lies like truth: December 2008 Archives

Just like midnight screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sing Along Sound of Music has become an international cultural institution over the past few years. From the bags of silly props that can't be seen in the dark like a card with a question mark which you're meant to hold up during the lyric "how do you solve a problem like Maria?" and fake flowers to wave during "Eidelweiss", to the fancy dress contest before the film starts, the Sing Along experience basically follows the same formula all over the world.

It's interesting to read reports of Sing Along screenings in different cities and compare them to the one I experienced a couple of evenings ago in San Francisco. Despite the fact that the audiences are different each night, the evening seems to unfold in a startlingly similar way wherever you are. People letting off the party poppers meant for the kiss scene between the Baron and Maria at inappropriate times, hecklers, entire families dressing up girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/brown paper packages tied up with string etc are all part of the SASM experience no matter whether you're catching the show in London, Sydney or New York.

But there are some aspects of SASM that I think must be particular to different geographical settings. A friend of mine who came with me to see the show at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco talked about its appeal to hen (aka bachelorette) parties. This strikes me as a particularly British phenomenon. If there were any groups of drunken, tiara-wearing lasses in the audience at The Castro, they didn't make their presence felt. In England, it seems that SASM caters specially to such groups -- even offering them free champagne.

Of course in The Castro, one of the world's most prominently gay neighborhoods, SASM has an entirely different feel. The line "I do throw some rather gay parties" got a huge cheer, as did "follow every rainbow." "What's the matter with all you gloomy pussies?" elicited an auditorium-wide laugh. Until now, I didn't understand what it is about Julie Andrews that makes her a gay icon. Now I do.
December 31, 2008 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
A week ago or so, I posted a blog entry about Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The coastal Shakespeare Festival was faced with raising $300,000 within a few days or face ceasing operations immediately.

Today, I'm sending out another SOS, this time for another venerable Northern California theatre company -- the Magic Theatre. Here is the ultimatum as expressed in the distressed company's cry-for-help email: "Now in the midst of a staff shutdown, Magic may be forced to cancel the remainder of its season and close for good. To keep our doors open we must raise $350,000 by January 9, 2009. This will allow us to bring back our staff, go on with our season, and remain responsible to our creditors."

It's interesting that both of these organizations recently acquired new artistic directors among much media hooplah and the announcement of Bold New Artistic Horizons. I wonder how much information Marco Barriccelli, who joined Shakespeare Santa Cruz a year ago, and Loretta Greco, who arrived at The Magic in the summer, knew about the financial situations of their respective organizations when they signed their artistic director contracts? Were they kept in the dark, at least to some degree, about the bareness of the theatres' coffers when they signed on? Or did they somehow imagine that the red marks on the accounting ledgers would miraculously disappear in the wake of high quality productions, euphoric reviews and packed houses?

I ask, because no one in their right mind would uproot their lives from the East Coast as both of these highly-regarded directors did and travel across the country to watch their professional lives take this kind of wretched turn.

Thankfully, Shakespeare Santa Cruz has earned a reprieve, thanks to the donations of more than 2,000 individuals who answered the company's call-to-arms. I'm certain that the Magic will also be able to stave off the Grim Reaper. No one wants to see this seminal 42-year-old company disappear.

My heart goes out to Greco and her staff. Here's hoping the Magic's new and highly talented artistic director isn't forced to pack up and head back East anytime soon.

If you want to donate to the Magic's emergency campaign, click here.
December 30, 2008 9:53 AM | | Comments (4)
I think I lost quite a few listeners when I played three movements from Olivier Messiaen's 1935 organ work La Nativite du Seigneur on my KALW radio show the other day. At least, several of my friends who tuned in to hear the show weren't impressed by the French composer's ponderous, mystical meditation on the nativity. "That was catchy," said one of them, sarcastically. "Was there something wrong with your CD player?" another one asked.

In a sense, I kind of empathize with their feelings. The piece isn't exactly easy listening. And the recording I aired on the radio featuring the composer himself playing the organ of the Holy Trinity church in Paris where he served as "organist titulaire" for more than 40 years, wasn't very high quality. The recording was made around 50 years ago and the instrument is almost a quarter-tone flat. Still, the guest I invited on to my show for a live interview was just about to perform La Nativite in recital and I was enough entranced by Messiaen's take on it to broadcast it near the top of my two-hour show that night.

But now that I've heard the piece performed live, I can full appreciate the wonders within it. Jeffrey Smith, head of music at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (and the guest on my radio broadcast the other day) performed Messiaen's piece in recital at the Cathedral yesterday afternoon.

I don't think I've listened to an organ piece more carefully and with such rapture in my life. The music hit me on a really visceral level. The sparkling flurries of treble notes in movement VI, "Les Anges" made my head ring. I felt like I was watching snowflakes skitter down a window pane. My skin prickled with every overtone that pinged like a sharp point of light in the night sky throughout the spiraling third movement, "Desseins Eternels". And when the reeds of the pedal descended with an epic growl in the final movement, "Dieu Parmi Nous", before ending with a crashing, glorious major chord, I felt like I were being physically stretched in all directions, my feet pulled deep into the grown and my head way up towards the rafters of the cathedral.

