lies like truth: May 2009 Archives

I'll be traveling from 24 - 31. Look for my next post on June 1.
May 22, 2009 5:23 PM | | Comments (0)
These days, when gloom and doom is all about and arts organizations are coping with shrinking budgets, layoffs and reduced seasons, it's always heartening to hear news of growth. A few months ago, Berkeley's Aurora Theatre started to build a new space adjacent to its current auditorium. Now, San Francisco's Fringe performance bastion, The EXIT Theatreplex, is about to add a 49-seat theatre and a classroom/rehearsal studio to its current assets which include the 80-seat EXIT Theatre mainstage, the 49-seat EXIT Stage Left, and the EXIT Café which serves food and beverages and doubles as a 35-seat theatre. The theatre also runs the 66-seat EXIT on Taylor, around the corner at 277 Taylor Street, where Cutting Ball Theater is currently in residence.

A couple of months ago, when I was at the EXIT to see a show, one of the venue's leaders gave my friends and I a sneak peak of the new space. Once home to a youth center, the 1,700 square foot area already looked in pretty good shape back then. I recall high ceilings and an airy feel.

Quite a bit of work needs to be done of course to prepare the new facility for use by theatre artists. EXIT Theatre has signed a 20-year lease with a 10-year option on the new space with their nonprofit landlord, the Chinatown Community Development Center. In order to complete the build-out of the newly acquired space, the EXIT has launched a $125,000 capital campaign over the next 18 months.

Ventriloquist Ron Coulter and his partner, Sid Star (pictured) will be hosting the first in a series of fundraising events for the theatre -- two performances of Soliloquy for Two on June 12 and 13. Tickets cost $15-20-25 and are available at (415) 673-3847 or
May 22, 2009 8:14 AM | | Comments (0)
Composers are always being commissioned to write pieces for particular orchestras, opera companies or soloists. Why doesn't someone commission a composer to write a work especially for a particular conductor?

I'm not talking about works that feature the conductor as a "soloist" in any overt sort of way, as in John Oswald's Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra or Dieter Schnebel's theatrical piece for solo conductor, Nostalgie (Modelle No. 1.) I mean, a composer writing a work for full symphony orchestra with the particular personality and style of the person on the podium as the force that underpins and shapes the work.

There are so many charismatic conductors working today with strong, individual styles that would doubtless inspire great or at least interesting compositions. How about a festival dedicated to commissioning and premiering a few such works, in which one orchestra performs pieces written specifically for the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert or Marin Alsop?
May 21, 2009 12:42 PM | | Comments (0)
It might seem odd for a theatre critic to say this, but I believe it to be true: Every artist has a right to fail.

The system, of course, doesn't support failure. Producers don't want to back flops; audiences don't want to sit through them; and critics snap their pencils in disgust when a work of art doesn't meet their expectations.

But failure is important. Without it, artists can't grow and our feeling for the culture around us remains stagnant and quickly becomes predictable.

So I have a lot of admiration for producers who invest in artists rather than individual works of art, and take a big picture view of the art-making process. This quality is especially rare in these tough economic times. It is my view that if -- and this is a big "if" -- a producer's gut instincts about an artist are correct, then, more often than not, the successes will far outweigh the failures in the long run.

May 20, 2009 10:05 AM | | Comments (0)
The diversity of the Bay Area can be witnessed in many different ways, from the variety of the cuisine offered in its restaurants to the multitudinous kinds of topography. One less obvious way to explore the radical differences that coexist in this part of the world is to look at the local symphony orchestra scene.

To many people, San Francisco Symphony is the only orchestra of note in the Bay Area. But while this organization might be considered world class, it's by no means the only group worth paying attention to, as my concert-going experiences last weekend suggest.

Over the weekend, I experienced concerts at both the SF Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony (OEBS). Both groups offer wildly contrasting experiences and have very strong identities. SF Symphony might have the far greater reputation, but while the program I heard at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday will probably fade from my memory in the not too distant future, I don't think I'll forget Friday night with OEBS for a long, long time. 

At Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday evening, a small chamber orchestra was joined by the Symphony Chorus under the baton of the Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie for an all-Handel program. The Symphony isn't a period music specialist group and the first half of the program consisted of workman-like executions of the Three Coronation Anthems and the G minor Organ Concerto (soloist Richard Pare). The space felt dead even though the house was mostly full, and by intermission, I wondered how much more Handel I could sanely handle in one evening. In the second half, though, when Labadie was joined on stage by three excellent vocal soloists for the Dettingen Te Deum, Davies Symphony Hall came alive. Light yet warm interjections from countertenor Matthew White and tenor Frederic Antoun offset heartfelt, vibrant solos from baritone Joshua Hopkins and the choir followed suit with an energy that had been decidedly lacking from the first half of the evening. All in all, an uplifting, but on the whole unremarkable musical soiree at Davies.

