Salon97

February 28, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

The Yes We Can House is one of San Francisco’s last true urban legends—it has no website, its own or one created on its behalf (unless my Googling skills need polishing). Like all urban legends, it emits an ensnaring combination of bad/good luck. Good luck in that parking was easy to find and there was an auspicious sign outside that always indicates good people and times will freely flow.

The fence outside the Yes We Can House

Whoever decided to use "bite" instead of "food"--GENIUS

Bad luck in that these once adorable dolls and children’s toys hung from trees and were stuffed into spaces in the doors. The wooden ones are in great shape, the lacquered paint still shiny and holding the promise of lack of use or absence of excessive handling. The fabric ones aren’t faring so well, discolored and bent into unnatural shapes—it recalled La Isla de las Muñecas in Mexico, another legend based on dolls as the greeting party. Maybe a tradition exists of hanging anthropomorphisms outside a building to scare away evil spirits, I’m not sure. But because one striking similarity existed, another must as well. I guess it is good luck, then, that the similarity ended up proving itself true.

I am ashamed to say that I did not arrive early enough to hear Cariwyl Hebert, founder and head of Salon97, give her introductory speech about the theme for the concert and the pieces that would be played. As the concert progressed, though, I was able to discern: Jewish Kabbalah, one of Schubert’s more famous works about death, and a couple of more obscure works associated with Schubert’s famous death. Put it all together, and you have a Chagall painting. Chagall paintings often have doll-like figures in them. Alright, let me try again.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind is a deeply spiritual, mystical piece that envisions the string quartet as Isaac the Blind’s teaching that the universe is comprised of the Hebrew alphabet letters. “Isaac’s lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and Klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching a state of communion,” says Golijov in his notes to the work. Whether through this all-embracing, high-minded spirituality that is unfairly the territory of the 60s or the dolls, Schubert’s Quartet in G major failed to tempt a passive lean and free-fall into the abyss of unstable major-minor chord modulations and became a sublime contemplation whose contours formed through successive contractions and forward surges. Death and the Maiden lost its ability to affect mood, and its ostensible unhappiness seemed a mere concept to be contemplated over beautiful music. The epic Quintet in C major brought things full circle by first returning to the innovative techniques of the quartet, which Ligeti and many other 20th century composers cite as an influence, with an expansive sound world Mahler would eventually adopt as his signature. We ended with a Hungarian rondo, the cello more subtle than the clarinet.

If classical music is the new underground scene, it is in no small part due to the efforts of the violist in the communist green Mao hat, and his group of highly skilled and earnest chamber musicians. Classical Revolution is the virtual mothership of the SF classical music counterculture, and Charith Premawardhana, founder and artistic director, is its Don. These fabulous motherfuckers are the McSweeney’s of SF classical music. They execute on a vision that those in the establishment with lower risk appetites (which is generally coded language for stilted tastes) put in the reject pile. This happens:

The bow is having a bad day

The bow is having a bad day

And this happens:

The conductor

The conductor

And we’d worry if it didn’t.

Craig Monson, the musicologist who specializes in 17th century music, recently published a book entitled Nuns Behaving Badly. Thom Browne’s debut womenswear show featured nuns being undressed to reveal his clothes underneath. The nun is making a comeback. Not that she ever waned as an object of fascination—everyone in my freshman year dorm made it a point to check out one particular person’s calendar of nuns having fun. What’s interesting about these and many other similar examples is what actually resonates. The most obvious appeal in a nun’s rebellion is its promise of sex, yet Monson’s sexless book got a fun and approving blurb in the New Yorker and Browne’s show served as Simon Doonan’s opening bitchslap in his review of New York Fashion Week. Fun and eyebrow-knitting are dangerously close. Not even the austerity of the New York Public Library and Gregorian chant could bolster the credibility of nuns sporting huge eyelashes and porn heels while being undressed by priests in knee shorts and socks. Desperation is fulfilling the obvious desire, because the obvious desire is the easiest and least knowing, and therefore neither chic nor flattering.

This is not the place to enumerate how classical music can try too hard. Suffice to say Cariwyl does not. She introduces the works with a downtown gait and lilt of tone that suggests she wants you to hear what she’s saying but doesn’t particularly care if you don’t, so of course you listen. No gimmicks, not even the relish or smirk with which Schubert’s syphilis is usually mentioned. Besides, that market has already been cornered in SF: Doonan gave a shout-out to the legendary 80s gay performance group known as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and this happened on my way back home:

How much do you want to wager the driver writes bumper stickers for a living?

