Monday, June 14, 2021

Martinů and Dvorak at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony's two-month series of Covid-safe concerts has been a civic blessing, easing people into post-pandemic life gradually. Their vaccine cards requirement for admission is appropriate and influential. Plus, the first two concerts I attended in May were wonderful.
Last week's concert was conducted by Joshua Weilerstein and he didn't make a very good impression. However, he did start with a landmark piece by Bohislav Martinů, the 1938 Double Concerto for Two Orchestras. I have been listening to classical music radio stations all my life, and whenever they infrequently broadcast a piece by Martinů, it always makes me sit up and listen intently. This piece was no exception. To add to the excitement, there's a piano and timpani mediating as the contrasting texture to the two dueling string orchestras.
The three-movement concerto is intense from the starting gate and just keeps accelerating. Weilerstein kept everything at too relentless a pitch, neglecting the softer contrasts which make the piece work. Martinů was a turn-of-the-century working-class Czech who learned to be a composer in 1920s Paris when Stravinsky was king, and who fled to the United States during World War Two. He was one of the few artistic emigres from that period who landed on his feet, surviving as a professor while writing six symphonies. He was also a freak who could write down whole orchestral scores after hearing a piece once after a live concert performance. His music fits somewhere in the Stravinsky/Shostakovich/Janacek mold, and he was wildly prolific, with 15 operas and 14 ballet scores among his huge output. I wish he was programmed more.
The next piece was a string orchestration of a slow quartet movement by Florence Price, an early 20th century American black woman who composed classical music. I've heard a few other pieces by Price that were wonderful, so this soggy seven-minute performance felt like tokenism.
The final piece of the concert was Antonin Dvorak's 1875 Serenade for Strings, in a performance that was sloppy and wrong in all its rhythms. Via the internet, I listen to Bartok Radio, live from Budapest, when I'm working from home these days, and the Serenade for Strings is performed by one orchestra or another at least once a week. Strangely, it's enjoyable every time, but this performance was not. Next week, with California officially opened up, the entire orchestra is returning for two concerts with Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Light at the end of the tunnel is here.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Nam June Paik Retrospective at SFMOMA

A retrospective of the polymath artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) opened at the Tate Modern in London in 2019 and has finally made its way to SFMOMA in its only U.S. appearance.
Nam June Paik was born into a wealthy family that collaborated with Japan during its occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1905 to 1945. They fled in 1950 to Hong Kong during the Korean War and eventually settled in Japan where Nam June Paik studied music and aesthetics, writing a thesis on Arnold Schoenberg. He continued his studies in West Germany where he met just about everyone who was anyone in the artistic avant-garde of the late 1950s, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys.
He became a member of the Fluxus art movement in 1962, moved to New York City in 1964, began his decades-long collaboration with the classical cellist Charlotte Moorman, and incidentally became the father of video art.
Since I have never been a fan of Video Art, my expectations were low, but the exhibition turned out to be playful, fascinating fun.
One dark room, for instance, is dedicated to TV Garden, a Teletubbies before its time mingling of plants and electronics.
In a small screening room, we watched a 30-minute video from 1986, Bye Bye Kipling, a mixture of live events in three cities around the world with lots of groovy animation and effects, featuring just about every fabulous hipster artist of the time, from Lou Reed to Ryu Sakamoto to Dick Cavett playing satellite host.
It brought back in time the excitement of early multimedia and the optimistic spirit of both the medium and the artist. The animation above, by the way, is of the new World Trade Center towers sharing a hug.
The screening room is also showing the 1984 Good Morning, Mister Orwell, a 45-minute live satellite broadcast involving everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Salvador Dali to Laurie Anderson. Bay Area video artist John Sanborn worked on that historic piece, and it helped launch his long career.
In one room, there are reliquaries for friends like John Cage and Merce Cunningham...
...underlining what seems to be the artist's greatest pleasure, collaboration.
The finale of the exhibit is a recreation of Sistine Chapel, a 1993 Venice Bienniale multimedia installation on the walls and ceilings of a huge room.
Whether you are on edibles or not... the time you leave it will feel like you are.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Boats and Trains and No Automobiles

Growing up in Southern California beach towns, watching paradise relentlessly paved over by highways, parking lots, and strip malls, I decided to opt out of car culture and never get a driver's license. This has required some tricky maneuvering, but also a lifelong appreciation for public transportation, particularly boats and trains.
Last weekend, we flew to Seattle for a birthday/honeymoon trip, and escaped their Fisherman's Wharf style downtown waterfront by embarking on the commuter car ferry to Bainbridge Island.
The late afternoon was unusually sunny and warm for Seattle...
...and the views were remarkable.
The ferryboat was huge, with different levels to hang out...
...including triangular jutting areas that were a thrill.
Unlike Sausalito, for instance, Bainbridge is not really a tourist destination...
...but you can walk up a hill to a small commercial district and drink a local brew.
The return at sunset was breathtaking.
The next morning we boarded the Amtrak Coast Starlight train in a Deluxe Bedroom...
...and headed south along Puget Sound, which had reverted to its usual grey.
The sun finally emerged in the afternoon in southern Washington... we passed strange roadside businesses...
...and all-white crowds at rural station stops.
The white supremacist movement that has emerged out of the Pacific Northwest finally made sense to me visually.
The most beautiful section of the journey was in southern Oregon in the Cascades...
...and the sweetest part was being rocked to sleep overnight while journeying back to San Francisco.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

James Gaffigan Conducting the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony continued with their semi-post-pandemic concerts at Davies Hall last Thursday. The lobby is empty, everyone wears masks, and you need proof of vaccination to sit in the orchestra section. At this point, only strings and percussion are allowed onstage because wind instruments, including voices, are designed to blow air outwards.
One of my favorite conductors, James Gaffigan, was on the podium introducing his program that started with Talisman by a young British composer, Freya Waley-Cohen, followed by Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and finished off with Barber's perennial Adagio for Strings.
I listened to Talisman a couple of times on YouTube (click here) and couldn't make heads or tails of the piece written for 13 strings. Often a live performance will make a new piece more audibly legible, but that wasn't the case and the fault was probably mine. Kosman at the SF Chronicle appreciated it and so did my concert companion, remarking that he loved the delicacy of the sounds made by the 13 players each doing their own thing. (The photo above and all those following are by Kristen Loken.)
The meat of the program was Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), written for a string sextet in 1899 at the beginning of the composer's career, and expanded for a string orchestra in 1917. The work is High German/Austrian Romantic, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel about a couple in the dark woods where the woman confesses ""I am carrying a child, and not by you." In the second half, the man accepts and exalts the situation out of transcendent love. Before the musical performance, Cassandra Hunter recited an English translation of the poem with grace.
Gaffigan explained that they were going to be projecting the poem at its various musical moments on supertitle screens. "And if you hate that, don't look at it," he advised. I didn't know the famous work at all and appreciated the titles which were useful markers for the densely chromatic, sensual music as it made its way to a rapturous finale.
Though Barber's Adagio for Strings is a staple of classical music radio stations and movie soundtracks, this may have been my first live performance. Gaffigan kept the schmaltz factor to a minimum, building clearly and deliberately to the emotional climax. His conducting and evident joy in his string ensemble felt like a burst of sheer energetic joy all evening.
These concerts are continuing on Thursday and Friday evenings for five more weeks, and the SF Symphony just announced that on account of changes in the pandemic regulations for San Francisco on June 15th, the final two concerts conducted by new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will feature the entire orchestra, including brass instruments, in performances of Brahms' Violin Concerto and Schumann's Symphony No. 3.