Thursday, April 30, 2015

John Eliot Gardiner Conducts Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo"

The British, 72-year-old early music pioneer, John Eliot Gardiner above, is touring the United States with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists ensembles, and San Francisco was one of the lucky cities chosen for a performance.

On Monday evening they transformed Davies Hall into what felt like an intimate Italian Renaissance palace through music alone, quite a feat in that modernist barn. The program was Monteverdi's first opera, the 1607 L'Orfeo, performed with original instruments and without intermission, a daunting program I feared might be deadly dull but which was quite the opposite.

For a lovely, detailed review of the musical performance, click here for Terence Shek's account at the Not For Fun Only blog.

The familiar tale spends its first half among happy nymphs and shepherds celebrating the love of Orfeo and Euridice, while the second half details Orfeo's sad journey to Hades to rescue his snakebit bride from the land of the dead, only to lose her when Love conquers Pluto's injunction to not look back. In this version, instead of being torn apart by the Bacchae who are not amused by his decision to forsake womankind for "youths," a deus ex machina in the form of Apollo arrives and tells Orfeo to stop moping and come to the land of the gods with him.

The orchestra was the best early music ensemble I have ever heard live, including the performer above who bounced from one antique keyboard instrument to another.

The singing was also superb, particularly Francesca Aspromonte above in a number of small roles, the bottomless bass Gianluca Buratto as both the Ferryman and Pluto in Hades, Mariana Flores as a lively, dancing Euridice, and Andrew Tortise as Orfeo. Tortise could have been more expressive during his long, lamenting arias but his tenor is pure enough that you could believe it would enchant both heaven and hell.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Secondhand Pier 24 Photography

Photography was long a wealthy person's art simply because camera equipment costs so much, not to mention the expenses of photo paper, darkrooms, and all the associated paraphernalia of the trade. Digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop have changed the equation somewhat, but it is still expensive and tricky making your living as a photographer.

One constant over the centuries is wealthy collectors parking their cash and investing in Art. San Francisco, with its newish billionaires from The Gap and investment banking, has three of the top private art photography collections in the world according to ARTnews, including that of RS Investments guru Andrew Pilara.

In 2010, Pilara opened a private museum to house his photography collection at Pier 24, which the public can visit by appointment, Monday through Friday, three separate viewings per day, with a maximum of 20 people allowed at a time.

The museum is in an old, rehabilitated warehouse under the Bay Bridge that juts into the bay, with 20 galleries spanning 28,000 square feet, with no windows featuring beautiful waterfront vistas to steal your eye away from the Art Photography. This place is serious.

Each exhibit is displayed for about a year, and this year's version is called Secondhand, examining repurposed photographs, and a lot of it is very High Concept Art.

In one of the eccentric choices at this institution, there is no wall signage explaining the art for you, which is simultaneously confusing and refreshing. At the front desk, you are offered a free catalogue to take around the galleries which acts as a map and a rudimentary guide of the artists and their work.

Secondhand begins with a quote from John Baldessari about how imagery shouldn't be owned, somewhat ironic in the context of a photo collector's museum.

Each gallery seems to have its own set of photographer(s) and theme, with installation styles ranging from carefully ordered to randomly stacked against the walls.

Aline Smithson described her pleasure at the museum and the exhibition on the lenscratch website: "I wandered the almost twenty-gallery space, each room uniquely envisioned and curated, bringing remarkable levels of creativity, intelligence, and seeing, where works are not only exhibited in the most inventive way, but the considerations of pairings, framing, and simply the scope of the vision is unsurpassed. I felt completely energized by the experience and have thought about it at least once a day since walking in the front door."

Jörg M. Colberg, on his interesting Conscientious Photography Magazine website, begs to differ about the museum. "Even though the Rothko Chapel has been mentioned as an inspiration for Pier 24, the space reminds me more of a tomb or crypt in which artifacts of the present are to be deciphered by that very small group of adventurers who have gained access. This makes for a somewhat strange experience, given many of the exhibited artists certainly aren’t Rothkos. Make no mistake, if you enjoy looking at photographs on your own in a somewhat dimly lit oppressive-feeling space, this is great. If you are more like me, however, being able to take in work even in the presence of large groups, acknowledging that while being art, photography is a form of art closest to the what is in part represented by those very people around you, then there is no need for this supposedly contemplative environment. Contemplations happens in one’s head, not outside of one’s body."

