Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of 2007

Looking back on the past year, here's the stuff that I would have really regretted missing: First & foremost would be the production of Intimate Exchanges at the Brits Off Broadway festival in New York. I read about this wacky multiple-paths play many years ago, but I never thought that I'd actually get an opportunity to see it. Gustavo Dudamel & The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela lived up to the hype & then some. I could have seen The Simpsons Movie any time & now on DVD, but seeing it with an opening night audience made it a true event. & exciting for me personally was going to Berkeley to see Alex Ross & have him sign my copy of his much-anticipated book.

I felt very fortunate that the SF MOMA had the comprehensive Joseph Cornell exhibit. I'm now at a new level of appreciation for this reticent artist. I was also very glad to see & hear 2 of my favorite performers, Radu Lupu & Emmanual Pahud, in top form. Then there was Susan Graham's powerful performance in Iphigénie. I got introduced to 2 performers new to me & whom I look forward to hearing again: András Schiff & Marino Formenti.

& since we're still sort of in the holiday mood, I have to say that I still grin when I think about Mark Morris's dancing snowflakes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Hard Nut

Every year at this time, I read rave reviews about Mark Morris's version of The Nutcracker ballet. It's been a regular event at Cal Performances for several years now. So this year I finally broke down & decided to check it out this past Saturday night.

When you go the SF Ballet's Nutcracker, there are lots of parents with little girls all dressed up. I didn't see any children at this performance, but there must be have been some. There were plenty of restless adults, however. It took the audience quite a while to settle down. During the overture, there was lots of talking & lots of sushing. The woman next to me started yawning as soon as the lights went down, then snored intermittently during the entire 1st act. Surprisingly, she came back for the 2nd act. I guess she had rested up by then.

The production reminds me of the Matthew Bourne versions of classic ballets that I've seen. The music is intact, but the action has been replaced by a modern story that still references the original scenario. There is a strong sense of parody. The Christmas party of the 1st scene takes place in a comic strip version of the 1960s. The opening image is of kids watching cartoons on TV. There's an artificial tree, a hostess on tranquillizers & guests doing the limbo.

The party scene is more acting then dancing, & there is more going on than you can follow. The dancers are all great actors as well. One of the guests was a hilarious would-be lothario with curly hair & long sideburns. I discovered in a review I read later that this was Mark Morris himself.

The Dance of the Snow Flakes that ends the 1st act is the highlight of the show & worth the price of admission by itself. Instead of ballerinas doing wispy pirouettes while fake snow wafts down from the rafters, the corps de ballet provides its own snow storm by tossing handfuls of confetti in choreographed patterns while executing athletic leaps. The result is like a fireworks show. I actually let out a whoop at the climax. It's such a clever idea that you wonder why no one has ever done this before.

This number is choreographed for both male & female dancers, dressed identically & doing the same steps. This exemplified the gender-fluid casting of the show in general. It was only during the intermission that I finally convinced myself that Mrs. Stahlbaum was danced by a man. The female dancer playing the spoiled little brother was also completely convincing.

A truly nice touch was the children's choir that appeared at the side of the stage for the Dance of Snow Flakes to provide the vocal line. I believe that even the SF Ballet uses recorded voices for this.

This finale was so good that during the intermission I was pretty much expecting that the rest of the evening would be a let-down. Fortunately, the 2nd act has a counterpart in the Waltz of the Flowers that was equally fun & joyful, as well as a little bit obscene. Now I know what all the raves are about.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Persepolis Preview at the Kabuki

Wednesday night I was privileged to attend a special San Francisco Film Society screening of Persepolis. A big part of the event was the chance to check out the remodeled Kabuki Theater. It's actually pretty much the same, except that there are now fancy bars on the 2nd & 3rd floors. On the 3rd floor, there is just barely a view of the city lights over the rooftops of the neighboring buildings. I guess the idea is that you can see a movie then adjourn to the bar with your friends to discuss it. It's not clear to me if you have to buy a movie ticket in order to get into the bars, though.

The event was sold out, so naturally the bar was completely overwhelmed. It took a really long time for me to get a glass of Spanish red wine, for which they charged me $6. Not unreasonable.

Before the screening, there was a brief on-stage interview with Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, the directors. The movie is based on Satrapi's Persepolis memoir. Satrapi's appearance was the highlight of the evening. She is a very smart & a very funny woman. There was a comic opposition between her outgoing, out-spoken personality & her co-director's reserved & silent demeanor. Among the concepts she threw out in her answers to questions:
  • She dislikes the label "graphic novel" to describe her books, "novel" being a far too bourgeois art form.
  • We usually stop drawing by the time we're 10, so we think of drawing as something that belongs to childhood. We can talk about how poetry or music has meaning, but we have no way of talking about how a drawing has meaning. Yet drawing is prior to writing.
  • When we think of animation, we tend to think of cartoon rabbits, but animation is not a genre, it's a medium.
  • Fanatics know how to push the buttons of people's emotions. They get people to start yelling or be fearful. Any artistic work (which is about asking questions, not providing answers) or intellectual work, therefore, is a work against fanaticism.
  • When asked how she had the courage to tell this story, she said that Italo Calinvo says, "I write to express myself without getting interrupted."
As for the movie itself, it is a very direct adaptation of the books, both in the visual style & in the storytelling. If you are familiar with the books, then the movie offers no new information. However, this is no negative criticism. It's a great story experience, showing the tight intertwining of the political, the personal & the familial.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Great Dictator at the PFA

I'm going to miss the Castro's screening of Chaplin's The Great Dictator this coming Wednesday, but I really wanted to see it, so I went to Berkeley this afternoon for the showing at the PFA. The 1st time I saw this movie many years ago, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, so I wanted to see if my reaction was still the same, & it pretty much was. Much of the movie is dated & a bit embarrassing now, primarily the scenes with Paulette Godard, & especially the final close-up of her which caps Chaplin's anti-climactic oration.

On the other hand, I think all the funny parts are still really funny. Of course there are the famous back-to-back set pieces of Chaplin dancing with the balloon earth, followed by Chaplin as the barber shaving his customer to Brahms's Hungarian Rhapsody. But right at the start, the opening battle scene is full of great gags: Chaplin's Little Fellow operating a giant cannon & an anti-aircraft gun, then losing an armed grenade down his shirt-sleeve, finally ending up flying upside-down in the cockpit of a crashing plane. Chaplin's first appearance as Hynkel, delivering his faux-German speech, is worth half the price of admission already.

