Sunday, May 27, 2012

concert review: Ensemble SPAM

I picked up on this medieval music concert because it advertised itself as "Top hit songs and dances of 13th and 14th century France and Italy," and I knew it was something B. would enjoy and thus provide us an opportunity to attend together.

The group's arrestingly-silly name encodes the first initials of its four members.* Had I immediately recognized the name of the M, Marsha Genensky, as one of the members of Anonymous 4, I would have rushed to get tickets even faster than I did. For the now-only-occasionally active Anonymous 4 are the ne plus ultra of this period of music, and none of its members, I was sure, would collaborate with anybody else who wasn't also top-notch.

Nor did she. Marsha, as I'd better call her to keep the initialism up, sang with Allison Zelles Lloyd, their sopranos of differing timbres interweaving mesmerizingly in two-part ballatas by Francesco Landini, definitely the capo of the evening's composers. Instrumental accompaniment was well-balanced to the voices, and was provided by vielle (a droning string instrument resembling a cross between a violin and viola, to both of which it's ancestral) from Shira Kammen and soft and intricate hand-drum work from percussionist Peter Maund. Allison played harp on some pieces and Shira sang when a third vocal line was needed.

The program, played in sets by country and period, ranged across the ars antiqua (Montpellier and Bamberg codices, Adam de la Halle - OK, I've heard of those) and ars nova (Machaut, Dufay, Gherardello da Firenze and others joining Landini). The starkness of the ars antiqua and the richer elaboration of the ars nova floated in a dry clear sound across the warm, wood-paneled, flat-floored St. Bede's Church tucked in among the venture capital firms on Sand Hill. (A much better venue than the concrete All Saints in Palo Alto, and about equal to Valley Presbyterian in Portola Valley, as squarish or circular churches in the area without high altars go.)

Besides the fact that the group hasn't issued any recordings yet - though some by its members were for sale afterwards, and we got one - the only flaw in the evening was the woman who came and sat right behind us and began talking loudly, unceasingly, and unignorably to her companion about some other friend's hydrocephalic fetus and other equally personal topics and did not stop for breath until the concert began. We'd come early for good seats or I would have moved. This is what the term TMI was coined to describe. It's not just talkers on cell phones who impose themselves unwittingly on their neighbors.

*B. points out that they could just as easily have been Ensemble MAPS or even Ensemble AMPS. Their seating arrangement was as Ensemble MASP. There was a reception afterwards, but no Spam was served.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

For this concert, I did something I haven't had a chance to do in a number of years. I sat in what at Davies is called the Center Terrace section, behind the orchestra. I used to do this occasionally for big brassy works that were favorites of mine that I knew well. I'd sit immediately behind and above the trumpets and trombones and glory in the beefed-up sound I'd get up there. I've heard various Bruckner symphonies and Holst's The Planets, among others, this way. Tonight it was the turn of Shostakovich's Sixth, not in truth one of his brassier efforts. But it was great to hear this little-played piece a second time in one season (the Cleveland Orchestra did it on their visit), and it was fun listening to it with the sound "upside down", as it were, with the brass and percussion sticking out, and (in this seating, at least) the violas and basses most prominent among the subdued strings.

But by that token, behind is not a good place from which to judge music you don't already know, so you won't learn much from me about Kalevi Aho's Minea, which guest conductor Osmo Vänskä brought from his home orchestra, the Minnesota O., where it was a recent commission. Except that it features a lot of fast rhythms played on small hand-drums, and that, as with so much recent music, it runs on way too long for what it has to say, and keeps on saying it to the point of saturation.

The gutsiness of soloist Hilary Hahn's performance in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 was evident even from far behind her.

A particular point of interest in sitting behind the orchestra is the rare opportunity to study the conductor from the front, a position revealing much more in the way of expression. MTT is satisfying to view from this position, because he always looks as if he's enjoying himself; so does Dennis Russell Davies. Herbert Blomstedt, on the other hand, is an alarming sight this way, because he gets so intensely involved with the music that during dramatic passages he appears to be about to suffer a stroke.

