Tuesday, September 30, 2014

California Culture 5: Art in Nature Festival

People who seem to be the most stereotypical Californians are usually from somewhere else.

A good example would be Laura Inserra and Claudia Anfuso, the Italian founders of the Art in Nature Festival. It is a free, annual, small, hippie-style daylong arts festival nestled within the mile-long Stream Trail in the middle of Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills.

Everyone is invited to "experience art in nature, and delve into the nature of art throughout 12 theme areas featuring music, dance, sculpture, painting...

...martial arts...

...poetry, body painting, circus arts, theater, visual arts, storytelling, arts & crafts...

...kids activities and more."

There was a grand piano in one small clearing where Sarah Cahill was one of a number of pianists who performed for hikers and people who paused for a concert.

She was playing garden music by Danny Clay, where the composer notes that the piece "was originally conceived as a sort of planted 'soundmark' for passersby to discover, pause, and listen to for as long as desired before proceeding on their journey. Over time, however, this little seed of sound grew, blossomed, and proliferated into something quite vast, not unlike these woods."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

California Culture 4: The Son of the Sheik

California's most potent art form has always been film, spreading photographed dreams across the world. A common refrain I have heard from immigrants over the years: "When I arrived in California, I felt like I'd been here before in an earlier life," and in truth they had, except it was probably as toddlers watching old movies on television filmed on Hollywood backlots and in Southern California deserts and mountains which transformed itself into memory.

Last Saturday the invaluable San Francisco Film Festival organization projected a one-day festival of films from the birth of cinema at the Castro Theater, including Rudolph Valentino's last film, The Son of the Sheik, a lavishly produced 1926 sequel to his earlier breakout hit The Sheik, which was the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Hollywood studios and sand dunes in the desert near Yuma stood in for Arabia very convincingly. Valentino played the dual roles of the Sheikh in old age makeup and his impetuous young son who falls in love with a dancing girl who works for a pack of thieves, including her dissolute French father. It's the latter group that ambushes our young hero above and tortures him all night, blaming the innocent Vilma Bánky for luring him into their trap. The camera loves Valentino and his understated acting style has aged well in comparison to many of the mugging antics around him.

Of course the dancing girl is blameless, but our young hero doesn't know that so he kidnaps her and maybe or maybe not ravishes her in his desert tent. After realizing his mistake, there is a rousing rescue scene that includes both the Sheikh and his son, not to mention a comic dwarf baddie who appears to be the inspiration for much of Jodorowsky's El Topo.

The movie was completely satisfying on its own terms, helped immeasurably by the live performance of a new accompanying musical score by the Alloy Orchestra above. From left to right, Roger Miller, Ken Winokur, and Terry Donahue gave a hard-charging performance that included a synthesizer and a vast array of percussion as they toyed with just about every Oriental musical cliche extant.

There was also a British Film Institute program devoted to a typical evening at the cinema in 1914, 100 years ago. It was a grab bag of short travelogues, newsreels, comic routines, a very entertaining Perils of Pauline serial, and one of Charlie Chaplin's earliest Max Sennett slapstick farces. World War One had just started, and it was bizarrely disturbing to see dispatches from the first few months of the conflict when everyone in Britain thought it would be a short romp.

In an animated short by "Lancelot Speed" called General French's Contemptible Little Army, Prussian Imperialism is sent on a hasty retreat, reminiscent of how American wars are sold to the public.

The pianist Donald Sosin above accompanied the mixture of shorts with patriotic marches, delicate tunes, and comic sound effects.

Friday, September 26, 2014

California Culture 3: Brant's Ice Field at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a bizarrely eclectic program of J.S. Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #3, the first revival of Henry Brant's 2001 Ice Field which was written specifically for Davies Hall, and Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony. The Bach performance by the eleven players (below), including violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Peter Wyrick (above) was surprisingly lively and fun, and for once Davies Hall didn't swallow up the chamber-sized ensemble.

Henry Brant was an experimental composer who ended up in Santa Barbara for the last couple of decades of his life. He was known as an expert orchestrator, where he assisted everyone from Alex North in his soundtrack for the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra to the composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. He was also known for spatial music, where musical forces that are usually on one stage are split into various groups around a performing space. In 2001, I was creating daily PowerPoint "FotoTales" about the world around us, and managed to capture the premiere along with the orchestra musicians making fun of the piece after a morning rehearsal. Excerpts from the slide show are below.

Henry Brant died in 2008, so this revival had the flamboyant organist Cameron Carpenter above playing the half-notated, half-improvised organ part that the composer performed himself at the premiere. On Friday evening, Carpenter looked terribly nervous and score-bound during the performance, as if he was in over his head, and the results were mostly tentative interjections, while my memory of Brant's performance was that he was wailing away on the Ruffatti organ throughout the entire 20 minute piece, holding the whole work together.

