Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Favorites

I felt very fortunate to be numbered among the small audience for Eugene Brancoveanu's intimate salon recital. András Schiff's Beethoven cycle continues to impress me with its high seriousness. The depth & beauty of Matthias Goerne's Brahms moved me to tears. At the opera, my most exciting moment of the year was standing on the stage just 15 minutes before the curtain went up on L'Elisir D'Amore. Safely on the other side of the curtain, I was thrilled by Susan Graham's Ariodante & by my 1st encounter with Die Tote Stadt, vividly conducted by Donald Runnicles. For sheer fun, both Max Raabe & Time For Three were hard to beat.

This year I also feel very lucky to have made the acquaintance of some wonderfully knowledgeable, entertaining & generous music buffs. They have made a big difference in my concert-going life already.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bad Muni

Next west-bound Muni buses at the Sutter & Van Ness stop at around 3:40pm this afternoon:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WKCR BachFest

A friend in New York turned me on to Columbia University radio station WKCR & it's annual BachFest. For those of us not in New York, there's a Web stream available on the Web site. It's a nice choice for something that is classical & Christmas-y & not the Messiah or Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride. I'm listening to Glenn Gould play the French Suites right now. Some of the announcers' pronunciations are interesting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Berkeley Symphony

Berkeley Symphony
Joana Carneiro, conductor

Thursday, December 18, 2008, 8 PM
UC Berkeley Zellerbach Hall

Magnus Lindberg, Chorale
John Adams, Shaker Loops
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

It was a treat to attend this concert at the invitation of a friend, especially since I don't think I've heard the Berkeley Symphony before. They sound good & have many enthusiastic players. It was nice to sit in a full house with such a supportive audience. It felt like an event.

Before starting, guest conductor Joana Carneiro spoke about the program, summarizing it as a celebration of masterpieces by great composers. She explained that the Lindberg is based on the Bach chorale Es ist genug. To remind us what this sounds like, she prefaced the performance with a brass quartet playing the chorale straight.

Carneiro does a lot of conducting. She seems to mark every beat & to cue everything. Even for something as square as the chorale, she flapped her arms vigorously. It reminded me of those slow-motion movies of cranes taking to the air.

The Lindberg piece gives us fragments of the chorale surrounded by unmoored harmonies. It was like looking at a fuzzy, constantly shifting landscape. Then suddenly at the very end it clicks into bright, clear focus. Along the way we get some pleasing orchestral colors.

The ensemble was tight for the entire program, especially for the tense & jittery Adams. I can imagine that it is difficult to keep this piece together, & the orchestra looked very proud of its effort at the end. John Adams himself joined them onstage for bows & received a bouquet of big flowers.

The Beethoven came off cleanly, again with precise ensemble, even in those passages where short phrases are passed quickly around the woodwinds. Carneiro took it at a deliberate pace. But of course those Beethoven codas are impossible to resist. The audience gave the symphony a rousing standing ovation at the end. Carneiro got her own bouquet of flowers as well.

This concert was also an audition for Carneiro as the successor to Kent Nagano. She has an eager stage presence. I got the feeling that she was attempting to take charge of as many things as possible. She moves around a lot & has a distinctive way of throwing her arms down, as if to flick water off them. Sometimes she stomps her feet in emphasis. She's certainly something to see in action, cute & a little flirtacious as she dances around the podium. I haven't heard any of the other candidates, but Carneiro would not be a boring pick.

P.S. In the 1st movement of the Beethoven, the bassoon, instead of horns, played the bridge in the recapitulation. Is this an "authentic" reading?

Why music?

Human evolution
Why music?
Dec 18th 2008
The Economist

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time For Three

Time For Three
Morrison Artists Series
College of Creative Arts, SF State
Sunday, December 14, 2008 @ 3 pm

I was back on the SF State campus this rainy afternoon to check out Time For Three, a trio of 2 violins & a double bass. They did a program of about 15 short numbers, lasting about an hour. The opening piece, Wyoming 307, by the bassist Ranaan Meyer, established right away what the group is about. They exist at an intersection of blue grass, jazz & classical performance. The piece moves quickly through many ideas. It may be sustained & hushed or funky & foot-stomping. There are moments requiring tight ensemble as well as places for wild improvisation. The trio communicates the feeling that they are having the most fun just playing together. & of course the feeling is contagious.

