Monday, July 31, 2017

Al Fresco 1: Drinking in Hayes Valley

For a couple of decades, Tony and I used to have a breakfast or lunch at Flipper's, a greasy spoon in Hayes Valley which was presided over brilliantly by Kirby, a 300-pound drag queen who returned to Texas last year when the restaurant closed.

The place has now become Anina, a bar operated by the same people who own Brass Tacks, which took over Marlena's a couple of years ago next door, and the asphalt garden is open during the daytime as a beer garden that also features "low-proof libations."

The clientele seems to be young, beautiful, and smart, sort of Zeitgeist meets Silicon Valley.

The quartet we shared a picnic table were welcoming and charming, and a perfect representation of California right now. From left to right, we were talking to a North Carolina blond, an Israeli woman who looked like a 1960s movie star, a Pakistani, and a Texas woman living with her French husband in Redwood City. I hope Kirby would approve.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Merola Opera Triple Bill

The Merola Opera summer training program presented an ambitious triple bill of one-act operas last weekend at the SF Conservatory of Music, and the highlight was the quality of the aspiring professional singers themselves. First up was Pergolesi's 1733 comedy La Serva Padrona about a female servant's maneuvers to have her boss marry her so she can become mistress of the household. Pictured above are David Weigel as a mute servant, soprano Jana McIntyre as the scheming Serpina, and bass-baritone Daniel Noloya as the dim Uberto. Both McIntyre and Noloya have terrific voices, moved well onstage, and made you realize why the trivial La Serva Padrona has been popular for centuries, with one great tune after another.

David Weigel returned with a rich, bottomless bass-baritone as Death in the second opera, Gustav Holst's wondrously spare chamber opera, the 1908 Savitri. Taken from an episode in the Mahābhārata, the simple tale has Death taking away the woodcutter Satyavan (tenor Addison Marlor above sounding splendid) and his wife Savitri's successful plea for Death to spare his life. The director decided on a concept production that took place in England during World War One where the piece was premiered in 1916, which didn't make a lot of sense, particularly with the anachronistic flapper dress on soprano Kelsea Webb. Festival Opera presented the piece in Oakland a couple of years ago and it was deeply moving, but the staging here was static and dull.

The final opera was William Walton's 1966 adaptation of a short Chekhov play (which he referred to as a vaudeville), The Bear. The score is closer to Facade, the parody pastiche that Walton composed in the 1920s to Edith Sitwells's poems than his more "serious" works that followed, and it was a treat to see it for the first time. Mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon was delightful as a recent Russian widow whose ostentatious mourning is interrupted by bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum as a misogynist neighbor who is owed money by her late husband. There is a quarrel which leads to a thwarted duel which leads to a kiss which leads to humping on the floor in this production. Quattlebaum was wild, woolly and sounded great, and Daniel Noyola returned to play the old servant who is trying to encourage his mistress to get out of the house.

The conducting by Christopher Ocasek (above right) was lively all afternoon, and particularly good in the Walton. The direction by Peter Kazaras (above left) was not so fine, with La Serva Padrona and The Bear overstuffed with shtick when they should both be comic souffles. The performers managed to overcome much of the nonsense through sheer charm.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 5: Ethnic Dance Festival at SF Opera

The final event in Saturday's multicultural marathon was Weekend Two of the Ethnic Dance Festival at the San Francisco Opera House, which was as interesting as the previous week's program. Highlights for me were the great live musicians for Ballet Afsaneh's World Premiere The Persepolis Project, Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza's exuberant La Revoluccion, and the Gurus of Dance, an Aditya Patel Company who closed out the first half with a deliriously synchronized Bollywood-meets-EDM extravaganza.

At intermission I realized that after 40+ years of attending performances at the SF Opera House, this was the first time I was an ethnic minority as a white audience member, which was both refreshing and shame inducing.

The differentiator of this festival is that dance and musical traditions from all over the world are presented side by side, with the implicit message that there are no good or bad cultures, only different ones. And while the various dance troupes are true to their own specific traditions, everyone is influencing everyone else.

After a long curtain call, all the performers exited through the orchestra aisles, into the lobby, and continued dancing. Sunday was a day of rest.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 4: Munch at SFMOMA

A major Edward Munch painting exhibit, on loan from his namesake museum in Oslo, has just opened at SFMOMA and it's well worth visiting.

Even though there doesn't seem to be a single happy person on display in any of the 47 paintings, the effect is not depressing, possibly because the colors throughout are so gorgeously vibrant, including the 1907 The Death of Marat above.

