Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Leaving The Smoke Behind

Friday night the SFO airport was packed with passengers and a few dogs waiting for planes delayed by the smokey air conditions caused by a week of fires in the North Bay.

Like many others, I started to have breathing problems by the end of the week and a coincidental holiday scheduled for Palm Springs turned out to be a salvation.

If you have the luxury of time and/or money, I would suggest a sabbatical away from the crappy Bay Area air as soon as possible. Your lungs will thank you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Wild Night at the SF Symphony

A loud heckler during Penderecki, a vibrating mobile Amber Alert chorus accompanying Mendelssohn, and a stupendous Shostakovich 10th Symphony made for a wild night Saturday evening at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.

The brilliant young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański started the concert with Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a short, iconic avant-garde composition from 1960 for 52 strings by Krzysztof Penderecki (click here for a recording by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra). Though excerpts have been used in everything from Wes Craven's 1991 film The People Under The Stairs to David Lynch's recent Twin Peaks reboot, I had never heard the amazing piece live. About halfway into the 10-minute atonal, aleatory, incantory composition, a woman's loud voice could be heard throughout the huge auditorium shouting something which sounded like "THIS IS CRAP!" Everyone looked around in the orchestra section but we couldn't see where the voice was coming from. A couple of minutes later, the same lady was shouting, "REALLY?" in a way that implied the phrase should be, "Like, are you serious, really?" There were a couple more outbursts before the piece ended, and in a demonstraton of solidarity with the conductor and the musicians, the audience gave them a standing ovation. The ladies sitting in front of us thought that the crazy shouting was possibly a part of the score, a 1960s "happening," but it turned out that it was a patron in the expensive Loge section who decided she needed to have her opinion heard.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with soloist Augustin Hadelich, was evidently more her style since there was no more yelling, but her clamor was replaced by intermittent moments of what sounded like feedback from the amplification system used for announcements at Davies Hall. It turns out the noise was caused by an incessant, public Amber Alert, and everyone who had set their mobile phones to vibrate caused a weird electronic chorus that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Hadelich and the orchestra gave a sweetly soulful performance of the warhorse concerto, while the audience kept looking around to figure out what was up with the sonic sabotage.

After intermission, Urbański gave a lecture/demonstration on Shostakovich's 1953 Tenth Symphony, having sections of the orchestra perform various themes, while demonstrating how they were transformed over the course of the hour-long work. He also tossed off a few amusing biographical asides, such as "Shostakovich had just gotten married for the second time, and they didn't even like each other!" This kind of patter and music appreciation demos usually annoy me, but this symphony is long and dense and the musical examples were useful signposts for everyone in the audience.

The orchestra then proceeded to give one of the greatest performances of any music I have ever heard in Davies Hall with Urbański dancing ecstatically around the podium. The latter also could have been annoying except it was obvious he worshiped the music and the the sound coming from the orchestra was breathtaking. In two weeks, Urbański will be conducting another program with the SF Symphony at Davies Hall that includes Dvorak's Cello Concerto and another modernist Polish work, Lutoslawski's 1954 Concerto for Orchestra. The Lady Heckler of the Loge might want to sit this one out, but everyone else should buy a ticket now. Urbański is a rare talent and he clicks with this orchestra.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Live Personal Soundtrack with Giacomo Fiore

Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen's Live Personal Soundtrack, a conceptual art piece from the Soundtracks exhibit at SFMOMA, involves an individual patron being serenaded by an electronic guitarist as they wander the permanent collection on the second floor of the museum.

The duo are sonically connected via headphones which feels oddly intimate since they are sharing a musical experience that nobody around them can hear.

Different musicians are in residence on different days, Thursday through Sunday from 12 to 3 PM, and last Saturday my friend Louisa Spier and I were treated to the luxury musicianship of Giacomo Fiore, a classical guitarist who teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The museumgoer leads the guitarist to various works of art who then improvises a musical reaction, and it is a strange, slightly telepathic experience, where I found myself noticing new details in familiar paintings on account of the sonic mind meld.

For some reason, the guitarist has been hidden in a stairwell in an unpopulated section of the second floor, but ask around and you will eventually find the place to sign up. Highly recommended, and if you happen to stumble across an afternoon featuring Giacomo Fiore, you are very lucky.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Bartok and Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Last week's SF Symphony program featured two eccentric masterpieces, Bartok's Second Piano Concerto from 1931 and Berlioz's first symphony, the 1832 Symphonie Fantastique. The Bartok soloist was Jeremy Denk above, who did a magnificent job in one of the most difficult pieces of piano music in the repertory. The concerto bounces back and forth between quick, percussive, astringent melodies and strange, delicate, moody night music, with Denk making sense of the disparate elements which is not always the case. For an encore he played a delicate, simple Mozart adagio which was spellbinding, partly because Denk has such an unusual affinity for the composer's music. I discovered Denk at a 2007 Summer in the City pops concert, where he and the young conductor James Gaffigan created totally unexpected Mozartean magic, and have been following him ever since. It's nice to report that he can also play Bartok at his most fiendish with aplomb.

The Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique after intermission did not make me as happy. The wildly bizarre early 19th century symphony that smashed open the doors of Romanticism was written by a lovesick composer in his 20s who sets the second half of the hour-long piece in a bad trip opium nightmare, marching with a famous earworm to the gallows before falling into the middle of a witches' sabbath. The orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas sounded great, like a sleek machine, with all imperfections smoothed out, but I wanted the feeling of being inside the crazy opium visions of the young Berlioz. This was a minority opinion, by the way, since my friend Patrick enjoyed himself as did Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle and a gentleman across the aisle from me at Davies Hall whose entire body was rocking with the music in an amusingly spastic, slightly off-the-beat way.