Thursday, June 28, 2018

René Magritte: The Fifth Season at SFMOMA

A surprisingly fascinating exhibit of paintings from the second half of Belgian artist René Magritte's career (1898–1967) has arrived at SFMOMA for the summer.

The show is already crammed with visitors, at least on weekends, and I thought my friends Barry and Grant were going to have an attack of agoraphobia trying to slide between bodies to get close to a painting.

Magritte had a youthful career in the 1920s and 1930s as a wallpaper draughtsman, Brussels ad agency owner with his brother, and a Surrealist painter. During World War II, he diverged from his old style and his paintings started looking like Demented Renoir, including weird details such as not coloring in the bouquet in the 1944 still-life with flowers above.

The 1944 painting above is called Image a la maison verte (Image with a green house), leaving out the fact that there's a Giant Violin hanging out next to la maison verte.

The combination of Impressionism at its cheery fuzziest and disturbing imagery is a singular reaction to World War Two.

Magritte also flirted briefly with Expressionism in the 1948 Famine above, where a group of men are biting off chunks of each other's faces.

At this exhibit, you can see Magritte regaining his equilibrium in the 1950s where he refines Surrealism, sleekly Modern ad graphics, and the metaphysical in images that are still being digested, reused, and inspiring graphic artists worldwide.

My favorite paintings from the 1950s are essentially visual practical jokes, rendering the impossible with naturalistic representations.

Like his contemporary Salvador Dali or one of his successors, Andy Warhol, he understood that artists are part of the brand, and he started wearing the bowler hat and suit on a daily basis as something of a uniform.

The late 1950s/early 1960s is when Magritte's reputation exploded, and his work from that period has a slightly kitschy aura about it, while still being genuinely weird.

The exhibit enhanced my opinion of Magritte and his art immensely, which is ideally what any art exhibit should do.

I even forgave him for the image above which was ubiquitous in the 1960s when I was a precocious, judgmental 13-year-old who thought it was silly hippie art.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Boris Godunov at the SF Symphony

Last week Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, along with a cast of Russians and Bay Area locals in a "semi-staged" production of Modest Mussorgsky's sprawling 1872 opera, Boris Godunov. The locals did themselves proud, from Alexsey Bogdanov (above) as Andrei Schelkalov, who starts the opera off with an exhortation to the peasant chorus that they pray for Boris to change his mind and become Tsar. Also standing out from the crowd were Philip Skinner as the sadistic Nikitich and Catherine Cook as the Innkeeper, a role she has been performing since a 1992 SF Opera production. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

Rather like Boito's Mefistofole, the first two scenes are magnificently grand, employing many characters and a huge chorus, culminating in Boris's Coronation, but then the title character disappears for most of the first half and it turns into an episodic, chamber opera which meanders all over the place. There are many editions of the opera: the original two-act, 8-scene version that the San Francisco Opera produced in 2008 and a longer, three-act version that Mussorgsky created three years later that included a starring soprano role for a Polish princess. The opera has also been reorchestrated, first by Rimsky-Korsakov in the 19th century and also by Dmitri Shostakovich in the 20th century. Everyone seems to have their preferences, but they all have their strengths. The version used by the SF Symphony was Mussorgsky's original orchestration with the St. Basil scene removed and the later Kromy forest scene added on.

The Russian soloists were mostly very good, including bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as the monk Pimen, who knows the real story of murder in the Kremlin, and tenor Sergei Skorokhodov as Grigory the monk who spends the rest of the opera pretending to be the grown-up Prince Dmitri, who was probably murdered by Boris.

Vyachaslav Pochapsky as Varlaam, the thief masquerading as a monk, was great at the border inn scene, although the half-dozen supernumeraries/dancers employed throughout the evening by director James Darrah were not particularly convincing as a drunken crowd.

The reason this opera has been produced repeatedly over the centuries is that the music is so astonishingly rich, and also because it provides a role for the title character that's somewhere between Macbeth and King Lear in its depth. For the piece to really work, you need to care about the guilt-ridden monster, which requires a superior singing actor, on the order of a Chaliapin or Boris Christoff or Nicolai Ghiauroff. Though he has a fine voice, the young Stanislav Trofimov as Boris was nowhere near that league, creating a hole in the center of the production. It also didn't help that he was costumed most of the time to look lke he had wandered in from the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.

