Monthly Archives: October 2008

Happy Halloween!

A sick pumpkin

Happy Halloween! Did this week fly by really fast for anyone else besides me? Friday really snuck up on me this week – I’m going out to buy candy and a pumpkin really quickly after work, and then pass out candy until going to the theater where I’ll be dressed up as a dance critic, holding pen and press kit. Should I add an uptight expression and a target on my back? :) Enjoy the picture of my pumpkin from a few years ago, this is what happens when you get a bunch of medical students together to decorate pumpkins – things become medical. Is anyone dressing up?

Orion Weiss in Recital

The small, intimate environment of a salon – a performance with small group of people in a small, informal open environment – has been a major part of classical music’s history. Composers such as Liszt and Chopin regularly performed in salons, as well as being the only venues where female composers such as Chaminade could show their work. I had a unique opportunity to experience what that history was like, when I went

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to see Orion Weiss in recital. Held at a beautiful home in Tiburon with a gorgeous view of the bay and Golden Gate bridge, about 100 people gathered in the living room to experience the pianistic stylings of Orion Weiss, a recent Juilliard graduate who studied with Emanuel Ax. With a background of impressive awards such as the Avery Fisher Career Grant, watching Weiss perform in the living room was a singular experience. I almost felt like I was being intrusive, watching him practice, and I wondered if it would have been less incongruent if he had really been in “practicing” clothes, such as jeans and a t shirt. (With that, I immediately picture informal college students lying around on beanbags drinking beers, calmly debating the subtleties of Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg” recordings. Anyways, only in my dreams, right? :) But wouldn’t that be really cool?) Anyways, I digress.

Orion Weiss

Orion Weiss

For the recital, Weiss led the audience on a colorful journey through Beethoven’s Piana Sonata No. 12 Op. 26 and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. The intimate atmosphere provided its numberous joys, but the transparency of the music due to the sheer fact that everyone was so close to him dampened the subtleties of articulation in the music, where it might have not been so obvious in a bigger venue. Despite the fact that every detail could easily be heard, like a sculptor, Weiss thoughtfully shaped the music, bringing out the melody artfully with a well balanced accompaniment. In Schumann’s Etudes, from the light allegro of Etude III (Vivace) to the angst-filled Etude VI (Agitato) to the particularly sweetly touching encore, Weiss displayed an impressive range of lyricism, especially promising in such a young pianist. He will definitely be one to watch.

The in home recital felt like this is what history must have been like. The environment was a great way to watch a talented soloist up close, as well as be completely enveloped in the beautiful music. Weiss also explained the pieces before he performed them, which was helpful as well as giving him a chance to really connect with his audience. Everyone around me really seemed to appreciate that.

What I especially liked was that even if someone couldn’t make this fundraiser, you could still get a chance to see Orion Weiss perform. Orion Weiss will be performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Marin Symphony on November 2 and 4. Click here for more information. I’m also excited about a pre-concert presentation with Julia Adam, a Bay Area choreographer who also happened choreograph my surprise favorite for SF Ballet’s recent New Works Festival. Click here to reserve your spot.

Photos courtesy of the Marin Symphony

75% on San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary: The American Tour

Katita Waldo and Gonzalo Garcia in Tomasson’s The Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

I don’t know about you guys, but every day now, I’m getting coupons in the mail at alarming rates than I did before the recession (has the government admitted it yet??). Here’s my favorite one: San Francisco Ballet’s next stop on the American Tour in Orange County, and they have a coupon code for a whopping 75% off in their performances there. Click here

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for tickets (warning: embedded video will run automatically so turn your volume down), and use the coupon code 8469 . I’ll blog more about this stop in the OC later. Offer ends on Sunday Nov 2 at 6 pm.

San Francisco Ballet: the American Tour

San Francisco Symphony on PBS: Carnegie Hall Opening Gala 2008

A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony with Hampson, Upshaw, Ma, and Ebersole at Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season opening night, 9/24/08. Photo by Chris Lee.

