Saturday, April 24, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Phlomis Fruiticosa, Cistus "Sunset," Penstemon Heterophyllus (April 24, 2010)

First blooms of 2010 on three plants in the garden today: Phlomis fruiticosa, the big Jerusalem sage; Cistus "Sunset;" and the purply-blue wild penstemon Penstemon heterophyllus. Phlomis is one of the first plants I put into the garden here, not realizing how big it would get. It's now about seven feet across and the flower stalks are nearly as high as me. The photo shows buds in an axial whorl. A pair of big yellow petals will pop out of each of the "cells" visible here. This plant bloomed much earlier last year (April 10). A year according to Phlomis fruiticosa was 379 days.

"Sunset" has been blooming around town for about a week. The one here is comparatively shaded, so it has bloomed later than many. The plant bloomed in 2009 on April 9--much earlier than this year. A year according to "Sunset" was 380 days.

Penstemon heterophyllus is one of my favorite plants. It's almost irridescent. I've seen it growing wild in rocky, higher-altitude areas in California and elsewhere. It doesn't seem to last very long (2-3 years) and doesn't seed itself much, but I'm happy to keep planting it. I have a note of it blooming in early June along Highway 97 in the north-eastern part of the state, but no record of its first flowers in the garden last year.

I write about many subjects, not just the plants blooming in my garden. Use the tabs at upper right to explore other topics. 

Birds I'm Watching: Ellis Creek Water Treatment Ponds (April 24, 2010)

I took a walk around the Ellis Creek Water Treatment Ponds in Petaluma this morning. I saw 32 species. Crow, Canada goose, mallard, snowy egret, American coot, cinnamon teal, Brewer's blackbird, red-winged blackbird, black-necked stilt, blue-winged teal, whimbrel, common moorhen, American goldfinch, Eurasian collared dove, marbled godwit, Western kingbird (first sighting in Sonoma County for me), Bullock's oriole, house finch, black phoebe, tree swallow, killdeer, song sparrow, savannah sparrow, mute swan, pied-billed grebe, marsh wren, starling, sora, Anna's hummingbird, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, and northern rough-winged swallow.  I got a nice shot of a handsome savannah sparrow singing.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: White Cistus, Trillium, and Dianthus (April 23, 2010)

First blooms of 2010 today on three plants--the big white Cistus (rock rose) under the pink crabapple (above), the Trillium at the back of the house (below), and the low Dianthus by the driveway.

I don't have records for 2009 for either the Cistus or the Dianthus, but the Trillium bloomed last year on April 21, so a year according to the Trillium was 367 days. The photo here is from last year. The leaves this year are rather bruised because of the sustained hail we had a couple of days ago.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Best Movies I've Never Seen (April 22, 2010)

In the past few days, I've seen more of the films recommended in Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen. As noted in my previous post on the subject. I didn't think that much of any of them. So far, I remain generally unimpressed by the recommendations in the book. This post looks at Aurora Borealis and Better Than Sex.

Aurora Borealis (2005, written by Brent Boyd, directed by James C. E. Burke, starring Joshua Jackson, Steven Pasquale, Donald Sutherland, Louise Fletcher, Juliette Lewis, and others) has been much praised, I see, but it struck me as being on the level of a decent made-for-TV movie, no better. Despite some good performances, particularly by Juliette Lewis, the whole was unpersuasive. Much as I like Donald Sutherland, and despite a very convincing Parkinson's disease tremor, I found his performance uneven. 

But the script is the real problem here: Would Duncan (Joshua Jackson), a man unable to shoot a deer, really give his aging grandfather a loaded shotgun to commit suicide with? I found myself unable to accept the incongruity. Duncan's brother is a cliché. The ending of the film is more than a little too pat--how nice that the Donald Sutherland character dies on cue so that his grandson can fly off to San Diego to get back together with Kate (Juliette Lewis). If only life were so neat.  

Better Than Sex (2000, written and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, starring David Wenham, Susie Porter, and others) is at least a little bit different. It approaches falling in love from the perspective of two people trying not to fall in love--two people surprised they have fallen in love. 

Josh (David Wenham) and Cin (Susie Porter) meet at a party, they aren't especially attracted to one another at first, but they talk some and end up sharing a taxi home. He's staying in town for only three days. During the taxi ride, both Josh and Cin begin to think about a quick fling--knowing there'd be no strings attached. Inevitably, she asks him in when they arrive at her door, and one thing leads to another. The rest of the film is a chronicle of a one-night stand that ends up lasting three days (and then some). What was supposed to have been no-hassle sex turns into emotional attachment on both sides.

