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December 2008

Hilary Hahn at SFS

  * Notes *
James Gaffigan conducted San Francisco Symphony in a program of Russian music last weekend. The evening began with Tchaikovsky, first his Voyevoda, which was rather incidental, but played well, and then his Violin Concerto. The soloist in the latter was the famed Hilary Hahn, and she could be both ferociously aggressive and delicately restrained as the music dictated. Her style was not as lush as it could have been for Romantic music, but her technique was flawless.

After the intermission came Glinka's Kamarinskaya, a perfectly delightful piece. The concert ended with Shostakovich's rather bombastic Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10. Both were played with little subtlety, but much vigor.

* Tattling * 
People spoke during the music as usual. I was told that people were ill-behaved during the Violin Concerto, phone usage was mentioned, and the audience applauded once between movements.

It was an amusing evening, as evidenced here at sfmike's Civic Center.

Sarah Cahill at Mills College

  * Notes *
Pianist Sarah Cahill gave a presentation on her project entitled A Sweeter Music at Mills College last night. The name comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s quote "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war." 18 composers are participating, writing pieces about peace or war, and the premiere will be in January at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.

Cahill played excerpts from the work, including pieces by Peter Garland, Terry Riley, Preben Antonsen, Pauline Oliveros, and The Residents. I was quite partial to Oliveros' "New Indigo Piece," as it was a sing-along, and on the whole, the project seems promising. The only aspect that may be problematic is the John Sanborn's video art that is to be played with the music, as it is a tricky business to synchronize everything.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet and very respectful. Preben Antonsen was recruited to turn pages during Terry Riley's "Be Kind to One Another."

Hauschka with The Magik*Magik Orchestra

  * Notes *
Hauschka played a prepared piano concert with members of The Magik*Magik Orchestra last night at the Hotel Utah. The sounds produced by prepared piano can be rather harpsichord-like, which has a certain appeal. The accompaniment of two celli, two violins, and two oboes was also pleasing, the playing was strong, particularly on the part of cellist Lucas Chen. Hilary Hahn, who is in town for the Tchaikovsky concerts this week at SF Symphony, was the guest star of the evening. She played with Hauschka and The Magik*Magik Orchestra for one piece, but also played with Tom Brosseau earlier in the evening. Naturally they did have Ms. Hahn play a bit on her own as well, and she played Schubert's Erlkönig transcribed for solo violin by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and a movement from a Eugène Ysaÿe piece. Hahn played Erlkönig with utter ferocity, and at one point near the end she stopped, said "That is not how it ends," and continued to play.

The evening began with Gloria Justen playing three pieces she had written for solo violin. Her "Mothdance" sounded very much like one would expect, quite descriptive. Ross Edwards' Ecstatic Dances written for two flutes was played by oboists instead, and also had an insectile feel. Terry Riley's lush "Francesco en Paraiso" from Cantos Desiertos was played beautifully by guitar and flute.

* Tattling * 
The audience was quiet and attentive. There was some slight noise from the bar. There were no set intermissions and the sold-out show started late, so people would leave and return during the music. I was particularly distracted by a photographer who pushed his way past me during Hilary Hahn's second appearance on stage.

La Damnation de Faust Live in HD Met Simulcast

Damnationfaust   * Notes *
Director Robert Lepage's production La Damnation de Faust was shown as a simulcast over the weekend. His Met debut certainly had the marks of a production from that company. Carl Fillion's set was not entirely unlike the one for Doctor Atomic from a few weeks ago, both being vertical and grid-like. Both also made use of projections, though the ones here were more elaborate, reactions to the performers themselves.

Lepage did serve up one arresting image after another, and one must say that choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier did especially fine work. However, at times it did seem like overkill for a piece that is most often performed unstaged. Going wild with video projections, dancing, and acrobatics was dizzying, though it translated well cinematically. The cameras moved quite a bit, but it seems that Barbara Willis Sweete is being less creative with her work, there were no moving or doubled images as in Tristan. It is, however, difficult to judge the overall impact of a production when there are so many closeups.

The musical values were exceedingly high, as usual, and conductor James Levine was impressive. Bass-baritone John Relyea had suitable eyebrow makeup for Méphistophélès, and he sang with great vigor. Marcello Giordani had not a trace of warmth in his voice, but sang perfectly well. Susan Graham was, however, sublime as Marguerite. Her "Autrefois un roi de Thulé" was lovely.

* Tattling * 
Both sound and picture briefly stopped twice at the beginning of "D'amour l'ardente flamme" at the beginning of Part IV. The audience whispered a bit during the music, and there was much coughing. The cinemacast was supposedly sold-out in San Francisco, though there were quite a few seats that were empty in the first few rows.

Mahler's 8th at SFS

  * Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony continued their Mahler recording project with Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major, the so-called Symphony of a Thousand. The work struck me as a bit strange, the first part being in Latin and rather religious in feel, whereas the second part is in German, and more like an unstaged opera or an oratorio. Overall the work seemed both impenetrable and architectural to me, especially the Latin bit, which I had more difficulty understanding.

