Thursday, May 11, 2006

Live Music: SF, Davies Hall, May 10 of 2006

I spent my junior year of college living in London by way of a year-abroad program. London is arguably the most expensive city in the world, charging you exorbitant prices for simple things like public transport or tiny amounts of food. It's therefore kind of a paradox that I saw more live music in that year than in the rest of my life combined. Music's cheap in London! You can get stand-in-the-back-with-the-rest-of-the-scum tickets to the ENO for about $6 if you show up at the right time, and regular concerts will seldom set you back more than $20 if you're content with mediocre seats.

In the Bay Area, by contrast, you can get a 6 lb. burrito for $5 but, on the downside, it kinda sucks for music. I hate driving up 101 during the nastiest commute hours to see a concert that starts at 8, paying a remote booking fee for tickets, $11 parking, and so forth. If I lived in town I might consider subscribing to the symphony, but right now I have to pick and choose- I'm certainly not going to buy a quarter tank of gas at today's prices to see Beethoven.

Last night was a concert that made the hassle worthwhile though. The San Francisco Symphony actually put together a program that made me excited enough to drag along two non-classical-music friends, Spencer and Dan, to see- Debussy: 'Sacred and Profane Dances', Ades: 'Living Toys', Bizet (who cares?), and ... drum roll ... HK 'Nali' Gruber's 'Frankenstein!!'

We had the cheap-as-possible circle terrace seats, which, for those of you not familiar with Davies, are a semicircle of soft benches fanned out behind the orchestra. These are my favorite seats in the house because, generally, the people sitting in them are 'serious' enough about music that they don't cough and fidget. Moreover, having the whole hall staring at a person makes them less likely to whisper irritatingly to their neighbor during the performance.

This program was the sort of thing that, in my dreams, could revitalize 'classical' music: it wasn't built around some fancy itinerant virtuoso-of-the-minute offering his interpretation of the Beethoven piano concerto that everybody's heard 5,000 times and, most astonishingly, fully %50 of the composers on the program are still alive. That being said, I had no idea what Dan and Spencer's reactions would be.

The show started exactly at the stroke of 8:00 (I have to admit that punctuality feels weirdly luxurious compared to all the dead time at a place like Bottom of the Hill)- out of the wings strolled conductor-for-the-night Edwin Outwater and the symphony's own harpist, Douglas Rioth. I am always pleased to see orchestras using their own musicians in pieces like this instead of getting 'soloists' off the touring circuit. The 'Sacred and Profane Dances' were... well, here my powers of description fall apart. It's very hard for me to give any sort of impression of the pleasure and excitement that live music holds for me: after a steady diet of recordings, to hear the real thing is like stepping out of a cramped, smelly tour-bus with its dirty windows to walk out into hot, dry air and see a landscape shimmering in all its color and warmth. So, the Debussy was as charming and serene as a person could hope, all bass pizzicatos and harp bisbigliandos and those languid arch-like phrases at which the symphony's strings excel. Spencer seemed especially appreciative afterward, slapping his massive hands together and making the low hooting noise by which he exhibits pleasure.

Then Outwater had to go and be a twit for several minutes, interrupting what had so far been a very fine concert with -- sigh -- a batch of Conductor Condescends To His Audience bullshit. I understand that the idea behind a conductor addressing the audience and trying to give some hint about the 'difficult' piece ahead is meant to make the proceedings easier to handle, but, with every little joke and simplification, Outwater was undermining 'Living Toys'. Moreover, please note that the program notes just had to go out of their way to mention: the Ecstasio movement of Asyla! Why, apparently it:

includes a frenetic movement evoking a night of London club raving and excess.

How fun! Perhaps my great-grandson would enjoy that!

That being said, 'Living Toys' was fantastic. I often dislike Ades' music, but 'Living Toys' has always fascinated me and hearing it live pushed me over the edge from appreciation to enthusiasm. It's really amazing to see living humans doing this piece, especially the two percussionists that use what appears to be around 300 different instruments within that quarter hour. I can't really tell if Dan and Spencer liked it- Dan said that he found some of it a little hard to take. Spencer was chewing on his fingers and rocking back and forth. This generally means he's deep in concentration, so presumably he liked the piece. I've heard the piece so many times on the recording that I'm sure my experience and expectations were very different. Incidentally, I overheard at least three nasty comments about it.

GRAY-HAIRED MAN IN SUIT: "I thought the tuning-up was more tuneful than that Ades piece."

Oh, snap! Good one, sir! Nobody's ever used that bit of invective about contemporary music! I only saw a few people leave during the performance itself- I assume they suddenly realized that Lost was on in twenty minutes and, goddamnit, they can hear 'Living Toys' any day.

The Bizet on the program was 'Jeux d'enfants' and I can't really think of anything much to say about it. It was tasteful, prettily arranged, tuneful 19th century music- on a program of 20th century pieces that made it sound bland and hackneyed. I assume it was there so the Haters (as Dan appropriately called them) would have a reason to stay past 'Living Toys' and get trapped by 'Frankenstein!!'

At intermission, we had the amusing experience of a Davies door guardsman in a bad tuxedo asking Spencer for his ticket before letting him come in - this after ten older people before us had walked in off the balcony without a murmur. Now, granted, Spencer hadn't exactly dressed for the occasion, but the doorman was pretty unpolite about it. There seems, to me, that there's a vein of snobbery at Davies that I don't remember at the halls in London.