The situation in Oakland couldn't have been more different. I can't think of a better place to hear the music of the great early 20th century American composer Jerome Kern than the gorgeous Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland -- one of the finest examples of Art Deco design in the United States I've ever set foot in. Conceived by San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in late 1931, it was one of the first Depression-era buildings to incorporate and integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture. The building began life as a glorious movie palace before going into decline for several decades and then being rescued by the Oakland Symphony, the City of Oakland and numerous private donors. The building was purchased by the Board of Directors of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association in 1972. A restoration project was completed in 1973 and on May 5, 1977, the Paramount was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Utterly gobsmacked by the architecture, I was also amazed to find the huge theatre which seats 3040 people absolutely packed out for the concert. I'm trying to find out whether the audience consisted mostly of people from Oakland itself or whether OEBC attracts crowds from other parts of the Bay. I'd be surprised if many people from San Francisco ventured across the Bay to see the show, though. I'm extremely ashamed to say that I personally never made it out to hear an OEBS concert in the entire seven years that I lived in San Francisco. More the fool me. 

People responded warmly to the first half of the program which consisted of famous musical numbers from the Jerome Kern songbook including the lusty lyric baritone Robert Sims' rendition of "Pick Yourself Up" and debutante soprano Julie Adams' take on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The orchestra did an eloquent job with the Kern's hyperbolically lush orchestrations and the OEBS Chorus seemed more connected to the music than SF Symphony's Handel chorus. However, I wasn't taken with many of OEBS' soloists. Part of the problem was the use of radio mikes to amplify the soloists' voices which made them sound tinny. Part was simply to do with the quality of the singers. They all did OK. But with the exception of Sims, they delivered so-so performances which lacked real individuality and vocal strength (despite the mikes).

Even Sims came a-cropper in OEBS' concert staging of Show Boat. He struggled to reach the low notes in "Ol' Man River." Still, Show Boat on the whole was a terrific crowd-pleaser with compelling narration by Eric Wenburg and sparkling playing from the orchestra. I felt transported to another time and place with the whole experience.

This kind of programming so eloquently suits OEBS. The sense of community and hum of excitement was palpable at the Paramount on Friday night. I can't say I felt these things at Davies the following evening. Then again, SF Symphony is a completely different animal. If there's any grain of useful information to be extracted from this blog post it's the following: The San Francisco Symphony isn't the only show in town. Orchestral music lovers should think about striking out at least for Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose every once in a while.
May 19, 2009 10:05 AM | | Comments (1)
The Alexander Valley in Sonoma, California is home to one of the most extraordinary performance venues I have ever encountered in my life. I visited the Ann Hamilton Tower at Oliver Ranch near the small winery-obsessed town of Geyserville yesterday afternoon for a site-specific performance by the Joe Goode Performance Group and the San Francisco Girls Chorus which, though in some ways under-developed, I will never forget.

The performance took place in a ten-storey concrete tower purpose-built for performance by the visual artist Ann Hamilton. In a 2002 interview for Sculpture Magazine, ranch owner and arts patron Steven Oliver provides a good description of the background behind the construction of the Tower and its design:

[Ann Hamilton] became interested in towers and began to bring me picture books and a lot of books about a particular tower in Italy. Her project here evolved from that tower.

We own a home near Orvieto, the site of the so-called Well of St. Patrick (1527-40), which was built by Clement VII to provide the city with a water supply in case of attack. The site has a traditional connection to St. Patrick. The well descends more that 60 meters: in order to get enough water to the surface the architect designed a double helix staircase. This means that the mule goes down one staircase, loads up with water, and comes back up the other staircase. The two staircases never touch; they are interlaced with each other so that the mule never has to turn around and never meets another mule. It's the same form as DNA. Ann proposed a double helix staircase inside the stonework, descending to a water source: into the ground and up out of the ground. It looks rather agricultural in form, like a silo, and she wants to put it down by the barn. It will be a performance space, and she will curate poetry readings and concerts of a single voice or a single instrument.

