Thursday, November 15, 2018

All the Way

A few years ago I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of a play they'd commissioned, The Great Society by Robert Schenkkan, telling of the 1965-68 period of Lyndon Johnson's presidency in the format and manner of a Shakespearean historical tragedy. I found it an awesome play, and was sorry I'd missed their production of its predecessor, All the Way, about the first year of Johnson's presidency, 1963-64, the one that went on to a celebrated Broadway production with Bryan Cranston.

So when I saw that a local company, the Palo Alto Players, was doing All the Way, I figured I had to see it, and I just have. Well, they're not OSF, but it was pretty good. Michael Monagle doesn't look anything like LBJ - in fact none of the actors looked like the people they were playing, the Hubert Humphrey more resembling Walter Mondale, and the Ev Dirksen looking like a retired Confederate general, white beard and all - but Monagle was good with the Johnson style and at being the strong center of the cast. Some of the others, though they were all competent actors, looked a little fatigued by the intense pace in the second act. Best all-around were the scenes with the Black leaders (King, Abernathy, Wilkins, Carmichael, et al) which formed the main counterpoint to the white politicians.

Covering a much shorter period than the sequel, it's differently constructed, with less sense of the pressure of multiple events pushing down on Johnson. But it does have the same snap and quick scene changes. Thus, the first scene is set with Johnson in his seat on Air Force One flying back from Dallas. Then he stands up and delivers his first speech to Congress.

The first act is all about the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and manages to say more about the political maneuverings that got it past various hurdles than does Robert Caro's biography of that period of Johnson's life. This is, alas, more an indictment of Caro than a praise of the play.

The second act is on the 1964 presidential election, and has a weirdly sour feel as the play depicts Johnson consistently on the verge of losing to Goldwater (who never appears on stage), which is not at all how the election played out.

It was consistently gripping, and I'm glad I saw it. It's on through this Sunday, so locals can still go.

concert review: Estonians

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra are making a world tour in honor of the centenary of Estonian independence (of course, the country spent half that period with its independence voided, but I don't expect that the Estonians like to dwell on that), and Stanford was one of the few U.S. stops.

I thought about asking to review this, but I'm glad I didn't bother, because it would have been a difficult concert to review adequately. Instead I just went on my own hook, and my own nickel, too. Unlike the times I've gone to concerts by the Venezuelans or the Kazakhs, nobody in the audience brought any national flags to wave.

I'd had the impression it was to be an all-Arvo Pärt concert, which is why I was eager to go, but instead it turned out to be a half-Pärt concert. It began with the orchestra playing Pärt's Cantus, technically very well, but strongly accented and emotionally dry. This was followed by two Pärt choral works with the orchestra, neither as enchanting as I'd hoped, and both mostly notable for the sheer quality of the choir. Salve Regina had attractive choral phrases running over tiny wisps of sound from the orchestra (strings and celesta). Adam's Lament, setting a text in Old Church Slavonic, was heavier and thicker.

The other half consisted of experimental pieces that required the choir to whisper a lot and grunt a little. Strangely, they were still good at this. One was Carlo by Brett Dean (an Australian composer), which takes a Don Carlo Gesualdo madrigal and runs it through the kind of changes associated with losing a radio station signal. The other, Concerto per voci e strumenti by Lepo Sumera (yes, an Estonian composer) sets nonsense texts that are supposed to sound like Estonian without actually being it. A lot of syllables beginning with K. Odd but interesting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

concert review: Music@Menlo

I was sent off to review Menlo's first winter-series concert on Friday. This one was, as described in the review, tied in with a lecture on Thursday. Usually I go to any associated events with a concert; the pre-concert talks at Symphony Silicon Valley, for instance, are often exceedingly useful for background information on the performance. But despite the importance of this lecture to explaining the literary background which was the purpose of choosing the repertoire for this concert, I didn't go. I was up in the City Thursday evening listening to the SF Symphony play Borodin and Shostakovich.

Maybe I should have skipped out on that for the lecture. But I read the program notes, which were written by the lecturer (who does most of Menlo's program notes and other audience curating), and buttonholed him for a quick interview during intermission, to try to replicate a sense of his presentation. I did present this as best I could in the review. But it was still fuzzy: for instance, he told me that the connection of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio with sketches for music for an unrealized version of Macbeth has been debunked, but the program notes describe it as real. I could have delved into the Stanford library and researched this, but I didn't have time before the review was due, because I was attending two more concerts that weekend and reviewing them too. (One was the piano recital I described here; the other hasn't come out yet.)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

concert review: Henry Kramer, piano

The smoke from the Camp Fire - which is 200 miles away, but brought visibility down to about a mile here on Saturday - has slowly begun to clear, and I ventured down to the Trianon in San Jose on Sunday afternoon for a piano recital sponsored by the Steinway Society, having chosen it for the interesting repertoire.

