June 28, 2009
June 25, 2009
His appearance on the Motown 25 special is one of a handful of moments I've watched on TV that can truly be called "unforgettable." The opening beat of "Billie Jean" is probably one of the most instantly recognizable notes ever recorded. His influence on pop music is matched by only Elvis, the Beatles and James Brown- and that's some pretty amazing company.
I remember watching little kids moonwalking in the streets of small Turkish villages when I was there in 1994. The only words in English those kids knew were "Michael Jackson," which they said over and over to me once they found out I was an American. When I went to Egypt and Jordan in 1997 it was still the same thing. Even the Bedouins living in Wadi Rum knew and loved his music. One wore a "Thriller" t-shirt.
His bizarre, freak show life eclipsed his enormous talent, but it doesn't take away from the fact that he was a unique, tremendously gifted performer- unequaled on many levels. Words alone can't really do justice to the man's talent, though there's no other performer who has had more words written about him. Mine feel very inadequate as I try to express the magnitude of his talent and how much pleasure it's given me since I was a little kid.
There won't be another like him and his death, like his life, makes no sense to me.
But his music will live on- and I'm glad we have it. The King is dead, so let's dance.
June 23, 2009
The crowd was mostly made up of people who originally came from the former Yugoslavia, though there were more than a few of us from other parts. However, once the music started, it took about fifteen minutes to transport the entire audience off of the top of Nob Hill and drop it down into a dance hall in Sarajevo- or something like that.
The show began with a string quartet playing a slow, sad dirge, who were then interrupted by a five-piece brass band which entered from the back of the hall. The brass band sounded messy and sloppy, as if five guys drinking ouzo just decided to start playing Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass together for the first time. It was a great entrance. Then the drummer came out (a guy with great charisma and looks who reminded me of Michael Hutchence and seemed to have a similar effect on many females in the audience). Then Bregovic comes out in a crisp white suit and hands each horn player a $50 bill while they continued to to play some crazy Roma romp.
Two women came onstage in traditional Bulgarian dress, followed by six big men in tuxedos. This line-up then proceeded to take a musical road trip through the Balkans that included at least a dozen different stops. Pumped up ska, Roma music, tango, laments (one singer had a gorgeous voice reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard's), a Lee Dorsey tune, a rave-up with a chorus about Kalashnikov rifles (which I think was featured in Borat) and a lot more unfurled over the next two and a half hours. If someone reading this can tell me what "GUS!" means I'd appreciate it. The exhortation showed up in at least a couple of songs and people chimed in with abandon.
There's definitely a theatrical component to all of it- the strange pairings of the Bulgarian women with the guys in tuxes, the dapper Bregovic, the good-looking Ademovic keeping the time with nothing but a bass drum with a cymbal strapped to its top, the strings always looking a bit reserved and the brass always looking a bit sweaty. Bregovic said the orchestra's for hire for weddings or funerals, though they cost more for funerals, so he advised the audience it's better not to die.
As if they needed to reminded of this.
The audience sat still for about 10 minutes and then started moving in their seats. Once the band hit full-tilt party mode the place just erupted. Money was thrown onstage, gorgeous girls made their way to the front, and even the people way back in the balcony just kept on dancing. It was exuberant mayhem. As a cultural outsider relative to the majority of the audience, I couldn't escape the impression that many in the audience were revelling in the opportunity to re-connect through the music with a home they'd left behind in their physical lives, but not in their hearts.
Kudos to SFJazz for presenting this show. It was an unforgettable conclusion to their spring season, though the re-scheduled CeU show will take place next month at Herbst. Bregovic and the orchestra did two shows in L.A. before heading north and the always interesting to read Out West Arts review can be found here.
June 21, 2009
Playing a mixture of his own material, both old and new, along with other tunes I at least didn't associate with him (a very poignant version of Paul Simon's "American Tune"), Toussaint gave everything his unique signature by playing with care, grace and emotion without ever having to reach for a flashy note. He let the music do the talking for him- and it spoke of the deep history of New Orleans music and America's beyond it.
