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:
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.