The young pianist, Henry Kramer, was jacketless and wore a high-collared white shirt with too-long sleeves. At first I was inclined to think of his playing style as heavy, but then I realized that his clean and emphatic articulation was overshadowing the lightness he could bring to filigree passages by Debussy or Liszt, and that it would be more accurate to describe his style as thick and full.

The virtuosity here was demonstrated when he got to "Clair de lune" in Debussy's Suite bergamasque. The sound was remarkably, and consistently, light and hazy despite the clarity of the touch. Though each note was distinct, the feel was entirely impressionistic.

Elsewhere in the suite, and in the far more harmonically murky L'isle joyeuse, Kramer made the most of Debussy's occasional excursions into rhythmic melodism. That's the inevitable, and highly welcome, result of his emphasis on articulation.

Another large portion of the program was given over to Liszt: late Liszt, pieces you rarely hear: transcriptions of two orchestral pieces from his enormous oratorio Christus, a cradle song and the march of the Three Kings. The former was a quiet piece filled with shining light, and the latter jutted formally until succeeded by a more rhapsodic middle section and ending with big shifting chords.

There was also a piece by Scriabin, played straight, as far as I could tell, without the rhythmic irregularity which tends to bring this composer alive for me. That would be alien to Kramer's performing style. The program said the piece was the Sonata No. 2, but I think it was probably something else. (I'm not a Scriabin expert by any means.)

But the music I was really there to hear was Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, a favorite piece that received about as clearly-shaped and finely-chiseled a performance as it's ever likely to get. Had Kramer put out road signs, he could not have communicated the shape and direction of this music any more clearly. His ability to play loud and dramatic passages forcefully yet without distortion or abandon, then turn the same controlled style to softer and gentler ends in other passages, assisted but did not fully explain his command over this large meandering work's form. The thunderous conclusion wrapped the concert up with a bang.

Friday, November 9, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

The big piece on last night's program was the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1. For some reason, though I like his piano concertos, I've never got on with Shostakovich's string concertos, either violin or cello. The orchestration is vintage S., in sound and style, but the meandering solo part doesn't have the melodic incise I otherwise expect.

Soloist Karen Gomyo, who while playing takes on the severe dour expression of David Oistrakh, for whom the concerto was originally written, gave her part an exceedingly raw and rough tone, sounding every bit like an inescapable evocation of horsehair scraping over catgut, regardless of whatever it is her Stradivarius (yes, that crass sound came from a Strad) actually uses. She switched to a more commonplace smooth dephysicalized style for her encore, a slinky bit of Piazzolla.

But I was there mostly to hear Borodin's Second Symphony, in hopes of exorcising from my mind the last time I heard this out-of-fashion piece in concert, over a decade ago, when its thick and heavy orchestration congealed into a wad of unpalatable mud. And that was from a visiting Russian orchestra! This time was far better and succeeded in pleasing. The secret of the diacritically enhanced Czech guest conductor, Jakub Hrůša, seemed to be the vigor and clarity he gave to the rhythms, phrasing, and accents.

I slipped out of the hall before the last piece, Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, a work described by its own composer as "hellish" and by me once in a review as sounding like a hideous traffic jam on the freeway. It still can be fascinating to listen to, but I've heard it three times in concert in the last few years, and that's enough.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

election results sites

The Guardian has an easy-to-use page showing Congressional and gubernatorial results.

This should amuse anyone who knows their way around California: county-by-county results for state races including the propositions. The gubernatorial results are a typical liberal-vs-conservative pattern for the state these days; some of the others are just weird.

Monday, November 5, 2018

continued in Seattle

Close readers of my previous entry will have perceived that I'm in Seattle. "Why are you here?" asked most of the friends and acquaintances I saw at the regular social event on Saturday (not accusingly, as this somehow sounds, but as in "What's the occasion?") I replied, "Because there is no Potlatch." This semi-regular literary sf convention kept me (and B.) semi-regularly visiting Seattle for years, but its demise removed the specific impetus. Realizing that I hadn't been back since the last one a few years ago is what inspired me to plan this visit with no other occasion but itself.

It did, however, require a lot of planning, particularly in arranging for and juggling the schedules of visiting those closer friends who, for one reason or other, are not active in the social community I saw on Saturday. That mostly worked out, and I've been over the territory from Kent to Lynnwood, from Queen Anne to Woodinville.

Woodinville. It's out in the far reaches, mountainwards, and I'd hardly ever been there before. Woodinville, I muttered. Someday it hopes to be a real ville.

On the way there I drove through Bothell, another place whose name begs to be used in a sentence. "Oh, Bothell!" said Winnie-the-Pooh. Q. Who arranges for the rain in Bothell? A. The chief Bothell-washer.

At about this point in my musings, the friend I was in company with started bopping me over the head.

