Saturday, May 28, 2016

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale

Every once in a while, Symphony Silicon Valley summons up its Chorale to sing along with it. And, once a year, the Chorale gets to play the lead and have the orchestra accompany it instead for a change. Friday was that night, over at Santa Clara Mission, an almost ornate enough building, in its Spanish colonial style, to match the big choral structures from the long 18th century that filled it last night.

We had works from a wide variety of distinctive great composers: one of Purcell's Birthday Odes, one of Handel's Chandos Anthems - both large, multi-movement works - a couple varied Mozart church pieces from his Salzburg period, a Haydn motet, and Schubert's Mass in G, my secret favorite early masterwork of his. The retro-Baroque Credo movement has a strange, stealthy beauty that rivets me, and it covers an enormous amount of text in very little time.

The chorus was in fine shape, full-bodied and fully in control of the counterpoint. There was a canonic series of entrances in the Purcell that was just spine-tingling. Only in some of the more irregular jagged parts of the Haydn could they have used more stiffening.

There were guest soloists in most of the music too. Soprano Sandra Raquel Bengochea was the most operatic and the most expressively free. Matthew Knickman is a deep enough baritone to cover the depths of Purcell's bass parts. Blake Morgan has a pure tenor voice with carefully precise placement of every pitch and every phoneme. Cortez Mitchell is more grounded than many countertenors, but his voice didn't carry well in the choral pieces. To compensate for that, he got a solo showpiece in the form of Handel's Largo (the aria Ombra ma fu from Serse) which was just stunning.

Only complaints were the backwards-collated page in the unstapled program book - it took 3 of us several minutes to figure out how it was supposed to go - and that the program notes should have been run past somebody with a better command of English before publication. One sentence on Schubert, "Having only lived for 31 years, the sheer volume of musical output is staggering," a sentence with no detectable subject, was a striking but representative example.

Friday, May 27, 2016

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

I was a bit nervous about covering the Peninsula Symphony for the Daily Journal, as the last concert of theirs I went to, while imaginatively programmed, was wretchedly performed.

This time, fortunately, the wretchedness was confined to the accompaniment of the violin concerto, and instead I could concentrate on the soloist, who not only was very good, she wrestled down to agreeability what I usually find a rambling and tiresome concerto.

The big piece was the Ninth. The Ninth: Beethoven's. I don't care what larger structures have since been built by Mahler and other megalomaniacs: this is the biggest symphony of them all in the subjective and hence meaningful sense. (Though it isn't the greatest, and not even Beethoven's best.) It takes nerve to tackle it, and it was worth whatever extra rehearsal they stole from the rest of the program in order to get it right.

Originally I was going to go on Friday, even though that was up in San Mateo: it's a better auditorium than Flint, which was built for Steve Jobs to pontificate in. (Not really: it predates him.) But then I got the offer from SFCV to cover the Oakland Symphony, which played only on Friday, and after hesitating I accepted and then hastily contacted PenSym to change my ticket to Saturday.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

the last resort show

Having to wait around all day while my car was getting a much-needed overhaul (3 trips to SoCal in the last couple of months), I took the city's jitney shuttle downtown, visited the library, had lunch. Finding I needed yet more time, then I wandered over to the last remaining weekday downtown moviehouse to see what was on.

I had two choices. Eschewing the one with Susan Sarandon as a woman who's driving her daughter crazy - I saw that plot when it had Shirley MacLaine, and I didn't like it then - I went for Dough, a feeble British comedy with Jonathan Pryce as an old Orthodox Jewish baker who, lacking any other assistance in his small shop, hires his cleaning woman's son. They are black Muslims from Africa, so cue a lot of ethnic and religious sparks. The son is also, unknown to his mother, a pot dealer, and one day hides his stash in the boss's bread dough. The challah becomes very popular that week, and the bakery starts going gangbusters until, inevitably, he's found out.

Also, the baker is a widower devoted to his wife's memory, and his landlady is a widow who bats her eyes at him in the manner of Angela Lansbury playing Mrs. Lovett.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

concert review: On the Town

A special semi-staged production of the Bernstein/Comden-and-Green musical by the San Francisco Symphony under MTT. The last time they did one of these, an excellent performance of West Side Story, they did without the dancing. This time the dancing was there, all of it, so the singers had to be people who could dance too, which is perhaps why the songs didn't strike me as coming out as crisp as in a purely concert performance I heard of several of them a few years ago.

West Side Story is of course a classic, but there's a lot of good and funny songs in here too that would make great character pieces even out of context if only they'd get sung more: "Come Up To My Place", "Ya Got Me"*, "I Understand", and especially "Carried Away"** (a duet which Comden and Green wrote for themselves for the first production).

