Friday, April 30, 2010

The Habit of Art

The Habit of Art
by Alan Bennet
Thu, April 29th at 7pm
Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley

This NTLive movie theater screening of Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art was really NTLive-from-last-week, being a recording of a performance in the Lyttleton on April 22nd. This ungainly & tricky play takes place during a full rehearsal of a play called Caliban's Day, about a fictional meeting between W.H. Auden & Benjamin Britten as older men. The seamless, realistic set, reproducing a rehearsal room at the National Theatre, makes a big impression right from the start. We begin with the actors arriving for work, then we see them run through the play-within-a-play. It all happens in real time, even the intermission, during which some of the actors & crew remain on stage having a coffee break. The playwright is present, & there are frequent interruptions. This allows Alan Bennett to comment on issues like the insecurity of actors & the nature of the theatrical experience. He covers a lot of thematic ground, & I would always be momentarily confused when the actors broke out of the play-within-a-play.

In the minimal plot, an aging Auden, neglected & going to seed, is visited by the more successful Britten. Britten comes off rather badly here, insecure in his attempt to make an opera out of Death in Venice & harboring an unjustifiable personal defense of his relationships with young boys. The play-within-a-play makes a stand for nameless boys he may have exploited sexually as a form of artistic license. There's a great deal of comedy as well, & the play-within-a-play may not actually be that good, with its goofy interludes of talking furniture & its journalist narrator who is not quite in & not quite out of the action. In a mistaken identity scene he defensively declares, "I'm not a rent boy. I went to Keble!" I was also very amused when one of the actors wanders in "from the Chekov matinee."

The performances are terrific. I especially liked Frances de la Tour's weary yet nurturing stage manager. She doesn't seem to be acting. Richard Griffiths as Auden is every inch An Actor & never seems hampered by his huge girth. The screening was well attended by a somewhat older audience. At first I plopped myself down in the first convenient empty seat, not realizing that all the seats are assigned for these shows.

SFS: Schumann & Zemlinsky

San Francisco Symphony
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Christine Schäfer, soprano
James Johnson, bass-baritone

Schumann: Symphony No. 4
Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony

Thu, Apr 29, 2010 2:00pm
Davies Hall

PhotobucketAfter much of the orchestra was on stage prior to this matinee at the SF Symphony, stage hands came out & removed the podium, making it evident that conductor Christoph Eschenbach would be leading the Schumann Symphony No. 4 without a score. The orchestra played out the entire time, & my basic impression of the performance is how loud it was, at least from the front orchestra. I was grateful for the comparatively quieter moments, such as the 2nd movement solos by principal cellist Michael Grebanier & concert master Nadya Tichman. Mr. Eschenbach is a somewhat detatched & strange presence on the podium. I could not see the relationship between his gestures & the music. He connected all the movements, at one point even continuing to beat time during the transition.

For the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony the orchestra was larger & even louder. The scowling James Johnson, substituting for an ill Matthias Goerne, has a Wagnerian voice & managed to match the huge noise made by the orchestra. His singing is well-modulated & expressive. He even did a nice falsetto at the end of Ich bin friedlos. He sang without a score & demonstrated a strong stage presence. He stood up to begin Befrei' mich von den Banden deiner Süsse with such a sense of menace that he looked like he was about to fight someone. Soprano Christine Schäfer sang strongly & with great expressiveness as well.

I had never heard the Lyric Symphony before, & at times I was reminded of Berg, Korngold & Mahler. The orchestral interludes that connect the songs are especially colorful. I left feeling unbalanced & a bit out of sorts. I don't know whether to blame Zemlinsky's music, Tagore's distressing love poems, or the over-all loudness of the concert.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Up-coming: Reassessing Obama

When I was at the JCCSF for André Aciman, they announced a provocatively titled event called Reassessing Obama: Has He Changed? on Monday, May 3, 7:00 pm . A slight gasp went out from the audience when they heard the topic. George Lakoff is one of the speakers.

