Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Curious Flights Through British Music

The English clarinetist and public relations maven Brenden Guy has resurrected his Curious Flights music series after a year's sabbatical. The opening concert last Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory was devoted to British music from the first half of the 20th century, and it was splendid in its variety and choice of unfamiliar pieces by familiar composers. Brenden is in the blue tie above center, bowing after a sweet performance of Herbert Howell's 1919 Rhapsodic Quintet, surrounded by a quartet from One Found Sound, violinists Christopher Whitley and George Hayes, violist Danny Sheu, and cellist Laura Gaynon.

The concert started with the 1929-1931 Songs Sacred and Profane by John Ireland, who was the teenage Benjamin Britten's drunken, mildly abusive composition instructor at London's Royal College of Music during the same period. The two composers never got along personally, but had a grudging respect for each other's work. Soprano Julie Adams sang the six songs with a large, pretty voice that she needs to learn how to scale down for small recital halls. She was accompanied by pianist Miles Graber.

The first half of the concert ended with a trio of acapella songs by Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. They were beautifully performed by the St. Dominic's Schola Cantorium under Music Director Simon Berry. I had never heard them before, but they were so good it almost made me want to go to one of St. Dominic's Solemn Masses to hear them in action again. My Spirit Sang All Day by Finzi to a poem by Robert Bridges and RVW's Valiant for Truth from a poem about death by John Bunyan bookended one of the late, great Auden/Britten collaborations, The Shepherd Carol, which I didn't even know existed. Auden wrote the poem while they were both in the U.S. fleeing the onset of World War Two, and suggested it be set as either a jazz tune or a folksong, and Britten chose the latter for a 1944 BBC commission after he returned homesick to England. Soloists from the chorus sang four nonsense verses, such as:
If I'd stacked up the velvet,
and my crooked rib were dead,
I'd be breeding white canaries
and eating crackers in bed
followed by an exceptionally lovely chorus to the words:
O lift your little pinkie,
and touch the winter sky.
Love's all over the mountains
where the beautiful go to die

After intermission, we were treated to Arnold Bax's 1929 Sonata for Two Pianos, played by Peter Grunberg and Keisuke Nakagoshi in a rambunctious and exciting performance. I have listened to both pianists for years during rehearsals as accompanists for various groups including the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Symphony, and Opera Parallele. They were almost always the most interesting musical performers in the room.

Hearing them play together for the first time, in unfamiliar but intriguing music, was a complete treat. I hope they team up again, and their performance of the Bax made me want to listen to all his music, including the seven symphonies.

The final piece was Britten's Opus One, Sinfonietta, for five strings and five winds in a stirring performance conducted by John Kendall Bailey that underlined how gifted the composer was at a freakishly young age. In the Humphrey Burton biography of Britten, he explains the British music scene in 1931:
[William Walton]...seemed to bring a much-needed breath of modernism into a musical scene dominated on the one hand by Elgar and the Brahms imitators (the Parry–Stanford school) and on the other by the "English pastoral" composers led by Vaughan Williams and Holst, with Delius, Bax and John Ireland closely following behind. Sir Michael Tippett recalls that "Elgar was already an older figure, and the general critical view at the time was that Vaughan Williams was the way that English music should go–it was backed by the whole establishment, especially The Times."
Saturday's concert was a good reminder that many of the outmoded British composers from both schools wrote some gorgeous, interesting music, and that yes, Britten surpassed them all in a blaze of genius.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Scott Greene's Beautiful Dystopia at Catharine Clark Gallery

The Catharine Clarke Gallery near Potrero Hill hosted a closing reception on Saturday afternoon for Scott Greene's show, Deep State.

The 57-year-old artist above was a local boy who studied at the SF Arts Institute and Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts before moving with his artist wife to New Mexico a couple of decades ago.

The sheer quality of the classical style painting is breathtaking...

...while the dystopian subject matter of a world falling apart, object by object, is paradoxically disturbing.

Jesus and other classical figures occasionally appear as characters, and in one case it is Mitt Romney on horseback complete with Groucho Marx nose and moustache riding through the ruins.

If I had any money, I would have bought a painting immediately from Ms. Clarke above, who was hosting a roundtable discussion about "scale" in different mediums.

Outside the gallery on Utah between 15th and 16th street, the scene looked like a Richard Diebenkorn or Wayne Thiebaud painting with the addition of street people camping on the hilly, sun-drenched sidewalk.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Pakistan Independence Day Mela in Civic Center

San Francisco's Civic Center hosts various ethnic cultural celebrations over the course of the year, including the Pakistan Independence Day Mela (gathering) which was held last Sunday afternon.

The food is great...

...and there is usually a riot of color.

Booths are set up around the perimeter selling the "greatest rice in the world"...

...and beautiful clothing, while Pakistani pop music is played live onstage.

My favorite sight this year was a pair of tiny boys trying to hold a huge Pakistani flag upright in the Civic Center winds with varying success.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mr. Robot Finale Postponed

If you sat down to watch the 10th episode and season finale of Mr. Robot on Wednesday being broadcast at 10PM on the USA Network, this was the message that greeted you. And if you have not been watching Mr. Robot, you should be. It is a brilliantly written and produced summer TV series about a computer hacker trying to bring down Evil Corp. Since the entire show is filtered through the unreliable, subjective viewpoint of a sensitive, mentally ill genius, everyone in the show actually refers to the worldwide conglomerate as Evil Corp, with its parody of Enron's logo as the ubiquitous banner.

It's the first piece of visual narrative that succesfully taps into the Edward Snowden/Chelsea Manning/Anonymous/Arab Spring Social Media moment we are living in presently with all its accompanying paranoia. The young Egyptian actor Rami Malek plays the hero, Elliott, so sensitively that even at his most insane all you want to do is give him a hug and a sandwich, as Tom & Lorenzo once stated. Check it out.