Sunday, October 23, 2016

The New SFMOMA 3: A Few of Our Favorite Things

The Fisher Family collection has brought a number of treasures to the public sphere at SFMOMA, including the huge, wonderful Cy Twombly 1971 Untitled painting above, where a docent was dutifully explaining its significance to a young couple.

There is also a beautiful Diebenkorn, the 1973 Ocean Park #67.

In a New York Times review of the building's opening, Roberta Smith wrote: "The cornucopia of new or newly promised gifts includes a cache that is neither: the 1,100-work postwar collection — of which a selection of 260 is on view — accumulated by Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap, who had once considered building a private museum. In 2009, their holdings were lent to the museum for 100 years, which is also a bump up of some kind, although the collection is entirely too white, male and blue-chip, and comes with stipulations that may prove restrictive." At least we have Duane Hanson's 1994 hyperreal sculpture Policeman to guard all that treasure.

It was refreshing leaving the floors dedicated to the Fisher Collection and stumbling across a small, second floor exhibition dedicated to Northern California artists, including the great hippie-era UC Davis ceramics guru Robert Arneson represented by the California Artist self-portrait above.

Nearby was another recent museum acquisition, a late, 1963 Edward Hopper painting, Intermission.

Also representing NoCal was a gorgeous Wayne Thiebuad, the 1997 Flatbed River.

My favorite discovery of the afternoon was the feminist, Communist painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) whose 1978 portrait of a gay artist friend, Geoffrey Hendricks, and his boyfriend Brian perfectly captures that moment in time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The New SFMOMA 2: Weird Feng Shui

On the top floor of the new SFMOMA, there is an outdoor balcony where you are greeted by ominous signage.

There are a few sculptures along a narrow walkway that stretches across most of the eastern side of the building.

In the L.A. Times, Christopher Hawthorne wrote: "Outside, as a presence in the cityscape, the Snohetta tower, clad in rippling off-white panels of fiberglass-reinforced polymer, is even more apologetic about both its ambition and its bulk. It is everywhere shaved off and pinned back, forever curving away from you as you stand on its one of extensive outdoor terraces and try to assess its scale and civic personality.

The contrast between that attitude and the way the other new towers in San Francisco's thickening skyline carry themselves is extreme. As you look east from the higher of the two terraces, on the seventh floor, you are confronted with the aggressively large and broad-shouldered dark-glass form of a new 26-story office building at 2nd and Howard streets, designed by Thomas Phifer and leased by LinkedIn. The SFMOMA tower is by comparison all stooping form and retreating volume."

Hawthorne continues: "The unfortunate symbolism of this relationship — the cultural building practically tripping over itself to stand down and out of the way, the new commercial buildings blithely taking up as much space in the sky as they can — seems typical of the balance of power in the new, money-drenched San Francisco. (The arts are not so much on the run here — how could they be, when there is so much wealth on so many boards of trustees? — as keenly aware of their place in the pecking order.)"

At the end of the 7th floor terrace, instead of a public exit/entrance that would allow for the smooth circulation of museum attendees, there is a clumsy sign insisting you retrace your steps to exit, an example of bad feng shui which is unfortunately mirrored in a number of the galleries.

The stairways on the Third Street side of the structure have been eliminated, except for the first couple of floors, so to move from one level to another you have the choice of a set of elevators, or a series of long, narrow staircases that are wedged into the new wing. All I could think of was what a mess it would be in an earthquake.

On the third floor, there is another outdoor space framed by the nation's largest "Living Wall," which I was looking forward to except that the terrace itself is so narrow one feels hemmed in rather than liberated.

Next to the Living Wall is the Alexander Calder Motion Lab, housing a huge collection of Calder mobiles collected by Donald Fisher.

"Motion Lab" is a misnomer, though. None of the mobiles are moving, which sort of defeats the purpose of kinetic sculpture.

Next Installment: A few of our favorite things at SFMOMA.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The New SFMOMA 1: Admiring Les Femmes

Last month I was the guest of my friend Patrick Vaz for a first look at the newly expanded SFMOMA, which has tripled in size in order to house the modern art collection of the late Donald Fisher, who bequeathed his fortune in art to the institution on his deathbed in 2009. We entered through the Third Street lobby, and noticed that the most striking part of the original Mario Botta design from 1995, the striped, stone staircase, had been replaced with a maple Scandinavian Modern stairway that strangely diminishes the space.

