Sunday, May 15, 2022

John Waters Book Signing

Filmmaker, writer, and performance artist John Waters is the Oscar Wilde of my generation. His subversive wit over the course of fifty years of filmmaking, essay writing, and speaking is unparalleled and he shows no signs of slowing down at age 76.
Though Waters has written over a dozen books that are mostly collected essays, three years ago he decided to write his first novel, Liarmouth, which was just published, and he's embarking on a worldwide tour to promote it. Last Monday, the Green Arcade bookstore on Market Street arranged for a book signing and an interview with audience Q&A at the McRoskey Mattress Factory across the street.
Waters was his usual thoughtful and brilliantly funny self without ever falling into repetitive schtick. I remember an interview in an obscure gay rag in the 1970s where he was asked for his favorite joke, and I have been repeating his answer like a mantra for decades. Waters said, "I hate jokes. Whenever somebody tells me one, I immediately reevaluate that relationship." During the audience Q&A session last Monday, I reminded him that he was on a talk show in 2016 where the interviewer asked him, "What was the last thing that shocked you?" and his quick reply was, "Donald Trump being elected President." He remembered the moment and exclaimed, "Oh, gawd, the Trumps. They ruined Bad Taste."
He continued, "Have any of you seen pictures of Barron Trump these days? He's turned into a literal giant. When you see pictures of him with his parents, it looks like that Diane Arbus photo [Jewish Giant with His Parents in the Bronx]."
The line for Liarmouth to be signed with a personal inscription from Waters snaked all the way through the third floor of the warehouse.
Besides all his other projects, Waters started an East Coast Summer Camp six years ago, with cameos by stars of his films like Kathleen Turner, Patty Hearst, and Traci Lords. The three women above had attended the last Camp and were members of the Pussywillows Gang.
This year's fifth interation is taking place in Connecticut, hosted by Debbie Harry, and is already sold out.
Monday was my first wedding anniversary with Austin, who invited Waters to a Halloween party in Baltimore back in the 1990s, and he even showed up. So I asked Waters to write, "Happy Anniversary Buttfuckers Austin + Mike -- John Waters." Now that's a gay wedding anniversary present to remember.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Price and Dvorak at the SF Symphony

Last week's subscription concert at the San Francisco Symphony was disappointing, even though the program looked promising, with two SF Symphony premieres joined by a surpassingly beautiful old chestnut, Dvorak's 9th Symphony, From the New World. Saturday evening started with the composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama's 2020 Primal Message, a ten minute evocation of "the human feeling" behind the interstellar, 186-second radio wave message sent into space in 1974 by Carl Sagan and others. The composer above was in attendance and she was a delight introducing her piece for strings, a harp, and a bit of percussion, but the music itself sounded like an agreeable movie soundtrack rather than a Primal Message. I kept having visions of Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in the 1997 movie Contact.
Florence Price (1887-1953) was an outsider in the American classical music world for the first half of the 20th century by virtue of her gender and race, but she persisted in composing, arranging, and performing music throughout her life, with a few of her works being played by large orchestral institutions. Many of her works not only disappeared from the concert hall after her death, but some of her scores also vanished and are just being physically discovered in old trunks in summer houses. She was the piano soloist in the Chicago premiere of her 1933 Piano Concerto in One Movement, a work that sounds like an interesting mixture of Western Classical music and popular African-American tunes and rhythms. In other words, the music comes from the same time and place as George Gershwin, but from the other side of the color line. The soloist for these performances was composer/pianist Aaron Diehl (click here for his website) and his playing was unusual and exquisite. His encore of a Joplin ragtime piece, Solace (A Mexican Serenade) was soft, slow, ruminative and sounded almost like Philip Glass, one of Diehl's mentors.
At intermission, my concert buddy Austin asked, "With concertos, when the orchestra is drowning out the piano, is that the fault of the composer or the conductor?" My answer: "It depends." In this case, it was definitely the fault of the guest conductor Xian Zhang, currently the Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony.
While visiting Bohemian hosts in Iowa, Dvorak composed his symphony and infused it with African-American and Native American tunes that are both beautiful and carried an important lesson:. "Here, America, this is your music, use it." In 2010, I went to a "Summer in the City" SF Symphony pops concert where Alondra de la Parra conducted "American" music, including Dvorak's Ninth, in a performance so wonderful that I fell in love with the 1893 symphony (click here). My last sentence was snidely woke: "It's nice to see a crack in the door of the Conductors' Boys Club, even though Alondra is still a gender anomaly in our advanced twenty-first century." So it's sad to report that Xian Zhang conducted a terribly mediocre performance of the symphony that was crude, rude and missing any sense of the poetry and felicities that make the work so special. The brass, one of the glories of this orchestra, were too loud and grating throughout, and the conductor didn't seem to have a clue about what makes this music special (Photo above is by Kristen Loken.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

