Tuesday, March 27, 2007

American Bach Soloists: Early Bach Cantatas

This Sunday evening I heard American Bach Soloists in a program of early Bach cantatas at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. This turns out to be a very good venue for this program. The church interior is bright & not too large. I overheard people commenting that the new organ had been inaugurated on this day's service.

The American Bach Soloists are an early music group. The ensemble plays Baroque instruments, & they employ the economical practice of one performer per part (though they double the bass line with a sort of double bass listed in the program as a violone grosso). This extends to the vocalists as well, so even the choruses are sung by just the quartet of soloists.

Besides translations of the text, my program included music for some of the hymns. At the start of the concert the conductor explained that for the cantatas with final chorales, these chorales would be repeated, with the audience joining in. & indeed, after the 1st chorale, the conductor turned around, there was a blast from the loft organ, & just about everyone in the audience sang. I found that there was a particularly enthusiastic tenor right behind me.

I don't know enough about the development of Bach's music to understand the programming, but this is incredible music. Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt BWV 18 makes one feel the rightness of putting ones faith in God. The wedding canata Der Herr denket an uns BWV 196 manages to be both joyful & solemn, as befits the occasion. Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12 says everything there is to know about anguish.

For me Baritone Jesse Blumberg was the star of the show. He has a voice that sounds strong & large enough for opera. I felt like he was always making a point when he sang. & he seemed very happy to be there. Also exceptional was Stephen Hammer, playing the Baroque oboe. This must be a demanding instrument, & he had surprisingly full sound that was never pinched or squeaky. The program gave him many opportunities to display his evident musicality. I also liked the tenor Aaron Sheehan. He has a clear, clean, high sound that is well-suited to this music.

I had the impression that most of the audience are regulars & fans of this group, so there was a nice rapport between audience & performers the entire evening.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Blomstedt leads Mendelssohn's Elijah

Last Friday night I was at Davies Hall to hear Blomstedt lead the SF Symphony & Chorus in a beautiful & absorbing performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah. Blomstedt maintained a dramatic flow over this huge 140 minute piece & made it as good as a night at the opera.

It's a big cast. There was a large chorus that spilled out of the terrace onto 2 additional rows on stage, plus 2 quartets of singers representing angelic voices, plus 4 principal soloists, plus a boy soprano in a small but pivotal role.

The slightly reduced orchestra put the balance in favor of the voices, as it should be. The most dependable performance of the evening was from baritone Alan Opie. He has a thick, somewhat Wagnerian voice. I quickly learned to be confident of hearing expressive & sustained singing every time he stood up. The tenor Christoph Genz was also remarkable. He had a wonderfully clear, bright sound that must be fantastic for Mozart.

I felt swept along by Blomstedt's even pacing. The performance never dragged, yet every number was given proper weight, & often one number simply flowed into the next one. The audience expressed their involvement by their silences between numbers.

During the ovations at the evening's end, Blomstedt demonstrated extra gratitude to the players by wading into the orchestra to acknowledge solo work by the principal by cellist (Peter Wyrick?) & oboist Bill Bennett.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Now holding auditions

"Now holding auditions for the boyfriend position" -- Announcement on T-shirt worn by weight-lifting jock at the gym today.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Stuff I should have blogged in February 2007

The Cartoon Art Museum had a very clever exhibition of rejected New Yorker cartoons. As one would expect, the cartoons are off-color, inappropriate, tasteless & very funny. But then, it must be quite demoralizing to have your work rejected from the rejected cartoons exhibit.

I was an innocent bystander at the pillow fight in Justin Herman Plaza on Valentine's day.

Stuff I should have blogged in January 2007

The Painted Veil isn't a bad movie, but it felt like an extra-long episode of Masterpiece Theatre. In the next week I heard Lang Lang's recital at Davies Hall. As an encore, he performed a piece from the sound track of The Painted Veil, which he is on. Lang Lang is kind of a cross between a classical musician & a pop star. Of course his playing is technically very proficient, & he has very fast fingers.

Jennifer Koh & Reiko Uchida recital at Herbst. Both are exceptional young players, each with a distinct musical personality. I liked the Jennifer Higdon premiere. It used a very cool technique where the pianist imitates the violin pizzicato by reaching into the instrument to stop the strings.

The Children of Men
was an unpleasant & very well-done science fiction thriller.

I heard my favorite pianist Radu Lupu give an ethereal performance of the Mozart d minor concerto with the SF Symphony.

