Friday, January 29, 2010

Mr. Hulot's Holiday at YBCA

I'm continuing to enjoy the Jacques Tati retrospective at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Last night's program began with a 1936 short, Soigne ton gauche by René Clément. Tati plays a witless country farmhand who becomes a sparring partner for a boxer in training. It looks just like a silent movie & is a poor man's version of the boxing match from City Lights. It gives us a good sample of Tati's sports mime, though.

This was followed by the classic 1953 Mr. Hulot's Holiday. The print is billed as a restoration. Apparently Tati tinkered with the film for decades, & this version represents his last revision from the 1970s. His style still comes across as peculiar. There is no plot, only anecdotes & characters. Sometimes the jokes are just situations without punch lines. One doesn't watch the movie so much as observe what's going on it in. One headless gag consists of nothing but a very small boy opening a door handle while holding ice cream cones in each hand.

The photography is beautiful, with details that need to be sought out placed in every corner of the frame. And some of the satire is instantly recognizable, such as the business man who spends his vacation taking telephone calls from the office & reading stock quotes. For me the movie hasn't dated, & I happily laughed through it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Readying for the Apple Tablet

Apple logo on YBCA
Walking through Yerba Buena Gardens this afternoon, I saw a crew putting the finishing touches on this wall-sized version of the Apple logo. The media has already started camping out. I spotted a CNN satellite truck, as well as police cars parked on the corners. The world awaits.

Classical at the Freight

Classical at the Freight: Mozart's Birthday
Monday, January 25, 8:00 pm
Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra All-Stars
Eugene Sor & Garrett McLean, violin
Benjamin Simon & Darcy Rindt, viola
Kris Yenney, cello
Alicia Telford, French horn

Mozart, Horn Quintet in E flat major, K 407
Mozart, String Quintet in E flat major, K 614

freight and salvage hand stampMonday night I attended this breezy Mozart-themed event, which is part of a once-a-month classical music night at the Freight & Salvage. There seems to be a solid audience of regulars at these concerts. Violist Benjamin Simon came on stage dressed in a t-shirt & a messy 18th century wig. He acted as host for the evening, introducing the program & the players with light & humorous banter.

Attending the performance was like sitting in on a chamber music party. I liked the tempos for the Horn Quintet, which were not too fast. Alicia Telford's mellow horn sound combined well with the string players. As a joke, she stood up during one of her solos. After the 1st movement, Mr. Simon told us they wouldn't mind if we applauded between movements, & the audience did just that for the entire program. Halfway through the final movement of the String Quintet, I thought they had switched to the Grosse Fuge, but instead the ensemble had become derailed during a rapid fugal passage. Mr. Simon raised his bow to stop them, & 1st violinst Eugene Sor smoothly restarted.

During the break between pieces, Mr. Simon subjected a member of the audience to a Mozart trivia quiz which included a question containing bizarre Glenn Gould quotes disparaging the composer. All this friendly chat with the audience made the event feel like a radio show.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Magnificent Tati

The Magnificent Tati
By Michael House
Sun, Jan 24, 2 Pm
YBCA Screening Room

I felt like Charlie Brown when I stepped up to the box office window & was informed that the lady in front of me just got the last ticket. I never thought a documentary about Jacques Tati would sell out! Fortunately I soon obtained a ticket from someone who had an extra one to dispose of.

This was the U.S. premiere of The Magnificent Tati, Michael House's affectionate introduction to the films of Tati. It's a 1 hour documentary, consisting mostly of brief film clips & interviews with Tati admirers. The documentary's main goal is simply to whet people's appetites for the films themselves. It presents Tati as an artistic genius who achieved his full creative vision in Playtime, & yet this turned out to be something of a misfortune.

Mr. House was present at the screening & cheerfully took questions from the audience afterward. While he frequently referred to a wealth of material he was not able to fit into his film, he was pointedly not interested in discussions about Tati's personal life or his activities during WWII.

I found that I liked Mr. House's own back story, which is that he is a film composer who has happily switched to making movies. He's apparently a one-man production company, pitching ideas, researching, writing, getting financial backers, even doing all the editing & post-production on his laptop.

