lies like truth: June 2010 Archives

TechnoCRAFT-Do Hit Chair-by Marijn van der Poll-courtesy of Droog.jpgFragile Salt & Pepper Shakers by StudioKahn- Credit -StudioKahn.jpgThe upcoming TechnoCRAFT exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts explores the blurred line between designers and consumers in a world where consumers are increasingly turning their backs on mass produced products or at least want the illusion that they are able to do so by being given some degree of creative autonomy in the making of a product by a designer and manufacturer.

Judging by the advanced materials I've received about the exhibition, the two most interesting objects that will go on display when the show, curated by designer Yves Behar, opens on July 9, are the ones whose images are shown above. Both the Fragile Salt & Pepper Shaker and the Droog Do Hit Chair demand interactivity from the consumer -- an act which is simultaneously creative and destructive.

In order to use the chair, which comes in the form of a stainless steel cube, the consumer must first bash it into a comfortable shape by wielding a sledgehammer or other similar tool. Meanwhile, the ceramic salt and pepper shakers, which come fused together, have to be broken apart by the consumer. The break will be different each time, creating a unique shape, just like each finished Do Hit Chair.

I imagine there's some satisfaction to be gleaned from the end user's point of view in snapping the thin ceramic necks of the salt and pepper shakers and slamming a metal cube with a mallet to make a chair.

From an interactive perspective, it's fascinating to see how a 1970s style performance art process (the sort of thing that would have been captured decades ago as a video art piece and put in a contemporary art gallery) is now being replicated by the consumer.

On the other hand, there's a sort of a shallowness to this "customizable art." The consumer's power to create feels too controlled by the designer, who is after all providing full instructions to the end user about what he or she needs to do to make a usable chair or salt and pepper shakers. All that's required on the consumer's side is brute force (in the case of the chair) and dextrous fingers (for the shakers). The pieces provide an opportunity for interactivity, but do they promote creativity and artistry or ultimately destroy them?
June 30, 2010 9:00 AM | | Comments (2)
sky.jpegYesterday, as we were standing in the vestibule/store at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MoCFA) in downtown San Francisco, the museum's director, one of its curators and I found ourselves admiring a striking view.

An old Catholic church with its severe grey masonry and red brick, a high-rise apartment block decked out in gleaming aqua colored glass and steel girders and the Contemporary Jewish Museum's hulking black cube structure looked like three conspiring figures, almost blocking out a jigsaw puzzle-shaped piece of blue sky.

"When I look at this view, I feel like I live in a much bigger metropolis," said Natasha Boas, the curator. I know what Natasha means. It seems like almost every week, I hear someone remarking upon what a small provincial town we live in. We are often quick to point out that San Francisco is not a patch on New York, Paris or London from a cultural perspective. But then we remember that those cities have populations that number millions of people. San Francisco, by comparison, has just over 800,000. For such a hick burg, we're disproportionately artsy.

It's not every city of 800,000 residents that can support not one but two museums -- MoCFA and the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design -- dedicated to the visual arts branch of crafts, after all.
June 29, 2010 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)
chamber.jpegIt's hard to get the right balance with community music-making. As an oboist, I've played in groups which take themselves far too seriously and others which don't take themselves seriously enough.

The too serious groups usually produce a higher quality product, but you don't have much fun in the process of creating it because the leader or conductor (who tends to view the ensemble as a sort of reflection of his or her inflated ego) spends too much time haranguing the players about every last detail. The not serious enough groups are full of conviviality, but the musicianship often leaves much to be desired because the players are more interested in rampaging through as much repertoire as possible than stopping to think about such crazy stuff as hitting the right notes or playing in tune.

There's no reason why the two qualities should be musically exclusive though.

The musicians in one group in Oakland with which I sometimes play, have at least a sense of self awareness about their lack of diligence at the expense of fun. At last week's rehearsal, one of the players handed around sheets of paper imprinted with seven pointers for "How to Play Chamber Music." The handout, which is currently attached to my fridge, made me giggle. Anyone who's ever played chamber music in a not-too-serious setting may recognize some if not all of these standards:

1. Everyone should try to play the same piece.

2. If you play a wrong note, give a nasty look to one of the other players.

3. A repeat sign means everyone should stop and discuss in detail whether to repeat that section or not.

4. If the ensemble has to stop because of you, explain in detail why you got lost. Everyone will be immensely interested.

5. If you are completely lost, stop everyone and say: "I think we should tune."

6. If everyone is lost except you, follow those who are lost.

7. If everyone else has finished playing, do not play any notes you have left over.
June 28, 2010 8:45 AM | | Comments (1)
MV5BMTU2NTgyMDQwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDQ3ODkyMw@@._V1._CR422,0,1203,1203_SS90_.jpgJan Kounen's mostly insipid, exposition-laden feature film about the relationship between the 20th century's greatest couturier and composer, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, is worth seeing for two reasons:

1. The first scene which reconstructs the opening night performance at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring on May 29 1913. Although I find it very unlikely that the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, would have given such basic rehearsal instructions to his Ballet Russes dancers as "follow the rhythm" and "jump" right before curtain, the fretful camerawork and anxious faces of the principle characters beautifully capture the build-up of one the most significant moments -- and biggest fiascos -- in performing arts history. I also love the contrast between the choreographed "savagery" on stage and the true "savages" brawling in their evening wear on the other side of the proscenium.

