Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kelly Goto at the Apple Store

Yesterday evening I dropped into the Apple retail store near Union Square & just happened to catch an interesting in-store talk by Kelly Goto of Gotomedia about top-level issues of Web design for the iPhone. I heard about gestural interfaces, emotional vs. practical brands, ritualistic vs. addictive behavior, lifestyle design, "placelessness", & more. It was sponsored by a Web design conference currently going on called the Voices That Matter Conference. What a catchy name. Of course I'm a voice that matters!

Masur at SF Symphony

This past Saturday night I sat in the 2nd tier of Davies Hall for Kurt Masur's SF Symphony program. Masur is 80 now, & I was glad to see that he is still very vigorous & alert on the podium. There was no question that he was in charge of the proceedings. He was always well ahead of the orchestra & giving good preparatory cues.

It was a program that requires an impressive line-up of performing resources. The Lizst is one of those insane virtuosos pieces, but Lortie gave a very tasteful rendition, dispatching all the technical challenges without seeming to show-off.

I've known about the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, but I don't think I'd ever actually heard it before. It is a curious piece. It probably only makes sense in the context of that famous program (including the premieres of the 4th Piano Concerto & the 5th & 6th Symphonies) for which it was the encore. It reminded me of the Triple Concerto in that in lesser hands it can probably sound like much ado about nothing. Masur did a good job keeping the disparate sections sounding like they were all really part of a whole. It was fun to hear the vocal soloists drawn from the SF Chorus. They did a great job. There were 6 soloists for what seemed to be 4 vocal lines Is it usually performed with the soloists doubled up?

Masur led a weighty & driving performance of Alexander Nevsky that seemed to go by very quickly. The singer for the Prokofiev, Nancy Maultsby, had to sit on stage the whole time waiting for her one big number near the end of cantata. I imagine it must be tough to be silent for half an hour then have to deliver this intense solo.

Liszt - Totentanz
Beethoven - Choral Fantasy
Prokofiev - Alexander Nevsky

Kurt Masur, conductor
Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano
Louis Lortie, piano
SFS Chorus

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Alex Ross at Berkeley

Went to the Berkeley campus on Thursday night to see Alex Ross promote his new book, The Rest is Noise. He gave a half-hour talk with musical examples about 20th century music originating from the Bay Area. He was then interviewed by Cynthia Gorney about classical music in general & took some audience questions. At the top of the interview, Gorney asked him to read his account of the famous Rite of Spring premiere (which she insisted on calling "Rites of Spring"). He started reading, then, as he got to his description of the music, he ran back to the podium & started up a sound clip of the Dance of the Adolescents. He made it a real multimedia event. The whole evening would make a great podcast.

He comes across as very conscientious. He avoided making any critical comments, even when someone asked him for an opinion of Appomatox. In talking about Strauss, he did observe that "there's hardly a piece by Strauss that doesn't have something wrong with it." But for the most part he tried not to be too humorous or provocative. He urged us to seek out smaller, younger ensembles, such as Alarm Will Sound.

I'm a fan of Alex's blog, so I have to admit I was pretty excited about seeing him in person. I bought the book, got it signed & got to tell him what a great job I think he does with the Web.

Outdoor Clothing Market in Hayes Valley

In my roaming around the City on Sunday, I happened upon a hipster clothing & jewelry outdoor market centered around Hayes & Octavia. There's always something going on in the nooks & crannies of San Francisco.

My Kid Could Paint That

Andras Sciff's recital so dominated my memory of last weekend that I neglected to mention I saw Amir Bar-Lev's meta-documentary My Kid Could Paint That. It records the filmmaker's desire to believe, but failure to prove, the authenticity of the paintings attributed to Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old painting prodigy. The film leaves open the question of Marla's talent, but to the audience it looks like a scam. Along the way, the director raises questions about aesthetic judgment, commerce & exploitation in art.

I don't have any doubts about the aeshetic validity of abstract art. When the film shows glimpses of abstract paintings, I can immediately recognize the ones by artists I know: Rothko, Phillip Guston, Motherwell. In this case, the commercial aspect is probably the more interesting. There's a great scene where gallery owner Anthony Brunelli sells a new Marla painting to a somewhat conflicted art patron.

