Monday, April 12, 2010

San Francisco Opera's High Definition Rondine

From the very get-go, my experience of watching San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Rondine on April 7, 2010 in High Definition Digital at the Kabuki Theater was different than my experiences with the Met Live in HD and Emerging Pictures’ opera-movies. When I went on line to make a reservation to watch this 2009production, I saw that I bought reserved specific seat locations, unlike the Met’s Live in HD presentations that were general seating. Just like watching opera live in the opera house, I didn’t have to worry about sold out houses or coming early to get the best seat. The Kabuki, recently renovated as part of Sundance Cinemas, is a ‘luxury’ movie theater with plush, rock-back seats, gourmet food selections and reserved seating. Yet, the price for watching the opera was $14, significantly less than the Met charges. The second surprise was a San Francisco Opera staff member at a table outside the screen entrance, who handed out a synopsis and an evaluation form. Clearly, the San Francisco Opera wanted feedback from their customers to use in future promotions.
The first thing I noticed in the sold-out theater (the audience was aged, largely between 40 and death, including this writer) was that the size of the screen was smaller than the normal movie theater screen. When the film started the big surprise was the incredible clarity of the digital picture: a level of brilliance that made colors more vivid, blacks blacker and details matter. I have never experienced this level of clarity in any movie theater! Whether the reason was the smaller screen (making the images clearer) or the digital recording and/or screening method was unknown. For the first few minutes there was a lack of color in the images; everything was a pale green. Then, the colors came on and the beauty of the art deco sets became obvious in a way that a live performance could never match, no matter how close to the stage one sat. The sound was adequate but it was not surround, as it came from the screen, although there were speakers on each of the sides of the auditorium that could have transmitted surround sound.
When I interviewed Jessica Coplos, Director of Electronic Media for the San Francisco Opera, for an article, “Live Opera-Movies, A Vital New Art Form,” for San Francisco Classical Voice, she told me that Operavision (their name for live digital transmission of the performance) gave balcony audiences a close-up view of the action by placing two small screens in the balcony. They also did not want the cameras to interfere with the performers or the main floor audience. As a result, the cameras filmed the opera from one level above the stage, providing ample close-ups and distance shots, but preventing the more creative shots from ground level (looking up at the performers) and precluding the moving shots that robotic cameras make possible. While the limited camera angles never impeded the view of the action and provided the close-up shots that makes opera-movies a new experience, I missed the added drama that more flexible camera angles and movements provide. After all, it’s the quick editing of multiple camera angles that makes opera at the movies a new art form.
The one intermission of 20 minutes was clearly announced from the screen and allowed patrons to purchase refreshments and stretch their legs. It was at this time that a video camera was positioned outside the screening room door and gave members of the audience a chance to comment on the opera-movie experience. When I had completed my interview, I returned to my seat, and, to my surprise, found some interviews with the performers and artistic personnel showing on the screen. But I couldn’t hear them talk because the volume level was so low that the patron’s chatter drowned out the interviews. It would be much better to do the interviews at the same volume levels as the opera before the intermission, so those wishing to stay could hear them and enjoy the insights that can enhance the opera-movie experience.
My two companions and I enjoyed the opera and found it to be a different experience from the live performance. I did attend the live performance of La Rondine last year, but the ability of the camera to show the singing and acting up close resulted in a more memorable dramatic, musical and emotional experience than the live performance. On the other hand, I appreciated the SFO’s efforts to make the best use of their extensive videos of their performances. Please, show this season’s brilliant performance of Strauss’ Salome, and I’m there in a second!

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I walked out of my Second Tier seat of Davies Symphony Hall into the lobby on Friday February 5, 2010 only to hear a string quartet in the distance – two floors below. Charles Ives would have loved the music wafting up from a source unclear, as if lifted on a sonic cloud to my ears. For this great American composer, hearing all kinds of music in different environments was as natural as eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon in Danbury, Connecticut, Ives’ birthplace. He incorporated these sounds into his formal compositions, including his Concord (piano) Sonata, the orchestration (by Henry Brant) of which was on the second half of the program that evening.

The American composer Henry Brant had heard Ives’ metaphysical hymn, “The Unanswered Question,” and admired his use of “spatial separation, un-coordinated rhythm and a polyphony of simultaneous, contrasting styles.” He saw the possibilities of “the complete [Concord] Sonata, in a symphonic orchestration, that might well become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years.” From 1958 to 1994 he worked on orchestrating the Sonata and A Concord Symphony was premiered in 1995.

