaro

The Wall Street Journal
Technology | November 1, 2010

Monday, November 01, 2010

Levi's Vault

PhotobucketWhile waiting for a rendezvous near Levi's Plaza, I checked out The Vault in the public area of the Levi's corporate office. This is a small room displaying items from Levi's company archives, including clothing, marketing materials & other artifacts. A pair of jeans from the 1880s is currently on display, brown & mostly tatters. There's also a video about the conservation process, an interactive kiosk & a motorized display of vintage shirts. The company is currently acquiring more old & rare items for the archive, which is used by designers to research & recreate old styles. Foreign tourists & a visiting family were there when I dropped in, so this must be a known destination.