We hired acoustic engineers to do some studies and then realized we didn't really care. Clearly there are going to be reverberations and echoes. The artists will adapt to the space. The nice thing is that the audience and the performers will never be more than a staircase apart, because the audience can all be on the up staircase and the performers on the down staircase. But they're going to be interlaced with each other. It's going to be quite an amazing space.

Indeed, the Tower is an amazing space. Joe Goode and the Girls' Chorus didn't go quite as far as they could in terms of exploring its possibilities. This was perhaps partly due to the fact that the production's creators didn't have a whole lot of time to work in the space itself -- I heard from one of Goode's collaborators that he and his dancers only spent a couple of days on site and spent the rest of the time developing the piece elsewhere. This makes no sense: For creating work for a venue as unique in design and acoustic as the Tower, the artists should have been able to gain direct access to it for weeks beforehand. Nevertheless, their performance piece, Fall Within, still made for a magical experience.

The eclectic selection of songs performed by the Girls' Chorus made the entire Tower ring like a bell throughout the performance. Music included a French Canadian folksong ("O-Yo-Yo" arranged by Stephen Hatfield), Ross Whitney's "Pentatonic Alleluia", a traditional Mi'kmaq Honour song by Lydia Adams, Erik Bergman's Dreams, Op 85, Henry Purcell's "Music for a While" and "The Road Home" from Southern Harmony adapted by Stephen Paulus. Although the styles of the musical works were all very different, they blended with the space and spirit of Goode's piece gorgeously.

The high voices and fact that the singers were positioned right at the top of the Tower above the audience's heads through most of the show created a mood of uplift. We found our ears tuned towards the sky. The movement, by contrast, was pitched more downwards towards the red-dye-tinted pool of water at the bottom of the Tower. The dancers slid on their stomachs down the Tower's brass banisters, held each other back from throwing themselves off the stairways by creating incredible cantilevered human sculptures, and interacted with the Girls Chorus through lower-pitched singing and spoken text on the theme of falling.

The effect of all of this was to pull the audience in two different directions -- upwards and downwards. This feeling mirrored the shape of the Tower itself. It was beautiful.

I only wished that artists had explored the possibilities of the well at the bottom of the Tower more fully and choreographed the sudden fall of the blue tarp, which covered the ceiling of the Tower until it was released towards the end of the performance, in a more theatrical manner. Also, the choir and the dancers didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with each other during the piece from a physical perspective. The way in which their voices intermingled was divine. But I would have liked to have seen a more carefully-thought-out relationship in terms of choreography between the two groups. The girls just stood there and eventually paraded down the staircase of the Tower at the end followed up by the choirmaster. It all felt a bit half-hearted and abrupt.

Meredith Monk created the inaugural piece for the Tower when it opened last year. I sadly missed it. I am looking forward to seeing how other artists explore the potential of this extraordinary space.
May 18, 2009 9:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Theatre departments work to attract students by claiming that they will be more easily able to launch professional careers in the theatre if they do an undergraduate or masters degree in theatre at their schools. But it's been my observation that the schools don't generally equip students for the professional world in a very inspiring way. There exists a huge chasm between BA and MA theatre programs and the business of putting on theatrical productions in the real world. Most of the people who studied acting at Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training the year I attended the program as a dramaturgy student have either given up acting completely or work primarily in commercials / treat theatre as a minor hobby. Very few actually still put the making of plays at the center of their lives.

One school based in the region where I live, San Francisco State, seems to be bucking this trend. The sheer number of alumni from the school who not only continue to make theatre but also continue to do so in the Bay Area often in collaboration with other SF State graduates is formidably high. And much of the work being produced both in the program itself and out in the professional theatre world is of a high quality or at the very least conceptually interesting.

The upcoming production of Faust, Part I at Shotgun Players in Berkeley is a case in point. The Goethe adaptation was written by and SF State grad, Mark Jackson (pictured above, left). Nearly half of the cast and crew are either SF State Theatre Arts students, faculty or alumni. Professor Joan Arhelger is the production's lighting designer, and alum Nina Ball is the set designer. Current students involved in "Faust, Part I" are Dara Yazdani (actor, as Student/Valentin), Matt Stines (sound designer), Michelle Smith (stage manager), Ashley Costa (sound board operator/assistant stage manager) and Krista Smith (lighting assistant).

Several professional theatre groups past and present have come out the university. These include Jackson's own company Art Street Theatre, Misery Loves Company and Wit's End.