He gave an extended solo segment during "Southern Nights" that incorporated Chopin, barrelhouse, funk and blues then segued into "Ya Got Trouble" from the Music Man, which proved to be delight in his hands, before bringing it all back home again.
Echoes of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, the Nevilles all percolated through the set, but it was an unpretentious exhibition of his own legacy and his impact on the music of New Orleans. His back-up band was superb- especially Roland Guerin on the bass, who was giving his own masterclass on laying down a groove and anchoring the rhythm, and Renard Poche on guitar, sporting a very cool retro 70s look. Drummer Herman Lebeaux and percussionist Clarence Toussaint kept the music chugging along with finesse and I especially admired Toussaint's light flourishes on various triangles and chimes- so delicate they floated behind the music adding small but distinct and deft touches.
I almost wish this show had been held at a venue with a dance floor, because the funk served up certainly made me want to move. That's my only quibble about a show that was pretty damn perfect- well, I would have like to have heard "Yes We Can," but I guess we couldn't.
Using the essentially the same musical line-up as the previous evening's Hiromi Uehara gig, though with an extra percussionist in tow, the juxtaposition of these two shows back to back really provided an interesting display of musical versatility- and how far the boundaries of jazz extend. The instruments making the music were the same, but the two sets may have well have originated on different planets- or at least musically, they were worlds apart.
Those who missed this one missed out.
Uehara is a fireball on the piano who may play faster than anyone I've ever seen, and can play with precision, I didn't hear a lot of emotion in her playing or ever really get a sense of feeling from the pieces, which tended to abruptly shift in time and direction. Since it's her band, she's running things and that was problematic as the songs themselves didn't contain a lot of musical ideas, just a lot of music. I'd like to see this gifted player work with someone else running the show and see how she stretches out and develops within a piece, rather than watch her continuously light a fire over an over only to extinguish the idea before it really starts to burn.
There were also numerous solos from each player, an element of the concert I found taxing. I can't think of a better way to kill the momentum of a show than to stop everything in its tracks for a bass solo, let alone three in a single show. The bass is a rhythm instrument- if you want to play lead, pick up a guitar.
That's not to say that Grey can't play- he's a good musician, as are Valihora and Fiuczynski, but in my mind the four musicians present onstage never gelled together nor succeeded in creating a distinct sound by building off of each other's strengths and making something whole out of the elements. They never came together as an ensemble.
They performed an interesting version of Sukiyaki, but I think next time they should just go whole hog and do a cover of Karn Evil #9. But as friend once pointed out to me, just because one doesn't like what the performers are doing, it doesn't mean what they are doing is necessarily bad, and the audience for this show ate it up and gave the musicians hearty ovations- including after each the numerous solos. So count my opinion as the minority and from someone who would much rather listen to Hendrix than Satriani.
One last note: I heard tonight Uehara will be touring with bassist Stanley Clarke in the near future. Clarke's experience and stature will influence any project he's a part of and will likely give Uehara the breathing room to stretch out. That would definitely be a gig worth attending.
Since I thought the recently published photos of her for the Chron interview were pretty unflattering, I'm happy to report Netrebko still looks great from three feet away (I had another chance close-up sighting of her in Costa Mesa a couple of years ago when I found myself standing next to her and Rolando Villazon). She seemed fine to wait while the restaurant arranged for their party table upstairs. It appeared that many people in the restaurant didn't even recognize her, as the public left her alone and nary a fuss was raised over the opera world's most desired diva- or is it the locals are just too cool to fawn over her?
I resisted the urge to ask to have my picture taken with her, though I'll admit to the temptation. I was really hoping she'd pop down on the empty stool two to my left. So was the guy seated to my left. Alas, both of us were disappointed.
