Friday, October 31, 2008

Avis at The Ritz

Avis was holding court at the Lone Star Saloon last Saturday...

...reading tarot cards for those curious about their futures.

Though I have known Avis for years, I'm not quite sure if she is a transvestite or a sex change. It doesn't really matter since she is sui generis.

She always gets dressed up to read the cards in public, but Saturday's outfit was extravagant enough that it looked like it was cribbed from the "Afghanistan" show at the Asian Art Museum.

It turned out the extra-fancy outfit was for a party she was working later in the evening for the San Francisco Association of Realtors at the Ritz-Carlton. "Where on earth did you get that dress?" I asked her. "Would you believe Goodwill up the street?"

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Zimerman Plays Lutoslawski

This weeks' program at the San Francisco Symphony of Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto and Bruckner's Symphony No. 2 couldn't be any more forbidding if it tried, and Davies Hall on Wednesday evening was only about two-thirds full.

Poland's greatest 20th century composer, Witold Lutoslawski, died in 1994 at the age of 81. He wrote his only piano concerto for a young Polish phenom, Krystian Zimerman, in 1987. 21 years later Mr. Zimerman (above left) is prematurely white-haired and still a completely sensational pianist. To hear him play this concerto live is one of those extremely special events you really should try not to miss, either at today's 2PM matinee or again on Saturday evening.

Between 1986 and 1993, Lutoslawski conducted his own music with the San Francisco Symphony three different times, and I remember going to a couple of the concerts. I never became a real fan of his music, but I always figured the problem was mine because it was never less than interesting, filled with tautness, great rhythms, strangeness, and almost too many ideas.

The San Francisco Symphony's music director from 1985-1995, Herbert Blomstedt, is back at the conductor's podium for a two-week stint and he only seems to be getting better with age. Seventh-day Adventism and vegetarianism really seems to be working for him, because at age 81, he looks younger and more energized than he did 20 years ago.

Having said that, I only made it through the first movement of the 75-minute Bruckner symphony, because if ever there were a composer who is not my cup of tea, it would be old Anton. There are quite a few people who adore his music, but to my ears it sounds insistent, obvious, heavyhanded, and elephantine. If Bruckner is your thing, however, Blomstedt conducts the thing with beauty and total commitment and I'd recommend the entire concert.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

San Fracisco Open Studios

The 33rd annual edition of the San Francisco Open Studios, where artists invite the public into their personal studios to sell their work, has been going on all October in various quadrants of the city on different weekends (click here for schedule).

On Friday evening, I stopped by Nancy Ewart's studio (click here for her account "Chez Namaste Nancy") after an excruciating day at work.

In the same warren of studios at Fifth and Bryant, I also visited Flora Davis who worked with me in a graphics studio at Wells Fargo Bank three decades ago. She gave up graphics to become a fine artist and has moved into metal sculpture pieces (click here for her site), but had decided to try and clear out her older paintings by offering them at fire sale prices. So I impulsively bought a Richard Diebenkorn-like painting by her that is already up in my apartment and which gives me greater pleasure every time I look at it.

In this dreadful economy, it feels good circulating money to people one knows. In fact, that may be my new mantra.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When the Saints Go Marching In

One of the incidental pleasures of living in the Civic Center neighborhood is that you can stumble out your front door and wander into huge public gatherings you didn't even know existed.

Such was the case on Saturday around noon when thousands of Catholics were marching up Van Ness Avenue in front of City Hall.

It was the 5th Annual Pilgrimage for Saint Jude Thaddeus sponsored by St. Dominic's Church in the Western Addition on Bush and Steiner Streets.

The huge crowd started the pilgrimage at 9AM at the fabulously named St. Paul of the Shipwreck Church in Bayview-Hunters Point, and many of them looked seriously exhausted from the long trek.

There were loudspeakers in the back of a truck playing jolly music to help people on their quest.

The crowd seemed to be mostly Latin Americans, but there were plenty of exceptions.

Saint Jude is the patron saint of desperate causes which seems fitting in these particular times. I hope a few prayers were answered.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Afghanistan 1: Hidden Treasures

A stunning new exhibition of treasures from four different archaeological sites in Afghanistan has just opened at the Asian Art Museum.

A press preview was held last Wednesday morning with speeches that were both valedictory and rueful.

Terry Garcia of the National Geographic Society (above) explained some of the back story of the National Museum, Kabul which was bombed in the 1980s during the civil war involving Soviet Russia, and then further trashed by the Taliban when they came to power because they took the religious injunction against iconic representation of humans to serious extremes.

Nobody in the outside world knew what had happened to all the treasures housed in the Kabul museum and there was a fear that they had been destroyed permanently. Instead, a few clairvoyant administrators had packed up about 600 objects in nondescript boxes during the late 1980s, and hid them in a sub-sub-basement of the Presidential Palace. Even more amazing, everyone involved kept the secret.

