Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet

Cal Performances hosted a full, appreciative crowd at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall on Sunday afternoon for a concert by the Takács Quartet. My concert companion, James Parr, was wallowing in nostalgia over his undergraduate years where he had taken classes and performed with the university chorus in this same hall two decades ago. He was amusingly one-upped by the white-haired woman sitting next to him who had been at the 1953 opening of the lecture/concert hall when she was a freshman.
The string quartet formed in 1975 after meeting each other at the Music Academy in Budapest, Hungary. In 1983, they were offered a quartet-in-residence gig at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which is still the group's home base. The roster has changed over the years due to retirement and death, and the current group consists of: Richard O'Neill, viola (since 2020); András Fejér, cello (the only original member); Harumi Rhodes, second violin (since 2018); and Edward Dusinberre, first violin (since 1993). I had never heard the group before, although their name was familiar on account of Geraldine Walther, the beloved principal viola at the SF Symphony who jumped ship and joined the quartet in 2005.
The program began with a late Haydn Quartet, "Sunrise," which they performed with lots of dramatic flourishes, but I was not particularly impressed with their sound which felt heavy and muddy rather than illuminating. This, I must hasten to add, was a minority opinion because most of the musically sophisticated audience were on their feet for a standing ovation at the end.
They followed with a newly commissioned quartet by the polymath pianist/writer/composer/painter Stephen Hough. The quartet was recording the Ravel and Dutilleux string quartets and asked Hough for something to fill out the CD with his first string quartet. Hough's inspiration was the music of "Les Six," the sextet of French musicians between World War I and II who were lumped together as a group, and his six-movement work was thoroughly delightful, alternating between Gallic wit and British Catholic gay angst. I hope to hear it again.
Hough stayed busy during the pandemic. Rough Ideas is a recently published collection of his newspaper articles, blog posts, and observational jottings written in airports, hotels, and green rooms around the world. My favorite Francis Poulenc anecdote is included, and Hough's String Quartet No. 1 emulates a lot of its flavor. "A reliable, reputable source told me once of an occasional routine of Poulenc. In the late afternoon he would leave his apartment and go to the park where he would have a lustful tumble behind a bush with a willing soldier. He would then cross the park into the shadows of the Catholic church where he would slip into a dark confessional. After being absolved of his sins, and less than an hour after first leaving home, he would return to a sumptuous supper, all ready to be served along with a decanted bottle of fine red Bordeaux."
The second half of the program was Dvorak's Piano Quintet No. 2. Working from home, I often listen to a livestream of Bartok Radio from Budapest, and this work seems to be broadcast at least once a week, which is fine because it's so gorgeous. Hough was the pianist for the performance, and he was on a different, more brilliant musical plane than the strings, but it didn't matter. If you ever get a chance to hear him play piano live, do so, and Alex Ross at The New Yorker agrees with me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

East-West Fusion at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony offered truly adventurous programming last weekend without much fanfare, and the result was stimulating and heartening. Four living Asian composers writing in a Western classical idiom had their SF Symphony debuts, with works ranging from the inconsequential to the deeply rapturous. The Hong Kong-born, Yale-educated conductor Perry So explained that the fusion of Eastern and Western musical pieces is such a rich, mostly undiscovered trove of music that they could have programmed ten concerts with other works. The concert started inauspiciously with the 2014 Bounce!!, a seven-minute curtain raiser by Korean-born, Yale-educated Texu Kim, who was also the baby of the bunch at age 41. It was a dry musical interpretation of basketball that did not contain enough of its own title.
The fifth composer was the only gringo, the late Lou Harrison, the original West Coast gay hippie musical genius who forged a path all his own in the fusion of Western and Eastern musical styles. Harrison's music was less cultural appropriation and more in the nature of alchemy. The reverbations from his deeply original work are still being discovered, so it felt momentous to be hearing the SF Symphony debut of his 1997 Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra performed by Wu Man, for whom it was written.
Though Wu Man has often performed in the Bay Area on the pipa, an ancient Chinese lute-like instrument, with the Kronos Quartet and the Silk Road Ensemble, I had never seen her before and it was a bit like seeing Segovia play the guitar. She is a legend who has extended the role of her musical instrument's history, and who also lives up to the hype as a charismatic performer. Harrison's concerto is similar to his 1973 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan where a concerto structure fractures into shorter movements that add up to their own sort of dance suite logic. The backing for the pipa is not the "American Gamelan," but a small string orchestra where the pipa alternately sounds like a mandolin, a banjo, a drum, and a lute while the strings venture into all kinds of alternate tonalities. The piece and the performance were exquisite, and it's surprising that it took 25 years to hear it performed for the first time at Davies Hall.
After intermission, a large orchestra played the 1987 NIM by Younghi Pagh-Paan, a Korean immigrant living in Germany. Her relentlessly loud, fierce 20-minute work takes its inspiration from a poem by Mun Byung-Lan about the earth. She writes: "The lyrics of this poem made a deep impression on me. The metaphors of the abused, tortured, and trodden soil clung to me." NIM was sort of frightening, so it was a relief to continue with The Age of Birds, a lushly gorgeous three-movement work from 1986 by Japanese composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. Recognizable bird calls and the sound of flocks flying are embedded in a score that sounds like a Japanese take on Respighi's The Pines of Rome, except this would be The Birds of Tokyo. The work could easily become part of the popular classical repertory, and again, it was surprising that this was its SF Symphony debut.
The final work was The Rhyme of Taigu, a 2003 concerto for percussion and orchestra by Zhou Long, a Chinese immigrant to the United States who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Madame White Snake, which is scheduled to be co-produced by the San Francisco Opera in the next few seasons. The fun, lightweight piece was dedicated to Japanese taiko drumming, yet another cross-cultural fusion. The superb performances by the orchestra, playing all this new music for the first time, is a testament to conductor Perry So. Please bring him back to conduct anything he desires.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

