Friday, March 30, 2012

The Cult of Greedy at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

David Barnard above loves museums, possibly because he's lived his life in the arts since high school days in Ohio. He has worked as a professional dancer, a costumer, a theatrical dresser, and he also paints and sketches, so accompanying him to any museum show always feels like something of an insider's special tour.

"When I was young," David said, "older people would take me to museums and introduce me to whole new worlds. Now I'm old so it's my turn to do the same thing, and that's what I've been doing. But when I went to the Post-Impressionism exhibit one afternoon last year, the tickets were sold out for the day and I went to the front desk at the DeYoung to make reservations for the next day. That's when they told me I was using the museum too much and there were new rules in place where you could only have a few free tickets to special exhibits."

"I was a charter member of the Fine Arts Museums after the new DeYoung opened, but I gave up my membership and now they call me up to see if I want to rejoin. When I tell them what happened, there's nothing the low level people can say or do to remedy the situation, so they ask me, don't I want to be invited to the special opening parties, and I want to say..." and here David devolved into serious profanity that also included the name of San Francisco society doyenne Dede Wilsey who treats the two Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as her private duchy.

David thought he had figured out a workaround by renewing his membership at the Asian Art Museum at a higher level that would give him reciprocal admission to museums all over the country, including the DeYoung and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get you into any of the touring exhibits at those two museums, and there's an extra tariff. In the case of The Cult of Beauty at the Legion, it's $10 which David paid, but I decided to have a beer outside at the 18th hole of Lincoln municipal golf course instead.

I called the membership office at the DeYoung earlier this week to find out the history of this punitive new ticketing policy for members, and talked to a helpful and charming young woman named Lindsay, who was the polar opposite of the unhelpful and annoying twit pictured above and below at the Legion of Honor members' entrance. Lindsay explained that the new policy of a limited number of tickets for members to certain exhibits started with the semi-for-profit King Tut show in 2009. The policy was reactivated for last year's series of blockbuster exhibits at the DeYoung where a number of museums in Europe were under construction and loaning out amazing collections, such as the two-part Impressionism exhibits, the Picasso show, and the Venetian Masters painting show from Austria.

When I asked Lindsay whether this policy of limiting tickets to certain shows was based on the cost of bringing them here, their popularity, or both, she admitted that she didn't have a clue because it was completely the decision of higher-ups. "You mean it's utterly mysterious and arbitrary?" I asked her, and she replied, "you could say that."

It seems that David Barnard wasn't the only museum member who was thoroughly angered by the sudden change in policy, because none of the current special exhibits at the two museums have ticket restrictions for members. You can see Jean Paul Gaultier corsets at the DeYoung, and British Pre-Raphaelite objets d'art at the Legion as many times as your heart desires if you are a member. However, according to their website, your membership benefits include: "Unlimited free admission for one member and a guest* to the permanent collections and most special exhibitions at the de Young and the Legion of Honor."

"MOST" is the operative word here, and the asterisk is for the following: "Guests and children must be accompanied by a member. Free admission may not apply to all special exhibitions. Special exhibition tickets are available on a limited basis; advance reservations are strongly recommended."

In other words, according to Patrick Vaz, they operate just like a commercial gym, which wants lots of members but counts on most of those people not using the facilities very often. For an arts institution, this behavior is grotesque, and the vague, whenever-we-feel-like-it wording on the membership benefits website page is insulting (click here).

Above all, it's short-sighted, and is going to come back to haunt them when the blockbuster shows are not around. These institutions are alienating one of their greatest and oldest supporters, David Barnard, when they should instead be encouraging people like him in every way. It's also time they realized that many members could care less about going to silly parties. They really are there for the art.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Napoleon at The Paramount

If you have been feeling ambivalent about attending the five-and-a-half-hour version of Abel Gance's 1927 silent film Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, here is the news.

Buy a ticket now (click here) for today's performance at 1:30 PM or one one of the showings next weekend on March 31st and April 1st. For a number of reasons, and particularly because of a fight over performing versions, this may be your only chance in this lifetime to see this historic film shown so perfectly.

The tickets are expensive, ranging from $40 to $120, and for once they are worth every penny.

The 3,476-seat theater is "one of the finest remaining examples of Art Deco design in the United States. Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in late 1931, it was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture and is particularly noteworthy for its successful orchestration of the various artistic disciplines into an original and harmonious whole."

The restoration of Abel Gance's hero-worshiping 1927 epic about the young Napoleon Bonaparte has been the lifework of British film historian Kevin Brownlow, starting in his teens (he's now 73). In the early 1980s, he collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola in distributing the film in a roadshow version with a live orchestra playing a score conducted and composed by Coppola's father, Carmine.

