lies like truth: February 2010 Archives

will call.jpegYou know how sometimes you look at a once-familiar word, phrase or sentence and it suddenly seems incomprehensible, like it's written in Swahili or Urdu?

That happened to me a couple of nights ago as I was on the plane back from New York staring dumbly at the screen of a passenger seated a couple of rows ahead of me. My neighbor was watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm on the in-flight TV service and Larry David was gesticulating in his usual over-the-top fashion at some other guy in front of a theater box office.

All of a sudden, the words "Will Call" came floating into view. Being a frequenter of box offices on an almost daily basis myself, I never pay much attention to these two small words. But seeing them on screen the other day gave me pause for thought. What on earth does "will call" actually mean? And where does the phrase come from? It makes very little sense to me in the context of a box office. A sentence like "I will call you tomorrow" uses the words in a normal way. If anyone out there can shed light on the etymology behind this phrase, I'd love to hear from you.

PS More travels ahead: Lies Like Truth is going on hiatus for ten days or so. I will be blogging again from March 9.
February 26, 2010 8:43 AM | | Comments (2)
kalw.jpegKALW 91.7 FM, the small, scrappy and innovative public radio station which broadcasts my weekly radio show about the art of singing, VoiceBox, is doing really well in terms of listener numbers. I was gladdened to find out that the station, which is tiny and run on a shoestring, came in fourth on the Public Radio Player's list of live radio streams which are accessed most by listeners.

At the top was WBUR (Boston), second was WBEZ (Chicago), KCRW Music (Los Angeles) came in fourth, followed by KALW (San Francisco). KQED, the much bigger and shinier local NPR affiliate here in the Bay Area, came in a distant 17th.

Read more here.
February 25, 2010 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)
new york.jpegHere's a very quick roundup of some stuff I experienced on my trip to New York over the past few days:

1. Pinball machine exhibition at San Francisco International Airport: I should pay more attention to the exhibitions in the international concourse at the airport. The show on pinball machines at the moment is not only gorgeous to look at thanks to all that chrome and all of those flashing lights, but is also very informative. I might have to visit a pinball convention one of these days. San Francisco appears to be one of the last remaining bastions of interest in these lovely old machines.

2. Fela: I caught the much-talked-about Broadway musical about the Nigerian Afro-jazz musician and activist Fela Kuti as soon as I got into town on Friday night. Although I didn't learn a great deal about the artist's life beyond what I already knew (the musical really only goes into the Wikipedia version of Fela's history and legacy) I appreciated my $27.00 standing place for two reasons: 1) after five hours on a plane it was great to be on my feet, and 2) you can dance so much better from the back of the orchestra than you can from an actual seat. My fellow standers and myself rocked out for two and half hours to the great on-stage band.

3. Iannis Xenakis exhibition at the Drawing Center: Most people know the Greek composer/architect Xenakis for his music, but people often forget that he was an accomplished architect who worked for Le Corbusier for many years. The exhibition made the connection between draftsmanship and music in Xenakis' work and I left all the more informed and entranced for it. I appreciated the iPod I was given at the front desk which enabled me to listen to music by the composer as I looked at his visual work which ranged from oblique scratches on graph paper, to carefully executed plans for sound installations to music manuscript.

4. Radiohole's Whatever Heaven Allows at P.S. 122: I was completely flummoxed by this show by the downtown New York experimental performance bastion. There were just too many in-jokes and the whole thing smacked of self-indulgence. Though there were a few memorable moments, such as when the cast members threw shotglassfuls of what appeared to be Kahlua in their own faces.

5. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch: Douglas Carter Beane's new play about a couple of yuppie middle aged newspaper gossip columnists starring John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle is utterly insufferable. Both Ben Brantley agrees with me so there's no point wasting any more time and space explaining why it's probably among the worst ten plays I've ever sat through in my life. The only mystery is why I bothered seeing it through to the end.

6. A Behanding in Spokane: Martin McDonagh's new play is less multifaceted than any of his previous efforts. The publicity office is making a big deal about the fact that this is the dramatist's first play set in America. But there's nothing intrinsically American about it. It could just as easily (in fact probably more easily given McDonagh's lack of an ear for the American idiom) have been set in Dublin or LondoBut even bad McDonagh is better than the best efforts of most other dramatists. So I quite enjoyed myself in the company of Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan anyway.

7. Run through of Hoi Polloi's upcoming Three Pianos at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre: A friend and musician, Dave Malloy, sweetly invited me to pop in on a run-through of his upcoming show based on Schubert's Winterreise song cycle. I didn't get to see the whole thing owing to stops and starts. But the concept, which uses Schubert's lovelorn wintery musical scenes as a backdrop for describing the three musician-actors' modern malaise is promising. I particularly like the way in which the three pianos interact musically and verbally on stage. I wish I was in town to see the final product, which runs from February 25 - March 20.

