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Author: Paul Hertelendy

POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

POETIC, BUT NOT REALLY POE-ETIC

ROHNERT PARK, CA—To catch important musical works, it can take an hour’s drive out of an arts capital to reach them. Credit the Santa Rosa Symphony and amalgamated choruses for bringing out that very eloquent but little-known choral symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Bells,” given in the concerts of Dec. 3-5 here. The composer called it his number one achievement.

Coming from his palette in 1913, the 35-minute piece contains some of Rachmaninoff’s most skillful musical effects. If you only know the big three piano-cum-orchestra opuses, then, my friend, you don’t yet know Rachmaninoff the deft orchestrator, the master of rich romantic textures who could also produce consummate articulation in a diaphanous orchestra.

Like the composer’s life itself, “Bells” combines both Russian and American strains, using poetry of E.A. Poe. The piece is poetic, but not really Poe-etic. It’s a very free adaptation of Poe into Russian, then set to music, and now translated back into English in an even freer adaptation (Is that Mr. Poe himself we see, turning over in his grave?).

Its four movements present distinct themes, doled out to individual vocal soloists: childhood, wedding days, sheer horror (my favorite) and deathly doom-in-tomb. The finale contained the most memorable singing by far on opening night, with veteran operatic basso Philip Skinner and his fiery, booming voice in total command, as if prepping for Verdi’s “Requiem.”

Cuing his forces throughout, the wiry French Music director Bruno Ferrandis had clearly worked hard readying this rarity, and his orchestra did the rest. Though the audience reaction was tepid-to-polite, perhaps because the last movement is the most subtle and somber, the interpretation was exquisite, one of the best at the SRS.

Bells play little role in the music itself. Childhood is marked by silvery flute effects and a humming chorus, plus high (angelic?) female voices. The wedding section turns both sensual and tender, white the “horror” segment bristles with turbulence and dissonance. The chaos reflects souls in distress, as the chorus turns chromatic, and harp arpeggios emphasized the instability of the infernal scene.

Effective and attractive instrumental solos peppered the program, coming from SRS principal players Roy Zajac, Elizabeth Prior, Adelle-Akiko Kearns and Jesse Barrett.

While unusual, a choral symphony is not a new concept, used as format by Berlioz (“Romeo and Juliet”), Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) and others.

Also featured was Elgar’s best and most played work, the “Enigma” Variations, that very durable mystery opus, with each variation bearing a friend’s initials. There were multiple mysteries which Elgar was not forthcoming to reveal. Why enigma? Who was the secret lady friend taking an unmistakable sea voyage in the variation marked simply “****”? What is the hidden principal theme which is never played (as he confessed), which no one can identify? (When asked if he’d reveal that theme, he always growled “Never!” leading some to believe that he quoted part of the song “Rule Brittania.”)

For more information, visit the Santa Rose Symphony event page.

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

BERLINERS GO VIENNESE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Both sides of the Berlin maestro Simon Rattle were evident and resplendent in the tour concert given on Thanksgiving eve: The formalist/modernist in the Second Vienna School, and the sensual interpreter of Brahms’ Second Symphony—two realms of music many miles apart, though all heavily weighted to Austria. The impact was quite overwhelming, with wild audience huzzahs at each conclusion.

Half the program went over to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, a thicket of often rebellious, impenetrable music that rewrote almost everything you learned in the Theory of Harmony class. This is music of rebellion. This trio of ground-breakers with works from 1909-1915 reflected the growing instability within the old order of the European political establishment. Schoenberg was the eldest, tearing away from Mahler and R. Strauss, in foment with his shards of sound, and rarely a theme of more than four notes, sometimes with three separate elements fighting for visibility simultaneously, and only glints of tonality. His large orchestra and heavy percussion suggest a restless giant in “Five Pieces for Orchestra.” The most memorable segment is the gentle, genteel “Colors,” where a chord is held, but with different instruments coming and going.

