Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dacher Keltner at the Mechanics' Institute

I was at the Mechanics' Institute this evening for Dacher Keltner's talk about his new book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. I haven't read it yet, but it looks to me like it's using science to support new-age spiritualism. Professor Keltner's talk, however, was all science. He explained some of his research into the biological & evolutionary sources for "prosocial" emotions. These are the positive emotions that make social interactions rewarding, such as altruism, compassion & love.

Professor Keltner is a likable & funny speaker, projecting an image that is more surfer dude than academic. He's a good spokesman for his own work. Judging by the lively & assenting audience, he already had fans in the crowd. They had good questions for him about what studies have been done in this area, such as the possible use of oxytocin as a medical treatment. It feels like science has finally gotten around to studying emotions. Apparently the mammalian vagus nerve is going to figure importantly in future research.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dog Cat Rat

"Hey, Dog-Cat-Rat Guy, I've seen you before!" So I heard a young woman while I was walking on Chestnut Street this afternoon. Sure enough, there was a guy sitting in front of a coffee shop, & at his feet lay a dog, & on that dog's back lay a cat, & on that cat's back lay a white rat. As a San Franciscan, I thought I'd seen it all, but this is one for the blog!

Met Orfeo in HD

Met Opera - Live in HD
Saturday, January 24, 2009 (1:00 pm ET)

Orfeo ed Euridice – Gluck

Production: Mark Morris
Conductor: James Levine
Euridice: Danielle de Niese
Amor: Heidi Grant Murphy
Orfeo: Stephanie Blythe

Even this opera, which I would think is a hard sell, was sold out at the Westfield Mall this morning. There was a long line to get in when I arrived at 9:15am for the 10:00am start. The majority of the audience was elderly, & the atmosphere grew distinctly testy as empty seats became harder to find.

The broadcast started with about 15 minutes of backstage chat. I wonder how the Met publicity people felt about Mark Morris trailing a long pink scarf & describing himself as an opera queen? The opera itself was done without an intermission & lasted barely 90 minutes, even including all that ballet music. The production was decidedly modern in approach, starting with the way Levine & the orchestra dug in for every number.

Stephanie Blythe is a singing machine, her voice sounding sturdy & masculine. She gave the impression of having the reserves to keep going indefinitely. Heidi Grant Murphy gave a cute, warbling performance as a cupid in jeans & pink polo shirt. Danielle de Niese's Euridice looked & sounded sultry.

The stage is dominated by the chorus arrayed on a curved, 3-tiered scaffold in an abstract open space. Each member of the chorus is individually made-up as a different historical personality. I spotted a Lincoln, a Napoleon, a Frederick Douglas, a Marie Antoinette, etc. Mr. Morris explained this by saying the chorus is made up of people who died. Besides singing, the chorus sits or stands or gestures in unison. Below them 20 or so dancers perform the ballet numbers. Each of the dancers is also individually costumed, though in non-specific modern clothes. The dances were fairly abstract, & I did not understand their relationship to the opera's action.

I'd never seen a staging of Orfeo before. It must be challenging to stage it in a large house; its austerity is so at odds with grand opera. Watching the show, I began wondering if the straightforwardness of Gluck's music is actually deceptive. Hades appears to be rather pleasant, & Euridice is so exasperating that I wondered whether Orfeo's life wouldn't be more peaceful without her.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shotgun's Macbeth

Thursday night I took BART to Berkeley & caught Macbeth presented by the Shotgun Players. Due to word of mouth, it's been playing to sold-out houses, & the run has been extended through next week.

This is a modern dress production with a mostly young cast. I would describe them as being more effective physical actors than verbal actors. Blythe Foster as Lady Macbeth makes her entrance strutting around the stage like one of the Fly Girls & immediately establishes herself as hot, young & over-confident. I'm sure this is only the Lady Macbeth who does a one-handed cartwheel!

The on-stage murders are the most striking parts of the show. They are explicit & gory without overreaching & often have piquant touches of humor. The murder of Duncan, which normally occurs off-stage, is presented here as a dream-like dumb show. Most of the victims are dispatched by a single murderer, played by Kevin Clarke as a remorseless, psychopathic killing machine. The murder of Banquo was graphic enough to make the audience groan.

