Monthly Archives: June 2009

Saturday Matinee’s Second Anniversary


Cocktails at a favorite pre- and post-concert haunt, Jade Bar

It was my blog’s second birthday yesterday! I wanted to take this chance to send out a big THANK YOU to everyone who’s been reading and engaging in fascinating discussion. I’m so grateful that my blog has survived strong for two years with people continuing to read regularly. I know my blog hasn’t gotten that much love lately (grad school’s not been so fun these days) but there are more exciting things coming up. So go out there and enjoy an evening at the theater and talk about it!

My last night at the theater was Mark Morris’ L’Allegro in Berkeley a few weekends ago with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Morris combines the rarely seen combination of classy Handel music with irreverent, earthy yet ethereal modern dance. Still peppered with Morris’ irreverent genius and wit, I didn’t find it to be my favorite Morris masterpiece. There were sections taken literally from the lyrics and one too many stagnant moments to hold my attention throughout. But that movement where the men vacillate between violent face slapping and dainty hand holding and quirky tooshie-slapping, ingeniously set to the music, was one of the liveliest things I’d ever seen on stage. It was a movement that encapsulated Morris’ humor, intelligence, outside-the-box thinking, and pitch-perfect musicality, all in one, and it was a much needed shot of adrenaline to the concert viewing experience. And as much as I hate to admit it, that’s the one movement that will stay with me the longest about this piece.

What’s the last concert you saw?

An Unlikely Dance Group

There’s an unlikely addition to the star-studded lineup for the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s spectacular Dance United concert tonight. In addition to the well-known New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada, there is the Boris and Natasha Dance Troupe (under Linda Austin Dance), a group made up of five non-dancer modern dancers. One member, Peter Ames Carlin (a journalist when he’s not a modern dancer), writes hilariously about taking class with the best dancers in the world who move in ways “that God himself might not have imagined humans being capable of performing”. He calls their group, “A breath of weird air. The high art version

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of rodeo clowns.” Click here for his article.

Now all they need is a guy who can do the splits.

Dance United for Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Save Our Dance Companies

In this economy, recession is hitting the arts hard. Oregon Ballet Theatre has issued a national call for help, with the entire dance community pitching in. With the threat of closing down if funds aren’t raised, they are putting on DANCE UNITED, a benefit performance to raise enough funds that will allow them to stay open if they reach their goal by the end of this month. Keep track of their fundraising progress, here.

Dancers from all over North America are flying in to dance in a special one-night-only benefit performance, including San Francisco Ballet’s own Sarah Van Patten and Damian Smith in Christopher Wheeldon’s mesmerizing After the Rain pas de deux. Other companies flying in to help include New York City Ballet (Megan Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht in Balanchine’s Tarantella), Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and lots more. It’s going be a star-studded night and one heck of a performance. The performance is on June 12 at 7:30 PM. Click here for tickets.

I get the sense that OBT’s struggles represent a much larger fear in the arts community of the very near future, and the fear is palpable with no certainty at how large the impact is going to be.

OBT is hardly the only company to be struggling. Sacramento Ballet has been struggling since last year where mid-season, the company was forced to close down for the rest of the season. The dancers themselves have picked up on a grassroots campaign called “Save Our Sacramento Ballet” to raise enough funds for the company. They’ve smartly partnered with neighborhood business, from everything to ice cream shops to performing as living sculptures in art galleries to a benefit performance at the Mondavi Center, to collaborate in a huge fundraising effort to keep their company open. Their fundraising efforts seemed to have paid off at least partially – the current status of the company is that they will be performing the “Nutcracker” and other programs at their normal venue at the Community Center next year, with performances at other venues. They will also continue their popular in-studio “Ballet and Beer” programs as well.

The great thing is to see support from fellow dance companies all over the continent pitch in to help – the message seems to hit close to home in the tightly knit dance community. The immediate impact are the artists themselves who lose jobs which is dire in itself, and additionally the long term effect will be on whole communities and future generations growing up without arts education and experience. Today, it’s Portland and Sacramento – tomorrow, what will it be? San Francisco, New York, Chicago?

Click here to donate to the Oregon Ballet Theatre. Click here to support Sacramento Ballet.

Check out a video of the efforts that the Sacramento Ballet dancers have been doing in the community to keep their company alive.

The 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Finals

New Media and the Arts: A Case Study

So this is what it’s like to be a sports fan.