In “Six Pieces for Orchestra,” Webern’s orchestra is both transparent and aphoristic in its articulation. There are the sonic wonders of celesta, bells, tamtam that have you wanting to listen with three ears. The processional pace of the work ends in a rousing finale with brass and drums.

Finally we have the Berg “Three Pieces for Orchestra,” an opus both emotional and intense. I liked the restless and effusive “Reigen” segment () coming in big swells, reaching climaxes, then receding. And it ended with the passionate March. With the instability of those allegedly “devilish” tritone intervals. A century ago, these selections set dozens of people running to the exits; when heard Nov. 23, I saw none of that, just a great ovation at the end.

In an unusual linkage, Rattle tied them all together, as if they were one 14-movement opus 51 minutes in length. Fine. But I’d opt rather for a 30-sec. break after each composition, so that listeners could tell unmistakably what was Berg, what was Schoenberg.

The Berliners have evolved since the heyday of the late Herbert von Karajan. Where, in that era, the musicians resisted mightily allowing a second woman into the orchestra (the super-clarinetist Sabine Meyer), this time I counted 13 women in the ensemble. Male or female, this is one of the truly great orchestras in the world, and their every tour concert is one to treasure.

They finished up with a nuanced, mellow, and sensual reading of Brahms’ Second. Ah, that robust octet of string basses! The velvety horns, the sumptuous celli, the dancing nature of the Allegretto, the immense shaping of dynamics, and the dizzying intoxication of the exciting finale. Rattle shapes this symphony exquisitely, even in little hesitations. The crowd at Davies Hall might still be cheering, and perhaps opening up cracks in walls and ceiling.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

SHAKE AND WAKE THE PATRONS (The L.A. Philharmonic)

On Halloween (Oct. 31) the Los Angeles Philharmonic knocked the socks off almost every one at Davies Hall with Tchaikovsky’s familiar Symphony No. 4, playing it like a true virtuoso orchestra and sounding like a European ensemble. Music Director Gustavo Dudamel’s melding with this group is total. And, in today’s era of strict tempos, he stretches tempi in heart-warming ritards and rubatos that were commonplace till about a century ago. He has pillowy-soft descents from brassy heights into wind-and-string valleys. The music sweeps along inexorably, carrying you along like a rushing river current. The slow movement featured a melting solo from oboist Marion Arthur Kuszyk, whom Dudamel later singled out for a solo bow.

My sole reservation about the interpretation is the sinewy brass-and-timpani assertiveness—welcome for the opening “Fate” theme,” yet overpowering later on. It reminded me of the memorable quote from composer-conductor Richard Strauss: “Never look encouragingly at the brass section.” (He also wrote tongue-in-cheek, Before the first downbeat, already the brass is too loud!) This stirring symphony is memorable for its finale, which sounds like yet another triumphal court scene added to a ballet like “Sleeping Beauty”—you can almost see the ballerina whirling onto the stage. And of course there’s the quoted beloved Russian tune every schoolkid there knows, “The Little Birch Tree.” Pure mother Russia!!

Andrew Norman’s demanding “Play” (2013) was as much a test of the orchestra as for the audience. The essence of the 40-minute opus was novel: The sound of the four percussionists acted like a switch, turning the rest of the orchestra on and off. This had the strings play at furious speed, with the brass punctuating at irregular times. You can imagine the percussionists’ delight at running the show from the often overlooked back rows, sounding out (with slapsticks, yet) to wake any patron dozing off. It’s a power trip, plain and simple, making implicit assertions about dictatorships and totalitarian leadership. Along the way the brass weighs in with potent gravity, and the trumpets form a sky-high sonic canopy over the proceedings. This switching is a somewhat limited concept for a work of such dimensions.