2. Anna Mouglalis' impossibly long neck and serpentine elegance as Coco Chanel. I wouldn't say that the actress gives a particularly nuanced performance. She certainly isn't helped by Chris Greenhalgh's clunky script. But she looks like she was made to wear Chanel's monochrome, graceful clothes and carries herself throughout the film like a Modigliani painting come to life.
June 25, 2010 8:50 AM | | Comments (0)
calder_warhol_calder.jpgYesterday, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) held a press preview for its inaugural Fisher Collection exhibition -- "Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection" -- which opens to the public on Friday.

The exhibition is big news because it marks the start of SFMOMA's collaboration with the Fishers, the founders of the GAP clothing chain and the owners of one of the world's most enviable private contemporary art collections. In February, SFMOMA announced a partnership to house and display the collection of Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher which includes more than 1,100 works by iconic 20th century artists. The museum is currently selecting an architect to build a new wing specially for the collection, much of which has never been seen by the public before now. In the meantime, the partnership is kicking off with the entire top two floors of the museum, including the Rooftop Garden, displaying more than 160 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and video works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and other world-class artists.

I spent the morning wandering around the exhibition halls with my mouth aGAPe. I've seen one or two Calder mobiles hanging in galleries before, but never a roomful all in one go. And beyond a special exhibition dedicated to the works of Anselm Kiefer which I saw a few years ago, I've never seen such a variety of the artist's work all displayed next to each other in one space. The depth of the offerings as well as the breadth made my head spin.

I expect that this show will fill SFMOMA's coffers. But if I have any criticism of it, it's that there's so much iconic work on display that it feels very much like a "greatest hits" experience. With so much amazing artwork all available in one place, it's hard for individual pieces to stand out.

I think the best way to experience this enviable exhibition is to go many times and just hit one room with every visit. Otherwise I think it's very possible to experience art overload or burnout.
June 24, 2010 10:15 AM | | Comments (0)
chase.jpegIs it better for a grant-making organization to dole out funds to arts organizations as a result of a closed-door decision-making process in which a panel of "experts" decides which organizations are most worth supporting or to let the public decide by leveraging the power of a popular social networking tool?

The latter sounds way less mysterious and more democratic. So why am I feeling so ambivalent about Chase Bank's use of Facebook to help its community giving department distribute charitable donations?

A couple of days ago, I received a mass email from Old First Concerts, a presenter of classical and experimental chamber music recitals in San Francisco. The email said:

Please Vote For Old First Concerts
Chase Community Giving Supports Non-Profits

Please Vote Today: Voting Ends July 12, 2010
Our Non-Profit Name:  Old First Center For the Arts

Chase Community Giving is once again donating $5 million to 200 worthy non-profit organizations. The top non-profit will receive $250,000, the next 4, $100,000 and 195 non-profits will get grants of $20,000. The winners will be selected by people like you voting on Facebook for the organizations you feel are most worthy.

Old First Concerts receives its support from government and foundation grants, as well as individual contributions, along with the 50% of our operating revenue that comes from ticket sales. As a result of the economic downturn, many foundations and government agencies have had to reduce the amount of support they offer. Receiving one of the Chase Community Giving grants would provide us with significant funding to continue our mission. Here's how you can help:

• Vote for us (by July 12) on Facebook: Click here to vote
• Forward this email to others
• Encourage your Facebook friends to vote for us (e.g., wall postings)
Thank you for your ongoing support of emerging musicians and affordable concerts in San Francisco.

The money on offer is significant and I love the work that Old First Concerts does. So I dutifully followed the link and tried to vote. But Facebook wouldn't allow me to cast my vote without making all my personal information available to Chase, which I wasn't keen on allowing as I don't want the financial institution to start badgering me with offers etc. There seemed to be no way around this demand, so I decided not to vote after all.

Besides the invasion of privacy issue, the idea of organizations winning money as a result of a popularity contest also sticks in the craw a bit. Old First concerts attracts a niche audience of mostly older people. I'd be surprised if a great many of them even use Facebook (according to Katht Barr, the director of the organization, even some of the artists she programs have trouble dealing with the concept of email, let alone Facebook.)

Finally, I have to wonder just how transparent the system is. How do we really know that the votes are being amassed correctly via the technology and that Chase will base its decision solely on the number rather than on other factors that aren't being shared with the public. Is the vote the only means of deciding? Or is it just one factor that Chase Community is considering alongside a more conventional panel-led, application form-driven process? The email message certainly doesn't go into this detail.

