Sunday, February 07, 2016

Super Music Week 3: Kronos Festival 2016

The Kronos Quartet, consisting of (left to right) David Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola, and Sunny Yang on cello, have been hosting a four-day festival at the SFJAZZ Center this week, involving lots of new music and guest performers from around the world. First up on Friday evening's program was Nicole Lizee's The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fibre-Optic Flowers], a gloss on the 1960s BBC Radiophonic Workshop for electronic music. This required the musicians to not only play their string instruments but also reel-to-reel tape players, hand-held proto-arcade games, and a typewriter. Lizee was featured in a SoundBox concert last year with her psychedelic Kool-Aid Acid Test #17: Blotterberry Bursst, and this piece was equally fun and inventive.

Next up was Bubbles, a choral piece by the Serbian emigre Aleksandra Vrebalov. Dedicated to Black Mountain College, it used texts from John Cage and Robert Creeley who were professors there, sung beautifully by the San Francisco Girls Chorus with the incomparable Andy Meyerson above adding to the mix on vibraphone.

The following piece featuring the SF Girls Chorus was Sound, Only Sound Remains, with a recorded soundtrack of what appeared to be an Armenian folk song surrounded by the live young female voices. It was exquisite.

The composer was Iranian emigre Sahba Aminikia, who is much better looking in person than in the crappy photo above. In the program notes, he explains: "Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, women have not been allowed to sing publicly, according to the Islamic code...Sound, Only Sound Remains was produced following my announcement on Facebook inviting Iranian female singers to collaborate with me...Numerous sound clips, mostly recorded on handheld devices, were sent...and these breathtaking and sensational audio clips from across the oceans formed the opening and ending of the piece." In the middle was a song by 1930s Armenian-Iranian singer Loreta Hairapetian, sung by Ooldouz Pouri and Mina Momeni in Iran.

The final piece on the first half of the generous program was All Those Strings! by Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist above, commissioned by Kronos so they could collaborate with Ritva Koistinen below, who plays the kantele, a Finnish version of the zither which has an otherworldly, celestial sound.

The three-movement piece was spare and granular, what I tend to think of as insect music, which seems to be in fashion right now. At first it felt deadly dull, and the many kids in the audience who had been brought to see their sisters perform earlier in the evening, were squirming all over their seats. By the final movement, my brain had somehow recalibrated, and the piece became fascinating, rewarding a deep listen.

After intermission, there was a world premiere of a piece that also involved prerecorded folk songs with a live string quartet. Written by the 25-year-old Albert Behar above, Lost Wax is a five-movement work playing with the intersection between Bartok's string quartets and the hundreds of folk song recordings Bartok made in Hungarian villages at the start of the 20th century. It was a lively, tuneful and substantial work which I'd like to hear again.

The final piece was a suite arranged from four songs by Bollywood composer Rahul Dev Burman, complete with a recorded tabla click track among other instruments, that allowed each of the Kronos members a solo turn. Pictured above is the most recent Kronos cellist, Sunny Yang. The other three members of the Kronos are the original musicians who formed the worldwide touring group in the 1970s.

I have only seen them three times over the years because I am not a big fan of amplified classical music, but it is easy to see why they are so popular, with their adventurousness and musical cross-over expertise. The SFJAZZ Center is a perfect venue for them. The acoustics are way too dry for unamplified, acoustic music to resonate, but the sound system is incredible and it was well used all evening long.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Super Bowl City as a Corporate Police State Fantasia

Super Bowl 50 is being played in Santa Clara this year while San Francisco pretends it is being played here.

With no public input of any sort, the Ed Lee administration and various Bay Area leaders managed to win the bid to host America's Annual Big Game and San Francisco proceeded to give away the public treasury while they were at it.

The San Francisco expenditures mostly centered on Super Bowl City, a huge, outdoor pedestrian mall at the end of Market Street which wraps around the Embarcadero Center.

To create this free fan fantasia, streets downtown have been blocked for the last 10 days and will continue to be blocked until sometime later next week.

I had heard the San Francisco Police Department and Homeland Security were a heavy-handed presence around the event, but still wasn't quite prepared for the overwhelming militaristic bromance between the two groups.

Besides big trucks with big men bringing out big dogs to sniff for bombs...

...there was one scary tableaux after another which would not have looked out of place in a Central American country owned by the United Fruit Company 50 years ago.

The silliest part of all this police overtime was that the crowd was mellow, and the intrusive, airport-style security entrances ensured there were no weapons on any bad actors.

What is most strange about the event is that there is essentially nothing to do...

...except take selfies.

On Friday afternoon, there was nobody performing on the City Stage, so people wandered around aimlessly among the corporate booths...

...drinking $8 cups of Bud Light, the official brew of Super Bowl 50, which was responsible for one of the ugliest sculptures ever created.

