Friday, December 31, 2010

Perfect Soup

Today's Wall Street Journal asked people in the arts & culture for their new year's resolutions. Local maestro Michael Tilson Thomas shared his goals ranging from test driving the New World Symphony campus to perfecting soup recipes:
On Jan. 25, the New World Symphony will be opening its new campus designed by Frank Gehry. This next year will be a real test drive. I'm hoping to lead a team exploring the use of technology to share music in personal ways. This will involve collaborating with composers, videographers, film makers, Web designers and music educators toward a common goal.

I would like to bring greater order and discipline to my techniques of cooking so I can more reliably create tasty improvisations. This past summer was the coldest and foggiest in memory on the West Coast and I perfected a number of soup recipes.
§ Cultural Resolutions
Arts & Entertainment | December 30, 2010
Wall Street Journal

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More Life!

Angel SketchThis afternoon I went to the Museum of Performance & Design to visit a gallery filled with memorabilia related to Tony Kushner's epic, 7 hour play Angels in America. The exhibit opens with a Formica kitchen table on which Mr. Kushner wrote the play. Besides playbills, photos, costumes & props from early productions of the play, the exhibit provides a little background on Mr. Kushner & the sources for the play. It is no surprise to learn that Herman Melville is Mr. Kushner's favorite writer. It is amusing to see the Eureka Theatre's original commission, specifying that "The play shall not exceed 2 1/2 hours in its final playing form." No less than 4 pairs of angels wings are on display, & one can read a few pages of Mr. Kushner's notebooks. I learned that there's an opera version by Péter Eötvös which pares the action back down to 2 1/2 hours. The exhibit makes me want to wear the sweatshirt, emblazoned with a winged letter A, that I bought when I attended the play at the end of its Broadway run.

§ More Life!
Angels in America at Twenty

Museum of Performance & Design
November 6, 2010 - March 26, 2011

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Curmodgeon of the Day

In the Financial Times this morning, dance critic Clement Crisp reviews a children's holiday show. It was clearly a trial for him. He admits at the top:
I yield to no one in my lack of interest in children (on stage and off) and in animals (save for those that appear, like oysters or grilled sole, on a plate).
Then arrives Beatrix Potter and her anthropomorphic fatuities. I think these nauseating.
Despite his self-confessed biases, I got quite a clear impression of what the performance was like.

§ Peter and the Wolf/Tales of Beatrix Potter, Royal Opera House, London
By Clement Crisp

Financial Times
December 21 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipse

Christmas LightsSince it was raining on & off on Monday, I figured it would not be possible to view the total lunar eclipse that happened to coincide with the winter solstice. However, it had stopped raining at night, so I went out around 11pm, & I could see the moon through occasional gaps in the clouds. With the small binoculars I normally use at the opera, I could clearly see the curved edge of the Earth's shadow. It was nice to be reminded of my childhood fascination with astronomy. I still remember the first lunar eclipse I saw as a kid & the moon's rusty, copper color at totality.

Walking around my neighborhood, I saw a handful of other people looking at the eclipse. I also discovered that some of my neighbors have fancy Christmas displays. Someone's balcony boasts a working Ferris wheel with snowmen riding on it. Unfortunately it is too high above the sidewalk to appreciate properly.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Tempest

This afternoon I saw Julie Taymor's movie version of The Tempest. The big attraction here is Helen Mirren cast as a female Prospero. Ms. Mirren's performance is never less than commanding. She is both very clear & very nuanced. Sometimes 2 or 3 emotions move across her face within a single brief shot. Because of the level of her performance & her character's general isolation, she seems to be in a different movie than the rest of the cast. She is even disconnected from Ariel, who is often a superimposed CGI image.

The film looks like it was shot under severe budgetary constraints, though the location shots on Hawaii are stark & beautiful. There are cuts in the dialogue, but the plot has not been tampered with. They even inserted a song from Twelfth Night & a song for Ferdinand, which I suppose replaces the masque in some way. I regret that Ms. Taymor hid Prospero's famous epilogue in a song that plays over the closing credits.

The movie is full of visual confections. Much is made of the clothes for the Italian courtiers, which have more zippers than Michael Jackson's leather jacket. Caliban's face is both black & white, & his body is covered in cracked earth. Ariel is impressively scary when transformed into a screeching harpy, dripping black sweat. My favorite moment, though, was Ms. Mirren's unfussy recitation of "Our revels now are ended." It felt completely Shakespearean.

§ The Tempest
A Film by Julie Taymor

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay

Thursday afternoon I was happy to be back at the de Young for part 2 of the show from the Musée d’Orsay. The rooms are titled by artist or style, so I learned some new labels like "Pont-Aven School," "Synethetism" & "Intimism." John Singer Sargent's blazing portrait of La Carmencita dominates the 1st gallery. Poised & imperious, the dancer looks like she could step down from the frame. Perhaps, as in the previous show, an American has contributed the most memorable picture.

We get a nice sampling of late van Gogh. It's a thrill to see the famous, distinctly unrestful, Bedroom in Arles, as well as a shimmering Starry Night (1888) & a neurasthenic Portrait of Eugène Boch, his face tinged with unnaturalistic reds & greens. Across the wall, Toulouse-Lautrec is a good roommate, & I liked the observational quality of the drawing in his picture of a woman at her Bath.

The Cezanne gallery is unsurprisingly filled with landscapes & plenty of fruit. It includes the show's one Picasso, making the point that Cezanne prefigured cubism. Gauguin is represented by paintings on both European & Tahitian subjects, including a strange, unromantic picture of 2 wary-looking Tahitian Women. Gauguin also created the only sculpture in the show, a curious Wooden Jug in the Form of a Beer Stein, with totemic figures roughly carved into it. It apparently comes from a San Francisco collection.

Subsequent galleries illustrate the reach of Gauguin's influence on the Pont-Aven School, the Nabis & the Symbolists. Their imagery often feels immaterial, but I was stopped short by Vilhelm Hammershoi's Rest, a reticent Vermeer-like image of a seated woman, seen from the back. As one gets to the Pierre Bonnards & Vuillards, the show becomes explicitly bourgeois, domestic & decorative. I had no idea what to make of Bonnard's bizarrely proportioned White Cat, though I spent a lot of time absorbed in The Man and the Woman, its 2 nudes in their separate worlds. The show ends with wall-sized paintings by Bonnard & Vuillard, illustrating the motto "The Great Art We Call Decorative."

I went at a good time, so the exhibit was not too packed, though getting through the van Goghs is a contact sport. In contrast, the Pont-Aven School is a free run.

§ Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay
The de Young Museum
September 25, 2010 - January 18, 2011

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line

Wood LineThis morning I found Andy Goldsworthy's Wood Line in the Presidio. It is a snake-like assembly of tree trunks meandering parallel to the upper part of Lovers' Lane, near the Presidio Avenue Gate. Stumps & other bits of wood are placed under the trunks to keep them level. It seems to be unfinished, abruptly stopping near a pile of sawed-off logs. Perhaps it is too wet now to work on it. Bark, leaves & twigs have been woven into some of the surrounding trees, presumably by Mr. Goldsworthy himself. During my visit, a woman walking by with her dog pointed out a large horned owl in the trees overhead.