Vänskä looks like a technically proficient conductor. His beat and expression are clear and precise, though sometimes delivered from beneath his music stand, and he gives lots of cues, even to the soloist in the concerto. He also has the unusual habit of setting tempo by surreptitiously, with his hands or even his mouth where the audience can't see it, signaling a couple measures of the pulse before giving the downbeat. But he didn't always establish much communication with the orchestra as the better conductors do. During both the Aho and the Prokofiev he kept his head buried deeply in the score, and hardly looked at the players at all. (Whoever said "A conductor should have the score in his head, not his head in the score" - it's attributed widely - Vänskä doesn't care.)

The Shostakovich, on the other hand, he evidently actually knows, for while he did have a score he kept his head up this time and didn't consult it. For this one, though, he conducted largely with his eyes closed. During the applause after the piece, when Vänskä pointed to individual musicians to take bows, which he did with unusual generosity, they appeared startled to be singled out, as if they hadn't expected that he'd noticed their work. But he had - I could see it in his cues, and in the way he trusted Tim Day to take the flute solos entirely ad lib, without any direction from the podium at all.

Monday, May 21, 2012


"There is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades." - Frodo Baggins
In the last week, Sunday's solar eclipse running through California (and some other western states) started making the papers, but I'd had it in my calendar for a long time. (It's runner-up in longevity there to the total eclipse scheduled to cross the US from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21, 2017.) I bought eclipse glasses in advance and made a simple pinhole posterboard viewer.

Obscuration, as it's impressively called, was to be 83.5% at home, dramatic enough, and as this was only an annular eclipse - only an annular eclipse, as if that wasn't a big deal - it went no higher than about 87.9% anywhere. Nevertheless it seemed worth the trouble to travel a few hours north to see the full solar ring. Checking web sites of newspapers for conveniently-located towns in the annular zone revealed that there'd be stuff going on at the Sundial Bridge, a monumentally-sized footbridge across a small reservoir in Redding. So thither my brother, temporarily posted in Sacramento, and I went. As we drove in mid-afternoon, we anxiously scanned the sky for the increasing clouds accurately predicted by the weather service. But they never got heavy enough to be a problem, fortunately.

Performing one's eclipse-watching among a couple hundred other maniacs proved superior to being off by ourselves somewhere. For one thing, there was the camaraderie and comfort of knowing that if we were going to look silly staring at the sun in goofy-looking cardboard glasses, at least we were doing it in a lot of company.* For another, some of those folks had superior equipment. Not all of them: one person had cut an 11-inch wide hole in a foot-square piece of cardboard. This didn't focus enough light to produce anything in its shadow, and she was reduced to simulating the eclipse by passing another piece of cardboard in front of it.

Best of all was the man with a telescope which displayed a crisp blazing-red image in its eyepiece; I was looking at this at the moment the ring broke and could see the solar flares protruding from the surface; intensely neat. Teenage volunteers from the adjacent natural history museum had set up white cardboard on easels and were focusing the shadow image through binoculars on them. This was quite effective and towards the climax of the event it looked like this:

But you didn't even need that much. A remarkable property of the sun under eclipse is that the shape of its obscuration will show up in any tightly curved shadow, even if it's not circular. The image in my posterboard viewer was small but clear. (And I left one at home with B., who also got good use out of it.) A number of bloggers I read have taken pictures of the eclipse as seen in the shadows of tree leaves. The easiest and quickest form of eclipse viewer is to cross two slightly spread fingers over the same fingers of the other hand. The square hole formed is good enough to cast the visible shadow of a partial eclipse.

When we arrived, an hour before showtime, a long line of people stretched out from the museum gift shop. These turned out to be the people who had not planned ahead and failed to have bought eclipse glasses. The glasses ran out before the line did, and extra ones were popular for a while, demonstrating the power of an exploitationist capitalist system based on an economy of scarcity.