Advertisements

Old First Concerts

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

As their name would suggest, there is something very old school about the Old First Concerts. Set in the Old First Church in San Francisco, they boast an intimate, august, old-world setting with no bad seats and acoustics fond of hinting at the place’s celestial connections. A favorite venue for classical chamber music and recitals, the church has also hosted jazz, avant-garde, blues, folk, and multicultural performances. The San Francisco Guitar Quartet (David Dueñas, Jon Mendle, Patrick O’ Connell, and Mark Simmons)’s concert on November 20 will feature music that fits squarely within these types, but its musical contribution as a whole cannot be so easily encapsulated.

In the course of discovering how to create different layers of color and timbre, chamber groups comprised of a single class of instruments become a natural vehicle for exploring the timbral qualities of those instruments. The practice is centuries-old, but in the context of a chamber performance given in a post-tonal serialism age, it becomes particularly significant as a case study for how timbre can be isolated as a musical element and assigned functions just like pitch. Though there is likely no deliberate attempt to create a modern sound, one results nevertheless because the instruments produce musical entities that are at the forefront of modern consciousness. But the SFGQ promises to do more than coax new sounds out of conventional instruments. New member Mr. Mendle’s instrument is an 11-string archguitar that is a combination of 19th century guitar, modern guitar, and Renaissance and Baroque lutes. The archguitar was built right here in San Francisco by Alan Perlman.

Certainly Atanas Ourkouzounov, who composed Objets Futiles, one of the pieces on the program, has an affinity for playing with timbre to create more contemporary and abstract music. However, like his fellow Eastern European Béla Bartók, Ourkouzounov infuses his music with folk characteristics, a romance that many of the serialists and Second Viennese School devotees were quick to turn their back upon. Fortunately, it is impossible to compose away the inherent warmth and storytelling ability of the guitar, and even more so to resist the humanity of a culture that gave the world lo real maravilloso. For this, we have two traditional Latin songs to look forward to: La Partida-Vals Venezolano and La Venenosa-Huayno Peruano, both arranged by Mr. Dueñas; and Cuarteto 5/Chorinho by Chilean composer Javier Farías. The quartet will also play At the Sound of Light by John Anthony Lennon, who is particularly noted for his classical guitar compositions and is a Mill Valley native.

Ultimately, attributing contemporary or traditional leanings to a guitar quartet seems artificial because both are often on display simultaneously. The guitar is such a willfully expressive instrument that in defying classification, it becomes precisely its ideal. Perhaps the dichotomy ought to die on a cue from the venue, and accept that some things are simply eternal.

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Nightbook

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

Every night when I closed the bar,

I would get in my car,

And I was driving at the time a 1976 off-brown Gremlin.

But I would get in my car every night and put in the music of Bruce Springsteen,

And everything changed.

And I never again felt like a loser.

When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser.

You are a character in an epic poem

….

About losers.

–Jon Stewart, former bartender

Anselm Kiefer’s Seven Heavenly Palaces gave birth to Ludivico Einaudi’s latest album Nightbook the way that Stewart claims Bob Dylan and James Brown gave birth to his favorite musician. In 2006, Einaudi performed amongst Kiefer’s mythically imposing towers and subsequently wrote music matching the awareness and transcendence that sitting at the comparatively tiny grand piano inspired. The result may be heard upon any visit to the iTunes store or Amazon.com. Neither can compare to the Palace of Fine Arts, where Einaudi will appear on March 15 as part of The Nightbook Tour. An exploration of the transition between light and dark, a solo piano provides the narration while the background combination of strings, percussion, and electronically-generated sound creates a world that gives that narration plausibility and definition.

Boasting a top-10 spot on Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart, Nightbook (and the rest of Einaudi’s music, for that matter), has earned the concerned side-long glance from classical music purists—all the more so because the album hit #1 on the iTunes classical chart. The stubborn ability of the music to place one in a calmer mood puts it dangerously close to New Age, but rest assured. This music will not be playing in spas, yoga class, or any other place where it is better to leave your imagination behind.