Part of the pleasure of listening was also intellectual. Thanks to the judicious publication of some of the composer's notes about his composition in the program, I was easily able to pick out particular themes, hear where raga-inspired melodies rubbed shoulders with Bach-like cadences, and feel the tension between major-minor scales and Messiaen's innovative, freewheeling "modes of limited transposition." Not a bad way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

My friend Sarah, a London-based professional saxophonist and trumpet player and advanced yoga enthusiast who joined me for the concert, made an interesting point afterwards. She said that like bell-ringing and singing, organ music opens up the heart chakra in the body. The news came as no surprise. Not only did I feel more awake and open during and after the performance, but I could also hear "eastern" ideas in this most "western" of music idioms, the church organ recital. This was obviously intended by the composer -- ragas are mentioned in his program notes. Once again, I saw how music is one way of sampling the fundamental kinship between western and eastern spiritual traditions. As different as world theological traditions purport to be, Messiaen's work demonstrates how they are grounded in the same roots.
December 29, 2008 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)
This morning I'm thinking of Harold Pinter, the news of whose death on Wednesday December 24 I just learned having spent Christmas Day away from anything resembling a computer screen, iPhone or newspaper. The first image that comes to mind is that of the tree outside my office window. This tree is much larger than anything else in view. It's many branches are crooked, but there are brilliant grass-green leaves on the end of each one, even though it's the middle of winter. It's also an out-of-place tree -- one of the few on this very urban block in Oakland, California. It seems to blend in with the concrete and cars and street lamps, and yet it clearly stands out. If the tree disappeared tomorrow, I would lose the one aspect of the view from my window that rectifies the balance between nurture and nature, that beautifies the flawed.

Pinter always mocked the concreteness of life. His plays are like green shoots appearing through the cracks in a sidewalk. The tree is gone, but the branches are still there in the form of the playwright's far-reaching influence -- for instance, thousands of miles away from his London home, a group of playwrights in San Francisco created Pinteresque a few years ago. This medley of plays based on Pinter's The Lover had its highs and lows. What stood out for me was the great passion that all these American dramatists shared for their muse. It was a true celebration not just of one play, but also of the writer's famed taut style and seething sensibility.

I would have loved to have been in London to see Pinter perform his last stage role in Krapp's Last Tape a couple of years ago. It was the perfect role for an old tree of an artist such as Pinter -- Krapp is a man reduced to a gnarled husk above but whose roots spread deep and wide beneath.
December 26, 2008 9:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Here's the playlist from the holiday-themed classical music radio show I hosted on KALW 91.7 FM on Sunday. It's heavily weighted in favor of choral and other vocal works, but, hey, I'm a sucka for singing and much of the holiday repertoire is written for voices:

Benjamin Britten - A Ceremony of Carols - Toronto Children's Chorus

Olivier Messiaen - La Nativite Du Seigneur - Olivier Messiaen, organ

Traditional - "El Desembre Congelat" from Angels' Glory - Kathleen Battle, soprano; Christopher Parkening, guitar

Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Messe de Minuit pour Noël - Aradia Ensemble

Heinrich Isaac - "Kyrie" from Missa Virgo Prudentissima - Artists' Vocal Ensemble

Traditional - "Hubava Milka" from Wintersongs - Kitka

Truman Bullard - "Chanukah Suite" from Home for the Holidays - Eaken Piano Trio

Danny Elfman - "The Grand Finale" from Edward Scissorhands - Original Soundtrack recording featuring the California Paulist Choristers

Phil Kline - "Hallelujah!" from Messiah Remix - Phil Kline

Traditional - "Riu Riu Chiu" from Our Heart's Joy - Chanticleer

December 25, 2008 11:26 AM | | Comments (0)
It's interesting to read James Surowiecki's latest financial column in The New Yorker about the state of the newspaper business in the light of the current situation at SF Weekly, the publication for which I write a regular weekly column about theatre.

Two years ago at this time in December, the average SF Weekly was 104 pages long. This month, we've alternated between 72 and 80 pages (after having a couple of 64-page papers in November). Historically, January is a slow month for ad sales and the paper shrinks. The recession will likely magnify this seasonal trend. As a result, the powers that be have been forced to make some cuts to content, and, unsurprisingly, the Stage section is taking a big hit in the months ahead. The paper's coverage of theatre will drop from three plays -- my 1,000-word column plus two 200-word capsule reviews -- to just my column. The publication will not be running capsules in January. The situation is likely to remain the same in February and March at least.

This is unhappy news for my great team of capsule reviewers at SF Weekly. I'm sad about it too, as making decisions about which shows to review among the hundreds to pick from each month has been hard enough in the past. Now the task is going to be even more difficult. Even more terrible though, is the impact of the falling coverage on the local theatre scene. Small companies in particular rely heavily on reviews not just for selling tickets but also for getting grants. In these tough economic times, the fall-off in media interest is particularly crippling.

Surowiecki doesn't really provide any solutions to the problem in his column. But one part of the article in particular, about the ill effects of the impoverishment of content owing to reduced media ad sales, struck me as particularly poignant:

"Papers' attempts to deal with the new environment by cutting costs haven't helped: trimming staff and reducing coverage make newspapers less appealing to readers and advertisers. It may be no coincidence that papers that have avoided the steepest cutbacks, like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have done a better job of holding onto readers."

For publications like SF Weekly which depend almost entirely on ad sales, the future is bleak. I'm lucky to have an independent outlet for my writing about theatre -- this blog. And it's great that arts organizations across the Bay Area are becoming increasingly open to coverage on the blogosphere especially from trusted sources with a strong track record and brand recognition such as former Oakland Tribune critic Chad Jones' blog Theatre Dogs, Karen D'Souza's blog at the San Jose Mercury News website and (hem, hem) my own effort here at lies like truth.

But because I don't (yet) derive any income from blogging and don't have a trust fund, my ability to cover lots of theatrical productions as a blogger is somewhat limited by the need to make a living.

As Surowiecki points out, the business model for the future of the media industry is still in the balance. I'm optimistic that coverage will bounce back -- doubtless helmed by efforts on the Web. It's just going to take a little while.
December 24, 2008 9:58 AM | | Comments (1)
At the weekend, I attended a concert of Jewish music entitle Pomegranates and Figs at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. I went primarily to hear Kitka, the spunky all-female vocal ensemble which specializes in performing music from Eastern traditions. But I was equally curious about the other groups on the program -- Teslim (pictured left -- a gypsy- and folk-oriented string duo featuring Kaila Flexer on violin and viola and Gari Hegedus on a variety of plucked and strummed instruments including the oud and mandocello) and The Gonifs (a klezmer band led by Jeanette Lewicki on vocals and accordion.)

