Sunday, March 08, 2020

Dawoud Bey at SFMOMA

Dawoud Bey, a 66-year-old black photographer from New York who I had never heard of before, is having a retrospective at SFMOMA right now, and it's wonderful in all kinds of ways.

His first photo series, Harlem, U.S.A., were human portraits of his own neighborhood in the 1970s.

The intimacy between the photographer and subject reminded me a little of Diane Arbus, but with a completely opposite affect. There's an element of love and trust in these photos that resonate off the walls.

In the early oughts he worked on Class Pictures, a series of portraits of teenagers from around the country with short biographical statements by the subjects themselves.

Pictured above is Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA (2006) and she writes: "I can speak four languages. I am an actress, and when I was about thirty seconds old I reached up and took my dad's glasses off of his face. When I was eight years old, I visited my cousin's school in India. They didn't have a roof, so during the monsoons they got rained on. When I went home, I raised enough money to build them a roof and buy some school supplies."

The Birmingham Project from 2012 is a series of diptychs based on age, of the girls who were killed in the 1963 Baptist Church bombing and what age they would be if they had lived. In another room is Night Coming Tenderly, Black, a series of huge dark photographs of nighttime in the Ohio countryside where the Underground Railroad ran through. The pictures are non-reproducible and somehow give off a spooky 3D effect when you study them closely.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Two Weeks with Esa-Pekka Salonen at SFSymphony

The newly designated San Francisco Symphony Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted two weeks of concerts recently at Davies Hall, and there was plenty to enjoy. The organization also announced programming for the 2020-2021 season with Salonen taking the helm, and there is all kinds of interesting music that we haven't heard in a long time at the Symphony.

Two weeks ago the concert started off with Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Henry Purcell), a modernist riff on the 17th century English composer by Steven Stucky which Salonen had commissioned while leading the LA Philharmonic. The orchestra was brass and percussion heavy with no strings, and this was followed by Britten's Les Illuminations song cycle where the chamber orchestra was nothing but strings. Soprano Julia Bullock sang the obscure French poetry with such conviction and resounding beauty that I for one was stunned, and it helped that I had bought a rush ticket for the front row and was able to hear her full blast. The seating didn't work so well for Ravel's Mother Goose Suite in the second half because the colorful writing for the back of the orchestra (winds, brass, percussion) becomes muffled. (All orchestra photos are by Brandon Patoc.)

The next week began with a fairly unknown Beethoven overture to a play called King Stephen. This was followed by Salonen's own four-movement Violin Concerto which he wrote in 2009 as he was about to leave the LA Philharmonic post after close to two decades. I heard the half-hour concerto in 2011 with the SF Symphony and soloist Leila Josefowicz, for whom the concerto had been written, and she was back with the composer conducting again in 2020.

Josefowicz was still impressively virtuosic and hyper-athletic in her performance, but her concert dress was unfortunate, one of the ugliest specimens of that strange genre I have seen. And my reaction to hearing the piece remains the same, which is that the concerto is fascinating but too dense for me, particularly in the long final movement. The problem may be mine, though, because music lovers who I know and trust confessed at intermission that they were dazzled by the concerto.

What I found dazzling was the second half of the program, where Salonen conducted the Danish composer Carl Nielsen's 1922 Fifth Symphony. Sounding very much like Shostakovich (who was 14 when this was composed) mixed with a strong dose of Sibelius, the symphony is beautiful, bizarre, and unlike anything I have ever heard.

Written soon after World War One, the first half of the two-movement work sets up a snare drum working with and opposed to the entire orchestra, and percussionist Jacob Nissly above had a field day with the solo role, making his way from the orchestra level to the terrace where he towered over the orchestra like a Cupid of War. In his original score, Nielsen wrote: "improvise as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra". Everything I've heard by Nielsen is sort of wonderful, and he is a major contender in the Overlooked 20th Century Composers canon. Hoping to hear more.

Friday, February 28, 2020

12 Steps to Enlightenment at the Asian Art Museum

Awaken: A Tibetan Buddhist Journey Toward Enlightenment, is a new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum laid out amusingly as 12 steps to enlightenment rather than an art history survey.

The exhibit begins with an excerpt from the movie Koyaanisqtsi which means that Philip Glass's score is the soundtrack for the first room of objects. The 2016 Luxation I by Tsherin Sherpa, a Nepalese immigrant living in California, is the opening artwork, referencing dislocation and displacement after the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

The exhibit combines works from the two largest collections of Tibetan art in the United States, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. There are sculptures of the Buddha from different centuries and countries, including the 9th century Gautama Buddha above from Kashmir.

The signage is refreshingly void of art-speak and relates some fabulously outrageous stories. The 17th century cloth painting from Central Tibet picturing the Buddhist adept Virupa is accompanied by this description: "His extraordinary appearance in this work refers symbolically to his enlightened understanding of normal reality as nothing but a convention itself. Virupa's distinctive gesture, finger raised upward, refers to a time when, on an epic drinking spree, he agreed with the tavern's proprietor to settle the bill at sunset. Intent on continuing his binge, however, he used his great meditative powers to stop the golden orb in its course, ransoming it until the local ruler, fearful of scorched fields, paid his tab. As with his appearance, this incident represents symbolically Virupa's ability to transcend and influence ordinary experience."

History is also explored, as in this 18th century bronze sculpture of The lama Tsongkhapa (from the Phoenix Art Museum) which depicts the most influential scholar in Tibetan history from the 14th century.

