Thursday, November 30, 2017

Robolights in Palm Springs

In the upscale Movie Colony neighborhood of Palm Springs, around the corner from the old Frank Sinatra estate, there is a Christmas themed display called Robolights, which is one of the most outrageous, ambitious, and downright crazy works of Outsider Art in the world.

The reindeers that greet you from the street, for instance, are on closer inspection made of found objects including computer keyboards, discarded plastic tubing, and skulls, among other odd objects.

They are the work of Kenny Irwin, Jr., who grew up and continues to live in the family home.

The mixture of alien imagery, death masks, and cheery Christmas iconography makes for one of the strangest holiday season experiences imaginable.

Kenny was the son of a remarkably tolerant dad, Ken Irwin Senior, who allowed him to use the family's four-acre yard as an outdoor sculpture garden, and then to turn it into a festival of lights every December since 1986.

In a 2015 article by Paloma Esquivel in the LA Times, she writes: "Irwin's mind has teemed with visions of aliens and distant planets since he can remember. Even as a child, he felt compelled to transform objects and places around him into the stuff of those visions. When he was a toddler, his father recalled, he drew rudimentary figures on the four walls of his nursery."

She continues: "At 9, he built his first outdoor robot — a 10-foot tall wooden creature with a 1940s phone protruding from its chest. At 15, he filled his dorm room at a boarding school near Ojai with so many twinkling Christmas lights and flood lamps and so much electronic equipment that fire officials believed it caused the dormitory to burn down."

Last year, Ken Irwin Senior, who had moved from St. Louis to California in 1942 and eventually became a hotelier with the swank La Mancha Villas in Palm Springs, died at the age of 86. Since then, the Robolights project has gone steroidal, overwhelming in detail and impact, with objects that include old carnival rides in motion.

Those rides are usually populated with strange looking aliens...

...maniacal bunnies...

...robots bordered by skull hedges...

...and spooky elves.

If you are anywhere near the area, the installation is open daily from 4:00 to 9:30 from now until January 8th. There is literally nothing in the world quite like it, and the $5 donation is worth every penny.

I had the good fortune to go with a group of eight friends this week, including Steven Wibben above, on a cool Monday evening when we were almost the only gawkers. Steven had seen Robolights a few years ago and thought it was sort of weird and schlocky, but was bowled over by its present incarnation. He said, "When guests arrive during the holidays, I usually tell them they are on their own as far as entertainment, and now I have something to take them to with total pleasure."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Jonathan Vinocour and Girls

Jonathan Vinocour, the principal violist for the San Francisco Symphony, joined the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music a few years ago, and last Sunday he offered a free, superb recital as part of the Faculty Artist Series.

Starting with four Fairy Tale Pictures by Schumann, accompanied by the overemphatic pianist Julio Elizalde, Vinocour continued with J.S. Bach's unaccompanied Partita #2 for Violin transcribed for viola. It was one of the best live Bach performances of anything I have heard in my life.

After intermission, Vinocour introduced a wild piece by György Kurtág, the Hommage a R. Sch. for Clarinet, Viola and Piano accompanied by pianist Elizalde and Carey Bell, the principal clarinetist for the SF Symphony who also finished the piece with a gentle bang on the bass drum. I couldn't stay for the final Schumann set of Fairy Tales, but am sure it was great. Vinocour is one of the happiest additions to the musical life of the Bay Area of the last decade.

Two days later I attended the world premiere of the John Adams Gold Rush opera, Girls of the Golden West, at the San Francisco Opera. Both the music by Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars were savaged by critics, but I loved the piece, and will be writing why after I see it again this Saturday. In the meantime, there is another performance this Sunday afternoon at 2PM and another this Wednesday at 7:30 PM. Do yourself a favor and check it out, if only to hear baritone Davóne Tines (above left with tenor Paul Appleby) sing an operatic version of the Frederick Douglass "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" speech. It's an instant classic.

Monday, November 20, 2017

SFMOMA with Donald Kinney

I took Donald Kinney, a Marin County photographer, to the newly expanded SFMOMA for his first visit last Saturday. We started on the 7th floor watching 20 minutes of Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors, and then descended to the fifth floor to hang out with Louise Bourgeois' spiders.

A huge retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg from New York's MOMA opened last Saturday on the fourth floor, and a cruel line from Peter Schjeldahl's otherwise laudatory New Yorker magazine review from last May jumped out: "For a great artist, he made remarkably little good art."

Scheldahl opens his appreciation with: "While creating the universe, did God have in mind that, at a certain point, a stuffed goat with a car tire around its middle would materialize to round out the scheme? It came to pass, in New York, with “Monogram” (1955-59)—goat, tire, and also paint, paper, fabric, printed matter, metal, wood, shoe heel, and tennis ball."

The art is all over the place, including a vat of bubbling mud from the late 1960s with one of the best pieces of wall signage ever.

You will be splattered.

You will also be surrounded by museumgoers addicted to their mobile devices.

