31 March 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April 2012

March was certainly jam-packed, and I went to as many things as I realistically could. When I started this blog six years ago I vowed the one thing I would never do was apologize for being behind on posting, which was a surprisingly realistic assessment and one that has often comforted me, sort of. So I'll do what I can when I can, and let's look at April:

Tomorrow, 1 April, both Jonathan Biss and Keith Jarrett play piano (in separate performances) at Cal Performances. On 13 April the period-instrument quartet Quatuor Mosaïques plays Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Schubert, and on 22 April Musicians from Marlboro plays Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Shostakovich. On 29 April Sandrine Piau gives a solo recital. (Cal Performances will announce its next season on 24 April.)

San Francisco Performances also has two interesting-looking concerts tomorrow, 1 April: Nareh Arghamanyan on piano in the afternoon and Dawn Upshaw singing a whole mess of stuff in the evening (Upshaw is rescheduled from January). The Vijay Iyer Trio plays Herbst on 7 April; the Arditti Quartet play Beethoven, Berg, Ades, and Bartok on 12 April; Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes perform Mahler and Shostakovich on 23 April; and Jessica Rivera sings Mompou, Richard Strauss, and Barber on 29 April. (SF Performances will announce its next season on 17 April.)

Aurora Theater presents Arthur Schnitzler's Anatol, in a new translation by Margret Schaefer, 6 April to 13 May.

Cutting Ball Theater presents Strindberg's Easter on, well, Easter, 8 April, as part of its Hidden Classics Reading Series. Their next mainstage production, Tenderloin by Annie Elias (in collaboration with others) runs from 27 April to 27 May.

ACT presents the west coast premiere of Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison, 29 March to 22 April.

The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Most visits Davies Hall 15-16 April as part of the SF Symphony's centennial season, bringing (among other things) works they've commissioned from Saariaho and Ades. Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony 27-28 April in works by Grisey, Prokofiev, and Sibelius.

Philharmonia Baroque closes its season with Handel's setting of Alexander's Feast, Dryden's ode to the power of music; 19-22 April, in Atherton, San Francisco, or Berkeley (more information here.)

Haiku 2012/91

white streaked sheets of rain
pour down on a passive dove

30 March 2012

Haiku 2012/90

rain has made tears run
down the blank serene faces
of the park statues

29 March 2012

28 March 2012

Haiku 2012/88

rain and wind all day
leaves and litter all over
the air smells so fresh

27 March 2012

Haiku 2012/87

down the corridor
someone is sitting unseen
endlessly coughing

26 March 2012

Haiku 2012/86

at the branches' tips
leaves like pale green tongues of flame
vernal pentecost

25 March 2012

Haiku 2012/85

while I was away
pale blossoms have come and gone
leaves hide the branches

24 March 2012

Haiku 2012/84

harmonize with rain
settle gently on the earth
let the grass drink you

23 March 2012

Haiku 2012/83

pre-dawn runners pass
the barely stirring buildings
cheered by early birds

22 March 2012

Haiku 2012/82

blank sheet of blue sky
crossed and creased by birds and wires
crumpled up by night

21 March 2012

Haiku 2012/81

begging from the moon
another pool of silver
I have spent the night

20 March 2012

Haiku 2011/80

brightly lit buses
glide empty down empty streets
birds sing in darkness

19 March 2012

Haiku 2012/79

waking beside you
dawn light slowly enters in
you were never there

18 March 2012

Haiku 2012/78

after days of rain
shining puddles start to shrink
greenery to glow

17 March 2012

Haiku 2012/77

lovely camellias
slowly turn from rose to brown
on their silver tray

16 March 2012

the Big Apple of discord

The other day I received an e-mail from someone named Amanda Ameer with the subject line "Who is the best arts blogger in America?" With a becomingly modest blush, I opened the e-mail but before I could say, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall. . . " I realized it was some sort of contest, so I'm going to be a little vague about some details here, because though I have read (among other very long books) The History of Clarissa Harlowe in its entirety three times and am up for a fourth, if you hand me a set of contest or game rules I break down well before the end of the first page. Phrases like "four round process" do not encourage me to continue.

