Monday, March 30, 2015

concert review: Redwood Symphony

Randy Byers got to hear the Seattle Symphony play all three of Sibelius' last symphonies. I had to be content with a volunteer orchestra making its wobbly way through just the Seventh. Still, you could hear the Sibelius behind it, and the same people did once tackle the Sixth to similar effect.

I drafted my review when I got home, and then edited it in the morning. Just as insurance, I printed the draft out, and having it here gives me the opportunity to say a little about self-editing.

Originally I began it with the first thing I thought of to say, which was: "The programming of smaller orchestras can be particularly appealing. Avoiding both the well-worn classics and the shiny newest things, sometimes they perform more of the challenging, yet appealing, classics of the last century."

Later I looked at the second paragraph and realized that this first paragraph was entirely superfluous. So I cut it. Too general. It is usually a mistake in concert reviewing to violate the principle that performer, venue, and date should all get into the first paragraph.

I'd started out discussion of the Bartók with the soloist; why not, since she's the most important part. Then I had a following paragraph which began with the two sentences about the orchestra that are now, in the final version, before it. And to back that up, I then put in a sentence ("This 1938 concerto is a huge ...") describing the work in general.

Later I realized that I'd sidled sideways into the topic, and that the whole section was backwards. So I reversed it all, and it read much better.

The other late addition was the final paragraph. Something was needed to wrap it up, and this underlined the point about the third piece.

Friday, March 27, 2015

music in Arizona

Doesn't look as if my editors are going to publish the article I submitted in early January, not even after one of the conductors I heard there became a substitute for the San Francisco Symphony for this week, so I'll put it here.

Music in Arizona

Music in Arizona? A reader might scoff. Arizona is to vacation in.

Still, it's possible for a classical listener to have a gratifyingly musical time of it in southern Arizona, as I found in spending a weekend in early January there, with the symphony orchestras of both Phoenix and Tucson offering concerts. I got to hear some unusual approaches to Brahms.

Phoenix's music director, Tito Muñoz, is in his first season. Tucson's, George Hanson, is retiring at the end of this season after 19 years. I saw neither, though, as both concerts were led by guest conductors.

Phoenix, like any respectable major metropolitan center, has an appropriately majestic concert venue downtown. Symphony Hall, built in 1972, is a ribbed concrete edifice attached to the adjoining Convention Center. Inside, through the spacious atrium, is a wide, gently-raked auditorium with limited balconies, paneled in warm, light wood, and reverberating with beefy acoustics.

The Phoenix Symphony concert on Friday featured Brahms's Symphony No. 3, a performance so broadly-paced and of gentle mien that it sounded more like the pastoral Second than the usually "heroic" Third. Guest conductor James Feddeck, formerly Assistant Conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, led subjectively, with merely generally indicative gestures.

The effect was entirely different in the tight, punchy Russian pieces in the first half: a quick, dancing Shostakovich Festive Overture, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2, with impressively light and feathery work from soloist Vadym Kholodenko.

Phoenix features scarily powerful brass and a deeply woody wind choir. Only the strings are less well-served. A bit thin and stretched in Brahms's fortes, this was less of a problem at other times.

The Tucson Symphony plays in various locations around town, saving some of its best concerts for Catalina Foothills High School in the unincorporated suburbs north of the city, because Hanson believes the Music Hall there has the best acoustics in the state. It's certainly bright and vivid, though very small and with some awkward poles. I heard Saturday evening's performance there, after a drive of less than two hours on the freeway from Phoenix.

Guest conductor Keitaro Harada, a regular with the orchestra who is also Associate Conductor of the Arizona Opera, is an opposite to Feddeck in conducting style. He leads with precise, energetic gestures, and the orchestra responded with precision and energy. A bursting little Mozart Symphony No. 32, the smallest of his mature symphonies, and a colorful suite from Falla's El amor brujo were finely done.

Still, they gave no hint of what Harada had in mind for Brahms's Serenade No. 1, Op. 11. Played with a rough country dance flavor, it coiled inward with exaggerated swells and diminuendos, accelerations and ritardandos, plus one big surprise Harada mysteriously alluded to in his pre-concert talk. For the Menuetto movement, he reverted to the work's original chamber instrumentation, allowing concertmaster Lauren Roth and the other soloists to play without conducting.

Though Tucson fielded a smaller orchestra than Phoenix did, it is hardly less accomplished, though Phoenix gives off the more exciting playing. Tucson has brasher horns, more pungent winds, and – at least in this venue – mellower strings, resulting in a good balance all around. I was impressed with the players' quick response to Harada's directions.