From the first note, a narrative begins to build in one’s head. Before long, however, one realizes that this story has no plot or movement. It is merely an enterprise in escape, replete with vague but cunningly potent notions of ideal thought and feeling. The mastery of this effect largely explains Einaudi’s success with soundtracks. He understands how to create music ready-made for a story to be superimposed onto it. Among his credits are the soundtrack for Fuori del mondo, an Italian film nominated for an Oscar in 2002, Luce dei miei occhi, for which he won Best Soundtrack at the 2002 Italian music awards, and the British TV series Doctor Zhivago.

Nightbook does not profess to be a soundtrack; it just quietly makes the listener a character in a tone poem about themselves. It is this ability that allows him to draw in those outside of classical music to become one of the most popular contemporary classical music composers. It is also why those who already love classical music may not be open to his sound—it is a lite incarnation that almost insults their imagination. How much fun is it, though, to escape and always meet the same story? (Oh, and yes, that Jon Stewart.)

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Berkeley Opening

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

Have you heard? Barneys is opening up an additional store in the Mission! The new location is part of the company’s long term strategy to attract more buyers who already have avant-garde, cutting-edge taste. Now, before you get excited and call the Barneys store on O’Farrell St. in SF, I’m only kidding. I’m merely referring to the imprint of the LA Philharmonic on the exciting Berkeley Symphony Orchestra concert coming up December 3. The program for the evening is a mini-reproduction of the Philharmonic’s 2007-08 season, unofficially known as the “Season of Steven Stucky,” featuring the composer’s Radical Light and “Elegy” from August 4, 1964, juxtaposed with Sibelius’ Seventh symphony and a Stravinsky piece (a new take on Les Noces two years ago and the Firebird Suite for this concert). Incidentally, Stucky is currently Consulting Composer for New Music in LA and was the matchmaker responsible for pairing Joana Carneiro, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony, and Gabriela Lena Frank, the new Creative Advisor.

Since the classical music world is so small, these interconnections are nothing out of the ordinary (there’s another word starting with i and ending with t that could be used, but this is a family publication). Given the timing and this particular cast of characters, though? This concert continues the steady chant begun this season, “Classical music is chic again.” It is young and dynamic, drawn forth with passion that is romantic in its strength and edgy in its similarity to ecstasy-induced highs. Carneiro and her SoCal counterpart, Gustavo Dudamel, are both regularly described as charismatic, energizing visionaries— the subject as well as the instigator of conversations at trendy gatherings. You can practically hear Ellen Degeneres singing into her Kanye West Autotune, “Change you ca-an believe in.”

Looking at Stucky’s accounts of his inspiration and intentions for Radical Light and “Elegy,” however, it is hard to understand why classical music has not always had this status in contemporary culture. Indeed, Stucky employs a breadth of modern references that rivals Marc Jacobs in his most successful collections. Let’s go through them: Lao-Tse and the inadequacy of words; poetry and the ability of art to do more than hold up a mirror; and for “Elegy,” the Gulf of Tonkin, murder of three civil rights activists on August 4, 1964, and John Adams’ affinity for Greek chorus and the dramatization of historic figures. In fact, Adams offers lists like this. Come to think of it, so does every contemporary composer. We have been, overall, good postmodernists.

Critically, however, we have not mastered the concept of high-low, throwing in the H&M pants or the Forever 21 dress. In music, the equivalent would be regularly aiming for visceral reaction or basing the success of a piece on pure alchemy. This is why any good performance of Sibelius’ Seventh is still an event, and even Stravinsky, for that matter. We listen wanting the rare feeling of wonder that something so wrong sounds like fresh genius. It does not happen often enough, but do you hear that chanting?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

From a (fake) leaked production memo regarding the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s “Night at the Opera” Opening Concert on November 13:

World Premieres

OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan wanted to emphasize that even though he has been at the helm for twenty years, his desire to bring the uncharted into classical music is as ardent as ever, so he hired a cast of singers who operate along the same wavelength. Brian Leerhuber, baritone, created the role of Breedley in A Wedding at the Chicago Lyric. The felicitous nature of the title was perhaps dampened by the influence of director Robert Altman, whose portrayal of domestic bliss in Gosford Park led to the unfortunate coincidence that Leerhuber will share the stage with Heidi Moss, soprano, who sang at the premiere of The Grand Seducers. The opera’s ultimate downfall, however, comes in the form of Three Mo’ Divas, in which Hope Briggs, soprano, was a featured soloist.

