Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Noontime Concerts: Schola Cantorum

Concert today!Noontime Concerts
Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 12:30pm
Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Schola Cantorum San Francisco
Paul Flight, artistic director

Choral Music for the Holiday Season

At today's Noontime Concert in Old St. Mary's, 11 members of Schola Cantorum, led by artistic director Paul Flight, presented this seasonal program of mostly 16th century Spanish songs about the nativity. Besides the 16th century works, they performed a Besançon Carol (People Look East) & 2 songs by Peter Warlock (Where Riches is Everlasting & Benedicamus Domino). Schola Cantorum's sound is straight-toned & clear. Their performance was restrained & measured rather than merry. The program was well-attended, & the audience gave the group a warm ovation. Schola Cantorum responded by encoring Benedicamus Domino, "since it's short". I continue to be impressed by the appreciative audience that turns out for these concerts.

She Stoops To Comedy

The SF Playhouse
She Stoops To Comedy
By David Greenspan
Directed by Mark Rucker

Liam Vincent: Alexandra Page
Amy Resnick: Kay Fein/Jayne Summerhouse
Sally Clawson: Alison Rose
Cole Alexander Smith: Hal Stewart
Carly Cioffi: Eve Addaman
Scott Capurro: Simon Lanquish

Saturday, 19 December 2009, 8:00pm

She Stoops To Comedy is an odd little production. The play is a 90 minute post-modern farce. The main action concerns an actress disguising herself as a man in order to play opposite her ex-lover in As You Like It. The actress is played by a male actor, in this case the watchable Liam Vincent. His version of the character seems to be a flamboyant gay man rather than an impersonation of a woman. I suspect that this, like many elements of the play, is simply meant to be out of whack. The cast seems to be performing several mutually exclusive drafts of a play simultaneously. A scene may jump in time & place, with the action continuing in a manner inconsistent with what just happened before. Often the actors merely narrate a scene instead of acting it out. Characters can be confused as to their own identifies. The comedy arises out of these deliberately half-assed situations.

There is a steady stream of lightly amusing jokes, though no huge laughs. A highlight is a set piece in which actress Amy Resnick ends up having to portray both sides in a 2-character scene. It's as if the playwright forgot that he was doubling roles. I liked Carly Cioffi's pitch-perfect embodiment of an intelligent young woman caught up in an unfulfilling relationship. This subplot, as well as a sad & bitter monologue delivered by Scott Capurro, keeps the play from being entirely fluff. In the last scene, one of the characters tells us that the plot is modeled after The Guardsman, which of course I have never seen. It's entirely possible, therefore, that the entire thing is going straight over my pointy head.

There were many empty seats, even though the venue is small. I think the play is just strange enough that it is having problems finding an audience. & the play wasn't the only thing off-kilter that night. I held a ticket for a seat A12, which did not exist. I sat in seat A14 instead, with no ill effects.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Turkish Classical Music

Asian Art Museum
The Many Worlds of Turkish Classical Music
A Talk and Musical Demonstration with Three Turkish Masters

Saturday, December 19, 1:00 pm
Samsung Hall

Necati Çelik, oud
Yavuz Akalin, ney
Tumuçin Cevikoğlu, bendir, vocalist

So many people showed up for this opportunity to hear Turkish music that the start was delayed for 15 minutes while museum staff retrieved more chairs for the SRO audience. This was followed by a 30-minute content-free talk, followed by a break. It was close to 2:00pm before the musicians got to do their thing.

We heard 2 sets of classical pieces, largely from the 19th century. The musicians played continuously for each set, bridging the different pieces with short improvisations. The long & sinuous melodic lines evoked the human voice. The oud & ney almost always played in parallel. The tempos all had an unhurried, pulse-slowing gait, even in the dance that concluded the 1st set. There is a sense of high seriousness about this music. Mr. Cevikoğlu sang Sufi songs in the 2nd set. I enjoyed hearing the way he sustained syllables with an elongated wobble of the voice.

This musical tradition is very much an unexplored landscape to me. The performance often felt inward & meditative & perhaps even a bit sad. The audience was patient & appreciative. Afterward, I took a peek at the music left on the stands. It looked like typical western-style sheet music.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Blythe sounds the part

A Latecomer to the Opera

"I know there are other girls who look more like Carmen than I do, but I'll tell you something: I sound more like her. The voice is what chooses the role."

Stephanie Blythe, interviewed by The Wall Street Journal

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Fugue, Fantasy and New Companions
December 14, 8pm
The Green Room
San Francisco War Memorial

Anna Presler, artistic director, violin
Thomas Nugent, oboe
Phyllis Kamrin violin
Kurt Rohde, viola
Leighton Fong, cello

Benjamin Britten: Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings
Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in Bb, Op. 133
Sam Nichols: Refuge for String Quartet
Kristin Kuster: Midnight Mirror

Even though we were gathered for a program of new music for string quartet, the pre-concert chatter was all about Lady Gaga's concurrent appearance at the nearby Bill Graham Auditorium. Our own show began with an early Britten piece with oboe that made me think of a jaunty walk through the English countryside. The members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble had obvious fun playing together, & there is good communication among them. Their Grosse Fuge was tight & rattling. I liked the playing of 1st violin Anna Presler, whose sound has a nice bite & whose phrasing decisions are very clear.

The 2 string quartets in the 2nd half were specifically commissioned for this program & intended as companion pieces for the Grosse Fuge. Both works were about 15 minutes long, & so on the same scale as their model. Composer Sam Nichols was present & spoke a few amusing words about his work, referencing a story line from The Sopranos when explaining his take on the meaning of "companion." His piece was akin to the Grosse Fuge in its many abrupt shifts of mood, some of them quite violent. I liked the funny ending, with its pizzicato notes getting quieter & quieter as they sneak in from different instruments. Kristin Kuster's contribution similarly used fragments of chords & intervals from the Grosse Fuge & mostly had the instruments playing vigorously in parallel. It made for a finale that was loud & full of exertion.

As well as their CDs, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble had a light-weight tote bag for sale. We were invited to join members of the ensemble at Momi Toby's Revolution Cafe after the concert.

Monday, December 14, 2009

SFSFF: Sherlock Jr. and The Goat

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
The 5th Annual Winter Event
Sherlock Jr. and The Goat
Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer, aided by foley artist Todd Manley with special sound effects.
December 12, 2009 7:00PM
Castro Theatre

I would have been interested in seeing every film shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's one-day Winter Event, especially the Abel Gance WWI story J'accuse. Instead I ended up at the 2 Keaton comedies, which was fine. First up was the The Goat, which I may have never seen before. Keaton looks like he's breaking his neck with every pratfall. I was surprised by an athletic gag where Keaton escapes from a locked room by vaulting over a table & his foe's head before diving through the transom. Also stunning is a shot of a train barreling directly toward the camera. Just before it is about to run us over, it halts, & we see Keaton sitting impassively on the cow-catcher. This stunt is especially peculiar, as it has no connection to the story.

The films were introduced by Frank Buxton. Between the movies, Mr. Buxton chatted briefly on stage with Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster Keaton's granddaughter. This was a curious bit of actuality, as she could only tell us a few stories about visiting her grandfather's home as a child. She never saw Keaton's movies until she was an adult, & she has no connection with the movie industry.

Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite silent comedies. I still find the best stunts, such as the 2 trucks that momentarily close a gap in a bridge, to be inventive, suspenseful & funny. The movie-within-a-movie gags are post-modern meta-jokes. As always, the savvy Castro Theater audiences go a long toward making these events work. It was also a pleasure to hear a little girl seated behind me laugh delightedly every time Keaton took a spill. In addition to Dennis James at the organ, Todd Manley provided cartoony sound effects.