Flexer organized and emceed the concert. She managed to pull together a brilliant band of musicians, including guest string players (Shira Kammen, Julian Smedley, Leah Wollenberg and Liza Wallace), a virtuostic clarinettist (Peter Jacques) and a percussionist (Faisal Ghazi Zedan) to round out some of the numbers in her own set. What was less successful, however, was the format of the evening.

The entire first hour was devoted to some rather introspective music by Teslim & co which failed to go over in the draughty, barren and entirely unintimate setting of Zellerbach Hall. Starting off with just two musicians and building to include the extra players throughout the first half of the program didn't seem to add much excitement. Only the final number before the intermission, which featured the sprightly Jaques on clarinet ignited a fire inside me.

Thankfully, the concert changed gear in the second half. Kitka performed a gut churning set of songs from all over the Jewish diaspora. I generally identify this group by their wild, penetrating and nasal sound. But during this set, the singers demonstrated a completely different aesthetic at times, singing lightly and gracefully. The two styles offset each other perfectly.

When Kitka quit the stage, The Gonifs performed some racy and touching Yiddish songs. I could have listened to this band play all night long. The musicians were not only virtuostic but had a great sense of humor. It was hard to sit still. If only Zellerbach Hall were more conducive to dancing.

The concert ended with a grand finale in the old fashioned sense of the word. Led by Flexer, all the musicians came on stage to perform the Yiddish standard "By Mir Bist Du Schein." The Gonifs' Lewicki sang the verses. She was joined by the members of Kitka, having exchanged their ethnic-y robes for plain black dresses and flamboyant 1930s style hair ornaments, on backing vocals. If I didn't know it before, I know it now: These women can sing anything.

December 23, 2008 1:40 PM | | Comments (1)
A newly published NEA survey of the U.S. theatre landscape between 1990 and 2005 entitled "All America's A Stage" shows theatre companies to be remarkably resilient in troubled economic times. The ability of many performing arts organizations to keep going during periods of recession partially stems from the fact that they're often run on shoestring budgets anyway so are at one level slightly more impervious to the yo-yoing economy. It also stems from the support that they get from their communities.

I'm always heartened by the way in which local communities come to the aid of their arts organizations in times of trouble, even when money might be scarce all around. Ten days ago, Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC), one the country's most high profile Shakespeare festivals, announced that unless it could raise $300,000 by lunchtime today, December 22, it would have to cease operations.

The community rallied around the company and I'm happy to report that SSC has managed to exceed its target. At 1.25 p.m. PST, the company's marketing officer confirmed an official figure of $416,417 received from more than 2,000 individual donors. As a result, the non-profit company, with its core staff of seven, can now move ahead with planning its 2009 summer season.

Over the week, the company's website was bolstered by messages of support and sadness from members of the theater community. Playwrights Tom Stoppard and Donald Margulies, comedian Gene Gillette and actor Olympia Dukakis all sent empathetic words.

SSC has proposed a reduced 2009 budget of $1.45 million (down from $2 million in 2008). The new season, which runs from mid-July through August, includes Bardic stalwarts A Midsummer Night's Dream and Julius Caesar and Margulies' Shipwrecked!
December 22, 2008 1:25 PM | | Comments (1)
As I ramp up for my classical radio hosting debut this Sunday on KALW 91.7 FM, I've been exchanging emails with Chris Van Hof (pictured left) the afternoon host on WXXI Classical 91.5 FM in Rochester New York about programing ideas. Chris (who also happens to be a professional trombonist, educator and music arranger) also sent me a list of very useful pointers about hosting a classical music radio show -- his advice is invaluable to a novice such as myself. Chris tells me that he has only been in the radio business for a year. But his advice is so simply and eloquently put and makes such perfect sense that I asked if I could share his thoughts on my blog. He kindly agreed.

So without further ado, here is the Chris Van Hof Guide to Classical Music Radio Hosting:

When it comes to announcing, my biggest rule is to picture someone you know very well, and speak as though you're speaking to just that one person. Don't talk to "all those out in radio land" but instead talk personally to just one person.

As for programming, here are some simple concepts that are easy to apply to your music selection and planning:
- Seek variety of instrumentation (chamber, solo, orchestral, concerto, etc.)
- Seek variety of style (Baroque, modern, Romantic, traditional, etc.)
- Try to follow minor with major and vice versa in terms of tonalities, although major after major is fine.
- Look for clean transitions piece to piece. Unless you're going for a surprise effect, for example, seek to follow a quiet ending with a pastoral beginning. Even with a talk break between pieces, this helps the listeners' ears along. At the very least, temper your tone and delivery to either gear us up for the fast start, or calm us down for the quiet opening. In other words, match your speech to the music closest to it.
- Play music you like.
- Play artists you know (either know their work well, or know personally.)
- Once again, variety. As prevelant as it is nationwide, the Mozart Lunch Hour sucks.

Thanks to Chris. This advice couldn't come at a better time as far as I'm concerned. It also strikes me that a lot of his points apply to other forms of radio broadcasting, not just classical music. Hope to put as much of the ideas into practice as I can this weekend.

For Chris' blog, click here. To hear a live stream of his afternoon classical music show at WXXI, click here.
December 19, 2008 2:15 PM | | Comments (0)
The City of San Francisco has thankfully decided to postpone its decision regarding Supervisor Aaron Peskin's proposed radical cuts to the arts budget until midway through next year. If Peskin's proposal had gone through earlier this week, key organizations like San Francisco Opera, SF Ballet and SF Symphony would have seen their civic contributions fall by as much as 50%.

In the meantime, as I talk to many local theatre companies about how the economic downturn is affecting their operations, it's been interesting to hear how small outfits -- those who don't get much if any city funding so don't have to worry so much about the aforementioned cuts -- are weathering the storm.