There's plenty of classic slapstick humor at the expense of Hitler & Mussolini, which is funny it itself, though I sometimes have to remind myself that at the time the full horrors of the war were not yet widely known. It is interesting, though, that the movie is very explicit in stating that Hitler's anti-Jewish rhetoric was a way to distract the general population from economic problems.

The turnout at the FPA was not as large as I would have thought. The theater was perhaps a 3rd full. But we were a good audience & laughed at all the right places & were politely quiet through the worst bits.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Justin Hall at the Cartoon Art Museum

I dropped into the Cartoon Art Museum again to see the local phenomenon that is Justin Hall, who was "cartoonist-in-residence" today. I'm still a bit unclear on the concept, but I'm sure that Justin is just the man for the job. He loves to share his knowledge of comics, & he's a guy who can talk with anyone.

Manga Conquers America

Thursday night the Cartoon Art Museum sponsored a talk by Jason Thompson on the publishing history of manga in the U.S. It was a promotional event for his book Manga: The Complete Guide.

The talk got started a half-hour late, & the museum staff was unable to get the speaker's laptop to work with their projector, so Mr. Thompson resorted to flashing his slides at us from this laptop. This technical snafu made the event a bit lame.

Mr. Thompson had quite a long, fact-filled talk. It ran to almost an hour & a half. I'm not a manga reader myself, so this was really too much information for me. However, Mr. Thompson clearly has complete command of his subject area. If the book parallels this talk, then it has some interesting commentary on the manga publishing industry.

This is not to imply that the talk was boring. The history of manga publishing is apparently filled with characters at the margins of social trends. We heard about furries, new age hippies, & adult-movie stars who also draw. I learned that Barefoot Gen, which I've read & admired, was the 1st manga translated into English. It was put out by an anti-war group, not by a comic or manga publisher.

In Thompson's view, the practice of printing manga unflopped, in the right-to-left reading order of Japanese, is more a matter of reducing production costs than preserving artistic integrity.

There was a small group of about 20 who showed up for this event. Many of them seemed to be associates of the speaker. There were also a lot of touchy-feely couples, so maybe this was also your classic cheap date.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Berlioz at the SF Symphony

Berlioz Lélio
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Stanford Olsen, tenor 1
Shawn Mathey, tenor 2
Dwayne Croft, baritone
SFS Chorus

Went to this concert Wednesday night, solely for Lélio, which I had never heard before. Even though Berlioz billed this as a sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, it was programmed first, probably because it is a lighter work overall. In fact, it felt more like a collection of 6 separate pieces rather than a large cohesive work. No matter. The individual pieces were each satisfying on their own.

It starts off charmingly with a tenor soloist accompanied only by the piano. We could be in a 19th century salon. Later, the strings come in with the idée fixe from the Symphonie fantastique, making the linkage explicit. It is a sweet-sounding but sinister song about a siren. Stanford Olsen sang this from within the orchestra, standing next to the piano. The tessitura is pretty high, but I think he hit every note.

Varied movements follow: An eerie chorus; a wild brigands' song; another tenor sings from within the orchestra, this time with harp accompaniment; an orchestral interlude; a choral fantasy, minus bass voices, addressing characters from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's definitely a mashup, but each piece kept my interest.

There was a sense of uncertainty to the proceedings, as if the performers weren't always sure what was going to happen next. At one point the chorus took several moments to reach a consensus as to whether they were going to sit or stand.

The confusion carried out into the intermission. When I emerged from the auditorium, I was sorely disappointed to discover that none of the reserved drink orders, mine included, had been prepared yet. The harried bartender apologized, explaining that he had been told we weren't going to be let out until 9:00. The short first half let out around 8:45.

The performance of the Symphonie fantastique occupying the 2nd half was recorded live as part of the Keeping Score series. Perhaps 10 cameras were stationed around the orchestra. A long boom camera extended from the terrace directly over the orchestra. Most notable were 2 robotic cameras, one on a vertical stand at the back of the orchestra & the other on a track running along the front of the stage. This one could go back & forth & also rise up to the eye level of the musicians.

During the performance there was plenty of distracting movement from all these devices, though it was also kind of cool to watch. It was clear that there were going to be a lot of motion shots in the finished broadcast. It must be especially difficult for the musicians to pretend to ignore the cameras. The robotic camera in front could maneuver itself to within a couple of feet of a musician's head.

Under this scrutiny, the orchestra sounded like a completely different band in the 2nd half. It was obviously well-rehearsed, & everyone knew exactly what was going to happen next. The sound was brilliant & concise. There was a lot of detail. The bassoon solo in the 4th movement really popped out. I was also impressed by the strong flute solos. They captured a clean performance with a lot of surface sheen.

Chaplin at the Castro

This past Tuesday night I saw 2 programs of Charlie Chaplin films at the Castro. To me, The Kid is Chaplin's first masterpiece. It's a marvel how much emotion he packs into this short film. There's an incredible cinematic moment where The Mother, on her charity rounds, sits on a stoop, cradling a baby. It's clear that she is thinking of the baby that she abandoned at the beginning of the story. Then the door opens behind her & Jackie Coogan appears & then sits down at the opposite side of the screen. At first neither character sees the other, yet each of them is the other's dream. It's a moment rooted in a physical reality, yet it also expresses each character's deep psychological desires. It's such a beautiful moment that it almost always chokes me up. One of the few movie scenes I prefer to watch alone!

I don't think I'd ever seen The Pilgram before. It was surprising that Chaplin does not appear in his Little Tramp guise through most of the movie. Lots of great stuff in this one. The church service must be a classic set piece, as well as the tea party with the incredibly obnoxious child. I recently saw the famous clip of W.C. Fields kicking a little kid, but I had no idea that Chaplin did this gag first! The ending was another terrific surprise, with Chaplin walking off into the distance while straddling the U.S./Mexico border. Politically, times haven't changed.

The final film of the evening was The Gold Rush. Again I was impressed but how many places this movie goes emotionally. It mixes the old-fashion histrionics of the Big Jim character with the realistic & somewhat cynical portrait of Georgia's flirtatious relationship with Jack. The treatment of the Little Tramp by the dance hall girls is just plain cruel. There's a fantastic cinematic moment when Chaplin first appears at the dance hall. He stands in the foreground, with his back to us, while the middle ground & the background are filled with light that shines on dancing, happy people. Visually the scene is beautiful, yet the Little Tramp's isolation is poignant by contrast. & this little scene is capped with the gag of the pretty girl walking warmly towards him, but only to get to her boyfriend behind him.

