Friday, October 30, 2009

Art in Storefronts

In an effort to put a band-aid on the blight of certain neighborhoods, local artists have been asked by the San Francisco Arts Commission to create "Art in Storefronts" in the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, Mission and Bayview neighborhoods.

Helen Bayly and Leanne Miller were working on an ambitious mural for Market near 6th Street, next door to Pearl Art Supply store, but seemed as if they were going to have trouble finishing it for the October 23rd opening fiesta.

That party was essentially just another photo-op for San Francisco's ineffectual mayor, Gavin Newsom, who was addressing a crowd on Market Street.

There's an election this Tuesday with two unopposed candidates for Treasurer and City Attorney respectively, along with five city initiatives, four of which deal with advertising in public spaces.

The worst of the measures is Proposition D, which would allow for bright, digital billboards along Market Street between 5th and 8th Streets which is somehow supposed to mitigate the empty storefronts and criminal lunatics who hang out on the three-block stretch. This would be about as effective as putting an anti-fungal cream on skin cancer. Please vote no on D.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Osmo and Vadim at the San Francisco Symphony

Most of the beautiful usual suspects were at the San Francisco Symphony concert on Wednesday evening, which started with the San Francisco debut of contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen's first symphony. This was followed by the Sibelius violin concerto, with Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture" and eighth symphony holding down the second half.

This was the second week of concerts led by the Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska who is usually found at the Minnesota Orchestra where he's the music director. The reports on last week's concert of Adams, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak were all over the map, but mostly laudatory. The Sallinen symphony, which he wrote at the age of 35 in 1971, is a mostly tonal fifteen-minute piece that just gets more beautiful as it goes along, with tubular bells and a marimba playing off an extensive percussive section. The stamp of Sibelius was all over the symphony, particularly in its use of strings and horns, but Sallinen seems to have his own, otherworldly voice. Please, let us have one of his other eight symphonies or six operas, and bring Osmo back to conduct them.

The Sibelius violin concerto from 1905 is a dramatic, overplayed warhorse that I love, partly because it sounds so different depending on who is having a go at it. This week's soloist is the 38-year-old Siberian superstar Vadim Repin who played the piece exquisitely, with a total lack of schmaltz.

The only problem was that Vanska and the orchestra seemed to be playing another version of the concerto altogether, a wonderful interpretation on its own but not at all integrated with the soloist. There were a few moments, particularly at the end of each movement, where soloist and orchestra blended rather than contrasted but most of the concerto was a strange back-and-forth between restraint and excitement.

Cedric Westphal (above) had an amusing interview with Vadim last week (click here) where the violinist confessed to having just flown into Helsinki after performing in Melbourne, Australia, which was to be followed by a flight to San Francisco for these concerts. By Friday and Saturday's concerts, he'll probably know which continent he is in.

The great British pianist Stephen Hough is currently writing a blog for The Telegraph newspaper that is funny, smart and approachable (click here). In a recent post, he confessed:
"I don’t get Bach, even whilst I understand his towering genius...but I do get Mompou. Perhaps it’s like friendship, we just like certain people and not others; we resonate with certain composers; we are touched by the cracks between their notes; their music has a ’smell’ with which seduces us, leading us willingly into submission beyond analysis or logic. A composer we love is one where we treasure even the dross, even as we recognize that it is dross. Tchaikovsky is one such composer for me."

The composer I don't enjoy "even whilst understanding his towering genius" is Beethoven. The fact that his music is overplayed may be part of the problem, but it really is a matter of taste. My date for the evening, however, thoroughly enjoyed the Coriolan Overture and Eighth Symphony, and so did the "non-scary-German" over at Not For Fun Only.

The Friday repeat won't feature the Sallinen symphony, which is too bad since it is a rare highlight. The symphony will be played again at the Saturday concert at Flint Center in Cupertino, though, so if you live in the South Bay, it's highly recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Doris Duke's Treasures at the Asian 1: Too Rich

A new exhibit has opened for three months at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum called "Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma," which is a little misleading since there are no emeralds anywhere on display.

It would be more honest to call the show "Doris Duke's Southeast Asian Swag," since the vast majority of mostly 19th century objects are from her estate. Even better, they have become part of the museum's permanent collection, and after seven years of work by a small army of restorers and conservators, this is their public debut.