We can't help our feelings. Sometimes we fall in love in spite of ourselves, in spite of everything.  

The story is told through straight narrative intercut with documentary-like interview segments, portions of phone calls between secondary characters, musings we understand to be the thoughts of the main characters (sometimes during the action, like theatrical asides; sometimes with the character sitting against a studio backdrop as if being interviewed), and through wry comments from the taxi driver. The taxi driver keeps showing up in the right place at the right time, always encouraging love, like Cupid on wheels. The creative editing keeps things moving, keeps the sex (essential to the story) from playing too dominant a role or becoming gratuitous, and it keeps the audience at a distance. We are voyeurs, but voyeurs invited to see the show and the players know they are being watched and we know they know. Despite the somewhat obtrusive devices (especially the taxi driver) and a falling back on cliché in some scenes (notably the girl-takes-forever-to-get-ready-to-go-out-and-doesn't-have-anything-to-wear scene, which is quite long, and the guy-never-bothers-to-flush-the-toilet scene), Better Than Sex was mostly intelligent and entertaining. 

Birds I'm Watching: Close to Home

I took a walk today up the long road that winds through the woods behind our house. It was in the early afternoon, which is not the best time of day to see birds, but I counted 17 species nevertheless. Most of them were birds I'm used to seeing at the bird feeder. The exceptions were a wild turkey, some tree swallows, a violet-green swallow, and a Pacific-slope flycatcher. The flycatcher sat still enough to allow me to get a good photo.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Best Movies I've Never Seen (April 21, 2010)

In the past few days, I've seen three more of the films recommended in Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen. I didn't think that much of any of them, to tell the truth. I wouldn't say they were a waste of time, but--so far, anyway--I have been disappointed by the recommendations in the book more often than not. I saw: Baadasssss! (2004, written and directed by Mario Van Peebles--based on a book by his father, Melvin Van Peebles--starring Mario Van Peebles, Joy Bryant, T. K. Carter, Terry Crews, Ossie Davis, David Alan Grier, and others); Better Than Sex (2000); and Aurora Borealis (2005). This post looks at Baadasssss! More about Better Than Sex and Aurora Borealis in a post tomorrow.

While Baadassss! was interesting on a number of levels, it left me wishing the film had been a straight documentary rather than a hybrid documentary/biopic. Baadasssss!, tells the story of the making of Melvin Van Peebles' groundbreaking 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, generally considered the first film made for a black audience by a black director that wasn't forced to toady to a white-controlled studio. Baadasssss! was interesting because it tells an interesting story: The elder Van Peebles, set out to make a feature film with almost no resources and entirely outside the Hollywood system--engaging in what some have referred to as "guerilla film-making." Van Peebles worked with whatever he could scrounge. The actors were friends and family. The sets were makeshift. Money was perpetually running out (he finally finished the film with a $50,000 loan from Bill Cosby). Surprisingly, Van Peebles succeeded.

The elder Van Peebles was angry and it was an angry period in US history. The Black Panthers were agitating for change (and later championed the 1971 film), the Vietnam War was raging. Hoping to direct full-length films after making several shorts, mostly on his own, Columbia offered Van Peebles Watermelon Man, a comedy about a white man that wakes up black. Watermelon Man was a commercial success, but it was mostly his contempt for the studios born of that experience that drove Van Peebles to set out on his own. It's a testament to his determination and persistence that Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was completed and released (although rated X and initially in only two theaters nationwide). It went on to become the highest-grossing independent film made up until that time. Van Peebles paved the way for other independent black filmmakers, indirectly spawning the blackxploitation genre as well.

Baadasssss! switches back and forth between a straight retelling of the story of the original film production and documentary-like interviews with the people involved (both the actual people and the actors portraying them). Baadasssss! also attempts to say something about the relationship between the younger filmmaker and his obsessed father, but somehow that relationship never comes across as genuine, and Baadasssss! ultimately seems a fairly bland retelling of the facts. Still, Mario Van Peebles delivers an interesting performance as his father, the story is a good one, and the film gives us a glimpse of what it meant to make a film independently in the early 1970s--more interestingly, what it meant for a black man with a message the establishment didn't want to hear to make a film independently in the early 1970s. Having said that, I get the impression from reading about Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song that Baadasssss! downplays that film's violence and sexuality, and, in that sense, Baadasssss! is not entirely honest. Not a great film, by any means, but probably worth seeing once. I imagine Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is available on DVD as well. Now I'm curious.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Found Art: Chair and Shadow (April 20, 2010)

I saw this shadow in the house under a chair today. The dark wood and the shadows of the chair and the window blinds looked interesting against the bright, warm maple floor. Found art.