The program was a mix of original compositions by Meyer, traditional pieces like Turkey in the Straw, classic songs like Black Bird from the Beatles, & popular classics like the Brahms Hungarian Dance. All of it is just to showcase their playful fiddling & jazzy jamming. Meyer described the group as a "classically trained garage band".

Classical training is apparent in the group's technical proficiency. The bassist Ranaan Meyer is an exceptional musician & an outrageous flirt. He really made that bass sing & dance. I was even more impressed when he thanked a colleague from the SF Symphony for loaning him the instrument. He moved so comfortably over an instrument that he probably never played before!

The 2 violinists are well-paired. Both play like virtuosos. Nicolas Kendall is the slightly more aggressive-sounding of the two. Zachary De Pue's sound is a bit edgier. Zachary also briefly showed off the alarming ability to bow his violin behind his back. Improvisation is something I don't associate with the violin, but I saw no hesitation here. At one point Zachary played the 1st few notes of Jingle Bells, then, on second thought, immediately dropped it.

The group plays with amplification, which may not be necessary. After the 1st set, Zachary had to leave the stage briefly to have his electronics adjusted.

Tf3 was always having a ball on stage, even when telling their corny jokes they knew weren't working. They were fresh, spontaneous & eager to share their music. There was nothing apparently routine about it. At several points, it looked like Meyer was trying to crack up Kendall & nearly succeeding. We happily ate it all up.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arcadia at SF State

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Fri, Dec 12 8pm
Studio Theatre, Creative Arts Building
San Francisco State University

I read Tom Stoppard's Arcadia a while back, but I had never seen it before. I was curious to see how it actually works in the theater. The action concerns modern day scholars attempting to reconstruct events that occurred 200 years earlier in an English country house once visited by Lord Byron. Scenes alternate between the 2 time periods. We see how the modern-day interpretation of historical facts must by necessity diverge from the actual events. The audience has to keep track of lots of plot details, since the biggest pay-offs come when we add knowledge from our privileged viewpoint to the scene at hand.

Stoppard further flatters us by loading up the play with heady topics like the aesthetics of the Enlightenment vs. the Romantic Era, Newtonian physics, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & non-linear mathematics. Besides being almost too clever, it's also very funny. It's a play for nerds & about nerds.

This student production was competent & satisfying, especially considering the length & complexity of the work. There was a nice feeling of all the actors working toward the same goal. In the last scene, characters from the 2 time periods mingle without interacting. This is one of those things that on the page looks completely confusing to me. However, here it was easily comprehensible & effective. I liked Anthony Cirimele, who played Bernard Nightingale as a champion nerd. Will Hand was equally convincing as the computer geek Valentine Coverly. I liked the way he spoke. He was the one actor that made me think the play might just possibly be set in England. For some reason, they made the decision not to use accents, which I never got used to, since the diction of the text is so British.

The studio space is nice & close-up, with the audience on 3 sides of the acting area. I like seeing plays in such a small space. I sat right down in front & was nearly part of the action when Septimus Hodge & Lady Croom made love on the prop desk just inches from my seat.

The audience was an unusual mix of students & older people. An older couple across the aisle from me fell asleep frequently, & the man snored a few times. I thought for sure they would bail at the intermission, but they stayed for the whole show. Afterward, I noticed Bernard & Valentine hopping on the same late night bus as me going home.

Alisa Weilerstein Recital

Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Inon Barnatan, piano

Thursday, December 11, 8pm
Herbst Theatre

BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102, No. 2
KODÁLY: Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 8
CHOPIN: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60
CHOPIN: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65

I had not heard of Weilerstein before. Judging by the small talk of people around me at Herbst on Thursday night, she has a lot of fans. After reading her bio, I see that she is a seasoned performer at only 26.

During the opening Beethoven Sonata she exchanged a lot of glances with her accompanist, & they both looked like they were doing a lot, though I'm not sure I heard as much as I saw. Weilerstein does make big sound, & her high notes are exceptionally powerful. She has a strong left hand.

