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 work 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...

...to 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.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Lesbians Who Conduct and Sing

The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) held their 10th anniversary gala concert at Herbst Theater last Saturday with a starry, ambitious program.

This was the first concert of the gay and lesbian community orchestra I had attended, partly out of musical snobbery, but was curious to hear whether the ensemble could perform Mahler's massive, difficult Symphony No. 1 without a train wreck.

Going to so many concerts, there are a few people you run into who become markers of taste. If I see Gene Nakajima (above, top right) at an SF Symphony concert, the chances are good that it will be especially interesting. Gene plays clarinet in BARS and had urged me over the years to check out his community orchestra.

Though it was a very tight fit, the orchestra somehow managed to cram close to 100 musicians onto the small Herbst Theatre stage, and not only did they perform the symphony without a disaster, but they managed to give a superb performance. The soft, high, ethereal opening of the Symphony No. 1 did not quite work, and I settled in for a long evening, but was happily surprised when the entire orchestra soon joined in and gave a committed, skillful performance for the next hour.

The last time I heard the work live was in 2010 with Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall and I walked out after the first movement because the tempos were so wrong and the playing sloppy, so it was a particular pleasure to hear this favorite symphony again done right. Much of the praise should go to Music Director Dawn Harms (above right with the concertmistress whose name I don't know). Harms plays viola professionally with the SF Opera Orchestra and the New Century Chamber Orchestra, but who knew she could conduct? There are a lot of cross-rhythms and moving parts in this symphony which can easily get muddy, so it was a joy to hear the clarity Harms and the orchestra brought to the music.

The second half of the program featured opera star Patricia Racette in a pair of songs from Kern's Showboat followed by four Edith Piaf songs with full orchestra.

Racette came out publicly as a lesbian in 2002, a brave career move at the time, and for years has been married to mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton (above left), who gave a speech about the evening's charity recipient, The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline for gay and lesbian teenagers.

In 2014, Racette sang in Showboat at the SF Opera and was very fine, but the happiest surprise of the evening were the Edith Piaf songs that followed, which fit Racette's current voice unusually well. The orchestrations were lush and well played by the orchestra, and Racette sounded relaxed and soulful, with wonderful French pronunciation thrown in besides. A lot of opera singers sound ridiculous performing popular songs, but Racette is an exception. Congratulations to her and to this community orchestra for sounding so good and taking music so seriously.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Lesbians Who Tech

During a walk Saturday afternoon, we passed the Castro Theatre and instead of a German Film Festival or a Little Mermaid Sing-Along...

...the old cinema was hosting Lesbians Who Tech...

...a three-day conference holding its fifth annual gathering in San Francisco.

Though "gay" has been the accepted term for those attracted to their own gender for most of my life...

...I have perversely always loved using "lesbian" and "homosexual" instead, partly because the words sound both antiquated and exotic.

I asked the two characters above if they were "lesbians who tech," and they instantly replied, "Of course we are." Now that's an ally.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Year of the Dog Critter Dude

Narrow little strips of land adjoining Octavia Avenue in the gentrified Hayes Valley neighborhood have been turned into art-filled gardens by a group called Hayes Valley Art Works.

The eventual plan is to build extremely narrow housing on these spots, but for the time being they are an oasis of green.

Last month there was an art opening celebrating the Chinese Zodiac's Year of the Dog and the above sculpture is a wonderfully surreal addition to the neighborhood. The shoes are a particularly nice touch.

Monday, March 05, 2018

24 Pianists Playing Bach in a Mattress Factory

Composer, SF Conservatory professor, and Ross McKee Foundation Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic welcomed about 100 people last Friday for a performance by 24 pianists of J.S. Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier, Book 2, which consists of 24 solo keyboard pieces that each have a two-part structure of Prelude and Fugue.

The concert took place in the third floor loft of the McRoskey Mattress Company showroom on Market Street where we were greeted by Robin Azavedo above, whose family still owns the century old company that donates their loft space for various artistic events. She apologized for the lack of heat in the building on a cold, rainy Friday night, but it was quite bearable and at least the service dog that was plopped down in the front row had a warm vest for comfort. Unfortunately, the dog also had a collar with bell-like rattles enclosed so that when it would stand up for a limbering shake, Bach competed with the tinkle of his noisemakers, and some of us wished for horrible things to happen to his oblivious human companion.

