Friday, March 28, 2008

Eric Alterman at Stacey's

Wednesday, March 26th

I spent part of my lunch hour at Stacey's Books & heard Eric Alterman talk about his new book Why We’re Liberals. Mr. Alterman is very much the New York intellectual. He started out by digressing wildly about Finland, a country he recently visited & found "very cool". There is no private education there. It's not possible to buy an education that's better than anyone else's. & if Bill Gates got pulled over for a traffic violation, he might have to pay $80,000, since fines are not a set amount but instead based on a percentage of income. Good idea, eh?

The book seems to be a critique of how liberalism has failed in the popular culture. I didn't realize that "liberal" had become such a dirty word. Politicians reject the label, as do voters, even though issue by issue most people in fact agree with the liberal stance. The preferred label nowadays is "progressive".

By Mr. Alterman's definition, liberals "embrace the legacy of the Enlightenment". Plus they hold the belief that government should step in where the market does not allocate resources well. Conservatives say, "You're on your own."

Conservatives have successfully gotten the liberal label associated in a negative way with issues that they don't want to address, such as universal health care, unions & the role of religion in stem cell research. Mr. Alterman partly blames liberals themselves for not defending their beliefs better.

Other problems he calls "God's fault". For instance, conservatives spread themselves out, while liberals are concentrated in cities. So states with small populations have disproportionate influence. A vote in Wyoming or Alaska counts more than one from California.

In Mr. Alterman's view, Bush won in 2004 because people didn't trust liberals on security. Even though more people thought that the war was having a negative impact on the nation, they also thought that Bush would do a better job at security than a liberal.

It was nice to drop in on such a smart discussion. The crowd was definitely larger than usual & asked well-informed questions.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gustavo Dudamel leads the SF Symphony

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky The Firebird

The 26 year old Gustavo Dudamel is rapidly becoming a major phenomenon. His 1st appearance with the San Francisco Symphony has been sold out for months, & any returns that came in went right back out. I was excited to attend & be part of the buzz.

Obviously on this program the Firebird is the main event, but 1st came the Rachmaninoff Concerto. Before Mr. Gerstein came on stage, I was a little worried for him. The orchestra was huge, & it looked like he was going to have a tough time competing with it. However, Gerstein turns out to be a piano playing machine, & his sound is heavy enough to hear against the full orchestra. He gave an athletic performance which earned him a scattered standing ovation.

The Stravinsky was Dudamel's chance to show off. This is a flashy piece. It required 3 harps on stage! If Dudamel had simply pulled out all the stops & gone fast & furious, the audience would have loved it. Instead, he gave a surprisingly controlled reading. He challenged the orchestra to sustain expansive tempos in some of the slower, atmospheric episodes. The result was restrained & musical.

The orchestral balances were excellent. Even during the big climaxes with the whole orchestra playing, I could discern individual sections. Dudamel made seemless transitions between the numbers. It seemed like one whole instead of individual pieces.

He definitely inspires a sense of unanimity from the orchestra. They all played as one under him. There was so some nice solo playing as well. I especially enjoyed William Bennett's gorgeous oboe solos.

Dudamel looks great on the podium. He makes fluid movements with his entire body that are as expressive as a dancer's. In fact he looked like a dancer a lot of the time. A couple of times he was even jumping up & down. & to make it all the more impressive, he conducted the entire Firebird confidently without a score. Unsurprisingly Dudamel received an immediate standing ovation. During the long ovation, he amusingly made the orchestra turn around & acknowledge applause from people in the terrace seats. My concert companion rightly commented, "What's not to like?"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

La Rondine at the Castro

The San Francisco Opera has also gotten into the HD arena, so I was at the Castro Theatre Monday night to see last season's production of La Rondine. As at most evenings at the Castro, someone was there to play the organ before the show. I questioned the appropriateness of doing this before an opera, but we did get a pleasant medley of operetta & opera tunes as well as the traditional "San Francisco".

The experience is pretty similar to the Met HD Broadcasts. It's full of close-ups that make you feel like you're sitting on the stage with the singers, who are all dramatically convincing. There were no hosted segments or backstage features, which was fine by me. The sound seemed to lag behind the image just a fraction, so I think there was a slight synchronization problem. The audio balance sometimes seemed out of whack. For example, during a number in Act II a glockenspiel rang out louder than anything every time it was played.

This was my 1st time encountering La Rondine. It's sort of a collision between La Boheme, La Traviata & Die Fledermaus. I thoroughly enjoyed the opera & this production. I wish I had seen it live. The production tells the story in a straight-forward way, free of directorial concept, except for updating it to the 1920s. The gorgeous art-deco sets & costumes turn out to be a good fit for Puccini's glittering orchestration.

This production was clearly a star vehicle for the attractive, long-limbed Angela Gheorghiu. She has a high, bright voice & an openly sensual stage presence. During a lull in Act I she takes off her shoes & messages her legs & reclines suggestively over the arm of a sofa. She is constantly in motion, & on the big screen this at times translated on the big screen into a distracting restlessness. Anna Christy gave a great character performance as the pert maid Lisette. Misha Didyk sounded forceful & acted well, though his sound is not very Italian. Phillip Skinner sounded solid in the thankless but necessary role of Rambaldo. Ion Marin's conducting was lush & romantic. He's also got great hair.

