Tuesday, December 09, 2014

MoAD Reopening Celebration Program

Last week I was at a ribbon cutting for the re-opening of the refurbished Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission Street. The ceremony took place in the lobby & gift shop. We heard prudently short speeches from Executive Director Linda Harrison, Harvard Professor Dr. Alejandro de la Fuente, Los Angeles artist Lava Thomas, & City Administrator Naomi Kelley. Ms. Harrison amusingly observed that museum visitors' priorities are first a place to sit, then a place to have coffee, then looking at great art. The Honorable Willie L. Brown Jr. was present to officially announce the MoAD's status as a Smithsonian Affiliate, & he name-dropped Colin Powell & Oprah in his remarks.

Photo credit: Kristin Cockerham,
The museum's anthropological history exhibits will be moved online, accessible via iPad stations on the 1st floor. The 2 floors above are for changing exhibits & events. Ms. Thomas's mixed media show, Beyond, features human hair and shapes that look like internal organs. The works appear to be very personal to the artist. The Drapetomanía exhibit commemorates a lost Cuban art movement of the late 1970s that looked to the culture of Cuba's African slaves for its inspiration. It was nice to see Patrick among the attendees, though he was quite disappointed at not being allowed to use his camera in the galleries.

§ Museum of the African Diaspora
Reopening Celebration Program
December 2, 2014, 12:10p

Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba
Runs through Jan. 4, 2015

Lava Thomas: Beyond
Runs through April 5, 2015

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Election Flyers

Whenever I opened my mailbox last week, over-sized election flyers spilled out. A lot of them. Leaders in generating mail were Yes on A, Yes on F & BART Director James Fang, with No on E close behind. Not a bad haul for a midterm election which is predicted to be a record low for voter turnout.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Roads of Arabia

Earlier this week the Asian Art Museum held a media event for Roads of Arabia. This is a major show of archaeological finds & historical artifacts from the Arabian Peninsula, telling the story of human civilization in the region, starting with stone tools over 1 million years old & culminating in the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century.

An informative gallery tour was led by the ebullient Dr. Ali Al Ghabban, Vice President of Antiquities and Museums at the Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities, & Dany Chan, assistant curator at the Asian Art Museum. The bulk of the exhibit covers the pre-Islamic period & features objects from crossroads sites that reflect a range of cultural influences.

The show opens with plaintive 6,000-year-old steles & contains many provocative items, such as a neolithic carving of a horse suggesting a much earlier date for the domestication of horses than previously thought.

This cube-shaped pedestal intricately mixes Egyptian & Mesopotamian imagery & is fun to look at.

I liked seeing examples of several different writing systems. This funerary slab from the 1st millennium BCE bears the oldest known use of Arabic.

A gallery about the pilgrimage roads contains an absurdly huge pair of candlestick holders, a gift to Mecca from a eunuch of the Ottoman court.

I especially enjoyed viewing the collection of tombstones from Mecca, boasting fine, flowery calligraphy.

2 camera crews recorded the event.

Falafel were included in the pre-event buffet.

§ Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Asian Art Museum
Oct 24, 2014 - Jan 18, 2015

Thursday, October 23, 2014

SF Opera: Partenope

This week I saw San Francisco Opera's entertaining production of Handel's Partenope. Director Christopher Alden sets the opera in 1920s Paris, & the audience applauded when the curtain came up on the Corbusier-like set. The playful staging is inspired by Dada absurdism & presents the plot like something by Noel Coward. Physically adept performances are required from the entire cast. Countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo, as one of Partenope's pining suitors, fell down a spiral staircase then sang while dangling off its steps. He tap danced during his act 3 aria, with a cane thrown to him from the wings. His singing was youthful, clear & sweet, no matter what antics he was performing. Tenor Alek Shrader, portraying photographer Man Ray, was a captivating actor. He sang while hanging out of the transom over a bathroom door in act 2 & did hand shadow puppetry that caused applause mid-aria. His final aria incorporated a variety of increasingly contorted yoga poses. His singing was solid, with strong top notes that stood out from the rest of his range. Countertenor David Daniels, as the confused love interest of the opera's 2 female characters, had a brawny, muscular sound that conveyed maturity, & he was especially effective in his slower, more reflective arias.

Soprano Danielle de Niese was a sexy & free-spirited Partenope. Though her singing was often approximate, her performance was charismatic, joyful & expressive, & she moved around the stage with an alluring freedom. Mezzo Daniela Mack spends most of the opera disguised as a man & sounded firm, even & energetic. I enjoyed bass-baritone Philippe Sly's clean, focused singing & warm, open sound. He appears in the last act wearing inexplicable drag & bananas atop military headgear.