Wood LineLike his Spire, Goldsworthy's Wood Line is sponsored by the For-Site Foundation. People at the Presidio Habitats exhibit & the Haines Gallery have been vague when I have asked them about the status of the project.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nicolas Hodges at Cal Performances

For this challenging solo recital, pianist Nicolas Hodges came on stage wearing black, fingerless gloves. Without preparation, he immediately struck the opening chords of Stockhausen's Klavierstück X with a jolt. It was soon clear that those gloves are necessary to protect his hands from the many punishing glissandos & tone clusters he has to play, sometimes with both forearms. There is a short, rolling figure that is recurring motif & that Mr. Hodges always played briskly. There are also slow sections when multiple keys are held down & the piano strings are allowed to resonate. Mr. Hodges was always very clear about how he wanted to articulate events, & he played the forearm clusters with an unexpected dynamic control. I felt confident that he was obedient to the score, but I had no idea what the emotional content of the piece might be. Mr. Hodges sustained a keen focus for its nearly 25 minutes. I felt I had witnessed an impressive physical stunt.

At intermission, a few audience members got onto the stage to examine the score but were chased off by the piano tuner. Certainly, it would have been interesting to see the Stockhausen score as a display in the lobby. In the 2nd half, Mr. Hodges again attacked the 1st chords of the Hammerklavier Sonata as soon as he got to the piano. His playing was spikey & a bit a brash, & he seemed less confident & even less fluid than in the Stockhausen. He missed notes in the 1st movement & sounded tentative a few times in the thick final movement. The 1st two movements were played as a unit. The long Adagio was stately.

Hertz Hall was less than half full, & there was some audience attrition after intermission. My concert companion, reflecting on this program & Jeremy Denk's, said that it was as if these pianists were asked to play the 2 hardest pieces they knew.

§ Nicolas Hodges, piano

Stockhausen: Klavierstück X
Beethoven: Piano Sonata Op. 106, Hammerklavier

Cal Performances
Sun, Dec 12, 3 pm
Hertz Hall

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Glamazonia Reading

Mission ComicsLocal cartoonist Justin Hall's fabulously silly Glamazonia anthology comes out this month, & he is doing 3 events to celebrate. I attended his 1st appearance last night at Mission Comics. It was a friendly, low-key gathering with quite a bit of mingling before the reading. Mr. Hall was joined by collaborators Jon Macy, Christine Smith, Fred Noland, Diego Gómez & Ed Luce, who animatedly acted out the dialogue of their comics, which were projected on a wall. The content is admittedly aimed at a very specific audience, & is explicit, raunchy & a lot of fun. The last presenter was Mr. Hall himself, but he came to grief when he discovered that he had mistakenly left out most of his own slides, leaving him with nothing to read. He was really embarrassed but will no doubt have the problem rectified in subsequent events. Books sold at these events contain special limited edition, numbered bookplates, & I got mine signed by Mr. Hall.

Up-coming readings:
  • Wednesday, December 15th, 7-9pm
  • Saturday, December 18th, 8-10pm
Both are at Whatever... in the Castro.

§ Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-Tranny
Mission Comics
Saturday, December 11th at 7pm.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Kings of Pastry

The documentary Kings of Pastry follows Chicago-based pastry chef Jacquy Pfeiffer as he attempts to become a Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an elite craftsman of France. This requires passing an intense 3 day exam in the form of a competition held every 4 years. The ordeal is deliberately grueling, & the candidates are judged on everything from their technique to what is in their garbage at the end of the day. Incredibly stunning are the impossible-looking sugar sculptures that the contestants construct & then must carry to buffet tables. These are apt to shatter spectacularly, testing the mental strength of the chefs. I like the light-hearted, Django Reinhardt-inspired music for the film, but it is a trick & completely belies the passionate emotions of the film's subjects. The sight of grown men crying seems to be a standard feature of the competition. Many moments made the audience gasp.

I saw Kings of Pastry at a bargain matinee at the Balboa, a scrappy neighborhood theater way out in the avenues. Before the main feature, we were treated to a clever culinary-themed animated short, Western Spaghetti by PES. On my way out, I overheard the lady in front of me tell her companion, "If I had known the movie was in French, I would not have come."

§ Kings of Pastry
A film by Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker

Tangled 3D

Yesterday afternoon I saw Disney's Tangled 3D with a sparse matinee audience at the Century San Francisco Centre. The plot has just about no relationship to the Grimm fairytale about Rapunzel, so I was actually quite engaged following the story, which has a tiny echo of the Makropulos Case. It is a genuine kids movie, silly, & with few ironic jokes aimed at adults. The self-consciously dashing Flynn Rider looks like Adrien Brody & says my favorite line: "Sorry, I don't do backstory." I liked the dutiful animal sidekick Maximus, whose creators clearly wanted to animate a dog instead of a horse. The movie has a symphonic score & a few tepid Broadway-style songs, but thankfully there are no talking animals. There is quite a bit of action, including an otherwise inexplicable bursting dam. The best 3D effect was when 2 paper lanterns float out of the screen. The biggest emotional jolt I got, though, was when the theater charged us $16.25 a piece to view the movie in their XD theater.

§ Tangled
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

MTT conducts John Adams

Quiet PleaseI was at Davies Hall on Wednesday night for this program that sandwiched Mozart's easy elegance between 2 heavily orchestrated 20th century works. All hands were on deck for Cowell's Synchrony, which required extra woodwinds as well as beefed up brass & percussion. MTT, who has recovered his voice from Monday, described the musical events of the piece before leading it. It begins with an extended trumpet solo which is chirpy & bright. The trumpet introduces a swirling theme which recurs throughout the 12 minute piece. The piece is often quite loud, with a driving, forward-moving rhythm. I noticed that many of the violinists wore earplugs.

Gil Shaham, in jacket & tie instead of formal evening wear, was an amiable soloist in the Mozart Violin Concerto in A. He has a smooth, warm sound & a happy demeanor. I like the quickness of his bow speed changes. Mr. Shaham was very playful, especially in the Rondo. He walks around a lot, sometimes playing into the podium or to the 1st stand, but, despite these antics, MTT provided a low-profile accompaniment. The audience responded warmly, & someone in the audience handed Mr. Shaham a small package as he left the stage.

After the intermission, I moved from an orchestra seat between SFMike & Ced to a 2nd tier box, from where I saw many empty seats in the house. The stage was full, though, with lots of percussion, woodwinds & brass, including 5 horns. Some of the string players again wore earplugs. Before beginning, MTT told us that the performance was being recorded & warned us to be quiet, especially during the opening of the 2nd movement. Harmonielehre is monumental & loud, aggressive in all its gestures. It also sounds exactly like Star Wars at one point. MTT had the orchestra play out the whole time. Until the middle of the first movement, I was afraid that I would never hear the strings at all. The very sharp cut-offs at the ends of the 1st & last movements were violent & stunning, as was the rapid hammering of the opening chords. The violins played their stratospherically high passages with an impressively full sound.

