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Music of the moment - the funcrunch files


Dec. 1st, 2004 02:23 pm Music of the moment

Some musical and theatrical activities I've enjoyed and/or participated in lately (very long)



William Corbett-Jones piano recital
A couple of weeks ago I saw this free Chancellor's Concert Series event at UCSF. I knew that I would enjoy the Bach and Chopin, but I wasn't very familiar with Ravel. I was pleasantly surprised by the Sonatine, and amused by the program notes on it. Apparently Ravel had entered the piece in a competition in which he was the sole entrant, but his contribution was rejected because it slightly exceeded the maximum length allowed. Two years later he finished the work and published it, receiving as payment 600 times what the contest winnings would have earned him.

I was pleased to hear the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat live also, as I had enjoyed listening to it frequently on an Ashkenazy CD. (I also have many of the pieces from that CD in sheet music form, but can only play one or two of them.)

Afterward I had a meeting with my friend David, who could not attend the concert. Upon my confession that I wasn't very familiar with Ravel, he immediately burned me a CD of a great number of his pieces, among others. Between this CD and the last mix he made me, David is responsible for filling up probably 20% of the capacity of my iPod...




The Flying Dutchman
boyziggy scored last-minute comps to see Der Fliegende Holländer at the San Francisco Opera last Friday night. He was working the show himself and I couldn't find an available companion on such short notice, so I attended alone.

I was very impressed by the lighting and stage effects, which are hard for me to describe in writing. Most of the opera was performed behind a scrim, a thin curtain which was painted to evoke the mood of the scene. In the opening scenes, taking place on a boat in a harbor, the scrim showed ocean waves. In a later scene, an enormous silhouette of the title character loomed. Even more impressive was the Dutchman's first appearance, walking in through a propeller-like opening, backlit, casting a huge shadow, with a thick carpet of fog pouring out onto the stage.

The music itself was not quite as enjoyable to me, with some exceptions. I normally dislike sopranos, especially the high tones of the coloraturas. But the leading lady, Nina Stemme (not a coloratura), had an incredible voice. She also put a lot of emotion and physical expression into her singing. The other members of the cast were strong singers as well, but Nina really stood out.

The other musical aspect I really enjoyed was near the beginning of the third and final scene (the opera was performed in one act). The entire cast minus the principals was on stage, portraying sailors and their ladies, calling to the members of the Dutchman's ship to come feast with them. They heartily sang of the plentiful libations awaiting them if they would only respond. They cried in unison Wacht doch auf! Translated from German, "Wake up!" Their cries were met with dead silence, followed by quiet notes from the bassoons, reminiscent of a foghorn. Agitated, they again sang of the great party the other sailors were missing, and again cried Wacht doch auf! Again, an eerie silence.

Then suddenly, the entire opera hall was filled with the echoing voices of the sailors from the Dutchman's ghostly crew. The company onstage was terrified, though the men tried to hide it with bravado. The whole scene, which also included a large bonfire on the stage (boyziggy told me four people were monitoring it underneath), was done very effectively.

Now there were some things I just didn't like at all. The costumes, for one, seemed downright silly. Ziggy described the sailors' outfits as "Darth Vader" gear, to which I would add that they appeared (from my nosebleed-section seats) to be wearing gray inflatable life-vests. The women in the cast looked equally silly, spinning around on pointe with their wide monochromatic skirts. Only the Dutchman in his long black overcoat, and Senta, the woman who hoped to redeem them, looked respectable.

The other problem I had was with the plot itself. The legend the opera was based on is this: a sailor vowed to get around a certain cape in a storm if it took him all eternity to do so. The Devil overheard him and cursed him to spend all eternity at sea. He was permitted to land only once every seven years. If he could during one of these rare landings find a woman who would devote herself to him utterly, he would gain salvation.

In this opera, the Dutchman meets a fellow captain who has pulled into a Norwegian harbor to ride out the storm. Finding out the captain has a daughter, he offers great treasures to him for her hand in marriage. The captain, Daland, says Sure, she's yours! You seem like a great guy, I'd take you for a son-in-law even without your money. Meanwhile the daughter, Senta, conveniently has been staring at a portrait of the Dutchman, transfixed by his sad tale, much to the annoyance of her fiancé, Erik. When Erik complains, Senta says but oh, this poor guy, how could you not feel sorry for him?

Then Daland appears with the Dutchman, Senta falls for him immediately, completely ignoring her promises to Erik. The Dutchman is overjoyed to have finally found a bride. But Erik won't give up so easily, pleading with Senta to come to her senses. The Dutchman overhears this and thinks that Senta has changed her mind, so he angrily storms back to his ship and off to sea. Senta breaks free from Erik and follows the Dutchman.