André Aciman

Wednesday, April 28, 8:00pm
Fisher Family Hall
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

This evening author André Aciman appeared at the JCCSF to talk about his new novel, Eight White Nights. The event was recorded live for Binah, a local radio show & podcast. Before a well-read audience of about 50, he read excerpts from the novel & elaborated on some of the themes of the book. Mr. Aciman began by admitting that not much happens. It's what goes on in the mind that is important. Aciman thinks that the narrator is constantly putting off the inevitable so that he can enjoy think about it.

For this particular audience he noted that the main characters are Jewish, yet they meet each other at a Christmas party. He also told us that his translators could not find equivalents in their languages for when Clara says she is "lying low", which is the way she describes her reluctance to pursue a relationship.

Mr. Aciman is both charming & empathetic. A woman in the audience thought that the narrator was simply neurotic & that normal people do not spend so much time reflecting on their thoughts. When Aciman asked her how she knew that, she said because she is a professional psychologist! Without causing any offense, Aciman gently got her to concede that it is quite normal to reflect upon ourselves & that we really spend most of our time in our imaginations. Our mental life is our real life.

I've only just picked up the novel myself, & I wished I had gotten more than 30 pages into it before the event. While Mr. Aciman signed my book, I had to tell him that I became a reader of his work through an enigmatic comment about "a Shadow City moment" that was left on this blog post. He said he was flattered to have something he wrote reach the level of jargon.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Schubert Cello Quintet

Noontime Concerts
Schubert: Cello Quintet

Cypress String Quartet
Jean-Michel Fonteneau, cello

Tuesday, April 27 at 12:30pm
Old St. Mary's

On Tuesday I attended this well-executed performance of the Schubert Cello Quintet given by the Cypress String Quartet plus cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau. By now the sweet playing & close communication of the Cypress Quartet are very familiar to me. Mr. Fonteneau has a tone that is woody & just slightly more raw then the rest of the group. He plays with a great deal of control & musicality. I liked his plummy pizzicato in the 2nd movement. They all finished the rousing end of the 3rd movement with their bows high in the air, in that classic string ensemble action shot. It was nice to hear just the one major work at this noontime concert, & the experience felt very complete. Someone in the audience ran up to the performers at the end & gave them gifts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Soul Kitchen

On Monday evening I was at the San Francisco International Film Festival for a showing of Soul Kitchen by the Turkish-German director Fatih Akin. It's an absurdist comedy whose focal point is a funky restaurant in Hamburg inhabited by a cast of wacky characters. For some reason I identified with the prima donna chef who was perfectly willing to chase all the customers out if they if they could not appreciate his menu. The restaurant's hapless proprietor is subjected to one random personal disaster after another, but love & fortune triumph in the end. Highly ridiculous situations arise out of nowhere, yet the charm of the movie is that none of the characters ever realize how funny it is.

The festival program director introduced the screening & expressed regret that director was unable to come in person. She also warned the audience that Soul Kitchen is completely unlike Mr. Akin's previous films, which are apparently much more intense & dark.

There are usually several screenings going on at once, & it can be confusing to figure out where you are supposed to be in line. It is advisable to be in line at least a half hour before the film starts, as the theater fills up quickly once people are let in. I would not have attended if it weren't for a friend who is such an enthusiastic film buff that he booked himself for 2 movies that were showing simultaneously. When he realized he couldn't really see both at the same time, I was the happy beneficiary. While I sat in my theater, he saw Morning, starring Jeanne Triplehorn, who he thinks will be getting a lot of attention for her performance.

Monday, April 26, 2010

No One Knows About Persian Cats

Sunday evening, just 2 hours out of Monteverdi's Vespers, I saw Bahman Ghobadi's enigmatically titled No One Knows About Persian Cats. In a departure from the rural village settings of his previous films, this one shows the furtive lives of urban musicians in Tehran. It is still a kind of road movie, though, as it follows 2 young indie rockers as they assemble a band & seek a way to get out of Iran. Along the way we get glimpses of creative lives that have been pushed underground. It is full of vivid characters & compelling musical performances in styles from traditional music to rap. It was hard not to be amused by the heavy metal band playing to cows that hate their music. A sense of urgency pervades the film, & there is no scene or detail without a point. Even though the tragic ending is telegraphed in the opening image, it still comes as a shock. It's such an indictment of contemporary Iranian society that I wonder how Mr. Ghobadi has managed to make his movies & stay out of prison in Iran. He may be one of the best film-makers working right now. The movie is currently playing at Opera Plaza Cinema, to enthusiastic Ghobadi fans, I hope.