The Inextinguishable Herbert Blomstedt

The 94-year-old Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt returned last week for his annual visit to the San Francisco Symphony where he was Music Director from 1985 to 1995. He was conducting two of his old favorites, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen's 1916 Symphony No. 4 "The Inextinguishable" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
I was not a big fan of Blomstedt during his SFS Music Director days because his programming was so conservative, focused mostly on 19th century Western music. However, on his annual Conductor Laureate visits, he seemed to be getting better with each passing year conducting the classics with such conviction that they sounded fresh and vital. Over the last decade I have been been putting the word out that his guest conducting appearances with his old orchestra are extraordinary events, and music critic Alex Ross must have picked up the signal because the magazine just recently published Ross's The Most Vital Conductor of Beethoven Is 94.
The Nielsen Symphony is a strange beast from the late Romantic period, sounding like an amalgamation of Sibelius, Grieg, and Mahler (none of them Danish). The symphony starts off with a loud beginning that resolves into a triumphant melody which never quite resolves. Through four uninterrupted movements over 35+ minutes, you can come up with your own scenario, whether it's a reflection on the contemproary World War I as has often been posited, or a mystical summing up of the earth's forces per the composer, or an allegory for our Covid pandemic per my spouse. The performance was completely-absorbing and when the two tympanists on either side of the stage began their series of duels, the excitement accelerated, finishing off with that initial transcendent theme that sort of, finally, comes to a climax.
I had never heard the Beethoven Fifth Symphony performed live before because it's so ubiquitous. The famous first movement reminded me why I have an aversion to Beethoven the Bludgeoner, and Blomstedt took the second movement slow enough that it almost fell apart. The final two movements turned into a musical experience that was literally transcendent. The orchestra and audience were put into a musical trance and the nonagenarian conductor looked like he was dancing in sound. It would not have been surprising to see him levitate

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Mrs. Robinson and Symphony in C at the SF Ballet

After two years of pandemic shutdown, the San Francisco Ballet opened their 2022 season last Tuesday, just as Helgi Tomasson, the company's Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer for the last 37 years, is retiring.
Program 1 started with Tomasson's Trio, which he choreographed in 2011 to Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, a string sextet that was orchestrated for a larger ensemble. The music was lovely, the costumes were lovely, and the dancers immensely skilled, but like most pieces I have seen over the decades choreographed by Tomasson, there was a dramatic void at the center. (All production photos by by Erik Tomasson.)
The second, Adagio movement of the ballet featured what appeared to be two lovers, Luke Ingham and Dores André, eventually joined by Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and I thought we were watching a subtle battle between two men for a woman but according to the program Deivison-Oliveira was Death.
The second piece was a delayed world premiere of British choreographer Cathy Marston's Mrs. Robinson, a feminist take on the frightening seductress of the 1960s movie The Graduate. I never quite understood the mass popularity of that film and why it's such an enduring popular culture tale, but it obviously resonates with a lot of people. In the recent Mark Harris biography of movie director Mike Nichols, there's an interesting anecdote about the 36-year-old actress Anne Bancroft, a decade too young for the role of Mrs. Robinson, being guided by him.

"Do you like what I'm doing with my character?" Bancroft asked Nichols early on. "No, not at all," he said. "She's much too nice." "Why isn't she nice?" she asked. "I don't know why," he said. "But I can tell you how she sounds. I can do it for you." Nichols almost never gave line readings, but in a chilly, detached, almost uninflected tone, he said, "Benjamin, will you drive me home?" "Oh!" Bancroft said, her entire characterization clicking into place. "I can do that. That's anger." In this ballet version, Sarah Van Patten is less angry and more warmly sensual but trapped in her own life.
What made the ballet work on opening night was Joseph Walsh playing the Benjamin Braddock character originally bullied out of Dustin Hoffman by Mike Nichols. (The biography is definitely a warts and all affair.) Walsh's combination of playing at awkwardness while being supremely graceful was worthy of Buster Keaton, funny and beautiful at the same time.
Sarah Van Patten was lean, hungry, powerful, and exquisitely sexy. Between her and Walsh, the story became less a misogynistic sex farce and more about a couple that clicked together physically, with practical matters like age and family thrown out the window. The ballet was helped immensely by the score from British theater and film composer Terry Davies, which avoided sixties grooviness and leaned on the saxophone for Mrs. Robinson's period of sexuality and a delicate, lightly amplified guitar for Benjamin. The mid-century modern frame sets by Patrick Kinmonth that jutted in and out were entertaining and well-conceived.
The final ballet of the evening was George Balanchine's 1940s masterpiece set to Bizet's Symphony in C, written when the composer was a teenager in the mid-19th century and only discovered in the 1930s. It's since become a Top 40 hit on Classical Radio, and extraordinarily fun to hear live under conductor Martin West and the SF Ballet orchestra, especially when multiple human bodies are hurtling across the stage in abstract geometry for four movements, culminating in a finale with 52 dancers osntage who all seem to be doing their own thing while interlocking on a higher choreographic plane. It's great stuff.
Over the last 37 years, Helgi Tomasson has developed a ballet company that can creditably dance a work as difficult and complex as Symphony in C, and for that he deserves every accolade.