The soloists were wonderful, though I was particularly fond of baritone Quinn Kelsey, soprano Erin Wall, and most especially of soprano Elza van den Heever. These three were best at cutting through the immensity of the orchestration and the three choruses. Kelsey's voice is perfectly warm and velvety, and Erin Wall's was rather the opposite, icy, but lovely. Van den Heever's voice sounded as gorgeous as ever, full, lovely, yet not at all cloying.

* Tattling * 
Despite all the microphones and admonitions, a few people still whispered during the sold-out performance on Friday. The noise levels were much more reduced than usual, though the person to my left did hum along a few times.

Both Elza and Erin were crying by the end of the performance.

Paul Haas Conducts Berkeley Symphony

  * Notes *
Paul Haas conducted Berkeley Symphony in a program of Penman, Barber, and Tchaikovsky last Thursday at Zellerbach Hall. The California premiere of Songs the Plants Taught Us by Joshua Penman was apropos for Berkeley, though it did veer into kitsch at times. The soloist for Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14, Danielle Belen Nesmith, was expressive and athletic. 

The timing was off at times during Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. The slow parts felt slack, though the pizzicato in the third movement Scherzo was quite violent. The piece ended well, certainly with fire.

* Tattling * 
People whispered during the music, yet gave a standing ovation to the performance.

Trio Mediæval at Herbst Theatre

  * Notes *
Trio Mediæval had a concert last Sunday at Herbst Theatre. The singing certainly had a hypnotic quality, and the singers' voices sounded perfectly beautiful together. Some of the percussion from Birger Mistereggen was silly, though I very much liked the use of hand chimes.

* Tattling * 
The audience was well-behaved. There was some pronounced yawning, but this was only a minor distraction.

Post L'elisir Talk (5/5)

David Gockley reiterated his statement from last Sunday's Bohème, that though productions might cut or would be less elaborate, San Francisco Opera would never compromise on vocal quality, despite a downturn in the economy. He also gave hints on San Francisco Opera's latest commissions, the topics include heroism and 9/11, Mary Magdalene, and Hurricane Katrina.

Beethoven's 6th at SFS

  * Notes *
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted San Francisco Symphony in a program of Haydn, Barber, and Beethoven last week. The Haydn was Symphony No. 60 in C major, Il distratto, which was sprightly and perfectly cute. This made for a nice contrast with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, which is a bit moodier. The soloist, soprano Erin Wall, produced a lovely pure-toned sound.

I have never been mad about the Beethoven at hand, his Symphony No. 6 in F Major, known as Pastoral. It is a descriptive work on nature, and this of course bring to mind the bovine, at least for me. However, all these silly thoughts fell away as I listened to San Francisco Symphony play. The singing, limpid sound of the strings was particularly beautiful, and the brass and woodwinds all sounded very clean as well.

* Tattling * 
The audience talked a bit during all the pieces, but fairly quietly.

Opening of La Bohème

La-boheme-gheorghiu   * Notes *
La Bohème opened yesterday afternoon at San Francisco Opera with incoming music director Nicola Luisotti conducting. His tempi were quite elastic, though even when he drew out parts, they did not sound sluggish in the least. The singing was all fine, even wobbly Norah Ansellem (Musetta) managed to be convincing, though her high notes were not pretty. Oren Gradus sang Colline's "Vecchia zimarra" beautifully. Quinn Kelsey did well as Marcello, his warm tones were lovely, though his voice was noticeably louder than the others. Piotr Beczala's Rodolfo sounded vulnerable, particularly in "Che gelida manina." I found the big star of the performance, Angela Gheorghiu, a bit difficult to hear over the orchestra at times. When audible, her voice can be sublime, and she does sound better in this than in La Rondine last season.

I did not actually watch this first performance, so I have little to say about the production. The set and costumes are standard fare for Bohème, everything looks as one would expect.

* Tattling * 
It has been a long time since an opera performance was ruined for me, and given that I go so often, it was bound to happen. Everything was going well in balcony standing room for the first 2 hours and 40 minutes, no latecomers tried to speak to me, no one's cellular phones or watch alarms could be heard, and so forth. Then in the last five minutes, two middle aged men started talking aloud right next to me. One had complained of feeling faint, and so, like me, was sitting in the back. His friend apparently had grown tired of standing room as well, and they could not be quiet, they even giggled as Mimi died. Usually when the last notes of the piece ring out, I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach, and some part of my brain is highly annoyed at Puccini for being so manipulative. This time though, these couple of cretins managed to destroy that effect. Even the sing-along woman at SF Lyric was not able to do that!

Conrad Susa at WSNC

Composer Conrad Susa gave an amusing talk entitled "In Wagner’s Musical Forge: Das Rheingold" on Saturday afternoon. The focus was very much on the music itself, as evidenced by the beginning of the score taped to the wall. Susa played recordings of Bach's F Major Toccata and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and demonstrated how Wagner stole from these composers. He also extolled the virtues of Pythagoras, having proved music mathematically and elevating music to a sublime and divine art. Entertainingly enough, Susa called atonal music inhuman and political.