Stuff I should have blogged in December 2006

Saw 2 programs at the SF Silent Film Festival at the Castro: Silly Symphonies (1929 - 1935) -- Hey, these aren't silent at all. Anyway, these must have been real novelties when they 1st started appearing. Instructive to see how quickly they evolved technically & artistically, with Fantasia being the culmination of the series. Chicago (1927) -- A typical product of the era, showing that cynicism & tabloid journalism are hardly contemporary obsessions.

Carmen at the SF Opera. An unexceptional performance, & I've seen this production many times before, but this is such a perfect opera that I can always find things to enjoy in it.

Russian language production of Twelfth Night from the Chekhov International Theatre Festival at the Zellerbach Playhouse. Beautiful, luminous, this was the kind of performance that really draws you in. I was practically weeping for joy. It was a real shame that the house was only about 2/3 full.

Attended the Conservatory Orchestra's 1st concert in their new hall. Very exciting & very loud! Very nice moment in the Saturn movement of The Planets when the conductor Alasdair Neale put down his baton & used his hands to elicit lush, romantic playing from the student orchestra.

I haven't seen the Nutcracker at the SF Ballet in decades probably. New production set in Edwardian San Francisco. Watching all those women standing on their toes got a little tiresome for me. I guess ballet is not really my thing. The pit orchestra has some really good players nowadays, though.

Yundi Li at the SF Symphony

I attended this subscription performance on Wednesday evening. The conductor was James Gaffigan, who was a new name to me. He's the new associate conductor of the SF Symphony, so I suppose I will be getting to know him much better.

The 1st half of the program was Brahms 3, which I am always happy to hear. Bill Bennett did a beautiful solo in the 3rd movement. However the orchestra seemed kind of detached from the conductor. I felt that Gaffigan was conducting along with the piece instead of leading it.

After intermission Yundi Li played the Liszt Concerto in E-flat major. Of course he's another technical prodigy. In one of the lyrical sections, he played the fastest trill I think I have ever heard on the piano. In passages with rapid chords his hands were just a blur. His understated, delicate style of playing was at odds with the virtuoso character of the piece, & this made it a very interesting interpretation. For instance, the 1st movement has some of those extravagant runs that you would expect to be played with a big flourish. Instead, Yundi Li executed them lightly & evenly, in a more Mozartean way.

The program ended with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, which is fun to listen to (2 harps & 9 percussionists!), but also always reminds me of when the plane lands in the opening of Fantasy Island.

I sat on the last seat at the left hand end of the row, half way down the orchestra section. The sound was fine & I had a good view of the keyboard.

Rules of the Game at the Castro

On Monday night, I did one of my favorite things to do in the City on a weekday. After work I went to the Castro, ate a quick slice of pepperoni pizza at Escape from New York, then saw an old classic at the Castro Theater. This evening was Renoir's Rules of the Game, which I had never seen before. In fact, I didn't know anything about it, other than that it is supposed to be a genuine classic.

It's about a bunch of horrible French aristocrats in 1939 attending a hunting party. The sequence that surprised & impressed me the most was the actual shooting party, which lays out the hunt in clinical detail. We see how the hunters are stationed, how the game is flushed out of the woods, even the death throes of the unlucky animals. It is also the backdrop for a key recognition scene & a set-up for the fatal climax of the story.

I enjoyed the movie very much. The story unfolds so logically & inevitably that you feel like the director didn't do anything but just tell the story in the most straightforward way. But of course it takes a lot of art to make something this seamless. I felt that even though it was old & potentially very dated, it still evoked exactly the audience reactions that the director intended. I suppose that's what being a classic is all about!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

I read several reviews of this movie, & it kept sounding like something I would like. It's a damning look at how the Stasi destroyed the lives of innocent citizens. At first, I thought I could see exactly where the story was going, but then it went into unexpectedly deep territory. Instead of a cat-and-mouse game between the spies & the spied-upon, we see how the spy Wiesler is changed when he comes to identify with the famous playwright he is conducting surveillance on. The movie is long & humorless, yet I was completely engrossed. You feel dismayed by the fatal climax, but then there follows a 3-part epilogue that leads to a surprising & emotional moment of redemption. The ending might even make you sniffle a bit. I think I will remember Ulrich Mühe's performance as Wiesler for a long time. His character never betrays any outward emotion, but Mühe must be acting from deep inside, because you can always tell what Wiesler is feeling.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Stuff I should have blogged in November 2006

On the 11th heard the San Francisco Choral Society perform the Mozart C Minor Mass at Calvary Presbyterian. Another of my favorite pieces, & I enjoyed hearing it in this setting with a big community choir.