Still, it was wonderful to hear the music so well performed at the Sunday matinee, especially with the jagged strangeness of Mussorgsky's original orchestration. I was a supernumerary in Boris Godunov at the SF Opera in 1992 and 2008, and this was my first time actually watching the opera from the audience. Those two Boris productions also had less than ideal singers in the title role: James Morris in 1992 who was lacking in Russian soul and Samuel Ramey in 2008 whose voice was too shredded at that point in his career. The only time I have ever heard Boris's Coronation aria sung live, perfectly, was at an early rehearsal at the San Francisco Opera in 1992 before James Morris had arrived. The Russian bass, Vladimir Ognovenko, who was playing the minor role of Varlaam, stepped up to the piano during the rehearsal and sang the aria while the choral staging was worked out. By the end, the entire rehearsal room stood stunned by the deeply resonant performance we had just heard, and poor James Morris never stood a chance after that. There was another perfect performance in that production which never made it to opening night, the late countertenor Brian Asawa singing the Holy Fool. He was replaced at the last minute by conductor Runnicles because he thought Asawa's voice wasn't carrying, but it was the wrong decision. Asawa made me and just about everyone else cry during his beautiful, eerie laments about the soul of Russia. Stanislav Mostovoy did a fine job last week, but again, this is music that cries out for the otherworldly.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: From Moldova to Ojai at Berkeley

Last Saturday we hopped on a ferryboat from San Francisco to the East Bay for a day of fun, food, friends and lots of live Eastern European music in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. It was part of the annual Ojai at Berkeley festival where the week-long contemporary music festival in the Southern California foothills brings a condensed version of each year's program up north.

This year the music director was the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the short afternoon program started with wildly exuberant traversals of Moldovan folk music with her father Viktor Kopathinsky on cimbalom and her mother Emilia Kopatchinskaja on violin. Maria Krykov grounded the group on double bass.

Patricia on violin and Viktor on cimbalom joined forces for dry miniatures by György Kurtág, the 1961 Eight Duos for violin and cimbalom.

The major piece of the afternoon was George Enescu's 30-minute Sonata #3 for violin and piano in a performance by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Amy Yang. It's a gorgeous, spikey piece with the sounds of a Roma camp in the final movement, and the performance was terrific.

In the evening concert, Kopathinskaja was joined by the young, multinational Mahler Chamber Orchestra out of Switzerland. They started off with Bartok's 1939 Divertimento for Strings, the composer's last major orchestral piece before the Concerto for Orchestra, and was amazed that I had never heard it before. It's complex and beautiful with enough melodies and ideas for a work twice its 30-minute length. The performance and music was so vivid that Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat Suite which followed sounded a bit like weak tea.

Still, it was fun hearing the music without the often boring narration that usually accompanies the piece. The musicians above were Meesun Hong Coleman, violin; Vicente Alberola, clarinet; Saxton Rose, bassoon; Martin Piechotta, percussion; Piotr Zimnik, bass; Andreas Klein, trombone; and Christopher Dicken, trumpet.

After intermission we had the crowning work of the entire day, Ligeti's 1993 Violin Concerto with the cellist Philipp von Steinaecker resting his instrument and standing on a podium to conduct. The five-movement work reminded me of the earlier Bartok in its fecundity of ideas. Plus it is imbued with full-on Ligeti weirdness which spans everything from old-fashioned Romantic tunes to ocarinas insinuating themselves into the middle of a soulful violin solo. The cadenza in the final movement is up to the performer and Kopatchinskaja used her own which included the orchestra standing and singing one of the themes to her. It was fabulous.

The encore was theatrical and charming, with Patricia inviting one violinist to join her in what sounded like a Romanian folk tune, who was then joined by a couple of other violinists.

Eventually the entire chamber orchestra joined her for a rousing finale. If you ever get a chance to hear Kopatchinskaja or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for that matter, go.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Gamelan in the Gardens

The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in downtown San Francisco all summer is one of the best-programmed, least-attended free concert series in the Bay Area. Last weekend featured the return of Gamelan Sekar Jaya, an East Bay ensemble formed in 1979 to perform Balinese music.

Having mostly white Americans playing Balinese skirts cultural appropriation, but the group takes the music very seriously. It also hosts visiting Balinese artists and musical gurus for residencies that last from a month to two years, so the effect is closer to cultural cross-pollination.

They have even expanded to a dancing troupe with performers scampering among the musicians.

For a more detailed description of the music, check out Stephen Smoliar's account.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The SF Mayor Election

On Tuesday's election night a couple of weeks ago, I ambled up to the Castro District where Mark Leno's campaign headquarters looked like it had been hit by a tornado.

Exhausted campaign volunteers looked a bit dazed after months of effort...

...and one whole room in what was once a huge Pottery Barn store was filled with detritus that included portable metal ironing boards for collecting signatures.

A screen had been set up outdoors at 17th and Castro which was showing candidate Mark Leno being interviewed back at headquarters. S.F. Examiner writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez (below) was one of the best journalists writing about the mayoral race over the last year, and it was fun seeing him at work on Market Street.

