Monthly Archives: June 2008

Youth and exuberance at the symphony

San Francisco Symphony, June 28

Although the San Francisco Symphony is still in the middle of its regular season, performing in their normal black attire rather than their summery white ice cream man ones, it feels like summer has already begun. In general, during their regular season, the big stars such as Argerich, Bell, Lang Lang, and Ma come out to play, and the programming is filled with either big commissions from the hottest big name composers of today or towards more experienced classical music connoiseur tastes, such as Mahler symphonies. In contrast, the summer seems to be filled with newer (i.e. younger) more unknown soloists, and the programming tends to include either really standard classic big hits, such as the Beethoven symphonies, or very modern experimental ones by smaller composers. Summer programming seems less serious and more fun in general, possibly with the intent to draw in newer audiences, and offering more familiar classics or more fun modern ones. The program this past Saturday night fit the bill of a summer concert by the San Francisco Symphony.

Conducted by David Robertson, the program opened with Witold Lutoslawski’s Mi-Parti. Composed in 1976, this piece utilized the idea of “aleatory” , derived from the Latin for dice and gambler. Performers are given the freedom to randomly play their music at whatever speed and time they want. Conductor David Robertson conducted for a majority of the piece by counting with his fingers each period of improvisation. The program notes makes a comparison to a crowd scene in a film; rather than scripting out words for each actor, the actors are given instructions to talk about anything. The notes state that there is a rich possibility of sound with each performer doing something different. However, a flaw in this logic occurs with the fact that random noise begins to sound alike, rather than being a world of wildly varying possibility in each performance. In other words, a counterintuitive convergence occurs in randomness, as crowded rooms tend to sound fairly alike from room to room. Despite this, the piece was intriguing in its use of new ideas, punctuated by a frenzied urgent climax complete with ascending brass and brightly colored percussion.

The program continued with 20th century music, but in the more palatable and traditional fare, with Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by Gogol’s tale of a war-loving Cossack with the same title. As evocative as movie music, this piece favored rich, lilting music of the country. The organ, played by Jeffrey Smith, added a reverent hymnic note, alternating abruptly with lurking war overtones. The second movement said to describe the torture of a soldier to his death, illustrated with a harsh slashing motif passing through each string section, alternating with a lush song marred by a continuous ominous march in the lower strings. The last movement’s air is elation and militaristic victory over defeat. It was Janacek’s brilliance at how without even reading the program notes, political connotations were inherently obvious in the music.

The program ended with Dvorak’s famous cello concerto, played by the young Alisa Weilerstein. My seatmate accused me of only calling musicians young if they were younger than I (she was born in 1982). Weilerstein played as if this piece was written for her, excelling in its melodramatic Romanticism with an exuberance of youth in her intensely dramatic performance, with every note played to its full emotional potential. Fast passages got faster and faster until notes nearly tumbled over each other in a freshly exciting way. The last time I heard this concerto was by Yo-Yo Ma, and the only minor quibble I have is that the emotional intensity stayed tirelessly high at breakneck acceleration during the entire concerto. Even in the quieter moments Weilerstein was pushing through to burst out again, instead of being more in the moment, savoring its quiet stillness. I attribute this to her youth, because in 30 years from now there’s no way that she can continue to play at this high intense level without collapsing from sheer exhaustion. More editing and conservation of energy will have to take place, which will add variety and depth to her already stellar performance. As I always say, give me a passionate musical performance over a technical one any day. She had the technique and the musicality to spare, and will be an exciting performer to watch for in the near future. And how cool is it that she has a degree from Columbia University in Russian history?

It’s so comforting to know that a new generation of musicians such as Alisa Weilerstein are emerging onto the classical music scene, ready to take on the world. I definitely look forward to seeing her again in the future.

From her website.

San Francisco Symphony

Pick your bobbleheads!