The American tobacco, energy and aluminum heiress Doris Duke lived a life that spanned most of the twentieth century, from her birth in 1912 in a Fifth Avenue Mansion in New York City to her death in 1993 at Valentino's old mansion in Beverly Hills.

There was enough scandal in her life for a dozen different people, including a messy death involving her illiterate, gay Irish butler named Bernard Lafferty, who was put in charge of her multi-billion dollar estate before he drank himself to death three years later in 1996.

Starting in 1935, during her round the world honeymoon cruise with Jimmy Cromwell, she became a collector and hoarder of Asian art, which quietly became one of the most valuable collections in the world.

How the best pieces ended up in San Francisco's Asian Art Museum is a story filled with all kinds of odd twists and turns. One of the most fateful moments was when the late museum board chair Jack Bogart went to New York in 1998 to meet with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. He traveled there to see about getting a grant for the museum's move from Golden Gate Park into the newly revamped building in San Francisco's Civic Center.

Bogart was told that there was an entire coach house at the Duke Ranch estate in New Jersey filled with Asian art and the foundation was thinking of selling it at Christie's auction house. Bogart called the museum's chief curator, Forrest McGill (below), and asked if McGill had ever heard of the collection. "No, I've never heard anything about it, I'm sure it's nothing of much interest," he replied.

As he self-deprecatingly told a group at the press preview, "It was one of the biggest goofs of my entire career. When I did visit the Duke Farms myself in 1998, opening up the doors of this coach house which was the size of a train station was a bit like Ali Baba entering the cave filled with treasures. I could hardly believe what I was seeing."

McGill convinced the foundation that much of the art belonged in public museums, and a deal was struck to split the best parts of the collection with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, offsetting their already existing Southeast Asian holdings. It started with a coin toss for first dibs, which San Francisco won.

In 1996, three years after Doris' death and before the estate was taken away by the courts from the butler Lafferty, a biography was published entitled "Too Rich: The Family Secrets of Doris Duke." It's a mostly sympathetic account by her godson Pony Duke (as you can see, I am not making that name up) and Jason Thomas, while also containing enough salacious tales to stuff a dozen old Harold Robbins novels.

Doris Duke's Treasures at the Asian 2: Siam

The Duke fortune was created soon after the Civil War by a dirt-poor North Carolina farmer named Washington Duke who started the American Tobacco Company, a company that morphed into the American Tobacco Trust which owned and controlled 90% of the tobacco products in the world at the turn of the century. This was broken up in a federal antitrust action in 1909, at about which time the two sons Ben and Buck decided to diversify the family fortune out of tobacco and into energy (Duke Power) and aluminum (namely Alcoa). To Buck's credit, he knew that tobacco was killing his customers and he "decided to slowly liquidate his massive cigarette company holdings."

Just before Washington's death in 1905, Buck married his wild Irish mistress Lillian McCredy in New York but the marriage didn't last longer than a year, possibly because they were both serial adulterers and his detectives were better than hers. After the two Duke sons buried their father and gave a huge chunk of money to Trinity College, which was later renamed Duke University, Ben encouraged his brother to marry a more respectable woman, which is how Buck ended up betrothed to a Southern Belle widow named Nanaline Holt Inman. They had a single child together named Doris.

The succession in the family business and the bulk of the Duke fortune were supposed to go to Ben's son, Angier. However, in 1923 the young heir got into a rowboat at a yacht club near Greenwich, Connecticut along with two male friends and three women. The group had been drinking champagne all night and were on their way to Angier's 76-foot yacht, Althea, for his favorite pastime, "Diddling at dawn." The rowboat overturned and Angier drowned. After the accident, Buck rearranged his financial empire so that everything would go to his beloved daughter Doris through a series of complex, legally ironclad trusts. This didn't sit very well with his wife Nanaline who despised her own daughter and favored her son Walker from her previous marriage, but Buck made sure the stepson received only a relative pittance.

The biography hints that Nanaline probably poisoned Duke in his final years, and when he came down with pneumonia in 1925, she had the butler open all the windows and turn off the heat in the sickroom of their New York City penthouse as a winter storm arrived in the city. "In the South we believe that a sick man needs fresh air," she told the startled butler as she wrapped herself in a fur coat and watched her husband die overnight. The only object Nanaline bequeathed Doris in her own will, by the way, was that same coat.

