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SF Symphony: Music for Ordinary Citizens

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Today's outdoor SF Symphony concert in Justin Herman Plaza was fun and exciting, but for vastly different reasons than their usual concerts. The amplified sound quality was impeccable, and the playing was great, but - most importantly - the Symphony got to share their music with a much wider audience than they normally access.

The concert was markedly informal, even for famously-lax conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and its outdoor nature added a fresh flavor of unpredictability. At one point, Tilson Thomas held a particular note for 15 seconds when the wind flipped a page in his score. A few moments later, he continued conducting with his right hand, while reaching over and grabbing a binder clip from the concertmaster's music stand.

The general atmosphere of the concert was also dramatically unpredictable. Sirens and horns mixed periodically with Beethoven and Berlioz, and bells from the Ferry Building delayed the start of two separate pieces (at the hour and half-hour). Add that to the mixed audience of families, businesspeople on their lunch breaks, schoolchildren, homeless people, and one guy in a baseball cap tap-dancing along to the music, and you've got yourself a cross-section of San Francisco's population.

Still, I'm not sure that the schoolchildren were a good choice for this event. While I (obviously) encourage schools to involve students in the arts, especially music, these students were utterly uninterested in the concert. Instead, the students - from the Edison Charter Academy - amused themselves by pushing each other and walking back and forth across the pathway. I don't blame them, sitting in direct sun in the broiling heat, but I do blame their teachers, clicking away on their Blackberries and completely ignoring both the concert and their students. Perhaps the Edison Charter Academy should do a better job of choosing locations for their field trips, and the teachers (do you need a credential to teach at a charter school?) should pay more attention to their kids' experience. It's never a bad thing to admit that a field trip isn't working, and take the kids to go look at the water instead...

(Cross-posted with an alternate ending at the East Bay Arts and Culture Review.)

Feast of Jewish Learning

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On Sunday, I got to attend the coolest Jewish event! Entitled "Feast of Jewish Learning," the SF Bureau of Jewish Education brought in about 20 Jewish educators to teach sessions on everything from Fiddler on the Roof to Talmudic sex stories. I chose three sessions that were tremendously fun, and all of the 350 young adult attendees had a great time!

My first session was about Fiddler on the Roof, and how the producers (of the original stage show) formed their particular image of Anatevka. Beyond its obvious sentimentalization and lack of authenticity, it turns out that all of the sources used were politically biased. From a set of photos (funded by the Joint Distribution Committee to get people to donate), to an "anthropological" book (funded by the American Jewish Committee to improve the image of American Jews), to various Yiddish and Ukranian films that perpetuated stereotypes for various political goals, every single source that the producers used had been subjectively created to serve one goal or another. Thus, the imagery of Fiddler on the Roof is based on intensely political source material. Cool stuff!

The next session I attended examined alcohol from the Jewish perspective. We read the story of Noah, in which he is totally righteous and solid until the very end of the story, when he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and gets naked, after which his son walks in on him. I LOVE a good text study, and we had a lot of fun learning about the different names used, and the story's various contradictions and problems. Plus, it was led by the amazing Jhos Singer, an incredible maggid who comes up to Camp Tawonga every once in a while. Always a good time when he's around.

My last session was about King David's alleged adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. (You know: "Your faith was strong, but you needed proof, you saw her bathing on the roof") Anyway, after examining David's resultant actions, in which he sends the husband into battle to die, and then marries the wife, we looked at the Talmudic justification for David's actions, which - it turns out - weren't actually adulterous. In the end, though, he got stuck with the murder, and God punished him for it by killing David's son. Interesting justice, and the Talmud has tons of different perspectives on it... I love a good text study.

The only bad part of the Feast was the lunch itself (kosher, provided). They had bagels, which I enjoyed, but only cream cheese and vegetables to put on them. A couple cheese slices would have killed you? God forbid you provide a little lunchmeat? Even some hot dairy food would have satisfied me. Overall, though, it was a great event, and I really enjoyed learning there. I wish it were held more frequently than once a year...

