Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paul Madonna's Small Potatoes

Yesterday afternoon I peeked into Ritual Roasters on Valencia, where I saw some drawings by Paul Madonna in a style I'd never seen before. Small Potatoes seems to be an on-line gag strip featuring a cast of lumpy, aggressive characters. At Ritual Roasters, each panel is drawn on a separate large sheet of Stonehenge Cream paper & hung, unframed, from clips. These loose & crude drawings couldn't be farther from Madonna's painstaking All Over Coffee.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Wagner Society

The Wagner Society of Northern California
June 27, 2009 1:00

Professor Hans Vaget
Hoechtest Liebes-Lust: Tristan, Isolde and Ecstasy

Over the weekend I was at the monthly meeting of the Wagner Society of Northern California, which almost prankishly meets at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. About 50 or so earnest & venerable members were present. The meeting started with announcements about up-coming Ring cycles, performance-related parties & tickets for offer. I imagine that access to tickets, especially for Bayreuth, is the prime benefit of joining the society. But clearly the society also puts its money where its mouth is & issued a goal of raising five-thousand dollars to be donated to the San Francisco Opera specifically for the new Ring cycle. During the preliminary announcements I was a bit startled to be singled out by name as a guest at this event.

The featured speaker was Hans Vaget, Professor Emeritus of Smith College & an English-language lecturer at the Bayreuth Festival. He gave quite an academic talk on poetic aspects of the libretto of Tristan & Isolde. People seemed to listen studiously, though his lecture assumed an audience far beyond my own knowledge & interest. At one point in the Q & A the issue of Wagner's skin condition came under discussion. Certainly the Wagner Society crowd is not to be underestimated.


San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival
Worldy Affairs
Friday June 26 | 3:15pm | Castro

Raw Love (Juan Chappa, Martin Deus; Argentina)
Somebody is Watching Us (Maxine Desmons; Canada)
Teddy (Christopher Banks; New Zealand)
Baby Shark (Pascal-Alex Vincent; France)
The Saint (Elfe Uluç; Turkey)
Mother Knows Best (Bardi Gudmundsson; Iceland)

Even for this weekday matinee, the downstairs section of the Castro Theater was full, & I ended up sitting in the balcony. The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival presented a program of international short subjects. I saw films from such unlikely countries as New Zealand, Turkey & Iceland. Thematically these films were all over the place, & they dealt with their gay content with varying degrees of depth. I'm not even sure that Baby Shark, a film about teenage sibling rivalry, had any gay content at all, other than that it gives the audience an excuse to look at shirtless teenagers. It is, however, also full of unpleasant moments.

In Somebody is Watching Us a men's room encounter has an affectionate aftermath, but I found it too unbelievable. In Teddy a teddy bear symbolizes a broken relationship which the protagonist wishes to revive, but I fear that I am not romantic enough to believe in this story either. The Saint is a damning look at poverty, though I found myself a bit angry at its portrayal of the main character as simply benevolent, harmless & passive.

The comedic Mother Knows Best had its world premiere at the screening & was the easiest short to enjoy. Even though it traffics in stereotypes about over-bearing mothers & mama's boys, it has an innocence about it & a wonderful performance in the title role. I was fascinated just by its Icelandic setting & the stunning mountain landscape visible in a few shots. It also features some of the ugliest food I have ever seen. It even managed to make a piece of chocolate cake look comically unappetizing.

As always, the Castro audience was lively & enthusiastic. The directors Christopher Banks, Bardi Gudmundsson & Pascal-Alex Vincent were on hand, as well as the twin brother in Baby Shark. They answered a few questions after the screening, but we were not a very bright audience.

Monday, June 22, 2009

SFMOMA: Rooftop Garden, Robert Frank's Americans

Roof top garden at sf momaOver the weekend, I visited the SFMOMA & headed straight to the top floor to check out the new rooftop sculpture garden. After crossing the elevated walkway at the back of the building, I was in an airy glass atrium. This space opens to outdoor areas on both sides, though the north side seems disproportionately narrow & meager. The space also has the faint but alluring aroma of Blue Bottle Coffee. I suspect that many museum members will visit just to use this strategically-placed coffee bar.

Robert arneson at sf momaThe sculpture garden is high-walled & has planted areas & bench seating. The walls make it impossible to tell how high up we are & make the place feel far removed from the street. It was warm & clear & therefore a perfect day to be be outside. I liked seeing No Pain, a large bronze head of Robert Arneson, emerging crooked-neck from the pavement.