I liked the graceful & airy conducting from Julian Wachner. Tempos never felt strict, & the music sounded fresh. It was fun hearing the theorbo, & there was a nice flute obbligato. Baroque horns were used at the end of act 1. Their brash & blustery sound added period color, though their tuning was jarring. The show runs 3 1/2 hours, but I did not witness many people in the orchestra level leaving mid-performance. The audience cheered several arias, & the cast received a standing ovation. As this was the 1st night of the World Series, scores were displayed on the supertitles after act 1.

§ Partenope
George Frideric Handel

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Director: Christopher Alden

Emilio: Alek Shrader
Partenope: Danielle De Niese
Arsace: David Daniels
Rosmira: Daniela Mack
Ormonte: Philippe Sly
Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Tue 10/21/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, October 17, 2014

Erin Johnson & Zanda Švēde at the Rex

Wednesday evening Adler Fellows Erin Johnson & Zanda Švēde, accompanied by pianist Robert Mollicone, presented a song recital in a Salon at the Rex. They began with a dreamy duet from Pique Dame. In that small space their solid, husky voices were a physical force. Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde then alternated songs by Mahler, Liszt, Tchaikovsky & Bolcom, which they briefly introduced before singing. Ms. Švēde's mezzo voice is wonderfully plush & alto-like, & she was particularly effective depicting the dark atmosphere at the beginning of Mahler's "Um Mitternacht" & creating an intense mood for Tchaikovsky's psychological "To forget so soon." Ms. Johnson gave an operatic rendition of Liszt's Die Loreley, making it easy to follow its eerie story. Its final note was beautifully hushed. Before launching into a set of Cabaret Songs by Bolcom, she told us these were her "favorite songs, ever," & she performed them with her whole body, becoming a sloppy drunk in "Over the piano" & a bubbly diva in "Amor." Rossini's Cat Duet was the pair's encore, & Mr. Mollicone, who was otherwise a secure & unobtrusive accompanist, jumped up at the end, barking at the singers like a ferocious dog.

The 75-minute event was comfortably close-up. Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde seemed to be simply sharing music rather than striving to impress. Several people gave them a standing ovation. In the Q&A, there was much talk about the role of art song in singers' training. Ms. Johnson suggested that it's useful nowadays for opera singers to have musical theater skills. We learned that  Ms. Johnson was the cover for Adalgisa in SF Opera's Norma, & she jokingly called herself a "soprezzo". We also found out that Ms. Johnson & Ms. Švēde both own very big dogs.

§ Salon at the Rex
Erin Johnson, soprano
Zanda Švēde, mezzo-soprano &
Robert Mollicone, piano

TCHAIKOVSKY: Uhz Vecher from Pique Dame
  - Ms. Johnson and Ms. Švēde

MAHLER: 3 Rückert-Lieder
Liebst du um Schönheit
Blicke mir nicht in der Lieder
Um Mitternacht
  - Ms. Švēde

LlSZT: Die Loreley
  - Ms. Johnson

TCHAIKOVSKY: To forget so soon (Zabyt' tak skoro)
  - Ms. Švēde

BOLCOM: 7 Cabaret Songs
Over the piano
Toothbrush time
Love in the thirties
Can't sleep
At the last lousy moments of love
  - Ms. Johnson

Encore: Rossini Cat Duet

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Hotel Rex

Monday, October 13, 2014

Enemies | Friends

Saturday afternoon the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival held a 1-day mini-festival at New People Cinema, where I saw Enemies | Friends, a documentary about a footnote to World War I. In 1914, the Japanese, as allies of the British, attacked the German colony of Tsingtao in China & took 4,700 German prisoners of war to prison camps in Japan, keeping them until well after the war ended. The German prisoners were not required to work, &, judging by photographs we see, they were healthy, well-fed & thrived. To stave off boredom, they made the camps into miniature villages, with farms, business districts, shops, restaurants & newspapers. They put on theater shows & art exhibitions & gave the 1st performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in Japan.

The documentary itself is meandering & provides a cursory picture of the period, using old photos, artwork, letters & interviews with historians & descendants of camp inmates, including a Japanese woman who discovered as an adult that her grandfather was German. The site of the Bandō camp is now a war museum exhibiting blond-haired mannequins in life-size dioramas of camp life.

The film was introduced by Sophoan Sorn, Festival Director, who read us a statement from the filmmaker. When I bought my ticket, I was asked to stand in a ticket holders line on the sidewalk, where I waited with 2 other patrons, but it turned out we should have been inside, where they were already letting people into the theater.

§ Enemies | Friends - German Prisoners of War in Japan
Feinde | Brüder - Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in Japan
Director: Brigitte Krause; Germany, Japan; 2013; 78 mins.

Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase 2014
North American Premiere
Sat., Oct. 11, 2014 - 2:00pm
New People Cinema, SF

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Friday afternoon I was at one of the 1st screenings of Citizenfour, an unnerving documentary by Laura Poitras about the NSA leaks. Ms. Poitras was one of the journalists contacted by Edward Snowden & who met him in his Hong Kong hotel room last June, along with Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald & Ewen MacAskill. The centerpiece of the film is jolting footage of those meetings, capturing the tense, business-like, yet intimate, atmosphere. Snowden himself is a fascinating subject: sleek, calm & clear-minded. He's so paranoid that he covers himself with a blanket when typing sensitive passwords into his laptop. We get amusing glimpses of him primping as he prepares to leave his room after the leaks have gone public.

The movie includes commentary from government spying critics Willian Binney & Jacob Appelbaum, who is to the point when he observes that we now discuss "privacy" instead of "liberty." Julian Assange makes a curious cameo appearance, apparently trying to aid Snowden's transit through Russia. We also see some of the international fallout of the leaks. There's disconcerting video of editors at The Guardian fretting over what to report about the UK's GCHQ information gathering program, which is much more comprehensive than the US's. In a grisly basement operation, Guardian editors eventually destroy the hard drives containing the incriminating documents. An epilogue shows Glenn Greenwald chatting with Snowden in Moscow & passing him scribbled notes about revelations from a 2nd NSA leaker. The film is scary.

Citizenfour opens in San Francisco & Albany on October 24th & in San Rafael on October 31st.

§ Citizenfour (2014)
dir. Laura Poitras, USA, 114 min

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Steven Isserlis, Boccherini, and Haydn

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra had their 1st concert of the season Wednesday night at SFJAZZ. The symmetrical program featured cellist Steven Isserlis in concertos by Boccherini & C.P.E. Bach, bookended by 2 Haydn symphonies. Mr. Isserlis's playing was wonderfully fluid & had a lightness & grace that fit the repertoire well. I liked the semi-detatched articulation he displayed in the 1st movement of the Bach, & the slow movement of the Boccherini had sweetness & a feeling of intimacy. Mr. Isserlis plays with great freedom & is fun to watch. His right wrist is so relaxed that it looks boneless, & he flops his left hand in the air when there are no notes to finger. His mop of long curly hair is impressive.

The printed program had the order of the concertos in reverse, so when Mr. Isserlis returned after intermission, he announced that we were "the victims of a ghastly hoax" & explained that he had already played the Bach & would be playing the Boccherini next. He also made some charming remarks about the composers & slipped in a joke at the violists' expense. After the concertos, he gave us a short, cartoony encore that alternated plucked notes, strumming & bowed chords.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan led jolly versions of the Haydn symphonies. He made much of passages that contrasted loud & soft playing, & his musical rests were palpable. His hands swayed balletically in the slow movement of No. 57. A violinist's string popped during the rustic 3rd movement, forcing the player to leave the stage. Symphony No. 67 had many novelties, including the strings playing col legno & a duet for the 1st & 2nd principal violins that used a strange tuning. The orchestra's intonation was sometimes rough.

SFJAZZ is designed for electronically enhanced performances, & the opening Haydn symphony suffered from painfully dry acoustics. In the 2nd half of the show, though, the sound was smoother & more filled-in. The audience was engaged & occasionally applauded between movements. It was surprising to spot Maestro McGegan chatting with patrons in the lobby just minutes before the start of the concert. My concert companion was offended by a patron across the aisle from us who wore flip-flops.

§ Steven Isserlis, Boccherini, and Haydn
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Steven Isserlis, violoncello

HAYDN: Symphony No. 57 in D major
C.P.E. BACH: Concerto for Violoncello in A major, Wq 172
BOCCHERINI: Concerto for Violoncello No. 7 in G major, G. 480
HAYDN: Symphony No. 67 in F major

Cello Encore: Kabalevsky "Dance"

Wed, Oct 8 @ 8:00PM
SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco

SF Opera: Un Ballo in Maschera

Tuesday night I heard Un Ballo in Maschera at the San Francisco Opera. Soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia sounded strong, resonant & healthy, & the gallows scene & her pleading scene in act 3 were highlights of the evening. The production is double cast, & baritone Brian Mulligan was this evening's Renato. His voice was cushy & controlled, & he gave me the feeling he was always right on target. His "Eri tu" was firm. Tenor Ramón Vargas as the king made a consistent sound that was weighty & dark, & his singing was contained. Soprano Heidi Stober chased her hat a lot as the page Oscar. She sounded youthful, bright & a little brash. It was good to hear mezzo Dolora Zajick as the fortune teller Ulrica. Her hefty, potent voice seems to originate from somewhere beneath her feet. I also enjoyed the hearty singing of baritone Efraín Solis as one of her customers.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti led with vehemence & constantly propelled the music, sometimes pushing the singers. The orchestra played out & the string sound was heavy. The fortissimo chords at the beginning of the gallows scene were like gun shots. The English horn accompanying Amelia's "Ma dall'arido stela divulsa" evoked the darkness of night beautifully.