The moon hit the sun's edge at 5:11 PM. Anxiety over the clouds was intense. The growing bite out of the sun was charted in our various viewing methods. The sun gradually became a crescent sliver, as an eerie semi-twilight descended over the setting. The full ring of the sun formed on schedule at 6:26. It was so thin that the two-finger method and my pinhole viewer no longer worked. Thoughts of the fiery One Ring of Sauron were inevitable. In the telescope, the moon, previously invisible, glowed a faint white with the sliver of the sun all around it. As you watched, you could actually see the ring getting thicker on one side and thinner on the other in real time. Four and a half minutes afterwards, the ring broke through.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. We had seen the eclipse, and the sun was returning. Another hour of watching the shadow slowly diminishing awaited true devotees, but the rest of us had already seen that show in reverse, and it was time for dinner. One traffic jam of a mass exodus of cars from the museum parking lot later, we were off to feed at the Black Bear Diner, and then back to Sacramento after sunset, having enjoyed our enrichingly astronomical day.

*Including a small cadre of acquaintances of mine who'd come up from Oakland.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

concert review: Music at the Mission

This was advertised as a concert of chamber music by composers also known for their film scores, accompanied by clips from their movies. Intrigued at this unusual idea, I suggested to my editor that we review it. He didn't think there was anything unusual about it; apparently orchestras do film-music programs all the time. Perhaps in their summer pops seasons, since I never see them; the only orchestral-film amalgam I've attended was an occasion about a decade ago when the San Francisco Symphony played a score cobbled together out of bleeding chunks from Shostakovich symphonies to accompany a screening of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.

What interested my editor was the cluster of locally prominent musicians gathered together to play it. It was I who thought there was nothing unusual about that. Most of them have played in the "Music at the Mission" series before, and I've even reviewed them. And with series artistic co-director, and mastermind of this concert, Bill Everett being a member of Symphony Silicon Valley, it was no surprise finding a couple of his colleagues from that orchestra here. Anyway, I declined the opportunity to write a piece on the musicians' professional lives, which is really way out of my territory, and because I thought there was no story in it, and attended on my own.

What was advertised is not quite what we got. Concert chamber works by four composers, yes, each paired with excerpts, arranged for chamber ensemble, from their music for one film each they're particularly known for. Since three of those films are sound films, don't wonder how the screenings fit in: they didn't have any. The only clip screened was the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin, accompanied by the corresponding excerpt from the Shostakovich amalgam - I recognized them as bits from his Tenth, Eleventh, and Fifth symphonies - with their loud, towering orchestrations cut down to chamber ensemble size. The shoe pinched a bit.

Actually, that was the second try. The first one faltered when, everything having been set up, and the musicians getting the click track in their earpieces, they stopped when they noticed that the movie wasn't playing on the screen set up behind them. There's no excuse for not getting all this set up properly at the tech rehearsal.

Shostakovich's concert piece was the String Quartet No. 8. True, the intonation was not always stable and the rhythms rather soggy. (Both got better as the piece went on.) And the acoustics resembled the interior of a toilet bowl. But this was a committed, impassioned performance that was thrilling to listen to. Violist Emily Onderdonk was best at keeping the rhythm taut, cellist Michael Graham gave strong solos at perilously high pitches, and it was great to hear Robin Mayforth and Karen Shinozaki interpret the violin parts.

A string quintet played a suite from Bernard Herrmann's music to Psycho to a series of stills from the movie, and yes, the slashing sounds matched the stills from the shower scene. His concert music was a movement from his clarinet quintet (Michael Corner, cl.), Souvenirs de Voyage.

The other two composers didn't even get that much, only projections of poster cards from the movies. A couple romantic melodies from Nino Rota's music for The Godfather and his trio for clarinet, cello, and piano (Aileen Chanco, pf), whose slow movement in particular sounds right from the movie. And a lusty suite from Korngold's Adventures of Robin Hood, paired with a really vigorous reading of his hefty, and much earlier, Quintet for Piano and Strings.

