Thursday, October 30, 2014

Roads of Arabia

Earlier this week the Asian Art Museum held a media event for Roads of Arabia. This is a major show of archaeological finds & historical artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula, telling the story of human civilization in the region, starting with stone tools over 1 million years old & culminating in the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century.

An informative gallery tour was led by the ebullient Dr. Ali Al Ghabban, Vice President of Antiquities and Museums at the Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities, & Dany Chan, assistant curator at the Asian Art Museum. The bulk of the exhibit covers the pre-Islamic period & features objects from crossroads sites that reflect a range of cultural influences.

The show opens with plaintive 6,000-year-old steles & contains many provocative items, such as a neolithic carving of a horse suggesting a much earlier date for the domestication of horses than previously thought.

This cube-shaped pedestal intricately mixes Egyptian & Mesopotamian imagery & is fun to look at.

I liked seeing examples of several different writing systems. This funerary slab from the 1st millennium BCE bears the oldest known use of Arabic.

A gallery about the pilgrimage roads contains an absurdly huge pair of candlestick holders, a gift to Mecca from a eunuch of the Ottoman court.

I especially enjoyed viewing the collection of tombstones from Mecca, boasting fine, flowery calligraphy.

2 camera crews recorded the event.

Falafel were included in the pre-event buffet.

§ Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Asian Art Museum
Oct 24, 2014 - Jan 18, 2015

Thursday, October 23, 2014

SF Opera: Partenope

This week I saw San Francisco Opera's entertaining production of Handel's Partenope. Director Christopher Alden sets the opera in 1920s Paris, & the audience applauded when the curtain came up on the Corbusier-like set. The playful staging is inspired by Dada absurdism & presents the plot like something by Noel Coward. Physically adept performances are required from the entire cast. Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, as one of Partenope's pining suitors, fell down a spiral staircase then sang while dangling off its steps. He tap danced during his act 3 aria, with a cane thrown to him from the wings. His singing was youthful, clear & sweet, no matter what antics he was performing. Tenor Alek Shrader, portraying photographer Man Ray, was a captivating actor. He sang while hanging out of the transom over a bathroom door in act 2 & did hand shadow puppetry that caused applause mid-aria. His final aria incorporated a variety of increasingly contorted yoga poses. His singing was solid, with strong top notes that stood out from the rest of his range. Countertenor David Daniels, as the confused love interest of the opera's 2 female characters, had a brawny, muscular sound that conveyed maturity, & he was especially effective in his slower, more reflective arias.

Soprano Danielle de Niese was a sexy & free-spirited Partenope. Though her singing was often approximate, her performance was charismatic, joyful & expressive, & she moved around the stage with an alluring freedom. Mezzo Daniela Mack spends most of the opera disguised as a man & sounded firm, even & energetic. I enjoyed bass-baritone Philippe Sly's clean, focused singing & warm, open sound. He appears in the last act wearing inexplicable drag & bananas atop military headgear.

I liked the graceful & airy conducting from Julian Wachner. Tempos never felt strict, & the music sounded fresh. It was fun hearing the theorbo, & there was a nice flute obbligato. Baroque horns were used at the end of act 1. Their brash & blustery sound added period color, though their tuning was jarring. The show runs 3 1/2 hours, but I did not witness many people in the orchestra level leaving mid-performance. The audience cheered several arias, & the cast received a standing ovation. As this was the 1st night of the World Series, scores were displayed on the supertitles after act 1.

§ Partenope
George Frideric Handel

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Director: Christopher Alden

Emilio: Alek Shrader
Partenope: Danielle De Niese
Arsace: David Daniels
Rosmira: Daniela Mack
Ormonte: Philippe Sly
Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Tue 10/21/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, October 17, 2014

Erin Johnson & Zanda Švēde at the Rex

Wednesday evening Adler Fellows Erin Johnson & Zanda Švēde, accompanied by pianist Robert Mollicone, presented a song recital in a Salon at the Rex. They began with a dreamy duet from Pique Dame. In that small space their solid, husky voices were a physical force. Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde then alternated songs by Mahler, Liszt, Tchaikovsky & Bolcom, which they briefly introduced before singing. Ms. Švēde's mezzo voice is wonderfully plush & alto-like, & she was particularly effective depicting the dark atmosphere at the beginning of Mahler's "Um Mitternacht" & creating an intense mood for Tchaikovsky's psychological "To forget so soon." Ms. Johnson gave an operatic rendition of Liszt's Die Loreley, making it easy to follow its eerie story. Its final note was beautifully hushed. Before launching into a set of Cabaret Songs by Bolcom, she told us these were her "favorite songs, ever," & she performed them with her whole body, becoming a sloppy drunk in "Over the piano" & a bubbly diva in "Amor." Rossini's Cat Duet was the pair's encore, & Mr. Mollicone, who was otherwise a secure & unobtrusive accompanist, jumped up at the end, barking at the singers like a ferocious dog.

