Saturday, April 28, 2007

Berlioz's Damnation of Faust

Thursday night I was at Davies Hall for the SF Symphony performance of The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz, led by Charles Dutoit. At over 2 hours with no intermssion, it's long for a symphony night but short for an opera. It's an extravagant show, with soloists, large orchestra & chorus, & it gets even bigger at the end when, in a theatrical moment, the boys & girls choruses enter & fill up the terrace for the final moments.

Very good performances from all the soloists. Willard White's Mephistopheles was the stand out. His voice is deep, large, round & slightly metallic, & he acts with both his voice & his movements.

The tenor Gregory Kunde was also very dramatic. At moments the part is very high, & I felt like he took risks to get those high notes out without belting. I saw mezzo Ruxandra Donose as Poppea at the SF opera several years ago. I remembered her as very attractive & very affecting, & I had the same reaction this night. Her singing of the story of the King of Thule was appropriately melancholy.

I liked Dutoit's conducting. I felt he was in control of the character of the music at all times. He's always well ahead of the orchestra. Sometime he shapes the orchestra's playing by not conducting at all. There were great solos from the English horn & the viola. The violas might be the best section in the orchestra these days. During the applause, I saw our English horn soloist get a pat on the back from her stand partner.

Though a few people bailed towards the end, the audience was very quiet & not at all restless. A couple of times there was applause during the performance from one or 2 patrons, but otherwise the audience withheld its reaction until the very end. I actually wouldn't have minded some applause during the performance. It would have made it feel more like an opera.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Marino Formenti

This past Saturday evening I was torn between 2 concerts: Bach's B-minor Mass performed in Berkeley by the Netherlands Bach Ensemble vs. the last installment of Marino Formenti's modern music recitals, "The San Francisco Piano Trips". These were obviously going to be very different experiences. I opted for Formenti, & it was quite a show, as much performance art as classical music recital.

It was held in the Koret Auditorium of the de Young Museum. I hadn't been there before. It's a very comfortable space below ground level. It probably holds around 400, has stadium-style seating & very wide seats. The performing area is on the same level as the 1st row of seats, so there is no elevated stage.

It was a very high-tech set-up. At one side of the stage a piano was surrounded by a half dozen or so portable radios. At the other side of the stage was a piano surrounded by jars & vases of various sizes, shapes & materials. Each had a microphone suspended inside it. Center stage were 2 pianos with the keyboards placed at 90 degrees to one another. The pianos were miked, & wires ran all around the floor.

At the start of the recital Formenti came out, looking serious & slightly sheepish, acknowledged the audience, & barely sat down before I heard a loud, sharply attacked chord. I wasn't prepared, & it was so startling I jumped in my seat. He had my attention for the rest of the recital.

I got to witness a lot of wild piano techniques. Each piece had its own peculiar technical challenges. Formenti often had to move abruptly between intensely loud & extremely soft. He made the jars sound by striking notes on the piano that caused them to resonate sympathetically. He taped small microphones to his index fingers & played the piano not by depressing the keys but by running his fingers rapidly over the keys, creating clattering glissandos. He played 2 pianos at the same time. He played exhausting passages of tone clusters with his fists & forearms. The John Cage piece, among other stunts, calls on the performer to the play the piano with a hammer!

The program had a lot of variety. It was clear that every piece had at least 1 interesting idea that was being explored. & it always felt like it was music, even during the Cage piece, when Formenti was scanning radio stations or striking the inside of the piano with a hammer. In fact, I'm still thinking about this Cage piece.

Of the 9 composers on the program, the only name I recognized was John Cage. Because the repertoire was so completely new to me, I felt like I couldn't really judge whether these were good interpretations or not, even though I liked Formenti's performance very much. I wish there were more opportunities to hear programs like this.

Marino Formenti spoke to me! During the intermission many of us in the audience milled around the stage, examining the score on the piano & checking out the electronic set-up. The stage crew were having a job keeping people from going behind the pianos. At one point I looked around the back of a piano & discovered a stand with a small Chinese teapot with a wire going into the spout. All of a sudden Formenti was in front of me pretending to cover the teapot with his hands & saying "You discovered my secret!" I was too startled to respond. Formenti should be pleased to know that when he revealed the teapot's role at the recital's finale, it was still a surprise.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

APE 2007

It was such a nice day on Sunday, but I spent most of it indoors at the Alternative Press Expo. This show gets bigger every year, & the stuff on display keeps looking more professional. A big draw was the chance to see Art Spiegelman & Gene Yang on a panel discussion. I came home with a handful of short comics, including the latest Optic Nerve, which I am looking forward to reading. I also bought the absolutely massive, 500 page Cavalcade of Boys by Tim Fish.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ignite at Web Expo 2.0

Sunday night I checked out the Ignite event at Web Expo 2.0. Ignite events originated in Belgium & have been held in Seattle & now here. The task this evening was to select 3 keynote speakers for the conference on Wednesday. 16 speakers are each given exactly 5 minutes to pitch their company or concept. Each speaker comes armed with 20 slides, changing every 15 seconds. The slides prompt the speakers & keep them within time. At the end of each round of 8 speakers, the audience votes, via text messaging. I just checked the final results, & I have to say that I agree with our audience choices.