The 18th century Tibetan Mandala of Vajrabhairava is a three-dimensional version of the mandala map the exhibit is using to lead museumgoers into possible enlightenment.

A 19th century painted door "once safeguarded the entrance to a monastery's gonkang, a shrine housing wrathful protector deities and a precinct accessible only to the most advanced practitioners. Its flaming skulls and weapons would have warded off evil spirits, intruders, and those not properly initiated to enter its sanctum."

Be warned there are quite a few human skulls in this exhibit, such as the 18th century Tibetan Flaming trident. The wall description tells us: "This striking ritual implement resembles both Varna Dharmaraja's skull-headed club and his consort Chaumundi's trident. Within its toothy, grinning skull is an object that rattles when the scepter is hand led. Its most intriguing aspect, though, is the form of the skull's reverse side. Unmistakably phallic, it is a reminder that sex and death are inextricably conjoined. Sex defeats death through reproduction, which in turn ensures death's triumph."

The most imposing object in the exhibit is a large wooden sculpture of The Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava, "the Lightning Terror, who personifies the victory of spiritual wisdom over death. Ferocious and commanding, he tramples a host of figures symbolizing our delusions and attachments."

The final room, entitled Being the Buddha, contains a pair of remarkable Chinese bronze statues of lovers representing the concept of nonduality. The deities Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi, above, is described thus: "This yab-yum deity's origin is traced to a time when the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati threatened world order through immoral behavior, namely gratuitous violence and sex. To subjugate them, the Primordial Buddha manifested as Chakrasamvara: the mirror image of the unruly Hindu divinities...This yab-yum deity's origin is traced to a time when the Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati threatened world order through immoral behavior, namely gratuitous violence and sex. To subjugate them, the Primordial Buddha manifested as Chakrasamvara: the mirror image of the unruly Hindu divinities."

The deity Guhayasamaja and consort Sparshavajra, a 15th century bronze statue, depicts a "Secret Union, indicating the joining of apparent opposites: of male and female like these yab-yum figures, but also of the wisdom and techniques that lead to Vajrayana Buddhism's swift awakening."

"Accordingly, this sublimely sculpted pair constitutes a cosmic mandala embodied."

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Modern and Ancient Sanctuary at Davies Hall

It was In Search of the Sacred at Davies Hall last weekend, with the composer Missy Mazzoli curating the SoundBox nightclub in a program called Modern Sanctuary and conductor Herbert Blomstedt offering Beethoven and Brahms in the main hall with a performance that felt infused by the deities.

Missy Mazzoli is a 39-year-old East Coast composer who is writing some of the most interesting theatrical music in the world right now, capped by her three operas from the last decade, Songs from the Uproar, Breaking The Waves, and Proving Up. Four years ago I saw another show she curated at Le Poisson Rouge, the hipster basement speakeasy in Greenwich Village, where I thought, "I wish she had curated more of her own music and left the arias from Faust and Peter Grimes sung by overmatched young singers out of the program."

At her disposal in SoundBox were some of the best musicians in the world, such as principal SF Symphony Violist Jonathan Vinocour playing Mario Balter's mesmeric, extended technique Ut.

There was also soprano Marnie Breckenridge, looking and sounding exquisite, vocalising with composer Mario Diaz de Leon on his Sanctuary.

This was followed by Missy Mazzoli, Lorna Dune, and Marnie Breckenridge performing a piece from Mazzoli's Vespers for a New Dark Age, followed by Meredith Monk's Passage and What Does It Mean?.

The evening continued with the longer, minimalist Sacrament by Mario Diaz de Leon with Robin McKee, flute, Jacob Nissly, percussion, and Jerome Simas, clarinet. Another highlight was a Vespers piece for solo violin and electronics by Mazzoli, prefacing a somnolent, atmospheric piece by John Luther Adams, The Light Within, and finally Arvo Part's Silentium from Tabula Rasa.

It's fun to join interesting younger people who are stepping out to a nightclub atmosphere rather than going to a stuffy classical music concert, but this may be my last SoundBox. The experimental excitement and genuine hipness of the first few years have mostly fled with higher ticket prices and a few too many audience members attending only because they have heard it's the hot, happening ticket in town. By the end of the evening, I felt more sleepy than spiritually refreshed.

Two days later, at what I refer to as the old ladies' Sunday matinee, proved to be a holier experience.

Herbert Blomstedt, the SF Symphony's Music Director from 1985-1995, had returned for his annual two-week stint heading the orchestra, conducting the most boring of classical music staples, Beethoven and Brahms, with the assistance of the new young assistant concertmaster Wyatt Underhill.

It was wonderful seeing Underhill getting a chance to be concertmaster in such bread-and-butter fare as the Beethoven Second Symphony and the Brahms Fourth Symphony because he radiates the same kind of joy in musicmaking as cellist Peter Wyrick at his side. The Beethoven was alive and continuously interesting (and this is not a composer I love at all), while the Brahms Fourth was the best live performance of that work I have ever heard. Blomstedt managed to draw out such a clean sound that it didn't feel like an interpretation so much as a conjuring of how exciting and moving the music sounded at its composition, as if all kinds of time and barnacles had been scraped off.

Blomstedt is 92 years old and becoming more masterful each year. A Wikipedia article notes, "A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Blomstedt does not rehearse on Friday nights or Saturdays, the Sabbath in Seventh-day Adventism. He does, however, conduct concerts, since he considers actual performances to be an expression of his religious devotion rather than work." Listening to this Brahms Fourth, I could see heaven.