Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Harold & Maude at the Castro

Last night I went to see the showing of the cult classic Harold & Maude at the Castro. They are doing a series of Hal Ashby films. I missed the showing of Being There that went with this one. It was a pretty big crowd for a 9:30pm show on a weeknight. The trailers for Coming Home & Shampoo got a few snickers even before the feature started.

Of course I have seen Harold & Maude before, though this was the 1st time I'd seen it in a long time. I have to say that I remembered pretty much everything. I was glad to see that the movie has aged well. It's still funny & surprising & earnest in all the right places. There's a great moment when the 1st computer date rushes shrieking from the house, & then Harold shares his reaction with the audience. This got the biggest laugh & then applause.

Those 70's clothes & the flower motif are the main things that give away the movie's era. But otherwise I'm not sure that life has really moved on all that much. We're again at war, we've still got problems with conspicuous consumption, interactions with government & bureaucracy are a drag, & some of us sensitive souls are still looking for happiness.

Monday, November 26, 2007

LA Phil "Lite"

A friend who frequents the LA Phil sent me this published description of up-coming concerts by the LA Philharmonic. He notes that even the full-length version of the program only has 63 minutes of music. Light stuff indeed.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
James Galway, flute

Friday, November 30, 2007, 8pm – Casual Fridays

Mozart: Flute Concerto in D, K. 314 (c. 20 minutes)
Mozart: Andante in C for Flute, K. 315 (c. 6 minutes)
Schubert: Symphony No. 4, “Tragic” (c. 30 minutes)

Check online for the latest program information.

Thursday, November 29, 2007, 8pm
Saturday, December 1,
2007, 8pm
Sunday, December 2, 2007, 2pm

Schubert: Overture to The Conspirators (c. 7 minutes)
Mozart: Flute Concerto in D, K. 314 (c. 20 minutes)
Mozart: Andante in C for Flute, K. 315 (c. 6 minutes)
Schubert: Symphony No. 4, “Tragic” (c. 30 minutes)

Check online for the latest program information.

Don’t miss Upbeat Live (free pre-concert event) in BP Hall with Raymond Knapp, author and Musicology Professor at UCLA.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Silence & The Rite at The Castro

The Castro Theatre screened several Bergman classics over the past weeks. Last Tuesday I attended the double feature of The Silence & The Rite. 2 of Bergman's more challenging, films, no doubt about it! I had seen The Silence many years ago as a college student, & I remember being baffled by it & shocked by some of the acts put on the screen. This time around I think I got a bit more out of it. I didn't worry so much about trying to make it a cohesive narrative. Instead I tried to identify with the psychological states of the characters. It's fascinating to watch & still very modern.

Even if the story seems to make no sense at all, there is a lot of arresting imagery. Even from that 1st viewing many years ago, I had strong memories of certain images, such as the little boy staring up at a huge painting of a man attacking a naked woman, or the extended close-ups of upside or side-ways faces.

I had never seen the The Rite & in fact had never even heard of it before. It's a very strange, intensely intimate drama about a troupe of 3 dysfunctional actors & a law-enforcement official who appears to be persecuting or stalking them...I think. There are moments when it's not clear how much of it is supposed to be "real" at all. Maybe it's about Bergman's petty desire to humiliate his critics. The use of sex to express power relationships & to humiliate is a major theme in both movies.

Bergman has tough actors. In both movies the camera is often right in their faces. A Bergman actor has to stand up to a lot of scrutiny!

Slatkin Leads SF Symphony

Haydn: Symphony No. 67 in F Major (1779)
Barber: Piano Concerto, Opus 38 (1962)
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Opus 36 (1899)

Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

I heard this concert on Friday, as part of my non-shopping Black Friday. This was a really solid evening. Every piece made its point. The Haydn was elegant & witty. The first movement showed off the precision of the string section. Haydn's trick of ending the 2nd movement col legno got a laugh. The 3rd movement has an amusing trio that is played by just the concert master & principal 2nd violinist in a country dance style. After this trio, Slatkin stepped down from the podium & paid a few dollars to each soloist. The 2nd violinist even had a cup ready for the tip! But even without this schtick, I was left with the recognition that this is a great piece & that we all need to hear more Haydn Symphonies.

