Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Stow Lake Fauna

During Spring Saturday mornings at Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake...

...a group called San Francisco Nature Education has set up a battery of telescopes from 10AM to 1PM...

...where you can watch Great Blue Herons tending to newly hatched chicks in nests high in the trees.

You could also watch a cormorant drying its feathers by spreading its wings while perched on a log...

...along with a hawk and a crow fighting it out above the trees.

We walked around Strawberry Island in the middle of the lake, with its manufactured waterfall...

...which is a perfect background for a pose.

Canadian geese have recently returned to the Bay Area in droves, and Stow Lake is no exception.

My favorite creatures were the turtles...

...worshiping the sun.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Tracey Snelling Art Opening

There was an unusually interesting art opening Thursday evening at the Jules Maeght Gallery in Hayes Valley.

It was a solo show of Tracey Snelling, who is currently dividing her time between Oakland and Berlin, and it doesn't get much hipper than that.

The exhibit was filled with tiny 3D dioramas...

....that looked a bit like Barbie's doll house...

...meets Blade Runner.

The use of tiny video screens embedded in these 3D dioramas is one of the most innovative uses of multimedia I have ever seen.

She also plays with the miniature video techniques embedded into two-dimensional photograpy with mesmerizing results.

Also wonderful were what looked a cross between a whimsical bird house mixed with a Brazilian hillside favela.

The major work in the show is One Thousand Shacks, a lovely, surreal slum...

...with a multimedia mixture of lighting, videos, and political slogans.

The coolest person at the opening, who I hung out with for a while, was Joan von Beisen.

Both of us finally ambushed the artistic star, Tracey Snelling above, and told her how much we loved her work. She was polite but there was definitely an element of, "Who are you lunatics?" Check out the show which will be at the gallery for the whole summer. It's amazing.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ray Chen, an Infant, and Demons at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presented an interesting concert last Saturday with Unstuck by Andrew Norman, the Brahms Violin Concerto, and Prokofiev's Third Symphony. I asked composer Nick Benavides last Saturday whether he was there for the Brahms or the Prokofiev and he replied, "the Norman."

"Good answer," I told him. Unstuck was written in 2008 when the young Californian (originally from Modesto) had a case of composer's block with a Zurich commission in hand, so he decided not to worry about coherence. The piece sounded like a mess on YouTube but the music heard live was exciting. There seem to be 100 musical fragments thrown together in the first half of the huge orchestral piece, but it settles down into a gentle, lovely ending with cellists Peter Wyrick and Amos Yang (above) playing a soft, ethereal duet.

Then it was Brahms' Violin Concerto with Taiwan-born, Australian-raised Ray Chen, who has the looks and charisma of a Hong Kong movie star. He can also play the violin brilliantly, accurately and with musical intelligence. I stumbled across him two years ago leading the New Century Chamber Orchestra as soloist, playing Mozart, Britten and Elgar and he was great in all of it.

About halfway through the long first movement of the concerto, I heard a strange noise nearby and across the aisle saw a one-year-old infant waking from a nap in a swaddling blanket and sitting up while vocally greeting the world. For the next ten minutes, the entire front section of the orchestra heard a constant stream of "goo-goo" and "gah-gah" while the parents put a finger to their lips to shush the infant, which was ridiculous. They showed no inclination to leave their expensive seats even though their child was ruining the sonic experience for lots of people around them. At the end of the movement, an older woman sitting directly behind them leaned over and whispered something murderous, but it made no difference to the entitled, oblivious couple. Finally, a few minutes into the quiet second movement, an usher finally ordered the infant out of the hall, and mother left with babe in arms while the husband sat there and enjoyed the rest of the performance. The photo above is of the couple exiting during intermission with mom on a cell phone in one hand and the baby in the other. The entire incident was bizarre.

The Brahms performance was disappointing, too. The first two movements were taken at way too slow and sluggish a tempo, and I'm not sure if it was the fault of guest conductor Juraj Valčuha or Chen or both. At least the Gypsy-inflected final movement was wonderful, but it was too late.

After intermission, conductor Juraj Valčuha led a loud, thrilling performance of Prokofiev's Third Symphony from 1928, which was a salvage job of music from his unproduced opera, The Fiery Angel.

The opera was first produced in a major Russian opera house, the Kirov, in the early 1990s in a famous production from Covent Garden that was restaged throughout the world, including a stop at the San Francisco Opera, with Valery Gergiev conducting, a young Galina Gorchakova as the medieval heroine Renata beset by demons, and a nearly-naked St. Petersburg acrobat troupe stalking the walls, ceiling, and floor as those aforementioned demons. I had the good fortune to be a supernumerary exorcist priest in the infamous final act where 60 chorister nuns are possessed and go insane. The Third Symphony takes the musical themes from that last act and creates orchestral variations over four movements. Listening to this performance viscerally conjured the experience of being torn limb from limb by SF Opera Chorus women as they sang percussive high C's, while female supernumeraries were being stripped naked by Russian acrobats and tossed around the stage. That was some serious fun.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Divine Bodies

The Asian Art Museum is currently presenting Divine Bodies, an exhibit that mixes ancient artwork from their permanent collection with photo-based contemporary art...

