Friday, August 22, 2008

Wordless Music at Herbst Theatre

Magik*Magik Orchestra
Conductor: Benjamin Shwartz

John Adams: Shaker Loops
Fred Frith: Save As (Joan Jeanrenaud, Cello)
Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Mason Bates: Icarian Rhapsody
Jonny Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver

My curiosity piqued by Opera Tattler's post, I attended the Worldess Music concert at Herbst Theater last night. It was a program of audience-friendly contemporary pieces. If these concerts are aimed at a younger audience, then they succeeded admirably. The house looked full, & I saw lots of untucked shirts & iPhones, & I overheard many conversations involving what people are doing next semester.

The evening started 10 minutes after the hour when the producer, introducing himself simply as Ronen, stepped on stage to say a few words. Besides the usual thank-yous, he made some remarks about there being no distinctions between genres in these days of the shuffle feature on iPod, & wanting to introduce indie rock audiences to classical music & vice-versa. Or something like that. His point wasn't clear to me. He also indicated that many of the musicians are freelancers.

The program started with Shaker Loops, performed by a string septet, led by Benjamin Shwartz. Everyone made it through this non-stop flurry of notes without undue effort. Frith's Save As for cello & percussion was the most entertaining piece on the program. It's a humorous dialog, requiring very tight interplay between the performers. There's a fair amount of extended cello technique & other antics for the duo to perform. They each send a tin can skittering off the stage. The percussionist got extra mileage out of his can when it did an additional fall off the stage after hitting the ground. At another point he takes a page of his score & rips it in half. This is answered later by the cellist, who slowly crumples one of her pages & tosses it away. Other sounds include hammering, a long chain dropping into a metal washtub, a ping-pong ball bouncing along the floor, & a deafening crescendo on bell-shaped sheet of metal. Toward the end there was a nice use of recorded playback, allowing the cellist to accompany herself. After all the mayhem, the piece ends on a calm series of descending notes, with the percussionist giving us a final reminder of the witty opening.

After intermission we had a full string orchestra on stage. Shwartz led them standing on the floor without a podium & without a baton. Everyone looked so young, & I ended up feeling like I was at a student concert. Visually Schwarz fits right in with the young performers, especially in his slim white jeans & black shirt, but I feel like he does not conduct far enough ahead of the orchestra. The Pärt piece is a lugubrious affair in which clusters of sound slowly descend in pitch. Popcorn Superhet Receiver has some fun parts where the orchestra slides together, sounding like that THX trailer with the tuning-up chord. There's also a jazzy section near the end where the orchestra strums, plucks & slaps their instruments instead of bowing.

During the intermission I spotted MTT in the lobby, which I figure gives a stamp of approval to the event. A lot of people were clearly anxious to spot Jonny Greenwood seated in one of the boxes above me. The audience was very attentive & applauded enthusiastically for each piece, though without much stamina. No one got more than one call-back to the stage. There was an immediate standing ovation at the end that stopped as quickly as it started.

I like that the focus seems to be on the programming instead of personalities, though the music really wasn't anything more challenging than you'd find on one of the SF Symphony's more adventurous programs. The recent Alexander Quartet concert featured a George Crumb piece older than anything on this program & far less comfortable.

P.S. I made a special effort to write this up as soon as possible, but I see that Opera Tattler & Civic Center have already weighed in more articulately than me. Curses! I'm sorry that I did not get a chance to encounter Opera Tattler. She was clearly hard to miss in that lovely hat. But I feel we are fated to meet one day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Shifting Cornerstone

Joanna Haigood and Zaccho Dance Theatre
The Shifting Cornerstone

If you are near the corner of Mission & 3rd Street in the next few days between 12pm & 5pm, don't walk by too fast. Otherwise, you'll miss this smart & playful site-specific dance piece. I just hung out there for about 10 minutes on my lunch hour today, & it was very cool. Various characters occupy the sidewalk from the museum entrance to the corner. At 1st glance they could be ordinary people you would expect to see on the street: a gardener, a worried-looking woman in a long skirt, a street person in 2nd-hand clothes, smoking a cigarette stub. While there, I saw the gardener perch atop the wall at the corner, acrobatically balancing a planter. The woman in the skirt ran urgently along the building, clutching a set of large keys. I also spotted her standing watch above the museum entrance. Our street person wheeled around a huge empty picture frame, which had a tag reading "free" dangling from it. He caught me taking pictures of the event & cajoled me into taking pictures of him & then of other passers-by!

