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.


The Opera Tattler said...

I meant to point out that MTT was spotted but didn't quite know how to fit it in my review, so I'm glad you mentioned that.

I had an even more difficult time than usual pulling together my thoughts on this concert, because it didn't involve vocalists. Civic Center was definitely first. ;)

Civic Center said...

Glad you finally got to meet The Opera Tattler at "Die Tote Stadt." Hope to run into you myself. All the best, Mike Strickland

Axel Feldheim said...

Yes, it was a real treat, & Opera Tattler knows how to party at the Opera House! Would be great to run into you, Mike, sometime when you are not busy on-stage. I do enjoy the backstage glimpses you give us.