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We take so much for granted – the sun will go down , the sun will come up – that we never seem to realize that some day it won’t be there or we won’t be here to see it.  Same thing is true of friends you could always count on. So when I got an e-mail from my composer-conductor friend Gerhard Samuel’s companion, Achim Nicklis, that Gerhard had passed away a few weeks ago, I was shocked.  Sure, I sensed he wasn’t well – repeated e-mails saying he’d changed his address indicated as much. – but the sad fact remains. He’s not here anymore.

One comes to know a person through what they say, or don’t say, do, or don’t do, and if that person’s an artist one gets to know them through their work. I first encountered Gary’s music when I was driving my sister Kathi’s car in Belmont Shore, Long Beach, and was so moved  when I heard the La Salle Quartet perform his String Quartet # 1 (1978) on the radio, that I stopped the car until it was over. But isn’t that what art’s supposed to do, and isn’t its awareness meant to make us more aware?

Other pieces had just as much impact. There was his original and very touching “gloss ” on Mondeverdi, Looking at Orpheus Looking  (1971), which he wrote for the Oakland Symphony when he was its extra innovative music director, Requiem for Survivors  and suddenly it’s evening  (1974), which he composed as a memorial piece for his Oakland successor, Calvin Simmons, when he was Mehta’s assistant conductor at the LA Philharmonic; the chamber piece, Nocturne on an Impossible Dream (1980), which he wrote with his mother in mind;  the 1998 chamber work with tenor and saxophone solo, Hyacinth From Apollo, to a poem by his frequent collaborator, Jack Larson, who was the original TV Jimmy Olsen; and the 1994 Transformations for chamber string orchestra and solo violin. And though these were all completely different in style and expressive intent, they couldn’t have been more of a  piece with who Gerhard was – passionate, charming as all get out, refined, yet always full of surprises.

Like that September evening in 1998 – the 19th, to be precise – when Tony Gualtieri and I presented him on KUSF-FM’s 3-hour Classical  Salon, and he, during the time his music was playing, seemed completely at sea, and I said “ Don’t worry, “ as Tony looked across the room at us from “ Studio A”, to our  perch at the little table which was “Studio B”, and then when our mikes went on rose to the occasion like the pro he always was. Which reminds me of a story he told me of what happened when he was conducting one of the Stravinsky ballets. The composer was backstage, hand cupped to his ear, listening intently as his wife, Vera, said “Why’s he doing that? He’s heard it a million times!” And Gerhard said “ Because he wants to hear it again!” which was a lot like him too– completely in the present, where everything is. 

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My dear late best friend Danny Cariaga, classical music critic extraordinaire of the Los Angeles Times, once observed that people went to Wagner’s operas when they were new because they had more time. But now, with the onslaught of e-mails, IMs, cells with text messaging, to say nothing of headsets, call waiting, call forwarding, numeric pagers and the like, time seems fractured beyond repair. Are we really that far gone? And if so how can we get back to the unalterable truths of life, like love and death?

These questions came to mind when I caught The Met’s penultimate performance of Philip Glass’ 1979 opera Satyagraha on Monday 28th April. One of its subjects is time itself, and Glass’ mature music has always played with our perceptions of it. How long is short, and how short is long? Glass’ exquisite and utterly involving 3-act meditation on Gandhi – its subtitle is “M.K. Gandhi in South Africa (1893 – 1914)” – shows how he transformed himself from an ordinary barrister thrown off a train into one of the most seminal spiritual and political figures of the last century whose ideas continue to reverberate. A tall order, for sure, but one that co-director designers Phelim McDermott and Juilan Crouch’s Improbable Theatre made incredibly vivid and tremendously moving.

Glass and his scenarist Constance De Jong, assembled their libretto from the Hindu holy book The Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of the Lord“), and the verses they culled from it pinpoint what Satyagraha is really about — self-mastery in the service of spiritual growth. Gandhi developed his non-violent passive resistance movement, satyagraha — it roughly translates as “truth force”, or even “the force of love” –during his work in South Africa, which Glass’ opera dramatizes in seven highly allusive and mysterious scenes. The composer cites his absorption in the Khatikali theatre of Kerala , South India, and the extended and abruptly short mosaic-like approaches in Brecht plays like Galileo, and ,of course, his with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1975), as inspirations for Satyagraha though a “Western“ source, or point of reference, is Stravinsky’s from Sophocles via Danielou and Cocteau’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1926-27) though their aim, like the ancients, was to provoke pity through terror. Glass’ aim is entirely different. His music and its staging strive to educate the audience in the most non-didactic way to what Gandhi and his followers were all about. And he and his collaborators here do this through slowly evolving sonic and visual images which provoke, distance – the Brecht, Lehrstuck and Stravinsky neo-classic tactic – and enthrall.