There's atmospheric music playing from hidden speakers. The poster frames in front of the museum display pictures of the performers themselves, so the dancers can interact with their own publicity images. There's also the fun of witnessing pedestrians taken unawares by the goings-on. I saw a homeless man settle himself down on a ledge, & I couldn't be sure that he wasn't part of the show. I think it's a pretty smart piece. One of the monitors encouraged me to come back, since the performance is on-going & different characters come & go. Another monitor admonished me to keep away from the curb, as earlier someone was almost hit by a bus. Such are the unexpected perils of sidewalk shows.

P.S. (08.21.2008)
I was by the corner again today with a friend who is studying film music composition, & he informs me that the music is from the soundtrack of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Weekend in New York

I spent a rushed weekend in Manhattan, sampling some of the overwhelming amount of culture they are so lucky to have. Friday night I was at the South Street Pier to see Olafur Eliasson's New York Waterfalls. South Street Pier is a tourist trap on par with our Fisherman's Wharf, but I was there, & it was getting late, & the boat tour was sold out, so I had dinner & viewed the waterfalls from the pier. The Brooklyn Bridge one looked best, I thought, especially lit up. The water looks like it's cascading from the bridge itself. The Governor's Island waterfall was turned off. It was a beautiful night, & looking off in the distance, I saw fireworks behind the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge & a steady stream of dots of light coming from airplanes leaving JFK.

Saturday morning I made a brief visit to the Center for Book Arts to see an exhibit of DIY books. This looks like a great place to take classes. I then headed to the Whitney Museum to check out the Buckminster Fuller exhibit. I had no idea Fuller was such a wacko & a genius. They had a prototype for the Dymaxion car that looks more modern then any car today, & it's incredible to think that it was designed in 1933. Fuller was thinking outside the box in a big way.

Also at the Whitney is a room full of Paul McCarthy's punishing mechanical & video installations, where I experienced getting shut inside his Bang Bang Room.

From there I went to the elegant Fin de Siècle Neue Galerie. This museum may be modest in size, but it is full of distinctive items. I felt indulgent just to be standing before the decadent beauty of Klimt's famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, with its pair of accompanying sculptures. I discovered Max Beckmann's foreboding Self-Portrait with Horn & Schiele's emaciated Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek. This place exemplifies to me New York's cultural resources. It may not be big, but what it has is first-rate.

That evening I attended a dance performance called Requiem, by Lemi Ponifasio and MAU Dance Company. I picked this performance just because it was part of the Lincoln Center Festival & happened to be playing on this particular weekend. I've had good luck with the Lincoln Center Festival in the past, but I thought this show was terrible. Everything takes place on a darkened stage. In the manner of performance art, we get something happening slowly or over & over again until we're tired of it, then another thing, until we're tired of that one, & so on for 90 minutes. It opens with a dancer's naked back twitching & ends with a little boy stacking up mats. A man walks while leaning back at an extreme angle, 3 men with white shirts shuffle around & move their arms in unison, a wild-eyed bird-like woman crosses the stage & shrieks, an old man strikes a suspended fuel cannister repeatedly, a row of men wash their hands, a boy becomes spotted with red drops of blood. Even with the help of the program notes, I couldn't figure out what it was about. The auditorium was perhaps half full, & the audience was very quiet & seemingly attentive, which really surprised me, since the show made me restless & annoyed. I took a chance on this one, & you win some, you lose some.

