Pub Quiz Culture

I dropped in to a bar on Polk Street last night when the weekly pub quiz was in full flight. I've played a couple of quizzes in bars in my time, but it wasn't until I experienced this is as a sort of semi-player, semi-viewer, that I really got to appreciate how lively these kinds of events are from a cultural perspective.My friends and I arrived at Blur Bar too late to actually participate in the establishment's "Trivia Night" as an official team. Nevertheless, we hung out, drank and answered the questions anyway. Here's what I appreciated … [Read more...]

Nothing In between

I was chatting with the executive director of a prominent music ensemble over coffee the other day. Her group often performs concert programs in Berkeley but, unusually, no East Bay performances were scheduled for the ensemble's recent program of concerts.I asked her why. Her answer surprised me:"People in Berkeley like old music and new music but nothing in between."I know that there are lots of early and contemporary music fans in the East Bay. But it seems odd to me that the ensemble, which has an international reputation, couldn't find … [Read more...]

Aida: A Bad Simulcast Choice

San Francisco Opera's latest Opera at the Ballpark simulcast was, by most standards, an unparalleled success. 32,000 people -- a record attendance in the five years that the company has mounted the program -- flocked to AT&T Park to picnic and watch a live broadcast of SF Opera's current production of Aida last Friday night.As usual I very much enjoyed the event. (What's there not to like about lying on the softest, cleanest grass in the world on a warm evening with friends, a bottle of wine, good cheese and bread and performances by some … [Read more...]

Ascent and Descent

Days like I had on Saturday remind me of the sheer joy of living in this part of the world. There is no other place quite like it for off-the-radar cultural encounters and non-everyday experiences.It all started at House of Air, a new trampolining park at Crissy Field. The company launched less than two weeks ago and I when I showed up, was packed mostly with children bouncing up and down to their heart's content. In addition to keeping kids occupied, House of Air trains athletes to do aerial stunts on skis, snowboards and skateboards and … [Read more...]

From Critic to Dramaturg

Last night at the Berkeley Symphony, I was chatting to a patron about my new role as the organization's resident dramaturg. He said: "Gosh, that means you won't be able to write about the orchestra anymore," in concerned terms.Well obviously I won't be able to write about the orchestra anymore. But his comment seems totally beside the point. In my twice monthly column about culture for the New York Times / Bay Citizen, I have to cover all the arts, and classical music is one of many fields to write about. If I ever did get to write about the … [Read more...]

The Puppet Master

A great playwright is like a puppet master: He or she subtly pulls the strings of character and action to make life seem larger than it is in reality. Ideally, he or she resides in the shadows and the puppet/play itself takes center stage.Compulsion by Rinne Groff, which is currently receiving its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a production starring Mandy Patinkin as an obsessed and egomaniacal writer and directed by Oskar Eustis of The Public Theatre, features puppets created by Matt Acheson and delicately manipulated by … [Read more...]

This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us

A few days ago, the rules that govern the selecting of repertoire for an orchestral season came up for discussion at a dinner party with a couple of friends, one of whom happens to be the music director of a symphony orchestra.When the idea of performing the music of Mahler came up, the conductor looked horrified. "I would never program Mahler in this town!" she said.The reason for this comment wasn't to do with the fact that she doesn't like Mahler's music. Quite the opposite: She loves the composer's works. But because a conductor in the same … [Read more...]

Guidelines for Pitching the Bay Area Culture Section of the NY Times

The culture column of the Bay Area section of the New York Times, which I write every two weeks, had been a bit of a moving target content-wise since I started the gig nearly a year ago. I'm often asked by arts organizations and independent PR people what kind of stories my editors and I are looking for on the culture front. Here are some pointers to help anyone who feels like pitching me:1. The idea has to be arts-related. The mandate is broad -- I've written about everything from the Burning Man Festival's radio station to the San Francisco … [Read more...]

This is Hamlet

Watched the second installment in what's beginning to look like a fab series of educational films about the works of William Shakespeare. This Is Hamlet follows on from This Is Macbeth, which I blogged about in January of 2009 here.The Hamlet DVD, like its predecessor, is cheeky and irreverent but very informative, though the central conceit is slightly difficult to make sense of at first: The drama's characters comment on their own behavior in the play, sometimes while they're supposed to be in an actual scene. But the illogical nature of the … [Read more...]

The Highs and Lows of Werther

Werther, the central character in Jules Massenet's four act opera of the same title based on The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe is an emotional yo-yo. He experiences soaring highs and wallowing lows. If he were alive today, medics would brand him as being bipolar.Francisco Negrin's new production, which opened last night at the San Francisco Opera, is similar in character. The singing and acting is all-round superlative. I was extremely taken with the drama and dexterity of mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's performance in particular in the role … [Read more...]

The “Professional” Choir

An interesting question came up over tea this morning with Helene Whitson, the creator of the useful and exhaustive Bay Area Choral Archive and one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable choral bods I've ever met. The subject under discussion was to do with professionalism in choral singing, but you could just as easily apply the same thoughts to professionalism in any field really.What makes a choir "professional"? For Chorus America, and many other organizations and individuals, the distinction between amateur and professional choirs is … [Read more...]