Friday, March 31, 2006

Rostropovich leads SF Symphony 1

On Friday 24th I went to the hear Rostropovich conduct his 1st of 2 Shostakovich programs with the SF symphony. I sat in the center section of the 1st tier.

The program opened with the Festive Overture, which was very loud & very fun. Almost too loud & too fun, which maybe is the point. Rostropovich likes lots of sound. He often let the brasses just play out, which covered everything else. It was evident that the orchestra was going to play very nicely for him. The ensemble was much cleaner than for any of the other programs I've heard this season. This first piece also put me at ease regarding the conductor's age. Rostropovich must be at least 80, but he walked on & off stage really fast & seemed to have no physical limitations on the podium.

Yefim Bronfman performed the 1st Piano Concerto. I liked his aggressive, almost crazed, approach. He has a really strong left hand & can play very fast & very clear. At every opportunity he just attacked the music. My favorite moment was when he actually stood up to play the chord that punctuates the long trumpet solo in the middle of the 3rd movement. He definitely got the extra sound by doing this!

The 2nd half of the program was the 5th Symphony. I don't think that Rostropovich is a great conductor, but at least he has a musical personality & was shaping the music. He created truly soft pianissimos that left the audience hushed. He can build up to a climax that is heavy, loud & gritty. Rostropovich was at least communicating some ideas about the music. None of the other conductors I've heard this season have managed to do just that.

At the end of the symphony Rostropovich received a huge ovation. When he came back for a bow, he made a point of shaking hands warmly with the leaders of each section. After his 3rd curtain call, he grabbed the concert master & pulled them off stage with him in order to end the evening.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

I have wanted to see his show ever since I first read about it several years ago. So when I found out it was to be passing through San Francisco on a 10th anniversary tour, I got myself a front row seat for opening night, which was last Wednesday 22nd. I went to the show full of anticipation but also fearing that it wouldn't be good as I was expecting.

Now that I've seen it, I think that I must have spent a good portion of the evening staring up at that stage with my mouth half open. It was more theatrical & emotional than I had expected.

Matthew Bourne starts with the same general dramatic situations as the original ballet, but he tells a much richer story. The dancers all have to be very strong actors as well. It's almost like watching a play instead of a ballet. There were moments, like the confrontation between the prince & his mother after the night at the ballet, when you almost imagine you hear dialog.

From the opening nightmare vision of the swan to the final death scene, the show moves "from strength to strength." I was often kept very busy trying to keep track of all the individual little stories occuring on the stage. The bar scene alone was a miniature play, with each dancer having a very specific character with his or her own story arc.

The now famous male swans really are an amazing sight. When the swan appears in act 2, it's not a stick-skinny girl in a tutu. Instead, the swan is a massive, bare-chested man. There is nothing effeminate or coy about these swans. They are beautiful & powerful. But they are also frightening, aggressive & convincingly non-human. The encounter between the prince & the swan expressed mutual fear & fascination. It was animalistic.

Even though the choreography is completely reimagined, it still references the original, as when the swans enter in a single line that weaves its way down stage boustrophedon-like, or when 4 swans trot on stage for a parody of the Dance of the Cygnets.

& still the production keeps building. In the 3rd act party scene, the tension is palpable when the stranger appears & starts flirting with every woman in sight, at the same time casting stares at the prince. When the prince suddenly replaces the queen as the stranger's dance partner, a 3rd of the audience gasped, a 3rd laughed & a 3rd applauded.

& still the tension builds. I found this 2nd extended encounter between the 2 male dancers extremely wrenching. It alternates between gestures of tenderness & violence, & the situation becomes more & more humiliating for the prince. At one point the prince is cringing on the floor in a fetal position while the party guests point & laugh at him. It was such an unbearable moment that I wanted to shout at them, "Just stop it!" Things keep accelerating until people are pointing guns at one another & finally someone is shot.

& still the show keeps building. When the next scene revealed that the prince was in an asylum, I was already dismayed. Then when I realized that all the nurses were identical clones of the queen, I was as scared & horrified as the prince.

The final scene really brings home the cruelty & beastliness of the story's world. There turns out to be no safe haven even in the fantasy of the swans. The show still has stunning moments to present to us, such as the swan suddenly bursting forth from the bed, as if being born. & then the final tableux, which mirrors the opening scene. We realize that everything leads up to this moment, which is so moving & yet so cruel.

I can't really judge the technical aspects of the dancing. My impression is that the dancing is much looser & less technical than in a traditional ballet, though I was very impressed by all the moves the swans did on one leg. I've tried some of these poses in my yoga class, & they aren't easy!

Music for the production was provided by a minimal pit orchestra that was miked. It didn't sound too bad from where I was, right next to the pit, but I wonder how it was for the rest of the theatre. I heard this same type of miked ensemble when I saw Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker at Sadler's Wells, & I thought it sounded terrible there.