Much has been made of Glass’ supposedly “simple “ music, as if his “poverty of means” translated into poverty of effect, and affect, but nothing could be further from the truth. Of course he fashions each scene as a series of ground basses or chaconnes, but his imagination is in full flower here, even through this is his first orchestral piece since his Juilliard days (1958-1962). And it really does show how he’s bent his pit band of 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, strings 1 and 2, violas, cellos, and double basses, and a Kurzweil synthesizer, to his own deeply expressive ends.. Act 1’s opening scene, The Kuru Field of Justice, unfolded from its 2+3, 2+3, 2+3, 2+2… rhythmic structure, like a steadily opening flower, with Gandhi (tenor Richard Croft), in barrister suit and briefcase at the lip of center stage, being set upon – his valise rifled by the supers – as his solo’s joined by that of mythological figures Prince Arjuna, in blue face ( tenor Bradley Garvin ), and in Indian cap and white tunic pants Lord Krishna (bass Richard Bernstein), while warring parties, representing the internecine conflict of the Kuru clan, in Victorian and Indian dress, face off, and larger than life papier mache puppets, do battle.

(Paragraph revised per Walter’s comment) The succeeding scene – Tolstoy Farm (1910) was just as imaginatively realized, as Gandhi, his wife Kasturbai (mezzo Maria Zicak), Gandhi’s German secretary Miss Schlesen (soprano Rachelle Durkin) , Mrs Naidoo (soprano Ellie Dehn); and Improbable’s co-workers built Gandhi’s ashram in miniature.A  nd nowhere could Gandhi’s and Glass’simplicity of means be shown to more effect than in the long – 60 plus minutes, though 31 minutes in Christopher Keene’s CBS LP set –  stretch of Act 3’s single scene,  Newcastle March (1913) where the composer’s “limited means “ – roughly three themes / harmonies — seemed to burrow into the listeners’ psyches/hearts, until all was “released” at the final but not so final cadence/chord.

Glass’ music has always trafficked in the down to earth and the mystical, and Satyagraha provides both as 2sides of the same coin. And it’s not for nothing that the third, and concluding scene of Act ii, Protesttextural, harmonic, and yes, melodic variety than all of Satyagraha combined The Met’s forces rose to its challenges as true “athletes of the spirit”, proving that it shares deep yet deeply contrasting familial resemblances to its other siblings in Glass’ portrait trilgy – Einstein, and Akhnaten (1983). And that his spectacularly moving 2005 opera of John Coetzee’s 1980 Waiting for the Barbarians – which Orange Mountain Music will release this June – continues even more difficult explorations of the human condition. ‘ A man lost in a cruel and stupid dream / But still I keep walking / Walking. “ Improbable’s production differed in many respects from the Bruce Ferden led – he’s sadly dead from AIDS in 1993 – version of the David Poutney/Robert Israel 1980 Netherlands Opera production which I caught twice – and once with Danny Cariaga – at the SF Opera in 1989. And its immersion in themes of social injustice – will they ever solved – continued in Glass’ SF Opera commission, Appomattox, which bowed here last November. What happened – and this went on in the mind, body, and dare we forget it – heart? – can only be sketched here.

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The world has always been violent, hence the classical desire to restrain the beast within.   But is this kind of art enough when the world seems to spin out of control more and more each day, with headlines soaked in blood, and anger and distrust every way you turn? Should art address disjunction/disconnection, or should it act like Bocaccio, who entertained his guests with stories while the plague raged outside his door?

These are essential questions, and The San Francisco Ballet’s four- work Program 5, which I caught Saturday evening 15 March at the Opera House, seemed whether consciously or not, to be asking them. And all the music here was either modern or contemporary.

Brit choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Pas de Deux from After the Rain (2005), uses Arvo Part’s 1978 violin/ piano duo “Spiegel im Spiegel “, as its score, which was played here live by Roy Malan, and Bruce McGraw. Composed just after Part parted company with serialism, it’s not as interesting or as fresh as some of his 80’s and 90’s  work which can be quite striking, and sometimes very affecting too. Sure, you can read it as meditative, or “spiritual”, but music that’s performed in the theatre had better have some dramatic juice, and Part’s piece didn’t. And Wheeldon’s dance for the alienated/struggling couple – Sarah Van Patten and Pierre-Francois Villanoba – made it sound like a kind of decorous décor. But the dancers brought lots of nuance to their parts which often depended on very slow lifts.

Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), which was first performed in Richard Rodgers’ centennial year–2002–at Lincoln Center, was an hommage  to this wonderful composer. And while the choreographer studiously avoided using anything that smacked of Broadway, what he came up with was obvious – having the dancers move in a circle like a slowly gyrating carousel, or letting them become carousel horses with poles attached to an non-existent top – and trite. Recent revivals of Rodgers’ 1945 musical have apparently stayed closer to the dark tone of Ferenc Molnar’s play Lilom, which Hammerstein based his book on. But Wheeldon’s dance wasn’t the least bit dark, though Mark Stanley’s expert lighting was. The choreographer’s use of vernacular movement made it look contemporary, but in his heart of hearts he seems to be a let’s be a polite at all times classicist. Still, the 24 strong corps, who’d performed it six hours before, and soloists Dores Andre and Joan Boada, made it look almost effortless.

A similar lack of connection to the musical material at hand undermined Helgi Tomasson’s 2008 dance – this was its premiere – to Rachmaninov’s 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Why any choreographer would deliberately ignore this score’s variation structure is anybody’s guess, but this one defiantly did. Either the music inspires, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t what’s the point? Tomasson’s setting was so blandly unimaginative – ditto Martin Pakledinaz’s scenic and costume design – that I kept wishing I could see the orchestra, but my friend and I were parked on the ground floor. Music director Martin West and his band gave a serviceable and streamlined modern take on the score, with no string portamenti to give it extra expressivity. But piano soloist Roy Bogas, whose teacher Rosina Lhevinne exemplified the Russian romantic style, used rubato at several points to give it rhythmic variety, just as Rachmaninov did when he played this piece.

Neither rhythmic variety nor textural subtlety figured in either music or dance in Wayne McGregor’s Eden/Eden, which the Stuttgart Ballet premiered in that city last year, and I think its point of origin says a lot about the final product. The Germans. after all, have never been big on giving their audiences unalloyed pleasure, but beating them up with “important “ messages, and this piece certainly tried to be important.

Charles Balfour’s lighting made everything look deadly earnest, and McGregor’s choreography for nine, emphasized angularity, and a kind of physical dysfunction which had to be meaningful. Steve Reich’s aggressively monochromatic score sounded like the snare drum tattoos in Bolero on auto pilot. But what does one expect from a composer – what’s happened to this once vital artist? — who sits down with his wife and collaborator on this piece, vid artist Beryl Korot, to choose the most significant technological events of the 20th century, form THREE TALES (2002), of which this, Dolly, is the last?  Dolly is of course the sheep cloned in 1997, and Reich and Korot’s talking heads, from MIT and Oxford – mercifully absent here – go on and on about this issue. The composer even dragged out a quote from Genesis – “ And G-d  placed him in the garden of Eden, to keep it and to serve it, “ to give it mythical stature, and McGregor seemed to buy it.

A white tree of the knowledge of good and evil descended from the flies, and some of the dancers came and went via a lift in the stage. McGregor and his game dancers produced some striking and even nightmarish images. But a piece that starts in the head, and stays there, can’t be anything but dead on arrival. Guest conductor Gary Sheldon and his musicians produced harsh, overly amplified, and badly mixed sounds, which assaulted the ear. Eden/Eden failed to say anything fresh, and will, I think, date quickly “like yesterday’s mashed potaotoes” in Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s song “ A Fine Romance.“  When you’re on you’re on, and when you’re not, you’re not.    

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Things happen when you pay attention. Resemblances line up, and disjunctions jar. These things certainly happened when I caught Word for Word’s theatricalization of James Baldwin’s Harlem-set story Sonny’s Blues, and Spain’s flamenco group Son De La Frontera on successive nights in San Francisco last weekend.  Word for Word used every possible dramatic device, including fine actors, to make each syllable of the story come alive while the Spanish musicians produced a thoroughly non-verbal experience though there was lots of singing.

The paradox was that both performances — even the wall to wall words of Sonny’s Blues — delivered language-free meanings, and that, whether we’re aware of it or not, art is always a fundamental emotional experience, even with words. And — it should get us where we live.                                                                                                                                                                  Flamenco provides one of the rawest, purest, and most sophisticated musico-dramatic experiences on the planet. And the 6-member Son De La Frontera,  presented by The Bay Area Flamenco Partnership at The Yerba Buena Center for The Arts Theater Saturday 1 March, are masters of this ancient form, which began in India with the gypsies who crossed North Africa, and settled in Spain’s Andalucia, where flamenco flourished in the intermingled soil of its Islamic, Jewish (Sephardic), and Christian cultures. Son De La Frontera delivered it clearly, honestly,and without regret. Virgil Thomson once declared that composers did everything but speak the language of the heart. But these Spaniards, who paid tribute to composer-guitarist Diego Del Gastor (1908-1973) here, certainly did. And their music, which comes from Del Gastor’s, made the divided chambers of the heart visceral, and incredibly real.