After checking out the rooftop, I spent most of my time in the exhibit Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans". This is a well-done show commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Frank's famous photo essay. Besides prints of all the photos from the book, the exhibit includes instructive samples of Frank's early documentary photos & his experiments in creating themes by juxtaposing images. I loved his cinematic photo of people walking down a narrow London street in 1951. Other fascinating items are Frank's contact sheets, the original typewritten manuscript of Jack Kerouac's introductory essay, & a wall of pinned-up prints, demonstrating Frank's editing process for the book.

Frank's vision no longer looks fresh, but it does capture the era. Certainly the gap between the rich & poor still exists, as does the centrality of the automobile in American culture. The jukebox, which figures prominently as a symbol of loneliness, has practically disappeared, though, as have those drug store counters. The issues of race in this country have greatly expanded since Frank gave us his small hints.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Netrebko in Traviata at SFO

San Francisco Opera
La Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi
Fri Jun 19 2009 8 pm

Violetta Valéry: Anna Netrebko
Alfredo Germont: Charles Castronovo
Giorgio Germont: Dwayne Croft
Flora: Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Gastone: Andrew Bidlack
Baron Douphol: Dale Travis
Marquis D’Obigny: Austin Kness
Grenvil: Kenneth Kellogg
Annina: Renée Tatum
Giuseppe: Dale Tracy
Messenger: Bojan Knezevic
Flora’s Servant: William Pickersgill
Matador: Jekyns Pelaez

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director and Designer: Marta Domingo

The San Francisco Opera seems to be into time-shifting this summer. While Porgy & Bess went from the 1920s to the 1950s, this Traviata went from the 1850s to the 1920s. The updated period for Traviata does not make sense to me. It moves the opera too far from the rigid social conditions of the original story. It does, however, give the cast an opportunity to wear shiny, attractive clothing amid fancy props.

I thought the sets looked sparse. I couldn't tell whether the first scene of Act II is supposed to take place inside or outside. Flora's party opened with the incongruous sight of the chorus doing the Charleston to a swaying, all-black jazz band while a disco ball revolved overhead. The Act III location is completely abstract, consisting solely of Violetta's round bed in front of a nighttime sky.

Of course the masses were here for Netrebko. When she made her leggy entrance fom a Rolls Royce, there was a small smattering of applause. Her voice is marvelous & complex, with wonderfully throaty low notes & penetrating high notes. I like her sound, but somehow she fell short of moving me. I felt her Violetta lacked the requisite frailty.

Charles Castronovo's voice is not big, but it is pretty, & he sings pleasingly. He is also quite handsome, so Violetta & Alfredo make a very good-looking pair. I liked Dwayne Croft's warm voice & sympathetic characterization as Germont. His was my favorite performance of the evening. Runnicles got cheers every time he stepped into the pit, & he took surprisingly unrushed tempos throughout. I liked the substantial rather than ethereal string sound during the overture.

The audience was in a distinctly good mood, definitely having an enjoyable evening out. Near the end of Act I Netrebko managed to kick one of her shoes up into the drapes over the bed, where it got stuck, which of course raised a chuckle. Strangely, the audience also laughed in Act III when the doctor whispers to Annina that Violetta has only hours to live.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Adrian Tomine & Seth

Seth and tomine book tourThe Booksmith
In Conversation: Adrian Tomine and Seth
Thursday, June 18 at 7:30 pm
A Special Off-Site Event
at the Park Branch Library, 1833 Page St.

Last night I attended the last stop of the book tour by cartoonists Adrian Tomine & Seth. The basement of the Park Branch Library held an SRO crowd of well over a hundred fans & art students. The event began 15 minutes late, as we waited for people to finish using the restroom, whose door was strategically placed behind the screen needed for the artists' slides.

Seth, beautifully dressed in a slim 1940s suit, read 12 vignettes from a carefully prepared script. He rang a service bell to mark the end of each one. The stories ranged from his art school experiences to a 40-page kiss in a Japanese comic that may or may not exist. A slide show of his distinctively old-fashioned illustrations & model buildings was projected while he talked. It was a wistful piece of performance art.

Adrian Tomine, bearded & soft-spoken, read from his essay accompanying the re-release of his 32 Stories. Given that this is a book tour, he was oddly self-deprecating, a fact which he freely admitted. He also had fun at the expense of a couple of unnamed but identifiable colleagues & showed an early rejection letter, hand-written on the back of another cartoonist's work! Mr. Tomine gave a genuinely grateful appreciation of Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros, who supported his work "sooner than he should have."

