Wednesday, March 21, 2018

2018 St. Patrick's Day Parade

The annual San Francisco St. Patrick's Day Parade took place on the actual holiday last Saturday, and it was the usual fun, casual affair.

Unlike the annual Gay Pride Parade where spectators and marchers are fenced off from each other, at the St. Patrick's Day Parade you can cross the street or join the procession wherever you want except for one stretch of Polk Street in front of City Hall.

The biggest negative is the horde of suburban underage drinkers starting their public party early and hard.

There were huge contingents of SF police and fire departments marching, along with the Duggan Welch Family mortuary float...

...and Irish wolfhounds...

...led by a guy who looked like a human wolfhound.

There were a few political gestures, including this float from the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center that proclaimed, "Immigrants building communities - not walls."

You do not have to be Irish to participate in the parade, as evidenced by the predominantly Asian Falun Gong marching band with weird uniforms.

Still, there is something almost nostalgic about seeing pale-skinned young creatures Irish Dancing down Market Street.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

America vs. Russia at the SF Symphony

Spoiler alert: Russia won. Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented Sudden Changes, a world premiere by American composer Charles Wuorinen, Sergei Prokofiev's 1921 Piano Concerto No. 3, and Aaron Copland's 1946 Third Symphony, which was once hailed as a contender for The Great American Symphony.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas was the conductor, and is a friend of the 79-year-old Wuorinen, who has had a long, prize-filled (Pulitzer and MacArthur Fellowship) career, which mystifies me completely. The only explanation that makes sense is that the New York composer has always been connected, because his music is painfully, aggressively dull. I heard quite a bit of it when Wuorinen was the SF Symphony's "Conductor in Residence" from 1984 to 1989, and invariably it would be the kind of complex, 12-tone meandering that turned off so many audiences to contemporary classical music, as if it was unpleasant medicine you needed to swallow before your serving of Mozart. As somebody who loves a lot of "New Music," this seriously ticked me off.

On Wuorinen's Wikipedia entry, there is an amusingly arrogant quote: "In a 1988 interview, Wuorinen stated "I feel what I do is right...pluralism [i.e. non-serial music] has gone too far," and criticized views in which "the response of the untutored becomes the sole criterion for judgement." In response, he suggested: "I would try to change the present relationship of the composer to the public from one in which the composer says: 'please, judge me,' to one in which I say: 'I have something to show you and offer my leadership.' " Wuorinen attended the premiere last Thursday (above right in a photo by Stefan Cohen) and at least the huge orchestral aimlessness of Sudden Changes was a mercifully short 15 minutes.

Behzod Abduraimov, a 27-year-old piano phenom from Uzbekistan, followed with an outrageously exciting performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, playing it faster and louder than seemed possible while modulating the dynamics beautifully for the gentler sections of the piece. (Photo credit Stefan Cohen.)

In 2012 I heard Horacio Gutiérrez play the concerto with Susanna Mälkki conducting the SF Symphony, and the work sounded completely different than Thursday's wildly percussive account, but what's interesting is that both approaches worked. Whenever a Prokofiev piece is played this well, I fall in love with the composer's music all over again. He created a balance between conservative and modernist musical styles that very few composers have negotiated as well.

After intermission, we were all encouraged to be super quiet because Copland's Symphony No. 3 was being recorded. After the Prokofiev, Copland sounded banal in his attempt at writing a serious, popular American symphony. Even the Fanfare for the Common Man tune that threads through the final movement wasn't enough to save the day, and I found myself wishing Tilson Thomas had programmed a symphony by Henry Cowell or Lou Harrison instead, two underperformed American composers who, like Prokofiev, wrote modern music that's simultaneously interesting and accessible.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Skateboarders and Sea Critters

We walked along the San Francisco waterfront on a grey Saturday last week...

...and kept running into daring young skateboarders.

Though bicyclists and scooter riders on pedestrian sidewalks drive me nuts, skateboarders don't bother me.

For one thing, you can hear them when they are approaching, and they tend to be attentive and skillful. Instead of rolling along with a bicyclist's air of moral superiority, they also exude a bad boy aura while harming nobody but themselves and some concrete.

Speaking of bad boys, we stopped by Pier 39... watch sea lions playing at their version of king of the hill...

...though half the time they look like they are about to kiss.

From Pier 39 we walked to our favorite secret outdoor pub...

...where we drank cheap German beer under the curious gaze of the seagull above.

For a moment, the beauty of the world was overwhelming.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Debut of Trio Foss

Matthew Wolka, the new Director of Old First Concerts, greeted a very small crowd on Sunday afternoon, March 4th with the observation that a recent concert during the Super Bowl attracted about 300 people, "but the Academy Awards seem to be a bigger draw for our demographic than football." Of course, the same old man accompanied by his service dog with a noisemaking collar, who attended the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 performance earlier in the weekend, was again seated in the front row. It seems the new normal for chamber music concerts in San Francisco is quiet music intermingled with occasional tinkling bells.

The concert featured the debut of a new group, the Trio Foss, with Icelandic violinist Hrabba Atladottir, cellist Nina Flyer, and pianist Joseph Irrera who were excitingly good playing together. Although they began with Beethoven's early Piano Trio in B-flat major, we were attending for the 1939 Bergerettes by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů and Dmitri Shostakovich's 1944 Piano Trio No. 2. Every piece I have ever heard by Martinů over the years has been extraordinary, simultaneously accessible, complex and tuneful, and these five dance movements were a good example. Why his music is so rarely heard is a mystery. Shostakovich's World War II piano trio was a great discovery, an astonishing work of genius which I had never heard before last week.

The core of the newly formed Foss Trio seemed to be cellist Nina Flyer who has had a wide-ranging global career, as principal cellist of the Jerusalem Symphony, the Iceland Symphony, the Bergen (Norway) Symphony, acting principal in the San Diego Symphony, and principal of the Women's Philharmonic. While teaching at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music, she formed the New Pacific Trio which morphed into Trio 180, a group I heard perform a couple of times.

Her current trio (Hrabba Altadottir, Joseph Irrera, and Nina Flyer above) is an extraordinary musical combo, and it's difficult to imagine hearing a better live performance of the Martinů and Shostakovich works, even accompanied by the occasional tinkling from a damned dog collar.