8. Regret of the trip: Not staying an extra day for the opening of the Whitney Biennial.
February 24, 2010 9:42 AM | | Comments (0)
white.jpegIt's a common assumption that if you're a truly great singer, you can sing most anything. But this assumption of course is false. There are amazing lyrical tenors who can't do Wagner. And incredible jazz singers who can't sing folk music. For many experts, fach is everything and knowing your parameters as a vocalist is the best way to become excellent.

In the world of choral singing, however, some groups have earned a reputation for being able to sing in practically any style. The King's Singers is one such group.

But at last night's concert at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, the six-song, all male, a cappella showed that some musical styles may not fit them as well as others. The group breezed beautifully through a bunch of Italian and English madrigals by Schutz, Monteverdi, Weelkes and Bennet, and brought lushness and warmth to a performance of Saint-Saens' Saltarelle.

But the King's Singers' performance of Berkeley composer Gabriela Lena Frank's Tres Mitros de Mi Tierra (a commissioned world premiere) reminded me of hearing the Trinity College Choir from Cambridge, England, attempting gospel music at a concert at Grace Cathedral last summer. They just sounded stiff and "trained" -- they couldn't get under the skin of the music at all.

The same thing happened to the King's Singers at last night's concert: No matter how much accuracy and dexterity the vocalists brought to Frank's rhythmically complex, mystical three-movement piece about three mythical Peruvian characters, they just couldn't quite get into the swing of it. I guess these particular Brits (or maybe Anglo-Saxons in general?) are just too buttoned up to really communicate this ethnic kind of music. The piece, which offsets beautiful, delicate moments with a strident Latino pulse felt mostly quite stiff and formal.

I wonder if it would have sounded more supple if sung by a group more comfortable with Latino and/or folk idioms?

PS lies like truth is going on hiatus for a few days owing to travel plans. Look out for a new post next Wednesday.
February 18, 2010 8:55 AM | | Comments (1)
dan_hoyle_real_americans_2010.jpgWhat's it like to feel like an outsider in your own country? I think a lot of people living here in the so-called "Republic of California" feel like this when they read about pro-life groups gaining headway in the mid-west or the outlawing of the teaching of the Big Bang Theory in southern schools.

Not that the Bay Area way of life, with its yuppie brunches and hipsters fretting over whether their Thanksgiving turkey went to art school before it was humanely put to sleep, is necessarily preferable, mind you.

It is this duality that underpins solo theater artist and writer Dan Hoyle's new show, The Real Americans, currently playing at The Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.

Put off by the hipster brunch crowd, the artist leaves the Bay Area bubble and sets off into the hinterlands in his van to find out what middle America is really like in the hopes of finding something that goes beyond the aforementioned cliches. Sadly for Hoyle -- and for his audiences -- he comes back to the Bay with his stereotypes mostly confirmed.

The show entertains us with its vivid characterizations of various hayseed and christian conservative types. But it ends up confirming typically San Franciscan liberal views about the rest of the country rather than providing any truly new insights into what it means to be a "real American" or if such a thing even exists today.

PS On the subject of national identity and belonging versus feeling like a stranger in your own land, the Akram Kahn dance company is coming to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this weekend with "Bahok", the group's acclaimed 2008 work which explores similar issues to Hoyle's show. Taking its title from the Bengali word "carrier", the piece mixes Chinese folk dance and Kathak influences with western contemporary and classical ballet techniques. It might be interesting to compare and contrast Hoyle's and Kahn's approaches to the subject of patrimony.
February 17, 2010 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)
kings.jpegThe fabulous British all-male a cappella vocal ensemble The King's Singers is in town for one concert tomorrow night, Wednesday 17 February, at The Herbst Theatre under the auspices of SF Performances. I caught up with one of the members, countertenor David Hurley, via skype, for a quick chat...

Chloe Veltman: Hello David.

David Hurley: Hello Chloe.

Chloe Veltman: How are you doing?

David Hurley: Fine thanks.

Chloe Veltman: Did you know that someone's just hacked into the King's Singers website?

David Hurley: Again!

Chloe Veltman: You mean it's happened before?! "Hacked By D3xeR" is the message I'm getting.

David Hurley: It happened last Sunday as well.

Chloe Veltman: There can't be many choral ensembles that get targeted by hackers.

David Hurley: Not the greatest accolade, I think.

Chloe Veltman: I guess it's sort of flattering isn't it?

David Hurley: Maybe!!

Chloe Veltman: Is last sunday the only time this happened before?

David Hurley: Yes - twice in 10 days.

Chloe Veltman: Blimey.

David Hurley: Last time it was sorted quickly, but the hackers obviously weren't satisfied that it was mended so soon.

Chloe Veltman: Now they want revenge. You'll have to up the ante. Hopefully it won't happen again and you'll beat them at their game.

Chloe Veltman: So - on to the music...

David Hurley: Yes!