I'm a big Chaplin fan, so I was very excited to see this show & very disappointed at the sparse turn-out & the very low-key reaction of the audience. Perhaps Chaplin's brand of humanism isn't in sync with our times right now.

Jeff Wall, Olafur Eliasson at SF MOMA

This past Saturday I got to go back to the SF MOMA to see the 2 exhibits I missed on my last visit. Jeff Wall's huge light box photos fill several rooms. Simply by their huge size, they reference the tradition of history painting. Most of the photos are distinctly unsettling. His scene of the grave filled with tide pool creatures is both creepy & beautiful. One gets the sense that there is a lot going on behind each image. Part of the fascination is just trying out how they are done. Is the pictures of wind blowing away a woman's papers staged or constructed?

The Olafur Eliasson installations on the top floor were still fun on a second viewing. The Notion motion, which appears to be an interactive video projection, turn out to be pleasantly low-tech once you are allowed to peek behind the curtain. In the 360º room for all colors, people were tripping themselves out by standing inches from the wall so that their entire field of vision was filled by the glowing wall of color. How can I get a room like this for myself?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Harold & Maude at the Castro

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

LA Phil "Lite"

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

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
James Galway, flute

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

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

Check online for the latest program information.

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

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

Check online for the latest program information.

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Silence & The Rite at The Castro

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

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

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

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

Slatkin Leads SF Symphony

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

Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

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

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

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

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

Joseph Cornell at SF MOMA

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Store Opens on Chestnut Street

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

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Masters of Origami

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

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

A few pictures from the exhibit:

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

Emmanuel Pahud

Emmanuel Pahud, flute
Eric Le Sage, piano

Thursday, November 15, 8:00 pm
Herbst Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Animation Shorts

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Alex Ross at Google

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

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Magic Flute at SF Opera

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

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

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

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

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

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

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

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

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

The Pixar Story

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Kollektief Accompanies Murnau's Faust

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kelly Goto at the Apple Store

Yesterday evening I dropped into the Apple retail store near Union Square & just happened to catch an interesting in-store talk by Kelly Goto of Gotomedia about top-level issues of Web design for the iPhone. I heard about gestural interfaces, emotional vs. practical brands, ritualistic vs. addictive behavior, lifestyle design, "placelessness", & more. It was sponsored by a Web design conference currently going on called the Voices That Matter Conference. What a catchy name. Of course I'm a voice that matters!

Masur at SF Symphony

This past Saturday night I sat in the 2nd tier of Davies Hall for Kurt Masur's SF Symphony program. Masur is 80 now, & I was glad to see that he is still very vigorous & alert on the podium. There was no question that he was in charge of the proceedings. He was always well ahead of the orchestra & giving good preparatory cues.

It was a program that requires an impressive line-up of performing resources. The Lizst is one of those insane virtuosos pieces, but Lortie gave a very tasteful rendition, dispatching all the technical challenges without seeming to show-off.

I've known about the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, but I don't think I'd ever actually heard it before. It is a curious piece. It probably only makes sense in the context of that famous program (including the premieres of the 4th Piano Concerto & the 5th & 6th Symphonies) for which it was the encore. It reminded me of the Triple Concerto in that in lesser hands it can probably sound like much ado about nothing. Masur did a good job keeping the disparate sections sounding like they were all really part of a whole. It was fun to hear the vocal soloists drawn from the SF Chorus. They did a great job. There were 6 soloists for what seemed to be 4 vocal lines Is it usually performed with the soloists doubled up?

Masur led a weighty & driving performance of Alexander Nevsky that seemed to go by very quickly. The singer for the Prokofiev, Nancy Maultsby, had to sit on stage the whole time waiting for her one big number near the end of cantata. I imagine it must be tough to be silent for half an hour then have to deliver this intense solo.

Liszt - Totentanz
Beethoven - Choral Fantasy
Prokofiev - Alexander Nevsky

Kurt Masur, conductor
Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano
Louis Lortie, piano
SFS Chorus

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Alex Ross at Berkeley

Went to the Berkeley campus on Thursday night to see Alex Ross promote his new book, The Rest is Noise. He gave a half-hour talk with musical examples about 20th century music originating from the Bay Area. He was then interviewed by Cynthia Gorney about classical music in general & took some audience questions. At the top of the interview, Gorney asked him to read his account of the famous Rite of Spring premiere (which she insisted on calling "Rites of Spring"). He started reading, then, as he got to his description of the music, he ran back to the podium & started up a sound clip of the Dance of the Adolescents. He made it a real multimedia event. The whole evening would make a great podcast.

He comes across as very conscientious. He avoided making any critical comments, even when someone asked him for an opinion of Appomatox. In talking about Strauss, he did observe that "there's hardly a piece by Strauss that doesn't have something wrong with it." But for the most part he tried not to be too humorous or provocative. He urged us to seek out smaller, younger ensembles, such as Alarm Will Sound.

I'm a fan of Alex's blog, so I have to admit I was pretty excited about seeing him in person. I bought the book, got it signed & got to tell him what a great job I think he does with the Web.

Outdoor Clothing Market in Hayes Valley

In my roaming around the City on Sunday, I happened upon a hipster clothing & jewelry outdoor market centered around Hayes & Octavia. There's always something going on in the nooks & crannies of San Francisco.

My Kid Could Paint That

Andras Sciff's recital so dominated my memory of last weekend that I neglected to mention I saw Amir Bar-Lev's meta-documentary My Kid Could Paint That. It records the filmmaker's desire to believe, but failure to prove, the authenticity of the paintings attributed to Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old painting prodigy. The film leaves open the question of Marla's talent, but to the audience it looks like a scam. Along the way, the director raises questions about aesthetic judgment, commerce & exploitation in art.

I don't have any doubts about the aeshetic validity of abstract art. When the film shows glimpses of abstract paintings, I can immediately recognize the ones by artists I know: Rothko, Phillip Guston, Motherwell. In this case, the commercial aspect is probably the more interesting. There's a great scene where gallery owner Anthony Brunelli sells a new Marla painting to a somewhat conflicted art patron.

It would be interesting to compare Marla with Wang Yani, the painting prodigy from China who was a big hit with her monkey paintings in the 80's. Marla is getting older & is still selling paintings, so the story is not over yet. I'd be curious to see a follow-up after several more years.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More András Schiff

On Sunday evening I was back at Davies Hall for the 2nd installment of András Schiff's Beethoven Cycle. I was already impressed by his 1st recital, & this evening he continued to go from strength to strength. He states his musical ideas clearly & cleanly. He gives each piece a strong character all its own. The Opus 10, No 2 was so jolly, witty & playful that I had to smile. Opus 10, No. 3 was powerful in the 1st movement, then searching & brooding in the slow movement. A mood of recovery takes over, only to suddenly flit away at the very end. Schiff makes every phrase a statement about something. He was playing with such confidence that evening that I felt he must be at the top of his game.