The production sets the action in 18th century Sweden, with the cast in opulent period dress. The audience applauded when the curtain came up on the costumed chorus in the final scene. The old-fashioned staging felt flat. Scores for the Giants vs. Nationals game were displayed via supertitles during pauses for set changes & the intermissions.

§ Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball)
Giuseppe Verdi
San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Jose Maria Condemi

Amelia: Julianna Di Giacomo
Oscar: Heidi Stober
Gustavus III (Riccardo): Ramón Vargas
Count Anckarström (Renato): Brian Mulligan
Madame Arvidson (Ulrica): Dolora Zajick
Count Horn (Tommaso): Scott Conner
Count Ribbing (Samuele): Christian Van Horn
Christian (Silvano): Efraín Solis
Judge: A.J. Glueckert
Amelia's Servant: Christopher Jackson

Tue 10/7/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

John Lahr at Mechanics' Institute

Critic John Lahr is on tour promoting his new biography of Tennessee Williams & on Monday spoke at the Mechanics' Institute. Rather than read from the book, he gave a free-form talk. I didn't quite follow his convoluted history of the battle to publish an "authorized" Williams biography, but we heard many anecdotes about Lady Maria St. Just, a trustee of Williams's estate, who resorted to blackmail & even resectioning the playwright's letters with a razor blade. Mr. Lahr's book is apparently a sort of follow-up to an earlier biography by Lyle Leverich, a San Francisco theater manager whom Tennessee Williams named as his official biographer. Lahr's book starts with the Broadway opening of The Glass Menagerie & interprets all the plays in the context of Williams's emotional state.

It was nice to hear Mr. Lahr say that he never had a bad day at the New Yorker, where he has been senior drama critic for over 20 years. In the Q & A, he became very animated when panning the Young Vic's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I planned to buy a copy of the book at the event but then balked at the $44 hardcover price.

§ Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
An afternoon with author John Lahr
Monday, October 06, 2014 - 12:30pm
Mechanics' Institute

Monday, October 06, 2014

APE 2014 (Sunday)

Sunday afternoon I was back at the Alternative Press Expo & saw lots of original artwork. I enjoyed looking at the beautifully taut, thin-lined drawings in artist Aaron Zonka's sketchbook. I wasn't the only one who was gaping in amazement at illustrator's Mike Lee's exquisite, tiny drawings, made with the sharpened point of a mechnical pencil lead & containing no lines. It was fun hearing stories about being on the expo circuit from comics artists Tony Breed & Lonnie Mann.

At the Queer Cartoonists Panel, moderator Justin Hall proudly noted that MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Alison Bechdel was on his 1st panel 11 years ago. This year's panelists got into an amusing discussion about rabbits when Rick Worley explained his reasons for portraying himself as a giant cartoon rabbit. Sara Lautman claimed that there is a rabbinical tradition in which homosexuals are punished by being reincarnated as rabbits. She had even more provocative things to say about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

All the attendees were awed by a woman in the front row who live-sketched the entire panel.

§ APE 2014
Alternative Press Expo
Oct. 4 & 5
Fort Mason Center

Sunday, October 05, 2014

APE 2014

The Alternative Press Expo, a marketplace for independent comics, publishing & art, is taking place this weekend at Fort Mason, back at its original San Francisco location. This is also the last year it will be run by Comic-Con. Next year it reverts back to the San Jose-based SLG Publishing.

The expo occupies one of the large pavilions, with programs taking place in the adjacent firehouse. I caught most of cartoonist Jason Shiga's presentation, in which he playfully demonstrated the ingenious mechanisms of his interactive comics, inspired by the choose-your-own-adventure books he read as a child. I was amazed by the intricate paper gears he devised for an unrealized comic whose panels rotate into view. At the end of the event he scanned the audience to make sure there were no children, then gave us a sneak preview of a future issue of Demon, his 720-page black comedy. The episode was replete with foul-mouthed denunciations of everything from literature to Disneyland.