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Scabiosa Farinosa, Sulfur Buckwheat, Echium Wildpretii, "Altissimo" climbing rose

First blooms today on Scabiosa farinosa, a leather-leaved mounding variety of Scabiosa that does well in our hot summers. Although this plant has a tendency to die out in the center, new growth will sprout from almost anywhere, so holes tend to fill in. It grows easily from cuttings, too. This plant bloomed on May 4 in 2009, so it's comparatively early this year. A year according to this plant was only 350 days.

The first tiny flowers in some of the clusters on our sulfur buckwheat plants (Eriogonum umbellatum) opened today, although the plants still look quite closed up. This plant bloomed on April 17 in 2009. A year according to sulfur buckwheat was therefore 368 days.

First blooms today also on Echium wildprettii--only a few an the long stem are open. It will be a week or so before this plant becomes a brick red torch, attracting bumblebees and hummingbirds.

One bud on the climbing rose "Altissimo" opened today as well. I love this sturdy, deep red, single-petaled climber. Stunning in full bloom.  This flower bloomed on April 6 in 2009, calculating a rather long year this year of 379 days. Despite the range in years calculated by the three coming into bloom today that I have data for, the average of the three comes to 365.6 days--very close to a calendar year.

Rain: Another Downpour (April 20, 2010)

Another downpour during the night last night (April 19) added 0.45 inches to 2009-2010 precipitation in Santa Rosa. This morning was generally clear and sunny, if cold, but then there were more showers and after that, hail. Following the hail, we had had a total of 1.15 inches of new precipitation. Our season total now stands at 30.20 inches as of late afternoon on the 20th, which is above the historical average of 29.58 inches for this day, but some Santa Rosa stations have reported well over 35 inches already this year. The historical annual average for Santa Rosa is 31.01 inches.

Music I'm Listening to: Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra and Lang Lang (April 19, 2010)

I heard a very enjoyable concert last night at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Christoph Eschenbach conducted the last of 23 concerts in a US tour by the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra in Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17, Prokofieff's Symyhony No. 1, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. The soloist in both concertos was Lang Lang.

The audience got a treat after the published program was complete. The orchestra performed an encore--although, frustratingly, no one told us what it was and no one afterwards knew either. Following the orchestral encore, Lang Lang returned to the stage for a scheduled talk with the audience. Lang Lang expressed his thanks to the orchestra, whipped out what looked like a brand new iPad, and proceeded to play what he called a "high-tech version of Flight of the Bumblebee" by drumming his fingers on the pad, occasionally reaching over to the real piano to embellish a bit, much to the audience's delight. I'm still not sure whether he was actually playing, using an app on the iPad or if he was just fooling around, pretending to play while the music played in the background (I think the latter). If that were not enough, stage hands next brought out a second piano stool and we got to hear Eschenbach and Lang Lang play two pieces for four hands--Eschenbach, of course, started his career as a pianist. Again, frustratingly, no one told us what we were listening to and no one afterward knew what the encores were, but it sounded like Debussy to me--perhaps from his Petite Suite. Probably because this was the last concert of a long tour, the mood after the show was relaxed--celebratory almost. Some of the best music I've ever heard live has been encores like this, when the pressure is off and the musicians are just enjoying themselves.

Taken as a whole, the concert was wonderful, but it got off to a slow start. Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 is what I used to put on the record player, turned up loud, to listen to just before going out for final exams in college. Somehow I felt powerful, full of knowledge, in control, ready to conquer if I marched out with that music ringing in my ears. It's stirring music--or at least it should be. Eschenbach and the orchestra managed to make it sound almost lugubrious. The pace was slow, the sound was dull. I've had this experience before at Davies Symphony Hall. There seem to be pockets of rather muddled sound--although the seats were good: Upper orchestra, dead center. I noticed this also at the Itzhak Perlman concert I recently heard there. The strings in particular lacked brilliance last night. Having said that, it makes no sense to attribute the flatness entirely to the acoustics; the second half of the program was excellent. I can't explain it, but the Leonore Overture was a disappointment, and I'm afraid the Mozart suffered from the same dark, dull tone in places. The piano playing was impeccable and nicely expressive, however, especially in the middle movement (Andante). Lang Lang is one of those performers that immediately banish all worry about a possible missed or stray note, even in the most demanding of passages. He is interesting to watch--although the unnecessary flourishes suggestive of bad ballet can become tiresome after a while. His gestures while playing reminded me of Melvyn Tan (Whatever happened to Melvyn Tan?), although Lang Lang is somewhat less flamboyant.

