Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Travesties at ACT

I caught the Sunday matinee of Tom Stoppard's 1974 Travesties at ACT. I'm not a big fan of ACT, but curiosity about the play got the better of me. The play is pretty crazy. It's a debate about the role of the artist in society in the form of a theatrical farce. It seems like to get anything out of it, the audience has to be very familiar with The Importance of Being Ernest, James Joyce's Ulysses, Shakespeare, Dada, the history of the Russian Revolution & World War I. & I'm sure there were other ideas in there that went right over my head!

The production was somewhat abstract. It starts with a completely blank, white stage. Props & sets fly in, glide in from the wings or rise from the below. From time to time a large circular map of Europe slides along suspended from the procenium. The library has book shelves floating in space at improbable angles & upside-down. Cartoon sound effects might accompany a bit of business. I'm not sure that this struck the right note, though. I suppose that this all reflects the highly artificial construction of the play, but I wonder if it would have been more interesting to stage it as if it were in fact a traditional farce. Then there would be the tension between the apparently conventional trappings of a drawing room comedy & the highly charged political & philosophical themes of the play.

Whenever I go to an ACT show, I'm struck by how the audience seems somewhat elderly. I also find myself wishing the performances were crisper. It's like I want to tell the actors, "Wake up! There are people out here!"

Dawn Upshaw at the SF Symphony

On Saturday night I was at Davies Hall to hear Dawn Upshaw. She sang an atonal song cycle called Time Cycle by Lukas Foss. I'd never heard her before, & I was at this performance with a friend who is huge fan of hers. She has a very easy-going, down-to-earth stage presence & a very pleasant, even voice, so it is easy to see what her appeal is all about. With unfamiliar music like these songs, the only comment I can make about this performance is that she sang absolutely everything, & this went a long way towards selling the songs. The piece itself is not obviously lyrical & has the disjointed lines characteristic of serial music, but Upshaw made everything sustained & connected. It never came out declamatory or sounding like sprechstimme, which is another way that the songs could have been delivered.

The rest of the program consisted of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini Overture & Brahms 4. I like MTT's programming, but as usual I did not find him a very interesting conductor. He wanted a lot of sound for the Berlioz, but the brasses were too loud & covered the strings whenever the played. I've heard MTT conduct Brahms 4 before, & I think his loud opening for the 2nd movement completely strikes the wrong mood.

Voices of Kurdistan

On Friday night, went to Cowell Theater, Fort Mason for a concert of Kurdish music sponsered by the San Francisco World Music Festival. This was the 1st of 3 concerts of Kurdish music. This night featured a singer from Turkey called Aynur. She sang 2 sets, backed by 4 musicians: a violist, a lutist, 2 percussionists. I'm completely unfamiliar with this music, but it seemed to be a combination of folk songs & original songs written in the folk tradition. The songs varied from sorrowful to angry to humorous to defiant. Aynur is a powerful singer who grabs your attention & refuses to let go.

The theater was perhaps less than 3/4 full, but the audience was very enthusiastic. I heard a lot of Turkish spoken in the lobby before the show.

The only thing I really disliked about the performance was that all the musicians were amplified electronically. When Aynur was belting into the microphone, the sound was so loud it was painful. I don't understand why the amplification was necessary. My feeling is that the instruments & her voice are plenty loud enough to be heard in that hall without any artificial amplification.