There’s a fascinating discussion going on at The Culturist, headed by NY Times dance critic/WNYC blogger Claudia LaRocco. It addresses the elitist uptight culture of theater events, and how it could use a more relaxed fun atmosphere at the theater. For example, provide bobbleheads of people’s favorite dancer available for purchase. To extend the argument to another step, this could directly translate into making the arts more accessible to newbies, who view the arts as this snobby exclusive event with no sense of humor. On the flip side, some may think that this may cheapen the art form to a “less serious” one.

Would you buy bobbleheads of your favorite dancers? If so, whose would you buy? I listed some in my comment on Claudia’s site. For some reason, choreographers seem they would make great bobbleheads – Twyla Tharp and Jorma Elo come to mind. I’d also like to include some non-ballet artists, like SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Broadway actors Raul Esparza and Kristin Chenoweth, and tenor Juan Diego Florez. And how fab would it be to have bobbleheads of your favorite SF Ballet dancers?? Maybe one of real life husband and wife Tiit Helimets and Molly Smolen as a twofer.

Jorma Elo and Twyla Tharp

A coworker of mine suggested that instead of bobbleheads, a dashboard hula girl might be a good alternative. It doesn’t really fit with ballet since no one really moves their hips in classical ballet, but maybe we can have a hula girl dressed in the costume for Elo’s Double Evil since there’s hip wiggling in that piece. :)

Edited to add: How cool is it to be endorsed by a real NY Times journalist?? Especially more so for a person like me who never really did well in English (I’m more of a science guy myself…) Thanks for the shoutout, Claudia! And if you haven’t subscribed to her blog, please do so immediately. Lots of great conversation going on there. Most of the time, I don’t really have much to contribute except to type in, “Interesting” or “Good point” because the discussions run in very creative and eloquent places.

P.S. Extra points for someone who can guess which musical that parenthetical quote came from.

San Francisco Symphony: Contemporary Music with a dash of Beethoven

I found myself at the lovely Davies Symphony Hall on Friday night, after a particularly rough week at work and after a getogether with a friend at the Chihuly exhibit at the de Young Museum. I highly recommend it, although the price is a bit steep for a short exhibit (especially if you don’t view the rest of the museum, like we did – we favored dinner on the rooftop at the airy Park Chow over musty Mesopotamian art).

The concert was a bit of a slightly disjointed yet diverse program, with the combination of two vaguely similar contemporary pieces with a stalwart Beethoven symphony. The symphony opened with the West Coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne. Under the baton of Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony, the orchestra quickly settled into its complexity of layers and amalgation of sounds. This isn’t to say that this piece was not without a sense of structural organization with effortless transitions, a natural climax and resolution. If this piece were a perfume, its top notes would be the shimmery treble violins (a sheer white floral, perhaps, like freesia), with its middle notes being a pastel-like dissonance where even in its brashest moments is never too harsh nor offensive, almost comfortable as comfortable as dissonance goes. Its base notes would be a syncopated base rhythm with a more-than-usual active double bass and a flurry of percussion. As far as modern music goes (of which I am still a baffled newcomer; I’m still trying to get my teeth into it), I grasped onto what was familiarly favorable to me – the organization, the structure, the complexity of still bewildering sounds and rhythms, the fun Chinese blocks covered by more than one percussionist, and that gorgeous cello cadenza by Peter Wyrick, as I mentioned previously, in its torrent of passion and song.

An orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Chansons de jeunesse (arranged by conductor Oramo) followed, with the orchestra accompanying soprano Anu Komsi. The presented songs depicted dreams to me, from the light dreaminess of “Pantomime”, to the gently melancholic yet optimistic “Coquetterie posthume”, to the hazy dream in the heat of summer floating in and out of consciousness that was “Romance”, to the sweetly ethereal lullaby, “Musique”. Soprano Komsi displayed a fine range of control in her voice, holding high notes to a whispery wistfulness.

