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A Few Things, Mostly Musical

May 21, 2012

A weekend of musical adventures in the Bay Area. Some quick thoughts about a few things I came across...

1) Berkeley Symphony Gala: The best one I've attended yet. The reason? The Symphony featured short chamber pieces by a bunch of great composers such as Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Dresher. In between courses of the dinner, Berkeley Symphony players as well as guest soloists like pianist Sarah Cahill performed the pieces in alcoves around the room.  In between courses of the dinner, Berkeley Symphony players as well as guest soloists like pianist Sarah Cahill performed the pieces around the room. Sometimes the musicians were just a couple of feet away from the audience members. These intimate musical vignettes were so much more seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the orchestral fundraiser than the usual thing you find at such events -- a random performer playing in a corner whom most people pay scant attention to -- because they were a true celebration of the talents of musicians and composer.

2) John Chen and Ely Karr in recital: I've been living across the street from a church which calls itself "San Francisco's Church of the Arts!" for the past three years but only managed to catch a concert there for the first time on Sunday. I wandered in for 30 minutes between returning from a weekend trip to Sonoma for a friend's 40th birthday party and heading off to another event in the Twin Peaks neighborhood, and caught violinist Ely Karr giving a very determined and rather workmanlike rendition of J S Bach's Capriccio in B flat Major followed by John Chen playing an extremely dense work by Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer on the harpsichord entitled Le Vertigo. I found the piece to be more schizophrenic than vertiginous with its thumping, repeated block chord passages that would suddenly collapse into a scrambled melee of notes and then revert back again without any warning. Weird and wonderful stuff from a not-very-well-known composer who was born 20 years after Bach.

3) Two Road Trip CD Recommendations: I often listen to the CDs I get sent in the mail from promoters on long car journeys. In the batch I took with me to Sonoma this past weekend, two recordings came up trumps. The first was 13 Ways of Looking at The Goldberg: Bach Reimagined featuring the luminous young pianist Lara Downes (pictured above.) Downes follows a sensitive performance of Aria, from Goldberg Variations with a chocolate-box of short pieces inspired by Bach's masterwork. There is so much variety of mood and texture on the CD. I love in particular the whispy pointillism of Fred Lerdahl's Chasing Goldberg and the off-kilter humor of C. Curtis-Smith's Rube Goldberg Variation. The other CD which blew me away was jazz singer Barbara Dane's On My Way. The recording was made in 1961. I had never heard of Danes until an acquaintance thrust the CD in my hand at the radio station the other day. Her voice has flexibility and a casual ease. There is a lot of depth to it too. Danes sings standards without too much adornment. But she makes me focus intensely. Never has Pete Seeger's crusty old Hammer Song sounded so new.


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