At one point in the 1st movement MTT paged backward, then forward, through his score, as if he had momentarily confused his place. I did not see it myself, but apparently his baton had just gone flying over his shoulder into the 1st row. There was laughter & applause when a man handed it back during the pause. There was an inexplicable smattering of applause after the quiet ending of the 2nd movement. The audience gave the performance a noisy standing ovation & cheered John Adams as well as the percussion section. Like the composer last week, MTT beat time with his right arm vigorously throughout the entire piece. When taking his bow, he humorously made a show of rubbing his shoulder.

§ Project San Francisco: MTT conducts John Adams
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

COWELL: Synchrony
MOZART: Concerto No. 5 in A major for Violin and Orchestra, K.219
ADAMS: Harmonielehre

Wed, Dec 8, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Randal Turner

Swedenborgian ChurchLast evening I attended the West Coast recital debut of baritone Randal Turner at the retreat-like Swedenborgian Church. We were in a small candlelit room that sat perhaps 70 & was near capacity. The event was being recorded for CD & DVD, so there were glaring lights at the front of the room. The program featured all songs by living American composers, & it was nice not to have to fuss with a dozen pages of translations, as I did at a recent song recital.

In the opening song, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Glen Roven, we get to her the singer before the piano, & Mr. Turner proved to be pretty much on key. He sings with great variety & dynamic contrast, often moving between falsetto, dark chest tones & big, tensile high notes within a single song. He is an emotive actor as well. He made an entire play out of Julia Schwartz's Don Juan at Forty. At one point he wandered into the audience, looking for seducible women, until he was called back by a discreet cough from his pianist. In another theatrical moment, he tore off his tie & jacket in frustration. At the scene's despairing end, all the lights were cut, leaving the room in darkness. Mr. Turner was well-supported by pianist Allen Perriello, whose playing is crisp & alert. One feels that he is a reliable accompanist. The composer was present, & she took a bow with Mr. Turner & Mr. Perriello.

Mr. Turner's sound is somewhat between an operatic voice & a Broadway voice, & it suited the musical-like numbers by Ricky Ian Gordon. I liked the pretty "Lullaby", which Mr. Turner sang with a feeling of unrequited yearning. I also enjoyed the sardonic "The Thin Edge / Coda", in which the piano plays both a tango & a theme from Tristan & Isolde under the line "Love is a permanent flop." Mr. Turner made a lot of sound in the Grapes of Wrath aria "I'll Be There," which sounds like a Broadway anthem.

Before singing the closing songs by Clint Borzoni, Mr. Turner got personal & explained how he discovered the songs a few month ago, when there was national news about gay teens committing suicide. He disclosed that he was bullied on a daily basis as a high school student in Indiana & that it took a long time to get over that experience. Borzoni's lyrical "I Dream'd in a Dream" sounds like an art song version of "Over the Rainbow," though it ends unresolved. Mr. Borzoni was present & looks like a teenager himself.

The entire performance was an intermissionless 70 minutes. The audience stood for Mr. Turner at the end, & most of them stayed to line up & greet him afterward. The encore was a fond "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," arranged by Mr. Perriello.

§ Music by Living American Composers
Randal Turner, Baritone
Allen Perriello, Piano

Glen Roven: "Four Melancholy Songs," Op. 16, No. 1, by William Butler Yeats
1. The Lake Isle of Innisfree
2. A Drinking Song
3. When You Are Old
4. A Crazed Girl

Julia Schwartz: "Don Juan at Forty" from "Histories of Desire" by Ron Butlin

Ricky Ian Gordon: Four Poems by Dorothy Parker
1. Interior
2. Lullaby
3. The Thin Edge / Coda

Ricky Ian Gordon: The Grapes of Wrath
Tom Joad's Act III aria -- "I'll Be There"

Jake Heggie: Two Songs
1. In Praise of Songs that Die (Vachel Lindsay)
2. In the Morning (A.E. Housman)

Jake Heggie: Moby Dick
Act I Scene 7, "Captain Ahab? I must speak with you"

Clint Borzoni: Two Poems by Walt Whitman
1. I Dream'd in a Dream (From "Leaves of Grass")
2. That Shadow, My Likeness

"I Left My Heart in San Francisco"

December 6, 2010, 6pm
Swedenborgian Church

Monday, December 06, 2010

SF Symphony Centennial Season

Sandwiches at the SymphonyThis afternoon at Davies Hall, the SF Symphony gave an invited audience a teasing preview of the up-coming 2011-2012 centennial season. Symphony President John D. Goldman introduced Executive Director Brent Assink & Maestro Michael Tilson-Thomas, who discussed the highlights. Most impressive was the announcement that SFS will present an American Orchestra series featuring 6 major orchestras in Davies Hall in one season: Boston led by Levine, Chicago led by Muti, Cleveland led by Welser-Möst, NY Phil led by Gilbert, Philadelphia led by Dutoit & LA Phil led by Dudamel. Mr. Assink said it was like inviting your friends to your birthday party.

We will get the return of the much-praised American Mavericks Festival in 2012, featuring composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varése & Charles Ives. The festival includes a John Adams commission, Absolute Jest, which the composer describes as "the world's longest scherzo." A choral work called Mass Transmission has also been commissioned from Mason Bates, who was present at the announcement.

Opening night, September 7, 2011, will feature Lang Lang & Itzhak Perlman. Lang Lang will also participate in a free concert in Civic Center Plaza the next day. There will be a week of concerts called Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Birth of the Symphony. MTT said he wants to present music that defined particular historical moments in America & hopes to create a "San Francisco version of last night at the Proms."

The hour-long presentation included videos & a Q&A session but was maddeningly short on specifics. Poor MTT was suffering from a bad case of laryngitis & probably felt even worse than he sounded, but he gamely talked up the season & praised the "week to week brilliance" of the orchestra. Attendees included arts administrators, patrons & media. There was some competitive jostling around the table of light refreshments.

Full details of the 2011-2012 season will be available on March 1st.

Elza van den Heever

SFCMIt was most kind of SFMike to invite me along to soprano Elza van den Heever's recital at the SF Conservatory of Music, though it turned out he was under the false impression that I actually know something about lieder recitals. All I know is that they typically include clunky German poems set to lovely music. This program began with virtuoso opera arias by Handel, though, which Ms. van den Heever put across with urgency. She has a big voice, & her powerful high notes easily & thrillingly filled the hall. She made the emotional contrasts in “Ma quando tornerai” very clear. She was even more emotionally engaged in Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, singing touchingly on the last words of "Süßer Freund, du blickest" & in the last song almost sobbing & whimpering.

SFMike told me how Ms. van den Heever switched from mezzo to soprano, & one still hears that mezzo timbre in her voice. In the dreamy Fauré songs I sometimes felt that her high notes were produced in a different way than the rest of her range, though they certainly never lack force. Ms. van den Heever apologized for dropping one of the 3 originally programmed Strauss songs, explaining that, "We tried to be friends, but it didn't work out." These were the only songs she sang with the music, & she was a tad less fluid. She produced increasing amounts of sound in Befreit, making it climactic.