Formenti Plays Lang & Haydn

Looking at the scoreMarino Formenti, Piano
Aspects of the Divine
Friday, December 11, 8pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church

Seven Last Words:
Bernhard Lang: Monadologie V - 7 Last Words of Hasan (US Premiere)
Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross

When I entered the church venue for Marino Formenti's unusual program of Lang & Haydn, I became aware of an ambient electronic drone. Every few minutes the sound changed. By the time the program was about to start, it sounded like the hum of a UFO about to land nearby. After the lights dimmed, the hum began to fade. After a few moments of silence, Mr. Formenti & his poker-faced page turner walked to the piano. Ignoring our applause, Mr. Formenti immediately sat down & started pounding out tone clusters. These were followed by rapid runs & more fierce hammering. This introductory movement of the Lang ended with a clear, isolated statement of a theme from the Haydn to come.

The Lang appeared inhumanly difficult to play, but Mr. Formenti attacked each movement fearlessly, often snorting & grunting. I liked the way he made the low chords in Sonata 2 sound like breathing. I let out a little laugh at the way he spit out the left hand notes in Sonata 3 as if he were having trouble lighting a match. At the close, his hands jumped away from the piano as if the keyboard were suddenly too hot to touch. Afterward, I walked up to the piano, trying to peer at the music. Others were just as curious & even bolder, & soon the piano was surrounded by curious audience members leafing through the score. They had to be chased away by the management.

The electronic drone resumed at the intermission, so when the lights dimmed & the sound again faded, we knew not to clap & allowed Mr. Formenti to sit at the piano in silence. Instead of being classical, balanced & even, his interpretation was introspective, inward & meditative. His rhythm could be a bit halting, & he often sounded like he was pushing through molasses. He allowed notes to blur, & he winced when playing soft passages. A few of the more intense moments recalled the Lang piece. The last, thundering earthquake movement linked the end of the recital directly to its abrupt start. There was a long pause before the audience felt it was safe to applaud.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wozzeck Sneak Preview

Reserved for mr feldheimLast night at the SFCM, I attended Ensemble Parallèle's preview of their up-coming Wozzeck. Artistic Director Nicole Paiement talked about the opera's rigorous formal structure & its expressionistic techniques. She obviously enjoys studying this score, & her love & admiration for it shine through in her speaking. I was impressed by her clear ideas about how the score relates to the drama. She pointed out how Margaret's vocal line switches from tonal to atonal in the scene in the tavern, reflecting Wozzeck's increasing paranoia. The opening scene's musical structure is based on the Baroque dance suite, because the Captain is an older establishment figure dominating Wozzeck.

Live musical examples were performed by Bojan Knezevic (Wozzeck), Erin Neff (Margret), & Michael Desnoyers (Fool), accompanied by Keisuke Nakagoshi on the piano. Mr. Knezevic sang Berg's very modern vocal lines with surprising lyricism. His big voice was a little frightening in that small studio space. I expect him to be very effective in the actual production. Ms. Neff, though suffering from a bad cold, immediately dropped into character as the slatternly Margaret.

John Rea's chamber orchestration reduces the orchestra to 20 players. Ms. Paiement explained that he combines timbres to make us think we hear instruments, such as the tuba, that are not there. She played us an excerpt with a full orchestra followed by Mr. Rea's reduction of the same music to demonstrate that none of the complex texture has been lost. The reduction sounds crisper & less weighty.

This production will incorporate large video projections, both pre-recorded & live. Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel was on hand, & we got a preview of a prerecorded sequence showing Wozzeck's nightmare. Even the cast was seeing this for the 1st time. It's deliberately designed to look like an expressionist silent film, with a grainy, jumpy image quality & an iris shot. Mr. Knezevic would have been a great silent-movie actor. Underwater scenes will be shot next week.

This production seems to be in good hands. Though innovative in some ways, the production looks like it will sacrifice none of the beauty of the score. Ensemble Parallèle's Wozzeck will be presented January 30 and 31, 2010, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Nathan Gunn's Workout

For those of us wondering how baritone Nathan Gunn keeps looking so fit on stage, The Wall Street Journal today has an article describing his workout. The article is very comprehensive (Mr. Gunn & I favor the same brand of running shoes). There are more pictures of him being athletic in the on-line summary of the article. I've seen Mr. Gunn a few times at the SF Opera but never in any of the shirtless roles for which he is famous.

Monday, December 07, 2009

PBO: Gloria!

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Gloria! A Holiday Celebration
Bruce Lamott, conductor and director
Elizabeth Blumenstock, leader and violin
Philharmonia Chorale
Sat, Dec 5, 8:00 pm
First Congregational Church, Berkeley

Vivaldi: Magnificat In G Minor, Rv 610
Torelli: Concerto Grosso In G Minor, Op. 8, No. 6,"Christmas Concerto"
Vivaldi: Credo In Unum Deum, Rv 591
Vivaldi: Concerto In F Minor, "Winter," Rv 297, From The Four Seasons
Sammartini: Concerto Grosso In G Minor, Op. 5, No. 6, "Christmas Concerto"
Vivaldi: Gloria In D Major, Rv 589

Somehow I got talked into attending this concert, even though it started a mere hour after Marino Formenti's fiendish Messiaen recital. At least the 2 venues were a walkable distance apart. But after the Messiaen, it was difficult for anything else to make an impression on me. Fortunately the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra program was light & undemanding. It had a Christmas feel without resorting to usual seasonal repertoire such as the Corelli Christmas Concerto or excerpts from The Messiah or Weihnachtsoratorium. With a chorus of 24 & an orchestra of about 20, the balance between voices & instruments was perfect. In addition, the acoustic of the First Congregational Church is very live. It was especially easy to pick out the tenors.

The tempos were swift & bouncy, especially when orchestra leader Elizabeth Blumenstock led the instrumental works. She played even faster as soloist in the Vivaldi concerto. I just wish she had not been so shy & had stood in front of the orchestra instead of behind a music stand amidst the principal strings. The audience enjoyed her solo turn & gave her a standing ovation.

When Ms. Blumenstock was leading the instrumental numbers, she sat several inches above the rest of the orchestra, as if she were in a tall barber chair. I thought it looked a little odd. She seems to be a good leader, so why not just stand proudly? I like that they have a theorbo in the continuo, though I had a hard time convincing myself that I was hearing it.

Formenti Plays Messiaen

Aspects of the Divine
Messiaen: Vingt Regards Sur L’enfant-Jésus
Marino Formenti, Piano
Saturday, December 5, 5pm
St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Berkeley

I found the setting for this particular recital to be severe. My concert companion looked up at the plain crucifix hung on a concrete column & pronounced it "brutal." When the lights came down, it became very dark except for a bright spot on the piano. Marino Formenti, followed by the page turner, entered down the aisle, sat at the piano & fidgeted as he adjusted the bench several times. For the next 2 hours I could not take my eyes off his large head or allow my attention to wander. Mr. Formenti is as much a performance artist as a pianist. Each Regard was an exploration of a state of mind, & his playing went to extremes. He made me think of both demons & saintly ascetics. He could be quiet, calm & measured, playing with even, legato chords. In the next moment he would explode into cascades of pounding runs that pushed me back in my pew & made me grit my teeth. He wailed on that piano, often snorting like a bull. I would have been terrified to be his page turner. Sometimes he threatened to end up in her lap. About a third of the way through, I started worrying about his hands. Does he put them in ice after each performance?