June 18, 2009
Granted, this City is pretty much ungovernable due to an unbelievably inept and incompetent Board of Supervisors and the special interests who support them in their never-ending quest to make this place a joke to the rest of the world. Be that as it may, San Francisco is a special place dying a slow death by strangulation at the hands of the Police Commission, unions, NIMBYs and the myriad other special interest groups who impede progress and refuse to accept reality by any means available.
Is Newsom to blame for this? Yes and no. The city had these problems long before he was elected. But the fact is California is San Francisco writ large as far as being an ungovernable behemoth. If Gavin has been a failure at making a positive difference here, how can he possibly be effective on a larger, even more unmanageable stage? The answer is he won't. He will fail. And Californians will have at least four more years of negative growth and more importantly, a further decline in our quality of living. That's what we in SF have experienced during his tenure. He simply can't effect change for the average citizen.
My friends in L.A. say Villaraigosa is an equally empty, grandstanding, scandal-plagued suit. Great. One less option. So the governor's race looks pretty dismal from here. Brown? Sure, he has the brains, if not the heart, and is at least at the end of his career and not casting his eye toward the national stage, but really- what can Jerry Brown do for California at this point? He has the sex appeal of Linda Ronstadt and frankly, he didn't do all that much as mayor of Oakland, so he too, is a pretty weak choice unless you want to live in a TIC loft.
The elephants in the room? Please- have you ever seen a bigger bunch of libertarian clueless fucks in your life? All of the Republican candidates seem like they haven't read a newspaper or turned on the TV since 1985. They might as well have Max Headroom as a spokesperson.
But the state is in dire straits. What do you think will happen? Who should be governor- and why? The next one needs to be able to do the job effectively- if it can be done at all. At this point I'm afraid it may be too late. I really don't see anyone worth voting for.
In fact, for only the second time ever, I actually left at intermission and as I write this from the comfort of my own apartment with a glass of bourbon on the desk I feel absolutely no remorse for having left before it was all over. There is simply no way it could have been salvaged and the hour and a half that it took to reach the freedom of intermission was already akin to having to sit through the SF Opera's mind-numbingly dull Boris Godunov last year- the only other performance which prompted me to bail at the first curtain. As I was about to return to my seat after the intermission I asked myself why am I going back for more? And so I headed for the door and the cool air of this gorgeous night.
Too bad, because there were a number of good singers in the cast, none of whom I'll name to spare them the indignity of having their names linked to this post should someone enter them into a Google search and come across this by random chance. But I couldn't hear them because the entire cast was over-amplified to the point of being almost completely incomprehensible. I know what you're thinking- amplified? In a house of classical music? Yep.
Amplified, and certainly not helped by the incessant oompah conducting of last minute fill-in George Manahan, who somehow managed to make everything sound like a high school band recital of Rossini overtures on a loop played through a 70's transistor radio. In other words, pretty much the only thing that came through clearly was the snare drum accompanying everything else which sounded like a stewed version of the Moulin Rouge soundtrack experienced with a hangover.
Throw this one onto the small heap of shows I would label "total failures" and don't even bother to watch it burn. I take that back- the little dancing fairies were very charming. Their parents can honestly tell them even the bloggers thought they were very good!
The evening's only highlight was catching the first public appearance of the Opera Tattler's fetching new 'do, meeting her visiting friend and comparing schnozes with blogger-to-be Dodaro. Mine's bigger. 'Nuff said.
June 14, 2009
For the adults, there's the world's most dangerous blender:
This one is pretty impressive:
The main attraction appears to be the robot battles, which take place in a huge walled-in arena. The wall is necessary because the robots throw one another against it and people could get seriously hurt by all of the flying metal. It's pretty exciting in a weird Thunderdome way.
There were a couple of these fascinating robotic balls roaming around.
Who knew there was so much fun to be had all in one tranquil spot by the bay on a Saturday night?