Ms. van den Heever got a bit emotional when introducing the set of songs in Afrikaans, explaining how much it meant to her to be performing at the Conservatory, where she was a student. The Afrikaans songs had a salon feel to them, & nostalgia is a common theme. Ms. van den Heever sang them with a strong sense of yearning & personal involvement. It was interesting to hear some of the guttural consonants. At the end of the frolicsome Oktobermaand, she burst out laughing & then apologized to the audience. Perhaps she messed up something, but, whatever it was, she made me laugh too! She sang the final song, My siel is sick van heimwee (My soul is sick with nostalgia) as if it were an anthem. Ms. van den Heever may have tired a bit by the end, as she was very quick to offer us 2 short encores in German.

§ Elza van den Heever, soprano
John Parr, piano

“Mio caro bene” from Rodelinda
“Ma quando tornerai” from Alcina

SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42

Les roses d’Ispahan, Op. 39, No. 4
Clair de lune, Op. 46, No. 2
Fleur jetée, Op. 39, No. 2

Wiegenlied, Op. 41, No. 1
Befreit, Op. 39, No. 4

Geboorte van die lente
Mali, die slaaf se lied

J. PESCOD: Oktobermaand

LEMMER AND BEASELY: My siel is sick van heimwee

Botschaft, Op. 47, No. 1
O komme, holde Sommerrnacht, Op. 58, No.4

San Francisco Performances
Sunday, December 5, 2pm
San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Philharmonia Baroque: Messiah

CD RackRiding to Berkeley in a BART train filled with drunken Santas certainly put me in a Christmas mood for Philharmonia Baroque's Messiah. The performance was without cuts & lasted for 3 hours, with one intermission after Part One. The chorus of only 24 had a clean, weightless sound & made it easy to understand the words. I enjoyed their pronunciation of "cast" with a flattened British A in "cast away their yokes from us." I especially liked their barbed "He trusted in God that he would deliver him," which imitated mocking laughter.

The church acoustic suited tenor John McVeigh's clear, bright voice well. He even started to sound a bit operatic during the recitative "Unto which of the angels said he..." Bass Tyler Duncan has a solid, open sound with a slightly raw edge. He hit a nice low F at one point, & he was room-filling in "The trumpet shall sound." Countertenor Daniel Taylor interpolated a surprising high G in "He gave his back to the smiters." I liked Mary Wilson's warbling, warm & pleasant voice. Her spritely "Rejoice greatly" was a highlight of the evening. All of the singers were sparing in their use of ornamentation.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan is a cheery & impish presence on the podium. He does not feel that he has to conduct every beat, & he makes a variety of gestures, from waving his hand like a falling leaf to conducting with his knees. There were lots of small details of rhythm & articulation but almost no dynamic contrast, perhaps due to the Baroque instruments themselves. The valveless trumpet, for instance, did not seem able to differentiate piano & forte in "The trumpet shall sound." I was grateful for the timpani, which added much needed oomph to the Hallelujah Chorus & the final Amen.

The enthusiastic audience applauded loudly for the end of Part I, stood almost on cue for the Hallelujah Chorus & then stood again at the end, cheering & stamping their feet. During the intermission, my concert companion & I discussed the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. The origin story does not quite make sense to me. An hour into the lengthy 2nd half of the program, he passed me a note which read, "George was just tired of sitting."

§ Philharmonia Baroque
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Mary Wilson, soprano
Daniel Taylor, countertenor
John McVeigh, tenor
Tyler Duncan, bass
Philharmonia Baroque Chorale
Bruce Lamott, chorale director

HANDEL: Messiah

Sat, December 4, 7:30 pm Berkeley

Beijing Guitar Duo

The Green RoomOn Friday evening I was in the intimate Green Room for a recital put on by the Omni Foundation, which focuses on presenting the classical guitar. The event began with 7 young Suzuki guitar students from the Longay Conservatory in Santa Clara performing transcriptions of the 1st movement of the Bach Double Concerto & the song Malagueña. I liked how the well-drilled ensemble cued itself. The students, some of them looking quite young, stayed for the concert.

The Beijing Guitar Duo performed the 1st half of their program on slightly small instruments that looked a little like Baroque guitars. They performed the 2nd half on standard classical guitars, though. It took me a while to adjust to the guitar's small, delicate sound. After the duo's gentle version of the Bach Chaconne, I found I was also hearing the traffic from outside, an ambient noise I had not noticed before. Both members of the duo give clean, facile & careful performances, though there were intermittent tuning problems. Meng Su showed off crystal-clear harmonics & an extremely fast left hand in her solo turn in Sérgio Assad's Aquarelle. Yameng Wang achieves a nice legato line in her playing. In her solo turn, she played a picturesque tone poem with a Chinese flavor that included imitations of the pipa & rippling water & had a passage where the player thumps on the instrument. My favorite piece was the contemporary & slightly dissonant Maracaípe, also by Mr. Assad. He was in the audience, & Meng Su acknowledged him & told us that the piece was nominated for a Latin Grammy but did not win. The recital ended with a light & pleasant dance suite.

Both members of the duo are students of Manuel Barrueco at the Peabody Conservatory, & the event had the feel of a conservatory recital. The venue appeared to be at capacity, with around 150 in attendance. The Omni Foundation must have tapped into an audience of true guitar aficionados, who were very attentive & very quiet for the entire performance.

§ Omni Foundation
Beijing Guitar Duo: Meng Su & Yameng Wang

J.S. Bach/Ferruccio Busoni/Ulrich Stracke

Sonatina Canonica, Op 196
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Sérgio Assad
(Meng Su, Solo guitar)

The Bridge of Birds
Carlo Domeniconi
(Yameng Wang, Solo guitar)

Sérgio Assad

Suite Retratos
Radamés Gnattali

Friday, December 3, 2010
8 pm, Green Room

Friday, December 03, 2010

John Adams conducts El Niño

My first reaction after sitting down at Davies Hall on Thursday night was that there were too much electronics on stage. The amplified orchestra, chorus & soloists made for a loud 2 and a half hour performance of El Niño. I liked the idea of using a trio of countertenors, all dressed in white, to represent the angel Gabriel. Their timbre & their close, medieval, harmonies communicate a sense of the supernatural. Countertenor Daniel Brubeck sings freakishly high, at one point even joining the mezzo & soprano. I felt manipulated by the surprise entrance of a chorus of little girls at the end, though.

I was pleased that I could always understand the soloists when they were singing in English, though the chorus was not intelligible to me at all. Dawn Upshaw's velvety singing has the clarity of speech, & she looked consistently concerned & anxious when portraying Mary. Michelle DeYoung sang with dramatic power & control. Jonathan Lemalu's voice is big without being blustery, & he had nicely contrasting characterizations for the insecure, confused Joseph & the threatening Herod. I was distracted that all the soloists but the countertenors alternately sang from memory & then needed to read music from binders. John Adams as a conductor spends all his time giving clear beats with his right hand but is otherwise uninflected. He looks down at his score rather than at the orchestra. I saw him adjust a volume control next to the podium during the final number.

