Monday, August 31, 2009

A Sobering Affect at Electric Works

My friend Kimo and I decided to slip out of the Asian Art Museum's swordfighting party and walk down Eighth Street a couple of blocks to Electric Works, which is possibly the coolest art gallery and printing shop in San Francisco.

There was an opening party Thursday evening for a two-week exhibit of photography... Brandon Norris, who is known for his weekly photo sessions in the back of a Castro Street bar.

The photographs in this show seemed to be all about serious youthful narcissism...

...and the experience was enhanced by a performance piece by pretty young people...

...who posed in their tighty whities in the front window of the gallery...

...and various spaces within the large print shop.

The photos struck me as innocuous softcore porn...

...but the mostly gay party was quite fun.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Samurai Semiotics

In the midst of its blockbuster summer show, "Lords of the Samurai," the Asian Art Museum has just been attacked by a parody website entitled "Asians Art Museum" which takes the institution to task for "Orientalism" and an ahistorical exploitation of the samurai warrior myth. They call this summer's show "Lord, It's a Samurai" and have extensive notes on the more unpleasant side of Japan's warrior culture. (For an interesting interview with the website's anonymous creator, click here.)

To the museum's immense credit, they were the ones who directed people to the parody site from their own blog, in a post entitled "Invitation to a Discussion," which has a few really intelligent comments, including one from a museum employee who writes:
"whatever our individual gripes and issues, i have nothing but love for the power of art and artists to expand people’s minds. much respect to the artists behind the parody website."

The exhibition is essentially the major treasures of the generations-spanning aristocratic Hosokawa Family, which have never traveled outside of Japan. A couple of weeks ago, the museum rotated in additional objects from the Hosakawa collection, so that about two-thirds of the exhibit is brand new if you've already seen part one.

The disconnect for the parody website creators came on account of a beautiful and successful marketing campaign, where the exhibit is being sold as a celebration of the Samurai, which has brought in huge crowds of people fascinated by the myths of that warrior culture.

At Thursday's monthly MATCHA party at the museum last night, there were activities related to traditional Japanese swordsmanship, including lessons in the lobby...

...and there is no denying it's a hugely fascinating subject for lots of people.

I don't happen to be one of them, finding the 300-year-old Noh drama costumes more my cup of tea, but denying that people adore the representation of militarism in all of its ornamental splendor is not particularly realistic.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Banshee and the Motorcycle Cop

There were piercing female shrieks from the front of the San Francisco Unified School District headquarters at McAllister and Franklin on Thursday afternoon, drawing security guards to what looked like a bad breakup between two young street people.

Individual words were difficult to make out since the banshee quality of the screaming didn't involve clear diction.

The guy let himself be yelled at for a couple more minutes after they had crossed Franklin Street, and then he wandered off with his shopping cart full of belongings.

This initiated another round of screams and invective and operatic overacting by the girl who threw herself to the ground...

...just as a motorcycle cop drove by, stopping behind traffic directly across the street from her.

Did the policeman do a damned thing while this strange woman was screaming bloody murder, possibly checking to see if she was okay? Of course not. He gave a quick glance and drove merrily on his way. This is the San Francisco Police Department we're talking about, whose laziness and lack of caring has now reached legendary proportions. I wish our new police chief Mr. Gascon all the luck in the world because he's got a very long road ahead of him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

San Francisco Symphony 2009-10 Preview

Literal signs of high musical culture have been sprouting all month around the Civic Center, including the San Francisco Symphony whose opening night gala is in a couple of weeks on Wednesday, September 9th. There have been a number of complaints recently at the San Francisco Classical Voice site about how Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony don't play enough living, local composers (the site is bankrolled by would-be composer Gordon Getty, and you can make your own conclusions). They also point out how unadventurous MTT's programming has become since he blazed into the Music Director role with his American Mavericks series over a decade ago.