This was my first live Derby event, though I loved watching this stuff as a kid and the photograph of Raquel Welch in her Kansas City Bombers Jersey is an image that is indelibly imprinted upon my mind.
The skaters for the Shevil Dead pretty much got spanked, even though they had the cooler uniforms. Well, they were more revealing, which makes them cooler in my opinion. Below is a picture of my favorite of the evening's combatants, the Shevil Dead's Belle Right Hooks:
This was a frequently-seen fashion statement for both men and women:
The Loba with her girl Frank N Hurter:
I was initially disappointed the skating was on a flat track rather than a banked one, but the concrete floor ensured there would be many serious bruisings delivered during the two skating periods. I was also disappointed there weren't any fights- not even in the audience! The audience was actually a bizarre mix of families, lesbians, and guys who seemed to take the whole thing pretty seriously based on their running commentary and keen observations on the action.
June 13, 2009
The chorus for this production is simply a marvel. I don't know how it was assembled or by whom, but I sense there's a pretty interesting story behind it that's worth telling. I hope chorus director Ian Robertson incorporates many of these new voices and faces into the fold for future productions, especially if the company decides to mount Nabucco, La Damnation de Faust or any other work requiring choral heavy-lifting any time in the near future. Their contributions to the funeral and storm scenes were especially terrific.
There's a bit of historical debate about whether or not Porgy and Bess is actually an opera and that I think that debate misses the point. Yes, it's most definitely opera. However, I'll raise the issue/ question of whether or not it's a great, or even good, opera.
Of course it has great tunes- "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and so forth, that have justifiably become standards of the American songbook. There's nothing to debate about the musical abilities of the Gershwin brothers and Porgy certainly has an abundance of fantastic moments in the score for both the voices and the orchestra- some reminiscent of Puccini, many references to "Rhapsody in Blue" and hearing the work performed live one notices the unmistakable debt Bernstein's West Side Story owes to this work.
But as musical drama it is way too long, even though SFO's production contains cuts. For the entire first hour there is almost no characterization of the leads, just a series of set pieces depicting life on Catfish Row. The set pieces return at inopportune times, i.e. the crab monger, disrupting the pacing of the relationship between Porgy and Bess to the point where one wonders if the story is about these two or are they just two focal points in the seething mass of life flowing around them? The opera itself could almost be titled "Life on Catfish Row." One could argue that the surrounding community is as much an influence on these two lovers as anything that transpires directly between them or what they bring to the relationship as individuals (Bess's drug addiction and sense of longing, Porgy's crippleness and resolute spirit). Operas with similar issues are too numerous to count, including many, if not all, of Handel's works and Cavalleria Rusticana, which takes more than an hour to tell its ten-minute story, complete with interludes.
But no one claims these as the greatest works of their time (well, many would say just that about Handel and I can see the justification) or that they are supreme representations of the culture from which they emerged. The paucity of American operas, quality aside, from any era, doesn't justify claiming Porgy to be a masterpiece of the form, especially if one insists on commenting on its American character. If it were cut in half and told one story rather than two, then indeed, Porgy may have been the masterpiece many claim it to be. As it is, I think it's work of great, vibrant music with some stirring dramatic moments, but I don't think it deserves the encomiums currently being heaped upon it.
Which brings me to the well-trod subject of race, stereotypes and Porgy and Bess. Although I've read many interviews and comments of late saying we as a culture are "past" the point of seeing (or at least being overly-concerned about) negative stereotypes present in the work, or at least focusing on them instead of the music, I guess I haven't moved forward in my own personal evolution to dismiss the subject entirely. If the opera didn't contain the plot bifurcation between the lovers and the surrounding community, this likely would not be an issue- but since that's not the case, the issue remains, and there is one point in SFO's production where I felt is was acutely on display- the depiction of Sportin' Life. In an otherwise well directed production that makes excellent choices at nearly every opportunity, this character's representation was troublesome to me.