The Kodály Sonata was the centerpiece of the program. It's a long work & is a severe test of cello technique. It has a ton of left hand pizzicato, harmonics, double-stops, you name it. Weilerstein confidently tackled it from memory. She's a wildly physical performer, & she gives the appearance of being possessed by the music instead of being in control of it. She can be a rough player, & she muscled her way through the piece. It all sounded anguished & doleful, though I think there are more moods than that in it. It was well-received by the audience, with shouts of "Brava!" & a few people standing.

She had a similarly bluff approach to the Golijov piece, also for solo cello. The composer's notes indicate that the piece takes its inspiration from the tango, but I didn't get any sense of the dance from Weilerstein's fast & loud interpretation.

I guess I have my doubts from a musical point of view. Yet these were not poor performances. For me the duo just felt very packaged. The main impression I have of her accompanist is that he looked slim & chic.

As an encore, the duo reprised the slow movement from the Chopin Sonata.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

War Requiem

Derek Jarman Film Series at the SF MOMA
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Phyllis Wattis Theater
1:00 p.m.

I went to one of the last of SF MOMA's Derek Jarman screenings to see his War Requiem. Except for a prologue featuring the last appearance of Laurence Olivier, this is basically a music video of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The soundtrack is the 1963 Decca studio recording led by the composer himself.

The text of the War Requiem is a complicated interweaving of the traditional Latin text with poems of Wilfred Owen. Jarman illustrates each musical section with a scenario, which may be a dramatic scene relating to the text or a more abstract commentary. As in the other Jarman movies I've seen, there is a loose, episodic narrative framed by the death of the main character, in this case the poet Wilfred Owen himself. Tilda Swinton appears as a frontline nurse.

The opening Requiem aeternam includes a symbolic scene of the nurse mourning the young dead poet. She lets out what must be a piercing scream, her mouth open wide, but we only ever hear the musical sound track. A following segment depicts Owen & his friend in training, & it looks like a conventional flashback.

A detailed narrative accompanies the Dies irae. Owen comes upon an initially benign encounter between his friend & a German soldier. However it ends with Owen killing the German soldier who in turn kills the friend, who ends up impaled on a tangle of barbed wire. There are no innocent combatants here.

The climax of the Britten work is the Libera me. In the movie it is accompanied by a gory montage of documentary footage of war killings, climaxing with an atomic bomb explosion. The Strange Meeting section follows the poem closely. We see the dream in which Owen explores an underground chamber & meets the German soldier he killed.

The final chorus is illustrated by Christian iconography & a recreation of the Piero della Francesca painting of the Resurrection of Christ. It's quite a literal depiction of the text. The tone is somber, reverential & ritualistic.

The movie is an interesting experiment. I feel that Jarman is always admirably respectful of the meaning & intent of the Britten work. Jarman has his own very artificial & idiosyncratic aesthetic, but he is at least always true to his own style, & I always feel that he has thought things through. At the same time I find it hard to imagine that he is anything more than a marginal artistic figure now. There were about 25 of us at the museum showing, & I none of the other screenings I went to seemed that much more enthusiastically attended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Derek Jarman's Edward II

Derek Jarman Film Series at the SF MOMA
Thu 4 Dec 7pm

This is supposedly Jarman's most accessible movie. However, I still went to this screening with a little trepidation, since I don't happen to like the Marlowe play on which it's based. I was also anticipating a gory movie, which it is (though no more so than its source).

The movie is similar to Caravaggio in style & structure. It all appears to be shot in a cavernous concrete soundstage. Many of the set-ups have an artificial, tableaux-like look. The play unfolds as a series of flashbacks framed by Edward sitting in a dungeon with Lightborn, his sexy executioner. Jarman mixes & matches lines of the original text & makes heavy use of post-modern anachronism.

Jarman does tell the basics of the story: Edward's infatuation with Gaveston to the neglect of all else, the aligning & re-aligning of allegiances, & the rapid plot reversals. The biggest change Jarman makes to the original is at the end. After we witness Edward's grisly death, we get another ending in which the executioner throws the offending hot poker into water & kisses Edward. Either version may be a dream. I think this is Jarman's way of suggesting an alternative to the universally nasty conduct of all the characters.