"The Power of Giving Is In Your Hands," says the slogan on the Chase Community Giving Facebook page. Is it really though? Frankly, I'd be very surprised if the grant-giver were to give away a quarter of a million dollars based just on a count of raised hands on Facebook.
June 23, 2010 8:22 AM | | Comments (0)
Unknown.jpegThe Garden of Memory walk-through music event at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland is, as far as I am concerned, one of the highlights of the Bay Area arts calendar.

One reason for this is to do with the location -- the Julia Morgan-designed columbarium with its maze-like nooks and crannies, fountains, fragrant courtyard gardens and beautiful light. Another reason is for the music. The organizer, Sarah Cahill, coopts the talents of about as diverse a range of artists as you can imagine from the throat singer Ken Ueno and the alt-folk string players Dylan Mattingly and Eli Wirtschafter to the whistler Jason Victor Serenius and the electronic composer Paul Dresher. A third reason is the people watching. What a crazy assortment of Bay Area types this unique event attracts.

The highlight of the 2010 Garden of Memory event which happened yesterday evening for me this time around was the performance by the Ukrainian vocalist and harmonium player Mariana Sadovska. Sadovska appeared in the Chimes Chapel following a turn by the all-female vocal ensemble, Kitka. Sadovska is directing a new vocal-theatre production that the ensemble is premiering this week in Oakland.

I usually love Kitka. But the group's performance didn't impress me much this time. Some of the music was a bit too precious, self-conscious and quiet. The group tends to touch me more when the singers are at their most full-throated and wild abandoned.

Sadovska performs in the same tradition as Kitka and thankfully she made up for this lack of oomph with her fifteen minute performance in which we saw the pretty petite artist show off her vast vocal range, her passion and her sense of humor. Her wild bacchanal included whoops, grunts, gut-powered singing and yodels. She got the audience completely riled up. It was a breathtaking performance by a beautiful banshee.
June 22, 2010 9:19 AM | | Comments (0)
_MG_8929.JPG.jpegAfter the snoozefest that was Faust, the San Francisco Opera redeemed itself at least partially in my eyes over the weekend with its production of Die Walkure. The main reason for this was the extraordinary casting. I was utterly captivated by a great many of the performances including Christopher Ventris as a passionate yet psychologically restrained Siegmund, a rampant and brooding Raymond Aceto as Hunding, Mark Delevan's splenetic Wotan, Eva-Maria Westbroek's sincere Sieglinde and Janina Baechle as a conniving Fricka. I was especially taken with Nina Stemme's turn as the emotionally torn Brunnhilde -- the opera's general manager, David Gockley, announced at the start of the show that Stemme was suffering from some sort of virus but she went on anyway and did a remarkable job.

What kept me from being fully immersed in the production, however, was the ugly and cliche-ridden mise-en-scene. The videography, consisting of churning clouds and a fast hand-held camera-aided run through a forest, made me feel nauseous. And I'm more than a little tired of seeing Gods portrayed as business titans in skyscrapers and battle scenes taking place in dystopian wasteland-type settings complete with bruised skies, concrete, piles of trash and used truck tires.

Still, when it comes down to it, the singing and acting are the most important things and SF Opera at least got these elements right. I shudder to think how much money the company could have saved by doing away with Francesca Zambello's clunky, expensive-looking staging though.
June 21, 2010 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)
joana.jpegThe League of American Orchestras has bestowed its Helen M. Thompson Award on Joana Carneiro, the fabulous young artistic director of the Berkeley Symphony.

According to information from The League, the award "recognizes Carneiro's commitment to expanding the community base of the Berkeley Symphony and furthering the orchestra's tradition of presenting the works of composers of our time. In only one season, Carneiro's exceptional talent has inspired the musicians of the BSO and raised their performance level. Her appointment of composer Gabriela Lena Frank as Creative Advisor has resulted in new relationships with community organizations and deeper connections with audiences. Audience response to Carneiro's leadership can be gauged by the orchestra's record-breaking subscription rate for next season."

Joana certainly seems to be shaking things up in Berkeley, an organization which has moved quite slowly, from what I gather, in previous years. The audience appears to be very responsive to her and the orchestra is playing beautifully. 

Joana has achieved a tremendous amount in a short period of time. But I'll be curious to see whether she gets to fulfill her more eclectic plans for the orchestra, such as instituting a wide-ranging audience engagement program around the regular concert series. Budgets are tight and even small projects can take a lot of effort to get off the ground. 
June 18, 2010 9:39 AM | | Comments (0)
RacSec_CW.jpgThe San Francisco Opera's strategy these days seems to be to throw all its cash behind big name stars and put on a bunch of either heavy duty or crowd-pleasing operas in a very traditional manner.

I can see why General Director David Gockley is adopting this approach: in these economically tough times, bums on seats are what counts. You certainly don't want to give the predominantly aging, white and monied audience any reason not to splash out on those premium orchestra seats by rocking the boat with any minimalist set designs, experimental approaches to direction and singers who haven't already performed lead roles at the Met or La Scala.

