lies like truth: August 2009 Archives

bartoli.jpegThe marketing of classical music artists and their projects has gone from staid to sexy to sensationalist over the last decade or so. But Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli may have taken things a little too far with the packaging of her soon-to-be-released album Sacrificium. Dedicated to exploring the work of the great Italian castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries, the album features Bartoli's interpretations of music by the likes of Nicola Porpora, Antonio Caldara, Francesco Araia and Carl Heinrich Graun as well as bonus tracks by Riccardo Broschi, Handel and Geminiano Giacomelli.

Bartoli's approach to the material is wildly exciting albeit a little to frenetic for my taste. Every virtuostic run goes off like machine-gun fire in my ear. But taken in small doses, it's inspiring rather than exhausting music.

What's puzzling, hilarious and in pure bad taste, though, is the way in which the project is being marketed in the hardback book that accompanies the CDs. The language is way over-the-top. The first page of the media copy which I received in the mail the other day is blazoned with these words in bold capitals: "THE SACRIFICE OF HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF BOYS IN THE NAME OF MUSIC." Just to make the point even clearer, the opposite page features a giant picture of a pair of surgeon's scissors.

Even more hilarious and off-putting are the images of the singer scattered throughout the volume. The head is recognizably Bartoli's. But the vocalist's face has been superimposed on the trunks of various posturing nude males, decked out in marble Grecian hero statue-style. In one particularly funny image, where an athletically-ripped Bartoli looks like she is jumping a hurdle in a running race with a determined look on her face, the dot over the first letter "i" in the slogan "Eviva il coltellino!" ("long live the knife!") coyly covers the statue's testicles.

This sort of thing cannot possibly be taken seriously. I do hope Bartoli and her team meant it as a joke.
August 31, 2009 10:48 AM | | Comments (3)
FeaPhotoAug08.jpgLast night, the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse -- the longest-running, full-time venue for folk and traditional music west of the Mississippi River -- opened the doors to its new 18,000 square foot venue on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley with a sparkling concert of Celtic string and vocal music helmed by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Californian cellist Nathalie Haas.

I don't want to dwell on the concert itself in this blog post. I've written about Fraser and Haas before. I consider these musicians to be among the most sublime practitioners of their art. Perhaps the best way to describe the effect of the music on the audience is to describe what I saw when I looked down the rows of seated spectators: everyone's toes were tapping and ankles were swaying to the kinetic sound. What I'd like to discuss today is the venue itself.

The opening of a new space for arts is a massive achievement in these trouble financial times. It's remarkable that the venue managed to launch at all, considering the state of the economy.

The new Freight is in some ways a wonderful space. It's light and airy. The acoustic is rich -- I could make out all the individual layers in the string players' mix last night, from the careening top notes of the lead fiddle, to the percussive scrapings of the "rhythm" fiddle to the drones of the lower instruments. The room has a bright "ping" to it yet doesn't swallow any of the vocalists' words.

The stage is a generous size (1339 square feet) and the space as a whole feels intimate even though it seats double the capacity of the old Freight, which had room for 220 patrons.

Also, you can't beat the location. The venue is located right in the middle of downtown Berkeley in close proximity to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Aurora Theatre, The Jazz School, the University campus and countless great restaurants and bars.

In other ways, however, the new Freight doesn't appeal to me as a venue for folk music. It feels less like a place to hang out with friends and hear some of the world's finest folk musicians than it does a medical school lecture theatre. The seats are organized in neat rows which makes the room feel sterile. There should be tables and chairs that can move around, at least towards the front of the auditorium near the stage.

The lighting is spartan and unforgiving and the honey colored wooden walls seem old-fashioned and slightly characterless, like so much 1960s interior design.

There's quite a bit of room to dance, which is a good thing. But the atmosphere simply isn't conducive to jumping up and jiggling about. When Fraser suggested that people get up and dance at the end of the performance last night, very few people actually did. I reeled around because I couldn't help myself and was joined by about three or four other audience members. Everyone else more or less sat or stood still.

Finally, I'm not at impressed with the cafe offerings at all. The tea selection is impressive. But a venue of this size which doesn't serve alcohol should at least offer a wider and higher quality selection of sweet treats and real hot chocolate rather than fake powdered cocoa.
Still, I'm excited about the opening of the new venue as a whole. Hopefully it will help to increase the local audience for folk music.

Postscript: September 2 -- This just in from Lisa Manning, the marketing manager at The Freight & Salvage, in response to my blog post:


Interesting that you don't like the wooden walls- that is one of the aspects of the building that has garnered the most positive comments from patrons. Its wood recycled from the original building here.