According to a well-written Wikipedia entry, "[On his first visit to Paris in 1889 as a student] Munch was enthralled by the vast display of modern European art, including the works of three artists who would prove influential: Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec." As you can see in the 1894 Ashes above, Munch's use of color is as bold as anything from those other famous artists. And like those artists, his paintings improve when seeing them in person which is not always the case. (For some reason, I've always preferred reproductions of Dali over the real thing.)

Munch was born in 1863 to a large Norwegian family plagued by illness, early deaths and insanity, subjects which wove themselves into most of his work, including the 1895 The Smell of Death above.

Directly before his eight-month, 1908 hospitalization for anxiety, binge drinking, and brawling, he painted a number of commercially successful variations on The Sick Child, dying of tuberculosis. "As part of his recovery, Dr. Jacobson advised Munch to only socialize with good friends and avoid drinking in public."

Munch followed Jacobsen's advice and though plagued with illness all his life (the painting above is the 1919 Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu), he managed to survive to age 81, dying in Nazi-occupied Norway in 1944. He also continued painting to the end and it's all great, surprisingly so because I have never seen most of these paintings even in reproduction.

None of the iconic The Scream paintings or drawings are part of the exhibit, which is refreshing, but never fear. You can still buy the tote bag in the gift shop.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 3: Ensemble Mik Noowoj at Yerba Buena Gardens

The downtown oasis of Yerba Buena Gardens hosts a free summer performance series from May through October where the scattershot programming ranges from poetry readings to musical performances to staged plays. The audiences tend to be small but the quality of performers in my experience has been remarkably high.

Saturday afternoon's "Hip Hop Orchestra" Ensemble Mik Nawooj was a perfect example.

Started by composer/pianist JooWan Kim in 2010 after receiving a graduate degree from the SF Conservatory of Music, the musical ensemble consists of "MCs/lyricists Do D.A.T. and Sandman, a lyric soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, drums and bass," according to their website. I believe Sandman is the rapper pictured above and below.

They were performing an ambitious oratorio composed by Kim, Death Becomes Life, which featured an augmented chamber orchestra and artwork by Ernest Doty.

It was an oddly interesting mixture of hip hop and classical music styles, including the rapper Do D.A.T. and an operatic soprano above.

To top if off, there was also "interpretative" dancing by TURFinc.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 2: Human Flower Guinness World Record

The Asian Art Museum, in conjunction with their Flower Power exhibit, organized a public flashmob to assemble in Civic Center Plaza and attempt to break the Guinness World Record for "Largest Human Flower," held by 2,197 people who gathered at the 2014 Rochester, New York Lilac Festival. There were even turnstiles which recorded every entrance/exit of the flashmob to make everything completely official.

The museum had capped the online registration that included a free admission pass to 4,000, which was probably shortsighted. Only about half the people who register online ever show up for anything, so it was touch-and-go if the record was to be broken. Tony and I showed up as late fill-ins and were hustled into a sea of pink trash bags.

Michael Empric, a Guinness World Record official, was in attendance to certify the proceedings and convey a sense of momentous occasion.

We were soon suffering from heat prostration without shade while waiting for latecomers running from the Civic Center BART station.

We were shoved together in a last push to create a flower-like shape for five minutes...

...and instead of being claustrophobic, the all-ages, all-races crowd were wonderful with each other.

And by a 108-person margin, I am now a Member of the Guinness World Record Family. Guess we can cross that one off the bucket list.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Multiculti Saturday 1: Flower Power at the Asian

Almost every Bay Area art museum this summer is mounting an exhibit or tying a marketing campaign around the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, including the Asian Art Museum.

The "Flower Power" show itself is a lazy little assemblage in three (not four) of the small special exhibit rooms on the first floor of the museum, populated with a few treasures from the permanent collection that have a floral theme, like the 10th century Chinese vase above.

The exhibit includes a few fringe benefits, such as the sidewalk outside painted with 1960s pop art flowers on the walkway usually filled with young injection drug addicts and their scary dogs, which is the other side of what the Summer of Love permanently spawned.

Other benefits are a few beautifully painted and sculptured walls in the lobby area and the 19th century Japanese Mandala of the Womb tapestry in the exhibit below.

The exhibit feels like a missed opportunity because flowers are as plentiful in Asian art as crucifixions are in Western. The museum should have reconfigured their permanent collection on the other two floors for an exhibit called Floral Art from The Collection, ranging from India to the Himalayas to Southeast Asia to China to Korea to Japan. It could have been colossal, and since a large percentage of the permanent collection is in storage, it would have been fun to see what popped up.

