Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hilary Hahn Plays Tchaikovsky

San Francisco Symphony
Fri, Nov 28, 2008 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

James Gaffigan, conductor
Hilary Hahn, violin

Tchaikovsky: Voyevoda, Symphonic Ballad, Opus 78
Tchaikovsky: Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 35
Glinka: Kamarinskaya
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus 10

Thanks to an indulgent benefactor, I was able to attend this splashy program of Russian works & to hear Hilary Hahn for the 2nd time in a week. There is no denying her clean & crisp technique. Even her vibrato is very fast & tight. I'm sure that she hit every note in the score. I found her interpretation emotionally cool, however. She obviously had a lot of fans in the hall, & they gave her a standing emotion. In return she gave us an encore, the Sarabande from Bach's Partita #2 in d minor, I believe. It was pristine.

Associate conductor James Gaffigan was visibly busy & hard at work on the podium for this packed program. He's boyish & enthusiastic. At one point during a bouncy portion of the Kamarinksaya, he turned to the audience & yelled something, in Russian, I presume.

I like the way the piano leaps out of the orchestra in the 2nd movement of the Shostakovich. Since Shostakovich was a piano virtuoso himself, I can't help thinking that it's meant to represent him. There are important solos in the final movements for all sections. I liked the nice fat-sounding solos from Barantschik & Grebanier in the last movement. During final bows, even the timpanist got singled out for his exposed drum roll passage.

P.S. Mr. Gaffigan is on this week's NACOcast podcast doing color commentary on the tonality & structure of Beethoven's 1st Symphony.

Short Reads About Music

Bringing improvisation back to classical music:
Making Up the Classics
Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2008

Time for Three, mentioned in the sidebar, will be performing in the Morrison Artists Series at SF State on Sunday, December 14, 2008. These concerts are usually free.
Trouble marketing Yundi Li:
Why Yundi Li Got Cut
Wall Street Journal
November 28, 2008
Gilbert Kaplan, dedicated Mahler amateur, is still at it:
Desperately seeking Mahler
The Economist
Nov 27th 2008
The horn is really hard to play:
The Economist
Nov 27th 2008

Practice, Practice
Wall Street Journal
December 1, 2008


On Black Friday I avoided the shopping hordes but sat in a packed house at the Castro Theatre for the Milk biopic. Even though I & my friends arrived more than half an hour before the show time, we ended up in the back of the balcony. Still, there is no better place to see this movie, right on the block where much of it occurs.

As a San Franciscan I found the movie factual & moving. It's hard not to get emotional seeing Dianne Feinstein's announcement of the assassinations or footage of the famous candlelight memorial march. Even so, I feel like the director kept a cool head & dramatized many sensitive events without sensationalizing them. Sean Penn does a fantastic job depicting Harvey Milk as a man who is determined, capable, happy & brave. Josh Brolin looks just like Dan White & is equally convincing in his portrayal of him as frustrated, repressed, jealous & yet still human.

I don't know if Milk was an opera fan himself, but Tosca plays a prominent role in the soundtrack & in the staging of Milk's death in the film. I was impressed to discover that this is not mere artistic license. SF Opera had a performance of Tosca the weekend before the killings.

A woman in the row in front of me brought her small white dog to the theater, & it sat on her lap for most of the show. After it was over, I wondered aloud if the dog liked the movie, & she assured me that her dog was an out & proud gay pooch.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Coming Up: Sing it Yourself Messiah

San Francisco Sinfonietta Presents
Sing it Yourself Messiah
Davies Symphony Hall
December 14, 2008 - 7:30pm

I participated in one of these many years ago. It's nice to know that music is one of those things where faking it is still an option.

The Legacy of James Simon

While I was at The Legion of Honor yesterday to see Leonardo, I did a quick stroll through their other special exhibit, The State Museums of Berlin and the Legacy of James Simon. This show highlights the patronage of James Simon (1851-1932), an important philanthropist of the era & a German Jew. It's an exhibition of diverse works, spanning cultures & millenia. It's a something-for-everyone show, though it lacks a single artistic theme.

