Monthly Archives: September 2008

Ballet in the Park

Or, How NOT to Open a Newly Renovated Museum

I braved the crowds at the opening of the renovated Academy of Sciences museum this weekend at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to try to get a peek inside at the one day of free admission of a museum that will normally be charging a steep $25 for entry. Unfortunately when a friend of mine got to the museum at 10:30 AM, I found out that tickets for the entire day had sold out hours before. In the two sources that I had seen online (the SF Chronicle and the Academy of Sciences website), there were no warnings of a possibility of passes selling out so I naively assumed that we may have to wait a while but at least would get a chance at getting in. It almost felt like a scam in that I had been duped into coming at the promise that I would see the new museum, with no hint at the caveats. In addition about half a mile away there was a line for people who were lucky enough to get an entry pass, but the line to get in was over four hours long. Maybe I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t get an entry pass and didn’t have to wait all day. The good thing was, I was surrounded by friends, and it was a day well spent in the gorgeous weather outside.

Another big plus was the performance by the San Francisco Ballet training program/school in a series of outdoor performances highlighting different San Francisco institutions in celebration of the big opening. It was refreshing to see ballet in a unique context, with a very familiar contemporary sensibility that mirrors the style of the company. They put on a surprisingly well rounded program, starting with a ballet set to gloriously soaring classical music and finishing off with more contemporary pieces that fit the park audience. The worst part by far was the crowd – rude people blocking the view by standing front and center especially camera people who refused to sit down even after several warnings, with completely useless security who were absolutely futile in doing anything about controlling the situation. It made me realize that maybe I’m not the best audience member for such a public outdoor performances; I’ve been too spoiled by years of unobstructed views, lack of audience profanity, and civil manners in the people around me.

The ballet was a moment of respite in a day that included a series of odd events. On the way to the park, I saw a woman sitting across the aisle from me vomit on BART, then later I walked by two other spots of vomit around Golden Gate Park, and capped off my day when I actually stepped in vomit on my way home which was really the cherry on top of the sundae. Another odd moment occurred when we first got to the museum and was trying to find information on entry passes, when a stranger tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could take a photo with me. At first I thought he wanted me to take a photo of him, but no, he wanted to take one with me. The last time I checked, I am not a character at Disneyland. I still don’t understand what his angle was – if anyone would like to enlighten me by explaining to me what goes on inside a guy’s mind, please feel free to comment. But the day definitely got better as we shared some fun in the sun.

Here are some photos of the ballet performance. One of the best photos was the first one during their onstage warmup; it really helped that it was the least obstructed by people at this point. I wasn’t able to get a lot of names. Click on the image to enlarge.


Koto Ishihara and Dylan Ward


Pretty feet



Photo credit: Andy Kuo. All photos © http://www.saturdaymatineeblog.com

Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll

When I look back at my favorite plays, I’m often fuzzy on the details, but most of all, I remember a feeling. For Broadway’s revival of Awake and Sing a few years ago, the feeling was a slowly breaking heart of a family falling apart in spite of their tightly clenched fists, hiding a loyal guarded love. History Boys was a feeling of lively razor-sharp wit with a cruel twist. The beauty of plays lies in its transparency, where a tenuous naked world is woven with no music or dancing to hide behind. If a play is successful, I get sucked into its world and get lost in it without realizing it. At American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, the bottom line is that I waited the entire play but never got lost in its world. Spanning the time period of the 1960′s through the 1990′s, going from England to war torn Czechoslovakia with ideals of Marxism and a love of rock and roll in a tumultuous world, the play follows the lead character Jan and the people in his life. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a theatrical spinning merry-go-round, where I was on the outskirts looking in, waiting to get on. But it never stopped to allow me to get on. If I focused hard enough, I would catch glimpses – a witty crack here, a satiric jab at society there, a flash of fiercely tender humanity and love. But in general, things were a blur as the play would march on, wrapped up in its own world with no regard for its audience.

I hardly think I was alone in this sentiment. In general, the audience was a very quiet audience, stunned even in dark scene changes to make the effort at applause. Laughs were more laughs of recognition (“Oh, I actually understood that joke“) rather than genuine merriment. A few rows behind me, there was a woman who was laughing quite loudly and proudly a little too long each time, as if to broadcast her comprehension of what was just said.