So what is it about SF State's program that makes it bridge the pedagogical-professional divide so well -- a feat that seems particularly remarkable in a city that's not particularly artist-friendly because of the extremely high cost of living? Professor Yukihiro (Yuki) Goto, Chair and Professor of the Department of Theatre Arts (pictured above right) has this to say on the matter:

"Building a bridge between our program's theatre education and professional theatre community (particularly the Bay Area's professional theatre community) is one of the department's missions and is therefore an integral part of our curriculum. For instance, we offer several independent study courses, through which our acting, directing, managing, and technical theatre students can earn university credits while working or interning in their respective professional companies. Many of our teachers are also professionally active. They make conscious efforts to provide students with professional opportunities, going beyond what our department can offer. To name a few -- Larry Eilenberg (Magic Theatre), Joan Arhelger (Lighting, SF Opera), John Wilson (Scenic, San Jose Rep), Todd Roehrman (Costume, SF Shakespeare), Barbara Damashek (Acting, Magic Theatre), Yuki Goto (Acting, Theatre of Yugen), Roy Conboy (Playwriting, Esperanza Theatre), Bill Peters (Directing, Santa Cruz Shakespeare)."

Jackson's own experiences at SF State, where he graduated more than a decade ago, also point to a high degree of practical immersion in the professional world, though more through the act of self-sufficiency than anything else:

"At SF State you had to make your own opportunities," Jackson recently told me. "It's no coincidence that many small theatre companies come out of State. As a director, I also did tech and design for my shows. There were afternoon showcases and I did several of those. There was also a brown bag theatre company class. Faculty supervisors selected a handful of directors to create their own companies and stage two shows in the school's 50-seat black box theatre. I had to do everything myself."
May 15, 2009 9:34 AM | | Comments (1)
One thing I admire about many small performing arts companies in San Francisco is their adventurousness. Whether performing contemporary dance pieces on moving trams stuffed with tourists or doing one-man versions of Hamlet, the best and brightest theatrical up-and-comers often eschew performing the usual plays in the usual settings.

After weeks of seeing big splashy shows in gilded theatres, I was happy to find myself picking my way through some back streets downtown to find a park which I'd never been to before and watch Boxcar Theatre's free outdoor version of Euripides' Ion.

The crowd was modest, but not bad for an al fresco take on an ancient Greek play performed in the middle of a hot Saturday by three young actors (Peter Matthews, Stephanie Maysonave and Sarah Savage) dressed in sweat pants with nothing but a bed sheet for a stage and a few random props.

Though the production came across as hammy in terms of performance and was dramaturgically underdone -- I didn't feel that the performers pushed the physical side of what they were doing far enough and the jokes (such as they were) mostly fell flat -- I appreciated the central conceit of Boxcar's approach: The way in which the actors shared all the roles between the three of them, sometimes taking over from each other in the middle of a scene or even a sentence. This idea was used perhaps too much, but it made things lively and created a great sense of ensemble. Not sure how the multiple-personality idea fed into Euripides' play about a warped family reunion, though.

I admire Boxcar for putting it out there. The endeavor not only requires quite a bit of chutzpah, but also a great deal of energy. Last Saturday, the actors performed the show three times in three different locations in San Francisco. For the next two weekends, they'll be repeating this exhausting schedule in the following locations:

May 16th - Northern San Francisco

1:00pm - West Bluff Amphitheatre at the Western end of Crissy Field near Fort Point
2:30pm - Fort Mason Park near the Rose Garden
4:00pm - Aquatic Park near the Maritime Museum on Beach Street

May 23rd - Central San Francisco

1:00pm - Golden Gate Park in front of the Conservatory of Flowers
2:30pm - Civic Center Park on the east side of City Hall
4:00pm - Dolores Park at the shrine (near 19th Street and Church)

If the weather's good, Boxcar's Ion isn't a bad way spend a picnicking-play-watching hour in the city.
May 14, 2009 10:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Looking back over close to three years of blogging, I've been struck by what kinds of blog posts attract the most comments from readers.

The posts that seem to compel by far the highest number of responses are the ones where I take an unpopular viewpoint on some element of popular culture. The barrage of feedback (some of it unpublishable!) I've received over the past few days following an entry I wrote about Britain's Got Talent chanteuse Susan Boyle is a case in point. When I wrote in a similarly skeptical vein about the movie Mama Mia! last summer, I received an even greater volume of outburst from readers -- and still receive occasional emails on the subject to this day.

Obviously, the high number of responses I have received to these posts can be attributed to a degree to the fact that both Boyle and Mama Mia! are part of pop culture and consumed by people all over the world.