This performance was staged, with an acting area at the front & wings for entrances & exits at the back. The conductor was off to the right, far away from the violins. The acting area contained a table, chairs & a mini fridge with a lamp on it. I kept thinking that something was going to be in the mini fridge & was frustrated that it remained closed for the entire performance. The sad little tree from Charlie Brown's Christmas Special was placed on stage for the 2nd half. One of the countertenor angels had a tinfoil star that Ms. DeYoung then placed on the tree.

There were several empty seats in front of us in the center orchestra after intermission. After the performance, we ran into John Marcher, who had a lot of comparisons to make with the premiere performance 10 years ago. Somehow, the Opera Tattler got the idea that one of the countertenors was wearing Axel Feldheim's uniform.

§ Project San Francisco: John Adams conducts El Niño
Conductor: John Adams

Dawn Upshaw: soprano
Michelle DeYoung: mezzo-soprano
Daniel Bubeck: countertenor
Brian Cummings: countertenor
Steven Rickards: countertenor
Jonathan Lemalu: bass-baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
San Francisco Girls Chorus; Susan McMane, Director
San Francisco Symphony

Director: Kevin Newbury

John Adams: El Niño

Thu, Dec 2, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Adler Fellows Gala

Wednesday evening, I was among those who dashed directly from Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex to the Adler Fellows Gala Concert at Herbst Theatre. I ought to be thankful to our ride for getting us there, but there was an awful lot of swearing in the car. For this concert of opera scenes, the SF Opera Orchestra was on the stage & the singers came on through the side doors. All of the Adlers gave consistently strong & confident performances. The over-full program was replete with scenes from French operas.

Mezzo Maya Lahyani was vocally & dramatically convincing as those great femme fatales Dalila & Carmen. She is a terrific actress. Soprano Susannah Biller & countertenor Ryan Belongie were tasteful & well-matched in a duet from Handel's Rodelinda. They sang sensitively with one another. Leah Crocetto got the audience cheering in both of her scenes with tenor David Lomelí. Almost perversely, her already substantial sound seems to get stronger, weightier & louder the higher she sings. Mr. Lomelí's voice is so meaty & distinctive that he did not sound like he was off-stage in the excerpt from Traviata. Perhaps he should have been standing on Grove Street. At the end of his Guillaume Tell scene with Ms. Crocetto, he planted such a huge kiss on her that the audience had to laugh.

I enjoyed the "E lucevan la stele" that closed the 1st half, beginning with a delicate, faraway-sounding clarinet solo from Jose Gonzalez Granero. The orchestra maintained a transparent texture, providing a pleasing support for Brian Jagde's beefy tenor. In the mad scene from Hamlet, Ms. Biller sounded young & bright, & she picked off a string of high notes with the same unnerving ease as she peeled the petals off her bouquet of blood red roses. Soprano Sara Gartland sounded completely confident with the high notes, shrieks & laughter of her climactic breakdown scene as Thaïs. The program ended with Mr. Lomelí's firmly rooted "Nessun dorma," the other Adlers singing the chorus as they walked on stage to join him.

The house was full for this event, & I sat up in the balcony surrounded by enthusiastic but chatty patrons, many of whom seemed to be local students. I spotted baritone Eric Owens in the lobby before the show & attended a wine, cheese & dessert reception in the Green Room afterward. I even received grateful hugs from Ms. Crocetto & Mr. Lomelí, though perhaps only because they did not suspect me of being a party crasher.

§ The Future is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert
Conductor: Mark Morash
San Francisco Opera Orchestra

Rusland and Lyudmila, Mikhail Glinka

Samson et Dalila, Camille Saint-Saëns
"Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix"
Dalila: Maya Lahyani

Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi
"È sogno? o realtà?"
Ford: Austin Kness

I Puritani, Vincenzo Bellini
"Ah rendetmi la speme...Qu la voce"
Elvira: Sara Gartland

Rodelinda, George Frideric Handel
"Io t'abbraccio"
Rodelinda: Susannah Biller
Bertarido: Ryan Belongie
Harpsichord: Allen Perriello

Tosca, Giacomo Puccini
"E lucevan le stele"
Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde

La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi
"E Strano...Ah, fors' è Lui...Sempre libera"
Violetta: Leah Crocetto
Alfredo: David Lomelí

Carmen: George Bizet
"C'est voi! C'est moi"
Carmen: Maya Lahyani
Don José: Brian Jagde

Mitridate, Re di Ponto, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
"Venga pur, minacci e frema"
Farnace: Ryan Belongie

Guillaume Tell, Gioachino Rossini
"Ma présence pour vous...Oui, vous l'arrachez à mon âme"
Mathilde: Leah Crocetto
Arnold: David Lomelí

Hamlet, Ambroise Thomas
"À vos jeux, mes amis"
Ophélie: Susannah Biller

Thaïs, Jules Massenet
"Étranger, te voilà comme tu l'avais dit"
Thaïs: Sara Gartland
Athanaël: Austin Kness
Nicias: Brian Jagde

Turandot, Giacomo Puccini
"Nessun dorma"
Calàf: David Lomelí
Celeste: Tamara Sanikidze

December 1, 2010
7:30 PM
Herbst Theatre

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex

I must have been over-eager to arrive at soprano Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex, because when I opened the door of the Rex Hotel, I was face to face with Ms. Melton herself, concert dress in hand, on her way to change. After Ms. Melton's previous salon, Christine Lim of SF Performances had asked her for an entire program of cabaret songs, & Ms. Melton eventually settled on this program of half art songs & half torch songs. My unfamiliarity with the Sibelius songs in Swedish & Finnish hardly mattered, as Ms. Melton not only makes a gorgeously full sound but also communicates the emotions with engrossing clarity. In the middle of the sad "Tuol Laulaa Neitonen," she barely opened her mouth & yet produced a haunting pianissimo. The ending of the insinuating "Flicakn kom ifrån sin älsklings mote" was positively scary. Her low notes for "Hjertats morgon" created a forlorn landscape . I was no less engaged by her singing of the dark & pained Korngold songs. She modulated her large sound nicely for the small room, in which her voice was experienced as a physical force. I felt embraced by its full, rich & milky sound.

After a brief 5 minute break, Ms. Melton came back for the carabet songs, having changed into a sparkly, sequined dress, to shouts of approval from the audience. She sounded so distraught after Weill's "Je ne t'aime pas" that I wanted to get up & give her a hug. Her "Fine and Mellow", sung in the lower part of her voice, was unexpectedly sultry & made me feel like I was at the end of a long night in a bar. Accompanist John Churchwell seemed equally at home with both sides of the repertoire as well. He has an unusual technique of playing with very flat hands & elbows nearly below his wrists. He gets very involved in his playing, sometimes inhaling audibly.