The two-hour, no break concert began with a guitar solo, a martinete, by Gastor’s nephew, Juan Del Gastor. The martinete is a kind of not-in-any-set meter improv, and Del Gastor’s was ripe with subtle yet powerful touches and myriad colors, like a dream of Spain’s fairest flower. Things got obviously more intense when guitarists Raul Rodriguez and Paco De Amparo took the stage with singer Moi De Moron, and the compas, or rhythm section provided by him — handclapping on the palmas, or the sordas — and Manuel Flores, and Pepe Torres, who also danced. Rodriquez and De Amparo’s unisons and solos were a harmonic and coloristic anchor to the intricate polyrhythms of the other three musicians, especially the phenomenally fancy footwork, or taconero, by Torres, who had  tons of that essential flamenco ingredient, duende, and whose turning, lurching, and jumping was powerfully controlled, the scarlet back of his black vest the only note of color in the show. 

Flamenco has a rich vocabulary of differently accented 12 count (beat) rhythms which form the basis of the buleria, the solea, which were stunningly played, sung and danced here. The group also gave knockout performances of the fiesta, cantina, sevillana, as well as the 4 count (beat) tanguillo, and tango. Flamenco is about all the basic passions of love, hate, abandonment, fear, despair, and revenge. It gets them down as no other art form can, and doesn’t make them pretty. But this brutal, in the best sense of the word, form lets them sing. And I was reminded of the late great Spanish mezzo Rocio Jurado, who sang on the soundtrack of Carlos Saura’s 1985 film of De Falla’s El Amor Brujo, when listening to Moi de Moron. You don’t have to know or even “hear”  the words to feel whats he’s saying. It doesn’t get any better, or more real than this. 

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filling.jpgDance is always about music, and music is, more often than not, about dance. But how does dance animate music, and music animate dance? This seemed to be the central question when I caught Program 1 of the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary season at the War Memorial Opera House February 9th. Classical ballet and modern dance sometimes plays against and even ignores the music’s rhythmic structure which would never happen in the deservedly popular Dancing With The Stars. But we rightly or wrongly cut the highbrow forms a bit more slack.  

Virgil Thomson’s music for SF Ballet’s founding choreographer Lew Christensen’s Filling Station (1938) brought these thoughts center stage. And though the composer has defined his score as a collection of waltzes, tangos, a fugue, a Big Apple, a hold up, a chase, and a funeral, one was barely aware of these disparate forms. Instead, what caught the ear and eye was the happy disjunction between these elements, not their literalness. But that’s odd when you consider how this ballet, to a story by Lincoln Kirstein, is routinely described as a pop piece.

Well, maybe, but one which uses vernacular movement — way before the Judson Church crowd did it — in still fresh, even startling ways. The moves for James Sofranko’s filling station attendant Mac were exaggerated but somewhat naturalistic too. But the gestures Christensen devised for the other dancers, like the hilariously bombed Rich Girl Erin McNulty, tended to be more stylized, as Thomson’s music shifted gears — jubilant one moment, deadly serious the next — as in his viola-dominated tango for her, which didn’t make rational, but emotional sense. Thomson was always a subtle and sly composer, and his clever but utterly sincere moves were on full display here, and. Martin West’s orchestra made the music go on many levels. Thomson once told me that everybody’s after freshness and this score couldn’t have been more fresh, and perfectly modern because of that. 

Modernist choreographers have tried their hand at setting dances on Bach’s music, with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco being one of the most famous. SF Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who’s sometimes been too much of a Balanchine acolyte, seemed to break free of the master in his 7 For Eight (200 ), to music from Bach keyboard concertos composed between 1729 and 1741, and the music’s mathematical lucidity and calmly ordered sequences seemed to make him go further and deeper than he usually does.

Bach is regularly advertised as peerless and one certainly felt that here in Tomasson’s 7 sequences for 8 dancers which were as contained and deeply expressive as the music, with 3 duos alternating with 1 trio, 1 quartets, and 1 solo.