I'm not especially a fan a Messiaen, but Mr. Formenti sold me on this music completely. Highlights included X. Regard de l'Espirit de joie, full of joyous singing & sounding like an explosion in Gershwin's head. I liked that Mr. Formenti let it be schmaltzy. I also liked the soothing & meditative XIX. Je dors, mais non coeur veille, played with effusive romantic gestures. Mr. Formenti ended his recital with a flourish at the low end of the keyboard that brought him right up to his feet. It was impossible not to want to cheer. Mr. Formenti is disarmingly modest, though, & he held up Messiaen's score to us when he returned for another bow.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Little Match Girl Passion

The green room
The Little Match Girl Passion
Pacific Mozart Ensemble
Lynne Morrow, Music Director
Friday December 4, 7:30 pm
The Green Room
War Memorial Veterans Building

Ave Maria
Sanford Dole

Excerpts from Vespa Rjad (Vespian Paths)
Veljo Tormis

Ilya Demutsky

The Little Match Girl Passion
David Lang

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
Traditional Spiritual

Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters
Michael T. Roberts

Veni, Veni Emmanuel (A Christmas Prayer)
Cary Boyce

Hymn to St. Cecilia
Benjamin Britten

Psalm 21
Dave Brubeck

Rise Up Shepherds and Follow, trad. Spiritual
Go, Tell it on the Mountain, trad. Spiritual
Adeste Fideles
Angels We Have Heard On High

The Pacific Mozart Ensemble, an a cappella community chorus of around 45 voices, offered a diverse holiday program in the Green Room on Friday night. They are well-rehearsed & produce a beautiful, blended sound. They sing with great pride. Their director Lynne Morrow leads with a clear beat & gives hints rather than dictates. The centerpiece of the 1st half was the West Coast Premier of David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion. It is a 40 minute series of lugubrious numbers interspersed with the text of the story, intoned in short, halting phrases. The atmosphere is one of unrelieved yet ethereal suffering. The chorus did a fine job sustaining the mood & made a silky, wafting sound. Everett Q. Tilden provided the discrete percussion accompaniment, playing bass drum, xylophone, crotales, chimes & at one point a rusty bucket. One of the sopranos had a dizzy spell at the end of the final narrative. A colleague helped to her to the floor, though this did not impede the progress of the piece.

Bass Dale Engle opened the 2nd half by singing the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child from one end of the room. Mr. Engle has a way with low notes. The major work of the 2nd half was a clean, well-prepared rendition of Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia. The audience joined in the program's final 2 Christmas carols, & Ms. Morrow complimented us on our singing. The attendees seemed to be largely friends & family of the choristers, giving the event a warm, community feeling. Cookies & punch were served afterwards, & I was personally encouraged to come back for their next concert featuring Bach.

Is the Book Dead?

Is the Book Dead?
High Tech and the Written Word

Moderated By Alan Kaufman
Oscar Villalon
Daniel Handler
Brenda Knight
John Mcmurtrie
Annalee Newitz
Scott Rosenberg

Mechanics' Institute Library
Thur 3 Dec 2009 6:30pm

Following the members' meeting at the Mechanics' Institute on Thursday evening, Alan Kaufman led a panel discussion about the future of the book. This panel was similar to a previous one I attended at Books Inc. but with a better mix of speakers. When Mr. Kaufman mentioned Nazis & the Holocaust in his opening remarks, I was afraid that we were in trouble. Fortunately the panelists were less paranoid & were in fact often puzzled by Mr. Kaufman's remarks, such as his suggestion for an international body to enforce ethical behavior from the high tech industry.

A fear of technology dominated the discussion. This obscured what I think should have been the real topic. Scott Rosenberg came closest to stating it when he observed that the Internet threatens industries based on the scarcity of information or on the control of access to information. As the Web removes these barriers, what happens to writers' & publishers' economic incentives? No one seemed to have any special insights here.

I enjoyed Daniel Handler, who is a bit of a performer & whom I had never seen before. He told us how trying to read William Vollmann's 1300 page Imperial on Muni made a good case for the electronic book. I loved Annalee Newitz's story of using a Kaypro back in the 1980s to connect with other book lovers on-line. She also told us about Noisebridge, which she described as a high-tech version of the Mechanics' Institute.

The Mechanics' Institute members, as one would expect, are a well-informed crowd, though their questions sometimes got off-topic. Next time I will arrive earlier. They knew no shame when it came to the food table.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ji Young Yang & Gerald Thompson

San Francisco Performances
Salons at the Rex
Ji Young Yang & Gerald Thompson

Wednesday, December 2, 6:30pm
Hotel Rex

Ji Young Yang, Soprano
Gerald Thompson, Countertenor
John Parr, Piano
Steve Lin, Guitar

PURCELL: Sound the trumpet; Lost is my quiet
HANDEL: "Da tempeste il legno" and "Caro, Bella" from Giulio Cesare
MOZART: "S'io non moro a questi accenti" from Idomeneo; "Ah perdona al primo affetto" from La Clemenza di Tito
HANDEL:"Rompo i lacci" from Flavio; "Bramo aver mille vite" from Ariodante

ARR. TARRAGO: Canciones Populares Espanõlas
Campanas de Belen (Córdoba)
Tengo que subir (Asturias)
Jaeneras que yo canto (Andalucia)

ARLEN: Stormy Weather
DELUGG & STEIN: Orange Colored Sky
HOWARD: Fly Me to the Moon

MONTEVERDI:"Pur ti miro" from L'incoronazione di Poppea

Encore: Alleluia from Mozart's Exultate, Jubilate

It's a great treat to hear operatic voices close up. I'm so glad that San Francisco Performances gives us these opportunities in their Salons at the Rex series. About 70 of us, a sold-out crowd, in closely-spaced chairs, jammed the salon at the Hotel Rex. It was clearly an opera audience. Many people brought in drinks from the bar. Both the singers are former Adler Fellows at the beginning of their careers. Soprano Ji Young Yang has a bright, youthful sound that she produces with seeming ease. Countertenor Gerald Thompson has a surprisingly big, concentrated sound & performs all those Baroque runs very cleanly. He improvised a startling run up to a big high note in the Handel aria Rompo i lacci.

I was never in doubt as to the meaning of the songs. Sound the Trumpet was indeed celebratory. Bramo aver mille vite felt like ardent passion. Ms. Yang & Mr. Thompson, with their well-matched sounds, made a good case for the Baroque convention of combing high voices in a love duet. They also did a modest amount of acting with their glances & gestures.

Ms. Yang sang the Spanish songs, which are special favorites of hers. She told us that when she came across the music in the New England Conservatory library, she wanted to steal it. She expressed the emotions of the songs so clearly that the printed translations were unnecessary. As an added bonus, she was accompanied by Steve Lin on the guitar.

Mr. Thompson, also accompanied by the guitar, sang the 3 jazz standards. These countertenor covers were so unexpected that I was on the verge of chuckling the whole time. Sadly, I'll probably never again hear a countertenor declare, "Wham! Bam! Alakazam!"

The musical program lasted no more than 65 minutes. Afterward the singers stayed on to answer questions from the audience. We learned about some of their early musical experiences & about life after the Adler program. Ms. Yang was frank about her worries getting engagements before she got a green card.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Socially Exclusive Entertainment

The November 28th, 2009 issue of the Financial Times recommends a book called The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera by Daniel Snowman. The capsule review refers to opera's "role as a socially exclusive entertainment in democratic New York." Having been to The Met several times this year & witnessed, & even participated in, much unseemly merriment therein, I think they will in fact let just about anyone in.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

SFS: Weihnachtsoratorium

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus sings Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Sat, Nov 28, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

J.S. BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Selections from the Six Cantatas
Sung in English

Ragnar Bohlin, conductor

Malin Christensson, soprano
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Lothar Odinius, tenor
Anders Larsson, baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus

When I heard that the SF Symphony was presenting Bach's Christmas Oratorio with cuts & in English, I was happy to disapprove. But in truth, the work is not such an integrated whole. & Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin kept all the narrative recitatives, so doing it in English made sense, as it compelled us to attend to the story, such as it is. My objection turned out to be with Mr. Bohlin's interpretation. He was never slow, but at times it felt like he was slowing down. The performance often failed to communicate the sense of the words. Bach's joyous, exuberant choruses sounded as spirited as the pledge of allegiance. The Part Two tenor aria "Happy shepherds, haste" had all the urgency of a wait at the DMV.

We had a chorus of about 50 & reduced orchestra with 24 string players, which made a good sonic balance. Principal Peter Wyrick played cello continuo. Mr. Bohlin conducted without a baton & made a lot of wavy hand motions.

