Music News: Oct. 30, 2012
This somewhat forced allusion to my favorite Vietnamese film, Tran Anh Hung's The Vertical Ray of the Sun, is about a War Memorial Opera House peculiarity that will surprise some and prompt others to say, perhaps with a sneer: "Who didn't know that?"
It started for me last week at a matinee of Moby-Dick; just before the performance began, the gentleman sitting in front of me, in J-21, pointed at the chandelier and said: "Watch how the lights go off, in a [something] pattern." I didn't catch what 'something' was, but it sounded like something maritime, or naval, that sort of thing, appropriate to the Melville story.
And then it happened, something I've never seen before, the lights in the chandelier going off one by one, in a circular, bernoullian pattern. Wow!
What made this a story so notable is that nobody in-the-know that I asked has ever heard of this — in addition to my own three-decade-long ignorance.
I refused to acquiesce to denial of my "vision" or resort to the Thor Heyerdahl response when his men on the Kon Tiki woke him to up to ask about an exotic-looking fish they just caught. "There is no such fish," said the great explorer, and went back to sleep.
Yes, there was a dimming fish, and I must know what it was. A friend was on watch at the next performance, and she managed to record it.
Apparently, it happens only before the beginning of a performance, not after intermissions. But has it been like this since the 1996 reconstruction? How would you know unless you behave like turkeys in rain — and you know the consequences of that.
Checking with the man in charge, General Director David Gockley, who used the chandelier for the company logo, resulted in this information:
This pre-dates the  renovation and, as far as I can tell, existed from the very beginning. It "goes off" only at the top of the show. The stagehand electricians control it and it is part of the routine of starting a show.
So, next time take a look at this gorgeous six-tier chandelier, and don't bother to Google the size (it's 25 feet in diameter and 14 feet tall) ... And it has nothing to do with whales.
Instead of admiring the chandelier at the next Sunday matinee, I was once again reveling in the sound of the Opera Chorus, which sounds so amazing in Lohengrin. As often in the past, Chorus Director Ian Robertson added extra choristers to the regular chorus, 32 singers in this case. Can they be called "extras"? Yes, says SFO Chorus veteran Tom Reed:
They are officially called Extra Choristers. They include one GAX (Guaranteed Auxiliary Chorister) and one PEX (Preferred Extra Chorister) — the latter being me, now that I am happily semi-retired. I try not to use the "Preferred" terminology out of an extremely well-developed sense of modesty honed over three plus decades in the regular chorus.
Obviously, the addition of singers has advantage for the big fortissimo sounds, but what about the almost whispered passages, such as on Lohengrin's arrival? The more voices, the more difficult to keep it all together. In this case, the usual eight-part division (first and second sopranos, mezzos, contraltos, first and second tenors, baritones, and basses) is doubled because the ensemble is divided into Chorus 1 and Chorus 2, singing separate parts. On top of that, individual sections occasionally are split within themselves, as when Chorus 1 second tenors are divided in two, singing different notes.
This chorus does all that fabulously, filling the house. Robertson's expertise, Luisotti's own background in choral conducting, and lots of hard work add up to excellence. Also, Reed adds:
Part of the reason we are able to fill the house with our sound, despite having fewer singers on stage than I believe Luisotti would like, is that in this production we are closer to the front of the stage, sending less of our sound into the wings and tower above. And we are helped to some degree by the reflectivity of the set.
Then, too, we are constantly being instructed by Ian [Robertson] to "cheat out," meaning to turn our heads toward the audience when we sing instead of facing the person to whom we are singing. It's a constant struggle to get everyone to do this in the midst of busy staging. But turning the head away from the audience even a little causes the chorus volume to drop considerably. And of course whenever the set contains steps upon which to stand, fewer choristers are singing directly into the person in front of them. Plus these costumes are not as sound-absorbing as are many in other productions.
Robertson's response to the accolades:
I'm overjoyed by the quality and character of the sound of the Opera Chorus this year, especially in Lohengrin. The chorus' ability to sound entirely homogenous in both strong and hushed passages testifies to each singer's vocal prowess and flexibility. Their palpable energy, their ability to satisfy the visions of both conductor and stage director, their understanding of the music and their immersion in character on stage are hallmarks of the best opera choruses in the world.
Amen from here, and — as it is happily mandatory this week to keep referring to the World Champions, at least in this part of the world — behold the Opera Chorus singing the National Anthem before a Giants game in AT&T Park.
As for connecting chorus and chandelier: Robertson in the years of working with the Opera since 1987 says he has never noticed the dimming-in-pattern. Of course, he may be busy otherwise; no excuse for the likes of me, sitting idly in the audience.