I don't want to go into too much detail here as my article on this subject will appear in SF Weekly on December 31. But one thing which small theatre makers are doing to keep going in tough times is banding together to share resources, audiences and staging concepts. The difficult economy is encouraging companies to look for co-productions and co-marketing opportunities with their peers. Examples include the SOMA Cultural Coalition (a group of arts organizations based in the South of Market area of town about which I devoted a blog post in October) and the Bay Area Professional Small Theatres group (BAPST), an organization run under the auspices of Theatre Bay Area which aims to create "an environment of professionalism for small theatre companies to thrive in." Meanwhile, some companies are entering into individual relationships with fellow arts makers. For example, The Climate Theatre is a member of the SOMA Cultural Coalition, but is simultaneously making separate coproduction plans with other companies such as Encore and The Clown Conservatory.

These small companies are being pretty smart by taking the old axiom of "safety in numbers" to heart. Won't it be ironic if the behemoths of the theatre world end up coming off worse as a result of the downturn than the minnows?
December 18, 2008 11:50 AM | | Comments (1)
Last Thursday, I spent an hour in the company of Sarah Cahill, (pictured left) avant garde pianist extraordinaire and doyenne of the Bay Area classical music radio scene.

I have long admired Sarah's musicianship and her wonderful weekly Sunday night classical music broadcast, Then and Now, on local NPR affiliate KALW 91.7 FM. I have also been curious about her established practice of commissioning living composers to write music for her to perform.

So I emailed Sarah to ask if I could meet her to find out more about what she does and how she does it.

We sat in a cafe in Berkeley near where Sarah lives, and talked about everything from Christmas music to the output of San Francisco's commercial radio station, KDFC to the relationship between music and memory.

Much to my surprise, about half an hour into our conversation, Sarah asked me if I'd fill in for her on Then and Now next Sunday evening, December 21, from 8 to 10pm. I happily accepted the challenge.

Between now and then, I have the fun and slightly daunting task of coming up with two hours of classical music programming, including a playlist (obviously), a script, interviews and other features. This is something entirely new for me. Even though I've served as KALW's regular theatre commentator for the past couple of years, I've never had to come up with more than a few minutes of material, and it's all pre-recorded and edited by a staff producer. I don't even have to go into the station -- the producer comes to my house to record my commentaries.

I'm thinking of devoting my broadcast this Sunday to holiday season music. Nothing too original about that, I'll admit. But in keeping with the non-mainstream concept of Sarah's show, I'm interested in playing stuff that's a little bit off the beaten track, both new, old and ancient. I don't think the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah will be on my playlist, for instance. If you, dear readers, have any good ideas for me, please send them my way. And if you're interested in catching the broadcast on Sunday evening and in the Bay Area, tune in to 91.7 FM. The show will also be streamed live on KALW's website at
December 17, 2008 8:57 AM | | Comments (0)
Last time I wrote about Santa Cruz, I described the unparalleled experience of eating a deep fried Twinkie (DFT) on the beach. I've had many good times in that laid back coastal town. Just last weekend, for instance, my couple of days in the city featured an array of cultural delights including a treat for the taste buds in the form of probably the most delicious cocktail I've ever imbibed in my life, not to mention a couple of good films and a wonderful evening spent in the company of a local Irish music outfit.

One aspect of Santa Cruz life that has made visits very worthy in the past has been the work of the city's preeminent theatre company, Shakespeare Santa Cruz. As such, I was alarmed to receive an email forwarded from a friend while I was in town but which I ironically didn't receive until I returned to my office, about the emergency state of the company's finances. If the Board doesn't raise $300,000 by Monday 22 December, the 27-year-old organization may have to close down. The San Jose Mercury News followed-up with a story about the crisis in yesterday's paper. A few months ago I had the pleasure of profiling SSC's then new artistic director, Marco Barricelli, for a profile in American Theatre Magazine. If anyone can pull the company out of this traumatic state of affairs, Mr. Barricelli can. He's a great artist, a strong manager and, as someone who's been through cancer, a survivor in the deepest sense of the word. Santa Cruz will not be the same without SSC and neither will the country's non-profit theatre scene for that matter. I wish I had known about SSC's financial woes when I was there over the weekend. Not that I could have written a check for $300,000 or anything like it. But I would definitely have made a beeline for the theatre. I would have bought a ticket to see the current holiday production of Wind in the Willows, tried to find out more about how things are going over there and talked about the company's situation to all the locals I chatted with over the weekend.

On a slightly brighter note, here are some brief impressions of four highlights from my latest weekend in Santa Cruz:

1. The Wild Rovers at the Poet & Patriot Pub: This local, eight-member Celtic folk-rock band got a friendly if squat-looking downtown bar hopping until at least one in the morning when we left, with its lusty rendition of Pogues and Dubliners covers and fiery/sweet arrangements of traditional folk songs.

2. Milk: I wouldn't normally dream of going to the movies in such a sunny coastal place as Santa Cruz. But it rained torentially all day Sunday, so there wasn't much to do except hit the flicks. The gamut of emotions I felt while watching this biopic was extreme, ranging from sadness about the senseless deaths of Harvey Milk and George Moscone to amazement that equal rights issues have come so far in 30 years to anger that they haven't come far enough (viz Prop 8.)

3. Zack and Miri Make a Porno: The perfect antidote to Milk. Lots of dick jokes and a touching story of young love. Enough said.

4. The Josephine at 515 Kitchen and Cocktails: Whenever I visit 515, my favorite spot for drinks, food and conversation in Santa Cruz, I order a champagne cocktail at the bar. Emily, the bartender, made me a drink I'll never forget when she flavored my glass of bubbly with ginger-infused Bulleit bourbon and a hefty twist of lemon. The Josephine, as it's called though no one at 515 seems to know why, is the best cocktail I've ever had in my life, hands down.
December 16, 2008 8:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Once upon a time, the members of choral ensembles would stand at the front of a concert venue and simply sing their material. Occasionally they might sit in between songs if there were an instrumental interlude or solo, but in general, they pretty much stayed in one place.