Also today, to the "Boogie on the Bayou" street festival in downtown Campbell, mostly for the Louisiana food booths that only make an appearance here. If you go on Sunday, which I recommend (I'll be elsewhere), the best food booth is the one that sells étouffée and blackened shrimp along with other stuff, on North Central. I had their seafood gumbo and it was superb, and not too expensive. The jambalaya at the booth that also sells alligator-on-a-stick on South First (the identical-looking one on North First is much inferior) was also good. That's where they are this year; last year they were all in different spots, and will probably be so again next year.

Friday, May 18, 2012

o to be a blogger

1. Here's a guy who, in explaining why he declined to see the Lord of the Rings movies, gives the lie to the old canard that "the book is still on the shelf." (My comment on why I took the rockier and less abstinent path of watching them, despite sharing his general distaste, is down at the bottom.)

2. I'm afraid the death of Donna Summer meant very little to me. The death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, however, means a lot. (Lisa Irontongue has all the good links.)

3. I care about the death of former senator E. James Abdnor because his NY Times obituary finally reveals what the "E." stood for. Thirty years I've wanted this tidbit.

4. And The Other Change of Hobbit carries on.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

It's a good thing MTT told the audience that the three disparate works on this program had been put together because they all have a tone of bucolic nostalgia, because we probably would not have figured out the common factor on their own.

The most obvious choice for that description was Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony. Nostalgically bucolic performance, soft and gentle. Beautiful wind work, and Nicole Cash on first horn was A-OK Number One Plus.

Also, Blumine, the wistful slow movement that Mahler excised from his First Symphony. Strangely, although the First is the only Mahler symphony I actually like, I'd never heard the Blumine before. Maybe it works better in the context of the rest of the symphony, though not working in that context is supposedly the reason Mahler excised it.

And the Violin Concerto No. 4 by Alfred Schnittke, with regular concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloist. I hope that wasn't the precious Guarneri that he was bashing away at in this work. True, this concerto has some moments of bucolic nostalgia, but since it also has moments of Every Other Possible Emotion under the sun, it having been written at the height of Schnittke's polystylistic mania, So What?

Had moments in which the solo violinist is upstaged by another solo violinist, playing hidden up in the terrace. Had moments when the solo violinist mimes, silently, playing frantically. If only some more of this nice friendliness were to spread about in Mordor, half my trouble would be over.

On the way up, stopped off at the local observatory's gift shop to buy some eclipse-rated eyeglasses for the annular that's passing through on Sunday, and yes, I'm going up north to the actual annular zone. For dinner, I finally tracked down the place in the upper Hayes where the catfish is supposed to be great. It isn't.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

concert review: Sergey Khachatryan, violin

That's Khachatryan, not Khachaturian, though they are both Armenian and the former has been known to play the latter's violin concerto. Not tonight, though. This was a chamber concert at Oshman. The repertoire was more serious and heavy than at most of this series. Khachatryan, who is 27 and looks like a young Alan Arkin, played his Guarneri in Bach's D-minor Partita for solo violin, the one that ends with the enormous and challenging Chaconne. He took it slow and tentatively, playing the opening Allemande rather as if he were making it up as he went along. The expression was subdued but gripping.

After intermission, Sergey was joined by his pianist sister Lusine in Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. This was livelier but not so enrapturing. Lusine energetically hammered a lot. Sergey expostulated in the presto sections. The Andante variation movement did not work so well: it lacked line and flow.

Their encore was said to be an Armenian folk song. I hope not; it was an overblown and windy arrangement of the kind that gives chamber music a bad name.

The big mystery of the evening was, what were Lusine and her page turner whispering about so intensely between movements? During one pause, the page turner left the stage for a few minutes, and we all just waited for her return. Lusine whispered to Sergey, but all the rest of us were left in the dark.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

concert review: New York Philharmonic

Fifth of the visiting all-stars.

