30 November 2012

Home and the World with Esa-Pekka Salonen

For the past three or so years - ever since Matias Tarnopolsky took over - Cal Performances has had an annual residency from a visiting orchestra. This year we had renowned composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. I heard the last of their three concerts, the Mahler 9, but before that I heard the "composer portrait" concert dedicated to Salonen's music. He was of course there in person and Tarnopolsky interviewed him on stage during pauses in the intermissionless performance. The first part of their talk reflected some of the information also in the program book, but later on Salonen became more expansive and even offbeat.

There were four different pieces: knock, breathe, shine for solo cello (Kacy Clopton), Homunculus for string quartet (here the Calder Quartet), Dichotomie for solo piano (Gloria Cheng), and Mania for cello (Clopton again) and a small orchestra (here the University's Eco Ensemble). There was a nice variety of sound and style among the pieces, even when the underlying sensibility was clearly the same; there were several moments that sounded - I can only say "exotic," like moonlight on shifting desert sands. Salonen likes to play with the considerable virtuosity of his performers. In his remarks Salonen talked a bit about some of the initial conceptions or technical notions that expanded into the various pieces. Homunculus, for example, came from the early theory of human conception which held that each sperm contained a very miniature but fully formed man (with the implication that inside the tiny man's tiny sperm was an even tinier man with even tinier sperm containing an even tinier tinier man, and so on ad infinitum): so this quarter-hour for string quartet was meant to contain in compact form all the changes of sound and texture that you might find in a bigger piece. This was my favorite of the four pieces, though I enjoyed them all thoroughly. Also it was a pleasure to be in the midst of an attentive audience, after a series of recent evenings in which idiots kept pulling out their phones during the performance. You'd think that new music concerts would tend to draw only people who wanted to be there, but there was my first experience with the Eco Ensemble, that Boulez concert, where the audience was strangely awful.

During his remarks Salonen paid touching tribute to Elliott Carter, who had recently died just when we were all thinking he would outlive us all - Salonen mentioned giving an interview in which he talked about different schools and generations of composers, "and then there's always Elliott Carter" - just when there no longer was Elliott Carter. He also spoke of the need he had as a young composer to fight against the established models; in his case, he fought against Sibelius. Then one day in Milan after rehearsals he happened to come across a pocket score of one of the Sibelius symphonies, and he realized its greatness. He saw this as part of the normal process of maturation for a composer, in which you progress from rebel against the establishment to part of the establishment yourself; and that was part of his commitment to working with young composers and performers. He also mentioned his theory that (I think I have this right) originally language and music were the same thing, the basic and in-born means of communication (on the grounds that all human society creates music) and then gradually evolved in separate directions as language needed to create territorial and personal distinctions - so I guess the implication is that both are basic human urges; music is communal, language less so.

Sunday afternoon was the Mahler 9. Zellerbach is not the greatest concert hall for orchestras, but then neither is Davies and, at least on Sunday, the audience was amazingly quiet and attentive - there was some loud coughing towards the end, and as I heard someone in the audience say afterward, "They could at least try to stifle it a bit," and yes indeed, but a bit of coughing isn't too bad during ninety solid minutes of intense music. And when a woman in my row very briefly flipped through her program I realized that the program-flipping omnipresent at Davies was not taking place: people were actually sitting there listening to music. The magnificence of the performance deserved such attention. It seemed irrelevant to talk of the quality and skill of the orchestra, they moved so far beyond such virtues, bringing out the whole vast universal expanse of Mahler's final symphony. Worlds were created and passing away moment by moment, right in front of our ears.

At the end as he took his bows Salonen was visibly exhausted; nonetheless he came back after a short break and led the UC Berkeley student orchestra through a run-through of La Mer. (Such work with the students is an integral part of the orchestra residencies.) I thought about staying, but for various reasons decided against it. It might have been the perfect way to ease re-entry into our little world after the Mahler, but instead I plunged into the immediate shock of public transit.