I don't particularly buy the argument, particularly since the list of composers they advocate for are nowhere near the top of my list of neglected great composers. For instance, I really don't need to hear another note of music by either the late Andrew Imbrie or the living Jake Heggie.

It is true that this year's season isn't as adventurous as the last two, but overall, there are individual concerts that will appeal to everyone, from the beginner hearing their first Brandenberg Concertos live to jaded old audiophiles like myself who are excited hearing something brand new and who tend to get impatient with Brandenberg Concertos unless they are insanely, brilliantly done.

I decided to see how this year's San Francisco Symphony season stacked up in "adventurousness" with a few other orchestras in the country, and looked at the nine-month seasons for Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia during the same period. The results were as follows: Philadelphia under Charles Dutoit is Warhorse Central this year with some of the dullest programming imaginable. New York under the young new music director Alan Gilbert is much more interesting than its previous recent seasons under Lorin Maazel, but the programming is essentially very dull and conservative with a few exceptions.

Boston under James Levine is probably the closest to San Francisco in terms of its eclectic mix of the new and the tried-and-true. For every Elliot Carter premiere, for instance, there's an all-nine-Beethoven-symphony survey by Levine. So I'd call it a draw between Boston and San Francisco, except as my friend Patrick Vaz would immediately point out, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gets to play in the 1900 Boston Symphony Hall which is considered "acoustically, among the top three concert halls in the world and is considered the finest in the United States" while the San Francisco Symphony plays in Davies Hall. We're giving Boston the nudge here.

The real surprise was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic under new music director Gustavo Dudamel has the most consistently lively and interesting programming over the next year of all the five orchestras. Besides genuinely varied repertory, they are having a two-week festival in late November and early December called "West Coast, Left Coast" that is featuring most of the interesting composers in the Bay Area such as John Adams, Paul Dresher, Mason Bates, and Ingram Marshall along with Cowell, Harrison, Partch, Zappa, Cage and Salonen. The second festival is at the end of April next year, and is called "America and Americans" with major works by Bernstein, Golijov, Estevez and more.

However, Los Angeles is just one bad day away from the apocalypse, as my friend Markus Crouse once said, so let's concentrate on San Francisco. Here's a list of the concerts by the San Francisco Symphony that are attracting me on paper:

The first three weeks of the season is a Mahler festival with the First Symphony leading off, which will be followed the next week by a potpourri of works that are going to be changing each night depending on what they want to put into the latest "Keeping Score" television show, and it wraps up with the Fifth Symphony preceded by the Italian mystic Scelsi's "Hymnos."

The next highlight is Bach's six-part "Christmas Oratorio" in December in place of the usual "Messiah." It's incredibly beautiful music and it's actually about the Birth of Jesus rather than the Death of Jesus.

In January, there is a two-week residency by British composer George Benjamin who will be premiering a fistful of his works and conducting one of the concerts. The week following has MTT conducting with Yo-Yo Ma for Shostakovich's cello concerto no. 2, along with obscure pieces by Sibelius, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. At the end of January, MTT takes to the piano for a Mozart concerto which is bracketed by Stravinsky's "Octet" and complete "Pulcinella."

In February, MTT leads the orchestra in another Schubert Mass (#2) along with the Symphony premiere of Henry Brant's orchestration of Ives' "Concord Sonata," which is supposed to be an amazing piece of music. In March, he conducts Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony which I have somehow managed to never hear live even though it may be my favorite. Another big choral concert will be in May with Stravinsky's rarely heard "Threni" and the full version of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe." June ends with MTT conducting Poulenc, Villa-Lobos and Ravel sharing the program with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and the final concert of the year is Berlioz' strange, beautiful version of "Romeo et Juliette."

If you're feeling poor like me, there is the welcome news that the Center Terrace seats right behind the orchestra, which are great fun to sit in, have been reduced in price from $25 to $15 in honor of Tilson Thomas' fifteenth year with the orchestra. The rush ticket hot line for day-of-performance tickets is (415) 503-5577. They used to be $20 and may be the same price this year. If you'd like to check out subscription packages, click here for the symphony website.