The night ended with my favorite Beethoven symphony, Beethoven’s Seventh. I was especially waiting for my favorite movement, the second movement. The second movement begins with a sharp but quickly fading A minor chord to get your attention, a mix between a tolling bell and a human cry. A slow but steady march in the lower strings takes over in a steady yet slowly rising melody. This movement signifies quiet stillness with an undeniable sense of movement, like the still surface of a lake with pushing swelling undercurrents. I’ve always wondered why I resonated so much with an intensely dark piece of music such as this one, but as my seatmate pointed out, it’s darkly sad yet still hopeful, as represented by the melody that refuses to stay in the deeper registers but always climbs upwards in swirling persistence and constant evolution. I always find this movement deeply touching, ending with an echo of its first cry (that A minor chord) with a fading air of graceful acceptance.

A benefit to live performance is to be able to follow with my eyes as different sections of the orchestra passed the melody to each other – from the violins, to the winds, to the lower strings, and back again to the violins. The performance ended with the jubilant fourth movement, with its celebratory boisterous brass section, which brought the crowd to its feet.

And thus, my education with modern music continues! This concert displayed an example of contemporary music with its roots obviously in the traditional, for which I was grateful. To be honest, it gets harder and harder for me to write about contemporary music. Especially in reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, it’s hard not to just give up writing about it entirely because there are CLEARLY lots of people who do it much better than I can. It’s also hard not to quell the suspicion that there is a little bit of the Emperor’s new clothes effect going on, with also the opposing feeling that music is evolving too fast and leaving me in the dust so I can never catch up and enjoy it again because that train has passed. But what is impossible to deny are the things that my heart aches for – a sense of intelligence and logic in construction, a fascinating ingenuity in sound, and that dangerously haunting cello solo.

Experience it for yourself! San Francisco Symphony

A (cello) star is discovered

A quick note on tonight’s San Francisco Symphony’s performance: the most lasting memory was in Magnus Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne (SFS co-commission with Berlin Philharmonic), a well structured yet not-so-memorable piece (I feel like it requires a second viewing), the shining moment was a short solo cadenza by associate principal cellist, Peter Wyrick (click on Mike’s blog for a great photo of him). An outpour of deep musicality resonated through the hall and stayed with me as I left the hall, wondering if he would be playing a concerto with the orchestra anytime soon. Give me thrilling musicality over textbook perfect technique, anyday!

A great diverse program, it’s playing again tomorrow (Saturday) night. This performance was timely for me, as I’m currently reading my way through the intricately dense yet fascinating book, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, where I’m learning a lot about modern music. In addition to the Lindberg piece, the San Francisco Symphony’s program includes Debussy’s Chansons de jeunesse, and my personal favorite, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

San Francisco Symphony June 19-21

One Year Anniversary

My usual blogging view

It’s officially the one year anniversary of this blog! What a crazy ride it’s been, with lots of fun and unexpected surprises thrown in. It’s amazing how much it’s taken off, way more than I ever expected. It’s a nice time to take a look back and see what fun the past year has been since I officially started a “theater blog”. I’ve experienced an incredible amount of theater with the added pressure to go see shows so I’d have more to write about (not that I’m complaining), with the amazing 75th anniversary at the San Francisco Ballet to the elegant San Francisco Symphony to the progressive theater-with-a-purpose Berkeley Repertory Theatre. More specific highlights include this blog being mentioned in the NY Times (thanks Claudia!), actively supporting the arts through my blog and calling in on NPR, and the numerous interesting discussions I’ve had here and on email with like minded people. There haven’t been very many low-lights, but only a handful that includes a run in on a copyright violation, and a rather tacky personal attack from a highly acclaimed actor that I blogged about. I chalk it up to the idea that the arts world is still trying to figure out ways to deal with blogs and copyright on information on the internet, and more than anything, it reminded me of how visible my blog is, and how blogs are becoming more relevant in a world that is slowly eliminating the arts from its newspapers and its priorities.