In his three sections (“levels”), composer Norman, 37, eventually takes a much more effective tack in a lengthy ultra-soft segment of aching beauty with a relaxed theme played out, each note performed by a different player. Dudamel conducted meticulously, achieving great articulation in the languid sections. (For those unhappy about writers’ frequent remarks on female performers’ appearances, some turnabout male-directed commentary: Dudamel has cut his mountainous explosion of hair that had marked his earlier appearances in the U.S.) For all his great gifts at producing near-silent orchestral magic, conductor Gustavo Dudamel also has a profound love for brass and timpani—loud, at times deafening-oppressive.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument. This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture. MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

On the tour the next night with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Davies Hall, S.F., the thought on hearing the full volume was, the acoustic environment might be more resonant than back home. But when the audience saw two rows of musicians protectively cleared out in front of the brass, it was clear the LAP had the loudest-strongest trumpets and trombones anywhere around—maybe not enough to wake the dead, but certainly enough to shake a few rafters and awaken any patrons nodding off after cocktails.

Most significant in their Mahler Ninth Symphony however (Nov. 1) were the dulcet moments where you ears pricked up to catch the most beautiful segments of all. This was especially true in the final movement (Adagio), the last symphonic finale that the great Austrian would ever write. The plaintive outpouring, nearly a half-hour long, is arguably the most grief-stricken of all symphonic ventures by any one—-perhaps a requiem for the composer’s pre-school daughter, perhaps his own swan song. The minor key, the many falling figures, and the reducing volume all seem to paint a picture of intensely emotional but understated mourning or Weltschmerz, garlanded with themes of heavenly length. This threnody marked by great horn solos of Andrew Bain narrows down to a barely audible cello solo, and higher strings with the end of the bow barely kissing the instrument.

This masterful subtlety was underlined when Dudamel and his musicians remained in silent rapture during several breaths (and sighs) after the last note, underlining the eloquence of what the ill-fated Mahler (1860-1911) had set to parchment. In the massive opening movement, also a half-hour long, there was irresolute torment and soul-searching. The orchestra built a structure less like an Austrian palace, more like a rough-hewn building of sturdy logs. It had raw energy more than either polish or sound integration, with storm clouds swirling oppressively over your small tossing vessel out at sea, at times displaying instrumental imbalances. Much of this was Mahler’s own mandated stew, roughened by horns and clarinets playing with turned-up bells lacking the traditional leavening. Thereafter comes a charming, rustic country dance, followed by the serious music-making of the Rondo Burleske, which turns increasingly unstable with the force of the immense Mahlerian orchestra. At the end of the 88-minute-long concert, animated standing ovations, for which Dudamel & Co. might still be taking bows. In a unique touch, the orchestra stood not just for the downstairs patrons, but then turned en masse for the terrace customers to the rear, who were simply carried away by the gesture.

MUSIC ADDENDA—After the ninth, Mahler started the Tenth but died in midstream, short of his 51st birthday….It added to the legend of the ninth symphony being fated as every outstanding composer’s epitaph. This was traced back to similar endings suffered by Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak and Bruckner, none of whom completed a No. 10….The Philharmonic’s two-night S.F. stint was under auspices of the S.F. Symphony.

For more information, visit the SF Symphony event page.

 

ETERNAL LIFE IS NOT UTOPIA

ETERNAL LIFE IS NOT UTOPIA

Can you shape a viable opera scenario out of law suits and legal offices?

Janacek’s answer was yes, if you thrust into the middle of the muddle a whirlwind femme fatale powering the drama and driving all the men mad as well.

Janacek’s improbable 1926 opera “The Makropulos Case” ties in an intriguing fable: Because of a longevity potion, the seemingly youthful lady is now 337 years old, remembering intimate details about relationships and documents established by people long since dead. Since very few of us could recall all this complex plot afterward, it matters little in the wake of the amoral lady, who lives life to the hilt but convinces us that eternal life isn’t worth a tinker’s dam, as the essential zest for life is petering out at last.

