Monday, November 30, 2009

Socially Exclusive Entertainment

The November 28th, 2009 issue of the Financial Times recommends a book called The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera by Daniel Snowman. The capsule review refers to opera's "role as a socially exclusive entertainment in democratic New York." Having been to The Met several times this year & witnessed, & even participated in, much unseemly merriment therein, I think they will in fact let just about anyone in.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

SFS: Weihnachtsoratorium

San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Symphony Chorus sings Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Sat, Nov 28, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

J.S. BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Selections from the Six Cantatas
Sung in English

Ragnar Bohlin, conductor

Malin Christensson, soprano
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Lothar Odinius, tenor
Anders Larsson, baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus

When I heard that the SF Symphony was presenting Bach's Christmas Oratorio with cuts & in English, I was happy to disapprove. But in truth, the work is not such an integrated whole. & Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin kept all the narrative recitatives, so doing it in English made sense, as it compelled us to attend to the story, such as it is. My objection turned out to be with Mr. Bohlin's interpretation. He was never slow, but at times it felt like he was slowing down. The performance often failed to communicate the sense of the words. Bach's joyous, exuberant choruses sounded as spirited as the pledge of allegiance. The Part Two tenor aria "Happy shepherds, haste" had all the urgency of a wait at the DMV.

We had a chorus of about 50 & reduced orchestra with 24 string players, which made a good sonic balance. Principal Peter Wyrick played cello continuo. Mr. Bohlin conducted without a baton & made a lot of wavy hand motions.

I did enjoy hearing contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who possesses a couple of penetrating top notes & holds herself with an operatic bearing. Sadly we heard only one full aria from her. Violin principals Mark Volkert & Dan Smiley were a bright spot in the duo obbligato of the Part IV tenor aria "Thy name I live to praise & honor." The oboe d'amore obbligatos were also consistently lovely. I was taken by surprise when William Bennett ran into a bit of trouble during the Part IV soprano aria "Say, my Savior, tell me rightly" & dropped one of his echoes. I might have heard baritone Anders Larsson pronounce "angel" with a hard G, so perhaps I should not feel completely cheated out of hearing some German.

The Saturday night concert was well-attended. The audience was very quiet & refrained from applauding until the ends of each half. I felt sorry for them. They were clearly in a seasonal mood, but there wasn't quite the lift one would have expected. More festive for me was running into the camera-wielding SF Mike, who rightly advised me that changing my seat would not improve my experience.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coit Live

On my way home from Otello on Wednesday night, I took a detour through North Beach to check out the Coit Tower video projection. At first I had a hard time finding a fairly unobstructed view of the tower. I eventually found a good vantage point by walking up Greenwich. Unfortunately there is a lot of light pollution from street lamps & buildings, making the images hard to see. The projected images themselves are probably too detailed, complex, & multi-layered. I could not interpret most of them. Some people walking by me thought one of the pictures showed a girl with a dick in her mouth (Don't know how I could have missed that one). Also, I didn't have a radio, so I was also missing out on that aspect of the show. Still, it's a cool concept, & it is impressive that they figured out how to project imagines images on the fluted tower without distortion.

SFO: Otello

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House
Wed Nov 25 2009 7:30 pm

Otello: Johan Botha
Desdemona: Zvetelina Vassileva
Iago: Marco Vratogna
Cassio: Beau Gibson
Emilia: Renée Tatum
Lodovico: Eric Halfvarson
Roderigo: Daniel Montenegro
Montano: Julien Robbins
Herald: Austin Kness

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Peter J. Hall
Revival Director: Stephen Barlow
Production Designer: John Gunter

This Otello seems to be set in 19th century colonial Cypress Cyprus. There is a single set consisting of tiered galleries surrounding an open space. I suppose it is economical. But it is funny when the curtain comes up after a pause for a scene change, & the stage looks the same. The staging is often equally undramatic. In Act II the children's chorus sings beautifully & dances, but they are put upstage behind a screen. I suppose it makes a point about how little this means to Iago & Otello, who are downstage at desks, but it makes the scene uninvolving.