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She was mostly laughing alone, I might add, in a completely silent theater. I am reminded of a NY Times article on another one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, his gargantuan Coast of Utopia, in which the journalist writes about an audience’s reluctance to admit that they don’t get Tom Stoppard. In an article titled, “‘Utopia’ Is a Bore. There, I Said It.”:

Some may fear, as my new acquaintance from the plaza did, that to admit dissatisfaction or outright dislike is to advertise one’s intellectual obtuseness or philistinism. The coercive reasoning goes something like this: Everyone says it’s brilliant; I am bored; therefore I am not smart enough to appreciate its brilliance. The play isn’t a failure: I am.

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been exposed to Tom Stoppard’s writing before, but I have no qualms about saying that I did not understand Rock ‘n’ Roll. My friend immediately deemed it elitist and blatantly exclusive of its audience, and it’s hard not to disagree with her. It’s never a good sign if there are nine pages of program notes that go along with this play, including a time line of relevant history (rock ‘n’ roll, American, and world history) which is basically a requirement to see this play; without having memorized it, I was left wondering who Dubcek and Havel were that the actors kept referring to. If I had understood it, I may have said that this was a brilliant play. Yes, there were moments of smart writing with a core of humanity and loving relationships, but most of it was smothered by a perplexing blur.

My reservations about this play were inherent in the play itself, and not in the production. Directed by ACT’s Carey Perloff, the cast was superb with lots of local homegrown talent. The cast was led by San Francisco native Manoel Felciano as Jan, a rather reserved role that failed to showcase Felciano’s talent and charisma. Rene Augesen as Eleanor/older Esme and Jack Willis as Max were the standouts in this cast, where both actors injected a dose of much needed liveliness to the play. The set design by Douglas W. Schmidt, as shown in the photo above, was imaginative albeit puzzling – the bottom up view was never used literally, and I was left wondering, was it designed to give a sense of open sky in a claustrophobic view? A sense of dreaming while laying down? A world turned on its side? Who knows, the entire play was a big puzzle but a mildly pleasing one.

Maybe this play is for people who grew up in that era, or for Communists, or for rock ‘n’ roll lovers. Maybe it’s just my luck that I don’t relate directly to any of those topics, but the fatal flaw was that this play did not convince me to care.

Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll plays at ACT until October 18th. Click here for more info.

Other takes:

‘Dancing with the Stars’ New Season

A lot of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not the biggest fan of dancing on TV. Not to say that it’s not a good thing – I love that really great dancers are being showcased more and more on TV. The things I don’t like about it is that often, the famous people (e.g. teen stars, models, and actors) are featured in lieu of the expert dancers, just because they are household names. And for many of the shows, I just can NOT stand the judging. It often feels as if the judges are very cognizant of the fact that they are on TV, and feel the need to say something in a strong, “judge”-y way, whether or not 1) it makes sense, and 2) they are experts in that specific type of dance or not. Or they’re judges like Bruno

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Tonioli, who just swoons over beautiful women shamelessly.

Nonetheless, one of the shows that I do like is Dancing with the Stars because they feature really great ballroom dancers, and it has encouraged the average American TV viewing audience that if these amateurs can be taught to dance, so can we. My mother is a big fan of this show and has incessantly been bugging my dad to take social dance lessons with her (he will not). So here’s one of the videos that ABC has sent out. I refuse to post the one that spends the most time focusing on Kim Kardashian’s physical assets and others talking about it. Nor the one feeding rumors of a possible romance.

Kudos to ABC for getting lots of Americans to dance.

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Dancing with the Stars starts on September 22 on ABC.

San Francisco Ballet Blog and Youtube Channel

From SF Ballet’s new Youtube channel, a sneak peek of its 2009 season, including highlights from pieces they will be performing on their American tour

Good news for San Francisco Ballet fans… In addition to its website, San Francisco Ballet has launched two more sites, their official company blog and a Youtube channel. This doesn’t surprise me, as other companies such as NYCB and the Joffrey have led the precedent in utilizing the internet to promote its company in a world that seeks transparency in a normally formal and shrouded art form. It is a smart move to cater to a generation that voraciously devours information online. And for a newbie or a seasoned audience member, it really does add to the appreciation of the art with a look backstage at the work that goes into a performance. The blog is an excellent start, with entries from up and coming corps member Lily Rogers, soloist Frances Chung, and principal Pascal Molat. I found it intriguing that Lily Rogers described Elo’s Double Evil one of the hardest things she’s ever danced, yet when I looked back at my review, she was one of the standouts in that performance. I never would have guessed.