There's definitely an angry-gay-man feel to the movie. In the opening scene, Gaveston reads Edward's fateful letter while 2 naked men make out in his bed. In the big sentimental moment, Edward & Gaveston slow dance in their pajamas to Annie Lenox singing Cole Porter's Every Time We Say Goodbye. When Gaveston is banished, he walks a gauntlet of middle-aged men representing the establishment who contemptuously spit on him. The macho military man Mortimer also enjoys being humiliated by a dominatrix in drag. Edward's forced abdication sparks a gay rights protest.

However, the movie may not have aged well. The only thing that really grabbed my attention was Tilda Swinton's tightly contained performance as Queen Isabella. She looks & behaves like a creature from another planet.

The SF MOMA projected a very old print, which no doubt saw the rounds of the art houses back in the day. There were about 20 of us in attendance.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Faust HD Broadcast

The Metropolitan Opera HD Live
La Damnation de Faust
Hector Berlioz
Wed, Dec 3

Conductor, James Levine
Production, Robert Lepage

FAUST Marcello Giordani
BRANDER Patrick Carfizzi

I missed the original live broadcast which was supposedly sold-out in San Francisco, but I really wanted to check this one out. I finally made it to the re-broadcast last week. I'm a sucker for a spectacle, so this production worked for me. The show opens with a stunning image of the aging Faust high up on a wall of books that fills the height & width of the stage. Only after we've taken this in for several seconds does the orchestra enter. It was clear that the visual would take precedence over the musical.

I'm not sure that Damnation is really a narrative opera, & I think that this production does a good job dealing with its episodic, pageant-like structure. For every episode, director Robert Lepage had some sort of scenic magic involving dancers, acrobats & interactive video projections. & you can forget about gravity. Performers appear to drop into a lake & swirl gently underwater. Soldiers march straight up the vertical face of the set, & demonic creatures scamper like lizards across it. I'm sure it's even more fun seeing these stunts live.

I was so fascinated by the visual that I had to keep reminding myself to listen to the music. Whenever I did, I was rewarded by the Met orchestra's beautiful playing & Levine's expansive conducting. He made it seem like they could keep the music flowing effortlessly like that forever.

Susan Graham was a knock-out in her 2nd big scene, singing "D'amour l'ardente flamme" in front of a gigantic real-time projection of her face morphing into flames. I've seen Ms. Graham several times now, & she always comes through with a gripping performance. She must be at the top of her game these days.

I thought it interesting that all the singers claimed to have no idea what was being projected behind them. They are just one element in a complex construction.

We had a couple of unfortunate incidents at the screening. As the broadcast began, a theater announcement on the PA system told us to ignore a false alarm. At the end of the 1st half, a crazy bag lady came in & made quite a bit of noise with her shopping bags. She started yelling at another patron just as the intermission was beginning. Fortunately she decided not to come back after the break.

Adler Fellows Gala Concert

Sat December 6, 2008 8 pm
Conductor, Patrick Summers

Les Vêpres Siciliennes, Giuseppe Verdi
San Francisco Opera Orchestra

Capriccio, Richard Strauss
“Verraten hab ich meine Gefühle!”
The Countess – Tamara Wapinsky
Flamand – Andrew Bidlack

Usher House, Gordon Getty
“Now you have seen”
Edgar Allen Poe – Andrew Bidlack
Roderick Usher – Kenneth Kellogg

Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner
“Weh, ach wehe, dies zu dulden”
Isolde - Heidi Melton
Brangäne – Daveda Karanas
Men’s Chorus

Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns
“Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse”
Dalila - Katherine Tier

Idomeneo, Wolfgang Amdeus Mozart
“D'Oreste, d'Ajace”
Elettra: Tamara Wapinsky

Semele, George Frideric Handel
Act III, Scenes 4 and 5
Semele – Ji Young Yang
Jupiter – Alek Shrader

Cendrillon, Jules Massenet
“Ma pauvre enfant chérie!”
Cendrillon – Daniela Mack
Pandolfe – Kenneth Kellogg

Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss
“Mein Gott! Es war nicht mehr als ein Farce”
The Marschallin – Heidi Melton
Sophie – Ji Young Yang
Octavian – Katharine Tier
Faninal – Kenneth Kellogg

Thanks to an out-of-town subscriber, I had the opportunity to attend the Adler Fellows Gala Concert, which I'd never done before. It's an opera recital with a full pit orchestra but with minimal staging. I thought it was a very enjoyable sampler. The program was heavily German & strangely included no scenes by Italian composers.