I enjoyed most the 1st two rooms of Egyptian & Babylonian artifacts. I was intrigued by the Babylonian Kudurru, a football-sized black stone covered with cunieform & topped with a band of pictures. I wish there was more wall text explaining it. I was surprised by the presence of Buddhist items collected from the Silk Road. This stuff must have looked very exotic to late 19th century Germans. In the last room, I was charmed by Renoir's portrait In the Summer & both fascinated & disturbed by Luca Giordano's violent & pretty St. Michael.

Leonardo Drawings

Yesterday I made a trip to The Legion of Honor to view Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. They have 11 drawings plus a slim codex on display. In cases where Leonardo drew on both sides of the sheet, the pages are mounted so that we can see the backs as well. The images include rapid doodles, anatomical studies & finished pieces. As one would expect, the level of observation & detail is very fine. Leonardo's gaze must have been intense. In addition to the artistic images, there are samples of Leonardo's mirror writing & his thoughts about manned flight. Makes one realize how much is possible with the mind, hand & eye.


Yes, it's definitely a kid's movie, but I had more fun than I expected seeing Disney's Bolt in 3-D on Tuesday evening. It's got cute characters & a great story that might even say something about the gap between one's self-perception & the reality.

The movie opens with a complex reflection in a store window that gradually becomes transparent to reveal the space inside. The movie is a showcase of these types of elaborate setting & lighting effects. In almost every scene I would spot some detail & be thinking, "Someone had to program that..."

It's also full of great character animation. Everyone's favorite character must be Rhino, the gung-ho hamster, rolling around in his ball, whose dialog is mostly made up of bad movie cliches ("It's a good day to die!"). There's even plenty of life in the realistically designed pigeons & the cartoonish movie studio staff. Actually, the pigeons provide hilarious spot-on parodies of New York, L.A. & Mid-West personalities.

I'm rarely up on the latest movies, so I was surprised by how many previews there were for animated films coming up in the next 6 months:
  • The Tale of Despereaux (Universal)
  • Ice Age 3 (Blue Sky)
  • Monsters vs. Aliens (Dreamworks)
  • Coraline (Laika) -- The art looks really interesting, kind of like Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
  • Up (Pixar)

Origami at MOCA

On Tuesday I visited the Museum of Craft & Folk Art to check out a few more astonishing examples of origami by Robert Lang & Linda Mihara. Their pieces are part of a small exhibition of paper art called The Shape of Things: Paper Traditions and Transformations. The Lang portion includes a diagram of a crease pattern & an example of an intermediate folding stage, but I still don't see how the final product, an exquisite dragonfly, is achieved. Mihara is represented by some of her spheres of interconnected cranes. I've seen instructions on how to create connected cranes, but it's a mystery to me how Mihara gets the cranes to join back on themselves to form 3-dimensional shapes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hauschka at Hotel Utah

Wrist stampThis is not an event I would have considered attending on my own, so I'm thankful to a friend for inviting me to tag along. I'm unhip enough never to have been to the Hotel Utah, so it was an experience just to get my wrist stamped, to avoid stepping on the dog in the bar, & to catch the attention of the preoccupied bartenders. For once I can say that I was not one of the younger members of the crowd.

The show itself was a mixed bag, offering different types of performers & styles but not making up a cohesive evening of music. It was made even more bizarre by the surprise appearance of violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn, who is doing Tchaikovsky with the Symphony this week.

The line-up started with chamber works performed by musicians from the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Violinist Gloria Justen performed 3 of her own solo compositions. Each piece has a distinct character & allows the soloist to do a certain amount of showing off. Her performance also incorporated electronic effects. An oboe duo performed Ecstatic Dances (originally for 2 flutes) by the Australian composer Ross Edwards. The pieces are meant to evoke the natural landscape of Australia. They make extensive use of musical echoes. A guitar & flute duo performed a Terry Riley elegy called Francesco in Paraiso.