Chloe Veltman: The last time you came this way was, what, two to three years ago, right? What's happened to the group since then in terms of repertoire, membership and anything else music-related I should know about?

David Hurley: We have a new member - Timothy Wayne Wright - my fellow countertenor. We have many new discs. A grammy!!!!

Chloe Veltman: Congratulations. What do you like best about performing on the west coast?Or is it no different to performing elsewhere?

David Hurley: The weather, the food, the audience. SF Performances is a great presenter as well.

Chloe Veltman: What is it about the audience that you find so engaging?

David Hurley: In SF they understand a cappella - of course Chanticleer is the local star group.

Chloe Veltman: Speaking of Chanticleer, I hear that most if not all of the ensemble is going to be at the Herbst Theatre tomorrow evening to see you in action.

David Hurley: That's great, if rather daunting. They are good friends, and great colleagues.

Chloe Veltman: Do you see the King's Singers ever collaborating with Chanticleer?

David Hurley: We would be outnumbered! But it would be a great sound, I think.

Chloe Veltman: Your sound and approach is completely different to that of Chanticleer - you could do some cool polyphonic stuff as a combined force.

David Hurley: That would be good for us - we are limited to 6 voices live, but in the studio.....

Chloe Veltman: Why are you limited to 6 voices live? Is it a contractual / branding thing that wouldn't permit such a collaboration on stage?

David Hurley: The King's Singers is just the six singers - we are happy to do collaborations. Generally they have been with instruments rather than singers, but we are open to anything.

Chloe Veltman: So maybe we will get to hear both groups performing together at some point in the future then...?

David Hurley: Maybe.

Chloe Veltman: The two groups - King's Singers and Chanticleer - have quite a bit in common despite the difference in size and sound, I think. One thing that springs to mind is your combined interest in commissioning new work. Please can you tell me about the piece you're doing by Gabriela Lena Frank, who has also written for Chanticleer?

David Hurley: This is a wonderful new piece - Tres Mitos de mi Tierra - inspired by the culture of Andean Peru. It is a portrait of three men: a traveller, a painter and a serenader.

Chloe Veltman: Frank's piece sounds intriguing - what kind of challenges does it present to the group?

David Hurley: Rhythm is the main difficulty, but the effect is amazing.

Chloe Veltman: What kinds of rhythmic challenges are there?

David Hurley: Fast passages with rather spiky parts that fit together (hopefully!)

Chloe Veltman: Is the piece sung in Spanish?

David Hurley: It is in English, but with Spanish and Quecha words. We asked for that - Gabi's idea was to give the piece the feel of Spanish language poetry that non-spanish speakers would understand. She wrote the lyrics herself.

Chloe Veltman: What did the composer think of it when she heard the piece in Nashville over the weekend?

David Hurley: She seemed very pleased - she really got us into the feel of it.

Chloe Veltman: What do you look for when you're searching for composers with whom to collaborate?

David Hurley: Someone with an understanding of singers, and especially ensemble singers.

Chloe Veltman: What else is on tonight's program?

David Hurley: Some great English and Italian madrigals - Monteverdi, Gesulado, Weelkes. Plus a wonderful piece by Saint Saens - Saltarelle - and close harmony, of course!

Chloe Veltman: Are your programs always this diverse?

David Hurley: Normally, yes, unless there is a specific theme.

Chloe Veltman: Will you have time to do anything else while in the Bay Area, or are you just in and out for this concert?

David Hurley: I think we are in town for 20 hours - way too short.

Chloe Veltman: Way too short indeed. Time is of the essence so i'll let you loose. Thanks so much for skyping with me, David. I'm looking forward to the concert.

David Hurley: It's been a pleasure. 
February 16, 2010 12:56 PM | | Comments (0)
city hall.jpegArts events aren't a common occurrence at City Hall in San Francisco. But they should be.

Hundreds of people flocked to the venerable old building on Friday at noon to witness a jubilant Love Everywhere, a new dance-theatre production by local choreographer Erica Chong Shuch.

The piece commemorated the sixth anniversary of the weekend when San Francisco city officials began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Given the current political turmoil surrounding this subject, the event, which was free to the public, couldn't have been more timely. Though conceived in a celebratory mood with a klezmer dance party at the end, a sense of solemnity still hung over the piece.

I've seen Shuch, a prodigiously talented choreographer, do much better work from a purely artistic standpoint -- the choreography, which evoked simple old fashioned dance steps such as the waltz and tango, was predictable and crowd-pleasing and the messaging about happy same-sex couples was heavy-handed.