Bryn Terfel sings Bad Boys

I just heard Bryn Terfel being interviewed on NPR about his new Bad Boys CD. Through the magic of recordings, he sings all 3 parts in the Act II banquet scene of Don Giovanni, "A cenar teco m'invitasti".

Magnificat: Monteverdi Vespers

Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610)
Claudio Monteverdi

Warren Stewart, artistic director

Apr 25 2010 3:00 pm
Grace Cathedral

California MilleEarly music group Magnificat presented Monteverdi's Vespers with small forces, only using 10 hard-working singers, one per part. The orchestra was similarly minimal. The church acoustic of Grace Cathedral made the sound both space-filing & muddy. The reverberation time was at least 2 seconds, giving all the sound a blurry halo. The acoustic helped make a striking moment of the pedal point opening of the Magnificat's Gloria Patri, though. Tempos were deliberate, & the intermissionless performance lasted an hour & fifty minutes.

I liked the very capable voices, such as Brian Thorsett as the 2nd tenor, whose singing was ardent. In a demonstration of the continuing effect of Eyjafjallajokull, he was a replacement for Mirko Guardagnini, who was unable to leave Europe. The 1st soprano had a voice that was big & soaring. There was a male alto voice in there somewhere that was penetrating & solid. The wind players from The Whole Noyse made a mellow contribution to the sound.

Antiphons were sung between the numbers to give the piece its liturgical context. The Sonata sopra Sancta Maria was performed last, after the Magnificat in 7 parts. Before the performance, Mr. Stewart asked the audience to refrain from applause until the end, & it was indeed impressively quiet during the lengthy performance. Many gave the performers a standing ovation. The audience was invited to a wine & cheese reception afterward. Someone at Magnificat is quite Web-savvy, as the group has an informative blog, & a presence on flickr, facebook & twitter.

Since we arrived early for the concert, we had time to inspect the immaculately maintained vintage cars of the California Mille in Huntington Park. This is my 2nd Vespers performance in the work's 400th anniversary year. Will it be possible to attend a 3rd without leaving SF?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Rest is Noise in Performance

The Rest is Noise in Performance
Alex Ross, lecturer
Ethan Iverson, piano
Saturday, April 24, 10am
Herbst Theatre

PhotobucketI was actually awake & alert for this relatively early morning event featuring critic, writer & blogger Alex Ross. Mr. Ross, at a music stand, would read an excerpt about a 20th century composer from his book The Rest is Noise, followed by pianist Ethan Iverson playing one of the composer's pieces. In 90 minutes they surveyed 12 composers, including Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin & György Ligeti. The quality of Mr. Ross's writing is already well known, & he was funny as well as informative, performing quotes in the voices of Schoenberg, Cocteau, Vincent Price, Virgil Thompson, a matronly Mrs. Downes, Adorno, & Jacqueline Kennedy. At one point he self-deprecatingly realized that his Adorno sounded a bit like his Mrs. Downes.

Mr. Iverson confidently played all his selections from memory, & his playing was consistently even & unfussy, even though he had to tackle pieces in wide-ranging styles. He ended the program by performing a 2-part improvisation based solely on pitches shouted out at random by the audience. Before beginning he remarked that it was going into Webern territory, but he made a kind of sense out of the note collection nonetheless.