Garrick Ohlsson produced a large, fluid sound for the virtuoso Barber Concerto. In the 1st & 3rd movement the soloist has to produce flurries of notes, & his playing was always clear & flowing. He seems to be a very efficient player too, dispatching what must be very difficult writing with apparent ease. At one point I thought I saw him do a hand crossing by passing one hand under the other! The 2nd movement is one of those lyrical, suspended stetches of music. This is the composer of the famous Adagio for Strings, after all.

After intermission, we got a solid reading of the Enigma Variations. Everything was in place. Fine solos from the orchestra & exemplary leading from the podium. Slatkin was always comfortably ahead of the orchestra. Often he would give a cue, then step back & let the orchestra play, providing hints rather than trying to direct everything.

My only complaint is with a few members of the audience. I was sitting in the back of the orchestra section. Nearby was a father with his 2 young sons, around 10 years old. One of them, understandable bored, fidgeted constantly, pulled his sweater on & off, found imaginative ways to drape himself over his armrest & otherwise was pretty distracting. Immediately after the Barber they got up & left, & figured they were going home, but they returned for the second half. As the lights went down, I moved several rows down, so I missed the 2nd half of the little boy's performance. However, I ended across the aisle from someone who really needed a tissue but instead spent the whole of the Elgar sniffling.

Joseph Cornell at SF MOMA

Instead of using Black Friday to start my Christmas shopping, I went to the SF MOMA with the intent of checking out the Joseph Cornell retrospective. I was not the only one with this idea. The museum opens at 11:00am, & when I got there at about 5 minutes to, the line to buy tickets was already around the corner. By the time I got my admission & checked my shoulder bag, it was 11:25. The galleries were host to many families & many crying babies. Museums really are mass entertainment now.

The Joseph Cornell exhibit is excellent & truly comprehensive. It's also very large. The works are grouped by themes, though I didn't find this organizing principle very convincing. Works that are very similar, such as the 2 versions of the Pink Palace, end up in different galleries for no clear reason. Besides the well-known boxes, the exhibit contains collages, portfolios, films, graphic design work & even an amusing newspaper parody made for his family.

Cornell's work is very consistent in tone over 3 decades. There's a melancholy sense of the inevitable decay of memory, of the impossibility of preserving experiences & feelings. Taglioni's Jewel Casket (1940) contains artificial ice cubes nestled in a plush jewel chest. An accompanying text tells us how the ice cubes were meant to remind a famous ballerina of an incident where she was waylaid by a Russian highwayman & forced to dance in the snow. The whimsical & romantic tone of the story & the artifact made me think of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

I did not have time to explore the Olafur Eliasson exhibit, but it's obviously really fun. It starts with an electric fan swinging erratically & dangerously over the heads of visitors in the lobby. People were lined up on the 2nd floor to enter a room chilled to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, containing a frozen car. The top floor is a playland of light. Not to be missed is the room that turns all color into grey values. It's like stepping into the black & white part of The Wizard of Oz.

I also had to skip Jeff Wall's huge light box photos. I left the museum feeling that I need to make a repeat visit soon.

Apple Store Opens on Chestnut Street

Black Friday was opening day for a new Apple Store on Chestnut Street. I now live 3 blocks from an Apple store. I'll probably be in there every day now. It is impressive-looking, no doubt. All stainless steel & glass & bright lighting. & everything looks so tempting. It goes quite far back. & at the back of the store, where one would expect cash registers, there is a genius bar instead. One of employees claimed that they are the first store to have the floating icon.
Apple Store on Chestnut Street Apple Store on Chestnut Street

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Masters of Origami

On Saturday afternoon I ventured outside the City to Alameda's K Gallery at Rhyhmics Cultural Works to see an exhibit of local origami artists. I've been doing origami as a hobby ever since my grandma taught me as a kid. In my lifetime I've seen it change from a craft into a full-fledged art form, meriting its own museum exhibitions. The gallery was hosting a standing-room-only class led by Bernard Peyton & Peter Engel. Even though we were led through simple models, I found it quite challenging just to fold in the air. I got to talk with Peter Engel afterwards, & it turns out that there is a whole aesthetic to folding in the air vs. on a flat surface.

Anyway, many of the models on display are astounding. Vicky Mihara's connected cranes are simply insane. & I have to take it on trust that Robert Lang's sharp-edged, multi-limbed arthropods really are folded from a single uncut sheet of square paper.

