Saturday, March 27, 2010

Music at Menlo - Summer 2010

Although the official announcement of the complete program for the magnificent summer chamber music festival in the south bay, Music at Menlo, is yet to come, my new BBC Magazine offers a tantalizing preview. The theme will be "Maps and Legends" and will include a diverse range of composers. On August 3, David Finckel and Wu Han will perform the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas. Pianist Alessio Bax will perform a three part program entitled: "Found in Translation," and Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish will perform Schubert's Winterreise. More to be announced soon.

Friday, March 19, 2010

O’s, Lots of O’s

Faces, beautiful with the smooth perfection of youth, in grotesquerie. Grimacing, writhing, wrung-out in over-the-edge extremity. Mouths, lips, pervasively shaped as screaming, moaning O’s, crying out, Oh, Oh, Oh! Endless Oh!!’s. Oh!’s from the sheer agony of pleasure and pain, contorted by Orgasm, the Ominous, Oblivion. Gripping, shrieking Oh! ’s return again and again throughout the video, emblazoned by burnished brass, burning those images into the brain, defining the distorted underbelly of blighted life come of age.

Mesmerizing music, pulsating throughout with rock and jazz elements, pop and rap, R&B and electronica. Music urbanly street-sinister, darkly noir, thrillingly full of men and menace, the saxophones so like the human voice, anguished or exultant. Music sharp and synchronized, on cue with the searing video, the one emphasizing the other, magnifying the riveting, arresting impact of the production. Music composed and performed with the technique and precision, aplomb and mastery that come from conservatory training, classical tradition, and evolved into the myriad breakthrough, modern directions of the twentieth century, its legacy becoming the music of our times, today’s contemporary artistic expression that transcends former, formal musical distinctions. Music as multi-media expression in performance, the new composer’s art.

On a Sunday afternoon, 14th of March, at McKenna Theatre on the campus of San Francisco State University, the New Century Saxophone Quartet presented Heartbreakers (2004, for saxophone quartet) by Dutch composer, Jacob ter Veldhuis, an unforgettably haunting, stunning, highly dramatic work that archetypally encapsulates urban realities in a powerful, in-your-face, yet compassionately consciousness-raising splendor, if such a modifier can be used for so disturbingly tight, tense, and terse a work.

Yet, Heartbreakers is a creative work wholly satisfying. Using snippets of isolated and composite words flashing on the screen, and imagery conveying the general anonymity of the asphalt jungle, of hip city life, booze and after-hours joints, joints and crack, disjointed comments by friends and family, strangers and agencies, a montage self-assembles from the melange. Buttressed and intensified so ineluctably by Veldhuis’ music and its devoted performance by the NCSQ, with special guests David Cutler (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass), and Tim Adams (drums) on the completing soundtrack, the montage is a virtual template of the tortured soul as independence and free will gone horribly wrong.

Veldhuis, for whom English is a loved yet “foreign” language, being also a composer in language, has taken the alphabetical centrality of “O” to symbolize the centrism of the unreasoned, destroyed life: Oh! the Orgasm, the Ominous, the Oblivion. Snips and snatches of dialogue tell the wearisome, inevitable hard-core reality: She’s 18, she can do what she wants . . . Oh! prostitution. the. big. O. shack-up. joints. crack. abuse. child. Oh! neglect. real. he-man. loser. crying. tears. up. suicide. hell. Oh! There are men, menace, memory. The one and only thing in the world that he feels any connection to, but: She took my kids away from me . . . Oh! his poignant weeping, so heartbreaking . . . or is it his sinuses and tear ducts, wrecked from years of snorting and sniffing . . . .

