On a Pacific Aisle
Notes from the left coast by the classical music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Friday, February 23, 2007
Here's a data point tangentially related to the recent discussion of applause and its variants. Shortly after Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony had delivered a pretty swell account of the first movement of Brahms' Fourth tonight, a voice rang loudly through the Paramount Theater: "Right on, brother!"
That guy was my hero — not because I shared his sentiment or appreciated the contextually unusual choice of phrasing (though both of those are true), but because his timing was so impeccable. He didn't interrupt the music, and he didn't interrupt the bubble of silence afterwards during which the entire audience was still jazzed by what we'd just heard. He waited until the moment was right — until everything that needed respecting was truly over with — and then he weighed in.
Month after month and year after year, I sit in concert halls and opera houses with music "lovers" who consider themselves all that because they can decline "bravo" in its various genders and numbers, but who don't have a clue about when to just sit still and let the echos be. Come the revolution, we're going to send them over to Oakland for a little remedial music appreciation.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
From Bad to Verse
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Off the List
Patrick Vaz gives up after last fall's Fledermaus at SFO:
The staging, the singers, and the orchestra were all excellent, for which I was truly grateful, since I can now feel that I have seen a top-notch production of Fledermaus, that I still disliked it, and therefore I need have no guilt about wanting never to see it again.
I recognize the feeling, though not specifically in connection with Fledermaus, for which I retain a possibly indefensible fondness. But I know and treasure that sense of relief that comes when an encounter with an artist or artwork at their best enables you to strike them off the list with an easy conscience. There are a number of very highly regarded film directors, e.g., whose work I never have to try again, now that their acknowledged masterpieces have left me cold.
Great Moments in Yahoo-dom
Listening to Paul Hillier's ravishing new choral version of Terry Riley's In C put me in mind — as a mention of that title so often does — of the occasion many years ago when I interviewed a well-known instrumentalist who was then just beginning an illustrious (though not uncontroversial) career.
The morning interview got off to a shaky start, a result of undercaffeinated surliness on her part and what I confess was my less-than-complete success at masking my lack of enthusiasm for her latest recording. Then I made the mistake of asking her about contemporary music. It was a fairly bland conversational opening, but it drove our heroine into high dudgeon as she proceeded to explain to me why the very concept was out of the question.
"Did you know," she said, sitting suddenly erect and fixing me with a gimlet glare of indignation, "that John Cage wrote this piece called In C? And what it is, is two players come out on stage, and they both play a C for as long as they can, and the one who holds it the longest wins!"
"Well," I suggested a little timidly, "I'm not sure that's exactly —"
"No," she insisted, "believe me, that's what the piece is."
At which point I yielded, deciding that education was not what the moment called for. Instead, I offered a silent prayer to the minimalist gods that this artist and new music would continue to tread separate paths — which, for the most part, is exactly what they've done.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The Piazzolla Perplex
Today we ponder the following mystery: How and when did Astor Piazzolla become an honorary classical composer?
I must come across his music something like a dozen times a year — in violin recitals, on string quartet programs, and this week courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony — and I can never quite fathom what it's doing there. It doesn't seem to share any of the genre expectations of anything else on the program (except in cases where genre boundaries are deliberately blurred, like concerts by the Kronos Quartet). It's always a visitor from the world of pop music, on the scene with a special visa. Who stamped it?
I don't mean to sound snobby about this, and certainly the fact that Piazzolla's music bores me to distraction is my problem, not his. I'm happy to stipulate that he was an innovative genius who invested the tango with an unprecedented degree of artistic sophistication (how would I know otherwise?). But you could say something similar about many other artists working in vernacular traditions whose music doesn't show up on concert programs. A working classical critic, for example, never hears music by Prince, Thelonious Monk, Bill Monroe, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Brian Eno or even Lennon & McCartney in the course of his daily rounds. And OK, violinists like Piazzolla for obvious reasons, but somehow they never play "Orange Blossom Special," do they?
There seems to be an unspoken agreement not to play "One of these things is not like the others" when faced with a program of, say, Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, Britten, and Piazzolla. I suspect that that reluctance has something to do with lingering unease around how we talk about non-European and/or popular music. I also suspect, more cynically, that Piazzolla — like the equally ubiquitous and equally dull Arvo Pärt — is one of the standard methods performers have developed to get their "contemporary music" ticket punched without scaring anybody. Either way, it's a very peculiar phenomenon.
A couple of years ago, when Richard Dyer called Joyce Hatto "the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of," he was at least half right. But evidently there was something of a cult following for this obscure British pianist, who died last year at 77, and it mostly had to do with her massive discography of 100+ CDs.
Which — wait for it — were apparently not all by her, according to Gramophone. The choice detail is iTunes using the track timings to lead folks to the original discs.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Cheap Typo Humor
From the New York Times review of the Met's Eugene Onegin: "...the powerful Russian bass Sergei Aleksashkin was very moving as the decent older Prince Gremlin..."