There are a number of set debates and discussions I find myself impatient with, because I think the premises are false. When people would debate "allowing gays in the military" I would think, this is a pointless debate, because there always have been and always will be people in the military who are attracted to their own sex; the question is, should we spend time and money rooting them out? Or when people discuss low-paying but virtuous jobs vs high-paying jobs with evil (it is assumed) corporations, I would think, this discussion is pointless, because if there's a moral imperative to do good by others, it's not abrogated just because you decide you want a 401(k); if anything, you can do more good if you have greater income and influence. Or when people discuss whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum will be the Republican presidential candidate this year, I think, I wonder how difficult it is to become a Canadian citizen? Seriously, what do I have to do?

What I'm getting at here in my usual hilarious but circuitous way is that the whole premise of the e-mail is false to begin with, because there are judges and public voting involved (just like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars!), so they're not looking for the "best" arts blogger in America, which is so clearly a meaningless concept anyway that it's not even worth discussing; they're looking for the most popular arts blogger in America, or at least the one who can get the most votes, as well as the approval of the judges (Nico Muhly, Douglas McLennan, and Katrine Ames, in case you're wondering), assuming of course that the blogger enters him- or herself (something tells me Alex Ross, Terry Teachout, etc, will not be submitting entries).

Also, about those entries: there are assigned topics. Look, I already have a lengthy list of entries I need and want to write, in between attending even more performances and working full time and generally trying to keep my head above water. I don't need more, especially when they're as unnecessary as Topic #1, the only one so far revealed: "New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?" (This contest, I will point out here, is sponsored by a New York organization.)

My first thought after reading that (well, after a generalized "no fucking way") was of that old joke: "But enough about me. What do you think of me?" And then my thought was: a false premise. . . . New York has long been the media (publishing, advertising, public relations) capital of America. Who considers it the cultural capital of America? I mean, besides people who live there, or dream of living there? We still live in a movie culture, and you could make a far more compelling case that Los Angeles, the home of the film industry (and the television industry, despite the head offices in New York City), has been the most culturally influential American city of the twentieth century. (I could even entertain arguments that Detroit, home of the auto industry, has had a greater influence on American culture than either New York or Los Angeles. . . .)

Publicity, connections, all that, can help "culture" happen, or help make people aware of it, but let's not confuse the two things. What you have in New York is mostly abundance: lots of great museums with great art past and present, lots of performers, lots of connections, lots of money. That can produce art, but it can also produce conformity; I always think of Haydn's remark about his isolation in the Esterhazy palaces forcing him to become original. (And, since I'm quoting composers, it's inevitable that someone discussing this contest will quote Bartok on competitions being for horses not artists. . . .) Would Emily Dickinson have written better poems if she'd been immersed in the Boston (or even New York) literary scene of her day? Would she matter more or less to us? (Those of us, that is, to whom she matters at all. It's a big, difficult world out there.)

I assume one of the reasons this topic was chosen for bloggers is so that we can make the obvious points about the digital world breaking down these geographic barriers etc etc. But I think maybe what it's done is just create new power structures, ones which are perhaps less easy to figure out than the old "go to New York and work for the Times" sort of power structure. I'm not so sure this is such a good thing, at least for people like me who always have trouble figuring out power structures, which is why I don't like things that obscure the already shadowy structures even further from view.

Here's where I should point out that though I'm probably sounding full of imperious disdain and arrogance, in my humble heart I know that if a contest involves getting people to vote for you, I am going to lose. I'm just not that popular and never have been (and, honestly, I'm an incredibly nice guy! and I'll prove it: this whole thing is clearly designed to drive traffic to the website of the sponsors, Spring for Music, so here it is, click away, and tell them I send my love). I'm always a little doubtful about the need to import even more rejection and humiliation into my life, so I kind of doubt, given the false premises and all, that this whole thing is worth more of my time than I'm giving it here, despite the $2,500 and the tickets to the Spring for Music concerts at Carnegie Hall, which, as I've already pointed out, I'm just not going to win, under the circumstances. (I do find it a little odd that they don't tell us what the programs are; wouldn't that be crucial information for any "arts bloggers" thinking about entering? I guess the assumption is that if it's in New York, much less Carnegie Hall, it's good enough for the likes of us. Old assumptions die hard.) Look, if anyone wants to crown me with immortal digital laurel, I won't object, but you can hardly expect me to read sheets of instructions. But best wishes to all who enter. I'll just sit here, far away from the golden Apple, fiddling away while Rome burns.

