Friday, June 24, 2011

Tidbits: RIP--Peter Falk

I just read that actor Peter Falk died today. He was 83. I remember watching him as Lt. Columbo on TV in the US when Columbo was new. Later, dubbed TV shows like Columbo helped me learn a great deal of Japanese when I first went to Japan as an exchange student. I hope they bury him in that old raincoat. RIP

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Plants I'm Growing: First Blooms--Opuntia Elata, Chitalpa Tashkentensis

First blooms of 2011 today on the Chitalpa tree in the back garden and first blooms yesterday, June 21, on the large cactus, Opuntia elata, a type of prickly pear with unusual orange flowers. It is originally a native of Argentina. I have no record of the first bloom last year, as I was away in Europe, but Opuntia elata bloomed on June 4 in 2009.

The Chitalpa is a small tree that resembles a Catalpa tree, which is logical as one of the two parents of this hybrid is the Catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes). The other is the Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis). These small trees are fairly drought-tolerant and look very attractive at most times of the year. The flowers attract hummingbirds. The Chitalpa tree in my garden bloomed on June 1 in 2009. I have no record for this plant for 2010.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Art I'm Looking At: Romare Bearden at The Museum of the African Diaspora

Romare Bearden is an artist I've been aware of and liked since the 1970s. I don't remember where I first saw his work, but I was immediately drawn to it, particularly the collages, for which he remains best known. I suspect it was not seeing an original in a museum or gallery that first made we aware of Bearden (although it may have been) but rather seeing a reproduction--possibly an illustration in an article, and likely not one about Bearden himself. Bearden's pictures tell stories; and because of that, they are particularly good as illustrations. We have too many opportunities to see them reproduced as embellishments tacked on to other stories, it seems to me, and too few to see the originals standing on their own. This show is notable for bringing together many originals in one place and also for showing less well known work. The Romare Bearden show "From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden," which runs through July 3 at the Museum of the African Diaspora (685 Mission St., San Francisco, around the corner from SF MOMA (415) 358-7200), focuses on Bearden's printmaking.

As a printmaker myself, I enjoyed seeing the wide range of techniques on view and the emphasis on how Bearden used the printmaking process to explore. There are monotypes, etchings, drypoints, etchings with aquatint, lithographs, silkscreen prints, and collagraphs here, along with some of the plates from which the prints were made. Having used many of these techniques myself (all except lithography), I had no trouble understanding the explanatory panels, but they were in places a bit unclear, and in one instance mistaken (with "intaglio" used where "relief print" would have been correct). The images, however, speak for themselves. They range from work of the early 1960s to work made nearer the artist's death, in 1988. In a few instances, Bearden has exploited the inherent qualities of the technique--for example, in etchings using only the fine lines that etching excels at capturing. Ultimately, however, Bearden appears to have been most comfortable with the synthetic approach of collage. Many of the prints are, in fact, experiments with methods for translating collage into a printed form, and many have had collage elements added after the fact. It's not surprising either that collography appealed to Bearden. A collagraph is essentially a print made from a plate that is itself a collage. To be able to see the master collage artist thinking through the possibilities of the various forms of printmaking is fascinating. Recommended.

Music I'm Listening To: Michael Tilson Thomas Conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Yuja Wang Soloist (June 17, 2011)

I attended the June 17 evening performance of the San Francisco Symphony, a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring pianist Yuja Wang. The program included Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2, and a suite of pieces from Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake. I was able to attend the pre-concert talk, having earlier in the day gone to the Museum of the African Diaspora to see the Romare Bearden show currently there. It was useful to hear some of the Rumanian Dances in versions for solo piano during the talk. While charming in the orchestrated versions the symphony played, they have a simplicity and clarity on the piano that is lost when played by an ensemble.

You could almost hear a collective gasp when, following the Rumanian Dances, Yuja Wang walked out on stage wearing a very short, clinging, vermillion dress with black venting and a bold V-shaped black design on the back--a dress so short and tight that there would have been a scandal if people were scandalized by such things any more. My mother, who also attended the performance, got it right, I think, when she said the dress looked more like a bathing suit. Four-inch platform heels added to the effect. One wonders if platforms are the best choice for using the pedals on a piano, but I assume Ms. Wang knows what works and what doesn't. The outfit was a distraction, however, if not an entirely unpleasant one.

The Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 requires a great deal of energy, particularly in its opening and concluding movements, an energy Wang appears to have in abundance. While her playing was fast, powerful, and precise, and I enjoyed the performance on the whole, it didn't quite gel in places, with Thomas allowing the orchestra to completely overwhelm the piano here, and letting the opposite happen there, particularly in the first movement. The slow, brooding second movement was most effective. Thomas always seems wildly inconsistent to me (see below).

The ballet music that followed intermission, however, was nearly perfect. I can't really imagine a more persuasive performance. Thomas, as usual, seemed aloof while on the podium, but there was a tightness between the musicians and the conductor in this case that resulted in a clean, neat performance that let the music speak without any obstruction. As usual in San Francisco, the woodwind section stood out, particularly the flute in this case. There were a number of well-played solos by one of the trumpets as well. Evidently the audience agreed with me. As Thomas was acknowledging individual musicians after the performance, the flute and trumpet got particularly enthusiastic applause. The concert was worth it just for the Tchaikovsky.

Photo of Yuja Wang by Felix Broede, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony
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