Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bigger Than Jesus

Saturday night I saw Rick Miller's Bigger Than Jesus at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the Berkeley Campus. It's a set of performance art pieces about the cult of Jesus, explicitly structured around the parts of the Catholic mass. Not being a Christian myself, I was not much interested in the content of the show. Really I just wanted the chance to see Rick Miller do something again, after I enjoyed his MacHomer so much.

Rick Miller is a very appealing performer, especially when he is in motion, as when he plays the charistmatic evangelist in the "gloria" section. Otherwise, the most impressive thing about the show is its use of live video projections.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Liszt's Dante Symphony

Friday night I went back to the Symphony to hear Conlon conduct Lizst's Dante Symphony, which I'd never heard before. This performance claims to recreate Liszt's original conception, which was to project a magic lantern show along with the music. While the music played, we saw sketches & paintings that were commissioned for the piece. The images were projected onto a pair of screens flanking the orchestra. Along with the images were inter-titles that narrated the program of the symphony. The inter-titles were helpful, I suppose, but Conlon's pre-concert lecture explained the program pretty thoroughly already. In the end I found myself focusing on the music & not the images.

The piece engaged my attention the whole time. It did a good job following the broad emotional arc of The Divine Comedy. The resembance to Wagner was very evident. The middle section kept sounding like it was about to turn into Parsifal. In the Paolo & Francesca section, there was a passage with 2 clarinets playing parallel intervals that reminded me of the 3rd act of Siegfried. Supposedly there is even a Tristan chord in there among the strangely shifting harmonies, but I must have missed it this time around.

I like Conlon's conducting. He is always comfortably ahead of the orchestra, & has a good sense of proportion. All the sections flowed smoothly from one to another. Most importantly, he made sure that everything was phrased & that expressive points were being made. Conlon made a great case for the music, even if I wasn't sold on the multimedia aspect of the performance.

There was a beautiful, very soft bass clarinet solo in the middle section. The boys choirs made a surprising, mystical entrance by singing from the back of the loge section. A solo voice came from another location of the hall, but I wasn't sure from where. No matter, the effect was appropriately ethereal.

As at the end of this Verdi Requiem, Conlon again sustained a pianissimo ending & held the hall in silence with his upraised left hand for several long seconds after the last notes faded away. He really communicates with this audience.

This concert is part of 6.5 Fridy series. The event begins at 6:30 with a lecture by Conlon. This lasts 40 minutes. Then there is a 20 minute intermission, followed by the symphony, which is 50 minutes in duration. The musicians wear jackets & ties instead of tuxedoes. We were out of the hall by 8:30. Before the performance, I kept worrying about getting hungry during the performance, so I ate a power bar during the intermission. I don't get the purpose of this format.

Monday, June 19, 2006

James Conlon Leads the Verdi Requiem

I've never been a big fan of Verdi, but this past Saturday I heard the performance of the Verdi Requiem that I'd always been waiting for. Impressively, James Conlon conducted the 90 minute concert from memory, firmly in control. That opening pianissimo was done with the unity of purpose that allows 200 musicians to make a softer sound than one person alone could ever achieve.

Besides the always impressive San Francisco Symphony Chorus, we had a powerful quartet of soloists who lifted the level of the performance whenever they sang. The soprano & mezzo were huge-voiced & Wagnerian. The tenor & baritone were commandingly Verdian.

Conlon never let one's attention stray. All the sections were connected & flowed seamlessly together, except for the necessary pause after the Dies Irae. The orchestral textures were always clear, even during the huge climaxes, resulting in a very colorful performance. The approach was more symphonic than operatic, but no less imploring, frightening & thrilling for being so well-proportioned.

At the end of the piece Conlon demonstrated the audience's level of involvement by sustaining our silence with his outstretched left hand for close to a minute. When his arm finally came down, we responded with an immediate standing ovation.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Maid of Orleans

Went to Friday night's performance of Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans at SFO. David Gockley made his presence known before the start of the performance when his disembodied voice made the turn-off-your-cell-phones announcement & invited us to "enjoy the show."

"The Show" is a vehicle for a powerhouse mezzo, & Dolora Zajick delivers. Her voice is strong & loud & especially thrilling when she's belting out the low notes. This is good old-fashion grand opera & has many lyrical moment as well as a very exciting act III ensemble for the soloists & chorus. There's even a mini-immolation scene at the end, when Joan is burned at the stake to the musical depiction of rapidly flickering flames. In fact it was so stolidly 19th century that I found myself wondering why we are still devoting so much of our attention to these works. The audience just laughs at the romantic cliches.

The staging was somewhat post-modern, but for no apparent reason. The chorus is on stage the whole time dressed as a "Modern-day French audience", witnessing the story of the opera played out on a bare stage-within-a-stage. In the final moments, Joan, tied to the stake, is engulfed by a huge plume of stage smoke. When the smoke clears, she has been replaced by a little girl who walks downstage & raises her arms to the heavens. It's a completely unprepared for moment & is rather eerie.

The supporting cast was even & very good. I enjoyed hearing tenor Sean Pannikar as Joan's rejected suitor. His sound is bright & clear & fluid. It was hard to understand why Joan had no interest in him.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Douglas Coupland at Booksmith

I showed up at Booksmith on Haight Street this evening to see if Douglas Coupland would have anything interesting to say. I bought his latest novel, JPod, last month but only read the 1st 60 pages before deciding to put it down for a while. It just seemed like a rehash of Microserfs. Anyway, his appearance this evening was a total bust. There was an SRO crowd, & things got started late. Mr. Coupland showed up clutching a big box of kleenex with his name drawn on it in fancy letters. He was visibly suffering from a very bad cold & admitted to be "flying high as a kite" on cold medication. So he didn't read, & just 4 people asked questions, which elicited only brief, uninformative answers from him. In less than 10 minutes they moved right on to the signing. One of the people who asked a question received the decorated box of kleenex from Mr. Coupland. I used to be a big fan of Mr. Coupland, but his appearance & the new book are both disappointing.