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Westside Story, Cartier-Bresson and Black Angels

October 29, 2010

cartier_bresson_girl.jpgI've had the good fortune to experience so many cultural happenings this week that I'm quite behind on my commentary about them all. Just thought I'd use this opportunity to provide a quick roundup of three arts events that anyone in SF with a bit of cash to spend and some time on their hands should make a bee-line for:

1. Westside Story at the Orpheum Theatre: The new Broadway tour of the Bernstein classic is worth seeing simply as a reminder of the musical's superiority to almost any contemporary counterpart. Almost every song is a hit. The choreography is virile and virtuostic. The orchestrations hit you in the gut. The characters are vivid. I only wish that the singing in this production were better. The nasal quality of Ali Ewoldt's voice as Maria made my toes curl. And Kyle Harris, the production's handsome Tony, could barely reach the many high notes in his songs.

2. Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (and "Exposed"): The highlight of this major retrospective of the famed photographer's career is the section devoted to the artist's travels through American in the post-war years. This material isn't as well known as much of Cartier-Bresson's other works, but the images are as vivid as the best of his iconic street-life pictures taken earlier in the century in France and elsewhere. There's a great photograph of a large family lounging all over a hatchback car in 1970 New Mexico. The car becomes the ultimate leisure vehicle. It's like the family's lounge. Another image I like is a photograph taken in San Francisco in 1960. It's a view from above of ladies sitting next to each other with tightly-crossed legs. The legs look like features of the landscape rather than anatomical parts. Cartier-Bresson's widow, the photographer Martine Franck, was at the opening at SFMOMA. There are two pictures of her in the exhibition. At one point, I noticed her stopping to steal a glance at one of her husband's photographs of her. It was just a second's pause. Then she moved on, spending much more time in front of the other portraits. A photography exhibition on the floor above the Cartier-Bresson show, "Exposed", all about the different ways in which people see and are seen by the camera's eye, is also very much worth a visit. The images range from the sexual (eg a Helmut Newton image taken through a mirror of him posing with a couple of naked female models and a clothed female) to the celebrity (eg an image of the Queen with her corgies) to the violent (countless horrifying pictures of lynchings, amputees, suicides and so on). The breadth and unflinching nature of the material make the show feel both compact and powerful.

3. Kronos Quartet at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: The Bay Area's preeminent experimental string quartet is embarking on a long-term partnership with YBCA. The group kicked off the relationship with a concert of short works featuring live string music set against a backdrop of ambient recorded and electronic noise and a new production of a spellbinding 1970 work by George Crumb entitled Black Angels. The first half of the program felt quite samey to me, even though there are great contrasts in mood between Bob Ostertag's furious "All the Rage", a piece about homophobia, Ingram Marshall's creeping "Fog Tropes II", the Middle Eastern-inflected lines of Sahba Aminikia's "String Quartet No 3: A Threnody for Those who Remain" and Aleksandra Vrebalov's stormy "Spell No 4 for a Changing World." But it was the second half that really entranced me. The theatricailty of the new staging was startling, with its ceremonial hanging of the string instruments on bungies that look like tiny noose. I was also enraptured by the diversity of the musical influences which ranged from Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet to a Renaissance sarabande to Asian scales. I'm not sure why, but as the musicians glided through this piece, I felt like I was receiving information about a variety of ancient and now lost, dormant cultures. I listened like a sleepwalker.


  • I've never been a big Crumb fan. (Quite the contrary, I have often felt that he applied a veneer of respectability to several of Cage's bolder innovations.) Nevertheless, I have a lot of respect (even if it is not love) for Black Angels. However, the last time I heard a Kronos performance, they were very skimpy on the program notes (if there were any at all); and much of my respect can be attributed to my appreciation of a good set of notes for the piece. Fortunately, the account of this piece on Wikipedia is about as good as any I have read.

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At October 29, 2010 at 9:31 AM  

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