Last night's performance of Gounod's Faust perfectly illustrated the strategy. But unlike the Girl of the Golden West which I could forgive for pandering to the audience because of its pure sense of fun, Faust came across mainly as a ponderous yawn fest. The production characterized SF Opera's "play its safe" modus operandi in the worst possible way.

Granted, the singing was terrific and the lead performers (big guns Stefano Secco, Patricia Racette and John Relyea) were magnetic to watch, at least for a while. But the dull mise-en-scene, stiff chorus numbers and clunking, ugly period costumes faux-crumbling European scenery of this Lyric Opera of Chicago production dragged Gounod's music down.

I really hope that the San Francisco Opera, which has had some innovative moments over the last decade, starts innovating again soon. Opera companies shouldn't have to choose between paying top dollar for big name stars and mounting productions that feel fresh and relevant.
June 17, 2010 9:19 AM | | Comments (0)
21.jpegYesterday afternoon, I spent a wonderful hour or so at Frankie's (aka 21 Club). Frankie's is a dive bar in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets. Few tourists venture there. I was at Frankie's at the invitation of Elvin Padilla, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, who encouraged me to pop in and meet some of the old-timers who work (or once worked) on the local arts and entertainment scene and have been coming to the bar for decades. Frankie's is considered to be home from home for many veteran stage hands, supper club owners, jazz musicians and the like. It's a great place with a vibe as warm as the beer.

While I was in the bar, Elvin introduced me to many people, whose names I can't all remember, though their characterful faces are clear in my mind.

I chatted with the owner of the currently-boarded-up Original Joe's restaurant, where I used to spend many an evening watching plays in the backroom theatre, eating plates of cheap and tasty spaghetti and drinking whiskey. She recalled the neighborhood in its pre-crack den days, when she would wander around as a girl and spend hours sitting on the floor of the local bookstore reading copies of the National Geographic.  

I also spoke to a wonderful and slightly hard of hearing jazz saxophone player, named Bobby, and a lovely lady, Lou, who owned a club where Bobby played - until it too shut down. I met a union stage hand who told me about all the long-since-departed theatres in the neighborhood. Apparently many of them have been turned into Walgreens drugstores, though no one in the bar could really explain why Walgreens would be especially interested in old theatre buildings. ("Perhaps it's because they have a lot of space," my stage hand acquaintance suggested.)

Christina and Richard, who run the Exit Theatreplex were there -- the only two people I already knew. I also made the acquaintance of a man, Peter, who leads tours of the Tenderloin neighborhood. I hope to join Peter on one of his adventures someday soon.

And then there was Frankie himself, as amiable a barkeep as anyone could hope to be served a beer by. A courteous gentleman in a flat cap, Frankie has been pouring libations at his spot on the corner of Taylor and Turk for 38 years. Frankie looks very youthful for his age. He doesn't know why so many arts veterans gravitate to his bar. Carmela Gold, Exeutive Director of the Central YMCA and one of Elvin's board members at the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, whom I met while sipping Sierra Nevada ale at the bar, thinks that the amazing old jukebox is what keeps people coming back time and time again. I didn't hear any music coming from the machine and didn't get the chance to take a closer look at it, so who knows. 

As Elvin and I walked over to the American Conservatory Theater so I could get there in time for a 7pm curtain (very sweet of him to be my chaperone) we chatted about the folks at Frankie's and the potential impact that a burgeoning arts scene might have on the currently disenfranchised neighborhood. Elvin is currently in talks with ACT and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre among other arts organizations about the possibility of opening facilities in the area. The idea is that if more arts organizations have a presence in the Tenderloin, the neighborhood will rejuvenate.

But plans seem to be moving at a snail's pace. Some of the folks I chatted with at Frankie's are planning on opening or re-opening their restaurants and music clubs in the coming months in the area. But will they actually be able to move ahead with their dreams or is this wishful thinking? Elvin is not sure. "They are hopeful and very optimistic," he said with a sigh as he dropped me off at the theatre and returned to the bar.

P.S. I've written so many negative articles and blog posts about ACT productions over the past five years or so that I can't quite muster up the strength to give the company another bashing for its colossal failure of a collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet, The Tosca Project. So I'll leave it at that.
June 16, 2010 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Now in its 32nd year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival raises some fascinating questions about what constitutes "ethnic" dance. According to the festival's executive director, Julie Mushet, the term "ethnicity" causes contention every year.

130 companies and soloists from northern california auditioned for 37 performance slots at this year's festival, which runs till June 27, the largest number of applicants the festival has ever seen.
June 15, 2010 8:48 AM | | Comments (2)
photo.jpgThe slow food movement has become very much a part of Bay Area culture, alongside organic and local approaches to cuisine. Besides a few "No MSG" signs, Chinatown, however, has been somewhat slow to embrace the slow.