The Friction Quartet and Sarah Cahill

The Friction Quartet performed with pianist Sarah Cahill at Noe Music Sunday afternoon in a satisfying, wide-ranging program. They started with a work they had commissioned, Max Stoffregen's The Gila: River, Mesa and Mountain. I heard the piece at its premiere with Sarah Cahill at the piano in 2019 at Old First Church (click here), and enjoyed the rambling, atmospheric travelogue that ends with an energetic movement depicting The Mountain. (Pictured above are from left to right: pianist Sarah Cahill, violinist Otis Harriel, violist Mitso Floor, cellist Doug Machiz, and violinist Kevin Rogers.)
The quartet formed in 2011 out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and have been giving amazing performances of contemporary music for the last decade. They seem to be in a transitional period since the departure of longtime violist Taija Werbelow. She was replaced by Lucia Kobza, but then the pandemic arrived, she departed, and it's been a trial finding the right replacement. Subbing in for concerts this spring is Mitso Floor, an SF Conservatory alumni who just finished graduate school at the University of Miami's music school. He was the delightful surprise of the concert, because he's a great musician.
Kevin Rogers introduced one of his favorite pieces of music, Dvorak's 1893 String Quartet in F major "American".
They gave an intense performance that was lively and interesting throughout, though I usually prefer my Dvorak a little gentler.
Performing the audience-friendly Dvorak quartet before the modern music in the second half was a welcome switch from the usual, "and here's something you recognize for the end of this difficult program." Hearing the past made for a richer experience listening to the present. Sarah Cahill introduced Tania León's 2013 Ethos for String Quartet and Piano.
The AND is accurate because instead of being a piano quintet, there is a string quartet playing one set of lyrical and/or slashing music while the piano is doing its own thing altogether in crazy clusters of notes. And then the pauses begin, starting with Doug Machiz on cello (above) and involving everyone in longer bouts of silence. It was absorbing and the right length.
Violinist Otis Harriel gave the best spoken introduction to a piece, Timo Andres's 2012 Piano Quintet. He described how a lot of music is about a journey that is circular, coming home to the original theme, while this music was a true journey, where you were never quite sure where it was going to end up.
He was right, and the performance was expert. What both Sarah Cahill and the Friction Quartet have in common is infusing contemporary compositions with musicality in live performances. It's a rare gift and mission.
Hey, Mitso, here's some unsolicited advice. Keep playing with the Friction Dudes for as long as you can. And for my readers, you can hear the Friction Quartet later this month in Berkeley and Albany and San Francisco. Check out this link for details.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Guo Pei Fashion Exhibit at the Legion

