17 January 2011

something old, something new

A random round-up of concerts from the end of last year. . .

The day after El Nino I was back at Civic Center for Elza van den Heever’s recital, with John Parr on piano, presented by San Francisco Performances as part of their Young Masters series. Van den Heever is well known in these parts, having appeared with both the Symphony and the Opera, and there were lots of fans and friends who braved the rain to wish her well. She opened the second half of the concert by telling us how much it meant to her to perform professionally at the concert hall of the school she attended (San Francisco Conservatory of Music); there was clearly a sense that one chapter of her life was closing and another opening, and at times her emotions got the better of her; she was in tears by the end of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben, which closed the first half; she apparently flubbed a note at the end of one of the Strauss songs in the second half, because she broke out giggling and apologized, which was quite endearing. She paid tribute to her homeland, South Africa, with some sweetly sentimental Afrikaans songs.

She’s a tall woman with a lot of stage presence, and her voice is not only beautiful, it’s very large. I was as usual in the first row and during the opening Handel arias I found myself thinking that it might have been better to have sat a bit further back, which is possibly the first time I’ve had that thought at a vocal recital.

John Adams is this season’s “Project San Francisco” composer at the Symphony, so they followed up El Nino with Harmonielehre, which was originally composed for them back in 1985, as the second half of a program that also featured Cowell’s Synchrony and Mozart’s Violin Concert No. 5 in A major, with Gil Shaham as soloist. At first I was going to skip this concert; December was a surprisingly busy month for me (which is one reason I’m posting these things now) and I was getting sick as well. I stuck to my “skip it” guns even as the first raves started coming in from the Wednesday and Thursday concerts. I thought about getting a rush ticket on Friday, but the thought of then having to hang around a dark and drizzly Civic Center for nearly three hours pointlessly killing time while waiting for the Symphony’s idiotic 8:00 start time to roll around was just too much for me, so home I went.

Then Mr G/S Y started raving about the concert, and that’s what convinced me to go on Saturday, because, unlike the others who loved it, he isn’t necessarily predisposed to like a lot of the contemporary music I like. I had one of the free weekend tickets that BART had been handing out, so I figured all I would lose was time if I went to the hall and they were sold out.
I ended up with an almost perfect (for me) seat: front row, dead center. I did not find it too close for the Adams; in fact I enjoyed the sense of being right in the midst of the sound.

The first half was less sonically overwhelming, of course. I enjoyed Synchrony and the Mozart, though Gil Shaham is a bit cartoony to watch, always wide-eyed and grinning and bobbing up and down. Harmonielehre is usually described as a breakthrough piece for Adams, and it’s also wild and overwhelming and fun to listen to (while being serious in substance). He has said that after struggling with the piece for months, the logjam was broken by a dream he had of an ocean liner lifting up like a rocket ship. And that’s exactly what the opening sounds like. Pretty amazing.

So, I’m going to tell you a weird little dream I had (well, all dreams are fragments of dreams), because I thought it was kind of funny. I was in a large house, and a woman who was Laura Bush (even though she didn’t look like her) was explaining to me why her husband – that would be George W, the war criminal – loved the works of Gustav Mahler. “Well, it’s the humor,” she explained. “And . . . [short pause] the humor.” And I thought, wow, even she is not finding this convincing. And I woke up. No wonder I never feel rested. I despise the Bush family and hadn’t even been listening to Mahler, so I have no idea where that came from. Anyway, I offer it as possible inspiration to any composers out there.

The day after the Symphony, John Marcher had invited me to accompany him to British pianist Nicolas Hodges’s performance at Hertz Hall of Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. We had an unfortunate mix-up as to meeting time and place, so I ended up buying a rush ticket, now that I know such things exist. I was not familiar with Hodges before this concert. What I loved about him is that he looks like the accountant you run into in the office coffee room and with whom you always talk about hockey or something like that, and he comes out on stage and plays this wild stuff. He wore fingerless black gloves for the Stockhausen, all the better to handle the extreme technical demands of the piece.

I’m also not that familiar with Stockhausen’s work (as opposed to his reputation), so I enjoyed the chance to hear some. My recollection is that the piece started off in a very dreamy way and I thought it was going to be one thing and then it got bangy (in a good way) and turned into something else, with lots of notes allowed to die slow reverberating deaths in the air (which reminded me that the Beatles put Stockhausen on the cover collage for Sergeant Pepper).

Hodges removed the gloves for the Hammerklavier. I found the Adagio in particular to be quite beautiful. My discussion afterwards with JM, who did not like the performance as much as I did, reminded me once again of something about the way I listen to instrumental music: I really don’t have an ideal in mind for most pieces, and though I will sometimes find particular performances too fast, slow, emphatic, or whatever within the context of that particular performance, I’m really pretty accepting of whatever direction the performer wants to go in. If I had an ideal performance in mind, the chances are slim that another performer would follow the same path, in which case why not just stay home and listen to whatever CD has set the standard for me? You could, if you are so inclined, read this as my having no standards, or being more or less ignorant, since there are plenty of cases (such as anything involving Shakespeare) where I have very strong opinions about where missteps are occurring. But I've been listening to instrumental works long enough for me to think that's just the way I approach them.

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