Monday, August 31, 2015

Scott Greene's Beautiful Dystopia at Catharine Clark Gallery

The Catharine Clarke Gallery near Potrero Hill hosted a closing reception on Saturday afternoon for Scott Greene's show, Deep State.

The 57-year-old artist above was a local boy who studied at the SF Arts Institute and Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts before moving with his artist wife to New Mexico a couple of decades ago.

The sheer quality of the classical style painting is breathtaking...

...while the dystopian subject matter of a world falling apart, object by object, is paradoxically disturbing.

Jesus and other classical figures occasionally appear as characters, and in one case it is Mitt Romney on horseback complete with Groucho Marx nose and moustache riding through the ruins.

If I had any money, I would have bought a painting immediately from Ms. Clarke above, who was hosting a roundtable discussion about "scale" in different mediums.

Outside the gallery on Utah between 15th and 16th street, the scene looked like a Richard Diebenkorn or Wayne Thiebaud painting with the addition of street people camping on the hilly, sun-drenched sidewalk.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 Pakistan Independence Day Mela in Civic Center

San Francisco's Civic Center hosts various ethnic cultural celebrations over the course of the year, including the Pakistan Independence Day Mela (gathering) which was held last Sunday afternon.

The food is great...

...and there is usually a riot of color.

Booths are set up around the perimeter selling the "greatest rice in the world"...

...and beautiful clothing, while Pakistani pop music is played live onstage.

My favorite sight this year was a pair of tiny boys trying to hold a huge Pakistani flag upright in the Civic Center winds with varying success.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mr. Robot Finale Postponed

If you sat down to watch the 10th episode and season finale of Mr. Robot on Wednesday being broadcast at 10PM on the USA Network, this was the message that greeted you. And if you have not been watching Mr. Robot, you should be. It is a brilliantly written and produced summer TV series about a computer hacker trying to bring down Evil Corp. Since the entire show is filtered through the unreliable, subjective viewpoint of a sensitive, mentally ill genius, everyone in the show actually refers to the worldwide conglomerate as Evil Corp, with its parody of Enron's logo as the ubiquitous banner.

It's the first piece of visual narrative that succesfully taps into the Edward Snowden/Chelsea Manning/Anonymous/Arab Spring Social Media moment we are living in presently with all its accompanying paranoia. The young Egyptian actor Rami Malek plays the hero, Elliott, so sensitively that even at his most insane all you want to do is give him a hug and a sandwich, as Tom & Lorenzo once stated. Check it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The 2015 Merola Grand Finale

An annual ritual, the Merola Opera training program for young professionals completed its summer-long session with a concert on the San Francisco Opera stage of various arias and scenes with all the participants wearing fancy dress. This year's crop of singers were not as deep as some previous editions, but there were a few obvious standouts. (All photos in this post by Kristen Loken.)

Alex DeSocio as Starbuck and Michael Papincak as Captain Ahab performed a scene from Jake Heggie's Moby Dick, an opera that strikes me as Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd Lite, without any of the genius. Papincak was much more comfortable in the role and on the big stage than he had been earlier this summer at the Schwabacher Concert, and DeSocio reinforced the good impression he made in Don Pasquale.

It was during this scene that the stark set for this fall's upcoming Sweeney Todd was graced with a new prop, a birdcage with a white candle inside, as part of some obscure concept by director Ma Zhou, who overall did an efficient, fairly seamless job of putting together what is essentially an operatic variety show with one damned thing after another.

The birdcage started becoming ridiculous after a while as various singers started draping themselves around it during their scenas. Toni-Marie Palmertree got away with it, though, because she did a sensational job singing an obscure Verdi opera from Il Corsaro.

Earlier this summer, the New Zealand tenor Alasdair Kent played a mute in The Medium, small character roles in Gianni Schicchi and Don Pasquale, was mute again for a scene from La Sonnambula early in the Grand Finale, a character tenor in Barber of Seville later on, and finally got to sing an aria straight, so to speak, Horch! Die Lerche sing im Hain, from Nicolai's operetta version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It's a pleasure to report that Alasdair actually has a very sweet tenor voice.

The two stars of the summer for me were mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davies and baritone Kuhun Yoon above, so it was thrilling to have them thrown together for a duet from Cavalleria Rusticana. I don't even like the opera but wanted the scene to go on forever.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sign of the Times, Defaced

A Muni bus shelter on Van Ness near McAllister is hosting an ad for Wag!, a new app for "on-demand" dog-walking.