I like how at ease Ms. Melton is with her audience. Taking a break between songs, she told us, "I'm going to be real classy & have a diet coke." She did not try to hide the fact that she had to read the translation of a Weill song off a cheat sheet. Since many in the audience were due at the Adler Fellows Gala at 7:30pm, she paused in the 2nd half to ask how much time she had left, at which someone replied "We've got all night!" As she conferred with Mr. Churchwell about the remaining numbers, someone else called out "Starke Scheite," to which Ms. Melton gave a definitive "No!"

§ Heidi Melton, soprano
John Churchwell, piano

SIBELIUS: Var det en dröm; Tuol Laulaa Neitonen; Flicakn kom ifrån sin älsklings mote; Hiljainen Kaupunki; Hjertats morgon
KORNGOLD: Lieder des Abschieds, Op. 14
WEILL: Je ne t'aime pas
MERCER: Autumn Leaves
BERLIN: Always
HOLIDAY: Fine and Mellow
BERLIN: Suppertime; What'll I Do
WEILL: The Saga of Jenny

Salons at the Hotel Rex
Wednesday, December 1
Hotel Rex

The Marvelous Museum

Oakland MuseumYesterday afternoon I was at the Oakland Museum of California to revisit the PIXAR exhibit with a friend who is studying animation. At the end of our visit, we took a very quick peek into the refurbished art & history galleries. I'm not that familiar with the Oakland Museum, so the spaces did not seem to be radically overhauled to me. Each gallery splays across a large level plain. The lighting is subdued & cave-like. I like the small darkened room for daguerreotypes & the clever pairing of painted & daguerreotype portraits of Eliza Jane Steen Johnson from the 1850s. The art gallery features an installation by Mark Dion called The Marvelous Museum. The artist raided the museum's storage for obscure items & placed these randomly in the gallery, usually only half unpacked from their crates. One can encounter a telephone pole moored to the wall or a stuffed baby elephant with a stitched repair on its right brow. Sawhorses unceremoniously cordon off a wooden sled, whose label incredibly claims that it comes from Peary's North Pole expedition. The exhibit includes historical recreations of 3 curatorial offices, one of which puts René de Guzman, the museum's Senior Curator of Art, on display. During our visit, he was studiously reading a book as I scanned the book shelves over his head.

§ The Marvelous Museum: A Project by Mark Dion
Oakland Museum of California
September 11, 2010 - March 6, 2011

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Client 9

Eliot Spitzer's appearance in Inside Job amused me so much that I knew I would enjoy Client 9, Alex Gibney's documentary about the Spitzer prostitution scandal. The movie is a series of entertaining interviews, beginning with a wacky New York artist in a distracting hat who turns out to be a high-end pimp. Cecil Suwal, partner in the Emperors Club, actually giggles as she explains the pricing scheme for the escorts. Political consultant Roger Stone is engagingly creepy, & former New York Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone comes across as charming yet dangerous. A woman called "Angelina" is claimed to be Mr. Spitzer's favorite escort. She declined to appear on camera, but her interview is performed primly by actress Wrenn Schmidt. At the end of the film, we are told that Angelina is now a commodities trader. The movie does not completely make its case that Spitzer's downfall was instigated by his enemies on Wall St. & in the Republican party. When discussing the revelations that brought him down, Mr. Spitzer himself displays no traces of personal insight or introspection.

I saw Client 9 yesterday afternoon at a matinee in one of the small screening rooms at the Opera Plaza Cinema. The mostly older audience was duly shocked when a nude photo of former escort Ashley Dupre appeared on the screen.

§ CLIENT 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Director: Alex Gibney

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Janacek Saves a Season

In today's Wall Street Journal, David Littlejohn assesses the current San Francisco Opera season. He sounds a little sour ("I won't name anyone in the cast of 'The Marriage of Figaro,' because no one rose above the joyless mediocrity of the whole"), but he does make me feel grateful that I experienced Mattila's 1st Emilia Marty.

§ Janacek Saves a Season
by David Littlejohn
The Wall Street Journal
Opera | November 23, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

SFMOMA: How Wine Became Modern

SFMOMAFriday afternoon a friend took me along to the members' preview at the SFMOMA of How Wine Became Modern, a design exhibit about the modern wine industry. The exhibit includes sealed petri dishes of dirt (to illustrate the concept of "terroir") & a wall of wine bottles categorized by label design. I do not understand why the collection of impractical-looking wine glasses is in a case that is slowly filling with a dripping red liquid. A useful instructional segment allows visitors to smell odors commonly found in wine. One room is all about wine tourism. The Orson Welles "Sell no wine before its time" commercial plays in one of the video installation. I felt like I was in a wine country visitors' center, except I could not find the tasting room.

I got the most out of the evening by revisiting the Henri Cartier-Bresson show. Also, what I had thought was a fake museum store on the 5th floor is actually a real store called Shadowshop. It sells inexpensive items from local artists. Just as we got up to the 5th floor to check it out, however, the shop was closing, & we were chased out. A few wineries sold $2 tastings at the party downstairs, but my friend opted for a beer while I had a gin & tonic.

§ How Wine Became Modern
Design + Wine 1976 to Now

November 20, 2010 - April 17, 2011

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sarah Cahill at the Rex

Rex SalonLast night at the Salon at the Rex, I heard Sarah Cahill perform a recital of modern piano music organized around the theme of mysticism. In Ms. Cahill's spoken introductions to each work, we learned that Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, Dane Rudhyar & Ruth Crawford each had an active interest in mysticism of some sort, be it Rosecrucianism, Theosophy, astrology or American Transcendentalism. Ms. Cahill chose pieces with similar landscapes. Musical events, without meter or melody, float around an unstructured space. The Rudhyar & Crawford pieces favor dissonant tone clusters, which these composers associate with spirituality. Perhaps this is classical music's New Age music.

A different type of mysticism was represented by 2 pieces that the medium Rosemary Brown penned by channeling the spirits of Chopin & Schubert. Ms. Cahill described them as "interesting to listen to at least once," & they do manifest the musical tics of their putative authors.

Ms. Cahill performed on a baby grand that sounded very dry. Her playing is calm & unhurried. She strokes the keyboard & does not pound it. All the pieces on the program had a similar not-too-fast, not-too-slow tempo. Since the pieces are unmoored from classical structures, I left the recital feeling unsettled. The music invoked a state between wakefulness & sleep in the person next to me, who dozed off during Rudhyar's Stars.

As is the custom at these salon events, Ms. Cahill took questions from the audience at the end. There was not complete agreement on what might be considered "mysticism" in music, & a lady in the audience claimed not to experience this music as dissonant at all.

§ Salons at the Hotel Rex
Sarah Cahill, piano

The Mystical Tone

SATIE: Sonnerie de la Rose + Croix No. 2
SCRIABIN: Five Preludes, Op. 74
DANE RUDHYAR: Stars (from Third Pentagram); Granites
SCRIABIN: Vers la flamme
RUTH CRAWFORD: Preludes #4, 7, and 9

Wednesday, November 17
Hotel Rex

Time Change for Heidi Melton at the Rex

The start time of Heidi Melton's Salon at the Rex on Wednesday, December 1st has been changed to 6pm, to accommodate patrons who are also attending the Adler Fellows Gala Concert that evening.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Marin Symphony

Marin CenterSunday night I was in San Rafael for a substantial program by the Marin Symphony. I was a bit taken aback by the Marin Center's cavernous size & powder blue interior. The long rows are not split by any aisles, so we had to step on many toes in order to get to our seats in the middle of the orchestra section. The sound from these seats was unexpectedly live & loud, though.

