Saturday, November 22, 2014

Road Construction Ahead

I have been living in the center of a construction zone for over a year, with the Veterans Building across the street being retrofitted and reconstructed.

For the last three days, the ante has been raised with a major repaving project along McAllister Street from Gough to Polk that involves jackhammers early in the morning.

To keep irritation away, it is best to pretend to be a two-year-old boy watching the 1991 Fred Levine video classic, Road Construction Ahead with its heavy equipment working hard.

My nephew Marshall watched it at least 1,000 times before the age of four.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On The Silk Road with Pamela

The Asian Art Museum holds a monthly members' event called Tour, Talk and Tea. Last Saturday museum docent Pamela Fischer above gave a wonderfully helter-skelter tour of the museum's permanent collection illustrating centuries of porous east and west trade on the Silk Road of raw materials, finished goods, philosophies and religions.

The group was a bit grouchy at first because the event had been advertised as a tour of The Roads of Arabia exhibit rather than an improvised Silk Road. Pamela was also making them climb staircases, and wind through obscure doorways and exhibit rooms to arrive at the next treasure.

We started just off the main staircase with classic blue and white Chinese porcelain. Pamela announced that the blue was made with cobalt which wasn't mined in China but came from Persia thousands of miles away. The finished porcelains then became a luxury good in Western Asia, and Pamela noted that the best collection of this pottery can be found today in Istanbul.

Silk was not cultivated in the West until the 7th century when a couple of silkworm eggs were smuggled out of China to the Mediterranean. Bolts of silk became a form of currency, used to buy horses from Uzbekistan in the 4th century to equip a Chinese army. "Before that, all they had were Mongolian ponies," Pamela said.

The story of how Buddhism spread from northern India to the remainder of Asia is filled with all kinds of twists and turns. Tibet was once the center of a powerful empire that spread northward, and it could shut off Silk Road trade any time it desired. In the eighth century, the Tibetan king SongtsÃĪn Gampo was offered a Chinese Tang Dynasty princess, Wencheng, and a Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, as tribute. Both princesses were Buddhists and soon their husband was too, followed by the entire empire.

The Seated Buddha above who looks like Gertrude Stein turns out to be the oldest dated Chinese Buddha sculpture in the world, from the year 338. The style came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan area when traders would wear small Buddha talismans as they traveled on the network of trails known as the Silk Road..

One of those traders is represented in the sculpture above, in a room devoted to precious "favorite things" found in Chinese tombs.

For Pamela, the exhibit room was a multicultural treasure chest of east and west influencing each other.

The final stop was the opening exhibit hall at the top of the museum where 4th century Buddhas stare out, looking remarkably like Western, specifically Hellenic, sculptures. The pieces were from the Afghanistan area, and Pamela reminded us that Alexander the Great had launched armies all the way to the Indus River and had left plenty of soldiers behind in those lands.

I walked out of the museum with my brain buzzing. If you'd like to join Pamela for a Roads of Arabia tour, her schedule is as follows: Tuesday, December 16th at 3:00, Tuesday, December 30th at noon, and Tuesday, Jan 13th at 3:00 PM.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mobile Series 5

Monday evening rush hour, 5:15 PM on a 21 Hayes outbound bus from San Francisco's Financial District, started off civilized but quickly devolved.

Near Sixth and Market Streets, a wheelchair user demanded to be let on the bus even though the vehicle was already packed with commuters going home. The passengers in the rear couldn't see what was happening in the front of the bus, but we could hear the action as people started screaming, "You're running over my foot" and "Ouch! What the hell are you doing?"

Then we heard a woman's voice yelling, "Get out of my way! Don't touch me! I'm disabled," which was answered by another woman's voice that shouted, "That's probably because you were down on Market Street smoking crack!" The response was, "Shut up, you motherf---ing white bitch."

The cacophony continued for another six blocks until we reached Van Ness Avenue and Hayes. A middle-aged man in a wheelchair with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips also demanded a ride. The scene felt like an outtake from a John Waters film and quite a few of us got off and left the movie early.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rapunzel Lets Down Her Hair at BluePrint

Conductor and professor Nicole Paiement presented a rich, theatrical, fascinating concert last Saturday as part of her BluePrint contemporary music series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The evening started with the first scene from Lou Harrison's foray into twelve-tone vocal writing in his 1953 opera Rapunzel. It's an adaptation of a poem abstracted from the fairy tale by the 19th century poet/designer/political philosopher William Morris, and it was so interesting I wish that Paiement and singers Cara Gabrielson, Mariya Kaganskaya and Sergey Khalikulov had continued through the whole hour-long opera.

Instead, we heard what was billed as a world premiere of Natural Systems by the 31-year-old composer John Glover with lyrics by Kelley Rourke above. The theme was the early 18th century naturalist Carl Linnaeus and his system of naming nature.

The orchestral writing was skittish, propulsive and absorbing while the vocal writing struck me as underwhelming. Baritone Daniel Cilli above gave a very good performance, though, with excellent diction and theatrical flair in the recited sections.

After intermission we were treated to a flute concerto called Terrestre by Finnish composer Kaiha Saariaho.

This was the only piece on the program without text so BluePrint decided to create a ballet on one side of the stage to keep it theatrical with dancers Dudley Flores and Vanessa Thiessen performing choreography by KT Nelson.

The dancing was charming but they were consistently upstaged by the extraordinary performance of flute soloist Bethanne Walters above. The entire chamber orchestra of two harps, a violin, cello, and percussion accompanying her were also top-notch.

The final piece was another take on the Rapunzel story by the recently deceased Conservatory professor Conrad Susa. It was taken from his most successful composition, a 1973 opera called Transformations that musically illustrates a series of poems telling twisted versions of classic fairy tales by the defiantly neurotic poet Anne Sexton. I had forgotten how dark the story of Rapunzel is. A prince tries to rescue a princess in a tower imprisoned by a witch, but he's foiled by the old crone and is blinded by thorns as he falls to the ground from the tower. Years, maybe decades later, he hears Rapunzel singing, calls to her, and her tears at his condition fall on his eyes and cure his blindness. In the Sexton version, the relationship between Witch and Princess is explicitly a May/December lesbian love affair that ends unhappily when the princess dumps her for a male prince.

San Francisco Opera used to have a spring opera season where they would perform offbeat, sometimes contemporary operas in smaller houses like the Curran Theater and the Palace of Fine Arts. Transformations was one of the operas they gave in the 1970s/1980s, and I remember it being very successful on its own terms, with lots of interesting vocal music for eight singers and a jazz-style chamber orchestra. It's a perfect piece for student ensembles and surprising that it's not performed more often.