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A Heritage Coupled with Drumbeats

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Infected Mushroom rocked the stage in a unique way on Oct. 30. The Israeli techno band, now internationally famous, brought an energy that surpassed all of the other bands at Live 105's Subsonic Spookfest. Indeed, their music also stood out, diverging from "classical" techno by adding guitar, drums, and keyboards to their sound. Duvdev, their lead singer, enlivened the performance by adding both lyrics and a bounce-filled energy.

The Mushroom maintains that they identify more strongly as musiciance than as Israelis. They have said countless times that Israel is simply their country of origin, and that Judaism no more inspires their music than any other style or heritage. When I interviewed Duvdev, he explained that they would naturally be inspired by the music of their home country, both Jewish and Israeli. But the similarity was greater than that. Duvdev's role onstage revealed his substantial (if unintended) connection with his Jewish roots.

In Klezmer (upbeat traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe), each band would include a Master of Ceremonies (MC). The musicians would play the music, and the MC would jump around, inspiring the audience to get up and dance, and interacting with the band members to keep them excited. This was exactly the role that Duvdev played at the Spookfest concert. He also sang, with incredible accuracy and skill, but that could have been accomplished by anyone. The key feature of Duvdev's performance (and, really, the entire set) was his hyper-energetic interactions with each of the band members, and his constant encouragement of the audience to clap, sing, or dance along to the music.

Infected Mushroom's set was received extremely well by the audience. Their international superstardom won them the Spookfest's

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

Not Just a Show, but an Experience

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I experienced a slam poetry event tonight, but the word "show" or "performance" doesn't accurately describe it. Rather, I was overtaken by the punch of the entire experience. Not just the people on stage, but the audience and their interaction and the vibrant energy of the room.

The performances themselves were incredible. I saw a wide range of talent, from rappers and beatboxers to poets and a stand-up comedian. The acts were rather raw, which (I was warned in advance) is too intense for some people. But, after growing up as I have in the American Jewish summer camp system, I'm accustomed to such honest exposition (just kidding), and I really enjoyed the show. Not kidding.

But the thing that struck me most about the evening was the audience's total commitment to participation. An embodiment of the "go with the yes" that we talk about in Camp Tawonga's training. Between each act, the host invited up members of the audience for various gross challenges, and everyone was clamoring to participate. Mid-way through the first act, the host even invited audience members up on stage to perform their own poems. Some were better than others, but the important thing was the participation. It totally magified the energy of the event, and changed it from a performance into an actual experiential evening.

Small-town 4th of July parade = charming

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And now, joining community theater and "Stars & Stripes" independent-brand cola on the charming list, small-town 4th of July parades. Specifically, the one in Orinda, CA.

Yesterday, when I returned home from camp (for the weekend), my mom showed me an article about Orinda's volunteer marching band. For 25 years, they've been assembling the morning of the parade to improvise a performance. Cool, right?

So I went down to participate. Amongst veterans, political clubs, youth groups, chuches, and the high school's cheerleaders and football team (though I can't quite figure out why they're all around in early July). The marching band wasn't the most organized or talented in the world, but it was fun and functional. Everybody watching enjoyed it, and for their enjoyment the band's skill level was perfectly matched.

How UnAmerican was the Super Bowl?

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No, not Bruce Springsteen. He was awesome. :-) I'm talking about the national anthem.

Jennifer Hudson's perverted rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner disgusted me. Sure, it was passionate and all, and I guess she looked patriotic. But that doesn't change the fact that she CHANGED THE UNDERLYING RHYTHMIC STRUCTURE of our national anthem.

It's one thing when Aretha Franklin changed My Country 'Tis of Thee at Pres. Obama's inauguration. For one, My Country 'Tis of Thee is solely a ceremonial piece. It holds no official status in America, and isn't an official symbol for anything. For another thing, she just changed a couple bars. She didn't fundamentally reinvent the entire piece's foundation.

When Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag in 1984, he was protesting actions by the Reagan administration. Maybe he was justified, and maybe he wasn't, but everyone agrees that he had a compelling reason for descrating one of our country's most sacred symbols. Ms. Hudson wasn't protesting a war, or even making a statement. She was simply showing off by

Now, I'll admit that my patriotism is occasionally different than what you'd expect. But I think we can all agree that our national anthem is sacred. It represents not just America right now but all of America's history - the Declaration and the Bill of Rights, freedom from slavery and the right to vote, and yes, even our wars, when they were right and when they were wrong. So I accuse Jennifer Hudson of the unpatriotic perversion of a sacred national symbol, because I am offended.

Live-Blogging the Vatican's Midnight Mass

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1:05 am: It's been grand, but my bedtime (1:15) quickly approaches. Thanks for reading, and check back often for my regular blog and for upcoming live-blog events. To subscribe to the Noahblog update mailing list, please e-mail Have a happy and healthy Christmas, everybody!

12:54 am: That's a very pimp golden Crucifix. I learned this semester the difference between a Crucifix and an ordinary cross. It becomes a Crucifix when it has Jesus hanging off the front (typically Catholic imagery). The protestants generally stick to ordinary crosses without Jesus.

12:48 am: Classy that the Pope's microphone has a brand label on it. I can't read it, but that's some serious product placement.

12:36 am: The Apostles' Creed. They didn't announce it, but I recognized the text from a little flyer I picked up at the Bart station last week. It's a cute little mantra, concise and punchy. Not sure I'm a fan of the translation, though.

Also: The last post was at 12:34. 1-2-3-4. How cool is that?

12:34 am: Again, I love the font of the on-screen text. Very old-skool biblical. Also the star inside the "P" in St. Peter. Classy, NBC. It looks like the same font they've used since the Seventies.

12:31 am: The Master of Ceremonies has requested a moment of silence, to reflect on the Pope's words. That's a good idea. I'd like to have my own moments of silence, that I could take with me to conversations, to give people time to

It's about expectation

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When you expect something to be amazing, and then it is amazing, you're impressed to a moderate degree. When, however, you have no advance expectations, or even moreso when you expect something to be mediocre, then there's a particular kind of "blown away," occasionally involving dizziness and/or elation.

This evening, at the Berkeley Symphony, I had the pleasure of being impressed twice in one concert. First by minimalist composer John Adams's Shaker Loops, which I expected to be good, and second by new conductor Joana Carneiro, whom I didn't know much about, and whom I expected to be pretty mediocre. Wow, was I wrong about her.

To begin with her hugest accomplishment, I've never seen a Beethoven Symphony played with such electricity. Crisp is too gentle a word for how together the orchestra played. Except for two hiccups, the orchestra was locked in not just with each other, but with Ms. Carneiro, the source of the electricity (and a hundred other emotions). From my seat on the side in the very first row, I had the experience of watching Ms. Carneiro's face as she conducted. Her face, I realized afterward, was the reason that the orchestra was able to play Beethoven's Fifth with such vibrant life. She was apparently feeling real emotions about the piece, and the orchestra had no choice but to mirror those emotions. From deep sadness to infuriated anger, and everything in between, she gave the music the character that other conductors (that I've seen) have left by the wayside. Sure, the orchestra twice got de-synchronized, when Ms. Carneiro's gestures got a little too adventurous, but it was worth it to see such a passionate and expressive performance. Indeed, I always prefer an exciting performance to a technically perfect one, and I challenge the musicality of anyone who disagrees.

At intermission, I met John Adams as he walked back to his seat. He signed my program, which was an incredible thrill. He also brushed past my knees as he hopped onstage after Shaker Loops. OMG It was so insanely cool! But as soon as I knew he was there, I'd expected it to be cool. Ms. Carneiro caught me completely off-guard with the magic of her performance, and that was the most impressive part of the evening.

EDIT: The symphony's Executive Director introducted their "Music in the Schools" pins as an excellent last-minute gift for Hanukkah or Christmas, in that order. Legit!