I did enjoy hearing contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who possesses a couple of penetrating top notes & holds herself with an operatic bearing. Sadly we heard only one full aria from her. Violin principals Mark Volkert & Dan Smiley were a bright spot in the duo obbligato of the Part IV tenor aria "Thy name I live to praise & honor." The oboe d'amore obbligatos were also consistently lovely. I was taken by surprise when William Bennett ran into a bit of trouble during the Part IV soprano aria "Say, my Savior, tell me rightly" & dropped one of his echoes. I might have heard baritone Anders Larsson pronounce "angel" with a hard G, so perhaps I should not feel completely cheated out of hearing some German.

The Saturday night concert was well-attended. The audience was very quiet & refrained from applauding until the ends of each half. I felt sorry for them. They were clearly in a seasonal mood, but there wasn't quite the lift one would have expected. More festive for me was running into the camera-wielding SF Mike, who rightly advised me that changing my seat would not improve my experience.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coit Live

On my way home from Otello on Wednesday night, I took a detour through North Beach to check out the Coit Tower video projection. At first I had a hard time finding a fairly unobstructed view of the tower. I eventually found a good vantage point by walking up Greenwich. Unfortunately there is a lot of light pollution from street lamps & buildings, making the images hard to see. The projected images themselves are probably too detailed, complex, & multi-layered. I could not interpret most of them. Some people walking by me thought one of the pictures showed a girl with a dick in her mouth (Don't know how I could have missed that one). Also, I didn't have a radio, so I was also missing out on that aspect of the show. Still, it's a cool concept, & it is impressive that they figured out how to project imagines images on the fluted tower without distortion.

SFO: Otello

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House
Wed Nov 25 2009 7:30 pm

Otello: Johan Botha
Desdemona: Zvetelina Vassileva
Iago: Marco Vratogna
Cassio: Beau Gibson
Emilia: Renée Tatum
Lodovico: Eric Halfvarson
Roderigo: Daniel Montenegro
Montano: Julien Robbins
Herald: Austin Kness

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Peter J. Hall
Revival Director: Stephen Barlow
Production Designer: John Gunter

This Otello seems to be set in 19th century colonial Cypress Cyprus. There is a single set consisting of tiered galleries surrounding an open space. I suppose it is economical. But it is funny when the curtain comes up after a pause for a scene change, & the stage looks the same. The staging is often equally undramatic. In Act II the children's chorus sings beautifully & dances, but they are put upstage behind a screen. I suppose it makes a point about how little this means to Iago & Otello, who are downstage at desks, but it makes the scene uninvolving.

As advertised, Johan Botha has a bright, ringing sound which is exciting to hear. He is not a dramatic presence, though. When he flopped on the floor in Act III, there were titters. Marco Vratogna's Iago, with his smooth bald head & snugly fitting uniform, was the most attractive & interesting figure on stage. This Iago delighted in his control, of both himself & others. Zvetelina Vassileva is a reliable presence, though her womanly demeanor & straight-ahead singing don't fit the picture of a young, sweet & innocent Desdemona. Eric Halfvarson's powerful voice was a treat in the tiny role of Lodovico.

The orchestral playing was very loose this evening. The double basses had intonation problems in their exposed section solo at Otello's entrance in Act III.

Since the Opera Tattler was elsewhere this evening, I should report that during Act II a cell phone rang several times just before Iago's narration of Cassio's dream. At the intermission, I saw 2 gentlemen retrieve glasses of white wine from beneath a table on the grand tier level. They must have stashed them there beforehand.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noontime Concerts
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 12:30pm
Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Mariya Borozina, violin
Anna Kruger, viola
Thalia Moore, cello

Henry Purcell
Fantazias in Three Parts, Nos. 1-3, Z. 732-747

Franz Schubert
String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 471

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Trio No. 5 in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3

In her opening remarks, cellist Thalia Moore described this as a program of music by young men. Purcell & Schubert were 19 when they wrote their contributions, & Beethoven was 28. It was a pleasant selection. The trio played in an easy way, enjoying each moment as it came. This worked especially well for the Schubert. No particular instrument dominated. I liked violinist Mariya Borozina's smooth, gliding sound & the way it seemed to start out of nothing. If the goal was to provide a midday respite, the trio succeeded.

These concerts follow immediately after the noon mass at Old St. Mary's. The audience needs to wait in the vestibule until the service is over, at which point there is a slow push into the nave. A few members of the congregation remained praying in their pews through the start of the concert.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Picturing Childhood

Picturing Childhood
Portraits from the Masters of Early Photography (1850 - 1930)
From the Wolffe Nadoolman Collection
October 10 - November 18, 2009
Castle in the Air, Berkeley

Picturing childhoodYesterday I got to this little gallery space above the Castle in the Air shop on 4th Street in Berkeley. I’m glad I made the visit just before show came down. These photographs of children come from the collection of Wolffe Nadoolman, a local pediatrician. The images have been carefully arranged in themed groups. For instance, there’s a wall of ethnographic images of native American children. This is directly across from a set of sweet turn-of-the-century pictures depicting childhood as a separate state of being. I was especially fascinated to see the Lewis Carroll photos, including 3 prints of the same image of 2 boys reading. I loved Felix Nadar’s beautiful collotype Portrait of Paul Nadar, Enfant. This mid-19th century boy has an expression that is tired, worried & entirely mature. I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting the curator in the gallery & having a very enlightening discussion with him about the discovery, or perhaps invention, of childhood in the late 19th century.

Bathroom Reading

Charles schulz museum bathroomJust because I still had access to a car, on Monday afternoon I drove across the bridge for a visit to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. A current exhibit called The Language of Lines loosely explores the importance of creating vivid cartoon characters. I was stopped in my tracks by a Pogo strip dated 12.23.1967. It shows the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp gathered around a sign that reads in large Gothic letters, “God is not dead, he is merely underemployed---”. I also enjoyed discovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote a comic strip illustrated by Alex Raymond called Secret Agent X-9. & there are even comics in the restrooms, which are furnished with tiles printed with Peanuts panels. The museum is hosting a free day this Sunday the 22nd, in celebration of Charles Schulz’s birthday.

Pianos Galore

Grand pianosOn Sunday I passed through the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall on my way to BART. On the 2nd floor I discovered a layout of more than a dozen pianos of various styles & sizes. I think it was for Steinway. Sadly, there was no one to actually play them. Seems a shame to lug all those pianos up there & not perform something interesting. How about Ballet Mécanique, & didn’t Liszt write something for multiple pianos? Then there’s Steven Reich’s thing for 6 pianos, & even Bach wrote a concerto for 4 harpsichords.

BluePrint: L'Histoire du Soldat

BluePrint: Souls Adrift
The Soldier’s Tale, Igor Stravinsky
Saturday, November 14, 9:00 PM

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
American Conservatory Theater

The Narrator: Richard Prioleau
The Soldier: Patrick Lane
The Devil: Dan Wood Clegg
The Princess: Marisa Rachel Duchowny

New Music Ensemble
Nicole Paiement, conductor
Violin: Stephanie Bibbo
Clarinet: Paul Miller
Bassoon: James Onstott
Trumpet: Joshua Davis
Trombone: Andrew Bednarz
Contrabass: Megan McDevitt
Percussion: Jonathan Goldstein

This staged production of Stravinsky’s L'Histoire du Soldat was put on by students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music & the American Conservatory Theater. Nicole Paiement & her ensemble brought out the biting sarcasm of Stravinsky’s score. The ACT students did a game job of acting within the artificiality of the text, though it was sometimes cumbersome to have the action both narrated as well as acted out. If there had been scenery, Dan Wood Clegg would have been chewing it up as the Devil. Good use was made of lighting effects & the full space of the hall. Ms. Paiement herself is a pixie-like presence. She was no doubt making fun of the choreography for the Princess when she kicked up her heel on her way off stage.

