The music log
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
 
Live in Concert
May 4, 2005
The UCSF Grand Celebration Concert

So, last Wednesday was our trio's public premiere. This concert is an annual event staged by an organization called "The UCSF Piano Committee." It was started to raise money to overhaul this Steinway grand piano they've got in one of the lecture halls at UCSF. It's a very nice piano, but that was over 10 years ago, and I think it might be time for another overhaul. The creaking of the pedals isn't supposed to be louder than the music.

The concert was a mixed bag of UCSF students, staff and "members of the community." There were maybe 15 or 20 different people and small groups, and some of them had quite impressive credentials. Everyone had to write a short bio for the program, which revealed that several of the performers had professional experience or were conservatory graduates. So yeah, many of the performers were a lot better than us, but we weren't the worst, either!

I think we were all nervous. The other flautist and the cellist in my group had played in the same chamber orchestra I had a few months back, so we'd done a performance then, but even a small orchestra is better camouflage for any errors you might make than a trio is. You can't hide in a trio.

We'd had several rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the concert, and a couple of hours before it began, we scheduled a run-through in an empty classroom. Luckily, we were able to scrounge up three chairs that didn't have desks attached to them (which makes it especially hard to play the cello) although I had to clear one of them off; someone had left behind what were presumably instructional materials for a sex-ed class: a pregnancy test and a small packet of personal lubricant.

We warmed up and began the run-through, and immediately we realized something was very wrong. Then we realized that the problem was that the cellist had opened his music to the wrong page and was playing a different piece. We all giggled nervously. "Bad dress rehearsal, good performance, right, guys?" I asked hopefully.

And it was OK. Shannon came out to support us, and a guy I work with was there, too. I hadn't been to an amateur concert in a long time (which is especially funny given how many gazillions of them I've been to in my life, just not in the past 15 years or so), and it was really interesting to see what qualities separated certain performances from others. Most everybody managed to hit all their notes, it was really a matter of tone and self-assurance and musicality. The more amateur performers were visibly nervous, whereas the pros looked like they enjoyed having everyone in the room looking at them. I don't think I will ever enjoy having everyone in the room look at me, but I aspire to be able to pretend to.

So overall, it was fun. Our part was scary, but I enjoyed listening to everyone else, and it was fun to be at a more relaxed concert than I'm used to, where the people in the audience aren't people who shelled out $60 a ticket to impress their dates, but are, rather, friends and family members of the performers. I especially liked it when one pianist introduced herself by saying "I want you all to know that two of my pieces have four flats in them and the other one has five sharps!" And she played them beautifully, I would have never guessed.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
 
Nice baroque music
April 27, 2005

Bernard Labadie conducting the San Francisco Symphony

J.S. Bach, Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major
Handel, O Numi eterni (La Lucrezia), with mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin
Handel, Water Music

Number of photos of MTT in the program: only 3.

Yet again Phil was off jet-setting last week (he's sailing around Thailand on a boat some friends of his rented) so Shannon went to this with me.

I went into it knowing more or less what to expect, since I knew the first and last pieces pretty well. Bach is one of my favorite composers, but honestly, I find Handel a little dull. And so he was, at least to me. Jane Irwin was very good, though, so that made the O Numi eterni somewhat interesting.

The rest of the audience seemed a little restless during Water Music, as well. Usually when it's performed, they just do the most famous parts of it, but they did all 19 movements. They're short movements, but still. They did seem to perk up at the end when the most famous movement, the Alla hornpipe (which is much more widely known as "the theme to Masterpiece Theatre) was played. As for me, I found myself mentally rearranging my living room furniture to accommodate my new couch which had been delivered that day.

Oh, one interesting thing about the concert, though, was that they had a different person playing harpsichord than usual, but she wasn't credited in the program. I think the last time I saw a concert there with a harpsichordist was this one which made me wince a little bit to consider. Did he get fired? Or was he just sick or something? Also, they had a guy playing the theorbo in the O Numi eterni, which is a Baroque stringed instrument that sort of looks like a lute, which was kind of cool. He didn't get credited in the program, either.

 
Self-Promotion
My trio is playing in a concert tomorrow. This is it. We're the first group in the second half of the concert, so I'm guessing we'll go on somewhere in the 6:45-7 p.m. range. And hey, there's a reception afterwards with free food and possibly booze!