The orchestra played well, & I liked the conductor. His tempos weren't too fast, & he knew where all the climaxes were. There were a few forgivable trumpet bloopers. The principal violinist did a good job with the solos.

It's a stunning show & great theater. I'm so glad I finally caught it. I kept thinking about it days later, & the show became darker & darker in my mind. Sometimes I would look at people & start thinking that we're all just a bunch of cruel animals.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Haydn & Mozart's Coronation Mass

This past Wednesday I went to the symphony again, because I wanted to hear the Mozart Coronation Mass. The conductor was Martin Haselböck, who I have never heard before. I bought my ticket 90 minutes before the performance, I got a very good seat front & center in the 1st tier.

Program opened with a Haydn choral work called The Storm. I was confused by the program notes as to what version of this work we were hearing. There seem to be versions in English, German & for chorus & for 4 soloists?

I almost always enjoy the SF Symphony chorus, but for some reason I found them not very interesting in this piece. Or maybe I just didn't think the piece was interesting, or the conductor didn't do much with it. I was already worried about the Mozart, because Haselböck was starting out as one of those deadly Mozart conductors who has an unvarying beat.

Next came an operatic scene for soprana, Scena di Berenice. It was an extended dramatic recitative rather than an aria. In fact, I kept waiting for the singer to launch into an aria, but it never happened. The soprano Christine Brandes gamely emoted through the whole thing. She had a strong voice & communicated the different emotions clearly.

To end the 1st part, Haselböck conducted Hadyn's Symphony No. 96. He was turning out to be not very interesting. There's no rubato in his conducting at all &, like Metzmacher last week, he doesn't balance the orchestra. He also seems to be giving no musical instructions to the orchestra. I thought he was just randomly gesturing to different sections, with no effect on the playing.

The one bright spot in the Haydn was Bill Bennet's high, strong solos in the 3rd movement.

After intermission was the Mozart Coronation Mass. This is the piece I came to hear, but I was having a hard time finding anything interesting to listen to in this performance. The soprano was back as one of the quartet of soloists, & she sounded very operatic, as did the tenor, Steve Davislim, who had a lyrical, bright voice. The mezzo & bass didn't have as much to do.

There was was sloppiness in the orchestra & even the chorus's basses at times were not making a uniform sound. The one big bonus was that Haselböck interpolated the Ave Verum Corpus right before the last movement. I thought the tempo was a hair to fast, but the chorus did a great job sustaining a soft sound throughout. There was an approriately appreciate silence from the audience after this number.

So this past 2 weeks of symphony concerts haven't been very good for me. But now I'm thinking of coming back in a couple of weeks for Rostrapovich's Shostakovich concerts.

Matthias Sings Strauss

Last Thursday, March 2nd I got ticket to hear Matthias Goerne at the SF Symphony. I was thinking about getting a ticket when I got an e-mail from goldstar events with this concert listed, so it was clearly not selling well. I sat in one of the center sections of the 1st tier for $37, which is not too bad.

In fact, the concert was not well attended at all. The hall seemed barely 2/3 full. There were only 6 of us in my row, including a young, professional looking couple who were fidgety the whole evening.

The conductor was Ingo Metzmacher, who I think I have heard before. Program opened with a new piece: Verwandlung (2003) by Rihm. I haven't heard of this composer before. The piece was kind of what I was expecting for something modern. It starts very softfly, with just a few ghostly pitches, then gradually adds more instruments & builds to a climax including all the percussion, then winds down to silence again. There was nothing surprising about it, & it didn't leave any particular impression on me. With new pieces, I think it's really hard to tell if the conductor is doing a good job or not. The audience gave Metzmacher a good response, though, even bringing him back for a second bow. My sense is that they were impressed by the pianissimos he conducted at the beginning & end of the piece.

Then Goerne came out for 7 Strauss songs, none of which I knew. But it didn't matter, because Goerne totally sold me on them. His sound is very beautiful, sustained & warm & his singing very controlled. Some of the songs had solos for Barantschik, so I got a chance to hear more of him. I haven't made up my mind about him yet, though. I always think he looks more like a truck driver than a violinist, but he does a very solid job.

In the Strauss, I started to get annoyed by Metzmacher. He doesn't balance the orchestra at all, & he wasn't keeping the orchestra down enough to support the singer, so Goerne sometimes got covered. Wind & brass solos sometimes just popped out. This contrasted with Gardiner, who did an exemplary job of supporting voices in his concert not nearly as strong as Goerne's.

The program ended with Brahm's Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, transcribed for orchestra by Schoenberg. It turns out to be a colorful if kitschy piece of music. By this point I thought that Metzmacher was barely managing to do a decent job of traffic management. Entrances were not uniform & solos were not balanced. He didn't seem to be doing anything to shape the music.

The last movement of the Quartet is a kind of hungarian rhapsody, with a raucous orchestration of runs & splashy climaxes. The conductor got a big ovation out of the audience by plowing through this loud & fast & so ending the concert with a bang.