A lot of glossy books & accomplished drawing were on offer in the expo hall, & the eager vendors all had their sales pitches down. When I stopped to admire the bold, 6-color silkscreen illustrations in Estrella Vega's paleontology-themed art books, she immediately handed one to me so I could see how it unfolds into a 3-dimensional shape. It is good to know that Last Gasp has published a picture book about that enchanting German Christmas tradition of the Krampus. When I stopped to chat with cartoonist Geoff Vasile, he reminisced rousingly about his first time at APE & wondered why I didn't go by my on-line moniker all the time.

§ APE 2014
Alternative Press Expo
Oct. 4 & 5
Fort Mason Center

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Paul Yarbrough & Friends

Wednesday evening I was at this season's 1st Salon at the Rex, featuring violist Paul Yarbrough of the Alexander String Quartet, with mezzo Kindra Scharich & pianist John Parr. Mr. Parr, long associated with the SF Opera, has just started as head of music staff at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Mr. Yarbrough explained he hoped to highlight the similarities of Schumann's writing for the viola & the voice & played the picturesque Märchenbilder, followed by Ms. Scharich in 6 songs from Liederkreis. Ms. Scharich then sang 2 dolorous songs by Dowland, immediately followed by Mr. Yarbrough's performance of a dark, ominous Britten piece based on those songs. The program concluded with all 3 musicians in 2 Brahms songs for alto, viola & piano.

Mr. Yabrough's playing has a nice bite to it, & he communicated the troubled, agitated mood of the Britten piece well. Ms. Scharich sings with ease, & her voice is pleasant, clean & calm. She has good dynamic control & scaled her voice to the small space. I liked the hearty sound she made in Schumman's "Waldesgesprach", & her voice was a good fit for the Dowland. She was soothing in the Brahms, with Mr. Yarbrough playing the low notes on his viola with warmth. Mr. Parr's playing was crisp, though he sometimes seemed disconnected from the other performers.

The program lasted about 75 minutes & had a sociable atmosphere & supportive audience. Mr. Yarbrough even called out to a friend in the audience before launching into the final Märchenbilder. In the Q & A, Mr. Yarbrough brought up relevant biographical background for the music by Britten & Brahms.

§ Salon at the Rex
Paul Yarbrough, viola
Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano
John Parr, piano

R. Schumann (1833-1897)
Märchenbilder, Op. 113
Nicht schnell
Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck

Selections from Liederkreis, Op. 39
In der Fremde

J. Dowland (1563-1626)
If My Complaints Could Passions Move
Flow My Tears

B. Britten (1913-1976)
Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, op. 48a

J. Brahms (1810-1856)
Zwei Gesänge, Op. 91
Gestillte Sehnsucht
Geistliches Wiegenlied

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Hotel Rex

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Up-Coming: Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase

Berlin & Beyond will hold a 1-day film festival on Saturday, October 11th at the New People Cinema, featuring 5 films from Germany, Austria & Switzerland. Megacities, a 1998 documentary about the working poor in Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai & New York, will be screened as a 35mm projection. Enemies | Friends, a documentary about German prisoners of war taken to Japan from the German colony of Tsingtao, looks fascinating. I'm glad that there will be a chance to see Diplomacy, Volker Schlöndorff's film adaptation of a French play by Cyril Gély about Nazi-occupied Paris.

§ Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase
Oct. 11, 2014
New People Cinema
Program book (PDF)

11:00 am
Michael Glawogger, 90 mins., Austria, Switzerland, 1998

2:00 pm
Enemies | Friends  (Feinde | Brüder)
Brigitte Krause, 78 mins., Germany, Japan, 2013

4:00 pm
Dreamland (Traumland)
Petra Volpe, 98 mins., Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, 2013

7:00 pm
Diplomacy (Diplomatie)
Volker Schlöndorff, 85 mins., France, Germany, 2014)

9:15 pm
Christian Alvart, 117 mins., Germany, 2013

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Source Control 262-2185

A few weeks ago, a couple of these objects appeared on the sidewalk along Chestnut Street in the Marina.

They're about the size of trash cans & have locks on them. A tube runs out the bottom & into a hole in the sidewalk.

The each have a military-like Source Control number stenciled on the side. I just noticed today that they've been removed. It's all very X-Files.

SFO: Norma's New Tenor

This past Saturday night I heard Norma again at the San Francisco Opera, this time with tenor Russell Thomas, who took over the role of Pollione after the 2nd performance. The change in cast & the altogether more cohesive performance made this a much improved experience from opening night. Mr. Thomas sounded youthful & firm, & his singing was detailed, with nice dynamic contrasts. I liked how his voice was a good complement to tenor A.J. Glueckert's in the 1st act.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sounded even more capable than on opening night & her singing was glorious. Mezzo Jamie Barton's voice was impressively uniform throughout its range, all the way up to a secure high C. Both of their duets triggered prolonged applause, during which the 2 women embraced each other with evident joy. Nicola Luisotti's conducting was dynamic, & the orchestra played with vitality. The woodwind solos were particularly beautiful. The male chorus sounded bold.