The Jacques Tati series continues at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts & the Pacific Film Archive.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jour de Fête

Jacques Tati: Genius Of French Comedy
Jour de Fête (1949)
Preceded by the short L'ecole des facteurs (1947)
Thu, Jan 21, 7:30 pm
YBCA Screening Room

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
has just begun a comprehensive series of the films of Jacques Tati. I went to the 1st program this evening, in the upstairs screening room. There was an audience of about 40, some of them French-speaking. I was a big fan of these movies back in my student days, but I haven't seen most of these in a decade or more. I was pleased to discover that I'm still sympathetic to Tati's slapstick humor & social commentary. Indeed, I think that 60 years has not blunted Tati's warmth or his satirical take on modernity. The audience laughed pretty hard at the fake newsreel demonstrating a pumped American postal service.

Jour de Fête was shown in a reconstructed color version which departs in some important details from the hand-colored black & white version I was familiar with. This was proceeded by a short in which Tati also plays a dutiful rural postman. This ordering spoiled the end of Jour de Fête, however, as it turns out that the speedy delivery routine at the climax of Jour de Fête is lifted wholesale from L'ecole des facteurs. I guess it's a demonstration of Tati's meticulous way of working. I'd like to take in as many of these screenings as I can.

Cypress String Quartet at the Rex Hotel

San Francisco Performances
Salons at the Rex

Wednesday, January 20 6:30pm
Hotel Rex

Cypress String Quartet
Cecily Ward, violin
Tom Stone, violin
Ethan Filner, viola
Jennifer Kloetzel, cello

Claude Debussy: String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10
Jennifer Higdon: Impressions
Erwin Schulhoff: Five Pieces for String Quartet

Hotel rexI like the setting of these short chamber recitals in the salon at the Hotel Rex. It's like being at a private event in someone's living room. The Cypress String Quartet covered a lot of ground in just one hour. They began with a vigorous peformance of the 1st 2 movements of the Debussy quartet. This was followed by the 2 inner movements of the Jennifer Higden quartet: an elegaic slow movement that builds to a lump-in-the-throat climax & a scherzo of pizzicatos & nervous energy. This is a major work, & I was left wanting to hear the whole thing.

They concluded with a suite of 5 contrasting dance pieces by Erwin Schulhoff, who is new name to me. Though short, the pieces are meaty, & their earthy, foot-stomping rhythms are catchy. There's an Eastern European feeling about them. These pieces are a favorite of the quartet, & their lively performance made me want to hear more of his music. Schulhoff himself seems to have been an intense character: a Czech Jew living in Prague, a communist who took on Russian citizenship, a jazz performer & ultimately a victim of a Nazi concentration camp.

As is their practice, members of the quartet took turns talking to the audience, providing background information or discussing their relationship to the repertoire as performers. The quartet has mellow, smooth sound. I like the large, effortless sound of the cello & the bite of violist's playing. They play with a strong sense of investment, as if their primarily role is to be advocates for the music. They succeeded with me, as I left wanting to hear more Higdon & Schulhoff.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Viola da Gamba at Old Saint Mary's

Noontime Concerts at Old Saint Mary's
French Music Festival
Tuesday, January 19 12:30 p.m.

Farley Pearce / Amy Brodo, violas da gamba
Jonathan Salzedo, harpsichord

Louis de Caix d’Hervelois: Suite from Book I
Marin Marais: La Badinage, from Book IV
Antoine Forqueray: Ciaconne, from Suite II
Antoine Forqueray: Suite V

I did not recognize any of the composers on this program, so it turned out to be an introduction for me to an instrument & a repertoire. Before beginning, viola da gamba player (violist da gamba? viola da gambist? gamba player?) Farley Pearce explained that they would be playing on modern copies of French instruments from the late 1600s. The viola da gamba has 7 strings, is fretted, & is more akin to a guitar than to a modern cello. The sound is very soft. One imagines it being played ideally in a small room for an intimate gathering. I also got the impression that it can be a difficult instrument.

The dance suite by Louis de Caix d’Hervelois of course reminded me of Bach suites, though it was more moody & melancholy. The Badinage by Marin Marais was even more pensive & brooding. The final suite by Forqueray is plainly virtuosic, & Mr. Pearce executed a neat double-stop trill in one movement. Harpsichordist Jonathan Salzedo described Forqueray's music as being dense & dark, "like eating a lot of dark chocolate."

Amy Brodo invited us to look at her manuscript score after the concert. The 3 musicians did not have separate parts but were reading the same music, which is in 2 staves. Mr. Pearce & Ms. Brodo alternated playing the top line for viola da gamba while the others played the bass line continuo. I think this was a nice way to involve all 3, & it gave the concert the simple feel of friends getting together to play music.