(Photo of Christoph Eschenbach courtesy of the San Francisco Sympony. Photo by Eric Brissau.)

Three things struck me visually. First, the layout of the string instruments on stage was a mirror image of what we're used to seeing in the US. The basses and cellos were on the left, the violas on the right. I've seen European orchestras perform before, and our local conductor in Santa Rosa, Bruno Ferrandis, a Frenchman, once remarked that the layout in Santa Rosa was "backwards." I'm aware of this difference in the way we array the strings, but I've never really noticed it before. It seemed to make little difference to the sound. Second, there were only two or three blond heads among the Schleswig-Holstein performers, which was a trifle surprising at first. Again--no effect on the sound. (However, as this is an orchestra for young performers drawn from areas well outside of Schleswig-Holstein, it's not hard to explain.) Third, the women in the orchestra were dressed rather more daringly than the performers I'm used to seeing in San Francisco. One of the front-row cellos had on a tight-fitting, off-the-shoulder top, another seemed to be wearing something resembling a body suit--everyone in black, of course. Once again--no effect on the sound, but these things are part of the extra dimension that a live performance provides.

I've remarked here before that I've learned to treasure the gems of live performances and not worry too much about the disappointments. This concert would have been worth it just for the second half of the program. Eschenbach gave us a very precise, controlled performance in the first three movements of Prokofieff's Classical symphony that fit the music perfectly and allowed for a strongly contrasting, almost frenzied final movement. Here the sound was clear and clean, and bright and loud where it should have been. A delight.

Lang Lang and the orchestra were in top form for the Beethoven Concerto as well. An appreciative audience immediately stood up for an ovation at the end. I wish they had been more appreciative during the performance. I've noticed over the years an inverse correlation between the celebrity  of a performer (as distinct from his or her talent) and the manners of the audience they attract. The more famous a performer is outside the world of music enthusiasts (for whatever reason) the more likely the audience is to be full of people more interested in the person than the music. These people tend to have a low tolerance for sitting still and being quiet. Davies Symphony Hall is always a co-conspirator: The seats creak, the hollow metal backs of the seats sound like timpani, the hard wood floor might as well be a giant drum--every heel resonates; coughing, sneezing, watch alarms, rustling paper, and dropped water bottles all made an appearance. Still, with the excellent performances of the Prokofieff and the Beethoven concerto, Lang Lang's funny iPad performance, and three encores, I'm not complaining. It was a lot of fun.

(Photo of Lang Lang, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.)

Dinner beforehand at Café Della Stella was solid, as always, if not exciting. I had an excellent arugula salad with roasted (grilled?) pears, scampi as a main dish, and a tasty panna cotta for dessert. The highlight was a very tasty 2008 Villa Teresa Pinot Grigio from Italy's Veneto region. Very dry, deceptively delicate, very flavorful. Behind the fruit it had something of the quality of a really good Fino sherry. Delicious.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Pink Cistus, Yellow Columbine (2010)

First blooms today on the Cistus near the Higanzakura (flowering cherry) tree. I'm trying to remember which species this is, but can't. First blooms today also on the yellow, long-spurred Aquilegia (columbine) in the garden. Last year the columbine bloomed on April 21, so a year according to this flower was 363 days.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Phlomis Lanata (2010)

The first buds on one of the Phlomis Lanata plants in the garden opened today. People seem to call this Jerusalem sage, but the plant I know as Jerusalem sage is the much bigger plant Phlomis fruiticosa. In any case, both plants do wonderfully in our hot dry summers with almost no extra water. This year the plants are especially lush-looking because of all the rain we've had. In the background of the photo here you can see Spanish lavender blooming. These two plants pair nicely. Phlomis lanata bloomed on April 20 in 2009. A year according to this plant was 363 days.
Related Posts with Thumbnails