Did you come to the community open house on Saturday, August 29th? We had almost 50 workshops, jam sessions in the lobby, and performances in the listening room. I bring it up, because it was a much more interactive environment, in which many people were dancing, and a huge throng were jamming together. The interplay between musicians and audience was dynamic in a way I think you would have appreciated, given your comments about opening night.

The seating has been designed for flexible arrangement to accommodate a variety of performance situations. For a sold-out show, as you saw during the Fiddle Summit, the chairs are in rows without tables. This maximizes the number of patrons that can be seated. Alternatively, the first few rows of chairs can be removed completely, to clear out an ample dance floor in front, for performances which encourage dancing. For a more casual & smaller performance, we can intersperse chairs & tables.

Finally, the café offerings are certainly a work in progress and you should expect to see changes in our offerings over the coming months.

I'll share your write-up with other members of our staff.


August 28, 2009 8:53 AM | | Comments (0)
lousada.jpegActor Barry Rutter in his Satyr costume chatting with writer and director Tony Harrison during rehearsals for The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Stadium at Delphi in 1988. Actor Tom Courtenay looking dreamily into the camera on location in author Alan Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962. Composer Benjamin Britten listening intently to a rehearsal for a concert in Blythburgh Church at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1961. Rocker Marianne Faithfull posing tiredly in a 1978 studio portrait. Painter David Hockney putting the finishing touches on a canvas while at art school in 1960. Actor Laurence Olivier giving his young daughter Tamsin a shoulder ride down the beach in Brighton in 1966. Chef Sally Clarke kneading bread dough in 1992.

I could go on and on and on.

The in-the-moment depth and candidness of photographer Sandra Lousada's portraits arrests anyone who turns the pages of her new book, Public Faces Private Places: Portraits of Artists 1956-2008. Lousada grew up amidst a circle of actors, writers and artists. Through her grandfather, writer and politician A P Herbert, her mother, stage designer, Jocelyn Herbert, and Jocelyn's partner George Devine, founder of the Royal Court, she had privileged access to the world of literature, the arts, theatre and film. Yet for all her connections, Lousada's portraits give off an air of softness and, above all, respect. This is not the work of someone who feels smug about being in the "inner circle". Neither does it come across as being star-struck.

London's National Theatre is exhibiting portraits from the book between September 7 and October 17. The free exhibition brings together a selection of photographs which capture the insider's view of figures including Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie.
August 27, 2009 9:17 AM | | Comments (0)
berkeley.jpegSan Francisco eat your heart out. The East Bay seems to have all the most enticing live performance spots these days. The West Bay appears dull in comparison. Here's a rundown of some of Oakland and Berkeley's most enticing places to check out live performance:

The Freight & Salvage: The Bay Area's premiere folk club is newly reopening at a central location on Addison Street in Berkeley this week.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre: All eyes are on the Rep this season thanks to Tony Taccone's high-profile programming which includes the world premiere musical, American Idiot, written by punk rock outfit Green Day.

Yoshi's Oakland: Yoshi's set up shop in San Francisco's Fillmore District a few years ago. But the original and best venue for jazz still remains in the East Bay.

The Fox Theatre: Oakland's newly restored Fox Theatre opened its doors a few months ago. People are arriving in droves to hear top bands and solo pop artists from The Pixies to Bon Iver.

Aurora Theatre: Berkeley's best kept secret, theatrically-speaking, the Aurora constantly mounts quality work with some of the Bay Area's most talented actors, directors and designers. Can't wait to catch the company's production of Clifford Odets' kitchen sink classic, Awake and Sing!

Paramount Theatre: The Paramount in uptown Oakland offers an eclectic mix of shows from Morrissey to The Oakland East Bay Symphony. And it's just about the most beautiful art deco structure I've ever set foot in in my life.

Ashby Stage: Shotgun Players' home near the Ashby BART station is one of the best places to catch a play in the Bay Area. The space is small, but the work is always big in terms of vision and expertise. The theatre is also the first in the country to go 100% solar-powered.

Ghost Town Gallery: This scrappy space is an oasis of cool in a rundown Oakland neighborhood. A great place to mingle and take in an oddball show.

Berkeley City Club: This Julia Morgan-designed building has a beautiful theatre-in-the-round. Companies like Central Works perform intimate productions there. Walking into the building feels like taking a step back in time.

Quinn's Lighthouse: Love this tucked-in-a-corner place on the water near Oakland's Jack London Square for drinking beer and catching impromptu folk music.