The venue was a small performance space at the SFCM. It seats perhaps 100 people on 2 levels. There is even a small pit. Perhaps because the space is high, the acoustic is extremely live. At times I could hear the clacking of the keys on the bassoon. At other times the small ensemble could be piercingly loud. It was also easy to hear someone behind us snoring during the epilogue. The otherwise well-behaved audience included a gentleman in a kilt. On my way into the theater, someone asked me if I was reading the London Observer. I was not.

Going Origami

Going Origami
From Art to Math to Science+Beyond

Bolinas Museum
October 3 - November 15, 2009

This past Saturday, I made it to the Bolinas Museum for the final weekend of this origami exhibit featuring works of Christine Edison, Peter Engel, Goran Konjevod, Robert Lang, Linda Mihara & Bernie Peyton.

origami flower
I am still in awe of Goran Konjevod’s cunningly pleated creations, such as this life-size version of a sunflower.

origami bear moose
Robert Lang was well-represented by his famously accurate animal models with their multiple points.

origami raven bronze
Lang also creates figures like this raven, which look like origami but are actually bronze statues.

I happened to be in the gallery at the same time as the curator, Terry Donohue, a Bolinas resident & origami enthusiast herself. This exhibit was a true labor of love for her. She told me the story of how she was suddenly inspired to put it on after accidentally meeting Bernie Peyton when she arrived too late for one of his exhibitions in the East Bay.

Bolinas road signThe visit was worth it, even though I hate to drive. I quickly tired of making turns along the twisty CA 1, scenic though it may be. I overshot the turnoff into Bolinas twice. I had fallen victim to a local prank. At the museum it was explained to me that the locals hate tourists & have a habit of removing the Bolinas road sign. After replacing the missing sign over 30 times, local authorities simply gave up. Nowadays, one of the signs can be inspected in the museum’s history room.

SF360 Live: Data In Motion

SF360 Live: Data In Motion: Information Design and Animation
Friday, November 13, 2009, 4:00 pm
The Apple Store, One Stockton Street
Joy Mountford

The San Francisco International Animation Festival sponsored this presentation in the Apple Store on Stockton Street. User interface designer Joy Mountford showed us a variety of animations which show large data sets changing over time. Many of the animations are both beautiful & revealing, such as one of a spinning globe with spikes erupting out of it, showing the rapid spread of particular internet search terms. I was entranced by a video of an installation at the Tate consisting of thousands of blinking LEDs lining a corridor. The moving patterns could be based on a variety of data sources, from cellular automata to the movement of visitors through the gallery. It seems that much of the work she showed is proprietary, so she was not permitted to give us specific links to any of the projects. But her point was clear. As we have more & more data to analyze, these sorts of animated visualizations will become increasingly useful.

Ms. Mountford, with her English accent & fashionably black outfit, piques one's curiosity. However, I am not sure it was necessary for her to include in her presentation footage from Frank Thomas's memorial service or pictures of her young son.

SFS: Bychkov conducts Sibelius

San Francisco Symphony
Bychkov conducts Sibelius
Fri, Nov 13, 2009 8:00pm

Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Gautier Capuçon, cello

Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles
Schumann: Cello Concerto in a minor, Op. 129
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte
Ravel: La Valse
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

At the top of the program, an announcement was made that Mr. Capuçon was unable to perform due to a “medical emergency”. This must have happened quite suddenly, as the Schumann was replaced by 2 relatively light Ravel pieces. I think this makes the 3rd time I’ve heard SFS perform La Valse within a year.

Henri Dutilleux’s tone poem Métaboles was given a loud & somewhat lax performance. I enjoyed the playing of a high-pitched cello solo & pizzicato double bass solo, though. As for the 2 Ravel pieces, I may be suffering from over-exposure; I kept thinking I was listening to KDFC. When Bychkov was already on the podium about to the start the Pavane, one of the bassoon players decided he was in the wrong chair, & there was a pause while the bassoons rearranged themselves.

Though the orchestra was allowed to play out for the entire Sibelius Symphony, I found it lacking in tension. Most telling were the curiously limp rests between the final chords of the piece. However, I had fun watching the double bass section play their counter-melody at the opening of the 3rd movement with great vigor. Throughout the evening the orchestra members looked quite relaxed. They were quite chatty amongst themselves during the breaks.

I heard that Mr. Capuçon recovered for the subsequent Saturday night performance. I am sorry to have missed both him & the Schumann.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PCOC 2009 Follow-up

PCOC 2009: Phizz unit dodecahedronThough I have done origami as a hobby since I was a kid, I discovered that I have none of the intense commitment of even the most casual folder at the Pacific Coast Origami Conference. Fortunately the convention attendees are a friendly & sharing bunch, as well as being delightfully nerdy. It is easy to start a conversation simply by asking anyone, “What did you make today?” Most of the learning really happens in the exchanges between the attendees themselves. In a couple of minutes between classes, someone showed me how to fold a simple PHiZZ unit. I was later able to make 30 & combine them into a dodecahedron. During one lunch, a woman showed us a gorgeous hand-made book she had bound. The book could be unfolded into a 3-dimensional tower. At another lunch, a man from Southern California showed me a variety of sharp models he had folded out of dollars bills.

PCOC origami tesselationMy best class experience was with Eric Gjerde, who showed us how to fold a star puff tesselation during a 3 hour session. This is a totally new folding technique to me, & I am sure I would not have been able to figure it out by following diagrams in a book. I have to admit that I impressed myself with the result.

The next Pacific Coast Origami Conference will take place in Seattle in 2011. New York holds one every year, of course on a much larger scaler. Next summer Singapore hosts 5OSME, an international conference about origami & mathematics.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

PCOC 2009

PCOC origami flowersThis weekend I am attending the Pacific Coast Origami Conference. This is my first time, & I feel very much an outsider. The conference consists primarily of classes where one learns a specific origami model in a classroom situation. There are a bit over 200 attendees, most of them from out of town. The majority are simply hobbyists, though there are several cliques of college students who keep very much to themselves.

PCOC modular origami ball ishibashiThe conference is volunteer run, & the organization in general is a bit haphazard. In the afternoon I ended up in a class for which a teacher did not show up, & the same thing happened to a group of people yesterday. I was shocked by the inefficiency of the class sign-up process, which requires everyone to assemble in a conference room & wait for their priority numbers to be called. & we have to do this all over again tomorrow morning.

What has really blown me away, though, is the model exhibition. It is full of a diverse range of models that all combine aesthetics & technical difficulty at a high level. Some of the pieces made me want to cry.

PCOC origami Goran Konjevod
I love the organic shapes of Goran Konjevod’s obsessively pleated creations in paper & metal. I just can’t understand how they are done, even after the creator himself talked to me about his process.

PCOC origami hummingbird Anne Taylor
Anna Taylor created a poetic tableaux of feeding hummingbirds. Hers is one of the most admired entries in the exhibit.

PCOC origami crab
Steve Zheng is represented by a variety of gracefully folded animals, all of them having a sculptural volume.

PCOC origami chimpanzee chimp brian chan
My favorite is Brian Chan’s laughing chimp. The exhibition room is open to the public tomorrow from 10:30am to 5:00pm at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness & Pine.

As part the evening's entertainment, a dozen or so young origami experts participated in a real-time challenge & folded mushrooms, flowers, animals & human figures out of such unlikely papers as toilet seat covers & No. 10 envelopes.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Avedon at SFMOMA

Bi-badonThis afternoon I was at the SFMOMA, primarily to see the extensive Richard Avedon show. The galleries were surprisingly crowded. At least 2 separate tours were going through. The images are so well-known that there are few surprises, though many of the prints are large & even wall-sized. Many of my favorite portraits are here, such as those of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe & Truman Capote. I found the vibrant picture of Janis Joplin to be very sad, even though she is smiling in it. Also sad is a Botticelli-like portrait of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson taken in 2003. Avedon’s most successful portraits have this feeling of fleetingness, as if the subject must have looked quite different just before & just after the picture was captured.