A few pictures from the exhibit:

Squaring the Circle, Robert LangAmerican Flag, Robert LangElephant Mother & Baby, Bernard PeytonBatKimono

Emmanuel Pahud

Emmanuel Pahud, flute
Eric Le Sage, piano

Thursday, November 15, 8:00 pm
Herbst Theatre

REINECKE: Sonata, Undine, Op. 167
BRAHMS: Sonata No. 1 for Flute and Piano in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1
WIDOR: Suite, Op. 34
STRAUSS: Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18

SCHUMANN: No. 2 Lebhaft, leicht & No. 3 Rasch und mit Feuer from Fantasiestucke Op.73

I first heard Pahud at another Herbst Theatre recital a few years ago, & I was completely swept away by his playing. I felt like he could have switched to tissue paper & a comb & would still have gotten something out of it. I went around saying that he was a musician who transcended his instrument, but this really didn't explain anything. So I was really looking forward to hearing him again & starting to figure out what impressed me so much.

For the 1st half of his program I was again totally absorbed in the music. Pahud played the Reinecke with a light, fluid tone. He demonstrated incredible nuance & control at the end of the quiet movements, when his sound drifted away to silence. When he started the Brahms he had a different sound that was heavier & fuller. It was like he had returned to the stage with a different instrument.

The Widor was the virtuoso show-stopper of the evening. One of the distinctive features of Pahud's playing is his breathing. This piece has lots of extended runs & long phrases, & time & again he would pass up perfectly good opportunities to take a breath. He can keep his sound going without a break through extremely long passages with lots of notes. As a result, I was left feeling breathless!

The Strauss gave Pahud a chance to really wail on the flute, if such a thing is possible. He unleashed a lot of sound, seeming to take the flute to its dynamic limit. In other words, he can be really loud!

Obviously I think Pahud is a very special performer. He communicates so well musically, & he is so at ease. I think the flute is an awkward instrument, but he looks very comfortable on stage. He also comes across as a nice guy. Before announcing his encore he politely thanked us for our patience & kindness.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Animation Shorts

I returned to the SF International Animation Festival last Saturday for 2 of the shorts programs.

Best of Annecy 2007
Shaun the Sheep “Still Life” (Sadler Christopher, England, 7 min) -- Hilarious Aardman clay animation skit about a farmer's day out with an easel & paints. One clever joke after another. Completely in the style of Wallace & Gromit. In fact the sheep dog with an iPod even looks like a beady-eyed Gromit.
Beton (Michael Faust, Ariel Belinco, Israel, 6 min) -- Absurdist political commentary about the wall in Israel. A military post takes extreme measures to shoot down a kite appearing above the wall.
Welcome to White Chapel District (Marie Viellevie, France, 5 min) -- This one I did not get. A recitation of the grisly deeds of Jack the Ripper illustrated with crude schematics & stop-motion photography.
Devochka Dura (Zojya Kireeva, Russia, 7 min) -- Humorous vignettes about a decidedly individual pre-school girl trying to get the attention of one of her classmates. Animated in loose, fluid pencil drawings.
The Pearce Sisters (Luis Cook, England, 9 min) -- Gruesome tale of 2 sisters leading a hard, isolated life on the English coast. Nasty events ensue when a shipwrecked sailor is rescued from the sea. Clearly meant to be humorously macabre, this is the kind of story that only animation can make palatable.
Premier Voyage (Grégoire Sivan, France, 10 min) Charming clay animation recounting a new father's train journey with his 10-month old daughter. Very philosophical & very French voice-over by the bemused dad.
The Runt (Andreas Hykade, Germany, 10 min) -- Sinister & unrelentingly cruel coming-of-age story told in a visually pared-down & abstract style.
t.o.m. (Tom Brown, Daniel Benjamin Gray, England, 3 min) -- Off-beat vignette about a school boy's peculiar & ritualistic journey from home to school. The traditional cel-animation look of the piece sets us up for a puzzling punch line. Narration, character & animation all work together here.
Méme les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Samuel Torneux, France, 9 min) -- Satirical story about a country priest in France racing with death for the soul of an old man. In the end, death appears to be the only honest man around. Looks like it was 3-D computer animated. Slapstick but with a surprising moment of gore at the end.