The 2nd half of the program consisted of a single work: the splashy Pathétique Sonata, with its fiery 1st movement & time-stopping slow movement. This was virtuoso playing, but Schiff's technique was always at the service of the music. He received an immediate standing ovation from the full house at the conclusion of the printed program. By way of explanation for his encore, he told us, "The Pathétique did not come out of nowhere. But Beethoven's model is not Mozart or Hadyn. It is Bach." Schiff then played Bach's Partita No. 2 in c minor, the entire thing, including repeats! It was a vigorous interpretation, almost aggressively pointed & clear. With this encore, he added a whole a new dimension to an already extraordinary recital. It was surprising yet apt, extravagant yet intelligent, grand yet intimate. This was truly ending at the highest possible place.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Angela Hewitt Plays Bach

Last night I was at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear Angela Hewitt's marathon recital of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. It was the last of 3 demanding Bach recitals she gave this week. Hewitt is yet another highly touted, frequently recorded performer that I had never heard before. This recital was well attended by a very committed audience. The people seated on both sides of me attended all 3 of her recitals. "Bach World Tour" t-shirts were on sale. Hewitt is tall & slender & looks really good at the piano.

Yet I have my doubts. There's a sort of undulating movement to her playing, but I was often unsure how she meant to articulate a given theme, even though I had plenty of opportunities to hear her play it. I'd hear the theme once & think there was a crescendo in it. Then I'd hear it again & think, no, she's being equally emphatic with each note. It would come around again, & I would think that maybe she was doing a slight crescendo then dropping off. This vagueness was also evident in the way that pieces ended. Usually Hewitt would do a slight ritard & hold the last chord, but the length of time she held the chord always felt arbitrary to me. I felt like the musical ideas were not clearly stated, & the result was a kind of aimlessness.

I don't want to be totally negative, though. Hewitt performed an impressive physical feat with seeming ease. She even looked good turning her own pages. She exudes an aura of fitness. & we in the audience got to hear some of the best music ever written.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

András Schiff Plays Beethoven

I was at Davies Hall last Sunday evening to hear the 1st installment of András Schiff's cycle of all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I had never heard him before, & I was surprised by the big turn-out for what I thought was a hard sell. For the 1st half, he played the 3 Opus 2 Sonatas. His approach is very intellectual. Each sonata was considered as a whole, with barely a break between movements. During the 1st 2 I was beginning to wonder whether I would find such a rigorous program interesting, but the evening came alive when he got to the 3rd sonata. It was clear that this piece was the culmination of the previous two & that Schiff had a long arc to his interpretation. It was suddenly very engaging. I like his crisp playing & his organ-like chords. The guy was totally performing without a net too, doing the whole recital by memory, which scares me a little. As an encore he nicely mixed things up by offering a substantial movement of a Schubert piece, which he said was "clearly inspired" by the 4th sonata. I was very inspired by Schiff's playing, & I'll be back this Sunday, looking forward to hearing the Pathetique.

I'll just add that the audience was unfortunately very noisy. There was quite a bit of coughing. I was seated near a middle-aged woman who contributed a staccato fit of coughing to each sonata. A cell phone went off in the 1st half & it took at least 2 rings before the owner got to it. Late-comers were seated during the performance, & there were a lot of them, probably because they were unaware of the early start time.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Zine Fest & Sand Castles

As I write this late Tuesday evening, it's raining, but this past weekend we had gorgeous, sunny weather & lots of competing events in the City. On Saturday I went to the Mission to check out the Zine Fest for the first time. It's much more modest in scale than the APE show & much more local, though I also met people who had traveled from other parts of the country for this event. I even bought a few things:
  • Nonsensical is a small, personal & exquisite journal zine.
  • The sensitive stories in Laterborn, by Jason Martin, made me think about being in love, though the subject itself is barely mentioned.
  • I let Andy Hartzell talk me into buying the 1st 2 parts of his Biblical send-up, Monday, even though it may be a long time before he finishes this 5-part series. So far it's very clever & very funny. He better have part 3 the next time I run into him.

After a quick lunch at a Cafe Petra (whose awning plainly lists the four magical elements: Coffee Tea Food Internet), I shared a crowded bus ride to Ocean Beach with people heading to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert in the Park. At the beach I saw the sand castle competition. These sand sculptures were huge! My favorites were the steaming volcano & the animal version of Mount Rushmore.

While I was at the beach I got glimpses of the Blue Angels doing their air show along the water front. I spent the weekend deliberately staying away from my Marina neighborhood to avoid the big crowds that show up for Fleet Week. However, the crowds lingered in the neighborhood long into the night. I had wanted to go to Dolores Park in the evening to see the free outdoor movie, but I became trapped in my neighborhood. I waited over half an hour for the 22 but it never came, so I just gave up. Instead I stayed home, did my laundry & read my new zines.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Tannhäuser at The San Francisco Opera

Last Wednesday I was at the San Francisco Opera to hear the new production of Tannhäuser. I was very happy with the the performance musically. I would have much preferred to hear Runnicles in the pit, but still I thought the orchestra played expressively under Donato Cabrera. I hope it was because they were well-rehearsed by Runnicles. The opera orchestra sounds great these days: Uniform playing within sections & beautiful solos, from the flute, violin & clarinet in particular. I never realized that there is such an extensive bass clarinet part. It reminded me of the prominent use of the instrument in Die Walküre.

The cast was uniformly good. Petra Lang as Venus & Petra Maria Schnitzer as Elizabeth were both excellent singer/actors. I liked Petra Lang's earthy Venus. I also liked Eric Halfvarson's weighty & sonorous Landgraf. He got to make his entrance riding a real horse & seemed very pleased with his horsemanship! Peter Seiffert did a fantastic job in the punishing title role. After the lengthy 1st scene with Venus I was already wondering if he would be able to hold out for the whole opera, but I needn't have worried. If anything, he sounded even stronger in the 3rd act Rome Narrative.

I'm not sure who it was exactly, but one of the tenors in the Landgraf's court had this very clear, bright voice that cut through even the big ensembles numbers. I think it was Stefan Margita. Whoever he was, I hope I get to hear him again in a bigger role.

