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January 23, 2013

Back to basics

The length of San Francisco Symphony's season allows the organization to offer a variety of concerts that's pretty staggering when you think about it. In just the past two weeks there have been two world premieres by contemporary British composer Robin Holloway. Two of the most popular female opera singers in the world have just appeared in recital. A multimedia presentation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt involved the music of not just one but three composers. Four more completely different programs will take place during the next week. Like I said, it's staggering to think about it all, much less be able to attend a decent amount of it.

So one must choose because one can't see everything. I'm fortunate to be able to see a lot, and still there's plenty I miss. Usually I make my choices based on the following not-so-random criteria: pieces I haven't heard performed live before; pieces I've never heard by composers who interest me; an appearance by a particular guest performer or conductor; a rarity or oddity; a performance of a favorite piece.

I will usually skip something I know really well (or at least think I know really well) or which feels overly familiar. I've been like this for awhile- after all, one can't attend everything and there is so much music I am already never going to get to experience it saddens me to even think about it. So if I see Mozart, Haydn, Bach or Brahms listed on a program I'm more likely than not to pass on it unless it's paired with something like what I described above.

Tonight I was gently reminded that that's a big mistake on my part. This week's subscription concerts featuring music by Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart really can't be more basic in design- three concertos and two serenades. Everything in the standard three movement, fast-slow-fast format, each lasting between 10 to 15 minutes, performed by 20 piece string ensembles, a harpsichord, and a couple of guests soloists. Nothing radical. Nothing new.

It was the kind of concert I loved when I was discovering classical music that I almost always pass on now, and you know what? It was pretty damn enjoyable to get back to basics and listen to some wonderful music, expertly played. Catherine Payne, looking absolutely ravishing in her Louise Brooks 'do and lavender gown, soloed in Vivaldi's Piccolo Concerto in C major to get things off to a good start. The concert never faltered from there, even if the final Mozart allegro got a bit woolly. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik ran the show with aplomb. There are three more performances- I heartily recommend you take in one- I'm quite pleased I did.

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January 22, 2013

2 American girls, 1 Norwegian guy, and 3 trolls

Though it's a new year, fresh with the promise of the new and the unexplored, lately I feel like I've been living in an endless video loop created by Martin from Human Centipede 2, shown upside-down, running at half-speed, with an all-Kraftwerk soundtrack broadcast in mono.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the kick-off concert for the New Century Chamber Orchestra's national tour. The pleasant concert followed the ensemble's increasingly familiar format and while it was a pleasure to hear them perform a marvelous version of Strauss' Metamorphosen, I felt like it was time for them to up the ante a bit. NCCO is one of the Bay Area's premiere musical ensembles, a strong supporter of contemporary composers, and its leader Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is certainly no shrinking violet. It would be nice if the group used more of the aggression that makes all of that possible on the concert stage, and resist the urge to go cute. Leave a certain song made famous by Tony Bennett to the musicians in Union Square bars.

I feel like such a curmudgeon for writing that. Whatever. There was nothing curmudgeonly about the duo recital given a few nights later at Davies Symphony Hall by Susan Graham and Renée Fleming, which kicked off the pair's mini-tour around the country. Give the girls their due- they certainly know how to work a room, even one as large as Davies, and they had the crowd eating out of their hand from the start even though they hadn't quite memorized their lines yet. Performing together and separately, the highlights of the show were unexpected - accompanist Bradley Moore's elegant rendering of Debussy's "Clair de lune" and Graham accompanying herself at the piano for a delightfully decadent "La vie en rose." Fleming's best moment came when she went saucy with Delibes’ “Les Filles de Cadix.” Together they performed music from the salon and the opera house, and not surprisingly, the stronger moments came from the latter selections. Fleming is the more intriguing personality, but at this point I find Graham the more intriguing singer.

After the concert Thaïs and I had some drama courtesy of her ex as we were walking home. I'm so tired of drama. So tired of it I'm not even going to tell you what happened.

The next night I went back to Davies (without Thaïs) to see the Symphony's latest lollapalooza, Peer Gynt in 3D.  I was originally intending to skip this and was just beginning to regret my decision when Patrick asked me if I would like to join him, so I said yes. Almost everyone was there for this latest multimedia spectacle, the most recent in what's becoming a regular part of the season's programming.  Conceptually I think these are great, though they tend to be hit and miss in the execution. I found this one to be mostly miss because the first half was either narrative at the expense of the music, or music interrupted by narrative, and either way, the narrative didn't make any sense.