I’ve been thinking about internet marketing and arts organizations recently, especially with the symphony conference I recently attended. There’s a definite trend, as I learned from a marketing expert that bloggers are a fundamental part of marketing for an organization. Is it really necessary to the point where companies who DON’T jump on the internet bandwagon will be labeled as staid outdated losers who are left behind in the dust? To me, it’s surprising that one of the biggest companies in the world, American Ballet Theater, has displayed the least flexiblity in adjusting to this internet trend. As being a giant in the ballet world, I’d have thought that they would have been the pioneer in forging change. Perhaps they don’t need to, because their superstar dancers are enough to sell tickets, and it reinforces their deep-rooted traditional sense of style. Although which ballet company doesn’t need help selling tickets, even ABT?

Anyways, it’s brilliant that the SF Ballet has a great start with their satisfyingly lengthy blog entries and Youtube channel. Check it out! The dancers will be blogging throughout their American tour, which opens tonight in Chicago.

On My Radar

It’s going to be a late night at work today – I’m just going to jot down some things down while I’m waiting for my protein gel to run.

  • I just saw the documentary Suzanne Farrell – Elusive Muse – my two word review: absolutely riveting. It’s hard to obtain (I believe it’s technically out of production) but rent it from Blockbuster. I always thought that sometimes ballerinas of days gone by looked a bit dated, no matter how amazing they were, most likely due to my “modern” eyes that are used to seeing things in a certain style. Suzanne Farrell proves me wrong, as she is just as uniquely ravishing as any ballerina dancing today.
  • Lots of things starting up in the Bay Area – Berkeley Rep is back with Yellowjackets (check out their free “tastings” and other events that precede their shows), ACT presenting Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll with a stellar cast, and Spring Awakening‘s national tour makes its stop in SF.
  • Movie theaters are hoppin’ these days. Rent, the musical that defined a generation, closed on Broadway this weekend, with its final performance being aired in movie theaters on Sept 24-28. Also, The Met: Live in HD returns this year with even more live performances – I’m especially looking forward to Richard Strauss’ Salome, airing in October, after reading about it in Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise. It sounds hauntingly entrancing.
  • SF Symphony storms in with Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and a Leonard Bernstein program next week in preparation for their performance at Carnegie Hall’s season opener which will be aired on PBS.
  • Due to demand (I know, I can’t believe it myself) on a blog related note – I added an option where you can subscribe for email updates, on the right column of my blog (scroll down). Check it out.

San Francisco Symphony: The Opening Night Gala

I love the night exposure on my camera. Taken from the terrace on the fourth floor of the Davies Symphony Hall

Last night, the San Francisco Symphony opened its 2008-2009 with an extravagant flourish. Before the concert, a festive anticipation filled the lobby that overflowed with ballgowns and glasses of champagne, and the royal blue theme was beautiful as even the City Hall was bathed in blue to commemorate the occasion. The theater was filled with a noticeably different population of people who regularly attend during the year, with a bigger percentage of younger people who showed up in their formal best. Maybe my previous musings about lowering ticket prices to attract younger audiences was all crap – maybe all you need are sky high ticket prices, a festive atmosphere and an excuse to dress up for the first time since prom, free alcohol, and a chance to party with Mayor Gavin Newsom, Nancy Pelosi, and Rita Moreno (what IS she wearing??). With a packed house – it was unusual to see ballgowns and tuxedos sitting in the Center Terrace behind the orchestra, normally the “cheap seats” – it was a perfect way to start an exciting season with palpable energy and a tailor made program that showcased what an amazing orchestra San Francisco has to call its own.

A photo of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the audience in the Star Spangled Banner in his usual animated fashion, as published in the SF Chronicle.

It was fascinating how the program included two pieces that the San Francisco Ballet has performed in recent years – Sylvia and the West Side Story suite. In Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise (yes, I’m still working through this dense yet brilliant book at an imperceptible crawl because of the time that it takes to understand it), I love how Ross can’t speak about composers like Stravinsky without mentioning ballet choreographers Diaghilev and Balanchine. Was it intentional that the SF Symphony and the SF Ballet performs these pieces hand in hand? The program opened with an excerpt from Delibes’ Sylvia, which is one of my favorite ballets (the Mark Morris version). It was the “Cortege de Bacchus”, which immediately brought me back to my two favorite heralds, Ruben and Moises Martin, who opened the third act in the ballet. Upon hearing the music, I immediately see the choreography in my head. This opening piece is stately yet modestly celebratory. This piece showcases the best of each instrument section in an unabashed stereotypical way. The warm strings are punctuated by the flashy woodwinds, the brass section is regal and assertive, and the tympani builds tension and the cymbals crash. With every instrument in its place, all is well in the world.

In Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the symphony members shed their tuxedo-clad exteriors and reached in deep to find their inner street gangsta  (gangsters that dance and sing, at least). It was a rare treat to see the symphony act in an uncharacteristically relaxed manner, whether it was snapping their fingers which made the audience laugh out loud, or yell “Mambo!” (I wonder what Rita Moreno was thinking at this point). I think it’s a mixed blessing that the movie for West Side Story is so well known – it makes these songs nostalgic and familiar, yet it also set an impossibly high standard of almost improvisational edge of your seat spontaneity that’s difficult for classical musicians to master, since it goes against years of classical training that strives for controlled perfection. Add to that a notoriously difficult score, and a successful performance is exponentially elusive. Despite this, the symphony tackled these challenges head on. The brass section was thrillingly intrepid, especially the French horn section, and the trumpet soloist (I believe it’s Mark Inouye) in his insane high register stylings that were tossed off with a burst of power. The syncopated off beats adds movement and a pressing anticipation which kept the percussion section busy, including a shrill police whistle. The ballet West Side Story suite presents a happy ending where Tony and Maria are joined together, yet the music alone in the “Finale” communicates that they die. The melody is sweetly dissonant, with an ominous yet unobtrusive bass. It’s still hopeful for their love can never die, yet realistically accepting of the two lovers’ doomed fate. In addition, I swear conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was dancing actual Jerome Robbins’ choreography on his conductor’s podium.  In all, this piece was a spirited audience crowd pleaser that was pure fun.

Yefim Bronfman. Photo by Dario Acosta

The monstrosity that is Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto (“Rach 3″) closed the program, with pianist Yefim Bronfman. The piece started off well, with a deep soulful deliberateness that was refreshingly introspective. At times however, it became so introspective that the melody became internalized  to inaudible levels; the symphony accompaniment overwhelmed the quietness of the piano. In other moments though, when the volume balance was even, the symphony achieved an uncanny effect of having melded with the piano and speaking as one, which was a rare delight I hadn’t really heard before. There were some moments of odd tempo choices too – at one point in the first movement, the soloist and the conductor brings the avalanche-rolling-down-a-mountain momentum to a screeching halt, before rearing up to go again. It gave a halting effect that was unexpectedly severe. All seemed to improve as the piece progressed, with thoughtful and surprising moments of tenderness in Bronfman’s playing in the midst of craziness and chaos. In the even more monstrous third movement, Bronfman rolled up his sleeves and just went for it which brought the piece to a close in a thunderous finish.

The decoration inside one of the tents where the post-concert party was going on

It was an excellent start to a highly anticipated season. And personally for me, it was a treat to attend my first gala with my beloved symphony (yes, mine) and to meet fellow blogger sfmike, finally!, who is just as charming and funny in person as he is on his blog (and he got extra points in my book because he said I was prettier than he had imagined! :) What a charmer).

It also got me thinking about young people and classical music – I feel like young people are coming out to galas but not concerts, maybe because it’s a feeling of exclusivity that they can partake in, even though it costs a lot of money. Maybe it’s if they pay a lot of money, they feel entitled to be there even with their inexperience or discomfort at the lack of knowledge of concert etiquette or dress. Or maybe it’s the parties that make it fun. SF Symphony is doing something new this year, called Davies After Hours. It’s going to be a post-performance gathering on the fourth floor of the symphony hall for a more lounge-y intimate “musical response” which relates to the program just seen – whether it’s a jazz take on a piece that was just heard, etc. It will utilize the talents of symphony members, including members who are also in a rock band, a composer who’s also a DJ, or a violist who plays the electric violin. My gut feeling is that this program will become highly successful, with the added benefit of cleverly continuing to educate audiences about classical music at the same time.

The San Francisco Symphony season is off to a running start! Start picking out your programs now – there are some really good programs coming up this season.

San Francisco Symphony

Pre concert

Ok so my moblogging was a partially successful experience, since this moblog entry didn’t even make it up until hours later. Sorry for the confusion and non-chronological order of the postings, but I’m too lazy to change it.

Warming up for the concert. Delibes, Bernstein, Rach 3, and lots of champagne on the menu tonight.