Sunday, June 26, 2022

Circus Bella at Yerba Buena Gardens

The one-ring Circus Bella just opened its 13th Annual Free Summer Show, FLIP*FLOP*FLY, which is currently touring parks from Reno to Laguna Beach, with most of its dates here in the Bay Area. I saw the noon show in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens on Saturday, with Circus Ringmaster/Writer/Director Abigail Munn presiding.
The hour-long show is on the sweet side, where the clowns are not scary and the various acts of skill don't make you worry about the safety of the performers. Pictured above is Chinese Pole strongman Toni Cannon with the clown Calvin Kai Ku balancing on his shoulders.
Elise Hing, the contortionist, was more graceful than grotesque...
...and Garrett Allen exuded joy....
...while wrapping his body up and down a vertical rope.
The one jaw-dropping bit was by balance board artist Jan Damm, who kept adding wooden layers and pails to his already precarious balancing act on top of a table, and whether he would succeed or fly to the ground was an open question.
What elevates the show into a truly enjoyable realm is the music composed and improvised by Rob Reich and the Circus Bella All Star Band. It puts Cirque du Soleil's overproduced soundtracks to shame.
There are a half dozen more performances in July around the Bay Area. Click here for a schedule, and take a kid if you have one.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Oedipus Rex at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, offered staged performances last week of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, bundled together in a high concept production by Peter Sellars. The reactions from critics and Facebook "Friends" has ranged from ecstatic to horrified "cover your eyes and just listen to the music" warnings. Stravinsky's hour-long 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipux Rex is a strange bird. The composer wanted a dry, monumental, unemotional version of the famous tale, so he commissioned Jean Cocteau to write a stripped-down libretto and then had it translated into Latin, while suggesting that all the performers wear masks for maximum alienation. At the same time, Stravinsky composed deeply expressive music for his principals and a large male chorus. (All production photos are by Kristen Loken.)
Sellars made the staging as immediate and communicative as possible, rewriting the original text's terse narration with a passionate, lengthy recounting of the plot along with snatches of Sophocles. This was delivered by actress Breezy Leigh playing Oedipus's daughter Antigone that included uncomfortably contemporary references to living in a cursed Plague Time. The soloists threw themselves into the production with fervor, including tenor Sean Panikkar as Oedipus and the gorgeously imperious mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges as Jocasta, his incestuous mother/wife.
Sean Panikkar was in San Francisco Opera's training program in 2005-2006, and I wrote about him then while reviewing a production of Puccini's Manon Lescaut: "The first act also had to contend with the Sean Panikkar effect. He's a young Sri Lankan in the Adler Fellows program who keeps being given tiny parts that are usually the companion, the friend, the herald, what have you, and the problem is that his voice is so youthful, lyrical and beautiful, that the star tenor's entrace is usually a disappointment in comparison. This happened last year in both Norma and Maid of Orleans." Then he seemed to disappear until his name kept popping up recently in ecstatic reviews of Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the English National Opera and other opera companies where he sang the lead. In any case, it was wonderful to see him in a major role in San Francisco again, sounding great and mysteriously looking as if he had not aged a day in 20 years.
Also seemingly ageless was the 75-year-old bass-baritone Willard White, who played three roles: Creon, a Messenger, and Tiresias the Blind Oracle. His magnificent voice still resounded through the huge Davies Hall auditorium, a feat few singers achieve.
The real star of Oedipus Rex is the mens' chorus, which has a large share of the music. In this production, they were required to memorize the entire piece so they could perform a series of physical gestures while singing, a Peter Sellars specialty. In unision, they raised their arms, clutched their hearts, stood with outstretched hands, and indulged in all kinds of expressive movement, which many people found silly and distracting, but I thought it worked well, especially since it was a bit ragged rather than perfectly synchronized. The SF Symphony Chorus has been through a rough time, having lost their longtime Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin last year when he went insane and became a public anti-vaxxer at the onset of the COVID pandemic. Everyone liked Bohlin and he did a great job in that position for over a decade, so his flying off the rails and back to Sweden was even sadder and stranger. The SF Symphony has done an extraordinary job over the last season dealing with public performances during the pandemic, starting with an all-strings concert for a vaxxed and masked audience, and slowly adding more instruments to the ensemble until the full orchestra finally emerged. The chorus was the last, most dangerous addition, and after a Beethoven Ninth Symphony appearance and a Carmina Burana without the orchestra, they finally had a chance to shine after two years in exile.
Director Peter Sellars (above left) and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (above center) have worked together for decades and premiered an earlier version of this production in 2009 as Salonen conducted his final concerts as Music Director of the LA Philharmonic. Picking up where they left off, Sellars and Salonen are planning at least four more staged productions for San Francisco in the coming years. Also pictured above is Jose Simerilla Romero in the small role of the Shepherd, mirroring the young Sean Panikkar Effect with his sweet, pure tenor.
This was the first theatrically successful production of Oedipus Rex I have ever seen live, but the production fell apart for me after intermission where Stravinsky's 1930 Symphony of Psalms was preceded by Breezy Leigh relating the plot of Sophocles's sequel, Oedipus at Colonus. Maybe this worked when the great actress Viola Davis essayed this role in 2009 Los Angeles, but Ms. Leigh just seemed to drone on and on for what seemed an eternity. A pantomime ensued with the dying Oedipus accompanied by daughters Antigone and Ismene (the mute dancer Laurel Jenkins) while the full male-and-female chorus sang the ethereally beautiful music in exquisite fashion (full props to Guest Choral Director Andrew Whitfield). This is where I joined the haters and closed my eyes, letting the final "Alleluia" take us all to heaven without visual interference.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Saturday Sojourn