But there was such an infectious energy to the piece, with its 49-strong cast, 13-piece live band and two singers, and Shuch used the marble-lined enclaves of city hall so inventively, with groups of performers spread all around the space, that Love Everywhere ended up being a galvanizing event nontheless. At the end of the day, Shuch's brilliant was to bring so many people together under the cupola at City Hall rather than create a breathtaking work of art. And there's definitely artistry in that. I felt mobilized by the time I left.
February 15, 2010 9:58 AM | | Comments (0)
loretta.jpegAt what point in an arts organization's growth does it need to have more than one person at the top? I ask this question in light of the departure of the Magic Theatre's Managing Director, Scott Hawkins. According to an article in The San Francisco Chronicle, Hawkins decided to eliminate his own position:

"Reached by phone, Hawkins said that in his efforts to help restructure the company to cope with its financially straitened circumstances, "after analyzing the budget in December I decided we could no longer afford a managing director's salary. The standard two-headed model at American theaters no longer fit here, and I didn't see the opportunity to rebuild the budget to the point where we could justify that position."...Having a "single person in charge of both the business and artistic sides is not an uncommon structure for organizations of a certain size," Hawkins adds. "The Magic is now that size.""

I wonder how the venerable producer of new plays will cope with only one person to run it? The stress on the Magic's artistic director, Loretta Greco (pictured), must be enormous, even if the company has scaled back operations dramatically over the last couple of years by taking such measures as shuttering one of its two spaces.

I also wonder whether under one leader and a reduced budget, the Magic can even be considered as a "mid-size company" anymore. What does Hawkins mean by "of a certain size"? He uses the same terminology that people use to hide the age of a person in decline. I really hope that his words don't spell the end of one of the very few remaining mid-size theaters in the area.
February 12, 2010 9:41 AM | | Comments (0)
itunes.jpegUnlike many people who write about music, I keep all of my audio collection on my laptop computer, a MacBook air. The main advantages of doing this are that I have my entire music collection at my fingertips wherever I go, and I save a lot of shelf space that would otherwise be taken up with CDs gathering dust. I also love buying music online - it's so quick and easy - and these days, you can find a surprising amount of unusual stuff via digital download. 

But in truth, maintaining a digital music cache isn't ideal in many ways. Here is a list of some of the main issues I have with my current system:

1. Manual data entry: Many of the CDs that people send me which I  then transfer to my computer's iTunes application don't import their track information automatically. This means I spend many painstaking hours manually entering the names of titles, artists, albums and genres.

2. Limited access to liner notes: Some CDs bought on iTunes come with a downloadable album booklet, but this is the exception rather than the rule. So most of my musical collection is devoid of lyrics and useful background information about the artists and the works on the recordings.

3. Browsing difficulties: The "cover flow" setting in iTunes allows you to "flick" through album covers as you might browse through a CD or vinyl collection on a shelf. But it's not quite the same because so many of the recordings I own aren't commercial recordings, so they show up on the screen as blank squares with no titles or cover art.

4. Incomplete track importing: Sometimes when I try to transfer a CD to my laptop music library, not all the tracks from the CD transfer successfully to the digital format. I end up with a partial album.

5. Backup challenges: I have so much music that my current backup drive can't handle all of the files. I need to find another solution quickly.

The convenience and space saving qualities of buying and maintaining my music via iTunes means that I'm willing to put up with these less-than-optimal conditions. I'm hoping that in time I'll be able to iron out the kinks.
February 11, 2010 10:08 AM | | Comments (1)
kiera.jpegAmerican soprano Kiera Duffy is a rising star of the opera and concert stage. Since being a finalist in the 2007 Met National Council Auditions -- and as such was featured in Susan Froemke's documentary about the major opera competition, The Audition -- she has gone on to great things. In 2008, she won a Sullivan Foundation grant and has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as at Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall. Kiera took some time out of her busy schedule to pen her thoughts for lies like truth about The Audition's impact on her career...

The 2007 Metropolitan National Council Competition was an enchanting, nerve-wracking and surreal experience, to say the least. Never could I have predicted that a little audition I did on the east side of Manhattan (for which I arrived late and completely flustered--thank you, Madison Avenue traffic) would eventually lead me to sing on the Metropolitan Opera stage with the Met Orchestra on one of the most famous sets in operatic history. I think it's safe to say that this experience would be one of the more overwhelming and incredible moments in any aspiring opera singer's life, but to relive that whole experience while watching a 20-foot version of yourself on a jumbo movie screen? Well, that's just weird.

Working in an industry that is mainly focused on live theater, I've been really taken aback by the power of film and its ability to reach such a vast audience. Since the release of the documentary on national PBS stations this past January, I've been overwhelmed by the response to The Audition. I seem to get at least a handful of new Facebook friend requests every day, not to mention the emails and wall postings and messages on my website from people around the country who were impacted by it. To hear what viewers have had to say after they've watched the movie has been fascinating: "I never realized what it took to be an opera singer!" "I never saw an opera before, but now I want to go to one!" "I'm simply blown away by all of the talent!" I have to admit that I've also gotten quite a bit of: "I was sure you were going to win." Or the slightly more authoritative: "You should have won!" Or, ahem, my father's personal favorite: "You got robbed." Of course, I am touched that people enjoyed my performance, and hey, maybe I could have used some of them at the judges' table, but For. The. Record. I'm actually not sure I should have won, and I definitely don't think I got robbed. Dad.