I like programs like this, each short in a different style & from a different country, & each one having a punch at the end. When the lights came up after the last one, I was sorry that the program was over already.

Maker’s Dozen
Raymond (Bif, France, 5 min) -- Stop-motion animation of a live actor who is put through his paces as a human guinea pig being treated with substances that affect his locomotion in abrupt ways. It's extreme slap-stick.
Sleeping Betty (Claude Cloutier, Canada, 10 min) -- Satirical take on the fairy tale, drawn in a rich children's story book style. The animator's sense of humor is very particular, & it took me a little time to start getting the jokes. It's sort of a Mad Magazine look at the story. This animator was at the screening. His film took 5 years to do!
Sundance Forgetfulness (Julian Grey, Canada, 2 min) -- A voice-over about the impossibility of retaining experience, illustrated by live-action film clips in which major visual elements have been whited-out, perhaps by hand.
How She Slept at Night (Lilli Carre, USA, 4 min) -- I didn't get this one at all. In the voice-over a man recounts memories of his wife. This is illustrated with lightly animated drawings. The content repeats 3 times with minor variations.
One D (Mike Grimshaw, Canada, 5 min) -- Taking graphic design to an extreme, a night out at the movies is depicted in a world where everything is no more than a one-dimensional line.
Naked (Sex) (Mischa Kamp, Netherlands, 6 min) -- A real-audio interview with a young person (a pre-teen perhaps?) about his close-calls with sex is illustrated with crude, perhaps rotoscoped, drawings. Maybe it's just me & where I am in my life, but I find this kind of content completely uninteresting.
The Forest in Winter (Jake Portman, Bill Sneed, England/USA, 5 min) -- A crazed mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood in an artsy Soviet style, complete with stilted Russian voice-over, & a loud Japanese snack food commercial. It's a sensory assault, but I have no idea what the point was.
Lovesport: Paintballing (Grant Orchard, England, 2 min) -- A paintball war animated in the style of an early video game. Each skirmish ratchets up the level of violence, though the players are only rendered as abstract geometric shapes. It's just one joke, but it's brief.
Today (Jerry Van De Beek, Betsy De Fries, USA, 2 min) -- TV spot illustrating a joyful Billie Collins poem.
Pingpongs (George Gendi, England, 6 min) -- This one I didn't quite get. Real audio conversation between an elderly husband & wife, full of inanities & knowing pauses, illustrated by crude line drawings of their heads.
Wolf Daddy (Chang Hyung-Yun, South Korea, 10 min) -- Hilarious dead-pan parody of an anime feature film. I'm not an anime fan, but this film is so absurd that even I could recognize the targets of the jokes. There's an over-sized but benign animal, an innocent child, & the continual unexplained juxtapositions of the fantastical with the mundane.
Madame Tutli-Putli (Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski, Canada, 17 min) Creepy scenario about a woman who takes a nightmarish train journey symbolizing the end of her life. Scary imagery & animated puppets with eerily life-like eyes create a paranoid vision of the world. The animators were present at the screening, & in the Q & A they revealed the secret: Real eyes were filmed & composited into the stop-motion animation. It took 4 years!
Court Order—In Memoriam Peter Mansfeld (Zoltan Szilagyi Varga, Hungary, 8 min) -- A reading of the official documentation of the trial & execution of a political prisoner, illustrated with minimal animation of black & white drawings. I found this one difficult to appreciate. While the subject is clearly important, I wasn't sure how the animation was supporting the story.

This program wasn't as strong as the 1st one, but Madame Tutli-Putli is not to be missed. Interestingly, at the end of the program, the animators remarked that the film isn't as dark as it appeared at the screening. My impression is that the projection method used for the program made everything too dark. I don't know how the program was projected, but it was not film. It may have been video instead.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Alex Ross at Google

There's a YouTube video of Alex Ross being the Sister Wendy of classical music. How often do you hear Stravinsky being compared to Madonna?