I also took a quick look around the other floors. I was entertained on the 2nd floor by Alex Schweder’s A Sac of Rooms All Day Long, which is a life-size house made of clear vinyl which slowly inflates & deflates. In the 3rd floor photography gallery I found Martin Parr’s hilarious British Food, a 6 x 4 matrix of garish color snapshots of cuppas, cakes, beans, mushy peas & other stuff unidentifiable to me. In the tiny 2nd floor Paul Klee gallery, there is a nicely curated selection of satiric prints by Klee, Kirchner, Beckmann & Kollwitz.

Oh, & crossing the walkway to the rooftop garden, one can find Waldo.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Elizabethan bandShakespeare’s Globe
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berekeley
Wed, Nov 4, 8 pm

This lively production of Love’s Labour’s Lost from Shakespeare’s Globe attractively recreates the look of the Elizabethan stage. There are no modern lighting effects, & the cast is in luxurious Renaissance dress. It also strives to embrace the audience, starting with an Elizabethan band playing music in the lobby. Inside the theater a life-size deer puppet roams the aisles, as if we’re at the Lion King. Actors often make their entrances through the auditorium. Unfortunately the cavernous Zellerbach Hall works against this approach by seating much of the audience far from the stage.

It’s a highly physical production, with almost as many visual jokes as verbal ones. A hunting dance for the men, of stomping & jumping, was a highlight. Indeed, much of the stage business for the teamed-up ladies & lords approaches dance. I liked just watching the way Philip Cumbus moved as the King of Navarre. Trystan Gravelle was beguiling as Berowne & hilariously frazzled when he was undone in the letter scene. Michelle Terry can’t be ignored as a firm-willed yet mad-cap Princess of France. Her sudden change of emotion when receiving Marcade’s news was stunning & moving. The diminutive Fergal McElhernon had a new set of wacky moves for each of his appearances as the randy Costard. Paul Ready’s Don Armado was unexpectedly melancholy & lethargic, & he strangely reminded me of someone I know.

Despite the virtual absence of a plot, the production had a sense of building towards climaxes, especially in the 2nd half. I loved its promising start with a series of fart jokes. The pageant of the Nine Worthies ends with an exciting brawl & food fight. The only problem I had was with the dense Elizabethan language. There were frequent stretches of rapid dialogue that I could not decode. What’s all this about a moral & its l’envoy? The audience seemed to laugh at the right places, though I wonder how many could say what was going on. The lady next to me consumed 2 bottled soft drinks during the 1st half & did not return from intermission.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

SFS: Vänskä & Repin

San Francisco Symphony
Beethoven's Symphony No. 8
Wed, Oct 28, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin

Aulis Sallinen: Symphony No. 1
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8

After the great experience I had last week, I was very glad to make it to Osmo Vänskä’s 2nd program with the SF Symphony. The Sallinen Symphony No. 1 from 1970/71 starts with sustained chords overlaid by tinkling percussion. It immediately made me think it could be the soundtrack to a documentary about the Arctic Circle. I found it pretty, though I was never sure if it was supposed to be going somewhere. My favorite part was a muted viola solo, played by Yun Jie Liu, against slow-moving chords in the violas & 2nd violins.

I remember hearing Vadim Repin when he was a young, hot-shot talent in his 20s, so I was a little startled to see how mature he now looks. His approach to the Sibelius Concerto was consistently serious & inward instead of extroverted. He bowed deep into the strings, creating a continuous, thick sound. Vänskä clearly had other ideas, though, & he led the orchestra in a full-bore romantic interpretation. He certainly made the final movement sound like a dancing bear. The slight tension between the foreground & the background only added to the interest of the performance.

After intermission, Vänskä led a taut, tense & thoroughly thrilling Coriolan Overture. There was a high level of engagement down to the final, soft pizzicatos. When he came back to the podium for the 8th Symphony, he immediately stirred up the sweeping opening bars before we had a chance to stop clapping. He continued in this teasing, humorous vein for the entire symphony. He brought a touch of Rossini to the ending of the scherzo movement. He made Beethoven’s absurdly drawn out final coda exciting & buoyant. The players seemed very involved throughout as well. I enjoyed watching the good communication between the 1st stand cellists. I left feeling that this was a concert I could eagerly hear again.

I Have to Confess
During the very quiet opening of the Silbelius, I hushed a woman next to me who was with her daughter, a girl perhaps 6 years old. Both mother & daughter were quite restless during the Sallinen, whispering to each other & fidgeting. When their act started up while Repin was playing, I had to acknowledge them. I never do such things, & it embarrassed me, but it did quiet them down, until the last movement anyway. & I did say “Thank you” when it was over. I must have scared not only mother & daughter but also the elderly gentleman on my other side, for when I returned after intermission I had vacant seats on both sides.

During the intermission I had the additional pleasure of running into some fellow bloggers, including Ced, who hinted that in his recent interview with Repin, the violinist expresses an interesting opinion about yoga.

SFPL: Marking Time

Marking Time
From September 6 through November 22, 2009
Main Library, Sixth floor, Skylight Gallery
100 Larkin Street (at Grove)

Marking Time is a nice exhibit of book arts on the top floor of the Main Branch Public Library. The books represent the work of the Guild of Book Workers & are in a wide variety of unusual formats.

Date Due: It’s Not a Popularity Contest
Jody Alexander’s Date Due: It’s Not a Popularity Contest is a collage of due date slips from the pockets of old library books. The artist touchingly claims to feel sorry for the books that weren’t taken out as much.

Little Library
Todd Pattison’s Little Library of miniature books is contained inside an old leather book with clasps.

A short course in recollection
Susan Collard’s A Short Course in Recollection is a toy book with pages made of wood. Steel balls can run along tracks in the pages when the book is set up. Unfortunately, we do not see it in operation.

Emily Martin’s Siftings demonstrates an unusual sewing technique called “Secret Belgian Binding”. Those crafty Belgians!

I always find these book exhibits both fascinating & infuriating, because one can’t handle the objects or even see the content of most of the books. But they are still very cool. On the same floor, a complimentary exhibit cleverly labeled Masking Time shows how repairs are carried out on damaged books. Warning: A text block torn from its covers is not an easy sight for squeamish book lovers.

SFO: Salome

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
27 Oct 2009 8pm

Salome: Nadja Michael
Herodias: Irina Mishura
Herod: Kim Begley
Jokanaan: Greer Grimsley
Narraboth: Garrett Sorenson
A page: Elizabeth DeShong
First Jew: Beau Gibson
Second Jew: Robert MacNeil
Third Jew: Matthew O’Neill
Fourth Jew: Corey Bix
Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner
First Soldier: Andrew Funk
Second Soldier: Bojan Knezevic
First Nazarene: Julien Robbins
Second Nazarene: Austin Kness
Cappodocian: Kenneth Kellogg
Slave: Renée Tatum

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Seán Curran

As if the on-stage spectacle of Salome isn’t grisly enough, the audience at the opera house is currently greeted by a lobby display containing Jokanaan’s severed head. It’s quite suitable for Halloween, even though Daughter of the Regiment is being presented that evening instead. After having already seen the staging at the dress rehearsal, I took in this performance mostly sitting against the wall in the upstairs standing room. I don’t see anything, but I discovered that even without the staging, this opera is quite disturbing.

I am still impressed by the strong casting in all the roles. Greer Grimsley’s Jokanaan is powerful & full of conviction, whether he is singing on stage or off. Garrett Sorenson as Narraboth & Elizabeth DeShong as the Page both give solid & urgent performances. Kim Begley’s voice is clear & ringing & his Herod appropriately slimy. Irina Mishura’s every utterance as Heroidas was filled with venom, & she was quite scary at moments when she dropped into spitefully declaiming her lines or laughing in mockery. Nadja Michael’s acting is frighteningly convincing, both vocally & physically, though I still have the suspicion that she only approximates a lot of the pitches. She makes a strong sound that is even throughout her range, & I find it in no way harsh or strident.