A few years ago, the pianist Adam Tendler and some friends in New York put together 24 pianists to perform The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, in the style of Mickey and Judy putting together a show in a barn, and he repeated the stunt in San Francisco at the McRoskey loft last year with a different, local cast of musicians. It was successful enough that Tendler decided to tackle the longer and more difficult Book 2, written 20 years later in 1742, and he warned the audience at the outset that it would be a marathon with many hills and valleys, but promised a wild, rewarding ride.

Tendler also set up a few ground rules, including "no applause by the audience after each pianist, I know it will be hard, but it helps in all kinds of ways including time." It seemed that half the audience followed along with musical scores on their laps, mirroring the various pianists who played from memory, from printed scores, and from electronic devices.

The 24 pianists ranged in ability and musicianship, with a few outliers who could successfully play a solo recital in Carnegie Hall and a few who were way overmatched by their musical selection. Most were more than adequate and it was fascinating to hear how varied their styles in playing Bach on a grand piano could be.

The spirit of the event was more relay race than Battle of the Bands, a communal effort by players and audience members alike, but there were a few pianists who stood out for me, starting with Allegra Chapman above playing #2 in C Minor with dizzying speed and pinpoint accuracy.

There are no tempo markings in the musical scores, so the pianists could play as fast or as slow and at whatever dynamic they chose. Anne Rainwater above played with such sympathetic musicianship it was difficult not to applaud at the end of her traversal of #6 in D Minor. I also liked Robert Schwartz's idiosyncratic take that felt almost jazzy on #8 in D-Sharp Minor.

Kevin Korth gave a fiendishly good performance of the #10 in E Minor, while Derek Tam used his experience as a harpsichord virtuoso to clarify the notes in the #12 in F-Minor. We were seated right behind the piano bench all evening and it was fascinating to watch those who went for a clean, pedal-free approach versus those who decided to go full-on 19th Century Romantic with lots of pedal.

After intermission, Keisuke Nakagoshi gave such an exquisite performance of #17 in A-Flat Major that the audience couldn't help itself and burst into guilty, rapturous applause after he finished.

I also liked the performance of #18 in G-Sharp Minor by Serene (above), and Laura Magnani closed the evening with a lovely rendition of the final #24 in B Minor.

After 3-plus hours of Bach keyboard music, instead of being bored or exhausted, everyone felt exhilarated by the experience.

It felt a bit like a 1960s Happening and if you get a chance to attend any kind of an encore, go.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Adam Tendler Plays John Cage

New York pianist Adam Tendler has been specializing in the works of composer John Cage recently, and Thursday evening he performed an all-Cage recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Tendler just performed the first of a trio of Cage concerts called Cross-Hatched that he is curating for The Broad Museum in Los Angeles in conjunction with a Jasper Johns exhibit.

Cage, the choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all collaborators, sometime romantic partners, and standard bearers of New York's artistic avant-garde from the 1940s through the end of the 20th century. (Johns is still alive while most of the rest of the group died after long lives and careers.)

Everyone seems to have heard of John Cage but not his actual music, so Thursday was a rare chance to experience a live survey by a passionate advocate. The concert started with the 1944 prepared piano of The Perilous Night which sounded a bit like the music of his friend Lou Harrison, when the pair were creating works for percussion orchestras for modern dance groups in the 1930s and 1940s. This was followed by The Seasons, his 1947 ballet score for Cunningham's dance troupe, and Tendler gave a dynamic performance of the 15-minute piece.

Then there were two selections from the 1950-52 Music for Piano which use a mixture of chance techniques and performer choices, followed by 0'0" from 1962 which has the following instructions from Cage: "Solo to be performed in any way by anyone. In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action." Tendler spent about five minutes figuring out a series of mathematical chances which he then transferred to dials on an amp, which I guess was the "disciplined action."

The final piece was Cheap Imitation, a 1969 reworking of Satie's Socrate for the Merce Cunningham Dance Group that Cage had to rewrite completely because the Satie estate would not let him use the original. A 30-minute, three-movement work, Cage was quoted as follows: "In the rest of my work, I'm in harmony with myself [...] But Cheap Imitation clearly takes me away from all that. So if my ideas sink into confusion, I owe that confusion to love. [...] Obviously, Cheap Imitation lies outside of what may seem necessary in my work in general, and that's disturbing. I’m the first to be disturbed by it." I did not stay for this finale, but am sure it was fabulous. My exit was partly motivated by a middle-aged woman in the back of the small Conservatory recital hall who spent half the concert rustling through a bag of chips that she munched on noisily, driving everyone in the audience crazy. If Tendler had programmed 4'33", the ambient sound would have been "crunch, crunch."