There was more to my musical trip to Arizona than those two symphony concerts. A notice in the calendar section of the Arizona Republic led me on Saturday afternoon to the Center for the Arts in Chandler, a town just south of Phoenix, for a chamber concert by members of the Chandler Symphony. This is a volunteer group, so professional quality work was not expected. Still, there was delight to be had in the premiere of works for mixed quartet (alto flute, horn, bassoon, and cello) by Woody Norvell, a Virginia composer whose degree is from Arizona State, and some other music – including more Brahms, a movement from his Sextet in B-flat. Like both the symphony concerts, this was well-attended.

The true highlight of my journey, however, was elsewhere. Up at the north end of Phoenix – some 20 miles from downtown; this is a spread-out city – lies the new (less than five years old) and quite fabulous Musical Instrument Museum. What makes this place amazing is not just the immense collection of thousands of instruments from around the world, all labeled with date and place of origin and maker, if known. Nothing was really rare, and little very old, yet the variety was captivating.

Nor does the true appeal lie in the intelligent and comprehensive organization, with a separate panel display for, almost literally, every country in the world. Some larger and more complex countries have multiple panels. A whole gallery for the U.S. and Canada is divided into panels for dozens of varieties of vernacular American music (highly commercial genres tend to be skipped over), with several panels devoted to the manufacture of instruments. Each other region of the world, from Latin America to the Middle East, also has its gallery, and there are some specialized ones, like a gallery full of mechanical instruments.

What really grabs the interest here is the videos. Each panel has a video display playing a loop of, usually, three or four clips, each 15-70 seconds long, of samples of music from the country or musical tradition described. Visitors are issued headphones with receivers picking up the audio from wireless hotspots.

These are engrossing. I spent two hours in the European gallery alone and still didn't take the time to hear everything. To traverse the entire museum at that rate would take all day, at least. Even a quick run-through is a systematic education in world music. It didn't take long to get a sense of styles and begin to realize which ones I liked and which I did not.

The only problem was that my receivers kept running out of juice. I had to trade in three sets during my visit. The staff said they're not supposed to do that. Maybe I was listening to too many of the videos.

About one-third of the clips in the European gallery are classical; the rest are mostly concert performances or field recordings of folk music or folk-influenced pop groups. A three-panel display on the history of the orchestra is the centerpiece, with music from Bach down to Berio and Xenakis, who are the museum's idea of modern composers. As this is a museum for instruments, the focus is away from vocal music. Though there are plenty of folk singers, in the classical panels there's more ballet than opera, and virtually no concert vocal music at all.

Classical performers do make an occasional appearance elsewhere in the museum. The U.S. gallery has a local Arizona section with a panel for the Phoenix Symphony and Arizona Opera. Over in the Oceania gallery, the Australia panel's videos feature two Aboriginal groups, plus an Australian stockman-type folk singer with a cowboy hat and a guitar, and the great diva Joan Sutherland. So visitors never know what they'll stumble on next.

Add to that excellent classical radio stations in both Phoenix and Tucson, and I was content.

Certainly I hadn't expected to stumble upon so much interesting music in Arizona. It was a rewarding visit.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

If they're playing Bruckner, you'd better like Bruckner. Wednesday's concert was his Eighth Symphony - his longest at nearly 90 minutes, twice the length of a normal long symphony - and nothing else, not even an intermission.

If this were a full review, I'd have to discuss how the conductor, James Feddeck, was a late replacement for the great Semyon Bychkov, who's recovering from surgery. Not many people around here knew anything about Feddeck, a touring journeyman whose only steady job has been as an assistant at Cleveland. But I did, because I heard him conduct the Phoenix Symphony when I was there in January. More on that RSN, I promise.

I'd also have to go into the problem of the complex versions and editions of Bruckner's symphonies, of which the Eighth has the most intractable tangle. But I'm a heretic among Brucknerians, as I don't think it matters much which edition you listen to.

The sound in this performance was unendingly magnificent, and the energy was always up. Big awesome stuff. The scherzo, the loudest and most energetic movement, was beyond powerful: it was primal.

The problem was the absence of what a great Brucknerian conductor would bring: a sure hold on the flow and shaping of the music. Feddeck didn't have that. He meandered without perceptible aim. I have never felt so lost inside the structure of a Bruckner symphony. Where are we? Where is this going? These are not questions I'm used to asking myself during Bruckner, and I'm sure that with Bychkov I wouldn't have to.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

concert review: London Symphony Orchestra

It's 6 PM on Monday, and I'm standing at the corner of Grove and Van Ness, looking across the street at the huge crowds gathered in front of the San Francisco Opera House, either to get in line for, or to gawk at the celebrities entering the building for (I'm not sure which) the gala celebration for the new season of Game of Thrones.