This is a new production directed by Graham Vick. The moment the stage was revealed, I knew we were in for another Eurotrash production. The entire action takes place in a large barn-like, fully enclosed space with a dirt floor & a barren tree stage right. Plenty of wacky shenanigans, often in direct opposition to the action of the opera. For example the famous entry of the guests chorus in act II doesn't accompany the chorus actually entering. The chorus fills the stage during the orchestral introduction, then they start singing with everyone standing still on stage. In the 3rd act, in a shocking departure from the text, Wolfram strangles Elizabeth then sings the Abendstern song over her dead body. I pity someone coming to this opera for the first time & trying to make sense of it. These sorts productions I think only work, if they work at all, for audiences that are over-familiar with the opera in question.

If I had to assess the production, I'd say that it was a series of dream images or hallucinations about an internal struggle between one's higher & lower instincts. But I might be giving the staging more credit than it is due. The local bloggers have already thoroughly ridiculed it:

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Amazon MP3 Downloads

I just successfully purchased an MP3 from Amazon's recently launched MP3 download service, still in beta. Being the cautious type, I bought just one track: a solo piano arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue, performed by George Gershwin himself (or so they claim -- I read all about Joyce Hatto in last month's New Yorker, so I don't know what to believe anymore). It was 99 cents, though most of the tracks are for 89 cents. At 15 minutes, this is an extra-long track, so I think it was a bargain anyway. I didn't download the MP3 installer, but once I verified payment, it was just like downloading any file from the Web. The big deal here is no DRM! I copied it immediately to iTunes, then onto my iPod Nano, & I'm listening to it on my stereo now. It sounds pretty good. Plus it's been encoded at 217kbps (VBR) which is a much higher rate than iTunes at 128kbps.

I know that others have had problems, but this simple transaction worked out for me. I guess next time I should try getting a whole album, which does require using their downloader app. I'm a Mac OS X user, by the way.

What's really funny is that Richard Wagner is the top music artist bestseller at the moment. Yesterday I'm pretty sure I saw the Clemens Krauss Ring selling for around $13, but today it's listed at $126.42. A pricing error in the database?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Alex Ross at Cal Performances

Cal Performances has announced an appearance by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross on the Berkeley Campus, Thursday, October 18th, 7:00pm Wheeler Auditorium. Free to the public too! The New York Sun has a very positive review of his up-coming history of 20th century music (via Arts and Letter Daily).

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book Sale at Fort Mason

Today I was at Fort Mason to check out the annual Friends of the Library Book Sale. This thing is huge. Today is the last day of the sale, & everything is $1 or less. There were buyers pushing around shopping carts piled over the top with books. You have to have some patience to pick through the piles of books. The computer books table was fun to browse through. It was an excellent survey of obsolete technologies. Remember when VRML was the hip new thing? The check-out line snaked nearly to the back of the pavillion. That long line discouraged me from trying to buy anything. I'm trying to get a grip on my own book buying anyway.

While I was at Fort Mason, I also stopped by the somewhat opaque exhibit space for the Long Now Foundation. The space has been slowly developing this year, but it represents a very big idea. They have an orrery on display at the moment. It's a nice melding of Renaissance technology with modern materials.


Since everyone has figured out that this is the time of year when SF gets its best weather, there's a lot of great outdoor stuff going on in the City this weekend. To name just a few things: Folsom Street Fair, Bridge to Bridge Run, Blues Festival, Summer of Love Treasure Hunt.

I spent about an hour at Civic Center yesterday to see what the LoveFest was all about. It was quite the party scene. Some very cool modified vehicles that provided music. A lot of people showed up in in costumes (& costumes that are no costumes). A touch of Burning Man, I think.

A lot of energy here. Big flatbed trucks with dancers & enormous speakers on them blasting house music kept arriving, eventually surrounding the Civic Center Plaza entirely. The music was really loud & inescapable. My ears were ringing for a while after I left. If I check this out again, I'll be wearing ear plugs.

While I was in the Civic Center neighborhood, I also ducked into the Main Library & checked out the exhibit of contemporary book arts from Germany. I like these sorts of things, but it's always frustrating that the books are under glass & you can't handle them.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Il Re Pastore

Last night I heard Nicholas McGegan lead the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & an excellent quintet of singers at Herbst Theatre in Mozart's teenage operatic effort, Il Re Pastore. I'd never heard it before, & if this is supposed to be a lesser work, none of the performers seemed aware of this. I was pleasantly surprised to hear truly operatic voices. The cast was uniformly excellent, though mezzo Margaret Lattimore stood out for the size & heft of her voice.

McGegan is the kind of conductor who directs every musical detail. He even plays the harpsichord continuo for the recitatives. He made clear all the rapid shifts in mood or the surprising little flourishes in the music. & there is much of musical interest here. It starts with a splashy overture, which one can't help imagining is the young Mozart precociously announcing his talented presence. The act 2 overture features a jangly Turkish percussion instrument that the player pounds on the floor. Aminta has a wistful 2nd act aria accompanied by English horns & a solo violin.

The performance was semi staged. The orchestra was in front of the stage. On stage were just had 2 benches & 2 potted plants at the sides. The cast wore contemporary concert dress. They acted out what little action there was, but also carried scores, which they referred to in order to get through the lengthy recitatives.

& this gets to what is probably the reason why this piece is fairly obscure. The performance lasted 2 1/2 hours, but there is basically just one aria in each act for each character, plus an extra aria each for Aminta & Alessandro, plus short ensemble numbers to end each act. The rest is filled with long recitative. I'm guessing that the recitatives gave time for the social activities of the original audience, who likely weren't paying much attention to the stage anyway. There's not that much actual music, as far as operas go. The modern audience has to pass through these desolate expanses of recitative to reach the occasional arias, brilliant though they may be.

Aminta -- Lisa Saffer, soprano
Elisa -- Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano
Agenore -- Michael Slattery, tenor
Alessandro -- Iain Paton, tenor
Tamiri -- Margaret Lattimore, mezzo-soprano

Brokeback Mountain Opera?