Somehow Goldstar manged to seat me right next to the Opera Tattler in a box, even though we purchased our tickets entirely separately. Mr. Ross greeted people in the lobby & signed books after the show, but I was just too much in awe to meet him, even if only to thank him for putting me on his blogroll & for unwittingly providing the circumstances for a fateful meeting.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Francesca Caccini

Medicean Music and Francesca Caccini:
Virtuosa to the Medici

Thursday, April 22, 6:00 pm
Mechanics' Institute

Kip Cranna, Director of Music Administration (SF Opera)
Richard Savino, Archlute, chitarrone, baroque guitar (CSU Sacramento)
Ann Moss, Soprano
William Skeen, Viola da gamba

Reception at Rangoni Firenze ShoesYesterday I attended this satellite event for next week's Humanities West symposium on the Medici. Perhaps 30 or 40 of us were fitted rather awkwardly into a meeting room in the Mechanics' Institute building for a lecture/demonstration of the music of Francesca Caccini, a singer & composer working in the Medici court in the early 1600s. Among other accomplishments, she is the first woman to write a published opera, La liberazione, in 1625. There is tantalizingly little documentation about her later life, & even the date of her death is doubtful.

Kip Cranna of the SF Opera set the musical context, & Richard Savino gave us an overview of Francesca Caccini's life, stuffed with many facts from his research. Finally, Ann Moss sang 4 of Caccini's published songs, accompanied by William Skeen on viola da gamba & Mr. Savino on lute & guitar. The songs are about heaving, unrequited love & include a lot of vocal ornamentation, precisely notated by the composer. It was a treat to hear the songs in this small setting, as they were originally intended to be presented. Mr. Savino had a lot of trouble keeping his instruments in tune in that close room. Even though he warned us to stop breathing, one song had to be restarted in order for him to re-tune.

Rangoni Firenze Shoes hosted a pre-event reception in their shop. We had prosecco, cheese, fruit & tiramisu amidst fancy Italian shoes & handbags, though one attendee's lime-green Fluevogs seemed to garner more attention.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jeffrey Kahane conducts Mozart and Mendelssohn

Jeffrey Kahane conducts Mozart and Mendelssohn
San Francisco Symphony
Wed, Apr 21, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Jeffrey Kahane, conductor
Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K.385, Haffner
Mendelssohn: Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 25
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C major, K.551, Jupiter

Balloons in Davies HallThere was a big turn-out last night for this pleasing program at the SF Symphony. Conductor Jeffrey Kahane, replacing Bernard Labadie, looked vigorous & busy on the podium. He always seemed to be well ahead of the orchestra, yet he did not necessarily try to cue everything either. I was not convinced that the musicians were actually watching him, but the performances of the 2 Mozart symphonies were nonetheless taut & sunny. The precocious Mendelssohn piano concerto matched the Mozart Haffner perfectly in mood. I liked the efficient, dramatic opening, the quiet slow movement with the piano accompanied by only the lower strings, & the springy final movement. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin played tactfully. He was not overly showy, but he still made his points. This symmetrical program of such well-proportioned music left me feeling in perfect equilibrium. I was almost surprised to leave the hall & discover it was dark night outside instead of bright day.

The audience responded warmly to Mr. Hamelin, & several people around us in the front orchestra stood for him. When Mr. Kahane came out for his final bow, he had a hard time convincing concert master Jeremy Constant & the orchestra to rise & accept the applause with him.

The lobby of the Davies Hall was made festive with many helium balloons, in honor of the Symphony's volunteers.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Up-Coming: NCCO All-American Program

I've been reminded that the New Century Chamber Orchestra has an audience-friendly program of American works coming up May 6 - 9. The program includes the Barber Adagio, Copland's Appalachian Spring & Hoe Down, & a world premiere of the Romanza violin concerto by William Bolcom. The NCCO has very enthusiastic audiences, & they generously offer half-price tickets for patrons 30 & under. There is also the opportunity to attend an open rehearsal in Berkeley on May 4th for just $8. Mr. Bolcom is scheduled to be on-hand.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bed Race

Bed RaceI don't know what it was all about, but this morning I witnessed several heats of a bed race in the playground of Marina Middle School. Three teams raced at a time, pushing large beds down a straight track. Teams were judged on speed, costumes & decor. It was a lot more competitive than one might think, since the racers did not need to keep to their lanes, so cutting off opponents & grand-standing were permitted. Pushing a wide bed at high speed obviously had steering challenges of its own, as evinced by near-collisions with spectators lining the track. Passengers included pirates, scantily clad models, college wrestling teams, a contortionist, & a random man plucked from the crowd of on-lookers. My favorite team was a group of Jamaican Rastahs. Their bed had palm trees & a rider dressed as a banana. When the starting horn sounded, they did not move from the starting line, but waited for the other teams to pass the finish line before leisurely making their way down the track, singing & dancing all the way.

