Friday, March 19, 2010

Another day in various parts of San Diego

Your smorginess is unfortunately being unexpectedly visited yet again by the imposing Mr. Flu. I would kick him out in the middle of our ongoing argument, but I'm too lazy to go out and pass him on to another victim at the moment.

I did go out for more than a bit a while ago, though. The camera was working alright (though the lens can really use some cleaning... I'm just too scared to touch it at the moment) so I put a bunch of little clips I shot through out the day together into this little home video. The day started in bustling Little Italy (where I laid claim on a beautiful Italian sausage and sauteed onion on hot bun at Pete's Quality Meat for lunch) before venturing off to Estudillo Museum at Historic Old Town San Diego... A bit of a neighborhood walk in North Park before returning to downtown area to catch pianist Kevin Cole jazzing up Copley Symphony Hall with Marvin Hamlisch and the San Diego Orchestra (the latter not being in the clip since no photography is allowed during performance).

The visual is on the boring side, to be sure, but at least there is musical siren Vesselina Kasarova singing a soulful rendition of Mozart's Abendempfindung (to the piano accompaniment by Charles Spencer) from her concert at Konzerthaus Wien in 2006 to listen to in the background. And while old Smorg can bore the pants off the unnaturally attired sloth on a regular basis, boring is not one of the large array of fitting descriptive adjectives applicable to La Kasarova!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Glimpse of Kasarova and Mijanovic in Agrippina

A potentially time-limited treat for fans of mezzo-sopranos Vesselina Kasarova and Marijana Mijanovic. This video clip of snippets from the Zurich Opera's 2009 production (David Pountney production) of Handel's Agrippina with interviews with a few principal singers is available at the Opernhaus's OpernTV page.

I suspect that it won't stay on the OpernTV page for more than a few months (will likely get knocked off once the clips from this season are put up), though.

Edited 1 April 2010: Cheers to Opernhaus Zurich! They had gone and post this clip on their Youtube channel, so here it is!

Click here to visit the Zurich Opera's Youtube Channel.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Voluntarily Bloody Thailand?

Yet another round of political protest in Bangkok, Thailand. This one by the 'Red Shirts' supporters of deposed ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (a billionaire telecommunication tycoon with good - if corrupted - economic record but lousy international relation and much to blame for pushing the minority Southern Muslims into uprisings that led to a slew of bombings a few years back) who want the current moderate Democrats (that's the name of the party there, but in policy it is more conservative and comparable to what the American Republican Party used to be... before it was usurped by the neo-cons into today's religious-fanaticism-ish party) ruling party to dissolve itself and hold another (sure to be) dysfunctional election.

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Those who actually live there can analyze the political situation better than I could even try. Watching what's being done in this protest, though, with the voluntary shedding of blood in order to splash it around the government building's gate and such... I have to wonder just how much of a public health problem it is for the biohazard material (human blood... after all, according to WHO statistic of 2005, 1.14% of all Thais age 15 or older are HIV positive) to be spread around in public places like that. Check out's educational stats page if you wonder about what the statistics mean.

If you haven't been following the political unrest in what used to be peaceful Thailand, BBC News has a good set of fact sheets to help you catch up.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

For Whom The (Joshua) Bell Tolled: Concert @San Diego Symphony (12Mar2010)

Friday night in San Diego is a good time to hop downtown to catch a concert with the San Diego Symphony at Copley Hall, and this past Friday (yesterday, that is) was even more than usual. The SDSO is celebrating its 100th season and has packed their concerts with A-list artists from practically every classical music sub-genre. I can't be happier with the line-up.... except perhaps had they been able to score a Kasarova recital (but then one can't have all the cakes and then eat them too.... or perhaps one can but shouldn't. It's bad for the teeth or something!).

As a side note, though, I went by old Wahrenbrock's Book House on Broadway on the way there. The beloved collectible/used book dealer has been out of business for more than 6 months now, though the place is still boarded up... If anyone feels any compulsion to erect a monument to the disastrous economic near-collapse of 2008, it doesn't get any more sorrowfully surreal and effective than the way that building looks now. A business that had anchored that stretch of downtown since 1935, man... I miss all the hours spent browsing through its cavernous space and double filled book shelves.

Anyhow, Friday's concert at Copley Hall featured music by Antonin Dvorak, Max Bruch, and Peter Tchaikovsky. I was well familiar with Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, of course, though Bruch's folk songs inspired Scottish Fantasy and Tchaikovsky's supposedly Mozart-minded Strings Serenade were mostly foreign to me and to many in the packed auditorium.

