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Author: D. Rane Danubian

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

A DYNAMO OF A CELLIST

Alisa Weilerstein Shares Stage with Heras-Casado

Stemming from a distinguished musical family, Alisa Weilerstein seems determined to be the dynamo of the younger performing generation. Last week back east she squeezed two recitals into one, playing all six unaccompanied Bach suites for cello in one intensive three-hour swoop, a feat that could leave both audience and performer in a sweat-drenched tingle.

With the San Francisco Symphony in a more subdued mode, she played the Schumann cello Concerto in A Minor on Oct. 22. This too is demanding though briefer, with the cello soloist playing almost nonstop. It’s one of Schumann’s unusually reflective and introspective pieces, bent less on fireworks than romantic lyricism. Its soulfulness is hard to resist.

When Weilerstein, 34, plays, it’s not just music, it’s music-theater. I’d pay for a close-up video of her many facial expressions, precisely matching each musical phrase she is playing, whether jocular, emotional, haughty or thought-provoking. How refreshing, in this formal situation, to see her lick her fingers before placing them securely on the strings! She mastered the many hurdles of the 23-minute opus, even those massive high-low jumps of a couple of octaves in the opening. The nimble fingers and precise intonation did the rest, assuring a standing ovation by the Davies Hall fans.

The fast-rising Spanish guest conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, etched a strong personality in leading another romantic   work, the Dvorak Symphony No. 7, which is an even   bolder, larger-scale statement by a composer showing some influences of Brahms’ orchestrations. But the thematic content was quite original. With the dashing Heras-Casado, it’s all about skillful dynamics in many shades, and enough warmth to heat up an ocean. This was not about a hearing, it was about an experience. The conductor is the master of the pillowy pianissimos   as much as precise, gorgeous (and splashy) climaxes. In the finale he led us into dark caves and then neatly brought us out into blazing sunshine. Given the superior play by the orchestra and its salient soloists, it was hard not to be swept along with the inexorable current.

The many-shaded dynamics also illuminated the 18 th -century Mozart Symphony No. 29, where the string basses happily showed not tubbiness but rather deft tones and nimble runs. The witty 18-year-old Mozart showed surprising touches in what you could call his first fully mature symphony, with an unorthodox minuet, and a finale that suggests, deceptively, that a copyist left out a couple of lines. Not the case!

These San Francisco Symphony concerts given at Davies Symphony Hall, S.F. For info: (415) 864-6000, or go  online. Broadcasts on KDFC-FM (90.3 and others) at 8 p.m. on the second Tuesday following.

©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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REVIVAL OF AN ANCIENT TALE IN DANCE AND SONG

REVIVAL OF AN ANCIENT TALE IN DANCE AND SONG

Via Mark Morris’ Surprising Middle Eastern Foray

BERKELEY—Over the past four decades in  Iran, dancing has been either prohibited or frowned upon by the governing powers. In dramatizing a tragedy in timeless Persian song and dance, Mark Morris and his dance group are injecting new life into an endangered species from halfway around the world.

In his world premiere here, Morris co-created a 50-minute-long Persian-Azerbaijani work of song, music and dance, “Layla and Majnun,” based on one of the oldest stories from that tradition. It tells in poetic form of the ardent lovers driven apart by society, destined to be reunited only in death, much like  “Romeo and Juliet.” It is an international project, with multiple producers and performing sites sprawling over several continents in the overall schedule—but none of the sites in Iran, none of them in the turbulent Middle East.

Like most traditional Azerbaijani music, “Layla and Majnun” is dominated by vocals based on timeless poetry and Azerbaijani sources. Morris supplements the singers and half a score of instrumentalists of the Silk Road Ensemble with a dozen dancers of the Mark Marris Dance Group in his least familiar choreography, constructed of traditional moves, whirls and stances of traditional Middle Eastern performers.  The dances were tightly constructed with unified group movement, several line dances, and some discreet pairing off of the lovers Layla (the heroine) and Majnun; windmilling arm movements and extravagant gesture were an unexpected hallmark of these elegant performers. These dances served as the catalyst for access to the multi-media form, as the (newly arranged) century-old music by Uzeyir Hajibeyli and the foreign-language songs were quite unfamiliar to the attentive but polite sell-out audiences at Zellerbach Hall.

The drama conveyed by singers Fargana Qasimova and Alim Qasimov runs through successive descending steps: Love and Separation, Parental Disapproval, Sorrow, and the Lovers’ Demise. It is as touching as it is tragic. The songs, largely in the minor mode, followed a basic rainbow pattern, with each phrase starting and ending on a tonic as the lowest note. In between, singers used generous melisma, eloquently underlining the desperation of the lovers and their plight.

Supertitle translations of the poems were projected. One line in particular remains engraved in memory: “I need this sorrow, because sorrow needs me.”

The evening under Morris’ direction was elegantly produced, with colorful costumes andd scenic design by Howard Hodgkin. Even with a 20-minute introductory piece of instrumental-vocal music, the entire no-intermission evening ran only an hour and a half, leaving a few patrons muttering unhappily on the way out.

World premiere of “Layla and Majnun” songs and  instrumentals, plus performers of the Mark Morris Dance Group, at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, presented by Cal Performances. For info on upcoming events: (510) 642-9988, or 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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BEETHOVEN TAKES A BACK SEAT WITH TAO DRIVING

BEETHOVEN TAKES A BACK SEAT WITH TAO DRIVING

But Half a program Saved by Emergency Conductor

BERKELEY—A podium substitute saved the day for the Berkeley Symphony when Lisbon-based Joana Carneiro had to cancel on doctor’s orders.

