Sunday, February 18, 2018

two recitals

B. accompanied me to Stanford twice this weekend for a pair of student vocal recitals, each by a collection of students of one voice teacher or another.

The better and more popular of these - it packed the small rehearsal hall it was held in on Saturday evening, to the surprise of the performers, though they shouldn't have been - was by students of the estimable Wendy Hillhouse doing an elaborate and extensive all-Sondheim program, 24 numbers from 11 shows written over a 25-year period. There were a few cases of miscasting, and a regrettably large amount of flubbing lines, but all the singers were good.

Judging purely by results here, Sondheim's best show is Follies, as the two solo numbers from that were highlights: the saturnine Ian Anstee (also the Wolf in Into the Woods and George in Sunday in the Park, and he should have done Sweeney) in Buddy's frantically neurotic blues number, and the turbo-powered Taylor Wright (who regrettably did nothing else) in "Broadway Baby." Zoë Sonnenberg forgot bits of her fast-nervous patter as Amy in "Getting Married Today" from Company, but she was hilarious doing it. The evening finished up with the first act finale from Into the Woods, as of course it would.

A regular Friday noon concert was less attended. This featured four sopranos and a tenor doing a couple songs apiece, a mixture from opera, concert song, and musical theater. B's professional ear and eye produced a few lessons for my consideration on the drive home:
1. If you're a soprano, don't sing a piece in the mezzo range. You won't be able to put any power behind it, and you'll be inaudible.
2. Even if your piece is an opera aria, don't act the whole thing out in a song recital.
3. A minidress that looks like your abbreviated nightie is inadvisable for this venue.

Some of the singing was good, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's setting of Desdemona's sorrowful "willow, willow" was an impressive compositional discovery. But the tenor, who badly needed a tune-up, and also some remedial lessons on the phonemes of English (not his native tongue) and stage presence, attempted King George's song "You'll Be Back" from Hamilton, with results as grisly as you might imagine.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

addendum to San Francisco Symphony

1) I noticed that several sections were being led by their second-chair players. The principals were off this week. That didn't prevent first-class playing. This orchestra has quality in depth.

2) The article on Beethoven in the program book was very short. In fact, this season all the program notes have been getting short. They already, a few years ago, introduced one-paragraph precis versions of the notes for those who didn't care to read the full essays; now they're not even giving you the option. All you can do is choose between short and shorter.

3) My travel habits to the City are changing drastically. The extra service charge that BART has slapped onto dedicated BART tickets is probably what convinced me to buy a Clipper card, which is what BART is trying to persuade its customers to do instead. The Clipper is the local multi-transit system electronic fare card, equivalent to London's Oyster card. I'd never bought one before, both because I don't take transit often, and because the instructions for using the Clipper were so bewildering. However, before buying it I phoned them up and got some helpful answers.

It turns out that the fuss involved in buying BART tickets for each journey (which I always purchased with cash, and never for large quantities, partly because the paper tickets are fragile) was one of the reasons I often drove to concerts in the City instead. Since buying the Clipper I've been to three concerts, and found myself taking BART to each one. Further, not having to buy a separate fare on Muni, the City's bus-and-streetcar system, has encouraged me to take that. I take BART to where I want to have dinner, and then take Muni, which can get me closer to Davies or Herbst than BART can.

The catch is leaving, since it's less convenient to take Muni back to BART. I can walk the several blocks to the nearest BART station, but it's a slog. Here's where the Symphony can be of help, because they've contracted with a private jitney bus system to provide post-concert shuttle service from the front of the hall to BART.

Well, in theory. Last week I waited 20 minutes until the concertgoers had entirely dispersed, but the bus never showed up. I'd put it out of my mind in the interim, but this week, on arriving, I went and talked with the Symphony's house manager about the problem. To his credit, though he has no control over the buses, he acknowledged that, since the Symphony contracts with them, it's his responsibility to ensure they run properly. He surprised me by saying this is not the only time the bus didn't show up. He thanked me for providing the specifics of a failure case, and invited me to drop by his office when I come back next week to hear what he'll have learned from talking with the bus company.

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt week 2, and this venerable conductor (he's now 90) who gets in his retirement to specialize in the red-meat repertoire chose an utterly meaty program of Mozart's big G-minor symphony, K. 550, and Beethoven's Eroica.

