Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday in the Park with Mike 2: The Fell Swoop

Walking east up a carless JFK Boulevard, I stopped in front of the Arboretum because there was more music in the air.

This time it was live musicians...

...playing at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel under a bridge.

They were called The Fell Swoop, a seven-piece local band who were featuring a few guest artists in Golden Gate Park.

According to their website bio, "When not playing traditional venues, the band is often found busking on the streets of SF. Powered by battery amps and a suitcase drum kit, they've been known to create dance parties right on the sidewalks of the Mission district."

They were tight, funky, and good musicians. Stumbling across them felt like a small, surprising blessing.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Sunday in the Park with Mike: Sk8 Godfather David Miles

On St. Patrick's Day Sunday a couple of weeks ago, when the rain briefly paused for a glorious weekend, I walked from 9th Avenue to the Haight through Golden Gate Park. Springtime was literally bursting out all over.

While walking an interior trail I heard dance music booming away nearby so I reconnoitered with the sound. It turned out to be the roller disco dance party just off of Fulton Street hosted by David Miles, who for decades has been known as The Sk8 Godfather.

Circling in roller rink style, the most diverse collection of characters in terms of race, age, gender, sexual preference, you name it, rolled by.

It looked like a time capsule from another era in San Francisco which was heartening.

David Miles deserves all the credit for this goofy, sunny resistance to capitalist culture.

Miles announced the first roller disco line dance...

...and people of completely differing abilities joined in.

The routine was fun, athletic and fabulous...

...and if I wasn't scared of breaking a wrist in about 30 seconds, it would have been a joy to join them.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Forbidden Music with New Century Chamber Orchestra

Last Saturday at Herbst Theater, the New Century Chamber Orchestra offered a program of "Forbidden Music," consisting of pieces by Jewish composers who had been banned and/or murdered by the Nazi regime. The concert began with the String Symphony #13 by Felix Mendelssohn, which he wrote at age 14. Music Director Daniel Hope introduced the work, and the subsequent String Symphony #10 after intermission, with the claim that Mendelssohn was even more of an accomplished musical prodigy than Mozart. The two short symphonies were charming and well-played but reminded me that as much as I love Mozart, his juvenalia is not very interesting and neither is Mendelssohn's.

This was followed by Hans Krasa's Tanec, a short, spiky dance piece for string trio that had been expanded for a larger ensemble. Hope explained that the Jewish Czech composer wrote the work while in the "showcase" concentration camp of Theresienstadt before being sent to his death at age 45 in Auschwitz the following year.

This was followed by Shostakovich's 1967 Chamber Symphony, an expansion of his 1960 String Quartet #8. Hope mentioned that Shostakovich was not Jewish, but that he was honorary in this company because he used lots of Jewish themes in his music, and though the Nazis didn't persecute him, Stalin and his regime certainly made life hell.

It's an amazing work, five distinct movements that run together without pause, beginning with a mournful sequence that morphs into a crazed Hasidic dance, and in its penultimate movement has a repeated, jagged, striking, four-note punctuation for all the strings that is thrilling. The performance was superb and had the audience buzzing at intermission.

The second half of the program was focused on the 1927 Double Concerto by Erwin Schulhoff, another Jewish Czech composer who died in a concentration camp in 1942. I have heard about a half dozen chamber pieces by Schulhoff over the last decade, who seems to be on a lot of musicians' rediscovery radar, which is a good thing because he wrote great music, somewhere between Alban Berg and Kurt Weill with a Czech flavor all its own.

The concerto was originally written for flute, piano, and chamber orchestra, but Hope admitted that he stole the flute part for himself on the violin. He's an extraordinary performer, and seemed to be having a good time towering over Venezuelan piano soloist Vanessa Perez, but I wish we had heard the original flute version instead. Listening to a recording on YouTube with those forces, the piece sounds lighter and jazzier than the violin substitution, but it didn't really matter. It's a pleasure just getting to hear more Schulhoff.

For an encore, Hope and Perez played Ravel's Kaddish, an appropriate enough choice. There was also an announcement in the program that this summer the ensemble will be making their first European tour throughout Germany with a side trip to Poland. The New Century Chamber Orchestra is sounding better than ever under its new Music Director and they should be a success.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Vija Celmins at SFMOMA

An exhibit spanning the career of 80-year-old Vija Celmins at SFMOMA is one of the weirdest, most obsessive, and eventually fascinating surveys I have seen at that museum. The show closes after this weekend before starting on a global tour, so you might want to check it out before it disappears.

Vija came to the Midwest with her Latvian family as a World War Two refugee and went to art school in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Her earliest work consists of flattened, desaturated paintings of ordinary objects such as the Lamp (1964) above, along with blown up sculptures of small objects such as erasers and a comb in the style of Claes Oldenburg.

In the late 1960s she began creating photoreal graphite pencil drawings taken from photos of the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach that are so minutely detailed they defy belief.

There are lots of them in the exhibit, each unique but looking the same.

In the 1970s she discovered the Southwestern desert and applied the same approach...

...along with its night skies filled with galaxies of stars, drawing what is essentially a negative image with her graphite pencil filling in the dark sky.

In the 1980s she moved to New York City and began painting with oils again. Barrier (1984-85) was her first painting in a couple of decades.

She also painted the ocean again with oils...