I'm fascinated by the passion with which people have defended both subjects of my posts and I'm extremely happy to hear from all these avid music fans. I only wish that readers would engage as enthusiastically on other topics.

While I realize that live theatre and music performances are experienced by far smaller audiences than blockbuster summer movies and YouTube clips of prime time TV shows, it'd be great to receive similarly ardent messages from readers, telling me that they agreed or disagreed with what I wrote on a recent blog post about, say, countertenor David Daniels' most recent appearance at the Herbst Theatre or Mark Jackson's new play at Shotgun Players.

This doesn't happen very often. Sad.
May 13, 2009 11:16 AM | | Comments (0)
The anti-globalization movement has made inroads into making many of us change the way we shop and feed ourselves. People -- at least those that can afford it -- are trying to buy groceries that are locally grown or even growing the food they eat themselves and eschewing big chain stores for small, neighborhood businesses. Restaurants pride themselves on letting customers know that their beef came from the ranch 20 miles away and their asparagus was brought in fresh this morning from the farmer's market across the street.

Theatre has always been an intensely local medium. It's perhaps the most indigenous of all art forms, happening as it does in real-time and space and demanding that people actually get off their butts to experience the work.

In most cases, shoe string budgets necessitate the casting of local actors and production team members. Local casting isn't just about keeping budgets down though. Because of the close, collaborative nature of theatre, productions and companies spring up as a result of intimate relationships that grow organically between groups of people who share their world views and creative ideas frequently over pints in the pub down the road. They're not only cut from the same cloth but they also physically occupy the same civic space.

The two biggest companies in the Bay Area -- American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- usually buck this trend by casting at least a few of the actors in most of their shows from out of town. This policy (and I think the word "policy" is appropriate here even if it's an unofficial strategy on the part of these companies' leaders) doesn't make much sense to me, even if it does look good on a press release and promotes "diversity."

Even in hard fiscal times such as the ones we're in now, Berkeley Rep and ACT regularly look to New York and other big cities for talent. This can't be a good idea financially. But money isn't the biggest issue.

The crux of the matter as far as I'm concerned is this: If there are great actors in town -- and the Bay Area is stuffed with great actors -- why bother looking further afield?

In shows I've experienced at ACT and Berkeley Rep over the years, the locals frequently outshine the imports. Take Berkeley Rep's current fantastic production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, for instance. The cast is good all-round, but the most memorable performance of the evening goes to Bay Area actor James Carpenter's turn as the decrepit old drunkard Donny (pictured above with fellow cast member Adam Farabee). Surely local actors could have been found to play all of the roles?

There's certainly a case to be made for exposing Bay Area audiences to new faces. But with so many wonderful performers living and working right under our noses, we should make the most of our region's talent both on stage and as part of the production team.
May 12, 2009 11:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Traditionally, beyond the realm of pop music broadcasts on commercial radio stations, radio networks in the US have shied away from airing classical vocal music. Very occasionally, classical radio DJs will mix one choral work or operatic aria into a set of instrumental symphonic or chamber music. If a show is devoted entirely to vocal music, it's invariably sacred choral fare played to put The Devout in the mood for church on a Sunday morning.

But because sung lyrics demand attention from the listener, and the general sensibility among radio networks seems to be one of making "musical wallpaper" of classical music -- in other words, something pretty that's played in the background rather than really listened to -- vocal music is largely relegated to the sidelines.

Which brings me to spreading advance word about VoiceBox, my new vocal music radio show which unapologetically puts singing front and center.

Launching on Friday May 29 from 10-11pm under the auspices of Bay Area NPR affiliate KALW 91.7 FM San Francisco, VoiceBox will celebrate the art of song through highlighting the work of singers, composers, conductors and other amazing vocal music aficionados past and present. The show will present an eclectic exploration of the best of the vocal music scene from the Bay Area and beyond, covering terrain as diverse as Fado, Folk, Opera, Oratorio, Plainchant and Post-Punk.

I'll be joined in the studio by a special guest for each program who'll talk about the art of singing in a wide variety of contexts. Confirmed VoiceBox interviewees include the all-male vocal ensemble Chanticleer's superlative bassman, Eric Alatorre (May 29) and one of the Bay Area's foremost sea shanty singers, Walter Askew (June 5).

I'll be posting information about VoiceBox on my website as it evolves. The series is in its pilot phase: I'll be producing five weekly episodes between May 29 and June 26, and then will be regrouping and hopefully launching the series proper in the Fall. In this trial period, I'd especially love to hear from anyone who's a singer, involved in vocal music in some way, or simply loves to hear great voices. If you have any suggestions or thoughts you'd like to share with me about content for the show or overall scope, please get in touch. I'd love to hear your ideas.

