Tuesday, December 09, 2014

MoAD Reopening Celebration Program

Last week I was at a ribbon cutting for the re-opening of the refurbished Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission Street. The ceremony took place in the lobby & gift shop. We heard prudently short speeches from Executive Director Linda Harrison, Harvard Professor Dr. Alejandro de la Fuente, Los Angeles artist Lava Thomas, & City Administrator Naomi Kelley. Ms. Harrison amusingly observed that museum visitors' priorities are first a place to sit, then a place to have coffee, then looking at great art. The Honorable Willie L. Brown Jr. was present to officially announce the MoAD's status as a Smithsonian Affiliate, & he name-dropped Colin Powell & Oprah in his remarks.

Photo credit: Kristin Cockerham,
The museum's anthropological history exhibits will be moved online, accessible via iPad stations on the 1st floor. The 2 floors above are for changing exhibits & events. Ms. Thomas's mixed media show, Beyond, features human hair and shapes that look like internal organs. The works appear to be very personal to the artist. The Drapetomanía exhibit commemorates a lost Cuban art movement of the late 1970s that looked to the culture of Cuba's African slaves for its inspiration. It was nice to see Patrick among the attendees, though he was quite disappointed at not being allowed to use his camera in the galleries.

§ Museum of the African Diaspora
Reopening Celebration Program
December 2, 2014, 12:10p

Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba
Runs through Jan. 4, 2015

Lava Thomas: Beyond
Runs through April 5, 2015

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Election Flyers

Whenever I opened my mailbox last week, over-sized election flyers spilled out. A lot of them. Leaders in generating mail were Yes on A, Yes on F & BART Director James Fang, with No on E close behind. Not a bad haul for a midterm election which is predicted to be a record low for voter turnout.

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
Can't sleep
At the last lousy moments of love
  - Ms. Johnson

Encore: Rossini Cat Duet

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
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


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