The 75-minute event was comfortably close-up. Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde seemed to be simply sharing music rather than striving to impress. Several people gave them a standing ovation. In the Q&A, there was much talk about the role of art song in singers' training. Ms. Johnson suggested that it's useful nowadays for opera singers to have musical theater skills. We learned that  Ms. Johnson was the cover for Adalgisa in SF Opera's Norma, & she jokingly called herself a "soprezzo". We also found out that Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde both own very big dogs.

§ Salon at the Rex
Erin Johnson, soprano
Zanda Švēde, mezzo-soprano &
Robert Mollicone, piano

TCHAIKOVSKY: Uhz Vecher from Pique Dame
  - Ms. Johnson and Ms. Švēde

MAHLER: 3 Rückert-Lieder
Liebst du um Schönheit
Blicke mir nicht in der Lieder
Um Mitternacht
  - Ms. Švēde

LlSZT: Die Loreley
  - Ms. Johnson

TCHAIKOVSKY: To forget so soon (Zabyt' tak skoro)
  - Ms. Švēde

BOLCOM: 7 Cabaret Songs
Over the piano
Toothbrush time
Love in the thirties
Waitin'
Can't sleep
At the last lousy moments of love
Amor
  - Ms. Johnson

Encore: Rossini Cat Duet

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
6:30pm
Hotel Rex

Monday, October 13, 2014

Enemies | Friends

Saturday afternoon the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival held a 1-day mini-festival at New People Cinema, where I saw Enemies | Friends, a documentary about a footnote to World War I. In 1914, the Japanese, as allies of the British, attacked the German colony of Tsingtao in China & took 4,700 German prisoners of war to prison camps in Japan, keeping them until well after the war ended. The German prisoners were not required to work, &, judging by photographs we see, they were healthy, well-fed & thrived. To stave off boredom, they made the camps into miniature villages, with farms, business districts, shops, restaurants & newspapers. They put on theater shows & art exhibitions & gave the 1st performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Japan.

The documentary itself is meandering & provides a cursory picture of the period, using old photos, artwork, letters & interviews with historians & descendants of camp inmates, including a Japanese woman who discovered as an adult that her grandfather was German. The site of the Bandō camp is now a war museum exhibiting blond-haired mannequins in life-size dioramas of camp life.

The film was introduced by Sophoan Sorn, Festival Director, who read us a statement from the filmmaker. When I bought my ticket, I was asked to stand in a ticket holders line on the sidewalk, where I waited with 2 other patrons, but it turned out we should have been inside, where they were already letting people into the theater.

§ Enemies | Friends - German Prisoners of War in Japan
Feinde | Brüder - Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Japan
Director: Brigitte Krause; Germany, Japan; 2013; 78 mins.

Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase 2014
North American Premiere
Sat., Oct. 11, 2014 - 2:00pm
New People Cinema, SF

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Citizenfour

Friday afternoon I was at one of the 1st screenings of Citizenfour, an unnerving documentary by Laura Poitras about the NSA leaks. Ms. Poitras was one of the journalists contacted by Edward Snowden & who met him in his Hong Kong hotel room last June, along with Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald & Ewen MacAskill. The centerpiece of the film is jolting footage of those meetings, capturing the tense, business-like, yet intimate, atmosphere. Snowden himself is a fascinating subject: sleek, calm & clear-minded. He's so paranoid that he covers himself with a blanket when typing sensitive passwords into his laptop. We get amusing glimpses of him primping as he prepares to leave his room after the leaks have gone public.

The movie includes commentary from government spying critics Willian Binney & Jacob Appelbaum, who is to the point when he observes that we now discuss "privacy" instead of "liberty." Julian Assange makes a curious cameo appearance, apparently trying to aid Snowden's transit through Russia. We also see some of the international fallout of the leaks. There's disconcerting video of editors at The Guardian fretting over what to report about the UK's GCHQ information gathering program, which is much more comprehensive than the US's. In a grisly basement operation, Guardian editors eventually destroy the hard drives containing the incriminating documents. An epilogue shows Glenn Greenwald chatting with Snowden in Moscow & passing him scribbled notes about revelations from a 2nd NSA leaker. The film is scary.

Citizenfour opens in San Francisco & Albany on October 24th & in San Rafael on October 31st.

§ Citizenfour (2014)
dir. Laura Poitras, USA, 114 min

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Steven Isserlis, Boccherini, and Haydn

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra had their 1st concert of the season Wednesday night at SFJAZZ. The symmetrical program featured cellist Steven Isserlis in concertos by Boccherini & C.P.E. Bach, bookended by 2 Haydn symphonies. Mr. Isserlis's playing was wonderfully fluid & had a lightness & grace that fit the repertoire well. I liked the semi-detatched articulation he displayed in the 1st movement of the Bach, & the slow movement of the Boccherini had sweetness & a feeling of intimacy. Mr. Isserlis plays with great freedom & is fun to watch. His right wrist is so relaxed that it looks boneless, & he flops his left hand in the air when there are no notes to finger. His mop of long curly hair is impressive.

