Friday, February 27, 2015

Pan Pacific International Exposition 100th Anniversary Party

A wedding party photo shoot was interrupted by hordes of visitors to architect Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts complex last Saturday.

The crowds had arrived at the Palace, which looks like an improbable realization of a Maxfield Parrish painting, for a 100th anniversary celebration of the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition, in which the buildings were featured.

Outdoor entertainment under the rotunda was provided by everything from Hawaiian dancers to SF Opera Adler Fellow singers belting out arias.

The event began with a dull speech at noon from Mayor Ed Lee that had something to do with innovation and entrepreneurship before the doors were thrown open to the large, curved pavilion which has now been reconstituted as the "Innovation Hangar."

The festivities and the many booths at the SF Recrecation & Park sponsored event were an odd mix...

...ranging from history displays, complete with costumed attendees... a food court that included expensive Berry White smoothies.

Various city funded departments were represented, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where former newspaper columnist Ken Garcia above, the C.W. Nevius of his time, was helping out with the children's art space. Garcia abandoned journalism a few years back and became the "Director of Government and Community Affairs" for the museums, which essentially means that he is Board President Dede Wilsey's personal flack.

There were also historic props from corporate sponsors scattered about, such as a Wells Fargo stagecoach and Model A's from the Ford Motor Company next to representatives from the current Maker Faire and booths hawking wearable technology.

One of the more amusing interactive events was for children. It was set up as a combination Houdini and hacking competition, where two groups were locked into glass cubes and had to untangle a mathematical puzzle to escape before the other.

The losers were bombarded with a blizzard of ping pong balls while the winner exulted outside.

Any initiative from the famously dysfunctional SF Rec & Park Department is a dubious prospect from the outset, but maybe the place will accidentally become a cool place on its own, rather like the early days of the Exploratorium which occupied the pavilion for decades before they moved to the waterfront and started charging $29 admission. The Innovation Hangar will be open through at least next year, from 10AM to 5PM Wednesday through Sunday, and admission is free. The marvelous building is worth checking out for its architectural merits alone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Seduction at the Asian

A wall sign advertising SEDUCTION looked bizarre the other day as it framed masses of street people spread out with their dogs and hoarded trash on the sidewalks and thin lawn of Fulton Street.

The signage was for a new special exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, Seduction: Japan's Floating World, depicting the upscale prostitution world of Tokyo during the Edo period (1615-1868). The exhibit is taken from a single collection by Dr. John C. Weber below, which consists of hundreds of kimonos, paintings and woodblock prints detailing the exotic goings-on.

Curious about where Dr. Weber's money came from to purchase all these treasures, I followed a surprisingly thin trail on Google. It seems that the rich are not only different from you and me, but they know how to keep their names off the internet for the most part. The clue to the origins of his personal wealth might lie with his ex-wife, Charlotte C. Weber, one of three Campbell Soup heiresses who was #1234 in Forbes' 2014 list of The World's Billionaires.

The outrageous highlight of the exhibit is a 58-eight painted scroll from the late 1680s by Hishikawa Moronobu, detailing a long streetscape in the moated, gated Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. The annotations above and below the scroll are fascinating, pointing out what each group in each room is doing from dining to dancing to having sex under elaborate bedding. It's worth a visit to see this piece alone.

There is a late 18th century oversized kimono bed cover on display along with other exquisite textiles.

Geishas on the upper scale were the movie stars of their time, and there was a high and low artistic industry detailing their lives and luxuries.

There is no add-on charge for this special exhibit that runs through May, so if you would like to visit inexpensively, this Sunday, March 1st, is the Asian Art Museum's free admission day.

Monday, February 23, 2015

For all flesh is as grass

The Saturday evening performance at the San Francisco Symphony of Brahms' A German Requiem was stirring and beautiful. It's too bad that the concert started with a deadly dull rendition by organist Jonathan Dimmock of four Chorale Preludes by Brahms, followed by the same composer's acapella motet for chorus entitled Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Muhseligen (Why is light given to those in misery?).

I reassured a number of subscribers at intermission that things would pick up immensely in the second half, and they did. Soloists baritone Christian Gerhaher (above right) and soprano Ruth Ziesak (not pictured) were superb in their small roles, Herbert Blomstedt's conducting was magisterial, the orchestra was sharp, and the massive SF Symphony Chorus was stupendously good. The music is still vibrating in my brain and body two days later. Congratulations to everyone.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Traffic Disaster at Franklin and Grove

Shortly after noon today, a water main busted at the intersection of Franklin and Grove Streets, which started a flood in the area.