And please listen in on your radio on via the Web!
May 11, 2009 9:34 AM | | Comments (0)
When one of the country's top Baroque music orchestras puts on a concert of Handel blockbusters in the most imposing church in town with a live laser display and drum corps outfitted in Georgian military regalia, what's the outcome? Spectacular bordering on tacky, I imagined, when I first read the press release for American Bach Soloists' Fireworks Celebration at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

The actual event, which I witnessed yesterday evening, was contrastingly a weirdly subdued affair, even though the Cathedral was packed out. I'm in two minds about how much I enjoyed it.

The first half of the concert, in which the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys performed the coronation anthem Zadok, the Priest and Laudate, pueri, Dominus (with soprano Abigail Haynes Lennox as soloist), felt like it was coming at us through a thick woolly sock. The sound quality was bizarre. I've never experienced the like in Grace Cathedral. I was sitting near the front of the church and could barely hear the orchestra, choir and soloist. It sounded like mush. I can't imagine what the acoustic must have been like at the back of the room.

The second half of the concert fared considerably better, sonically-speaking. Someone must have flicked a switch somewhere. ABS' performance of Water Music Suites No 2 in D Major and No 3 in G Major was crisp and lilting. The Country Dance movements were particularly rambunctious with the bass strings giving the music an rugged, earthy foundation. Elsewhere, it was such a pleasure to hear the recorder trilling high above the strings. Debra Nagy's playing sweetened the texture considerably.

The laser- and drum-loaded grand finale performance of Music for the Royal Fireworks was a lot of fun, but somehow less spectacular than I was expecting it to be. The laser show created by Lighting Systems Design was sensitive to the changing mood of the music. In the loud, rambunctious movements, explosions of color played across the big, star-like screen at the front of the church above the orchestra. In the more lyrical places, the lights whizzed quietly across the screen like shooting stars. But after a while, the light show became a bit predictable and underwhelming. Only in the last movement, when the lighting designers made use of four thong-shaped side screens suspended to the left and right of the orchestra, did I feel like I was being enshrouded in light and sound. As for the drummers, they did a fine job. But, again, the sound levels weren't quite right: the noise from the drums sometimes drowned out the rest of the orchestra. And the church was so dark that we weren't able to see the drummers' lovely Georgian costumes with their tri-cornered hats and shiny brass buttons.

Still, I love the idea of mixing Handel with lasers -- it's interesting to see old and new worlds collide and cooperate in this kind of way. With a bit of tweaking, perhaps ABS should try the experiment again some day.
May 8, 2009 8:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Am rather sad to hear about the demise of the great British television arts series, The South Bank Show, which the ITV network has decided to can after 33 years on the air.

Failing media budgets seem to be a major contributing factor to the decision to shut down the program. The other main reason cited by the network is to do with the departure of the show's long-term host, Melvyn Bragg, who's been running the programme since it started in 1978. In an article in The Times, the network is quoted as saying: "The South Bank Show and Melvyn go hand in hand".

I wonder what this will mean for British arts programming? Will ITV actually fulfill its promise of fostering new opportunities for arts coverage on the network? It's hard to imagine any other show doing such a thorough and entertaining job of exploring global culture with such breadth and eclecticism.

That being said, my own personal brush with Melvyn and his entourage wasn't exactly wonderful. I once interviewed for a coveted "researcher" position on the show. This was in 2001 or 2002, I think. I sailed through the first interview with a couple of the Great Man's flunkies and was invited for an audience with Melvyn himself.

This wasn't so much fun. I remember walking into a dark room with about six sloaney-looking TV types sitting around a rectangular table. Melvyn was holding court in the middle.

The basic premise of the interview was to see how I would defend myself in a contentious pitch session. I didn't realize this at the time however. No one actually told me that I'd be openly contradicted. Being a naive, sincere little thing, I didn't have the wits to latch onto Melvyn's game. I thought he hated my ideas and flatly rejected them when he asked me to suggest several potential subjects for upcoming South Bank Show episodes and barked "conductors are boring!" when I suggested the idea of devoting an episode to orchestral maestros. I turned red at his assault and meekly replied "Oh?" What I should have said of course was "No, conductors are NOT boring, Sir Melvyn, and here's why..." But I wasn't expecting to be challenged in this way. I was completely caught off guard. Naturally my lack of spine didn't go over well with the sloanes and their king. I didn't get the job.