Then we meandered to the third floor where there is an even larger retrospective of the 20th Century American photographer Walker Evans. (The photo above is of a Havana dockworker in 1932). The exhibit, focused on Evans' use of the "vernacular," originated in Paris and is so overstuffed that the effect is finally numbing. It probably would have been twice as interesting at half the size.

My photographer friend lamented the disappearance of so much of the quirky, tattered signage that once was predominant all over the country. (The above photo is from Nova Scotia in 1971.)

On our way out of the museum, digital signage was flashing a picture and quote from my friend Charlise Tiee, who seems to be the ubiquitous Cultural Poster Woman of the Bay Area, along with her husband Scott and her son Theo who is obviously going to be a superstar of some sort when he grows up.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Benjamin Beilman and the New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra is hosting and auditioning an international roster of guest violinists/musical leaders this year after the departure of music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg last season. On Saturday at Herbst Theater, the guest concertmaster was Benjamin Beilman above, a sweetly fierce musician who is 26 years old but looks about 16. The program was an interesting grab-bag, starting with Biber's entertaining and experimental 1673 suite, Battalia, which depicts soldiers fighting, drinking, and lamenting through some wild, extended techniques for strings. The movement depicting drunken soldiers, "dissolute company of all types of humours," featured each instrument playing their own tune in their own key, creating a crazed cacophony that wouldn't reappear until the 20th century.

This was followed by the 1946 Concerto in D by Stravinsky. Though I love most of the composer's music, there is an arid, astringent side which has less appeal. This three-movement neoclassical nod to the Baroque never quite connected for me the half dozen times I tried to absorb it on recordings, and the fine live performance didn't change that impression. Beilman then became soloist in Bach's early 18th century Violin Concerto in E major in a driving, passionate performance that melded beautifully with the chamber orchestra around him. The only disappointment was in the slow second movement where the playing sounded mushy and sentimental rather than soulful.

After intermission, Beilman joined seven other violinists for the young American Andrew Norman's short, virtuosic Grand Turismo. On the composer's website, there is an amusing origin story: "Rewind my life a bit and you might find a particular week in 2003 when I was researching the art of Italian Futurist Giacomo Balla (right) for a term paper, watching my roommates play a car racing video game called Gran Turismo, and thinking about the legacy of Baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure for my next project. It didn’t take long before I felt the resonances between these different activities, and it was out of their unexpected convergence that this piece was born."

I was accompanied by a music-loving, 24-year-old coworker who had never been to a classical music concert, and this was his favorite piece of the evening, possibly because he played the video game when he was a kid. Also, the music has a propulsive energy that is irresistable, and the octet gave a thrilling performance.

The concert ended with Mahler's 1899 transcription for string orchestra of Beethoven's 1810 string quartet, the "Serioso," which was hissed and booed during its Vienna premiere because it was viewed as a gargantuan desecration, rather like Mahler's own symphonies. I found it enjoyable, and the driving unison attacks of the orchestra were expertly performed except for a sag again in the slow movement.

Beilman threw himself into every piece of music with such energy that he looked sweat-drenched and dazed by the end. He was great fun to watch and hear, and I hope NCCO brings him back.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Refuse Fascism Police

A protest movement out of New York City called Refuse Fascism is calling for weekly protests and marches to stop the Trump/Pence Regime from destroying the world. The first iteration was November 4th, and the second attempt was today. So far, the hoped for snowballing effect of gradually increasing crowds does not seem to be working, at least in San Francisco where the crowd of about 50 patiently listened to young speakers preaching to the choir.

The bizarre detail was the huge San Francisco Police Department presence at the event, almost outnumbering the protesters.

They were trying to look cool and unobtrusive, hiding away in the sycamore trees in Civic Center Plaza, but their presence was overwhelming. The real irony is that open drug dealing, needle injection, stolen goods bazaars, bicycle chop shops, and violent fights occur in the same spot on a daily basis, but the San Francisco Police Department manages to be invisible.

Where do these phantom forces usually hang out? Certainly not on the sidewalks of Civic Center unless there is a hint of an antifa protest, and then the military gear comes out.

On an individual basis, the SFPD can be pleasant, as they were in answering a number of questions for the wedding party above who were wandering through the protest site.

The Refuse Fascism movement has a website and they are planning another protest/march at the same time and place next Saturday at 2PM. It would be progress if there were more protesters and less police.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Massenet's Manon at SF Opera

San Francisco Opera unveiled a surprisingly good new production of Massenet's 1884 opera Manon on Saturday evening. It was surprising because I am not a big fan of 19th century French operas other than those written by Berlioz or Italians (Rossini's Guillaume Tell or Verdi's Don Carlos, for instance), and I have walked out of two productions of Manon at the SF Opera over the decades because they were long and ridiculous. The exception was in 1986 when Sheri Greenawald and Francisco Araiza played the young, doomed lovers in the openly corrupt society of early 18th century France, which spurred a sudden realization at how absorbing the music and libretto can be in Massenet's masterpiece. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

This production features the role debuts of Michael Fabiano as the young Chevalier des Grieux who falls in love at first sight with Ellie Dehn as the teenaged Manon Lescaut who is being sent via coach to a convent, which is what families customarily did with extra daughters at the time. The singers both have beautiful voices, although from under the overhang in the orchestra section, Dehn sounded a little underpowered during the first two acts while Fabiano sounded as if he was oversinging a bit in the last two acts. This was completely unnecessary as Fabiano demonstrated during his soft, exquisite rendition of the Act II daydream aria, En Fermant Les Yeux (Le Rêve).