Via The Rest Is Noise (Gay 12-tone cowboys) I learned that Charles Wourinen is talking about writing an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain. I can't really imagine how such a thing would work, since the characters are so un-articulate. However, if they were to do this now, I would definitely want to see Nathan Gunn in it. I also thought about Rod Gilfry, but then both cowboys can't be baritones, can they?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Muni Shelter Tampering

It's 12:40am, & I can see 4 young people with video cameras, tripods & flashlights doing something with a Muni shelter located somewhere in the Marina. At one point they filmed someone flailing around in the shelter. Later on they removed then re-attached the bus map inside the shelter. What kind of mischief is this?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rebel Without a Cause at Union Square

The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation had an outdoor screening of Rebel Without a Cause in Union Square last night. Unfortunately I missed the 1st 10 minutes. It was a mild night, so it was actually kind of pleasant to be out there. Because of all the store lighting, it's really bright in the plaza. A lot of the movie takes place at night, so sometimes it was hard to see. It would be very cool if someone could get all the surrounding buildings to dim their lights for these events (How about the International Dark-Sky Association?).

It's hard to think that James Dean had already passed away when this movie first came out. That was over 50 years ago, & there's still nothing dated about his charismatic performance, both so strong & so vulnerable. He makes me feel that I want to be his best friend in the whole world.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

SFS at Yerba Buena Gardens

This Friday at noon half my office went off to the Embarcadero to snap pictures of Barry Bonds, while I headed to Yerba Buena Gardens to hear the San Francisco Symphony. It was a send-off for their European tour. The weather was sunny, so there was a good sized-crowd, & a lot of them were wearing these bulky lime-green sun hats. I soon realized that these were not really hats but soft plastic lunch boxes that PG&E was giving away. To shade themselves from the sun, people were wearing them on their heads. The lids worked well as sun visors.

Anyway, when I arrived the symphony, under the direction of MTT, was already playing the scherzo movement from Shostakovich 5. It sounded pretty good. The playing was pointed & light. This was followed by MTT making some humorous remarks which I couldn't hear well. Then soprano Lise Lindstrom sang the final scene of Strauss's Salome. I've never heard of her before, but she has a beautiful tone & was obviously very technically assured. I couldn't see her from where I was sitting, but I assume that she is young as well. It was a solid performance. According to the Chronicle review, Deborah Voigt will be the soloist on the actual tour, so Ms. Lindstrom only got to sing here & in the "Bon Voyage" concert on Wednesday.

The 50 minute concert concluded with the last 2 movements of Tchaikovsky's 1st Symphony. The finale was loud, energetic & fun.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Library Branch Opening

Did I mention that my local Marina Branch Library finally re-opened August 4th, after being closed for something like 2 years? The opening ceremonies was quite the neighborhood occasion. Mayor Gavin Newsom, Assemblyman Mark Leno & State Senator Carole Migden showed up to speak. A youth group did a lion dance to bless the building. Free food & shoulder bags were distributed. There were so many people that I decided not to wait to try to get in once the doors were officially opened.

I did my own inspection of the re-opened branch a couple of weeks later. Even though there is clearly more floor space in the new building, it didn't really seem that much bigger. The most obvious improvement is the bright area in the front for circulating CDs & DVDs.

I expected that they would have a lot more computers, for both Web browsing & for accessing the catalog. Of course I prefer the on-line catalog to the old card catalog, but one problem with the on-line system is that there can sometimes be a wait to use the catalog terminal. One never had to wait to the use the physical card catalog.

Yoshitoshi Prints & Jason Shiga at the Asian

Visited the Asian Art Museum today to see the current survey of Yoshitoshi prints. I've been attracted to his nervous line & disturbing imagery every since I first found out about him. This particular exhibit has so many light-sensitive prints that only half are on display at a time. All the prints are in beautiful condition & have vivid, delicate colors. Because they are hung chronologically, we can see that his most characteristic works, the most controlled & refined, come at the end of his career. His best images have a psychological intensity to them that make me suspect he was a somewhat disturbed individual.

This visit was an extension of my earlier visit to see the opening of the Tezuka exhibit. I saw more of the video documentaries about Tezuka's career. No question that he wanted to be the Japanese Walt Disney. He even created his own version of Fantasia.

Also in the galleries today day was the local cartoonist Jason Shiga. He had on display his 5' x 5' matrix of his interactive comic Meanwhile. Seeing this thing in person is probably worth the museum admission price alone. Shiga was set up in the the lobby where visitors could watch him ink his latest work & have the opportunity to chat with this unique personality.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

More Kiarostami at PFA

On Saturday, August 4th I was back at the PFA for a program of the 2nd & 3rd parts of the Kiarostami trilogy that started with Where is the Friend's Home? In And Life Goes On Kiarostami travels laboriously by car back to the village settings of Where is the Friend's Home? But now this area has been devastated by a real-life earthquake. The movie is a both a documentary & a fictionalized version of this trip. The deceptively simple story is full of small, meaningful gestures that reveal much about human nature, determination & how art manipulates reality.

The final film, Through the Olive Trees, seems to be a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the previous film, adding another layer of meta-fiction to the trilogy. It too is full of small but telling observations of human behavior. Both these films end with a culminating long take in long shot in which characters are reduced to abstract points of motion within a much larger natural landscape. In these last moments, the movies transcend the narrative, & we get an almost god-like perspective on acts of human striving. These have got to be classic film endings. I'm still wondering why I didn't know about Kiarostami years ago.

Mundane Journey: Sidewalk Garden

If you're hanging out near the Panhandle, check out the sidewalk on the SW corner of Hayes & Central. Someone has beautified it with planters, creating a sort of sidewalk garden. After enjoying the plants, repair to Central Coffee, a cool neighborhood cafe on the NE corner. It must be a hip place because there were 2 of those gearless bikes parked outside during my visit on Friday morning.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Alex Ross Book Tour

Alex Ross, the super-smart classical music critic for The New Yorker, has posted his book tour for his up-coming The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Now I can officially stalk him (& Linda Ronstandt!) here in my home town. Actually, I always thought that even I could be a classical music critic, until I started reading him in the New Yorker & in his excellent blog.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Revolution in the Streets

At lunchtime today, I stopped to hear a Latin dance band playing in the sunken plaza below The Wall on Sansome near Bush. They were basically singing The Communist Manifesto, telling us to leave our jobs for the rest of the day & walk out on The Man. The band was having a lot of fun performing & encouraging us to cast off our chains. I felt very receptive to their message today. They are Carne Cruda.

A co-worker told me that yesterday he ate lunch at the Cafe Venue in the Mills Building. While he was there a group of "revolutionaries", some of them masked, made their way into the Mills Building. Three minutes later they noisily ran out again, chased by a guard.

Last week I saw a group of costumed college students invade the Citicorp Center on Sansome & Sutter during lunch & perform a skit urging the corporation to go green.