There are countless other places that I'm forgetting. And even though Oakland and Berkeley's venues are not all perfect (Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus leaves much to be desired for instance), by and large, all eyes should be looking East right now.

August 26, 2009 8:16 AM | | Comments (0)
sitespec.jpegA friend of mine, J, who's a site specific theatre aficionado, provided some interesting insights into his favorite subject over the weekend which I would like to share.

According to J, site specific theatre isn't about staging a production of an existing play in a non-traditional venue. For example, by his standards, Urban Opera's version of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas that I caught on Sunday evening does not qualify as site-specific theatre even though the director made clever use of the non-traditional space -- an outdoor plaza in front of an abstract sculpture in the waterfront Mission Bay area of San Francisco. This is because Purcell didn't create his Dido for that particular space. The same goes for any production of a pre-existing work for the stage. In other words, mounting productions of Beckett's Happy Days on a beach or Shakespeare's Hamlet on the battlements of a castle doesn't make these shows site specific in the true sense of the term.

J says that in order for a theatrical production to be site specific, it needs to be conceived specifically for the space in which it is produced. In other words, the space comes first and the creation of the performance, second. Site specific work, by J's standards, is therefore always newly written / devised and can never be replicated in any other venue or locale.

Thoughts? Is this too narrow a definition of site specific work? I personally quite like it. It forces us to think of space as more than just a holding area or background for a performance. In this definition of site specific work, space becomes a performer, with the potential to change the entire relationship between text, visuals, sounds and the human body in fascinating ways.

Postscript - August 31 2009 - Warren Stewart, the director of the early music ensemble Magnificat, has posted a response to this blog post on his blog. Read it here.
August 25, 2009 10:35 AM | | Comments (4)
Kindra$20Scharich$20as$20Dido$20DB-P$20DSCN1005.jpgAs I headed over to San Francisco's industrial Mission Bay neighborhood to experience Urban Opera's outdoor production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas yesterday evening with a couple of friends, I was a little worried. Lacking the necessary acoustics and stage set up, opera generally plays badly al fresco. Plus, there was a strong wind blowing in from the Bay and the temperature was dropping fast. I was particularly concerned about how standing on a blustering promontory in a toga would affect the singers' vocal chords and general health.

I need not have worried. For one thing, Chip Grant and Kue King's slick, sculptural production didn't involve any Grecian drag. Simple, elegantly-cut monochrome costumes contrasted with knotted-twig-like headdresses and other ornamental pieces that gave off a more natural vibe. For another, the grassy, waterfront plaza where the opera was performed felt like a natural amphitheatre. New, glass-fronted buildings on two sides of the arena allowed the voices to carry very well, even as the wind howled past, and acted as a bit of a windbreaker for the audience and compact string / keyboard ensemble. The sunset view over the bay was also spectacular.

I could have done without some fussy and over-literal staging elements such as the sight of Kindra Scharich's Dido singing her way through most of the work with Cupid's broken arrow stuck in her front and back. Some of the performers didn't seem comfortable singing in the range at which Purcell pitched their parts. And the whole look and feel of the thing felt a bit post-modern in the 1980s sense of the word, with lots of human sculptures and sudden frozen tableaux.

But I could hear every word that the performers sung, felt transported by the story and was impressed by the strong and committed sense of ensemble -- these qualities are no mean feat for a brand new organization. By and large, Urban Opera's inaugural production bodes well for the company's future.
August 24, 2009 9:02 AM | | Comments (0)
2845556007_51b067183c_s.jpgA few days ago, The New York Times published an article about the demise of the Vaudeville-style sideshow. "Fire-breathing bizarros are so hard to find these days," the article began. That may be the case in New York, but in San Francisco, fire-breathing bizarros -- bizarros of all stripes in fact -- are two a penny.

I was reminded of this fact last night as I experienced The Shadow Circus Vaudeville Theatre's performance at The Climate Theater alongside some visiting relations from England: my aunt, her husband and my 16-year-old cousin.

The show turned out to be the perfect thing to expose a trio of inquisitive and slightly adventurous tourists. The Climate is as quirky an underground space as they come, with rickety stairs, a tiny stage, neon-light-and-plastic-chandelier-tinged decor and $3 bottles of IPA. And the evening's entertainment perfectly epitomized the quintessential San Francisco underground theatre experience. It consisted of a mish-mash of eccentric-looking performers dressed in Victorian boudoir attire (corsets and lace for the ladies, waistcoats and suspenders for the men) playing accordions, upright bass, percussion and keyboard while singing songs about carnie sex, skits involving beautiful-grotesque puppets (more about these in a bit) and guest spots from a magician, a contortionist and a singer-songwriter cellist with a downbeat repertoire.