The biggest thing is I feel so honored to have been a small part of an online community that is very enthusiastic and passionate about the arts. My favorite part about keeping this blog is its tight-knit community and the conversations that I’ve had with the people that I’ve met in person and online. It’s also been exciting (and a personal mission of mine) promoting art’s relevance in the modern world and to new generations who haven’t yet experienced the arts either through its aura of intimidation or inaccessibility. It hit me recently when a friend of mine asked me, literally days ago, if he should rent a tux to go see the San Francisco Symphony. After I told him not to forget his top hat, cane, and to be sure to grow a debonaire mustache, I was appalled yet not surprised that this very intelligent fellow Stanford graduate friend of mine was asking such questions about a topic that was shrouded in mystery to him, as well as a lot of people in my generation. The internet is a great tool to shine light into the mystery of the traditional arts and to make it more accessible to new audiences.

Even when I don’t blog often and the readership continues to grow, I wonder who is reading my blog. Nonetheless, there is an audience out there for information and discussion, and it’s been an honor to be a part of it.

Special thanks go out to the regular commenters on this blog who always keep discussion lively and interesting and the amazing arts organizations in the Bay Area for their continued commitment to excellence in an increasingly hostile environment without whom I would have nothing to write about. A heartfelt thank you to a random and noncomprehensive list of people who have made this year on my blog particularly memorable, in no particular order: Mike S., Matt, Tonya, Sid, Doug, Art, Philip, Katrina, Louisa, and Meredith. And my biggest thanks go out to YOU, the readers without whom this blog would not be possible.

I’m looking forward to this upcoming year, it’s going to be a good one! I want to encourage you to keep reading, to keep discussing, and to continue to support the arts. I’ll see you at the theater?

2008 Tony Awards

From the Best Musical winner, In the Heights. From the NY Times.

Katrina reminded me that I should blog about the Tony’s (thanks K!) – The Tony Awards were on last night! I missed it again this year, stranded at the airport on a 3 hour layover – I was planted inside the business class lounge in Phoenix, and I couldn’t interrupt the businessmen’s golf tournament on TV to watch Broadway musicals, I’m afraid. I missed it last year too because I was traveling, but one of these days, I’ll be able to watch it from start to finish…

I didn’t see any shows on Broadway this year, but I’m still keeping an eye on what’s going on over there on the East Coast. Best Play August: Osage County will be coming to SF next year. I was also interested in some of the actors who have been nominated for several years but haven’t won yet – I was pulling for Raul Esparza since he got overlooked last year for his role in Company, but this wasn’t his year either. I’ve also been hearing amazing things about the 28 year old Lin-Manuel Miranda and was hoping he’d win best actor, but he got lots of other awards instead, including Best Musical. Another Tony goes to Boyd Gaines (who should have gotten a Tony last year for his work in Journey’s End, in a quietly stunning performance), and another one for Patti Lupone for her work in Gypsy.

My sources of information:

NY Times Coverage

Matt Murphy with Playbill podcast: it gave a great overview of the year with some insightful comments – Matt, you were awesome and so well spoken! Check out his blog, Ranting Details.

Any thoughts?

SF Symphony Conductors on Parade

San Francisco Symphony’s associate conductor James Gaffigan in action

I was listening to the radio last week when someone mentioned that the Bay Area always seems to be on the forefront of everything. I think they were talking about technology, with Silicon Valley right next door, but the arts have started to feel spine-tinglingly exciting these days. Not everything is a homerun crowdpleaser, after all what is risk without some failures? Despite this, glimpses of the future of the arts and its evolution is tantalizing. I was reminded of this when I made my way over to the Davies Symphony Hall last week to watch the San Francisco Symphony showcase three of its topnotch but very different conductors in a dazzlingly modern program.