In an interesting review of the new building by L.A. Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne, he writes about the change: “Taking its place is a much smaller staircase by Snohetta [the Norwegian architects of the expanded building], clad in maple, that leads directly from the new lobby down to the old one. The really striking quality of that moment of aggression toward the Botta building is that is seems altogether out of character with the rest of the addition. In almost every other way the Snohetta design is handsome, carefully intelligent, self-effacing and agreeable.”

The new ticketing lobby is now on the second floor, and it looks a bit like an ugly small city airport.

The lighting, in particular, makes one want to flee.

The lobby does allow for an aerial view of a huge Richard Serra sculpture, Sequence, that engulfs the secondary, Howard Street lobby, which you can walk through without paying admission.

Our plan was to survey the entire, seven-story museum, but before suffering from art fatigue, we decided to worship two highlights, starting with SFMOMA’s version of the Mona Lisa, Henri Matisse’s 1905 painting, Femme au chapeau.

Then it was up an elevator to the fourth floor where there was supposed to be an octagonal room devoted to paintings by Agnes Martin.

To get to Agnes, one has to wade through lots of Ellsworth Kelly and other modernist dudes, which is either annoying or inspiring depending on your point of view.

Agnes Martin seems to be having a cultural moment right now, with a huge retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum that has been traveling around the world receiving rapturous reviews.

Half the fun of the little Agnes Martin chapel at SFMOMA was watching people indulging in their own worshipful rites, including the new sacrament of the Selfie. After our own obeisance at the Agnes Altar, we were ready to take on the rest of the museum.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2001: A Music Odyssey

The San Francisco Symphony has a “Film Series” where they play the musical soundtrack from a movie live while the film unspools on a screen above them, which has always struck me as a bizarre waste of a great orchestra, but the idea seems to be very popular with audiences. Where the concept would make sense is accompanying a silent film, many of which were originally shown with full orchestral accompaniment.

The major exception that I have always wanted to see and hear is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are only 25 minutes of dialogue during its 140 minutes, and the remainder is a mixture of sound effects (heavy breathing, total silence, beeping alarms) and the most eccentric, modernist, and audacious soundtrack ever attached to a major Hollywood movie release, half of which consists of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti at his most fearsome.

Last weekend the SF Symphony presented the movie for three performances with a huge orchestra and the Symphony Chorus in one of the most breathtaking marriages of sound and images I have ever experienced.

I write that without ever having been much of a fan of the film itself, which always struck me as slow, pretentious and without much narrative sense. However, I have long been friends with worshipers of the movie, including my spouse who saw the film as a teenager when it was first released. The movie so galvanized him that he ended up majoring in film and math at Boston University, and to this day his iPhone wallpaper is none other than the insane computer HAL 9000.

Kubrick always wanted to use classical music for the film, but MGM executives said no way and they had him commission a more traditional movie score from the esteemed film composer Alex North, who had also worked on Kubrick’s Spartacus. North managed to finish the music for the first hour of the film, but never heard back from Kubrick, and was mortified when the film was released to find that his work had been trashed and the “temporary” soundtrack of Khatchaturian, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Jr., and lots of Ligeti, which Kubrick had used to edit the images, had somehow made its way into the final cut over the studio execs’ protests. (The recording above was made by friends of Alex North, including conductor and fellow movie music composer Jerry Goldsmith, in the early 1990s.)

Watching the nearly 50-year-old film for the first time in years was fascinating. Though there are female scientists in the early moon shuttle scenes, the Future otherwise seems to be All White Male. The longest section of the episodic film, the Mission to Jupiter, still reads as bizarrely gay, with astronaut Gary Lockwood above spending his first fifteen minutes in the film running around in tight white shorts looking like a 1960s porn star, and the HAL 9000 computer sounding like an unctuous, evil queen. “Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over,” he says after murdering every human onboard except for ridiculously handsome Keir Dullea as Dave.