If I may say this without sounding self-congratulatory, I personally think that the 2007 National Council semi-finalists and finalists were particularly extraordinary, and well yeah, it was "just an honor to be nominated..." (Sorry, but it's Hollywood awards season and I just got back from LA.) Moreover, at the risk of sounding trite, I was not so interested in winning the competition. Though it would have been great, I had a bigger battle to fight, aka performance anxiety.

My nerves are my demons. Always have been. Twice I nearly quit because of them. They're irrational, they're intense, and they're very real. So when I found out that I made it to the semi-finals of the National Council Auditions, I knew I had to make a pact with myself: I was going to do whatever it took to find the mental focus necessary to sing on the Met stage fully present and fully engaged. And I am very proud to say that, after two months of some pretty intense soul searching and mental work, I did that, both in the semis and the finals. So, the emotion that you see when I walk off the stage after the finals performance, while naturally fueled by the incredible adrenaline rush that comes with singing on the Met stage for the first time, was in many ways more due to the fact that I had, at least for those two weeks, conquered my demons. Big money or no big money, I had won the prize.

Since then, life has been a wonderful whirlwind. I made my European debut this past fall at the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland, which was a blast. And since I'm a Duffy, well, you know...Actually, I am hoping to do more opera work in Europe, as the generally smaller-sized opera houses (as compared to the major houses in the States) are better suited to my voice. To that end, I'm planning a pretty extensive European audition tour this spring.

I am also very lucky to enjoy an extremely fulfilling concert career. I made my debut with the New York Philharmonic last September, which was in many ways akin to my Met experience in its surrealness and in its oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-I'm-singing-here-ness. I was singing a piece by Pierre Boulez under the baton of Lorin Maazel. A few months later I debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and just returned there to sing my first ever Pierrot Lunaire--a favorite piece of mine, despite (or maybe because of) its obvious complexities. I am making my debut with the Atlanta Symphony next week singing Mozart with Roberto Abbado and I join the San Francisco Symphony for the first time next fall singing Messiah.

Incidentally, if you're familiar with the repertoire of people like Boulez and Schoenberg, you might have inferred that I have a particular affinity for 20th century music (aka the hard slash weird stuff), which I in fact do, and which leads me to address a sort of interesting post-The Audition issue that's come up. The arias that I sang in the Met Finals ("Caro nome" and "Tornami a vagheggiar"), while I love them both, are not necessarily indicative of the kind of singer I perceive myself to be (or at least am striving to be). What I mean to say is that the fact that I sang two Italian arias in the finals was sort of anomalous when you compare it to the rest of my career. I don't have what is thought of as a particularly "Italianate voice."

German is my thing. The simplest way I know how to explain this is to say that my voice has a sort of silvery, at times steely, quality that is served well by the sort of silvery, steely quality inherent in the German language. These qualities are also really useful in more modern, avant-garde music, as well as repertoire in English (itself being a Teutonic language), which are also a large part of my repertoire. One thing I've run into within 'the biz' is that based on the Met auditions (and kind of perpetuated by the movie), many music professionals' impressions of me were that of a sort of cute, ingénue type, who sings pretty Italian arias. In reality, though, I'm kind of the anti-ingénue (I mean, the name, Kiera, actually means "little dark one" afterall). Don't get me wrong, I love the war-horses, I do...even the Italian ones (wink). But I am also seduced by a sort of edgier, darker, oft-times German, and not traditionally tonal type of music. So in a business that is increasingly about finding one's niche, I've had to do a little bit of damage control to be sure that, based on the Met finals, I'm not perceived as just another sort of generic light soprano.

All this aside, the fact is I know I have a pretty great life right now. Yes, there are challenges; there are sacrifices (hard to have a love life when you travel as much as I do...just sayin'); there's a lot of singing-business-minutia to navigate through. But the thing is, despite all that I love what I do. Perhaps it's a bit grandiose of me, but if there is such a concept as a soul, mine begins and ends with music. And that's a very good thing.
February 10, 2010 9:39 AM | | Comments (2)
felonious.jpgIt's official: Monday is the new Saturday and last night's escapades in San Francisco are proof of this fact.

The evening kicked off with some delicious Brazilian food and then a concert at the Conservatory of Music dedicated to celebrating the new official "sister school" link between the San Francisco Conservatory and The Shanghai Conservatory.