A new storefront art exhibit by the San Francisco-based visual artist Niana Liu playfully sends up the shortcomings of Chinese cuisine's traditional speediness and of the global economy's emphasis on instant gratification over quality. Located at 630 Kearny Street, the storefront, which was unveiled in a ceremony last Friday, is one of several new installations in the neighborhood and part of the city's ongoing "Art in Storefronts" initiative to get artists creating work in disused business spaces.

The storefront is brightly lit and immediately eye-catching. On one side of the door, hang rows of colorful papier-mache ducks, each with a label attached, such as "oil spill duck". On the other side of the door is a table set with plates in which plants are growing and an egg sits. The conceit is that a dish, eg chicken chow mein, will be ready when the plants have taken their time to mature and the egg has hatched and grown into a chicken. An oversized menu hanging above the table ironically reads that the "restaurant" only offers three entrees: 1. Cheap and good. (slow) 2. Cheap and fast. (crappy) and 3. Good and fast (expensive). The "special of the day", however, is "good and slow" -- "please be patient with your order" -- the menu says.

Liu is planning on using the space as her artist's studio throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs till September 18. People can communicate with her by pressing a button on a small bright pink intercom system attached to the glass on one of the storefront windows. As a further playful touch, the artist is making her "dishes" to order. The cost for having the artist produce one of her "specials of the day" starts at $20. You can also "adopt a dish" starting at $5. In return, Liu will put a sign with the adopter's name in or next to the adopted dish on display in the window, and send you a photo of the dish as well as a weekly growth report.

The installation is probably the most quirky art in storefronts exhibition I have seen anywhere around town. I love its sense of humor as well as the strength of its political message. And I also applaud the artist for her decision to actually spend time at her installation. This is very unusual. Once the storefronts are unveiled, generally speaking, the artists don't occupy the space. Deciding to stick around interact with passersby and take advantage of the free rent to get on with some work is pretty sensible. I wonder what the local restaurant community will make of Liu's work?
June 14, 2010 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)
jess.jpegYou can never predict what will happen to a small theatre in San Francisco. When I last wrote about The Climate Theater at any length, I predicted that the offbeat SOMA performance space would revitalize the neighborhood. Artistic director Jessica Heidt's (pictured) programming has been innovative. She's drawn in big, diverse crowds. The theater has become a great launching pad for all manner of underground performance artists and groups from the clown John Gilkey to the cross-dressing physical theatre artist Monique Jenkinson.

It's been about 15 months since my article about the theatre came out in SF Weekly. And the area around 9th Street and Folsom where the organization is based is every bit as dilapidated as it was back then. Restaurants have closed or are only open sporadically. The intersection is still a honeypot for the homeless, drug-addled and deranged. And now The Climate Theater itself is shutting up shop and moving on.

I reached Heidt by phone earlier today. Following the theatre's farewell performance on Monday night, she was clearing up and packing up with a crew of helpers. Heidt sounded fairly cheerful despite the move.

The Climate Theatre is moving, according to Heidt, because renovations were required on the space which were prohibitively expensive to undertake. She described the decision to give up the lease as "amicable". The owner is turning the space into offices, according to Heidt.

The company is now moving to the Jewish Theatre's space at 470 Florida Street in the Mission/Potrero Hill neighborhood for a few months. Heidt intends to continue her resident artists program as well as program performances of such ongoing Climate favorites as the Clown Cabaret and the Dating Game. There will be a rerun of Jenkinson's "Luxury Items" performance piece and a new work by Joshua Walters among other events.

"Moving to the Jewish Theatre is a great opportunity for us to try out larger-scale work, which is what we want to do in the future," said Heidt. "Being based at the Jewish Theatre buys us some time so we can see what it's like to produce at a higher level without necessarily having to buy the whole cow."

I feel a bit sad about the company moving from SOMA to be honest. During the time it was there, it helped a barren corner of the city to flourish. Still, the space was a deathtrap and Heidt was constantly having to deal with the police and the drunks. Hopefully spending some time on Florida Street will provide some respite and a chance to develop a longer-term artistic vision.
June 11, 2010 12:41 PM | | Comments (0)
_MG_4485.jpgWhen Deborah Voigt appeared on stage in a pair of red leather chaps astride a horse in the final scene of the San Francisco Opera's production of La Fanciulla Del West, I almost fell off my chair.

The company's take on Puccini's not very beloved opera set in the gold rush days of California and based on David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West made for the most fun I have ever had in an opera house. Ever.

I loved everything from the kitschy love scenes ("kiss me!" "erm, have some pastry?") to the swaggering male chorus of gold diggers braying for blood, to the enjoyment of watching a spaghetti western that wears its Italian production values on its sleeve.