The supernatural aspect of the play is dropped altogether. The 3 weird sisters are collapsed into a single camp follower scuttling around the action. Macbeth's visions have clearly psychological sources. His 2nd encounter with the witches is replaced by a disjointed scene in which Lady Macbeth ingests various substances, writhes on the floor & mouths the prophecies. This caused one audience member to get an uncontrollable case of the giggles.

The show has a loud sound design of thumping house music, sword clangs, & rumblings that you could feel through the floor. It was better than Sensurround. In the final scene of the play, a bunch of pointed tree trunks emerge horizontally through the back of the set. I'm not sure this idea works.

Shotgun Players looks to be a hardscrabble organization. Just before the 2nd half, there was a drawing for a poster autographed by the cast & a Peet's coupon. After the final bows, the oldest actor in the cast, speaking with a polite English accent, asked us for additional donations. Well, it's hard times, & they say Cressida was a beggar.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Coming Up: Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has a something-for-everyone program coming up on Valentine's Day at the Castro Theatre. Because of the venue, the audiences & the quality of the films, these are some of the best movie events in the City. I'd like to see all 4 movies, but I have the stamina for only 2 at the most.

It's often more efficient to use the Internet, but this afternoon I bought my tickets at the festival's scrappy little box office on Market Street. I was puzzled about the festival's use of live musical accompaniment for Sunrise, since I know that this movie already has a great soundtrack. As if on cue, Stephen Salmons, the festival's artistic director, appeared from behind a screen, & I had a fascinating discussion with him about silent film music. In the case of Sunrise, it was originally also distributed in a silent version for theaters that were not yet capable of sound. So it is entirely true to the original experience to have someone play an original score to go with it, as Dennis James will most likely do.

If you've never heard Salmons talk before, you should know that he is an awesome speaker & a passionate film geek. It was pretty cool having this chance encounter with him. Sometimes you learn more by not using the Web.

La Rondine in HD

Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast
La Rondine – Puccini
Originally broadcast Saturday, January 10, 2009 (1:00 pm ET)

Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Production: Nicolas Joël
Angela Gheorghiu, Lisette Oropesa, Roberto Alagna, Marius Brenciu, Samuel Ramey

I really like this opera after seeing the film version of the San Francisco Opera production last year. I'm surprised by how much it moves me. Something about Magda's unworkable attempt to regain a lost moment of her life really gets to me. Maybe it's all about the timing. I doubt I would have had any interest in the story if I had encountered it 10 years ago.

I missed the live broadcast from the Met a couple of weeks back when it was sold out. Instead I made it to the repeat on Wednesday evening. On this second hearing I liked the music of the first 2 acts even more, though I admit the music of the 3rd act is a bit weak. At least the 3rd act has the virtue of being brief where it cannot be good.

This is the same gorgeous production as the one in San Francisco. The cast is different except for Angela Gheorghiu. Before the performance Peter Gelb announced that Gheorghiu was going on in spite of a cold. Her lower notes did sound dry, especially at the start, but otherwise she seemed to do fine. There's definitely an on-stage intimacy between her & her husband Alagna.

Lisette Oropesa & Marius Brenciu were excellent singer-actors as the young lovers Lisette & Prunier. I found myself preferring Brenciu's tenor voice to Alagna's. Brenciu did have a tiny, forgivable break in his voice during Act III. The irony was that during his intermission interview he said that he was being more careful because of the broadcast. Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo looked looked old & sounded wobbly, which added up to a convincing character portrayal.

The repeat broadcasts are not nearly as fun as the live ones, even though it's exactly the same performance. The audience is much sparser & less inclined to applaud & react to the show.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Broadcast

At home early in the morning, I saw Dick Cheney on TV being pushed around in a wheelchair like Dr. Strangelove. A little later I joined the crowd at Yerba Buena Gardens to watch the inauguration on 2 jumbotrons. We booed Rick Warren. We chuckled & cheered at the giant bow on Aretha Franklin's hat. We shared a laugh when Obama & Justice Roberts stepped on one another's lines during the swearing-in.

But all I really cared about was Obama's address. I was happily absorbed in it when all at once the jumbotrons went dead, as if someone had pulled the plug on the whole thing. After a couple of minutes I decided that they weren't going to fix it soon, so I bailed & missed maybe half the speech. I'm downloading the MP3 now. I guess that's the digital future: it works, sort of...