It would be interesting to compare Marla with Wang Yani, the painting prodigy from China who was a big hit with her monkey paintings in the 80's. Marla is getting older & is still selling paintings, so the story is not over yet. I'd be curious to see a follow-up after several more years.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More András Schiff

On Sunday evening I was back at Davies Hall for the 2nd installment of András Schiff's Beethoven Cycle. I was already impressed by his 1st recital, & this evening he continued to go from strength to strength. He states his musical ideas clearly & cleanly. He gives each piece a strong character all its own. The Opus 10, No 2 was so jolly, witty & playful that I had to smile. Opus 10, No. 3 was powerful in the 1st movement, then searching & brooding in the slow movement. A mood of recovery takes over, only to suddenly flit away at the very end. Schiff makes every phrase a statement about something. He was playing with such confidence that evening that I felt he must be at the top of his game.

The 2nd half of the program consisted of a single work: the splashy Pathétique Sonata, with its fiery 1st movement & time-stopping slow movement. This was virtuoso playing, but Schiff's technique was always at the service of the music. He received an immediate standing ovation from the full house at the conclusion of the printed program. By way of explanation for his encore, he told us, "The Pathétique did not come out of nowhere. But Beethoven's model is not Mozart or Hadyn. It is Bach." Schiff then played Bach's Partita No. 2 in c minor, the entire thing, including repeats! It was a vigorous interpretation, almost aggressively pointed & clear. With this encore, he added a whole a new dimension to an already extraordinary recital. It was surprising yet apt, extravagant yet intelligent, grand yet intimate. This was truly ending at the highest possible place.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Angela Hewitt Plays Bach

Last night I was at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear Angela Hewitt's marathon recital of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. It was the last of 3 demanding Bach recitals she gave this week. Hewitt is yet another highly touted, frequently recorded performer that I had never heard before. This recital was well attended by a very committed audience. The people seated on both sides of me attended all 3 of her recitals. "Bach World Tour" t-shirts were on sale. Hewitt is tall & slender & looks really good at the piano.

Yet I have my doubts. There's a sort of undulating movement to her playing, but I was often unsure how she meant to articulate a given theme, even though I had plenty of opportunities to hear her play it. I'd hear the theme once & think there was a crescendo in it. Then I'd hear it again & think, no, she's being equally emphatic with each note. It would come around again, & I would think that maybe she was doing a slight crescendo then dropping off. This vagueness was also evident in the way that pieces ended. Usually Hewitt would do a slight ritard & hold the last chord, but the length of time she held the chord always felt arbitrary to me. I felt like the musical ideas were not clearly stated, & the result was a kind of aimlessness.

I don't want to be totally negative, though. Hewitt performed an impressive physical feat with seeming ease. She even looked good turning her own pages. She exudes an aura of fitness. & we in the audience got to hear some of the best music ever written.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

András Schiff Plays Beethoven

I was at Davies Hall last Sunday evening to hear the 1st installment of András Schiff's cycle of all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I had never heard him before, & I was surprised by the big turn-out for what I thought was a hard sell. For the 1st half, he played the 3 Opus 2 Sonatas. His approach is very intellectual. Each sonata was considered as a whole, with barely a break between movements. During the 1st 2 I was beginning to wonder whether I would find such a rigorous program interesting, but the evening came alive when he got to the 3rd sonata. It was clear that this piece was the culmination of the previous two & that Schiff had a long arc to his interpretation. It was suddenly very engaging. I like his crisp playing & his organ-like chords. The guy was totally performing without a net too, doing the whole recital by memory, which scares me a little. As an encore he nicely mixed things up by offering a substantial movement of a Schubert piece, which he said was "clearly inspired" by the 4th sonata. I was very inspired by Schiff's playing, & I'll be back this Sunday, looking forward to hearing the Pathetique.

I'll just add that the audience was unfortunately very noisy. There was quite a bit of coughing. I was seated near a middle-aged woman who contributed a staccato fit of coughing to each sonata. A cell phone went off in the 1st half & it took at least 2 rings before the owner got to it. Late-comers were seated during the performance, & there were a lot of them, probably because they were unaware of the early start time.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Zine Fest & Sand Castles

As I write this late Tuesday evening, it's raining, but this past weekend we had gorgeous, sunny weather & lots of competing events in the City. On Saturday I went to the Mission to check out the Zine Fest for the first time. It's much more modest in scale than the APE show & much more local, though I also met people who had traveled from other parts of the country for this event. I even bought a few things:
  • Nonsensical is a small, personal & exquisite journal zine.
  • The sensitive stories in Laterborn, by Jason Martin, made me think about being in love, though the subject itself is barely mentioned.
  • I let Andy Hartzell talk me into buying the 1st 2 parts of his Biblical send-up, Monday, even though it may be a long time before he finishes this 5-part series. So far it's very clever & very funny. He better have part 3 the next time I run into him.