Benjamin Shwartz

Benjamin Shwartz, SF Symphony’s resident conductor, led the riskiest piece of the evening, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Three Asteroids, in its world premiere. It’s a piece inspired by asteroids and the Torino Scale, which quantifies the danger of celestial bodies that may hit the using probability statistics and kinetic energy release as a result of the impact. Intricately complex with a huge list of instruments required to play the piece (including four flutes including alto flute, soprano saxophone, klaxon, tuned gongs, police whistle), its aims were simultaneously lofty and austere- to portray the complexity of the science behind the Torino Scale and the cosmos, but ultimately resulting in, to put it simply, chaos. A person can look at the cosmos (or this piece) as a tangled gargantuan sound-and-fury and get a hint of the complicated logic behind it yet not see it at all. Despite my confusion, it wasn’t hard to lose myself in its bewildering alien beauty without understanding it completely. Shwartz tackled and led the somewhat hesitant orchestra through this intricately layered piece with confident determination.

Ragnar Bohlin

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus took the stage to sing Francis Poulenc’s Figure humaine (The Face of Man). Led by director Ragnar Bohlin, the chorus deftly emphasized Poulenc’s jazzy syncopated rhythms with lively precision and its dramatic elements with versatility and skill, from its darker undertones to its tenderly tragic soft unison soprano. The last song titled “Liberty” was hypnotically spellbinding in its repetition of both words and melody in which forward momentum was created in this monotony by its tripping five count time meter switched up with fast meter changes to add an element of unexpected surprise.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik

Associate conductor James Gaffigan opened the second half of the program with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. A stoically restrained performer, he dug in with fervor during the more aggressive and militaristic sections featuring the lower register, with some trouble singing in the higher notes. His lightning precise technique flashed brightly, showcasing his instrument which the program notes states was a favorite of the legendary violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Always conducting with equal enthusiasm and command, Gaffigan finished the program with Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, the piece where the orchestra seemed most at ease, in an exhilarating race to the finish

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San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Ballet 2008 American Tour: Programming

Pascal Molat and Elizabeth Miner in Morris’ Joyride © Erik Tomasson

More specific details for SF Ballet’s 2008 American tour has just been released (click for more details). As I suspected, many of the New Works are making a nice reappearance, a great way for the rest of the US to enjoy these works outside of the Bay Area. The New Works will be underlined.

Chicago: Harris Theater, Sept 16-21.

  • Program A: Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, and Jorma Elo’s Double Evil
  • Program B: Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, Mark Morris’ Joyride, and Yuri Possokhov’s Fusion
  • Gala: Sept 18 only. Possokhov’s Fusion, Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso, and two additional works

New York: New York City Center, Oct 10-18

  • Program A: George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Possokhov’s Fusion
  • Program B: Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, Morris’ Joyride, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments
  • Program C: Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini, Val Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House, Elo’s Double Evil.

Orange County: OCPAC, Nov 11-16

  • Program A: Possokhov’s Fusion, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments
  • Program B: Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, Morris’ Joyride, and Elo’s Double Evil.

Washington D.C.: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Nov 25-30

  • Program A: Morris’ Joyride, Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments
  • Program B: Tomasson’s full length Giselle

My reviews:

Lucky D.C.-ers get to see Tomasson’s heavenly Giselle! (My review here) Also I’m surprised that Welch’s Naked isn’t being performed anywhere, maybe because of its tepid critical reception. I loved it though, it was a sparkling highlight for me punctuated by equally thrilling music.

Be sure to check it out in your town!!

San Francisco Ballet homepage

Figaro

(l to r) Jennifer Baldwin Peden as the Countess and Christina Baldwin as Cherubino star in the West Coast premiere of a magical, multimedia Figaro at Berkeley Rep.