Monday, April 04, 2005
 
in-store appearance
April 2, 2005

DJ Z-Trip at the Apple Store, San Francisco

I've been a Z-Trip fan for many years now, and I've seen him play maybe 7 or 8 times now but never during the day in a retail establishment (and a computer store, no less!). I used to be very active on Z-Trip's message board but pretty much dropped out of that scene about 6 months ago...it's not that I became any less interested in his music, I just got tired of dealing with all the teenaged boys over there. So, until I randomly happened to read about this appearance in the newspaper, I had no idea that his first major label CD is finally coming out this month, and that he would be making the rounds to promote it.

I had no idea if it would be crowded, and if so, who the crowd would be. I wasn't really sure if this show would be worthwhile, but I had some errands to run downtown that day anyway, so I figured I'd stop by and check it out and leave if I wasn't enjoying it (it was a free show, after all). I got there about 10 minutes before it was supposed to start, and the place was still pretty empty. They had a few rows of chairs set out that seated maybe 40 people, and those were filled up, but there was plenty of standing room right behind the seats and I got a space right in the front near the middle, maybe 15 feet away from the table where Z's equipment was all set up. I saw a couple of people I recognized from past Z-Trip shows, but in general, the crowd was a lot younger than what I usually see, which makes sense seeing as how this was an all-ages daytime gig.

The show itself was surprisingly good...he played about 80% stuff I hadn't heard before mixed in with some classics like the "Mercedes Benz" and "Bombs Over Baghdad" mixes from his "Live in L.A." CD, some Ray Charles stuff I'd seen him do before, the "Billie Jean"/"Testify" mashup, and he ended with the "Alphabet Aerobics"/"Peer Gynt" mashup he did at the end of the movie "Scratch" ("Scratch" is a documentary about hip-hop DJs, which I highly recommend if you are interested in that sort of thing). I don't know how much of the new stuff he played is on the new album, but he definitely said that a couple of things were, including one song that has apparently been getting a lot of airplay on mainstream radio (I had never heard it before, but don't listen to a lot of mainstream radio). For the other song he did from the album, he was accompanied by a local MC who goes by the name of "Luke Sick." That song is called "Bury Me Standing" and the lyrics consist of a lot of tough-guy posturing about how they'll have to "bury me standing, 'cause I won't lay [sic] down." Unfortunately, this tough-guy stuff was totally undermined by the fact that Mr. Sick is a totally baby-faced teddy bear type (he also bears a strong physical resemblance to my sweet-as-pie co-worker, which made the whole thing seem even more ludicrous). Anyway, the stuff he played off the new album was not my favorite, but I enjoyed the rest of the set and still hold out hope that the album will be good (it comes out April 19).

Afterwards, Z announced that he had some 10-inch records to give away and said that he would give them to people who could prove they were members of the Z-Trip message board. I could have stuck around and gotten one, but I had more errands to do, and I had to get home, so I passed that opportunity up. But I'm glad I decided to go to the show itself.

 
March 30, 2005

Kurt Masur conducting the San Francisco Symphony

Mozart, Symphony No. 36 in C major, Linz
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 in D minor

Even though Kurt Masur has guest conducted the SFS several times in recent years, I don't think Phil and I had ever seen him conduct before (or if I have, I don't remember). I've certainly heard many of his recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra, though, so it was cool to finally see him live.

The orchestra seemed to think so, too--it seemed to me like they performed exceptionally well, with the exception of a couple of bum notes in a very exposed oboe solo early on in the Mozart. Of course, that's the bad part about playing the oboe--everyone can hear if you screw up, as opposed to, say, a violinist.

The theme of the evening was the Austrian city of Linz--Mozart wrote his symphony during a stint there (he agreed to conduct a concert, neglected to bring a symphony with him, so he just wrote one!), and Bruckner lived there for many years. The only thing I really know about Linz is that it's where Linzer tortes come from, and according to the program notes, that pretty much is that city's claim to fame.