Monday, January 19, 2009

American Bach Soloists: Mass in B Minor

Sunday 18 January 2009
7:00 pm
St. Mark's Lutheran Church

American Bach Soloists
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
Abigail Haynes Lennox, soprano
Ellen Hargis, soprano
Judith Malafronte, alto
Derek Chester, tenor
Joshua Copeland, bass
American Bach Choir

J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

I was fore-sighted enough to have had a ticket in hand for this sold-out concert in advance. People tried to buy it off me as I entered the venue! Clearly the American Bach Soloists continue to do a great job developing their audience.

ABS had much larger forces than usual this evening, though still minimal for this large work. The chorus numbered only 27, including the 5 soloists who also participated in the choruses. I've seen them do one-per-part, but here the orchestra included 4 first violins, 3 second violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos & 2 double bass instruments (Violone grosso & Contrabass) for extra weight. I doubt you could give an effective performance with fewer personnel.

It was an evening of music-making without weaknesses. Everything was very clean. The chorus was well-prepared & was the strongest element of the performance. Though small in number, they made a powerful, focused sound. It was easy to hear even the inner voices, especially the steely tenors. The chorus executed a wonderfully dramatic pianissimo at the end of the Crucifixus, which was a highlight of the evening. The soloist were all fine & fluid singers. Derek Chester was a stand-out. His sound is clear & even, & his singing very musical.

The tempos were generally fast, but for the most part avoided sounding too bouncy. This is serious stuff after all! The orchestra does a good job, though one still occasionally hears the performers struggling with those original instruments.

I like the setting for these concerts in a Lutheran church, but the acoustic of St. Marks sounds surprisingly dead to me. It seems like the sound dies away immediately. There is none of the reverberation or aural halo I associate with performances in churches.

The ABS audiences are attentive & appreciative. No one clapped between movements, but there were audible murmurs of approval after several numbers. On the way out of the venue, I received a very nice glossy brochure for the ABS season, along with a free CD containing excerpts from their recordings.

The Glass Cousins

I'm watching an interview with Ira Glass on the Borders site, & he just said that Philip Glass is his cousin. Am I the only one who didn't know this?

Rubik's Cube Competition

I spent a draw-dropping Sunday afternoon at the Exploratorium witnessing much of the San Francisco Open 2009 Rubik's Cube Competition. It was pure, addictive nerd fascination to watch these pros spin the faces of the cubes into place without seeming to even think about it. At a certain point physical dexterity becomes just as important as mental ability. I saw some insane stuff. I little boy who looked to be about 4 or 5 solved his cube in under 3 minutes. Players rapidly aligned the faces of 4x4x4 & 5x5x5 cubes & solved cubes using just one hand. Most incredibly, several people took up the challenge of solving the cube blindfolded. Probably less than 1 out of 3 trials resulted in a successful solve, but I saw one girl study the cube for about 30 seconds, don a blindfold, & successfully solve it within 2 minutes! In the final round, I watched Lucas Garron solve a cube in exactly 10 seconds.

This is definitely a young man's game. The majority of the contestants were teenage boys. In the final rounds, the competitors were all guys, & none looked to be above college age. They got punchier as the competition came to a close. At the end of the final round, Michael Gottlieb played a trick on us by using a specially scrambled cube to make it look like he solved it in less than 4 seconds.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Oberlin Live! from the West Coast

Jan 11, 2009, 7:00PM
Palace of Fine Arts

eighth blackbird
The Prima Trio
Members of the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble

Peter Schickele: Serenade for Three
Frederic Rzewski: Knight, Death and the Devil (2008)
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile
Steve Reich: Double Sextet (2007)

I wish there were more well-programmed concerts of contemporary music like this. It started with the Prima Trio giving a bright & enthusiastic reading of the Schickele Serenade. It's an audience-friendly work, in 3 short movements, conventional in its tonality. The final movement, a theme & variations, features humorous solos for each player & was definitely reminiscent of Schickele's alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach. The piece put the audience at ease & in a good mood.

Rzewski's Knight, Death and the Devil requires the 6 players of eighth blackbird plus a string quartet. This is a major work about war. It is in several short, fragmentary movements. Some of the movements sound like folksy songs & dances. Others are discordant, eerie, agitated or even violent. The players are sometimes called upon to make snorts, growls or guttural exhalations. In one theatrical solo, the percussionist smashes plates by hurling them & then transfers the broken chips into a metal bucket. In another movement, he stomps & kicks a metal trash can until it's crushed flat. The piece ends with a sad, introspective & inconclusive piano solo.

