American Mavericks I

The San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series I’ve been attending these last few days has been one of the great concert experiences I’ve had. Music which I’ve been listening to on LP and CD for years is coming thrillingly to life in front of large and really appreciative audiences. Knowing how unlikely it is that I’ll ever hear this music live again just redoubles the value of the experience. Knowing, too, just how much really demanding music the Symphony is playing in these concerts, in such a short span of time, one can’t help but admire the dedication (and stamina!) of Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra’s musicians, who I know are putting in some long hours right now.

I would like to share a few thoughts about the music I’ve been enjoying. Warning: this blog entry, and possibly a couple more to come, are possibly for music nerds only, although I’d like to think that some non-nerds might be provoked to check out some of the music on YouTube or iTunes or elsewhere.

Friday, March 9, 2012 Read more

Sunday Salon 3-11-12

Welcome to a special San Francisco edition of the Sunday Salon! I’m here for a few days of vacation – I almost mentioned rest and relaxation, but that isn’t really why I’m here. Both the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and the American Mavericks concert series by the San Francisco Symphony are well under way and helping to fill my day. Books are taking a back seat for a few days as great music and films take over.

I’ll be writing separately about the music I’ve been hearing, which has been amazing, ranging from the surreal craziness of John Cage’s Song Books (where else are you going to see and hear Jessye Norman typing and playing cards, Meredith Monk’s fancy dance moves, Joan La Barbara growling like a dog, and Michael Tilson Thomas pasting Post-It Notes to his jacket and preparing a hearty vegetable drink with a blender? Fantastic!) to the thorny grandeur of Carl Ruggles’s massive Sun-treader. And hearing A Concord Symphony, Henry Brant’s orchestration of the “Concord” Sonata by Charles Ives, has got me writing another blog entry, probably a few days or a week away, on the history and unique sound world of that very important work.

As today is the anniversary of last year’s devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I’d like to write about one of the Festival films I saw yesterday. The Academy Award nominee The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, directed by Lucy Walker, seemed to have been an emotional experience for everyone, partly because of the confluence of the timing – the Film Festival, the anniversary, and the fact that this all happened just as cherry blossom season arrived (I just happened to get home from a concert last night in time to see a memorial service live from Japan on CNN).

Starting with footage of the tsunami itself – even more impressive and awful than the footage we’ve seen repeatedly on television – the film moves to testimony of several people who witnessed and experienced its destruction. The horror of what they lived through can barely be imagined, and their descriptions are pretty overwhelming. Juxtaposed with this, though, are reflections on the cherry blossom – a symbol of beauty as well as hope, perseverance, and impermanence – and the history of its celebration each March and April in Japan. As we see in the film, last year’s celebration was officially suspended, although many people still made the pilgrimage, in part to memorialize those who had lost their lives. That the film can set these horrible and beautiful images side-by-side without being either mawkish or facile is quite an achievement. The film, needless to say, was very moving, by turns horrifying and beautiful, tragic and reassuring.

To close today’s Salon … also making an appearance in the film is what is apparently the world’s oldest cherry blossom tree, the Miharu Taki-Zakura, or Waterfall Cherry Tree of Miharu, in Fukushima, home of the now-famous damaged nuclear reactors and one of the regions hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. Over 1,000 years old, the tree requires some support now, but is still producing its beautiful blossoms and attracting visitors, even after the events of last year.

Weirdos Like Me

So it’s the first non-travel day of my week-long vacation. It’s a little overcast, but the temperature is mild and it’s a bustling Saturday in downtown San Francisco. Even at this early hour, I can hear the people and the cars and the mechanism of the city. And what am I doing? Sitting in my hotel room, half dressed, comparing recordings of the original piano version of the great “Concord” Sonata by Charles Ives, and Henry Brant’s remarkable orchestration of the piece (which I heard last night performed by the San Francisco Symphony in its American Mavericks series). Inspired by the concert, along with my listening I’m reading about the genesis of the Sonata, and taking notes for a blog entry which I hope will be appearing soon. Many people wouldn’t consider this very vacation-like behavior. But you know what? I’m actually enjoying myself. The “Concord” Sonata is by any measure one of the most important piano works of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time, dense and complicated and powerful and playful and very expressive. Getting to know it a little more intimately is really kind of a privilege. It also occurs to me that the American Mavericks series that was one of the motivations for this trip celebrates musicians who didn’t take the expected course, who in some cases suffered through years of obscurity and neglect in order to realize their unique vision. And in a city that also is known to some extent as a haven for unconventional people and behaviors – well, as I listen to the fourth movement of the Ives-Brant “Concord” Symphony and marvel at the way Ives and Brant evoke Thoreau’s own haven at Walden, what Ives once described as “the shadow of a thought … colored by the mist and haze over the pond,” I am actually fairly comfortable about the fact that there is room in the world for weirdos like me.

Sunday Salon 3-4-12

It’s amazing how such a busy week can, in retrospect, seem at the same time so unproductive. But some good did come out of it. Probably my major accomplishment was the completion of my review of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life. I’m actually very pleased by how it turned out, and this from someone who is almost never happy with his writing. One of the toughest parts, strangely enough, was choosing a number of Van Gogh works to supplement the text. With something like 900 paintings and 1,000 drawings to his credit, Van Gogh was unbelievably productive (practically all those works come from the last nine or so years of his short life, which makes his accomplishment that much more amazing). In mentioning this, I’d like to call attention to the Van Gogh Gallery, which has reproductions of almost everything Vincent created and all kinds of information about him and his work. All the jpegs I used in my review came from this extremely interesting website.

For those of you who don’t know me, my actual employment is with the Reno Chamber Orchestra in Reno, Nevada. Among my duties there is writing program notes. You’ve perhaps seen these notes at concerts you’ve attended; they give some biographical background on the composer and a description of the music being played, to give (with luck) some helpful guidance and signposts for listening. The Orchestra is giving concerts this weekend, and here are the notes I wrote for these performances, should you be interested. If you happen to be in the Reno area, come and hear what will be an excellent concert. Here’s some information. Our Orchestra is great, the piano soloist, James Winn, is world-class in every way, and the music is diverse and wonderful. At the box office, tell them that you’re there because of Chris’s blog, and I’ll make sure you get great seats!

Since we do have a concert about four hours from now, my Salon needs to be short this week. As for the coming week, I’m very excited about spending several days in San Francisco! I’ll be attending concerts in the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks series and films in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and visiting favorite haunts like the Asian Art Museum, SFMOMA, and the de Young Museum. With nearly a week, maybe I’ll even allow myself some down time, which I hardly ever do when I’m there, to wander aimlessly around Chinatown or visit the ocean. How motivated I will be to post to my blog, however, remains to be seen!