So, in agreeable company I've eaten Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Mediterranean, and German apple pastry. Out on my own I got to Pike Place Market, where I headed straight for the chowder vendor, and then the Turkish Delight vendor, and then the shop that sells the fine vegetable seasoning, and then was inveigled by another vendor into buying dried cherries, which are tastier than it sounds.

I've visited a few bookstores, including the one with the cats (Hardy, Eleanor, and Buster were out being visible when I was there). A few blocks away, on a walk to check out for lunch a famed boutique restaurant that I decided was not for me, I walked by a small half-basement bar that described itself as "a cat cafe", and sure enough ...

Sunday, November 4, 2018

a play and two concerts in Seattle

I found all of these from listings in the arts section of the Seattle Weekly. (The Times was of no help whatever for cultural activities.)

The play was Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, one of the two non-Shakespeares being done this season by Seattle Shakespeare, in a small theater buried in a large, officious building in Seattle Center. Sumptuous costumes, impressive sets, pretty good acting. Sergius, the pompous twit character, was played by a dead ringer for the young Peter Bowles, who got plenty of laughs by striking pompous poses.

One concert, Sunday afternoon in a tiny but acoustically impressive room up in an office/retail tower in downtown Bellevue, of all the strange places, was a string quartet event put on by a group called the Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle. It was not well-attended - my friend J. and I were probably the only paying attendees who did not speak Russian, or at least much Russian - but it was well worthwhile. An imported Russian group called the Rimsky-Korsakov String Quartet played ... a Rimsky-Korsakov string quartet, his Op. 12 in F. I'd never heard this piece before, or even of it, but like his other chamber music that I have heard, it's worth the unearthing. It's packed with fugatos and canons, and has a startlingly Mendelssohnian scherzo. They also played the Shostakovich Third Quartet, one of his best, with solemn dignity but not without intensity. Cellist Anton Andreev, with Foundation director Natalya Ageyeva as pianist, also played, with more passion than intonation, a couple short emotional pieces by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.

The other was a lecture/recital at the UW Music School last Thursday evening, by pianist Leslie Amper on the topic of WPA music, i.e. music commissioned by the U.S. government arts program in the 1930s. The lecture material was thin; short pieces by the likes of William Grant Still, Ruth Crawford, Ernest Bloch, David Diamond, Henry Cowell, and Roger Sessions mostly demonstrated the variety of styles available. But a full-length Piano Sonata by Aaron Copland, another work new to me, was eerie and hypnotizing, especially in its quiet Andante sostenuto finale.

Also, while I'm here, one from home: my latest Symphony Silicon Valley review, featuring pieces by Debussy and Strauss that I was not bursting with eagerness to hear, but which came out very well.

Monday, October 29, 2018

concert review: New Millennium Chamber Orchestra

This local volunteer group decided to make "mystery" the theme of its fall concert, which I heard on Sunday in Palo Alto. And what classical work is more mysterious than Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, better known as the "Enigma" Variations?

Conductor James Richard Frieman explained what's enigmatic about the variations: that Elgar claimed the theme was actually in counterpoint with an unplayed famous melody, but he'd never say what it was, dismissed any guesses proposed, and nobody has ever come up with a generally accepted answer. Maybe Elgar was putting us on. He also depicted the personalities, as he saw them, of his personal friends in the individual variations, but hid them behind initials or nicknames. These have all been unearthed, though.

The performance came off nicely, though the orchestra had to slow down notably for the thunderous "Troyte". The famous slow variation "Nimrod" was well-paced and stately, not too slow. The turn from the profound "Nimrod" to the light and trilling "Dorabella" is the most clashing anti-climax in classical music. Wise conductors counter this by taking a long pause between them, as if it were the beginning of a new movement. Frieman was very wise. He did the same thing in several other places.

The other half of the program consisted of pops pieces with grotesque topics and spooky music appropriate for Halloween, a different application of the word "mystery" perhaps. These were all old favorites which were mostly on the Readers Digest Festival of Light Classical Music LP box set that was my childhood introduction to this repertoire. But you don't get to hear any of them very often at serious concerts.

The biggest treat of the bunch had to be Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. The composer's rough and unpolished style was a perfect dish for a rough volunteer orchestra to sink its teeth into. The best performance came in Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre, thanks to the fully professional solo violin work of concertmaster Colyn Fischer. Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King just has to be a really easy piece to play. Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette is apparently still mostly remembered as the source of the theme music for Alfred Hitchcock's TV show, so even though there can't have been more than a few people present old enough to have watched it (I wasn't, having been still too young for stuff like that when it left the air), Frieman gave his spoken introduction to the piece with a Hitchcock impression.

NMCO's next concert will be a delectable selection of English landscape music by Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst (no, not The Planets), and the rarely-played Granville Bantock (about time!). It'll be March 2 and 3 in San Mateo and Palo Alto.