We were a very enthusiastic Castro audience, applauding at the curtain calls as if we were there in the opera house. Of all the operacasts I've seen so far, I had the most fun at this one.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Peter Grimes in HD

Saturday, March 15, 2008
The Metropolitan Opera HD Live
PETER GRIMES Benjamin Britten

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Production John Doyle
Set Designer Scott Pask
Costume Designer Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Designer Peter Mumford

Hobson Dean Peterson
Swallow John Del Carlo
Peter Grimes Anthony Dean Griffey
Mrs. Sedley Felicity Palmer
Ellen Orford Patricia Racette
Auntie Jill Grove
Bob Boles Greg Fedderly
Balstrode Anthony Michaels-Moore
Rev. Horace Adams Bernard Fitch
First Niece Leah Partridge
Second Niece Erin Morley
Ned Keene Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Boy Logan William Erickson
Villagers Roger Andrews, David Asch, Kenneth Floyd, David Frye, Jason Hendrix, Mary Hughes, Robert Maher, Timothy Bresse Miller, Jeffrey Mosher, Richard Pearson,
Mark Persing, Mitchell Sendrowitz, Daniel Clark Smith, Lynn Taylor, Joseph Turi

I got to the Westfield Mall at 9:45am, way before the broadcast start of 10:30am. There was already a line waiting to get into the theater, which hadn't opened its doors yet. & this for an opera that I would consider a hard sell!

I've never heard this opera before, so the things that made an immediate impression on me were the descriptive sea music & the climactic 3rd act chorus. I found the characters to be a uniformly unpleasant bunch. I don't buy the concept of the ambiguity of Peter Grimes's guilt. He is negligent, abusive & a menace. The problem is that no one has a good way to deal with him.

Musically this sounded like a terrific production. It was fun to see our own Donald Runnicles in the pit. He gave a lot of shape to the music. In his intermission interview, he praised this opera for its pictorial & psychological qualities. The sweet-voiced Anthony Dean Griffey displayed complete identification with his character. Felicity Palmer gave the best & funniest acting performance as the addled & gossipy Mrs. Sedley. Teddy Tahu Rhodes seems to have a commanding & powerful voice.

The production style is abstract & at odds with the more naturalist music & action. The flat set & static staging probably aren't well-suited for a broadcast presentation. Perhaps seeing those walls move back & forth works better in the theater.

A wild-eyed Natalie Dessay was the broadcast host. There was one nice intermission feature that went live to Aldeburgh, where the opera is set & where Britten lived. A presenter stood outside the local cinema where people were watching the broadcast. Must have been interesting to be in that theater & watching a live segment showing the theater you are in!

Eugene Brancoveanu

Eugene Brancoveanu, baritone
John Parr, piano

GERALD FINZI: Let us Garlands Bring
SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe
RAVEL: Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Nebbia (encore)

Early Wednesday evening I had a rare opportunity to hear art songs in the type of small setting for which they were originally written. There were about 70 of us squeezed into a salon next to the bar in the Hotel Rex. In this little room Brancoveanu was accompanied by the self-effacing John Parr on a baby grand. For me it was a privilege to hear this singer in such an intimate venue. Since one passes through the bar to get to the salon, many members of the audience sat down with glasses of wine. A lady in front of me had a margarita.

Brancoveanu is young, charming & immediately likable. In the first set of songs by Finzi he demonstrated clear diction in English & made the contrasting moods of each song distinct. He is also a great actor. He made it easy for me to follow the emotional path of Schumann's Dichterliebe. He went quickly from innocent joy into bitterness & sarcasm, then to an angry & then a calm despair. Even though he did the rest of the program from memory, he grabbed a score for Aus alten Märchen. He had a lot of fun with the Ravel Don Quichotte songs, hamming it up tastefully as a wide-eyed happy drunk in the final number.

I like the full sound of his low notes. He sings with a lot of control. Even when he was making a lot of sound, it seemed like he could do even more. He ended his encore with a couple of thrillingly big high As. In that small room, it was something you felt physically as well as heard.

This was mini-recital with about an hour of music. Afterwards, Brancoveanu did a brief Q & A session. We learned that his voice changed when he only 9. He claimed to be able to do a high B-flat in the cadenza of Figaro's aria in Barber. He can sing both Mozart's Figaro & Rossini's Figaro, which is apparently unusual. He talked about doing Baz Luhrmann's Broadway-style La Boheme. He had to develop a new stage technique for Luhrmann, which he thinks has served him well, as opera is becoming more cinematic & more realistic in its acting style.

Even though the recital had started at 6:3pm, it was the high point of my evening. Not so for the people seated behind me. As soon as Brancoveanu finished his encore, the woman behind me stood & announced to her party, "& now we go to dinner!"

Monday, March 10, 2008

SF Opera broadcasts at the Castro

A co-worker just forwarded this announcement that there will be SF Opera broadcasts at the Castro Theatre. The schedule is a bit odd, as they are all Mondays. Who's going to be there on a Monday at 11:30am?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bad Reviews for Doyle's Peter Grimes

I've already come across 2 pans in the print media for John Doyle's direction of Peter Grimes at the Met. I'm not a Benjamin Britten fan, but the chapter on him in Alex Ross's book made me feel inadequate in this regard, so I'm planning on checking out the Met broadcast of this event. Or should I?

Wall Street Journal: A Staging Better Heard Than Seen

San Francisco Chronicle: Runnicles energizes Met's 'Grimes'