During the Q & A, it was curious to hear Seth say that he hates the term "nostalgia." He claims not to like the sentimentality associated with the term. This is despite his obvious obsession with old things & characters who are old men looking back on their lives.

As publishing is daily becoming more digital, I find it interesting that the artists' new books are very fancy productions. Seth's George Sprott: (1894-1975) is an album-sized 12 x 14 inches, & his fluid line looks gorgeous at this large size. Tomine's 32 Stories has been re-done as a boxed collection, reproducing each issue in its original mini-comic format. The pages are falling out of my old copy of the bound edition, so I may end up investing in the new one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet the Merolini

The green roomLast night the Merola Opera Program kicked off its 2009 season with a Meet the Merolini event. No singing was involved. Instead, each of the 29 young artists was briefly interviewed by Sheri Greenawald (SF Opera Center Director), Patrick Wilken (President) & Jayne Davis (Chairman) before an invited audience of about 150 supporters & sponsors, plus a few of our favorite bloggers. It took nearly 2 hours to get through everyone, but Ms. Greenawald made every effort to keep the tone light & funny. She often elicited random non-musical aspects of the artists, such as baritone Paul Scholten's previous life as a junior tennis champ or soprano Lori Guilbeau's lizard phobia.

I was surprised at how many of the singers had changed voice types. Tenor Brian Jagde was singing baritone roles up until last October, & tenor Nathaniel Peake has sung baritone & countertenor! I did not know that such a thing was possible, but apparently this is not uncommon for young singers. As for how they actually sing, we'll have to wait for the summer performances, which start in July & include a Schwabacher Summer Concert, staged productions of L'Amico Fritz & Così fan tutte at Fort Mason, & a performance at the Opera House.

Clearly all the artists are extremely excited and ready to go to work. At the reception, soprano Lara Ciekiewicz was nice enough to explain to me what "passaggio" is. I also enjoyed meeting Merola's Vittoria d'Aste-Surcouf & then Karen Ames, formerly of the SF Opera, who shockingly identified me as Axel Feldhiem, even though I was attempting to hide behind the far more recognizable Opera Tattler.

P.S. (06.19.2009)
Since SFMike rightly questions my photographic skills, here's a fine official photo of the event, featuring bass Evan Boyer:

Sheri Greenawald (Director of the Opera Center) Patrick Wilken (President of the Board of Directors) and Jayne Davis (Chairman of the Board of Directors) question Evan Boyer (bass)

Photography courtesy of Kristen Loken Anstey

2009 Merola Opera Program Artist Listing

SUSANNAH BILLER, Georgetown, Tennessee
LARA CIEKIEWICZ, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
KATE CRIST, Agency, Iowa
SARA GARTLAND, St. Paul, Minnesota
LORI GUILBEAU, Golden Meadow, Louisiana

CAITLIN MATHES, Dayville, Connecticut
ELLIE JARRETT, Dallas, Texas
MAYA LAHYANI, Hod-HaSharon, Israel

SUZANNE HENDRIX, Charles City, Iowa

RYAN BELONGIE, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin

ELEAZAR RODRÍGUEZ, Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico
GREGORY CARROLL, Des Moines, Washington
BRIAN JAGDE, Piermont, New York
ALEX MANSOORI, Seattle, Washington

JOHN CHEST, Greenville, South Carolina
PAUL SCHOLTEN, Muskegon, Michigan

YOHAN YI, Pohang, The Republic of Korea

EVAN BOYER, Louisville, Kentucky

Apprentice Coaches
KEUN-A LEE, Seoul, The Republic of Korea
TAMARA SANIKIDZE, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia
SUZY SMITH, Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada
MIAOMIAO WANG, Lanzhou, Gansu, China

Apprentice Stage Director

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Origami Dragons at Paper Tree

I was passing through the Buchanan Street Mall in Japantown yesterday & discovered that The Paper Tree is hosting a collection of origami dragons. The designs range from the simple to an impossible-looking 3-headed beast. The models are a result of a competition held by the Pacific Coast Origami Conference in 2000. All are folded from a single uncut sheet of paper. The 2009 conference is being held this November in San Francisco, & I hope to attend.

The exhibit is clearly an improvised affair, but if you look around carefully, you can find other marvels, such as Robert Lang's incredibly anatomical bugs, Eric Joisel's spiral-shelled snail, Linda Miraha's linked cranes & Brian Chan's WALL-E. I always want to know the dimensions of the original sheet of paper, but for some reason that information is never readily available.