Next up was a lanky guitarist/singer/song-writer called Tom Brosseau who did about half a dozen songs. I have to admit that I couldn't tune into what he was doing, except to notice that all his songs rhyme. There seemed to be a heavy dose of irony going on, but I couldn't be sure. Hilary Hahn made her 1st appearance at this point, accompanying him tentatively.

Ms. Hahn then performed 2 solos. I had never heard her play before, & I almost fell over when she announced she would play Ernst's version of Schubert's Erlkönig. She has a super-clean technique, yet plays with an understated virtuosity. She is also young & cute, & I'll probably never see her so close up again. When she weirdly lost her place in the Ernst, she simply stopped, announced that the piece is not supposed to end that way, then started back on the right track. She followed this with a contrasting slow movement from an Ysaÿe sonata. At this moment one realized how delicate classical music is in performance. Noises coming from the bar easily & careless crushed the still & quiet mood she was trying to create.

Mr. Brousseau, perhaps unwisely, followed Ms. Hahn with a few more of his songs. Hauschka joined him on the piano for one song, as a way to make a transition to the final portion of the show, I suppose.

The show ended with Hauschka playing a set of his own compositions on the prepared piano. He was accompanied on several of them by an ensemble of 2 cellos, 2 violins & 2 oboes, again from the Magik*Magik orchestra. Ms. Hahn joined the ensemble for the final improvisatory number. Apparently Hauschka has his own band, but he was not able to bring them over from Germany.

Hauschka used an upright piano with the front removed & various items duct taped to the strings & soundboard. Otherwise, he played it liked a normal piano. The primary effect was to dampen the instrument, making it sound like a clavichord or an old saloon piano. I was disappointed not to witness any other extended piano techniques. I still remember what fun it was to see Marino Formenti pick up a hammer & use it on a piano.

Hauschka's music is minimalist in style. It's very friendly, with simple ideas that are pleasant to listen to. Development occurs through the repetition of motives. There is something genuine & sweet about both the music & the performer. Hauschka, speaking fine English, acknowledged his cousin in the audience, who had come all the way from their small home town of Ferndorf to see him. Hauschka also expressed his hope to talk with some of us afterward over a beer. & he really meant it.

I do have one big complaint to make about the show. The venue is really tiny, but for some reason the concert was still amplified. This makes no sense to me. Electronic amplification puts an extra layer of technology between the performer & the audience. Though making things louder, it results in the loss of detail. I think there were a lot of things I did not hear because of the unnecessary amplification. Ms. Hahn was the only performer who asked that her mic be cut, & I was so grateful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Derek Jarman's Caravaggio

The SF MOMA is in the midst of a Derek Jarman Film Series, & yesterday I attended the screening of Caravaggio. I saw this around the time it came out in 1986, & I remember liking it, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be now. I found that I have pretty much the same feelings now about it as I did then. I guess that means my taste in movies hasn't developed in 20 years.

It's definitely an Art movie with a capital "A". The movie is a series of scenes inspired by the life & art of Caravaggio. These scenes play in the artist's mind as he lies dying. It's all very post-modern, with costumes, settings & props spanning centuries. For example, one of these supposedly 17th century characters uses a pocket calculator. Another has a manual typewriter. Caravaggio seems to own a pick-up truck but still has to grind his pigments by hand. The audience has to work to make sense of the disjointed narrative. I still don't understand the voice-overs concerning the character named Pasqualone.

What I like most are the recreations of Caravaggio's paintings within the movie. These are beautiful, visceral & true to the spirit of the originals. Jarman shows the models for the Consort of Musicians taking a break. They eat the fruit props & make innuendos about the artist's relationship with his patron. The Mary Magdelene is about pregnancy. The young female model for Amor Vincit Omnia performs acrobatic moves that are a come-on to the artist.

The movie features a young Tilda Swinton, who truly looks like a creature of another place & time. I definitely remember seeing her for the 1st time here & wondering where on earth they found her. Without Nigel Terry's very human Caravaggio, I think the film would have been intolerably dry.