The real strength of this production was the sparkling conducting of the SF Opera Orchestra, by Patrick Fournillier which managed to switch seamlessly from seriously tragic opera to melodrama to musical comedy (think late 19th Century French Broadway, complete with dialogue). On the comic end of the spectrum, Robert Brubaker, who was seen last month in Elektra as the lecherous old King Aegisth at SFO, played another rich old lecher, Guillot de Morfontaine. In the photo above he is accompanied by the dancer Rachel Little, and his three "actress companions" Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte. As a funny, musically sharp little group, they just about stole the show, and my concert companion wished he could adopt three kittens just so he could name them Rosette, Pousette, and Javotte. "Or maybe put together a drag trio for next Halloween and see who recognizes the obscure reference."

Unlike Puccini's fractured-scenes, operatic version of the same tale, Massenet and his librettists Meilhac and Gille retain much of the early 18th century novella by Abbe Prevost, an adventurous fellow who bounced between the military, the monastery and mistresses in a number of European countries, including a Belgian woman who was reportedly the inspiration for Manon Lescaut. This means there are a lot of minor characters, many of them sung in superb solo outings by members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Best of all was the resonant bass voice of James Creswell above as Comte des Grieux, the boring father reminiscent of Germont in La Traviata trying to restore honor to the family after his son's indecent infatuation. David Pershall as Lescaut, Manon's cousin who worries about family honor too little and gambling too much, was not quite as impressive vocally but he transformed what can be an obnoxious character into a charming "bon vivant."

The direction and costume design by Vincent Boussard, who gave us that weird Bellini I Capuleti and I Montecchi in 2012, was also a pleasant surprise. Instead of the usually naturalistic, French froufrou that tends to adorn many Manon productions, this staging was stripped down, with the chorus deployed in a stylized manner that worked much better than the usual run-on, run-off blocking. The chorus also sounded great at every dynamic level. The character of Manon, like Carmen, can be played validly in any number of ways, from neurotically self-destructive to sweetly misunderstood to outrageously selfish. From the very first scene, Dehn seemed to embrace Manon as a nice young woman who is a monster of appetite, and the Act III Cours-la-Reine above looked like a precursor to Marilyn singing Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend (hat tip, E. Christian O'Keefe). Dehn really came into her vocal own at this point and even indulged in a bit of Cirque du Soleil theatrics.

The only serious miscue was the following Saint-Sulpice scene where Des Grieux was about to enter a religious vocation before being seduced yet again by the seductive Manon. Fabiano was directed to perform a Magic Mike cassock costume reveal of a hairy chest just before the two lovers humped each other on the church floor which triggered giggles throughout the audience.

The gambling scene at the Hotel Transylvania was beautifully staged, however, with the chorus kept offstage for most of the action, and the commodification of human relations, which is ever-present throughout the entire opera, came through loud and clear. After insulting a few too many powerful, rich men, our heroine goes from Toast of Paris to convicted prostitute shipped off to the colonies in Louisiana.

There are five more performances of Manon, and this production is well worth seeing, both dramatically and musically. Here's a consumer alert, though: If you are thinking about sitting in the balcony, be aware that you won't see any of the staging that takes place at the top of the stationary wall. The production, which recently debuted in Lithuania and will travel on to Israel, is great for the projection of voices but not so good for balcony sightlines, so you might want to wait for one of the final three performances and be sure to sit where you can see the Opera Vision screens.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Sibelius and Shostakovich at SF Symphony

The Latvian violinist Baiba Skride above played the famous Sibelius Violin Concerto last week with the San Francisco Symphony, and though there were exquisite moments in the quieter sections, the more vigorous passages tended to be recessive to the point of blandness.

The orchestra, on the other hand, under Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, gave a thrilling performance behind her that reminded one of how great the concerto can be. This was also the case with in the opening piece, Finlandia, Sibelius' patriotic 1900 hymn to independence from Russia which did not take place until 1917. It was an eccentric reading, free of the usual cliches, and thoroughly enjoyable.

After intermission, Vänskä led the orchestra in the 1925 Shostakovich First Symphony, which the composer wrote as a teenager in the Conservatory. The young musical genius threw everything but the kitchen sink into this piece, with jazzy piano solos, sections that were delicately scored for a chamber ensemble, and massive full-orchestra climaxes. None of the musical ideas seems to last more than a minute or two and the 30-minute symphony can sound either brilliant and/or a disjointed mess. I listened to about ten different versions on YouTube from Toscanini to Petrenko, and what was interesting was how wildly different they all were from each other. (My favorite was the WDR Sinfonieorchester being conducted by the late Rudolph Bashai, who I had never heard of before.) The performance by the SF Symphony was great, with Vänskä making the piece sound coherent without losing any of its wildness. It was wonderful hearing the music live.