Company star Joan Boada shone, but so did all the other dancers here who negotiated Tomasson’s from a classical vocabulary moves with both elegance and gravity. David Finn’s subtly modulated lighting scheme of mostly bluish greys and off blacks made the stage pictures both beautiful and highly suggestive ,which the costumes by Sandra Woodall — who dressed Kronos years ago — unobtrusively complemented The expert piano soloist here was Michael McGraw. 

Would that Balanchine’s 1967 mostly general dance, Diamonds, from Jewels, were as successful or interesting as the two dances which preceded it. Instead it came off as a kind of white on white version of Balanchine’s hommage to Sousa; The Stars and Stripes, with the stage almost always full of the 32 member corps executing endless formations and deformations with lots of chandelier-like port-a-bras, which though meant to look elegant ended up being cloying, with 4 of the 5 movements of Tchaikovksy’s 3rd Symphony serving as the score. Balanchine was as much as an entertainer as a high art guy–his long association with Stravinsky– but this just seemed like admirably danced fluff. Martin West’s pit band accompanied with effortless grace,well-judged tempos, and transparent ensemble throughout. And in none of the 3 pieces did he ever encourage his orchestra to push. This is a deservedly acclaimed company with a very fine orchestra.     

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Human behavior’s funny. The more we try to change the more we don’t seem able to. Are we cursed to repeat the same mistakes in our private lives — with lovers, friends — as well as in our public ones? Are we genetically condemned to disjunction, discord, and war, like Sisyphus trying to keep that enormous rock from crushing him each day? Philip Glass’ SF Opera commission, APPOMATTOX, which world premiered 5 October, and which I caught 16 October, seems to accept these things as givens. Its ostensible subject is Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on 9 April 1865, and its subsequent impact. But its central question seems to be how can we change history if we can’t even change ourselves?   

These are weighty questions, and Glass’ music addresses them with seriousness and point. The opening figure for double basses and wind mixtures is immediately affecting. Then Julia Dent Grant (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) emerges from a backlit alcove in Riccardo Hernandez’s umbrous metal set, her posture contained, “The spring campaign ___  In four short years I have grown to dread those words … ”  She joins four other women — Mary Custis Lee (soprano Elza van den Heever), her daughter Julia Agnes (soprano Ji Young Yang), Mary Todd Lincoln (soprano Heidi Melton), and her black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (mezzo Kendall Gladen) — in an almost Baroque lament on the sorrows of war — ” never before has so much blood been drained … Let this be the last time.. ” The women who stand behind their men and keep it all together are, of course, the unsung heroines of any war, and Glass’ immediate focus on them, signals this piece’s unwavering depth.

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Americans like to sit on their hands. Even when they’re telling the truth you have to worry. Are you trying to take something from me, steal my identity, assault my assiduously guarded self-image? I may be feeling something, but you’ll have to read between the lines. God forbid I should tell you what and why, and if I do it will likely be too late. These curious thoughts came to mind when I caught Lebanese oud master-composer-singer Marcel Khalife and his ensemble for the second time — the first was at New York’s Town Hall in 2004 — at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater.

Why? Because Khalife’s music goes straight to the heart, and never holds back, much less apologize for what it feels. Which isn’t to downplay its appeal to the mind. But its principal goal is to connect with the heart, and hearts and minds and bodies were certainly reached in this concert. Artists are people, after all, and wouldn’t you rather spend time with someone who can express than with someone who can’t? 

The American media likes to portray Arabs as unlettered savages, but that’s hardly the truth. Arabic music, after all, is one of the oldest, richest traditions on the planet, and Khalife has devoted his life to expanding and deepening these traditions. With about 80 maqamat, or scale /modes, this music is complex, sophisticated, and highly expressive. Khalife drew on these riches in his latest nearly hour long ensemble piece, Taqasim, where he was joined by his son, Bachar, on Arabic percussion, and guest bassist Mark Helias. Taqasim means improvisation, and this three-part piece is an instrumental evocation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s work, which Khalife has set many times. It centers on the mid-lower range of the oud, and bass, with discreet, but colorful contributions from Arabic percussion like riqq ( tambourine ), and assorted drums. Lines coalesce and vanish, drones give way to unisons, the bass is sometimes played like a drum. The dream of Al-Andalus comes and goes.                   