This weekend was the last weekend for the season for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and I was lucky enough to catch one of the two shows still playing there, a show that caught my attention since the beginning of the year. Written by Steven Epp and directed by Dominique Serrand, Figaro is a play with lofty goals – it’s a play that tells a story, uses operatic elements and multimedia to flood the senses, and tops it off with an undercurrent of satire on modern American society. As a story, it’s essentially a sequel to the Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro, which was a sequel to the Rossini opera, The Barber of Seville. The maddeningly stubborn and now poor Count Almaviva and his valet, Figaro, is struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy in a world where class differences that defined their relationship is now gone as a result of the French Revolution. In the midst of their arguing, they often flash back to the past to its operatic prequels in its original musical form, which lends a dreamy air to the flashbacks. Their witty repartee is often humorous and abusive, yet extremely close as they reminisce together of the best of times, times gone by. In the midst of the dialogue, commentary is made of modern American society with Figaro explaining to the Count, saying, “[In America,] they have a president… They call it a democracy.” The Count replies saltily, “I call it de-bullsh*t.” And in chiding Figaro on his quick anger, the Count replies, “Don’t be so sensitive; you’ll end up being a Democrat.” How could you not love that??

The brilliance of this play was that it highlighted the best of both worlds – it melds the witticism of plays with the heightened emotional impact of operatic music. When the Count’s infidelity has finally been exposed by his wife the Countess, he stops in his tracks. With the potential for it to be a hilarious moment as he is caught red handed, the Count starts to sing his true repentance, known to be true only through the sincerity of the spellbinding gentle music. The Countess responds in forgiveness; although her head says no, her heart says yes. This illustrative moment elevated the level of the poignancy of love to heartbreaking levels through song. Incidentally, this was also the moment in The Marriage of Figaro that was used in the movie Amadeus, to show the brilliance of Mozart in his ability to communicate heavenly beauty to the audience.

A clip from the movie Amadeus

Multimedia backdrops and projections of the actors’ closeups are also used, which adds to the fragmented nature of the flashbacks but are sometimes more distracting than functional; the story would have held up on its own dramatic merits without the use of multimedia.

Dominique Serrand, who staged acclaimed productions of The Miser and The Green Bird at Berkeley Rep, returns to direct and star in the West Coast premiere of Figaro.

Figaro is brilliant in its conception, with its only noticeable flaw being that the play occasionally drags. The play already runs at nearly three hours, with the first act clocking in at nearly an hour and a half. The pontification and constant arguing of Figaro and the Count starts out haltingly and starts feeling repetitive towards the end; this could be due to the fact that the role of Figaro was acted at my performance by Casey Greig, the understudy who starts out hesitantly without the brisk timing necessary for the dialogue to trip along. In fact during intermission, the two women sitting next to me disappeared for the second act.

Figaro was comprised of a strong cast of actors and opera singers. Director and lead Dominique Serrand (as the older Count Almaviva) is organically hilarious and heartbreaking in every moment. Knighted by the French government, Serrand alone was worth the price of my ticket and is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen onstage in any theater. Another standout was Bradley Greenwald, the younger Count Almaviva, who also adapted the music for this production. In addition to his skilled singing abilities, he was a standout amongst the singers in his natural acting ability, with impeccable comic timing and confident swagger with a touch of treachery in his quest to seduce Susanna. Julie Kurtz, the alternate Susanna, was a feisty Susanna and deep-voiced Bryan Boyce was an ardent younger Figaro. Christina Baldwin as Cherubino had a lovely deeper timbre to her singing voice, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden sang the Countess as one who experienced one too many heartaches in her life.

The tireless 7th Ave String Quartet (Alex Kelly, Justin Mackewich, Katrina Weeks, Sarah Jo Zaharako, with conductor/pianist Jason Sherbundy) played the equivalent of a full orchestra and two operas, playing parts of the Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, and a chord from Don Giovanni (at least from what I could tell, there’s probably more that I’m missing). This intricate melting pot of a score was brilliantly adapted by Bradley Greenwald, who made the accompaniment sound luxurious and freshly modern.

Figaro was a great way to close the 40th anniversary year of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre season, not only for its high quality production, but it also represents what the Berkeley Rep stands for – modernly innovative theater with a purpose. It’s a true local gem that I’m glad to have discovered this year.

Be sure to check out the website for next year’s programming.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

All photos: Photographer: Michal Daniel © Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.