Sunday, November 10, 2019

Bay Area Science Festival at the Ballpark

Last Saturday on a walk along San Francisco's Embarcadero, we stumbled on the Bay Area Science Festival being held for free at the ballpark.

We weren't sure if it was going to be a Science Fair with elaborate booths put together by kids and their parents...

...but it turned out to be an adult educational outreach for families...

...organized by UCSF.

There were Stomp Rockets, a fabulous term I had never encountered...

...along with young men putting together Robots...

...that could play with each other.

The best swag was at the NASA booth...

...along with the best poseable spaceship photo background.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Marriage of Figaro at SF Opera

Last month the San Francisco Opera offered a new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, which I caught up with in its penultimate performance. Let me echo the praise of others, for the production design of Erhard Rom, the costume design of Constance Hoffman, the direction by Michael Cavanagh, the singing of a tightly-knit ensemble cast, and the conducting by Henrik Nánási. (Pictured above are Catherine Cook as Marcellina and Jeanine De Bique as Susanna, singing an improbably beautiful duet that is actually a cat fight. All photos by Cory Weaver.)

The production's massive American Colonial estate can be arranged in a remarkably versatile set of arrangements, which is a relief because the same set will be used for forthcoming productions of Cosi fan Tutte next year and Don Giovanni in the subsedquent year. Cosi will be set in the 1930s and Don Giovanni in a dystopian American future (I wonder if there will be zombies.)

The Marriage of Figaro was written about contemporary life when it opened in Vienna in the late 18th century, and this production has stayed with the same time period, moving the setting from Spain to Colonial America. The original play by the French playwright Beaumarchais had to move the location from France to Spain to get past the royal censors of his time, so the geographic move to the U.S. feels perfectly fine, but it does bring into relief a particular ugliness in the story. The long play/opera is essentially a sex farce where most of the characters are thwarting the plan of an aristocrat who wants to have carnal relations with his servant's fiance. There's even a French term for it, droit du seigneur, defined as "the supposed right claimable by a feudal lord to have sexual relations with the bride of a vassal on her first night of marriage." (Pictured above is Michael Sumuel as the wily vassal Figaro.)

Every time I have seen the opera this particular detail always struck me as barbaric, ancient and foreign, but moving the story to the United States unintentionally offered a "Hey, remember slavery and rape?" moment, emphasized by the blind casting of Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Jeanine De Bique as Susanna.

I love blind (to race) casting, and in this case it made the already absurdist Act Three scene of parental discovery even more absurd, when Figaro learns his two tormentors (the marvelous Catherine Cook as Marcellina and James Creswell as Bartolo) are actually his long-lost parents. But the specter of American slavery persists in the background without being addressed by the production, which feels like a failure of imaginative nerve.

The Count can be played in many ways, from sympathetic lecher to a philandering villain, and this production leaned more towards the latter. Baritone Levent Molnar's portrayal kept bringing to mind Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement which made a lot of the farcical shenanigans feel tone deaf. Nicole Heaston as his ignored Countess was convincingly sad while singing one stretch of beautiful music after another.

Mozart's music in this nearly four-hour opera is as great as anything he ever composed, which is why it will live forever. One of the best voices in the cast was Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as the teenage horny toad who triggers most of the farcical situations of the plot.

Also worthy of mention is Natalie Image as Barbarina, one of Cherubino's many love objects, who in this production has much of her usually cut role restored. I've seen this opera at least a dozen times over the years, and this was the first time I realized she was the daughter of the drunken gardener, Antonio. It's all one big, screwed-up family with wealth inequality baked in.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Pop Up Drag Dancing for the Dead

My favorite San Francisco busker is Shane Zal-Diva, a drag queen who sinuously dances to recorded music in front of the Ferry Building on occasion.

On last Saturday afternoon's Dia de los Muertos, she was attired for the occasion...

...and used it for a political statement...

...on a retablo mourning transgender women who have been murdered.

She calls herself the Pop Up Drag Queen on Facebook, and her public performance art is amusing and inspiring.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Semana de Los Muertos at the SF Symphony

Last Friday at Davies Hall one of the translucent acoustic tiles decided to join the musicians onstage before the all-Russian concert of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto #1 and Shostakovich's Symphony #7 "Leningrad".

The musicians looked startled at the intrusion...