I almost forgot about this until reminded by Patty - San Francisco Symphony opened Carnegie Hall this year, and it will be broadcast on PBS Great Performances on October 29 (check your local listings here) with guests soloists baritone Thomas Hampson, soprano Dawn Upshaw, cellist Yo Yo Ma, and Broadway star Christine Ebersole. A DVD will also be released. It’s a great chance to see my favorite San Francisco Symphony led by the very animated Michael Tilson Thomas, and a slew of stars in this sold out concert. And, in this economy, it’s free!

A very funny clip from the Colbert Report with Yo Yo Ma – fun to watch them as they try to keep from cracking each other up.

Colbert: You are a superstar cellist. What does that mean?
Ma: Nothing.

Joshua Bell with the San Francisco Symphony

Joshua Bell

Apparently Joshua Bell is the antidote to lagging symphony ticket sales in this abysmal economy. You couldn’t tell that the country was in any state of economic crisis by looking around at the completely sold out concert on Saturday night at the Davies Symphony Concert Hall, with the San Francisco Symphony. He didn’t even need to be playing the Mendelssohn, or Tchaikovsky, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was amazing, and a testament to the commitment of his wonderfully diverse (in ages, especially) and enthusiastic fans to celebrate his artistry. As always, Bell gave a clear performance balancing both detailed thought and emotion. It’s never about the fireworks, but every moment serves the music admirably. Bell also has the uncanny way of making the cliche sound fresh and new. Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso Op. 28″ was as light as a feather, with a wide emotional range and a delightful lesson on contrasts, in both volume and sudden tempo changes. This was followed by Ravel’s Tzigane (French for “gypsy” as I was told by a passerby during intermission), a free form gypsy melody, with interesting eerie sounds emerging from the violin, from high whisper-soft harmonics to a smattering of wide ranging pizzicatos. If listeners were disappointed with the technical and artistic demands of these pieces compared to cornerstone violin warhorse fare, it at least served as a brilliant vehicle for Bell’s showmanship in quirky pieces with high but specific demands, which Bell met brilliantly. In addition, whoever did the programming seemed hellbent on picking two pieces that were as difficult as possible to accompany; both pieces had vast sudden tempo changes and exact transparent entrances. Conducted admirably by Fabio Luisi, the orchestra never sounded more unified with the soloist despite the difficult demands of the material, with precise timing and visibly avid communication between both conductor and soloist.

Joshua Bell was clearly the draw for audiences for this program, and the rest of the program was a bit of a let down, programming-wise especially. Despite this, the San Francisco Symphony rose above its programming and still charmed. The performance opened with R. Strauss’ Don Juan, Op. 20. Conductor Luisi coaxed an exultant full sound from the orchestra. The layered complexity of lingering dissonance caught my interest until it got smothered in the simplicity of an overwhelming emotion reminiscent of movie music. The performance closed with Franz Schmidt’s Symphony No. 4 in C major. I’d never heard of Schmidt until this performance, but he is an early 1900′s composer who wrote this symphony after the death of his young daughter, Emma. The sadness is evident in this symphony, opening with a mournful, meandering trumpet solo by Mark Inouye. Yet it’s not all sad, starting with the fact that it’s set in the key of C major, usually a warmly sunny key. The piece alternates repeatedly between the distantly alien and a comforting familiarity, broken up briefly by a scherzo that gives way to a march-like procession. The movements melt together into one long piece with no breaks between movements, as a long, tonal poem rather than a normal symphony, with a result that failed to engage. Apparently I wasn’t the only one thought that way; the orchestra seats showed more empty seats than were there before intermission, and the guy next to me was either examining his bellybutton pretty closely, or had fallen asleep. With all this though, the soloists in this symphony stood out. Standouts were Carey Bell, principal clarinet, and an exceptionally musical performance by English horn player Russ deLuna whose made the melody sing with stirring clarity.

In all, it was a great opportunity to see Joshua Bell again, who has consistently given impressive performances that are as unexpected as they are varied. Despite being under the baton of a different conductor, the symphony sounded wonderfully confident.

Check out one of my favorite performances of all time, Joshua Bell’s Vivaldi: The Four Seasons with Academy St. Martins in the Fields, which I caught live last year.

San Francisco Symphony

Boris Godunov Dress Rehearsal: San Francisco Opera

An official looking ticket to the dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov- my first full length opera at the SF Opera.