Gidon Kremer gave an incredible "After Bach" recital at Zellerbach Hall on the 16th. It was all pieces by Bach & 20th century works that related to Bach in some way. He performed with a young pianist & an amazing vibraphone player that I remembered hearing with the Kremerata Baltica. Kremer is one of my favorite performers. His playing makes me feel nervous, but in a good way. This was a program with pieces in widely different styles, yet somehow it all went together perfectly. Highlights of the evening were impressive solos by each performer. Kremer did the Bartok Solo Sonata. The pianist gave a profound intepretation of 2 Bach Choral Preludes. The percussionist Pushkarev performed clever jazz arrangements of 3 Bach Inventions & flirted shamelessly with the audience. I was thinking about this recital for days afterwards.

I checked out the Art of Gaman exhibit at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art. I'd never been to their little space right near Moscone Center. This was an exhibit of arts & crafts done by inmates of the Japanese American Internment camps of WWII. I was especially glad to see Obata's drawings of daily life in camp. It's a compact exhibit, easy to take in within a half hour. It's also very educational & seems geared for school groups. For example, to demonstrate how small the living quarters were, they erected an open room in the center of the exhibit space that has the dimensions of a typical barracks occupied by 1 family. I liked the window display for the exhibit. It is an installation of strings of paper cranes that form the design of the American flag & behind it an evacuation poster.

I saw the latest Aardman/DreamWorks animated feature Flushed Away. I was in a theater with mostly mothers & their young children, & I think I found it funnier than most of the kids. I loved the character Sid & his shirt that seems to be made from Y-fronts. & the Ninja frogs with their mime. But what about those slugs singing "On the dock of the Bay"? Who is this movie really for? Kids aren't going to get that!

The SF Symphony had a really fun holiday subscription concert. They screened Chaplin's City Lights with the orchestra playing the original score live. Darned impressive feat, though in the end I'm not sure that having a live orchestra improves the experience of seeing this most perfect of classic movies.

Thanksgiving weekend I was in Los Angeles, & I dragged my host to the newly refurbished Griffith Park Observatory. Very cool historic building & lots of exhibits, but we both agreed that the planetarium show, which I expected to be the highlight of the visit, was incredibly lame.

I generous acquaintance brought me to Herbst Theatre on the 28th to hear the Rossetti String Quartet's program of Mozart, Debussy & Dvořák. This was an odd act. The members are all tall young men, & they looked like they were trying to be the boy band of string quartets. My concert companion referred to the seemingly muscle-bound violist as "The Boxer". In the 1st half he wore a big gold chain & a shirt unbuttoned at the top. When he came out for the 2nd half, he was wearing a bandana. They each play well, though their individual styles are mismatched.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Stuff I should have blogged in October 2006

October 6th to the 11th, I attended the Ring Cycle at the Orange County Performing Arts Center featuring Gergiev & the Kirov Opera. The orchestra was the real star of the show. It's full of young, amazing musicians. This is one of those orchestra where everyone really plays out. The singers, with the exception of Domingo, were Russian, & all were terrific actors, which really went a long way, because this was the worst staging I'd ever seen for an opera. No director is credited. Apparently there was originally a German production team, but something must have gone horribly wrong, & they dropped out.

I'm a big fan of Gergiev, & he did not disappoint. His conducting is so muscular & exciting. He led a very speedy Ring, especially the Siegfried. None of the singers were Wagnerians in the traditional sense, so it was instructive to hear everything actually sung instead of declaimed or "barked". I was even happy with the two Siegfrieds we heard. Their competent singing & exuberant acting showed me that it is just possible to have a dramatically convincing & even likable Siegfried.

I was astounded by Domingo. He must be in his late 60s, but his singing was so romantic & ardent & his acting so convincing that there was no need to make any concessions for his age.

Incredibly, on one of their days off from Ring pit duties, Gergiev & the Kirov Orchestra gave a concert of Shostakovich Symphonies 6 & 5 across the street in the newly inaugurated Segerstrom Concert Hall. Their performance was strong & exciting. They have some really terrific players. At times I felt like I was hearing one outstanding solo after another. Still I can remember the beautiful harp solo & the piercing trumpet solo.

