Sunday, March 31, 2013

Holi Festival of Colours

Festivals heralding the arrival of Spring exist in every culture.

As usual, India has the most colorful variation, with the best food and the most fun.

It is called Holi, a Hindu celebration involving bonfires, the throwing of colored powders, and exuberant mayhem.

I had a freelance job in Silicon Valley last week for a company that employs the usual global mixture found at tech companies...

...including a sizeable East Indian contingent.

Holi this year fell on Wednesday, March 27th, and after a huge Indian feast in the lunchroom, a group of employees ended the work day in the parking lot with the tossing of colored powders at each other.

As the Wikipedia entry puts it, "Holi lowers (but does not remove completely) the strictness of social norms, which includes gaps between age, gender, status, and caste. Together, the rich and poor, women and men, enjoy each other’s presence on this day. No one expects polite behavior; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement, fun and joy."

The celebration was a blast, and though I tried to stay out of the colored fray, the gentleman above was having none of it, and eventually paintbombed me with intense pinkish red powder. It is still coming out of my clothes.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Luciano Chessa and Benjamin Kreith at Duende

In the wilds of downtown Oakland last Saturday, composer Luciano Chessa and violinist Benjamin Kreith gave a concert at Duende, a trendy Basque tapas restaurant. The concert was called Garrett, Confusing Salon Music and Noise, and it thoroughly lived up to its name. I ran into Axel Feldheim from the Not For Fun Only blog, and he's written such a succinct, appreciative account of the afternoon that I am simply going to cut and paste with his permission and add some photos for your appreciation.

Avant-garde performance art shenanigans alternated with appealing violin pieces ranging from Schumann to Mr. Chessa's own compositions. Both musicians enacted their parts with exactness & a sense of purpose.

Mr. Chessa was explosive in his recitation of a Futurist sound poem by Francesco Cangiullo. He pounded on his music stand, imitated singing & bombast, & made words seem like colorful explosions.

He was goofy yet sincere in a Fluxus piece by George Maciunas in which he gently abused a violin. At one point he seemed about to eat the instrument.

Mr. Kreith played his solos pieces with great familiarity and affection. His playing had bite in the ludicrously brief movements of Erik Satie's Le Piège de Méduse.

He wore jingle bells on his right forearm while playing Mr. Chessa's Preludio e Siciliana & maintained a lovely, lilting quality.

In Mr. Chessa's pensive & pretty Analfabeta, Mr. Kreith provided a billowy undercurrent as the composer whispered a poem into a bullhorn, triggered sound samples, & played the piano.

The program included 3 improvisations utilizing an electronically amplified dan bau. I had to cover my ears during the most ear-piercing moments of Mr. Chessa's 1st improvisation. Mr. Kreith played the harmonica with unexpected facility in the 2nd improvisation.

The recital took place on the upstairs floor of Duende, overlooking the restaurant area. Since the space is open, the music competed with the crash of ice cubes being poured, a coffee grinder, & a screaming toddler. The small but receptive audience gave the event the feel of a private salon.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ayyy, Chihuahua!

A strange, Spanish language billboard has gone up in the South of Market neighborhood recently.

The message is from the SPCA, offering free adoption and sterilization for Chihuahua dogs through the end of May, featuring a bizarre image of two tiny dogs wandering out of a woman's head.

Does this have some special meaning, or did somebody just get nutty with Photoshop? Maybe it was yapping noises from nearby Chihuahuas that inspired this slice of surrealism.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Kim Kashkashian at the Conservatory

The Chamber Music Masters series at the SF Conservatory of Music featured one of the preeminent viola players in the world, the 60-year-old Kim Kashkashian above, in a ravishing concert with faculty and students last week. She not only plays with just about every major orchestra and chamber music festival in the world, but Kashkashian had a bizarre brush with wider fame earlier this year when she won a Grammy for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for Kurtág & Ligeti: Music For Viola. According to a Fox News account:
"We know she is carrying Grammy-winning rapper Kanye West's baby, and that she even released an oh-so-thrilling debut single "Jam (Turn It Up)" - but Kim Kardashian won a Grammy of her own during the pre-telecast showdown on Sunday night?! A digital scroll of early winners played on a loop in the backstage area throughout the night, but one of the recipient's names "Kim Kashkashian" caused a serious amount of head-scratching from press and publicists passing by. "Wait, is that a spelling error?" chorused some, while others' jaws dropped to the floor as they pondered the unheard of "talents" exhibited by the reality star."