Alan Gilbert has a reputation as a bland, unexciting conductor. Not as far as I could tell tonight. He led Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, both works I've heard more than often enough (you know, Dvorak wrote a large number of attractive short works - I'm fond of a tone poem called The Wood Dove - why can't we hear one of those for a change instead?), and made them lively. The Carnival Overture sparkled with energy, and the Tchaikovsky built up as it went along. I wasn't too happy with the first movement, though blandness was not the problem. Like his great predecessor, Leonard Bernstein, Gilbert likes to express himself through emotive tempo variations, though his are more momentary and small-scale than Bernstein's blocky structural ones. Rather than bringing out the movement's form, however, they just made it seem wayward and meandering.

More than any of the other visiting orchestras we've heard so far, the NYP sounds different from the SF Symphony. Constantly I would hear colors and balances that were strikingly unlike anything the home band would do. Not better or worse, just different. This may have had something to do with the orchestra having a seating arrangement that SFS never uses.

In between these ultra-familiar works came a brand new one, the piano concerto no. 2 of Magnus Lindberg, which the NYP premiered at home two weeks ago. The best compliment I can pay this work is that it didn't constantly make me wonder what it was doing in between Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. If it didn't win rapturous affection, and if it sounded almost as meandering as Tchaikovsky's first movement, it did have a strong tonal center and plenty of superb orchestration. The piano, played by Yefim Bronfman, never flailed away and always made its impact felt, with a lot of rumbling stuff that wasn't obnoxiously showy. The orchestra was equally well balanced, with intriguing tone colors sounding more like Rautavaara, or even Sallinen, than I'd expect, and towards the middle came some impressive brass and wind chorales. It must be a complex score, as except during the cadenza Gilbert beat the complex rhythms unceasingly, even when the piano had the floor and the orchestra was playing just a single note or even silent.

By a remarkable coincidence, today was Mother's Day, and Gilbert's mother is, in a quite unusual bit of casting, a violinist in her son's orchestra. But as far as I could tell, he didn't acknowledge her during curtain calls. Or perhaps she was not there, as I didn't see any female violinists who looked old enough to be the conductor's mother.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hugo. I'll stay home.

We didn't like the fabulously-praised movie Hugo at all. Not at all. Glad we saw it at home where we could twitch in boredom without disturbing other audience members, and didn't have to pay more than a cheap Redbox rental for it. And especially that we didn't have to see it in 3-D.

Why, what's wrong with it?

1. Camerawork, especially at the beginning, so dazzling as to be annoying. I was having trouble following the story, I was so distracted by watching where the camera was going.

2. A middle section consisting of the story being elongated to movie length by having each of the two obnoxious children alternately flatly refusing to answer the other's reasonable questions about WTF was going on, and posing equally reasonable questions to the other one. An intervention by the characters from Holy Grail who shout "Get on with it!" would have been dearly welcomed.

3. A happy ending which was achieved in real life without the intervention of the movie's fictional protagonist, thus achieving the double whammy of feeling both arbitrarily tacked-on and (despite the fact that it really happened) totally contrived.

4. If the inspector has an artificial leg, and this is 1930 so the state of the art is what it was (noting also that he gets a more advanced one later on), how come he can run so fast?

5. For a boy who's secretly living in the wainscots of a train station, Hugo makes an awful lot of careless mistakes that ought to have gotten him caught many times. Instead, he is frequently almost caught, apparently for the purpose of spinning out the movie some more. See point 2.

6. The subplot about the inspector's romantic life should have been cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Cut. Cut. See point 2.

7. A hackwork sub-Glassian score by the great Hollywood hack himself, Howard Shore. I understand why producers keep hiring this guy, because he reliably turns out the yard goods as requested, but not if they want the music in their movies to be any good.

