Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Rama Epic at the Asian

The Rama Epic at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum is a clear, marvelous, fascinating exhibit exploring India’s 3,000-year-old epic poem in Sanskrit, the Ramayana.

The show, which will be up through the middle of January, focuses on four major characters from the saga, each with their own room filled with sculptures, paintings, drawings, tapestries, shadow puppets and even videos of various Southeast Asian cultures acting out variations of the story in everything from village festivals to a Bollywood TV series with lots of silly, sparkly special effects. (Click here for some excerpts on the museum website.)

The museum’s Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art, Forrest McGill (above), has done an amazing job with this exhibit. For once, the wall signage by each piece is lucid and informative, avoiding ArtSpeak and arcane art history discussions while illuminating the various ways the poem’s episodes are illustrated in different cultures and in different times. The many objects from the Met in New York, the British Library, and the Asian's own permanent collection are beautifully installed by Marco Centin.

By the end of a two-hour tour, I felt like I actually knew the broad outlines of the tale: heroic Prince Rama is expelled from palace to forest because of political intrigue, living there with his brother and beautiful wife Sita. After the latter is abducted by the 10-headed demon king Ravana, Prince Rama and his brother join up with the Monkey King Hanuman and his simian armies, and embark on many adventures before crossing the ocean to Ravana’s palace. Multiple battles ensue, Ravana is finally defeated, and Prince Rama and Sita return to rule their own land for hundreds of years. Or not, depending on which variant of the ending you follow.

Coincidentally, the Sanskrit scholars Robert Goldman and his wife Sally Sutherland Goldman at UC Berkeley just finished the seventh and final volume of the first complete, annotated, modern English translation of the 24,000 verse saga. It may be time for my omnivorous reader friend Patrick Vaz to tackle the poem and give us a book report.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Giving Thanks for Simon Rattle

Attending classical music concerts and operas as a teenager and continuing on through my current old age, live performances tend to blur together, but there are a couple of dozen that stand out vibrantly in memory as exceptional touchstones, and three of them involved the British conductor Simon Rattle above. First off was Rattle as a very young man in the late 1970s conducting the San Francisco Symphony when they still played in the SF Opera House. He conducted Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Mahler's 10th Symphony in Deryck Cooke's then-recent orchestration of the composer's incomplete final symphony, and I walked out thinking that I had never heard the orchestra sound so wonderful. Three years ago, I made my first and only visit to New York's Carnegie Hall where Rattle was conducting Webern, Berg, Ligeti and Beethoven's Sixth with the Philadelphia Orchestra (click here).

Last night I attended the final stop of the U.S. tour of the Berlin Philharmonic, where Rattle has been Music Director for the last 15 years, and heard them play a long, challenging, brilliant survey of the early 20th Century Second Viennese School with Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Berg's Three Pieces for Orchesrta. In a short introduction, Rattle posited that all three of these atonal, groundbreaking masterpieces were reactions to Mahler's Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, where tonality was pushed to its grandiose, extreme limits. "What could possibly come next?"

Rattle asked that the audience not applaud between the three pieces and to think of the works as a 14-movement Suite or Mahler's imaginary 11th Symphony. Whatever it was, the music was fascinating, expressive, lush, spare, difficult and occasionally even beautiful. I'm not sure playing the three suites without pause was the best way to hear the music, especially if you were unfamiliar with the pieces ahead of time like myself. The wild, loud fourth movement of the Webern (the funeral march) was a false alarm for its ending so that the transition from Webern to Berg was confusing. A long pause without applause would have helped. The Schoenberg was interesting and thorny, the Webern concise and totally compelling, and the Berg sounded a bit like he had "put Mahler's Sixth Symphony into a trash compactor," in Rattle's words. It sounded like the precursor to Berio's Sinfonia from the 1960s. The playing by the orchestra throughout was magisterial.

At intermission, drinking a beer in the lobby, I talked with an arts administrator who had come to the same conclusion as myself about the evening. "Here we are, on the night before Thanksgiving, not worrying about the holiday or family, but listening to the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting, and it is awesome. There is no single place on earth we would rather be at this moment."

