I saw two shows this week that have lots of similarities and yet were at opposite ends of the stringed spectrum.
Wednesday night I saw Bowfire! which features the top virtuoso violinists and fiddlers in one electrifying performance! (ha!)
Thursday night I saw the latest event in the Sacred Spaces series, part of the SFJazz Festival which brings music to Grace Cathedral. Grammy winning cello player Lynn Harrell performed Bach Cello Suite (1, 5 and 3).
Clearly, I had different expectations heading into each one and both shows were pretty much as expected.
Bowfire was just as cheesy as I thought. It was like a bad vegas fiddle revue edited for the disney channel. I went for the giggles, sort of a joke with a friend who thought she hated the fiddle, only to discover that it's actually the banjo that she hates, this was going to be the real test, could she handle all the fiddles?? ha ha ha.
I did my homework, I read up on the bowfire experience. The reviews generally indicated that the theatrics and the choreography were tacky and such gifted musicians shouldn't have to stoop to these levels. I can get behind that idea, except the performers didn't display any virtuosity. I'm going to blame the art director for that one and hope that the musicians on their own would choose different music.
The cast featured 10 fiddle/violin players, they ranged from bluegrass and celtic to jazz and avant garde. In rotation they were each featured for a few moments. Literally, just 4 to 5 minutes each--it was a short show, 2 sets, 45 minutes each, only a few individuals got more spotlight time than that. Only a few songs were actually played, most of the night was greatest hits and standards medleys. One guy even played the Flintstones theme song, not exactly the choice of a virtuoso?
Much of the show was filled with ensemble pieces involved the entire cast, which also included a cello, a drummer, a bass, an electric guitar and keyboards. One of the fiddlers sang, only two songs the whole show, but she got a lot more attention because of it...and she also danced. Yes, they went river dance on us. Credit where credit is due though, it's one heck of a talent to play and dance at the same time. And to be fair, there was also some tap dancing and even a fiddle tango number.
The title music from the film American Beauty was a refrain throughout the night, a nice choice I thought. Most of the 'standards' were okay choices but really cheapened by the posturing, over-acted nature of the choreography. By the time they made it to Kashmir for the encore, I was over it. Hot Buttered Rum and New Monsoon nailed their symphonic cover of Kashmir at the Fillmore last year, so Bowfire just falls short.
But all of that aside, I suspected this was going to be a music event for theatre people, not a music event for music people and I went anyhow, so no harm done, I didn't expect Bach until Thursday night. It was at the Paramount which makes up for going to Oakland and I got tickets cheap I laughed, it was so over the top...I think it's great for kids, anything to inspire their ears. The merch booth had more than enough business, lots of t-shirts and dvd's being sold, so congrats to Bowfire for being able to support such a large cast and crew.
As for the Bach, I had very high expectations. It was a great night on top of the hill but ultimately, I wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be. Beautiful musical selection, inspired musician, gorgeous setting...just the wrong combination of the three. The cathedral is wonderful eye candy and the acoustics were amazing. Too amazing, every rustle of clothing was amplified, every sneeze, cough, sniffle and shift in air could be heard. None of that stuff can be helped, but the guy with the candy wrapper right behind me, the guy taking pictures without muting his camera in front of me, the fucking ushers that chatted through half the music, those guys distracted from the soft, quiet, intimate nuance of the music. And that was a shame.
It wasn't a total bust, the music was sublime in the still moments. The cathedral is pretty amazing, an audience sitting so perfectly motionless for one man with four strings is something to be heard. The solo nature of the performance was simply amazing, one man was able to develop a much deeper more layered sound than 10 musicians the night before. The pristine clarity of the cathedral allowed me to really appreciate the complexity of the music. I was blown away by the fact that what I was hearing came entirely from one guy.
and we even got an encore, I was amazed, I've never seen a jazz musician do an encore, Lynn also played the final suite for us, so in the end we got 1, 5, 3 and 6. I'm curious why they were played out of order but we were never told.
Ultimately I think the choral performances at the cathedral are probably better suited, 15 voices can easily overcome the occasional cough and rustle of the audience. Same with the organ and ensemble pieces, they'll take advantage of the cathedral acoustics without succumbing to them.