...but stage management managed to hoist the thing back into place without too much of a delay.

Prokofiev's first piano concerto is a 15-minute barn-burner that the composer wrote in 1911 while still at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It's one of my favorite pieces of music, with an abundance of catchy melodies and intense rhythmic energy. Unfortunately, the Ukranian soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk above made a hash of it, playing too fast and eliding all the fun.

After intermission, debuting guest conductor Karina Canellakis led the huge orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony #7. The 80-minute work was written during World War Two, some of it in Leningrad (the renamed St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege on that city which eventually killed over a million people through bombing, starvation, and cold.

The symphony is a sprawling, four-movement work that was "lavishly praised in wartime, then largely dismissed in its aftermath," according to liner notes by Richard Whitehouse for Vasily Petrenko's Shostakovich set. It's still being largely dismissed, with the SF Chronicle's Joshua Kosman writing in his review of this performance, "The music can often meander around slowly, this way and that, like a drunk looking for a missing set of keys."

In the distant past, I often found Shostakovich's music bombastic and meandering, but after enough great performances at the SF Symphony with young conductors like Urbanski and Petrenko, I changed my mind and always give Shostakovich the benefit of the doubt. Petrenko has an interesting quote: "I've met a few people still alive who listened to all the first broadcasts of these war symphonies [#7-#9] and they've told me how they were sitting in the kitchen listening to the Seventh, and what a powerful emotional effect it had on them; the Eighth was more challenging, but they understood it; after the Ninth they got up in silence and left the room. The message was so clear: we may have won the war, but the same guy [Stalin} is in charge."

The young American conductor Karina Cannellakis led a performance last week that was alternately gorgeous and meandering. The long first movement, where an earworm of a banal war march intrudes into a lively, peaceful scene sounded more like Bolero than the dark, grotesquely satirical joke it is meant to envision, and she found it impossible to pull all the disparate moods of the long symphony together. However, the orchestra sounded magnificent, especially percussionist Jacob Nissly and the entire 23-person brass section above. It was powerful hearing the work live for the first time and I look forward to hearing it again with a conductor who can pull it all together.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Voting and Fingerpainting at City Hall

The San Francisco Department of Elections has set up a nifty early voting operation in the basement of City Hall which will be open every day through Tuesday, November 5th. It's a quick, fun and easy alternative if you actually happen to work during the week and Tuesday voting in your own precinct is painful.

The entrance is on Grove Street and as you are walking to the voting area, be sure to check out the art exhibit with an unwieldy title: Brian Belott’s RHODASCOPE: Scribbles, Smears, and the Universal Language of Children According to Rhoda Kellogg.

According to the SF Art Commission website: "Rhoda Kellogg (b. 1898, Bruce, WI, d. 1987, San Francisco, CA) was an early childhood scholar, theorist, educator, author and activist. She amassed an extensive and wide-ranging collection of child art—numbering over a million pieces—through her travels in 30 countries around the world and through her work with children at various preschools including San Francisco's Phoebe A. Hearst Preschool (part of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association) from 1966-1986. Kellogg earned an international reputation for her pioneering research in children’s art through lecturing, teaching, and publications, notably in her books What Children Scribble and Why (1955), The Psychology of Children’s Art (1967), Analyzing Children’s Art (1969) and Children’s Drawings, Children’s Minds (1979).

Brian Belott is an East Coast children's art theorist and collector who ten years ago discovered the warehouse in Connecticut where Kellogg had stored her insanely huge collection.

Some of the children's fingerpaintings are richly gorgeous enough they wouldn't be out of place at SFMOMA.

As for voting, my only advice is on the San Francisco District Attorney race. Vote in order of your own preference for Chesa Boudin, Nancy Tung and Leif Dautch. Do NOT darken a circle next to the name of candidate Suzy Loftus who has a long history of incompetence at the SF Police Commission and as a lawyer at the SF Sheriff's Department, and who was recently appointed to the empty DA seat by Mayor London Breed. Plus, the ads praising her and attacking Chesa Boudin from the San Francisco Police Officers Association approach Willie Horton levels of lying, racist nastiness. And if you happen to live in District 5, please vote for Dean Preston over Vallie Brown, another Breed-appointed hack who urges everyone to vote for her simply because she is a woman.