Still, it was ear-clearing fun to hear Ice Field again, and I hope the work returns to Davies Hall before another 13 years pass by. I also hope that the companion piece on the program is something more interesting than Tchaikowsky's Fifth Symphony which sounded like a schlock-fest after the Bach and Brant, and this is coming from a fan of the Russian composer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

California Culture 2: Patterns of Plants

There are very few artists as quintessentially Californian as the pianist Sarah Cahill, seen above playing at the Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills last Sunday at an event I'll describe in a later post.

Sarah specializes in contemporary classical music, often commissioning works from living composers, but her musical interests are catholic and wide. She began playing the composer Mamoru Fujieda's piano pieces in 1997, and has just recorded a 2-CD set of 32 of his "plant patterns."

Though Fujieda, above, was born and lives in Japan, in his youth he studied with the composer Morton Feldman at UC San Diego, so in a sense he's an adopted Californian.

I have heard Sarah play selections from the short piano pieces at various recitals, and they were almost too gentle to make any kind of impression. On a recording, though, used as background, they become quite trancelike and interesting. The CDs by the small San Francisco producers at Pinna Records are beautifully produced, including one of the most striking cardboard package designs in a long time. To order a copy, click here.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sarah gave a recital at the UC Berkeley Women's Faculty Club of over a dozen of the pieces, interleaved with a few doses of French Baroque composer François Couperin. The cozy front room in the beautiful John Galen Howard clubhouse is a perfect setting for a chamber music concert, and there was even a lovely buffet afterwards along with an outdoor patio to dine. Plus, admission was free, which felt like a small miracle.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

California Culture 1: Fertile Ground at the Oakland Museum

SFMOMA On-The-Go has loaned out more of their collection and joined with the Oakland Museum for a small exhibit called Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California. The show starts with "the circle of artists who worked with, influenced, and were influenced by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Francisco in the 1930s," which seems rather limiting in scope. It's also stretching the definition of "California Art" because Diego and Frida were Mexico City artists who would occasionally travel to destinations in the U.S. for Rivera's mural commissions. It's rather like asserting that writer Robert Louis Stevenson was a California writer because he spent some time in Monterey in the 19th century.

A better description would be a look at the Coit Tower muralists and their friends. (The painting above is Dorothy Winslade's 1934 Storm Over Coit Tower.)

Most of them were wild leftists and perfect bohemians.

The photograph above is Peter Stackpole capturing his painter father in Ralph Stackpole Sketching Nude.

The second of the four artistic group flowerings under consideration is the California School of Fine Arts. The school changed its name in 1961 to the San Francisco Art Institute, and that art school still looms over Russian Hill on Chestnut Street, home to many brilliant, neurotic rich kids and my favorite Diego Rivera mural in the world.

The period being addressed in the exhibit is the 1940s and 1950s where the roster of talented professors included Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Clyfford Still, whose the 1945 Untitled (formerly Self Portrait) hangs in the show...

...along with the 1953 James Weeks untitled painting above of a jazz club.

Marching along with the decades, the next section is devoted to the 1960s and 1970s at UC Davis art department where two of the star faculty members were Wayne Thiebaud (his 1961 Delicatessen Counter is above)...

...and the ceramicist Robert Arneson who has a number of pieces in the exhibit, including the 1989 Wolf Head sculpture of Jackson Pollock.

The final segment depicts something called The Mission School from the 1990s, which was basically a bunch of students from the San Francisco Art Institute who were doing art in the streets, and the work is hard to take seriously...

...including the constantly evolving, metatastic installation above by Barry McGee.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane

Multiple Mary and Invisible Jane, a modern dance piece with aerialist dancers bouncing off a huge UC Hastings wall in the Tenderloin has been performed over the last week, and you only have two more chances to see it, on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8PM. The address is 333 Golden Gate Avenue, just off of Larkin, and it's free.

And you should, since it's a remarkable piece of theater, blessedly short at 30 minutes, spectacular, and dealing with some current, touchy subjects, in this case old women thrown out of their homes onto the streets by the headlong forces of capitalism.

The aestheticizing of poverty and homelesness, with two SFPD officers standing at the entrance to the audience area, in a neighborhood that is filled with crazy street people, is an artistic project that is filled to the brim with contradictions. At first, I was mildly repulsed. The voices of old homeless women, interviewed by KALW reporter Rose Aguilar and woven into an amplified musical score by Pamela Z, felt patronizing and ameliorative. The beautiful young female bodies flying through the air (Marystarr Hope, Becca Dean, Alayna Stroud, Laura Mills, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Esther Wrobel) also felt like a precious evocation of real pain. Something changed near the end for me, however, when the musical score became abstract and the dancers started seriously whirling and modernism took over and allowed for complexities of thought and feeling.