I heard the show from balcony standing room, where the voices were so intense & ringing that it sometimes seemed the performers were singing right in my face or that my ears were about to pop. I was in good company, with standees who were attending for the 4th or 5th time. Everyone was skeptical of the production's version of mistletoe, though. The railing was full, & a woman squeezed herself in between myself & my neighbor after the lights came down, then left before the end of the performance.

Norma's 2 children were rambunctious this evening & could be heard giggling during one of their exits. I hadn't noticed before that all the trees are cut down by the end of the opera & that the druids are trapped with Norma in the final moments.

§ Norma
Vincenzo Bellini / Felice Romani

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director: Kevin Newbury

Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky
Adalgisa: Jamie Barton
Pollione: Russell Thomas

Oroveso: Christian Van Horn
Clotilda: Jacqueline Piccolino
Flavio: A.J. Glueckert
Norma's Children: Oliver Kuntz & Miles Sperske

Sat 09/27/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mari Naomi at City Lights

Last week I was at City Lights bookstore to see Mari Naomi on the San Francisco stop of her book tour for Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories, a compilation of her autobiographical short story comics for The Rumpus. Ray Shea, who wrote the book's introduction, started off the event by reading one of his own short stories, a rueful autobiographical vignette about drugs & lost love. Ms. Naomi did a slideshow reading of 3 stories from her book & provided a few additional gossipy footnotes along the way. She then talked a little about getting the book published & answered a few questions from the audience. She told us that in LA a man tried to hit on her in the middle of her reading, & she admitted that she & her mother have factual disagreements regarding her story about the death of a bunny-eating snake.

The event took place in a cozy upstairs room of the bookstore & was standing room only. I had a seat against a bookshelf at the back of the room. When I reached behind my head for a random book to read while waiting, I of course happened to grab On the Road.

§ Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories
City Lights Booksellers
Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 7:00 P.M.

Silent Autumn

Last weekend I had a great time at the SF Silent Film Festival's 1-day Silent Autumn event at the Castro Theatre, where I saw 3 of the 5 programs. Author Donna Hill gave a breathless introduction to The Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino's last movie, & told us that Valentino spent the enormous sum of $15,000 on his own costumes. This was my 1st time seeing the film, & I found it entertaining & perhaps even a bit self-parodying. Special effects shots in which Valentino appears on screen simultaneously as both father & son are seamless. A chase scene over desert sands on horseback has an authenticity that is still spectacular.

The Alloy Orchestra, a trio of musicians playing percussion, clarinet, accordion and electronic keyboard, premiered their original score, which has an appropriately oriental atmosphere & is percussion-heavy & dark. It matched the action closely, though I sometimes felt it missed the film's occasional humor. The performance was loud & lively & received an enthusiastic ovation. The keyed-up audience applauded Valentino's 1st appearance on the screen & when he straightened out the iron bar bent by The Sheik.

The next show was a diverse program of 14 shorts compiled by the British Film Institute & representing what movie-goers saw in cinemas on the cusp of World War I. Newsreel footage included glimpses of Emmeline Pankhurst, the Austro-Hungarian royal family & Ernest Shackleton, who shows off the dogs he is taking on his Antarctic expedition, though the product placement for Spratt's Dog Cakes is rather unfortunate. A travelogue of Egyptian street scenes & monuments was evocative.

It was fun seeing a bubbly Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad's Dial, a remarkably silly comedy involving a face-pulling competition & containing an impressive multiple exposure shot. I also enjoyed discovering the brazenly idiotic Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, a low-budget comedy whose makers were unashamed of their cardboard sets & couldn't be bothered to crop spectators out of the frame when shooting along the Thames Embankment

Donald Sosin accompanied on piano & did a good job matching each film's mood. His jaunty playing felt appropriate to the period. Mr. Sosin also did a sort of reverse lip-synching when he sang along to a song & dance film that once had a synchronized sound disc.

After a 2 hour dinner break I returned for Buster Keaton's The General. The theater was packed, & it was a terrific experience seeing the movie with such a fired up audience. Board President Robert Byrne pointed out Keaton's granddaughter, Melissa Talmadge Cox, & her son in the audience. John Bengtson, film detective extraordinaire, introduced the screening & told us anecdotes about the friendly relationship that developed between the film crew & the residents of Cottage Grove, Oregon, where The General was filmed.

The Alloy Orchestra was back to play their original score for the film, which was percussion-heavy & went into a weighty, chugging mode whenever a train was in motion. The music was loud, often drowning out the audience's laughter, but it amped up the film's dynamism. The energetic performers received a cheering ovation at the end.