It is too disconcerting to record that the day after Götterdämmerung I drove to San Diego to spend the afternoon at Legoland marveling at incredible Lego models?

Attended a book event in the Haight on the 21st for the release of Best American Comics 2006 published by Houghton Mifflin. Local artists Justin Hall, John Porcellino & Esther Watson showed slides & talked about their work. It was nice to have something to look at. Comic book authors are not quite the same as literary authors, & it isn't always enough to hear them just talk. Harvey Pekar was also there to talk about editing the collection. As far as I can tell, he is exactly the cranky curmudgeon he appears to be in the American Splendor movie!

I heard Midori play the Britten Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony on the 25th. Her playing was as moving & exciting as always & showed off her gasp-inducing technique: Passages very high up, double stopped harmonics, left-hand pizzicato, left-hand pizzicato plus artificial harmonics...The piece doesn't miss a trick. Every time I hear her play a concerto, that piece instantly becomes my favorite violin concerto.

Sat in the dress circle at the San Francisco Opera for Tristan on the 27th. Runnicles was the star of this show. He lead a fluid & tender interpretation, & the orchestra played beautifully for him. I was disappointed by the aimless staging. The only directorial idea occurred at the very end when the already "dead" Tristan got up, walked over to Isolde & embraced her as the lights went down. I guess this is one way to give the story an uplifting ending, but the moment was unprepared for. I had high expectations for Christine Brewer's Isolde, but both she & the tenor Thomas Moser seemed to conserving their voices throughout the entire evening. It felt like they were singing with only a fraction of their true powers.

Saw the Silent Theatre Company's Lulu at the Victoria Theatre on the 28th. This was very cool. It was a staging of Wedekind's Lulu, inspired by the Louise Brooks movie. There was no dialog. Instead, the young & athletic cast mimed the action in the style of a silent movie. The costumes & settings were all various shades of white, black or gray, & the actors faces were painted silver. A pianist at the side of the stage provided a driving musical accompaniment that was in a modern jazz idiom that evoked the 1920s. They even had inter-titles that were projected above the proscenium. In fact, I think I spent a lot of time marveling at the precision of the timing of these titles. There would be a black-out on stage, the actors would freeze, & the titles would appear, all at the same time. & sometimes there were a lot of titles within a scene!

They had a very convincing Lulu who exuded a feeling of sex & flesh. The whole production had a strong physicality to it. The characters danced with each other, tussled with each other, made love to each other, abused each other. Lulu's murder was a visceral horror. Best of all, the cast seemed to be having a lot of fun. When the audience left the theater, they were waiting outside on the sidewalk to thank us for coming! At that moment I noticed a school bus, painted with signs for the show, parked in front of the theater. Did they tour with that bus?

On Halloween night, I had an orchestra seat for the SF Opera's revival The Barber of Seville. I'd seen this production when it premiered a few years ago, & I thought it would be fun to see that big, spinning 2-story house again. I'm a sucker for spectacle like that. I'm also a sucker for Nathan Gunn & his athletic stage presence. This time around I was impressed by the singing of a young baritone called Eugene Brancoveanu in 2 small roles.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Conservatory Baroque Ensemble

This past Saturday evening there were probably too many choices for things to do in the City: The Chinese New Year's Parade, the last performance of John Adam's A Flowering Tree at the Symphony, a city-wide scavenger hunt starting at the Embarcadero. For my fun I dropped into the Conservatory of Music's new concert hall to hear a chamber-sized performance of Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day & the Bach Magnificat done by the Conservatory's students. The new space is very comfortable & ideal for small ensembles. When I heard the official opening concert with the full Conservatory Orchestra, at times it seemed like actually too much sound.

The performance was along the lines of John Eliot Gardiner's performance practice: A small but focused chorus of 18 with about the same number of instrumentalists. I'd never heard the Handel before, & I really enjoyed this piece. It's so Baroque. Every number has a different, distinct mood, with different instrumental accompaniments. I especially liked hearing the guitar accompanying one of the arias.

Of course the Magnificat is such a magnificent piece, it's always good to get a chance to hear it.