The Brahms Symphony #2 after intermission was the first time I have ever heard a Brahms symphony live sound as good as the old mono Walter recordings I grew up with. And it sounded nothing like Walter's version. Instead, the music was ramped up to an almost abandoned extent, linking Brahms with Mahler and his Schoenbergian successors, while at the same time preserving extraordinary clarity in all parts of the orchestra. The performance by the huge Berlin Philharmonic string section, in paticular, was thrilling in its sensuous plushness, a wall of sound I've never heard in Davies Hall before and don't expect to ever hear again. As a musician put it who was sitting next to me, "I've never seen a string section dance and throw themselves into the music like that." The audience walked out vibrating.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

SF Symphony Youth Orchestra Triumph

My friend Janos Gereben has been raving about the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for decades, but last Sunday afternoon's 35th Season opener was my first visit. Reluctance at attending an SFYSO concert always had more to do with concerns about the family audiences than faith in the performers, but last Sunday the phone video cameras were mostly put away and there weren't too many impatient younger siblings. (Note to parents: Just take the noisy wee ones out to the lobby if necessary and let the rest of the audience appreciate the high quality music.) Anyway, I'm happy to report that the 100+ instrumentalists ranging in age from 12 to 21 turned out to be even better than heralded. In a blind radio listening, they would be indistinguishable from any top-notch professional adult orchestra in the world.

What drew me to the concert was the debut of the organization's new music director, 26-year-old Bavarian conductor Christian Reif and an unusually challenging program for performers and audience alike of Henze, Sibelius and Shostakovich. Reif has been working with the New World Symphony in Miami for the last two years under Michael Tilson Thomas, and also working with the Tanglewood Music Festival. He addressed the audience at the top of the concert with, "You're probably wondering who in the heck composer Hans Werner Henze might be." Reif explained a bit about Henze and his music and the story of the 1966 one-act opera The Bassarids. It has an English libretto by W.H. Auden taken from Euripedes' The Bacchae, where the young King of Thebes is torn apart during Dionysian orgies by a band of intoxicated revelers that includes his mother and sister.

Reif didn't go into the composer's bio very deeply, which ranged from Hitler Youth thanks to a Nazi schoolteacher father to a post-war German ballet company conductor to a non-doctrinaire, Italian expatriate composer with a huge range of ballets, operas and symphonies to his credit before his death in 2012. He was also openly gay, and a non-serialist composer in the 1950s and 1960s when that was the established musical flavor of the modernist moment. Though his music may not be atonal, much of it is still elaborately complex and difficult for performers and audience. This 2004 suite for an outrageously large orchestra, expanded from The Bassarids, whetted my appetite and it would be good to hear more of it in the United States. (Click here for a wonderful appreciation of his music from The Guardian after Henze's death.) The performance by the SFS Youth Orchestra was impeccable, precisely overwrought and delicate in equal measures.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto wasn't quite as successful. The orchestral reading was wonderful, but the originally scheduled soloist had to withdraw, and former Youth Orchestra concertmaster Alexi Kenney was recruited to take his place. Kenney managed to hit all the notes, but he seemed to be missing the musical line in between.

My concert companion James Parr disagreed, and thought Kenney did a fabulous job, but he didn't have the sound and musicianship of violinist Ray Chen ringing in his ears from the previous evening like I did.

After intermission, the orchestra returned to play Shostakovich's 1939 Sixth Symphony, which is a weirdly proportioned 30-minute piece which starts with a long, meandering first movement Largo that according to the brilliant Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is a mixture of Mahler and Mussorgsky. It keeps heading towards a climax and then dribbles off into soft flute trills and sad spaces. The final two movements are a short, percussive, wild Allegro and Presto.

According to Petrenko, "the third movement Presto is incredibly demanding – perhaps he was testing how far he could go back to the language of the Fourth Symphony at that point." Reif and his orchestra's account of the first movement wasn't very convincing (neither was the adult SF Symphony's rendition back in 2012), but the final two movements, including the incredibly demanding Presto, were smashingly well-played. I would happily listen to this orchestra play anything and wish the best for their new Music Director.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Resisting Corruption and Tyranny

There was a small gathering of mostly Shi’a Muslims, who are part of the “” movement, in front of San Francisco City Hall last Sunday morning listening to speeches and musical performers.

According to their website, the “apolitical, nonreligious” group was founded in London in 2012 to promote the ideals of Mohammed’s grandson, the martyred Hussain ibn Ali, "a 7th century revolutionary leader who made the ultimate sacrifice for social justice in the face of corruption and tyranny.”

The recent disastrous U.S. elections give every indication of ushering in a period of blatant “corruption and tyranny,” and Muslims appear to be at the top of the list for the receiving end of the coming horror.

Young people were handing out roses to strangers in Civic Center Plaza, and I wished there was something to offer them in return other than sympathy.