The film was projected in 35mm, & there were only about 40 of us in a small auditorium that probably seats no more than 300. The screening reminded me of going to art house movies back before the days of video rentals. It was also a terrific bargain at only $5.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Double Dose of Elixir

The Elixir of Love
San Francisco Opera
Tue Nov 18 2008 8 pm

A most thoughtful friend allowed me to tag along with him on a personal backstage tour right before Tuesday night's performance of The Elixir of Love. I'm most grateful. I'd never entered the opera house through the backstage door, & it was pretty awesome. My friend got a real kick out of the chorus's brightly lit make-up room & its bubbly make-up artists. He was all set to jump in a chair & get a turn being made-up!

The techie in me was drooling over the house's video editing suite & server room. There are 10 remote-controlled cameras hidden around the stage for making HD video recordings of performances. I was blown away by the Wenger practice rooms. With the push of a button, you can simulate different acoustic environments in the room.

It was fun to learn that all the food consumed on-stage is real. It's someone's job to load that ice cream truck with real ice cream for each performance!

Just 15 minutes before the performance, I was standing on the stage, right behind the curtain, hearing the buzz of the audience. Our guide claims that the best view of the house is from that stage. I was wishing for a peep-hole through the curtain.

Back in the real world, on the other side of that curtain, I enjoyed seeing the show again & especially Vargas's very musical performance. His rendition of Una Furtiva Lagrima was perhaps even more fluid than when I heard it on Friday. He tried the business of throwing up a bit of apple & catching it with his mouth, but he missed. He gave himself another chance & succeeded on the 2nd try. It's a very cute production. My friend sums it up well: "It's only missing one thing: puppies".

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chamber Music at Revolution Cafe

Thanks to a friend who is much hipper than me, I turned up Sunday night for the chamber music night at Revolution Cafe in the mission. The musicians call themselves Classical Revolution. It's like being able to drop in on a chamber music party for young musicians.

Who says that there's no audience for classical music? The small venue was standing room only, & the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. The audience is crammed in so close that you can stand behind a musician & read his music over his shoulder.

I heard movements of Beethoven Piano Trios & String Quartets & Schubert's Trout Quintet. A tenor hushed the room with Una Furtiva Lagrima & the portrait aria from The Magic Flute. The evening ended with 9 musicians tearing through the 1st movement of Tchaikovsky's Sextet "Souvenir de Florence".

They definitely have a young, hip, bohemian thing going on. The musicians play with a boisterousness that is deliberately at odds with the refined manners of the concert hall. I wonder if performances in these venues create classical music fans who go on to buy concert tickets & cds. Or are the people there already classical music buffs?

American Chamber Players

Morrison Artists Series
American Chamber Players
McKenna Theatre, SF State Campus
Sunday, Nov. 16, 3 p.m.

Miles Hoffman, Viola,
Joanna Maurer, Violin
Alberto Parrini, Cello
Sara Stern, Flute
Reiko Uchida, Piano

Mozart: Quartet for Flute and Strings in D Major, K. 285
Schoenfield: “Three Bagatelles” for Flute, Cello and Piano
Bridge: Phantasie Piano Quartet, F-sharp Minor
Ginastera: Duo for Flute and Violin, Op. 13
Fauré: Quartet No. 1 in C Minor for Piano and Strings, Op. 15.

The Morrison Artists Series sponsors free chamber music concerts held at SF State. The audience was an unlikely mix of senior citizens & students. While I was waiting outside, a van pulled up & bunch of little old ladies filed out. This concert must have been a field trip for them.

The American Chamber Players offered a diverse program containing much beautiful music. No doubt it's a challenging program for the performers, but all the members of the group are brilliant players. In the Ginastera Duo, the flutist even performed double-duty by turning pages for the violinist.