§ Silent Autumn
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

1:00 PM
The Son of the Sheik
(USA, 1926, 81 minutes)
Musical accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra.

3:30 PM
A Night at the Cinema in 1914
(USA/UK, 1914, 85 minutes)
Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

7:00 PM
The General
(USA, 1926, 75 minutes)
Musical accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra.

Saturday September 20 2014
Castro Theatre

Sunday, September 28, 2014

East German Cinema

I'm glad that last week a friend suggested we go to Oddball Films for a presentation on films from East Germany. Author Jim Morton announced at the start that all our preconceptions about East German cinema were wrong, & he proved it with a clip reel from over a dozen films, culled from his East German Cinema Blog. The excerpts began with a children's fairy tale film boasting psychedelic colors & imagery, & the show was jammed with similarly flagrant displays of imagination.

An extravagantly surreal scene from Die Legende von Paul und Paula references eavesdropping Stasi & shows the title couple making love in a style befitting Burning Man. My film companion & I immediately wanted to see the whole thing. The even more bizarre Ursula, a co-production with Switzerland, has Jesus carrying his cross through a 16th century battlefield in which the combatants use machine guns as well as bows & arrows.

A black & white opera film of Der fliegende Holländer is done in the style of a classic horror movie & looks excellent. A storyline from Automärchen (Motoring Tales) seems to be The Little Shop of Horrors, but instead of a man-eating plant, there's a man-eating car. Other unlikely clips included German hula dancers in blackface, a skinhead biker gang & a fabulously fun 1980s gay bar. Some Germans in the audience helped translate a racy song by Kurt Demmler that accompanies a marionette puppet performing a strip tease.

The compilation ended with several scenes from Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), a beautifully photographed science fiction film, apparently set in the universe's weirdest 70s disco, where the landscape includes trampolines, giant snakes & people dancing like ancient Egyptians.

The event was at capacity, meaning that about 40 people were packed into a funky corner space of Oddball's archives. When we arrived, an old NBC news report was running, showing Daniel Schorr reporting the construction of the Berlin Wall. My movie companion came well-equipped with a bottle of red wine and 2 stemmed glasses, then pulled out a jar of cocktails peanuts halfway through the show.

§ Cinema Soiree with Jim Morton on East German Cinema
Oddball Films
Thurs. Sep. 18 - 8PM

Friday, September 26, 2014

SF Opera: Susannah

Last week I saw Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at San Francisco Opera. I'd never heard it before, & neither had most opera-going acquaintances I asked. The story, set in a closed, traditional farming community, is straightforward, though bleak, & Floyd's music is pretty & lyrical. SF Opera's production was all of a piece. The austere yet picturesque sets nicely depicted the remote, rural locations, & the entire cast could have stepped out of a Grant Wood painting. Sharp-focused projections of natural landscapes provided cinematic backdrops & transitions. When the scene shifted from Susannah's cabin to a church dinner, the chorus was theatrically revealed to have been hidden on stage the whole time.

The performances put a priority on character, acting & projecting the text. In the title role, soprano Patricia Racette was completely convincing as a naive, innocent teenager. Though her high notes sometimes seemed pitchless, her singing was nonetheless persuasive, & her act 2 aria was expressive, sad & moving. Mezzo Catherine Cook was an almost comically judgy church lady, dripping with contempt for Susannah, as well as a bowl of peas.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was a lovable lunk as Susannah's brother, & his voice was consistently radiant & smooth. Bass Raymond Aceto sounded fittingly orotund & dark as the internally struggling Reverend Blitch. Tenor James Kryshak gave an impressive physical performance as a skittish Little Bat, his voice sounding high & clear. I enjoyed hearing tenor A.J. Glueckert's focused & somewhat brassy sound as one of the community's crusty elders.

Conductor Karen Kamensek led securely & had the orchestra sounding lush. The flute & clarinet soloists sounded especially fine. The audience sat quietly during the silences between scenes & gave Ms. Racette a warm ovation. I watched the performance from balcony standing room, where there was plenty of room at the railing. I had fun trading Bayreuth stories with another standee, & I also could not help noticing that the Opera Tattler wore a blue square dancing dress whose color suspiciously matched the dress worn by Susannah in the opera's opening scene.