It's one of the biggest moments in Opera House history, suggests E., my companion. Not as big as the time it hosted the United Nations founding conference in 1945, I reply. But then, I am a historian.

But that's not why we're there. On our side of the street is Davies Symphony Hall, and we're there for dinner and then to hear the London Symphony Orchestra concert. If you wish to measure a very large vertical distance, you could put my desire to hear the London Symphony on top, and my interest in attending a Game of Thrones gala party down at the bottom. I don't like galas, my idea of a party is a few old friends in a quiet room, and Game of Thrones pretty much stands for everything I'm not interested in with fantasy.*

MTT, who's also associated with this visiting orchestra as well as the home band, conducts. He puts yet a different twist on Shostakovich's Fifth, pumps through Gershwin's Concerto in F, and gives equal value to a piece by Colin Matthews which surprises me by sounding minimalist, something I wasn't expecting from Matthews.

Here's the review I was commissioned to write.

*What am I interested in with fantasy? Here's three novels I liked that should make the stereotypical Throney's head spin. Fire and Hemlock. Moonwise. Among Others. Do I need to point out they're all by women?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

movies with unexpected reactions

W. Oliver Stone's bio-pic. I'd avoided this because I generally dislike wide-ranging highlight-spotting bio-pics, but I noticed it on Netflix streaming and said, why not. To my surprise, I liked it, especially the more continuous running thread of the decision to invade Iraq, because it shows how they could have done such a thing and depicts even such cretins as Cheney and Rumsfeld (amusingly played by the almost-unrecognizable Richard Dreyfuss and Scott Glenn, respectively) as actual people and not the collections of tics that more journalistic accounts show them as.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Highly-regarded film which I determined to see because I'll be in that part of the world soon. Got about 20 minutes in to it. Not for me, sorry. Just not.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

I went to this concert, even though I'm not reviewing it, because I couldn't resist the program: all seven continents in music. A pretty good selection of travelogue or landscape-painting pieces, inconsistently played.

Three of the works were by natives of the continents they depicted: for North America, Copland's Appalachian Spring (though this was the abridged suite, it was still much the longest piece on the program); for South America, Villa-Lobos' Little Train of Caipira (a vivid account of a steam-train ride in music, and the best performance at the concert); and for Europe, Sibelius' intensely nationalistic Finlandia, also pretty well played.

The other four were tourist or imperialist music. Borodin's famous little tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia was written to celebrate the Russian Empire's annexation of same, did you know that? (It wasn't very well played tonight, either.) Saint-Saëns spent a lot of time in France's African colonies for his health, and wrote a fluffy little piano concerto, titled Africa for not much reason that I could discern. (I much prefer his Algerian Suite, which at least smells North African.) For Antarctica, nothing other than the Scherzo from Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica, derived from the music for a film about Scott, and very atmospheric. Mixed-quality performance.

For Australia we had the one truly non-standard offering. Ron Miller, a clarinetist with the orchestra, composed Aurora Australis for a Peninsula Youth Symphony tour of the continent some years ago, and it was revived here. It opens with a depiction of the southern starry sky (held open chords with a lot of brass) and moves into a ritual dance (heavy complex drum rhythms). To make it Australian, there's a solo for didgeridoo. This was played by a tubaist, who had trouble coaxing sounds out of the instrument other than some gasping blats. Meanwhile there was also a dancer galumphing her Mickey Mouse way around the stage.

No - I enjoyed this concert, but I was better off not formally reviewing it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

bless thee, Bodder! thou art transmogrified!

The New Bodleian has been renovated, refurbished, and renamed. (Not for the villain from Out of the Silent Planet, although that was my first thought.) It still looks from the outside like it did when I researched there in 1998, but my oh my is it different and more pleasant-looking inside.

dutiful journalism

The publicity people for the Peninsula Symphony wanted an article for the Daily Journal celebrating their conductor's thirty years with the orchestra. So I wrote one.

They provided me with a short memoir he'd written, and all the quotes from him come from that. I mixed that up with a good helping of my personal knowledge and experience of the group.

I felt it would be negligent not to have mentioned the recent scandal involving the disappearance of the orchestra's funds, though I tried to give it a positive spin. As I'm not trained as a journalist, I was uncertain about the vocabulary permissible to use regarding a criminal case, but my editor assured me that, since there's been a court conviction, my choice of the words "unscrupulous" and "culprit" were justified.