Finally, a note to the Marketing people in charge of outdoor signage. Your color schemes and typography are lovely, but the photos of Michael Tilson Thomas, Alexander Barantschik and Nadya Tichman look like they've been airbrushed to Playboy Centerfold standards which gives me the giggles every time I walk underneath them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Merola Opera Grand Finale 2009

The Merola Opera program wrapped up its twelve-week summer training program with a grand finale concert featuring its 24 graduates in scenes and arias from all over the repertory. (The onstage photos are by Kristen Loken Anstey Photography.)

Thanks to "apprentice stage director" Fernando Parra Borti (above), this was the best staged version of the annual concert I've seen. There were a few complaints that there wasn't enough movement in the various scenes, but I appreciated the lack of gimmicks and overacting that tend to pop up at these concerts. Plus, the stage-within-a-stage was not only beautiful but versatile enough to make for seamless entrances and exits for the succession of scenes that had nothing to do with each other. The only real clunkiness involved announcements over a loudspeaker by the stage manager with the names of who was going to be singing in the next installment. This wasn't Borti's fault, as it seemed the program insert listing the musical selections and their singers had gone missing in a storage room overnight, probably stolen by the Phantom of the Opera.

The concert started with one of the best all-purpose introductions imaginable with baritone Alexsey Bodanov (above) singing Tonio's Prologue in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" where he introduces the audience to the performers with the line: "Evo piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane" (Ah, think then, sweet people, when you behold us clad in our motley)." The performers were certainly a motley crew, ranging from a contralto to a countertenor, and for the most part they were very good and sometimes even splendid.

Definitely in the latter category was contralto Suzanne Hendrix (above left) who sang an aria from Handel's "Giulio Cesare" with an absolutely beautiful voice. She was followed by a duet from Strauss' "Arabella" with Susanna Biller (above right) singing Zdenka and Lori Guilbeau as Arabella. Though I'm not a big fan of the opera, the two of them sounded great and easily soared over the huge Strauss orchestra. Hendrix and Biller also teamed up with mezzo Maya Lahyani (above middle) for a scene from Berlioz' rarely done "Beatrice et Benedict," an opera I would love to see performed some day.

Lahyani also performed as Carmen with Brian Jagde as Don Jose (above). Her voice, stage deportment, and physical beauty are good enough that she's probably at risk of being typecast in that role for the rest of her career.

Because of the Merola program's structure, with its two staged operas at Fort Mason and two concerts with operatic scenes, some singers receive a lot of exposure and others get relatively little. This year it seemed that tenor Eleazar Rodriguez (above) was getting the shaft, with a tiny part in "L'Amico Fritz" and nothing more than a walk-on in the final ensemble. However, somebody must have decided this wasn't right, and he was a surprise addition to the program, singing a solo aria from Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" that was fiendishly difficult. Though the performance was imperfect, Rodriguez's voice is special and his rendition was impressively beautiful.

I have to confess I'm not a big fan of countertenor voices with a few exceptions like Brian Asawa and David Daniels. Ryan Belongie (above), singing a florid aria from Handel's "Xerxes," joins that exceptional group with an honestly lovely voice.

The evening's biggest problem was that it went on too long at over three hours, and I wasn't exactly looking forward to the penultimate number, which was that old bore Alidoro's aria from "La Cenerentola" being sung to Ellie Jarrett. However, Michael Sumuel (above) turned out to have one of the most exciting voices of the entire concert. There aren't that many baritones in the world who can sing the ornamented music of Rossini convincingly, and Sumuel is one of them. In fact, he sounds ready to sing in any opera house in the world.

