Thursday, April 30, 2009

Balanchine's Jewels at San Francisco Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet is currently performing the full-length 1967 Balanchine ballet, "Jewels," for two weeks, and though a little bit of Balanchine usually goes a long way with me, a glowing review by Janos Gereben (click here) piqued my interest.

The work consists of three contrasting ballets, starting with the langorous "Emeralds" set to dreamy incidental music by Gabriel Faure, followed by "Rubies" set to a spikey piano and orchestra score by Igor Stravinsky, and wraps up with "Diamonds" to a truncated version of the obscure Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 3.

"Emeralds" holds a special place of affection for Balanchine afficionados because it's so gentle and mysterious, at times feeling like a proto Mark Morris ballet.

It also looks fiendishly difficult because the dancers are required to hold poses, and slowly make their way into the next position. There's nowhere to hide. The soloists Lorena Feijoo, Damian Smith, Sofiane Sylve and Quinn Wharton weren't perfect but they were close enough to put one into a spell.

"Rubies" is the shorter, jazzier ballet of the evening. It's extraordinarily exciting as it incorporates jazz movement to Stravinsky's complex score, and it was danced well by everyone. First among equals was Maria Kochetkova who was flawless while looking like she was having a ball.

The dancers also had to compete with somebody in the front of the orchestra section who suffered from a seizure in the middle of the ballet. He was carried to the back of the theatre and then proceeded to cry out as the seizures continued.

As some hardhearted standees pointed out, "If they could carry him all the way up the aisle to the back of the theater, why didn't they just keep going and get him out into the lobby?" (Update: The gentleman who suffered the seizure and his companion have left comments updating us on what actually happened.)

The final ballet was classic Balanchine at his most insanely architectural with a large corps de ballet in the first and fourth movements bracketing the soloists in the second and third. The piece is just about perfect for Yuan Yuan Tan and she danced it exquisitely, as did Davit Karpetyan who even managed to look handsome and butch in an all-white sparkly costume.

The two and a quarter hour ballet is a modern masterpiece, and to see it being danced at this level is a rare opportunity. Because the piece is abstract, the ballet isn't popular on the order of "Swan Lake," so there are probably plenty of seats available. Click here for a link to the Ballet website for tickets.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Nanny State Channels Jeopardy

In San Francisco City Hall, cheesy new signage has been installed in front of all of the elevators in the building, guilt-tripping people for not being healthy and taking the stairs instead.

The signmaker also seems to have a thing for Alex Trebek and Ken Jennings, the Salt Lake City champion with 74 straight "Jeopardy" victories, who rather ungratefully trashed the show and its host after winning $2.5 million, according to a Fox News article (click here). Maybe they forced him to walk up the stairs at the TV studio instead of taking the elevator. (Update: According to commenter Jacquelynne, I've been punked. The Jennings dis of Trebek was a "satire.")

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sunday Streets 3: Changing Car Culture

San Francisco Mayor Newsom doesn't seem to have had an original idea in his life, but he's definitely a magpie when it comes to other people's initiatives, which is not necessarily a bad thing. On one of his globetrots, he encountered the idea started 30 years ago in Bogota, Columbia of shutting down a major car-strewn boulevard to vehicular traffic for a day of pedestrian activity.

He announced this "green" vision last year without consulting anyone, and there were jeers from supervisors whose neighborhoods were affected and howls from Fishermans' Wharf merchants who thought nobody would visit their tourist haunts if they couldn't drive right up to a parking lot.

This was nonsense, of course, because when streets are closed down to cars and given over to pedestrians, people congregate. They come from far and wide. It becomes an event.

It also allows for children to play safely in a city street, which is a particular thrill.

There are five more of these events planned for the spring and summer, one more along the Embarcadero to Hunters Point, two in the Mission District and two by the ocean between Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Zoo. (Click here for the website with their schedule.)

An immediate improvement would be to stop all traffic in both directions since the events are being heralded as health-conscious, "dedicated to bringing safe, fun, car-free places for people to get out and get active in San Francisco neighborhoods on Sunday mornings.
" Biking, skating and walking with exhaust fumes five feet away isn't exactly part of the mission statement.

The event should also last the entire day, not just a token 9AM to 1PM, which seems discriminatory to both Saturday night party people and Christian churchgoers alike.

We stopped and had lunch outdoors at the HiDive Bar on the Embarcadero, which has spruced up a little but thankfully not too much. It was sad watching the bicyclists being pushed off the street and being replaced by cars...

...led by a small army of motorcycle policemen who must have finished clearing the streets for the morning's mysterious dignitary.

Sunday Streets 2: David Miles, the Sk8GodFather

After watching the motorcade action, we boarded one of the F-Line historic streetcars, this one from Milano, Italia...

...and exited at Justin Herman Plaza where skates were being rented to those wanting to cruise the plaza, make their way down Sunday morning's carless Embarcadero...

...or take roller disco lessons from David Miles Jr., also known as the Sk8GodFather (click here for his webpage).

A small group was happily engaged in a complex dance routine to Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" and if I had a better sense of balance, I would have joined them. They seemed to be having a blast.

David G. Miles, Jr. (pictured above) is one of San Francisco's unsung treasures, hosting Friday night skate parties on city streets, and Sunday afternoon roller disco parties in Golden Gate Park for decades. He has provided an amazing number of people with hours of pleasure, and if we lived in a sane world, he'd be in charge of San Francisco's Rec and Park Department, making life beautiful for all.

Sunday Streets 1: Motorcade

On the way to the San Francisco Ferry Building for the third edition of Mayor Newsom's "Sunday Streets" initiative, our Market Street bus was trapped at Third and Market by a phalanx of policemen running interference for a dignitary's motorcade.

