Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Half-Naked Ballerina Fire Alarm

A couple of hours after Monday morning's 4.3 Bay Area earthquake, there was a fire alarm at the San Francisco Ballet building on Franklin Street.

In the bright noontime sun, the ballerinas looked rather shockingly undressed...

...as they happily crossed the street to safety...

...in the park next to the Opera House.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Greek Independence Day Parade

Market Street and the Civic Center were shut down to traffic on Saturday afternoon as the small Greek Independence Parade made its way through San Francisco.

There was a reviewing stand across from City Hall...

...where folk dancers showed off their moves...

...in what looked like bursts of joy.

Like most other ethnic parades in San Francisco, the contingents were multi-culti...

...and included mostly Asian-American JROTC groups and marching bands.

According to the Hellenic Communication Service (click here), Greek Independence Day is actually on March 25th. "It dates from the The War of Independence begun in 1821, rising up against 400 years of occupation and oppression by the Ottoman Turks. The origin of the Turkish occupancy began in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople (currently referred to as Istanbul). All true and faithful Hellenes living in their occupied homeland reacted to the Turkish oppression and resisted the attempts to deprive the Greeks of their heritage, their freedom and their religion."

Though plenty of problems remain, in the last decade relations between the two countries have become as warm as they have ever been in history, which is one of the more promising things one can say about today's world.

After the parade was finished, the Hellenic revelers walked across the street to Bill Graham auditorium for food and more dancing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Persian Spring at City Hall

The half-Iranian San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi (above right) held a party on Friday evening celebrating Norouz (one of many spellings), which has been a combination of New Year's and Easter in the Iranian world for centuries before Christ, dating from the prophet Zoroaster.

The holiday actually makes quite a bit more scheduling sense than Easter in that it starts every year at the exact moment of the vernal equinox heralding the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

For the twelve days afterward, everyone is supposed to visit each other's homes...

...with family first and then expanding to neighbors and friends.

According to a Wikipedia article, "One of the traditions associated with the holiday is "Haft Sīn" (هفت سین) or the seven 'S's. The haft sin table includes seven specific items starting with the letter 'S' or Sīn (س) in the Persian alphabet. The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals protecting them. The Haft Sin has evolved over time, but has kept its symbolism."

"Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sīn table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste."

The Haft Sin table was set up in a conference room on the second floor, which had bumped the "Crystal Meth Task Force" from their meeting. Maybe the latter were celebrating Sizdah Bedar, a day of festivity in the open, often accompanied by music and dancing, usually at family picnics.

"Sizdah bedar celebrations stem from the ancient Persians' belief that the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, and each ruled the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the sky and earth collapsed in chaos. Hence Nowruz lasts twelve days and the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos when families put order aside and avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen by going outdoors and having picnics and parties."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bible Camp at the San Francisco Symphony

This weeks' concert at the San Francisco Symphony started with the world premiere of "Music in Dark Times" by Steven R. Gerber (above right), a New Yorker who is reputedly a favorite of Russian orchestras for some reason. The six-movement piece, dedicated to Vladimir Ashkenazy (above left), sounded a bit like 1950s movie music for a bible epic, with only the John Adams derived third movement sounding even remotely modern.

This was followed by a fairly awful rendition of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto played by the young Russian Yevgeny Sudbin (above). Though I'm not a big Beethoven fan, there are a few pieces that I love, and this gentle, Mozartean concerto is one of them. Unfortunately, Sudbin pounded the piano as if it were Scriabin or Prokofiev, and as the Opera Tattler wrote (click here), it felt like somebody stabbing a fork into her forehead.

Part of the problem with the first half of the concert is that regular San Francisco Symphony audiences have been getting spoiled lately. For new music, we've had three weeks of Sofia Gubaidulina whose live music was rich, complex, extraordinary. For a piano soloist, we just heard Martha Argerich who is the essence of poetry at the keyboard. Poor Gerber and Sudbin didn't have a chance.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the 1931 "Belshazzar's Feast," the short, campy, completely over-the-top oratorio for bass and huge chorus by William Walton that was featuring the handsome Canadian John Relyea as soloist.

A few of my young acquaintances after the concert looked at me aghast when I told them I'd thoroughly enjoyed "Belshazzar's Feast," but it helps not to take it seriously. (Click here for The Ambassador who felt intellectually molested by the concert.) Through Tim Hollywood, my first live-in lover back in the 1970s, I met a number of interesting old gay men who were personal friends with Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and so on, and this oratorio was always one of their guilty pleasures.

The piece also sounds like movie music for a biblical epic, but unlike the Gerber, this is the original and Walton went on to a very successful career as a film composer, including the scores for all of Olivier's Shakespeare films from "Henry V" to "Richard III." The symphony chorus did a great job, and I exited in a jubilant mood after the enslaved Jews had once again triumphed over those mean Babylonians.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mark Morris and the Ravages of Time

A set of photographs of the choreographer Mark Morris taken from 1984 to 2006 were being displayed until yesterday...

...at the newly branded Museum of Performance and Design which is on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building on Van Ness and McAllister where the Museum of Modern Art used to display its collection.

The place used to be called the Performing Arts Library and Museum, which had the pleasing acronym of PALM, but somebody decided to change the focus, possibly because the institution is in the middle of a capital campaign to build a permanent museum for its collection relating to performing arts in the Bay Area and beyond.

There were plans afoot to build a new museum at the corner of 3rd and Howard but they've been bumped from that location by the metastatically expanding Moscone Center, so they are currently looking for space in the Civic Center area.

Mark Morris started his own modern dance company in New York at the age of 24 which was quickly lauded by all the important critics, and the young man was on his way.

