Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cypress String Quartet: Behind the Music

Cypress String Quartet
Call & Response
Mendelssohn Bicentennial Celebration
Behind the Music
Saturday, March 28, 12 – 1 pm
Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco

Mendelssohn, String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13
Kevin Puts, Lento Assai (2009)
Beethoven, String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135

In this educational event, the Cypress String Quartet previewed their Call & Response concert coming up at Herbst Theater on Friday, April 3rd. The Quartet played excerpts from each of the works, & the musicians took turns talking to us about the connections between the pieces. It was a fairly technical discussion. We learned that Mendelssohn based the 1st movement of his quartet on the musical question posed by Beethoven in the last movement of his final quartet. Kevin Puts was commissioned to write a piece specifically for this program, & they demonstrated how he takes small elements of the Beethoven quartet & uses them in his own work. For instance, the 1st section is based on the opening chord of the 3rd movement of the Beethoven. Puts's version is drawn-out & sounds drowsy & a little mysterious. Another section, inspired by the scale-like melody of that same Beethoven movement, is more restless & agitated.

This was my 1st time hearing the Cypress String Quartet. Their playing is smooth & sweet, the sound of 1st violinist Cecily Ward especially so. They display exemplary communication & good listening. Their playing strives to draw the listener in. I expect that the Herbst Theater concert will be wonderful.

The venue was a small hall in the Community Music Center, which is a cute music school on a residential street in the Mission. It's in a large house, behind a garden set above the sidewalk. There were lots of kids in the audience, students at the school. A man who sat front row & center had what appeared to be a service dog at his feet. The dog was very patient, though his collar jangled occasionally. However, the dog was much more unobtrusive than another audience member whose cell phone went off loudly while one of the musicians was speaking.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chancellor's Concert Series

Chancellor's Concert Series
Date: 3/26/09
Time: 12noon-1pm
Location: Cole Hall, 513 Parnassus Avenue

Laurel Ensemble
Ann Lavin, clarinet
Jenny Douglass, viola
Christina Mok, violin
Krisanthy Desby, cello
Lori Lack, piano

Rebecca Clarke
Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for Clarinet and Viola

Jennifer Higdon
Piano Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano
1. Pale Yellow
2. Fiery Red

The atmosphere for these concerts is a bit arid, given the sparseness & the relative old age of the audience, but I find the format, programming & level of playing to be quite good. Members of the Laurel Ensemble gave very pleasing performances this afternoon. The Clarke piece, in movements that went slow-fast-slow, definitely put me in mind of a bucolic & peaceful English countryside. The piece is a bit doleful.

I came specifically to hear the Higdon piece & enjoyed it very much. It's in 2 contrasting movements, the 1st moody & contemplative, the second fast-moving & energetic. Rather strikingly, the violinist was dressed in red, the cellist in yellow & the pianist in blue. They were very much an ensemble of equals. Violinist Christina Mok's playing is especially clear.

Each of these programs begins with a brief poetry reading. Today we heard a selection of haiku by Basho, including this one:

Year after year
on the monkey's face
a monkey face

I was dismayed by how much this spoke to me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Adams in Conversation

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
Arts & Ideas 2009
John Adams
In Conversation with Kevin Starr
Monday, March 23 8:00 pm Fisher Family Hall

American composer John Adams spent about 80 minutes genially answering questions about his background & career. He was good about making remarks that were of interest to a general audience. The talk started with a discussion of his New England roots, his academic music training at Harvard & his arrival in California. When he talked about his cross-country drive to San Francisco at the end of the 60s, it was clear that he is very representative of his generation.

He always imagines an audience when he composes, an audience that is like himself, that reads the same books & perhaps shares his political opinions. He still feels somewhat damaged by the generation of post-war modernists that turned people off to new music. If one of his works is in the 2nd half of a program, it bothers him to see audience members leaving at the intermission, assuming that because his work is modern, it will sound terrible.

Mr. Adams was upset that when a Proms concert had to be re-programmed immediately after 9/11, they chose Beethoven's 9th Symphony to commemmorate the victims. To him, this showed that there is no American music of the greatness of Beethoven or Brahms appropriate to the occasion.

I was very amused when Mr. Adams revealed that he loves The Messiah & wishes he'd written it. I also heartily agree with his assessment that opera is a spectator sport.