The Paper Tree store itself is still family run & one of the few hold-overs from the post-War revival of Japantown. The highly proprietary staff have posted many signs telling customers how to behave.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Summer Hours (L'heure d'été)

Over the weekend I saw Summer Hours (L'heure d'été), a family drama by director Olivier Assayas. The film opens & closes with 2 lively party scenes occurring in a French country house. In between, we witness the ramifications of the death of a family matriarch, whose passing away symbolizes the end of an era, a genteel era infused with a 19th century sense of aesthetics & propriety. The movie proceeds unhurriedly, without climaxes or theatrical moments. It's about character & situations rather than plot or dramatic conflict. The interest is in the personalities of 3 siblings & the disposition of the art objects owned & loved by their mother. The performances are all very naturalistic & understated. Edith Scob as the elegantly aging matriarch Hélène really does seem to have come from another century.

I was surprised by the good attendance The Clay, although a young & slightly tipsy couple did come in after the movie started & made a slight stir as they looked for seats. After a half hour of whispering in bemusement, they realized this was not the movie for them & left.

Annoyingly, the print at the Clay has subtitles printed in thin white letters. These were often washed out by the bright colors of the movie itself, rending the dialog illegible. I'm surprised that subtitling technology is still so poor.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Porgy and Bess at SFO

San Francisco Opera
Porgy and Bess
George Gershwin
Fri Jun 12 2009 8 pm

Bess: Laquita Mitchell
Porgy: Eric Owens
Sportin' Life: Chauncey Packer
Crown: Lester Lynch
Clara: Angel Blue
Serena: Karen Slack
Maria: Alteouise deVaughn
Jake: Eric Greene
Mingo: Michael Bragg
Annie: Malesha Jessie
Strawberry Woman: Samantha McElhaney
Lily: Amber Mercomes
Robbins: Michael Austin
Crab Man: Ashley Faatoalia
Peter: Calvin Lee
Nelson: Frederick Matthews
Jim: Earl Hazell
Frazier: Kenneth Overton
Undertaker: Darren K. Stokes
Detective: Richard Farrell
Policeman: Louis Landman
Coroner: John Minágro
Ensemble: Porgy and Bess Ensemble

Conductor: John DeMain
Production/Director: Francesca Zambello

Happily, this was one of those occasions where all the elements came together to provide a consistently enjoyable evening. I knew it was going to go well as soon as I heard the chorus's gentle vocalizing come in under Angel Blue's floating Summertime, which opens the opera. The chorus was a major star of the show, equal to soloists. I was impressed by their dynamic control & a wonderful upward slide they did together during the funeral scene. The chorus also acted, danced & generally looked like they were having a lot of fun on stage.

Here was a cast that whole-heartedly believed in the material. Eric Owens, sweating profusely, sang & acted like he owned the role of Porgy. His sound was dark, tough yet fluid. He hobbled around on a crutch & did several realistic falls. Laquita Mitchell as Bess was consistently robust, almost virile, in both her voice & her acting. Karen Slack's wailing My man is gone & fervid Doctor Jesus were arresting. Chauncey Packer exuded a shameless joy as Sportin' Life, plus he had great dance moves.

Zambello's production is busy, with much elaborate business for the chorus, portraying Catfish Row as a lively, supportive community. The setting is a rusting industrial landscape. Expressionistic lighting effects accompany changes in mood. I could not see that anything was gained by shifting the time to the 1950's. I found the staging of the hurricane a little embarrassing, though: the chorus gathered under a flimsy scaffolding, & we could see people on stage shaking it to represent the force of the gale.

There was only intermission, making for a long 1st half that lasted one hour & forty minutes. During the dramatic confrontation between Bess & Crown on Kittiwah Island, which closed this 1st half, the woman next to me worriedly leaned over & asked, "Is there an intermission?"

Friday, June 12, 2009

UP Movie

Yesterday, in a theater full of children of all ages, I eagerly attended a matinee of Pixar's UP in 3D. The first 5 minutes or so, swiftly traversing decades of our protagonist's life, squeezes more heart-breaking emotion out of an audience than most movies can in 2 hours. It's outrageously manipulative, & I started to get choked up myself. By establishing how much is at stake, this sequence ups the ante on the adventure story that follows.

I liked not being able to guess what direction the adventure plot was going to take next. I'm sure that the movie is a technical marvel, but I was just too busy getting involved in the story to notice. & how could I resist the synchronized team of dogs serving that fancy sit-down dinner?

