Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Shanghai Lounge

The special exhibits room on the second floor of the Asian Art Museum has recently been turned into something called the Shanghai Lounge...

...with an uninteresting wall of computers with "New Media" about Shanghai...

...a wall to hang art messages created by visitors to the Shanghai exhibit on the floor below...

...and best of all, a display of woodcuts created by 14 teenagers who were part of this year's ArtSpeak summer program at the museum.

The woodcut and its print (above by William Yu) are displayed side by side...

...and a portfolio of each print has been given to their fellow artists and to a girls school in Shanghai ("Moo" is by Feibi Mcintosh).

Winner of the most up-to-the-moment piece is the Muni rant above by Imen Yeh which is priceless.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alondra de la Parra 2: America

The Grand Finale of the San Francisco Symphony's summer pops season was conducted by Alondra de la Parra (above) again in an all-American music program that contained a few interesting musical wrinkles you wouldn't expect to hear at a pops concert. For instance, the curtain raiser was John Adams' 1986 "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," followed by Copland's final 1971 orchestral work "Three Latin-American Sketches," which was succeeded by that mysterious standby of the musical avant-garde, Ives' 1906 "The Unanswered Question."

Though it probably needed more rehearsal, the Adams was lots of fun and sounded exactly like the composer's description: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" The Copland sounded like charming plagiarism, and the Ives was soft and strange with the audience holding its collective breath.

The first half ended with Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," a piece of patriotic propaganda from 1942 that surrounds spoken excerpts from Lincoln speeches about war with banal musical claptrap. It's not aging well.

The Lincoln narrator was none other than Chris Noth from "Law and Order" and "Sex and the City." Alondra de la Parra, who lives in New York, confessed to having watched the latter religiously, and was obviously thrilled to be sharing the stage with Mr. Big himself.

The second half of the concert started with a wildly loony set of variations on "America" by Charles Ives which had been orchestrated by William Schuman. This was the first time I had ever even heard of it which is a surprise because it's one of the most amusing pieces Ives ever wrote. According to the program notes, "Ives said that his father would not let him play the two [organ] interludes in concert "as they made the boys laugh out loud."

Then it was on to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in its original small jazz orchestration in a great performance from the symphony and a so-so rendition by pianist Sara Davis Buechner (above left).

The finale was a gorgeously orchestrated version of Gershwin's "Strike Up The Band," followed by "76 Trombones" from "The Music Man," complete with members of the UC Berkeley Marching Band strutting down the aisle.

To complete the effect, there was a balloon drop while the orchestra played "San Francisco." De la Parra looked radiant and I hope she gets invited back soon.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Alondra de la Parra 1: The New World

The San Francisco Symphony's summer pops series finally acknowledged climate reality and billed this year's edition as "Cool Nights. Hot Classics" since the city is invariably shivering in fog and freezing winds in July. They also delivered on the second half of their marketing promise with four different programs conducted by a new favorite, the 29-year-old Alondra de la Parra (above right), who debuted here last fall with the symphony's Day of the Dead concert.

Last Thursday's concert started with a Duke Ellington piano and orchestra piece called "New World a-Comin'" performed by an impossibly young looking Charlie Albright, above, who played with his nose about an inch from the piano keys but who sounded great.

This was followed by an arrangement of "Old American Songs" by Aaron Copland sung by former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Lucas Meachem, above. He had a difficult time making himself heard over the orchestra in the large Davies Hall barn, except for "I Bought Me a Cat," which was a reminder of what a good actor Meachem can be.

The first half of the concert ended with the finale from Ferde Grofe's 1931 "Grand Canyon Suite," complete with wild storm music, and the orchestra gave a convincing account of music that can sound like schlock.

The crowd throughout the evening, though dressed down and containing plenty of children, was remarkably attentive and actually behaved better than the usual subscription audience. They applauded between movements in the Dvorak symphony, but it was a good enough performance that the clapping was well-deserved. There was even a minor celebrity in attendance, Coach (above), who was one of the returning villains in this year's edition of the reality TV show, "Survivor," which was billed as a showdown between "Heroes vs. Villains."

The second half of the concert was devoted to Dvorak's ninth symphony, "From the New World," which has more memorable tunes than you can believe. Music so overexposed can easily be dull but this performance sounded fresh, committed and beautiful. De la Parra, above, is a wonderful conductor, and if she can make the orchestra sound this good with such little rehearsal, think what she could do with a regular season concert. It's also nice to see a crack in the door of the Conductors' Boys Club, even though Alondra is still a gender anomaly in our advanced twenty-first century.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Merolini Make a Scene

The San Francisco Opera's summer training for young artists, the Merola Opera Program, had its first public concert at the Herbst Theatre a week ago with ten singers and a small orchestra performing five extended scenes from various operas. The program is going to be repeated FOR FREE at the Yerba Buena Center gardens on Sunday afternoon tomorrow at 2 PM. If you're in the neighborhood, you should definitely check the concert out because there are plenty of delights in the cast. Also, there might be more room at the outdoor garden than there was on the tiny Herbst Theatre stage, where the acting area was a perilous narrow strip in front of a row of chairs and tables.