Her combination of outer allure and inner ennui is a fascination, brilliantly played by the nubile German dramatic soprano Nadja Michael. She sings the Czech texts while sprawled on the floor, springing like a cat, extending a leg like a slithering snake, even clambering up desks in high heels. The voice is of Wagnerian dimensions, one that has cast her into numerous roles of dramatic intensity, mostly intermediate between soprano and mezzo. Her ovations, implicitly for Stage Director Olivier Tambosi as well, were altogether deserved when heard Oct. 26 at the S.F. Opera. Her Emilia Marty is an incendiary figure as fascinating as other operatic noncomformists like Lulu and Elektra. Sung conversations dominate the opera until her swan-song aria at the final curtain.

Otherwise the story taken from a Capek play is an unlikely intellectual exercise about recovery of musty documents for a endless trial, all played out while various men with or without briefcases strive to marry her, take her to bed, or simply commit suicide out of frustration. To make the tale yet more convoluted, the lady has taken on multiple personae and nationalities over the years, with varied names, all of them having the initials E.M.

To this operaficionado, the highlight of “Makropulos” is the emphatic, unsettling and at times jarring music of Leos Janacek, the long-neglected nationalistic composer who never got a production outside his native Moravia until he was in his 60s. The late-blooming figure serves as a model for every senior citizen. Ultimately he created five operas still making the rounds around the world, 88 years after his death. The works sound like storms at sea, embodying great dramatic punch and bristling with conflicts within the ensemble, the brass first and foremost. Conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov spared nothing in conveying the tremors of the sonic messages, some of them recurrent themes in the two-hour opera.

Apart from Michael herself, the cast was routine, capped by tenor Charles Workman (Albert Gregor), abetted by the SFO veteran Dale Travis (as the attorney Kolenaty), Brenton Ryan (Janek) and Stephen Powell (Prus)—all of them so many puppets on the heroine’s chess board.

The sets by Frank Philipp Schloessmann were German-expressionistic, mostly stark bare walls, capped by an immense working clock reminding the heroine of the inexorable passage of time.

OPERA NOTES—-Amazingly, none of the 10 principals were native speakers of Czech, which is a challenging consonant-dominated Slavic tongue….This opera has a special place in the SFO’s heart, as the troupe had boldly given its American premiere 50 years ago…The fall season ends with “Aida” Dec. 6.

Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” (1926), in Czech, at the S.F. Opera through Oct. 29. Opera House, S.F. For info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#
Week of Oct. 28-Nov. 4, 2016
Vol. 19, No. 8

STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

STRAVINSKY REVISITED IN BERKELEY

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,000-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

For more information, visit the Philharmonia Orchestra of London events page.

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

A FLOOD OF INSPIRED STRAVINSKY

As London’s Philharmonia Plays Berkeley

BERKELEY—Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Philharmonia Orchestra from London to Zellerbach Hall to do a two-program tribute to Stravinsky, recalling the 1968 opening ceremonies of the same site.

The 2,525-seat hall is a major site, filling a big yawning void at the University of California for nearly half a century.

The Londoners are supreme performers. As one colleague noted after “The Rite of Spring,” the muted horns played so softly, so subtly, it was as if they were offstage. Overall however, the tradition-breaking “Rite” came off exuberantly, ebulliently, with a wild streak on the bass drum and paired timpani prominently heard in the back row of players. This piece which revolutionized the course of music in 1913 and set off the biggest concert-hall riot at the premiere, is one of 4-5 different personae that the versatile Stravinsky adopted during his long composing career. He was such a commanding force in musical invention that I think he is forgiven for borrowing, unacknowledged, at least five of the “Rite” themes from an old Lithuanian folk-song book assembled and issued by Antanas Juska, a Lithuanian priest and folklorist. Stravinsky was ever the precise rhythmic master coming out of the ballet, rather than a source of abundant memorable themes.

