Monday, March 27, 2023

Marina Spring

In between atmospheric rivers this weekend, we went for a walk and stumbled across the Fort Mason Community Garden for the first time.
Their website begins with "Welcome to San Francisco's best kept secret..." It's open to the public, there are picnic benches, and on a cold, windy, gorgeously clear day, there were very few people. I only hope that I have not given the secret away and ruined yet another cool, hidden place.
We continued down the long sloping lawn towards the bay...
...passing the perpetual post-college frat party that assembles there every weekend.
Flowers are going to be everywhere around us this spring in California.
It should be glorious.
Nobody else seemed to want to venture onto the bayfront pathway because the occasional wave would try to breach the barriers.
We walked inland a couple of blocks to the Palace of Fine Arts.
I have not seen the place in such great shape, ever.
Usually there are sections cordoned off, but everything was open on Saturday, including not-so-secret trails...
...where wedding pictures could be taken...
...along with photos of architect Bernard Maybeck's beautiful, crazy rendition of Roman Ruins that so captivated San Francisco during the Pan-Pacific Exposition of 1915 that it was essentially rebuilt from scratch during the 1960s.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Color of Dance at SF Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet offered an entertaining, exuberant program called The Color of Dance last week. Thursday evening began with a Helgi Tomasson neoclassical ballet, 7 for 8, set to movements from various J.S. Bach keyboard concertos.
Yuan Yuan Tan (above) premiered the piece in 2004 and incredibly she is still dancing the same demanding material at age 47. She was a bit inexpressive for my tastes in her youth but as a veteran she's magnificent. Partnering her above is Aaron Robison with Norika Matsuyama and Cavan Conley behind them.
The orchestra played the Bach really well, with keyboard soloist Mungunchimeg Buriad (above). In one movement, she switched her piano for a harpsichord to accompany a fun solo by Esteban Hernández (above). I wish she had stayed with a harpsichord for the whole performance because Bach just sounds better on that instrument.
Monochromatic outfits were ditched for the middle work, Myles Thatcher's Colorforms, which sported bright, colorful sets and costumes. Created for a film in 2021 during the pandemic, these performances were the premiere of its stage reimagining.
The scenario seemed to have something to do with looking at art in a museum (the film was set at SFMOMA) and paper airplanes and ecstatic groups of dancers, including the same-sex couple of Mingxuan Wang and Wei Wang above.
The music was the pulsing, insistent minimalism of Steve Reich'a 2005 Variations for Vibes, Pianos, and Strings, and the entire instrumental ensemble led by conductor Martin West rightfully came onstage at the end for a bow.
The final ballet was William Forsythe's 2016 Blake Works, set to seven songs by British musician James Blake from his album The Colour in Anything. I liked the moody White Soul dubstep electronic music but thought it a terrible waste when there was a perfectly good orchestra at the choreographer's disposal.
The choreography was angular, jazzy, and inventive, offering brilliant showcases for some of the finest dancers in the company, including favorites Joseph Walsh and Isaac Hernandez. It was a fun evening.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Vallejo Ferry

Dating from Willie Brown, Jr.'s days as mayor, there are newspaper stands all over San Francisco sidewalks but not very many published papers anymore, which gives criers of doom handy spots to post their warnings.
I grew up in coastal Southern California which was a paradisical natural wonder until it was paved and reconfigured for car culture.
In a conscious rejection of that culture, I decided to never get a driver's license and travel via public transportation instead, which has led to many interesting adventures and social encounters with strangers.
A favorite public transport is ferryboats on San Francisco Bay, which are finally increasing after decades of stagnation, with new destinations and new docks.
Last month I took a weekend trip to Vallejo, the first in 15 years (click here for an account).
The ferryboat back then was slow and small, taking 90 minutes, while the current vessel is huge, and only takes an hour. Also, in what constitutes a minor miracle, the ride is cheaper than it was fifteen years ago.
Vallejo was looking better since that last visit when the city had just declared bankruptcy after its public safety unions tipped the municipal budget over the edge (click here for a 2008 article).
The place is still funky and affordable by Bay Area standards and downtown near the ferry terminal no longer feels spookily deserted.
There is even a sweet, small brewpub and a coffee shop at the Transit Center where you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
The views on this passage are wondrous, including Mount Tamalpais from 90 different angles...
...the Richmond Bridge...
...and the Golden Gate Bridge framing an avian feeding frenzy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Giselle at the San Francisco Ballet

