Sunday, March 24, 2024

Sibelius with Esa Pekka Salonen, Lisa Batiashvili and SF Symphony Orchestra in Costa Mesa

 Wednesday March 20th, 2024. 

For years I had been wanting to hear Lisa Batiashvili perform live and thought I'd really have to shape up and actually fly east either to New York or all the way to Europe as she really doesn't come west across the Atlantic Ocean much. So, when the Orange County Philharmonic Society presented an all Sibelius program featuring Finlandia, the violin concerto, and the 1st symphony with Esa Pekka Salonen conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and featuring Lisa Batiashvili as the violin soloist, I literally bounced off all the walls in my apartment, shouting for joy. Some dreams do come true if you manage to live long enough! 

Renee & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

It was also my first time attending a performance at the beautiful Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. It is an impressive performance arts complex! All the staff and volunteers manning the events (there are other things going on at the many venues in the same complex) were wonderfully efficient and pleasantly helpful. The auditorium itself is very modern and comfortable. There are 1704 seats in the main auditorium and 250 choral seats behind the stage, and lots of reverberation-friendly panels. Indeed, the acoustical adjustability is one of the hall's many selling points.

For this symphonic concert, tho, I think perhaps not enough rehearsal time was available to fine tune the adjustable acoustics as the hall configuration during the concert really favored the last row of the orchestra; the brass section (trumpets, trombones, and tubas) and the strings double basses. Whenever those guys got to fortissimo or louder, they obliterated all the other instruments except for the timpani and the cymbal... The entire string section that sounded lovely and plenty loud enough at lower dynamic markings became completely covered by the brass whenever the music ramped up. Curiously, the French horns in the next to last row didn't enjoy the same acoustical boost as the last row brass did. 

The extra acoustic boost on the low brass, tho, made for a rather awesome dynamic contrasts in the first number of the evening, the original (no-chorus) version of Sibelius' patriotic 'Finlandia'. Esa Pekka Salonen's crisp and tumultuous reading of the piece benefited from the extra brass ring/squillo/boost that made vivid the sinister oppression that the strings and the wind were mustered against. It is a compelling sonic history of Finnish independence that translates across many barriers. The triumphant finish to the piece was positively thunderous. My ears rang both literally and figuratively for all the non-musical minutes it took for Maestro Salonen to acknowledge the applause, leave the stage and come back with Lisa Batiashvili in tow for the marquee piece of the show - Sibelius' E minor Violin Concerto. 

There are many recordings of Lisa Batiashvili performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, of course. Many are available on Youtube. She's been playing this thing since she was a teenager (having placed 2nd at the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1995... as a 16 yrs old). Her earlier clips of the piece were played on either the Engleman or the Joachim Stradivarius, then somewhere between 2010 and 2014 she switched to the current Guaneri del Jesu. I always thought it pretty remarkable being able to watch her play the Sibelius concerto with a Strad and with a Guaneri. I think the Guaneri really suits her temperament better (and she seems obviously more comfortable playing it). 

It was pretty amazing how well she projected even when the last row of the brass were really blaring... especially considering that the Guaneri she's playing doesn't have the brighter sound of the previous Strads. I tend to prefer a more expansive orchestral reading of Daniel Barenboim or Paavo Järvi - giving more breathing room, so to speak - than the more brisk and no nonsense pacing favored by the actual Finnish conductors like Oramo or on this night, Salonen. But that's a superfluous squabble when the soloist has no trouble with the pace (on a long and taxing number like this concerto, that's no small feat) and still manages to commiserate and engage with the orchestra like a bunch of fellow Scandinavians... never mind that she is from Georgia (the country rather than the American state) and the orchestra San Francisco. Maestro Salonen is a Finn, of course, tho brooding is not quite his thing and so there wasn't any orchestral sigh at the end of the 2nd movement... and no dancy exuberance for the 3rd movement either. It was a contrasts-driven reading of the concerto that was quite refreshingly 'to the point', much to the delight of both me (who must have listened to at least 15 different performances of the Sibelius Concerto by now) and my friend & concert buddy Suzanne, who was hearing the piece for the first time.  

We, and just about everyone else in the sadly not nearly full auditorium applauded as hard as we could and were delighted that Batiashvili came back out to give an lovely encore of the Finnish traditional 'Evening Song' as arranged for a violin and orchestra by Jarkko Riihimäki. Here's a clip of the piece, from a different performance.

