December 7, 2009
Had three classical music concert experiences this weekend, none of them "professional" in the standard sense of the word, but all of them encouraging in the sense that they demonstrate how great musicianship exists at the grassroots level in even the most adverse of financial climates. I'd like to share with you a few thoughts about each one:
1. International Orange Chorale at the Solarium Public Space, 55 Second Street, San Francisco: This San Francisco-based a cappella vocal ensemble, named after the official color of the Golden Gate Bridge, performs all its concerts for free. The singers volunteer their services (they all make a living doing other things such as working at Google) but musical standards are high. The eclectic program featured everything from madrigals by Thomas Morley and Claudio Monteverdi to works by local, contemporary composers like Robin Estrada and Joseph Gregorio. The group also performed a fiendishly difficult but mesmerizing world premiere by Shaffer McGee -- "Death of a ball turret gunner." The Solarium space is a delightful, casual place to hear choral music. It's bright and has a bright acoustic.
2. School of the Arts (SOTA) Choral and Orchestral Concert at School of the Arts Auditorium, 555 Portola Drive, San Francisco: SOTA is in a state of financial disarray. The classrooms are run-down and the place hasn't seen a lick of paint in decades. Nevertheless, the teachers and students soldier on. The concert they pulled off at the weekend is testimony to the creative brilliance of the SOTA community. Although the program (like many school concerts) was rather long, the various choirs and orchestras presented a diverse range of work in a polished and spirited manner. I was particularly taken with the candlelit opening processional by the Chamber Choral Ensemble which featured two spectral setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" - one an anonymously composed plainchant and the other by Tomas Luis de Victoria. I also really loved the Vocal Jazz Ensemble's take on "Fragile" by Sting (arranged by Phil Matson.) The soloist, a small 13 or 14-year-old by the name of Rafael, has the makings of a young Sinatra. His voice is mellow and smooth like a good cup of Venezuelan coffee and he is sweetly handsome. The orchestral offerings were less even. A performance of Arcangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso in g minor had a lot of life to it though the intonation was sometimes fuzzy. The combined choral and orchestral performance of Padre G B Martini's "Domine, ad Adjuvandum Me Festina" was lively and bold. But Gabriel Faure's "Cantique de Jean Racine" was less successful. It lacked energy and the necessary sostenuto to make the piece come alive.
3. Taping of NPR's From the Top at Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University Campus, Palo Alto: What a treat to experience the recording of this great young people's classical music showcase in front of a live audience in the show's 10th anniversary year. The producers assembled an eclectic group of young prodigies. My favorite was a scrawny bespectacled cellist by the name of Nathan Chan who had a great sense of humor and played Mark Summer's whimsical, jazz- and blues-infused melody "Julie-O" with verve and pluck. I also enjoyed From the Top alumnus Evan Premo's duets for double bass and voice - the "Seasonal Song Cycle" - which the composer-bassist performed with his wife, Mary Bonhag. Less compelling was the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra's take on the same Corelli concerto I'd heard the previous evening at SOTA. The playing, though more technically precise and in tune, lacked soul. It was heavy and angular and Beethoven-like. I wanted the music to dance.
All three of the above experiences demonstrate that music-making is alive and well in the Bay Area at the grassroots level. If only more money would find its way into the system though. This would help to make the experiences even better - both for audiences and for the creators of the work.