To fix the problem, city workers had to create a huge sinkhole in the middle of the busy intersection, which screwed up traffic on Franklin and Grove and Van Ness and Gough and every other major artery nearby for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, at Davies Symphony Hall on one of the intersection's corners, a giant gold Buddha which had greeted guests at the annual Chinese New Years Concert matinee, was ready to be taken away by a different set of workers...

...but they graciously took photos of these two characters before hauling Him away.

San Francisco, and this neighborhood in particular, is becoming more surreal every day. If you're thinking of driving anywhere near the Civic Center for the next 24 hours, my advice is to pick another route or take public transportation.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why You Should Hear The Brahms Requiem This Weekend

Herbert Blomstedt (above) is in San Francisco for two weeks to conduct concerts at the San Francisco Symphony, his old orchestra where he was Music Director from 1985-1995. I heard him conducting the Sibelius Second Symphony last week in a precise yet smoothly controlled performance that was wonderful to experience. Blomstedt is 87 years old and only conducts a few orchestras where he has a long rapport in Germany and Scandinavia and San Francisco.

On Wednesday evening, the Friends of the SF Symphony were invited to an evening rehearsal of this weekend's program, the Brahms Requiem, and I asked a few of the attendees whether or not they were Blomstedt Fans.

Michele above was definitely one. "Blomstedt was the person who turned the San Francisco Symphony from what was, honestly, a so-so orchestra to a world class one. You could hear him elevating the sound from the time he arrived. He's also a very genial, gallant man. I used to sit in the Center Terrace a lot when he was Music Director and you could see that in his interactions with the orchestra."

The rehearsal was fascinating, as Blomstedt would play through each movement without pause, and then spend the next five to ten minutes singing and talking his way through what he REALLY wanted, and then entire sections would be replayed, and they always sounded better. The SF Symphony Chorus, with plenty of competition, is the eminent choral group in the Bay Area right now and they were sounding exquisite, particularly after Blomstedt would tell them that they must "accent it like so [singing] on these particular words like so [singing]." The performances should be very special.

I'm making this recommendation even though I can't abide requiems. George Bernard Shaw, the Pauline Kael of late 19th century London musical critics, put it better than I ever could: "I do not deny that the Brahm's Requiem is a solid piece of music manufacture. You feel at once that it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker. But I object to requiems altogether. The Dead March in Saul is just as long as a soul in perfect health ought to meditate on the grave before turning lifewards again to a gay quickstep, as the soldiers do. A requiem overdoes it, even when there is an actual bereavement to be sympathized with; but in a concert room when there is nobody dead, it is the very wantonness of make-believe." (Pictured above is baritone Christian Gerhaher, who was sounding great in his short soloist role.)

In the short Wikipedia entry on Herbert Blomstedt, my favorite paragraph is this: "A devout Seventh-day Adventist, Blomstedt does not rehearse on Friday nights or Saturdays, the Sabbath in Seventh-day Adventism. He does, however, conduct concerts, since he considers actual performances to be an expression of his religious devotion rather than work." Even in rehearsal, you could tell he was completely energized by the music, and it required a functionary from backstage to tell him that he had to take a break after ninety minutes or many union rules were going to explode. In any case, you have been alerted that a possible religious experience is in store at Davies Hall this weekend. There are performances on Friday and Saturday, and you can get ticket info here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Zelmira in Rossmoor

The gated senior community of Rossmoor in Walnut Creek has just built a new Event Center for dining and dancing along with performances on a well-equipped proscenium stage by both residents and outside performing groups.

On Sunday afternoon at the Center, the Berkeley based West Edge Opera company inaugurated their second year of Opera Medium Rare, concert performances of obscure operas by famous composers. I tagged along with a friend who was a last-minute recruit for the chorus in Rossini's extremely rare 1824 opera seria, Zelmira.

It was an auspicious inaugural for the Event Center, with a large, attentive audience enjoying a surprisingly accomplished performance. For decades, I've been attending matinees at the SF Opera and SF Symphony, where the audiences are mostly elderly women, including busloads from the 10,000 person Rossmoor development. Instead of the stereotype of fuddy-duddies stuck in time, I soon realized that many of them have very sophisticated musical tastes honed over years of concertgoing and they are passionately interested in hearing new works. In other words, the audience on Sunday would probably rather hear an ambitious Rossini rarity like Zelmira than yet another Barber of Seville.

At this point in time, Zelmira probably works better in a concert version than if it were staged, because so many of the early 19th century dramaturgical conventions it embodies would strike a contemporary audience as absurd. However, a straightforward concert with clever scene-setting supertitles by Jonathan Khuner felt almost as if we were watching a silent film with broadly drawn villains, misunderstood heroines and confused heroes, except with exceptionally exquisite music. If you are an admirer of Rossini's musical genius, hearing a score this brilliant live for the first time is a treat.