Anyway, I enjoyed both pieces. I didn't know the Mozart but I'd heard the Bruckner before. The Mozart had interesting instrumentation (to me, anyway) because it had basically a full wind section except no flutes! The program notes speculate that the woodwind players in the orchestra he wrote the piece for doubled flute and oboe, and he chose to have them play oboe for that piece. But also, there is a rumor in flute circles that Mozart hated the flute. He only wrote one flute concerto (there are two Mozart flute concerti, but the one in G is just a flute adaptation of a clarinet concerto). But that's just a rumor.

The Bruckner was my favorite, though. It was his last symphony, and he actually died before completing it (even with only three movements, though, it's still a massive piece that took almost an hour to play). I think I had more to say about this, but unfortunately, I waited too long after the concert to write this. So, um, I liked this concert, yeah!

Saturday, March 26, 2005
 
Premieres
March 24, 2005

David Robertson conducting the San Francisco Symphony
Grieg: Funeral March in Memory of Richard Nordraak
Thow: Bellini Sky, with soloist Julie Ann Giacobassi
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Pathétique

Photos of MTT in the program: 6

The first two pieces in this program were both premieres--the first was just a San Francisco premiere, but the Thow piece was a world premiere of a piece commissioned by the SF Symphony for their English horn player Julie Ann Giacobassi. And since this program was being performed Thursday-Saturday and we were at the Thursday performance, we really did get to hear the first performances, which was kind of cool.

Anyway, both of these pieces were new to me (well, obviously the Thow was, but I didn't know the Grieg, either). I like Grieg a lot--I'm a fan of Scandinavian music in general, and this was a piece that Grieg had written for a friend who died young at the age of 23, but he also requested that it be played at his own funeral ("played as well as possible over my grave" were his precise instructions, according to the program notes). I liked it, but while listening to it, it occurred to me that it really wasn't what I was used to hearing a funerals, because it was too sad. The music at all the funerals I've attended has generally been pretty upbeat, and I've been to some pretty damned sad funerals. I think maybe people don't want the music to be too sad because the event is already sad enough. But not Grieg apparently.

I liked the Thow pretty well, too, and it was considerably less melancholy. Julie Ann Giacobassi is a fabulous musician, and there really isn't too much out there in the orchestral repertoire that highlights the English horn. In fact, when she got up to play, I was surprised to see that she had a wire support attached to the bottom of her instrument to make it easier to play while standing up. I don't know if this is something she invented or if other English horn players use them, too, though, because I don't think I've ever seen anyone play an English horn solo piece before.

And then they ended with the Tchaikovsky, which was, of course, terrific.

Afterwards, we went to a reception for student subscribers. I'd gotten an e-mail about this reception from the symphony last week, and I thought it might be fun. I occasionally run into other people I know from UCSF, so I thought some of them might be there, plus, hey, free food, free drinks, and a chance to meet some of the musicians (although I figured, rightly, that I'd be too shy to go up and talk to them). Anyway, Phil and I got there and instantly wondered if we were in the right place--we were the only people there under 60. Eventually, a few other student-looking types did wander in, but a majority of the people there still had completely gray hair. And nobody I knew showed up, but one girl sat down next to Phil and I and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that she was a high school student who had just turned 18 last week, which made us feel incredibly old. She told us that she'd been given the ticket to the symphony by a friend of hers, a 75-year-old man who also arranged for her to go to the reception. It turns out that she's not only a high school student, but also a circus performer, and that she's planning to move to Japan to perform after she graduates from high school this summer. I was pretty floored (and impressed) by how self-possessed she was for an 18-year-old. I never in a million years would have gone to a reception by myself at her age, much less strike up a conversation with a couple of adult strangers. But I'm glad she did.

 
Memorial
March 22, 2005

The Hemlock Tavern

Solid Dollar
Slowfinger
Coup de Grace
The Naysayers

This show was a benefit concert for the family of Paul Ohlhaver, the bass player from Slowfinger who unexpectedly passed away in his sleep last month at the age of 34 leaving behind his wife, an 18-month-old daughter, and another baby on the way. Paul was a friend and client of Iggy's (in fact, you can just barely see the tattoo Iggy did on him celebrating the birth of his daughter peeking out from under his shirt collar in the photo on this flyer). I didn't really know Paul, I'd just met him a couple of times, but I've seen Slowfinger play several times now, and they've always been one of my favorite bands.

Anyway, last Tuesday, Iggy and I both had long days at work, and we were in the middle of a solid week and a half of rain. There's pretty much nothing else in the world that could have gotten us out of the house that night, but it was important, so we went, and I'm so glad we did.