Friday, April 16, 2010

SFS: The Gold Rush

San Francisco Symphony
Chaplin: The Gold Rush (1925)
Silent film with live musical accompaniment
Thu, Apr 15, 2010 2:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

Donato Cabrera, conductor

Yesterday afternoon at Davies Hall I had the joyous experience of seeing Chaplin's The Gold Rush with the Symphony providing live orchestral accompaniment. The score uses music by Chaplin himself, adapted by Timothy Brock. It's symphonic, with references to popular classics, & supports the mood of the film excellently. It was performed with a light touch by a reduced orchestra. Judging by the sounds effects written into the score, the orchestra was often way behind the film, though.

Davies Hall was very full, & I did not see any empty seats in the orchestra level. Spontaneous applause broke out after the climactic cliff-hanging sequence, & there was even rhythmic clapping when Charlie & Big Jim McKay appear at the end of the film strutting around as millionaires to the tune of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." A woman seated behind me read all the intertitles to her little boy. He started laughing right at the 1st gag, when a bear follows Charlie along a narrow cliff path.

I attended the pre-concert lecture given by silent film evangelist Stephen Salmons. He gave us relevant background about the film's premiere, Chaplin's early life & his start in the movie industry. He emphasized that we were going to see the movie as it was intended, in a large audience with live music, an experience he called "live cinema." He declared that Gold Rush "is not an old movie." He ended with a plug for the SF Silent Film Festival coming up in July, one of my favorite movie events.

Conductor Donato Cabrera dropped his baton as he strode up to the podium, & someone in the front row had to hand it back up to him. A very hands-on Charlie Chaplin impersonator worked his way through the crowd before the show. Only 2 more performances, & I imagine that tickets are going fast.

I heard that at the Saturday matinee Charlie Chaplin came on stage to hand the baton to Maestro Cabrera. He also stuck around after the performance to take pictures with patrons.

Kopi Luwak

Kopi LuwakWhile I was waiting in line for the Castro Theatre on Sunday, I noticed this sign in the window of the Castro Cheesery/Castro Coffee. I thought the siphon pot at Blue Bottle was the most expensive cup of coffee I'd ever seen, but at $39 a cup the Kopi Luwak beats it handily. These are those coffee beans that ferment in the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet & get pooped out before being roasted for your tasting pleasure.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dresden Burnt

paper,artYesterday at lunch I dropped into the Toomey Tourell gallery & saw artist Matthew Picton's intricate maps of San Francisco & Dresden. The city blocks are constructed from pieces of paper that are then inflicted with burns, reminding us of the disasters that have befallen those cities. Close up, it is possible to recognize that the Dresden piece is constructed from the score of Wagner's Das Rheingold, though the connection between the opera & the city is not obvious to me. The San Francisco map is made from advertisements for the 1936 movie San Francisco. The works are fascinating to examine.

I also stuck my head into a few other galleries on the same floor, including the Fraenkel Gallery, in which I discovered 4 large & beautiful Carleton Watkins prints of Yosemite from the mid 19th century.


When I showed up for the Sunday evening screening of Murnau's Sunrise at the Castro Theatre, I did not realize that it would be accompanied live on the organ. Our organist was Warren Lubich. In his introductory remarks, he explained that an original cue sheet for the film includes the song Sunrise & You by Arthur Penn, & so he would feature this as the love theme for the main characters. I found Mr. Lubich's playing to be a bit dour. He relied heavily on the lowest, most rumbling notes of the organ, to the extent that I wondered about his hearing. He did better with his accompaniment to the film's lighter moments. In the end, I did not feel that Mr. Lubich made a good case for his alternative to the film's multi-layered symphonic score.