8. I didn't check the cast list beforehand, so I find that I have now seen a movie with Sacha Baron Cohen in it, something I'd hoped permanently to avoid, the same way I once hoped to avoid seeing any movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I feel besmirched.

9. I also see that the boy who played Hugo is scheduled to appear in the title role of the upcoming movie of ... Ender's Game. O dear god. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Friday, May 11, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

When the SFS centenary season was first announced, the administration dismissed the idea of reproducing any of the music played in the first season of 1911-12 by saying "there was just nothing interesting about them." I found this statement ridiculous, so I'm very pleased to be able to report that, at last night's concert, the 1911-12 season bit back. It was a narrated historical survey of San Francisco's musical history from the 1849 Gold Rush through the world's fair of 1915, including nineteen separate pieces - some familiar, some once popular but now forgotten - that either were played or were typical of music played in the city in those days. And, in the process of squeezing all that into two hours, MTT and whatever other powers arranged this show found space for one movement from the big symphony at the very first SFS concert, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Naturally, it was the third movement, the bright cheerful one (though in context it sounds like it's desperately trying to convince itself of something it doesn't believe), because this was supposed to be a happy occasion.

And I was sent to review it. Swallowing hard, I got at least a brief reference to all 19 works in the review, by way of rearranging the sequence in categories (all the channeled violin virtuosi in one paragraph, all the channeled opera divas in another), avoiding the "and then they played" school of plodding concert reviewing.

It was great fun. A lot of lurid, colorful music. Liszt's Mazeppa, for instance, which is rarely heard, is the obvious grandfather of both Hollywood adventure music in its first half and Soviet grandiose celebratory mania in its coda. Soprano Laura Claycomb managed to sing the closing scene of Bellini's La Sonnambula without either the tenor lover or the chorus of villagers essential to its realization.

And there was the banjo music, the marimba music, the organ music ... and most impressive of all, the musical saw. A musical saw is a saw, it's played with a violin bow along the edge, and the note it produces is determined by how far the length of the thing is flexed. To hear it play a lyric Offenbach theme, in tune yet, is to witness something truly awesome.

Prior to the concert, I had some extra time on my hands, so I decided to go somewhere classically San Franciscan that I hadn't stopped at for quite a while, the Golden Gate Bridge (motto: "Younger than John McCain"). I parked (there is a lot with enough room, but you have to be able to find it) and, for perhaps the first time, walked out onto the bridge itself, but I didn't get very far. With the wind and the passing rumbling traffic, the bridge wobbles and jitters in a manner pedestrians can notice, and the railing is only four feet high. I think I would rather be somewhere else.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sendak supplemental

In my praise of my favorite Maurice Sendak work yesterday, I managed to forget that I first encountered and became fond of it in the form of his illustrations for picture books with words by other writers: the amusing process-oriented infinitive-filled definitions of A Hole Is To Dig by Ruth Krauss (which courtesy of the publisher you may browse here) and the etiquette parodies of What Do You Say, Dear? and What Do You Do, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin (similarly here and here).

These light witty drawings appeal to me much more than the most renowned Sendak of his Great Mythic Period, the likes of Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak has died. You remember him. He played the second rabbi from the left in the miniseries of Angels in America. (No, really, he did.)

No, wait: he was the guy who wrote and illustrated the Nutshell Library, by far his most charming achievement. (Remember those? One Was Johnny? Alligators All Around? Chicken Soup With Rice?)

Ah, yes, he was the artist whose illustrated edition of The Hobbit proved abortive and was never completed. Too bad, for despite the inaccurate relative sizes of Gandalf and Bilbo (which may have been the sticking point in the project), this equally charming illustration is what it was going to look like:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Bach went up against Handel at Davies Hall on Saturday. It wasn't a fair fight.

True, Bach brought along a good number of his best heavyweight contenders: no fewer than three of the Brandenburg Concertos. But two of these, the concerti grosso without soloists Nos. 3 and 6, were played in chamber music format with only one instrument to a part. In Davies' big ring hall, that cut back on their impact considerably. (The third, No. 2, was played with the four soloists against an orchestra. A wise decision, since if played in chamber numbers the soloists completely outweigh the accompanying ripieno, but it sounded odd matched with the other two.)