The experience fell somewhere in between for myself and the two professional photographer buddies I visited with, Donald Kinney and Cassi Switzer. The exhibit can be seen with an online reservation through May 26th (click here). After that date, the museum will be closed for a number of months to get ready for what one of the volunteers at the front desk hinted would be the first show involving a single artist, information she disclosed as if it were an important state secret.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Petrenko Conducts the Shostakovich 12th Symphony

The 39-year-old Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko is conducting the San Francisco Symphony in two performances this week of the Shostakovich 12th Symphony, The Year 1917. I heard it this afternoon at a matinee, and if you can possibly get to Friday evening's concert, do so. It is amazing musicmaking, and the San Francisco Symphony does not sound like this under any other conductor, swinging from the loudest fortissimos to the softest pianissimos during hairpin transitions that seem almost impossible for such a large orchestra. All the sections played magnificently, but the percussion led by new principal Jacob Nissly deserve special mention for their wildly shifting rhythms in this loud, militaristic celebration of the Russian Revolution.

Five years ago I heard Petrenko conduct the San Francisco Symphony in Shostakovich's similarly bombastic Eighth Symphony, and the performance was a revelation (click here). Petrenko has just completed recording a Shostakovich symphony cycle with the Royal Liverpool Symphonic Orchestra where he is Chief Conductor. Though tempted to buy it, in truth there is no way recorded sound can compete with the soft and loud dynamics Petrenko manages to conjure from a live orchestra.

I missed the first half of the program, which had Barber's School for Scandal Overture and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 played by Sa Chen (above right, signing CDs with Petrenko). According to Vivian in front of me, who said the performance "had changed her life," and the ladies seated on either side, it was a magnificent rendition of the concerto, but I am glad to have saved my energy for the Shostakovich.

The Symphony #12 was received rapturously in the Soviet Union on its 1961 premiere, but in the West it was considered bald, trashy musical propaganda for the Soviet Revolution. Now that the Cold War is an historic relic, the music can start to stand on its own without a program, and Shostakovich was above all a great, supremely gifted composer. The first movement, Revolutionary Petrograd, was insanely exciting in this afternoon's performance, giving way without pause to the longest movement, The Rising, with the composer at his softest and most meditative. The final two movements, Aurora and Dawn of Humanity, could sound like schlock in the wrong hands but Petrenko and the SF Symphony played it so superbly that you didn't doubt the stirring music for a second.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Fancy Animal Carnival in Civic Center

Manga costumed girls waiting for the Cherry Blossom Parade to begin posed Sunday morning in front of a public art project that has been installed in Civic Center Plaza for the month of April.

The 19 sculptures scattered across the plaza are colorful painted enamel over steel by Taiwanese artist Hung Yi, and pieces like Jubilant Double Sheep just about define kitsch.

Tourists seem to love them, including Sharing Elephant above.

The exhibit is being cosponsored by a consortium that includes the InSian Gallery in Taipei, the Taiwan-based Swinging Skirts Golf Foundation which is hosting a professional women's golf tournament at Lake Merced this week, and San Francisco City Hall.

On Tuesday at noon there was a public ceremony celebrating the consortium with a speech from SF Mayor Ed Lee who was flanked by a Chinese translator... he praised various public servants such as (from left to right above) SF Arts Commission Director of Policy and Planning Jill Manton, Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu, the new Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny, and SF Rec & Park Director Phil Ginsburg...

...along with the artist Hung Yi himself.

The signage created by the InSian Gallery is often unintentionally hilarious, such as that for Eagle Dove of Peace Buffalo: "Eagle is the national bird of the United States. The dove is a symbol of peace, friendship, united and holiness. As for the buffalo, it represents Taiwanese spirit."

In many respects, a sculpture like Money Frog above is perfect for the Ed Lee administration, enabler for so many greedy, corrupt characters in San Francisco.

