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.
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:
And this happens:
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:
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.
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.