Whenever visiting the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, I usually want to escape outside to the stunning beauty of Lincoln Park Municipal Golf Course which surrounds it. However, I'm still breaking in a new hip so I happily roamed the museum instead last Saturday for the opening of a new fashion exhibit by a Chinese coturier named Guo Pei.
While local socialite Dede Wilsey has been in charge of the Fine Arts Museums for the last few decades, there have been lots of jewelry and fashion exhibits which seems to be her thing. A few of the shows have been fabulous (the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibit from Montreal at the deYoung, for instance) and quite a few have been sad embarrassments (the recent "Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love" at the deYoung being a prime example). So it's a joy to report that the Guo Pei exhibit is one of the most astonishing museum installations I have ever seen.
Guo Pei is a 53-year-old Beijing-based fashion designer who was "invited to be a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the chief governing body of the high-fashion industry, allowing her to show on the Paris Haute Couture Week calendar," according to her website.
The downstairs special exhibit is filled with amazing examples of her work from the last 20 years, but the physical space is crowded and a bit claustrophobic, not allowing the work to breathe properly.
However, somebody had the bright idea to install most of the showstoppers in the permanent galleries upstairs, and the proximity of the sculpturally magnificent outfits with the art surrounding them elevate both.
The detailing in these outfits is staggering, and her more elaborate creations require two years and 4,000 hours of labor from her 500-employee design studio, not to mention at least a medium-sized fortune to purchase.
In an interview with L'Officiel in Singapore, Guo Pei says: "I love couture art, as couture can have a longer, even permanent life. Unlike ready-to-wear, which could be very popular at a time, but be forgotten at another. I hope my couture can be like the museum pieces stored in galleries or museums, being inherited. Because true haute couture can be appreciated through time, for years, they become a glance of past time, where they can restore past glory and resplendence."
This is Guo Pei's first museum exhibit, so it looks like somebody's dreams have come true.
Many of these pieces don't look like they could actually be worn by normal humans, but their mixture of craft and sculptural experimentation put them into a different realm of art.
Some of the installations are witty and destabilizing.
The absurdly ornate French antiques rooms look much more interesting with exquisitely dressed mannequins inhabiting them.
And the erotics of antique French bedroom sets has never been so obvious.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Alice Neel Retrospective at the de Young