In the past week or so, I’ve gotten hopelessly addicted to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition that’s currently being live streamed over the internet. It’s every classical music/pianist dream (and new media person (Doug, I’m looking at you)) come true. Not only are all the performances live streamed as it happens, but the rehearsals are shown as well. It’s thrilling to get a glimpse of rehearsals, everything from the Van Cliburn finalist’s one-on-one rehearsal with conductor James Conlon going over the details of the piece, to the casual attire of the performers in glasses, to hearing unscripted and honest moments in the struggle between soloist and orchestra in coming together as one cohesive whole. It also has the added excitement of following your favorite performers in a reality-show setting sort of way with the excitement of a competition and the emotion-grabbing storyline of watching your favorites succeed or fail at every elimination. Perhaps a combination of American Idol and the Bachelor, if you will. In addition, it really gives a sense of how much work goes into putting a piece together and increases appreciation for the art form itself in addition to demystifying it. Isn’t this the goal of classical music these days in the MTV generation? And I’m amazed with the Takacs Quartet and James Conlon – they have the impossible task of putting together rehearsals and flawless performances with 6-12 different pianists in a unique competition setting.

This live stream is also for the newbie as well. They have an extensive

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“commentary” option where, as you’re watching, you can turn on comments that describe the piece you’re listening to. They point out the theme, the second theme, counterpoint, and the return back to the first theme with a different mood, or expansion on a theme. The points are concise and easy to understand and really relevant. I found it helpful for unfamiliar pieces. The level of options available in the live stream and archives are astounding.

It’s this sort of widely available accessibility that will draw fans in and get people excited about the art form and get classical music to shed its elitist shroud of better-than-thou obscurity. Like sports that I see everywhere, the Van Cliburn competition not only has it available to view online including archives of each performance (rehearsal footage was taken down, boo!) but quite a number of heated discussions on blogs that post everything from smart and funny reviews (another one here) to who danced on the dance floor, who performed with a broken toe, and what a competitor ate for dinner. It reminds me of the paparazzi that stalk celebrities, sports or not, like no other, and generates buzz for these performers as people. The classical music world could use a little bit of this.

Extending the sports metaphor further, my coworker suggested that I hold a “fantasy Cliburn” like they do for March Madness. :)

Granted, accessibility isn’t everything – point proven by the fact that I’m still not a baseball or football fan (although I have been known to attend an occasional Giants game). It also opens the door for criticism in the face of such transparency. On one hand, it’s exciting to see people so passionate about the art form. Yet commentors were brutal in discussing a tense moment between conductor James Conlon and Haochen Zhang, the youngest competitor in the Van Cliburn finals. Zhang was trying to convey to the conductor that someone thought the orchestra was too loud sometimes, and Conlon replied that the orchestra is an important factor too, and sometimes more important than the piano. (I do hope this isn’t the reason why the rehearsals aren’t currently being archived, because commentors talked endlessly about it). Conlon was a target of public criticism for his words because people thought he was being condescending to a musician so young. I disagree – I hardly doubt that Zhang is the only young soloist who works with an experienced conductor who hasn’t been guided in the same way and neither parties acted any less than with honorable professionalism. It was an honest moment and the tension between conductor and soloist SHOULD be there, as an equal meeting of two minds who come together to form a cohesive piece of music that requires both parts. Naturally, Zhang is worried about his status as a valid competitor and being heard, and Conlon is concerned about the work as a beautiful piece of music. Compromise and give-and-take and careful thought should be a natural part of the rehearsal process, and for me, it was a wonderful example of watching two very good musicians collaborating together.

And what better moments to watch the rehearsals than to watch an orchestra interact with a blind soloist who can’t see cues and downbeats? As Tsujii worked against both a sight and a language barrier, it was simply astounding to watch him pick up subtle cues such as breathing (!!!) and to pick up as the orchestra started to play without being told where he was.

This transparency will only serve the public and the music community in the long run. Controversy and discussion is a good thing for classical music. It gets people engaged and turned on, and it makes people listen more closely. For me, I was definitely watching for the balance between orchestra and piano in Zhang’s piece, and it was absolutely sublime.

As for my favorites – I haven’t listened to everything, but I’ve come to realize that this is not a competition about who’s the best piano player, but it’s a competition of the musician with a unique point of view, or as the judges kept on saying, a pianist who has “something to say”. My favorites are Tsujii’s preliminary round (esp the Chopin etudes) and his Chopin concerto (his Rachmaninoff concerto tomorrow is going to be very exciting), Zhang’s semifinal recital (especially the Chopin preludes) and Mariangela Vacatello’s Beethoven concerto. Di Wu’s Rach 3 tomorrow will be something to look forward to as well, in addition to Tsujii’s final round recital.