Given the visceral nature of “The Rite,” its furious fusillades, the primitive society depicted in the ballet, and the human sacrifice at the end, is it any wonder that the elegant Parisians were infuriated by the opus?

Salonen, the handsome dashing Finn who had given up the plum job of directing the L.A. Philharmonic to devote more of his life to composing, is a top-line conductor, leading all the complex metric changes of Stravinsky unerringly and instantaneously, even if you can never really judge whether the beat comes on the upswing or downswing of the baton. (Fear not, his musicians can.) He and his players roused the crowd Oct. 8 to wild enthusiasm, and they remained audibly energized even as they filed out of the hall into the night.

For those few of us lucky enough to be around at the 1968 hall’s opening, on Oct. 9 the Londoners recreated that very repertory, with the composer then sitting down front (His delicate health and age, in his late 80s, prevented his conducting that night.) The great diversity of the composer was emphasized with the “Symphony of Psalms”—No violins or violas! Deliberately misplaced syllable accents! Revived Latin rarities! Two pianos!—-and his “Oedipus Rex” opera-oratorio, also in Latin, with narration.

I’ve heard the latter work with four different ensembles, and this was the most dramatic and compelling performance of all. The exceptional spinto tenor Nicholas Phan played the title role with a ringing voice and a touching persona, embodying the tragic end of this king who blinds himself on discovering himself married to his mother. Another American artist, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, played Oedipus’ spouse-mother Jocasta with secure hall-ringing sound and inner fire. Stepping in smartly, with authoritarian voice, was narrator Carl Lumbly, filling in for a late cancelation.

The concerts also contained the jaunty, aphoristic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, less than 10 minutes long, and his late ballet “Agon” (1953-57) marking his entry into the ultra-complex sonic world of 12-tone composition.

The neoclassical “Psalms” had three massed choruses numbering close to 140 voices, with the women predominant. Among the singers was a visiting group from Sweden, the chorus from the university town of Lund.

Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Esa-Pekka Salonen principal conductor, Oct. 7-9, three programs of mostly Stravinsky. With choruses. Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. For info on the latter: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

SMUIN’S DANCES LIVE ON

SMUIN’S DANCES LIVE ON

His ‘Stabat Mater’ Eloquently Marks the 9/11 Anniversary

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Sept. 25-Oct. 2 , 2016
Vol. 19, No. 4

WALNUT CREEK, CA—It never fails–election year brings out inconsistencies galore.

For instance, the Smuin Ballet, a Bay Area staple for more than 20 years, has now renamed itself the Smuin Contemporary American Ballet. And the first work on its fall season is choreographed by——an Australian, Stanton Welch. Tilt!

No matter. Whatever the name, the 16 dancers of the Smuin Co. carried off an animated quality program in which the American works  were predominant.  Of these, the most lasting impression was left by the work of the late founder Michael Smuin, “Stabat Mater,” created in commemoration of 9/11’s tragic attacks of 15 years ago. Smuin led off with the ladies fainting one after the other, deftly caught by the partners. The piece is a moving testament of consolation, as played out by the lead couple Erica Chipp and Robert Kretz. Gliding across the stage with easy grace, Kretz consoled the grieving Chipp and succeeded through dances that flowed as they have rarely flowed since Smuin’s own demise. The work is inspired vintage Smuin, a masterful memorial set to the  deep romantic choral-orchestral score by Dvorak. The lighting by Slocum and Oesch, with costumes of Ann Beck, showed iridescent colors that clung to memory.

In contrast, for a madcap comic finale there was Garrett Ammon’s world premiere piece  “Madness, Rack and Honey,”  seen in its 2nd performance Sept. 24. Adroitly selecting a music that many might call staid and formal (Mozart’s “Violin-Viola Sinfonia Concertante”), Ammon sets it afire, with frisky, cheeky partying couples  flying about the stage, stealing each others’ hats, and often falling atop one another in a somewhat suggestive manner. No holds were barred in this racy escapade of total fun-loving abandon, with Erica Felsch leading off in an ebullient  dancing-doll solo, reminiscent of the angular Meissen  porcellain figurines cast by Kaendler.  Adding to the quality mix was the indestructible Erin Yarborough-Powell, 13 years now dancing with the Smuin co. after a career almost as long with the Oakland Ballet.