They're getting this in lieu of, and not in addition to, a review of this weekend's concert. What if I didn't like it? Mind, I'm not lying: the orchestra really can be pretty good, and it certainly is a vast improvement on its predecessors of forty years back, but I've never really given them a rating, more usually a . That would ill-suit such celebratory puffery as this.

But I'll probably go to the concert anyway; the concept is just that appealing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Haydn concert conducted by Ton Koopman. Strong and hearty performance of Symphony No. 98. This is the one in which the continuo breaks out into a brief solo near the end of the finale. Since there was no continuo in this performance, Robin Sutherland sat not at his harpsichord - where, perhaps, people might wonder why he was not playing - but in a chair at the back of the stage, far behind the other players, until his turn came and he walked an elaborate path over to the keyboard.

Also, Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, a work I've never thought much of, but which was well played tonight. The power of clarity of Mark Inouye's trumpet was, unsurprisingly, outstanding.

That all being so, why was the suite from Handel's Water Music so dull and lifeless? The semi-natural horns (crooks but no valves) sounded strangulated half the time, and the period-style orchestra sounded generally tinny. Handel was neither hearty nor grand.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

concert review: Symphony Silicon Valley

So if I went to The Emerald Isle and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on Sunday, on Saturday I went to Symphony Silicon Valley to review an all-Shostakovich concert.

It was an enjoyable evening, but it got less than a full rave from me. Technical problems were too evident this time. This is the second of three appearances with SSV that I've heard conductor Tatsuya Shimono, and so far I'm less than enthused with his work. He's not bad, in fact he can be pretty good, but too often he's slow and a bit drab and undistinctive. And he's not the technical taskmaster some conductors are. Of previous SSV conductors, his style reminds me most of that of Mallory Thompson, who did not last the course.

The strangest thing that happened this evening came after the pre-concert talk. I heard someone behind me remark to his companion that he was surprised that the lecturer didn't mention that Shostakovich emigrated to New York. I turned around and said that was because no, he didn't. Shostakovich considered himself so Russian that he could never have brought himself to emigrate, no matter how badly the government treated him. You might have been thinking of his son, who did defect ...

Monday, March 16, 2015

show and concert

I didn't realize what a busy day I had planned for myself on Sunday until I checked my calendar.

Afternoon, a small-scale semi-concert presentation (it hardly rose to the elaborateness of semi-staged) of The Emerald Isle, Sir Arthur Sullivan's last operetta, the one he died halfway through composing and which was completed by Edward German, who launched his own operettic career thereby. The libretto by Basil Hood is not quite as agreeably goofy as that for The Rose of Persia, the previous Sullivan-Hood collaboration. It's a sentimental thing, about some motley Irish nationalist rebels vs. the Lord Lieutenant and a small troop of comic soldiers, with a couple of romances salted in, one between the chief rebel and the Lord Lt.'s daughter. It is, however, chock full of puns, most of them far better than W.S. Gilbert's more strained attempts at wordplay, reaching its eminence with the name of the Lord Lt.'s chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Fiddle, D.D.

The music is passable, with a couple lovely tunes but nothing really memorable nor naught much distinctly Irish, either, though Sullivan was of Irish origin (German was Welsh). The production, by a newish charity group called Free Range Opera, was just two performances on the small stage at the Mountain View CPA. Nevertheless, I saw six people I knew in the audience, the usual local G&S-attending gang. The lead tenor was down with allergies and could only sing about half his part; he mimed the rest while the conductor behind him sang it. The performers were lively and energetic, the best being Mark Blattel (who was also in San Jose Lyric Theater's Rose of Persia) as a goofy con man and Kathryn Benedicto as milady's noble-hearted maid. Blattel's character gets to provide the ridiculously tidy resolution of the plot, which reads like a parody of the self-encompassingly tidy resolutions Gilbert gave to Iolanthe and Ruddigore.

Then, rush up to the City for a concert by the visiting Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. A couple Bach keyboard concertos, led from the piano by Jeremy Denk, and the string serenades by Dvorak and Suk (the scherzo of the latter could easily have been written by the former), led by nobody except the concertmaster. Sir Neville is long retired, but the Academy still retains its smooth and glossy sound.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

world according to cat

She is become an arachnivore. Played with a spider, and then ate it.

Now, if she'd only become an insectivore as well, we'd be even happier.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


1. The New Century Chamber Orchestra, reviewed. I enjoyed the rest of the concert, but the Brahms gives you the opportunity to see how I write for publication when I really dislike the artistic quality of the performance. Not since that listless Franck Quintet at Menlo ...