I can testify that UP is certainly scary for very small children. A couple of kids in my audience stared crying during one of the more intense moments.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

MTT and Gil Shaham

Dawn to Twilight
A Schubert/Berg Festival
MTT and Gil Shaham
Wed, Jun 10, 2009 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas - conductor

Gil Shaham - violin

Laura Aikin - soprano
Kelley O’Connor - mezzo-soprano
Bruce Sledge - tenor
Nicholas Phan - tenor
Jeremy Galyon - baritone

San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Ragnar Bohlin - director

BERG: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
SCHUBERT: Mass No. 6 in E-flat major, D.950

I attended this program looking forward to the Berg Violin Concerto, though I remain skeptical about these Schubert/Berg pairings, which result in programs with a pronounced split personality. After MTT & the soloist Gil Shaham came on stage, MTT turned to us, reiterated his theme of the composers' belief in the "power of notes", & gave a lengthy tour of the Violin Concerto, complete with excerpts played by the orchestra & the soloist. Mr. Shaham gave an extroverted & assured performance of what must be a very technically challenging concerto. I liked watching him adeptly execute the finger-tangling left hand pizzicatos. He had the music on stage with him, though he didn't seem to refer to it much. Instead, he made a good deal of flirtatious eye contact with the conductor & concert mistress Nadya Tichman. MTT worked to make the orchestral counter-melodies clear. I think this is a very sad piece, but Mr, Shaham's interpretation was far from sad. I was close enough to the stage to enjoy the mellow & burnished sound of his instrument, especially in its extreme lower & upper ranges.

I don't believe I had heard the Schubert Mass before. It is a major work, lasting around an hour & dominated by the chorus. It is melodic & sometimes grand, though it seems to replace symphonic development with much repetition. The soloists sing for only a few minutes each. Schubert doesn't really give them enough material to justify their presence as a separate on-stage force. The large number of personnel kept together well, though I felt that more could have been done to give the performance an over-all musical shape.

As far as the whole Schubert/Berg concept goes, I stay unconvinced. However, I am very glad for the chance to hear Berg's tight & overwrought music.

More Opinions (06.12.2009)
The Opera Tattler posted an exceedingly polite reaction. The Ambassador had a very satisfactory experience. Joshua Kosman definitely got more out of the evening than I did. SFMike was impressed (& captured yet another revealing photo of yours truly). Cedric was an attentive listener.

In my original post I failed to mention that this week's performances of the Schubert Mass are dedicated to the memory of Peter Shelton, a member of the cello section for many years & a very nice guy. I met him once many years ago when he was my sister's coach.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Garth Stein discusses The Art of Racing in the Rain

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Books Inc. in the Marina

There were dogs roaming the aisles of Books Inc. in the Marina when I arrived for this event. A spokesperson introduced them as beneficiaries of Grateful Dogs Rescue & announced that Garth Stein would be donating a percentage of his sales for this event to the organization. Then Mr. Stein came up & pledged to write a check that would double that amount at the end of the evening.

The connection became obvious when Mr. Stein began reading from his novel. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a family drama narrated from the point of view of a dog named Enzo. This sympathetic & self-aware creature, after watching a TV documentary, believes he is on the verge of being reincarnated as a human. It sounds like an enjoyable story for animal lovers. Mr. Stein was most involved when reading a section about car racing, incidentally revealing what must be a powerful passion of his. He also told us the funny story of how Enzo got his very human name.

Mr. Stein is an excellent promoter of his own work. Besides his author's Website, he's on facebook & twitter. He's also trying out a promotional stunt with fake lost dog posters, & he gave away buttons & a branded baseball cap during the event. Mr. Stein seems possessed of a happy disposition. With his large face & hands & eagerness to please, he is a bit puppy-like himself. When a dog fell asleep on someone's lap in the front row & started snoring, no one was more amused then the author.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

SFO Tosca

Giacomo Puccini
San Francisco Opera
Fri Jun 5 2009 8 pm

Floria Tosca: Adrianne Pieczonka
Mario Cavaradossi: Carlo Ventre
Baron Scarpia: Lado Ataneli
Cesare Angelotti: Jordan Bisch
Sacristan: Dale Travis
Spoletta: Joel Sorensen
Sciarrone: Austin Kness
Jailer: Kenneth Kellogg
Shepherd Boy: Zachary Weisberg

Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: Jose Maria Condemi
Production: Lotfi Mansouri
Set and Costume Designer: Thierry Bosquet
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

There was an extra buzz this evening, since this was the performance being simulcast to AT&T Park. General Directory David Gockley, appearing a bit nervous, made a short welcoming announcement. The orchestra played the national anthem, immediately after which we heard Gockley's voice proclaim, "Plaaay opera!"