Updated: Many thanks for Mike for the ticket! I saw you in the first scene (holding the picture of the Virgin Mary) and you’re the best Bible holder ever. With the funkiest hat. (I can’t wait to see backstage photos.) How different is the dress rehearsal from the first performance usually?? I just got the feeling that Samuel Ramey didn’t pull out all the stops for this performance – his character goes through such a psychological journey and has to have the power to pull the audience with him… but maybe it was because it was a rehearsal and not full performance. The funniest part was after he dies in the final moments of the opera and the music ended, Ramey came back to life and got up before the curtain came down.

Worst Show Ever?

Things have been pretty quiet around here with most of my blog-like talk going on in behind-the-scenes email conversations with NY bloggers about San Francisco Ballet’s stop in New York. Anyways, recent turn of events have gotten me thinking about the economy which seems to be the hot topic right now. Being in the academia bubble, it hasn’t affected me much (except for the high gas prices, but thankfully they’ve been going down a bit now) but more than the actual money in my bank account, it feels like the economy has set a mood in this country that’s affecting my spending. This includes spending on performances, which has decreased a bit for me in the past few weeks. It’s funny that it’s not necessarily that I don’t have the money to go, but the economy has affected me somehow to stop spending money for it. I’m hoping this will pass soon.

Anyways, I recently asked a question to an avid theater goer, “What was the worst Broadway show ever?” and surprisingly stumped this person, which intrigued me. So I’m posing the question to blog readers – what’s the worst show (Broadway or otherwise) that you’ve ever seen? Post your answer in a comment below.

My hands down winner would be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind. It’s a British version of what the deep South is like, where kids are named “Po’ Baby” with an awkward moment of an almost-kiss between an older convict and a young teen thrown in. It was a parade of one stereotype after another, with odd Phantom-like music in the scene changes amongst a score of banjo twanging. Horrible. It was even worse because I saw it around the same time when The Color Purple was on tour, and the authenticity of emotion between the two shows was basically polar opposite. I hope it never makes it to Broadway, but if it does, it’d better be vastly changed from the show that I saw.

California Symphony: Made in America

Being a first timer to a California Symphony concert at its opening concert in its 22nd season under the baton of Barry Jekowsky, it’s easy to feel like an outsider to this intimate community orchestra. This orchestra has been serving the Walnut Creek area for 22 years, and I get the feeling that many of the audience members have been regular attendees for the entire time that California Symphony has existed. In addition, personal touches such as dedicating this concert to the 100th birthday of a “dear friend” in the audience, makes it clear this symphony is what many call their own. However, an intruder like myself is easily drawn to the quality of the music presented in this program. It’s not for the avant garde, but it was a crowd pleasing program tailor made to more traditional audiences and newcomers, with great music to attract all including the finickiest of palates.

Piano soloist Jon Nakamatsu was the highlight of the evening with the best rendition of the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto that I’ve heard so far. This piece was the piece that won Nakamatsu the coveted Van Cliburn Gold Medal in 1997. For me, I’ve heard this concerto performed three times within almost a year. Although a little bit of Rach 3 is better than nothing, each performance until this one left me wanting more. I started to believe that you actually had to be crazy in order to play this piece well (aside from the marvelous Martha Argerich, which to date, is my favorite recording of this piece). With this monstrous piece, it seems like performers have one of two choices to make – either a performer can throw in the towel, submit to its sea of chaos and make it sound like the biggest, bloodiest, messiest mess that it really is. The other route is to take the higher ground and to make it actually sound like music, a route rarely taken with this piece. Nakamatsu chose the latter choice in a very classy interpretation, skillfully presenting a balanced and crystal clear rendition of the Rach 3 that made the piece sound much easier than it is. And yes, the best part was that Nakamatsu made Rach 3 sound like music rather than a chaotic mess – the key was in his precision, where phrasing, contrasts, and details were highlighted in a delightful way. Nothing was (thankfully) overly fussy or obsequious, with the best first movement cadenza that was thrilling in its burst of intensity. The fiery moments were balanced with thoughtful consideration. A dash of humor is in the emphasis on a trip down the keyboard at the end of the first movement. The third movement reveled in its thrilling triumph. Nakmatsu’s take made this overplayed piece fresh and exciting in a way that both audiences new and familiar with the piece could appreciate on many different levels.