Now that the next@90 festival of nine new ballets has wrapped up, the San Francisco Ballet has continued its season with Giselle, the oldest (1841) and one of the most popular story ballets ever created, with music by the French composer Adolphe Adam. It's one of outgoing Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's better productions, dating from 1999, and it's held up well. I saw it once years ago and my only memory was boring peasant dances in the first half and exciting ghost dances in the second. (Production photos by Lindsay Thomas)
There are four different casts dancing over the course of this week's performances and the Chronicle's dance critic, Rachel Howard, reviewed three of them over the weekend, finding something to praise in all of them (click here). We saw the opening night duo, Aaron Robison as the caddish aristocrat Albrecht posing as a peasant who breaks the heart of the sensitive peasant girl Giselle, danced by Sasha de Sola. They are both terrific dancers, and Robison's aristocratic reserve worked well with De Sola's impetuous, love-besotted teenager.
When it is revealed by the jealous character of Hyperion that her boyfriend is an aristocrat who is already engaged to another, poor Giselle goes mad and either stabs herself with a sword or dies of heartbreak, it was not quite clear. De Sola was magnificently crazed.
Also magnificent was Nikisha Fogo as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis (center), who leads an army of vengeful female ghosts who have died of heartbreak and are out to return the favor on foolish men who venture into the forest at night.
Wili novitiate Giselle does everything she can to help save Albrecht from being forced to dance to death by Myrtha. This was where Robison came into his own, jumping into the air while dancing frenetic, near-impossible steps with a look of terror on his face. It's not made particularly clear whether he survives or not, but supposedly Giselle's intervention and the appearance of the morning sun eventually saves his life.
It was all quite wonderful, and fun to watch corps member Nathaniel Pemez (above left) make a splash in a major role as the jealous Hyperion. He seemed so warm and sexy that you wanted to cry out, "Get together with Hyperion, Giselle, the other guy's no good."

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Bartok and Prokofiev at SF Symphony

Many years ago I was a non-singing Slave in a legendary production of Strauss's opera Elektra at the San Francisco Opera. During its run I hopped across the street to Davies Hall to see the world premiere of a new John Adams orchestral work, El Dorado, and I did not hear anything. "Agammemnon!" and Elektra's Dance of Death music would not dislodge itself from my brain and all I heard of the Adams was a crescendo and a diminuendo and that was about it. Something similar happened during the first half of the San Francisco Symphony program on Saturday, except this time it was Burt Bacharach's insistent earworms from the Mark Morris dance concert the previous evening that was the auditory block.
It didn't matter much for the first piece, Ravel's overplayed Le Tombeau de Couperin which has always struck me as one of his dullest works. This was followed by Bartok's wild Piano Concerto No. 2 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. According to Joshua Kosman, whose ears were presumably unlocked, it was a great performance, but all I heard was a strange concerto for piano and percussion and the occasional huge orchestra while Do You Know The Way to San Jose? danced merrily through my brain.
After intermission, the orchestra musicians who are playing without a contract, offered a brief protest while waving their one-page leaflets around before settling in for Salonen's 45-minute suite of music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. This music did finally dislodge I'll Never Fall in Love Again from my consciousness, partly because Prokofiev's music is so familiar from repeated viewings of the great Michael Smuin production at the SF Ballet during the late 1970s. I was also an onstage extra when the Kirov Ballet brought what was reputedly the original production from St. Petersburg to San Francisco on an American tour, which was a strange, exciting experience. The ancient scenery seemed to be held together by duct tape, the entire cast of young dancers was severely sunburned from a day at Black's Beach in San Diego the weekend before, and the Russian orchestra was superb except on those evenings when they were drunk. The memories came flooding back as the huge orchestral forces in Davies Hall went at the score with full abandon.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The Look of Love