I don't remember feeling too cut up about it, although it might have been fun to work on the programme for a couple of years. It's all moot now though. Even the sloanes are having to pack up their MacBook Airs.
May 7, 2009 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)
Having read all about her in newspapers and magazines and listened to friends and acquaintances enthuse about her voice, I finally got around to checking out Susan Boyle's singing abilities for myself on YouTube. The middle-aged, small-town British singing sensation caused global excitement with her take on "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables a few weeks ago on the UK TV talent show, Britain's Got Talent.

Having watched the video footage, all I can say is that I feel slightly queasy -- nay, indignant -- about the audience's reception to Boyle.

People were clearly alarmed by the singer's frumpy appearance and embarrassing hip-wiggle before she opened her mouth to sing. The studio cameras panned around to show the cruel, cynical looks on their faces. As soon as Boyle launched into her show-tune, however, the crowds instantly started screaming and didn't stop till she was done.

The fact is: No one actually heard her sing. They were so busy dealing with their shock. This reaction was made clear by the judges' comments after Boyle's performance. "Without a doubt that was the biggest surprise I've ever had," said one. "I'm reeling from shock," said another. "It was an extraordinary shock" said a third.

And to this day, I still don't think people have really heard Boyle sing. They're so wrapped up in the Susan Boyle "package" -- her underdog story, her frumpy appearance, her undiscovered talent -- that they're not really listening to the quality of her voice at all.

I tried to make out what I could of Boyle's singing from underneath all the screams of surprise. She has a lovely, rich, strong voice to be sure. But take away the "package" that surrounds that voice, and it's not as exceptional as many think. It's a good voice. But it's not great. I certainly don't think it's unique in any way. In a "blind" listening test where listeners could hear several similarly stagey women vocalists singing the same song from Les Miz, I wonder whether people would be able to pick out Boyle's voice from the pack?

So I'm kinda steamed for Susan Boyle. I wish people would stop obsessing over her background and appearance and start listening for once. They might be disappointed to hear that Boyle's not the Vocal Talent of the Decade. But they could still get some measure of enjoyment from her mellifluous tones anyway.
May 6, 2009 9:12 AM | | Comments (31)
I've been working on a story for the Los Angeles Times about the new generation of women conductors. The article is scheduled to appear in the publication's Calendar section this Sunday. 

As is so often the case, some of the most interesting details I learned in the process of reporting the piece -- regarding conductor Marin Alsop's ideas about how women conductors should and shouldn't use their bodies on the podium -- barely made it into the article itself because they were off on a bit of a tangent. So I thought I would bring the subject up here. That's one of the beauties of being a blogger; juicy material need not go to waste. 

According to Alsop, who serves as music director of the Baltimore Symphony and is a mentor to lots of young maestros (many of them women), female conductors need to think more carefully about the way in which they use gesture than their male counterparts. Reno Symphony's new music director, Laura Jackson, tells a funny story along these lines about being coached by Alsop as a recipient of the Taki Concordia women's conducting fellowship. "Once, when she was watching my left hand, Marin shook her head and said 'your left hand is way too girly,'" Jackson recalls. A New York Times story from 2005 about Alsop corroborates Jackson's anecdote: "[Marin Alsop] coaches female conductors in ways a man could not, pointing out, for example, that if a man holds the baton with outstretched pinkie, it can look sensitive; if a woman does so, some may see it as frilly."

Alsop herself has a lot to say about gesture when it comes to being a woman up on the podium: "As a woman, you need to think twice about what you're doing on the podium," Alsop told me in a phone interview last week. "There's one extra step you have to go through to convey only musical ideas, rather than having your gestures reinterpreted because people think as a woman you're conveying something else. Think about shaking hands when you meet someone. If you have a very firm handshake as a woman, it's a bit frightening. But a firm handshake is appealing in a man. In other words, as a female conductor, you have to figure out how to be strong without coming across as threatening. People should only respond to your musical gestures, rather than some preconception they have in their minds about strong women."
May 5, 2009 10:11 AM | | Comments (3)
I've been covering the performing arts in San Francisco for the best part of a decade and am lucky enough to experience theatre and dance productions in many venues across the city. It's a source of continuous delight to me that I still come across performing arts spaces that I have never visited before.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing two theatre productions in spaces that were new to me as a theatre goer.