I don't know whether audiences complained of boredom or the singers complained of cold or pins and needles, but these days, it's practically impossible to go to a choral concert and simply listen to the music in this country. There's always some measure of "choreography" involved too.

The latest series of annual Christmas concerts given by the all-male a cappella ensemble Chanticleer is a case in point. I don't think this remarkable group of singers stayed in the same configuration for more than one song. They processed in with candles, they changed position often between numbers. They even walked around the stage in a line like members of a chain gang at one point. Of course, there are musical reasons behind some of the physical movement -- when performing an antiphonal work, for instance, it makes sense to separate out the main chorus from the smaller group. And one piece in Chanticleer's program was rendered all the more intimate for being performed with the singers standing in an inwards-facing circle and spinning outwards during solo moments. Chanticleer performs all its choreography with machine gun precision, which is in some ways pleasing to the eye. At times though, when the physical movement somehow seems extraneous to the music, the effect feels all wrong -- almost like watching a chorus line in an old fashioned musical, a synchronized swimming team or a military parade.

There are countless other groups -- including the one I sing with regularly -- who seem unable to simply stand in front of an audience, sing and then get off stage. They're forever processing in and out and around the room (often with candles) and attempting to pique the audience's interest with various unusual bits of blocking. But many groups don't think this choreographic stuff through properly. It can look exceedingly scrappy if under rehearsed. This was the case during a concert I experienced a week and a half ago in San Francisco, when everyone in the ensemble processed in from the back of the venue to stand in a line down one side of the room, except for one confused soprano, who for some reason filed in on the wrong side of the room and then had to tiptoe along the front on her own to join the rest of the group. This inauspicious beginning didn't bode well for the rest of the performance.

In short, I am getting a bit tired of the endless shuffling about of choral singers on stage. It'd be refreshing to go to a concert where people stand still for once and focus one hundred percent on what the audience has truly come to experience: the music.
December 15, 2008 12:38 PM | | Comments (2)
December is a strange, hormonal time of year. We look back at the past 12 months and sigh and wonder where it all could have gone to and greet with trepidation the 12 that lie ahead, knowing that they too will be gone in a whisper.

This is the prevailing mood that hangs over Jake Heggie's chamber opera,Three Decembers, which I caught in its west coast premiere at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley last night.

Based on Terence McNally's short play Some Christmas Letters (and a Couple of Phone Calls) the opera charts the relationship between the members of an American family -- a renowned stage actress by the name of Madeline Mitchell and her two adult children, Bea and Charlie. The action takes place over three decades. In Gene Scheer's libretto, we first meet the characters in December 1986. Charlie's boyfriend Burt is dying of AIDS, Bea is feeling less happily married than she should be and Madeline is being a self-centered diva / "absentee mother." Cut to ten years later, and Charlie is lamenting the death, seven weeks previously, of Burt. Bea is coming to terms with being married to a philanderer and Mitchell is even more engrossed in herself than she's ever been as she prepares to go to the Tony Awards ceremony. Fast forward again to December 2006, and Madeline is dead. The hatchet is deeply buried and Madeline's children reminisce fondly about her at the funeral.

It's hard not to get involved in the lives of all three characters. Heggie's romantic, American musical-tinged writing goes straight to the heart. The soaring strings, melancholy winds and lush piano orchestration helps couch the story in wistful warmth. The cast all act and sing superbly. Heggie wrote the part of Madeline for the great American mezzo Frederica von Stade. Stade inhabits the diva with the poise and haughtiness a Chekhovian/Shavian matron. As comically self-centered as she is, we still feel empathetic towards her. Keith Phare tinges his Charlie with regret and resilience. We feel for his loss and also see his inner strength. And Kristin Clayton's Bea is spiky and petulant, though we also feel her pain and her deep-seated love for her mother, as impossible as the relationship seems.

Despite the vacuum-like barrenness of Zellerbach Hall as a venue, the cast and on-stage chamber orchestra create an intimate experience. And yet for all the familial warmth, the production kind of left me feeling cold. It isn't just the overbearing sentimentality of the ending, the kitschiness of the music, with its touches of Bernstein and Gershwin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, also creates a wall between the experience and my ability to surrender to it. Still, the piece definitely suits the emotions that typically go with this confusing, backwards-and-forwards-looking time of year.
December 12, 2008 8:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Besides the very foolhardy or extremely thick, every writer knows that plagiarization is tantamount to professional suicide. Similarly frowned upon -- unless a syndication agreement is in place -- is the practice of writers selling on entire articles, or large unadulterated chunks of their writing, word-for-word to different publications under the pretense of having produced original, customized texts. But should the repurposing of a few sentences from one's own writing for later use in an entirely different context be treated with the same amount of derision as the writer who attempts to pass off an article written for another publication as a completely fresh work?

Last week, I had an interesting debate with an editor over the fact that I drew on information from a blog post I had written many weeks previously about an art exhibition in the lede to a review I wrote of a play.

The exhibition struck me as a good starting point from which to launch a discussion of the play, so I repurposed, with minor changes, a few sentences of the material I'd written in my blog post in the opening two paragraphs of my review, before going on to devote the next 800 words of my 1000-word piece to talking about the play.

After filing my story, I found out that the publication has a rule -- I guess I must have missed the memo -- about writers not using any of their own previous work at all in their articles for the paper. Every word a journalist writes for the paper must be 100% original -- whatever that means. By way of example, the editor told the story of a journalist who tried to pass off an entire article he'd written for a different publication as a new piece for this one. He was caught and given a stern lecture. Following our discussion, I re-wrote the lede, changing as many words and sentence constructions as I could in order to differentiate the opening paragraphs of my review from the original blogpost.