As if commenting ironically on the situation, the projectionist somehow put the last reel of the film in backward, so we watched the original soundtrack stream down the right edge of the picture even though we could not hear it. The audience laughed when the intertitles appeared reversed.

There was an excellent turn-out for this show, & Mr. Lubich got an enthusiastic ovation for his playing. He even played San Francisco Open Your Golden Gate for us as exit music.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Symphony String Quartet

Symphony String Quartet
Calvary Presbyterian Church
April 11, 2010 at 4pm

Florin Parvulescu (violin)
Leor Maltinski (violin)
David Kim (viola)
Angela Lee (cello)

Haydn: Quartet in D Major, Op.64 no.5
Dvorak: Terzetto for 2 violins and viola op.74
Schubert: Quartet in A Minor D804 "Rosamunde"

ConcertConnectOn Sunday afternoon, during a break in the rain, I attended this beautifully played recital at Calvary Presbyterian in Pacific Heights. It was one of those concerts where, after the 1st bars, all I wanted to do was enjoy the music & the playing. I especially welcomed the melancholy opening movements of the Schubert. The members of the quartet, with the exception of cellist Angela Lee, are from the SF Symphony. Their performance was clean, musical & refined. Florin Parvulescu played 1st violin for the Haydn & Dvorak. I liked his fluid bow arm. It was nice to have all 3 musicians stand for the lively Dvorak Terzetto. Leor Maltinsky played 1st violin for the Schubert, & his expressive playing has a kind of natural rubato that is very pleasing. Amazingly, the quartet had only been playing together for a week, during which the Symphony members already had a full schedule. They were all very motivated to do this concert, though, & their commitment showed.

The ConcertConnect series is a ministry of the Calvary Presbyterian Church, with the proceeds of each concert benefiting a local charity, in this case the San Francisco Foodbank. They obviously need do more to get the word out, as there were only about 30 people in attendance. There was a reception afterward, at which cheese, wine & cookies were offered. I was briefly introduced to Mr. Maltinski, who is very nice.

Monday, April 12, 2010

SFCM: The Rake's Progress

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Spring Opera: The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky
Fully-staged student opera
Cowell Theater
Saturday, April 10, 7:30 PM

Richard Harrell, Director
Bruno Ferrandis, Guest Conductor

Sonja Krenek, Anne Trulove
Eleazar Rodriguez, Tom Rakewell
Cole Grissom, Nick Shadow
Melissa Hight, Baba the Turk
Molly Mahoney, Mother Goose
James McGoff, Father Trulove
Michael Desnoyers, Sellem
Daniel Epstein, Jailor

Cowell TheaterI saw the 3rd of 4 performances of The Rake's Progress put on by the SFCM at Cowell Theater over the weekend. The staging had many ideas very fitting to the opera. The action takes place in front of a giant gilded picture frame that gradually collapses as Tom's life spirals downward. The entire cast was in attractive 18th century costumes, & Baba the Turk's possessions included a mummy, a giant tortoise & a 3 foot penguin. Nick Shadow progresses from a young man in livery to the stereotypical image of Mephistopheles & makes his final exit through an open grave spewing stage smoke.

Tenor Eleazar Rodriguez was excellent as Tom Rakewell. His voice is a dark & earthy, & I enjoyed listening to it. He has a genuine desire to communicate with the audience, & he gave a mature performance. In the auction scene, tenor Michael Desnoyers gave a brilliant characterization of Sellem, his voice bright & his diction very clear. In fact this whole scene, with the chorus playing a diverse crowd of greedy buyers, was a highlight of the evening.

The pit band was of chamber ensemble proportions, & this suited Stravinsky's baroque-inflected score very well. Conductor Bruno Ferrandis uses very clear gestures, & he often elicited incisive playing from the orchestra. I liked the playing of both flutes in particular.