As advertised, Johan Botha has a bright, ringing sound which is exciting to hear. He is not a dramatic presence, though. When he flopped on the floor in Act III, there were titters. Marco Vratogna's Iago, with his smooth bald head & snugly fitting uniform, was the most attractive & interesting figure on stage. This Iago delighted in his control, of both himself & others. Zvetelina Vassileva is a reliable presence, though her womanly demeanor & straight-ahead singing don't fit the picture of a young, sweet & innocent Desdemona. Eric Halfvarson's powerful voice was a treat in the tiny role of Lodovico.

The orchestral playing was very loose this evening. The double basses had intonation problems in their exposed section solo at Otello's entrance in Act III.

Since the Opera Tattler was elsewhere this evening, I should report that during Act II a cell phone rang several times just before Iago's narration of Cassio's dream. At the intermission, I saw 2 gentlemen retrieve glasses of white wine from beneath a table on the grand tier level. They must have stashed them there beforehand.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noontime Concerts
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 12:30pm
Old St. Mary's Cathedral

Mariya Borozina, violin
Anna Kruger, viola
Thalia Moore, cello

Henry Purcell
Fantazias in Three Parts, Nos. 1-3, Z. 732-747

Franz Schubert
String Trio in B-flat Major, D. 471

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Trio No. 5 in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3

In her opening remarks, cellist Thalia Moore described this as a program of music by young men. Purcell & Schubert were 19 when they wrote their contributions, & Beethoven was 28. It was a pleasant selection. The trio played in an easy way, enjoying each moment as it came. This worked especially well for the Schubert. No particular instrument dominated. I liked violinist Mariya Borozina's smooth, gliding sound & the way it seemed to start out of nothing. If the goal was to provide a midday respite, the trio succeeded.

These concerts follow immediately after the noon mass at Old St. Mary's. The audience needs to wait in the vestibule until the service is over, at which point there is a slow push into the nave. A few members of the congregation remained praying in their pews through the start of the concert.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Picturing Childhood

Picturing Childhood
Portraits from the Masters of Early Photography (1850 - 1930)
From the Wolffe Nadoolman Collection
October 10 - November 18, 2009
Castle in the Air, Berkeley

Picturing childhoodYesterday I got to this little gallery space above the Castle in the Air shop on 4th Street in Berkeley. I’m glad I made the visit just before show came down. These photographs of children come from the collection of Wolffe Nadoolman, a local pediatrician. The images have been carefully arranged in themed groups. For instance, there’s a wall of ethnographic images of native American children. This is directly across from a set of sweet turn-of-the-century pictures depicting childhood as a separate state of being. I was especially fascinated to see the Lewis Carroll photos, including 3 prints of the same image of 2 boys reading. I loved Felix Nadar’s beautiful collotype Portrait of Paul Nadar, Enfant. This mid-19th century boy has an expression that is tired, worried & entirely mature. I also had the unexpected pleasure of meeting the curator in the gallery & having a very enlightening discussion with him about the discovery, or perhaps invention, of childhood in the late 19th century.

Bathroom Reading

Charles schulz museum bathroomJust because I still had access to a car, on Monday afternoon I drove across the bridge for a visit to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. A current exhibit called The Language of Lines loosely explores the importance of creating vivid cartoon characters. I was stopped in my tracks by a Pogo strip dated 12.23.1967. It shows the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp gathered around a sign that reads in large Gothic letters, “God is not dead, he is merely underemployed---”. I also enjoyed discovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote a comic strip illustrated by Alex Raymond called Secret Agent X-9. & there are even comics in the restrooms, which are furnished with tiles printed with Peanuts panels. The museum is hosting a free day this Sunday the 22nd, in celebration of Charles Schulz’s birthday.

Pianos Galore

Grand pianosOn Sunday I passed through the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall on my way to BART. On the 2nd floor I discovered a layout of more than a dozen pianos of various styles & sizes. I think it was for Steinway. Sadly, there was no one to actually play them. Seems a shame to lug all those pianos up there & not perform something interesting. How about Ballet Mécanique, & didn’t Liszt write something for multiple pianos? Then there’s Steven Reich’s thing for 6 pianos, & even Bach wrote a concerto for 4 harpsichords.