This seemed to trigger rage in somebody with a Sharpie, possibly after they had watched one too many white buses transporting "techie scum" from homes in San Francisco to jobs in Silicon Valley.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

CounterPulse Moves to Its Own Building in the Tenderloin

A gaggle of journalists were given a hard-hat tour two weeks ago of the new home for the CounterPulse cultural organization at 80 Turk Street, on the rough first block spur from Market Street

According to the FAQ handout, "The building has a rich history. It was built in the 1920s as a gambling hall. In the 1960s it became the Gayety burlesque theater, and in the 1980s it became The Dollhouse porn theater. The building was then vacant for a number of years before CAST acquired it in 2014."

CAST stands for The Community Arts Stabilization Trust, which is a group of politically connected heavy hitters who are buying real estate for selected nonprofit arts groups throughout San Francisco with the two-pronged mission of helping artists survive financially while gentrifying neighborhoods like the Tenderloin. There are also seem to be a lot of tax swaps involved. (Pictured above are new CounterPulse Executive Director Tomás Riley, CounterPulse Artistic Director Julie Phelps, and CAST Executive Director Moy Eng.)

According to CAST's website, their mission is "to create stable physical spaces for arts and cultural organizations to facilitate equitable urban transformation."

At the tour, it was interesting to see Randy Shaw above who treats the Tenderloin as his personal poverty provider fiefdom. Shaw is paid close to $100 million annually by Ed Lee's SF City Hall administration for his services, so he isn't delusional in that regard. On the CASE website, there is a blog post from 2013 where Ed Lee is christening the artist/real estate initiative at its birth, and members of his administration are former and current Board members at CounterPulse.

Artistic Director Phelps led the tour which felt enticingly dangerous, as the interior was being demolished and rebuilt all around us.

Phelps noted the building has "great bones," with a rare San Francisco basement that was fully, structurally intact with the kind of construction that was built to last.

In the handout, Phelps has a Curator's Note that is some sort of a grant-writing masterpiece, ticking off just about every funding box imaginable:
"As we launch into this new chapter of [CounterPulse's] legacy the season reflects and interrogates metamorphosis. In this way, the bricks and mortar of our new facility give the context for artistic inquiry into transformation and preservation, becoming and unbecoming, legacy and advancement. Artists from New York, Austin, Manila, Ireland and Berlin investigate immigration, racialized identities, and consumerism. It'll be intellectual, body-based, serious, absurd, relevant and liminal. Our move and this season have the unpredictable and exponential energy of mutation. A wild departure from the narrow path forward. For a moment, CounterPulse becomes a fable, a freedom dream, a zeitgeist in a changing San Francisco."

Phelps is definitely right about one thing. The building has good bones and great vibes. My wish is that it may prosper and be fruitful and be interesting and not be a self-indulgent, politically connected mediocrity.

Monday, August 17, 2015

More Baroque Music Mania at the ABS Festival

The grandly titled American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy 2015 continued last week at the San Francisco Conservatory with the very belated U.S. premiere of the 1709 French Baroque opera Sémélé by composer Marin Marais.

For an enjoyable appreciation of the performance, click here for Patrick Vaz's post at The Reverberate Hills, where he explains the plot of the Prologue and Five Act opera thus: "The sun god [Apollo] then calls on the muses to tell everyone how Bacchus came about: in the manner of our comic-book movies, it's the origin story!"

The character of this French Baroque Marais Semele (Rebecca Myers Hoke in a lovely performance) is not the vivacious minx of the English Handel operatic version of the tale, but more of a polite, virtuous character buffeted by the Fates and God(esse)s. She loves a young man who has been wooing her, but vows to honor her Theban king father by marrying the victorious warrior Adraste (sung winningly by tenor Steven Brennfleck above). When she nobly confesses that determination to her young swain, he comes out of the closet and admits he is really the God Jupiter. Semele reports this news to Adraste in a breakfup aria and he is justifiably horrified. How do you complete with the King of the Gods as a suitor?

The vocal soloists were all Festival participants and they did a varying job, but the overall quality was very high. The professional American Bach Choir supporting them was seriously superb all evening.

The same can be said for the orchestra which also consisted of young Festival participants with half a dozen professional ringers thrown in as section leaders.

On Saturday evening, there was a "Distinguished Artist" concert starring Canadian Baroque trumpet virtuoso John Thiessen, playing an instrument without valves that is almost impossible to keep in tune, but which he managed to do with perfect aplomb all evening long in a program of Italian and English Baroque music. The remainder of the program consisted of chamber pieces performed by veteran American Bach Soloist professionals, although I realized halfway through that I was missing the Festival participant kids.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Grated Fries on Polk

At the corner of Polk and California Streets earlier this week, there was yet another surreal San Francisco sight.

