Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Bell Tower 20th Anniversary

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Bell Tower pub at the corner of Polk and Jackson Streets threw an outdoor party last Sunday afternoon...

...that included a delicious barbeque...

...a series of live bands on a flatbed truck...

...dancing in the streets...

...and plenty of drinking and flirting.

Barbie, above, owns the glass-enclosed corner pub with great food, and she was the perfect hostess... were her predominantly female staff of bartenders and waiters.

It felt like a privilege being invited to the fiesta.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Spirituality Beyond Belief

SFMOMA recently shut its doors for three years so that construction on its huge new addition can begin. In the meantime, the institution has initiated its partnerships in exile (or on-the-go, as they are branding it) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum a block away on Mission Street. The exhibit, culled from the SFMOMA permanent collection with art from 1911 to 2011, is called Beyond Belief and has something to do with "spirituality," Jewish and otherwise.

Though some pieces deal with the subject directly, such as Nam June Paik's 1989 closed-circuit TV Buddha above...

...others are highly abstract in their relationship to the spiritual, such as Brice Marden's 1991 Cold Mountain 6 (Bridge) which according to the wall signage was inspired by the 8th century Buddhist monk Han Shan.

The most charming aspect of the exhibit is its manageable size, which evokes memories of the old SFMOMA when it was situated on two floors in the Veterans Building in Civic Center.

The show is also refreshingly rich in the work of female artists such as Georgia O'Keefe's small 1994 Black Place 1...

...Jay DeFeo's huge 1957 The Veronica...

...and Fire, a 2005 sculptural installation by Teresita Fernandez.

I was also taken by California painter Lorser Feitelson's Post Surrealist painting from 1934, Genesis First Version, created before the artist went rigorously abstract in the 1940s.

And if you are in the mood for sitting in front of a large Mark Rothko painting (No. 14, 1960), there is a bench helpfully placed right in front of the work. Be sure to color coordinate, though, like the lady above.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Castro Street Celebration

The streets were already blocked to traffic at 5:30 PM on Castro Street between 17th and 19th Streets on Thursday evening...

...for a celebration of the Supreme Court rulings striking down both the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8.

There was media galore, including a live broadcast by radio DJs from KGO under a colorful umbrella...

...along with tourists who had wandered into the neighborhood on the F line...

...plenty of policemen whose presence was unnecessary...

...and old friends such as composer Luciano Chessa above.

Avoiding politicians' self-congratulatory speeches from a makeshift stage at Castro and Market, we found a pub with a happy hour and an open-air backyard for the next couple of hours. It was a very good time.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gay Marriage, Gavin, and Stanley

Just about every politician in San Francisco showed up in San Francisco City Hall at the crack of dawn to get their mugshots taken when the Supreme Court gay marriage rulings were handed down, including ex-mayor and current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom above. The very public ceremony had finished, but he was still jabbering away in the North Light Court at 9:30 this morning. Newsom's signal achievement while in office was proposing that gays could get married in San Francisco whether it was legal in the rest of California or not, which initiated all kinds of litigious messes, including the ugly Proposition 8.

Whether he was helpful or hurtful to the cause of gay marriage is a matter of debate, but in every other way Newsom and his mayoral successor Edwin Lee have been disasters for the majority of San Franciscans, which makes it more than a little mortifying that they are crowing so publicly over this latest gay civil rights success as if they were single-handedly responsible.

By coincidence, my domestic partner of 17 years received the Casting Notice above via email yesterday, looking for gay couples who were separating or getting divorced for a new Bravo reality TV show.

Bah, enough cynicism. Walking South of Market on 8th Street later this morning, I came across a man walking his dog with a rainbow kerchief. "Can I take a photo of him?" I asked. "Sure, but she's a girl, though her name is Stanley so that certainly fits with the happy spirit of the day," he replied. There will be a street party this evening in the Castro at 6:30 PM and I am hoping that Stanley will be there and Gavin will not.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rainbow City Hall

Somebody went wild with the colored gels Monday, lighting San Francisco City Hall for Gay Pride Week.

Or maybe it is for gay boys who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, while the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down minority voting rights.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Kitty Cave

My cat, Tiger Woods, often acts like Clare Danes portraying the famous autistic writer, Temple Grandin. He likes to cram into tight places and pretend nobody can see him even while being petted. Not sure if this is a cat thing or an autistic thing, or both.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stravinsky Summer Solstice

The San Francisco Symphony has been celebrating the summer solstice with a week of Igor Stravinsky concerts (above) anchored by four performances of The Rite of Spring under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. I went to the Friday concert featuring the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble (below) from Russia singing the composer's first 1917 version of the ballet Les Noces with a small percussion ensemble and four pianos.