The only problem was one thing that West Side Story has in superb form, but which On the Town lacks entirely: a plot. Wandering around from nightclub to nightclub waiting to see if the guy's date is going to show up is just not that interesting for an audience to watch. The plot problem starts at the very beginning, with the famous opening number in which the sailors sing that they have only one day's shore leave in New York, so there's no time to waste ... presumably on things like standing around singing about how there's no time to waste, so what the hey? A stage play, whether or not it's musical, is a different genre from abstract concert music, and it has to have a storyline that catches the interest, and this one - with three identically-clad protagonists simultaneously introduced, so it took most of the show to remember which was which - just didn't.

But I'd really advise rescuing a few of the cleverer songs from this mudge.

*Four out of the five performers here are the ones I heard this evening.
**These are the performers of the concert version I enjoyed so much.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

concert review: Oakland Symphony

Getting to an Oakland Symphony concert from here is both very difficult and very easy. The afternoon traffic around the South Bay is the worst I have to deal with, but once you (finally!) reach the end of the BART line, the parking lot is emptying of the commuters who fill it up all day, and it's a short quick ride to literally half a block from the theatre.

I got a late assignment to review this one, but I was happy to go. There'd be Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, probably my favorite of his works because parts of it sound proto-minimalist (but not in this performance, alas). There'd be Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, the fourth time I've heard this piece in performance in the past year, after a lifetime of never hearing it live at all. Why this, all of a sudden? At least I don't mind: it's both short and very lovely. And there'd be John Adams' Dharma at Big Sur, probably his most extensive essay into spiritual stillness. And which afforded me the opportunity to allude to both Kerouac and Keats in the same review.

Dharma was written for a jazz violinist, Tracy Silverman, because he knew how to bend the notes as Adams wanted, and he performed it here too. It was Silverman's encore that gave me trouble. Just after he began, a smattering of applause came from the audience, so some of them recognized it, but I did not. The next morning I called up the Symphony's publicity officer and asked; he said it was a medley of Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Rain", so that's what I wrote. I've heard of both of them but I don't know their work. It was the copy editor who informed me that Hendrix wrote "Purple Haze"; "Purple Rain" is by Prince. I had no idea which one got played, of course, so he checked with the publicity people again. You can count on me to tell you which of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis wrote "The Nameless Land" and which one wrote "The Nameless Isle" (I once submitted a copy edit note correcting an error on that) but purple pop songs are outside of my field.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducted basic works by Schumann and Brahms, plus The Death of Cleopatra by Berlioz, more of an operatic recitative and aria in the guise of a concert piece, in which Cleo does the thing that Romantic opera heroines like to do best, which is to commit suicide, at considerable length. Susan Graham sang, very well I suppose - I'm not really a judge of this kind of music. More interesting was the circumstance of its composition. Berlioz wrote it as his qualification entry for a composing fellowship that he was tipped to win, but the music was considered too advanced and he failed. "I prefer soothing music," explained one of the judges. "But sir," replied Berlioz, "if you want me to write soothing music, don't set me a text of a despairing queen who dies in agony."

The Brahms, which was the Haydn Variations, and the Schumann, which was the Fourth Symphony, were basic readings out not to reveal, but to clarify. Schumann's melodic line consists of a series of short phrases, and MTT was out to separate those phrases and balance them against each other. He also introduced a bit of welcome grit into the slow movement; in fact, both this and the trio were entirely devoid of the cloying and incongruous sweetness that's the usual flaw in performances of this symphony. A solid job, and soon to be released on CD, they say.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

new coat

Over the last few days, we've been watching our little Minnipin Cottage and all its neighbors in this small townhouse complex metamorph from pale beige caterpillars to ... darker beige butterflies.

Yes, the paintners* are here. And we've been getting various notices about their blast washing, or clambering over this or that part of your building. This morning, by appointment, they did the front door. By appointment because it had to be left open for two hours to dry. Though the cats are unlikely to wander out the front - why should they? there's no food out there - I still thought I ought to block off the foyer some way. I checked a pet store for gates, all of which were designed for dogs and would have to be covered up anyway to deter cats, and were very expensive anyway. So I put up three flattened packing boxes over the 44-inch gap, anchored by slipping the end of one behind a bookcase on the near wall.

All this work has been accompanied by carpenters replacing the rotted old yard fences and gates, for which it's about time. They'll get painted too.