The well-read Mr. Adams had specifically requested that historian Kevin Starr be his interviewer. Adams was then cheeky enough to display obvious glee when he managed to stump Mr. Starr as to the origin of the title of his new memoir, Hallelujah Junction. Hallelujah Junction is an actual place name in California.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Noe Valley Chamber Music: SFPQ

Noe Valley Chamber Music
The Noe Valley Ministry
Sunday, March 22, 2009 4:00 PM

SFPQ (San Francisco Piano Quartet)
Robin Sharp, violin
Elizabeth Prior, viola
Angela Lee, cello
Avi Downes, piano

Dvořák - Coming to America

Antonin Dvořák: Piano Quartet in E flat Major, Op.87
Harry Burleigh: Spiritual for piano solo
Rubin Goldmark: 1st movt. of Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 12
George Gershwin: Three Preludes for Violin & Piano arr. Jascha Heifetz
Leonard Bernstein: Meditations for Viola & Piano
Sam Bass: Jazz Sonata for Cello & Piano

This was a pleasant & varied program of mostly short pieces organized around the theme of American classical music. The Dvořák Piano Quartet framed the concert, the 1st 3 movements being played at the beginning, then the Finale being given at the end. Pianist Avi Downes read prepared programs notes before each piece, making this something of a music appreciation class. Her remarks ranged from Dvořák's famous 1892 visit to American to the Obama presidency. I was intrigued by the curiously mid-Atlantic idiom of the energetic movement from Goldmark's Piano Quartet.

The program was anchored by Ms. Downe's calm & even playing. All the musicians sound very different, but they communicate well & play easily together. The quartet played to an appreciative audience of largely older women, for whom this was clearly an enjoyable afternoon's outing. During the intermission my concert companion & I were approached by the NVCM director who seemed baffled that 2 young people had found their way to this event.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chanticleer: Composers Our Age

Chanticleer: Composers Our Age
20 March, 2009 8:00PM
San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Tarik O’Regan: No Matter
Shawn Crouch: The Garden of Paradise
Mason Bates: Sirens

For this concert of new music, Chanticleer commissioned compositions by composers who are all the same age as the ensemble itself, which turned 30 last year. All 3 pieces are tonal, accessible & audience-friendly. Tarik O’Regan's No Matter takes its text from Samuel Beckett's nihilistic Worstward Ho. It's development is slow-moving & gradual. I couldn't discern the sung words, as Chanticleer's singing is so incredibly clean, pure & instrumental. Their pitch is so centered that I could hear the beating of some intervals. The group truly sounds like one instrument. The soprano Michael McNeil manages to sing an excruciatingly high line quite reliably.

Shawn Crouch was present & introduced his song cycle based on the poetry of Rumi & Brian Turner, an Iraq War veteran. The piece has a personal meaning for Mr. Crouch, since his own brother has served in the Marines in Iraq. It's a serious, almost religious-sounding work & is immediately affecting on 1st hearing, particularly the tender Lullaby.

Mason Bates was also in attendance & gave us an overview of his song cycle on the theme of sirens. The disparate texts are in Homeric Greek, German, Italian, Quechua & English. The Quechua number was the most fun. It's a jazzy dance number during which the singers pull egg shakers out of their pockets & provide their own percussion section. An excerpt from the Book of Matthew provides an urgent climax to the cycle. In context it provocatively implies that Jesus was a sort of siren too.

All the works were meticulously well-prepared. Chanticleer has a perfectly scrubbed sound that is almost prissy. After the performance, music director Matthew Oltman led a discussion with the composers, who were both much at ease talking about their work. Mr. Oltman praised Mr. Mason's idiomatic writing for German & Italian, & Mr. Mason revealed that he has indeed lived in both Berlin & Italy. Mr. Mason talked about the influence of electronica on the opening & closing movements of his piece. Chanticleer reprised the Quechua number for us as well.

Mr. Crouch explained how his piece is modeled after Bach's Motet Jesu meine Freunde. Mr. Oltman then deconstructed the piece -- a chant plus 2 different accompanying lines -- & showed how all the lines come together in the final movement, with the chant line now ascending instead of descending. I am sometimes impatient when there are educational components to performances, but this was informative & much of the audience stayed for it.