My changes didn't seem to settle the issue, unfortuately, and my entire lede ended up on the cutting room floor. By the time the piece appeared in the paper, it was considerably shorter, jerkier, and lacked the crucial thread that linked the play with broader issues I hoped to discuss. It was a pity.

What I think this points to is a gray area in terms of how media outlets should approach the issue of self-plagiarization. There is clearly a difference between trying to fool an editor into publishing an article that has appeared somewhere else before and drawing on a few sentences of a blog post to create a larger cultural context for an arts review on an entirely different subject. Part of my job as an arts journalist is to make connections between different things going on in the culture and draw out trends. It's a way of making sense of the world.

Interestingly, one question the editor asked was to do with economics. It seems that part of his reason for not allowing me to use my lede had something to do with the fact that he thought I had been paid for my blog post about the exhibition, which is not the case. Hopefully things will change one day, but so far, I have not received any revenues for blogging. When I told him this, he said, "well you are getting something out of it: exposure."

Does "exposure" in an arts blog put me in the same category as the writer who self-plagiarized a whole pre-published article and tried to pass it off as an entirely new piece of writing? If this is the case, then what happened to me raises some crucial questions about the future of arts blogging.

I mean, I'm out there experiencing and blogging about plays, films, art exhibitions, concerts, operas, dance shows etc all year round. It's my vocation. If I can't refer to the content of any of these blog posts in my formal articles for media outlets, then my writing going forwards may be seriously hampered. It'll probably be a lot more narrow and a lot less rich.

The alternative, of course, is to stop blogging and simply keep my daily thoughts about culture to myself in a private journal. I used to do this prior to starting my blog two years ago. That would be to take a step backwards though. It would be absurd.
December 11, 2008 9:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Why are so many apparently intelligent people in America getting so excited about 30 Rock? The critically-acclaimed NBC television show about life behind the scenes of a fictional TV sketch comedy series has been getting a great deal of attention of late. It's all I ever hear about at dinner parties these days.

Following Nancy Franklin's intriguing review of the series in a recent issue of The New Yorker I decided I had to see what all the fuss was about.

I don't own a TV. (My husband and I threw our old set out when we moved into our new house last year; for years it had been gathering dust unwatched in the corner of our former living room.) So I downloaded a couple of episodes from iTunes to slake my curiosity.

What a walloping disappointment. The humor seems completely canned to me -- even the great Steve Martin, who guest stars as a crazed billionaire agrophobe in one episode I downloaded, failed to make me crack a smile. The characters are one dimensional. You flick a switch on the back of the dorky Jon Heder-like NBC page character Kenneth and he behaves exactly as you would expect someone who looks the way he does to behave. There are no surprises.

The acting across the board feels wooden -- I'd defy any actor to pull off a dazzling performance when faced with these flaccid zinger-laced scripts. Franklin is right about Fey's unappealing "competence" in the role of Liz Lemon, head writer for the fake series-within-a-series. But the critic is completely wrong about Alec Baldwin, who plays a prying network executive on the show. "The show's true claim to fame, and a reason never to miss an episode, is Alec Baldwin, whose comic magnetism is so strong I'm surprised it hasn't caused weather disturbances. He doesn't steal scenes; he makes them rise and shine," Franklin gushes. Granted, Baldwin inhabits his role with greater ease than most of the other actors in the show. But it's still an unremarkable, carboard-like take on the well-worn stereotype of the haranguing, meddling, sleazy boss. Both Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell did a better job of bringing this cliche to life in The Office.

Celebrity so often gets in the way of objectivity. Fey has become such a huge star over the last couple of years -- and especially since her brilliant impersonation of Sarah Palin in the runup to the election -- that her aura seems to have blinded people to the shortcomings of her show.
December 10, 2008 8:22 AM | | Comments (6)
Steven Winn, the eminent cultural critic and reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle, just penned his last column for the city's flagging flagship newspaper.

In a way, this shouldn't even qualify as news: Comings and goings -- especially goings -- are as common as unmarked graves in a war zone at media organizations across the land these days, so Winn's departure is hardly surprising. Winn even hinted to me himself that he was thinking about moving on a few months ago when I met him for coffee at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I'd met him in person and I'm still struck by how generous and candid he was with me that day about his job and future plans -- I was a total stranger after all.

There seems little point in regurguitating the usual diatribe about how the media is going to hell and arts journalism is dying. (Arts journalism is very much alive, actually -- it's just going through a period of readjustment.) So let's just take it as read that it was time for Winn to go.

Still, I will miss Winn's presence in The Chronicle. He is one of the city's liveliest cultural voices. For a time, the paper gave him a great role: Rather than restricting this man of peripatetic appetites to writing solely about theatre (which he did for 22 years as The Chron's lead theatre critic) the powers that be gave him carte blanche, more or less, to write about culture in the Bay Area in its broadest form. I loved reading Winn's articles because you never knew what they'd be about from one issue of the paper to the next. The man wrote fluidly about everything from Hollywood blockbuster movies to classical music to art exhibitions.

In an economically happier, more media-friendly climate and market, newspapers, magazines, radio, Internet and TV properties would be elbowing each other out of the way to snatch Winn up. But we're in San Francisco at the tail end of a beleaguering year. I wonder what 2009 will bring for Winn?
December 9, 2008 8:38 AM | | Comments (1)
In his book This Is Your Brain On Music, neuroscientist/music producer Daniel Levitin discusses the way in which music, even snatches of pieces that we may not have heard for many years, serves to stimulate our memories: "When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives," writes Levitin. "Your brain on music is all about...connections."

Ever since I attended a concert performance of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols on Saturday evening, I've been following a long breadcrumb trail into the dusty recesses of my memory. The performance itself wasn't all that remarkable. The Berkeley-based choral ensemble in question -- Sacred & Profane -- sang Julius Harrison's arrangement for mixed, SATB choir competently and with concentration. The sound was light but lacked energy and warmth. Nevertheless, I came away from the experience with Britten's music ringing in my ears.