Haiku 2012/335

unlettered lover
looking to the universe
waiting for the word

29 November 2012

Haiku 2012/334

outside, rain falling
inside, an empty tea cup
still warm from the tea

28 November 2012

Haiku 2012/333

insistent winter
winds wind through chilly branches
over empty streets

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2012

As we finish up Thanksgiving leftovers (turkey soup time!) and before we slide into the tinselly end of the year let us pause to give thanks for the music of the late Elliott Carter, who died 5 November aged 103, composing his rich music right up to the end. He would have been 104 on 11 December, so on that day at least let's put aside Nutcrackers and Messiahs and carols old and new and pay him the only tribute suitable to a great composer: let's listen to his music.

Cal Performances presents Mark Morris's The Hard Nut, 14-23 December. If you've never seen this you need to go, and if you have seen it, you already know that you need to see it again.

New Century Chamber Orchestra has a program mixing the familiar with new ways of treating the old: Handel's Entrance of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon and Vivaldi's Four Seasons (those are the familiar, in case you couldn't guess), along with Clarice Assad's Suite for Strings, Based on Themes of Bach and featured composer Lera Auerbach's Sogno di Stabat Mater for Solo Violin, Viola, Vibraphone and String Orchestra, described as "a loving tribute" to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater; that's 12-13 and 15-16 December, in the usual various places; check here for more details.

Don't let overfamiliarity keep you from the pleasures of Messiah - for years I made a point of hearing at least one live performance every Christmastime, and it enriched my holiday soul. Cal Performances teams up with Philharmonia Baroque to present it 8 December in the First Congregational Church; the San Francisco Symphony performs it 13-15 December in Davies Hall; and American Bach Soloists perform it 20-22 December in Grace Cathedral.

If you want something Christmassy and baroque that isn't Handel, Philharmonia Baroque has Masaaki Suzuki leading an all-Bach program featuring the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, Cantata No. 63 Christen, atzet diesen Tag, and the Magnificat; that's 13-16 December in the usual various places; details here.

If you want something as new to your ears as Messiah would have been in 1742, check out Volti's Not-the-Messiah December Choral Concert, which presents "alternative ways of celebrating the love and spirituality of the season" through new and recent works by Armando Bayolo, Stacy Garrop, Shawn Crouch, David Shapiro, and Charles Halka; that's on 2, 7, and 8 December in the usual various locations; details here.

Magnificat presents its only concert of the season, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Nativity Pastorale, 7-9 December, in the usual various locations; details here.

The Berkeley Symphony celebrates St Nicholas Day (6 December, but you knew that) in Zellerbach Hall with the Ligeti Piano Concerto, the Schumann 2, and the premiere of Dylan Mattingly's Invisible Skyline; on 9 December they move to the Crowden Music Center for the first concert in their new music series, Under Construction, featuring works by Andrew Ly, Michael Nicholas, and Davide Verotta in an open-rehearsal-style concert.

On 9 December the Hidden Classics reading series at Cutting Ball Theater presents Vaclav Havel's The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Theater of Yugen presents A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night by Greg Giovanni, based on childhood tales, refracted through the traditional theatrical styles of Japan (Kyogen, Bunraku, Noh, and Kabuki); 11-30 December.

The San Francisco Olympians theater festival runs 5-20 December at the Exit Theater; you can check here for details, but you need to scroll down an entry or two for details on this year's festival.

And to all a good night!