Philip Mann was at the podium last night and opened the show with only two selections from Dvorak's Slavonic Dance op. 72 (the B major and E minor dances); a bombastic opening with the smoothly melancholy follow up, though, in this performance, both were rushed through in such no nonsense manner that most of the endearing Slavic flavor in them was lost in the swift whirlwind of his baton.

It was just as well since virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell (in a somewhat elegant maroon shirt with a big black center stripe) then came on the stage and proved the merit of all his accolades. His 1713 Gibson Strad wasn't very loud, but man, it sang with a sweet and sleek sound that commanded attention! The entire auditorium was soon acoustically transported to ruggedly beautiful Scotland (the piece is Bruch's symphonic setting of Scottish songs) as Bell and his hypnotically colorful violin conjured up a hall-filling Scottish soul with beautiful tones and musically imaginative phrasing.
His conviction and lyricism drew real life out of the orchestra, which suddenly found itself engaged in a lively musical dialogue with Bell's solo. Special praise should go to the principal flutist, Demarre McGill, for his virtuosic ease that exquisite matched up with Bell in their brief in-piece duet.

At the end of the last note the auditorium erupted into a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation that brought the violinist back out for four curtain calls. The third of which was punctuated by a solo encore of Henri Vieuxtemps' wittily humorous and stupendously virtuosic 'Souvenir d'Amerique: Variations on Yankee Doodle.'

(This Youtube clip is from another performance up at Sala Sao Paolo)
It was an awesome show of technical virtuoso as well as communicative artistry as his Gibson Stradivarius sang, snarled, cajoled, and even whistled the massively over-ornamented (in a most entertaining way, that is) beloved American tune to the delighted audience.

It was something of a programming blunder to not have the Joshua Bell act end the night. Having spent the intermission recomposing ourselves from the absolutely bedazzled state, the final half of the performance with Philip Mann conducting Tchaikovsky's Strings Serenade in C Major was anti-climatic to say the least and sleep-inducing to say the worst. Or perhaps the worst was the fact that by the 3rd movement of the thing many were so bored by it that they were compelled to find quietly distracting things to do while sitting through the seemingly never-ending music (not a compliment here, many of us really couldn't wait for it to be over with!). In my row of 10 people or so 3 were actually re-reading their program booklet from front to back just to past the time. It was a strange thing since the SDSO is usually so dependably good. Last night it was just lacklustering...

There are many more potentially spectacular concerts to catch at the San Diego Symphony this year, though. If you're in town, be sure to drop in at their website and see if you can score a ticket! In the meanwhile, the San Diego Opera is opening a 4 shows run of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at the Civic Theater a few blocks to the east. I'd love to catch the 2PM performance of Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concerto at the symphony on Sunday, but I'm already rather worn out. Will see what state I'll be in after the opera tonight!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Free Opera Singers!

I spend many hours every week online reading a lot of things including many conversations among classical music and opera fans. And one of the trends I notice is how many fans are impressed by a young performer who match their 'ideal' singing and/or acting style. Then as the young performer grows artistically and starts to incorporate new flavors into her performance; new vocal coloration or more expressive use of rubato or develops a liking for devices like the portamento (a controlled swoop, if you will, to a high note) a la Edita Gruberova or the swell hit (my own term for when she hits the high note softly before swelling into full voice) a la Astrid Varnay, etc, the fans begin to gripe about 'mannerism' and 'lack of discipline'. Worse, some will even go further and accuse an artist who dares to put personal stamp on his/her performance of egoism and lack of respect toward the composer.

And, to cap it all off, once the artist is retired from singing (and or dead), many of these same fans would reverse themselves and sanctify the very things that they found objectionable about the singer's performances anyway. It makes me scratch my head and wonder why they hadn't found it in themselves to support the singer as s/he grew artistically in the course of his/her career rather than to keep wishing for him/her to revert back to a certain time in that career that s/he had obviously grown out of. Why are listeners allowed to mature and change with time while the opera singers are not?

What rather tickles me, though, is the fact that most of these performers actually do music for a living and have studied the score and performance tradition a lot more extensively than their audiences do. And yet, while these audiences are prudent enough to not question a surgeon's method of a surgical procedure or a mechanic's way of refitting the timing belt on their car, they won't even hesitate to assert superior musicological competency to those whose livelihood depends on it. I'm not asserting that the musicians/singers are ALWAYS right in their choices, of course, but I do assert that they tend to be more right and know more about what they are doing than most of their audiences do. And more than that. I do assert that they deserve the right to artistically grow and explore new things just as others do in their own endeavor.

