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.

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.

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