The program began with the world premiere of Avner Dorman's (not) The Shadow, a 15 minute tone poem inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Shadow. The piece is in several distinct sections & is densely orchestrated. A core middle section is introduced by a rain stick & features undulating repetitions of an arpeggio motif. This chugging arpeggio is taken up prominently by the piano, & it reminded me a little of John Adams. The performance sounded very well prepared, with no tentative moments.

I liked the rapport between conductor Alasdair Neale & soloist Jenny Douglass for the bucolic Walton Viola Concerto. Ms. Douglass's playing is clean & pleasant. Her interpretation stressed the picturesque aspect of the concerto. There was a smattering of applause after the cheerful & quick middle movement. After her performance she received flowers from 2 small boys who turned out to be her sons. She also received a bouquet from the viola section, of which she is the principal.

The opening of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony was brash & extroverted. Maestro Neale led without a score, & his gestures were very clear & definitive. The pizzicato movement was nicely done, with good ensemble & everyone having the same phrasing. The final movement was often fast & loud, but Maestro Neale always kept it under control. Concert master Jeremy Constant is a vigorous player, & he occasionally entered excitedly ahead of his section. The audience responded to the finale with a standing ovation.

Someone's cell phone rang twice during the 1st half of the concert, & the owner evidently did not hear it both times. A lady in front of me wore earrings that jangled whenever she moved her head. The tingling noise may have complemented the Dorman piece, but it was distracting for the other works on the program. A mechanical rattle, perhaps coming from the ceiling, could be heard intermittently during the Tchaikovsky. The venue did not seem to offer any beverage service, which I suppose could also be classed as an annoyance.

§ World Premiere & Virtuosity
Marin Symphony
Alasdair Neale, conductor
Jenny Douglass, viola

AVNER DORMAN: (not) The Shadow (world premiere)
WALTON: Viola Concerto
TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4

Sunday, November 14, 2010 at 7:30pm
Marin Center, San Rafael

SFS: Rufus Wainwright

Davies HallThis concert began with Milhaud's jazz-inspired La Création du monde. It is scored for a motley assortment of instruments, including 2 violins & a cello seated next to a saxophone. The saxophone figures prominently, but my favorite part was a jazzy solo from clarinetist Carey Bell. Conductor Michael Francis made a lot of jabbing gestures & circulating motions with his arms, & he led a tight, rhythmically precise performance.

Davies Hall was quite full, the audience clearly excited to hear Rufus Wainwright premiere his settings of Shakespeare sonnets. Before singing, Mr. Wainwright told us that on the previous evening the conductor pointed out that he had a habit of audibly stamping his feet while he sang, & he was often ahead of the beat. In order not to distract the conductor this evening, Mr. Wainwright removed his clogs, held them up for the audience to see, then performed in bare feet. His song cycle consists of sonnets 43, 20, 10, 129, & 87 & charts a story of unrequited love. The settings are straightforward, & a full symphony orchestra provides background color & texture but is not structurally integral. Mr. Wainwright was of course amplified. His voice has a distinctive throaty warble, & his soft high notes sound barely squeezed out of him. I liked his performance of No. 20 the best, which he gave a strong sense of longing. He frequently looked up at the conductor, which only enhanced his curiously vulnerable stage presence. The audience greeted his performance with cheers & shouts of "Rufus!"

Surprisingly, there was no more than the usual audience attrition after intermission. Weill's sardonic Symphony No. 2 contains many song-like motives & sounds like the composer's theater music to me. Maestro Francis kept the ensemble tight & his conducting was sharp-elbowed & driving. The ending had a brilliant sonic flash. There were prominent solos from all sections, but clarinetist Carey Bell was again the star, playing brightly in a variety of solos.

§ Rufus Wainwright Performs World Premiere
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Francis, conductor
Rufus Wainwright, vocalist

Milhaud: La Création du monde
Rufus Wainwright: Five Shakespeare Sonnets (San Francisco Symphony Commission, World Premiere)
Weill: Symphony No. 2

Saturday November 13, 2010 8:00 PM
Davies Symphony Hall

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Best of Annecy 2010

Friday night's screening of Best of Annecy at the SF International Film Festival started 10 minutes late, due to a last minute rush of ticket buyers & a cumbersome ticketing process that required each ticket to be printed individually. However, the staff was clearly grateful for the full house. The program was a mixed bag of 7 shorts.

Lebensader (Angela Steffen, Germany 2009, 6 min)
Abstract film in which flat, colorful, totemic images of plants & animals morph into one another.

I Forgive You (Pierre Mousquet, Jérôme Cauwe, Belgium 2009, 5 min)
A deliberately tasteless gag cartoon in which 2 steroidal wrestlers teach a lesson in forgiveness. Pehaps they are a Belgian version of Beavis & Butthead.

Jean-François (Tom Haugomat, Bruno Mangyoku, France 2009, 6 min)
Psychological portrait in which a champion swimmer recalls his lost childhood instead of savoring his victory. The film has a lot of moody imagery but minimal animation. The sound was uncomfortably loud at the screening.

Don’t Go (Turgut Akacik, Turkey 2010, 4 min)
Combines live footage of a frisky cat chasing a small computer-generated character with the body of a pink bunny & a giant eyeball instead of a head. The most unexpected thing about this film is that it comes from Turkey.

Love & Theft (Andreas Hykade, Germany 2009, 7 min)
A series of cartoon faces morph into one another in tight synchronization to pounding music. Some of the faces are monstrous while others, such as those of Charlie Brown, Hello Kitty & Gromit, are benignly banal. The effect is hallucinatory & nightmarish.

Angry Man (Anita Killi, Norway 2009, 20 min)
Earnest story about domestic abuse, aimed at children & enacted by paper puppets. Its depiction of a child's fear of an abusive parent is painfully heavy-handed. The situation is resolved through a personal visit from King Harald of Norway, who appears as a kind of Santa Claus of deliverance. Perhaps this makes sense in a Norwegian context, but I did not get it. The tone is so thoroughly serious that one presumes the story is meant to instruct.

The Lost Thing
(Andrew Ruhemann, Shaun Tan, Australia 2010, 16 min)
Shaun Tan's picture book of the same name transferred into computer animation. The whimsical & slightly sinister atmosphere of Tan's work is beautifully preserved in the film's deadpan style. The ambiguous story line has the feel of a parable.

§ San Francisco International Film Festival
Best of Annecy 2010

Friday, November 12, 7:00 pm
Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema

Saturday, November 13, 2010

SFMOMA: Henri Cartier-Bresson

SF MOMAI was really excited to view the large Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the SFMOMA. He is my god of photography, & I was glad that the show included a lot of images that I had never seen before, such as his color spreads for Life about China's Great Leap Forward. The photos are grouped by both chronology & theme. It was interesting to see that he was influenced by Surrealism early in his career. It is almost unbelievable that he managed to be in so many places at key moments, such as in China during the last days of the war or in the American south during some of the earliest civil rights actions. How did he end up photographing wrestlers in Ulan Bator in 1958 or getting right in the middle of Gandhi's funeral?