The stage management negligently failed to announce that the pianist was guest artist Reiko Uchida, an excellent New York-based musician.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Elixir of Love

San Francisco Opera
Fri Nov 14 2008 8 pm

Conductor: Bruno Campanella
Director: James Robinson

Adina: Inva Mula
Nemorino: Ramón Vargas
Belcore: Giorgio Caoduro
Dulcamara: Alessandro Corbelli
Giannetta: Ji Young Yang

L'Elisir d'Amore is re-set here as an American pastoral, on the eve of World War I. In place of a curtain we see a scrim painted like a plump Thomas Hart Benton landscape. The scrim fades away to reveal a town square dominated by a large white gazebo. Nemorino operates an ice cream truck. Dr. Dulcamara arrives on a motorcycle with a side-car. Instead of being an undifferentiated crowed, the chorus is made up of individual characters: farmers, merchants, a priest, a girl in overalls, 2 old ladies, a football squad, & several children. I felt like I was looking at toys.

Ramón Vargas is outstanding & gives a complete singing/acting performance. His sound is lovely & his interpretation wonderfully restrained. He makes his points musically, not through belting or making grand gestures. All the principals were right for their parts. I liked Giorgio Caoduro's clean coloratura & his cocky acting as Belcore.

Everyone gets genuinely funny stage business to do. Nemorino has to divert attention from his 1st aria to scoop ice cream. Vargas showed off a surprising skill by throwing a piece of fruit in the air & catching it with his teeth. When the young couple at last come to a loving embrace, Nemorino is still clutching his suitcase to his chest. I laughed out loud quite a bit.

The only thing that bothered me about this performance was the conductor's consistent dragging. I was really worried when the evening began with the orchestra tramping tediously through the overture. The lifeless tempos never improved, but fortunately all the other elements were in place. One would have to be pretty mean not to enjoy this light & tuneful opera.

Friday, November 14, 2008

La Boheme Dress Rehersal

Thanks to the kind intervention of 2 friends, I made it through the chaotic process of getting into the Opera House last night for the final dress rehearsal of La Bohème, which opens Sunday. To me, it felt pretty much like a regular performance, except that the voices of the singers were sometimes lowered.

La Bohème is an opera cliche nowadays, but I confess that I always enjoy it. In fact, I start feeling weepy the moment Mimì enters & the love music sweeps into the garret. Fortunately it's not just me. An elderly lady next to me sniffled all through the last scene.

Angela Gheorghiu is of course the main draw here, & she looks great & has a cute & sympathetic stage presence. Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo sounded ardent & youthful. I believe he generously gave us that high C at the end of Act I? Quinn Kelsey as Marcello seemed to produce his large, round sound with ease. He was my favorite singer of the evening.

I was very curious to hear what Nicola Luisotti, our in-coming music director, would do. He was very Italian, from his up-turned collar & white sweater draped over his shoulder, to his sweeping rubatos & big orchestral sound. He made a good first impression on me.

The dress rehearsal audience was more enthusiastic than most regular audiences. Anticipation was so high that they applauded when the lights came down, even before the conductor appeared. All the performers got enthusiastic ovations. This is an attractive production, & it looks like it's going to be a great show.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monsters and Prodigies

Teatro De Ciertos Habitantes
Monsters and Prodigies: A History of the Castrati (De Monstruos Y Prodigios: La Historia De Los Castrati)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is presenting this show in February about castrati. Looks like one of those bizarre things that is either really good or intolerable. According to the company's Web site, we will get one of three versions of the show: "With horse and sand (original version)", "With horse, without sand", or "Without horse". I guess "Without horse, with sand" is not an option.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Noir San Francisco

Film Noir San Francisco
Co-presented by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and the San Francisco Film Society
Tuesday, November 11, 7:30 P.M.
Kanbar Hall
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

This was a look at San Francisco as depicted in film noir of the 40s & 50s. The 2 presenters, Miguel Pendás of the San Francisco Film Society & Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, traded off introducing 16 film clips from classic & obscure films. They both have a real love & respect for these movies. I enjoyed most seeing landmarks of San Francisco that are now gone, such as the produce market that used to exist at the Embarcadero, the ice skating rink at the location of the Cliff House, & the Owl Drugs at Powell & Market.