My relatives really enjoyed the show, which made me happy. But I was a little disappointed.

The Shadow Circus Vaudeville Theatre does an admirable job with its puppets, which are all handmade and have larger-than-life personalities. There was a cantankerous, foul-mouthed velociraptor with very pointy teeth and a smooshed-face vaudeville performance groupie with a whiny voice who can't stop stealing the female performers' underwear. I also enjoyed the professorly San Francisco bard hopelessly stuck in the 1950s and 1960s with his nostalgia for Haight Street's Summer of Love and the Beat Poets.

But despite brief spots of inspiration, the performance on the whole rambled on with little to keep the energy going between songs and acts. There needed to be more pzazz and showmanship. Instead the balloon deflated between each "bit" and only inflated to bouncy proportions on occasion.

I think I have seen so much of this kind of thing in the Bay Area, having been here for 10 years. A bunch of corsets, accordions and quirky pirate songs does not always a successful show make, no matter how tightly the corsets are laced.

August 21, 2009 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)
head.jpegSan Francisco streets seem to be full of people standing on their heads and hands these days. It must be the recession. Most of them are young African-American men in their 20s and 30s. They do complicated endurance-testing upside down contortions on street corners downtown seemingly for hours, sometimes with props and always with a change jar in front of them. I cannot imagine a more demanding way to pay your rent.

I watched this one guy for a while yesterday. It was a chilly afternoon with blustering wind. He was dressed in black shorts and a matching wife-beater. He had a green bandanna on his head. He was doing a headstand on a small glass drink bottle, his crown resting on the bottle's mouth. His legs were absolutely straight up in the air. I stood on that street corner for about 10 minutes and in all that time he didn't appear to move a muscle.

I felt quite moved and a bit shaken by his performance. Is what he was doing a performance? Can we call this art? Or is it pure necessity?
August 20, 2009 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)
chiaraoscura.jpegAt the Great American Music Hall last night, my friend Brian and I heard two female vocalists. One didn't do it for me. I was bored silly by her voice, even though her songs were tuneful enough. It was breathy and bland. If it were edible, it would be French toast made with Wonderbread soaked in maple-flavored syrup.

The other, contrastingly, completely held my attention. It wasn't the greatest instrument I'd ever heard. But there was depth and charisma to it. Every now and again it did unexpected things, like fluttering, butterfly-like, in the low registers, and filling the room with warmth up high. Every word the singer sang was clear -- I knew exactly what she was saying. And I felt that every syllable had meaning for her.

Brian and I held the same opinion about the singers' voices. This launched a discussion about why we might feel that way. Why did one singer tickle our eardrums and the other, bruise them?

To a degree, beauty is in the ear of the beholder and the answer to this question could be put down to a matter of personal taste. What's wine to one person is vinegar to another, n' all that. But in the case of these two particular singers, I wonder whether the blend between two contrasting textures in the voice -- chiara and oscura -- that I've only recently started learning and thinking about might have something to do with my reactions to their voices?

I first heard about chiara (the Italian word for "light") and oscura ("dark") this summer from a brilliant singer and vocal coach who spoke at a workshop about the importance of being able to blend and balance these two qualities in the voice to get the most pleasing effect. Too much of one, and the sound is insubstantial; too much of the other, and it's heavy.

Last night, this theoretical concept became concrete for me. The singer who's singing didn't appeal to me was all chiara. There was nothing anchoring the voice. It floated up into the air and disappeared. The singer who's voice I could get drunk on quite easily, had a terrific blend of chiara and oscura. There were other qualities of her performance that made it very watchable -- she looked adorable in a very unusual watermelon-shaped dress and had great repartee with the audience. But I think it was the perfect balance between light and dark in her voice that made it possible for me to feel like I could have listened to her sing all night.
August 19, 2009 7:50 AM | | Comments (0)
220px-TanyaTagaqGillis2007.jpgListening to Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq perform live is like being shut up in a cage with a bunch of wild animals. On Saturday evening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco, this beautiful, strapping singer, who is best known outside of her native Nunavut Canada for her collaborations with Bjork, made concert-going in the traditional sense of the term feel like an absurdly staid affair.

As Tagaq stood on stage in a tight, green sateen dress and heels flanked by a couple of low-key-looking musician dudes, the very walls of the theatre seemed to vibrate. At times she sounded like a wolf howling at the moon, at others, more like a whale weeping. I also heard a stampede of buffalo and a prowling cat in her sound. I wanted to be crawling around the space on all fours as Tagaq sang, not sitting primly at a cocktail table surrounded by other neatly-dressed individuals clapping politely during the pauses of the artist's spiraling, core-gouging set.