Mr. Leerhuber faces no such frustration as Robert E. Lee in Philip Glass’ Appomatox, but Zachary Gordin, baritone, would point out that Glass has no Pulitzer Prize in composing, unlike Lewis Spratlan, whose opera Earthrise featured Gordin in the lead role of Wilder at its premiere. Kalil Wilson, tenor, lets us know from his website that he will soon premiere a new lead role composed for him. More details will be forthcoming once he decides whether to go with a Pulitzer or non-Pulitzer composer.

Oakland East Bay Symphony

Over the years, Maestro Morgan has gathered a family of singers, for whom the opening concert will be a performance as well as a reunion. Zachary Gordin, AJ Glueckert, tenor, and Lori Willis, mezzo-soprano, have sung Faure’s Requiem, Bernstein’s Mass, and Handel’s Messiah, respectively, with the OEBS. For works of an earthlier nature, Mr. Wilson performed in the symphony’s critically acclaimed and sold-out production of Porgy and Bess in 2007 and Mr. Gordin appeared as Montano in Othello. This is a very serious family, indeed. Then again, it is a night at the opera.

Musical chairs

With OEBS not indicating who exactly will sing what, we are practically invited to arrive at the concert with our predictions in hand. On the program for the evening are selections from Aida, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, Lucia Di Lammermoor, Cavalleria Rusticana, Hérodiade, The Ring Cycle, and Candide. Ms. Moss’ crystal-clear soprano paired with any of the men, including Adler Fellow Joshua Bloom, bass-baritone, could fulfill all the casting needs for Lucia Di Lammermoor. As for Verdi, Ms. Willis’ mezzo-soprano is apropos, and Ms. Briggs boasts an agile lyric-spinto voice with a formidable stage presence that has carried her in several performances of Aida. The honor of performing the Nabucco piece will probably go to the Oakland Symphony Chorus and Oakland East Bay Gay Men’s Chorus. When this work is performed in Italy, it is immediately followed by cries of “Bis, bis,” which never happens in America. But in the hands of these choruses, who knows?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

On most weekdays, you can probably hear a collective groan on Highway 80 from commuters travelling to and from the Sacramento area. Chances are, they just heard KDFC’s Dianne Nicolini announce a perennial listener favorite was coming up, “But first, here’s Haydn (or his brother, son, nephew, second cousin twice-removed)!” October 28, however, braving the commuter soundtrack to drive up (or simply staying put) will be worth it because the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg is presenting a piece that is both by Haydn and a favorite.

The 168-year old orchestra is one of the premier symphony orchestras in Austria. Focusing on music from the Viennese Classical School, it presents the Mozart Matinees at the annual Salzburg Festival. Its musical sensibilities are particularly well-rounded due to the variety of its repertoire: in the pit for musicals and operas for the Salzburg Landestheater, great symphonic works from all eras for the Salzburg Kulturvereinigung in the Large Festival Hall, and a thematic concert series in the concert hall of the Mozarteum. The orchestra has had all glowing adjectives attached to its name at one time or other. In the end, though, it is simply very Austrian—more sensitive and less heavy-handed than the Germans without any sacrifice in musicianship.

The evening will begin with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, whose opening theme, incidentally, also opens the musical lock on the door to the edible garden in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (Music Director Ivor Bolton looks better in a tux than Gene Wilder did.) It will close with Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, also known as “The Great.”

Now what about that Haydn favorite? The Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major will feature Johannes Moser as both the soloist and the concert’s way of fulfilling the orchestra’s motto, “The cutting edge of classical music.” Moser may be our next Yo-Yo Ma, not because they play with similar styles, but because they are both enthusiastic ambassadors for classical music. Where Ma pairs with pop artists for crossover recordings, Moser promotes the Youtube Symphony Orchestra and participates in outreach activities with children and young adults across US campuses, introducing connoisseurs of synthetic sound to prepared and toy cellos and pianos. Performing contemporary pieces is his signature. Even Pierre Boulez sings his praises, and he is a much tougher customer than Bobby McFerrin.

There is no doubting Moser’s musical heft. His tone is not quite commanding, but his phrasing flows from a seeming sixth sense of the way musical figures relate to each other and of how to convince the listener that he is playing a piece as it was intended to be played. The cello becomes a living being in and of itself; we forget there is a musician behind its sound. Is it something we have never heard before? Not really, but after Chopinzee’s appearance last month (sorry, Lang Lang), shouldn’t we see what youth is really capable of?

A version of this article appeared on sfcv.org.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for February, 2011 at The Aleph Mag.