Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sofia Gubaidulina in The Evening

With a couple of great press tickets in hand, I went to the second week of the "Composer Residency" of Sofia Gubaidulina with the Opera Tattler, above, in tow (click here). It was the "Friday 6.5" performance which starts at 6:30 PM with a slightly pared down program so people can presumably go out for a lovely dinner after the concert.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Gubaidulina's violin concerto, "In tempus praesens," written in 2007 for the German superstar Anne-Sophie Mutter who was to perform it that evening.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the Symphony's Music Director, can be much too verbose when he's introducing music to an audience through a microphone, but this evening his remarks were short and graceful, telling us how much he and the orchestra loved this piece of music. He also sat down at the amplified harpsichord which was part of the huge orchestra and gave us a couple of simple themes and notes that anchored the entire 30-minute piece.

The performance by both Mutter and the orchestra was sensationally good. The critic Janos Gereben (click here) had loaned me a recording of the work which turned out to be invaluable because it's so dense.

Gubaidulina's music sounds a bit like that point where Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich's output of the 1960s intersects, and what that fusion might have created forty years down the road. I heard elements of both Britten's "War Requiem" and Shostakovich's late string quartets throughout, though with a voice that is all her own. By the way, Britten and Shostakovich were huge fans of each other, which is saying something, since Britten was otherwise a musical snob about most of his contemporaries. Gubaidulina (above) also wrote a cello concerto for Britten and Shostakovich's favorite instrumentalist, Mstislav Rostropovich, which feels perfectly apt.

Listening to the Mutter/Gergiev recording helped with my enjoyment of the piece, but the music really needs to be heard live because its soft-to-loud dynamic contrasts are some of the most gorgeous and extreme I've ever heard, and can't really be reproduced on disc.

Sofia Gubaidulina in The Morning

On Wednesday morning, February 18th, I went to a San Francisco Symphony "Open Rehearsal" which is featured for a number of concerts each year.

The doors open at 8:30 AM where, according to all accounts, there is a frenzied struggle for the free doughnuts being offered to the mostly elderly crowd.

Seating is general admission which can be problematic if you arrive closer to 10 AM when the rehearsal actually starts. For instance, I sat down in one of the empty seats above, but was told by a lady four seats to the right that "those seats are already taken." And how would anybody know that's the case, I asked her, since they weren't marked in any way with programs or jackets. "Well, I just happen to know that they are taken and people will be coming back to sit there," she replied in an affronted voice.

It was too early in the day for an argument so I moved and settled in for a rehearsal of the evocatively titled "The Light of the End" by Sofia Gubaidulina. The 77-year-old Russian composer sounded like a forbidding figure on paper. Her musical work was suppressed by Soviet authorities for decades for various reasons, including her conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1960s and her adherance to mystical numerology. She moved to a village near Hamburg, Germany in the early 1990s, and since then her music has become the latest flavor at symphonic organizations around the Western world, and she's received just about every cultural award that world has to offer.

The San Francisco Symphony commissioned a new piece from Gubaidulina as part of a two-week "Composer Residency" which the organization has launched this year. The composer, however, isn't very good at deadlines since she takes her genius seriously, so her new piece wasn't ready and the 2003 "The Light of the End" was being played instead in a program being led by Kurt Masur. Though Gabaidulina can be hilariously gloomy in interviews, there's nothing gloomy about the sound of her music which is a strange combination of rich colors that manage to be both dense and transparent. The rehearsal was wonderful, and I was hoping she was telling Masur to play the entire thing over again, but it seems she was perfectly satisfied with the runthrough.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Patrick Dougherty and The Upper Crust

Patrick Dougherty and his crew finished their sculpture in the trees of Civic Center Plaza on Tuesday afternoon.

Dougherty is pictured above in the middle and is flanked by the young artists Jamie Banes, John Melvin, Andy Lynch and Dave Lovejoy who labored in the rain and wind for the last three weeks constructing the piece. (Jesse Hensel, the fifth assistant, is not pictured.)

The sculpture has acquired an official name, "The Upper Crust," which may have something to do with the wealthy patrons Dougherty was dealing with on the San Francisco Art Commission, but Patrick was keeping a tactful silence when I asked him if that was the case.

"The title partly refers to the work being an upper crust on the existing trees, and it definitely gets a bit crusty on the ground around here," he explained.

I asked his assistants if the local street people were a problem when they were constructing the sculpture and they said no, it was part of what made the experience so fascinating. "I've never interacted with so many authentically crazy people in my life," one of them said. "The questions were amazing."

The original plan was to have two sets of sculptures mirroring each other across the plaza but the work required two trees rather than one for supporting the nest structures, and in a bout of improvisation, they decided to use all the materials in one linked area.

"Are you happy with the way it turned out?" I asked Dougherty. "Yes, I am," he replied with real contentment. It will be fascinating to see how the piece evolves as the trees sprout their leaves over spring and summer.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sacred Arts of Bhutan 1: The Dragon's Gift

A huge new exhibit opened last Friday at the Asian Art Museum called "The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan," and it's a wonder.