Film blogger Allan Fish at "Wonders in the Dark" (click here) describes the history:
"Brownlow was nearing the end of his journey, and doubtless thought he was on to a good thing when enlisting the help of Francis Ford Coppola in promoting his baby to a generation of film fans who were to be blown away by the film. Two versions were prepared; one running just under four hours and speeded up from 20 to 24 fps, would be isued in the US and have a score by Coppola’s dad, Carmine. The other, proper version, running five hours, would be accompanied by a score by Carl Davis, incorporating not only portions of Arthur Honegger’s original score, but snippets of Mozart’s 25th Symphony, Beethoven’s 7th and numerous other classical mainstays. The film was a hit around the world in the early eighties, and Gance himself lived long enough to see his baby reborn again."

Fish continues:
"In 2000, following further footage findings courtesy of the Cinématheque Française, Brownlow again showed a new restoration, now running 5½ hours and with the added footage restored and given a new added score by Davis. Coppola threatened to sue...

So where does that leave Napoleon? In the worst kind of cinematic limbo. As long as there are Coppolas on the earth, it will never be released. I often think what Martin Scorsese would think of his friend Coppola committing an act that goes against everything he himself feels about film restoration and preservataion. Come on Marty, if anyone can persuade Francis that he’s being a fascist – Kevin Brownlow even said at the last public showing his actions were worthy of Joseph Goebbels, though I think perhaps Il Duce might be more apt."

The rumor from one Hollywood insider we met in the lobby was that these were the only performances of this version that were going to be allowed in the world, period, until Coppola changes his mind. I don't know how true that rumor might be, but it's certainly a possibility.

The 50-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony is being conducted by the composer of this version's score, the 75-year-old Carl Davis above, who has had a long career in music for film and television, with his most impressive work being new scores for restored silent films that were meant to be shown with a live orchestra. The five-and-a-half hours plus of music in Napoleon is mostly variations on themes from Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, with additional Beethoven and Mozart flitting in between fantasias on La Marseillaise. The endurance test performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony was heroic by any measurement and they received a deserved standing ovation at the end.

The movie itself, in Pauline Kael's words, "is both avant-garde and old-fashioned. In Gance's view, Nepoleon is a Man of Destiny. Before that, when he's still a boy, he's a Boy of Destiny...[in the opening snowball fight] Gance cuts from the long shots to closeups, and adds superimpositions, and then the cutting becomes fast and rhythmic, with Napoleon's face flashing by in one frame of every four, and you realize that the principal purpose of this jazzy blinking is to give you a feeling for speed and movement--and for the possibilities of the medium. Gance doesn't dawdle, he starts off with pinwheels, sparks and madness."

The showings at the Paramount all start at 1:30 PM and end close to 10PM, with a two-hour dinner break and a pair of intermissions between.

The single screen doesn't turn into three screens with three projectors until the last thirty minutes of the movie, but the effect is so startling and Beyond Cinerama that the audience was jolted viscerally. At this point, the orchestra really lets loose as The Italian Campaign Begins, the organ starts pounding, and I am still vibrating from the experience the next day.

Like I said before, get a seat, and The Ugly Bug Ball agrees.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

American Mavericks Festival Wrap-Up 3

The other big news at the San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival were the three world premieres commissioned by the orchestra from Mason Bates (below right, with organist Paul Jacobs and conductor Donato Cabrera), John Adams, and Meredith Monk.

Mass Transmission by Mason Bates was a sweet, pretty piece for chorus, organ and electronics whose vocal writing sounded disconcertingly like John Adams (below center) in his early "Harmonium," the breakthrough work Adams wrote for the San Francisco Symphony in the 1970s.

"John Adams should sue," I was thinking, but Mass Transmission was immediately followed by Adams's own Absolute Jest, which was filled with pilfered, reworked tunes from the scherzos of Beethoven's string quartets. The 25-minute piece was written for the Saint Lawrence String Quartet to play as soloists with and against the whole large orchestra, but as Axel pointed out, the piece was overscored and the quartet was frequently lost in the hubbub.

I am not sure about the work as a whole but do know that the last five minutes made my body tingle with pleasure, which is usually a good sign that this is music I'm going to eventually love. It was also a reminder that John Adams, no matter how one feels about his music, is a truly gifted by the gods composer, and hearing his work premiered and repeatedly performed at the San Francisco Symphony over the last 40 years has been one of the treats of our Bay Area lives.

Realm Variations by Meredith Monk, above center, was a chamber orchestra piece where half the instruments were singers intoning non-language syllables. The sounds were an extreme range of timbres, from Catherine Payne on piccolo (above right) to Sidney Chen (above left and below center) singing bass.

The mood was slow and trancelike, and I rather enjoyed it, particularly the exquisitely expressive playing of Symphony Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman on violin. The only disappointment was that everyone was seated in front of scores rather than wandering the stage, in choreography by Meredith Monk, who has long been famous for her mixture of music and movement. The symphony musicians were certainly capable and game for anything, as they demonstrated during the John Cage Song Books, and the Meredith Monk singing ensemble has always known how to move.