The topics ranged widely, though they were supposed to be more or less related to the Web & new technologies. I was impressed by author Timothy Ferriss. If he's not already a media darling, he soon will be. Jordan Schwartz gave a talk about beekeeping which is probably the ideal Ignite presentation. It was totally unexpected yet somehow relevant. Oh, & Justin of Justin TV gave a talk too, so I was probably on Justin TV that night!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Spring Chick at Marc Jacobs

The Marc Jacobs store in Pacific Heights currently has a window display that is way cuter than it sounds. On weekend afternoons, shoppers can have their picture take with a giant costumed yellow chick. The store puts the picture in the window. I sometimes wait for the bus in front of this store, & the pictures & the photo shoots are totally fun to see.

Cherry Blossom Festival

This weekend & next weekend is the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown. It was raining Saturday morning, so I put off going, but then it cleared up, so I went in the afternoon. The parade is next Sunday. I like to check out the origami exhibit. Very amazing transformer-like robot figures folded from foil paper. A lot of interesting things folded out of dollar bills, like a little model car.

MTT Embarrassed

The San Francisco Symphony had a mini-Stravinsky festival the past 2 weeks. I attended the program on Wednesday night which consisted of Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the Apollo ballet music & the Symphony of Psalms, as well as a clarinet concerto, Fantasma/Cantos by Takemitsu.

MTT likes to talk before the pieces, & he spent a good 8 minutes before the Apollo enthusiastically explaining how full of "delights" it is. He had the orchestra play excerpts to demonstrate how some of the part writing works. One of the excerpts was Barantschik's lyrical violin solo, & this amounted to a kind of musical spoiler.

Midway through the Apollo there was a false start to one of the movements, signaled by tentative notes from some violinists. After a pause, there was another false start, then MTT saying "sorry" to the orchestra & flipping pages of his score. At this point everyone in the audience could tell that something had gone wrong. MTT made a joke of it by making a show of shuffling the papers on the podium. He appeared to have lost track of which movement to start. On his third try, he got the next movement going.

I've never seen such an obvious flub occur on the podium before, & it was a bit heart-stopping to witness the performance come to a halt. I didn't feel safe or confident for the rest of concert after that. Joshua Kosman's review of the concert in the Chronicle referred to it as a "mishap".

Happier moments of the Apollo included Barantschik's beautiful violin solo & then a duet with Mark Volkert(?). I hadn't realized what a deep, mellow tone Volkert has.

After intermission, MTT had the soloist Richard Stoltzman speak about the Takemitsu concerto & play the prinicpal theme, which again was a spoiler. For me Stoltzman's playing was the highlight of the evening. He has an incredible sound, almost piercing. There are brillant high notes, mellow low notes, a big dynamic range. The piece is meditative, wandering, & has a dense orchestral texture. The clarinet plays almost continuously, & Stolztman was expressive throughout.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Friday night I was at the Exit Theatre to see a production of Woyzeck by The Cutting Ball Theater. I've been to this venue for fringe shows, & it's a pretty scrappy operation. Before they open the theater doors, we're crammed into a small lobby, then when they let us in, we're crammed into 4 tight rows of chairs. There's a lot of crawling over people to get to a seat. I overheard someone remark that it's like getting on an airplane.

The show is performed by a committed cast of 9 young actors. The action moves very quickly. It's a spare, expressionistic production. It takes place against a white-washed wall of cubbyholes, filled with ordinary & not so ordinary house-old objects. There are lots of lighting effects & sound effects coming from different parts of the theater. The sounds are not quite noise & not quite music. The show has a hallucinatory feeling, like perhaps some of it is only happening in Woyzeck's head.

I'm seen Woyzeck in its operatic version, & I expected the Woyzeck character to be this bluff ox of a man. Instead, our Woyzeck (Chad Deverman)is tall, slim, sensitive & exceptionally good-looking. His scenes with Marie then became very sensual & sexy.