The excitement this weekend was hearing all the strange, modernist Ligeti music (Atmospheres, Kyrie from Requiem, Lux aeterna, and Aventures) performed by a great, live orchestra and chorus with the slow-motion, art film images perfectly in sync. This is not to even mention the overwhelming, opening fanfare from Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra played at least three times, including the Starchild finale of the film. To paraphrase another Kubrick film, the experience made me finally stop worrying, and learn to love the bomb that is 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Worshiping Troye Sivan in The Rain

At noon today, when the fringe of the typhoon was still dumping significant rain on San Francisco, I came across a block-long line on Polk Street in front of City Hall waiting to enter Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for a concert.

"When do the doors open," I asked one of the line-tenders, and he replied, "6:30 this evening."

I returned at 6:00 PM and the line stretched around the entire Civic Center Plaza and then snaked inside around the plaza and the various treelines. I have never seen such a queue.

The entertainer who is inspiring such fanatic devotion is Troye Sivan, a 21-year-old Australian from a South African family who moved to Perth when he was two. He has starred in a trilogy of highly successful South African films about a prep school boy named Spud, and was the boy in the recent X-Men origin story movie. He also started putting up music videos on YouTube which is where he developed his 240 million listeners. This was the opening concert of his worldwide "Suburbia Tour."

He's also Jewish, openly gay, and the perfectly sensitive, dreamy teenage symbol of the moment. Check out the videos on his website, which are as unexpectedly fresh as the film My Beautiful Launderette. I just hope his devoted fans didn't get pneumonia standing in line for six hours in the rain hoping to score the best General Admission seating.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Quiet Music with the SF Contemporary Music Players

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players opened their 46th annual season on Saturday in the Taube Atrium Theater on the top floor of the newly renovated Veterans Building. I had never been to one of their concerts, principally because they performed for years in the same building’s second floor Green Room which is a great place for parties but terrible for music. The Taube, with its sophisticated Meyer Sound System, is a huge acoustical leap for the organization, and they took advantage of it with soft, sophisticated music. (Pictured above left to right are artistic director Steven Schick, pianist Kate Campbell, violinist Susan Freier, cellist Stephen Harrison, bass clarinetist Peter Josheff, and alto flutist Tod Brody taking a bow after the first work on the program, Glimpse.)

Glimpse was a 2015 piece by percussionist Joe Pereira (above, with conductor and Artistic Director Steven Schick), seven short movements in a contemporary style I think of as Insect Music, which usually involves extended techniques for various instruments that sound like whispering, skittering creatures rather than traditional winds and strings.

It’s not my kind of music at all, which means nothing, but it did provide a sonic palate cleanser for a concert that featured quiet, delicate sounds all evening long. (Pictured above are Peter Josheff on bass clarinet and Tod Brody on alto flute.)

It was followed by guitarist David Tanenbaum and flutist Tod Brody playing the 1981 Toward the Sea by Toru Takemitsu. The Japanese composer’s usual ascetic style sounded positively lush and 19th Century Romantic after Glimpse.

My favorite work of the evening was the West Coast premiere of Sawdust on Ararat by composer Ken Ueno (above).

The 20-minute piece for seven instrumentalists began very softly, also sounding a bit like Insect Music, but soon blossomed into a complex “pocket concerto” for oboe (not clarinet, as the Financial Times misreported), accompanied by two cellos, two percussionists and a flute and clarinet. (Pictured above are Bill Kalinkos on clarinet and Crystal Pascucci on cello.)

The oboe was played by Claire Brazeau above in a superb, virtuosic performance in what sounded like very demanding music.

Near the end of the piece, the two percussionists, Nick Woodbury (pictured above left, with cellist Thalia Moore) and Loren Mach, wandered to two vestibules where two blocks of wood were clamped down and they sawed away as part of the musical texture, climaxing with a chunk of what looked like two-by-fours dropping to the floor with a satisfying clank. I’d like to hear the piece again.

The second half of the program was devoted to the 2013 In The Light of Air, a soft, spectral, 40-minute piece by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir for piano, harp, percussion, viola, cello and electronics.

There was also an “optional installation component” which in this case involved a subtle lighting scheme by the local composing genius and polymath David Coll above that evoked the aurora borealis. In the final movement, the lighting became interactive as percussionist Nick Woodbury played on various gongs, which was fun.

All the performers were wonderful, but I’d like to give a shout-out to pianist Kate Campbell above, who seemed to spend as much time plucking strings inside the piano as she did playiing on the keyboard, both of which she did with easy, unflappable grace.