The day before the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra opens its 2012-2013 season on Nov. 4, the ensemble will make its debut at the fifth annual "Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) community concert.
The young musicians will play Copland’s El Salon México and José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango; other performers on Saturday include the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán, guest actors and dancers, and narrator Luis Valdez.
At the Sunday concert, Donato Cabrera conducts the Copland work again, adding Sibelius' Symphony No. 1, and Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, with 2012 Concerto Competition winner Liam Boisset.
Boisset has been playing with the Youth Orchestra and participated in this year's European tour, where he had a personal experience in Mozart's hometown:
I didn't really understand Mozart's Oboe Concerto until the Youth Orchestra tour in Salzburg. Just being there and taking in the atmosphere showed me how to approach playing it. I want everyone in the YO to hook into the Salzburg spirit when we play the Concerto in Davies Hall.
The 17-year-old oboist from Pleasant Hill had prepared long and hard for the competition which he won:
In preparation for the competition, I would begin each practice session by running through the entire work with a metronome in order to maintain a constant pulse, even in passages with tempo fluctuation. Using the metronome in practice sessions made for a lovely contrast in the performance, during which I felt an overwhelming sensation of musical liberty.
After finishing the concerto, I would use the run-through as a reference for the rest of the session, going back and focusing on any spots that could have been executed smoother. When I felt that I had accomplished all I could, I would finish the same way I started, by running through the piece with a metronome, trying to apply all of the improvements I had made.
Being a soloist is a new, thrilling experience for the young orchestra musician:
I love being in front of the orchestra. It allows for a musical partnership with the conductor and the ensemble that is very different from the experience a musician has while inside the great musical cog that is the orchestra.
I feel as if I am one of the people who drive the machine, rather than one of components within.
Boisset is grateful for the Youth Orchestra experience and support:
As a member of the orchestra, I have become a much more conscious and responsive musician. Never before had I played in an ensemble that demands such acute knowledge of the inner workings of the music from every musician.
Even before I joined the SFSYO, I had always entertained the idea of pursuing a career in music, but the orchestra has helped me decide that music is the only possible thing I could spend the rest of my life studying.
The Nov. 10 Met HD cast features Thomas Adès conducting the premiere of his The Tempest, with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero.
Merola/Adler alumnae Joyce DiDonato and Elza van den Heever sing the title role and Elizabeth I, respectively, in the Jan. 19 simulcast of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.
Look for the Dec. 8 telecast of Un Ballo In Maschera, with Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Stephanie Blythe; and the March 2 Parsifal, with Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Mattei, and René Pape.
No memories of finger positions remain from childhood cello lessons, so I will have to wait for SFCV fellow writer and professional violist Michelle Dulak Thomson to tell me if Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman are holding their respective instrument correctly. It looks convincing enough for anybody not in the performance business.
A Late Quartet, shown at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival and due to open here commercially on Nov. 2 (not Nov. 9, as previously announced), faces and wins over a special challenge to the suspension of disbelief. Four movie stars appear as members of a string quartet, so they have to perform on instruments as if they were seasoned professional musicians.
Disbelief disappears almost immediately as we see the four performing — with credit due to Director Yaron Zilberman, cinematographers, audio engineers; and actors Walken, Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir — all working smoothly together.
The title refers to Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C Minor, Op. 131, an apex of chamber music, written just a year before the composer's death. It is performed gloriously on the film's soundtrack by the Brentano Quartet.
Although music is central to the film, its essence is a "show must go on" backstage drama where the stage is the concert hall and rehearsal rooms.
Ivanir, an Israeli actor seen before in Steven Spielberg films, may be the least known of the four, but his performance as the quartet's first violinist is outstanding. In the story, his tutoring (and affair with) the daughter of the ensemble's married couple is just one of the many extramusical conflicts with impact on the life and work of the quartet. Imogen Poots, in the role of the violin student, is an impressive, lively young actress.
Walken, the cellist, as the founder and leader of the 20-year-old quartet, is a large presence with the least effort. His is an embodiment of the role without "acting." A central story line is his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease and the immediate threat it means for the ensemble as it is preparing for an important, anniversary performance of the Beethoven.
Hoffman, the second violinist, and Keener, the violist, are a couple whose marriage and lives are coming apart. Each has complicated relationships with the other members of the quartet.
Life, agony, and music unfold in the Manhattan setting, leading to a musical-dramatic climax, which has impact even as almost all component conflicts remain unresolved.
It is an attractive, impressive film, especially of interest to music aficionados, but the virtual nonstop piling on of relationship problems music ensembles face, usually less intensely, makes it more melodramatic than the director might have intended.
- Wed May 29, 2013 8:00pm
- Sat June 1, 2013 8:00pm
- Wed June 5, 2013 (All day)
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