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Be Prepared

January 6, 2004

By Robert Commanday

Having a primary interest in classical music gives such a rewarding and positive grip on life. If a performer or composer, you are always working towards betterment, always looking forward and hoping, positively. If a listener and lover of music, the same might be said.

It's not escape, though some might think it that, perhaps think it's better to be deeply engrossed in the grim news of the day. Was it an "escape" that we could lose ourselves in the happy landing of the Spirit? What a relief, what an "upper" at last for a country that has been getting so many things terribly wrong, now discovering heroes among the scientists and engineers who pulled off this masterstroke of the year, at the very start of it.

In classical music, that is, that which is not directed as entertainment, there is usually a positive and uplifting outcome. Even when a performance, performer or piece disappoints, there are almost always redeeming values to be extracted. That's what reviews bring out, the values in the experience, always something of interest to discuss. And that's what's so uneducated, uninformed, and unguided about newspaper editors and publishers these days. They think it's more interesting and attractive to run endless stories about Britney, Paris, Michael and Kobe, appealing to their own taste and preferences than to provide adequate coverage of the arts that go far towards making San Francisco and like communities happy and wonderful places to live.

So here we are, urging that you get right into the season of the New Year. Earlier in January than usual, there are these "uppers" coming: Juan Diego Flórez singing tonight at 8:00 p.m. in UC's Zellerbach Hall; the Berlin Staatskapelle with Daniel Barenboim conducting an all-Schumann program in Davies Hall next Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with the Monteverdi Choir in sacred works by Mozart, Haydn, and Handel, January 14 in UC's Zellerbach Hall.

It's important to do more than just show up, like trying to better the experience when you get there. In particular, vocal and choral concerts call for preparation because of the texts. If you happen to know the Latin mass, fine, well and good for Haydn's Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida, a piece I feel certain few people around here have heard before. However, for Mozart's great Vesperae solennes de confessore, K. 339, with the heavenly Laudate Dominum for solo soprano, the psalm texts for the vespers go by in a flash. If you don't know the texts being sung, you miss the heart of the experience and what the composer intended you to hear. It's the meaning, accent and emphasis that he captured in the music, and it's the sound of the language in the fluid, ever-changing tone being sung.

To learn about Flórez' program in advance, you just need to click on Cal Performances' website, then click on Juan Diego Flórez in the column on the left. That will bring up his program, skimpy and insubstantial as one might expect from a young, newly risen divo tenor, but unfortunately no translations. You should arrive early at Zellerbach Hall to study those, a must for the vocal recital attendee. That will help you assay the artistry of the man apart from the charms of his voice and vocalism. (The biographies given on the Cal Performances' Flórez page are typical press agent handouts, uninformative except insofar as you might find a list of all his opera house engagements fascinating).

If you don't have access to the song texts, arriving early and absorbing the translations on the program before the singing starts is the best thing to do — in fact, the best preparation for any program of vocal music.

[By Michelle Dulak]

Preparing for instrumental concerts is trickier, because there aren't any words to guide you. Except, of course, the program notes — so it's as well to see whether the presenter of the concert is the sort that posts program notes in advance online. A surprising number now do. The San Francisco Symphony, for example, puts up program notes for its performances well in advance. The Symphony's note writers are very fine, so if you're attending an SF Symphony concert, you might as well look up the notes in advance. And if you haven't time to read them before settling into your seat, by all means do it afterwards.

Whether to listen to recordings of pieces you're about to hear is one of those permanent questions. Over five years of reviewing, I've ultimately settled on a working arrangement. If I'm reviewing a performance of a piece I remember dimly, I'll listen to a recording of it — if I've got access to one — several days before the performance. But if it's a piece I know well, I'll listen to several recordings, as many as I can stand. The reason is that in the first case I'm just trying to remember the contours of the piece, but in the second I'm trying to remember the range of things that can be done with music I already know well.

If you read musical notation, and can get your hands on a score — and there are more scores in the Bay Area's public libraries than you might think — then check out what pieces you can before hearing them. But bringing scores to concerts doesn't always work well. Try to follow a large orchestra while also following a large orchestral score and you're doomed to frustration; you'll be flipping pages every six seconds, and missing half the music purely by trying to keep your place.

With chamber music it's somewhat different; anyone who can read music can follow a string-quartet score, and there are ordinarily four or so systems on facing pages, so you have time to follow the music and understand it. And having a score in hand is especially valuable if you don't know the piece well — not so much for making sense of unfamiliar music while you're hearing it as for fixing particular moments in your memory just afterward. Once tie a particular nuance to a particular place in a score and you aren't likely ever, ever to forget it.

©2004 By Robert Commanday and Michelle Dulak