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst better look to their laurels.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Super Music Week 2: Oboe Bliss with Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble gave a concert at the SF Conservatory of Music on Monday called "Oboe Bliss," a takeoff on the major piece on the program which was the 1927 Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet by British composer Arthur Bliss. (Photo above is from left to right violinist Anna Presler, violinist Ilana Thomas, oboist Tom Nugent, violist Phyllis Kamrin, and cellist Leighton Fong).

The concert started well, with Sacred Forest, a short world premiere written by Elinor Armer above who was working out themes for an upcoming opera she is hoping to write based on Ursula K. Le Guin's novel Lavinia "if only I can get a libretto to come through," she noted. The piece was written for the same forces as the Bliss Oboe Quintet, and it did sound like a Sacred Forest, gentle and slightly spooky.

Then there was a three-minute string trio by Berkeley composer Anthony Porter called five, six, seven... that involved a lot of plucked strings, and came and went before it had a chance to make an impression. The music wasn't helped along by the slow motion stage manager above from the Conservatory who took eons to rearrange chairs and music stands between pieces.

This was followed by Kurt Rohde's transcription of cinco of the Siete canciones populares Espanolas by De Falla for flautist Stacey Pelinka, violinist Anna Presler, oboist Tom Nugent, and cellist Leighton Fong. In the program notes, Rohde writes that "the Siete canciones is one of those pieces that can sort of survive anything," but this particular transcription seemed to work against the gypsy inflected melodies rather than with them, with the exception of Leighton Fong who somehow channeled a flamenco guitar at times.

Another short Elinor Armer composition, a viola solo played by Phyllis Kamrin, was another Le Guin influenced piece called Taking the Waters on Oling Island.

Finally, the Bliss Oboe Quintet arrived, and both the music and its performance were wonderful, particularly by oboist Tom Nugent above. Bliss (1891-1975) is another one of those composers who should be better known outside of his own country and it was a treat to hear a major piece live. I just wish the Ensemble had programmed something else by him, like the 1932 Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet rather than the scattershot fare preceding.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Super Music Week 1: SF Symphony

Saturday was a triple Turandot day. In the morning, I listened to the Metropolitan Opera's live matinee broadcast on the radio of the Puccini opera featuring Nina Stemme singing the impossible music of the Ice Princess with verve and beauty (Marco Berti and a Russian debutante as Liu not so much). In the evening at the San Francisco Symphony, I heard a program of obscure music by underplayed composers (Weber, Saint-Saens, Busoni and Hindemith) which featured incidental theater music for Turandot by Busoni and Hindemith's arrangement of a Weber piece that was also about the fairy tale Chinese princess who has her suitors' heads chopped off with alarming regularity.

The conductor Edwin Outwater reliably comes up with interesting programming for subscription concerts, steering away from the Beethoven and Brahms and some Schumann and more Beethoven that has been the hallmark of the San Francisco Symphony's season this year. He's smart, personable, and very good with new music. I just wish he was a better conductor. Most of his performances tend to be a bit dull and sound the same, no matter how stylistically different the composers might be. For instance, there's surely a case to be made for Weber's overture to his 1826 opera Oberon, but in Saturday's opener I didn't hear it.

I think of most of Saint-Saens's music as kitsch, but lovable kitsch, and his fifth and final piano concerto, "The Egyptian," is a perfect illustration. The British pianist Stephen Hough above makes anything he plays interesting, and he gave a poetic yet crackerjack virtuoso performance that was thrilling. If the orchestral performance had been on the same level, we would have all left for intermission proclaiming the concerto a forgotten masterpiece.

Turandot started out in a fairy tale collection and was turned into a five-act commedia dell'arte play by Carlo Gozzi in 1762. According to Wikipedia: "Schiller made an adapted German translation of Turandot which was published in 1802. Weber wrote his Incidental music for Turandot, Op. 37, for a production of this play...Busoni thought that between them Schiller and Weber had ruined a masterpiece of Italian literature."

Busoni (1866-1924) was a fascinating character – a piano virtuoso, composer, and teacher, originally from Italy. He roamed the world from the USA to Russia, sat out World War One in Switzerland, and finally settled in Berlin. In 1905, to counter the Germanic desecration of Turandot, he composed a huge amount of incidental music for the Gozzi play, created an eight-movement suite for the concert hall, and then reused the material for his own German-language opera of Turandot in 1917. His music, other than his Bach piano transcriptions, has been infrequently played over the last 100 years, but it seems to be coming into its own over the last couple of decades. This was the first SF Symphony performance of music from his Turandot suite, and unfortunately it was truncated, with only half of the eight movements played, a mistake because the music was so alluring. Hindemith's 1940 Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber directly afterwards felt like a disappointment, because we wanted more Busoni and his Ice Princess. So c'mon, adventurous opera groups, how about a double bill of Busoni's Arlecchino and Turandot some season?