29 October 2015


Outside a shop on Upper Market, a sign reads, "May your scary internet self-diagnosis be waaaaaay off!"

Haydn & Malipiero

Another evening at the Conservatory, this time to hear Haydn's String Quartet 53, GF Malipiero's String Quartet 1, and a trio of M Duruflé, opus 3, each played by a different ensemble. If the players in the Haydn were out of their teens, I would be surprised, but they played splendidly. The Thalea Quartet played the Malipiero, a fascinating piece based on two contrasting forms of Italian poetry, one apparently a rustic form, and the other more sophisticated. The rural character of the first came through strongly. It put me in mind of the Menuettto movement in the Haydn, which sounded rather like a country dance. I recalled something that one of my college teachers had said: "Never forget that Haydn was basically a Croatian peasant!" --- this to encourage a student quartet to play Haydn with more 'country' and less mannered elegance. The Malipiero had lots of 'country', and elegance too. I studied him in school, but heard very little of his music. This long piece was a real joy to hear. The Duruflé trio, for flute, viola, and piano, was a joy also, and too short! All in all, a very engaging evening.

La musique moderne

A few days ago, I took myself to the Conservatory to hear the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players perform works by composers whom I did not know: David Lang ('death speaks'), Lee Hyla ('We speak Etruscan') and Gerard Grisey ('Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil'). There was an improvisation as well, before the Grisey work. The Lang pieces were lullaby-like and static, a mix of piano, electric guitar, violin, soprano, and bass drum.. An agreeable sound, settings of poems about death, as were the Grisey pieces. The ensemble wasn't quite in synch, and the soprano had the odd task of striking the drum behind her, while she sang. But the overall effect was not uninteresting. The Hyla piece comprised bass clarinet and baritone sax, an ungainly pair. But the piece was structured, coherent, and well played. The improvisation included a megaphone and an English horn. They began in the back of the hall and progressed slowly to the stage. The sounds were rather like recordings of the solar wind, and radio transmissions of stars and galaxies and gas giant planets. By the end of it, the megaphonist looked like he was about to suffer a stroke. A young woman told him, during the interval, that his performance was "strangely beautiful!" The Grisey pieces were typically would-be modernist: episodic, fragmentary, non-developmental, full of tone colors made up of lots of percussion, brass and reeds, including things like muted tubas, and one each of the string instruments. And a harp. The soprano frequently held a tuning fork to her ear. Lots of changes of time signature and dynamics. The work struck me as a collection of quasi-modernist clichés and retro "avant-garde" gestures. A challenging evening.

At the box office, I inquired whether there were tickets "at old peoples' prices!" "No," replied the young man. "We assume that with age come wisdom and wealth!" "I have news for you!" I said.

Beside me in the hall were an old man and his "lovely Irish bride of fifty-seven years," as he put it. During the improvisation, he pronounced it "a disgrace," and stumbled out of the hall, taking his lovely bride with him.


A lady on the 5 Fulton bus was reading Machiavelli's 'Prince.' "I only read it on the bus," she said. "At home, I'm reading 'The Agony and the Ecstasy!'"


It was a sunny, hot day a few weeks ago. I encountered my surfer neighbor at the street door; he had just returned from Ocean Beach. He was half out of his wetsuit and was organizing his things. "I had way too much fun out there today!" he said. "How awful for you!" I replied, with a smile. "Yeah," he said, "I almost feel guilty!"


The evening of the equinox I was present at a guitar performance by a young friend, to mark his 33rd year. It was an interesting and impressive presentation, of works by composers I knew (Takemitsu, Castelnuovo Tedesco, Villa-Lobos) and by others I knew not (Milan, de Narvaez, Mudarra, Aguado, de la Maza). The program notes reveal the performer's sharp mind, and a humorous one, as in this about Villa-Lobos, "who revered himself as the Brazilian Bach!" A rare birthday celebration in my experience, where the celebrated one gifted his friends.


A month ago I took myself to the Legion of Honor Museum. I had intended merely to look through the permanent galleries and their familiar pieces, but I stumbled upon a Members Preview of a new exhibition, that of the notable watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. I spent a few hours in this fascinating collection. The intricacy of the pieces, their beauty and elegance, are worth more than a single visit. It was interesting to see just how many different layouts a watch can have, and to realize that what look like 20th and 21st century developments were actually invented in the 18th and 19th centuries. The watches (and clocks) were costly too; the original buyers of these pieces, kings and generals and nobles and other elite persons, paid thousands of francs for a custom-made timepiece.


Recently, I took myself to the Conservatory of Music, to hear a program titled "The Soul-Searching Mozart," which featured two G-minor works: the Viola Quintet K516, and Symphony 40. The third movement was the best of the Quintet. A student friend remarked that the movement inspired a work of Beethoven, but, alas, I forget which. And the tempo of the last movement of the symphony was very brisk, more so than I've heard before. The orchestra carried it off.... G-minor was apparently Mozart's choice for conveying tragedy and emotional distress; whatever the case, Mozart was far from overwhelmed by distress, and joy, delight even, were never far away. This was an interesting program, a nice inclusion in the Conservatory's "Classical Kick-Off Weekend ." I went from this performance, to another recital hall, for a program titled "Embellished Mozart": some arias with fortepiano or guitar, an item by J C Bach, and an overture arranged for two guitars. A pleasant hour.