Whether or not the shuck-and-jive, extremely flashy suit, exaggerated Bojangles dance moves are accurate to the libretto or to Gershwin's stated directions are unknown to me, but I thought this character could have been handled with greater sophistication. While I can understand the truthfulness of the portrayal to the times- I live in the Tenderloin and see the contemporary manifestation of this parasite every day, as rendered here he's somewhat of a cross between Huggy-Bear and the heart-breaking singers and dancers who fill the final montage in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled." Sadly, it left me feeling like I was watching a minstrel show during certain segments, though I don't mean to detract from the very high quality of Chauncey Packer's performance- I just think this was the one noteworthy miscue on Francesca Zambello's part.
Regardless, it's terrific musical theater and I highly recommend going to see it if you can. Kudos to SFO for having the remaining run sold-out. Maybe another couple of shows could be added to satisfy the demand for tickets?
June 12, 2009
In the festival's previous concerts, I can't say that MTT succeeded in showing a convincing link between these two composers. I'm still not persuaded there really is one, however, this pairing created a program that at least made musical sense to me in that the two works relate to one another emotionally. The other concerts contained higher musical peaks (Bronfman's performance of Berg's Piano Sonata probably being at the top) but this one offered the most satisfactory overall experience.
Gil Shaham was again the soloist for the Berg concerto, reprising the role as he did the last time the piece was performed here in 2004. This was a distinctly more lyrical and moving account of the piece than what I recall from the performance of a few years ago, but then again, maybe MTT has succeeded in getting me to hear the lyrical elements of Berg more readily than I did before. This work, dedicated to the memory of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, is a two-movement portrait of beauty and sadness, life and death. Shaham gave a very involved, fluid account of the work, often turning to the orchestra and moving close to the players, as if he wanted to become one with them. The ending is pure genius- the orchestra fades away leaving the violin to play a heart-wrenching ending that goes through the entire twelve tone row yet leaves an impact similar to the conclusion of Wagner's Tristan. As I mentioned in a previous post, it's my opinion that Berg is unsurpassed at composing magnificent, devastating conclusions.
Schubert's Mass features an extraordinary workout for the chorus, whose performance of the Kyrie was simply a thing of beauty. Considering his mastery of song-writing and gift for melody, it's disappointing he was never successful at opera composition. The mass features five soloists- two tenors (Bruce Sledge, Nicholas Phan) a bass-baritone (Jeremy Galyon), a mezzo (Kelly O'Connor) and a soprano (Laura Aiken). The parts for the soloists are small compared to the chorus and their overall impact less because of it. Laura Aiken sounded a bit underpowered during this afternoon concert, though her voice remains a thing of beauty. Kelly O'Connor's small role gave a warm burnishing glow to Aiken's instrument when they sang in unison, but on its own really had nowhere in the score to shine. Sledge and Galyon were fine, though again there was no place in the score for a shining moment.
The surprise of the performance for me was the discovery of Nicholas Phan, who managed to soar above everything else and in his few moments of singing let loose a gorgeous Italianate tenor of remarkable warmth and strength. We need to have him across the street as soon as it can be arranged. I have a feeling he's going to become a singer of some significance. Interestingly enough, he is also a blogger.
The Mass, about an hour long, is also over-long and suffers from repetition, which dilutes its impact by the time it concludes. Regardless, special mention must be made of how wonderful the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was this afternoon. Ragnar Bohlin is doing a terrific job as their Director and I was watching the singers sway to the music I felt deeply moved.
As for the festival itself, musically it was a complete success. The guest artists were excellent across the board and each gave truly memorable performances. MTT and the orchestra gave us some superb Berg and got around to getting to the heart of Schubert's romanticism in the final concerts. Though the artistic link between the composers was never made apparent to me, I was appreciative of getting to hear their individual pieces, especially Berg's, during these past weeks.