The first scenes are from Handel's 18th-century "Rodelinda" and since there were no supertitles, there was an explanation of the plot in the program that was so convoluted it was hilarious. Adding to the silliness was the overuse of a stiff baby doll prop wrapped in a blanket which kept being passed from one singer to another (from left to right, Ryan Kunster, Robin Flynn, Rebecca Davis, Kevin Ray). When Kuster pulled out a knife and sang his evil Garibaldo aria, I was half hoping that he was going to commit infanticide.

The second scene was a tortured aria for Charlotte in Massenet's "Werther" opera, sung by Renee Rapier (above right) who sounded more like a contralto than a mezzo to me. She ended up being inadvertently upstaged by the exquisitely beautiful voice of Janai Brugger-Orman (above left) playing her sister Sophie.

The other ready-for-major-stages voice was tenor Eleazar Rodriguez who was in "The Music Lesson" scene from Rossini's "Barber of Seville." He was joined by the singers above (from left to right, Kevin Thompson, Eleazar Rodriguez, Dan Kempson, Ryan Kuster, and Colleen Brooks), who all did a great job, skillfully navigating through some overdone schtick from director Roy Rallo. The other standout was Kevin Thompson who doesn't seem to have his resonant bass voice quite under control yet, but what a voice. I haven't heard anything quite that huge since Robert Lloyd, the great British bass.

After intermission, there was a duet from Smetana's "The Bartered Bride," which is on a top ten list for operas I know by heart but have never seen live. Rebecca Davis, accompanied by Kevin Ray above, sang beautifully.

The finale was an extended scene from a 19th century German operetta version of Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" by Otto Nicolai. Big bass Kevin Thompson sang Falstaff, and Eleazar Rodriguez and Janai Brugger-Orman (above left) as the young lovers at the end of the scene stole the entire show with a perfect love duet. It's worth making your way to Yerba Buena just for that moment.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Asian Art 4: The Four Immigrants Manga

Henry Kiyama (above) came to San Francisco as an aspiring 19-year-old artist from Japan in 1904. According to writer Frederik Schodt, "Kiyama and his friends did not arrive in San Francisco at a particularly auspicious time. There has always been a cyclical component to American relations with Japan, and 1904 was the beginning of the downside of one such cycle. European and Asian civilizations were for very different reasons both expanding, and in California they met head on and clashed."

Kiyama lived in San Francisco for the next twenty-two years, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, trying to become a professional artist while working as a houseboy, clerk and a whole host of other jobs. Some things never change. The photo above, by Gabriel Moulin, is of a life drawing class at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1910, with women and men of all races capturing the naked lady, and it just about defines the word "Bohemian."

In 1922, Kiyama went back for a visit to Japan, married, had a daughter, and when the marriage dissolved the next year, he returned to San Francisco. From 1923 until 1937, he lived and worked in both countries, finally getting stuck in his rural hometown of Japan because of World War Two, although he was still dreaming of Paris.

His artistic masterpiece turned out to be a 52-episode comic strip about four Japanese buddies in San Francisco from 1904 to 1924 trying to survive all the disasters befalling them, large and small. These range from the 1906 Great San Francisco Quake, being mugged after a night on the town, World War One, failing miserably as farmworkers, Japanese-American bank failures, the 1919 influenza epidemic, and losing all their money on The Rice of Colusa speculation market. Even with the continuous background of anti-Asian immigrant legislation being passed, the tone throughout is gently comic. However, there are a few funny jabs for every race and class, which gives the tale some of its flavor.

Kiyama's hope was that the work would be published serially on a year-long basis by one of the Japanese-American newspapers in San Francisco or out of New York, but that never happened, so he finally self-published the strips as a book in 1931 in Japan, and then distributed it in San Francisco. The work is bilingual, in a pidgin English when characters are speaking in that language, and fluent Japanese for everything else, though "handwritten in a very old style of Japanese, difficult even for native speakers to read today," according to Frederik Schodt, the San Francisco writer/translator (below right) who stumbled across a copy of the original book hidden in a university library in 1980. It wasn't until 1998 that he finally published a translation with Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press and rescued from complete obscurity one of the most interesting San Francisco documents ever created.