BluePrint: L'Histoire du Soldat

BluePrint: Souls Adrift
The Soldier’s Tale, Igor Stravinsky
Saturday, November 14, 9:00 PM

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
American Conservatory Theater

The Narrator: Richard Prioleau
The Soldier: Patrick Lane
The Devil: Dan Wood Clegg
The Princess: Marisa Rachel Duchowny

New Music Ensemble
Nicole Paiement, conductor
Violin: Stephanie Bibbo
Clarinet: Paul Miller
Bassoon: James Onstott
Trumpet: Joshua Davis
Trombone: Andrew Bednarz
Contrabass: Megan McDevitt
Percussion: Jonathan Goldstein

This staged production of Stravinsky’s L'Histoire du Soldat was put on by students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music & the American Conservatory Theater. Nicole Paiement & her ensemble brought out the biting sarcasm of Stravinsky’s score. The ACT students did a game job of acting within the artificiality of the text, though it was sometimes cumbersome to have the action both narrated as well as acted out. If there had been scenery, Dan Wood Clegg would have been chewing it up as the Devil. Good use was made of lighting effects & the full space of the hall. Ms. Paiement herself is a pixie-like presence. She was no doubt making fun of the choreography for the Princess when she kicked up her heel on her way off stage.

The venue was a small performance space at the SFCM. It seats perhaps 100 people on 2 levels. There is even a small pit. Perhaps because the space is high, the acoustic is extremely live. At times I could hear the clacking of the keys on the bassoon. At other times the small ensemble could be piercingly loud. It was also easy to hear someone behind us snoring during the epilogue. The otherwise well-behaved audience included a gentleman in a kilt. On my way into the theater, someone asked me if I was reading the London Observer. I was not.

Going Origami

Going Origami
From Art to Math to Science+Beyond

Bolinas Museum
October 3 - November 15, 2009

This past Saturday, I made it to the Bolinas Museum for the final weekend of this origami exhibit featuring works of Christine Edison, Peter Engel, Goran Konjevod, Robert Lang, Linda Mihara & Bernie Peyton.

origami flower
I am still in awe of Goran Konjevod’s cunningly pleated creations, such as this life-size version of a sunflower.

origami bear moose
Robert Lang was well-represented by his famously accurate animal models with their multiple points.

origami raven bronze
Lang also creates figures like this raven, which look like origami but are actually bronze statues.

I happened to be in the gallery at the same time as the curator, Terry Donohue, a Bolinas resident & origami enthusiast herself. This exhibit was a true labor of love for her. She told me the story of how she was suddenly inspired to put it on after accidentally meeting Bernie Peyton when she arrived too late for one of his exhibitions in the East Bay.

Bolinas road signThe visit was worth it, even though I hate to drive. I quickly tired of making turns along the twisty CA 1, scenic though it may be. I overshot the turnoff into Bolinas twice. I had fallen victim to a local prank. At the museum it was explained to me that the locals hate tourists & have a habit of removing the Bolinas road sign. After replacing the missing sign over 30 times, local authorities simply gave up. Nowadays, one of the signs can be inspected in the museum’s history room.

SF360 Live: Data In Motion

SF360 Live: Data In Motion: Information Design and Animation
Friday, November 13, 2009, 4:00 pm
The Apple Store, One Stockton Street
Joy Mountford

The San Francisco International Animation Festival sponsored this presentation in the Apple Store on Stockton Street. User interface designer Joy Mountford showed us a variety of animations which show large data sets changing over time. Many of the animations are both beautiful & revealing, such as one of a spinning globe with spikes erupting out of it, showing the rapid spread of particular internet search terms. I was entranced by a video of an installation at the Tate consisting of thousands of blinking LEDs lining a corridor. The moving patterns could be based on a variety of data sources, from cellular automata to the movement of visitors through the gallery. It seems that much of the work she showed is proprietary, so she was not permitted to give us specific links to any of the projects. But her point was clear. As we have more & more data to analyze, these sorts of animated visualizations will become increasingly useful.