At the end of the 1980s his group was invited by the infamous Gerard Mortier to be the resident dance company at La Monnaie, which is the main opera house in Brussels, Belgium.

This arrangement lasted for three years until Morris and his troupe returned to the United States accompanying the touring world premiere production of John Adams' second opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer." The dance group hated the opera and wanted to be performing their own work instead, where they were the entire focus of attention, rather than being filagree in a controversial opera about Palestinian terrorists murdering Leon Klinghoffer. I was a supernumerary hostage in that San Francisco Opera production in 1992 and used to hang out at the stage door with Morris, both of us smoking cigarettes like fiends. He was sweet, smart and funny.

He had become something of a monster by the time I saw him again in 2001 at a bookstore signing for a coffee table tome about his evening-length Handel piece, "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato." The book was a labor of love, put together by a gay couple who were groupies, and the evening featured Morris carrying on about a number of subjects with complete brilliance streaked with flashes of cruel, pointed humor, most of which I enjoyed.

He finally found a permanent home for his company in Brooklyn in 2001 after decades of wandering (click here for the very nice website), and he has also stopped dancing publicly because time and bad habits, as these photographs so graphically attest, have taken their toll.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Luisotti's Brahms and Davies After Hours

The San Francisco Symphony inaugurated a new "party series" last Friday night on selected evenings called Davies After Hours.

It seems intended to bring in a younger, hipper crowd than the usual Symphony subscription audience, and there did seem to be more young adults than usual.

The concert itself was a mixed bag, with the new San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti (above) making his San Francisco Symphony debut as conductor. The first piece on the program was the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly's 1933 "Dances of Galanta" which is packed with great Gypsy-inflected tunes weaved into a compact twenty minutes. It's one of my favorite pieces of music in the world, and the orchestra did a fine job with it, although the performance started off a bit sloppy with its offbeat rhythms.

This lively music was followed by Ernest Bloch's 1916 "Schelomo" for cello and orchestra, which sounded like the soundtrack for a bad Hollywood Biblical epic, except not as much fun. It could probably be redeemed by a great cello performance, but Michael Grebanier (above) wasn't that performer.

Anticipation was high for the Brahms Fourth Symphony because Luisotti's conducting appearances in Verdi and Puccini at the opera house in the last couple of years have been so extraordinary. Plus, Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson-Thomas just conducted this music last year during his Brahms Festival so this performance would allow for invidious comparisons between San Francisco's two top music directors.

The first movement of the symphony was fine on Friday night, but after that the wheels started coming off, and by the end of the performance the symphony was an overemphatic, wrongheaded, confusing mess. To say this was unexpected is a serious understatement, and I'm hoping the performance was a singular blip, but it did temper expectations for Luisotti's upcoming tenure at the opera house.

The Davies After Hours party was held in one section of the second tier lobby at Davies Hall and was unfortunately a victim of its own marketing success. About a thousand people showed up to a space that comfortably holds about one hundred people. The twin specters of claustrophobia and earthquake paranoia arose, and I left immediately, but for those who stuck it out, the Mark Growden Sextet supposedly put on a fun show. Let's hope symphony staff can work the bugs out for the next party.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mark Morris Night at the San Francisco Ballet

On Wednesday, March 18th at the Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet continued its season with three ballets that were choreographed for the company by the legendary Mark Morris.

Morris has created seven different pieces for the San Francisco Ballet over the last 15 years and they are easily some of the best works in his huge repertoire. The first ballet of the evening, "A Garden," has a pastoral hippie commune feel that's constantly fresh and beautiful. You never know quite what steps are going to come next but they always feel right.

The music is by the often forbidding Richard Strauss, composing Stravinskian neo-classical orchestral arrangements of Couperin harpsichord pieces. It's some of the sweetest, gentlest music Strauss ever wrote, and the dance expresses it perfectly.

The second ballet was premiered last year in The New Works Festival with a new score from John Adams entitled "Son of Chamber Symphony." According to the composer, Adams' original "Chamber Symphony" from the 1990s is a mixture of Schoenberg's work by the same name and Looney Tunes cartoon soundtracks. It's beyond brilliant, with time signatures that are virtuosic in the extreme but which can be grasped because the texture of the musical ensemble is small enough to hear every instrument.

The sequel is similarly virtuosic, and I have no idea how the dancers are able to count the off-off-off-on-beats that are shooting in every direction, but they do. A special shout-out to dancer Pascal Molat is in order, but the entire ensemble was amazing. They dance it noticeably better than at its world premiere last year and by the time it's in the bones of the company, it will stand among the handful of masterpieces that have been created for the San Francisco Ballet.

The final ballet was something of a dessert. It shared much of the same vocabulary as the previous two dances, but the music was by Leroy Anderson, king of the Boston Pops who wrote "Sleigh Ride" and "The Typewriter Song" among other light classical standards. It was very strange hearing this very silly music after Strauss/Couperin and Adams, but somehow it also worked well.

There were a few moments where Morris nodded at the silliness with his choreography but mostly he played it straight with a huge ensemble of 25 dancers dancing anti-Rockettes routines. Morris isn't interested in the hierarchical structure of a traditional ballet company which has "Principals," "Soloists," and the "Corps de Ballet" in that order. He mixes all three and gives them equal dancing opportunities, and the results are often revelatory. In both "The Garden" and "Sandpaper Ballet," the dancers who really stood out were Diego Cruz, Martyn Garside, Benjamin Stewart, and Davit Karapetyan.

San Francisco spokespersons and politicians often blather on about how this, that and the other is "world-class," which only reinforces what a provincial burg San Francisco really is. There are a few things, however, that really are "world-class," and these Mark Morris ballets being danced by the ballet company they were created for are definitely in that category. You've got one more chance to check it out, this evening, Tuesday the 24th.