No, it's not boring or overdone. These works are supreme accomplishments of the two greatest composers ever to work in orchestral music, and since music is a performing art that only lives if it's played, they need no excuses. Nor need a performance be revelatory so long as it's incisive, which these were particularly in the finales, traditionally Blomstedt's weak point, so good on him and the orchestra there.

An article in the program book bemoans the fact that Beethoven's music sounds familiar and expected to us. It was intended as shocking, and heard by its contemporaries as such. I don't worry too much about that. Beethoven well played is abrupt and dramatic enough when he intends to be as to convey the point.

And I haven't forgotten my own first encounter. When I first placed an LP of his Fifth Symphony on the turntable at the age of 12, my knowledge of his music was nil. I'd never heard any. All I knew of his symphonies was that there were nine of them and that number five went "da-da-da-dum." It was curiosity as to what else it did that led me to try it out.

It took some courage to do so. I'd been listening to light classics, but the term "symphony" intimidated me. I was almost afraid to listen to one. Would I be able to make any sense of it at all?

Actually it was love as soon as the needle hit the disk. I was awed and transfixed at the massive structure Beethoven built out of his four-note phrase, a form of musical construction I'd had no hint existed, and I was an instant convert: the heavy classics were for me. As the LP of the Fifth came from a box set, within weeks I was familiar with all nine and ready to move on to Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and all the rest.

Returning to last night's program, I'd note also that Blomstedt took both slow movements unusually fast, at least in the context of the relatively moderate tempo speeds he used for the fast movements.

This concert was not in my series, so I wound up sitting, though in pretty much the same relative position as my regular seat, on the other side of the hall. To my surprise the music sounded different there: more compressed, condensed, and seeming to emanate from a single point down below, as a result of which it sounded almost monophonic. Maybe that explains why some listeners dislike the side balconies so.

Friday, February 16, 2018

English suites and others no. 24

Say, remember our Celtic musical tour? Across the sea now to Ireland. Our tourist guide to Irish folk tunes is Leroy Anderson - an American of Swedish descent, not Irish at all - who was the staff composer for the Boston Pops for many years. Many of the brief pieces he wrote them became embedded in American popular culture, such as "Sleigh Ride," which with lyrics added became a Christmas carol. Anderson also had a knack for music about mechanical objects, such as one called "The Syncopated Clock" or his concerto for typewriter and orchestra. (Jerry Lewis had a routine in which he would mime to this piece and lose track of his place, but I'll spare you a link to that.)

So here Anderson applies his quite impressive Harvard-trained skills at orchestration and arrangement to a set of what passed in 1940s American ears as typical Irish melodies: a mixture of ballads of the kind that used to be sung by John McCormack with some equally hoary dance tunes, all played by the Boston Pops under its venerable conductor, Arthur Fiedler.

For this Irish Suite, we've got The Irish Washerwoman (0.00), The Minstrel Boy (2.56), The Rakes of Mallow (7.24), The Wearing of the Green (10.42), The Last Rose of Summer (14.07), and The Girl I Left Behind Me (18.05). Applause separates each movement - this is a Pops concert, after all - so you can tell where you are even if you don't know the tunes, though I expect you will.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

on this bus

Deb N. read The 57 Bus, "a true story of two teenagers and the crime that changed their lives," by Dashka Slater. I was curious and decided to pick it up from the library. It's 305 brief pages and reads fast.

The incident occurred in 2013 in Oakland. Two students from different high schools are on a city bus. Sasha, white, a senior, identifies as agender (preferring the pronoun "they"), likes to wear both neckties and skirts, is dozing in the back of the bus. Richard, black, a junior, has been in trouble but is identified by himself and others as mostly a good kid, is fooling around with some friends, flicks a lighter and touches it to Sasha's skirt.

It's flammable, and ignites. Sasha is seriously burned, but eventually recovers. Richard is arrested the next day and charged as an adult.

You'd think the book would mostly cover the aftermath, and it does, but the author is just as concerned with portraying both characters and the contexts of the lives they led before the incident. It's very interesting, but my own takeaway focuses on two other things:

1. Why did Richard do it? The first assumption of many observers is that it's some sort of homophobic hate crime and the police interview tends to confirm that; but Richard insists he intended no serious harm and just thought it would be funny for someone to wake up and find their clothes smoldering, which is what he thought would happen.