Tagaq is a curiosity among Inuit throat singers, if that doesn't sound like a redundant thing to say. Traditionally, Inuit women performed this style of overtone singing when their men were away on a hunting trip to entertain themselves. According to the Wikipedia entry on the subject, the songs are typically sung as duets, with two women facing off against each other in a light-hearted competition. One singer leads by setting a short rhythmic pattern, which she repeats leaving brief silent intervals between each repetition. The other singer fills in the gap with another rhythmic pattern. Usually the competition lasts up to three minutes until one of the singers starts to laugh or is left breathless.

Tagaq sets herself apart from most other Inuit throat singers because she performs solo. It's powerful stuff. I imagine the venues in which she sings would shake if there were more than one of her on stage.
August 18, 2009 9:43 AM | | Comments (0)
hoyle.jpegIt's always a treat to see an actor having fun on stage. The fun factor can often ebb and flow during a long run of a play. But if it's a short run and the role is prime, the person charged with playing it tends to find it easier to let rip.

Such was the case on Friday night, when I caught the amazing Bay Area performer, Geoff Hoyle, essaying the role of Alfred P. Doolittle in the Lamplighters production of My Fair Lady. It's been a long time since I've seen an actor enjoying himself so much on stage. His enthusiasm was infectious. And because he's such a brilliant performer, Hoyle's presence raised the game for the Lamplighters crew -- which generally relies on the sweat equity of good amateur rather than professional performers for its shows. (Hoyle's is the only Equity contract in the production).

Hoyle is best known in the Bay Area and elsewhere as a consummate clown and mime. He appeared on Broadway as Zazu in the original cast of The Lion King and has clowned with many organizations including Cirque du Soleil, Pickle Family Circus and Teatro Zinzanni.

The actor is slight and lithe and as slick as the grease on a mechanic's overalls. His physique is almost too bird-like for such a bloviating part. But then, when he first appears on stage grinning, gurning, pinching flower girls' bottoms and looking for all the world like he regularly has his cake and eats it too, Hoyle seems larger than life. He fills the stage and yet never becomes overbearing. He remains, throughout, a great ensemble player.

Singing isn't Hoyle's forte. He growls for the low notes which can barely be heard above the orchestra. But his energy is infectious.

What Hoyle brings to the role of Doolittle in Lerner and Loewe's perennial favorite about the princess-ifying of a lowly flower-girl is "a little bit of luck" for Lamplighters.
August 17, 2009 9:33 AM | | Comments (1)
headscratch.jpegCan someone please explain to me what's so great about August: Osage County? I'm baffled.

August 14, 2009 7:37 AM | | Comments (1)
clip_image002.jpgYesterday afternoon, I was amused to receive a press release in my inbox regarding a local actor, Michael Rice (pictured, left). Rice, who is best known to many people in the Bay Area theatre community for his now-defunct "Cool As Hell Theatre Podcast" which the San Francisco NPR station KQED ran for a while, is passionate about self-promotion. This time, however, he might have gone a little too far.

Rice is promising a "Money Back Guarantee" refund out of his own pocket to anyone who feels that his performance was sub par. The refund will be from Rice himself and not involve the producing theatre, the press release explains.

The actor has just closed a run as Trigorin in the Shakespeare's Associates production of Chekhov's The Seagull in Livermore, CA. He was previously seen in William A. Parker's Waitin' 2 End Hell at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco. What's not clear is whether the money back guarantee stands for a particular show he's currently or soon to perform in, or whether it's a general standard he plans to maintain for a while or his entire career.

"I create, sculpt, and deliver signature character pieces for the stage that are entertaining, bold, and believable," states Rice. "If a patron comes to a show and does not believe I was entertaining, bold, and believable, I will refund their money," he says.

Rice might be miffed to hear that he isn't the first theatre person to have come up with the refund idea. Over in Chicago, The Chicago Tribune's theatre critic, Chis Jones, published a story yesterday about the Collaboraction production of Migdalia Cruz's El Grito del Bronx at the Goodman Theatre. At the end of the opening night performance, Jones reports that cast member Eddie Torres went on stage and told the audience that "anyone who didn't feel like they had enjoyed the evening's show should now make their way to a table in the lobby, where they could pick up a refund for what they'd spent on their tickets."