I found Knight, Death and the Devil to be an effective depiction of uncertainty, fear & dislocation. According to the program notes, the composer originally conceived this piece to be played while the audience looked at a large projected image of the Albrecht Dürer print of the same name. The print was reproduced in the program, but there was no projection at this performance.

Hartke's Meanwhile is a descriptive piece of exotic colors that often sounds like a gamelon or a kabuki play. The pianist starts the piece by playing Flexatones, which sound like small gongs with variable pitch. The percussionist also played a gong whose pitch he varied by lowering it into a box after he struck it.

The program ended with a Reich piece, requiring 2 ensembles of 6 players each, set up as mirror images of one another. It took a while to set up the stage because all the players needed to be miked. It's in 3 movements, each of them consisting of several sub-sections, clearly marked by musical gear shifts. The instruments enter in pairs or groups of 4. Once the piece starts, it's in non-stop rhythmic motion. The rhythms are hypnotic, & the music doesn't develop so much as simply proceed. One gets the feeling that one wrong entrance could derail the performance. It's also very mechanical & got me wondering how one differentiates between a technical proficient performance versus a great one.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Invention of Air

I was at Stacy's Bookstore at lunchtime today to hear Steven Johnson talk about his new book, The Invention of Air. It's about the 18th century scientist Joseph Priestly & his influence on the founding fathers of the United States. Priestly settled in Pennsylvania, seeking intellectual freedom after his home in England was burned down by a mob. As one of the most famous scientists of his time, he immediately became embroiled in the political life of the new country.

Mr. Johnson thinks there is a lesson here about Enlightenment Age thinking. Our founding fathers would never think to separate the worlds of politics & science. Instead, they actively engaged with science. Mr. Johnson has a very open mind & is a funny guy as well. The book sounds like an entertaining read. About 50 people were at the Stacey's reading. Mr. Johnson has been twittering his book tour, so I hope the turn-out was good enough for him!

It's hard to believe that Stacey's is closing in a couple of months. To me it always showed the signs of a healthy business: excellent personalized service, well-attended in-store events, lines at the registers, & even a customer loyalty program. I spent a lot of my lunch hours there, & I will miss it.

T.I.C. (trenchcoat in common)

Encore Theatre Company
T.I.C. (trenchcoat in common)
a world premiere play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Thursday, January 8
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center

This crowded & hilarious 100 minute play starts with a teenage blogger. Out of anger & boredom, she reports the behavior of her colorful neighbors, all of them easily recognizable San Francisco caricatures. The high-tech is just a device to pull together a story that is equal parts Rear Window, Tales of the City & sketch comedy. At first I kept trying to figure out what it was really supposed to be about. The alienating effect of the Web? Voyeurism? The gap between our public & private selves? But the plot kept taking so many surprising & ridiculous turns that I gave up & just let myself keep laughing.

The show is really about inappropriate humor & crazy schtick. Very little is off limits: insecure hipsters, gay fathers, pot-smoking hippies, flashers, ax murderers & domestic terrorists all get in on the act. A story arc involving the conflict between the teenage girl & her unlikely father provides just enough emotional weight to ground the play & keep it from becoming just a series of skits.

The cast has a lot of fun. Rebecca White plays a classic disaffected teenager & is at her funniest when she is reacting to the intolerable behavior of the adults around here. I liked Michael Shipley's middle-aged gay preppy, earnest & trying way too hard. I found the character embarrassingly realistic. Liam Vincent gives a delicious performance as the creepily secure exhibitionist Terrence. He made me feel uncomfortable for liking the character so much. I was also impressed by the elaborate sound design that represents computer noises & events going on in the virtual world.

A lot of funny & unexpected revelations occur in these 100 minutes. At times the audience is laughing throughout an entire scene. I went in not knowing much about what was going to happen next. I think this is a good way to enjoy it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

MTT conducts Berg & Brahms

San Francisco Symphony
Fri, Jan 9, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Michael Tilson Thomas

COPLAND: Our Town, Music from the Film Score
BERG: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

This concert was billed as "MTT conducts Brahms's First", but I was here for the Berg. However, it took a bit of time to get there & back. The Copland film music sounds very much like film music. A simple, repeated motive in the strings easily established a mood of peacefulness & laziness. It was the most conscientiously conducted piece of the evening.