Due to a failure in either moving parts or technology, the photos I took of the 14-member group on Friday evening have vanished into the digital ether, which is too bad because the Ensemble not only sounded great but were hugely photogenic. They started with a collection of Traditional Russian Village Wedding Songs that telescoped the months-long, elaborate set of musical rituals involved in a village marriage, from matchmaking to wedding night consummation with the parents at the bedroom door. As the program notes,"The main goal of the Russian wedding is acceptance by the whole community." The Ensemble sang a capella with a few homemade percussion instruments, and the effect was so striking that my companion James Paar's jaw dropped open for most of the performance. "I thought Stravinsky invented all those musical effects," he said later, "but they already existed."

Particularly striking is how Asiatic rather than Western the music sounds, which carried over into Stravinsky's modernistic balletic mashup of Russian peasant wedding music, Les Noces. The performance by the Ensemble and pianists/percussionists was splendid, though almost destroyed by Davies Hall audio engineers, who probably should not have amplified the singers at all since they didn't really need it. Why amplified sound at San Francisco's major orchestral hall is consistently the worst in town is a mystery, but I wish somebody would figure it out. For a glimpse of the Ensemble performing Les Noces at the Mariinsky Theatre under Thomas Ades in 2007, click here for a YouTube clip. For a rapturous description of the piece itself, check out Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight who was at Davies Hall on Friday.

The full orchestra arrived onstage after intermission for the 100-year-old composition, The Rite of Spring, and though there were some very exciting stretches, this was another one of Tilson Thomas's readings where every small section of the music was overemphasized and the musical line of the piece as a whole was entirely lost. Culture Catch, a New York blog, has a nice piece by Steve Holtje about notable recordings of the Rite, and he has this to say about MTT's recording with the SF Symphony from 1996: "MTT has always been fond of emphasizing stark contrasts of dynamics, tempos, and textures; it's practically the cornerstone of his style. Here, that reaches eccentric levels; the bombastic impact of the percussion is achieved by utterly unrealistic alteration of the orchestral picture -- at the many climaxes, it seems front-and-center, spotlighted in the manner of a soloist in a concerto, especially the cymbals. The attractive plushness of the quiet moments is so completely different that after awhile, sonic whiplash sets in." Holtje also agrees with me that the 1960 Columbia Symphony recording with Stravinsky conducting is a keeper: "There's a laser-like precision here, but unlike most performances aiming for precision and clarity, Igor's also has verve and character. If you want only one Rite, this is the one to get."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Other Gospel of The Other Mary

Good operas are hard to write and are accordingly rare, while great operas are a species of miracle. On Wednesday night, the San Francisco Opera presented a commissioned world premiere called The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by the composer Mark Adamo. Unfortunately, the new opera failed to enter those hallowed ranks, and the main problem was the music. It was insistently dull and lacking dynamic contrasts, droning on at the same slow, conversational level for close to three hours with a few, blessed exceptions (particularly the beginning of Act Two where the chorus and principals finally have some interesting music together).

The libretto was written by the composer, and it's an attempt at a feminist reworking of the Gospel tale with lots of rhyming couplets that traffic in banal pop psychology like "Move on." Adamo also got so worked up by his years of research into the Gnostic Gospels that he forgot to write a drama and instead gives us a theological argument. This would have been fine if he'd gone all the way with the conceit, as he does at one moment when the chorus sings a literary citation, "The Gospel of Saint Thomas," followed later by "(ibid)." (According to San Francisco Chorus director Ian Robertson after the show, there is a hard stop after the last "d.") Instead, the libretto leans toward a square, conventional narration of scenes from the life of the young adult Jesus from Mary Magdalene's point of view.

Saddest of all, there was a lot of obvious talent, sincerity, and musicality on display from everyone, including the orchestra under Michael Christie and the entire cast, from the principals on down to the smallest roles. In the latter category, praised be the Adler fellows making their SF Opera debuts with a special shoutout to A.J. Glueckert. Also amusing and bright voiced were Daniel Curran and Brian Leerhuber as "Policemen, agents of Rome," so much so that I started looking forward to the bad guys arriving onto the scene. The same was true of the male chauvinist closet case, Peter, who was sung with conviction and perfect diction by William Burden. Maria Kanyova (last seen here as Pat Nixon) as Miriam, Mother of Yeshua, had a screechy role and she did as best as she could, while Sasha Cooke in the title role was a great, beautiful diva in search of one good aria. The only bad news among the performers was Nathan Gunn as J.C. the Bastard Street Preacher. Gunn sounded as if he's having some serious vocal problems, a distressing prospect for a locally beloved singer.