Another, perhaps pan-Arabic, dream also seemed to be conjured, in further largely Darwish settings, which Khalife sang on the second half of the program — the primeval My Mother, with its wonderfully built contributions from Khalife’s other son, Rami, on piano, and the very famous Passport,  which had an even more brilliantly structured and stylistically varied solo from him. The nearly packed house was also big on audience participation — a Khalife concert specialty —  and yet another indication that Arabs aren’t wont to sit on their hands.  I Walk (lyric, Samih el-Qassim ), which is a kind of hymn of defiance and solidarity, got a call and response treatment from the balcony and main floor, while the closing O Fisherman, Haila, Haila ( lyrics by Khalife’s Al-Mayadine ensemble ), had a thick driving intensity from piano — hammered chords — Khalife pere, Helias, and Bachar Khalife’s Arabic bass drum.

We in the West like to think that music is principally melody and harmony, though its wellspring has always been rhythm, which is something that Arabic music has never forgotten. Western musicians — and especially American ones — can learn lots from this music. And it isn’t afraid to communicate, and touch the heart, on the deepest possible level. Khalife is the first Arab to ever win the UNESCO Artist For Peace Award, and it’s easy to see why.His San Francisco stop is but one of many on his Taqasim Tour. 

Michael McDonagh is a San Francisco-based poet and writer on the arts, whose poems have appeared in several places, including Stanford’s Mantis 3: Poetry and Performance, which ran 3 of the 6 poems Lisa Scola Prosek set as the song cycle, Miniature Portraits. He has done two poem-picture books with SF-based painter Gary Bukovnik, and has wriitten 2 pieces for the theatre — Touch and Go,and Sight Unseen.  McDonagh is a staff writer on the arts for the SF-based BAY AREA REPORTER. He is the sole writer for www.alexnorthmusic.com; and contributes to www.classical-music-review.org, www.21st-centurymusic.com; New Music Connoisseur; and www.sfcv.org.

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Turning 70 is a big deal for most people, and especially so for Philip Glass, whose birthday is being celebrated worldwide big time. He’s just been feted in New York by Music At The Anthology (MATA), and Groningen, Holland, is putting on a Glass Festival.  The composer and The Philip Glass Ensemble performed his massive compendium of minimalist moves, Music in 12 Parts (1971-74), this summer in the Hague and the San Francisco Bay Area pays its homage with the world premiere of his SF Opera commission, Appomattox, this coming Friday, October 5.  

Glass is such a big name, and  pervasive influence–I caught a chord progression in a dance mix lifted straight from him in a bar–that it’s almost hard to see the trees for the forest.  But Glass emerged clearly from that penumbral place in Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music, which kicked off San Francisco Performances’ season at Herbst Theatre on Friday night.  And all the frenzied Zeitgeist schtick on Van Ness– couples out on first — will there be a second?– dates, bobbing heads on cell phones, opera patrons running to catch the curtain, and monster traffic–was happily left outside. 

Glass, mike in hand, (“is it me, or the machine?) began by announcing a program change. He’d begin with 4 sections of the 5-part  Metamorphosis (1988), for solo piano, and not play either of the 2 Etudes (1994) planned. Metamorphosis, though it uses material from the composer’s score to Errol Morris’ doc The Thin Blue Line (1988), takes its title from the Kafka short story of the same name, for which Glass wrote scores for concurrent theater productions in Brazil and the Netherlands. And though the music stands proudly on its own, its lines and harmonies suggest the haunted atmosphere of Kafka’s tale–Gregor Samsa’s alienation from the world, and his dogged journey to a kind of transcendence. 

And Glass, sitting erect at his Steinway concert grand Model D, brought its many beauties to light–the poignant hesitations in #1 struck the heart, he made the massive floating harmonies in #2 acutely affecting through discreet pedalling, his attacks gave the bell-like paralllel chords of #3 power, and his command of color gave #4 its dramatic weight. Glass has spoken of his drifting sense of meter, and this was certainly apparent throughout; pianists like Alec Karis and Michael Riesman would surely have been metronomically regular. Metamorphosis has sometimes been described as Satie-like, though the equally private worlds of Schubert’s Impromptus and Brahms’ Intermezzi, come strongly to mind. My first encounter with Metamorphosis live was when Glass played the entire set ,as Molissa Fenley danced, at The Unitarian Church, which is a little more than a stone’s throw from Herbst.  But what sticks most is how the music the composer has written in the intervening years has colored his gestures when he plays this piece now.  