Anyhow... I was just indulging myself again on an aircheck audio recording of the 1 June 1998 performance of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Semperoper Dresden (it is a highly addictive recording that tends to monopolize my stereo for weeks at a time). You see, Vesselina Kasarova, the Romeo in this show is scheduled to reprise the role for the first time in a decade at the Bavarian State Opera in 2011. It is hard to imagine how any performance of this role can compare to the one captured in the recording...

But then, why should I compare this special treat of musical memory competitively with anything else at all? Her voice has changed since then... It is odder, but in all sorts of fascinating manners. Its additional weight and range render it even greater artistic potential than it had back in 1998, and the artist herself now has a lot more life experiences to color her Romeo with. One of the most attractive things about Kasarova as an artist is how she never bores you by keep doing the same thing the same way over and over again. Some may want their favorite artists to behave like a moving CD player. I don't. I get giddy whenever I score another recording of her singing even when she sings all the same arias in different performances. It amazes me how many different ways she can enliven the same pieces of music and make it work.

Acoustically, there is a downside that her very glowy and full voice is now rather hard to capture cleanly with a recording microphone, but that wouldn't matter if one is lucky enough to be able to catch a performance or two in person now, would it? :oD

I'm telling ya', I'm rushing the gate the moment tickets for the Bavarian State Opera's 2011 run of I Capuleti e i Montecchi become available online.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Looking forward to Gounod's Romeo et Juliette with Cast Discussion

The San Diego Opera is staging Gounod's Romeo et Juliette at the Civic Theater this month with the first performance on this coming Saturday night (I've bought my ticket, of course, woe to you if you haven't!!!). It's customary for this company to put up a roughly hour long roundtable artists discussion the week before the show and putting the video of it on Youtube.

I always check it out, though find some of them a bit slow-going (especially when the foreign cast members have hard to decipher accent). This production of Romeo et Juliette has an almost all American cast, though (the exception being beautiful Sarah Castle returning to do another trouser role, Stephano), and the program is really quite informative and entertaining.

Added later:
Well, I went to the first performance of the run and must say that this is a show worth paying to see live. My full review of the performance is posted at AssociatedContent. Bravi to most of the cast and crew for putting on a good show.

One thing that quite bugged me, though, is Stephen Costello, the Romeo who is well endowed with a beautiful voice, secure technical control, and even a very handsome stage presence, but who also seems rather overly addicted to the sound of his own voice. I'm no prude when a tenor in good voice decides to milk one or two high notes during a 3 1/4 hrs opera. But this guy did it no less than 6 times even when he was sharing a scene with his co-stars. That, my friend, is decidedly unneighborly to your colleagues and infuriatingly intellectually insulting to many fans who don't consider ourselves brainless suckers to tenor high notes. This is San Diego, California, not La Scala in the mid 50's.

If you think I am being harsh, have a watch at this cast discussion clip and note how this is not an isolated incidence. One can make a silly faux pas like this and joke about it if one only does it once... but not when one keeps on steamrolling other singers who are trying to help create a good dramatic opera performance. At least the first mistake was unintentional. The second was really childish and inexcusable. One of these days those high notes won't come as easily as they do now... then what?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nursing & Medical Proxy: Something To Take Care Of While You Still Can

Three years ago I posted this short essay about my dysfunctional years of working at nursing homes while going to college.

It was a life-changing experience on many levels. I wasn't always a caring person and distinctly remember doing my best to avoid going to visit my incapacitated grandmother
when I was a kid. She was on the plump side of obese and had diabetes-induced poor circulation. So when she broke her left tibia one rainy morning when I was 8, it just plain refused to heal and the poor woman just went downhill from there, spending the rest of her life confined in bed or in an ill-fit wheelchair.

She was so heavy that it was hard to transport her around... and the only views she got to see for the last 7 years of her life were the interior of her room, the adjacent dining room, what she could see out of her two windows (we lived in a rather flat and uninteresting city, so nothing spectacular was in view there), the inside of the ambulance and the hospital. To make the matter worse, we kids brought home a few strands of flu every winter and so grandma developed the demoralizing habit of coming down with pneumonia every couple of years. I was just a kid then and found her ill-tempered and scary looking... It was required that I stop by at her room to say hello everyday after school. And so I did just that and, if I could help it, never more.

To this day I am quite apt to admire the occasional young lads and lasses I meet who had, by the same age, developed a lot more empathy for others than I did. There are some wonderful people out there who were born with and never lose their caring and selfless nature. I can testify that some others have to consciously learn the trait... And I also know that there are some who never do at all.