Anyway, after intermission came the Gruber. 'Frankenstein!!' is one of my favorite pieces, and the man himself - 'Nali' to his pals, apparently - was there in the flesh to act as chansonnier. 'Frankenstein!!' is a set of German children's poems comprising lines from traditional German nursery rhymes that have been repurposed to tell creepy little surreal stories about monsters and superheroes, all rasped and trilled by Gruber in a comic German accent -- think Dr. Strangelove on amphetamines -- with an elaborate orchestral accompaniment that mixes the sound of toy instruments with the regular orchestra sonority. Slide whistles, melodeons, ghostly melodic hosepipes that are whirled over the head, popped paper bags, toy pianos, penny whistles - all of these infuse the orchestra with a dreamy, satiric nastiness.

One thing I found interesting was that the audience's primary reaction to 'Frankenstein!!' was laughter- and, indeed, it's all very fun and interesting to see these toy instruments deployed and the finest trombonists in San Francisco frowning over their slide whistles. On the recording, however, Gruber's hyperventilating and death-rattle wheezes are terrifying- you don't get many laughs when you listen on headphones, and the effect of the toy instruments is more ghostly when you can't see their cheerful, brightly-colored plastic.

Dan and Spencer clearly enjoyed it, though, and the audience brought Gruber back for three curtain calls, richly deserved. Spencer took off his shirt and swung it around his head - he calls this his 'hooray flag' -- which is his way of indicating that he thinks a piece is a great success.

Friday, May 05, 2006

La galerie des compositeurs charmants

In the Wax Museum of Important 20th Century Composers, we always see the same serious figures: in this corner we find scowling Ives with his scraggly diabetic's beard ... in this niche is fishlike, hunched Stravinsky, trapped in a massive wool suit ... here is Schoenberg with his shining pate and sleepy eyes ... aha!- young Boulez molded in the act of spitting on the score of Das Lied von der Erde...

No complaints from me!- all these composers deserve to be here in the Central Gallery. They wrote music that made permanent changes to the musical landscape, flannel-shirted Paul Bunyan figures who connected rivers, gouged out canyons, installed new constellations.

However, if we turn this corner at the end of the Central Gallery, we find- the Gallery of Charming Composers! What a difference!- many of them are sculpted with smiles on their faces, glasses of red wine in their hands.

Here are three composers from that Gallery who, I think, would put a brighter face on 'classical' music if anybody would bother to program or record their works. I'm not saying that this is great, important music. Instead, I'm pointing out that 20th century music, as currently represented, is alarmingly short of good froth. Mozart and Haydn excelled at froth, Strauss made his entire career out of it, Mahler symphonies are usually %20 excellent froth- but, Schoenberg? Copland? Stravinsky? Even when they were having a good time, these composers usually had to have some artistic agenda to justify it. For instance, Pulcinella isn't just fun, it's also safe for academics who can pretend they enjoy it because of the way it explores the concept of "pastiche" within the context of an era that treats ... blah, blah, blah inevitable mention of Adorno.

But, on to the Gallery....

Wax Figure 1: Francaix

Jean Francaix was a child prodigy, wowing Nadia Boulanger with his counterpoint acumen at a tender age. His music is, I think, perfect. Whereas a Bruckner symphony is an enormous, lumpy, mountainous heap of wonders -- glorious and sprawling, but much too big to be seen from a single vantage point -- Francaix's compositions are on a human scale. His pieces are perfectly built and counterbalanced little elegances, ticking away like those pretty 18th century clockwork representations of the solar system. Every piece displays a sort of casual mastery, every detail mapped out- dynamics, for instance, are obsessively notated, every bar punctuated with sfz and fp and three different species of staccato. But what does it sound like? In terms of mood, you might say he's the P. G. Wodehouse of 20th century music. Most people wouldn't want to live on a steady diet of Wodehouse, it is true, but well-rounded person can afford to take their nose out of The Anatomy of Melancholy and not feel frivolous.

Wax Figure 2: Dondeyne

Desire Dondyne was described to me as certain type of Frenchman who is 'big and beefy and drinks a lot of red wine.' His music is, sadly, pretty much impossible to find in the US, having mainly appeard on LPs that never made the transfer to CD. This is unfortunate, because, while principally famous as a symphony conductor and writer of military marches, he composed a great deal of sweet, fun chamber music and four intriguing symphonies. Someone once characterized his typical mode as 'French travelogue music- imagine the soundtrack for a car bouncing along a country road in Provence', which seems pretty fair.

Wax Figure 3: Wüsthoff

Klaus Wüsthoff was a German composer who wrote a lot of 'light' orchestral music for German radio after WWII. I've only found one disc of it, released briefly on Koch when some accountant had his back turned. The pieces, though, are great. For instance, there's a little 'Russian' piano concerto that has so many little giddy, infectious moments that you don't care about whether he's advancing the state of modern music. The harp serenade is gorgeous, serene fluff, the sort of thing the Boston Pops might play if their audience were pleasantly stoned instead of full of hotdogs and waving miniature American flags. Wüsthoff be great fare for community orchestra 'pops' programs- it's tuneful, fun music that would appeal to an audience without resorting to humiliating stunts like quoting the 'The Irish Washer-Woman'.