George Benjamin conducts SFS

George Benjamin conducts the San Francisco Symphony
Sat, Jan 16, 2010 8:00pm
Davies Symphony Hall

George Benjamin, conductor
Nicolas Hodges, piano

Ravel: Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose Suite)
George Benjamin: Duet (2008)
Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques
George Benjamin: Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980)
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole

Over the weekend I caught the last concert of English composer George Benjamin's 2 week residency with the SF Symphony. Mr. Benjamin opened with a smooth & even performance of the Mother Goose Suite. He often looked like he was moving in slow motion or underwater.

Duet is Benjamin's version of a piano concerto, though it did not feature the piano in opposition to the orchestra, as in a traditional concerto. Instead the piano seemed to be an integral part of the ensemble. The piece uses no violins, & the piano was placed directly to the left of the podium, facing into the orchestra. Pianist Nicolas Hodges thus had his back to us. Mr. Hodges had a lot of notes to cover, & he played with a percussive, spiky attack. During the Off the Podium talk, Mr. Benjamin revealed that he had premiered a new ending for these concerts. The piece ends with a loud clap, as if a heavy lid had been slammed shut. Mr. Hodges was also featured in Messiaen's Oiseaux exotiques which followed. He is a confident player, & he executed a sort of cadenza near the end with astonishing clarity & speed.

After intermission we had a full orchestra back on stage for Mr. Benjamin's large & splashy tone poem Ringed by the Flat Horizon. It starts with the rumbling of distant thunder. Sustained slow passages periodically gather up into noisy & chaotic climaxes, sometimes piercingly loud. In one of the lulls, principal cellist Amos Yang played an extended singing solo, after which he inserted plugs into his ears. The piece ends in silence.

Despite bookending the program with audience-friendly Ravel pieces, the hall looked barely half full. After the intermission, I sat in a 1st tier box by myself. At the Off the Podium event, I may have found Mr. Benjamin & Mr. Hodges more engaging as conversationalists than as performers. An elderly gentleman from the audience told us he was moved to tears by the concert & was curious about Mr. Benjamin's experience as a student of Messiaen. A small girl wished Mr. Benjamin a happy birthday & asked if he had received her card.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Daniel Pink in Conversation

San Francisco Waldorf High School Lecture Series presents
Daniel Pink in conversation with Michael Krasny
21st Century Education:
Motivation, Creativity and Achievement
Saturday, January 16, 2PM
Kanbar Hall, JCC

Daniel pink fansWhen I read Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind a couple of years ago, I had the bad feeling that he was right on about a major shift in the information age economy. & indeed, as an old-school, left-brained tech worker, I seem to be screwed. Anyway, I was interested in this chance to see this prophet of my professional doom in person. Mr. Pink's topic was motivation, the subject of his latest book, Drive. As advertised, the event was a true conversation as opposed to an interview. The professorial Michael Krasny offered as many ideas, personal anecdotes & opinions as Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink himself was lively, quick & humorous. The audience responded warmly to him, & it was as if we were all friends of his. We never got a précis of his book, but I think all he is saying is that we need to move beyond the traditional system of rewards & punishments in order to motivate people. So instead of just money, people are better motivated by AMP, meaning Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose. This argument seems to be addressed specifically to business people.

The event was full, & the audience was predominately middle-aged women, most of whom I took to be educators. 2 local high school students were among those posing questions to Mr. Pink, one of whom turned out to be his nephew, a student at Berkeley High. I recognized Ingrid Nystrom, of the sadly defunct Stacey's, selling books for the signing afterward.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Classical Spectacular

Gotham Chamber Opera's planetarium performance sounds like a splendid idea, but it is tame in comparison to the Classical Spectacular that lands in Royal Albert Hall in March. Excerpts from popular classics such as The Planets & Carmina Burana are accompanied by lasers, lights & even indoor fireworks. Special guest artists include Charlie Siem, "the UK's hottest Violin sensation" & "Muskets and Cannons of the Moscow Militia." The producers have posted a frightening video preview.

Friday, January 15, 2010

NJAHS Thursday Night at the Movies

National Japanese American Historical Society
Thursday Night at the Movies
Thursdays, November 19, 2009 to January 28, 2010, at the Officer's Club in the Presidio of San Francisco.

In conjunction with an exhibit about Japanese Americans serving in WWII, NJAHS has been hosting screenings of relevant movies in the Presidio Officer's Club. I attended this Thursday night & was part of a small gathering of about 25 people. We saw 2 documentaries. The 1st was Conscience and the Constitution, about 63 young men interned in Heart Mountain who went to prison for refusing to be drafted into the US military. Both the US government & Japanese Americans like to make heroes of the 442nd, but to me these men who resisted the draft had true courage. I like that the film is frank about the split within the Japanese American community over the question of loyalty during WWII. Also, I had thought that photography was banned in the camps, so I was quite moved to see footage of camp life, especially what looks like a home movie of an obon celebration.