We saw 2 great clips from Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai. The 1st one featured non-stereotypical views of Chinatown, including a Chinese opera performance & the Chinatown telephone exchange. The 2nd clip was the surreal climax which takes place in the hall of mirrors in Playland. I need to see this film.

In the real world, I want to check out the Art Deco house on Telegraph Hill where Humphrey Bogart hides out in Dark Passage. Supposedly there is a Humphrey Bogart cut-out in one of the windows, as an homage to this film. The presenters also recommend a book from the 40s called, rather bluntly, Where to Sin in San Francisco. They say it's great source material for the period. & their favorite San Francisco movie? Same as mine: Vertigo.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Heartwarming Boheme

I just heard an ad for the SF Opera's La Boheme on KQED radio. The opera is described as a "heartwarming story" of young artists falling in & out of love & as something for the holidays. Since when did dying young, in poverty, of tuberculosis become heartwarming holiday fare?

Marwood & Adès Play Stravinsky

Anthony Marwood, violin & Thomas Adès, piano
Saturday, November 8, 8pm
Herbst Theatre

- Suite Italienne (arr. Pulcinella)
- Pastorale
- Song of the Nightingale and Chinese March from The Nightingale
- Duo Concertant
- Berceuse, Scherzo and Prelude et Ronde des Princesses from The Firebird
- Chanson Russe (Russian Maiden’s Song)
- Divertimento
-Danse Russe from Petrushka

Encore: Tango

This was a fun recital of show pieces & miniatures that Stravinsky arranged for himself & violinist Samuel Dushkin to play on tour.

It took me a while to get used to Marwood's style & sound. I'm still not sure what it is about his playing, but there is something idiosyncratic about it. He doesn't always make the most beautiful string sound, but he communicates the music well & is something of a showman. He knows how to end a piece with a flourish. At the end of the Scherzo of the Firebird, he nearly jumped back into the wings.

Adès is an intense pianist with a liking for hard, staccato phrasing. I liked the communication between the players. Adès often turned around to look at Marwood. They did a great job expressing the humor of many of the pieces. Their playing of the loping Chanson Russe & the Divertimento made me laugh out loud.

Even though this was a diverse & audience-friendly program, Stravinsky still seems to scare people away. A correspondent told me that the balcony had many empty rows.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dr. Atomic HD Broadcast

Doctor Atomic (Met Premiere) – Adams
Saturday, November 8, 2008 (1:00 pm ET)

Alan Gilbert
Penny Woolcock

Edward Teller - Richard Paul Fink
J. Robert Oppenheimer - Gerald Finley
Robert Wilson - Thomas Glenn
Kitty Oppenheimer - Sasha Cooke
General Leslie Groves - Eric Owens
Frank Hubbard - Earle Patriarco
Captain James Nolan - Roger Honeywell
Pasqualita - Meredith Arwady

I went to this broadcast to check out the production, which is different from the Peter Sellars one I saw here in San Francisco in 2005. The main scenic elements in the Met production are a 4-story wall of human-sized pigeon holes & a mountain range made from a huge suspended cloth. The wall is meant to remind us of the periodical table of elements. Chorus members representing workers at Los Alamos frequently appear in the compartments. At the end of the opera the walls lean forward dangerously, representing the destructive force of the atomic blast.

Both productions feature an accurate reproduction of the bomb itself which hangs ominously over the action. I find it amazing that the actual device looked so jury-rigged.

Gerald Finley is completely at home in the role of Oppenheimer. The highlight of the performance is his intense delivery of the soliloquy "Batter My Heart" at the end of Act I. I also liked Eric Owens in the comic role of the dieting General. Sasha Cooke looked beautiful & glamorous even in extreme close-up.