On Saturday afternoon, I stumbled across a political protest, an ecstatic dance party, and a cosmic jazz concert within one hour in three outdoor San Francisco locations, a reminder of why this city is still loveable despite its many faults.
Local advocates for gun control arrived in Civic Center Plaza at noon as part of a national March for Our Lives movement.
The recent Uvalde, Texas massacre at the Robb Elementary School made two things crystal clear: easy access to guns for anyone who wants one is insane public policy, and the police are neither good at protecting people nor really interested in doing so.
At the Trinity Place mega-apartment complex at 8th and Market a block away, there was Electronic Dance Music booming through Piazza Angelo, named after the recently deceased, infamous real estate developer Angelo Sangiacomo whose 1970s rent increases in his buildings were so rapacious that rent control in San Francisco was instituted in response.
The EDM dance party was in the middle of the Plaza surrounding the tallest sculpture in San Francisco, Lawrence Argent's 92-foot, swirling metallic take on Venus.
The event turned out to be a Clean & Sober EDM party put on by Daybreaker, a national organization that hosts drug-free, daytime dance parties (click here).
Further down Market Street, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was presenting a free Tribute to Alice Coltrane (1937-2007), widow of the legendary John Coltrane, and a brilliant performer/composer in her own right.
The players were a mixture of members from the East Indian musical organization, Brooklyn Massive Raga, and local Bay Area jazz musicians.
The music was gentle, meditative, absorbing, and absolutely beautiful. Guiding much of the melodic lines was tenor saxophonist Richard Howell...
...who was accompanied by jazz harpist and vocalist Destiny Muhammad.
Anchoring the ensemble was the 84-year-old bassist Reggie Workman who performed with both John and Alice Coltrane. Though I know little about jazz, it was obvious we were in the presence of legends.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Bouquets to Art at the deYoung

Bouquets to Art is an annual, week-long event at the deYoung Museum where floral artists are invited to present installations that reflect particular artworks in the permanent collection. It is also the setting for a gala fundraising dinner hosted by socialite Dede Wilsey along with a series of lunches and lectures. The event is hugely popular and when we visited on a Friday afternoon, it was difficult getting around because there were so many people who seemed to have never visited an art museum before.
The floral installations ranged from the brilliantly abstract... the representationally imitative.
In a few cases, there was little connection with the surrounding art, which was just fine because some of the arrangements were gorgeous works of art in their own right.
For me, the event was a bit too redolent of Laguna Beach's annual Pagent of the Masters tableaux vivant kitschfest, but plenty of people enjoy both, and more power to them.
Without a bouquet to call its own, we were able to get close to Jess's 1954 Boy Party, one of my favorite paintings in the museum's permanent collection, which has recently been rehung.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Salesforce Park

Sights of public misery on San Francisco's streets have become the new normal during the COVID pandemic and the fentanyl scourge among drug addicts.
We walked by the prone young man on Second Street in the Financial District before turning on Minna Alley...
...which led to a semi-secret elevator to downtown's newest oasis, Salesforce Park.
The park has posted a list of prohibitions, and the primal one is "Disturbing the park experience for other visitors in any way."
Salesforce Park is part of the Transit Center boondoggle that was heralded as San Francisco's version of New York's Grand Central Station. The $2 billion plus project instead ended up as the world's most expensive bus station when Caltrain and Amtrak both pulled out of participation.
The park stretches four blocks over the transit center, and there are entryways from a funicular tram, a monster escalator, and a few discreet elevators at street level.
Salesforce Park opened in 2018, but like many projects initiated during the systematically corrupt regime of Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., there were major construction problems. Two cracked beams holding up the park were soon discovered, and the place was closed off for a year along with the streets underneath, reopening in 2019.
Last month I visited the park for the first time and was happily surprised by the botanical richness.
Besides hosting plant species from all over the world, the place has had enough growing time to look like it's been there for decades.
Sports activities are one of the many prohibitions, but there is an amusing children's playground where we saw a grandfather almost breaking his neck trying to keep up with his grandchildren in a rope obstacle course.
On a second visit, we stumbled across "Saturday Sounds," a lunchtime concert program in a sylvan dale.
The performers that afternoon were The Knuckle Knockers (click here), an "Old-Time American Music" trio from Bernal Heights consisting of Bill Foss (banjo, mandolin and vocals), Karen Celia Heil (fiddle, guitar, vocals), and Martha Hawthorne (guitar and vocals). They were completely charming.
On Memorial Day, I went to see one of my favorite local actors, Rudy Guerrero, portraying Macduff in a free Theater Rhinoceros production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, "manipulated by John Fisher," the company's Artistic Director.
The "manipulation" consisted of throwing out much of the play's dialogue and replacing it with meta-nonsense about a struggle to become the Artistic Director of the Rhino. The production was also ambulatory, meaning there were various scenes set in different parts of the Salesforce Park and Transit Center, so the audience had to trundle around as a large group.
Theater Rhino bills itself as "The Longest-Running Queer Theatre in the World." It has had its ups and downs over the decades, but was an interesting local company until John Fisher became its Artistic Director in 2003 and turned it into what is essentially the John Fisher Company. The problem is that he is a mediocre writer and director, and a genuinely bad actor who casts himself in major roles. In this case, he was playing Macbeth in a shouty, declamatory style that was embarrassing to watch.
I love theater where the audience is allowed to move around and explore, but this production was so poorly planned that only about a quarter of the audience could see or hear the second scene, set 50 yards away. The rest of us were jammed against each other on a walkway with a pandemic still raging. "This is ridiculous," I said to the delightful Orange County tourist woman I had befriended while waiting for the show to begin. "It fills me with Gay Shame," and made a quick exit.