Friday, March 31, 2006

Rostropovich and Shostakovich, Round 2

Last week's all-Shostakovich concert conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich was just about perfection, but this week's edition was sort of a sprawling, fascinating mess.

We sat in the nosebleed section in Second Tier, where a private corporate event had commandeered one of the outdoor balcony areas away from the peasants who had paid $39 for the cheapest seats.

Though the party looked dreadfully boring, it was still a rather obnoxious sign of the privatization of public space (you're right, Friends of the Library gadfly James Chaffey, you're right!)

The concert started with "Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra," a poorly digested Russian attempt at jazz circa 1934 that had the audience laughing, particularly when the Hawaiian guitar appeared in the third movement.

This was followed by Shostakovich's Second Violin Concerto from 1967, written for David Oistrakh. It was interesting music that probably gets better the more you hear it, but the soloist was the San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, and he just wasn't up to the task. His playing was beautiful and he probably got every note right, but the piece really demanded a more gripping soloist who could take you into the heart of the music and its many cadenzas, and instead the playing just sounded dutiful.

After intermission came the choral Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar," written to five poems by Yeugeny Yevtushenko in 1962. This is an amazing, powerful piece of music but like many Shostakovich symphonies, it went on way too long, particularly after the lengthy first half of the concert.

As if to one-up Benjamin Britten and his all-male opera "Billy Budd," Shostakovich wrote the piece for a soloist and chorus who were all basses. The soloist, a young Russian named Mikhail Petrenko, had a beautiful voice but like the violinist he seemed something of a lightweight. This music demanded a truly great performer.

The poetry by the glamour boy Soviet poet of the 1960s, Yevtushenko, by the way, reads like Rod McKuen verse in its English translation. I certainly hope it's better in Russian.

According to Wikipiedia, Yevtushenko is still alive and teaching at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa and also at Queens College in New York. My, how the mighty have fallen.

If you get a chance, do check out the concert because your chances of hearing "Babi Yar" live in this lifetime aren't all that great and it is extraordinary music, but you might just want to sneak in at intermission.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Double L Eccentric Gyratory

Though huge chunks of steel tend not to be my favorite pieces of sculpture (get thee behind me, Satanic Richard Serra)...

...there is a huge piece by George Rickey called "Double L Eccentric Gyratory" that stands in front of the San Francisco Main Library in Civic Center which is quite amusing.

It consists of two 18-foot steel L's that move slowly with the wind but not in directions you would expect.

Last Saturday the 25th, crosswinds were whipping wildly through the Civic Center and causing some interesting gyrations.

While crossing the street, I heard a five-year-old boy asking his father to lift him onto the ugly base of the sculpture so he could play with it, but we both told him that was it was way too dangerous.

The defaced inscription notes that the piece was made in 1982 and that Carl Djerassi, the local "father of the birth-control-pill" millionaire, had donated it to San Francisco in 1997 for the opening of the new Main Library.

George Rickey didn't find his calling as a sculptor until he was in his 50's, which didn't much matter since he was born in 1907 and died at age 95 in 2002. He was part of a movement called "Kinetic Sculpture" that included Calder (Mister Mobile) as one of the patron saints.

Not many people stop to watch the sculpture, however, because the area around its base has become ground zero for some of the craziest street people in the neighborhood who like to congregate with each other.

Inside the library, while checking out a Weissmuller/O'Sullivan "Tarzan" DVD, the clerk kept looking around me to the lobby beyond with serious concern in her face.

Having heard any number of horror stories from library employees about crazy people using the library collection as toilet paper, I was certain that the big yellow puddle in the lobby was somebody who had decided to pee.

A security guard was curious why I was taking a photo, and I told him about this blog and how it was a shame some crazy had done that since the public bathroom was only twenty feet away. "Aw, that's not pee," he said. "Somebody dropped their cup of orange juice." We decided we were both relieved.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Wake for Willie Watson

On Saturday, March 18th, after the Peace March...

...there was a wake held for Willie Watson... the venerable old San Francisco gay leather bar on Harrison Street, The Eagle.