Though the music director is still well short of the big four-oh birthday, her health remains a question mark. Management was tight-lipped about when the popular conductor might return to action here.

The surprise emergency guest was New Yorker Tito Muñoz, music director of the Phoenix Symphony, making his local debut. His crisp, accurate baton work combined with an articulate verbal introduction made a strong impression as he led the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra (1954), a work that he fortuitously already knew. Without a lot of visible fuss, he established a fine rapport with both orchestra and audience as the many sections came to the fore illuminating the skillfully assembled tonal work.

Lutoslawski’s music emerged from Poland after World War Two, sometimes lumped with Penderecki. But where the latter focused on vocal-choral-religious music to a large degree, the former is duly known for his engrossing symphonies. While he was noticeably influenced by Bartok’s similarly titled opus, he diverged. In the opening, a deep theme in the cellos comes back toward the end, in mirror image octaves higher in the celesta.

The second movement is a lively scamper for flutes and piccolos. The third movement (Passacaglia-toccata-corale) is the longest and meatiest, bringing on mysterious pizzicato bass themes, piano riffs, and explosive outbursts led by percussion. Lutoslawski likes to proceed on split levels—-sometimes very subdued, sometimes full orchestra. The constantly shifting piece turns rambunctious, flying off in a well-defined “gallop across the plains.” Fasten your seat-belt!

It is a quality work to admire and enjoy, but meager in length for a half-concert, barely a half-hour. Muñoz did wonderfully, stepping in on less than a week’s notice, cuing his players and staying on top with strong baton leadership.

Thereafter we got comic relief. The Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto (No. 5) featured Conrad Tao, 21, a self-confident soloist and showman with ferocity and technique to burn. His play is cool, collected, choppy and LOUD. He pounded the living daylights out of the piano, obliterating any kind of sonic balance with the orchestra, taking a very percussive approach.

Some semblance of decorum returned in the slow movement, whose main 5-note theme is familiar to Leonard Bernstein fans as the start to his hit “(There’s a Place for Us) Somewhere” in “West Side Story,” written a century and a half after Beethoven.

Even the orchestra sounded brittle here, and the piano voicing could have been more mellow if adjusted.

I rarely comment on soloists’ attire, avoiding dwelling at length on Tao’s informal tie-less (rehearsal-like) appearance, with shirt unbuttoned down to the chest. But you wonder where is the perspective, taking on an imperial landmark concerto with such sartorial disdain, setting off strong vibes against the formality of the musicians all around in the large ensemble, and arguably crossing swords with Beethoven himself?

Tao’s encore was much more down his alley: A virtuosic tour de force by modernist Elliott Carter, written at age 99, with more vitality in it than a dozen etudes by others. He brought down the house.

Me, I’d like to bring him down a necktie. Or bow-tie.

The concert will be delay-broadcast on radio KALW 91.7 on May 16.

Berekeley Symphony under guest conductor Tito Muñoz Feb. 4 at Zellerbach Hall. For info: (510) 841-2800, or 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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A DANCE-TILL-YOU-DROP PREMIERE

A DANCE-TILL-YOU-DROP PREMIERE

By D. Rane Danubian
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Jan. 29-Feb. 5, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 42

The new Forsythe ballet is like a 1,800-second group max-out-workout regimen at the gym, to see which dancer would drop first.
No one did, happily. Only that at the end I left my Row N seat feeling totally exhausted.

Modernist William Forsythe, an expat who has enjoyed a huge career in Europe, is presenting his “Pas/Parts” work at the S.F. Ballet, evoking Sisyphus far more than Fokine or Nijinsky. Set on a large barren stage devoid of décor, it has close to a dozen spidery performers come out in small groups or solos to kick, thrust, dash, and gesticulate energetically until they drop. All to a first-rate electronic score by Thom Willems.

And about 10 percent of the visible Opera House audience gave it a standing ovation Jan. 28—either for Forsythe, or for the endurance of the dancers, the way you offer “Jolly-good-show-chap” plaudits to the depleted finisher of a marathon.

The dancers evidently relished the challenge, battling to get into the cast; most of the SFB stars were in it, often in minor assignments. This was no European repackaging; Forsythe had recreated three-quarters of it for the SFB since its 1999 Paris launch.

The rest of the program offered much softer landings. Yuri Possokhov’s “Magrittomania” (2000) tries hard to be funny and whimsical and surreal like the Belgian painter Magritte himself, occasionally with success. The designs by Thyra Hartshorn use nonsequitur Magritte images like the giant apples floating in space, or the balloons in place of faces, plus the mandatory black bowler hats atop most of the dancers. Dancing in suits and civvies, the men never appeared incongruous, and their mobility was not compromised; it was just madcap Magritte coming back to life nearly a century later, enlarged and fast-moving too.

It was accompanied by much-adulterated Beethoven excerpts, some of them unrecognizable.

Helgi Tomasson’s “Seven for Eight” revival was as close as he ever seems to get to sensual ballet, with various couples dancing to Bach excerpts. It was a rare chance to see a soaring solo by Joan Boada, who retires after this season, as well as attractive pairings of Mathilde Froustey with partner Tiit Helimets.

San Francisco Ballet at the Opera House Jan. 28 in Program One, through Feb. 3. For info: (415) 861-5600, or 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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