The second half was better, mostly because attempts to follow the narrative were largely discarded in favor of the music, which was provided by not one, but three composers (!)- Grieg, Schnittke and Holloway. It's likely the vast majority of us in the house were familiar only with Grieg's score, but it turns out Holloway's music was the most appealing and his extended musical sequence of Peer's travels across the sea was easily the evening's highlight. The projections were interesting and evocative, at least until Kurt Vonnegut's portrait of an asshole from Breakfast of Champions was projected above the orchestra in a ghoulish green hue. Joélle Harvey made an excellent impression as Solveig, as did Peabody Southwell as the Woman in Green. Chloe Veltman impressed as the woman in a hat seated next to me.

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January 16, 2013

Bon anniversaire


John Marcher and the Femme Fatale, taken sometime in 2011.

It's been four years of sex, booze and classical music.

Now what?

Update: as of 9:40 PM, stalking, belligerence and fisticuffs, apparently.

January 15, 2013

French kisses

The San Francisco Symphony's Project San Francisco project gives artists the opportunity to perform more than one program while passing through town- at least that's how I understand it. Last week superstar soprano Renée Fleming appeared with the orchestra in an all-French program comprised of Debussy and Canteloube, with the added bonus of the world premiere of some Debussy piano melodies scored for orchestra by the Brit composer/Debussy scholar Robin Holloway.

Or to put it another way, Renée Fleming was singing at Davies. In French. And she'll be back this Wednesday to perform a duo recital with Susan Graham, in another all-French program. Holloway is sticking around too, as his music is part of the Peer Gynt extravaganza which begins this Thursday. In other words, suddenly it's hit me the holidays are over and there's a lot going on even though my head is still somewhere back in mid-December.

When MTT started talking about Debussy's Jeux, which opened the concert, I found it hard to pay attention because I was thinking about more important things- like what Fleming would be wearing and how she would sound. In that order. Jeux, which is about a menage-a-trois taking place on a tennis court, sounded ok, but I couldn't discern much that was sexy about it- or even salacious.

Fleming arrived onstage in a pink gown that was perfectly fine but didn't particularly excite me. I was hoping for something tight and black. However, she was wearing an amazing pair of earrings, reminiscent of those talismans used to ward off the evil eye which one sees all over Greece and Turkey- and in the case of Fleming's earrings the white of the eyes were made of ridiculously sparkly diamonds, surrounding what looked like irises made of sapphires. I leaned over to Thaïs and asked if she liked them.

"She has a wonderful husband," was the response.

Fleming sang C'est l'extase - melodies Debussy wrote for piano which Holloway orchestrated on commission by the Symphony. The six songs lasted about twenty minutes, Fleming made it all look so easy, but only "L'ombre des arbres (The Shadow of the Trees)," really hit the mark with its stunningly gorgeous finish created by Holloway. So gorgeous, in fact, it seemed the entire orchestra suddenly vanished, leaving a lone woman onstage singing of drowned hopes.

Sometime during this section a female troll seated in the back row of the terrace seats took a flash photograph. Then she took another. I watched the usher make his way from the far left of the terrace toward the offender and wag his finger at her. This caused me to take a look at the faces seated in the front row of the center terrace, and it struck me as an amusing collage of humanity. There they were, seated from left to right: a woman of a certain age with a smart gray bob; a mustachioed man of a certain age, the ends of his whiskers waxed and twirled, with matching ironic spectacles, period haircut, and gray flannel suit (well done, old chap!); a suspicious librarian type who seemed intent on discovering a dead body under her seat; two very bored looking middle-aged sisters, obviously separated at birth, with square jaws and matching dull hairdos; a woman who obviously believes she belongs on television judging by her imperial dowager demeanor; a John Lennon impersonator; two drunk Scots, and an elf.

During the intermission we had the good fortune to eavesdrop on Holloway delivering one delightful aporhism after another, mostly about Wagner. He's funny, charming, witty and has a certain Malcolm McDowell-like twinkle in his eye as if he wants to do something outlandishly inappropriate while everyone's looking.

Fleming returned in the second half to sing three lively selections from Chants d'Auvergne by Canteloube (no, I'm not making the name up) and it was during the the last one ("Baï lero") that "the voice" finally emerged. It was instantly the highlight of the evening, even though it only lasted a couple of minutes.

After Fleming took her bows (there was no encore), the orchestra returned to Debussy with La mer, which MTT conducted sans score and with some fine contributions from Bill Bennett and Carey Bell.

By the way, the Fleming/Graham recital hits the road after its debut here with stops in LA, Palm Desert, Chicago, New York and Boston. Check out Fleming's site for details.

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