The concert itself was, to be honest, a bit of a yawnfest. Besides a luminous rendition of Jake Heggie's schmaltzy but gorgeous song "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" by mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, cellist Emil Miland and Pianist Mack McCray, the event  proceeded in a very monotonous mood. The compositions that made up most of the program - by faculty and students of the Shanghai Conservatory - were all incredibly samey. It seems that the Shanghai Conservatory has a very particular view of how a piece of chamber music should be written. The style can be distilled down to monochrome textures in meandering roughly atonal keys with occasional non-commital flutterings from wind and string instruments and a bit of pitch-bending. Melody was completely absent and there was very little rhythmic drive to any of the pieces on the program.

What a striking (and welcome) contrast it was, then, to head off in the Monday evening drizzle to a nearby venue located under the 101 freeway exit to experience "Live City Revue", a club night at The Coda Lounge run by local hip-hop mavericks Felonious. The event, which started a few weeks ago and happens every Monday night, featured some of the most uplifting and core-rumbling music I've heard live in a while.

Over a couple of hours, I heard Felonious performing several beatbox-infused, intelligent-worded, spiraling numbers, the sounds of a burgeoning beatboxer, Cornbread, a completely enrapturing cover of the John Legend / Andre 3000 R&B hit "Green Light" performed by beatboxer/MC Carlos Aguirre and Joshua Torrez (the star of The Magic Theatre's current production of Oedipus el Rey and a wonderful guitarist/vocalist -- his falsetto left me swooning) and an amazing set by a Frencophile African band whose members played guitar, cora and marimba and sang. The jam session between the band and Felonious was the highlight of the evening. Hip-hop, jazz, folk and African sounds merged effortlessly as the musicians got more and more into the zone of their playing.

I left the Coda Lounge on a vast high. It was of the best Monday nights in memory. What I live city I live in.
February 9, 2010 10:25 AM | | Comments (0)
anniversary.jpegWhy are arts organizations so obsessed with anniversaries? Every day it seems, some museum, presenter, dance troupe, alternative arts space or theater company is celebrating a milestone birthday, be it 25, 50 or 75 years with a retrospective or special series of events of somesuch. But to what extent are anniversaries really worth observing from an artistic perspective? Or are they merely crutches for programming, pegs to attract media coverage or excuses for amping up fundraising efforts?

In a sense, an anniversary is definitely something to make a fuss about, especially in this country. Arts organizations often have to weather extreme hardship from a financial perspective every few years and face competition from the endless new forms of entertainment that can have the effect of distracting audiences. There's little about the current cultural climate that favors longevity, so to make it through even five years without going under deserves some form of recognition.

But all too often it seems to me that anniversaries and the hooplah that organizations make around them are artificial constructs. Is it enough that an organization is turning 30 to merit an exhibition of photographs covering its years of existence? Why should we all be as excited that a museum is turning 75 as the museum is itself?

Some organizations, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, seem to have put a lot of thought into their anniversaries. The museum is at least as concerned with looking backwards through its history as it is in thinking about the next 75 years of its future. The anniversary tagline "75 years of looking forward" is well met by balancing exhibitions that highlight the organization's legacy eg "The Anniversary Show" with activities like commissioning local artists from a variety of different disciplines to create audio tour material.

But not all organizations come up with anniversary celebrations that are as well-thought-out. Perhaps it's time for arts institutions to move beyond marking time, either by finding more organic ways of celebrating key milestones rather than bland "let's raid the attic"-style retrospectives. I love an excuse for a party as much as the next culture fan. But really there's nothing wrong with letting a jubilee pass quietly by once in a while without a fanfare.
February 8, 2010 11:16 AM | | Comments (0)
sappho.jpegThe world is full of madcap ideas that don't come to fruition. But thankfully there's always a place to talk about them, even if they end up not getting realized.

Here's a concept for an art installation which I came up with to accompany The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra's upcoming concert next Thursday of works by Paul Dresher (Cornucopia), Esa-Pekka Salonen (Five Images After Sappho) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 3, "Eroica").

The orchestra's music director, Joana Carneiro, asked me to think of a way to help contextualize Salonen's work for audiences. The idea turned out to be far too ambitious to realize in the limited amount of time we had. But, hey, a girl's gotta dream.

Concept for an installation to accompany Esa-Pekka Salonen's Five Images After Sappho by Chloe Veltman:

Historical Background:

The idea for the installation stems from an account in Margaret Reynolds book The Sappho Companion of an excavation that took place in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. The findings greatly changed our level of understanding of Sappho. Reynold's account describes an archaeological dig by British scholars Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt who set out for Egypt in 1895 in the wake of news that Egyptian farmers had turned up pieces of papyrus as they ploughed new fields. Reynolds writes:

"They settled on a site at a small town about 120 miles south of Cairo, Oxyrhynchus (now called Bahnasa). On the outskirts of the town was a group of low mounds. Almost as soon as they began to dig, Grenfell and Hunt realized that it was the huge rubbish dump of a once-thriving town dating from the period of Hellenistic Egypt. The rubbish had been thrown out in about the 5th century AD, but quite a lot of it was much older, often dating the from the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD."