After a quick lunch at a Cafe Petra (whose awning plainly lists the four magical elements: Coffee Tea Food Internet), I shared a crowded bus ride to Ocean Beach with people heading to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert in the Park. At the beach I saw the sand castle competition. These sand sculptures were huge! My favorites were the steaming volcano & the animal version of Mount Rushmore.

While I was at the beach I got glimpses of the Blue Angels doing their air show along the water front. I spent the weekend deliberately staying away from my Marina neighborhood to avoid the big crowds that show up for Fleet Week. However, the crowds lingered in the neighborhood long into the night. I had wanted to go to Dolores Park in the evening to see the free outdoor movie, but I became trapped in my neighborhood. I waited over half an hour for the 22 but it never came, so I just gave up. Instead I stayed home, did my laundry & read my new zines.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tannhäuser at The San Francisco Opera

Last Wednesday I was at the San Francisco Opera to hear the new production of Tannhäuser. I was very happy with the the performance musically. I would have much preferred to hear Runnicles in the pit, but still I thought the orchestra played expressively under Donato Cabrera. I hope it was because they were well-rehearsed by Runnicles. The opera orchestra sounds great these days: Uniform playing within sections & beautiful solos, from the flute, violin & clarinet in particular. I never realized that there is such an extensive bass clarinet part. It reminded me of the prominent use of the instrument in Die Walküre.

The cast was uniformly good. Petra Lang as Venus & Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elizabeth were both excellent singer/actors. I liked Petra Lang's earthy Venus. I also liked Eric Halfvarson's weighty & sonorous Landgraf. He got to make his entrance riding a real horse & seemed very pleased with his horsemanship! Peter Seiffert did a fantastic job in the punishing title role. After the lengthy 1st scene with Venus I was already wondering if he would be able to hold out for the whole opera, but I needn't have worried. If anything, he sounded even stronger in the 3rd act Rome Narrative.

I'm not sure who it was exactly, but one of the tenors in the Landgraf's court had this very clear, bright voice that cut through even the big ensembles numbers. I think it was Stefan Margita. Whoever he was, I hope I get to hear him again in a bigger role.

This is a new production directed by Graham Vick. The moment the stage was revealed, I knew we were in for another Eurotrash production. The entire action takes place in a large barn-like, fully enclosed space with a dirt floor & a barren tree stage right. Plenty of wacky shenanigans, often in direct opposition to the action of the opera. For example the famous entry of the guests chorus in act II doesn't accompany the chorus actually entering. The chorus fills the stage during the orchestral introduction, then they start singing with everyone standing still on stage. In the 3rd act, in a shocking departure from the text, Wolfram strangles Elizabeth then sings the Abendstern song over her dead body. I pity someone coming to this opera for the first time & trying to make sense of it. These sorts productions I think only work, if they work at all, for audiences that are over-familiar with the opera in question.

If I had to assess the production, I'd say that it was a series of dream images or hallucinations about an internal struggle between one's higher & lower instincts. But I might be giving the staging more credit than it is due. The local bloggers have already thoroughly ridiculed it:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Amazon MP3 Downloads

I just successfully purchased an MP3 from Amazon's recently launched MP3 download service, still in beta. Being the cautious type, I bought just one track: a solo piano arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue, performed by George Gershwin himself (or so they claim -- I read all about Joyce Hatto in last month's New Yorker, so I don't know what to believe anymore). It was 99 cents, though most of the tracks are for 89 cents. At 15 minutes, this is an extra-long track, so I think it was a bargain anyway. I didn't download the MP3 installer, but once I verified payment, it was just like downloading any file from the Web. The big deal here is no DRM! I copied it immediately to iTunes, then onto my iPod Nano, & I'm listening to it on my stereo now. It sounds pretty good. Plus it's been encoded at 217kbps (VBR) which is a much higher rate than iTunes at 128kbps.

I know that others have had problems, but this simple transaction worked out for me. I guess next time I should try getting a whole album, which does require using their downloader app. I'm a Mac OS X user, by the way.

What's really funny is that Richard Wagner is the top music artist bestseller at the moment. Yesterday I'm pretty sure I saw the Clemens Krauss Ring selling for around $13, but today it's listed at $126.42. A pricing error in the database?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Alex Ross at Cal Performances

Cal Performances has announced an appearance by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross on the Berkeley Campus, Thursday, October 18th, 7:00pm Wheeler Auditorium. Free to the public too! The New York Sun has a very positive review of his up-coming history of 20th century music (via Arts and Letter Daily).