Having attended the dress rehearsal last week, I was worried about tenor Carlo Ventre, who sounded weak. However, it was clear now that he spent the entire dress rehearsal singing half voice. Tonight, at full voice, his sound was tight, focused & pretty. He showed some power in the 2nd act when, released from the torture chamber, he prolonged his cry of "Victoria!" & was convincingly defiant. Oddly, I thought his best singing came after he had finished E lucevan le stelle. Suddenly his voice sounded bigger & freer, & it was not overpowered by Pieczonka's sturdy voice.

Pieczonka was a consistently powerful singer, even in the humbling Vissi d'arte. Ataneli sang & acted the part of Scarpia easily, seeming to take pleasure in his own evil nature. It was a very even cast, all the secondary parts being done capably as well. I admired Zachary Weisberg's clear & straightforward account of the Shepherd Boy's song. Under Armiliato, the orchestra's playing was clean & slightly brisk.

The staging is completely conventional & safe. It probably played well on the big screen, since it gives the cast something to act at every moment. The curtain calls played to the ball park audience as well by having each singer take a bow with a piece of Giants paraphernalia: Cavaradossi modeled a jersey, Tosca waved a baseball cap, & the sacristan pulled out a giant #1 hand.

Friday, June 05, 2009

A Schubert/Berg Journey

MTT conducts A Schubert and Berg Journey
Wed, Jun 3, 2009 8:00pm Davies Hall
San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas
conductor and pianist

Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings, D. 438
Julia Fischer, violin

Altenberg Lieder, Opus 4
Laura Aikin, soprano

Rondo from Lulu Suite

Piano Sonata, Opus 1
Yefim Bronfman, piano

The Shepherd on the Rock
Laura Aikin, soprano
Michael Tilson Thomas, piano
Carey Bell, clarinet

Lulu Suite
Laura Aikin, soprano

I was glad for the chance to hear these great Berg pieces, but the overall program made no sense to me. It felt like there were 4 different concerts going on at the same time & that I spent the evening switching between them. Even though it was a full night of music, I didn't feel like I'd actually heard one whole concert.

The Schubert Rondo, with a chamber orchestra of 16 strings, was our chance to hear the clean & graceful playing of Julia Fischer. I liked her long, smooth bows & tasteful interpretation. Laura Aikin, in a green dress which would not have been out of place in the Art Deco 30s, gave a confident performance of the highly compacted Altenberg Lieder. She landed those impossible high notes at the end of the 3rd & 5th songs without a fuss. In the 1st song it was sometimes difficult to pick her voice out from the busy orchestration, but that may have been Berg's fault for writing her low notes in the middle of the orchestra. The 1st half ended with a rambling performance of the 1st movement of the Lulu Suite.

After intermission, Yefim Bronfman strode quickly out on stage followed by his page turner & immediately plunged into the Piano Sonata with a fluid legato that almost made Berg sound like Chopin. He played deep into the keys, & his involvement was intense, with clearly placed climaxes. I thought it was the best performance of the evening, & a handful of people stood for him, including a fellow rush ticket holder seated next to me, a young man who studied the program assiduously, never left his seat & took notes. I suspected him of being a blogger.

On his first entrance in The Shepherd on the Rock, Carey Bell's narrow, refined clarinet sound emerged hauntingly from silence. He's a wonderfully musical player & never seems to play a phrase the same way twice. He made his role in no way secondary to the soprano.

The program ended with Aikin & the orchestra coming back for the rest of the Lulu Suite. Since the piano for the Sonata was still on stage, MTT gallantly retrieved the bench so that Aikin could sit on it between her duties. MTT seemed to be going for orchestral clarity in his interpretation, but I found it a bit aimless. Aikin was dramatic & fearless in the 2 vocal sections. In the last movement she even stood up, doubled over & gave us Lulu's terrified & animalistic death scream.

The back of orchestra where I was sitting seemed fairly full during the 1st half, but there was major attrition after the intermission. A couple in the row in front of me conspicuously walked out during the Piano Sonata, & the rest of the row pretty much emptied as the 2nd half progressed.

Other Views
The Ambassador has weighed in with his reactions. Joshua Kosman heard much he liked & was able to make connections. The Civic Center felt bludgeoned.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Library Sidewalk Sale

Book sale at the libraryThere were sales tables set up in front of the main library on Wednesday when I went there for the Porgy & Bess talk. Everything was a dollar. Some of the books were real time machines, such as the early 90's Popcorn Report & a computer reference from the same period that did not contain "World Wide Web" or "Internet".