...including some wonderful work by Pamela Singh.

Most of the sacred imagery revolves around Buddha, though there is a crucified Jesus at the entrance.

My friend James Parr guessed that the Christian sculpture might be from from Japan but I thought it had to be from the Philippines, which turned out to be correct. "The only place they love bloody Jesus imagery more than Mexico is the Philippines. That Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ, is probably still playing in Metro Manila."

One of the incidental joys of the Asian Art Museum is that the devotional art is not focused on violent stories from the Christian Bible, and it also has room for goddesses.

The demonic side of the universe is clearly acknowledged...

...counterbalanced by fat, laughing, enlightened Buddhas.

It also recognizes the sacred in the erotic...

...where polyamory can involve multiple arms and heads.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Beethoven Unleashed with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Though not a fan of Beethoven or musical settings of the Roman Catholic Mass in general, I was completely enthralled and moved by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's 1807 Mass in C major last Saturday at the Herbst Theatre.

Part of the joy were the four soloists, from left to right above, soprano Chantal Santon-Jefferyl, contralto Avery Amereau, tenor Thomas Cooley, and bass Hadleigh Adams.

The Philharmonia Chorale under Bruce Lamott is always the most reliably excellent component of any PBO concert, but this Mass seemed to fit the group perfectly in their wheelhouse, where you could hear every musical strand playing off of each other, negotiating Beethoven's sometimes awkward vocal writing smoothly and beautifully.

It was nice to listen to baritone Hadleigh Adams singing Classical music rather than the modernist pieces I've been hearing him in for the last couple of years. His voice isn't huge, but it's beautiful and unforced and is supremely musical. The same can be said for tenor Thomas Cooley who has been enjoyable every time I've heard him. Next to these two, soprano Chantal Santon-Jeffery (not pictured) sounded like she was trying too hard even though she has a pretty voice. The shocker of the evening was the contralto Avery Amereau who looked like a blonde soubrette who should be singing high soprano parts like Zerbinetta or the Queen of the Night, and then she opened her mouth and a rich, creamy, velvety contralto voice streamed out, and you could feel an entire audience fall instantly in love. My gosh, it was like a young Ewa Podles/Kathleen Ferrier/Maureen Forrester mashup. I can't wait to hear her again, in anything.

After intermission, they played a piece by Luigi Cherubini, a composer I only know from Berlioz's Memoires, where he makes malicious fun of the older composer and his pompousness. Chant sure la mort de Josph Haydn has a hilarious backstory where Cherubini read that Haydn had died in London so he wrote a memorial piece for him, but it turned out to be fake news and Haydn didn't die until four years later, when the piece was premiered. (Pictured is virtuoso violinist Toma Iliev.)

Another shock was how strange and beautiful the music turned out to be. The first half of the 15-minute piece is an experimental sounding dirge that passes off from one part of the small orchestra to another. The second half starts with an a capella trio between a soprano and two tenors (Chantal Santon-Jeffery, David Kurtenbach and Thomas Cooley) that was so exquisite that again you could feel the entire audience lifted out of their seats by the sheer beauty of the sound and the pleasure the performers were having while singing it. It made you want to listen to everything Cherubini for the first time.

The finale was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, which is a lunatic piece he wrote to wow everyone in Vienna after a four-hour concert of all-new music by HIM. It starts out as an insanely improvisatory sounding solo piece for the piano, with bizarre precursors of minimalism, then it turns into a piano concerto with orchestra, and for the last seven minutes it turns into a chorus and soloist piece that oddly sounds like a 9th Symphony Ode to Joy warmup. (Pictured above is PBO Music Director Nicholas McGegan and violinist Noah Strick.)

Eric Zivian was the soloist on the fortepiano. A pair of ladies from Marin County were sitting behind me close to the stage, and though they were choristers with the Marin County Symphony, they had never been to a Philharmonia Baroque concert or heard any of the repertory, so I gave them a Cliffs Note version in the most sardonic way imaginable which they appreciated. As it turned out, we were all musically thrilled together as the concert went on, but I warned them that the piano soloist in my experience tended to be a pounder and sort of ridiculous in his mannerisms, and we had a hard time not laughing during the performance.

It did not really matter because the rest of the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra were having such a good time in the music that it translated into a festive experience.

An LGBTQ reception was scheduled afterwards, and I told the Marin County ladies about the event and said, "Please come, but you have to pretend you're lesbians." In a wonderful gesture, the president of the PBO Board announced at intermission from the stage that there was an LGBT event downstairs after the concert, but that everyone was invited. It turned into a perfectly lovely party.