The Mark Morris Dance Group performed at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall this weekend in The Look of Love, an hour-long dance set to the music of Burt Bacharach. The show was unexpectedly moving on many levels.
Bacharach's music was ubiquitous during the 1960s and 1970s and I was always a bit contemptuous of it as a young thing, preferring rock and classical to the slick pop music of the time. The choreographer Mark Morris and the jazz genius Ethan Iverson felt differently, however, and after hearing their collaboration with The Look of Love, I am now a Burt Bacharach convert and will never listen to his music in the same way again.
Iverson, who used to play with the experimental jazz trio The Bad Plus, arranged 14 Bacharach songs, including a novelty number written for the 1950s horror film The Blob, and composed some seamless connecting material for the dance suite. The arrangements hewed close to the originals with enough interesting alterations to keep them fresh. They were written for a brilliant musical ensemble, which included Iverson himself on piano joined by Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Simon Willson on bass, Vinnie Sperrazza on drums, and Marcy Harriell on vocals.
Harriell has a perfect voice for this music, cool and crystalline like Dionne Warwick, and able to effortlessly manage Bacharach's complex time signature changes and Hal David's narrative lyrics. She was supported by two backup singers, Clinton Curtis and Blaire Reinhard, who added immeasurably to the sophisticated pleasures of the arrangements.
The ten dancers, outfitted in psychedelic, non-binary outfits from Isaac Mizrahi, were a lovely bunch. Morris's choreography steered away from the temptations of cutesy and camp while offering respect to the yearning, often downbeat love narratives of the songs such as I'll Never Fall In Love Again and Walk On By.
One dancer in the current Mark Morris Dance Group stood out for me, Domingo Estrada Jr. (above), and not just for the 1970s porn stache. He made all the shimmying dances and movement look effortless, rather like Bacharach's deceptively difficult songs themselves.
Before the show, Mark Morris came onstage with the announcement, "Thank Goddess we're back." Cal Performances has been presenting the Mark Morris Dance Group for decades, and were one of the many sponsors of this show. Morris looked like he had come back home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Blomstedt Conducts Dvorak at the SF Symphony

The 95-year-old conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who who seems to have limited mobility these days, returned to the San Francisco Symphony on the arm of Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill last week and it felt like a snapshot of time passing for an orchestra. Violinist Underhill is a brilliant new addition to the ensemble and Blomstedt is close to the end of his career, though he remains stupefyingly great in his ability to coax detailed, transcendant performances out of this orchestra, which he led as Music Director from 1985-1995. (All photos by Stefan Cohen.)
On this annual visit to San Francisco, he programmed two 19th century Czechoslovakian symphonies, one obscure and one a well-known warhorse. The program began with the 1823 Symphony in D Major by Jan Václav Voříšek, a contemporary of Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna who died at age 34 of tuberculosis. This symphony wasn't even published until 1957 in Prague, but has since become a Czech concert hall perennial. It was delightful hearing a symphony for the very first time that sounded like both early Beethoven and Schubert. The ebullient performance seemed to do it justice.
After intermission, we heard Dvorak's 1885 Symphony No. 8 in G Major, with its beautiful, bucolic flute and woodwind solos topped off by the finale with its instant earworm fanfare that evokes both the military and a dance hall.
I felt like I was hearing the work for the first time because the connective tissue between all the pretty tunes was treated with unusual respect that gave the performance a sense of wholeness that's indescribable. I pray that Mr. Underhill will be helping Blomstedt onstage to his conductor's chair next year too. In the meantime, the new upper management of the SF Symphony had better start treating its musicians right because they were handing out angry flyers in the lobby before the concert.