Wednesday, February 28, 2018

West Edge Opera's Snapshot

The Berkeley based West Edge Opera crossed the bay to the Taube Atrium Theatre in the San Francisco Veterans Building on Sunday for Snapshot, their second annual showcase of excerpts from new operas. This is an exciting initiative that the bigger budget San Francisco Opera should consider emulating, a chamber orchestra and good but not famous singers giving an airing to new works by living composers.

The five pieces varied in quality, which was to be expected, but the performances were all wonderful and the orchestral playing by the Earplay ensemble all afternoon was superb under the alternating conductors Mary Chun and Jonathan Khuner.

Jason Sarten and J. Raymond Meyers above started things off with scenes from an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon by Bay Area composer Cyrill Deaconoff with a libretto by the poet David Yezzi.

Being able to write well for the voice is a special talent that some composers have and others don't, and I'm afraid I would put Deaconoff in the latter category after hearing the two or three scenes presented from the full-length opera. (Pictured above are singers Julia Hathaway and Jacob Thompson with composer Cyrill Deaconoff.)

Santa Barbara composer Katherine Saxon above, with conductor Jonathan Khuner above, does know how to write gracefully for the voice, and her scene from 452 Jamestown Place, depicting a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder having a meltdown, was an unexpected delight. There were video interviews with the composers before each piece, and after watching Saxon's rather frenetic intro to her piece, I was expecting something much more shrieky than the very pretty music given to the various personalities embodied by soprano Heidi Moss, who was in great voice.

This was followed by scenes from Dynamo, an opera about Thomas Edison, with music by Larry London and a libretto by William Smock, who had earlier worked together writing and composing music for documentaries. The genius bastard that was Edison is a wonderful potential subject for an opera but London's score was oddly dull and old-fashioned. (Pictured above are singers Jason Sarten and Darron Flagg along with librettist William Smock.)

After intermission, there was an ominous, absurdist interrogation scene from San Francisco composer Erling Wold taken from She Who Is Alive, a dystopian sci-fi novel by local writer Robert Harris. Wold also knows how to write well for voices as he has demonstrated in his previous operas Certitude and Joy and UKSUS, and this piece was simultaneously seductive and sinister, sounding rather like a missing scene from the Philip Glass opera Orphée. (Pictured above left to right are writer Robert Harris, conductor Jonathan Khuner, singers J. Raymond Meyers and Molly Mahoney, with composer Erling Wold.)

The final work, Death of a Playboy, was a self-contained short opera by local composer and singer Brian Rosen which takes place at Hugh Hefner's memorial service, and the music was fun and lively. (Pictured above are singer Darron Flagg as the presiding minister and composer Rosen.)

The narrative was a #MeToo take on the Playboy Magazine founder, with a former Playmate of the Month sung by Molly Mahoney threatening to tell the assembled crowd what a son of a bitch Hefner really was, while being cautioned by her annoying husband that she needs to be polite if they want to keep money rolling in from the Playboy Foundation for their global nonprofit. Julia Hathaway played a younger Playmate of the Month and the scene ended with a beautiful, rueful duet for the two women. (Pictured above are Molly Mahoney, Julia Hathaway, Jason Sarten, and Darron Flagg.)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Central Coast Boat and Train

My sister Susan and her husband BJ planted drought-resistant landscaping in their Arroyo Grande front yard a few years ago which turned out to be a good thing because there have only been two inches of rain this winter on the Central California coast.

On Presidents Day, we headed for Morro Bay on the way home to San Francisco.

We visited the 128-foot research boat Maria Cleofas which is usually cruising near the protected nature preserves of the Tres Marias archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off of Nayarit, Mexico.

My brother-in-law BJ retired after decades as a merchant marine captain, and then was offered an occasional gig captaining this boat for week-long trips to Las Tres Marias from Puerto Vallarta.

The passengers alternate between naturalists studying the islands...

...and affluent surfers who can afford a boutique trip, complete with chef and crew, as they surf a remote, legendary break near Las Tres Marias.

The Maria Cleofas was wintering in Morro Bay for some dockside repair work... my sister Sue gave us a whirlwind tour...

...of the many levels, nooks and crannies of the boat.

We didn't last long because the polar cold front had arrived that day, and Morro Bay was featuring an icy wind to enhance the experience.

Plus, we had to catch the Amtrak Coast Starlight train going north.

My sister is obsessed with the drought, for good reason.

California Coastal hillsides should not be this color near the end of February.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Bear Market Riot at Avila Beach

The Avila Beach Brunch on Wheels featured its first live band last Sunday, the two-year-old, locally beloved "Power-Folk" duo Bear Market Riot.