Haiku 2012/76

where has the wind been
playfully ruffling my hair
then racing away

15 March 2012

Haiku 2012/75

city park at night
street lights wash away the moon
pines guard empty paths

14 March 2012

Haiku 2012/74

I am one of those
waiting in the steady rain
for a wayward bus

13 March 2012

more March madness

After what I thought was a fairly exhaustive and exhausting list of March happenings, I discovered . . . that I had left out a whole bunch of stuff!

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music joins with its sister school, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, to present an International Chamber Music Festival, 12-16 March. Among other events there are some evening concerts on 15-16 March, featuring music new and old: more information here.

18 March at 4:30 at the Unitarian Universalist church at 1187 Franklin Street in San Francisco, there is a Celebration of Bay Area music, featuring lots of local composers and performers, including Sarah Cahill playing John Adams's China Gates, which he dedicated to her. There is a suggested donation of $5-$10, which goes to the Winter Homeless Shelter fund. (I'd include a link but I don't think there is one.)

If you want to hear from the man who rescued Gance's Napoleon from oblivion, then you can go to the Pacific Film Archive on Friday 30 March to hear him (that would be Kevin Brownlow). Information on the talk here and on the SF Silent Film Festival showings of Napoleon here.

And the San Francisco Lyric Opera presents David Lang's The Little Match Girl Passion, fully staged with a great quartet of singers (Ann Moss, Celeste Winant, Eric Tuan, and Eugene Brancoveanu) and directed by Urban Opera's Chip Grant, 23-25 March, at the ODC Theater on 17th Street in San Francisco. This Pulitzer-Prize winning work, inspired by the famous Hans Christian Andersen story and Bach's St Matthew Passion, is looking more and more like one of the key works of our time. More information here.

There you go. Good luck, and remember to turn off all electronic devices, unwrap your candies in advance, and pay attention because the performance you're seeing isn't coming back.

Haiku 2012/73

dark wet spring morning
women under umbrellas
rain spatters new leaves

12 March 2012

Haiku 2012/72

stately stone lions
glare at concrete bunnies in
manicured gardens

11 March 2012

10 March 2012

Haiku 2012/70

drunk and discontent
lumbering angrily home
I glimpse the bright moon

09 March 2012

08 March 2012

Haiku 2012/68

office park pigeons:
if I had your sea-gray wings
I'd fly far away

07 March 2012

Haiku 2012/67

long loud train whistle
then the night murmurs resume
in the restless dark

06 March 2012


As part of its centennial season, the San Francisco Symphony is reviving the American Mavericks festival it last held in 2000, and they're keeping the name despite the Palin taint still lingering over the word "maverick," and why shouldn't they, since they were there first. It's coming right up at Davies Hall, starting this Thursday 8 March, before traveling on to Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Hall. SFMike previews it all for you, knowledgeably and enthusiastically, right here. (Though also click here for Joshua Kosman's skeptical take on the programming.)

These are exciting concerts, and I had missed the earlier festival, so it's all new to me. I was picking up the phone to buy the $100 pass, which (potentially) gets you into all of the concerts, and which comes with the DVD Copland and the American Sound, as well as the Symphony's just-released CD of John Adams's Harmonielehre, when I thought to check ticket availability.

I think the pass is a great idea, but I don't understand why it wasn't made available much earlier and publicized more. If I'd known about it earlier, I would have bought one right away and arranged some of my precious few vacation days to take advantage of all the concerts. I didn't hear about the pass in anything I received from the Symphony; I heard about it when Lisa mentioned it as part of her on-going series of ticket frustrations with the Symphony (if the pass had been available, she would have bought that instead of more expensive subscription tickets). After I read Lisa's account, I went to the Symphony's website, and if I hadn't been deliberately looking for information on the pass, I would have missed it entirely: there was a little box of information off to the side, among other similar-looking boxes of information. As far as I could see, if I were buying tickets to the Maverick concerts, nothing would stop me and let me know there was a potentially better option.