Partly just to get away from her mother, Doris married the handsome socialite Jimmy Cromwell (above) when she was 21. His family fortune had dissolved in the Crash of 1929, but he managed to keep up appearances well enough that nobody was aware of it. They embarked on a globetrotting honeymoon cruise on the "Conti di Savoia" luxury liner where Doris was filled with hope for the future, for all of 12 hours. As the bio puts it:
"Jimmy entered the stateroom and looked at Doris, who was waiting in bed in her negligee. He seemed very dashing in his morning coat. He looked at his bride as she waited for him to say the romantic words of love that an adoring groom might say on a wedding night. Instead, he lit a cigarette, sat on the side of the bed, leaned toward his excited bride, and said, "My darling, what might I expect my annual income to be?" Doris Duke's body turned cold. "I told that son of a bitch to go straight to hell." He went to the ship's bar."

Sexual desire was sublimated into shopping as Doris bought treasures throughout their eastward honeymoon cruise, which is how her Asian art collection began. "In Bangkok and Shanghai, Doris continued her haggling as she acquired priceless antique rugs, the finest of ivory, tiles, and jade. Every ship that sailed west from the Orient that summer carried crated treasures to be delivered to Duke Farms." It was when they arrived in Honolulu in August of 1935 that she discovered beach boys, surfing and sex.

Her first escort and lover was the Olympic swimming star and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku. From that moment on, she never looked back.

Doris Duke's Treasures at the Asian 3: Burma

The 1940s for Doris Duke were packed with enough drama to fill a trashy television miniseries. In fact, a four-hour version of her biography was made in 1999 with Lauren Bacall as the elderly Doris and Richard Chamberlain as her sinister butler Bernard. Doris was simultaneously carrying on affairs with Duke Kahanamoku in Hawaii, the British politician Alec Cunningham-Reid all over the world, not to mention a dalliance with Erroll Flynn, all the while trying to get a divorce from her despised husband which she successfully managed in Reno in 1942.

From there, she went to Europe for World War Two where she was pursuing Cunningham-Reid while working for the OSS in Cairo. During that same period, she met the infamous Domican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa "with the Rolls-Royce of genitalia," who became her second husband after she paid $1 million to his mistress, the French actress Danielle Darrieux.

The marriage didn't last long, but the two stayed friends, and from there it was on to a series of adventures with the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Louis Bromfeld in the 1950s, a handsome gay decorator named Edward Tirella in the 1960s who Doris accidentally murdered when she crushed him against the gates of her Newport estate in 1966
with her car, and finally paid companions in the 1970s and 1980s from Harlem who would entertain her after all-night sessions at Studio 54. To say that the rest of the Duke family was scandalized and horrified by her behavior would probably be an understatement.

The last chapters of her life were spent mostly at her Shangri-La estate on Diamond Head in Honolulu where she collected odd people, dangled money in front of them, and then banished them into exile. She had conceived two children with Duke Kahanamoku in the late 1930s, but had aborted the first one and intentionally miscarried the second, a daughter who lived two days and who she named Arden. In the final years of her life, a young Hare Krishna con woman named Chandi Heffner convinced Doris that she was the living reincarnation of that daughter and Doris legally adopted her.

This didn't work out very well, and a couple of years later Chandi was banished from Shangri-La. Doris tried to disinherit her, but legal adoptions cannot be undone, so that Ms. Heffner ended up with about $65 million from the estate after Doris' death. Chandi also brought in the notorious butler Bernard Lafferty who basically took over Doris' life in her final years, keeping all family and friends away from her sickbed in Beverly Hills, and making sure she was pumped to the gills with a variety of drugs.

The final quote in the book is from an anonymous relative:
"I don't care whether Bernard snuffed the old girl or not. She was a selfish, self-centered old bitch who never did anything for anyone. If Bernard Lafferty can use some of her money to do some good in the Duke name, I don't care if he fed the old girl champagne and Valium and pills until her stomach exploded."
The authors go on to explain, "Of course, that relative is not in the will."