The program opened in lackluster fashion with Welch’s “Indigo,” a highly angular, even jerky enterprise for ladies dressed as if in a harem, lifted and carried about by Smuin’s powerful males.

Overall, the 16 Smuin dancers showed off their versatility in dances both serious and frivolous, both profound and commercial.  If the players looked dreadfully uncomfortable in “Indigo,” they amply made up for it in the remainder. Prerecorded music was used throughout at the appealing Lesher Center site.

Smuin Contemporary  American  Ballet, Celia Fushille artistic director, Sept. 23-24. For Smuin info: (415) 912-1899, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

CHANTICLEER FALLS IN LOVE

CHANTICLEER FALLS IN LOVE

Elite Men’s Chorus Dazzles in ‘Secret Heart’ Program

By D. Rane Danubian
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Sept. 19-26,  2016
Vol. 19, No. 3

SANTA CLARA—The virtuoso singers of Chanticleer were ardently declaring their love for all parties concerned. Their “Secret Heart” program from many sources, languages and centuries will whisk them around Northern California with that heart-to-heart musical message.

The 12 are as versatile as ever, performing classical men’s chorus pieces, mixed-chorus, and choirs for men and boys, utiliizing their unique component of male altos and sopranos—the treasure chest that is Chanticleer’s long-standing secret. All of it unaccompanied, rather miraculously.AND sung scrupulously in tune.

The chorus’ super-sleuths were at it again. Modern love songs, we all know. But Chanticleer’s research staff ferrets out  such songs from musty archives in four-century-old Latin polyphony, so similar to a thousand Renaissance sacred pieces except for the text, which can be quite sensual. This repertory is entirely new, even to those who have followed this group since the start.  From the earliest efforts right up to the more streamlined 16th-century music of Palestrina we got artfully interwoven compositions of Guerrero, Clemens non Papa, Vivanco and l’Heritier.

The Sept. 17 highlight was the world premiere of “Hommage a Edith” by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mantyjarvi, 53. It is set to  a poem by the early 20th-century Finnish-Swedish  poet Edith Sodergran, offering one’s heart to “an unknown god…high up in the clouds.” The composer uses bold harmonies over a pedal point , with mild dissonance. The short work is characterized by somber Scandavian restraint.

A poem by the Elizabethan Edmung Waller delves into the mysterious and unplumbed in Eric Whitacre’s “Go, Lovely Rose:” Zounds, written and sung in English!

The most compelling solo of the night was by alto Cortez Mitchell, providing the seamless “ah..ah…ah”‘s  of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” in an unusual arrangement for voice only. It brought down the house.

A set of novel chromatic love songs by Augusta Read Thomas, 52, featured the novelty of the singers rolling raucously with laughter. Modern works also included a spiritual by Freddie Mercury (“Find Me Somebody to Love” in an arrangement) and torchy songs by Francis Poulenc and Noel Coward. Quite a night of high professionalism, all in all, capped by an encore via the Irish folk song “Down by the Salley Gardens.” They did Music Director Fred Scott proud.

A note about the beautiful Mission Santa Clara Church, bathed outside appropriately by a full moon. Like so many stone or plaster-dominated interiors, this one provides  rich and, yes, sensual resonances for those sitting up close, particularly from the higher voices. Sitting toward the back of the hall however afforded a no less appealing acoustic environment, with closer bonding of ensemble as well as somewhat greater intelligibility. Take your pick, or try both!