The owners of the place (click here to get to their website) offered their large back yard for a "Celebration of Willie Watson."

The affair was a little tentative at first...

...and sadness at Willie's early death from Hepatitis C...

...kept many from getting too raucous too soon.

Doug from the Eagle proposed that everyone hold hands...

...and make one hell of a ruckus with our voices...

...but that felt a bit too touchy-feely for this crowd.

A chicken and ribs barbeque was started on the outdoor grill as various people went to the microphone to testify.

Fundi, a great friend of Willie's, started it off with a long, improvised, a capella song...

...that was a bit too self-indulgent for my taste, so I repaired to the bar for more cocktails.

The rest of the paeans to Willie were short, sweet, loving and good-natured, such as Bambi's recital of how Willie had taken him under his wing when he'd just arrived in San Francisco young, scared and alone.

Tim Miller told great stories from softball teams they had played on together.

This woman told of a spontaneous road trip she had taken with Willie from Chicago to San Francisco...

...while this gent told of his bar crawling adventures with Willie and then proceeded to quite beautifully sing "Rosie's Cantina."

Meanwhile, the barbeque continued to fill the place with great smells.

Jim the Sculptor announced that this event was putting the "fun" back in "funeral"...

...while the ancient Harry dispensed affection to everyone.

Doug told about playing music with Willie and announced that there were percussion instruments available for anybody who wanted to join in a drum circle.

At first, it was only Doug...

...and another musician friend who were playing the drums...

...but something magical happened over the course of the improvised percussion jam.

Half the crowd joined in...

...and they conjured Willie Watson's spirit right there.

By this time, I was blubbering like a baby because the moment was so beautiful.

When the time comes, I pray to get sent off even half as well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rostropovich, Shostakovich, Run, Don't Walk

For two weeks the San Francisco Symphony is playing the music of Dmitri Shostakovich under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich, the famous Russian cellist and conductor who is one of the last living links to the late composer.

It sounded great on paper but the question was how together he would be at age 79, and though his skills as a cellist are commonly acknowledged as putting him into the pantheon with the greats of history, his conducting reputation has always been controversial.

So let's just get it out of the way. The current concert, which starts with a great, bombastic six-minute "Festive Overture" from 1954, that includes brass instruments wailing away at the climax on either side of the Terrace section, is just plain awesome.

The overture is followed by the First Piano Concerto from 1933 that is actually a concerto for piano, trumpet, and orchestra, and which is some freakishly original masterpiece that sounds like a cross between Prokofiev, Ravel and Britten, but which has a voice of its own.

Yefim Bronfman played the piano and was as astonishing as the conductor.

On a Wednesday night in Davies Hall, only the coolest of musical afficionados were represented, including the legendary Joe Harris, The Opera House Dresser, myself and Nancy F.

Plus, every other voice you heard was speaking in Russian which was sort of fun, like traveling to another country without walking more than a block.

I've come to Shostakovich by way of Benjamin Britten, possibly my favorite composer of the twentieth century. Though Britten never actually said it, I think the only contemporary who he accepted as a perfect equal was Shostakovich, and their careers overlapped completely, from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s.

The person who binds the two composers together most powerfully is Rostropovich, who was friends with both of them, and for whom both musicians wrote extraordinary works for cello. In Britten's case, he also wrote one of the great soprano parts in all of music for "The War Requiem" for Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich's wife.

After Mstislav and Galina were exiled during the 1970s from Soviet Russia after defending their friend Solzhenitsyn a bit too vigorously, Vishnevskaya wrote an autobiography entitled "Galina" that is one of the greatest artistic and political autobiographies of any sort ever written. I cannot recommend the wild, score-settling, passionate and brilliant memoir highly enough.

After the completion of the performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Rostropovich turned his back to the audience and went to each group of musicians in the symphony, making them take their individuals bows, and the audience went a bit insane. There's a Thursday matinee and another performance on Friday and Saturday. Definitely check it out. This is a bit of history that will never be repeated.