Turnout was only so-so, probably because nobody else felt like leaving the house, either. We missed the first band, and got there in time for one drink before Slowfinger went on, with one of their former guitar players filling in on bass. There was a big banner behind the stage with a drawing of Paul on it, so there was no forgetting why we were all there. Before the show, the lead singer had come up to us and said that they were just going to play a short set, that they didn't really want to be there. It was an incredibly hard show for them to play, but they did it and they still sounded amazing. They have a CD coming out sometime in the next few months--I urge you to check it out. Details should eventually surface on their website.

After Slowfinger, we stayed to see Coup de Grace. Iggy told me they were good, and they were, although they also played a short set. And then after that, we went home and fell asleep.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005
 
Hot vs. Cold
Today's (actually tomorrow's) New York Times has an article on "cool" vs. flashy classical music performers, using two young pianists I've seen play with the SFS this season, Lang Lang and Leif Ove Andsnes, to exemplify these styles. I saw Andsnes play Rachmaninoff's second with the SFS back in October, and while he was terrific, well, I have to say, I prefer Lang Lang. I like my Rachmaninoff flashy, although this article did make me want to check out Till Fellner's "Well-Tempered Clavier" recording (I prefer Bach to be understated).

Anyway, I thought the author here made some valid points, but he sounds like a cranky old man when he says stuff like "[t]he longer I go to concerts, the more I value performances that do not exaggerate expressive touches or make interpretive points." Those young whipper-snappers with their crazy tempi and dynamics!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005
 
Lang Lang!
March 6, 2005

Long Yu conducting the China Philharmonic Orchestra

Rimsky Korsakov, Overture to The Tsar's Bride
Hua Yanjun (A'bing)-Wu Zuqiang, Moon Reflected on the Erquan Fountain
Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with soloist Lang Lang
Ye Xiaogang, Das Lied auf der Erde, with vocal soloist Luwa Ke
Bartok, Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin

This concert wasn't part of our regular subscription, and Phil and I got tickets to this for one reason and one reason only: Lang Lang. But then Phil forgot that we had the tickets and he went to Japan to run a marathon so I went with Shannon instead.

Phil and I have seen Lang Lang play with the San Francisco symphony twice now. I don't remember what he played the first time, but last time it was Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, which was absolutely perfect for his showboat-y style. He has a few CDs out now, but I haven't heard them, and I sort of suspect that they might not live up to the experience of seeing him live. He's such an enthusiastic and dynamic performer, and just so much fun to watch. He bounces, he flops his head, he makes little gestures with his hands when they're not on the piano keys. Some people might find it affected and annoying, I'm sure, but it really seems to me to be motivated by a sincere joy of music.

So, anyway, I was really just there for the Lang Lang. I wasn't really familiar with any of the pieces other than the Rachmaninoff (which I'm actually not super crazy about) and I'd never even heard of the China Philharmonic, either.

As I learned from reading the program, this was probably because it's only been around since May of 2000, which is probably also partly why most of the musicians looked fairly young (there were also a lot of women in the orchestra, including two female percussionists--very unusual!). It's funny--I don't think of China as being a country that produces a lot of classical musicians (and in fact, the program said that the China Philharmonic's predecessor orchestra, the China Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first to be founded in China, in 1949, suggesting that Western classical music has only penetrated that country in recent years), but there are lots of classical musicians who are of Chinese descent but American or European nationality. In fact, when my sister was in college and my parents attended one of her performances with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, an elderly woman behind them in the audience looked at all the Asian faces on stage and said to her companion "aren't there any Americans in this orchestra?" The stereotype of the Chinese-American kid being pushed by his or her parents to take violin lessons has more than a nugget of truth to it.

In further accord with this stereotype, the audience for this concert was quite different from most of the concerts we go to. There were a lot more kids than usual, and a lot more Chinese people. Generally, the audiences there are overwhelmingly white and mostly over 50 years of age, but on Sunday night, there were a lot of families there.