Porgy & Bess Lecture

2009 Fall Preview Lecture Series on Opera
The San Francisco Opera Guild presents a lecture by Lynne Morrow on the Gershwin and Heyward opera "Porgy and Bess."
Main Library Koret Auditorium
Wed 3 June, 12 p.m.

Lynne Morrow gave a pleasurable introductory talk of about 70 minutes on the opera Porgy & Bess at the library yesterday at noon, which was good for me, since I forgot about the SF Opera's own Insight Panel that evening. Ms. Morrow is a warm speaker, & she made many bold statements along the way.

She started by setting the social & artistic context for the opera. It was a genuinely respectful attempt to uplift African Americans in the culture of the 1930s. The creators wanted to have black performers playing black characters in what was called a "folk opera", but they did not want to sacrifice any of the sophistication of opera. At the same time, Gershwin did incorporate what Ms. Morrow called "folk performance values" into the score, things such as antiphonal response, varying vocal tones (the swooping vendor calls) & religious dancing & shouting. She played some folk recording of the 1930s to show the influence, such as a work song which Gershwin transported into the opera, complete with its grunts as the organizing principle. Even more fun was when Ms. Morrow demonstrated musical examples by singing them to us in her lovely voice.

To end the talk, Ms. Marrow gave us a detailed plot summary, played excerpts from the Rattle recording & added many interesting musical observations. She pointed out Gershwin's Wagner-inspired use of leitmotifs for characters, settings & even objects (the swirling motif for the happy dust). She feels that the honky-tonk piano in the opening scene is probably Gerswhin's homage to the New York stride pianist James P. Johnson. She averred that this is the most complex score the opera orchestra plays this season.

We got some fun facts along the way. We learned that the opera became popular in Soviet Russia, where it was referred to as the American Boris Godunov. The performing rights for Porgy & Bess stipulate that fully staged productions must have an all black cast. Concert versions are excepted. I found this all very informative, & Ms. Morrow's obvious love & familiarity with the work was delightful.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Maker Faire 2009

San Mateo County Expo Center

I spent all day Sunday at the Maker Faire, but probably didn't come close to seeing everything. Whoever is marketing & organizing this thing, they are doing a great job. Besides the wonderfully obsessed DIYers showing off personal projects like a 205-pound bicycle or clothing that requires batteries, the place hosted a variety of kit-oriented vendors & was crowded with families. There's no recession here. Probably the only things that didn't draw huge audiences were the many speaker presentations.

Giant wing sculptureI especially liked seeing the large-scale Burning Man constructions. My favorite was an operatically sized pair of metal wings, which is completed by a person standing in a ring in its center as the whole thing rotates. I also enjoyed the provocative mechanical sculptures in the Applied Kinetic Arts booth.

Steampunk costumesThe Steampunk aesthetic was quite conspicuous at the show, especially on the movement's strangely enticing adherents, whose Victorian-inspired attire always seems to include goggles & corsets.

A discovery at the show for me was Arduino, an open-source platform for components that allow you to build your own smart devices. For the electronics & computer geeks, there was plenty of compare-and-contrast discussion over the many packaged versions of Arduino hardware. It's the kind of the thing that might just force me to learn how to solder.

Mark Morris Dance Group

Cal Performances
Sat, May 30, 8 pm
Zellerbach Hall

Mark Morris Dance Group
L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Jane Glover, conductor

Christine Brandes, soprano
Lisa Saffer, soprano
Iain Paton, tenor
James Maddalena, baritone

Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley
Marika Kuzma, director

This post properly belongs to a certain Belgian benefit, but thanks to some fast talking at the box office, I was able to attend this performance of the Mark Morris Dance Group at U.C. Berkeley. This was a very complex affair. In the pit: a Baroque orchestra with 3 keyboards, vocal & instrumental soloists & a chorus of at least 30 performing Handel settings of poems by Milton. On stage: 24 young & attractive dancers, each in a different brightly colored outfit, following intricate & repetitive choreography, along with lighting changes & colored scrims going up & down every few minutes.

The work opens with 2 lines of dancers running faster & faster through the same point. It was startling, a little scary & elicited gasps from the audience. What followed was a long string of self-contained dances, though nothing matched the impact of this initial burst of speed. Some of the pieces were abstract while others seemed to have scenarios, such as a bucolic hunting scene or an episode in which the dancers imitated a flock of birds. There was a lot of running around & a lot of lifts, & I was often impressed by the dancers' athleticism.

