Monday, October 30, 2023

Murakami: Monsterized at the Asian

There is a smashing new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum by the contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami called Unfamiliar People: Swelling of Monsterized Human Ego.
I had never heard of the artist before this exhibition, which just demonstrates how off-trend I am, because the 62-year-old Murakami has become a global sensation in the the last few decades. (Pictured above is the 2019 Bacon: Scream, a riff on a famous Francis Bacon portrait of his lover George Dyer.)
He wanted to become an animator but at art school he gravitated towards traditional Japanese art, earning a PhD before rebelling against the insular field. (Pictured above is 727 which is a 1996 pop takeoff on a famous 12th century Japanese painting, Illustrated Legends of Mt. Shigi.)
In 1994 he spent a year in New York City and learned a lot about the commercial art world which he put to good use on his return to Tokyo, eventually branching out into the worlds of fashion (Louis Vuitton and Issey Miyake), movies (the 2013 Jellyfish Eyes), music videos (with Pharell, Kanye West, Billie Eilish, and a Kirsten Dunst cover of Turning Japanese), and every other conceivable global branding opportunity.
Murakami has an entire army of young artists and assistants in his three production factories in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and New York, which allows him to create work like the 82-foot-long painting Judgement Day for this exhibit.
The size is astonishing... is the detailing...
...and the occasional nod to erotica.
Like much Japanese pop art, the sensibility is a strange mixture of cute and weirdly disturbing...
...and after three years of a global pandemic, with much of the world going mad with fear and conspiracy theories...
...Murakami is presenting this exhibit as his response. (Pictured is the 2023 Unfamiliar People: Snow Crystals.)
The show is a kick and well worth seeing.(Click here for a charming YouTube video made by the museum with Murakami wearing a series of goofy monster hats while explaining stuff.)

Monday, October 16, 2023

The Emanuel Ax Piano Concerto at SF Symphony

Esa Pekka-Salonen has now been the San Francisco Music Director for about three years, and the happiest surprise for me has been his conducting of traditional warhorses, like the 1873 Variations on a Theme of Haydn by Johannes Brahms, which was the opener for last weekend's subscription concerts. The reading was traditional but clean, as if decades of interpretive accretions had been scrubbed away. (Photo by Brandon Patoc.)
Salonen is also an expert conductor of contemporary music, and the concert continued with a world premiere commission to Swedish composer Anders Hillborg for a piano concerto written for the 74-year-old pianist Emanuel Ax.
It's the second piano concerto composed by Hillborg, and it is subtitled The MAX Concerto, in honor of "Manny Ax."
The concerto is a little over 20 minutes, an uninterrupted, episodic journey through nine different kinds of music, all of which I found delightful. Though half of my friends at the concert were not impressed, Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle seems to have agreed with me, and wrote a nice appreciation of the piece.
After intermission, Salonen conducted a rock-and-roll performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 from 1802. This is an overplayed work that can be deadly dull, but Salonen led the orchestra at a wildly vigorous pace, and it worked well. The tunes are still causing earworms, which is a high compliment. (Photo by Brandon Patoc.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Naive and Sentimental Music at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presented a bracing evening of modern music last weekend, starting with Convergence, a commissioned violin concerto from Swedish composer Jesper Nordin, featuring Finnish soloist Pekka Kuusisto, and conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Nordin tried to explain his piece to the audience beforehand, mentioning that he wasn't really a classical composer and that he used technology for most of his work, but a teacher had told him his strength was "in his deficiencies." He also demonstrated how his computer setup could create sounds by having the conductor wave his hand towards a monitor or by the violinist sawing away on his instrument.
There was also a an accompanying abstract video by Thomas Antoine Pénanguer that started by riffing on the psychedelic sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey which eventually morphed into what looked a bit like the Las Vegas Dancing Fountains at the Bellagio. In my brain, I even started hearing Andrea Bocelli's voice singing Time to Say Goodbye. (Production photos by Stefan Cohen.)
Pekka Kuusisto, who debuted with the SF Symphony two years ago playing Bryce Dessner's violin concerto, is an entertaining virtuoso who looks like a nerd gone wild. When the digital interactive sections arrived in this concerto, it felt like a waste of resources since there was a great violinist and a full orchestra on hand. Most of the electronic music seemed to be a doubling of Kuusisto's frenetic fiddling in the outer two movements and what sounded like Windham Hill wind chimes in the middle movement.
Opinion was divided afterwards, with about half of my friends and acquaintances very much enjoying the piece and another half thinking of it as ridiculous. Still, it was good to hear a new work, and much of it was plain fun.
It was also a good warmup for John Adams' massive 1998 orchestral work, Naive and Sentimental Music. I have been a fan of composer John Adams since the 1980s and was puzzled when this recording arrived and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. The problem, I finally realized, was that the soft to loud dynamics are so extreme that it's about impossible to make out, especially on a crappy sound system.
Esa-Pekka Salonen gave the premiere of the piece when he was Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and it was thrilling to hear him revive it 25 years later.
The 50-minute concerto for orchestra requires a huge orchestra, with music that veers from simple to outrageously complex. There were moments in the outer movements where it looked like each percussion player and every orchestra section were all playing different time signatures at once. This looks like seriously difficult music to perform, but the listening pleasure is worth it.
The soft, slow middle movement featured guitarist Justin Smith who was hidden in the middle of the orchestra, which led to thoughts of "what the heck is that instrument, and where is it coming from?"
The performance was marvelous and reminded me again why I love this orchestra and its new Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