It's very hard to take the opera seriously, For one thing, it's hilariously politically incorrect. Racism against Native Americans and Mexicans abounds and it's pretty sexist. For another, Andrew Lloyd Webber poached mercilessly from the opera, so the already surreal experience of watching a bunch of opera singers in Levis and cowboy boots singing in Italian against a wild west backdrop is rendered all the stranger for hearing note-for-note echoes from The Phantom of the Opera along the way. Pure genius.

I expect that the critics are going to be sniffy about the production. It's really just fluff and spectacle and good old fashioned cheese. There is some lovely word painting in the score (such as the night time sounds of winter weather swirling around the heroine Minnie's mountainside cabin) which the orchestra brought off beautifully. But besides the bravura final aria sung by the condemned bandit Johnson (aka Ramerrez) played by Salvatore Licitra, there aren't many memorable musical moments (at least, ones that haven't been stolen by Lloyd Webber). Plus, conductor Nicola Luisotti should get a slapped wrist for allowing the orchestra to drown out the singing during some of the more dramatic moments. This is no mean feat considering that Voigt, one of the biggest female voices in opera, is on stage.

There's nothing deep or important about this work. What themes can be eked out of the story e.g. about the madness and crime that comes from greed, might have had greater relevance if the San Francisco Opera had chosen to stage the work during the dotcom boom ten years ago.

But who cares really? The performers look like they're having a ton of fun with this show and their enthusiasm is infectious. The action doesn't let up. It moves along as fast as an episode of Bonanza and leaves us for dust.

I certainly won't forget that finale in a hurry. Not only do we get to see Voigt on horseback, but she and her leading man also get to ride off into a golden sunset on a wagon. What's there not to like about that?
June 10, 2010 10:01 AM | | Comments (3)
moscone.jpgWhat's the formula for staging a successful cultural salon? I've been putting them on and going to them for several years now and I feel like I should have figured out the formula. The truth is, there is no formula. Sometimes, soirees that are carefully orchestrated with many beautiful features such as live performances, well-crafted discussion points, a convivial space, good food and wine and a great, lively crowd go horribly awry. Sometimes, you turn up without having much of a clue about who's going to be there, what's going to be discussed and little more than a baguette and a few cheap bottles of plonk to entertain people with and the proceedings progress marvelously. It's a bit of a crapshoot really.

Last night's Theatre Salon is a case in point. The group of six that organizes these periodic get togethers for members of the performing arts community (Rob Avila, Mark Jackson, Beth Wilmurt, John Wilkins, Kimball Wilkins and myself) have been feeling overwhelmed of late. It's been hard to get ideas for salons bubbling, let alone make time to actually put a soiree together with all that it entails from coming up with a discussion theme, sending out invitations, organizing the space, cooking and getting some form of entertainment. But somehow we managed to pull it off last night, and I have to say, that as skin-of-our-teeth the event was in terms of pulling all the pieces together, I think it was one of the best salons we have put on to date.

Here, to my mind, are some of the reasons why:

1. We didn't over plan.

2. We had a great, airy venue with lots of light -- thanks to Lisa Steindler, the director of Z Space at Theatre Artaud for opening her doors to us.

3. We had the perfect balance between people who have come to our events before and new blood and a good mixture of people from many different parts of the arts community and at different stages of their careers. We numbered about 50 in all.

4. We had wonderful music provided by a cool bass player while everyone mingled at the start.

5. We served tasty snacks (though I still question the combination of sliced baguette with strawberries albeit that no one complained.)

6. The discussion topic, "the curse/blessing of topicality in theatre," was broad enough to keep small group discussions going for an hour or more. In our group, the conversation meandered from attempting to define and separate topicality from relevance to getting underneath the Bay Area obsession with producing plays about science and technology and why so many of these works fail.

7. An easy structure to the evening which created just enough formality while allowing for plenty of informality. The evening started off with people mingling over wine for about an hour while our musician played. Then John gave a quick introductory speech, then we went and sat at one of four tables, each with ten seats. Then we discussed the topic and ate and drank for an hour or so. Next, individuals took it in turns to stand up and share their thoughts with the rest of the room. Finally, the formalities dissolved and everyone chitchatted until they felt a desire to leave. We were done by around midnight.

8. The evening had some lovely whimsical elements. Chief among them was a sort of "art installation" at the front of the room which consisted of a metal bin, a large ear of corn, an orange plastic inflatable donkey and some fairy lights arranged in an arc. When people got up to share their discussion points with the rest of the group, they held on to the donkey and stood behind the lights. (See California Shakespeare Theatre's Jon Moscone doing the honors in the picture above.) This provided a nice theatrical touch.

9. Cleanup at the end took less than half an hour.

10. Today, my head is still buzzing with the ideas that were generated at the salon. The quality of the discussion was, I thought, higher than many such discussions that we've had in the past. I'm not sure why. Maybe the topic was broad enough to allow people to come in from many angles. Maybe people had had just the right amount of wine to drink. Who knows?