Chanticleer, a dozen male a cappella voices in the “My Secret Heart” repertory, in many Bay Area cities through Sept. 25. For Chanticleer info: go online.

©D. Rane Danubian 2016
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D. Rane Danubian has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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AN ARRESTING NEW AMERICAN-AND-CHINESE OPERA

AN ARRESTING NEW AMERICAN-AND-CHINESE OPERA

With the SFO’s “Red Chamber” World Premiere

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Sept. 14-21 , 2016
Vol. 19, No. 2

The new Chinese opera-tragedy “Dream of the Red Chamber” offers high drama after a lengthy, opulent prologue, turning a classic novel into an opera that is closer to a musical feast than to consistent theater.

The emigre Chinese composer Bright Sheng has created a rich, listenable score astutely combining both western and eastern instruments, aided by David Henry Hwang’s  every-day English-language libretto. After the intermission, the slow-starting opera with a Romeo-and-Juliet-like love story turns into a whirlwind of betrayal, suicide, action and reaction, ending in a “Goetterdaemmerung” conflagration scattering the principals into isolated fragments, incapable of putting all the pieces back together.

For the San Francisco Opera, which presented the world premiere Sept. 10, this piece spans the Pacific in viable fashion, headed toward its Hong Kong premiere six months hence. The story is a very thin slice out of a long epic 18th-century Chinese novel linking old-style courtly machinations with fairy-tale elements. In bridging the oceans, it introduces our audiences to a work as familiar in China as “Moby Dick” and “La Boheme” are in the US.

The lasting impression of this luxurious production is the musical eloquence, rising to the dramatic occasion, and flowing effectively for the reflective arias. The septet just before intermission is a classic achievement rarely essayed by living composers. The opera’s big flaw is visual and static, as the hohum opening act that fails to pose a dramatic turningpoint for its  finale and ensuing intermission.

The fantasy-to-reality plot is compelling, as the Stone and the Flower transform into human beings and later lovers. The Stone becomes the animated tenor role of Bao Yu, the biggest part  in the opera (Yijie Shi, a tenor with a tireless trumpety voice). The Flower turns into  the sensitive Dai Yu, one of three notable sopranos in the female-dominated cast. A manipulative relative’s ruse separates the two and leads to the downfall of the dynastic family palace and all its inhabitants. With the pair treading the world forcibly separated and alone, the conclusion is poignant.

The work is also a critique of the old ways in China, when wealth, stature and position in the empire’s pecking order were far more important than enterprise or good character. The family member who is the Imperial Concubine—the most powerful woman of all—drops from the top to the bottom with a whim of the Emperor. Knocking the idealistic hero, the monk/narrator/author remarks wryly on “the foolish mortals lost in the world of illusions.” Reading between the lines reveals   an implicit plea for another system without a central authority, such as democracy. So while this is a tale about bygone dynasties, it is also a work relevant to the 21st century.

The complex production of 11 scenes put together by designer Tim Yip and Director Stan Lai is magnificent, both in the fast-changing array of sets as well as lavish costumes. Fascinating mimes portray the transformation of Stone-and-Flower to humans in jaw-dropping fashion, while an array of women dancers porrtray the temptations of the flesh in the hero’s vivid red dream, like a Chinese counterpart to the lurid opening ballet of “Tannhaeuser.”

The opera featured a trio of excellent lyric sopranos: (Pureum Jo) in the Flower role of the beloved, Irene Roberts  as the other woman Bao Chai who is pushed to marry the hero; and Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the Imperial Concubine. These are ably supplemented  by the lower voices of the older generation: the Granny Jiu role (Qiulin Zhang), and Lady Wang role (Hyona Kim)  which is the one villain of the piece. George Monahan conducted, responsive to both singers and musicians.

The crux of the matter is not whether this opus will be the next “Turandot” hit. It’s whether it can link two highly contrasting cultures and eras successfully. And, in that regard, “Red Chamber” succeeded in its mission.