Among the scraps was a tiny fragment of dating to the 3rd century AD -- a copy of Sappho's poem, then previously unknown, named "To the Nereids". Gradually, more Sappho Fragments showed up in the rubbish pile, scraps of which had been shipped back to Oxford by Grenfell and Hunt in biscuit tins. 213 Fragments have surfaced from the dig to date.

Musical Background:

Fragmentation is one of the central ideas in Salonen's Five Images After Sappho. In the program notes for the 1999 world premiere of his work, the composer wrote:

"If we imagine the history of art as some kind of Darwinian survival game, Sappho stands out as a genetic miracle. No (almost no) whole organism (poem) has survived; instead we have a couple of dozen pages' worth of fragments. Some of them are almost complete little poems, most of them are isolated groups of words or single words far apart. 

Almost every generation of poets has tried to translate these scattered messages from a woman of whom we know very little. As always, interpretation tells more about the interpreter, and his time and culture, than the work itself...It is the fragmentary nature of the material, and therefore an almost open form, that makes Sappho so fascinating to set to music.

Using tiny fragments of Sappho's poetry, Salonen captures the multi-faceted, interpretatively-open nature of Sappho's legacy. In the Images, we come to understand the poet as boasting many identities - wife, lover, mother, sage, debutante, poet, suicide, heretic, devotee...

The Installation:

The installation seeks to bring together these historical and musical components of Sappho's legacy by marrying a visual representation of Grenfell and Hunt's rubbish heap with writings, images and sound/music excerpts from the cannon of artistic works inspired by Sappho.

The Experience:

A huge rubbish pile made of tiny scraps of papyrus* will greet concertgoers when they enter the lobby of Zellerbach Hall for the concert. The bigger the heap, the more awe-inspiring. Each bit of visible papyrus will have text on it e.g. lines of Sappho's poetry, lines from poems/plays/novels/non-fiction works etc. by other poets through the ages inspired by Sappho. Visual depictions of Sappho by artists through the ages (paintings, etchings etc) will also be added to the pile. Some of these texts and images will look like they're flying from / falling off the pile, by being suspended from wires above and to the side of the heap. A soundscape of musical and poetic works inspired by Sappho as well as voicings of translations of Sappho's poetry will be piped through speakers into the lobby to add to the atmosphere. The cumulative effect should be one of infinite interpretation and fragmentation.

In addition, a papyrus scrap bearing a small piece of Sappho's poetry could be included inside every concertgoer's program.

*The papyrus pieces can be made from bits of tea-stained white sheeting. Foam, papier-mache or some other lightweight, bulky material can be used to make the base of the sculpture.
February 5, 2010 11:05 AM | | Comments (0)
OedipusSquareSmall1.jpgDo classic plays always lend themselves to adaptation into different cultural idioms? What makes a certain story resonate in particular with a particular setting? Luis Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey, currently receiving its world premiere production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in a production directed by Loretta Greco, made me ponder these questions.

After about ten minutes of sitting their with a slightly furrowed brow as I watched a bunch of tough-looking guys doing the cliched prison inmate posturing thing, I found myself completely immersed in Alfaro's transposition of the great Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex into a contemporary Latino barrio landscape. The ensemble cast moved with lightness around the bare stage. They acted the scenes like they meant them without resorting to histrionics more than on a couple of occasions. The text snapped along with its musical combination of English and Spanish (though I could have done with a little less of the "madre dios"-style sturm-and-drang exclamations.) The emptiness of the set reflected the blindness of Tiresias and eventually Oedipus himself, while the bold use of naked lightbulbs throughout the taut one and a half hour long, intermissionless drama suggested the light within. All in all I think The Magic gives us a well-thought-out production of a compellingly adapted narrative.

Yet there's nothing intrinsic about the Oedipus story that lends itself to adaptation into the Latin idiom really. To say that "the narrative works because Latino culture is passionate and tragic and therefore lends itself to this kind of overwrought soap opera of a story" is to make a superficial generalization. And yet the translation succeeds with the same amount of drive and vigor as Sondheim-Laurents-Bernstein's adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to 1950s barrio New York.

In less capable hands, I suppose Oedipus el Rey would probably make me cringe. The commitment and talent of the production team is responsible for the work's ability to communicate. I don't suppose the play would stand on its own as powerfully as something like Westside Story,though. The barrio does not always great theatre make. Campo Santo's adaptation of Hamletinto a contemporary barrio setting in Oakland a few years ago at Intersection for the Arts left me completely cold. Part of the reason for this was that the connection between the story and the setting seemed completely arbitrary to me, perhaps because the staging didn't rise beyond cliche.
February 4, 2010 8:56 AM | | Comments (0)
frame.jpegWhen I was growing up, I used to think it strange that the mother of a close friend of mine had empty antique picture frames covering almost every spare bit of wall in the entrance hall of her Victorian townhouse. The walls above the stairs were also covered in frames, making the surfaces of the house look like they were adorned with the whites of eyes.