The deYoung Open 2023

The deYoung Museum's triennial competition, the deYoung Open, began a four-month run last week in Golden Gate Park. Bay Area artists were invited to submit JPG photos of single art works created in the last two years to a jury.
The jurors were Bay Area artists Clare Rojas, Stephanie Syjuco, Sunny A. Smith, and Xiaoze Xie, along with eight curators from the museum.
Submissions were capped at 12,000 with 800+ artists making the final cut.
The show is presented salon style, meaning art on the walls from floor to ceiling. Reportedly, the curators started with a computer program that mapped out sizes and color combinations for each room, and then they edited it.
There is also a bit of sculpture, including Hollow by Pacifica sculptor James Shefik.
There wasn't much political art in the exhibition but there were a few standouts, including America by photographer Christopher Simmons.
There is a lot of fine portraiture, including Maggie and Cody by K.Dilley that looks like an Alice Neel painting for the 21st century...
...and painter Tori Berghoff's depiction of a sweet-souled San Rafael neighbor, Daniel Waiting for the Bus.
A couple of acquaintances had paintings in the show while quite a few other acquaintances were not selected.
The Foggy Trail is by Karen Ames who I met in the classical music world. She explains on her website, "Karen began painting at the start of the pandemic when the cultural world closed down and her forty-year career as a senior communications executive came to an end. At that point, she picked up a brush for the first time and began the journey of becoming a painter."
Three Windows is by another acquaintance, San Francisco painter Mark D. Powers, who usually specializes in hyperrealistic street scenes that I love.
The huge exhibit is eventually overwhelming since there is no way to absorb 800+ images in one walkthrough. My only advice is to find a few of your own favorites the first time around and then use them as anchors for a second visit.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at SF Opera

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is the first opera written by local composer Mason Bates and it depicts the life story of the Apple Corporation co-founder who died in 2011 at age 56. A couple of Hollywood movies were made soon after his death: the 2013 Jobs with Ashton Kutcher and the 2015 Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender, followed by this opera which premiered in 2017 in Santa Fe. (Pictured above is baritone John Moore as Steve Jobs. All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
The work was supposed to appear in 2020 at the San Francisco Opera, which was a co-commissioner, but the pandemic shut it down. Three years later and six years after the premiere, the opera has finally arrived. Since I was not attending with particularly high expectations last Wednesday, there were quite a few happy surprises, including the interior-lit sliding panels created by set designer victoria Tzykun and lighting designer Japhy Weideman. With the addition of projections, they set up 19 separate scenes without pause, and the 16 backstage carpenters/props people did a great job keeping it smooth.
The other happy surprise was the musical score by Mason Bates (pictured above) who is also performing electronics on two MacBook Pros in the orchestra pit. I liked the first couple of pieces that Bates composed for the San Francisco Symphony a decade ago, but his mixture of electronics and traditional orchestral instruments started to sound like a one-trick pony. This nearly two-hour score, however, is constantly inventive, propulsive or lyrical when needed, and the entire orchestra often has a shimmering quality that was quite beautiful.
The libretto by the ubiquitous Mark Campbell has his usual strengths (clear, approachable narratives) and faults (glibness, a lack of poetry, and overall banality). The narrative jumps around in time, but the basic story is of a restless genius who is cruel and unforgiving with other people but finally becomes a better person through the love of a good woman. This is also the plot of just about every cheesy Hollywood biopic ever made. Bille Bruley gave a fun performance as high school buddy and actual engineering genius Steve Wozniak, and John Moore as the title character has a decent baritone and was tireless over the course of two hours. He kept grinning broadly thoughout the opera, though, as if to make the character more likeable but it just looked weird. After the last six years of white bro billionaires like Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Gates running amok, Jobs's actions look as much sociopathic as heroic these days.
One of the joys of seeing the opera here is that it somehow manages to convey the feel of the Bay Area's Peninsula which not long ago was farmland and small towns and discreet wealth. Now it hosts the technological monster known as Silicon Valley, but it is still an extraordinarily beautiful place as depicted in a few scenes set in "The hills around Cupertino." A Zen Buddhist priest, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, ran a Tassajara Zen Center satellite in the upscale town of Los Altos, and became a guru to Jobs throughout his adult life. The role is perilously close to a magical minority teaching our white hero wise truths, but the extraordinary bass Wei Wu is so commanding and enjoyable in the role that he wipes away most reservations.
Sasha Cooke plays Laurene Powell Jobs, the good woman who turns our hero around. At least Bates composed some wonderful music for her near the end, but it felt like a waste of her great talents.
The most successful sections of the opera are the production numbers involving the small chorus, including "One Device" in scene one. Sasha Cooke's final aria tells us that Steve really wanted people to put down their iPhones and look up, which is absurd. I thought, "Right, Steve, you don't get to open Pandora's Box and then say sorry about that." There's one more performance this Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, and it is worth seeing.