2. You have never heard Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, at least the way Tchaikovsky wrote it. My question is particularly for anyone not an intense classical listener who makes it all the way through the sound clips: how much of a difference do you think these scoring changes make?

3. Mark Evanier reports on a lost Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch with video attached. The strange thing is that this sketch, which is the pre-titles sequence of Episode 38, is included in the script book (The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words, Pantheon, 1989), but I never noticed before that there was a sequence missing from the DVD. I thought I'd long ago watched them all with script book in hand; I've marked in the book a few spots where the script doesn't match the program. Yet some how I missed this, and the fact that most of the same episode's post-credits sequence at the end is also missing from the DVD.

The other thing I'll note from the video is that John Cleese dancing looks a lot like John Cleese doing his silly walk.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Dunsany on Netflix

The movie I was most glad to get streaming Netflix for was a puzzlingly obscure 2008 film called Dean Spanley, which at least at the time was not available on disc, at least not on Netflix. Its obscurity is puzzling because of its glittering and high-powered cast: Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Peter O'bloody-Toole. But I didn't want to watch it until I'd had a chance to re-read the book. Now I have.

Doug Anderson first alerted me to the movie's existence. It's not, strictly speaking, the only film adaptation of Lord Dunsany, but it is the only feature-length one, and the only one of a novel, if the brief My Talks with Dean Spanley can be called a novel. The story's narrator, evidently the author himself, recounts meeting a respectable CoE dean whom he finds, when plied with just the right amount of his favorite tipple, will start recounting tales from his previous life as a dog, though he's easily snapped out of it and doesn't remember saying anything the next day. What makes this slight notion work on the page is the brilliance of Dunsany's evocation of the dog's perspective.

Screenwriter Alan Sharp has craftily expanded this into a full-scale drama of character, though it's still very inward and would require little change to work as a stage play. It's set around 1905-10, just after the Boer War whose losses cast a pall over the tale. The characters are considerably fleshed out, and the story around them made fuller and more sturdy.

The narrator becomes a hesitant but inwardly passionate youngish man named Henslowe Fisk (Northam, well-cast for it) who attends a boring lecture by an Indian swami on reincarnation for lack of anything better to do that day. Curiosity as to why a clergyman would also attend a talk on such a heretical topic is what makes him invite Spanley (Neill) to dinner, and knowledge of Spanley's taste for Tokay (a Hungarian dessert wine, which the movie tells you though Dunsany assumes you've heard of it) is what causes Fisk to claim possession of a rare bottle of it as bait.

Then he has to get the wine, and this is what brings Wrather fully into the story. In the book, he's just a guy whom the narrator invites as an extra guest to one dinner in hopes that will further loosen the dean's tongue, only to have to keep shushing him from making crass remarks that throw Spanley out of his trance. In the movie, Wrather is still bumptious but less oafish. He's an Australian, played by Bryan Brown (you know, the guy from F/X, remember that movie?), and he's a more than slightly shady "conveyancer" of odd goods ("this carpet fell off an elephant") who, yeah, has a bottle or two of rare Tokay lying around.

That leaves the major plot thread that's entirely new to the movie, which is Fisk's relationship with his father, an appallingly - but hilariously - crotchety old man played wonderfully by Peter O'Toole in one of his last roles (this film came after Venus). How Sharp folds this into the tale of the dean and the dinners, and makes them the old man's redemption and the reconciliation of the difficult father-son relationship is:
1) pretty bog-standard and psychologically facile;
2) telegraphed long before the end;
3) telegraphed even long before that if you've read the book; but also
4) far better than Dunsany's deflationary ending, where the narrator and his friends get the dean really drunk so that he reveals all the secrets dogs know that humans don't, but get so drunk themselves they can't remember it the next day either;
5) heart-breakingly performed by O'Toole.

Neill also, in the impossible role of a man standing around talking about being a dog, does very well. In an interview, he said that the part terrified him, but that Brown, a friend of his, basically threatened him into taking it. I would only criticize the script slightly; Sharp's version of the tales have less the authentic canine air than Dunsany's.

But this is a production that proves you can make a great movie about four men talking if the four men are played by good enough actors and have a good enough script to use. (There's one important woman as well, Judy Parfitt as old Fisk's housekeeper.) The screenplay is a rare case of an adaptation of a good book that's better than the original (that makes four that I know of). The pacing and editing are largely excellent. The cinematography, particularly the few outdoor shots, is beautiful and intensely period. The music is also good though not period; I was amused that one theme is described in the closed caption as "tuba music" though the instrument playing is actually a bass clarinet.