I also enjoyed being able to focus on the playing of the orchestra. There were many fine moments from the flute, contrabassoon & trumpet. The double bass improved greatly from the dress rehearsal in those sickly harmonics that accompany the execution of Jokanaan. I liked the little slide the violins did in the Dance of the 7 Veils. Luisotti does a good job making all the discordant sections of the music into one continuous, almost impressionistic, flow. A very successful effort all around, of this most sickening of operas.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Vänskä Leads SFS

San Francisco Symphony
Thu, Oct 22, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Antti Siirala, piano

John Adams, Slonimsky's Earbox
Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
Dvořák, Symphony No. 7

I've enjoyed Osmo Vänskä's conducting before, so I was looking forward to this concert. I did not feel disappointed. John Adam's Slonimsky's Earbox is a loud, frenetic ride using the full resources of the orchestra. It begins with a rapid upward run that is a kind of leitmotif. Vänskä made sure that the orchestra kept up a tense level of energy. Mr. Adams himself was in attendance in box A for the entire evening & took a bow on stage after his piece. This was also my 1st chance to hear new principal viola Jonathan Vinocour, who has a prominent & frantic solo to play.

I'm not sure what to make of Antti Siirala, a replacement for Yundi Li in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto. He certainly put in an exceptionally clean performance. I liked his efficient technique & the clarity of his line, even when playing extremely fast. His face remained curiously expressionless the whole time. I did not find him thrilling, & yet his playing was not uninteresting either. The rest of the audience had no doubts about him, though. They applauded after the 1st movement & gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion.

Vänskä is an intense conductor who cues everything. Sometimes one can even hear him grunting. I wonder if this doesn't actually annoy orchestras, but he seems to get results. We got a large-gestured & slightly manic Dvořák 7, with exciting, full climaxes. I especially liked the dance-like 3rd movement, which was a bit edgy & sinister. There were many excellent woodwind solos all evening. I loved the beautiful sounds produced by Timothy Day (flute) & William Bennett (oboe).

Vänskä sticks around next week for an equally splashy program of Sibelius & Beethoven.

The Ives Quartet

Chancellor's Concert Series
Millberry Union Conference Room, 500 Parnassus Avenue
22-Oct-09 12:15pm

The Ives Quartet
Mendelssohn: Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2
Quincy Porter: Last movt. of Quartet No. 3

I showed up just a little late, meaning I missed the brief poetry reading that opens these events on the UCSF campus. The Ives Quartet gave a lively performance of Mendelssohn's precocious string quartet & sustained a genuine feeling of excitement in the last movement presto. Before playing the "Song Without Words" 3rd movement, the violist made us laugh by translating Mendelssohn's tempo marking as "Andante, but don't schlep!" ("Dieses Stück darf durchaus nicht schleppend gespielt werden.")

Immediately after the Mendelssohn, someone rushed to present each member of the quartet with a bouquet of flowers, even though they had another number to perform. I've never heard of Quincy Porter, but the group is currently recording all of his quartets. The movement we heard is energetic & has a bold viola part, played with gusto by Jodi Levitz. If this is representative, then Mr. Porter's music is tonal & attractive.

There were about 60 people in attendance, most quite elderly. During the 1st movement of the Mendelssohn, an older gentleman came in, parked his folding shopping cart at the front of the room, then sat in the front row, only to switch sides a minute later. He then periodically unfolded & refolded his program, which clearly bothered the lady sitting next to him.

Capitalism: A Love Story

On Wednesday I took in Michael Moore's over-stuffed documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. The film uses the current economic crisis to attack the morality & human cost of the capitalist system. I'm surprised that I haven't read or heard more discussion about this. I mean, here's a movie that plays a swinging version of the Internationale over the closing credits, & it's not ironic! I admired the film's easy access to emotions. It's by turns funny, outraged, despairing & joyous. In other words, it's great entertainment.

Some scenes I found unexpectedly shocking, such as footage of people being removed from their foreclosed homes or Captain Sullenberger testifying to Congress about severe pay cuts for pilots. Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur gives a great forthright interview about the bailout of the financial industry. I was appalled by the unflinching behavior of the many security guards, police & hired goons who protect the faceless wealthy who are the bad guys of the movie. Shots of Lincoln Center & the interior of the Metropolitan Opera House, where I recently spent a lot of time, symbolize the remote lifestyles of the rich.

I saw this at the Century San Francisco Centre Theaters, which has a recession-busting $6 matinee. However, only 6 other people took advantage of it on Wednesday, which made me very self-conscious when I was the only person laughing out loud.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 8 p.m.

Eleazar Rodriguez, tenor
John Parr, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven

Robert Schumann
Heidi Melton, soprano
John Parr, piano

Johannes Brahms
Wie Melodien
Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen
An die Nachtigall

Richard Wagner

It was nice to get a substantial hearing of Merola tenor Eleazar Rodriguez, who seemed to have been short-changed on the Merola Grand Finale program. Mr. Eleazar has a beautiful & clean sound, particularly in the middle of his range. He worked hard to sell all the emotions in his songs, though he has such an appealing, good-natured stage presence that I sometimes found it hard to believe in his anguish or anger. He was most convincing in the lighter, sweeter parts of Dichterliebe, such as Wenn ich in deine Augen seh' or Am Leuchtenden Sommergorgen. I imagine him to be quite endearing in an actual opera.

Looking at the program, I realized that this is the 3rd time I've heard Dichterliebe in the past 2 years, & each time John Parr was at the piano. This must be a favorite work of his. At least I hope it is, for his sake!

In the 2nd half of this program, out-going Adler Fellow Heidi Melton was simply marvelous. She came on stage beaming, as if she couldn't be happier to be with us. In the Brahms & Wagner songs she unleashed a full range of emotions, delivered in her rich, large voice. I'm pretty sure that certain notes caused the piano strings to vibrate sympathetically. At times I felt like I was being raised out of my seat. The next step in Ms. Melton's career is taking her to the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I will miss hearing her here.

Before the performance we were encouraged to take a glass of rather sweet wine on the landing outside the hall. Later on someone suggested that this privilege was actually reserved for VIPs, but either this person was mistaken or we were mistaken for our betters.

Monday, October 19, 2009

APE 2009

APE 2009Yesterday I ended up spending more time & money than I expected at the Alternative Press Expo at the Concourse Exhibition Center, starting with the exhorbitantly high $10 entrance fee. There was a lot of very fine print & illustration work. Monsters of various sorts seems to be popular content nowadays. Many of the repeat exhibitors complained that attendance was down from last year, perhaps due to the Treasure Island Music Festival this weekend.

I was glad to get re-acquainted with Will Dinski, whose work I remembered seeing at the MoCCA Art Fest a couple of years ago. I like his subtle silk screen graphics. I hope that Nick Mullins has the concluding episodes of his macabre & theatrically-mannered Carnivale ready for next year. Paige Braddock was kind enough to draw me a Jane of my very own. A visit to APE would not be complete without a run-in with the phenomenal Justin Hall, who may have stumbled while trying to spell "pervert" but who flatters me nonetheless. His latest mini-comic about officiating at a same-sex marriage dressed as the Green Lantern is worth twice the price of admission.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Between the Folds

Between the Folds
SF Doc Fest 2009
Roxie Theater

Sat, Oct 17 4:45 PM

I was surprised by the near-capacity audience that turned out for this film of happy nerds talking about paper folding. Between the Folds is an hour-long documentary by Vanessa Gould about the current explosion of origami as an art form & as a science. It is aimed at a general audience & is comprised of a series of short profiles of origami experts. It also provides tantalizing glimpses of advanced, mind-boggling models by the likes of Robert Lang & Brian Chan. In one stupefying segment, Chris Palmer folds a collapsible flower tower over the course of 3 hours. I found it frustrating not to learn more about how these models were created & why they are significant. I was glad, though, to see old film footage of Akira Yoshizawa, the modern father of origami, reinforcing a crease with a heavy mallet.