*Oh when the paintners go marching in
Oh when the paintners go marching in
Just make sure they put a dropcloth
When the paintners go marching in.
- Allan Sherman

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

no man is an island, but many gulls are

One of those things I'd always wanted to do: visit one of the Channel Islands, eight outcroppings off the coast of Southern California. One, Santa Catalina, is actually inhabited and easily accessible, but I've never been there. Two others are Navy bases and not open to the public. The remaining five make up Channel Islands National Park, and it was to the smallest and closest of these, Anacapa (strictly East Anacapa, one of a chain of islets, one mile long and 1/4 wide) that I sailed on the concessionaire's day trip last Thursday. It's an hour out there, not counting the time we stopped to watch the dolphins and whales feeding (an awesome sight as the dolphins leap into the air to herd the fish by creating subsurface booming sounds while coming down), and you get about four hours on the island. There are no services on the island, not even water for public use, just a couple pair of outhouses, so bring your own lunch and lots of water, and take your trash away with you.

For the first two hours, I was struck by how weird and alien a place Anacapa is. After that, I found myself reveling in its strange beauty. During that time I walked it pretty much end to end.

A tilted mesa surrounded by steep cliffs on all sides - it's a 155-step climb up from the dock - East Anacapa lies in a rain shadow and is covered with low scrub, even a little cactus, plus weird bushes called tree sunflowers. These bloom violently in March, but by May almost all that was gone. What the island did have in May was gulls. Thousands of seagulls spread over the island, and every gull was nesting, and every nest had exactly three speckled green eggs in it. And every gull squawked continuously if you got very near its nest, which since they were everywhere meant there was constant squawking.

The eggs were just beginning to hatch, and the 20 or so of us adult day tourists (there were also 2 groups of high school students on field trips on our boat) saw just a few fuzzy chicks, alerting each other to them as we occasionally passed each other on the lonely gravel trails.

Here's my photo album of the trip. If you take it on slide-show view, you'll see my explanatory captions for each photo. And you'd better read them, because the chicks are almost invisible against the background.

Like Alcatraz, but for different reasons, this is an island I doubt I'll ever return to, but am very glad I visited: an experience not to be forgotten.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

concert review: Reger's Yahrzeit

Finding myself in the vicinity of UC Santa Barbara today, twas to its library I went to perform some necessary research. Having finished in the main library, I headed over towards the music library, but I never got there.

On a board outside the music building was a poster for a concert in honor of Max Reger, the centenary of whose death was, I learned, this very day. And the concert was beginning five minutes from now in the hall whose doors I could see in front of me.

Once again, I concluded that the muses were sending me a message, so I joined another 15 or so connoisseurs for two hours of Reger chamber music - ranging from a quintet for clarinet and strings to a piece for unaccompanied viola - plus a set of songs. A couple of these were about cats and were mildly amusing in a ponderously German manner.

I didn't leave any fonder of Reger's music than when I went in, but this modicum of respect he deserved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

concert reviews

In place of the orchestral concert I originally thought I was going to review last weekend, I was sent to two others, and the reviews of them are finally both up. Both featured the premieres of new works: smaller orchestras, often by forming consortia to split the costs, are contributing to the vitality of new music by commissioning works, and they're finding it worthwhile in terms of attracting audiences to do so, because we're finally getting past that horrible era of several decades past when composers felt obliged to prove their intellectual credentials by writing music that was ugly and repulsive to listen to. Now they've recovered their ability to write music that is both attractive and interesting.

First up was the New Century Chamber Orchestra, a string (with percussion) orchestra of such quality that the concertmaster of Symphony Silicon Valley - a quite good orchestra itself - is one of the back-row violinists. And that's what she was doing that caused her to miss this weekend's SSV concert.

The premiere was a dance suite by Jennifer Higdon, whom I consider one of the best we've got. I was taking a constitutional around the block before the concert, and when I got back to the front corner, right there walking across the intersection towards the church was, I recognized, Jennifer Higdon. It may not be the days when you could see Mozart or Brahms around the premises before a concert, but it's thrilling enough.

Then on Mother's Day I drove out to Walnut Creek for the California Symphony. Were my mother still around, I'd have taken her to this, for the Brahms symphony that concluded the program: Brahms was her favorite composer and she would have loved this slow and dark performance. (My silent exclamation on its finish was: "Wow, Otto Klemperer lives!", a sentiment I got into the review.)

I rather doubt, though, that in her later years at least she would have been able to hear a note of the premiering guitar concerto. It was very quiet and entirely unlike anything I previously knew by Dan Visconti, whom I think of as caustic and cheeky. I also didn't find it as subtly crafted as the Higdon, but it appears to have been what the younger members of the audience were there for.