...and returned to the desert floor with the above 1991 wood panel.

In the 1990s she turned to charcoal and created a remarkable series of spiderwebs, again using negative space. In other words, everything around the web has been filled in with charcoal except for the web itself which feels almost impossible.

The final display of OCD mastery from the early oughts is a set of childrens' vintage chalkboards, where she had a sculptor make wooden replicas, which she then painted with every scratch, smudge, crack and splinter intact. The show in its entirety is severe and a bit forbidding, which means there are not big crowds and you can almost have the exhibit to yourself. I have now gone back three times and each viewing reveals more strange splendors.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick's Day Parade Watchers

The 168th annual San Francisco Saint Patrick's Day Parade marched up Market Street to Civic Center on Saturday under bright, sunny skies.

The Irish Festival in Civic Center Plaza was cancelled this year due to "unforeseen circumstances"... the young party people congregated on a lawn close to the Asian Art Museum...

...where they drank and socialized.

Whatever the unforeseen circumstances, it was nice not having drunk young people puking all over the neighborhood later in the afternoon...

...though there were still a few youngsters who looked as if they had started imbibing too early and hard.

Walking upstream, it was as interesting to observe the parade watchers as the parade marchers themselves.

Sartorial awards go to the woman with the green neon wig...

...and the gentleman with the shamrock blazer...

...not to mention the punk leprechaun in the Muni Metro.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Dark Sky Ferry to Oakland

Our rainy season in California has been spectacular over the last two months, erasing years of drought.

There has been much whining about the relentlessly wet weather by people who like to complain, but the steady precipitation day after day has been a godsend. The gradually filling water tables and wells throughout the state are deserving of erotic public dances worshiping goddesses who have graced us with fresh water.

Plus, all one really needed to get around the Bay Area happily was an $11.95 umbrella from Walgreens along with wool clothing. However, most Californians view wool as if it was a modern version of medieval hairshirts.

Last Saturday I took the ferry boat from the SF Ferry Building to Jack London Square in Oakland under a sky that was changeable in every direction.

The forty-plus years I have been taking ferry boats around the San Francisco Bay for pleasure, and occasionally for serious transportation, have been some of the most easygoing, joyous minutes of my life...

...partly because the people watching is so amusing.

My favorite Bay Area public sculptures, practical rather than "art," are the container cranes of Oakland.

And the sculptures move, with various degrees of precision, transferring containers from ships onto trucks and trains.

My excuse to take the Oakland Ferry was to have breakfast with an old friend who wanted to check up on my mental health, and the afternoon was cathartic and delightful.

San Francisco Bay ferry boats are relaxing, entertaining, holy, and if you can come up with any excuse to take one, you should.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Schick Interpolates Beethoven

An unusually interesting concert was presented on Sunday afternoon, February 24th by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chamber Orchestra. With almost 60 musicians filling the stage, it felt more like a full symphony ensemble than a "chamber" group, and the student players were superb. Plus, it was free.

What made the concert different was performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 with interpolated serial music by Webern and Dallapiccola between its four movements. This conglomeration was then bookended by a pair of contemporary works by Pamela Z and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The fractured presentation was the brainchild of conductor and genius percussionist Steven Schick above, and the 75-minute concert was given without pause or applause between numbers.

Composer and vocalist Pamela Z has been experimenting with voice and layered sampling techniques on a laptop for decades, and Schick had commissioned her to write an introduction to Beethoven's Symphony #1 using Ludwig's despairing letter to his brothers about hearing loss. In the program notes, she writes that though the tone of the music is "dolorous and lamenting," she confesses that "I also couldn't resist the instinct to do something playful — something related to my penchant for sampling, layering, looping, and fragmentation. I decided to use the orchestra as a big, living, sample playback device by creating their phrases and motifs from chopped-up, granulated, and drastically stretched fragments of the first moment of Symphony No. 1."

After a short speech from the stage by Schick, Pamela Z and her laptop came out and the piece began, quite beautifully with the whole orchestra playing a snatch of Beethoven while Pamela Z began singing an ethereal "Ahhhhhh......"

About ten seconds into that "Ahhh...." strobe lights started flashing around the stage and a fire alarm sounded.

More than one person in the audience thought it might be an intentionally theatrical part of the piece, but everyone was hustled out on to Oak Street, where a woman with a megaphone directed us to wait in one particular parking lot.

Most people sensibly ignored her instructions.

We soon returned to the concert hall, revivified by the faux emergency, and Pamela Z's Helligenstadt Lament was fun, particlarly in the way she used the large orchestra as a sampler throughout. The coup de theatre was when she stopped singing, closed the laptop, walked into the audience while the orchestra started the first movement for real without an audible segue.

The ten-minute, twelve-tone Webern Symphony arrived between Beethoven movements one and two, while Luigi Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna was interpolated between two and three-four. In the program notes, Schick tried to articulate a subtext for his program, involving politics and 12-tone music being all about equality among every note, and none of it was very convincing, but it was great hearing unfamiliar, rarely performed music live by talented young musicians.

aequillibria, the final piece, by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottis was an exquisite, trancey stormscape for eleven instruments, and my favorite piece of music on the program. The unwitting theme of the concert for me was very male (Beethoven, 12-toners) musical energy countered and enfolded by female musical energy, not just in terms of actual gender but in musical effects.