There was other cool stuff being played at the concerts too, such as the early Steve Reich minimalist Music for Pieces of Wood, with the awesome Jack Von Geem, Raymond Froehlich, David Herbert, Tom Hemphill, and James Lee Wyatt III above turning in a mesmerizing performance while doing nothing more than beating wood together for fifteen minutes.

There was also Emanuel Ax playing Morton Feldman's Piano and Orchestra, which is the first non-short Feldman piece I have ever heard, and it was the most trancelike music of the festival, turning me into a Feldman convert at last. Even the Saturday night audience was mostly great, and stayed perfectly quiet during the soft, silence-filled piece.

Plus there was Lukas Foss' Echoi which started out sounding very arid, arty, 1960s atonal and boring, and then got progressively more interesting. The adventurous performers were (above, left to right) Jack Van Geem on percussion, Carey Bell being sensationally amusing on clarinet, Peter Weyrick holding down the fort on cello, and Jeremy Denk completely over the top on the piano

Let's just hope it doesn't take another dozen years to program another version of this festival, which simultaneously stretches the members of the orchestra, its audiences, and the world of music itself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

American Mavericks Festival Wrap-Up 2

In the middle of the American Mavericks Festival at the San Francisco Symphony last week, there was a concert featuring a starry alignment of legendary sopranos who had all forged their own maverick career paths: Jessye Norman, Joan La Barbara, and Meredith Monk, above left to right.

The trio came together for a selection from Song Books, John Cage's strange, ambitious set of musical and theatrical instructions for performers, and though a number of critics and audience members didn't get it at all, quite a few of us did. The theatrical staging by Yuval Sharon, with three onstage huts, video cameras, neon sculptures, props, and grand piano was thoroughly amusing. The spare and evocative sound world that was created by the three vocalists and a dozen instrumentalists, all doing their own thing at their own instructed, overlapping time, was beautiful and interesting, at least in the second performance on a Wednesday evening.

The performers looked like they were having a ball too. It was a wonderful introduction to the wacky work and mind of John Cage, and the thirty-minute duration was perfect, leaving one wanting more.

What took the Song Books performance to another level, though, was the presence of Jessye Norman, who made a regal entrance out of the central hut looking for all the world like the Goddess Isis. She played cards onstage, she typed at an amplified manual typewriter, and she sang snatches of music in pitches where she felt comfortable with her voice. Hearing that force-of-nature sound that is Jessye Norman's voice in full, comfortable throttle is something not to be missed in this lifetime. So if you live in or near New York, buy a ticket for the San Francisco Symphony's first Mavericks concert in Carnegie Hall next Tuesday, March 27th.

New York won't be getting pianist Jeremy Denk, above, who played Henry Cowell's Piano Concerto with fists, fingers and forearms in San Francisco. They also won't be getting Lukas Foss' 1960s Phorion, a fun, lunatic reworking of a Bach partita for monster orchestra that opened up the second half of the Cage Superstars program.

According to a recent pronouncement by a pair of Manhattan publicists to the arts blogging world, "New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America," so I am sure they won't be missing anything.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

American Mavericks Festival Wrap-Up 1

Well, that was fun.

The American Mavericks Festival consisted of nine performances in ten days by the San Francisco Symphony of five separate concerts filled with rarely heard, challenging, American music. The last concert wrapped up Sunday afternoon, and now the band hits the road, performing highlights from the festival in Chicago, Ann Arbor and a week-long residency in New York's Carnegie Hall. The fact that the Symphony is touring with this kind of music on their 100th birthday, instead of another Mahler festival or something similar, honestly makes me proud to be a San Franciscan.

There was some carping in the press from Joshua Kosman and others about how conservative the programming was in terms of truly new, radical music, but they were missing the point. The festival is an attempt to take what was once far out of the mainstream music and make a case for it being in the American symphonic repertory.

Case in point being Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra which was my favorite piece on the first concert that also included Copland's fun, spiky Orchestral Variations and the monumental Henry Brant orchestration of the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. Harrison's music is aging so well and so beautifully it is a mystery that it's not already a part of the core repertory for American orchestras and chamber ensembles, but it will be eventually. Organ soloist Paul Jacobs and conductor MTT, Robin Sutherland on keyboard, and a small battery of percussion artists gave a precise, thrilling performance.

Henry Partch (1901-1974), the crazy, gay California hobo who made his own instruments and his own tuning system, was represented by a group from Los Angeles using Partch's original instruments at a Sunday afternoon chamber music concert above. Both the music and the performers were sensationally good, and their evocation of an earlier California were resonant, funny, and mysterious.