We can discuss whether playing with fire is an appropriate occupation for 16-year-olds, a conversation this book evades, but the point is that it'd be a different conversation than one about homophobia or "hate crimes."

2. The story offers a continuing lesson that agendered pronouns present a different and more complex socio-linguistic challenge than pronouns for binary transsexuality do. Sasha had made an announcement at school: "It's important to respect people's preferred pronouns and if you're not sure what those are, you should ask."

Fine, but there's no time to ask a stranger about preferred pronouns when you're trying to put out their clothes that are on fire. In the description of this scene, which is evidently transcribed from the bus's security camera video, everyone refers to Sasha as "he," which - the author has eventually gotten around to telling us - is what Sasha was born as and evidently still looks like. (And which is a given if Richard is to be charged with homophobia over the skirt.) Even Sasha's parents, who know the preferred pronoun, keep getting it wrong, and not just under stress. These are very deep waters we're getting into, much deeper than we've experienced with previous linguistic adjustments.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Going to the wrong airport.

Fortunately, I've never done that. Ensuring I have the right airport is something I check while booking. I narrowly missed it once, though. The valet who fetched the taxi when I was leaving my hotel from a conference in Chicago said to me, "Going to the airport?" to which I just nodded, but then he made an unwarranted assumption and said to the driver "O'Hare." I had to correct this and told the driver, "No, I'm going to Midway." Fortunately, if I hadn't heard the valet, I know Chicago well enough that I'd soon have realized if we were heading the wrong way.

When planning our trip to Rome some years back, my first attempt at an airline booking was British Airways, to change in London. But I read the fine print and noticed that while our arriving flight landed at Heathrow, the departure was from Gatwick. No, I don't think so. But a bus between those two might have been less bad than what we got from Air France, which was a walk across the De Gaulle airport terminal. What was terrible about that? The cigarette smoke.

What I have to watch out for is near-duplicate street names.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

musical notes

1. I reviewed a concert from last weekend, the Redwood Symphony. The music director in forwarding this to his mailing list called it very nice, but opined that "much more enthusiasm in the tone is warranted."

Yes, it could have been much more enthusiastic. It wasn't. There's a reason. It was a good concert, but I wasn't enthused. The Stravinsky was very well played, and I did say the players "were at their finest," but when I called Kirke Mechem's 1960s symphony "a worthy slice of chromatic tonal modernism," the implication that it's interchangeable with a lot of other slices was deliberate. I've heard a lot of works like that from that period that neither attracted nor repelled me. If I wrote with enthusiasm, what words would I have left for something which genuinely enthused me?

What interested me more was Mechem's statement that he no longer wrote symphonies, or much other concert music, after 1970, because he couldn't get his conservative modernism played. He elaborates on this in his memoir, Believe Your Ears, which I read through before the concert. To an extent it's an indictment of the serialist hegemony, the one whose proponents continue to insist it never existed. Mechem considers himself a victim of it. To the argument that lots of tonal composers continued to write all that time, including himself, Mechem says: look at the textbooks and the listeners' guides to modern music of the time. Those composers were ridiculed, belittled, dismissed, or totally ignored. And I certainly noticed that at the time, in the 1960s and 1970s. That's why I call them the Hidden City.

2. Enough of that. Obituaries have been appearing for Vic Damone, a lesser figure among the great wave of Italian-American male crooners so prominent in American popular music in the mid 20C. I confess I only know his name for the occasion that he, along with Dean Martin, a better-known crooner of the same ethnicity, shared a TV session with Allan Sherman - who was neither Italian nor a crooner - to sing some of Sherman's briefer and punchier song parodies, some of which made it on to his own albums and some of which didn't. The first one is a rather cranky generational clash, but the rest are just silly. The three of them had a fun-filled and unedited time of it. Watch Damone at 4:45 stumble over a spoonerism on his way to one of the most telegraphed puns in musical history.

Friday, February 9, 2018

two concerts

1. Zephyros Winds, Stanford. The members of this woodwind quintet hail from a variety of countries, but none are from Hungary, which is where most of their music came from. They played a variety of pieces by György Ligeti. If you remember his music from the movie 2001, you won't be surprised that some of this was so piercing that audience members actually plugged their ears with their hands, something I'd never seen at a classical concert before.