Fortune Cat above has the description: "The God of Wealth brought a fish to the earth. And it became a "Fortune Cat." Fish represents wealth in Mandarin, and "Fortune Cat" collects all the wealthy fishes together, which means it gives good luck."

Horse Wealthy above is described, "Horse with gold sycee represents wealthy in the meantime. Hung Yi turns Mandarin words into painting as well as a symbol of fortune. It also brings up the meaning of fresh, successful, rich and bright future and ambition."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

4 AM Paving on Franklin Street

Around 9 PM on Wednesday evening, a bright light appeared at the back of the San Francisco Opera House, and we assumed it was in preparation for a film shoot.

We were wrong. Instead, it was the commencement of a street repaving project on Franklin Street between Grove and McAllister that stretched from 10 PM to 4:30 AM, complete with men on piledrivers, trucks dumping tar, and steamrollers going back and forth.

Living on the streetside corner of Franklin and McAllister in San Francisco for over 20 years, I have become accustomed to noise. There is auto traffic, constant sirens, daily construction projects, and society tent parties with bad cover rock bands playing until 2 AM. None of that quite prepared me, however, for the aural assault from a street paving project outside the living room window all night long.

Thursday evening I returned home from work and saw the machine below parked across the street from our apartment, and the waking nightmare began all over again, except this time it was closer as they paved Franklin Street from McAllister to Turk. The noise of piledrivers and piercing beeps from reversing trucks was joined by machinery that actually shook our old 75-unit apartment building like a series of small earthquakes. It was probably similar at the senior housing project across the street and Opera Plaza further up the block.

The mayoral administration of Ed Lee has made it clear that they don't care about the welfare of most of San Francisco's citizens, but this disregard for people's sleeping habits was still a bit shocking. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for pushback as the steamroller goes north on Franklin Street to fancier real estate.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Police Murder Protest at SF City Hall

At 2:30 this afternoon, there were assorted clumps of San Francisco policemen surrounding City Hall.

They were on the front steps on Van Ness Avenue, scattered across Civic Center Plaza...

...and stationed on Polk Street between Grove and McAllister Streets.

There was a small protest on the Polk Street stairway entrance to City Hall with signage in Spanish and English decrying racist police executions both locally and nationally.

One of the doorways into City Hall was locked and a few kids were banging loudly on the door.

The doorway adjoining was open, so I walked in and was greeted by a wild scene.

The security checkpoints with metal detectors had been abandoned, while a contingent of Sheriffs stood unmoving at either side of the small crowd of mostly young people creating all the mayhem.

The most surreal sights were the women standing on top of the sheriff's security checkpoint desks leading chants against police brutality.

I walked outside and around the corner to the basement McAllister Street entrance, and was greeted by a pleasant, dreadlocked Sheriff's deputy who said, "I just saw you with your video camera on my security camera, you must have gotten some great shots," and I confessed to only carrying a still camera. I went upstairs through the North Light Court, where a catering operation was being set up for a luxury, private party in City Hall that evening, just another surrealistic detail.

The young protestors had arrived at City Hall around 1PM for speeches on the Polk Street stairs, and a number of them had found seating at the weekly 2PM Board of Supervisors meeting on the second floor, and when the meeting started, all hell broke loose with shouting and chants, so that the room was emptied and the Supervisors meeting went into temporary recess. (For an account by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez at the SF Examiner, click here.) By 3:00, when I showed up, the meeting had already resumed.

The protest and the mute, unmoving law enforcement presence reached a standoff. The rotunda area needed to be secured so party setup could get underway.

In a heartening postscript, there were a few bright, articulate, young black protestors who made their way into the Board of Supervisors chambers at 3PM and waited until 6PM to testify during two-minute Public Comments, which I just watched on the Channel 26 Government Access station. The speakers nailed the majority of Supervisors, particularly London Breed and Malia Cohen without naming them, to a wall of shame for selling out their constituents so completely.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Success of SoundBox

SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony's attempt to draw in a younger crowd with late-evening, monthly concerts in a nightclub style setting, has been successful on a scale that probably nobody ever imagined. The Meyer Sound System has transformed an acoustically dead rehearsal stage at the back of Davies Hall into a reverberant concert hall, the lighting of the industrial looking space has been consistently evocative, and the performances have featured a lot of interesting contemporary music not usually heard on symphony programs. All the concerts have sold out, the audience does skew way younger, and the ambience is genuinely fun.