The 1932 San Francisco with its sound description of newspaper hawkers in the fog reminded me of the old San Francisco Chronicle hawker on the corner of 18th and Castro in the 1970s when I first moved to town. There used to be a late-night/early-morning edition of the paper and the moment it arrived, you would hear his ancient, emphysema-tinged voice bellowing "KRAAAAAAAAAWWWWWNICKLE" like a foghorn. The sung and spoken 1941 Barstow, depicting the viscitudes of various characters stuck hitchhiking in that hellhole, also took me straight back to similar experiences in the same desert town in the late 1960s. There's probably somebody still stuck hitchhiking there even as I'm typing these words.

It was also a treat watching members of the Symphony getting to shine in smaller ensembles during the festival, such as the string quartet above (left to right) of Dan Carlson & Amy Hiraga, violins, Jonathan Vinocour, viola, and Peter Weyrick, cello. They played San Francisco composer Terry Riley's first string quartet, G String, and though the music evaporated in my head, the playing was so beautiful by the individual players that it could have happily gone on much longer.

Concluding the program was Morton Subotnick's Jacob's Room Monodrama 2012 with his wife Joan La Barbara showing off a whole roster of her extended vocal techniques, and though the piece didn't do much for me one way or the other, La Barbara above was just plain awesome, and along with Jesse Stiles above as music supervisor/electronics, they played with spatial relationships in Davies Hall in some of the most sophisticated ways I have experienced in that auditorium.

More to come.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Love an Irish Parade

San Francisco City Hall has been shaded green for over a week in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day, which seemed like a bit of overkill, but perhaps somebody on the building's facilities staff just likes their green gels.

Saturday the 27th brought the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade up Market Street to Civic Center.

It was the usual mix of surrealism, like the Red Bull Girls talking to a two-fisted PBR and Red Bull drinker...

...standing across Polk Street from the official judging tent at the end of the parade route.

For the first time in memory, there were police barriers in front of City Hall's steps just across from the judging tent...

...which was too bad, since the stairs offer some of the best views.

There are more white people and their children at this event than just about any other parade I can think of that ends up in Civic Center...

...though the event is blessedly inclusive and you don't need a drop of Irish blood to march down the street in it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Weill Hall Announces Its Inaugural Season

The full name of the impossibly beautiful, new 1,400-seat concert hall above at Sonoma State University is the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Lawn and Commons at the Donald & Maureen Green Music Center, which should give you some idea of the long and winding road this building has taken towards its realization over the last decade.

Last Friday, members of the press were invited for a lunch and the announcement of the inaugural season at the hall. Opening weekend will start on Saturday evening, September 29th, with a concert by pianist Lang Lang, followed by a Choral Sunrise Concert on Sunday morning, the Santa Rosa Symphony in the afternoon, and bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss with Union Station on Sunday evening.

The building opens up at the back, where the curtain is in the photo above, and terraced outdoor seating is envisioned with dining tables looking towards the stage. Also included in the plans is an adjoining permanent outdoor stage for 15,000 people with "large video screens and audio equipment which will broadcast the performances to patrons seated in the Weill Commons, just east of the concert hall."

The great modern architect William Rawn (check here for his website) has modeled the building, by request, after his own Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood which was "designed to replicate the intimacy and acoustics of Vienna's Muskverein and Symphony Hall in Boston."

For a sample of sound, the Sonoma State Brass Ensemble were recruited to play from the back balcony while we sat on the stage, which wasn't a particularly good test of the acoustics. What was thrilling about the sound, however, was when a young soprano started singing a Puccini song and the warm resonance of the voice as it bounced off those wooden chairs and walls was extraordinary and extremely flattering. Singers are probably going to love this place.

Robert Cole, the retired UC Berkeley Cal Performances impresario, was pulled out of retirement to recruit "High and Wide" for the starriest performers in a variety of musical genres. So you have cellist Yo Yo Ma in recital, composer John Adams conducting a 20th century music concert, opera stars Stephanie Blythe singing Kate Smith songs and Joyce DiDonato singing operatic Drama Queens, Wynton Marsalis playing with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the San Francisco Symphony making four guest appearances, among others.

Sanford I. Weill above and his wife Joan looked pleased as punch to be the new cultural king and queen of Sonoma County.

Sonoma State University President Ruben Arminana looked happiest of all. He later told us how it all began, with an academic conference in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. With his wife, he went with friends to a concert at the nearby Tanglewood Music Festival where the Seiji Ozawa Hall had just being constructed. "I want one of those," he told his wife, and through some form of sorcery he did get one of those, and in the Bay Area we're all the richer for that vision.

Also adjoining the concert hall is a beautiful indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar that has already become the newest, hottest ticket for wedding receptions in the wine country, and it's easy to see why. For more information on the season, click here for the Green Music Center site, and click here for Axel and here for Charlise who were perfectly delightful companions on this field trip, and who have more detailed reporting about the season.