If you haven’t caught the competition so far, plug your computer into your largest speakers (as I am now) and listen. You’re listening to the future of music, and it’s an amazing and rare glimpse into the world of classical music. The competition goes until tomorrow, and the winners will be announced tomorrow.

Click here to watch and be amazed and form an opinion and share your opinion with others. Who are your favorites??

Just for the fun of it… here’s a clip of Tsujii’s semifinal recital of Beethoven’s monumental “Hammerklavier”. I’m a bit torn about this performance (I’m referring to the full piece, not this clip). He’s not the most refined player almost the point of distraction, but there an intangible quality that’s extremely moving and unforgettable. I hope this video clip captures some of that. Opinions?

UPDATE: I am so thrilled with the conclusion! No one captured my heart as much as Tsujii and Zhang, as much as I admired Vacatello’s spunky bright sound and Yeol Eum Son’s sparkly brilliance that never quite reached crystal clarity for me. I really hope this means that we’ll see way more of Tsujii and Zhang in the future. Tsujii also won the Best Performance of a New Work, which I’m assuming is referring to his Musto piece (he was the only performer to perform it in its dreamy haziness), and I’m definitely going to go back and listen to Yeol Eum Son’s chamber music piece. I also agree with Bozhanov’s marvelous Franck chamber music piece that he did with the Takacs Quartet, both for his bold choice in picking this difficult piece as well as its masterful delivery.

For those of you looking to donate to the Van Cliburn foundation, it’s too bad that you can only donate $75 or more. It’s a shame that the foundation is missing out on smaller donations. You can support the foundation however by buying recital CD’s and DVD’s that are available for purchase (recitals only, no concertos or chamber music available). Click here for the Cliburn store. Hopefully this will be enough to keep this webcast free in future competitions! What a fun journey it’s been.

Patti Lupone’s “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”


Sometimes, the audience becomes an unwitting additional character in a show. At Patti Lupone’s one-woman show at the Mondavi Center on Saturday night titled “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”, the show itself was amazing. Backed by pianist Joseph Talken playing with witty ease, Lupone was her larger-than-life self, showcasing her performing skills in a series of showtunes and personal anecdotes of her journey through career highs and lows – mass cattle calls (auditions with non unionized actors where hundreds of people show up to audition), her accidental entrance to Juilliard, or so she says, and through several Tony awards. She delivers with spot-on comedic timing and a flair for the dramatic. And that voice! Not the most refined, it’s not even her power to bring down the house that’s the most impressive, but her ability to hold your attention with breathless anticipation. This one-woman show is a perfect vehicle for her persona as the quintessential performer. 

I couldn’t help but to feel that it was a bit unfortunate that the audience was filled with people who didn’t seem to know a lot about Broadway. This show was put on in honor of Chancellor Larry and Rosalie Vanderhoef, who is retiring soon after an illustrious career. Chandellor Vanderhoef did a lot in promoting the arts in this community, even in just building the magnificent Mondavi Center which brings in a lot of art in itself. From our orchestra seats, the audience was packed with people who looked like administrators, many of them with nametags from a previous event, in what looked like in honor of the chancellor. Everyone in the audience seemed to know each other, and my friend and I were apparently in the middle of about 10 different conversations with people in front of us talking through us to speak to the people behind us. The only exception that I could see was the front row of starry-eyed young men hanging on her every word. 

With Lupone’s show, it was too bad that when she pointed the mike towards the audience to sing along, she was met with dead silence. Being a cabaret-style show that depends on casual audience interaction, this part sadly fell flat, through no fault of her own. But she geared up and utilized everything she had (including a perfeclty handled impromptu moment where she almost fell through a trap door in the wall) to whip up audience enthusiasm. She was able to get the audience palpably excited even if no one recognized the showtunes. And by the end with a rousing medley of Sondheim songs including the powerhouse “Being Alive”, it was obvious that she had a theater full of her newest fans.

A word on Chancellor Vanderhoef and the wonderful Mondavi Center. If he brought in the Mondavi Center, that alone is enough to convince me that he is a great man with an uncanny unique vision for the arts. As an example of the great programming here, I have seen Ballet Preljocaj, Yo-Yo Ma, the San Francisco Symphony with Mason Bates and Yuja Wang, and Patti Lupone in the span about a month. Next year, this center is bringing in the infamous and hilarious Ballet Trockadero and Morphoses, Christopher Wheeldon’s company. Even with the recession and an increase in more “conservative” financially dependable programs such as classical music concerts, how fabulous and risky is that programming? Love!

Mondavi Center