I wandered to newly-elected District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's election party at the Cafe du Nord, and ran into a French friend I made 40 years ago in Berkeley who I would drag to election night parties all those decades ago. On the cab ride home, the driver told me that in his experience the person with the most money behind them always won the election for San Francisco Mayor, and I sadly agreed with him, figuring candidate London Breed had the race wrapped up.

So imagine my surprise the next morning when Mark Leno was actually ahead by a razor-thin margin over Breed thanks to ranked choice voting and candidate Jane Kim's voters who had given him their second-place vote. At 4PM the next afternoon, there was a scrum at the Department of Elections in City Hall's basement with reporters trying to get the breaking story.

The department had put out print copies of all the results on their front counter, which the clueless woman in the red jacket did not seem to realize so she was badgering the talented S.F. Examiner journalist Joshua Sabatini (looking at the camera) instead. This scene continued daily over the next week as Leno's lead disappeared with late mail-in ballots and provisionals. It was a sad ending, not because Leno or Kim would have been San Francisco's leftist saviors, but because there is so much smart, youthful energy in this city that could be harnessed for positive change. Breed represents a very old, corrupt, pay-to-play cabal that has been in charge since at least Willie Brown, Jr. was Mayor. Breed feels like an unconvincing, personally vicious version of the former Mayor Ed Lee, who would do whatever San Francisco's powerbrokers told him to do, no matter how repulsive it might have been to him personally. We've seen this story before, and it doesn't end well for anyone, even those reaping the political spoils.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Synthesthesia at the SF Symphony

I enjoyed last week's San Francisco Symphony concert very much, though I didn't care for a lot of the music, which sounds absurd.

The number one reason for pleasure was the Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, who has conducted some of the greatest performances I have heard with this orchestra, from Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto to Sibelius' Fifth Symphony to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

The first half of last week's program had Nikolaj Znaider playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I heard his debut with the orchestra in 20018, playing Brahms with Blomstedt, and praised the lack of schmaltz in his performance, but the Tchaikovsky could have used a bit more of it. The ridicuously beautiful melodic lines were sort of thrown away while the orchestra under Mälkki was giving a fast, taut performance behind him.

The second half of the program featured the work of two famous composers with synesthesia (the gift/curse of seeing music in vivid colors), the contemporary Kaija Saariaho and the turn of the 19th/20th Century Russian mystic Scriabin. The Saariaho work, Laterna Magica from 2008, was a 25-minute exploration of light in sound, using Ingmar Berman's memoir as an inspiration. The piece begins and ends with variations on the same, austere sequence but in between it is all over the place and hard to pin down mentally. So I just relaxed and luxuriated in the sound, which was extraordinary. Scriabin's 1907 The Poem of Ecstasy sounds like Debussy at his most meandering until it picks up steam halfway and culminates in an orchestral climax that is equivalent to the opening of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. After the Saariaho, it sounded rather vulgar, but you have to love a visionary who intuits global warming a century early. Here's a quote: "According to renowned pianist Vladimir Horowitz, Toward The Flame was inspired by Scriabin's eccentric conviction that a constant accumulation of heat would ultimately cause the destruction of the world."

Monday, June 11, 2018

Hayes Valley SQUARED

A new sculpture has recently appeared on Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley for a year-long visit.

SQUARED is a 50-foot LED sculpture by Charles Gadeken with 768 white square cubes containing programmable lighting.

The sculpture had its debut in the desert at Burning Man in 2014...

...and then visited the Coachella Music and Arts Festival along with Norfolk, Virginia before making its way back to my hipster neighborhood.

Last Friday evening the artist was in attendance and he had set up an interactive slider where anyone could program the lighting scheme, which made for some monochromatic visuals for beginners.

However, with Gadeken's patient tutoring, a young woman managed to pull off the multi-colored masterpiece above. The sculpture will be in the neighborhood for an entire year and it's a wonderful addition.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Graduation Day

Wednesday was Graduation Day for a trio of San Francisco high schools at Bill Graham Auditorium in Civic Center.

What you are seeing is the aftermath of Lincoln High School's graduation...

...and the youthful sweetness on display was almost heartbreaking.

May they create a better world than the one that is being handed off to them.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

2018 SF Silent Film Festival

Based on the three films I saw over the weekend and from the accounts of a few die-hard cineaste friends, the 23rd annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater was a stupendous success.

With over 20+ films and a half-dozen accompanying musical ensembles from all over the world performing over a four-day span, this was an extraordinary event.