I couldn't understand why my friend's mother liked empty frames so much. I had grown up in a home where my mother sometimes made picture frames, but always filled them up with art of some kind. But now when I visit my friend's mother's house, I think of the empty frames as being rather beautiful.

We have, as a culture, lost interest in the art of framing pictures. The artworks that hang in my apartment don't have frames. If I come across frames in other people's homes, they are often cursory wooden squares from IKEA. If you want to see a beautiful frame these days, you have to go to an art museum. Even picture frame stores don't sell lovely frames anymore. The one around the corner from me has a decidedly ugly collection which it is currently flogging off for as little as $10 a pop. I don't think many people are buying them though -- the same frames have been gathering dust in the window since last summer when I moved into the neighborhood.

I can understand why frames have fallen out of fashion -- they're heavy, nice ones are expensive, and they "hem" work in, rather than giving it a more expansive feeling and connection with the environment around which the art hangs. But there's so much craftsmanship that goes into making a beautiful picture frame. In some museums, like the ones in Moscow I visited a few years ago, the frames are sometimes more enticing than the paintings they contain.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is one institution that is working to preserve the art of the picture frame. Back in 1996-1997, the museum held an exhibition about frames and then developed a website devoted to developing research and interest in the subject. The organization continues to update the site regularly.

Maybe someday picture frames will make a comeback. In the meantime, I might start trawling thrift stores and art galleries for interesting specimens.

PS This blog post has elicited some wonderful responses over the past few days. One of my favorites is from Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts in San Francisco, who wrote to say that the post reminded her of a scene in the Steve Martin comedy, Picasso at the Lapin Agile:

As one character, the art dealer Sagot shows off his Matisse, he points to the frame as its most important feature. He says, "Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They've got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden."
February 3, 2010 9:48 AM | | Comments (7)
rolando.jpegThe British TV show, Popstar to Operastar, has been taking a lot of heat from critics who think that the series is inane and demeaning. The critics are not wrong. The show is really just good old fashioned gladiator stuff: put a bunch of pop singers in the ring with Mozart and Puccini and see who wins. It's really a fait accompli though the panel of judges - which includes the celebrated Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon (pictured) act as if the stakes are high.

But as dumb as Popstar to Operastar might be, it performs a serious function: In showing that you cannot train a pop singer to pull off an opera aria in a few weeks, the program demonstrates that learning to be an opera singer is extremely hard work and requires a large amount of time and talent. It also might get people who don't normally pay attention to opera to get out and see a few productions or maybe listen to some recordings by great singers.

I would be curious to see the ITV network do a reality series which operates in the opposite direction: I wonder if a bunch of trained opera singers could pull off fronting a rock band convincingly with only a few weeks of coaching? My guess is that the journey from "Operastar to Popstar" might be easier to manage than the other way around. But I don't suppose that it would make such compelling viewing.
February 2, 2010 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)
One opera, two concerts, and a drag review. Just your average San Francisco weekend.

1. Pearls Over Shanghai at the Hypnodrome: San Francisco's current obsession with all things to do with Shanghai in light of the city's twin-city relationship with the Chinese port town and the upcoming Shanghai Expo this summer in which San Francisco will feature prominently, finds its antidote with the Thrillpeddlers' zany, gender-bending homage to misplaced Chinoiserie. There's nothing politically correct about Pearls over Shanghai, a show which originally premiered in 1970 under the auspices of the legendary drag performance group The Cockettes. Just a lot of drag kings and queens wearing glitter and singing about opium. This latest version even features some original members of the Cockettes troupe. The show has just been extended as is well worth catching.

2. Sharon Knight at the Noe Valley Ministry: I would have liked to stay at the Glass House music event on Saturday evening to catch Voicestra alumni Dave Worm's Sovoso ensemble performing. But I had to get to a friend's party so only caught the singer Sharon Knight performing a bunch of Celtic, pirate and other bits of folk music. I love this repertoire, but I didn't feel very inspired by Knight's performance. She and her guitarist were out of tune for the first song and I generally found the musical arrangements to be lacking in originality.

3. Wozzeck at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Ensemble Parallele's production of John Rea's chamber orchestration of Alban Berg's hard-hitting opera based on a real-life murder is packed with vivid visual images and rich singing. Baritone Bojan Knezevic brings the perfect combination of manly softness to the title role. And I love Rea's orchestration. Its intimacy increases the compact tension of Wozzack fraught work.

4. Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 at St. Mark's Lutheran Church: American Bach Soloists assembled a remarkable trio of soloists (tenor Derek Chester and sopranos Jennifer Ellis and Abigail Haynes Lennox) for this crisp, dancing and warm performance of Monteverdi's great work. The venue was sold out. Apparently all four of ABS' concerts are also at capacity, which is well-deserved.
February 1, 2010 11:09 AM | | Comments (0)

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