After the show, I discretely entered Davies Hall to check out the After Hours event. The 2nd tier lobby was turned into a nightclub, with the help of a few couches, colored lights, drink stations & a performance on amplified cello. Everything & everyone was crammed into one end of the lobby, so I couldn't get anywhere near enough to see the actual performer, though I did glimpse the redoubtable Opera Tattler, who I assume will have a better account of the event. But clearly a success for the Symphony.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Up Coming: Cypress String Quartet Outreach

The Cypress String Quartet is doing a free Call & Response Outreach at the Community Music Center on Capp Street next Saturday, March 28, 2009 at noon. I've never heard them before, but this could be interesting, & free is good!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Nicola Luisotti conducts Brahms's Fourth

Nicola Luisotti conducts Brahms's Fourth

Wed, Mar 18, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony
Nicola Luisotti, conductor
Michael Grebanier, cello

Dances from Galánta


Symphony No. 4

I don't usually like to sit in the side terrace, but for this evening it turned out to be a great place for watching Luisotti's wily podium style. Mr. Luisotti has a big goofy smile, & it was much on display for the Kodály dance suite, encouraging the orchestra to be loose & to have fun with this music. He clownishly conducted with his shoulders or waved his baton as if tracking a fluttering butterfly. He made flirtatious gestures to bring out a solo from the female flutist. People around me in the terrace giggled at times, & I couldn't help doing so either. I felt like it was all genuine & in the right spirit, & it added up to a teasing, playful interpretation. I also have to note that a highlight of the performance was the excellently soft & controlled clarinet solo from Carey Bell.

Luisotti had an appropriately grave demeanor for the Schelomo, but he was no less demonstrative. For the big orchestral climaxes, he would clutch his chest or stretch out his arms. He sometimes looked like he was having a heart attack. I like Mr. Grebanier's stolid & efficient cello sound. He gave a clean & low-key performance that was a contrast with the intense orchestral background. William Bennett added beautifully plaintive solos that almost stole the show.

Mr. Luisotti's Brahms was extroverted & unconstrained. It was interesting to note what he conducted & what he didn't. For instance, in the opening theme, he cued the descending pairs of notes but not the ascending ones. He still had plenty of antics to show the orchestra as well. With his unusual, conversational gestures he actually made the scherzo funny. The final movement was intense & driving. Luisotti kept the audience quiet for several seconds after the end. During the ovations, the brass section seemed confused when he singled them out to stand.

Probably because of the program's 1st half & the lack of name-recognition, the audience was very sparse. I hope more people attend this concert this weekend. I was pleased with Mr. Luisotti's appearance with the opera, & I'm just as encouraged by this outing with the SF Symphony. True, Mr. Luisotti is a bit of a comedian on the podium, & I can see that this might turn off some musicians, but at least he has ideas & gets the orchestra to watch him.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Even though I'd requisitioned a few cans of Guinness for St. Patrick's Day, I instead ventured out with another skeptical friend to see Slumdog Millionaire & to find out what the fuss is about. Everyone I know who has seen this Academy Award winner has raved about it. We saw it at the Sundance Kabuki in Japantown, which is a pretty fancy venue. You get an assigned seat, & you're allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages to bring into the auditorium. The ticket-taker insisted on carding me, which at my advanced age is something of a treat.

The movie itself turned out to be 100% Hollywood. The hero is honest, plucky & good-looking, & love is the ultimate reward...along with fame & money. I did think that the part where the young Jamal becomes a fake tour guide at the Taj Mahal was kind of funny, & the Bollywood dance during the final credits was cute. Otherwise, it was so predictable that I was almost surprised that there were no surprises. I kept thinking of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, a vastly superior movie which covers some of the same ground but is much more uncompromising in its depiction of street children. Salaam Bombay also has an excellent soundtrack including street songs & jazz-inflected music by L. Subramaniam.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gergiev & LSO

Mon, Mar 16, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

London Symphony Orchestra

Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexei Volodin, piano

Symphony No. 2

Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor

Symphony No. 7

March from The Love of Three Oranges

These 2 Prokofiev symphonies were new to me. No. 2 has an unusual structure. The heavy 1st movement begins with a raw trumpet call & is noisy & brash for the duration. Mr. Gergiev had the orchestra playing out brightly the whole time. The 2nd & final movement is a large-scale theme & variations. The slow & quiet theme is announced by the oboe, played beautifully & evenly here. There is a conspicuous passage for the double basses which was played with great vigor & which I found humorous & sardonic. At the end, the piece sounds like it's going to come to a pounding conclusion, but then it ends in a strange quiet.