Schodt writes in his illuminating foreword, "Ultimately, reading the story of Henry Kiyama and his friends is like listening in on a nearly private conversation. Unlike history books written by second- or third-generation descendants of immigrants, or by historians in universities, or even unlike accounts by Japanese who went back to Japan and wrote about their experience for the Japanese market, "The Four Immigrants" is written by a first-generation Japanese immigrant for other Japanese first-generation immigrants living in California."

The only book I can think to compare it with is the early "Tales of the City" serials by Armistead Maupin, but this has the additional attraction of drawings. Its wonderful mixture of humor and sharp observation ends up as a perfectly bittersweet documentation of San Francisco and a group of friends at a moment in time. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Asian Art 3: Toshio Aoki and Chiura Obata

Adjoining the Japanese Friendship Dolls at the Asian Art Museum is a small display about early Japanese immigrant artists in San Francisco that cries out for a larger, more comprehensive exhibit because historically, artistically, and sociologically the subject is fascinating.

The painting two panels above is by Toshio Aoki (1853-1912) who had already won prizes at the Paris Salon before he came to lecture at the ladies' Sketch Club in San Francisco in 1896.

Also represented is Chiura Obata (1885-1975), an extraordinary artist whose paintings and watercolors of Yosemite are particularly well-known. Obata came to the U.S. at age 17 in 1902 where he worked as an illustrator and commercial decorator, including the "Oriental Rooms" for Gump's department store pictured above.

He also designed the great-looking set for a 1924 production of "Madama Butterfly" at the newly formed San Francisco Opera in the same year Congress passed the Immigration Act banning further Asians from entering the country.

In 1932, Obata became an art instructor at UC Berkeley and ran an art supply store on Telegraph Avenue with his wife Haruko, was rounded up for the internment camps during World War Two (where he also taught art), and returned to the university where he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1954. The 1922 watercolor above is of Baker Beach looking toward the Marin headlands, pre-Golden Gate Bridge.

The real revelation of the display, however, was discovering "The Four Immigrants Manga," a pioneering, bilingual graphic novel from 1931 by Henry Kiyama that was recovered from the trash heap of history by San Francisco writer and translator Frederik Schodt in 1999. More on that subject in the next post.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Asian Art 2: Friendship Dolls

Next to the Japanese baskets at the Asian Art Museum is a small special exhibit devoted to the uneasy love/hate relationship between Japan and the United States from 1854 to the early part of the twentieth century. (The Japanese "abbreviated map of all the world's nations" above is from the early part of the 19th century.)

1854 was when Commodore Perry forcibly opened up Japan to the West, which initiated a craze for all things Japanese in the United States, until racism towards its immigrants and growing fear about its modernized military and industrial might led to the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively banned all new Japanese immigrants from entering the United States among other exclusions.

There are fascinating prints of a rapidly modernizing Japan, and a few of the Western players in that process, including Eugene Miller Van Reed (below), who died on one of his Pacific voyages and was buried in 1873 at Lone Mountain in San Francisco.

The discreet, read-between-the-lines signage at the museum states:

"In 1859, Van Reed went to Japan to seek his fortune as a merchant, an arms dealer, and later the founder of his own trading company. Van Reed was also responsible for the first organized emigration of Japanese laborerers in the modern era. In 1868 he arranged for the transport of 148 men to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. Their treatment of these laborers on the plantations became a source of controversy among the governments of Japan, Hawaii and the United States."

In 1927, as part of a public relations attempt to sway the attitudes of youth from both nations, a set of 57 "Friendship Dolls" were sent from Japan to San Francisco and a concurrent set of American dolls were shipped to Japan.

While dolls in America were considered children's playthings, in Japan they were revered as artworks, and the objects with their elaborate trousseaus are amazing.

The set of 57 Friendship dolls traveled the United States for two years, stopping in hundreds of cities, an ironic counterpart to the newly legislated exclusion of their flesh-and-blood compatriots, who would not be allowed to legally immigrate to the United States until 1952.

For an interesting essay on the subject by Ken Ikemoto, who works at the museum in its Education department, click here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Asian Art 1: More Japanese Baskets

Just off the escalator on the second floor of the Asian Art Museum is a tea room surrounded by the Lloyd Cotsen collection of Japanese baskets.

The designs are too cool...

...and the constantly rotating collection is always filled with surprises.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

AAE Vocabulary Games

The World Cup broadcasts in Civic Center Plaza seem to have inspired a teacher at the nearby American Academy of English on Golden Gate Avenue to teach English vocabulary via a relay race game on the lawn.

The school offers crash courses in English and prep courses for American colleges, and from the look of this group, the students come from all over the world.

The game involved running across the lawn and matching up a word with its definition, or at least I think that was what they were doing.

After a student had completed a task, their pretty young teacher in a yellow sun dress would yell, "Now RUN!!!" It seemed a lovely way to learn funny English words on a sunny day.