Andras Schiff performed the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by J.S. Bach, and Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120, by Beethoven, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, October 13, 2013. Being at this performance was an enriching, exciting, mind opening experience. I would liken it to seeing Chartres Cathedral for the first time, trying to absorb its many parts as well as the overall impression of grandeur, its role in its community, its ability to inspire thoughts enlarging this world. This Livelyblog post is not a review in the sense of a critique. How could it be? First, the great pianist. He does not wave his arms around or fling them in the air and jump to let us know when he has finished. Mr. Schiff walks onstage, bows briefly, sits, and plays. When he has finished playing the lengthy, immensely challenging music, he does something wonderful. He allows his hands to remain on the keys until the smallest perceptible sound has disappeared and then lowers his hands to his lap. It is emblematic of his devotion to the music. The drama is more profound for his control. For this performance, the Hedgehogs were seated up high and able to look down directly upon Mr. Schiff’s hands as he played. This allowed a view of the patterns made by the music embodied by his hands. It was fascinating to see the geometry and design within the music. Some of the rhythm can be seen in the moving hands, but what struck one most was the design. It opened thoughts of the elegance of mathematical equations and the patterns in the universe such as one sees in a nautilus shell or the double helix of DNA. The program book offered Mr. Schiff’s “guided tour” through this work. He comments on the frequent hand crossing in Variations 5 and 8. In Var. 8, the physical act of playing the music adds to the impression that there are four or more voices when in fact there are 2. He advises that despite the charm of the melody, the listener must follow the bass line. He refers to the possibility of admiring a great cathedral without thinking of its foundation. In his notes, Mr. Schiff is aware that this approach to the music will raise the hackles of other musicians. Indeed, during the interval between Bach and Beethoven, one easily had the opportunity to hear a famous Bay Area musician criticize this focus on the bass to the detriment of the soprano voice. Well, a cat may look at a king. The Goldberg Variations opens with the beautiful Aria, a melody with many decorations. The bass line will be like the bread crumb path left by Hansel and Gretel. From then on, there are seemingly endless variations, each one completely different in its form, rhythm, and mood. Originally written for a harpsichord with two keyboards, the possibilities are stunningly complex and achieved by Bach in an expansion of human spirit. Mr. Schiff occasionally would look into the audience with a gentle smile as though acknowledging something funny in the music, or something coming that would turn the development of the whole piece. He did this as what he calls the “colossal build up” began in Variation 28 with the trills “like a concert of birds.” The expansive celebration comes in Variation 30. It has humor and a great heart. After the big sound of Variation 30, the Aria returns. It sounded different; it is the listener who has changed. Bach has taken the listener through so much and somehow, with no specific story to tell, one knows a peaceful, happy ending. There are structural, musical connections between the works by Bach and Beethoven. While Bach was almost unknown in Vienna in Beethoven’s time, Beethoven’s friend, Baron Gottfried von Swieten had a library of Bach’s manuscripts which Beethoven studied. Bach seldom used the variation format for his work; Beethoven worked in it often. In the Diabelli Variations one may join in an exploration of Beethoven’s inventions, fresh springs of structure, rhythm, earthy and celestial revels and revelations. One might search in geology and geography to find comparisons to what Beethoven lets us hear. There are dark caverns with glowing crystals, vast canyons with depths delineated for the eye only by modulations of color, placid oceanic expansions belying a terrific force about to be released. There is the rough dance of cheerful country-folk whose humor will be replaced by the sophistication of a Baroque court dance or the gravity of the piano’s own personality as an instrument. The enormous work challenges pianist and audience to experience the complexity possible in human creation as well as the roller coaster ride of human emotion. It ends with a surprise. The waltz from which the variations grew is transformed. After thirty-two variations, the thirty-third rises up. It is gentle and complete. Simplicity and purity are in the C major chord with which it ends. It needs no elaboration or emphasis. It is the answer the artist won by traveling through many worlds. Listening to Andras Schiff playing these works offers an opportunity to connect to the grandest excursions into human being that may be found. When he is playing near you, go.Photo of Andras Schiff at top of post by Birgitta Kowsky.