June 11, 2009
Of course no one under the age of 30, maybe 40, has ever heard of Country Joe & the Fish, right? Hey, gimme an "F!"
One thing that looking at the line-ups for these all concerts reminds one of is how adventurous the programming used to be- and kudos to the Outside Lands Festival for bringing back that sort of adventurous spirit that has long been missing from local stages.
Overall, if you're a fan of rock or local architectural history, check this out. It runs through Sunday.
This is about where I came as just another white punk on dope- Fee Waybiil of the Tubes, lates 70's- awesome, crazy shows...
And whoever thought you'd see good ol' Johnny Rotten in a museum? Do you feel had???
First of all, all three players are very talented musicians and Hutcherson and Haden are living legends on their respective instruments (vibes, bass). Cables, however, was the center of the trio as far as I was concerned. Not too interested in placing form over feeling, he opened the set with a solo that was the high point from my perspective. Note I said this happened at the beginning of the set. From there it was pretty much all downhill, though with some brilliant virtuoso moments scattered throughout the next hour and ten minutes.
This is an odd trio format to begin with, and when half the set is taken up by vibes and bass solos, I'm sorry, but no matter what level of proficiency the players involved possess, it becomes pretty tedious, especially the bass solos.
Hutcherson is an interesting player to watch, the only one onstage who obviously likes being the center of attention, and Haden and Cables were only all too willing to cede the stage to his mugging and preening. This could be entertaining, but it also at times felt like showboating in such an intimate environment.
By the time Haden was on his 3rd solo, I was just hoping it was all going to end soon, but it didn't end soon enough for me. The decent-size crowd for a late Wednesday show, a pretty diverse mix by the way, seemed to have a different opinion than mine, and seemed very responsive and appreciative of every indulgent moment. I guess that's why Yes and Kansas are still touring. Some people will applaud for anything I guess.
As for me, an hour of Cables alone at the piano would have been the best of all possible outcomes. Alas, this wasn't his gig.
June 7, 2009
Now first, I must make a disclaimer that I have no formal musical training, cannot read music, and does not play an instrument currently nor has he done so in the past. I am simply what you might call an enthusiast. Bearing that in mind, the reader who possesses the skills, talents and abilities I just mentioned may have a radically different take on this concert. "Caveat emptor" is really all I can say in my own defense.
Skipping the Ipod shuffle programming of the previous concert, this evening had only two pieces scheduled, one for each composer. First up was Berg's Chamber Concerto, written in honor of and containing a lot of musical references to his teacher Schoenberg as well as to Webern and Berg himself. Personally, I find this kind of musical version of "Where's Waldo" to be trite and boring and the fact that the musical notation spells out clues etc. bores me to death if the music is a) hard to follow or b) uninteresting. Unfortunately, I found the Chamber Concerto to be for the most part beyond my comprehension for almost its entirety. During the final rondo, when it all started to come together musically and I finally found a way into the work, alas, I was too slow and "got it" with about two minutes to spare. Yefim Bronfman and Julia Fischer gamely worked at flummoxing me with fourteen other wind instruments. They obviously worked hard to make it work, it just didn't work for me.
Schubert's final(?) symphony, commonly called "The Great," in reference to it's themes and duration, fared much better to my sensibilities and apparently to the audience's as well. I would have preferred a version with cuts, but that's my only quibble for a piece that was performed brilliantly, with absolutely outstanding contributions from the horns and woodwinds sections. How MTT, who previously gave us a limp version of the "Unfinished" earlier in this festival, manged to throw down this balls-out, bravado, uber-romantic display of sheer Germanic musical might is somewhat beyond me, but there you have it. Maybe it was something he ate for dinner, because his conducting quirks and mannerisms were definitely different this evening. New physical gestures, body language, etc. Whatever it was, it worked. Even the orchestra seemed extremely pleased with itself when the performance ended, as it to collectively say, "You bet your ass, we knew we had it in us."
Well done, everyone.