Somebody had dumped a huge pile of french fries on top of a storm drain. It looked like conceptual modern art, complete with ironic NO DUMPING signage.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

American Bach Soloists' Baroque Marathon

The American Bach Festival's annual Academy for young performers held three free, substantial concerts of Baroque music early in the week at the SF Conservatory. I attended the third and final edition on Tuesday evening, and to my surprise stayed for the entire concert because the instrumental playing was so good and the repertoire unfamiliar. Pictured above is ABS string player/instructor Robert Mealy leading a large ensemble in "four short dances and one honking big Chaconne" from the upcoming French Baroque opera Semele by Marin Marais.

Most of the concert consisted of arias from J.S. Bach cantatas with chamber accompaniment, and I was reminded once again that classical music voices need time to mature into their eventual flowering, but instrumentalists from the same generation often sound ready for professional gigs at the highest level, including Gabriel Benton on keyboard and Mikala Schmitz on the cello above.

The two of them brilliantly accompanied a half dozen different singers, joined for a few arias by violinist Alana Youssefian who was equally sensational. Among the vocal soloists, soprano Elisa Sutherland was one of the better performers as she traversed Ich bin vergnugt in meinem Leiden from the cantata for the Sunday after New Year, Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid.

After the Marais dance interlude with the large orchestra, another group of singers performed Bach cantata arias with a new set of accompanists who were also incredibly good, particularly cellist Oliver Weston above and the fluent, lively David Dickey below on oboe.

Greatest hits from obscure Bach cantatas was a wonderful idea for a program involving multiple students, and if this concert is any indication, the world is in for a lot of extraordinary early music performances in the coming decades.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Return of Ulysses to Burning Man

West Edge Opera finished their three opera festival with Monteverdi's 1639 Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in a production that was marvelously inventive, surprisingly fun, and musically serious. An example can be seen above with the goddess Minerva (Kindra Scharich) on a Vespa flying through the heavens with the son of Ulysses played by soprano Johanna Bronk in a cross-dressing turn so convincing that I kept wondering, "why does the fabulous male countertenor seem to have breasts?"

The former Berkeley Opera Company is currently homeless, which this season they embraced with a huge dose of ambition and creativity. The contemporary opera As One was performed in a Jack London Square punk rock club, the Alban Berg opera Lulu astonished everyone in a decaying, marble, abandoned Oakland train station, and Ulysses was performed at a high-ceiling event space at the huge American Steel Studio, Karen Cusolito's Burning Man art collective in the warehouse section of West Oakland.

There were complaints about the venues, with their inadequate ventilation, lack of enough bathrooms, and uncomfortable folding chairs, but the overall feeling seemed to be one of adventure and excitement, for both performers and audiences, introducing older people to newer scenes and younger people to accomplished, amazing music.

The Sunday matinee for Ulysses was sold out because the word got out pretty quickly that it was a great show, and the venue itself turned out to have surprisingly good acoustics, where every singer could be heard clearly.

Part of the reason for that clarity was because of the decision by Music Director Gilbert Martinez to conduct a lean, all-strings and continuo orchestra. They were always interesting and audible while never competing with a singer. According to the latest scholarship, this is probably how the opera was heard by its initial Italian audiences. The opera was only rediscovered in the 19th century, and performed again in the second half of the twentieth century, and most of the extant recordings from the 1960s and 1970s have large reorchestrations with brass, winds and percussion added to the mix. Hearing the music unadorned for the first time was a real treat, especially since the playing was so good.

General Director Mark Streshinsky directed As One and Ulysses, and each of them displayed intelligence and a welcome lightness of touch. In both operas, very serious scenes play off comic moments, and they were handled deftly throughout. Streshinsky also knows how to tell a story, and all the gods and tragic mortals and silly buffoons of Ulysses coexisted seamlessly together.

The cast was sensationally good, starting with baritone Nickolas Nackley above looking and sounding like a handsome and commanding archetype of Ulysses, even while cloaked for most of the opera as an elderly homeless beggar.

Tenor Michael Desnoyers as Eumete the Shepherd looked like he could have walked over from one of the Burning Man sculpture studios next door and he sang with sweet, unforced beauty all afternoon. His paean to being a sheepherder in the country rather than a royal sycophant in the palace was genuine and moving.

Jonathan Smucker, Gary Ruschman, and Aaron Sorensen were delightful as both Gods and Penelope's suitors, and their eventual deaths amidst the audience when Ulysses takes his bow and has his revenge was done on a $9.99 budget and worked splendidly.

The other serious vocal and dramatic standout beside Sara Couden as Penelope was Kindra Scharich as the goddess Minerva who looked and sounded as if she were ready to levitate at any moment off of one of the platforms making up the stage.

When she walked up the aisle with wings on, I was sure she was going to fly.