Next came the West Coast premiere of Songs and Poems for Cello, which Glass wrote for NY-based new music star Wendy Sutter of Bang On A Can fame, who plays a wide range of works from uptown –actually West Village people like Elliott Carter–to downtown composers. This is a thoroughly demanding piece, which Sutter played from memory, and which, with its sense of duende–Lorca”s term for anything  springing from deep within– seemed to evoke music as various as Bach, bits of the Suites for Cello (BWV 1007-12), and Brandenburg 6 (1721), as well as Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-22), and Dohnanyi’s Cello Sonata (1899), which Martha Graham choreographed as Lamentation, without ever resembling any of  these.  Its seven sections–applause broke out in one–were mostly grave, intense, deeply sonorous, and completely lacking in easy effects.  Sutter negotiated its myriad technical–long sustained lines, double-stopping, pizzicati, and focus on different registers, usually sequentially–and expressive difficulties with almost superhuman ease.  

Four interconnecting episodes, or “Tissues”, from Godfrey Reggio’s third and final installment in the QATSI trilogy, Naqoyqatsi (2002), scored here for Glass, piano, Sutter, cello, and PGE percussionist Mick Rossi, followed. One was struck by the cello writing’s resemblance to that in Songs and Poems for Cello, the ultra soft sounds from the keyboard, and the floating sounds Rossi achieved on marimba and celeste. Naqoyqatsi never got the attention it deserved in its initial theatrical release, though Glass’ tour with his ensemble here last year–the film and score were performed by him and his PGE live at Davies–helped to right that wrong. 

Equally atmospheric were the last two offerings–The Orchard, a kind of slow sarabande from Glass’ score for JoAnne Akalitis’ 1991 theatre production of Genet’s The Screens, transcribed here for piano, cello, and percussion, from its original incarnation for flute, clarinet, piano, percussion and cello, and Closing, from Glass’ 1981 record debut on CBS, Glassworks, misunderstood as a pop/crossover piece then, and probably now as well, which Glass and his two fellow musicians played with both point and affection. “How can such a quiet person write such powerful music?” I said to my companion, who sat stock still, hands folded, throughout. Who knows?  But this concert proved beyond the slightest doubt that Glass has always been and remains a chamber musician intent on speaking to his listeners in the most intimate terms. Appomattox, which struck this listener as almost unbearably intimate, when he heard most of its first act at a Sitz-Probe 2 September, will likely fall into this exalted class

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Italy has produced great pianists like Busoni, Michelangeli, and Pollini.  Its current pianist in the running for that distinction, Marino Formenti, even hails from Pollini’s hometown, Milan, where he was born in October 1965. Formenti has been dubbed ” a Glenn Gould for the 21st century ” by The LA TIMES’ Mark Swed, which probably refers to his Gould-like obsessive-compulsive absorption in the music he performs, as well as the widely divergent composers he programs.  These traits were certainly center stage in the last of 3 San Francisco Piano Trips programs — the first consisted of Kurtag and 17 other composers — he gave at the De Young Museum’s Koret Auditorium in Golden Gate Park. Would that the museum were beautiful, to say nothing of site specific. Instead its bland forbidding facade sits shopping mall generic — one half expects to see a banner saying “SALE” on it — and its interior has a funny model home smell as if nobody ever lived there or would want to.

Fortunately the Koret is another story entirely. It’s a commodious 269 capacity steeply raked theater, with seats that flip up snugly when you or your neighbor needs to get by. And even better news is that Formenti’s program there, Nothing Is Real — Music for The Present and The Future — was theatrical and worked.

Formenti entered as if from a trap door stage left, clad head to toe in avant garde black, then sat down at the Hamburg Steinway to play Matthias Pintscher’s Monumento — In Memoriam Arthur Rimbaud (1990). The 36 year-old German has apparently been embraced by both the musical right and left, and judged from the evidence of this piece alone, it’s not hard to see why. Here’s a sensitive artist who’s fashioned a work with a wide, though never showy, dynamic range, with beautiful, expressive harmonies, and a firm and probably uncalculated sense of space and line. Formenti’s performance was pellucid and powerful. Next came Music for Piano and Amplified Vessels (1991 ), by the American, Alvin Lucier ( 1931 — ), which sounded like a short, spare lament. This was followed by 2 offerings by Helmut Lachenmann (1935 –), Wiegenmusik (1963), and Guero (1970), which were far more extreme, but less interesting than the previous pieces, yet just as well played. Formenti made a strong case for Hommage a Ligeti, for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart (1985), by Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas (1953-), which he played, arms outstretched, between 2 grands, as both hands went up and down the keyboard incrementally. Ligeti has rarely been a charrming composer, and Haas’ “hommage” lacked that quality in spades. But what it did have going for it was an obsessive focus on conjoined and opposed sonorities, though Glass has explored these things more fully and more interestingly in Music in Similar Motion (1969), and the seminal, rarely heard Music with Changing Parts (1970). Quarte-tones give Arabic music much of its expressive power, and some Western composers who’ve used them, like Alex North, in parts of his film scores like CLEOPATRA (1963), and UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984), have done so with wit and point.