Has the rebellion begun?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Kiarostami at the PFA

Saturday evening I saw 2 films at the Pacific Film Archive by the highly-regarded Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about him, other than that he was the teacher of Bahman Ghobadi, who may be the best director working today.

First was the 1987 film Where Is the Friend's Home? A school boy sets out to accomplish the seemingly simple task of returning his friend's notebook & encounters a completely unhelpful, though never malicious, adult world. The story is straight-forward enough for a child to follow, but the movie itself is carefully constructed, poetic & incredibly respectful of the emotional lives of children. This is one of those films where every shot looks like a carefully composed photograph & every scene has a point to make.

Kiarostami has a wonderful way to end the movie. Once the main crisis has passed, the movie simply stops. There is nothing else that we need to see. Where is the Friend's Home? is the 1st part of trilogy which is concluded next weekend.

My party stayed to see the 1990 documentary Homework. This film turned out to be more for Kiarostami specialists. It is interviews with school boys about doing homework. It's evidently a social critique of the educational system in Iran. I did learn some shocking statistics about the illiteracy rate of the parents. However, I felt like I didn't have enough background about the school reforms in Iran to understand the importance of the issues raised.

Spider Pig

Like many people, I'm sure, I've been waiting for a Simpson's movie for years. So Friday night I was at the 10:30pm showing of The Simpsons Movie in the Westfield Mall. It was definitely an event. Best costumed audience member: The guy in the Duffman outfit, complete with cape, boots & beer can belt.

The movie has the jokes-on-top-of-jokes & subversive humor of the TV show, & I was not disappointed. However, I was expecting more cameos by the supporting characters who are such an important part of the texture of the TV show. Instead, it seems like the writers were determined to stick to the story line, so the focus was mainly the Simpsons family members. Not that that was a bad thing, but I'm guessing that when the DVD comes out, it will be full of random gags that didn't make the final cut. Still, Ned Flanders gets one of the funniest lines in the movie (something about the Devil's curly red hair).

Best audience moment: When it is revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become President of the United States, this local audience went dead quiet. I guess no Californians find that funny.

Ingmar & Bill

News today of the passing of 2 greats: The masterful Swedish film & theater director Ingmar Bergman at age 89 & the beloved San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh at age 74. I don't suppose they had much in common, other than that they both lived full, productive & accomplished lives. A friend forwarded this link to a surprisingly humorous interview with Liv Ullman as a remembrance of Bergman.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Brits Off Broadway in NYC

This post is a month late, but let's put it here for completeness. Last month I was in New York City to see Alan Ayckbourn's Initmate Exchanges at the Brits Off Broadway festival. I saw 8 plays in 6 days! I wasn't sure how I would like it, but it's such a unique theatrical event that I did not want to miss it. Fortunately, I thoroughly enjoyed the plays. The 2nd act of the "Affairs in a Tent" variation was so funny that my jaw hurt from laughing so much. & I learned that acting is a very technical task. Because I saw so many versions, I saw some scenes 4 times, & the actors were very consistent from night to night. Part of the fun is that only 2 actors play all the parts. Bill Champion & Claudia Elmhirst did such a terrific job creating completely distinct characters that very quickly I forgot that each time one of them walked off stage they had to do a quick costume change. The trick became invisible.

Other highlights of my New York trip:

  • The walk-through sculptures in the Richard Serra retrospective at the MOMA. Also the high-concept political cartoons of Dan Perjovschi drawn on the atrium walls.
  • Rug crocheted out of Wonder Bread bags at American Folk Art Museum.
  • The glass-topped Apple Store on 5th Avenue.
  • The Saurischian Dinosaurs & 34-ton meteorite at the Museum of Natural History.
  • Being taken to lunch by friends who are real New Yorkers.
  • The MoCCA Art Fest in Soho's Puck Building. I wish I had had more time for it. Matt Madden showed me proofs of his soon-to-be-released book about creating comics. Matt Feazell showed me his sketch book. I picked up Will Dinski's beautiful silk screen print of his Scientology test results. The prolific Tim Fish sold me Strugglers, the (autobiographical?) prequel to Cavalcade of Boys. I made the mistake of passing up Andy Hartzell's wordless Fox Bunny Funny, but he lives here in San Francisco, so maybe I can cross paths with him again. Due to an unexpected personal connection, I got Free Shit from Charles Burns & an autographed copy of One Eye, his new book of photography.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Iphigénie & Don Giovanni at SFO

Still catching up with last month.

On the evening of June 26th I saw Iphigénie by Gluck at the SFO. This is an opera I had never seen or heard before, & I was a little apprehensive about it being too dry. It is very serious, no frills music, but it's also dramatic & direct. The stark, black-on-black production matched the music perfectly. There's been much commentary already on the luminous final moments of the staging; check out Opera Chic & Out West Arts. Susan Graham gave a totally commanding performance in the title role. She held my attention every moment. I was also very pleased to hear the solid-voiced Bo Skovhus as Iphigénie's brother Pylade & the lyrical Paul Groves as Pylade's friend Pylade.

Then on June 28th I was back in the Opera House for Mozart's Don Giovanni. I was disappointed that Donald Runnicles was not in the pit that evening. Instead the performance was led by Donato Cabrera, whom I had never heard before. My guess is that Runnicles would have led more vigorously. There were times in the 1st act when it seemed like the orchestra was not quite keeping up with the singers. The cast was uniformly competent & very even, & each singer did something to distinguish him or herself. Charles Castronovo as Ottavio has a light voice but is extremely musical. Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore is big in voice & stage presence. Luca Pisaroni as Masetto sings beautifully & is a terrific actor. His angry Masetto is no clown. Elza van den Heever was a huge-voiced Donna Anna. She appeared due to the puzzling, last-minute replacement of Hope Briggs.

Visually, it's a macabre production. The stage floor is fractured, revealing that the action is occurring over a field of buried skulls & bones. In the banquet scene the Commendatore is not a statue but a zombie with rotting flesh & exposed bone. Don Giovanni's death is presided over by a winged skeleton rising above the stage. I suppose it was a coincidence, but this production looked very similar to the Iphigénie. It was largely black-on-black, & in the finale the setting lifted to reveal a lit sky.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sicko & Ratatouille

What could be more patriotic than to see Michael Moore's Sicko on July 4th? I was glad I saw it. There are no real surprises, though the movie is funnier than one would expect. In one scene, Moore plays at being an innocent abroad & wanders a National Health Service hospital looking for the place to pay the bill. He eventually finds a window labeled "Cashier", only to discover that this is where patients are reimbursed for travel expenses if they have to take a taxi to the hospital!