The first was the studio space at the top of the Brava Center for the Arts in the Mission. Brava has been around for ages. It's faded, crumbling glory reminds me quite a bit of the gorgeous Harvey Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Until I saw Molly Rhodes' play, For All The Babies Fathers on Friday evening, I had not yet explored the upper area of the Brava building with its small theatre -- an airy wooden box complete with gorgeous old rococo ceiling.

Designer Jamie Mulligan transformed the plain space into something akin to a beautiful contemporary art installation with narrow, knee-high wooden "shelves" upon which myriad glasses of all shapes and sizes and half filled with water rested, like crystals on a necklace. The contrast between the period details of the room and the modernity of Mulligan's set design were instantly arresting.

On Sunday evening, I experienced my first ever theatrical production in a hair salon. OK -- so the Glama-Rama Salon in the Mission District of San Francisco may not be a purpose-built theatre. But I wouldn't be surprised if the salon's owner decided to open her salon to more theatrical productions in the future as playwright Sean Owens' new, 1980s screen romance inspired drag comedy, Stale Magnolias, fits the location as well as as false eyelashes on a tranny.

Like Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts in the 1989 movie from which the play steals its name, a couple of Owens' characters are beauticians. The play even grapples with women's balding issues. And what's more, all of the cast members spend their time strutting about the airy pink-painted salon in some of the most extraoardinary wig creations I've ever seen - designed by Jordan L Moore, wigmaker extraordinaire to many local drag luminaries. Enormous and meringue-like, the show's wigs give Marge Simpson and the members of the heavy rock band Kiss a run for their hairspray.

Still, I wished that the cast had made more use of the Glama-Rama setting - perhaps by employing the salon's wonderful old-fashioned hair-dryers for one or two of the play's many gratuitous makeover scenes. When you get to perform in a space as interesting as a hair salon, why not make the most of it?
May 4, 2009 11:13 AM | | Comments (0)
August Strindberg's Miss Julie has always seemed like a dour play about class divide to me. The master-servant power games have dominated productions I've seen in the past. As a result, the play has generally felt old-fashioned. While the class system still exists to some degree in Europe and the US, it's just not as big an issue as it once was.

Last night, though, I experienced a production of the play at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre which made me see the play in an entirely new light -- as a love story.

Director Mark Jackson's fluid production starring Mark Anderson Phillips as Jean and Lauren Grace and Julie feels very human and entirely modern, even though the characters are dressed in stilted Victorian-era garb and perform around Giulio Cesare Perrone's antique kitchen set complete with huge wooden table and prominently-displayed meat cleaver.

Part of the reason for this feeling of freshness stems from Jackson's judicious use of Helen Cooper's translation of Strindberg, which bumps and grinds along in the fashion of a midsummer night romp of yore while never sounding heavy and overwrought in the actors' mouths.

Another reason for the play's modernity is the focus on the love story. Jackson levels the playing field between the two central characters by giving them similar accents which makes their attraction and eventual coupling seem all the more plausible. This is the first time I've seen Jean played with such an upscale British accent, rather than with a "regional" accent more commonly associated with servant roles on stage. At first, I thought it was odd -- misplaced even. But then I realized that Jean could well have learned to speak like his masters. After all, he's studied and scrutinized their ways throughout his life.

Though Phillips is given on occasion to overacting and the blocking from moment to moment feels jerky in places, the chemistry between Phillips and Grace is definitely on: It feels as fragile and dangerous as the fine line that divides Jean and Julie from transcending their place in the order of the universe.

In the first half, the characters' flirtations play off the master-servant roles in a sexually-charged way. Grace is very much the dominatrix in this part of the drama and Jean, her gimp. Things get particularly interesting -- and extremely real -- in the second half of the play, when the roles reverse. The extremes that the characters feel for one another -- the warmth, the dependence and the rage and guilt that stem from being connected through sex -- capture what it is to be in a complex relationship with someone you love. Emotions run high and no feeling is ever one thing; it is many things at the same time.

The brilliance of Jackson's production is that he makes Jean and Julie's relationship appear at the same time very new and full of promise and very old and bound for death. The latter, of course, wins out. But Jackson never loses sight of the newness of the passion between Jean and Julie, which is what provides the tension in the play and makes a rollercoaster love story out of grumpy, post-coital malaise.

The Guardian's Michael Billington was absolutely right when he compared the work of Strindberg and Ibsen in this way: "If Ibsen caught the tensions of the night before, Strindberg revealed the acrid taste of the morning after."
May 1, 2009 7:41 AM | | Comments (0)

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