After the intermission Maestro Salonen led the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on a spirited Sibelius' First Symphony. It's a piece I'm not all that familiar with (had only heard bits of it but not the whole thing). It's almost a folklore come to life in music, with lovely solos for the harpist to shine. Aside from a few extra loud places where the brass covered her and every other instruments, shine she did. As is often the case with Sibelius, of course, the music builds and builds, and ended with both my ears all tingly and all quite stressed out (in mostly good ways). 

So, it was a really nice surprise when Maestro Salonen gently signaled for us to hush during his 2nd curtain call, and asked, "Would you like to hear something quiet?" As nobody in the world would say no to that, he then proceeded to lead the SFSO on not one but two delightful orchestral encores! 

The first was Sibelius' Valse Triste. I'm not sure what the second one was.... perhaps a number from his Karelia Suite? Anyhow, I was in hogs heaven... All these years of attending symphonic performances I hadn't ever scored an orchestral encore (let alone two in one night) before. What a treat it was! 

Of course, I had since learned that Maestro Salonen had announced just a few days before the concert that 2024 would be his last year as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It's a rather sad news, but I hope that wherever he goes next he'll still come to Southern California for concerts sometimes. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Doing the little things is better than just saying a lot of things

 Ordinary people becoming extraordinary by doing their work well.

Ordinary people doing what they can to improve things for their community. 

No hero need apply. Just ordinary people resolving to do the little things that they can to improve their community and surrounding. Little things like cleaning up after themselves, resisting the urge to jump to conclusions, opting for compassion rather than self-righteousness, etc. 

Don't like to see trash lining the streets where you live? Go out for a walk with a grabber and a couple of bags and pick up what you can. Call the city (or county, if you are in unincorporated area) to come pick up what you can't.

Pick up trash walking to the store. Got some exercise in, and the 2 blocks now look much less like a ghetto.

Want safer streets designs so that getting in a car to drive 2 blocks to the store would be optional rather than necessary? Hit up your city's traffic engineers. Attend street improvement workshops. If able, try walking or bicycling to places instead of just driving. You would be amazed how much our city planning has enslaved us to the cars. Often times to the point where the walking distance from point A to point B is more than twice the driving one... with lots of obstacles along the way. 

Infrastructure improvement projects take a long time to plan and organized before any ground is broken. 

Want better trails and recreational areas that you and the family can safely use? Volunteer to help build and maintain the trails and open spaces. Attend park and trails planning sessions and voice your supports or ideas. 

San Diego Mountain Biking Association volunteers repairing Copper Creek Trail in San Marcos.

Don't like how your current government representatives are performing their office? Study the people and the laws going on the ballots... and vote for those that are more likely to do the right things. 

Just ranting about things is lazy. Think of what you can do to help things. Then... Do it!

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The torch is passed to a new era

 Queen Elizabeth II had been the Queen of England well before I was born. Many people have lived a decent length and died with her on the throne. It's pretty darn amazing for someone to be in the spotlight for so long and maintained a nearly impeccable record. There have been many scandals in her family, and yet she sailed through them all with such dignity, a true rock for the Brits and just about everyone else to look up to. The UK had been very blessed to have a monarch like her. 

Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 (West Midlands Police)
Charles III in 2015 (Arnaud Bouissou)

Rest in peace, Queen Elizabeth II. Long live King Charles III! 

Monday, July 25, 2022

From the good old golfing days

Back in fall of 1993, the last semester of my studies at Professional Golfers Career College in Murrieta (the college have long since moved to a bigger and more modern campus in Temecula), I spent every Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the driving range of either Menifee Country Club, Sun City Golf Club, or the newly opened Red Hawk Golf Club, giving free swing lessons as the practical part of the college's Techniques of Teaching class.

It wasn't my favorite part of the course. I was there at the college mostly to pass the time while I got old enough to be allowed to play on professional tours, and never intended on any teaching or club professional career. I was what they'd call a 'visual learner'.... What I really looked at tended to get pretty well imprinted in my head, and became hard to get rid of (forget). So, I avoided looking at any golf swing that I would have any problem assimilating into my own swing. When I would go out golfing with others, I'd take very good care to not look directly at their swing. I'd just look at the ball being hit, but not the hitting process.

Naturally, that didn't work very well when I had to correct other people (especially amateur golfers)' swing. My professor, the late Gordie Severson, who happened to also be my own swing coach back then, found that endlessly amusing and got into a wicked streak of sending for me when he'd find particularly obnoxious golf swings that needed fixing. In hindsight, I suspect that was his way of building my tolerance for exposure to really hideous stuff some people do in the process of trying to hit a dimply little white ball...
But I digressed...