You run into all three kinds of people in all the places in your life, of course. But chances are that you won't appreciate the differences between them until you have found yourself a patient at their mercy in a nursing facility. There are nurses who will treat you like their equals and there are nurses who only see you as something to medicate and clean to earn their paychecks. Even more than that, a lot of people find out just what sort of person their trusted family members are when they find themselves in medically disadvantageous condition. In the able-body world you can complain loudly and expect some result... but what will happen to you when you lack the ability to complain or communicate at all?

I expected to find myself surrounded by old people at the nursing homes. I did, but there were many young and middle age folks there as well. The youngest patient I had to take care of was only 18 years old... and dying of AIDS. There were a few quadriplegics, a couple of locked-in's, and a pretty young woman who coded (went into cardiac arrest) 3 times during the year that I worked on her ward from a really bad case of Guillain-Barre syndrome. These folks convinced me that there indeed are living states that are worse than death.

As a physician my mother took care of grandmother all those years without ever being able to let the poor woman go even though grandma repeatedly asked her to. Out of grandma's earshot, though, she would tell us kids that if she ever becomes helpless like grandma was, that she would treat herself to a syringe-ful of KCl and be rid of the sufferings. Though it took a while before she got around to putting that on paper (thus absolving us of having to make that decision for her if she should find herself incapacitated to the point where she can't handle a syringe). I dare say that that is one of the big reasons why she no longer lives in the USA where a bunch of religious people keep trying to impose their will to live on others regardless of their individual right to self determination.

So, regardless how how old (or young) you are and in what physical health you are in, do yourself a favor and discuss with your loved ones (and attorney) what you would like done for you should you have the ill luck to become permanently medically incapacitated (and there are many different conditions that fit that billing). Better yet, put it in writing as a living will with durable power of attorney for health care designation.

Anyhow, I recently read a not all that recent article in the New York Times about a program that places medical students intending on specializing in geriatric medicine at a nursing facility to play the role of patients for 2 weeks so that they can get a feel of what it is like to see things from that perspective. The page may require you to join the NYT's website (for free) in order to see the article. There is a video clip on it that is really worth seeing. It is easy to sit and pass judgment on others while holding to one's idealistic religious views about life and death when one is healthy and independent. Real life is often unexpectedly messier than one's own projection. As JRR Tolkien brilliantly captured in this snippet of conversation from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:
"'Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,' said Gimli. 'Maybe,' said Elrond, 'but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.'"

Kevin Cole & Marvin Hamlisch did Gershwin at San Diego Symphony

Marvin Hamlisch and pianist Kevin Cole jazzed up symphony season with two evening performances of Gershwin tunes at Copley Symphony Hall this weekend.

Aside from getting to hear the numbers listed in the program, Saturday night audiences were also treated to many musical and conversational bonuses. The show started with Maestro Hamlisch taking the piano and serenade someone in the audience with the 'Happy Birthday' tune in the styles of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Gershwin (concert goers were successfully cajoled into joining in during the last variation... Most of us couldn't sing in tune, but there was strength in number!). He and the versatile San Diego Symphony then proceeded to acoustically hypnotize the now quieted down spectators with lively takes on the 'Overture to Girl Crazy', 'Swanee', medleys of Gershwin film scores, show tunes, and selections from 'Porgy and Bess' (yes, you know a few tunes from this 'opera', too! At least the one shown in the clip below).

The SDSO's pianist/celeste-player Mary Barranger took an impromptu but sultry turn at the piano with 'the 2nd Piano Prelude' as the fun loving Hamlisch jived the orchestra into a full blown jazz fever highlighted by excellently demented instrumental solo passages.
Kevin Cole's lively playing of 'Rhapsody in Blue' (plus an encore) gave the hall the jitterbug and his rendition of 'Our Love Is Here To Stay' hushed the house (the dude could even sing really well!). A second grand piano was magically produced at the end and the two pianists gave a rousing jamming session of 'I Got Rhythm'.

After the final curtain both Hamlisch and Cole took a seat at the stage apron and fielded questions from the remaining audiences for nearly half an hour afterward. I think they all took off for a reception at a hotel nearby afterward, but I didn't go. Had to catch a bus home at 10:40PM.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Catting around the neighborhood

I live in a cat-friendly neighborhood. You can literally walk past 5 cats in a city block. I like all of them, but there are a few I meow with on a regular basis:

Yup, I like dogs, too, though cats and I get along like bee and flower. I bug them, and they tolerate me basically because I make a good free massaging machine....