The printed program had the order of the concertos in reverse, so when Mr. Isserlis returned after intermission, he announced that we were "the victims of a ghastly hoax" & explained that he had already played the Bach & would be playing the Boccherini next. He also made some charming remarks about the composers & slipped in a joke at the violists' expense. After the concertos, he gave us a short, cartoony encore that alternated plucked notes, strumming & bowed chords.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan led jolly versions of the Haydn symphonies. He made much of passages that contrasted loud & soft playing, & his musical rests were palpable. His hands swayed balletically in the slow movement of No. 57. A violinist's string popped during the rustic 3rd movement, forcing the player to leave the stage. Symphony No. 67 had many novelties, including the strings playing col legno & a duet for the 1st & 2nd principal violins that used a strange tuning. The orchestra's intonation was sometimes rough.

SFJAZZ is designed for electronically enhanced performances, & the opening Haydn symphony suffered from painfully dry acoustics. In the 2nd half of the show, though, the sound was smoother & more filled-in. The audience was engaged & occasionally applauded between movements. It was surprising to spot Maestro McGegan chatting with patrons in the lobby just minutes before the start of the concert. My concert companion was offended by a patron across the aisle from us who wore flip-flops.

§ Steven Isserlis, Boccherini, and Haydn
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Steven Isserlis, violoncello

HAYDN: Symphony No. 57 in D major
C.P.E. BACH: Concerto for Violoncello in A major, Wq 172
BOCCHERINI: Concerto for Violoncello No. 7 in G major, G. 480
HAYDN: Symphony No. 67 in F major

Cello Encore: Kabalevsky "Dance"

Wed, Oct 8 @ 8:00PM
SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco

SF Opera: Un Ballo in Maschera

Tuesday night I heard Un Ballo in Maschera at the San Francisco Opera. Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia sounded strong, resonant & healthy, & the gallows scene & her pleading scene in act 3 were highlights of the evening. The production is double cast, & baritone Brian Mulligan was this evening's Renato. His voice was cushy & controlled, & he gave me the feeling he was always right on target. His "Eri tu" was firm. Tenor Ramón Vargas as the king made a consistent sound that was weighty & dark, & his singing was contained. Soprano Heidi Stober chased her hat a lot as the page Oscar. She sounded youthful, bright & a little brash. It was good to hear mezzo Dolora Zajick as the fortune teller Ulrica. Her hefty, potent voice seems to originate from somewhere beneath her feet. I also enjoyed the hearty singing of baritone Efraín Solis as one of her customers.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti led with vehemence & constantly propelled the music, sometimes pushing the singers. The orchestra played out & the string sound was heavy. The fortissimo chords at the beginning of the gallows scene were like gun shots. The English horn accompanying Amelia's "Ma dall'arido stela divulsa" evoked the darkness of night beautifully.

The production sets the action in 18th century Sweden, with the cast in opulent period dress. The audience applauded when the curtain came up on the costumed chorus in the final scene. The old-fashioned staging felt flat. Scores for the Giants vs. Nationals game were displayed via supertitles during pauses for set changes & the intermissions.

§ Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)
Giuseppe Verdi
San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Jose Maria Condemi

Amelia: Julianna Di Giacomo
Oscar: Heidi Stober
Gustavus III (Riccardo): Ramón Vargas
Count Anckarström (Renato): Brian Mulligan
Madame Arvidson (Ulrica): Dolora Zajick
Count Horn (Tommaso): Scott Conner
Count Ribbing (Samuele): Christian Van Horn
Christian (Silvano): Efraín Solis
Judge: A.J. Glueckert
Amelia's Servant: Christopher Jackson

Tue 10/7/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

John Lahr at Mechanics' Institute

Critic John Lahr is on tour promoting his new biography of Tennessee Williams & on Monday spoke at the Mechanics' Institute. Rather than read from the book, he gave a free-form talk. I didn't quite follow his convoluted history of the battle to publish an "authorized" Williams biography, but we heard many anecdotes about Lady Maria St. Just, a trustee of Williams's estate, who resorted to blackmail & even resectioning the playwright's letters with a razor blade. Mr. Lahr's book is apparently a sort of follow-up to an earlier biography by Lyle Leverich, a San Francisco theater manager whom Tennessee Williams named as his official biographer. Lahr's book starts with the Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie & interprets all the plays in the context of Williams's emotional state.

It was nice to hear Mr. Lahr say that he never had a bad day at the New Yorker, where he has been senior drama critic for over 20 years. In the Q & A, he became very animated when panning the Young Vic's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I planned to buy a copy of the book at the event but then balked at the $44 hardcover price.

§ Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
An afternoon with author John Lahr
Monday, October 06, 2014 - 12:30pm
Mechanics' Institute