|Lara Downes. Photo by Rik Keller.|
Last Friday night I took a walk as the almost full moon was rising through what used to be called the "Gulch"- a stretch of Polk Street which used to be the seedy, gritty, gay epicenter of the City before the Castro took over. The remnants of that era have slowly disappeared one at a time and I noticed another one had bitten the dust as I walked by the new bar which has replaced Kimo's called The Sandbox, or Playland, or something juvenile like that. It looks dreadful- a dark-wood fishbowl with HD tvs. That pretty much just leaves The Cinch as the last gay bar in the neighborhood. I think I only had a drink in Kimo's once, but I still felt a twinge of sadness to see it go, because the last thing Polk Street really needs is another bar catering to young, white heterosexuals. I also liked that Kimo's had an upstairs where bands would play- even if I never went to go see them.
Almost twenty years ago, CC and I used to go to The Swallow quite often (now the Bigfoot Lodge) because we really enjoyed the piano bar and there were always a host of interesting characters in it. We were almost always the youngest people there, as well as the only straight ones, but none of that mattered to us nor anyone else. Sadly, there is very little of that left in San Francisco, and none to be found in this particular neighborhood. There are only three live music options left- the tiny backroom of the Hemlock (which is like a sauna), the Red Devil Lounge (which happily resembles a bordello), and the classical concerts which take place at Old First Church (which is neither impressive as a church nor an especially inviting place to hear music because of the strange acoustics) on Fridays and Sundays.
I was headed to the church, to hear pianist Lara Downes perform selections from her highly-regarded album, 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg- a collection of pieces inspired or influenced by Bach's "Goldberg Variations." This seemed somewhat incongruous to me because I had spent a good portion of the day listening to the Beastie Boys, prompted by news of the death of MCA (Adam Yauch), and listening to the Beasties led to a marathon listening of the first four Run-DMC albums, which left me feeling very nostalgic not only for my own past, but for the time when hip-hop and rap was fun to listen to- an era summarily destroyed by the release of NWA's Straight Outta Compton in 1988, though Run-DMC had set the table for them with their first single "It's Like That" in 1983.
Now I was headed to a church to hear music inspired by Bach, which under the usual circumstances wouldn't seem all that out of the ordinary to me, but on this night it felt strange. I felt even stranger when I entered and found a much smaller crowd than I expected, leaving me wondering where everyone was. I ended up taking a seat in the front row between an older couple and two attractive women of a certain age, thinking the closer I sat toward the piano the better it would sound. People filtered in behind me, making the audience a respectable size, but still smaller than expected. Then again, when I came to hear Heidi Melton here a couple of years ago, the room was inexplicably almost empty.
Downes came out in a flattering, sleeveless yellow silk dress, what looked like 5-inch heeled gold sandals, smiled, sat down, turned on a Kindle placed on the music stand, and began with Bach's Aria. After performing the piece she picked up a microphone and introduced the the program, explaining the logic behind how the pieces were grouped together.
I should probably stop here and tell you two things: the first is that apart from the cello sonatas and the solo violin works, I'm not a tremendous fan of Bach- I admire the music more than I appreciate it, respecting its influence and strengths, but it rarely moves me. The second thing I should reveal is that the sound of this particular piano bothered me to an extent I found distracting, so I spent a good deal of time trying to figure out the source of my displeasure. Was it the piano, the acoustics of where I was sitting, or Downes' playing? While I was parsing through these possibilities in my head I was further distracted by the constant clicking of a camera being used by a woman who was photographing the performance.
It wasn't until the fifth piece of the program, Lukas Foss' "Goldmore Variation" that is all started to gel for me. This was followed by Derek Bermel's "Kontraphunktus" which pleased my ear immensely, no doubt due to the rhythmic link to the music I had been listening to earlier. The contrast of Stanley Walden's "Fantasy Variation," performed with Downes' foot depressing the pedal throughout, and the complete lack of its use during Ryan Brown's "Ornament," was jarring. With the latter being written in only the extreme octaves, I really began to hate that piano.
I decided it was indeed the piano, because Mischa Zupko's "Ghost Variation" contained a number of higher notes that sounded just fine. I know that you're probably thinking I should have come to a different conclusion based on that. Blame it on the moon.
David Tel Tredici's "My Goldberg," was a Romantic slab of beauty, perhaps the work best suited to Downes' talents. After a reprise of Bach's "Aria," she returned to the stage and performed Dave Burbeck's "Chorale" from the Chromatic Fantasy Sonata as an encore. It was a fitting conclusion.
After the concert I hung fire because I wanted to meet her (we've exchanged some emails). While waiting I heard her remark to someone else that she liked the piano, which puzzled me. Downes proved to be warm and gracious when I introduced myself, which didn't surprise me and we chatted a bit. I told her I really hated that piano and she wondered aloud if it was her playing. I assured her it wasn't. I look forward to the next time I see her perform, hopefully on a piano we agree upon.
I left the church, re-entered the former Gulch, and began a weekend that was to hold many more things I wasn't going to like, courtesy of the Femme Fatale, who's return (yes, it's true), has brought no small amount of havoc in its wake.