Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Palm Springs Perfection

Recharging for two weeks poolside in Palm Springs with 80 degree temperatures is some kind of perfection. To add to the pleasure, after decades of working as a freelancer, I am enjoying the first paid holiday of my life from a "real" job I took on last year. Sometimes life is good.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Stephen Hough Plays Chopin and Debussy at SFJAZZ

The British pianist Stephen Hough above just spent a fortnight performing a piano recital of music by Chopin and Debussy. According to Hough's blog entry about the concerts, it was "London on Tuesday, then Manchester and Glyndebourne; and the following week Boston, New York and San Francisco." The final concert was hosted by San Francisco Performances and held in the relative intimacy of the SFJAZZ Center, which made most of those attending feel very lucky.

The program was unusual, with the four Ballades of Chopin in the middle surrounded by Debussy pieces, with La plus que lente and Estampes in the front and Children's Corner and L'isle joyeuse in the back. It turned out to be an inspired stroke of programming, though, and the concert grew more absorbing and virtuosically difficult as it went along, with a sweet respite at the Children's Corner before the voluptuous island finale which Debussy confessed, "Lord, but it's difficult to play."

Hough writes about the two composers on the program:
"They were both romantics on the surface but underneath Chopin was a classicist in his tastes...whereas Debussy was, arguably, the first modernist (hat tip: Pierre Boulez) with his revolutionary approach to form and harmony and his exploration of a musical language fragmenting into a new vocabulary and meaning...

The [Chopin] Ballades are stories – epic tales, in scope if not in length, operas in miniature. All of the Debussy pieces are poems, vastly suggestive beyond their duration in time or their presence in aural space."

Hough is one of the most technically amazing pianists I have ever witnessed, and there were moments in the quicker sections where his hands turned into virtual motion blur in front of your eyes, all while maintaining the most perfect musical clarity. Add to this a scary-smart intelligence along with beautiful musical instincts and you have an artist who is very special. The performance surpassed expectations, and the extraordinarily quiet and attentive audience gave him the attention he deserved.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sausalito Ferryboat Workaday Getaway

The ferry boat from Sausalito to the San Francisco Ferry Building and back is one of the greatest public transportation commutes in the world.

There's a coffee-in-the-morning, alcohol-in-the-afternoon bar, views that make tourists go crazy with their cameras...

...and lots of cute, romantic visitors mixed in with locals.

If you work in downtown San Francisco and want to get away to another country for a couple of hours, I can't recommend a quick trip on the Sausalito ferry strongly enough.

The Marin Golden Gate transit agency clips the tourists with a one-way fare of $10.75, but if you use a Clipper card, presumably making you a local commuter, the fare is $5.50, one of the great nautical deals around.

Once in Sausalito you can do the shopping thing, have lunch and/or a drink, or simply sit along the shoreline and absorb the beauty.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mahler and Bernstein Conducted by MTT

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to town after a long hiatus with a program that looked superb on paper, but which turned out to be a disappointment. The first half was devoted to Leonard Bernstein's Symphony #2 which was supposed to be a loose musical interpretation of W.H. Auden's long World War Two era poem, The Age of Anxiety, about a group of New York barflies who spend a night together.

Many of Bernstein's attempts at "serious" composing during the 1940s and 1950s sound like they were lifted directly from Prokofiev, and much of this symphony sounded like a subpar Prokofiev piano concerto. There is a section near the end of the 30-minute piece where the sound gets jazzy, and the piano, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet above, duets with the percussion section. You can finally hear Bernstein's actual composing voice and the effect is exciting, but it doesn't last very long. I heard David Robertson conduct this orchestra in the symphony in 2005, and thought the piece was a goofy mess that was fun and interesting, but in Sunday's matinee performance it simply sounded like a mess.

The second half was devoted to Mahler's Fourth Symphony, and I was wondering which MTT was going to show up to conduct, the inspired genius who elevates the orchestra into another sphere or what I think of as the taffy-puller Tilson Thomas where the conductor takes every pretty phrase and stretches them out so all tension and sense of musical line vanishes. Unfortunately, it was the latter guy on the podium, and the performance fell flat. In recent months, the San Francisco Symphony has sounded like one of the greatest orchestras in the world under a series of guest conductors such as Pablo Heras-Casado and Vasily Petrenko. It's a little disconcerting to have the Music Director return and the musical quality fall so noticeably, including a brass section plagued with flubs all afternoon long. Let's hope it was just a hiccup.