Ms. Mountford, with her English accent & fashionably black outfit, piques one's curiosity. However, I am not sure it was necessary for her to include in her presentation footage from Frank Thomas's memorial service or pictures of her young son.

SFS: Bychkov conducts Sibelius

San Francisco Symphony
Bychkov conducts Sibelius
Fri, Nov 13, 2009 8:00pm

Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Gautier Capuçon, cello

Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles
Schumann: Cello Concerto in a minor, Op. 129
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante defunte
Ravel: La Valse
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

At the top of the program, an announcement was made that Mr. Capuçon was unable to perform due to a “medical emergency”. This must have happened quite suddenly, as the Schumann was replaced by 2 relatively light Ravel pieces. I think this makes the 3rd time I’ve heard SFS perform La Valse within a year.

Henri Dutilleux’s tone poem Métaboles was given a loud & somewhat lax performance. I enjoyed the playing of a high-pitched cello solo & pizzicato double bass solo, though. As for the 2 Ravel pieces, I may be suffering from over-exposure; I kept thinking I was listening to KDFC. When Bychkov was already on the podium about to the start the Pavane, one of the bassoon players decided he was in the wrong chair, & there was a pause while the bassoons rearranged themselves.

Though the orchestra was allowed to play out for the entire Sibelius Symphony, I found it lacking in tension. Most telling were the curiously limp rests between the final chords of the piece. However, I had fun watching the double bass section play their counter-melody at the opening of the 3rd movement with great vigor. Throughout the evening the orchestra members looked quite relaxed. They were quite chatty amongst themselves during the breaks.

I heard that Mr. Capuçon recovered for the subsequent Saturday night performance. I am sorry to have missed both him & the Schumann.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PCOC 2009 Follow-up

PCOC 2009: Phizz unit dodecahedronThough I have done origami as a hobby since I was a kid, I discovered that I have none of the intense commitment of even the most casual folder at the Pacific Coast Origami Conference. Fortunately the convention attendees are a friendly & sharing bunch, as well as being delightfully nerdy. It is easy to start a conversation simply by asking anyone, “What did you make today?” Most of the learning really happens in the exchanges between the attendees themselves. In a couple of minutes between classes, someone showed me how to fold a simple PHiZZ unit. I was later able to make 30 & combine them into a dodecahedron. During one lunch, a woman showed us a gorgeous hand-made book she had bound. The book could be unfolded into a 3-dimensional tower. At another lunch, a man from Southern California showed me a variety of sharp models he had folded out of dollars bills.

PCOC origami tesselationMy best class experience was with Eric Gjerde, who showed us how to fold a star puff tesselation during a 3 hour session. This is a totally new folding technique to me, & I am sure I would not have been able to figure it out by following diagrams in a book. I have to admit that I impressed myself with the result.

The next Pacific Coast Origami Conference will take place in Seattle in 2011. New York holds one every year, of course on a much larger scaler. Next summer Singapore hosts 5OSME, an international conference about origami & mathematics.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

PCOC 2009

PCOC origami flowersThis weekend I am attending the Pacific Coast Origami Conference. This is my first time, & I feel very much an outsider. The conference consists primarily of classes where one learns a specific origami model in a classroom situation. There are a bit over 200 attendees, most of them from out of town. The majority are simply hobbyists, though there are several cliques of college students who keep very much to themselves.

PCOC modular origami ball ishibashiThe conference is volunteer run, & the organization in general is a bit haphazard. In the afternoon I ended up in a class for which a teacher did not show up, & the same thing happened to a group of people yesterday. I was shocked by the inefficiency of the class sign-up process, which requires everyone to assemble in a conference room & wait for their priority numbers to be called. & we have to do this all over again tomorrow morning.

What has really blown me away, though, is the model exhibition. It is full of a diverse range of models that all combine aesthetics & technical difficulty at a high level. Some of the pieces made me want to cry.

