Friday, November 16, 2018

An SFMOMA Blogger Stroll

Last Sunday, SFMOMA invited people to attend the second floor galleries of the museum for free in order to temporarily escape the smoky, polluted air enveloping the Bay Area from the Butte County wildfires.

The Beijing level air quality was an accidental environmental complement to a new exhibition that opened last weekend, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Filling the entire 7th floor of the museum, the exhibit is devoted to experimental art created in that country in the two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, which is referenced in a huge, surreal painting in the opening gallery.

Based on a famous photo from the massacre of a rickshaw driver furiously pedaling wounded protesters to possible safety, the 2001 New Beijing by Wang Xingwei replaces the wounded men with penguins, which is simultaneously funny and horrifying.

The exhibit is organized around five or six categories, which were evanescent enough that I don't remember any of their names. Some of the art was interesting enough on its own terms that stuffing it into overarching themes seemed a little silly.

Kindly posing for "scale" purposes was Rachel, the Fog City Notes blogger, who is a perfect companion for a museum visit since she has strong, independent opinions, loves art, and is funny besides. It was wonderful seeing the 1993 Avant-Garde by Bay Area based Hung Liu, who immigrated from China to California in 1984.

We also loved the skewed painting by Zhao Bandi from 1991, Young Zhang.

If there was any one detail that stood out in the exhibit, it was the cigarettes being smoked by every other person.

This included the workers in a stunning set of photos by Liu Zheng.

The best title belonged to the bizarrely funny 2000 collage by Yu Youhan, What Is It That Makes This Home So Modern, So Appealing?

The title of Yu Hong's work is too long to reproduce, but it was fun watching museumgoers being stared at by one of its subjects.

One gallery is dedicated to video and conceptual art which probably has more resonance if you can speak Chinese and know something about the country's culture, past and present.

For the unitiated, a lot of the work was simply bewildering, but the show is interesting enough that I plan on returning before the exhibit closes in February.

The great discovery of the afternoon was on the third floor, where a large photo exhibit by Louis Stettner (1922-2016) has recently been installed. After working as a military photographer during World War Two, he split his time between New York where he was born and Paris, where he was a student and collaborator with Brassai, whose own exhibit will be opening this weekend on the other half of the third floor. I had never heard of Stettner before, but his work is extraordinary, in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Robert Capa.

SFMOMA is encoring their free second floor admission policy this weekend as an air pollution refuge, but it's worth paying for admission or buying a membership for the China and Brassai/Stettner exhibits alone.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Shostakovich, Borodin & Bartok at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a Russian/Hungarian musical program that was terrific, led by the young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša above.

The concert started with another Soviet concerto masterpiece from the 1940s I had never heard before, Shostakovich's Violin Concerto #1, written for David Oistrakh who finally premiered it in the 1950s after Stalin had died. It is an amazing, fiendishly difficult work for the soloist, and could easily meander all over the place rather like the Symphony's performance of Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante three weeks ago. Instead, the conductor Jakub Hrůša kept it all together, making the long, meditative first movement poetic, the sardonic second movement dance, the slow third movement soar into longing beauty, and the finale party on down, all while supporting the violin soloist Karen Gomyo.

Gomyo was flat-out fabulous, muscular when she needed to be, gentle and searching at other times, and confidently virtuosic throughout so you didn't worry whether or not she was going to make it through the marathon work. Her solo cadenza between the third and fourth movements was astonishing, and it was a good thing Hrůša jumped to the finale without pause because the whole audience would have otherwise burst into applause.

The second half of the program promised a lot of bombast, but Hrůša and the orchestra gave fine, straightforward performances of Borodon's Symphony #2 and Bartok's Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. The 1876 symphony by the chemist/composer Borodin was sort of schlock but fun, and the performance was guided by Hrůša's sincerity and obvious belief in the work. The slow third movement in particular was exquisite.

The Bartok was the Hungarian composer's 1919 version of a ballet shocker on the order of Rite of Spring, and it's still rather shocking. The performance was invigorating and filled with dynamic contrasts rather than hammering us over the ears. So please, SF Symphony honchos, bring back Jakub Hrůša and Ms. Gomyo while you're at it.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Voting with Hope

I am hopeful about the national midterm election tomorrow because the early voting turnout numbers have been amazing. This is a good sign for Democrats who need overwhelming victories because the current system is gerrymandered for the Republicans who have been refining the voter suppression of poor people for decades.