Happily, the residents of San Francisco are a part of Doris' bequest, thanks to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Her collection is extraordinary and feels right at home at the Asian Art Museum. May her next incarnation be a little less troubled.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

La Fille du Regiment with Les Enfants du Paradis

Some productions at the San Francisco Opera are better seen from the top balcony's standing room section rather than a good seat in the downstairs orchestra section. It is easier from far away to suspend disbelief while watching an older, hefty opera singer playing a slim, youthful character, and to ignore excessive mugging or a wooden performance. Above all, there is the sound which travels up from the stage, hits the roof and back wall of the last balcony, and then reverberates directly back into your ears with a clarity that is breathtaking. (Production photos below by Cory Weaver.)

I saw the fourth performance on Thursday evening of Donizetti's "The Daughter of The Regiment," an 1840 French operetta with dialogue, that particularly benefited from standing with the "children of the gods" for a couple of reasons. The set, consisting of huge topographical maps that created peaks and valleys, was perfectly beautiful from above. With OperaVision screens to our left and right, it was easy to confirm early reviews that there was a lot of overacting onstage, but it was easily ignored.

The real reason to be up there, however, is because the difficult-to-sing music is being performed at legendary levels by the debuting Diana Damrau as Marie and Juan Diego Florez as Tonio, two tiny singers in their prime with unbelievably supple and beautiful voices.

Florez is a known quantity, having already titillated New York Met audiences with 9 high C's in a row and then encoring the aria. Here he's matched and then some by Damrau in her role debut, who is asked to sing rambuctious marches, death-defying trills, and gentle arias one after the other. I was standing by an elderly gentleman who had seen everyone from Beverly Sills to Joan Sutherland in the role over the years, and his jaw literally dropped during the evening.

The opera was conducted by another beautiful young European, Andriy Yurkevych, the music director of the Ukranian National Opera, and he did a superb job, never letting the piece lag. The mostly male chorus was also excellent, particularly since they were choreographed all night to be in one absurd, painful position after another. Also standing out was contralto Meredith Arwady as a very funny rich aunt/mother with a bottomless voice.

There are three more performances: Sunday matinee at 2 on October 25, Wednesday at 7:30 on October 28, and Halloween night at 8. From the looks of Thursday evening's performance, they are not selling out, which is too bad. This is one of those productions where an elderly gentleman is going to be saying thirty years from now, "Ah, but you should have seen this with Damrau and Florez. Now that was something."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners

The coolest music concert of the year was held last Friday evening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Entitled "Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners," it was part historical recreation of an Italian Futurist concert from 1913, and also a leap into the present with contemporary composers creating music for 16 reconstructed "intonarumori."

According to a short, interesting Wikipedia entry, "Each instrument was constructed of a parallelepiped wooden sound box with a metal radiating horn on its front side. Inside the box was a wheel that, when turned by means of a crank or electric button, caused a catgut or metal string to vibrate.

The wheel could be made of either metal or wood, and the shape and diameter of the wheel varied depending on the model. At one end of the string there was a drumhead that transmits the vibrations to the speaker. The pitch of the vibrating string was controlled by both the speed that the wheel was cranked and by the tension of the string, which was controlled by a lever on top of the box. The lever allowed the performer to play glissandos or specific notes, and also allowed the performer to change the pitch by small intervals. The intonarumori often had a range of more than an octave."

Futurism was a short-lived, wildly influential art movement of the early twentieth century which flourished in Italy before the advent of World War One. The poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote the infamous Futurist Manifesto in 1909, which among other things, "rejected the past, celebrated speed, machinery, violence, youth and industry; and sought the modernisation and cultural rejuvenation of Italy." His musical equivalent was Luigi Russolo who wrote a manifesto in 1913 called "L'arte dei Rumori," or "The Art of Noises" which is an amazingly prescient work that anticipates the ideas of John Cage among many others.

Here's another excerpt from Wikipedia:
"Russolo claims that music has reached a point that no longer has the power to excite or inspire. Even when it is new, he argues, it still sounds old and familiar, leaving the audience "waiting for the extraordinary sensation that never comes." He urges musicians to explore the city with "ears more sensitive than eyes," listening to the wide array of noises that are often taken for granted, yet (potentially) musical in nature. He feels these noises can be given pitched and "regulated harmonically," while still preserving their irregularity and character, even if it requires assigning multiple pitches to certain noises."

