What do cactuses sound like?

The San Francisco Symphony perform John Cage's group improvisatory work "Renga."  Michael Tilson Thomas conducts, with actor Tim Robbins, speaker, Patrick Dupré Quigley, baritone, 
Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone,
Clyde Scott, video designer, and Edwin Outwater, piano.  At Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night, May 17, 2015.  CREDIT:  Stefan Cohen.

Of all the ear-eye-and-mind-tingling things I've experienced on the Bay Area arts scene this week and have not yet had time to chime in about, last night's performance of John Cage's Renga by the San Francisco Symphony topped the list. That's not to disparage the entrancing solo set I heard on Monday by British singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey at The Chapel in the Mission; I've been listening addictively to Mulvey's moody lyrics and crunchy harmonies all week ever since. But when it comes to sheer novelty,  there's really no way a man … [Read more...]

“Don’t it always seem to go…”: SFJAZZ celebrates the life of Joni Mitchell


Judging by the floral and handwritten tributes adorning the fence across the street from the SFJAZZ Center in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, you'd think Joni Mitchell had passed away. The great vocalist and songwriter is still, of course, very much alive, though was unable to attend SFJAZZ's spangly lifetime achievement award celebrations last night for health reasons. Mitchell had planned to be at the event before falling ill and ending up in a Los Angeles hospital on March 31. SFist reports that the circumstances surrounding the … [Read more...]

Not everyone’s idea of a crocodile purse: A post-apartheid take on Jarry’s “Ubu” visits Cal Performances


Anyone who's seen "War Horse," an extraordinary piece of storytelling for the stage that features life-size horse puppets, knows the name of the Handspring Puppet Company. The South African organization has been around since the early 1980s, and has been making prominent pieces of theater around the world ever since. But "War Horse" is the show that really put the Handspring on the map. Kind of like what "Sleep No More" has done for Punchdrunk. There is some powerful puppetry at play in the company's 1997 production "Ubu and the Truth … [Read more...]

Thoughts as I start a new professional chapter


In a couple of hours I will walk through the doors of KQED and start my new job as senior arts editor there. KQED is one of the country's biggest and most well-respected public media organizations. I'm feeling excited and a little intimidated about what lies ahead. I learned a lot from my two years at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. It was essentially my first ever full-time, salaried job. I'd always worked for myself until I went to CPR to launch and lead its then brand new arts bureau. Some of the things I picked up from my time at … [Read more...]

Musical bits and pieces, mostly uninspiring


I've been enjoying getting back into the swing of things in the Bay Area by letting serendipity lead some of my arts-going choices. Sometimes this works out great, such as my visit to see the Imaginists in Santa Rosa the weekend before last. Other times, it's been a little blah. This weekend's round of musical events generally fit this category. You win some, you lose some is the way it goes. At the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Friday night, a-list fiddle players Mark O'Connor and his wife Maggie gave a technically virtuostic … [Read more...]

Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz: Assessing The Outcomes


The exhibition of sound and visual art installations by the celebrated Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei is coming to an end this Sunday after many months on display on Alcatraz Island. My visit to see @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz less than a week before its closing a couple of days ago got me wondering about the impact of the exhibition. After all, the artist was "handed" one of the world's most famous prisons as a canvas for activism through art in the wake of his own internationally-decried incarceration for speaking out against … [Read more...]

First came The Bradys. Now come The Imaginists.


My theater critic friend, R, took me on a road trip to Santa Rosa at the weekend. I had no idea what I was in for, beyond the fact that we'd be seeing a show that Rob was very excited about. So excited, in fact, that he'd spent much of every exchange we'd had in the preceding week telling me that if there was one thing I should see in Bay Area theater right now, it was this. Now, to fully understand what R was saying, you have to know that these days he's quite down on the Bay Area theater scene. Pretty much all straight drama being produced … [Read more...]

The Money Frog: A potent symbol of Bay Area greed?

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In San Francisco's Civic Center Park, there is currently an exhibition of colorful-playful animal sculptures by the Taiwanese artist Hung Yi. The piece that most strongly resonates with me right now is the one pictured left, entitled "Money Frog." With a coin stuffed in its mouth and a totally bamboozled look in its eyes, the amphibian sculpture, fashioned out of baked enamel and steel plate, represents human beings' obsession with financial gain. As the description accompanying the sculpture puts it: "richness is a goal for most of … [Read more...]

Aaron Posner’s Chekhov update destroys the fourth wall


Aaron Posner's "Stupid Fucking Bird" transports Chekhov's "The Seagull" into the 21st century with ukulele songs, expletives and plaid shirts. The dramatist's mostly cosmetic updates makes Chekhov's angsty drama more approachable for modern audiences albeit in a thoroughly superficial way. There's some good acting and a fluid mise en scene to SF Playhouse's current production directed by Susi Damilano. But I don't think Posner's version, which hews fairly closely to the original in terms of narrative -- though bafflingly avoids the … [Read more...]

Room at the Table: Black female college professors tough it out in Idris Goodwin’s “Blackademics”


In The Los Angeles Review of Books this week, academic and journalist Minda Honey writes about how Issa Rae is addressing the paucity of roles for black actresses on television and film with her hit web series and best-selling memoir "Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." Despite Rae's considerable creds, it's going to take more than one person to make powerful roles for women of color a normal occurrence in art and media though, as Idris Goodwin's 2012 stage drama, "Blackademics," so palpably suggests. The surrealist chamber play … [Read more...]

Doing old things in new ways: Geoff Hoyle’s “Lear’s Shadow” at The Marsh

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This morning, my first in San Francisco since moving back here after a two year hiatus in Denver, I ran to the top of Mount Davidson. I had never been to Mount Davidson before, much less run up it. In fact, the tree-covered Mount had barely registered with me during my first 13-year tour of duty in this city, I'm ashamed to say, because the views from the top are spectacular.  The climb up there is intense. But I guess the time I spent in and around the Mile High City has increased my lung capacity and I more or less sprang up that … [Read more...]

Keeping the lights on in a glorious old picture palace


Just like many urban centers in the U.S., the city of Birmingham in Alabama has seen its fair share of close shaves when it comes to the destruction of gorgeous old buildings. The crowning example is The Alabama Theatre, a magnificent moving picture palace in downtown Birmingham. It dates back to 1927 and -- unbelievably for a well-used public building that's getting on for 90 years old -- it still contains many of the original details in their original locations. Also, scarily but much more believably, the place was nearly knocked down … [Read more...]