October 2009 Archives

Infected Mushroom on Friday!!

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The East Bay Arts and Culture Review (aka us) is going to the Mushroom concert this Friday at the Cow Palace! (It's a part of Live 105's Halloween Spookfest.) Let us know if you're gonna be there, so we can find out what you think.

If you don't know, Infected Mushroom is an incredible Israeli trance band that is known for their highly-musically-developed concerts. Their international popularity is apparently growing, and I'm excited to see how they perform in a mostly-American lineup.

Note: Tickets are available here, and you can find out more about the band at their web site: http://www.infected-mushroom.com

A night at the symphony.

         Opening night, there is nothing quite like it.  A sense of wonderment fills the air, as the orchestra sets up.  The ordinary stage and seating area has an atmosphere of perfection, each hue of paint adorning the walls, each light shining down from above, each chair being placed are all choreographed to produce the precise conditions necessary for musical grace to evolve. 
          Evolve it does.
          The stage was set, so to speak, by an adventurous idea from the Marin Symphony: Let's have the conductor interview a writer who is from the Bay Area, and has actually chosen the set list for the evening.  Alasdair Neale and Tobias Wolff sit together and talk about themselves for an half hour, giving the audience members who attend the talk an experience of two bright minds getting ready to do what they (and we) enjoy immensely: Listen to Gershwin's music.
          The talk being over, the Gala attendees pour in (they paying too much money to be bothered with opinions of people like writers and conductors), and soon the Big Bang of the night takes place.  Mr Neale walks on to stage to a cacophony of applause, bows a couple times, shakes the hand of the first-chair violinist several times, let's the audience know that the first chair violinist is basically the greatest thing ever, and finally takes the podium.  Starting with Gershwin's Cuban Overture, from the beginning we can see the concentration and effort put forth by the conductor.  He has all the merits of a god conductor: Present, concerned, polite and energetic.  In my experience, he really cares for the piece he is recreating.  During the talk beforehand Mr. Neale shed light on his views and humility of his own profession, saying that a conductors job is to merely re-create a feeling of what the composer would have liked to hear his-or-herself.  Well Alasdair recreated a sound and an experience for the evening that even Gershwin would not have been bored with.
         By the end of the second piece, Catfish Row Suite, Alasdair had settled a bit more into his groove, being not as concerned and not as tense, but still energetic.  which was a good thing, because it was time for Rhapsody in Blue.  Keisuke Nakagoshi commanded the piano for this piece, and had an interpretation of the work that is seldom heard from this continent.  with a falling-over-himself style at times, the solos seemed splendidly choreographed as if one trip-up could send the whole thing flying, except he never does.  Rather, like Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, he seemed to be 'Falling...with style.'  Very nicely done, in one humble opinion.
          All in all, the night was a success.  I say that not because every single musician on stage was the highest caliber possible.  But like a good football play, you need to use your best players where they will be most effective.  The first chair violinist, the oboe and the first chair cello were all in top form, leading the way for an exciting and original take on Gershwin's beautifully-inspired work.  Using your key players to their potential is what makes a good conductor great, and a fine night at the symphony evolve into something awe-inspiring and wonderful.

Straight Meets Wild at the Marin Symphony

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Tonight's all-Gershwin season-opener at the Marin Symphony was a lesson in combining accuracy with spirit. "I want to recreate it as I think Gershwin would have intended," Music Director Alisdair Neale remarked in his pre-concert talk with author Tobias Wolff, and the first two pieces of the night reflected that philosophy - limited expression within the piece's technical constraints. Neale loosened up in the second half, however, with the help of pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, whose free-wheeling attitude and unexpected rhythms filled "Rhapsody in Blue" with the passion that Gershwin intended, flying the concert on to its spirited conclusion.

But the night's wild atmosphere didn't start with the concert. 300 guests attended a pre-concert gala dinner, complete with food, costumes, and three Model A Fords parked in front. To complete the Twenties atmosphere: a newly-invented cocktail called the "Blue Rhapsody," containing mostly vodka but with enough blue curacao and triple sec to give it some flavor. According to one bartender, roughly half of the 300 gala attendees tried the cocktail, and the rest stuck to more tradition drinks. The gala's "roaring Twenties" theme set the perfect pre-concert atmosphere for participants and for the concert-goers who passed by.