§ Susannah
by Carlisle Floyd

San Francisco Opera
Conductor: Karen Kamensek
Director: Michael Cavanagh

Susannah Polk: Patricia Racette
Sam Polk: Brandon Jovanovich
Rev. Olin Blitch: Raymond Aceto
Mrs. Mclean: Catherine Cook
Little Bat Mclean: James Kryshak
Mrs. Hayes: Jacqueline Piccolino
Mrs. Gleaton: Erin Johnson
Mrs. Ott: Suzanne Hendrix
Elder Hayes: Joel Sorensen
Elder Gleaton: A.J. Glueckert
Elder Mclean: Dale Travis
Elder Ott: Timothy Mix
Two Men: Jere Torkelsen, William O'Neill

Tue 09/16/14 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

Saturday, September 20, 2014

MVFF37: Soul of a Banquet

Last week I saw a preview of Soul of a Banquet, a modestly produced documentary by Wayne Wang about San Francisco restaurateur Cecilia Chiang. In the first half, Ms. Chiang, now a charming & august woman in her 90s, describes her privileged childhood in China before the war & then how she came to open the Mandarin Restaurant in the 1960s, despite feeling excluded by the Cantonese speakers of San Francisco's Chinatown. Alice Waters & food writer Ruth Reichl provide additional culinary & sociological commentary. It adds up to an oral history of a certain class of Chinese in the 20th century. Ms. Chiang's tragic account of her 1972 visit to China is riveting.

The film's 2nd half documents a fancy private banquet hosted by Ms. Chiang in honor of Alice Waters. The camera gives us many closeups of the elaborately detailed preparations & does a good job capturing the textures of the food. Ms. Chiang explains each course to her guests with a story, & the theatrical meal includes paper-thin slices of abalone, 2 tantalizing pork belly dishes & a chicken baked in a clay casing which has to be shattered with a hammer when it's ready to be served. Soul of a Banquet will screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 5th, with Mr. Wang & Ms. Chiang attending. There is a repeat showing on October 7th.

§ Soul of a Banquet
Wayne Wang, dir., US, 2014, 78 mins.

§ The 37th Mill Valley Film Festival
Sun, Oct 5 5:00 PM, Rafael 1 (Special Screening with Wayne Wang and Cecilia Chiang)
Tue, Oct 7 2:15 PM, Sequoia 1

Friday, September 19, 2014

MVFF37: Two Days, One Night

Last week's press announcement for the Mill Valley Film Festival included a preview of Two Days, One Night, a drama about social responsibility, set in Belgium. Actress Marion Cotillard is sympathetic & believable as a working-class mother returning to her factory job after a nervous breakdown. She discovers that the company prefers to fire her & give her remaining co-workers 1,000€ bonuses out of the cost-cut. Her co-workers will vote for keeping her job or the bonus, so she spends a grueling weekend visiting each of them at their homes & pleading for her job. The movie is photographed with a bright, sharp clarity & is humorlessly realistic. The run-up to the vote at the end of the film provides built-in suspense. Two Days, One Night will play at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 11 & 12.

§ Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, dirs.
Belgium, France, Italy, 2014, 95 mins.

§ The 37th Mill Valley Film Festival
Sequoia 1, Sat, Oct 11 5:45 PM
Rafael 1, Sun, Oct 12 2:00 PM

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mill Valley Film Festival 37 Press Announcement

Last week the California Film Institute held a press announcement at Dolby Labs for the 37th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 2 - 12. Executive Director Mark Fishkin, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, Director of Education John Morrison & Senior Programmers Karen Davis & Janis Plotkin ran through the schedule, mentioning as many films as possible.

There are 2 opening night films: Men, Women & Children, directed by Jason Reitman, & The Homesman, an "anti-Western" directed by Tommy Lee Jones & starring Hilary Swank, who will be in attendance. The 16-year-old Elle Fanning will be a Spotlight honoree, as well as actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking in the biopic The Theory of Everything. Members of Metallica are the festival's Artists in Residence, & each musician has selected a film to present & discuss.

Robin Williams will be celebrated with a free screening of footage from his surprise appearance at the festival, when he improvised an extended routine with Jonathan Winters. The Children's Filmfest has 2 shows in 3D, including a shorts program with a specially created 3D version of the iconic clock scene from Safety Last! There are also shorts programs every day of the festival.

Sweden's top grossing movie last year, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, will be shown, with the lead actor in attendance. Filmmaker Doris Dörrie is represented by her documentary about female marichis, Que Caramba Es la Vida. Laura Dern will receive a tribute at the closing night film, Wild. It's a sign of the times that The Little House is only the only movie being shown as a projected 35mm film.

Just before the press conference began, I got to chat with Ms. Elton, who immediately rattled off a list of documentaries pertaining to the performing arts, including Free, a look at the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, & Capturing Grace, about the Mark Morris Dance Group's classes for people with Parkinson's.

§ Press Conference
Tuesday, September 9, 2014 10:00 AM
Dolby Laboratories

§ The 37th Mill Valley Film Festival
October 2 – 12, 2014