The stand-out in the 1st half was absolutely the Tristan scene. Daveda Karanas's 1st dramatic utterance got my attention right away. It was as if the volume of the show had been suddenly turned up several notches. & then Heidi Melton let go with her large, rich voice. Plus she was completely into the character with her acting & expression. I'm convinced she's ready to sing the whole role tomorrow.

Katherine Tier & Tamara Wapinsky were a little less fortunate in their solo numbers, each of them having a problem with a high note. It was a good reminder of just how many risks opera singers take all the time.

I enjoyed the Semele scene that opened the 2nd half. Ji Young Yang has a high, bright voice & a perky stage presence. She looks completely at home on the stage. Alek Shrader has a beautiful smooth sound. I would like to hear him again.

Heidi Melton wowed me again in the Der Rosenkavalier excerpt by sailing right through that Strauss-sized orchestra even as it went to full volume.

The top balcony of the house was completely closed, & I guess I'm surprised that the concert was not better attended. It's not nearly as expensive as a normal opera ticket, & the performances are fine. I like the variety as well. I'd never heard anything from Massenet's Cendrillon before, & now I'm a bit curious.

Oppens Plays Carter

The Complete Elliott Carter Piano Works with a Lecture by Robert Greenberg and Ursula Oppens Performing the Piano Works
Sunday, December 7, 2:30pm
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration
Ursula Oppens, piano

90+ (1994)
Retrouvailles (2000)
Two Diversions (1999)
Night Fantasies (1980)
Piano Sonata (1945–46)
Two Thoughts about the Piano
    Intermittences (2005)
    Catenaires (2006)

Even though I am pretty much ignorant of Carter's music, I didn't want to miss out on the Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration entirely. Fortunately for the uneducated like me, the event included a pre-recital lecture by Robert Greenberg. He gave a fairly technical musical analysis of the major works on the program & rooted Carter firmly in a classical context that includes Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt & Copland. He also taught me an impressive new word: pandiatonicism. Think John Adams or the neo-classical Stravinsky.

The major characteristic of Carter's mature style is a sort of higher-order polyphony in which musical counterpoint may occur at many different levels. For example, the 2nd of the Two Diversions has 2 main voices, one of which gets slower while the other speeds up.

But the most obvious manifestation of this polyphony is the monstrous technical difficulty of the works. This is really dense music. Oppens never looked anything other than calm & confident, but she had a lot of notes to play & a lot of events to keep track of, & things often go by very quickly. She moves her hands around the piano very efficiently. Sometimes it looked like she was tossing handfuls of notes down on the keyboard. Unfortunately the venue was not good acoustically for the piano. The audience sits on risers erected in the middle of a big ballroom. It's like being at a high school basketball game. The room is dry, & the piano often sounded buzzy.

Greenberg was good at giving the audience things to listen for right away, & in the shorter pieces I could usually get some sense of the organizing principle. However, I felt completely lost in the longer Night Fantasies that closed the 1st half. I was most at ease with the Piano Sonata, since it could almost be a kind of late-Romantic piece. However, this is an early work that doesn't represent Carter's fully mature style. The final Catenaires was the one piece I had no problem enjoying. It's a galloping run of single notes, in the manner of C.P.E. Bach's Solfeggio, that was exciting, brilliant, breathless & fun.

The audience for this concert was extremely focused & attentive. I saw someone with the music for one of the pieces, following along. Oppens got a big ovation that included some foot-stamping. As an encore, she performed the 1st part of Matribute, a recent work written for James Levine. A wine & dessert reception followed the concert, so I guess Carter throws an OK birthday party.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Language of the Birds

Language of the BirdsWalking through North Beach around lunch time today, I came upon this art installation at Broadway & Columbus. A plaque on the building says it's by Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn. It depicts a flock of books taking off to fly around the city. Above are white books, suspended from light posts. Below are words, randomly scattered from the books. I like that it's across the street from City Lights Books, since it makes me want to open a book & start reading.