There was still a pretty large orchestra on stage for the Beethoven Concerto, but the LSO scaled back its sound, & we got a nicely balanced performance. Mr. Volodin played with a pointed sound in the 1st movement & has a wickedly fast & even trill. The famous slow movement was executed with admirable restraint by both the soloists & conductor. In fact, this was the most restrained I've ever seen Mr. Gergiev.

The Prokofiev 7 has a traditional symphonic form but with something brash & ironic about it too. The oboe & clarinet soloists were very good. Again it seemed like the piece would come to a loud conclusion, but instead it landed with a quiet bump.

For me, Mr. Gergiev delivered an edgy, exciting performance, even in this unfamiliar repertoire. My concert companion found the Prokofiev symphonies simply incomprehensible, & perhaps this is not the greatest music, but Mr. Gergiev didn't make me feel like he was wasting our time. He was also unexpectedly restrained at times. I'm still mystified by how he communicates with the orchestra. He does not use a baton & instead waves his hands about, but in a way that doesn't look related to the music at all. He's not beating time. & what does that trembling hand motion mean? I imitated it for The Opera Tattler later that evening, & she had the intriguing idea that it looked like a gesture from Tajik dance. So perhaps it indicates a dance feel.

I rarely hear other orchestras besides the SF Symphony, so concerts like this are a welcome change. Members of the LSO looked relaxed & happy to be on tour. It's great to hear an orchestra that is equally strong in all sections. I was surprised to see the orchestra tune before the leader came on-stage. This is an ensemble that can probably play by itself perfectly fine. I often could not understand how Mr. Gergiev was starting them, so perhaps I should have been watching the leader for this instead.

Monday, March 16, 2009

American Bach Soloists: Favorite Cantatas

Sunday 15 March 2009, 7:00 pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco

American Bach Soloists

Yulia Van Doren, soprano
Jennifer Lane, alto
Jeffrey Thomas, tenor
William Sharp, baritone

Favorite Cantatas

J. S. Bach: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140
J. S. Bach: Ich habe genug, BWV 82
J. S. Bach: Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78
J. S. Bach: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80

At ABS performances, the audience is asked to join in the final chorales. So at the start of the evening, Mr. Thomas gave us a chance to rehearse. This audience was more than up to the job, singing confidently in German! While I barely mouthed the words, the woman next to me sang in a lovely soprano voice.

This was a substantial presentation of 4 major cantatas. The hard-working ABS did it all one person per part & without a conductor. Although this approach is minimal, balances & ensemble were fine. I sometimes feel like I have to tolerate original instrument performances, but this evening the instruments were very well behaved & even pleasant-sounding. I liked Elizabeth Blumenstock's playing, especially her virtuoso turn in Wachet auf. According to the program, she played a violino piccolo, which looked like a toy. The musicians would stand when playing the obbligato parts.

The 4 vocal soloists were all good, though they each had a very different sound. Ich habe genug is an incredible, time-stopping piece of music, & I was grateful for Mr. Sharp's smooth & expressive singing. This is the music most likely to convert me to Lutheranism. Ms. Van Doren & Ms. Lane were cute, almost pert, in the duet in Jesu, der du meine Seele. Their number received a spontaneous round of applause.

I don't think one could argue much about the programming or the performances. It gave me a feeling of well-being to hear this repertoire done so capably. Only the house lights seemed a bit uncertain. They are supposed to come up during the final chorales so that the audience can read its music. However, during Ein feste Burg they came up during the wrong chorale, then quickly went down again, causing some confusion & then a few giggles.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anarchist Book Fair

Anarchist Book FairOn this cold Saturday afternoon I made a brief pass through the Anarchist Book Fair. It takes place in the County Fair Building next to the entrance of the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park. Whatever this is, it's a well-attended event. I was jostled frequently just trying to make my way around. There was a big bicycle parking lot, lots of young people in black, lots of piercings, a few old hippies. The baby boomers & generation X did not seem well-represented, though. The event was so large that it spilled out into the building's courtyard & the lawn. Out front was a big poster in honor of Tristan Anderson, the American recently injured by an Israeli tear-gas canister. Also hard to miss was the young guy sitting in the courtyard, chatting amiably with his friends while skinning a raccoon in his lap.