PCOC origami Goran Konjevod
I love the organic shapes of Goran Konjevod’s obsessively pleated creations in paper & metal. I just can’t understand how they are done, even after the creator himself talked to me about his process.

PCOC origami hummingbird Anne Taylor
Anna Taylor created a poetic tableaux of feeding hummingbirds. Hers is one of the most admired entries in the exhibit.

PCOC origami crab
Steve Zheng is represented by a variety of gracefully folded animals, all of them having a sculptural volume.

PCOC origami chimpanzee chimp brian chan
My favorite is Brian Chan’s laughing chimp. The exhibition room is open to the public tomorrow from 10:30am to 5:00pm at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness & Pine.

As part the evening's entertainment, a dozen or so young origami experts participated in a real-time challenge & folded mushrooms, flowers, animals & human figures out of such unlikely papers as toilet seat covers & No. 10 envelopes.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Avedon at SFMOMA

Bi-badonThis afternoon I was at the SFMOMA, primarily to see the extensive Richard Avedon show. The galleries were surprisingly crowded. At least 2 separate tours were going through. The images are so well-known that there are few surprises, though many of the prints are large & even wall-sized. Many of my favorite portraits are here, such as those of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe & Truman Capote. I found the vibrant picture of Janis Joplin to be very sad, even though she is smiling in it. Also sad is a Botticelli-like portrait of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson taken in 2003. Avedon’s most successful portraits have this feeling of fleetingness, as if the subject must have looked quite different just before & just after the picture was captured.

I also took a quick look around the other floors. I was entertained on the 2nd floor by Alex Schweder’s A Sac of Rooms All Day Long, which is a life-size house made of clear vinyl which slowly inflates & deflates. In the 3rd floor photography gallery I found Martin Parr’s hilarious British Food, a 6 x 4 matrix of garish color snapshots of cuppas, cakes, beans, mushy peas & other stuff unidentifiable to me. In the tiny 2nd floor Paul Klee gallery, there is a nicely curated selection of satiric prints by Klee, Kirchner, Beckmann & Kollwitz.

Oh, & crossing the walkway to the rooftop garden, one can find Waldo.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Elizabethan bandShakespeare’s Globe
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berekeley
Wed, Nov 4, 8 pm

This lively production of Love’s Labour’s Lost from Shakespeare’s Globe attractively recreates the look of the Elizabethan stage. There are no modern lighting effects, & the cast is in luxurious Renaissance dress. It also strives to embrace the audience, starting with an Elizabethan band playing music in the lobby. Inside the theater a life-size deer puppet roams the aisles, as if we’re at the Lion King. Actors often make their entrances through the auditorium. Unfortunately the cavernous Zellerbach Hall works against this approach by seating much of the audience far from the stage.

It’s a highly physical production, with almost as many visual jokes as verbal ones. A hunting dance for the men, of stomping & jumping, was a highlight. Indeed, much of the stage business for the teamed-up ladies & lords approaches dance. I liked just watching the way Philip Cumbus moved as the King of Navarre. Trystan Gravelle was beguiling as Berowne & hilariously frazzled when he was undone in the letter scene. Michelle Terry can’t be ignored as a firm-willed yet mad-cap Princess of France. Her sudden change of emotion when receiving Marcade’s news was stunning & moving. The diminutive Fergal McElhernon had a new set of wacky moves for each of his appearances as the randy Costard. Paul Ready’s Don Armado was unexpectedly melancholy & lethargic, & he strangely reminded me of someone I know.

Despite the virtual absence of a plot, the production had a sense of building towards climaxes, especially in the 2nd half. I loved its promising start with a series of fart jokes. The pageant of the Nine Worthies ends with an exciting brawl & food fight. The only problem I had was with the dense Elizabethan language. There were frequent stretches of rapid dialogue that I could not decode. What’s all this about a moral & its l’envoy? The audience seemed to laugh at the right places, though I wonder how many could say what was going on. The lady next to me consumed 2 bottled soft drinks during the 1st half & did not return from intermission.