At a press preview last Wednesday, the new Director of the Museum, Jay Xu, told us he had rushed back to San Francisco from a dinner at the British Museum in London where he was sitting next to the Rosetta Stone.

"There was no way I was going to miss this."

The exhibit is the first time any of these artworks have been seen outside of the small Himalayan kingdom and in most cases the scrolls and statues are still in ritual use at Buddhist monasteries rather than being loaned from museums.

The Bhutanese cultural minister gave a short speech, beaming with pleasure and pride when he noted that Bhutan is "the world's newest democracy," which occurred in March of 2008 when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck peacefully transferred power to parliamentary rule and abdicated his throne to his 28-year-old son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

He was also wearing a pair of the coolest boots in the world.

The exhibit was put together by the Honolulu Academy of Arts and the Department of Culture of the Royal Government of Bhutan...

...with the assistance of guest curator Teresa Tse Bartholomew (above) who is the "curator emeritus of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum."

She explains, "Even in the temples in Bhutan, these sacred works are rarely seen. Perhaps one object at a time might be brought out for ritual use. I cannot stress enough what a remarkable opportunity it is for Western audiences to see these works. The phrase 'once-in-a-lifetime' is overused, but in this case it most certainly applies."

As an example, the gilt bronze Buddha above is loaned from Dongkarla Kunzang Choling, a temple perched on a mountain that's over 14,000 feet which can only be reached via a "strenuous seven-hour hike."

Sacred Arts of Bhutan 2: The Monks

Because these are considered sacred objects rather than "art," this exhibit is also traveling with two Bhutanese monks (above).

They are situated next to an extraordinary altar...

...while kneeling on a tiger rug.

Their indifference to museum niceties was amusingly demonstrated when the dignitaries were trying to make speeches at the podium...

...and they proceeded to start banging their cymbals and chanting a prayer.

They will be holding special prayer rituals each day at 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM if you'd like to watch...

...but please don't act like these press photographers who looked like they were taking pictures of animals at a zoo.

At one point during the tour of the galleries by Ms. Bartholomew, the monks arrived to purify the room of bad karma...

...possibly left by the local ABC-TV television personality Don Sanchez and his unfortunate dye job.

Everyone tried to take pictures of the monks as they went about their ceremonies but I bowed to them instead, and received a deep bow and smiles in return.

Sacred Arts of Bhutan 3: Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is one of the few Asian countries that has never been colonised by the West nor conquered by its huge neighbors to the north and south, China and India respectively.

The population is about the same as San Francisco and the size of the country is about that of Switzerland, with Himalayan peaks over 24,000 feet in the north and subtropical lowlands on the border with India.

Unlike Switzerland, the national focus is not on money but on spirituality, and the success of the nation is measured by its "Gross National Happiness."

My friend Heidi visited the country a decade ago with a small group led by one of her Tibetan gurus, and she found the experience literally mind-blowing.

My two favorite factual tidbits from Wikipedia's article about Bhutan (click here) are the following: "Numerous homes and shops in Bhutan are adorned with colourful depictions of penises. Many Bhutanese feel that such images ward off the evil eye and protect anyone inside the building"

This is followed by the complementary "Inheritance in Bhutan generally goes in the female rather than the male line. Daughters will inherit their parents' house. A man is expected to make his own way in the world and often moves to his wife's home."

This exhibit follows the amazing "Afghanistan" show which was from a country that has been invaded, colonized and abused throughout a very long history which continues to this day. In a way, this collection of Bodhisattvas, Buddhas and Wrathful Guardians from Bhutan feels like a healing tonic, and it couldn't be any happier.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Spiraling Echoes in City Hall

On Thursday, February 12, there was an opening reception in San Francisco's City Hall for the unveiling of a "sound sculpture" by the locally based and internationally renowned sound artist Bill Fontana.

There are eight highly specialized speakers called transducers mounted around the perimeter of the top of City Hall's rotunda using a technology called echolocation which are beaming a strange cacophony of sounds that include running water, bell alarms, and a variety of bird sounds among others. (For a good description of the piece, click here for an article by Johnny Ray Huston in the Bay Guardian.)

The experience is enhanced if you have a keen sense of hearing like Oliver Luby above or my friend Louisa Spier, both of whom kept saying, "Wow, do you hear that?" to mystified expressions from me and a few other old friends who are half-deaf in one ear or another.

There were speeches from the new head of the Art Commission, Luis Cancel, along with an apologetic speech from Mike Farrah, the head of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, telling us how much Mayor Newsom was moved by the sound sculpture but for reasons we didn't quite catch, he wasn't able to attend. Finally, Bill Fontana gave a short speech but he spoke in a mumble and the acoustics in the rotunda made it impossible to understand a word.

I returned to City Hall the following week to hear what the rotunda sounded like without the opening reception crowd, and it was possible to pick up quite a bit more of the sonic action. I ran into Mike Farrah who had a big grin on his face as he watched me trying to follow the sounds around. "Is this driving the people who work here nuts or do they like it?" I asked him.

"They seem to like it," he told me, "especially the bird sounds which tie into the nest sculptures going up across the street." The sonic installation will be continuing Monday through Friday until May 8th, and it's worth hearing just for the invisible birds from the oversized nests.