Anyhow, the most memorable swing I still can't get out of my head to this day (bless you, Gordie!), I was called to after having scored a much nicer looking swing on the other end of the golf range at Sun City Golf Course. I arrived at the appropriate stall and glanced at Gordie who was trying very hard to hide a growing smirk on his face while indicating that I should take over trying to fix the swing of the grumpy looking gentleman in front of him.

I resigned myself to being on the butt end of another unintentional practical joke from my golf professor and turned to have a glancing look at as the man made a few practice swings. Wouldn't you know it, it was one of the most beautiful golf swings I had ever seen! Something of a very fluid mix of the swings of the young Davis Love III and Steve Elkington; exquisite use of leverage while being beautifully compact at the same time. 

I couldn't believe my eyes. I think I even broke into a very hopeful smile at the thought of being able to actually look at a golf swing full on without fearing having it stuck in my head and messing my game up.

Then the man stepped up and put his iron clubhead behind the ball...

Two full minutes went by, and he still had not progressed into the swing from his address... If you golf, then you know, two minutes standing on top of the ball translates to an eternity and a month. His beautifully relax stance transformed into a tense huff and puff, veins were popping on his neck and forearms. My heart sank... this gorgeous golf swing was going downhill fast.... and he hadn't moved an inch. I glanced back at Gordie, who had turned beet red and was quivering in place from a heroic effort to stifle a chuckle.

'Bastard!' I cursed under my breath, as I watched my designated 'pupil' finally inched his club into a jerky and laborious backswing, took a long pause at the top, and then proceeded to bash down on the ball, producing a perfect shank that nearly took the golfer in the next stall out.

"Well?", snarled my pupil, "What did I do wrong?"
'Oh, you caught me by surprised and I didn't have a good look,' I lied as my pants let off a wisp of smoke, 'Could you hit another one at the 150 banner for me, please.'

Nearly six more minutes, and only two actual swings (and two completely murdered range balls... and they were the abominable two-piece craps of golf balls rather than the wholesome but soft three-piece balata spheres that I was used to hitting) that produced rather undesirable results along with a stream of vocalized grumpiness,... and I was out of stalling option. Luckily for me, I had begrudgingly seen many golf swings in my teens to have one that seemed to offer the solution.

One of the ladies I had golfed with in tournaments in Asia back around 1991 had this weird habit of swinging the club forward past the ball before taking it back into a proper backswing. I never understood before why she did that, but she was a pretty good ball striker for it. So I got up to demonstrate to Mr Tense how I would like him to, as a matter of experiment, when he next addressed the ball, to swing the club forward to point toward the target before taking it back into the real swing and then just go on to hit the ball.

He wasn't keen on it, but as nothing else seemed to have worked for him lately, why not try this weird youngster's strange suggestion. As anyone would predict, the first swing didn't produce a good hit (it's quite a change going from the normal start of any golf swing), but it was still the most solid hit he had that morning. So he tried some more.

It was amazing to see the gorgeous Davis Love III/Steve Elkington-esque golf swing rematerialized and making contact with golf balls on that range. Even Gordie was at a loss for words. (Served him right!) He could diagnose the problem as well as I could, of course, but telling someone to relax.... and actually getting any relaxation out of them. Now, that was a dilemma.

It was a good learning experience for both me and the golfer (who left the range that morning never being told to relax at all). I still don't like looking at other people's golf swings even though I don't golf anymore, but I learned then to appreciate being exposed to different things and ideas. You never know when they would come in handy in giving you more choices of solutions to problems, and understanding why people do things differently. There are as many different ways of smashing the golf balls as there are of skinning a cat.... so to speak.

Monday, July 4, 2022

Happy Independence Day

It's 4th of July. The founders of this country was nothing if not resilient in the face of division and a whole lot of tribulations. 13 different states stuck together despite of their differences to form a new nation... One that definitely has not lived happily ever after.
Even familial siblings fight and think differently about things, but they still love each other and their parents (well, usually, that is). So, my American brothers and sisters.... Happy Independence Day.

Think of it as the old Sunday dinner or something similar when despite all the fights we have had of late, we sit together for a peaceful meal (firework going off and all). Thankful for what we have, and hopeful to make it another week, probably still fighting all the time, but remembering that we are a family.