The first thing I did was buy a recording on iTunes when I got home. I listened to many recordings, discarding some for using piano rather than the more authentic and lyrical harp accompaniment, and others for sounding too ethereal or warbly. I settled in the end on a 2003 Toronto Children's Chorus recording which to my mind struck the perfect Christmasy balance between snowy lightness and a fireside glow.

Then, as I listened, the thought seeds that were planted in my mind during the live concert started to grow into full-bloomed memories. I found myself thinking back to being 14 again and singing the work in the East Kent Girls' Choir, a chorus of girls aged between 11 and 18 based in my hometown, Canterbury. I found myself picturing our choir director, Mr. S--, an imposing and rather silly man with protruding nasal hair who doted over his favorites. Mr. S-- was given to frequent fits of distemper. He kept slamming down the piano lid in the draughty rehearsal room that once served as part of the city's prison every time we failed to give "Wolcum Yole!" (the salutation in the second number of Britten's Ceremony) the right level of attack, which was very often.

Then, as I listened to "That Yonge Child" (track 4) my mind drifted to thinking about one of Mr. S's favorites. A--  was the prettiest girl in the choir and had the most dazzlingly pure voice. A-- sang that solo. I was about six years younger than A and I remember being in awe of the girl's poise and the sweetness of her singing. Thinking back to A's performance made the recent news I'd heard on the grapevine about her recent mental collapse all the more poignant. Funny how life turns out.

As I listened on, more and more thoughts and feelings ebbed through me. I'd never bothered to look up my old music teacher, Ms. P, up since I left school or checked out out the school's website. By the time Britten's glittering yuletide processional had ended, I had found old friends and acquaintances online and learned all the latest news about my music school and high school.

It's amazing how one piece of music can trigger so much stuff. On the other hand, it doesn't take much to set me off into a Proustian idyll these days. Perhaps I'm just getting doddery and nostalgic in my old age.
December 8, 2008 10:33 AM | | Comments (0)
As resentment towards the passing of the ridiculous and embarrassing anti-gay marriage law in California grows both within the gay community and outside, I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of creating a musical on a Prop 8 theme. Now Hairspray composer Mark Shaiman has actually gone and done it.

The following link leads to a hilarious production number featuring performances from John C Reilly as a God-fearing, gay-hating conservative, and Jack Black as Jesus Christ (who else). Check it out.
December 5, 2008 3:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Some arts events, such as San Francisco's recent Hip-Hop Dance Festival and San Francisco Ballet's annual Nutcracker, attract a large audience of children. On the whole, though, it's pretty rare that I come across kids at the theatre, concert hall or opera house. I don't know whether the scarcity of audience members under the age of 18 is to do with overly high ticket prices, an unwillingness on the part of children to experience live performance or an unwillingness on the part of their parents' to take or encourage them. Perhaps the reason for the lack of young audiences at arts events has more to do with the pull of other attractions such as evenings spent playing video games or on MySpace. I don't buy the argument that children should only go to see art specifically geared towards their age group. Children's theatre and concerts are great ways to inspire young audiences, but there's no reason why kids shouldn't also be exposed to so-called "grown up" cultural events too.

The other night I was happy to count at least a dozen children in the audience at San Francisco Opera for a performance of La Boheme. They all looked pretty happy to be there too. It wasn't a school group -- just random kids with their parents. Admittedly, it was the festive, Thanksgiving holiday weekend and it wasn't as if they were attending a production of an atonal work by the likes of John Adams or Olivier Messiaen. Still, I was extremely galvanized by the sight of so many young faces.

What will it take to make this less of a remarkable occurrence? Many arts organizations offer special low pricing for children. Education and outreach departments are bending over backwards to get teens excited about their companies' work. But schools and arts organizations are only part of the equation. The biggest push has to come from parents. I don't think adults need to be constantly taking their kids to see theatre productions, ballets, operas and concerts to instill a love of the performing arts in them. They just need to encourage them in that direction. I don't recall my parents taking me to see arts happenings with great frequency. They did take me a few times though, as did a Great Aunt and my Grandfather on a couple of occasions. My memories of those few productions were enough to fire me up. From then on, I found my own way into the cheap seats and eventually onto the stage itself.
December 4, 2008 3:59 AM | | Comments (1)
Yesterday evening at about 9.45pm, my husband Jim and I flopped down at a bar in the so-called "theatre district" of San Francisco feeling disgruntled. The bar tender overheard us muttering to each other about the various feelings of relief and guilt that come with leaving a show at intermission.

"Must have been pretty bad, huh?," said the BT plunking menus down in front of us. "What did you see?"
"We saw half of The Phantom of the Opera," we said glumly.
"Now that's a first. I've never heard of anyone walking out of Phantom, though this bar sometimes gets quite busy with people leaving other shows at half-time," said the BT.

He then launched into a recollection of the "hordes" of theatregoers who showed up at half-time having prematurely left performances of a recent UK-based tour of UK director Tim Supple's polyglot Indian version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was thoroughly engrossed by that production and reveled in the weirdness of the seven different Indian languages. The linguistic estrangement made Shakespeare's language seem newly rich and strange to me. But many people were put off. "I guess they didn't like the fact that they couldn't understand what the characters were saying," said the BT. "One guy who came here after leaving the show at intermission said, 'it's hard enough trying to understand Shakespeare in English; why make it even harder?'"

No one likes to leave a live theatre production before it's done. It's a terrible feeling. Guilt about walking out on hard-working performers mingles with annoyance at having wasted one's time to create a toxic brew of self-loathing, self-pity and self-vindication.

It's a burden that weighs particularly heavily on my shoulders as a professional theatre critic.