Kashkashian, not Kardashian, also spent a week at the Conservatory holding master classes and coaching students, and the results were on display in the first piece of the concert, Anton Webern's early (1905) single-movement Langsamer Satz for string quartet. The music sounded a bit like Mahler at his most lyrical and mystical, and the superb student performers were Anna Corcoran & Ji In Kim on violin, Yiwen Zhang on viola, and Minji Kang on cello above.

Kashkashian was then joined on piano by Conservatory professor, pianist (and occasional violist) Paul Hersh above, for Dmitri Shostakovich's final composition, a Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1975 as he was shuttling back and forth between sickbed and hospital. The long, three-movement sonata is one of the bleakest and most beautiful pieces Shostakovich ever wrote, and Kashkashian's performance was spellbinding if you happened to be in the mood for serious Russian sadness.

The second half of the program devoted to Brahms' sunny String Sextet from 1860 was a happy contrast, with Kashkashian playing second viola while joining Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais and Bettina Mussumeli on violins, Laura Gaynon and Natlie Raney on cellos, and Kristin Zimmerman on first viola. Though the ensemble did not quite have the Gypsy rhythms in their cultural bloodlines that makes this Sextet so engaging, they still gave a remarkable performance, and reminded everyone why chamber music is best heard live in a small venue such as the Caroline Hume Concert Hall at the Conservatory. At $20, these Chamber Music Masters concerts are one of the great cultural bargains in the Bay Area.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pastorale 2: Amtrak Nuclear Spring

Vandenberg Air Force Base is a Cold War relic filled with Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles residing in concrete silos.

One of the few ways to experience the very private location between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria is via Amtrak where the Coast Starlight and the Surfliner routes hug the beautiful coastline.

Years ago, I was on this route when a volunteer historical association insisted on telling everyone facts and anecdotes over a loudspeaker during this section of the trip, and the officious narrator said, "The United States Air Force not only Protects Our Freedoms but is also Protecting Our Environment."

"Sure, nuclear missiles as environmental protection," I objected out loud, but looking at the pristine, undeveloped coastline from the train, it seems they had a point.

The Amtrak trip from Santa Barbara to Oakland lasts nine hours. According to rail guru John Burke, the trip used to require only seven hours when the tracks were better maintained and the trains could travel at 79 MPH. Still, service seems to be improving on the system in California, meals in the dining car are getting better, and the views are peerless as you can see.

Avoiding Homeland Security absurdity at airports is another attraction, not to mention the freedom of being able to walk around. Each car has its own attendant, and the majority of them are great captains of their respective containers. In Salinas, there was an announcement of a delay on account of a passenger's medical problem, and after ten minutes, we watched somebody being led off in the rain from the first class Parlor Car in handcuffs. Maybe the wine tasting that started in San Luis Obispo got out of hand, but unlike airplanes, it's easy to eject the sloppy troublemakers.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pastorale 1: Glamping with Doggies

During a trip to visit family and old friends on the Central California coast last weekend, my younger twin sisters Susan and Hilary above hosted a back country picnic in the Upper Oso campground of the National Forest behind Santa Barbara. Hilary, on the right, had just finished chemotherapy and breast cancer surgery with a genuinely inspirational mixture of humor and strength, and she still seemed to have more energy than most normal human beings.

My friend Jack Murray, an 82-year-old retired university professor of French Literature from UC Santa Barbara, once told me on or about my fiftieth birthday, "Oh, the 50's. What a difficult age, where you tend to bury your parents and either get cancer and die, or not."

The prognosis for my sister Hilary's survival is unexpectedly good after this recent ordeal, which means she will probably outlast her Great Pyrenees sheepdog Lopie above, a once-scary dog the size of a small horse and with the jaws of a shark who has turned into one of the great sweeties of the animal world.

The picnic was a rare peek into a strong, intimate women's group where the men, including husbands, sons, and brother, were no more important than the many beloved dogs who had also been invited, which was a good reminder of our respective importance in the order of the universe.

