Having a very good month so far! Excellent news on the home front, which eliminated a major source of stress, which meant I focused enough to get one of my two remaining final papers written and done, woo! :)

Went to the Symphony Silicon Valley last night with my housemates to celebrate, and was startled to see the Notre Dame de Namur Catholic girl's high school graduating class still slowly exiting. Balloons, gleeful graduates, flowers and leis, happy families, banners and a limo — it was a delight to me, as I'm still very much thrilled by last year's graduation. More power to them all! :)

The performance we attended was the last one of this season, titled Spices, Bandoneon, & Italy. Marvelous choices, I think! I very much enjoyed this last season, and we'll definitely be returning for the 2011-2012 season. If you've been waffling over whether or not to join, please do! I heartily recommend this orchestra — they have intriguing and imaginative musical choices; they play with true verve and joyous technical brilliance; and the introductory talks are friendly, fascinating, and informative, adding another dimension of enjoyment to the experience. For those worried about attire, I myself have attended in anything from jeans and a sweater to a more elegant silk dress. Don't worry about it; they're friendly and welcoming, and the California Theatre is a beautiful building with (I think) wonderful acoustics.

As they noted during the introductory talk (which is, again, one of the major reasons I think so highly of this orchestra), all three of the pieces chosen were considered dangerously daring at the time they were composed. This was particularly interesting to me due to the composition dates. For example, Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A major, the Italian, was composed in 1833, and is a particular favorite of mine. You've probably heard it, even if you don't recognize the name; click the above link to open a new window for the first minute or so of the first movement, and you'll hear what I mean.

I mention this because while a German composing about Italy instead of Germany was considering startling and radical for the time, by now this piece is a great favorite. It is my hope, therefore, for something similar to happen to the other two pieces played last night. These were Astor Piazzolla's Suite Punta del Este for the bandoneon, composed in 1982; and Avner Dorman's Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! for percussion, composed in 2006. Of the two I found Piazzolla's piece interesting and curious, but it was Dorman's music which really swept me away! I wish I could link you to performances of both pieces, but as far as I know they are so (relatively) new as to not have recordings available. Indeed, Dorman's composition for percussion is so new that the percussionists (one of whom lives in Colorado, while the other is in the Bay Area here) apparently had to figure out how to create some of the sounds Dorman (who lives in Israel) was requiring in the symphony. In one case the percussionist (Galen Lemmon) had to actually invent a new instrument in order to do so!

Looking at the selection of percussion instruments all neatly arranged before the concert was fascinating. There were two percussion soloists, and each of them had (if I'm remembering the names correctly) a lovely, gleaming wood 5-octave marimba; a smaller metal version which gave extraordinarily rich, liquid tones — perhaps a xylophone? also several types of drums, running from a tambourine, cymbals, several djembes, snares and tom-toms, through to the big kettle drums; and two long, flexible, very thin strips of metal which were the "invented" instruments. Watching the percussionists nearly dancing back and forth from instrument to instrument was almost as enjoyable as listening to the music itself, and quite impressive: I'd never before seen the marimbas played with two sticks used flexibly in each hand. There was even a point where they were playing the marimbas and some of the smaller drums with just their fingers, to coax forth a softer, sweeter tone.

The music was what the composer referred to as "multicultural polyphony," which I thought was a lovely way to describe the various shifts: from Middle-Eastern rhythms, to a more jazzy spontaneity, through exuberantly dance-inspiring rock drumming. I was watching carefully, and was impressed to note the two percussionists were not playing the same piece — they were clearly musically complementing and harmonizing with each other as well as with the orchestra. The patrons of this orchestra are often quite generous in their applause, standing and calling bravo for pieces I enjoyed but which didn't deeply move me. After watching this amazing performance, however, I was quite happy to offer a standing accolade with everyone else.

Later edit: Correction, yay! While I cannot find a recording of the amazing performance by the percussionists and symphony last night, I've found what I hope is the next best thing: a short 10-minute selection of the piece as performed by the composer. Enjoy! :)

The evening's opening piece was Suite Punta del Este — the one written for bandoneon and orchestra. The bandoneon is a curious instrument, not one I've ever heard of being used with an orchestra before, and has a slightly droning undertone to it. Much like an accordion, it is played by drawing air in and out of the bellows while the fingers work the buttons, but from what I can tell it is both more complex and more musically flexible to play. It was Piazzolla's preferred instrument, apparently, and he used to play tangos on it in South American cabarets — a disreputable-enough-seeming sort of profession that he was initially too embarrassed to compose for bandoneon, and instead wrote for piano. One of his teachers was brilliant enough to make him stop this, and compose with his own "voice" — at which point, in relief, he apparently dumped something like ten years of classical piano compositions. :)

I was interested to realize only 22 musicians, including the bandoneon player, were needed to perform this piece — as opposed to the much larger full orchestra used in the two later pieces. Suite Punta Del Este (trans. "Eastern Point") is an Uruguayan vacation spot which Piazzolla particularly enjoyed, and this piece commemorates the location. Interestingly, it was hard for me to find a still-in-print recording of this suite. The link I provide is to amazon.com, and they say it is temporarily out of stock. Hopefully that situation will be soon remedied, as this is the best copy I could find. The composer Piazzolla is also popularly known for some of his music having been used in the movie soundtrack for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys.

I cannot close without mentioning the conductor, Carolyn Kuan. Her photo in the symphony booklet shows a woman very much joyously lost in the music, hair flying and a beaming smile on her face as she conducts. That's not a photographic affectation either — she clearly threw herself with enthusiastic abandon into the performance, and the orchestra itself applauded her at the end of the evening. If she's half as much fun to play for as it was for me to listen to her conducting the orchestra, then the Symphony Silicon Valley is a definite treasure which I love sharing with you all. Enjoy! :)


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