27 November 2012

26 November 2012

Haiku 2012/331

people hurry by
their jacket collars turned up
their eyes distracted

25 November 2012

Haiku 2012/330

just enough sunlight
so green leaves flash like jewels
sinking into gold

24 November 2012

Haiku 2012/329

afternoon ennui
steals over morning's freshness
the best hours are gone

23 November 2012

Haiku 2012/328

wan half-moon hanging
in a bright afternoon sky
pale, silent, present

22 November 2012

Haiku 2012/327

Thanksgiving 2012

the wild birds don't know
that this is Thanksgiving Day
they just feed and sing

21 November 2012

Haiku 2012/326

rainstorms passing through
yellow leaves unstripped from trees
quiver on their stems

20 November 2012

Haiku 2012/325

sullen silver glow
low over the gray waters
rain dimples the waves

19 November 2012

the writing on the wall

The Asian Art Museum currently has an exhibit of Chinese calligraphy I had been looking forward to. It's the sort of show that would repay close attention and frequent visits, which is exactly what it's not going to get from me, because the museum has once again curtailed its Thursday night late hours. Those are easily the best viewing hours for working people; without them I'd have to make a special trip in to San Francisco on a weekend, and my weekends are already packed, as is the museum on weekends.

It seems to me that in previous years it was only during November and December that the museum didn't have Thursday late hours. This year it's October as well. I had always figured Thursday concerts in Civic Center would work for me because I could go to the museum beforehand and not feel that the hours after work were being completely wasted by the local insistence on outmoded 8:00 start times during the work week. But now the museum has removed that justification by shutting down for all practical working-stiff purposes for three of the prime concert-going months. And during the rest of the year the museum frequently ruins the late-hours experience with stupid obnoxious parties (see here and here) or boots out members for the convenience of various corporations and their events.

I had planned to go to the museum before a Thursday night concert the first week of October. Something made me check the website that afternoon, but for reasons I don't remember (maybe contradictory information, or maybe just habitual caution and mistrust) I ended up phoning to check on the hours. I kept getting recordings that didn't tell me anything I needed to know, so I ended up calling the gift shop, the only number I could find likely to be answered by a human being. A very nice woman there told me that the museum was indeed now closed Thursday nights for three months starting in October but would be open late just that one day for a special event although members would be allowed in. I didn't think to ask if the Cafe would also be open. It wasn't, except for a few prepackaged and fairly sad-looking sandwiches and salads. Normally the Cafe is very appealing, so this was a disappointment. I was on my way to a concert at Herbst Theater, did some rapid logistical calculations, and realized I'd better go find a place to eat instead of contemplating calligraphy. So I had about a fifteen-minute walk-through of the exhibit, and instead of waxing rhapsodic about it here I will instead wonder why the Asian Art Museum is so bent on inconveniencing patrons, especially those who work. If the museum is that short of money, why not shut down another day during the week and keep the late hours to accommodate those who can most conveniently visit then?.Why not reach out to concert-goers at the Opera House, Symphony Hall, and Herbst, and sell themselves as a pre-concert destination? This seems like a case of facing difficulties by retreating into what is already not working that well. Times of crisis should be times of innovation, people!

I have to work to support myself, but I also have a foolish need to experience art. Adding to my irritation at the museum is my general dislike of being made to feel like Jude the Obscure.

At the concert I ran into a friend and I mentioned I was about ready to drop my membership in the Asian Art Museum, since their curtailed hours and stupid parties were making it increasingly useless to me. He told me if I did that I should at least donate money to support them. (My membership is pretty much turning into a straight donation anyway since I'm getting less and less use out of it.) I said I didn't really see the point of that. My limited funds can go elsewhere. Then I asked him if he had a membership or donated money to the museum himself. "Oh, no," he replied.