Even though most of his photographs fall into the category of photojournalism, there is a classical aesthetic at work that gives them a timeless quality. Many of his scenes look like they could have happened at any time. Because Cartier-Bresson does not explain what he shows, the images are open to multiple interpretations. I also think he is brilliant at capturing joy. His 1946 snapshot of a mother & son reunited in New York is typical in combining all these elements.

The prints are mostly relatively small, & many of the earlier ones in particular look faded compared to the high-contrast gallery prints one is used to seeing. Many of the prints come from the Foundation Henri-Cartier Bresson & represent how the images were distributed to print media. I suppose this gives the exhibit a stamp of authenticity. It also raises the question of what authenticity means in the context of a photo exhibition. The show also includes issues of magazines like Life & Match containing his images. The exhibit takes up the entire 3rd floor photo galleries & is really too large to take in at one go, so I hope I will have chances to visit again.

To finish our museum visit, we of course got coffee in the upstairs cafe. From the sculpture garden, we could peek in & see staff installing a fake museum shop in the 5th floor gallery. Items being stocked include colorfully packaged one dollar bills, priced at 99¢. Looks like fun!

§ Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
October 30, 2010 - January 30, 2011

SFO: Madama Butterfly

On Thursday night I heard SF Opera's Madama Butterfly, with conductor Julian Kovatchev taking over from Luisotti & soprano Daniela Dessì replacing the poorly-received Svetla Vassileva. The orchestra sounded light under Maestro Kovatchev, whom I thought dragged. Musically, it was a timid performance overall. The final act seemed to get slower & slower, & the singers often pulled at the orchestra. The principals Stefano Secco & Daniela Dessì have nicely Italianate voices, & Secco has very secure high notes. Ms. Dessì has a soft voice that suggests Butterfly's youth & fragility. She & Maestro Kovatchev did not seem to have agreed on a tempo for "Un bel di", so it did not quite build like it should. My favorite performances were from mezzo Daveda Karanas as Suzuki & Quinn Kelsey as Sharpless. Neither sounds underpowered, & both created strong characterizations.

The picturesque production may be starting to date & look a little kitschy. It features a single rotating set, providing the audience with constantly changing views of the interior & exterior of Butterfly's house. When I realized that the 6 hooded stagehands were only pretending to turn it, though, I thought them unnecessary. The transition between acts II & III is seamless, but the off-stage humming chorus sounded just a little too far away. I felt the same about Butterfly's off-stage singing entrance in Act I, though this may have been due to hearing it from the left side of the orchestra. As one would expect, the performance was well-attended. During the curtain calls, Ms. Dessì made sure that Rebecca Chen, playing Trouble, came forward to join her at the end. I may have fallen asleep during act III, because there are parts of it I don't remember.

Angel Island

Deer on Angel IslandOn Monday I played tourist in my own city & visited Angel Island for the first time since I was a school kid. I accompanied an out-of-town visitor who constantly puts me shame by knowing more about what's going on in San Francisco than I do. There were only about a dozen people on the ferry that morning, so we barely ran into anyone while hiking around the island. I really enjoyed the quiet, with the significant exception of an annoying electronic beep, probably coming from some lighthouse.

Unfortunately the museum at the immigration station was closed, but we could walk around the newly renovated grounds. The decaying buildings at Fort McDowell are strangely picturesque. We hiked to Mt. Livermore at 788 ft & were rewarded with a spectacular 360° view of the bay. We totally lucked out with the weather, which was cool & clear with only a few fast-moving clouds. I am not much of a nature guy, but my companion was absolutely delighted.

The island offers amenities such as food service, tram rides & segway tours, but none of these were available on the day of our visit. The ferry was met by a park ranger, though, who handed out maps & gave directions. We encountered quite a few deer, who were not at all spooked by our presence. We also saw evidence of the fire which swept the island 2 years ago.

Friday, November 12, 2010

SFO: The Makropulos Case

War Memorial Opera HouseWednesday I was in standing room for the opening night of The Makropulos Case at SF Opera. All the elements come together beautifully in this production. Reading the convoluted synopsis before the lights went down, I wished I had done more homework beforehand, but the galloping overture with the off-stage brass band got my attention right away. There was always something amazing going on in the orchestra, which played brilliantly for Jiří Bělohlávek. The textures were vivid yet transparent. I enjoyed the sound of the flute solos & the tight brass playing. Kay Stern played a gorgeous violin solo in the 3rd act.

The cast was excellent, everyone giving equally strong vocal performances & each character having a clear personality. Karita Mattila's voice had the same force whether she was singing very high or very low. She has a kind of animal presence & frank sexuality onstage. In Act II she lifted her foot over her head, did the splits, & put her body into other strange shapes that I did not understand. Matthew O'Neill was grotesquely funny as the ancient Count Hauk-Šendorf, & the audience gave him a round of spontaneous applause at the end of his scene with Matilla in Act II. Susannah Biller, as the gawky young Kristina, sounded solid. Gerd Grochowski was totally convincing as the reptilian Baron Jaroslav Prus. Miro Dvorsky's Gregor was unsettling. Austin Kness & Maya Lahyani shined in their brief scene at the beginning of Act II.

The attractive black & white sets look like large architectural drawings with heavy cross-hatching. Each scene is dominated by a large clock that turns out to be keeping the actual time. All the sets are on a large turntable which we see rotate during the overture. Curiously, the curtain came down at the end of the Act I, causing the audience to applaud before the end of the music. When the curtain came back up, the set had already rotated for Act II.

I came to this performance knowing pretty much nothing about the opera, so I was kept very busy reading the supertitles. I also could not help paying a lot of attention to the orchestra, which drives, comments on & even mocks the action. I was confused by the off-stage men's chorus in the final act, but the effect was other-worldly. In the final moments, the audience gasped when Gregor grabbed the formula from Kristina & set it on fire, a staging which differs from the original scenario.

I arrived early enough to witness the Opera Tattler in the box-level bar as she helped her foppish opera companion get into his tie. SFMike was also in standing room for the 1st half. He had to leave at intermission, but not before bringing me an origami book with lots of great photographs. I should have expected that my favorite degenerate blogger had written the background essay in the program.

§ The Makropulos Case
San Francisco Opera

Conductor: Jiří Bělohlávek
Director: Olivier Tambosi
Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann

Emilia Marty: Karita Mattila
Albert Gregor: Miro Dvorsky
Baron Jaroslav Prus: Gerd Grochowski
Dr. Kolenaty: Dale Travis
Vitek: Thomas Glenn
Kristina: Susannah Biller
Count Hauk-Šendorf: Matthew O’Neill
Janek: Brian Jagde
A Stagehand: Austin Kness
A Chambermaid, A Cleaning Woman: Maya Lahyani

Wed Nov 10 2010 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House