I still have my doubts about this opera. The libretto is a collage of documentary texts & poems, but it doesn't add up to a dramatic whole. I quickly tired of the weather reports. The Pasqualita character who wanders through Act II feels tacked on. The Act II scenario is thin, being a drawn-out count-down. I often hear Dr. Atomic referred to as a Faust story, but I'm not convinced. I don't know what the central conflict is supposed to be.

I still like much of the music, especially the lyrical Act I scene between Oppenheimer & Kitty, & of course the soliloquy that closes Act I. The music at the end of Act II builds palpable tension & suspense. The pre-recorded sound effects that begin each act make me listen in a different way, so that the entrance of the live orchestra comes as a shock. I was glad that the broadcast translated the recorded Japanese that closes the opera. Now I finally know how it ends!

It did seem like there were more younger people at this screening than usual. I hope that's a reflection of John Adam's popularity. It's impressive how quickly Dr. Atomic has gotten picked up by other houses. It has been done in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Chicago & New York, all within 4 years.

There was a hiccup in the transmission during Act II, when the picture froze & we lost sound for a couple of seconds. It was scarier than the final scene when the bomb goes off.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Blomstedt Conducts Brahms & Nielsen

Fri, Nov 7, 2008 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Nikolaj Znaider, violin
Katherine Whyte, soprano
Eugene Chan, baritone

Brahms - Violin Concerto
Nielsen - Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia espansiva

I went to this concert mainly to see Blomstedt, who is now over 80. I was very happy to see that he looks healthy & moves freely on the podium. This is a great program for him, playing to his strengths in the late Romantic repertoire.

Blomstedt had a reduced string section for the Brahms, with only 2 stands of cellos & 4 double basses. This resulted in a thin but exceptionally clear orchestral texture. A friend of mine describes Blomstedt's sound as "attenuated".

Znaider is a technical monster. He has a strong, focused sound, & he rips through chords & parallel octaves with ease. I liked watching the rapid left-hand shifts he did in the cadenza. He's a flashy performer. The orchestra liked his playing too & gave him their own bow-waving ovation.

I'm not a Nielsen fan, but Blomstedt can make the hodge-podge of Nielsen's musical ideas flow together for me. The driving, accelerating chords of the opening of the Symphony No. 3 reminded me of the opening of John Adam's Harmonielehre. This gives way to something more lushly Romantic. Later in the movement a bouncy dance theme emerges. Blomstedt moved effortlessly & naturally between these disparate elements.

I didn't hear the soprano in the 2nd movement very well at all, though this may have been a problem with my position in the hall.

In the end, I thought William Bennett was the real star of the evening. He played gorgeous solos in the Brahms & the Nielsen, even summoning up a different oboe sound for each composer. During the final ovations, Blomstedt walked into the woodwind section to single Bennett out for a special bow.

During the evening I got to chat with some members of the San Francisco Classical Music and Opera Meetup. These people know their opinions, so be careful what you say about Mahler!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Transforming Kami at the SF Public Library

Today at lunch time I made it to the Main Public Library to see the other half of the Transforming Kami exhibition of origami sculptures. Again I was panting in disbelief at the models. The pleating technique of Goran Konjevod was completely new to me. I saw this incredible spinal column by Christine Edison & this very funny cartoon frog by Nicolas Terry, plus lots more marvels. These people are out of control!

Also, on the bottom floor of the library, there is a nice exhibit of original art work & pop-up books by children's book creator Robert Sabuda. There are beautiful illustrations in a variety of media & styles, & the exhibit is very colorful. I liked seeing the plain white mock-ups for the pop-up book mechanisms.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Idomeneo at SF Opera

Fri Oct 31 2008 8 pm
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: John Copley

Idomeneo: Kurt Streit
Idamante: Daniela Mack
Ilia: Genia Kühmeier
Elettra: Iano Tamar
Arbace: Alek Shrader
The High Priest of Neptune: Robert MacNeil
The Voice of the Oracle: Kenneth Kellogg
Two Cretan Maidens: Mary Finch / Natasha Ramirez Leland
Two Trojan Men: Chester Pidduck / David Kekuewa

Instead of trick-or-treating on Halloween, I was at the Opera House for the last night of Idomeneo. Alice Coote did not make it back to the production, indisposed due to a back problem, according to a pre-curtain announcement.