Voting by mail has its conveniences but there is something moving about communal voting, in person, with other voters. Thankfully, San Francisco's Department of Elections has been getting better every year at running a huge, smooth early voting operation, and this year there was both a shared seriousness and cheerfulness among poll workers and voters alike.

Tomorrow is only the first step in fighting all-out fascists ruling the United States, but the stakes are clear to most sentient beings and you can feel it in the collective determination of everyone, including those who don't usually pay much attention to politics.

Plus, there are fun people to vote for and encourage, such as Paul Bellar who is running for San Francisco Assessor. He handed me a flyer a couple of weeks ago in front of the 4th Street Caltrain station way too early in the morning. His pitch sounded good, so when I ran into him at the Heart of the City Farmers Market was able to say, "Hey, I just voted for you 30 minutes ago. Good luck, Tall Paul!"

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Palm Springs Porch

The Palm Springs High Holy Gay Holidays of Leather Pride, Halloween, and Gay Pride have been taking place over the last ten days.

Tens of thousands of foreign and American tourists have flown in to savor the experience.

My favorite place to hang out was in the Warm Sands neighborhood on the front porch of what my friend Steve Wibben calls This Old House, which is constantly in the process of one-man home improvement projects.

"This place is being A-Gay'd out," Steve commented, surveying the over-the-top refurbishing of some of his new neighbors.

Gentrification is a double-edged sword, making public life more beautiful but also driving out longtime residents who can no longer afford the small, sleepy resort town.

It is a transformative time for an interesting place.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Arabella at the San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera is presenting the 1933 Richard Strauss operatic rarity, Arabella, in a production that I enjoyed much more than expected. Set over the course of one day and night in Vienna on Shrove Tuesday, the libretto is a bizarre German comedy featuring disagreeable Austrian aristocrats, including a compulsive gambler count and his silly countess wife who are trying to marry off their daughter Arabella to somebody rich so they can pay their bills. Richard Paul Fink gave an amusing, amiable performance as the paterfamilias as did Michaela Martens (above right) as the Countess who religiously consults with a fortune teller played by Jill Grove, as well she should since the entire plot is accurately foretold in the first scene. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Arabella (Ellie Dehn) has a sister, Zdenka (Heidi Stober), who is being raised publicly as a boy to cut down on debutante costs for the family. This leads to all kinds of complications, and an exquisite duet between the two sopranos in Act One as they both imagine Mr. Right.

Imagine if Cyrano de Bergerac was actually a woman who was secretly in love with the soldier Christian who then pretends to be Roxane in a darkened bedroom for a sexual tryst, and you have some idea of how bizarre the plot becomes in Arabella. Daniel Johansson above is the lovesick young officer, Matteo, who longs for Arabella while being best buddies with the phony transgender Zdenka who is lovesick for him.

There are reworkings of scenes and characters from earlier Strauss operas, including a sequel to the stratospheric soprano role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne aux Naxos. Hye Jung Lee, who has been so spectacular as Madame Mao in Nixon in China, Olympia in Tales of Hoffman, and Ah Sing in Girls of the Golden West, had another great turn in the absurd role of "The Fiakermilli, a cabaret singer" at the Coachman's Ball where Arabella has been named The Queen.

The star of the show was the orchestra under debuting conductor Marc Albrecht, weaving in and out of quick conversational modes with full-out arias and duets. The singers were all very strong, and worked well together, but the role of Arabella is purposely written for a genuine opera star. As lovely as Ellie Dehn sounded most of the time, she doesn't quite have that charisma which would make you believe she would be worshiped by suitors and strangers every time she enters a room or descends a staircase. In fact, I kept waiting for the chorus to burst into "Hello, Dolly!"

Mandryka, the rich country heir from the Austro-Hungarian provinces, was sung by baritone Brian Mulligan in a richly sympathetic performance of a role that can be oafish and repellent. You could believe he would wrestle with a bear in the forests of his vast estate, and that he would make a good husband for the young prima donna that is Arabella. There are two more performances, one on Sunday the 28th at 2 PM, and the finale on Saturday, November 3rd at 7:30 PM. Chances to hear this opera live in English speaking countries are fairly rare, so it's worth seeking out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Mayya & The Revolutionary Hell Yeah!

The Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library has a display case in the atrium with posters and zines from the city's late 1970s/early 1980s punk rock scene...

...focusing on female performers...

...raising the roof at the Mabuhay Gardens restaurant, among other locations.

One of the founding mothers, Penelope Houston of The Avengers, actually works at the library and she introduced an hour-long live concert held on the Larkin Street steps of the main branch.

The opening band was Mayya & The Revolutionary Hell Yeah!