Partly to cleanse my palate and partly because of a "Get Thee in Front of Me, Satan" mood, I returned to the Opera House the next evening for a well-reviewed production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman. I only stayed for the first two acts out of five on account of exhaustion, but will be returning for one of the next two performances featuring OperaVision in the balcony because the show is so good. Matthew Polenzani is in his tenor prime right now and this is a major performance. Hye Jung Lee (last seen as Madame Mao) sang the mechanical doll Olympia so brilliantly that I can't imagine it sounding better. Two character tenors, Thomas Glenn and Steven Cole, are luxury casting and they make the most of the opportunity. Can't want to go back.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Le Nozze di Charlise

The writer known as The Opera Tattler above got married last month to her longtime boyfriend, Scott Grieder...

...and they held a celebration party on Sunday afternoon at the Rock Wall Winery on Alameda Island where they live.

The libations were lovely...

...and so were the delicious veggie hors d'oeuvres from the Scolari's food truck.

There were plenty of interesting characters, including Charlise's color-coordinated parents and brother above...

...along with other cool relatives.

Worshipers of Charlise included her good friend Terence...

...the SF Symphony publicist Louisa Spier...

...Charlise's new yoga teacher...

...and the Incomparable Alice.

There was also dancing at the end, where the groom paired up with the youngest girl at the party. Best wishes to everyone.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mark Morris, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell

The choreographer Mark Morris above was this year's guest Music Director at the Southern California contemporary music festival in Ojai last week. For three years, the festival has been reprising many of their programs the following week at UC Berkeley through Cal Performances.

Thanks to Patrick Vaz, I attended an outdoor interview of Morris by Wendy Lesser above, and heard the final two concerts at Hertz Hall on Saturday evening of Ojai North!, as it is being branded.

Morris has a mischievous, whip smart intelligence that is very entertaining. Though he looked exhausted after two straight weeks of presiding over dozens of concerts, including a newly choreographed Rite of Spring for the Mark Morris Dance Group, he also looked exuberant about presenting some of his favorite music live.

He described the three years of work that went into curating the festival, and how he started with the music of Lou Harrison, the recently deceased (2003) gay hippie composer who lived in Aptos and whose music is sounding better every year. Harrison is emerging as one of the most important composers in American musical history, and though most of the country doesn't quite yet realize that fact, Morris certainly does.

It was also a wonderful gesture on his part to bring an overwhelmingly West Coast roster of composers to a West Coast music festival, with pieces that most people have never heard before. This included lots of music by Harrison's friend and teacher, Henry Cowell, and his friend and student, John Luther Adams.

The 7PM concert featured the virtuosic keyboard whiz, Colin Fowler, playing organ pieces by Ives, Cowell, Bolcom, and a bizarre, interesting Sonatine for Organ Pedals by Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). He continued on the instrument with San Diego percussion ensemble red fish blue fish playing Lou Harrison's 1973 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, sounding very different but just as remarkable as the San Francisco Symphony performances during last year's American Mavericks Festival.

The final concert featured the MMDG (Mark Morris Dance Group) Music Ensemble playing a 1931 Heroic Dance (for Martha Graham), which Martha never got around to choreographing. This was followed by an excavated "lost" work from the same year called Atlantis, for a proposed drama by the painter Alice Barney and the choreographer Doris Humphrey. The nine-movement work is for orchestra and three vocal soloists. The singers were Yulia Van Doren, Jamie Van Eyck and Douglas Williams, who all did a marvelous job with their non-speech "moans, sighs, grunts, and grumbles." The movements had names like Birth of the Sea Soul, Temptation of the Sea Soul by Monsters, Pleasure Dance of the Sea Soul, and Triumph of the Sea Monster. It was alternately melodic, spooky, delicate and wildly rhythmic music, which probably could have only been written by an inventive California Theosophist.

The final two pieces were a 1942 Fugue for Percussion by Lou Harrison played by red fish blue fish, followed by his 1987 Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, played by Colin Fowler and the UC Berkeley based Gamelan Sari Raras. The latter piece struck me as the most perfect imaginable fusion of Western classical forms and Javanese classical forms ever composed.

As he stepped over me in the audience at the end of the concert, I thanked Mark Morris for the great music he had just presented. "Suuuure!" he said, grinning, and jumped onstage to join the performers for a bow.