Right from the start there was great playing from the orchestra under Runnicles. I continue to enjoy the big clear sound of the principal flutist. The string sections play with exemplary unanimity of phrasing. Some of the audience laughed during the overture, but I couldn't tell what the joke was.

The 1st aria belonged to Genia Kühmeier's Ilia, & I immediately liked her beautiful & smooth singing. By contrast, Daniela Mack had a warbling voice. Iano Tamar's Elettra had a hard-edge sound, appropriate to her angry character. One nice thing about the casting, actually, is that each of the principals has a completely different timbre to his or her voice. There was no chance of confusing them, even with your eyes closed!

Kurt Streit has a high, open voice that is maybe even a little raw. His singing was very even & therefore very Mozartian. Plus he looks pretty good in those heavy 18th century costumes, even though his robe got caught on the steps & delayed his exit after the Act III quartet.

The staging lacked ideas. Singers pace around during their arias, then walk off just before the orchestra stops playing. At the end of Act II, 4 giant horse heads rise into the sky. Then these warriors guys pull a big tarp over the steps, & Idomeneo pops up through a hole in it. It was nonsensical rather than dramatic.

Still, the evening was musically very satisfying. I enjoyed it most when I was just listening to the orchestra & the singing & focusing on Mozart's incredible music. Others apparently did not find it engaging. My section at the extreme side of the grand tier was sparsely populated, & by the last act I had a whole row to myself.

Before Act III, the orchestra honored Runnicles by remaining seated when he gestured for them to stand for the applause. I spotted several Halloween costumes, both in audience & in the orchestra pit. My favorites were the cat & the horned Dracula in the oboe section & Opera Tattler as a lovely Carmen.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

APE 2008

I spent most of this rainy Saturday indoors at the Alternative Press Expo. I quickly felt overwhelmed by the number of exhibitors & attendees. People were saying that they might have to move venues again.

Local phenomenon Justin Hall's queer comics panel was a hoot. For a minute it looked like Mr. Hall was going to moderate the entire discussion in a lucha libra mask. I handled Kramers Ergot 7, which is a stunning object of desire & way too big to shoplift. I got the new issue of Boy Trouble from the hands of editor & cartoonist Robert Kirby (who once drew me before he ever met me).

Most fun at this show is buying from the creators themselves. How often these days do you buy something directly from the person who made it? John Marr sold me the latest edition of his Murder Can Be Fun, one of the great zines. I'm glad that Cathy Leamy waved me down so I could discover her wonderfully personal Geraniums & Bacon. I'm looking forward to reading Nick Mullin's wordless & macabre Kit Kaleidoscope. I'm not creative at all, so I'm in awe of all the exhibitors I met.

Transforming Kami: The Art of Origami

This afternoon I dropped into the storefront space of the National Japanese American Historical Society to see this exhibit of extraordinary origami figures. I've been doing origami as a hobby since I was a kid, but I just don't understand the techniques that make some of these elaborate figures possible. Satoshi Kamiya's dragon is covered with individually folded scales. Brian Chan figured out a way to render realistically Wall-E's tread belt.

Several origami artists were in attendance this afternoon, including Giang Dinh, Joseph Wu, Linda Mihara, Brian Chan, Robert Lang & Jeremy Shafer. I chatted with Mr. Lang for a bit, who was patient with my incomprehension of the advanced folding techniques on display. More models comprising this exhibition are at the SF Public Library. I hope to check these out soon.

More Alex Ross

I just heard Alex Ross on the opening segment of the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge, talking about the influence of modern classical music on pop music. He's followed by a story about a rock band that covers operatic numbers. Their versions of Mozart, Wagner & Handel seem respectful & knowledgeable, but to me they still can't help sounding kitchy.