The choreography always hewed closely to the music, but other than the obvious pastoral context, I was never able to discern an over-all thematic arc either in the music or on stage. As the evening wore on, it seemed like we were just getting more of the same. & then there were a couple of lapses in taste that made me think I wasn't understanding Mark Morris's aesthetic at all. The peeing dog in the hunting scene & the circle of butt-spanking men seemed gratuitous to me. Most of the audience had no such doubts, however, & enthusiastically enjoyed every moment & laughed in all the right places.

Jane Glover led the musicians in a clean, cheerfully swaying performance. I was surprised to see James Maddalena in the pit. I have not heard him in years, & he was definitely sounding like old-man-baritone.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Tosca Dress Rehearsal

Tosca Dress Rehearsal
San Francisco Opera
Sat 30 May 2009 1:30pm

Unfortunately I didn't arrive as early as I would have liked, but it was still quite chaotic finding a seat for this dress rehearsal of Tosca, which opens the summer season tomorrow night. It was a full house, & I sat in the balcony next to a group of school children who were very well-behaved on their field trip to the opera. I also got a chance to see how the OperaVision video screens work, & I have to say that I was quite impressed by the videography. There were even some cool aerial shots of performers lying on the stage. Throw away those opera glasses; you've got OperaVision!

Pieczonka has a big voice & is a strong-willed Tosca. Lado Ataneli as Scapria also makes a nice, large sound & looked like he was having fun in the role. Tenor Carlo Ventre was singing all the notes, but he sounded weak most of the time. Pieczonka singing from off-stage was still louder than he was on-stage. Perhaps he was conserving his voice. There were fine performances in all the smaller roles. I liked the comic acting of Dale Travis as the sacristan. The shepherd boy at the beginning of Act III sang very well. Assuming the tenor rallies for the actual performances, this should be a musically satisfying production.

Because it was a rehearsal, I had the added opportunity here to spy the trumpet players reading a magazine together during the long stretches when they have nothing to play. During the 3rd act one of them even pulled out a paperback book to read. & since the curtain remained up between acts, we got to watch the set changes. I may have had more fun watching this than the actual show.

After the final curtain came down, the orchestra continued rehearsing, so we left the theater to the re-playing of the overture. Outside, the school children were sitting on the steps of the opera house for a group picture.

Verdi Requiem

Verdi Requiem
Friday, May 29, 2009, 8 pm
War Memorial Opera House - San Francisco

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Soprano: Patricia Racette Heidi Melton
Mezzo-soprano: Stephanie Blythe
Tenor: Stefano Secco
Bass: Andrea Silvestrelli
San Francisco Opera Orchestra
San Francisco Opera Chorus

Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

I felt lucky & grateful to be part of the audience for this special concert honoring Donald Runnicles. I have certainly been a fan throughout his 17 year tenure with the opera. The house looked full, & there was a sense of occasion. I even spotted composer Jake Heggie seated several rows in front of me. Seeing the opera orchestra & chorus on the stage gave me flashbacks to when the San Francisco Symphony used to perform in the opera house.

As soon as the soloists entered in the Kyrie, it was clear that Runnicles had lined up a powerhouse of a quartet. Heidi Melton was an awesome last-minute replacement for Racette. Her thick, beautiful voice easily soared over the orchestra & chorus, even when they were going at full blast. I'd never heard Stephanie Blythe before, so I was blown away by her solid, deeply-rooted voice. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli seemed to be channeling some orotund vibration from another dimension every time he opened his mouth. Tenor Stefano Secco was the smallest one of the group, but his voice was taut & penetrating. All of them seemed to have endless supplies of air & no need to breathe.

It was of course an operatic performance, with the soloists upstaging everything else. I loved it when the members of the quartet sometimes turned & sang to each other. This worked especially well for Heidi & Stephanie in the Recordare, which was a highlight of the performance.

After the last chord, the audience maintained a long, appreciative silence, not making a noise until Runnicles had fully dropped his arms, at which point the house responded with a standing ovation. It was a fine gift from the audience. This was followed by official expressions of appreciation from General Director David Gockley, President George Hume, & Chairman of the Board John Gunn, who presented Runnicles with a medal he fished out of his pocket like a nervous best man at a wedding. All the speeches were a bit bumpy, as if the speakers were either choked with emotion or just really scared to be on that stage. Runnicles also spoke a few words, at one point perhaps ironically commending San Francisco audiences for being willing to expose themselves to new things on stage.