Handstand artists Iouri Safranov and Nikolai Melnikov

The concert opened up with a lush rendition of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a piece I didn’t know even though it sounds very familiar. This piece was reenacted to a hypnotic choreographed sequence by two handstand artists reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, Iouri Safranov and Nikolai Melnikov. I understand that having a more visual component can be a draw for modern day audiences, although it makes me a little uncomfortable with the idea that symphony music alone is not enough. And as to be expected, the music got pushed to the background with these precarious balances that were amazing to watch up so close. But I understand why it was there, and it also made this performance more kid-friendly.

Dvorak’s New World Symphony closed the concert, where I felt like I could finally get a good sense of what the orchestra was really like. It started off very promisingly with the lively and stirring first movement under the commanding leadership of Barry Jekowsky, with strong solos for different sections of the orchestra, most notably the French horns and the trumpet sections. However in the slower movements, the bright energy of the first movement came to a screeching halt with a deathly slow tempo and severe phrasing. Rather than being shaped into long graceful arcs, phrases would be cut short as there would be an initial rise in a phrase and then the energy and volume would suddenly drop. Although the contrast in a suddenly dropped volume added interest, the result was choppy, with a low energy that felt stagnant because the phrases never went anywhere. Similar phrasing afflicted the slower moments in Rach 3 as well. A slow tempo can still be very alive and soaring with long phrases where the energy is unbroken, but I felt that this wasn’t achieved successfully in this interpretation. The livelier movements more than made up for this small observation however, as the California Symphony gave this symphony heart and life.

There’s one more showing of this concert on October 14. Click here for more information. Go see it for Jon Nakamatsu’s rendition of the Rach 3, and be sure to bring the kids. This program is a great introduction to classical music for them, and there were lots of kids spotted in the audience.

Jon Nakamatsu signed CD’s during the intermission, and I have never seen a crazier CD signing than what was observed. It was crazier than the signings that I’ve seen for Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, and Gil Shaham all put together. Check out his rendition of Rach 3 on Amazon, here. After the concert, a friend and I grabbed dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant when halfway through our dinner, my friend says, “Isn’t that Jon?” I actually thought he was talking about a coworker of mine (the first Jon that comes to my mind), but I turned around to look and it was Nakamatsu with his parents(?). I wish I hadn’t stared so blatantly.

Where’s Jon? Smothered by a sea of people

San Francisco Ballet: The American Tour, New York

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Tomasson’s Fifth Season. © Erik Tomasson

A big hello to all the New Yorkers who have been stumbling onto my website in record numbers, whether it be through online searches or through other websites. San Francisco Ballet makes its second stop in its American Tour at the City Center in New York, starting Friday night with three great programs to showcase the company’s marvelous dancers. Click on Oberon’s Grove for an overview, including links to my reviews from the New Works Festival. I also reviewed SFB’s Divertimento No. 15 which they performed earlier this year.

Please comment if you attend their performances in New York! I’m especially curious about the new principals that have recently joined the

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San Francisco Ballet performs at the City Center in New York from Oct 10-18. Click here for more information.

Spring Awakening: The National Tour

Blah, Blah, Blah

So much about this show has been written about before; if you haven’t read anything about this show, don’t let this be your only read on the show before you go see it. Based on a 19th century play by Frank Wedekind that was banned due to its controversial content, this Best Musical of the Year is as everyone describes – high energy, electrifying, edgy, sexy, and moving. These adjectives are relevant to the national touring cast as well, mostly because the cast is a strong one. However, watching it again on tour after having seen it on Broadway reminded me that even though this show can be transporting, it can be equally irritating. The saving grace of this show is that it is very very good at one thing, which lies in its ability to overwhelm and to pull the audience in their whirlwind of emotion. The rockin’ score helps, as does the amazingly visceral choreography by Bill T. Jones. Utilizing modern dance for a Broadway show can be perplexing depending on personal taste, but I found that through dance, emotion was embodied to an even deeper level than already told through metaphor and song. (This was already discussed in an earlier blog entry, where Matt had an understandable problem with the nipple circles.) Throw in controversial subject matter such as teen angst, sexual discovery, identity, frustration at being misunderstood, and an oppressive society, and you have a guaranteed a Broadway hit, and a guaranteed obsessive young fan following. The first time I saw this on Broadway, I loved it and felt high off of its energy and waves of emotion.