Meanwhile, Neale discussed Gershwin's music with Wolff, a celebrated author who helped choose the program. "I fell in love with the pure American-ness of [Rhapsody in Blue]," Wolff said, describing the piece's city rhythms, optimism, and tireless forward motion. He contrasted Gershwin's style with that of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra of his youth, which he described as European, and too classically committed. "Henry James could be an English writer," he said, "but Mark Twain could not." Such was the difference between Gershwin and his predecessors, and the source of Gershwin's emotional depth and playfulness. Neale had many insightful questions prepared, and Wolff's answers helped listeners understand and frame the concert.

A spirited "Star-Spangled Banner" kicked off the concert, but the orchestra quickly slowed down into Gershwin's "Cuban Overture."

In a World of Common Practice, an Innovatively Thematic Concert

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A few days ago, my new friend Sarah was discussing conducting with me, and she helped me realize that I favor a highly interpretational approach. The virtue of performance is that it's different every time, so I appreciate when inventive conductors find new and different ways to express the meaning of a piece. Within the bounds of the writing, of course, but a live orchestra is a unique opportunity for a different and differently engaging performance. Every time.


Tonight's concert of the University of the Pacific's Concert Band and Wind Ensemble exemplified that philosophy. Conductor Eric Hammer used the pieces as building blocks to create a dramatic arc that spanned the entire first half of the concert. The first piece, a lively Gordon Jacob overture featuring the brass section, cut off into the woodwind-heavy opening of Vaughn Williams' "Rhosymedre." This was the same Walter Beeler arrangement that I've played before, but Hammer cleanly highlighted the chorale on which the piece is based. The Concert Band played it delicately but with emotion, which isn't hard with such an inspiring theme.


Guest conductor Brian Leff followed with a Frescobaldi toccata. His delivery was impressive, full of a lot more expression than Renaissance-era pieces are typically given. Leff's conducting was full of

Yay Brazil!

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I like Chicago and Japan as much as the next guy, but the Olympics have been recently held in both countries. As in, late enough in my short lifetime that I can remember them clearly. The Olympics are about bringing the world together, so should it be held in new countries every once in a while?

The New York Times reports that South America has never hosted the Olympic games. For such a big continent, which has been around for so long, that surprises me. I'm glad that the Olympics will better represent the entire world, and I'm very happy for Rio de Janeiro!

According to my quick calculations, here are the numbers of Olympiads hosted by each continent (thanks to Wikipedia's list of host cities):

Asia - 7
Australia - 2
Europe - 34
North America - 12
South America - 1

Next stop, Africa?

In related news, maybe now we can have a South American or African pope? They came close last time, and those areas certainly have enough Catholics to represent.

Was Maimonides Wrong?

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Or, more specifically, have society's values changed so dramatically that Maimonides' prioritization of the different kinds of tzedakah (Jewish charity) is no longer accurate?

History: Maimonides (a rabbi back in the day) decided that the best kind of tzedakah is the establishment of self-sufficiency for the needy. After that, he prioritized various kinds of anonymous giving (i.e. the giver doesn't know the receiver, or vice versa), followed by unhappy giving at the very bottom. But how were the rankings reached?

Maimonides prioritized his list based largely on the combination of efficiency and honor. You get the most bang for your buck if you help the poor provide for themselves, but honor (or kavod) is big in Jewish. Traditionally, Jews will go to great lengths to protect people's honor. If someone brings non-Kosher food into their house, they'll eat it to avoid embarrassing the person. If a guest wears a tank top into synagogue, none of the congregants will confront her, to avoid embarrassing her. And if someone is having a hard time, Jews will donate through an intermediary, like a rabbi or an organization, so that the receiver won't feel indebted to the helper.

But now, society's priorities have evolved. In a recent class, before teaching about Maimonides, we asked 16 eighth graders which kind of giving they thought was the most valuable. 11 said self-sufficiency, and 5 said double-blind giving. A strong minority, of kids who had gone to Hebrew school and learned about Jewish values and considered the role of need in the community.

This makes me think that perhaps honor has eclipsed self-sufficiency in today's society. It's great if you teach someone job skills and arrange for them to support themself, but how would they feel if you constantly ask them how their new job is going? How would you feel if your relationship has changed from friendship into one of constant (and possibly strained) gratitude? Perhaps the bigger mitzvah is to preserve the honor of society's needy by arranging for a rabbi to help them, or by using one of the many local organizations that operate on the community level. Ultimately, preserving the honor of society's neediest (while helping them, of course) is of paramount importance.