The cacophony of the orchestra warming up for the performance of the Concord Symphony served as an un-programmed but appropriate overture. Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, verbally introduced the work to the audience in his inimitable Bernsteinian manner. “This work was Ives personal reaction to his feelings about American Transcendentalism – people whose spiritual state was achieved through individual intuition, not religious beliefs,” he related. “In Hawthorne, the second movement, Ives meant to confuse us with wacky, sensory, overload.”

I listened to the only recording of this amazing work several times at home and was excited to hear it performed live. Nothing could prepare me for the forceful beginning of the famous chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pounded out by the whole orchestra. The way Brant scored the strings as a melodically soft counterpoint to the muscular winds and brass was magical. There were moments of full-orchestral majesty that melted into plangently hushed horns…and the use of the wind machine was mesmerizing. MTT bounced from one foot to the other, his animated arms and body urging the orchestra on.

The end of Emerson (the first movement) brought forth images of a quite New England evening as people dozed off into their reveries. Hawthorne (the second movement) became a phantasmagorical Halloween night with creepy creatures hip-hopping in the dark. Whiffs of honky-tonk jazz merged with the ever-present da-da-da-duh of Beethoven. The quote from Ives’ Three Places in New England raucously marched in…and ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean became a quiet interlude rudely interrupted with a karate-chop ending, repeating the finale of the composer’s Second Symphony. Only in America could these two composers (Ives and Brant) get away with that kind of polyphonic eclecticism!

Then came the ‘Alcotts,’ a diametrically opposite vision of American Transcendentalism – a warm, hazy, sentimental and comfortable picture of an American family. It was relaxed and lyrical, the perfect antidote to the chaos of Hawthorne. The fourth movement – ‘Thoreau’ – quiet, impressionistic and thoughtful – ends the work. The passionate performance was given an enthusiastic applause by the less than capacity audience. It was an outpouring of gratitude for those knew how rare it is to hear this great symphony performed live.

Is it one of the candidates for ‘the Great American Symphony?’ Can it stand with Ives’ Second and Fourth Symphonies, Copland’s Third, Schuman’s Third and Eighth, Barber’s First or the Harris Third? In an earlier class, we saw a 1958 Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” video whose title was “What is American Music?” In the end, Bernstein named the diversity of the American personality and its musical roots as the criteria for defining music that’s American. He used the syncopated rhythm of jazz in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the young, optimistic sounding music of William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, the loneliness of wide open spaces in Copland’s Billy the Kid, and the sweet homespun melodies from Virgil Thompson’s opera, the Mother of Us All as examples. The finale from Copland’s Third Symphony was his choice as a work that encapsulated a lot of these diverse American personalities, and he brought the composer on stage to conduct it. Bernstein never mentioned Ives, but in 1958 he still was a well kept secret or ignored.

Author Jan Swafford, in his biography, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, identifies the different aspects of Ives musical personalities: ultra modernist, nationalist, amateur, primitive, neurotic and sly fabricator of his own myth. David Schiff, in a 1997 article in the Atlantic, “The Many Faces of Ives,” concludes that “Ives believed music had to be with sublime or ridiculous: it could lead either to spiritual redemption of mankind or to a good laugh.” Each of these sources concur with Bernstein that the singular characteristic of American music is its diversity. Of all the possibilities of the ‘Great American Symphony’ listed above, A Concord Symphony has the most musical diversity.

And yet, there are two other characteristics that are missing for me to choose it as the one. The Ives I heard in Davies Symphony Hall that night never moved me. Ives clothes the popular and diverse roots of his music in a musical language that, especially upon one hearing, would be difficult for most people to ‘understand.’ I remember a Bernstein performance at the University of Michigan in the 1960s of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Ives’ Second Symphony. Mahler, who Bernstein ‘discovered’ in the Sixties, has gone on to become an audience favorite. Ives remains a curiosity in the concert hall today. Mahler’s music may be complex, but it evokes an emotional response in the listener that is missing in A Concord Symphony. Bernstein was right in choosing Copland’s Third Symphony in 1958 as the ultimate example of ‘American Music.’ It has diverse American roots, and evokes emotional responses in listeners. Yes, in terms of music of our times, it may lack the intellectual substance of Ives, but hearing the last movement of Copland’s Third brings tears to my eyes. Maybe the ‘Great American Symphony’ hasn’t been written yet. Oh, I forgot John Adams Harmonielehre! But that’s a topic for another paper and another day.
Robert Moon
March 2010