All in all, it made for a pretty good way to spend an evening.
June 9, 2010 9:24 AM | | Comments (1)
flyerimage2.3.1-smaller.jpgIf you're going to stage a theatrical happening in a non-traditional location with parts of the performance going on simultaneously in multiple spaces, you need to think carefully not only about the relationship between the setting and the production, but also about the audience's experience from a theatrical perspective.

One organization that does this very well is the UK-based company Punchdrunk. The sheer theatricality of its 2008 production The Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Center in London made my head spin. It didn't matter that I could only sample a fraction of the entire experience of the story, which unfolded in dozens of nooks and crannies of the venue. I felt swept along by events and like I could piece together my own enigmatic narrative because the drama was as coherent as it was dense and magical. You can read about my experience of the show here.

Get This Go, a production which I saw at the Pacific Heights Inn, a motel in the Marina neighborhood of San Francisco, last night by the Mugwumpin experimental theatre company, was on a much smaller scale than Punchdrunk's effort. It was also on for only one evening, which makes it hard for the company to perfect its work.

But I was so underwhelmed by the half-hour performance that I wondered if I was experiencing theatre at all. I felt like I had merely walked into a display of public indolence and confusion.

The company commandeered three rooms at the motel and in half hour increments, invited a groups of about 20 audience members to look in on their activities. Before we went in, we were told to think about what it would be like if we were marooned indefinitely in a place like this with nothing but the possessions we had on us at that moment in time. From the debris that the performers managed to scatter around the motel, it seems that most people wander around San Francisco with a great deal more stuff than I do.

In one cramped room, a group of actors slouched around lethargically, painting their toenails, knitting hats and twirling umbrellas. In another, someone who appeared to be off her hinges, played mournful cello melodies and looked vacantly into space amid scattered belongings. In a third, an uptight man and woman charged around picking stuff up, writing notes and generally being frenetic. The whole thing was mildly interesting to witness for 25 minutes, but hardly made me think or feel interesting thoughts or feelings, which is what theatre at a minimum should do.

That being said, I was grateful to be able to see the piece -- the event was sold out. (Tickets, though limited in number, were free.) And it's wonderful that this kind of activity goes on on a Monday night around here, if only to bring people together and give them an excuse to head off afterwards for a drink.
June 8, 2010 1:10 PM | | Comments (0)
dresher.jpegOne of the many delights of experiencing the music of the Paul Dresher Ensemble (pictured) live is the opportunity it affords to check out some very unusual and beautiful musical instruments. The Bay Area-based composer and his collaborators have created a number of instruments over the years, some of them electronic, some acoustic and some a combination of both ("electroacoustic.")

Over the weekend, audiences at Old First Concerts in San Francisco got to hear the Quadrachord and the Marimba Lumina, two instruments that create a kaleidoscopic array of sounds and overtones.

The highlight of the concert for me was the duet Glimpsed From Afar which involved Dresher playing the Quadrachord, a narrow, 15-foot-long bench-like structure that resembles a very stretched out xylophone, and the percussionist Joel Davel on the Marimba Lumina, which looks like a regular marimba but with flat, two-dimensional-looking keypads. The sounds that these instruments make range from loud, percussive whacks, to deep, ocean-floor groans to weeping melodic lines. 

I went looking online for information about these two amazing musical inventions and found some interesting descriptions on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's website. (The LA Phil performed Glimpsed from Afar).

Here is what Dresher has to say about the Quadrachord: "The Quadrachord is an instrument invented in collaboration with instrument designer Daniel Schmidt as part of my music theater work Sound Stage. Of all the instruments created for this production, the Quadrachord is to me the most compelling invention and the only one whose sonic attributes have continued to inspire me to explore and develop its compositional potential. The instrument has a total string length of 160 inches (though smaller versions have been built), four strings of differing gauges but of equal length and an electric-bass pickup next to each of the two bridges. It can be plucked like a guitar, bowed like cello, played like a slide guitar, prepared like a piano, and hammered on like a percussion instrument."

And here is what the composer wrote of the Marimba Lumina: "A recent instrument design by synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla in collaboration with Joel Davel and Mark Goldstein, the Marimba Lumina is a sophisticated electronic instrument that has more expressive control than a typical electronic keyboard. Modeled somewhat after its acoustic namesake, it is a dynamically sensitive electronic mallet controller. The Marimba Lumina's playing surface includes a traditionally arrayed set of electronic bars. Each bar is made up of two overlapping antennas that receive proximity information from each of the four mallets. This allows the Marimba Lumina to respond to new performance variables such as position along the length of each bar. In addition, each mallet is tuned to a unique frequency, which allows one to program different instrumental responses for each mallet. This all augments the potential for expressive control with easily implemented pitch, volume, and timbre modulation."

these descriptions obviously don't do the instruments justice. You have to be in the room with them, and not only marvel at their construction but also at their sound.
June 7, 2010 10:41 AM | | Comments (0)
MRI.jpegOne of my editors sent me this fascinating link to a video created by the University of Southern California's electrical engineering and linguistics department. Researchers at the university asked an opera singer and a beatbox emcee to sing and create beats respectively inside an MRI machine.