The evening ended brilliantly with the entire ensemble singing the finale from Verdi's "Falstaff," telling us that everything in the world is a jest. It was so well performed and conducted by Antony Walker that it made me want to see the whole opera immediately, a feeling shared by Janos Gereben (click here). I wonder if the San Francisco Opera still has that wonderful Jean-Pierre Ponelle production, or if it's gone the way of all old sets.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Last Waltz Salon for Joe Lynn

La Reina Taqueria on Howard near 12th Street was host to a huge, raucous farewell party on Friday afternoon for the former lawyer and San Francisco Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn.

Joe (above) has lived next door to the taqueria for years, but is moving out of his apartment for the Maitri hospice facility at Duboce and Church while he undergoes experimental treatment for leukemia.

The crowd was mostly left-wing politicos and journalists, who tend to be fractious individuals by nature, with feuds and rapproachments galore.

Joe, however, has always been less controversial, and seems to be just about universally loved and respected.

Until about a year ago, La Reina was the scene of a weekly "political salon" hatched up by Harold Brown and Adriel Hampton (above right) who used to meet for lunch when Adriel was working for the Fang Family era "San Francisco Examiner." Currently he's working for the San Francisco City Attorney as an investigator, and running for Congress in the East Bay's District 10.

The weekly lunches lasted about three years, but the host h. brown (above right) who is a self-acknowledged alcoholic, kept picking fights with his friends and people stopped coming. Nevertheless, I loved the gatherings because there were such interesting people, particularly Joe Lynn.

About an hour into Friday's fiesta, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi gave a speech thanking Joe for his assistance at the Ethics Commission a few years ago. Adachi was running for office against Kimiko Burton, whose campaign spending went over a certain limit and nobody in City Hall seemed to care, particularly at the Ethics Commission which is supposed to be monitoring those things.

Joe gave a speech of his own about good government and how it can work in San Francisco, with specific strategies and policies that went over my head but which was probably understood by the vast majority in the room who are specialists in different kinds of political transparency and reform.

He also thanked and encouraged two of his young proteges, David Waggoner and Oliver Luby above. "They really are the hope of the future, their work is just outstanding."

"Bay Guardian" publisher Bruce Brugmann also gave a speech whose punchline was essentially that "Joe Lynn has always been too good a person to be in the political world."

I went to a Halloween "farewell party" for a friend, Larry Hunnicutt, who was gradually dying of AIDS complications in the 1990s. He had invited all his old friends from Texas and everyone assumed this would be the last time we would see him outside of a hospital. Nine months later I ran into Larry on the sidewalk looking great, and I couldn't help but blurt, "How did you crawl out of the grave?" It turned out he'd received the new AIDS cocktail just as it was appearing for the first time to the public, and his immune system had returned. I'm hoping the same for Joe.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Richard Avedon's Craggy Celebrities

Patrick Vaz, on his Financial District lunch hour, was host for a trip this afternoon to photographer Richard Avedon's career retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

People downtown seem to be starved for entertainment these days, so there were long lines for tickets, with young employees trying to sign up people for museum memberships.

I didn't expect to enjoy the exhibition as much as I did for a couple of reasons. First, celebrity photographs as a genre bore the heck out of me. Just become somebody is famous doesn't make a photograph of them interesting. Also, Avedon's work was featured frequently when he became the first Staff Photographer of "The New Yorker" after Tina Brown arrived as editor in 1992, and introduced photographs to that magazine for the first time. His style started looking more and more like repetitive schtick over the last years of his life (he died in 2004), but what this lifelong retrospective displays is just how varied his work was within a narrow palette.

The 1955 "Dovima with Elephants" will always be one of the greatest images in the history of photography for just about any reason you can name (light, texture, subtext, humor, strangeness) and the huge wall print of the 1969 "Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, New York" is worth the price of admission. One really can never see a poster sized version of the young, naked Joe Dallesandro enough in this lifetime. For a funny, guerilla photo of the latter, entitled "politely pondering pornstar penis," check out Dead Slow's Flickrstream by clicking here.