I go back and forth on buying tickets in advance and subscribing. On the one hand, I do care a lot about where I sit, though for different reasons in different venues. Davies is not Carnegie Hall; there are lots of seats where the sound is dead and distant and you might as well be sitting in the lobby listening. Buying in advance reassures me about where I'll be sitting. And generally, on the actual day of the performance, I'd rather just go home, especially when it means killing three plus hours after work waiting for 8:00 to roll around. If I've already spent the money, and I have it in my mind that I'm going, then I'll go, and usually find it worth the trouble. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for flexibility, and leaving space for other things that come up, and not overbooking the calendar or spending too much money and time, both of which are of course always in short supply.

OK, so as I said I was all set to call and get my pass when I checked ticket availability (this was several weeks ago, so I assume even fewer tickets are available now). The two concerts with Jessye Norman were almost sold out, as far as I could see. (By the way, I'm calling them the Jessye Norman concerts since I suspect she's the reason tickets are so scarce; no disrespect to Joan La Barbara or Meredith Monk.) I had conflicting concerts on several of the dates. And since I must, alas, work a steady job to pay for all my concert-going, the Symphony's sclerotic insistence that 8:00 is the only possible start time for a weeknight concert was, uh, problematic. I guess the music can be fresh but the outer rituals of concert-going must stay petrified.

So it was increasingly clear that my $100 might get me a great bargain, but was just as likely not to. I really wanted to hear Meredith Monk. I had heard her live only once before, and it was basically my first exposure to her music, and I felt very lucky to have had the chance. So I ended up buying a ticket to the Sunday 18 March concert that featured her. It's billed as a chamber music concert, and Davies is not a chamber music hall, but I found a great seat for $36. Except, of course, it wasn't $36; it was $46, since a $10 charge for "handling" or who knows what is tacked onto all ticket prices, in a fairly obvious and stupid bid to make ticket prices look lower than they actually are. Seriously, do they think I won't notice? Just tell me up front that you're going to charge me $46. If it didn't stop me at the end, it wouldn't have stopped me at the beginning.

So here's my frustration: I now have an incentive not to buy tickets to these concerts. Rush tickets are $20, if they're even available, so I figure I can buy at most two (again, if they're even available) before I will have reached a point where the pass would have been a better choice.

Why wasn't the pass available when subscriptions were first sold?

Haiku 2012/66

sly seductive moon
strikes an artful silver pose
behind black branches

05 March 2012

ghost town

Saturday before last I headed out to Cutting Ball Theater for Tontlawald (The Ghost Forest). I got off at the Powell Street BART stop and walked through the Westfield Mall for a while. Normally I would avoid any mall, even an allegedly upscale one like the Westfield, on a Saturday night, but it's right there, and I had some time to kill before the theater opened. This might have been a miscalculation on my part, since the crackheads who gather in the vicinity of the Exit Stage Left generally ignore the random passers-by and leave them plenty of sidewalk space, whereas the shop-heads in the mall reminded me once again that I am apparently the only remaining person who will move out of the way for other people so that we don't collide (and I’m not even talking about those idiots who stroll straight on, their eyes glued to their stupid little electronic toys).

I had been wondering recently if I had been taking Cutting Ball a bit for granted – I’ve been going to their shows for almost their entire decade-plus of existence, and you get used to a certain level of things. But I was talking to NA, a theater habitué who hadn’t been to Cutting Ball much but who had gone to Pelleas and Melisande, and she was raving about how much the company had done in such a small space and how inventively and satisfyingly everything had been staged, and I thought, yes – her remark had brought me into a sudden state of awareness of something I already knew but had – not exactly forgotten, but had not kept fresh in my consciousness.

It all comes back to mindfulness, and awareness of the moment – walking so that you don’t collide with others, appreciating what you see: noticing. I know everyone talks about living in the moment blah blah blah but it’s actually a tricky thing, since the moment so often is one you wish would pass, which is an inevitable response but maybe not the best one possible. What do you notice? What do you dwell on (or in)? What do you remember? The days might drag but the years fly.

Live performance is to me a paradigm of the “awareness issue” and of how we try to live in the world – after the trouble and time and expense, among often uncomprehending and downright rude and stupid audiences, you still have the artists, giving of their essence to you. I’m speaking generally of the audience here; the full house for Tontlawald the night I went was completely silent and attentive, except for one idiot woman who kept giggling ostentatiously towards the end, apparently to show everyone that she “got it,” whatever "it" was. There's always someone who feels the need to giggle like that.