As time passed however and made more apparent the second time that I saw it, there is an uneven balance of the theatrical heart and brain of this show that lends an incomplete and confusing picture. The heart, or the spectacle, is obvious and good – the sweeping emotion, the music, the dance, the story. This show however, adds highbrow intellectual elements only seen in more esoteric theater, such as microphones taken out of coat pockets, a song playlist scrawled on the chalkboard in full view, and audience members sitting onstage for everyone to see. This Brechtian style adds a certain distance from the show and the audience member, as they serve as constant reminders to the audience that you’re still watching a show. As Wikipedia states, Brechtian theory is based on the idea that “a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage.” This distant style never gels with this show that begs to envelop the audience in its emotional world, and instead, results in a disjointed big picture, and at worst, pretentious.

In addition, the characters and themes stray dangerously to being trite. Characters in the show are simplified to borderline caricatures – the jock, the spaz, the hot girl, in a world where all the boys are horny, all the girls are victims (whether their childhoods have been too hard or way too easy), and all the parents just don’t understand. Themes can be simple and powerful, but these themes – teens being misunderstood, desiring to be understood (“Touch Me”), and all parents are the same – at its heart is an uninspiring cliche that merely tells teens (albeit in a very pretty and powerful way) that other teens are going through the same thing, with no answers or revelations revealed in the process. I rolled my eyes when the term, “parentocracy” was actually said out loud, and had this urge to tell these teens, “The good news is that puberty doesn’t last!” There’s something unsatisfying about this show which ends on an ambiguous yet hopeful note, as an extra step in reasoning should have been included for this show to feel complete.

Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff

None of these comments take away anything from the stellar touring cast. As an ensemble they were outstanding, but the two Broadway imports – Kyle Riabko as Melchior, and Blake Bashoff as Moritz – were the strongest performances in the show. Riabko plays the self assured Melchior with a forceful strength that belies his smaller size; original cast member Jonathan Groff had the advantage of a larger more commanding presence, yet Riabko’s take is just as convincing. Bashoff portrays Moritz as a boy going through puberty filled with an unending high strung nervous energy endearing in his confusion and struggles, yet heartbreaking as he fails to come to terms with himself under society’s harsh spotlight. Christy Altomare rounds out the leads with her sweetly curious Wendla. Steffi D is a singing powerhouse, but her hard edged bitter style portrays Ilse as a character more resentful of her abusive childhood, which is very different from the original Ilse, Lauren Pritchard’s free loving commune living character who had absorbed all the hurt in the world. Like most national tours, this cast plays up the more comedic portions, particularly the subplot with the puppy love romance between Andy Mientus as Hanschen and Ben Moss as Ernst. The national tour cast successfully preserves the spirit of the original show.

As I was watching this show, a fellow blogger Patrick’s quote came to mind, which sums up my feeling about this show:

Every performance has a certain appeal to the senses, but once that immediate sensation fades into memory the intellectual underpinnings of a work become more obvious, and when they fail, you can end up feeling more frustrated and angry than you were at first.

This also explains why I loved it the first time that I saw it, and was more bothered by its rational aspects the second time around. It’s not that I don’t love it, and in fact, I would happily recommend it to a lot of people because the good parts about this show is mindblowingly amazing. But there are things about it that are still frustratingly irritating. It wasn’t surprising to see that on SFist, the comments about this show are highly polarized. I know there are going to be a lot of people who love it, and others who will be bothered by it, either at that moment or a year later, such as myself.

Spring Awakening plays at the Curran Theater through October 12

Any thoughts about this show? Opinions? Anyone else think that if Melchior had been 30 years older, uglier, overweight, with a ski mask, everyone would see the sex scene as rape, as he convinces Wendla with phrases such as, “Is it wrong… to love?” and “It’s just me!”?? And who the heck is Marianna Wheelin?