Tuesday, January 29, 2008

American Bach Soloists: Christmas Oratorio

Sunday night I heard the American Bach Soloists perform Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. This light & airy venue could hardly be more appropriate for this concert.

I have to confess that initially I had my doubts, since the Christmas Oratorio is really 6 separate cantatas intended to be performed on different days from Christmas to Epiphany. I didn't even know you could perform them all in one program. It's a lot of notes! The concert took 3 hours, but it was great. First of all, this is some of the most optimistic, positive & healthy music ever written. The performance itself was technically very clean, with some outstanding soloists. One had a sense of this being a gathering of very fine virtuosi.

There was only 1 instrumentalist per part, so it's a very small ensemble. 4 female singers faced off against 4 male singers on either side of the orchestra. The soprano Abigail Hanes Lennox has a high shimmering voice & is an effective actress. She made every one of her numbers into a complete dramatic scene. The soprano Yulia Van Doren makes a large, liquid sound. Mezzo Sonia Gariaeff also has a large, solid voice.

Tenor Derek Chester should have brought down the house with his terrific breath control & exactness in the thrilling coloratura aria "Frohe Hirten, eilt". Tenor Aaron Sheehan did an amazing job as a clear-toned Evangelist. He had no problem with all those high A's, & he topped it all by taking on the final tenor aria "Num mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schreken". This angular & pointed aria must be taxing, especially after all that declamatory singing, but Sheehan dispatched it with seeming ease. I also got to hear my favorite singer from the previous concert, baritone Jesse Blumberg, who makes a beautiful, large & clear sound.

I liked Debra Nagy, playing both oboe & oboe d'amore. She's a very musical performer & makes a nice sound on these extremely nasal instruments. John Thiessen gave a completely confident & clean reading of the virtuoso trumpet part.

Oddly, I never felt like I got a good sense of Jeffrey Thomas's personality as a conductor. I liked that his tempos were not uniformly brisk, as is often the case with HIP groups. But he often seemed to be doing little more than directing traffic & making ritards at the ends of numbers. Perhaps his talent is bring together talented musicians & allowing them to do their best.

It was also a pleasure to be with such an appreciative audience. The house was full, & because of all the colds going around, I was prepared to hear a lot of coughing. Incredibly, this attentive audience never coughed or displayed restlessness. You could feel that people were really listening to the music. There was only applause after the 1st half & at the very end. This respectful attitude of the audience, as much as the fine performance, made this a very satisfying evening.

Tom Dolby at Books Inc.

I dropped into the Books Inc. on Market Street (formerly A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books) for the advertised "Book Launch Party" for Tom Dolby's new novel The Sixth Form. I actually had read his first novel, The Trouble Boy. This first book totally fed into my fantasies about living & working in New York, though the world it describes is totally different from the kind of life I would imagine for myself.

Anyway, Dolby knows how to throw a book party. I snagged a generous glass of white wine & ate some hors d'oeuvres. & since he is the son of local rich guy Ray Dolby, I was in very prosperous company for about an hour. It reminded me very much of the crowd round the bar at Davies Hall just before a performance.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Sudhir Venkatesh at Stacey's

I spent part of my lunch at Stacey's Bookstore & saw Sundhir Venkatesh talk about his new book Gang Leader for a Day. He's a sociology professor who's written a couple of books about a 5 year period he spent hanging out with a street gang in a Chicago housing project. He had a lot of interesting things to say. To
him, the underground economy he was studying is a real "free market". There's no enforceable contracts, government regulations or corporate bailouts. It's actually rational for his subjects not to plan for the future. There are a lot of angles to what he's doing. He has a quiet but strong physical presence. I wished the event were longer so that he could talk more.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Thin is In; Science is a Bust

I got an exhibits pass for the MacWorld Expo at Moscone Center just so I could handle the absurdly thin MacBook Air. Yet another object of desire from Apple. It's very light, & the edges taper, making it seem even sleeker. Its lack of an optical drive would seem to limit its practicality, but I think this is the way of the future. No need for CDs or DVDs; everything is available from the cloud. With the Time Capsule backup appliance, you even backup wirelessly.

After the show, I took Muni out to Potrero Hill, hoping to check out the Ask a Scientist event at the Axis Cafe. However, even though I got there a good 20 minutes before the official start of the event, the place was already turning into a zoo. Clearly, all the seats had been staked out way ahead of time. People were standing around 2 or 3 deep, the line for food & drinks was out the door, & more people were continuing to arrive. I decided to bail on this one, even though I think the concept is excellent.