Tuesday, April 16, 2024

2024 SF Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival unspooled 20+ films last week at the Palace of Fine Arts. The festival's usual home, the Castro Theatre, is currently being destroyed as a movie palace by Another Planet Entertainment while they repurpose that building for a concert venue.
The huge hall surrounding the Palace of Fine Arts has been used over the decades for everything from Parks storage to tennis courts to a telephone book distribution center. The theater was added to the structure in 1970.
Of all the arts, movies are the most direct at transporting a viewer through time, and silent films doubly so. This makes the experience of watching old-time movies in a theater with an audience and live musicians feel paradoxically modern. !00+ years ago, movies were in their infancy, and audiences were not able to go back in time via cinema. We are in a new historical moment.
On Thursday the day began with a series of lectures and clips in a popular annual program called Amazing Tales from the Archives. A dry, witty Bryony Dixon, silent film curator at the British Film Institute, introduced a series of clips from travel shorts of the 1920s called Travelaughs that featured the young Michael Powell, future director, as a goofball nature lover. This was followed by the academic Denise Khor, above, introducing the 1914 The Oath of the Sword, a 30-minute variant on Madame Butterfly made by an all Japanese-American cast and production company.
All the clips were accompanied by Stephen Horne, my favorite silent film composer/improviser. He plays piano with the occasional additions of a flute or accordion, and he somehow manages to inhabit the interior of characters in a penetrating, often melancholic fashion.
The afternoon movie was a Clara Bow double-bill, starting with a 1923 short called The Pill Pounder. Thought to be forever lost, a partial print was recently discovered at a film distribution parking lot sale in Omaha, Nebraska. The feature was the 1926 Dancing Mothers, which was a direct hit of time travel to the Prohibition Jazz Age era among New York socialites. The melodramatic plot surprisingly resolved as a riff on A Doll's House, except drenched in sex, cigarettes, and booze.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a slog to get to via public transportation, but there are compensations, such as a series of young women dressed in fabulous outfits posing all over the Palace on a cold, rainy Saturday night.
That's when we returned to see a Buster Keaton double bill accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The main feature was the 1934 Sherlock, Jr., but the real revelation, and the funnier film, was the 1920 short One Week. When the grotesque, assemble-it-yourself home starts rotating during a storm, it's one of the most inspired Keaton sequences ever.
I could only go out twice because I had to mostly stay in bed last week for boring reasons, but was able to read the 120-page program which is an unusually beautiful and brilliant collection of essays and photos by writers and historians from around the world.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Irving Penn Retrospective at the deYoung

A huge retrospective of the work of photographer Irving Penn (1917-2009) has opened at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and will stay there through July.
Penn's career took off under the mentorship of Alexander Liberman, the art director of Vogue magazine from 1941 to 1962, where Penn was hired as an associate graphic artist until Liberman suggested he try photography.
After a stint with the American Field Service in Europe during World War Two, he returned to New York where he captured cultural celebrities and fashion models for Vogue. Pictured is the 1948 Ballet Society, featuring George Balanchine, Corrado Cagli, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Vittorio Rieti.
The magazine sent Penn to France for the Paris Haute Couture Week but he didn't care for the mad jockeying involved in the live runway shows, so he arranged for an empty attic studio with great light to photograph the clothing on his own models. Pictured is Balenciaga Mantle Coat (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), Paris, 1950.
One of those models was the Swedish Lisa Fonssagrives, who Penn married in 1950. She is pictured above in Woman with Roses (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Lafaurie Dress), Paris, 1950.
He also played around with a series of abstract female nudes that look like photographic attempts at Henry Moore sculptures, but they don't quite work. Pictured is Nude No. 18, New York, 1949-1950.
In 1948 he want on assignment to Cuzco, Peru, where he rented the local photographer's studio and took portraits of Indian peasants with the same gray/white backgrounds as his fashion models. Pictured is Cuzco Children. This was the first of a series of ethnographic photo essays he created over the decades that haven't aged well. The formal distancing of exotic others comes off as slightly grotesque.
In this exhibit, there is an amusing selection of San Francisco Hippie photos from 1967, which Penn did on assignment from Look magazine, including Hell's Angel (Doug), San Francisco.
His true genius lay in creating iconographic images of cultural artists, such as the young Audrey Hepburn, Paris, 1951...
...and the old Colette, Paris, 1951...
...and a dappter Jean Cocteau, Paris, 1948.
He continued working over the decades with his own advertising studio, while continuing to capture artists, such as a zaftig Alvin Ailey, New York, 1971...
...and the quartet pictured above: Issey Miyake, New York, 1988; Richard Avedon, New York, 1978; S.J. Perelman, New York, 1962; and Gianni Versace, New York, 1987.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