The Copland lulled us into an only temporary sense of comfort. As if to reassure us, MTT talked for a good 5 minute before the Three Pieces. I fear that he inadvertently used language that disparaged the composition. He described the primordial opening as "noise", then quickly corrected himself, so as not to offend the actual percussion section. He then went on to label the melodic fragments as "flotsam & jetsam" & "aimless", which makes them sound like trash or wreckage. I think the opposite process is happening here; the music is being built up & coalescing.

I found myself in the front row of the orchestra for this concert. This is not an ideal seat, but it did work nicely for the Berg in one way. It allowed me to hear all the string parts, which are easily buried by the heavy brass & percussion orchestration. Technically correct execution of this work must be difficult to pull off, but this performance sounded very straight-forward. An audience member belched perfectly in time with the end of the 2nd movement. Perhaps after a century we can say that the 2nd Viennese School has been a flop with audiences.

With the Brahms, everyone was back on familiar ground. MTT started the 1st movement at an alarmingly fast tempo. Through the whole piece, he seemed to be conducting along with the orchestra, as opposed to being ahead of it. The result was a somewhat loose interpretation with not much dynamic range. Even though I found the evening a bit slack, it was a program of first-rate music. I am looking forward to the Berg/Schubert programs later in the season.

But what I really want to know is, who were those guys with the great mustaches in the left terrace?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

I had no regrets taking time out of this unusually sunny day to catch a matinee of Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir. This is an animated documentary about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mr. Folman, a participant in that war, begins by claiming not to remember any of it. In the film he goes on a journey to collect the stories of his old war buddies. He comes to acknowledge his own complicity in the massacre of Palestinian civilians & to recognize his important role as a witness. It's a damning anti-war film & implies that Israel itself may not have learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

It looks like much of the movie was shot in live action, then traced over as animation. The images have a flat look, like comic book illustrations. Animation allows the director to depict the hallucinatory atmosphere of combat & to explore the dynamic & constructed nature of memory. The very effective soundtrack includes angry rock songs, snippets of Bach & Chopin, & original music by Max Richter. I gladly sat through the credits so I could listen to all of a hauntingly beautiful cello piece.

The filmmaker represents the recovery of his experiences by abruptly switching to documentary video footage at the very end. Animation is traditionally associated with fictional narratives. This final video testimony lets us know that there is nothing any less real about the preceding accounts. Given that events in Gaza continue to occupy the news, the film is sadly pertinent. I needed to take a long, quiet walk home afterward.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ice Cream from Humphry Slocombe

Humphry SlocombeThis unseasonably warm Sunday was the perfect day to check out Humphry Slocombe, the new ice cream store at 24th Street & Harrison. There was a line out the door, & apparently it's been like this since it opened just before the New Year. They have done no publicity, but bloggers & foodies quickly spread the word via the Web.

The big attraction here are the special flavors. Once I saw the Guinness gingerbread, my mind was made up. It did indeed have those 2 great tastes, just enough so that you could recognize them, but not so much that it tasted weird. The best-named flavor has got to be secret breakfast -- that would be corn flakes & bourbon! It was not possible for me to pass that one up either. I'm looking forward to trying the foie gras ice cream next time.

Despite the pressure of the long line, the staff was super-friendly, efficient & genuinely thankful for each customer. It was $3.25 for the 2 scoops served in a paper cup. They also have sundaes.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Young Composer Reveals Musical Resolutions

That would be Nico Muhly, with boyishly disheveled hair, on Wall Street Journal Online. I love it when he says he's been writing music for one player plus electronics "for years & years & years". He's like only 26, isn't he? I also like it when his cat has to get in on the action.

The composer looks adorable here, but it's probably a good thing that Beethoven never had to appear on video to answer questions about his new year's resolutions.

Video link here.

Cat gets ride

Yesterday morning I was riding the bus up Fillmore Street. Somewhere between Lombard & Union, everyone on the bus started laughing. I looked up from my book to see why. A man on the sidewalk was walking his dog. The dog had a cat standing on its back. A woman on the bus said to her companion, "I don't know what's funnier, that the dog tolerates it or that the cat tolerates it."