Sunday, May 5, 2013

two concerts, a musical, and a whaddayaknow

I had a plan for what I was going to do on Wednesday, which was the day I was taking off from the durance vile of journal editing this week, but it was derailed midmorning when I fortunately was still at home to get an e-mail - he didn't have a phone with him - from Ron Drummond, who was actually in San Jose - a fact of note since these days he's usually in upstate NY - and had the day free. So we spent a jolly afternoon, first with lunch at the Thai restaurant that KMS first alerted to me to, which he'd already discovered on his own, then touring the King Library downtown for its hidden public art installations, then around the scenery of the Stanford campus, and finally dinner at one of the North Fair Oaks taquerias.

"Too bad it isn't tomorrow evening you're free," I'd told Ron, "because if it were I'd have you as my guest for the San Francisco Symphony concert I'm reviewing." "Oh, but I am," he replied, as it turned out he was transferring abode to the City that afternoon. What an elegant concatenation of logistics. So I drove him up and dinner and a concert followed.

And the concert? The thread of this program was "Early Beethoven," and some of it was very early. When I first saw the season schedule, I was dismayed at the appearance of the snappily-titled Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph II, because it's really not any good. Beethoven was only 19 when he produced this, his first major composition, on commission, and while Mozart had been writing mature masterpieces at 18, Beethoven wasn't Mozart.

And then my editors sent me to review it! Well, I said what I could for the thing, and had more praise for a performance of the Second Symphony which they're recording for what will make a terrific CD. But best of all was a tiny little sonatina for mandolin and fortepiano. Here's a little-known fact for you: Beethoven invented bluegrass. Here, have a listen:
And the performance we heard on Thursday was almost as lively as this one.

Ron's presence hereabouts was to enable him to give a reading in the City of his essay "The First Woman on Mars," followed by a discussion with Kim Stanley Robinson of the possibilities of a human future there ('cause we sure don't have one here on Earth), at what I gathered was the launch party for the new issue of a poetry magazine edited by Kiwis from Taiwan. Or something like that. That was on Saturday afternoon, but I couldn't make it. I have, however, seen:

On Friday, the local high school's production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. A lot of off-key singing, but crisply timed, and some decent acting. Nobody looked embarrassed to be there or at what they were doing, fairly bold chutzpa for a high school cast. And, considering how many characters have to be shuffled around stage, good staging too. I knew it would be good when the cast got through the opening "Comedy Tonight" with energy and enthusiasm and without a hitch. It was a full production, too, including the often-cut song "Pretty Little Picture."

Over the hill Saturday evening to the Santa Cruz County Symphony, to hear the elusive Dvořák Sixth Symphony, elusive because my several previous attempts to hear this live have all been derailed by last-minute program changes or the like. Finally I was successful. It's one of my favorite Dvořák symphonies, and this movement should show you why:
The SCCS is going through one of those music director searches where they spend a season inviting candidates to conduct one program each, and this one's victim was Rebecca Miller, a woman of determined face and frizzy hair, an actual Santa Cruz native who's been leading a group in London for some 15 years. The Dvořák came out quite well, definitely worth the trip to hear it; the rest of the concert, Kodaly's Galanta Dances and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (with Hans Boepple), not so great. SCCS plays well enough that it doesn't deserve any excuses for sub-professionalism, but not so well that it doesn't need them. The notes were all there in the right places, but a certain stiffness, dryness, and, worse, dullness couldn't be entirely eliminated.

SCCS plays in a peculiarly gymnasium-like hall which is also the main home of the Cabrillo Festival. I've been to many Cabrillo concerts there, but the last time I heard SCCS, several years ago, was at their matinee series in Watsonville. The cheap seats are on the main floor with the orchestra, presumably cheap because of the impaired sightlines, and the expensive ones on the risers behind them. At this concert, attendees seated on the main floor would dart up to unoccupied seats in the risers between pieces, leaving the section partially abandoned by the end of the evening. I'd never seen that behavior at Cabrillo.

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