May 15 - San Francisco to Golden Gate

Drawing Lines and Following Them


One of La Monte Young's Compositions 1960 is, in its entirety, the direction "draw a straight line and follow it." Easier said than done. And on May 10 at Davies Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony reminded us that not only are musical lines difficult to draw and follow, they are also difficult to demarcate.

The Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra is a case in point. Written in 1896, this work stands at the door to the brave new world that was the 20th century, and Thomas and company caught the expectancy and the passion, making the music fresh even when the brass lines were a bit unfocussed. The rumblings of the organ were present, but not allowed to dominate, and indeed the performance had the requistite late romantic sweep, but at the same time an objectivity that suggested future developments.

Is this music that follows a line? Hardly. More like sinuous coils, overlapping tresses, and billowing waves that surprise and delight at each moment, and occasionally confuse and confound. The wild proto-12-tone science fugue subject (an overlapping of C and B tonalities) is at once brilliant and murky. The returns of the notorious one-five-one, do-sol-do, C-G-C music -- which discovered a new life when utilized by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- still impress whether obviously at the end of "The Convalescent" section or subtly in the oboe accompaniment to the waltz. And what's the deal with the end? An amazingly gutsy ambiguity for the time. This was a performance that made the most of the ramble, and featured the articulate ruminations of concertmaster-soloist Alexander Barantschik

There was again something unexpected and non-linear about the five songs from Gustav Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn (to texts from The Boy's Magic Horn, of Achim van Armin and Clemens Brentano) which preceded. First, why these five? A little anti-war-and-oppression suite? Worked for us. As did the decision to have baritone Thomas Hampson have at them -- a commanding performer at the top of his game bringing all of his dramatic prowess and shining tone to play. This is another work that straddles rather than follows a line, of songs composed between 1898 and 1901, that can split apart at the emotional seams, as in "The Prisoner" and tear at the heart as in "The Drummer Boy." No, this is no Christmas song, as one of Mahler's ominous veiled military exercises. In this performance, the reverie of "Reveille" connected Mahler appropriately to his younger colleague Arnold Schoenberg, who astounded the world with his chromatic freedoms darkly in such related works as "Troopers" from the Six Pieces for Male Chorus (1930). Yup, we're all going to die, and sometimes we whistle into that good night.

No one could have really predicted the course of either Strauss's nor Mahler's careers, given the music on this program. The former composer jumped ship from tone poems to operas and ultimately from radical to conservative; the latter kept art songs in his output, but primarily focused on symphonies in his relatively short life.

As some kindred spirit, Aaron Copland continued to surprise from the 1920's through the 80's in works at once consistent yet varied. If the Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2, if the composer's Organ Symphony is No. 1) is not on the top of many lists of Copland's Greatest Hits, it was good to hear in this committed performance. And, what do you know, in the first movement, at least, it's almost all about one music line, however angular and un-straight, and following it to a more-or-less logical conclusion. Not an easy thing, indeed.


Learning from the iPod Shuffle


So, I've got my iPod, and I'm not as hip as all of those dancing silhouettes in the advertisements, and initially I thought I'd never use the "shuffle mode," because I'm a control freak. But then I tried it and realized, "Wow, radio," and there is joy to giving o'er and being surprised.

But the further surprise was, despite the seemingly random play, I was hearing certain pieces more than others. Why? Not sure, but since there's a playlist of "Top 25 Played," seems that this is incorporated into the statistical mix.

The moral take-home message? Success breeds success. I'm hearing more of the same because I've heard more of the same.

The point? Let's talk about "Greatest Hits." It's time to shuffle the mode. If your greatest hits are simply other people's greatest hits, the hits won't ever change, and there goes your iPod shuffle delight-surprise.

So when Golden Gate Opera presented Opera's Greatest Hits on May 11 at Marin Center, your 20th-/21st-century guy wasn't going to be totally delighted to have Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) be the most contemporary composers on the program (what's with this? RS has been popping up even more than WAM and LVB of late...).

How about Igor Stravinsky? Alban Berg? Gian Carlo Menotti? Carlisle Floyd? Leonard Bernstein? Philip Glass? John Adams? David Conte? Erling Wold? Lisa Scola Prosek? Mark Alburger? Just kidding.

I'd even settle for Stephen Sondheim. Just kidding.

It was a nice program, and mostly well-sung. Bit pricey, but then again, I didn't have to pay. Wonder how I'd feel otherwise... Probably not as content.

Olga Chernisheva took star turns beautifully in selections from Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani (not on many people's short lists) and Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. Carla Lopez-Speziale was a shining special presence in excerpts from Carmen, winningly and athletically joined by Bryn Jimenez, Elizabeth Gentner, Zachary Sheely, and John Frederick for the lithesome Act II Quintet. And it was pleasing to hear Anja Strauss in the P-man's Gianni Schicchi.

The cast looked great in the impressively-lit opening tableau, but unfortunately had nothing to do (of course, that's what a tableau is, isn't it? maybe I just don't like tableaux -- but nice use of the French plural, n'est-ce pas?).

The two-piano accompaniment, narration, canned-music intro, and audience size might have suggested the adjacent and smaller Showcase Theatre, but certainly a good time was had by many. And there was dancing -- not anywhere like the iPod shuffle -- but dancing and applauding nonetheless.

Mix it up!