I perused the book stalls & art displays inside, & it was funny to come across a copy of The Complete Peanuts among books about unions, Marxism & Third World exploitation.

Kentridge preview at SF MOMA

A kind friend allowed me to accompany him to the SFMOMA on Friday night for the members' preview of William Kentridge: Five Themes, opening this weekend. Both the foyer & the galleries were pretty crowded, so I learned that these preview parties are not necessarily the best time to get a look at the art. My friend & I thought that the museum missed an opportunity to do something more interactive with the foyer, instead of just using it to sell drinks.

I had not heard of Kentridge before, but it seems that the important things to know are that he is a white South African & that he has an interest in theater & animation. His work has a rough-grained sense of play & humor. There are a number of large drawings & a film in which he depicts himself as Père Ubu. A half-dozen of his films are projected simultaneously around the walls of one gallery. There's also a very cool animation that one views as a reflection in an anamorphic cylinder. Most impressive is a mechanical toy theater that puts on a crude opera of sorts, complete with recorded singing, projections, moving backdrops & robotic actors. I like that all the workings are exposed, including the computer that controls the show. On the other hand I couldn't help thinking that Disneyland does the same sort of thing, but in a much more sophisticated package. It was difficult to take all of this in, because these galleries were the most packed.

It was easier & more enjoyable to view Picturing Modernity, a selection of historic photos from the museum's collection. I liked the eclipse photos, with their tiny images of a crescent-shaped sun. Edgerton's strobe light photos are still revelatory & modern. I was charmed by Atget's lovely garden scenes.

I thought I might be able to booze it up in the galleries, but of course food & drink were restricted to the lobby area.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin, piano
Thursday, March 12, 8:30pm
Davies Symphony Hall

PROKOFIEV: 3 pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 75
PROKOFIEV: Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major
CHOPIN: Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, Op. 61
CHOPIN: 3 Mazurkas (Op. 30, No. 4; Op. 41, No. 4; Op. 59, No. 1)
CHOPIN: Etudes, Op. 10, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 12 & Op. 25, Nos. 5, 6, 11

Encores (via Joshua Kosman)
Chopin: Nocturne in D-Flat, Op.27, No. 2
Prokofiev: "Suggestion Diabolique" from Four Pieces, Op. 4, No. 4

Mr. Kissin seems like an odd fellow. He walked on stage as if he didn't know or care where he was. He bowed slowly to the audience, sat down & immediately started to play, without preparation. His playing, though, made me feel completely secure. He played the Romeo & Juliet extracts with a colorful variety of tone colors. The piece was short, but he packed them with a tremendous range of moods. I felt like I'd already gotten half my money's worth.

The Prokofiev Sonata was the most weighty part of the program. The 1st movement was especially ruminative. At times it seemed like neither Prokofiev nor Kissin knew what was going to come next. The flashy last movement got cheers from the audience. I found his playing so enjoyable that during the intermission I stayed by my seat & kept thinking, "OK, Mr. Kissin, I'm ready for my Chopin now!"

Mr. Kissin is not a gushy, heart-on-the-sleeve performer. He may not even make much of an emotional connection with his audience. But he is a brilliant pianist. His sound is lush & velvety. He never makes the piano sound like a percussion instrument. In fact, somehow he makes me think that he can actually sustain notes, even though this is impossible on the piano. I was continually startled by how much control he had, even in very technical passages. For instance, in Etude No. 1 he could shade the dynamic levels of the long runs up & down the keyboard.

