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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ray Chen Conquers San Francisco

The 27-year-old Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen was the guest soloist and conductor for the New Century Chamber Orchestra last weekend, and he was the most musically exciting violinist I have heard live since the great Christian Tetzlaff.

The beautifully balanced program was early Mozart (the Diviertimento in F Major and the Violin Concerto #3), early Britten (Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge), and Elgar (Introduction and Allegro for Strings).

Mozart’s music is tricky. It can be sublime or daintily inert, depending on the performers. From the first notes of the Divertimento, it was obvious Chen loved and understood the composer, and he lead the string orchestra in a lively reading of the score filled with feeling.

Britten’s 10-movement Variations was written in 1937 in honor of his beloved composing teacher, Frank Bridge, and it’s a strange, characteristically brilliant piece. On his YouTube site, Chen noted that this would be his first outing as a conductor, and if the extraordinary performance by the ensemble was any indication, he should do more of it.

The Mozart Violin Concerto #3 was given an achingly beautiful performance, reminding me a bit of violinist Stuart Canin who founded the New Century Chamber Orchestra 25 years ago. There was the same crispness infused with emotional expression which is a difficult balance to achieve. Chen was also great fun to watch while performing, not really dancing around the stage so much as vibrating across it, with energy that seemed to communicate itself to the entire string orchestra. The Elgar Introduction and Allegro sounded as if a group three times the size of the NCCO was playing, which could partly be on account of the seriously improved acoustics of Herbst Theatre after its redesign this year, but also because the group was playing as well as I have ever heard them.

Chen came back for an encore with a fun riff on Satie’s Gymnopedie by cellist Stephan Koncz from the Made in Berlin quartet where Chen also plays (click here for a link). It was borderline kitsch but thoroughly entertaining, which is what all encores should be. Chen is also a social media champ with his own YouTube channel hosting videos targeting young people who might be interested in classical music. He has just posted a very entertaining installment, Ray Chen Tries Chinese Food & Busking in San Francisco, which goes from a Yank Sing dim sum brunch to a self-deprecating attempt at busking in Japantown (click here to check it out). According to the video, this was Chen’s first trip to San Francisco, and may he return often. He’s one of the most charming, musically soulful performers I have seen in years, and I hope that NCCO brings him back soon.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Election Healing Special at the Asian Art Museum

My membership to the Asian Art Museum in Civic Center lapsed months ago.

Yesterday there was a sweet promotional post from the museum on my Facebook feed which read: "The voting may be over, but not the reverberations. Museums offer safe spaces for discovery, insight and greater understanding of people; of their influences, beliefs and values. We're offering 50% off ALL LEVELS of Asian Art Museum memberships. Use code COMMUNITY at checkout."

So I paid $45 this morning for a year-long membership (with a guest!) and picked up free exhibition catalogues the Gift Shop had not managed to sell. It's a great deal and if you can make it to the museum on Sunday or online, highly recommended.

Will return with more time tomorrow and see how the forces of Good and Evil duked it out thousands of years ago in the Rama epic.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Time, Alchemy and The Makropulos Case

My late mother was driving us along the Southern California coast between Oxnard and Ventura when she mentioned that she was starting to see everything through transparent layers of time: familiar landscapes, buildings, people and even herself at different stages of life as a child, young woman, mother, and elderly person. "It's like I can see the past and present, together, at the same time. It's a strange, unexpected way of looking at the world."

Lately I have been experiencing the same sensation, particularly in places like the Hayes Valley neighborhood which has undergone such rapid transformation over the last 20 years, from freeway removal to the building of thousands of expensive new housing units.

Having lunch in the backyard of Arlequin a couple of Sundays ago with an old friend, Chris Okon, thoughts of earlier incarnations of the restaurant, the neighborhood, and my decades-old friend felt like dining on a rich, yet transparent stew.

The interplay between nostalgia and the current moment was even more emphasized by going to the San Francisco Opera for a matinee performance of The Makropulos Case, Janacek's opera about a 337-year-old woman kept alive by an alchemical elixir. The New Yorker magazine music critic Alex Ross above was the informative pre-show lecturer and confessed to finding Janacek's music difficult to enjoy at first, "a little barren and underscored," but that once he caught the sound and the spirit, the composer's music became a favorite.

Janacek fans have been unusually blessed this year with perfectly cast performances of Jenufa in the summer at the SF Opera and a musically ambitious production of The Cunning Little Vixen from West Edge Opera at the Oakland Train Station, finishing off with this SF Opera fall season revival of The Makropulos Case in an Olivier Tambosi production from six years ago. (Pictured above are SF Opera publicist Jeff McMillan and West Edge Opera board member James Parr.)

Though the production was very good in every respect on the Sunday, October 23rd matinee, it was defeated for me by time and alchemy. The production six years ago starred Karita Mattila in one of the most astonishing performances I have ever seen on a stage: world-weary and filled with icy contempt one moment, enchantingly seductive the next moment, and borderline narcoleptic when bored. She would change moods with hairpin velocity, and the audience was taken for quite a ride before she decided to forego the magic formula and revel in mortality. The German soprano Nadja Michael was much better than expected replacing Mattila, directed in much the same blocking by director Tambosi. The performance didn't have quite the precision of her predecessor and her strong voice was less beautiful which wasn't a problem until the final aria where Mattila once took us to heaven.

Live theater is all about alchemy, and there is probably no better demonstration of that mystery than these two versions of the same production six years apart. Conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov led the orchestra in a fine performance of the spiky, conversational score, but six years ago the conductor was Czech master Jiří Bělohlávek, who also led the Jenufa this summer, and he was missed. The supporting cast was good this year, but there was no alchemy between them and Nadja Michael, and for an adaptation of a talky play by Karel Čapek, a dollop of magic is required. (The photo above is of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism students who had just spent a week being mentored by professional music critics at the SF Conservatory all week.)

Still, I am glad anytime the San Francisco Opera produces a Janacek opera and they should be commended because he's a hard sell for a lot of audiences. The company usually does themselves proud with his work, and they did so again last month. This month SF Opera is producing a new production of Verdi's Aida and a revival of Madama Butterfly, which I probably won't be seeing, but have been reading good things about both productions (especially the soprano in Butterfly). (Pictured above are Linda and Stephen, two music lovers with Sunday matinee box seat subscriptions.)