We got off the bus and were allowed to cross Third Street since the motorcade was taking its sweet time to appear. The funny gentlemen in the photo above yelled out to the police, "You really didn't have to do this for me, you know."

On a morning dedicated to streets for pedestrians rather than cars, it was more than a little ironic watching what was essentially a loud, belching motorcycle parade, with policemen yelling at all the pedestrians as if they were lowly peasants who should get out of the way of royalty.

A succession of black SUVs finally came barreling through the intersection, with our unnamed betters protected from the vermin on the sidewalks. I wonder who the San Francisco Police Department bills for this service. Muni?

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Upper Crust Blooms

The sycamores in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza are starting to show signs of spring...

...with leaves emerging from their severely pruned knobs.

"The Upper Crust" sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, which is mounted on top of some of the trees, is holding up beautifully in all kinds of weather.

It will soon be surrounded by greenery which should to be fun to watch.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

France and Britain Together at The Symphony

Wednesday night's sparsely attended San Francisco Symphony concert was mostly wonderful, and I'd recommend it highly. You can probably get $20 rush seats for any of the three remaining performances on Thursday at 2, or Friday and Saturday at 8. Call (415) 503-5577 to find out if they are available.

The concert, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, started with incidental music from the play "L'Arlessienne" which is usually offered as an overplayed suite by the overplayed Bizet, composer of "Carmen." Tortelier (above) decided instead to string together five long segments from the play and they were performed with such style and commitment that I remembered why Bizet is overplayed in the first place. He really was one of God's musically gifted ones.

This was followed by Poulenc's 1938 Organ Concerto, which is one of his stranger, more fabulous pieces of music, ranging in sound from the most serious religious portentousness to sections which seemed to be the basis for Nino Rota film scores. You can almost hear World War Two arriving and wiping out a place in time. The more I hear Poulenc's music live the more I love it, and this particular piece was worth the price of admission.

The young organist Paul Jacobs was the soloist, incongruously seated at his instrument on stage right, which gives sort of a ventriloquist effect. You can see the organist hitting the keys but the sound issues from high stage center. The performance otherwise was great, but his unnamed encore piece went on and on and on until the Poulenc glow dissipated altogether.

Since Jacobs has performed complete Messiaen and complete J.S. Bach organ music marathons in the past, he probably could have happily performed the entire organ works of Poulenc as an encore, but it was still felt inappropriate after the concerto. Most amusing was watching the orchestra trying not to look bored and annoyed as the encore stretched on, with some of their poker faces working better than others.

After intermission, we left France for England and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, an early 20th century composer who became the Eminent British Figure in Music until Britten and Tippett came along. As long as there is Western classical music being played, Vaughan Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" and "The Lark Ascending" will always be in the repertory for their sheer beauty, though I'm not sure how much else will survive.

"The Lark Ascending" is basically a short violin concerto with the instrument taking the part of The Lark. It was played by the symphony's Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman (above). She is a wonderful musician but seems to share a fault with most of her other colleagues who occasionally step out of the orchestra to play soloists. They don't seem to know how to go for broke and BE soloists, letting the entire score and orchestra travel through them. During the infrequent times when she wasn't playing, Ms. Tichman would just stare at her feet and play with the grips on the back of her violin as if she were too shy to enjoy the spotlight.

The final piece was Vaughan Williams' 1934 Fourth Symphony, where the composer threw away most of his pastoral and pictorial styles, and instead decided to write something fierce and discordant. The symphony hasn't been played here since 1944, and the onset of World War Two is all over its sound. The first two movements seemed to meander all over the place, but the piece comes together in the linked final movements where conductor Tortelier just about jumped off the podium in excitement. You're not going to have many chances to hear this music live, so do check it out.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Palm Springs Opera in the Park

The Palm Springs Opera Guild has an annual competition for aspiring opera singers, culminating in scholarships and a free Sunday afternoon concert in Sunrise Park.

Even by opera's surrealistic standards, the young divas in gowns and young divos in tuxedos filing through the casual crowds... 100 degree heat...

...was quite a sight.

Though none of the singers knocked me out, they were all good, and the 30+ person orchestra played well.

Plus the collection of arias and ensembles were surprisingly ambitious, complete with a mezzo and countertenor above singing the final duet from Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea."

It was a lovely afternoon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

2009 Fine Arts Creativity Awards

The Palm Spring Arts Museum is featuring a huge retrospective of Wayne Thiebaud's art and a large selection of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe of New York celebrities from the 1980s.

The juxtaposition simply confirmed that Thiebaud is one of the most underrated artists of the twentieth century and that Mapplethorpe is one of the most shockingly overrated...

...though the great, light-filled paintings from the West Coast and the boring black-and-white photos from the East Coast were not, I suppose, a fair contest.

The most interesting exhibit at the museum is in its basement, where ten Coachella Valley high schools and the local College of the Desert participated in an annual juried exhibit that features scholarships (click here for more info).

What was astonishing was the quality level of the entire exhibit, with a few artists in particular standing out...

...including winner Eduardo Valadez with his "Los Libros de mi Tio" above (all the art in this post is from the exhibit).

In fact, when I told an elderly volunteer that I thought the art was as good as the adult juried exhibit later in the year, she confirmed what I was secretly thinking. "It's a lot better than the adults," she said.

A big chunk of the teenage art was frankly dystopian, and who can blame them after being handed the world in its current shape.

I liked the cityscape above with a tagger painting "BREATHE" on a rooftop wall (above) and loved the noose-tied young man with a "Life is good." mug in his hand.

That's some serious teenage cynicism.