Filmmaker Ms. Gould & folders Michael LaFosse & Chris Palmer were on hand to answer questions. Afterward, outside the theater, Mr. LaFosse showed off some of his animal models, & Mr. Palmer recreated his demonstration of the collapsible flower tower as seen in the movie. The film will be repeated tomorrow night at the Roxie.

Book Arts Jam

Braille TypesetterI was down at Foothill College this morning for the Book Arts Jam, an exhibition of hand-made books & printing sponsored by the Bay Area Book Artists. I was delighted to meet again the creator of the whimsical zine All This Is Mine & get the latest issue from her. I handled one of Gay Kraeger's gorgeous watercolor journals with awe. It was on display as a sample of bookbinder Brenda Jatho's wares, yet it was hard to resist the temptation to walk off with it. I also admired Penny Nii's book of Chinese horoscope animals, whose unusual binding opens 3-dimensionally.

This was my 1st time at this event, & I recognized several exhibitors from Steamroller Prints & Zine Fest. Among both exhibitors & attendees, middle-aged & older women predominated. Are these my new friends if I take up book-making as hobby? I started the bidding in the silent auction for a beautiful collaborative bestiary produced by BABA members. However, my moderate $40 bid was immediately followed by a $100 bid. Where's the fun in that?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

SFO: Salome Dress

Lined up for salome dress
San Francisco Opera
Dress Rehearsal
15 Oct 2009 3pm

Salome: Nadja Michael
Herodias: Irina Mishura
Herod: Kim Begley
Jokanaan: Greer Grimsley
Narraboth: Garrett Sorenson
A page: Elizabeth DeShong
First Jew: Beau Gibson
Second Jew: Robert MacNeil
Third Jew: Matthew O’Neill
Fourth Jew: Corey Bix
Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner
First Soldier: Andrew Funk
Second Soldier: Bojan Knezevic
First Nazarene: Julien Robbins
Second Nazarene: Austin Kness
Cappodocian: Kenneth Kellogg
Slave: Renée Tatum

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Seán Curran

This afternoon I attended a dress rehearsal of SF Opera's Salome, which opens this Sunday afternoon. The set is an abstract, box-like interior. Most of the action takes place on a bright white circle, probably representing the moon. In the back wall is a bank vault door representing the cistern imprisoning Jokanaan. The cast is in modern dress. The soldiers wear sleeveless hoodies. Salome wears a breezy Marilyn Monroe dress.

Even though this was a dress rehearsal, Nadja Michael tackled this triathlon of a role by singing, acting & dancing with complete involvement. I found her acting to be the most compelling aspect of her performance. Her Salome has happily given herself up to an obsession she never questions. Ms. Michael made a consistently strong sound, though I sometimes wondered what pitches she was singing. She did a creditable job dancing, proving herself quite flexible. The choreography eventually presents her nude while simultaneously protecting her modesty. It was clear that Greer Grimsley possesses a huge, weighty voice from the moment we heard him off-stage. Hair in dreadlocks & exposing a broad shirtless chest, he is a virile Jokanaan. I also liked Garrett Sorenson's dark-voiced Narraboth. But really there were no weak links in the cast.

Nicola Luisotti's conducting was unfussy & did not stress orchestral detail or precision. The orchestra's presence was instead cushioned & impressionistic. The opening clarinet run sounded almost casual. Maestro Luisotti reseated the woodwinds to the left, behind the violins. The horns were also on the left, behind the woodwinds. The cellos & double basses were on the right, in front of the rest of the brasses. This may have created a softer, more diffuse brass sound.

This dress rehearsal audience was quite eager & cheered especially Ms. Michael & Mr. Grimsley. The woman behind me seemed to be snacking during the whole performance, as I kept hearing her rustle a plastic bag. I am pretty sure I heard her ask her companion, "Would you like one?" during the climactic Dance of the 7 Veils, as if this bit with the loud music was a bore.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SFO: La Fille du Régiment

San Francisco Opera
The Daughter of the Regiment
La Fille du Régiment

Tue Oct 13 2009 8 pm

Marie: Diana Damrau
Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez
Sulpice: Bruno Praticò
The Marquise of Berkenfeld: Meredith Arwady
The Duchess of Krakenthorp: Sheila Nadler
Hortensius: Jake Gardner
Corporal: Kenneth Kellogg
Peasant: Chester Pidduck
Notary: Keith Perry

Conductor: Andriy Yurkevych
Director: Laurent Pelly

I'm glad I returned home in time for the opening night of La Fille du Régiment at SF Opera. I am new to this relentlessly good-humored opera, & I liked how it was presented, with an excellent cast of singers & actors, in a production crammed with silliness. The action takes place on a stage covered with giant maps, & Act I features piles of laundry & underwear on clothes lines.

Meredith Arwady was hilarious as the Marquise, & she used her powerful, chesty low notes to great comic effect. She's handy enough to accompany Ms. Damrau on the piano during the music lesson scene, &, as an added bonus, she interpolated a hearty rendition of love music from Samson & Delilah. Diana Damrau as Marie did laundry with great gusto in Act I & sang all the coloratura beautifully & with great agility. & she could do this even when being held aloft horizontally. I liked her singing most in some of the less flashy moments, however, such as her farewell to the soldiers at the end of the Act I, when she sustained long floating lines.

Dressed in Alpine garb of short pants & suspenders, Juan Diego Florez looked like a little boy in Act I. He has a light, pretty voice which is extremely even. He did not let us down, & sang the 9 high C's in Pour mon âme with absolute security, eliciting shouts of "Bis!" from a gentleman behind me. & as if this were not enough, Mr. Florez gave us yet another sustained high C in the 2nd act. It was all done with such seeming ease that I had the absurd impression that he could go even higher. He also had me clapping for his final entrance atop a MINI Cooper-like tank.

The staging is full of clever comic moments, often nicely integrated with the music. I laughed especially hard in Act II, which opens with a quartet of rather suspect housemaids dusting in time to a tedious minuet. The minuet is hilariously reprised later to accompany the entrance of the chorus as an army of doddering, elderly, near-sighted wedding guests. They looked a bit too much like an opera audience promenading to the bar at intermission.

Monday, October 12, 2009

MAD: Slash

The triumph of good  and evilMuseum of Arts & Design
Slash: Paper Under The Knife
October 7, 2009 - April 4, 2010

Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection

September 30, 2009 - January 31, 2010

Sunday was my last full day in New York, & the only thing I cared to do was take a pleasant stroll in Central Park. But this being New York, I also ran into a parade on 5th Avenue, & then I was lured into the Museum of Arts & Design's new building, which seemed to be saying "HI" to me.

As advertised, the exhibit Slash: Paper Under The Knife featured a lot of elaborate paper cuttings & books with things cut out of them. My favorite work, however, was Chris Gilmour's The Triumph of Good & Evil, a large sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon, all made from cardboard boxes. It's probably 5 feet high & has incredible detail, down to individual scales on the dragon.

I also liked Oliver Herring's life-size sculpture of Alex, a young fellow with tattoos & surgical scars. The artist took photographs of every surface of the subject's body, cut the pictures into shard-like shapes, then pasted them onto a Styrofoam core. The colors are not true to life but instead are bright greens, blues, reds, oranges & yellows. Alex's short haircut is naturalistically represented by thin strips of shredded paper. The effect is simultaneously realistic & abstract, & it is definitely a bit freaky.

Several of the pieces are still being installed, & in at least one case an artist was busily working on a piece right in the gallery. I suppose this is what happens when you turn in your homework late.

On the 2nd floor I discovered a baffling display of large pins worn by Madeleine Albright in her official capacity as Secretary of State. These pins are enormous pieces of jewelry, in often insinuating animal shapes. Butterflies, spiders, & stinging insects seems to be well-represented.