A Midsummer NIght's Dream at the SF Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet is currently presenting George Balanchine's 1962 dance version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in a lavish production borrowed from the Paris Opera Ballet. It was designed by Christian Lacroix using a reported one million Swarovski crystals, and my mind kept jumping to "It's Lacroix sweetie, Lacroix!" from the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Using a mixture of Mendelssohn's incidental music to the play along with additional pieces by the composer, Balanchine crafted a clever condensation of the entire theatrical work into an hour-long story ballet. Pictured above in production photos by Lindsay Thomas are Esteban Hernández as Oberon, King of the Fairies and Sasha de Sola as Titania, Queen of the Fairies just as war is breaking out between them and their followers over who gets to have a new pretty boy in their retinue.
Two years before Balanchine, the English composer Benjamin Britten wrote an operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream that is one of my all-time favorite operas. Like Balanchine, Britten and his collaborator Peter Pears jettisoned the first act of the play and plunged us directly into the forest for a night of misalliances, confusion, and magic gone awry in Fairyland. The chorus in the opera is written for boy sopranos and in the ballet there is a large contingent of fairies danced by young girls. They were skillfully enchanting at the ballet's opening night last Tuesday, and sported the most colorful Lacroix costumes of the evening.
The queer subtext in Shakespeare's play is present throughout the Britten opera, but not so much in the Balanchine adaptation, though Oberon and Titania never do dance together. Titania instead has a long duet with her "Cavalier," danced superbly by Aaron Robison, while Oberon spends most of his time with the young trickster Puck, in an athletically amusing performance by Cavan Conley.
The confusing who's-in-love-with-who quartet of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius was more clearly delineated than usual as Puck keeps putting love potions into the wrong pair of eyeballs. (Pictured above are Elizabeth Mateer as Helena and Steven Morse as Demetrius.)
The heart of the play is the sweetly grotesque pairing of Titania and the low tradesman Bottom, whose head has been turned into a donkey. Alexis Francisco Valdes as Bottom was completely darling as a half-donkey being taught how to dance by Titania, Queen of the Fairies.
Near the end of the first act, Nikisha Fogo made a welcome appearance as Hipollyta, Queen of the Amazons, leaping through the air as if she could conquer the world.
In the second act, the ballet dispensed with the story altogether and reverted back to what I think of as Balanchine architectural abstraction.
Though I missed the Pyramus and Thisbe lampoon of tragic theater turned into comedy by amateur actors, Balanchine abstraction is always welcome. The act was highlighted by Isaac Hernández and Frances in a long Divertissement, with some of my favorite dancing of the evening.
The ballet has four more performances this week. Click here to check out the details.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Zanele Muholi Retrospective at SFMOMA

On the third floor at SFMOMA, a retrospective of South African activist artist Zanele Muholi recently opened.
Muholi began their 30-year career with photos of black lesbians in various photo series that range from trauma victims...
...to tender lovers.
Muholi has also created documentaries about the black transgender world in South Africa, and a few are included in the exhibit.
Muholi's latest work is a riff on Cindy Sherman, with dozens of theatrical self-portraits of the artist in photos, sculpture and paintings.
The exhibit is fascinating and will be at SFMOMA through the summer.

Friday, March 08, 2024

Stephen Hough and the Castalian Quartet

The invaluable San Francisco Performances presented British pianist/composer/writer/polymath Stephen Hough with the London-based Castalian Quartet on Tuesday at Herbst Theater. It was a weirdly disappointing concert. (Pictured are Hough and cellist Steffan Morris.)
Originally scheduled for separate concerts last November, Hough and the London-based string quartet both had to cancel and they somehow decided to join forces for a short tour of California and New York. The program was similar to the last time I saw Hough when he joined the Takács Quartet in Berkeley (click here). Two years ago, the performance started with a Haydn string quartet, followed by the world premiere of Hough's own String Quartet #1, and finished with Dvorak's Piano Quintet No. 2. Tuesday's performance started with a Haydn string quartet (F Minor, Opus 20, No. 5), followed by Hough's String Quartet #1 again, and finished with Brahms's Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34.
The big problem in Tuesday's performance was that the first violinist was having intonation problems all evening, and the occasional sour notes were impossible to hide in Haydn's transparent music. It was nice to experience Hough's string quartet again, and the neo-Poulenc set of six French souvenirs holds up well on a second hearing.
Hough joined the quartet for the Brahms piano quintet, and his impeccable musicianship seemed on a different wavelength than the quartet who opted for aggressiveness rather than a pretty sound. By the final movement, Hough seemed to give up and just join the fray, pounding his poor instrument in a way I've never seen from him before.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Synesthesia, Scents and Singing at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony just hosted a wildly theatrical weekend with Scriabin's 1911 Prometheus, The Poem of Fire. The performance included a "color organ" that shifted hues according to directions from the synesthesic composer and "scent cannons" to bathe the hall in three different scents upon musical cues.
The "scent cannons" were an invention by the luxury goods company Cartier which used the occasion for a huge branding exercise.
Reactions from friends in Davies Hall ranged from puzzled ("the scents were, well, underwhelming") to dismissive ("It feels like a William Castle gimmick from the 1960s") to delighted ("When the scent cannons shot their smoke rings across the hall I squealed like a little kid"). I agreed with all of them.
The twenty-minute musical piece itself was fun, a throw everything but the kitchen sink orchestral extravaganza, with a piano concerto wedged into it along with a huge chorus singing for about 90 seconds in the final minutes.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted and Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the forceful, fabulous piano soloist whose shiny outfit made him look a bit like Barry Manilow.
As an overwhelming, cosmic experience like Scriaban envisioned, it fell short, but the attempt was delightful. Pictured above are Luke Kritzeck, lighting designer; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Mathilde Laurent, Cartier perfumer; and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist.
After intermission, with slightly foggy scented air hanging over the stage, Salonen led the orchestra in Bela Bartok's 1911 one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle. This is another maximalist work for a huge orchestra that is fronted by the singers playing the serial killer Duke Bluebeard and his latest wife/victim, Judith. She insists on seeing all the locked doors in her new husband's gloomy castle until she's entombed with three previous brides in Door Number Seven.
It's a dour tale, redeemed by a magnificent musical score. Baritone Gerald Finley felt a bit miscast as Bluebeard with a voice too light and pretty for the role. Breezy Leigh (center) started the work off with a spoken prologue. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung has made the role of Judith her own over the last couple of decades, recording it twice, including one with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. She looked and sounded great although there was a bit too much smiling for a character who sees blood embellishing all her husband's secret treasures.