Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pulcinella at the San Francisco Symphony

This week's San Francisco Symphony program starts with a conductorless octet for brass and woodwinds written by Stravinsky when he was living in Paris in 1923. It's about twenty minutes of unemotional, cool, and genuinely interesting music. The eight players gave a wonderful performance on Wednesday's opening night, and by the fourth concert on Saturday evening, they will probably be bordering on the extraordinary.

This was followed by a semi-conductorless performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #23, with the Symphony's longtime music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, as the piano soloist conducting from the bench. This was a brave thing to attempt, since MTT isn't ordinarily a concert piano soloist, and he's ridiculously busy with his extensive conducting career not only in San Francisco but around the world.

Mozart is an odd composer for both performers and audiences. Some people immediately understand Mozart in their bones the first time they hear his music, while others have to work at it, or sometimes just decide that Wolfgang isn't their cup of tea. This doesn't have much to do with good or bad taste, since there are both performers and listeners with exquisite musical taste who absolutely don't get Mozart.

MTT has always struck me in the latter group, with performances of Mozart that are enthusiastic, loving but sounding slightly embalmed. I was hoping that throwing himself into the middle of the orchestra as a soloist might free his Mozart up and make it sound livelier like the renditions of his recent assistant conductor, James Gaffigan. In the event, the performance on Wednesday was something of a train wreck, with a moment in the first movement where he seemed to lose his way altogether, and a slow movement so dirge-like I thought the ghost of Kurt Herbert Adler had arisen from the grave.

All was forgiven after intermission, when Tilson Thomas led a great performance by the orchestra and three vocal soloists in my favorite piece of music by Igor Stravinsky, the 45-minute ballet "Pulcinella," a commedia dell'arte piece for Diaghalev's Ballet Russe in 1920 with sets by Picasso. The music is a moderne Stravinsky "re-orchestration" of about 20 short tunes by the early Italian Baroque composer Pergolesi, though it turns out that he only wrote about 50% of the ur-score. It seems that much of Italian music from that period was subsequently ascribed to Pergolesi whether he wrote it or not because his name was an established brand in later decades.

The brass and woodwinds, who had already warmed up at the beginning of the concert, were superb and confident, and they helped lead the orchestra in a fearless rendition of the rhythmically tricky and extremely transparent score where there is nowhere for anyone to hide.

The three vocalists were Sasha Cooke, soprano; Bruce Sledge, tenor; and in a bit of luxury casting, Eric Owens, bass. They were all good, and their trio in the middle of the piece may be the most beautiful thing that Stravinsky ever (re)wrote. Plus, my favorite detail from the program notes by Michael Steinberg: "The eight vocal pieces have nothing to do with the plot; they are part of the scenery, just like Vesuvius, the boat, and the moon."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Asian Art Museum 2: Masami Teraoka

Continuing backwards into the Monster Japanese Prints room at the Asian Art Museum, there are a couple of pieces by Masami Teraoka, the Japanese pop artist who went from starving student in 1960s Los Angeles to flavor of the 1970s with his groundbreaking bit of multiculturalism, "McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan/Geisha and Tattooed Woman."

In the same vein was the "31 Flavors Invading Japan," one of which is part of the permanent collection.

In the 1980s, he continued working in the same Japanese woodcut print style with an "AIDS" series that is fascinating. The artist is quoted on the signage, "Working on my AIDS series was emotionally intense, and taking a break from it to create uncluttered landscape paintings helped to balance my psyche." The huge, stylized Northern California coastline painting is just about perfect.

The artist lives in Waimanalo, Hawaii with his painter wife Lynda Hess (click here for an entertaining interview in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin), and he has now moved on to mock Italian Renaissance panels that illustrate pedophile priests and homeland security inspecting Venus, among other things. (Click here for the website he shares with Ms. Hess.)

Further down the room is one of my favorite Japanese screens in the permanent collection...

...a centuries-old abstraction on horses taken away from nature.

Nearby is my favorite Japanese Buddha in the museum, an old wooden sculpture that radiates wisdom.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Asian Art Museum 1: Boxes and Baskets

The Asian Art Museum is preparing its special exhibition space for the upcoming "Shanghai" show.

For the first time, the museum is reconfiguring huge chunks of wasted space on the ground floor to allow room for the new exhibit to breathe.

Frankly, it's about time, because there have been too many great shows at the Asian over the last five years where too many treasures have been crammed into too small a space.

I was on the way to the Heart of the City Farmers' Market last Sunday afternoon, and decided to pop my head into the museum and take a couple of photos for my faithful readers.

The place really is extraordinary, particularly in the depth of its collections.

The weird, fabulous Japanese basket display was almost completely different from the last time I visited only a couple of months ago.

I've found that the best way to check out the permanent collection is backwards, starting with the Japanese Baskets, Tea Room, and Monster Screens rooms. For reasons that probably have to do with protection from light damage, the displays tend to rotate ceaselessly. It's never the same place.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Michael Nava at Polanco

The novelist and lawyer Michael Nava held a fundraiser last Sunday for his Superior Court Judge election this June.

It was held at Polanco, the Mexican arts and crafts gallery near Hayes and Gough, which is owned by John Camarillo (above right)...

...with his partner Aldo Picchi (above).

We were greeted at the door by Emmalena Quesada, a friend of Michael's from the Californa Supreme Court where he works as a lawyer and writer for Justice Carlos Moreno.

I was shooting photos for the candidate, and dragged along friends Matthew Hubbard and David Barnard (above) who was so enchanted by an antique wooden sculpture of a saint in the window that he ended up buying it.