The murder scene was especially powerful. We know what's going to happen, but Marie is entirely unaware. When Woyzeck embraces Marie & they take a few dance steps together, we seem to get a peek into an earlier, more tender phase of their relationship. This makes it all the more terrible when he pulls out his knife. Unfortunately it's not a swift death. Woyzeck discovers that it takes a lot of stabbing to kill Marie, & he eventually has to slit her throat, at which point she becomes a wide-eyed corpse, her eyes rolling back into her head.

Woyzeck is a grotesque play & must be very challenging to produce. It's clearly fragmentary, though every scene just as clearly raises an important issue. & it's hard to feel positive about any of these issues raised. When the performance ended in a sudden black-out, the audience sat in still silence for several seconds before someone started the applause.

Monday, April 02, 2007

KDFC SF Opera Broadcast

Last night was the first broadcast of the SF Opera by KDFC Classical 102.1 FM. On the 1st Sunday of the month for the next several months KDFC will be broadcasting previously recorded performances from the current SF Opera season. This is another of General Director David Gockley's innovations, & I approve.

This first broadcast was Puccini's Manon Lescaut, led by Donald Runnicles & with Karita Matilla in the title role. The program was all meat. There were just short breaks between acts to give the plot summaries & the cast, & there was minimal advertising.

In a brief interview before the broadcast, Gockley said he chose this performance to open the series because he wanted to start off with his best. No kidding. I hadn't heard this opera before, & its sensationalism grabbed me immediately. Manon is transported to a prison in Louisiana in the 3rd act, only to die on a plain outside New Orleans in the 4th act! (Made me wonder what an opera Puccini could have made out of McTeague.) The orchestra sounded great, Matilla is a dramatic powerhouse, & I'm sorry I missed it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

R. Crumb at YBCA

Yesterday I went to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to check out the R. Crumb exhibit. I really like his drawing, though, I've never been much interested in the content itself. I think this is because I don't share any of his obsessions. Nevertheless, I like the idea of a museum exhibit about his work, & I definitely wanted to see it.

It's a fun show, & the work itself needs no explication. However, the exhibit doesn't have an organizing principle. Perhaps this is because Crumb's sensibility appears to have been fully-formed from the start. Even though the works are from several decades, they reveal no obviously stylistic development or chronology. Perhaps the curators could have provided a background or context. I came away mainly with an aesthetic appreciation of his work.

Looking at his drawings confirmed my suspicions about Crumb's virtuosity as a draftsman. It's unusual to see any kind of under-drawing or corrections. Even the pages from his sketch book show that he rarely has to restate any line he puts down.

The wall text seems a bit defensive at times. It makes the point that Crumb's becoming mainstream is not indicative of him "selling-out". He is positioned as someone who was an artist in his own right starting in the 60s, a complement to the abstract & formalist art movements of his time.

The wall text accompanying a cartoon with explicitly racist content states that Crumb is demonstrating the prevalence of racism in American society. I'm less convinced by this explanation. Of course the black female in the cartoon is an obvious caricature. But I don't think that we are meant to see it with any sense of distance. To me it looks like Crumb just found the caricature very attractive & accessible. He liked it.

Appropriately, a lot of the visitors were baby-boomers who were no doubt Crumb's original audience back in the 60s. There was even a family with their college-age son.

Vänskä conducts Sibelius

On Thursday night I was at Davies Hall to hear the SF Symphony lead by guest conductor Osmo Vänskä. The program started with a show piece for orchestra called Louhi, written by Finish composer named Kalevi Aho in 2003 for a Finish youth orchestra. It's only about 10 minutes long, but lots of things happen. You feel like you are exposed to lots of different moods & orchestral colors, but none of them linger for long. The piece ends quietly & ominously.

Emanual Ax played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat. Ax is one of those famous artists that I don't think I'd ever actually heard before. He has a very low musical profile. He's not flashy & doesn't try to make big points, but his playing is efficient & serves Mozart very well. This is an amazing concerto, by the way. There's as much interest in the orchestra as in the solo part. In the 2nd movement there's a section for woodwinds only. It's like all of a sudden we're listening to the Gran Partita for 2 minutes!

Ax is clearly a well-loved artist. There was a big turn-out to hear him, & he received a bouquet of flowers on stage.

After intermission we heard the Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor. It's standard, un-challenging Romantic fair, & I enjoyed the performance thoroughly. Vänskä has ideas, & he works hard to get them across. His cues look very clear, & he'll shake his arms at the musicians, encouring the most vigorous playing. At times he looks like he's wrestling with the orchestra. I like his conducting. I was originally interested in this concert because of Emanuel Ax, but it turned it out that Vänskä left the bigger impression on me.