Concise, terse, a generality of human angst deftly handled, and ultimately more elastically meaningful than a textually and specifically through-written vehicle such as opera or film, Heartbreakers was yet created by Veldhuis with the 360-degree inspired control of the auteur, carried out with the videographics of Jan Boiten As such, composer Jacob ter Velduis (or Jacob TV, his clever and catchy ‘stage name’) and the NCSQ have succeeded magnificently in their collaboration (Heartbreakers had been originally composed for jazz sextet, 1999). Gratefully, Heartbreakers is recorded and the CD is available on the Quartet’s website, where one delightedly sees that on the big baritone sax, it’s not ol’ Gerry Mulligan but the diminutively pert, lovely Connie Frigo, holding up the ‘continuo’ foundation for the group. What we eagerly anticipate with bated breath is Heartbreakers as a DVD, which then would, in addition to the audio, do full justice to the visual.

On the NCSQ website, the same CD also contains John Fitz Rogers' Prodigal Child (2007), which preceded Hearthbreakers on the March 14th program. An absolutely thrilling concert work challenging to perform, Prodigal Child ’s technix incorporate most of the ‘new’ and very sophisticated metrical, rhythmic, and harmonic compositional devices developed in the 20th century, to express an emotional range rich and varied in response to world and national politics, at once subtle yet outspoken. Jointly trio-commissioned (including the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet), Prodigal Child is an important work meriting investigation and CD purchase by sax and brass fans who are lovers of contemporary music. A superb performance, a stunning program. But the splendiferous surprise was that this fabulous concert was FREE! We’re simply full of appreciation and happily whelmed by such gift and grace, indeed!

D. Ch’an-Moriwaki
San Francisco, CA. USA

Note: Robert Moon accompanied Dianna Ch'an-Moriwaki to this amazing concert and asked her to write about it. Many thanks to Dianna for this brilliant review.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Russians are Coming

The controversial and exciting Russian conductor Valery Gergiev is bringing the Mariinsky Orchestra to Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday and Monday, March 21 and 22. Sunday's program will be excerpts from Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. Monday's program will be the Berlioz Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 (a program change from Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), with the mercurial Russian pianist Denis Matsuev and Shostakovich's 15th Symphony. For me, the Shostakovich is the gem of his visit. Rarely performed in concert, it's Shostakovich's final symphony, a quirky combination of excerpts from other composers - Rossini, Wagner, Mahler and others and the dark vision of life that saturated the great composer's final years. I can't wait to hear it!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alex Ross Speech

A couple of days ago Alex Ross, the most influential and best writer on classical music (The Rest is Noise - Listening to the Twentieth Century) gave a speech in London. The topic was "Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert." Here's the link to download and print the speech:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ravelian Mastery

Music Director and Conductor Myung-Whun Chung and his Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France flew into Davies Symphony Hall tonight on gossamer wings performing an all Ravel concert on the 135th anniversary of the French master's birth. It was a performance to be savored: there was a lushness of sound, dynamic contrasts that revealed Ravel's mood changes rather than rushing over them, and tempos that illuminated delicate textures without losing momentum. Performing the complete Ma Mere l'Oye ballet rather than the suite, Chung chose relaxed tempos that made the final Enchanted Garden an overwhelming emotional experience. The audience cheered and some stood, unusual for a first piece in a concert. Although it was difficult to hear Anne Sofie von Otter in our balcony seats in Asie, the first poem of Sheherazade, her clear and resonant mezzo-soprano voice shone in the final two poems. An enlarged orchestra, superb dramatic pacing and an outstanding flutist (Magali Mosnier, I think) made the two Daphnis and Chloe Suites a dramatic tour de force. The missing chorus added definition to the composer's orchestral texture. The finale was a performance of La Valse that honored Ravel's diverse tempos, rather than rushing through to the end. Especially effective was the final waltz, strings lushly and slowly crooning the waltz before the terse, dramatic ending. Simply superb. The audience didn't stop standing and cheering until the Maestro led his orchestra off stage.

Mahler Alert

One of my favorite classical music genres is the late Romantic-early Modern period - from about 1880-1920. And Gustav Mahler is one of my favorite composers. He combines moving melodies with intellectually fascinating orchestration to create works that engage the emotions and the intellect. His symphonies are large, long works, sometimes with chorus and vocal soloists. One of the reasons I resonate with his music is that he died - in 1911 - from aortic valvular heart disease, and I've had three operations to replace my aortic valve.