Crucial to the success of the festival is film programmer Anita Monga above who is one of the greatest cultural treasures of San Francisco. On Saturday afternoon, Monga introduced the legendary British film historian, author, filmmaker, and editor Kevin Brownlow below.

Brownlow was celebrating his 80th birthday that day, and after the audience sang Happy Birthday to him, Brownlow introduced the film he had helped restore and chosen to be shown for the occasion. Mare Nostrum is a World War One epic filmed on location throughout the Mediterranean. Directed in 1926 by Rex Ingram, Brownlow noted that the newly restored two-hour film had originally been hours longer but that MGM had undercut the director at every turn. "You could say that this beautiful movie was Ingram's Greed," Brownlow said, referring to the butchered silent film of Erich von Stroheim.

The main female character, played by the director's wife Alice Terry, was loosely based on Mata Hari.

Her firing squad execution scene was fabulous, bizarre and disturbing. As Brownlow notes in the gorgeous festival program booklet, "Perhaps the finest sequence Ingram ever shot was the execution of Freya. For the sake of atmosphere, he hired the same bugle band that had attended the execution of Mata Hari. The 24th Battalion de Chasseurs Alpins, "the Blue Devils," also appeared in the sequence, photographed at Vincennes where such executions had so frequently been carried out."

Accompanying the film was the extraordinary pianist/flautist/accordion player Stephen Horne, whose previous outings that I have heard tended to be gentle and delicate, but for this film with its scenes of submarine warfare and wild chases in the alleyways of Marseilles, he provided a rambunctious score...

...made even more raucous with the participation of percussionist Frank Bockius above.

Saturday evening started with an award to Jon Wengström of the Swedish Film Institute, which has just put together a major reconstruction of the 200-minute Swedish masterpiece from 1924, The Saga of Gösta Berling. Based on a sprawling novel by the first female Nobel laureate, Selma Lagerlöf, and directed by the great Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller, this was one of the most interesting moviegoing experiences of my life.

The film is historically famous but most people didn't know why, because it was usually shown in a 90-minute version that was fragmentary at best. It wasn't until this century that a restored, 180-minute version was assembled by the Swedish Film Institute which was released on a 2005 Kino DVD with a trance-like, minimalist score by the Matti Bye Ensemble. On Saturday, a newly expanded (by 16 minutes) version was being shown in the U.S. for the first time and the Swedish ensemble was there to play their expanded score live (that's Matti Bye on piano above). The experience forcefully reminded me that movies are surreal by their "magic lantern" nature, and silent films even more potently so, particularly when accompanied by live, dreamy music.

The film is now most famous for the 18-year-old Greta Garbo in her debut starring role. Her performance is interesting, and she's already breathtakingly beautiful and fabulously photogenic, but the huge cast is all great. There are two performances that stand out, starting with Lars Hanson as the titular defrocked minister who is a young, handsome, poetic, alcoholic heartbreaker who spends most of his time with the middle-aged, wastrel Cavaliers, veterans of the Napoleonic wars who have been taken in by "The Major's Wife," played by Gerda Lundequist, above center. Lundequist was a major stage actress, "the Sarah Bernhardt of Sweden," who appeared in some of the original casts of Ibsen and Strindberg plays. Her performance in this film is one of her few in the medium, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a second.

If the Festival ever decides on an encore of this film with this musical group, go. I was exhausted after a week of work and didn't think it would be pleasurable sitting through a three-and-a-half hour Swedish silent film, but left the theater at 11PM enthralled. There was a 30-minute intermission halfway through, mostly for the musicians, and I asked a number of fellow filmgoers if they thought it was going to have a happy ending. "No way!" was the consensus. "It's long, it's Swedish, and at halftime there are two women who have just been thrown out into the snow on a winter's night." So let me spoil it for you. There is a happy ending, and it involves Greta Garbo at her youthful, luminous best.

The final film on Sunday evening was a fairly obscure Buster Keaton comedy, Battling Butler, which I had never seen, and it was a complete treat, with one deadpan, brilliant sight gag after another. Not a treat was Leonard Maltin's introduction, which involved a long, boring anecdote about getting Keaton's autograph when Lenny was a 13-year-old New Jersey film nut.

The film was accompanied by the Colorado based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which had the most literal and traditional sound of the three musical groups I heard, and it was just about perfect for the sweet, funny film about a rich young fop (Keaton) who is sent to go "hunting and fishing to be more of a man" by his father. Romance with a country girl and absurd complications ensue, leading to Buster having to learn how to box for the national lightweight championship.

The final image had Buster with boxing trunks and gloves mixed with a top hat and cane walking his sweetie down the sidewalk in front of the New York boxing arena. It was a perfect ending for the festival.