The 2nd movie screened was From a Silk Cocoon, a beautiful documentary following the complicated story of a kibei couple who answer "No" on the infamous loyalty questionnaire & end up in Tule Lake. The wife gives birth to 2 children while interned, & the couple's experience in the camps leads them to renounce their American citizenship. The film creates a great deal of suspense as we wait to find out whether or not their family will stay together after the war, as the US prepares to deport the father. Kim Ina, a granddaughter of the subjects of the film & one of its co-producers, was on hand to discuss the film & answer questions afterward.

It pleases me to know that both documentaries were funded with government grants that came out of the Reparation Act. Giving out money to make history movies is government spending I can really get behind.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Diane Arbus at the Fraenkel Gallery

fraenkel galleryFraenkel Gallery
Diane Arbus: Christ in a lobby and Other Unknown or Almost Known Works
Selected by Robert Gober
7 January - 6 March 2010

This excellent show of photographs by Diane Arbus cleverly opens with a drawing by curator Robert Gober, in which we can just make out the famous twins cover of her Aperture monograph. That twins photo is too well known to be here, but there is another photograph of two women in curlers standing on a New York sidewalk & looking oddly identical. Many of the photos on display similarly remind me of canonical Diane Arbus images: children in the park, nudists, circus performers, babies in terrifying closeup. I can even recognize subjects from other photographs, such as the Young woman with her child, camera, coat & handbag, Bronx, N.Y. (1965).

Thematically similar photos seem to be scattered throughout the galleries instead of being grouped. This results in some shocking juxtapositions, such as the deathbed photo sandwiched between 2 pictures of circus performers. I loved the humor of many of the works, such as one showing the winners of a muscle man contest posing in victory, apparently for an audience of one little boy. The Woman in Floppy Hat (1970), standing on a curb in headgear that is both large & shapeless, manages to be both funny & a bit unsettling. The Peace Marchers, N.J. (1962), striding across the horizon, silhouetted against a cloudy sky, look like the final shot from The Seventh Seal.

It's a treat to learn that most of the prints were done by Arbus herself. It's surprising that most are also unpublished, as they seem in no way inferior or unrepresentative. The exhibit checklist does not include prices, so one imagines that these images are indeed special.

The Fraenkel Gallery felt like a happening place when I visited at lunch time today. I'm pretty sure that the eponymous Mr. Fraenkel acknowledged me with a quick "hi" on his way through the gallery, & I overheard the receptionist announce a call from Lee Friedlander.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Haydn at the Hayden

Events like this make me wonder why I'm not trying harder to relocate to New York. This month Gotham Chamber Opera, "Taking advantage of breakthroughs in laser and light technology," performs Haydn's Il Mondo Della Luna in The Hayden Planetarium. Opera under the stars with a laser light show. Wow. The production is "directed by Diane Paulus, director of the Tony-award winning revival of 'Hair.'"

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Raj Patel at The Commonwealth Club

I was in the audience at The Commonwealth Club this evening to hear Raj Patel talk about his new book, The Value of Nothing. As far as I can tell, the book is a critique of free market capitalism. Mr. Patel is interested in how externalities like pollution, human rights & health costs distort the difference between price & value. His solution is more regulation of markets.

The excitable Mr. Patel seemed to be speaking off the top of his head, & he wandered from topic to topic, often stuttering & blustering in his posh British accent. He can be bluntly plain-spoken as well as funny. Citing the struggles of tomato pickers in Florida, he informed us that "slavery is alive & well." He acted out a Monty Python sketch about commie-hating Americans, then added, "I'm not a communist; I'm just open-minded." Perhaps because he knew the event was being recorded for radio, he was considerably less foul-mouthed than when I heard him on a previous occasion.

I find Mr. Patel to be a charismatic & even inspiring character. His admiration when speaking about the shack dwellers of Durban was genuine. Tomorrow he becomes an American citizen, a political compliment to us in its own way. Broadcaster Sandip Roy, the program's moderator, may have had it right after all when he said, "You may disagree with what he says, but you'll like him saying it in a British accent."

The Commonwealth Club members are very well-behaved & make an effort to submit intelligent questions for the Q & A. On January 27th, John Yoo, the Bush administration lawyer, appears at The Club. The program announcement advises that "Attendees are subject to search."