The crowd was a mixture of Nava's political friends such as District Eight Supervisor candidate Rafael Mandelman and John Trout (below)...

...along with a sprinkling of fellow novelist and journalist friends...

...such as Paul Reidinger, the restaurant critic at "The Bay Guardian."

The crowd at the event was mostly gay and/or Latino.

To win the judgeship, Nava will probably have to extend himself as a candidate to much wider groups within San Francisco, but it's not a bad start.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Izzies 1: Honoring Local Dance

Most arts awards ceremonies are expensive, ponderous affairs, filled with dreary speeches, and costing nominees and friends lots of money to attend. A major exception to that rule is the annual Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, known as The Izzies, which are short, free, and open to the public.

On Tuesday evening, the 24th annual version of the Izzies were presented in the basement of the San Fracisco Public Library's Koret Auditorium, honoring dancers, choroeographers, designers, composers and musicians who have contributed to the Bay Area dance scene. A few of the awards were for "sustained achievement" by a group, such as the woman above receiving an Izzie for Berkeley's Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center for its 35 years of world music and dance.

There were also a few special awards, such as the one to Dohee Lee (above), the "dancer/musician/vocalist" who seems to work with every interesting performance group in the Bay Area. She was a guest performer at the "Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners" last October at Yerba Buena Center, and just about stole the entire show.

Also receiving a specal nod was Jo Kreiter (above) who recently created a dance about female bridge builders at SOMArts that created a sensation.

The program also featured Academy Awards style competition among five nominees in various categories, with the winners leaping onto the stage for short thank you speeches. In the "Outstanding Achievement in Individual Performance" during the the period between September 1, 2008 and August 31, 2009, Ramon Moreno Acanda (above) from Ballet San Jose tied for the award with Laura Elaine Ellis (below) from Dimensions Dance Theatre.

For a full listing of winners, you can click here to get to The Izzies website.

The legendary local choreographer Carlos Carvajal (above) gave out the final award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography. Carvajal has been the co-artistic director of the SF Ethnic Dance Festival for the last four years, and the maturation of that group was reflected by the seven nominations it received this year against heavyweights like the San Francisco Ballet.

The auditions for the Ethnic Dance Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts are continuing this weekend and next, and the public is invited to the all-day affairs for $10 with in-and-out privileges. For more information, click here.

Carlos prefaced the naming of the choreography winner with, "Well, this is a surprise," as he announced that Scott Wells' contact improvisation piece, "What Men Want," had snagged the award. The dancer/choreographer arrived at the podium with babe in arms, who looked perfectly content to be in the spotlight.

The Izzies 2: The Shoe and The Tattoo

The two emcees for The Izzies were Deborah Brooks Vaughan from the Dimensions Dance Theatre (above left) and John R. Killacky (above right), who is the "Program Officer, Arts & Culture" for the San Francisco Foundation, and he proved to be a lively, funny host.

After Sarah Van Patten (above) accepted the award for "Outstanding Achievement in Company Performance" for the San Francisco Ballet's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," Killacky had her return to the stage so she could display the awesomeness of her outrageous high heeled shoes.

She gamely took off one shoe to display on the podium as he requested...

...and seeing that he had possibly embarrassed the dancer, he offered to show her his tattoo of the logo from Meredith Monk's opera "Atlas," which the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis had commissioned when Killacky was in charge of that institution.

He discreetly took off his tie and part of his white shirt and showed the horse tattoo to Ms. Van Patten and some of the audience. It was charming.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

George Benjamin at the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony started a new series last year, hosting a living composer for a couple of weeks while featuring their music on subscription orchestral programs along with chamber music recitals and lots of interviews with the press and public. Last year the focus was on the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who was given to dour pronouncements but whose music was rich, strange and extraordinary.

This year it's the turn of George Benjamin (above right), a onetime British wunderkind who is just turning 50. He's a charming, articulate interview subject but unfortunately his actual music is rather dreary, a series of complex miniatures that don't amount to very much.

The best part of the concert last week was at the beginning of 1985's "Jubilation," where the Crowden School Allegro Chorus initiated the piece by banging on claves in a simple rhythm before the whole orchestra took up the music and before the kids sang a piercing set of notes over the noisy ensemble. I kept waiting for a sense of actual jubilation to arrive, but instead the music just sort of petered out in a not very interesting way.

The other Benjamin composition on the program was 2004's "Dance Figures," a huge orchestration of nine piano miniatures that hardly lasted fifteen minutes. It was alternately quiet, noisy, complicated and boring, and made me long to see the actual ballet that was choreographed with this piece in Brussels since the music alone wasn't very compelling, even under conductor David Robertson's passionate conducting (above left).

I went to the concert with the pianist Sarah Cahill above, who has a weekly radio show on Sunday evenings on KALW (91.7), and who interviewed Benjamin on the evening after the concert. The interview turned out to be fascinating, but unfortunately the talk about the music was more interesting than the actual excerpts that were played which is not a good sign. For instance, there was an excerpt from Benjamin's recent, first foray into opera, "Into The Little Hill," a treatment of the Pied Piper story written for chamber orchestra, a contralto and a shriekingly high soprano, and the gloomy, ugly sounds made me never want to hear anything by the composer again.

Though Benjamin is the opposite of prolific, he certainly does have his finger on musical politics. He's going to be returning to London after these concerts to celebrate his 50th birthday with a series of gala concerts of his musical work, and is returning to be the conductor and composer-in-residence at the Ojai Music Festival in Southern California this summer. Benjamin's music isn't bad, exactly. I just don't see it being played 50 years from now, and the only thing truly memorable about Saturday night's concert was the insane pair of high heels Sarah and I spotted on a fellow patron.