The music was loud, tuneful, sexy, and full of energy.

You can hear and download the songs on Bandcamp (click here).

At the site, there's a short bio: "Diminutive in stature, Gargantuan in spirit". Mayya was born in Russia, grew up in the Tenderloin in SF. she is inspired by david bowie, gogol bordello, iggy pop, funk music, george harrison, pretty much anything w energy and good melodies...

Even the crazy street people hanging outside the library seemed to enjoy the music.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Prokofiev and Dvorak at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony last week presented a Prokofiev and Dvorak program featuring Austrian guest conductor Manfed Honeck and Norwegian cello soloist Truls Mørk that looked wonderful on paper, but was disappointing in real life. Six years ago, after conducting a rehearsal of Prokofiev's oratorio from Eisenstein's three Ivan the Terrible films, Vladimir Jurowski gave an interview where he noted: ""Prokofiev is still being discovered. There are a handful of his pieces that get played all the time, but there is so much wonderful music that nobody knows." Case in point, Prokofiev's 1950 Sinfonia concertante in E minor for Cello and Orchestra, which I had never even heard of before last week's Symphony performance.

The three-movement work is a dense grab-bag of styles from Prokofiev's entire career, spanning his astringent modernism of the 1920s through his Soviet Realist lyricism of the 1940s, and to make the disparate elements work, it needs a great conductor like Jurowski who can make the most jarring segues in the composer's music sound inevitable. Manfred Honeck was not up to that level, and never resolved Prokofiev's tricky rhythms, so the piece sounded even more disjointed than it really is. Truls Mørk gave a heroic performance in the fiendishly difficult solo cello role, which barely allows for a break in the 45-minute piece, but there was a tentativeness to his playing where the work seemed to be owning him rather than the other way around. It probably didn't help that I had been listening to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich's version on YouTube all week. Rostropovich helped commission and shape the Sinfonia with the composer for its debut, and his version is both authoritative and astonishing, which is almost unfair to later cellists.

After intermission, Honeck conducted the orchestra in Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, which has almost as many recognizable tunes as his New World Symphony No. 9. Though it is played on heavy rotation in broadcasts from classical music radio stations, this was the first time I was hearing the symphony performed live, and was looking forward to it, but Honeck led a rendition that was loud, flashy, and bludgeoning.

The four-movement work is essentially pastoral, with one of the most beautiful slow second movements in the symphonic literature, but you would not know it from last week's performance. In James Keller's program notes, he writes: "I shall never forget [the Czech conductor] Rafael Kubelík in a rehearsal when it came to the opening trumpet fanfare, say to the orchestra: ‘Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle–they always call to the dance!’" Though the San Francisco Symphony sounded great, by the end of the evening, it felt like a bloody war had just finished, which made much of the audience excited enough for a standing ovation, but which left me feeling battered.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thiebaud at SFMOMA

The 97-year-old California painter, Wayne Thiebaud, has a sweet pair of exhibits on the second floor of SFMOMA, divided between his own works along with his selection of favorite paintings from the museum's permanent collection.

I often mistake his landscape paintings with those of Richard Diebenkorn, who was a longtime friend and mutual admirer, although Thiebaud's tend not to be quite as abstract.

Living in Sacramento and teaching at UC Davis for decades, his landscapes embody California in a vivid, vertiginous way.

There are also many figure drawings and paintings, mostly of women...

...including the 1973 Girl with a Pink Hat above.

His most identifiable work are the simultaneously abstract and realistic depictions of pastries, pies, cakes, gumball machines, and other colorfully manufactured food on neutral backgrounds.

The Artist's Choice exhibit features Diebenkorn and Matisse paintings, in an echo of the blockbuster Diebenkorn/Matisse exhibit at the museum last year.

Thiebaud's other choices are idiosyncratic and interesting, including Tamayo's 1932 The Window.

About one third of the selections have descriptions of the works by Thiebaud himself, which are fascinating and blessedly free of artspeak.

Both exhibits are well worth visiting.

Upstairs on the fourth floor, the great Magritte exhibit is heading into its final two weeks, and because it was so crowded I spent most of my time looking at the people looking at the paintings, except almost everyone did so through an intermediary, whether it be the phones on their cameras, the museum-provided audio tours, or studying the signage.

One middle-aged woman was a complete anomaly as she actually engaged with the paintings themselves, looking at each of them closely, from a distance, and from different angles. I complimented her near the end of the exhibit on actually looking at the paintings rather than through her phone, and she burst into laughter. "It is crazy, isn't it?" she replied.