Nick Motil performed an intense schedule on the national college circuit for the last decade as a singer-songwriter with original material and interesting covers (click here for a YouTube video).

Kirk Nordby was a teenage musician in Gruff Mummies, a glam punk rock band on Bainbridge Island in Washington but spent most of his adult life as a line cook in the San Luis Obispo area before he met Nick Motil at a local showcase called Songwriters at Play (click here for a wonderful interview by Steven Wyble from the Kitsap Scene site).

They liked each other and decided to busk together for kicks at the Los Osos Farmers Market, and it was an instant success. The combination of talents felt greater than the singular parts and a musical bromance began.

The duo was sort of heartbreaking in their sincere wish to entertain the crowd while expressing their own musical voice.

The pleasure was that they were authentic musicians who you wanted to listen to, and charming, amiable hosts for a five-hour outdoor food and drink fest besides.

The day was Central California at its most idyllic, and I ran into cute relatives and friends like Liz, Tony, and Mark above...

...while admiring young, hipster beards both wild...

...and dignified.

Bear Market Riot is serious about their career and are playing literally everywhere in California, from Goldstein's Mortuary and Delicatessen in Fresno on March 2nd (I kid you not) to Cali Craft Brewing Company in Walnut Creek on March 30 (click here for their extensive touring schedule).

I became an instant fan, and while they were finishing a brunch break in the back of their van, I requested a photo shoot and they sweetly joined in. I felt like an ancient Bear Boy in the Band.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Avila Beach Brunch on Wheels

We spent Presidents' Day Weekend on the Central California Coast as guests of my gracious sister Susan who lives with her family on a hilltop in Arroyo Grande.

Sue and her twin sister Hilary have been whirlwinds of energy since birth, so when visiting it is best to go with the flow.

On Sunday that involved hiking the two-mile Bob Jones Trail next to a creek that stretches from San Luis Obispo to the village of Avila Beach.

Though there are a few luxury vacation developments and McMansions scattered here and there, the area has resisted overdevelopment...

...and one of my favorite sights along the trail are a series of steel pilings for a planned vacation resort in 2006 that was never built...

...leaving what looks like a collaborative art installation between Richard Serra and Andy Goldsworthy.

Near the end of the trail you encounter the Avila Beach Golf Resort...

...home to an amazing assortment of ocean and freshwater birds...

...beautiful trees...

...and a concert series on a large lawn fronting the Pacific Ocean that runs through most of the summer and fall.

On Sunday, the event was Brunch on Wheels, featuring a dozen food trucks, a trio of bars, and a live band with a huge local following who quadrupled the usual attendance for the monthly event. My poor sisters worked the entire day within barely controlled chaos while I lounged around drinking, eating and people watching. Life is not fair.

Friday, February 16, 2018

La Notte di UCSF

My spouse went to Boston University in the early 1970s, majoring in film and math, and the professor who made the greatest impression on him was William Arrowsmith, a passionate Michelangelo Antonioni enthusiast. I'd always avoided the early 1960s alienated modern rich people Italian art films La Notte and L'Eclisse because the deeply influential New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael was derisive towards both. Watching La Notte for the first time last week (along with a spouse who couldn't remember a single frame from his youth), I became a late-to-the-party worshiper because it is so arty and fabulous, with Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti at their youthful peaks.

On a walk last weekend through the weirdly alienated, under-construction, Mission Bay neighborhood, the two of us immediately said, "This looks like La Notte."

"Go pretend you're Monica Vitti or Jeanne Moreau and look alienated," I told Tony, though in truth he looks more like Marcello.

The new neighborhood seems to be a mixture of urban bedroom community for Silicon Valley...

...and headquarters for the sprawling medical behemoth that is UCSF...

...complete with research institutes founded by dead billionaires...

...and new buildings named after living billionaires like venture capitalist Ron Conway, who wants us all to vote for London Breed for San Francisco Mayor this November.

The newly built Midcentury Modern medical buildings look straight out of La Notte...

...and so do the shiny new hospitals warding off death.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

SF Beer Week with The Birds

After a long walk through the Dogpatch neighborhood near Potrero Hill, visiting one hipster brewery after another without actually drinking anything, we returned along the industrial waterfront and rested against this amusingly damaged signage.

Underneath the Bay Bridge, there was a sign outside a burger joint advertising "German Lager $3.50" so we ended up celebrating SF Beer Week inexpensively, outdoors on a pier.

One of the incidental pleasures of the afternoon was watching the fearless antics of various birds...

...who used the fencing as their own jungle gym.

We were joined by the smart, interesting character above and his wife Marisa who live nearby and have adopted the patio as their local pub.

It was an altogether delightful, tipsy afternoon, and even the critters seemed to be channeling Valentine's energy.