Jones goes on to argue: "I hope the money-back guarantee dies a quick death, never to return. It's not that I'm opposed to money-back guarantees in general--I recently took Home Depot up on a similar offer. But a piece of art is not a light fixture. And I think that such a speech is beneath the dignity of a fine artist like Torres. It's a bit like watching an actor leap down from the stage and start clearing tables. Those in the audience know about economic realities, but it still makes us uncomfortable. We don't like to see those who bare their souls for an audience's edification and enjoyment have to stoop to such things."

I share Jones' indignation at the refund policy (to which nine audience members at The Goodman actually responded during the course of the run.) The money-back-guarantee schtick is cheap and gimmicky. No two ways about it. Theatre-makers who think that it will do something positive for audiences or their careers need to think again. Telling audiences they can have a refund shows either incredible hubris or a complete lack of confidence in one's abilities as an artist.

Art is a commodity to a degree. But it doesn't function in the same way as a light fixture in the marketplace. If a lightbulb doesn't turn on or off, or if it's cracked or broken, there's clearly something wrong with it. It's a black and white situation. But art can, generally-speaking, only be judged subjectively. Many great artists throughout history have seen their work boo'd by the public. If people like J S Bach or Oscar Wilde had operated under a money-back-guarantee, their lives would have been even more miserable.

August 13, 2009 9:09 AM | | Comments (1)
Gallery-Windows-NW5133.jpgExciting news for the Bay Area theatre community: Z Space, one of the area's most innovative developers and presenters of new plays, is moving to the 286-seat Theatre Artaud, a venerable old performance building in the Mission/Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. The signing of the 10-year lease on the building represents the first time that Z Space has had its own space.

Theatre Artaud hasn't been a permanent home for a company in quite a few years. Built as an American Can Company tooling factory in 1925, the shop provided jobs for San Francisco Mission District families through the 1960s. In 1971, a group of artists moved into the abandoned industrial building, naming it Project Artaud, for French avant-garde theater artist, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), who believed art should happen in non-traditional spaces. Today, there are more than 70 individual artists' live/work studios at Project Artaud, in addition to arts related nonprofits, small artist businesses, studio theaters and galleries.

With this move to a new base, Z Space plans to expand its offerings to San Francisco performing artists and audiences, and curate a multidisciplinary presenting program featuring theatre, dance, visual, and multimedia arts.

Z Space Executive Artistic Director Lisa Steindler will continue to oversee all of the organization's operations, and will also continue to develop and produce new work. Z Space Managing Director David Szlasa will take on a more active programming role, and will work closely with the artistic community to solicit proposals and curate the space.

On a personal note, I'm thrilled about the news. Theatre Artaud is one of my favorite places to see work. It has a spacious, airy feel to it, and is the sort of space that can easily be transformed to fit the needs of a wide variety of artworks including dance, concerts, straight plays, art exhibitions and multimedia work. Artaus is also very easily accessible public transport-wise and is within striking distance of a bunch of great restaurants, bars and cafes. I can't think of a better home for Z Space and I wish the company well as it embarks upon this new chapter of its life.
August 12, 2009 10:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Sometimes an artist's relationship with his or her company or group can last a lifetime or decades. Sometimes it barely lasts a season. I've been curious lately about what it is about a long-term, largely positive collaborative situation that makes an artist decide to move on when there's no obvious reason at stake -- such as a lack of funds or a falling out with a collaborator -- driving the decision.

I've been in many situations in my life as a musician where a longstanding collaboration with an orchestra, wind ensemble or choral group has gone from fueling me to feeling like a millstone around my neck. What's interesting is that the change happens so insidiously that it's often hard to tell what's happened to alter my feelings about being involved with the group and make me want to quit.

I can look back once a collaboration has turned sour and still remember the excitement I felt over several years about going to rehearsals, the satisfaction of playing, singing, dancing or acting well, the challenges of getting a tricky passage perfect, the fun of meeting other artists involved with the group and becoming friends with them, and the high of performing in their company.

And yet, like a relationship that's run its course, I've sometimes arrived at a point where I absolutely have to move on. I wouldn't necessarily go as far as to call this a product of "artistic differences" at least in the traditional sense of the term. Then again, I suppose what happens is that I get bored with the way that things are being done and start to feel antsy for a different approach, which in a sense is another way of saying that I have developed artistic differences with the group.

This has happened to me twice since I moved to the Bay Area nearly 10 years ago. The first was with an orchestra, which I loved playing with for years until I started to get fed up with the music director's slipshod approach to conducting and the fact that we played Beethoven's 9th Symphony year after year after year and still never seemed to improve!