My favorite was a conceptual art piece where you were asked to follow a set of rules: Pick a real flower out of the artwork, put it in a lovely little paper holder provided by a volunteer, and then take it out of the museum and give it to a stranger.

I did just that, and when I asked to take my flower recipient's photo, she asked, "What's this for?" and I told her that if the picture turned out good, she would be a star on my Civic Center photoblog. The picture did turn out good, and she is.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Invasion of the Brain Snatchers

Somebody should produce yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except in this updated version there are no spores or plant pods taking over people's bodies. Instead, aliens rewire everyone's brains through mobile devices.

On buses and trains I often watch dumbfounded as everyone surrounding me retreats into their private digital worlds while in a public setting. It's spooky.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

SF Ethnic Dance Festival at the Opera House

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is 39 years old, but after decades at the Palace of Fine Arts theater, the annual event made its San Francisco Opera House debut on Saturday night. It's a delight to report that the evening was a smashing success, an unexpectedly delightful match of venue and skillful local dancers, smoothly staged by Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, and beautifully lit by Patty Ann Farrell. Even the amplified sound by design Calvin LL Jones was decent rather than overbearing, which was a relief because the real surprise was how great the onstage live musicians were in all eight segments.

Except for the opening act by the Academy of Danse Libre specializing in 19th Century Central European Social Dances, the music was mostly percussion-based and it was fascinating to hear both the similarities and differences between cultural traditions that included Peru, Hawaii, Cuba, North India, Japan, the Philippines, and Brazil. Famous musicians like tabla master Zakir Hussain and the John Santos Sextet were featured, but the musical level throughout was extraordinary, including the improvised percussion jam sessions covering transitions to a new set. There was even a live performance by soprano Maya Kherani and countertenor Cortez Mitchell of the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakme accompanying the opening section of the Nā Lei Hulu troupe before they embarked on a percussive protest of the American annexation of Hawaii. (Pictured above are members of Leung's White Crane Lion & Dragon Dance Association from San Francisco's Chinatown, who performed in front of the Opera House before the onstage show.)

The festival featuring the best of Northern California dance companies has always been explicitly geared towards multiculturalism as a tool for understanding in the world, so the protests against historical and current injustice had a special charge in this year of Fortress America.

The reigning emotion all evening, though, was joy. Performing on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House is a very big deal, and there was a palpable excitement emanating from the performers, most of them amateurs with day jobs. They fully deserved to be up there, and did themselves proud. There is a second program this weekend and the tickets are very reasonable (click here to check it out). You won't be disappointed. (Pictured above in yellow is the West African dancer/choreographer Naomi Diouf who received the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award.)

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Digital Detox in Central Cali

Like so many other people, I spend most of my life staring at screens – at work, writing this blog, and keeping track of the monstrous lunatics currently in charge of the U.S. government.

On a long Fourth of July weekend trip to Central California visiting family and friends, it seemed time for an experiment which involved not looking at a computer, mobile device or TV screen for four days.

It was heavenly, and so was the visit with sister Susan in Arroyo Grande, who dragged me along on a short hike above Lake Lopez with her friends and dogs.

Sue's place on top of a hillside was looking exceptionally beautiful thanks to the torrential rains this winter.

Two years ago, her husband BJ tore out the front lawn and planted drought-resistant landscaping. The result looked like a Sunset Magazine cover pictorial on the good life in Central California.

He had also planted a vegetable and herb garden enclosed by fencing to keep out the neighborhood wild animals on the hillside.

On Sunday evening BJ picked four types of lettuce for a garden greens salad fresh from the garden.

Using fresh basil, we made pesto sauce for one of the simplest, healthiest, most delicious meals of my life.

Two days without hearing any absurd news also contributed to personal health, and I slept ten hours before heading further south to Santa Barbara. The view above is from the back balcony of Jack Murray, a friend for almost 50 years.

Fourth of July was spent on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which travels daily to and from Los Angeles and Seattle. It was packed with tourists from all over the world, many of them living and working in the Bay Area, on the same long weekend getaways to the Central California coast. In the parlor car for wine tasting, there was a sweet, smart Brazilian couple from Espiritu Santo who were living in San Jose while he worked at Google. In the dining car, I broke bread with two Tibetans raised in South India who currently lived in Berkeley and a young man from Haiphong, China by way of Canada who was coding for a start-up in San Francisco's Mission Bay "where I can't afford my rent even though I'm being paid well."

There were also a few passengers engaging in the opposite of digital detox which seemed like a missed opportunity.