The period holds a fascination for many people, particularly RoseLee Goldberg (above), who wrote a book in 1979 called "Performance Art from Futurism to the Present," which is still in print in its third edition. After a career as a curator in London and New York, principally at The Kitchen in the latter city, she created a biennial arts festival six years ago in New York City called PERFORMA, which is having its third edition this November. The theme this year is Futurism on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Marinetti's Manifesto.

The organization is attempting to branch out to other cities and institutions, so that this year there was a week-long symposium at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called "Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years," with Friday's concert at the Novellus Theatre the obvious highlight. Goldberg was extremely fortunate to partner up with the Berkeley-based Italian composer, scholar, conductor and performer Luciano Chessa (above) who has also been fascinated by the period all his life. He not only wrote a doctoral dissertation at UC Davis on Russolo, but has just finished the upcoming UC Press book, "Luigi Russolo Futurista. Noise, Visual Arts and the Occult."

Chessa, directing instrument builder Keith Cary with additional help from Dna Hoover, recreated the whole set of 16 intonarumori for the first time in history since their destruction in World War Two, a process which required a lot of detective work.
"A major breakthrough was realizing one of Russolo's primary sources was the set of Leonardo da Vinci's noisemakers," Chessa states in the program.

I went to the concert fearing it would be painfully loud but instead the opposite was true. As Chessa wrote to me when I asked if there had been any amplification used at the concert:
"Absolutely no amplification of any sort for anything, including voices, etc., not even a subtle reinforcement. It was all 100% acoustic. These instruments were originally built for Italian opera houses. It's not that they are soft (we had to run rehearsals in the evening because, in the place where they were housed, the neighboring 9 to 5 offices complained!) but of course they are not as loud as stadium amp towers. I quickly realized playing them in large spaces, instead of being an issue, offered my project another angle: I decide to embrace their features. There is plenty of ear-popping loud music out there. Why couldn't this project be different? Not weaker: just softer and subtler? This was not about blasting loud noises, was not about power: it ought to be about the depth of the grain of noises. More than simply aural education, it was about sustainable, organic, gourmet noises..."

The concert started with a reconstruction of a 1916 piece by one of the original Futurist composers, Paolo Buzzi, called "Pioggia nel pineto antidannunziana." It began with Luciano striding onto the stage with a megaphone, loudly declaiming a parody written by the composer of a famous poem (La pioggia nel pineto) by Gabriele d'Annunzio, "who the futurists hated because he was too traditional and neoclassical (later, d'Annunzio became the main poet for Mussolini's regime). It's a surreal abrasive poem about pine needles, with a chemical formula of an acid, and a reference to Turpentine, etc..."

Chessa then turned around and conducted San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra, who were playing the various intonarumori with skill and evident delight, evoking Russolo's "six families of noise":
1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Humming, Crackling, Rubbing
5. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
6. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

Thirteen pieces written expressly for this concert by a range of composers followed, with varying success. A few of the pieces were dull and self-indulgent (I'm looking at you, "Text of Light") while a few others sounded like instant classics. The most successful for me were pieces that integrated the intonarumori orchestra with traditional instruments, such as John Butcher's "penny wands and native string" featuring the composer on saxophone, Elliott Sharp's "Then Go" with the Korean singer/dancer Dohee Lee giving a mesmerizing performance, and conductor/curator/composer Luciano Chessa's "L'acoustique ivresse (Les bruits de la Paix)" which was a beautiful song for bass (Richard Mix, above left) and noise intoners set to a poem by Buzzi called "Russolo."

My favorite piece that used the orchestra of intonarumori alone was by Mike Patton, a former rock star with the groups Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. Entitled KOSTNICE, the music was strange and exquisite.

You only have two more chances to see this concert, once at Town Hall in New York City in November as part of the Performa 09 festival, and again in Milan in December. San Francisco's Magik*Magik orchestra will be traveling to Manhattan for the concert, but reportedly not to Italy, which is too bad. There were a few funny moments when some of the young performers, furiously cranking their wooden box instruments, looked like they were in one of Wilhelm Reich's infamous orgone boxes. I'd love to see what they look like when even more expert on their various noise intoners.