The same week I also saw Pixar's latest release, Ratatouille. Highly recommended. It looks gorgeous. The textures of the food are rendered in such detail that you feel hungry leaving the show. I loved the character of the funereal food critic Anton Ego. Half-way through I felt like I wasn't watching a movie for children at all. & if you're wanting even more, it comes with a dead-pan short subject about an inexpert alien abduction.

I saw both these movies at the remodeled Kabuki, which is now Sundance Cinemas Kabuki. I saw Ratatouille from the balcony of the large auditorium, which is very comfortable, very wide seats, each with their own side table. I saw Sicko in one of the smaller auditoriums, which now have stadium seating.

Beggars of Life

This weekend was the Silent Film Festival at the Castro. I love this festival, & I wish I had had time this weekend to see more screenings. It's the knowledgeable & enthusiastic audiences that really make it an event.

Last night I saw William Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life. It's the picaresque story of a reluctant romance in the world of railroad hobos. It has a pre-Pabst apperance by Louise Brooks & a big, warm-hearted performance by Wallace Beery, but other than that it seems like a fairly typical late silent-era movie. William Wellman's son spoke briefly after the screening, & he implied that the mediocre material was given to Wellman in the expectation that he would create a flop. Instead, he crafted a decent movie.

Merola's La Cenerentola: Denied!

I showed up at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason to try to get a ticket for Merola Opera's La Cenerentola, but they were sold out. One lucky guy just ahead of me on the waiting list was the last one to get in. Rats!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

4th of July Fireworks

It was actually a perfectly clear sky Wednesday evening for the Aquatic Park fireworks show. This made it a rarity! It was a spectacular show. I had a great view from the path atop For Mason.

City Lights at the Castro

As a run-up to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Castro is showing Chaplin's City Lights all this week. Went to see it last night. What can I say? It's a classic & perfect movie.

The audience was almost completely adults, & their response was subdued, I thought. I only saw one kid there. Maybe this movie is so old that it's just an art movie & not also a family classic.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

First iPhone spotted in the wild

I was wondering how long before I started to seeing people using iPhones in the real world. Well, I just had my 1st iPhone sighting an hour ago. While in a neighborhood cafe in the Marina, I saw a young guy wearing a Google cap at the next table using his iPhone to surf the Web. He was showing it off to 2 friends.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Angry Muni Driver

As anyone who takes Muni knows, the service has been getting worse by the day. There was even a recent Chronicle article about Muni troubles. I witnessed this Monday night: At around 10:10pm, I caught the 22 Fillmore northbound at California. There were only 3 passengers, including me. At Jackson Street, the bus stopped well past the bus shelter, at least 1 bus length, to pick up a passenger. The passenger was mad that the bus didn't look like it was going to stop at all. When he got on, he yelled at the driver, "Are you blind?" We all got to sit at the stop, not going anywhere, while the bus driver then turned around & yelled all sorts of abuse at the passenger, making insulting comments about the passenger's weight, demanding, "Do you know about driving a bus?" & so on. Fortunately the passenger did not respond. After a minute or so of yelling, the driver resumed his route but, still mad, muttered to himself for several minutes with comments like "Fucking job" & "I wasn't going to get mad today". I was scared. This guy probably shouldn't be driving a bus. He was a Caucasian in his 40's or 50's. The bus number was 5459.

It's too easy to find really messed up Muni stories. Just one brief Google search got me this accident & this bad behavior..

Friday, June 08, 2007

Tezuka; Take Me Out

This weekend I went to opening of the exhibit Tezuka: The Marvel of Manga at the Asian Art Museum. I really don't know much about Tezuka other than that he was the most famous manga artist & animator in Japan, so this show was somewhat educational for me.

On this opening day, they had 2 informative lectures about his work. The 1st speaker, Phil Brophy, pointed out that a frequent theme of Tezuka's work is survival through childhood without a parent. He interpreted this as a reaction to the difficult conditions of life in post-war Japan.

The 2nd speaker, Yoshihiro Shimizu, was a Tezuka associate. He gave a comprehensive overview of Tezuka's work, presenting it as a series of innovations in both the design & subject matter of Japanese comics & animation. Seeing the way Tezuka's story-telling spanned comic books, TV, movies & merchandising & became a cultural phenomenon, it was hard not to think of comparisons with Walt Disney.

Unfortunately, the presentation ran a bit long, since each of Shimizu's remarks was translated from Japanese into English by Fred Schott. I didn't have as much time as I would have liked afterwards to visit the actual exhibit, which consists of a survey of Tezuka comic books. The images on display include large reproductions of pages from the comic books, cover art & the camera-ready artwork. The books were produced by a studio, & there are no preparatory drawings or sketches in the exhibit, so I was never convinced that I saw anything that Tezuka himself actually drew.

The subject matter of Tezuka's manga can be very unexpected: gory tales of a renegade surgeon; aliens come to earth disguised as a duck, a horse & a rabbit; a life of Beethoven. He even did a comic book treatment of Crime & Punishment!

Supporting the exhibit is a "Manga Lounge", basically a reading room for teenagers, stocked with manga in English & a display of collectibles. Spending some time browsing here might be the best way to learn about Tezuka. The museum is also screening a documentary containing lots of clips of Tezuka's animation, such as the astonishing shorts Jumping & Broken Down Film. Unfortunately he never completed a project called Legend of the Forest. It is set to Tchaikovsky' 4th Symphony, & each section is done in a different animation style. The fragments shown in the documentary look stunning.

But I really didn't spend all the time I wanted to at the museum. I also had to skip the Yoshitoshi prints, so I'll have to come back for that one as well.

That evening I went to the New Conservatory Theatre for their production of Take Me Out by Robert Greenberg. I remember reading about this play when it was on Broadway a few years ago. The hook is that it requires an athletic, all-male cast, most of whom appear naked at some point during the show. The action takes place in a locker room, &, yes, there's even a dropping-the-soap-in-the-shower gag.

The play itself is both funny & tragic. From scene to scene some new theme is always coming up, but in the end it's not clear to me what the play is really about. Afterwards it didn't make sense the more I thought about it.

It's still very entertaining. It's performed here by a very lovable cast. Especially outstanding are Jeffrey Cohlman, as the uncomprehending bad guy Shane Mungitt, & Patrick Michael Dukeman, as Mason Marzac, the accountant turned baseball fanatic. It's the happiest character arc in the play.