Davies Hall was nearly full. I had expected to see no empty seats, but there were a few gaps. The audience gave Mr. Kissin a loud standing ovation. He smiled but also seemed strangely detached. We tried to get a 3rd encore out of him but failed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Stacey's close-out

Empty shelves at Stacey's
It was really creepy to wander around the completely empty book shelves at Stacey's yesterday. I felt like I was examining the scene of a road accident. All the fixtures are for sale as well: the heavy bookcases, tables, chairs, benches, display racks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Upper Crust; Colour Amour

The Upper CrustI walked through Civic Center Plaza around noon this afternoon & saw Patrick Dougherty's art installation called The Upper Crust. The Civic Center has been following its construction. It consists of several huge nest-like structures made of willow branches woven into the bare trees in the plaza. The tops remind me of minarets & mimic the spire on the City Hall dome. It could be the abandoned nest of some prehistoric bird. Only a small portion of trees are covered, so it seems unfinished. It looks like the kind of thing that Andy Goldsworthy would do.

At the same time I was in the plaza, a demonstration in support of Tibetan independence was occurring on the steps of City Hall. A small crowd politely listened to the speeches.

I was really on my way to the main branch of the library to return some CDs. On the 4th floor, I discovered a small but broadly-conceived exhibit on colors. I actually absorbed a lot in the 10 minutes I spent scanning the displays. I saw a very cool set of silk screens from a Joseph Albers study of color comparisons. I learned that way before Winamp's music visualization or Laserium, wacky inventors were hard at work on different iterations of color-music instruments. Unsurprisingly, Messiaen experienced harmony --> color synesthesia. Some of the explanatory texts are strangely poetic. I read that "Green was once the color worn by the insane." Another label reveals that "Violet is the last color of the rainbow spectrum, symbolizing both the end of the known & the beginning of the unknown."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Kissin Recital Rescheduled

San Francisco Performances has rescheduled Evgeny Kissin's recital at Davies Hall this week to Thursday, March 12, 8:30pm

& this just a month after their fiasco with will-call tickets at Philip Glass's show.

Coming Up: Kentridge staging of The Return of Ulysses

I had to the read the Financial Times this morning to find out about this performance of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses at Theatre Artaud, March 24- 28. It is staged by William Kentridge, who has a big show opening at the SF MOMA this weekend. I've never heard of Kentridge before & I can't tell what this performance entails, but I'm curious. It's only 100 minutes, so it's obviously severely abridged, & the images make it look like a puppet show. The ticket link on the site sends me to Ticketmaster, but I can't get it to cough off tickets for any of the dates.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Heidi Melton sings Harawi

Old First Concerts
Old First Presbyterian Church
Sunday, March 8, 2009 At 2:30pm

Heidi Melton sings
Harawi by Olivier Messiaen

Heidi Melton, soprano; John Parr, piano

I was here not so much for the unusual repertoire but for another chance to hear Heidi's wonderful voice. A lady from Old First Concerts introduced the program, then Mr. Parr came out & spoke for a few minutes. He noted the rarity of performances of this work & the work's technical difficulty. He also said that Messiaen intended it to be sung by a dramatic soprano. The program notes cite Peruvian folklore & Wagner's Tristan as inspirations, though mostly I heard Messiaen's characteristic eerie harmonies & plenty of bird songs.

Expectations were high, & Heidi received enthusiastic applause when she stepped on the stage. Her thick, substantial sound was a physical pleasure to listen to, especially when her high notes rang out in that church acoustic. There was a definitely an emphasis on even, careful & beautiful singing. I liked the little repetitions of "Doudou Tchil" that evolved from little sips of sound to half-speaking to full singing. Often high notes come out of nowhere, & Heidi tackled these fearlessly.

The cycle is very abstract. On this initial hearing, I did not discern a story arc. Clearly L'escalier redit, gestes du soleil is a climax, & Heidi closed the cycle with a distant pianissimo that died away to nothing. But there is also a lot of ritualistic repetition that I found static. The text has an element of eroticism that I'm not sure came across fully in this interpretation, which was a bit contained. Ms. Melton maintained a serious demeanor throughout but reverted to her usual happy smile immediately at the end. She received a prolonged ovation & was recalled 3 times for bows.

About 80 of us attended this short but ample program, lasting no more than an hour. We were all pretty much rapt the whole time. Ms. Melton deserved a bigger audience. I recognized Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang in the pews. She will be performing in this series on May 15th, along with trumpeter Adam Luftman, whom I just heard Thursday night.