I was seated next to an older gentleman who claimed that the only other opera he had ever been to was a Zauberflöte in Salzburg. He pronounced the Conservatory's performance "amusing", though he did not come back to his seat after the 2nd intermission.

Absinthe Fountain

Absinthe FountainI walk past the Delarosa restaurant on Chestnut Street nearly every day, but I finally realized what that device is in the window at the end of the bar. It's an absinthe fountain, held aloft by an elegant, slender female figure. The bar also has absinthe spoons & sugar cubes at the ready. They seem to be serving St. George Spirits Absinthe Verte. Must try this one day when I am feeling even more decadent than usual.

Origami at the Cherry Blossom Festival

origami,cat,mouseI visited the 1st day of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown just long enough to check out the origami exhibit in a small downstairs room of the Hotel Kabuki. I especially liked the small & charming animal figures by Kyohei Katsuta. I met local folder Jonathan Miller who explained the improvisatory nature of his intricate tesselations & seemed confident that anyone could learn to do them as well. He also told me about an up-coming origami convention in Ohio. Many of the usual suspects are represented as well, such as Robert Lang, Bernie Peyton & Goran Konjevod.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Musical Blimp

Prior to Thursday night's performance of Orlando, I was briefed about a recent concert involving a remote-controlled blimp that flew over the audience. My correspondent reported that the effect was moving, yet not in a funny way, as one might expect. The piece was also synchronized to a component broadcast on KUSF. I am so sorry to have missed this spectacle. It was part of a new music marathon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on this past Easter Sunday.

After making a passing reference to SF Conservatory faculty member Axel Strauss, my correspondent also admitted that the name "Axel" had now been ruined for him by this blog.

Friday, April 09, 2010

PBO: Orlando's Madness

Orlando's Madness
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Thurs, Apr 8, 7:00 pm, Herbst Theatre

Orlando by George Frideric Handel

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Dominique Labelle, soprano
Susanne Rydén, soprano
Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano
William Towers, countertenor
Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass-baritone

I was impressed by the strong & consistent cast for this performance of Handel's Orlando by PBO. The tall & slim countertenor William Towers has great breath control & a solid sound that is not at all hooty. Some of his high notes are surprisingly big. I liked his furious coloratura in his 1st aria in Act II & his handling of the abruptly contrasting moods of the mad scene that closes the act. I also liked soprano Domique Labelle's dramatic singing. Mezzo Diana Moore has a deep, weighty sound that was appropriately masculine. Bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich, sporting a long hair cut & prowling around with big gestures, has a great stage presence. I enjoyed his equally big voice & aggressive coloratura. Soprano Susanne Rydén was a plucky shepherdess, & she gamely tackled the extreme jumps in register Handel wrote for her Act III aria about love's effects.

Although the singers were on stage & the orchestra in a pit arrangement, this was barely a staged performance. We were given translations of the text, & I found it distracting to read stage directions involving genii, magical scene changes & characters being flown away & yet none of this was acknowledged on stage. The disconnect was even more weird when the singers mimed using props. There was a confusing moment at the end of Act I when someone seemed to be caught in the branches of a potted tree on stage. Still, the opera's inherent silly humor came through.

We sat upstairs, which was not full, though it looked completely filled downstairs. The audience never seemed bored or restless despite the 3 and 1/2 hour running time. It is a good thing I saw the Opera Tattler before the performance, otherwise I would have missed the early 7pm start time.

Vigil at ACT

American Conservatory Theater
Written and directed by Morris Panych
April 7, 2010 8pm

Cast: Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis

Wednesday I caught Vigil at A.C.T., a two-hander black comedy about a middle-aged man who comes to attend what he expects to be the imminent death of his elderly aunt. The action takes place in a tall cluttered attic with tilting doors & windows. It looks like it is about to collapse in on itself. The play consists of many short episodes ending in black-outs, some long enough for only one line. I don't know what to make of the play, other than to say its major theme is clearly loneliness. At the end of the 1st act, a gentleman seated in front of us turned around & pronounced the whole thing a "shaggy dog story." He pointed out how the ending had already been telegraphed, & indeed he was quite correct about the important revelation in the 2nd act. My theater companion & I had no idea who this astute fellow was, but he was reading a very thick book entitled Nixonland.