The finale brought back the speakers to the score, but this time they were more articulate, and the line that resonated most was not one of victimization but a curse instead: "At age 56, Wells Fargo has thrown me out of my own home and has woken a sleeping dragon." Since Wells Fargo is the corporate sponsor of everything cultural in this city, one has to give the producers credit for courage. The choreography and direction is by Jo Kreiter, and the absolutely exquisite lighting design is by Matthew Antaky. Bring a burrito and a beer, and you will be completely enchanted.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Personal Reasons for Loving Norma

The bel canto opera by Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, about a Druid priestess who falls in love with a Roman imperialist general, and is then dumped for a younger Druid vestal virgin, opened the San Francisco Opera season a couple of Fridays ago. Opening Night of the Season audiences are famously terrible, giving no energy back to anybody onstage, because their interests tend to lie more with money than music. I went to the show at its second performance on a Wednesday evening, standing room in the balcony, with OperaVision screens left and right.

Norma is the greatest musical work of Bellini and the entire bel canto period of early 19th century Italian opera, with one extraordinary tune after another. Like Bizet and his Carmen, Bellini died young though his music has survived through every fashion of the last two centuries. However, unlike Carmen, which is fairly easy to cast well, Norma is virtually impossible to cast, as it requires the supreme singers and actors in the world and barely gives any of them a break, particularly the title character.

Carmen has a very sturdy modern story, while Norma is from another era in dramaturgy altogether, though I love its libretto. For all the many absurdities, such as Norma's secret two children by her Roman lover hiding in the forest, the proto-feminist duets where the two sopranos are supportive rather than rivals are still politically revolutionary and musically unparalleled. And even though the tenor is an utter cad, he ends up realizing what a sublime woman Norma is by the end, and eventually does the right thing in a blazing finale.

San Francisco Opera Director David Gockley announced a week before the opening that the originally cast Daveda Karanas as Adalgisa had left the cast for "personal reasons," and she was replaced by the young sensation Jamie Barton before opening night. At the Wednesday performance, I left before the finale because I couldn't stand the off-pitch Italian tenor of Marco Berti. However, Gockley must be psychic, and two days later Berti also left the cast for "personal reasons" and was replaced by the young American tenor Russell Thomas. The latter singer made his debut at the third performance on a Sunday matinee, and finally all the pieces for a perfect cast were in place.

This is probably the best sounding Norma you could hear in an opera house in the world right now, so make sure you go to one of the final four performances which are selling fast because I'm not the only one putting the word out. Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma falls more on the harshly dramatic Maria Callas spectrum than perfectly sung Joan Sutherland, but it's a very, very good performance. On Sunday, her voice cracked and disappeared altogether two or three times in the last 20 minutes of the show, but it actually made her sound more vulnerable within a very controlled performance. I've heard legendary singers as Adalgisa over the decades, from Fiorenza Cossotto to Marilyn Horne, and Jamie Barton is even better than those formidable ladies. "Sing anything," you wanted to cry, because she has a voice that sounds like a young Jessye Norman, rich and creamy and full of power. Thomas as the Roman cad was so wonderful that it was the first time I have ever sympathized with the character. The three singers were having a sensational time on Sunday weaving their voices in and out of each other's, and the audience offered a perfect mixture of awed silence and wild ovations in response.

The production directed by Kevin Newbury is mostly ridiculous, but serviceable, and compared to SF Opera's last ugly Norma set with a burnt out forest, it was a theatrical marvel. The production is set in some imaginary Druid warehouse, with stagehands carrying and wheeling on weird pieces of furniture all evening long. When this show moves on to Chicago, Toronto and Barcelona, somebody should jettison the singing of Norma's great opening aria, Casta Diva, on top of what looks to be a Druid cherrypicker, because the sound is not good and it looks totally ridiculous. Otherwise, keep the cast as is, which is soon to be legendary on its own.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Marriage of Toby & An at the SF Opera House

Walking by the San Francisco Opera House at 6PM on Saturday...

...I noticed people on the mezzanine balcony, and thought it early for an opera crowd.

It turned out the Opera House was being rented out for a wedding party for Toby Brown and An Tran...

...whose names and faces were on the outdoor marquees usually advertising San Francisco's opera or ballet seasons.

I Googled the pair this morning with San Francisco as a modifier, but found nothing.

Toby Brown on his own led to an amusing British blog called the London Egotist (click here) where the above photo of Toby Brown, Prince of Estate Agents, was featured under the headline "Is this estate agent the biggest tool in London?" There are also photos of creative acts of defacement that various people have inflicted on Toby's London bus shelter image.

Now the Toby Brown whose wedding party took place at the San Francisco Opera House may not be the same wanker who is the Prince of Real Estate Agents in London. However, what are the chances of two wealthy young narcissists with the same name and similar dimples who both have a passion for putting their mugs on public display being two different people? It could be a doppelganger, but I'm guessing not.