Credit should also go to the Symphony PR Department, specifically Louisa Spier and Amelia Kusar, who have spread the word everywhere, from an article in The New Yorker magazine to features in seemingly every media outlet in the country. The Seattle couple above were visiting friends in San Francisco, and they had heard the coolest thing to do in town was a SoundBox concert, so they stood outside on Franklin Street with a sign looking to buy any extra tickets. (It worked.) That is some serious buzz.

Composer Samuel Adams above was the curator of this week's concerts, thematically entitled Their Own Devices, which translated into five musical pieces from young composers that combined acoustic instruments with electronic sampling.

First up were Symphony percussionists Raymond Froehlich and Tom Hemphill, playing crotales, high pitched little cymbals, while accompanied by 6-channel, one-bit electronics in an amusing piece called Observations by Tristan Perich.

At times it was impossible to separate the sounds of the live crotales and the beeping electronics, which was half the fun, and the poker-faced percussionists did a brilliant job with the hypnotic, minimalist music. This was followed by Clara Ionnatta's Àphones for chamber orchestra and no electronics on an adjoining stage. The composer mentions in her notes that she was attempting to embrace the "extreme acoustics" of electronic music with acoustic instruments on which there was a lot of unconventional sawing away, but the piece felt strangely old-fashioned in its avant-garde mannerisms.

Pianist Sarah Cahill commissioned various composers this year to write tribute pieces for San Francisco composer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. One of them was Samuel Adams, who wrote Shade Studies for piano and echoing electronics, a gentle and unusually subtle acoustic/electronic combo that Sarah premiered during a set at the New Music Gathering at the SF Conservatory in January.

As she began to play, a videographer and a still photographer from Associated Press sat on the floor directly in front of us, which was fine, but the photographer was shooting with a noisy single lens reflex shutter, which was not. After a minute of listening to him destroy the gentle piano piece with his clicks, I tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop, which he ignored. His videographer companion whispered, "We were invited here," and I whispered back, "Not to make noise you weren't." In this digital era, there is absolutely no reason to be using a noisy camera, particularly at a musical event that includes quiet dynamics. The phrase "lamestream media" immediately came to mind.

Without pause, Amos Yang followed Sarah on the same stage with Daniel Wohl's Saint Arc for cello augmented with electronics. The composer noted that he was trying to create "a cathedral of sound through sampling, inverting, and stretching the natural sound of the cello." Yang did a bang-up job and enough people were giving the AP guys the stink-eye that they left midway through the piece.

After another intermission where everyone was drinking and comparing notes about the music, a string orchestra augmented with electronic samples played Ted Hearne's 6-movement, 35-minute Law of Mosaics, which was lively and simply brilliant in its use of complex rhythms and textures. Movement III was entitled Climactic moments from “Adagio for Strings” and “The Four Seasons,” slowed down and layered on top of one another while Movement V was entitled Climactic moments from movement three, 3 times as slow as before. The orchestra sounded great in what was probably very tricky music to play.

The multimedia projections on three huge screens by Adam Larsen all season have been an integral part of SoundBox's success. I'm usually extremely critical of attempts to marry visual multimedia with live classical music because it can be so distracting in all the wrong ways, but Larsen has been remarkably restrained and subtle in his use of imagery, often settling for stills or moody abstraction. For Law of Mosaics, he finally decided to go flat-out psychedelic trippy and it worked, since Hearne's music is so strong that it held its own.

Friday was the final concert of the inaugural SoundBox season, as the space reverts back to a rehearsal stage for the San Francisco Opera. SoundBox's second season will start up again in December, and I can't wait to hear what's next. How about Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro for American Gamelan and 100-person chorus singing in Esperanto? Anything seems possible.