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Magic Flute at SF Opera

Tamino: Piotr Beczala
Pamina: Dina Kuznetsova
Papageno: Christopher Maltman
The Queen of the Night: Erika Miklósa
Sarastro: Georg Zeppenfeld

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Original Production: Sr Peter Hall
Director: Stanley M Garner
Designer: Gerald Scarfe

I was at the last performance of this opera last Saturday evening, in one of the best seats in the house: front row, grand tier. Musically I was very satisfied. Runnicles's tempos tend to be fast, though I never felt that he was rushing through things. I heard great flute & oboe solos from the pit. The cast was uniformly strong & consistent. The stand-out of the evening was Erika Miklósa as the Queen of Night. Her voice is lighter than one would expect for her character, but her coloratura sounded effortless, nuanced & even lovely. No shrieking to get out those high notes here! She got the biggest ovation of the evening after her 2nd act aria.

The production itself turns out to be a bit old. It's a revival of a 1993 production by Peter Hall. The setting is a clearly fairy tale Egypt, & the costumes are fanciful & bright. We got the clever & cute animals costumes, ala The Lion King. Actually, I totally enjoyed the little penguin in red tennis shoes that was obviously played by a child. I was creeped out by the chorus who all wore identical gowns & masks. It made Sarastro's court look like a totalitarian nightmare state.

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10
Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Various Works from Latin America
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for this performance at Davies Hall last Sunday evening. Dudamel & the Venezuela Youth Orchestra remade the orchestral concert experience for me. One attends concerts regularly for years waiting for experiences like this. The orchestra is over-sized: 11 double basses, 8 horns, 4 flutes, bassoons, etc. & Dudamel has them playing with a unanimity of purpose that makes every statement, large or small, emphatic & visceral. The 1st half was the hour-long Shostakovich 10, which Dudamel conducted from memory. It made me want to throw away my anemic Naxos CD version of the same piece. The 2nd half was like being invited to the best party in town. This is the only orchestra I've ever seen that has its own choreography!

Read the raves for this tour:
- Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the greatest show on Earth (LA Times)
- Dudamel is absolutely revelatory (LA Times)
- Fiery Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra sets Bernstein ablaze (SF Chronicle)

Dudamel returns early next year to lead an SF Symphony subscription concert. I definitely want to see that to find out if he wields the same power in front of a professional orchestra.

The Pixar Story

Last night I went to the opening night of the San Francisco Animation Festival at the Embarcadero Cinemas. I had no idea we even had such a film festival here. They screened The Pixar Story, a new documentary about Pixar Studios by Leslie Iwerks. It amounts to a 90 minute commercial for this hard-working & successful studio. In the Q & A afterwards, the director even admitted that she had a hard time finding a conflict for the film, since so far the studio's history has been one of producing one hit after another.

However, I still learned some things I didn't know before. In the most surprising moment in the film, John Lasseter relates being fired from his dream job at Disney over a project called "The Brave Little Toaster." & I understand a little bit more about Ed Catmull's role in developing the technology that gives the Pixar movies their vivid 3-D look.

The San Francisco Film Society seems like a neat organization. My movie ticket got me into a reception where they served wine, beer & desserts, which all disappeared pretty quickly. Pete Docter, the director of Monsters Inc., was there & drew some pictures for fans. Coming up are screenings of a movie version of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis at the Kabuki & a new Gus Van Sant movie. The latter I would want to see just because of the venue: it's being held in something called the "Premier Theater" in Letterman Digital Arts Center in The Presidio.

Cool moment of the evening: When I used a $20 bill instead of a credit card to pay for my ticket, the box office guy observed that "Cash is king."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Kollektief Accompanies Murnau's Faust

Last night I was able to walk conveniently from my place to the Palace of Fine Arts to see Murnau's 1926 silent Faust accompanied by a European jazz ensemble called the Willem Breuker Kollektief. The event was sponsored by the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Both the movie & the music were very entertaining. The score used a somewhat dissonant harmonic language that was more contemporary than the film, but it was well-coordinated with the action. I liked that the score picked up on the movie's humor. There were clever moments where the ensemble did fun things to illustrate the scene, such as when the trombone comments on the action by doing a kind of wah-wah laugh, or when the musicians provide the singing voices of a festive crowd, or when one of the saxophone players switches to the harmonica during a sultry situation.

The band was set up on the Palace of Fine Art's vast stage, with the screen looking rather small behind them. To me, this emphasized the music over the movie. I guess since this is happening in the context of a Jazz festival, this is appropriate. But it would interesting to try this at the Castro Theatre as well.