On Sunday I went out to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. It's famous for its sculpture garden, but of course I got there to find out that this is currently closed for major renovations. However, the pieces on display in the galleries are more than satisfactory, all very tasteful & refined. I also stayed to hear a recital of new music by ACME. This was quite good. The musicians are all very young & very proficient. I liked the sound & the bite of violist Nadia Sirota's playing. This recital also gave me my 1st hearing of the music of Nico Muhly, who I seem to keep reading about in The New Yorker magazine. His piece was in the minimalist style, though with more challenging harmonies. I was even able to discern some of the overall structure. I'm pretty sure I saw him hanging around the back the gallery after the recital. He fit right in with the musicians. They all look like college students.

That night I took the A train way uptown & took in Gorilla Rep's Hamlet on the lawn at the Cloisters. I was greeted by an enthusiastic member of the company who turned out to be Hamlet himself. He explained the concept, which is that the action unfolds continuously around the lawn, so we are encouraged, in fact required, to move around as well in order to keep up with the play. They do the whole text without a break, with the expectation that audience members come & go. The whole thing takes nearly 3 hours, even at the break-neck speed of this production. It felt refreshingly free of directorial concept. Hamlet was as much stand-up comedian as prince. The excellent Player King made me pay attention to his speeches more closely than I ever had before. Their good-looking & athletic Laertes had me thinking that perhaps he was nobler than Hamlet.

It had rained earlier that day, so the grass was really wet, & I was ill-prepared for the outdoor conditions, but I happily made it through the entire show. The Gorilla Rep actors & the audience together made up a pretty scrappy bunch. There were only 16 of us to watch the show & perhaps an equal number of performers & crew. It made me feel well-disposed toward the actors. I wanted things to go well for them. At the end of the evening I found myself on the subway platform next to Claudius, his costume in a garment bag slung over his shoulder. I told him I enjoyed the show, & he in turn expressed his relief that we didn't get rained on. Polonius & the Player King joined him moments later on the same train.

On Monday morning a big storm passed over New York. While I was packing I saw lightning & hail, but surprisingly my plane left the ground only 70 minutes behind schedule.

All that in 60 hours! No wonder I was sick from exhaustion by the time I got home.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Merola Opera's Don Giovanni

On yesterday's windy afternoon I was at Fort Mason for the 2nd performance of Don Giovanni by the Merola Opera. There's no pit in Cowell Theatre, so the orchestra is on the floor, quite exposed to the audience. I was seated in a row about mid-way to the back of the auditorium, & I probably wouldn't have wanted to be any closer. This is a good venue for Mozart, although one sometimes heard sea gulls squawking during the performance. It's nice to step onto the pier during intermission.

The entire cast was solid, all of them good actor-singers. Amanda Majeski as Donna Anna was a stand-out from the moment she opened her mouth in the 1st scene. She is a commanding presence both vocally & dramatically & already has a weighty sound. Her Act I aria "Or sai chi l'onore" was a highlight of the show. David Lomelí demonstrated great breath control, dispatching each of the long phrases of Don Ottavio's Act II aria in a single breath. Carlos Monzón had a warm stage presence as Leporello, & Joélle Harvey was a very cute Zerlina.

The orchestra was a bit less consistent. A couple of the violinists had persistent intonation problems. The 1st stand violinist doubled on the mandolin, with some difficulty. We had to forgo the-on stage bands in the Act I & II finales. We did have the necessary extravagance of trombones, though. The poor fellows crept to their seats half-way through Act II & sat with their heads down, looking asleep, as they waited for their assignments. The woodwinds sounded good, & I liked the flute.

The staging was pretty busy. I guess with young singers there is no problem having them run around, collide, wrestle, & roll around on top of each other. 4 supernumeraries were kept busy as the Don's abused servants. One of them was Civic Center blogger.

There were a lot of people waiting for returns, so this must have been a sold-out show. Merola only put on 2 performances, but I'll bet they could have sold a 3rd show easily.