The San Francisco Symphony is playing his Second Symphony this weekend - Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday March 11-14. It's called the "Resurrection" and it ends gloriously with chorus and solists. Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the great Mahler conductors today and he's recorded (with the SFS) all of them. If you're looking for a life-changing musical experience, this could be it!!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ghost Writer - the movie

Ghost Writer, now showing in the Bay Area, is Roman Polanski's best movie since his classic film noir, Chinatown. It's a political thriller that on the surface tells the story of a ghostwriter who is hired to edit the memoirs of the British Prime Minister accused of committing war crimes in Iraq. Of course, the previous ghostwriter has committed suicide, so we know this memoir is a hot topic. Underneath the story are relationships of deceit, lust, greed and murder that mimic the real politial milieu of today. It stars Ewen McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Hutton, James Belushi, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall. Enormously entertaining, intellectually challenging and paranoically suspenseful. Enjoy! Yes, this movie was modeled after Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the recent trial about his decision to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on bombs of mass destruction that were never found. In a recent interview with Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass the star and director of "Green Zone" which arrives in theaters the weekend of March 13, Greengrass stated that movies today need to either escape realiy or comment and expand on the reality of the world. Ghost Writer expands our reality of what did - or could have - happened in our world.

Monday, March 1, 2010


ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD: String Quartets 1-3; Piano Quintet Op. 15 - Aron Quartet/ Henri Sigfridsson, piano - CPO 777 436-2 (2 CDs) *****:

This two-CD set is a significant release, as it’s been over a decade since there has been a new recording of the complete string quartets of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Anyone who likes late romantic chamber music will be overjoyed to listen to this magnificent recording.

Korngold (1897-1957) was one of the great prodigies of the musical world. At age 11, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Strauss and Puccini lauded his ability to write works of remarkable sophistication. At age 23, he wrote a late Romantic, Expressionist opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) that is still performed today (the San Francisco opera did it in 2008. He went to Hollywood in 1934 to escape the Nazis, realizing that Europe’s musical tastes had shifted to neoclassicism and atonality. In America he became a famous movie composer, writing swashbuckling romantic scores for movies like The Sea Hawk and Kings Row. It’s easy to dismiss these rich, tuneful scores, but they revolutionized the role of music in films. He left Hollywood in 1945 and returned to Europe, but his style was rejected by a culture more interested in radical dissonant music. Only recently, with the resurgent interest in tonality, have such works as the Violin Concerto and the Symphony in F sharp, gained popularity. The chamber works on this disc were composed from 1921 to 1945 and brilliantly combine his melodic genius with modern harmonies that have an orchestral sound to them.

The brilliant development of thematic material and its chromaticism make Korngold’s Piano Quintet one of his most complex, yet accessible chamber works. It’s pregnant with beautiful melodies, especially the gorgeous Adagio, which is a set of nine variations on a song from his cycle, Songs of Farewell. Yet, this movement is intense and atonally subtle. Pianist Henri Sigfridsson and the Aron Quartet negotiate the treacherous leaps and surges fluidly and in a manner that balances the romantic with the modern.

The First Quartet opens dramatically, contrasting leaping fourths and jagged dissonances with melting lyrical melodies. The Adagio expresses a mood of nostalgic sadness. A short frolicsome Intermezzo is followed by an even happier Finale that features a buoyant march. The Second Quartet (1934), written before he left for Hollywood, is full of the effervesence of youth. The Intermezzo is pure joy; the Larghetto lovely and wistful; the Finale a radiant Viennese waltz. The first movement of the Third Quartet (1944) is serious and modern. A tart Scherzo is followed by a nostalgic adagio and an energetic Finale that uses themes from his movie scores, The Sea Wolf and Devotion.

The Viennese-based Aron Quartet play these great quartets from a modern perspective without losing their romantic passion. Recording engineer Andreas Karlberger provides a wide and deep soundstage, perfect for these symphonically-scored chamber works. Don’t miss these brilliant and exciting CDs!

-- Robert Moon
Published on Audiophile Audition ( February 16, 2010