One of the reasons the opera has been so rarely produced over the last 200 years is because it basically requires the two greatest tenors, two greatest mezzo sopranos, and a baritone and bass with the finest voices in the world, which makes it virtually impossible to cast. The West Edge Opera singers all started off a little rough in their various opening arias, but they warmed up quickly and the singing built in beauty all afternoon. (Pictured above left to right are Music Director Alexander Katsman, Shawnette Sulker as Zelmira, Brian Yeakley as Prince Ilo, Michael Belle as Antenore, Nikola Printz as Emma, Paul Thompson as Polidoro, and Jordan Eldredge as Leucippo.)

Shawnette Sulker in the title role (above right) was lovely in a stupendously demanding role, and Brian Yeakley as her Trojan husband sounded like a young Chris Merritt in the virtuosic Rossini arias. Yeakley is ready to hit major opera stages soon. Nikola Printz as the steadfast female warrior buddy of Zelmira nailed her passionate second act aria, and tenor Michael Belle was superb throughout as the Bad Guy even though some of the music was too high for his voice.

The real heroes of the afternoon were the four-piece ensemble that played a reduction of the 300-page opera score in a manner that ensured the music was constantly interesting. (From left to right, violinist Sara Usher, flute player Noah Usher, cellist Amy Brodo, and Musical Director Alexander Katsman playing and conducting from the piano.) At the end of the performance, they looked relieved and exhausted, but they did a great job.

One of the editors of the 2005 critical edition of the score, Kathleen Kuzmick Hansell above right, attended the performance and the wine reception afterwards. If you'd like to hear the opera, there is going to be an encore performance tomorrow evening, Tuesday the 17th, at a very different kind of venue from Rossmoor, the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. Admission is only $20 at the door which is one of the best musical deals in town.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Pacifica Quartet Plays With Students

The Pacifica String Quartet were guests at the SF Conservatory of Music all week, teaching master classes and rehearsing students for a wonderful chamber music concert on Thursday evening. In an interesting twist, the celebrated quartet split itself up and created new ensembles with the students, and the mixture of professionals and high-level aspiring artists gave the performances a liveliness and energy that was exceptional.

I heard the Pacifica play Shostakovich's 7th String Quartet a year ago at the SFJAZZ Center, and it was a spiky, compressed, hard-charging performance. With students Autumn Chodorowski (in red) and Meredith Kufchak (in black) joining Sibbi Bernhardson on violin and Brandon Vamos on cello above, it sounded completely different.

It was gentler, sadder, and moodier, which worked just as well as an interpretation, and the four players gave a superb, seamlessly integrated performance.

Shostakovich tends to overwhelm most other music on any program, but the 1904 String Trio in C Major by Dohnanyi held its own, helped along immensely by the unusually soulful, sweet sound of Pacifica violist Masumi Per Rostad on the left, playing the five-movement piece with violinist Joshua Peters and cellist James Jaffe.

After intermission, the entire Pacifica Quartet were joined by four students for Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, music that can easily become dull and sickly sweet, but this performance was both precise and musically supple. You could hear every individual voice at all times but the performers played with a team spirit that made the music sound exciting and fresh. From left to right below, they were Simin Ganatra, violin; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin; Autumn Chodorowski, violin; Joshua Peters, violin; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Luis Bellorin, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello; and Patricia Ryan, cello.

I cannot imagine hearing a better live performance of the piece, and it was especially fun watching student violist Luis Bellorin (third from the right) rocking out through the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mobile Series 8: A Walk in The Park

The silver lining to the Great Drought is that there are few things more beautiful than a warm winter day in coastal California, particularly after one of our infrequent rains such as this weekend.

After wandering the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park on Tuesday afternoon during one of its infrequent Free Days...

...I passed by the backside of the California Academy of Sciences...

...a modernist building that seems to be aging beautifully.

Across the plaza at the deYoung Art Museum, there is a huge show featuring the preposterously overrated Keith Haring in a political mode...

...which I avoided, stopping instead to view a few Wayne Thiebaud paintings off the main lobby...

...before riding an elevator to the top of the tower where I took photos of tourists taking photos of the view.

It was such a strikingly gorgeous day...

...I walked to the coastline... Ocean Beach.

The gentleman above was jabbering into his mobile device while seemingly recording the sunset...

...and the couple above was ignoring everything except for their physical workout and digital metrics.