When SFMOMA reopened in 2016 after its huge expansion, I saw the painting above for the first time, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. The casual yet penetrating depiction of a gay couple (Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian, 1978) sitting at a kitchen table while staring back at the viewer, was unlike anything else in the museum. The artist, Alice Neel, was completely unknown to me, but I instantly became a member of her admiring cult.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was desperately poor and unappreciated artistically most of her life for a number of reasons: her gender, her figurative style when abstraction was the fashion, her domicile in New York's Spanish Harlem when the art scene was centered in Greenwich Village, and her sincere far-left politics bred during the 1930s Depression. She was also, like most great painters, an egomaniac who had her own vision. In 1974, she was finally given a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and spent her last decade as a minor celebrity, even appearing on the Johnny Carson show a couple of times. The power of her work, however, is finally being recognized at the highest institutional level, with a major show last year at the Metropolitan Museum in New York which has now traveled to the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
A couple of weekends ago, Andrew Neel brought his 2007 documentary about his grandmother, Alice Neel, to the deYoung Museum, and it was a fascinating work of art on its own. (You can watch it on Amazon Prime, which is highly recommended if you are planning on seeing the exhibit.)
Alice was from a working-class Pennsylvania family who went to a Women's Art School in Philadelphia. At a summer school, she met the upper-class Cuban art student Carlos Enriquez, married him and had a daughter.
This did not thrill Enriquez's Cuban family. While the couple were trying to make their way as starving artists in 1920s New York, their daughter died of diphtheria. When another daughter, Isabetta, was born, Carlos took her to Cuba and left the child with his parents while he took off for Paris. (The painting above is the 1926 portrait, Carlos Enriquez.)
The abandoned Alice went into a suicidal, clinical depression. After a few unsuccessful suicide attempts, and a year in a Philadelphia mental institution, Alice decided that "I could jump out a window or just serve my time," and she decided to live. That included hooking up with a young Puerto Rican musician, who is in the 1936 portrait, Jose Santiago Negron.
In 1939, she had a son by him, Richard, and a couple of years later Hartley was born during her union with the Communist documentary filmmaker Sam Brody. The painting above is Hartley and Richard, 1950.
The two important things parents can do for their children are to give them love and to make them feel safe. From the accounts in Andrew's very frank family documentary, there was plenty of the former but not much of the latter, with Richard getting the worst of it via constant bullying from Sam Brody. Richard is pictured above in a 1963 portrait.
It's not particularly surprising that Richard rebelled at the Bohemian world he had grown up in and became a Nixon-loving corporate lawyer for Pan Am. Alice was not amused, and painted the rather cruel portrait above, Richard in the Era of the Corporation (1978-79).
Hartley, shown above in a 1966 portrait, became a radiologist.
Alice's bohemianism extended to her frankness about nudity and sex, in pictures that are still shocking, like the 1935 Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom).
Her portrait of the art critic John Perreault is both erotic and funny. In an essay on the painter Joan Mitchell, Perreault writes: "“Her Fifth Sin,” he wrote of Mitchell, “was that she didn’t have a wife to promote her and steady the helm. Wild woman Alice Neel once told me, when I was posing naked for her, that she would have been famous much sooner if, like Jackson Pollock, she had had Lee Krasner for a wife, or like de Kooning she had had an Elaine.”
Neel's series of portraits of pregnant women are unlike any other before or since, without a hint of sentimentality. (Above is the 1964 Pregnant Maria)
Alice had problems with the feminist movement, noting that it was mostly run by white bourgie women, but the movement benefited her immensely at the end of her life. Pictured above is the echt-1972 Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis), with its still slightly shocking tuft of armpit hair confronting the viewer.
Alice painted portraits of every type of person imaginable: the rich, poor, famous, nobodies, family, and strangers. In 1971, she invited the San Francisco concert pianist Robert Avedis Hagopian (1945-1984) to her home studio and painted the portrait above. He was one of the many eventual AIDS casualties that figure among her sitters, including the Detroit-born artist Brian Buczak who is in the first photo of this post. Alice kept this painting until her own death, which was then bought by the Hagopian family, and which is now in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
She only painted one self-portrait, and waited until the age of 80 where she casually, defiantly, and subversively lets it all hang out. She looks like an old Irish grandmother who is somehow stronger than anybody else in the world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Corigliano Triathalon at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony offered the world premiere of a saxophone concerto by the famous 84-year-old American composer John Corigliano. The composer gave a charming introduction to the work from the stage, explaining that the piece was called Triathalon, Concerto for Saxophonist and Orchestra because each of the three movements used a different kind of instrument. The first movement, Leaps, featured a soprano saxophone; the middle movement, Lines, an alto saxophone; and the final Licks movement a baritone saxophone, with a hasty, circular return to the soprano sax at the end.
I have never warmed up to any of Corigliano's music over the decades, from his The Ghosts of Versailles opera to his AIDS-reflective Symphony #1 to his film soundtracks for Altered States and The Red Violin. Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle wrote a rave review of the new concerto (click here), so I was hoping this might be a conversion moment, but it was not. The soloist for whom it was written, Tim McAllister, was as virtuosic and entertaining as could be, but the music sounded banal and the integration between soloist and orchestra under debuting guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero felt lacking, with the orchestra often just imitating the Leaps of the soprano sax, meandering during the melodic Lines, and motoring along for the timid Licks of the finale.
Still, it is always exciting to hear the San Francisco Symphony in new music, where they excel, and it was a joy seeing Wyatt Underhill in the Concertmaster's chair bumping elbows with Tim McAllister at the end of the performance.
Guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, originally from Central America, is the Music Director of the Nashville Symphony, and he brought along works that had never been performed here before. The other three pieces were all musical depictions of places: Adolphus Hailstork's 1985 An American Port of Call about Norfolk, Virginia; Antonio Estevez's 1942 Mediodia en el Lanno about the grassy prairies in central Venezuela; and finally Astor Piazzolla's 1952 Sinfonia Buenos Aires. Hailstork's depiction of Norfolk sounded like one fanfare after another without much evocation of water or boats and Guerrero played it too emphatically loud. The same was true for Piazzola's one attempt at a major symphonic work before he settled into his genius melding of classical music language and tango orchestra. The only work that was quieter and sheerly enjoyable was Estevez's 10-minute evocation of Venezuela's highlands.