The A.C.T. audience was very attentive & laughed at all the right lines, & I think some people were even sniffling at the end. In the last scene, though, when the man enters with a metal canister, we heard someone ask her companion what that was. We happened to be attending on an Out With A.C.T. night, which meant that after the performance we were entitled to a glass of wine & some very sweet brownies downstairs. We sat in a crowd that was only slightly more gay-friendly than your average SF theater audience. I was told that sometimes the actors attend the reception & that popchips were given out freely the last time, but neither turned out to be the case this evening.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Tuesday I saw the Dreamworks animated feature How to Train Your Dragon, in IMAX 3D, no less. This is quite an expensive proposition, at $16 for the matinee. It's cheaper to get into the door at the symphony or the opera. Fortunately I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It's a real kids movie, refreshingly free of ironic jokes for adults. It also thankfully lacks smart-alecky talking animals. Our hero's pet dragon instead has an unmistakable resemblance to the mischievous Stitch from Disney's Lilo & Stitch. Best of all, the movie has refrigerator-sized vikings with Scotts accents, though these vikings have replaced raping & pillaging with hunting dragons. My favorite joke was the father-son matching pair of cone-shaped viking helmets, made from the mother's breast plate. No one dies in the movie, but I was struck by an ending that reveals our hero permanently maimed. The crowd scenes always included heavy women in horned helmets & armor, but none of them sang.

The coming attractions included a trailer for a sequel to Tron. Very odd.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty

This weekend I saw a matinee of Don Hahn's Waking Sleeping Beauty, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the revival of the Disney animation studio between 1984-1994. This is the period that goes from the box office failure of The Black Cauldron to the big success of The Lion King. The movie is composed entirely of found footage, mostly home movies of the studio animators clowning for the camera, plus TV clips & promotional videos. As such, the movie has no production values, & there is no advantage to seeing it in a movie theater. The story is told mainly through voice-overs that do not necessarily correspond to the visuals. This sometimes makes it confusing to follow the complicated story of shifting personnel & priorities at the studio.

The documentary is surprisingly frank about the acrimonious relationship between studio heads Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner & Roy Disney, as well as between management & the animators. A highlight is Howard Ashman pitching "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid & explaining why every musical has a number like "Part of Your World". I also learned that The Rescuers Down Under is the 1st feature animated film to be produced entirely with a computer animation system. I can't say that Waking Sleeping Beauty truly explains why there was a Renaissance in the animation studio during this period, but it does show that people worked really hard on the films.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Up-Coming: Berkeley Festival 2010

400 Years of Vespers
Berkeley Music Festival & Exhibition
June 10-12, 2010

Early Music America presents a conference in Berkeley, June 10-12, featuring lectures, workshops & performances relating to "the medieval & Renaissance roots that underlie the Monteverdi Vespers." Performances are presented each day, though they do not seem to include a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers itself.

iPad in Stores

iPad ReservationsThere was a small line outside the Apple Store in the Marina this morning, with many excited store employees on duty. There are iPads in the store to play with, but I'll be waiting for the crowds to thin out before I try to go in there.

Friday, April 02, 2010

SF Fire Department Museum

Early Fire TruckOn my way to Office Depot this afternoon, I passed by the open door of the San Francisco Fire Department Museum & took an unplanned look inside. The museum is in a fire house on Presidio Avenue, & its plain door is easy to miss. It is open only 3 hours a day, 4 days a week. The interior is small & dark & crowded with fire fighting equipment. The volunteer guide immediately directed me to San Francisco's oldest fire truck, commandeered to fight a fire in 1849. The water would have been pumped by hand, & it does not look very efficient. It is brightly painted in blue & yellow, having been restored in 1980 by female inmates of the state prison in Tehachapi. A sign claims that the dancing woman pictured on the front is Lola Montez. Other fire engines are basically coal-fired boilers on wheels, with pipes, gauges & values coming off of them. They must have been quite a sight in operation.