In 2003, President Hamid Karzai announced that the gold hoard of Afghanistan was safe in the presidential vault while mentioning that there were boxes from the National Museum there too. That's when Fredrik Hiebert (above), an academic working for National Geographic, got involved. After a week of negotiation, the Afghanis said, "If you agree to do a scientific inventory, we will open the boxes for you."

This was followed by "If you find the treasures, we can imagine a beautiful world-wide tour to show everyone that our treasures are safe."

The exhibit started in Europe and has now made its way to Washington, D.C. with stops in San Francisco, Houston and the Metropolitan in New York. "When's it going back to Kabul?" I kept asking people, and the answer was a series of sighs and shrugs since the country is still at war and this time it's the Americans doing the bombing. "The treasures are probably safer traveling the world right now."

Afghanistan 2: Center of Civilization

The first few objects are from Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan, which include a few golden bowls from approximately 2000 BCE. Some farmers discovered the site in 1966, and started hacking the bowls apart to divide the discoveries evenly until the government stopped them.

The second site is from an ancient Greek city called Ai Khanum which had been conquered by Alexander the Great.

Most of the work is from 300 BCE, though it wasn't excavated until the 1960s and 1970s.

This is followed by objects discovered in the 1930s in Bergram from a buried warehouse full of intact treasures from the first and second centuries AD that are literally multi-cultural.

Afghanistan sits in the center of the Silk Road, where trade developed between east and west, north and south.

Its central location has also made it the scene of invasions from time immemorial with Alexander and Genghis Khan only two of the most prominent.

It's no wonder that their long warrior traditions have essentially made them invincible to everyone from the British to the Russians to the Americans.

Or as the inscription on the National Museum of Afghanistan states, "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."

Afghanistan 3: Gold

During the press preview, the curator and archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert was most excited when relating the story of being on an archaeological dig in a neighboring "stan" country with his mentor Viktor Sarianidi, a famous Russian archaeologist.

"At night on the digs, we used to sit around a huge bonfire and tell stories. Somebody asked Viktor what his most exciting discovery had been, and he immediately replied 'Tillya Tepe in Baktria just a couple of years ago.' It was six royal graves from the first century filled with the most beautiful gold work he had ever seen."

He deposited the treasures in Kabul in 1979, photographed them in 1982, and didn't know if they even continued to exist over the next 20 years.

The gold pieces are exquisitely delicate, meant for nomadic people who carried their wealth with them in collapsible crowns such as the one above.

"That's what we're all going to be doing soon," I told the museum's director, "once this economy completely implodes," which was met with nervous laughter.

The museum is offering timed admissions to keep the crush down but there are no special surcharges like the silly King Tut exhibit slated for the deYoung next year, and the first Sunday of the month is free admission.

It seems that the Bay Area, specifically the Union City/Fremont area, is home to the largest population of Afghanis in the country, so a number of interesting events have been planned for that exile community. Click here to see a schedule.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Boris Godunov

Modest Mussorgsky's "original" 1869 stripped-down version of his famous Russian opera, "Boris Godunov" opened on a warm Wednesday evening at the San Francisco Opera, and the reviews are all over the place. (Click here for "The Opera Tattler" who wasn't all that amused, click here for Joshua Kosman at SFGate who was enthralled, and click here for Janos Gereben at SFCV who was longing for the plusher, later version of the opera.)

In the first three scenes of the opera, I make cameo appearances as a religious pilgrim, a priest (above) at the coronation of the Tsar, and a monk in various hot, uncomfortable outfits and a serious beard.

It's all worth it for the Coronation scene where Frank and I carry a large, gold prop bible to the front of the stage, kneel and then listen to Samuel Ramey sing his monologue in my ear, followed by 80 choristers singing variations on "Slava." We've been instructed at the finale of the scene to walk with our monster bible to the edge of the stage over the orchestra pit, but the vertigo induced by being in the middle of this huge vortex of sound created by the orchestra and chorus is almost overwhelming. I'm afraid we're going to topple into the orchestra pit and kill ourselves. You have six more chances to see if that happens.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lighthouse for the Blind Art Show

An art opening in the basement of San Francisco's City Hall was sponsored Tuesday evening by the neighboring Lighthouse for the Blind and the Visually Impaired (click here).

I attended the art party with my good friend Louisa, who volunteers with an elderly blind lady in the East Bay.

For some reason, I was feeling ridiculously clumsy this evening and kept bumping into people. "Sorry, I didn't see you," went through my brain but thankfully not my lips.

The best part about the annual event is the guide dogs which plopped themselves all over the marble hall.

It gave the affair a nice hippieish, bohemian feel.

Plus, the dogs got to make a few new acquaintances...

...while their artist companions got to glory in their acclaim.

CBS Channel 5 Entertainment Personality Liam Meyclem was a mercifully brief host as we drank wine...

...and talked to one of my favorite artists in the exhibit, Michael Jameson from Santa Barbara who had a whole series of "solar etchings" of personal heroes...

...including the wolf and the raven.