It's incredible to see how different the vocal apparatus works for the emcee versus the opera singer.

The soprano's tongue is fat, it doesn't move a lot. Her lips also remain fairly still. There's a huge space inside the mouth and the larynx is lowered. You can also see her vibrato going.

Meanwhile, the emcee's tongue and lips are working overtime. They actually look like drumsticks whacking skins and the cavity inside the mouth and throat are quite closed.

It would be interesting to see the technique applied to other forms of vocal artist such as Tuvan throat singer, blues singer, professional whistler, yodeller etc. The mind boggles.
June 4, 2010 10:55 AM | | Comments (0)
wake.jpegWith her new drama In the Wake at Berkeley Repertory Theater, playwright Lis Kron has attempted to write a work of the magnitude and scope of Angels in America. I wonder if the theatre's artistic director, Tony Taccone, encouraged this as one of the original producers of Tony Kushner's seminal drama?

The play, which takes place in the George W Bush years and revolves around a thirty-something "thought leader" whose passion about the politics of the tax system rivals her passionate personal life, is dense, sprawling and multi-faceted.

I love the way in which Kron, just like Kushner before her, tackles together the personal and the political and shows how inextricably linked they are.

It's also about an hour too long and the playwright has difficulty maintaining the plot and the characters' trajectories. We never really find out what the central character Ellen does for a living or what motivates her to travel to Boston to visit Amy, a woman whom she vaguely knows but ends up falling in love with.

In the Wake is a sort of lesbian Angels in America, really. Only less expertly handled. It's still worth seeing though, because the performances are great, the pacing is lively and the play, as messy as it is, makes a bold move by tackling a part of American history that happened, really, just yesterday.
June 3, 2010 2:55 PM | | Comments (0)
news.jpegThere's nothing like teaching a class on something to make you think more clearly about it.

Yesterday evening, while teaching a seminar on press release writing to a bunch of artists and arts promoters at the Luggage Store Gallery for the non-proit new media incubator, Independent Arts and Media, it dawned on me that the "Art of the Press Release" rubric that I had created on this blog early in 2009 (and which I used as a jumping off point for the class) was missing perhaps the most basic tenet of all: namely, that it's only worth writing a press release if you actually have something press-worthy to tell the media about i.e. an item of news.

This sounds terribly obvious, but it's amazing how often I receive releases that don't tell me any news whatsoever. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to tell why the person who drafted the release bothered at all. A baffling missive I received in my inbox just yesterday, which consisted of several paragraphs of purple prose about an artist called Tucky McKey ("The first thing you experience when viewing Tucky McKey's paintings is his uncanny sense of perspective") followed by a lengthy Q&A with the painter, provided no news at all. I'm still confounded as to why the Artist Guild of San Francisco sent it out. Is the organization hoping that media organizations will lift the Q&A right out of the email and reprint it? Nuts.

I'm not saying that it's only worth sending out a press release if you or your client has won a Pulitzer Prize, sold a painting at auction for more money than has ever been reaped for a work of its kind, or become the longest-running show on Broadway. More modest happenings, such as the opening of a new musical, a ground-breaking ceremony for a new arts building, or the receipt of a big grant in economically tough times are also worth telling the world about.

And one more thing: It's not enough to tell the media the news. Make us understand why we should care about it too.
June 2, 2010 10:22 AM | | Comments (0)
podcast.jpegOne of the issues I've encountered as I produce and host a new weekly public radio series all about the art of singing, VoiceBox, is the confusion surrounding the term 'podcast'. To most listeners, it seems, a podcast version of VoiceBox means making the entire show available for download for free, 24-7 via iTunes.

But like most public radio shows operating under limited public radio music usability right agreements, allowing the content of a full hour-long show to be available in its entirety on demand is not legally possible.

Different programs get around the issue in assorted ways. The Thistle and Shamrock's "Thistlecast" podcast, for example, plays snippets of content from the upcoming show to whet listeners' appetites. The VoiceBox podcast is a completely different beast: created in collaboration with two San Francisco State University students, the "VoiceBox: The B Sides" podcasts feature chat and music clips that take an "underground" view of the radio show topic. The idea is to give the theme of the week a slightly different spin and reach out to a younger audience.

Many listeners have been confused about this though. They think they're getting the radio show that I produce when they click on the podcast link. The muddle is only exacerbated by the fact that the KALW website now allows the radio show to be streamed on demand for an entire week after its original airdate which means that people can in fact listen to the original radio content even if only for a few days in addition to downloading the podcast.

The issue points to the complex relationship between traditional radio and digital formats. Terms like "webstream", "on demand" and "downloadable" are all so samey. Yet they mean distinct things. Education seems to be the best way to get people to understand the difference. This is going to take some time, however.
June 1, 2010 12:43 PM | | Comments (0)

Me Elsewhere


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