The picnic was something of a squatter's affair since we weren't paying the Park Service for overnight camping but nevertheless appropriated a beautiful site for the afternoon. At one point, a gay couple from Hollywood wearing Brokeback Mountain cowboy hats walked by with their dog. They stopped for a doggie sniffing and chat, where it was discovered they were staying in the spiffy miniature Airstream trailer that every woman in our group sighed over as they entered the campground. The couple kindly let everyone check out the interior of their Airstream and also posed for a photo which is an homage to David Gardner. As we left the campsite, Hilary said they were "glamping," a word hitherto unknown to me which translates as glamorous camping. Sign me up.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Local Music News for the Weekend

With the Berkeley Italian composer Luciano Chessa, I went to SFJAZZ last week for the first of four sold-out shows by the Portuguese superstar Mariza above who specializes in the art of fado, a 19th century song style "characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a characteristic sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia."

The impossibly tall, thin and glamorous Mariza was a bit too belting for my taste, but she was a consummate entertainer who engaged the audience at every opportunity. Plus, she insisted we all stand up and dance for her final two tunes which was a liberating treat.

On the same evening in the same building, Erik Jekabson was performing three sets of Quincy Jones music in the Joe Henderson Lab, with its glassed-in space offering a free, mute show to pedestrians and drivers on Franklin Street. I am loving this new institution more each day.

Meanwhile, the bewildering San Francisco Symphony strike continues at Davies Hall, but there is plenty of classical musical activity that doesn't involve the Symphony, who were actually supposed to be in New York and Washington, D.C. this week.

There are three performances this weekend at the Opera House by the San Francisco Ballet of John Cranko's full-length ballet version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which my friend Janos Gereben claims is brilliant with a beautifully played Tchaikowsky score that deliberately doesn't use any of the composer's music from his own Onegin opera.

On Saturday afternoon from 4-6 at Duende, which I have been assured is the coolest of downtown Oakland hipster tapas and music joints imaginable, Luciano Chessa and Benjamin Kreith will be performing "original pieces, Erik Satie transcriptions, Futurist noise poetry, Robert Schumann, a Fluxus composition, delicate improvisations, and Albeniz-Kreisler" on a wide variety of instruments. The 19th Street BART station is a block away and admission is only $10, so I will be there.

Saturday evening at LaSalle pianos on Market near Franklin will feature an operatic recital called Les Heroines, with half a dozen sopranos singing various femmes from the 19th century repertory. There will be beautiful young women and free French wine, and at $25 (with $15 student tickets), it's a bargain.

While the adults at the Symphony strike over their heinous working conditions and lack of respect from management, the SF Symphony Student Orchestra will be playing a 2PM matinee in Davies Hall on Sunday afternoon with the West Coast premiere of a percussion quartet by the young Evan Chapman called second thoughts along with Tchaikowsky, Richard Strauss, Respighi, and Schumann's Second Symphony. General admission tickets are $12.

Last but definitely not least, the sixth edition of the Switchboard Music Festival has moved to the Brava Theatre on 24th Street in the Mission Sunday from 2-10 PM. For $15-$20, you can wander in and out all day for a major communion of local composers and performers.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

SF City College Rally

Last week, a rally was held in front of San Francisco's City Hall supporting City College which is under the gun from the the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), who are threatening to revoke the school's accreditation. A "Save CCSF" website has been created where you can get more information here.

Setting up for the rally, there were drum circles in the plaza...

...and a Chinatown contingent in its own section.

Jan Adams at the Happening Here site showed up later to the rally of about 500, and has written a well-researched outsider's account of what's going on at the school (click here).

Standing at the corner of McAllister and Polk, a large contingent of motorcycle policeman gossiped among themselves and did their best to ignore everyone else around them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

SFUSD Arts Festival Postscript

The San Francisco Unified School District's Art Festival was held a couple of weeks ago at the Asian Art Museum, where I caught up with a few more artists in an overstuffed room next to the gift shop.

This included Tiger above by the precociously gifted Aema Westphal, who is a first grader at Alvarado Elementary and daughter of proud father and music blogger Cedric Westphal.

Nearby was the wonderful oil painting Rhythm by Moet Kurakata, a senior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. The painting teacher, Phyllis Ciment, must be some kind of wizard based on the extraordinary quality of her students' work at this year's festival.

Upstairs in Samsung Hall, student bands, dance troupes, theatre groups, and choruses offered a series of performances all week, including the final "show chorus" offering from Mercy High School, "a Catholic College Preparatory High School for Young Women."

They were cute and hilarious in their choreographed moves. Here's a wish that they return to the neighborhood next year.

There was one strange detail, though, in that half the participants were from private schools in San Francisco. How did they become part of the "San Francisco Unified School District"?