Bright Sheng’s opera-tragedy “Dream of the Red Chamber,” world premiere production at the S.F. Opera opening Sept. 10 (through 29th). For SFO info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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STEVE REICH CONQUERS SAN FRANCISCO

STEVE REICH CONQUERS SAN FRANCISCO

Surprise! A Living Composer Who Is a Hit Number

By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Sept. 12-19, 2016
Vol. 19, No. 1

Never forget that physics course you took. It can help you where you least expect it.

When I interviewed composer Steve Reich here in 1965, I referred to his musical style as “phase-shift music,” using terminology encountered in the Theory of Oscillations in physics. He liked the term. I notice that in his current publicity material, half a century later, he still talks about his musical “phase-shifting.”

His music itself represented an orientational phase shift. Along with figures like Terry Riley and Philip Glass, this American maverick dared to break away from the prevalent fashion of highly dissonant atonal, serial, 12-tone music (take your pick), and wrote consonant, gamelan-influenced, tonal music that did not break any one’s ear drums. It was a new religion, with Reich as its apostle, or at the very least was a marked revolution, still dominant a half century later.

To celebrate Reich’s 80th birthday coming up in October, the S.F. Symphony devoted its opening programs to Reich’s music. It was audacious, as very few of Reich’s compositions are symphonic, most of them for chamber-sized groupings. And where Reich formerly was performed in intimate halls, here at considerable risk the SFS threw open two nights of the 2,400-capacity Davies Hall. The gamble paid off, with a whole new younger constituency rarely seen on subscription nights buying tickets and flooding the premises. Along with them, on Sept. 11 came a bevy of out-of-town music critics for the Reich mini-festival that few would have predicted, way back when.

The essence of Reich’s style is a fast-paced, almost frenetic rhythm section with little variation, sometimes with an overlay of long-held notes on strings or winds. And these elements change very gradually in the “phase shift,” almost imperceptibly. The repetition of some short theme suggests minimalism, but minimalism with mobility, never invariant.

The effect of this is hypnotic, even mesmerizing, drawing standing ovations, along with exclamations of “I liked it!” from my concert companion who has rarely ventured into the forests of contemporary music.

Wearing his trademark baseball cap, a retiring Reich finally appeared to the fans on stage, doing his early hit “Clapping Music” with that early collaborator named Michael Tilson Thomas providing the other half of the rhythmic applause, between them providing all the sound and music needed. The crowd went wild.

For this listener, Reich’s most powerful piece remains “Different Trains,” a multi-faceted social commentary reflecting cross-country railroad travel blended with word segments and reminiscences by Pullman porters. Various prerecorded tracks, some electronic, mix in with live sounds of a string quartet (the Kronos). The most chilling are allusions to the Nazi trains used to deport their captives to death camps in World War Two. The high energy of the piece is irresistible, mixed in with blurred train whistles and sirens.

“Double Sextet” has two identical teams playing differing music in hard-driving New York style, the rhythm sections often drowning out the wind-and-string players. The elite contemporary group Eighth Blackbird made its first appearance in a large hall here, holding its own, for the most part, against SFS musicians.

“Six Marimbas” brought back the legendary ex-SFS percussion principal Jack van Geem and his marimba entourage in a fast-flying drill that was letter-perfect.

“Electric Counterpart” is for solo electric guitar (Derek Johnson), playing against prerecorded guitar and electronics, giving it the essential jazzy bounce.

The lone misfire of the two “I-like-Reich” nights was the “Three Movements” for giant double orchestra. It produced effects that would seem appropriate on duo-piano, but inflated beyond all dimension. With Reich, you’re tempted to say less is more, and small is beautiful, to paraphrase Mies van der Rohe.

S.F. Symphony presenting two “Steve Reich American Maverick” concerts Sept. 10-11, with the composer in attendance. Various guest players, including the Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird. At Davies Hall, S.F. For SFS info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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