Murray Perahia at Davies Hall

Monday night I sat in the 1st tier of Davies Hall to hear Murray Perahia's very classical recital program: Bach Partita No. 2, Beethoven Sonata No. 15, Schumann Fantasiestücke Op. 12 & Chopin Ballade No. 4. I'd never heard him before, although I see his name on dozens of recordings every time I am shopping for CDs. He is a very technical performer. Everything is incredibly crisp, even & clear. He has an amazing portamento. I was impressed by his controlled technique & classical restraint, but I wasn't very moved by the recital. He made everything sound almost too even. There isn't much difference between the way he plays Bach & the way he plays Chopin. I enjoyed his Schumann Fantasiestücke, though. The wild contrasts of mood came across very well in his playing. But overall I was more impressed by his technique than his musicality.

The hall was nearly full, including the terrace seating, so Perahia clearly has a following. He got a very warm response from the audience the moment he stepped on stage. He is one of those performers that needs very little preparation time. He walks on stage, bows briskly, sits down, & starts playing. At the end of the program he got an immediate standing ovation. He returned twice to play Chopin encores.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Flowering Tree at Davies Hall

I was very excited to be at the U.S. premier of John Adams new opera on March 1st at Davies Hall with the SF Symphony. Alex Ross has already given a perceptive account of the premier production in Vienna. The SF performance got the same soloists, conductor & director. Having the conductor at the podium made it even more of an occasion. This was one of those few times when at the first hearing of a serious work, I found it accessible & interesting & wanted to hear it again.

The work is supposedly inspired by Mozart's Magic Flute, though in this production it was a mix of cultural traditions: American minimalism music, Tamil love poetry, Javanese ceremonial dance, & more. It has a libretto that is in English for the soloists & in Spanish for the chorus. The music had a lot of ethereal orchestral colors & evoked Debussy, Stravinsky & Wagner, especially his Parsifal. The 2nd act even opens with a parody of the overture to the Ring. The critics are also
hearing major references to Sibelius, but I don't know his symphonies well enough to get these.

The music is based on repeating, pulsing, vibrating rhythms & tonal harmonies. Scattered among the constantly moving orchestral background are melodic solos, sometimes for unusual instruments. In particular there were solos performed beautifully by Barantschik & by the trumpet. But there were also striking solos for bass clarinet, bassoon (in a very high register), contrabasson, French horn & recorder. I had expected some electronic instruments, but Adams uses a traditional orchestra, with the addition of lots of percussion & 2 recorders.

Despite being in Davies Hall & having the Orchestra cover 3/4 of the stage, the evening was quite theatrical. It started when the chorus entered the terrace. Instead of black concert dress, each chorus member wore a different brightly colored shirt or blouse. The over-all effect was pretty & very festive. Musically the chorus turns out to be very important. They have some of the best music in the opera. The lively & boisterous choruses are the 1st things that really catch your attention.

Most of the action took place on three roughly circular platforms, painted like the insides of a geode, on the right of the stage. There was also a platform at terrace height in the back left corner of the stage. It was a small space, though, & it was a little scary to watch the male dancer up there as he went through intricate moves balancing on one leg or doing a momentary one-handed hand-stand.

There were 3 singers, one acting as a narrator, the 2 others portraying the lovers of the story. They shared the stage with 3 dancers from Indonesia. I think that part of the concept was to have something on stage that countered the restless movement of the music. So these dancers performed in what is apparently a traditional Javanese dance style that moves very slowly & deliberately. The women seemed incapable of making an awkward or ungraceful motion. They often gave the feeling that they were moving underwater. It was very mesmerizing to watch.

The singers were great & very well matched. The soprano Jessica Rivera sang particularly beautifully & expressively. She was also a great actress. Even when she had to roll around on the stage intertwined with the dancer to represent Kumudha as a stump, she managed to sing wonderfully. It was a complete performance.

I'm not a fan of Peter Sellars as a director, & this staging was typical of his style. He always keeps you very busy trying to keep track of what is happening on stage. There were many moments when I couldn't decide what I wanted to focus on. At other times the staging just looked really awkward, as when he had the large tenor bent over the small male dancer to represent the Prince's misery.

I'm not sure what to make of the story yet. It was a sadistic fairy tale. It doesn't have a conflict in the classical sense, though there is an over-all arc having to do with loss, suffering & reunion.

Reminiscent of Dr. Atomic, it ends spectacularly with an extended orchestral crescendo depicting Kumudha's final transformation. For a moment there is a major chord, then there is a long suspension in the chorus & orchestra, & finally only the notes of a major triad sounding. This was followed by a loud & enthusiastic ovation that was clearly for Adams, though he modestly refused to take a solo bow during the curtain calls.