The second instance happened more recently, this time with a vocal ensemble. Singing with this group has been such an important part of my life for the last few years, but lately I've become very unsatisfied with our work. The director misses rehearsals to go on vacation and pays very little attention to detail -- including major issues like how to pronounce words. He's gotten very lazy. The repertoire is wonderful but we are constantly under-rehearsed. And projects sometimes don't reach fruition -- a recording we put together over several very late nights a couple of years ago still hasn't been edited or turned into a CD. I managed to drag myself through the last set with little enthusiasm despite loving the music we performed. And now I know it's time to call it quits and find some other musical outlet(s) that will hopefully better suit my temperament.

What's all this about? Are my standards getting higher? Am I developing more rigor and proficiency as an artist? Or am I just turning into a cantankerous, old fart? Maybe it's just a question of boredom. Falling in love and falling out of love is something we all experience. But we generally think of it in terms of romantic relationships rather than relationships we develop artistically over the course of our lives.
August 11, 2009 10:21 AM | | Comments (0)
For some reason over the past two days, people have been randomly shoving CDs in my hands. Two of the recordings I received by San Francisco artists are wonderful which is why I need to tell you all about them.

The first is a self-titled album by Or, The Whale, a local folk rock band. A mixture of bittersweet ballads and careening torch-songs are melodic and catchy. The band uses a lot of banjo and mellow harmonies. Great stuff for a sunny afternoon drive through the countryside. Or, The Whale is about to embark on a west coast tour with stops in Oregon and Washington

The second is Obey Your Signal, the latest CD by Loop!Station, an electronic music-inspired voice and cello duo comprising of San Francisco musicians Robin Coomer (voice) and Sam Bass (cello). Many musicians are using loop pedals in ingenious ways these days to create polyphonic, multi-layered effects with barebones resources. Coomer and Bass approach their work in an eclectic way. Sometimes the sound is hard and punky with a Siouxie Sioux edge. Other times, it sounds like it's been inspired by Bach. The duo is playing at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco this Sunday. Absolutely not to be missed.
August 10, 2009 12:24 PM | | Comments (0)
I ended up having to retract my long-held-to aversion to Jack Nicholson last night following a screening of Easy Rider at San Francisco's Red Vic movie theatre. I have seen the film several times before. But it had been years since my last viewing. One of the best things about the film is Jack Nicholson's performance as a drunk and muddled momma's boy of a small-town lawyer. He brings such vitality and sweetness to the role. His death in the middle is the cruelest moment of the entire film.

I think, perhaps, that there was something inspired about Nicholson in his early years. Then he became typecast as a weirdo and his performances became increasingly one-dimensional. I couldn't get more than 20 minutes through About Schmidt. Jackson's approach to acting has become a caricature of itself of late. It was wonderful, through reacquainting myself with Easy Rider, to remind myself that he was once a great actor.
August 7, 2009 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
When it comes to developing close ties with audiences, few bands in the history of rock music have garnered a fan base as strident as the Grateful Dead.

"The standard musician-audience relationship doesn't exist in a Grateful Dead show," says longtime Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally, who will be speaking at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music this weekend after a performance of Dead Symphony no. 6, Lee Johnson's composition based on 10 of the Dead's songs.

Members of the band were very open to all sorts of musical styles and educated their fans to listen to long, spiraling improvisations that merged genres as diverse as rock, folk, blues, reggae, gospel, bluegrass, psychedelic rock, jazz and country. But serious fans -- the Deadheads -- have not always been so flexible. In fact, when it comes to other musicians interpreting the Dead's music or even appearing in concert alongside the band, the Deadheads can sometimes be puritanical.

David Gans, host of the nationally syndicated Grateful Dead Hour radio show who attended a performance of Dead Symphony no. 6 by the California Symphony earlier this year, said: "The audience was very nicely divided between Deadheads and regular California Symphony subscribers. The music director's intention was to bring these two audiences together. The Dead themselves and their audience members were known for being open-minded and trying new things. however, there is a certain kind of dogma in the Dead world - the fans are fiercely protective of the music as they understand it. They are hostile to irrelevant interpretations. Hence, the people who didn't want to hear about Johnson's symphony didn't show up to the concert."

Read my LA Times story about the symphony here. This blog post can also be found on the LA Times' website, here.
August 6, 2009 9:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Performing arts organizations are becoming increasingly canny about leveraging new technology to create more inclusive, participatory experiences for their constituencies. The YouTube Symphony and San Francisco Symphony's Social Network are two recent examples of this trend. Now San Francisco Opera and the local commercial classical music radio station in the Bay Area, KDFC 102.1 FM are partnering on a quirky initiative to generate buzz around the upcoming Opera in the Ballpark performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore.