On the other end of the modern spectrum came a quintet by an obscurer Hungarian composer named Endre Szervánszky, who turned out when I looked him up to be one of the Righteous Gentiles. He also wrote a charming rustic scherzo.

2. San Francisco Symphony, Davies. First week of the annual two-week visit by music director emeritus Herbert Blomstedt. Blomstedt usually brings along a hefty pack of the serious Austro-German repertoire, plus some Nordic music usually by Sibelius or Nielsen. This year's Nordic entry wasn't by Sibelius but it might as well have been. It was the Second Symphony by Wilhelm Stenhammar. Stenhammar actually withdrew his First Symphony in embarrassment when he heard some Sibelius and realized how much like Sibelius his own work sounded. If he'd heard this performance of his Second he'd have withdrawn that too. I have recordings of this work with passages that do not sound like Sibelius; such passages were absent from this performance. It sounded like slightly watered Sibelius all the way through, except for a few passages in the finale that sounded more like Bruckner (another Blomstedt specialty).

Not that I'm complaining, exactly. It got respectful applause, but not as hot as did the other work on the program, Beethoven's last and greatest piano concerto, the Emperor. It was a toasty warm performance, with the piano keys under the feathery touch of Garrick Ohlsson. So fine was he that his encore, the Adagio cantabile from Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata, was enthrallingly perfect.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

news from the north

1) Five Canadian authors discuss their favorite Ursula K. Le Guin books. Jo Walton selects The Dispossessed. That doesn't surprise me in the least. Robert J. Sawyer selects The Lathe of Heaven. That doesn't surprise me either. Guy Gavriel Kay selects The Language of the Night. That does surprise me. (Me? Always Coming Home, without a doubt.)

2. The feud between British Columbia and Alberta. B.C. is holding up the pipeline to Vancouver out of concern for Alberta's oil spilling. Alberta's response is to stop importing B.C. electric power and B.C. wines. The premier is telling her people to drink Alberta craft beer instead. Presumably in the dark. What's weird is that they're both left-wing governments, but I guess that in Alberta, "left-wing" has to be interpreted in the context of Alberta.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

critics, performers, and moral responsibility

An article on the moral responsibility of restaurant critics regarding writing about chefs accused of assault caught my interest. Should they take that into account when choosing which restaurants to review and what standards they evaluate them on?

As a reader of restaurant reviews, I'd say no. I want to read a review of the food, not of the chef. I think the real problem here is the desire not to steer business, through praise or awards, to reprehensible people, and I can understand that; though I should also point out that, unless they're currently imprisoned, even reprehensible people deserve the right to earn a living.*

But what really interested me was one provocative chef putting some of the culpability for the culture on the restaurant critics themselves. Anthony Bourdain says: "Chances are, in this very small pond, where 'access' is often so important, the overwhelming likelihood is that they have known and heard and observed things and kept silent. They, as much as anyone, are responsible for creating and sustaining a Hollywood-style star system that has been almost entirely male."

And I thought, does that apply to me as a music critic? I'd object. That type of "access" critic is not me. I go to the concerts, but I'm not part of the culture. I don't hang around backstage; I know very few professional musicians personally; I rarely have even the opportunity to share gossip about performers. Most of what I know about their lives comes from public sources, and not much of that, as I don't read heavily in that field. I believe my integrity as a critic depends on keeping a polite distance. Bourdain says that "many other factors other than the merits of the food and service have influenced supposedly impartial restaurant reviews for so long," but mutatis mutandis that's not true of classical music reviewing as I know it or practice it.

One other factor more specifically pertinent to performing arts is involved. I once wrote a piece on classical record collectors dividing them into three specialties, and I think the same division applies to attending performances. The three types focus on repertoire, on performers, and on sound quality. I'm emphatically a repertoire person. When I'm asked to attend a concert, my question is what's being played, not who's playing it. I compare a performance to my previous experiences hearing the same work, not the same performer. In fact, if I wish to form a mental image of my own evaluation of a performer in general, unless I hear them very regularly I have to go into my files and see what I wrote about previous concerts by the same person. I don't carry around such images of performers in my head, not the way I do for every single composer in the repertoire, literally hundreds of them.

*In the process of Googling the performers at one irregular concert in search of photo links, I found that one of them was a registered sex offender. I didn't mention that in the review; it seemed irrelevant to the performance, and it would have been tough fitting it into a 650 word review anyway.