They are like beautiful candy but without the calories! Those were the perfectly descriptive words of wisdom of Mrs. Diane B. Wilsey, Pres. of the Board of Trustees, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, in introducing the exhibition to the press. There was a movie star atmosphere at this press preview. Reporters for print, tv, and online outlets rushed to find seats. There were no seats. There were Very Special people in front of the room. The reporters trailed nearby hoping to understand whatever was being said whether in Italian or English or both. One or two individuals were checking out shoes in order to determine who was someone Very Special from Italy. The theory, usually sound, would be that the Very Special Italians would be wearing Very Special Italian shoes. While the chattering continued, some of the press decided to take the opportunity for just one more bite of goat cheese quiche. The Museum Director and others who had been seated rose to join the chattering class. Mrs. Wilsey had to repeat, “Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen,” three times before the press, perhaps not used to being called with those titles, came to attention. Mrs. Wilsey recalled the time when she was a little girl living in Rome with her family and, age 11, received the gift of a Bulgari ring from her father. She wore the ring that day. The history of Bulgari (accent on the first syllable) presents a fascinating relationship to the history of European and American culture. In the early 1950s, there were those who considered it bad taste to wear yellow gold jewelry at night. Mixing colored cabochon stones was not done. Bulgari revolutionized jewelry by freeing designs from the formal restraints of platinum and white gold. Bulgari works were the favorite of international stars like Elizabeth Taylor. Her husband, Richard Burton, claimed the only word Elizabeth knew in Italian was Bulgari, that “nice little shop.” Andy Warhol considered it the most important museum of contemporary art. The design collections reflected the era of flower power, changes in hem lengths, and many threads through which art created the wider culture. Jean Christophe Baban, Bulgari director, explained that Bulgari respects the difference between luxury items and art. The master jewelers of Bulgari find ways to glorify particular stones which nature created over millions of years. He said that diamonds are an “easy way” to sell jewelry, but it takes more to use different stones and turn them into something rarer still. The exhibition includes 145 objects; two thirds of them are from Bulgari’s heritage collection. The visitor will find brilliant colors and surprising shapes in jewelry often combining precious and semi-precious stones. The design of the exhibition itself engages the eye with dramatic lighting and appropriately jewel-box like display cases. For this visitor, the watches made to resemble bejeweled serpents were a favorite. Did we misunderstand the true story of Cleopatra and the asp? When Cleo lifted the slender snake to her throat was she thinking of personal adornment, not death? Was the asp anxious to assert its own splendor as a natural jewel? Did it strike out of rivalry with the Queen’s beauty? Here we have proof that Shakespeare was not the pen name of a woman; his sister might have thought this through more carefully. See The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950-1990, at the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. It opened Sept. 21 and stays through Feb. 17, 2014. Remember: Christmas is coming! Photos at top: Snake bracelet watch in gold, enamal, rubies, Bulgari heritage collection; Bulgari bib necklace, 1965, gold with emeralds, amethysts, turquoise, & diamonds, formerly in the collection of Lyn Revson.
Andras Schiff performed J.S. Bach’s Six Partitas for Keyboard, BWV 825-830, Sunday, October 6, at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. “Awesome” was the comment of the Hedgehog’s co-editor, a man seldom given to exaggeration or the use of that word to describe a sandwich. It was an awe-inspiring event. For readers who were not there, I will try to describe this once in a lifetime experience and also urge upon you attendance at one of Mr. Schiff’s performances or, if that is not possible, a careful listen to one of his recordings. I had the privilege to hear Mr. Schiff on his earlier visit to San Francisco in which he both played and talked about Bach. While I wanted to write about what he said and did, I put it off; perhaps I imagined that some how my ordinary brain would wake up to a set of words to match the music. That did not happen. The Partitas are multi-movement suites. Each is different; one can not anticipate, “oh, there’s the Sarabande, here comes the Gigue.” Bach uses those dance forms ( yes, conservatory students, dance forms ) in wholly new ways of his limitless invention. He adds movements called “galanterien,” optional movements, that come from all sorts of forms: arias, capriccios, fantasias. Within each movement, there is more invention within and all around it. The rhythmic variety is dazzling. Both the right and left hand establish different, complex rhythms and then take