When I'm reviewing a piece, I always stay to the end, no matter how fed-up I'm feeling. It's just part of the job. But when I'm experiencing a production just for fun / out of curiosity rather than because I have a deadline approaching, I very occasionally play by different rules. Normally I'll stay to the end, because I just love being in the theatre and there's always something of value to make staying to curtain worthwhile, even if it's simply a basic desire to be polite and respectful to the people sweating it up there under the lights.

Somehow, though, I couldn't handle the second act of Phantom.

Unbelievably, it was the first time I'd ever seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's megalith show -- the second longest-running West End musical in history and the longest-running Broadway musical of all time.

I was rather excited at the prospect of finally seeing the production after all these years. Of course, the staging was gorgeous. The costumes and props and general spectacle still dazzled in the same way as they probably did when the musical first appeared in 1986. The performances were all extremely competent. The songs were catchy. Even though I'd never seen the work staged, I wasn't surprised to find that I knew many of the production numbers already, some of them nearly entirely by heart.

But what turned me off was Phantom's lack of soul. This is a strange thing to say, because millions of people who've seen the musical around the world would claim to be utterly sucked in by the heart-wrenching story and the characters' love-lorn plights.

But Jim and I just didn't feel moved. "Don't you want to stay for the second half if only to find out about the Phantom's past?" I asked Jim as we stretched our legs by the orchestra pit at half-time. He pondered the question for a moment, as did I. We quickly realized that we just didn't care.
December 3, 2008 9:56 AM | | Comments (3)
For the past few years, composers, conductors and musicians have been exploring the possibilities of the Internet for creating global, collaborative musical events. The virtual universe Second Life has witnessed a number of cyber concert experiments lately. By far the most ambitious of these online orchestral endeavors to date is YouTube's newly announced Online Symphony Orchestra. Launched a couple of days ago, the project, which consists of two components, sounds intriguing, though one half of the endeavor comes across as more interesting than the other to me.

In a article for The New York Times, Daniel Wakin does a good job of distilling the project down into its two essential components:

1. The composer Tan Dun has written a four-minute piece for orchestra. YouTube users are invited to download the individual parts for their instruments from the score, record themselves performing the music, then upload their renditions. After the entrants are judged, a mash-up of all the winning parts will be created for a final YouTube version of the piece.
2. Musicians will upload auditions from a prescribed list -- for trumpeters, for example, an excerpt from the Haydn Concerto -- for judging by a jury that Google says will include musicians from major orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony. Entrants have until Jan. 28 to upload their videos.The panel picks a short list of finalists, and YouTube users, "American Idol"-style, choose the winners, who are flown to Carnegie Hall in April for a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Google will arrange for visas and pay costs.

I love the idea of the first part of the project -- of musicians from all over the world preparing separate parts of Tan's Internet Symphony No. 1 and coming together in cyberspace to perform following an online selection process. I downloaded the oboe parts (the only orchestral instrument I can claim to play) and had a brief look. Tan's writing is pretty demanding, with complex rhythms and fast repeated notes a feature, so I imagine the process will be fairly self-selecting.

What strikes me as altogether less innovative is the second prong of YouTube's Online Symphony Orchestra. As far as I can tell, it's just another fairly unimaginative chink in the long chain of reality TV-inspired talent contests. The online component feels like an add-on rather than a core component compared to the gimmicky, expensive final showcase performance in New York.

What will be interesting to see from both parts of the project is the extent to which extra-musical factors get taken into account during the audition process. In professional orchestral auditions, selection committees often can't even see the performers play. They're hidden behind screens in order to prevent the committee members from being swayed by biases against such factors as the player's sex or skin color.

But with the YouTube project, players will be fully visible to both the professional judges and YouTube community voters. I wonder if selections will be made as much on a player's musical skills as they are on the qualities of a player's appearance? Let's face it, even the best computer speaker systems can't equal the quality of hearing musicians perform live. So it's inevitable that musicianship will have to share consideration with visual factors. The competition rules state that the entries should not "contain pornographic or sexual content" but that doesn't necessarily preclude an entrant from videoing themselves playing in the nude.

P.S. I've just been sent a link to an interesting article about one schoolgirl's quest to get into the YouTube Symphony. Thanks to Ken Wattana for sending this story.
December 2, 2008 10:42 AM | | Comments (3)
Arts organizations are always among the first to feel the pinch when a recession hits. My heart is sickened on a daily basis by the endless news headlines about organizations and individual artists facing full on bankruptcy, financial straits or cuts of various degrees.

I was particularly saddened over this weekend to receive an email from Michael Rice, the founder and producer of the Cool As Hell Theatre (CASH) podcast, telling his fans that he's decided to bring his long-running series of casual and informative interviews with theatre community, many of them local to the Bay Area, to a close.

"It has been an absolute pleasure serving the community and posting over 180 interviews. I have learned a lot and met some really cool people," wrote Rice in his email. "But all good things must come to an end and while I have enjoyed providing this free service, it has taken its toll on me financially. I can no longer afford to offer this service for free so I have decided to pull the plug."

Over the years, Rice's guests have included the playwrights Paula Vogel and Naomi Wallace, and the actor Brian Copeland. He also had the misfortune to interview yours truly way back in 2005.

Rice attracted quite a bit of local attention for his show, which he delivered in an exuberant, homeboy-on-acid style, starting each segment off by addressing his listeners with a cheesy, though memorable mantra: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Pimps, Players and Hustlers of the Theatre World." CASH was cited as a Top Ten News Source by and was nominated for a 2006 Pubby Award by the San Francisco Bay Area Publicity Club. The Bay Area NPR affiliated station, KQED picked up the show and ran it as part of its arts offering over the past couple of years. Public radio is perhaps one of the least recession proof institutions in the country, so it's sad, but hardly surprising that Rice failed to stay financially afloat via his connection with KQED.

The Bay Area theatre scene will be all the poorer without the CASH podcast. I, for one, am mourning the loss.
December 1, 2008 9:33 AM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


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