If the Handel offerings they'd gone up against had been some of his concertos, it might have been an even match. But no: Handel brought along the big bruisers, the Royal Fireworks Music and the G Major Water Music Suite: all large, grandiose, formal music for heavy ensemble, and it simply stomped all over the delicate Bach.

The performances were crisp and vigorous. The two violists in the violin-less Brandenburg Sixth did their best to keep the work lively rather than dark. The Handel works, but not the Bachs, were full of elaborated ornamentation. Credit, also, to the guest conductor, Jane Glover, who did not wear an overcoat, but a loose top and slacks, like just about every female conductor I see except the last one.

Following the afternoon concert, walked over with concert-going companions A&J to Lers Ros Thai a block behind the hall. This discovery, fairly new to the neighborhood, was originally recommended to me by a FoaF who lives nearby, and turned out to be just as good the second time. The dishes pay close pre-ordering examination. Shrimp with asparagus was delicately seasoned (and with ten large shrimp, not stingy); ginger rice with crispy chicken rather Vietnamese in style; but the beef with chili sauce was some seriously spicy stuff.

Friday, May 4, 2012

S. Pacific

Real high school musicals are not like Glee. I know this; I've seen them before, but not for a while. Attempts, at our previous residence, to keep posted on such events at the local school foundered on the school's complete lack of interest in keeping a calendar accessible to the general public who were not parents, and we never even tried to connect with the nearest school after we moved.

But this week one of the regulars on the neighborhood association mailing list passed on the info that the school was putting on South Pacific this weekend, because her son is in it. I have no particular brief for this particular work, but it has some good stuff and we knew about the performance, so we went. And discovered when we got there that the school not only has a very active theatre department, putting on half a dozen stage plays each year, but they've already scheduled next year, with dates, so on my calendar next year's musical goes.

So, South Pacific. Not like Glee, as I said. The leads were strong enough that the show didn't crumble around them. Nellie had a good line in bashful acting, and adopted an Arkansas accent while speaking which she dropped when she sang. Emile showed that he was Older and Serious by talking like Commander Data from Star Trek. Both sang strongly if loosely, and only crumbled on those high concluding notes. Lt. Cable was a milquetoast, but gathered all his gumption to emit the show's moral, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught", with some passion and sincerity. Luther was enough of a hoot - less Ray Walston than John Travolta in looks and style - that I'm convinced he's the school's class clown. And Bloody Mary was bloody good. Her bio in the program book read "I have stage fright" but you wouldn't know it. She gave the character's pidgin speaking believably and sang with grace and confidence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

concert review: Richard Stoltzman, Eliot Fisk

The Oshman acoustics were very good tonight. Maybe it was the performers and their instruments. Stoltzman plays clarinet. Fisk plays guitar. Not a common combination, and the three works they played together were all arrangements: Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, originally for piano; some Appalachian folk songs, and something by Rossini. The common feature among all of these was an improvisationary style, as if they were just making the pieces up as they went along, with a lot of abortive false turns.

Gentlemen, if we play together we shall also play separately: Fisk played his own arrangement of one of Bach's cello suites, arranged in the spirit of one of Bach's own lute suites. And Stoltzman played a solo piece that had been written for him personally, Steve Reich's New York Counterpoint for eleven clarinets all played by himself, ten on tape and one live. These were both big successes, the Reich in particular sounding wonderful, perhaps because 91% of it was coming through the sound system rather than trying to make itself heard from the acoustically deficient stage. The audience of largely elderly people had mostly not heard any Reich before and the ones I talked with all raved over how enjoyable and energetic it was. It's such a relief to have escaped from the days when "contemporary music" automatically attacked and repelled its audience, and Reich is one of the figures most responsible for the change.