We were encouraged to read the original story beforehand. It took up only a half-page in the program, but I decided not to, since it’s fairly rare for me to see something where I don’t already know everything that’s going to happen. The play happens in a fragmentary and refracted way (though it was always clear to me what was going on). Oddly one effect of this fragmentation is that while you watch it in the moment you also feel as if you’re remembering the performance – individual moments spring out with dreamlike vividness the way they would when you thought about the performance later. These striking moments are achieved with the simplest effects, as when the protagonist, a girl named Lona, seems to walk on air – the actress is on one stool and then steps onto a second one while an actor moves the first stool in front of the second one, so that she continues to move smoothly from one to the other. (This was the moment that inexplicably produced giggles from that one person.)

Lona has a father, and a cruel stepmother, from whom she finds refuge in the forbidden Tontlawald – the ghost forest, an eerie realm, a place of the unearthly, of the imagination. It’s a place of make-believe and of awareness. It’s body, it’s breath, it’s theater. The back of the performing space is a wavy lattice of gleaming white ribbon (a portion of which is used to simple and stunning effect at the end, draped around Lona to effect her transformation into a bird). A similar white pattern is painted on the black floor. We also are enmeshed in the Tontlawald.

The play was co-directed by Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino. Laura Arrington did the movement, and Eugenie Chan wrote the text. I had not much liked Chan’s earlier work for Cutting Ball, but I loved her spare, evocative, and poetic script for this one. There is much beautiful and natural singing, with music that is familiar, or just sounds familiar – a snatch of the Magic Flute, old jazz songs. (It’s funny how even a passing lyrical “daddy-o” becomes resonant in the setting of this fairy-tale family.) There is occasional use of amplification, very deliberately done to distort or change the voices – it’s mindful amplification, which is very different from what we get in a lot of theater these days (yes, I’m thinking of the Berkeley Rep/Kneehigh Wild Bride – Tontlawald is what the Wild Bride should have been). One reason I prefer unamplified voices is that to me performing is very much about the body and what it can do unaided – I mean, I recognize that driving cars fast around a racetrack takes a lot of skill, but I don’t find it at all interesting to watch, the way I would humans or even horses racing around a track. Bodies even became musical instruments, as when the men stripped off their shirts and provided music by drumming on their chests and thighs. Like the rest of the performance, it was both very primitive and very sophisticated.

The whole ensemble is top-notch: Rebecca Frank, Sam Gibbs, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O’Connor, Liz Wand – and I particularly liked the dead-eyed nuance Madeline H.D. Brown brought to the stepmother.

Coincidentally, a few days before going to the performance I had been reading about the theories of the postwar Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski – basically, he thought that since theater could not compete with the spectacle and realism of the movies, it should move in the opposite direction: towards directness, simplicity, the use of the actor’s bodies (he expressed this as “poor” theater – theater stripped down to its essentials). I say that this was a coincidence since it turned out that Tontlawald was inspired by Grotowski’s theories. There are moments that reminded me of other avant-garde theater works – I thought of Beckett’s Not I, and the Stein/Thomson 4 Saints in 3 Acts, and suchlike – but Tontlawald feels like a coherent and moving whole, not at all like a compendium of art-house tricks. I was reminded not only of the long range of avant-garde theater, but of what exciting, exhilarating fun it can be. “That was certainly an experience,” I heard one audience member say at the end of the hour. It sure was.

Tontlawald runs through 11 March, though I hope it gets extended. It's a stunning performance. Get tickets here.

Haiku 2012/65

white tile station walls
(a dark man slumped helplessly)
waxy yellow lights

04 March 2012

Haiku 2012/64

bird taps my window
hey, I get it: nevermore!
so I start my day

03 March 2012

Haiku 2012/63

cars in the distance
wave-like rising, receding
birds chirp undisturbed

02 March 2012

Haiku 2012/62

insistent busker
guitar twangling so sweetly
singing so harshly

01 March 2012

Haiku 2012/61

looking at spring leaves
and thinking of fall sweeping?
you should think again