Friday, March 06, 2009

New Century Chamber Orchestra

New Century Chamber Orchestra
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Music Director

Thu, March 5, 2009 at 8pm, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
The Glory of Russia

Prokofiev (arr. Rudolf Barshai): Visions Fugitives, Op. 22
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
Adam Luftman, trumpet

Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence

I like the savory, Russian-themed program for the New Century Chamber orchestra's Herbst Theatre gig last night. For the 1st half, the stage was dominated by the grand piano, hugged on 3 sides by the group's 19 string players. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg & Ms. McDermott each spoke briefly before the concert to tell us how excited they were & how the Shostakovich Concerto would follow the Prokofiev immediately without a pause. They did 16 of the introspective & musing Visions Fugitives, arranged here for piano & chamber orchestra. Ms. McDermott has a crystalline touch & is an involved & slightly erratic interpreter. Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg leads but does not conduct, & somehow the musicians manage to communicate over that huge piano.

Without missing a beat, the group indeed went straight into the Shostakovich, the transition clearly, if abruptly, demarcated by a sudden piano run & an off-stage trumpet call. The concerto now underway, the trumpet soloist then made his way on-stage to a seat at the far end of the piano. Even though Mr. Luftman was at the front of the stage, he kept his sound in check with the rest of the orchestra. It was an admirably modest brass performance!

The lusciously Romantic Souvenir de Florence was given a vigorous, excitable interpretation. The ensemble ripped greedily into everything, whether fast or slow. Even seated, Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg displays the wild gyrations, jerks & spasms that characterize her solo playing. It would be impossible for her highly individual playing not to stick out. I occasionally closed my eyes in order not to be distracted by watching her.

The hall was nearly full, & the audience cheered & whooped for the concerto & for the Tchaikovsky, which got an immediate standing ovation. Halfway through the Tchaikovsky, an appreciative audience member decided to give prolonged applause to each movement, undeterred by the fact that no one else joined in.

At the end of the evening I was gratified to note that the New Century Chamber Orchestra is nearly an all-girl band. I counted only 3 guys among the nearly 20 orchestra members.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Under the Sea in IMAX 3D

I'm a sucker for these kind of spectacles & was easily impressed by the sight of a huge cod fish appearing to float just inches in front of my nose. Apart from the wonder of 3D, though, this movie is a pretty thin affair. It's a travelogue through undersea environments in New Guinea & Southern Australia, with no particular story line or emphasis, other than a dilute message about the endangerment of these ecosystems by global warming. The movie is no more than 45 minutes, so even the $13 matinee is an over-priced experience.

Still, the natural world has amazing visuals: a seat turtle dining on a jellyfish, a school of catfish that seems to cascade across the sea floor, sinuously swimming sea snakes, puppy-like sea lions. Even though the movie is rated G, there is explicit footage of cuttlefish sexual activity, including multiple matings & transvesticism.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Rinaldo at SFCM

Conservatory Baroque Ensemble
Corey Jamason and Elisabeth Reed, co-directors
Saturday, February 28, 8:00 PM
Handel's Rinaldo in its original 1711 version

I always forget that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is a fine source for low-cost or free events. A friend of mine is a fan of student performances in general, since the musicians are too young to have become jaded! On Saturday night, I attended a staged presentation of Handel's Rinaldo, for free. The Conservatory's concert hall is an ideal size for this, even though the orchestra has to be on the floor in front of the stage. Someone even improvised a set-up to provide supertitles.

I was unprepared for the high level of singing from every member of the cast. As one challenging aria followed another, I kept thinking how hard this music is & how well it was being executed. Jennifer Panara in the title role nailed every number without tiring. Rebekah Kenote, as the love interest Almirena, has a voice I found warm & penetrating. The singers were supported by a keen & alert chamber orchestra, led by the conductor at the harpsichord. The effort deserved much better than the small turn-out on Saturday night.

Because the musical values were so good, it was very frustrating that the staging was more along the lines of hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show. Apparently, the cast was left more or less to its own devices here. When we giggle at the silly plots twists, the laugh is at the expense of the 18th century libretto. But I also snickered at some of the stage business the cast resorted to. This is not a feeling I like, because now I'm laughing at the performers themselves. We all would have been better served either by a concert version or by more resources being given to the theatrical dimension.

At the end of the 1st intermission, I discovered too late that there was a dessert buffet downstairs. At the next break I headed straight down there, but the refreshments were gone. My only disappointment of the evening.