The collaboration centers on a public singing competition. Contestants are invited to audition via video submission for a chance to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" live at the ballpark during San Francisco Opera's September 19 simulcast of Il Trovatore. KDFC listeners will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite entries online to select three finalists. The panel of judges--San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley and Music Director Nicola Luisotti, as well as KDFC Program Director Bill Leuth--will review the finalists and select a winner to perform the national anthem a cappella in front of tens of thousands of opera fans gathered at the ballpark to experience SF Opera's production.

I asked Lueth about the impetus behind this intriguing idea: "It was inspired by our Classical Star Search contest this past spring where listeners submitted video performances, and other listeners helped pick who was the best," says Lueth. "The opera folks and KDFC agreed that a kickoff of something big at a ballpark feels like it needs a Star-Spangled Banner performed live there. We know we have tons of talented listeners, so we're going to show them off and have some fun."

Here's some more information about entering the competition for all you songbirds out there:

Video submissions should consist of one person singing their own a cappella rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and should be uploaded at Singers of any age, including both professionals and amateurs, are welcome. Submissions will be accepted the weeks of August 10 and August 17, and listener voting will begin the week of August 24. The three finalists will be posted on KDFC's website the week of August 31, and the panel of judges will determine the winner in time for KDFC radio personality Hoyt Smith to announce the winner on the September 8 KDFC Morning show. The winner of the "KDFC Star-Spangled Sing-Off" will perform live at AT&T Park on September 19 prior to San Francisco Opera's Webcor Presents Opera at the Ballpark. For complete rules and information, visit
August 5, 2009 9:36 AM | | Comments (0)
August usually presents a bit of a lull in the local performing arts scene as companies ramp up for their Fall seasons. But the ramp up this year is far from quiet. Here are a few upcoming theatre happenings that I'm excited about:

1. Samuel Beckett's Happy Days at California Shakespeare Theater (Aug 15-Sep 6). Marsha Mason was scheduled to play Winnie in Jonathan Moscone's production. She suddenly dropped out halfway through rehearsals a couple of weeks ago citing "personal reasons." No matter. Patty Gallagher will doubtless do the role proud, and so will Joan Mankin, who'll be stepping in at select performances.

2. San Francisco Fringe Festival (Sep 9 - 20). Always a treat. You never know what you're going to get.

3. Green Day's American Idiot at Berkeley Repertory Theater (Sep 4 - Oct 11). A highly anticipated rock musical based on the band's best-selling 2004 album. The box office over on Addison Street probably resembles a mosh pit at this point.

4. Noel Coward's Brief Encounter at the American Conservatory Theater (Sep 16 - Oct 4). The vivacious Kneehigh Theatre Company from England brings its unusual retelling of Coward's classic to San Francisco. Can't wait.

5. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Boom at Marin Theatre Company (Nov 17 - Dec 6). OK, so I'm cheating. This production of an apocalyptic play about human reproduction at the end of time by a brilliant local playwright isn't happening until just before Christmas. But it's worth sticking in the date book anyway.
August 4, 2009 9:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Sometimes you just have to say "it is what it is."

This is what I told myself as I exited Club Fugazi in North Beach on Saturday night after having sat through Beach Blanket Babylon for the first time. The San Francisco theatrical institution -- a sort of kitsch-topical cabaret involving covers of famous rock tunes, cartoonish impersonations of famous people and huge, splendiferously-adorned hats, has been going for 35 years. There have been runs in London and Las Vegas. The San Francisco iteration of the show plays to packed houses twice a night most nights a week.

I have to admit that I'm baffled by the longevity and popularity of the show. I have nothing but admiration for the performers, who put so much energy and commitment into telling hackneyed jokes on such well-worn topics as the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and spoofing Elvis. They're a talented and highly professional lot. And the costumes and hats are certainly eye-catching. This is especially the case in the grand finale, when the show's diva, Val Diamond, comes on wearing a hat festooned with San Francisco landmarks (including a working cable car which actually chuffs its way past a model of the famous Painted Lady Victorian houses) that takes up almost half the length of the stage.

But, my God, the show is full of mind-numbing, lowest-common-denominator stuff. I had some fun and it's not as if the show's founder, Steve Silver, set out to create high art. He simply wanted to entertain people. But not all entertainments are that entertaining. I was so ready to leave after about 45 minutes.

By the rivers of Beach Blanket Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered how short life is to be wasting one's Saturday evening watching people dressed like lampshades imitating Barbra Streisand, John McCain and Oprah.
August 3, 2009 10:18 AM | | Comments (1)

Me Elsewhere


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This page is a archive of recent entries written by lies like truth in August 2009.

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