Haiku 2012/324

in a Victorian mood

cathedrals of cloud
enshrine within lofty mists
sinking golden light

18 November 2012

Haiku 2012/323

many days pile up
and you sit and sift through them
some days nothing comes

17 November 2012

Haiku 2012/322

arrested mid-fall
raindrops slide down the rooftop
and drip from the eaves

16 November 2012

Haiku 201/321

office abstraction

early morning calls
rows of empty cubicles
no one made coffee

15 November 2012

Haiku 2012/320

pale wash of winter
light against the gray facades
white clouds slowly pass

14 November 2012

Haiku 2012/319

a wide white wave-wash
curls behind a cheerful boat
chugging through the bay

13 November 2012

Haiku 2012/318

voices in the dark
passing under the window
happy, then distant

12 November 2012

Haiku 2012/317

bluebird divebombing
two silly chirping sparrows
that's life for the birds

11 November 2012

10 November 2012

Haiku 2012/315

warm water flowing
downward from the showerhead
losing track of time

09 November 2012

Haiku 2012/314

sharp star-points sparkle
I throw open the window
craving ice-cold air

08 November 2012

Haiku 2012/313

sliver of sunlight
sparkling up city sidewalks
right after rainfall

07 November 2012

Haiku 2012/312

slipping through the dark
small, fleet-footed, not quite seen
I hope it's a cat

06 November 2012

Haiku 2012/311

rising and falling
waves slap against the shoreline
changing it each time


repeating waves slap
against the shoreline changing
it a bit each time

variations on a theme - I wonder if anyone has a preference between the two, and if so why?

05 November 2012

Haiku 2012/310

why search for subjects?
day and night are both poems
breath is a poem

04 November 2012

Haiku 2012/309

no one told the trees
this autumn was just too hot
for their falling leaves

03 November 2012

Haiku 2012/308

red earthworm wriggling
on a cool autumn morning
in a black crow's beak

02 November 2012

Haiku 2012/307

Halloween candy
at the bottom of the bowl
the good stuff is gone

01 November 2012

sounds and sweet airs

A couple of weeks ago, when I was starting to come down with the flu, I did manage to fool myself into thinking I was well enough to get out to Berkeley for the Cal Performances presentation of Delfeayo Marsalis Octet performing Sweet Thunder, which turned out to be a fortunate self-deception since I would have hated to miss this outstanding concert (though I could have done without the three rude stupid girls also in Row J who kept their cell phones on the entire performance; apparently they felt the pre-concert announcement that all electronic devices should be turned off did not apply to very special people like them; sadly I could not, for a number of reasons, either say anything to them or move; I could only contemplate the fathomless blithe stupidity of people).

Anyway. Sweet Thunder is an adaptation for octet of the orchestral suite Such Sweet Thunder, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and inspired by Shakespeare. Given the artists involved it's not surprising that this is a wonderful, freewheeling, and inventive piece, moving selectively among the vast possibilities of Shakespeare, touching some unexpected points (I wouldn't have thought that Henry V was particularly inspirational to anyone, but there's a lively and somewhat obstreperous Sonnet to Hank Cinq (a name which is typical of Ellington's offhand wit and elegance)). Ellington and Strayhorn seemed particularly drawn to unhappy love (pieces  on Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, and the confused quartet of Midsummer Night), madness (Hamlet and Ophelia, Lady Macbeth), or both (Othello).

Marsalis gave brief, useful insights into each piece, with offhand charm; he sounded completely spontaneous, though he must have planned what to say. Before playing Lady Mac he mentioned that people could bring craziness and even madness on themselves; "That's true!" proclaimed the loud woman behind me. Marsalis gave some useful tips on the clever structure of the pieces, noting that the three "sonnets" (besides the Sonnet to Hank Cinq we heard the Sonnet in Search of a Moor and the Sonnet to Caesar) were constructed, in tribute to the traditions of the sonnet form, in fourteen ten-beat lines. He also noted the difference between Strayhorn and Ellington, with the former more structured and "written" and the latter more improvisational and eclectic.

Marsalis can make his trombone speak like a character, from wails and shrieks to low laments to martial swagger to a lover's bravado. Such speaking instruments can really do justice to the richness of Shakespeare's characters. The rest of the band was equally dazzling: Mark "Preacherman" Gross on tenor and soprano saxophone, Jeff Clayton on alto saxophone, Jamelle Williams on trumpet, Oliver Bonie on baritone saxophone, Glen Pearson on piano, David Pulphus on bass, and Winard Harper on drums. I went in expecting Shakespeare, Ellington, and Strayhorn to be great, but I left convinced that Delfeayo Marsalis had done them proud.

Haiku 2012/306

same route as always,
with shadows a bit longer,
air a bit cooler