I'm not too keen on the whole theme of the redeeming values of love, at least not under these extreme conditions. And I'm not happy with Senta dumping her poor lover for a complete stranger, nor her father's willingness to sell her off. But in the time the libretto was written (mid-19th century), of course people had different values.

I had some time to kill at the library last night, so I checked out a copy of the piano score. It was interesting to read commentary on the writing of the opera; Wagner apparently sold the libretto alone for someone else to put music to, out of sheer financial necessity. That version bombed, Wagner wrote his own music, and went on to even greater fame. It is also interesting to read all the descriptions of the scenery and stage action in the score, as they seem almost written for a movie rather than anything that could be easily duplicated on the stage. Though of course, the staging for the SF Opera's version (on loan from the Lyric Opera of Chicago) was deliberately minimalist. And of course, reading the original German, a language I studied for one year but remember very little of, is fascinating. The English text is right underneath, but doesn't correspond exactly to the German text, as it is arranged for singing an English version of the opera. Still, I remember enough bits and pieces to see where some of the discrepancies are, both in the score and in the supertitles displayed during the SF performance.

I look forward to reading through more of the score, though I doubt I'll be able to play much of it on the piano, nor sing it. I wish I had better sight-singing skills.



Josh Kornbluth talk
OK, this was really neither a musical nor theatrical performance, but a benefit talk with San Francisco theater critic Robert Hurwitt. The topics ranged all over the map, with Hurwitt making occasional attempts to reign Josh in. "What was the question?" was Josh's most frequently-uttered sentence of the evening. He quipped that his tombstone should read "But I digress...". During the Q/A session someone asked if he ever considered writing a multi-character play. I was surprised in his answer that he didn't mention the Mime Troupe, as he co-wrote Mister Smith Goes to Obscuristan with them. But time ran out before I got a chance at the mic (though I did mention it to him in person later).

Josh made a plug for his pro-tax blog, "I R Us". Last time I had looked at this site, it hadn't been updated in awhile, and I never did make it to see the Love and Taxes monologue that inspired it. But checking on the web at home I saw more recent activity on the blog. So I syndicated it on LiveJournal: i_r_us. Hopefully a few more people will see it now.

After the talk Josh signed copies of Red Diaper Baby which were available for sale. I hadn't thought to bring mine and didn't want to buy another copy, so I waited at the end of the line until everyone had theirs signed to get a chance to talk with him. I was afraid he wouldn't remember me, but he smiled when he saw me in line and kissed me hello and (later) goodbye when I finally got to his desk. We talked about the Mime Troupe and boyziggy's work at the Opera. He was very friendly as always.



My own music
I've been getting together with my friend Gregor to work on some music he wants to sing, and thinking I should get back to singing and playing more piano myself. I woke up the other day with a song in my head, and managed to get the melody into my notation program before it vanished. I tried to flesh it out more in GarageBand, but the song was in 6/8, and the number of loops available in that time signature was quite disappointing. I may need to take a class in arranging, or else just learn more basic music theory.

Gregor wanted to go to Byron Hoyt to shop for sheet music. I didn't want to go on Friday, "Buy Nothing Day", but he argued that sheet music wasn't a normal consumer good. I disagreed, but went along anyway. As it turned out, they were closed. I suggested going to the library instead, but they were closed too.

Then just the other day my friend Casey sent an e-mail announcement that he is getting married in Maryland on New Year's Eve. boyziggy and I had planned to be in the D.C. area over the holidays anyway, but we were going to fly back to SF on the 31st. Fortunately we hadn't finalized our travel plans yet, so I told Casey we could probably stay the extra day. Then he asked if I would like to sing at the wedding! He said I had a beautiful voice, and could I choose a song about the power of love? I was so touched. I suggested "Unexpected Song", which I've had memorized for many years and sing fairly well (though it's on the high side for my voice; I have sung tenor parts in choral groups.). He agreed, and I photocopied it at the library last night. Looking at the last verse, I see that the final modulation is even higher than I remember, so I will have to practice to make sure my voice doesn't crack. I know I won't be able to hit the last high note (G), but there's an acceptable alternate note on which to end the piece. At least, I hope it will be acceptable.


More music: This Friday is the Messiah Sing-along at UC Berkeley. Next Tuesday I may be heading back to the opera, as boyziggy is going to try to get comps for Eugene Onegin. He thinks I will like it since it's Tchaikovsky. I saw the last fifteen minutes or so of it last night on a TV monitor (he snuck me backstage after I left the Josh Kornbluth talk next door at the Herbst Theater). I had no idea what they were singing and couldn't see the stage in any detail, but the music sounded enjoyable.

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