So, the music: the Rimsky-Korsakov was very nice. I had low expectations of this orchestra because I'd never heard of them before, but they were technically very good, especially the woodwinds. The Hua/Wu piece was one originally composed for the erhu (a traditional Chinese string instrument) and then arranged for orchestra. And I will just come out and say right now that Chinese music is, for me, in the same category as Schoenberg: I don't get it. I guess it's probably because I didn't grow up listening to it, but it does absolutely nothing for me, as did this piece. I politely waited for it to end.

And then it was time for the Lang Lang! He's all grown up now at 22 (the first time we saw him he was only 19) and was sporting a mullet. He turned in his usual stellar performance, and performed not one, but TWO encores, a piece by Liszt and then the semi-ridiculous Flight of the Bumblebee. As I expected, this was the highlight of the concert for me.

After Lang Lang came the second Chinese piece of the evening, the Ye. I liked this somewhat better than the first, because it incorporated some elements of Western modern music...maybe I just understood it better. It was based on Mahler's Das Lied von den Erde, which in turn was based on a series of Chinese poems of ambiguous origin. These poems were printed in the program in Chinese and in occasionally hilarious English translation. Here is one representative highlight:

Everyone lives and dies only once
Lonely ape sits, howls the moon over the grave
Must empty this cup of wine in one gulp


Luwa Ke sang the difficult vocal part bravely--at a couple of points she was called upon to "sing" these sort of swooping howling sounds that were so weird I have no idea how the composer was able to notate them on a page since they didn't seem to correspond to actual musical notes. But I guess it was this very oddness that appealed to me, whereas the other Chinese piece left me cold.

And then they finished off with the Bartok, which is taken from that composer's ballet score. The plot of the ballet is that three thugs force a girl to lure men into their lair so that they can rob him. The first victim is an old man who has no money, so they run him off. The second is a young student, who is also broke. But the third is a wealthy Chinese. The thugs try to kill him and rob him, but to no avail, he can't be killed, but merely continues to stare lustfully at the girl. Finally she gives in to his advances, and as soon as he achieves orgasm, succumbs to his wounds. I thought this was the China Philharmonic's most inspired performance and I really enjoyed hearing them play this.

Anyway, overall, the concert was pleasant enough, if a bit long. But I think I would have been justified in staying home had it not been for the Lang Lang.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005
 
Sort of a cheat
As I've been keeping this log, I keep thinking how weird it is that I've seen all this classical music this year and no popular music at all. Well, that changed on Saturday night when I saw J Boogie's Dubtronic Science and Mixmaster Mike. Oh, and some other guy whose name I didn't catch. As you might be able to tell from that last sentence, I wasn't actually paying too much attention to the music, which was one of many things going on at this event.

The event was a guest-list-only promotional event for Scion cars. It was held at the Hangar One vodka distillery, which is housed in a former airplane hangar in Alameda at the old Oakland Naval Base. This is not the sort of event Iggy and I usually attend, and we only wound up at this one because one of Iggy's co-workers was commissioned to paint a room at the distillery for the event. Several other graffiti and tattoo artists were also asked to paint rooms. So, we really just went for the art. I didn't even know there was going to be any live music until right before we left, and I was particularly surprised to see that Mixmaster Mike was playing (he is better known as the DJ for the Beastie Boys).

Before we headed over to the event, we were joking around that it was going to be a "rave" and talked about bringing our glow sticks and pacifiers. But as it turns out, it really was kind of a rave, and they were handing out free glow sticks and energy drinks! In addition to the bands, they had a few other little staging areas with stuff going on, like Survival Research Labs-style flaming robots and breakdancing and exhibits of the cars and stuff. It was like a hip-hop, Burning Man, car commercial rave. The crowd was sparse, and most of the young women there sparsely dressed, despite the fact that it was a cold and rainy night and we were in a not-exactly-cozy airplane hangar. There was tons of security, so I think they were expecting a lot more people. Maybe the rain kept them in. This is California, you know.

So, the music...it was pretty much exactly what I'd expected as I'd been both J. Boogie and Mixmaster Mike several times before. If you live in San Francisco, I think it's pretty hard to miss J. Boogie, because he seems to be playing somewhere just about every night. Anyway, it was OK, but I was tired (having spent the whole day moving and painting furniture) and we went home 10 minutes into Mixmaster Mike's set. I was glad I got to see the room Holly painted--it was undersea-themed and very cool, but other than that, I probably should have just stayed home and fallen asleep at 8 p.m.


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