off onto new ones. The result is beauty. It is beautiful in the way a sunset or a forest might be beautiful on one glance but more beautiful, a mysterious and challenging beauty, if one could look knowing that one was not seeing a static picture but myriad entities made up of countless atoms all in motion. It was a performance that required focus on the part of the audience. The focus and endurance of the artist is at a level combining the focus of a world champion chess player with a world champion Iron Man. Being a person who does neither chess nor Iron Man contests, I do not claim to know from the inside what that is like. I am reaching to understand. The performance of these technically wizardly compositions lasted about 2 hours and 45 minutes. I mention that lest someone think a solo performance would necessarily be brief. The first half included Partita No. 5, No. 3, No. 1, and No. 2. Each one contains delights. No. 5 has a Corrente movement which truly runs quick notes dashing through bright, happy harmonies. Its seventh and final movement is a thrilling Gigue which demands beyond virtuoso playing. The rhythmic inventions in No. 3 continually alter the listener’s perceptions and occasionally reveal just a glimpse of a dance. The stunning final movement, Capriccio, of No. 2 leaves the listener breathless. Partita No. 4 opened the first half offering part of an answer as to the artist’s choice of the order of the works. This Partita’s lyricism made it sound almost as though it were foretelling the musical future evolving into Romanticism. Bach’s genius transcends any classification by era or style, just as pure mathematics, another hobby this writer has yet to take up, knows no limits by year or geography. The Hedgehog co-editor told me after the concert that the Partitas are works that every serious piano student knows, or knows about, or has approached, although, he said, they are so very (extremely) difficult to play. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am that I was not familiar with these magnificent works. That is because when the final movement, a Gigue that took even the previous Gigues to another level of pure music and artistry, came suddenly to its end, the sudden gesture of both my hands to my mouth in amazement was entirely involuntary. Yes, 2 hours and 45 minutes without the many curtain calls and Mr. Schiff’s generous encore. I would have gladly stayed to hear it all again. Andras Schiff performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Sunday, Oct. 13, 7 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.
Music@Menlo, the premier chamber music festival, always provides stellar musicians, the finest in classical music, and innovative programming. Music lovers anywhere near Menlo Park-Atherton, CA, will have an opportunity on Sunday, October 13, to hear the renowned Emerson String Quartet perform with their new cellist, Paul Watkins. While he is new as a full time member of the Emersons, Mr. Watkins has played with individual members of the quartet in the last few seasons. He replaces cellist David Finckel in the first replacement of an Emerson member since 1979. Mr. Finckel is co-founder and co-artistic director of Music@Menlo with his wife, pianist Wu Han. The much honored couple together are also co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New York, and Chamber Music Today, Seoul, Korea. No worries that Mr. Finckel will have too much leisure time on his hands. Mr. Watkins has been the cellist of the Nash Ensemble, in England, for 16 years. The Nash is a mixed chamber ensemble including piano and wind instruments with strings. He is also the Principal Conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and a busy guest conductor and composer. When Mr. Watkins made his first appearance as a guest at Music@Menlo his extraordinary musicianship shone through delighting the Hedgehogs and the rest of the audience, too. Even as he was excellent as an ensemble member, he was clearly a special musician. The Emerson String Quartet has found an exciting new member. The 4 p.m., Oct. 13 concert is at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. For tickets: see www.musicatmenlo.org or call 650/331-0202. The program includes quartets by Joseph Haydn, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. Future programs for M@M: Pianists in Paris with Jean-Efflam Bevouzet, Soyeon Kate Lee, Anne-Marie McDermott, Wu Han, Feb. 9; Alessio Bax, piano, May 11.
The Lively Foundation thanks the Mountain View businesses which gave us so much help for the International Dance Festival-Silicon Valley. The Posh Bagel, on Castro Street, donated so many wonderful, assorted bagels to feed the hungry, hard working dancers during the Full Day of Dance and also the audience at the Festival Concert, August 25, at the Mountain View Masonic Lodge. Here’s a picture of The Posh Bagel in progress. This was the 2nd season of the Festival and also the 2nd time that Marie, the Manager at Posh Bagel, gave Lively this great support. Please patronize the wonderful businesses helping us: Posh Bagel, Starbucks and Le Boulanger are all on Castro Street in Mountain View and all demonstrated their care for art & community. Thanks!