The 3 succeeding pieces by Galina Ustwolskaya (1919 –), Sonatas # 5 (1986), and 6 (1988), and Perduto in una Citta D’Acque  (Lost in a City of Water) ” (1991), by the newly famous Salvatore Sciarrino (1947 –) , were colorful, and Ustwolskaya’s # 5 even seemed to quote Bartok’s 1936  Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Formenti also played Cage’s 1958 Music Walk, and his setting and resetting of radios of vastly different sizes, makes, and hues, was amusing, and focussed the ear on sounds we wouldn’t normally give full attention to. Sciarrino was represented again by Notturno Crudele No. 2 (Cruel Nocturne) (2000) , a stylisitc and coloristic tour de force, and Lucier, once more, by Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) (2000), which was lyric quiet personified. It also brought into very sharp focus the sometimes ahistorical nature of the school stemming from Cage, where everything, as in American life as a whole, has to be now, or next, while the European pieces Formenti played here showed how our neighbors across the pond are as preoccupied as ever with the weight of their histories.

Formenti, who looks like an Italian character actor, has a strong presence, formidable technique — both conventional and extended — and some pieces required him to use his fists, the flat of his hand, or his forearms. His fierce devotion to whatever enters his musical orbit impressed big time. Musicians, and especially pianists, with this breadth, and passion are rare. His audience here listened hard, and responded with grateful applause.

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Everybody likes to grouse about the weather, and East Coasters, who’ve moved to California, may expect sun 24/7. And though that’s never the case here in San Francisco, the climate, and especially the cultural climate on both coasts, does have one very definite thing in common — the dearth of welcome homes for new music, plus a congenial band to spread the word.

New York has the long-running American Composers Orchestra, the S.E.M. Ensemble, and Bang On A Can, and the Bay Area, the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra, which has been in operation for three years. Its March 10th concert at San Francisco’s Old First Church showed it going from strength to strength. A Springtime Romance fairly blossomed under music director and co-founder Mark Alburger’s careful, and for him, very relaxed guidance.

Katie Wreede’s 4 poem suite, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Childrens’ Garden, began its life as a viola / soprano duo for the composer, and Lisa Scola Prosek, and joining them here was pianist Alexis Alrich as the third member of their Serafina Trio. Wreede’s settings suggested a kind of childrens’ candor, which Scola Prosek made irresistibly charming with her superlative diction and strong projection; Wreede and Alrich added their simple, flowing parts to the whole. Scola Prosek was represented with another section, Wedding Scene, from her to be performed at San Francisco’s Thick House opera, Belfagor, based on Machiavelli’s comic novella of the same name. SFCCO presented its overture, which features a big bass clarinet solo for Rachel Condry, last December; Condry beguiled with her tone as well as her mastery of her part’s manifold challenges.

The challenge for any theatre or film composer is to make whatever world they enter come alive convincingly as sound, and Scola Prosek’s instincts seem right on the money, whether that world is Periclean Athens, Imperial Rome, or Renaissance Italy, which she conjured “simply” yet effectively with rich sustained harmonies for her vocal quintet — sopranos Maria Mikheyenko and Eliza O’Malley; alto Gar Wai Lee; tenor Aurelio Viscarra; and bass bartone Micah Epps — and her orchestra, which launched the scene with a bright snappy fanfare. Loren Jones’ Dancing On The Brink of the World, San Francisco — 1600 to The Present–was effective–he obviously knows how deliver standard styles — but much less imaginative, while the middle, slow movement, of Alexis Alrich’s Marimba Concerto, which soloist Matthew Cannon played with polish and point, though not baldly eclectic, lacked an overriding sense of personal style.

Chris Carrasco’s The Mind Suite fortunately had one, though its Glassian homages, especially in the inner part writing for strings, were easy to spot and not that interesting, though he may develop — he’s very young — in surprising ways. The big surprise in fact was Erling Wold’s way tongue in cheek Baron Ochs, which despite a veritable melange of styles, still seemed to hang together, unlike his opera Sub Pontio Pilato, which stylewise seemed like a mad dash out the door in mismatched socks. He also seems to have gotten the knack of how to orchestrate effectively for every choir. The two seats I sat in — “stage left” aisle 6 — and the first row of the Old First’s balcony — seemed to offer the same sonic picture: warm music/ audience friendly balances when the scoring was chamber refined, and harsh congealed climaxes when it wasn’t.

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